NPF: HORN OF PLENTY, SPRING 2015 EDITION

Posted in No Politics Friday on March 6th, 2015 by Ed

It must be at least eight months since the last time I've done Link Salad, which I generally consider to be a dereliction of blogging duties. Nonetheless, I have a critical mass of things that can't fill an entire post on their own. Since it's Friday and nobody wants to work anyway, I am honored to try to alleviate some portion of your boredom.

1. The Guardian has a video and story about people who have volunteered in earnest for a one way suicide mission to Mars. I'm sure some of the thousands of volunteers would qualify as Nuts by the vulgar definition and others are merely attracted to the idea of a spectacular, documented suicide. At least some of them, however, appear to be eccentric but generally Regular People who are willing to make a sacrifice for Science (and an inimitable experience). Maybe it says a lot about how dull most of our lives are here on Terra Firma that so many people would leap at the chance to die on Mars.

2. I was obsessed with Richard Scarry books as a child, so there were many levels on which I could enjoy this Tom the Dancing Bug comic of the author's "Busy Town" in the 21st Century.

3. I love a good photo series and I love some old Eastern Bloc cultural relics, so imagine my delight when I learned that a photographer named David Hylynski is publishing a series of 800 35mm photos he took wandering the streets of Warsaw, Moscow, and other cities in the dying days of the USSR. He made a particular effort to photograph shop windows; it's weird how much we as Americans conceptualize other societies by their habits as consumers. Behind the Curtain, though, they lacked the brand names we prefer to use as stand-ins for an actual understanding of other cultures.

4. For those of you who like aviation as much as I do, you may be interested to hear that Elvis's private jets are being auctioned as part of a makeover of Graceland. His plane "Lisa Marie" is the last remaining airworthy Convair 880 in existence. The airliner was a staggering commercial failure – only 65 were sold and Convair lost an unfathomable $175 million on the project – but it is an elegant design, emblematic of the first generation of passenger jets. While "Lisa Marie" will no doubt end up on display and not in the sky, kudos to the King and Graceland for preserving the aircraft.

NPF: FRENCH CONNECTION

Posted in No Politics Friday on February 13th, 2015 by Ed

Chassis. Coupe. Grille. Limousine. Chauffeur. Carburetor. Garage. Piston. Marque. Automobile. Ever wonder why so many of terms from the automotive world are of French origin?

The vast majority of the early mechanical innovations that made modern cars possible were German. Rudolf Diesel and Karl Benz developed the practical internal combustion engines and rudimentary drivetrains (roller chains, transmissions, etc) that, uh, paved the way (sorry) for the auto industry to develop. Americans like William Durant, Henry Ford, and other now-forgotten early pioneers in the industry are generally credited with advancements to the process of building cars more than of cars themselves; Ford's legendary Model T was, even by contemporary standards, a brutally primitive vehicle. Advances in the flair and styling of automobiles are largely due to the efforts of Italian (and some French) coachbuilders in the 1920s and 1930s.

So why all the French words? German makes more sense, since the automotive systems themselves were mostly invented and advanced there.

The simplest answer is that in the very early days of the industry – from 1890 to around 1910 – French companies dominated the production of cars in Europe. They may not have been coming up with many technological breakthroughs, but they did a better job initially of translating the German innovations into finished products. Armand Peugeot, for example, founded the eponymous company in 1890 making simple but functional cars with German Daimler-Benz engines. The Renault brothers did the same in 1898. Other now-forgotten marques that produced popular cars in the early years included Bollee (a locomotive manufacturer), Delahaye, Hotchkiss (founded by an American expatriate), Voisin, De Dion, and Bugatti (the name of which has been resurrected and is often but incorrectly thought to be Italian).

Unfortunately for France, while its companies may have gotten into the game first the products of those early manufacturers were superseded fairly quickly by British (Rolls-Royce), German (Daimler and later Mercedes-Benz), and Italian carmakers. For example, the much publicized 1907 Beijing-to-Paris auto rally was dominated by an Italia and a Spyker (Dutch) despite being sponsored and heavily hyped by French newspapers. The only part of the French auto industry that impressed anyone, in fact, was a tire company founded by a guy named Andre Michelin.

Since Renault pulled out of the US in 1987 – swallowed up first by American Motors and then Nissan – there have been no French cars brands sold here. If older Americans have any memory of brands like Renault, Peugeot, and Citroen it is unlikely that they were positive. The standard joke is that French cars combined the very worst of everything Europe had to offer: Italian quality (which is to say "terrible"), Eastern European styling, and German pricing. No one who laid eyes upon Renault's "Le Car" or drove Peugeot's somewhat attractive but legendarily ramshackle 405 Sedan would suggest a great American yearning for the return of French brands to our shores. The less said about Franco-American monstrosities like the Renault Alliance the better.

Being an early adopter does not guarantee success, but in the case of the auto industry it does guarantee strong representation in the glossary of industry-specific terminology.

NPF: HUT HUT

Posted in No Politics Friday on January 29th, 2015 by Ed

These days it is trendy to make homes and other structures out of discarded metal shipping containers. Although not the ideal construction material they are strong, have a good deal of interior space, can be scaled (end to end, stacked, or welded "double wide" style after removing one side), and there are literally millions of the damn things lying around unused. They can be purchased for as little as $1500 to $2000 in used but undamaged condition. In recent years some architects and do-it-yourselfers have done some damn interesting things with them, building unique and often elaborate structures at minimal cost.

Recently, though, I found a great local example (which in Central Illinois means "sad") of a previous generation's version of this phenomenon: the Quonset Hut. These were prefabricated buildings built in the hundreds of thousands during World War II as an inexpensive, easy to erect (lololol), and surprisingly adequate form of shelter. They were particularly common in the Pacific, where the strategic occupation of deserted islands meant that scads of people had to be housed on desolate rocks without so much as a tree to be found. Made out of cheap materials like corrugated steel sheets and pressed board, the half dome shape provided strength, an open interior, and good ventilation when needed. It wasn't luxury living; the steel roof makes it sound an awful lot like living in half a trash can. Nonetheless it kept inhabitants out of the sun, wind, and rain. They were used as housing, barracks, prisons, mess halls, hospitals, outhouses, and for just about any other purpose that could be accommodated in 750 square feet of floor space.

Central Illinois, ladies and gentlemen

Central Illinois, ladies and gentlemen

At the War's end the government had more of these things than they knew what to do with, having ordered warehouses full of them in preparation with a long invasion of Japan that never happened. They were sold as surplus for next to nothing and sprung up around the country as cheap homes, bars, garages, small businesses, and storage spaces. As a testament to the durability of the very basic design, some of them are still around. Here's a neat selection of creative Quonset Hut homes and a neat art exhibition and book put together by architectural historians.

NPF: LOVELY MEN WITH UGLY NAMES

Posted in No Politics Friday on January 22nd, 2015 by Ed

The tradition of presidents introducing guests at the State of the Union address and telling homey / heartwarming / inspirational stories about them is young in the grand scheme of American history. The first instance was in 1982 and it quickly became a bulwark of the Cheap Political Theater repertoire for the men in the White House. And there is a name for the phenomenon: a guest referenced by the president during the address is called a "Lenny Skutnik." Why? Well I'm glad you asked.

On January 13, 1982, just a week before the SOTU address, Washington D.C. was experiencing one of its worst winter storms in recent memory. A 737 from now-defunct Air Florida prepared to take off in 20 F and moderate to heavy snowfall. After being de-iced, delays caused the plane to wait for 49 minutes on the apron before being cleared for takeoff. Already running late, the pilots chose to take off rather than returning to apply another de-icing spray. Several other errors of inexperience with flying in snow (Air Florida, after all) including the failure to activate the integral engine de-icing system resulted in the plane attempting to take off with substantially less thrust than the instruments indicated. Imagine your speedometer reading 65 but your actual speed barely hitting 40 thanks to a half ton layer of ice.

The engines wheezed and choked with ice as the plane barely made it off the ground. Almost immediately it lost lift. It rapidly descended into the frozen solid Potomac River, striking the 14th Street bridge (killing four drivers in traffic bound cars) and smashing into the ice. It sank almost immediately. Some passengers are presumed to have survived the crash, as the plane barely got off the ground, but with heavy winter clothing and subzero water temperatures most of them never had a chance. As horrified crowds looked on a small number of flailing human forms appeared on the surface of the water. But without immediate rescue, the cold water would take them too.

A US Park Police helicopter was on it almost immediately, flying dangerously low over the water to drop a line to six survivors. One passenger, later identified as Arland Williams, Jr., passed the lifeline to other people three separate times. He did not survive. One woman he tried to help was too weak from hypothermia to hold the line. She was sinking in full view of hundreds of freezing onlookers.

Heroism called. Lenny Skutnik, a Mississippian working for the Congressional Budget Office, accepted the charges.

He took off his coat and boots and launched himself into the water. He broke his foot striking a chunk of ice, but fortunately he was too frozen to notice it. He somehow dragged the woman to the shore. She was the last survivor of Flight 90 and Martin "Lenny" Skutnik became a national hero overnight. President Reagan invited him to the address and said:

In the midst of a terrible tragedy on the Potomac, we saw again the spirit of American heroism at its finest – the heroism of dedicated rescue workers saving crash victims from icy waters. And we saw the heroism of one of our young Government employees, Lenny Skutnik, who, when he saw a woman lose her grip on the helicopter line, dived into the water and dragged her to safety.

It was the last time a Republican praised someone who worked for the government.

74 of 79 passengers and crew on Flight 90 died, as did 4 people on the bridge. Skutnik, who also received the Coast Guard Lifesaving Medal and a thousand other awards, retired in 2010 after 31 years of service at the CBO. Air Florida filed for bankruptcy two years later. Its market niche was later filled by a startup called ValuJet.

Sigh.

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NPF: RATINGS CREEP

Posted in No Politics Friday on December 18th, 2014 by Ed

Recently I re-watched the delightful Planes, Trains, and Automobiles on Netflix, and two things struck me as interesting in the gaps between things striking me as hilarious. One is the way this movie seemed pretty lame when I saw it as a kid (I think I giggled a few times when Steve Martin made hilarious Steve Martin Faces but otherwise didn't get it). Now it seems brilliant. Sure, it's full of plot holes and it's completely over the top, but it captures the misery of traveling at the worst possible times. Second, it's rated R.

No, really. The delightful John Hughes-directed family comedy Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is rated R. In comparison, the 1984 classic Sixteen Candles, which features teenagers doing drugs, drinking, boning, and swearing in addition to actual frontal nudity and somehow it is rated PG. PTA apparently got the R for dropping one too many F-words in the classic rental car counter scene. And let's be honest, who among us does not want to tell Edie McClurg to go fuck herself.

Movie ratings were a bit random for a while in the 1980s until PG-13 came along to bridge the chasm between PG, which are presumably films suitable for anyone over five years old, and the adult content of R films. The decade featured a lot movies that seem completely tame by today's standards that carry R ratings while there are PG films that now appear borderline R-rated. Meanwhile, since the late 2000s – I blame The Dark Knight entirely for this trend – the big studios are essentially allowed to give their big summer blockbusters a PG-13 rating no matter how high the body count. Once they figured out how much they stand to gain financially from getting the lower rating (There sure are a lot of 14-16 year old kids eager to see these movies) R ratings are rare outside of genres like horror, T & A vehicles, or the crudest comedies.

A lot of people in Hollywood complain about the arbitrariness of the ratings and the capriciousness of the MPAA, and it isn't hard to see why. The Joker can jam a pen into some guy's eye socket and walk away with a PG-13 while an uneventful romance-comedy with some brief nudity or two guys making out gets an R. It may seem like one can get away with quite a bit more today than in the past, but at the same time it is likely that the days of PG movies featuring boobs are gone forever.

NPF: BEST TRIP

Posted in No Politics Friday on December 5th, 2014 by Ed

Audience participation time. In an effort to give myself some reasons to live, I'm trying to plan some vacations for the medium-term future. Tell me about the best vacation you've ever taken. The best place you've ever been.

It doesn't matter if it counts as a practical suggestion – I can't afford your $25,000 grand tour of Europe but I'm sure we would all enjoy reading about it anyway. Similarly, I'm the "sleep in hostels and eat on $2/day" type but your Fancy Pants hotel experiences are still fun to read about. If you had to do your life over again and could only keep one of the trips you've taken, which one would it be?

NPF: GREAT LEAP FORWARD

Posted in No Politics Friday on November 21st, 2014 by Ed

What is the Next Big Thing?

This is a silly question to ask on some level since anybody out there who could answer it correctly would be too busy getting rich off of it to waste time idly perusing the internet. Regardless, I can't shake the feeling that with the possible exception of the internet (and before that, the home computer) there hasn't been anything new lately. What passes for new technology these days is almost inevitably an improvement, be it incremental or exponential, of some extant technology. Things get faster, smaller, and cheaper. We get more and better ways to waste away our lives staring at movies, games, and the internet. Medicine gets a little better at treating what ails us, cars get a little faster, food gets more plentiful (and imperishable, although we dare not ask how). We have conquered instantaneous global communication and the cheap mass production of any imaginable disposable consumer good (turns out the key ingredients were Slave Wages and complete lack of regulation).

I'm not bright enough to think of anything actually new, here are my best guesses at the next incremental steps forward that will make someone who isn't me a multi-billionaire someday:

1. Cheap, safe wireless energy transmission. Recharge electronic devices (not to mention electric cars) without plugs, cords, or wired infrastructure. We've already taken some baby steps in this direction with charging mats, but whoever can invent something that allows you to charge your phone and laptop just by walking into a building is going to print money.

2. Non-brittle carbon fiber / composites that can replace steel. CF was hailed as a revolutionary breakthrough back in the 90s, but unfortunately despite being extremely strong it is also brittle as hell. Whoever overcomes that problem will have a material that can replace metal and masonry in buildings, vehicles, heavy machinery, prosthetics…

3. Doing away with the physical interfaces between us and our various computing devices. I have no idea how this could work, but eventually someone will find a way to make this sentence appear on my computer screen as soon as I think it. The keyboard and my fingers will be superfluous.

4. Artificial organs that are improvements upon, not just replacements for, the real ones. Any significant further extension of our lifespans will require either some way to stop aging (unlikely) or organ replacements that last forever and perform even better than the ones nature gave us.

5. Online smells. As stupid as it might be, someone's going to find a way to do it and then middle schoolers texting each other farts is going to be a billion dollar per year industry.

I'm not very creative, as you can see. I bet you can top these.

NPF ERRATUM

Posted in No Politics Friday on November 7th, 2014 by Ed

The preceding post might be more enjoyable had I remembered to include the video.

NPF: HORSE WARS

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

As a (hobbyist) drummer I've never understood the fascination with "retro" drums. I get that anything old automatically confers Cool Points upon the owner but drums from the 1960s are, to put it charitably, shit. The metal hardware is beyond flimsy, the shells rarely stay in round, and the (critical) bearing edges often look to have been cut with a butter knife. There are some gems to be found – a day on which everyone at the old Gretsch factory performed flawlessly and they happened to grab the most perfect wood and the strongest lugs and screws – but the quality is wildly inconsistent and generally poor. It's inarguable that while old drums look cooler to a lot of people, the "beginner" drums on the market today are vastly better than the best, most expensive ones made in the 1950s in terms of build quality, design, and sound.

The same is true of cars. Buy the cheapest new economy car available today and you're driving the technological, performance, and safety equivalent of a Rolls Royce from the 1980s. Old cars have a lot of panache and style, and people love them because they are reminders of what most people define as their Good Old Days. But when was the last time you drove a car built in, say, the 1960s or 1970s? They're terrible cars by modern standards. They're loud, primitive, lacking in all but the most rudimentary safety features, and they suck down oil and gas like a Formula 1 racer. They look cool and some of them drive quite well. You wouldn't want to drive one to work every day if you had the option of driving, say, a mid 2000s compact instead, and you certainly wouldn't want to get in an accident in one unless you're weary of life.

I recently came across this Motorweek video of a comparison test between the "Hot Hatches" of the 1986 model year. I daresay some of the older readers found themselves driving one of these vehicles at some point: the Volkswagen GTI, Acura Integra, Dodge Colt Turbo, Toyota Corolla FX16, and Ford Escort GT. As is the case today, these are cars that are intended to be affordable to the average new car buyer but with lively performance emphasized over luxury or interior space. The GTI (many generations down the road, so to speak) is still the most popular car in this segment today.

The most powerful car in that group of five boasts 123 horsepower. This is less than you would get in the most basic transportation type car today – and yet in 1986 these were "performance" cars. For example, pedestrian 2014 offerings like a new Ford Focus (160 hp) or Hyundai Accent (138 hp, and one of the very cheapest new vehicles for sale today) would blow the doors off of 1986's performance compacts. And their gas mileage, safety features, and creature comforts are all significantly better as well.

The lame excuses made by the auto industry for so many years have been exposed in the last few as fuel economy has finally started to improve sharply. For years they claimed that the technology was too expensive, yet every new generation of cars had dramatically increased horsepower. This horsepower arms race means that today even the dullest vehicles on the road (Camrys, etc) can be equipped with 270+ hp engines that would outperform a V8 Corvette or Ferrari from the 1970s. Hell, a modern kid-hauler SUV comes equipped with a more powerful engine than a Ferrari 348 or a 1996 Corvette. And if the technology to offer such an unnecessarily large amount of power can be offered affordably, then better fuel economy is also possible (since equal power can be achieved with successively smaller engines). Only recently have manufacturers started taking advantage of this, offering even expensive luxury cars (Audi A6, BMW 535, Cadillac ATS, etc) with 4-cylinder engines.

Obviously, comparing any technology with its predecessor from 1986 is going to reveal some dramatic changes, but the average (not all that interested in cars) driver has no idea how staggering the increase in power has been over the past two decades. In 1995, Cadillac's full-sized offerings featured 195 hp V8 engines. Today, not only are there engines literally less than half that size producing over 200 hp (VW's 2.0L 4 cyl in the Audi S3 is rated at an insane 296) but the largest Cadillac now comes with a 415 hp V6. What in the name of god the average elderly Cadillac driver needs with 415 hp is beyond me (other than that the rapidly ballooning weight of modern cars, with their frivolous tech toys and heavy safety accommodations) but he can drive with the confidence of a man who would have needed to pay $250,000 for an exotic sports car to get that kind of power in the 1990s.

As much as it pains me to say it, a choice between Steve McQueen's Mustang in Bullitt and a new 2014 Ford Focus would be no choice at all. And the latter could blow him away in a road race anyway.

NPF: HOW TO BE BILL THE BUTCHER IN 12 STEPS

Posted in No Politics Friday on November 2nd, 2014 by Ed

I haven't done a Halloween costume more than a handful of times in my life but when I do, I prefer to do it right. I didn't go for Total Historical Accuracy or anything – you can, for example, get authentic 1850s pants and a shirt, but they're expensive so I went with basic modern equivalents in the correct color and close enough style.

billbill2

Step 1. Grow a giant beard (Step 0.5 is "Be Eastern European, or possibly Italian.")
Step 2. Carve said beard into sideburns down to the jawline and a handlebar mustache
Step 3. Brown cotton or twill pants
Step 4. Natural henley-type shirt. Cut or rip off the elastic at the wrist. Open the neck.
Step 5. Either make leather knife holsters for a belt or, if you're basically talentless like me, use leather shoelaces to hang butcher-type items from a belt.
Step 6. Be realistic about the fact that no matter how cool it might look, you probably can't walk around outside or in any kind of business establishment brandishing a real meat cleaver and knife.
Step 7. Make a red/white/blue sash either by dyeing a white cotton strip or sewing together colored fabrics
Step 8. Make or buy the appropriate cap. This was the hardest thing to find. I eventually bought an aviator style cap ("Snoopy cap"). Either cut off the chin strap or pin them up inside the lining of the cap.
Step 9. Tie a leather strip around the cap at the brow. This keeps it in place and tight against the head.
Step 10. Use tall brown leather work-type boots, pant legs tucked in. If you're willing to spend insane amounts of money you can get vintage knee-high types.
Step 11. The vest. I had a lot of problems with the vest. Ultimately I bought one, although given time and a sewing machine I think the best option would be to make one to fit your torso. As it was, I safety pinned the vest to eliminate some of the billow and extra material.
Step 12. Ask the Christian Lord to guide your hand against Roman popery. Yell at people a lot.