EVERYONE LOOK SURPRISED

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

When I first moved to the middle of Illinois in August I told myself that it might not be terribly appealing but at least I would live near my sister (with her three adorable children) and my best friend (in my old grad school town). Then they both moved as far away as possible, on opposite coasts. You know, in the parts of the country that aren't awful and sad. Anyway, the most adorable members of my family tree are leaving for Portland, OR on Friday, which has kept me inordinately busy with box-packing and child-hugging. And then there was also the crucial matter of hockey-watching on Wednesday evening. Hawks win! Hawks win!

I'm serious. They won that game twice.

Here is a neat little video mashup you can forward to your right-wing friends the next time they try to tell you that Fox News is a real news network. Tesla Motors, maker of electric cars, has been a Murdoch Corp whipping boy for several years, due in large part to the government loan they received. Then the company repaid the loan and its stock shot through the roof after its first major product appeared to be a sales success. This video compiles all of the "before" clips harping on Tesla for sucking the taxpayers' teat while hawking a product that won't work, and follows with "after" clips in which Fox anchors mysteriously forget the whole "government loan" angle while talking about the company's apparent success.

Fox News has gone from something that I couldn't bear to watch to a craving that I develop if I miss it for more than a few days. It's hard to put into words the number of levels on which I enjoy this horseshit. They're not even trying to act like a real news network, and yet the majority of their viewers think they are one.

THEATER OF OPERATIONS

Posted in Quick Hits on May 28th, 2013 by Ed

A short tangent off of yesterday's Memorial Day post.

People generally form an image of war as it is seen in the movies – people with guns shooting one another. In reality, getting shot has been relatively low on the list of dangers in 20th and 21st Century warfare. In the first World War, illness and artillery shells killed more men than bullets; in the second, bombing and artillery again accounted for more combat casualties than bullets. If you peruse the casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, you'll see that the overwhelming majority of deaths and injuries have resulted from improvised explosive devices. Small arms fire accounts for about 10% of casualties due to hostile action. Ask the average American in Afghanistan if he would like a heavier, stronger bulletproof vest or a more heavily armored vehicle to ride in and I'm guessing that very few would choose the former.

Accordingly, the Department of Defense has purchased more than 13,000 purpose-built vehicles intended to protect occupants from mines, rockets, roadside bombs, suicide bombers, and other explosive threats. These MRAPs (Mine Resistant, Ambush-Protected) are enormous, hulking machines built specifically for war zones. They are designed to allow occupants to survive the worst of the worst. This picture, showing five men with a FP Cougar, gives some sense of scale. This particular model weighs 36,000 pounds. The gargantuan Buffalo model is over 13 feet tall and weighs 21 tons.

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These giants are hard to drive, understandably. With high centers of gravity they are prone to rollovers and they struggle to accelerate beyond 35-50 mph in most cases (note that vehicle accidents are also common on the list of fatalities). It's also difficult and expensive to get them to the Middle East. But in the interest of giving the troops a better chance of surviving explosive attacks, they were purchased by the thousands.

The question, as the wars wind down, is what the hell to do with all of them. They're being given away gratis to friendly nations, mothballed back in the U.S., and…wait for it…transferred to domestic federal agencies like the FBI and Homeland Security.

Anyone want to place bets on how long it takes them to end up in the hands of police departments? Given the extent to which the police have been militarized in the last 30 years, this is the logical next step. "Overkill" is not in their vocabulary, nor is practicality high on their list of concerns. Give it about a year before the bigger cities start justifying it – What if there's a terrorist attack! Bombs! 9/11! Hurrr! – and then the suburbs and the sticks, refusing to be left behind in the Coolest Toys arms race, follow suit. That's all we need.

MATTERS OF PERSPECTIVE

Posted in Rants on May 27th, 2013 by Ed

There is a group of historical figures – Mark Twain, Einstein, Ben Franklin, and Winston Churchill come to mind – to whom so many quotes and anecdotes are attributed that it's difficult to separate the real from the incorrectly sourced from the apocryphal. With Abraham Lincoln, impossible is a better term than difficult. So many pieces of folksy wisdom are attributed to Honest Abe that he would have had to devote hours per day to clever sayings to concoct all of them. One of my favorite supposed-Lincoln anecdotes involves a dispatch he received from one of his generals after a brief engagement with Confederate forces in Kentucky. The telegram reported, "Good news, (name of town) taken, only 12 casualties." Lincoln's supposed reply was, "Not good news for the 12."

As the "official" American military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan continues to wind down, the casualties (U.S. or otherwise) drift even further from public consciousness. The fact that the wars have been ongoing for more than a decade certainly doesn't help, given the attention span of our media and the general public. As of this Memorial Day, the total number of U.S. fatalities in Afghanistan in 2013 is 53. Comparatively – nearly 4500 died in Iraq and 2227 have died so far in Afghanistan – it is tempting to look at this year as good news. And it is, in some sense. But it's not good news for those 53, their families, and everyone who knew them.

Whether or not the war is going well in the larger sense, there is no good news for Spc. Mitchell Daehling, 24, of Dalton, MA. He died on May 14, 2013 in Sanjaray Zhari, Kandahar when an improvised explosive device destroyed the vehicle he occupied with Spc. William Gilbert and Sgt. Jeffrey Baker, both of whom also died. Nothing that has happened in Afghanistan lately counts as good news for Spc. Daehling's widow, parents, siblings, and friends. There is no happy ending for them.

I do this annually on Memorial Day, and I always point out that the odds are overwhelmingly against any of us knowing the people whose names make up these casualty reports personally. I do not know Spc. Mitchell Daehling, and you don't either. We know nothing about him – whether he was a great guy or a jerk, whether he was funny or serious, whether he liked Coke or Pepsi. What we do know is that he is no longer alive. His death has an immediate cause that we readily understand – improvised explosives are a common hazard in this war, and he had the misfortune of being near one when it exploded. That should not stop us from remembering the less proximate causes – the political, economic, and social factors that combined to place him in Kandahar Province on May 14, 2013.

Memorial Day should be our annual reminder that the decisions our elected officials make and the knee-jerk reactions among the public have real consequences. The consequence, every time we commit ourselves to go to war, is that people who would otherwise be alive will end up dead. The costs of war are abstract for most of us, but very real for Mitchell Daehling and his loved ones. We hear a lot of florid talk on Memorial Day about honoring and remembering sacrifices. In my view, we honor their sacrifices best by remembering the chain of events and decisions that led to them.

NPF: OH, THE PLACES YOU'LL GO

Posted in No Politics Friday on May 24th, 2013 by Ed

I'm in a severely foul (hockey-related) mood as the Blackhawks continue to make a middling Red Wings team look like the 1977 Montreal Canadiens. Fortunately today was scheduled for Link Salad composed of a couple of strange places and something interesting to gawk at.

1. Do you enjoy peace and quiet? Then you'll love the quietest place on Earth, the anechoic chamber at Orfield Labs in Minneapolis. It wrested the title from the AT&T-Bell Labs "Quiet Room" in New Jersey, which was the site of many interesting tests and developments over the years. The Orfield room eliminates more than 99% of external sound, somehow producing a negative decibel rating (which I didn't know was possible) compared to the average "quiet room" with about 30 dB of background noise.

Surely this sounds pretty good to you lovers of peace and quiet. Well, it's unpleasant; the longest anyone has been able to tolerate sitting in it is 45 minutes. It is so quiet that it causes people to hallucinate. Although obviously the effect of being in the room cannot be conveyed in a video, this short clip about Orfield is interesting nonetheless.

2. Have you ever wondered what is the worst restaurant in the world? Well why not? Surely the quest to find it would be at least as interesting, if not as pleasant, as finding the best one. Vice has a nominee for this award, and it's in Los Angeles. Yes, I know. Vice is written by dicks, for dicks. No, the writer is not exactly sensitive to the plight of the homeless. But you have to admit, even if you find the author smug and condescending, that you won't be dining here anytime soon.

3. Here's an interesting little project by an artist depicting historical figures in various paintings in modern dress. Shakespeare looks pretty intimidating in most of the surviving depictions; it's interesting to think that if he was alive today he would probably look like an English graduate student. That is, like a hobo.

UNHEEDED WARNINGS

Posted in Rants on May 23rd, 2013 by Ed

Recently, Rhode Island and Minnesota brought the number of states in which gay marriage is legal to an even dozen. In doing so, they chose not only to thumb their nose at thousands of years of traditional marriage and the Judeo-Christian roots of American society, but they also chose to ignore some alarming evidence from the ten states that legalized gay marriage before them.

Take Maryland, for example. It legalized gay marriage in 2012, effective January 1, 2013. As we near the end of May, we can see clearly the consequences of that decision. Take a look at these sobering statistics for 2013:

– 94% of straight married couples in Maryland have gotten divorced
– More than 7,000 man-dog marriages have been performed statewide
– In place of the Pledge of Allegiance, Maryland children now begin the school day with a three-minute pulsing techno beat
– Baltimore's Basilica of the Blessed Virgin Mary – the first Roman Catholic Cathedral built in the U.S. – has been converted to a gay bar called The Oil Rig. The rectory is now "Mouthfuls", a discotheque. Little of the original stained glass has been preserved.
– The CDC has identified a new, more virulent strain of the gay causing locally serious outbreaks in the Baltimore-DC corridor. Initial reports indicate that it may be airborne.
– The Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens are too busy having sex with one another to practice; the upcoming season has been forfeited.

The sad part about these developments is that they were so predictable. Defenders of traditional marriage warned us that by destroying the sanctity of the institution, all marriages would be weakened and made less meaningful. A society that does not respect marriage descends into complete amorality with astonishing speed. Maryland did not heed the warning; how many other states must make the same mistake before we learn?

ANATOMY OF A SCANDAL

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

It's an article of faith among Republicans that the Obama administration is and has been Up To No Good, and certainly mountains of evidence would be uncovered if only they could appoint a Special Prosecutor or two to root around for a year. This, as I understand it, is the sole point of trying to make a big deal out of a complete non-scandal (Benghazi) and pretty sorry excuse for a Big Scandal (the IRS thing). Just make enough noise to bring back Ken Starr and an ample staff who can eventually uncover evidence that Obama let someone use his parking pass, in blatant violation of the terms and conditions of the parking rules, twenty years ago.

That is why we live in a nation in which it's an extra-super-huge deal that some people who work for the IRS may have been aggressively thorough with blatantly political Tea Party organizations applying for tax exemptions as "Social Welfare" groups in order to avoid disclosing their donors, and not the slightest bit scandalous that American corporations worth trillions of dollars pay essentially nothing in income tax.

The disparity between what causes outrage and what should has grown so large that it's not even surprising anymore.

AUDIO ADDENDUM

Posted in Quick Hits on May 21st, 2013 by Ed

For those who are interested or commented on the previous post, this is a picture of the audio inputs inside the jukebox. If I can find some way to run a line in here, then the jukebox could act as an amplifier and I could simply run through the house speakers. It appears to be old speaker wire-style inputs. Click to embiggen.

jukebox

Thanks again for the help.

MAYDAY MAYDAY MAYDAY

Posted in Quick Hits on May 21st, 2013 by Ed

I'm not sure if I've ever done this before, but in lieu of an actual post today I need to solicit advice.

If you have any experience as a DJ, sound guy/girl, or anything dealing with pro audio, your opinion may be valuable to me. Or feel free to chime in if you just happen to have any useful experience with PA systems and the like.

I've got the opportunity to host a trivia game at a local bar. It's exciting and I expect it to be a ton of fun. What I need is to figure out the simplest, cost-effective way to set up the audio. The sound system in the bar is…limited. There's an old jukebox, basically, with speaker wire outs to two unpowered PA speakers. There are speaker wire "ins" in the jukebox, for whatever that may be worth. The space itself is not particularly large – long, narrow, and with a 15' ceiling.

What I have is a laptop I'm going to use for the music (note: suggestions for free or reasonably priced DJ software welcome). I need to mix the music with a single microphone, and then…find a way to make the results audible. My trivia host friend uses and suggested a full DJ setup (including $1000 powered speakers, a multi-track console, etc) and I'm not willing to go that far for something that will be fun but isn't going to pay.

As you can no doubt tell, I have little experience with audio equipment. Talk to me like I'm stupid, please. I'm starting from scratch here, other than having the laptop (with the usual outputs: HDMI, USB, etc).

Tips? Recommendations? Snide comments?

IT'S NOT ALL ABOUT YOU

Posted in Rants on May 20th, 2013 by Ed

One thing I try to impress upon my students in their writing is the under-appreciated value of succinctness. Most teachers give a minimum page requirement for papers; I only give a maximum. I warn them that the world has a short attention span and one does not have the luxury of making a point by rambling on and on about it indefinitely. Being thorough, in their minds, often equates to saying a lot. Being thorough without saying much is the hardest skill to learn but among the best to have.

This little lesson is hilarious, of course, because I am among the least succinct people on Earth. No one who dumps 500-1000 words per day on the internet should be lecturing others about keeping things short. I've made a conscious effort to improve this over the past year – particularly in academic writing, but also here – and there has been some progress. Yet sometimes I just can't find a way to be short and punchy, to deliver the blow without a ton of setup. For the past two weeks I've been working on a post that has turned into goddamn War and Peace regarding the poll in which 29% of respondents, and 44% of Republicans, agreed with the statement, "In the next few years, an armed revolution might be necessary in order to protect our liberties."

It would be easy enough to mock the results or do the usual "Yep, these people exist" hand-wringing, but my actual thoughts on it were complex – something about the undercurrent of authoritarianism, even fascism, that we pretend does not exist in the United States. And the underlying dilemma that the United States, unlike other democracies, has never really learned its lesson about fascism as a society.

Then I found someone who did the work for me, and far better than I was. And it isn't even an Official Writer, it is a commenter from a Charles Pierce post.

30% of every OECD country polls fascist. That's just always been the case, for 150 years. In most modern wealthy democracies those people are afraid to express their opinions, because its commonly understood that people who hold those opinions are generally detrimental to the common good. That was the political lesson of WWII.

In the US however they get their own news channels and one-half of the political power, because for some reason around 1980 we all started feeling sorry for the narcissistic fantasists and sentimentalists that call themselves "movement conservatives," who told us they felt bad because they were left out of what they called "the Liberal consensus."

The Liberal consensus was really just an agreement not to let the aforementioned narcissists do what they do best, which is to monopolize the conversation and claim its all about *me* and *my pain* and what about *my people*, which in general prevents us from confronting actual real live reality, like genuinely poor people and genuine disasters like climate change. And we let down our guard, forgetting that these 30% always feel bad, because they really have nothing more to their belief system than a heightened sense of persecution coupled to a heightened sense of their worth. Everything else – their politics, economics, religion, sociology – is an attempt to rationalize those two basic principles: "I oughta be in charge, but my inferiors won't let me."

30 years later people in the media think they're entertaining and sell eyeballs so they give them a seat at the table, and they don't realize the fascists want all the seats and have bad table manners besides. And while the rest of us would like to pay attention to the reality we've ignored since Reagan first pretended he was President, the media and the conversation is dominated by these 30%, who refuse to give up their fantasyland, just as we should have known they would.

While we could pick nits with some of the specifics there, that's exactly what I've been fighting myself over trying to say for a fortnight. And this gentleman did it in about 200 words. I have nothing to add. This.

NPF: WHITE ELEPHANT

Posted in No Politics Friday on May 17th, 2013 by Ed

There's something inherently interesting, not to mention disturbing, about abandoned places. The internet agrees, as it has fueled the growth in "urban exploration" as a (white, middle class) hobby. Search around and you'll find that pictures of abandoned factories, amusement parks, and malls aplenty. Personally, my favorite type of man-made wreckage is a good old fashioned white elephant. They might not be abandoned in the strictest sense, but they have this special kind of sad, pointless emptiness that you can't find anywhere else. Imagine walking around a museum alone or being the only fan in an entire stadium. But enough about going to Miami Marlins games.

I've never been to Montreal, but it is the Graceland of giant, burdensome, staggeringly expensive, useless public works projects. There's Olympic Stadium, but that's a story for another day. Here's a good trivia question. What is the largest airport in the world by area? While this title is now disputed*, I'm going to guess that Montreal-Mirabel Airport was not on the tip of your tongue. Why? Because you can't actually book a flight into the world's biggest, and almost totally empty, airport. At a hard-to-comprehend 396 square kilometers in area, Mirabel opened in 1975 (for the 1976 Montreal Olympics) and is easily visible from space.

mirabel-icar-1

Are you sure it's big enough? For the planes carrying tens of millions of people to…Montreal?

The gargantuan airport hasn't had passenger service for over a decade, handling only cargo traffic. The city has spent 30 years trying to find alternate uses for it – it has been used variously as a Formula 1 racetrack, a Bombardier airplane factory, a movie set, warehouse space, and more. For a while they were even talking about turning into an amusement park. So how does a city build the world's biggest airport and it ends up totally empty?

After Expo 67 (the spiritual successor of the great World Fairs of the late 19th/early 20th Centuries) and their winning bid to host the Summer Olympics of 1976, the city fathers in Montreal were making some boldly optimistic projections of the city's future (and possibly doing a lot of blow as well). Along with the Canadian federal government they began planning massive new infrastructure projects. Montreal was served by a relatively small city airport, Dorval (now – because god has a sense of humor – named Pierre Trudeau International) which was handling an unplanned amount of international traffic. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, airliners did not have the range we're accustomed to today. So west coast flights to Europe, Africa, the Mideast, etc commonly stopped in Montreal to re-fuel before crossing the Atlantic. So they hatched a brilliant plan.

Projecting that Montreal's airports would be handling a staggering 20 million passengers annually, they drew up plans for Mirabel to handle all international flights. Domestic flights would continue to use Dorval. When Mirabel opened, though, the floods of passengers never came. First, technological advances made it unnecessary for newer airliners to make refueling stops. Second, nobody within or outside of Montreal wanted to use the damn thing. It was built more than an hour's drive from the city (Dorval is much closer) and the promised high-speed rail line to connect the city and airport never materialized. It was expensive, so the airlines hated it. And because it could offer the size of a major airport with the convenience of domestic connections, airlines decided to avoid Montreal altogether and just fly to Pearson International in Toronto (the one Rush wrote a song about). After twenty years the governments collectively gave up on Mirabel and…expanded Dorval to accommodate 20 million passengers, which I guess they kinda could have done in the first place. At its peak, Mirabel handled 3 million passengers in one year. This is the amount of passengers handled in 2012 by the 52nd busiest airport in the U.S. – Port Columbus International in lovely Columbus, Ohio. Check out the bustling terminal at Mirabel today!

NKN-2007-08-05_144714_MIRABEL_AIRPORT(Yvan_Leduc_author_for_Wikipedia)

Let's just say things didn't pan out. And it's still standing to remind everyone of its failure. We've all made bad predictions and worse plans, but a literal concrete-and-steel monument has never been built to your bad ideas. Whoever finds this planet in a few thousand years after we're long gone will be baffled by it. Fittingly, they will probably land at Dorval. "Why would you land at the one that's farther away?" they will ask in their strange, alien tongue. Good question. Good question.