Posted in Rants on October 5th, 2015 by Ed

Video of angry Air France employees, perhaps as many as 3000, getting rowdy outside of the company headquarters to the point that two executives had their clothes nearly ripped from their bodies were popular on cable news and around the Internet on Monday. Nobody appeared to be seriously hurt, and news reports made no mention of anyone requiring medical treatment. Tailoring, on the other hand, appears to be necessary for some of those involved.

I wish we saw more of this in the U.S. I really do. I have no desire to see anyone injured. I do, however, have a strong desire to see people react to the slow dismantling of their middle class existence with human emotions – anger, maybe – that are perfectly natural under the circumstances. I'd like it if people didn't take everything done to them in the name of quarterly earnings lying down, or like dead-eyed cattle following the ass in front of them into the slaughterhouse. I think it would be nice if the people who make these decisions had to pause, even for just a moment, to wonder if they're going to be mauled by a crowd of people they've just decided to fuck, and thereby decide to be maybe just a bit less draconian in their decision-making as a result.

It's not that rowdy behavior like this accomplishes anything substantive; it's that this is how this is supposed to work. People should get mad when they get screwed. They should get mad at the people who screwed them, especially if it was done to increase their already substantial compensation even further. This is what bothers me about American labor. Everyone from the unions to the media to the workforce itself approaches these economic upheavals with listless resignation. "Well, we did the best we could" counts as fiery labor rhetoric now. It's probably your fault, the rest of society says to the newly unemployed. The laid off have been convinced that they're powerless – and they're not wrong now – and whatever anger they have is re-routed by the media and their social betters. They get mad, but they get mad at the Mexicans or affirmative action or liberals or "banks" (read: Jews) or ivory tower academics. Even worse, their emotions are redirected toward things that explicitly have nothing at all to do with their situation or economics (Kim Davis, someone a-comin' for their guns, unisex bathrooms at a college they can neither afford nor get into, War on Christmas). They just know that their mad, and like any angry person they look for something to be angry toward. Leading them there isn't rocket science.

In other countries there are still competing messages. They have the same Murdoch journalists telling them to be angry at immigrants or the gays or Big Government. But they also have union leaders and other figures in their lives telling them that The Company is screwing them and The Boss is not their friend but rather someone who will fleece them at every opportunity for no reason more nefarious than that is exactly how this system works. Call me a crackpot or a sadist, but I think our nation and our economic system would be a lot healthier if the CEO class endured the occasional smashed windshield. That is preferable, at least to me, to a reality in which the working class of this country hero-worship the same group of people who are forever kicking the rungs out of their economic ladder.


Posted in Quick Hits on October 4th, 2015 by Ed

Last week I pointed out that Caterpillar is laying off thousands of workers, many of them from its central Illinois operations. But don't worry because alternative employment is on the way: the local paper notes that franchise restaurants are blowing up here. Not literally blowing up, but as the kids say. Let no one ever again question the munificence of the free market!

In a happy coincidence, the property developer that provides a home to these various franchised gristle huts is run by the wife of the Caterpillar CEO, so I imagine they can sort out how many people making decent money to fire based on the needs of the menial service industry over a light dinner every now and again.

Oh, and since I can't think of new things to say ever ten days when there's a noteworthy mass shooting – we have to separate them now into normal background static mass shootings and ones that are actually shocking enough to merit attention for a day or two – I'm just going to repost Bill Bonds now that I've already taken the time to type up the transcript.


Posted in No Politics Friday on October 1st, 2015 by Ed

I am not a wine person. Emphatically not. I enjoy it and if you put it in front of me I will drink it, but I don't know anything about it and no effort is made to disguise that fact. The only adjectives you'll hear me use to describe it are on the level of "Good." or "This tastes like communion wine / Nyquil." Its history has some interesting moments though. Like the Great French Wine Blight in the 1860s.

Sometime in the 1850s – best estimates suggest 1858 – an unwelcome visitor made its way from the United States to Europe. No one knows where it went first or how it got there but it is known that by 1863 a North American aphid called Daktulosphaira vitifoliae, aka Phylloxera, was appearing in vineyards. The aphid specializes in the roots of grape vines. Being endemic to the Americas, American grapes are largely resistant to Phylloxera. In a reversal of the introduction of European diseases like smallpox to the Americas during colonization, European grapes had no resistance whatsoever to the new visitor. French wine grapes with famous names that became wine of exorbitant value died en masse. There was nothing anyone could do to stop it.

Well, there was one thing. But the French didn't want to do it. They could graft France's legendary wine grape vines onto American grape roots. In theory this maintained the integrity of the French grape varieties, but many purists thereafter considered French grapes tainted by the process of being crossed with their American cousins. Regardless of one's position on that issue one thing is certain: had the American roots not been used, most or possibly even all of France's legendary wine grapes would have been lost. So the bright side is that they all survived for us to enjoy today.

There is a segment of the wine enthusiast community that reveres wine made from the "pure" French grapes, i.e. wine bottled before the aphid made its journey and changed everything. While wine from before 1860 would be valuable today regardless, French wines of that era are especially sought after for their use of the untainted Gallic grapes. Stories of people paying insane prices for such bottles of wine are numerous. Two are particularly amusing to me. They will amuse you too, provided you are a terrible person like me.

In 1985 Malcolm Forbes, magazine publisher and father of 90s punchline presidential candidate Steve Forbes, paid over $150,000 for a bottle of something called Chateau Lafite 1787. Then he did as rich d-bags tend to do and showed off his grand acquisition in the most conspicuous way. He put it in a grand display case under a light. A very bright light. A very bright light that generated a lot of heat. Heat that dried and withered the centuries-old cork. Eventually it shrank and fell into the precious beverage. That was $150,000 well spent.

Forbes looked like a miser compared to wine collector William Sokolin, who paid over $500,000 for an 18th Century Chateau Margaux. While showing off his purchase at a social event in New York, Sokolin – wait for it – accidentally knocked the bottle off a serving cart and, in what I can only imagine was the slowest slo-mo in human history, watched it tumble to the ground and shatter. What does one even do in that situation? For half a million bucks I would get down and lick it off the carpet. I mean, if the alternative is having everyone at a fancy social event watch you have a complete emotional breakdown then I don't think it's any more shameful. At least get some on your finger and rub it on your tongue. No shame. Do what you gotta do.

The only potential consolation is that many wine experts believe that wine of such advanced age is likely undrinkable anyway. Sure, let's go with that.


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

Donald Trump says that if he is president, all of the Syrian refugees accepted by the United States "are going back."

If the Cardinals start me at quarterback this week, I want to start out by establishing the ground game. I really feel like we need to get David Johnson more involved in the offense, and the tight end position has been under-utilized in the passing game. Moving Larry Fitzgerald to the slot has worked out brilliantly so I don't see a need to make changes there. At least once I want to take some deep shots at Michael Floyd, and of course you have to throw the occasional post corner to Smokey Brown to keep the safeties honest over the top.

Oh, sorry. I thought we were playing "fantasy scenarios" and I wanted to use one that's equally likely to happen.


Posted in Rants on September 30th, 2015 by Ed

Over a decade ago I sat in a lecture hall and listened to a visiting scholar of English history talk about the end of Roman rule in Britain and the remarkable – it may be fair to say incomprehensible – speed and comprehensiveness with which a previously undistinguished group of people called the Saxons became the cultural hegemon of what is today the United Kingdom. As this is a topic about which I knew (and know) next to nothing I was an easy mark; impressing me was like sinking a half-inch putt. I'm forever indebted to that person whose name I have completely forgotten, though, for giving me one of my favorite examples / metaphors / anecdotes for explaining what is wrong, and I mean what is really, fundamentally wrong, with the way people in the United States view politics and their rights as citizens today: the Churl.

Aside from being the root of names like Charles and its Germanic cousin Carl, we know "churl" as the root of the regrettably rare adjective "churlish," or "rude in a surly, mean spirited way." This seems unnecessary until you realize that rudeness does not automatically imply the latter part, and in fact a good deal of rudeness is cloaked in politeness or ignorance. But I digress. The word "churl" as a noun is still used by some English speakers of a more antiquated bent to refer to a mean spirited person. Its archaic meaning, though, is for a person of low class. Specifically, in early Saxon England the churls were the lowest class of free people, which is to say they were not nobles nor royalty nor clergy, but nor were they serfs. They were essentially peasants; poor, but with the social and practical advantage of not being bound to a manor as serfs were. They were, in words used by the Mystery Lecturer that I will never forget, "possessing the freedom of the upper classes but without the economic means to take advantage of it." They could go wherever they wanted to and do whatever pleased them, in other words, if only they had any money. Alas, they didn't. So all that freedom was for naught, except inasmuch as it permitted them to look at serfs as their inferiors.

This is such a perfect analogy for the state in which the majority – and I do mean the overwhelming majority – of Americans find themselves today that I can hardly believe I was lucky enough to stumble across it. The great masses of Americans cling so desperately to their own imagined versions of things like freedom of religion and right to bear arms because those are the only freedoms they can claim without deceiving themselves to have. If those are taken away they would be forced to recognize how truly un-free in any useful sense they are. If people are unable to find work that pays a sufficient amount to cover life's necessities and to live in a manner and place of their choosing, then all of their many intangible rights and freedoms guaranteed by law provide only a superficial – important, but superficial nonetheless – freedom. We are free, in short, to do whatever we can afford, which, in the majority of cases, is to say "Not much."

A few weeks ago I posted about one of the last major manufacturers – Mitsubishi Motors – in the area closing operations in Central Illinois. Last week the colossus of the non-Chicago part of the Illinois economy, Caterpillar, announced that it is laying off 10,000 workers. Ten thousand. The vast majority of those figure to be in Peoria, Caterpillar's already cripplingly depressed, moribund, and crumbling home base. Without going deep into the intricacies of local politics, Caterpillar, along with a few hospitals and one small university, is the only place one can work in this city and hope to make what has traditionally been considered middle class income. In Peoria one is either unemployed, in the low wage service industry, paid to care for the large, old, dying population, or working for Cat and its associated suppliers. There is nothing else here. The people laid off by Cat are not going to find comparable jobs here. Their choices will be to stay here and accept a job hovering precariously above the minimum wage, probably serving food, stocking store shelves, or manning a cash register, or to move to a state devoid of labor laws and accept manufacturing work at a vastly lower wage.

If those were my options, I would be working overtime mentally to conceive of some way I could define myself as free too. Without implying that the government owes everyone a job of their choosing in the exact location of their choosing, it's fair to say that if you can't find work that pays enough to live a life that gives you real choices and options then you are free only in the sense that you are not imprisoned (although there will be plenty of that as well) and nobody can tell you how many Jesus fish and Rush Limbaugh bumper stickers you can put on your car, nor how many expensive guns you can hoard in your meager home that you struggle to afford. Americans obsess over those largely symbolic freedoms, the threats to which exist only in their own imaginations, because even though we dare not admit it we understand that many of us lack anything better. Like denials of alcoholism are often directly proportional to the probability that one is indeed an alcoholic, the extent to which any people are truly free when they go to such comical excesses with such regularity to declare how free they are is to be evaluated with skepticism. By silent consensus this country has chosen "Fake it 'til you make it" as a coping mechanism in the face of stagnant or declining incomes and a constantly shrinking selection of choices and opportunities beyond at-will, low paid employment at The Company's pleasure. We have a country in which you can buy as many guns as you want but can't count on having a job beyond the end of business today. We can refuse to bake cakes for gay people but we can't decide where and how we want to live. Freedoms are not all created equal, and we content ourselves with the ones that do us the least good.


Posted in Rants on September 27th, 2015 by Ed

A nondescript meeting room in the United States Capitol. September, 2015.


John Boehner: "Guys we've been through this a few times already, remember? And remember how it always backfires and we end up looking worse because people like Obama and we kinda come off as a bunch of assholes?"

RR: "….Yeah, but we should do it anyway! BARGLE BARGLE BARGLE!"

JB: "Alright. Look. What is it you hope to accomplish with this?"


JB: "OK well the problem is, a government shutdown doesn't really shut down the government, because we have to make a million exceptions to keep running all the parts of the government that it turns out people kind of like. And nothing about gutting PP is ever going to get past the Democrats in the Senate, or Obama. You have probably noticed that like, he doesn't really give a shit anymore. So what is this going to accomplish?"


JB: "The most extreme third of the Republican base will applaud your courage, everyone else will think you're like a child who holds his breath every time he doesn't get what he wants. Turns out that isn't exactly electoral gold."


JB: "Large majorities of Americans support birth control and abortion. Even most of the ones who talk about how horrible and immoral abortion is secretly hope it stays legal just in case their 15 year old daughter in private school gets knocked up."


JB: "I agree guys, I'm against Planned Parenthood too. But the shutdown is just a game of chicken, and every time we play it we lose. You know exactly what's gonna happen. We're gonna get to the moment of truth and have to choose between burning our own country to the ground or caving and looking like a bunch of pussies. That's the exact opposite of what you said you want to accomplish."


JB: "Look I'm just pointing out that we've tried this several times and it never works. We can't do this over and over and expect a different result. Let's try something that hasn't already failed a couple times."

RR: *silence, throat clearing*


JB: *grabs temples*


How many times do you think you could tolerate having that conversation? I have no love for John Boehner, who has proven himself over the years to be little more than a stuffed suit and a partisan hack. However, compared to the current House Republican caucus he looks like Alexander Hamilton. He may not be bright and he may be as inspiring as a county board meeting, but it became pretty clear since 2010 that he was one of only a handful of adults in the room when the GOP caucus met. You can only stand in front of a roomful of people who are supposed to represent the highest elected body of the self-declared greatest nation on Earth and explain that, no, you can't do (insert Tea Party agenda item) because it's completely goddamn insane so many times before you'd step back and ask yourself, "What exactly is my motivation to keep doing this?" At some point, arguing with an ideologue becomes indistinguishable from arguing with a four year old. You speak the same language, but no amount of repetition is going to convince them that, no, we can't have ice cream and chicken fingers for dinner and Iron Man cannot live in the basement.


Posted in Rants on September 24th, 2015 by Ed

I want to go on record, if you have yet to figure it out, that I am very pro-Pope Francis. No, I'm not a Catholic. Yes, I find many of the teachings of the Catholic Church to be antiquated and needlessly obstinate. Yes, the Catholic Church as an organization, without indicting every last one of its followers, has proven itself repeatedly to be a corrupt institution with a Circle-the-Wagons mentality that would be the envy of any suburban police department. My view on it is, the church is always going to have a Pope. Why not be glad that there is a Pope who is right about a lot of things in addition to the things that the Pope – any Pope, by virtue of being the spiritual and practical head of Roman Catholicism – is going to be wrong about?

It doesn't take long for any positive statement about Francis to prompt some rocket scientist to point out that he is anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage, and anti-contraception. Is it supposed to be useful to point out that the Pope – the leader of the Roman Catholic church – believes these things? The only less useful contribution to the discussion would involve an image of a peeing Calvin. Thanks for stopping by to remind us that the Pope is not in favor of abortion. Without your Sherlock-level sleuthing skills I have no idea how anyone would have figured out that the prelate of Roman Catholicism believes the basic doctrines of the Catholic Church for two millenniums*.

Given the reality that any Catholic Pope is going to support those teachings, why not take some satisfaction in the elevation to a position of power, visibility, and authority of someone who reminds the billion Catholics on the planet that anti-abortion and anti-gay does not summarize the entirety of Catholic doctrine and the teachings of Jesus? If anything, it is remarkable (and commendable) how little Francis has talked about these things and how often he has reminded his followers that they comprise only a small part of the belief system of Catholicism as defined by the scriptures and the teachings of the church over time. Hell, he hasn't even been half-bad about the church's major and long-running problem with sheltering child abusers.

It is so "sophomore year of college" to go around reminding everyone that the Pope isn't cool with abortion and think that this has somehow been an intelligent thing to say, a useful contribution to the discourse. No shit. Absent single-handed power to redefine Catholic doctrine (which, since the institution is as political as any other of its size and scope, he does not have) I'm not sure what he is expected to do about that even if he disagrees. Which he of course does not, being a Catholic. If you can't look at this guy's two years in power and the near-constant attention he has drawn to global income inequality, the staggering lack of compassion for the poor and socially disadvantaged, the constant recourse to war and violence by the most powerful nations on the planet, and the narrow-minded obsession of American religions with penis and vagina related issues at the expense of all others and recognize it as a net positive, I don't know what to tell you. You might be a lost cause.

*I looked it up, it's correct. I swear.


Posted in Quick Hits on September 22nd, 2015 by Ed

By now even people who don't follow automotive news have heard that Volkswagen has been caught red-handed pulling a scam on US and EU regulatory agencies. By submitting cars with altered software for testing – allowing its diesel models to appear to produce considerably less pollution than they do in reality – the company effectively defrauded consumers, government regulators, their own dealer network, and, you know, the planet. Even before lawsuits and criminal penalties are handed down, the scandal figures to cost the company at least the $7 billion it has set aside for the cost of updating consumers' cars to meet the stated pollution standards. For the unfamiliar, diesels achieve excellent fuel economy and tend to be more durable in the long term with the downside that they are very dirty in terms of emissions. For years the promise of "clean diesel" seemed too good to be true. Turns out it is.

This is no accident, of course. The deception was premeditated, cleverly planned, and flawlessly executed. Whenever corporate America is caught in a scandal like this I am left scratching my head at their logic. In this instance it was, from the very inception, only a matter of time until the truth was uncovered. Some car magazine or consumers' group would conduct a test using their own equipment and find exhaust emissions far dirtier than the company stated (and EPA certified) figures. How does the company simply plow ahead in this situation? Do they start down the path of trying to cheat and then, finding themselves in too deep to back out, go for the gusto? Do they delude themselves into thinking that they are so brilliant that they will fool everybody? Do they believe that they will be caught but that no one will dare prosecute them? Did they cynically decide that they would make more money off of the deception than getting caught would cost them in the long run? Or do a handful of people within the company decide that since they are highly unlikely to be held legally responsible personally, they will benefit from the deception handsomely and then live off the proceeds after they're eventually discovered (and probably fired)?

It's hard to conceive of any situation in which this wouldn't end badly for the company. If anyone could come up with a suitably grand delusion, though, it's the kind of people one finds in corporate boardrooms and office complexes these days.


Posted in Rants on September 20th, 2015 by Ed

Carly Fiorina has risen from the Kids' Table debate to #2 in the polls behind Trump. It's not surprising that two successful businesspeople would top the list for a party that practically worships business prowess. Well they're two businesspeople, anyway. As the raging Marxists over at Fortune point out, Carly Fiorina was pretty much shit as the CEO of HP and in the decade since her firing nobody in the corporate world has touched her with a ten-foot pole. Trump, as everyone with the ability to read knows, has done literally nothing except inherit a large sum of money from his father and manipulate the U.S. bankruptcy code to his advantage. This raises a pertinent question about the Republican electorate: If they want to vote for businesspeople, can't they at least find one who wasn't a complete failure?

God knows there are plenty of stridently conservative people who have done very well in the business world. As terrible as they were as candidates, Mitt Romney and Herman Cain were at least successful at not running businesses they led into the ground. This time around they seem content to gravitate toward candidates who seem more like actors playing – overplaying, actually – the role of Greedy Businessman. The average Republican thinks Trump is a business mogul or Fiorina is some badass CEO star because they act like a really rich corporate titan acts in movies aimed at morons. I suppose if they play the character convincingly enough, old white nativist reactionaries won't look to closely at what they've actually done in the business world. Which, to emphasize, is nothing.

It's scary enough that conservatives now equate success in private industry with overall brilliance; as if making a great deal of money trading stocks or running a trucking company or being born to someone wealthy proves that one can be a good (insert public office here). Now they're willing to overlook the success part and endow anyone who wears the costume and accessories of a Business Type and acts like a sociopath with the skills necessary to lead the country. This should work out well.


Posted in No Politics Friday on September 18th, 2015 by Ed

In 1716 Edmund Halley (He of the comet, although he did not actually discover it – instead he determined that several previous recorded appearances of a comet were in fact the same one reappearing at intervals) published a paper showing how a transit of Venus could be used to calculate with remarkable precision the distance from the Earth to the Sun. A transit occurs when the planet passes directly between Earth and the Sun, and hence is observable as a black dot moving across the solar "surface" as viewed from Earth. Venusian transits are rare. We experienced two in our lifetimes but will never live to see another one; the solar system treats us to two separated by eight years (2004 and 2012) but then does not repeat the phenomenon for more than a century. The next one is in 2117.

Halley did not live to make anything of his idea, dying in 1742 and therefore missing out on the upcoming 1761 / 1769 pair of transits. Other astronomers took up the task, though. A worldwide effort led by Russian Mikhail Lomonosov attempted to coordinate hundreds of observations and measurements from every corner of the globe. Combining all of that data, even with the slow, cumbersome technology available in the 18th Century, would be a gold mine for astronomers. Some historians have suggested that this was the first truly international, coordinated scientific effort. Regardless, a great deal of data was collected and Halley's theory proved correct with time.

Many of the scientists who took part in the Venus effort were or would become famous. A pair of Englishmen, the famous Charles Mason and his assistant Jeremiah Dixon, would later become household names in America when they settled a border dispute between Pennsylvania and Maryland with a surveyed line that still bears their name. One who was not famous, though, was a Frenchman grandly named Guillaume Joseph Hyacinthe Jean-Baptiste Le Gentil. He failed miserably in his attempts to make observations in a series of misfortunes that borders on absurd.

In 1760 he set out to observe from the French possession of Pondicherry on the eastern shore of the Indian subcontinent. Reaching Ile-de-France (Mauritius) he found that further progress was made impossible by the ongoing naval war between France and Britain (in fairness, Mason and Dixon were fired upon numerous times by French ships too). He finally secured passage on a private merchant ship that had secured permission to travel to India by both navies. Unfortunately it went off course in a storm and floated aimlessly for five weeks, and when they finally reached Pondicherry they found that the French had lost it to Britain and Gentil was not allowed to disembark. The ship instead was forced to return to Mauritius, and on the appointed day, June 6, Gentil was unable to observe the transit from the deck of a ship pitching and rolling around in the Indian Ocean.

Surely that disappointed him, but he had another shot in the not too distant future. He remained in the Indian Ocean and took up projects like mapping the African coast, surveying Madagascar, and so on. He sent back word to France to let his family know that he would not be returning until after the second transit. After lengthy consideration he decided to observe the 1769 event from Manila. The Spanish colonial government, however, put him back on his ship when he arrived for some reason lost to history but probably having to do with the petty rivalries that defined the three great European powers in that era. Exasperated, he returned to Pondicherry (won back by France in a 1763 peace treaty) and set up his equipment to make his long-awaited observation. When it arrived – June 4, 1769 – Pondicherry, which had been chosen specifically for its unusually San Diego-like weather, was completely overcast. It was the first and only overcast day in more than six months Gentil spent at Pondicherry. He didn't see a thing.

Defeated, he returned to France on a ship on which dysentery broke out, killing many of the passengers and horribly sickening Gentil himself. When he finally arrived, haggard, half-dead, and spiritually deflated, he found that none of his letters to France had reached their destination. He had been removed from the Academy and declared legally dead; his wife re-married and avaricious relatives "enthusiastically plundered" his estate.

Only the direct intervention of Louis XVI, who found beyond pitiable the story of this man who had tried so hard to achieve something for the sake of the Academy and had been roundly kicked in the ass in return, restored him to something of a normal life. He was restored in his position at the Academy, remarried, and lived an additional two decades.

So if you had a bad week or you're having a bad day, it could be worse. You could be Guillaume de Gentil. Or on a ship when dysentery breaks out. Or both.