BANG FOR THE BUCK

Posted in Rants on March 21st, 2011 by Ed

On Friday and Saturday the United States engaged in yet another round of essentially the only thing we're good at anymore in international affairs: pulverizing a hot, sandy, minimally developed country with a barrage of high-tech firepower launched from hundreds of miles away. It comes from over the horizon and by the time you know it's there, it's already too late. Since Gulf War I, American foreign policy has been built around the ability to launch precision airstrikes and missile attacks at a moment's notice, combining the two characteristics so politically desirable these days: maximum destruction and minimum losses. Air strikes and distant missile launches expose American servicepeople to very little risk, so anything that can be accomplished with no (American) body count…well, if you were President, why wouldn't you do it?

The cruise missile is what really makes this possible, and none are more advanced than the Tomahawk. With a 1,250+ mile range, the missile goes from the decks of a U.S. Navy ship to a faraway target in about an hour. Just fire it and forget about it. Neat toy, if you're into that sort of thing. And boy are we into it.

Over the weekend the U.S. contributed to the U.N. declared suppression of Libyan air power with, among other things, 124 Tomahawk missiles. In 2011 dollars the unit replacement cost is about $750,000. Apiece. So in the span of a few hours and for reasons that very few non-AEI employed Americans would find compelling, Uncle Sam just spent $93 million dollars.

That doesn't count the thousands of gallons of aviation fuel and other ordnance dropped on Libya, the cost of repositioning assets, the $1.02 billion B-2 bombers used for daytime strikes, and so on. Even if American involvement in the conflict is brief, there is little doubt that the total monetary cost of our military action will approach or even exceed a quarter of a billion dollars. As usual, this money gets spent without thirty seconds of debate in Congress and with nothing but glee from the voting public. Hoo boy, can't wait until the Wings Over Libya on the Military Channel brings us the nose camera footage.

But teachers sure do make a lot of money, amirite? Maybe we should spend another week on that $60 million NPR got last year.

LUDDITRY

Posted in No Politics Friday, Quick Hits on March 18th, 2011 by Ed

I have no idea if "Ludditry" is a word, but I'm not sure how else to describe 365 Days of A. A man drives a 1930 Ford Model A for an entire year, including through a Michigan winter. It's pointless, of course, yet a very interesting look at how far technology has brought us in a relatively short time.

COMPANY TOWN

Posted in Rants on March 16th, 2011 by Ed

The phrase "company town" is loosely applied to any locale dominated by a single employer. But real company towns – the kind built, managed, and subject to the paternalistic control of private enterprise – have been an important part of American economic history. From Gary, IN (U.S. Steel) to Pullman, IL (now part of Chicago) to Hershey, PA to Alcoa, TN to the hundreds of textile mill towns of the South and coal mining towns throughout Appalachia, municipalities founded without incorporation or elected government are more numerous than many Americans realize. To live in these places meant to depend entirely on the munificence of one's corporate nobleman for the services one usually gets from local government. It usually meant getting paid in company scrip usable that limited one's economic transactions to company-owned banks, stores, and so on. Some company towns, notably Hershey, PA, were considered relatively swell places to live. Most, as in the case of Appalachian coal company towns, were efficient means of brutal exploitation and debt peonage.

Michigan's widely reported 'Financial Martial Law' bill, soon to be signed into law by teabagging mannequin Rick Snyder, is portrayed by leftists as another salvo in the ongoing Republican war against teachers and public sector unions. I find that conclusion overly linear and too simplistic. This legislation – which allows the Governor to declare financial emergencies and appoint individuals or corporations to serve as city managers with the power to dissolve local elected councils and nullify employment contracts for public servants – is the first step in an effort to do away with municipal and local government altogether in favor of quite literally having private enterprises replacing government and contracting out its functions to the lowest bidder. How beautiful it will be: Wackenhut cops and local jails, Waste Management goons collecting trash, utilities sold off to Aqua America and Exelon, tax assessments mailed to homeowners from a financial services boiler room in Bangalore, and municipal employees of all types fired and replaced by temps from Manpower, Inc.

Gives a new and literal meaning to the phrase "company town," doesn't it? And the kicker is that the Governor is empowered to pay the new city managers any amount he sees fit before turning over total control so that they may further profit from a variety of harebrained privatization schemes.

This legislation speaks to the ideas that have kept right-wingers' hearts aflutter since the early Reagan years. It's not removing government from the private sector; it's replacing government with the private sector. For-profit education corporations running the schools. Private military/security outfits as cops. Subscription-only fire protection and ambulance service. City property auctioned off to developers (with zoning laws created ad hoc by unelected city managers; sure, you can bury nuclear waste here!) No pesky citizens, city councils, or local laws to get in the way. Corporate owner-governments that can charge you whatever they're bold enough to charge for services and utilities. And there's not a goddamn thing you can do about it. Your government will be a board of directors in some office park in Arlington, VA.

What a beautiful vision. It's like watching the Koch brothers masturbate.

CULTURAL DIFFERENCES

Posted in Rants on March 15th, 2011 by Ed

CNN's Jack Cafferty asks the kind of question that only media people could ask in the wake of a human tragedy. Or during a human tragedy in progress. Why is there no looting in Japan? Despite the poor timing this question is worth asking, especially given that Americans and their media will almost certainly arrive at a horribly incorrect answer.

The scale of the disaster in Japan is unprecedented – they have basically been through most of the events of the apocalypse and, factoring in the radiation, the origin story for both Mothra and Godzilla. Yet there is no looting. Haiti had looting. So did New Orleans. And Chile. And Great Britain during the floods. And New York during the blackouts. Hell, Montreal got looted after Les Habitants made it to the Eastern Conference finals last year. Cairo was "engulfed in looting" during Mubarak's decline. Baghdad was badly looted (including archaeological artifacts from the national museum) when the Hussein regime collapsed. Tokyo? Osaka? Sendai? Either there is no looting or the media for some reason chooses not to report it.

The answer to this puzzle, as Cafferty's viewers illustrate, revolve around vague differences in "culture" and western stereotypes about Asians (zen-like calm, efficiency, ability to endure hardships, excellent math skills, and so on). Some of the answers are reflective of people clinging to 1910s-era theories of racial hierarchies, as I'm sure a disturbingly large number of Americans do. Maybe loosely defined cultural differences are the answer.

Maybe not. Looting (or doing anything, for that matter) is pretty difficult after a tsunami. Note that there was little looting in Indonesia in 2004. But the most persuasive answers are…political. The Japanese government is by all accounts remarkably well organized and prepared to respond to this kind of disaster. All of the failures in New Orleans, by comparison, have their origins in the crooked, incompetent crony politics of the local government and the non-existent Federal response. Japan is among the many non-American nations that recognize that government is not inherently useless and evil. If government takes its responsibilities seriously (which requires the preliminary step of recognizing that responding to an unthinkably large natural disaster is a government responsibility) it is possible to see that the animal-level needs of its people are met. Japan does have the advantage of being a small, dense country, but nonetheless its public sector has managed to shelter, feed, and rescue itself admirably. Why? Because its government is not devoted to the idea that government should be abolished.

Beyond that, Japan hasn't build its entire society on the principle of every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost. Their idea of disaster preparedness is not hoarding enough bullets to shoot their neighbors who run out of food. When America has a natural disaster, the private sector immediately focuses on profiteering and jacking up prices. In Japan the prices are lowered and in some cases basic necessities are even given away gratis. Japanese are more willing to look out for and help one another because unlike the U.S., their social dynamics focus on group harmony (critics say "conformity") rather than constant reminders that You are responsible for yourself and no one else. If your neighbor needs help, the American response is to lecture him about failing to better prepare himself for the crisis.

That, and Japan hasn't created a massive, impoverished underclass that interacts with government primarily at the end of a police baton.

This discussion unavoidably paints with a broad brush. Lots of Americans helped one another during Katrina and lots of Japanese are probably assholes who don't care about others. Japanese culture also has flaws that should not be painted over, particularly the collective willingness to shame individuals into conformity and occasionally work one another to death. But there is no denying the differences at the heart of Cafferty's ill-timed observation. There is no looting in Japan for a variety of reasons – cultural, social, practical, and especially political. If half of Sendai's police abandoned the city as the sad excuses for cops did in New Orleans, maybe there would be looting. If there was no plan in place to rapidly rescue, feed, and house people in flooded areas, maybe there would be looting. If people were encouraged to see one another as The Enemy and to see government emergency planning services as a conspiracy to round people up in detention camps, maybe there would be looting. If Japan socially and politically abandoned the idea that there can ever be a collective solution to anything, maybe there would be looting.

Oh, and Japan does not have many black people. The media do not count anything as "looting" unless black people do it.

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LIFE IS CHEAP

Posted in Quick Hits on March 15th, 2011 by Ed

Unfortunately the long post will have to wait for Wednesday (it's laden with arcane historical references and thus totally worth it) but for now, please note this comment from Larry "I might run for the Senate" Kudlow on CNBC regarding the aftermath of the Japanese earthquake / tsunami / volcano / meltdown / apocalypse:

In these tough economic times, isn’t it nice to know that calamitous natural disasters needn't have an adverse affect on your investment portfolio? After the 8.9-magnitude earthquake in Japan failed to induce a market nosedive, CNBC’s Larry Kudlow expressed his relief in terms that seemed to appall even his fellow cheerleaders for capitalism: “The human toll here,” he declared, “looks to be much worse than the economic toll and we can be grateful for that.”

Kudlow issued a perfunctory apology, stating that he "flubbed" the line he intended to say. That is possible. It is also possible that this reflects how people of his political-economic mindset see the world. The only relevant cost in any transaction is the financial one. Whether 10,000 people die (or get laid off, or lose access to health insurance, or work 60 hour weeks and still fail to make ends meet) is not the Market's concern. Nor should it be your concern, savvy investor.

DOT DOT DOT

Posted in Quick Hits on March 15th, 2011 by Ed

Monday night was a long, successful night of stand-up. Tuesday's post is coming, but it will be a little later than usual. Check back around noon at the latest. Promise.

EXCEEDING DESIGN LIMITS

Posted in Rants on March 14th, 2011 by Ed

At the height of the nuclear war scare in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s, American and Soviet military planners engaged in a spate of "civil defense" planning. This hole-digging mentality, parodied most famously in Dr. Strangelove (and possibly the best, most incisive episode of The Twilight Zone), meant digging nuclear fallout shelters and creating structures capable of surviving the blast of a nuclear warhead. Civil defense planners found that it is possible to design a structure at a reasonable cost to survive a nuclear explosion on the order of one megaton. To withstand a larger explosion, the design rapidly became prohibitively expensive. NORAD's famous Cheyenne Mountain complex, for example, can withstand a five to seven megaton blast within a 2 mile radius. And that thing is dug into a goddamn mountain. The moral of the story, of course, is that no matter how much "defense" the Americans or Soviets built, all the other side had to do was build a bigger bomb. Five to seven megatons? Great; hey NORAD, here's our 10 megaton warhead.

So safety can be engineered up to a certain point, beyond which additional safety is theoretically possible but economically impractical. The result is that almost any system (excepting those that are fail-safe or passively safe) is vulnerable to an adverse event that is either unforeseeable or highly unlikely. The World Trade Center was designed to withstand a hit from a 707, but not fully fueled 767s. New Orleans was engineered to survive a glancing hit from a Category 3 hurricane, but not the accompanying storm surge. The Banqiao Dam was designed to withstand a 1-in-1000 years flood, not the 1-in-2000 years flood that breached it in 1975. Your car's frame, restraints, and airbags are designed to protect you in a normal highway accident, but not if you drive head-on into a concrete pillar at 100 mph. History tells us that you can plan for a lot but it is neither possible or economically feasible to plan for everything even with the best intentions.

Fast forward to today and note what is happening in Fukushima at the nuclear facility. The reactors were designed to withstand an earthquake, but not an 8.9 earthquake followed by a tsunami. It would be easy enough to write this off as an unforeseeable event for which no reasonable enterprise could prepare. A disaster of this scale certainly supports that logic. Unfortunately, if we look more closely we see that a chain of human and engineering mistakes undermine the attempts to make nuclear power safe.

Two caveats. First, I am a fan of nuclear power, at least in comparison to coal- and gas-burning generation. Most liberals are reflexively against it (more on that in a moment). Second, I'm not a certified expert on this topic, but merely someone who has done a lot of reading. If at any point I misrepresent something feel free to correct me.

Boiling Water Reactors (BWR) like Fukushima are an obsolete technology from the late 1960s. BWRs, like any other nuclear reactor that relies on a supply of pumped coolants to prevent overheating, are inherently dangerous. Recent events illustrate this. Fukushima has backup generators to provide power to the cooling supply in the event of a grid failure, but…what happens if the backup generators are also damaged? That is the question no one asks during planning. It is the equivalent of "What happens if the Russkies build a bigger bomb?" The answer is always "Well, then I guess we're fucked." Someone translate that into Japanese, please.

Fukushima is better designed than Chernobyl (which was the RMBK-type reactor that was so dangerous Brezhnev couldn't even give them away to Third World countries) in that its defense-in-depth is stronger. What they share in common is two alarming design flaws. First, control rods have to be inserted mechanically from the bottom, which is not possible when power fails. Were they lowered in from above, gravity could do the work even in the absence of power. Second, the reactor continues to produce an incredible amount of heat after it has shut down. The reactors in Fukushima were long ago shut down, yet they continue to require extensive cooling to keep them subcritical. Modern nuclear technology does not replicate these flaws and thus, in my opinion, is a viable alternative to fossil fuel power. However, 99% of the operational reactors were built in the 1970s and feature the inherent limitations of that outdated technology.

The last step in any catastrophe is almost always human error. In Fukushima – again, this is my moderately informed opinion rather than fact – the people in charge attempted to save the economic value of the reactors rather than immediately recognizing the magnitude of the crisis and initiating their last-ditch safety measure: flooding the reactors with boron carbide and seawater, which would cool but also destroy them for good. They attempted less extreme measures – running the normal cooling systems on battery power, etc. – so that the reactors could be used to produce power again in the future. Accordingly, by the time they initiated the last resort plan involving seawater the reactors were already too hot, partially melted (as evidenced by airborne cesium), and beyond the point at which they could be cooled without adverse consequences if at all. It was, in a word, shocking to hear that 24 hours after the quake the Japanese authorities had yet to flood the reactors; the consequences are now apparent and will be increasingly so in the coming days.

Aside from the immediate tragedy – workers and residents exposed to radiation, thousands of gallons of radioactive liquid waste produced, etc. – the saddest thing about this is that it takes nuclear power off the table for a few decades much as Three Mile Island and Chernobyl did in the 1980s. It can be safe, but not with archaic 1960s technology that is fail-deadly and full of design flaws. Reactors operate here in the U.S. and around the world with very small margins of error. They are dangerous, and their "safe" operation depends on the assumption that nothing will happen to the reactor beyond what it is engineered to withstand. The more problems emerge from old Generation II designs, the lower the odds that advanced, passively safe, low-waste Gen IV reactors will ever go on line.

NPF: THE CRAP-SPANGLED BANNER

Posted in No Politics Friday, Random Facts on March 11th, 2011 by Ed

Its frequent appearances on my Facebook feed over the past week has reminded me of an unavoidable fact about Wisconsin, a state I ordinarily love: the Wisconsin flag is an abomination.

This shitshow violates every one of the basic principles of vexillology, not to mention taste and common sense. Yes, there are principles of vexillology (the design and academic study of flags) thanks to the wonderful dorks at the North American Vexillogical Association. It offers a helpful publication entitled Good Flag, Bad Flag that I stumbled upon many years ago while attempting to design a logo for a student organization. Note how many of these principles Wisconsin disregarded:

1. Keep it simple
2. Use meaningful symbolism
3. Use 2 or 3 colors
4. No lettering or seals
5. Be distinctive

This is the sort of thing one never contemplates but when it is explained it makes perfect sense. Then again, one doesn't necessarily need a theoretical explanation to pick a crappy flag out of a lineup as this study of city flags proves. See if you can find the terrible one!



Come on, Milwaukee. If you're going for camp, why not Alice Cooper saying "It's Algonquin for…'the good land'." Washington D.C. and Chicago keep things simple and accordingly have flags that kick considerably more ass. Aside from my native fondness for Chicago's design, I'd say that these are my two favorite flags:

The first one is New Mexico, of course. How about you? Feel free to share some particularly excellent or appalling designs you've encountered over the years. I'll award a cash prize to the first person who can find a flag uglier than Louisiana's. Nice pelican, losers.

JOURNALISM!

Posted in Rants on March 10th, 2011 by Ed

Following media, political, and cultural issues not only rapidly produces outrage fatigue – see 2000 through 2008, when merely treading water and keeping up with the barrage of scandals, graft, cronyism, corruption, maladministration, and disregard for the Constitution was nearly a full time job – but it also raises our outrage threshold over time. As the average teenage fan of violent videogames, Marilyn Manson, and horror movies can testify, something is shocking the first time it happens, somewhat novel once or twice more, and totally mundane thereafter. Making a career out of being "outrageous" means constantly having to up the ante to find new ways to shock people who have already seen, internalized, and normalized everything thrown at them so far.

It is not the intent of the media to shock us in most instances, and we may safely assume that they are not going out of their way to shock us with their raw incompetence. Nonetheless, over the past 30 years we have become numb to their complete inability to understand the basic tenets of journalism. It no longer shocks us to see basic spelling/grammar errors in major media outlets. Or press releases / product advertisements published unaltered as news items. Or water-carrying for corporate interests. Or victim-blaming crime stories. Or obsequious deference to elected officials. Or willful ignorance of social problems that should be major news stories. The media fails to do its job so regularly that nothing shocks us anymore. You can look at the final product and say "My god, this is ridiculous" but you cannot honestly say that it shocks you. It's just expected.

Somehow, despite the numbing repetition of embarrassing journalistic failure over the years, something comes along and shocks me every few months.

Tuesday's New York Times (and we could say "OMG! Even the NYT?" if not for, you know, Judith Miller and Jayson Blair and all that) ran this story entitled "Vicious Assault Shakes Texas Town". A brief summary of the underlying story:

(An explicit cellphone video) led the police to an abandoned trailer, more evidence and, eventually, to a roundup over the last month of 18 young men and teenage boys on charges of participating in the gang rape of an 11-year-old girl in the abandoned trailer home, the authorities said.

Five suspects are students at Cleveland High School, including two members of the basketball team. Another is the 21-year-old son of a school board member. A few of the others have criminal records, from selling drugs to robbery and, in one case, manslaughter. The suspects range in age from middle schoolers to a 27-year-old.

Wow. The phrase "vicious assault" in the headline is actually an understatement. I should be glad to see a major newspaper covering this kind of story, right?

The case has rocked this East Texas community to its core and left many residents in the working-class neighborhood where the attack took place with unanswered questions. Among them is, if the allegations are proved, how could their young men have been drawn into such an act? “It’s just destroyed our community,” said Sheila Harrison, 48, a hospital worker who says she knows several of the defendants. “These boys have to live with this the rest of their lives.

Wait…what?

(T)he assault started after a 19-year-old boy invited the victim to ride around in his car. He took her to a house on Travis Street where one of the other men charged, also 19, lived. There the girl was ordered to disrobe and was sexually assaulted by several boys in the bedroom and bathroom. She was told she would be beaten if she did not comply, the affidavit said…they then went to the abandoned mobile home, where the assaults continued. Some of those present recorded the sexual acts on their telephones.

OK, I get that part, where the victim was gang raped by a dozen-plus males, but…

Residents in the neighborhood where the abandoned trailer stands — known as the Quarters — said the victim had been visiting various friends there for months. They said she dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s. She would hang out with teenage boys at a playground, some said. "Where was her mother? What was her mother thinking?" said Ms. Harrison, one of a handful of neighbors who would speak on the record. "How can you have an 11-year-old child missing down in the Quarters?"

Yeah, see, this is the part that isn't registering.

Now many of you are probably seeing this as run-of-the-mill Asking For It / Dressed Like a Whore / She Totally Wanted It argument. We have seen this enough times in newspapers and on TV that it should no longer surprise us. At this point I need to remind you, however, that this story is about an 11 year old girl who was gang raped on video by as many as 12 to 18 males.

As I reached the part of the story that describes how the 11 year old girl dressed (whorishly, of course) my mind raced to one of my favorite stand-up bits: Bill Hicks' description of Mark Fuhrman and Stacy Koon testifying at the Rodney King trial. "And the courtroom gasped…'Jesus! What balls!'" I don't suppose it helps to make light of this sad state of journalistic affairs, but the sheer balls required to play the "wanted it / dressed like a whore" angle on an 11 year old girl getting gang raped is, even by American mainstream media standards, pretty shocking. That this kind of crime could happen and the news story, particularly the comments of the interviewees, would focus on the plight of the perpetrators of the crime – Those poor boys! – is surprising enough. That this is only the second most fucked-up thing about the way this story is reported crosses the line from routine bad journalism to legitimately shocking.

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EVERYONE LOVES SALAD

Posted in Quick Hits on March 9th, 2011 by Ed

I had a comedy show Tuesday night so regrettably I have to do a post that falls short of the usual in terms of length, originality, and overall cromulence. Some quick links and other things mixed up into a salad of mediocrity, because who doesn't love salad?

1. There is a stunningly large number of "comedians" in 2011 who base their acts on A) imitating ethnic voices (and not in a remotely sarcastic / satirical way; in the straight "Hey, Asians talk real funny!" way) and B) how women are stupid bitches who should shut up and stop yapping so much. Sometimes I feel like I am surrounded by the smartest people in the world when I'm doing comedy. Other times I feel like it's 1957 and I'm watching Henny Youngman's opening act do the late show in the Catskills.

2. I saw my pal Matt Gilbert, who is balls funny but didn't have his best night, absolutely destroy a heckler. Hecklers are best ignored or briefly mocked, but this person definitely deserved what she got. It reminded me of the excellent documentary Heckler, which explores the issue in depth. It's amazing how ignorant some people are. Even when the performers suck, the $5 you paid at the door does not give you carte blanche to get hammered on appletinis and start yelling shit at people on the stage.

3. Mike – yes, THE Mike Konczal, the famous guy from Time Magazine – nails this discussion of one of the biggest but least-discussed problems with the current labor market. The understandable focus on unemployment obscures the even bigger issue: a lot of the jobs that are still around suck. They suck not merely from the perspective of being low paid and offering no security or benefits. They suck because they're petty, dehumanizing, dull, dangerous, mindless, and generally demeaning. Kinda undercuts that whole "Dignity of Work" argument, no? No one who has worked a minimum wage service industry job would argue that it's a positive, character building experience, even compared to sitting at home with one's thumb stored rectally.

4. Way to not sound like a cranky, out-of-touch old white guy, Alan Simpson:

I think, you know, grandchildren now don't write a thank-you for the Christmas presents, they're walking on their pants with the cap on backwards listening to the enema man and Snoopy Snoopy Poop Dogg, and they don't like them.

Sometimes it's hard to believe that this stuff is real, that I live in a world where this person has power and I am not merely hallucinating.