NPF: DOUBLING DOWN, APPROPRIATELY ENOUGH

Posted in No Politics Friday, Skip this if you hate sports on December 3rd, 2016 by Ed

I haven't used the "Skip this" tag in over a year, so if it applies to you just bear with this post.

Gary Bettman has done a lot of good things for the NHL. When he became commissioner in 1993 the league was struggling to attract revenue beyond the gate (i.e., other than ticket sales) and it was a niche sport in the US on par with soccer or tennis. He thoroughly modernized the league, something even his biggest detractors admit, and in the process has probably been a net positive.

His Achilles Heel, though, has been the insistence on bringing hockey to the Sun Belt in the US. On paper it makes sense, although owners in 1993 were rightly incredulous. He had the foresight to point out how much of the US population would move to the Sun Belt, and his predictions came true. Unfortunately expanding to the Sun Belt has been a mixed bag at best because the fundamental premise – that Midwest / New England transplants to the South will want to see their favorite teams come to town for road games – is badly flawed. If the team can't build a local fan base because local fans simply don't care about hockey, the franchise is doomed. Atlanta lasted all of seven years. The Phoenix/Arizona Coyotes have been a ward of the league several times and don't attract flies to their expensive Glendale arena even though the team has been good recently, making the playoffs multiple times and even knocking off the 3-time Cup winning Blackhawks in 2011. Florida has been a basketcase / zombie franchise in a Miami market that could not care less about it for over 20 years now.

The two teams that succeeded in the Sun Belt – Tampa Bay and Nashville – did so because their ownership groups were intelligent enough not to rely on old fans coming to see their team on the road as a fan base. They both sustained huge short term losses by giving away tickets (especially to kids, knowing that the parents would have to come too) by the bushel. For every 10 free tickets, 1 person came and realized "Hey, I like this!" and they slowly built a local base. Having good teams helped a lot too (TB has won 1 Cup and runner-upped a second). So Bettman will, with some justification, point out that Sun Belt hockey can work.

And now he's doubling down on Las Vegas. Las Vegas is going to be a goddamn disaster. My suggestion on a popular hockey site for the team nickname (which ended up being the atrocious "Black Knights", as generic a name as you can find) was the Nordiques, because this team is going to be in Quebec in ten years or I'll eat my hat. Las Vegas has nothing that suggests it can ever support a pro sports team, and especially not hockey.

The obvious flaw in the Vegas market is that even the local population is transient. People, usually younger people, move to Vegas to work for a few years before burning out on the "Sin City" atmosphere and moving somewhere normal. It's not a place any sane person can take for very long. The other part of the population is retirees who are only going to care inasmuch as they can see the Bruins or Blackhawks come to town a couple times per year. It is beyond unlikely that a hockey team – assuming for a second that anyone in the desert even is predisposed to care about hockey – is going to build a strong local following in a place where the population is constantly churning.

They'll sell out in year one for the novelty factor – At the very least the league will strong arm casinos into gobbling up season tickets to give away for free – and I'm guessing that by the end of year two there will be more people on the ice than in the seats. Even if the team is good, which isn't likely given the expansion draft rules adopted last summer, this has all the makings of a non-starter.

Winnipeg's new team, the ex-Atlanta Thrashers, proves that when in doubt, NHL teams belong in Canada. Statistical analysis suggests that even though it is the 4th largest city in the US, Houston (pop. 6,500,000) has fewer people who like hockey enough to buy tickets than Saskatoon (pop. 260,000). Insiders were floored that Quebec City, with its billionaire ownership group willing to self-fund an arena and where the Nordiques (now Colorado Avalanche) are still missed, was not awarded an expansion team in favor of Vegas. Something tells me that they'll be getting their team soon enough. Despite the US/Canadian exchange rate issue, which Bettman blamed for the QC group's rejection, can't override the basic fact that people in Quebec will go to the games and nobody in Vegas will.

The worst outcome will be Bettman choosing to die on the hill of a Vegas franchise as he has stubbornly refused all attempts to relocate Phoenix or Florida despite them both being clear failures and money losers in their current markets. Bettman's getting old and he could decide to dig in his heels. But if 10% of the league's teams – 3 of 30 – are money losing Bettman pet projects, I think the owners are likely to rebel. So it's time for Hamilton and Quebec City to make sure that the local owners' groups and arena plans are ready to roll because this Vegas adventure is likely to be as short lived as it is poorly thought out.

NPF: FORGET-ME-NOT

Posted in No Politics Friday on November 4th, 2016 by Ed

So this is sports, but it's not sports.

It has been very interesting from an armchair sociological perspective to watch the nation (and certainly the city of Chicago) lose its marbles over the World Series win by the long-suffering Cubs. At 108 years, their championship drought certainly was unprecedentedly long. That's not interesting outside of a sports context. But the fact that national media outlets devoted exclusively to covering sports apparently forgot that the Chicago White Sox won the World Series just 11 years ago is.

I'm somewhat biased here, as a Sox fan. I was at Game 2 of that World Series. But the distinction between Cubs and White Sox fans in Chicago is something we can describe without being affected by our own preferences. The Cubs are the North Side. The Sox, the South Side. The North Side is wealthier, whiter, younger, and where people go to have a good time. The big music venues, the fancy restaurants, the theaters…all north of the loop for the most part. The South Side is not glamorous. It is traditionally less wealthy, not a place people associate with having a night on the town, and heavily composed of black, Hispanic, Irish, Polish, and other identifiably "ethnic" populations. The North Side is residential and cosmopolitan. The South Side is industrial and without frills.

In 2005, the year the White Sox won the Series, it was interesting to watch how little anyone outside of the South Side gave a crap, here or nationally. The previous year, the Boston Red Sox won their first series since 1918 and everyone in the national media treated it like the second coming. Yet when the White Sox were going for their first win since 1917 – an even longer drought – nobody seemed to care. That they played the equally anonymous (but excellent) Houston Astros probably didn't help. And now ten years later everyone is going crazy for the Cubs and their drought again. Hmm.

The excuses for people hopping on the Cubs bandwagon – everyone loves an underdog, etc. – fall flat. It's clear that *some* underdogs and *some* droughts are worthy of our collective sympathy. As long as the team is one for whom being a supporter is sufficiently cosmopolitan and has sufficient social cachet attached to being a fan, then everyone cares. If your fan base is 25% native Spanish speakers and your stadium is located across the highway from what was once America's most notorious public housing project, then nobody even notices let alone cares.

I don't mean to read too much into reactions to a sporting event, and I have no doubt personally that the Cubs fans outnumber Sox fans in Chicagoland. Yet the White Sox victory parade in 2005 was attended by 3 million people, a staggering number that I'm sure today's Cubs parade will match. I can't help but feel that which 3 million people were excited about the White Sox is a significant part of the explanation for why their World Series championship inspired so little interest compared to what happened for the Cubs and Red Sox.

CODA: And it was great baseball, too. The White Sox went 11-1 in the playoffs, won a 15 inning marathon in Game 3 of the World Series (the kind of game that legends are made of), and won in the 9th inning of Game 4 on two plays by Juan Uribe that, had Derek Jeter made them, would have been the subject of feature films.

NPF: HAMILTON

Posted in No Politics Friday on October 23rd, 2016 by Ed

More than a year into its rise as a Cultural Phenomenon, I knew almost nothing about "Hamilton." I do not like musicals in general – there's nothing wrong with them, I'm simply not the intended audience for it given the things I like – so not only did I not make an effort to see it but I remained almost totally ignorant of it. I knew it involved rap and Aaron Burr and a guy named Lin-Manuel Miranda who received a Macarthur Grant despite the fact that he already earned like a billion dollars off the musical. Other than that, I was a blank slate when an old friend texted me that an extra ticket was available for a group outing among her friends. Though somewhat worried about the ticket cost (I'd heard rumors, dark rumors) I accepted. It didn't seem likely to hurt me to put on some decent looking clothes and hang out with other adults for a while on a Sunday.

I would not necessarily recommend that anyone run out and pay the borderline crazy prices being sought for second hand tickets, but I will say that I have a very, very hard time believing that anyone who saw this performance could fail to enjoy it. I looked hard for reasons not to like it, and I found none. There are some minor nits to pick with the production, like the fact that the cartoon Pepe le Pew French accent makes Lafayette totally unintelligible, and with the accuracy of the way that some people are portrayed. Thomas Jefferson's role, as many critics have noted, is particularly odd but I also understand that this is a musical, intended to entertain, and that some character would have to serve as the comic relief and secondary antagonist. The spirit of the events retold here is accurate, and obviously the writer was not trying to reproduce conversations verbatim (it turns out the people involved did very little rapping in 1800). Overall, I strongly suspect that a viewer who could not enjoy a live performance of this musical is not capable of enjoying much of anything.

This is so Ed, but I have to be honest about something: I liked it slightly less when, later that evening, I did a little reading about Mr. Miranda. There's nothing deficient about his character or his motives. He obviously created something that strikes a chord with audiences right now and deserves to be rewarded handsomely for it. What disappointed me slightly – remember, I consume no theater or musicals at all – was that he was already successful when he wrote this. As it had been told to me, I was under the impression that this was a crazy idea carried out by an eccentric genius, a man devoted entirely to an idea so insane that one can only admire the fact that he stuck it through to completion. "It's going to be about Alexander Hamilton, but lots of rapping" is not a description that would produce many encouraging responses.

However, Miranda had already starred in a play called In the Heights and had been nominated for a Tony Award for his performance. Even I know that means he was already well established in the world of Broadway, enough so that he could take a relatively crazy idea and receive full benefit of doubt. No matter how bad the idea looked on paper, you can imagine the money people saying "Well, what the hell. His last one was a hit" and putting it on anyway. I'm not sure why, but that diminished it for me just a bit. It didn't change the performance, obviously, but it took a little bit of the shine off the backstory. I guess I liked the idea of some guy living dollar to dollar sitting in his apartment scribbling out a script and telling himself, "You'll see! It will be a hit, I'm telling you! Just you watch and see!" Everyone likes a good Starving Artist Makes It story, I guess.

Lastly, I think one of the reasons many people do not like musicals is that it's hard to do a musical really well, and the difference between a musical done really well and one that is mediocre or worse is stark. There are only a small number of performers with enough talent to really pull something as conceptually weird as Hamilton off. I'm sure this will eventually spawn several touring versions, which may or may not be just as good, but I'm glad I saw it with the A+ cast while I had the chance. I think it would be hard to pull off with anything less than the best performers.

So for the first and last time that's my take on a musical. Ten stars, would see again, call the babysitter, fun for the whole family.

NPF: THE BALLAD OF SMILEY RATLIFF

Posted in No Politics Friday on October 7th, 2016 by Ed

Because my work schedule involves me working a lot and sleeping little on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday before a 3-4 hour drive home in traffic on Thursday evening, I've really been dropping the ball on NPF lately. Let's just say I'm not filled with enthusiasm for writing or doing much of anything else when I walk through the door at 9:00 and flop on the couch. I'm going to try to make it all up to you with the power of this one story.

The British Empire once proudly boasted of covering more of the planet than any in history. While it remains technically true today that "the sun never sets" on said Empire, it has declined to a very tiny sliver of what it used to be. Yes, the UK still has colonial possessions of various kinds. However, the list is not terribly impressive. In the three decades after the conclusion of WWII nearly every part of the Empire that stood a passing chance of surviving on its own economically and militarily declared independence, and the last real part of the Empire of any significance – Hong Kong – returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. What remains, with the arguable exception of Bermuda, is a scattered list of barely populated islands held due to military significance (Diego Garcia, Ascension Island) or because nobody wants them (Saint Helena, Tristan da Cunha, etc). The Empire as it remains is less a proud possession and more of a burden. You get the distinct impression that were there any way to talk Saint Helena into declaring independence or perhaps to find another country willing to take it the Brits would hand it over with pleasure.

The saddest part of the Empire, though, is Pitcairn Island. Home to less than 50 people today, Pitcairn is known (if at all) as the place where Fletcher Christian and the mutineers from the "Mutiny on the Bounty" incident took refuge. The story has been made into books, films, and other media countless times, so at least Britons are familiar with it. Pitcairn is one of the most isolated populated places in the world, and its population of heavily inbred castoffs has only garnered the interest of the modern world in 2004 when women who escaped the island brought suits in UK courts claiming (accurately, as it turned out) that the island's primary social activity for decades had been organized rape. The UK is at present patiently waiting for the remaining islanders – no women of child bearing age remain to grow the population – to die out so they can declare it uninhabited and be done with administering it once and for all.

So. Let's time travel to a different but equally sad place: Appalachia in the early 1980s. It's time to meet a man named Smiley Ratliff.

Mr. Ratliff was a cartoon character, a multimillionaire coal baron right out of Central Casting. He was dumb, crude, uneducated, weird, profane, and somewhere to the right of the John Birch Society (which he actively supported) – a hybrid of JR Ewing from Dallas and Jed Clampett. Briefly, Mr. Ratliff had a short list of things he hated with a passion bordering on obsession: Communists, psychoanalysis, paying taxes, and journalists were the primary villains in his world. The things he loved included privacy, drinking, his dozen mistresses, and watching old cowboy movies. So, to make a long story short, Smiley decided in the late 70s that what he really needed was to find a remote island somewhere on the globe, buy it, rebuild his enormous mansion there, and be left alone for all eternity.

That is how, one day in 1982, a no doubt bemused British civil servant responded haughtily to a request to purchase Henderson Island – an unpopulated rock off Pitcairn – for the purpose of building an airstrip, leveling everything else, and importing the entire life of one Mr. Arthur "Smiley" Ratliff there. Parts of the Empire are not for sale, "SIR," you can imagine him saying. Undeterred, Ratliff used his wealth and political connections to press the matter. Eventually it occurred to someone in Whitehall that, matters of honor and pride aside, the British do not actually want this goddamn place anymore. And – though it later attempted to deny it – that is how the British ended up very nearly accepting his generous offer of $3 million cash, an airstrip on Henderson with a ferry boat to allow its use by Pitcairners (who were and are otherwise without an air link to the outside world) and medical and telecommunications facilities for Pitcairn and Henderson.

The man was crude and uneducated, but he knew how to do business apparently. The UK government began to realize that it couldn't generate a good enough excuse NOT to accept such an offer. Pitcairn was a money pit and its people a national embarrassment. Here was a man willing to essentially take over the burden of supporting the place in exchange for being allowed to do whatever he wanted on an empty fragment of land near it. Alas, those proud defenders of Empire and British pride found salvation in the World Wildlife Fund, which pointed out that Mr. Ratliff's plan would devastate the pristine habitat of dozens of rare flora and fauna. Some are found nowhere else on Earth. Rather than further antagonize the environmentalists already vocally criticizing the UK government in the early 1980s, Whitehall informed ol' Smiley with regret that it must decline his very nice offer.

Ratliff died in 2007, never having found a government to sell him an island but not for lack of trying. And that's the story of how the British almost sold part of the Empire populated by inbred hillbillies to a different, very wealthy hillbilly so that he might turn it into some kind of Xanadu / Fortress of Solitude.

It's good to be back, Fridays.

CLURB GEAR

Posted in No Politics Friday on October 5th, 2016 by Ed

At long last, you can finally show the world how important regular visits to The Clurb are in your life. If you are not familiar with The Clurb you must not be following Gin and Tacos on Facebook, which is your loss. Due to popular demand I'm offering the following Swag (as the kids probably no longer say) featuring a campaign-inspired design inviting everyone to follow you to The Clurb.

These stylish t-shirts show the world that you're on your way to The Clurb AND on the reverse side (not pictured) invites said world to "Dance Up On Me." Gin and Tacos is not responsible for any Dancing Up On that occurs as a result of these cotton-poly blend Canvas brand t-shirts screenprinted (no cheap transfers) in vibrant color in Ohio, USA by Screenin' Fever. Unisex / Men's shirts in athletic/heather gray are $20 plus a small shipping fee and, since women earn 79% of a man's salary for the same work in this country, Women's fit V-Neck shirts (also by Canvas in heather gray) are $17. Click for Canvas sizing guides for unisex and women's v-neck shirts. Click the image to order, or here to see a slightly larger version of the shirt. (Note: as of the date of this post this is a PRE-SALE, since I have no idea what sizes and quantity are in demand. Shirts will arrive to you no later than Oct. 30)




Choose size and style

BUT WAIT. THERE'S MORE. We have these lovely bumper stickers in UV-resistant vinyl from the fine folks at Sticker Robot. 9" x 2". Guaranteed to get you followed by strangers intrigued by the mysteries of The Clurb. $4.50 (shipping included in the US, with a $2 surcharge for non-US shipping). Slap one on your car, your guitar case, your genitals, or literally anywhere solid. Here's a full sized image, or click the sticker below to purchase via PayPal.


Choose Shipping Option



Can you do any less than order one now? Finally you'll have a garment suitable to be married in!

NPF: THE CENTENNIAL

Posted in No Politics Friday on August 25th, 2016 by Ed

Either the headlines or your social media feed no doubt made you aware that this week (Thursday, specifically) the National Park Service celebrated its 100th birthday. It has been called the best idea America ever had, and although a good argument could be made in favor of nachos it's hard to dispute that.

Growing up in the featureless, flat, expansive Midwest the NPS was not a thing I was familiar with directly until my late teens. During a trip to Arizona during a very difficult time in my life I passed a sign for something called Walnut Canyon National Monument and, on a lark, I decided to stop and see what this place I had never heard of was all about. I'll spare you the sappy writing about the experience and say simply that I was hooked immediately and amazed that something that obscure could be so great. It was natural (puns!) for me to wonder what else was hiding in plain sight behind those NPS signs.

Having the complete-ist personality that compels me to Collect 'Em All when I become interested in something, from that moment in 2003 (and a few follow-up visits to other sites in Arizona) I decided that before I depart the mortal coil I am going to visit every one of the 413 units and counting of the National Park Service. Oh, I was so naive and ambitious back then. It was an unrealistic goal.

Just kidding. I'm currently at 217. At this rate I'll have them all before I'm 50.

Basically all of my vacations involve me checking as many of them off my list as I can. Very few things make me happier than finally reaching a destination that until that moment has only been a name on a list and a green dot on a map to me. True, not everything in the System qualifies as "mind blowing" but I can count the number of times I have been disappointed or failed to see or learn something interesting on one hand. The NPS is very important to me. It's melodramatic to say it Saved My Life; that's going a bit far. But it did give me a sense of purpose, a mission to complete, a list that seems to go on and on and ensures that there is always something new for me to get in the car and find the next time I can get away from work.

If I can muster the time and motivation this weekend I'll post some highlight pictures of places I've been. I'm not a souvenir buyer, but I do take a ton of pictures. If I could go back in time and tell 2003 Ed that a dozen years down the road he would be more than halfway through the list, he would probably roll his eyes. In hindsight, the only regret I have is not starting sooner.

Happy birthday, NPS. Even George W. Bush couldn't slow you down, although god knows he tried.

NPF: PLAYING WITH FIRE

Posted in No Politics Friday on August 19th, 2016 by Ed

Ethnic and racial prejudice are not only vile but also dangerous. Remember that time we surrendered the right to get drunk because we hated the Germans?

Well. It's a little more complicated than that. But without good old fashioned anti-German sentiment Prohibition likely would have gotten no further than the "Bad Ideas" drawing board. The short version? Glad you asked.

The year was 1915. America's involvement in World War I was that of a spectator, at least until Germany came up with the brilliant idea of unrestricted submarine warfare on Atlantic shipping. Their theory was that any shipping to its European enemies aided the Allied Powers and hurt the German war effort. So, they sunk the passenger ship RMS Lusitania, which carried nothing but civilians. It sank in less than 15 minutes and 1,198 people died. Many were women and children. Many were Americans. Germany, to its credit, immediately apologized for the unfortunate incident.

Just kidding. They celebrated the sinking like a great battle had been won.

"Fuck Germany" attitudes were peaking in the United States, and an opportunistic weasel and Anti-Saloon League activist named Wayne Wheeler, a masterful politician if a very silly human being, seized upon this pretext to build public support for prohibition by framing it as a patriotic blow against the German-dominated brewing and distilling industry in the United States. Nearly every alcohol enterprise of significance was run by German-Americans or non-citizen German immigrants at the time, so Wheeler's characterization contained enough grains of truth to feel plausible. Thus were Americans who loved a good drink convinced to support Prohibition.

Well. Sort of. That was part of it. The other part was that Prohibitionist lied a lot about what their goals were.

When the 18th Amendment was passed, it is historically accurate to say that anti-German prejudice was an important component of building public and political support for it. The other part was the widespread belief that Prohibition was not really full Prohibition. The 18th Amendment proscribes "intoxicating liquors" and nearly everyone – even the people voting directly on the Amendment – believed that this was to be read literally, meaning that beer and wine would continue to be available. As the 18th Amendment is not in itself an enforceable law, specific legislation (which became known infamously as the Volstead Act) was required to spell out the minutiae of what, when, and how the spirit of the Amendment would be put into practice. The public, not to mention many elected officials who had supported the 18th Amendment, were effectively stunned to discover after the fact that they would in fact lose the legal right to purchase or manufacture any alcoholic beverages.

As everyone knows well, the law was widely flouted and it is fair to say that most Americans did not panic too much when they realized that Wheeler and his small group of influential Congressmen behind the Volstead Act had pulled a bait-and-switch. But no one really seemed to realize what Prohibition was until Prohibition began. It was a disaster, and a disaster that we as a nation stumbled into – blindly, and practically by accident.

The good thing is that we all learned a valuable lesson about the futility, danger, and enormous cost of trying to enforce the prohibition of something widely consumed (whether legal or illegal) and harmless in moderation. And we never made that mistake again. The End.

NPF: SPLIT PERSONALITY

Posted in No Politics Friday on August 11th, 2016 by Ed

Late Thursday evening (Central Time, that is) an earthquake struck near Vanuatu. If any Americans or Europeans have heard of that small island archipelago nation at all it is likely due to its stint as the setting of the 2004 season of Survivor, back when that show was at the apex of its popularity. The nation's reappearance in the news due to the earthquake is as good a reason as any to tell one of my favorite politics and government anecdotes. What I am about to tell you is true. I couldn't make this up if I tried.

(And don't worry, reports indicate no one was hurt in the quake. If that segue seemed Too Soon.)

During the golden era of empires European powers, especially Britain and France, were scooping up Pacific islands like kids grabbing candy at a parade. Both the UK and France claimed different parts of an island group off the eastern coast of Australia. Captain Cook "discovered" them in 1774 and christened them the New Hebrides, and by the late 1800s the two major colonial powers of Europe were deadlocked over who could add the hapless islands and their people to its trading card list of obscure colonies.

As the islands were too small and irrelevant to spark any kind of major throw-down between Paris and London, in 1906 the nations simply agreed (without consulting the Vanuatu people, naturally) to govern the islands under a rare arrangement called a condominium. When used in the political sense the term simply means any territory over which two governing bodies will exercise shared authority. In practice it meant that every single aspect of the state and government was duplicated; there was, for example, a French police force and a British one. They alternated days, each enforcing the laws of its own nation. Seriously.

Someone arrested in Vanuatu had three choices for legal proceedings. They could be tried in a British court under common law, in a "local" court under tribal law, or in a French court under the Napoleonic code. Every government act and document had to be provided in French, English, and the local Bisonia creole tongue, and public signs were similarly trilingual. Visitors had to pass through both French and UK customs separately. There was a British jail and a French jail (which served champagne). There was a British hospital and a French hospital (which also served champagne). The condominium agreement itself was overseen by a Spanish judge (the first of whom spoke neither English nor French) and a Dutch accountant. The only saving grace was that in the staggeringly hot tropical climate, nobody did much of anything.

Oh, and in 1942 the Americans showed up and essentially took over. Since all parties involved – French, British, or local – were actively terrified that the Japanese were about to invade, this was not unwelcome. The New Hebrides were phenomenally lucky in comparison to many other islands and atolls. Since 1942 residents have held in high regard the memory of a cow named Besse, supposedly killed when an American errant aircraft crash-landed in a farmer's field. This was the sole casualty of World War II in the islands. Not one human casualty was recorded.

A funny thing about decolonization in the Pacific is that the year in which many colonies received their independence coincided exactly with the depletion of the local phosphate (guano) reserves. Isn't it weird how it worked out like that? The New Hebrides – its unconventional and redundant governing arrangement having lasted 74 years, or 73 years longer than anyone predicted – took their turn in 1980 and chose to revert to the local name, Vanuatu. This was common among the islands who had been given meaningless European names. The nearby Gilbert and Ellice Islands, for example, gained independence in 1976 and immediately seceded from one another to become Kiribati and Tuvalu, respectively.

Colonialism was weird. The New Hebrides condominium might have been peak weird.

NPF: CITIUS, ALTIUS, FORTIUS

Posted in No Politics Friday on August 4th, 2016 by Ed

(Note: I'm going on vacation as of Friday morning. Posts will continue, although there may be interruptions. Not only do I have to return to teaching imminently, but if I don't take a break from this election I won't survive to November.)

With everything that has happened in the world in the last few years, not to mention the uninterrupted shitshow that has been 2016, it's hard to believe they're even going forward with the Olympics in Rio. The internet can give you thousands of stories about how totally unprepared the city is and how little of what was promised has been delivered (side note: I visited Brazil three weeks prior to the 2014 World Cup, and nothing was ready. The new terminal supposedly being build at the airport in Brasilia had a plastic sheet stapled to 2×4 boards for two of its walls). Beyond that, the likelihood of the Games going off without – I don't want to jinx it – a serious "security issue" at some point seems nearly nil. If international terrorists have found ways to exploit the weaknesses of France, Germany, and Belgium in recent months then Rio, where the cops aren't even competent to handle basic street crime…well, it's not a pleasant thought.

It's becoming clear to the international community what a boondoggle these events are, which is why we see authoritarian or semi-authoritarian states like Russia, Qatar, China, Brazil, and Turkey making the biggest (and most often successful) bids to host Olympics and World Cups. Despite all the promises of economic development, inevitably the huge government expenditures end up in the pockets of a small, predictable group of people with financial and political power. Then the moment the competition ends, the costly infrastructure becomes useless. Remember all that fancy stuff they built in Beijing? Yeah. So, nations with democratically elected leaders are shying away from taking it in the neck financially in exchange for the dubious benefit of turning a major city into a disaster area for the better part of a month.

It might be time to revisit the idea of holding the Olympics in the same city every time. Athens seems to be a popular proposal, but essentially any city big enough to house people for a couple weeks in hotels or dormitories can handle it. Pay once to build facilities and then reuse them with only the costs of maintenance, not new construction, to worry about four years down the line. As for the World Cup, limit it to nations where no new stadium construction would be required. Places like France, Germany, the US, Japan, Brazil, and others could work the games into existing facilities that are more than able to handle it.

Lastly, and only half-fatuously, the Olympics have lost all of their veneer of friendly, amateur international competition. It feels no different than watching pro sports now. Maybe it would revive interest if instead of relying on star athletes, citizens of each nation were picked out of a lottery. If we really want to see if the US is better than Argentina at basketball, the purest form of competition would be to grab a random sample of people and throw them out on the court. We already know Lebron James can dunk on everyone. Let's see how your dentist handles the rock.

NPF: HOME OF THE FUTURE

Posted in No Politics Friday on July 2nd, 2016 by Ed

The buildings we live in have changed remarkably little over the past few centuries. Sure, they're better constructed today and take advantage of a slew of technological advances. Fundamentally they haven't changed much – some combination of wood, stone, and metal on a concrete or stone-like foundation. Build some load-bearing walls and top it off with some kind of roof that hopefully won't catch fire or let the rain in. Put a few windows in the walls for light and ventilation. Add some doors. Voila.

I've always been fascinated by efforts to depart from this basic formula, none of which ever manage to catch on. That suggests that people are resistant to change, but also that, well, the basic design works pretty damn well. Sometimes we stick with things because they don't need much improvement.

Two specific examples from the United States of efforts to improve upon the basic design are, to me, especially interesting. One is the Lustron home that emerged after World War II in response to the nationwide shortage of cheap housing for returning GI Bill home buyers. Lustron was a marketing name for steel baked with a porcelain enamel. The sales pitch was that such homes eliminated the maintenance and deterioration issues of wood and drywall. It never needed to be painted, it wouldn't absorb moisture, and it would not fade or crumble with time. And believe it or not, to look at the surviving Lustron homes today you'd never guess their age from the condition of the exterior. The homes were very small by current standards (about the size of an average 1 or 2 bedroom apartment today) but the manufacturers were not kidding about the durability of the enameled steel construction. They did not rust or wear.

lustron

Despite the advantages (and some disadvantages, as temperature control was an issue with the steel walls) the heavily marketed homes were not backed by a robust system of manufacturing and distribution. In other words, they were great at selling them but not great at building them as quickly as competing vendors of traditional wood-and-vinyl siding houses could slap them together. People wanted houses and they wanted them now. Lustron could promise a nice house, but with subdivisions exploding around major cities with cheap ranch houses the buyer could step into tomorrow, the company eventually failed. They had the last laugh, though. Compare these homes today to any houses flung together in haste between 1945 and 1950 and see which one you'd want to occupy.

The other scheme – one remarkable in its failure given the man behind it – was Thomas Edison's all-concrete home. Though better known for other things Edison and his associates made great advances in the mass production of concrete ("Portland cement") in the United States, and his company came to be a major player in that industry. Edison and some other wealthy backers believed that a cheap poured concrete home was the solution to America's housing needs, arguing that such homes could be built rapidly and at low cost due to the simplicity of materials. And when Edison said "concrete home" he meant the whole damn thing. They had concrete furniture. Concrete appliances. Concrete walls, floors, and roof. You were getting a house that you could move into immediately with almost no possessions.

Unfortunately, while the material used to build the homes was simple, the process of building one was extremely impractical. Builders refused even to consider buying a quarter-million dollars worth of molds, forms, and pouring equipment necessary to begin constructing them. Those who tried found that construction was near impossible, since they could not figure a way to keep the concrete poured at floor level from hardening before the rest of the home had been poured on top of it. Concrete that dries at different rates ends up brittle, and test homes ended up leaking. And it turns out concrete furniture and appliances are kind of a terrible idea.

To his credit, the small number of concrete houses built have aged beautifully. Visitors have described them as claustrophobic on the inside, with the unusual temperature and acoustics of a concrete bunker (not surprisingly). While they are rather cool in summer, they're freezing in the winter. They were just too hard to build and too "different" from traditional wood-framed housing to catch on. Home builders didn't want to make them and home buyers weren't interested in buying them. The handful that were built are footnote curiosities today.

Don't even get me started on missile silo homes or we could be here all day.