NPF: FAST FORWARD

Posted in No Politics Friday on August 28th, 2014 by Ed

Fun trivia: the 1976 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria were originally awarded to Denver. Colorado voters turned it down because they thought it would cost too much and the predictions of the revenue that would be generated were overly optimistic. It foreshadowed the modern issue of the inversion of the IOC selection process from cities fighting over the right to host in favor of the IOC struggling to find suitable candidates willing to take it in the financial neck to host games that routinely are monuments to cost overruns and optimism biases. Increasingly the only countries willing to host things like the Olympics and the World Cup are ones with quasi-autocratic national governments that can decide to do things that make no financial sense, or Brazil types that see the huge losses as a marketing fee to show the world that They are Way Cool.

The other major issue with hosting is what to do with the copious (expensive) infrastructure after the games are over. The internet is littered with photo galleries of dilapidated Olympic sites – the ruins of the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics are particularly poignant in light of what happened to that city in the following decade. What is amazing is how rapidly these flashy, expensive, modern sites turn into decrepit ruins. China's $40 billion investment in the Beijing games yielded a number of architecturally significant stadiums that are now white elephants; the only revenue generated by the "Bird's Nest" today comes from itinerant tourists who pay $20 to ride Segways around the Olympic track.

Even though the sad sight of abandoned Olympic infrastructure is by now a familiar one, it is stunning to see the speed with which the Potemkin village build by Putin's Russia in Sochi has fallen into disrepair. Sochi was a disaster from the get-go – like the 1976 Montreal debacle, very little of the construction was actually finished when the games began. What was finished was held up to worldwide ridicule for the shoddy construction and downright bizarre design. And now, even though the Games seem like they just ended a few weeks ago the "city" already looks like Pripyat minus the background radiation count.

With most industrialized nations starting to see hosting the Games for what it is – a classic boondoggle – it's going to be interesting to see where the IOC and similar organizations like FIFA go in the future. My guess is that the 2022 World Cup in Qatar is the beginning of a trend of events being hosted in Flashy Oil Money countries run by gaudy sheikhs. When they get tired of competing to see who can own the most Rolls Royces, they'll turn to building stadiums that will someday be about as useful as an asshole on their collective elbow.

Here's a gallery of former Olympic sites if you feel like your Friday needs to be a little bleaker.

DEATH BY MISADVENTURE

Posted in Quick Hits on August 26th, 2014 by Ed

On Tuesday a 39 year old firearms instructor was fatally shot near Kingman, AZ when the nine year-old girl he was instructing on the use of an Uzi submachine gun lost control of it…while it was on full automatic. This resolves once and for all the question of whether it is a good idea to give a nine year old girl who appears in the linked video to weigh about 20 pounds (note: the video shows only the events leading up to the fatal incident, but does not include the incident itself) a submachine gun set on full auto. The facility, according to the Las Vegas Review Journal, caters to the vacationing yahoo crowd:

KINGMAN, Ariz. — An instructor who was shot by a 9-year-old girl who fired an Uzi at a northwestern Arizona shooting range died Monday night at University Medical Center in Las Vegas.

The girl fired the weapon at the outdoor range that caters to heavy tourism traffic along U.S. Highway 93 between Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon Skywalk.

Highway signage and Internet advertising beckons visitors to stop in, fire a machine gun and enjoy a meal at the Bullets and Burgers enterprise at the Last Stop, about 25 miles south of Las Vegas.

The instructor had, among others, the following hilarious pro-gun images posted on his Facebook wall (h/t Balloon Juice):

cap2

Capture

Charming. Get it? Ha ha. If you don't love guns you're a great big Fag. While it's hard to argue with scientific reasoning of that caliber, I'd rather be Gun Gay than have the coroner's office scrape my cerebral cortex into Ziploc baggies because I wasn't smart enough to realize that a tiny child should not be handed a fully automatic weapon designed for Israeli special forces units.

A+ parenting too, by the way. I'm sure the child will not be haunted by this incident forever because her dad, presumably some d-bag Fox News enthusiast from Seacaucus, thought it would make for hilarious video to allow his nine year old daughter to be given the aforementioned weapon. I guess the prospect pulling off the highway on the way to the Grand Canyon to fire submachine guns screams "family fun." If you're an asshole.

FASHIONABLY READY

Posted in Rants on August 25th, 2014 by Ed

It's a conundrum inherent to being a Responsible Gun Owner. Safety dictates that one's firearms should not be left scattered about loaded and ready for use, but you just never know when you'll need a gun right the hell now. After all, the whole point of having enough guns for a small army and carrying them on one's person is to be ready the instant someone or something needs to be taught a lesson in freedom. How, then, does the responsible gun owner reconcile the need for immediate, ready access with the obvious danger in leaving guns strewn about?

It's pretty easy, pinko. Just buy furniture explicitly designed to conceal firearms.

It locks; Responsible!

It locks. Responsible!

The loyal Americans at New Jersey Concealment Furniture combine a classic Shaker aesthetic with…hidden compartments for guns. Something tells me the Shakers didn't hide many guns around the house, but that's not important right now. What's important is that you hide guns all around your house. So you're never more than a few feet from a gun when al Qaeda / Thugs / the IRS / Janet Reno leaps out of your closet to attack.

nightstand

clock

coatrack

There is also a full sized wardrobe/hutch large enough to fit a total of six rifles or shotguns. For when you're standing in the foyer of your three bedroom colonial in Orland Park, IL and you need six rifles or shotguns. Oh, and if this needed to be said, the clock is available with the 2nd Amendment written on it as an alternative to the Bald Eagle pictured here.

Obviously.

STOCK TAKING

Posted in Quick Hits on August 25th, 2014 by Ed

The older I get, the less satisfied I am with the decisions I've made in life. Despite being gainfully employed and not universally considered a terrible person by those who know me, I can't shake the feeling that I could have turned out a lot better than I did.

Then I see people rallying in the streets to support a white cop who shot an unarmed black teen under still-mysterious circumstances and I feel better. At least I didn't turn out like them. See? It could always be worse. I could be holding up a "We are all Darren Wilson" sign in Ferguson right now or I could be donating money to him along with some choice racist words of wisdom. Maybe I haven't succeeded at anything in life, but at least I don't have thoughts like, "Isn't it time somebody finally stood up for the white power structure?" and then act on those thoughts to let The Man know that I am a good, reliable, authority-worshiping bootlicker who can be counted on to defend that which actively screws us all. At least I'm not a mulleted, scowl-faced piece of white trash hiding virulent racism behind the facade of "support" for someone who has been on paid vacation for two weeks and has the support of every single institution of our society from law enforcement to the media to the courts to (white) public opinion. At least I'm not plastering the internet with excuse after excuse for a white cop shooting an unarmed black teen six times even though it benefits me not one bit to do so other than to reinforce the social order that allows cracker assholes like me to kill black males with impunity because, you know, they're scary and shit.

Cop Bingo

If you want some insight into the mindset that produces this kind of quasi-fascist sucking up among white people who loathe the government with every fiber of their being yet will defend the police to the death, refresh yourself on Adorno's classic The Authoritarian Personality or, for a slightly more recent take, Bob Altemeyer's work on authoritarian followers (and how they can be simultaneously so submissive and aggressive) and Right Wing Authoritarianism is always worth a read. These provide interesting looks into the minds ("minds") of people who want to secede from the United States because Congress passed a health care law but rally to the defense of a cop for actively killing an unarmed citizen.

If we didn't have these deeply unwell people among us we might have to invent them for our amusement.

NPF: SLAPSTICK

Posted in No Politics Friday on August 22nd, 2014 by Ed

While I'm not a big fan of "classic TV" in general – anachronistic shows like Leave it to Beaver are a genuine chore to watch in my opinion – I do have a pretty serious Twilight Zone obsession. In the "suspense" genre there aren't many shows or movies made since 1960 that don't owe it some kind of debt (or, in some cases, ripped off TZ plotlines lock, stock, and barrel). It would be possible and probably enjoyable for a small number of us to spend a year on nothing but daily posts about different TZ episodes and we'd cover just about everything Hollywood knows or ever has known about writing plots that twists and making things that are scary-unsettling rather than scary-"loud noises and fake blood." One thing that it isn't known for, with good cause, is comedy. Ask people to name funny or even pleasant TV shows and Twilight Zone is not going to top anyone's list.

While it is hard to disagree with that characterization, I submit for your consideration Season 3 Episode 13, "Once Upon a Time." Starring Buster Keaton. Not a lot of people would be able to pick Buster Keaton out of a lineup today but prior to World War II he was one of the most famous and popular celebrities on the planet (the end of the silent film era combined with his descent into twenty years of raging alcoholism did him in). In his later life – circa 1950-1960 – he overcame his addiction and the creative world started to recognize his greatness, giving him a lifetime achievement Oscar and a too-brief second act for his career. He would die in 1966 at the age of 70, five years after filming the Twilight Zone episode you see here.

As TZ episodes go the plot here is pretty dull – man travels through time, finds that he is out of place, and gains a new appreciation for the life he lives – but I defy anyone to watch this and not be happy at the end. There are certainly no other TZ episodes, and perhaps no episodes period, that please me as much as this one. The production team absolutely nails the silent film feel, from the jerky film speed to the dialogue cards to the ragtime-y piano. And holy crap, this might be Keaton's masterpiece. He is absolutely flawless here; 65 year old post-alcoholism Keaton somehow gave us one last look at his complete mastery of silent film acting. The physical comedy is impeccable, his deadpan rubbery face conveys more than most actors can in speaking roles, and he is endearing in every possible way.

You may not think much of silent films (although you should give Keaton's The General a shot regardless) but this is the undisputed master of the medium in all his glory, showing everyone that even in his dotage he could be totally dominant. If you watch a bunch of TZ episodes in a row on Netflix or on DVD, this one always comes as a surprise. It's just so different than everything before or after it in the series. While there are some episodes with comedic elements (the clown in "Five Characters in Search of an Exit" comes to mind) there are no other straight-up comedy efforts like this. I've often wondered if perhaps Rod Serling was a huge Keaton fan and simply decided that he was going to give the Old Man one last chance to remind everyone of his greatness even if it made zero sense in the context of Twilight Zone as a series.

I'm glad he did. 24 minutes. Do yourself a favor and watch it.

GUTENBERG DIPLOMA

Posted in Rants on August 19th, 2014 by Ed

A recent report suggests that having a degree from a for-profit college is as good as having no degree at all on the job market. These schools usually offer most or all of their instruction online. This convenience, combined with their reputation for a lack of academic rigor, have made for-profits very popular with working adults seeking career advancement.

I'm on record as being stridently anti-online education and highly skeptical of for-profit colleges in general. Nonetheless I think they have entered the educational arena to serve a valid purpose. I think online degrees are great for anyone who needs an M.A. – any M.A., from anywhere – for career advancement. Cops, military, government bureaucrats, teachers…often they need to show a credential to move up the payscale. So if you want to get a pay-and-print Master's from Strayer University because you can't get bumped up to G-11 without it, great. It's a practical solution to a practical problem.

These degrees understandably lack prestige, though. That is irrelevant if you're only concerned with fulfilling a credential requirement at your workplace. However, online schools have grown rapidly and roped in a lot of working adults (and more traditional college-aged students too) with the pretense of getting a degree for the purpose of being more attractive on the open job market. This is patently silly – everyone knows that a degree from a college that advertises how quickly and cheaply they can sell you one is worth its weight in paper. As the data in this new report show, employers do not think terribly highly of Kaplan University Online when they see it on a resume. Nor should they.

If you actually need or want to learn anything, it goes without saying that an online degree program is going to do about as much for you as reading up on your favorite subjects online in your spare time.

For-profit colleges are the free market response to creeping credentialism. Employers demand degrees for jobs that do not actually require a college degree to do. They make completing post-graduate coursework a requirement for advancement or pay raises (K-12 education is really big on this, hence grade school teachers are a booming market for online schools) even if that coursework is of low quality and does little to improve one's ability to do the job. The new economy is a buyer's market and employers use college degrees as a way to quickly whittle down mountains of applications into manageable piles. And for the un- or under-employed, paying for more school and more degrees is pitched as the obvious solution to their predicament by universities, employers, and the political system alike.

Academia as a whole should do a better job of being upfront and honest with potential students; for-profits are especially deceptive, though. It will be interesting to see in the next decade if this bubble bursts as potential students figure out just how little such degrees are worth on the job market. We already tacitly accept that an online degree program doesn't actually teach you anything, and this fact does not limit their appeal in some circles as long as they continue to be cheap, easy, and convenient. But if we add "worthless" to that equation, even a cheap online degree doesn't make much sense.

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COOL STORY BRO

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

It really isn't my intent to post about this every day, but the release of a surveillance camera video from the store allegedly robbed by Michael Brown has been posted to YouTube. It's impossible to say exactly what's going on there, but it looks an awful lot like Brown pays for cigars, doesn't have enough money for all of them, and throws the ones he can't pay for on the counter and floor. The clerk then comes around, probably to call him a dick for throwing merchandise, and then he shoves him/her and leaves.

That's just my interpretation of it. It happens to be supported by the fact that the clerk didn't call the police or report a robbery. So then why did the police hold a press conference to let everyone know that Violent Thug Mike Brown was a suspect in a "strong-arm robbery"? All that matters now is that white America has been given the narrative it needed to stop giving any shits about what happened. You know, just another story about another Thug (wink!) who pushed a convenience store clerk and therefore deserved to be shot six times later on by a police officer who had no idea that this alleged robbery took place or that Mike "Jaywalker" Brown was supposedly a party to it.

I don't know what it is about this case that makes me want to see the Ferguson PD get it as badly as I do. The more I see how brazen their illegal and cocky behavior is, the more I hope to see them in cuffs in a Federal courtroom. I feel about them the way every baseball fan feels about A-Rod or Barry Bonds: "I hope I'm around to see this jagoff get what's coming to him."

TOY SOLDIERS

Posted in Rants on August 17th, 2014 by Ed

Much of the coverage of the Michael Brown shooting and the borderline psychotic reaction by the local police has focused, justifiably, on the increasing militarization of podunk police forces across the country. The rest of us have been talking about this since the tsunami of surplus hardware started flowing during W's second term, but to the country at large (and media) this is a new phenomenon. Certainly there is some need in major metropolitan areas for a wider array of hardware. The NYPD, for example, should probably have a bigger selection of vehicles and tools than the Pigsknuckle, AR police force simply because the former is going to deal with a much larger and more complex variety of situations. But now we are seeing the consequences of making military hardware available – essentially for free – to anyone who wants it. Turns out that the people who want it also want to use it. Shocking, really, to see that a gaggle of yahoos who thought they needed Mine Resistant armored vehicles and .50 cal sniper rifles to patrol strip malls are eager play with their toys.

Many current and ex-military commentators have noted that "militarized" is a misnomer to describe the police in Ferguson, as the actual military is better trained, better organized, and operates under stricter rules of engagement. They also note that those cops were armed with and wearing far more "toys" than actual soldiers wore to do foot patrols in Iraq. The deadly farce looked bad enough to actually shock a few normally complacent or cop-loving portions of the public. It looked like exactly what it was – a bunch of out of control adolescent bullies playing soldier and showing off that they hadn't a clue what they were doing. That's how you end up with a guy dressed like GI Joe sitting atop a vehicle with a SR-25 sharpshooting rifle (unit cost to the Pentagon: $6000). If the cops actually thought or expected that they would get fired upon, what kind of idiot would sit on top of the truck out in the open? A big one. Or one who knows he isn't actually going to be fired upon and simply wants to intimidate people.

THIS IS HOW THE ARMY DOES IT, RIGHT?

THIS IS HOW THE ARMY DOES IT, RIGHT?

The dead giveaway that the problem in Ferguson is one of the mindset of law enforcement, and that police militarization is indeed a serious problem more broadly, is the widespread wearing of camouflage by the officers. Of what conceivable practical use could green or desert camouflage be in a suburban environment? Gonna help you blend in with the Taco Bell or the liquor store? Even if they did wear something that helped conceal them, that would be counterproductive to the entire purpose of policing in a situation like that; law enforcement wants to be visible to act as a deterrent to violent or property crimes in a public disturbance. There is only one reason those cops would wear camo, and it has nothing to do with practicality. It is an integral part of playing out their Soldier fantasy. It "looks cool." It makes them feel tougher and act more boldly. It cements the idea that they are not cops responsible to Serve & Protect the public; they are soldiers fighting The Enemy, and The Enemy is everyone else.

It is facile to say that "some good" may come of the young man's death if it leads to meaningful law enforcement reform. These events do seem like a tipping point, though, to bring together the Rand Paul right and the Maybe Stop Killing Black Men left to pare back the level of aggression, violence, and firepower used by police across the country. The pipeline of free military hand-me-downs is certain to be curtailed or at least subject to a higher degree of scrutiny, and the question of why cops can have $25,000 worth of body armor and weapons on their person but not a cheap, tiny microphone and/or camera.

PS: Anecdotally, an Afghanistan veteran friend told me that in two tours, he never once leveled (pointed) his weapon at anyone who had not already fired at him, which isn't a surprise given that the Army has actual rules of engagement. Go through the photos and videos from Ferguson and count how many instances you see of a podunk cop pointing a rifle at an unarmed person. I found at least a dozen and I didn't look very hard.

ON ADAM DUNN DOUBLES AND POLICE VERSIONS OF EVENTS

Posted in Rants on August 14th, 2014 by Ed

People have a very difficult time distinguishing between impossible and implausible.

In high school I got into an extended debate with a fellow baseball fan about whether a particular set of circumstances was possible on the field. I argued that it was impossible for a ball to strike the top of the outfield wall without either going over the wall for a home run or back onto the field of play for a hit. It was not possible, in other words, for the ball to hit the top of the wall and then come back down to hit the top of the wall a second time. It simply could not be possible for a ball hit from a great distance at high speed to strike the very narrow top of a wall from a sharp angle of approach (while rotating, by the way) and essentially bounce straight up and down. That would be like flinging a rock into a lake and having it bounce straight up rather than skip or sink. Some laws of physics can't be violated.

Never being the kind to back down (and being friends mostly because we were both awkward nerds) he endeavored to prove me wrong with high school physics and geometry. He put a good deal of time into drawing up a scenario under which the ball could do exactly that – if the wall had exactly x density and was struck at y speed and z angle with the wind blowing inward at b miles per hour, the ball could do exactly that. While not confident in his 15 year old mastery of physics nor my ability to pick out the potential flaws in his argument, I relented. It was not strictly impossible – just highly unlikely.

It has been many years since we spoke, but I bet that my friend and fellow White Sox fan remembered our adolescent dispute a couple weeks ago when, giving the finger to physics and common sense, Adam Dunn mashed a ball that hit the top of the wall. Twice. And then returned to the field.

Some things are impossible; they literally cannot be done, like fitting a square peg through a round hole (provided the width of the square is not smaller than the diameter of the circle, pedants). But most things, even the ones we ordinarily think of as impossible, are merely implausible. This causes a pair of problems that have, over time, birthed a million conspiracy theories and plain bad arguments.

First, people have a tendency to conclude that if something is highly implausible it is not possible. For example, it is quite implausible that on 9-11, three lightly trained terrorist-pilots who had never previously flown real airliners could steer them into stationary targets including the Pentagon, which is less than ten stories (75 feet) tall. It strains belief. The odds against it must be large. But it happened. The Truthers, however, have seized upon the improbability of the chain of events to bolster their argument. Since it is unlikely to have happened, it couldn't have happened.

Second, people tend to do the opposite as well and argue that as long as something is not impossible, it is a perfectly useful explanation of events. And any argument that can't be 100% ruled out is as good as any other, according to the world's most annoying motivated reasoners. For example, oh, I don't know…if it's possible that an unarmed black kid decided to try to get the gun away from a cop – so he could, I guess, kill him? That was the plan? Kill the cop? – then that version of events is the perfectly correct one for people who really want to believe in a chain of events that exonerates the police.

In short, when all available evidence suggests that x happened, the fact that x is implausible is irrelevant. Conversely, when all available evidence suggests that x didn't happen, the fact that x is plausible rather than impossible doesn't bolster the argument. Logic doesn't care how likely or unlikely things "seem."

Is it possible than in a moment of panic, an unarmed teen with no criminal record decided that he would lunge for a cop's gun when the officer told him to walk on the sidewalk instead of the street. I mean, that could feasibly happen. For something so highly implausible to emerge as the definitive account of the events, though, would require a good deal of supporting evidence. When the tale goes contrary to all of the available evidence, its implausibility becomes a serious liability.

You believe that Adam Dunn did something really implausible because I showed you a video of it happening. If, instead, I merely told you that I saw it happen, you'd be skeptical. That skepticism would increase if I couldn't produce anyone else who attended the game and claimed to see it. It would all but disappear if a parade of eyewitnesses contradicted me and said that the ball went straight over the wall. At that point, the only way you would believe that it happened is if you had some unusual faith in my honesty…or you really wanted to believe it.

PRECOGS

Posted in Quick Hits on August 13th, 2014 by Ed

This is such an amazingly, staggeringly terrible idea that it is hard to believe anyone would even try it. I mean, it's essentially the plot of Minority Report. Then you think on it for a moment and realize that this is exactly the kind of thing that we were bound to try at some point:

Risk-assessment advocates say it’s a no-brainer: Who could oppose “smarter” sentencing? But Mr. Holder is right to pick this fight. As currently used, the practice is deeply unfair, and almost certainly unconstitutional. It contravenes the principle that punishment should depend on what a defendant did, not on who he is or how much money he has.

The basic problem is that the risk scores are not based on the defendant’s crime. They are primarily or wholly based on prior characteristics: criminal history (a legitimate criterion), but also factors unrelated to conduct. Specifics vary across states, but common factors include unemployment, marital status, age, education, finances, neighborhood, and family background, including family members’ criminal history.

Such factors are usually considered inappropriate for sentencing; if anything, some might be mitigating circumstances. But in the new, profiling-based sentencing regimen, markers of socioeconomic disadvantage increase a defendant’s risk score, and most likely his sentence.

It's pseudoscience at its most dangerous, with the false precision of tables and formulas and point systems coming together to create a matrix of your criminal future. Funny how reactionary assholes are rabidly anti-science and anti-intellectual until someone at the right think tank cooks up a Rube Goldberg machine that produces the exact results they want.