Posted in Rants on March 15th, 2018 by Ed

This is the wrong moment, culturally, to try to sell a show about police.

Either you paint police in a negative light (or simply in a non-reverent light) and become a culture wars talking point or you fawn all over law enforcement and look like some kind of soft-focusing apologist. Either way, you kind of have to pick your side – and by extension, your audience.

The new Netflix series Flint Town does as good a job as any Rust Belt documentary – either on video or in the numerous anthropological pieces on places that are falling apart in the East Coast-centered media outlets – of making obvious that two truths can exist simultaneously without negating one another:

1. Being a cop in a place like Flint, MI is very close to the worst job on the planet
2. Holy shit are some of the white cops terrifyingly bad human beings and examples of exactly what people hate about police

I highly recommend giving this short series a watch for that very reason. What is happening in Flint is a worse version of something that's very familiar to Rust Belt residents; a story of decline, neglect, and poverty (personal and municipal) creating a toxic stew of mismanagement, crime, and the indefinable but palpable sense of a place going down the drain.

Flint is a city of 100,000 that has no more than nine – nine – police cars out on any given shift. This obviously makes the police feel vulnerable and overworked since violent crime is common in the city and they are on their own the vast majority of the time. From the citizens' viewpoint, this means the average response times for calls range from several hours to a couple days. When you can't get the police to show up for a few hours when you call in a shooting – not some minor "Teen boys fighting in the yard" thing, but people driving up and down the street shooting – it's difficult to imagine what sort of faith could remain in The System writ large.

Add in the very real fact that this same System actively ignored evidence that it was poisoning you to save some money on water and, well, is it hard to believe that Flint people are not exactly waving the American flag and beaming with pride? To a sentient person who thinks about things, their attitude comes off as perfectly understandable. Rational, even.

The African-American cops (at least those included in the series) are, to a person, empathetic. They talk about their jobs and about the city in a way that demonstrates a good grasp of the city's underlying problems. Most of the white cops are no different. But there are some troubling moments with the police as a whole in the series and, well, if you've seen it let's just say there are two cops in particular who don't come off looking very good by the end. It won't exactly surprise you when one of them starts telling the tale of the time he shot and killed an unarmed black guy.

The group scene that is most revealing involves the officer in charge showing the Philando Castile video to a large group of cops the day after it happened. Not surprisingly, every cop in the room immediately starts making excuses to justify it and explain why it was his own fault he got shot. Days later, the officers' reaction to watching the mass shooting in Dallas in which several cops died is dark and somber.

As a viewer it's hard not to feel like a basic problem is the inability of police to feel the kind of sympathy for citizens shot by cops that they feel for themselves as a group. Some guy gets choked to death in broad daylight by a cop? Too bad, he should have complied. But a cop getting shot…well, not a dry eye in the room for that idea.

Worse, the one Really Bad Cop talks repeatedly about how bad the public hysteria about police violence is for a cop's career. You know, one smartphone video of a cop beating up a black guy and just think of that poor cop – public shaming, denied promotions, maybe even getting fired (but probably not). And of course I'm watching this with my own biases about the use of force by police thinking, a cop just fucking killed a guy and you're wringing your hands at how it might keep him from getting a promotion.

And that crystallizes the problem pretty well. The problem is not Bad Apples, which are indeed found everywhere. The problem is the basket that keeps and protects the Bad Apples. You could walk away from the series with the optimists' view that, despite having a clearly horrible and thankless job, almost all of the cops come off as reasonable, balanced people. On the other hand, the cops who come off as narcissistic, bitter, and hostile, though few in number, seem to enjoy the empathy and protection of the rest. Everyone in that room was ready with a handful of excuses when they watched the Castile video, Good cop or Bad cop. Police excel at empathizing with their own kind. And even when as individuals they are capable of showing empathy for the people being Policed, that feeling appears to be superseded by the Blue Code when their group identity is under fire.

The most refreshing moment was a cop watching the Rodney King video and explaining why it was "bad police work." It marked maybe the first time in my life I've heard a cop admit that some other cops might be shitty at their job. At the same time, Bad Cop is full of explanations about the King video being "edited" so you "couldn't see the whole story," which is an excuse that was popular from the moment the incident drew national attention. It's too bad none of the police could watch a video that isn't 25 years old and come to a similar conclusion, like watching the Eric Garner video and concluding that using a WWE chokehold, which is against any written policy you're likely to find for a law enforcement agency, isn't a shining example of good police work.

Until the culture of law enforcement and the authoritarian personality types that are such wildly enthusiastic supporters of it in the public can admit that sometimes cops make mistakes or sometimes cops are bad at their jobs, then the Problem will never be solved. We know, and Flint Town demonstrates, that most cops are Good. The question, and the issue, is why the culture of their profession continues to protect the ones who are Bad.


Posted in Rants on March 13th, 2018 by Ed

It’s like musical chairs in the White House, except this game has a thousand seats and maybe 25 people playing the game. Cue the clip of Bart in the Leg-Up Program in Cypress Creek.

Someone is fired or someone resigns, then he (or almost never, she) is replaced by somebody Trump knows well personally. By definition almost everybody meeting that description of being “trustworthy” in his understanding of the term already has an administration job. So. Deck chairs, Titanic, etc.

It’s easy to get riled up about the truly appalling human being recently appointed to head the CIA, but unusually I don’t think there’s anything for Senate Democrats to gain by opposing her nomination or Pompeo’s elevation to Secretary of State.
First, in practical terms it makes no difference what pile of garbage fills these positions, the policy will be the same. Which is to say there will be no policy, or policy will be whatever Our President decides it will be on a whim. I mean, what did having Tillerson in State accomplish? What did he even do? Wasn’t he just one of the dozens of people who was supposed to “control” the infant in the White House. He didn’t.

The Democratic leadership in the Senate has no spine for a filibuster on this or, apparently, anything else. Accordingly, it makes next to no difference whether individuals in the Democratic caucus vote for or against these nominees. As the party tends to do, the members will no doubt play 15th Level Chess trying to “strategize” the correct move here. Senators running for re-election in Republican-leaning states will no doubt conclude that it’s in their best interest to vote yes.

In principle it’s gross, and in practice it’s irrelevant. Who is this hypothetical voter out there who’s thinking, “Well I wasn’t sold on Claire McCaskill but eight months ago she voted to confirm Mike Pompeo…” It’s a delusion propagated by the Sunday talk show pundit class. Fortunately it doesn’t make any difference. Either you’re willing to coordinate an effort to block a nominee or you’re not. For the reasons outlined above this isn’t a hill worth dying on. It’s also not a “strategy” play that’s going to accomplish anything.


Posted in Rants on March 10th, 2018 by Ed

Ben Mathis-Lilley has done a piece for Slate in which he undertakes an unpleasant task that, I would guess, many of us in the Writerly World have thought about but abandoned. In the fabulously titled, "Sweet Jesus, Will the NYT’s Conservatives Ever Write About Anything but the “Intolerant Left” Ever Again?" he actually goes over a year's worth of dreck from David Brooks, Ross Douthat, Bret Stephens, and the newest (and just over-the-top cartoonishly stupid) hire Bari Weiss to show every example of these highly paid writers churning out some slight variation of what is functionally the same piece. Lately it's not just a common trope – it's literally all they write about.

Of the four, Douthat is bravest about branching out into other subjects. Weiss is brand new, so perhaps it's fair to give her a larger sample size before concluding that this is all she will write (don't hold your breath, though, since this was her bread and butter before being hired). Brooks and Stephens, though, are making what I can only assume are substantial six-figure salaries to submit the same thing week after week. Is no one above them in the chain of command bothered by this? It isn't just lazy and intellectually dishonest (note: it is definitely both of those things), it's also spectacularly boring. I mean, absolutely goddamn tedious. Painful at this point. If you really did need to read this argument for the ten-thousandth time, you could get it in any college newspaper from any college Republican chapter vice-president.

That said, I'm about to stun myself and offer a weak…not defense, but understanding of why these columnists keep doing this.

High-end legacy media like the Times, the Atlantic, etc. are in a tough spot as far as hiring Conservative Voices. They *have to* have a couple conservatives on staff for reasons of balance and ideological fairness. For years, the culture of conservatism made it relatively easy to find the kind of conservative that would not be repellent to liberal readers – think Buckley, Safire, Irving Kristol, and that generation. Blue-blooded liberal readers may not have agreed with these guys often, but they were not offended by them because they had all the right – for lack of a better word – manners. They were Ivy Leaguers who could be counted on, in short, to represent the right's viewpoint without embarrassing the paper. They weren't some John Birch Society rustic rubes screaming about The Jews; they were Country Club conservatives and at the very least they could express ideas considered acceptable for cocktail parties and use big words to do it.

You could read it, in short, without wanting to vomit.

Today's right wing columnist is far more Westbrook Pegler than William Safire, more Father Coughlin than Irv Kristol. There simply aren't that many George Will types around who can do "From the Right" without absolutely embarrassing the paper or network. The people today who can do this – Steve Schmidt, Bruce Bartlett, SE Cupp, George Will, Bill Kristol, etc – are consequently in high demand. Not because they are brilliant, but because they have the requisite elite mannerisms to avoid repelling viewers like the Lou Dobbs, Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly, or Sean Hannity style braying jackasses do. So, in short, the NYT's options are pretty limited. They're not sampling from a very large pool of potential candidates.

Once these people are hired, what are they really going to write about during the Trump era? They're smart enough not to tie themselves to defending Trump, and in truth they probably find him hugely embarrassing anyway. George Will or Ross Douthat are not going to write for an audience of globe-trotting successful readers, "Yeah, fuck other shitty countries amirite!" They're forced to confine themselves to either focusing on policy that isn't really being debated at the moment – pretending Trump didn't happen, in other words – or tone policing.

Tone policing has tremendous appeal for a weekly columnist. It circumvents the need to learn about policy or be up-to-the-second on current events. Hell, you can write two or three of these "OMG campus liberals are mean" things and keep them in the hopper for months if necessary. Talk about evergreen. Maybe update a link or two and boom.

Right-wing columnists at places that expect their output to be Respectable – written well, not embarrassing, not baldly racist, etc. – are in a kind of holding pattern right now. The only way they can write columns about current events without having to tackle the difficult problem of the right's embrace of Trump is to create a straw man and tear it down over and over. Since newspaper readers skew much older, picking on The Kids These Days seems like as good a dice roll as any.

That said, please for the love of god stop writing this same goddamn column.


Posted in Quick Hits on March 8th, 2018 by Ed

My effort to get the phrase "Cletus Safari" adopted into the lexicon proceeds apace with this piece in The Baffler comparing the media's zeal for covering old white Trumpers to their relative indifference to covering the most significant and largest labor action in the U.S. in decades.

And I didn't write this one, but Drew Magary has a good rundown on the absolutely baffling decision by more than a dozen Senate Democrats to gut Dodd-Frank and deregulate massive lenders. In case you forgot what a bad idea that is, you may want to add David Dayen's Chain of Title to your reading list.


Posted in Rants on March 5th, 2018 by Ed

The Russians don't exactly have a long, rich tradition of political participation and the Putin era is doing little to enhance it. Your average Ivan on the Street has little interest in politics; not because politics are not important but because participation in such an obviously, almost cartoonishly, rigged system is a waste of time. We Slavs are nothing if not a practical people.

Of course the USSR years gave generations of Russians practice shrugging, eye-rolling, and honing black humor in response to their one-party political system. After some brief flirtations with the pretense of democratic institutions in the 1990s Russian politics seem to have fallen comfortably back into that routine. Everyone knows. Everyone knows that the elections are not real, that the rule of law is nonexistent, that aggressive journalists or political opponents end up dying of mysterious causes, and that an enormous pile of oil, gas, and dirty banking money is the only thing that influences the direction of what passes for governance. The government and political process (such as it is) are so corrupt that eventually people give up on even trying to change it. For Russians already used to going through the motions of the Soviet system it didn't take long.

This, I think, is the real endgame of Trumpism and the reason (well, one reason) for Trump's obsequious affinity for Putin. Rather than taking a Russian-style brute force approach, though, Trump better understands the American affinity for being entertained. He's putting on a show for his idiot followers while running an administration so spectacularly inept, clownish, and corrupt that your average American who is not terribly interested in politics and already inclined toward cynicism can conclude once and for all that all of it is a joke. Of course the activists Trumpers take such delight in riling up will try to strike back, but the right understands that getting people to participate in this process is already the left's biggest challenge. The more that can be done to convince non-voters to stay that way, the longer the GOP can overcome unfavorable demographic trends.

When I see things like Monday's bizarre spectacle of Sam Nunberg – someone the President hired (and fired, and hired) on multiple occasions to run his campaign – lurching from one news show to the next like a drunk on his last bender before he leaps off a bridge, I worry that the "I can't believe any of this is really happening" aspect of Trump's presidency has already done long term damage. The fact that nobody will stop this shitshow reinforces every notion, already popular, that the whole political process and both parties are rotten and the whole thing is a sham. None of this is normal, but at some point it will become normal. For some young people it may be already.

That is the real long-term goal here – not to win, but to convince such a large part of the population to give up on the process, declare it hopeless, and get back to scrambling around trying to make a living that a small, wealthy minority will be able to hold onto power longer than it otherwise could. I don't believe in large scale conspiracies and I don't think incidents like Sam Nunberg's meltdown proceed from any kind of central authority or plan. It is much more plausible that shitshows like this are the logical product of putting sociopaths – extremely dumb sociopaths, that is – in charge and watching them line their pockets without giving one minute shit if the entire system is in flames by the time they're done with it.

Let me put it this way: if their goal wasn't to make all of politics and governing a joke that most people will eventually ignore altogether, they couldn't have come up with a plan that would accomplish it any more effectively.


Posted in No Politics Friday on March 2nd, 2018 by Ed

(I recently wrote this at the behest of an editor who ended up being overruled from above, and now it has no home. I had enough fun writing this that I am not even mad it didn't run. The theme for the Listicle was ideas that sound laughable or insane but end up working well. I think my flaw was not keeping the examples tech-focused (which the Factoid internet reader tends to prefer strongly) and instead including a broader range of examples.

In any case, here is/was my first foray into Weird Useless Information writing.)

Some ideas are too crazy to work; others aren’t crazy enough. History shows us plenty of examples of bizarre ideas that produced predictably terrible results – early flying contraptions, for example – not every idea that sounds laughable is doomed to failure. Here are just a few examples of ideas or discoveries that sounded insane in theory but turned out surprisingly well in practice. You never know – the next ridiculous idea you hear could win someone a Nobel Prize.

Okay, probably not. But there’s always a chance.

The Turbine Car
A jet turbine in a family sedan sounds insane. But Chrysler engineers obsessively tinkered with the concept for decades, culminating in a 1962 pilot program of 50 turbine-powered cars. Amazingly, they were functional and fairly normal cars (Jay Leno still drives one). Drawbacks included poor fuel economy, a power lag when accelerating, and white-hot exhaust. On the plus side, it could run on literally anything that burned including trials with perfume and tequila as fuels. The project didn’t go anywhere, but a turbine-powered car proved not to be nearly as insane as it sounds.

The Nonsense Novel
Combining the disjointed, independent work of 24 different authors into a single hodgepodge work of fiction does not seem like a recipe for a best-seller. Journalist Mike McGrady hatched this plan in 1968 with the hypothesis that with enough graphic sex scenes it would sell no matter how bad it was. His experimental meta-commentary on the trashy appetites of fiction readers enlisted two dozen writers and resulted in the publication under a pseudonym of the crap-masterpiece, Naked Came the Stranger. It sold briskly, and the nonexistent Penelope Ashe was lauded for her vivid prose. When the authors revealed their hoax the next year, it sold even more copies. Turns out Mom wasn’t reading romance novels for the plot after all.

When Israeli scientist Daniel Shechtman announced that he had discovered a new kind of crystal that defied all known laws of matter his colleagues literally laughed him out of his job. Shechtman himself thought that what the electron microscope showed him was impossible. When he dubbed his finding quasicrystals, Linus Pauling retorted with the legendarily sick burn, “There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists.” But in the end, Pauling was the one being rushed to the ego Burn Unit. After persisting for a decade Shechtman proved quasicrystals’ existence and described their properties, a feat for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2001. I hope Linus Pauling had to hand him the award.

The 27th Amendment
As Amendments go, the 27th is not especially exciting – it prohibits Congressional pay raises from going into effect until after the next election. College student Gregory Watson wrote a paper for his political science class in 1982 in which he suggested that the Amendment, proposed in 1789 but never passed, technically could still be ratified. This thought experiment earned him a C from a teaching assistant who called his idea unrealistic. Watson embarked on a Kill Bill-worthy journey of revenge, pestering elected officials and going public with his idea. Since the public is not thrilled at Congress raising its own salary, the idea gained traction. In 1992 it was ratified and officially became the 27th Amendment to the Constitution.

Reservoir Balls
An enormous population and desert climate ensure that Los Angeles is always anxious about its water supply. Open reservoirs in a hot, dry climate lose millions of gallons of water to evaporation. To stop it, engineers proposed filling LA’s Ivanhoe Reservoir with plastic balls to shield the water from direct sunlight. After everyone got done laughing they realized it was actually brilliant. In 2014, 96 million plastic balls were tossed into the pool. They were effective at reducing water loss and contamination. The Water Balls were retired in 2017 when Ivanhoe was drained into another reservoir.

The decommissioned Dounrey nuclear reactor in Scotland left behind, predictably, a good deal of equipment contaminated by radioactive and toxic wastes. Searching in vain for a way to remove toxic plutonium from hundreds of miles of pipes snaked around the complex, one cleanup employee asked (extremely Scottish accent) “Did we try Cillit Bang?” That’s Scotland’s most popular all-purpose household cleanup spray. Turns out Cillit Bang worked vastly better to safely dislodge the plutonium, which was processed out of the wastewater. Score one for Mr. Clean.

Dolphin Rescue
In 1978 the San Diego Aquarium was facing the death of a dolphin that had swallowed a large piece of indigestible plastic. As a complicated and dangerous surgery was being planned, someone asked “What if we got a man with really long arms…and a LOT of lube?” Enter 6’9” octopus-armed NBA shot blocker Cliff Ray. He safely removed the objects and his example inspired the Chinese, in 2006, to repeat this trick with the world’s tallest man at the time, Bao Xishun. Sometimes the simplest (and craziest) idea is the best idea.

Phantom Bus Stop
Patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s are a constant source of worry for long-term care facilities. In their confusion they tend to wander off and staff often have considerable trouble finding them again. The Benrath Senior Center in Dusseldorf, Germany came up with a bizarre work-around: they installed a decoy bus stop in front of the facility. Since people actually use public transit in Germany, the confused patients often went no further than the bus stop where they waited for a bus that wasn’t coming before staff gently walked them back inside. It significantly cut down the number of walk-offs who end up in danger.

Turn the Wings Around
The Pentagon is a rich source of insane ideas getting the go-ahead, so when Grumman engineers proposed building a jet with the wings bolted on backwards, “Sure, why not?” was the inevitable answer. The X-29 was so unstable in flight that Grumman had to develop extremely complex technology to keep it airborne – the forerunner of today’s common Fly-by-Wire technologies. It took a truly awful aircraft to push engineers to take the next leap in electronics. The X-29 answered the call (and inspired a totally bad-ass GI Joe version).

The next time you have a crazy idea, don’t reject it too hastily. You might be on the verge of the next big breakthrough. Or you might just be drunk.


Posted in Quick Hits on March 1st, 2018 by Ed

Episode 002 is now available. Folks on Patreon seem to be enjoying it; feedback on how to make the show better is important so feel free to share.