THE MORE THINGS CHANGE

Posted in Quick Hits on June 14th, 2012 by Ed

Immediately after announcing my intention to dip into the archives on account of my schedule this week, CNN provided me with the headline, "Air Force Osprey crashes at Florida base."

The very first Ginandtacos piece that ever received a large number of hits – and, not coincidentally, the first ever linked from Crooks & Liars – was about the $20,000,000,000+ Osprey boondoggle program and the aircraft's lamentable habit of plummeting from the sky. In hindsight, I can see that the combination of references to Transformers and Ministry made it work.

Little has changed, obviously, and the military remains saddled with an inferior, dangerous symbol of the overwhelming influence of military contractors on the DoD's decision-making and Congressional appropriations. Congress is bought off easily and, shockingly enough, people at the bottom of the ladder – in this case, enlisted men and women – end up paying the price. Stop me if you've heard this one before.

THE NEW WAY

Posted in Quick Hits on June 12th, 2012 by Ed

Several things, and quickly.

1. I just drove 24 combined hours (12 Sunday, 12 Tuesday) and looked at 10 rental units in my new hometown in between. Under the circumstances, please excuse the lack of updates – although, trust me, I felt guilty not finding the time Monday night.

2. I am now home for about 20 minutes on this Tuesday afternoon before I get in a van for the inaugural HACKS Comedy summer tour. This likely means more gaps in posting, although I am going to take advantage of the nearly 10 years' worth of archives here to entertain you with links to the past. This site has a ton of readers now, many of whom are recent fans who may not have been around for some of my favorite older posts. Lazy? Practical? Both. Also, here are some tour dates; come out and say hello if you're in the area:

06/12/12 – Tue – Auburn, AL – Bellwether Variety Show
06/14/12 – Thur – Asheville, NC – Slice of Life GA Showcase
06/15/12 – Fri – Louisville, KY – Young, Dumb, and Full of Comedy (Bard's Town theater, 9:30)
06/17/12 – Sun – Indianapolis, IN – The Sinking Ship, 9:30
06/18/12 – Mon – Cincinnati, OH – Baba Budan's, 8 PM
06/19/12 – Tues – Chattanooga, TN – JJ's All-You-Can-Eat Comedy Buffet (with Nikki Glaser, Joel Ruiz, and more)

3. The Gin and Tacos facebook page is a good place to acquire two-sentence bursts of sarcasm even when I am too busy to write a proper post.

4. It was brought to my attention, justifiably, that I have been slacking lately. Not merely in quantity but, in my view, in quality as well. I have been lazy about citing sources, fact-checking, and developing arguments as well as I prefer to over the past couple of months. For the first time I have had trouble devoting as much time as I would like to this endeavor. The more I spend my evenings doing comedy, my days scrambling up the academic ladder, and generally attempting to have a social life, the more I have to write these posts in one burst that amounts to "Here's some stuff, and here's what I think about it." I'm also trying to write a book, which requires a good deal of research that benefits neither my professional nor blog-fessional lives. In short, I am probably trying to do way too many things at once, which is usually the amount of things I am trying to do at any given moment. In the next few weeks I am moving and starting a new job in a new city where I know exactly no one, so rest assured that I will be back to not having any life outside of Gin and Tacos soon.

AHISTORICAL

Posted in Rants on June 11th, 2012 by Ed

Having always been a fan of the Dying Earth subgenre of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, I am surprised at how emphatically I am not a fan of the Dying City subgenre of non-fiction. By now we have all seen enough pictures of Rust Belt urban decay, prairies springing up through concrete, and abandoned buildings to choke a camel. Having not been to the city in nearly seven years, I nonetheless feel confident that I could identify most of Detroit's derelict landmarks (Look, it's the train station! Look, it's that old Packard factory!) simply through sheer repetition and their omnipresence as stock photos (and lazy narrative devices) in that Feature Story on the death of a city that we have all read so many times. Maybe as a native Midwesterner this tale of urban decay hits too close to home for me to enjoy it as though I am an impersonal observer or a hipster faux-anthropologist. Or maybe it is a peephole into a world of intertwined social, political, cultural, and economic problems so overwhelming and depressing that even I can't handle thinking about them for too long.

Cities like Cleveland and Detroit appear to have entered the terminal stage of their decline, a self-reinforcing cycle of population loss, crime, blight, and white flight that sends cities into a torpor from which they do not recover. Detroit is resorting to turning off the streetlights in an attempt to auto-amputate the most thinly populated parts of the city – a not-so-subtle way of doing what eminent domain and rampant decay cannot, namely to force the few remaining residents out of neighborhoods that are 75% vacant or more. Detroit gets the most attention but certainly it is not alone. This is a problem everywhere, particularly in the large, older cities of the Midwest and Northeast but also in the logging and mining towns of the West, the depopulated rural South, and points in between. Yet we find it most compelling to watch the big, once-magnificent cities crumble.

What is happening to the Detroits and Clevelands reveals two particularly jarring realities about America and Americans. First, our cities are not built to last. Look at how quickly these things go to rot. During the height of the housing boom, we saw entire developments in places like Florida and Arizona – remember, we're talking about new housing here – rendered uninhabitable almost immediately upon being neglected. Suburban housing is designed by speculators to look pretty but at its core is slapped together in great haste and is built to last just long enough for the developer to cash his checks. The landmarks of a city like Detroit, not to mention its housing, retail, infrastructure, and so on, are remarkably frail as well. A big urban train station might look mighty and imposing, but it takes just a few short years to turn them into eyesores of dubious structural integrity.

The rapid disintegration of neglected cities leads into the second reality: Americans treat cities as disposable, much as we treat so many things in our lives. Can you imagine the British letting London rot? Can you picture the French saying "Ah, fuck it, let's move to the suburbs" and abandoning Paris? Would the Russians walk away from Moscow? Of course they wouldn't. In other countries, the government, people, and private sector work together to try to save major cities, even past the point at which it makes sense to do so. Here, we just defer to the unerring logic of the Free Market and build another subdivision. Oh, people are leaving your city? Well then it must suck. If it didn't suck people would stay there. In this way we treat cities like businesses – Come to think of it, what don't we treat like a business? – and the ones that fail, well, I guess they couldn't hack it. Adios.

Why do other countries fight to save their cities while we abandon them for illogical, thrown-together suburbs that we will also end up abandoning? There are a few theories we can consider. Perhaps the Eurasian sense of history simply runs deeper – the oldest American cities are about two centuries old, and in many cases much younger. Around the world the history of major cities is more likely to be measured in thousands of years. Perhaps Americans have done too much rhapsodizing about the yeoman farmer and the rural landscape to develop a true attachment to our urban centers. Perhaps we honestly believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that sprawling suburbs laced with strip malls and highways that scar the landscape like acne genuinely are a better mode of living.

Those theories are plausible. But I think it boils down, as it so often does, to our hatred of all things dark and poor.

When cities begin to lose some of their luster – or, say, when the government invests trillions dollars into a highway system that quickly whisks people from bedroom suburbs to urban employment and back, not to mention trillions more invested in land development and home mortgage lending – the first to flee are those most able to do so. As people with the means to move to newer, more expensive, and less "troubled" communities, the city ends up disproportionately populated by people who can't move…either due to poverty or due to those shiny new suburban communities' habit of keeping out the dark-skinned by any means necessary. As the problems of the cities intensify, the will of people beyond their borders to intervene disappears. "They" are just animals anyway. Look at how They ruined that once beautiful city.

Maybe if our cities had more history or a more prominent place in our cultural fabric we would fight for them rather than treating them like a soiled disposable diaper. Or maybe we don't care about them for the usual reasons that we use to identify who the government and our society should and should not fight to protect. When we redefine the city as places for the Negroes, the unwashed poor, the immigrants with their barbarian tongues, "union thugs", and meddling liberals, it does not take a very thorough understanding of American politics and society to recognize why we are letting them rot, and in some cases fighting to accelerate the process, rather than fighting to save them.

NPF: NOW POSTING IN 3-D

Posted in No Politics Friday on June 8th, 2012 by Ed

Perhaps more so than any other creative endeavor, moviemaking is in a codependent relationship with technology. The milestone advances in film technology over time – color, Kodachrome, stereoscoping, analog special effects (rear screen projection, etc.), THX/Dolby, CGI, "bullet time" (a modern version of the old time-slice photography trick), and now plug-and-play 3D rigs like RealD – have unavoidably changed movies by altering what is possible. They are part of the numerator in the fraction of a director/producer's vision that makes it onto the screen. Each leap forward has provided us with stunning new films taking advantage of technology to do things that have never been done before…and each has also been an annoying fad in the hands of hacks who don't know what to do with new sounds or special effects except to lay them on thick to overstimulate the audience. Loud noises! Bright colors! Epic battles! Unfortunately a shit movie with incredible technology behind it is still a shit movie (see: every summer blockbuster action movie of the past 10 years).

We all remember the first films to use these tricks to memorable effect: The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (and to a much less deserved extent, Gone With the Wind) for color, Return of the Jedi for THX/surround sound, King Kong for stop-motion and rear screen projection, Jurassic Park and Terminator 2 for CGI, The Matrix for a whole shitcan of audio-visual indulgence, and…as best I can tell, there hasn't really been such a movie for 3D yet. The post-2008 resurgence in 3D has been, in my view, a big scam desperately trying to make crappy movies interesting (Green Hornet, The Last Airbender) and to extract more per-ticket revenue from audiences, justifying an upcharge with claims of added value in the final product. 3D seems to have potential in the right hands, but it does not appear to have found them yet. Compare what George Lucas did with CGI in the christ-awful Star Wars prequels to, say, what Peter Jackson has done with it; unless I've missed something, 3D is still waiting for its Peter Jackson/Lord of the Rings moment.

I must admit that I am incredibly biased and heavily predisposed to like this film from the outset, but I have high hopes that Prometheus might be that movie. Reviews, which have criticized the predictability of the script (Charlize Theron appears to be little more than Paul Reiser's character from Aliens but with boobs, for example) have universally praised two things: Michael Fassbender's android performance and Ridley Scott's use of 3D. By using it mostly to enhance the depth of scenery and backgrounds as opposed to using it to make things explode out toward the audience every 10 seconds, the critics seem to believe that Scott has finally managed to use 3D to make a film better and more compelling than it could have been without the technology. I don't know if this is true, but I've read it consistently enough from reviews of varying tone to believe that it might be. I'll find out on Friday evening.

On a side note, I rarely get excited about movies. In the past year I've probably been to the theater twice. The last movie I couldn't wait to see (to the point of distraction) was The Watchmen, and that was simply because I liked the book so much. But I have had Prometheus-related ants in my pants for weeks now. I was a late bloomer who did not come to appreciate the Alien franchise until I was in my twenties, but I really appreciate it (at least the first two installments) now. The ability of the directors to create fear – not horror, but actual fear – and suspense is remarkable. Anything built up to this extent is bound to be a little disappointing, but I'm really looking forward to seeing if 3D can finally add something to a movie other than nausea and $5.

I CERTAINLY FEEL UNITED

Posted in Quick Hits on June 6th, 2012 by Ed

More than two years ago, this is what I had to say about Citizens United:

Now in the wake of Citizens United vs. FEC plenty has been said about the folly of corporate personhood and the opened floodgates courtesy of the patriotic, non-activist majority on the Supreme Court. There appears to be widespread consensus that this is a bad thing. This is all correct, of course, but here is the thing: you have no idea how fucking ridiculous this is going to get in 2012. We will look back on 2008 as a simpler time.

A decent guess is impossible to generate since we are in uncharted waters from this point forward. An obvious guess would be another 100% increase; I think that will be a baseline. The campaigns themselves will double the $1.5 billion spent by all contenders in 2008. How much will corporate groups – not to mention various other tax code loophole groups – toss on the fire? Another $3 billion seems like a reasonable guess, equal to the amount that the candidates spend on the books. I think that's an understatement. $10 billion? $20 billion? More? It's not out of the question. I could just be a pessimist, but I think we are in for something so grotesque and ridiculous that we'll scarcely be able to grasp it.

Given what just happened in Wisconsin, I think we're beginning to get a clearer picture of what elections will look like when conducted in the midst of a tsunami of unregulated corporate money. Did money make a difference in the outcome? That's hard to say definitively. But we certainly are entering uncharted waters and if we needed yet another way to make the electoral process seem rigged, inaccessible, and futile to the ordinary voter, rest assured that we have found it.

SERF PRIDE

Posted in Rants on June 5th, 2012 by Ed

Of all the disheartening aspects of our modern public discourse, nothing saddens me as consistently as listening to people who are proud of their own ignorance. I'm not exactly a strong proponent of a Japan-style Shame Society, but being ignorant is one of those situations in which a little shame can be a valuable tool for self-improvement. You can only watch someone proudly assert that the world is 6,000 years old and Science is wrong so many times before hope for the human condition begins to fade. Ignorance is an easy problem to overcome if an individual is willing to learn. If not, though, it only gets worse.

One of the jarring things about living in the South has been seeing how proud the civic leaders are of things for which they ought to feel embarrassed. They love to boast, for example, about the rapidly growing population and industrialization in places like South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. Look at all these shiny new factories! Take that, Detroit! Victory is ours!

Of course the reason that the Bible Belt is the new Auto Belt (among other major industries) is that these states are willing to hand employers billions in tax abatement, free infrastructure upgrades, and other "incentives" – in other words, we're winning the race to the bottom. And while it is spoken of only in euphemistic terms like "motivated workforce" or "right to work state", one of the big draws is that unemployment is high, the workforce is docile in the extreme, and people will work for pretty much anything. State and local politicians, not to mention the population itself, crow about the Business Friendly environment, which essentially means that people are ready to stab each other to get a $12/hr factory job, employees won't tell anyone if they get hurt on the job, and the state won't do anything about it even if they do. What employer doesn't cherish being able to use a line as effective as, "If you're not happy, I've got 20,000 people on file who want your job."

That's not an exaggeration. When I see a headline like "20,000 apply for 877 Alabama Hyundai plant jobs" I almost have to feel bad for said Alabamans on account of the fact that they elect people who see this as a victory for the state. Alabama lures Hyundai, much as Georgia lured Kia and South Carolina lured BMW, using the same techniques that bring manufacturing to Mexico from the US, to Eastern Europe from Western, and to China and Southeast Asia from the whole world.

So congratulations, Alabama. You're the Bangladesh of the United States. Your population is poorer, more desperate, and less assertive than anywhere else in the country. That's quite an accomplishment. Maybe it's time to update the state flags again; I'm thinking a job applicant bending over with his pants around his ankles and a big, inviting grin might be appropriate.

WE FUCKIN' STOLE IT, MAN

Posted in Election 2012, Rants on June 4th, 2012 by Ed

Many viewers expressed disappointment with The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, the Bill Murray / Wes Anderson follow-up to the wildly successful The Royal Tenenbaums. That I enjoyed the movie as a whole is beside the point; even if it was terrible, this made me laugh harder than any single scene from a movie made in the last decade:

For the audio-less, the Zissou crew has pilfered the workplace of his professional enemy Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum). After a series of events brings Hennessey to Zissou's ship, he spots his stolen coffee maker and demands to know why they have it. After a short pause to consider potential lies and excuses, Bond Company Stooge Bill Ubell (Bud Cort) shrugs and says "Well, uh…we fuckin' stole it, man." Despite having been robbed, even Hennessey must appreciate the straightforward nature of this response. Never before have we seen a bond company stooge stick his neck out like that.

We can all appreciate the value of honesty in tense situations. In my professional life I much prefer hearing "Uh, I slept through the exam" to some melodramatic fiction about dead relatives or life-threatening illnesses. There's rarely anything to gain from lying, primarily because lying usually is quite transparent. Good liars are rare. For most people, lying accomplishes little beyond insulting the intelligence of the listener.

This is at the forefront of my thought process as I watch Florida's latest attempt to pull ahead of Arizona in the race to see which state can get back to the 19th Century first: yet another blatant attempt at voter suppression. Despite a Federal Court injunction (Nullification! States Rights! Loud Noises!) the Secretary of State continues to send letters to registered voters demanding proof of citizenship within 30 days. Leaving aside the obvious "Huh?" of putting the burden of proving their eligibility on voters, Florida's ingenious methodology is to compare Social Security records with state drivers' license databases. Since it's, like, totally impossible for anyone to become a citizen and register to vote after getting a license, that should be foolproof and result in no false positives.

No one is surprised. I mean, voter suppression is an integral part of the modern GOP playbook. True, Florida is taking it much farther than usual – shutting down early voting locations, indiscriminately purging ex-felons, targeting Hispanics (while magically missing all of the Cubans) – but this is standard operating procedure at this point. I'll give every reader a dollar if we don't have another round of fake robocalls as Election Day approaches. The media will barely bother to mention it (try to find stories about the Florida purge outside of the state), although we'll certainly hear about it if two black guys stand in front of a single polling place in Philadelphia again.

We get it. This is how it works. It would be nice, however, if the GOP could spare the rest of us the bullshit about "voter fraud". Aside from their repeated, decade-long inability to come up with actual examples that would be prevented by their proposed changes in the law, we know they don't really care about fraud per se. If we suddenly uncovered cases of teabaggers voting twice, the GOP would trip over itself to excuse it. So the best course of action would seem to be to carry on and own up to their motives. Don't feed us the fraud story when Florida Republicans threaten the League of Women Voters out of registering college students – just say "We want fewer college students to vote." Don't make up ludicrous tales of illegal immigrants swarming the polling places – just say "We're hoping fewer Hispanics will turn out." Don't pretend that clerical errors resulted in some mildly overzealous purging of the voter rolls based on criminal records – say "We don't want black people to vote." Stop with the winking and the nudging and the grave warnings about voter fraud. We know what you're doing. It's really obvious.

An honesty-first policy won't change any outcomes, but it certainly will be refreshing.

NPF: SINGLE USE

Posted in No Politics Friday on June 1st, 2012 by Ed

In the past decade the publishing industry has seen a minor boom in what I like to call "Noun Books", non-fiction books written about a single object or item that appears to be simple and uninteresting but, the author reassures you, actually has a fascinating back story. Mark Kurlansky appears to have kicked off this trend with the surprise best-seller Salt (followed by Cod), which inspired a host of imitators from Spice to Banana to White Bread to Dirt. One of the few truly excellent ones, in my view, is Susan Freinkel's Plastic: a Toxic Love Affair. The overly trashy title misrepresents what is actually a detailed and interesting look at possibly the most transforming discovery of the 20th Century.

Plastic is so important to understanding our society because it essentially created, or at the very least made feasible for the first time, the modern culture of the disposable. Without it, the vast majority of the common single-use products – and there are a shocking number when you really think about it – would not be economically viable. As this recent discussion (responding to a recent lecture by Freinkel) emphasizes, we rarely pause to consider what such products used to be made from. Two of the most common disposables (pens and cigarette lighters) became disposable simply because we lose them so frequently – or do we lose them more frequently because they're disposable and we don't care? Syringes being single-use makes sense. Diapers, plastic kitchenware, and razors are a function of laziness, if you're a cynic, or the desire to make life easier and more pleasant if you're trying to be positive. But the biggest disposable isn't a product per se but the entire universe of packaging. Plastic bottles dominate the beverage industry, plastic packing materials are integral to shipping,and everything comes swaddled in plastic, plastic, and more plastic.

I'm having a hard time envisioning what a lot of products would end up looking like without plastic packaging. The most obvious answer would be a lot more tiny cardboard boxes. After all, no one's buying a toothbrush with a head that is exposed to all and sundry. Products in plastic dispensers – deodorant or cooking oil, for example – would end up in metal canisters (or glass bottles! Like Prell!) Of course these alternatives are more costly but more durable and potentially easier to recycle/reuse, so once again we're trading convenience for a continent-sized mound of plastic that biodegrades at rates best measured in decades?


Zinc! Zinc! Come back, Zinc!

At the risk of channeling the famous Simpsons instructional film "A World without Zinc", it's difficult to imagine a world without plastic. Despite the ample evidence to the contrary, a part of me believes that it might be a better one in a strange, Luddite way.