NPF: TRIVIAL PURSUITS

Posted in No Politics Friday on February 27th, 2014 by Ed

You know I enjoy helping you do anything other than work on Friday afternoons. If you follow Gin and Tacos on Facebook you may recall that I used to post trivia questions regularly. However, now that I host a weekly trivia game in town I have to write about 20 questions per week and I don't have much left in reserve after that. But with all these damn questions (I think it's around 400 by now) it might be fun to share some of them here.

Last Wednesday's game was apparently difficult – or perhaps the players were drunker than usual – so why not start there. Honestly the games I write are much less difficult than the ones I played in Georgia, and I always feel like I want to ask harder questions. It's supposed to be fun, though, so I let up around 6 or 7 on a scale of 1-10. Oh, and I guess we have to skip the music rounds because I don't have any idea how to embed songs without the artist and song title being immediately apparent.

Of course you can cheat your ass off with Google if you want, but what the hell would be the point of that. You lose the strategic aspect of the game (it's a point system / bid game) but have at the questions anyway. Answers in the comments sometime on Friday.

1. Sports: Plus/- 18", what is Mike Powell's World Record in the long jump, held since '91?
2. Dr. Who: What does TARDIS stand for?
3. Anatomy: In what part of the body is the vitreous humor found?
4. Language: Which country has the largest number of official national languages?
5. Presidential Trivia: Only two men who have been president died before reaching 50. Name them.
6. Sports: What nation has won the most Winter Olympics medals all-time?
7. Name the Actor/ress: Hugo, Rules of Engagement, Schindler's List (Who appears in all three films)
8. Literature: Who is the primary antagonist in Treasure Island?
9. Geography: 40% of all Australians live in what two cities?
10. Food: According to UNICEF, rice, corn, and wheat are the three most consumed foods on Earth. What is fourth?
11. Sports: Three men have won the FIFA player of the year award / Ballon d'Or three times. Name two.
12. History: From what country did the United States purchase the Virgin Islands in 1917?
13. Science: After the chimpanzee, what animal is humans' closest living relative?
14. Acronyms: What does TIME (as in the magazine) stand for?
15. Cities: What is the northernmost city in the world with over 1 million inhabitants?
16. Sports: What two men first summitted Mount Everest? (No Mallory conspiracy theories please)
17. Language: In any order, what are the five least commonly used letters in the Oxford English Dictionary?
18. Units of Measure: Which is longer, a mile or a nautical mile?
19. TV: What was the name of the company George Jetson works for?
20: Final Trivia – Music: In 1996, Rolling Stone named this album the 3rd worst album of the year. Five years later in 2001, they named it the 16th greatest album of all time. What is it? (Hint: It was the band's 2nd album)

Have fun. Because I have fun coming up with these.

LUNCH COUNTER

Posted in Rants on February 26th, 2014 by Ed

This was passed around the internet for the past few days. It's a picture of a 1960 lunch counter sit-in at a Woolworth's in Greensboro, NC.

counter-sit-in

I like this picture a lot (and this one, with the bespectacled fellow and that "Well, I guess this is what's gonna happen now" look on his face). The customers have that look on their faces that combines excessive confidence and pure terror in the way that only 19 year old kids can pull off. The most interesting thing about it, though, is that the employee behind the Whites Only lunch counter is also black. That's curious, since on the scale of intimate social contact one would think that having someone handle your food ranks above sitting next to a fully clothed stranger on adjacent stools.

When I first saw this picture and learned about this period in our history (or more accurately, learned it formally and from someone who wasn't using the N-word regularly) I thought that racism was about believing that another race is inferior. Like most people I got (slightly) wiser with age and eventually figured out that racism is about keeping someone else beneath you on the social ladder. You know, that Gene Hackman line from Mississippi Burning ("If you ain't better than a nigger, son, who are you better than?") If you actually thought black people were dirty savages you wouldn't eat anything they handed you. But of course it has nothing to do with that. You're fine being served food because servility implies social inferiority. And you don't want to sit next to them simply because it implies equality.

It's pretty simple, then, to understand these last-ditch efforts on the part of hayseed legislatures to legislate discrimination based on sexual orientation. Very few of them are stupid enough to believe the excuses that they put forth as their motives. To maintain my faith in humanity I have to believe that some of them understand that these laws aren't going to stand up in court anyway and this is all a big waste of time. It helps, though, to understand it for what it is: a desperation move by a group of people who are no longer socially relevant to assert their superiority, and to codify the idea that they are Better Than someone who is in some way different.

In a couple of decades they will look just as pathetic to us in hindsight as the knuckle-dragging segregationists do to us today. Then again I'm starting to think that some of us look back on them as heroes. Let's not spoil the ending for them.

HOUSE HUNTERS

Posted in Quick Hits on February 24th, 2014 by Ed

There are two reasons I like forcing college seniors to read Babbitt. One is personal; Babbitt's monologue to his son about choosing his own path in life rather than doing what others expect of him is advice that I feel like the average 21 year old soon-to-be graduate can benefit from hearing. The second is that it allows us to think about the American Dream and how it has changed over time. Some parts of Babbitt's life are foreign to college kids – turns out that people born in 1992 don't really feel that success involves joining the Knights of Columbus and the Elks Lodge – but others still apply. Having a big, gaudy house is still integral to showing other people that you've Made It.

Is it, though? Sometimes I think home ownership is a good investment and a component of Success. Sometimes I think it's a massive con that I'm lucky to have escaped. Then sometimes I think that last one is an elaborate rationalization for the fact that I'll probably never be able to afford one.

If you're in your twenties or thirties today, what is the compelling argument for buying a home? We're supposed to accept as the new normal an economy that offers no long term security and hardly pays a livable wage in the short term. Our political process still encourages home buying; one look at the tax code makes that clear. But from where are we supposed to be getting the incentive, not to mention the down payment, to take on a thirty year financial commitment? It seems counter-intuitive to tell people that their employment situation is basically day to day and then expect them to settle down.

COMMON KNOWLEDGE

Posted in Rants on February 23rd, 2014 by Ed

Back when I had a life and did things that made me happy I spent about two years doing stand-up. The first lesson everyone learns when doing comedy is that it's harder than it looks. That is, people have an illogical tendency to think that performing stand-up entails walking onstage and just…talking. For a few minutes. You know, you just get up there and talk, right? Anyone can do that!

Of course this perception is fueled by the fact that people who are really, really good at stand-up are so natural that it might seem like they're just talking off the cuff. In reality they have told those jokes word-for-word a thousand times practicing the inflection, the pauses, and things you'd never even think about until you try it. My point is that not everyone can do stand-up (Hell, even a lot of people who do it all the time can't do it) but people tend to think they can. At least ignorant people do; thoughtful people don't look at someone else and assume that they know how to do their job.

The next time you order a drink at a bar, take a few sips and then start pontificating loudly about how you could make a better one. Talk about how you know all about bartending because you've been to a lot of bars. Hell, sometimes you make drinks at home and you're great at it. Take note of the way the bartender is looking at you. You feel like kind of an asshole, right? Well, if you're capable of feeling shame you'll notice it.

I've found myself saying this a lot lately, but the worst part of teaching for a living is that everyone thinks they know how to do your job. Most of them think they know how to do it better than you do. And when I saw this piece from the Post I had one of those "Well thank god I'm not imagining it" moments. The tone is too smug overall, but the author makes an excellent point – everyone thinks they know how to teach because everyone has spent a lot of time in school. We've all seen countless teachers teaching (some of them not particularly well, we feel) and for those of us who aren't particularly incisive I suppose it's not hard to conclude, "Well how hard can it be?" After all, you just stand up there and talk, right?

I can't explain – and I've stopped trying to explain – what makes teaching more difficult than particularly glib non-teachers think it is, and I've settled into an unsatisfying "Try it, then you'll understand." In fairness, this is true of almost any job that requires skill. I'd probably be terrible at your job if I tried it. That's why you wouldn't hire me to design a building or represent you in court. That's also why I don't tell you how to defend someone in court or design a building. That would be a dick move, right? And you would probably think, "Wow, this guy is so full of shit," right?

Yes, I understand that most of the increasingly shrill rhetoric over the past decade has nothing to do with teachers or teaching and everything to do with a coordinated assault on public employees by wealthy sociopaths. They're acting on self-interest and I get it. The collateral damage, though, is the millions of reactionaries being spoon-fed angry rhetoric about what Those Union Thugs are doing and how Real Americans know better. I'd love nothing more than to invite the average comment troll into my classroom and tell him, "All yours. 75 minutes. I'll be over there laughing."

NPF: LOOK, THEN LEAP

Posted in No Politics Friday on February 20th, 2014 by Ed

I have a thing for rodents. I've owned seven pet rats over the years (although none at the moment) and around 2010 I had the good fortune to discover a blogging capybara named Caplin Rous. Caplin's owners/pets, a couple named Melanie and Rick, live on what appears to be a farm outside of a place called Buda, TX with a wide variety of animals. Exotic or rare pets are difficult to keep for a number of reasons, but their setup was perfect. They have the two things a capy needs – a pool and a lot of land – and the devotion to their animals to make sure that all of their needs are met. Unfortunately it turns out that some plants that are harmless to "normal" American animals are toxic to a South American native rodent and Caplin died too early. That's one of the downsides to exotic pets – many lessons have to be learned the hard way.

Melanie was heartbroken, as any pet owner understands, but shortly after Caplin's death she was contacted by an exotic animal breeder with some distressing news. A capy had been adopted by an owner who was neglecting him – would Melanie take him in? And that's how Garibaldi (Gari) became her new pet. To make a long story short, I have a hard time communicating how much pleasure I've gotten since that moment from following Gari's antics on the blog. Melanie is a very funny writer, which just adds to the entertainment value of the hundreds of pictures, tales, and videos of Gari that I could rely on to cheer me up.

treat

The problem was that in the first year of his life, Gari was mistreated. His first owner did not actively abuse him, but she was almost criminally ignorant of how to care for him. He was kept in a small apartment, rarely let outside, and fed dry dog food. Capys need a ton of sunlight and vegetable matter to remain healthy. The bottom line is that when Melanie met Gari, he had scurvy (with that nice vitamin C-free diet), vitamin D deficiency, and weak, brittle bones from lack of calcium. He was also extremely underweight. After a few months with his new family, though, he had been nursed back to health.

Well, he was nursed back to…as healthy as he could be. There's no way to "fix" brittle bones, and one by one Gari's teeth started rotting out of his mouth. The teeth weren't very strong, so they would slowly develop infections which spread down to his jaw. He was constantly back to the veterinary hospital to be put through oral surgery and rounds of antibiotics that can be fatal to rodents. After all that, he eventually succumbed to the inevitable and his infections spread to his kidneys, which failed.

tatarstan

Essentially this guy – who brought a lot of joy to a lot of people beyond his family – was killed by the ignorance of his first owner. And that's where I'm going with all of this. I can't stand seeing people adopt pets, particularly of the "exotic" variety, without having a clue how to care for them. They see something on Buzzfeed and decide they want a cat or dog or reticulated python or bobcat or capybara so they rush out and buy one. Then they have revelations like, "It turns out that pythons are 15 feet long as adults" or "Gee, this 150 pound rodent eats about $20 of food per day" and they end up releasing the animal or slowly killing it through negligence. It's sad and it's cruel.

Don't do that. An hour of internet research by someone who wanted a capybara could have added five years to his life, and he would have brought a lot of people (myself included) a lot of happiness over that time.

FATALLY FLAWED

Posted in Ed vs. Logical Fallacies on February 20th, 2014 by Ed

In more than a decade of writing posts here you've had numerous opportunities to hear me state that if I could change one thing about this country, I would require every voting adult to take and pass a course in basic logic. Nothing terribly advanced or difficult, but a course with actual rigor. All that "rigor" means here is that one could not fluke or finagle one's way into passing; it would be necessary to understand the material.

Think of how much more palatable our society would be with even a small increase in the percentage of the population capable of making logical arguments and identifying illogical ones. Again, I'm not talking about creating a nation of formal logicians here – just people who could look at statements to the effect of, "Autism is usually diagnosed after children are vaccinated, therefore autism is caused by vaccination" and think, "Hmm, that is not a valid conclusion."

I should temper my earlier criticism of the Bill Nye-Creation Museum spectacle posing as a "debate" earlier this year. I still contend that it was ineffective at doing much beyond allowing "Intelligent Design" mouthbreathers to pretend that they are worth taking seriously. However, the debate and some of the absolutely cringe-inducing responses like the "Questions from Creationists" meme gave me some useful insight into the problems with the way people in this country reason. This has nothing to do with logical fallacies, although there are plenty of those to go around. The problem is that millions of Americans do not understand even the most basic components of reasoning.

Start from the very beginning: deduction and induction. Four centuries after Bacon and Descartes, it still hasn't sunk in. This is deduction:

:Bob is a Mormon
:Mormons don't drink alcohol
= Bob doesn't drink alcohol

Deduction is painfully simple, yet we can't seem to get it. For the conclusion to be valid, both premises have to be true. Lots of people skip that part. The premises and conclusion are not transitive, either:

:Bob is a Mormon
:Bob doesn't drink alcohol
= Mormons don't drink alcohol

See, that doesn't work at all. That's an attempt to turn deduction (from the general to the specific) into induction (from the specific to the general). Induction is even more difficult for Americans to grasp because by its nature it can never produce 100% certain conclusions. In the above example, the conclusion is in fact true. However, the two premises do not provide sufficient evidence to support the conclusion; we don't know that Mormons don't drink simply because Bob is one and he doesn't drink. If we had never heard of Mormonism before and knew nothing about it, that inductive conclusion would be tenuous at best.

That is not to say that inductive reasoning is always so flimsy – and this is where the skepticism about evolution ("It's just a theory!") comes into play. An inductive conclusion can be useful even when it is "only" 99.99% supporting. For example, "Every fish lives in water, therefore the next fish discovered will live in water" is inductive but highly reliable. It's possible, theoretically, that the next species of fish will be different from every other. It sure isn't likely, though. Similarly, "My window is broken and my valuables are gone; therefore my house was burglarized" is pretty darn reliable. I mean, it's possible that there is some other explanation (Aliens vaporized my property and then a random person threw a rock through the window on the same day) but it certainly is not a likely or even plausible one.

And the problem here as it relates specifically to Evolution is that it is an inductive conclusion. It is very, very reliable but we can't replicate human evolution in a lab or show a video of it happening. That some alternative explanation like creationism can be proposed and cannot be refuted with 100% certainty is all the ammo that creationists need. They demand that evolution is 100% reliable to be treated as the truth while of course believing in God and whatnot without being able to construct an inductive argument that can get within spitting distance of reliability.

That's what so many people fail to understand: that plenty of valid, reliable conclusions are less than 100% reliable because it is not possible for inductive arguments to be 100% reliable. And whenever it suits their biases and personal beliefs, people tend to demand 100% reliability from conclusions they choose not to believe before lowering the bar to about an inch off the ground for whatever tortured nonsense they are motivated to believe. That's how evolution or climate change are Just a Theory while supply side economics and the existence of god are ironclad facts.

NEXT LEVEL SKULL AND BONES

Posted in Quick Hits on February 19th, 2014 by Ed

Too wiped out to write what I planned to write for Wednesday, but do make sure you check out the NY Mag piece by a reporter who sneaked into Wall Street's most secret fraternity during its annual induction of new sociopaths.

As I walked through the streets of midtown in my ill-fitting tuxedo, I thought about the implications of what I’d just seen.

The first and most obvious conclusion was that the upper ranks of finance are composed of people who have completely divorced themselves from reality. No self-aware and socially conscious Wall Street executive would have agreed to be part of a group whose tacit mission is to make light of the financial sector’s foibles. Not when those foibles had resulted in real harm to millions of people in the form of foreclosures, wrecked 401(k)s, and a devastating unemployment crisis.

The second thing I realized was that Kappa Beta Phi was, in large part, a fear-based organization. Here were executives who had strong ideas about politics, society, and the work of their colleagues, but who would never have the courage to voice those opinions in a public setting. Their cowardice had reduced them to sniping at their perceived enemies in the form of satirical songs and sketches, among only those people who had been handpicked to share their view of the world. And the idea of a reporter making those views public had caused them to throw a mass temper tantrum.

"Completely divorced themselves from reality" sounds about right. At least the likes of Frick, Cooke, Morgan, and Old Man Rockefeller had no illusions about being anything other than loathsome bastards.

FLORIDA MAN

Posted in Quick Hits on February 17th, 2014 by Ed

It's possible to beat Florida when considering in isolation any of the things that make a state terrible. For pure racism, there's Mississippi and most of Boston. For robber baron economics as a matter of state policy, there's Texas. For anti-immigrant xeno-racism, there's Arizona. For lunatic Bible thumpers with access to power, there's the Oklahoma-Nebraska-Kansas troika. For third-world looking urban blight, there's Ohio. For corruption, there's Illinois. But no state in this union can match Florida's ability to be close to the worst in every one of these categories simultaneously. Why be great at one thing when you can be really good at everything. In that sense, no state can top Florida for pure shitshow entertainment. It's like a cabaret act of backwardness; it's democracy's meth lab.

Any state with a law that legalizes shooting someone else with no legal burden on the shooter beyond asserting that he or she felt threatened is locked in a permanent struggle to top its own insanity. In that light, the only thing surprising about the verdict in the "loud music" shooting trial – beyond the fact that the middle-aged white shooter was actually found guilty of something – is that it makes even less sense than the Bath Salts guy eating faces.

I'm not a lawyer and I understand that the outcomes of trials are not always logically consistent. That is, they can lead to outcomes that seem illogical but make sense to those who understand all of the intricacies of the law involved in a specific case. While judges and juries can punt on logic, however, verdicts do have to be legally consistent. And I am struggling with all of the powers available to my tiny non-lawyer brain to figure out how a man opens fire on an SUV with four passengers, kills one, and is found not guilty of murder but guilty of attempted murder for the remaining three. When multiple charges come from a single act by the defendant, I don't understand how that act can simultaneously be attempted murder but not a successful attempt at murder.

This is on the jury, plain and simple. There is at least one person in that group of 12 Floridians who voted three times to convict Dunn of attempted second-degree murder yet he or she found the defendant not guilty of murder (first- or second-degree) or manslaughter. That…that is not possible. That is to assert, in non-legal jargon, that he committed a felony against the three teens whom the bullets missed and committed no crime against the one he managed to hit.

For playing loud music. But I digress.

If anyone out there can explain how this is even remotely plausible, I'm all ears. On the plus side, the judge declared a mistrial only on the murder charge so Dunn is going to prison on the attempted murder convictions regardless. We can only hope he cells with one of the tens of thousands of black men railroaded into Florida's prisons.

Well done, Florida. I don't know how the case with the guy murdering a movie patron for texting will top this. But I bet Florida finds a way.

DEATH KNELL

Posted in Rants on February 16th, 2014 by Ed

Most issues in politics are contentious, but not not all of them are contested. Some issues have been effectively won by one side. The issue of gun control, for example, might as well be declared over since Heller and the non-response to Newtown. You need not like the NRA or buy their arguments to recognize that they've won on the issue. They've won in Congress, in court, and in the realm of public opinion (Most Americans' positions on the 2nd Amendment consist of verbatim NRA talking points). Anti-gun groups will continue to fight when the opportunity arises, but doing so serves a symbolic function at best. The outcome is predetermined.

I think it's time to add the battle to save American labor unions to that list of lost causes.

If you've been following the efforts to unionize Volkswagen's Chattanooga plant – Autoblog's coverage has been extensive and remarkably impartial – you understand that the Detroit Free Press is being charitable by describing the No vote as a "devastating defeat" for the UAW. The auto industry has been migrating southward for decades, lured to places like Chattanooga by massive subsidies, lower wages, and a docile, anti-labor workforce. The Chattanooga plant was the UAW's first major campaign to unionize a Southern plant. Volkswagen is unusually pro-union (Chattanooga is its only non-union plant in the world, and the No campaign was led not by the company but by the usual rogue's gallery of right wing bagmen and sycophants). Despite the favorable setup, or at least a setup as favorable as any likely to be found in the South, the drive failed – 712 opposed and 626 in favor with 89% of eligible workers participating.

The UAW and the other once-mighty industrial unions in this country have been in decline for four decades as a result of a combination of factors including anti-union rhetoric from the right, mainstreaming of a "business friendly" attitude toward regulation and the labor market, overseas competition, and the restructuring of tariff and trade policies to make it appealing to manufacture in low wage countries. Had the UAW been able to declare victory at Chattanooga, they might have had a chance to establish a foothold in the rapidly growing Southern auto industry. Hyundai, Honda and Mercedes are in Alabama. Nissan and Toyota are in Mississippi. BMW is in South Carolina. Kia has a nation-sized complex in rural western Georgia. To be able to unionize in Chattanooga and arm future campaigns with the fact that the UAW did not spell the end of all life in Tennessee as right wingers claim would have been a boon. Instead the UAW appears to have lost its last, best chance to stop the bleeding.

The efforts by Republican bottom feeders to sway the outcome of the vote were vile even by their standards. TN state legislators were making the most bizarre of threats – to vote to end tax breaks for VW, as if that is something Republican state legislators are interested in or capable of doing. Bob Corker, aiming to prove that he is a shitheel of historic proportions, violated Federal labor law by announcing on the first day of the vote that he had "secret information" about VW planning to expand the plant if only the UAW could be kept out. In reality VW has been planning to expand in Chattanooga for years, as anyone who follows the auto industry even casually knows, in order to satisfy demand for the Passat and new CUV models to meet the company's ambitious new global sales goals.

In reality I think the efforts of the Peanut Gallery to manipulate the vote were meaningless. Auto plants are popping up all over the South specifically because the local workforce is anti-union and they don't need any last second shenanigans from Bob Corker to prejudice them against the UAW. Besides, everyone in that factory knows damn well that VW is at capacity and will be expanding it soon. It is informative to see how mendacious and low class Republican elected officials are willing to be in the context of a labor organizing effort, but I honestly believe that this vote, prior to which VW provided the UAW with open access to the Chattanooga facility to campaign directly to the workforce, reflects the desires of the people who voted. The anti-union leanings of the labor pool in a place like Chattanooga is one of the selling points of the South, after all.

The question is not where the UAW goes from here, because it is perfectly clear where the UAW is going. It will continue along the same path it has been traveling since the 1970s, losing membership to attrition, age, and the shifting political wind. Union membership seems to hit a new record low in the U.S. labor force every year and it's hard to see how that trend is going to be reversed. The Democrats do little more than pay lip service to organized labor. Republicans are almost cartoonishly vicious in their opposition to the idea. And the average American has absorbed enough anti-union rhetoric over the last thirty years that I can't fathom how even to begin to dislodge any of it. If the UAW even exists in another thirty years it will be as a shell of itself. I wouldn't argue with an assertion that it already is, for that matter.

If Chattanooga didn't work, Mississippi and Alabama and South Carolina certainly aren't going to work. I'm a proponent of organized labor and unionization but realistically I think it's a lost cause at this point. Our working conditions, wages/benefits, and standard of living are going to have to sink much lower, unfortunately, before the unions can start fighting back with a chance to win. Don't worry. We'll get there soon enough with this attitude that we'll be better off if everyone earns less.

NPF: FIFTY SHADES OF SHIT

Posted in No Politics Friday on February 14th, 2014 by Ed

OK, for obvious reasons I've never read Fifty Shades of Grey. I understand that it's horrible and that it is aimed at the lowest common denominator and that it is basically just bad internet slash-porn of the type and quality one would find on a BBS in the last 1990s. But seeing actual excerpts from the book, even in Can You Believe This Shit format, is a mind-blowing experience. Like, I knew it wasn't a good book but honestly it's hard to believe this is real.

How many hours did the author spend combing thesauruses for synonyms for "said"? Just say "He said" like a normal person. No one "muses."

How did people even masturbate to this?