WILD BEASTS

Posted in Rants on February 13th, 2014 by Ed

It didn't take long for an NFL player reacting to the coming out of Michael Sam – you know, the best defensive player in the best conference in college football – to bust out the old Shower Time chestnut. You know, that the fundamental obstacle to having a gay guy in professional sports is that he will be ogling all those studs in the shower. In fairness, the player who said it seems to have an idea of how stupid it was, appearing on CNN to clarify that he is "A-OK" with having a gay teammate. But this is the original statement:

"I think that he would not be accepted as much as we think he would be accepted," Vilma told NFL Network. "I don't want people to just naturally assume, like, 'Oh, we're all homophobic.' That's really not the case. Imagine if he's the guy next to me and, you know, I get dressed, naked, taking a shower, the whole nine, and it just so happens he looks at me. How am I supposed to respond?"

He started out so well. It's absolutely true that, "he would not be accepted as much as we think he would be accepted." Certainly he's going to encounter people who don't want to accept him during this saga. But dammit, we all knew that the Shower Time thing would be brought up. It was just a question of when and by whom. Here's the problem with the whole "How can we let a gay guy be around naked straight guys? Or even clothed ones? Won't he be checking us out, like, constantly?" line of thought.

This is the exact same argument made by people who think that if a woman is dressed a certain way or behaves a certain way, it is all but impossible for a man not to have sex with her. The claim that "men will be men" and "you know how men are" is made by men who presuppose that all men are devoid of self control. It's an argument that is made to justify sexual assault yet somehow it ends up being even more insulting to men than it is to women. If a women flirts with a guy, how is he supposed to not have sex with her? Most of us realize that, despite the ironclad logic in play here, it's remarkably easy.

You know what I do for a living. In this line of work, I am constantly in proximity of young women. Many of them are quite attractive and/or in various states of undress (Perhaps that is just the Old Person in me being shocked at what The Kids wear out of the house these days). According to Shower Time theory, I should not be capable, as a Man, of keeping my eyes and hands to myself and my mouth shut. I should be pinching asses and catcalling (I'm not really sure how; maybe a Sideshow Bob-esque, "Capital knockers, madame!") because how can you expect otherwise from Men when you dress like that?

Oddly enough, however, I've spent a decade as a heterosexual male in this profession and somehow I – and 99.9% of my male colleagues – manage to avoid ass-grabbing and Hey Babying and all the other things that according to victim-blaming logic we should be incapable of avoiding around women. It's a miracle. Somehow I understand that there is a particular manner of conducting myself in a professional environment that is expected. It's almost like I'm not a tiny child or a drooling sex-crazed animal!

The Shower Time hypothetical assumes that, as a man, Michael Sam is incapable of controlling his sexual urges; that if he sees an attractive man (plenty of those in the NFL, obviously) he will be overcome with lust and end up grabbing asses, making suggestive comments, and staring in abject wonder at the naked bodies around him. It's easier to assume that a gay man in a locker room will be like a kid on (sexy) Christmas morning than to pause, think for a moment, and realize that he is an adult who is capable of understanding basic concepts like "Don't fuck your co-workers" or "I am here to work, not flirt" or "This straight man would not appreciate it if I told him he has a sexy wang."

So to anyone losing sleep at the thought of showering or undressing in the vicinity of a gay man, take comfort in the fact that he's seen a lot of male bodies in his life and somehow, some way, he has managed to not have sex with the overwhelming majority of them.

FOLLOW THROUGH

Posted in Rants on February 11th, 2014 by Ed

Hey! Remember that entire session of Congress – hell, practically an entire calendar year – the GOP spent threatening to force the country to default on its debt and cause a global financial crisis the likes of which the world has never seen? Boy that sure was entertaining, at least to the Teabagger moneymen and the media that covered it breathlessly around the clock.

Well, on Tuesday the House GOP proposed a clean debt limit increase. That is, they did the exact opposite of what they spent a year claiming they would do (and, importantly, exactly what they did for George W. Bush nineteen times). The fact that it's an election year certainly has something to do with it. The fact that they obviously had no intention whatsoever of ever following through on their we'll-kill-the-hostages threat probably has a lot more to do with it.

The troubling thing is that the series of threats, grandstanding, and political Kabuki theater that defined the non-crisis throughout 2013 was front page, screaming headline news. The complete and total surrender that Tuesday's vote represents was barely a blip. Maybe a paragraph on Page 10. We're too busy talking about ice and dead actors. It would seem worthwhile and newsworthy, one would think, to tell viewers and readers, "So it turns out that all of that sound and fury last year was complete, unvarnished bullshit." Maybe that could even be followed up with something like, "Next time they pull this, likely in 2015, we should remember that they're liars and charlatans. While we're at it keep in mind that if you keep electing these people, one day there might be enough lunatics to go through with it."

That wouldn't be Fair and Balanced, though. Both Sides, bipartisanship, compromise, blah blah blah.

This is among the most serious problems with a for-profit media addicted to Breaking News: there is no follow through whatsoever. The first wave of alarmist and often incorrect coverage is all we get. After 72 hours they've moved on to something else and we never hear, for example, "Oh by the way, remember that Benghazi thing? Turned out to be total bullshit. None of that orgy of speculation and accusation turned out to be true." That would be useful to know, right? Instead we have a political and media environment wherein the only thing that matters is making the accusation; eventually you'll be exposed, but the first part is all anyone will hear.

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TANTRUMS

Posted in Quick Hits on February 11th, 2014 by Ed

So my city lost all water service for about 6 hours today. It is back on but we've been advised not to drink or wash in it for 36 hours without first boiling it. Oh, and the city ran out of salt and money to pay the city workers overtime to drive the plows, so our accumulated 8-10" of snow (it hasn't been above freezing in weeks) is turning into a solid, packed-down 3" crust of ice and rock hard snow. Oh, and when I walk to work Tuesday morning the air temperature is predicted to be -11 F.

I mention this as a way of saying "Fuck this place, I'm going to bed" and abrogating my responsibilities for the evening.

It's amusing to watch how much we – and I include myself pointedly here – throw hissy fits when our modern conveniences are taken away. Is this really that big of a deal? Is there not a water boil order in effect every day for like 70% of the world's population? Take away our water or power (or, god forbid, the internet) for a few hours and we act like we're in a walled city under siege, reduced after months of starvation to eating weeds and wallpaper glue.

Of course it's not a matter of what is absolutely essential but of what we are accustomed to. In my case I am bitchy enough to begin with at the prospect of getting up at the crack of dawn to go to work; adding any layers of inconvenience, however trivial, to that process is more than sufficient to raise my hackles.

I think this is what the kids call a first world problem.

PERSONAL WEAKNESS

Posted in Rants on February 9th, 2014 by Ed

There are two things that drive me crazy about the frenzy of attention that follows celebrity deaths. One is the ludicrous efforts of self-centered people to make it about themselves somehow – it turns out that Don Cornelius was actually the most important person in their life because they watched Soul Train 20 years ago and thus they are grieving. The second is the death being yet another opportunity for (usually) right-wing loudmouths to lecture us on the decedent's responsibility for his own demise and how, as a vastly better person, the speaker would never follow the same course of action.

I had zero real feelings about the death of Phillip Seymour Hoffman; he was a fine actor and I enjoyed some of his movies. However, when I heard that the police found him with a needle in his arm I hated him for a brief moment – not because I am judging his actions, but because I knew that I had about three days of "Drug addicts are weak people, good riddance" to look forward to. People who can't stop talking about how smart and wonderful they are can lay off the unemployed for a few days and talk about how they're too strong of character to succumb to the addictions of the poor and weak.

I consider myself fortunate that I don't have problems with addiction. Despite the blog name I am not a heavy drinker and I was never cool enough to be into drugs, so aside from an inability to open a pint of ice cream without eating the entire fucking thing I have no ability to empathize with what a heroin addict experiences. Nonetheless, I feel about addiction the same way I feel about poverty, which is a paraphrase of a Bill Hicks bit. It can happen to anyone; all it takes is the right bar, the right friends, and the wrong woman.

That's a comedy punchline, not to be taken literally. The reasons people get started down the road to addiction are varied and obviously it's not all about relationships gone wrong. The premise is sound, though. While empirical research suggests that some people may be more prone to chemical addiction than others, I see it as a "There but for the grace of god go I" issue. Just as the same people who condescend the poor, unemployed, and homeless fail to realize that they're about three misfortunes away from poverty themselves, talking about addiction as a sign of personal weakness sounds like a combination of raw ignorance, an inflated sense of self, and more than a bit of denial.

If it makes you feel better to revel in a celebrity death because it gives you a chance to talk about how much better you are as a person, then go nuts. Who am I to tell you how to overcompensate for your fear of mortality. It is important to recognize that you're fooling no one but yourself, though. If you're a true believer who honestly believes the nonsense about your own superiority, we'll be here waiting when you learn the hard way that this sort of thing can happen to anyone.

People hooked on drugs are sick. Neither prison nor your condescending lectures are going to help.

NPF: HERE BE DRAGONS

Posted in Uncategorized on February 6th, 2014 by Ed

OK, so this isn't entirely devoid of politics. It's just a little, though, in keeping with the spirit of NPF.

You know that I have a strong interest in maps and geography, and a lot of what I actually get paid to do involves GIS. So it was with great pleasure that I read this interview on Wired's MapLab with the head of the US Geographic Information Unit. It sounds boring, right? And then you see the guy and you think, my god, this is going to be the most boring thing ever.

Not pictured: Excitement

Not pictured: Excitement

Power through your skepticism and read it. He has some rather neat stories to tell about the role of mapping in U.S. foreign policy. When nations disagree about a border or the name of a geographic feature, how does the State Department avoid hurting anyone's feelings?

One case I worked on that was kind of fun involves a tiny island off the coast of Morocco. It’s very close to shore and very, very small. But about 11 years ago Morocco sent a few troops there and Spain swooped in with helicopters and expelled them and it became a big deal.

[Then-Secretary of State] Colin Powell was asked to mediate the conflict. [In Powell's plan] everyone was going to leave the island, with no prejudice as to who it belonged to. They drew up an agreement but the problem was the name. The Spanish wouldn’t use the Moroccan name and the Moroccans wouldn’t use the Spanish name.

I was at a dinner party that Saturday night and I got a call from the Secretary’s staff saying that instead of a name they wanted to use the coordinates for that island. So I showed them how to get on a database and do that. I could hear the Secretary in the background saying, “Ask him how accurate those coordinates are.” They’re not totally accurate, but there’s no island nearby with which it could possibly be confused. So the documents he drew up for the mediations referred to “the island and such and such coordinates” and those documents had to be signed by the prime minister of Spain and the king of Morocco by midnight that same day.

The prime minister of Spain signed, no problem. But they had to send a high speed car looking for the king of Morocco. This was in the days before cellphones were prevalent. So they caught up to him and he basically had to pull over at some house and say, “Excuse me, I’m your king, could I use your phone?” He called up Powell and asked him to read the document, which he immediately agreed to. So that was a big deal, and my small part in it was to provide those coordinates. It’s a great example of how geographic names matter.

Clever. So the old saying is true and it's impossible to offend either a Spaniard or a Moroccan with coordinates.

SCREAMING AT A WALL

Posted in Quick Hits on February 5th, 2014 by Ed

So is everyone satisfied that debating a creationist about creationism at The Creation Museum, prominently displaying a man riding a dinosaur, is a waste of time? Was it everything you hoped, hearing a stupid person who believes that the Earth is 6000 years old make a bunch of nonsense arguments? Isn't it fulfilling to see a man attempt to take seriously another man who is utterly incapable of either logic or shame?

Part of the problem here is that most of us are raised to Be Nice about religion and religious people. In general this is good advice. However, this is counterproductive with fundamentalists. The pseudo-noble desire to Listen to Both Sides and to give their point of view a fair hearing quickly crumbles under the weight of the utter stupidity, in terms of historical and scientific accuracy, of their beliefs. Not their belief in god or in Christianity, but in their Beliefs about things that are actually empirically testable facts. There is no point in, and nothing to be gained by, debating someone who has "beliefs" about things that are matters of fact.

What Bill Nye did on Tuesday evening was to dignify a ludicrous argument from ludicrous people with a debate, serving largely to give creationists a platform to throw their bullshit at a large audience and to generally create the impression that this issue is up for debate. The odds of someone being persuaded by the logic of Mr. Nye's argument seem to be lower than the odds of some gullible professional skeptic – the kind that buys into 9-11 conspiracy theories because of a 3-minute YouTube video – being persuaded by a snippet of "But radiocarbon dating is unreliable!" water-muddying from a group that combines the smugness of lobbyists with the terrifyingly dead eyes of a religious zealot.

SMALL BUSINESS OPPORTUNITIES

Posted in Quick Hits on February 4th, 2014 by Ed

I'm late to the game on this one – a bizarrely not-terrible NRO piece about Appalachia called the "Big White Ghetto", which any visitor to eastern Kentucky or West Virginia can confirm it most certainly is. It's a good, predictable "Yep, poverty is pretty awful" piece that does a good job of exploring why these areas are so screwed; namely, skilled workers leave because there are no jobs and no jobs will come because there are no skilled workers.

Imagining the average National Review reader walking through this piece is entertaining, as though what rural Kentucky really needs is Mitt Romney and Sean Hannity to show up and tell everyone to hurry up and start a small business. Isn't that always the answer to everything? Well, that and tax cuts. And even Republicans realize that there aren't enough tax incentives in the world to get someone to create a bunch of jobs in a remote, dilapidated coal town. The small business fetish – It's at once a panacea for what is wrong with America and a symbol of all that is great about it – is funny when placed in this context.

If you wanted to open a small business in the town described in that article, what would it be? Are you going to open a restaurant or coffee shop? Clothing boutique? Artisan manufacturing? No, you're not going to do any of that in a town where half the population is living on $500/month in government assistance. You're going to open one of the businesses you see in poor, run-down neighborhoods everywhere: bar/liquor store, pawn shop, convenience store, or payday lender. The only way you could make any money off of a small business in this place would be to do something that exploits the hopelessness, ignorance, and desperation of the people who haven't had the ability or good sense to leave.

Talk about vicious cycles; in the perfect conservative dream world, all of these people pull themselves up by the bootstraps and, since there are no jobs to be had even for the skilled and motivated, start their own businesses. And the only ones who succeed will be those who sell something that perpetuates the world of poverty, substance abuse, petty crime, and hopelessness in which they live. It's unlikely to be a coincidence that the residents just voted to legalize alcohol sales in the formerly "dry" county. Talk about growth industries.

NOTHING TO SEE HERE

Posted in Rants on February 3rd, 2014 by Ed

The Week has a very informative, concise overview of the water problems that are becoming more central to the lives of Southwesterners. There are some amazing facts here, both positive and negative. I had no idea, for example, that Arizona is currently using the same amount of water as in 1955 despite its population having grown 1000% since then. I've written a number of times about the folly of building megacities in a desert and the explosive population growth in places like Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Southern California. But this isn't a problem limited to the Southwest; the Deep South has experienced similar population growth and major cities like Atlanta will be out of water in a decade or two as well unless drastic changes occur.

There's a macabre element to all of this from the perspective of a Midwesterner. As the country points and laughs at the crumbling once-great cities of the Rust Belt – More Detroit ruin porn! More Cleveland jokes! More potshots at Buffal…well, ok, Buffalo sucks. – will they be laughing in 20 years at the cities and regions they are now rushing to de-populate? The quest for cheap, compliant labor has led the nation's economy to reallocate people to Texas and Alabama and Florida and their neighbors. Will it reallocate them back to Ohio and Michigan when it's 120 degrees in July across Texas? When ten or fifteen more years of drought rob the Sun Belt of the benefit of the sacred "Low cost of living"? There are solutions to a water crisis, albeit expensive ones. Desalination is the current last resort, but I'm taking bets on the first proposal to build a pipeline to move water from the Great Lakes southward.

While American politics and public policy are hardly efficient, we usually manage to do things slightly better than China. Which I mention only because China is years ahead of us on the water crisis front, and their response has fallen just a few steps short of terraforming. Entire rivers are disappearing into massive canals built to funnel water from the pastoral south to the arid north. The "South-North Water Diversion Project" – bonus points for truth in labeling, guys – essentially robs Peter to pay Paul, diverting part of the Yangtze to replenish rivers in the north that have long since been bled dry. Interestingly, the Soviet Union once considered and partially implemented a similar project only to abandon it when they realized it was a disaster in the making. Hopefully the United States can come up with a slightly less terrible idea than shipping water south.

In the end what may save this country from doing something equally stupid is not forethought but the staggering costs. China has sunk over $100 billion into its project, and canals/pipelines/etc snaked across the country would cost as much if not several times more. Unwilling to pony up the money and faced with weather that is likely to become harsher as climate change intensifies, the next half-century may bring a slow reversal of the north-south migration of the past thirty years. If water becomes expensive and in short supply, many of the economic advantages of flocking southward will disappear and those summers, which will only get longer and hotter, will seem like a much greater cost to bear.

For as much as the media and political class talk about a future with dwindling supplies of oil, I wonder if there isn't a more obvious impending shortage right under our noses.