Having written for the past six or seven hours without interruption, I have neither the piss nor the vinegar right now. Will try Wednesday morning instead. Bear with me this week and the content will be back on schedule before you know it. Literally. Since you won't know it until you check back and realize that it's here.
OK, so this isn't entirely devoid of politics. It's just a little, though, in keeping with the spirit of NPF.
You know that I have a strong interest in maps and geography, and a lot of what I actually get paid to do involves GIS. So it was with great pleasure that I read this interview on Wired's MapLab with the head of the US Geographic Information Unit. It sounds boring, right? And then you see the guy and you think, my god, this is going to be the most boring thing ever.
Power through your skepticism and read it. He has some rather neat stories to tell about the role of mapping in U.S. foreign policy. When nations disagree about a border or the name of a geographic feature, how does the State Department avoid hurting anyone's feelings?
One case I worked on that was kind of fun involves a tiny island off the coast of Morocco. It’s very close to shore and very, very small. But about 11 years ago Morocco sent a few troops there and Spain swooped in with helicopters and expelled them and it became a big deal.
[Then-Secretary of State] Colin Powell was asked to mediate the conflict. [In Powell's plan] everyone was going to leave the island, with no prejudice as to who it belonged to. They drew up an agreement but the problem was the name. The Spanish wouldn’t use the Moroccan name and the Moroccans wouldn’t use the Spanish name.
I was at a dinner party that Saturday night and I got a call from the Secretary’s staff saying that instead of a name they wanted to use the coordinates for that island. So I showed them how to get on a database and do that. I could hear the Secretary in the background saying, “Ask him how accurate those coordinates are.” They’re not totally accurate, but there’s no island nearby with which it could possibly be confused. So the documents he drew up for the mediations referred to “the island and such and such coordinates” and those documents had to be signed by the prime minister of Spain and the king of Morocco by midnight that same day.
The prime minister of Spain signed, no problem. But they had to send a high speed car looking for the king of Morocco. This was in the days before cellphones were prevalent. So they caught up to him and he basically had to pull over at some house and say, “Excuse me, I’m your king, could I use your phone?” He called up Powell and asked him to read the document, which he immediately agreed to. So that was a big deal, and my small part in it was to provide those coordinates. It’s a great example of how geographic names matter.
Clever. So the old saying is true and it's impossible to offend either a Spaniard or a Moroccan with coordinates.
Tuesday night I began writing the all-planned-out piece from yesterday and one of my academic pals started chatting at me on Facebook about the direction of our respective careers. He is quite successful and works at a large research university in a wonderful location. I am a complete failure at this and I do not. If you want to have the feeling of being a cork in the ocean or the ball in a pinball machine, become an academic. Because whenever people give me this talk, the only thing that becomes apparent is that I have no control whatsoever over my career. It all hinges on totally subjective decisions made by strangers. Sure, I can send out lots of papers, apply for a lot of jobs, and so on, but then it's up to others to make the decision, often in startlingly random ways. So instead of thinking, "I need to publish X papers" we end up having to think, "If I can somehow get X papers accepted" or "I hope there are some job openings this year."
The action verb is always referring to someone else in this field. Nothing to do but try and hope for the best, knowing full well that the odds against The Best happening are 99% and growing. If having no control over where you live or the conditions of your employment sounds appealing, contact me to learn more about how to get started in the exciting world of higher education.
I laid down four hours ago to write this post and I ended up writing nothing. This is happening a lot lately. I know what to write about and I know, in some cases, exactly what I'm going to say but I end up doing nothing. Is there a word for losing the ability to do anything except stare aimlessly at the internet or TV?
Sorry to disappoint the, like, fifty readers I have after doing this daily for a decade.
I have a couple of mostly dormant brokerage accounts. In the past – before I went to grad school – I traded moderately actively, albeit on a small scale as befitted my income. Since I no longer have the time to devote to proper research (and buying stocks without that is essentially throwing money away) I don't do it much anymore. Over the summer I was able to give it a bit of attention, and in August I was able to execute a couple of trades that returned about a 50% profit in 2-3 weeks.
Lacking great amounts of capital, any transaction I could make in The Market is totally, almost unfathomably inconsequential. With literal trillions of dollars being moved around electronically on a daily basis, the dollar amount I bring to bear on the world financial markets is less than a spit in an ocean. I don't even register.
That said, I've found over time that my tolerance for the absurdity of the whole enterprise is in decline. Every time I make a profitable transaction now, I can't stop thinking, "Why do I have more money now? I didn't do anything." And I didn't. Nobody who plays this game does. It is a world in which nothing is produced and destroyed except money itself. One day you buy something for x dollars. The next, you sell it for 1.5x. Your personal profit is money created out of thin air.
And this, on a much larger scale, is the dominant profession of our financial (and social, and political) elite. They create ever more complex financial instruments out of other intangible financial assets and then they sell them to one another and everyone walks away with money even though nothing happened. The old saying about the stock markets being a form of liar's poker is a lie inasmuch as poker is a more legitimate enterprise. Real money changes hands between real people performing a transaction with a payout agreed upon in advance.
These people – our Producers, our Galtian heroes, our Job Creators – are people who don't actually make, create, or produce anything. It's all blips and clicks and algorithms and trades programmed to self-execute when defined parameters are met. It takes knowledge and a specific talent to do this successfully; that is indisputable. Regardless, I can never wrap my mind around how…intrinsically worthless are the "assets" involved in this game. The only thing that the hedge fund manager or the day trader creates is personal wealth. He buys something, sells it to someone else for more than he paid for it, and the buyer attempts to repeat the process. It's not a zero sum game. Inflation? Hell, the game of buying low and selling high can, in theory, continue indefinitely.
If it did, it still wouldn't create anything except personal profits. This brings us to familiar territory, to the cornerstone of the New Economy: servicing the personal consumption of the financial elite. They might not "create jobs" in the direct, tangible sense that the robber barons did, but think of all the peons needed in the service industry to tend to their mighty needs! Every time Chad from Harvard Business School makes a killing, another hotel chambermaid on St. Maarten is born. Another personal assistant rises from the Earth. Behold the mighty act of creation! Our economy is indeed a thing of splendor.
It should come as no surprise that an economy firmly rooted in nothingness has high levels of poverty and unemployment. The very rich and the very poor have in common that they do nothing. They simply are compensated differently for it.
Recently I wasted tens of minutes of my life reading and excoriating the ramblings of some absolute nobody named Suzanne Venker, who appeared to be trying to parlay a guest column on FoxNews.com into as much attention as possible. May I quote myself?
There is ample money to be made Uncle Tomming in the conservative media; there's no quicker way to a book deal, columnist gig, or TV appearances than to be something other than a white male. Flap-jowled white guys are 90% of the intended audience, and they love nothing more than being able to feel like they are totally not sexist/racist because, look, a woman/black person just said it! Thomas Sowell says there's nothing racist about George Zimmerman! Ann Coulter says women are responsible for getting raped! See? It's totally OK for us to say it if they can say it.
The Indianapolis Star has granted a weekly column to some other contenders in Venker's arena, "Chicks on the Right." They will now have a dedicated audience (beyond the local radio show they've already snagged) to which they can serve heaps of twaddle with titles like "This Is What Real Feminism Looks Like". It will surprise you to discover that Real Feminism looks shockingly similar to right wing talking points. You'd be hard pressed to distinguish anything here from the average syndicated right wing columnist or a transcript from any call-in radio show.
One of my friends who rarely says anything political in a public forum posted the following on Facebook after a couple of friends attempted to engage the "Chicks on the Right" on some of their grosser misrepresentations of reality:
Nothing like reading a bunch of middle aged women trying to cut down your friends for making valid arguments against their grossly misinformed ideas of what feminism is. I generally shy away from confrontation because it makes me incredibly anxious and uncomfortable, and it's reading things like the Chicks on the Right's comments that make me wish I was much better at voicing myself in the face of confrontation. I saw plenty of people outraged at these two bullies' comments on their page sparked by their horrible little column in the Indy Star today, and two of my friends who were inclined to voice their opposition directly to the duo were responded with name calling and flippant dismissal of their opinions mostly due to their "liberal" viewpoints, their ages, and even discarding one well-written response just because the author was a man. It was a childish display of how ignorance will always defend itself with more ignorance.
I guess all I really wanted to say in this is that these women have their like-minded followers who are so zealously guarding their viewpoints that we will never even begin to sway their gaze. They've blinded themselves so thoroughly that it is completely futile to try and mend their seeping corneas – the scar tissue of their hateful rhetoric won't allow it. They are passionately gripping on to a form of misogyny so tightly that to them it has morphed into a bastardized ideal they are trying to label as "new" feminism. Well, ladies and gentlemen, those of you who actually and proudly represent feminism and women's rights – we're the ones that matter, not these harpies (to use a word that they have used so – excuse the pun – liberally today to label women that just happen to think differently than they do). There are plenty of conservative women who are smart and stay informed and can still be compassionate when it comes to matters of women's rights because they can see past their own front yard and realize how hard it can be for some women in America just to get by. My mother is a shining example for me – she doesn't judge me for my youth and doesn't mock me for having different viewpoints than her. The women of Chicks on the Right give my mother and every woman like her a bad name and it's not fair. Our opinions are not worth less because we are young. We are not "lazy" and "entitled" "parasites" just because we think a certain way.
There is never a point to debating or questioning people like the "Chicks" because despite how much they talk, they have nothing to say. They're not going to debate ideas because they don't have any. Their goal is simply to get attention and parlay their existence into as many paydays as possible (they'll have a Fox News show by the end of the year). They're just a gimmick (check out their blog, if you dare) looking for attention and they know how to tell angry white people what they want to hear. Everyone who makes a living playing to this audience sounds exactly the same because it is only interested in hearing one message: You are the victim, and here are the targets at which your anger should be directed.
With the product/message so clearly defined, the only competition in this Marketplace is to show the boss how "edgy" or demographically appealing you are. Engage them in an argument? These people are trained seals, and they only know one trick. As it pays pretty well, they don't intend to deviate from it.
Rolling Stone has a great piece on the new, ultraconservative state government in Kansas, from the legislature to the Governor's mansion. Don't worry, they're trying to fix it so that Brownback can appoint the judges himself, too. Two things that are particularly striking:
1. Though the author does not say so directly, this is where we see the real impact of Citizens United. The piece notes how mind-blowingly easy it is for Gov. Brownback to eliminate his political opposition, provided of course he remains in the good graces of his sponsors. 2012 showed us that throwing money into a presidential race – even an astronomical amount of money – has a marginal impact on the outcome because there are so many other factors at play in that race. Similarly, there is only so much a handful of loyal Koch-backed Senators can do in a body of 100. But in state legislative elections, the unlimited cash is decisive. In a race wherein both candidates might ordinarily spend a combined $50,000 it tends to be decisive when Koch Industries dumps a paltry (on their scale) $150,000 into the race. Most people don't even know who their state legislator is. Eighteen negative mailers in twenty days before a (low turnout) primary makes quite a difference. This is why we see so many state legislatures turning into circuses this year; with enough financial might, it really is possible to get just about any asshole elected to a state house. Comparatively, races for president, the Senate, or governor's mansions are hard to influence with similar brute force financial tactics.
2. The Lakoff argument has been fairly well beaten to death over the past decade. We know the benefits and limitations of "branding" and the use of purposive language to make a candidate or agenda more appealing. Personally, I think the GOP stranglehold on the agenda and discourse has loosened, if only a bit, since 2001. But there is one problem that refuses to go away:
"What bothers me is there are places in America that have gone so far to the left that they'd look at us as nutcases," he says pleasantly. "I consider us in Kansas mainstream America – normal, red-blooded Americans who believe in the Constitution of the United States. Yes, we're conservative, but we're not a bunch of gun-toting cowboys." A few moments later, he slides his chair back, and the wheel makes a loud cracking sound when it hits the plastic floor coaster. "That wasn't gunshots, by the way!" he cackles.
People on the left forever have to fight against this entrenched notion that mainstream America is an old, psychotically conservative white person / yeoman farmer. We see this still during elections, when the media frets endlessly over what working class whites and white rural people more generally think, despite the undeniable statistical evidence that 1) there aren't that many anymore and 2) they're an ever-shrinking portion of the electorate. It speaks to the larger obstacle wherein everything conservatives believe is normal, mainstream 'Murica and anything else is defined as the Other. Any competing argument is to be treated with skepticism and/or derision until it gets the OK from Real Americans – old, white ones.
The Sounds of Real America are back.
Your response to the first three SORA prints was enthusiastic, so here are two more gems. If you ask me – and you did, obviously – these are even more amazing (read: bleak) than the original trio. Each print is 11"x14" on archival card stock, suitable for framing, wall mounting, or use as an improvised weapon. Only 20 of each design in the series will be available. To recap:
Fans of Gin and Tacos on Facebook are familiar with CAPSLOCK ED, a magical being who blog-only readers met briefly in Campaign of the Damned. He tends to post in series like "10 Things Grocery Stores Don't Want You to Know" (which was an actual "news" headline on CNN) and his latest bender is an ethnographic study of Americana called Sounds of Real America. It's a poignant study of the things one can only experience in the Real America, not in any fancy city or ivory tower university. It is the sound of the salt of the Earth living the simple life and experiencing things that only America can offer.
Reader / graphic designer Pauline Vassiliadis took it upon herself to surprise me with her visual interpretations of the SORA series. Being a fan of her talent and her appreciation for the absurd, my heart nearly exploded with joy when I saw the designs. I've decided to offer a small number of them to you, the readers. They combine my words with Pauline's aesthetic, capturing the essence of Real America in the process. Hang one of these babies on your wall to bring the magic of Muncie, IN or Macon, GA into your home.
SORA 1 and 5 are $40 each and $60 for the pair. Please get in touch with me (message the G&T Facebook page) if you're interested in these and you already purchased the first three – I'll cut you an even better deal on these two. BE THE FIRST KID ON YOUR BLOCK TO COLLECT ALL FIVE, AND THEN YOU WILL DEVELOP SPECIAL POWERS AND GET LAID.
Use the button below to purchase both at the 2/$60 price.
I've sat on this too long for it to qualify as timely, but those of us on the top half of the planet might be interested to know that it's so goddamn hot in Australia that they had to make up new colors for their weather maps. I think purple represents "Somebody please kill me." Unsurprisingly, massive wildfires have followed.
Meanwhile, American winter weather is careening wildly back and forth between massive snowstorms and January tornado outbreaks. And while we have gone several months without a city being submerged, I think The Onion pretty much nailed this back in November with, "Nation Suddenly Realizes This Just Going To Be A Thing That Happens From Now On."
Following Hurricane Sandy’s destructive tear through the Northeast this week, the nation’s 300 million citizens looked upon the trail of devastation and fully realized, for the first time, that this is just going to be something that happens from now on.
Gradually comprehending that this sort of thing is now just a fact of life, citizens all across America stared blankly at images of destroyed homes, major cities paralyzed by flooding, and ravaged communities covered in debris, and finally acknowledged that this, apparently, is now a regular part of the human experience.
“Oh, I see—this is just going to be how it is from here on out,” said New York City resident Brian Marcello, coming to terms with the fact that an immense storm that cripples mass transit systems and knocks out power for millions in the nation’s largest metropolitan area can no longer be regarded as an isolated, freak incident, and will henceforth be just a normal thing that happens.
You know, no big deal. We just kinda broke the planet. Move along. Let's learn more about Clean Coal or something.
The three posts this week have been pretty heavy in terms of content and length, and they have spawned some pretty extensive discussions so far. This is a rare occasion on which I have all of the time, energy, and material necessary to post but I will leave today effectively blank.
Lots of incoming traffic this week, so welcome. If you're new, feel free to Like Gin and Tacos on Facebook. As a bonus you can enjoy all the pithy shit I have to say throughout the day.