NPF: PILLBOX CHAMPION

Posted in No Politics Friday on March 15th, 2013 by Ed

Arts! Lots of arts.

1. Did you know that Edward Gorey created illustrations for H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds? I didn't. Did you know that they are awesome? I bet you could have figured that out on your own.

goreywaroftheworlds7

Not pictured: Tom Hanks.

2. Some artist named A. Paul Weber created this fantasy piece with a staggering level of fine detail (view in Gigapan, it's neat) back in 1953.

weber

If you know anything about this guy, do fill us in.

3. If you have a few hundred dollars burning a hole in your pocket, Adrian Tomine is selling prints of his recent New Yorker covers and some other things.

WinterBreak

Buying an expensive print of a New Yorker cover is the final boss one must defeat to find the Triforce of Whiteness.

4. A new book, A Map of the World: The World According to Illustrators and Storytellers delivers…what the title promises. A bunch of artists, designers, and illustrators offer some remarkably colorful takes on the world (scroll down here for a nice gallery).

amapoftheworld_web_4

5. Oh don't worry, I'll work some Cold War shit in here. Here's a large gallery from Dutch photographer David Galjaard's prize-winning series on Albania's national network of concrete pillbox bunkers courtesy of ex-dictator Enver Hoxha. They built 700,000 of these cement pimples, a sort of Albanian Maginot Line.

From the series "Concresco" by David Galjaard

They're everywhere and no one really knows what to do with them. Fortunately they were built with all the expertise, craftsmanship, know-how, and quality materials of communist Albania. So the odds are they will turn into dust soon if we're patient.

THE ENCORE

Posted in Rants on March 14th, 2013 by Ed

One of the things I enjoy about social networking is that I rarely have to seek out news items of interest anymore. A quick scroll through the ol' Facebox gives me a selection of political reading material ranging from the mundane to the fascinating. My policy of not "friending" morons, high school classmates, or moron high school classmates pays off. A former student who is now several years into a successful career in journalism shared a rather dull news item about the House Republican budget proposal accompanied by a stock photo we've all seen before:

ryanbinder

Then I looked a little more closely and realized that the photo was not the same "Paul Ryan holding binder next to podium" shot to which we were treated in 2011 (during the debt ceiling BS) and most of 2012. This is a new Ryan-Binder shot. Like, a recent one. And he's no longer holding the Roadmap to Prosperity; that's the Path to Prosperity, thankyouverymuch. They're quite different. Unlike the Roadmap, the innovative Pathway proposes

I left that sentence unfinished on purpose. Is there anyone, even the most casual follower of American politics, who cannot finish it on his or her own? If so, it may shock you to learn that it proposes repealing "Obamacare", cutting taxes, reducing spending (Pentagon excluded, of course), and balancing the budget through miraculous, unprecedented economic growth that is sure to happen as soon as we pass more tax cuts.

I've seen Babe. I've been to funerals. I've paid to see Episode II: Attack of the Clones in a theater. Yet reading this news item is among the saddest things I've ever experienced. Can you wrap your mind around a group of people so sad, so bereft of the slightest intellectual spark, that they are resorting to the exact same tactic they've been using unsuccessfully for two solid years – standing Paul Ryan next to a podium holding up a binder full of the same ol' shit – because they literally cannot think of anything else to do? They frantically flipped through the playbook and realized that this is the only play; even if it doesn't work, they have no choice but to keep running it.

Paul Ryan is poison, which is why the Romney campaign basically kept him on Fund Raiser Only duty for the last two months of the election. Balancing the budget is an idea that is not only implausible, but which also has almost zero appeal to the voting public (Technically the concept is popular, but people find the things that would be necessary to accomplish it positively abhorrent). There is no grand public backlash against health care reform, despite the constant flogging of Fox News and the for-profit medical industry.

Nobody likes any of this stuff – Paul Ryan, 1990s Gingrich-esque balanced budget rhetoric, railing against Obamacare, promises of magic beans that grow from tax cuts. The Republicans know, or should know, that nobody likes any of it. They have evidence (I bet a handful of them are swayed by that sort of thing, no?) that nobody likes it and that this strategy does not work. They know it doesn't work because they just tried it. For two years. And here they are doing it all again anyway because they cannot think of anything better to do, or perhaps anything at all.

When we can look at a news item and sincerely question whether it is from March 2013 or October 2011 it might be time to retire that "Party of Ideas" slogan.

SMOLDERING GLASS

Posted in Quick Hits on March 13th, 2013 by Ed

Occasionally I have thoughts that qualify me as a terrible person, yet usually I am wise enough not to put them in writing. Today is not one of those times.

Just to remind veteran readers and inform new ones, there is no one more stridently opposed to American militarism than I am. With the possible exception of that old hippie lady at your farmer's market who sells bell peppers as a cover for her massive marijuana grow operation and who only wears things emblazoned with the peace sign. I have about two years' worth of posts pre-, during, and post-Iraq War about what a monumentally bad idea the whole endeavor was, and I like defense spending as much as the average Cardinal likes getting phone calls from attorneys representing a former altar boy from the 1970s.

That said, can we just blow up North Korea already? Please? I know. I know I'm a terrible person. If it makes it any better, I have no overarching political, strategic, or ideological motivation. They're really annoying and I just want them to go away.

For the past 15 years (since the nation recovered just enough from its 1994 famine to entertain pretensions of a nuclear program) the United States, Japan, China, South Korea, and other nations have devoted billions of dollars, man-hours, and intellectual resources to the saber-rattling of a country so backward that Mongolians make fun of their infrastructure. It would be something to take quite seriously from a country that is not a living punchline – Russia, for example. It is not something that is worth taking seriously from a country whose vaunted military boasts the very latest in domestically-produced knockoffs of 1950s Soviet military technology. It's as if a child dressed up as an adult, walked into a board meeting, and started barking out orders. You'd do little more than giggle at this; how annoyed would you be if everyone else in the room decided to take the toddler seriously?

Nuclear weapons or not, that analogy holds. They don't even have enough fuel to get their Korean War-era MiG-19s off the ground. Why would anyone take them seriously? Can somebody please just say, "OK, let's go!" the next time they threaten war? It will be over in about 12 hours. Really. Not a Rumsfeld 12 hours. The U.S., South Korea, Japan, or any number of other nations could turn that entire backward, malnourished, fuel-starved piss hole of a country into a flat field of smoldering glass in less than a day.

If they are a legitimate threat, end it. If they're not, let's stop wasting time and money in the DMZ pretending that some sort of military balance exists between one of the world's largest, fastest-growing industrialized economies and country that doesn't have electricity.

I don't hate you, North Korea. I'm just bored with you. You're not even an entertaining version. You're like a mosquito – not significant enough to present any actual danger, but just consequential enough to be consistently annoying. Neighboring countries have to be pretty sick of playing this game by now, wherein every time the Great Leader needs to solidify his power base the world's militaries have to respond to the tune of a few billion dollars. Petulant children are only cute for a minute or two.

And that is me being a terrible person.

FALLING FOR IT

Posted in Rants on March 11th, 2013 by Ed

The media – even the liberal portion of it, alleged or in reality – just can't get enough Bipartisanship. Since the best solution to any problem inevitably lies halfway between opposing viewpoints, we should show everyone how non-partisan we are at every opportunity. In practice this means that liberals have to say supportive things on occasion about Republicans. We must do so to prove that we are Serious People.

So last week we were told, in Salon's case quite explicitly, that we needed to cheer Rand Paul during his 13 hour filibuster over drone strikes on U.S. soil. The idea passes the smell test; executive power, particularly the power to use force, is opposed by both libertarian conservatives and liberals in general. Unfortunately the whole filibuster spectacle was more a reflection of the paranoid worldview of the Paultard/survivalist right than of the reality of the issue.

The issue in question was whether the president could order an armed drone strike in the U.S. against an American citizen "in an extraordinary circumstance" like a terrorist attack or serious attempt to overthrow the government. In other words, Holder was not arguing that a drone strike could be ordered against citizens in non-combat settings. And in the event of something like a rebellion or a terrorist attack the president already has extensive power to use force against citizens and non-citizens alike in the U.S. What difference does it make if drone strikes are added to the menu?

Now some of you will accuse me of being naive and too trusting that such a power would be used with discretion or that the scope of events for which a drone strike could be used will not be expanded. But the fact is that the government, should it desire to kill you, has much simpler and more efficient ways to it than by armed drone. One of the dirty secrets of Predator and similar systems is that they have a remarkably low success rate. They crash all the damn time and their Hellfire missile system – which is an anti-tank system adapted for drone use strictly because of weight requirements for the small airframes – are woefully inaccurate. They were designed to hit armor at short range from a shoulder-, vehicle-, or helicopter-mounted launcher. They were not designed to hit cars driving at escape velocity and certainly not a human-sized target. Long story short: drones are just about the worst, lowest-probability tool in the military arsenal for killing somebody. We use them in Afghanistan because it's bloodless and politically costless when they fail, crash, or get shot out of the sky.

In short, a lot of commentators appear to have fallen for the old "Serious People are bipartisan" appeal again. Paul's schtick was about bunker-dwellers' fears that the government plans to hunt them down, kill them, and steal their stash of freeze-dried shelter foods / impressive collection of Anime porn. If a president wanted to do that – and again, god only knows why they would – the ability to use a drone would be irrelevant.

So Rand Paul is basically just being the typical Paultard, inveighing against the government's plans to kill us all and round us up into camps and whatever else Alex Jones sees when he closes his eyes at night. No, we should not cheer him on for that.

NPF: ART vs ARTIST

Posted in No Politics Friday on March 8th, 2013 by Ed

At first glance this is going to seem like a curious interpretation of "No Politics", but I'm interested to see the resurgence in interest in the science fiction classic Ender's Game resulting from its (inevitable) Hollywood film adaptation. Accordingly, the book's author, Orson Scott Card, has also gained a higher profile. In case you didn't know, Orson Scott Card is an asshole. Specifically, Orson Scott Card is a ultra-strict Mormon who has a Falwell-sized beef with The Gays. He calls himself a libertarian but believes that the government should be violently overthrown to prevent people from doing The Gay.

This has led to articles like the recent Salon piece "What Happened to Orson Scott Card?" speculating about the his descent from respect author of a sci-fi classic to Michael Savage knockoff. While the obvious conversation to have here would be the old "Can the art be separated from the artist?" debate, I have a more naive question.

I am not a great student of fiction writing and I do not claim to be able to talk about it with an air of expertise. But I can't figure out why anyone who read Ender's Game can claim to be surprised by Card's heel turn. It has been a while since I read it – and I did not really like it, hence it's not like I re-read it a dozen times – but my read of Ender's Game was essentially as an Objectivist fairy tale. I thought it was Atlas Shrugged written by a person with basic English writing skills and more imagination. I also thought that everyone realized this because it seemed really goddamn obvious. It surprised me over time to learn that the book was quite popular in my social circle and most people did not see it that way.

I'm sorry if I'm taking potshots at your favorite book here. I don't have especially negative feelings toward it; it just wasn't my thing, and I thought its ideological core was Randian. Since I hate listening to myself talk about fiction and literature I'm not going to go into an extensive discussion of why I thought the right-wing undertones and themes were obvious throughout the book. I'm just curious to see if anyone else read it that way, or if I imagined/misinterpreted those political messages where they were not.

For me, however, nothing Happened to Orson Scott Card. I assumed he was this way from the outset.

BITTERLY DIVIDED

Posted in Rants on March 7th, 2013 by Ed

Let's say that John Boehner and Barack Obama decide to spend some social time together. So they agree to meet on Friday evening at 2Amys on Macomb Street in DC. They arrive at the restaurant and chat amiably. They settle on ordering pizza. Disagreement erupts at this point, as Obama wants mushrooms but no onions whereas Boehner wants onions but no mushrooms. Hours pass with neither side budging.

Would it be accurate to describe the two parties as polarized? Far apart? From one perspective they are. They are at a clear impasse and they refuse to give an inch. But look at the bigger picture. They've already agreed upon almost a dozen things. They agreed on Friday. Then they agreed that evenings are clearly better than during the day, and that their goal should be to spend some time getting to know each other better, i.e. going to dinner rather than going to a concert, because they want to be able to talk. They agree on a restaurant. They even agree that of all the things available on the menu, they should have pizza. And they agree about every aspect of the pizza except the toppings in question. They are stalemated, but it would be more accurate to describe them as intransigent than as polarized.

One of the strange aspects of our two-party system is that it is possible to argue quite persuasively that the parties are too far apart, yet it is possible to make an equally persuasive argument that they are too similar. Often people find themselves believing both, and making one argument today and the other tomorrow. The answer lies in the fact that in the current political context the parties excel at disagreeing; about what they disagree, however, is often quite narrow. Dining out versus cooking at home is a big disagreement. Bickering over the mushrooms after we've already agreed that we're going out for pizza is not.

As we watch Obama's Attorney General argue that drone strikes in the U.S. are legal and constitutional, or to look at the administration's record on terrorism/security issues in general, it's impossible to shake the feeling that this is basically a continuation of the Bush administration with cosmetic changes. We conclude that the parties are too similar. Yet we can also produce dozens of examples of ways in which the two are radically different, even without changing the issue dimension to something other than national security. Yet here we are with a government that has already agreed that we should put missiles on robot planes and give the president authority to kill people, including U.S. citizens, with them…haggling about where he can do it. I can see the argument that within the U.S. versus outside the U.S. is a significant distinction, legally. But look at how far down the rabbit hole we already are, and how many things have already been decided.

This is the real drawback of our political system and process. With only two parties and the end of the political-ideological conflict between socialism and capitalist democracy that defined most of the 20th Century we're left debating most – albeit not all – issues within a very narrow ideological range. We've all agreed upon the End of History and that free market capitalism is the final form of human social organization, and that America shall be a hegemonic military power, and that our politicians shall be beholden to the financial interests that back them, and that we will argue only in the margins (except on "social" issues, where legitimate disagreement is permitted because the titans of industry don't give a shit about them). So we have already settled on policing the world and are now arguing about how best to do it, just as we have decided that the financial industry will shape our society to its liking and we are now arguing about whether a handful of regulators should be tasked with watching them do it.

Oh, and if the pizza analogy at the beginning were real Congress would solve it by rejecting both mushrooms and onions in favor of green peppers, so nobody would be happy. Except David Brooks.

QUACKING LIKE A DUCK

Posted in Rants on March 6th, 2013 by Ed

(This is one of those extra-special read-it-all-before-bitching posts. Reading comprehension is important here.)

Matt Roth wrote a Baffler piece nearly a decade ago that stands as one of the best things I've ever read ("Living the Delayed Life with Amway"). Unfortunately it's not online, but it details the struggling freelancer's personal experience with Amway – the notorious "direct marketing" company that was the Next Big Thing in the 80s/90s and has been criticized for its cultishness and uncanny resemblance to a pyramid scheme. While the FTC has ruled that it is legitimate, as the majority of its revenue comes from the sale of products rather than from member fees, Roth makes a compelling point: if Amway isn't a scam, why does it feel so much like one?

This is an elegantly restated version of the Duck Test idiom ("If it walks like a duck…) Our perceptions are not always 100% correct but if something meets all of the criteria for being a scam, you're safer assuming it is than to assume the opposite.

The introductory analogy complete, this is the part of the post wherein I bring up the actual topic. If the recent surge in interest, academic and popular, in "fat studies" – research purporting to show that mainstream medicine's conclusion that obesity is unhealthy, or that obesity is even a condition, is wrong – is not basic science denialism along the lines of anti-vaccine theories, climate change denial, or "creation science", then why does it have all of the characteristics of denialism?

STOP. Here are some things I'm not talking about here: fat shaming, stigmas about weight, the media-driven obsession with thinness, or any other aspect of size/weight/appearance as a social phenomenon. Neither am I suggesting that people should/shouldn't lose weight, or gain weight, or anything else. My point is simply that the supposed evidence underlying the idea that the current medical consensus (obesity = bad for one's health) is wrong has all of the trappings of an argument that in another context would readily be identified as total bullshit.

First, it is based largely on a selective or distorted interpretation of evidence. Recently an article flew around the internet with eye-catching titles like "Overweight People Live Longer". It is based on a study published in the Journal of the AMA. The sole finding of the article is that BMI (Body Mass Index) has a small positive effect on lifespan, irrespective of cause of death (so the sample included, for example, people who died in accidents). But for the past 20 years, Fat Activists have been telling us that BMI is a load of crap. Why is BMI suddenly a valid measure of weight/health/obesity? Oh, because the results of the study are telling you what you want to hear. Cool.

Second, it makes wild assumptions backed by scant, shoddy evidence and ignores mountains of evidence to the contrary. The idea that people cannot lose weight, or cannot keep it off after it is lost, is supported by one or two dubious studies. The converse – that healthy weight loss is possible and can be maintained – is supported by decades of research. Why is the one study that supports your argument the only one worth considering?

Third, it borrows heavily from the climate denial/anti-vaccine movements in its belittling of "so-called experts". This recent Guardian (UK) column illustrates the point nicely. Did you know that doctors are not to be trusted? That they're just a bunch of know-it-alls whose opinions are no better than yours? Beware the "beady eye of a disapproving GP" who doles out the "type of medical finger-wagging (Academy of Medical Royal Colleges) advocates." The National Health Service has a plan to "pester patients about their weight in every encounter," which is not what doctors should do (in the opinion of people like the author who seem convinced that obesity is not inversely related to overall health and longevity).

Fourth, there's a conspiracy. From the same article:

AoMRC's proposals are not about health promotion, but contribute to a narrative of blame, punishment, prejudice, stigma and anti-fat scapegoating that is horribly familiar. The only thing that looks healthy in this context is the twinkle in the eye of the diet industry CEOs, who are laughing all the way to the bank.

Ah, yes. The diet pill industry, and the pharmaceutical industry in general. These are the same people who are pushing all those unnecessary polio vaccines on your kids for profit. Aside from the fact that this makes no sense – pharma would make money by encouraging doctors to keep patients obese/unhealthy so they'll be stuck on more meds, and certainly the trillion-dollar pharmaceutical industry can outgun the "diet industry CEOs" – why is the Fat Activist not equally skeptical of the role of the trillion dollar junk food industry? Surely it's in McDonald's interest to push the idea that eating garbage is not detrimental to health. I guess skepticism only works in one direction.

This is not to say that Fat Activists, as they self-label, make no valid arguments or, to reiterate, are not entirely correct about the social dimensions of obesity. But their overriding problem is that the attempt to uncouple obesity and health/well-being/longevity has the same goal as that of global warming deniers: to convince you that the vast majority of evidence, as well as the medical and scientific consensus, is wrong. The only way to make it look wrong is to engage in the same tired rhetorical tricks and logical fallacies that have underlain quackery and denialism for centuries. Something that bears such a striking resemblance to bullshit should be treated as such until conclusively proven otherwise.

AMERICAN WASTE

Posted in Rants on March 4th, 2013 by Ed

The world has got some plans for me
Courthouse, jail, and factories

This song keeps popping up in my shuffle lately. The opening lyrics, while not especially profound, are probably confusing to people under the age of 30. One of those things does not seem like the others. But in the 1970s and 1980s, the children of the Boomers started to see boring, blue collar work like factory jobs as a soul-killing prison. There are hundreds of movies, books, and songs from that era featuring characters who just want to live…but they're stuck behind a machine press for the rest of their lives. It's funny in hindsight that we used to worry about the work being insufficiently fulfilling, because I'm pretty sure most of us – and plenty of people in their teens and twenties right now – would gladly take those factory jobs today. They paid decently, they had benefits, and they had a semblance of stability, at least before NAFTA.

The idea that jobs are supposed to be psychologically rewarding is a remarkably new one, and not a particularly helpful one. People under 40 today – myself included – think in terms of "careers" instead of jobs. We also tend to look at careers as outlets for expressing who we are (or how we see ourselves) and we expect them to be rewarding in ways that go beyond a paycheck. When I look at my own mangled expectations about the sense of fulfillment I'd get from my career or see and hear the same from 18-21 year olds on a daily basis, I feel like we could benefit from a little historical perspective.

For most of human history the idea of a profession or a "career" was either nonexistent or relevant only to a tiny niche group in society. Our job was to avoid starving, freezing, or being killed by large animals. When learning trades and getting formal education became more common, rarely were they chosen on the basis of which one would provide the most stimulation and opportunities for personal growth. One became a blacksmith not because it offered the chance to let one's personality shine through. You became a blacksmith because you were lucky enough to become an apprentice to one and if you learned the job well, you stood a fighting chance of making enough money to house and feed yourself and a family. That was it, essentially. As far as the work itself, any job that didn't present an excessive risk of killing or maiming the person doing it was considered pretty sweet.

I often tell students – they have a habit of returning from things like internships and summer jobs jaded by the mundane nature of the working world – that if a given job was fun, they wouldn't have to pay people to do it. No one out there is offering $45k plus benefits for someone to do kegstands, watch Netflix, or play with tiny puppies for 40-45 hours per week. Maybe one person in a million has a job that truly is fun in the sense that it's a thing people would do without getting paid for it. For the vast majority of us, however, a job is just a way to pay the bills. That's all it ever has been. Nothing has changed except our expectations.

Right now I have what by any criteria would be considered a good job. I'm paid decently, I have basic benefits, and the position is as close to Stable as jobs get these days. Yet I'm not happy because I'm expecting the job to make me happy. I expect it to not suck, when in reality on many days it does suck because it's a goddamn job. Nowhere was I promised that it would be rewarding and fun all the time, or that it wouldn't be frustrating, or that I would have days where I come home and wonder why I bother. I bother because they pay me, and getting paid is very useful to me. But that's it. That's the deal: I show up and fulfill my responsibilities, and then I get a check. Nobody said anything about fun.

As often as I give this advice to other people, I give it to myself lately. What I can't figure out is why people in my age group (or younger) have this idea that the task for which they get paid will also be personally enriching. Is it because we lack fulfillment in our personal lives? Is it because we're spoiled, believing that the working world owes us self-actualization in addition to a means of supporting ourselves? I'm not sure. What is certain is that we should be careful what we wish for. Those factory jobs that no longer exist start to look pretty appealing as our Career-as-Spirit Quest theory runs into reality.

NPF: WONDER NO MORE

Posted in No Politics Friday on March 1st, 2013 by Ed

The National Football League is investigating claims by multiple players that individual teams asked question about their sexual orientation at the annual Scouting Combine (an event in which college players hoping to enter the NFL are interviewed, tested, and medically evaluated). Nick Kasa of Colorado stated that some teams asked questions like "Do you like girls?" in violation of the CBA and Federal labor law. Other players, including Michigan's Denard "Shoelace" Robinson, seconded his claims, so it is safe to say that this is not a pure fabrication.

The NFL needs to be more sensitive to these issues, especially since asking questions of this type is illegal. At the same time, teams clearly need to know. That's why I'm contracting with the NFL to use a test I've developed – the Male Athlete Narrative Homosexual Orientation: Logotherapy Enhanced (MAN HOLE) – to uncover a player's sexual preferences with subtle, legal questions. The MAN HOLE test has been used effectively by organizations like Oral Roberts University and the U.S. Men's Ice Dancing Team to ensure the heterosexuality of all participating athletes. While the exam and process are proprietary and available in full only to paying clients, here are some sample questions on the NFL version:

  • 1. Bears are found in:
    A. Chicago, at Soldier Field
    B. Alaska
    C. The woods
    D. Certain bars in Flatbush

  • 2. After practice, I am usually:
    A. Studying film of my opponents
    B. In the weight room
    C. Loitering near the showers
    D. Being worked on by the medical staff

  • 3. On gameday, I like to imagine myself:
    A. Catching the winning touchdown
    B. Blocking for my teammates
    C. Leading the team and calling the plays
    D. At the bottom of a pile of writhing men

  • 4. I get pumped up for games with:
    A. Slayer
    B. Jay-Z
    C. Brooks & Dunn
    D. Pet Shop Boys

  • 5. My dream date is:
    A. My wife / girlfriend
    B. Beyonce
    C. Eva Longoria
    D. Jason Statham

  • 6. My typical breakfast consists of:
    A. Oatmeal and fruit
    B. Eggs and bacon
    C. Protein shakes and bars
    D. Hot, throbbing cocks

    FOR EVALUATION PURPOSES ONLY
    (C) GIN AND TACOS 2013
    ALL RIGHTS RESERVED