NEW MATH

Posted in Rants on February 29th, 2012 by Ed

Whenever gas prices spike (for reasons having more to do with speculation than "supply and demand", as we are so often and so condescendingly told) it is only a matter of time until someone points out that we shouldn't complain because gas is far more expensive in Europe. CNN helpfully offers an editorial entitled "America, quit whining about gas" to encourage you to be stoic about the impending $4.50/gal summer. The author points out that Norwegians currently pay a staggering $11.54/gal for petrol/gas. Wow! That sure is expensive.

Right?

Well, maybe. Indulge me in some napkin math. For the sake of argument, let's briefly overlook the fact that European cities actually have functional public transit systems (compared to, say, Miami, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Houston, Phoenix…) so driving is not quite as integral to daily life. And bear in mind that European gas is so much more expensive because it is taxed to hell and back.

I drive an elderly Nissan Sentra that gets approximately 30 mpg. I fill its 12-gallon tank twice monthly. Let's round up from the current prices and say gas is $4/gal, as it will be soon. It costs me (12 gal x $4 x 2 fill-ups) $96 per month to fuel my car.

Assume Sven drives the same car and fills up with the same frequency. He's paying (12 gal x $11.50 x 2 fill-ups) $276 per month. Jeez. If we had Norway Prices in the USA, I'd be out an additional $180 per month. Gas in Europe sure is expensive!

Except it isn't. With Norway's high tax burden comes a 36 hour work week (with a mandatory month of paid vacation), free health care, and a public pension system that is likely to actually exist when Sven gets older. Time for more math. According to my pay stub, I pay $140/month to Social Security and $200/month to a state-run pension system. Then I pay $130/month (single) for lousy HMO health insurance, $49/month for Medicare, and another $50 to a Health Savings Account that I use every month for prescription co-pays. That adds up to $569 every month to provide myself with health insurance and retirement benefits that Norwegians don't have to buy. I'm not so sure that Sven is jealous of the $180/month I save thanks to low American gas prices.

Yes, this comparison is off-the-cuff and imperfect. Sven's income taxes are also higher than mine, but the point is that the American system does a good job of creating the illusion of cheap commodities. We point and laugh at Europeans' large tax burden because it makes us feel better. However, when we consider the cost we pay out-of-pocket for things most Europeans have provided for them by their Oppressive Socialist governments, the question of who's getting the better deal becomes more complicated to answer.

RFNPR: THE ROOFTOP

Posted in Random Facts on February 28th, 2012 by Ed

As long as we're on the subject, here is the iconic photo taken by Hubert van Es showing civilians clamoring to be taken aboard an American helicopter on the roof of the U.S. Embassy:

Except that isn't the U.S. Embassy. The rooftop evacuation actually took place on a building known then as the Pittman Apartments, where many workers from the various embassies lived. It stands at 22 Ly Tu Trong Street today, just blocks from the new U.S. Consulate (which is not the same structure as the War-era U.S. Embassy).

LONG SHADOW

Posted in Rants on February 28th, 2012 by Ed

During my weekly trivia game with my co-workers on Sunday, a question prompted me to re-read a very compelling narrative of the Fall of Saigon in 1975. As usual I ended up more convinced than ever that understanding the Vietnam War is absolutely crucial to understanding the neoconservative foreign policy, the post-Cold War era, and the political mindset of Baby Boomers who were young during the war and now hold positions of great influence in the political, military, and business worlds. It is unfortunate that so few people who were not alive during Vietnam really understand what happened – since schools teach history chronologically, the spring term inevitably ends before getting through much of the 20th Century – beyond a vague sense that it wasn't good. We lost.

I'm convinced that Vietnam has cast a very long shadow over the American psyche since 1975. The past 30+ years of politics, particularly in foreign policy, has been largely an effort to erase the humiliation and feelings of inferiority that the withdrawal/defeat/whatever left on a generation whose parents has World War II as a cultural touchstone. Dad and Uncle Joe had D-Day and Iwo Jima; the young people of the 1970s had Khe Sahn, the My Lai Massacre, and Americans scrambling onto helicopters to flee Southeast Asia with their heads hanging. "Peace with Honor" was a feeble effort to dress up a defeat as something noble, but there's no getting around the fact that there was very little reason to be proud of the outcome (not to mention the simultaneous disaster in Cambodia).

Liberals took away the lesson that getting involved in unwinnable wars – ones that consist of bombing the living shit out of a country and then wondering why its people do not embrace America – in faraway countries is a bad idea. Conservatives took away the lesson that we lost because liberal pussies (like Nixon, Kissinger, Ford, and Westmoreland) gave up. But those are merely two different paths away from the same point: we lost, it sucked, and it ended in embarrassment. That must have been very hard to process for people raised on stories about the Battle of the Bulge and V-E Day celebrations. The ingredients for a perfect crisis of masculinity all converged in 1975.

Throughout the 1980s we engaged in a number of pitiful attempts to boost national morale with new, more successful "wars". However, the idea of trying to turn these ephemeral sideshows – like a U.S. invasion of a soccer field-sized island in the Caribbean called Grenada – into a great national Victory reeks of desperation and merely underscores the depth of the scars left behind by Vietnam. Gulf War I was supposed to be the Real War that a new generation could call its own, but it's hard to get too excited when the other side isn't really fighting back. Then there was the debacle in Somalia – another defeat. Then some confusing mess that no one understood in Bosnia. And then a ten-year quagmire with no objectives and no definable victory in Iraq. Golly, they sure did try to have a successful war to hang their hats on, but war without diplomacy is essentially just a fireworks show from a political perspective. Having failed to grasp what made World War II significant or why we could not win Vietnam, our national response has been to create a foreign policy and military apparatus that isn't good at much of anything except being expensive and reducing countries to rubble with absolutely overwhelming air power and technological superiority.

Don't get me wrong, I realize that the brunt of the suffering on account of the Vietnam war was borne by, you know, the Vietnamese. But I find the lasting impact on our political leaders from that generation fascinating. One of the trademarks of Vietnam was the unshakeable belief that American military might and technology simply could not lose to a sandal-wearing, poorly trained, half starving army equipped with hand-me-down Chinese knockoffs of Soviet equipment. And so the frustration grows each time we go off to fight another conflict and end up shocked and amazed that despite all of our space age hardware we cannot produce the desired outcome. I have a feeling that I'm in for a lot of "I'm a Boomer and this doesn't describe me at all" comments, but that misses the point. American foreign policy as engineered and executed by our elected officials and military establishment since Vietnam have clearly shown the psychological burden of being the generation that lost what was supposed to be its great war. To this day our leaders and a substantial portion of the electorate are still trying in vain to prove that we're big boys and we can do it, yet every second-rate conflict we get involved in now feels hollow. Too bad we still place such a huge cultural emphasis on raising people – especially boys – on a steady diet of WWII porn; without that we might actually produce a generation that could define its success in terms other than bloodshed and American hegemony.

THE GRAND BARGAIN

Posted in Rants on February 27th, 2012 by Ed

Last week I had some fun with the now infamous Virginia bill that would have required women seeking abortions to be, for lack of a subtler term, vaginally probed. Virginia Democrats won a rare victory by getting that provision withdrawn from the bill, with an assist from the massive amount of publicity given the issue by pro choice groups.

Wait, I don't think "victory" is the word I'm looking for here. From the Washington Post story on Gov. Bob McConnell's change of heart on vaginal ultrasound:

Virginia officials backed off last week from requiring vaginal ultrasounds before abortions, but state legislators are still expected to pass a bill that mandates abdominal ultrasounds and adds other significant requirements for women seeking abortions.

This is yet another example of a technique that the modern GOP uses with great success: a kind of legislative Red Herring wherein they add something blatantly ridiculous to a bill and then "compromise" by agreeing to remove it. And then they pass the bill they wanted all along. The Democrats are forever playing defense, then celebrating their big win when they manage to get the Trojan Horse provisions removed. Good job, guys. Too bad the rest of the bill sucks too. They make themselves relevant by occasionally limiting the worst excesses of Republican insanity. It's inspiring.

This trick is probably as old as humanity, dating back to the first time one caveman tried to buy something from another. Start by demanding the moon and then "compromise" by accepting a little less than that. Psychologists have labeled this the "Door in the face" technique. Of course this only works on the uninformed, the inexperienced, and the gullible. So yeah, it pretty much works all the time in American politics. Some legislature debates a bill consisting of tax cuts for the wealthy and a swift punch to the balls for the working class. After much emotional debate and fierce Democratic opposition, the Republicans grudgingly agree to drop the ball punch.

And this would be hilarious if it didn't work all the time.

NPF: PRIVATE PARTS

Posted in No Politics Friday on February 24th, 2012 by Ed

Generally I'm not the paranoid type, and I wouldn't say I devote much mental energy to the topic of "online privacy." I take it as given that every search engine, social networking site, and free email service is collecting staggering amounts of data about me and my online habits. I also accept the fact that every email I've ever sent is probably stored in some gargantuan NSA database, every text message I've ever sent can be subpoenaed from my service provider, and any cell phone call I make is potentially being monitored. None of that is paranoia – it's just reality. These new ways in which we communicate offer very little privacy. Read up on ECHELON, 641A, Titan, the Interception Modernization Program, and all the other very real ways in which whatever expectations of privacy you might have are being compromised.

One thing we can stop, at least to some extent, is having information about our online habits packaged, sold, and put to various commercial uses. To that end Google, the 900-pound gorilla of online information harvesting, is altering its privacy policies on March 1. You can limit the amount of information you surrender and the extent to which it is used for commercial purposes by opting out. Quoth the Electronic Frontier Foundation:

On March 1st, Google will implement its new, unified privacy policy, which will affect data Google has collected on you prior to March 1st as well as data it collects on you in the future. Until now, your Google Web History (your Google searches and sites visited) was cordoned off from Google's other products. This protection was especially important because search data can reveal particularly sensitive information about you, including facts about your location, interests, age, sexual orientation, religion, health concerns, and more. If you want to keep Google from combining your Web History with the data they have gathered about you in their other products, such as YouTube or Google Plus, you may want to remove all items from your Web History and stop your Web History from being recorded in the future.

To opt out, follow these simple instructions: sign in, go to google.com/history, and choose "Remove All Web History". This also revokes your consent to have your search history recorded going forward.

Let's not kid ourselves, we'll probably learn a few years from now that they're recording all of our search habits anyway (Shocking scandal! Online giant becomes Big Brother and sells out users!) but I don't see any reason to give them the satisfaction of consenting to it.

THE AGENDA

Posted in Rants on February 23rd, 2012 by Ed

Don't ask me how – the less said about my methods and sources the better – but I have managed to get ahold of secret internal documents from House Republican caucus detailing the majority's legislative strategy for 2012. Yesterday I wrote about the return of Culture War-type issues due to the recent positive trend in key economic indicators shifting the GOP narrative. That they would attempt to turn the election into a referendum on hot button social issues is unsurprising, but a small, skeptical part of me wonders if a few of these bills they intend to introduce go too far. The tentative name for this set of proposals is "Contract with America Contract USA #1".

1. The Protecting Women's Rights Act, which bans all forms of contraception and replaces it with a four volume set of the collected works of Cotton and Increase Mather (also available as an audiobook).

2. The Reproductive Health Enhancement Act, which would require women to consent to having an Evangelical minister insert his hand into the vagina (up to the wrist, but no further) before receiving an ultrasound or other prenatal screening. This proposal has already been test-marketed in Virginia with much success.

3. The American Science Education Modernization Act, which will enhance American pupils' competitiveness in high tech fields by requiring schools to base science education on the Four Humours. The bill sets a benchmark of matching or exceeding Japanese, Chinese, and Western European test scores in science by 2018.

4. The Strengthening the Separation of Church and State Act, which establishes Protestantism as the official state religion and replaces the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses with that "Footprints in the Sand" poem.

5. The Victims' Rights Act, which shifts the burden of proof from the state to the victim in cases of rape and child abuse.

6. The American Diplomacy Initiative Act, which places on the roof of every U.S. embassy an enormous set of speakers to play Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA" on a loop and a 200-foot bronze statue of a hand with the middle finger extended.

7. The Healthy Bodies, Healthy Democracy Act, which bans the Communist plot known as water fluoridation and replaces the USDA food pyramid with an image of a 10-gallon steel bucket full of bacon, KFC Double Downs, and rich sausage gravy.

8. The Equal Rights for All Americans Act, which replaces civil unions for same-sex couples with indefinite internment in an open prison camp in the Sonoran desert.

9. The Biotechnology Advancement Act, which replaces stem cell research with fervent prayer and a national network of hallways in which Alzheimer's and Parkinson's patients can "walk it off" rather than being a bunch of pussies waiting for the doctor to kiss their boo-boos.

10. The Rebuilding America's Public Schools Act, which replaces funding for education with vouchers (for free pizza at participating Godfather's Pizza locations) and eliminates teachers in favor of marketing videos from prominent PR firms and their largest clients.

It's an ambitious agenda, I'll give Speaker Boehner that much. Can they pass all of this in an election year? More importantly, will they succeed in making this election about issues such as homosexual desert prison camps and state-mandated fisting? The smart money says Yes.

THE RANK SLUDGE OF DEMOCRACY

Posted in Election 2012 on February 22nd, 2012 by Ed

As one of many people who followed the 2008 election with great interest, one of my clearest memories is of the intense feeling of fatigue that I felt during the last month of the general election period. By October of that year the outcome was a foregone conclusion and we all stared at the calendar like middle school kids stare at clocks, willing it to go faster. There was a point at which I couldn't stomach another analysis of some hypothetical Electoral College scenario, ridiculous campaign commercial, cringe-inducing McCain event, or lingering worry that Sarah Palin would ever be put in charge of something more important than a tank of goldfish. The ebb and flow of the election was interesting for a while but then I just wanted to get the goddamn thing over with. Enough.

This year is going to be different. It promises to be far worse. I want the election over already and it's not even March. I want it over yesterday. Rather than simply chalking this up to Ed being a grumpy old asshole, I have two specific reasons that this is going to be an unbearable form of torture.

First, the GOP's four year long effort to tank the economy hasn't worked well enough to fit their preferred election year narrative that the country is on the brink of complete collapse (see Mitch Daniels' apocalyptic State of the Union response) and only doubling down on Republican economic policies can save it. While the economic situation is not a cause for great celebration, by any metric it is improving (albeit painfully slowly). Most importantly, perceptions of the economy are improving. With the "OMG we're ruined! Ruined!" narrative unworkable and the GOP's savior in 2010, the Teabaggers, nowhere to be found, the party is going to turn 2012 into an endless parade of 1980s-style Culture Wars bullshit. They've spent the past two weeks crusading against birth control. Some nitwit labeled the Girl Scouts a radical group on Monday. We'll get a healthy dose of anti-gay marriage stuff before long, and the GOP House will undoubtedly hatch some dead-on-arrival legislation related to abortion over the summer. Who knows what other Falwell-esque gems they might dust off. School prayer? Creationism? Heliocentrism? Only time will tell. But the Planned Parenthood/contraception fiasco is but a preview. We have nine solid months of these pointless, dead-end spectacles ahead of us. None of it will accomplish anything except to be excruciating to sit through.

2. Back when the decision was handed down, I wrote that we would all live to regret Citizens United for reasons that have nothing to do with questions of fairness or buying elections. We will regret it because it will turn our elections into tsunami of slime that will put previous notions of "mudslinging" to shame. Massive, wealthy organizations beyond the control of any candidate or campaign will be spending billions on advertising and other forms of advocacy, and every cent of it is going to pay for toxic sludge. It will spread misinformation and engage in character assassination on a level that will make the Swift Boaters look amateurish and kindly. Thanks to the Supreme Court, anyone can spend any amount of money trying to influence the election…and they can say whatever they want. It doesn't have to be remotely true or relevant or grounded in reality. It just has to be paid for.

Taking these two factors collectively, today I feel like the candidates are just beginning a swim through a ten mile long trench filled with liquefied human waste, broken glass, and salt. Anyone with enough money to buy a special ticket gets to douse the swimmers with buckets of bloody vomit every ten feet for the duration. Occasionally the media will jump on their backs and dunk their heads beneath the surface to keep the audience on edge. There is no comfort to be taken from the fact that only Obama and (insert GOP nominee here) actually have to swim through it. Watching the spectacle unfold will be its own unique kind of torture.

STUPID QUESTION, STUPID ANSWER

Posted in Rants on February 20th, 2012 by Ed

Polling has gotten much more accurate in recent years, as the field that used to be an art is now a well understood science. By that I mean that we now have a good understanding of response effects, framing, and how to avoid poorly worded or leading questions. I'm hardly an authority on the subject, but I know enough to be staggered by just how terrible some survey questions from major polling outfits can be. This is compounded by the frustration of watching the media present endless public opinion data without the slightest understanding of what the numbers mean or how the questions can influence the results.

Consider the following question from a Feb. 10-13 CNN/Opinion Research poll (n=1,026 adults nationwide ± 3, 228 Catholics ± 6.5)

As you may know, the Obama administration has announced a new policy concerning health insurance plans provided by employers, including religious organizations, and how they handle birth control and contraceptive services for women. Based on what you have read or heard, do you approve or disapprove of this policy?

Compare this to two other pieces of information from the same poll. First, 81% of all respondents and 77% (!!!) of the Catholics disagree with the statement, "Using artificial means of birth control is wrong." Furthermore, 88% (!!!!!!) of Catholics chose the latter option when asked, "Do you think Catholics should always obey official Church teachings on such moral issues as birth control and abortion, or do you think it is possible for Catholics to make up their own minds on these issues?" In light of this widespread support for contraceptive use, the results from the first question – 44% approve, 50% disapprove – appear way too low. It creates the impression that the White House's new policy is quite unpopular.

Compare this to two similar questions from other polls.

CBS/NYT (Feb. 8-13, 2012. N=1,197 adults nationwide. ± 3) asked, "Do you support or oppose a recent federal requirement that private health insurance plans cover the full cost of birth control for their female patients?" A substantial majority indicated support (66% support, 26% oppose). Fox News/Anderson-Shaw (Feb. 6-9, 2012. N=1,110 RV nationwide. ± 3) asked, "The new Obama health care law requires that employer health plans provide birth control coverage as part of preventive services for women. Overall, do you approve or disapprove of requiring employer health plans to cover birth control for women?" They found 61% approval (80% of Democrats, and even 39% of Republicans).

So why did the CNN poll find so little support? Compare the Fox, CBS/NYT, and CNN questions. The other two questions explain what the new policy is, whereas the CNN question simply asks respondents for an opinion on "a new plan" "concerning health insurance" and "how they handle birth control." It does not describe the new policy except to say that it exists and has something to do with contraceptives.

Americans know almost no policy specifics, so asking for an opinion "based on what you have heard" makes no sense. Most respondents will simply offer a response based on whatever information they can glean from the question…in this case, that is likely to be CNN's description of the "Obama administration" policy. In essence, most respondents will read that question simply as, "What do you think about Barack Obama? Yea or Nay?" Unsurprisingly, CNN gets a result (~45% support) that looks suspiciously similar to the President's current approval rating. Fox and CBS, on the other hand, show support that more closely reflects the general public attitude toward contraceptive use.

A lot of right wing blogs and pundits have seized upon those CNN numbers to imply a lack of public support for the new policies, but the results are based on a flawed question. Imagine if they asked "Do you support or oppose the way the Federal government taxes the sale of exotic pets?" Since almost no one will have the slightest idea how or to what extent the government taxes exotic pets, a meaningful answer to this question cannot be given. Respondents will simply pick one of the recognizable parts of the question – Do I like taxes? Do I think it's a good idea for people to have exotic pets? – and respond based on their attitudes on that topic.

Either the folks at CNN and Opinion Research are wildly optimistic about the level of political knowledge and attentiveness to the news of the American public or they lack a basic understanding of how to ask a basic policy question. Regardless, these flawed results are now available to anyone who wishes to distort this issue or to suggest that the public does not widely support the use and availability of contraceptives.

NPF: FEBRUARY POTPURRI

Posted in No Politics Friday on February 17th, 2012 by Ed

Everyone loves getting blown on a Friday. Mind-blown, that is. So without further ado, here's a bunch of stuff for your "I could work, but why?" period this afternoon.

1. The proper plural for "octopus" is "octopodes", and Britney Spears is a perfect anagram for "Presbyterians."

2. In this staggeringly interesting Fresh Air interview, voice actor Billy West (Futurama, etc.) describes how his research and preparation for voicing Popeye required mastering the art of Tuvan throat-singing. Apparently original voice actor Jack Mercer had unwittingly employed it to create the classic Popeye voice in the 1940s. Listen to this interview. It's fantastic.

3. Chinese officials were forced to shut down a supercomputer this week because it was learning. What was it learning, you ask? To give vaguely sexual answers to queries from users. Apparently when supercomputers finally become sentient they will be like 15 year old boys.

4. I'm probably late to the party on this one but apparently iPhones aren't just tracking you everywhere you go – that data is being sold to, well, anyone who pays Apple for it. Sounds cool! I don't see what could go wrong.

5. File under Pitches Lobbed Directly in Ed's Wheelhouse: someone has scanned and shared a collection of brilliant propaganda posters from the Soviet space program, 1958-1963. Holy balls.

6. Dueling is legal in Paraguay. I'm getting in on the ground floor of a new industry I call Grudge Tourism.

7. Had we known this in our trivia tournament a few weeks ago we might be $1000 richer: the only film to win the Oscar for Best Picture without its director also being nominated for Best Director is Driving Miss Daisy (1989). If you ever win money for knowing that, I want a cut.

Enjoy.

N = 1

Posted in Rants on February 16th, 2012 by Ed

Parents have tremendous leeway in determining how to raise their children. This prospect is terrifying to new parents, I imagine, because there is no manual on how to do it correctly and you only get one shot at it. There's no do-over if you happen to do a particularly poor job. Just therapy and lots of booze.

That's quite daunting. Even more daunting is that the child must end up being reasonably well adjusted to the society into which he or she will be thrown. So you have to account for everyone else's shitty parenting when doing your own. I've seen many staunchly anti-TV parents, for example, relax on that issue and let their kids watch a little once they realize that sending a kid to school at age five with no popular culture reference points is going to make it difficult to relate to the other children. Sure, you can raise your kid on ancient Navajo oral traditions and Rainer Werner Fassbinder films instead of Bob the Builder and Pixar if you want, but only if you're comfortable with raising a bizarre kid who's probably going to be mocked a lot. Ultimately it's your call.

At some point, though, parental choices cross a line between discretion and human experimentation. And these stories we see every few months now about parents deciding to raise "genderless" children amounts to exactly that. Nothing like a pair of knucklehead parents deciding to perform a psychological experiment – on their own child – that no IRB or human subjects committee would approve for all the tea in China. Perhaps this is an overly-academic view of the world, but if you're not legally or ethically allowed to do something to a child in a controlled research setting it probably doesn't belong in the Good Parenting Toolkit.

Look, everyone to the left of Pat Robertson recognizes that socializing children into "traditional" gender roles – toy guns for the boys, dolls for the girls – is stupid. What some people claim is the "natural" tendency for boys to be aggressive and girls to be Pink Princesses is actually a reflection of how good children are at identifying and meeting our expectations of how they will behave. I get it. It's not cool. It has the potential to be damaging to children.

What I fail to see is the logic – because there is none – in responding to that threat by performing an experiment wherein you intentionally deprive a child of something that is inevitably going to be a very basic, fundamental component of understanding and interacting with the rest of society. Would it not make more sense perhaps to wait until the child is old enough to actually understand such things and explain what's wrong with gender-based social roles? Or simply to tell little Billy that he should knock himself out playing with Barbies if he prefers?

Nah. Let's just go ahead and raise a little genderless weirdo. He'll do really well when he starts school.

No one receives perfect parenting and to some extent we all walk through life dragging behind us the questionable decisions our parents made when raising us. I think parenting requires making peace with the fact that you're going to do some things that your child will grow up and resent. It happens. It's normal. You can't lose it over every choice you make, like "Oh god, what if he grows up and hates us and ends up doing drugs because we bought Jif instead of the natural peanut butter?" All that said, I fail to see the value in or benefits of going out of the way to try some weird, trendy theory on child rearing based on some aspect of society you dislike. Maybe I'm in the wrong here and these parents actually are visionaries. And maybe the results of this little experiment will prove to be instructive and useful – after all, it's a hypothesis for which there have been no previous tests. We can assume that parents would not consent to having their child injected with some totally untested AIDS vaccine with a shrug and "Well let's see what happens!", so why is this sort of psychological scheming considered an acceptable risk? I am not sure what goes through the head of someone who decides to turn their child into a data point with the distinct possibility that he or she will emerge completely maladjusted. To say that the risks outweigh the benefits is a substantial understatement.