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.

NPF: FORMAT SHIFT

Posted in No Politics Friday on July 28th, 2017 by Ed

I was into capybaras way before it was cool. You could say I'm a capyhipster.

The first anyone on the internet, myself included, knew that the giant South American rodents I love so much could be kept as pets in the United States was thanks to Caplin Rous, the original internet capybara. His owner Melanie Typaldos maintained (and still does) the blog Capybara Madness. Aside from having cute animal pictures aplenty, it told some really interesting stories about a day in the life with such a large, unusual pet. After Caplin's passing, Melanie has since acquired successor capybaras Garibaldi and, now, Mudskipper. Here is a picture of me and Muddy. This counts as one of the greatest days of my life.

Due to some health problems (which she has talked about on the blog, so I'm not revealing anything here) Melanie had a pretty long involuntary blogging hiatus. It happened to coincide with the rise to internet stardom of two new pet capys, JoeJoe the Capybara and Sweetie the Capy. These pets' owners are young Millennial types and understood (correctly) that a barrage of cute pictures on Instagram, Twitter, Vine, and other no-text formats would attract a lot of attention. Both have substantial social media presence now.

Melanie is trying to relaunch her blog and has expressed some frustration with the lack of success. The sad fact is, blogging is already "old fashioned." People are succumbing more and more to the lure of cheap, instant gratification without all that troublesome reading involved. Memes, short vids, pictures, and more pictures. That's what people under 30 today are conditioned to consume. Long-form blogging is probably…not dying, but definitely undergoing a contraction. There just aren't many people doing this anymore, not compared to Peak Blog in the early to mid Aughts.

An additional difficulty, as some commenters pointed out while discussing this on Facebook (tellingly, not on a blog), is the switch to consuming the internet on mobile devices instead of laptops and desktop computers. Most blogs just aren't very easy to read on a phone. Social media are optimized to the size of a phone screen and that means…pictures. Lots of pictures. Videos. Animated gifs. Certainly not strings of compound sentences.

I'm never going to stop doing this for the simple reason that I do it for no reason other than I enjoy it. But the internet is definitely going to see a lot of blogging disappear as people who do it strictly in the hopes of getting attention move to more suitable formats like Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter. There's nothing wrong with that, and I'm not insulting people who choose that. It's just a very different approach, and one that I think trades substance for instant gratification. That's the way of the world, though. Formats are forever evolving and information is forever being condensed. It can't be stopped, but that doesn't mean it's a positive development.

NPF: NOT QUITE HISTORY

Posted in No Politics Friday on July 6th, 2017 by Ed

The Telegraph recently ran an update of a story that works its way through the auto journalism community once or twice per year: the "endangered cars of the UK" report. Don't stop reading if you don't care about UK family sedans. There is a larger point here.

Long story short: nationwide auto registration databases are used to track how many of a particular year and model of car are still on the road. And some of the numbers are pretty astonishing. Cars that used to be so common that it seemed like everyone owned one are often down to just a few remaining examples. The once ubiquitous Austin Metro, for example, saw 643,000 built between 1973 and 1981. Today 186 are still on the road – a survival rate of 0.03%.

One culprit, of course, is the legendarily terrible quality of the British Leyland years, which is a story for another time. Many of these cars were not only small, cheap, and spartan, but also put together with extreme indifference or even malice (labor strife led to stories of assembly workers welding glass soda bottles inside doors for shits and giggles). So, many of these cars that ended up at the crusher earned the trip there. At the same time, though, the "classic car" industry proves that people are willing to spend large amounts of money to keep shoddily built crap from the 1970s running. The compact sedans of the "malaise" era simply aren't sexy enough or remembered with enough sentimentality to earn that special treatment, though.

This is a phenomenon I notice a lot in architecture. There is always an outcry to protect "old" buildings (generally anything made before 1970 in the U.S. context). Meanwhile, when the concrete brutalism of the late 1970s and 1980s is slated for the wrecking ball, nobody cares. It isn't old enough to be Historic, new enough to be Modern, or far enough removed from our consciousness to be Nostalgic or Retro. There is a bubble, then between being too new to destroy and not old enough to save. And that's where we lose a lot of history, I suppose. In 30 years collectors will probably pay big bucks for those bland econo-cars now numbering only a few dozen, and architecture fans will be admiring the surviving architecture of the Carter years will be subject to some kind of revival and update.

The cycle moves more quickly with some things – music, for example. Take what is popular today and in five years nobody will have any interest in listening to it. In 20 years it will be Classic and ready to be enjoyed again. Fashion is much the same. You'd instantly recognize a Vintage item from the 50s as valuable while throwing something from the early 00s in the donation bin. If any of us are still alive in 2050, people will be clamoring for those ultra-rare original vintage Jorts or whatever nightmare costuming you thought was a good idea in 2002.

No real resolution here; it's just an interesting pattern I have noticed a lot lately. Things become rare in that interval between being New and being venerable. Why do we value the more distant past so much more than the medium term?

NPF: MISSILE MAIL WAS EXACTLY WHAT IT SOUNDS LIKE

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

When America's economic and military power were peaking in the late 1950s, our government and military were willing to pour money into some pretty dubious ideas. Why? We could afford it. Everything gets the green light when not only is the national mood one in which the threat of the Soviet Union is the dominant concern but economic growth is averaging double-digit percentages annually. Sometimes in hindsight it appears as though we did things that had no real point just…because we could. Because why not. Because rockets and jet planes and big bombs are cool and hey we heard rumors that the Soviets are working on it and by the way did we mention the 12% GDP growth last year?

It is important to preface the following story with the context that in 1959 the U.S. was losing the Space Race and lagged behind the Soviet Union, albeit temporarily, in the development of large missiles. This was considered of extreme importance because of course every missile used to loft something heavy into space was also a missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead or ten halfway around the world.

Perhaps eager to have a "Look! A success!" headline or perhaps simply for the sheer hell of it by the permissive logic of the Pentagon in those days, on today's date in 1959 the submarine USS Barbero launched a Regulus cruise missile at Jacksonville, Florida. Despite the many arguments in favor of doing so, the missile was not intended to destroy Jacksonville. Its warheads had been replaced with two mail containers filled with commemorative US Postal Service items to celebrate the first delivery of "Missile Mail." So, in case any part of this is unclear, the Navy collaborated with the Post Office to see if mail could be delivered by cruise missile.

Why? I mean. Why the hell not, right?

The Postmaster General enthused – with a straight face, apparently – that "before man reaches the moon, mail will be delivered within hours from New York to California, to Britain, to India or Australia by guided missiles. We stand on the threshold of rocket mail." The Pentagon, however, admitted candidly that there was no possible way to make rocket delivery of mail cost effective, with each cruise missile costing the 2017 equivalent of over a million dollars. The stamps carried by the Regulus mail had a value of four cents each. It didn't take a UNIVAC to figure out that this wasn't actually about delivering mail. A more reasonable interpretation would be that, with Sputnik and the American failure(s) to imitate its launch, the US wanted to show off that it could fire a cruise missile 1) from a submarine, and 2) with comparative accuracy over a long distance. No doubt the Post Office enjoyed the publicity and all involved, in that wholesome gee-whiz 1950s way, considered the stunt Neat-o, but other than to stimulate the American imagination and send Russian surveillance personnel to bang off a dispatch to Moscow about a cruise missile there was no real reason for doing this.

Wasteful? Sure. At the same time, it's hard to argue that Americans are happier today now that shenanigans of this type have been eliminated from the budget in favor of orienting all of the Pentagon's funds directly to killing foreigners.

NPF: STILL BETTER THAN SPIRIT

Posted in No Politics Friday on May 25th, 2017 by Ed

Having mentioned Charles Lindbergh's 1927 Transatlantic flight earlier in the week I cannot help myself from giving you just a peek inside the rabbit hole of the early days of aviation.

Flying is terrible, right? It's a thing we endure because the other options are so much more time consuming. Unless you can afford to upgrade to First Class (which basically just replicates what flying was like prior to the 1977 deregulation) you grit your teeth and exchange both comfort and dignity for an inexpensive ticket. Yes, many domestic US tickets approach or exceed $500 in coach depending on your destination and dates, and $500 can hardly be considered "cheap." However, in the grand scheme of things it's about what we can expect unless the airlines wish to resume the ritual of declaring Chapter 11 once per decade.

This is our fault, of course. Actually it's capitalism's fault, but let's keep this manageable. If given the option between a $1000 ORD to SFO ticket with pampering, comfort, and no additional add-on costs or a $255 ORD to SFO ticket that entitles you to be treated as subhuman and confined to a space in which you can barely fit, which will you pick? Your personal preferences and financial situation might point toward the $1000 ticket. Most of us suck it up and take the cheapie. We punt on comfort. The rotten business model in use across the industry offers us the opportunity to get things like legroom and dignity and checked baggage if we fork over the money. Very few passengers choose to do so.

I digress. The reason I mention this is simply to use flying in 2017 as a point of comparison for the following anecdote.

In 1934 the Australian airline Qantas began the first London to Sydney air service. Australia is a chore to fly to even today from Europe or North America. Modern equipment has improved things vastly, as you'll see, but flying to Southeast Asia or Australia-NZ borders on grueling in the best circumstances. In 1934 well-off Brits were astonished to learn that they were free from the tyranny of the steamship and could actually be flown to Sydney and back with each journey taking a mere…are you ready? Twelve days! It was practically like teleporting.

The next time you grumble (as I do, constantly) about flying today consider the ordeal it was in the early days. The flight departed London and before arriving in Sydney it required five changes of aircraft (!!!) among the 12 to 15 layovers, disembarking to travel across Italy via train (Mussolini forbade foreign airlines to cross Italian airspace), and twelve days and nights all for the low price of about $18,000 in 2017 US dollars. For Americans, Australia was on the far end of the early Pacific routes, immortalized by Pan Am's China Clippers, that stopped and spent the evening at five or six fly-speck islands in where grand hotels had been built hastily to pamper passengers who were forking over a lower class working person's annual salary for a seat aboard the loud, primitive flying canoes of the age.

You can't call modern air travel perfect, but it helps on occasion to remember how far it has come.

Actually that doesn't help at all. I want whoever invented the reclining coach seat to be guillotined.

THE COMMENCEMENT ADDRESS NO ONE ASKED FOR

Posted in No Politics Friday on May 20th, 2017 by Ed

Class of 2017 graduates,

I want to take this opportunity to offer you the benefits, unsolicited, of all the wisdom I've accumulated in the two decades since I was in your position: fresh out of college and about to enter adulthood against my will. It is not in the nature of 18-22 year olds to take advice, but it is in the nature of people nearing 40 to look back on the advice they received and realize that some of it was helpful. So, without further literary foreplay, please remember the following as you move forward in life:

1. The two areas in which you should never try to economize are toilet paper and airplane tickets. One-ply toilet paper will save you a buck or two, but the costs of failure are catastrophic. Spend the extra money. And you will be enticed by the ticket on Spirit Airlines or something similar because it is $100 cheaper than every other fare. By the time you realize how miserable your flight experience is, combined with all the extra fees they will hit you with for the privilege of getting on the plane with your luggage, you will find that you didn't save money at all. You just flew a shittier airline and were more miserable than absolutely necessary.

2. Guac is extra. Guac is always extra, and honestly it's overpriced and not worth it. Avocados taste vaguely like soap.

3. Learn to cook a handful of things. It doesn't have to be fancy. The money you spend dining out will do more damage to your budget than you realize.

4. Leave your college town now. You're done there. It will be tempting to stick around because you like it and it's familiar. It will become sad very quickly, though, when you are That Guy Who Graduated and is Hanging Around Townie-Like. Moving sucks. Making new friends as an adult is hard. Do it anyway.

5. Don't go back to your hometown either. There is nothing there for you. Do things that have a future, not a past.

6. Everything sucks right now, and whatever job you find is likely to suck. I'm sorry. We are all sorry. But any extended period of idleness will make it that much harder to get into the workforce later. Tough it out. Often after a year or two in the basement of any profession you can make some connections that will better your standing in a couple of years. Who you know is important.

7. Take it easy with the alcoh…oh fuck it, you will probably spend your entire 20s drunk. Why not. It's the last time your body will be able to handle "partying" as you currently define it.

8. Buy one outfit now, and possibly an outfit that has the ability to be altered, for weddings. You are going to go to about 100 weddings in the next five to ten years and it can get really pricey fast.

9. Don't worry if everyone else is getting married and you're not. Statistically, half of these marriages will fail. It's OK. It's life.

10. This is the best time in your life to fail at anything. The consequences are less severe right now than they ever will be. In ten or fifteen years when you have more responsibilities – children, spouses, financial obligations, etc. – it will be extremely costly and impractical to move to Hollywood and try to become an actor, or write the great American novel, or open a small business, or try to unicycle across Siberia, or work on a cruise ship to see the world drunk and for free, or give it a go with your band, or set yourself up to provide a service that it may turn out is not in demand, or open that bar, or anything else. For most of the ideas and goals you have that do not involve working a fairly dull job for a paycheck, it's now or likely never. You can try something like this and fail miserably at 25 without crippling your future. At 55, you can't. It's OK. The hoary inspirational advice is right: a lot of very successful people went bankrupt, sometimes multiple times. If there is something you want to try that you will end up regretting if you don't try it, do it now. If you fail, nobody except you will feel the failure. And then you'll be young enough to start over.

11. Don't go to grad school unless you actually want to go to grad school. It's too pricey now to go just because you can't think of anything else to do.

12. Get an adult email address. Nobody is going to hire "FingrBlastr420@___.com." And while you're at it, go to a good bar and figure out which Adult Drink you like. You can't go to professional events with adults and ask for the neon flavored vodka nonsense at college bars.

13. Never let inertia make decisions for you. You don't have to marry him just because you've been dating for so long. You don't have to keep working at Job X because you've been there for 15 years already and blah blah. You don't have to buy a house just because it's that time, or because everyone else is doing it. You always have a choice about these things. Maybe getting married, having 2.3 kids, buying a house, and all that stuff is perfect for you. Just remember that you don't have to do any of it unless you really want to. The leading cause of unhappiness in the affluent world is people making choices to do things they do not actually want to do. When you think hard about it, there is very little you "have to" do.

14. If you don't have hobbies or interests, get some. Beyond college it is very difficult to meet other adults to socialize with.

15. Get out of the house. Nothing good happens to someone who is sitting at home alone. Go do activities you might not be super excited about or attend events that are only marginally interesting. Sitting around alone is a good way to ensure nothing changes. You want things to change, and change for the better. Get out and meet people. Most of the people you meet in your twenties will amount to nothing in your life, but one or two of them will make all the difference.

Everything is Terrible All the Time,
Ed

NPF: THAT HE DID, CHAP.

Posted in No Politics Friday on April 14th, 2017 by Ed

In 1882 an internal dispute between the compositing (layout and typesetting) department and the editorial staff of The Times of London led to an incident that can best be described in modern terms as "Victorian Shitposting."

A speech by Home Secretary William Harcourt was selected by the editors to be reprinted in full due to an upcoming by-election. The conclusion of the Rt. Hon. Gentleman's speech was, in the edition that went to press and was distributed across England the next day, quoted as follows:

I saw in a Tory journal the other day a note of alarm, in which they said “Why, if a tenant-farmer is elected for the North Riding of Yorkshire the farmers will be a political power who will have to be reckoned with." The speaker then said he felt inclined for a bit of fucking.

The reader could be forgiven for wondering if Sir William had in fact said this, or had perhaps been misquoted.

Victorian Furor followed. The Times ran a mortified apology four days later and left no stone lie in its attempt to find the perpetrator. A few months later (presumably he) struck again. An advertisement for a book called Everyday Life in our Public Schools was altered to claim that the book was bolstered by "a glossary of some words used by Henry Irving in his disquisitions upon fucking."

Many employees of the compositing department were given the sack. It is unclear if the guilty person was among them, or merely was scared into ceasing his endeavors by the consequences handed down to his co-workers. In either case the incidents stopped and did not return.

Truly was this a great moment in the history of culture-jamming, pranking, civil disobedience, or whatever one chooses to call this kind of brilliance.