Monday, May 18, 2009

The end of a bloody era

It's been a long hiatus for GWS, but today's news from Sri Lanka warrants at least some mention from this little corner of the intertubes.

The Sri Lankan army made their final push today, completing their annihilation of the senior leadership of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Reports from the war zone on the eastern edge of the island are difficult to verify, but early dispatches claimed rebel leader Vellupiilai Prabhakaran was among the casualties.

GWS doesn't really know what to say here. He had figured that there are a few conflicts in the world that are intractable and defy political solutions---Israel/Palestine, the divided Koreas, Somalia, and until recently, Sri Lanka. But the crushing final victory by the Sri Lankan army is...well, they should write books on this thing, is all I'm sayin' (and they certainly will). After decades of bloody, brutal, barbaric struggle, of atrocities committed by both sides, after a conflict that saw one of the most innovative and effective guerilla movements in history nearly topple a sovereign state, the SLA finally found its Cannae, encircling the LTTE, wearing them down through relentless atrition tactics, and finally destroying them utterly.

It is far, far too soon to tell what all this means. The Sri Lankan conflict goes deeper than anything the Tigers ever purported to stand for, so it would be too soon to say that peace has come to this beautiful island. But with the destruction of the Tigers in the field, the military balance appears to have shifted permanently away from Jaffna and toward Colombo. DBMIVFK sends all our best wishes to the people of Sri Lanka, Tamil and Sinhalese alike, in the hopes that they can finally put an all-too-costly struggle behind them.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Diff'rent strokes

GWS's annual trip to his birth lands---the frozen tundra of Minneapolis and St. Paul---has flown by. Along with the vicious return of his native Minnesotan accent, GWS was struck dumb by the sheer niceness of Minnesotans.

Following the Minnesota Vikings' playoff-clinching victory over the New York Giants' JV squad, GWS and a long-time friend found themselves on a quick run to pick up buffalo wings. The manager asked if he'd gotten our order right: 30 wings, three sides of bleu cheese and two of ranch. Friend-of-GWS replied that, yes, that sounded about right. The manager asks, "That gonna be enough bleu cheese and ranch for ya?"

Har har har, wise guy, shaddup and put the wings in the bag, thought GWS. But the manager was serious. As if to assuage any fears about his meaning, the manager then offered the following: "Hey, you guys want any pizza? I've gotta throw these three out every half-hour, and I hate doin' it, so you guys can just have 'em if ya want." Seriously? Seriously??? Free pizza and guileless concern for one's fellow man? Perhaps GWS has spent too much time on the jaded East Coast, but this sort of generosity came as a pleasant and delicious surprise.

Ah, Minnesota: where the temperatures are sub-zero everywhere except in our Scandinavian hearts.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Why do we blame unions for the current auto crisis?

GWS loves 10am because it means he gets to see his boyfriend, Tom Ashbrook. On Point is a beautiful thing for the reasons as most NPR shows: intelligent discussion, hard news, and an articulate host who rarely parrots interested parties' sound bites. But GWS is curious about part of the lead-in to today's show. Discussing the auto bailout bill's Senate failure, the script read, "Senate Republicans wouldn't budge, unions wouldn't budge," and GWS couldn't hide his surprise about NPR buying into the unions-are-killing-Detroit meme.

Of the players in this mess---automakers, consumers, regulators, unions---the unions were the only ones who acted in the long-term best interest of their constituents. The unions, in particular the UAW, have been getting a bad rap about their inflexibility and their exorbitant compensation. The Times's David Leonhardt blew this argument out of the water three days ago, but the myth of the greedy or stubborn unions persists.

The UAW has already made major concessions this year and in previous years. GWS has a hard time believing that union auto workers are rich or greedy or so stupid that they can't see what's in their own best interest. Yes, if the unions would just take another one for the team, we might be able to keep the Big Three going. But as Leonhardt points out in his Times piece, Detroit's problems really don't have much to do with the need for cost reductions. GM, Chrysler, and Ford's biggest problems are that no one wants to buy their cars anymore. And there's another, better reason why the UAW was right to stand firm.

The largest cost-reduction option available to the UAW---that is, the biggest favor the unions could do the automakers out of the goodness of their collective hearts---is obvious: abandon claims on retirees' health benefits. The cost of those benefits to automakers is astronomical, in part because they created so many retirees and in part because healthcare costs have skyrocketed. But the UAW gained those long-term health benefits for their employees by compromising on salaries for decades, in turn giving management what it wanted in the form of higher short-term profits. For decades, the UAW came to the bargaining table knowing that it would have to concede on either retiree benefits or current employee benefits in the form of salaries, and the UAW chose wisely. They refused to sell out their constituents long-term interests and faced up to painful economic realities. Fine, the unions said, we understand the Japanese and Europeans are beating us up and down the field, you can pay us less if you need to, but we're only willing to take that pay cut in exchange for long-term health benefits. Detroit was given the option of paying its workers now or later, and the management of GM, Ford, and Chrysler chose to pay later. Those long-term benefits have sheltered UAW's retirees in what would have otherwise been a devastating storm. If the Big Three's aging retirees were to suddenly lose their private health insurance, we would see increases in the Medicare or uninsured rolls; if events reach that point, this crisis will have morphed from an economic meltdown to a serious public health issue. Why is the only actor in this tragedy who thought and acted strategically in its constituents' best interest being punished for its foresight? If capitalism requires failure for poor decisions, isn't it also supposed to reward wise decisions?

Then again, maybe those workers should have gone to the Honda plant down the road...

Monday, December 8, 2008

Bill Kristol Alzheimer's Update

Poor Bill...he's really starting to lose it. In today's NYT, Kristol is just following his knee as it jerks him along. Four paragraphs in, he drops this little gem:

"Five Republicans have won the presidency since 1932: Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and the two George Bushes. Only Reagan was even close to being a small-government conservative."

Remember when Kristol used to adore Reagan? He doesn't even remember The Gipper anymore... Later in the same piece:

"Now it’s true that the size of the government and the modern liberal agenda are connected."

Really! "THE" modern liberal agenda? I had no idea such a document existed. This qualifies less as memory loss and more as delusion. Finally:

You might then suggest spending a good chunk of the stimulus on national security — directing dollars to much-needed and underfunded defense procurement rather than to fanciful green technologies, making sure funds are available for the needed expansion of the Army and Marines before rushing to create make-work civilian jobs."

"Underfunded defense procurment." It's so sad---when the higher functions go, they go fast. You'll note that Bill doesn't name any program that's receiving insufficient funds, but GWS isn't sure if Bill has forgotten how much money we've spent as a result of Don Rumsfeld's "Revolution in Military Affairs" or if he really believes this. Either very sad...

EconoSpeak notes Kristol's blatant war-mongering, which may be another effect of Alzheimer's, but one thing's for sure: he's just not the Bill we once knew. So sad that he thinks Reagan qualified as anything approaching a "small-government conservative." And I'm sure he didn't mean to channel Montgomery Burns by mocking "make-work civilian jobs" alongside building new schools...though his belief that the military can pull us back into economic growth is positively Prussian, and old Monty would certainly support that ("[Oskar] Schindler and I are like peas in a pod. We're both industrialists. We both made shells for the Nazis. But mine worked, dammit!"). But oh, Bill, we're so sorry that this has to be so public for you. You're so brave, writing and speaking in public despite this awful disease, this terrible existential joke that no just god could ever create.

As always, GWS should point out that he has no formal medical training. GWS arrives at his diagnosis of Mr. Kristol's condition via GWS's steadfast belief that no human being of sound mind and body could ever possibly be such a dick as Kristol's writing might otherwise suggest. Please, in this season of giving, let's all chip in and put Bill in a nice home, someplace upstate where he can run free...

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


David Pogue strikes! Fantastic title. Snark snark snark snark snark!

The funniest actress on television

The fairer sex is enjoying a rare moment of dominance atop the world of comedy. Well, maybe not dominance: comedy is still dominated by skinny, pasty white males and is likely to stay that way so long as cracking wise yields greater sexual returns than sitting-, pulling-, and pushing-up. But GWS digresses. Since Amy Poehler's baby came along, there's no clear answer as to who's the best comedic actress on television right now. GWS takes a look at some of the candidates you might expect, but DBMIVFK's choice may surprise some.


Tina Fey: The multi-Emmy-winning Fey is the reigning empress of mainstream comedy. After her well-publicized turn at "Saturday Night Live," she wrote the smart and funny Mean Girls, which should be remembered as both a great comedy and the height of The Lohan's pulchritude. She's since been toiling in critically-acclaimed-but-unwatched no-man's-land as the driving force behind "30 Rock." Throw in some American Express commercials, add some broth and, you got a stew goin'.

Fey doesn't get our award for a number of reasons.
  • First and foremost, GWS is not as big a fan of Fey or her work as everyone else on the planet seems to be. Her work at "SNL" was nothing special, and GWS thought that while the skits were funny, they lacked teeth. This shift at "SNL" to sillier humor coincided with "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report"'s collective ascent to the throne of political satire, a position once held by "SNL" and a former source of some of its best work. It's arguable that Fey was simply being smart and playing to her strengths, getting "SNL" out of the way of Comedy Central's satrirical juggernauts, and if this is the case, Fey should be commended for her good business sense. But if we assume this is the case and give her credit as a businesswoman, we must then recognize what she recognized: that Fey and her team at "SNL" couldn't compete on satire in a 24-hour news-cycle world.
  • Secondly, Fey has always written better for herself than for others. That's not a knock, that's just a statement of fact. Go back and watch the tape. Aside from Alec Baldwin's consistently scene-stealing performance as Jack Donaghy, Fey's characters seem to get a disproportionately high percentage of her pieces' best lines. Fey writes wonderful work for herself and admittedly great work for others (Kenneth had some great lines in last week's "30 Rock"), but this trend leaves GWS with questions.
  • Thirdly, have you noticed that the first two points were about Fey's work as a writer? Me too. Fey is, fundamentally, a writer and show-runner. It's what she knows, it's her profession, and it's what she does better than 99.9% of the rest of the planet. But she's not really an actress. Here is where the unfair slight that "Fey gets by on her looks," rings somewhat true: a less-attractive actress of similarly limited range and similarly prolific writing and production skills would probably see less screen time. Fey is endearing as Liz Lemon, and girl-you-want-to-take-home-adorable...but she's not a great actress, and that's why she's just a contender.

Sarah Silverman: The writing on "The Sarah Silverman Program" ranks among the least "safe" in all television. As a result, it's hit and miss, but it's mostly hits, and that speaks volumes about Silverman herself as the show's prime mover. Sarah Silverman is almost certainly the funniest female comic working today, and again, her telegenic good looks don't hurt; the jappy caricature through which she delivers most of her lines on and off the show depends on it. But again, we're looking for the funniest actress, not the funniest comedienne or female writer.
  • Sarah Silverman never breaks character as Sarah Silverman, an admirable feat for a comedic actress. It's an ingeniously devised persona, but it is so based on her previous "character" in stand-up comedy that it can be difficult to see where the writing starts and the writer stops. Silverman's not really playing a character in the traditional sense---it's not a big stretch for Sarah Silverman to get inside the character of Sarah Silverman.
  • Moreover, Silverman's character is remarkably consistent. While this is further testament to her writing and creative skills, it means she has to do less and less as an actress. This is a luxury our winner does not enjoy.
  • Finally, Sarah Silverman doesn't win this award for the same reason Tina Fey doesn't. It's not that they're bad actresses. In fact, they're really very, very good. It's just that they're better at other things related to acting. Babe Ruth was a helluva pitcher, but we remember him as a homerun hitter. As Fey will be remembered as a writer, Silverman will likely be remembered as a comic.
Jenna Fischer: The woman behind Pam Beesly gives our champion a serious run for her money, but comes up just short. Fischer's portrayal of the Dunder-Mifflin receptionist deserves the accolades it receives, so here's GWS's reasoning of why she doesn't get the award:

  • Of the four main charaters on "The Office," (Michael, Dwight, Jim, Pam), Pam's character is the least funny. That's not Fischer's fault, and she deserves credit for staying within her character's role in the show. But it also allows her very few show-stealing moments. If the women on this list are Patriots wide receivers, Fischer is Wes Welker to our champion's Randy Moss: she's an absolutely necessary component of her show, better than just about anyone else out there, and she'll win a game for you if you let her. But Welker's not the game/show-changing presence Moss is, and neither is Fischer compared to our champ.
  • Because it's not Pam's job to be her team's "big-play receiver," it's her job to do other things on the show...things that aren't related to comedy. The Pam-Jim romantic subplot on the American "Office" is a major part of how NBC's series has been able to generate four-plus seasons of content where its British predecessor called it quits after two. Fischer's on-screen chemistry with John Krasinski's Jim can't be faked, and if you're not cheering for those two characters to live happily ever after, then you, sir, are an asshole. But, again, that means that Fischer's character is something deeper than just a comedic foil, that she's working with a real character, which means that more comedic heavy-lifting has to be done by other actors (mostly Rainn Wilson).
  • Jenna Fischer is the only candidate on this list whose looks can't be cited for why she's considered funny (this is not a curse unique to talented female comics and actresses. See also: Cook, Dane). Don't get GWS wrong: Jenna Fischer is a professional film and television actress, and as such, contractually obligated to be way, way prettier than any woman DBMIVFK's male readers or GWS has any right to meet. She's a brilliant casting decision as Pam Beesly: imminently accessible, with the kind of eyes that can stop you across a room, and a megawatt smile. But her frumpy receptionist's outfits tone down her natural good looks, and again, she's limited to a specific, well-defined role on "The Office." Pam can't play the sexpot, the shrew, the out-and-out bitch, and it's a good thing "The Office"'s writers never ask her to do so. Ultimately, Fischer loses this competition on degree of difficulty. She might be the best actress on this list, but she's not the funniest actress on television right now.

Without further ado...


Wait for it...

Kaitlin Olson!: Olson is the unsung star of "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," and in GWS's opinion, the best comedic actress on television. Her bio says she was born in Oregon, but GWS is convinced she was custom-milled in a comedienne factory, a top-secret prototype that somehow broke free. Olson's work as Deandra Reynolds on "Always Sunny" consistently steals the show despite the absolute misery inflicted on the actress by the show's writers. A leggy 5'8" blonde, Olson's physique gives her writers options that other women on this list don't. She's the most intimidating of the four women on this list and simultaneously the least cute and sexiest. Simply put, she can do things the other women on this list can't.

"Sweet Dee" is expected, by turns, to be a raging booze hound, a woman scorned, a trod-upon employee, a social degenerate, a cunt, a child, and a loyal friend. Deandra is expected by "Always Sunny"'s writers to swing wildly between the least flattering female comedic stereotypes---the conniving whore, the ditz, the vengeful shrew---and Olson does so seamlessly. She's not working with a real character which makes her ability to make Dee seem relatable all the more remarkable. Dee is merely a foil for the three guys on the show; she's around when the writers have a bit that calls for someone with ovaries. Olson's character never gets her own storyline, she's rarely in an episode's climactic scene, and she never comes out on top. No comedy on television asks more of its female lead than "Always Sunny," and no actress carries more of her show's weight (can YOU think of another female lead who gets waterboarded?). It's inconceivable that such a physically attractive woman would hang out with such losers as Dennis, Charlie, and Mac (to say nothing of Frank), but Olson plays Dee as such a social misfit that it starts to make sense, helping "Always Sunny" avoid the cliched "Why is this hot girl hanging out with these losers?" trap that its writers had set for her. "Always Sunny" would grind to a halt if Olson weren't playing Dee, and the character wouldn't be nearly as funny with anyone else.

GWS sincerely hopes to see more of Olson in the future. Her ascendancy to Amy Poehler's old spot at the zenith of female comedic actresses also means that Rob McElhenney is elevated to Will Arnett's position as luckiest S.O.B. in Hollywood.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Some 21st-century problems require 19th-century solutions

It's been quite a November, hasn't it? GWS's little sister celebrated her first birthday out of college, Barack Obama was elected President, and the pillars of capitalism continue to be shaken by unforeseen tremors from both within and without. Many of the problems we face will require new solutions, and all of them will require sacrifice. But while FDR's legislative and regulatory template may not be a perfect fit for the problems we face today, Thomas Jefferson's interactions with the Barbary pirates may help President-elect Obama navigate the treacherous waters off the horn of Africa.

Try to imagine this scenario: you've been transported back to Selma, Alabama, 1955. There, you tell incredulous citizens that you are from the future where people speak to one another through tiny portable phones, a black man has been elected President, and that President does not face the challenge of mutually assured destruction but rather that of piracy. Good old fashioned, made-from-scratch, take-your-stuff-from-you-at-sea-and-hold-you-for-ransom piracy. I'd give you five seconds before someone inquired if, you, boy, weren't from round heah.

But piracy off the horn of Africa is a serious matter, made all the more so by the capture of Saudi Aramco's supertanker Sirius Star. The reason the capture of the Sirius Star is important is because of what some academics refer to as "signalling," which is a not-so-fancy way of saying that people paid attention to the taking of the giant oil tanker and will extrapolate lessons from this event.

The Sirius Star was captured more than 400 miles out to sea, well beyond what was thought to be the pirates' operational range. Forget the reports detailing the use of "mother ships" (who thought we'd hear that phrase used in conjunction with hard news?) and the Indian navy's recent successes; the important part of this event for anyone with interests off the coast of Africa was the fact that this strike occurred so far afield. As Fareed Zakaria noted on his most recent show, if Somali pirates' operational range is indeed 400+ miles from shore, the world's navies must now protect a staggering 1.1 million square miles of open ocean---a practical impossibility.

Beyond the cruel arithmetic of the current crisis, GWS is surprised by the lack of media coverage on the copycat angle. Pirates are like any other industry: when they see a better business model than the one they're using, they'll change course. So how the world responds to the capture of the Sirius Star becomes very important as a signal of how the international community plans to respond to this problem. It is possible that the capture of the Sirius Star is a one-time event, and the fact that it was attacked so far out to sea suggests that the perpetrators bought high-quality information that may not be readily available to all pirates. But GWS is less than convinced that this incident won't happen again, so the international community's response to this current crisis will act as a powerful signal to Somali pirates and the world of states alike. An ineffectual response will act as an accelerant on a slowly burning fire. Rumors are circulating about pirates making $50,000/year, but even if they're making half that, they're still living like kings in anarchic Somalia. If the world's navies accept pirate control of the waters off the horn of Africa and continue to merely ransom captive sailors, the implications for global trade could be dramatic.

The parallels between the current crisis and the United States' last major engagement with pirates---the Barbary Wars---are few and far between. Barbary piracy was a state-sanctioned form of high seas extortion wheras Somali pirates appear to be motivated by the appeal of a source of income in a shattered state, but there are still some lessons that can be applied.

First of all, the scourge of Barbary piracy was only brought to an end by a concert of nations. The United States was able to force the Dey of Algiers to favorable terms, but it took the brutal British Bombardment of Algiers the following year to bring the recidivist Dey back in line. Lesson: an effective response will require a coordinated and sustained international effort. Secondly, the Barbary pirates success against merchant vessels was not duplicated against the world's navies, neither on land nor at sea. The American navy mostly smashed the Tripolitan and Algerian forces it faced at sea, and the decisive battle of the First Barbary War came when the undisciplined defenders of Dernah fell into a disorganized retreat when faced by a numerically inferior American-led force. Lesson: pirates are not a disciplined fighting force and are likely to flee when faced with one, even when the pirates enjoy superior numbers. Finally, the Bombardment of Algiers may---may---be instructive. "Shock and awe," along with most theories of air power, have been discredited as effective coercive tools when used against a nation-state, but it just might work against loosely organized criminals. Lesson: speak softly, and carry a big Tomahawk cruise missile.

GWS favors a hawkish approach not because it worked hundreds of years ago against the Dey of Algiers, but mostly because it's the only way to send a negative signal to other pirates. GWS advocates a policy whereby the international community treats Somali pirates like William Longshanks treats the Scottish in "Braveheart": lie, cheat, steal, murder, and generally do whatever it takes to subdue these people by force of arms. The (multi)generational issue of Somali development must be considered alongside a military response, but neither the world's markets nor the pirates themselves are working on that long-term timetable. The international community has a major interest in keeping the waters off east Africa pirate-free, and they would do well to offer the pirates no quarter, to make $50,000/year piracy Somalia's most dangerous job (a tall order indeed). This is the only way GWS sees to curb piracy in the short- to medium-term. If GWS were Head Minister of World Naval Policy, he'd pay the pirates whatever they want, tell them whatever they need to hear, promise whatever he needed to ensure the safe release of the innocent sailors of the Sirius Star---and as soon as the crew were clear, send a SEAL team aboard the ship and kill every single pirate.

In the words of Brother Cavil, "We round [them] up, and we execute them. Publicly." Continue this policy of Stab-You-in-the-Back-ism until the pirates adapt and it stops working---then, adapt in response and stab them in the back again. Piracy is antithetical to international order, trade, and the freedom of the seas, and it cannot be tolerated by the world's nations. It is in the best interest of everyone outside a small band of Somali criminals to both rebuild the Somali state and deal swiftly and severely with those who engage in piracy. Somalia's pirates must come to see the seizure of the Sirius Star as an example of hubrisitic overreach, not a viable new business model.