NPF: TORA! TORA! RAY?

Posted in No Politics Friday on April 2nd, 2015 by Ed

When remembering and retelling the story of World War II and the destruction of Pearl Harbor, Americans tend to forget that Hawaii wasn't even a state at the time. It was, to paraphrase a great account of the attack, essentially a colonial pineapple plantation / naval base. The weather was probably as much of a draw as it is today, but in 1941 Hawaii must have felt considerably more…backwater-ish. Located in the literal middle of nowhere before the days of rapid, safe, affordable air travel, when the natural splendor and nice weather wore off the American transplants in Hawaii must have found themselves with little entertainment beyond what they created.

A mainland American lawyer named Ray Buduick filled his spare time by restoring and flying a private plane – the flimsy, open, Red Baron type that was still popular at the time. One Sunday morning near Christmas in 1941, Ray and his teenage son took off a little after 7 AM to kill some time with an aimless flight around Oahu with the airspace all to himself. I can see the appeal of that, certainly. After straying farther out over the Pacific he was surprised to see in the great distance what appeared to be other airplanes. A lot of them. He was curious and flew toward them until it was unmistakable that not only were they airplanes but hundreds of them. No sooner had he and his son realized this that they heard strange sounds like something was whipping past their tiny plane at high speed. That mystery solved itself in short order when several bullets struck their right wing.

Turned out that random lawyer Ray Buduick and his teenage son Martin had, quite without meaning to, entered the United States into World War II.

They had stumbled upon a gaggle of Japanese fighters loitering over the ocean as they waited for the larger, slower bombers in the attack squadron to catch up. As they turned toward Honolulu and Pearl Harbor, Buduick took a perpendicular route away from the attacking planes and hoped that none of the Japanese would bother to break away and follow him. Then, with the attack in progress, they circled back and somehow landed their damaged POS safely.

It might not be technically correct to say that Ray Buduick started the Pacific War, but since I assume that any heirs who could sue me for libel have passed on or do not read things called Gin & Tacos let's be real clear: Ray Buduick totally started the war. Alright, perhaps it is more fair to say that while he may not have started it in the geopolitical sense, he was the first American to come under attack from Imperial Japan, all because he decided to take up flying rather than, say, woodworking. It wouldn't have been exciting but at least he wouldn't have been shot at by Japanese fighter planes for building a credenza in his garage.

NPF: OH. OK.

Posted in No Politics Friday on March 27th, 2015 by Ed

It's not hard to think of a list of historical events that would be interesting to see if we could time travel. I suppose most of us would gravitate toward a relatively short and predictable list of events we would choose to see. My first choice would be a dark horse, though. I'd go to Plymouth Colony in 1621 to see the looks on the faces of the colonists as they encountered a Native American who spoke at them in flawless English.

First they're walking through the woods talking about Olde Tyme things when someone says, I don't know, maybe "Hark! The Red Man approacheth!" Then they did that thing that English speaking white people still do today – assuming that the lack of a mutually intelligible language can be overcome with volume. "GREETINGS, NOBLE SAVAGE! ME, JOHN. WE BRING GIFT, TRADE FOR FOOD." And the Indian fellows look at each other, then one turns and says "We have some corn, John, but why are you yelling?"

Since the English had the damndest time trying to pronounce the local Indian words, the young man's name, Tisquantum, became "Squanto." Close enough I guess. I mean, the guy saved your lives. Don't bother to learn his name or anything. His life story is so ridiculous that if they made a movie about it, nobody would believe it is true.

In 1605, a little remembered explorer named George Weymouth, who was exploring the New England coastline for potential locations for a future colony, picked up Squanto and some other local Indians. Sources disagree on whether they were taken as slaves or enticed with money. Either way, they returned to England and Squanto, a teenager at the time, learned English to serve as an interpreter. After almost a decade in England he joined the voyage of John Smith to Plymouth as a hired hand. He returned to his homeland in 1614…and then was kidnapped immediately by one of Smith's men, taken to Spain, and sold into slavery (for certain this time). Spanish friars rescued the enslaved Native Americans (on the condition that they convert to Catholicism, of course) and Squanto eventually persuaded them to let him return to London. He did in 1617 and worked for two years as a shipbuilder and interpreter, returning to North America with John Smith in 1620.

He promptly made his way back to Plymouth, finding almost his entire tribe dead from European diseases.

Offering to help the struggling English colonists, Squanto visited a neighboring tribe as an emissary. As he attempted to negotiate on the behalf of Plymouth, the tribe took him hostage and threatened to kill him. The armed raid led by a small group of colonists to rescue him may have been the first formal conflict of arms between white Europeans and Native Americans in New England. In any case he was freed and rejoined the colony, only to die of a fever shortly after in 1622. While his birth date is obviously not known, it is speculated that he was around 30.

I find it unacceptable that for all the nonsense we teach kids about American history, we omit the parts that are actually interesting.

NPF: SPRING BREAAAAAK! *EXPOSES BREASTS*

Posted in No Politics Friday on March 20th, 2015 by Ed

This week has been spring break at my university. I'm on record being stridently anti-spring break; when the students return they are already Done with the semester and mentally on Summer Vacation. This is especially true of upperclassmen. And I understand completely. You're let out of school for 10 days, you're nearly graduated, and you're now expected to come back for, what, six more weeks and focus on reading textbook chapters and studying for finals? It would be reasonable to be more preoccupied with, you know, finding a job or preparing for the terrifying world beyond formal education or just plain old being burned out on college coursework. It has always made more sense to me to skip spring break and simply end the semester a week sooner. For students who lack the means to jet off to Cancun there's nothing to do in the middle of March anyway.

That said, I don't control the schedule so I try to make the most of the break. Namely, I try to get some actual work done for the first time this semester. Something about my current situation isn't, uh, conducive to me being very productive. So on a lark I went on airbnb, searched randomly for anything not in a city and within 250-300 miles of my house, and rented a stranger's house in the middle of nowhere for seven days. My theory was that with absolutely nothing to do for entertainment and no one I know or work with providing distractions (welcome or otherwise) I would be able to work uninterrupted for an extended stretch.

You guys, I'm not kidding: I have never gotten so much done in one week in my life. Not even close. Even when I was working on my dissertation and pulling 18 hour days I didn't accomplish this much. This may be the best idea I've ever had, or simply the first good one. It's hard to tell.

There's no reason in theory that I couldn't have simply done this at home. Or in my office. The disconnects between theory and reality are numerous though. I do have some friends, and the temptation to socialize is there. My office is a depressing windowless closet on the most depressing college campus you've ever seen. My house bears some resemblance to a set from "The Wire" and looks out upon a junkyard and a bunch of abandoned buildings. And while the distractions would be pretty minimal over break, it's really amazing (having reflected on it over the past few days) how little research and writing I get done when I'm "at work." It's just impossible to work without interruption. There's always something to grade, another class to prepare for, an exam to write, some meeting to attend, an inbox full of student emails, or someone coming into my office to interrupt. Now, I get that students are the reason I'm employed and I don't think I shouldn't have to have them roaming in and out of my office if they so choose. The fact of the matter is, however, that it makes it hard to get other things done.

But it pales in comparison to the single biggest time suck, the one thing that guarantees that no work gets done At Work: I think on the average day I lose about half of the time I could potentially be getting something done in conversations with co-workers. Again, it's not that I don't like them or don't want to talk to them. It's just another reality of the workplace that runs counter to productivity. Academic writing and research aren't something you can do five minutes at a time. It's not like stuffing envelopes (although it is approximately as exciting). It requires long, uninterrupted periods of immersion and mania. And that isn't available at home or at the office, period.

Perhaps I will start doing this more often, because for the first time in forever I feel good about the amount I got done this week. The panic that comes from feeling like I need to get more things done has subsided. Don't worry, it'll come flooding back next week. But if you need a house-sitter, let me know.

NPF: DO YOU GET TIRED SOMETIMES?

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

I don't watch a ton of TV and the majority of what I do watch consists of live sporting events. I do, however, have my DVR set for the Velocity Network series "Wheeler Dealers." The hosts have a reasonable amount of personality and good taste in finding older, more obscure vehicles to buy and work with (the apple green Lamborghini Urraco and Syrena, aka the "Polish Mini," are my favorite episodes) And what the hell, I like cars. It's much more entertaining than, say, watching a racist British asshole run half-million dollar cars around a track.

One side effect (foreshadowing!) of this viewing habit is exposure to commercials aimed at the target audience of Old White Guys with Some Money. In particular, in the past year there has been a tremendous marketing effort made by the pharmaceutical industry on behalf of something called "Low T." Watch an auto-related show on any network and you'll probably see four of these commercials in the average hour.

Low T (for Testosterone) has a list of symptoms that eerily mimic 1) aging and 2) being sedentary while doing it. Do you have less energy than you used to? Do you have less endurance for physical activity? Do you sometimes feel irritable or cranky? Has your muscle mass declined? Is your libido waning? And of course, there's the $64,000 question to which all advertising aimed at men over 40 can be reduced: Does your wang not work sometimes?

Looking at that list of symptoms you might be thinking they sound an awful lot like the symptoms of no longer being a teenager, of – gasp – aging. But you would be wrong, according to countless major pharmaceutical manufacturers. You have a medical condition in need of treatment! True, the human body naturally reduces its production of testosterone starting around age 30, but…if you ask your doctor to pump you full of it you'll feel young again! The downside is that you're substantially more likely to have a heart attack or stroke. You know, it's almost as if your body isn't supposed to be surging with teenage fratboy levels of sex hormones when your body is a half century old. Almost.

We're all accustomed to the phenomenon of the advertising-driven New Medical Condition rollout, and as always I'm sure actual hormone deficiency is a real medical problem for some people. As we have seen before with things like ADHD and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, the effort here is not to fabricate a medical condition but to convince everyone on Earth that they have it. Check out the absolutely hilarious industry website IsItLowT.com to find out whether you have Low T (spoiler: you do) or should ask your doctor about it (spoiler: you should).

It's almost enough to make you wonder why almost every industrialized country on the planet except the United States has banned direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs. Heck, it's almost as if they want you to think you have something that only their drugs can fix.

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?