Posted in No Politics Friday, Skip this if you hate sports on September 28th, 2012 by Ed

We're in unanimous agreement that the NFL replacement refs just about ruined the game for a few weeks. If you think nothing could make the games more painful to watch, you're betraying your age (or lack thereof). You clearly don't remember 25 years ago when the NFL owners decided that they would continue playing games during a players' strike using replacement players.

The year was 1987. Nine year-old Ed had only recently discovered football and was thoroughly convinced that it was the greatest thing ever. No comic books or anything like that for me. Just sixteen football Sundays per year. I remember quite clearly turning on the first game after the players went on strike (a concept I understood only vaguely) and seeing the Chicago Bears play the Philadelphia Eagles. In those pre-satellite days I didn't have the option of watching the Cardinals, but I was still plenty excited. The recent Super Bowl champs! Walter Payton! Jim McMahon! Samurai Mike Singletary! All of the superstars would be there!

Imagine my shock when I saw not The Punky QB throwing to Sweetness but some asshat named Mike Hohensee throwing to the legendary Lakei Heimuli (and I am deeply ashamed to admit that I didn't have to look either of those up. I remember this shit.) The Eagles human highlight reel Randall Cunningham was gone, and their QB was named, I am not even shitting you, Guido Merkens. It turned out that the NFL owners thought we wouldn't notice if they took the familiar jerseys and helmets and slapped them on a bunch of…random dudes, essentially. Even at nine years old I noticed that all of the defensive linemen looked like guys who drove beer trucks, which was true because most of them were guys who drove beer trucks.

If you're too young to remember this, let me summarize: it sucked. In hindsight it was pretty hilarious – guys off the street playing in empty stadiums, often looking like they just met (which they had) and running high school or college type offenses. In a nationally televised game between the 49ers and Giants, Niners coach Bill Walsh had his team run the Wishbone while he and Giants coach Bill Parcells stood at midfield, shrugged, and laughed like two guys who know they're doing something really embarrassing.

The real players were back after 3 "replacement" games that, yes, counted in the standings. It was a crushing win for the players, who won the right to free agency (although full unrestricted free agency didn't arrive until the Federal courts mandated it in 1993) and the 25 year salary explosion that followed. And all the scab players just…disappeared. Never heard from again.* Never to play another game.

If you peruse the NFL records you'll find the curious phenomenon of guys who accomplished statistical feats despite playing only three games in the league. For example, Redskins fans might assume that the team's single-game receiving record is held by Hall of Famers Art Monk, Bobby Mitchell, Paul Warfield, or Charley Taylor. Nope. Turns out it's some gas-pumper named Anthony Allen, who developed magical chemistry with a human being named Ed Rubbert (!) who happened to be playing QB for the team that would go on to win the Super Bowl that year. Allen caught 255 yards worth of passes from (giggle) Rubbert against the then-St. Louis Cardinals, one of the top 20 performances in NFL history. His name is alongside guys like Jerry Rice and Steve Largent. Allen, in fact, was one of the few scrub players who actually stuck around past the strike. For one year, anyway.

In short, the players' strike was one of the last gasps of the old-school owners who had purchased or inherited their teams in the olden days and thought so little of the players (and fans) that they thought we'd swallow the shit sandwich and smile. It turned out they were quite wrong. We only put up with real players officiated by scrubs for three weeks; in hindsight it's stunning that the experiment with fake players lasted that long. Needless to say neither the fans nor the media were willing to take the fake players seriously, and the strike and its players quickly became a mere footnote. I wonder how I would have reacted to it had I been an adult at the time…but when the games are so bad that even a nine year old won't watch them, we can safely assume that it really was that bad.

And then they made Gene Hackman's worst movie about it to add insult to injury.

*(The Bears QBs that day, Hohensee and Sean Payton, each played only those 3 scrub games but had 20 year coaching careers. Hohensee has been a fixture in the Arena League since it was founded and Payton is a Super Bowl winning – and suspended – coach of the Saints. So I guess they weren't all losers. They were just awful, awful players.)


Posted in Quick Hits on September 26th, 2012 by Ed

I'm sick and so is my rat. But I bet you hear that excuse a lot.

Today I'm farming you out to Mike Konczal, who nailed this Post of the Year caliber look at how little the Romney 2012 agenda differs from that of previous GOP candidates in 2008, 2006, or 2004. The short answer is that it doesn't. Like, at all. It's a one-size-fits-all agenda for economic times high and low. If the economy's growing, great! Cut taxes and privatize everything. If the economy is mired in recession, there's a plan for that too! Cut taxes and privatize everything.

So the answer is to cut taxes. Now what was the question?

I really appreciate that post because that is the hardest kind to write – the kind that begins with a premise we know intuitively to be true but which requires a lot of legwork to actually prove. Well done. Yet I suspect that Mike is prouder of this lengthy explanation of current monetary policy using only animated gifs.


Posted in Quick Hits on September 25th, 2012 by Ed

Thank god I have such a weirdly specific memory that hoards unimportant pieces of information. Otherwise I might not have remembered Newt Gingrich getting all self righteous and faux outraged like only a true conservative blowhard can over rhetoric about "the 99%" in November of last year.

I repudiate, and I call on (President Obama) to repudiate, the concept of the 99 and the 1. It is un-American, it is divisive, it is historically false. You are not going to get job creation when you engage in class warfare because you have to attack the very people you hope will create jobs.

Here's a video if for some reason you desire to hear Newt Gingrich's voice:

Two quick questions.

First, is Gingrich still supporting the guy who wrote off 47% of the country as useless parasites on the heroic Producer class?

Second, can you recall or find a single instance of anyone in the media referring to Romney's comment as "class warfare"?

I guess it's only class warfare when there is a proposed reduction in the amount that the asses of the wealthy are kissed.


Posted in Rants on September 24th, 2012 by Ed

I'm as shocked as anyone to realize that I've been teaching at the college level for eight years now. That hardly makes me a seen-it-all veteran, but I no longer qualify as wet behind the ears either. The interesting part is that even eight short years is enough time to notice some trends and changes among the students. I get older, they stay the same age. For example, I think there is a noticeable difference between students who were born before the internet and digital media were a thing and those for whom the internet has always existed.

Usually these changes make sense, or at least we can construct anecdotal explanations that sound plausible. Students' creative thinking skills seem to be getting worse? Eh, it's probably because of increased emphasis on standardized testing. I have no idea if that is true, but it makes sense so most professors readily accept it.

There is a new trend that baffles me, though. Over the past few weeks I've had the same conversation independently with a number of colleagues regarding the increasing inability of each successive class of undergraduates to follow instructions. I don't mean that they misbehave or are out of control; I mean they cannot follow basic written directions. I'm not the only one who notices this and others with whom I've talked are equally perplexed.

Here is an example. On every single page of my exams, in bold black letters I write "Put all answers in your blue book. Answers written directly on the exam will not be graded." If this seems pedantic, I have a damn good reason for doing it; I have to hand back their answers, and if I hand back the entire exam it ends up in the "test file" at all the frathouses. Fuck that. I digress. In addition to the numerous written warnings and reminders I hand out the tests and say something to the effect of, "Stop what you are doing and look at me. Listen. DO NOT write your answers directly on the test. Only answers written in your blue book will be graded. You will get a zero for any question that is not answered in the blue book."

Lately, in every damn class of 40-50 students a handful of them will write the damn answers on the damn test and end up whining about their damn zero. The first few times I taught, this never happened. Now I can count on it like clockwork. My sample size is small, but I've found out that I am not alone in this experience.

What is going on here? Are they not reading instructions? If not, why? If they're reading the instructions, are they getting less capable of understanding/following them? If so, why? Do they understand the instructions but think they can be ignored, i.e. who cares about the rules because the teachers never enforced them before? Do they just fail to give a shit? I've yet to hear any explanations that aren't maddeningly vague – you know, something something Internet, blah blah smartphones, yadda yadda short attention spans. Maybe it's good ol' fashioned laziness. I don't know. Wish I did.

Believe it or not, I think that learning how to follow instructions is important. Not following orders, mind you. Instructions. The insert Tab A into Slot B kind. It's the kind of skill that we're supposed to learn in school – grade school. Yet students seem to be reaching college without it. I don't enjoy the fact that students end up failing an exam for what appear to be petty reasons, but it's not going help them in the long run if another person caves and gives them a free pass. I can't imagine how useless the adults who enter the workforce without being able to read instructions and fill out a form properly must be. The more important question is why a college professor is the person that ends up teaching them this lesson.



Posted in No Politics Friday on September 21st, 2012 by Ed

Time for another NPF potpourri post, albeit one with an unusually mixed bag of links. Instead of the usual small servings of random internet finds of the funny/"omg awesome" variety, this sample ranges from funny to terrifying. To better mess with your fragile Friday emotional state, I present them in no logical order:

1. This may be old news to some of you, but I had never before seen the "9/11 from space" photos taken by ISS astronauts during the terrorist attack. For the recent anniversary NASA astronaut Frank Culbertson shared his thoughts and recollections on witnessing the event from orbit.

2. Do you like things that are awesome? Do you have $400 burning a hole in your pocket? Well you can get a big ol' print of the cover art from Eightball No. 18 straight from Daniel Clowes.

I kinda want to use this as the new background art, despite how hard and how repeatedly he would sue me.

3. The latest from the "DARPA's reality is far scarier than anything fiction writers can imagine" file: the Squad Support System, an autonomous robot intended to carry heavy loads over rough terrain for soldiers. Not interested in sleeping? Then check it out!

Despite the fact that this thing is unarmed and intended to be helpful to our fighting men and women, the only things I can picture when I look at it are A) hiding from it, and B) Linda Hamilton urging me to lure it under a machine press and crush it.

4. From the "Everything the government produced during the Cold War is inherently hilarious" category comes the 1975 instructional manual "Civil Disturbances." It contains helpful descriptions of how your friends and family in the Army will put you down like dogs when you start rioting over President Romney's plan to turn you into high-protein animal feed. Complete document available here.

5. In my new city the air raid/tornado warning sirens sound often and at absolute random. They go off four or five times per week (in perfectly calm weather; not so much as a rain shower in ages) at any hour. They've gone off at all times of day – noon, after work, early in the morning, and right now at 12:43 AM…after a rousing chorus of sirens at 10:30 PM. I urge anyone able to offer a rational explanation for this to do so in the comments. Baffling.


Posted in Election 2012 on September 19th, 2012 by Ed

Over the years I have been and continue to be averse to making predictions. There simply are too many variables in play to accurately predict the outcome of close races (the uncompetitive ones are another story, obviously). We're unsure of turnout, the accuracy of polls, and the motivations of what few voters remain undecided in an election like the current presidential race. As a point of ego, I'm also hesitant about making predictions that will turn out to be wrong and make me look foolish. That said, every election I end up taking a stab at it. With or against my better judgment.

On the heels of the Mitt Romney Realtalk secret video hitting the news cycle on Monday evening, it is time to ask the obvious question: Is there any way that Mitt Romney can win this election? His ineptness as a candidate is almost difficult to believe, and every week he says or does something to prove that he is exactly what his critics say he is – a wildly out of touch multimillionaire pandering to whatever audience is put before him. He is a real-life Richie Rich, a guileless man of great privilege with zero charisma and to whom non-wealthy Americans (and a lot of the wealthy ones, for that matter) cannot relate in the slightest.

When the McCain campaign threw in the towel on Election Night 2008, I clearly recall their spokesperson telling reporters that the campaign was looking at the electoral map and "could no longer see a path to victory." I am beginning to feel the same way about Romney. There are scenarios in which he wins, of course, but they are looking more and more like they lie outside of the 95% confidence interval. We have a campaign that, in all honesty, has probably been a good bet to lose for the last few months and the only thing they are accomplishing as time passes is to make more mistakes and fall farther behind. If Romney was looking like toast last week, what's he going to look like after the latest "Whoops!" in his comedy of errors?

The winning scenarios for Romney at this point rely on leaps of faith and downright implausible conditions. To conclude that he's in good shape or primed to win requires assuming that:

1. The polls are flat out wrong, even though in 2004, 2006, 2008, and 2010 the pre-election polls were damn near perfect.
2. Some improbable turnout event will take place, i.e. that millions of Democrats will suddenly decide not to vote for some reason.
3. Romney will make up substantial ground in the debates, which very few people even watch and which research shows quite conclusively rarely change any viewers' minds unless one of the candidates has a colossal meltdown.
4. Obama is far more unpopular than the data suggest. Certainly his approval rating is not high, but neither is it in the 20% range like a certain former president's was during the 2008 race.
5. Romney has enough charisma and political skills to win over any potential voters beyond the people who categorically loathe Obama and would vote for literally anyone who the GOP nominated to oppose him.

When coming up with victory scenarios for a candidate requires this kind of magical thinking and this many "I mean, I suppose it could happen!" moments, we've gone beyond playing devil's advocate; we're working overtime trying to convince ourselves that the election is competitive. Yes, there are six weeks remaining and something could happen to tilt the race in Romney's favor. But for his sake it better happen soon and it better be Earth-shattering.

Basically this is the long way of saying: Under any set of reasonable, normal assumptions about voter turnout and other moving parts in the election, it looks extremely unlikely at this point that Mitt Romney can cobble together 270 Electoral Votes. Right now your odds at a slot machine are better than his odds of winning. I want to be conservative but I just don't see it. Whatever hope he may have had earlier this year appears to have been dashed under the sheer weight of his campaign's ineptitude.


Posted in Quick Hits on September 18th, 2012 by Ed

We cannot agree about much in this country, but over the past few weeks we have formed a single united front in opposition to the scabs officiating our football games. The NFL referees are on strike and the league, being a trillion-dollar industry based on providing a product people actually enjoy watching, decided to hire a gaggle of "replacements" from the ranks of high school and small college (non-NCAA) officials. Since professional and amateur football have different rules – in some cases very different – the results have been predictably disastrous. From their failure to do basic things like spot the ball and operate the game clock to major rules of which they appear to be totally ignorant, they have proven thus far that there is nothing they can't botch.

So why is this not reserved for NPF and the "Skip this if you hate sports" tag?

You might think that a tiny light bulb is appearing over the heads of a lot of white American males – the only group that cast a majority of its votes for John McCain in 2008, and also the primary audience demographic of the NFL – as they realize: Hmm, maybe all human capital is not interchangeable, and maybe there are some noticeable downsides to a market in which whoever will work for the least gets the job. On the one hand, the scab referees are much cheaper than the unionized "real" refs. On the other hand, they are fucking terrible. On this point there is no disagreement.

Applying this concept to other areas of the economy (replace "NFL ref" and "scab" with "union airplane mechanic" and "some guy in Alabama who took a 10-day training course and will work for United $11/hr") would be logical at this point, but I wonder to what extent this is sinking in with the great masses of people who spend Sundays in front of the TV appalled at the incompetence of these replacements. The evidence is right in front of us and it's bleedingly obvious – In a surplus labor market you can always find someone willing to do a job for less, but they're probably not going to do it well. Even the type of person who blames the work stoppage on the union – They're "greedy", after all – can't deny that the end result is the replacement of trained, experienced professionals with a clown car load of knuckleheads who act like they've never seen a football before.

We (or at least half of us) continue to believe that everyone is easily replaced in this economy. If the teachers want too much money, just fire them all and bring in someone else. There are lots of unemployed people and, hell, anyone can teach high school! That we have evidence to the contrary provided by our new national pastime should, but probably will not, disabuse us of this notion.


Posted in Election 2012 on September 16th, 2012 by Ed

In Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain tells a terrific anecdote about being elected union steward for the enormous restaurant at the Rockefeller Center as a young man in the 1970s. If "New York" and "1970s" was not a big enough hint, it turns out that the organization appeared to be mob-run. Bourdain is young, idealistic, and eager to raise some hell in the union, but meeting the union rep leads to his disillusionment as he realizes that his new job is of the do-nothing variety:

(The Union President) was oddly unenthusiastic. He looked up sleepily at me from behind the desk, as if I were a delivery boy bringing him a sandwich. When I asked him if I could, as shop steward, familiarize myself with The Contract, so that I might better serve our members, the president fiddled with his cufflinks and said, "I seem to have…temporarily…misplaced it." It was clear from his inflection and posture that he didn't give a fuck whether I believed him or not.

I've always loved that final line and I think of this anecdote, apocryphal or not, every time I find myself in this frustrating situation. This tone is frequently encountered when dealing with bureaucracies or one's superiors in the workplace. They don't care if you believe them because they don't have to.

This came to mind when I read Saturday's unusually frank New York Times editorial ("Mitt Romney's Confession") on the fact that the Romney/Ryan economic plan (or "plan") simply doesn't add up.

There are a couple of pitfalls here. The first is that while closing loopholes sounds good — Make those oil companies pay! — the costliest ones are cherished by most Americans. These are tax provisions that promote home ownership, charitable giving, and employer-provided health care and that allow taxpayers to deduct their state and local income taxes. Limiting or eliminating these popular "loopholes" would be extremely difficult.

The second obstacle, as shown by the Tax Policy Center, a joint venture of the Brookings Institution and the Urban Institute, is that Mr. Romney's plan is mathematically impossible, even if it were politically feasible. Take away every deduction from every wealthy household, the center calculated, and you still couldn’t make up the revenue the government would lose by reducing rates without raising taxes on middle-class households.

Not so, Mr. Romney protested recently, and cited an analysis by Harvard economist Martin Feldstein, a Romney campaign adviser. Mr. Feldstein said the math could work — if you took away every deduction from every household earning $100,000 or more.

In other words, the math might work out (although this isn't even touching the effects of the proposed Estate Tax repeal) under a set of hypothetical circumstances that is totally unrealistic and not even what the campaign is proposing. No one, least of all Mitt Romney, has proposed eliminating every single tax deduction, including the home mortgage interest deduction. But maybe if that happened his tax cuts would begin to pay for themselves. Probably not, though. It's like they're giving us the rope and begging us to hang him.

This is not, as the Times suggests with its title, a "confession" by the Romney campaign. It is evidence that the GOP has moved far beyond giving two shits whether you believe their silly supply side economics or not. They simply do not care and they're not going to waste their time trying to provide some kind of evidence that supports their theory. Neither they nor the voters they attract are interested in even pretending like tax cuts pay for themselves – excepting a few rubes here and there who make $8/hr and think the Job Creators' wealth is going to trickle down. They just want the tax cuts, period.

It may seem like more of the same policy proposals from the GOP – more tax cuts, more magical faith that the economy will suddenly start growing faster than expected to make their lazy projections balance out – but Romney/Ryan marks an important change. This is 2012, the Year They Stopped Trying. The effort to make the math work is so feeble and so pitifully unconvincing that the jig is up. The candidates aren't even pretending that this works, and the supporters aren't even pretending that they believe it does. Just give us more money. Who cares what it costs the rest of you.

In my mind the whole "This pays for itself!" argument was never more than a weak conscience balm for wealthy beneficiaries of Republican fiscal policy. This is typical, and I think symptomatic, of the problems with the Romney campaign that their effort to sell their economic policy (during an election, during a recession) is so superficial, so half-assed, and so clearly a case of going through the motions. It's nice to see an admission, albeit a tacit, indirect one, that Reaganomics can finally be recognized for what it is: an ideology. A belief. An article of faith. And above all, it is a placeholder. They need some way to pass off massive upper class tax cuts as "fiscally responsible" and this fairy tale does about as well as any other.

This is a guy who spends every weekend at his vacation home in an election he's losing with 7 weeks to go. No one should be surprised that he barely put any effort into maintaining his party's Grand Illusion.


Posted in No Politics Friday on September 14th, 2012 by Ed

I recently changed jobs, and now I ply my trade at a smaller, private, teaching-oriented university. This is a culture shock, having spent my academic career (if it can be so labeled) at massive, research-oriented state institutions. Not only is teaching the subject of zero shits given at such places, but the tenure process (and faculty culture) actively discourages putting any effort whatsoever into teaching. So if you were curious, kids, that's why all of your classes at State U. are terrible.

This is not to say that I find myself in an idyllic paradise of outstanding pedagogy; in fact there is good and bad teaching to be found here just like anywhere else. However, it is noticeable how much more teaching is talked about here. It is a thing people actually think about and attempt to do well, even if unsuccessful. Talking about teaching leads to one of the real perks of academia: the teaching Horror Story.

It has been a while since I did one of these crowdsourced NPFs, so this one is all on you. I could tell you my stories, and in fact I occasionally do in the odd post, but where's the fun in that? What's the worst (hopefully in the amusing sense, not in the "One of my classmates shot someone" sense) thing you've ever experienced in a classroom setting? Who's the worst teacher you ever endured and why? There is no right or wrong way to approach this question. You can mine your life experiences for anything from preschool to grad school. I'm sure you have some sordid tales of amazingly inept teaching. Let's get a nice blooper reel going here.



Posted in Rants on September 12th, 2012 by Ed

(Preface: Stick with it. I'm going somewhere with this.)

Football fans are familiar with the frustration inherent in rooting for a team that can only do one thing well. If they do that one thing really, really well they might win some games and get your hopes up, but the long term prospects for a one-dimensional team tend toward disappointment. In order to win the big games, a team must have balance or else it becomes predictable and easier for a good opponent to defeat.

Take for example that 2008-2009 Cardinals team I loved so intensely. They were perhaps the best passing team in football but could not run the ball one bit. The coaches and players knew they had to run (eventually) in order to win, and they sure talked about doing so a lot. But the pattern became familiar; at the beginning of the game they would make an obvious effort to run the ball, and when it did not succeed immediately they got frustrated and said, "Ah, screw this. We have a Hall of Fame quarterback and a receiver so good he might not even be human. Let's just air it out." And so they would overwhelm lousy opponents with their one strength. Eventually, though, their one-dimensional approach came up short in the playoffs. They weren't really committed to becoming more balanced, nor did they think enough about the long term benefits. Once they realized that growing pains can be unpleasant, they quickly reverted to the only thing they really knew how to do well.

As an avowed opponent of the sports metaphor as a pedagogical technique, I find this an all too fitting description of the Republican Party since I ran from it screaming in the mid-1990s. As the comments on yesterday's post demonstrate, the GOP is keenly aware of its very obvious demographic problem. We tend to focus on the Akin/Brewer/King-level idiots because they amuse us, but I sincerely doubt that Republicans on the whole are too stupid to realize that appealing strictly to white men, the elderly, and religious zealots is a strategy with diminishing returns. They know that they need to appeal to more people – more women, more Latinos, more gays and lesbians, more people under 40, more people who are not hardcore social conservatives, maybe one or two more black people beyond Herman Cain – and I think many of them even understand how to do it. Stop using gays and Spanish-speaking immigrants as punching bags to score cheap points with angry white people. Stop devoting so much energy to pointless and embarrassing efforts to legislate the vagina. Stop kissing seniors' asses when doing so creates two enemies under 40 for every vote over 70 secured. Be honest about believing in government and government spending on some things (the military, Federal subsidies, bank bailouts, etc.) rather than coming off as a bunch of howling anti-government lunatics. It really isn't rocket science. They could be winning this election handily.

The problem is that the commitment to the long-term benefits of this strategy simply isn't there. They start out every election saying, "Let's try to appeal to a wider audience this time!" However, the second they experience some adversity or discover that winning over new voters is hard, time consuming work, they run right back to the comforting embrace of their tried-and-true playbook: Gay bashing. Campaign season anti-abortion jihads. Nativism, xenophobia, and fear-mongering. Bellicose foreign policy and saber-rattling toward an enemy of convenience. Shameless pandering to the elderly. Wild anti-government rhetoric.

The problem (from the GOP's perspective) is that sometimes this works. See 2010 or 2004. And because it has worked before they will return to it at the slightest hint of rough seas. Every time they employ this strategy they modestly increase their short term odds of success while putting one more nail in the coffin of their future. I do not suggest anything radical like the imminent disappearance of the GOP, yet it is plainly obvious that all of their hackneyed schemes – suppressive Voter ID laws, attempts to reduce Latino immigration, gerrymandering, restricting early/absentee voting, and so on – are like fingers plugging a dike. If they work at all, they will not work forever. The country is changing, as the country has never stopped changing since its founding. The narrow appeal of the modern GOP bodes ill for their future.

I am not concern trolling – far from it. First, I'm sure their trusty playbook will enable them to win some elections now and in the near future. It's not like they never succeed with it. Second, I don't really care about the fate they choose for themselves one way or another. Finally, I think the country might derive some benefit from having a second party composed of reasonably sane people, despite my encyclopedic list of complaints about the two party system overall.

As the McCain campaign eventually descended into a sad buffet of the standard Rovian fare, so too will the Romney campaign as the election nears and they continue to lag behind Obama. While individual candidates are rational actors who inevitably pursue short term success above all else, the right as a whole continues to stare down the barrel at a future they are not prepared to face. They know how to prepare, but they never seem to get around to doing it.