Jon “Bones” Jones’ Spinning Elbows

Saturday, September 22nd, 2012

Jack Slack analyzes Jon “Bones” Jones’ spinning elbows:

Jon Jones doesn’t throw the spinning elbow at random for the simple reason that it is difficult to land correctly and if the opponent is stepping in towards him it pretty much gifts the opponent Jones’ back. An excellent example of this came in the first round of Jones’ bout with Mauricio Rua as the latter was lumbering towards Jones. Jones threw the spinning elbow as Rua plodded forward but missed and gave the injured Brazilian back control. Fortunately Rua’s wrestling was not a huge threat to Jones, and instead the champion attempted to drop for a heel hook, giving Jones top position. Notice below how Jones’ elbow flies past Rua’s head and Jones’ shoulder is the only point that contacts Rua with a soft thud.

The actual striking surface on a spinning back elbow is actually remarkably small, unlike Jones’ elbows from guard in which if he misses with his elbow the rigid bone of his forearm still does ample damage, if Jones misses the spinning elbow he only connects with the triceps or shoulder. When this is the case very little damage is done for such a high risk manoeuvre. For all the talk of how Jones’ enormous reach allows him to take risks without fear of repercussions, Jon Jones’ spinning back elbow essentially gives his opponent’s their only chance to get in range when he fails to land it correctly and he still uses it in most of his fights.

The variation with which we are now all most familiar is Jones’ spinning elbow along the fence. This has proven to be the most reliable scenario from which Jones can place himself in position to spin as safely as possible and line up his target to connect with the point of his elbow. Below is the standard Jon Jones set up for his spinning back elbow.

Notice that Jones has Rua pressed against the fence with his head to the left and keeps control of Rua’s right elbow. Every time Jones clinches an opponent along the fence, he frees one arm so that he can spin while using his other hand to drive the opponents head back from underneath their chin. If an opponent holds an overhook or an underhook on either of Jones’ arms he is not free to spin — consequently this technique doesn’t mesh as well with Jones’ takedown game as it appears. If both of Jones’ hands are free and he is still pushing his opponent into the fence, a spinning elbow is pretty much assured.

You will also notice the unique position Jones has to assume before he spins — Jones brings his right leg across in front of himself. In every spinning or turning technique, finding ways to shorten the spin by bringing your pivot leg across yourself while distracting your opponent is vital to improving the likelihood of success. Jones’ use of the clinch — a position in which he is famed for his wrestling — to conceal the preliminary movements or his turning strikes is a wonderful strategic turn and shows that Jones is willing to give up the prospect of a takedown to inflict one shot damage.

There’s much more.

Playing at the World

Saturday, September 22nd, 2012

In Playing at the World, Jon Peterson provides a meticulously researched history of simulating wars, people, and fantastic adventures:

The key thread appears in the work of the younger Reiswitz, in the 1820s. He first introduced to wargaming two separate but intertwined components: referees and dice.

Reiswitz developed a game where verbal orders took the place of movements on a board, where a referee interpreted statements of intention from the players and converted them into results in the game world. This feedback loop, where the referee explains the state of the world and players then describe the actions they would like to attempt, is the fundamental innovation that underlies role-playing games. It bounced across languages and continents until it resurfaced in America in the work of Totten in the 1880s, which Twin Cities gamers later rediscovered and made part of their games in the late 1960s.

This achievement alone would be sufficient to earn a place in the pantheon of gaming gods, but the younger Reiswitz was also the first to grasp how statistics and probability could be combined to let dice resolve fictional events in a game. At his day job at the artillery ranges, he learned the differences in likelihood of striking targets with firearms at different ranges, and from those statistical models, he was able to assign a probability that die throws could resolve as game events. I believe this is where the fundamental principle of simulation was invented, and it was something then unprecedented in intellectual history. He also grasped that dice were a critical enabler for the referee as well, because dice are impartial: an omnipotent referee could always show an unconscious bias towards participants in the game, but dice kept the referee honest.

These two innovations walked hand in hand through the centuries right up to your table top.

Joker and Lex

Friday, September 21st, 2012

Behold, Joker and Lex:

(Hat tip to Borepatch.)

Game of Thrones Season 2 FX Reel

Friday, September 21st, 2012

This FX reel reveals how many of the images from Game of Thrones Season 2 were created:

Toby Danger

Friday, September 21st, 2012

I still get a kick out of spot-on Jonny Quest-spoof Toby Danger:

The Satanic Verses

Thursday, September 20th, 2012

As a student “reading” history at Cambridge, Salman Rushdie learned about the Satanic Verses of the Koran, which praised other lesser gods and goddesses then popular in Mecca:

The historical record is incomplete, but most of the major collections of hadith, or stories about the life of the Prophet — those compiled by Ibn Ishaq, Waqidi, Ibn Sa’d, and Tabari — recount an incident that later became known as the incident of the “Satanic Verses.” The Prophet came down from the mountain one day and recited verses from what would become Surah — or chapter — No. 53. It contained these words: “Have you thought on al-Lat and al-Uzza, and, thirdly, on Manat, the other? They are the Exalted Birds, and their intercession is desired indeed.” At a later point — was it days or weeks, or months? — Muhammad returned to the mountain and came down, abashed, to state that he had been deceived on his previous visit: the Devil had appeared to him in the guise of the Archangel, and the verses he had been given were therefore not divine but satanic and should be expunged from the Koran at once. The Archangel had, on this occasion, brought new verses from God, which were to replace the “Satanic Verses” in the great book: “Have you thought on al-Lat and al-Uzza, and, thirdly, on Manat, the other? Are you to have the sons, and He the daughters? This is indeed an unfair distinction! They are but names which you and your fathers have invented: God has vested no authority in them.”

And in this way the recitation was purified of the Devil’s work. But the questions remained: Why did Muhammad initially accept the first, “false” revelation as true? And what happened in Mecca during the period between the two revelations, satanic and angelic? This much was known: Muhammad wanted to be accepted by the people of Mecca. “He longed for a way to attract them,” Ibn Ishaq wrote. And when the Meccans heard that he had acknowledged the three goddesses “they were delighted and greatly pleased.” Why, then, did the Prophet recant? Western historians (the Scottish scholar of Islam W. Montgomery Watt, the French Marxist Maxime Rodinson) proposed a politically motivated reading of the episode. The temples of the three goddesses were economically important to the city’s ruling élite, an élite from which Muhammad had been excluded — unfairly, in his opinion. So perhaps the deal that was offered ran something like this: If Muhammad, or the Archangel Gabriel, or Allah, agreed that the goddesses could be worshipped by followers of Islam — not as the equals of Allah, obviously, but as secondary, lesser beings, like, for example, angels, and there already were angels in Islam, so what harm could there be in adding three more, who just happened to be popular and lucrative figures in Mecca? — then the persecution of Muslims would cease, and Muhammad himself would be granted a seat on the city’s ruling council. And it was perhaps to this temptation that the Prophet briefly succumbed.

Then what happened? Did the city’s grandees renege on the deal, reckoning that by flirting with polytheism Muhammad had undone himself in the eyes of his followers? Did his followers refuse to accept the revelation about the goddesses? Did Muhammad himself regret having compromised his ideas by yielding to the siren call of acceptability?

It’s impossible to say for sure. But the Koran speaks of how all the prophets were tested by temptation. “Never have We sent a single prophet or apostle before you with whose wishes Satan did not tamper,” Surah No. 22 says. And if the incident of the “Satanic Verses” was the Temptation of Muhammad it has to be said that he came out of it pretty well. He both confessed to having been tempted and repudiated that temptation. Tabari quotes him thus: “I have fabricated things against God and have imputed to Him words which He has not spoken.” After that, the monotheism of Islam remained unwavering and strong, through persecution, exile, and war, and before long the Prophet had achieved victory over his enemies and the new faith spread like a conquering fire across the world.

The Sociology of Mass Killings

Wednesday, September 19th, 2012

Randall Collins casts his sociological eye on mass killings:

Mass shootings are very rare events. There are about 15,000 homicides per year in the USA; the great majority are single-victim killings. Less than 1% are mass killings (4 or more victims in the same incident). Spectacular mass shootings, where many persons are killed or wounded, have been happening at a rate of about 1 or 2 per year, in the 30 years since 1980, for the most common type, school shootings; shootings in other venues, apparently imitating school shootings, are rarer but on the rise. It is their rarity that attracts so much attention, and their out-of-the-blue, seemingly random relationship between killer and victims, that makes them so dramatically alarming.

This rarity means that very distinctive circumstances are needed to explain mass killings, and that widely available conditions cannot be very accurate predictors. There are approximately 190 million firearms in the civilian population in America, in a population of 310 million. The vast majority of these guns are not used to kill people. Even if we focus on the total number of yearly homicides by gun (about 12,000), the percentage of guns that kill someone is about 12,000 / 190,000,000, or 1 in 16,000. Another way to put it: of approximately 44 million gun owners in the US, 99.97% of them do not murder anyone. It is not surprising that their owners resist being accused of abetting murder.


What can be said analytically is that banning guns is trying to manipulate a variable that is a very weak predictor of mass homicides.


Not very usable clues are the patterns that rampage killers are low status isolates, or recent academic or career failures, or introverts. Like availability of guns, here again the explanatory variable is too common; there are a tiny number of rampage killers, but incidents of career failures are widespread; the number of introverts in the population is probably around 40 percent; victims of school bullying comprise 5–15% of students; since there are about 13 million secondary school students in the US, bully victims would total around 650,000 to 2 million. About two-thirds of school shooters are bully victims, but there are other ways to be low status in the youth culture, so the number would be higher. The correlation of these predictors with rampage killings must be extremely low.

Better clues come from considering the micro-sociology of this kind of violence. Any kind of violent confrontation is emotionally difficult; the situation of facing another person whom one wants to harm produces confrontational tension/fear (ct/f); and its effect most of the time is to make violence abort, or to become inaccurate and ineffective. The usual micro-sociological patterns that allow violence to succeed are not present in a rampage killing; group support does not exist, because one or two killers confront a much larger crowd: in contrast, most violence in riots takes place in little clumps where the attackers have an advantage of around 6-to-1.

Another major pathway around ct/f is attacking a weak victim. But in almost all violence, the weakness is emotional rather than physical — even an armed attacker has to establish emotional dominance, before he can carry out effective violence. One might think this is simply a matter of using a gun or displaying a weapon, which automatically puts the armed person in the position of strength, the others in a position of weakness. Nevertheless, detailed analysis of incidents and photos of armed confrontations show that groups without guns can emotionally paralyze an armed opponent, preventing him from using his weapon.

Guns provide emotional dominance when an armed individual threatens a peaceful group and they try to hide or run away. This depends on the style of the victims. When rival street gangs clash, they do not turn their backs; they are used to gesturing, with and without guns, and most such face-to-face confrontations wind down. Running away has the effect of confirming emotional dominance; it is easier to shoot a person in the back than in the front; and turning away or attempting to hide one’s face has the effect of removing one’s greatest deterrent — eye-contact with the opponent. Thus the hundreds who piled on the floor in the theatre at Aurora, or who ran from the attacker on the Norwegian island, may have saved some percentage of themselves; but they collectively could have saved more than ended up being killed or wounded, if they had used their superior numbers to confront the attacker. I don’t mean just the possibility of physically overcoming him, but taking advantage of the fact that groups are always emotionally stronger than individuals, if they can keep themselves together and put up an emotionally united front: they could probably have made him stop shooting.

If this sounds implausible, consider how rampage shootings usually end: in a 1997 school shooting at Paducah, Kentucky, the solo killer, a 14-year-old boy who opened fire on a prayer group in the school hall, allowed a teacher and the prayer leader to come up to him and take his gun away as soon as he had shot 8 girls and boys (who were facing away from him). I will discuss this case in detail below. The Aurora theatre killer gave himself up to the police without resistance after he left the theatre. Even Breivik, the Norwegian killer, who stated a strong ideological motive for his killings, gave himself up without a fight once armed authorities arrived on the island, although he had plenty of ammunition left. The key point here is not simply that the Norwegian police were armed, and the teenage campers were not; but rather that the police confronted him, while the teens ran away and turned their backs. Rampage killers almost always give themselves up peacefully, or else commit suicide. A rare exception is the Columbine duo, who exchanged fire several times with the police, at long distance and ineffectually, before killing themselves in a lull in the action. This is another respect in which rampage killers differ from other types of violent persons.

There’s much more.

How science is transforming the sport of MMA fighting

Tuesday, September 18th, 2012

Matthew Shaer explores how science is transforming the sport of MMA fighting — using a rather loose definition of “science”:

Greg Jackson, the single most successful trainer in the multi-billion-dollar sport of professional mixed martial arts fighting, works out of a musty old gym in Albuquerque, New Mexico, not far from the base of the Sandia Mountains. On a recent morning, the 38-year-old Jackson, who has the cauliflowered ears and bulbous nose of a career fighter, watched two of his students square off inside the chain-link walls of a blood-splattered ring called the Octagon.

Producing a notepad from his back pocket, Jackson sketched a spiderweb of circles and lines. It was a game tree, he explained — a graph game theorists use to analyze a sequence of decisions. In a traditional game tree, each circle, or node, represents the point at which a decision can be made. Each line, or edge, represents the decision itself. Game trees eventually end in a terminal node — either a tie or a win for one of the players. This game tree, Jackson told me, showed the exchange between Jones and Jordan from Jones’s perspective.

At the start, the two men stood a few feet apart. Jackson drew a circle. The node had three edges, or moves that Jackson was training Jones to use. He could execute a leg kick, or a punch, or he could shoot for a takedown (attempt to grab Jordan by the backs of his legs and drive him into the ground). But the initial node was not “optimal,” he said, because it allowed Jordan to swing freely with both fists. Although it seemed counterintuitive, the fast track to what Jackson calls the “damage” node (in this case, Jones’s advantageous position following his hard knee) was to move in close, where Jordan would not be able to fully wind up. Another circle, representing Jones’s inside position, and a series of edges, representing his potential decisions from there, appeared on the notepad.

“From inside,” Jackson said, “he can do a knee, he can do an uppercut, he can do elbows. He could have done anything there, and done it effectively.”

Since 1992, when he opened his first gym, Jackson has been using math to inform his training techniques. Unlike other MMA coaches, he continually collects data while watching live bouts, logs old fight videos to determine which moves work and when, and fills notebooks with game trees to determine the optimal nodes for various situations in a match. “I’ve always seen the ring like a lab,” he says. “I’ve tried to think rigorously, logically.”

Perhaps “analytics” would be a better term than “science”:

Among the many die-hard UFC fans was Rami Genauer, a journalist based in Washington, D.C. Genauer had read Moneyball, Michael Lewis’s best seller about Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane and his statistics-driven approach to player evaluation. He dreamed of analyzing mixed martial arts in the same way.

“There were no numbers,” Genauer says. “You’d try to write something, and you’d come to the place where you’d put in the numbers to back up your assertions, and there was absolutely nothing.”

In 2007 Genauer obtained a video of a recent UFC event, and using the slow-motion function on his TiVo, he broke each fight down by the number of strikes attempted, the volume of strikes landed, the type of strike (power leg versus leg jab, for instance) and the finishing move (rear naked choke versus guillotine, and so on). The process took hours, but the end result was something completely new to the sport: a comprehensive data set.

Genauer titled his data-collection project FightMetric and created a website to house the information. Some UFC fans registered their disapproval on Web forums. “‘We don’t need math with our fighting,’ people would say. I disagreed,” Genauer says.

In 2008 he managed to persuade the UFC to use FightMetric data from past matches to support a televised event in Minneapolis. “The idea was that this would be good for the producers, who could use the numbers to illustrate the story,” he says. “It’d also be good for the broadcaster — they’d have ammunition, something to rely on just like they do in other sports.”

Officials liked having Genauer’s fight data, and when the UFC began spiffing up its broadcasts with more graphics and statistics—part of an effort to make MMA seem like a real sport instead of a series of cage brawls — it hired FightMetric as its statistics provider. Genauer quit his job and opened an office in D.C.

Today FightMetric has five full-time staffers and a rotating cast of 15 specialists who collect a large data set for each fight using a video feed, proprietary software and a video-game controller with which they can record every type of strike. Among the statistics they track: each fighter’s number and type of strikes, number of significant strikes (defined as all strikes landed from a distance, as well as power strikes landed from close range) and the accuracy and location of kicks and punches.

The FightMetric team collects the strike and location statistics in real time. The UFC uses some of the data for graphics during broadcasts and on its website. FightMetric goes into even greater detail on its own website, presenting statistics over outlines of a human body. Colored lines indicate the accuracy of each type of strike, and boxes show which ground move, whether arm bar, kimura lock or triangle choke, each fighter used to try to induce a submission. The analysis is strangely disconnected from the violence of the Octagon—a savage fight broken down into simple, neat figures.

Who is Supposed to Protect U.S. Diplomats?

Monday, September 17th, 2012

Aren’t the Marines supposed to protect U.S. diplomats? Sort of:

Contrary to popular belief, Marines aren’t really stationed at embassies or consulates to protect diplomats. They are there primarily to protect secret information—embassy buildings often process classified information, and many host CIA personnel as well. Marines are there to protect—and if necessary destroy—any classified information so it doesn’t fall into enemy hands. Foreign officers are told in their initial training not to think of the Marines as their personal bodyguards in case of an attack.

The Marine Corps itself makes this clear: “The primary mission of the Marine Security Guard (MSG) is to provide internal security at designated U.S. diplomatic and consular facilities in order to prevent the compromise of classified material vital to the national security of the United States.”

That said, the Marines can and do provide security in case the embassy is attacked and other security measures fail. “[T]he MSGs’ mission is to delay any hostile group long enough to destroy classified material and aid in safeguarding the lives of diplomatic personnel,” according to the State Department.

Ben Folds Five Down in Fraggle Rock

Monday, September 17th, 2012

I am powerless to resist a Fraggle tie-in:

Nerdist Chris Hardwick explains how the Ben Folds Five “Do it Anyway” video came about:

In a meeting with Lisa [Henson, CEO, The Jim Henson Company], she casually said, “Next year is the 30th anniversary of Fraggle Rock. Would you want to do anything with the Fraggles?”

“WHAT THE [expletive]?? That’s an OPTION?!” I loudly replied. I think I scared her a little. I knew Ben had a new album releasing in September so I threw his name out.

Lisa said “that would be amazing” without hesitation. It was beautifully serendipitous. It seemed like a no-brainer to me, but I still cautiously pitched it to Ben, not really knowing his relationship with the show. I think I just spit words out, “YOU. VIDEO. FRAGGLES. ME PAY FOR!”

This Man Wants to Clothe the Planet

Monday, September 17th, 2012

Tadashi Yanai opened his first Uniqlo (shortened from “Unique Clothing Warehouse”) in Hiroshima in 1984 — building on a family apparel business that that existed since 1949:

Expanding steadily over the following decade, he launched strip-mall and suburban stand-alone stores throughout Japan and, finally, breached Tokyo city limits with a Harajuku flagship shop in 1998. Soon after, Uniqlo hit upon the product that would transform the retailer from a ho-hum chain store into a Japanese household name: A $20 fleece jacket, in a rainbow of colors, found the sweet spot of the recession-strapped Japanese middle class. No longer an expensive technical fabric meant for mountain climbing, fleece could be worn on the street or around the office. Uniqlo fleece became ubiquitous in Japan — in the year 2000 alone, it sold 26 million. It also gave Yanai a taste of what it’s like to leave your mark on an entire society.


A brand like Zara attempts to chase trends, reacting nimbly season after season. When an unanticipated mini-fad for purple crocheted tops emerges, Zara will scramble to move a new item from the factory floor to store shelves in about two weeks. Uniqlo employs a nearly opposite supply-chain strategy: It places gargantuan orders up to a full year in advance, allowing it to negotiate rock-bottom costs for high-quality work. It then passes on those savings to its customers. Because it sells wardrobe essentials, it can count on fairly stable demand. “Our predictive planning is very accurate,” says Odake, “so we rarely do heavy markdowns. We don’t operate any outlets in Japan.”


Sunday, September 16th, 2012

Monte Cook made his name as one of the designers of the third edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Now he’s working on his own game, Numenera:

It’s a far future, science fantasy, post-apocalyptic game with streamlined rules that prioritize the story, the action, and the wild ideas. If you’re a fan of outside-of-the-box gameplay such as that found in Planescape, Dark Space, or Chaositech, the far-future stories of Gene Wolfe, Michael Moorcock, or Jack Vance, or mind-blowing visuals like those found in the work of French artist Moebius, you’re going to love Numenera.

Numenera is set a billion years in the future. Civilizations have risen and fallen on Earth. Even though the current inhabitants live at about a Medieval level of technology, the leftover remnants of these advanced societies lie all around them. Some of these are extremely helpful: advanced tools, valuable means of communication and learning, transportation, defenses, and weapons. Others are dangerous: genetically altered monstrosities, flesh-warping radiation, creatures transplanted from distant stars, and clouds of out-of-control nanobots, just to name a few. This setting, called the Ninth World, provides all manner of opportunities and challenges to those that call it home.

The real news is that he’s funding his project through kickstarter — and he’s received almost half a million dollars in pledges.

Small and Deadly

Sunday, September 16th, 2012

When the US military introduced the M-16, with its glorified .22 round, the 5.56×45mm, the Soviets responded by introducing the AK-74, with a similar round, the 5.45×39mm — and a few decades later the Chinese introduced the Type 95 rifle, with yet another small round, the 5.8×42mm.

Now the Chinese have introduced a traditional scoped, bolt-action sniper rifle, the JS-2, in that same small caliber, which is not ideal for the kind of long-range shooting snipers take pride in:

Noting the success of large scale use of snipers by American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, China is increasing marksmanship and sniper training for its troops. The Chinese analysts apparently also noted that most sniper kills were at relatively short range (even in Afghanistan). Thus there was some justification for a lighter 5.8mm sniper rifle.

Even smaller-caliber “sniper” rifles have their place:

Then in the 1990s the Russians noted that Chechen snipers were effectively using .22 LR (long rifle, them little bullets kids use to hunt squirrels and rabbits with) weapons. Inside towns and cities, the .22 LR sniper was very effective, especially since the Chechens would improvise a very workable silencer by putting a plastic bottle on the end of the rifle’s barrel, with a hole in the bottom of the barrel for the bullet to exit. Using a cheap scope, Chechen snipers were very deadly at ranges of less than a hundred meters. Such ranges were pretty common in built up areas. And since you usually did not hear the shot (to the head or face, of course), you had a hard time finding the shooter.

Having suffered from these low tech .22 caliber Chechen snipers for ten years, the Russians have come out with their own professional .22 LR sniper rifle, the SV-99. This is a little heavier (at 3.8 kg/8.3 pounds) than your usual .22 LR rifle but is built for professionals. It has a heavier barrel, a bipod, silencer, and scope. It’s a meter (39 inches) long and can accept five, eight, or ten round magazines. There is a compartment in the butt stock for two five round magazines. With the SV-99, at a hundred meters, a skilled shooter can consistently put all rounds in a 12mm (half inch) circle. This is a specialist weapon, most likely used by commandos. But any trained sniper can quickly adapt to using it. And snipers like not being heard. But while the .22 LR is quiet (because it is slower) the military .22 (5.56mm) round is louder. So the Chinese 5.8mm would be difficult to silence well. But if the JS-2 users were supplied with a low power 5.8mm round, and a silencer, well, that would be a different matter entirely.

What happened to the culture war?

Saturday, September 15th, 2012

What happened to the culture war? The uncomfortable reality, Jonathan Chait notes, is that the culture war is an ongoing liberal rout:

Hollywood is as liberal as ever, and conservatives have simply despaired of changing it.

You don’t have to be an especially devoted consumer of film or television (I’m not) to detect a pervasive, if not total, liberalism. Americans for Responsible Television and Christian Leaders for Responsible Television would be flipping out over the modern family in Modern Family, not to mention the girls of Girls and the gays of Glee, except that those groups went defunct long ago. The liberal analysis of the economic crisis — that unregulated finance took wild gambles — has been widely reflected, even blatantly so, in movies like Margin Call, Too Big to Fail, and the Wall Street sequel. The conservative view that all blame lies with regulations forcing banks to lend to poor people has not, except perhaps in the amateur-hour production of Atlas Shrugged. The muscular Rambo patriotism that briefly surged in the eighties, and seemed poised to return after 9/11, has disappeared. In its place we have series like Homeland, which probes the moral complexities of a terrorist’s worldview, and action stars like Jason Bourne, whose enemies are not just foreign baddies but also paranoid Dick Cheney figures. The conservative denial of climate change, and the low opinion of environmentalism that accompanies it, stands in contrast to cautionary end-times tales like Ice Age 2: The Meltdown and the tree-hugging mysticism of Avatar. The decade has also seen a revival of political films and shows, from the Aaron Sorkin oeuvre through Veep and The Campaign, both of which cast oilmen as the heavies. Even The Muppets features an evil oil driller stereotypically named “Tex Richman.”

In short, the world of popular culture increasingly reflects a shared reality in which the Republican Party is either absent or anathema. That shared reality is the cultural assumptions, in particular, of the younger voters whose support has become the bedrock of the Democratic Party.

A member of President Obama’s reelection team recently told New York’s John Heilemann that it plans on painting its opponent as a man out of time — Mitt Romney is “the fifties, he is retro, he is backward.” This may sound at first blush like a particular reference to Romney’s uptight persona, but the line of attack would have been available against any Republican nominee — Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, or any other of the dour reactionaries who might have snatched the nomination. The message is transmitted in a thousand ways, both obvious and obscure: Tina Fey’s devastating portrayal of Sarah Palin. Obama appearing on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon to “slow jam the news,” which meant to recite his campaign message of the week. The severed head of George W. Bush appearing on Game of Thrones. An episode of Mad Men that included the odd throwaway line “Romney’s a clown,” putatively to describe George Romney, who was anything but.

When Joe Biden endorsed gay marriage in May, he cited Will & Grace as the single-most important driving force in transforming public opinion on the subject. In so doing he actually confirmed the long-standing fear of conservatives — that a coterie of Hollywood elites had undertaken an invidious and utterly successfully propaganda campaign, and had transmuted the cultural majority into a minority. Set aside the substance of the matter and consider the process of it — that is, think of it from the conservative point of view, if you don’t happen to be one. Imagine that large chunks of your entertainment mocked your values and even transformed once-uncontroversial beliefs of yours into a kind of bigotry that might be greeted with revulsion.

You’d probably be angry, too.

Northern Cities Vowel Shift

Friday, September 14th, 2012

Despite mass communications, compulsory education, and increasing mobility, American dialects are diverging:

There are multiple examples of such divergence. But none is as dramatic, as baffling to linguists, and as mysteriously under the collective radar as what’s happening in the cities that ring the Great Lakes. From Syracuse, N.Y., in the east to Milwaukee in the west, 34 million Americans are revolutionizing the sound of English. Linguists first noted aspects of the change in the late 1960s. In 1972, three linguists, led by William Labov of the University of Pennsylvania, christened the phenomenon the Northern Cities Vowel Shift or, more simply, the Northern Cities Shift (NCS). What they observed may be the most important change in English pronunciation in centuries.


Some linguists believe that the NCS began with a simple change to the short a sound. When using words with that sound, speakers in the region began moving their tongues forward and up. This “tensing,” as linguists call it, produces a nasal-like sound that is the hallmark of the NCS dialect. Many speakers tense their short a so much that monosyllabic words like cat nearly take on a second syllable. The a sound begins to resemble the word yeah or the final two syllables of the word idea. “If that were the end of it,” Labov explains, “it wouldn’t be a problem, but a language is a set of connected items.” And so, he says, all the vowel sounds start to move around in “something like a game of musical chairs.”

This is called a chain shift, and it stems from a fundamental problem with short vowel sounds: Too many of them occupy too little phonological space, so they constantly jostle to defend their linguistic turf. As a result, a change in one vowel sound can force the rotation of some — or even all — of the others. That’s exactly what’s happening in the northern cities — with a twist. There’s a phenomenon in North American English that linguists refer to as the cot-caught merger. In some North American dialect regions — including Boston, the Western United States, and Canada — the two vowel phonemes in these and similar words are pronounced identically. But the Inland North dialect region, which includes the northern cities, maintains a distinction between them. Caught preserves a wha sound that differs noticeably from the short o of cot. And why not? Distancing the short o in cot from the wha of caught gives many English dialects an extra short vowel sound.

In the NCS region, that extra vowel sound is an integral part of the big shift. The tensing of the short a starts a domino effect. First, the short o rotates into the newly created short-a void. People in Detroit have a jab, not a job. (Or don’t have one, as the case these days may sadly be.) NCS speakers then slide the wha sound into the slot formerly occupied by short o. They now pronounce caught like people from Boston do, but they pronounce cot the way other people say cat. One link down the chain, but tilts toward bought, and further down the short e in words like bet starts to sound like but. The final link in this chain may be the short i of bit elbowing its way in the direction of bet, though its course isn’t entirely clear just yet.