AS YOU WILL SEE, I AM A VERY NICE GUY

Posted in Rants on November 11th, 2014 by Ed

We all know by now the old saw about what happens when someone introduces a statement with "I'm not a racist, but…" and over the last few years I have come to understand that a man self-identifying as "a nice guy" is equally ominous. It makes sense that it would portend something awful. How often is "nice" used in a way that isn't passive aggressive or pejorative? Think about what you mean when you describe another person as nice. You mean they are boring, so boring that you can't think of an actual quality they possess. When you had a "nice time" at something, did you have lots of fun? And in what world would you want to lead by describing yourself to another person as nice? I'm not nice. I'm polite, but in common usage "nice" means saying a lot of flattering things to someone in the hopes that they will do what you want them to do.

The clearest warning sign is that the men who are always telling everyone what Nice Guys they are inevitably fall into one of a small number of categories. Some are young and awkward, too immature to really understand how romantic and sexual relationships work and of the belief that they are owed something by the women of the world for being friendly. Hopefully they grow out of it. Most are the ex-fratboy "Learn How to Pick Up Any Woman!" types who think that they are so much smarter than women, despite all evidence to the contrary, that women will fawn over them in response to 20 minutes of pleasantries and a cocktail. These people are so transparently awful that the phrase Nice Guy, as their chosen descriptor, is indelibly tainted by association.

There's nothing I get a bigger kick out of than the hundreds of posts seen weekly around the internet about men trying to pick up women on dating sites and apps (Tinder, OK Cupid, etc), introducing themselves as Nice Guys, and then immediately going psychotic when their advances do not receive a prompt and positive response. To wit, from Tinder's Finest Bachelors, we have one of the internet's most entrepreneurial and self promoting wizards of pickup artistry going from "I am such a nice guy! You should meet me!" to "You should be happy I am acknowledging your existence you whore" in like, ten minutes. This is curious, as it is not the kind of thing I would classify as Nice nor is it something a legitimately Nice Person would say.

When I lived in Madison, WI I grew wary of the downtown homeless population. Having lived in Chicago I was not shocked to see homelessness, nor am I prone to spiteful reactions toward them. But I learned that some of the homeless people, either due to mental instability or strategic planning, would flip the hell out if you said no when they asked for change. "Have any change?" "No, sorry, not today." "YOU MOTHERFUCKER I AM GONNA RIP YOUR FUCKING THROAT OUT IF I DON'T GET…" etc etc. This made me, unfortunately, apprehensive about interacting with them. Usually I try to treat homeless people like People, looking them in the eye and exchanging words with them rather than trying to avoid them out of shame or whatever. After a couple of them lost their shit on me, though, I became a little more actively evasive.

Being a woman on an internet dating site can't be too different. It's a minor miracle that they talk to any of us, ever.

THE SUSPENSE, IT'S KILLING ME

Posted in Rants on November 10th, 2014 by Ed

It is common knowledge that the newspaper industry is going down the toilet, which is unfortunate for all of us because newspapers provide 90-something percent of the original reporting relied upon by other media. Most of what we read online or see on TV isn't "reporting" per se but re-reporting from major newspapers. We want them to continue to do the hard work but we don't want to pay for it.

This will have more consequences that we realize since smaller papers are usually the first to go, either going under or being purchased by larger media companies and filled with homogeneous wire service content. That means there is essentially no one paying any attention to what local governments are up to, and boy oh boy do local governments get up to some stupid crap. The Chicago Tribune just uncovered a fun little game the Chicago Public Schools played with its bond issues. Due to the district's financial problems, "plain old municipal bonds weren't good enough anymore, and banks were standing by with attractive new options. So…the chief administrative officer at CPS and other officials pushed forward with an extraordinary gamble. From 2003 through 2007, the district issued $1 billion worth of auction-rate securities, nearly all of it paired with complex derivative contracts called interest-rate swaps, in a bid to lower borrowing costs." Shockingly that didn't work, and instead of lowering costs it ended up costing over $100 million dollars more than traditional bonds would have.

In a vacuum this example is not that big of a deal outside of Chicago. What should be keeping us awake at night is the prospect of thousands of Bright Ideas of this variety lurking out there and waiting to blow up in our faces. There is nothing more terrifying than going to a city council meeting or becoming familiar with your local government on some level. You may find some shining examples of public servants here and there; overall, however, the people who have decision-making power at the local level in this country are not terribly bright. And for the most part we have absolutely no idea what they are doing. If they make decisions that affect us directly – putting up red light cameras, for example – we freak out. Not much of what they do is that visible, though.

Given the budget nightmares that city/county governments and school boards have confronted since 2008, we might reasonably shudder to think of how many shortsighted, risky, delusional, or otherwise harebrained schemes they signed off on in the last few years. With most of us (myself included) paying next to no attention to what is going on at the local level, it is highly likely that we'll be seeing plenty more of these little surprises. These are the governmental equivalent of taking payday loans – cash in hand today with the exorbitant costs punted into the future.

I can't wait to see all the disasters on which the clock is currently ticking without our knowledge.

NPF ERRATUM

Posted in No Politics Friday on November 7th, 2014 by Ed

The preceding post might be more enjoyable had I remembered to include the video.

NPF: HORSE WARS

Posted in No Politics Friday on November 6th, 2014 by Ed

As a (hobbyist) drummer I've never understood the fascination with "retro" drums. I get that anything old automatically confers Cool Points upon the owner but drums from the 1960s are, to put it charitably, shit. The metal hardware is beyond flimsy, the shells rarely stay in round, and the (critical) bearing edges often look to have been cut with a butter knife. There are some gems to be found – a day on which everyone at the old Gretsch factory performed flawlessly and they happened to grab the most perfect wood and the strongest lugs and screws – but the quality is wildly inconsistent and generally poor. It's inarguable that while old drums look cooler to a lot of people, the "beginner" drums on the market today are vastly better than the best, most expensive ones made in the 1950s in terms of build quality, design, and sound.

The same is true of cars. Buy the cheapest new economy car available today and you're driving the technological, performance, and safety equivalent of a Rolls Royce from the 1980s. Old cars have a lot of panache and style, and people love them because they are reminders of what most people define as their Good Old Days. But when was the last time you drove a car built in, say, the 1960s or 1970s? They're terrible cars by modern standards. They're loud, primitive, lacking in all but the most rudimentary safety features, and they suck down oil and gas like a Formula 1 racer. They look cool and some of them drive quite well. You wouldn't want to drive one to work every day if you had the option of driving, say, a mid 2000s compact instead, and you certainly wouldn't want to get in an accident in one unless you're weary of life.

I recently came across this Motorweek video of a comparison test between the "Hot Hatches" of the 1986 model year. I daresay some of the older readers found themselves driving one of these vehicles at some point: the Volkswagen GTI, Acura Integra, Dodge Colt Turbo, Toyota Corolla FX16, and Ford Escort GT. As is the case today, these are cars that are intended to be affordable to the average new car buyer but with lively performance emphasized over luxury or interior space. The GTI (many generations down the road, so to speak) is still the most popular car in this segment today.

The most powerful car in that group of five boasts 123 horsepower. This is less than you would get in the most basic transportation type car today – and yet in 1986 these were "performance" cars. For example, pedestrian 2014 offerings like a new Ford Focus (160 hp) or Hyundai Accent (138 hp, and one of the very cheapest new vehicles for sale today) would blow the doors off of 1986's performance compacts. And their gas mileage, safety features, and creature comforts are all significantly better as well.

The lame excuses made by the auto industry for so many years have been exposed in the last few as fuel economy has finally started to improve sharply. For years they claimed that the technology was too expensive, yet every new generation of cars had dramatically increased horsepower. This horsepower arms race means that today even the dullest vehicles on the road (Camrys, etc) can be equipped with 270+ hp engines that would outperform a V8 Corvette or Ferrari from the 1970s. Hell, a modern kid-hauler SUV comes equipped with a more powerful engine than a Ferrari 348 or a 1996 Corvette. And if the technology to offer such an unnecessarily large amount of power can be offered affordably, then better fuel economy is also possible (since equal power can be achieved with successively smaller engines). Only recently have manufacturers started taking advantage of this, offering even expensive luxury cars (Audi A6, BMW 535, Cadillac ATS, etc) with 4-cylinder engines.

Obviously, comparing any technology with its predecessor from 1986 is going to reveal some dramatic changes, but the average (not all that interested in cars) driver has no idea how staggering the increase in power has been over the past two decades. In 1995, Cadillac's full-sized offerings featured 195 hp V8 engines. Today, not only are there engines literally less than half that size producing over 200 hp (VW's 2.0L 4 cyl in the Audi S3 is rated at an insane 296) but the largest Cadillac now comes with a 415 hp V6. What in the name of god the average elderly Cadillac driver needs with 415 hp is beyond me (other than that the rapidly ballooning weight of modern cars, with their frivolous tech toys and heavy safety accommodations) but he can drive with the confidence of a man who would have needed to pay $250,000 for an exotic sports car to get that kind of power in the 1990s.

As much as it pains me to say it, a choice between Steve McQueen's Mustang in Bullitt and a new 2014 Ford Focus would be no choice at all. And the latter could blow him away in a road race anyway.

CAREENING

Posted in Rants on November 6th, 2014 by Ed

Another election, another autopsy of the American electorate.

Here's what we know. Americans generally believe that the minimum wage should be increased, that the War on Drugs is stupid, that draconian prison policies should be scaled back (if for the wrong reasons), and they elected by sizable margins what may be the least likely human beings on the planet to enact policies along those lines.

On the surface it makes no sense, but this pattern is becoming familiar. Democrats do well or something approximating well during presidential elections when a larger share of peripheral voters – younger, poorer, generally disenfranchised, and more cynical voters who can be enticed into voting only with great effort – show up at the polls. Then the midterms roll around and turnout is embarrassingly low, limited mostly to old white people. This certainly contributes to the schizophrenic nature of our elections in comparison to public opinion on major issues, which is generally pretty stable over time. Our preferences don't change dramatically yet the balance of power swings back and forth regularly. Why?

Differences in who turns out across elections are part of the answer. The other is that American voters have extremely limited choices. Third parties, leaving aside the occasional billionaire independent candidates as anomalies, have no realistic hope of winning elections beyond the local level. When people are highly dissatisfied (which they are) and feel that the country is a clustercuss (which it is), what option is there when the Democratic Party appears to be in control than to vote for Republicans? When the GOP has been in charge for a while, what else is there to do but vote for Democrats (see 2006, 2008)?

Unwilling to devote the kind of time and energy it would take to be well informed about the issues and demand decent candidates – not that we could compete with the influence of unlimited and unaccountable money – we have little choice but to mix and match different combinations of institutions of government and the jackwagons that are offered to us on the ballot. The only inherent advantage Republicans have is their superiority at playing the "They're comin' for your guns!" game. With the demographic tide firmly against them, that trick won't work forever. In the meantime we all have to live with the consequences of constantly electing people who are hellbent on doing things large majorities of us find either reprehensible or merely stupid.

DEFAULT

Posted in Quick Hits on November 3rd, 2014 by Ed

At a dinner with some of my colleagues last week someone mentioned the fact that many of the crime alerts on campus – our university police are particularly aggressive about sending out alerts/updates to counter the perception, and frankly reality, that we are in a high crime area – turn out to be fabricated. These are property crimes, not violent or sexual in nature. It struck several of us as odd that students would lie about being relieved of an iPhone by a nighttime mugger.

The problem is that students – particularly the ex-suburban private school type – are more afraid of their parents than they are the law. Or just about anything else for that matter. Despite the fact that these college students are all legally adults, their primary concern is to avoid getting In Trouble with mom and dad. So when Dakota loses her $500 smartphone because she got too wasted on Saturday night to keep track of her limbs let alone her electronics, she has two choices. One is to tell Dad that she lost it. The other is to call the police and say that a black guy took it. They choose the latter and generally I don't imagine that police have a hard time finding inconsistencies in the mugging story (or in the security camera footage that covers more of the area than most people realize).

This is not something that happens daily, mind you, but there have been multiple incidents in the past year. It's a good anecdote to pull out when someone tries to argue that race isn't a thing. Because the "suspect" is always the same. If you want to claim that something was stolen or a crime was committed, what else would you invent but a Black Male, 18-30, tall and slender and wearing a hoodie and baggy pants? It makes sense that college kids are sheltered and do stupid things and in a moment of panic they might make up a story. That's not the alarming part. The alarming part is that well-off and mostly white college kids instinctively know that if you're going to invent a crime, the best faux-perpetrator is the person everyone already thinks is a criminal anyway.

SKIN IN THE GAME

Posted in Rants on November 3rd, 2014 by Ed

Over the past year or two I've used this forum for a terrible confession a few times: that following the minutiae of elections and domestic politics no longer holds much appeal for me. In the past I've devoted considerable time and space to covering Senate races, for example, but this year it felt even more pointless than usual. What is at stake in this $4 billion election in which neither party has advanced any kind of agenda? The Republicans are running purely on fear and lies and the Democratic game plan is…there isn't one. Obama has completely given up and has disengaged from Congress. Who can blame him, and what reason is there not to follow his example and say "Alright, fuck it"?

There has always been an aspect of voyeurism to politics and elections. Now it feels like the participatory aspect has gone out the window and we are now simply spectators in a battle (or "battle", if you recognize how slender the differences between some pairs of candidates are) fought between complicated legal fictions turning billions of dollars into terrible TV commercials on behalf of corporate interests. It feels like there is nothing at stake and everyone is just going through the motions. Turnout will be abysmal as usual and 2014-16 will rival 1998-2000 in terms of gridlock, pettiness, and absolute futility regardless of what happens on Tuesday.

A handful of gubernatorial races should, in theory, be interesting but we're all so used to punitive austerity and legislative ineptitude at this point that no one even bothers to pretend that our situation will improve depending on which candidate wins. The Republicans are promising to keep destroying everything and the Democrats are doing their usual "We'll do, uh, something different from that, or probably nothing. And isn't nothing better than something bad?" Hard to imagine why nobody cares about participating in this process with incentives like that.

More pointless "showdowns," more pointless Repeal Obamacare votes, more pointless Benghazi investigations, and more nothing happening for months on end while we wait for the odd Supreme Court decision for the rare spectacle of something actually happening. That is what we have to look forward to whether there are 45 or 50 or 55 Republicans in the Senate or whether they add more to their historically awful House majority. This is the new normal and it stretches endlessly before us. And another election in which most of the people who vote are over 55 offers nothing more interesting than the possibility that things will get even worse.

But I'm being a little ambitious. Getting even worse would mean that the election managed to change something. Let's be serious.

NPF: HOW TO BE BILL THE BUTCHER IN 12 STEPS

Posted in No Politics Friday on November 2nd, 2014 by Ed

I haven't done a Halloween costume more than a handful of times in my life but when I do, I prefer to do it right. I didn't go for Total Historical Accuracy or anything – you can, for example, get authentic 1850s pants and a shirt, but they're expensive so I went with basic modern equivalents in the correct color and close enough style.

billbill2

Step 1. Grow a giant beard (Step 0.5 is "Be Eastern European, or possibly Italian.")
Step 2. Carve said beard into sideburns down to the jawline and a handlebar mustache
Step 3. Brown cotton or twill pants
Step 4. Natural henley-type shirt. Cut or rip off the elastic at the wrist. Open the neck.
Step 5. Either make leather knife holsters for a belt or, if you're basically talentless like me, use leather shoelaces to hang butcher-type items from a belt.
Step 6. Be realistic about the fact that no matter how cool it might look, you probably can't walk around outside or in any kind of business establishment brandishing a real meat cleaver and knife.
Step 7. Make a red/white/blue sash either by dyeing a white cotton strip or sewing together colored fabrics
Step 8. Make or buy the appropriate cap. This was the hardest thing to find. I eventually bought an aviator style cap ("Snoopy cap"). Either cut off the chin strap or pin them up inside the lining of the cap.
Step 9. Tie a leather strip around the cap at the brow. This keeps it in place and tight against the head.
Step 10. Use tall brown leather work-type boots, pant legs tucked in. If you're willing to spend insane amounts of money you can get vintage knee-high types.
Step 11. The vest. I had a lot of problems with the vest. Ultimately I bought one, although given time and a sewing machine I think the best option would be to make one to fit your torso. As it was, I safety pinned the vest to eliminate some of the billow and extra material.
Step 12. Ask the Christian Lord to guide your hand against Roman popery. Yell at people a lot.