THERE BUT FOR THE GRACE OF GOD…

Posted in Rants on February 15th, 2010 by Ed

The overwhelming majority of Americans don't understand academia. That's OK. There is little reason that anyone outside of it should. It's unfortunate that people like to assume they understand it whenever they feel like ranting about "the ivory tower" and those summabitchin' liberal professors with their fancy book learnin'. It's a basic misconception, for example, that tenure means someone cannot be fired. False. Tenure means that faculty can't be terminated without cause. In other words, their employment is no longer at-will. Tenured faculty can also be terminated if a department is disbanded (which happens more often than you'd think, and will probably happen a lot more with the sterling economy).

The academic world is buzzing over the Amy Bishop case at University of Alabama-Huntsville. If you managed to miss it, a faculty member denied tenure shot six colleagues. Three died. It has since come to light that she murdered her brother in 1986 and used her father's influence over the affairs of her small town to have it written up as "an accident." She was also the prime suspect in the 1993 mail bombing of a superior at Harvard with whom she quarreled. We may rightfully question what kind of background checks UAH purported to do on this person before hiring her, but to understand the whole picture of this tragedy I think it is important to understand a few things about academia.

This post gets lengthy, but the point is brief: the only shocking thing is that this doesn't happen more often.

By the time a career academic goes up for tenure, she is likely between 35 and 40. She has spent her entire professional life (and half of her life overall) feverishly pursuing the singular goal of getting tenure. In many fields this person in her late thirties has so fully committed to academia that she is unemployable outside of it, although this is not quite the case in Bishop's field (biology). She has given up the prime years of her career – years that could have been spent getting a professional degree or breaking into/establishing herself in a line of work – to make $11,000 per annum in grad school for six or eight years. My point is simply that being denied tenure is a crushing blow to an academic and easily as traumatic of a life event as divorce, bankruptcy, or the death of a loved one. Anyone denied tenure is going to be in a precarious emotional state. For an individual who has pre-existing issues with, well, being crazy it is easy to see how a tenure denial could push him or her over the edge.

We are not all ticking time bombs on the verge of going on Whitman-esque shooting rampages, but tenure denial is serious enough that some forethought by administrators should go into handling these situations. In my view some very simple changes could reduce the odds of this kind of tragedy to near zero.

1. No one should ever, ever be present at his own tenure hearing. At any level of the process. It just should not happen. Prepare your tenure file, submit it, and wait. No one should be permitted to attend the meetings, and in fact many departments forbid it. There is no good whatsoever that can come of having the untenured professor present when the decision is made.

2. Colleges need to be much more aggressive about eliminating the subjectivity in the tenuring process. Academics have been griping about this for a century, but it's true: one powerful enemy with a grudge can sink a tenure case. Kissinger once said the fights in academia are so vicious because the stakes are so small. Tenure isn't small, though. It's someone's career. And a bitter old faculty member smoldering over some imagined slight or sign of disrespect 10 years ago can, in some instances, effectively prevent someone from getting tenure. Standards for research productivity, grants, and teaching effectiveness should be clear and transparent, and denials for reasons outside of that ("collegiality", i.e. not being a complete asshole/psychopath) should be clearly documented from multiple sources. The situation has improved over the years but there remains too large of a subjective element in the tenure process. A lot of people come out of the process feeling like it was unfair; in some cases they are right.

3. The signaling process should make people who are unlikely to get tenure aware of that fact well in advance. This happens quite a bit. People who are in denial or simply not getting it might press on anyway, but department chairs and tenured faculty need to be persistent until the message is received: "You are not going to get tenure. It is in your interests to move on."

4. University administrators are usually a parade of the lame, the halt, and the ugly. Usually failed academics with enormous egos and no interpersonal skills. Well, someone in the administration must be responsible for telling tenure rejectees, "We want to help you find a good position at a smaller school where you can get tenure" and meaning it. Even if the rejectee is universally loathed, someone in this bureaucratic, back-stabbing world that has rejected him must extend the olive branch. Every effort must be made to downplay the message "You are not good enough" and emphasize "Look, it didn't work out here but you have options and we will support you."

5. University-provided psychiatric support should contact tenure candidates throughout the process to offer assistance. Do not rely on emotionally strained people to be proactive and seek help.

6. Most departments have one or two unreasonable, antisocial, violent, or delusional people. And we can all spot them from a mile away. We know who the potential spree killers are. My first year in graduate school, one of my fellow newbies was perhaps the most obviously disturbed person I've ever met outside of a courtroom or institution. A former cop (we could only assume that he was "asked to leave" that line of work) who dabbled in the world of private military contracting, my alarm was going off the first time I shook the guy's hand. After a predictably bad year in the program he emailed a rambling 120-page manifesto to the entire department listserv and quit. The chair of the department awarded him a master's degree, mostly, I suspect, to prevent him from coming back and shooting everyone. My point is that everyone in the department knew this guy was a little off (or worse). Fortunately my department chair was on top of the situation. But let's say the chair or the university was clueless. It would be my responsibility as a faculty member to contact the police on my own and demand that the situation be addressed. When institutions fail, individuals have to act. Pick up the phone. Start a letter-writing campaign to the local paper. Make the university recognize that you have a legitimate and documented reason to believe that a colleague poses a threat.

I'm not implying that tragedies like this can be eliminated; the bomber will always get through, after all. Someone who is a stone-cold lunatic can commit acts of violence despite the best preventive measures. That said, a better understanding of the stakes and potential flash points can reduce the odds significantly. Tenure denial is psychologically and professionally devastating. Combine that with the tendency of academics to be a little weird and antisocial to begin with and the recipe for disaster exists. Yet taking the basic, low-cost steps I've described here could make the process so much smoother. Like a death or divorce, tenure denial might feel like the end of the world to an academic, so every reasonable effort must be taken to emphasize that life, not to mention one's career, can go on. If UAH recognized that Amy Bishop was a problem – and certainly some of her colleagues must have come to that conclusion – it is in all of our interest, professionally and personally, to create a system that deals with such problems before they reach this point.

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NPF: GREATER THAN

Posted in No Politics Friday on February 12th, 2010 by Ed

It's difficult to overstate the percentage of entertainment for people in my age group that consists of finding someone more pathetic and mocking them until we feel better about ourselves. It's an intersection of three factors: basic psychology, the vast opportunities provided by the internet, and the fact that most of our lives blow. Go ahead and canvass the 25-35 year olds in your life. See how many of them are unemployed, temping, minimally employed, or working but drowning in student loans. Hitting 30 and realizing that you have absolutely nothing nudges one toward the crueler end of the comedy spectrum.

Like People of Walmart, aka my favorite thing ever. It's an extraordinarily popular website based on the very basic premise that "At least I'm not that guy." It's not something we're proud of, but let's not kid ourselves. When you've spent 9 hours in a cubicle before walking home to your fourth-floor efficiency that you can barely afford, a self-esteem boost and a hearty chuckle (well, we tend to cynically snicker) are in order. After mailing out 75 job applications – for jobs that 500 people will apply for – it seems logical to say "Man, this job market is really a HOLY SHITBALLS WHAT IN THE NAME OF GOD IS THAT???"

Haven't cleaned your bathroom, washed the dishes, or done laundry in three weeks? Well A&E has a neat little show called Hoarders, the sole purpose of which is to make you feel like less of a slob. You'll feel slightly better about failing to take out the garbage for a week or two when you see a woman who lives waist-deep in back issues of Life…and better still when the people cleaning out her kitchen find a dead cat beneath twenty years of pizza boxes.

These are but two examples. It's a sad trend, I suppose, but that doesn't stop me from participating (at least in People of Wal-Mart; I'm not much of a Hoarders fan yet despite Scott N.'s noble effort). Are we bad people? Probably. Is the popularity of this kind of entertainment surprising? Of course not. There's a very good reason that so much TV and so many of the most popular websites falls into the "reality" category. It certainly doesn't depict our reality, and that's the whole point. Show us someone else – someone dirtier, dumber, poorer, and preferably fatter – who makes our phenomenally disappointing forays into adulthood feel like something short of complete failure.

Which brings us to Fail Blog, appropriately enough.

UNDERSTANDING THE IMPULSE

Posted in Rants on February 11th, 2010 by Ed

Game theory is but one of the many things at which I am no good. But it's all I can think about when I look at something like this:

This graphic from the Washington Post is oversimplified but illustrates the basic dilemma of modern American politics. For an honors class I am teaching this semester, the class project is to balance the budget. While I'll let the class feel their way through the process without any commentary from me, when the President or Congress sits down and looks at the budget the ground rules are pretty clear.

  • Touch social security and you're dead.
  • Touch Medicare and you're dead.
  • Raise taxes and you're dead.
  • Cut the military and you're dead.
  • Create a huge deficit and you're dead.
  • Defaulting on our debt is not an option.
  • But aside from that, have at it! The only way to "win" this game from the standpoint of a politician who wants to keep his or her job is…to not play. In practice, they nibble at the margins ("Let's freeze discretionary non-military spending and save $100 billion over 4 years!") and print more money. They do the latter because while deficits are unpopular it is the least damaging choice.

    The class, to my expectant horror, to a person decided that the first thing we need to do is cut taxes. As I am in Georgia and these are 18 year old freshmen this is hardly a surprise. I assume they have been raised on an ideological diet of supply side economics and Glenn Beck. But more to the point, this is no different than Congress's response to the problem over the last three decades. Start with cutting taxes, say some shit about cutting spending, and borrow once we realize that nobody actually wants anything cut.

    Cutting taxes is the knee-jerk reaction to all problems economic because it is the only move that elected officials can make without raising howls of blood-curdling rage from the public. When one realizes that only one course of action is politically expedient, it is not difficult to talk oneself into a bunch of half-assed rationalizations – "Cutting business taxes will spur economic growth!" or "Cutting taxes means people will invest more!" Humans are outstanding at convincing themselves that the easiest and/or only course of action also happens to be the best. So while some elected officials are motivated by ideological fondness for tax cuts or clientelism for their plutocratic backers, the majority of them (especially Democrats) go for tax cut after tax cut because they lack a plausible alternative.

    The other alternatives are raising taxes or cutting a meaningful amount of spending (not trimming "earmarks" for show to the delight of teabagging rubes). Both would require a person with considerable political power telling the public to grow the fuck up and make some tough choices. We are a nation of ancestor worshippers in love with our own tales of sacrifice – how we marched through the snow to beat the hated Redcoats, tightened our belts to survive the Depression, or buckled down to arm the world and win WWII on our own. Our bold, self-congratulatory talk belies the fact that we appear completely incapable of actually making decisions that involve anything short of immediate personal gratification. The America we live in demanded tax cuts during a war – and got them. We couldn't tighten our belts if our lives depended on it. If Congress asked the country to make sacrifices we'd stare at them with the bewilderment reserved for watching a speech delivered in Mandarin Chinese.

    I'm reminded of the apocryphal tale of Henry Ford promising that consumers could have a car in any color they desired as long as it was black. We elect people with the explicit understanding that we will follow them anywhere as long as it involves cutting our taxes and not touching our cherished military and entitlement programs. And then we wonder why every solution, from a freshman political science class up to the White House and Federal Reserve, sounds remarkably familiar.

    BANKRUPT AUTOMAKER TO CONSUMERS: "SHOW THE BITCH WHO'S BOSS."

    Posted in Rants on February 10th, 2010 by Ed

    Am I just getting older or are Super Bowl ads more offensive every year? I mean, we don't set the bar very high for beer and car commercials and yet somehow the ads have an increasingly difficult time clearing it. Last year's theme was that dark people talk funny; this year, it is that women are bitches.

    Don't get me wrong, every commercial aimed at men is at least vaguely misogynist. Empty-headed bimbos eager to rip off their clothes are like set pieces in the average ad intended to be aired during a football game. But somehow that baseline level of bad didn't seem sufficiently attention-getting to the 2010 TV audience. If you watched the game you already know the ad I am about to show you. Like the "Sales Genie" ads from two years ago, this commercial left not a single viewer unclear about the fact that he or she had just seen something that turned the offensive up to 11:

    For the first 20 seconds it's actually a decent ad. Creepy, no doubt, but it does what ads are supposed to do. It draws in the viewer's attention and has the "What the hell is this?" factor. Advertisers like that. And for the first 20 seconds it's standard "Man beaten down by traffic jams, alarm clocks, and his inane job needs Product X to make him feel alive again" fare. It's probably more unsettling than a good ad should be. It doesn't help that Michael Hall (of Dexter) is doing the voiceover while angry looking men glare into the camera, but up to this point it's pleasantly forgettable.

    Then it takes a sharp right turn onto What the Fuck Avenue. The middle third is devoted to the real root of Man's dilemma – shrill, bitchy women.

    "I will listen to your opinions of my friends. I will listen to your friends opinions of my friends. I will be civil to your mother."

    "I will put the seat down. I will carry your lip balm. I will watch your vampire TV shows with you."

    "I will take my socks off before getting into bed. I will put my underwear in the basket."

    "And because I do all of this…I will drive the car I want to drive."

    Cue the vroom-vroom footage of the Dodge Charger promising to compensate for your tiny genitals and your nagging stupid ball-and-chain. Ads like these never fail to amaze me. Dozens and dozens of people saw this at various stages from conception to the airwaves and nobody said "Are you kidding"? I realize there are no women in the upper management at Chrysler and the ad agency is probably 99% white male as well but the odds of not one person having enough common sense to nix this seem low. Given that the auto market is, you know, half female it is questionable strategy to run an ad straight out of the 1950s that basically says, "You put up with all of that bitch's crap; now it's time to lay down the law."

    Way to go, Chrysler. It took something special to top this Bridgestone ad…and you delivered.

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    THE FUTURE IS HERE, AND IT SUCKS

    Posted in Rants on February 9th, 2010 by Ed

    Honesty time: aside from my regular "I can't believe how much free advertising the media give every new product from Apple under the guise of newsworthiness" comment I don't really care about their gadgetry enough to learn the nuts and bolts. The user-end complaints – coverage, providers, bugs, software, "apps", etc. – are irrelevant to me and I cannot claim to be knowledgeable about them. I look at each new shiny doo-dad they release and, through a combination of meager income and technological misanthropy, decide that I don't need it. But the iPad is worth looking at a little more thoroughly.

    Apple immodestly bills all of its products as market- and life-changing windows into the future. With the iPod, they were right. In a good way. It fits a stack of 1000 CDs in the footprint of a deck of cards. That's awesome. Good show, Apple. Kudos. With the iPhone, they were right in a not-so-good way. The device portends a future in which everyone can mindlessly kill time on the internet during those few moments each day when we are not parked in front of a real computer. I don't go out with other humans a lot, and I find myself wanting to do it even less now that it is socially acceptable (and damn common) for one to whip out a spacephone and start tapping away in the middle of a conversation. A real conversation, that is. But why talk to people when you can stare at Facebook? The iPhone and its non-Apple equivalents are ushering in a future dominated by the fake cyber world that Americans, especially the younger ones, increasingly inhabit to the exclusion of reality. Life is just a bunch of inconvenient crap you have to do so that you can photograph it and post the pics on Facebook.

    What is the iPad? I mean, beyond all the hype and the technical specs, what is it? It's a fancy multimedia device. It's a vehicle for digital music, video/movies/TV, go-anywhere internet access, eBooks, and so on. I will leave to better thinkers the arguments about Apple's creepy obsession with top-down control of its technology, what with the computers that can't be opened and tinkered with and the very pointed (albeit not terribly successful) efforts to sell you music and movies in formats that are useless on non-Apple hardware. The more important question is what this thing says about us and our vision of progress. The iPad is the device you've been waiting for your entire life…as long as all you want to do is stare at the internet and buy shit unceasingly.

    Let's not kid ourselves; its allure, if any, lies in the fact that the screen is much bigger than an iPhone. No more eyestrain or furrowing one's brow to watch videos on that tiny screen. Bigger touch-screen buttons for our fat American fingers. The last obstacle between you and never having to interact with or look at your surroundings again – the physical limitations imposed by the iPhone – are gone. That's the big achievement. That is the future. It is a future in which we are constantly staring at YouTube videos, episodes of 30 Rock, or the latest bestselling pap. We will plow through it so that we may buy more crap from Apple and plow through that as well. We will pause only to Tweet our mind-numbingly inane thoughts about standing in line at the grocery store or the latest Vince Vaughn "comedy."

    This is the future, alright. We can rationalize our iPads the same way we rationalized our iPhones – "It'll be useful if I need to look up directions, or something! Totally worth it!" – but the end result will be no different. We will use this device to further distance ourselves from reality and from one another. We will use it to buy lots of shit in furtherance of that goal. The future is here, and the future is an expensive synthesis of Americans' two favorite activities: staring at lit screens and incurring credit card debt. Today's "World of Tomorrow" has no flying cars or moon bases. It's just a bunch of fat fuckers with no social skills staring at a screen and paying dearly for the privilege.

    WHY SHE'S TOUCHY ABOUT THE R-WORD

    Posted in Rants on February 8th, 2010 by Ed

    So, this happened:

    Every time I think I am not going to dignify Sarah Palin's ridiculous existence with any more attention she draws me back in. Let's try to count them.

    1. Sarah Palin raked in a $100,000 fee for this speech, which sounds suspiciously like she did absolutely no advance preparation. Either she didn't bother writing a speech at all (or, let's be honest, having one written for her) or did so on the 10 minute limo ride over to TeabagCon2010. There's a small handful of people on this planet who can give a major speech before a large audience (not to mention TV cameras) without practicing. Sarah Palin isn't one of them. This sounds like she did everything except moon the crowd, give them the finger, and say "Thanks for the 100 grand, assholes!"

    2. Why would she have notes unless the questions were screened and pre-approved in advance? She wouldn't, of course, which means that the questions at a Teabagger convention were too difficult for the person who wants to be the next President. The questions were variations of "Governor Palin, your campaign seems to have the momentum of a runaway freight train. Why are you so popular?" And she knew what was coming. And she needed notes to answer it.

    3. She wrote "Energy. Budget Tax cuts. Lift American spirit." on her hand so she wouldn't forget her own "vision" for the future of the conservative movement she claims to lead. I can understand if someone wanted notes about the names of foreign heads of state or the GNP of Chile. But she needed notes to recite her own talking points in response to questions she knew were coming.

    4. Marker-on-hand? Really? What is she, an 18 year old fratboy cheating her way through an Econ 101 midterm? I find it hard to believe that, you know, note cards or something were not viable alternatives. After 18 solid months of Obama teleprompter jokes I guess she painted herself into a corner, though.

    5. Her notes at the ready, Palin treated the audience (of 1100! What a movement!) to hot, steaming nuggets of brilliance like this:

    I think, kind of tougher to, um, put our arms around, but allowing America's spirit to rise again by not being afraid to kind of go back to some of our roots as a God fearing nation where we're not afraid to say, especially in times of potential trouble in the future here, where we're not afraid to say, you know, we don't have all the answers as fallible men and women so it would be wise of us to start seeking some divine intervention again in this country, so that we can be safe and secure and prosperous again.

    That is exactly 100 words and it is one sentence, a sentence given in response to a question about the priorities of a hypothetical "conservative majority in Congress." In short, Congress needs to be praying for divine intervention more regularly. That'll help.

    There was one instance in my five years of teaching on which I did absolutely no preparation at all for a lecture. Really, I might sound like an idiot semi-regularly but it's never for lack of preparation. Except for that one time. It was an unqualified disaster. Ad-libbing in front of 150 people for an hour is not a good idea. I walked out of class that day feeling like I should return my salary for the past hour ($6) to the State Legislature, as I could not consent to receive payment for rendering services of that quality. Despite our meager salaries, teachers and professors put a lot of time into preparing a lecture. The rule of thumb for doing the bare minimum is Prep Time = 2 x Class Time. What I'm getting at is not that we should get a cookie for doing our jobs, but that if someone paid me $100,000 to speak for 39 minutes and do some softball Q & A, I'd probably spend some time preparing. That and her extra chromosome are what separate me from Sarah Palin.

    NPF: ED SAVES CANADA

    Posted in No Politics Friday, Skip this if you hate sports on February 5th, 2010 by Ed

    Among other failings I happen to be a huge hockey fan. The aughts were a rough decade for Lord Stanley's game, especially when labor disputes (fueled largely by an uncapped, wildly inflated salary system that nearly bankrupted a handful of teams) canceled the 2004-2005 season. The game came back strong after the lockout thanks to a group of young superstars worthy of the Gretzky era. A Pittsburgh team that was nearly folded by the league has won the Cup and Chicago has risen from the Bill Wirtz-era dead. But the league is still in trouble, paying dearly for bad business decisions made in the 1990s.

    Unlike the other three "major" sports in North America, hockey has no TV revenue to speak of. The economics of the game are attendance-driven. But in 1990 the league had a national TV contract, albeit not a huge one, and throughout the decade that fact drove expansion and relocation. In short, the league and its existing owners felt that it was in their interest to put teams in large, rapidly-growing American TV markets without hockey. Bigger TV markets meant more revenue from the national contracts. And of course just about all of those cities were in the south. You know, big hockey towns.

    Thus the Minnesota North Stars were split in two, half of the team founding the San Jose Sharks and the other half moving to Dallas. Expansion happened in Tampa, Anaheim, Denver, Miami, Nashville, Atlanta, and Columbus. The Winnipeg Jets became the Phoenix Coyotes. Hartford became Carolina. Quebec moved to Denver. While the league made some decent expansion decisions – putting a team back in Minneapolis and a new one in Ottawa – overall this has not been a rousing success.

    The TV contract disappeared with the lockout (it was never worth much to begin with) and suddenly the league found itself with a bunch of teams in places with no hockey history playing to 1/3 capacity. Look at the bottom 10 teams in attendance in a 30-team league. Note that these figures represent tickets sold and not actual butts in seats, which for all of these teams is far less.

    Notice anything? And these teams aren't even bad. Phoenix, a zombie franchise basically being run by the league after its baffling refusal to allow a Canadian billionaire to move it to Hamilton, is going to make the playoffs. Tampa, Colorado, Anaheim, and Carolina have all won Stanley Cups in the last 10 years. Atlanta, last seen auctioning off Ilya Kovalchuk (the latest superstar to get sick of playing in front of 1800 people, a la Marian Hossa and Marc Savard in Hotlanta and Jay Bouwmeester in Miami), is one win out of a playoff spot. Nashville and Columbus made the playoffs last year. The explanation here is pretty simple. The economy is terrible and the teams don't have deep enough roots in these cities to weather the downtimes.

    The league's strategy for drawing fans in these places centered on A) retirees and B) a fast-growing young population. They assumed the retirees in Phoenix and Florida would come out a few times per year to see their Boston Bruins or Detroit Red Wings visit and they thought the hip, young dot-com generation would adopt the home team. Unfortunately the retirees didn't follow through and the young people have no money. Hence a bunch of moribund franchises regularly playing in front of nobody. If the league is going to be financially viable as a whole these teams badly need to be returned to "hockey markets." At least the small, no-TV-revenue Canadian teams managed to fill the stadiums before they were boxed up and shipped to the Sun Belt.

    So here's what we're going to do.

    First, let's not overreact. Tampa led the league in attendance for the first half of the decade. Colorado has a strong fan base. Carolina's draw is decent but they're terrible this year. Anaheim is strong but they'll miss the playoffs and we know how messed up things are in Southern Cal. These teams are probably viable in the long run.

    This brings us to the zombie franchises. Let's start with Phoenix. I hope the league is happy with its pig-headed decision to protect the old-money Toronto Maple Leafs block the move to Hamilton, Ontario. After the team filed bankruptcy last summer, the NHL found to its great embarrassment that it had no bidders willing to accept the condition of keeping the team in Phoenix. So the NHL bid on its own team. Now it's holding it until a Phoenix-friendly buyer is found. Good luck with that. The league is having the Coyotes play five "home games" in Saskatoon next year. Problem solved. Sell those games out, find a Canadian owner, and move this sinking ship to Regina/Saskatoon.

    Atlanta is done in Atlanta. Now that Kovalchuk has been auctioned off to the New Jersey Devils whatever minimal interest in the team exists in ATL will disappear. The team has actually been in Federal court for five years trying to determine who actually owns the damn thing. That has to be a first. Meanwhile, the criminally inept Don Waddell has been running the team in aimless circles in front of "crowds" that could fit in my car. Let's right a historical wrong and bring back the Winnipeg Whiteout. It's a small market but at least they'll give a crap about the team.

    The Florida Panthers haven't drawn flies in South Florida since making it to the Cup finals in 1996 despite spending on stars like Pavel Bure. Nobody cares about the team and the players can't wait to leave. Meanwhile, Quebec City is still missing its Nordiques. They're a stadium away from getting another team. Make it happen.

    That leaves us with Columbus and Nashville but no viable Canadian cities left. Kansas City has been trying hard to land a team for years but I can't imagine that would turn out much differently than a place like Atlanta – the KC Scouts didn't last two years there. New England is already saturated and a return to Hartford seems like a poor idea. Baltimore is Washington Capitals country. Milwaukee is too close to Chicago. Ditto Seattle and Vancouver. In Canada, the only other option is Halifax – which simply lacks the facilities. So what happens with these teams?

    Gary Bettman is stubborn and hasn't quite learned his lesson about shoehorning teams into markets that do not give the slightest shit about hockey, so Columbus will end up in Las Vegas. It'll last for about five years and we'll end up right back where we started. We have to think outside of the box for a market for Nashville. Here's an idea: Anchorage. The metro area has a mere 350,000 people but Alaskans like hockey and they'd be the only game in town. Maybe play a few home games per year in Fairbanks. Could it be any worse than the crowds in the south?

    To recap: Florida becomes Quebec City. Atlanta becomes Winnipeg. Phoenix becomes Saskatchewan. Columbus ends up in Vegas. Nashville either sticks it out in Tennessee (they're the least awful of the zombie teams) or moves to Anchorage. Fewer teams play in empty arenas and the solvent teams have to direct less revenue-sharing money toward their southern cousins. More teams play in cities in which someone cares. More players get to trade warm weather and indifference for hard winters with hardcore hockey fans.

    I will not even charge the NHL a consulting fee for having saved it. Canada, on the other hand, owes me big time. You're welcome.

    USE CARBON FIBER STUCCO LATH!

    Posted in Rants on February 4th, 2010 by Ed

    I half-expected Wired magazine to be humiliated out of existence back in 2000 after the dot-com bubble burst; what clips of dancing hippies set to "Purple Haze" are to the 1960s, a progression of Wired covers is to the 90s. It was the unofficial bible of whiz-bang Capitalism 2.0 with its zooming electrons and democratized stock market that was going to make us all rich by increasing indefinitely. Yes, those were the heady days – fresh off the defeat of communism by a coalition of free markets, Ronald Reagan, and C+C Music Factory – in which Technology fused with a new, messianic loathing for regulation to create a system fresh out of Milton Friedman's wet dreams. No one really understood it, but all we needed to know is that it made everyone in the suburbs rich, it obsoleted Second Wave notions like unions and job security, and it was not shy about letting us know who the new Masters of the Universe were. That's where Wired came in (with Fast Company a close second). But this time the plutocracy wore jeans instead of tuxedos and played frisbee in the office. Look how fucking cool they are!

    You'd think that the intervening decade since the collapse of the great NASDAQ-fueled version of the middle class white guy's American Dream would have taken the edge off of Wired's institutional hubris. It didn't change the magazine one bit, it turns out. It just made them irrelevant. But it's good to know that somewhere in the background of the collapsed bubble it helped create Wired is still peddling its unique brand of tech-obsessed glibertarianism.

    So now that the economy has executed a controlled flight into terrain under the direction of our neo-Gilded Age betters, to whom can we turn for guidance? Why, to the same people, of course! If you've ever seen Wired or were awake at any point between 1990 and 1999 you'll know that the answer to our current malaise lies in our ability to harness the limitless American entrepreneurial spirit. Harness the shit out of it.

    In keeping with the anti-Second Wave mantra of the faith, Wired is eager to remind us not to turn to government or any kind of collective answers to these problems. We'll be saved individually and collectively when we harness our inner Carnegie. Yes, in the New Industrial Revolution, Atoms are Bits, the factory is your PC, and you are the CEO of You, Inc.

    In the age of democratized industry, every garage is a potential micro-factory, every citizen a potential micro-entrepreneur. Here’s how to transform a great idea into a great product.

    The key to becoming financially independent is – stay with me here – inventing an awesome product and then taking advantage of all the eCommerce doo-dads that allow you to make it a reality! It's just that easy.

    1) INVENT Stop whining about the dearth of cool products in the world — dream up your own. Pro tip: Check the US Patent and Trademark Office Web site to ensure no one else had the idea first.

    So, to review: the first step in this process is to think of a brilliant invention. On only two occasions in my life have I heard worse advice. One involved a recommendation to invest heavily in Franklin Mint products. The other involved urging me to talk to a girl at a bar who had open, obvious herpes sores all over her mouth. But the Wired-sponsored new Industrial Revolution will work as long as all of us, or at least most of us, think of a brilliant invention that lots of people will want to buy. The wealth will trickle down, though. I mean, after Henry Ford started a motor company with a great idea he made a lot of employees financially successful too.

    4) MANUFACTURE The garage is fine for limited production, but if you want to go big, go global — outsource. Factories in China are standing by; sites like Alibaba.com can help you find the right partner.

    Oh.

    Well, I guess everyone needs to start at step one. I have the feeling that we're going to make it through this recession just fine…as long as there are 50-some million brilliant ideas out there so unemployed, underemployed, and financially drowning people can grab one like a lifeline, email it to China, and sit back waiting for money to fall from the sky.

    THE NORMALIZATION OF DEVIANCE

    Posted in Rants on February 3rd, 2010 by Ed

    A century of research in psychology offers ample evidence that with enough time, repetition, and peer pressure, people can convince themselves that just about anything is normal, socially acceptable behavior. The dumpy guy in the next cubicle or your cookie-baking mom are perfectly capable of rounding up the Jews or surrendering their lives to the Great Leader if enough people around them are doing likewise and there are enough messages that it's OK. Hannah Arendt wrote extensively on the banality of evil – the idea that Nazi Germany, for example, was composed of normal, even boring people for whom the deviant had simply become normal. After a few weeks they don't even notice the smell of the crematoria.

    That said, please recognize that the use of a Nazi example does not mean that I am about to imply that Republicans are Nazis. They've just created an atmosphere in which the aberrant has become so normal that no one even questions it. Surround yourself with enough crazy and apparently no one stops to wonder, "Hey, are we completely goddamn bonkers?" after a while. Or they ask someone even crazier and are reassured accordingly.

    I don't believe that DailyKos/Research2000 is the finest of all polling organizations, but the operation is pulling large enough samples for all of us to be sufficiently alarmed by their recent poll of self-identified Republicans. In short, there are about 1/3 of Republicans who have some grounding in reality. They believe President Obama was born in the US. They don't believe he should be impeached given the complete absence of Constitutional cause for doing so. About 40% of them don't believe "President Obama wants the terrorists to win."

    The other 2/3, well, they're quite the other thing. They hold some seriously wacky beliefs. Beliefs of the "The moon landing was faked" variety. As you examine the poll results the raw numbers are startling enough – 24% believe the President "wants the terrorists to win" – but take a look at the "not sure" category. Another 33% are not sure. They're entertaining the idea. It's plausible enough to avoid ruling it out.

    Almost 80% believe or aren't sure that Obama is a socialist. Three out of five don't believe he was born in the US. 20% believe ACORN "stole" the 2008 election and a whopping 55% consider it plausible. 86% think or aren't sure that Palin is more qualified (although that's technically subjective, so let's let it slide). 64% think he is or may be a racist who hates white people irrespective of the fact that he is, you know, half white. A whole 58% – look at that, a modest majority! – believe their state should not secede from the union. 21% demand immediate secession while another quarter, well, they're a-thinkin' bout it. 8% think gays should be allowed to teach. A majority oppose (or aren't sure about) teaching sex education in schools. Any kind of sex education. I'll tell you what 77% do think should be taught, though…creationism! 31% (plus 13% unsure) believe contraceptives should be illegal. Well, that should help things!

    This should alarm Republicans. It probably does alarm the 1/3 of them who, you know, understand the difference between reality and paranoid conspiracy theories peddled by sweaty idiots on cable. They feel outnumbered and rightly so. These are the kinds of beliefs that belong on the lunatic fringe of any respectable political movement, yet pure insanity is now the solid majority of the GOP. It is mainstream. Hear enough conspiracy theories about how some dime-store group called ACORN could "steal" an election won by 150 Electoral Votes and it becomes, well, normal.

    AN OPEN LETTER TO TIM PAWLENTY

    Posted in Rants on February 2nd, 2010 by Ed

    Dear Governor – and future President! – Pawlenty,

    Your Monday op-ed on Politico.com ("Ponzi Scheme on the Potomac") was an intellectual, political, and personal revelation for me. I am a changed man. You offer a rare combination of political acumen, wordsmithery, and an almost preternatural understanding of economics. Washington needs you. We need you. More importantly, we need the Balanced Budget Amendment (BBA) you've proposed here. Most Republicans harp on "cutting spending" without offering specific proposals for doing so. But you have a very specific proposal – pass a balanced budget amendment. Visionary!

    I have just a few questions. Forgive me the pedantic exercise of numbering them.

    1. Have you ever looked at the process of proposing, passing, and ratifying an Amendment? After getting a two-thirds vote in both Jesus H. Tap Dancing Christ houses of Congress – and what could be hard about getting 67 Senators to agree to give up the right to fund pet projects in their states? – it must then be ratified by 38 state legislatures. We can assume they will be only too happy to give up the billions in grants they receive from Congress annually.

    2. The GOP, home of Tim Pawlenty and fiscal conservatism, resoundingly rejected "PAYGO" (Balanced Budget Act of 1997) in 2002 when they controlled Congress. It got in the way of the Medicare expansion they were using to buy elderly votes. Maybe the problem is that it wasn't appealing as mere legislation. It will be much more popular as an amendment, right?

    3. The only way (more on that in a second) to balance the budget under the current circumstances will be a series of draconian tax increases. Yet your proposal clearly states "the Bush tax cuts should be made permanent and tax burdens on individuals and businesses should be further reduced." Please explain this potential discrepancy. More accurately, please clarify what I am no doubt inaccurately perceiving as a discrepancy.

    4. Under a BBA, the elimination of all discretionary and military spending from the current budget would leave us $300 billion in the hole. From where would you cut this additional $300 billion – after having eliminated all discretionary spending and the entire military budget – Social Security or Medicare? Alternatively we could save a quarter-trillion by defaulting on our debt, but that would still leave us a little short. And when "the tax burdens on individuals and businesses (are) further reduced", from where will these additional billions be cut?

    4a. Which will be easiest to cut: Social Security, Medicare, or the entire fucking military budget? I can't see any problems, but a liberal naysayer might try to slow the process down.

    5. When the BBA is passed with stadium-sized loopholes for "wars, natural disasters, and other emergencies":

  • a. Will the terribly well-defined War on Terror, the end of which is in clear sight, be sufficient to justify exceptions?
  • b. Are we to assume that "emergencies" refers to the well-defined, commonly accepted definition of emergencies?
  • 6. Like all intelligent people, you and I realize that when spending increases and deficits grow, the only way to trim the deficit is to reduce spending. I recently doubled my calorie intake and gained a lot of weight. Should I assume that cutting my calorie intake is the only way I can lose weight?

    Any guidance you can offer – aside, of course, from the Jedi-like guidance you have already provided – will be greatly appreciated. Please help me help you to help me further.



    With kind regards,
    Ed

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