FLANKING

Posted in Rants on August 12th, 2013 by Ed

In their latest desperate ploy for attention, CNN had medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta (who, in case you didn't know, still does neurosurgery in Atlanta when he's not on the air) "change his mind about pot" after studying the medical and legal implications of the War on Marijuana. Dr. Gupta even admitted that he has tried some himself in the past. What a shocking revelation! In a more sober vein, the doctor declared that he found the warnings about the effects of marijuana to be "overstated."

Since every remotely objective observer has reached the same conclusion, there is nothing to see here beyond the cachet of Gupta's medical credentials and public profile. Polling shows that barely 1/3 of the public (presumably old people) supports continued marijuana prohibition. It would appear that decriminalization at the federal level could happen in our lifetimes. And the best part about it is never again being cornered at a party by That Guy who lacks the ability to talk about anything other than legalizing pot.

While no one this side of Bill Bennett or James Dobson takes the Dangers of Marijuana horror stories seriously, I still find "medical marijuana" ballot initiatives to be a half-assed and ultimately pointless approach. Legalization advocates tend to be rationalists, people who are repulsed by the dishonesty and bullshitting inherent to the Just Say No/War on Drugs movement. For that very reason I find it particularly hard to people talk about legalization based on the medical uses of marijuana. I mean, come on. I support legalization, but let's just call it what it is: you want to smoke lots of weed and purchasing it legally would make your life easier. That's OK. Own it.

What percentage of people who have "cards" in Colorado or California (here's a great take on how it's nearly impossible to get denied when applying in LA) have a real, legitimate medical need to be prescribed marijuana? Certainly it must be dwarfed by the number who have bullshitted their way into it with the help, perhaps, of a particularly sympathetic physician – if that is even necessary. Perhaps this is a point that isn't worth making, but I don't see much difference between Bill Bennett trying to scare people with a bunch of lies about marijuana and some White Guy With Dreadlocks pretending that glaucoma is an important issue for him. These excuses and games grow tiresome. Let's just say what we mean. Conservatives love the War on Drugs because it lets them imprison black and Hispanic males, and marijuana is the volume seller of the drug trade. They hide behind their cheap "Someone think of the children!" rhetoric that fools fewer Americans by the minute. Liberals support legalization because they see the War on Drugs for what it is. And libertarian types who are single-issue fanatics about legalization usually smoke enough weed to sedate a rhino and decriminalization it would be advantageous. Cool? Let's all get comfortable in our own skin.

If you're going to make a farce out of a law, then there is no point in having the law and enforcing it haphazardly. There are no doubt some people out there who derive real benefits from Medical Marijuana laws, but for the public at large these laws are just a convenient way to get the good shit without the risk of arrest. I'm open minded to the possibility that legalization advocates are that passionate about treating glaucoma, but I have my doubts. We should stop treating the symptoms – coming up with ways to flank bad laws – and root out the useless laws at the core of this issue. Alternatively, we can continue to pretend that it makes sense to live in a country where Bacardi 151 is legal (Drink Responsibly!) and marijuana is not.

BUZZFEED DADAISM, PT. 1

Posted in Quick Hits on August 9th, 2013 by Ed

There is a new print for sale, once again representing the combined efforts of Pauline and I, from the Facebook-popular Buzzfeed surrealism series. Liven up your cubicle for only $18 (plus s/h) for an 11×14 offset color print on matte archival card stock. LOL and OMG your way through the day for the cost of a pizza that you will eat alone and probably purge in a torrent of tears immediately after finishing it. Click the preview image to embiggen:

buzzfeed





NPF: UNCONTAINED PANTS FAILURE

Posted in No Politics Friday on August 9th, 2013 by Ed

Fans of aviation or industrial design mourned the retirement of the Concorde in 2003. With it ended for the foreseeable future the brief era of supersonic passenger flight. Its retirement – which had nothing to do with the spectacular, tragic crash of Air France Flight 4590 in 2000 and everything to do with the plane's astronomical per-passenger cost to operate – was the first nod to economic reality in its history. The Concorde never made economic sense; it was finished as a matter of political and nationalistic pride in France and the UK. A textbook example of the sunk costs fallacy – which is now sometimes called the Concorde Fallacy in its honor – its existence was more a matter of 'can' than 'should'.

Flying at twice the speed of sound at 60,000 feet presented some unique challenges aside from the impractical economics. At the beginning of every commercial flight, FAA rules require flight attendants to give you a safety demonstration that you ignore completely; part of it is the infamous oxygen mask with its plastic bag that may or may not inflate (but don't worry, because either way oxygen is still flowing). The supplemental oxygen is there in case of a loss of cabin pressure. A normal jet cruising at 25-30,000 feet can make use of a passive system like this in case of emergency while the pilots descend to a safer altitude. There is very little oxygen or atmospheric pressure at 30,000 feet, so the goal is to give everyone enough oxygen to avoid hypoxia while quickly reaching a more breathable altitude.

But at 60,000 feet in the Concorde the engineers discovered that the mask-and-baggie system doesn't work. The air is too thin and the pressure too weak at that altitude. In the event of a loss of cabin pressure, the air at that altitude would be so thin that you couldn't even inhale well enough to stay conscious. The only way to ensure adequate oxygen would be to uses a positive pressure device like a CPAP (similar to what people with sleep apnea use). Installing one for each of 100 passengers in the Concorde was totally impractical in terms of cost and weight.

Instead, they installed a positive-pressure system in the cockpit with fighter pilot-style oxygen masks to ensure that the flight crew would be OK. Then they calculated what is known as the "time of useful consciousness" (TOC) at 60,000 feet – how long it will take the average human to pass out or lose the ability to perform basic tasks. Given the impossibility of providing an oxygen system for every passenger, the engineers decided that the best solution was to take the TOC and instruct the pilots to dive to a breathable altitude in that amount of time.

That would be no big deal except the TOC is something like 90-120 seconds at Concorde's 60,000 foot cruising altitude. A breathable altitude without supplemental oxygen is around 15-20,000 feet. So in the event of a loss of cabin pressure, the emergency procedure on the Concorde was to dive 40,000 feet in 90 seconds. As far as I can tell this maneuver was never actually tested, although engineers did determine that it was well within the structural limits of the airframe. While the aircraft itself might have survived, I highly doubt the same could be said for the structural integrity of the passengers' pants if this actually happened on a revenue flight. Given the high cost of tickets and the high-class clientele that the Concorde attracted, explosive pant-soiling would have been quite the public relations nightmare for British Airways. Thank god it never came to that, and thereby were many pants saved.

THE PIVOT

Posted in Rants on August 8th, 2013 by Ed

On account of what I do for a living and what I do for fun (namely this), people ask me questions about politics on occasion. Not often, mind you, because politics is a subject on which everyone is automatically an expert. But it happens here and there. Recently one of my friends asked me what should have been a very easy question; unfortunately it stumped me. So as people with my personality type tend to do, I obsessed over it mentally for a few hours until I satisfied myself with an answer.

The question, which came at the tail end of a lengthy discussion of how far to the right American politics and public policy have lurched, was: What was the starting point on the road to Teabaggistan? What one single event or point in time, if we could go back and change it, might have avoided (or at least delayed) the ideological and practical mess in which we find ourselves today?

"Stumped" was a poor word choice. Rather, I had an answer but I figured it was too obvious and therefore the real answer must be something deep and convoluted that only a true Doctor of Thinking such as myself could elucidate. After much thought, though, the best answers I can concoct are far from obscure historical events.

The first and most obvious one that came to mind was the election of Reagan. That is the moment in which the official policy of the government became "Government is the problem; government is the enemy." This began 30 years of Wrecking Crew governance, where the sole purpose of governing was to govern so badly that people would agree that government can do no good and should be done away with. It was the point at which one could say things like "Government should be drowned in a bathtub" in public discourse without being considered an insane person.

The second candidate was the passage of NAFTA with the support of congressional Republicans and a Democratic president. The enactment of NAFTA was the beginning of the end of the American economy; at that moment, the death of manufacturing jobs and labor unions became inevitable, a matter of when and not if. This event is a good choice because it signaled the end of the Democratic Party as a legitimate liberal party and the beginning of the New Democrat (i.e., Republican Lite) economic policy. Out with the New Deal and Great Society, in with welfare reform and globalization. From this point forward, we have had one party on economic policy. The two major parties differ only in how they wish to implement the neoliberal Wall Street agenda.

To give myself a few Cred Points for avoiding obvious answers, I also considered the Dixiecrat separatist movement of 1948 with the presidential candidacy of Strom Thurmond. At this point, the collapse of the New Deal Democratic coalition around the issue of race became inevitable, although the process took nearly thirty years to play out. It presaged the Civil Rights movements, the GOP Southern Strategy, and the unified conservatism – social, foreign policy, and economic – that Reagan was able to bring to his party. Because this unfolded over such a long period of time, I don't consider it to be a great answer to a question seeking one pivotal event.

I'd rank my three answers in the order given. Reagan was the catalyst for our current ideological condition. NAFTA ushered in our current economic condition. And the southern white exodus from the Democratic Party made possible the polarized social/moral politics of the last few decades. One could make an argument that the 1-2 punch of the Vietnam War and Watergate initiated Americans' distrust of government, but it took an effective leader to make it an ideology rather than an undercurrent.

Reagan and NAFTA. Those are the best starting points for a 90-second version of the how and why of America 2013.

HIDDEN COSTS

Posted in Rants on August 6th, 2013 by Ed

John Mulaney's new stand-up album has a terrific bit about the New York Post, which is by consensus the worst newspaper in the U.S. if not the world. While Fox News and other right-wing tabloid media outlets have their defenders, they rarely waste any time trying to stick up for the Post. Written at a third-grade level and mostly full of things that aren't true, the Post is written by and for complete idiots with no real pretense of journalistic integrity.

As bad as its "news" is, nothing holds a candle to the Post opinion page. I've college dailies with fewer ass-headed screeds than what is supposedly a major newspaper from America's cultural metropolis. If some braying fratboy can type it, the Post will print it. And that's how we ended up being alternately entertained and horrified last week when they saw fit to publish some "Do you know who my dad is?" tool's love letter to the "greatest food in human history", the McDonald's double.

This is old news by now and most of what can be said about this idiocy has already been said. Two things stuck out to me but haven't attracted much attention.

First, this is loaded to the gunwales with every cheap, tired, cliche "liberal" joke in the right wing arsenal – the only things missing are Jane Fonda, hairy armpits, and "limousine liberals". Since this got past an editor, we can assume that hackneyed, predictable tripe is not a bug in this case but a major feature of the paper. This kind of cheap write-to-the-stereotypes nonsense is precisely what passes for opinion and commentary among college freshmen, and their views only get published when the editor and publisher want to stir up some "controversy" and bask in the attention that follows. The Post prints the same kind of crap just because that's what the Post prints.

Second, the kind of economics on which he bases this claim are inappropriate. We know the price of the sandwich, but do we know if it's a loss leader? McDonald's might very well be selling it below cost just to get people through the door (the real profit maker for most fast food restaurants is the soft drink dispenser, where one cent worth of syrup mixes with one cent worth of water to make a $1.49 regular drink). Does the production of the components of the sandwich benefit from government subsidies? If so, it seems that we would have to account for 1) subsidies and 2) a retailer willing to sell the product below cost before we could make a meaningful comparison between a fast food burger and those frou frou vegetables.

There might be a silver lining to his stupidity, though. This piece has attracted such wide attention that more people might start paying attention to the fundamental problem with our food system: the inverse relationship between cost and calories. Rather than celebrating, we should be alarmed that $5 at a grocery store can buy 3000 calories of complete shit of no nutritional value whatsoever. What the poor can afford barely counts as food in many cases, and the McDouble is a perfect example. Make a hamburger on your grill. Take a bite. Then take a bite of a McDouble. Notice how they taste nothing alike. That's because one is made of ground beef and the other is made of inert gray matter sprayed with beef flavoring, dyed caramel brown, and fried before being enveloped in several variants of processed corn. It may be calories – as are Faygo, potato chips, gummy bears, and the other detritus available for 1000 calories per dollar at your grocery store – but it isn't food. There's a difference, and it would be foolish to expect the crack staff of the New York Post to appreciate it.

GOOD LUCK WITH THAT, BILLY

Posted in Quick Hits on August 5th, 2013 by Ed

There are dozens of Intro to American Government textbooks on the market and I think I've been given copies of all of them at least twice. The funny thing about having so many entrants in a lucrative and crowded market is that they are all essentially the same. There are only so many ways to explain what a congressional committee is, how the Electoral College works, or why interest groups form.

I haven't done the math, but off the top of my head I'd estimate that 90% of the available textbooks begin with a chapter on the basic question of why organized government exists. This introduces 18 year-olds to basic concepts that Coach was supposed to teach them in high school but didn't – collective action problems, public goods, free riding, and so on. Most of them pick up very quickly an understanding of why getting a large group of people to agree on a single course of action and then stick to the plan is difficult at best, impossible at worst. Even if they don't care about or understand government, I think I get the point across to most of them. I hate to say it, but if they can't grasp this simple concept they might not be the sharpest of knives overall.

And it is those dull knives that come to mind when I see news items about the latest half-assed plan to undermine health care reform by getting literally tens of millions of people to disregard their own self-interest and act collectively to further the ideological goals of FreedomWorks and Koch Industries. The latest brainstorm is to convince young people to opt out of the insurance exchanges (which raises costs by taking the healthiest, least costly members out of the pool) to undermine the law.

This plan would have to improve markedly to qualify as idiotic.

This not only requires young people to live without health insurance for several years while this scheme takes effect, but also to pay a fine for failing to comply with the law. Their motivation to do this – and to ignore the prospect of being insured and the many subsidies available for people with low incomes to buy coverage – will be their intense commitment to Tea Party principles.

The handful of complete knuckleheads who actually follow the lead of people – insured ones, mind you – like Dick Armey and Rush Limbaugh are so deeply misguided that it is only a matter of time before they die (uninsured) from touching a downed power line or when their inebriated friend Scooter mistakes them for a trophy buck and opens fire.

NPF: AT ACTION PARK

Posted in No Politics Friday on August 2nd, 2013 by Ed

I know I've been maintaining this site for a long time when I can no longer remember whether I've written about a given topic at some point. My memory tends to be terrifyingly detailed, but lately – either through old age or the sheer volume of posts – it has let me down on occasion. On Thursday I posted on Facebook about Action Park and referred everyone to an old NPF post about it. Turns out that post only exists in my mind. Somehow I have been at this for a decade without writing about Action Park. The mind boggles.

Action Park was a low-budget amusement park in New Jersey that combined water rides, go-karts, skiing, and other carnival-type attractions. It operated between 1978 through its heyday in the mid-80s and then sporadically until 1996. Action Park was notable for three things:

1. The extreme number of injuries (and deaths) its ramshackle attractions caused. At one point, the park had to buy the local government more ambulances to handle the flow of victims. I can't decide if I like the swimming pools "infested with snakes" or the "Alpine slide" made of concrete and fiberglass that was ridden with a brake-less sled.

2. The on-site sale of alcohol from the park's own microbrewery. So it was a park full of dangerous rides wherein the owners were actively trying to get you shitfaced.

3. The extreme laxness of the employees, who were low paid teenagers working summer jobs. The park had a "Logan's Run"-type atmosphere in which it was hard to find anyone over 20.

Rather than re-hash everything here, please take 10 minutes to read possibly the funniest page on all of Wikipedia detailing the insanely dangerous rides, the routine injuries, the wasted patrons, and the various legal issues that arose. Weird New Jersey also has some extensive (and often first-person) narratives of the park; attendance appears to have been a mandatory rite of passage for kids and teenagers in the NY/NJ area during the 1980s. If I haven't sold you yet, check out their commercial:

Notice what you don't notice in that commercial – basic safety features on any of the rides. Railings? Padding? Park employees? Why, it almost looks like someone just set up some slides and swings over pools of water and let everyone fling their bodies around at extreme speeds. I believe it looks like that because…it was. It's amazing how dangerous the rides look in the commercial, when the park ostensibly is showing itself in the most favorable light. My personal favorite is the waterslide at the end where instead of landing in a pool, riders are flung across the surface of a shallow pool where they are supposed to skip like a rock.

It's unclear whether this was an amusement park or some kind of bizarre social experiment, as though the CIA was trying to figure out what would happen if drunk children were put in charge of an environment specifically designed to kill you.