INHERENTLY DANGEROUS

Posted in Quick Hits on December 31st, 2012 by Ed

I guess we shouldn't ask questions like, "I wonder how far House Republicans will go to avoid voting for token, largely symbolic tax increases on people making over $1,000,000 annually" unless we're prepared for the answer. The crazy, crazy answer.

It was fun to watch Lindsey Graham forced to eat a pile of his own dung on Sunday morning, no matter how sarcastic his "Hats off to the President. He won." might have been. I guess that makes him smarter than Boehner's Commandos, who do not appear to have figured it out yet.

Are these people terrible at politics or secretly brilliant? By setting this deadline after which many unpalatable consequences will happen – tax hikes, draconian spending cuts, etc. – you'd think they'd realize that under no circumstances could they "win" politically by forcing that outcome. And with the other two parts of the process controlled by the other party, they're kinda bent over. Then again, it could be an excess of political cunning that brought them here; I'm sure there are plenty of House Republicans sleeping poorly tonight knowing how the primary challengers will line up the second they vote for anything with the word "taxes" in it. The pant-shitter caucus of the GOP is going to draw and quarter these guys, no matter how many excuses they make.

That could bode well for the Democrats in the short term, as we've seen the stellar track record in general elections of the Tea Party-backed primary challengers who unseat Republican incumbents. Maybe Sharron Angle will give it another go.

NPF: TRIVIAL PURSUITS

Posted in No Politics Friday on December 28th, 2012 by Ed

The past five months have been pretty rough for me, moving to a new city where I know exactly zero people and finding out that, well, there's nothing to do here. I could argue that in the global sense, but more specifically the two things I really liked doing when I lived in Georgia do not exist here in their proper form: comedy and trivia. While I miss both activities, it really bums me out to be without a decent trivia game because it's one of the precious few things in this world at which I am not completely terrible. In a better mood I might even describe myself as good at it. My memory is eerily good – not Rain Man good, but uncomfortably close – and over the years I've crammed a lot of facts into it. Recalling facts I read 20 years ago is not difficult, and I like nothing more than being forced to dig deep and exercise the brain a little. Shouting out the Jeopardy! answers in the gym just doesn't cut it after a while.

Whenever someone asks me "How/Why do you know that?" in response to some obscure and painfully uninteresting bit of knowledge I've just vomited at them, I never really answer the question (which is presumed to be largely rhetorical). But there is an answer, at least 95% of the time.

AJ Jacobs wrote a book recently (The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World) chronicling his quest to read the entire print edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica from start to finish. Every word. He did it, and in the process he qualified for and appeared on "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" and generally developed the habit of annoying people by continuously interjecting arcane and questionably relevant knowledge into his social interactions. I know how he feels. Reading the whole Britannica, however, strikes me as overkill.

If you want to become a trivia master or amaze/bore your friends and acquaintances alike with facts and anecdotes, here is my secret. As a child (and adolescent, and adult) I read and re-read all three volumes of The People's Almanac by David Wallechinsky and Irving Wallace, along with their more well known Book of Lists series. They're mostly out of print, having been written in the 1970s – although they did write a somewhat shorter but still very good 20th Century history volume in 1999 – but I'm convinced that they are the best written, broadest, most eclectic, and most complete resource available for the person who desires a brain full of (largely) useless information. Science, movies, politics, history, religion, 19th Century circus performers, food, sports…you name it, it's in there. And in painstaking detail.

The real strength of the book is to combine narratives – the harrowing tale of Poon Lim, the man who survived on a life raft for 133 days after his ship was torpedoed – with dry facts about historical events or natural phenomena. I read these books to death as a kid despite their interminable length, and there are parts (like the aforementioned tale of Mr. Lim) that I can practically recite from memory decades later. Someday I hope to meet the authors and thank them; if not for them I might not know that osmium is the densest of all elements and it smells like shit.

Rather than link each book individually, here is the Amazon search for Wallechinsky and Wallace which will take you to the three Almanacs and the Book of Lists trilogy. Sure, you could stare endlessly at Wikipedia and hope the knowledge sinks in as you zip through the wormholes, but the books give you a guided tour of a hodgepodge of information. I understand if the thought of sitting down to read a reference book cover-to-cover is abhorrent, but what can I say. I was an awkward kid and I liked to read non-fiction. If you want a shortcut to cleaning up at bar trivia, this is the way to do it. Gin and Tacos is not responsible for the deleterious effects of fact-binging on your social skills.

SIMPLIFICATION

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

My 10 year-old nephew has been Nintendo Wii-crazy for the past few years. Accordingly, he received the usual passel of game cartridges from relatives (and Santa). I have never played a Wii. Video games are no longer my thing, with the exception of maybe five PC games purchased in the last ten years (mostly CoD games, rarely played). As a kid, however, I played them copiously. I spent hundreds of hours on the NES, Super NES, and N64, which was the last console I owned. The bottom line is that while I have blown a lot of hours on video gaming, it was mostly between the ages of 10-20 and thus my knowledge of the current state of the hobby is very limited.

I sat back and watched him tear into his new game – can't even recall the name, to be honest – and after about 45 minutes I noticed that he was more than halfway through the number of levels in the game. He did not appear to be particularly good at it, as his character advanced through the game largely by walking into the enemies, sustaining a huge amount of damage, and never dying. When his character did die, it re-spawned immediately in the same spot. And this is when I grasped what 25-40 people who play games probably figured out a long time ago: games appear to be a hell of a lot easier now.

Not to engage in pointless cane-shaking, but at my nephew's age I was playing games like Legend of Zelda, Kid Icarus, Contra II, the Mega Man series, and Castlevania, all of which required weeks and sometimes months to complete. When your character died, you started over at the beginning of the level (or in some cases, of the game itself). If I recall accurately, I think I spent a good part of three years trying to defeat Ninja Gaiden and Bionic Commando…and never did. That shit was hard.

Even I know enough about modern games to understand that some do require huge investments of time (World of Warcraft, for example). On the whole, however, I'd be stunned if the 20 most popular console games today could hold a candle to those from 1990 in terms of complexity, difficulty, and time to completion. What does that imply? Maybe game developers have realized that their target audience – which is expanding to include both the very young and older people – doesn't really want to be challenged. They appear to believe that today's 12 year-old just wants a game he can play without a learning curve and complete immediately so he can tell everyone how great he is at video games. I wonder how well my nephew and his 5th-grade friends would do if I handed them the original Legend of Zelda. I'm certain that they could figure out how to play it pretty quickly. I'm not so certain that they would not walk away in frustration once they realized that the game was not simple enough to master immediately.

Yes, yes, I know this is some old man shit. It also appears to be an open secret in the gaming industry that the games are not as demanding as they once were. People who waste lots of time playing video games often try and have tried to justify it by pointing to potential benefits – improved hand-eye coordination, problem solving skills, and ability to focus on something to completion. With this current generation of tweens/teens and their fruit fly attention spans, I'm not sure what they're getting out of the activity anymore except sensory overload and the idea that if things are hard they're not worth doing.

NPF: HEIST

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

When I was young I wanted to be in the FBI. I thought it would be cool to catch bad guys all day. It wasn't until later that I realized that J. Edgar Hoover might not have been the hero I imagined as a six year old, and still later when I figured out that most of what agencies like the FBI do is really dull. Then you reach a certain age and the dull stuff seems exciting again, albeit in a very different way. And on that note, there exists something at the FBI called the Art Crime Team. Ironically, they have the worst logo in the history of ever.

FBI Art Crime Team logo
Seriously?

Apparently it's not a misleading name. They find stolen art. Unbeknownst to me at the time I discovered its existence, apparently art theft is a thing. A thing that happens, like, all the time. In my mind, the idea of stealing something from an art museum seems about as plausible as breaking into the White House and having brunch in the Oval Office. But then it dawned on me that not all valuable art is in an art museum. There are private galleries, art dealers, homes & offices of the wealthy, warehouses, and art museums that, uh, don't exactly have the level of security you'll find in the Smithsonian.

As a kid I was fascinated by the story of the guy who stole the Mona Lisa in 1911. He was caught in 1913 and the painting was recovered. Neat cops-and-robbers story, right? But apparently there are a lot of extremely valuable works from well-known artists that have been stolen and never recovered. For example, in two separate heists from major museums, one of Rembrandt's few landscapes and his sole seascape (which I remember distinctly from undergrad art history classes) were stolen and have never been seen again. Vermeer's The Concert, stolen from a major museum in Boston in 1990, is valued at over $50,000,000 and remains missing.

Vermeer_The_concert

These stories usually have a happier ending. Law enforcement is aided by the fact that it's pretty damn hard to do anything with a conspicuous masterwork after you've stolen it. And this is the part that really intrigues me. Once you've swiped a Picasso – presumably for financial gain, right? – what in the hell do you do with it? Surely the usual auction houses would be aware of the theft. You can't exactly put the thing on eBay. Is there some underground stolen art sales network where these paintings are sold to Russian mobsters and third world kleptocrats? Even those folks wouldn't be able to display it, I'd imagine. Certainly word would get out, even if they displayed it only in private. And there's no point to expensive acquisitions except to show them off, right?

I suppose we'll never know. Can anyone shed some light on this? If nothing else, today you learned that it doesn't exactly require Ocean's 11 level thieving skills to steal multimillion dollar artwork, judging by how regularly it seems to happen.

WHEREIN WE PONDER THE MYSTERY OF MEGAN McARDLE GETTING PAID TO WRITE THIS SHIT

Posted in Rants on December 19th, 2012 by Ed

Being an Opinion Professional – pundit, columnist, bobblehead, what have you – is a lot like being a Federal judge or a left-handed starting pitcher with all of his elbow ligaments intact: it's essentially a lifetime appointment. Short of extreme circumstances (the journalistic equivalent of impeachment, a torn labrum, or pitching for Dusty Baker) there appears to be no way to actually lose the job. You can be wrong about absolutely everything, constantly move the goalposts, make things up out of whole cloth, and propose ideas that make no sense, are insane, or both.

Part of this stems from the dynamics of the industry. There is not much of an audience for incremental suggestions and the blandly reasonable. No one wants to be the New David Gergen (David Brooks aside). There is an incentive to Go Big, to be attention-getting without sounding like a complete lunatic. And even if you fail at the latter, there is still plenty of work to be had in the minor leagues (explicitly partisan blogs and magazines, etc.) Few people remember him, but the career of Westbrook Pegler is a great example of the career arc of the insane. From his perch on top of the world as the big gun in the Hearst empire in the 1930s, he wasn't fired until 1960 when he turned on Hearst himself. Then he kicked around the low-end newspaper syndicates, and then to a job writing the John Birch Society newsletter until he grew too insane even for that outlet (explicit antisemitism and encouraging readers to murder RFK will do that). Despite being demonstrably batshit, it took four decades for someone to stop giving the guy an outlet for his dyspeptic ranting.

Perhaps not the freshest example. However, it helps us understand why it is nearly 2013 and Megan McArdle is still being paid by highly visible media outlets for her writing. This is the woman who once responded to a reader pointing out that her statistics are bunk with "It wasn't a statistic – it was a hypothetical," and somehow the entire media did not collectively laugh her into oblivion. So here we stand in the shadow of another tragedy and Megan – Newsweek's most recent hire, by the way – has vomited a 4000 word jumble of boilerplate quasi-libertarian nonsense on the none too prestigious pages of The Daily Beast. After concluding, shockingly, that there is nothing that government can do about mass shootings, she offers:

My guess is that we're going to get a law anyway, and my hope is that it will consist of small measures that might have some tiny actual effect, like restrictions on magazine capacity. I'd also like us to encourage people to gang rush shooters, rather than following their instincts to hide; if we drilled it into young people that the correct thing to do is for everyone to instantly run at the guy with the gun, these sorts of mass shootings would be less deadly, because even a guy with a very powerful weapon can be brought down by 8-12 unarmed bodies piling on him at once. Would it work? Would people do it? I have no idea; all I can say is that both these things would be more effective than banning rifles with pistol grips.

This does not even rise to the intellectual level of a decent Facebook post, and here we find the author being paid for the right to expose a global audience to this sewage. This is what she came up with. This is her idea. This is the best she can do. I guess that fancy University of Chicago education didn't cover things that cheap public schools give students in first-year social science classes: collective action problems, free riding, or, I don't know, watching Tombstone long enough to get to the Kurt Russell-as-Wyatt Earp "Your friends might get me in a rush but not before I turn your head into a canoe" scene that explains for anyone old enough to form sentences why people neither take initiative nor act simultaneously in such situations.

So all we really need to do is overcome millions of years of evolution and man's basic instinct to survive, adopt the basic tactics of North Korean infantry during the Korean War, and assume that a gunman can't shoot people faster than they can (in unison) give him the bum rush. If that holds, everything should be fine.

This is the person they pay to comment on finance, economics, politics, and social issues. I'm not sure if Newsweek counts as a top-tier media outlet anymore, but if so, I can't imagine McMegan getting another job in the big leagues after this. She needs to accept her fate and take a job at National Review Online. She can share an office and psych meds with Charles Krauthammer. It's for the best.

A CERTAIN KIND OF RESPONSIBLE

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

Boy, the internet is just buzzing with Responsible gun owners letting everyone know how unfair it is to "punish" them for the actions of a Few Bad Apples. Lately I find it quite interesting to press a little on this issue of responsible ownership. Rarely are more than a few questions necessary to reveal that most individuals' conception of Responsible Gun Ownership means that they have never murdered anyone with their gun. While commendable, I'm not sure that alone qualifies.

I may have forgotten a lot since the last time I fired a gun (about two weeks ago, at a range) so I consulted an owner's manual (2010) from Smith & Wesson. As I recalled, the manual contains a very clear list of precautions to take with one's firearm to use them in a safe and responsible manner. The next time you encounter one of the internet's apparent millions of Responsible gun owners, try out some of the following.

1. Is your gun kept in a locked safe? Failing that, is it locked in a case? Or is it in your closet, in a drawer, under the bed, or lying on a table? A cabinet with a glass door that a 10 year old could break is not a safe.

2. Is your ammunition kept in a separate location, away from the firearm? Or is it in a box next to or under it? Or is there a loaded magazine right there? Or is it just flat-out loaded?

3. Is a trigger lock installed? This is required by law in some places and recommended by all manufacturers regardless.

4. If you have no safe and your house was burglarized, would your gun(s) be difficult to find? Or have you "hidden" it where a complete moron could find it (under the bed, in the bedroom closet, etc.)?

5. Have you ever fired your gun in an unsafe manner – in the air, indoors other than at a range, or without being fully aware of your background (i.e. in the dark, in the woods, etc.)?

6. Have you ever fired overpowered or hand-loaded ammunition beyond the manufacturer's specifications for safe operation of your gun?

7. Do you use hearing and eye protection at all times? Do you insist that others in your party do so as well before you fire?

8. When outdoors, have you ever fired intentionally at something that could cause a ricochet (a rock, the ground, etc)?

Some of these things fall into the "Only a Total Moron Would…" category, yet I'd be willing to bet that more than a few self-proclaimed Responsible owners have flouted some of these rules. Oh, they'll have lots of excuses posing as reasons – I'm experienced, I live alone, I know not to blah blah blah – but what they really mean when they call themselves responsible is, "I have never walked into a school with my gun and used it to murder children." This is certainly a key part of responsible ownership, but the bar is set a tad higher. The data would be impossible to collect, but I'm sure that we could find plenty of Very Responsible people with loaded guns laying in a closet or dresser drawer. You know, real responsible-like.

YOUR RIGHTS ARE VERY IMPORTANT

Posted in Rants on December 17th, 2012 by Ed

I am sick of writing this post. I am sick of responding to this type of event. I am sick of revisiting this issue every three or four months. I am sick of accepting that there is nothing we can do.

There are so many different directions to go with this. I'm overwhelmed by choice.

I could point out the staggering banality and complete disingenuousness of the common refrain that it's "too soon" to talk about policy solutions or it "politicizes the tragedy" to point out how this keeps happening over and over again while we do nothing because gun fetishists argue that "gun control" doesn't work (as opposed to the status quo, which clearly works well).

I could focus on the fact that the entire pro-gun argument falls to tiny pieces when you take away its straw man version of the opposition: that gun control will not end violence and killing, therefore it is not worth pursuing. No one has any illusions that man's urge to do violence to his neighbors can be legislated away. No one argues that more "gun control" will end gun crime. I think most of us would appreciate less of it, though. Maybe a mass shooting every 9 months instead of every 3. That would be pretty cool.

I could point out how selfish, misguided, and delusional it is to think that your wants, disguised as your own selective interpretation of your rights under the 2nd Amendment, are more important than other people's right to not get shot in the fucking face while sitting in a movie theater or in a classroom.

I could go with the "responsible use" canard, as if the fact that you can use something responsibly is evidence that it should be legal. You know how to handle guns safely and properly? Me too. Here's a medal. Thousands and thousands of people can't. Therefore it might be in our interest to look more closely at what we make available to them.

I could vent endless, eye-curdling word rage over your new-found concern with "mental health", an important issue that you care about only as a red herring to distract everyone from your precious guns. So you believe that the government can't stop you from owning an AR-15, but it can somehow FORCE people to undergo psychological evaluation and then force them to accept treatment, including medication? That's a curious interpretation of state power. Oh, and "mandatory mental health screening" in schools has been tried in a few places and rejected for what it is – a thinly-veiled effort to distribute surveys written by pharmaceutical companies ("Do you feel sad sometimes?") to get as many kids on Prozac and Adderall as possible. Next.

I could note how staggeringly disturbed you are as an individual if your response is "Well if more people were armed, they could shoot back!" as though it is a solution that a sane person would prefer. Armed vigilantism runs into the insurmountable barrier of reality: the attacker is prepared, and you are not. He will shoot you before you have a chance to shoot back. You are not tightly coiled and ready to pounce like he is. And when the live bullets are flying, you will be too shit-scared to use your weapon effectively in all likelihood. Again, if your idea of a rational response is "Well, let's arm teachers!" you need some of the mental health care you so suddenly value. Badly.

I could point out how ridiculous it is to think school security is an answer unless we're going to turn schools into military bases with three layers of defensive perimeters. Someone prepared to die doesn't have much of a problem shooting his way past locked doors and secretaries.

No, I will let all of that go for the moment. Instead, here is a concrete proposal, of the kind that I often receive criticism for lacking.

No one's going to take away your precious guns, not even the ones that fire military rifle ammunition like the .223/5.56 NATO caliber semiautomatic rifle used in this shooting. I know how unpopular that idea would be, because you believe you need these things. Or you simply want them, and you believe that your wants are more important than other people getting shot in the head. Instead, how about this:

1. A nationwide ban on the sale of any rifle magazine larger than 15 rounds. Aside from your convenience (reloading less often at the range) or your Rambo fantasies, there is absolutely no reason you need a 30-round magazine. Yes, a spree shooter could simply carry twice as many 15 round magazines to make up for the lack of 30-round clips. But every time he stops to reload, precious seconds for police to respond are gained. Opportunities arise for your favorite imaginary person – the heroic bystander armed with a concealed weapon – to intervene. Additional seconds for potential victims to run away will be purchased. A chance for a teacher to bonk him over the head with a textbook might come up. Or if nothing else, the shooter will be unable to fire quite so many rounds quite so quickly. A life here or there will be saved. Maybe there will be 22 victims instead of 28. That sounds like a worthwhile tradeoff for your very minor inconvenience, no?

2. Grandfather anyone with an existing 20+ round magazine, but institute a national buy-back program, no questions asked, for any older models. $50 per mag, well in excess of the sale price (approx. $20-30 for basic magazines for most common civilian rifles) escalating to $100 for certain models that retail for higher prices.

3. Pair it with a national buy-back program for any semi-automatic or illegally converted fully automatic weapon. No questions asked. No proof of ownership needed. Just walk into a police station, hand it over, and get a check for $____. If you'd rather keep your weapons, fine.

4. A mandatory training course, including a basic psychological evaluation, for anyone who chooses to buy semiautomatic rifles. We make people pay for months of Driver's Ed before they can get in a car. You can take five classes before you're granted access to your toy. If you don't want to take the course, fine. Buy a different kind of firearm.

5. Mandatory life in prison for straw purchases. Right wingers seem to think that harsher penalties deter drug crime, right? So let's stop pussying around with moms who buy guns for their 18 year old kid because Billy can't pass background checks on his own.

There you go. The only real restriction this creates is that you can no longer buy new 30 round magazines. If you're that desperate for one you could probably buy a used (albeit pricey) one. What would any of this accomplish? Well, it might take 10% of the semi-auto guns out of circulation. It would rapidly diminish the number of 30-round mags available. It might do something to take this kind of tragedy, which no society can eliminate completely, and at least make it A) less common and B) less successful when an assailant does decide to go on a rampage. No one's takin' yer guns.

Now go ahead and argue that your right to purchase a brand new 30 round magazine, as opposed to a 15 round one or used model, is so fucking sacred that people should keep dying so that you can enjoy it. I think 48 hours have passed, so the time is right. Go for it.

NPF: AN OVERWEIGHT DUTCH SAILOR

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

Ever wonder why a fat guy named Santa Claus, with a workshop on the North Pole wherein elves make toys, brings gifts to children all around the world on Christmas using a reindeer-powered sleigh? Well I'm glad you asked.

The historical predecessors of the Anglo-American version of Santa Claus (and Christmas folklore overall) are a real historical figure – St. Nicholas of Myra – and character from Dutch folklore named Sinterklaas. Catholic veneration of St. Nicholas emphasized his famous generosity toward the poor, not merely feeding and clothing them but giving them gifts. Sinterklaas was a mythical winter figure in German-speaking Europe dating back to the Dark Ages (with many characteristics of his appearance borrowed from Odin). Eventually the legend of Sinterklaas became intertwined with St. Nicholas, whose similar background – both were Bishops famously generous with gifts – resulted in Sinterklaas making a tradition of bringing gifts on St. Nick's feast day (December 6). So why haven't we exchanged gifts already?

Enter a similar character in British folklore, Father Christmas. Daddy C was a rotund, white-bearded older man with a green robe who symbolized the spirit of Christmas in a secular sense. It is worth noting that Christmas, from a religious perspective, was considered a very minor holiday until…well, we'll get there in a minute. But for the latter half of the 18th Century and the dawn of the 19th, the London Times on Dec. 25 only bothered mentioning Christmas about half the time. It just wasn't a big deal.

The people who made Santa Claus as we know him today are largely the same people who made Christmas as we know it: Charles Dickens in Britain and little-known Clement Clarke Moore in the United States (Washington Irving had created an "American" Santa in 1808 – a fat Dutch sailor – tongue in cheek as a way to mock the Dutch, so that doesn't quite count). Of course you know Dickens, although you might not realize how instrumental A Christmas Carol was in making Christmas a major cultural holiday in Britain. You don't necessarily know CC Moore, but a poem he wrote for his children, published at the urging of his friends and family in 1823, is well known. "A Visit from Saint Nicholas" begins:

Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar plums danced in their heads,

This poem created and established 99% of what we "know" about Santa Claus today – the sleigh pulled by 9 reindeer (which Moore named), landing on the roof and entering down the chimney, and the sack of toys made in his workshop. Moore used the name St. Nicholas, but the character he created was essentially an amalgam of Father Christmas (who was responsible for moving the gifting from St. Nicholas' feast day to Dec. 24), St. Nicholas, and Sinterklaas.

Before Moore and Dickens, images of Santa Claus existed but varied considerably by region. These authors began the process of standardizing the character and his narrative. Appearance-wise, Santa also began to take on a single recognizable form. He wore a robe like Father Christmas, but it was red (the color of Sinterklaas' bishop's robes) instead of green. He had a big white beard and a large belly like both the Sinterklaas and Father Christmas characters before him, as this appearance was considered to make him more "jolly." Political cartoonist Thomas Nast's depictions of Santa in this form cemented the image and it has varied little since the mid-19th Century (Nast also created, in 1886, the idea of a workshop on the North Pole. No one is quite sure where the idea of elves originated.)

The idea that Santa was created by the Coca-Cola company is an urban legend, although early 20th Century Coke advertising certainly did popularize the character even more. The fact that he wore Coke colors didn't hurt.

Finally, in the 1930s, Montgomery Ward gave away millions of coloring books to children every year as a promotion, so they tasked one of their advertising copywriters, Robert May, with creating their own coloring book. They saw this as a cheaper alternative to buying coloring books from vendors. He created the story of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" based on the reindeer in Moore's poem. The coloring book was wildly popular and May's brother wrote a song based on its story, recorded in 1939 by Gene Autry and immediately becoming a mega-hit. The stop-motion animated Rudolph TV special created in 1964 elaborated the story considerably but retained most elements of May's original storyline.

If you ever win money at trivia or on a game show for knowing any of this, I get 10% off the top. That means before taxes, people.

COME ON, JUST THE TIP

Posted in Rants on December 12th, 2012 by Ed

As many of you are no doubt well aware, this tends to be a forum for relentless negativity in terms of politics. The reasons are many, none more important than the fact that small, incremental victories mean little to me in the context of the long, steady, thirty-plus year downward slide toward a lower standard of living that has defined post-1980 America. There are things to celebrate here and there, but there is no momentum behind the positives. All of the momentum is in the opposite direction; every year we get a little poorer, the schools get a little more defunded, the textbooks get a little more revisionist history and industry-sponsored "science", the corporations get a little more human in court, the jobs with benefits become a little rarer, the playing field gets a bit less level, and the feeling that things have changed for the worse in a very fundamental way nags a bit more insistently.

There has been a surprising (which is to say, nonzero) amount of coverage of Michigan's passage of a "Right to Work" law earlier this week. Given that Michigan is a traditionally union-heavy northern state and RTW laws tend to proliferate in cesspits like Mississippi and Oklahoma, the media have responded predictably with feigned shock and plenty of What This Means commentary letting us know that Reasonable People now recognize that unionization is a thing of the past. It's all part of our great evolution into a completely postindustrial economy, and now we can look back on pensions, decent wages, and benefits with the same nostalgia we currently reserve for railroads and the Victrola.

This happens the same way "austerity" has happened and will continue to happen: in a slow, steady process of downwardly revised expectations, stern lectures about your moral failings (Live within your means! Work harder! Shop more!), and Tough Choices that screw you continuously but incrementally. Michigan voters elect the kind of people who will pass RTW legislation for the same reason that we've been shooting ourselves in the foot for decades now – the combined illusion and lie that if we make just one more sacrifice that lowers our standard of living while allowing the already wealthy to amass even more money, things will turn around for the rest of us. Just give up defined benefit pensions for the stock market roulette of 401(k) plans. Give up health insurance for Health Savings Accounts (or, you know, nothing). Accept some wage cuts to be more competitive with workers in Possum Junction, Alabama. Accept a few more to be competitive with workers in Mexico. Give up a few more of your rights to save the company money. Deregulate a few more industries – sure, some people will probably get sick or die, but we have to think about ways to cut overhead and be More Competitive.

Like any good con, it's always the next sacrifice that will be the one that does it, the magic bullet that finally solves the problem. And then when it doesn't, there will be just one more next year, and then maybe another one a few years from now, and then…ten or twenty years pass and we don't even remember what it was we were promised when we starting cutting flesh, and we're reduced to hoping that the next sacrifice will be enough to keep us from losing the house.

The first bite from the apple took place under Reagan, when we collectively agreed that the problem with the American economy is that rich people aren't rich enough; it has been all downhill from there. Now Congress is poised to take the first bite from another apple – the "entitlement reform" that will begin the process of eroding our ability to retire from our jobs that barely paid the bills for 40 years. Sure, just take a chunk out of Social Security and Medicare and then we'll be safe from the Fiscal Cliff and all other similar boogeymen. Then in 2016 there will be another Big Crisis demanding further cuts, as it turns out that those cuts that promised to Save Medicare did not work out as the Oracle had promised. Since we'll already have normalized the idea of sacrificing parts of SS and Medicare, the downward trajectory will already be mapped out and heavily greased. You don't need a time machine to recognize where this is headed once the cuts begin.

It's always "just one more." One more round of cuts. One more bout of austerity. One more tax cut for the rich. One more voluntary surrender of your rights. Like a gambler in over his head who believes that the next hand will bring salvation, we are all too eager to accept the argument that economic turnaround is so close that we can reach it with just one more big collective sacrifice by (98% of) all Americans. And then, lo and behold, it turns out that we did not sacrifice a large enough animal to appease God Market. Again.

It's difficult to get excited about taking a step forward when doing so is inevitably followed by three in reverse.

WAITING ROOM

Posted in Quick Hits on December 11th, 2012 by Ed

Monday's post deserves to marinate for a while longer, but I'm compelled to point out that today is the 40th anniversary of the landing of the final manned mission to the Moon. On Dec. 11, 1972 Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt became, as of today, the last humans to set foot on the Moon, beginning a three day mission. Cernan, who was the last to leave the lunar surface and aware that all future Apollo missions had been canceled, said:

I'm on the surface; and, as I take man's last step from the surface, back home for some time to come – but we believe not too long into the future – I'd like to just [say] what I believe history will record. That America's challenge of today has forged man's destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return: with peace and hope for all mankind. Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17.

The Apollo program gave way to the brief and ill-fated Skylab program and then the Space Shuttle. Despite the great fanfare with which the latter program ended recently, in scientific terms it was a poor substitute for Apollo, Gemini, and Mercury. It signaled NASA's transition – in the 1980s, coincidentally enough – to a delivery and maintenance service for government and private sector satellites. Not quite as exciting as walking on the Moon (which, of course, can be criticized on the basis of its scientific value as well) and sadly indicative of a shift in national priorities.