SOPHISTRY

Posted in Rants on March 1st, 2015 by Ed

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

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

Scott Walker: epistemological skeptic.

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

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

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

OH, I DIDN'T SEE YOU THERE

Posted in Rants on February 26th, 2015 by Ed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIONISM

Posted in Rants on February 19th, 2015 by Ed

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

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

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

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

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

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

COGNITIVE DEFICIT

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

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

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

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

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

PICK YOUR PARADOX

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

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

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

NPF: FRENCH CONNECTION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LOYAL OPPOSITION

Posted in Rants on February 11th, 2015 by Ed

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

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

Prigge

Untitled

Pictured above: The dumbest shit you will ever see.

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

pew

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

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

PAUL BLART, RAPE COUNSELOR

Posted in Rants on February 9th, 2015 by Ed

In light of new research pointing out what we already knew but didn't want to admit – that colleges and universities in the US are wildly underreporting sexual assaults on campus for the sake of PR – I have a public service announcement. This fact shocks about half of the people I've shared it with over the years.

Lots of University Police are not police. It varies by campus but more often than not, even at some massive state schools, the university cops are not real cops. They lack full police powers and they are essentially the university's private security guards (although in most cases they can be called upon to do things like traffic control for the Real Cops). As employees of the university they have a vested interest in keeping the crime rate low.

One way to keep a lid on the crime rate is to prevent crimes from happening. Another is to actively discourage victims from reporting crimes to the Real Police. When a student interacts with the campus cops, she may be talking to someone who cannot file charges against anyone or, in extreme cases, arrest anyone. The "investigations" performed by these sorta-cops aren't actual police investigations. They're a university administrative procedure, in essence. They are an internal investigation to determine whether the case should be given over to the Real Police for a real investigation.

For some reason I always thought this was common knowledge. Lately I've learned that it isn't. This has a huge impact on victims of crimes on campus; sexual assault certainly isn't the only thing they try to keep a lid on. There is a strong incentive to understate the number of robberies, assaults, and instances of property damage on campus so that Mom & Dad will sleep well knowing that their snowflake is safe. At one previous institution, the student paper (of all things) revealed that an epidemic of students being taken by taxis to remote locations and robbed was being given the silent treatment by the university police, who on that campus are not sworn officers.

Whenever I read about one of the alarming number of high profile rape cases on campus these days, the first thing I do is google the police department of the school in question. A small amount of digging will reveal whether they are campus police or Police police. This piece of information goes a long way toward explaining whatever miscarriage of justice is at the heart of the story.

MAGIC BULLET

Posted in Rants on February 8th, 2015 by Ed

A tale from a relative-of-close-friend who teaches Special Education. For narrative simplicity let's call him Don.

In many high schools now, policies exist to push students on the path to college. Don's district requires every student during junior year to choose a few colleges (2 or 4 year) as target schools for continuing their education. Even though many of them may not want to attend college or would not be able to do well there, the students are universally put through this "college preparatory" routine. I suppose it makes parents and legislators feel better to think of every high school student being funneled toward higher education.

Don's students, in general, are severely impaired. Many cannot read. Most cannot do basic things like eat a meal or use the bathroom without substantial assistance. A reasonable goal for their education would be to acquire basic literacy and develop some skills that might enable them to live with some degree of independence. And every year, Don must usher all of these students through the charade of choosing a college and making post-secondary plans. The mantra of College For Everyone extends even to them. Everyone means everyone.

This is an extreme example but an instructive one. "Go to college" is so widely considered the answer for everyone and everything that it is even applied to students who literally have zero chance of doing it successfully.

One of my colleagues recently said something that summarized a lot of the frustrating things about teaching in a way I haven't been able to verbalize before: our biggest problem is not that the students are "entitled" or lacking skills (although either of those things may be true in some cases) but that they resent being there. It varies across institutions, I'm sure, but currently I deal with a student population that seems to have a great deal of resentment. They come from wealthier areas and some of the best high schools. They have basic academic skills. But they don't want to be here. They don't want to be in any college. College – you might want to sit down – might not be for them. They resent the fact that their parents essentially forced them to go. They resent having to put enough effort into courses that do not interest them in the slightest to get grades good enough to keep the ire of their parents at bay.

This puts a lot of things into proper perspective, at least for me. These are kids who have no idea why they're in college. They went because everyone at their high school was going to college and because Mom and Dad refuse to suffer the shame of having a child who did not go to college. There's no intellectual component to it – some of these kids are very smart, some are not. But they have in common a lack of desire to do what they're being asked to do.

That's tough to deal with. We can deal with students who lack skills, because skills can be taught. We can deal with laziness, as motivation and desire can be improved upon. But I, we, have no remedy for students who are only in college because they were caught in a vortex of parental wealth, social pressure, and the belief that college is for absolutely everyone. It shouldn't be an insult to say "Hey maybe college isn't your thing." It doesn't mean "You are not smart enough for college." It means maybe you should do something else with your life that would be more to your liking and more productive for you. It's fine. Join the Navy. Learn how to fix something. Pseudo-apprentice at a small business with the goal of starting your own someday. Or just get a normal-ass job and live your life. It beats wasting five years and a ton of money trying to force a square peg into a round hole.

I couldn't put my finger on the nature of the general malaise here, and I think this is it. It's not anger or even boredom. It's the kind of resentment one senses in a roomful of people who have been forced to show up for jury duty. It's the predictable result of forcing teenagers – a demographic notable for its sulking skills – to do something they don't want to do. Nothing personal.

ROOTS

Posted in Quick Hits on February 5th, 2015 by Ed

On Wednesday the Croatian government announced a plan to eliminate the debts of about 60,000 of its poorest citizens. The announcement garnered a lot of attention even if the relief being offered is more modest than the headlines would suggest (maximum debt relief is capped at around $5000 US). The idea of debt cancellation used to be confined to the political fringes; now it is an acceptable idea to advance in polite society among Serious People. David Graeber's Debt: The First 5000 Years strongly advocates a universal debt cancellation policy. With his argument in the back of my mind I wondered a few weeks ago if we couldn't apply a similar idea to non-violent inmates in our prison system.

Ideas like debt cancellation or amnesty for incarcerated people are often dismissed out of hand despite being no more or less ridiculous than many of the things regularly taken seriously as public policy. On its own merits, Croatia's plan isn't hard to justify. The inherent problem with this kind of plan, though, is that these are superficial solutions to institutionalized problems. What good does it do to offer debt relief to a few people when all of the social, legal, and economic structures that bury people in debt remain in place? Why bother letting everyone out of prison if the institutions that keep the prisons overflowing with inmates aren't going to function any differently?

If 60,000 Croats get debt relief and nothing else changes, many of them will end up back in debt in time when they confront the same lousy job market, the same parasitic lending practices aimed at the poor and desperate, and the same maze of punitive fees that turn modest debts into large ones over time. If Americans emptied out the prisons, does anyone doubt that our law enforcement and justice systems would have them full again within a year or two?

It's nice to offer debt relief. It's much more useful to offer relief from the institutions designed to bury people in debt.