NPF: HORN OF PLENTY, SPRING 2015 EDITION

Posted in No Politics Friday on March 6th, 2015 by Ed

It must be at least eight months since the last time I've done Link Salad, which I generally consider to be a dereliction of blogging duties. Nonetheless, I have a critical mass of things that can't fill an entire post on their own. Since it's Friday and nobody wants to work anyway, I am honored to try to alleviate some portion of your boredom.

1. The Guardian has a video and story about people who have volunteered in earnest for a one way suicide mission to Mars. I'm sure some of the thousands of volunteers would qualify as Nuts by the vulgar definition and others are merely attracted to the idea of a spectacular, documented suicide. At least some of them, however, appear to be eccentric but generally Regular People who are willing to make a sacrifice for Science (and an inimitable experience). Maybe it says a lot about how dull most of our lives are here on Terra Firma that so many people would leap at the chance to die on Mars.

2. I was obsessed with Richard Scarry books as a child, so there were many levels on which I could enjoy this Tom the Dancing Bug comic of the author's "Busy Town" in the 21st Century.

3. I love a good photo series and I love some old Eastern Bloc cultural relics, so imagine my delight when I learned that a photographer named David Hylynski is publishing a series of 800 35mm photos he took wandering the streets of Warsaw, Moscow, and other cities in the dying days of the USSR. He made a particular effort to photograph shop windows; it's weird how much we as Americans conceptualize other societies by their habits as consumers. Behind the Curtain, though, they lacked the brand names we prefer to use as stand-ins for an actual understanding of other cultures.

4. For those of you who like aviation as much as I do, you may be interested to hear that Elvis's private jets are being auctioned as part of a makeover of Graceland. His plane "Lisa Marie" is the last remaining airworthy Convair 880 in existence. The airliner was a staggering commercial failure – only 65 were sold and Convair lost an unfathomable $175 million on the project – but it is an elegant design, emblematic of the first generation of passenger jets. While "Lisa Marie" will no doubt end up on display and not in the sky, kudos to the King and Graceland for preserving the aircraft.

MARKET EFFICIENCY

Posted in Rants on March 3rd, 2015 by Ed

Hard to believe it has been more than a decade since Chechen rebels took hundreds of Russians hostage in a Moscow theater. Displaying their legendary penchant for tact and patience, Russian special forces pumped the theater full of a gas, the contents of which remain mysterious to this day, developed by the FSB as a "knockout gas." It allowed Russian police to storm the theater and, uh, eliminate the terrorists with traditional Russian ruthlessness, but it happened to kill more than 130 hostages as well. Whoops.

What nobody knew that day – because Russian officials refused to offer any description of the contents of the secret gas for years – was that a major ingredient was fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opiate. High inhaled doses of such a strong drug were fatal for about 15% of the hostages. This was important because if medics and doctors had been told that the hostages had been incapacitated by an opiate drug, they could have saved lives by injecting them with something called an opioid antagonist. When this was finally reported it was the first time I heard of Naloxone.

Apparently Naloxone has become considerably more well known in the intervening years because many states have passed laws recently to relax rules about its administration. This is a result of increased pressure from the public, police, activists, and medical professionals to make Naloxone available for response to opioid overdoses. Briefly leaving aside the inconvenient reality that nobody cared about heroin addicts but now that white kids (and their parents) in the suburbs are ODing on prescription painkillers, it's hard to argue that this is not a good idea.

The problem, as usual, stems from the many glories of the free market and its infinite justice. The sole company in the United States that makes Naloxone noticed around 2008 that demand, driven by government purchases, was starting to soar. So of course they…oh, come on. Do I even need to finish the sentence? Suffice it to say that the drug, the price of which hovered around $3 per dose, became more expensive. By several hundred dollars.

As a generic, technically any manufacturer can start producing it. The problem is that every other drug company knows that at the drug's true price – somewhere closer to $5 per dose – it isn't worth it to invest in starting production. And they are unwilling to take the risk based on the hope that the current attempt at price gouging is sustainable. So the current company, Amphaster Pharmaceuticals, has a de facto monopoly. And oh boy, do they intend to milk it.

The idea of a single payer sends the average American into paroxysms of stroke-inducing rage. The idea of a single supplier, oddly enough, doesn't do the same even when accompanied by a healthy dose of price gouging. With state and local governments essentially at the mercy of the demands of one company for a drug it could hardly give away ten years ago, you'd think someone would be pointing out that the free market is not working as intended. Then you realize that this is in fact exactly how it is intended to work and any confusion disappears.

SPLIT TICKET

Posted in Uncategorized on March 2nd, 2015 by Ed

What we have thought for years has become painfully obvious – John "Orange Julius" Boehner has no real power and no control of his own caucus. Anecdotal evidence has suggested this in the past and now the hard numbers back it up. According to VoteView, there is a clear divide within the House GOP on the Homeland Security supplemental.

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When the Speaker of the House gets elected by the smallest margin ever and then cannot deliver a three week budget extension through the House with a massive majority, it's safe to say that the spirit of Joe Cannon has not returned to Congress in a new host. That vote also demonstrates the increasingly frequent consequences of the Republican Party's incredible lurch to the right over the last two decades (also from VoteView).

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It's worth noting, for the conspiratorial or anti-intellectual factions, that VoteView is the product of two of the most conservative people I've ever met in academia. Guys who make Glenn Beck look like Jane Fonda (who they both hate, because of course they do). The thing is, they also have a great deal of integrity and they're more interested in the accuracy of their analysis than making ideological points. Having been a colleague of one of them for a few years and being subject to every manner of Thanks Obama rant, I have to laugh every time his findings end up being used in stories on major news sites and someone in the comment section comes forth to remind us that Ivory Tower Librul Professors are not to be trusted.

In any case, we are rapidly approaching a reality in which House Republicans are too conservative even for…the House Republicans. They provide a nice counterweight to those communist Democrats who have barely moved ideologically in a century-plus.

SOPHISTRY

Posted in Rants on March 1st, 2015 by Ed

Beyond any doubt the most irritating type of person to have in a classroom – not only as a teacher but also as a fellow student – is the one who turns everything he is wrong about into a philosophical question about the nature of truth. This is one of the oldest and lamest rhetorical tactics in the book. "It may seem like I'm demonstrably wrong, but who can really know anything? What is truth?" That kind of crap. It is, to paraphrase my favorite description of Newt Gingrich, the kind of thing that really stupid people think sounds smart. And one of the reasons you hear this kind of thing in a classroom is that young people tend to be overconfident and think that they are more charming, intelligent, and persuasive than they are.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that most people grow out of that around the time they start to drive, it looks like this is going to be Scott Walker's go-to strategy for dealing with criticism throughout his kamikaze run at the White House that we are just now beginning to endure with no end in sight. Does Barack Obama love America? How can anyone really know? How can anyone really know anything? I couldn't possibly say one way or the other without having spoken to Barack Obama about this directly.

Scott Walker: epistemological skeptic.

This kind of logic has always been the backbone of lowest common denominator populism (What do scientists really know? Isn't everything just a theory? Can't I be right even if everything I say is wrong?) and it has quickly become integral to the grand GOP strategy. Having gone all-in on anti-intellectualism and willful disregard for facts in the early W Bush years, they're certainly not going to start telling the rube army that ideology may not always trump facts at this point. The Republican Party is a coalition of smart people trying to sound dumb and dumb people trying to sound smart; Walker is a tool of the former and the archetype of the latter.

Personally I'd love to see Walker win the nomination from a practical perspective – he'd do about as well in a general election as Rick Santorum, in all likelihood. But from the more important perspective of my own mental well-being, I don't know if I can listen to this guy for 617 more days. I'd gladly risk a more electable Republican winning the nomination for the easy to digest, pallid blandness of a Mitt Romney or Jeb Bush. If not, anyone who wondered what it would happen if a hack local politician got thrust into a presidential election is going to get the chance to find out. We will watch the putative greatest nation on Earth ask itself if a guy who looks like, sounds like, and has the intellectual capacity of a career liquor commissioner in Racine should become so-called the leader of the free world. I don't worry about him winning; I worry about having to live through it.

This must be what it felt like to live through the Harding-Coolidge years.

OH, I DIDN'T SEE YOU THERE

Posted in Rants on February 26th, 2015 by Ed

Well hello. I didn't mean to keep you waiting. Welcome back. For those that do not follow Gin and Tacos on the facebox, allow me to explain. No, the outage was not intentional.

The host of this domain name, Network Solutions, started bombarding me (and I presume other customers as well) with spam-like emails at the beginning of the year, making a concerted effort to sell various add-ons, "upgrades," and expensive marketing and promotion gimmicks. As any normal human being would do, I ignored it. Approximately two weeks ago they send an actual email along with the daily burst of spam and I had the random luck to notice and read it before it went to trash. This email stated that some part of WHOIS information was inaccurate (as is the case with approximately 99% of the registered domain names on the internet) and ICANN was going to enforce the shutdown of the domain name if I did not rectify the problem by Thursday, Feb. 19 by calling Web.com (Network Solutions' parent company) salespeople immediately.

I saw this for what it was – an effort to extort customers into calling so that we could have every superfluous marketing scheme and add-on service on Earth pitched to us. And they did this under the guise of the situation being beyond their control. It's not us! It's ICANN! We'd love to keep your site running but in order to make that possible you MUST update your WHOIS by calling Sean in the Web.com Sales Department immediately! Finding this tactic both insulting and silly, I simply went online and updated my WHOIS information. By Feb. 17 it was completely up to date and 100% accurate.

Well, they shut the domain name down on the evening of Feb. 19 anyway. I'm starting to suspect that despite their intense apparent concern, this really wasn't about ICANN or maintaining the integrity of WHOIS at all. It's almost as if they shut it down – and yes, I am completely paid up in advance for domain name registration with this company – because I didn't call to take their pitch about paying them to run sidebar ads on Facebook for me.

I called and navigated the most Byzantine web of automated menus to date before finally reaching a call center and being put on hold. Since this no doubt affected many other customers, I waited on hold for 53 minutes on Friday morning Feb. 20 before I had to give up due to, you know, having to do the job I get paid to do. Trying again on Friday night and wasting another ridiculous amount of my finite existence, I finally got through to a gentleman named Steve who, judging by his heavy to the point of obfuscation Bengali accent, might not really be named Steve.

Bengali Steve promised to "escalate" the problem and reactivate within 24 to 48 hours. When that did not happen, I called again on Sunday evening and went through the Sphinx's riddles again. This gentleman – Dylan or something equally implausible – regretted to inform me that Bengali Steve had meant 24 to 48 business hours. Meaning that this Time of Healing could not begin until Monday morning.

I got very busy as the week kicked into gear and when I checked in on Wednesday afternoon to realize that service had not been restored I did not have time to call immediately. But I did on Wednesday evening, spoke to yet another gentleman of the Subcontinent, and was told – go ahead and guess – 24 to 48 hours.

Beginning Thursday morning, however, I decided to go Full Retard on Network Solutions, emailing every email address I could find, sending Facebook messages to their account, posting repeatedly on their Facebook timeline, and calling as many numbers for Web.com's Atlanta-based office as I could find. I didn't care if I got a secretary, an IT professional, or the goddamn janitor. I spoke to several people, making various promises to wow them by demonstrating what could fit up their anal aperture with the application of sufficient force, and got transferred around like a furious potato. Finally some young man who clearly had to deal with hundreds of other angry customers over the past few days stayed on the phone with me until the problem was resolved. His explanation was that while I thought I had updated my WHOIS information, I had not included a fax number so ICANN forced Network Solutions to shut me down.

He said this in a tone that indicated that he he was under an obligation to pretend that he believed it. He was far too tired and irritated, though, to try to sell the farce. The upshot is that sometime Thursday afternoon, service returned.

I am going to rest and count my blessings tonight. Then tomorrow morning I will transfer my DNS to another company and begin the multi-day process of shitting repeatedly in a brown paper sack that ultimately will be mailed to Network Solutions. So, that is Gin and Tacos' tale of woe. Welcome back. If you use NS, please cancel your services with them immediately; swear at them creatively and profusely for good measure.

NEGATIONISM

Posted in Rants on February 19th, 2015 by Ed

Look, we all know that conservatives aren't funny. The question of why they aren't funny, however, is considered only rarely. Here is the shortest answer, which has the added benefit of also being the most correct: they are not funny because they don't understand irony. Irony, misdirection, and the unexpected injury (pratfalls, objects striking someone on the cranium, etc) are the three foundations of comedy. The inability to comprehend irony is the reason that all satire written by modern conservatives is beyond awful, reading like something written by a council of 12 year old boys. Irony does not come naturally to a mind that endorses principles like constitutional literalism, biblical fundamentalism, and a cornucopia of economic theories that are demonstrably untrue.

When we see news items like the Oklahoma Legislature banning AP History courses, we are horrified but we also think it is funny. It is not funny like a whoopee cushion or a pie to the face, of course. It is funny in the sense that right-wingers are too stupid to see the irony in their own actions or how much they resemble the groups and ideologies they identify as enemies. Evangelical Christian fundamentalists do not grasp how similar they are, for example, to Islamic extremists. And right-wing culture warriors and historical revisionists will never be able to see how closely their mission to create their own version of reality mimics Stalinist communism. In an effort to ward off the evils of things like socialism, these dipshits are reaching into the bag of tactics employed by the ultimate in socialist boogeymen.

Isn't that what we always accused the Soviet system of doing – and not without some justification? They censored their media, altered history to suit their ideological preferences, and generally created an alternate version of reality that fit their worldview. I've written before about the Soviet concept of "New Socialist Man," the creation of which required:

A total re-imagining of the world – its history, its culture, its religions, its conflicts, and its societies – was to take place in the framework of a radically ideological system of education with the goal of producing the New Socialist Man. He would understand politics, art, economics, and every other subject from the Correct (i.e. Socialist) perspective. As is the case with every revolution, the Soviets and Mao's China understood that a new culture can only be instituted by destroying the old, and destroying the old can only be accomplished through dictating a new historical reality through re-education.

It was the kind of system that would – to throw out a random hypothetical – ban history textbooks that contained any information contradictory to the official party line. It created "unpersons" who literally ceased to exist, erased from photos and the collective cultural consciousness. It relied on the valid belief that one's conception of reality outside of direct experience is limited by the information available.

Of course, the average Oklahoman is too ignorant of history and reality to understand any of this. To grasp the irony of a situation requires a basic level of awareness that is absent here.

COGNITIVE DEFICIT

Posted in Quick Hits on February 17th, 2015 by Ed

The primary reason I do not "Twitter" is an aversion to the limitations of the format. Most things I think are worth saying occupy more than 140 character spaces, and I have zero interest in chopping words down to infant babble to squeeze something into those confines. A secondary and practical issue is that it's worthless. Demonstrably worthless. Though it is supposedly a driver of "traffic", few if any of the techno-utopians who heralded it as yet another social media Innovation that would spread knowledge and power and information and fresh breath throughout the world can demonstrate that it is ever useful as anything other than empty textual calories.

A new Atlantic piece demonstrates that under 1% of people who view a tweet click the embedded link. "That's not traffic. That is a rounding error." Couldn't have said it better. An annoying, blinking sidebar ad has a higher pass-through rate, if even by accident. Of the 1% who click through, what percentage of them actually read the story (in the rare instances in which an article, rather than a stupid picture or video, is linked)?

Years ago I was skeptical of the "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" argument. Today it seems more plausible to me. The Atlantic piece really identifies the fundamental, if not 100% literally true, problem: Nobody reads anything anymore. We scan, we scroll, we occasionally click, we perhaps take 0.7 seconds to comprehend the headline. But we don't read. Social media has made it possible to throw enormous gobs of content at everyone on the planet, and nobody's reading a goddamn word of it.

Often I feel like after ten-plus years of doing this I've really failed by having an audience of only 3,000-5,000 readers per day. In fact, since the vast majority of that audience is capable of (and generally interested in) reading a whole 500-700 words, I'm probably getting "read" as much as people who write for sites with six-figure traffic. Everything else is just gawking at pictures and headlines.

PICK YOUR PARADOX

Posted in Quick Hits on February 15th, 2015 by Ed

Why is it that a large number of Americans cling to the belief that lowering taxes will increase government revenue while simultaneously dismissing out of hand the possibility that global warming could manifest not only warmer summers but also colder winters?

There may be no succinct answer to that question, but I strongly suspect it has something to do with the relatively recent spread in popularity of the mindset that The Market must be the sole arbiter of all human interaction – both with one another and with the world around us – and thus anything that does not permit us to travel down the path of least resistance can be motivated-reasoned out of existence.

NPF: FRENCH CONNECTION

Posted in No Politics Friday on February 13th, 2015 by Ed

Chassis. Coupe. Grille. Limousine. Chauffeur. Carburetor. Garage. Piston. Marque. Automobile. Ever wonder why so many of terms from the automotive world are of French origin?

The vast majority of the early mechanical innovations that made modern cars possible were German. Rudolf Diesel and Karl Benz developed the practical internal combustion engines and rudimentary drivetrains (roller chains, transmissions, etc) that, uh, paved the way (sorry) for the auto industry to develop. Americans like William Durant, Henry Ford, and other now-forgotten early pioneers in the industry are generally credited with advancements to the process of building cars more than of cars themselves; Ford's legendary Model T was, even by contemporary standards, a brutally primitive vehicle. Advances in the flair and styling of automobiles are largely due to the efforts of Italian (and some French) coachbuilders in the 1920s and 1930s.

So why all the French words? German makes more sense, since the automotive systems themselves were mostly invented and advanced there.

The simplest answer is that in the very early days of the industry – from 1890 to around 1910 – French companies dominated the production of cars in Europe. They may not have been coming up with many technological breakthroughs, but they did a better job initially of translating the German innovations into finished products. Armand Peugeot, for example, founded the eponymous company in 1890 making simple but functional cars with German Daimler-Benz engines. The Renault brothers did the same in 1898. Other now-forgotten marques that produced popular cars in the early years included Bollee (a locomotive manufacturer), Delahaye, Hotchkiss (founded by an American expatriate), Voisin, De Dion, and Bugatti (the name of which has been resurrected and is often but incorrectly thought to be Italian).

Unfortunately for France, while its companies may have gotten into the game first the products of those early manufacturers were superseded fairly quickly by British (Rolls-Royce), German (Daimler and later Mercedes-Benz), and Italian carmakers. For example, the much publicized 1907 Beijing-to-Paris auto rally was dominated by an Italia and a Spyker (Dutch) despite being sponsored and heavily hyped by French newspapers. The only part of the French auto industry that impressed anyone, in fact, was a tire company founded by a guy named Andre Michelin.

Since Renault pulled out of the US in 1987 – swallowed up first by American Motors and then Nissan – there have been no French cars brands sold here. If older Americans have any memory of brands like Renault, Peugeot, and Citroen it is unlikely that they were positive. The standard joke is that French cars combined the very worst of everything Europe had to offer: Italian quality (which is to say "terrible"), Eastern European styling, and German pricing. No one who laid eyes upon Renault's "Le Car" or drove Peugeot's somewhat attractive but legendarily ramshackle 405 Sedan would suggest a great American yearning for the return of French brands to our shores. The less said about Franco-American monstrosities like the Renault Alliance the better.

Being an early adopter does not guarantee success, but in the case of the auto industry it does guarantee strong representation in the glossary of industry-specific terminology.

LOYAL OPPOSITION

Posted in Rants on February 11th, 2015 by Ed

After nearly seven years of getting brownie points with their base by opposing literally everything that Barack Obama supports it is hardly worth mentioning the GOP strategy of obstructionism anymore. Oh, Obama proposed something. I wonder if Republicans will come out against it. The drama.

Nonetheless, I am getting a real kick out of seeing right-wingers jump on the anti-vaccine bandwagon. Because if Barack Obama is for something, being against it is automatically a brilliant political strategy. Whereas the vast majority of the electorate stopped paying attention to this shit sometime during Obama's first year, this one might come back to bite the GOP in the ass. Not only is there some theoretical limit to how much stupidity the voting public will endorse, but Republicans appear to be miscalculating both the size and the nature of the anti-vaccine "movement." Badly.

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Pictured above: The dumbest shit you will ever see.

Try as they might to make this some kind of individual liberty vs. Big Gub'mint issue, the vast majority of the American population is not wild about the idea of their kid getting whooping cough. And some voters are old enough to remember seeing some of their schoolmates hobbling around in clunky braces and with canes after polio waylaid them. The anti-vaccine position's popularity has been inflated by the strength of the reaction against it. This isn't climate change, an issue on which 40% of the public can oppose it based on motivated reasoning alone. This is not a popular belief.

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Some Republicans seem to realize this, which is why they are hiding behind contorted arguments like "I think everyone should get vaccinated but I don't think the government should be able to force you" which, when one considers that the second clause in that statement negates the first, is the kind of thing that a high school aged libertarian might think is clever.

"The opposite of whatever the black guy said" has been a pretty successful strategy for the Republicans thus far, at least among their core supporters. This time, however, their knee-jerk opposition is going to blow up in their faces. If this becomes even a minor issue in 2016 the candidates are going to rue the day they said the word "vaccine."