NPF: UNIFORM APPLICATION

Posted in No Politics Friday on May 8th, 2015 by Ed

Those of us who are a bit older may recall that Sean Penn used to be married to Madonna. It ended sometime after Penn tied her to a chair – for nine hours – and beat her beyond recognition with, among other things, a baseball bat. It was so brutal that even in the days before the internet allowed everyone to see the gruesome pictures and even though Penn was a bonafide Hollywood megastar, the police and district attorney charged him with a felony. Even if you're the excuse-making type for domestic violence, that can't be waved away with something like "Things got heated and he slapped her and he's very sorry." Tying someone up and beating them with a baseball bat is, in a word, fucked up.

Now. How many times have you heard someone refuse to see a movie because Penn was in it? Did anyone give you grief when you rented Mystic River or Dead Man Walking? Do you feel guilty when you watch Spicoli's scenes for the thousandth time? Do people post all over Facebook imploring you not to see whatever movie or cable series he's in these days? Perhaps you experience that, but I certainly do not.

I was reminded dozens of times, however, as a boxing fan that I was the scum of the Earth if I watched wife-beater Floyd Mayweather fight homophobe Manny Pacquiao on Saturday night (I didn't). I decided against it because I realized it was bound to be boring (It was). But I am forever baffled by why people are so insistent that people are not allowed to watch sporting events, or are bad people for doing so, if any of the people involved are Bad People. They demonstrably are Bad People in the case of this boxing match, but that is beside the point that we are bizarrely selective about when their Badness matters.

Like Queens of the Stone Age? Nick Oliviera beat his girlfriend and held her hostage with a rifle while he stood off the police for several hours. Chuck Berry was arrested in 1990 for secretly filming women in public bathrooms. Kiefer Sutherland has five DUIs. John Wayne was a horrible racist, as is Eric Clapton. Jon Voight is a right-wing teabagging lunatic who makes Pacquiao look like Bernie Sanders. Jimmy Page kidnapped a 14 year old girl he was fucking and held her virtual hostage for years. Woody Allen…where to start.

And those are the ones we know about. How many more of our favorite artists and athletes and performers are guilty of horrible, horrible things? Probably quite a few. Certainly not all, but with all that money and power and cocaine I'd have to imagine that a higher than average number have dark secrets. So I'm at a loss to explain why people were supposed to skip Floyd Mayweather's fight when I would be willing to bet any sum that no one in the history of the world has skipped Coachella or demanded that the radio be turned off on account of the equally brutal crimes of a QOTSA member.

It's hard to construct an argument that it's a bad thing to draw attention to the fact that Floyd Mayweather is a terrible human being; when Mike Tyson is like "That dude is fucked up," you know the dude in question is indeed flawed. I can't rationalize the discrepancy in the treatment of athletes and other celebrities on that account, though. Is it because they're big and (often) dark and scary? Is it because their misdeeds get more media attention? Or is it just a double standard that has no logic behind it?

My attitude is that we have no idea what kind of awful people our favorite actors, musicians, athletes, authors, etc. are when we give them our money and our attention, but if you have decided that the ones whose evil deeds are public knowledge should be boycotted you had better prepare yourself to boycott an awful lot of stuff.

COST-BENEFIT

Posted in Rants on May 7th, 2015 by Ed

Across the pond, the Italian government is paying Lamborghini (a subsidiary of the German Volkswagen-Audi group) 100 million Euros (approx. $112,000,000) to hire 300 new workers to begin production of a monstrously ugly SUV called the Urus. As Lamborghini's products are sold exclusively to young people who have incredible amounts of money and absolutely no taste, I'm sure this thing that looks like a Decepticon and sounds like a bladder disorder will do fine at the $250,000+ they plan to charge for each one.

On the surface this looks like the classic example of European Socialism and in fact I have seen a few commentaries that describe it as such. Another European socialist nightmare state clinging to the failed theories of the past and effectively nationalizing a company that can't survive in the Free Market. In practice, though, this type of policy has far more in common with the "cutting edge" (try saying it, it sounds so ridiculous) of right wing economics today: take public money, slop it in a trough, and invite private enterprise to waddle up and eat their fill. Lamborghini, like the Volkswagen Group as a whole, makes shitloads of money. This isn't British Leyland in the mid-70s desperately asking the government for enough cash to keep them alive. It's a company playing jurisdictions against one another to loot the public coffers and get concessions far beyond any that common sense or economic wisdom would dictate. In this case, Lamborghini's threat to manufacture elsewhere in the EU – no doubt the low-wage countries of Eastern Europe in which Volkswagen is increasingly shifting its labor – was enough to get Italian politicians to abandon even the pretense of making rational decisions.

The government is giving the company $112 million (US) to hire 300 people for a production run of one vehicle. In the auto industry a typical production run (the lifespan of one model with only minor changes from year to year) is usually six years. If you do the math, that equates to $55,000 per job per year, or $330,000 per job over the six year period. That is considerably more than Lamborghini will pay them in salary and benefits. How can anyone making a rational case for this investment believe that employing 300 people for six years is really worth $112 million to the state? Obviously not, but apparently enough influence has been bought to make such a financial non-starter happen. The decision has nothing to do with making a rational case; Italy has moved beyond the torpor of 1970s socialism and embraced the glories of 21st Century crony capitalism.

We see a lot of this in Southern states in the US, where state legislatures slop out billions in tax breaks, infrastructure improvements, and outright cash giveaways to lure in factories that will employ at best one or two thousand people (many of whom will end up being temp hires at or near minimum wage). Like cutting taxes for the wealthy has nothing to do with a sincere belief that it will increase tax revenues – that is merely a rationale for public consumption and the edification of gullible rubes – the real purpose of giving away money in this fashion is simply to those well connected players in the private sector who, having paid the piper, fully expect to call the tune.

Socialism? No, this is where neoliberalism got us. A socialist government would drive a harder bargain before pissing away this much money. Giving it away on the flimsiest of pretenses is more indicative of the urge to serve Big Business than of the urge to control it.

A NOVEL IDEA

Posted in Rants on May 4th, 2015 by Ed

I did my best to try to subject David Brooks' latest to a proper FJM Treatment, but I couldn't. I've done Brooks too many times (phrasing) and his column is too mean, condescending, and deceptive to be a source of any real humor. This kind of shit just isn't funny anymore. If you're interested you can read up on how every number he cites in his piece is either distorted or flat-out fabricated, but I just couldn't get past this paragraph. It killed all the funny. I don't like to be Brooks' favorite creature – the Very Serious Person – but I did a serious face and it ruined any attempt to make this enjoyable.

Despite all these efforts, there are too many young men leading lives like the one Gray led. He was apparently a kind-hearted, respectful, popular man, but he was not on the path to upward mobility. He won a settlement for lead paint poisoning. According to The Washington Post, his mother was a heroin addict who, in a deposition, said she couldn’t read. In one court filing, it was reported that Gray was four grade levels behind in reading. He was arrested more than a dozen times.

Here is where we introduce David Brooks to the novel idea that even people who are not on the path to upward mobility deserve to not be killed by the police.

Look, this is how poverty works. That's why anyone who knows their ass from the Grand Canyon calls it a "cycle." Freddie Gray, like 9 out of 10 males growing up in a shit neighborhood have, had a criminal record. Petty drug stuff for the most part, which is to be expected once young men realize that selling weed / making meth / etc is about 1000% more lucrative than any other financial opportunity available to them. It's not, as an old white person like David Brooks might say, like Freddie Gray was slitting old ladies' throats in alleys for thrills. There is nothing to suggest that he was a Bad Person, just another person who had to raise himself predictably taking to a life in the gray market economy.

But here's the thing: none of that matters. Poverty – and say this part as Tim Curry's character in Clue talking about Communism – is just David Brooks' red herring. It doesn't matter if Freddie Gray was an altar boy who spent his spare time saving endangered owls or the second coming of the Boston Strangler. There is no excuse for him dying in police custody. Wonderful, rich, upwardly mobile people don't deserve that. Poor, evil people wallowing in the underclass don't deserve it either. That's what someone like Brooks can't grasp, the idea that a person's social status and life experience should not dictate the kind of treatment afforded them by a system that is supposedly blind, impartial, and fair.

MATTER OF TIME

Posted in Rants on May 3rd, 2015 by Ed

The first lecture I ever gave in a college classroom was about the Electoral College, and every time that topic comes up in various courses I feel a bit sentimental. If I may say so, I'm a pretty good repository of information about this arcane and ridiculous system. It's far more intricate than most people realize, although there is a very good reason most people don't realize it: none of the technicalities ever matter. In practice we go to bed on Election Night (or wake up the next morning) knowing the next president despite the fact that the actual Electors are unknown and the Electoral Votes won't be cast for more than a month. Everything after Election Day happens behind the curtain.

There are a lot of strange things that could happen under the rules of the Electoral College; they could, but they never do. An Elector could go "faithless." A state legislature could change its rules for selecting Electors. A tycoon could, in my view, offer an Elector a billion dollar check to change his vote with no legal ramifications for either party (Electors are neither elected officials nor appointed civil servants). For all its what-ifs, however, in practice the process is as dull as dishwater. Candidates and state party organizations choose electors based on unquestioned loyalty to the party and demonstrated willingness to be a good soldier.

There is one big glaring loophole, though. A fatal design flaw. And for years I've resisted writing about it because I feel like if we say its name aloud it will make it more likely to happen. But I'm sure that plenty of Republican strategists, lawyers, and conspiracy theorists have already thought of this in what could be either their finest or their darkest hour.

Here's a quick rundown on how the system unfolds. American voters don't vote for presidential candidates; they vote for a slate of Electors committed to support a candidate. A handful of states print the name of these Electors on the ballot but most do not. We vote on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November (don't ask). Immediately thereafter, each state submits a formal list to Congress of the Electors chosen – whichever set represents the candidate who won the state's popular vote. Five or six weeks later, on the Monday after the second Wednesday in December (really, don't ask) the Electors meet in their state capitol to cast their votes formally. These are recorded by the Archivist and reported to Congress. OK. All clear so far.

The final step occurs in the first week of January, when the new Congress is sworn in and opens its session. On its first day, Congress must certify the Electoral Votes submitted by the states. This, like most parts of the process, is a rubber stamp in the modern era. Any objections made to the Electoral Vote must be in writing and signed by one Senator and one Representative. This is where everything could go to shit. As long as the Republicans have a majority in both chambers, there's no real reason they couldn't just refuse to certify the Electoral Vote. If you think that's too far-fetched I'd suggest you have not been paying close enough attention. How would they justify it? Who knows what Bircher-derived nonsense they would concoct. Texans are currently convinced that the Army is about to come and take their guns; I'm not sure there's a practical limit to their ability to delude themselves when it is to their benefit.

Objections occur rarely and are dealt with quickly. In theory, though, there is no reason either of those statements must hold in the future. A valid (signed) objection results in an immediate suspension of Congress while each chamber convenes separately to resolve the objection. I can find no evidence – certainly none in the 12th Amendment, and none in subsequent acts of Congress – that this suspension could not continue indefinitely. There's no procedure, no contingency plan, for a deadlock that cannot be resolved. It is implied that the members of Congress will come to some sort of reasonable compromise quickly.

Yeah. They wouldn't even need to dig in their heels on all 50 states in a close election, just the one or two that put the Democratic candidate over the top. Close your eyes and tell me that you can't picture it happening; that you can't see Lindsey Graham gravely telling the cameras that California's votes must be rejected because the UN and FEMA and illegal immigrants and teen welfare moms and al Qaeda and whatever other nonsense they can dream up. And tell me that you can't see half of this country buying it hook, line, and sinker.

I am a person of no particular intellectual gifts; if I could figure this out then god knows the lawyers and Dark Artists of the Beltway can figure it out. The only thing stopping anyone from trying this is common sense, restraint, and shame. Take a look at today's Congressional Republicans and let me know how much of that you see. It may not happen soon but at some point, I can guarantee you that someone will try this. If I'm not here to say I told you so, this post will have to do it for me.

NPF: FANTASTIC VOYAGE

Posted in No Politics Friday on May 1st, 2015 by Ed

So this is what I'm doing to some poor rental car in June. Suggestions and dire warnings welcome.

Capture

DODGE THIS

Posted in Quick Hits on May 1st, 2015 by Ed

Every time I think the crazy can't be topped I end up eating my words, but please read the comment section on this story about the Texas National Guard being deployed to monitor US Army exercises in Texas and tell me where we could possibly go from here. If this isn't peak crazy, I hope I'm not alive when it comes.

WHAT YOU WANT TO SEE

Posted in Quick Hits on April 29th, 2015 by Ed

Hey did anyone notice – or pause to consider, as it takes very little thought to figure out – what the real Message is in that "Mother scolds and smacks her son for participating in Baltimore riots" viral video? As America's white people celebrate their mental image of what black people should do (in this case, raise children who will Know Their Place) the woman stated, "That's my only son and at the end of the day I don't want him to be a Freddie Gray."

In other words, it's not Good Parenting finally on display from Those People. It's another black American trying to teach her son the lesson that in this country the police will kill a black male in this country for looking at them funny. It's a woman trying to teach her son the lesson that you can't stick your hand in an alligator's mouth, not someone who is worried about the alligator.

PUNTING

Posted in Rants on April 27th, 2015 by Ed

Everyone loves a good Take This Job and Shove It story, and the collective catharsis we feel when reading about a flight attendant getting fed up, activating the emergency slide, and walking away with both middle fingers skyward is palpable. That could be me someday, we think. Maybe one day I will have the balls…because god knows I feel like doing this approximately every third day.

It was not difficult to get my attention, in that spirit, with the story of one Irwin Horwitz. A professor at a branch campus of Texas A&M University in Galveston, Horwitz got so fed up with a spectacularly bad class that he sent them an email informing them that he is walking away and they are all receiving an F. To wit:

"Since teaching this course, I have caught and seen cheating, been told to 'chill out,' 'get out of my space,' 'go back and teach,' [been] called a 'fucking moron' to my face, [had] one student cheat by signing in for another, one student not showing up but claiming they did, listened to many hurtful and untrue rumors about myself and others, been caught between fights between students."

Horwitz said he would fail every single student. "None of you, in my opinion, given the behavior in this class, deserve to pass, or graduate to become an Aggie, as you do not in any way embody the honor that the university holds graduates should have within their personal character. It is thus for these reasons why I am officially walking away from this course. I am frankly and completely disgusted. You all lack the honor and maturity to live up to the standards that Texas A&M holds, and the competence and/or desire to do the quality work necessary to pass the course just on a grade level…I will no longer be teaching the course, and all are being awarded a failing grade."

This is the waking fantasy of every teacher or professor who has dealt with a miserable class, the educational equivalent of dumping a plate of food on an asshole diner and walking out of the restaurant straight to the nearest bar. Obviously the university administration will engineer some outcome other than automatic failing grades for the students enrolled in the course, and Horwitz is likely to be (and no doubt expects to be) disciplined. Even if tenured, non-performance is one of the few open-and-shut ways that a faculty member can be fired for cause. My guess is he will be punished short of that, if for no reason other than the administration's desperation to keep him from telling the world everything he knows about just how dog shit the university and its students are.

I'm sure there are some good students at the Texas A&M-Galvestons of the world, but when a university isn't even in the top 25 or 30 in the pecking order of public institutions in a state there is an outstanding chance that phrases like "feeder" and "open enrollment" and "of last resort" are applied and not without justification. This is to say that I have taught at three different four-year universities and I am extremely privileged to have taught at three universities much closer to the top of the pile than the bottom. It's not like I taught at Stanford or Oxford, but all have been good, selective (on paper) institutions that generally limited the pool of students to those who might reasonably be expected to succeed in college if they care to do so. I cannot imagine how challenging it must be to teach at a place like Dr. Horwitz teaches; I say that with both admiration and elitism. I am glad I don't teach at such a place, because it sounds horrible in every way that the job could be horrible. Yes, there are good students there. They are massively outnumbered.

Bearing in mind that I have taught exclusively at Good Schools, in some cases expensive and in all cases prestigious, it is shocking to many people to hear my tales of some of the students I have dealt with. I've had students with behavioral problems so severe that they could not live or function without assistance. I've had two students I know for a fact could not read, and several others that I've suspected. I've had students with scores like 15 on the ACT or the 25th percentile of the SAT, scores that suggest either that the exam taker filled out the answers at random or lacks the most fundamental high school level academic skills.

And here's the part of Horwitz's story that will get no attention but is truly beautiful: "The same day Horwitz sent a similar email to the senior administrators of the university telling them what he had done, and predicting (correctly) that students would protest and claim he was being unfair. The students are "your problem now," Horwitz wrote."

That is his point. This isn't about the students; it's about the administrators who decided that these were college students. On the (thankfully limited) instances that I have had to deal with students like those I described just above, my urge has not been in any way to punish the student. It has been to take the student gently by the hand, walk down to the Dean of Admissions or whichever apparatchik was responsible for admitting him, and announce, "You let him in here, you fucking deal with him." It is not about lashing out at students but about returning the problems dumped into our laps to the responsible party. Horwitz has effectively made his problem the administration's problem, and I understand that impulse completely. Because the administrative mindset is to take anyone who can pay the tuition or qualify for Federal loans/grants, even students that they know beyond any shadow of doubt cannot succeed in college. Once that financial transaction takes place, the admissions folks are happy and that millstone of a student now becomes the faculty's collective problem.

It is a very clear and persistent case of "Oh well, I won't have to deal with it!" and "You're someone else's problem now!" frosted with a nauseating layer of pap about how we're doing something noble because doesn't every student deserve a chance? Yes, educational opportunities should exist for everyone. But I am not a high school Special Education teacher. I am neither trained nor prepared to deal with students who literally cannot stop themselves from singing and throwing things throughout class. I am not prepared to teach a college course that both challenges the best students and accommodates those who can barely read. That is why universities are not one size fits all, why Harvard accepts people who have a fighting chance at succeeding at Harvard and rejects those who probably (although not definitely) do not. At a place like TAMU-Galveston, where the school by design and necessity accepts essentially anyone who submits an application, the task given to professors there is unrealistic and unethical at best, professionally negligent at worst.

So, congratulations to Dr. Horwitz. Not because this stunt will work or because he Showed Those Darn Kids. The dynamic in which clueless MBA types walled off from student contact and from reality make decisions without having to deal with the consequences needs to be dismantled. If the admissions process is going to involve no standards beyond the ability to pay, then the faculty (and the students who are actually hoping to learn something) should not bear the entire burden of dealing with what follows.

THE ICEBERG

Posted in Rants on April 26th, 2015 by Ed

I've said plenty here over the years about online education, and plummeting enrollments at for-profit (and almost entirely online-based) universities suggest that the pool of potential student/customers is starting to see through the scam. Having an online Bachelor's degree is worse than having no college degree at all on the job market, with the added bonus of saddling you with a six-figure student loan debt for all of that non-education.

One of the largest players in the industry / racket, Corinthian Colleges, officially went belly-up on Sunday. This is not a surprise; the company has been staggering along as the Sick Man of online education for years as the investigations and financial issues mounted. Frankly it's a small miracle that they lasted as long as they did. The LA Times story on the closure notes that this strands CC's currently 78,000 students and potentially makes them eligible for Federal student loan forgiveness. And my strongest reaction to this story was the realization that, holy crap, this dying mess of an institution (in an industry in overall decline) with ten solid years of horrible publicity still has 78,000 students somehow. Who in the hell are these people?

My guess is that any "real" students in that number are either people who need a degree to qualify for a higher salary level (as in civil service) and don't really care about quality, or people whose employer/etc pays for the courses and thus "Fuck it, it's free" is the dominant mindset. For the most part, though, as the California Attorney General stated:

The state’s lawsuit claims that Corinthian—which charges more than $40,000 for tuition and related fees—targets single parents who are close to the poverty level, a demographic that its internal documents describe as “composed of ‘isolated,’ ‘impatient,’ individuals with ‘low self-esteem,’ who have ‘few people in their lives who care about them’ and who are ‘stuck’ and ‘unable to see and plan well for future,’ through aggressive and persistent internet and telemarketing campaigns and through television ads on daytime shows like Jerry Springer and Maury Povich.’ ”

In other words, online degrees are marketed to the same segment of the population as payday loans and cash advances, with the most obvious difference being that a payday lender won't let you go $150,000 in the hole. Of course, the school (or "school") isn't the one fronting the cash, and that gets to the heart of what the entire business model of for-profit education is all about. It is nothing more than a conduit for shifting government money to a private business and risk and responsibility to private individuals. That's why the admissions criteria are limited to an exclusive class of potential students consisting of anyone capable of qualifying for a Federal student loan or grant. It's not difficult to see that any individual who doesn't understand that a degree from "Everest University Online" is not worth the $40,000/year Corinthian charges is, in the immortal words of Nigel Tufnel, not exactly university material.

Most of these students would be better served at a community or technical college, institutions designed to offer cheap, flexibly scheduled classes to working adults and younger people for whom traditional 4-year colleges don't make sense. Online schools are simply parasites, attaching themselves to an industry and a population of students that don't need them. That the primary expense for these companies is advertising – University of Phoenix spent nearly three quarters of a billion dollars on advertising last year – underscores how much more similar to retail and service industry firms they are than to any educational institution.

This is the tip of an iceberg, a bubble poised to burst. We will be seeing more of this in the near future, not only among online schlock merchants but also among smaller brick-and-mortar colleges. With the skyrocketing cost of college tuition and the vast numbers of marginal students being enticed to sign contracts they don't fully understand, it would take a great deal of willful blindness to fail to see the similarities to the housing market of the last decade.

NPF: I'VE HEARD BETTER IDEAS

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

The Cold War inspired a brand of apocalyptic thinking that one just doesn't find anymore. Sure, terrorism has caused more than a few people and societies to lose their minds with fear, but you lose some of the legit crazy when you remove strategic contingency planning from the battlefield and traditional State vs. State conflicts. I mean, it's not like the Pentagon is dreaming up scenarios for what we will do if we have to abandon the United States after it is taken over by ISIS.

We wouldn't do something, for example, like plan to salt the Earth with radioactivity while retreating from the onrushing Soviet armored columns.

In the 1950s the U.S. and its NATO allies (which at that time essentially meant Britain, and they were still having a rough go of things post-War) were planning for World War III under the assumption of absolute Warsaw Pact numerical superiority. They had more men, more guns, and more tanks than the Free World could ever hope to muster. This explains why Western planning so readily embraced nuclear weapons; it was assumed that it would be the only option left when faced with being overrun by the Red Hordes.

There are holes in all of this logic in hindsight, of course. It was what they believed at the time, though, based either on the information available or their ideological motivation.

The Brits, still preoccupied with rebuilding their nation and not interested in raising enough ground forces to keep Ivan from charging into West Germany, came up with a particularly efficient way of contributing to the defense of the Western World. Project Blue Peacock (also known variously as Blue Bunny, which is now a lethal ice cream, and Brown Bunny, in which we can watch Vincent Gallo get a beej) was a plan to bury nuclear mines throughout Germany so that upon retreat we could wait until the Soviets occupied the area and then give them a big, one million degree surprise. It's not the worst plan anyone ever devised, if it is a bit nihilistic even by Cold War standards. Here's where it went from sublime to ridiculous.

Burying what at the time was a relatively rudimentary device meant that the electronic and mechanical parts would get unacceptably cold and most likely fail to work when the crucial moment arrived. Some visionary in the Pentagon or Ministry of Defense came up with the bizarre if somewhat unorthodox solution of putting a couple of chickens in the bomb housing. A small amount of feed and water would keep the chickens alive for the 8-10 days for which the detonation timer would be set. Their body heat, although not great, would be sufficient to keep the electrical parts up to temperature. When the moment of truth arrived, these Service Chickens would then be the first victims (by microseconds) of the explosion.

In the pantheon of harebrained Cold War schemes, it's actually not the worst idea. Ridiculous, sure. Unorthodox, obviously. But it probably would have worked. It sounds positively dull when you compare it to things like Project Acoustic Kitty.