Danny Thomas (born Amos Alphonsus Muzyad Yaqoob), Jan. 6, 1912-Feb. 6, 1991.

Success has nothing to do with what you gain in life or accomplish for yourself. It’s what you do for others.

—Danny Thomas

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Many Americans today have probably never heard of Danny Thomas, as he belonged definitively to the twilight of the Golden Age of Cinema (starring in the 1952 remake of The Jazz Singer) and the dawn of the Golden Era of Television (starring in, what else, The Danny Thomas Show and producing such shows as The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Andy Griffith Show, and The Mod Squad). And before all that, he was a stand-up comic touring the Midwest nightclub circuit under an anglicized form of his given name, Amos Jacobs.

In any event, it is not for Danny’s entertainment talent that we honor him today. Of all his long work in the studios, only a couple of his many shows are still shown frequently. But though most do not know him by name, nearly everyone knows him through his greatest legacy: The St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.

At an early moment in his career, when the nightclub circuit was looking particularly grim (he was languishing in Detroit, no less), Danny knelt down in prayer and asked St. Jude Thaddeus (patron of hopless causes) to “show me my way in life.” Soon Danny found himself in Chicago and his career finally moving. When he next went to St. Jude in prayer at another turning point, he pledged to build a shrine if he ever had the means to do so.

His career took off, and Danny found himself wondering just how to fulfill his vow. Working with a group of businessmen in Memphis, he hit upon the idea to build a research hospital dedicated to curing the most catastrophic diseases afflicting children. A key point here: Danny Thomas didn’t just found a hospital—which after all can only treat the children that come through its doors—he founded a research institute dedicated to researching, applying, and publicizing cures for free.

And Danny did more than just found the place, he returned to the community of his birth, Lebanese Americans, to secure ongoing funding. From his efforts, the American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities (ALSAC) was founded—with the sole purpose of supporting St. Jude. Today, ALSAC—still exclusively dedicated to St. Jude—is America’s third-largest health-care charity. Thus, the efforts of Danny Thomas and the Arab-American community produced a fundraising powerhouse that today transcends ethnicity, geography, and ideology to reach across America.

With an initial focus on pediatric cancer, St. Jude has helped increase the cure rate of acute lymphocytic leukemia from 4% to 80%, seen its budget grow from $1 million per year to $235 million, and branched out to study HIV-AIDS (devastating the children of Africa) and numerous cancers. Today it engages in cutting edge gene and stem cell therapies and is a highly rated scientific institution.

Leaving aside the 4900 patients seen each year, St. Jude has saved the lives of thousands upon thousands of children around the world through its contributions to basic and clinical research. Protocols developed at St. Jude have helped raise the survival rates for childhood cancers from under 20% to around 70%, with several key cancers having survival rates 90% or higher. And now it sets its sights on the diseases and therapies of the 21st Century. In the best American fashion it does not simply treat the symptoms of the ills it fights, it seeks to eliminate the root causes.

All from the vow of a stand-up comic, with help from a few Memphis businessmen and the unstinting assistance of the Arab-American community. Danny Thomas represents precisely what is right about America: he had opportunity, seized it, succeeded, and then stopped to consider how he could use his success to improve the world.

Of course, as with our other Great Americans Walt Disney and George Marshall, there are detractors. Some point to the sheer impossibility of curing childhood diseases and the tendency of charities to metastasize over time. To these folks the size and scope of St. Jude aren’t strengths but weaknesses—weaknesses that a group of smaller more focused institutions wouldn’t have. Others point out that as nasty as the diseases St. Jude fights are, they’re nothing compared to the childhood deaths from starvation, war, and exploitation. Wouldn’t all those millions be better spent fighting these more lethal, but far less scientifically “sexy” killers? Doesn’t St. Jude commit the classic American blunder of the Big Plan when less ambitious, more targeted efforts would work better?

There’s a point to all the carping, to be sure, but it still misses the point. Here, as always, the perfect is the greatest enemy of the good. Trying too hard to get the perfect solution is a great recipe for doing nothing. While others carp, hopeless cases still find hope at the place Danny built.

Still, I don’t think Danny would mind if those critics of his got busy building their competing visions. They might give ALSAC a run for the money, but I can’t help but think that Danny would just look down and urge them on.

After all, there’s still more than enough childhood misery to go around, sadly.

As someone who grew up in Wisconsin, I have a hard time taking Iowa seriously. Naturally we had lots of Iowa jokes, many of which do not bear repeating but the most memorable involved finding backronyms for Iowa: Idiots Out Wandering Around, I Owe the World an Apology, etc. Of course, this is the narcissism of small differences talking. You would be hard-pressed to tell the area of Iowa closest to my hometown apart. But at least we could comfort ourselves with the fact that we had a once-great football team, a never-great baseball team, cheese curds and beef sticks (on the interstate, not really elsewhere), and, most importantly, cheap, shitty industrial beer, made in Milwaukee! All Iowa had was corn, corn, and more corn and the Iowa Tests.

But once every four years, it forces itself into the national consciousness in a long standing tradition (since 1972, even).

It’s mouseness roars on Jan. 3, 2008.

Soon, someone’s going to take home the Iowa Caucuses Brass Ring (well, one for each party). Sure, the brass ring came out of a bull’s nose several decades back, when they still had bulls on farms rather than the much safer but less… satisfying and profoundly unnatural modern option. And its predictive ability of who wins the nomination is not all that great, but it does have a certain theatrical je ne sais quoi? Remember, Pat Robertson shot to the national consciousness due to his showing in the Iowa Caucuses in 1988 and Howard Dean famously melted down in the Iowa Caucuses of 2004. Some questions:

  • Is Huckabee going to win? How can he miss with Chuck Norris’ endorsement?
  • Obama set to upset HRC?
  • Who’s going to get the hook exit stage right by Iowa?
  • Any juicy meltdowns?

Time to make your predictions. (Note: Iowa does have the honor of bringing us a good source of information which you may find useful.)

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ObFascism Tag: Iowa is 96% white. If that’s not fascist, I don’t know what is…. ;)

The current restaurant trend is tapas. For those of you who don’t dine out much at “nice” places, American-style tapas involves a bunch of small dishes of mostly quasi-Mediterranean “fusion” food ordered a la carte, which are sampled by everyone at the table “family style.”

Pah.

I don’t pay good money to have to pass a bunch of stupid little dishes filled with pretentious food I don’t understand around a table. Tapas can return to whatever culinary fad hole it crawled out of as far as I am concerned.

This rant is inspired by two recent events, my reading of this Dec. 5, New York Times article and my going to a Japanese “japas” restaurant with some relatives on roughly the same day. (I name no names to protect the innocent and guilty both.) I’d been to the restaurant a few years ago and liked it quite a bit, but the menu had changed from being more traditional Japanese restaurant, which always had a fair bit of a la carte on the sushi menu, of course, to “japas.” There were no entrees at all, just a long list of small dishes mostly priced between $3 and $8, with a few over that. No clue as to what they were, no clue as to what goes with what, how big anything is, and so on. The waiter was a useless ‘tard (both kinds). Now I’m not especially fond of Japanese food but can usually find something decent on the menu, for instance one of the Japanese adaptations to please the Western palate, shrimp tempura. There was a shrimp dish (“sweet shrimp”) which I ordered hoping that it was shrimp tempura… when the plate showed up with small shrimp in the shell with heads still on I realized the answer was a resounding no. Sure they were breaded and fried but definitely not shrimp tempura and definitely not satisfying either. I ended up ordering something else which was OK… but of course added to the bill, which added to my dissatisfaction. More on that below.

Basically, the whole phenomenon is just an upscale reinvention of an old American classic: the buffet. The big difference is that at a buffet, all your choices (as incoherent they may be) are laid out in front of you and are usually pretty simple stuff like mac ‘n’ cheese, steamed vegetables, overcooked roast beef, etc. With tapas, you’re sitting down at your table facing a menu with a blizzard of dishes. Some are straightforward, such as mixed olives or bread and olive oil, but most suffer with vague, pretentious fusion cuisine titles like:

  • “Roasted beets with goat cheese vinaigrette”
  • “Hazelnut-crusted wilted arugula with maple goat cheese vinaigrette”
  • “Rabbit with wilted arugula, goat cheese and nuts”
  • “Watermelon goat cheese salad with citrus vinagrette”
  • “Wild bighorn sheep sausage with blueberry mustard goat cheese vinaigrette.”

Goat cheese and vinagrette for EVERYONE! The standard tapas menu is the culinary equivalent of “feature vomit.” Given the questionable edibility of most fusion cuisine, it’s none too far from being the actual, honest-to-goodness kind, too, especially after one’s third Grey Goose appletini in two hours, coupled with those cigarettes “smoked only on weekends.” Unsurprisingly, the Spanish—inventors of tapas—practice it more sensibly. Basically, it’s bar food, something Americans aren’t exactly ignorant of. That’s right, tapas is just the Spanish version of buffalo wings, peanuts, fries, etc., except it’s olives, bread with toppings, etc., which restaurateurs in the US have convinced the public should cost a bundle. And who ever thought bar food was a good deal? ;)

Diners are, as the New York Times article linked above, supposed to like this because of Americans’ desire for more choice, whether we need it or not. As far as I’m concerned, tapas is just another way to fleece me out of my hard-earned money while making me agonize over picking a meal, but I’m one of those seemingly relatively rare people who hates shopping, and tapas brings all the joy of accessorizing to the dinner table. Behavioral economics tells us that, from the standpoint of the retailer, tapas makes sense: Many small transactions are more easily overlooked than larger ones and it’s easier to get diners to spend more thereby. Of course my discontent is also understandable—too many choices and too many transactions can be disconcerting. If you want a nice short introduction, look at Swarthmore psychologist Barry Schwartz‘s little book The Paradox of Choice, which explains quite nicely why more choice isn’t always better for our own well-being. (Read this review for a short course.) In a nutshell, each choice we have to make involves cognitive effort on our part, and a comparison with all the other choices we could have made but ended up rejecting. All this comparison is tiring and opportunity cost is a stone-cold bee-otch, if you’re aware of it. Schwartz characterizes two basic ideal-type cognitive styles: maximizers and satisficers. Maximizers carefully compare their options. Satisficers, by constrast, are willing to settle for “good enough” and move on. Evidently I am a “maximizer” when it comes to meals at good restaurants… and, at least according to Schwartz, maximizers are unlikely to be happy about what they get because they spend more time comparing their options, paying attention to opportunity costs, and so on. Tapas is, therefore, pretty much guaranteed to piss me off. (I’m better at satisficing in other choices, fortunately.) I admit a lot of this is my descent to fogey-ism. I don’t like the “mix tape on steroids” that is the modern Ipod playlist and I never play albums on shuffle either. I hate surprise parties. I have a decidedly unfashionable desire for a coherent whole, be it an album or a meal, and tapas (of whatever variety) doesn’t deliver it for me. The fact that it’s a way to run up the tab just nails it.

The only good tapas experience I’ve ever had was a few years back in Minneapolis. The restaurant was not my choice, but I was with friends…. The waitress had the sense to suggest that we “course” the meal and let the kitchen take over. She asked us for a basic list of our preferences and went back to the kitchen. So “choice”—if you want to have a good experience, anyway—is an illusion, too.

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Aside: You may notice the “fascism” tag. I have decided—out of deference to Angry Midwesterner—to tag all my rants with “fascism” from here on out. I give it a fig leaf of justification with Spain’s experience under the dictator Generalissimo Francisco Franco, the man about whom Adolf Hitler said “I would rather spend two hours in the dentist’s chair than have another meeting with him.” Franco would have enjoyed tapas. So there. :P

The holiday season is always an interesting one for me. In addition to visiting family, in-laws, food, and fun, it’s one of the few times I am exposed to modern television. I’m not normally exposed to television at all (except football on Saturday’s at the bar), as I simply don’t watch it. I also don’t miss it. I find reading articles on the internet, or reading books far more entertaining. The holidays usually serve to remind me why I don’t watch TV, as I am bombarded by the mindless shows, ridiculous commercials, and 24/7 celebrity infotainment. This time around, however, I was exposed to a particularly disgusting modern show, which is so revolting it deserves its own rant.

I’m talking about TLC’s “What Not To Wear“.

I’m not quite sure how a show this awful and vapid managed to work its way onto a network known as “The Learning Channel”, but then again looking at the rest of the lineup, with many “interestingly” named “gems” like:


  • A Makeover Story
  • American Hotrod
  • Little People, Big World

I have to question what people are learning. Just in those three shows, the channel is selling shallow judgmental culture, NASCAR, and “Let’s laugh at the midgets”. Bravo, way to teach people good values and interesting lessons. I can only imagine the depths of tacky tasteless crap that these shows manage to plumb, as “What Not To Wear” dredges up some Grade A Sewage, and masquerades it as entertainment. Not having experienced the other shows on The Loser Channel, I’ll have to focus on “What Not To Wear”, and why shows like this are an affront to America, Freedom, and just plain old good taste and tact.

The premise of “What Not To Wear” is simple, since Rich Northeasterners are Vapid, Shallow and Soulless, they assume this to be the condition of Americans everywhere, and thus appearance is the sole quality by which people should be judged. As such, the show implores its viewers to send in their friends and family to be ridiculed on national television for having tastes which are independent of what Paris Hilton or Tom Cruise are currently wearing. The hosts (both of which are poster children for Coastie Callous Consumerism) then make the participants an offer, they can waste $5,000 on clothes from stores which are paying the show for massive product placement, if they throw all of their current clothes into the trash (and of course buy clothes that the celebrity zombies agree are “in fashion”). This of course leads me to two large questions:


  1. Who needs to spend $5,000 on clothes, especially when we live in a world full of hunger and illiteracy?
  2. If you’re going to toss out someone’s wardrobe, would it kill you to have a heart and donate it to the Salvation Army or Goodwill?

The rest of the show is simply an exercise is tearing down someone’s individuality and rebuilding them as a celebrity zombie, decked out in the latest brands that are paying the show for promotion (with long panning shots over store names), repeat ad nauseum, which doesn’t take long at all. I’m sure with our modern infotainment, celebrity, consumerism obsessed culture that this is but one in a long list of disgusting shallow shows on TV. What bothers me is that this trash is on television in the first place, and what’s more, that a lot of people seem to be watching it.

Personally, if I had $5,000 to give away every episode of a TV show, I can think of millions of better ways to spend it that actually contribute to the world. Like perhaps finding a needy elementary classroom, introducing people to the town and children, and then donating 25 Laptops from the One Laptop per Child project to the class. Or maybe they could have people write in with charities to donate the money too, and spend the episode show casing needy causes. Another great idea would be to find soup kitchens around the country, and visit them, using the $5,000 to outfit them with better equipment to help feed the homeless.

Note that these sort of uses of the money don’t mean that the show can’t make income from product placement. If a company wants to donate something to a charitable cause, by all means give them some screen time! That sort of generosity deserves to be rewarded, and if a company really wants my business, that is the way to convince me to give it to them, not by supporting shallow behavior and wasteful spending. Unfortunately I have little hope that anything will change. Shows like “What Not To Wear” embody a disturbing and sick slice of modern American culture, a slice that is nothing more than a gussied up version of the blue collar obsession with Wal-mart style consumerism. It’s a sickness we need to face as a culture and cure before we let it destroy the values we, as Americans, are supposed to treasure and strive for.

-Angry Midwesterner


Occasionally on The 12 Angry Men, we will post rants from invited guests. In lieu of our normally scheduled segment, today we feature an invited rant, from an Angry Guest Woman. You may remember our current guest from her previous appearance when she ranted about poor service, and tipping, and her second appearance where she discussed the traffic situation in Hampton Roads.
- The Staff of The 12 Angry Men


I’m a huge fan of good comedy. And, as everyone knows, the funniest comedy is delivered with some element of seriousness: a deadpan voice, a serious look, something that doesn’t say “I’m just asking for a laugh.” Well, today I saw the funniest movie ever: Fatal Error. It is especially funny because it was mis-classified as a drama/suspense film and, in that genre, it flopped miserably. But now I ask all of you to forget about this “suspension of disbelief” notion and actually attempt to believe this movie as you watch it. You’ll fall out of your chair laughing! It’s the most unintentionally funny movie ever! Here’s a plot summary. (Warning: Spoilers below but don’t let that discourage you — this movie is funnier every time you watch it!)

Fatal Error centers around the activity of a computer virus which is supposed to be especially powerful because it is descended from “the original computer virus” (which would be what exactly?) Without any AI subroutines, it somehow manages to feel threatened by humans who attempt to turn off machines running it (because, of course, viruses can see people reaching for the power switch) and it sends out signals which tell the person’s body to turn into dust. They had to get a blind hacker to find it because he can’t see the video waves the virus uses to attack its victims. The techno-babble in this movie is so ridiculous if you know anything about biology or computer science you won’t be able to stop laughing! And somehow the Army virus unit spends all of the movie trying to stop a major corporation from using the virus because, of course, the Army would never be interested in a clean weapon that kills large numbers of people by simply sending out video waves but a TV sales company would be interested in distributing the virus in the television sets it sells and killing off its customer base. And, of course, television sets have the computing capabilities of your average supercomputer, thus providing the virus with a place to mutate and adapt.

A suspended doctor, who we know is good because he worked in a place called “Africa” once, spends the movie chasing down the virus with an Army virus unit investigator woman. The evil genius who invented the virus is almost thwarted by the Army virus investigator woman but he catches her and straps her into a chair in front of a TV so she can’t move her head away. This deadly plot is made even more menacing by showing the evil genius kill another agent the same way in the same chair just moments before. But then the Army virus investigator makes the amazing discovery that the virus’ deadly video waves can be thwarted by… closing your eyes! And since the evil genius who invented a human-hunting computer virus forgot to tape her eyelids open when he strapped her head in place, she escapes the virus and lives to team up with the doctor to surprise the evil genius at the TV control center. The two of them manage to avoid being scanned by security by picking up a mic, camera, and jacket from an open, unlocked car left unattended by a local TV news station. Gosh the security at this place is good!

Guess how the movie ends? Guess! The evil genius who invented the virus accidentally knocks over the water cooler in the supercomputer control room. Because every supercomputer control room has a tipsy water cooler in the middle with the supercomputer built in a circle around it. Yeah.

And somehow this also simultaneously kills all of the instances of the virus saved in everyone’s TV sets around the world. Now the world is saved! Woo hoo!

If you’re ever in the mood for really stupid-funny and you don’t mind your sides hurting the next day, rent this movie.

- Angry East Coast Guest Woman

Regular readers will be familiar with our “Troll of the Week” category which we often award to worthy individuals. This week, its time for something completely different. We’ve found an individual which we wish to name Hero of the Week. This is not a title we will give out often, and will only be awarded to truly worthy individuals, who had the courage to stand up and fight one form of injustice or another, and who have championed the greater good.


Our current Hero of the Week is a would be Jedi Knight from North Carolina named Christopher Knight. The young Jedi made an ad for his campaign for the Rockingham County, North Carolina board of education. In his entertaining campaign video, which aired on local television stations, Christopher unveils his secondary career as a Jedi, and his commitment to protecting the local youth from evil while he quests for elected office. The ad is quite well done, creative, and an excellent bit of amateur movie making. His video was so popular, that Knight decided to post his video on YouTube to share with the internet community as a whole.

Viacom owned TV channel VH1 grabbed Knight’s video without permission and aired it during their series “Web Junk 2.0″, technically violating copyright law as they did not even ask for Knight’s permission to air his copyright work. Knight however, as a true student of the Light Side of the Force, didn’t mind. He accepted their action with good humor and enthusiasm saying:

I’m delighted that as a proud son of Rockingham County, I got worldwide exposure for this… How often does a local school board ad wind up on VH1?”

His response showed wisdom, patience, mercy, and benevolence, all traits true Jedi should possess. In fact, he so enjoyed their review of his video that he placed a copy of it with their commentary on YouTube so others could enjoy his work in this fashion. Viacom responded quickly by sending Imperial Stormtroopers with cease and desist letters to YouTube and our Jedi Hero, telling them that they were in violation of copyright law and if they did not comply immediately, they would “face the full firepower of this fully operational company”. Chris replied:

Viacom says that I can’t use their clip showing my commercial, claiming copy infringement? As we say in the South, that’s ass-backwards.”

Ever the brave hero, Christopher Knight risked life and lawsuit by filing a counter complaint against Viacom, noting that they had violated his copyright first. In an amazing win for the forces of good, Viacom surrendered to the Jedi Rebellion and YouTube restored his clip. His actions have not only saved his video, but all of the galaxy… I mean internet. Thanks to his bravery users everywhere know that they too can file counter DMCA claims should their rights be threatened.

For his heroism, valor, and courage, Christopher Knight is awarded Hero of the Week and will receive an honorary beer at the Man Lunch. Even though we know a Jedi craves not these things, we hope the Jedi Knight will accept our praise and know that today he is a hero to all of the Rebel Alliance. Mr. Knight, may the force be you, always.

Edit: Our Hero’s blog. Also, welcome to Fark.com, feel free to look around.

We’ve been awfully serious here for a while. I mean, recent topics include the radical Islam and ethics of stem cell research, what’s next, heart attacks (how right I was…), breast cancer or nuclear war? (On second thought, I don’t want to hear about nuclear war—this means you AOC! ;)) I figured I’d lighten things up a bit with a bit of mean-spirited satire. Here are some TV show concepts I’d love to see explored.

todmuskie.jpgThe U.P.: This is the story of a well-off kid Tyler Stone who moves from Orange County, California, to live in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in a trailer park with his Uncle Charlie. He quickly falls in love with Dakota Lynn Wiedemier, the daughter of his next door neighbor. He gets a job at a working as a tour guide for rich Chicagoans (aka FIBs). The first episode will involve Tyler’s initiation into UP culture when Uncle Charlie takes him ice fishing. Amazingly, they catch a muskellunge (getting rarer these days what with the FIBs fishing all the lakes…) and, initiating Tyler to his new home, Charlie and Tyler drink its blood, mixed half and half with raw grain alcohol right there in the ice house. The season 1 finale will have Dakota telling Tyler that she’s having his baby even though she’s not real sure whether Tyler is the father or if it’s her old boyfriend Dwayne, who “lived next door to me in the trailer park all their lives.” In Season 2, Tyler will develop a crystal meth habit and become a rentboy for FIBs after getting his Orange County ass kicked by Dwayne while Uncle Charlie is doing 30 days for a DUI.

w_michael_bolton_0943.jpgMichael Bolton and Kenny G on Ice! Skated by Brian Boitano and Friends, Sponsored by Arbor Mist. Michael BoltonKenny GBrian BoitanoArbor Mist…. I’m not real sure what needs to be said about this, honestly. There was a show disturbingly close to this already at mega-retirement community The Villages so evidently someone already thought my idea was a good one, and as we all know it simply doesn’t get any better than when Michael Bolton sings “When a Man Loves a Woman”. Still, Kenny G and Arbor Mist are nice touches that push the concept over the top, don’t you think? Repeat! Repeat!

Hobo Cooking: New to Food Network. Just because you live in a cardboard box doesn’t mean your house can’t be a home. Chefs Hobo Bob and Bag Lady Martha show appropriate pairings of meals, such as Alpo and Thunderbird. The warmth of Thunderbird completes the meaty richness of Alpo, but make sure to buy the cans with gravy. Don’t waste, either: MD 20/20 makes an excellent pan reduction for the Alpo cans cooked over a fire barrel. Entertaining? Chef Hobo Bob shows you how to dumpster dive at grocery stores to feed as many as you need with any cuisine you desire. Looking for lighter fare? Try cat food and Grape Drink. The possibilities in a tin can are… endless when you open yourself to the Freedom of the Open Road.

Four to Six Weeks This show chronicles the high tension environment of the fulfillment house for the Bradford Exchange, all in (mostly) real time. Watch as main character Jake Farmer makes sure that packages containing goodies like the Thomas “Painter of Light” Kinkade Timeless Memories Collectible Cuckoo Clock or the Perilous Quest Collectible Dragon Axe get to where they belong, despite the constant interference of his management and nefarious individuals who want to stop him from delivering the goods across the land.

Durian

NYC Stink Look out Miami Ink and its fall 07 spinoff LA Ink. This reality show is about a team of garbage men in the Big Apple (which IMO should be better known as aka The Big Durian). Watch as Louie Lazardo and pals pick through Monday’s bags of trash and finds used condoms, week-old leftovers from Sung Dynasty, dead rats, packaging from Macy’s, and, sometimes, the truly unidentifiable.

The relevant cable channels can send me the checks for development. Any resemblance to existing shows is, of course, purely coincidental.

Of course.

(If you want in on the big money, add your own in the comments.)

Your brain is as dry as the remainder biscuit after a voyage.


Shakespeare, As You Like It

This summer I had the horrible misfortune of attending Christopher Owens’ production of “Love’s Labour’s Lost” at the Virginia Shakespeare Festival. This isn’t to say that I dislike “Love’s Labour’s Lost”; I am a fan of all of The Bard’s plays. It isn’t a sign that I abhore Shakespeare Festivals; I’ve attended them in several states and always enjoyed them. It also isn’t an indication of my opinion of the Virginia Shakespeare Festival (though it is not as professional, nor as amazing as the Illinois Shakespeare Festival). No, it is more a reflection of the odious combination of Christopher Owens, the director of the VSF this year, and the previously mentioned ingredients.

You see, for some reason Chrisopher Owens, a show business nobody, thinks he is more brilliant than one of history’s greatest playwrights. Instead of putting on the production as it was intended, Mr. Owens made several monumentally bad alterations to the play. First, and least severe, he decided to “update” the play by setting it in 1910. Ok… I suppose that could work, but why? While Mr. Owens makes some vague limp comments about artistic sentiment and “period of innocence” I can’t help but wonder why he thought his setting was so much better than the original year of 1597? No matter, the worst is yet to come.

Second, and far more severe is the fact that Mr. Owens replaced all of the poetry in the play with songs from the early part of the 20th century, in effect, substituting pop trash for poetic treasures. The changes were jarring, obvious, and utterly ruined the play. To make matters worse, Mr. Owens then went through and cut large sections of the play entirely, declaring them irrelevant. Thank you Mr. Owens, but no thanks. You are not smarter than Shakespeare, so please don’t go butchering the work of a far more successful director and writer.

When asked about his changes by the Daily Press, Mr. Owens had this to say:

I think Shakespeare was trying to show off a bit, with lots of Latin references and different rhyming styles… It’s very verbose

Yes, Mr. Owens, plays by Shakespeare are verbose. He was a master of words and wrote very language driven plays. Most of us don’t think he was “showing off” but that he was attempting to entertain us with clever word choice, diction, and humor. Perhaps Shakespeare is too subtle for you to understand? You seemed to indicate as much in the program for the performance when you called Love’s Labour’s Lost a terrible play. If it was so terrible, why did you produce it? Or were you not aware of Shakespeare’s numerous other works?

Please Mr. Owens, leave Shakespeare alone. I understand that you “artistic” types like to try and justify your self importance by changing everything you can get your hands on but please, for the love of God, and all that is holy, don’t change a Shakespearean play during a freaking Shakespeare Festival! We’re coming to the festival for Shakespeare’s masterful plays, not your amateur drivel. In parting, I leave you with a quote from Shakespeare’s play All’s Well that Ends Well:

Methink’st thou art a general offence and every man should beat thee.


-Angry Midwesterner


Recently a few things have gotten me thinking about credentials, in particular, academic credentials and its evil component, credentialism, the excessive attention to formal credentials. Credentials are not, in and of themselves, bad things, but excessive attention to them leads to some pretty serious problems which I will elaborate below. What put me on this train of thought? Pretty disconnected stuff, actually. First, it’s graduation time, so a lot of people are getting their degrees (congratulations if you are getting one). Second, it wasn’t all that long ago that students were choosing their schools, where they hope to get their degrees (congratulations if you got into a good one). Third, the case of Marilee Jones, former admissions director at MIT ousted for faking her credentials, has been in the news of late (sucks to be her). Finally, Rush released a new album, which, longtime fan that I am, I bought and have been rocking out to; get it if you like the band. This reminded me of the old claim that drummer/lyriecist and now book and magazine author Neil Peart had “a PhD in English” because he writes lyrics with lots of literary references. I’ll tackle these in reverse order.

(1) Neil Peart, “PhD” I’m not sure where the rumor that Neil has a PhD in English got started. Quite possibly it came about from a telephone-game style mutation of Neil’s early stage moniker “The Professor of Drums.” I remember hearing it (and possibly repeating it) back in high school (mid to late 80s). Neil’s obviously a very smart, highly articulate and well-read man but, as it used to say on his web page (I can’t find it anymore—sorry, but his Wikipedia bio has similar info as does Andy Olson), he’s a high school dropout who moved to London from Canada and back again while working odd jobs and playing in unsuccessful bands before hooking up with Geddy and Alex when he was in his early 20s. Then they worked their tails off for several more years touring and recording before making it big. So there was no time for finishing high school, much less college or a PhD in English, but plenty of time for reading tons and tons of books in the back of the tour bus, which is exactly what he did. Rather than spending all his time screwing groupies and sniffing coke, Neil read some pretty heavy stuff, starting with the works of Ayn Rand but branching out greatly from there (thankfully, if you ask me). Hazarding a guess, I suppose the rumor spread as a way of legitimizing one’s own tastes, particularly against parents and other adults like high school English teachers (“fascists” that they are, at least in the minds of high school students).

Of course, this is far from uncommon. By no means comparing Peart’s literary talent—I think Neil would remote-choke me from a distance Darth Vader style if I did—the longstanding debates about whether William Shakespeare actually wrote his plays are similar, the thought being essentially “How could a lowly commoner have written what he did?” Well… let’s just say that thirty years of writing, directing and acting in plays is a pretty strong education on what makes a good play. Mark Twain went through a similarly sordid set of careers, including deserter from the Confederate Navy, before finding success as an author, though no one doubts his existence or authorship. Again, no formal education. Writing is one field where credentials count for relatively little, it turns out.

(2) Marilee Jones was obviously good at her job and it turned out she had a degree, just not the ones she claimed (bizarrely enough she didn’t list the one she did have…). Fraud, at least when it’s been aired in public is something that MIT seems to be unable to deal with. Rather than let it turn into a circus, she did the honorable thing and resigned (possibly with help). I have to concur: for someone in the position of an admissions director, —even if you’re good at your job and have a good message—lying about your credentials is a pretty serious thing. It undercuts your authority to check on students’ credentials. If there was a real remedy for it short of termination, maybe, but I just don’t know what. In this day and age, an honorable resignation seems to be relatively rare. “Dans ce pays-ci, il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres.” —Voltaire, Candide Translation: In England it is good, from time to time, to kill an admiral to encourage the others. It refers to the death by firing squad of Admiral John Byng in 1757. (If only George W. Bush and his cronies would get the message.)

This seems to be the object of some disagreement, with very well-reasoned opinions like this arguing for something short of termination for dishonesty nearly three decades ago. Unfortunately, universities aren’t very consistent on this point. I recall reading a quote from someone at MIT basically saying “integrity is what we’re about.” I’m not so sure. Unfortunately, MIT has somewhat of a dark reputation among us researchers for being a place where you have to watch your back among your colleagues, who frequently appropriate your ideas for themselves. True? I don’t know since I’ve only interacted with a few people from MIT, but I definitely watch my back around people I don’t know aren’t thieves. This isn’t something I’m entirely happy about since the free exchange of ideas is thereby hampered. I do know from personal experience that cheating and plagiarism are rarely punished. Instructors know better than to take a plagiarizer or cheater to discipline committees, where the instructors get the third degree as often as not—we usually solve the problem by finding a way to give the offender a nasty grade, which is easier than you might think, since plagiarists and cheaters (at least the ones we find out about) aren’t usually top students. A co-author and I were plagiarized by someone (a faculty member at another institution) who copied about a page from one of our articles without quotation or attribution. When called on it, he said essentially “well I can’t be bothered to get my citations right.” (My co-author pursued it but I can’t recall the final outcome.) I know of another case of faculty plagiarism of a student’s thesis that eventually lead to a retraction in the journal. Student and former advisor no longer speak. So universities have no special claim to being ethical… welcome to the human race.

(3) The Super College Admissions Grind What Marilee Jones had become famous for was her stand—as admissions director of MIT—that the college admissions process was overheated and that students needed to cool it. Simply put, it’s not the end of the world to go to a “lesser” university like, oh, U of I, compared to an Ivy, or to go to ISU rather than going to U of I. A lot of what you get out of your education comes from what YOU put in, and finding a school that matches you is the best way to make that happen. Lots of small liberal arts colleges give first rate undergraduate educations, but aren’t on students’ minds because they’ve got their eyes set on Harvard (or U of I). Unfortunately for most high schoolers, college admissions is a time fraught with parental sticker shock and lots of pressure from peers, teachers, family, etc., for whom the success of the prospie becomes a vicarious personal success having more to do with parents’ and high schools’ bragging rights than what’s a good fit for students. It’s also the first real decision that most high school students make and many of them think it’s irrevocable (it’s not), which doesn’t help. Universities often ratchet up the pressure, too, with things like early admissions. So I applaud Jones for trying to cool it down, but still stand by my statement that she had to go for her decades-old fraud and thus did the right thing by stepping down.

(4) Degrees In a very real sense, it’s funny that a college degree is required for many jobs that require them. This is probably going to seem strange to many readers, but it’s true. The vast majority of jobs requiring college degrees do so for no really good reason that relates directly to job performance. So why is it the case that degrees are required? There are a few reasons. One was aptly analyzed by the 2001 Nobel laureate in Economics, Michael Spence, in his dissertation(!). Spence essentially attributes it to the asymmetry of information between employer and employee. Basically, it’s in the incentive of employees to lie about themselves to employers. (Employers, alas, also have incentive to lie to employees about the state of their organization and how well they treat their employees.) As a consequence, prospective employees need to send an expensive signal to prospective employers that they’re serious about the job, so serious they went into debt for a non-trivial amount of money and spent several years of their lives. A college degree also demonstrates some basic educability and stick-to-it-iveness, which is useful. They can’t just talk about how committed they are, because “talk is cheap,” but spending time and money demonstrates it. In all areas of human endeavor the rite of passage is different, but it’s there. Nowdays, a humble Bachelor’s degree ain’t much, since so many people have them, which devalues their role as a signal. Of course, we should expect degree creep. Intelligent organizations will find ways to avoid this treadmill by figuring out ways to let prospective employees regardless of their backgrounds “try out” for a while.

The second big reason is that credentials are used as a barrier to market entry in industries like secondary school teaching or psychotheraphy, just to name two. Here’s where credentialism comes in. There are good reasons for requiring a demonstration of proficiency, but the credentialing system gets hijacked by professional organizations operating as craft guilds and the state being pointlessly bureaucratic (what’s new about that?). Our culture is unhealthily ambivalent towards those of us with advanced degrees: it grants those of us with them an undue amount of respect and deference (why else would fraudsters append the title “Doctor” to their name? why else would there be degree mills letting you get a doctorate for some Benjamins?) but also devalues what we do know when we are seen not to be infallible. There doesn’t seem to be a happy medium (well except here and here). It’s amazing how many people try to “gotcha” those of us with alphabet soup after our names, not realizing that relatively trivial knowledge at the top of our heads isn’t what a PhD is about. It’s a research degree that (hopefully) demonstrates one’s ability to undertake an independent line of inquiry, which is harder than most people understand but also requires less raw intelligence than many expect, too. Certainly it doesn’t make one universally competent, though there are plenty of people with (and without) PhDs who think so.

This is a special section of the 12 Angry Men Blog where we celebrate the best Troll to be found anywhere during the past week. While there are many varieties of troll, ranging from the fuzzy-haired dashboard decorations to the waylayer of the Billy Goats Gruff, we enjoy a well-executed jabbing that leaves an adversary stammering for a response. Any moron can produce a flame—mere sewage dumped upon the city square—but to produce a good Troll is a work worthy of the celebration of men.

The Troll of the Week segment will be written frequently enough to be termed “periodic”, but the actual label “of the week” is merely idealistic ambition, and it is not to be taken seriously.

We must ask apology for the long delay in this feature, but as we have always said, we will honor no troll before his time. Only the most refined and extraordinary trolls will even be considered for our high office, and so we have been forced, reluctantly, to watch and wait.

But we wait no longer. At last a troll as arisen, striding forth as boldly now as he once did in defense of his nation. And though he no longer fights with weapons of steel and fire, he still does battle, fighting with speech and pen—and, as we shall show, occasionally with song.

Context of the Troll:

From time to time, every man is tested. Even one whose iron will was forged in the hellish crucible of the notorious Communist prison camps of North Vietnam. And, as we have said in these very pages, if anyone will try a man’s soul, it’s those trolls without peer, the Iranians. And if anything will try a man’s soul, it’s running for President for about the nineteenth time. I mean, sure, if you have the overwhelming arrogance and towering self-opinion of a John Kerry, you might weather it, but any normal man must begin to wonder if, perhaps, the electorate just doesn’t like him. And for a man who has turned to the classics in the past, perhaps the pressure simply could no longer be withstood but had to break free in song!

Execution of the Troll:

At an unsuspecting campaign stop in South Carolina last Wednesday, Sen. McCain was asked, not without reason, just when the United States would retaliate for Iran’s unceasing provocations. For whatever reason, instead of giving the same stock answer he’s doubtless given dozens of times before, Sen. McCain responded by singing, in his own inimitable style, a classic from the past:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o-zoPgv_nYg

(If you’re not the sort to take to McCain’s “unplugged” stylings, you can enjoy the original sound in a relatively new video here. To all these younglings that seem to think that McCain was directly ripping off a Beach Boys song, I’m sorry, he was ripping off a jingoistic rip-off of a Beach Boys song.)

Lack of original unauthorized copying aside, it was a masterful troll. The Iranians are doubtless quite annoyed (or worried, depending). The Democrats are scrambling all over themselves to appear outraged. The other Republicans really don’t know what to say. McCain’s urging everyone to simply develop a sense of humor. And the American people? Well, aside from the hippies and peaceniks, most of them find it pretty funny.

This naturally puzzles most of the world, because they don’t understand that Americans find jokes about massive bombing funny. (Consider how UNICEF’s tragic Smurf Bombing Ad was found incredibly funny by many US audiences.) Sad? Perhaps. Immoral? Maybe. But true nonetheless.

So here’s to you, Senator McCain, for understanding both your target audiences so well! May your troll catapult you into the spotlight for good or for ill!

For this inspired troll, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) is awarded the coveted Troll of the Week, and will receive an honorary beer at the Man Lunch. I’m afraid any accompanying bodyguards or campaign workers must buy their own. And, if women, must sit at an adjacent table. (Unless they’re really hot, then probably both of these strict rules of the Man Lunch get thrown out the window. I mean, we have principles, but we’re not fanatics…)

An Important Note: Dishonorable Runner-Up: Alec Baldwin

Some may wonder why Senator McCain won this week and not Alec Baldwin. As these folks may point out, it would seem that trolling your own child is somehow more pure: more clearly narcissistic and less likely to bring you any benefit, than trolling a nation run by misogynistic, antisemetic, homophobic religious zealots who make the Klu Klux Klan look like Rotary Club members.

All true…and all irrelevent. We have standards here at the Angry Man Blog, and Mr. Baldwin broke both of them. First, his “troll” was intended for a private audience, and not for public consumption. No matter how little Sen. McCain expected his words to be broadcast, he said them at a public appearance and before cameras. Second, and far more important, he trolled his little 12 (11? he’s not sure so how can we be) year old daughter! For goodness sakes, people, that’s not the action of a troll, that’s the action of a douche!

Trolls don’t destroy the precious psyche of a beloved child. Well, they may, but that’s not their primary intent. What Mr. Baldwin did was to engage in the worst form of douchebaggery. He doesn’t deserve a drink at the Man Lunch, he deserves a harsh beating at the monthly M.A.D.D. Brunch. And, in closing, may I just say:

You are worthless, Alec Baldwin…

[We will not dignify Mr. Baldwin's actions by linking to the heartrending transcript or audio of his phone message. If you like that sort of thing, you can find it on the Net easily enough.]

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