IT'S ONLY A METAPHOR FOR MY XENOPHOBIA

Posted in Quick Hits on August 30th, 2016 by Ed

Throughout this campaign we've all laugh-cried at Trump supporters pressed to name any policy position he holds that they find appealing. No matter how clueless, every Trumper can name one (if only one) thing: Build. The. Wall. They chant it. They wear shirts and wave signs printed with it. They talk about it incessantly. If there is any one thing that Trump and his supporters agree upon unconditionally – one universal truth in their bizarre alternate reality – it is build the wall. I daresay the wall is a deal-breaker for them. They do not appear willing to negotiate about this wall. They want The Wall. Demand it, even.

So of course Trump, in some sort of idiotic effort to "court" "moderates" and perhaps convince a slightly larger portion of the GOP that he is not an actual fascist, spent the weekend trying to backpedal on the goddamn Wall. Because any competent campaign would strongly consider, nine weeks out from the election, injecting huge amounts of ambiguity into the one idea, however misguided, that its supporters agree upon without exception and about which they are rabidly enthusiastic. Over the past few days the campaign's surrogates have been sent out to float the idea that maybe the Wall isn't actually a wall, but a "virtual wall" – which Trump supporters cannot but note is not a wall at all. I give up; he may actually be trying to lose.

But wait! It turns out that when they said The Wall was not a real wall but actually just some kind of metaphor, it turns out they were being misquoted. It is, in fact, A Wall. The same sad-sack surrogates, who cannot help but deeply regret their decision to be in any way involved with this three ring circus, are being pushed before the cameras less than 48 hours later to "clarify" that their previous introduction of confusion into the conception of what exactly The Wall is has focus-grouped poorly and is being banished to the Land of Wind and Ghosts. Because obviously the way a campaign floats policy trial balloons is by appearing on media watched closely around the world and throwing out the possibility that what they have been saying all along may not actually be what they mean. And then abandoning that when it isn't well received.

The kind of person who is all-in on Trump 2016 is not likely to be a big fan of subtlety, nuance, symbolism, or metaphor. When these people say they want A Wall, they mean A Wall. One might assume that if the campaign understands literally nothing else they would understand that their supporters really, really want A Wall and it might not be a good idea to do a soft rollout of the possibility that The Wall is actually a thing that exists in our hearts and minds.

YOU HAVE TO PICK ONE

Posted in Quick Hits on August 29th, 2016 by Ed

It's not exactly a startling insight to point out the logical inconsistency of the extreme patriotism, if not outright jingoism, found among people who believe that America needs to be Made Great Again. How can America simultaneously be the greatest country in the history of human societies AND a nightmare, degenerate hellscape in need of a Strongman to make it great again? Well, if semantic issues like this bother you there's an excellent chance you're not a Trump supporter. Suffice it to say that the mental gymnastics necessary to reconcile these viewpoints are strenuous.

Nowhere is the underlying message of "Make America 'Great' Again" more apparent than when a prominent public figure who is not white complains about America and white people absolutely lose their shit at the thought of an ingrate (insert racial slur) defaming their beloved country…the same country about which they complain bitterly and incessantly. If you have any doubt that Trump's inane slogan is a racist dogwhistle wherein "Great" and "White" are interchangeable, then explain how the same people who believe in the right to hoard guns so they can violently oppose the government so completely fly off the handle when a black man says he has a difficult time respecting a country that treats people like him with so much obvious disrespect.

If angry-as-hell white people have the God-given right (and, as some of them see it, duty) to malign the country, its government, and their fellow citizens incessantly and in every available format but Colin Kaepernick can't exercise a simple, tame protest without the explicitly racist knives coming out, then the social scientist in me suspects that there is something other than the expression of an opinion involved here. Then again I'd expect no less from people who envision themselves having the right to violently resist any attempt of the state to impinge upon their imaginary version of their rights but can't watch a video of cops killing an unarmed black guy without using words like "comply" and "obey."

NPF: THE CENTENNIAL

Posted in No Politics Friday on August 25th, 2016 by Ed

Either the headlines or your social media feed no doubt made you aware that this week (Thursday, specifically) the National Park Service celebrated its 100th birthday. It has been called the best idea America ever had, and although a good argument could be made in favor of nachos it's hard to dispute that.

Growing up in the featureless, flat, expansive Midwest the NPS was not a thing I was familiar with directly until my late teens. During a trip to Arizona during a very difficult time in my life I passed a sign for something called Walnut Canyon National Monument and, on a lark, I decided to stop and see what this place I had never heard of was all about. I'll spare you the sappy writing about the experience and say simply that I was hooked immediately and amazed that something that obscure could be so great. It was natural (puns!) for me to wonder what else was hiding in plain sight behind those NPS signs.

Having the complete-ist personality that compels me to Collect 'Em All when I become interested in something, from that moment in 2003 (and a few follow-up visits to other sites in Arizona) I decided that before I depart the mortal coil I am going to visit every one of the 413 units and counting of the National Park Service. Oh, I was so naive and ambitious back then. It was an unrealistic goal.

Just kidding. I'm currently at 217. At this rate I'll have them all before I'm 50.

Basically all of my vacations involve me checking as many of them off my list as I can. Very few things make me happier than finally reaching a destination that until that moment has only been a name on a list and a green dot on a map to me. True, not everything in the System qualifies as "mind blowing" but I can count the number of times I have been disappointed or failed to see or learn something interesting on one hand. The NPS is very important to me. It's melodramatic to say it Saved My Life; that's going a bit far. But it did give me a sense of purpose, a mission to complete, a list that seems to go on and on and ensures that there is always something new for me to get in the car and find the next time I can get away from work.

If I can muster the time and motivation this weekend I'll post some highlight pictures of places I've been. I'm not a souvenir buyer, but I do take a ton of pictures. If I could go back in time and tell 2003 Ed that a dozen years down the road he would be more than halfway through the list, he would probably roll his eyes. In hindsight, the only regret I have is not starting sooner.

Happy birthday, NPS. Even George W. Bush couldn't slow you down, although god knows he tried.

STEP ONE: TAKE OUT YOUR FOOD

Posted in Rants on August 24th, 2016 by Ed

There's an old joke among outdoors types, some variant of, "If you're lost in the woods alone, how do you get something to eat? Step one: Take out the food you brought with. Step two: Eat some of it." A hearty laugh is had by all, and valuable lessons about preparation are learnt. Good times.

Like most humans beings, I'm getting older. The older I get, the more I think about, well, not quite "retirement" but some way I can avoid working until the very last minute before I drop dead. My job's decent as far as jobs go, but let's face it. Nobody wants to see any more of the inside of an office than they have to. I have had a comfortable life but do not come from any sort of Wealth. That is to say, even though the members of my family are all doing alright individually, we're all dependent on a paycheck. Without that, there's nothing to fall back on (or, what there is to fall back on wouldn't last long). Professors aren't paid poorly, objectively, but even without a spouse and kids I struggle to save a meaningful amount of money. Sure, I save. But I can't save a really meaningful amount of money. Not a "How do I pay my bills if I'm out of work for a year" money.

So, lately I've thought a lot about making some investments in the future. I've done a good bit of research on buying rental properties, which would allow me to bring in some small but consistent additional income that would continue even if, god forbid, I couldn't work for an extended period of time. They say property's the best investment anyway, as long as we black out and forget a few years here and there. And the more research I do, the more it becomes apparent that there are a good number of ways (not guaranteed, of course) to make money in the world of real estate. In fact, any reasonably creative person can think of a number of ways potentially to make money.

The thing is, of course, that I can't afford to actually do any of them. It turns out that the easiest way to make money is to start with a lot of money and use it to make more. It wouldn't be difficult at all to collect rent checks on nice new apartment blocks in popular neighborhoods in Chicago. As long as, you know, I had a million dollars to start with to get the process moving.

When people say things like our current Republican presidential nominee say – Oh, I got started by borrowing a little money from my parents, just $9 million, no big deal – or people less toxic and spoiled than him say similar things on a smaller scale ("Oh, my parents 'helped me' with the down payment on this house") it underscores everything that gives the lie to the meritocracy we insist we live in. It's not impossible to get ahead without starting halfway there, but…let's put it this way: people who start closer to the finish line are represented disproportionately among those who reach it. It turns out that if you already have food with you, finding something to eat isn't much of a challenge.

Again, this isn't a Horatio Alger pulp story. I didn't grow up as a wretch in Victorian London. I afford housing and clothing and feeding myself much more easily than the majority of Americans, and I feel fortunate that this is the case. It's alarming, though, to think about our lives and how quickly everything would go to shit – even for most of us who are comfortable – were the paychecks to stop coming. It's frustrating to be able to conceive of ways to get oneself off the paycheck to paycheck treadmill but not be able to make any of them a reality. While there may be a great range of incomes and levels of comfort among "The 99%" (to abuse an already abused cliche) but at least we all have this one thing in common – come up with all the bright ideas you want, unless you're sitting on a winning Lotto ticket it isn't going to matter.

THE SOLUTION WAS RIGHT THERE ALL ALONG

Posted in Rants on August 22nd, 2016 by Ed

If it's not too early in the morning for you to handle some rage-bait, check out this Gothamist article about (warning: low hanging fruit) a Brooklyn millennial buying an apartment. Make sure your reading area is clear of potential projectiles.

To summarize, if you don't feel like subjecting yourself to it, Kendall (a "design assistant") is paying $1800 for half the rent in a seedy East Village apartment she shares with a roommate. Certainly we can sympathize without sarcasm with anyone earning a normal or even below-average income trying to make the NYC rental market work. If splitting $3600 for a flophouse was the best I could do, I'd be upset too. But Kendall is quite resourceful, so she solves the problem by having her parents make a down payment on a $400,000 studio apartment for her. Why doesn't everyone in NYC think of that! It's so obvious.

But wait! Not all is well. Kendall soon discovers that even $400,000 won't buy her a studio in Williamsburg anymore (Again, this is legitimately horrible. How can any normal person living paycheck to paycheck live anywhere near a place with $400,000 studio apartments.) but she is, and I quote, "a person who can make a lot out of nothing." Nothing is $400,000. A lot of which is being given to her by someone else.

After finding several in her price range, another tragedy befalls her: they're not in Cool neighborhoods! They're so far away from her friends, she might as well be living on the Azores! But fear not. As the author puts it, the Government is here to save her from this series of tragedies. Taking advantage of a housing assistance program called the NYC Housing Development Fund, Kendall receives tax subsidies and price breaks that allow her to find a place in Williamsburg for $400,000. Mind you, it's a sixth-floor unit (which, I kid you not, she actually bitches about in the original article) but

She concludes, "It's great to own. It feels kind of adultish and comforting and stabilizing." I bet it does, Kendall. I bet it does. Despite being gainfully employed with an advanced degree, I will never, ever be able to afford to buy a home unless it's a trailer unit in Pigsknuckle County, Indiana, so I'll have to take your word for it. You really have to marvel at the lack of self-awareness that allows someone to agree to have such an incredibly unflattering portrait of her printed in a major newspaper. Rich girl gets parents to buy her a home, pisses and moans that she can't find one she wants, abuses government program intended to provide assistance to low-income people who can't afford anything, and then gets (sort of) what she wants but not really because she still has to point out the things wrong with it.

That this is presented originally in the NY Times as some kind of light-hearted tale rather than a sickening indictment of everything that is wrong with the positively criminal real estate market in New York City almost defies belief. Change the tone and the headline and this is a muckraking piece worth of Lincoln Steffens. Instead, we just gloss over the fact that everyone in the city essentially admits that home ownership without inherited wealth (and not a small amount of it) is all but impossible, with prices that put even one-room studios well beyond the reach of anyone earning less than a quarter of a million dollars.

Welcome to day one of this week's theme: Your life will suck if you're not born into money, and there's nothing you can do about it.

NPF: PLAYING WITH FIRE

Posted in No Politics Friday on August 19th, 2016 by Ed

Ethnic and racial prejudice are not only vile but also dangerous. Remember that time we surrendered the right to get drunk because we hated the Germans?

Well. It's a little more complicated than that. But without good old fashioned anti-German sentiment Prohibition likely would have gotten no further than the "Bad Ideas" drawing board. The short version? Glad you asked.

The year was 1915. America's involvement in World War I was that of a spectator, at least until Germany came up with the brilliant idea of unrestricted submarine warfare on Atlantic shipping. Their theory was that any shipping to its European enemies aided the Allied Powers and hurt the German war effort. So, they sunk the passenger ship RMS Lusitania, which carried nothing but civilians. It sank in less than 15 minutes and 1,198 people died. Many were women and children. Many were Americans. Germany, to its credit, immediately apologized for the unfortunate incident.

Just kidding. They celebrated the sinking like a great battle had been won.

"Fuck Germany" attitudes were peaking in the United States, and an opportunistic weasel and Anti-Saloon League activist named Wayne Wheeler, a masterful politician if a very silly human being, seized upon this pretext to build public support for prohibition by framing it as a patriotic blow against the German-dominated brewing and distilling industry in the United States. Nearly every alcohol enterprise of significance was run by German-Americans or non-citizen German immigrants at the time, so Wheeler's characterization contained enough grains of truth to feel plausible. Thus were Americans who loved a good drink convinced to support Prohibition.

Well. Sort of. That was part of it. The other part was that Prohibitionist lied a lot about what their goals were.

When the 18th Amendment was passed, it is historically accurate to say that anti-German prejudice was an important component of building public and political support for it. The other part was the widespread belief that Prohibition was not really full Prohibition. The 18th Amendment proscribes "intoxicating liquors" and nearly everyone – even the people voting directly on the Amendment – believed that this was to be read literally, meaning that beer and wine would continue to be available. As the 18th Amendment is not in itself an enforceable law, specific legislation (which became known infamously as the Volstead Act) was required to spell out the minutiae of what, when, and how the spirit of the Amendment would be put into practice. The public, not to mention many elected officials who had supported the 18th Amendment, were effectively stunned to discover after the fact that they would in fact lose the legal right to purchase or manufacture any alcoholic beverages.

As everyone knows well, the law was widely flouted and it is fair to say that most Americans did not panic too much when they realized that Wheeler and his small group of influential Congressmen behind the Volstead Act had pulled a bait-and-switch. But no one really seemed to realize what Prohibition was until Prohibition began. It was a disaster, and a disaster that we as a nation stumbled into – blindly, and practically by accident.

The good thing is that we all learned a valuable lesson about the futility, danger, and enormous cost of trying to enforce the prohibition of something widely consumed (whether legal or illegal) and harmless in moderation. And we never made that mistake again. The End.

STANDOUTS

Posted in Quick Hits on August 17th, 2016 by Ed

Several news items during the Olympics have commented on the twin phenomena of less violence than anticipated and the absence of American spectators. Apparently – and it's hard to evaluate this claim without data, as most of it seems to be anecdotal from journalists – fans have attended the games in ordinary or expected numbers from around the world with the conspicuous exception of the United States. The most obvious explanation, discussed in the linked EspnW story above, is the extensive amount of coverage in the American media of Rio violence and the Zika virus.

That makes sense on its face. But it doesn't hold up to much scrutiny.

Stories about the ineptitude of Rio's preparation for the games (shoddy housing, dirty water, etc) were not by any means unique to American media. Since the journalists' housing was among the shoddiest and the earliest occupied, journalists from around the world were all subject to the same conditions with ample time to write listicle-style "Look at this shit!" stories. Second, Rio's reputation for having a poverty-crime problem is hardly a secret. Not only was it written about prior to the games (again, not exclusively by American journalists) but it hardly even needs to be written about. Even in Brazil, where I traveled a bit in 2014 prior to the World Cup, Brazilians I encountered described their country's crime rate as totally overblown – except for Rio. The consensus was that Rio was in fact very dangerous, and not just for tourists. So, its reputation appears pretty well established and merited. Finally, stories about Zika were similarly popular in media outlets American and non-American alike. Tabloid media love a good "outbreak" story irrespective of nationality (Ebola, Avian flu, SARS, etc).

The more likely explanation is that Americans are really bad at traveling abroad in general. No doubt the sensational stories about Rio dissuaded some people who might have considered going, and things like warnings from the CDC and State Department reinforced that. But 64% of Americans do not even have a passport. Few of us have traveled abroad, and a good portion of those who have been to another country have been to places like Canada, Mexican resort towns, and Caribbean cruise-stop islands. Most of us have no paid vacation days. Most of us lack the disposable income for expensive vacations to overpriced Big Events like the Olympics. Most of us do not speak Portuguese and may know that unlike in Europe or even most of Asia, facility with English will be very rare among the population. The percentage of the American population able to go to these Olympics even if they wanted to is small. And if the media dissuaded some of them who were on the fence, it stands to reason that a drop in an already small cohort would be noticeable in the stands.

The scary media narrative isn't outright wrong, but it's deceptive. It suggests a set of conditions that are not in fact unique to the United States but ignores others that are.

TAKE THAT, TWO-PARTY SYSTEM!

Posted in Quick Hits on August 15th, 2016 by Ed

Last call for these exciting 3"x10" bumper stickers at the affordable price of four American dollars. Let your bumper tell other drivers what's the what with this patriotic design, timely in sentiment for another couple of months. These have been popular and I'm down to the last 20, so let's work together to give me the enormous thrill of being able to describe them as "sold out."

sticker





Also suitable for amps, guitar cases, keyboards, surfboards, windows, wall mounting, decoupage, and…essentially any flat or semiflat surface to which ordinary adhesives can bond. Makes a great gift, provided you hate your friends.

NEITHER SILENT NOR THE MAJORITY

Posted in Rants on August 15th, 2016 by Ed

It's hard to find a subject that the modal American – poorly informed about most things and not terribly interested in becoming less poorly informed – does not think is useless. Math? Who needs it! A calculator can do anything I need to know! Literature? Oh my god who cares about Dickens, it isn't 1860 and I don't live in England. History? What does it matter what happened in 1700, I just want to get to work on time lol! But of all subjects you won't find one Americans are worse at than geography. Don't get me wrong, we're bad at the other ones too. But Americans don't even understand much about the geography of their own country let alone the rest of the world. And while not everything in the world can be tied to the current election cycle and Donald Trump, fundamental ignorance of American population geography underlies the inability of a lot of people to understand what is about to happen in November.

Not everyone likes trivia as much as I do, but give this a shot. And feel free to ask your friends and coworkers to give it a shot, too. As of 2015, what are the 10 most populous cities in the United States? How about the 10 biggest metro areas (which would include the adjacent suburbs of major cities)? What percentage of the U.S. population lives in the two biggest states?

Take a minute.

Everyone can spit out the three biggest cities in order: New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. After that things get dicey for most people. They throw out the most recognizable cities: Boston, Washington, Miami, San Francisco. Maybe cities well known and presumed "major" because they have professional sports: Seattle, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Dallas, and so on. In reality, the top five is rounded out by Philadelphia and Houston. But numbers six through ten would probably shock your friends: Phoenix, San Antonio, San Diego, Dallas, and San Jose. Oh, and #11? Austin. Austin, Texas. How many people do you think realize that San Antonio is the 7th largest city in the US? That San Jose and San Diego are bigger than Boston, Miami, Washington, and so on? That Austin frickin' Texas is knocking on the door of the 10th largest city in the country?

Looking at Metro areas, do your friends believe that places like Kansas City, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Memphis, Nashville, and New Orleans are not even in the top twenty?

And now, the fact I resort to most often when I want to tell people something they'll refuse to believe. The two largest states, California and Texas, now hold 20.75% of the US population. One out of every five people in this country lives in those two states. In those states, the population overwhelmingly lives in megacities like the SF Bay Area, San Diego, Los Angeles, the DFW "Metroplex", Austin, San Antonio, El Paso, Houston, and so on. If we round out the top five states (adding NY, FL, and distant fifth place Illinois) 37.5% of the entire population lives in those five states. And of course those states have heavily urbanized populations as well.

So. Who cares, right?

Very few Americans who are neither demographers or real estate investors understand the staggering rate of growth in America's urban populations in the past twenty years. Some of today's fastest-growing cities – Austin, Denver, Portland, Phoenix, Las Vegas, anyplace in Florida, etc. – are adding something on the order of 100 new residents every day for years on end. As is the case in most developed countries around the world, America is becoming a country of very, very big cities surrounded by vast expanses of empty countryside with little to recommend it as a place to live. Small cities and towns have been emptying out steadily since the 1980s, when agriculture and manufacturing began to decline in earnest as components of the nation's economy. The Youngstown, Ohios and Muncie, Indianas across the country no longer had a compelling way to attract people. Everyone who could leave did so. What remains – and if you're a Midwesterner like me you already know this story by heart – are the people who are too old, too poor, or too foolish to get out.

So when you visit areas where Donald Trump is popular – pick any postindustrial war zone across Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, or the upper Midwest – you find a population of shockingly limited worldview who can say with perfect sincerity that they don't know anyone who's voting for Hillary Clinton. The people of Altoona, PA naturally believe that only election rigging could produce a Trump defeat because locally his popularity is off the charts and, crucially, they have no concept of how tiny and unrepresentative of the population of their state and the country a place like Altoona is in 2016. To live in such a place is to fail to understand that very little of America, population-wise, looks like that anymore.

Living in Peoria for three years I often had to endure conversations with locals (many of whom, believe it or not, had never been farther than an hour or two away in any direction) who complained as all "downstate" Illinoisans do of the dominance of Chicagoland in state politics. And I would have to point out that there are 13 million people in Illinois. About 150,000 of them live in Peoria. The Chicago metro area has 9.8 million. Three quarters, conservatively, of the state lives in Cook or the collar counties. Of course it dominates state politics. Of course "downstate" is pushed aside in most decisions. Nobody lives there. And people who live outside of the major urban centers that increasingly dominate our landscape simply do not understand the math of modern population geography. They think that because most of the country looks rural or small-urban in terms of area, that makes them a political majority. But in reality we are a nation of vast, effectively empty spaces around megacities which dominate representative institutions with sheer numbers.

This is a mistake even – or especially – journalists make. The myth of "real America", small town America, or whatever they choose to call it overlooks the reality that when people who live in such places complain that they are ignored or marginalized it is usually because they are ignored and marginalized. And there is cold, hard math that explains why. The more we lead people to believe that rural America is Real America, the more we feed the insistence that the majority of us are living in small towns or rural cities under 100,000 people. We're not. We're at a point at which almost all of us live in a major city or its immediate suburbs, and that percentage grows every day. Ignorance of the world outside their immediate surroundings makes it natural that your average old white Trump supporter in Rustville believes that he or she is part of a Silent Majority that simply isn't.

NPF: SPLIT PERSONALITY

Posted in No Politics Friday on August 11th, 2016 by Ed

Late Thursday evening (Central Time, that is) an earthquake struck near Vanuatu. If any Americans or Europeans have heard of that small island archipelago nation at all it is likely due to its stint as the setting of the 2004 season of Survivor, back when that show was at the apex of its popularity. The nation's reappearance in the news due to the earthquake is as good a reason as any to tell one of my favorite politics and government anecdotes. What I am about to tell you is true. I couldn't make this up if I tried.

(And don't worry, reports indicate no one was hurt in the quake. If that segue seemed Too Soon.)

During the golden era of empires European powers, especially Britain and France, were scooping up Pacific islands like kids grabbing candy at a parade. Both the UK and France claimed different parts of an island group off the eastern coast of Australia. Captain Cook "discovered" them in 1774 and christened them the New Hebrides, and by the late 1800s the two major colonial powers of Europe were deadlocked over who could add the hapless islands and their people to its trading card list of obscure colonies.

As the islands were too small and irrelevant to spark any kind of major throw-down between Paris and London, in 1906 the nations simply agreed (without consulting the Vanuatu people, naturally) to govern the islands under a rare arrangement called a condominium. When used in the political sense the term simply means any territory over which two governing bodies will exercise shared authority. In practice it meant that every single aspect of the state and government was duplicated; there was, for example, a French police force and a British one. They alternated days, each enforcing the laws of its own nation. Seriously.

Someone arrested in Vanuatu had three choices for legal proceedings. They could be tried in a British court under common law, in a "local" court under tribal law, or in a French court under the Napoleonic code. Every government act and document had to be provided in French, English, and the local Bisonia creole tongue, and public signs were similarly trilingual. Visitors had to pass through both French and UK customs separately. There was a British jail and a French jail (which served champagne). There was a British hospital and a French hospital (which also served champagne). The condominium agreement itself was overseen by a Spanish judge (the first of whom spoke neither English nor French) and a Dutch accountant. The only saving grace was that in the staggeringly hot tropical climate, nobody did much of anything.

Oh, and in 1942 the Americans showed up and essentially took over. Since all parties involved – French, British, or local – were actively terrified that the Japanese were about to invade, this was not unwelcome. The New Hebrides were phenomenally lucky in comparison to many other islands and atolls. Since 1942 residents have held in high regard the memory of a cow named Besse, supposedly killed when an American errant aircraft crash-landed in a farmer's field. This was the sole casualty of World War II in the islands. Not one human casualty was recorded.

A funny thing about decolonization in the Pacific is that the year in which many colonies received their independence coincided exactly with the depletion of the local phosphate (guano) reserves. Isn't it weird how it worked out like that? The New Hebrides – its unconventional and redundant governing arrangement having lasted 74 years, or 73 years longer than anyone predicted – took their turn in 1980 and chose to revert to the local name, Vanuatu. This was common among the islands who had been given meaningless European names. The nearby Gilbert and Ellice Islands, for example, gained independence in 1976 and immediately seceded from one another to become Kiribati and Tuvalu, respectively.

Colonialism was weird. The New Hebrides condominium might have been peak weird.