NPF: LITE SNACK

Posted in No Politics Friday on September 13th, 2013 by Ed

The real NPF is on the way, but until then please enjoy the following:

1. A gentleman in Mississippi claims to have shot the Chupacabra. The local newspaper's coverage includes quotes like:

The Mississippi Department of Wildlife and Fisheries reports the "Chupacabra" is a coyote with mange.

Locals, however, are not having any of it.

"I told him there ain't no way because, look at it," Hewharrell said.

I don't know how in the hell anyone can be a local newspaper reporter in Mississippi.

2. Rush Limbaugh wrote a history-adventure book for children. Only 102 shopping days until Christmas.

GUNSHOTS BY COMPUTER

Posted in Quick Hits on September 11th, 2013 by Ed

Someone correct me if I have this wrong.

We want "diplomacy" to solve the situation in Syria, but to do so we need to stand ready to lob some missiles at them. If we do lob missiles at them, it wouldn't be with the intent of altering the course of the conflict; we don't want to choose sides, after all. We just want to fire enough missiles at…something…to remind other countries that we are totally tough and capable of lobbing missiles at things from afar. I mean, we can't Show Weakness In Front Of the Russians.

Wow. Never thought we'd get to use that dusty Cold War gem again.

The technology available to modern presidents has reduced the costs of going to "war" (or "police action" or "intervention" or whatever euphemism is appropriate for not-really-wars like this) to the point that it appears to have permanently warped the judgment of our political leaders. Is there anything less costly to a president, to the Pentagon, to Congress, to the belligerent public, than parking naval assets in international waters and launching guided missiles at far-off targets? It costs no American blood and little political capital – if anything, it succeeds in making presidents look "tough" or whatever. It costs nothing but money, and god knows that we are perpetually broke but somehow always able to dig deeper into the pocketbook to find more money when the Department of Defense deems it necessary.

Combined with the use of air strikes (high altitude bombing runs against countries relying on Vietnam-era Soviet anti-aircraft defenses) and the growing popularity of drones, video game warfare is upon us. There really isn't much incentive for a president not to conduct that type of war continuously and against all perceived threats. No one weeps when a drone crashes, nor do Americans particularly care if cruise missiles aren't as "pinpoint accurate" as defense contractors claim. The only thing that rouses the public against war, in the rare instances in which that actually happens, is the cost in American lives. Remove that from the equation and the use of force can continue in the background almost indefinitely. Having declared war on a threat that can never be eliminated completely, we've found a way to remove morality from the use of force by isolating it from the only lives that matter in our political process.

WHOOPS! SORRY. WRONG HOUSE.

Posted in Quick Hits on September 10th, 2013 by Ed

The title comes from Jello Biafra's final line in the classic Lard song "Drug Raid at 4 AM." The musical stylings of Lard may not be your cup of tea, but this is one of the best War on Drugs songs around. It's at once subtle and completely unsubtle with its anti-anti-drug message.

The element of black humor in the song comes from the fact that police in this era of No-Knock Warrants and battering rams through front doors do end up saying "Whoops! Wrong house!" with regularity that can only be described as alarming. The Cato Institute – I know, strange bedfellows – has an interactive map of how often these "isolated incidents" and "tragic mistakes" occur.

It turns out that sloppy police work extends beyond the zealous enforcement of drug laws (to say nothing of municipal governments' enthusiasm for civil forfeiture) and that using Maximum Overkill levels of force has become standard operating procedure in the most pedestrian matters.

A few weeks ago, police in Leander, TX raided the home of James and Renata Simmons and ended up shooting their dog before realizing that the person named on the warrant, one Bradley Simpson, doesn't even live in the same town let alone at that address. Simmons, Simpson, close enough. Guns out!

The warrant was for an unpaid vehicle registration.

The saddest part is that the raw incompetence and stupidity of most police is only like 4th on the list of things about them that are terrifying, behind the corruption, violence, and racism.

OUT OF THIN AIR

Posted in Uncategorized on September 9th, 2013 by Ed

I have a couple of mostly dormant brokerage accounts. In the past – before I went to grad school – I traded moderately actively, albeit on a small scale as befitted my income. Since I no longer have the time to devote to proper research (and buying stocks without that is essentially throwing money away) I don't do it much anymore. Over the summer I was able to give it a bit of attention, and in August I was able to execute a couple of trades that returned about a 50% profit in 2-3 weeks.

Lacking great amounts of capital, any transaction I could make in The Market is totally, almost unfathomably inconsequential. With literal trillions of dollars being moved around electronically on a daily basis, the dollar amount I bring to bear on the world financial markets is less than a spit in an ocean. I don't even register.

That said, I've found over time that my tolerance for the absurdity of the whole enterprise is in decline. Every time I make a profitable transaction now, I can't stop thinking, "Why do I have more money now? I didn't do anything." And I didn't. Nobody who plays this game does. It is a world in which nothing is produced and destroyed except money itself. One day you buy something for x dollars. The next, you sell it for 1.5x. Your personal profit is money created out of thin air.

And this, on a much larger scale, is the dominant profession of our financial (and social, and political) elite. They create ever more complex financial instruments out of other intangible financial assets and then they sell them to one another and everyone walks away with money even though nothing happened. The old saying about the stock markets being a form of liar's poker is a lie inasmuch as poker is a more legitimate enterprise. Real money changes hands between real people performing a transaction with a payout agreed upon in advance.

These people – our Producers, our Galtian heroes, our Job Creators – are people who don't actually make, create, or produce anything. It's all blips and clicks and algorithms and trades programmed to self-execute when defined parameters are met. It takes knowledge and a specific talent to do this successfully; that is indisputable. Regardless, I can never wrap my mind around how…intrinsically worthless are the "assets" involved in this game. The only thing that the hedge fund manager or the day trader creates is personal wealth. He buys something, sells it to someone else for more than he paid for it, and the buyer attempts to repeat the process. It's not a zero sum game. Inflation? Hell, the game of buying low and selling high can, in theory, continue indefinitely.

If it did, it still wouldn't create anything except personal profits. This brings us to familiar territory, to the cornerstone of the New Economy: servicing the personal consumption of the financial elite. They might not "create jobs" in the direct, tangible sense that the robber barons did, but think of all the peons needed in the service industry to tend to their mighty needs! Every time Chad from Harvard Business School makes a killing, another hotel chambermaid on St. Maarten is born. Another personal assistant rises from the Earth. Behold the mighty act of creation! Our economy is indeed a thing of splendor.

It should come as no surprise that an economy firmly rooted in nothingness has high levels of poverty and unemployment. The very rich and the very poor have in common that they do nothing. They simply are compensated differently for it.

NPF: BOMBS AWAY

Posted in No Politics Friday, Skip this if you hate sports on September 6th, 2013 by Ed

Sometimes I feel like the NFL is turning into the Arena Football League, or perhaps one of those low-end NCAA Division I conferences out west that treat us to regular 49-38 shootouts that grace our cable channels late on Saturday evenings. The season just opened with a Thursday night (???) contest between the Ravens, a team long known for staunch defense and a methodical offense, and Broncos combining for 800 passing yards and 9 touchdown passes. Despite the presence on the field of possibly the best all-around runner in the game, Ray Rice, both teams put up only the mildest pretense of running the ball. This game illustrates why passing (and receiving) statistics from the past 15 years have become meaningless. For the first 75 years of NFL history, one QB threw for 5000 yards in a season (Dan Marino, 1984). Since 2008 it has happened five times, thrice in one season (2011).

Like Major League Baseball was guilty of manipulating the game to produce more scoring at several times during its history, this offensive explosion in football is rooted in rule changes made specifically to light up the scoreboard. Hall of Fame defensive backs from years past would step onto the field today to learn that they can't so much as lay a finger on receivers without drawing a penalty, and offensive lines are given vast leeway to protect quarterbacks – in addition to the many rules in place to prevent QBs from getting injured. This is simple self interest from the league's perspective. The NFL is well aware that the "watchability" of its product depends heavily on having a decent or better QB on every team, and there aren't enough QBs to go around (let alone enough to give any team a second decent one as a backup). If you want to see some truly awful football, watch two teams with crappy QBs go head to head, or notice the sharp drop-off that occurs when a good QB leaves a game due to injury.

I understand the desire to protect the game's most important assets; the other rules, particularly the new emphasis on throwing penalty flags for any contact between defenders and receivers, are less beneficial to the game. Many of the TEs and WRs in the league today border on uncoverable if defenders are not allowed to get physical. Larry Fitzgerald? Jimmy Graham? Antonio Gates? How in the hell is anyone supposed to cover guys like that? Graham is my favorite example; at 6'7", 280 with arms like a 747 and the ability to run like a deer, the defenders might as well not be on the field if they can't make contact with the guy until after the catch.

The downside to all of these rules designed to boost offense was made clear this evening. I don't feel like that was a football game; that was Tecmo Bowl, or some Arena League game where one QB throws 15 TD passes. Everyone loves watching a good shootout now and then, but the NFL has turned the game one-dimensional. It went from a run-first league to pass-first to the pass-only game we're starting to see in the last few years. If we're going to continue down this path, just take the 12-15 teams with good QBs, put them in the playoffs, and forget about the regular season. I appreciate this game, brutal as it is, on a lot of different levels. I enjoy watching a good passing attack, but it's not the only thing I enjoy watching.

ANATOMY OF A RIGHTEOUS INDIGNATION CIRCLE JERK

Posted in Rants on September 4th, 2013 by Ed

The media industry is profit-driven like any other, and for the media profits are synonymous with eyeballs. The more eyeballs they can train on their product, the more of your attention they have to sell to advertisers. There is a particular type of story we're seeing repeatedly on the internet lately, one that is specifically crafted to go viral. The target audience for most online-oriented media outlets is the 18-54 group, and if there is one thing we love it's the sound of our own voices. If we have room to love anything else, it is getting righteously indignant in Facebook comments when our friends share news stories designed to provide us with maximum opportunity to get righteously indignant.

For all the whining that Americans do about media bias, they are endlessly capable of overlooking it or simply ignoring it when it suits their preferences and beliefs. If (political) media bias is the act of framing a story in a way that reflects unduly positively or negatively on one particular side of an issue, then I am not sure I have seen a more blatantly biased article than this popular Facebook share item from last week regarding the fast food stroke. Originally from the Detroit News, it was syndicated and widely distributed via Huffington Post.

As the authors are skilled at their craft, the text of the article is mostly bland and inoffensive. Then they quoted one of the professed strikers:

Shaniqua Davis, 20, lives in the Bronx with her boyfriend, who is unemployed, and their 1-year-old daughter. Davis has worked at a McDonald's a few blocks from her apartment for the past three months, earning $7.25 an hour. Her schedule varies, but she never gets close to 40 hours a week. "Forty? Never. They refuse to let you get to that (many) hours."

Her weekly paycheck is $150 or much lower. "One of my paychecks, I only got $71 on there. So I wasn't able to do much with that. My daughter needs stuff, I need to get stuff for my apartment," said Davis, who plans to take part in the strike Thursday.

She pays the rent with public assistance but struggles to afford food, diapers, subway and taxi fares, cable TV and other expenses with her paycheck.

"It's really hard," she said. "If I didn't have public assistance to help me out, I think I would have been out on the street already with the money I make at McDonald's."

Talk about a healthy serving of red meat. What doesn't this quote have? It tells you she's black ("Shaniqua lives in the Bronx…"), that she's an unwed mother, that her boyfriend is unemployed, and she's on what people who like to bitch about this sort of thing generically call "welfare." Best of all, she's poor and she says she has cable TV. See? SEE? This is something everyone can enjoy; right wingers get to fly into a pant shitting rage about how the money they work SO HARD for (never too hard to prevent them from commenting on this story on Facebook at work) is going to Welfare Queens to buy cable TV and twerking and Big Screen TVs and the hip-hop music. Centrists and the more patronizing left wing types get to enter Paternalism Mode to explain that we need to teach The Poors to make better choices with their money.

I wrote this post after reading the HuffPo story and seeing it moralistically debated on Facebook numerous times. Out of curiosity, I wanted to see the original version and, I shit you not, this is the very first comment on the Detroit News online story:

Capture

Thanks for making my point, Phil Koprowski, proud graduate of Anchor Bay High School in the coastal resort town of New Baltimore, Michigan!

How many people do you think the writer(s) interviewed? How many people do you think they could have interviewed? That is, what is the population of New York City fast food workers? If that group isn't 500,000 strong I'd be shocked. How many of them did they have to interview until they found Shaniqua Davis, unwed single mom of the Bronx, who is on public assistance but tells the reporter that she has cable TV?

This. This is biased journalism. This is cherry-picking a quote out of the sea of possible interviewees and quotes to make an ideological point. As a journalist, you don't go into a laundry list of what someone spends their monthly paychecks on unless you're grinding an ideological ax. You don't accidentally choose a subject for your story that fits the prejudices and caricatures in the minds of newspapers' target demographic (white people with disposable income) so cleanly. The story may be about the fast food strike, ostensibly, but 90% of readers are going to take exactly one thing away from this story: Here we go again, more black inner city single moms looking for more handouts to support their Cadillac lifestyles.

It's not hard to read a news item and tell that the writer has gone on a fishing expedition to find the most outlandish, stereotype-reinforcing quote to portray a group of people in the most negative, unsympathetic light. This story is written to produce the sound of screeching tires in the reader's mind as soon as the words "cable TV" appear, and everyone's too busy pontificating on their own industriousness or taking the White Man's Burden view of Those People (If only we could teach them our middle class values!) to think at all about media bias let alone connect the dots to this story.

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IRAQ AND A HARD PLACE

Posted in Rants on September 3rd, 2013 by Ed

The impending US military response to recent events in Syria (Hint: When they spend the massive amounts of money required to move the big military hardware halfway around the world, the decision to use force has already been made) is the perfect example of everything that is wrong with the current one-sided hyperpartisan political climate in Washington. Every commentator, excepting the few hardcore isolationists and the ones who have hard-ons for starting new wars, has reached consensus on two points. One is that Obama has several options in Syria. The other is that all of the options are terrible. They are terrible politically, strategically, and practically for everyone involved.

He can rest assured, though, that whatever he does, the right will howl like cats in heat and trip over themselves to criticize him. It is a mistake to idealize the past, but there was in fact a time in American history where something approaching consensus could be reached between the parties on matters of foreign policy. This usually took the form of Democrats, forever afraid of being perceived as soft, adopting a more aggressive Republican position. We saw this most recently in 2002, with disastrous results. Currently the Republican strategy simply is to sit back, wait for Obama to choose a response, and then go ballistic. Anyone want to start a pool on the impeachment chatter?

If Obama makes no military response, Republicans will call him a pussy, accuse him of complicity in the nerve gassing of innocent civilians at the hands of a madman, and declare military intervention the only acceptable response.

If Obama attempts a diplomatic approach, Republicans will once again call him a pussy along with a bunch of overwrought analogies about Hitler and Neville Chamberlain. References to his secret Muslimness will re-emerge.

If Obama does the traditional American post-Cold War response – lob some bombs and cruise missiles from a safe distance – Republicans will explode with rage over the needless slaughter of innocents in Syria. They will note correctly that blowing some stuff up with cruise missiles is pointless in terms of ending the civil war in Syria, but they will neglect to mention the part about shitting their pants if he chose not to use force (see above).

If Obama opts for the Full Monty military response and sends in the ground forces, Republicans will stand before cameras with straight faces and decry the costs of opening a third theater of conflict in the Middle East in yet another country in which the prospects for a positive outcome are poor. Many references to the overstretched and underfunded military heroes will be made.

He literally cannot win, not only because all of his choices are bad but also because the political attacks on him will be relentless under any circumstances. That's the logical end of a Republican strategy that amounts to little more than oppose, oppose, oppose, because the Kenyan usurper cannot be allowed to succeed ever.

And before you throw out the reflexive yet embarrassing "Both Sides Do It" argument perhaps a quick review of voting on the Authorization for the Use of Military Force in Iraq is in order, not to mention certain other pieces of "War on Terror"-related legislation.

CELEBRATE LABOR DAY EVERY DAY

Posted in Quick Hits on September 1st, 2013 by Ed

You know those nightmare Labor Day traffic quagmires? They're the understandable consequence of half the country loading up the Land Barge with children and coolers to head on down to Lake Fingerbang for a few days. The highway system can only handle so much capacity, after all.

Don't worry, though: in as little as ten years depending on where you live, you can experience the boredom and frustration of standstill Labor Day traffic every single day! Yes, the highway corridors between a number of major cities will see a constant level of overcrowding similar to what we experience now only on major travel holidays, according to the US Travel Association.

But relax. We can still fly! Except that we'll long since maxed out the capacity of most major metropolitan airports since air traffic is predicted to double by 2030.

We can't build any trains, though. Because, like, one time there was a train crash and people died. We'll stick with uncrashable forms of transit like cars and planes.