NPF ERRATUM

Posted in No Politics Friday on November 7th, 2014 by Ed

The preceding post might be more enjoyable had I remembered to include the video.

NPF: HORSE WARS

Posted in No Politics Friday on November 6th, 2014 by Ed

As a (hobbyist) drummer I've never understood the fascination with "retro" drums. I get that anything old automatically confers Cool Points upon the owner but drums from the 1960s are, to put it charitably, shit. The metal hardware is beyond flimsy, the shells rarely stay in round, and the (critical) bearing edges often look to have been cut with a butter knife. There are some gems to be found – a day on which everyone at the old Gretsch factory performed flawlessly and they happened to grab the most perfect wood and the strongest lugs and screws – but the quality is wildly inconsistent and generally poor. It's inarguable that while old drums look cooler to a lot of people, the "beginner" drums on the market today are vastly better than the best, most expensive ones made in the 1950s in terms of build quality, design, and sound.

The same is true of cars. Buy the cheapest new economy car available today and you're driving the technological, performance, and safety equivalent of a Rolls Royce from the 1980s. Old cars have a lot of panache and style, and people love them because they are reminders of what most people define as their Good Old Days. But when was the last time you drove a car built in, say, the 1960s or 1970s? They're terrible cars by modern standards. They're loud, primitive, lacking in all but the most rudimentary safety features, and they suck down oil and gas like a Formula 1 racer. They look cool and some of them drive quite well. You wouldn't want to drive one to work every day if you had the option of driving, say, a mid 2000s compact instead, and you certainly wouldn't want to get in an accident in one unless you're weary of life.

I recently came across this Motorweek video of a comparison test between the "Hot Hatches" of the 1986 model year. I daresay some of the older readers found themselves driving one of these vehicles at some point: the Volkswagen GTI, Acura Integra, Dodge Colt Turbo, Toyota Corolla FX16, and Ford Escort GT. As is the case today, these are cars that are intended to be affordable to the average new car buyer but with lively performance emphasized over luxury or interior space. The GTI (many generations down the road, so to speak) is still the most popular car in this segment today.

The most powerful car in that group of five boasts 123 horsepower. This is less than you would get in the most basic transportation type car today – and yet in 1986 these were "performance" cars. For example, pedestrian 2014 offerings like a new Ford Focus (160 hp) or Hyundai Accent (138 hp, and one of the very cheapest new vehicles for sale today) would blow the doors off of 1986's performance compacts. And their gas mileage, safety features, and creature comforts are all significantly better as well.

The lame excuses made by the auto industry for so many years have been exposed in the last few as fuel economy has finally started to improve sharply. For years they claimed that the technology was too expensive, yet every new generation of cars had dramatically increased horsepower. This horsepower arms race means that today even the dullest vehicles on the road (Camrys, etc) can be equipped with 270+ hp engines that would outperform a V8 Corvette or Ferrari from the 1970s. Hell, a modern kid-hauler SUV comes equipped with a more powerful engine than a Ferrari 348 or a 1996 Corvette. And if the technology to offer such an unnecessarily large amount of power can be offered affordably, then better fuel economy is also possible (since equal power can be achieved with successively smaller engines). Only recently have manufacturers started taking advantage of this, offering even expensive luxury cars (Audi A6, BMW 535, Cadillac ATS, etc) with 4-cylinder engines.

Obviously, comparing any technology with its predecessor from 1986 is going to reveal some dramatic changes, but the average (not all that interested in cars) driver has no idea how staggering the increase in power has been over the past two decades. In 1995, Cadillac's full-sized offerings featured 195 hp V8 engines. Today, not only are there engines literally less than half that size producing over 200 hp (VW's 2.0L 4 cyl in the Audi S3 is rated at an insane 296) but the largest Cadillac now comes with a 415 hp V6. What in the name of god the average elderly Cadillac driver needs with 415 hp is beyond me (other than that the rapidly ballooning weight of modern cars, with their frivolous tech toys and heavy safety accommodations) but he can drive with the confidence of a man who would have needed to pay $250,000 for an exotic sports car to get that kind of power in the 1990s.

As much as it pains me to say it, a choice between Steve McQueen's Mustang in Bullitt and a new 2014 Ford Focus would be no choice at all. And the latter could blow him away in a road race anyway.

CAREENING

Posted in Rants on November 6th, 2014 by Ed

Another election, another autopsy of the American electorate.

Here's what we know. Americans generally believe that the minimum wage should be increased, that the War on Drugs is stupid, that draconian prison policies should be scaled back (if for the wrong reasons), and they elected by sizable margins what may be the least likely human beings on the planet to enact policies along those lines.

On the surface it makes no sense, but this pattern is becoming familiar. Democrats do well or something approximating well during presidential elections when a larger share of peripheral voters – younger, poorer, generally disenfranchised, and more cynical voters who can be enticed into voting only with great effort – show up at the polls. Then the midterms roll around and turnout is embarrassingly low, limited mostly to old white people. This certainly contributes to the schizophrenic nature of our elections in comparison to public opinion on major issues, which is generally pretty stable over time. Our preferences don't change dramatically yet the balance of power swings back and forth regularly. Why?

Differences in who turns out across elections are part of the answer. The other is that American voters have extremely limited choices. Third parties, leaving aside the occasional billionaire independent candidates as anomalies, have no realistic hope of winning elections beyond the local level. When people are highly dissatisfied (which they are) and feel that the country is a clustercuss (which it is), what option is there when the Democratic Party appears to be in control than to vote for Republicans? When the GOP has been in charge for a while, what else is there to do but vote for Democrats (see 2006, 2008)?

Unwilling to devote the kind of time and energy it would take to be well informed about the issues and demand decent candidates – not that we could compete with the influence of unlimited and unaccountable money – we have little choice but to mix and match different combinations of institutions of government and the jackwagons that are offered to us on the ballot. The only inherent advantage Republicans have is their superiority at playing the "They're comin' for your guns!" game. With the demographic tide firmly against them, that trick won't work forever. In the meantime we all have to live with the consequences of constantly electing people who are hellbent on doing things large majorities of us find either reprehensible or merely stupid.

DEFAULT

Posted in Quick Hits on November 3rd, 2014 by Ed

At a dinner with some of my colleagues last week someone mentioned the fact that many of the crime alerts on campus – our university police are particularly aggressive about sending out alerts/updates to counter the perception, and frankly reality, that we are in a high crime area – turn out to be fabricated. These are property crimes, not violent or sexual in nature. It struck several of us as odd that students would lie about being relieved of an iPhone by a nighttime mugger.

The problem is that students – particularly the ex-suburban private school type – are more afraid of their parents than they are the law. Or just about anything else for that matter. Despite the fact that these college students are all legally adults, their primary concern is to avoid getting In Trouble with mom and dad. So when Dakota loses her $500 smartphone because she got too wasted on Saturday night to keep track of her limbs let alone her electronics, she has two choices. One is to tell Dad that she lost it. The other is to call the police and say that a black guy took it. They choose the latter and generally I don't imagine that police have a hard time finding inconsistencies in the mugging story (or in the security camera footage that covers more of the area than most people realize).

This is not something that happens daily, mind you, but there have been multiple incidents in the past year. It's a good anecdote to pull out when someone tries to argue that race isn't a thing. Because the "suspect" is always the same. If you want to claim that something was stolen or a crime was committed, what else would you invent but a Black Male, 18-30, tall and slender and wearing a hoodie and baggy pants? It makes sense that college kids are sheltered and do stupid things and in a moment of panic they might make up a story. That's not the alarming part. The alarming part is that well-off and mostly white college kids instinctively know that if you're going to invent a crime, the best faux-perpetrator is the person everyone already thinks is a criminal anyway.

SKIN IN THE GAME

Posted in Rants on November 3rd, 2014 by Ed

Over the past year or two I've used this forum for a terrible confession a few times: that following the minutiae of elections and domestic politics no longer holds much appeal for me. In the past I've devoted considerable time and space to covering Senate races, for example, but this year it felt even more pointless than usual. What is at stake in this $4 billion election in which neither party has advanced any kind of agenda? The Republicans are running purely on fear and lies and the Democratic game plan is…there isn't one. Obama has completely given up and has disengaged from Congress. Who can blame him, and what reason is there not to follow his example and say "Alright, fuck it"?

There has always been an aspect of voyeurism to politics and elections. Now it feels like the participatory aspect has gone out the window and we are now simply spectators in a battle (or "battle", if you recognize how slender the differences between some pairs of candidates are) fought between complicated legal fictions turning billions of dollars into terrible TV commercials on behalf of corporate interests. It feels like there is nothing at stake and everyone is just going through the motions. Turnout will be abysmal as usual and 2014-16 will rival 1998-2000 in terms of gridlock, pettiness, and absolute futility regardless of what happens on Tuesday.

A handful of gubernatorial races should, in theory, be interesting but we're all so used to punitive austerity and legislative ineptitude at this point that no one even bothers to pretend that our situation will improve depending on which candidate wins. The Republicans are promising to keep destroying everything and the Democrats are doing their usual "We'll do, uh, something different from that, or probably nothing. And isn't nothing better than something bad?" Hard to imagine why nobody cares about participating in this process with incentives like that.

More pointless "showdowns," more pointless Repeal Obamacare votes, more pointless Benghazi investigations, and more nothing happening for months on end while we wait for the odd Supreme Court decision for the rare spectacle of something actually happening. That is what we have to look forward to whether there are 45 or 50 or 55 Republicans in the Senate or whether they add more to their historically awful House majority. This is the new normal and it stretches endlessly before us. And another election in which most of the people who vote are over 55 offers nothing more interesting than the possibility that things will get even worse.

But I'm being a little ambitious. Getting even worse would mean that the election managed to change something. Let's be serious.

NPF: HOW TO BE BILL THE BUTCHER IN 12 STEPS

Posted in No Politics Friday on November 2nd, 2014 by Ed

I haven't done a Halloween costume more than a handful of times in my life but when I do, I prefer to do it right. I didn't go for Total Historical Accuracy or anything – you can, for example, get authentic 1850s pants and a shirt, but they're expensive so I went with basic modern equivalents in the correct color and close enough style.

billbill2

Step 1. Grow a giant beard (Step 0.5 is "Be Eastern European, or possibly Italian.")
Step 2. Carve said beard into sideburns down to the jawline and a handlebar mustache
Step 3. Brown cotton or twill pants
Step 4. Natural henley-type shirt. Cut or rip off the elastic at the wrist. Open the neck.
Step 5. Either make leather knife holsters for a belt or, if you're basically talentless like me, use leather shoelaces to hang butcher-type items from a belt.
Step 6. Be realistic about the fact that no matter how cool it might look, you probably can't walk around outside or in any kind of business establishment brandishing a real meat cleaver and knife.
Step 7. Make a red/white/blue sash either by dyeing a white cotton strip or sewing together colored fabrics
Step 8. Make or buy the appropriate cap. This was the hardest thing to find. I eventually bought an aviator style cap ("Snoopy cap"). Either cut off the chin strap or pin them up inside the lining of the cap.
Step 9. Tie a leather strip around the cap at the brow. This keeps it in place and tight against the head.
Step 10. Use tall brown leather work-type boots, pant legs tucked in. If you're willing to spend insane amounts of money you can get vintage knee-high types.
Step 11. The vest. I had a lot of problems with the vest. Ultimately I bought one, although given time and a sewing machine I think the best option would be to make one to fit your torso. As it was, I safety pinned the vest to eliminate some of the billow and extra material.
Step 12. Ask the Christian Lord to guide your hand against Roman popery. Yell at people a lot.

MOVING TARGET

Posted in Quick Hits on October 30th, 2014 by Ed

Hopefully by now you have seen the video of a woman walking around NYC for 10 hours and being catcalled about 100 times in addition to considerably creepier behavior like being followed.

I'm not the world's most sensitive person, nor am I the most accomplished feminist. I'm certain that I'm an asshole sometimes and that, like any male, I say things that are offensive to women without necessarily intending to offend. But about a year ago I decided to try something new: to listen to women without feeling compelled to make any kind of response or attempt to explain the behavior of men who are not me. Humans are naturally defensive creatures and there is a tendency, especially among men, to tell others that they are overreacting – to explain why things are not really as bad as someone else thinks. In theory, I think this comes from a place of good intentions: to attempt to comfort someone by downplaying the experiences that disturb them. In practice, however, what it means as a man is that you're regularly telling women that they're overreacting to other men.

What I've started to learn since I made a conscious effort to talk less and listen more is that a lot of really fucked up things happen to the average woman on the average day. Things that are annoying or worse. Do I think that every complaint some woman could potentially make about a man is automatically valid? No. I maintain that the Tumblr warriors of the world who flip out because a man held a door for them are have some issues of their own that need to be worked out. But rather than assume that the world is filled with straw (wo)men, I decided to try listening to people I trust and know to be reasonable and anything but ridiculous. And when you stop challenging and questioning people, they tend to get more comfortable telling you things. And then you realize that some of the behaviors that you know exist in the world are really, genuinely, disturbingly common.

I'm not a great person and I'm probably not yet at the point at which I'm part of the solution, but I decided that I would stop being part of the problem. It's a start.

LIVE FREE AND DIE

Posted in Rants on October 27th, 2014 by Ed

After a stretch of not terribly awesome news over the weekend and continuing into this week, I was talking with a friend about my favorite topic – feeling stuck in a place I don't particularly like. She noted, and I immediately agreed, that this is hardly a unique problem. If I had a nickel for every time I heard someone complain that they felt shackled to or stuck in a job they don't like, I would have a very strange way of earning money. I'd also have about twenty extra dollars per year. If anything I have less to gripe about than most job-haters given that I don't actually dislike my job but rather its location. Still, it's not pleasant. Just in case you imagined having no life whatsoever outside of work as being pleasant.

My standard line is to tell frustrated friends that all paid employment is pretty awful, because if it was fun and fulfilling they wouldn't have to pay people to do it. This is an exaggeration, but only just (notice how the unpaid intern economy focuses on professions like journalism and activism rather than mundane but economically productive jobs). I doubt this is comforting, but it is hard to get useful advice on this topic since we are all basically in the same boat. The vast majority of us would love to wake up tomorrow morning and never have to work again; more accurately, we would love never to have to work a given job because we needed it.

Everyone tells a version of the same story: I hate this job but I need it. I'm stuck, I'm trapped, it's out of my hands. The reason we all say this is that it is true. Unless you happen to be that rare individual with some high-demand skill, most of us are in an unhappy marriage with our jobs. We live paycheck to paycheck and struggle under some debt burden – educational, medical, consumer, or whatever – that keeps us going back to a job that makes us feel like shit day after day. Getting a different job sounds good in theory but with hundreds of applicants for every job in most fields these days we realize (and are repeatedly told) that we're lucky to have one.

We are not, in any meaningful sense of the word, free. Yes, anyone is free to quit and become a hobo. But for those of us who like living indoors and having exotic luxuries like electricity and running water, the feeling of being Stuck is overwhelming. We all realize that the job we have is the best job we can get and the other options reside several rungs down on the ladder. The more I think about this dilemma – and I'd estimate I devote about 25% of my waking time to it on any given day – the more I realize why Americans, particularly the ones under the most economic pressure, talk so much about Freedom and put so much stock in their 2nd Amendment rights and their, uh, unique conception of religious freedom. People cling to those more symbolic types of freedom because they understand, even without admitting it to themselves, that they don't have any real freedom. Saying "Merry Christmas" instead of "Happy Holidays" or stocking your home with a ludicrous arsenal of weapons gives life a nice, shiny veneer that looks like freedom. Those things probably feel like great moral victories to a person who spends his days working at a job he hates and for which he is barely paid enough to afford his shitty house and shitty car in whatever eyesore of a town he calls home.

I guess guns and public nativity scenes and refusing to buy health insurance are symbolic things that allow people to convince themselves they are free, or at least to avoid thinking about how little freedom they really have. We are encouraged, and in many cases encourage ourselves, to think of Freedom as intangible because most Americans have none that is tangible. Like Bill Hicks used to say, "You think you're free? OK. Try doing anything without money, then you'll see how free you are."

RUGGED INDIVIDUALISM

Posted in Rants on October 27th, 2014 by Ed

Let me preface this by beating the most pedantic would-be commenters to the punch and recognizing that minor property damage obviously isn't a big priority for law enforcement anywhere. In the grand scheme it doesn't amount to much, obviously.

To make a long story short, after leaving my car in one of the many (obscenely expensive) parking decks in the most expensive area in Chicago, my car was broken into on Saturday night. A large hole was punched in the passenger window. When I found it on Sunday morning, I called the company that manages the parking deck, as there was no actual human on duty. I was told, in the coded language of corporate American customer service, to go fuck myself. This was expected, and I called as a formality since I assumed my insurer would ask. Next I called the non-emergency number for the Chicago PD to experience their new officerless system for filing police reports. Apparently that thing you see on TV where a cop drives up and listlessly fills out some paperwork no longer happens. Officer – oh, let's say "Grabowski" – informed me over the phone that for some reason the new File a Report by Phone system would not allow me to File a Report by Phone and instead I would have to drive to the nearest CPD station.

OK, no big deal. I mean, the entire vehicle is filled with shards of broken glass and since I don't happen to have a shop-vac on my person I can't do much about that, but I'll sit on the glass and get a decent amount of it stuck in my clothes and arms so I can drive to the station with the film backing on the window flapping around and tossing additional bits of glass in and out of the car. Cool. After waiting 45 minutes at the station for no discernible reason – I was the only person there and the gaggle of officers passed the time talking about Jay Cutler – I was informed that it was my fault because I left a pair of gas station sunglasses on the passenger seat. Suitably chastened, I waited until Officer – Oh, let's say "O'Halloran" – finished the report I would need to file a claim. This process complete, I was set free. I asked Officer O'Halloran if perhaps someone could provide me the use of a dustpan, or a roll of masking tape, or a piece of a garbage bag, or anything that I could use to clean up some of the glass or cover the hole. I was told, in proper police procedural speak, to go fuck myself.

Finally I called my insurance company – not one of the cut rate ones, but a Legacy Brand – whom I pay handsomely for the privilege of being able to legally drive my vehicle. I thought perhaps they might send out one of those little hatchbacks with the company logo garishly painted on it, just some dude getting paid time-and-a-half to work Sunday to fill out a claim and maybe help me clean up a little. Nah, they don't do that except on the commercials. They told me to go online later and file my own claim.

You know, I certainly don't expect the world to concern itself much with a rather insignificant property crime committed against an insured white male. It would be nice, however, if perhaps the people who are paid to help out when something comes along to ruin my day in this manner could trouble themselves to pretend like they give the slightest shit. Or offer the most basic "Oh I'm sorry, I'll give you a hand for the three minutes it would take to help you." Life has taught me not to expect much, yet I always find in these situations that I end up wildly disappointed. All that rugged individualism we hear so much about came into focus today; basically when something goes wrong, you're on your own save for whatever help you can wring from a long, frustrating conversation with the overseas call center.

And that's the story of how why 12 hours later I'm still picking microscopic glass shards out of my ass and elbows.

NPF: EXOTICISM

Posted in No Politics Friday on October 24th, 2014 by Ed

Anyone who does a substantial amount of traveling in the continental US can tell you that there is a depressing sameness to the vast majority of this country. The background scenery changes, but 99% of the country is a collage of strip malls, gas stations, and chain restaurants that make it almost impossible to determine where you are. It would be fun to blindfold a few willing contestants, take them to some random small-to-medium city, and have them take their best guess at the location. How many people could actually tell Akron from Amarillo?

Since I travel either to see scenery or friends, this bothers me only on the existential level – the vague sense of unease that our culture is losing any sense of regional identity as it is replaced by the blandest kind of conformity. Most Americans have made uneasy peace with the fact that Indiana looks like Kansas looks like Alabama and frankly there's not a whole lot of local color. When we travel internationally, though, we definitely want to feel like we've traveled internationally. We want that shit to look foreign, son. That's why we feel so outraged when the internet reminds us, for example, that the Pyramids at Giza are within spitting distance of a KFC / Pizza Hut. We don't want to see air conditioned chain restaurants; we want our trip to Egypt to be a romantic adventure in the desert, perhaps involving us mounting a camel at some point and interacting with The Natives. Noble Savages or whatnot. Well, it turns out that the Natives in Cairo, a city of about 10 million, drive the same car you do to a job that probably pays better than yours and spend most of their time in public the same way Americans do, which is to say staring at their phones.

I don't think Americans are unique in this respect; I believe that people from all over the world travel with the expectation of seeing something "exotic" and appropriately foreign. When we visit Paris we want to see scenes that come straight from 1960s Hollywood Paris. We want Africa to be one endless safari dotted with nomadic spear-wielding hunters. In Rome or Venice (a city essentially preserved as a museum for foreign tourists) we expect romance and artistic splendor to fill the air (instead of, you know, pollution). And everywhere we expect the local inhabitants to be charming and filled to the brim with quirks and character.

The most "foreign" place I've ever been is not terribly exciting – some of the less populated areas of Brazil. At first I have to admit that I was a bit surprised at how different-but-not-that-different from the US it was. It's hard to fly 6000 miles and encounter an Olive Garden without getting a bit of that "I didn't come here to see this shit" resentment. And the more I thought about it, I accepted the fact that there are KFCs all over Brazil for the same reason there are KFCs all over the USA: because people want to eat there. As much as I hate seeing the absolute worst parts of mass produced American culture infecting the rest of the world, it's the worst kind of snobbery to get upset at Egyptians for liking Pizza Hut because it somehow diminishes the Exotic-ness of our travels. The world is not a movie set designed for our personal enrichment. It would be great if people in other countries told McDonald's to piss off because McDonald's is terrible, but not because it ruins my fantasy image of what Paris should look like.