HELLO FROM AMERICA!

Posted in Quick Hits on January 30th, 2013 by Ed

Not that you'd notice from watching the news, but the U.S. has lent a helping hand to French colonialism (It hasn't even advanced to the point of neo-colonialism yet in Niger, the uranium under which is to the French nuclear power industry what Saudi oil is to the American auto industry) in West Africa. Yes, yes, we can throw around tales of Islamist rebels and terrorists-in-training throughout the region, of which there are most certainly plenty. However, given the general instability and weakness of the governments in that part of the world and the vast stretches of territory across the Sahel that is "governed" in name only, the logic behind Western intervention is not entirely clear.

Moreover, the U.S. has just reached an agreement to start flying its global ambassadors for democracy – Flying Death Robots – out of Niger due to what is characterized as a complete lack of ground-level intelligence in the region. We are masters of the soft sell, so we'll send in the unarmed surveillance drones first. Any bets on when the Reapers and Predators make an appearance? I have July 2013 in the pool.

The truly stunning part of the linked Guardian article is this:

The move would be the latest in a gradual expansion of American surveillance drones in Africa, which have so far been operated from Burkina Faso, Ethiopia and Djibouti

I tend to pay attention to these things, and I had absolutely no idea that we were already flying these things not only out of the Horn of Africa (USAFRICOM operates out of a US Naval Base, Camp Lemmonier, in Djibouti, so that makes sense) but also out of Burkina Faso in West Africa. You'd think that would be newsworthy.

Is the strategy to cover the entire planet with these things incrementally until…everyone on Earth realizes how wonderful America is, or something? However real the need for intelligence might be, the idea of attempting to cover the globe with the robotic, all-seeing eye of the Department of Defense seems like folly, a post-Cold War version of the idea that we could build enough bomb shelters to make nuclear war a mild inconvenience at worst.

Burkina Faso is still Upper Volta to me, by the way.

TAQU'IL

Posted in Arbitrary Thing of the Day on January 29th, 2013 by Ed

This Killer Mike album is fantastic. Or should I say this Taqu'il album. Much better than Tha Ballocaust.

PANIC ROOM

Posted in Rants on January 29th, 2013 by Ed

From the briefs filed in the impending Supreme Court case in California's Prop 8:

Paul D. Clement, a solicitor general under President George W. Bush and now representing House Republicans, argued that marriage should be only for men and women because only straight couples can 'produce unplanned and unintended offspring."

By contrast, if gay people want to have a child, "substantial advance planning is required."

So planned children are – bad? And unexpected, possibly unwanted children are – good?

And that’s a sound legal argument against gay marriage?

According to Clement, yes, because "unintended children" born and raised out of wedlock "would pose a burden on society." As of 2010, about 40% of U.S. children are born out of wedlock, 10 times the number of 50 and 60 years ago. No one calls them "illegitimate" or "bastards" any longer, and their birth does not send their parents racing to the altar in order to shield the child from now-nonexistent shame – and to save "society" from the burden of supporting them.

I'm going to pause while you re-read that until you can figure out what in the hell they're even arguing. If at first glance it makes no sense whatsoever, do not adjust the contrast. You're perceiving things correctly.

You're used to me taking potshots at right-wingers for lacking ideas other than "Cut taxes" and "Fire cruise missiles at it." This, however, is not an example of people who are out of ideas. These are people who have a vast number of ideas, and all of them blow. These are people scrambling for something to plug the leak while their boat sinks. If it isn't time for full blown panic, it's close to it.

Recently I've noticed a trend – hearing people talk about these issues regularly over time gives me an interesting perspective on how the goalposts and talking points shift – toward perhaps the last plank of the anti-gay marriage platform that could reasonably be called a legal argument: the idea that gay marriage presents some demonstrable harm to society, and government can regulate such things in the public interest. It's really not hard to make conservatives turn purple when they toss this line at you; "So the government should ban things that could be argued to harm society. Like giant sodas? Guns? Violent movies? I thought you guys were against the nanny state."

Unless they're willing to take the football and run with it on that point, proudly championing the idea that government exists to criminalize that which might cause harm, they're really out of ammo in this fight. That's not to say that the Supreme Court will rule against them – Scalia, Thomas, and Kennedy have a history of basically writing editorials as opinions on this issue, and who knows what Appeals to Tradition they will cite this time. But that's pretty much all they have left. Religious arguments. Moral arguments. Appeals to tradition and public opinion (which is quickly realigning against them on this issue). As far as their ability to build an actual case against legalizing gay marriage, this is shaping up to be a spectacle of mediocrity. They might be out of gas, finally.

I have always considered and continue to consider gay marriage a Full Faith and Credit Clause issue; if one state issues a civil license, the Constitution plainly states that it is the obligation of other states to honor it. Your Vermont drivers' license is valid in Oklahoma, and so is your New York marriage license. The legal principle at work there changes not one bit when a state redefines marriage. Every state, for example, has different rules about the age at which people can marry without parental consent. Marriage is something people made up that governments see an interest in making an enforceable, legally binding contract. Its definition has changed and will continue to change. That we even have to waste time debating this is indicative of how thoroughly convinced religious conservatives are that their beliefs and the law are one and the same.

FROM HELL'S HEART, I STAB AT MONDAY

Posted in Arbitrary Thing of the Day on January 28th, 2013 by Ed

ANTECEDENT VARIABLES

Posted in Ed vs. Logical Fallacies on January 28th, 2013 by Ed

If you've ever sat through a course on statistics, logic, or nearly any social science you've seen the example of the strong correlation between ice cream sales and crime. Although this is usually used to emphasize that correlation and causality are not always found together, it has also been useful to me when teaching research methods to illustrate the concept of antecedent variables. These are variables that explain, in whole or in part, the relationship between two other variables that are (or appear to be) correlated. In this instance the antecedent that drives both crime and ice cream sales is of course warm weather. Another good example is the relationship between educational attainment and income, both of which are positively influenced by parental income.

I could probably spend the rest of my life explaining this concept to Betsy Woodruff over at America's Crappiest Websitetm without having it sink in enough to make her retract this gem: "Are Frat Brothers Natural Conservatives? For many, the Greek system may offer a respite from liberal academia." It's loaded with gems of logic such as, "He says part of the reason members of the Greek system tend to be more conservative than their independent peers is that the organizations celebrate tradition and history."

Yes, that. And the fact that fraternities are, by definition, loaded to the gunwales with white males from wealthy families. I wonder if that could explain both their presence in the priciest parts of campus and their conservatism.

What do I know, I'm just a liberal academic. I'd better get some rest, I have a long day of indoctrinating students in my new course, "POLS 102: Embracing Muslim Communist Homo-Bortion". The prerequisite is defiling a Holy Bible.

But wait! There's more! Check out this adorable little blurb:

"The real thing we faced, even more than the bureaucracy of the university, was the on-campus media," he says. "It was something we were constantly combating, having negative stories surrounding our fraternity or other fraternities on campus being the highlight in the school newspaper."

He says negative stories were blown out of proportion and given front-page real estate, while the sparse coverage of Greeks' philanthropic work was relegated to the back. And Warren says the bias could have been a product of liberal push-back against institutions perceived as bastions of conservatism. Burns noticed the same thing. He described the paper at the University of Indiana as "extremely liberal" and "very, very against the Greek system." When he travels to promote his publication on other campuses, he says, he consistently hears stories of anti-Greek bias among student journalists.

Well they're certainly good conservatives; they're not even 21 and they already excel at blaming their image problems on the media. I don't understand why "Greek Life" doesn't get better press, what with the explicit classism and the commonly ostentatious lifestyles and the hazing and the sexual assaults and the annual excitement of Deaths from Alcohol Poisoning during Rush Week.

Also, "University of Indiana" doesn't exist, you nitwits.

NPF: BLEST WITH VICT'RY AND PEACE

Posted in No Politics Friday on January 25th, 2013 by Ed

Now that hockey season is upon us I am once again reminded that America's national anthem may hold its own in a vacuum but is badly outclassed by "O, Canada." As an American I want to do that thing Americans do and insist that Ours is the Best Thing out of all things; as a person who thinks about things and values honesty, I cannot. Nonetheless this offers an excellent opportunity to share some random, and in some cases not widely known, facts about our national anthem:

1. We are taught that Francis Scott Key wrote the Star-Spangled Banner, which is only partially true. He actually wrote a poem in 1814 with the snappy title of, "The Defence of Fort McHenry." The music to which the poem was set was written by John Stafford Smith in 1780 as the theme song of a London gentlemen's club (which did not yet mean "titty bar" at the time) called the Anacreon Society. The tune was called "To Anacreon in Heaven" and its lyrics were about figures from Greek mythology.

2. The poem actually has four stanzas, of which the song in its present form includes only the first one. Each stanza ends identically with "…home of the brave!" The unfamiliar second, third, and fourth stanzas contain some real clunkers for lyrics, such as "Blest with vict'ry and peace, may the Heav'n rescued land. Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!" It's a real shame we don't get to sing that one.

3. The song did not become the National Anthem until…1931. Prior to that it was often played at military, political, and civic events but it coexisted with other songs that served as de facto anthems. The most popular were the now almost entirely forgotten "Hail, Columbia" and "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" (which is, of course, merely "God Save the Queen" with different lyrics). After the Civil War, "Battle Hymn of the Republic" became (and remains) quite popular as well.

4. The song is very difficult to sing, which a national anthem should not be. Its key (B-flat major) and 1.5-octave range leave the average citizen of no particular choral skill unable to sing it. This is also why you can spend an entire day on YouTube watching videos of singers butchering the high notes. Accordingly, one man is leading a crusade to have the song performed in the key of G-Major, which would allow those of us with pedestrian vocal cords to sing it without scaring animals.

He seems a little weird, yes. The point about other nations' anthems being easier to sing is not without merit, though.

5. People often recall the instrumental Jimi Hendrix/Woodstock version of the song as a source of great controversy, but a folk version performed by Jose Feliciano in Detroit at the 1968 World Series was actually much more controversial at the time. Feliciano's career was seriously damaged in the U.S. by the performance, even after players (and legendary broadcaster Ernie Harwell) defended him. Ironically, he was invited back in 2012 to perform the same version of the song during the National League playoffs.

And now you're ready to impress no one in particular the next time you're at the ballgame and you hear those opening bars.

2012 LIEBERMAN AWARD WINNER: THE SENATE RAPE CAUCUS

Posted in Rants on January 23rd, 2013 by Ed

(Just a quick note: I felt like we all outgrew the previous name of the annual award given to the worst example of a human being, so it has been re-named in honor of perennial finalist and one-time winner Joe Lieberman. I'd like to take a moment to recognize Senator Lieberman for his long career of being a d-bag. If you're having a rough day, sit back and remember that Joe Lieberman is no longer an elected official. That's something.)

medalElection years are absolutely lousy with assholes, and the selection process for this award is a veritable embarrassment of shitheads. This year we met Jerry Sandusky (and his facilitators), E.L. James, Gotye, Paul Ryan, Karl Rove, Peggy Noonan, and perennial favorites like David Brooks, Mitch McConnell, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum. How does one choose a single name from that pantheon of human detritus? This isn't even accounting for bleedingly obvious choices like Mitt Romney, Rush Limbaugh, and Eric Cantor pretty much any House Republican. And that's not even expanding the search outside of the United States.

I was very tempted to offer the award to Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler (oh, go ahead and just try to guess which party) for running on a jihad against the nonexistent problem of "voter fraud"…and then using public funds to travel to the RNC and to a voter suppression conference administered by an association of right-wing lawyers. Then I strongly considered Karl Rove, who challenged Budd Dwyer for the title of Most Emphatic Suicide on Live Television on election night. In reality, though, it was way too entertaining and enjoyable to serve as a year defining act of assholery.

Though I dislike the idea of giving the award to more than one person, the honest choice for 2012 has to be the GOP Rape Caucus – the candidates for the House and Senate who decided that the best way for the GOP to stay ahead of the social and demographic changes in the electorate is to take really, really batshit insane positions on abortion. Furthermore, if there's anything women voters (or non-voters) love, it's when a gray, wrinkled, dour-faced 65 year old white guy explains to them what rape is along with his special theories on the workings of the female reproductive system.

Three men in particular drove home this point in 2012. First, Todd Akin rejected exceptions in abortion legislation for rape because women cannot become pregnant from rape ("From what I understand from doctors, that's really rare. If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let's assume that maybe that didn't work or something. I think there should be some punishment. But the punishment ought to be of the rapist, and not attacking the child.") Never before has the phrase "maybe that didn't work or something" been more indicative of a person's intellectual underpinnings. Richard Mourdock, running in a slam dunk Senate race in Indiana, then decided to tell everyone that pregnant rape victims should be forced to have the baby. Now there's a popular stance! Then Joe Walsh, running in a safe Illinois congressional district, told us that abortion is never necessary to protect the life and health of a pregnant woman. Tell us more, fellas!

Just so we're all clear, these three old rich white guys want to stand before rape victims and tell them you have to have that child. Because I said so. You take it from here, Joe Pesci in Raging Bull:



You've heard of Akin and Mourdock, but they were hardly alone among GOP Senate candidates in 2012. Turns out that 12 of the 33 opposed rape/incest provisions in abortion legislation. Akin and Mourdock became the poster boys for today's Republican: a reactionary, sanctimonious Know-Nothing trying his damnedest to drag the United States back to the 18th Century.

Their actions are in keeping with the smug, self-satisfied, and unctuous tradition of Joe Lieberman himself. Truly they are assholes of year-defining proportions.

PARTY OF IDEAS

Posted in Quick Hits on January 22nd, 2013 by Ed

Virginia State Senator Henry Marsh, a 79 year old Democrat and veteran of the civil rights movement, received an invitation to Monday's inauguration ceremony. Of course he went even though the Virginia Senate is currently in session. With the chamber perfectly divided – 20 Democrats, 20 Republicans – the GOP decided to do the only sensible thing and cram through a redistricting plan while the Democrats were temporarily outnumbered. The Lt. Governor had previously stated he would not cast a tie-breaking vote in favor of the bill if the Senate was evenly divided.

The GOP used to fancy itself the "Party of Ideas", but for the past decade or two it seems like the only ideas they come up with are ways to sidestep whatever checks and balances are in place to protect the process from their fondness for autocratic rule and curious interpretations of the law.

That's how you can tell they represent the public as a whole – or at least a majority of it – as opposed to a shrinking minority of angry white people; their ideas are so good that they can't bring them to a floor vote. Like the widespread (and ultimately laughable) efforts at voter suppression in 2012, this kind of Cheat to Retain Power at All Costs strategy looks like the death throes of a party that no longer has any other way to get what it wants.

ICE STATION ZEBRA

Posted in Arbitrary Thing of the Day on January 21st, 2013 by Ed

It's 4 degrees F right now and some people who are new to the Midwest might be unfamiliar with dressing for such extreme cold. Follow this step-by-step process to protect yourself against dangerously cold temperatures.

1. Gather all of your long-sleeved t-shirts and sweaters.
2. Put them on.

Do not deviate from this procedure.

PIECEMEAL

Posted in Rants on January 21st, 2013 by Ed

Recently I was asked why a parent should pay to send a child to my current university when there are so many inexpensive degrees now available online. I repeated the standard, albeit completely honest, reaction among academics at traditional brick-and-mortar institutions: If you want to buy a degree, go to University of Phoenix. If you want an education, go to a real college. Online education excels at offering the cheapest, easiest route to a degree. But that's it. Cheap and easy are the positives. The downside is learning next to nothing. If you simply need a degree to get a promotion from G-8 to G-11 at the Department of Such-and-Such, then online courses are ideal for you. If you want to learn stuff, they're not. It has its place, but it's important to be realistic about what the process does and does not do well.

Back in 2007, Boeing was the subject of many glowing tributes among business journalists and other ooze-secreting MBA types for their revolutionary approach to building the 787 Dreamliner. After decades of the aircraft industry building and re-building the same basic designs in different sizes, the 787 was going to be an evolutionary leap. It would use plastics and carbon fiber in place of metal, electronics in place of hydraulics, and other weight/space saving technologies. Another novel aspect of its design was that Boeing was essentially going to crowdsource it and build it "efficiently" (i.e., on the cheap). It cut development costs with H-1B visas, cut production costs with outsourcing, and allowed its contractors to freely subcontract to further reduce costs. The 787 is truly the Plane Globalization Built.

Rest assured that the numerous emergency landings and the worldwide grounding of the aircraft that have been delivered (several years late) is unrelated.

Thankfully the internet's memory is as long as mine, and here you can enjoy an example of the kind of praise heaped on the company for the innovation of farming out the job of building the components of an exceptionally complex machine to – wait for it – over 900 contractors and subcontractors when all was said and done.

Boeing says 70% of the 787 has been outsourced; rival Airbus is relying on subcontractors for about 50% of its A350 plane, now in development. "This farming-out of the airplane's construction is revolutionary," says Richard Aboulafia, vice president at Teal Group, an aerospace consulting firm.

Revolutionary! Contracting was done with American, Korean, Japanese, French, Italian, German, and Australian companies among others, and each of these subcontracted the actual labor to the usual suspects – Eastern Europe, China, Mexico, South America, and the like.

Unfortunately Boeing is starting to realize that outsourcing and cheap labor are good at making really inexpensive disposable goods. Consumer electronics. Clothes. Shoes. Toys. It's not so good at making the most complex machines ever devised by mankind, which happen to have a very low tolerance for system failures. If your Reeboks fall apart or your Blu-Ray player craps out, you're probably going to be irritated. If the electrical subsystems on an aircraft stop working, you're probably going to be dead. Yes, aircraft like this have redundant systems and not every failure results in a catastrophe. But we're not talking about a new iPhone here, where the attitude in development can be, "Just release it and we'll shake out all the bugs in the first year."

The issues with this airplane should not be overblown, but they should not be interpreted solely as problems with one product from one company. This is an important example of the limited benefits of outsourcing and other "globalization" practices. As I've said many times before, it makes things cheaper. That's what it does. That's all it does. It does not make things better, safer, or even necessarily faster. It's merely a way to pay fewer people in high-wage countries as a means of maximizing profits. The idea that Boeing would assemble a bunch of components made by hundreds of different contractors into the most technologically advanced airliner in the world shows how little value is given to quality and safety in comparison to penny-pinching.