Mike: My Last Will and Testament

Hi all. I'm sneaking back on here (shh!) to pimp my new blog No Arts No Letters. Ginandtacos is officially like Three's Company – it has a spinoff site, and this page will be every bit as good as The Roepers. Right now classes are a bitch, so I'll be posting in direct positive proportion to how much work I have to do at any given moment, and how much I want to procrastinate.

I also have to announce that I am declaring myself a winner in an age-old contest Ed and I have been waging. For a long time we've been trying to outdo each other with ideas for absurd wills. It's one of the oldest cliches in books/movies/tv – The Suprise Will! A will that involves a night in a haunted house, leaving a funeral home to a wayward son, taking control of the team if you win the Denslow Cup, etc. etc.

Ed has usually won this contest, thinking of far more absurd and ridiculous requirements to be announced at the reading. But now I have him beat. (Warning: it gets geeky here).

Someone recently told me that there is this company that will take your cremated remains and turn them into jewelry. Yes, you read that correctly. You can get a necklace, a keepsake or a gem created out of the ashes of a loved one who has passed away.

At the reading of my will it will be announced that my remains have been turn into a ring (if this can't be done, a gem on a ring), and that this ring must be carried to an active volcano and destroyed by being thrown into said volcano. A certain Andy S. from Chicago, an old roommate and even bigger LOTR fan than myself, has already agreed to carry the ring around his neck. If we get really old before I pass away (potentially not likely), his nephew will be allowed to carry the burden.

The rest of my life may now become dedicated to making enough money to make this as absurd as possible. I'll have to hire people who will travel with him. I'll also need to pay one member to go nuts and, after failing to convince Andy to take the ring to Iraq (or whatever battleground is the latest in the War on Terror), try to steal The Mike Ring. This will cause Andy to disband the fellowship. I'll need to find some sort of junkie to stalk Andy as he walks to the volcano. And I'll also need to purchase a large spider, and pay handlers in advance to put it near the base of the volcano.

This may or may not surprise you, but I am about excited as humanly possible to get going on this plan. Ed, can you beat this Last Will and Testament?

Allright, hope to see some of you over at the new place, or perhaps on a rss feeder.

Chicagoland Exurbs

Get well soon Ed!

We have a lot of readers from Chicago(land), and I just want to drop a quick mention of a nytimes magazine article on Carpentersville, Il. attempt to make life miserable for immigrants. There has been a lot written about local politics and immigration; this is interesting because (1) in some ways it is removed from the real hot flashes of immigration and (2) you get to see how slippery the "English First" arguments, especially when turned into law, turn into "We Don't want Lower-Class people around!" which turn into "We Hate Hispanics."

Confession: I used to work around that area, and I even worked in one of the companies name-dropped (Motorola) for people looking to buy in Carpentersville (I knew several buyers there). It struck me as a town that was created as a satellite city for the booming centers of Schaumburg – one patch of housing for the executives, and one patch of housing for the service industry workings filling out the rest of the labor force (Two Americas!).

As such, it was built on that uniquely American combination of "cheap land, cheaper foreign capital, and even cheaper illegal labor" equation for city planning. The idea that their "culture" (which is poorly defined outside of English speaking and flag waving) is worth passing repressive, anti-business and anti-community laws to save (as if that was even the stakes) is completely beyond me.


I really had a lot to do at work today. How was I supposed to know the Procrastination Fairy was going to show up and whisper this in my ear: "Mike…what if I was to show you a video of Zach Galifianakis lip-synching the newest Kanye West single, on a farm, while occasionally riding a tractor and wearing an absurd robe, while Will Oldham dances in the background? And even better, since it is an official Kanye West video it is hosted on a site not-blocked by your work filter, you can watch it all day."

I said "No such thing could exist! That is too much awesome to be able to be streamed on the internet tubes!"

The Procrastination Fairy replied: "Oh, but it does."

I walked into work thinking I wasn't going to watch Zach echo Kanye's desire to stop spending so much money about 200x while my boss kept walking by, but sometimes I fall short of my ideal self. Seriously, like 200x times.

(I can understand you may find that link retarded; that's fine, but I'm not going to call you the next day if you do. It's not going to work between us.)

Walmart and Public Shame

Walmart has officially taken to engaging in state-sponsored public shaming for shoplifters:

Earlier this year, Lisa King Fithian entered the self-checkout lane at the Wal-Mart store in her hometown of Attalla, Ala., with a lava lamp and a pet playpen. According to court documents, she then failed to scan the two items, worth $26.97, to add them to her bill and tried to leave the store. Fithian, 46, later pleaded guilty to theft in court, although she maintained the entire incident was a misunderstanding.

Fithian's sentence was unusual. The local judge, Kenneth Robertson, had been thinking about shoplifting penalties that would be different from the fines and brief jail terms, which tend to be ineffective. He talked with the local Wal-Mart Stores manager about having Fithian go out in public with a sign around her neck declaring her crime. The manager, Neil Hawkins, gave the green light. So one Saturday Fithian wore two sandwich-board signs that declared, "I am a thief; I stole from Wal-Mart."

Since then, this town of 6,859 has become a real-life experiment in whether shaming can reduce shoplifting. More than 20 people have endured the modern-day version of The Scarlet Letter in recent months…

Wal-Mart executives have been debating the optimal shoplifting policies for its stores…But earlier this month, it decided to get more aggressive.

The article is an interesting read. Two things to pay attention to:

1) If you are a taxpayer you should be very pissed. Cops, Lawyers and Judges have to be mobilized to do nonsense work for Wal-Mart when it should be doing things like dealing with domestic abuse, murderers and drunk drivers. All to deal with the menance of some 13-year dipshit stealing a Linkin Park CD, whose bulked margins are insured against.

2) As anyone who has worked in, or around, low-wage jobs, can tell you, most theft is from a company's own employees. And the industry certainly believes this – 50% of theft is from employees (and 20% from vendor fraud or general errors). And Why shouldn't they? Poor wages, shitty benefits, 70% turnover, low prospects of advacement – it is the ideal situation for employee theft. Costco offers a higher wage rate, has a tenth of the employee turnover and (surprise) has almost zero (~.2%) loss rate here. (Of course it is harder to steal [the bulk] items from Costco, bit its loss ratio is ~10% of walmart; shop-lifting can't explain all of that).

Shaming in the public sphere is a great way to distract attention, and distracting from their scorched-earth employee relations tactics is exactly what Wal-mart is in the business of doing. And it does it well.

Subprime meltdown.

This entry may be boring for many of you, but I'll teach you how people can lie with statistics and graphs near the end. So the housing market is in free-fall; Countrywide Financial, the largest mortgage underwriter, just announced to analysts that "Home price depreciation at levels not seen since the Great Depression" and the market will be hurting till 2009. (This effects spreads across the whole market). And that is the optimistic picture. Speaking of optimism, the Fed just released a neat graph in its recent report:

So 12% of subprime (risky, to low-income people with bad credit) loans are currently being foreclosed or are 90 days without a payment. Think about that for a second. 20% of loans sold in the past two years are subprime.
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However the primes looks fine.

Here's the rub. Say, you have a mortgages in 2005. You get laid off (your job goes to India) and your kid needs surgery shortly after you lose your health insurance. You find a new job that doesn't pay as much, and now you have a medical payment each month. You call your bank and say you are worried about defaulting on your (prime) loan. Your agent says: "No problem, let's refinance you with a variable-rate subprime loan with great terms the first two years." You can make the payments until, of course, you can't, and you default two years later. This story is completely consistent with this graph – there's a shift of all loans away from the prime ones. For the past two years it has been impossible to default on a prime loan; you are just moved into the subprime category. Hence this skyrocketing of the default in subprime may actually reflect a collapse of prime loans.

Mutual Funds do this all the time. They collapse out their bad funds, and discontinue them, and move the money into the good funds – and just report their great returns on the good funds.

And in case you are wondering where all the foreclosures are going on, from the Big Picture (a great source for market news):

It is going to be a bumpy time.

Love in the handicapped stall; Denny Crane.

Old news: a Republican State Representative in Florida, Bob Allen, was arrested the other week for soliciting a male undercover cop. Alright, these things happen to married Republicans; I imagine it has to be quite the stressful time to be an elected Republican. But when I heard about this, I caught that the officer who arrested him wasn't undercover on a gay hooker sting operation. Instead, he was undercover on a robbery sting. Huh? Luckily PageOneQ has the police report:

"I observed Allen walk into the men's restroom [in a public park]… I then observed Allen leave the restroom and walk towards a park bench. I then entered the bathroom to adjust my police radio. On my way out of the restroom I almost bumped into Allen who was on his way into the restroom again. Allen changed his course of direction when he saw that I was leaving the restroom and went back towards his park bench. I talked with the other officers again and then entered the bathroom and began washing my hands. Allen entered the the restroom behind me and proceeded into the first stall.

"I realized there were no paper towels to dry my hands so I walked into the handicap stall to dry my hands. As I stood in the stall drying my hands I observed Allen look over the door of my stall and make eye contact with me. Allen then stepped away and then came back to the door of my stall and looked in, making eye contact with me again.

"I said 'hey buddy' and Allen said 'hi' and then stepped away again. About 5 seconds later Allen pushed open the door to my stall and stepped inside. I was standing against the far wall of the stall. Allen closed the door behind him and stood against it. I said 'What's up?' and Allen again said 'hi.' Allen then said, 'this is kind of a public place isn't it?' I said, 'do you have somewhere else we can go?' Allen said, 'How about across the bridge, it's quiet over there.' Allen engaged me in a conversation in which it was agreed that he would pay me $20 in order to perform a 'blow job' on me. Allen stated that he wanted me to ride with him across the river before he performed the act and gave me the money. Before entering Allen's vehicle I identified myself as a police officer and detained him."

Two things of note.

1) Not being gay, maybe I'm missing an essential piece of this puzzle, but do you really have to pay someone to perform oral sex on them? Dan Savage thinks that is very common for the situation, but seriously? You'd think you could give that away.

2) Anyone watch Boston Legal? The powerful, rich, Republican named partner of the law firm, Denny Crane, is played by William Shatner. In one episode, he tries to pick up a woman who is an undercover cop, who believes he had solicited her (he also believes her to have only one leg and really wants to have sex with her because of that, but that is besides the point). Denny, in one of my favorite moments of the show, goes to the Judge at trial something close to: "Judge you know me. I have hookers all the time. They come to my hotel room, and I pay them a lot." Picking up a hooker on the street, for $20 no less? Please, I'm a Republican!

Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer my Republicans much more like that. Hotel, mirror full of cocaine, and prostitutes, all charged to an oil company lobbyist's petty cash fund. This is what the GOP is reduced to? Trolling public park bathrooms, muttering like a crazy person, following men into handicapped (!) stalls? For shame. The party really is in decline.

I do think Bob Allen should hold a press conference where he drops the Denny Crane line though.

NPF Followup

I'm impressed by the readers who have finished the Realdoll documentary movie, and I'm a bit embarrassed by not having finished it myself. This weekend was my birthday, and I have needed to avoid hangover/headache inducing activites, so the rest of the video will have to wait a bit longer before being finished.

And I forgot about the two-handed broadsword.

Some people have mentioned the question as to whether the people in the video are either less or more of a threat to women now that they spend their free time acting out sex crimes on an inanimate object. Do Realdolls keep them locked up voluntary in their house (de facto prison), or is it just practice for the real thing? Would it be ethical to give Ed Gein a Realdoll, or would the Realdoll just make him an even more energetic (and efficient) monster?

Luckily an economist from Clemson University wrote an interesting paper about this with porn. It has that weird air of autistic thought that economist get (the kind that defines porn as a non-rivalrous, non-excludable public good with potential positive externalities), that I love but can be very off-putting. He looked at reports of rape incidents and correlates them against % access to the internet by time in communities after controlling for all the usual suspects of variables. Here's the abstract:

The arrival of the internet caused a large decline in both the pecuniary and non-pecuniary costs of accessing pornography. Using state-level panel data from 1998-2003, I find that the arrival of the internet was associated with a reduction in rape incidence. However, growth in internet usage had no apparent effect on other crimes. … These results, which suggest that pornography and rape are substitutes, are in contrast with most previous literature.

I love natural experiments in economics, and this is a pretty good one. The study finds a 10 percent increase in Net access yields about a 7.3 percent decrease in reported rapes. The normal problems that you have with statistical studies of this sort are all accounted for – and the results are glaring in the data. It may also explain part of why teenage births have decreased since the mid-90s. (It doesn't handle long-vs-short term issues of watching porn, and if you see porn itself as analogous to rape, there is another critique to be had.)

For what it is worth, and the author himself positions himself against this view quickly, but what the hell (It's 1:30pm and I'm still hungover): whenever we have goods with these qualities we tend to think the government should be in the business of helping to provide them (markets underallocate them). And other substitute goods for criminal goods are applauded in society (afterschool programs as a substitute against gang recruitment, for instance). I suggested to someone (they were naturally horrified) that $5K of our tax dollars for a realdoll purchase voucher, in exchange for a voluntary registration as a sex offender (and maybe one of those lowjack monitor ankle things) is significantly better deal that what it "costs" if he acts otherwise. I don't think any politicians are going to run on that platform though (A Chicken in Every Pot! A Realdoll in Every Closet!), though it would be kind of neat.

NPF: The Scariest Horror Movie Ever

One of my favorite old posts on ginandtacos is Erik's take on the realdoll community, as it was presented to us by a salon.com article that started a whole Internet meme fest on what it means to spend over $5,000 on a masturbation toy. Realdolls, in case you don't know, are 'realistic' looking rubber dolls (see picture of 'davecat' below) that cost a large sum of money, that tend to get purchased by people who are acting out a relationship with them. Do read the ginandtacos post, it includes some great comments from the readers.

One thing that was linked to in the article was, from the Realdoll's webpage, was the Realdoll FAQ (not work safe). It is quite disturbing to read, as it quickly switches from (real examples) "Question: What sort of people buy REALDOLL? Answer: REALDOLL customers include …scientists, health professionals, housewives" to questions such as " Question: Tell me more about the doll's entries. Answer: The inside of the Vaginal and Anal entries use a different grade of silicone than the rest of REALDOLL's body…" – you don't want to go any further. It goes from normal to disturbing quickly. As Erik put it in his entry: "I honestly could not read any more than a fraction of it before I had to close the browser."

Eventually we all started daring each other to read it, and the entire FAQ was read, and though it was years ago, it still freaks me out to think about it. And now there is this:

"Guys and Dolls" (hat tip to feministing). Evidently someone wasn't satisfied by reading a salon article and making fun of these losers; they had to go even further and sponsor a British documentary crew to interview as many subjects as they could find and investigate the factory. The video is 46 minutes and it is virtually impossible to watch. It is like the Realdoll FAQ to the tenth power. It is probably the best accidental horror movie ever made.

So have any of you been dared, or dared someone to watch a horror movie? Junior-high sleepovers, "What are you, chicken?!?!?" For Politics-Free Friday, my dare to you audience, is to start watching and note what time and/or event freaks you out to the point where you had to stop watching. I tried, and I mean I tried to finish the thing (I am in fact daring you), but my on my first try I could only make it to minute 15 when a guy from Virginia starts showing off his collection of AK-47s and Mac-10s along with his realdolls ("that's three [automatic] guns and two realdolls I own…"). He waves a glock in the air above a Realdoll taking a "nap" in his bed, and talks about the Mac-10 he "would carry around". It is way too much. In the first couple of minutes you get to see Davecat (goth kid above) mention something like "the problem my dad has with her is that she's not alive" in my-dad-is-a-bigot-teenage-righteousness way.

The second try I made it to minute 20, where you get to see the factory where the dolls are made, and the endless torsos and pelvic areas hanging from chains or moving along assembly lines is like something out of a slaughterhouse. Forget Saw and J-Horror flicks, this is seriously the most disturbing horror movie I've ever seen.

Harry and Learning.

Hi all. This Mike pinch hitting for Ed while he is on vacation for a week.

Literature Professor Michael Berube's blog, sadly closed since the beginning of 2007, was one of my favorite things on the internets. Luckily he still shows up online here and there. The Common Review has just posted a new essay by him about his experiences with the Harry Potter series, and how the series has enriched the life of his son Jaime, who has Down's Syndrome, by helping him to understand what is going on with narratives.

It expands on a series of posts from his blog about this topic. Berube chronicles about how his so-called "retarded" son learns to understand stories as stories through Rowling's books, and how he uses that to reflect on a range of issues. If you are a fan of the books or lit crit or education, special or otherwise, check it out.

Also – go see the new "Order of the Phoenix" movie if you haven't already – it is the actual summer blockbuster movie event, rivaled by Ratatouille and Live Free or Die Hard*. They did a fantastic job taking what was probably the worst book to adapt; its is almost as good as the third movie, which stands as my favorite. Side question I've been asking people: Alan Rickman as Snape or as Hans Gruber – which do you prefer?

* – My enjoyment of this movie was amplified by seeing it opening night at midnight with several flasks of whiskey, and playing a game where we had to drink every time we could make the statement "John McClane killed that man by means that weren't solely with the use of a gun." That is a good game to play to that movie.