ETERNAL MYSTERY

Posted in Quick Hits on June 20th, 2015 by Ed

So for about the last 10 versions, WordPress has lacked a functioning "schedule post" feature. I've tried various plugins and recommended fixes, yet the content I tried to schedule to post while I was beyond the realm of internet access for the past few days did not post. Any WP users out there want to recommend a solution?

This seems like such a basic function. They can't get it right, though. It used to work (many versions ago) and then it stopped. It appears to be flummoxing everyone for some reason.

Here's a picture.

denali

IRRATIONAL

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

A few months ago I talked about how conservatives and their antics are not funny because they always telegraph their punchlines – even the unintentional ones. When you know something is coming, humor potential is unlikely to be fulfilled. So when right-wing Californians started whining about how unfair it is that they can't use an unlimited amount of water to tend to their multi-million dollar estates, it was mildly amusing at best. Not ha-ha funny.

"I’m a conservative, so this is strange, but I defend Barbra Streisand’s right to have a green lawn," said Yuhas, who hosts a radio talks show and also has a home in Los Angeles. "When we bought, we didn’t plan on getting a place that looks like we’re living in an African savanna."

"I call it the war on suburbia," Brett Barbre, of Orange County’s Yorba City, said.

"It angers me because people aren’t looking at the overall picture," Gay Butler, an interior designer who the Post apparently interviewed while she was out riding her show horse (!) said. "What are we supposed to do, just have dirt around our house on four acres?"

Alright, someone using the phrase "It angers me because people aren’t looking at the overall picture" to OPPOSE water conservation is funny. Ha-ha funny, even. And the best part is that she will eventually get what she wants; when all the water is gone, then no one will have to do any rationing!

Of all the deficiencies in the American character, the insistence that profligate consumption is our birthright may be the most destructive. The inability to accept the concept of scarcity – of anything, in any context, ever – guarantees that we will become attached to ways of living that can't be sustained. For example, people will demand large, verdant lawns while living in a goddamn desert. Not only do we insist on being able to use whatever we desire, we get angry when we can't waste resources as an ostentatious demonstration of wealth.

Seems like a strategy that will work out well in the long run.

FASHIONABLE

Posted in Rants on June 15th, 2015 by Ed

(From a laundromat in Anchorage. Remind me to copyright the slogan "Anchorage: The Scenic Bakersfield!")

One sad but interesting development since the end of the second World War is the death of pacifism as an organized movement. Well, at least I find it interesting (Nicholson Baker's "Human Smoke" is a particularly good read if you're interested too). In the course of reading a book about Henry Ford, I was reminded about the Peace Ship debacle prior to World War I and the central role that religious groups used to play in the pacifist movement. And it wasn't just groups like the Quakers, whose stance on nonviolence remains well-known today. Major, mainstream Protestant religious groups – especially, curiously enough, evangelicals – the Catholic church, major Jewish organizations, and the like were all strongly associated with the anti-war movement before World War II.

Part of the difference today stems from the Hitler, Imperial Japan, and fascism making war a moral crusade that religiously inclined people felt safe getting behind. War is not a moral or ethical dilemma if one conceives of the potential target or opponent as the Third Reich. Unfortunately this has served as little more than a straw man since 1945, as whoever the western nations of the world feel like reducing to rubble happens to be "just like Hitler," coincidentally enough. Attempts to recreate the black-and-white morality of World War II in modern conflicts is not only idiotic, but seemingly mandatory on the part of political leaders.

What stands out to me is how much, in the United States, mainstream Christianity has bent and molded itself around the preferences and prejudices of the one demographic – white people, particularly conservative and rural white people – with which it is still popular. We know from all varieties of survey data that Americans are identifying with organized religion less than ever today, and even among identifiers the percentage of Protestants and Catholics is declining. Smaller religions like Mormonism, Hinduism, Buddhism, "New Age" belief systems, and so on are all growing at the expense of traditionally common Christian denominations.

Not to be accused of concern trolling, but it seems like a religion should have a belief system that tells followers or potential followers "This is the One True Path. Join us. If you're not interested, piss off, because the One True Path does not change for anyone." In practice we see American Christianity, particularly the evangelical variety, becoming hard to distinguish from a Support Our Troops rally, which makes sense when you realize both organizations are aiming at the same demographic. Religion seems to have ceded, at least in our case, the moral argument against violence and war. I haven't been a practicing Catholic in decades, but I do like the fact that the incumbent Pope is willing to remind his flock that there are things they should be opposed to beyond just abortion and The Gays – poverty, war, injustice, and other things that fly in the face of the Dignity of Life and Humankind thing that they care about collectively.

I may not be the kind of person to whom organized religion appeals, but nonetheless I understand the potential it has to be a positive force in the world and in the lives of individuals who do find it appealing. It would be nice, in that light, if American churches were willing to take some kind of moral stance against something other than the convenient target groups that its core supporters already hate. It's safe and easy to bash abortion from the pulpit; how about branching out and asking the congregation what exactly it needs all those guns for, or why they don't mind that an alarming number of unarmed black men seem to end up dead when they encounter police. I don't disrespect right-wing Christianity because of the beliefs per se, as there are tons of belief systems in the world I find ridiculous personally. I disrespect it because it tells the faithful what they want to hear while remaining silent about what they need to hear. "The customer is always right" is a poor strategy in this case.

NPF: NYET!

Posted in No Politics Friday on June 12th, 2015 by Ed

I have very limited and intermittent internet access up here in the Yukon (which is lovely, except for the 9 months annually in which I'm sure it is Hell on Earth, or rather the Hoth System) and I'm also remarkably depressed for someone who's on vacation so this will have to be quick. Part of the problem is that it's not really a vacation, but 30 days of aimless driving for the sole purpose of not having to live my actual life. I'm bad at pretending, including pretending that I don't have to go back to Central Illinois and its ugliness (in every sense of the term) shortly. But anyway.

1. Pictures! I have lots of pretty pictures! Look at them. If you didn't know me better you would swear I'm having fun.

2. I was going to write about this but instead you must make do with a link about the international incident that nearly occurred when Nikita Khrushchev was forbidden to visit Disneyland (for logical security reasons, as the LAPD could not guarantee that a heckler would not throw a tomato at him or worse, as happened several times on his visit). What is the point of writing about anything, really. Someone else has already written about it.

3. Nearly all of my friends are far more successful than me (personally and professionally) and they all, in conversation, reference the role of luck in their success – being in the right place at the right time, knowing somebody somewhere who gave them a leg up, etc. I'm thinking a lot about whether I'm unlucky (in this specific sense – being born White, Male, and American is pretty goddamn lucky) or whether I have opportunities that I'm too stupid to recognize or too untalented to take advantage of.

4. I'll be in Alaska in about 8 more hours. 4100 miles driven so far. The only life goals I have ever actually accomplished are ones that can be accomplished by driving long distances. So congratulations Ed, you can sit patiently and operate cruise control.

SLIPPED MY MIND

Posted in Quick Hits on June 11th, 2015 by Ed

Granted, I'm not the world's biggest basketball fan but am I the only person who reads stories about using the quarter-billion dollars cut from the University of Wisconsin system to build a new arena in Milwaukee and says, "Oh my god, I totally forgot that the Milwaukee Bucks exist"? Do they still have Jack Sikma? Lew Alcindor?

AND IT'S ONLY JUNE

Posted in Rants on June 9th, 2015 by Ed

I usually express optimism here about once annually, and rather than procrastinating I decided to get it out of the way early this year.

One of the lessons of American history is that we're capable of social change but we take our sweet time doing it. Think about Dwight Eisenhower calling on American blacks to exercise "patience" in their calls for equal rights – nearly a century after the 14th Amendment ostensibly guaranteed them (and Thurgood Marshall's sick burn response, "I'm the world's original gradualist. I just think ninety-odd years is gradual enough.") And of course here we are sixty years later with some of the same problems left unresolved. We're….a little slow sometimes. Glacial, even.

There are some less bleak examples, though. In the past 20 years Americans, particularly those born since 1980, have done an about-face on gay marriage (57% opposed in 2001, 57% in favor today). That might not seem like much, but swings in public opinion on social issues usually play out over decades. The fall from 57% opposed in 2001 to 39% opposed today is significant.

As completely hopeless as the problem of excessive force and institutionalized racism in law enforcement seems – God knows the death toll isn't subsiding – I think Americans are starting to get it. Not all of us, of course. There's 30% of the population that is intractable on this and many other issues for a variety of reasons (usually something to do with racism and/or an Authoritarian-Follower personality type). The recent incident in McKinney, TX not only resulted in the cop losing his job but didn't see the usual number of people rushing in to defend him. Sure, some people still defended him, the ones would defend a white cop beheading someone for no reason as long as that person happened to be young and black. Moreso than other recent incidents, even those in which someone ended up dying, we seem much more willing to look at this video and say, "What the hell is wrong with that guy." I think – hope – that a growing number of people see this endless stream of videos of police brutality and weekly stories about unarmed black men being shot and think that maybe there's some kind of pattern here. If nothing else, people who don't pay attention to anything going on in this country might be forced into awareness through sheer repetition.

Don't get me wrong, there remain plenty of problems. Incidents in which cops actually get punished or prosecuted still inevitably require a bystander's video to keep the system from reverting to the default setting of believing whatever story the cops concoct. And the willingness of Americans to see themselves as Good People who have rights while others are Bad People who don't (or, more accurately, that the violation of their rights is fine because they're Bad and unworthy of sympathy) remains disturbingly high. Prosecutors and juries are deferential to police to the point of absurdity. Despite all that, there are reasons to be optimistic; not that the problem will be solved by Christmas or your next one's free, but that we are moving in a positive direction. The first step in solving the problem is admitting that it exists.

THE MONEY PIT

Posted in Random Facts on June 7th, 2015 by Ed

I'll try to keep this from becoming a running travelogue but there are some things I get no other opportunity to talk about. By the end of this post you will understand why.

This large nation is not populated very evenly. The vast majority of us live in a (relative) handful of spots and huge swaths of the rest of the country are lightly populated if at all. Of the places I've had the opportunity to see up close, North Dakota and Montana take the cake for pure desolation. You can, and of necessity will, drive for hours in this part of the country without seeing another car or a human settlement of more than 1000 people. Rugby, North Dakota bills itself as the "Geographic Center of North America" which is particularly fitting, as northern North Dakota is as close as one can get to being in the actual middle of nowhere.

I chose my route to Seward's Folly with the intent of getting to see some things I've always wanted to see, namely one of my personal favorite pieces of Cold War arcana / bizarre architecture. To do so entailed driving for hours to Nekoma, ND, which as best I could tell is populated solely by aggressive mosquitoes.

Short version: As soon as the great powers of the Cold War developed missiles capable of lobbing nuclear weapons at one another from 20,000 miles away (Intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBM) the military-technological version of the mythical city of gold has been the creation of a missile to shoot down other missiles. Like a king cobra that only feeds on other snakes, anti-ballistic missiles (ABM) were among the centerpieces of Reagan's "Star Wars" fairy tales in the 1980s. But the idea is as old as offensive missiles, which is to say dating to the 1940s or earlier.

Briefly, ABMs do not work. Just take my word for it on this point. They don't work and they will never work despite the literal trillions that have been poured into developing them over the past half-century. George W. Bush resurrected the idea ("National Missile Defense") in 2004, mostly because he is a very stupid person. There is no advance or development in ABMs that cannot be negated by cheap countermeasures: plastic dummy warheads, chaff, or sheer volume. Do not debate me on this point because you are wrong.

Where were we. Ah, yes. The 1970s. In that lamentable decade the Pentagon devoted more than six billion dollars to the creation of a project called Safeguard, an ABM system intended to shoot down incoming Soviet nuclear weapons. Using the Distant Early Warning system in Arctic Canada (google "DEW Line" if you want an interesting read) to alert us to a Cossack sneak attack, Safeguard was supposed to identify, track, and shoot down incoming threats. Since the route of attack for Soviet missiles (or bombers) crossed the North Pole and Canada, the far northern central US was considered the best location for Safeguard. That's how I ended up in Nekoma, ND.

Safeguard was, even by military pork project standards, grotesquely pointless. It did not work particularly well, and even if it worked perfectly it had a paltry number of defensive missiles relative to the hundreds upon hundreds of ICBMs an enraged USSR could have fired at us. It was online for less than 2 years and then quietly mothballed.

What remains in rural North Dakota is a truly surreal modern archaeological site.

IMG_1273

That giant cyclopean concrete pyramid is a multidirectional phased array radar intended to identify incoming missiles then precisely target and fire an American missile to knock it down. The missile silos in the ground do not appear in the photograph because the area is barbed-wired off and there's insufficient elevation anywhere nearby to get a good overhead view. I also found that the closest town inhabited by humans – Langdon, ND – has a deactivated missile from the Safeguard system in its public park. How cheerful.

IMG_1279

Fortunately we've learned quite a bit from all of these debacles – strategic, technological, economic, etc – over the years and the U.S. has finally stopped throwing money into the black hole of a technology that is unlikely to work against a threat that is unlikely to materialize.

Oh. Wait. Never mind. I guess we'll keep building future relics. Hopefully more conveniently located ones.

NPF: I DROVE. THE CAR. INTO A F*^#ING LAKE

Posted in No Politics Friday on June 4th, 2015 by Ed

It has been a few years since I took a lengthy road trip, enough that this is my first one undertaken with GPS to tell me where to go. In the past I made do, somehow, with a road atlas and enough patience to get lost on occasion without worrying too much.

GPS is one of those things that makes life so much easier that we don't even notice (or mind) that it's making us dumber. Don't get me wrong, I would never recommend against using it. I am curious, though, to see what would happen if you handed a teenager who has never lived without "navigation" a map. Or hell, try the same with an adult who has been taking orders from the disembodied voice of gentle authority for more than a decade now. Cue the mental image of Michael Scott driving a car into a lake because the GPS voice told him to keep going. Is that the route (SWIDT?) we're headed?

In Nicholas Carr's The Glass Cage (recommended, if a bit dry) he talks about GPS as an example of how automation makes our lives better but imposes a strange sense of detachment on our actions in many cases. This week I am putting his claims to the test, and he's not wrong. Without having to worry about where I'm going the amount of involvement in the process of driving falls sharply. It's great – I reach my destinations and I can devote my attention to things (audiobooks) other than finding the correct route. But at the end of the day, it's remarkable how little I can recall: what highways I drove on, what towns I passed through, and so on. Without even trying I've tapped into the Autopilot mode, paying only enough attention to hear the voice tell me to turn right in 1/4 mile.

It's tempting to engage the Who Cares argument here; paper maps are archaic. Why bother learning a skill that cheap, widely available technology can do faster and better. I'm not about to start a Hipster Luddite No Navigation Movement that encourages people to revert to street maps (and, on longer trips, a sextant) to find their way. It is just one of the more interesting examples of the mixed blessing of labor-saving technology. Finding our way is one less thing for us to think about now, for better and worse.

SLIGHTLY OVERSTATED

Posted in Quick Hits on June 4th, 2015 by Ed

Stopped to visit the Brown v Board of Education historical site in Topeka yesterday. The exhibits included a number of contemporary predictions about what would happen if the Court desegregated the schools. Suffice it to say many atrocities would befall Our Women and society as we know it would collapse. They predicted the same things reactionaries always predict at the slightest potential for change. You've heard them all. And I found myself wondering, How many times have we been promised these outcomes? Have the predictions ever come true?

Are there any examples of apocalyptic predictions – the kind that accompany issues like gay marriage, desegregation, etc. – that were anything less than wild exaggerations? Any example we can point to of the Pat Robertsons of the world warning us of dire consequences that kind of, sort of came to pass? The jury's still out on the whole "Repealing DADT will reduce the military to one furious gay orgy" prediction – Just give it a few years, it'll happen – but on others the record is complete. Neither gay marriage nor female suffrage led to the predicted collapse of civilization, after all. But maybe something else that I'm forgetting did.

INCENTIVE STRUCTURE

Posted in Rants on June 2nd, 2015 by Ed

Like any professional association or interest group, the American Political Science Association bombards its members with emails, occasional junk mail, and various Calls to Action. Lately and quite regularly those Calls have been related to Congress's attempts to cut funding for the social sciences from the National Science Foundation. There are no data available but I suspect the response rate on the exhortations to "Contact your elected officials and tell them to fund the NSF!" is very low. Part of that is the nature of the shotgun approach to asking for help. Part of it is because while no one in the field doubts that funding the study of all subjects is inherently good for obvious reasons, the APSA is trying to mobilize its 10,000 members to save something that directly benefits about 0.5% of us.

As is the case in any profession, I assume, academia has a pretty rigidly defined class structure. If we're being honest with ourselves, 99% of the NSF funding in this field goes to tenured faculty at about three dozen universities – with the top 5 or 10 collecting a disproportionate amount. So when the APSA asks all of us to help it lobby for NSF funding, what it's really asking us to do is to petition Congress to help our social/professional betters stay on top of us. Sure, they push hard on the idea that NSF-funded projects affect us all, and that's not without merit. But if I'm self-interested – and who isn't, regarding their own professional advancement and compensation – I want to know why I should help Joe Blow get a $5 million dollar grant at Stanford to conduct a survey in the hopes that years down the line I can use the crumbs of the data to scavenge for publications knowing that Dr. Blow and colleagues have already published all the good stuff.

It's a nice case study of how the incentive to participate in politics declines as inequality rises. Maybe if the vast majority of the profession had a snowball's chance in hell of getting an NSF grant we would all be fired up about this and put some real pressure on the relevant members of Congress. Or, as I suspect many of us do, we look at it as the rich asking us to help them get richer in the professional sense and check out. That 50% of Americans who cannot be motivated to vote, or can be only at great cost, probably looks at the political process and draws the same conclusions. Hard to blame them. Survey data shows not only that income predicts participation but also that it predicts political efficacy – one's sense of whether participation is meaningful and the process itself is legitimate. The more money people have, the more they believe the political process is responsive to their interests. They believe that because it's true.

As a gainfully employed white male, I generally don't have a hard time paying attention to politics because the entire system and the society it reflects are biased in my favor. It's remarkable, though, how easy it is to disengage when that's not the case. No wonder so many Americans do it so often. We could debate whether the futility of politics is reality or merely a perception generated to keep the poor complacent. Either way, it's working like a charm.