SUPREME MOTIVATION

Posted in Election 2012 on May 13th, 2012 by Ed

It is often said that every argument on the internet eventually boils down to a Hitler/Nazi analogy if allowed to run its course. Certainly we all have witnessed Godwin's Law in action or perhaps even fulfilled its predictions ourselves. It's time to add a corollary – perhaps named something catchy like "Gin and Tacos Law" – for discussions about presidential elections. As discussions and arguments continue, the odds of Supreme Court appointments being used to rationalize supporting an obviously uninspiring candidate approach 1.

Every discussion about the tepid vat of weaksauce that has been Obama's first term (compared to his 2008 campaign rhetoric and, unfairly, to expectations projected onto him) effectively ends with something about Alito, Roberts, Thomas, and Scalia followed by warnings about who President Romney-Santorum-Gingrich would appoint. Republicans are now engaging in the same logic to talk themselves into supporting a nominee about whom they are clearly ambivalent at the very best. We can't let that Kenyan usurper appoint another one of his Marxist academic buddies, so I guess it's time to suck it up and vote for the automaton.

The problem with this argument is not that it is wrong. It's quite obviously valid; the Supreme Court is important and the president has few restraints on who he can appoint. The problem is that resorting to the "We have to vote for Obama because Romney will appoint lunatics to the Court" argument is a glaring indication that your candidate is in trouble. It's the kind of argument of last resort that arises only when all of the arguments that would imply actual enthusiasm about the candidates have been exhaustive and, in most cases, contradicted.

I'm a big believer in the idea that presidential elections are decided by turnout. In any given election the number of persuadable ("undecided") voters is comparatively small. The outcome is more likely determined by the turnout differential between the most likely supporters of each party. In 2008, for example, Barack Obama blew McCain away because a lot of people got really, really excited about his candidacy and drove turnout to its highest level since the Sixties. Conversely, McCain was unpalatable from the beginning to some conservatives and by late October 2008 his campaign was such a debacle that even the most optimistic Republican knew what was coming.

What happens when nobody's enthusiastic on either side? Well, you get elections like 1996 or 2000, and they're usually extremely close. Turning out the base takes on additional importance in close elections, so The Faithful are rallied with every rhetorical tool at the campaign professionals' disposal. And nothing says desperation and lack of interest quite as clearly as "Well Ginsburg's probably gonna die soon, so get excited about Mitt!"

It's obviously incorrect to say that Obama has no accomplishments on which to run, but it is not a good sign that the liberal base is being fired up with hypotheticals – warnings about Mitt Romney's potential Court appointments and Obama's recent endorsement of a position on an issue that, if re-elected, he will never actually vote on. For better or worse, 2008 saw quite a bit of the kind of I Love This Guy, He's Gonna Change the Country enthusiasm that Obama's campaign is going to have to do without this time around. Clearly Romney will be going without it as well since everything about him just screams "default candidate".

So by all means, keep bringing up the Supreme Court. It's a valid point for either candidate. Be aware, though, that in doing so you're tacitly admitting that you've punted on generating actual enthusiasm for the candidate – unless, of course, you envision an electorate full of people who say things like, "Fuck yeah! We better get out and vote for Obama in case there might be a Supreme Court vacancy!" I'm a tad skeptical about how many such voters exist.

NPF: RESPITE

Posted in No Politics Friday on May 11th, 2012 by Ed

I haven't done this in a while, but today is the all-too-brief break between the end of finals week on Thursday and the beginning of the ultra-condensed summer session on Monday. To say that I am not highly motivated to do real work today would be an understatement on the order of, "You know, these "LMAFO" fellows aren't very good." Thankfully it's Friday and you don't want to work either, so here's a sampler of Grade A time-wasters for a Friday afternoon at the cubicle farm.

1. The UK's National Physical Laboratory has a wonderful YouTube channel full of Olde Timey science videos dating back to the late 1940s. This particularly neat one (in color!) details the creation of one of the first atomic clocks:

2. Apparently it's pretty easy for anyone with a decent amount of money to buy a frickin' island and live like Robinson Crusoe. Here's an 86 year old Briton who bought an island in the Seychelles in 1962 for the hefty but not totally outrageous price of £8000.

I kinda want an island.

3. Let's keep going with Britons here. Here is a photo of young Stephen Hawking. Young Stephen Hawking looks like a smartassed hipster.

I find this worth sharing because I've been seeing and hearing Hawking on PBS specials (and even in filmstrips!) since I was old enough to remember, and he has always been the wrinkled man in the wheelchair who talks like a robot. For many of us it's somewhat surprising to see a reminder that prior to his mid-twenties, Hawking walked, talked, and looked like any other 1950s science-nerd stock character. I wonder what his unmodified voice sounded like.

4. If your faith in humanity requires restoration, watch this video of a guy rigging up his bicycle with a compressed air powered train horn. The video description describes this as a test run and tantalizingly promises a "full power demonstration" soon.

5. Oh, and speaking of things that are loud and/or look like Stephen Hawking, Reddit did an Ask Me Anything with…Steve Albini. You won't find a more entertaining way to kill an hour today, I promise.

Work is for suckers.

ON TIMING, OPPORTUNISM, AND PRAGMATISM

Posted in Election 2012 on May 10th, 2012 by Ed

I'm supposed to be impressed right now at our President's change of heart / Evolution / newfound enthusiasm for same-sex marriage. It's great news if for no reasons other than that A) it's fundamentally correct and B) it guarantees us a solid week of pure, unalloyed, hysterical pant-shitting from the right, which is always fun to watch. That aside, I'm not terribly impressed, as I tend not to be impressed by things that are cynically crafted to impress me by marketing professionals. This campaign-year announcement reads like the annual deluge of Oscar-baiting dramas, usually about mentally handicapped people, released into theaters every January – it comes off less as a genuine expression of belief and more as a Karl Rovian appeal to an issue that will fire up the base and receive absolutely no attention after the election.

If something is a right, or more importantly if one understands it as a right, it shouldn't take 15 years into one's political career to express support for it. We don't have to be wildly enthusiastic about things that are rights; I recognize that white supremacists have a right to publish their beliefs, and believe it or not I'm not wild about white supremacists. So if Barack Obama believes that marriage is a right that belongs to same-sex couples, his "personal beliefs" or however the carefully crafted press release phrased it are not relevant. If a right exists according to the Constitution and the law, then your and my personal beliefs about it are irrelevant.

These things are always patiently explained as a matter of pragmatism, of political reality. Americans are ambivalent or worse about SSM, so a candidate who endorses it openly is unlikely to get elected, so the candidate who secretly kinda supports it but doesn't say so is superior to the Republican who will outright oppose it, because Supreme Court nominations &ec &ec. I understand a thing or two about how politics and elections work. Perhaps, however, there is some respect to be won and political support to be enjoyed from being forthright and honest about one's core beliefs. In this era of deeply cynical politics, it's plausible that a Jimmy McMillan-style "You wanna marry a shoe? I'll marry you to a shoe. Next question." position might appeal to the overwhelming majority of people for whom gay marriage is not a political issue of the utmost importance. At least the stance would not come off as an expression of opportunism carefully timed to disrupt what was becoming a dangerously Romney-centric news cycle for the past few weeks.

There are many things that People dislike about politics, and the idea that our elected officials and candidates simply tell us what we want to hear is among the most repellent. Very few of us enjoy a good, solid pandering. It's possible that a "Yeah, I believe a right to marry exists and applies broadly" Obama loses in 2008, but I doubt it unless he happened to make it the dominant issue in the campaign (which, of course, he would not have). Despite the fact that it is extremely important to some of the loudest voices in the Beltway chorus, particularly on the right, the bottom line is that most people don't spend much time thinking about it. Though many people will express support or opposition to it when asked, even those in opposition would gladly vote for a candidate who appeals to them on other, more significant issues. The people most likely to flip their lids – religious conservatives – aren't voting for him anyway. So what was there to lose?

Don't get me wrong, I'm glad he said what he said. There is little chance it will produce any policy or substantively different outcomes – this one's eventually going to be decided in the courts, after all – but I guess it's nice to hear. It would be even nicer, though, to hear what the candidates think sooner than four years into their term when the disaffected electorate needs a little firing up. Absent your willingness to buy the contrived, silly "I just had a change of heart, never mind the timing" cover story, this is just another in what will be an unbroken string of campaign stunts on the candidates' part over the next few months. If you're wondering "How can it be opportunistic if it has the potential to cost him support?" consider both the intended audience – the left wing base – and the timing of the announcement and the motives become much clearer.

But, you know, hey, the legal argument for gay marriage is pretty obvious. So I'm glad he finally supports it.

BALLS

Posted in Rants on May 8th, 2012 by Ed

It's finals week, which can only mean one thing: dozens of students at a university with none-too-stringent admissions standards, a "the customer is always right" attitude toward student evaluation, and staggering grade inflation whining, pleading, or negotiating for higher grades. What follows is an actual email from a 19 year old freshman in a mandatory Intro American Government course. The last two sentences in particular are amazing (emphasis mine).

I received a (redacted grade) in your class. My grade is an error because of discriminatory inconsistencies in requirements between the separate breakout sessions. I was in (redacted)'s breakout session and though he was a great teacher, the work he assigned differed greatly from other breakout sessions. There were additional tasks assigned to my class that were inconsistent with the level of effort versus other classes. For example one TAs breakout session was based solely on attendance; I went to every breakout session, therefore i would have received a 100% in that class. If i was graded according to the other break out sessions i would have received a 100%. I expect my breakout session grade to be changed to 100%, due to the fact that i feel my grade my discriminatory. This grade is an error, and i expect this error to be corrected because of the points above, and due to inconsistent requirements.

A couple things.

First, the student did not bother to note that if I agreed to her request and changed the grade to 100, it would not make enough of a difference to raise her course grade. Right off the bat this entire exercise is a moot point, but I suppose Special Princess never learned how to do math.

Second, all grades from discussion sections are adjusted so that there are no discrepancies among different teaching assistants, each of whom has discretion over his or her own sections.

Third, nice attitude you've got there, asshead. In my response, I politely suggested that she reconsider her tone, phrasing, and attitude of entitlement when making such requests in the future. Frankly I'm just proud of myself for not finding her and hitting her over the head with a cast iron frying pan, cartoon-style.

I haven't been teaching long enough to say whether this type of thing is becoming more or less common. One thing is for certain, though; it happens a lot. Regularly, even. I read or hear things like this all the time and my mind goes to Joe Pesci in Raging Bull: Where do you get the balls big enough to ask me that?

By now we're all used to students who think that showing up entitles them to an A and every time they pester me I try to imagine what sort of sequence of events and influences would need to come together to make someone a douchebag of this magnitude. This is a truly awful human being, and she will make your life unpleasant eventually. She'll flip out, yell at the manager, and leave a 5-cent tip because you forgot her ranch dressing. She'll wait until you install her new carpeting and then refuse to pay for it because the color isn't right. She'll call tech support and scream at you because she's too stupid to figure out how to use her cell phone. She'll spend the greater part of what will only loosely be labeled "adulthood" suing or threatening to sue people – neighbors, employers, employees, family members, and random strangers. She will talk on her phone in movie theaters, cut you off in traffic, and fight with the Little League coach if Dakota and McKenzie don't play enough.

The scary part is that the student is taking this approach, most likely, because it has worked before. This is how some of these kids learn to get through life – their options are to attempt to solve the problem with money or flirting or, failing that, to threaten to have Daddy hire a lawyer. The world today makes more sense if you picture the adult version of this student on the other end of the phone the next time you try to resolve a problem.

Tags:

RED MEAT

Posted in Rants on May 7th, 2012 by Ed

Most children figure out how to get a rise out of people with shock value by the age of about three. We learn that when we scream as loud as possible all of the nearby adults will pay attention to us, or that when we say "poop" or take off our clothes everyone will laugh. Unsurprisingly, as we get older and/or mature we begin to understand this as a cheap, lazy way to get a response. Yes, a comedian can get on stage and talk about masturbation for five minutes and get some cheap laughs, or an artist can dunk a crucifix in urine and become a household name when everyone predictably flips out. It's a fine line, however, because many things we consider to be important or artistically valuable have some element of shock value. This includes countless films, books like Tropic of Cancer or A Clockwork Orange, and artworks as diverse as Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon or Duchamp's "Fountain", all of which were banned at some point and debuted to considerable controversy. So there is a relevant distinction between things of intellectual or artistic value that are shocking and things that have nothing to offer except shock value.

I am increasingly annoyed by the extent to which no-name hack writers and peripheral media personalities have taken to relying on shock value to draw attention to themselves and advance their careers to some level beyond complete obscurity. We see the anonymous guests on Fox News trying to say the most ridiculously outlandish things they can imagine – "Maybe I'll be the next Glenn Beck!" – and legions of fourth-rate Free Republic commenters filling blogs with as much vitriol as possible to attract attention. Basically anyone who can figure out how to use Blogger is trying to one-up the herd. There are Regnery book deals to be had, after all. And the situation is only exacerbated by highly trafficked, even mainstream media outlets giving a platform to these voices due to the same need to stand out and get attention.

That, in not-so-short, is how the Chronicle of Higher Education and some nobody named Naomi Schaefer Riley teamed up to subject the public discourse to a mound of dreck entitled "The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations."

As the title portends, Riley uses the laziest, cheapest technique for taking potshots at Them Ivery Tower Libruls. Academic writing is loaded with buzzwords, jargon, and pretentious phrasing, and it often covers subjects of almost comical obscurity. So for AM Radio hacks and semi-literate bloggers there's nothing easier than looking at the names of courses or the titles of papers and working themselves into a diabetic frenzy deriding the material without knowing anything about it. Riley does not disappoint. Her MO is to list some dissertation titles from the Northwestern Black Studies program and then laugh about how stupid she thinks they sound.

If ever there were a case for eliminating the discipline, the sidebar explaining some of the dissertations being offered by the best and the brightest of black-studies graduate students has made it. What a collection of left-wing victimization claptrap. The best that can be said of these topics is that they’re so irrelevant no one will ever look at them.

That’s what I would say about Ruth Hayes’ dissertation, "'So I Could Be Easeful': Black Women's Authoritative Knowledge on Childbirth." It began because she "noticed that nonwhite women's experiences were largely absent from natural-birth literature, which led me to look into historical black midwifery." How could we overlook the nonwhite experience in "natural birth literature," whatever the heck that is? It's scandalous and clearly a sign that racism is alive and well in America, not to mention academia.

Then there is Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, author of "Race for Profit: Black Housing and the Urban Crisis of the 1970s." Ms. Taylor believes there was apparently some kind of conspiracy in the federal government's promotion of single family homes in black neighborhoods after the unrest of the 1960s. Single family homes! The audacity! But Ms. Taylor sees that her issue is still relevant today. (Not much of a surprise since the entirety of black studies today seems to rest on the premise that nothing much has changed in this country in the past half century when it comes to race. Shhhh. Don't tell them about the black president!) She explains that "The subprime lending crisis, if it did nothing else, highlighted the profitability of racism in the housing market." The subprime lending crisis was about the profitability of racism? Those millions of white people who went into foreclosure were just collateral damage, I guess.

What could possess the Chronicle to give this the time of day, especially given that the author has zero academic credentials to suggest that her opinion on this topic might be relevant? Well, it has been a few weeks since anything in that publication has attracted widespread notice, and they like to keep things exciting. So why not toss out something that will cause its academia-centric audience will flip its lid? Look at all those site visits! Who cares if she made zero effort to engage this work on any remotely serious level. Them titles are funny!

There are two ways to make it as a writer, and one of them – having some combination of talent, creativity, or intellectual merit – is unavailable to this author. So she does what every other unknown, unaccomplished hack toiling away in obscurity realizes is his or her only chance to be noticed. She sits down and basically writes a 500 word version of "HAHAHA NIGGERS AMIRITE? LOL!" and waits for the call to appear as a guest on O'Reilly. Maybe she'll even get booted from the Chronicle and become the latest right wing martyr to get a speaking tour and book deal. "I was ostracized by the Liberal Establishment!"

I am going to puke blood the next time I have to watch, listen to, or read these blatant attempts by failures to throw a bunch of red meat into the public sphere and kick back and wait for that call from Fox or the Daily Caller. In truth she and her drivel are hardly worth our attention – and the Chronicle goddamn well knows it – yet here we are. Congratulations, Naomi. You've got our attention now. Too bad writers like you (i.e., shitty ones) are a dime a dozen, or else your plan might have worked.

ePANHANDLING

Posted in No Politics Friday on May 4th, 2012 by Ed

No one should reach adulthood without being given in earnest the sage advice, "Never lend money to friends or family." It's genuine wisdom, although not a hard-and-fast rule. For example, if someone I know well was fired or had cancer or (fill in the tragedy) I would certainly give them whatever assistance I could muster, and if they did not ask I would offer. But for less life shattering reasons, there is something unavoidably uncomfortable about being solicited by people we know well.

Your brother-in-law who tries to sell you a timeshare. The guy with a "great idea" for a business that requires your start-up capital. Your friend who has candle / makeup / jewelry / etc parties at which guests are expected to make purchases on which she gets commissions. The co-worker who corners you with Amway pitches and endless requests to buy candy for little so-and-so's school fund raiser. Or the people who just flat-out ask for money for no discernible reason beyond suspecting that you might be willing. They are all violating one of the basic rules of interpersonal relationships: We are friends/family, not business partners. I am your co-worker, not your customer. I am your friend, not a venture capital fund.

At this point many of you are wise to the imminent Kickstarter rant. I have done what I can to make it less rant-y. In all honesty, it sounded like a great idea when I first heard of it. It did not take me long to sour on it, though, aided substantially by the half-dozen weekly requests that float across social media. Part of the problem is that the vast majority of my friends are writers, artists, comedians, musicians, or wannabes of any of the preceding. This is Kickstarter's prime demographic. I understand this. That does not make the constant panhandling any less irritating.

In the past two weeks, I have received requests from:

The Baffler, which is basically my favorite thing in the history of the written word, asking subscribers (who already pay over $10/issue for the privilege) to fork over more money to meet some nebulous $20,000 "goal".

– Two local musicians with $5,000 and $10,000 goals, respectively, to record an album. Aside from the Andy Rooney-ish "Get the money the old fashioned way – play shows, you ingrates!" response, please note that it costs nofuckingwhere near that much money for a local band to record an album. My old band recorded two, both of extremely high technical quality, at a studio used by Big Time Bands, with an engineer who is well respected in the field, and with mastering by an indie rock legend. I don't think it cost us $3,000 combined. And we could have cut some corners, too.

– An artist, also aiming for $5,000, who appears to have all of the necessary supplies to produce a series of paintings and who apparently wants to raise the money to pay rent and utilities so she can paint in lieu of working. As opposed to the rest of us, who enjoy working and cannot think of any way we'd prefer to spend our time.

– A guy trying to jump on the Food Truck bandwagon. Good luck, pal.

Yes, in an ideal world we would simply throw open our palms and have people give us money to pursue our ambitions. I would certainly like it if a bunch of people sent me $50,000 so I could devote all of my time to writing and telling jokes. What, however, would lead me to believe I've earned that? Where does one get the self-confidence and complacency to ask one's social circle – most of whom are just as hard up for cash, mind you – for financial support? Were other sources of potential funding exhausted before resorting to friends as a last plea, or was the Kickstarter set up first because it's so easy?

This brings us to the second problem: People who don't actually need the money asking for it. Why would actor and director Colin Hanks, son of bajillionaire Tom, waste $50,000 of his pocket change to fund a documentary project when he could just ask his fans to give it to him? It's not like he shits money or anything! Does Amanda Palmer (of the Dresden Dolls) need a Kickstarter-record $460,000 to record a fucking album? It's good to hear her whine/note that this is hundreds of thousands more than the mere $100,000 her old record label offered her as a recording budget. I feel for you, my little lamb.

Tacky, gaudy, crass, and other words come to mind when I see things like this. Yes, I know, free will and open access and no one forces anyone to give and yadda yadda yadda. This is one of those issues in which can and should are two very different questions with, in the vast majority of cases, two different answers. I'm specifically NOT claiming that no one can/should ever ask for money; what bothers me is the ease with which it can be done now and the lack of forethought that appears to go into it. "I'd like to record an album. Let's just ask our friends to give us money." Requests for money, as any fund raiser can tell you, have rapidly diminishing returns. Whatever potential Kickstarter might have had to fund the next great inventor or the next great artist has been diluted rapidly in a crowd of outstretched hands, palms up and open.

FORESHADOWING

Posted in Quick Hits on May 2nd, 2012 by Ed

The 2012 presidential race has begun in earnest, notwithstanding the six month Gathering of the Juggalos / circus sideshow / island of broken toys that was the GOP nomination process. The Romney vs. Obama square-off is all of about 2 weeks old, and I'm already consumed with cold dread at the prospect of sitting through six more months of this.

Now that we've just passed the one year anniversary of the death of bin Laden, Republicans are courageously asserting that no president worthy of the title would ever make a campaign issue out of a foreign policy success.

Read John McCain's incontinent, 74 year old hissy fit. Then read the comment thread.

I can't, people. I just can't. I'm so full of Can't and Nope. I really don't think I have it in me to handle six months of this stupidity. Can't we just fast forward to November 15 and let the GOP focus on its post-election excuses? Do we really have to sit through half a year of hysterical nonsense and irrelevant "issues" blown out of all sense of proportion? Wouldn't it be great if we all consciously declined to talk or think about this meaningless noise and instead, like, read a book or something?

The campaign seeks thee not. It is thou, thou, that madly seekest it.

CHASING THE RABBIT

Posted in Rants on May 1st, 2012 by Ed

Whether regular readers realize it or not, I read every comment that is posted here even when the daily total reaches triple digits. I remember well when I started this site and it felt cool to get one comment per post, not to mention the (eventual) thrill of seeing the occasional comment from strangers who were not my immediate friends. In short, I don't take it for granted that people bother to spend their time reading this stuff and writing some kind of response. It seems like the respectful thing to do to read the comments. Even the stupid ones. But I kid.

On Monday's post, we see an exchange in the comments that typifies one of the differences in mindset between liberals and conservatives in this country. It's one of the most common sources of irritating, time-wasting arguments on the internets: one person makes an assertion, and another says, in essence, "prove it". Explain it in great detail and show your work.

One of two things is true in this situation. If we assume that the skeptic has good intentions – i.e., he is legitimately interested in exchanging ideas and perhaps learning something or correcting his misconceptions – then the issue is merely laziness. Take this hypothetical exchange:

Al: "Barack Obama supports keeping troops in Afghanistan until 2050."
Bob: "No he doesn't. That's ridiculous."
Al: "O RLY? LINKS PLS."

The correct response on Bob's part, assuming that dealing with delicate feelings is not one of his concerns, is "Google it, pal. I'm not your research assistant." Even if in this instance Al really is curious but is limited by inaccurate information, it's not others' responsibility to fix it. If you're the one who's mangling the facts, be a grown up, read something that isn't written by an AM Radio host, and update your beliefs accordingly.

The second possibility is that Al isn't making a real good faith effort to engage and discuss something. He is just out to waste your time. The goal is for you to respond with a thousand word treatise full of links and examples, all of which he will dismiss out of hand, followed by changing the subject or expressing more skepticism (Your sources, for example, are probably "biased"). Getting sucked into such an exchange will accomplish nothing because it's not a conversation, it's a game. In 2004, the Bush campaign utilized Karl Rove's strategy of throwing out topics off the cuff, watching with delight as the Kerry campaign devoted lots of time and resources to responding, and then simply ignoring it and moving it on to something else. They called this "chasing the rabbit." Kerry's campaign took the bait repeatedly, wandering off message and wasting time.

When someone expresses skepticism over something that is either totally obvious ("Since when does the Republican Party take contradictory positions on issues? I NEED LOTS OF EXAMPLES.") or a simple factual question ("McKinley is taller than Mount Hood? LINK PLZ.") it is probably not sincere. "I'm not your secretary. Google it." is the preferred response, possibly followed by a comma and "dumbass" if the situation calls for it. At this point, he or she will dismiss your viewpoint – "See, you can't find any links because I'm right!" – which may tempt you to respond. Rest assured that a factual, detailed, response would have been dismissed just as summarily.

If people actually want to learn something or verify facts, there are amazing new technologies that allow them to do so. If they don't understand how to find things on the internet quickly, you shouldn't enable their ignorance / laziness. It's far more likely, of course, that they know damn well how to find things on Google but they'd rather let you do all the work and then follow up with a "NOPE!" afterward.

These exchanges rival watching paint dry in terms of thoughtfulness and informational value.