NPF: TOMORROWLAND

Posted in No Politics Friday on November 30th, 2012 by Ed

One of the saddest but surest signs of our intellectual and cultural stagnation over the past few decades is the total lack of imagination in our visions of the future. After the Industrial Revolution and throughout most of the 20th Century, people dreamed of flying cars and spaceships. Science fiction writers like Ray Bradbury, Jules Verne, and Arthur C. Clarke wrote about concepts that were unthinkable at the time – space flight, radar, nuclear power, artificial intelligence, microprocessors, and so much more – and eventually became reality. Today's visions of the future consist largely of putting an LCD touchscreen on every conceivable surface and object, or incrementally upgrading cellphones and personal computing every few years. That is, when we're not too busy envisioning a future of famine, global climate disasters, and conflict over dwindling and finite natural resources. No, we no longer have the zeitgeist of the Cold War era, when science was a force for good that would make life immeasurably better. Now science exists to make us toys/gizmos/gadgets to make it easier to look at Facebook in public, while trying to mitigate the damage done by the industrialization that made previous generations so excited about the future. What happened to visions of the future that actually excite us?

The only recent invention that really strikes me as a paradigm shifter – and the first since the affordable, practical home computer in the 1980s – is 3D printing. I am the first to admit that I have only a layman's understanding of the process, but it holds the potential to make us rethink the process of turning ideas into physical objects. Of course, there are some pretty alarming implications of the technology as well. Everything else, including the mighty internet and all of the devices that allow us to access it, is merely a means of repackaging information for greater convenience. Has that convenience changed our lives? Certainly. Has it created something fundamentally new? No.

This is starting to veer dangerously close to non-NPF territory. So, um…here's some retro-future stuff for your slow Friday afternoon in the office:

1. Check out this Jetsons-styled behemoth of a home computer offered by Honeywell in the late 1960s. This "kitchen computer" was supposed to offer home cooks access to recipes and other things to better organize the kitchen.

Being massive, massively expensive ($10,600 in 1968), and requiring an (included) two-week programming course just to figure out how to use the damn thing, it was…not a sales success. Sure did look cool, though.

2. Here's a classic short film from that perennial retro-future favorite, Disneyland's Monsanto House of Tomorrow.

The brief second part of the film can be found here. Note that in some form or another, almost every innovation they envisioned in the film is now a part of our daily lives (although moving sinks do not appear to have caught on). Don't overlook the architectural magnificence of the house from the outside either:

3. If you currently work in a tech-related field, perhaps even doing some programming, you are certain to get a kick out of this Bell Labs training video (1973) for newly hired programmers. Be sure to note which counter to go to when you need to have a tape changed in the mainframe.

WONDERFUL WORLD

Posted in Quick Hits on November 29th, 2012 by Ed

There was quite a reaction to yesterday's post, so I don't want to pile another post on top of it right away.

If you need something new to talk about, consider this: we live in a world in which Mitch McConnell can utter the phrase, "(Democrats') reckless and ideological approach threatens our very future. Anyone who is serious about solving the problems we face should ignore all that, starting with the President." in reference to the current budgetary squabbles without everyone in the country dying of laughter.

Reckless and ideological. I got nothin' here, people.

THE CONTEST EVERYBODY LOSES

Posted in Rants on November 28th, 2012 by Ed

I have always wanted to write for a living, although I certainly can't complain about the regular paychecks and benefits that come with this less exciting job. Many of you know from bitter firsthand experience that making money writing is very difficult today. It has never been easy, of course; there's a reason Kafka was an insurance clerk, TS Eliot worked at Lloyd's of London, Vonnegut ran a Saab dealership, Harper Lee made reservations for Eastern Airlines customers, and Orwell was a cop in colonial Burma. No one will claim that writing professionally ever has been anything but risky and difficult.

Today, however, people who generate creative output for a living – this problem isn't limited to writing, of course – face the additional obstacle of changing expectations. Namely that they are expected to work for free or close to it. If you think all those writers on big name sites (Slate, HuffPo, Gawker, etc.) are being paid more than a pittance or at all for the content they generate, you are mistaken. Consumers now expect to be provided with content for free; behold the wailing and gnashing of teeth across the internet when something is put "behind a paywall" at Harper's or the NY Times. Can you believe that they actually expect us to pay for information and entertainment? That's so 20th Century.

Another more insidious type of work-for-free arrangement has become disturbingly common among people who work in art, graphic design, and web development: the "crowdsourcing" of content. Crowdsourcing is one of those horrid buzzwords crafted to sound techno-libertarian and empowering (Harness the power of collective ideas!) but in reality, media outlets use it to get for free content or services they would otherwise need to pay a professional to do. Need a new logo, or perhaps some cover art for your next issue? Paying someone is a waste of money. Just have a "contest" and legions of unemployed, publicity-seeking artists/designers will gladly produce your artwork on their own time and freely hand it over in the hopes of winning five minutes' worth of exposure and attention.

By now we have all realized that musician Amanda Palmer is probably the worst person on Earth, what with the fiasco of asking for a million bucks from her fans to record an album (I guess her multimillionaire husband couldn't finance the endeavor, nor could Palmer from her previous earnings). She followed that up with a truly reprehensible scheme to "crowdsource" the backing band for her subsequent tour, getting a group of volunteer musicians in each city on the tour to join her on stage. Compensation would consist of "beer, merchandise, and hugs", said the repugnant excuse for a human. Isn't that neat? What a great way to let the fan community take part in creating the performances, and as a total coincidence I guess she won't have to pay, feed, transport, and house any musicians throughout the tour!

This kind of explicit middle finger to people attempting to make a living writing, drawing, playing an instrument, painting, and so on can only succeed when there is a critical mass of people desperate for work and struggling to make ends meet. It's an interesting collective action problem; certainly each artist knows that submitting designs for free is hurting every artist's efforts to make a living, but the individual incentive for publicity, credentials, ("winner of the….") and attention is too strong. And of course the internet makes it remarkably fast, cheap, and easy to harness the creative talents of thousands of people with the promise of nothing more than a pat on the back. The majesty of the new economy is infinite indeed, with its myriad ways of providing things that are ostensibly free but carry great hidden costs.

CLIFFHANGER

Posted in Quick Hits on November 27th, 2012 by Ed

I have become a much calmer person over the years. Nonetheless, the next time I hear the phrase "fiscal cliff" someone is going to need a doctor to remove my foot from their ass.

What great drama, right? A looming deadline! Partisan conflict! Battles of wills! High stakes! Yes, it promises to be every bit as exciting as that threatened government shutdown in Fall 2011, or any other Obama-vs-GOP Congress face-off. Boy I sure hope the two (equally weighted) sides can find "common ground" leading to "compromise." I wonder if a Gang of ____ "moderates" can guarantee us the most watered-down version of whatever actions are decided upon? Will the entire debate continue to take place in the framework of the unquestioned assumption that you and I need to "sacrifice" (or perhaps tighten our belts?) to pay for the money our government showers upon the military, financial sector, and highest income earners? Don't worry, I'm sure the Gang of Number will see to it that symbolic but meaningless tax increases are included to prove that we're sharing the pain.

Gosh, the whole thing is almost exciting enough to make me not give a single shit and hope that you will be kind enough to wake me when it's over.

GIVING THANKS

Posted in Quick Hits on November 22nd, 2012 by Ed

I am thankful for all of you. Doing this much writing feels a bit silly sometimes, and it would feel even sillier if there was no one reading it.

BEST CASE SCENARIO

Posted in Quick Hits on November 21st, 2012 by Ed

While I am far from an expert on the subject I would like to think I have an above-average understanding of the conflict in the Middle East, at least from the creation of the state of Israel onward. Being an American takes a lot of the value out of the term "above average", of course. Nonetheless I feel like, if pressed, I could give a half-decent explanation of the background of the current (and seemingly endless) conflict.

Today Israel is to the United States what North Korea is to China. We prop them up and rush ahead of them to put out the fires after they get a little too unhinged. The similarities don't end there. Both nations have heavily militarized populations and practice a vicious brand of foreign policy that sees violence as the first, most preferred option. There are obvious political and economic differences – namely that Israel is not a poor, backward cesspool insulated from the outside world – but they both play the agitator/wildcard role in American and Chinese foreign policy. They act erratically with the understanding that we have their backs.

What I don't understand at all is this: What exactly does the United States get out of its relationship with Israel? I mean, in an absolute, perfect, ideal scenario, what is our endgame? Certainly we are not so dumb as to think that the conflict will end or have a winner in the traditional sense. Other than some nebulous idea like peace or stability, what would our leaders describe as America's goal in offering clear and unwavering support to Israel while simultaneously advocating for an end to violence in the region?

Israeli foreign policy is emboldened by their understanding that no matter how many times they do the opposite of what will enhance peace in the region, we will still rush to their side and re-affirm our unwavering commitment to supporting them. I think this is the textbook definition of a moral hazard. So the second question is: Why must our support be so unconditional? What are we getting out of this relationship to make it worth the cost, both financial and in terms of foreign policy headaches?

Like many people I have quit trying to figure out how to solve the problem in the Middle East. I'll settle for figuring out what exactly my country is hoping to get from being the great patron to one of the belligerents.

NEVER LET REALITY INTERRUPT SCAPEGOATING

Posted in Rants on November 19th, 2012 by Ed

Growing up in Chicagoland I have had a front row seat at the circus that is Cook County politics. Corruption and nepotism are virtually synonymous with Chicago government and politics, and this has always struck me as simultaneously well deserved and totally unfair. Certainly the city and county have proven time and again that there is no deal too crooked or no alderman's nephew too inept. However, no one has been able to argue that this differs significantly from any other large American city or, for that matter, any small town's politics. You've never seen graft, corruption, abuse of power, and the Old Boys' Network until you've seen them in rural areas. Hell, at least Chicago is big enough that the entire city isn't owned and controlled by one family. How many small towns can say the same?

Local media outlets love pushing these "Look at how corrupt Chicago is" stories because they resonate well with readers. It makes people mad. It gives people something to blame for the government's failures, something to vent their own frustrations at. Consider this Chicago Sun-Times story about County Assessor Joe Berrios, who has 15 relatives either employed by or retired from jobs with Cook County. The headline is well-crafted for maximum outrage: "15 members of Joe Berrios' family on county, state payrolls." What is not explained, however, is how Mr. Berrios is responsible for members of his family who got jobs 30 years before he was elected Assessor, or, more importantly, how this differs from any other job, industry, company, or government in the nation.

People relate to these stories because it allows them to project their own lack of happiness or success on a scapegoat. "I guess you have to be related to someone to get a good job around here!" they say to themselves. And they are, of course, right. We know they are right because that's how the damn world works. Why would it not work that way in Cook County government?

One of the harshest lessons America teaches its young people is that they have been lied to when we told them that our system is a meritocracy. Yes, talent and achievement will help you do better in life, but we find out quickly in adolescence and young adulthood that who you know and who you're related to are pretty significant variables as well. We start working – in any field: public, private, academic, non-profit, military, etc. – and we discover that the world is absolutely full of talentless daughters, nephews, and old college buddies who are doing quite well despite having no qualifications or talent other than the good fortune to know someone powerful. Nowhere is this more obvious, especially to college students who may not yet be aware that life isn't fair, than in the world of Interning. It's truly amazing how often the big D.C. or Wall Street or Madison Avenue internships go to young people who have parents wealthy enough to support them and with family connections. Quite a coincidence, isn't it, that the fratboy whose dad works for Lockheed Martin gets the Congressional internship alongside the talentless children of various campaign contributors. That's almost as amazing as the preponderance of children-of working in any private corporation or family-owned business.

It is very easy to single out someone like Joe Berrios and vent our anger at him for being arrogant and stupid enough to hire his own children after being elected. It is equally easy to pretend that this state of affairs is unique to Chicago or to government in general. Deep down I believe that we all know better, though. We've all had to put up with the boss's son (or some other variant of the friends-and-family system) at some point in our lives. Maybe we are idealistic and expect better of our government, holding it to a higher standard. Or perhaps the government is just a convenient target because information about things like salaries are publicly available. I agree with the Sun-Times that what Mr. Berrios did is unethical, but I have to wonder what we would uncover if we did a similar analysis of the friends, family, and connections of the interns, reporters, editors, and other people working in their own newsroom. Anyone with firsthand experience in the world of professional journalism knows that the odds of finding nepotism at play are holding steady at 100%, plus or minus zero.

NPF: DUCHAMP NEWS

Posted in No Politics Friday on November 16th, 2012 by Ed

I know this violates both the letter and the spirit of NPF, but I struggle to think of something more bizarre, wonderful, and entertaining than Megyn Kelly's walking tour of the Fox studio (to question the integrity and competence of the people the network pays to make calls for them) on election night. While the following video captures the entire Fox meltdown – the first 4:45 of the video is Karl Rove's emotional deterioration, if you're interested – the ridiculous yields to the surreal at the 4:47 mark when Kelly is helped down from the news desk and then followed around various hallways while she awkwardly chit-chats on her way to confront the behind-the-scenes team. We're all used to Fox News being awful and descending into self parody, but..this is just weird, guys.

This is dadaism at its finest. It has the production quality of a snuff film and the weird tension of a performance in which something completely unpredictable is expected to happen without warning or cause. I keep waiting for her to round a corner and be impaled by a spear, or confronted by a hissing wolverine, or pied in the face, or engaged in conversation with a man dressed in a garment made entirely of sugar packets. My fondness for absurdist humor is well documented, and this video reminds me that the darkest comedy always comes from watching something ridiculous and realizing, "Oh my god they're serious."

In case you needed this to be funnier, apparently Fox producers cooked up this scheme as a way not only to prolong interest among viewers after Romney was clearly toast but also to get Megyn Kelly's legs on camera. It's not like we thought they were hiring their newsmodels for their journalistic integrity, but it's nice to have this point made explicit.

I have never made but one prayer, a very short one: "O Lord, make my enemies ridiculous." And God granted it.

FEIGNED OUTRAGE

Posted in Rants on November 15th, 2012 by Ed

We're now a full week into saturation Petraeus Got Laid coverage and I still have not located a crap to give. Despite that, I thoroughly enjoy watching the news networks and commentators fighting one another for the coveted title of Most Morally Outraged. A married man had sex with his obsequious biographer? Why I never. It's a great opportunity for America to show off its puritan streak, and it raises the interesting question of how long a society can continue to hold a given attitude when almost none of its individual members do.

Being at least somewhat familiar with the psychology literature on phenomena like compliance, conformity, and bandwagon effects, I tend to assume that 99% of the outrage in these political sex scandals is hollow. We act shocked because everyone on TV is shocked, and we certainly don't want our co-workers / neighbors / etc to think we have loose morals, do we? It's easier to wag our finger in the same direction as everyone else than to explain that you don't really care and deal with other people (who may privately agree with you) judging you. On the rare occasions that we are forced to justify our harsh condemnation of highly visible cheaters, we justify our hypocrisy with the old saws about how public officials should be held to a higher standard than you were when you cheated on your wife.

The media's behavior is equally predictable, as "Sex and lots of it" is one of the Hearst commandments and the right-wing media is trying to string this along until they can figure out some way to make an Obama scandal out of it. They've already devoted so much time over the last five years to giving vigorous handjobs to the great General that they can't throw him under the bus as part of the administration. I'm sure it will turn out that he was set up by ACORN or something along those lines.

Sure, it's moderately newsworthy that the head of the CIA may have given classified information to a member of the media under, uh, unprofessional circumstances. Instead we're doing what we usually do – channeling our puritanical shame into an obsession with titillation and Made for TV Movie quality sex scandals. A guy cheated on his wife. Sucks for his wife. Are enough people in this country repressed enough to continue to care beyond that, or does the amount of coverage simply create the impression that there's a public demand for it?

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WE MUST BURN THE VILLAGE TO SAVE IT

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

From the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel (the online version of which, perhaps un-coincidentally, has the most awful, hope-destroying comment sections I've seen anywhere on the internet):

As Gov. Scott Walker contemplates whether to create a state health care exchange under Obamacare, he will have to contend in the coming legislative session with nine lawmakers who have said they back a bill to arrest any federal officials who try to implement the health care law…All nine also told a tea party-aligned group they backed passing so-called "right-to-work" legislation; allowing people to carry guns without having to get permits from the state; allowing people to buy raw, or unpasteurized, milk; and blocking state funding for the federal Real ID law that requires states to develop more secure driver's licenses.

But their stance on the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, could cause the most fireworks in the upcoming session. Walker must decide by Friday whether the state will create a health care exchange under the health care law or leave those duties to President Barack Obama's administration.

Rep. Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield) is one of the nine from Wisconsin who told the Campaign for Liberty he would back legislation to declare Obamacare illegal and allow police to arrest federal officials who take steps to implement it in Wisconsin. He said he believes the health care law is unconstitutional, despite the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling that it passes constitutional muster.

"Just because Obama was re-elected does not mean he's above the Constitution," Kapenga said…The other current and newly elected lawmakers said they supported the entire agenda the Campaign for Liberty, according to the group's website.

The Campaign for Liberty and others endorse a notion being promoted by conservatives called nullification that holds that under the 10th Amendment states can ignore federal laws if they choose. The 10th Amendment says: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."

Sounds like we've got some real experts on the Constitution at work here. Their convenient "interpretation" of the 10th Amendment is well researched, I'm sure, so we can all sit back and let states decide which Federal laws they will enforce. It's amazing that no state has ever thought of this before. Or if they did, it certainly must have gone well.