Posted in Rants on November 10th, 2015 by Ed

Look, we know cops aren't very bright. Yeah you know a good cop blah blah blah nobody cares. These people are not the sharpest knives in the drawer at their best, and when you start scraping the bottom of the barrel you quickly find that expecting even mediocrity is too ambitious.

This video of the bottom of the bottom of the barrel – the campus cops at University of Alabama, a school best known for its excellence in chanting "Roll Tide" – doesn't show us anything we have not seen before. Buzz-cut idiots with seriously violent tempers that come immediately to the fore the second they sense that they are not being treated with sufficient deference reacting with disproportionate force toward something that presents no threat to anything except their insecurities…I mean, that's old news by now. What amazes me is how these people seem oblivious to the fact that they are being video recorded as though we don't know exactly how this is going to turn out. Congratulations, Buford "Hoss" McGee or whatever the hell your hillbilly name is: you have until Friday to clean out your desk! If you doubt that, just remember that all the students in the video are white. Their parents probably have money too.

The sheer stupidity necessary at this moment in time to realize that you're being videotaped, act like that, and think "I'm going to come out of this looking good!" is hard to conceptualize. With all but the oldest, most authoritarian, and most reactionary segment of the American public slowly waking up to the fact that police in a lot of places in this country are basically street gangs with badges, you might think that handling this situation differently might have had some appeal. Instead, they chose this. They chose this because they are not smart enough to realize why choosing this approach was a bad idea. And they thought that the video would hit the internet and they would somehow be hailed as heroes. For using six people to beat up a 5 foot tall college girl. Way to go there, Audie Murphy. Let's get you guys some medals.

Watch it again and remember that this guy knew he was on about five different smartphone videos. He thought we would be impressed at his bravery and sympathetic to the nightmare of Teen Sass that he has to confront every day. He doesn't understand that all we see is a man who is about to lose his double-wide in a civil judgment and will be lucky to have a desk job by this weekend.


Posted in Quick Hits on November 9th, 2015 by Ed

Scott Walker is begging for money to pay off the debts of his kamikaze run at the Republican nomination. If that concept isn't sufficiently hilarious to you, get a load of the letter he sent out to his supporters:


Our race for president didn't turn out the way we wanted. While we are disappointed, there are always new ways to serve others and plenty of conservative reforms to enact in Wisconsin.

Our "Scott Walker for America" campaign may have ended, but we attracted a tremendous grassroots team of supporters. Together we share a deep and enduring commitment to getting things done, putting things right, and moving America forward.

For a kid who grew up in small-town America, whose family didn't have a lot of money, the opportunity to run for President of the United States is an experience beyond my wildest dreams and an experience I will never forget.

There are three things I want to tell you, Friend.

First, thank you for believing in me and our campaign for President.

Second, I am back in my office in the state Capitol working on our next round of big, bold, conservative reforms. We have made incredible strides in Wisconsin, but we are not done yet. Our proven reforms have been a model for other states to follow and we will continue to build upon those reforms in the months and years to come.

Third, as things changed dramatically in the presidential race, "Walker for America" incurred a campaign debt and it is my hope that you and all of our supporters will chip in and make an online contribution of $10, $35, $50, $100, $250, or more so we can end this campaign in the black. It is a lot to ask, I know, but we feel personally obligated to make sure that every small business that extended us their good faith and credit is repaid. And we are hoping we can count on you to help.

When God closes one door, another one opens. While I don't know exactly what the future holds, trust me, we will continue leading the fight for big, bold, conservative change in Wisconsin and across America.

Thanks for believing in me — and in our cause.

Scott Walker

P.S. Every good thing in my life has come about through teamwork. Tonette, Matt, Alex, and I are so proud to have you on our team. With your good help, we will end our presidential race on a positive note with all of the bills paid. It is your contribution of $25 or $250, $50 or $500, or $100 or $1,000 that will erase every penny of outstanding debt from our campaign together. Thanks in advance for helping out. I sure appreciate it.

Every good thing in his life has come about through teamwork? I thought heroic individualism was the key to success. Personal responsibility. An Army of One. Bootstrap-pulling. All that bullshit.

Let's spend Monday having a good chuckle at the idea that Scott Walker feels personally morally obligated to pay off his debts…with other people's money. If that isn't a microcosm of the worldview and philosophy of people like Walker, I don't know what is.


Posted in Rants on November 4th, 2015 by Ed

Being shitty at running for president has worked out pretty well for Mike Huckabee when you think about it. Given that the sum total of his political achievements is winning the 2008 Iowa Caucus and being elected Governor of Dogpatch twice, the man is fabulously well-off. In 2008 and again in 2016 he has used other people's money to run for president not with the expectation of winning but to give priceless publicity to the Mike Huckabee Brand. And before you chuckle at that dismissively, remember just how lucrative Beltway Welfare can be. Speaking fees at right-wing events, AM Radio and Fox News hosting gigs, book deals, personal brand stuff on the internet…this man has no doubt been earning millions of dollars per year since leaving elected office in 2006. And it has been for remarkably easy work.

It's hard to say that running for president and getting creamed has not worked out very well for Mr. Huckabee and his family. That's why New York mag asking "Is Ben Carson Running for President?" is long overdue. As I've been saying for…well, years, I guess…the line between self-promotion and campaigning has long since become indistinct. These people who have zero chance of winning the nomination are hanging around for one reason, and it isn't because they like doing a debate every two weeks. Even those doing well like Carson and Trump aren't clearly Serious Candidates as opposed to two guys trolling. Trolling hard. As Chait states:

But now Carson actually is running for president. Or is he? It is hard to tell. Conservative politics are so closely intermingled with a lucrative entertainment complex that it is frequently impossible to distinguish between a political project (that is, something designed to result in policy change) and a money-making venture. Declaring yourself a presidential candidate gives you access to millions of dollars' worth of free media attention that can build a valuable brand. So the mere fact that Carson calls himself a presidential candidate does not prove he is actually running for president rather than taking advantage of the opportunity to build his brand. Indeed, it is possible to be actually leading the polls without seriously trying to win the presidency.

The system has become so ridiculous and the idea of personal branding through social media has become so pervasive and potentially lucrative that it is now impossible to determine who is running for president and who is running to build an empire of dolts easily parted from their cash. It is relatively easy to spot a career narcissist like Trump and wonder aloud if he is dumb enough to think he can win or if this is all an elaborate publicity stunt. That skepticism needs to be applied more broadly, though. 90% of the people running are suspect on that criteria. The professional campaigning industry abets this large scale grift too. What paid consultant is going to tell Bobby Jindal that he is a lost cause? There's free money to be had. Why get off the gravy train until absolutely necessary? Just keep pretending you're serious about getting elected, collect checks from cartoonishly rich donors and mouth-frothing old white people, and plot ways to convert the publicity into cold, hard cash when the tap finally runs dry. All you have to do is suffer through a few months of relatively light work. Everybody gets paid. Everybody wins.

This is what we've come to.


Posted in Rants on November 4th, 2015 by Ed

There are many institutional features, some entirely unique to the United States, that contribute to our abysmally low voter turnout. That low turnout is in turn a contributor to the election outcomes we live with. Two overlooked factors that help explain Tuesday's smattering of races across the country are the frequency of elections and the length of our campaign/election seasons. By a substantial margin, Americans are asked to come out to vote more regularly than citizens of any other democratic country. We have elections at the drop of a hat, thanks in part to our federal system in which statewide, local, and Federal offices are staggered and elected in different years depending on the state. General elections, municipal elections, recall elections, special elections to fill vacancies, runoff elections in majority-requirement jurisdictions, primary elections…the average American is asked to come out and vote several times per year. For an act in which most people are not especially interested or enthusiastic this is an effective death sentence. We barely care enough to vote in "major" elections like a presidential race or a midterm congressional election. By the time we get down to local and primary elections we're looking at turnout in the single digits of eligible voters in many places. When turnout is that low you know exactly what the electorate looks like: old, white, and cranky. And this is not unreasonable; who else but old, cantankerous white people have the time or inclination to pay a lot of attention to the Pigsknuckle County Board races? That hot race for Sanitation District Commission Seat 3B? That barn-burner of a school board contest?

Unfortunately these things, while not terribly interesting to most of us, are important. And we're usually too sick of politics to give them much thought when their turn comes.

The length of our campaigns is similarly fatiguing. The 2016 presidential race has been going on for roughly 3 months already, and the informal jockeying for even longer. We're already three months into an election campaign that culminates next November and we expect people to pay attention to and participate meaningfully in the 2015 elections – elections that most people don't even know exist? I am the first to revel in the joys of dumping on the civic capacities of the Average* American, but when it comes to the costs of voting and sheer fatigue I think we have a legitimate gripe. No other nation asks or expects people to pay attention to what has become one endless campaign cycle with regular exhortations to Get Out the Vote. I get paid to talk about American politics and even I get sick of the lack of ability to come up for air in this process. The nine-month long 2014 campaign barely ended before, after a break of a few months of unproductive Governing, states with 2015 races were flogging voters again. And the 2016 race didn't even wait until 2015 was over to not only begin but to reach the breaking point of sanity and overexposure.

This is the dilemma. Nobody is going to vote this often and pay this much attention to such a vast number of different elected offices and ballot issues unless their life consists literally of nothing but sitting in front of Fox News 24-7 and obsessively harassing the local newspaper's unpaid editorial intern. There are people who fit that description. And we really, really don't want them making our decisions for us. That is exactly what happens and will continue to happen in practice, though, since no amount of shaming or appeals to conscience will convince people with lives, shit jobs, family obligations, and a need to occasionally stop watching the news to preserve their mental health to vote this many times and consume this much OMG Election!!11!! stuff. It's like that fifth Red Bull of the day, the one at which your adrenal glands can be flogged no further and your body simply shuts down with fatigue and overstimulation.

It makes sense. It sucks that a lot of you didn't vote yesterday. It hardly makes you a bad person, though. It makes you a normal human being who has a limit, a limit that has been reached.



Posted in Rants on November 2nd, 2015 by Ed

I'm unsure how much national press this has gotten – I suspect that having colleagues at University of Nebraska who are anti-capital punishment activists to boot has made me disproportionately aware of it – but Gov. Pete Ricketts' epic quest to find ways to kill death row inmates despite the lack of lethal injection drugs is like a modern day version of Moby Dick. Well, that's a rough analogy. The novel was a complex, brooding commentary on man's search for meaning. This is just a story about an asshole who wants to kill people so other, terrible people will like him more.

As with every post in the history of Gin and Tacos that deals with capital punishment, let us remember the incontrovertible truth that politicians love the death penalty because it's the only way a bunch of paunchy, candy-ass white guys can look tough. Many death penalty opponents look at Ricketts as a perfect example of the way inmates' lives are used as fodder when elected officials need to shore up support with their old, white base. It's also a good example of political miscalculation and not knowing when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em – Ricketts has chosen to die upon this hill (so to speak) without having much of a strategy once his first steps didn't result in success. But more than anything the wrangling, legal and practical, over lethal injection pharmaceuticals is a black comedy skit on the illusion that killing people as the endpoint of a legal process made up of fallible, biased humans can be made Humane.

I am 100%, without exception opposed to capital punishment. I also believe that if you're going to kill someone it doesn't make a hell of a lot of difference how you do it provided the infliction of suffering isn't one of the goals of the process. We like lethal injection because it's bloodless and doesn't create a gruesome scene. It looks, when it works properly, like someone calmly passing out and never waking up. Unfortunately for the states that continue to insist on using it, it's also not a particularly effective method. I see nothing valuable about the method. If you're going to kill people anything quick and reliable will do. Gunshot to the head. Long-drop hanging. Hell, why not the guillotine. They're all just means to a cruel end of a cruel process. The only advantage lethal injection has over any of them is that it makes us feel better about ourselves as a society. It lets us feel morally superior to the "uncivilized" Chinese shooting people in the head or Middle East heathens beheading people with cartoon sized swords. As if it matters. As if the morality of killing people is determined by the method employed.

To see Ricketts go full Ahab so that his state can continue sanctioned homicide would be funny if the consequences weren't so grave. It's useful, though, to let the country see what rabidly pro-death penalty politicians really are: a group of people who are so enthusiastic about killing that they will devote themselves to concocting ways to circumvent the law they claim to care about upholding. It's almost like they're a little too excited about killing. You know, the kind of person who we generally consider a danger to society.


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

As I was rushing home from work to change, pack, and start rushing to the airport to catch a flight I thought, as I often do in these situations, how recent a development in human history the concept of punctuality is. Don't worry, this isn't going to get metaphysical. I mean actual time. On a clock. The idea that the time where I am standing is the same as the time at my destination is more recent than most people imagine. Clocks have been around for ages, of course, and sundials even longer. The idea of coordinating time from place to place, though, is 132 years old. In the grand scheme of things, that isn't much. With Daylight Savings upon us this weekend it seems an appropriate time to tell one of my favorite tales.

Prior to 1883 every local jurisdiction in the United States essentially kept its own time. They were at first widely divergent, and with 19th Century developments like railroads and the telegraph they diverged less but still bore only an approximate relationship from place to place. In 1880, for example, when it was midnight in New York it was 11:55 in Philadelphia, 11:47 in Washington D.C., and 11:38 in Buffalo. This disparity had two sources. One, each locality set noon at the point at which the sun was at its highest at that specific spot on the Earth, meaning that noon was not the same at any two points. Second and more importantly, the means of keeping time and communicating among different places to coordinate simply weren't that precise.

The biggest complainants about this system, predictably, were railroads and telegraph companies. A train could arrive in St. Louis with the conductor showing official railroad time of noon while everyone in St. Louis was under the impression that it was, say, 12:45. To make things worse, each railroad was setting its own time as were other entities like banks, Western Union, city governments, churches, and so on. In short an invitation to meet someone at noon on Oct. 1 would guarantee that all parties involved would be there at something approximating noon. You had to be prepared to wait around, not to tap your watch at 12:04 and say "That's it, I'm out of here."

Time Zones were the most logical solution to the problem, and I think most people would be surprised to know that before a bunch of railroad magnates met in Chicago in 1883 to adopt a universal standard time, they not only didn't exist but were considered a crackpot idea on par with alchemy or letting women vote. After debating proposals to divide the US into either four or five time zones they ultimately adopted the Eastern, Central, Mountain, and Pacific time system we use today (with Atlantic time for the extreme eastern parts of Canada). A railroad baron named William Allen deserves the credit for the system adopted, although as early as 1870 an academic named Charles Dowd was advocating for something similar.

The big day on which every clock would move forward or backward to reflect the new temporal reality was Sunday, November 18, 1883. All United States and Canadian railroads would, on a telegraph signal from the Allegheny Observatory in Pittsburgh at exactly noon, coordinate accordingly. Around the country people reacted with the kind of calmness with which Americans have always greeted useful changes.

No I'm just kidding, people lost their shit. Fanned by histrionic newspaper editorials and whispers of sinister forces motivating the change (let's say, I don't know, Jews) the natural tendency of our nation to resist any and all change was on full display. The power and wealth of the railroads won out in the end though. Crowds gathered around public clocks in city squares and railroad stations to see man's foolhardy attempt to control nature in the flesh. At the appointed moment, clock hands were wound a few inches forward or backward. I wasn't there, but I'm going to assume that at this point everyone made that "Is that it? I stood outside for two hours for that?" face that is equal parts embarrassment and disappointment. Nothing could be less exciting than watching the adjustment of a clock, and I suspect that at least a few people learned a valuable lesson that day about getting caught up in hysteria.

But probably not.


Posted in Rants on October 28th, 2015 by Ed

Recently I overheard on public transit two twenties/thirties Frat Bro types praising Carly Fiorina's appearance. I listened for a while and thought, well, they probably wouldn't do the same thing to a male candidate, although I could just as easily picture them making path of least resistance cracks about Trump's hair or Christie's turkey waddle and girth. In the end I contributed only "If you think she looks good now, you should have seen her when she was alive" before exiting the train. Should I have asked them why they were focusing on appearance with the only woman in the GOP race or suggested that they think about her issue positions rather than superficial factors? Probably. But here's the thing. I was tired, and ultimately talking about what Carly Fiorina thinks ("thinks") is about as interesting or relevant as talking about her face.

Imagine the following set of options for how you can spend the next hour of your life. You could push a round stone the size of a minivan up a steep incline. You could run up a staircase that never ends. You could read the user manual and instructions for a selection of pop-up toasters. Or you could explain at length, point by point, why Ben Carson is insane or Carly Fiorina's ideas are not good ones.

Take your time.

I understand on an intellectual level why making cracks about the candidates' appearance or other superficial characteristics is, in the grand sense, Wrong. It makes me and anyone else who does it, by the most literal definition, a Bad Person. The reason I do it sometimes, and the reason I don't get as bent out of shape as a lot of people do when I hear someone else do it, is that there is nothing I can imagine at this point in my life and in American politics that is more tedious, more of a waste of effort, or less engaging than explaining why the "ideas" presented by these candidates are stupid. I'm going to be honest; if my options are to point out that Chris Christie looks like an unemployed pipefitter from Bayonne, NJ or to explain, point by point, why his stale, thirty year old set of Republican talking points rephrased as policy positions is wrong, I'm going to pick the former more often than not.

Think of it this way. If I devoted this space to explaining that supply side economics doesn't work, starting wars is a bad idea, or opposition to gay marriage is hypocritical, Constitutionally unjustifiable, and ignorant, how interesting would that be for you to read? In the last 15 years how many times would you estimate you've read those arguments? How many times have you made them or explained this to someone unwilling or unable to understand them? How many sentences into that post would your eyes glaze over and your mouse begin poking around for something more interesting?

It's just too much effort to continue to take these people seriously. The leading GOP candidates are an actual reality TV troll, a clinically insane man who hears voices from god, a woman whose entire resume is a series of staggering failures in the corporate world, and George W. Bush's dumber brother. There are only so many times you can say "Hey everyone, I don't think cutting taxes on the wealthy is an effective economic strategy!" or "The things these candidates say seem incorrect and outrageous most of the time!" Their barrage of stupidity and falsehoods is too constant for anyone with a normal attention span to keep shooting down for very long. We get it. I get it. You get it. These people are all goddamn insane, and the ones that aren't insane are dangerously stupid, and the ones that aren't insane or stupid are bloodless, craven sociopaths who will say anything if they think it will make morons vote for them. Pointing that out over and over again is tedious and pointless. To engage them on the merits of their "ideas" – not a single one of which is of more recent vintage than about 1990, excepting the occasional new and completely insane theory they cook up for attention in this cacophony of monkey howls – adds as much to our intellectual lives as Chris Christie fat jokes, which is to say not a goddamn thing.


Posted in Rants on October 26th, 2015 by Ed

I hope you have a box of tissues ready. FBI Director James Comey, speaking to an audience of law enforcement personnel and their various hangers-on, explains that violent crime is higher in 2015 than in 2014 (except in all the cities where it isn't) because of the "Ferguson Effect." Is that the way that the increased militarization and use of force by police contributes to the overall tenor of violence in areas with existing crime problems? Because I agree, that certainly is something that should concern the FBI.

Oh. It turns out that The Ferguson Effect is police being too hesitant to do their job for fear of being caught on video and becoming the next YouTube sensation.

Americans of all stripes love playing the victim, be it in their personal lives or relative to their place in society. It is just heartbreaking, though, to think of all of our heroes behind the badge being unable to operate with impunity. Isn't this the same reactionary segment of society that falls back on "If you're not doing anything wrong, then you have nothing to worry about" when police behavior is put to scrutiny?

That one of the nation's top law enforcement officials doesn't see a problem with police complaining about being video recorded speaks to the systemic nature of the problem. They keep telling us it's "a few bad apples" when it's clear that the problem is systemic, part of both organizational thinking and behavior. I can't get enough of people making videos of cops, because without that we'd never hear of incidents like this or we would hear about them solely from the Official Version of events.


Posted in No Politics Friday on October 23rd, 2015 by Ed

When I visited Alaska in June one of the highlights of my trip was seeing a number of large whales while visiting Seward on the Kenai peninsula. It was a total Tourist Moment and I was OK with that. The fact that humans can see whales at all today is something of a miracle; only luck and good timing allowed most of the major species to make it out of the 19th Century without being hunted to extinction.

Why was killing whales so profitable? It turns out that people don't like sitting around in the pitch dark and prefer to have their homes and community spaces lit. Despite what we might imagine, candles played a minor role in lighting homes and certainly weren't used for things like street lighting. Turn off every electrical device in your home and light a couple candles; try reading something at night this way. It doesn't work terribly well, does it? Whale oil was a substantial step up, offering the advantage not only of a brighter, steadier light but one that could be burned indoors without marking everything in the home with soot or slowly poisoning the inhabitants. With natural gas uncommon until the era of the automobile, whale oil was the gold standard. So in the 19th Century we killed a lot of whales. Like. Almost all of them. So that we could light lamps at night.

People who like animals should mark their calendars with the birthdate of a Canadian geologist named Abraham Gesner (May 2) who in 1846 developed a process to distill a liquid fuel from low-grade coal. It was cheap as hell to produce and burned even steadier and brighter than whale oil. For reasons unknown he named it "Kerosene", and every whale on the planet breached the surface simultaneously to say "THANKS ABE!" Whaling continued but declined.

The problem remained, however, of providing a truly bright light. Until electricity and suitable light bulbs were developed it was hard to produce anything more than, well…if you've ever used a gas lantern you know what you're dealing with. It's nice. It's better than a candle. But it's not really bright bright. Actually, brighter artificial lights could be produced but only via processes that were dangerous, difficult, expensive, or all three. The most popular was invented in 1820 by a Briton named, I shit you not, Goldsworthy Gurney and involved a small flame fed by oxygen and hydrogen directed at a lump of Calcium Oxide, aka quicklime or simply lime. Commonly called Drummond Lights (after an early developer of the process) or calcium lights, they were staggeringly bright (even by modern, electrified standards) but had to be attended at all times. They burned extremely hot and, you know, started a ton of fires. However, in applications in which they could be monitored they were quite popular. Lighthouses, for example, used them to great effect.

Another popular application was in theaters, where an extremely bright light was useful, when directed properly, in drawing attention to the featured performer on stage. And that is why to this day celebrities and other people on the receiving end of intense media attention are said to be "in the limelight."

And now you know that. It's a whale of an anecdote.



Posted in Rants on October 20th, 2015 by Ed

(Oh, why not.)

I won't pretend to be an authoritative source on the politics of countries other than the one in which I live, but like most Americans with an interest in politics I have paid some attention to the recent Canadian elections. Being friends with a bunch of Canadian Marxists doesn't hurt. Suffice it to say no one is doing cartwheels over the NDP's performance. All is not lost for the good people to the north, however. Harper and his Conservatives lost, unseated by Justin "Son of Pierre" Trudeau and his Liberal Party. I mean, the name sounds good. It's not quite what Americans would assume it is based solely on its moniker. It could generously be described as a center-left party, although in realistic (non-American) terms it is effectively a centrist party. Bill and Hillary would feel at home there, as would Tony Blair and others of the "New _____" mindset wherein "New" signifies "More like right-wing conservatives, but not as repugnant."

This will be hard to swallow for legitimate liberals or those even farther to the left, but man…that shit sells. Whatever portion of the electorate is not completely lost to the right wing noise and propaganda machine is likely to warm up to any party with a sorta-charming front man promising the weakest, least scary, least threatening to the status quo kind of liberalism. The message sounds Nice and the people delivering it don't look like bridge trolls, which is more than Tories/Republicans can say most of the time. The appeal of a sweet sounding, Liberalism Lite that takes trendy positions on issues like gay marriage and abortion while avoiding issues with sharp, nasty edges (poverty, racism, structural unemployment). And they're always eager to remind you that they're not those old fashioned "Tax & Spend Liberals" by proposing – co-opting from conservatives, really – issues like welfare reform, charter schools, or draconian cuts to social services.

Picture Hugh Grant as the foppish, effeminate fiancee of the charming working class girl, trying to fit in with her uncouth, low-class brothers by going on a hunting trip and killing a few animals. He figures if he shoots a deer they'll accept him; clearly he finds the exercise ridiculous, but he considers it necessary with no other obvious way to gain acceptance among people he looks upon with the gaze of an anthropologist. That's Jack Trudeau. That was Bill Clinton. That was Tony Blair. I don't like it any more than you do, but this shtick sells. And it's further evidence that after kicking the tires on every septuagenarian and no-name ex-Governor they can find, the Democratic Party is likely to circle back to Hillary Clinton in 2016. It's not that they think her brand of mushy centrism is great. They think she'll win, and there are enough people to whom that's all that matters to carry her through. What such campaigns lose on the far left (and it ain't much in the USA with no real leftist party to jump to) they gain in the center full of unmotivated, indistinct voters to whom the weakest tea will inevitably appeal the most.