Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Week in Right Wing Lunacy & Corporate “Rationality”

One could spend 24/7 covering the right wing penchant for creating a theatre of the absurd out of American politics and culture, but a fear would be the strong possibility overexposure would lead you toward insanity – or at least believing in the veracity of the circus. But it is fun to delve into the madness once in a while. So here’s the latest …
  • A conservative lobbyist, Jack Burkman, claimed he was preparing legislation to ban gay athletes from joining the NFL. Burkman explained, “We are losing our decency as a nation. Imagine your son being forced to shower with a gay man. That’s a horrifying prospect for every mom in the country. What in the world has this  nation come to?” (NESN)
  • Morgan Stanley put out a report that autonomous cars will lead to a utopian society around 2026. Not sure why, but they did survive the financial crisis they helped create, so maybe we should listen. (Slate).
  • As the Michigan Supreme Court hears arguments regarding their same sex marriage ban, conservatives will be using a study by University of Texas sociologiest Mark Regnerus, entitled “How Different are the Adult Children of Parents Who Have Same-Sex Relationships?” The study found that young adults with at least one parent who had engaged in a same-sex relationship showed consistently lower psychological and behavioral well-being (based on a sample of 3,000 with 248 meeting the criteria). The study has been largely discredited across academia, but why let the facts get in the way of a useful argument? (The New Republic). Actually maybe that should be the Republican motto.  
  • Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal today claimed that Obama has created a “minimum wage economy.” (TNR) This is, of course, not true, as the number of minimum wage workers in the economy (in both number and percentage form) has declined since the height of the financial crisis ended in 2010 – but it sure sounds good.
  • Virginia State Senator Steven Martin, apparently upset over a Valentine’s Card he received from pro-choice groups, decided to clarify his position on a pregnant women’s body as “bearer of the child (some refer to them as mothers).” He further stated, “What they want is access to ‘safe, legal abortions,’ any time one might be desired. Okay, then why did you write all the rest of that bologna about raising health children (by killing the unhealthy ones), having access to healthcare (which you do), and preventing unwanted pregnancies (don’t have unprotected sex)?” (C&L)
  • Media Rights Capital, the company behind the Netflix megahit House of Cars, has apparently decided to take inspiration from its fictional protagonist/antagonist Frank Underwood and demand that Maryland increase the already $26.6 million it has received in tax credits. Otherwise they will “break down our stage, sets and offices and set up in another state.” (Washington Post)

On a positive note, unrelated to conservatism, Piers Morgan Live has been canceled providing additional evidence that a British accent attached to a human form does not guarantee intelligent life inhabits that space. 

Monday, February 24, 2014

Baudelaire: Evil Fate

To lift a weight so heavy,
Would take your courage, Sisyphus!
Although one's heart is in the work,
Art is long and Time is short.
Far from famous sepulchers
Toward a lonely cemetery
My heart, like muffled drums,
Goes beating funeral marches.
Many a jewel lies buried
In darkness and oblivion,
Far, far away from picks and drills;
Many a flower regretfully
Exhales perfume soft as secrets
In a profound solitude.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Arsenal Keep Pace in Title Race (4-1 over Sunderland)

Arsenal cruised to an easy 4-1 victory over Sunderland today on the eve of the toughest stretch of their season, beating a team in the midst of an impressive stretch themselves (7-2-2). The scoring started early, with a 5th minute opener from Olivier Giroud, following a lovely buildup that started with Arteta, went through Sagna, Wilshere and Podolski, before the German pushed the ball forward to Rosicky at the edge of the box. He one-touched it through to Wilshere who sent the ball across the slot to an open Giroud, who finished into the far corner. It was only the second time in the last 10 games that Arsenal have scored in the first half, after doing so regularly earlier in the season. But they were just getting started in a half they completely dominated, ending it up 3-0.

The second came in 31st minute, when a sloppy back pass was picked up by Giroud and slotted past a charging Mannone. The brace brought Giroud’s total to 16 goals for the season, with 12 in the league. After a number of spurned scoring opportunities, Arsenal made it 3-0 in the 42nd with one of the goals of the season, a series of one touch and one-twos from Cazorla to Wilshere to Rosicky back to Wilshere and finally to Rosicky, who chipped over Mannone from close range. It showed the potency of this offense when they are in sync, with goals from Wilshere, Rosicky, Ox and Bendtner adding to the Ramsey and Giroud load all season. Sunderland was clearly off the pace, and possibly thinking ahead to their Capital One Cup final with Man City next weekend, but it was a nice bounce back after the disastrous result against Bayern Wednesday.

The second half started with Sunderland in the ascendancy, but Arsenal got back into their rhythm after a few nice opportunities went wanting, with two excellent reaction saves from Szczesny. In the 57th the score was pushed to 4-0, when Koscielny pounded in a free header from close range on a corner from Cazorla. Arsenal gave one back in the 81st, when a punch out by Sz fell directly to Giaccanni, whose lovely shot found the corner. But the game was already decided, and the Gunners made sure of it from there.

It was an important victory, as Chelsea had earlier pulled out a 92nd minute 1-0 victory over Everton, gifted to them by goalie Tim Howard on a Frank Lampard free kick, and Man City took down Stoke 1-0, after a tough first 60 minutes. Next up for the Gunners is that same Stoke side at Britannia, and a strong start will be important, before they can settle into the two rows of defenders that are incredibly difficult to break down. From there, the schedule gets downright scary – with the away leg at Bayern, away trips to Tottenham and Chelsea, a return home to face City and then Everton at Goodison Park. If Arsenal can come out of that stretch with maximum points, the title is all but theirs, but that is, of course, a huge ask. A victory or draw against Chelsea at the Bridge might be the key matchup, as the Blues seem to be shaping into form and getting lucky when it counts.

A few thoughts from the game …

1)  Giroud/Sanogo: many, including me, thought Wenger made a huge mistake by not picking up another striker in the last two transfer windows. And I still believe we might have picked up a few more points and maybe scored first against Bayern if we had, but Giroud is on incredible form this year with the combination of his hold-up play, passing around the box (and thus assists) and goals. And Sanogo showed that he can play at the highest level against Bayern, unlucky not to score in the first half, though his raw talent still needs time to develop. The key is keeping Giroud healthy on a team that has one of the worst injury records in the league over the past few seasons.

2)  Podolski Dreaming: the question many Gooners have been asking since his return is why the German scoring machine doesn’t get more time on the pitch, as for example, in the match against Bayern Wednesday. If Ramsey were back, one could see the difficulty in choosing him, but his direct approach and ability to finish are a welcome addition to the precision and slow buildup play around him (excluding Ox and Gnarby). While Podolski didn’t score, he was part of each goal and played excellently on both sides of the pitch, continuing the enigma of why Wenger doesn’t favor him in the biggest games, or generally as an impact sub. Hopefully that will change as they head into this tough stretch that will decide the team’s fate.

3)  Wilshere Revival: this game was another opportunity for the young Englishman to shine, particularly in Ozil’s absence, and though he was slotted in to play beside Arteta on the defensive side of the midfield, he was constantly pushing forward with nice dribbles, passing and forward momentum, assisting on a goal and contributing to two others. His play has improved so dramatically since the turn of the year that he now lays claim to being an almost automatic starter in a crowded midfield – a nice transformation from earlier this year when he was giving the ball away recklessly and spending more time rolling around then contributing to the team. One hopes the late injury fears were unfounded and that Wenger’s decision not to pull him (even though they would have had to play a man short for 10 minutes) won’t backfire. 

Friday, February 21, 2014

How Should We Rate the U.S. in Sochi?

The Winter Olympics in Sochi have been a great success overall, with Russia celebrating an unlikely Gold in Women's Figure Skating, 26 medals overall, but the heartbreak of their Hockey team failing in the Quarters. Records were set for most individual medals ever for men (by Ole Einar Bjørndalen in biathalon), most medals by an American in the Winter Games (Bode Miller), for oldest American to win a medal (Bode Miller) and might fall for most medals by a women tomorrow. But how did the U.S. do overall? There have been some great stories, some surprising successes and some epic failures. Let’s take a look ...

On the Plus Side
*  America is currently leading the overall medal count with 27 (9 gold, 7 silver, 11 bronzes), one ahead of Russia and three ahead of Canada.
*  We broke the snide in Women's Luge (Silver), Men's Two-man Bobsledding (Bronze) and Women's Two-woman Bobsled (Silver), though we missed gold with a lead in the last run in the women’s bobsled. We also took a Silver and Bronze in Women’s and Men’s Skeleton, respectively.
*  Ted Ligedy Won the Men's Giant Slalom and Mikaela Shiffrin the         Ladies Giant Slalom
*  Body Miller broke the record for men’s medals at the Winter Olympics
*  Julie Mancuso snatched an unexpected Bronze in the Super Combined – Slalom
*  Andrew Weibrecht had the run of his life to snag a Silver in the Super-G
*  Americans dominated Freestyle events with golds in Men’s Ski Halfpipe (David Wise), Ladies Ski Halfpipe (Maddie Bowman), Men’s Ski Slopestyle (Joss Christenson), Women’s Halfpipe (Kaitlyn Farring) and Men’s and Women’s Slopestyle (Sage Kotsenbeug and Jamie Anderson)

On the Downside
*  Bode Miller failed to win the Downhill as the clear favorite, though he did get the Bronze in Super-G
*  American snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis fell for the third Olympics running in the Snowboard Cross-
*  Shaun White pulled out of the Slope Style and failed to medal in the Halfpipe
*  Ahead 2-0 with 3 minutes left, the American Women’s Hockey team lost 3-2, though they did get the Silver medal.
*  The Men’s Hockey Team lost 1-0 to Canada in the Semifinals.
*  The American figure skating team won a Bronze in the inaugural team competition and the Gold in Ice Dance, but were shutout in Men’s, Pairs and Women’s Skating.* 
*  The short track team won only one medal (a Silver in the 5000m Relay)
*  The speedskating Men’s and Women’s teams were both shutout
*  The Men’s and Women’s Curling Teams were a combined 3-15 in round robin play

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Arsenal See Red (Lose 2-0 at the Emirates to Bayern)

The Champions League first leg tie between Arsenal and Bayern started with a fine save by Szczesny on a shot from Tony Kroos in the 2nd minute. Arsenal then started attacking with purpose and could have easily been up 2-0 before the 20th minute, but for a missed penalty by Ozil and several fine saves by Bayern’s World Class goalkeeper Manuel Neuer. Bayern then started to impose themselves and Arsenal largely attacked from the counter, though several more chances went wanting – a few by Sanogo, in for Giroud.

In the 36th minute, everything unraveled for Arsenal, as a fine chip from Kroos left Robbin in on goal and Szczesny barreled into him without getting the ball. An inevitable penalty ensued, together with a red card for Szczesny. Cazorla was sacrificed and Fabianski came on in the worst of circumstances, only to watch the penalty from Alaba go just wide off the post. The score was 0-0, but Arsenal faced the most unsavory of tasks – stopping one of the most potent teams in the world (who have scored in every one of their 51 games since the 2-0 loss to the Gunners in the 2nd leg last year) with 10 men for 50 minutes, with only one substitution left (as a Gibbs injury led to a Monreal sub in the 30th). They did their job through the remaining 11 minutes of the first half (including the two minutes of stoppage time), but must have known the job would grow harder in the second.

The second half started much as the first half ended, with Arsenal chasing the ball and showing some good last second defending. Koscielny had a nice opportunity on a free kick sent in by Ozil, but the ball got caught under his feet and the shot was easily saved. In the 54th, Tony Kroos received the ball from Lahm and curled it into the near corner perfectly past Fabianski to make it 1-0. Three more chances emerged for Bayern in the next 10 minutes, as Fabianski saved well off a Robbin shot from close in and then Goetz sent a free header wide, before a dangerous Muller cross went wanting in the 65th. Robbin sent a dangerous shot just past the far post in the 69th and a ping pong ball almost went in in the 71st. Ox was subbed out for Rosicky in the 73rd; another puzzling decision by Wenger that took off the most dangerous Gunner on the pitch all game.

Arsenal held firm from here until the 88th minute, when Muller got through and headed a ball past Fabianski to make it 2-0 and essentially end the tie in the first leg for the second year running. The loss continued the big Game troubles Arsenal have been suffering since the 2006 Champions League final, when a first-half red card by goalkeeper Jens Lehman (déjà vu) arguably cost the team its first European Cup (they were up 1-0 thanks to a Sol Campbell goal right before the half, only to lose 2-1 to two late goals). Szczesny has been playing near world class level this season, but there are still questions about his performance in big games. His infamous Hardy brothers bit with Koscielny three years ago cost Arsenal a chance at the Capital One Cup and led to the dismantling of that team (with Fabergas, Nasri and Clichy leaving the next summer and RVP and Song following a year later). A few bad games against top competition have followed, including the destructions against Liverpool and Man City this season (though less his fault then faulty defense in front of him), before essentially handing this game to Bayern with the score 0-0).

Ozil was also less than impressive, missing his third penalty in club play in a row, when that goal could have radically changed the outcome, and was lazy on the defensive end far too often. And Wilshere spent more time on the ground after being fouled then actually creating anything worthwhile for the team. Koscielny and Mertesacker did a good job, Flamini played well and Ox was dangerous whenever he got on the ball, but it was another disappointing performance in February in what is becoming a habit for Arsene Wenger teams in the past few years. Next up are two winnable games in the league before a daunting March schedule. The only good news for the Gunners is this seemed like an unlikely ask ever since the pairings were announced and might free them up to focus more on the league and FA Cup in the struggle to end the silverware drought. 

The Postmodern Condition: Japanese Style

Examples of the postmodern condition seem to emerge with increased frequency with each passing year. We have the absurd ongoing debates on global warming, wars with changing justification from moment to moment, a spectacle society that has made everything from devastating storms to political campaigns into sensationalized entertainment, lies that become truth and stars that have become cottage industries of one, changing chameleon-like based on public opinion surveys. In this vein, a famous Japanese composer, once labeled a modern-day Beethoven, has “come out” not once but twice divulging that not only did he not write the symphonies that made him famous, but also isn’t as deaf as he has let on.

In something out of a bad sitcom episode, it has emerged that Mamoru Samuragochi had risen to classical music stardom in Japan by pretending to be deaf and claiming he could feel the music in his heart. Last week we found out someone else has been writing his music for 18 years, a 43-year-old part time lecturer at a music college. This confession emerged the day before a tabloid published an interview with the ghostwriter, who further claimed that Samuragochi could hear all along and commented on his compositions (belying his contention that he lost his hearing in both ears at 35 as the result of a degenerative condition). It’s hard to believe he could keep up this canard for the past 15 years, as he is now 50, but in our postmodern world where the line between truth and fiction seems to forever ruptured, should we be surprised by anything?   

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Our Stressed Out Teens

For many years, people have worried that the overly-ambitious schedules, the high stakes tests, the fading prospects for quality jobs and the momentous influence of technology were all taking a toll on our teenagers. And according to a recent survey by the American Psychological Association claims that they are even more stressed than adults these days (Washington Post).

The study found, “Many American teens report experiencing stress at unhealthy levels, appear uncertain in their stress management techniques and experience symptoms of stress in numbers that mirror adults’ experiences. Meanwhile, teens report that stress is having an impact on their performance at home, work and school.” Their self-reported stress levels were higher than that reported by adults, with 83 percent of teens claiming schools was a somewhat or significant source of stress. Just under 60 percent claimed having to manage too many activities had the same effect. And maybe equally troubling, 20 percent report only exercising once a week and general fitness levels appear below what they should be at that peak age. Finally, girls are more stressed out and depressed than boys, which is not surprising given the new cultural and economic realities.

This might be good news to businesses looking for workaholics, but bad news to everyone else … 

Monday, February 17, 2014

Media Bias: The Climate Change “Debate”

One could spend 48 hours a day cataloging the consistent bias that plagues the American mainstream media today. One rather obvious example of this conservative bias is in the rather absurd way in which reporters continue to debate climate change as if it’s a question of faith alone. The latest example of this framing comes from NBC’s Meet the Press (see clip on Salon), who sponsored a debate between Bill Nye (the famed children’s television science host) and Marsha Blackburn (a Republican representative with no science background). That these were the two figures chosen to focus the debate on is the first problem, as neither is an expert on climate change. But there are additional problems as well.

Another problem was the very nature of the debate. A children’s television host would essentially spout what all sane members of the planet now know – that 97 percent of climate scientists claim global warming is a reality and is caused by human activity. Then the Republican congresswoman would ignore the reality and spout her own misguided “facts.” These included the arguments of two global-warming-doubters, one whose data and arguments are consistently discredited by respected scientists and the other who recently changed his mind. Host David Gregory did his best with the guests he had chosen, but essentially treated the issue as if there is any doubt among real scientists. And so another issue in American politics continues to be reported as if both sides have equal footing and it is a question of choice and not fact.

And this strategy has worked – as approximately 50 percent of the country still believes the conservative lie, holding back legislation that could save the planet before it is too late. Like too much that occurs within conservative, aka mainstream, media today – they hide behind the cloak of “objectivity,” failing to actually question the lies politicians tell or the skew that is put on almost any story. They decide on the narrative they will follow and like the reporter with Bronze medalist Bode Miller last night, keep pounding that narrative down the throats of the American public with little regard for its truth or consequences. One wonders if a new Woodward and Bernstein will ever emerge from this miasmic cloud of constructed uncertainty (at least beyond the Internet, where the ability to discern truth from lies becomes even more complicated). 

Arsenal Back to Winning Ways in FA Cup

Arsenal might have been outplayed for large portions of the game, may have gotten lucky on a couple of missed penalty calls and could easily have lost, but instead progressed to the quarterfinals of the FA Cup, sending Liverpool home 2-1 losers. The game started much as the one a week ago did at Anfield with Liverpool getting behind the Arsenal defense on two occasions early. The difference was that Sturridge failed to take advantage and after 16 minutes it was Arsenal in front 1-0. That was courtesy of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain who scored the first and assisted on the second. He was dangerous throughout, with his more direct approach getting around the Liverpool flanks and onto goal on several occasions. The opening goal started after Flanagan fouled Monreal outside the box on the left side. Arteta took the free kick, which was headed out, Ozil grabbed it on the edge of the box, sent a nice cross in to Sanogo, who lined up a powerful shot blocked directly to Ox, who shot across goal for his third of the season.

The remainder of the first half was back and forth, with Liverpool having a chance in the 43rd on a silly backheel from Jenkinson taken by Suarez and shot on Fabianski, who saved shot after shot from the Uruguayan. Flamini picked up a yellow, in the return from his three game suspension for a red, as did Gerrard in the 42nd for a professional foul on Ox, as he looked to be through on goal. Then right before halftime, Raheem Sterling got into Webb’s face and actually pushed him, but somehow also avoided a yellow. The half ended with the Gunners up 1-0, having adjusted well after playing a high line early that almost cost them dearly.

The second half started with Suarez in on goal yet again, with Fabianski saving his hard shot well. A minute later Arsenal seemed to put the game to bed when a beautiful through ball from Ozil was taken to the edge by Ox who passed back perfectly to a charging Podolski. The German made no mistake, finishing powerfully with his right foot. Ozil almost made it 3-0 in the 54th, when he took a counter inside the box on the left and shot hard across goal, though Brad Jones saved well. Podolski then gave back a goal in the 58th with a silly, though soft challenge, from behind on Suarez, who appeared to be run over by a semi.

Gerrard made no mistake and suddenly the game was on at 2-1 with over 20 minutes to go. From here it was mostly Liverpool, with Arsenal sitting back and just playing occasionally on the counter. Chance after chance emerged, but none ended up in the back of the goal, as Mertesacker and Koscielny reminded why they are considered among the best back duos in the world. Two questionable calls played a role as well. The first was in the 63rd, when Ox fouled Suarez chasing his own dribble in the box. He again fell as if shot by three shotguns at once, and Webb called off what looked like a second penalty. Then in the 73rd minute a clear second yellow by Gerrard was ignored by Webb. Cazorla came on for Podolski in the 68th minute and then Gibbs for Ox in the 75th.

In the 85th, Agger had an open goal after Fabianski came out and failed to connect with the ball, but his header went just wide. In the 87th Giroud came on for the 21-year-old Sanogo, who put in an impressive, if occasionally sloppy, performance. Arsenal began to take control of the game back and besides a questionable free kick on the edge of the box and a nice cross to the far post by Suarez, the game was completed tidily.

So Arsenal stands three games from their first trophy in 9 years, with a home game against Everton next on the docket. It was a nice performance after the past two displays, where they left five points on the pitch, and sets them up well for the clash with an injured Bayern on Wednesday. After that they play a hot Sunderland team, who have won 7 of their last ten in all competitions. The clash on Wednesday may very well play a part in defining the rest of their season, with a strong home leg important for building renewed momentum as the final 12 EPL games lie on the horizon.

A few quick thoughts …
-        -  Ozil has looked better in his last two games and may be on the road back to being the dominant force he was earlier in the season.
-         -  Podolski needs more time on the pitch, even as his defensive play does sometimes leave something to be desired. The speed of he and Ox gave Liverpool trouble on counter after counter and showed what could have been against Man United, if Wenger hadn’t played such a defensive lineup last week.
-        -   Though the defense was stretched, it didn’t break in open play and but for the silly Podolski foul from behind, would have kept another clean sheet. Their form will be key as the Gunners move into a tough run of fixtures in March.

-         -  To reiterate a key point to me, Wenger needs to ensure that he doesn’t abandon too much of his offensive power in the guise of Gnarby, Ox and Podolski, who provide a more direct approach that seems to reap goals. Cazorla is in stellar form, but I believe one of the aforementioned three should be on the pitch in most games – at least until Ramsey returns. I also think that Sanogo showed that he can contribute to the run in, with his power and youthful energy.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Three Things: Arsenal Flail to 0-0 Draw with United

Arsenal again dropped points against a top six competitor, with another dreary 0-0 draw at home (following the same scoreline against Chelsea right before Christmas). The team seemed tired and uninspired for much of the game, though several chances went wanting. The first of the game fell to United in the very first minute, as Arteta gifted the ball to RVP just outside the penalty area, allowing the ex-Gunner striker a clear route to goal. His relatively tame effort was saved by Szczesny, who had two important saves in a game that lacked any real creative flair. The first opportunity for the home team came in the 3rd minute, when Wilshere slalomed through two defenders to get a sight of goal from close range, before Smalling blocked his path, leading to a corner by Cazorla that gave Giroud a free header he failed to convert. That was one of at least four opportunities for the Frenchman to score, with him scorning each wide.

The first half ended without a score, as the teams were largely even, though Arsenal did have a small advantage in possession. Rosicky was sloppy with the ball throughout the half and Arsenal seemed to lack any forward momentum, passing the ball around slowly and without the usual flair, attacking through a stacked middle with several failed 1-2s with Giroud begging the question why they didn’t play more from the wings. The second half started with the same tepid display from the home team, though they did wake up as the game went on and missed a couple of gild-edged opportunities to take all three points. Wilshere was off the pace in the second half though, giving the ball up on at least seven occasions (by my count), with a couple leading to promising United counters. But for an excellent save from Szczesny in the 75th, Arsenal would have been punished for the last of these mistakes, as he parried the ball over after a perfectly placed cross from Rooney found RVP at the far corner for a hard header. Arsenal kept pushing for the goal late, but to no avail – though a pretty strong 62nd minute appeal for a penalty probably should have been given as Vidic pushed Giroud in the back as he was about to connect with a nice Gibbs cross (one of many questionable calls by Clatenburg and his linesman in a reminder of the sort of treatment Fergie used to inspire).

In the end, Arsenal lost a chance to go top, taking advantage of Chelsea’s surprise draw with West Brom on Tuesday. Liverpool won again, coming from behind twice to beat Fulham 3-2 and bring themselves back into the title race discussion, particularly as Chelsea and Man City still have to play at Anfield. Arsenal will need to improve from her when they play Everton, City, Chelsea and Tottenham, or this two-game stretech may well augur the predicted second half fade they have become so infamous for. Three brief thoughts on the game …

1) Offensive Malaise: It is now two straight games that Arsenal have failed to score from open play, with both coming against teams that have been shipping goals with relative abandon this season. There is a predictability to the Arsenal attack that is making it easier for teams to defend against and Giroud and Ozil look particularly tired, though the German did have a decent game after the debacle at Liverpool – minus a wasted free kick from close range late that could have given the Gunners all three points. Unfortunately, both Rosicky and Wilshere were wasteful on the counter and gave the ball away around the box far too often. The Gunners appear to have fallen in love with the 1-2 with Giroud at the top of the box, but teams have become familiar with this approach and are defending it well. The team clearly needed to attack from the wings, but excepting a couple of fine crosses from Sagna and Gibbs, there was little happening on the wings. One reason was the absence of both Gnarby and Podolski, calling Wenger’s selection into question once again. While Cazorla, Rosicky and Ozil should be able to create scoring opportunities, a problem with this formation is that none of them are prolific scorers and Giroud seems like really needs a break.

2. This brings us to the second point, which is the failure by Wenger to buy a second striker in the last two transfer windows. Sure they were screwed by Chelsea in the Summer on the cusp of signing Ba, but there is no excuse for not purchasing someone to take the load off of Giroud, who looked dog tired in this game. With Ramsey and Walcott out, the question of where goals will come from becomes ever more dire and why Podolski, the most prolific scorer currently not playing, was not even on the pitch at the end is truly baffling to me. Personally, I would have started with Pod, Giroud and Ox up front, with Arteta, Ozil and Wilshere behind them, or at least replaced one of Cazorla and Rosicky with Podolski or Ox. Bringing on Ox late did little to change the game, but I thought it was too late. Both Ox and Podolski bring a directness to attack that was lacking in this game, and directness of attack has been rather effective against United this term. In our two games against the Red Devils, we have played slowly and predictably, and this has played into their hands, allowing them to press up the pitch, play narrowly through the middle and cut off opportunities that generally come through that same middle.

3. Manchester Curse: finally, is the horrific record Wenger has against United in recent years. The Gunners have won 1 of the last 10 in the league and 1 of 13 overall. This seemed to be the year when they were ripe for the taking, but poor play, poor strategy and poor selection (at least in my mind) all contributed to a measly point against a United team that has lost to Newcastle, Everton, West Brom, Tottenham, Swansea, Sunderland and Stoke City, among others. Wenger just seems to constantly get it wrong against United and I think this was the case in both games this season. Sure, Wenger can’t play for Giroud, but why was he still on the field after the 70th minute? Why did Wilshere not get subbed out after his fifth giveaway in less than 8 minutes in the second half? Why not bring on Gnarby or Podolski in the late going, just for some fresh legs? As mentioned previously, why not start with a winger with pace, particularly on the right as Evra’s defensive skills seem on the decline this season? All of these questions, along with why two subs weren’t even used, are for Wenger to answer in his own head as we see the traditional February unwinding continue.

Next up is the FA Cup tie against Liverpool, and Arsenal will have to improve their offensive play dramatically or they may suffer another loss to their old rivals, though this time at home in a game that could end another route to a trophy. After that is Bayern in the Champion’s League, and one hopes a revitalized squad that can push the best team in the world, though the last two displays certainly give one less hope than a few weeks ago …

Is the Death Knell of the Death Penalty Anon?

Another state has added itself to the growing list of those who have either outlawed or are longing putting people to death. This time it is the Governor of Washington, Democrat Jay Inslee, who announced that no more executions will occur on his watch (NYT). Citing problems with the system and potential fallibility, including the fact that half the recent death sentences in the state have been reversed, he joined democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber of Oregon and Gov. Hickenlooper of Colorado in suspending the death penalty in their states.

The death penalty is still legal in the majority of states, although 18 have now outlawed it, with six of those in the past six years alone. And for some, simply ending the practice is easier than changing the law – though this opens the door for a reversal in policy with a new administration. Overall, both death sentences and executions are down more than 60 percent from their peak in the 1990s. Not surprisingly, the ranking Republican in the Washington House of Representatives decried the decision, claiming it should go through the democratic process and that “justice should, basically, not be put on hiatus.”

Yet, as I have mentioned in previous posts, this should be good news to anyone who explores the death penalty in detail. Among the arguments against its use include: 1. Cost: it costs more to kill someone than to have them institutionalized for their rest of their lives (Death Penalty Info.org), 2. Potential for Error: the potential to kill someone who is innocent, as may have been the case in Texas with the execution of Cameron Too Willingham (The New Yorker), 3. Cruel and Unusual Punishment: recent evidence has suggested that executions are not nearly as painless as we think, beyond the obvious fact that knowing the exact moment of your death is cruel and unusual in and of itself (The New York Times), 4. Not a Deterrent: there has never been a reliable and valid study that has shown any significant deterrence effect related to the presence of the death penalty in a given state (Death Penalty Info.org). 5. Racism in Justice System: the U.S. system has always had a tendency to give death sentences to black men at a substantially higher rate, including for questionable rape charges against white women. The data is clear and this is just a symptom of the larger problem of racism in our justice system (Huff Post), 6. Excessive Government Power: In a country where we fear tyranny and too much government intervention in our lives, I have always been surprised by the argument among conservatives for giving this ultimate power to the state. If we don’t trust the government to fix our economy, regulate commerce and corporations, redistribute taxes, manage our healthcare, education or retirement, protect workers or even regulate gun ownership, how can we give them the ultimate power to end lives? 7. Not a Salve to Victim Families: a number of studies have been done that find that families of victims do not get relief from the execution of the murderer, and sometimes feel worse, (PBS Frontline) and 8. Civilization: we are the only developed country in the world, and one of the few democracies, to still utilize the death penalty.

The death penalty is an embarrassment and serious miscarriage of justice and should be ceased immediately. 

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Media Bias: Moral March in Raleigh

Yet another example of conservative media bias comes into focus today thanks to Campaign for America's Future. As with many historic protests over the past few years – including the undercoverage of the Anti-War protests of 2003 (the early ones in both DC and NYC), the Occupy Wall Street mobilizations in NYC and across the country and the Wisconsin pro-labor protests that went on for over a year – the media largely ignored a progressive protest in Raleigh, NC where over 80,000 citizens took to the streets.

The protest, organized by the NAACP and over 160 partner organizations, is in its eighth year, and this is the largest yet. What are they protesting? A decidedly right-wing turn in the state legislature. They list five demands in their push for a more progressive government that reflects the needs, watns and desires of the people: 1. Secure pro-labor, anti-poverty policies that insure economic sustainability, 2. Provide well-funded, quality public education for all, 3. Promote health care for all, including affordable access, the expansion of Medicaid, women’s health, and environmental justice in every community, 4. Address the continuing disparities in the criminal justice system on the basis of race and class, and 5. Defend and expand voting rights, women’s rights, immigrants’ rights, LGBT rights, and the fundamental principle of equality under the law for all people.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

The Conservative Revolution: The Courts

When Bush stole the 2000 election, many pundits had been arguing for months that there was little difference between he and Gore. Famously, Ralph Nader was among those making this claim. A couple of years later – after the Iraq War, major tax cuts and a host of pro-corporation, anti-environment and anti-worker decisions – they must have all regretted that rather absurd argument. Sure, Clinton and Gore might have led the truest conservative administration in recent history, getting tougher on crime, balancing the budget, cutting welfare, shrinking the size of government, cutting corporate taxes and regulation, ending Glass-Stiegel and allowing major media consolidation. But Bush’s mixed conservatism seemed to embody the worst of both worlds. And near the top of the long-term damage to the country, beyond the direct economic troubles he left in his wake and the further consolidation of income and wealth at the top of the ladder, was the opportunity to put two conservative ideologues on the Supreme Court who cloaked themselves as moderates.

Obama has been able to replace one Justice during his presidency, but he has not been able to stop the hard right turn this court has taken under Roberts – to a pro-corporate, anti-labor, anti-democracy bias that is turning back the clock several decades (the court is the most pro-business since WWII and Roberts and Alito, together with the other 3 conservative judges, are all in the top 10 for pro-business in the past 76 years). Beyond this, Obama's nominees for the federal courts leave a lot to be desired, with a mere 4% coming from the public interest world while the majority (85%) arrive after working in the corporate world. This can't help but influence the decisions made by these judges, who have been making more and more that benefit corporations at the expense of the general public, simply amplifying the current position of the Supreme Court. Let’s take a look at some of the most important Supreme Court decisions in the past few years, exemplifying the scope of the problem:

-         Citizens United v. FEC (2010): I believe this may become the hallmark decision of this court, essentially allowing corporations to give unlimited amounts of money to candidates and campaigns. Ironically, this decision that undermines our democracy like few before it (Bush v. Gore and Plessy v. Ferguson comes to mind as two others) was supported by only 20 percent of the public in a survey conducted at the time, and a full 72% wanted Congress to intervene to overturn it. The decision is often credited with the development of “super PACs,”(see this  Slate article, if you have been bamboozled into believing this is not the case)  that raised hundreds of millions for presidential, congressional and state legislative races, with the real impact felt in two main areas – the shift of the House of Representatives from democratic to republican rule in 2010 and at the state level, where conservatives have made major inroads. Ultimately, it didn’t block Obama’s reelection, though that might have been the result of a poor selection in Romney and poor strategic planning at the grassroots level. But look at one example of how spending has changed …


-         In the related Davis v. FEC, the 5 conservative Justices overturned the “Millionaire’s Amendment,” Congress’s effort to level the playing field in the political process and reduce the influence of wealth on elections by increasing the contribution limits to candidates facing self-funded opponents. As in many of these cases, the legal rationale seemed rather suspect, founded on conflating money with “speech,” as in the above decision.
-         Wal*Mart Decision (2011); Comcast (2013): In a number of cases, with this being the most high-profile, the court has undermined the ability of individuals to band together as a class to fight corporate wrongdoings. In the Wal*Mart case it ruled that women employees could not combine their claims under a common class to fight against discrimination by the corporate behemoth. In 2013, a similar decision ended a class action suit against Comcast, where subscribers in Philadelphia argued that they were using market power to artificially inflate prices (Big Story AP). The problem, according to majority opinion author Antonin Scalia, was that there were four theories covering the $875 million in damages, when there must instead be one common theory. In composite, these decisions have essentially ended one of the most powerful tools to fight corporate malfeasance, allowing consumers, workers or victims to band together and right a corporate wrong. In some cases, it gave victims much needed compensation, but more important was the ability to financially punish corporations for activities against the common good – even when the individual damages were quite small. Without class action suits, businesses will more frequently take their chances with risky and illegal behavior, knowing the chances of being punished have diminished substantially. (Huff Post). This relates to an infamous 2007 decision (Ledbetter v. Goodyear) where the Court ruled that a woman who had been paid less than her male peers for 20 years had no right to bring a lawsuit for equal pay because she failed to file suit within 180 days of the first discrimination—even though she had no way of learning about the discrimination until years later.
-         Vance v. Ball State; U of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar (2013): The decision in these two related cases made it harder for individuals to sue businesses for retaliation or discrimination. Particularly appalling was the notion that a supervisor is only defined by the right to hire or fire an employee, thus reducing the ability to challenge discrimination. Essentially, like many other decisions in recent years, it is now easier for employers to fire, abuse and force employees not to unionize than it has been since before WWII. (Huff Post).
-         Riegel v. Medtronic, Inc. (2008): the Court ruled that a consumer who has been seriously injured by a defective medical device cannot sue the manufacturer if the product was approved by federal government regulators, even if the company knew the product was dangerous. This follows a number of decisions in both the regulatory and legal arenas making it harder to protect workers and consumers from injury and harm.
-         Exxon Shipping v. Baker (2008): after 19 years of legal battles, the Court allowed Exxon to escape full financial liability for the damage done by the Exxon-Valdez oil spill to communities and the environment, leaving over 30,000 people whose livelihoods and community were destroyed by the disaster – with only a tenth of the original jury award for punitive damages.

These are but a few of the many, many decisions that have consistently sided with business over the labor, the people and democracy. Overall, the fears that a Roberts court would tack hard to the right has been confirmed. Last year Huff Post did a study of cases in which the Chamber of Commerce filed an amicus brief, finding they were on the winning side 78 percent of the time (14 wins, 3 losses) and undefeated among the 8 controversial cases that went 5-4. This has been the nature of far too many Supreme Court decisions in recent years, reaffirming the Critical Legal Studies insight four decades ago that the law is an ideological, and not rational, institution that tends to serve elite and dominant interests in society. Beyond this, the chamber and its ideological-brethren have had a huge influence on what cases the Supreme Court even hears, with Scotusblog finding in a three-year study that, “[t]he private groups and advocacy organizations that most frequently urge the court to take a case are overwhelmingly pro-business, anti-regulatory, and ideologically conservative.” (Scotusblog) That has certainly been the case since Roberts took over and one that should be a cause for serious concern (unless, of course, you are a corporate exec).

Three Things: Demolition at Anfield (Liverpool 5 Arsenal 1)

Many reporters and football pundits will feel vindicated by the demolition of Arsenal at Anfield today, affirming their claims that the Gunners just aren’t good enough to win the title this season. In fact, the 5-1 score line might have been kind to a Gunners team that was out of the contest after the worst 20 minutes they have played since the infamous 4-4 draw with Newcastle three seasons ago. The destruction started in the very first minute, when a soft Mertesacker foul on Suarez led to a Gerard free kick that was shinned in by Skrtel from point-blank range (though he may have been marginally offsides). Skrtel then came up big a few minutes later with a clearance on a dangerous Arsenal attack before scoring his second from a corner in the 10th minute; where Liverpool appeared to create space for him with a double screen through the middle. Sturridge almost made it 3 nil a minute later before Sterling did just that in the 16th minute, when Ozil was dispossessed by Henderson in what could have been a foul, before pushing it forward to Suarez who laid a perfect cross through for a tap in. Four minutes later the contest was beyond doubt as a steal of an Ozil pass led to a counter that Sturridge finished.

The second half wasn’t much better for Arsenal, though they scorned a few chances to make a game of it in the early going. In the 51st minute, the embarrassment was made worse by another counter attack goal with Raheem Sterling making it count after having his first shot saved by Szczesny. Wenger made a triple switch in the 60th minute, bringing in Podolski for Giroud, Rosicky for Ozil and Gibbs for Monreal. Nine minutes later Arsenal finally got on the scoreboard, after Gerrard fouled Ox in the box and Arteta but the penalty kick away down the middle.

The game again showed that possession alone means little, as Arsenal actually had 59 percent for the game, even as they were outshot 21 to 11 (and 12 to 6 on target). The only good news for the deflated Gunners was a bizarre 0-0 draw for Man City, who have gone two full games without a goal, at Norwich. But Chelsea did win convincingly 3-0 and now head the table by a point. Even as people continue to claim City are the favorites, I start to wonder if Mourinho might not complete his return to England with a title. My three thoughts on the game …
1. Set Pieces and Errors: I mentioned in my last post the fact that Arsenal led the league by many measures this season, even if Chelsea had let in one fewer goals until today. But where Arsenal also lead the EPL is in goals conceded from set pieces. And that record was padded today, as the first two Liverpool goals were on a free kick and corner. In fact, serious questions must still be asked of zonal marking and its failures. It has gotten more popular in recent years, but its success rate is certainly open to debate. The other category that Arsenal lead in is goals off errors, and while they have done better in this regard the past year, errors have been behind most of the goals in the 6-3 and 5-1 losses to City and Liverpool. The game also saw the Mertesacker-Koscielny unbeaten streak end, going all the way back to January of 2012. Arsenal needs to restore order quickly at home if they are to beat the worst Manchester United team in recent memory.

2. Record Against the Top Six: Arsenal had the best record in the EPL in the last calendar year, but that included a less than stellar record against the top six. This season, they might be running away with the title if they had done better against them so far. There was the late conceded goal to only secure a draw against Everton, the 1-0 loss to United, the 6-3 thrashing at City, the dour 0-0 draw against Chelsea in the rain and now the destruction at Anfield. They did have the early victories over this same Liverpool team and Tottenham, but they will need to do better in their remaining games against City, Chelsea, United and Everton if they are to have any chance. Ramsey and Flamini should be back for all of those contests save United, but others will have to step up and find the confidence to perform at their best.  

3. Ozil Failures: I have been taking it relatively easy on the German, largely making light of the drop in form he has been suffering through for a couple of months now. But today was a horror show and two of his errors led directly to Liverpool goals. Watching him give up the ball and then jog slowly back is bad enough, but he seems to become a very average player when pressed up the pitch and seems immune to the notion that he can actually take a shot inside the box. I expect he will settle back in, but the Gunners need that to happen now, as they could see their title bid all but disappear if they don’t comeback quickly from this setback.

Next up is Manchester United at the Emirates on Wednesday, and the Gunners need to show that they can beat teams near the top of the table if they want to win the title for the first time in a decade. Let’s hope they rebound quickly (us fans that is) …

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Media Bias: The Obamacare Lies Continue

The laziness and ineptitude of the mainstream media continues to impress in its consistency. Of course a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, but in America we love our fools, and maybe our hobgoblins in nice suits as well. The latest example takes us back to their uncritical coverage of Obamacare and another madeup right-wing conspiracy, that they parrot without checking the facts (remember those “death panels” or the failure before it started). Conservatives essentially misread, either accidentally or purposefully, a CBO report about the rollout of Obamacare, claiming it would cost us over 2 million jobs. Unfortunately, a closer look tells us the bill will actually create jobs – as the estimates are based on people voluntarily leaving the workforce because they no longer need employee-sponsored healthcare, opening up those positions for others who actually need the wages (WSFA). But why let silly facts get in the way when the media is working to disprove their “liberal” bias every day, from hour to hour. 

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Food Stamps Cut Become Law

Following up on the theme from yesterday, Congress has enacted the latest Farm Bill, which besides huge subsidies to agribusiness conglomerates, also includes $8 billion in cuts to food stamps. This means that 850,000 families with nearly 2 million people will lose an average of $90/month in food assistance on top of an $11 billion cut in November that cost 48 million people an average of $38/month. (CNN Money) While those amounts might not sound like much, check how much you spend on food a month, cut the bill into four parts and then consider how much $90 a month buys. In any case, it is just the latest example of the “war on the poor” that has replaced the war on poverty of the 60s. I suppose it fits the new me generation, where 85 people own more than the poorest 3.5 billion people on the planet. (check out these 25 images from Daily Kos) But I’m sure they’re each worth 41 million people …

 photo 2012-libor-scandal_zps04942acc.jpg

Welfare Dreams?

For many years, conservatives had decried the "lazy," unethical, "crack addict" Welfare recipients for callously taking our hard earned tax dollars. But what about those farm subsidies that currently transfer money from the same tax base to huge agribusiness, while simultaneously exacerbating Third World hunger ...

Cartoon by Jen Sorensen - Russia, Land of Tolerance

Monday, February 03, 2014

RIP Philip Seymour Hoffman

As I'm sure most of you have heard, one of our truly great actors passed away this past weekend. Philip Seymour Hoffman started out playing a mixture of prep boys and creepy characters on first Law & Order and then in films like Happiness, Next Stop Wonderland, Magnolia and The Talented Mr. Ripley. 

Cartoon by Signe Wilkinson -

Many began to notice his impressive acting chops, but it was Magnolia (a sensitive male nurse to a dying man), State and Main (an honest writer surrounded by crooked, cynical Hollywood stars) and Almost Famous (as the infamous, curmudgeonly Lester Bangs) that showed the range of his talent. From here bigger roles began to come his way, from his short turn as a two-bit con artist in Punch-Drunk Love to again playing a creepy high school teacher in 25th Hour to his brilliant portrayal of Truman Capote. 

Around the same time, he showed his adroitness at comedy as the obnoxious sidekick in Along Came Polly, in Amy Sedaris' vehicle Strangers with Candy and in the dark The Savages. And he continued to show his ability to move from one extreme to the other with ease playing a believable sociopath alongside Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible III, a flawed priest in Doubt, a manipulative brother in Before the Devil Knows Your Dead, a false prophet in The Master and an enigmatic revolutionary in the Hunger Games series.

Beyond these achievements, he was active on Broadway as both an actor (I saw him on Broadway in A Long Day's Journey into Night), director and producer. He made two to three movies a year and had just finished production on a television series. His real achievement was to make his characters so believable, so human in their flaws, pathos and even evil. Rather than falling prey to the actor's desire to always be likable, he felt unencumbered by that need -- instead finding the truth of those characters. A true character actor in an era of cult of personality where many of our "greatest" actors played themselves over and over again, he will be sorely missed. RIP.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Three Things: Arsenal Win 2-0

Arsenal trudged through a 0-0 stalemate in the first half where they dominated possession but couldn’t break through a very well-organized Crystal Palace defense. Soon after the second half kickoff, Oxlade-Chamberlain broke the deadlock with a lovely touch and finish from a clever Cazorla chip. It was his first goal since late 2012 and came in his first start in six months. In the 50th minute, Jerome almost equalized on a header that Szczesny blocked from close range. Arsenal continued to dominate possession from here until Ox sealed the victory in the 72nd minute after a back heel to Giroud was returned before Ox charged toward the net, pushed right and slotted past the Crystal keeper.

Arsenal thus kept up their record of clean sheets at home, now standing at six straight. They had 73% of possession, 11 shots in total with 6 on goal and 9 versus 14 fouls. They also continued their trend of beating teams outside the top six, only interrupted by the tie against Southampton last Wednesday. Now they come into the first real challenge of the second half, with games against Liverpool at Anfield, Man United at home, Liverpool in the FA Cup at home and then Bayern at the Emirates. A victory over Liverpool could secure the three-way race most see unfolding between the Gunners, City and Chelsea and a follow-up win against the struggling Man United could all but seal their fate outside the top four. A continued march in the FA Cup then stands in their way followed by an unlikely continued push in the UCL.

1. The Ox: Oxlade-Chamberlain has been the next great thing for some time now, but after a fairly impressive maiden season, he saw a drop off in form last year before the injury in the opening game that has kept him out until now. But with a performance like this, he may be able to fill-in for all the injuries and suspensions in the midfield that lacks Flamini’s leadership for two more games, Ramsey’s frenetic box-to-box play for four to six more weeks and, bizarrely, new signing Kallstrom’s steadiness and experience for at least a month (he had a back injury when he was signed on loan). Ox brings the pace missing since Walcott’s season-ending injury, a more direct attacking approach and a surprisingly steady presence in the center of the pitch.

2. Midfield Strength in Numbers: even with Flamini, Walcott, Wilshere, Ramsey and new signing Kallstrom on the sideline, Arsenal were still able to dominate Crystal’s well-organized, double-tiered line of defense that has been picking up substantially more points since Tony Pullis’ appointment. One strength of this Arsenal team is the lack of reliance on a central striker as the only source of goals – as was the case Van Persie’s last season at Arsenal. Midfielders are scoring regularly when that was not the case earlier in their career, including Wilshere chipping in goals, Ramsey having a breakout season and now Ox adding two himself. Podolski has also scored a number since returning and Walcott before his injury. It appears that the way the team sets up its attack, with Giroud an exceptional holdup and one-two player, sets these players through with chances to score that they take. Each provides a different threat and this helps keep teams off balance.

3. Defensive Fortress: Arsenal lead the league in the least number of goals conceded at home (6), number of clean sheets (11 for Sz), 9 straight hours without a goal at home and the second fewest conceded goals (1 behind Chelsea’s total of 20, without ever “parking the bus” in a game). Mertesacker and Koscielny still maintain their record of being undefeated when playing 90 minutes together for well over a year and even without Flamini in the side, only allowed Crystal one real opportunity to score. It is not only the dominant possession that makes the Gunners so strong, but the ways the entire team helps on defense and the pressing that makes it difficult for teams to build-up their attack. This is backed by the leadership of Mertesacker and Flamini on the pitch and the way the entire team seems to be disciplined in their roles across the pitch – with the exception of the games against Southampton and City. In fact, it is the major reduction in defensive errors that cost them dearly the past three seasons that has perhaps been most impressive. It will be interesting to see if they can keep it up as they run into the two tough run of fixtures that await them in the February and March.  

Net Neutrality Under Attack

Follow this link for Mark Fiore Video: Daily Kos