THEY'RE OUT THERE SOMEWHERE

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

Pennsylvania's Republican Governor Tom Corbett (who, incidentally, is about to get creamed in the next election) insisted that the food stamp program is riddled with fraud. So he instituted an "asset check" requiring state workers to weed out all the rich people pretending to be poor people on food stamps. They looked for the telltale signs of hidden wealth, such as:

It's the question Kathryn Hoffman hates to ask, especially of the elderly people who come into her office looking for help. Do you have a burial plot? How much is it worth?

It all makes sense, since elderly people who can afford to dispose of their own corpses can't be poor.

Don't worry though, the asset check is working. Of the 1.8 million Pennsylvanians who applied for food stamps last year, "about 4,000" were rejected for having too many assets to qualify. That's less than one quarter of one percent, if you're scoring at home. Sounds almost as scary as the 10 cases of in-person voter fraud out of the 146,000,000 registered voters since 2000.

YOU HAVEN'T SEEN ANYTHING YET

Posted in Rants on April 29th, 2013 by Ed

In the cacophony of Boston-related news coverage last week, the death of USA Today founder Al Neuharth on April 21 barely registered. The way perceptions of Neuharth's paper changed since its founding in 1982 is a fascinating look at how American media have changed as a whole. To put it another way, the relative consistency of USA Today over the past three decades highlights how much the rest of our media have changed around it.

Despite being the most widely circulating newspaper in the country (although the Wall Street Journal also claims this honor, depending on how circulation is measured) USA Today has always been something of a joke. Journalists and readers both derided it when it debuted in the Eighties, and it has become the butt of countless jokes. It is not difficult to see why. Its visual style – particularly its parodied-to-death front page "Snapshots" graphics – and willingness to place advertisements everywhere (including the banner headline) made it difficult to take seriously. That it was (and is) commonly given away for free in hotels and institutional settings reinforces the perception of the paper as disposable, shallow, and generally Less Serious than Real Newspapers like the New York Times, WSJ, and other big city dailies.

Favorite-Night-Takeout-Pie

As is so often the case in a nation that lets the free market determine which media outlets succeed or fail, USA Today established some measure of legitimacy with its popularity. It's hard to ignore a paper with circulation that spills into seven figures. But the hue and cry throughout USA Today's rise in the 1980s interpreted its sales figures as a harbinger of the apocalypse. "America is doomed if this is the kind of garbage we are going to read", said many a snobbish, albeit not entirely incorrect, commentator. It looks like a comic strip! It's more advertising than news! It's just so un-serious!

How funny it is to fast forward to 2013 and see USA Today in its current position as part of the "old guard" of the American media; a remnant of a bygone era. Its emphasis on graphics, ads, and short blurbs in place of feature stories all became common in the intervening years. Its graphics, in fact, now look quite tame – almost quaint – in comparison to what media outlets routinely plaster all over the internet, cable TV news, and newspapers today. In thirty years the USA Today went from the bottom of the journalistic barrel in the U.S. to an example of how things were done in better days – without fundamentally changing. Everything else got much worse.

Direct comparisons are difficult because newspapers as a medium have largely faded into the background of American media empires. Nonetheless, the weeping and rending of garments that accompanied USA Today's emergence shows how little we knew in the 1980s about how much worse the media could get. We hadn't foreseen the Glenn Becks, the 20-words-or-less Headline News network, the bombastic graphics and music, the entertainment-as-news ratings bait, and all the other rotten aspects of the system we have today. Hell, CNN has been doing 24-7 Boston Marathon bombing coverage for the past week; did it actually deliver more or better news than USA Today during that time? Probably not, unless Grief Porn counts as news now.

The pessimist's mantra – "Don't worry, it will get worse" – would have been sage advice to anyone who saw USA Today during its infancy and declared it the worst of the worst. When I watch TV news these days, I am disgusted by how bad it is. What really depresses me, though, is not how bad it is now, but that it is inevitably going to get worse.

Tags:

NPF: LIKED AND RESPECTED BY CO-WORKERS

Posted in No Politics Friday on April 26th, 2013 by Ed

First off, sorry for the erratic posting this week. End of semester. Lots of balls (*giggle*) in the air.

On Tuesday I wrote about how poorly students are taught about recent history – the past 50-75 years – in K-12 in the United States. It's particularly damaging that many students past and present have concluded their high school history courses without getting to World War II, which I argued is essential to understand if one hopes to make sense of the world since 1950. On that note, today seemed an appropriate time to share a couple of my favorite trivial facts about ol' WWII. Well, several iterations of one fact, I guess.

One of the funny things about the Nazis (And really, who can pick just one?) was how important the concept of racial purity and Aryan supremacy was to them when the war was going well and how quickly it became a secondary concern when the tide turned in 1943. For a group of people who considered almost every other ethnic group and nation in Europe to be composed solely of degenerates, the Nazis sure did have a lot of foreigners in their midst.

True fact: The last Nazi SS troops defending Berlin were…French. The SS "Charlemagne" Division was composed of French volunteers who had greeted the Nazis with enthusiasm when they took Paris. By May of 1945, German troops had surrendered in droves to the advancing American and (if they had no other option) Soviet armies. But not the Charlemagne Division. So it transpired that the last holdouts, the people defending the bunker as Hitler and Goebbels were writing out wills and killing themselves, were Frenchmen. We might assume that the French Nazis preferred death in battle to whatever awaited them if they returned to France.

Speaking of, I'm sure the Red Army had a forgive-and-forget attitude toward members of the Russian Liberation Army – Russian expatriates and POWs who volunteered to fight for the Third Reich. What do you suppose was the life expectancy of a Russian in a Nazi uniform who fell into Soviet hands?

And the Russians weren't the only Degenerate Slavs welcomed into the SS and Wermacht with open arms. There were dozens of Croatian units (no one remembers the Ustase, who were actually more fascist than the Nazis and largely responsible for the "ratlines" through which Nazi war criminals escaped to Argentina after the war) as well as the British Free Forces (which was mostly for propaganda purposes), Danish, Belgian, Serbian, Turkish, Dutch, Estonian, and Ukranian units fighting in the German Army and SS.

Oh, and a bunch of dark-skinned, swarthy Indians. Yes, the "Indische Legion" was composed of Indians who so hated the British colonialists that they fled to Berlin and took up with the Nazis. Most were followers of Subhas Chandra Bose and the Nazis thought enough of these decidedly non-Aryan troops that they were heavily represented in the Atlantic Wall defenses that opposed the Normandy landings on D-Day. So contrary to what Saving Private Ryan would have you believe, a lot of the "Germans" defending those beaches were Indians (and Russians).

Must have made for some awkward moment, though, to have so many foreigners in the ranks of such a thoroughly xenophobic population. I mean, not that the Indische Division was disliked by any of its German colleagues or anything…

OPERATORS ARE STANDING BY

Posted in Quick Hits on April 24th, 2013 by Ed

The first batch of Sounds of Real America prints are shipping out today. If you're not one of the lucky recipients, what are you waiting for? An engraved goddamn invitation?

Those are going out tomorrow.

Sounds of Real America, Vol. 2
SORA 2 Preview


Single or full set?




Sounds of Real America, Vol. 3
SORA 3 Preview


Single or full set?




Sounds of Real America, Vol. 4
SORA 4 Preview


Single or full set?





Don't underestimate the appeal of surreal, trenchant social commentary on your walls. If you buy these you will get laid and strange people will start appearing to do your laundry for you. You will regret nothing.

URGENT MEASURES

Posted in Rants on April 23rd, 2013 by Ed

In the wake of any disaster in the United States, someone will take it upon himself to point out that what we consider tragedies are part of daily life in other places. Three people die in a terrorist attack in Boston (a fourth later during the manhunt) and the entire country loses its shit. Meanwhile, random bombings in places like Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and others kill a few dozen people on a daily basis.

What I infer from this is not that Americans shouldn't complain about terrorist attacks, despite the fact that they're remarkably uncommon here and, statistically speaking, we should probably worry more about every asshole in the country having access to a wide array of firearms. Instead, this underscores the fact that the United States is remarkably well prepared for a terrorist attack or (since Katrina) city-scale disaster.

Despite the appearance of chaos all week, Boston was as prepared as hell to handle what happened. The marathon planners diverted the race (as they had contingency plans developed for exactly such an event). The wounded were in hospitals within minutes, keeping the fatalities surprisingly low under the circumstances. Police secured the scene quickly and, working with federal agencies, identified the perpetrators within a day or two. Then, after the suspects ambush-killed a police officer in a patrol car, there was a moving shootout and standoff in which no one was killed despite hundreds of rounds being fired. That's because the local governments had the city on lockdown, and people obeyed the recommendations made by law enforcement. I'm sure criticism will develop as the events recede further into the past, but dang, Boston. All in all, excellent job. I'd challenge any city of nation to do better, even though I'm sure many could do equally well.

This is the point at which people start asking what we can do to prevent attacks like this in the future. The answer is clear: nothing. Sure, the errant, racist media coverage was a disaster, but that's not a matter of public policy. Short of banning public events or repealing the 4th Amendment, we're about as safe as we're ever going to be. All the metal detectors, closed-circuit cameras, armed cops, and knee-jerk proposals for new legislation won't make us one bit safer – we already have enough layers of security in place to catch the Idiot Terrorists, the only group that would be deterred by those kinds of things. When people are making backpack-sized bombs out of common household items and black powder, there really isn't much anyone can do to stop them. Yes, that's scary. That's why it's called "terrorism."

Events like this are a big part of our culture of fear, and we're encouraged to incorporate this fear into a kill-em-all worldview. But here's the thing: complete security is an illusion. If it could exist, it would horrify you to see what it looks like. What are you going to do? Refuse to leave the house? Stop attending events in cities? Stop traveling? Live in a bunker in rural Montana? We can't spend the rest of our lives scared of our shadows, either individually or as a society. There's no point in basing public policy on our inability to accept the fact that we can't be 100% safe at all times. I guess 99.99% safe will have to do. The sooner we accept that, the better off we will be.

OUT OF TIME

Posted in Rants on April 22nd, 2013 by Ed

In higher education we spend ample time discussing the idea of a core curriculum. Every university comes up with a buzzwordish name for it, but the concept is the same: to define the basic, bare minimum knowledge that we feel a student must have, in addition to whatever specialized knowledge they get in their field(s) of interest, to leave college with a useful understanding of the world and the skills required to function in it. Unsurprisingly these core curricula focus on writing/composition, basic math and science, and history. While it is fair to note that some students get college degrees without mastering some or all of these core skills, polling data shows that Americans are woefully ignorant about history and world affairs – to a troubling extent.

If I may briefly mount my pedagogical high horse, I consider two historical events – if you could only pick two – absolutely essential to understanding modern American society and government. The first is the American Civil War. The other is World War II. No, I don't believe students benefit from memorizing the names of battles and generals. I do think that if one is really to understand the fundamental political conflicts in the United States, an understanding of the causes and aftermath of the Civil War is indispensable. Likewise, modern global politics (and a good deal of American exceptionalism in policy both foreign and domestic) is rooted in WWII.

K-12 classes still overwhelmingly choose to teach history chronologically. This, in my experience and what I commonly hear from students, results in a seriously detrimental lack of emphasis on modern history. The academic year begins with ancient Greeks and Romans and ends sometime in May, usually having gotten no further than the Industrial Revolution or perhaps World War I. Accordingly, I get a ton of young people who, through no fault of their own, have been taught more about Plato and Tacitus than about the Cold War, decolonization, the Vietnam War, globalization, the collapse of the Iron Curtain, and 9/11 combined. Recently I found a class of 25 honors students – excellent students – totally ignorant of the basic aspects of the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent propaganda surge leading to the Iraq War. And why should they know? They were 8 when it happened, and it has never been taught to them.

American students do get the Civil War. They might get it in bizarre or ideologically motivated ways (some southern schools, I discovered, continue to teach that slavery was not the root cause of the War) but they get it. They have a basic understanding of what happened. But World War II? The Holocaust? The Treaty of Versaiilles and the rise of Nazism? The complete devastation of the industrial powers of Europe and Asia that led to 20 years of unparalleled economic growth in the U.S.? Western nations' abandonment of Poland, exploitation of empires, and refusal to take Jewish refugees? They have nothing, really. What they know about WWII is what they get from movies and from Call of Duty video games. They often believe (thanks to films like Saving Private Ryan) that Americans fought the Nazis essentially alone. They rarely know that the Soviet Union was America's ally, and primarily responsible for the military defeat of the Third Reich. They rarely understand why or how the Holocaust happened, and the economic scapegoating of Jews and other "others" during the post-WWI economic collapse in Germany. They fail to recognize how the War accelerated decades of technological development (radar, nuclear power, aircraft, electronics, medicine, etc) into a few short years. They think – if they think anything at all about it – that America beat the Nazis and someone else (either the Chinese or Japanese) because we invented the nuclear bomb.

Everything – from international terrorism to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to 20th Century American economic growth to the housing crisis to the Vietnam War to the woes of underdeveloped countries – about the modern world can be understood completely only by tracing the roots of these events at least as far back to WWII. And increasingly I – I can't speak for anyone else here, but I doubt I am alone – find that students have the least knowledge about these more recent events. Try saying "Arab Oil Embargo" or "Mikhail Gorbachev" to a room of college freshmen and see what kind of looks you get. Hell, try it with a group of adults; it probably won't be much better. We know very little of recent history and what we do know is often wrong. Is it any wonder that opinions about current events rarely make sense?

Perhaps the recent past is deemphasized because it is assumed, incorrectly, that students somehow know this information because "it didn't happen that long ago." Or maybe the design of grade- and high school curricula continues to talk about ancient times at the expense or exclusion of the 20th Century. In either case the consequences are the same: parochial attitudes about the world and a skewed understanding of any issue that takes place outside of the bubble around our immediate lives.

Tags:

NPF: FLASHBACK

Posted in No Politics Friday on April 19th, 2013 by Ed

Early in the evening on July 23, 1984, five year-old Ed was in the driveway with one of the neighbor kids learning the basics of tactical warfare with GI Joe action figures. Our moms were sitting in cheap folding lawn chairs. The day had been unbelievably hot, and by about 6 PM the sun had gone down enough to offer some shade and bring the temperature down under 90. Shortly after 6:00, with no warning we were all shocked by the loudest explosion I've ever heard before or since. It knocked one of the neighbor kids off of his bike. Crappy 1980s car alarms went off. It was the kind of loud that you could feel; the ground actually wobbled a little.

We hadn't a clue what happened. Earthquake? (Midwesterners have no idea what those actually are. It seemed plausible to us.) Russian nuclear strike? Plane crash? After a few minutes we decided that the nuclear plant in Braidwood, IL – about 30 miles away – had blown up. We didn't exactly know a lot about nuclear power as a group, so we figured it would just blow up like a giant bomb.

Well, we were close. Turns out that the Union Oil Refinery in Romeoville, IL (about 20 miles away) had been leaking gas into one of its tanks for days. A small fire broke out. As they began trying to extinguish it, the whole structure detonated in an explosion heard as far away as Indiana. A thirty-four ton tank was thrown over 500 feet through the air. Everything in the immediate vicinity was flattened. Seventeen people, including ten members of the fire department, died in the explosion. OSHA fined Union Oil, although a promise to prosecute company officials for safety violations (of course) never materialized.

I had an immediate and unusually vivid flashback to all of this when I saw the video from the fertilizer plant explosion in Texas. An explosion of that magnitude is the kind of thing that you can't explain but, if you experience it (from a safe distance, fortunately) you never forget it.

RED FLAGS

Posted in Rants on April 18th, 2013 by Ed

Mike Konczal deserves a huge back-pat for blowing up the internet with this post about a new academic paper identifying several flaws in the main piece of pro-austerity research at the heart of Paul Ryan's argument since 2010.

In 2010, economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff released a paper, "Growth in a Time of Debt." Their "main result is that…median growth rates for countries with public debt over 90 percent of GDP are roughly one percent lower than otherwise; average (mean) growth rates are several percent lower." Countries with debt-to-GDP ratios above 90 percent have a slightly negative average growth rate, in fact.

This has been one of the most cited stats in the public debate during the Great Recession. Paul Ryan's Path to Prosperity budget states their study "found conclusive empirical evidence that [debt] exceeding 90 percent of the economy has a significant negative effect on economic growth." The Washington Post editorial board takes it as an economic consensus view, stating that "debt-to-GDP could keep rising — and stick dangerously near the 90 percent mark that economists regard as a threat to sustainable economic growth."

In short, the original paper is shown by three researchers from UMass to have three major flaws. First, it selectively excludes data on high-growth, high-debt countries. Second, it uses a bizarre (and statistically ridiculous) method of weighting the data. Third, and perhaps most awesomely, they made a formula error on the Excel spreadsheet (!!!) they used to analyze the data. As Mike says, "All I can hope is that future historians note that one of the core empirical points providing the intellectual foundation for the global move to austerity in the early 2010s was based on someone accidentally not updating a row formula in Excel." Since he explains well the three major errors with the paper, I won't belabor them here.

Explaining the petty intricacies of academic research for mass consumption is not easy, and that's what Mike really nailed here. However, I want to point out yet another issue with the original research.

The problem began when no one in academia could replicate the R&R paper. Replication is at the heart of every field of scientific inquiry. If I do a test proving that water boils at 212 F, then everyone else should be able to get the same result. In order to make that possible, I have to share my data with the rest of the scientific community – what kind of vessel I used to boil the water, the altitude and atmospheric pressure, the mineral content of the water, and so on. I have to show everyone else exactly how I did it.

What non-academics might underestimate reading Mike's account is just how egregious a red flag it is when A) no one can replicate a major finding despite considerable effort and B) the authors of a controversial paper refuse to share their data or explain their methods. To a non-academic, it might seem like "property" owned by the authors to which no one else is entitled. In academia that simply is not how it works. Every reputable journal on the planet has a policy of sharing replication data, and any publicly funded (NSF, etc) research must, by law, make all data publicly available.

So when R&R not only refused to share data for years but also refused even to tell anyone how they weighted the observations, Red Flag doesn't begin to convey how sketchy that is. Fireworks should have been going off at this point suggesting that this is not research to be taken seriously, and in fact it is possible that the "findings" were simply made up.

The science/academic people out there are probably wondering how in the hell one gets a paper published without even explaining the methodology used in the analysis. Good question! The answer is our friend the "special issue" in which papers are invited by the editor rather than being peer-reviewed. In other words, the R&R paper didn't even go through the standard review process (which is plenty flawed, but at least it's something) before publication. No one at any point in the process checked these results for accuracy or even looked to see if the authors actually did an analysis. Cool.

So that's how a paper based on cherry picked data, a scheme for equally weighting every country in the analysis (which wouldn't pass muster in an undergraduate statistics course), and a computational error became the primary evidence in favor of a pro-austerity agenda here and around the world. Mike is charitable in calling these issues innocent mistakes on the part of the authors. They might be, but I have a hard time believing that Harvard economists make the kinds of errors that somnolent undergrads make on homework assignments. When authors refuse requests for data, 99.9% of the time it's because they know goddamn well that they did something shady and they don't want you finding out.

Are these results fabricated? No. They did an analysis. A really bad one. My guess is that they ran dozens of different models – adding and removing variables, excluding and including different bits of data – until they got one that produced the result they wanted. Then they reverse-engineered a research design to justify their curious approach to the data. Every academic who handles quantitative data has been there at some point. That point is called grad school.

SOUNDS OF REAL AMERICA

Posted in Quick Hits on April 17th, 2013 by Ed

Fans of Gin and Tacos on Facebook are familiar with CAPSLOCK ED, a magical being who blog-only readers met briefly in Campaign of the Damned. He tends to post in series like "10 Things Grocery Stores Don't Want You to Know" (which was an actual "news" headline on CNN) and his latest bender is an ethnographic study of Americana called Sounds of Real America. It's a poignant study of the things one can only experience in the Real America, not in any fancy city or ivory tower university. It is the sound of the salt of the Earth living the simple life and experiencing things that only America can offer.

Reader / graphic designer Pauline Vassiliadis took it upon herself to surprise me with her visual interpretations of the SORA series. Being a fan of her talent and her appreciation for the absurd, my heart nearly exploded with joy when I saw the designs. I've decided to offer a small number of them to you, the readers. They combine my words with Pauline's aesthetic, capturing the essence of Real America in the process. Hang one of these babies on your wall to bring the magic of Muncie, IN or Macon, GA into your home.

Each print is 11"x14" on archival card stock, suitable for framing, wall mounting, or use as an improvised weapon. Only 20 of each design in the series will be available. They are $40 each or 3/$100, plus $3 for domestic shipping. "But that's so expensive! Why aren't they $5?" Because artists have bills too and I don't expect them to give their work away for nothing. And I promise you won't be disappointed – these look incredible in the flesh. Click the images below for a preview. (Just in case you're not clear, these are not actual cassette tapes. The cassette insert is merely a design motif.)

Sounds of Real America, Vol. 2
SORA 2 Preview


Single or full set?




Sounds of Real America, Vol. 3
SORA 3 Preview


Single or full set?




Sounds of Real America, Vol. 4
SORA 4 Preview


Single or full set?





Don't underestimate the appeal of surreal, trenchant social commentary on your walls. If you buy these you will get laid and strange people will start appearing to do your laundry for you. You will regret nothing.

USE YOUR INSIDE VOICE

Posted in Rants on April 16th, 2013 by Ed

I'm giving one of my favorite lectures today, on the history of political campaign advertising. It's fun to watch students realize that very little of what we see in modern politics is new. The basic messages (and to a lesser extent, techniques) have been around for a couple of centuries. Americans generally know very little about history, so they tend to assume that their problems are new. Oh, the media is so partisan! (Yeah, check out a 19th Century newspaper) Campaigns are full of mudslinging and dirty attacks! (Find one that wasn't) People are so stupid! (As they have always been).

Every time there is a disaster or tragedy these days, we look at the contents of internet comments sections and immediately lose whatever hope for humanity might remain within our cynical hearts. What has happened to this country?, people ask. The correct answer is, of course, nothing. The only difference between Americans today and those from a century ago is that now we have a global platform for making our knee-jerk, reactionary, and ignorant opinions public. It's doubtful that people in the 1890s would have been filling Twitter and newspaper websites with pearls of wisdom and kindness.

It is completely natural to speculate, to have thoughts driven more by fear or emotion than reason, and to express anger. I'm sure people felt the same way when they heard about Pearl Harbor as they did on 9/11. Those thoughts and feelings were not broadcast around the world and recorded for posterity by the millions. They didn't run to Facebook to share tacky pictures exhorting one another to pray, engage in wild, half-assed speculation, or fuel their pet conspiracy theories. If they had the opportunity, they would have. As it was, the only way to express those thoughts was out loud. Common sense and a tiny bit of decency were probably enough to prevent many people from doing that.

The internet, however, offers no barriers to speaking what we overly-generously call our minds. We have anonymity, an audience, and no repercussions for what we say. Hell, why not air our ridiculous ideas about The Muslims and tell a bunch of other anonymous strangers to fuck off. There are no costs. We can say whatever we want, immediately. And this is the problem, because Americans have a notoriously difficult time distinguishing between can and should. Maybe it wouldn't hurt to express more of our uninformed musings using our Inside Voice rather than Twitter.

The internet and 24-hour cable news environment overwhelms us with "grief porn" in response to events like Monday's bombing. It encourages us not only to express great sadness but to do so publicly. It's not enough to spectate; we have to be part of the chorus of prayers and tears. We personalize things to make it about ourselves – OMG, I once knew a guy who lives in Boston! – and we use the collective anguish as fuel for irrational ideas. Why wait for facts when I'm angry and upset now?

We've always been less than enlightened thinkers as a nation. Today, though, we have a window into our half-baked thought processes and speculative "journalism" encouraging us to join them in a leap to conclusions. We have every opportunity to say things and very little encouragement to think before doing it. The exhibition of bile and stupidity that we see online is evidence that we could all benefit from a quieter and more reflective response to the horrible things the world throws at us.