NPF: HUT HUT

Posted in No Politics Friday on January 29th, 2015 by Ed

These days it is trendy to make homes and other structures out of discarded metal shipping containers. Although not the ideal construction material they are strong, have a good deal of interior space, can be scaled (end to end, stacked, or welded "double wide" style after removing one side), and there are literally millions of the damn things lying around unused. They can be purchased for as little as $1500 to $2000 in used but undamaged condition. In recent years some architects and do-it-yourselfers have done some damn interesting things with them, building unique and often elaborate structures at minimal cost.

Recently, though, I found a great local example (which in Central Illinois means "sad") of a previous generation's version of this phenomenon: the Quonset Hut. These were prefabricated buildings built in the hundreds of thousands during World War II as an inexpensive, easy to erect (lololol), and surprisingly adequate form of shelter. They were particularly common in the Pacific, where the strategic occupation of deserted islands meant that scads of people had to be housed on desolate rocks without so much as a tree to be found. Made out of cheap materials like corrugated steel sheets and pressed board, the half dome shape provided strength, an open interior, and good ventilation when needed. It wasn't luxury living; the steel roof makes it sound an awful lot like living in half a trash can. Nonetheless it kept inhabitants out of the sun, wind, and rain. They were used as housing, barracks, prisons, mess halls, hospitals, outhouses, and for just about any other purpose that could be accommodated in 750 square feet of floor space.

Central Illinois, ladies and gentlemen

Central Illinois, ladies and gentlemen

At the War's end the government had more of these things than they knew what to do with, having ordered warehouses full of them in preparation with a long invasion of Japan that never happened. They were sold as surplus for next to nothing and sprung up around the country as cheap homes, bars, garages, small businesses, and storage spaces. As a testament to the durability of the very basic design, some of them are still around. Here's a neat selection of creative Quonset Hut homes and a neat art exhibition and book put together by architectural historians.

POWER PLAY

Posted in Quick Hits on January 28th, 2015 by Ed

As a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison (BA, Political Science, 1999) I continue to take an interest in the affairs of the school even though I left Wisconsin many years ago. Students, faculty, staff, and administrators throughout the UW system may feel powerless to fight back against their illiterate prick of a Governor's latest plan to close the $2 billion hole he created in the state budget by slashing taxes for the wealthy (Supply Side Economics: it works!) by gutting one of the only things the state has going for it economically to the tune of $300 million. Wisconsin, it seems, is in a race with Michigan to become the Alabama of the North.

So, unsolicited advice from an alum. The chancellor of UW-Madison and the Board of Regents for the state system should call a press conference tomorrow morning to announce that, effective immediately, all college athletic programs in the state have been disbanded due to budget cuts.

Walker-loving hillbillies sure do get a kick out of sticking it to them librul professors with their lattes and Volvos and fancy book learnin', but they like Badger football, hockey, and (perennial Sweet Sixteen or better) men's basketball even more. Not to mention the dozen other schools in the state with locally popular athletic programs. I've said this a million times, but if universities have to make "tough decisions" due to financial constraints they should start with the most popular but least important part of the budget.

Feel free to end the one-sentence announcement with, "Your move, asshole."

DIRTY LITTLE SECRETS

Posted in Rants on January 26th, 2015 by Ed

As a teenager I was really into lifting weights for a while. Part of it was believing that exercise would be good for me physically and mentally, and of course part of it was the overwhelming insecurity that leads people to spend an inordinate amount of time in the gym. This was in the mid-to-late 90s before the Internet was as valuable of a resource as it is today, so to keep from getting bored with exercise I would get things out of fitness magazines. You know, the ones with the shiny, freakish musclemen on the covers. "Muscle and Fitness" and "Modern Douchebag" or whatever.

Believe it or not, those magazines had (no idea whether this changed in the last fifteen years) pretty useful instructions and workout plans in them. I learned a lot about how to eat healthy from those stupid magazines after a childhood of frozen dinners and typical Midwestern fat people food. The strange thing was that working out did improve my physical condition and hell, maybe it even made me feel a little better too. But no matter what I did, I didn't look like the people in the pictures that accompanied the articles. I followed the diets to the letter, threw weights around like a champion, and generally led a physically healthy lifestyle. But I still looked like a normal person, probably because I am one.

As I got a bit older (and the internet pulled back the curtain) I figured out that, yes, someone who looks like a bodybuilder does eat healthy and lift weights a lot. That's not why they look that way, though. That's the metric buttload of steroids they're all on. The magazines conveniently forget to note that. Kind of an important piece of information. Of course none of the "athletes" if they can be so labeled will admit that. When asked, their superhuman physical condition is a result of Hard Work and clean living. Eat your vegetables, kids!

In a rare example of perfect timing on the heels of Monday's post, Salon ran a piece about the dirty little secret of the publishing industry and journalism: a lot of people are only able to succeed at it because they have someone (living or dead) supporting them financially. And in all but the rarest cases, they absolutely refuse to admit it. They do that thing Americans excel at – attributing their failures to others but claiming full credit for their successes. I found this example useful:

Example two. A reading in a different city, featuring a 30-ish woman whose debut novel had just appeared on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. I didn’t love the book (a coming-of-age story set among wealthy teenagers) but many people I respect thought it was great, so I defer. The author had herself attended one of the big, East Coast prep schools, while her parents were busy growing their careers on the New York literary scene. These were people — her parents — who traded Christmas cards with William Maxwell and had the Styrons over for dinner. She, the author, was their only beloved child.

After prep school, she’d earned two creative writing degrees (Iowa plus an Ivy). Her first book was being heralded by editors and reviewers all over the country, many of whom had watched her grow up. It was a phenomenon even before it hit bookshelves. She was an immediate star.

When (again) an audience member, clearly an undergrad, rose to ask this glamorous writer to what she attributed her success, the woman paused, then said that she had worked very, very hard and she’d had some good training, but she thought in looking back it was her decision never to have children that had allowed her to become a true artist. If you have kids, she explained to the group of desperate nubile writers, you have to choose between them and your writing. Keep it pure. Don’t let yourself be distracted by a baby’s cry.

I was dumbfounded. I wanted to leap to my feet and shout. “Hello? Alice Munro! Doris Lessing! Joan Didion!” Of course, there are thousands of other extraordinary writers who managed to produce art despite motherhood. But the essential point was that, the quality of her book notwithstanding, this author’s chief advantage had nothing to do with her reproductive decisions. It was about connections. Straight up. She’d had them since birth.

You wonder if the author actually believes that her success wasn't virtually handed to her or if she realizes it and simply thinks it would be gauche to admit it. Or maybe, as the writer of the Salon piece suggests, nobody wants to admit that because to do so would be to destroy the myth that published Authors are better than everyone else who writes. The difference between the award-winning author in this anecdote and some waitress trying to write a novel around the sixty hours she works every week to stay afloat might be talent. Or it might be the luxury of sitting around and devoting 8 hours per day to writing while someone else pays the rent. That might have something to do with it.

The reality is that writing – literary or as a journalist – pays so poorly these days and is so often expected to be done for "exposure" rather than money that only people who don't need a paycheck can afford (pun intended) to do it. The effect on the kind of books and news stories we see is obvious; call it Lena Dunham Syndrome, a self contained world of writing by trust fund kids for other trust fund kids. The number of "voices" to be heard in the literary world is limited by the fact that the voices that actually need to work for a living tend not to write nearly as many books.

VALEDICTION

Posted in Rants on January 26th, 2015 by Ed

I assume that most of the like, seven people who read this thing are similar to me demographically: plowing through their 30s or 40s in the wasteland of the economy we thought we would live in as children. On the very off chance that anyone who sees this is young enough that his or her course through life has not yet been cast in stone, here is the sum of what I've learned in life. I wish someone had told me this when I was a teenager. Maybe it will be useful to you.

As a young person – and by that I mean, when I was in high school and college – adults told me that if I tried really hard at the correct things I would be successful in life. Be smart, work hard, and don't succumb to the temptations of idleness and fun. Accordingly I never did anything fun. You are reading the word "never" and thinking it is an example of a writer using poetic license. But I am quite serious. I had no friends in college or high school. Never went to a party. Never got drunk. Never dated (not that it was an option). Never blew off a class. Never went out. I just studied and studied more and kicked the ass of every course or standardized test I came across. And all along I was assured that this would lead to great success eventually.

Here is the thing. None of that is true. I was lied to. And by the time I figured that out it was far too late. Let me tell you a secret about this country: it's not all that different than medieval England in terms of its social classes. Either you were born into money and your life will turn out fine no matter what you do or you were born without it and your life will pretty much be mediocre or shitty no matter how hard you fight it. Oh, you'll be comfortable. You'll make enough to live indoors and drive a functioning car. You'll just never be happy because you will be dependent on a paycheck and whatever you have to do in order to get it will probably be miserable. The only people who get to be happy are the ones who have enough money that they don't have to do things they know they will despise in order to get paid.

So as much as it irritates me to deal with students who refuse to put the slightest bit of effort into their educations, in reality they are all far smarter than I was. Either they are wealthy and no matter how badly they fuck up they will make five times what I ever will and will live great lives or they are plebeians who might as well get in all the fun they can in college before they begin their forty years of soul-crushing drudgery.

That's the great American myth: that working hard gets you anywhere. It doesn't. Working hard makes someone else a lot of money off of your effort. You just end up tired and frustrated. The kids you knew in college with the trust funds and the summer homes in Aspen run the world no matter how hard you work. They make money by exploiting you and there's absolutely nothing you can do about it because you don't have a giant pile of money that allows you to walk away from things you find repugnant.

People used to tell me I was smart. Since I didn't figure any of this out until I was in my 30s, I guess they were wrong. Don't make the same mistake. You'll end up waking up one morning to realize the depths of your personal and professional failures, and that it's too late to do anything about them. I promise you'll kick yourself for not having at least the memory of good times to remind you that even if everything is drudgery now, you had fun when the opportunities arose.

Out of the thousands of things I've learned, this is the only one that I think anyone else might benefit from hearing. Regrets are the worst things, and once your life is pretty much over they will pile up at a rate you can scarcely imagine when you are young and full of optimism.

NPF: LOVELY MEN WITH UGLY NAMES

Posted in No Politics Friday on January 22nd, 2015 by Ed

The tradition of presidents introducing guests at the State of the Union address and telling homey / heartwarming / inspirational stories about them is young in the grand scheme of American history. The first instance was in 1982 and it quickly became a bulwark of the Cheap Political Theater repertoire for the men in the White House. And there is a name for the phenomenon: a guest referenced by the president during the address is called a "Lenny Skutnik." Why? Well I'm glad you asked.

On January 13, 1982, just a week before the SOTU address, Washington D.C. was experiencing one of its worst winter storms in recent memory. A 737 from now-defunct Air Florida prepared to take off in 20 F and moderate to heavy snowfall. After being de-iced, delays caused the plane to wait for 49 minutes on the apron before being cleared for takeoff. Already running late, the pilots chose to take off rather than returning to apply another de-icing spray. Several other errors of inexperience with flying in snow (Air Florida, after all) including the failure to activate the integral engine de-icing system resulted in the plane attempting to take off with substantially less thrust than the instruments indicated. Imagine your speedometer reading 65 but your actual speed barely hitting 40 thanks to a half ton layer of ice.

The engines wheezed and choked with ice as the plane barely made it off the ground. Almost immediately it lost lift. It rapidly descended into the frozen solid Potomac River, striking the 14th Street bridge (killing four drivers in traffic bound cars) and smashing into the ice. It sank almost immediately. Some passengers are presumed to have survived the crash, as the plane barely got off the ground, but with heavy winter clothing and subzero water temperatures most of them never had a chance. As horrified crowds looked on a small number of flailing human forms appeared on the surface of the water. But without immediate rescue, the cold water would take them too.

A US Park Police helicopter was on it almost immediately, flying dangerously low over the water to drop a line to six survivors. One passenger, later identified as Arland Williams, Jr., passed the lifeline to other people three separate times. He did not survive. One woman he tried to help was too weak from hypothermia to hold the line. She was sinking in full view of hundreds of freezing onlookers.

Heroism called. Lenny Skutnik, a Mississippian working for the Congressional Budget Office, accepted the charges.

He took off his coat and boots and launched himself into the water. He broke his foot striking a chunk of ice, but fortunately he was too frozen to notice it. He somehow dragged the woman to the shore. She was the last survivor of Flight 90 and Martin "Lenny" Skutnik became a national hero overnight. President Reagan invited him to the address and said:

In the midst of a terrible tragedy on the Potomac, we saw again the spirit of American heroism at its finest – the heroism of dedicated rescue workers saving crash victims from icy waters. And we saw the heroism of one of our young Government employees, Lenny Skutnik, who, when he saw a woman lose her grip on the helicopter line, dived into the water and dragged her to safety.

It was the last time a Republican praised someone who worked for the government.

74 of 79 passengers and crew on Flight 90 died, as did 4 people on the bridge. Skutnik, who also received the Coast Guard Lifesaving Medal and a thousand other awards, retired in 2010 after 31 years of service at the CBO. Air Florida filed for bankruptcy two years later. Its market niche was later filled by a startup called ValuJet.

Sigh.

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HOLD THE LINE

Posted in Rants on January 22nd, 2015 by Ed

Another day, another person with hands in the air doing nothing that could even remotely be construed as threatening or illegal being shot dead by a cop. The professional cop apologists will behave as they always do, dragging out the dead man's apparent criminal record (conveniently ignoring the number of complaints filed against the officers involved, as their histories are never relevant) and noting gravely that he did something the cop told him not to do and therefore he merited the death sentence. You know, like it says in that one part of the Constitution: "If you don't do what the police tell you, they get to shoot you." I think it's in Article IV.

The question that needs to be put to the cop apologists out there is: What could a police officer do that you wouldn't argue is justified? Since no matter what the police do the same people always leap to their defense with the same excuses, that suggests the statistically impossible reality that nothing the police do is unjustifiable. If their beliefs were based on any kind of objective reality there would have to be at least one instance in which we could all look at police actions and say "Yeah, that's totally unacceptable. Clearly over the line." There would be some historical example they could point to and say "This is the limit of what I can make excuses for."

Since they can't, the rest of us can safely ignore their tired routine as the ramblings of authoritarian-follower personality types claiming to create the appearance of logic in what for them is really a matter of blind, unwavering faith.

THEATER OF THE ABSURD

Posted in Rants on January 20th, 2015 by Ed

Being asked to give the response to the State of the Union address is the political equivalent of Al Neri inviting Fredo Corleone to join him in a fishing boat on a quiet, remote lake. More than one Budding Career on the national stage has arrived stillborn during SOTU responses, with Bobby Jindal and Marco Rubio being prominent examples. Nobody watches it, nobody talks about it unless you fuck up or look like a death row prisoner giving his last interview (Rubio), and its content is usually little more than a short, petulant tantrum about whatever the President just said. It is the worst job in American politics.

Terrible SOTU responses are the norm; the speaker inevitably looks like he or she is being forced to do it at gunpoint. There is no audience, just one person in an empty room in front of what looks like the old Masterpiece Theatre library backdrop. It combines the juvenile trash talking of a pro wrestling promo with the frightening sterility of a terrorist beheading video. I cannot imagine an environment designed more completely to ensure failure. I haven't seen every SOTU response ever, but I do know for certain that I have never seen a good one. Most of them would have to improve considerably to qualify as Terrible.

Every year I think it can't get any worse or more ridiculous and almost every year I am wrong. On Tuesday evening we were subjected to Joni Ernst, an Iowa Republican who has been in the Senate for all of two weeks, giving a speech that made Jindal's "Kenneth the Page" impression look like an FDR Inaugural. It is clear why Republicans are so over-the-top patriotic, as in any other country someone like Ernst would be a minor bureaucrat at best, pushing papers around at the DMV or night-managing a KFC. In the United States she gets to be a Senator. What a country.

This is a speech written by idiots for even bigger idiots, delivered by a suit so empty that she looks totally unaware of how much she is embarrassing herself. The text is so ludicrous and fake-rustic that she is to be commended for keeping a straight face throughout, and the only question anyone could have at the end is, "Why is she talking to me like I'm four?"

The only logical explanation for this kind of performance art is that the political class is engaged in a concerted effort to make Americans cynical enough to stop paying attention to politics altogether. It's working.

HERE COMES SANTA CLAUS

Posted in Rants on January 19th, 2015 by Ed

Plenty of observers have noted in recent years that Martin Luther King, Jr. is slowly being turned into some kind of benevolent and harmless Santa Claus figure as his life and death recede farther into the past. The majority of Americans today weren't alive during King's lifetime. They didn't see segregation and the lengths to which southern white people went to maintain it. Sure, they've probably read about it (not that kids are learning much about it these days) but we're starting to see the effect of generations of kids growing up with the pre-Civil Rights Movement south as a historical abstraction rather than a direct experience. As the many lamentable events of 2014 highlighted, for most white Americans the only race problem this country has is that black people don't work hard enough or they demand special treatment. And MLK becomes an increasingly confusing figure as more time passes and more ignorant people, willfully or otherwise, clamor to take ownership of his legacy. To a young adult today, he is a guy that has a street named after him in the second-most neglected neighborhood in every city and a big, pleasantly chubby man who had some kind of dream that apparently worked out fine. Oh, and he was a Republican.

Last year was a banner one for showcasing how deeply divided and, frankly, fucked up America and Americans are about race. We have a system and a culture that demonizes, marginalizes, and institutionalizes black people in too many ways to count. We collectively see black men as shiftless layabouts who spend their days selling drugs and planning to do violence to white people, while black women are welfare-mooching baby factories with incomprehensible names. White society passes these lessons down from one generation to the next, and since the mainstreaming of the lunatic conservative fringe in the 1990s we've increasingly raised people to believe that all of our past issues with race (which really weren't that bad!) were resolved in 1964. Since then the red carpet has been laid out for black Americans, who through a combination of moral lassitude and government enabling have instead chosen to leech, pilfer, and violate the society that so generously welcomed them.

As I watched what happened in Ferguson, NYC, Cleveland, and too many other places to count last year – and particularly watched how white people reacted in many cases with an amount of bile and racist invective that would have made a 1920s Klansman blush – I wonder if America's race problem is actually worse today than it was when Martin Luther King lived. Sure, we no longer have segregated theater seating and public bathrooms. But back in the days of Jim Crow, society didn't even bother to pretend that black people were equal or treated equally. Somehow the widespread perception among whites today that black people (and other people of color) are treated equally despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary has made things worse. We've traded brutal, immoral honesty for a delusion that has made us more bitter by the day.

THE BIG SATISFICE

Posted in Rants on January 15th, 2015 by Ed

I can't seem to travel without incident. The concept of purchasing a plane ticket, having the plane depart at the scheduled time, connecting to a different but equally punctual flight, and then arriving when scheduled simply does not exist in my world (And flying from a podunk airport, neither does the concept of a direct flight). I will spare you the details but an itinerary claiming to get me to New Orleans at 3 PM on Wednesday ended with me crawling into my room just short of midnight.

After a full day of exasperation and three different flights out of Atlanta to New Orleans either missed or too full to accommodate me, the folks at – oh, I don't want to use the name of a real airline here so let's just make up a name for the worst goddamn airline you could imagine, something like "Delta" – finally crammed me onto the last plane of the day. Having already been delayed nearly six hours, during which they didn't so much as offer us a bottle of water, I was supposed to be happy about this.

Having complained (predictably and loudly) about the experience on the internet, several of my friends texted me when I finally got my ass on an airplane to express something to the effect of, "Finally, some good news!" The idea that I was going to be taken to my destination rather than having to sleep on an airport floor and be taken there tomorrow was certainly welcome news. But is it good? How is it good that I got dicked around all day until the airline finally agreed to do what I paid them to do?

Now I know what my friends meant and clearly I was reading too much into the choice of words. Here they are talking to a person with debilitating depression who tends to spiral when bad things start happening; of course they are going to direct me toward the most positive way to look at the situation. But I spent the next hour or so (thankfully airborne) thinking about that. When people say "good news" in this context it is only true in the sense that the news wasn't even worse. It's not "good" per se. What they meant was, "Isn't it great that the airline didn't screw you even more than they already have?"

Yes, it is. But that isn't what "good" is.

It occurred to me just how much of this kind of satisficing we are bombarded with these days, especially since the Great Recession began in 2008. "Good" is now defined as "better than the worst things could possibly be." Your boss works you like a dog and pays you terribly? It could be worse! You could have no job at all! Be happy about having a job! Don't want to vote for a pathetic excuse for a Democrat? Well the GOP is even worse! You paid for something and got shafted? Well be glad XYZ didn't happen, that's even worse! You know, because as long as things could conceivably be even worse they are now, by definition, good. Or what passes for good.

It's like we've thrown up our hands collectively and admitted that we have given up on the idea of having anything that's actually Good in this society and now we simply pick the best of whatever shit options are available and call that Good. Good no longer means Good; it means Better Than. It means you could have it worse.

Obviously I am loopy from making an 12 hour trip out of a 4 hour one, but when I thought (too much) about it I realized just how pervasive this kind of thinking is. In my own life and throughout our culture. We've sort of accepted that everything will be at least kind of shitty because, frankly, we've ruined most of the things that used to be great about this country far beyond any hope of repair. So we are constantly encouraged with this overarching take-what-you-can-get mentality in the hope that people are dumb enough not to notice that nothing is actually any good anymore. A good candidate is one who is less repugnant than his opponent. A good school is one that is dysfunctional rather than really dysfunctional or physically dangerous. Good customer service is waiting on hold for 45 minutes to have your problem kinda sorta dealt with rather than being completely ignored. A good job is not having no job.

Herbert Simon called this kind of behavior "satisficing", the tendency not to hold out for the absolute best but instead to set a bar and take the first option that is over it. It's not inherently a depressing mentality, at least not until you realize how far you have to lower the bar before anything can clear it.

PRISONER'S DILEMMA

Posted in Rants on January 13th, 2015 by Ed

In one of its better recent episodes, Frontline looked at the rise of solitary confinement in American prisons. Like so many other mindlessly punitive and counterproductive aspects of our justice system, solitary confinement exploded in popularity during the Reagan years. The rationale sounds good on the surface – to remove inmates who are so violent and dangerous that the staff and other inmates are not safe around them. The problem, as the medical profession has known for well over a century, is that solitary confinement makes people insane. Like, really insane. And quickly. Take a superficially normal person, seal them in a box with next to nothing to do, surround their cage with other solitary inmates of dubious mental fitness, and wait about two months. See how normal they are then.

Our correctional and justice systems have been flawed for generations. In the last three decades, however, things have gone from flawed to irreparable. The bad ideas and the institutional pathologies have compounded one another as one harebrained Tough on Crime scheme after another – each chosen not because evidence suggested they would be effective but because they made old, wussy elected officials look Tough – was implemented to disastrous effect. It's hard to pinpoint just one factor as the predominant cause of the overcrowded, back-breakingly expensive mess we now have: abandoning the concept of rehabilitation in favor of a Dickensian punitive approach, mandatory minimum sentencing, the War on Drugs, the collapse of the manufacturing base in the 1970s and 1980s (When the factories and mills disappear, the prisons never fail to open up in their place), laws that target the poor and are designed to keep them trapped in the criminal justice system in perpetuity, the inability of convicted felons to get jobs and loans…take your pick. It is any of those and all of them.

If it feels like nothing we try to reform the prison system works it is because it is too far gone to be reformed. Sometimes I feel like the only thing we can do is burn it down to the ground and start over from scratch. It sounds like a desperate solution because it is, and if it sounds like a joke it's not. If nothing can fix this mess, then let's take everyone who hasn't committed a violent felony, release them, wipe the slate clean, and start over with a prison system that does something beyond warehouse the poor and ensure that everyone who leaves prison does so more violent, angry, and socially maladjusted than when they entered.

While the correctional systems in other countries are not flawless, the U.S. system stands alone among its peer nations for the dysfunction in our courts and prisons. Our prison system more closely resembles Mexico or Brazil than EU nations, Canada, or Japan. We are doing so many things that don't work that changing any single one is like bailing out the Titanic with a bucket. So we keep doing the things we know don't work – solitary confinement, for example – because we can't think of anything better or we lack the political will and intelligence to implement useful changes. It is fitting that so many Americans believe Criminals are beyond redemption since that phrase describes the prisons that hold them perfectly.