THE ANNUAL WHEEDLE

Posted in Quick Hits on December 31st, 2013 by Ed

Hello readers.

Another year is in the books, and yet again I find myself in the position of saying, "Well that sucked. Hopefully the next one will be better!" At least the very least I'm happy with what I've done on Gin and Tacos this year; over the next week I will be handing out the 2013 Lieberman Award and maybe doing a Best Of / Favorite Posts thing as well.

I make an effort to limit this kind of request or reminder, because nobody wants to read a hundred pleas per year for the kinds of things a dude with a website is supposed to request. I appreciate your patience with the following paragraphs.

1. If you haven't already, follow G&T on the ol' Facebox. There's more to it than a bunch of links to posts. It's a little heavier on humor and lighter on politics compared to this site. And I'm supposed to, like, try to boost traffic and build a base of readers and all that shit. So do it.

Gin and Tacos | Promote Your Page Too

2. Speaking of, even though traffic has increased consistently over the years the site remains and will remain free of advertisements. If you have to ask why, you must be new. Sticking to that principle has a downside that becomes apparent in late December when the annual hosting bill arrives. So here is where I give you a number of options.

You can do nothing and continue to enjoy the site for free. This is called "free riding", and it's an entirely rational behavior. I have done (for eleven years!!) and will continue to do this every day whether I make a million bucks, nothing at all, or I have to pay out of pocket for the privilege.

You can use this tip jar / donation link to contribute an amount of your choosing to defray the costs of this site. If you happen to be saddled with extra cash and feel like donating fifty bucks, I will be extremely grateful. However, if donating fifty cents (or zero cents) is more in line with your current budget, my gratitude will be no less. Your tips and contributions are (obviously) voluntary but greatly appreciated. In short, give something if you want to, or don't. Either way I'm glad you're here and I appreciate you.





3. If you're so inclined, there are things to buy rather than just handing over cash as a donation. The "Buy Stuff" link on your right has a couple kinds of stickers. There are also a few remaining SOUNDS OF REAL AMERICA prints (here's the first batch, and then we added two more) and a single Buzzfeed dadaism print. Those are all based on running jokes on the G&T Facebook page; perhaps in the upcoming year I will make additional forays into the exciting world of trying to browbeat readers into buying things.

4. Thank you all for making the site more interesting than it would be otherwise with your comments and contributions. Even though I've progressed from zero to one to fifty-plus comments per post, I still read every single one. If you can take the time to say something, I can make the time to listen.

Maybe this one really will be better.

REPLACEMENT AGE

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

One of my favorite hey-did-you-see-this stories of 2013 happened in mid-July when AC Nielsen data showed that the median Fox News viewer is so old that we don't even know how old he is. Since the company stops tracking age at 65 – it can be assumed safely, I guess, that anything marketed to a 70 year old would also be marketed to an 80 year old – and "above 65" is now statistically the majority of Fox's audience.

It is not hard to reach this conclusion without the benefit of hard data. Just watch Fox News for an hour or two and keep track of the advertisements. Hip implants. "Mobility scooters". Prescription drugs for arthritis. The companies ponying up for these ads know goddamn well who is watching before they write the check.

Despite the tremendous "passion" for which Fox News viewers are known in the media and marketing industries, it goes without saying that any business relying heavily on people who are going to die pretty soon need to think ahead. The network has attempted to "get younger" by bringing in on-air talent under 50 and promoting programming that isn't aimed at elderly white men (e.g. the Dadaist masterpiece Fox & Friends) it isn't translating into younger viewers.

But for six of the last eight years, Fox News has had a median age of 65-plus and the number of viewers in the 25-54 year old group has been falling consistently, down five years in a row in prime time, from an average of 557,000 viewers five years ago to 379,000 this year. That has occurred even though Fox’s overall audience in prime time is up this year, to 2.02 million from 1.89 million three years ago.

The network also has been faced with a recent string of nightly wins in that 25-54 audience by CNN, which had been hopelessly behind in recent years.

We needn't point out that losing to CNN is a bad sign.

I've always thought of Fox News as a means of occupying the elderly; its older viewers turn it on early in the morning and leave it on in the background all day. It is to the over 65 demographic what the Disney Channel is to kids – a product designed (flawlessly) to keep them out of the way of people who have things to do. Is that stereotyping the elderly? Sure. Some people in that age group hate Fox and are very productive. But if we're talking about means and medians and modes, we're talking about a viewer who's retired or close to it and in need of a distraction.

Most companies that market to the elderly survive because the ranks are always being replenished. That consumer who needs a hip implant might be dead in a few years but eventually you and I will become that consumer in the future. It is going to be interesting over the next decade to see if this holds true for a media network selling an intangible product. The over 65 population will peak soon and then decline rapidly barring an unexpected influx of ancient immigrants. It will be fascinating to see if future generations of elderly Americans flock to Fox in a way that they clearly are not doing as younger and middle-aged people. Has Fox created a product so specifically tailored not merely to the elderly but to a single, specific cohort of the elderly that it will die when its current viewers do?

Everything about the network is geared toward the Greatest Generation with the underlying premise that America was awesome in the Fifties and our current society has abandoned the values of that era. What is Fox going to do when its elderly viewers don't remember the Fifties? Or weren't alive yet? Or think fondly of American culture in the Sixties of their childhood? Or spent their college years in the Seventies higher than kites?

As financially successful as it is at present, Fox News obviously isn't in danger of disappearing anytime soon. It is unclear, however, what it will be offering its main demographic in twenty years. If it tries giving them what the network airs right now, it's difficult to see that selling as well with future generations. Once the elderly demographic is composed mostly of people who grew up not in idyllic Fifties America but in kinda-shitty Seventies America, a yearning for the Good Ol' Days isn't going to be an easy sell.

THE SHIELDS ARE DOWN

Posted in Rants on December 24th, 2013 by Ed

For a long time I've thought I might be half-decent at making comic strips, except for the fact that I can't draw. Like, at all. Not even a little. I can barely print legibly let alone draw a representation of a real physical object. And since I did not think the world needed The Adventures of Stick Figures and a Talking Square nothing has ever come of it.

Eventually I realized that while this skill is not one I possess there are many friends and acquaintances who do. So we're trying something new here today; I wrote out a pseudo-storyboard and text/dialogue and told an artist who has done some comics in the past, "Do with this what you will." Our goal was not to create visually breathtaking art, but rather to try out a different way of making the points I would otherwise make with 1000 words.

Here is, in comic form, the first ten minutes of my Intro to American Government lecture on the 1st Amendment. Since that seems to be in the news these days. I didn't draw squat; that's all on R. O'Brien (multiple-vultures.tumblr.com). Click to embiggen.

MUH FREEDOMS-fixed

And with that, a Merry Christmas and happy assorted other holidays to all.

THE CLONE ARMY

Posted in Rants on December 22nd, 2013 by Ed

Look, we all know that comment sections on news websites are where hope goes to die. With sites like YouTube one at least has the small comfort of knowing that half of the commenters are under 16 and the other half samples liberally from the adult dregs of society. Sports websites arguably have a higher level of stupidity but at least we expect that from an army of meatheads and nerds ranting and smack-talking about grown men fighting for a ball. With news websites the crushing blow that we are dealt repeatedly by comment sections is due in part to the fact that some small part of our brain expects that the people reading news (which only about half of Americans claim to do, skewing heavily toward the higher ends of the socioeconomic scale) to be capable of saying something half-intelligent.

Alas, even if they are capable they do not choose to do so. We know that part of the problem is that anonymity and an audience tend to turn normal people into foul-mouthed lunatics; comment sections are the ideal breeding ground for this phenomenon. Another issue is self-selection – the vast majority of readers leave no comment, and the ones who do tend to be people with more extreme opinions, a high opinion of their own intelligence, and a fondness for arguing. Just for example, an average post on Gin and Tacos gets about 4000-5000 hits and 25-35 comments. On a major news website where they're raking in 100,000 hits per hour the ratio of lurkers-to-comments must be even higher.

What amazes me lately about these comment sections is how predictable they have become. The internet has matured as a medium (even if its users have not matured as humans) and we know what dynamics will play out in the comments as soon as we read the headline. Think about it; the next time there is a school shooting, do you not already know with disturbing, resigned precision exactly what the comment section following the story is going to look like? You could practically recite it in your sleep.

As an academic I see a phenomenal number of news items about education. They are passed along by friends or posted to Facebook by other teachers daily if not hourly. Nearly every story has the same comments making the same points using the same language in what seems like an instant after the post appears online. Recently the notoriously troubled city of Camden, NJ appeared in the news because only three students in the entire district rated "college ready" on the SAT test. I did not link to the story because I challenge you to find your own version – almost every major (and minor, for that matter) news source picked up the story. Look at the comment section. They're all exactly the same: blah blah government, blah blah Teachers Union, blah blah Obama, blah blah charter schools, blah blah liberal media. Go ahead and look, it doesn't matter where you go. Within the first few comments you'll see that, perhaps many times over.

It's some combination of impressive and terrifying to see how completely these people have internalized the talking points fed to them by the Echo Chamber / Shit Factory of AM radio, Fox News, forwarded emails, and the right wing blogosphere. They have not only committed it to memory but they have burned it into their subconscious so that it comes pouring out of them unthinkingly, reflexively. And no matter which of America's millions of old, bitter white men is typing the comment on a particular site it is virtually guaranteed to end up looking exactly the same as it would if he traded places with one of his brethren. The only variation comes from the spelling / grammar errors and the choice of anti-gay epithets.

You have to hand it to the noise machine, as it has succeeded likely beyond even the most optimistic expectations of the people who run it. There are a million old or aging people with nothing to do who are spamming every news story on the internet with identical salvos of rage and bad logic. And they do it automatically, without cognitive effort. You know, like trained seals. if a seal could be trained to be a xenophobic, provincial, small-minded, and bitter asshole with nothing better to do.

And yes, I know that the best thing to do is to avoid looking at the comments. What can I say? I'm like a guy picking at a scab.

NPF: THE GREAT ESCAPE, FEATURING CANDY

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

I've never cared much for spy movies or novels, but I find the real thing absolutely fascinating. Governments still spy on one another enthusiastically, of course. It's just not the same as it was during the Cold War era; the romance and drama of "human intelligence" has been replaced by technicians sitting at consoles combing through billions of phone, email, and bank records trying to identify patterns. The days of the Cambridge Five and Soviet double-agents and dead drops and all that other John le Carre / Ian Fleming type stuff are long gone.

Apropos of nothing, here's one of my favorite spy stories. It's from the dying years of the Cold War, that regrettable period of time we call the mid-Eighties.

To make a long background story short, a Soviet diplomat named Oleg Gordievsky had a change of heart about the Soviet system when the political leadership of the country ordered the military to suppress, with some measure of brutality, the Prague Spring in 1968. He made his disillusionment know to MI6, the British intelligence service. Eventually he was recruited as an MI6 "asset". From the Soviet embassy in Denmark, Gordievsky was a minor part of CIA/MI6 operations for many years. Then in 1982 he was appointed the head KGB agent at the Soviet embassy in London.

In other words, he became the Soviet official in charge of all Soviet spies in the UK while serving as a British spy himself. He provided useful information – for example, identifying Gorbachev as the future leader of the USSR long before Western governments really even knew who he was – and detailed the growing divide between the (How many times did you hear this phrase in the 80s) "aging hardliners in the Kremlin" and the rest of the country. Eventually, and probably but not certainly because of CIA turncoat and Soviet spy Aldrich Ames, the KGB learned of Gordievsky's connections to MI6. In 1985 they abruptly called him back to Moscow. MI6 encouraged him to defect immediately. Perhaps out of concern for his family, he returned to Moscow instead.

The KGB treated him to days of drugged interrogation about being a double agent; somehow he was able to resist, or for some unknown reason the KGB decided to back off. Regardless of the explanation he was released and returned to his wife and kids in Moscow, albeit under heavy KGB surveillance. Knowing that it was only a matter of time until the KGB uncovered enough dirt on him to arrest, try, and execute him, he decided he needed to escape.

He sent a secret signal to an MI6 contact to meet him. Initially he sneaked into the toilet at the Lenin Mausoleum, wrote "In very bad trouble, need exfiltration" on a scrap of paper, and went to slip it to an MI6 contact in the crowded Red Square. However, he did not know who to look for so the plan failed. A second plan was hatched. He was assigned a street corner and a date and time to appear. MI6 asked him to hold a Safeway shopping bag to make himself easy to spot and told that his MI6 contact would be absolutely, unmistakably British-looking.

Now. This is the part I love. Picture a bunch of MI6 guys hatching this plan and brainstorming subtle ways to make a secret agent look Way British.

Gordievsky waited with the shopping bag about 20 minutes past the appointed time. Finally he saw a gentleman walking toward him in a sharp felt bowler hat holding a Harrods department store bag and eating a Mars Bar. It was the Mars Bar that saved Oleg Gordievsky's life. The two only made brief eye contact, which was enough to set into motion a ridiculous escape plan.

Gordievsky began jogging every morning. His KGB watchers were generally too lazy to run after him, so they took to following him in a car. Watching a man jog for months is pretty dull, so eventually they got pretty lax about following him. Eventually when his wife and kids were far away on vacation in Kazakhstan, he left the house in running clothes, broke into a trot toward the nearest train station, and began a series of train trips that would take him to the remote area along the Russian-Finnish border.

He went to a prearranged spot – a patch of trees along a rural highway – and laid in the ditch next to the road as he had been instructed. Put yourself in his position; how long would you lie in a ditch next to a highway, your mind going a billion directions at once, waiting for mysterious strangers to retrieve you? After a few hours two cars of British spies arrived. They hid him in a false bottom in the trunk and, posing as diplomats attending a conference in Helsinki, made for the border. A female spy brought a (presumably unwilling?) infant along, hoping that a screaming, pooping baby would encourage Soviet border guards to move them along more rapidly.

It worked. Eventually Gordievsky heard the orchestra piece Finlandia playing through the car stereo, the signal that they had successfully crossed the border.

He made it. The ending was not quite happily ever after, though. He's still alive and enjoying life in the UK, but he left behind his family. It took almost a decade of separation before he could see them again, and by then his wife had married another man and his children no longer remembered him. But he lived, and he has developed relationships with his (now adult) children.

I'm telling you, you can't make up anything this good.

CLOSED SYSTEM

Posted in Quick Hits on December 18th, 2013 by Ed

One of the more puzzling aspects of our economic betters' obsession with tax policy is the reality that, in practice, they're not paying much in taxes. The rates are largely irrelevant. They matter to some extent to you and I, but to the moneyed class it is the equivalent of the "recommended servings" on a bag of chips. Much as how everything is single serving if you're sad enough, the effective tax rate is always under 10% if you're rich enough.

This is the reason that America can have simultaneously the highest corporate tax rate in the world and multibillion dollar corporations that pay a couple hundred bucks in taxes during a profitable year. It also explains how Mitt Romney can pay something like 15% on his annual income that runs into eight figures. There are dozens of obvious loopholes in the system and creative lawyers, accountants, and financial planners are coming up with new ones every day. Check out this Bloomberg article detailing a neat trick, pioneered by the Waltons, that Sheldon "I'm so rich I can piss $150 million away on Newt Gingrich" Adelson is using to skirt hundreds of millions in taxes.

Look at the graphic and explain to me in what way this is different than money laundering. I'll wait.

GYMNASTICS

Posted in Rants on December 17th, 2013 by Ed

We're all capable of holding conflicting beliefs, but that kind of mental hypocrisy – intentional or not – is subject to the same rules of stupidity. Everyone is entitled to be stupid, of course, but we must be careful not to abuse the privilege.

The recent right-wing freakout over Nelson Mandela (who was a TERRORIST!) is a perfect example of how little sense their worldview makes when taken as a whole, not to mention how embarrassingly little critical thinking that worldview is subjected to. Nelson Mandela was a terrorist who, I guess, should have fought Apartheid with peaceful protests. Even though black South Africans were denied any semblance of basic political rights – Do right wingers get mad when governments try to take away individual rights? I can't remember – American conservatives remain staunch in their belief that peaceful protests are the best way to change a government. Which is why they hoard guns like they can't breathe without them and banter freely about overthrowing the government by force because of a health care law passed by Congress.

On the most basic level their beliefs make no sense, unless they're willing to admit that racism is a fundamental part of their worldview.

Mike Konczal, because he is a more patient person than me, wrote out a long examination of just how ludicrous the new right-wing talking point about "corporatism" is. We know that the GOP and its noise machine love to play fast and loose with ideological language; we've known for decades that few Americans organize their belief systems with ideological language like "liberal" or "conservative", and in fact the number who can use those terms correctly is depressingly small. So there is very little cost to throwing around terms like "socialist" or "Marxist" or "corporatism". Since nobody knows what they mean anyway, it's a simple matter to use them pejoratively and turn them into a slightly classy sounding insult. Listen to how your Teabagger friends use the word "liberal" and it won't take long to figure out that it basically means "Things I don't like" to them.

That said, to anyone who does understand what "corporatism" means it is simply mind-boggling to hear it come out of Mitch McConnell's mouth with a straight face. My guess is that this meme developed because the word sounds unpleasant, invokes Corporations (which even conservatives realize no one likes), and has a historical connection to fascist movements of the 1930s that only Republican voters are old enough to remember. Republicans have long been desperate to nurture some kind of populist cred – they embody the herculean challenge of being against The Man when you are, in every conceivable sense of the term, The Man – and this is no more than its latest incarnation.

To take the claim seriously, as the linked article does, leads rapidly to the conclusion that "the entirety of capitalism and the last several centuries of property rights are corporatist through and through." And the last time I checked, conservatives like capitalism and their property rights. Again, I understand the basic problem here: people using this term don't really understand what it means. Nonetheless it's exhausting to think of what kind of mental gymnastics are necessary for the few who do grasp its true meaning to make Barack Obama the paid servant of the Robber Barons while, you know, Louie Goehmert is the champion of the little guy. Since the Gingrich Era the GOP has tried selling the idea that because they talk a lot about individual rights they are the true defenders of the common man, conveniently ignoring the fact that "rights" is a code word for "power" in their talking points.

CUSTOMER SERVICE

Posted in Quick Hits on December 16th, 2013 by Ed

Some people have the puzzling ability to say useful things about important topics while simultaneously presenting themselves in such an obnoxious way that people will refuse to listen to them. You want to agree with them but they're just so…off-putting. Either they're full of themselves or they're beholden to every buzzword and fad on the planet or they're the type of person who defines themselves as an oppressed victim to the point that if you agree with them, they will get mad and make their argument more ridiculous until you don't.

Basically just picture the kind of people who spend their lives writing Tumblrs about Thin Privilege and Trans-species identity crises and oh my god I'm so sorry I don't put a trigger warning on this post that it was going to include consonants.

With that caveat, it is most definitely worth your time to read this post entitled, "I accompanied someone to the police station to report a sexual assault, and this is what happened." I made a concerted effort to avoid getting hung up, as I tend to do, on how stupid it is to describe oneself as a Professional Sexologist or to talk in that ridiculous patois of Tumblr Social Justice speak (Thanks for the "tw" Trigger Warning, as if people are too stupid to see the title of the post and figure out that it will talk about sexual assault).

As you can tell there are some elements of that corner of the internet that I find highly irritating – and more importantly, highly counterproductive. But it's impossible to get to the end of that post and think, "Well, yeah. That's pretty much exactly what happens." I have never reported my own sexual assault, thank god, because I've never been sexually assaulted. But take cumulatively all of your experiences with the police, with medical bureaucracy, with the small town mentality, and with the too-obvious-to-belabor reality that in sex crimes it is the victim who goes on trial. Consider all of that, read this narrative, and try to say with a straight face that any part of it is implausible.

What percentage of sexual assaults go unreported can only be estimated, but one certain thing is that it's a lot. And it's really not hard to figure out why. I wonder how much of the sub-mediocre performance of the local police in this tale is a specific antagonism toward people who accuse sexual assault and how much of it is being terrible at their job in general. In reality it is probably some of both. It is a problem I have no idea how to solve. What is clear is that our entire justice system is compromised if this is how cops behave – and I don't doubt that some do. Metaphors about homes built on rotten foundations seem trite, but for an accuser/victim in these cases there are already enough roadblocks. The least the cops can do is follow their own rules and procedures and do their jobs without serving as self-appointed judge and jury. If the victim is lying, as so many people so often seem to be convinced, then it is the job of the legal system – not Officer Fred at Podunk PD – to bring that to light.

NPF: HOUSEKEEPING

Posted in No Politics Friday on December 12th, 2013 by Ed

It took more than eleven years, but Gin and Tacos finally had an extended period of downtime. Certainly if you tried to visit in the last four days you realized that the hosting company was having some issues. It turns out that they suspended this site because it was using too much of the resources on their server. For reasons that I will not describe in detail I find this laughable. In the next few weeks I intend to do a great deal of long-overdue housekeeping. It may, but hopefully will not, involve more downtime. Just remember that if you ever happen to visit and the site is down, I haven't given up and pulled the plug. If I'm pulling the plug, you'll know. So just try again in a day or two.

Frankly the downtime this week was not totally unwelcome. I am exhausted. I'm not tired of writing – just regular tired, the kind that you can feel in your bones. This semester has been brutal. I'm up at four-something on a lot of weekdays and up working – either the kind of work I get paid to do or the kind that I choose to do in addition to that – until midnight-plus. As much as I was worried that I had lost the archives of things I've written for the past twelve years, the downtime coincided with the beginning of finals (and grading; so very much grading). Not writing for three nights in a row was a pretty good silver lining on the whole fiasco.

I can't thank many of you enough for offering help and advice on fixing the site problems via the Gin and Tacos Facebook page. Jeff Buchbinder, who is a complete stranger to me, went far above and beyond the call in helping me out. I am one of those people who, despite having a regularly updated website for more than a decade, knows next to nothing about how to maintain it properly. I've done my best to learn, but much of it remains Greek to me. Being offered help by strangers is one of those things that raises my faith in humanity, at least until I return to grading research papers.

Instead of looking at this week as downtime let's just call it unscheduled rest and refitting. Over the upcoming holidays I'll have more time (that is, some amount greater than zero) to migrate to a new host and hopefully make some improvements to the site in the process. I have always been (and I remain) terrified that if I go a day or two without posting something the readers are all going to leave and never come back. But at this point I have a little bit of faith that everyone will not run for the exits if things are under repair for a couple days.

DEBATABLE

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

As a college student a professor in the department in which I was a major garnered some attention for refusing to engage in a "debate" with a publicity-seeking group of Holocaust deniers. Being 20 and generally full of shit, I visited him in office hours and told him that I thought that destroying their feeble arguments in public would be more effective than ignoring them. I'll never forget his response (I believe he was quoting or paraphrasing an authority on the subject): "If I debate them, no one will be convinced that the Holocaust was fake. But many people will be convinced that it is open for debate." The wisdom of that was apparent immediately and has become more central to the way I view social and political issues over time.

With that in mind, I'd like to get a summary of what is going through Katie Couric's mind when she decided to host a "debate" on the "HPV Vaccine Controversy." Seeing how no debate exists and not one shred of evidence links it to anything the anti-vaccine cult has laid upon it, it can hardly be called a controversy and there is nothing to debate. She brings on two mothers, one of whom had a daughter die a couple of weeks after taking the vaccine, and a skeptic described as a vaccine "specialist" to make wild accusations unsupported by anything but emotions. Then she brings out an actual doctor to explain why nothing the viewers just heard makes any sense. Couric also notes that she took her own kids to get the vaccine.

The bizarre thing is that Couric probably thinks not only that this was good, balanced journalism (We heard from Both Sides!) but also that the segment dealt a blow to the anti-vaccine claims. Bringing on actual experts to provide actual facts should have that effect. It would be ideal if those facts are what viewers took away from this segment. The problem is that by having this debate at all soft-headed viewers are likely to take away a different lesson: there is an open debate about the safety of this vaccine.

As the notion that every issue is a debate with two equally valid opposing viewpoints becomes ever more central to our public discourse we see more of these "controversies" every day. Providing a platform for people to make an emotionally charged but factually bankrupt argument ultimately is harmful no matter how good the balm of Debate and having Two Sides to Every Coin makes us feel. The appropriate response to these blatantly false claims is not to air and refute them, but to ignore them altogether. Even the process of poking holes in the argument gives it the kind of exposure it needs to rope in the confused and the gullible.