MASS FOR SHUT-INS EPISODE 004 – WILD MOOD SWINGS

Posted in No Politics Friday on April 27th, 2018 by Ed

Episode 004 is now available. Please give 'er a listen – I'm really proud of this one and if I may say so, I'm getting better at this. The podcast medium suits me and although it is a shit-ton of work (certainly more than I expected) I'm enjoying it immensely.

My guest is SSgt. Katie Schmid, plaintiff in one of the legal challenges against Trump's nonsensical transgender military ban. Her story is really compelling and I contribute to the interview mostly by staying out of the way in a narrative that does not need anything to make it more interesting.

I tell the story of the Harcourt Interpolation, a sensation in Victorian London that saw a rogue typesetter (!!) scandalize proper society throughout 1882. The cocktail of the month is the Gin Gimlet, which is a simple drink but was the first drink I ever ordered in a bar; that story gives some amusing insight into Ed at age 20.

The topic for the episode is Duverger's Law and the persistence of the two-party system in the US. Perhaps the question I hear most often from people interested in politics is, why doesn't the US have more competitive parties? I offer a short but compelling answer here.

Enjoy, and please spread the word.

NPF: WHAT A DAY

Posted in No Politics Friday on April 6th, 2018 by Ed

I'm confident enough in the appeal of this story about a sports happening that I declined to use the "Skip This If You Hate Sports" tag.

First, a very brief dip into National Hockey League rules. A team forfeits a game if it does not have two goaltenders in uniform. This is intended to ensure that if one is hurt, the game can continue because goalies are not exactly interchangeable parts. You can't simply grab another player and tell him to play in goal, if for no reason more complicated than the dozens of pieces of equipment worn by hockey goaltenders having a custom fit.

A handful of times per year a team will suit up what is known as an Emergency Goalie. This happens when one of the two real goalies suffers an injury and is ruled out at the last minute. Ordinarily a team would call up a goalie from its minor league team to replace him, but sometimes (for example, a sudden onset of the flu the day of the game) it isn't possible. So, an emergency goalie is anyone they can put a uniform on and stash at the end of the bench to fulfill the "two goalies" requirement.

Note that this person is not expected to play. He's simply a guy who can put on a goalie's kit, sit on the bench, and if absolutely unavoidably necessary, stand in the net without falling down. Common ways to get an Emergency Goalie include putting a uniform on the team's goaltending coach (usually a retired goalie of advanced age), calling the local rec league team and signing the goalie to a 24-hour contract, or using one of the team's "practice" goalies (for example, the team equipment manager will sometimes put on goalie gear just to give the players something to shoot at during practice).

On March 29, the Chicago Blackhawks found themselves with one injured goalie replaced by a minor-leaguer, Collin Delia, who was to back up the usual second-stringer. But then the backup injured himself during warm-ups, making Delia the starter and leaving the Blackhawks in need of a second body on very little notice.

Just an hour before the game the team reached out to a local Beer League goalie – I imagine a list of guys to call in an emergency is maintained – a 36 year old Certified Public Accountant and just-for-fun hockey player named Scott Foster. He was playing with the other middle-aged guys at a facility right down the street from the United Center. They told him that if he could hurry over, he could tell his bar friends that he got to wear a Blackhawks uniform for one night. He took a cab and they slapped an ill-fitting extra jersey on him.

Unusually in what has been a horrible season for Chicago, the team jumped out to a 6-2 lead with 14 minutes left in the game. Delia, who played fine up to that point, said he felt leg cramps. In a more important game the coach most likely would have left him in, but in a meaningless game with a big lead and just 14 minutes left, Emergency Goalie Scott Foster was put in the game. A real game. A guy who worked 10 hours behind a desk and then took some shots on the ice (probably with a couple beers in him) found himself playing goal behind guys like Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith.

And he did fine. Winnipeg (a favorite to win the championship this year) was coasting in a game they didn't need to win, readying themselves for the playoffs. So it's fair to say they weren't playing their asses off. But still, this guy took 7 shots from the best players in the world and stopped them all.

Not much has gone right for the 'Hawks this year, so they seemed to enjoy this even more than Foster did. He was named first star of the game for what will undoubtedly be the only 14 minutes he will ever play in the NHL.

Imagine being an amateur church choir singer and getting a call asking you to rush down to Broadway to appear in a show in an hour. That kind of plucked-from-ordinary-life storyline rarely happens outside of movies. It was fun to watch it happen, and something about the story was obviously compelling to all of us and our boring lives – every media outlet in the US, and a lot around the world in places where nobody cares about hockey, ran with it. Hell, Money magazine reported it.

Something like this could happen to you someday. Will it? Nah. But it sure is fun to see it happen to someone.

EPISODE 003 – MARKOV CHAINS

Posted in No Politics Friday on March 30th, 2018 by Ed

It has been a busy week for me. First, I have a thing up at The Baffler that looks at the last time we turned schools into fortresses because the political process was unwilling to question any of its fundamental assumptions (even if it meant embracing lunacy). Here's a real shocker – it includes tales from the Cold War!

Even more exciting, Episode 003 of Mass for Shut-ins is now available. Here are the episode notes. The audio is available via iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, and other podcast providers (give it a moment to update if you're trying to find it Friday morning. It'll be there soon if not already). Podcasting is FUN AS HELL but also a lot of work. Each episode is an improvement on the one before! If you tried a previous episode and didn't like it, give this one ten minutes – I'm confident you're gonna dig it.

Story: DEATH BY UMBRELLA: The Georgi Markov story. A tale of intrigue and covert operations from the late Cold War that John Le Carre couldn't have scripted any better. 

Guest: Mike Konczal (@rortybomb), Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and contributor to Vox, The Nation, Dissent, and other fine publications. Mike and I discuss the art of punditry, appearing on TV without pants, the myth of a democratized economy, and stock buybacks. We also do Professor Brothers voices.

Performance by ANDREW BENTLEY. See below for information on Andrew's upcoming live performances in Chicago.

Topic: Why we're living in the Golden Age of Gerrymandering. Hint: It's not just because Republicans are assholes. But it's definitely partly because Republicans are assholes.

Cocktail of the Month: Lime Rickey (aka Gin Rickey, but we'll get into the complicated nomenclature soon enough)

Support Mass for Shut-ins via Patreon. Contact me via Facebook, Twitter (@gin_and_tacos), or the venerable website Gin and Tacos.

Thanks: Mike Konczal, the bands that contribute music (Waxeater, IfIHadAHiFi, The Sump Pumps, Oscar Bait), Zachary Sielaff, Question Cathy, and all Patreon supporters, subscribers, and listeners. Hear more of Andrew Bentley on 3/31 at the American Writer's Museum as part of International Tom Hanks Day, at Write Club Chicago on 4/17, and on 4/7 at C2E2 in a musical comedy on the Cards Against Humanity stage.

NPF: BAD IDEAS GONE GOOD

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.

Quasicrystals
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.

Easy-Off
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.

NPF: THE REFLECTING GOD

Posted in No Politics Friday on January 19th, 2018 by Ed

Recently I took my young niece/nephews to Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry. Despite being a local Institution, it was my first trip there since the 1990s. Well my first trip inside, anyway. It is one of my favorite end-point destinations for bike rides, so I am on the grounds regularly during good weather. But I haven't seen the interior in ages.

Museums are in a tough spot these days. Kids are so hard to stimulate and interest now given the overwhelming sensory stimuli available to them at all times. The MSI exhibits were starkly divided between the Old School ones I remember clearly from childhood and the New Stuff full of touchscreens, very loud noises, and lots of flashing lasers. You see the new stuff (not to mention the tablets and phones every child has on hand) and you realize the more traditional exhibits simply doesn't stand a chance. The enormous model train that takes up 1/4 of the main level at MSI was surrounded with parents whose kids couldn't have looked more bored if they were in church.

My favorite exhibit from the olden days also has lost to the ravages of time: the "hear yourself on the phone" thing. I remember being five, ten years old in the 1980s and finding that absolutely mind-blowing. And you would have to wait in line with dozens of other kids (AND ADULTS) to use it. You spoke into the phone for a couple seconds, waited, listened, and burst into giggles with OH MY GOD DO I REALLY SOUND LIKE THAT? and a good time was had by all.

Now of course there is nothing novel or thrilling about people hearing their own recorded voices. The idea that it even could be novel is incomprehensible to anyone under 20.

This visit took place as I am in the process of completing the first episode of Mass for Shut-ins: The Gin and Tacos Podcast. That has involved a lot of time spent recording my own voice and nothing else, then listening critically to the results. The way we perceive how we sound is rarely subjected to a lot of self-criticism, but I promise you it starts to get very weird after you do it for hours in this kind of setting.

For lack of ability to explain it better, it's like looking at part of your body under extreme magnification. You just…notice a lot. You notice things that have been there forever but you have never actually seen. And then you start to think, wow this has been here all along. Other people probably see it; why haven't I seen it before? Then you get paranoid. What else am I not noticing?

Reaching that point signals a good time to take a break.

The most interesting part, if you're recording something solo, is not the tone of your voice. You will very quickly get used to the fact that it sounds how it sounds. It's the speech patterns. I've done some light reading on this (there actually is Theory of what makes a Radio Voice sound appealing) and discovered that I'm a Riser – each complete thought ends with a rising inflection on the final word.

Here's the thing about when you discover something about a speech pattern you have – it's really, really goddamn hard to alter it. In my case I've been talking this way for 39 years. Undoing it is like trying to learn how to write with my left hand at this point.

We get used to seeing ourselves in mirrors at an early age. Those of us who are a bit older, presuming we're not entertainment industry professionals, haven't totally gotten used to hearing ourselves though. It has been an enlightening experience to say the least. I wouldn't describe it as life changing, but I didn't begin the process of learning how to podcast expecting that I'd end up subjecting such a basic part of my existence to under-microscope scrutiny.

NPF: THE BALLAD OF JEFF GLASS

Posted in No Politics Friday on January 5th, 2018 by Ed

After suffering a string of injuries to their goaltending position, the Chicago Blackhawks recently called up a man named Jeff Glass to make his NHL debut. The team hasn't done bad at all with him in the net, especially for a guy with no NHL experience.

It's a pretty unremarkable story – guy gets hurt, second guy comes in to play in his stead. The interesting thing, though, is that Glass is about to turn 33. All sports are a young person's game, and you don't see many 33 year old rookies. The more I thought about this while watching him play, the more it struck me as one of those "OK this is what people find compelling about sports" moments.

He has more than 15 years and 600 games of experience playing professional hockey, all at various minor or not-quite-NHL levels. He has, in the old saying, Modeled a Few Uniforms in his day. Presumably waiting his turn to get a crack at the NHL he has played for, among other remote islands of the hockey world, the Kootenay Ice, Rockford Icehogs, Binghamton Senators, and six different teams in the Russian KHL including Astana Barys and Lada Tolyatti. Those are cities that, even by Russian standards, are out of the way.

Nobody feels a ton of sympathy for a guy who made not-bad money (minor league hockey at the AHL and KHL level pays high five to low six figures) to play a game for a living. But what a strange, frustrating journey that must have been. Imagine how many nights he must have sat in motel rooms in Chelyabinsk, Russia feeling like he was on another planet and asking, "What the fuck am I doing?"

Anyone who has ever had a goal must be able to imagine how many times he delivered his "I quit" speech into bathroom mirrors or how many times he saw some random dude promoted to the NHL and thought, why him and not me? How many times did he have to talk himself into giving it one more try, one more month, one more game, one more season? When a minor league prospect gets past the age of about 27, it is universally understood that if he has not yet Made It he is never going to Make It. Did Glass convince himself that he would beat those odds? Or did he simply give up on his NHL dream and content himself with being a bush leaguer for as long as someone would pay him?

Either scenario must have made it feel bizarre to finally get that call a week ago, "Here's a plane ticket to Edmonton, you're starting tonight for the Blackhawks." He won that game, by the way. I don't suppose any of that night registered on him, and it must have felt like it was over in a blur – when you wait fifteen years for something to happen, it has to feel like you're underwater and in shock when it actually happens.

It's not exactly an important story, but in its own way a universal one. Achieving goals is about a lot more than our own talent; there are a hundred other "Just get me anyone who knows which end of the goalie stick to hold" guys that Chicago could have signed and played. In the past, Glass got passed over for a lot of them. This time, a lot of them got passed over in favor of him. That's life. The element of randomness tends to drive me crazy. I wonder how he convinced himself it was worth it to keep going, and how it must feel when it paid off.

NPF: DISRUPTED TIMELINE

Posted in No Politics Friday on December 8th, 2017 by Ed

One of the 20th Century's most famous photos depicts Lyndon Johnson taking the Oath of Office on Air Force One after the assassination of JFK. The (now-former) First Lady is at his side, with blood on her clothes.

Most people don't notice that the person swearing him in is a woman. She remains the only woman to swear in a president. Her name is Sarah Hughes, and she was just the third woman ever appointed to the Federal courts when JFK appointed her in 1961. She began her career on the bench as a state district court judge in Texas in 1936 – 18 years before women were even allowed to sit on juries in Texas.

Also, note that anyone over 65 was alive at a time when some states didn't allow women on juries. Is America great again yet?

NPF: ROYAL SAMPLER

Posted in No Politics Friday on November 3rd, 2017 by Ed

Three new pieces of writing up in the past week or so. I humbly submit them for your Friday afternoon reads.

First, a longer piece at Jacobin on the Anti-Rent War of 1840. This is the kind of stuff I really love doing: bringing attention to a relatively obscure part of history and making it relevant to today. I know the audience for this kind of stuff is always going to be limited – long reads and historical arcana being niche markets – but I'm glad there are outlets that still do it.

On Thursday, Rolling Stone ran a look at the new tax proposal that considers the unfathomable possibility that the Republican Party may be in such disarray that it can't pass tax cuts. Tax cuts are supposed to be the one thing they all agree on, an absolute slam-dunk of an issue for them. And yet…

Today The Week ran a piece aimed at bringing attention to an important new piece of political science research that studies what people mean when they express support for fake news and baseless rumors. Do people who say "I agree" to the statement, "Barack Obama is secretly a Muslim" believe it is literally true, or does expressing agreement simply reflect that they do not like Obama? Well, let's just say the results are not encouraging.

Enjoy.

NPF: THE SLOG

Posted in No Politics Friday on August 12th, 2017 by Ed

The posting frequency over the past 10 days reinforces that I am on vacation. Whenever I go to a foreign country, I encounter (surprisingly!) a lot of people from countries other than the US. Casual vacation conversation, of the type you have with people you end up seated next to on a tour, is one of my favorite things.

Yesterday two European mother-and-daughter combos sat for lunch on a tour boat with us. Holland and Spain. Their English was workable and, combined with half-passable Spanish on my part, we covered the basics: Where else are you going on this trip, what have you enjoyed seeing, and so on. As is almost always the case, the Europeans were on trips of six or more weeks duration. When we said 13 days, they gave us a look I've gotten used to from a limited amount of foreign travel. It's the "God, you Americans are so sad" look. The older Dutch woman said, "That is nice, most Americans only do one week." By way of commending us, I think.

Mind you, taking a 13 day vacation is only possible because of extraordinary circumstances aligning. I work the academic schedule, which means that I have (as most people understand it) "summers off." I don't really, of course, but it is true that I do not have to show up to an office daily from mid-May until late August. Cathy has the good fortune to work at an enlightened (by American standards) workplace that gives the now-rare two full weeks of paid vacation annually. How sad is it to look at a person who gets TEN WHOLE DAYS each year that they don't have to work and think, golly, what a lucky person. She must be one of the Rockefellers or something.

We've all seen the charts a million times about how much more Americans work, how much less we earn per hour, how many fewer days of sick and personal leave we get, and how many more public holidays there are elsewhere. What's confusing is why nobody in the world of politics even mentions this as an issue. Like, it isn't even on the radar. It simply doesn't come up. Although the blowback from the hard right would be predictable, part of me thinks a candidate for higher office could get some real traction pushing "How about we double the number of Federal holidays and legally guarantee every full time employee 2 weeks of paid vacation to be pro-rated for part time employees."

The biggest obstacle would not be the obvious pushback from the Chamber of Commerce types but the fact that I really think there are a ton of people in the suburbs who are terrified by the prospect of having time off. They don't enjoy any aspect of their lives except shopping so I think there's a non-trivial part of our population who wouldn't know what to do with themselves if they didn't have their daily work routine to rely on. But hey, no one's saying you would be forced to take the vacation days. If you want to keep wasting away in a cubicle every single day, knock yourself out. The rest of us would like to attempt to enjoy some part of being alive while you hold down the fort.

BOX CHECKING

Posted in No Politics Friday on August 7th, 2017 by Ed

For someone who likes travel as much as I do, it is difficult for me to convey how much I hate talking to other travelers.

They end up falling into one of two categories: the people who have unlimited money and want you to know how many Exotic Trips they've made and the people who want you to know that they may or may not have lots of money but they do all their travel out of a backpack without a dollar in their pocket.

When I get roped into conversations or find myself in enclosed spaces in which I have to overhear them I always choke back the urge to yell questions at people when they're regaling their audience with tales of the absolute BEST time to go to Montserrat or how this may be nice but you just HAVE to see Angkor Wat or the time they were backpacking through Uzbekistan and a roving band of nomads gave them a lift on horseback.

What was it that you liked about it? Why did you pick that place to travel to? What did you do there that you couldn't have done somewhere else?

Yeah, I know, we all have the Tourist Gaze and there's nothing you can do to avoid being a traveler while you're being a traveler. It's amazing, though, how predictable are the lists of destinations people rattle off when they start playing this game of tourism oneupsmanship. Tell me about someplace you've been that isn't straight out of the condensed list of Vacation Bucket Lists by Conde Nast and I promise I'll be a rapt audience for as long as you want. Yeah, we all know that Prague is awesome, that's why everybody and their goddamn brother has been to Prague a dozen times because they Google "hip vacation destinations" and Prague comes up on every list (full disclosure: Some day I would like to go to Prague).

But I really like interacting with people and their experiences more if they're telling me something I can't find in every magazine on the rack and can say something more interesting than "Man, it's SO awesome" to describe the experience. Tell me about the Museum of Bunions, if for no reason other than to prove that you have some interests and aren't simply trying to check a bunch of popular Travel Things off a list without any real motivation beyond being able to afford it and wanting to tell people you did it.

tl;dr: people are boring and an old man is cranky.