Posted in No Politics Friday on April 4th, 2014 by Ed

When I need to make a joke about white trash – and believe me, the last 12 years spent in Indiana, Georgia, and central Illinois have made this necessary on more than one occasion – my go-to cultural reference point is the Chevrolet El Camino. If I'm feeling punchy I can sub in the Ford equivalent (the Ranchero) or, to test the depth of automotive knowledge of the intended audience, the El Camino's identical clone the GMC Caballero. I'm sure these were fine vehicles in their day and in some parts of the world the "ute" body style is quite popular (I'm looking at you, Australia). There is just something about the unholy wedding of a pointlessly large 1970s American sedan with the bed of a pickup truck, however, that screams "Both humans and animals have been conceived in the bed of this vehicle." If you see any of these vehicles on the road today, you can rest assured that the family of six shoehorned into its single bench seat is on the way to pick up some scratch-off tickets.

Is that mean? Yes. That is very mean. But for whatever reason, the Coupe Truck idea did not attract a very high class clientele in the American market.

Despite the jokes that they invite, there is something lovably silly about these vehicles. They look so ridiculous and mis-proportioned that it becomes endearing. Not so, however, with Japan's response to the late 70s/early 80s car-truck conglomeration craze: the Subaru BRAT. That's supposed to stand for "Bi-drive Recreational All-terrain Transporter", which lets you know right off the bat that nothing good is going to come of this. Basically Subaru designers hacksawed the rear end off a Leone sedan and made…this:


The best part, however, is that Subaru engineers and bean-counters collaborated to circumvent a 25% U.S. import tariff on trucks (the known in the auto industry as the "Chicken Tax"). They did this by classifying the BRAT as a passenger car, which they achieved by…bolting two seats into the exposed bed of the truck. Look at these and try to envision any scenario in which the "backseat" passengers would survive an accident. Or normal driving over 30 miles per hour.


Note the plastic sled-type handles affixed to the seats. So your odds of remaining in the vehicle at speed were a function of grip strength. Awesome.

Fortunately Subaru forewent plans to weld the seats to the bed in favor of bolting them in place, so with ordinary tools a buyer could (and almost all immediately did) remove the seats. But in promotional photos, Subaru was legally obligated to play along with the conceit that this was a four-passenger car; hilarity ensued.


Yeah, good luck with that guys.

Like all horrible things from the 70s and 80s the BRAT is celebrated for its awkwardness by today's irony hungry hipsters. Jonny Lieberman at Motor Trend is polarizing – some people find his videos unwatchably annoying, while others appreciate his silly enthusiasm – but I would recommend giving his five-minute jaunt in the BRAT a viewing if you're bored. It's fun, it takes the car at face value, and if nothing else we learn that because the gearshift attaches to the transaxle through a crude hole cut directly into the floor of the cabin, illegal drugs can be slipped out of the vehicle during a traffic stop.

Subaru produced a more modern but equally ridiculous version called the Baja from 2002-2006 before finally admitting that the American market simply isn't, uh, ready for this type of car. However, given our fondness for all things retro it wouldn't be surprising to see some manufacturer resurrect this idea again in the future.


Posted in No Politics Friday, Skip this if you hate sports on March 20th, 2014 by Ed

In one of my previous lives I was paid small amounts of money to write things about football. Specifically I wrote about NFL draft prospects; I was an early adopter of Draft Mania that has overtaken sports publications and networks in the last ten years. In the late Eighties and early Nineties there was none of the circus you see today. Mel Kiper was some schmuck who hawked an annual draft guide in ads in Pro Football Weekly. It was a spiral-bound packet of black-and-white copier paper, the kind you make at Kinko's.

When I began grad school in 2003, I had to let the draft writing go by the wayside. I didn't have the time to commit to it anymore and it's not possible to write anything useful or accurate without investing the necessary time. The thing is, I used to be not-bad at it. Sometimes I see the overwhelming amount of space networks like ESPN devote to the NFL draft today and I wonder if I made a bad career choice (Hint: I did). But in any case, I've been planning to come out of retirement for day because of a player in this year's draft class who is attracting the attention of people who ordinarily don't give two shakes about football: Michael Sam.

The amount of media attention being focused on this guy right now is completely unfair, but could have been predicted in advance of his announcement on ESPN (He had told his college teammates privately and without fanfare about a year ago). And now the NFL is getting scrutiny from a lot of places where the football side of what's about to happen is not well understood. Based on events of the past few weeks, Sam is likely to be a late-round draft pick. And I'm pretty sure that when it happens, "It must be because he's gay" is going to be a most common response. It's a little more complicated than that.

The day before Sam made his announcement, he was likely to be a mid-round (3rd/4th) pick. These guys are usually productive college players who lack ideal size or speed to impress the NFL or guys who are physically gifted but who never really did much in college. Sam is the former. The day after he made his announcement, he was still a mid-round pick. That's not naive; NFL executives and coaches are under intense pressure to win now and they would draft a guy who wore pink panties and had two dicks growing out of his chin if they thought it would help them win. I'm not so naive to think that everyone in the league is open and accepting of gay people, but if they think this guy can take down quarterbacks they'll put up with a lot of baggage (as they define it).

The problem is that Sam went to the NFL Combine (a tryout camp, basically) and took a major dump. For a pass-rusher without great size, he ran a very slow 40-yard dash (4.92) and put up a pitiful 17 reps on the bench press. By normal human standards he's a phenomenal athlete, but those numbers are basically those of a player who isn't good enough to get drafted at all. In fact, it's only because he showed such good production on the field at Missouri that someone will take a shot at him in the late (5th-7th) rounds.

Sam improved upon those numbers just a bit on Thursday at a workout on the Missouri campus but he looks like the classic "tweener" – a guy who isn't big or strong enough to overpower NFL players and not fast enough to compensate for the lack of size/strength. If you're gonna be small, you have to be fast. If you're gonna be slow, you better have superhuman strength or size. "But he was the SEC Defensive Player of the Year!" Yes, he was. Tons of guys who are great college players flop in the NFL. Despite what whacko SEC fans might tell you, the SEC is not the NFL. The players are smaller and slower than even the least competent players Sam will face in the NFL.

So what NFL coaches are looking at in Sam is a guy who is going to bring a media circus with him (through no fault of his own) and has "Tries hard but just isn't good enough" written all over him. A step too slow, a bit too small, etc. Of course, the draft is always a crapshoot – Sam could become the best player in the NFL for all we know. However, the track record of players like Sam isn't great. My best guess is that Sam will be something like a 5th round pick, based on his on-field success at Missouri, for a team like the Bears or Saints that uses traditional ends in a 4-3 front. If he's drafted there (or later) we should avoid reading too much into it. No one can deny that he was a great college football player, but he's just not that exciting as an NFL prospect and that's all there is to it. The attitude and college production say Great Player while his overall athletic ability says Warm Body.


Posted in No Politics Friday on March 14th, 2014 by Ed

Sometimes I start a post and fail to finish it before it ceases to be relevant, so it ends up in the trash. Other times I will write something and realize before completing it that it's not very good. And occasionally I look at an orphaned post fragment and feel fortunate that it was never completed, because everything about it that seemed intelligent at the time now seems quite foolish.

Last weekend I wrote half a post about the media coverage of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight, the main point being that what the media were attempting to sell as some great "mystery" was really just a mundane and predictable, if tragic, set of events. But after another week of following that story, I give up. I yield. This is ridiculous and fascinating. Each new detail that becomes public makes the story more bizarre instead of less.

If we can accept that a relatively new aircraft of a type with a nearly flawless safety record does not simply disintegrate in midair without provocation, then the range of plausible explanations is broad. Aside from the tantalizing details about stolen passports (which are as likely to be used for crimes like drug smuggling or illegal immigration as for terrorism) there is the revelation, apparently plausible, that pilots on this crew allowed passengers into the cockpit. Now there are claims that the plane flew for hours after communications were lost – I was under the impression that it was extremely difficult, although not impossible, for modern planes to have their transponders switched off and its means of external communication silenced.

Most baffling of all, though, is the idea that the plane could have flown around off-course for hours in radio silence without a single passenger using a mobile device to make a call, text, or post regarding the flights. In a much shorter amount of time, passengers on the 9/11 planes made dozens of attempted calls from the air. Even if we buy that the pilots somehow made the plane radio silent, how could the passengers be prevented from communicating?

Every time I think I have this one figured out the story gets more bizarre. My latest guess is that one or both pilots concocted an excuse for the passengers, switched off the transponder, and flew around over the ocean until fuel was exhausted in some kind of laborious act of suicide. In a few hours something else will probably seem like a better explanation. Half-cocked theories welcome in the comments.


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

On Wednesday evening I had about 90 minutes of sleep. This is rare for me; while I was a terrible insomniac as a kid and teenager, in recent years I've slept like a normal person. One bad night never killed anyone, but suffice it to say that after three consecutive 75 minute lecture classes on Thursday I was…done. This is relevant as a preemptive apology for giving you the quarterly Link Salad post for NPF. Despite having collected a lot of neat things lately I lack the energy to write about any one of them in great detail. So please enjoy, and by all means don't spend Friday working.

1. It was only a matter of time until one of BuzzFeed's billions of pieces of link bait turned out to be interesting. And this little write up on "American Parties" in foreign countries did it for me. I find this concept fabulous; apparently the two mandatory features at an American Party are red plastic Solo Cups and…popcorn? Presumably, shitty American music is involved as well. We are rightfully wary of internet journalism about "trends" – what the average NPR correspondent calls a fad sweeping the nation is actually anecdotal evidence from one of their friends – so I'm curious whether this is really a thing, I want to believe it is. And of all the things I'd imagine people around the world would see as symbolic of Americans, red plastic Solo Cups ranked low on the list.

2. An interesting read (from the ancient past: 1994) about an eccentric rich guy who concocted a plan many years ago to replace taxes with thousand-year trusts. And the story ends with the Unitarian Universalists going to court to try to steal his fortune after he died. Typical.

3. Apparently the heir to the throne of the Ottoman Empire lives in New York and is essentially a regular guy. That's an unbeatable cocktail party story, though.

4. Boeing developed an Android phone for intelligence agencies that self-destructs (more accurately, it erases all of its own data) if the phone case is opened. That technology has obvious utility in the world of security clearances and Top Secret information – and I'm guessing it won't be five years before they're including this on every phone so service providers can hold your data hostage.

5. Here's a terrific collection of images of placeholder text that someone forgot to replace in either signage or newspapers / magazines / advertisements / etc. The headline "3 DECK HEADLINE PLEASE" is a little on the nose even for a British newspaper. This reminds me of those old galleries of BSoD (Blue Screen of Death) in public places. Those are a helpful reminder that as long as we build SkyNet with Windows XP humanity is guaranteed to survive.

And now…



Posted in No Politics Friday on February 27th, 2014 by Ed

You know I enjoy helping you do anything other than work on Friday afternoons. If you follow Gin and Tacos on Facebook you may recall that I used to post trivia questions regularly. However, now that I host a weekly trivia game in town I have to write about 20 questions per week and I don't have much left in reserve after that. But with all these damn questions (I think it's around 400 by now) it might be fun to share some of them here.

Last Wednesday's game was apparently difficult – or perhaps the players were drunker than usual – so why not start there. Honestly the games I write are much less difficult than the ones I played in Georgia, and I always feel like I want to ask harder questions. It's supposed to be fun, though, so I let up around 6 or 7 on a scale of 1-10. Oh, and I guess we have to skip the music rounds because I don't have any idea how to embed songs without the artist and song title being immediately apparent.

Of course you can cheat your ass off with Google if you want, but what the hell would be the point of that. You lose the strategic aspect of the game (it's a point system / bid game) but have at the questions anyway. Answers in the comments sometime on Friday.

1. Sports: Plus/- 18", what is Mike Powell's World Record in the long jump, held since '91?
2. Dr. Who: What does TARDIS stand for?
3. Anatomy: In what part of the body is the vitreous humor found?
4. Language: Which country has the largest number of official national languages?
5. Presidential Trivia: Only two men who have been president died before reaching 50. Name them.
6. Sports: What nation has won the most Winter Olympics medals all-time?
7. Name the Actor/ress: Hugo, Rules of Engagement, Schindler's List (Who appears in all three films)
8. Literature: Who is the primary antagonist in Treasure Island?
9. Geography: 40% of all Australians live in what two cities?
10. Food: According to UNICEF, rice, corn, and wheat are the three most consumed foods on Earth. What is fourth?
11. Sports: Three men have won the FIFA player of the year award / Ballon d'Or three times. Name two.
12. History: From what country did the United States purchase the Virgin Islands in 1917?
13. Science: After the chimpanzee, what animal is humans' closest living relative?
14. Acronyms: What does TIME (as in the magazine) stand for?
15. Cities: What is the northernmost city in the world with over 1 million inhabitants?
16. Sports: What two men first summitted Mount Everest? (No Mallory conspiracy theories please)
17. Language: In any order, what are the five least commonly used letters in the Oxford English Dictionary?
18. Units of Measure: Which is longer, a mile or a nautical mile?
19. TV: What was the name of the company George Jetson works for?
20: Final Trivia – Music: In 1996, Rolling Stone named this album the 3rd worst album of the year. Five years later in 2001, they named it the 16th greatest album of all time. What is it? (Hint: It was the band's 2nd album)

Have fun. Because I have fun coming up with these.


Posted in No Politics Friday on February 20th, 2014 by Ed

I have a thing for rodents. I've owned seven pet rats over the years (although none at the moment) and around 2010 I had the good fortune to discover a blogging capybara named Caplin Rous. Caplin's owners/pets, a couple named Melanie and Rick, live on what appears to be a farm outside of a place called Buda, TX with a wide variety of animals. Exotic or rare pets are difficult to keep for a number of reasons, but their setup was perfect. They have the two things a capy needs – a pool and a lot of land – and the devotion to their animals to make sure that all of their needs are met. Unfortunately it turns out that some plants that are harmless to "normal" American animals are toxic to a South American native rodent and Caplin died too early. That's one of the downsides to exotic pets – many lessons have to be learned the hard way.

Melanie was heartbroken, as any pet owner understands, but shortly after Caplin's death she was contacted by an exotic animal breeder with some distressing news. A capy had been adopted by an owner who was neglecting him – would Melanie take him in? And that's how Garibaldi (Gari) became her new pet. To make a long story short, I have a hard time communicating how much pleasure I've gotten since that moment from following Gari's antics on the blog. Melanie is a very funny writer, which just adds to the entertainment value of the hundreds of pictures, tales, and videos of Gari that I could rely on to cheer me up.


The problem was that in the first year of his life, Gari was mistreated. His first owner did not actively abuse him, but she was almost criminally ignorant of how to care for him. He was kept in a small apartment, rarely let outside, and fed dry dog food. Capys need a ton of sunlight and vegetable matter to remain healthy. The bottom line is that when Melanie met Gari, he had scurvy (with that nice vitamin C-free diet), vitamin D deficiency, and weak, brittle bones from lack of calcium. He was also extremely underweight. After a few months with his new family, though, he had been nursed back to health.

Well, he was nursed back to…as healthy as he could be. There's no way to "fix" brittle bones, and one by one Gari's teeth started rotting out of his mouth. The teeth weren't very strong, so they would slowly develop infections which spread down to his jaw. He was constantly back to the veterinary hospital to be put through oral surgery and rounds of antibiotics that can be fatal to rodents. After all that, he eventually succumbed to the inevitable and his infections spread to his kidneys, which failed.


Essentially this guy – who brought a lot of joy to a lot of people beyond his family – was killed by the ignorance of his first owner. And that's where I'm going with all of this. I can't stand seeing people adopt pets, particularly of the "exotic" variety, without having a clue how to care for them. They see something on Buzzfeed and decide they want a cat or dog or reticulated python or bobcat or capybara so they rush out and buy one. Then they have revelations like, "It turns out that pythons are 15 feet long as adults" or "Gee, this 150 pound rodent eats about $20 of food per day" and they end up releasing the animal or slowly killing it through negligence. It's sad and it's cruel.

Don't do that. An hour of internet research by someone who wanted a capybara could have added five years to his life, and he would have brought a lot of people (myself included) a lot of happiness over that time.


Posted in No Politics Friday on February 14th, 2014 by Ed

OK, for obvious reasons I've never read Fifty Shades of Grey. I understand that it's horrible and that it is aimed at the lowest common denominator and that it is basically just bad internet slash-porn of the type and quality one would find on a BBS in the last 1990s. But seeing actual excerpts from the book, even in Can You Believe This Shit format, is a mind-blowing experience. Like, I knew it wasn't a good book but honestly it's hard to believe this is real.

How many hours did the author spend combing thesauruses for synonyms for "said"? Just say "He said" like a normal person. No one "muses."

How did people even masturbate to this?


Posted in No Politics Friday on January 31st, 2014 by Ed

Sometimes I withhold criticism from things that I know a lot of people enjoy because I get tired of hearing about what a mean old crank I am. So it's very convenient for me when someone more well-know, in this case John Cole at Balloon Juice, takes care of the "Old man yelling at cloud" part for me. Here is John's take on cruises. As in cruise ships. And I must admit that I concur in full with his sentiments. I do not get it. I do not get it at all.

Obviously it's not fair to broad-brush cruise ships as pestilent shit-barges teeming with disease – while cruise ship outbreaks garner huge amounts of media attention, they represent only a small percentage of the hundreds (thousands?) of cruise ships floating around every day. That said, the specter of catching some heavyweight Lower GI bunker-buster is just one of the many unappealing aspects of getting on a cruise ship. As John says, you're essentially imprisoned on a boat and temporarily disgorged on various islands (usually impoverished communities) to be robbed both legally, by the various franchise retailers hawking jewelry and other "luxury" purchases, and extralegally by the locals whose desire to rob dipshit American tourists is, if not noble, certainly understandable.

The appeal of cruises appears to be, in my estimation as a non-cruiser, limited to two demographics. One is people with children who want to go on a vacation during which they can ignore their children but remain reasonably confident that they are being supervised and entertained with organized activities elsewhere in an enclosed space. Drop Billy off at the water slide or the bungee pit or the climbing wall or the medieval yarn-dyeing workshop and then head down to the lido deck for two or six daiquiris. The second demographic seems to be people who want to go on vacation but either don't know how or they will go to almost any length and expense to avoid having to make decisions for themselves.

I know a lot of people who have gone on cruises – I'm a Midwesterner, for chrissakes – and from their reports I've gathered that the primary activities on a cruise ship are, in order: eating, getting shitfaced, eating, and eating more. I always ask the same question – is the food any good? I imagine that it's rather like a casino buffet, in that it is not particularly good but boy howdy there sure is a lot of it and it's always available. With few exceptions, this has been confirmed. The food is described as "decent" or "just OK" or "not bad" right before the individual explains how they gained 10 pounds in 5 days on the Carnival Lard Barge. That doesn't sound terribly appealing, especially given the price one pays to climb aboard.

To recap, we have a confined space full of the worst America has to offer (the elderly, screaming children, and Southern/Midwestern cow people), loads of mediocre buffet food, expensive alcohol (although some offer "all you can drink" kamikaze packages), and the guarantee that you will see nothing real about the countries and places you "visit." More power to you if this is the vacation you enjoy; to me it sounds, with remarkable precision, like my idea of hell. It's difficult to imagine the experience being improved now that cruises are rapidly becoming a late-career cashout for musicians and other entertainers on the downside of their career. If anything can make the experience I've described here worse, it would be having to listen to 90 year-old Bob Dylan in international waters with no prospects for escape other than suicide.

(Fun Fact: the world's largest actual "floating prison" is anchored off Riker's Island in New York.)


Posted in No Politics Friday on January 23rd, 2014 by Ed

Don't skip this if you hate sports. There's trivia you can use to regale strangers at Super Bowl parties.

The proliferation of ads online and on TV referring to "The Big Game" reflect the NFL's ruthless enforcement on its copyright of the phrase "Super Bowl." The game has become a billion-dollar industry all by itself, the most popular spectacle of an already wildly popular league. Americans mistakenly believe it's the most-watched annual TV event (that honor actually belongs to the UEFA Champions League soccer match, and the audience for the World Cup men's final easily dwarfs both) but there's no doubt that it is an American institution at this point. When even the commercial breaks get saturation media coverage it's safe to say that the game has secured its place in our society for better or worse. I've had the good fortune to attend a Super Bowl, and even the spectacle on television is nothing compared to the live experience.

If we told them about the amount of money and attention devoted to the modern Super Bowl, the people who came up with the idea would think us insane. It's hard to believe that they weren't sure this "Super Bowl" thing would catch on – or that it almost didn't. Here are some quick facts about Super Bowl I at the end of the 1966 season.

1. It didn't sell out. They couldn't even give away the unsold tickets. Look at the stands in this live shot:

SB1 Stands

Part of the problem was that the location of the game, Los Angeles, was not decided until six weeks (!!!) before the game. Today it is awarded years in advance and cities fight like dogs for the honor to host it.

2. It was broadcast on two different networks simultaneously. The game pitted the champions of the AFL and NFL against one another (the leagues merged and became the AFC/NFC conferences in 1970) and the CBS had an ironclad contract to broadcast all NFL games. NBC had the same deal with the AFL. So the game organizers solved the problem but letting both broadcast it. The ratings were poor and a 30-second commercial cost $40,000.

3. The halftime show was a smattering of high school and college marching bands. They put no thought into it and certainly didn't consider paying a celebrity to perform.

4. Neither network thought enough of the game to keep a tape for its archives. No complete video footage of the game exists.

The game was part of an AFL-NFL merger agreement signed in 1966 (it mandated an "AFL-NFL World Championship Game", and the name "Super Bowl" wasn't applied until Super Bowl III in 1969) but the leagues remained separate entities for a few more seasons. As such there were some compromises that had to be made in order to bring the two together for one game. Neither league would agree to let the other's referee crews officiate the game, so a hybrid six-man crew – 3 NFL, 3 AFL – was adopted. Since the leagues' officials wore different uniforms, a new "neutral" uniform was whipped up (note: the AFL ref uniforms were simply amazing). Each league had its own equipment contract, so the Chiefs used the Spalding AFL football and when the Packers offense took the field, the NFL Wilson ball was used. The entire game was played under NFL rules, although the only major rule difference was the AFL's use of the two-point conversion (which the NFL did not adopt until 1994).

Oh, there was also a game. Part of the reason for the low interest was the widespread assumption among the media and fans that champions of the older, established league – the NFL – would crush the rag-tag AFL squads, the league having been founded just six years earlier. And that's exactly what happened. The Kansas City Chiefs squad loaded with all-time greats was destroyed 35-10 by Vince Lombardi's Packers team that happened to be even more loaded with all-time greats. The same Packers squad crushed the AFL champion Raiders the next year in Super Bowl II, and it is highly likely that the game might have slid into obscurity had the AFL not rallied to win Super Bowls III (the infamous Joe Namath-led Jets win over the Baltimore Colts) and IV (the same Chiefs squad walloped the Minnesota Vikings). Only when the viewing public became convinced that the matchup would be competitive did the game really take off, a process facilitated by the full merger of the leagues in 1970 (which shifted some NFL stalwarts like the Colts and Chiefs to the AFC).

As difficult as it is to imagine today with the global TV audience of 100,000,000 and the multimillion dollar ad spots, the people who devised the idea of a game between the league champions actually had serious and legitimate doubts about whether anybody would care. Finally they convinced themselves that by golly, this "Super Bowl" thing might just catch on.

That's how people talked in 1966, right?


Posted in No Politics Friday on January 16th, 2014 by Ed

I'm currently reading a book that includes some firsthand accounts from Vietnam-era POWs describing how they killed literally years worth of time in near-total silence and without any reading material. Several mentioned that they enjoyed passing around complicated riddles to keep their minds occupied. This one almost had me resorting to Google, although eventually I got it. Take a shot at answering it in the comments if you want.

You're walking down a road that splits into two paths. One path is safe and leads to your destination. The other is so dangerous that you'll be killed if you take it. You don't know which is which. Each path has a sentry standing watch; one sentry always lies and the other always tells the truth. Again, you don't know which is the liar and which one is honest. You can only ask one question and only one of the sentries will answer it. What's the one question to ask that will guarantee you end up taking the safe path?

I know, right?