AHH, MEMORIES

Posted in Quick Hits on April 1st, 2015 by Ed

It has been a long time, but just in case you feel like reliving the anger and amazement at the howling stupidity of your fellow citizens all over again the CIA declassified the ration of shit / document used to justify the Iraq War.

I don't see why this would be especially newsworthy. It's not like there's anything to be learned from that experience.

I BELIEVE IN MAGIC

Posted in Rants on March 31st, 2015 by Ed

Midwestern states haven't done a great job of passing useful laws lately, but Illinois is making progress toward a law to ban "rolling coal." For those of you who live in areas that are populated by people who read books and have hopes and dreams, let me briefly explain: that is "the act of modifying a diesel vehicle, usually a pickup truck, to spew black smoke and soot." Last summer a number of viral videos of homemade smokestacks on otherwise normal pickup trucks inspired this insipid trend, giving morons everywhere a new way to warn people of their existence.

If this is the kind of thing that seems fun or amusing to you I'd recommend a nice, tall glass of acetone before bed tonight.

I read a lot of auto-themed blogs and look at a few Euro car message boards on occasion. Between the comment sections and the general level of discourse on any male-centric message board you can imagine the kind of stupidity one can come across in those corners of the internet. It's not quite as mind-numbingly bad as what you see on sports-oriented stuff, but it's still about what you could expect in terms of political and social commentary from an interest that appeals mainly to men, mostly white, of average or better income. Let's just say The Unions are to blame for a lot of things wrong with various cars and car companies.

When the topic of "rolling coal" comes up, as it does periodically, two things stand out. One is that the idiocy of the people who do this is agreed upon as close to unanimously as anything I can recall seeing on the internet. Even the troll-iest of trolls can bring themselves to say "lololol awesome!" or "I don't see anything wrong with this u bunch of whiny pussies" on this topic. Americans do not appear able to agree on anything save that people who do this are idiots. Second, people believe some very strange things about how incentives work.

The mantra of the Internet White Guy is used a lot: "I totally disagree with this and think anyone who does it is awful, but I don't think it should be illegal." You know, because Freedom or Big Government is Bad or (insert nonsense interpretation of some part of the Constitution) or Obama or whatever. Coal-rolling is far from the only subject on which you will hear this. Government is bad, laws are bad, so we should condemn unacceptable behaviors and…what, shame people out of doing them? Wait until they see the light? Live with it indefinitely?

What, for example, other than a harsh fine is going to convince people to stop doing this? We are not dealing with logic here, nor are we dealing with rocket scientists. Right-wingers always go on and on about how stupid The People are, and yet their preferred "Let The Market handle it" solution depends entirely on individuals being rational enough to realize that their behavior needs to change. And in this case, that change needs to take place in the absence of any incentives to do so.

To be clear, if you're not comfortable with the idea of making certain behaviors against the law then you are comfortable living in a world in which they continue indefinitely. No matter how many times you click your heels and make wishes, people aren't going to stop doing terrible shit just because you tell them you disapprove. People stupid enough to do something like this have the irritating tendency to fail to respond to reasoned arguments.

LABELING

Posted in Rants on March 29th, 2015 by Ed

Those of us 40 and older no doubt remember Ronald Reagan's first summer in office (1981) coming to a crescendo on August 3 with his now-infamous ultimatum to the nation's striking air traffic controllers. Their union, PATCO (Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization) was effectively broken in the process. When Reagan demanded that the 13,000 employees return to work within 48 hours or forfeit their jobs, it was no idle threat. Since public employee unions were forbidden by law to strike, he was able to use the authority of the Attorney General and Secretary of Labor to de-certify PATCO. With the possible exception of the auto sit-down strikes, the Norris-LaGuardia Act, or Youngstown v Sawyer, it was the most important moment in 20th Century labor history in the United States.

Recently I recalled doing some research years ago and coming across Reagan's press conference Q&A after making his announcement (transcript here). I was struck at the time, and reminded over the past few days, at how frank he was. Unions were still fairly popular in 1981 although their decline in power and popularity was already underway. And Reagan, for whom I think you all know I have no excess of admiration, said, "Here's what we're going to do" and then did it. While I disagree vehemently with the course of action he took, at least he had the decency to be honest about it. When shitting all over a group of people, in this case PATCO, an elected official should never be hesitant to say "The purpose of these actions is to shit all over PATCO." If he has the strength of convictions that he claims to have, there should be no hesitation to tell the situation exactly like it is.

This came to mind over the weekend watching and listening to Mike Pence nervously sputter into cameras in an attempt to explain that despite all appearances to the contrary, the recent law passed in Indiana totally isn't about legalizing discrimination against gays. It is a textbook case of the lady protesting too much, with every appeal to "religious freedom" making it sound less and less likely that religious freedom has anything at all to do with the motive. Throughout all of this – I've received a heavier than usual dose of this controversy since I lived in Indiana for 7 years and still have dozens of friends there – I find myself desperate for someone, anyone, to come out (phrasing) and admit that they just don't like The Gays much. Pence has promised to "clarify" the "intent" of the law, and I'm hoping that will consist of explaining that Indiana has a huge population of old, rural, white people who fear change and hate their shitty lives so they need to pretend it's 1950 and take it out on some social minority group. If we can make it sound noble by appealing to religion, all the better.

To many of you there may not be much of a difference in practice between "discriminatory" and "discriminatory and sanctimonious." It's true that the effect of the law is the same no matter how it is packaged and sold. I'd argue that in a way the rhetorical obfuscation makes it worse. The animosity is real no matter how we burnish it with florid words, so why kid ourselves?

(Oh, and fun fact: Ronald Reagan was the only president who was actually in a labor union – the SAG. Of which he was briefly president.)

NPF: OH. OK.

Posted in No Politics Friday on March 27th, 2015 by Ed

It's not hard to think of a list of historical events that would be interesting to see if we could time travel. I suppose most of us would gravitate toward a relatively short and predictable list of events we would choose to see. My first choice would be a dark horse, though. I'd go to Plymouth Colony in 1621 to see the looks on the faces of the colonists as they encountered a Native American who spoke at them in flawless English.

First they're walking through the woods talking about Olde Tyme things when someone says, I don't know, maybe "Hark! The Red Man approacheth!" Then they did that thing that English speaking white people still do today – assuming that the lack of a mutually intelligible language can be overcome with volume. "GREETINGS, NOBLE SAVAGE! ME, JOHN. WE BRING GIFT, TRADE FOR FOOD." And the Indian fellows look at each other, then one turns and says "We have some corn, John, but why are you yelling?"

Since the English had the damndest time trying to pronounce the local Indian words, the young man's name, Tisquantum, became "Squanto." Close enough I guess. I mean, the guy saved your lives. Don't bother to learn his name or anything. His life story is so ridiculous that if they made a movie about it, nobody would believe it is true.

In 1605, a little remembered explorer named George Weymouth, who was exploring the New England coastline for potential locations for a future colony, picked up Squanto and some other local Indians. Sources disagree on whether they were taken as slaves or enticed with money. Either way, they returned to England and Squanto, a teenager at the time, learned English to serve as an interpreter. After almost a decade in England he joined the voyage of John Smith to Plymouth as a hired hand. He returned to his homeland in 1614…and then was kidnapped immediately by one of Smith's men, taken to Spain, and sold into slavery (for certain this time). Spanish friars rescued the enslaved Native Americans (on the condition that they convert to Catholicism, of course) and Squanto eventually persuaded them to let him return to London. He did in 1617 and worked for two years as a shipbuilder and interpreter, returning to North America with John Smith in 1620.

He promptly made his way back to Plymouth, finding almost his entire tribe dead from European diseases.

Offering to help the struggling English colonists, Squanto visited a neighboring tribe as an emissary. As he attempted to negotiate on the behalf of Plymouth, the tribe took him hostage and threatened to kill him. The armed raid led by a small group of colonists to rescue him may have been the first formal conflict of arms between white Europeans and Native Americans in New England. In any case he was freed and rejoined the colony, only to die of a fever shortly after in 1622. While his birth date is obviously not known, it is speculated that he was around 30.

I find it unacceptable that for all the nonsense we teach kids about American history, we omit the parts that are actually interesting.

WATERWORLD

Posted in Rants on March 24th, 2015 by Ed

Whenever someone mentions that the world will run out of oil and natural gas someday, I enjoy pointing out that there's no point in worrying about it. We'll run out of potable water before that can happen.

Regarding the geographic shifts in the American population (favoring the Sun Belt) over the past thirty years I say the same: Don't worry, they'll be back when they finally kill the Colorado River. And their groundwater. And their reservoirs. I mean, at the rate that Desert Metropolises like Phoenix, Vegas, and Los Angeles are pissing through the available resources, the Great Lakes region will start looking very good in the next decade or three. Not that Texas won't be a joy when the water's mostly gone and our summers have heated up even more.

Any discussion of depleting a natural resource sounds, by definition, at least a little alarmist. We have so little direct experience with and social context for running out of anything here in the land of eternal plenty that it makes sense for most people to be unable to wrap their minds around it. Logically, though, it would make less sense to believe that things that cannot be man-made (or can be only at great cost) won't be exhausted someday. I mean, compare oil depletion scenarios to the belief that the Earth makes oil in its crust and tell me which one is nuts.

The unprecedented drought in California is drawing more attention to the issue, with reliable estimates that the supply of stored water is down to about one year. This does not imply, as some news outlets concluded, that California will be "out of water" in a year. At some point it'll rain and alleviate the immediate crisis. It does indicate that a potential disaster is never more than a few years off under the present circumstances, though.

The US and other developed countries are positively drowning in water compared to the rest of the world though. Changing consumption patterns, population growth, and changing climate add up to demand for water outpacing supply by nearly half in 2030, according to the UN. If the world thinks it has seen wars over resources, wait until it sees two massively populated but impoverished countries fighting over the last of the available water. I kind of picture it like the Battle of Helms Deep, but more dehydrated.

People tend to have an unshakable faith in technology to solve these problems for us. It's not in fact the worst argument in the world. History has given us a number of examples of how we've been able as a species to overcome some of our limitations with science. I would believe, for example, that by the time the oil runs out a synthetic substitute or alternative might be available. There's not many candidates for "water substitute," though.

Places like Southern California, the UAE, and Western Australia are relying at present on desalination as their savior. But desalination is a remarkably expensive and energy-intensive process. In most uses it also does little more than supplement cheaper and more accessible sources of water to meet the needs of large populations. The number and scale of desalination plants that would be necessary to support California's 40,000,000 people (not to mention Phoenix and Vegas, who will probably need pipelines) is impractical veering toward impossible, even if we disregard the ecological impact of large scale desalination.

I don't think it's going to be tomorrow or even a decade from now, but at some point in my lifetime I expect to live in a world in which deserts once again resemble deserts and the illogic of having a sprawling metropolis in the middle of one cannot be ignored. The Southwest will resemble (as it once did) the Australian Outback when the capacity to support four or five million people in a place like Phoenix disappears for good. In places less wealthy than the US, it's neither bold nor prescient to predict that the situation is likely to get much uglier.

Don't worry though: the good news is that an ever-increasing share of the global potable water supply is being handed over to private corporations. That should help.

RED TIDE

Posted in Quick Hits on March 23rd, 2015 by Ed

I generally find very little interesting about the hybrid of Big Data worship and undergraduate-level methods skills at Five Thirty Eight. This infographic produced in the wake of Ted Cruz's announcement – Good luck, asshat – has a lot going on in addition to the basic message that his candidacy is going absolutely nowhere.

enten-datalab-cruz-1

Several things stand out.

1. Republicans who actually won the presidency in the past probably would not be able to win the nomination today. It says a lot about the massive changes in the GOP since the 1980s that George HW Bush and Richard Nixon are virtually communists by the current standards.

2. Holy shit was Barry Goldwater out there. He is probably too conservative to get elected today, which means that in 1964 he must have looked like Kaiser Wilhelm next to the other candidates of the day. That decade was a time of transition and change politically, but the leap from Eisenhower to Goldwater…wow.

3. Look at the staggeringly large gap between public statements and congressional voting record for both Pauls. Ron and Rand might – hold on to your seats – have a tendency to say one thing and do another. However, the conservatism of their congressional voting records is no doubt skewed by the fact that most votes in Congress are economic and regulatory in nature. These issues are the ones where the Pauls are on the far right. On some social and foreign policy issues they are, in line with their libertarian philosophy, not quite as conservative. Congress doesn't vote on those things nearly as often, though. Social issues are basically just campaign fodder and they're more likely to figure prominently in the Supreme Court docket than the agenda in Congress.

4. Chris Christie is going nowhere slowly.

5. Man there have been some dog crap Republican candidates over the past few years. Ah, John Kasich. We hardly knew ye.

MAYBE SIT THE NEXT COUPLE OF PLAYS OUT

Posted in Quick Hits on March 23rd, 2015 by Ed

This is long, and I'm unsure what I can add to it other than to say that this is an attitude one encounters often when dealing with college students and I never have any idea what to do about it. But you really should read it.

Oh, and I don't think this kid or many of his peers have the slightest idea what the word "satire" means. He keeps using it and appears to understand it only as the thing you claim you were doing when you get in hot water for saying or doing something awful. It's telling that this kid thought an outside audience would be sympathetic if only "their side" could be heard. It says a lot about how coddled and cloistered these kids are. Everyone they interact with shares their mindset and you can see how much it shocks them to be exposed to criticism from people outside the bubble. I suspect that they rationalize it with their traditional "Those people are just jealous because I'm so awesome" mantra.

Oh alright, one more thing: this is why attorneys tell their clients never to do interviews. Seriously kid, I know you think you're helping your Bros but you're not. Maybe stop talking.

NPF: SPRING BREAAAAAK! *EXPOSES BREASTS*

Posted in No Politics Friday on March 20th, 2015 by Ed

This week has been spring break at my university. I'm on record being stridently anti-spring break; when the students return they are already Done with the semester and mentally on Summer Vacation. This is especially true of upperclassmen. And I understand completely. You're let out of school for 10 days, you're nearly graduated, and you're now expected to come back for, what, six more weeks and focus on reading textbook chapters and studying for finals? It would be reasonable to be more preoccupied with, you know, finding a job or preparing for the terrifying world beyond formal education or just plain old being burned out on college coursework. It has always made more sense to me to skip spring break and simply end the semester a week sooner. For students who lack the means to jet off to Cancun there's nothing to do in the middle of March anyway.

That said, I don't control the schedule so I try to make the most of the break. Namely, I try to get some actual work done for the first time this semester. Something about my current situation isn't, uh, conducive to me being very productive. So on a lark I went on airbnb, searched randomly for anything not in a city and within 250-300 miles of my house, and rented a stranger's house in the middle of nowhere for seven days. My theory was that with absolutely nothing to do for entertainment and no one I know or work with providing distractions (welcome or otherwise) I would be able to work uninterrupted for an extended stretch.

You guys, I'm not kidding: I have never gotten so much done in one week in my life. Not even close. Even when I was working on my dissertation and pulling 18 hour days I didn't accomplish this much. This may be the best idea I've ever had, or simply the first good one. It's hard to tell.

There's no reason in theory that I couldn't have simply done this at home. Or in my office. The disconnects between theory and reality are numerous though. I do have some friends, and the temptation to socialize is there. My office is a depressing windowless closet on the most depressing college campus you've ever seen. My house bears some resemblance to a set from "The Wire" and looks out upon a junkyard and a bunch of abandoned buildings. And while the distractions would be pretty minimal over break, it's really amazing (having reflected on it over the past few days) how little research and writing I get done when I'm "at work." It's just impossible to work without interruption. There's always something to grade, another class to prepare for, an exam to write, some meeting to attend, an inbox full of student emails, or someone coming into my office to interrupt. Now, I get that students are the reason I'm employed and I don't think I shouldn't have to have them roaming in and out of my office if they so choose. The fact of the matter is, however, that it makes it hard to get other things done.

But it pales in comparison to the single biggest time suck, the one thing that guarantees that no work gets done At Work: I think on the average day I lose about half of the time I could potentially be getting something done in conversations with co-workers. Again, it's not that I don't like them or don't want to talk to them. It's just another reality of the workplace that runs counter to productivity. Academic writing and research aren't something you can do five minutes at a time. It's not like stuffing envelopes (although it is approximately as exciting). It requires long, uninterrupted periods of immersion and mania. And that isn't available at home or at the office, period.

Perhaps I will start doing this more often, because for the first time in forever I feel good about the amount I got done this week. The panic that comes from feeling like I need to get more things done has subsided. Don't worry, it'll come flooding back next week. But if you need a house-sitter, let me know.

MISSING IN ACTION

Posted in Quick Hits on March 18th, 2015 by Ed

Just a reminder that if you aren't following Gin and Tacos on Facebook you don't know what you're missing.

ALLOCATING RESOURCES

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

One of the ironies of the low quality of work that one often receives from college students is that they often put a tremendous amount of effort into attempting to get a higher grade after the fact. On more than one occasion I have told a student sincerely, "If you had put as much effort into doing the assignment as you have put into lobbying for a higher grade, this conversation would be unnecessary." It might sound sarcastic but it's absolutely true. In many cases they put a ton of effort into getting a good grade – they just don't allocate the effort wisely. Do it before the paper is due and it will benefit your grade a lot; afterward the same amount of effort is likely to accomplish nothing.

I mention this because I often wonder why police can't devote as much effort to doing their job properly as they do into covering up the things they do wrong. Some good old fashioned investigative reporting has uncovered a trail of Wikipedia edits on entries for Eric Garner, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, and other people killed by NYPD officers over the years, all coming from 1 Police Plaza. Editing Wikipedia is not the most labor intensive process on Earth (although honestly the more active pages are almost impossible to edit these days unless you've been involved for a long time) but there are quite a few of them spread out over time. If only there were something more useful to do with that time than search the internet and attempt to whitewash facts about things the department has done that cast it in a negative light.

Maybe this is for the best. They'd probably just do more stop-and-frisk if they didn't have the internet to keep them busy sometimes.