NPF: G&T PSA

Posted in No Politics Friday on February 26th, 2010 by Ed

I have a public service announcement for people who are considering, or may consider at some point in the future, travel to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina: do not travel to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

I can hardly decide what to do with my free time: Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede, Ripley's Believe it or Not Aquarium, Medieval Times, Magiquest (which looks like it might be responsible for a lot of parental suicides), a NASCAR theme park, the Carolina Opry, one of two enormous factory outlet malls, or sitting in my hotel room silently weeping, cutting myself, and contemplating gorging myself to death on a $9.99 all-you-can-eat fried batter buffet.

It's a tough call. I dread having children solely out of fear that I would have to take them someplace like this, up to and including Disneyworld if Myrtle Beach turned out to be insufficiently plastic for his or her tastes.

THE HIVE MIND

Posted in Ed vs. Cognitive Biases on February 25th, 2010 by Ed

I come across like someone who is very harsh on students but more often than not I just feel bad for them when they're at their worst. Most of what they are at 18-21 reflects their upbringing, and I'm not eager to punish them for the fact that they grew up in Pigsknuckle, Tennessee or were raised by people whose parenting skills were limited to showering them with money and looking the other way. I mean, given that they were raised on Glenn Beck, drive a car that costs twice my annual salary, and have never met a black person who wasn't serving them food or holding a rake, the only surprise is that they're not more screwed up than they already are. The existential dilemma of teaching becomes clear when you try telling some lackadaisical fratboy "You need to try harder" when it's clear that he already has everything and very clearly doesn't need to try in order to maintain it. But I digress.

The point is that I understand that the decision-making skills of undergrads are subpar. That is not an excuse; they are old enough to accept consequences. I simply mean that it does not shock me when students – especially groups of them – make idiotic decisions. It is what they do. I expect it. This is what I tell myself. But every so often I reel from shock despite how well I prepare myself for their ignorance.

University of California-San Diego is the latest school to have what amounts to an annual tradition in American academia: the comically racist frat party. This year's UCSD "Compton Cookout" is just the latest version of the fraternity slave auctions, the blackface and gold teeth Halloween costumes, and the fried chicken-and-watermelon email "jokes" that we've come to know and love. The invitation to this year's event promises attendees "dat purple drank" – which is what the coloreds drink! ha ha! – and helpfully offers the following tips:

For girls: For those of you who are unfamiliar with ghetto chicks-Ghetto chicks usually have gold teeth, start fights and drama, and wear cheap clothes – they consider Baby Phat to be high class and expensive couture. They also have short, nappy hair, and usually wear cheap weave, usually in bad colors, such as purple or bright red.

They look and act similar to Shenaynay, and speak very loudly, while rolling their neck, and waving their finger in your face. Ghetto chicks have a very limited vocabulary, and attempt to make up for it, by forming new words, such as "constipulated", or simply cursing persistently, or using other types of vulgarities, and making noises, such as "hmmg!", or smacking their lips, and making other angry noises, grunts, and faces.

The objective is for all you lovely ladies to look, act, and essentially take on these "respectable" qualities throughout the day.

Hilarity ensues.

Here's what baffles me about these incidents. I know these kids are mostly the ignorant progeny of ignorant adults, but fraternities are large. The planning of this party had to involve dozens and dozens of people (within and outside of the frat in question). There wasn't one person with enough brainpower to think, "Hmm, this doesn't seem like a good idea"? Not one? I understand groupthink, peer pressure, and conformity. Honestly I do. Cognitive biases interest me. But you would imagine that if for no reason other than self-preservation – "Gee, I don't want to get in trouble for this" – one out of every hundred would be smart enough to do something. Even my jaded, blackened heart has a hard time believing that they are unanimously that dumb.

Overall today's undergrads are probably less racist than past generations so we can't make a good-ol'-days argument here. But the sheer stupidity of the racism that remains more than compensates for whatever improvements we've made as a society. It's sad enough that this happens, and sadder yet that these people are too dumb to express their racism at a level higher than "Haw haw! Them negroes sure do talk real funny and drink lotsa Kool Aid!" If the sentiments they express aren't enough to convince us of their dull minds, they ensure that we get the message with their chosen manner of delivery. I mean, if you're going to be completely offensive you could at least do humanity the favor of attempting to be clever. Then again, if these people were mentally capable of clever they'd wouldn't be doing this in the first place.

THE MARK OF QUALITY

Posted in Rants on February 24th, 2010 by Ed

When you shop, you automatically associate low price with quality, right? I mean, the least expensive car must be the best one. Those $1.99 dinners on the Long John Silver's commercials…there's no way they could taste like Tucker Carlson's asshole or anything. I bet they're delicious and good for you. The "we keep you legal for less!" insurance companies probably provide red carpet service when you get in an accident. When you get dragged into court you peruse the phone book for the lawyer who promises to take any case for $99, right? When you're looking for someplace to move, you naturally gravitate toward the "low cost of living" in Detroit or Beaumont, Texas. The $150 per course online college must kick Yale's ass all over the place. Cheaper is always better.

In reality, with the occasional pleasant exception cheap usually equals shit. Yet we as a country are obsessed with it. Cheaper, cheaper, cheaper. Who cares what Wal-Mart does to suppliers and who cares what's in the food – just make it cheap. Many of us are forced into this mindset by a lack of resources; the rest of us are simply obsessed with paying less and less so we can buy more and more. This works out well given that the Cato Institute wet dream that has been the last three decades of our economic history – deregulation and privatization as far as the eye can see – serves no purpose but to make everything cheaper, consequences be damned.

I can't strongly enough recommend the most recent Frontline, "Flying Cheap" (full episode online for free; thanks, socialist public television!). My unhealthy interest in the airline industry means that I wasn't entirely unaware of the problems with subcontracting and "regional" carriers, but it is jarring to see the evidence laid out so methodically. If you fly regularly you're familiar with this drill, even though you may not realize it. Scan the fine print on your ticket and you're likely to see "Operated by…" and a name you don't recognize under the name of the airline that sold you the ticket. The major carriers only really operate flights on major routes and, thanks to deregulation and an indifferent FAA, they contract feeder routes out to rinky-dink commuter airlines flying smaller planes and employing inexperienced pilots who make less than the average bus driver.

The crash of Continental 3407 – a flight actually operated by something called "Colgan Air" on contract from Continental – brought some of these problems into the spotlight, but the public's attention span is short and the relationship between the FAA and the industry is a textbook case of regulatory capture. Without regulation, routes are subcontracted under terms that seem designed to cause accidents. Regional carriers are paid a flat fee per route, which encourages corner-cutting on maintenance and labor costs. They are not paid at all unless a route is completed, encouraging a cowboy attitude toward flying in severe weather. Maintenance records are falsified with impunity. Novice pilots are on duty for 16 hour shifts flying planes on which they haven't trained. The crash of Flight 3407, for example, was caused by a pilot who hadn't trained on the Q400 pushing the rudder the wrong way in reaction to a stall. Then the First Officer raised the flaps – during a stall – and sent the plane into the ground. That's what $19,000 per year to work 80 hours per week will get you. It must be a coincidence that the last 8 fatal air accidents in the US were on regional carriers.

I love Frontline because unlike the mainstream media they treat "industry representatives" and lobbyists with the disgust due a class of people with a private section reserved in hell. The soul-crushing part is realizing just how little difference there is between the lobbyists and the people who are supposed to be regulating them. You know, enforcing safety regulations and other inconvenient shit like that. If you watch the episode you'll be treated to the Bush-era FAA chief defending a self-policing policy that allowed airlines to report their own safety violations rather than be inspected by claiming, "Who would know more about the day-to-day safety problems airlines encounter than the airlines themselves?" And thus a Daily Show punchline became the law that was supposed to protect us.

The best part, of course, is that you don't have a choice – only Southwest refuses to use regional feeders, and they have their own maintenance issues – and the industry goes to great lengths to conceal this information. Free Markets may be the gospel of the right, but one of the necessary preconditions, full information, attracts considerably less enthusiasm. Your ticket says Delta or United even though your flight is actually on Pinnacle or Colgan or Two Guys and a Turboprop Air. There is no sign on the plane letting you know that your pilot is 23, has less than 500 hours in the air, has already flown 6 legs that day, and makes about $1200 monthly for his 80 hour weeks. The ticket does not state "We don't get paid unless we take off and land, so we'll pretty much fly you into Hurricane Camille." The captain does not announce on the intercom that the plane has been overloaded with cargo and is probably too heavy to climb. There is no big red X painted on all of the parts that need to be replaced but aren't.

This is what happens when regulatory agencies consider the people who they are supposed regulate to be their clients. This is the logical end result of the laissez faire attitude we have adopted toward…oh, everything. The only surprising thing is that the accident rate is so low.

But gee, look at those low fares.

DAMN YOU, INTERNETS

Posted in Quick Hits on February 23rd, 2010 by Ed

No home internet access last evening and hence no Tuesday post. I'll try to throw something up later today. Until then see what Mike and Sadly, No! have been up to. Here's a hint: they have been up to awesomeness.

YOU ARE NOT READY

Posted in Rants on February 22nd, 2010 by Ed

It makes my head spin to think that I have already been teaching long enough to tell this tale, but…

In 2004 I taught my very first undergraduate course, 16 weeks on presidential elections for 90 students. Based on my own belief that the amount of money in presidential elections is increasing exponentially rather than linearly – essentially doubling every four years rather than a steady increase on the order of 10% annually – I promised the students that they would see a half-billion dollar election in 2004. To say they were incredulous would be an understatement; they wrote me off as either a complete idiot or a tinfoil-hatted conspiracy theorist with some curious ideas about what made the World Trade Center collapse. The class ended before the FEC data were finalized, but the combined Kerry ($225 million) and Bush ($272 million) campaigns fell within millimeters of the half-billion figure. And that was merely the official, on-the-books "hard money" raised and spent by the campaigns themselves. Hundreds of millions more were spent by 527 groups, the DNC/RNC, unsuccessful presidential candidates, and so on. Ed 1, credulity 0. For the next several years in a variety of courses I promised groups of skeptical students that we would see a billion dollar election in 2008 (major party nominees' campaigns only) with $500 million left over for the primary losers and non-campaign spending.

I guessed low.

In 2008 we had a half-billion dollar primary and a general election that saw the Obama campaign raise $58 per second for the entire month of October. Obama raised $745 million, McCain a "mere" $370 million. Mitt Romney spent $107 million and didn't make it out of February. Rudy Giuliani spent $58 million and didn't make it out of Florida. The RNC threw another $120 million onto McCain's sinking ship. Non-campaign groups poured in more. It was, by almost any account, obscene. We even had a burst of passion for reform from conservatives (oddly enough it came when they were outspent for the first time since reliable records became available).

Now in the wake of Citizens United vs. FEC plenty has been said about the folly of corporate personhood and the opened floodgates courtesy of the patriotic, non-activist majority on the Supreme Court. There appears to be widespread consensus that this is a bad thing. This is all correct, of course, but here is the thing: you have no idea how fucking ridiculous this is going to get in 2012. We will look back on 2008 as a simpler time.

A decent guess is impossible to generate since we are in uncharted waters from this point forward. An obvious guess would be another 100% increase; I think that will be a baseline. The campaigns themselves will double the $1.5 billion spent by all contenders in 2008. How much will corporate groups – not to mention various other tax code loophole groups – toss on the fire? Another $3 billion seems like a reasonable guess, equal to the amount that the candidates spend on the books. I think that's an understatement. $10 billion? $20 billion? More? It's not out of the question. I could just be a pessimist, but I think we are in for something so grotesque and ridiculous that we'll scarcely be able to grasp it. In short, we could be in for an election so obscenely expensive that it could shock us into real reform.

But I wouldn't count on it.

NPF: POLACKS RISING

Posted in No Politics Friday, Quick Hits on February 20th, 2010 by Ed

The IUPAC announced Friday that the recently discovered 112th element of the periodic table will be named after the famous astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus. It is the second element (Curium) to be named after a son or daughter of Poland. If we can get them to name the next one after former White Sox DH Greg Luzinski the troika of legendary Polacks will be complete.

NPF: HAPPY HAPPINESS DAY!

Posted in No Politics Friday on February 19th, 2010 by Ed

In celebration of all of the good, happy, and not-even-remotely negative things in the world, I present, in no particular order, a picture of an infant hamster eating corn, the 1982 Super Bowl halftime show by Up With People, and a tiny toddler interacting with a 200 pound Newfoundland dog.

I hope this has been informative happy. Ecstatically so!

USELESS

Posted in Rants on February 18th, 2010 by Ed

Like many people in their thirties, I consider age 31 an appropriate time to do some reflection on my station in life. Personal goals and feelings aside, one thing that strikes me is how completely useless I am to the economy.

Our post-industrial economy, as I and people much smarter than me have pointed out continuously, is based entirely on consumer spending. The negative trade balance "knowledge and services" economy exports nothing of interest to the rest of the world but manufacturing jobs and Treasury debt. Our economy hums along when people spend money like drunken sailors and comes to a screeching halt when we can't or won't. This has always been the case to some extent in America, but the recent economic troubles have placed this reality in the spotlight. I don't have to look very hard to figure out why recovery is nowhere in sight.

I'm 31. According to the American Dream, I am supposed to have some small kids, a house, two Fords, a down payment on a boat, and two vacations per year. In non-1950s reality, I have been renting for 13 years and driving the same car for 11. I haven't been on a vacation in three years (and that was a car camping trip which cost about $200). I go out to eat maybe twice weekly, see around one movie per month, and buy a new $399 laptop every 18 months when the previous one falls prey to the high quality of its Taiwanese components. Maybe the economy would be better if more people joined me in not buying things that we can't afford. But the reality is that these are the kinds of major purchases that oil the gears of our economy.

All of us – whether we buy nothing or buy what we can't afford – face the same fundamental problem: we simply lack anything resembling a stable career. Or we have a stable job that pays dick. Like so many industries, my field is slowly but decisively moving toward a no job security, no benefits "temp" model. We call them adjuncts, VAPs, Lecturers, and other euphemisms but it all means the same thing: at-will employment on a year-to-year basis for about $25-$30,000. It's far from poverty wages for my childless ass; I lack none of life's essentials. But this is pretty much it for me, the full extent to which the economy is going to benefit from my existence. I have no reasonable expectation of ever being able to buy a home (perhaps I could scrape together a down payment by 40, at which point a 30 year mortgage would basically mean I'd be buying my own coffin). Liz and I talk about going on a honeymoon with the wistfulness one usually reserves for phrases like "I want to walk on the moon someday." I might be able to swing a new car in five or ten more years.

The moral of the story could simply be that I am a big loser or that I'm simply forgoing middle-class spending rituals that are wholly superfluous. But I don't believe the situation I describe here is exceptional; what percentage of 30-somethings would fit this description? Our parents' generation decided to cash out ("If we ship all the jobs overseas our IRAs will go through the roof! And then all of our kids will be lawyers, or something!") and it's not a mystery why we are floundering in the present and for the foreseeable future. I read a lot about our economic troubles, even the stuff I don't understand, but I really needn't look far to figure out why automakers are on life support and home prices are cratering. Sure, there are macro-level explanations – asset price bubbles and so forth – but we might do well to give in to the seductive simplicity of reasons like "We can't afford this shit anymore."

DENNIS PRAGER GETS THE FJM TREATMENT AND OFFERS TO BABYSIT

Posted in Rants on February 17th, 2010 by Ed

Intellectual Chernobyl represents the full spectrum of right-wing crazy: the vacuous stupidity of Marybeth Hicks or Jackie Gingrich; the blood-curdling rage of fat white guys like Doug Giles and John Hawkins; the insane, untethered "I smear shit all over myself and why do the editors keep taking 'spick' and 'towelhead' out of my columns?" ranting of Michelle Malkin and Star Parker; the fake non-partisanship of John Stossel and Michael Medved; and the grandfatherly crankiness of Dennis Prager. That DP comes off as one of the more reasonable voices on IC is less a compliment than an indictment of his surroundings. But it's true. He's a hybrid of Andy Rooney and Morty Seinfeld, as likely to complain about Congress as to complain about how the kids listen to their damn boom-boom music instead of Chopin. DP was in pure Andy Rooney form when watching Super Bowl commercials this year, apparently, and a cranky old man does not need to try very hard to find something to bitch about during that extravaganza of offensive masquerading as clever. That's how we end up with "The Doritos Ad was Not Funny", which also happens to bear the most abstract title for a creative work since Snakes on a Plane. I hope you're ready for 1000 words of recollections about The Good Ol' Days and the occasional anecdote about Paul Harvey, because here we go.

By far, the most popular ad shown during the latest Super Bowl was the Doritos "House Rules" ad. Tens of millions of Americans saw it as hilarious.

Is there some evidence for this? It is not only the most popular but "by far." Something tells me this is based on a double-blind survey of Dennis Prager's wife – who I am forced to assume is named Lorraine – and his collection of ointments from the 1950s. The ad was pretty popular, but why leave it at that when you can make shit up?

That is unfortunate. Anyone aware of the manifold social pathologies the ad depicted did not find much to laugh about. Here is the ad:

I will note two things. First, I actually agree with DP. The ad was insulting. Second, when he says "Here is the ad" there is no link to the ad. I am not sure he understands YouTube. I am not even sure he has a solid handle on VHS or microfiche yet. But here is the ad.

A man knocks on a door. A pretty woman answers it. He hands her flowers and she thanks him. He has presumably come to take her out on a date. She introduces her young son to the man and excuses herself. She walks back to her room. The camera focuses on her shapely legs, quite visible given that she is wearing a miniskirt. The man stares, indeed leers, at her legs and makes a facial gesture suggesting, shall we say, sexual interest. The boy, who appears to be about 5 years old, sees this and drops his toy. The man sits on the couch and helps himself to a Dorito. The boy walks up to the man, smacks him hard across the face and says, "Keep your hands off my mama. Keep your hands off my Doritos."

Is is nice of DP to summarize this for his aged audience. But it certainly could be called offensive, what with the Diff'rent Strokes-style negro slang dialect, single mother who appears to be about 14, and leering rapist-to-be male.

Here are the major elements of dysfunction this ad depicts.

Good. Here we go.

First, a child smacking an adult across the face is not funny.

What the fuck.

Seriously? Is this, like, a problem? This is an issue? An epidemic of child-on-adult slappage is America's most pressing social problem. It narrowly edges out our 15% unemployment rate and the alarming shortage of Barnaby Jones re-runs in Dennis Prager's mind.

It is, in fact, one of the last things society should tolerate.

THE LAST 5 THINGS SOCIETY SHOULD TOLERATE, by Dennis Prager

5. Man-on-dog
4. Sass, backtalk, and/or guff
3. Murder
2. Females appearing unveiled in public without a male chaperone
1. Children slapping adults

I will deal with the widespread defense of the child's action — "he was only protecting his mother" — later. In real life, a child who hits an adult needs to be disciplined.

O…K. I am very hesitant to agree, but…I agree.

If a child did that to me, I would grab his offending arm and apply enough force to make it clear that he will never do that again.

Well, we were just barreling down Cranky Boulevard and we took a sudden right on Creepy. What does "apply force" mean? Are you cranking his arm behind his back cop-style? Squeezing it until something comes out the end like a tube of Crest?

After I mentioned this on my radio show, some psychotherapists sent me e-mails disagreeing with these views. They noted, for example, that "violence breeds violence."

I bet DP knows better than those fancy-pants with their degrees and books and infrequent application of force to young arms.

Some cliches are true; I find this one meaningless. The truth is the opposite: Immoral violence breeds violence; moral violence (such as just wars, police work and appropriate parental discipline) reduces violence.

Like that just war in Iraq! That reduced the ever-living shit out of violence in Baghdad. Police use of force also has a lengthy track record of reducing violence, as evidenced by our increasing incidence of the former and plummeting rate of the latter.

So to summarize: you should use force against kids because it will work out as well as law enforcement and the Iraq War.

I am well aware that vast numbers of Americans (and Europeans) believe that engaging in any physical discipline of a child is wrong. I, too, held this belief for most of my life, and I never hit or spanked either of my sons.

The remainder of this column is dedicated to making you very, very skeptical of this claim. Or imagining what kind of tortuous, proprietary definition of "violence" he concocts to exclude the heavy sack beatings to which he routinely subjected his children. I bet his kids are real well-balanced.

I have changed my mind because of all the fine people who have called my show or written to me about how they were spanked and now believe that they are better adults because of it.

OK. Not only is this completely retarded and piss-poor evidence under the best of circumstances, DP's argument is "I believed something until lots of people told me not to so I changed my mind."

It is a given that I do not defend physical — or any other form of — abuse against a child. Of all the world's evils, child abuse may rank as the greatest. But a properly administered spanking is not abuse.

Dennis, this is far, far from a given. And you are about to prove it.

The New York Times recently published an article titled "For Some Parents, Shouting Is the New Spanking," in which it noted that many parents now regularly scream at their children in part because they cannot spank them. I am not at all certain that being screamed at by a parent is an improvement over spanking.

And scientists at the University of Logic have determined that being neither screamed at nor spanked is an improvement over either.

The Doritos kid deserved a physical response from this man — as in pressure on the offending arm.

Still don't know what this means, still kinda creeped out by it.

With regard to the argument that this man was not the boy's parent — and the terrible fact that there is far too much hitting and abuse of children by stepfathers and boyfriends — I do not believe that only parents may physically respond to a child.

Awesome. I mean, I don't see how this could go wrong. Let's give anyone who can legally buy cigarettes carte blanche to "apply force" to children and I'm sure that everything will work out great. Reeeeeeal great.

Teachers, for example, should be permitted to do so

SWEET! This was done when the Baby Boomers were in school and look at how completely not emotionally screwed up or violent they turned out!

I was physically dealt with by a number of teachers, and in every case, I deserved it.

Saying "I deserved it" is the most convincing possible evidence that someone is not abused. Let's see if that holds up in court. Or, you know, reality.

I also did so as a camp counselor — to great effect.

*falls off chair*

*rubs eyes*

Um…

Anybody? Anybody mildly troubled yet? Or does sending Billy and Suzie off to Lake Winnepasaki for 12 weeks of campfires, wallet-making, and Dennis Prager's "Great Effect" sound like a good idea? Something tells me this also involved the application of a lot of pressure.

And so should the man whom the child in the ad smacked. In an ideal world, all adults raise all children in some way.

Hit back. That is a fantastic life lesson. Hit back or you are failing the children.

(The remainder of the column covers the racist stereotypes, which I both agree with and am mildly surprised that DP would catch. Although he probably threw it in to deflect criticism from his remarkable creepiness.)

So, to summarize: children slapping adults is an problem of pandemic proportions. Any and every adult is deputized to apply some kind of physical retribution to children. There is no risk that adults will start to lose whatever inhibitions they may have against hitting kids. Dennis Prager did not hit his kids, as he told us to make us think he is father of the century, but he slapped around, "applied force" to, and, who are we kidding, probably sodomized a bunch of summer campers.

I'm glad we had this talk. Stop waving that rake at the kids on your lawn, Dennis. Wouldn't it be better to apply a different and perhaps more emphatic punishment?

Tags:

DAY OF MOURNING

Posted in Quick Hits on February 16th, 2010 by Ed

Bear died Monday afternoon. He was 3, which is a good, long life for a rat, but I still feel like ass.

No matter how old I get, this is the only thing that has ever made sense of death for me. Incidentally, TV Guide rated this skit as the best moment in the history of television; I find it hard to disagree.