BEHOLD THE SECRET MUSLIM

Posted in Election 2008 on May 20th, 2008 by Ed

The Obama campaign is unveiling a new, coordinated direct mail campaign in Kentucky emphasizing the Senator's Christianity. This is due in no small part to the rumors circulated among the ultraconservative (a few of whom hang out online at places like Free Republic, but most of whom spread information in annoying email forwards accessed by dial-up AOL accounts) that he is a Secret Muslim. While the campaign certainly has money to burn right now, I find this to be a rather wasteful use of resources.

What value can there be in targeting voters who have decided to dislike Obama for such a ridiculous and demonstrably false reason? This argument sounds like a dispatch from the LaRouche campaign, the 1958-era John Birch Society, or the Anti-Masonic Party of the early 19th Century. Beware the false prophet! He (Obama/Eisenhower/John Quincy Adams) is secretly a (Muslim/Commie/Freemason). I understand the campaign's desire to clear up an unfounded rumor, but I suspect that anyone ignorant or unbalanced enough to decide that Obama is covertly plotting to place the U.S. under Sharia Law is probably not going to vote for him anyway. If their Secret Muslim theory is rebutted, they will find some other reason to dislike him.

Second, since the theory relies on the belief that he is a Secret Muslim it is not falsifiable. No amount of evidence or strident claims by the candidate can disprove that he is a Secret Muslim in the "mind" of someone who wants to believe it. This is the fundamental logic underlying every tinfoil-hatted, flat-earth, Illuminati conspiracy theorist's beliefs: claim something idiotic and then use the fact that it can't be disproven as evidence that it is proven.

Competing in the Kentucky primary is obviously important for Obama, but there are some voters who just aren't going to be reached. Anyone clinging to such a flimsy rationale has a long list of them in reserve. Knocking one down simply makes the next one pop up. If he's not a Secret Muslim, he's a foreigner. If he's not a foreigner, he hates America and won't wear a flag pin. If he doesn't hate America, he's too liberal. If he's not too liberal, he's too inexperienced. We could play this game forever, and Obama looks like he is about to give it a shot.

MICHAEL MEDVED GETS THE FJM TREATMENT

Posted in Rants on May 19th, 2008 by Ed

Serious, Well-Respected Intellectual and highbrow racist Michael Medved has opened his mouth and written something so flabbergastingly stupid that a full-scale FJMing is required. Those of you who missed previous installments can learn about being FJMed here.

His masterpiece is entitled "Respecting – And Recognizing – American D.N.A." And…..go.

In today's ruthlessly competitive international economy, the United States may benefit from a potent but unheralded advantage: the aggressive edge sustained by the inherited power of American DNA.

Opening one's piece with an infomercial-grade platitude is a great way to prepare the reader for some hardcore eugenics.

The radical notion that our national character stems from genetics as well as culture has always inspired angry controversy; many observers scoff at the whole idea of a unifying hereditary component in our multi-racial, multi-cultural society.

Maybe people "scoff" at the argument because A) genetic determinism was dismissed as quackery a century ago and B) "American" is not a racial, ethnic, or genetic group. Calling Americans an ethnic group is like calling beef stew a food group.

Our stark differences in appearance, if nothing else, argue against the concept of common DNA connecting contemporary citizens of wildly divergent ancestry.

The fact that people look different is apparently the extent of what Michael Medved knows about the connection between genetics and human characteristics. This is gonna be good.

Nevertheless, two respected professors of psychiatry have recently come out with challenging books that contend that those who chose to settle this country in every generation possessed crucial common traits that they passed on to their descendents.

Hmmkay. So we're all different, but we share some crucial piece of DNA in common. And those of us who are American by virtue of the fact that this is where our parents fucked inhereted these traits. Boy I hope there's some evidence for this. This is coming from psychiatrists? Not, you know, biologists? Experts on the human genome? Genetic researchers? Interesting.

Compared to the Irish or Germans or Italians or Chinese or Mexicans who remained behind in the "Old Country," the newcomers to America would naturally display a propensity for risk-taking, for restlessness, for exuberance and self-confidence – traits readily passed down to subsequent generations. Whybrow explained to the New York Times Magazine that immigrants to the United States and their descendents seemed to possess a distinctive makeup of their "dopamine receptor system" the pathway in the brain that figures centrally in boldness and novelty seeking.

Holy shit, we all have the Indiana Jones gene! We're just fucking explorers to the bone marrow! What's really amazing is that only people who immigrated to AMERICA have it! People who immigrated to other countries somehow lack it. If they had it, they'd be in America! While his effort to cite a Respected Academic is laudable, I'm not aware of a whole lot of academic work coming to conclusions involving the phrase "seemed to." In a research setting, what the fuck does that mean? They "seem to" possess these traits.

John D. Gartner of Johns Hopkins University Medical School makes a similar case for an American-specific genotype in The Hypomanic Edge – celebrating the frenzied energy of American life that's impressed every visitor since Tocqueville.

Yep, our friends in Europe, Canada, Southeast Asia, and so on are practically on their knees willing to blow us when they see the way we live! The 55-hour workweeks, the people pulling two jobs just to afford a shitty life, the need to drive everyfuckingwhere, the traffic, the 40,000,000 people who can't see a doctor….it impresses the shit out of them. Maybe he cited Tocqueville because he was the most recent person to visit and walk away impressed. (PS: "That's" = "that is", not "that has")

The United States also benefited from our tradition of limited government, with only intermittent and ineffective efforts to suppress the competitive, entrepreneurial instincts of the populace.

What an interesting non-sequitur. So being Republicans is in our genes too? 50 years of New Deal government were a brief failure? Since we all share the Republican Indiana Jones DNA, why does so much of the population not fit his description in the slightest?

Professor Whybrow says: "Here you have the genes and the completely unrestricted marketplace. That's what gives us our peculiar edge." In other words, "anything goes capitalism" reflects and sustains the influence of immigrant genetics.

Ah, let's fondly recall the 1890s, the days of "anything goes" capitalism! Unregulated and unfettered, that's how the immigrants who came here and got worked to death, roasted alive in coke ovens, ground up into hamburger, or maimed in an unsafe Gilded Age Manufactory wanted it! They liked being powerless. They came here because they wanted to be exploited. Suck it, Upton Sinclair!

The idea of a distinctive, unifying, risk-taking American DNA might also help to explain our most persistent and painful racial divide

HOLY SWEET MERCIFUL FUCKBALLS, HERE IT COMES! FINALLY! I'M PUTTING ON A SECOND PAIR OF PANTS IN ANTICIPATION OF SHITTING THROUGH THE FIRST ONE!

Nothing in the horrific ordeal of African slaves, seized from their homes against their will, reflected a genetic predisposition to risk-taking, or any sort of self-selection based on personality traits.

Black people aren't good at business or being conservative or being AMERICAN, but it's not their fault! They were forcibly planted here without the Indiana Jones Gene to prepare them for our kick-ass way of life. So don't be mad at the simple negroes – pity them. Asking slave descendants to live the American Way is like asking a 1986 El Camino to win the Indy 500. Michael Medved is fucking AWESOME.

Among contemporary African-Americans, however, this very different historical background exerts a less decisive influence, because of vast waves of post-slavery black immigration. Some three million black immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean arrived since 1980 alone and in big cities like New York, Boston and Miami close to half of the African-American population consists of immigrants, their children or grandchildren. The entrepreneurial energy of these newcomer communities indicates that their members display the same adventurous instincts associated with American DNA.

Don't worry though, some Good Blacks are coming to improve the breeding stock! (I copied that last sentence out of an 1647 textbook on the Natural Sciences and Phrenology written by Increase Mather).

If Whybrow, Gartner and other analysts are right about the role of inherited traits and tendencies in shaping our national character then the insight carries crucial political implications.

OMG MY FIRST PAIR OF PANTS IS COMPLETELY SHAT-THROUGH AT THIS POINT. I HAVE REACHED PANTULAR SATURATION. I don't think I can handle the conclusion about how this all ties into the presidential race.

Senators Obama, Clinton and other leaders who seek to enlarge the scope of government face more formidable obstacles than they realize.

More formidable than widespread stupidity and anti-intellectualism which fuel a relentless, unapologetic selfishness and child-like jingoism? Holy crap. That sounds scary. What is it? Antibiotic-resistant airborne bacteria? Nuclear winter? Rodan?

Their desire to impose a European-style welfare state and a command-and-control economy not only contradicts our proudest political and economic traditions, but the new revelations about American DNA suggest that such ill-starred schemes may go against our very nature.

You mean the European-style welfare state that Europeans are really happy with? The kind that raises their quality of life significantly? The 30 days of vacation annually? The 35-hour workweek?

When did Comrade Barack and Politburo Commissar Clinton propose a "command-and-control" economy? For fuck's sake, I don't think anyone who knows what the phrase "command and control economy" means would make an allegation this ridiculous. Bill Fucking Kristol wouldn't even make such a pants-shittingly stupid and patently false generalization. Fox News wouldn't even do it. They have too much shame to say something as nakedly stupid as to suggest that the Democratic candidates are going to nationalize industry and start setting production levels. Only Michael Medved could listen to Hillary Clinton ramble on about gas tax holidays and come to the conclusion that she is a hardcore Marxist.

Michael Medved, you are a very stupid person. I would print your column and use it to clean up the mess it caused, but nothing about your argument suggests that it is sturdy enough for me to wipe my ass with.

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NPF: SUMMER GRILLING PRIMER, PART 1 – CHOOSING YOUR WEAPONS

Posted in No Politics Friday on May 16th, 2008 by Ed

One of the things that people who suffer long winters – Midwesterners in particular – love about summer is having a cook-out, barbecue, block party, tailgate party, or any other excuse to cook food outdoors through the majesty of fire. Unfortunately most people have not the slightest goddamn idea how to do so and end up imitating the loosely-recollected actions of their Uncle Larry at long-ago Labor Day gatherings. This is especially problematic because grilling is a "male" thing and men are far too pig-headed to A) ask for instructions or B) admit that they need to do A.

As poor grilling deeply offends me, this is a substantive primer of the basic concepts of grilling. Think of it like a Bobby Flay book, only much shorter, with more dick jokes, and sans man-boobs. You swear you don't need it, but you secetly know you do. In this first installment I am going to talk about the basics – our goal, our cooking vessel, and our heat source. If you botch this, no amount of cooking skill can save you after the fact. Being a poor cook means your guests eat overdone food, but not choosing the right tools means they will eat something that tastes like regular unleaded and gives them cancer.

Far too often, men demand (or are expected to take) dominion over the grill. Bullshit. Ladies, it is time to emasculate the irritating "grill masters" who believe that having a dong makes them an outdoor Escoffier. Tell them to find a lawn chair and chug Milwaukee's Best while you make some good food for a change. And guys, if you're that guy, it's time to stop. Mastering outdoor cookery is rewarding. You will make people happy. And cooking for friends and family is about making people happy.

Ready?

First, "grilling" and "barbecuing" are two vastly different things. Grilling involves placing food directly over very high heat for a short period of time. Barbecuing involves long, low, and indirect heat. They are polar opposites. Not understanding the difference, most people grill foods that ought by right to be barbecued. This inevitably results in a charred exterior with a raw interior – and a chef who can't figure out how to cook food through without burning the shit out of it.

Foods with high surface-to-mass ratios (most grilling meats, for example) like grilling. High-volume foods (whole birds, hams, roasts, etc) need to cook for a long time at a low heat which will not burn or char the exterior. When you reach a zen-like stage of mastery in this art, you will practice ideal "grilling" that combines the two: high, direct heat to sear the exterior followed by low, indirect heat to cook the food through. But let's not leap ahead to actual cooking. Let's start with the absolute basics. What do you need? You need a grill and a source of heat.

Grills: Gas grills are for pussies and dilettantes. They kill flavor. Grilled/BBQed food tastes of its heat source. Do you ever hear anyone wistfully pine for "that great propane taste?" Keep that in mind. If you're enamored with the flavor of gas grilling, why not just cook your food indoors, crack open a disposable lighter, and rub the food with butane? Because these grills are extremely convenient (and look swanky) I realize that many of you own one. So be it.

Pussy.

The choice of grills is really not a choice: the charcoal-burning Weber (kettle-style) grill is all you need. I'm not a brand whore; Weber's product simply has yet to be improved upon. Easy to clean, holds heat like a motherfucker, and with more user-friendly features than all other grills combined. You don't need anything fancier or cheaper. Avoid square, flat charcoal grills (ones that look like suitcases).

Heat: You have no options here with gas grills, but that is OK since you are a dilettante. In charcoal grilling, Americans have the regrettable tendency to gravitate toward briquettes. Briquettes are made of coal dust, wax, chemical stabilizers, and ground-up bits of old furniture. People compound this toxic mess by dousing it with lighter fluid. If you MUST cook this way, it is absolutely imperative that you allow your briquettes to burn completely (more on this later) before cooking. With "match light" briquettes, intended to make grilling accessible to people who apparently can't light regular charcoal, there is no amount of burn-off that will keep their chemical taste off your food. Avoid them. You might as well cook over a burning tire.

In an ideal world, you are using natural hardwood charcoal (aka Lump charcoal). Hardwood charcoal is made of wood. Whole pieces of real wood, nothing else. It is more expensive, but it lights very easily, heats quickly, lasts a long time, and gives food the (actually pleasant) taste of hardwood smoke rather than industrial solvent. I can tell you how to make your own (which is admittedly a little extreme) but I'll assume that simply buying it is good enough for you. There are dozens of brands, the availability of which are dictated by region.

Tools: You don't need to go overboard with fancy-pants tool kits, but there are a few basic things you'll need. Tongs. Spatula. These should be steel. I'm not trying to be a dick, but I've seriously seen people use plastic. Really. A heat-resistant silicon glove might not hurt. I find them far superior to cloth mitts.

You should also invest in a chimney starter…and never need lighter fluid again. It also has the advantage of allowing you to heat more coals while your food is still cooking (especially with the aid of a hinged grate). Ginandtacos tip: don't light the chimney with a bunch of wadded newspaper. Take a small square of paper towel, dip it in cheap cooking oil, and light it. That'll burn for 5 minutes. Also? Don't light a chimney on stone. The heat will radiate downward and potentially crack your porch/sidewalk/etc.

Look at that! You're halfway to being awesome. You never again have to squirt lighter fluid into a $14.99 square grill made of old soup cans. The groundwork is laid. Believe it or not, without having done a lick of cooking you are well on your way to success. Conversely, my condescending snark aside, not having these tools won't kill you. You can still make good food on a square grill. Or a gas grill.

Pussy.

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THE PANIC BUTTON

Posted in Rants on May 15th, 2008 by Ed

A good friend of mine, with whom I share many political sympathies, directed me to this Bill McKibben editorial in the LA Times. Sensationally titled "Civilization's Last Chance", the author talks about the growing and empirically-documented problem of increased carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. I'm unusually conflicted.

I agree with the author's premise without hesitation. I have serious reservations about his tone and method of delivery, though. Using the "Sky is Falling" approach to increase awareness of environmental issues seems ineffective at best or counterproductive at worst. Let's use an analogy, because I love analogies.

You have a friend who is seriously overweight. Concerned, you decide to tell him that losing some weight might be good for his health. You tell him that he is in imminent danger of dropping dead and doing irreversible damage to his body if he doesn't lose 100 pounds right away. That message could have a powerful impact and inspire positive changes. Conversely, it could be overwhelming, creating a feeling of hopelessness and resignation. "I can't lose 100 pounds right away. I guess I'm fucked. Pass the Ho-Hos." Even worse, you could be dismissed as a serial exaggerator, especially if, for example, the person was not inclined to believe that weight affects health in the first place.

McKibben's message will generate responses that fit into three broad categories. First, he could scare a reader into becoming very concerned. This is his goal. Second, he could create a feeling that the problem is as dire, overwhelming, and incomprehensibly large as he suggests. The likely results are apathy and resignation. Third, people who are inclined to believe that climatology and global warming are "junk science" could find all of the keywords they'd need to disregard him as a crank or a tinfoil-hatted cult leader predicting the apocalypse. Hell, just looking at the alarmist title might be enough.

Going back to our overweight friend analogy, let's say you take a different approach. You tell him that it might be good for his health if he cut out soft drinks. Sugar's bad, after all. He finds that living without Coke and Sprite really isn't too awfully hard. Hell, he barely even misses them. And he loses 5 pounds. He feels good about the fact that he lost some weight. So you suggest getting more exercise or maybe cutting out fast food. Since losing a little weight no longer seems impossible, he's willing to give it a try. He keeps building on small victories until, at some point in the near future, he has what could be described as a healthy lifestyle.

I wonder why people like McKibben don't spend more time presenting these problems in a way that doesn't overwhelm readers' feelings that they can do something concrete about it. Not "write your Congressman" or "vote for environmentalists" but actually do something measurable. When he says "The planet is going to die and you have to fix it" there aren't many people who think that's a realistic goal. Maybe, for example, he could write a column about how re-usable canvas grocery bags can save 300-500 plastic (made from oil, of course) or paper bags per shopper every year. Even though suburban America is resistant to anything that asks for a lifestyle change or suggests that profligate consumption is not our birthright, most people will read that and think "Well that's not so fucking hard." I mean, honestly, how hard is it to use a different bag to carry groceries? It isn't. At all. It's so goddamn easy that….people might actually do it.

So we wean ourselves off of plastic grocery bags as a nation. McKibben has a tangible victory. An example toward which to point. "See? We changed something. And it was easy! Now let's try….." Because the problem here is not SUVs or lack of public transit or McMansions. Those are symptoms. The problem is that our entire national mindset is fucked up. We simply do not think about conservation, waste, or efficiency at all. We ask only two questions: What do I want? What is easiest/most convenient for me?

Telling people, as the author does, that they have to run out to buy a $35,000 hybrid tomorrow does nothing to alter that mindset. It's just overwhelming. People will have an excuse to ignore it. We need to start at the bottom of the mountain and get people to put one foot in front of the other, not point at the mountain and say "Get to the top by tomorrow or you're fucked." This isn't about CO2 or the urgency of climate change. It's about tricking people into changing the way they think, to replace their standard modus operandi – doing whatever is most convenient for them as individuals, be it driving everywhere, throwing out 12 plastic Evian bottles per day, or running the furnace at 80 while no one's home – with a new set of questions. Is this efficient? Is this wasteful? It can be done, just not overnight.

ME SO CORNY

Posted in Rants on May 14th, 2008 by Ed

We all know that gasoline is plowing toward $4/gal. I bet you didn't know that the price of corn, which was $2/bushel in 2005, is now over $6/bushel. Part of that is increased fuel and transportation costs. And part of it is in your gas tank.

One of my particularly conservative friends asked me recently why dirty liberals don't get excited about ethanol the same way they get excited about recycling, hybrids, and David Sedaris. A superficial understanding of the issue suggests that we should be excited – it's renewable, it gives farmers an expanded market for their commodities, it aids in "energy independence" or whatever, and so on. Unfortunately my response is pretty straightforward: no one gets excited about ethanol because it is a monumental crock of shit and a terrible product. By the time we wrap up this ludicrous half-century experiment it will hold its own against the greatest boondoggles in history, somewhere between the Concorde and the Iraqi Reconstruction.

Ethanol has been the "fuel of the future" for about 40 years, enjoying a surge in popularity every time the cost of gasoline shocks America. It remains "the next big thing" for the same reasons it never actually becomes the present big thing: it's a quick-fix, politically expedient solution that promises not to make Americans change their habits. We can drive the same idiotic vehicles, only with different fuel in the tank. This is why foot-dragging behemoths like General Motors (and Congress) are pimping E85 like it cures cancer. It's "clean", it subsidizes the idealized vision of rural America, and requires a minimum of mechanical changes in gasoline combustion engines.

Corn grown in the United States may be the single most heavily subsidized commodity on the planet. Since 1995, corn farmers have received over $60 billion in Federal subsidies. The vast majority of corn still goes into the food chain (either directly or as feed) but the amount diverted into the ethanol white elephant has grown five-fold since 2003. Despite banal promises that "new technologies" and more research will suddenly turn ethanol into a miracle cure for our energy needs, nearly four decades' worth of effort have yet to overcome the fundamental flaws in the product. Yet Congress has mandated that by 2022 we have to increase our production of this shit from 6 billion barrels per year to 36 billion (and remember, we're using 150 billion gallons of fossil fuels every year according to the DoE). You're welcome, Iowa Farmers / Welfare Queens.

What's wrong with ethanol? First, ethanol evaporates when mixed with gasoline. Mandating a blend of the two products (almost all gas sold today is E10, i.e. 10% ethanol) dramatically increases the costs of refining to compensate for this problem. Second, ethanol costs more energy per gallon to produce than is contained in the gallon of ethanol itself. Third, a gallon of E85 contains almost 1/4 less energy than a gallon of gasoline, so you need to use more of it. It kills fuel economy. This more than offsets the fact that E85 costs less at the pump. Fourth, it is only cheaper (or economically competitive with gasoline) because of a truly staggering level of government subsidy; almost $1.40 per gallon, compared to subsidies of 0.3 cents per gallon for gasoline. In other words, without Uncle Sam underwriting every stage of the process from planting to pumping, the cost of ethanol would make regular gasoline look cheap. Real cheap.

A deep flaw in the American character is the blind faith that technology is going to save us. In the 1950s nuclear power was going to be too cheap to meter. Then hydrogen power was going to be more abundant than air itself. Now biofuels are the magic ticket. Ethanol is nothing more than a fad – one whose staying power is attributable to the enormous political influence of agribusiness (and ethanol king ADM in particular). But ethanol, which is nothing more than the grain alcohol you put in fruit punch to make weddings more bearable, is a terrible product with absolutely no potential to replace gasoline. To replace our gasoline usage gallon-for-gallon, we'd have to plant corn on every square inch of the United States – and part of Canada. And more efficient ethanol crops ("cellulosic ethanol" produced from switchgrass or sugarcane) are nothing more than pipe dreams at the moment. We are to believe, of course, that shoveling money into this black hole for another 20 years will make cellulosic ethanol a reality. And that's our national neurosis – our behavior doesn't need to change because the solution to all our problems is (always) right around the corner.

I am not going to sit here and tell you that gasoline is a good product or that our use of it is sustainable. But suitable replacements should be things that pollute less, cost less, and are more efficient. Since ethanol is inefficient to produce, pollutes just as much as gasoline, and costs far more, this endeavor amounts to little more than Chuck Grassley, ADM executives, and a bunch of Iowa farmers breaking it off in your ass while exchanging high-fives and lighting cigars with government cash.

GUMMY BEARS FOR DINNER

Posted in Rants on May 13th, 2008 by Ed

Death Valley, CA has one of the (if not the) highest pump prices for gasoline in the Lower 48. On my vacation there in 2004 I distinctly recall staring open-jawed at a Shell sign advertising regular unleaded for $3.20/gal – shocking, given that the rest of the nation was at $2.

Gas stands at $5.16/gal at that same Death Valley Shell station today. Insane, right? Why in the hell does it cost so much? The second comment on the linked video resolves this for us:

Perhaps CA should have less tax.

You could set your watch to right-wing rhetoric, so constant (not to mention grammatically incorrect) it is. Yes, California has the highest gasoline taxes in the nation. State and Federal taxes add up to 62.8 cents. In the example at hand, eliminating these taxes would drop the regular unleaded price to $4.53/gal. For fuck's sake, that's practically giving it away!

Ahh, the "gas tax holiday." I've been to two State Fairs and a Carrot Top show, yet this proposal is the dumbest thing I've ever seen. Everything you need to know about how Hillary Clinton has gone off the rails (and McCain was there to begin with) is encapsulated in this half-assed pander. In fact, to describe it as "off the rails" is too generous; this idea missed the train altogether, sleeping through its alarm after another long night of angrily masturbating to Milton Friedman's Essays in Positive Economics.

The Federal excise tax on gasoline is the same in every state: 18.4 cents per gallon. I drive a 2000 Nissan Sentra with a 1.8L engine. As I drive very little, I fill up once per month with a 12 gallon fuel tank. The Federal tax costs me $2.20 per month. I spend more on gum.

Maybe I'm atypical. Replace me with a person who has an average sedan (15 gallon tank) and drives a ton (weekly fill-ups). This person pays $11.04 per month – on $231 per month of gasoline (assuming $3.85/gal). A "holiday" would reduce this person's costs to $220 per month. For three months. Total savings: $33. Half a tank. Over three months.

That McCain pimps this steaming ball of suck is unsurprising. I'm just embarassed for Clinton at this point, though. Transparent pandering. The amazing thing is that even right wing economists think this is a bad idea. The only people who think it is a good idea are A) people who respond to the phrase "tax cut" like salivating dogs and B) desperate politicians.

So many questions, so few answers. How does this pittance amount to "relief for working families?" How are the Federal Highway Trust funds, upon which Congressional pork relies, to be replaced? What makes anyone think that gasoline producers and retailers will pass the savings on to consumers? More importantly, can anyone point to a single argument or economist willing to state that this isn't a terrible idea? That question has been put to both Hillary and a McCain surrogate:

Clinton: "I'm not going to put my lot in with economists. We've got to get out of this mind-set where somehow elite opinion is always on the side of doing things that really disadvantage the vast majority of Americans."

Carly Fiorina: "No, I can't, but, you see, I don't think it matters. … An American family who is sitting around the kitchen table wondering how they're going to pay for groceries, fill their gas tank, whether they're going to stay in their home, whether or not they can send their kid to college this fall. For them, the economy is in difficulty, and all the theoretical discussion is, sort of, irrelevant."

Translation: two different flavors of Argumentum ad Populum with some anti-Ivory Tower rhetoric (from two people with Ivy League postgraduate degrees) for good measure. Who cares what those eggheads say about the tax – Americans really want it! I suppose that when my 6 year old nephew really wants to eat gummy bears for dinner his argument has about as much merit.

The right loves to use the "liberal nanny state" as a combination Straw Man/insult. If they dislike maternalism, maybe they should stop acting like fucking children. I'm not sure I can think of a non-maternalistic way to put things when forced to explain concepts like "What's popular isn't always right" or "Just because you want it doesn't mean you can have it" or "Don't fill up on Twizzlers." Present an argument or proposal that isn't an adult expression of the childish See-Want-Get-Put in Mouth impulse and maybe my rebuttal will not sound like it is coming from a babysitter.

ED vs. COGNITIVE BIASES, PART 3: MISPERCEIVING RISK

Posted in Ed vs. Cognitive Biases on May 12th, 2008 by Ed

Let's play a game, courtesy of Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. It's more fun if you answer honestly. You must pick one of these two choices:

A: A sure gain of $250
B: A 30% chance to gain $1000 and a 70% chance to gain nothing

Now pick one of these two:

C: A sure loss of $750
D: A 70% chance to lose $1000 and a 30% chance to lose nothing

Kahneman and Tversky conducted experiments and found that 84% of respondents in the first scenario chose A, whereas in the second 87% chose D. Classic economic theory (expected utility) would suggest choosing B and D. In the first problem, the expected utility would be A = $250 and B = $300 (30% of $1000). In the second problem, C = -$750 and D = -$700. So why do people get it "right" in the second problem but not the first?

Well, Kahneman and Tversky developed Prospect Theory, essentially replacing Expected Utility Theory, winning fame and fortune in the process. I won't pretend to do it justice here; what it essentially means (note that both men are psychologists, not economists) is that people are risk averse when confronted with gains and risk seeking when gambling with losses. We prefer the sure thing, even though it's smaller, when we can gain ("One in the hand is two in the bush") but are willing to gamble a larger loss for the chance to lose nothing. This is why in the stock market, for example, people sell very quickly when their investments are up (~20% profit) but hold onto bad investments for years, riding them to 80-90% losses in some cases, waiting for things to turn around.

And now the point.

Let's take this out of the realm of economic decision-making and into the realm of social issues. Kahneman and Tversky did. In a second experiment, they ask participants to imagine that a new virus attacks Asia and the CDC must prepare for an outbreak in the U.S. which is predicted (assume for a moment that it can be predicted accurately) to kill 600 people. They have two potential plans, and they conduct opinion polling to see how the public will react. The first test subjects saw these two choices:

A: 200 people will be saved
B: A 1/3 chance that all 600 people will be saved but a 2/3 chance that no one will be saved.

A second group saw different options:

C: 400 people will die
D: A 1/3 chance that no one will die and a 2/3 chance that 600 people will die

72% chose A and 78% chose D. But literally nothing has changed. These are the exact same options, worded differently: 200 live and 400 die in A or C, while there is a 2/3 chance that everyone dies in B and D. Regarding social/moral/political questions like this, framing is stupendously important. Although the odds are the same, "200 people will live" triggers the cognitive bias in favor of certainty whereas "400 people will die" activates risk averse thinking.

So, let's apply this to the deeply-held conviction by McCain, Lieberman, and their followers that we should double down in Iraq. What these people are doing is gravitating toward choice "D" in the last problem: a small chance that things will work out perfectly and a large chance that things will go completely to shit and get far worse. This is preferred to "C", which is cutting our current (and more importantly, certain) losses. It doesn't matter that there's only a 5% chance that Iraq will turn into an idyllic paradise of stability. Our cognitive wiring suggests that even a glimmer of hope is enough. The average person will take the Hail Mary pass, risking a huge loss for a miniscule chance at total victory, over a smaller but certain loss any day.

WEEKEND BONUS

Posted in Uncategorized on May 10th, 2008 by Ed

Just because.

I happen to know an extraordinarily talented carpenter, and if you have money burning a hole in your pocket (and a hole in your soul that can only be filled with commerce) ask yourself if you need a Triforce cutting board. Or a Space Invaders cutting board. I think you do.

But wait. There's more. As in, floor-to-ceiling modular Tetris bookshelves. Hold on, let me say that one more time: modular Tetris pieces which can be assembled into a bookcase.

You know you want it.

NPF: TACO TRUCKS

Posted in No Politics Friday on May 9th, 2008 by Ed

It's been too long since I have had taco-related content on here.

I'm not fond of Los Angeles. I believe I'm on record as saying it's essentially God's greatest mistake. Its people, by and large, are pretty neat though. It gets some of its local color in the form of mobile taco trucks that primarily serve the sizeable Latino population spread throughout the area. Under the guise of concerns for public safety and sanitation, the city is attempting to ban the trucks. This is considered such a slap in the face to long-time residents that even the New York Times is writing front-pagers about the controversy. And taco lovers from around the country are joining Angelenos in solidarity at SaveOurTacoTrucks.org.

Tacos are street food. They are Poor People Food. They are not something to be dressed up and served in fancy restaurants (although I hate most of the cast, I have unending respect for this guy from Top Chef for refusing, on principle, to make an "upscale taco"). Of course taco trucks, like most mobile food service, present some sanitation concerns. Let's be frank – you're not expecting hospital-quality cleanliness when ordering a taco from a converted school bus. We're adults and we understand what we're buying.

While the local government's actions are cloaked in a lot of language about litter or health and safety concerns, SOTT and many other observers have speculated that it has a lot more to do with large crowds of Latinos gathering in neighborhoods wherever the trucks stop. God forbid a bunch of people mill around a truck and talk in a parking lot or on a street corner. That would upset the delicate beauty of….Los Angeles? The smog-choked, traffic-strangled asshole of the world? Come on.

Much like when Chicago tried to ban Eloteros, I think that the local government involved in this controversy have forgotten a cardinal, 500 year old rule of politics: don't fuck with what people eat.

AAAAAAND….SCENE.

Posted in Election 2008 on May 8th, 2008 by Ed

Boy, I wish this had come out before I wrote today's entry:

"I have a much broader base to build a winning coalition on," Clinton said in an interview with USA TODAY.

Clinton cited an Associated Press poll "that found how Senator Obama's support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again, and how whites in both states who had not completed college were supporting me."

I rest my case. It would be an act of charity for someone to stop her before she humiliates herself any further. Stephanopolous and McGovern have abandoned ship. After hearing things like this, I wonder how many more of her high-visibility supporters are going to flee the proverbial bunker rather than stick around for the fight-to-the-last-man followed by group suicide.