NPF: STUCK TOGETHER

Posted in No Politics Friday on January 18th, 2013 by Ed

I'm going to keep this brief today while we (I) continue to reflect on yesterday's experiment in fiction. It is possible that I am the only non-stoned person on Earth to watch marathons of the Science Channel show How It's Made. It's a flashback to the grainy color films I saw in grade school when the teacher was hungover; shiny objects whizzing along on conveyor belts, a ballet of robots moving in unison, and the hands and tools of humans whose faces we rarely see. Look, it's not the most exciting programming but I find it perfect to have on in he background. It can easily be tuned out when I am focusing on writing or reading, or I can pay attention to it for a few minutes and learn something irrelevant but interesting.

Also, it's a nice throwback to when networks like The Learning Channel and Discovery had programs that weren't about motorcycles, people blowing shit up, and swamp truck log pickers or whatever.

If there is an episode of How It's Made that does not use a combination of the terms glue, resin, and epoxy at least ten times, I have not seen it. You could be a pedant and explain how those are not the same thing. I don't care. My point is that the lesson I take away from that show most often is that everything in the damn world is glued together. Things made of metal, wood, plastic, cloth, carbon fiber…it doesn't matter. It's all getting a "coat of resin" before it gets stuck to something else. Everything from coffee pots to billiard tables to appliances to boats is basically glued together, with a few screws here and there.

Now I have no scientific basis for judging whether this is good, bad, or irrelevant. It is a tad jarring, though, to realize that the whole world is held together by glue, as I associate gluing things together as a last resort second in laziness only to the application of duct tape.

Oh, and speaking of, can I interest you in a bumper sticker? See what I did here? That was the mother of all segues.

FOR WANT OF A NAIL

Posted in Rants on January 17th, 2013 by Ed

(January 16, 2033. A fire-lit cabin in the hills of Brezhnev City, Stalinton – formerly Boise, Idaho. A man sitting on a shattered milk crate looks older than his 53 years. His rumpled, malnourished grandson sits at his feet.)

"Grandpa? My friend Sergei says that this used to be the most powerful country in the world. Is that true? I thought it sounded silly."

Grandpa looked around cautiously. They are alone. "Actually, your friend is right, Vlad. It used to be called 'America'." His eyes glimmer briefly. "Now there's a word I haven't heard in ages."

"What does it mean?", the child asked.

"No one knows. Some say it's an Injun word meaning 'God's chosen people.'"

Vladimir is more confused than enlightened by this information. "Well if America was so powerful, what happened? Today one of the Petrov girls died during Orderly Socialist Playtime, and teacher said to be careful with her body because her parents might want to eat her. Why do moms and dads have to eat their own kids, Grandpa? Are you gonna eat me someday?"

"Heavens no!", Grandpa chuckled. Oh, the things kids say. Who was that man with the TV show about kids saying funny things? Now it's gonna drive me crazy, he thought. Colored fellow, with those delightful sweaters. Hmm. Oh, no matter. He gently chided himself for thinking of frivolous things. Think about something important, you old coot. Like where you're going to find enough turnips for daily meal tomorrow. Vladimir's ribs are showing, for god's sake.

Ah, God. Another flashback. How long since he was banished from these lands?

"I don't get it," the boy insisted. "This country doesn't seem powerful. What happened to it?"

Grandpa inhaled deeply. How much can a child understand? He isn't old enough. But if you don't tell him, old man, then who will?

He paused to consider his words. "Vladdie, a little more than 20 years ago, America was a wonderful place, full of more people than you could ever imagine. And 53% of them were the best people who ever walked the Earth. But back then countries used to choose their leaders. Isn't that something? Imagine if you got to pick the Great People's Secretary! Well if people can pick their leaders, that means sometimes people will pick a bad one. And that's what happened."

Vladimir struggled to process this. "What was his name?"

Grandpa suddenly looked pained. "You already know his name, child. You say your Patriot's Loyalty Oath to his picture every morning."

"You mean…Father Obama?"

The name sends shivers down his spine. Or maybe he is just cold. So cold.

"Back then we called him 'President' Obama." His face was taut with the tension of a man forced to recall an ex-wife or a particularly obstinate bowel movement. "We the People" – gosh, what a phrase! – "gave him power. And then he became a tyrant." The child looked confused again. "A tyrant is someone who takes all of the power for himself."

"Is…is Father Obama a 'Tyrant' then?"

"He is. He certainly is. That is why we must till the mung bean fields for him every day, dawn to dusk. That is why he took our cars and melted down the metal to make rings for gay weddings. That is why every year the child selected in the Lottery is fed to dogs at the Coliseum for his amusement."

Just then, the old man noticed that his fist was clenched tightly.

Vladimir paused, unsure if he should go on. Hesitantly, he said, "If he was bad, why didn't you pick a new one?"

"BECAUSE!", Grandpa roared. He even startled himself with the outburst. He forced himself to relax. The fire was getting low now. "Because he changed things so that we couldn't." He anticipated the next question. "We tried to stop him. Oh how we tried. We fought a war, a war that is not taught in your history class. Many people died. Millions, maybe. Your Uncle Vernon died in the Patriotic War, as did…" A long pause. "…as did your Grandma."

For a moment there was silence. "I suppose you want to know the rest of the story, sonny. That's OK. Don't be shy."

"I do, Grandpa. If there was a war, why did you…" He regretted the word choice. "…why did the people lose?"

It is not an easy question to answer, even though Grandpa and everyone else who remembered the War knows exactly why. Some memories are too painful to relive. It was like being hypnotized and having memories of one's own circumcision extracted from the subconscious and played out in vivid Technicolor.

"We lost," he began slowly, struggling to choke down the Slurpee of pain and anguish he was being forced to drink, "because our guns couldn't hold enough bullets." This, the boy seemed to understand. Certainly he was familiar with guns, what with the People's Security Police on every block. "Their guns could hold 30 bullets. Ours could not."

The fire was nearly extinguished now. The boy began to rise to find another chip of dried ox dung to burn. Suddenly, Grandpa continued. "Your Uncle Vern died not too far from here. I was with him when it happened. The Blackshirts were attacking our humble village and we were giving 'em all they could handle. They sent a flock of their trained Death Beagles after poor Vern. He was a great shot though. He picked 'em off, one by one. But then…then he pulled the trigger and nothing happened except a little 'click'. He had shot 15 of those evil monsters, child, but there were 15 more. First they gnawed out his eyes. Then, as they were trained to do to all heterosexuals, they bit off his genitals. He was still alive to watch those trained dogs remove and eat his intestines, occasionally pausing to attack the driver of a non-hybrid car. It was…the look in his eyes was something I will carry with me forever."

It was now completely dark. The daily Match Ration was gone; there was no way to restart the fire. "Grandpa? Would Uncle Vern be alive today if his gun held 30 bullets?"

"He would be. Yes he would be."

"Grandpa? Would…would America still be alive too?"

This was the deepest cut, like a cut that is so deep that you look at it and say, wow, that is way deep.

"Yes," he muttered, barely audible. Then they sat in silence looking at the extinguished fire, a subtle metaphor for the extinguished nation for which he grieved silently and always.

AS WE REMEMBER IT

Posted in Quick Hits on January 16th, 2013 by Ed

A quote has been circulating around the interwebs and underscoring the fact that the Ronald Reagan that modern conservatives worship to a truly unsettling extent bears little resemblance to the one who was president for eight years. We already know that he raised taxes, spent like a drunken sailor, and believed in separating church and state. Now apparently he had some doubts about military-style weapons being protected under the 2nd Amendment for public consumption:

I do not believe in taking away the right of the citizen for sporting, for hunting and so forth, or for home defense. But I do believe that an AK-47, a machine gun, is not a sporting weapon or needed for defense of a home.

Like their continuous pining for the Disneyland Americana version of the 1950s – the idealized America that never was – modern Republicans are much more enthusiastic about the Reagan in their imaginations than the real one. It's almost like there's a pattern wherein what they choose to believe trumps facts and reality.

FOLLOW THE BOUNCING BALL

Posted in Rants on January 15th, 2013 by Ed

Like everything else, the economy and job market are subject to fads. Every few years there's some new job or field that we tell our children to study in college and for which politicians pretend we're going to re-train laid off auto workers. Every time I see one of those "10 Fastest Growing Careers!" stories I immediately flash to Dustin Hoffman being cornered at a party in The Graduate: "One word: Plastics!"

Whenever there appears to be a hint of demand in some field or industry, we are all encouraged to stampede toward it. It's like watching eight year olds play soccer, mindlessly (and fruitlessly) chasing the ball from one place to another. Just in my lifetime I've seen the ball bounce from business (especially MBA) programs to anything remotely related to computers to law schools to medical fields like nursing and pharmacy. If I had a nickel for every article or new segment on the nursing shortage in the last ten years I'd…be making money in a very strange manner. I'd also have a lot of nickels.

And now, lo and behold, it turns out that doubling the number of nursing students from a decade ago is producing more graduates than the job market will absorb. Sound familiar, law school grads? After a lifetime of parents, guidance counselors, and academic advisers telling you that it was a great idea, you reach the end of your education and find a saturated job market. Your primary achievement appears to be helping to create a buyer's labor market for corporate hospitals and their endless battles with nurses' unions.

As the linked article shows, nurses and nursing students are apparently turning to the same fallacy that has sustained academia for the past five or ten years: that there is a giant cohort of Baby Boomers all getting ready to retire and they're just hanging on right now until their 401(k)s turn around. They're always just about to start retiring. Next year! Or maybe like five years! But it's gonna be soon, we swear. The problem, of course, is that the stock market has largely recovered since 2008, and when these aging boomers do retire, employers will look to a job market choked with tens of thousands of desperate candidates and offer salary and benefits that look nothing like what the departing older workers got. In academia, this means replacing retired tenured faculty with temps, adjuncts, and other industry terms for "cheap labor". In nursing, this means more hospitals outsourcing nursing to staffing agencies and short-term contract employment, meaning that the reasons we were all told to stampede toward that field in the first place – a shortage of qualified workers, good salary/benefits, and job security – no longer exist.

I think that's called "bait and switch." Or maybe it's not a bug, but a feature of the exciting new Third Wave knowledge-and-services economy. We never know what The Market will want from one moment to the next, and when it changes course we all need to drop what we're doing, uncomplainingly give up the human capital and experience we've amassed in whatever field we've been in, and learn how to do whatever new thing seems to be in demand. This would be ludicrous enough on its face without the added bonus of doing all that and finding that you can't even get a job in the Hot New Field.

LIKE THEY DO IN THE FUTURE

Posted in Arbitrary Thing of the Day on January 14th, 2013 by Ed

On heavy rotation. I don't know if anyone out there right now is consistently laying down sicker beats than El-P.

I think that track actually IS from the future.

INTERSPECIES RIVALRY

Posted in Rants on January 14th, 2013 by Ed

Very few experiences are as horrifying and frustrating as talking about poverty in a college classroom. I have found this to be true both at "affordable" state schools and an expensive private school. Regardless of what we tell ourselves about scholarship programs and need-based financial aid, almost no one in college comes from actual poverty. The environment is overwhelmingly populated by middle and upper middle class kids. Certainly some of them have had rougher lives than others, and not all of them come from wealth by any stretch of the imagination. They do, however, often have a hard time recognizing that their life experiences might not be universally applicable.

The best way I can describe it is this: college students, reflecting the habits they've picked up from parents, family, communities, and the media, talk about poor people like they are a different species. The way they approach and conceptualize the issue is either filled with pure disdain (from the right-wingers) or almost unbearable paternalism (from the liberals). Very, very few students that I have met show the kind of maturity it takes to see poverty as a social construct. They see the poor as this kind of lamentable animal that is too stupid to survive without our help.

One of the inevitable laws of public discourse in the U.S. is that when poverty is discussed, someone must point out that poor people often have expensive things. iPhones and "big screen TVs" are popular props for this talking point, as are cars, Nikes, and any item of clothing above oily rags or a barrel and suspenders. This is to reinforce the fact that poverty is a matter of individual choice and/or that it is self-inflicted.

I am never clear about what we are supposed to gain from this wisdom. You mean…people who are uneducated, and in many cases functionally or completely illiterate, don't make good financial choices? Well I'm just shocked. Yes, one of the problems with poverty is that people who are poor develop bad habits (which, it is never noted in fairness, a lot of people who are far from poor also have) like spending money immediately rather than saving it or purchasing things they want when they can't afford their basic needs first. Yeah? And? What's the solution?

Since collective solutions are off the docket – Hey, let's maybe educate children so they turn into adults with basic life skills, and maybe let's work toward a society that doesn't have a massive impoverished underclass! – the only solutions we can ever come up with are to give Victorian lectures to the poor about their moral failings or to make their decisions for them. That there are plenty of non-poor Americans who have the exact same problems managing their finances should be a hint that the poor really are no different than the rest of us as individuals. Instead, no matter how good our intentions may be we almost inevitably talk about the poor like an infestation. The causes of poverty are not the problem that needs solving – the poor themselves are the problem, and our job as comfortable bourgeois people is to figure out what to do with them.

It's really quite horrifying to watch all of this unfold, but I don't hold it against young people when they express these attitudes. They're merely parroting what they've been hearing at home and on TV their entire lives.

NPF: CASHED OUT

Posted in No Politics Friday on January 11th, 2013 by Ed

The year is 1930. Look out, Shipwreck Kelly – people are dancing the Charleston atop flagpoles everywhere! The Philadelphia Athletics are charging toward the World Series behind the big bat of Jimmie Foxx! The Great Depression enters its sixth and most likely final month! The nation is roiled in hysterics at the antics of Krazy Kat!

Some of that probably isn't true, but I really want to take you on a historical journey and the proper setting is important. Though none of us were alive in that year, some of you are old enough to remember that what I'm about to tell you is 100% true: in 1930, there were six different kinds of paper currency in use in the United States. Not six different denominations; six different kinds of money. By the end of the Depression only three remained as the Federal government moved aggressively to gain more control over the money supply (and its supply of precious metals, as we'll see). Today there is only one. Nonetheless, any of these can still be used as legal tender although the collectible value of most examples would far outweigh its nominal value.

A bit of background. In 1928 the U.S. fully abandoned what collectors and historians uncreatively call "large size" currency. Throughout the 19th Century and beginning of the 20th, paper money varied widely in side. Most of it was much larger than what we use today. The large size adopted in 1914 was approximately 3" x 7.5". The "small size" adopted in 1928 – the familiar size we use today – was simply a practical choice; the government wanted to standardize currency while saving money on paper with a smaller bill.

In no particular order, the six types of currency were:

1. United States Notes, the original "Greenback" and the first permanent paper money issued by the Federal government. US Notes are/were currency issued directly by the government (in contrast to today's currency, which is issued by the Federal Reserve at the behest of Congress) and was authorized by the Legal Tender Act of 1862 as a means of meeting government obligations during the Civil War. They were intended to be recalled and destroyed at the end of the War, but farmers and borrowers liked the inflationary effect of having more paper money in circulation (a political issue that presaged the Free Silver movement). US Notes are readily identifiable by their red seal and serial number, as well as their unique statement of value called the Second Obligation: "This Note is Legal Tender for All Debts Public and Private Except Duties On Imports And Interest On The Public Debt; And Is Redeemable In Payment Of All Loans Made To The United States."

USN

US Notes disappeared when the government stopped redeeming currency for gold and then silver in 1965. Since there was no longer any practical difference between the US Note and Federal Reserve Note, the former was discontinued.

2. Silver certificates, as the name implies, were convertible directly to silver dollar coins (or later, silver bullion in any form) until such redemption was halted in 1964 by the Treasury Department due to the rapid increase in the price of silver. Despite being convertible for precious metal, in practice SC's were used as ordinary currency alongside the other non-redeemable bills. They're easily distinguished by the bright blue seals (and note the "Original Obligation" on the left):

silver

3. Gold certificates are…well, you can figure it out. Their production and convertibility to precious metal was halted much earlier, however, in 1933 when FDR made the private ownership of gold illegal by Executive Order. Interestingly, these bills became illegal to own at that point, and a final series printed in 1934 was used solely by banks to settle accounts (the 1934 gold certificates are the series with the largest U.S. currency denominations ever printed, including the $100,000 bill featuring Woodrow Wilson). In 1964 GC's became legal for collectors to own but could not be converted to gold. The bright gold seals and serials tend to give these bills away:

gold

4. Federal Reserve Notes are what we use today. They are "fiat" money, not convertible for nor backed by precious metal. They are backed by securities held by the Federal Reserve banks that issue them, and their value is based on the faith and credit of the United States. So be sure not to raise the debt ceiling so that collapses! You know what these look like, with the familiar green seals (although they've certainly gotten more colorful recently).

5. National Bank Notes were issued by specific banks chartered by the U.S. government. They were backed by bonds. The bank would deposit a certain amount of bonds with the Treasury and then could issue National Bank Notes up to 90% of the value of the bonds. They have brown seals and, interestingly, were occasionally signed by hand by the president of the relevant bank. All currency bears signatures but it is usually simply printed on the paper. These were signed with ink pens in some cases. The other obvious design feature is the name of the specific (and sometimes quite obscure) banks that issued them. This example is from the mighty "National Bank of Selins Grove, Pennsylvania."

nbn

Note the text indicating that the bill is "secured with United States bonds held with the Treasury." Examples of these bills from particularly obscure banks or with rare signatures are extremely valuable today.

6. Finally, Federal Reserve Bank Notes operated on a similar principle to National Bank Notes, but they were issued by one of the 12 branches of the Federal Reserve bank (the name of which is printed on the bill). These were created as an emergency issue in 1934 when it became apparent that National Banks were hoarding cash, strangling the supply of money in circulation. So the Fed branches deposited bonds with the Treasury and issued nearly identical currency. Interestingly, they used the same design but Federal Reserve Banks do not have "presidents" like National Banks, so a black bar was inked over the line for the bank president's signature (visible here in the lower right).

FRBN

Unsurprisingly, the FRBN was eventually seen as an unnecessary redundancy on the Federal Reserve Note. The only difference, technically speaking, is that FRNs are backed by the entire Federal Reserve system whereas FRBNs are backed by a specific branch. No one cared.

If you ever win money for knowing any of this in trivia or on a game show, I get 10% off the top. That's before taxes. Don't make me come looking for you, either. While I have the feeling that no one actually cares about any of this, I need to create this imaginary incentive to reward myself for having typed this all out anyway.

NEW BRUTALISM

Posted in Arbitrary Thing of the Day on January 10th, 2013 by Ed

The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles. Brutalist architecture didn't really die. They just needed to stop using it to build British ghettos.

Cathedral_of_Our_Lady_of_Angels_(from_plaza),_Los_Angeles

Click to embiggen.

COUNTERFACTUAL

Posted in Rants on January 10th, 2013 by Ed

For the past few years, every time I find myself in the presence of someone who claims that markets are efficient I offer them a simple challenge: explain the media. Explain why the American media produces a torrent of raw sewage while the commie pinko government-funded media outlets in other countries produce something that approaches actual news.

If the speaker is a complete Randroid he'll sputter something about how the American media are too heavily regulated, at which point I realize that I'm dealing with the Washington Generals of logic and I lose interest in going any farther. That's actually too stupid (and demonstrably false) to even merit a response. A reasonably intelligent person will respond that the market gives American news consumers exactly what they want (crap) hence they are efficient.

This is not wrong, but it is a red herring. It replaces "Markets are efficient" with "Markets are responsive." No one would argue that markets do not give consumers what they want. But free markets are supposed to make things better, right? The best product at the best price? That's why free enterprise built Cadillacs and Rolls-Royces while behind the Iron Curtain they puttered around in Trabants, right? The market sifts out the crap and the strong rise to the top.

But the free market and the fight for ratings (and advertising dollars) doesn't give us the best news. It gives us the loudest. The most "entertaining". The most interesting to the lowest common denominator. The networks (or newspapers, or blogs, or anything else) don't attempt to compete by offering "better" news. They just do more to make their product less like news and more like entertainment, which is why more than half of the news is sports, celebrities, irrelevant human interest stories, and opinion. They never respond to a dip in the ratings with, "Let's win new viewers with some hard-hitting investigative journalism!"

Competition only encourages the arms race among networks – who can provide the loudest, brightest, edgiest, most pleasingly biased content – the same way that it encouraged 19th and early 20th Century newspapers to use ever-larger headlines, lead with the most salacious picture, and make wild-assed accusations to get attention in a crowded marketplace. At the individual level, the incentive is always to push the envelope – to say ever more shocking and controversial things, to be the most outrageous and aggressive, to do whatever it takes to get noticed and land increasingly lucrative jobs higher up the food chain. All of this is incompatible with providing accurate, careful journalism about the important issues of the day.

If American journalism has ever been close to decent, it was during the era when the number of choices was limited, not infinite. When the only options on TV were ABC, NBC, and CBS – each running a scant half-hour of national news per day – the result was sober, relatively dull news. Sure, they didn't cover every important story. Sure, if you thought they were biased you didn't have a ton of alternatives. But is the three-ring shit-circus we have today really an improvement? Now you get to pick from a dozen different TV networks and an infinite number of websites…and almost everything you'll get, regardless of source, is crap. And the Important stories get less coverage than ever before. I'll take the half hour of Cronkite, librul bias and all.

If markets are efficient and if markets make things better, then there is no explanation for why we have the worst media in the world rather than the best. The problem is that markets don't really make things better or more efficient. They make things cheaper and they're responsive. That's why we get the news we want rather than the news we need.

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PLENTY OF GOOD SEATS AVAILABLE

Posted in Arbitrary Thing of the Day on January 9th, 2013 by Ed

Just a reminder to get yourself a seat on the bumper sticker train. Four American dollars. Let your bumper tell other drivers what's the what with this patriotic design, guaranteed not to be dated for at least four more years. The fine print where I was instructed to put the name of my campaign committee reads "Paid for with a milk jug full of nickels"

sticker