STRATEGO

Posted in Rants on October 31st, 2011 by Ed

In a city renowned for the quantity and quality of its political spectacles, the upcoming debt supercommittee hearings might be the most superficial waste of time in the history of Washington. I've said enough about why and the extent to which I do not care about this – the predetermined outcome, the mindless rhetoric, the heavy, ponderous chin-stroking in the media, and many other common features of our kabuki theater politics – and I hoped to leave it at that. But to underscore the "predetermined outcome" part, consider the initial proposal made by the Democratic members of the committee:

The new deficit-reduction plan from a majority of Democrats on the congressional Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction (the “supercommittee”) marks a dramatic departure from traditional Democratic positions — and actually stands well to the right of plans by the co-chairs of the bipartisan Bowles-Simpson commission and the Senate’s “Gang of Six,” and even further to the right of the plan by the bipartisan Rivlin-Domenici commission. The Democratic plan contains substantially smaller revenue increases than those bipartisan proposals while, for example, containing significantly deeper cuts in Medicare and Medicaid than the Bowles-Simpson plan. The Democratic plan features a substantially higher ratio of spending cuts to revenue increases than any of the bipartisan plans.

The Democratic plan contains $92 billion more in Medicare and Medicaid cuts ($475 billion) than Bowles-Simpson ($383 billion), and the same or a greater amount of cuts in this area than the Gang of Six plan.

At the same time, the Democratic plan contains $800 to $900 billion less in revenue increases than the Bowles-Simpson and Gang of Six plans.

Remember, this is the initial proposal. The starting point. Whatever they finally pass will of course be far to the right of this. So what we'll end up with is a policy outcome to the right of a proposal that is to the right of the previous sham "bipartisan" committee's recommendations that were already to the right of center. Say what you will about the modern Democratic Party, but they sure know how to fire up their base.

For the life of me I cannot fathom their strategy here. It appears to be yet another round of "If we start negotiating by offering a thousand huge concessions up front, surely the GOP will negotiate in good faith." Yes, and surely Charlie Brown will kick that football this time. Of course the Republicans have already summarily rejected this proposal as Insufficiently Austere, thus we are assured of dozens more concessions in the next few weeks to produce a final bill that they will vote against anyway.

Once again the strategy, if any, being employed by the Democrats is a mystery to me. They continue to punt the talking point, "The GOP wanted to screw you and we opposed them," in favor of, "The GOP wanted to screw you and we proposed that they screw you slightly less, and then we settled on you getting screwed but with some lube and a Wendy's Frosty afterward." Who is the voter that they believe this approach will win over? Who do they envision responding positively to this inexorable march to the right, which not only eliminates the Democrats as a legitimate alternative to the GOP but also drives the already dangerously extreme GOP base even further rightward?

Obama and his party were successful in 2008. To repeat that in 2012, they're banking on the existence a few hundred million voters, contributors, and volunteers in the electorate who will get really fired up to support a Democratic Party so completely sold out to moneyed interests that its policy positions have outflanked the Republican Party of the 1980s on the right. For their sake I hope these voters exist, or else this very curious strategy is going to have to appeal to the same voters, contributors, and volunteers who put them over the top in 2008.

Good luck with that. But hey, I bet Jamie Dimon loves it. Isn't that what matters?

NPF: IDOLATRY

Posted in No Politics Friday on October 28th, 2011 by Ed

I have never been big on Halloween, partly because I am bitter towards it as a holiday. My birthday is October 30, and thus I hold a grudge against Halloween for distracting people from the important task of lavishing me with attention on that date. This year, however, I found the kind of Halloween-related event I can really get behind. A comedian friend organized a cover show in the spirit of the holiday, and several of us did short sets as comedians that have been particularly influential to us. So that's why, for approximately 12 minutes on Wednesday evening, I was Bill Hicks:


Goat Boy rises

It was the most fun I had doing…anything, really, in the past year. Part of that statement reflects how much the past year has sucked for me. The rest reflects how exciting and rewarding it was to play make believe for a few minutes.

Two things were especially interesting. One is how awkward it felt to get silence from some of the material. But in reality, if you listen to any recordings of Hicks before he started to become semi-popular and build an audience, he's mostly met by a wall of silence. Listen to Dangerous with decent headphones and you'll realize that nearly all of the laughter is canned, added during the production process. People mostly just stared at this guy when he performed, excepting his more devoted following in the UK. After the show one of my friends told me "Well, they were all staring at you, which means you nailed it." Second, it's really hard to do someone else's jokes. Or to adopt someone else's persona. Or delivery. Or accent. Or whatever.

The previous statement is inapplicable to my friend Nate Mitchell, who did Emo Phillips so perfectly it was kind of scary (not to mention funnier than the actual Emo Phillips):

Way to set the bar high, Nate. Unfortunately I couldn't turn myself into a fat, sweaty, pasty, mulleted Bill Hicks in terms of appearance, but I think I did the material a bit of justice. Even though most of you don't care, it was a pretty big deal for me. What with the channeling dead heroes and all.

FAILURE TO LAUNCH

Posted in Quick Hits on October 26th, 2011 by Ed

How does something like this godawful Herman Cain "Smoking man" ad make it past a focus group? Oh, that's right. Cain is too cheap to pay for focus groups. Or staff. Or mildly competent media production.

That video is like the opening credits to a snuff film. Or something equally unsettling.

ED vs. COGNITIVE BIASES, PART 7: JUST WORLD PHENOMENON

Posted in Ed vs. Cognitive Biases on October 25th, 2011 by Ed

The kind of abstract cognitive pursuits that occupy us in the modern industrialized world are comparatively recent developments. For the vast majority of human history, life has been about simple survival. Both our minds and our bodies are adapted to that task – to make sure that we don't freeze or starve to death, to avoid things trying to kill us, and to make choices that promote our self-interest. That you are here today as the culmination of a million years of human evolution is a good indication that your brain is hard wired for survival.

In a complex world in which many of us are lucky enough to avoid worrying about survival on a daily basis, we have adapted our cognitive abilities to contemplate more abstract concepts. We're capable of understanding things like philosophy, religion, politics, and relationships. But old habits die hard, so to speak. Our minds retain a nagging tendency to distort or manipulate information in ways that enhance our well being, which is a fancy way of saying your brain wants you to feel better about yourself.

Now. Consider this:

I won't dissect this person's statement, which is almost certainly either selective with the truth or exaggerated. That's another story (and ably handled in detail here). What we see is a very common perceptual bias in action: the "just world" phenomenon, a bias of attribution.

If I am a success, my brain wants me to believe that I have succeeded because I am good – talented, hard working, and so on. The converse is that people who do not succeed must be lazy, talentless, or prone to making bad decisions. It's a basic victim-blaming premise. A common example used with this bias is rape. If we blame the victim, it makes us feel safer. Rather than confronting the scary reality that it could happen to you at random, we believe that if we avoid the behaviors of the previous victims then we will remain safe.

Thus the overly simplistic worldview we see on display in the above photo. We start with our brain's desire to bolster our self-image – You're a big success, Timmy! You've earned all that you have! – and end with a worldview that requires us to assign the same level of responsibility to others. If we admit that external factors such as chance or social class influence others' outcomes, then we would be admitting that the same things might have benefited us. But of course I didn't just "get lucky"…I earned all of this. So don't you whiners go blaming bad luck or forces beyond your control if you're not happy. You've clearly made a lot of bad decisions, the same kind that I'm smart enough to avoid.

It all makes sense now.

FREE CANDY

Posted in Rants on October 24th, 2011 by Ed

My name is Ed, and I am addicted to the A&E television series Intervention. For those of you unfamiliar with the show, it cynically exploits people at their lowest point – drunk, addicted to meth, often homeless or sponging off family, etc. – under the guise of a "documentary" about addiction and recovery. Since each episode devotes about 2 minutes to recovery and treatment, it's pretty clear that the show exists to let us all gawk at train wreck addicts at their lowest point.

Like everyone who watches it, I watch Intervention to feel better about myself.

To discuss every messed up aspect of this show (not to mention its popularity or mere existence) would take too long, but one thing really blows my mind regularly. Many of the addicted people have bathrooms full of prescription pill bottles the size of pop cans filled with opiates, stimulants, and other varieties of addictive narcotics. Yes, obviously some of the pills a drug addict consumes are going to be obtained illegally. But that doesn't account for all of it. Some of the show's subjects reveal how they get legitimate prescriptions for insane quantities of Oxycontin, Xanax, and so on. And my question is, who are these doctors writing out 30-day scrips for 150 maximum strength Oxycontin?

I've talked before about how American medicine is basically a big vending machine of prescription drugs. It goes without saying that the idea of actual patient care and accurate, thorough diagnosis is foreign to the American for-profit model of medicine. Doctors have every incentive to get patients out of the office as quickly as possible and with as few (expensive!) diagnostic tests as possible, and the easiest way to send the average patient on his or her way happily is with a prescription or five. I did assume, though, that if for no reason other than self interest, doctors wouldn't prescribe narcotics quite so casually. One would imagine, for example, that oversight by the DEA and state licensing authorities would make a doctor think twice and act conservatively when controlled substances are involved.

Is that hopelessly naive? I can't say I've ever tried it, but…is it really as easy as semi-reality TV makes it seem to walk into a doctor's office reeking of the symptoms of drug abuse and walk out with a Keith Richards sized allotment of mind altering drugs? My confusion on this point goes beyond reality TV. For instance, I regularly hear students telling tales of getting large prescriptions for Adderall and other stimulants at the slightest mention to a doctor of having "a hard time concentrating."

As a kid I remember our family pediatrician offering candy to patients who completed a visit without crying. This encouraged me to be brave, but in reality the good doctor was pretty liberal with the candy policy. In fact, no matter how I comported myself in her office I don't recall ever leaving without having been given candy. This seems like a good policy in hindsight; the kids would probably cry even more if they were denied candy in addition to being poked and prodded. This worked because the doctor figured that there is no real harm in one piece of candy, especially if it meant getting a child out of the office calmly and expediently. This same policy seems dubious when applied to addictive drugs, however. Is our system of assembly line, bottom line focused medicine really so broken that we're willing to hand out prescriptions for whatever the patient wants just to keep things moving along?

I think I already know the answer to that question, unfortunately.

NPF: RUNNING THE GAUNTLET

Posted in No Politics Friday on October 21st, 2011 by Ed

For reasons that I absolutely do not need to discuss here in any level of detail – but may or may not involve an online dating site, deceptive photos from five years/100 pounds ago, and a bitchy objectivist who smoked menthol cigarettes – I need you to comfort me and bring me cheer by telling me the story of the worst date you have ever been on.

A female friend of mine once went on a blind date on which the guy showed up wearing a cape. Not a costume. He just…wears a cape, I guess.

Who are these people, and where do they come from?

BREAKTHROUGH

Posted in Election 2012, Quick Hits on October 19th, 2011 by Ed

After a PJ Media link Monday and the (latest in a seemingly endless parade of) GOP debate(s) on Tuesday evening, I am overloaded with stupid. The gears in my brain are so gummed up with nonsense right now; it looks like someone fed a deep dish pizza into a paper shredder. To pick out one example of the lunacy and elevate it above the others would itself be lunacy, but I will run that risk to highlight the otherworldly stupidity of Michele Bachmann's "Double Fence" idea. A few days ago she became the first candidate to sign a formal pledge to build a fence on the Mexican border. Little did voters suspect she was actually promising them two fences. That's great value!

The inherent flaw in the "border fence" idea – the latest in a series of Election 2012 proposals that are actually reheated ideas from the early 1990s – is that Mexico already possesses advanced fence-defeating technologies:

But if there's a double fence…that could be a game changer. It will take Mexican scientists decades to catch up even in the most optimistic scenarios.

THE ART OF THE POSSIBLE

Posted in Quick Hits on October 18th, 2011 by Ed

I didn't think it was possible, but Pajamas Media has actually gone downhill in the past year. Like all sources of demagoguery, it's only a matter of time until they give in completely to paranoia. It appears that the time is now. On Monday the great repository of truth (the "PJ Tatler", which I believe is supposed to represent "tattler") loudly blared: BIZARRE NEO-SWASTIKA REMINISCENT OF "THE GREAT DICTATOR" USED AS POWER SYMBOL BY O.W.S. LEADERS. The symbol?

It's a pound sign. To anyone under 50 – obviously outside the range of the Pajamas Media writers and authors – it doubles as a hash tag for Twitter, i.e. "Hey, PJ Media is a front for the Viet Cong! #stuffimadeup" Or at least that's what it is to the untrained eye.

Note also how when the "leaders" put the symbol on their sleeves (as in the first and third photos), it is rotated 45 degrees just like the Nazi swastika was. Don’t these people see an echo of the swastika in their new power symbol? Don’t they realize that the early Nazi Party was (among other things, obviously) also overtly anti-capitalist? …Don’t they know that the early Nazis tried to garner sympathy with street rallies and marches?

I…I don't even want to waste the thirty seconds it would take to mock this. It makes its own gravy, so to speak.

Then a funny thing happened. The first commenter pointed out "Hey, it's just a pound sign/hash tag." So the author had to backtrack and revise his "argument":

As a commenter notes, the symbol may have derived originally from the Twitter "hashtag," but that in no way diminishes its creepiness. It may "just" be a rotated hashtag, but that doesn’t lessen its significance as a power symbol. The swastika, after all, was "just" a Buddhist good luck marking before the Nazis adopted it and started using it to indicate something else. And how did the Nazis alter it for their purposes? They rotated the Buddhist swastika 45 degrees, to give it a new association. Just as the hashtag sleeve marking has been rotated here. In fact, pointing out that the symbol may have originally had a different association, and then was later rotated to give it a new purpose, only makes it echo the swastika even more.

So in reality, being a clueless dipshit actually makes him more correct. Lucky, that.

I rarely recommend this, especially for a cesspool of personality disorders and intellectual impairment like PJ, but you absolutely have to read the comments. It's beyond hilarious to listen to the 55-and-over crowd talk about current politics using the only language and framing they know – the propaganda of the Cold War. The protesters are all communists (some of the commenters even appear to have been explained the plot of 1984 and Animal Farm at some point). Just look at the pictures! What a bunch of comsymps.

Just for the heck of it, I tried rotating that website 45 degrees. It went from retarded to sinisterly retarded.

FOLLOW MY LEAD

Posted in Rants on October 17th, 2011 by Ed

One of the enjoyable things about politics is that it has the capacity to surprise us. Despite being largely predictable, occasionally something happens out of left field. Take the unexpected Republican support for the Occupy Wall Street protesters. John Boehner, House Whip Kevin McCarthy of California, and Floridian Steve Southerland joined the chorus in demanding to know why unemployment persists. Their message is simple: Where are the jobs? We all need a good answer to that question.

Wait.

I'm sorry, I'm mixed up. Boehner, McCarthy, and Southerland said that stuff 2 months ago, when they were trying to pin the bad economy on Obama. They were very insistent that an insufficient number of jobs exist to handle the current unemployment rolls. Now, of course, they're wondering why all these dirty hippie protesters won't grow up and get jobs. In an eight week span the GOP message has transitioned from "Where are the jobs, Mr. President?" to "Why don't you all go get jobs?" Only the American right could make sense of that.

The funny thing is that conservatives mirror a lot of the American public when they hold these two diametrically opposed viewpoints. The vast majority of us demand a more robust economy and realize that the banking/financial system is fundamentally flawed. Yet we also can't shake that ingrained Horatio Alger logic, the kind that leads us to conclude that any individual who fails to find gainful employment has only him/herself to blame. Thus we sound schizophrenic, as usual. The system is broken! More personal responsibility! The banks are screwing us! Pull up your own bootstraps!

Public opinion has always reflected a very strange attitude in this country toward movements – public protests, strikes, etc. – compared to other countries in which such displays of social-political displeasure are more common parts of public life. Even when Americans support protesters' goals, we still have all sorts of negative reactions to protesters themselves. This manifests itself in one of two different ways. One is calls for gradualism (i.e., the civil rights movement) and patience with the existing power structure. The other is outright hostility toward protesters, as we've seen during Vietnam, WTO/G7 type protests, and so on. We might want to see some change, but gosh we sure don't want to break any rules and we can't stand those dirty kids with their dreadlocks and bong smoke.

On the most basic level, this reflects a convincing victory for conservatism in the war for hearts and minds. We might realize that those Occupy Wall Street folks are right, but we're still more likely to be hostile than sympathetic. Why? Take a look at any of the "We are the 53%" crap and you'll see. It's a bunch of people with a consistent message: My life blows, so yours should too. I work two jobs, so I resent people who want to work one. I am grateful for the crumbs that fall to me in this system, so people who complain about it are assholes. I quietly and obediently accept whatever the system does to me, so why don't you?

It takes a special kind of self loathing to generate a reaction like this. Fortunately Americans have that in spades. So many of us have completely given up, surrendered, and chosen that life of quiet desperation that it's unsurprising when more anger is targeted at people who stray from the flock than at more appropriate targets. We're content to direct our anger at one another because we've been convinced that change is impossible and encouraged to blame ourselves for whatever problems we have. The biggest obstacle confronting social and political movements is neither social nor political, but psychological. The first and most difficult step is to silence the voice in people's heads that whispers, "Nothing will change, so stay home, keep quiet, and obey" when they see a few villagers taking to the streets with torches.

NPF: FLOPPY

Posted in No Politics Friday on October 14th, 2011 by Ed

Given the extreme level of cockiness commonly found among the one-percenters and people in the business world more generally, I find the occasional thorough, public humiliation to be cathartic. I get a hearty laugh out of watching the self-styled masters of the universe fail miserably. It goes without saying, then, that I (and presumably many other customers) enjoyed a few gut-laughs when Netflix announced, tail tucked between its legs, that it would not in fact be reaming its customers launching "Qwikster" after all. This is impressive; there have been many product failures and commercial flops over the years, but very few so egregiously bad that they flopped before they even existed.

While Netflix probably is not important enough for this to qualify as the Edsel of our generation, there's never a bad reason to look back and chuckle at the Edsel again. Contrary to popular belief, the Edsel was not a bad car, or at least no worse than any other Ford vehicle of its era. Its failure is often blamed on the inability to carve out a market niche, since Edsels were priced almost identical to Ford and Mercury models. More integral to its failure, in my opinion, was the giant chrome vagina it called a grille.


The 1959 Edsel Cooter

While highly publicized flops like the Edsel or New Coke are part of our lexicon, there are far more amusing examples to be plucked from history. Anyone remember Pepsi A.M., the soda with 50% more caffeine targeted at "the breakfast cola drinker" market? It was released in 1989 and killed almost immediately when they realized that people who slam Pepsi for breakfast aren't that particular and do not require a special beverage.


This existed.

Technologies like Betamax, Sony HiFD, or HD DVD are often the butt of jokes, but their only real sin was losing a format war. Not much shame in that. Isn't it much more fun to mock DIVX (not to be confused with the video codec of the same name), the lead balloon that dragged Circuit City into bankruptcy? The idea was that instead of renting movies, people would pay $3-5 for a disc that could only be viewed within 48 hours of whenever it was first played. To watch the movie again after that, the buyer would need to pay a "continuation fee." The only surprising thing about this monstrous affront to common sense was that Circuit City managed to sell 100,000 DIVX players (incompatible with regular DVDs) before pulling the plug.

Dot-com failures were pretty epic, and we tend to remember Pets.com for some reason. I find the saga of WebVan more amusing, wherein the company principals spent over one billion dollars building warehouses (to meet demand!) before any sales or customers existed. The home grocery delivery scheme has later been copied with limited success (Is PeaPod still around?) but WebVan, shockingly, did not make it. I cannot fathom the amount of cocaine these guys must have been doing to make the billion dollars in overhead spending seem like a good idea before the company had earned its first dollar in revenue.

In honor of Steve Jobs, we should also mention the Apple Newton and, in the spirit of fairness and balance, Microsoft WebTV. Hell, there are just too many gigantic failures to name them all. Coors Rocky Mountain Spring Water (!!!). The Bricklin SV-1, the car so bad it brought down a government. Montreal-Mirabel Airport – so enormous that it's visible from space, yet vacant from almost the moment it opened. The XFL. You're not alone, Qwikster.

I've done what I can here. Now it's your turn to take the ball and run with it.