ROGER AGAINST THE MACHINE

Posted in Rants on January 13th, 2014 by Ed

Several weeks ago during the brief attention paid by the media to fast food workers on strike, one of my friends shared this grammatically inept meme on Facebook:

replacement

This is the sort of bizarro-populist right wing message that resonates with Regular Americans with no particular interest in or knowledge of politics, economics, or anything else relevant to the topic. It's a mildly amusing take on a remarkably dark undercurrent in the psyche of our business and financial elite: the yearning for some future techno-society in which robots will do everything and human beings with their pesky wages and benefits and refusal to work 24 hours per day will become totally unnecessary. Once our economic betters have figured out how to get you to work for minimum wage and without benefits, the logical next step – the only means of further Controlling Costs, in fact – is to find a way to avoid paying you at all.

Whenever I hear something that touches on this theme I cheer myself up with thoughts of the times "We'll replace you with robots!" has been tried and ended in miserable failure. Here's an example: did you know, despite this fact being absent both from Michael Moore's ultra-liberal documentary and ten thousand mainstream media accounts of GM's bankruptcy a few years ago, that the financial collapse of what was once the world's largest corporation was precipitated by Roger Smith's bright idea to replace all of the autoworkers with robots? True story. General Motors under Smith spent $90 billion on robotics and automation in nine years.

Think about that for a second. Ninety billion dollars. $90,000,000,000.00. Of course none of it worked, with factory robots breaking down constantly, painting one another, and welding car doors shut. It's easy to say that the company got what it deserved and forget about it. But think for a second about the mindset of a group of people so committed to the concept of eliminating the workforce (and the UAW) that it would piss away ninety billion dollars trying to do it. Even if the Worker Bots worked flawlessly, how could that possibly make financial sense? How many decades and centuries of "savings" from lower wages to earn back those sunk costs? And how much money would the Robo-Factories demand in the future for maintenance, upgrades, and eventual replacement with newer and better technology? For $90 billion, GM simply could have purchased Toyota, Honda, Nissan, and most of its other foreign rivals – several times over. Of course, in that scenario they'd still have to pay people to make cars.

The fact is that General Motors didn't go bankrupt, it committed financial suicide because its executive culture fostered a loathing for the UAW and the hourly workforce that was so extreme that it obliterated basic logic and business sense. The idea was not to replace the workers with Japanese robots (GM Robotics was acquired from Fujitsu) because it would save money; it was to replace the workers with robots because fuck the workers. Try to picture the mindset of people who would rather run their company into the ground than give their grunt employees a Cost of Living raise. It's like an airline that would rather blow all of its planes up on the runway than give passengers an entire can of soda.

But enough about Delta.

When GM finally circled the drain we were treated to hundreds of tales of largely symbolic and irrelevant white collar largesse – Executives used private planes to fly to Washington and beg for a bailout! – and uppity auto workers livin' large; the preferred strategy in most of the right-wing media was to bleat the phrase "JOBS BANK!" like a kid with Tourette's and a two-word vocabulary. No one seemed to remember that GM was doing just fine until Roger Smith, a man who had clearly watched too many episodes of The Jetsons at half-mast, ruined the corporate product line (Have worse cars ever been made in the United States than 1980s GM products?) and decided that getting rid of anyone who didn't have a white collar job was worth any cost.

Most people in charge of major corporations like fast food chains are just as greedy as Roger Smith but not nearly as stupid. McDonald's hasn't turned its restaurants into a giant automated vending machine because they know it won't work. But I bet their boardroom is full of people dreaming of a future in which it will.

NPF: INHERENT ADVANTAGE

Posted in No Politics Friday on January 10th, 2014 by Ed

I'm about halfway through the new Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation, Reefer Madness) book Command and Control and as I expected the experience has been both enjoyable and frustrating. It's enjoyable of course because it's a well written book about a topic I love. It's frustrating because about eight years ago I decided to write this book.

In a fit of New Years resolutioning or some sort of attempt at personal and professional growth I sat down and wrote an outline for an entire book on the history of the Cold War nuclear buildup and, as Schlosser calls it, the illusion of safety. While obviously it was not the same as Command and Control I can't help but note the similarities as I read through it. Despite the similarities in our ideas, Schlosser's book has one overwhelming advantage: he actually wrote his.

This is the second time in the last few years I've had this experience – Gregg Grandin's Fordlandia was one of my earliest "Someone really needs to write a book about this, maybe I should try" moments. And I'm starting to understand more clearly that this is why at 35 my life is effectively half over and I've managed to accomplish absolutely nothing; for every decent idea I've ever had I think, plot, research, conceptualize, sketch, and ruminate…but I never actually do it. It would be nice to be able to identify the reason. It could be any number of things: fear of failure, laziness, risk aversion, self-doubt, etc. But every time I successfully convince myself that no one else would find it interesting and besides I don't know anyone in the publishing industry so it makes no sense to devote the time to doing it. Instead I devote that time to more productive pursuits like Netflix.

And that, for all you young readers out there, is how you end up old and stuck living in central Illinois.

This kind of thinking appeals to the rational part of my brain, which is the entirety of it. Investing a ton of resources, both time and financial, into something with no guaranteed payoff (and perhaps not even half-decent odds of payoff) is the kind of decision from which it is very easy to dissuade ourselves. For a while I tried to convince myself that it would be good for me just to get the sense of completion that comes from taking something from the idea stage to a finished product regardless of whether it was "successful" or not. Unfortunately my mind really doesn't work that way; maybe someone else can take pleasure in writing something that no one else will ever read, but not me. Besides I already tried that, it was called writing a dissertation. *rimshot*

Anyway, let this be a lesson to anyone out there looking to be unsuccessful. Take all of the things you've thought about doing, talk yourself out of doing any of them, and then sit back and watch other people succeed. I'm not going to lie, it's really easy.

CASE-RESTING

Posted in Quick Hits on January 9th, 2014 by Ed

Sorry for back-to-back short posts, but aren't you basically ceding the argument that your party is composed of elitists and sociopaths when you have to send out a memo instructing Republican members of Congress on how to sound like they have compassion for the unemployed? There was a neat book written a while back about people who have to learn how to act like they have emotions. Maybe the House GOP should read it for book club.

IRREDUCIBLE

Posted in Quick Hits on January 7th, 2014 by Ed

There will come a point in every conversation in which you challenge someone on the inherent biases in any purportedly merit-based system at which its defenders will point out that the winners in said system are very talented and work very hard. The motivation for the winners in any system or institution to believe this is strong, as to believe otherwise is to admit that one's own success is a function of luck or other non-meritocratic factors.

Perhaps it is correct that the winners in life win because they are talented, smart, and hard working. In my brief life experience, though, I've always found it odd that the people who have influential connections always end up being the most talented, smartest, and hardest working people.

Life has a lot of coincidences.

FOUR ENCLOSED WALLS

Posted in Rants on January 6th, 2014 by Ed

Right now it is -12 degrees F outside. Weather like this is life-threatening, but I'm lying on a couch in a t-shirt watching The Simpsons and typing on a laptop. The worst thing I have to worry about at the moment is cabin fever, as by Tuesday I'll have been stuck in the house for three days. The weather is at worst a minor inconvenience to me because I live indoors. I assume that most of you are in the habit of taking this for granted, as I am. But a few times per year when the weather is particularly brutal I walk home from work thinking, you know, it really wouldn't be very pleasant to sleep on a park bench right now.

The older I get, the more I realize how tenuous is our hold on the basic comforts of middle-class life. Whether or not we realize it, every single one of us is three misfortunes away from being homeless. You get fired. You get sick while you have no insurance. You decide to self-medicate with cheap vodka. Your path to poverty and homelessness is smooth and clear at that point. We like to think we're better than being homeless; sometimes we find out the hard way that we're not.

Over the weekend I saw a handful of news stories about one city or another is devoting resources to getting the homeless indoors during the "Arctic Blast" affecting half the country today. It's just the sort of band-aid approach Americans are good at. Certainly it's good that the homeless will have a better chance of getting indoors when it's -20. But what about when things go back to normal and it's "only" 10 or 20 degrees rather than below zero? Hundreds of homeless people die of hypothermia in comparatively tame winter weather every year.

It's not a problem any of us really like thinking about. We go out of our way to avoid making eye contact with homeless people so we can pretend they don't exist or, failing that, that they're not human. If we look at them and talk to them like people ("Sorry, I don't have any cash on me" or "OK, here you go. I hope you have a good one.") then we have a much harder time pretending that we're fundamentally different. Don't get me wrong, I'm an irritable person and when a completely insane panhandler is all over me I'm doing my best to get away. But if those of us who lucky enough to have four walls and a roof treat homeless people like people it's much harder to forget that there but for the grace of god go any of us.

Maybe that's why Americans expend so much time and energy belittling and lecturing the homeless (and the poor in general). We're not afraid of them so much as we're afraid of how much of ourselves we see in them.

NPF: AUTOMATIC

Posted in No Politics Friday, Skip this if you hate sports on January 3rd, 2014 by Ed

The Cardinals team that I expected to go 3-13 this season closed out a surprise 10-6 year with a close loss to their hated rivals the 49ers on Sunday. In a tight game (San Fran 23, Arizona 20) the kickers were the difference. The Cardinals' Jay Feely missed two makeable field goals (37 and 43 yards) while SF's Phil Dawson provided the three-point margin of victory with a 56 yard moon shot in the 4th quarter. Retrospectives on the season are unanimous, as are fans around the internet, that Feely must be replaced this offseason.

This highlights a fascinating trend in the NFL over the past twenty years. The kicking game has become so accurate that coaches, players, and fans alike treat it as automatic. If a kicker ever misses, his job security is immediately called into question. I've done a bit of research and uncovered some statistics that underscore the point.

For the season Jay "Unemployed" Feely was 30 for 36 on field goals (83%). In 1965, the league leader, long-time Cardinal Jim Bakken, hit 67% of his kicks. In 2013 the worst kicker in the league, an aging Sebastian Janikowski, hit 70%. The league leader, Matt Prater, was a ridiculous 25-of-26 (96%) including an unheard of 64 yarder, a record. The Saints Garrett Hartley was waived a few weeks ago for hitting 73% on the year. So the worst kicker in today's NFL was better than the best kicker in seasons past. Jim Bakken's league-leading 67% from 1965 wouldn't even have been good enough to keep his job today.

Want a few more percentages? The current career leaderboard is dominated by active and recent kickers. Of players with at least three seasons of experience, former Colt Mike Vanderjagt is the all-time leader with 86% for his career. Dozens of other modern kickers are right behind him with career averages between 80 and 85 percent. Jan Stenerud, the sole kicker in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and widely recognized as a legend, hit 66% for his career. George Blanda, another Hall of Famer as a QB and K, held the NFL scoring record for decades following his retirement and was a 52% career FG kicker. And he was a full-time kicker in the NFL for twenty-six years.

It's not just about accuracy; let's talk about distance. The NFL career mark for over-50 yard FGs is held by Jason Hanson, who made 52 such kicks. Morten Andersen, considered widely to be the greatest long-range kicker in history upon his retirement, made 40 (on 84 attempts!) in his career. In 2012, Vikings rookie Blair Walsh made ten-of-ten FGs over 50 yards. That is, in one season he got a quarter of the way to Andersen's total from 22 seasons. And he didn't miss a single one. Hall of Famer Stenerud made a grand total of 17 kicks from over 50. Walsh will surpass that in his third season. Of the 14 field goals made from 60 or more yards in NFL history, half (7/14) have been since 2010. Sixty-yarders aren't exactly routine but they're no longer rare.

One final stats: League-wide, kickers made 13% of kicks over 50 yards in the 1960s. Since 2000 the number is 54% and increasing annually. What was once seen for what it is – a remarkably difficult thing to do, kicking an oblong ball through six-yard wide uprights from 150+ feet over a seven-plus foot wall of men trying to block it – is now routine:

When Jason Hanson entered the NFL nearly two decades ago, he got hugs and high-fives for nailing a long field goal. Now, he's lucky to get a handshake. "It used to be 45 and over was, 'Great kick! You made it!"' the Detroit Lions kicker recounted. "Now, it's like, you miss under 50 and people are kind of like, 'What's the matter?"'

So what gives? The two most obvious answers are, one, that kickers are becoming better, stronger athletes just like every other NFL player. Compare the 230-pound offensive linemen and the scrawny 5'10" receivers of the 60s and 70s with the 350-pound behemoths and 6'3" 220-pound sprinters of today and the difference is obvious. The second big change was the development of the soccer-style kick as opposed to the traditional straight-on approach, a topic I've written about at length previously due to the influx of hilariously-named foreign kickers it brought into the NFL.

There are additional factors. There is better coaching from an earlier age combined with the era of specialization. Today's kickers are kickers – period. George Blanda kicked but was also a QB. Ditto Hall of Famers like QB Bob Waterfield, RB Paul Hornung, and OL Lou Groza. Teams didn't have "a kicker" prior to 1960. It was whoever they had at some other position that happened to be the best at kicking. They lined up during training camp and took a whack at it and the coach picked someone to kick (and punt). It was not unusual for six or seven different players on the roster to attempt a kick during a season. Today kickers are dedicated kickers from Pee Wee and high school football up to the pro level. And they have specific kicking coaches all along the way. Specialization has also taken place with the kickers' best friends, the long-snappers, who now do nothing but long-snap and place the ball precisely in the right spot. Every time.

One other thing is often overlooked, in my opinion: the playing surface has improved. Kicking is extremely sensitive to weather (Remember the hilarious kicks in that Bears-Niners game in gale force winds a few years ago?) and the field. In rain or snow or wind, accuracy falls rapidly. Well now we have domed stadiums all over the league and either impeccable grass surfaces or advanced artificial ones like FieldTurf. Compare that to the muddy, sparse cow pastures teams played on (in outdoor stadiums) in the past and there's no question it helps.

The kicking game has become almost too accurate; the machine-like precision of modern kickers is changing the game. Today, as soon as a team gets across the 40 yard line it's getting to be an automatic 3 points. This has led to calls to narrow the goalposts in an effort to make the game less predictable, although that proposal has been met without enthusiasm. Fans know that the sport has changed a lot over the years, but it's odd to think of a guy like Jay Feely getting the pink slip over a performance that a few years ago might have earned him a case full of trophies.

2013 LIEBERMAN AWARD WINNER: SILICON VALLEY D-BAG GUY

Posted in Rants on January 2nd, 2014 by Ed

(Editor's note: The Lieberman Award is given annually to the worst example of a human being over a twelve month period. Click the tag at the end of the post to review past winners.)

medalFor years now the internet has been blanketed with Ruin Porn and other voyeuristic stories about the decline of cities like Detroit. Anyone who follows the news even superficially or spends a good amount of time on the internet can probably draw Detroit's abandoned train station and Packard plants from memory by now, so frequently do they appear in the news and in films. Like any kind of human misery, comfortable people are fascinated by decay.

In 2013 we were introduced to a new phenomenon that offers a refreshing change of pace to Rust Belt tales of woe: the "What the hell happened to San Francisco and why is everything there awful now?" segment. In many ways it is the polar opposite of Detroit but the train wreck is just as compelling to journalists looking for an easy yarn. Detroit brought us the $100 two-story house; San Francisco countered with the $5000 one-bedroom apartment.

We've been reading paeans to Silicon Valley for nearly two decades now, originally confined to tech media outlets like Wired and Fast Company (the official scribes of record for the Breathless Bullshit industry) but by now it is quite mainstream and uncontroversial to proclaim that Google or Apple or venture capital or "tech" or innovation or "thought leaders" or some other thing nobody quite understands (but knows innately that "Silicon Valley types" do) is going to solve all of the world's problems. We've drowned in TED talks – like watching somebody masturbate on stage, only less pleasant and without the satisfaction of a definitive ending – by Valley guys who believe that because they have made a billion dollars by engineering better ways to harvest personal data online or make Mashable sidebar ads more clickable they are qualified to solve all of the world's problems. While hunger and economic inequality have yet to be tamed, oddly enough The Valley has been remarkably successful of solving all of the problems inherent to being a twentysomething Valley Guy with tons of disposable income.

While the rest of us can safely roll our eyes and ignore them – assuming we can put the frightening amount of political influence these mavens of Creative Destruction are wielding – but San Francisco has to live with them. Literally. We had the pleasure of watching the ugliness of elitism and classism unfolding during the BART strikes, when Valley Guys were loudly outraged that transit employees had the temerity to demand $60,000 salaries in an attempt to be able to continue living indoors in the city thanks to Chad and the other New Millionaires driving monthly rents into the thousands. Having turned entire neighborhoods into literal frathouses they're none too happy when the lower class people who serve them remain visible among the organic dog treat bakeries and various retailers of high-end craft cocktails.

While bashing TED talks is now quite in vogue – I like to think I was ahead of the curve by several years on that one – it was in 2013 that we began to see the Silicon Valley Douchebag for what and who he really is. So ubiquitous is the problem of rampant assholery in the industry that tech media outlets and blogs are now regularly running content about how San Franciscans are suffering plagues of "Startup Douchebags" pricing them out of, well, everything. Like any gold rush, the tech boom of the last 20 years has attracted the brilliant and innovative…and hordes of fad-following, trend-hopping. buzzword-spewing bullshitters. In true gee-whiz New Economy fashion, a self-help industry will probably appear to give Webinars and Corporate Retreats to explain to the Apple folks how not to be such raging dickwads.

Aside from complaining bitterly about the homeless and inventing myriad ways to sell us expensive gadgets and harvest our personal data, what has Silicon Valley actually accomplished thus far? For all the grand ideas and self-congratulatory, attention seeking behaviors, how have they "changed the world" as they so often and loudly claim to be doing? They've repackaged neoliberal economic wisdom for the umpteenth time. It's nothing but the latest coat of paint on the "privatize it, outsource it, focus on costs" mantra we've been hearing since the Seventies. Indeed, there is nothing revolutionary about "Find someone to do it for less, piecemeal and without benefits." It's another version of the glorious future in which the rich can hold onto all of their money with the added allure of replacing even the unwashed plebeians who serve them with apps and robots. For now we can develop a web-based platform to farm out to The Cloud the tasks of an Executive Assistant, but just imagine a dazzling techno-future of automation in which the elite don't need to pay anyone at all.

God help the normal people trying to live in the Bay Area, and congratulations to all the Silicon Valley Guys. Their actions are in keeping with the smug, self-satisfied, and unctuous tradition of Joe Lieberman himself. Truly they are assholes of year-defining proportions.