NPF: GREAT LEAP FORWARD

Posted in No Politics Friday on November 21st, 2014 by Ed

What is the Next Big Thing?

This is a silly question to ask on some level since anybody out there who could answer it correctly would be too busy getting rich off of it to waste time idly perusing the internet. Regardless, I can't shake the feeling that with the possible exception of the internet (and before that, the home computer) there hasn't been anything new lately. What passes for new technology these days is almost inevitably an improvement, be it incremental or exponential, of some extant technology. Things get faster, smaller, and cheaper. We get more and better ways to waste away our lives staring at movies, games, and the internet. Medicine gets a little better at treating what ails us, cars get a little faster, food gets more plentiful (and imperishable, although we dare not ask how). We have conquered instantaneous global communication and the cheap mass production of any imaginable disposable consumer good (turns out the key ingredients were Slave Wages and complete lack of regulation).

I'm not bright enough to think of anything actually new, here are my best guesses at the next incremental steps forward that will make someone who isn't me a multi-billionaire someday:

1. Cheap, safe wireless energy transmission. Recharge electronic devices (not to mention electric cars) without plugs, cords, or wired infrastructure. We've already taken some baby steps in this direction with charging mats, but whoever can invent something that allows you to charge your phone and laptop just by walking into a building is going to print money.

2. Non-brittle carbon fiber / composites that can replace steel. CF was hailed as a revolutionary breakthrough back in the 90s, but unfortunately despite being extremely strong it is also brittle as hell. Whoever overcomes that problem will have a material that can replace metal and masonry in buildings, vehicles, heavy machinery, prosthetics…

3. Doing away with the physical interfaces between us and our various computing devices. I have no idea how this could work, but eventually someone will find a way to make this sentence appear on my computer screen as soon as I think it. The keyboard and my fingers will be superfluous.

4. Artificial organs that are improvements upon, not just replacements for, the real ones. Any significant further extension of our lifespans will require either some way to stop aging (unlikely) or organ replacements that last forever and perform even better than the ones nature gave us.

5. Online smells. As stupid as it might be, someone's going to find a way to do it and then middle schoolers texting each other farts is going to be a billion dollar per year industry.

I'm not very creative, as you can see. I bet you can top these.

THE MASK OF SANITY

Posted in Rants on November 20th, 2014 by Ed

One of the reasons conservatives are so sensitive to charges of being a movement composed mostly of virulently angry, reactionary, and sometimes violent white men is that they are a movement composed mostly of virulently angry, reactionary, and sometimes violent white men. The Republican Party expends an incredible amount of effort and resources on image doctoring; every time some elected official or party worker lets the mask slip away and the rest of us see them for what they really are, the spin doctors rush in to tell us, in a tone that suggests that they are actually trying to convince themselves, that Republicans are smart, forward thinking, and kind people.

Fortunately the internet allows every yahoo on Earth to spout off with no filter whatsoever. I like to call internet comment sections "Where Hope Goes to Die," but in reality they give us the important opportunity to see what those wonderful, honest, generous, hard-working Americans who make up the right side of the ideological spectrum are really like when there are no Communications Directors and PR hacks around to teach them how not to sound like cave monsters.

Yesterday, some random guy was found near the White House with a rifle (which was unlicensed and unregistered) when apprehended by the Secret Service. Fox News posted this item on its Facebook feed. I took a pair of screen captures of the first screen or two of comments on the post:

fox

fox2

There it is. That's what they are: mean, reactionary, semi-literate, and violent. They haven't the most basic understanding of the laws and rights they claim to cherish, and most of the comments sum to "It would be awesome if someone murdered the president." The reason they are so sensitive to the charge that this is what they are like is that they know, even if they won't admit it, that this is in fact exactly what they are like.

Oh – they are really not-racist too. Just ask them.

POLITICS AS USUAL

Posted in Rants on November 18th, 2014 by Ed

I am a realist about what I do for a living. At no point do I believe that students are going to remember in ten years 90% of what they learn in my classes. Instead, the goal is to get the 10% to stick somehow. They won't remember how the House leadership is structured but hopefully they'll remember that the fundamental problem in Congress is that what is best for each individual member does not add up to the best outcome for the nation as a whole. They won't remember the different types of elections that coexist in our system, but hopefully they'll remember that people vote when the costs are sufficiently low and it makes them feel good to do it.

When I talk about the courts (in the context of an Intro class, we have exactly one week to devote to a large number of subjects, so withhold your "Look how smart and great at your job I am" comments laden with minutiae) I know that there isn't much they will remember. One thing I try to emphasize, though, is that the Supreme Court is political. It is inherently political and nobody should expect that it, or any other institution made up of human beings, is a completely neutral and fair-minded arbiter. It is somewhat baffling to see these occasional "OMG guys did you realize the Supreme Court is basically driven by politics and ideology?" pieces in the media as though anyone out there paying the slightest bit of attention does not already realize this.

The Supreme Court is, was, and always will be political for two basic reasons. One is that the process in which the justices are chosen is political. Presidents select the person closest to themselves in ideology from a set of boundaries established by the ideological makeup of the Senate at that moment. Likewise, the Senate, especially if controlled by the opposite party, pushes as hard as it can to convince the president that its willingness to confirm the appointee has a limit. Barack Obama looks at the Senate and asks himself if it's worth it to try to nominate the most extremist liberal he can find when he could appoint someone who is still really liberal but will be confirmed with flying colors. Of course it isn't, and with a Republican Senate the person he would choose would have to be less liberal still. Political reality dictates the choices.

Second, the issues the Court is asked to resolve are political. Irrespective of one's preferences, when asked to resolve political questions the institution becomes unavoidably political. This has gotten much worse in recent years as the actual political process – the one with elected officials who do everything in their power to avoid going on record to vote on highly contentious issues – punts issues to the judiciary to decide. Gay marriage? Why cast a vote in Congress that could be a liability when you can just wait for a series of legal decisions to sort it out? The Supreme Court is tasked in a wink-and-nod way with resolving a lot of issues that are politically unfeasible for Congress or even State Legislatures to tackle. This suits most elected officials just fine, abdicating responsibility and then reaping the benefits of pissing and moaning about whatever the courts decide.

If anything, today's court is less explicitly made up of partisan hacks than it was for most of our history. Check out some of those Civil War and Reconstruction-era courts if you doubt that. We don't have to be thrilled with the political role the Supreme Court plays but we certainly shouldn't be surprised by it.

REVELATIONS

Posted in Rants on November 17th, 2014 by Ed

People around these parts have the strange tendency to think that the phrase "Will it play in Peoria?" is cute and charming. This is unusual, of course, inasmuch as it is an entertainment industry way of saying, "Will stupid people like this?" The city is far more famous for that and has been for a while; Ambrose Bierce wrote in his Devil's Dictionary:

DULLARD, n. A member of the reigning dynasty in letters and life. The Dullards came in with Adam, and being both numerous and sturdy have overrun the habitable world. The secret of their power is their insensibility to blows; tickle them with a bludgeon and they laugh with a platitude. The Dullards came originally from Boeotia, whence they were driven by stress of starvation, their dullness having blighted the crops. For some centuries they infested Philistia, and many of them are called Philistines to this day. In the turbulent times of the Crusades they withdrew thence and gradually overspread all Europe, occupying most of the high places in politics, art, literature, science and theology. Since a detachment of Dullards came over with the Pilgrims in the Mayflower and made a favorable report of the country, their increase by birth, immigration, and conversion has been rapid and steady. According to the most trustworthy statistics the number of adult Dullards in the United States is but little short of thirty millions, including the statisticians. The intellectual centre of the race is somewhere about Peoria, Illinois, but the New England Dullard is the most shockingly moral.

People who see themselves as cultural, financial, or educational elites think very little of The Common Folk. Always have, always will. Hell, even people who are demonstrably dumb as a post think they are smarter than everyone else. If this shocks you, you are among the post-like. Powerful Hollywood people cannot believe the shit Average Americans will pay to watch and listen to. The guy who runs McDonald's probably refuses to eat the slop he's trying to sell to rubes. And yes, to the feigned shock of millions of Obama-addled conservatives this past week, our political leaders think we have the intellectual capacity of a potted plant coupled with the attention span of a goldfish.

If one thing has distinguished conservatives over the years it is their deep and profound respect for the wisdom of the masses and the average voter, right? Yeah I'm pretty sure that's correct. They talk about it all the time, I think.

Feigned outrage and equally feigned worship of Salt of the Earth, Hard Working Americans are so central to the Republican playbook at this point that it would be a shock if they weren't banging the drum as hard as they are right now over a years-old video featuring an academic who was anything but the "architect of Obamacare." While your uncles and the cast of Fox & Friends are busy acting shocked – shocked, I tell you – at the idea of a highly-paid consultant who thinks most people are morons (an assertion that is pretty easy to prove empirically), ask yourself how likely you would be to believe him if he said "American voters are very wise." Wouldn't seem terribly sincere, would it?

ORIGINAL INTENT

Posted in Rants on November 13th, 2014 by Ed

The upcoming Supreme Court decision on the healthcare reform law might be the most important since Citizens United, not only because striking down the law would impact the ability of many Americans to afford health insurance. It is more important as a barometer of just how far down the rabbit hole of partisan hackery the right-wing majority on the Court has traveled.

The latest "legal" challenge essentially based on a typo and a ridiculously overly-literal reading of one sentence in the bill that, if the logic of this argument is followed, implies that only insurance exchanges run by individual states and not by the Federal government can subsidize insurance. This is the kind of argument you make when you have lost an argument. You start measuring the margins and checking the font size to see if some irrelevant minutiae of the code of bureaucratic requirements has been violated. You pull out the dictionary and parse every word according to the most obtuse reading of its literal meaning. You take individual phrases out of context and read them in a vacuum while entirely disregarding the meaning of the text in its entirety.

At least four people on the Supreme Court think this case is worth hearing, which is alarming given how sophomoric and pedantic this argument is. These are people who argue that aside from the text itself the most important consideration in interpreting the Constitution is the intent of its authors – and here they are poised to completely disregard the intent of the people who wrote and voted on a piece of legislation. Irony doesn't get more ironical than that.

If the law is struck down on this basis – and it might be – the five ancient right-wing hacks on the Court have initiated an entirely new era of jurisprudence wherein every law, rule, and regulation will be subject to legal challenges based on a pedant's most intentionally obtuse reading of the text. Where would be the limit? This is not an invocation of a Slippery Slope; it is a legitimate question. Could a law be invalidated for being printed on the wrong kind of paper? Could it be invalidated if something is misspelled? If a punctuation mark is used incorrectly? If a member of the leadership in the House or Senate misspeaks or pronounces a word incorrectly during the procedural stage of voting on the bill? If I get an audio recording of a voice vote and argue that some members were saying "eye" instead of "aye"?

Answering questions of this variety seems like an excellent use of the time of our nation's jurists. This type of argument used to get laughed out of court; hell, it used to get laughed out of a second-year law school seminar room. And now because OBAMA it is being entertained seriously by the most powerful court in the land. Cool.

AS YOU WILL SEE, I AM A VERY NICE GUY

Posted in Rants on November 11th, 2014 by Ed

We all know by now the old saw about what happens when someone introduces a statement with "I'm not a racist, but…" and over the last few years I have come to understand that a man self-identifying as "a nice guy" is equally ominous. It makes sense that it would portend something awful. How often is "nice" used in a way that isn't passive aggressive or pejorative? Think about what you mean when you describe another person as nice. You mean they are boring, so boring that you can't think of an actual quality they possess. When you had a "nice time" at something, did you have lots of fun? And in what world would you want to lead by describing yourself to another person as nice? I'm not nice. I'm polite, but in common usage "nice" means saying a lot of flattering things to someone in the hopes that they will do what you want them to do.

The clearest warning sign is that the men who are always telling everyone what Nice Guys they are inevitably fall into one of a small number of categories. Some are young and awkward, too immature to really understand how romantic and sexual relationships work and of the belief that they are owed something by the women of the world for being friendly. Hopefully they grow out of it. Most are the ex-fratboy "Learn How to Pick Up Any Woman!" types who think that they are so much smarter than women, despite all evidence to the contrary, that women will fawn over them in response to 20 minutes of pleasantries and a cocktail. These people are so transparently awful that the phrase Nice Guy, as their chosen descriptor, is indelibly tainted by association.

There's nothing I get a bigger kick out of than the hundreds of posts seen weekly around the internet about men trying to pick up women on dating sites and apps (Tinder, OK Cupid, etc), introducing themselves as Nice Guys, and then immediately going psychotic when their advances do not receive a prompt and positive response. To wit, from Tinder's Finest Bachelors, we have one of the internet's most entrepreneurial and self promoting wizards of pickup artistry going from "I am such a nice guy! You should meet me!" to "You should be happy I am acknowledging your existence you whore" in like, ten minutes. This is curious, as it is not the kind of thing I would classify as Nice nor is it something a legitimately Nice Person would say.

When I lived in Madison, WI I grew wary of the downtown homeless population. Having lived in Chicago I was not shocked to see homelessness, nor am I prone to spiteful reactions toward them. But I learned that some of the homeless people, either due to mental instability or strategic planning, would flip the hell out if you said no when they asked for change. "Have any change?" "No, sorry, not today." "YOU MOTHERFUCKER I AM GONNA RIP YOUR FUCKING THROAT OUT IF I DON'T GET…" etc etc. This made me, unfortunately, apprehensive about interacting with them. Usually I try to treat homeless people like People, looking them in the eye and exchanging words with them rather than trying to avoid them out of shame or whatever. After a couple of them lost their shit on me, though, I became a little more actively evasive.

Being a woman on an internet dating site can't be too different. It's a minor miracle that they talk to any of us, ever.

THE SUSPENSE, IT'S KILLING ME

Posted in Rants on November 10th, 2014 by Ed

It is common knowledge that the newspaper industry is going down the toilet, which is unfortunate for all of us because newspapers provide 90-something percent of the original reporting relied upon by other media. Most of what we read online or see on TV isn't "reporting" per se but re-reporting from major newspapers. We want them to continue to do the hard work but we don't want to pay for it.

This will have more consequences that we realize since smaller papers are usually the first to go, either going under or being purchased by larger media companies and filled with homogeneous wire service content. That means there is essentially no one paying any attention to what local governments are up to, and boy oh boy do local governments get up to some stupid crap. The Chicago Tribune just uncovered a fun little game the Chicago Public Schools played with its bond issues. Due to the district's financial problems, "plain old municipal bonds weren't good enough anymore, and banks were standing by with attractive new options. So…the chief administrative officer at CPS and other officials pushed forward with an extraordinary gamble. From 2003 through 2007, the district issued $1 billion worth of auction-rate securities, nearly all of it paired with complex derivative contracts called interest-rate swaps, in a bid to lower borrowing costs." Shockingly that didn't work, and instead of lowering costs it ended up costing over $100 million dollars more than traditional bonds would have.

In a vacuum this example is not that big of a deal outside of Chicago. What should be keeping us awake at night is the prospect of thousands of Bright Ideas of this variety lurking out there and waiting to blow up in our faces. There is nothing more terrifying than going to a city council meeting or becoming familiar with your local government on some level. You may find some shining examples of public servants here and there; overall, however, the people who have decision-making power at the local level in this country are not terribly bright. And for the most part we have absolutely no idea what they are doing. If they make decisions that affect us directly – putting up red light cameras, for example – we freak out. Not much of what they do is that visible, though.

Given the budget nightmares that city/county governments and school boards have confronted since 2008, we might reasonably shudder to think of how many shortsighted, risky, delusional, or otherwise harebrained schemes they signed off on in the last few years. With most of us (myself included) paying next to no attention to what is going on at the local level, it is highly likely that we'll be seeing plenty more of these little surprises. These are the governmental equivalent of taking payday loans – cash in hand today with the exorbitant costs punted into the future.

I can't wait to see all the disasters on which the clock is currently ticking without our knowledge.

NPF ERRATUM

Posted in No Politics Friday on November 7th, 2014 by Ed

The preceding post might be more enjoyable had I remembered to include the video.

NPF: HORSE WARS

Posted in No Politics Friday on November 6th, 2014 by Ed

As a (hobbyist) drummer I've never understood the fascination with "retro" drums. I get that anything old automatically confers Cool Points upon the owner but drums from the 1960s are, to put it charitably, shit. The metal hardware is beyond flimsy, the shells rarely stay in round, and the (critical) bearing edges often look to have been cut with a butter knife. There are some gems to be found – a day on which everyone at the old Gretsch factory performed flawlessly and they happened to grab the most perfect wood and the strongest lugs and screws – but the quality is wildly inconsistent and generally poor. It's inarguable that while old drums look cooler to a lot of people, the "beginner" drums on the market today are vastly better than the best, most expensive ones made in the 1950s in terms of build quality, design, and sound.

The same is true of cars. Buy the cheapest new economy car available today and you're driving the technological, performance, and safety equivalent of a Rolls Royce from the 1980s. Old cars have a lot of panache and style, and people love them because they are reminders of what most people define as their Good Old Days. But when was the last time you drove a car built in, say, the 1960s or 1970s? They're terrible cars by modern standards. They're loud, primitive, lacking in all but the most rudimentary safety features, and they suck down oil and gas like a Formula 1 racer. They look cool and some of them drive quite well. You wouldn't want to drive one to work every day if you had the option of driving, say, a mid 2000s compact instead, and you certainly wouldn't want to get in an accident in one unless you're weary of life.

I recently came across this Motorweek video of a comparison test between the "Hot Hatches" of the 1986 model year. I daresay some of the older readers found themselves driving one of these vehicles at some point: the Volkswagen GTI, Acura Integra, Dodge Colt Turbo, Toyota Corolla FX16, and Ford Escort GT. As is the case today, these are cars that are intended to be affordable to the average new car buyer but with lively performance emphasized over luxury or interior space. The GTI (many generations down the road, so to speak) is still the most popular car in this segment today.

The most powerful car in that group of five boasts 123 horsepower. This is less than you would get in the most basic transportation type car today – and yet in 1986 these were "performance" cars. For example, pedestrian 2014 offerings like a new Ford Focus (160 hp) or Hyundai Accent (138 hp, and one of the very cheapest new vehicles for sale today) would blow the doors off of 1986's performance compacts. And their gas mileage, safety features, and creature comforts are all significantly better as well.

The lame excuses made by the auto industry for so many years have been exposed in the last few as fuel economy has finally started to improve sharply. For years they claimed that the technology was too expensive, yet every new generation of cars had dramatically increased horsepower. This horsepower arms race means that today even the dullest vehicles on the road (Camrys, etc) can be equipped with 270+ hp engines that would outperform a V8 Corvette or Ferrari from the 1970s. Hell, a modern kid-hauler SUV comes equipped with a more powerful engine than a Ferrari 348 or a 1996 Corvette. And if the technology to offer such an unnecessarily large amount of power can be offered affordably, then better fuel economy is also possible (since equal power can be achieved with successively smaller engines). Only recently have manufacturers started taking advantage of this, offering even expensive luxury cars (Audi A6, BMW 535, Cadillac ATS, etc) with 4-cylinder engines.

Obviously, comparing any technology with its predecessor from 1986 is going to reveal some dramatic changes, but the average (not all that interested in cars) driver has no idea how staggering the increase in power has been over the past two decades. In 1995, Cadillac's full-sized offerings featured 195 hp V8 engines. Today, not only are there engines literally less than half that size producing over 200 hp (VW's 2.0L 4 cyl in the Audi S3 is rated at an insane 296) but the largest Cadillac now comes with a 415 hp V6. What in the name of god the average elderly Cadillac driver needs with 415 hp is beyond me (other than that the rapidly ballooning weight of modern cars, with their frivolous tech toys and heavy safety accommodations) but he can drive with the confidence of a man who would have needed to pay $250,000 for an exotic sports car to get that kind of power in the 1990s.

As much as it pains me to say it, a choice between Steve McQueen's Mustang in Bullitt and a new 2014 Ford Focus would be no choice at all. And the latter could blow him away in a road race anyway.

CAREENING

Posted in Rants on November 6th, 2014 by Ed

Another election, another autopsy of the American electorate.

Here's what we know. Americans generally believe that the minimum wage should be increased, that the War on Drugs is stupid, that draconian prison policies should be scaled back (if for the wrong reasons), and they elected by sizable margins what may be the least likely human beings on the planet to enact policies along those lines.

On the surface it makes no sense, but this pattern is becoming familiar. Democrats do well or something approximating well during presidential elections when a larger share of peripheral voters – younger, poorer, generally disenfranchised, and more cynical voters who can be enticed into voting only with great effort – show up at the polls. Then the midterms roll around and turnout is embarrassingly low, limited mostly to old white people. This certainly contributes to the schizophrenic nature of our elections in comparison to public opinion on major issues, which is generally pretty stable over time. Our preferences don't change dramatically yet the balance of power swings back and forth regularly. Why?

Differences in who turns out across elections are part of the answer. The other is that American voters have extremely limited choices. Third parties, leaving aside the occasional billionaire independent candidates as anomalies, have no realistic hope of winning elections beyond the local level. When people are highly dissatisfied (which they are) and feel that the country is a clustercuss (which it is), what option is there when the Democratic Party appears to be in control than to vote for Republicans? When the GOP has been in charge for a while, what else is there to do but vote for Democrats (see 2006, 2008)?

Unwilling to devote the kind of time and energy it would take to be well informed about the issues and demand decent candidates – not that we could compete with the influence of unlimited and unaccountable money – we have little choice but to mix and match different combinations of institutions of government and the jackwagons that are offered to us on the ballot. The only inherent advantage Republicans have is their superiority at playing the "They're comin' for your guns!" game. With the demographic tide firmly against them, that trick won't work forever. In the meantime we all have to live with the consequences of constantly electing people who are hellbent on doing things large majorities of us find either reprehensible or merely stupid.