Monday, July 21, 2008

Cuffing the Purity Police

Censorship of anything, at any time, in any place, on whatever pretense, has always been and always be the last resort of the boob and the bigot. ~ Eugene O'Neill

It was 4 1/2 years ago that the great "wardrobe malfunction" occurred during the Super Bowl 38 (you work out the Roman numerals) halftime show. The show, which had already featured a rapper groping himself endlessly (apparently to take everyone's mind off his "lyrics"), brought together Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake. Unfortunately for CBS, it brought them a little too close together. Timberlake was supposed to rip off a bit of Jackson's costume; regrettably, he ripped off a little too much, exposing a Jacksonian breast.

At least, I heard he did. I was watching the show with the son (the best Super Bowl commercials are often aired at halftime), and, quite frankly, neither one of us saw a thing. The son, who is a fully grown adult and knows what a breast looks like, only noticed that something appeared to go wrong at the end of the routine. Beyond that, we forgot about it, thankful that one of the worst halftime programs in Super Bowl history was over.

Well, by golly, some people saw it. In fact, every conservative in the country must have Tivo'd the thing and played it back 20 or 30 times to work into a proper righteous rage. Once they were fully worked up, they wrote en masse to the FCC to punish those profligate souls in charge of CBS. And yea verily, the FCC did smite CBS to the tune of $550,000.

For a boob getting flashed for less than a second. Accidentally. During a live broadcast.

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has decided that the FCC acted "arbitrarily and capriciously", which is a nice legalistic way of saying the regulators don't know their heads from a hole in the ground.

Generally speaking, censorship gives me the hives. It's not that the networks don't try to get away with everything they can. Regular programming is full of language that would have made my parents blush -- not because they didn't know the words, but because there's a time and a place for it. And putting the stuff on TV when the kids are watching isn't it.

However, CBS wasn't intending for Janet Jackson to flash the crowd; rappers can grope themselves (seriously, the guy looked like a poster boy for a jock-itch ad) and all the songs can have suggestive lyrics (which every kid watching had heard when the songs first came out) but everyone knows that the female breast is a complete no-no on "family" programming. For the FCC to hand down a half-million dollar fine was ridiculous.

Worse, it seemed to set off the Purity Police, those viewers who force themselves to watch these awful adult-oriented shows just to complain to the FCC. It apparently hasn't occurred to these people that if they choose not to watch, they won't have to be offended. Nobody asked them to be our watchdogs. In fact, society is in no need of such watchdogs.

If people don't like such programming, all they have to do is not watch it. Feel free to write the network to tell them you aren't watching. But don't try to decide what I should be watching. And especially, don't try to get the FCC to exercise de facto censorship by demanding that they issue egregious fines for minor incidents.

Like the boob flash that most of us wouldn't even have known about if you hadn't made such a big deal about it.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Wild Party That Wasn't

My favorite thing about the Internet is that you get to go into the private world of real creeps without having to smell them. ~Penn Jillett

It's a typical Internet story. Idiot kid posts on "social networking" site how he or she is having a party, and everyone on earth is invited. A significant number of everyones, ranging from a few hundred to the population of Karkow shows up. The house is trashed, there's plenty of gratuitous sex and free booze, and the cops call in the 43rd Airborne to quell the riot. Such an incident is reported here. Another day, another stupid Internet act.

You may find that the link doesn't work, because, according to the kid's mother, it never happened.

Well, not exactly. The idiot kid did make the posting inviting the world plus dog to her party. And the same idiot kid made a posting claiming all sorts of wild, lascivious things went on that required the local gendarmes to step in. It just turns out that she was having a little fun with everyone on the Internet -- and in the media.

According to a letter written by her mother to the newspapers that published stories about the bash, there were no police called in, the family had private security personnel on hand, and none of the sex, boozing, and other illicit activities took place.

And, oh, by the way, she's suing all the publications that published the stories.

At the time of the C/Net article, only TimesonLine had removed the piece. Others (including the link I provided) still had the story on their sites, although that could change.

This is wrong on so many levels, it's hard to figure out where to start.

First of all, if none of this happened, why in the world did the kid and her friends post all these fantasies on their Facebook, Bebo, MySpace, and who-knows-what-all pages? Is this what passes for "fun" these days (at least among those whose parents can afford over $8000 per week to rent a $9 million Spanish villa)?

Then there are the newspapers that published the story. Did none of them actually contact the Spanish authorities to find out if they were called to the villa? And how desperate are these so-called reporters that they are reduced to cruising kids blogs for news items?

Oh, well, I suppose it beats outright stealing from blogs -- but not by much.

When I read and hear, nearly every week, how newspapers are going away and mainstream journalism is in trouble everywhere, I begin to understand why. A newspaper is supposed to have for-real reporters who verify facts and report something that approximates the truth. Yes, I wasn't born yesterday. I was alive when the Cleveland Press almost single-handedly convicted Sam Sheppard, a conviction that was overturned. I am certainly aware that any publication or other news medium has an agenda.

But, there was a time when a report of some sort of wild party, if it was reported at all, would have been thoroughly checked out. It could be regarded as factual. Evidently, in the continual cost cutting that newspapers are undertaking, one of the things they have eliminated is fact-checking. They may have eliminated reporters for all I can see. All they need is some minimum-wage part-time high school kids surfing the web, looking for sensational postings to edit a little and roll out in the "At Press Time" or "News Briefs" sections. Or maybe the Life Styles section.

It will be interesting to see if the rich-kid's-wild-party story actually turns out to be true or false. Either way, the kid's mother should take the kid out to their well-appointed woodshed.

Better yet, deduct the attorney's fees from her allowance. That'll teach her.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Internet Ain't Such a Much

The Internet is so big, so powerful and pointless that for some people it is a complete substitute for life. ~Andrew Brown

I ran across this article by Clifford Stoll the other day, in which exposes the Internet for the over-hyped fraud it is -- back in 1995.

Now the person who posted the link was, of course, having a big chortle over how completely wrong this guy was 23 years ago. Ha-ha, ho-ho, it is to laugh at his quaintness. I am assuming he didn't read the article, because, to me, it made a lot of sense. Mr. Stoll didn't bat 1.000, but he comes pretty close to the mark in a number of ways.
He points out, as I have on occasion, that, yes, there's a huge amount of information on the Internet. A monumental amount. Lots. Unfortunately, much of it is drivel, whether provided by bloggers (except this one, of course) or by mainstream media. Some of the stuff on CNN, ABC, FOX, or MSNBC will bring tears to one's eyes, sometimes from laughter that supposed professionals can be so stupid. I mean, how else to explain the I-69 brouhaha, the home computer picture that's actually a submarine, and other silliness that the media has spread based on Internet gags and rumors? I've tried to track down some outre stories a time or two and found all of them linking back to the same suspect source.

It's like all those Bermuda Triangle books that mention the ill-fated Navy flight that disappeared, supposedly due to the infernal forces at work in the Triangle. All of them quote supposedly official transcripts of radio communications. Except that the genuine transcripts don't contain all those juicy comments about everything being "upside down" and all the instruments being crazy. Seems those statements were invented by the author of one of the first Bermuda Triangle books and quoted by every subsequent "believer."

The Internet is a lot like that.

Mr. Stoll does underestimate the extent to which politicians would use the Web. Why wouldn't they? Politics and the Internet are a perfect union. If you make a strident dubious statement that's reported in a newspaper or on TV, the reporter is liable to say something about the statement's accuracy. On the Web, it's up to the reader to check the accuracy, which most won't.

As to computers replacing teachers, Mr. Stoll is dead on. Computers are a useful tool, just like a sliderule or a film, but a good teacher makes the difference, not a computer.

When it comes to the Internet economy, he hits and misses, but on one point he is dead on. The Internet isn't replacing bricks and mortar any time soon. Now I buy a lot of stuff on the Internet. I also buy a lot of stuff in stores. I live near a city of around 30,000 which is building it's third new shopping plaza in three years, to go with the other two that were already in the area. I'd say a lot of people are still going to stores.

(Booth's mercantile center consists of one stop 'n' rob and a motel. But it was like that before the Internet, too.)

Look, people used to buy from catalogs. Now they buy from the Internet. The bricks and mortar boys got smart and dumped catalogs and went on the Web. There's a lot of money to be made on the 'Net, but you can still make money in a store -- and a lot of people are doing it.

A lot of people want to make the Internet out to be something that's changing mankind. Mankind ain't changing any time soon.

Supposedly, the 'Net was going to be this marvelous aggregation of "communities" where there would be love, peace, and mutual understanding. R-i-i-i-i-ght. I took a shot at this fantasy a long time ago. Basically, I said that people take their prejudices and pettiness with them right to the web, and they can do anonymously.

Some sites have become such cesspits of vulgar language, vituperative flamings, and general hooliganism that, a while back, Tim O'Reilly and Jimmy Wales (king of that bastion of anarchy, Wikipedia) tried to push a Code of Conduct. Don't remember? I'm not surprised. It didn't exactly excite the "community." (I did think the sherriff's badge was kind of cutsey though.)

You want to know about the Internet community? Let me break a rule of mine here, and talk about my work. I got a call today from a detective. He wanted to alert the system administrators (of which I am one) that his division was conducting a sting on a singles site to track down predatory types who use these sites for something a lot more rotten than dinner and a movie. He gave me his IP address so we wouldn't be turning him in when we saw some of the sites they were being sent to by these creeps.

Know what's really bad about this? A few months ago, I got a similar notification from another detective who was conducting a sting where he posed as a 12-year old to catch pedophiles.

Now we all make jokes about half the people on some "social networking" sites being perverts and the other half being cops pretending to be teenage girls. But the sad fact is that Internet "communities" suffer from the same ills as regular communities and have to be policed the same way.

The real problem here is that, as Mr. Stoll points out repeatedly, what matters is human interaction. Whether it's a salesperson, a teacher, or just other human beings, we need people.
The Internet is no substitute for that, never has been, never will be.

And don't even get me started about e-mail.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Knuckling Down

You don't catch the knuckleball, you defend against it ~ Joe Torre

I ran across a link to a good read over at SI about the dearth of knuckleball pitchers in this modern day and age. The piece is well written and a nice little history of knuckleballing pitchers, but it's premise is that somehow there used to be a ton of knuckleball throwers and now there aren't.

According to the article, there have been 70 pure knuckleball pitchers in baseball history. Let me tell you, that ain't many in over 100 years of the sport. So having only one currently (Tim Wakefield) ain't such a big deal. It is possible, though, that we won't see many for a while for a number of reasons.

First, there's too much organized sports now. Kids start playing ball around 4 years of age or something like that. They learn to throw fastballs. Lots of fastballs. In fact, in Little League, the ideal pitcher is the biggest kid on the team who can throw harder than anyone else. Kids are around coaches who teach them the basics: Fastball, changeup, and later slider and curveball.

It wasn't always this way. Pitchers used to pick up all sorts of pitches playing in sandlots, sometimes from other kids, sometimes from dads and granddads. By the time they got to the big leagues, they had palmballs, fadeaways, screwballs, forkballs, and other weird pitches. Of course, there were also those who had spitballs, greaseballs, and emery balls. Not legal, of course, but they had to catch you first.

I think I'd have loved the olden days when pitchers could throw just about anything. There's a turn-of-the-century story I read many years ago about a catcher who kept rolling the ball back to the mound after each pitch. The umpire finally asked him why he was doing that. The catcher said, "It's the only way I can get the goddam gum off the ball."

Gaylord Perry, of course, was the last of the great greaseball pitchers, but the pitch he threw I loved the most was the "puffball". He threw it in one game, against the Indians. When he came out to pitch, he picked up the "rosen" bag, which was about three times bigger than the usual bag and bounced it on his hand repeatedly, sending huge clouds of something into the air. The "something" turned out to be flour. When he released the ball, it came out of a puff of flour. Surprisingly, the Indians let him get away with it for a couple of innings before complaining. The umpire went out to the mound and took the flour bag away from a laughing Perry.

Beyond the standardization of pitching, another reason you don't see many knucklers is that it's a devilishly hard pitch to throw. It's not thrown with the knucles. It's thrown with the fingernails. Hoyt Wilhelm, perhaps the best known knuckleballer after Phil Niekro, once had to go on the disabled list due to a broken nail. At any rate, getting the release point right and throwing the thing with any degree of consistency is not easy and takes a lot of practice. I suspect any kid trying a knuckleball out in Little League or even high school would find himself getting chewed out by the coach.

The knuckleball may be hard to throw, but it's damn near impossible to catch. Years ago, Bob Sudyk, then Indians beat writer for the Cleveland Press, decided he'd find out how hard it really was. He arranged to have a little session with Eddie Fisher (the pitcher, not the singer) at Cleveland Stadium. The team insisted that he put on full catcher's gear, mask, chest protector, and shin guards. Sudyk objected, figuring he couldn't get hurt trying to catch a 45 MPH pitch, but the team insisted. It's well that they did. The paper published a truly hilarious set of photos. In one, Sudyk is reaching out to his right as the ball hits in the left shoulder. In another, he's reaching down as the ball caroms off his mask.

When Wilhelm pitched for the Orioles, someone got the bright idea to make a specilal glove for the catcher, which was basically two pieces of leather about the size of a large pizza sewed together. The catcher didn't try to catch the ball; he smothered it. The idea caught on, and other teams also developed larger and larger gloves. The mitts got so large that baseball had to pass a rule on the maximum size of a catcher's mitt.

To get a feel for how players have felt about the knuckleball, both attempting to hit it and attempting to catch it, check out this site. My favorite quote came from Rick Monday, who said, "It giggles as it goes by."

There was a period when we did seem to have a bunch of these pitchers. Wilhelm, both Niekros, Charlie Hough, Tom Candiotti and others who threw the knuckler less often seemed to proliferate like crazy threw the last four decades, but, for the reasons I've discussed, the pitch is out of favor now. But, all things seem to go in cycles. Probably, some pitcher will resurrect his career throwing the thing, and suddenly other marginal pitchers will decide it's a way to extend his big-league lifetime.

Then we'll get the fun of watching a pitch that giggles again.