NPF: FLOATING PRISON

Posted in No Politics Friday on January 31st, 2014 by Ed

Sometimes I withhold criticism from things that I know a lot of people enjoy because I get tired of hearing about what a mean old crank I am. So it's very convenient for me when someone more well-know, in this case John Cole at Balloon Juice, takes care of the "Old man yelling at cloud" part for me. Here is John's take on cruises. As in cruise ships. And I must admit that I concur in full with his sentiments. I do not get it. I do not get it at all.

Obviously it's not fair to broad-brush cruise ships as pestilent shit-barges teeming with disease – while cruise ship outbreaks garner huge amounts of media attention, they represent only a small percentage of the hundreds (thousands?) of cruise ships floating around every day. That said, the specter of catching some heavyweight Lower GI bunker-buster is just one of the many unappealing aspects of getting on a cruise ship. As John says, you're essentially imprisoned on a boat and temporarily disgorged on various islands (usually impoverished communities) to be robbed both legally, by the various franchise retailers hawking jewelry and other "luxury" purchases, and extralegally by the locals whose desire to rob dipshit American tourists is, if not noble, certainly understandable.

The appeal of cruises appears to be, in my estimation as a non-cruiser, limited to two demographics. One is people with children who want to go on a vacation during which they can ignore their children but remain reasonably confident that they are being supervised and entertained with organized activities elsewhere in an enclosed space. Drop Billy off at the water slide or the bungee pit or the climbing wall or the medieval yarn-dyeing workshop and then head down to the lido deck for two or six daiquiris. The second demographic seems to be people who want to go on vacation but either don't know how or they will go to almost any length and expense to avoid having to make decisions for themselves.

I know a lot of people who have gone on cruises – I'm a Midwesterner, for chrissakes – and from their reports I've gathered that the primary activities on a cruise ship are, in order: eating, getting shitfaced, eating, and eating more. I always ask the same question – is the food any good? I imagine that it's rather like a casino buffet, in that it is not particularly good but boy howdy there sure is a lot of it and it's always available. With few exceptions, this has been confirmed. The food is described as "decent" or "just OK" or "not bad" right before the individual explains how they gained 10 pounds in 5 days on the Carnival Lard Barge. That doesn't sound terribly appealing, especially given the price one pays to climb aboard.

To recap, we have a confined space full of the worst America has to offer (the elderly, screaming children, and Southern/Midwestern cow people), loads of mediocre buffet food, expensive alcohol (although some offer "all you can drink" kamikaze packages), and the guarantee that you will see nothing real about the countries and places you "visit." More power to you if this is the vacation you enjoy; to me it sounds, with remarkable precision, like my idea of hell. It's difficult to imagine the experience being improved now that cruises are rapidly becoming a late-career cashout for musicians and other entertainers on the downside of their career. If anything can make the experience I've described here worse, it would be having to listen to 90 year-old Bob Dylan in international waters with no prospects for escape other than suicide.

(Fun Fact: the world's largest actual "floating prison" is anchored off Riker's Island in New York.)

SOTU POTPOURRI

Posted in Quick Hits on January 28th, 2014 by Ed

Obama's sixth State of the Union could be described charitably as "workmanlike"; he went out there and powered through it. There's not much left in his presidency in terms of originality or enthusiasm. This was strictly a Get It Done speech with the modest goal of trying to avoid making the last quarter of his presidency a total waste. That the speech was an exercise in going through the motions did not prevent the usual wingnut suspects from reacting as though Obama read directly from Das Kapital before closing by asking a little girl if she believes in God and then blowing her head off when she said yes. Slate has a decent collection of some of the worst tweets from the right – media figures and elected officials only – on Tuesday night, a collection that is sure to grow over the next 12 hours.

As for the follow-up from yesterday's post, it's very difficult to tell which of the three Republican/Tea Party responses was worse. The official response from Cathy McMorris-Rodgers appeared to be focused solely on answering the question, "Who the fuck is Cathy McMorris-Rogers?" It's a fair question. And once again, as with Bobby Jindal and Marco Rubio, the response itself was undermined by bizarre staging and lighting. Why was she sitting on a couch? Why was it so dark? Why did it look vaguely like a snuff film? It can't be that hard to figure this out – it's impossible to deliver a good address in an empty room. Give the response in a format identical to a press conference. Stand at a podium and read the speech to a small audience composed mostly of journalists. The GOP will never figure this out, though, since they are terrible at everything.

The other ongoing problem with the Republican responses is that they are written and delivered as though everyone in America is about 8 years old. Even if I agreed with her positions, I don't think I could have tolerated being spoken at in the way. The point gets made all the time, but if you compare a speech like this to a political address from the 1950s or 1960s, the difference in tone is stark. Political figures used to speak to the nation as though it was made up of adults. Now they not only treat us like children, but not particularly bright children at that.

As for vuffingtonpost.com/2014/01/28/mike-lee-response-_n_4681658.html?utm_hp_ref=politics">the Mike Lee response, he challenged the Tea Party to actually be for something as opposed to merely opposing everything, which is entirely too reasonable a point for the Tea Party to be pleased with his performance. They'll probably turn their attention to finding a primary challenge for Lee. Because god knows that being "for" anything is completely alien to their political worldview.

BATTER UP

Posted in Rants on January 27th, 2014 by Ed

Here's a tip: one way to tell when a party is ready to govern what fancies itself a rich and powerful nation is to look for signs of infighting, disregard for leadership, and the absence of party discipline. Those are all good signs. Vote for that party and you can't go wrong.

The noted commie pinko rag Wall Street Journal has an interesting piece on the Republican Party's inability to organize, of all things, a single coherent response to Tuesday evening's State of the Union Address. In addition to the official party response, the Tea Party (Mike Lee, the Utah Republican, even though the Tea Party is nonpartisan and totally not just an extreme wing of the GOP) and Rand Paul (just…on his own accord, I guess) will be giving responses. Then the official party strategy is to rush members of Congress out of the chamber and to "rapid response stations stocked with iPads" to encourage them to start Twittering and Facebooking and recording 6-second Vine videos.

On a tangential note, I still don't get Vine. Like, at all.

It's easy to point and laugh at John Boehner and other Republicans in "leadership" positions and call them ineffectual. So let's do that right now, shall we? Boehner and McConnell have the charisma of sea cucumbers and McConnell built his career on a tactic – threatening to withhold party financial support via the RSCC – that is no longer relevant now that every half-baked wingnut who wants to run can raise vast amounts of money from eccentric and wealthy donors. As the successive redistricting sessions make incumbents safer and safer, the ability of the leadership to do anything to rein in their members is rapidly approaching zero. So as much fun as it is to mock Mr. Boehner, he's probably doing the best he can. And Joe Cannon himself couldn't keep this mob of militiamen and sociopaths in line.

The amazing thing about this particular bit of disorganization is that giving the response to the SotU address is tantamount to political suicide in recent years. Nobody benefits from doing it. If you do well, no one will remember. The only thing you stand to achieve is failure that will haunt you forever (Bobby Jindal, Marco Rubio). This is the sixth year of the Obama presidency. Even people who like him are weary of hearing the same speeches. And even what little audience sticks around until the end is unlikely to wait even longer to heard some D-list Republican give an awkward rebuttal in an empty room. There is everything to lose and nothing to gain, yet they're too full of themselves to realize that the leadership might be trying to stop them for their own good:

The response is a risky endeavor, often marred by inelegance and blunder. "There's never been a good one," said John Feehery, who was an aide to J. Dennis Hastert, a Republican and a former House speaker. "There's this element of getting too close to the sun. They think they're hot stuff, and their hot stuff gets melted in the glare of the lights. It's very risky."

It's a good indication of where the GOP has gone in the last decade-plus that its zealots from the Nineties now sound like the sober voice of reason in a chorus of barking hyenas. Best of luck tonight, Rand. I'm sure you're gonna do great!

LOGIC!

Posted in Quick Hits on January 27th, 2014 by Ed

Your daily reminder that our laws make sense and the criminal justice system is not a jumbled mess: the headline "Man in Jail for Marijuana is Allowed to Leave Once a Month (sic) to Smoke Marijuana." True, one invites extra scrutiny from law enforcement by choosing the public persona of "NJ Weed Man" (check out his sweet t-shirt!) but I can't help but feel that this is a bit…silly. Counterproductive, even.

NPF: RISE OF THE SUPERB OWL

Posted in No Politics Friday on January 23rd, 2014 by Ed

Don't skip this if you hate sports. There's trivia you can use to regale strangers at Super Bowl parties.

The proliferation of ads online and on TV referring to "The Big Game" reflect the NFL's ruthless enforcement on its copyright of the phrase "Super Bowl." The game has become a billion-dollar industry all by itself, the most popular spectacle of an already wildly popular league. Americans mistakenly believe it's the most-watched annual TV event (that honor actually belongs to the UEFA Champions League soccer match, and the audience for the World Cup men's final easily dwarfs both) but there's no doubt that it is an American institution at this point. When even the commercial breaks get saturation media coverage it's safe to say that the game has secured its place in our society for better or worse. I've had the good fortune to attend a Super Bowl, and even the spectacle on television is nothing compared to the live experience.

If we told them about the amount of money and attention devoted to the modern Super Bowl, the people who came up with the idea would think us insane. It's hard to believe that they weren't sure this "Super Bowl" thing would catch on – or that it almost didn't. Here are some quick facts about Super Bowl I at the end of the 1966 season.

1. It didn't sell out. They couldn't even give away the unsold tickets. Look at the stands in this live shot:

SB1 Stands

Part of the problem was that the location of the game, Los Angeles, was not decided until six weeks (!!!) before the game. Today it is awarded years in advance and cities fight like dogs for the honor to host it.

2. It was broadcast on two different networks simultaneously. The game pitted the champions of the AFL and NFL against one another (the leagues merged and became the AFC/NFC conferences in 1970) and the CBS had an ironclad contract to broadcast all NFL games. NBC had the same deal with the AFL. So the game organizers solved the problem but letting both broadcast it. The ratings were poor and a 30-second commercial cost $40,000.

3. The halftime show was a smattering of high school and college marching bands. They put no thought into it and certainly didn't consider paying a celebrity to perform.

4. Neither network thought enough of the game to keep a tape for its archives. No complete video footage of the game exists.

The game was part of an AFL-NFL merger agreement signed in 1966 (it mandated an "AFL-NFL World Championship Game", and the name "Super Bowl" wasn't applied until Super Bowl III in 1969) but the leagues remained separate entities for a few more seasons. As such there were some compromises that had to be made in order to bring the two together for one game. Neither league would agree to let the other's referee crews officiate the game, so a hybrid six-man crew – 3 NFL, 3 AFL – was adopted. Since the leagues' officials wore different uniforms, a new "neutral" uniform was whipped up (note: the AFL ref uniforms were simply amazing). Each league had its own equipment contract, so the Chiefs used the Spalding AFL football and when the Packers offense took the field, the NFL Wilson ball was used. The entire game was played under NFL rules, although the only major rule difference was the AFL's use of the two-point conversion (which the NFL did not adopt until 1994).

Oh, there was also a game. Part of the reason for the low interest was the widespread assumption among the media and fans that champions of the older, established league – the NFL – would crush the rag-tag AFL squads, the league having been founded just six years earlier. And that's exactly what happened. The Kansas City Chiefs squad loaded with all-time greats was destroyed 35-10 by Vince Lombardi's Packers team that happened to be even more loaded with all-time greats. The same Packers squad crushed the AFL champion Raiders the next year in Super Bowl II, and it is highly likely that the game might have slid into obscurity had the AFL not rallied to win Super Bowls III (the infamous Joe Namath-led Jets win over the Baltimore Colts) and IV (the same Chiefs squad walloped the Minnesota Vikings). Only when the viewing public became convinced that the matchup would be competitive did the game really take off, a process facilitated by the full merger of the leagues in 1970 (which shifted some NFL stalwarts like the Colts and Chiefs to the AFC).

As difficult as it is to imagine today with the global TV audience of 100,000,000 and the multimillion dollar ad spots, the people who devised the idea of a game between the league champions actually had serious and legitimate doubts about whether anybody would care. Finally they convinced themselves that by golly, this "Super Bowl" thing might just catch on.

That's how people talked in 1966, right?

A THOUSAND WORDS

Posted in Quick Hits on January 22nd, 2014 by Ed

Although a complete understanding of what's going on here requires an explanation of NOMINATE scores and the underlying methodology, this single chart serves as both American Politics in a Nutshell and American Politics at a Glance:

polar_house_means

I used to work with the fellow most responsible for developing these measures of ideology, and he is as far to the right as anyone in academia. That is only relevant here inasmuch as it undercuts the glib response that this is just more Ivory Tower Liberal nonsense trying to make the poor GOP look bad. Both parties have moved away from the center since 1970, but…it's fairly clear in these data that one party has done a bit more moving than the other.

LEAST RESISTANCE

Posted in Rants on January 21st, 2014 by Ed

Like most universities, my campus was quite dead over the winter break. One of the few academic programs active between the semesters is a graduate program in computer science. It's not a huge program, as we are not a huge institution, but I saw its 20-25 students regularly. I'm not sure how to put this without sounding awkward, so I'll just say it: every student in the class appears to be south Asian (Indian, Pakistani, etc). English is clearly a second language for most or all.

Don't worry, I'm going somewhere with this.

Obviously there is no rule applied to the program that says "No American students allowed" or "White kids need not apply." The reason the program is composed differently than the student body as a whole is, in my opinion, simple: these classes are hard, and most students really don't like doing things that are difficult. This is, again in my opinion, one of the most persuasive explanations for why science, engineering, and technology programs are often made up largely of foreign students at U.S. universities. American and non-American students are both capable of doing the work; the question is who is willing to do the hard, time-consuming work of mastering really difficult subjects. American students as a whole are more interested in getting A's than in learning the most useful skill or picking the most lucrative major.

At a previous institution, we had a joke in the political science department whenever we would lose a major – "And another Marketing major is born!" Students leaving our major were inevitably transferring to Business, Marketing, Criminal Justice, or something with "Administration" in the name. They were choosing those majors not because they have a burning desire to learn about them. They chose them because those majors are easier. To clarify two things: First, there are students who take those majors very seriously and go on to great careers. Second, there are American students who work like sled dogs in college. But my own anecdata have convinced me that there's more to the popularity of these newer majors than legitimate interest.

The numbers don't lie: majors like business and CJ have increased in popularity four- and five-fold since 1970. Math and science majors have held steady, while humanities and social sciences have lost the most popularity. Part of this is no doubt due to the decline of liberal arts education in favor of a more "vocational" approach to higher ed. Majors like Business are perceived as more practical and useful. But students are very strategic when it comes to their grades; all they need to do is spend a few minutes online (or listening to the grapevine) to find out where the Easy A's are. At most universities you're not going to find them in Engineering.

I'll be the first to admit that a major like English or Poli Sci is objectively less difficult than mastering quantum physics, although the comparison is difficult because the skills involved are so different. However, English and Poli Sci both still involve a lot of work – lots of reading, lots of paper writing, and (usually) classes you need to attend to pass the course. Students have complained about their workload for as long as schools have existed, but I am continually amazed at how put off they are by the most basic course requirements these days. We have to read one chapter per week from the textbook? We have to write a ten page paper? No matter how little we ask, it always seems to be too much for some of them.

Everyone teacher has a pet theory about What's Wrong With Education and in most cases we're all too happy to share it. Many of them sound persuasive. But for all the complaints about No Child Left Behind and teacher's unions and standardized testing and whatnot, I can honestly say that I haven't encountered a student who was incapable of doing what was necessary to pass my course more than two or three times in nine years. And that's out of thousands of students. The problem in 99.9% of cases is the lack of willingness to work the amount necessary to get an A or B. There aren't many problems in college that can't be solved by spending more time reading, studying, and working with one's professors.

The prevailing attitude, increasingly, is "Screw it, I'll find some easier classes." Maybe this is the real consequence of NCLB, that it has made students outcome-obsessed to the point that they'd rather get a 3.7 GPA in Basketweaving than a 2.7 GPA in a six-figure major like Electrical Engineering. They seek out (and too easily find) courses that require little reading, post lecture materials online to make attendance all but unnecessary, and replace paper writing with various "projects" slapped together 12 hours before the due date. I don't mean to impugn the intellectual skills of anyone who majors in fields like Business; the issue is that students increasingly look toward majors like that because of the perceived level of difficulty in getting A/B grades, not because they want to learn anything or gain salable skills.

For all the talk among undergraduates about making good money and having a stable career, they certainly aren't flocking to the highest-paid and most employable majors. That is a symptom of the underlying issue – there is much more to it than a lack of interest in the subjects involved.

Tags:

BAD IDEA JEANS

Posted in Quick Hits on January 20th, 2014 by Ed

Public figures who decide to take on or otherwise interact with the people of the internet are almost always walking into a shitshow of their own making. The internet is impersonal and at least pseudo-anonymous; how could soliciting questions from the anonymous hordes not end badly? This is particularly true if you are a public figure who could best be described as a corporate shill, as internet commenters tend to be blunt. So when charter school pimp / professional hack Michelle Rhee decided to do a little Q & A…

Here's a small collection of some of the best questions as well as the attempts of others to warn her. You can see the whole exchange with the #AskMichelle tag on Twitter. It's not only brutal but almost universally so. The negative comments exceed the legitimate questions or praise by about 20 to 1.

Oh, and in totally unrelated news it turns out that yet another "charter school" was a scam set up to cash in on government handouts, this time in Milwaukee. Shocking, really. That Walker fellow seems like he'd run such a tight ship when it comes to privatizing public assets. An unfortunate oversight, I'm sure.

NPF: RIDDLER

Posted in No Politics Friday on January 16th, 2014 by Ed

I'm currently reading a book that includes some firsthand accounts from Vietnam-era POWs describing how they killed literally years worth of time in near-total silence and without any reading material. Several mentioned that they enjoyed passing around complicated riddles to keep their minds occupied. This one almost had me resorting to Google, although eventually I got it. Take a shot at answering it in the comments if you want.

You're walking down a road that splits into two paths. One path is safe and leads to your destination. The other is so dangerous that you'll be killed if you take it. You don't know which is which. Each path has a sentry standing watch; one sentry always lies and the other always tells the truth. Again, you don't know which is the liar and which one is honest. You can only ask one question and only one of the sentries will answer it. What's the one question to ask that will guarantee you end up taking the safe path?

I know, right?

AN OPEN LETTER TO CHARTER COMMUNICATIONS

Posted in Rants on January 15th, 2014 by Ed

Dear Charter Communications,

For the past 18 months since our breakup you have been insisting that I owe you about $180. You've had four different collection agencies contact me about it, although they're not trying very hard (With a balance this paltry it's barely worth it for them to mail me a bill.) I'm confused, CC. I'm confused because at this point I can't figure out what is the worst: your customer service, your prices, or the actual internet services you provide. I regret being unable to choose one definitively, but it is not easy to choose among superlatives.

Charter, let me summarize your position on this matter.

When I moved to Illinois from Georgia I cancelled the internet services that you provided. See, when one moves out of a house or apartment it is traditional to cancel the utilities. About three months later I discovered that you continued to bill me monthly after my service was cancelled. Boy, that kind of mistake must be embarrassing! But no matter. Things happen and I was certain it could be resolved easily. I got in touch with one of your call center commandos and was informed that the billing continued monthly because – get this, Charter Communications! – I asked for my service to be terminated but I did not also state that I wanted to stop being billed for it. In other words, you apparently believed that I wanted to keep paying for your service after I ceased to receive it.

Charter, I've been to two county fairs. I've seen Carrot Top live. I've watched Bio-Dome with Pauly Shore in its entirety. I sat through a macroeconomics class taught by someone who idolized Murray Rothbard. What I'm saying, Charter, is that I've heard and seen some pretty goddamn stupid things in my day. Somehow you've managed to top it all.

Charter Communications, I think I'm starting to see why you declared bankruptcy in 2009. It is not a mystery why PC World ranked Charter 14th of 14 major internet providers. It's not hard to understand why you have a 1.5 average from 83 reviews on Yelp. Now, Yelp is not the first place to go for info about tech and communications. Yelp is mostly about restaurants. So here are some of the few restaurants I could find on Yelp with a rating lower than 1.5. For context. There's Regal Cafe Pizzeria in Boston (1.0). Colony Cafe in Miami Beach (1.0, noted for "fraudulent business practices" and charging $27 for a Bacardi Rum and Coke). Melrose LaBrea Animal Hospital in Los Angeles (OK it's not a restaurant, but apparently they charge several thousand dollars and then murder your pet so it seems similar to Charter). Clarke's on Belmont in Chicago (2.1 rating, but patrons run the risk of being attacked by a transvestite wielding a shovel). Pizza Napoli in Washington DC (1.5 stars, "Pro: Biggest piece of pizza I've ever had. Con: It was terrible pizza."). "Sushi Kingz" in LA – that's how they spell it! – which needs ten reviews from sockpuppets/the owner to get a 2.0 rating.

This is your peer group, Charter. You are the Sushi Kingz of ISPs. In fact, given your business practices I'm starting to wonder if Charter owns and manages the Colony Cafe. Here's what we're going to do. You bill me for whatever amount you feel is appropriate for services not rendered. I will send you an invoice in the same amount representing my hourly rate for putting up with your bullshit (call it "consulting" or something). We will be even-Steven.

In closing, Charter Communications, you are terrible at everything and I want all of the bad things in life to happen to you and only you. I want Jelly Belly to take your favorite flavor off the market. I want your favorite shirt to be irreparably stained. I want you to sit next to the crying baby on every flight. I want your spouses to leave you for prison pen pals with life sentences. I want your children to go to the most expensive university they can find and major in Folklore. I want you to be preoccupied at the urinal and not even notice that you're urinating on your pant leg. I want you to get to the front of the TSA line before you realize you left your wallet at home. Most of all, Charter, I want you to plant a big sloppy kiss right on my ass.

Piss off,
Ed

Tags: