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.

WATERWORLD

Posted in Rants on March 24th, 2015 by Ed

Whenever someone mentions that the world will run out of oil and natural gas someday, I enjoy pointing out that there's no point in worrying about it. We'll run out of potable water before that can happen.

Regarding the geographic shifts in the American population (favoring the Sun Belt) over the past thirty years I say the same: Don't worry, they'll be back when they finally kill the Colorado River. And their groundwater. And their reservoirs. I mean, at the rate that Desert Metropolises like Phoenix, Vegas, and Los Angeles are pissing through the available resources, the Great Lakes region will start looking very good in the next decade or three. Not that Texas won't be a joy when the water's mostly gone and our summers have heated up even more.

Any discussion of depleting a natural resource sounds, by definition, at least a little alarmist. We have so little direct experience with and social context for running out of anything here in the land of eternal plenty that it makes sense for most people to be unable to wrap their minds around it. Logically, though, it would make less sense to believe that things that cannot be man-made (or can be only at great cost) won't be exhausted someday. I mean, compare oil depletion scenarios to the belief that the Earth makes oil in its crust and tell me which one is nuts.

The unprecedented drought in California is drawing more attention to the issue, with reliable estimates that the supply of stored water is down to about one year. This does not imply, as some news outlets concluded, that California will be "out of water" in a year. At some point it'll rain and alleviate the immediate crisis. It does indicate that a potential disaster is never more than a few years off under the present circumstances, though.

The US and other developed countries are positively drowning in water compared to the rest of the world though. Changing consumption patterns, population growth, and changing climate add up to demand for water outpacing supply by nearly half in 2030, according to the UN. If the world thinks it has seen wars over resources, wait until it sees two massively populated but impoverished countries fighting over the last of the available water. I kind of picture it like the Battle of Helms Deep, but more dehydrated.

People tend to have an unshakable faith in technology to solve these problems for us. It's not in fact the worst argument in the world. History has given us a number of examples of how we've been able as a species to overcome some of our limitations with science. I would believe, for example, that by the time the oil runs out a synthetic substitute or alternative might be available. There's not many candidates for "water substitute," though.

Places like Southern California, the UAE, and Western Australia are relying at present on desalination as their savior. But desalination is a remarkably expensive and energy-intensive process. In most uses it also does little more than supplement cheaper and more accessible sources of water to meet the needs of large populations. The number and scale of desalination plants that would be necessary to support California's 40,000,000 people (not to mention Phoenix and Vegas, who will probably need pipelines) is impractical veering toward impossible, even if we disregard the ecological impact of large scale desalination.

I don't think it's going to be tomorrow or even a decade from now, but at some point in my lifetime I expect to live in a world in which deserts once again resemble deserts and the illogic of having a sprawling metropolis in the middle of one cannot be ignored. The Southwest will resemble (as it once did) the Australian Outback when the capacity to support four or five million people in a place like Phoenix disappears for good. In places less wealthy than the US, it's neither bold nor prescient to predict that the situation is likely to get much uglier.

Don't worry though: the good news is that an ever-increasing share of the global potable water supply is being handed over to private corporations. That should help.

RED TIDE

Posted in Quick Hits on March 23rd, 2015 by Ed

I generally find very little interesting about the hybrid of Big Data worship and undergraduate-level methods skills at Five Thirty Eight. This infographic produced in the wake of Ted Cruz's announcement – Good luck, asshat – has a lot going on in addition to the basic message that his candidacy is going absolutely nowhere.

enten-datalab-cruz-1

Several things stand out.

1. Republicans who actually won the presidency in the past probably would not be able to win the nomination today. It says a lot about the massive changes in the GOP since the 1980s that George HW Bush and Richard Nixon are virtually communists by the current standards.

2. Holy shit was Barry Goldwater out there. He is probably too conservative to get elected today, which means that in 1964 he must have looked like Kaiser Wilhelm next to the other candidates of the day. That decade was a time of transition and change politically, but the leap from Eisenhower to Goldwater…wow.

3. Look at the staggeringly large gap between public statements and congressional voting record for both Pauls. Ron and Rand might – hold on to your seats – have a tendency to say one thing and do another. However, the conservatism of their congressional voting records is no doubt skewed by the fact that most votes in Congress are economic and regulatory in nature. These issues are the ones where the Pauls are on the far right. On some social and foreign policy issues they are, in line with their libertarian philosophy, not quite as conservative. Congress doesn't vote on those things nearly as often, though. Social issues are basically just campaign fodder and they're more likely to figure prominently in the Supreme Court docket than the agenda in Congress.

4. Chris Christie is going nowhere slowly.

5. Man there have been some dog crap Republican candidates over the past few years. Ah, John Kasich. We hardly knew ye.

MAYBE SIT THE NEXT COUPLE OF PLAYS OUT

Posted in Quick Hits on March 23rd, 2015 by Ed

This is long, and I'm unsure what I can add to it other than to say that this is an attitude one encounters often when dealing with college students and I never have any idea what to do about it. But you really should read it.

Oh, and I don't think this kid or many of his peers have the slightest idea what the word "satire" means. He keeps using it and appears to understand it only as the thing you claim you were doing when you get in hot water for saying or doing something awful. It's telling that this kid thought an outside audience would be sympathetic if only "their side" could be heard. It says a lot about how coddled and cloistered these kids are. Everyone they interact with shares their mindset and you can see how much it shocks them to be exposed to criticism from people outside the bubble. I suspect that they rationalize it with their traditional "Those people are just jealous because I'm so awesome" mantra.

Oh alright, one more thing: this is why attorneys tell their clients never to do interviews. Seriously kid, I know you think you're helping your Bros but you're not. Maybe stop talking.

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.

MISSING IN ACTION

Posted in Quick Hits on March 18th, 2015 by Ed

Just a reminder that if you aren't following Gin and Tacos on Facebook you don't know what you're missing.

ALLOCATING RESOURCES

Posted in Quick Hits on March 17th, 2015 by Ed

One of the ironies of the low quality of work that one often receives from college students is that they often put a tremendous amount of effort into attempting to get a higher grade after the fact. On more than one occasion I have told a student sincerely, "If you had put as much effort into doing the assignment as you have put into lobbying for a higher grade, this conversation would be unnecessary." It might sound sarcastic but it's absolutely true. In many cases they put a ton of effort into getting a good grade – they just don't allocate the effort wisely. Do it before the paper is due and it will benefit your grade a lot; afterward the same amount of effort is likely to accomplish nothing.

I mention this because I often wonder why police can't devote as much effort to doing their job properly as they do into covering up the things they do wrong. Some good old fashioned investigative reporting has uncovered a trail of Wikipedia edits on entries for Eric Garner, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, and other people killed by NYPD officers over the years, all coming from 1 Police Plaza. Editing Wikipedia is not the most labor intensive process on Earth (although honestly the more active pages are almost impossible to edit these days unless you've been involved for a long time) but there are quite a few of them spread out over time. If only there were something more useful to do with that time than search the internet and attempt to whitewash facts about things the department has done that cast it in a negative light.

Maybe this is for the best. They'd probably just do more stop-and-frisk if they didn't have the internet to keep them busy sometimes.

NON-NUTRITIVE HUMOR SUBSTITUTE

Posted in Rants on March 16th, 2015 by Ed

The fact that the Ferguson Police aren't smart enough to avoid using government email accounts to send one another racist jokes underscores the vast number of horrible (and horribly racist) being hurled through cyberspace like so many turds every day. Not too long ago, Scott Walker's ex-Chief of Staff was in hot water for sending the following joke. If you'll bear with me, I must quote it in full:

THE NIGHTMARE

In the nightmare I found myself nude in bed, and I was looking at a mirror on the ceiling, and I discovered that I am a Negro, and I’m circumcised!

Quickly I sat up, found my pants and looked in the pockets to find my driver’s license photo and it was that same color, black.

I felt myself being very depressed, downcast, sitting in a chair.

But it’s a wheelchair! That means, of course, besides being black and Jewish, I’m also disabled! I said to myself, aloud “This is impossible! It’s impossible that I should be black and Jewish and disabled!” “It's the pure and holy truth,” whispers someone from behind me. I turn around, and it’s my boyfriend.

Just what I needed!!! I am a homosexual, and on top of that, with a Mexican boyfriend.

Oh, my God …. Black, Jewish, disabled, gay with a Mexican boyfriend, drug addict, and HIV-positive!!!

Desperate, I begin to shout, cry, pull my hair, and Oh, nooooo…I’m bald!!!

The telephone rings. it’s my brother. He is saying, ‘Since mom and dad died, the only thing you do is hang out, take drugs, and laze around all day doing nothing. Get a job, you worthless piece of crap… Any job!’

Mom? Dad? Nooooo … Now I’m also an unemployed orphan! I try to explain to my brother how hard it is to find a job when you are black, Jewish, disabled, gay with a Mexican boyfriend, are a drug addict, HIV positive, bald, and an orphan, but he doesn’t get it.

Frustrated, I hang up. It’s then I realize I only have one hand!!! With tears in my eyes, I go to the window to look out. I see I live in a shanty-town full of cardboard and tin houses! There is trash everywhere.

Suddenly I feel a sharp pain near my pacemaker…. Pacemaker??

Besides being black, Jewish, disabled, a fairy with a Mexican boyfriend, a drug addict, HIV positive, bald, orphaned, unemployed, an invalid with one hand, and having a bad heart, I live in a crappy neighborhood.

At that very moment my boyfriend approaches and says to me, ‘Sweetie pie, my love, my little black heartthrob, have you decided what you are going to wear to Washington to see Obama?’

Say it isn’t so!!! I can handle being a black, disabled, one-armed, drug-addicted, Jewish homosexual on a pacemaker who is HIV positive, bald, orphaned, unemployed, lives in a slum, and has a Mexican boyfriend, but please, Oh dear God, please don’t tell me I'm a Democrat!

When my youngest nephew was about 3, I would tell jokes* to his older siblings and he would observe, not really understanding what a joke is or why the one I told was supposed to be funny. And every time he would laugh at exactly the right moment. He laughed because he understood that 1) what I was saying was a joke and 2) jokes end with a punchline and you're supposed to laugh at that point. It was the format he was responding to.

To me, the only thing interesting about this is marveling at what passes for humor among conservatives. You know my rule – if something is going to be offensive and racist, it better at least be funny. And that, to me, is the most offensive thing about this kind of "joke." It has all of the downsides of something racist, homophobic, and plain old mean with absolutely none of the upsides commonly associated with humor. Namely being funny or witty.

Until a few years ago when most of my family and friends who traffic in this sort of electronic detritus finally knew better, like most people I would receive emails of this type on occasion. And I reacted the same every time, not by saying "Hey this is really racist" (which would be denied flatly and produce an unproductive and overwrought exchange) but with "What about this is even slightly funny?" The email reproduced above looks like it was written by a 14 year old or someone with the mental skills and emotional maturity of a 14 year old. You know it's supposed to be a joke and it even shares many similarities in format with a joke, but it's devoid of everything that would make it even mildly amusing. It's stupid and sophomoric and unfunny to an extent that being racist and offensive isn't even the worst thing about it.

And so whoever writes this shit can rest assured that no actual humor needs to be involved because the intended audience is about as discriminating as my three year old nephew was. As long as they recognize the format and certain key concepts are invoked (farts, poop, black welfare queens, gays, etc.) they will laugh like trained seals and insist that it is Humor.

*Dog and a pony walk into a bar. Dog orders a beer. Pony orders *inaudible whisper*. Bartender says "I can't understand what your friend said" and the dog says "Don't mind him, he's just a little hoarse."

THAT'S A LOT OF MONEY TO YOU PEOPLE, PART 2

Posted in Rants on March 15th, 2015 by Ed

(Catch up on Part I here)

OK, so what? It's not like I'm breaking new ground here in explaining that Gilded Age-style capitalism is a race to the bottom in terms of employee compensation. The important questions are: How long can this continue? and What can be done about it? Veteran readers know that I hate the latter question but we will take a stab at it regardless.

As for how long this stagnation or even decline in wages can continue, the answer depends on how deeply you believe that the kind of people who support Scott Walker from their decrepit apartments in dying rural towns barely clinging to life on a SSI- and eCig-based economy have internalized the ration of shit sold to them by conservative bag men for the last three decades. It is a system of values that convinces a person to put hyper-jingoistic bumper stickers on their rusted out 1987 Plymouth Voyager and declare that America is #1, a viewpoint espoused with complete confidence despite never having ventured beyond a fifty-mile radius of the place he was born save for one high school trip to the Big City (Joplin). It is a system of values intended to convince a person you are paying $9 per hour that he doesn't want the myriad things he can't afford – vacations (What kind of lazy grifter takes time off of work?), decent schools (Homeschoolin's where it's at! Teach 'em some TRUTH for once!), decent food (What are you, queer or somethin?), higher education (buncha liberal bullshit), or any kind of cultural stimulation of a variety more refined than semi-pro wrestling. Once a person has settled into this mindset to enjoy the greatest country on Earth from the vantage point of Dogpatch, Alabama, it's hard to have much an impact using facts or logic. If people need nothing more to be happy than beer, church, shitty American cars, and a ranch house in some backwater, they're going to work for $10 or $11 per hour for a long, long time before they can be convinced to agitate. Hell, at $10 per hour in Cleveland, MS you might even have excess income if your expectations have been sufficiently lowered. If you do, don't worry. The State Legislature will build a casino to take care of it.

Conservatives are always telling us that no one can help us, rather we must help ourselves. Ironically, they're right in this instance. As long as people accept shit compensation and shittier treatment from their employers, they will continue to receive it. You can lead a horse to water, but if that horse watches Fox News eight hours per day it's going to be equal parts dumb, misinformed, and delusional. It will also probably hate black horses, and don't even get it started on donkeys. But I digress. This economic swamp we've been thrashing around in since 1980 will not be improved so long as millions of Americans fight to keep it as is.

That leaves us with the second question, what to do about it. Unfortunately I am not convinced that anything short of slow, steady progress by increments can have an effect. If the implosion of 2009 had no effect on attitudes toward taxation, wages, and government intervention in the economy then I can't imagine what kind of cataclysmic economic event would be required to change minds. We are witnessing the death throes of a group of people who are accustomed to living in "Their Country" and are sliding into demographic irrelevance. In a rare note of optimism, I will say that there is some hope to be found in increments in the last few years – a living wage law here, an extension of healthcare benefits there. These changes are being fought tooth-and-claw every step of the way, of course, but if you launch enough bombers you can guarantee that at least a few will make it to London. They're baby steps, but they're steps. Some people know what's up.

In the meantime, though, things will probably get worse before they get better as more states like Michigan and Wisconsin are depopulated and the electorate becomes one dominated by old, white, rural dead-enders with nowhere to go, like some economic Operation Gladio (and nearly as riddled with fascists). The iron law of globalized capitalism is that someone will always do it for less, and the only way right-wing elected officials will be able to compensate for promises of economic growth that never materialize no matter how many tax cuts are gifted to the Job Creators is to cut until they hit bone. Once that happens and their current gray-haired base of political support has gone to the great Denny's in the sky, we might have a chance. For people my age and younger, however, the changes won't come soon enough and we might as well get used to the fact that we are part of an economic lost generation.

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.