NPF: BARREN LANDSCAPES

Posted in No Politics Friday on December 17th, 2010 by Ed

Three things that are pretty to look at in a very similar way.

1) At long last I got around to watching the Edward Burtynsky documentary Manufactured Landscapes. I can't recommend it highly enough. The movie begins with a 10 minute long panning shot of a Chinese factory that appears to be about a mile long and in which nearly every iron on Earth is made. It goes uphill from there. Despite taking place almost entirely in China, the footage from the "breaking yards" for old ships in Chittagong, Bangladesh. The film is a refreshing reminder of how overblown the "China's taking over the world" rhetoric is. Sure, it's a big country with growing political, economic, and military power. It also has problems that are staggering in both number and magnitude, and it will be a minor miracle if they have any potable water in 20 years let alone dominion over the western world.

2) The Daily Mail has a magnificent set of previously unseen photos of Niagara Falls…dry as a bone. In the same year that American astronauts first landed on the Moon, the Army Corps of Engineers diverted the flow around the falls for several months to clean up the remnants of two massive rock slides. "Eerily calm" doesn't begin to describe it. Wicked video of the flow coming to a halt is available as well.

3) In honor of Voyager 1 – still transmitting after 33 years and from 10 billion miles away – reaching an astronomical milestone as the first man-made object to reach the heliopause, check out this sweet-ass gallery of photos taken by V1 and its sibling Voyager 2. It includes what I believe is the single most incredible image from the era of interplanetary explanation – the sulfur dioxide plume of a volcano in mid-eruption on Io:

Shit, dude.

SUSPICION

Posted in Rants on December 16th, 2010 by Ed

Lots and lots of talk in the past two weeks about the rape charges against Wikileaks frontman Julian Assange. Here is a representative roundup of links to some of the big-name blogs' commentary on the reaction to the charges. Some of the media coverage has been nothing short of embarrassing; note the many examples of stories that noted that the accuser was wearing clothing that was tight (and pink, the color of rape. Apparently.) In short, this situation is not telling us anything about prevailing attitudes in our society and in the media that we did not already know based on previous high-profile rape cases.

That said, I think there is an important distinction that needs to be made. As is often the case with emotionally charged issues, the concept of skepticism toward the charges has been painted with a very broad brush. In reality we are dealing with two separate issues: skepticism toward the accusation and skepticism toward the charges. Regarding the former, it does not make a difference if he's charged with pinching someone's ass in a bar or forcible rape; it's inappropriate to assume that the charges are made up, to openly speculate about the possibility, or to assume that the accused is guilty. Speculation is not only indicative of a lot of the worst aspects of reactionary thinking in our society – look, even Naomi Wolf jumped on the "she's lying" bandwagon – but it's also utterly pointless. Having established that the accused and accuser had intercourse under some disputed set of circumstances, how in the hell do you or I know what actually happened? Maybe she's lying. Maybe she isn't. Gee, that was productive.

Regarding the second issue – skepticism toward the charges and the authorities in Sweden – I'll argue until I'm out of oxygen that it's an entirely legitimate target. This is no a question of people accusing the accuser of fabricating the charges. It is a question of why the Swedish government suddenly decided that the accuser's charges, which were filed months ago, needed to be upgraded to Most Wanted "Scour the globe for this guy, he is an extraordinarily dangerous criminal" status a few hours after the accused squatted over the U.S. State Department and took an enormous Cleveland Steamer on its chest. These accusations are not new and yet the Swedish authorities did not file charges until August of 2010, conveniently on the tail of a summer of information disclosures by Wikileaks. The charges lingered for a few months and yet suddenly in early December Assange becomes the target of an international manhunt. I welcome anyone who provides me with contradictory statistics here, but I will go ahead and assume that there are very few international manhunts for accused date rapists originating out of Sweden. Or anywhere else for that matter.

So I'll register my own complaint here. Many others have already done a good job of pointing out the sad treatment to which the accuser has been subjected in the media, and I'll concur with that. On the other hand, why is there not more outrage directed at the Swedish prosecuting authorities who are obviously using the accuser, about whom they care little except as a means of targeting Assange, and her charges, which did not seem to be an urgent matter a few months ago and about which there has been no new evidence uncovered? It seems to me that an excellent way to motivate skepticism of rape charges in a society heavily predisposed toward skepticism on that issue is to ignore the accusations until it is politically desirable as a means to punish the accused for unrelated matters.

Of course, lacking the complex thinking skills necessary to separate these issues (i.e. a functioning brain) most people will just continue to heap their skepticism about the political motivation on the accuser herself. Because it's easier and, like, she was wearing a lot of pink or something.

TORPOR

Posted in Rants on December 15th, 2010 by Ed

In the broadest sense "The Sixties" have been inflated and distorted in the American historical memory. We won't stop hearing about how amazing and revolutionary the decade was until the last Boomer is removed from the ventilator in his Sun City nursing home, but there is no disputing that, although overstated in hindsight, the decade was a remarkably turbulent time both socially and politically. People who did not live through it, myself included, have a hard time understanding it. When I teach about the history of the presidential nominating process, I always find it quite challenging to set the appropriate context and background for the 1968 convention and the subsequent McGovern-Fraser reforms that created the primary-driven system we use today. It is one of the few occasions on which I show video for instructional purposes (1968: The Year that Shaped a Generation, easily the least annoying collection of footage of hippies, riots, napalm runs, and MLK speeches with a soundtrack of wah-wah music) for lack of a better way to explain the backdrop for the election.

The kids never fail to be at least moderately shocked by it (I admit that I am too sometimes). Why wouldn't they be? What experiences have they had, bearing in mind their 1986-1991 birthdates, that can compare? What events have they witnessed in their lifetimes that bear even a passing resemblance to assassinations, riots, and legitimate protests? And covering this topic never fails to get me thinking about what it would take to get this generation to take to the streets in any significant numbers. Yes, the easily-derided campus socialists and hippies stage a sit-in every so often, but not in numbers great enough to draw attention and rarely for a coherent purpose. What would actually get substantial numbers of these people to, you know, riot? For real, not for show.

Rome has dealt with moderately heavy rioting for the past two days (good photo spread here). When the Greek government announced its "austerity" measures over the summer, riots broke out across the nation. The mere suggestion that the retirement age in France would be upped to 62 led to riots in Paris (a regular occurrence, it seems). In the U.S. we sit with our thumbs in our asses as they propose pushing it to nearly 70. And then we vote for the people who will make it happen, because the power structure has only our best interests at heart. Awfully ungrateful of you to criticize our benevolent ruling class.

It's pathetic, really, to watch what passes for a social movement in the U.S. these days. I would even have some respect for the Tea Party, as numb-nutted and vapid as they are, if they would, for lack of a better term, show some fight. Flip over a goddamn car or something. Set a fire. Punch a cop. Do something. Anger might not be the most useful emotion but at least it's an emotion. We have the same limp-dicked reaction to everything. Sit on our asses, watch people argue about it on TV, and change the channel. I suppose it is more realistic to expect Teabaggers, fighting as they are on the side of big business and authority, to fellate a cop rather than punch one. The left's meager efforts to get riled up are no better, though. We don't have "rallies" or "protests" in this country; we have the occasional well attended circle jerk at which everyone shows up at the same place and stands around taking pictures to post on Facebook before quietly going our separate ways back to the Holiday Inn Express.

This is a problem that has been building for many years as successive generations of young adults get more and more used to a world in which actions involve no action and interpersonal exchanges are impersonal. Long-time readers have heard this rant before, but it is relevant here (for a change). "Taking action" means clicking "like" on a Facebook group. Talking to someone involves no actual talking. Meeting new people doesn't require putting on clothes and leaving our bedrooms. If something is particularly infuriating and important, we might blog about it. Issues have been reduced to brand names and logos; we express ourselves with magnetic ribbons on our cars, we fight breast cancer by buying pink shit, and we Make a Difference for Mother Earth by purchasing only the overpackaged consumer goods with the particularly effective greenwashing campaigns. In 30 years, what kind of memory is "Hey, remember when we changed our profile pictures to cartoons to stop child abuse?" going to make?

These are not terrible things individually or together; the problem begins when we treat the whole world, including politics and the societies in which we live, as something that happens on a TV screen. People are Facebook profiles, conversations are chat logs, activism is buying stuff, and taking action involves the fraction of a second required to click a button on the screen. What would happen if we had a riot and no one showed up? You're looking at it. God forbid the government or society get to the point where an actual riot would be necessary. I doubt we'd even remember how to do it. A million people would stand around, google "riot footage" on their smartphones, watch a few YouTube clips, and then get distracted by the cornucopia of kitten videos and pratfall montages on the sidebar until no one could quite remember what everyone was so angry about in the first place.

LAW OF THE JUNGLE

Posted in Rants on December 13th, 2010 by Ed

I watched an unreasonably large number of those 70s/80s style nature films when I was a kid. Richard Attenborough, Marlin Perkins, and Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom were regular guests in our home. They also served regularly as time-fillers on the frequent days on which my 3rd grade teacher was hung over or possibly still drunk. I always enjoyed them, but I think kids end up seeing a lot of these things as a form of social conditioning (even though I doubt most adults realize it). This is life in the U-S of A, kids. Law of the jungle. Survival of the fittest. The weak eaten by the strong. Everything is a competition. Some baby bunnies live and others get eaten; that's just the way of the world. No point in trying to change it.

Even at a young age I had some issues with the way this rather ham-fisted metaphor was presented. I suppose there are some life lessons to be extracted from nature, but like most things we selectively learn only the worst lessons. Glorify the predator, have only token sympathy for the prey (whose sole reason for existing is to be eaten), and solve the problem of being abused in a hierarchy by rising to the top of it. Only the strong survive, so be as strong as possible. Just think how great life will be when everyone else is afraid of you. Do I read too much into these things? Sure, probably. But that doesn't mean there aren't lessons worth learning amongst the bad ones.

Every prey animal has some kind of defensive adaptation. When the Big Cat attacks the herd of antelope, they scatter in different directions. It's not a terrible plan. The lion can only chase (and potentially eat) one of them. Being a smart predator, she chases the most vulnerable ones. So the young and the old get eaten and, hey, fuck 'em. The old are useless and the young ones who aren't smart enough to escape are better weeded out of the herd. The problem, of course, is that eventually every antelope becomes the one that isn't fast enough to run away. It's only a matter of time until all of them meet the same fate when they're too old to be useful anymore.

The water buffalo isn't fast enough to run away. They get into that sweet little defensive circle (adults outside, the young and old inside). When the lion comes looking she has to think a bit harder; how hungry am I? There are a lot of them and those horns look pretty sharp. I might be able to get one, but is it worth the risk? It would be so easy if there was some way to make them scatter. Ah, crap. Looks like they're going to stick together. Where are the antelope?

Social Darwinism and the "life is like the jungle" attitude that are so pervasive in our society have a single purpose: to convince you that you are an antelope. The only thing you can do is run away. You'll be OK so long as there are other people around who are even more vulnerable. You could try to stop them, but why? Every time they eat the poor, the geezers, and the kids who are defenseless, you live another day. Don't try holding your ground against the big, strong predator. Don't stick together or they'll eat all of you.

Just imagine how much different our politics and society would be if we were less eager to say "As long as they're eating someone else, I don't care" and more apt to get in a big group and ask the lion if it feels lucky.

NPF: CAN IT BE THAT EASY?

Posted in No Politics Friday on December 10th, 2010 by Ed

I am not proud of this, but one of the few things I actually watch on TV with any semblance of regularity is the Bravo show Tabatha's Salon Takeover. Like many reality shows, it consists of a star (Tabatha Coffey, a bizarre looking, severe Brit) teaching Basic Adult Skills 101 to a bunch of complete idiots. Isn't that what most reality shows really boil down to? Whether they're about weight loss, finding a job, kicking booze, finding a date, or running a hair salon it all plays out identically. There are a bunch of adults who are failing at something because they are emotionally about 14 years old. The host/star saves the day by introducing them to revolutionary concepts that most people should have learned before they started to grow hair in funny places.

Salon Takeover is amusing in part because (again, as is common for this television genre) each episode is remarkably similar. How much you want to watch it basically boils down to how much you enjoy the host's personality. In every episode Tabatha teaches the owner of a failing salon business how to turn things around. Her advice consists – in its entirety, episode after episode – of the following revolutionary ideas:

1) The boss should fire or discipline employees who don't show up to work or are terrible employees
2) Someone should clean the salon, preferably daily (note: this has never occurred to a single person on this show)
3) Someone should take out the trash
4) Employees should come to work every day at their scheduled time
5) Employees should not drink hard liquor at work
6) The owner should in some way keep track of the business's revenue and expenses. Perhaps on a spreadsheet.
7) Employees should not swear at clients or talk loudly about their recent anal 3-way while clients are present
8) Employees should not steal money or equipment from the salon

That's it. And the owners are routinely amazed at how their business improves. None of this ever occurred to them, or for some reason they couldn't implement these wild ideas. Basically, Tabatha is a big, odd-looking prop with lots of British witticisms who teaches people how to act like something resembling an adult.

Here's the interesting part. There is a "How much financial trouble are you in?" segment in the introduction of each episode. Week after week the owners report being hundreds of thousands – sometimes close to a million – dollars in debt. And no matter how many times I see this, I ask the same question every time: is it really that easy to get a bank loan for half a million bucks? I mean, do banks really give out six- to seven-figure small business loans to people who look, sound, and like Jerry Springer contestants and can't do 8th grade math? People with no collateral, education, or experience running a business? Is "I worked in a salon for a few years" really a good enough argument for a loan officer?

If these knuckleheads – Can I repeat one more time that some of them do not realize that they should keep an accounting of money coming in and out of the business? – can walk into a bank and walk out with half a million bucks to open a salon (or whatever), what in the hell am I doing? What in the hell are any of us doing? Why don't we all just go sign up for our $500,000? If these mouthbreathers can get a loan, anyone can. And not you, I, nor anyone else could possibly be worse at running a business than any of these people. Hell, I wouldn't even need the rescue from Tabatha. I already know that a service oriented business should be cleaned. And that we shouldn't drink hard liquor at work.

What am I missing? If it's really that easy, then fuck this. I'm opening a bar. You know what will be on the menu.

FORK-STICKING

Posted in Quick Hits on December 9th, 2010 by Ed

I've just spent many hours grading 50 research papers (fortunately from upperclassmen) of considerably varying quality; accordingly my brain is oatmeal. Not the fancy steel-cut kind, but the store brand Instant kind that ends up looking like a cross between that paste they fed RoboCop and an amusement park vomit patch liberally sprinkled with sawdust. I have an Epic Funny that I planned to run today but it's just not gonna happen at the moment with two final exams to dish out and hurriedly grade starting at 8 AM tomorrow.

As an aside, I never feel bad about whining about having to get up before 8. I know a lot of you get up at 5 or 6, but I'll bet that those of you who do aren't up working until 2 AM every night. It's a fair tradeoff. But I digress. Is it possible to digress in a post about nothing?

Can we pretty much stick a fork in Obama at this point? Mike has the fancy high-end take on the recent "deal" he made over extending tax cuts to your corporate lords and masters, a deal in which, according to this much less intricate analysis, the serfs (surprisingly!) get reamed.

So, we all understand what the score is. Half the country thinks he is some combination of Satan, Osama bin Laden, and Stalin. His liberal base struggles mightily to resist the urge to puke every time he opens his mouth to explain why trading $25B in unemployment extension over 13 months for $200B in top-bracket tax cuts over two years was a good deal ("I agreed to buy the GOP a Ferrari, but it's a great deal for us because they said we can borrow it for a day. If they're not using it.") A lot of those enthusiastic new-ish voters who showed up in 2008 will never be seen again. What happens now?

The easy answer is that he gets his lunch handed to him, or more accurately that he loses Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida (not to mention ACC states like North Carolina and Virginia that he had no business winning in the first place). That's plausible.

Equally plausible is that, as usual, a good percentage of liberals, black & hispanic voters, young people, etc. – the usual Democratic suspects – will drag themselves to the polls to cast a vote for Obama with a profound sense of shame because, really, what else are you going to do? And if the GOP manages to nominate someone who is enough of an idiot (e.g. Palin) the "moderates" in the electorate will, with great disgust, cast Obama votes because they just can't stomach a country run by that idiot. Thus Obama, much like Bill Clinton, wins a second term even though no one much likes him, solely on the weakness of the alternatives.

When I see the list of ass clowns and retreads the GOP is kicking around for the 2012 nomination, the second option seems plausible. But if by some stroke of luck or strategy they can find and nominate a decent candidate, let's be honest: you can stick a fork in BO.

That said, lots can change in two years. We saw that between 2008 and 2010. By 2012 things could be…well, much worse.

INTERNS BUILT THE PYRAMIDS

Posted in Rants on December 8th, 2010 by Ed

(Title courtesy The Baffler)

Thank God that after all these years I have not lost my ability to be disgusted by what passes for journalism in this country.

CNN ran a positively vomitastic piece on post-graduation internships – unpaid, of course – as a precursor to getting paid entry-level positions in the professional world ("Is an internship the new entry-level job?") I have written at length on this topic before, so allow me to briefly quote myself for those of you have not already heard this rant:

In reality, getting free labor out of gullible (not to mention desperate and terrified of unemployment) undergrads is only part of the rationale behind the Intern Economy and this well-rehearsed bullshit about how much it benefits students. More importantly, this system is a brutally efficient class barrier. An internship is a necessary precursor to getting a job. Having Mom and Dad cough up several thousand dollars to support you while you live in an expensive city (and do some high-class partying, er, "networking", with your fellow children of the Investor Class) is a necessary precursor to interning for free. Hmm.

Yes, ignoring the pesky reality that the bottom 90% of the population will need to, you know, earn a salary to live on after graduation (don't forget that the student loan bills start arriving in six months!) CNN wholeheartedly recommends that young "millenials" not only unquestioningly work for free – sometimes in ten or more different internships over a period of several years – but also that the system is primarily designed for their benefit. Experience! Staying "engaged in the labor market! "Skill sets"! Resumé radiance! Buzzwords! Just play along and someday the world – namely a low-paid, at-will 60 hour per week job at the bottom of the leaching pit – will be your oyster.

The basic arguments against the intern economy are still valid: exploiting a young, idealistic, vulnerable, and scared workforce for gobs of free clerical and administrative labor, efficient barriers to graduates not smart enough to have been born wealthy, and the questionable legality of "internships" that provide no useful skills in addition to being unpaid. You already know this. The question is why CNN seems so uncritical and upbeat about this phenomenon.

First they offer a link to these three nitwits, The Eternal Intern(s), who detail the tribulations of going through a dozen unpaid internships in Paris, LA, and NYC in an effort to land paying jobs in "Film production, film development, PR, Fashion…we've done it all!"

"I want to do what I studied, and I don't want to settle," she said. "I'm still applying for full-time positions, but I don't see that happening anytime soon for me." Like (her), a growing number of college graduates are forced into internships after graduation because of the lack of entry-level jobs. For now, it's important to take those internships, said Phil Gardner, director of Michigan State University's Collegiate Employment Research Institute.

Must be nice to be able to decide that one "doesn't want to settle" for plebeian employment for something as crass as a paycheck. They continue with some dire forecasts for the future:

"Evidence suggests that the internship now replaces the starting job as the place college students actually begin their journey into the workplace," Gardner wrote in a paper he intends to publish this month. Students must make smart choices when selecting an internship, as their decisions will directly influence employment opportunities when they graduate, he said. It's the quality of your internships, not the quantity, that matter to a future employer. But sometimes it's both.

More tales of exploitation and poor career choice:

Claire Brooks, an New York University senior now on her ninth internship, has taken very calculated career moves since her sophomore year in high school. She wants to be an independent producer and said she heard stories about kids dropping out of school and moving to Los Angeles to pursue their dreams.

I can't help but notice that part of the problem is the article's focus solely on the kind of Sex & the City "glamor" jobs that attract mainly sorority girls, but I digress. More optimism and ignorant flaunting of privilege!

"I do believe that the harder you work, the more that will come to you," Gorden said. "I'm confident that the future is bright for me … that I worked hard enough to get somewhere, and I don't want to settle."

Popular theme here. CNN finishes strong with some recommendations that we accept our lot in life and some optimism:

It's important to have a few internships under your belt no matter what the field, said Brian Eberman, CEO of StudentAdvisor.com, a website for college students and their parents. (Their) guide to getting an internship has double the readership of the loans and the scholarship guides.

"We've seen a lot of demand for internships, and it's sort of risen to record numbers," Eberman said. "The number of internships doesn't matter. It's that they're engaged in the process."

…Lauren Berger, the self-proclaimed "Intern Queen," had 15 internships during her time at the University of Central Florida but always kept her resume to one page…Now in her first full-time job as of November, Harrison said it's important to keep building on that experience while unemployed instead of holding off until you get something permanent.

"Sometimes it was a little disheartening that I didn't have that full-time job yet," Harrison said. "But I always thought that it would eventually come along if I was patient and kept working."

I love Happy Endings! Thanks, CNN. It's odd that your take on this repugnant socioeconomic trend is so uncritical, but I guess it's nice that you're…

Wait.

Oh, I forgot. The media, particularly broadcast media and glossy, trendy magazines, are by far the biggest exploiters of unpaid internships on the planet. Gee, if we were cynical we might think they were minimally interested in A) reporting on a legitimate news phenomenon or B) objectively discussing the pros and cons but very interested in normalizing an unethical system they exploit to the hilt. That might be why this article-length advertisement for interning mostly offers tips about how to derive benefit from the system rather than even mildly suggesting that graduates stop and ask "How in the flying hell do you expect me to work for free – IN MANHATTAN – for two years just to get a peon job?"

Heavens no. We wouldn't want you to ask that. Employers might think you have a Bad Attitude!

MUSCLE MEMORY

Posted in Rants on December 7th, 2010 by Ed

There is an activity I like to do in class from time to time in which I force students to turn off their spacephones and laptops and, as a group, accomplish some basic tasks and answer a few questions without the benefit of mobile electronics. I call it "A Trip Back in Time to 1993" (I'm sure the odd laptop could be spotted on campus back then, albeit without wifi). Since we can't leave the classroom and start running around campus, I ask them to formulate a plan to accomplish these tasks. I present them with some very simple if somewhat random questions. What are the last 5 bills that came up for a floor vote in the House? Which president signed the Posse Comitatus Act? Give me directions from campus to Washington DC. What is the weather in Moscow today? Is the Supreme Court hearing oral arguments today, and if so, what case? Stuff like that. Nothing complicated.

The answer in 2010 is simple and identical for every question – whip out the wireless internet device of choice and ask Mr. Google (although as an aside, many of them seem unable to get that far. If I get one more email along the lines of "How do I find sources for…" I am going to adopt a needy child and throw pies at it. But I digress.) Problem solved. Without those devices they are quite helpless. I am a bad person for enjoying it, but I legitimately get a kick out of seeing them try to figure out how we Neanderthals managed to uncover these kinds of secrets just 10 or 15 years ago. We didn't have instantaneous access to everything yet somehow we survived. Roll Call or Congressional Quarterly would bring us lists of bills in the House (lagging a few days, of course, to accommodate publishing things on dead tree). Encyclopedia Britannica revealed who signed which bills into law. Rand McNally gave us directions. All three of those required a trip to the library. The weather and Supreme Court questions required picking up the phone and calling someone to get the information quickly or waiting a few days to get it from secondary sources.

I am 32. My generation is the last one to learn the mystical skills I described above. Of course we do not practice them regularly. When I want information, I get it instantaneously on the interwebs just like the Kids These Days. But people my age or older remember how to do it the old way. It would be inconvenient to lose the crutch that is modern information technology, but we'd live. I remember how to locate the appropriate reference book and look up pieces of information. I can and regularly do find my way around with a paper map.

Last weekend I had some family in town – folks in their 50s – and they located my house at the tail end of a 12-hour drive with a GPS unit. I made some crotchety old man small talk about how The Kids These Days probably can't read a map to save their souls now that new cars practically come standard with GPS and older cars are fitted with portable units by nervous parents who don't want little Billy to get lost on his way to his weed dealer's house. My guests agreed, but noted that the technology made it unnecessary to do so. Which is true. Assuming its availability.

The Global Positioning System is a network of 24 satellites launched and maintained by the US Department of Defense. For 20+ years the entire planet relied on Pentagon satellites for location-finding systems after Ronald Reagan declared the system a public good in 1986 (after the KAL 007 shootdown, if you must know). Other nations, notably China and Russia, are currently scrambling to launch their own GPS systems. They are motivated, of course, by the realization that it is not in their strategic interests to rely on the U.S. military to provide access to an increasingly important resource. Uncle Sam can, and in a conflict certainly would, flip the switch and preclude access to the satellite network.

What happens is there's a global conflict and the Pentagon decides to limit GPS access only to the military and government as was the case before 1986? What if the fragile and indescribably complex network of satellites simply malfunctions or breaks down? What percentage of the American public would be able to find their way around with maps? Certainly we older folks could do it, because we used to do it. We have the muscle memory, so to speak, even if we stopped using the skills when our new car came with a TomTom or Magellan. But what about today's crop of undergraduates, the ones who have literally grown up with "Just google it" or "Take the GPS with you" as the universal solution to the need for information? It's difficult, after all, to fall back on reading maps or using the Reference Room at the library if one never learned how to do so in the first place.

I am not a survivalist and I don't think we should be preparing our young adults for Mad Max scenarios or the collapse of modern industrial society. It does give me pause however to think about the generational gap developing between atrophying skills – the older folks – and skills that were never learned at all. We are so terribly, terribly dependent on complex technology that I don't relish the thought of the world without access to it even briefly as we start ushering into adulthood generations that have never known or even considered a world without it.

TURNTABLES

Posted in Rants on December 6th, 2010 by Ed

Inter-class victim blaming is as old as politics itself. The rich blame the poor, the poor blame the rich, and everyone blames the immigrants and minorities. America is no exception to the rule that as economic prosperity declines, this element of the political discourse becomes more prominent. When the post-War boom came to a screeching halt in the 1970s, Reagan was right there to reassure the middle and upper classes that welfare queens were taking all of their money. It doesn't have to be true, only plausible. And there's nothing people with money will believe more readily than the idea that the government is taking it and giving it to poor people.

While there is an element of class conflict and blame-casting in every society, since the era of St. Ronnie we have seen some curious developments in our take on this form of rhetorical warfare. "Reagan Democrats" and other working-class whites who hopped on the GOP bandwagon in the 1980s for the first time in sixty-plus years were naturally quite receptive to the idea of using the underclass as a whipping boy, as the poor represent their primary economic and social threat. I mean, a white guy working in a screen door factory had to grapple with the reality that any person on "welfare" could and might take his job if not sufficiently vilified and beaten down. Slashing the social safety net was a self-defense mechanism for working-class whites, widening the gap with their economic competitors under the guise of small government rhetoric.

But then the right got all of the possible political mileage out of the poor and the welfare queens, it needed to find a new enemy. The Unions were a logical target, being a great irritant to the plutocracy since the 1930s. Suddenly "Reagan Democrats" found themselves on the receiving end of the politics of vilification. They were more than happy to hop on the "Let's blame the poor" bandwagon and suddenly the tables were turned. Before they knew what happened they became the malingerers, the leeches bleeding The Deserving dry. This too was successful, as middle class suburbanites gladly threw their lot in with Management to present a united front against the new enemy. You know what happened next: NAFTA, deregulation, and the end of blue collar industry in the United States.

Now the definition of who is a good, hard-working American deserving of wealth and, conversely, who is the drain thereupon is once again changing with the times. Having dispatched the poor and the working class (largely by setting them upon one another as Jay Gould boasted about so many years earlier) it has become necessary to move one more step up the ladder and vilify the middle class. Now the leeches and deadbeats are the petit bourgeoise. Civil servants. Teachers. Middle management. Basically anyone with a pension or benefits beyond a salary are destroying the country. And once again people who were integral to the previous wave of Blaming have become the Blamed. America is falling apart because your aunt worked at the County Clerk's office for 30 years and now wants a pension. Because of your daughter bought a house and then got laid off. Because of all the people incessantly whining about how they need health insurance or doing things like getting cancer when they don't have it. Because of people who insist that they actually need Social Security rather than just living off of their stocks and bonds in retirement.

That people can't recognize this progression is unsurprising and surprising at the same time. On the one hand, we know that Americans are politically ignorant and selfish enough to be OK with whatever negative things happen as long as it happens to someone else. On the other, the pattern that has been unfolding over the past three decades is just so bleedingly obvious – systematically eliminating one social class at a time to further the interests of the economic elite – that I struggle to understand how anyone could fail to notice it by now. Then they came for me, and there was no one left…

NPF: THE GREAT LEAP FORWARD

Posted in No Politics Friday on December 3rd, 2010 by Ed

This is hardly recent news, but I just found out that the U.S. Coast Guard no longer uses Morse code. Apparently its use in communicating with ships at sea ended in 1995. The USCG was actually one of the last holdouts, with many other nations and organizations abandoning it earlier. Like all historically important technology that becomes outdated, there was considerable emotion displayed when it passed from the scene. The USCG's last Morse code dispatch (read the full text here) sadly acknowledged that satellite and GPS-based technologies obsoleted Morse code but their cold precision lacked the romance of a lone radio operator communicating by dots and dashes. It ended: "What hath God wrought?" and the sadness of the operators is apparent throughout. The French Navy was in an even more lyrical mood, signing off for good with "Calling all. This is our last cry before our eternal silence." Damn.

It is not hard to understand the sadness of people who devote a substantial portion of their careers to a technology that becomes obsolete. There is also a melancholy aspect to tossing a technology that played such an important historical role onto the trash heap as soon as it is improved upon. Email and the GPS are undoubtedly more convenient and helpful than letter-writing or Morse code, but it's a shame that we so quickly forget that people did just fine for a couple hundred years with only pen, paper, and the mailman.

This train of thought led me to the state of communication technology today and the realization that, although my mind can't comprehend the details, in 30 years we will be looking back on Droids and 4G iPhones with the same kind of nostalgia for primitive technologies. I certainly don't mean that they are primitive today, but history suggests that what we consider cutting-edge today will quickly be surpassed until we reach some sort of singularity.

But as much as I know that smartphones and other recent developments will become outmoded, I can't begin to wrap my head around how. What will be the next great leap forward in communication technology? We already have nearly instantaneous access to any bit of information on the planet from mobile devices and we can communicate to any corner of the globe instantaneously by text, voice, video, and so on. How can we improve upon this? To some extent this is a silly question, because any of us who knew with certainty what is to be the Next Big Thing would be busy inventing it, investing in it, and getting rich. But even in the broadest conceptual terms, even assuming technologies that do not currently exist, I lack the imagination to foresee how we can improve upon instant access to the sum of all human knowledge. Much as there are no physical frontiers remaining in the world, it seems to me that we are quickly reaching the point at which electronic and technological frontiers have also been exhausted.

But I'm sure people say the same thing with every new development. Like everyone who failed to comprehend how technology could get more advanced than the telegraph, the radio, and then television, I am certain that time will prove me wrong.

What do you think our next Great Leap Forward will be? I'm stumped.