Posted in Rants on November 30th, 2015 by Ed

Imagine you're in a theater seeing a concert when gunshots start ringing out from the balcony. You see people all around you being struck by bullets. You begin running in panic like anyone would in such a situation. But you've also prepared for moments like this, which is why you have a concealed handgun that you're licensed to carry.

Instead of heading for the exits you head for a staircase up to the balcony, gun drawn and prepared to intervene. In the meantime, three other responsible concealed carriers who were already in the balcony have drawn their weapons and shot the terrorist attackers down where they stood. You emerge from the stairwell, gun pointed and ready, to see three people brandishing recently fired guns. From the opposite stairwell another concealed carrier emerges and sees the same three armed people plus a fourth one – you – rapidly advancing and pointing his weapon. Meanwhile, more people on the floor of the theater have drawn their legally carried firearms and have begun, with little disciple but understandable motivation, firing toward the balcony. The terrorists are dead. But nobody knows that. All anybody sees and knows is a bunch of people are running around with guns, some of whom are firing. Then the police enter, fully expecting to confront armed terrorists. There are even more terrorists than expected, they think. Look at all these people running around shooting…

This scenario, which gives more than the benefit of doubt to arguments made by concealed carry advocates in terms of their accuracy and ability to accurately shoot armed attackers in a panic situation, demonstrates the biggest flaw in the logic of ordinary people as armed vigilantes: the inability to accurately identify the target. Unless they actually see the people who initiated the shooting with their own eyes, nobody has any idea who or what their target is. Do you think that will stop anyone from shooting? Full of panic, adrenaline, and Rambo fantasies, is anyone really going to stop and say, "Hmm. I don't have a full and accurate description of the assailant, so I better not shoot"? Of course not. They'll do what any ordinary person would do in that situation, which is attack whoever looks like what he or she thinks A Terrorist should look like. Hell, if I were holding a gun and I saw another stranger running at me, gun extended, in the dark in a room full of screaming people, I'd shoot him. You would too. Because you have no idea who he is or what his intentions are, nor he about you.

That's why these programs intended to teach children to attack school shooters are so fundamentally flawed. They suffer from the same fallacy that if we teach kids to be vigilantes (Because that's easier than passing reasonable restrictions on firearms, obviously) we assume that they can identify who is and is not a Threat. I mean, if we teach a bunch of middle school kids to attack people who make them feel threatened or afraid…what could go wrong? It's not like we already have a massive problem in our society with people considering remote proximity to a black male or a Mooslem-lookin' fella a legitimate Threat.

In theory the idea makes sense. If one knows with total certainty who the school shooter is, then attacking makes at least as much sense as waiting for him to run out of ammunition. Like all theoretical exercises, though, it falls well short of reality. In a perfect world we would all have a movie-viewer's or video game player's certainty about who the Bad Guy is. In a perfect world we'd also have a pony and a million dollars in the bank. To make as intensely disturbing a policy decision as teaching small children to attack whomever they perceive to be a threat based on a hope that they'll make judicious and accurate decisions…well, as the titular character says in the holiday classic Bad Santa, hope in one hand and crap in the other. See which hand fills up first.


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

Growing up in Illinois and also living in Indiana for seven years as a young adult I became familiar with the annual controversy surrounding Indiana's historical refusal to adopt Daylight Savings Time. In 2005 the state legislature finally required all counties in the state to observe DST when it was agreed that it was ridiculous to have three different time rules in place in one state. There were (and still are) 12 counties on Central Time (border counties that are part of the Louisville and Chicago metro areas, both of which are Central), a bunch of counties on Eastern time without observing DST, and the remainder of counties on Eastern time with DST. It was really stupid. Equally stupid were many of the reactions to the change. People made dire predictions about the consequences and of course when the appointed day arrived in 2006 everyone just changed their clocks and instantly forgot about it in favor of, you know, going about their day.

Changing to Daylight Savings requires very little. Imagine the clustercuss it would create if we had to make a major change like, say, switching the side of the road on which we drive. Wouldn't that be crazy?

Sweden did it. In 1967. So we can just ask them.

Brief background. In 1960 Sweden realized that there were a number of economic disadvantages with being the only continental European country with shared land borders that drove on the left. Norway and Finland, neighbors with which it shares borders, drove on the right. Furthermore since cars in Sweden were left hand drive, passing on two lane roads from the left lane was basically an act of blind faith and courage, an example of whatever "Hold my beer" is in Swedish. Most traffic systems observe the "head in the middle" rule so the driver has the best view of the oncoming traffic. That's why the left-lane driving British have their steering wheels on the right hand side and…well, almost the whole rest of the world has the opposite. I've driven without the Head-Middle rule in the US Virgin Islands, where cars have American left-hand drive but British left-lane driving, and beyond the simple unfamiliarity I can attest that it is not a great way to navigate narrow, winding roads.

In 1962 Sweden had a referendum in which switching to right-lane driving went down in flames, with nearly 90% of the public opposed. People dislike change and wildly underestimate their ability to get accustomed to something like this so public reluctance was not surprising. In a moment of Good Government 101, though, the Swedish legislature passed a law anyway, doing the right thing and disregarding the fact that it angered voters in the short run. They were also wise enough to legislate a long period of time – two full years – to prepare Swedes and the nation's physical infrastructure for the change. The date chosen was September 3, 1967 for Högertrafikomläggningen ("right hand traffic diversion"). That doesn't exactly lend itself to marketing so it was publicized as Dagen H ("H Day") which sounds much better and also had a goddamn great logo:


Overnight on Sept. 2, a Saturday evening, all road traffic in the nation was halted around 4:30 AM and required to resume in the right lane at 5:00. Big cities had longer shutdowns while workers hurriedly changed signage and repainted intersections, yet even Stockholm finished its changes in less than eight hours. For the most part, a few images of confusion aside, Swedes appear to have handled it without much consternation. Accidents actually went down, albeit briefly before returning to normal levels as more and more drivers who had avoided the roads out of fear resumed their normal driving habits.

As part of publicizing the change the government gave out thousands of pairs of gloves with a red left and green right to remind drivers of the correct traffic pattern, but it turned out that people didn't need all that much reminding. Once the change was made drivers appear to have taken to it quickly, no doubt aided by the two years of reminders and preparation. I guess we're more adaptable than we expect. Well, at least the Swedish are. I'm not sure Americans could handle something like this. In fact looking at the way we handle any kind of social, economic, or political change I'm confident that we couldn't. Then again we might surprise ourselves.

But probably not.


Posted in Rants on November 24th, 2015 by Ed

I loathe the fact that I'm about to bring up political theory for the second time in one calendar year but it's not my fault that modern conservatives hold such deeply illogical beliefs that we have to go back to square goddamn one with these people to try to make sense of them.

In an introductory course on American Government one does not linger on theory. Basically (with one, maybe two class periods available to talk about the basic concepts in politics, the Constitution, and the founding period before moving on to the dozen other topics we have to cover in a semester) most of us hit Locke, Hobbes, Paine, and the rest of the "This is why people choose to govern themselves and to be governed" stuff. There is no heavy lifting. With the time pressure involved, most of us are satisfied if the students grasp the idea of the Social Contract, collective action problems, and the freedom vs. security relationship. I linger on the last two. They are important, so if the students walk away with nothing else I want them to get that.

I explain freedom and security as two opposing ends with a slider on the scale inbetween. We could achieve perfect security, for example, only by giving up all freedom; if everyone were chained in a small box and fed through a tube then nobody could commit crimes against their neighbors. On the other end of the spectrum we achieve perfect freedom in pure anarchy by giving up any semblance of security. Everyone can do anything and you have to sleep sometime. Life is elemental and sad because no meaningful economic or cooperative activity can take place. So in practice every society sets its preferences at some point between the two, accepting that by giving ourselves freedoms we are forfeiting the idea of complete safety. By giving Americans the freedom to move about as they please and buy whatever they can afford (including some things that could be used to do harm) we are choosing (reasonably) to live with some risk. We're never completely safe. As I tell the students, the only way to guarantee that you won't be stabbed on the way to your next class is to create a society in which either cutlery or the right to walk around outside are forbidden. It's certainly not likely to happen, and that's why we choose to live with the minuscule risk that it will.

This is all incredibly simple, yet here I am explaining it because half of adult Americans do not appear to understand it. At one moment we appear to believe that we can protect ourselves from a nebulous and ephemeral threat and at the next moment we are willing to increase vastly the risks to ourselves and to society. The same people, for example, who oppose admitting Syrian refugees because doing so might pose the slightest increase in risk of danger from terrorism are most vocally in favor of letting everyone carry any kind of gun anywhere and at all times. We're so concerned about our security that we are willing to let Syrian refugees die (literally) to protect ourselves, yet we don't see a problem with handing out powerful, high-capacity firearms to any possibly unstable, possibly deranged white guy who can pass a laughable background check (or use one of the many loopholes in gun sales to circumvent even that) and hand over the purchase price. Our national principles can be jettisoned when we're confronted with scary brown refugees but when we deal with the desire some of us have to avoid being murdered at work or school our freedoms are sacrosanct.

The only way to turn that mental detritus into something consistent is to realize that these people accept the risk of being around armed-to-the-teeth dumbasses inasmuch as they assume that the arming will be limited to people like themselves and the violence they meet out will be limited to the dark, scary Other. They certainly aren't envisioning groups of black male teenagers or Mexican immigrants or guys named Hassan walking around open-carrying .223 rifles. They're envisioning themselves and other rednecks enjoying the freedom of being armed and serving as self-contained judge-jury-executioner units. Similarly, they are fine with immigrants who look or act sufficiently like themselves but crap the bed at the mere thought of anyone dressed differently, non-Christian, with a Foreign Name, or, God forbid, dark skinned.

In short, you're unlikely to see the massive proliferation of guns throughout our society as a threat to your security if you picture yourself and people like you, with whom you share an understanding of who is and is not a Threat, as the ones doing all the shooting. In that light it makes perfect sense.


Posted in Rants on November 23rd, 2015 by Ed

I teach a biennial course called Media & Politics, a catch-all course of the type you find in any half decent political science department in the country. We cover topics like the various theories of how viewers are affected by what they see and read on the news, how structural changes in the media over time have changed the way news is reported, forms of bias, and how political actors try to manipulate the media to their advantage. As far as academic courses go, it's pretty interesting. One thing we cover in depth is the impact of professional norms in journalism on what we see and read. Journalism is no different than any other profession in that there are broadly agreed upon standards of professional conduct (which are flouted on more than a few occasions, of course). One of the most important norms in recent years is objectivity.

Long story short, conservatives have succeeded since the 1970s in beating the "Liberal media" drum so loudly and insistently that journalists are now, as a group, quite defensive about it. Accusing the media of bias is a low-cost and fairly effective strategy. Even if the coverage one receives remains negative, the accusations will at the least lead reporters to pull back a little to prove just how Objective and Fair they are. In the Republican primaries, for example, most of the coverage of people like Trump and Carson is negative. But on the merits it should be a lot more negative. Basically the media should be telling viewers "This is a modern fascist movement driven almost entirely by racism, stupidity, and xenophobia." Since that is a true statement, anything short of that shows that reporters are more interested in being perceived as Fair than in taking any professional risks by inviting the ire of a campaign and its supporters. The path of least resistance is to hold back a bit, play the Objectivity game, and let the campaign pass into the shit heap of history.

It is fair to wonder, though, when a bunch of frothy-mouthed white people literally administer a gangland beatdown to a black protester at a Trump event if treating his campaign like a legitimate political phenomenon is not far more irresponsible than it would be to openly insult and reject it, forsaking all pretense of professional neutrality. There comes a point at which simply covering this without being explicit about what it is abets it. Were I a journalist (a lamentably easy construction to use, as of course I am not) I would have some reservations about what responsibility I might have as a professional in legitimizing that movement. It's obviously difficult to single out just one GOP campaign, and deciding which one is the most openly fascist, racist, and dangerous is like trying to pick the worst L.A. Clippers team from the 1990s. Competition among superlatives is never easy. Nonetheless the Trump campaign is openly embracing email forward / Facebook comments level racism and racist memes at this point. Extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary responses.

The whole Trump campaign is a live-action internet comment section; nobody feels compelled to take the latter seriously, so why do we have to treat the former with a disingenuous objectivity that it does nothing to deserve?


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

So after a million or so Facebook users saw this post I got a bit of a surge of popularity on that ubiquitous social networking platform. One of the inviolable laws of the internet is that increased exposure brings trolls. Lots of trolls. And I've learned very quickly that motivated trolls are a big problem in that format.

To be brief, if someone reports your post on Facebook you get blocked from posting for something like 72 hours. As best I can tell there is no human involvement. Someone reports your post, a text recognition algorithm or something equally insipid "reviews" it and they send you an automated message banning you for some apparently randomly chosen amount of time. This would not be so frustrating except that Facebook literally has no customer support. I don't mean they have bad support; they have none. There is no chat, no email address, no phone number, nothing. They have a Help Center online and a few forms that, once filled out, result in a terribly helpful canned "Thank you for your feedback, we will continually improve our product" message.

It dawned on me that "customer service" may exist at Facebook, but we would never know. We're Users. The advertisers and the data harvesting industry are its customers. They probably have a hotline with real, helpful humans on the other end. For its billion users there is no interaction available whatsoever. Go ahead and Google it; you can find just about anything on the internet. Anything except a person who has successfully managed to contact Facebook by phone or even by email.

If I were more than a hobbyist – say I was a cartoonist or comedian and I relied on FB as an integral part of my means of supporting myself financially – this would be a killer. I don't understand how they manage to get away with having no support staff of any kind (although the fact that I've been on FB for about seven years and this is the first time I've ever had any need to contact them suggests that they're just playing the odds well).

It's not going to take any money out of my pocket, luckily. But regardless, that's why there won't be any updates there for a few days. If I manage to find the center of the Matrix I'll let you know.


Posted in Rants on November 18th, 2015 by Ed

Admitting you're wrong is a difficult thing to do but it's also a sign of maturity and wisdom. So I'm not entirely embarrassed to admit that I think I've been wrong about concealed carry for a long time. I agree with Donald Trump and essentially every Republican voter: the solution to the problem presented by terrorist attacks and mass shootings is more guns.

Maybe the NRA and the ammosexuals have been right all along and the widespread adoption of concealed carry might stop or lessen the body count from attacks like we saw in Paris last week. I doubt it, but it's not impossible. Maybe all of the would-be Rambos who envision themselves pulling out a concealed weapon and blazing away to save the day really can use their guns as effectively as they seem to believe they can. I wouldn't bet money on it, but there's only one way to find out.

No, I'm flip-flopping on concealed carry because I think that the only point at which we will begin to address – sincerely, and not just as window dressing and kabuki theater – the root causes of problems like this is the point at which we realize that our society is undeniably, completely, utterly broken and descended into the most grotesque kind of lunacy. And I think when millions and millions of people are walking around with guns and we respond to crimes or terrorist attacks in progress by blazing away en masse like some vulgar Wild West fantasy scenario, we might recognize how fucked up we have allowed ourselves to become. When someone opens fire in a theater and 1000 people pull out concealed pistols to return fire we might have a moment of self awareness. It will happen when our actions are as visibly barbaric as our ideas; when the world we see in front of us is as black and hopeless as our thought processes. We are hurtling toward a Mad Max / State of Nature world at present, so why not hurry up and get there faster. Arm everyone to the teeth and bring on Thunderdome.

Maybe people need to see with their own two eyes what the world they're advocating actually looks like, what the end result of the ideas they advocate will feel like to wear and to live with. As we are at a sincere loss for ideas on how to stop terrorist acts that can be perpetrated very cheaply, by a small number of people, with resources and planning skills within the abilities of any but the most incurably dimwitted, this is as good a time as any to give Vigilantism a try. Maybe we will like what we see. More likely, we will finally see how miserable, insane, and inhuman our world will look when we get what we have insisted for so many years is the solution. The only way to convince a lot of people to their satisfaction that a world in which every individual is judge, jury, executioner, and Delta Force commando rolled into one is utter insanity is to make them live in it for a while.

Those of us who survive will no doubt learn a great deal from the experience.


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



Posted in Rants on November 16th, 2015 by Ed

What is the point of these large scale terrorist attacks in Europe, aside from what they share in common with all acts of terror?

The first step to answering that question is to read this piece from March by Graeme Wood entitled, "What ISIS Really Wants." It's a very long, thorough, and non-sensational account of their theology. Given that they are motivated entirely by their theology, that's important to understand. The too long, didn't read version is that they want to establish a caliphate and initiate the apocalypse. Their view of Islam holds that all Muslims are obligated to join their caliphate because, and stop me if any of this sounds familiar in re: religious extremists, they alone correctly understand Islam and are, in short, the only True Muslims.

That's a very well researched take. Assuming that the people running ISIS are not naive and lacking any secular political awareness, here's what I think they want.

Europe has a lot of Muslims. Like the U.S. or any other country, European nations have some issues with immigration and suffice it to say that they haven't been welcomed with open arms. That said, Muslim immigrants to Europe appear to find living in Europe on the whole alright. Not terrible. I'm sure they feel (with justification) discriminated against or unwelcome at times but Muslims in Germany, France, the UK, etc. hardly look like they are eager to go back to their original countries of residence. The situation could be better but life in France is far superior to, for example, life in Iran. So the dominant attitude among European Muslims, especially younger ones, appears to be "Sure, this is alright."

Radical extremist Muslims do not like this. They want Muslims to loathe Western society and to be primed for radicalization. They want that for selfish reasons – to grow and legitimize their terrorist organizations. They can neither grow their movement nor succeed in their goals if Muslim kids in Europe are wearing miniskirts and going to music festivals. The problem they face is that while Muslims in Europe face discrimination, they're not treated badly enough to make them hate Western society and governments. They certainly don't hate them enough to want to start killing them. In order for Europe's Muslims to be radicalized en masse as opposed to only a few here and there becoming attracted to "The Cause," European governments would have to treat them worse. Far worse.

Logically, then, what ISIS wants is to push European states far enough to produce a massive anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim backlash. Not just a backlash in terms of attitudes and prejudices but of laws. If some far-right government came to power in France and decided, for example, to round up every Muslim into camps or to force Muslims to carry electronic devices to track their movements then ISIS and their ilk can claim to be prophetic; "See? See? Look at how they treat us!" Recruiting young Muslims to anti-Western and anti-anything other than hardcore Islam terrorism would become a whole lot easier.

That's what I think their real goal is, theology notwithstanding. The worse Western societies treat Muslim immigrants the easier it will be to craft recruitment propaganda. The more indiscriminate large scale killing ISIS does, the worse Western governments will treat Muslim immigrants. Far right, nationalist, anti-immigrant politics are already disturbingly popular in some parts of Europe and they figure that with a little more motivation in the form of random terror with big body counts they can be pushed over the edge into full-throated discrimination as a matter of national policy. In France they see a target nation that has already had race riots and other issues stemming from the social privations of its immigrant underclass. If they rioted before they could be inspired to riot again. The most obvious way to make that happen is to encourage French society and laws to start treating them even worse.

The sad thing is that it might work. I'm not sure they'll succeed in radicalizing many people, but they certainly are making headway toward fueling far-right politics in Europe.


Posted in Quick Hits on November 13th, 2015 by Ed

I wrote about 2/3 of an NPF for today, realized that I hated it because it's garbage, and further realized that after the week I had I really need to sleep in a bed urgently. So rather than attempt to start over at this late hour and in this condition, I'll merely remind you that your car might not be sufficiently prepared for the 2016 election and give you a rain check on NPF. I'll post a worthy one shortly.


Do it.


Posted in Rants on November 10th, 2015 by Ed

Most of the (almost inevitably white) people you find making excuses for racism have a limit. Like, anything that could conceivably be argued to fall into some kind of gray area they will litigate and downplay until the cows come home. But if you ask them, point blank, "If a pickup truck full of white fratboys drive past a black university student and scream 'NIGGER!' over and over, that would have to qualify as racist, right?" They might not admit that anything short of that counts as racism, but unless they're really deeply disturbed, don't understand the definitions of words, or are trolling you hard, they'll give you that one. That would count as racism.

It is nothing short of amazing, then, that the above incident actually happened to the student body president at the University of Missouri in Columbia and there are still (white) people complaining about those uppity negroes demanding that everyone cater to their prima donna needs. You know. Like the desire to attend a public university that is not openly hostile to their presence (in small numbers). Go around the internet reading comments (never do what I just told you to do, ever) and count the instances of balding white men with tits using phrases like "playing the race card" and "whining" in reference to, just so we are clear, a truck full of presumably drunk white guys screaming racial slurs at a black student walking by himself. A reasonable individual might feel like that behavior and more importantly tacit condoning of that behavior by the community and the authorities constitutes a hostile environment in which personal safety is by no means assured. How many emboldened gaggles of drunk white hillbillies do you think it would take to graduate from screaming insults to physical violence?

That such a thing is even being mentioned in conversation in 2015 underscores just how badly the alleged "leadership" of the U of Missouri system has failed. I'm starting to think that being a moron may not be a prerequisite to serving in such positions but it certainly does seem to be an asset. The level of tone-deafness that leads a person to describe a swastika of human feces as "some graffiti" is difficult to comprehend, yet there you have it. Much commentary has focused on the role of college athletes at Missouri in applying pressure (It's an SEC school, the billion-dollar NCAA football conference for those overseas). I'm neither surprised nor bothered by that. If that's what it takes, that's what it takes. And I'm already on record supporting the idea of shutting down athletic programs or having walkouts/sit-downs/whatever you want to call it by football and basketball players to hold state legislators and university administrators over the fire.

By the way, is Missouri actively campaigning for Asshole of America status or did it stumble into the lead accidentally? We see the problem inherent in people in The North or the Coasts making fun of the Deep South; it's not that they don't deserve the mockery down there in Mississippi, it's that the rural parts of any state are every bit as bad. Or in Missouri's case, the urban areas too. Pretty much just the whole thing.