NPF: DILEMMA

Posted in Quick Hits on September 12th, 2014 by Ed

Audience participation post.

Which is superior: horribly offending some people in the process of strongly pleasing others or being neutral enough to avoid offending anyone but not making a lasting positive impression on anyone either?

Asking for a friend.

REDEEMING VALUE

Posted in Rants on September 10th, 2014 by Ed

Of the literal dozens of interviews with NFL players regarding Ray Rice that I have seen in the past 36 hours, all of which expressed condemnation, the best comment was made by his teammate Justin Forsett:

"I'm not going to abandon him now. I'm going to be a friend and help him in his growth and development. But I'm definitely ashamed watching that."

I want to be explicit about two things up front, and please re-read these before you post your angry comments. One, absolutely nobody should feel sorry for Ray Rice. Two, Ray Rice should go to prison. I believe that anyone who commits a crime with this level of violence deserves a prison sentence. Counseling? Therapy? Suspensions? Yes, he should have those things too. But he should spend a not-insignificant amount of time in prison for his crime. He won't, but he should.

I believe violent criminals should go to jail, but I also believe in an outmoded theory of incarceration that tries to rehabilitate offenders. It is one of my core beliefs that with very few exceptions, people who commit crimes can be rehabilitated. Not all of them will choose to do so, obviously, but I believe that every individual has the potential to reflect on his crime and commit to changing the part of himself that caused it to happen. And my purpose in writing this post is to emphasize that this applies even to people who commit the kind of crimes we find the most shocking and heinous.

This is not to say "Leave Ray alone!" or "The poor guy has suffered enough!" because he hasn't. People who do shameful things should not be shocked when they are made to feel ashamed of their actions and to the extent that he is suffering right now he has only himself to blame – not to mention that his suffering pales in comparison to that of his victim. He is not the victim; he is the perpetrator of all the misery resulting from his behavior including his own.

Forsett's comment reminds us all that while sympathy and concern should be directed primarily to the victim, the offender needs support as well. Rice does not need everyone on Earth to abandon him and treat him like a pariah even though he has committed a disgusting crime. He needs people to say, "I'm appalled at what you did, and if you decide that you want to change I will be here to help you." Not to make excuses for you. Not to protect you from the scorn and criticism you earned. To help. I think everyone deserves that, including murderers, rapists, and Ray Rice.

As I wrote years ago regarding Michael Vick, there is a tendency for people to adopt reactionary, right-wing frames when someone commits a particularly heinous crime. Suddenly we stop talking about the myriad problems with the justice and correctional systems in this country and we join the "Lock 'em up and throw away the key" chorus. We start demanding to see people punished in perpetuity, branded for life by their crime. Ray Rice will never escape what he did, nor should he. He will always be that guy who knocked his wife out and dragged her around by the hair. He made that bed for himself. But the appropriate response should not be to cast him out like a leper. If – the big if – he is willing to destroy the part of himself that enabled him to commit that crime and replace it with something better, people who know him should help him through that process. If he emerges from that having learned from his brutal crime (I hate it when people say "mistake" here), then more power to him. That is exactly what we want from people who commit crimes – to rehabilitate, not simply to be punching bags for our scorn and punishment forever.

I believe people can change, even people who do terrible things. To believe otherwise would be to agree with the Palins and the Limbaughs of the world, whose simplistic, idiotic worldview dictates that people are Good or Evil, period. Even though it is unpopular to say anything less than ruthlessly critical of a person who commits this kind of crime I'd sooner eat my hat than throw it into the ring with people who espouse such backward beliefs.

WE WEREN'T SURE WHAT PUNCHING LOOKS LIKE

Posted in Rants on September 9th, 2014 by Ed

When the coach of the Baltimore Ravens mentions four times in three minutes that Monday was the first time anyone had seen the video (via TMZ) of Ray Rice punching his wife – and then the announcing and studio crews on two Monday Night Football games repeat the talking point a few dozen times for emphasis – it sounds defensive and strongly implies that they're trying to establish a narrative of new information to conceal the fact that they likely saw the video months ago.

Sports Illustrated's Peter King reported months ago that the elevator camera footage was in the league's possession before backpedaling on that Monday in what appears to be a bizarre attempt to throw himself on a grenade and assist the league with damage control. This whole situation smacks of exactly what it is: a group of people attempting to create the impression of swift, decisive action when in reality they were aware of this months ago but were content to hush it up. Until they couldn't. When the police reports reveal that the hotel turned over all surveillance footage including this "new" video months ago, the flimsy story will collapse.

The more I thought about this on Monday, the less sense it makes that the video would somehow have changed the way the league and team viewed the situation. It was already common knowledge that Rice punched the woman, basically knocked her out, and dragged her out of the elevator by her hair. Were they somehow shocked to learn what "punching" is? Had they never seen punching before they allegedly discovered this clip on Monday? I realize that there is a difference in the way we process a video and a written description of an event, but in this instance a supposedly thorough investigation was done to establish what happened. Both parties and the investigators agreed on certain aspects of the story, including that Rice knocked her out with a punch. Irrespective of the video, this is not new information.

Maybe, if we try to assume the best intentions on the part of the decision-makers, the full weight of what he did only registered upon seeing the video. That's not a particularly good explanation for inaction, but it is an explanation. Instead the powers that be (the police will end up taking heat on this as well when the NFL throws them under the bus) are playing dumb about what has been standard operating procedure: do nothing or close to it until the negative attention reaches a critical mass, then play Knight in Shining Armor by creating the appearance of a swift, stern response that easily could have – and should have – been handed down months ago.

That's weak, guys. Weak.

HOLISTIC HEALING WELLNESS

Posted in Rants on September 8th, 2014 by Ed

Sometimes false equivalencies come from the most unexpected sources.

In 2008, the always vitriolic and reliable Matt Taibbi released his book The Great Derangement in which he looked at the growing disconnect between the American electorate and reality/facts. For reasons never explained and certainly not justified by reality, he presented End Times Christianity (and all the beliefs like creationism that accompany it) and 9/11 Trutherism as opposite ends of the political spectrum. That is, what creationism and fundamentalism are to The Right, Trutherism is to The Left. This is so far beyond stupid that I still can't believe he, of all people, wrote it. Trutherism is and always has been a movement of the Alex Jones crowd, the ultra-survivalist paranoid types who, if anything from the normal realm of politics can be applied to them, are closer to Libertarians than Liberals. They are a loose collection of conspiracy theorists, anti-government types, and good old fashioned charlatans and rubes. So to call Truthers the Christian fundamentalists of The Left is beyond a stretch – it is just false.

Had he waited a couple years or done a bit more research, he would have realized that the actual left-wing version of right-wingers who think the planet is 6,000 years old are the anti-vaxxers. This is not to say that all anti-vaxxers are liberals, as a good portion of them harbor some level of "Ain't no gubmint gonna tell ME what to do!" motivation. But if you want to point to something absolutely, categorically false and stupid that has a decent amount of popularity on the left (primarily among the Mother Earth Hippie liberals), crackpot vaccine theories are a much better fit for Taibbi's analogy. As a recent editorial puts it, the anti-vax movement is driven almost entirely by "Rich, educated, and stupid" parents. In other words, it is driven by people who should know better but don't; who have so bought into the idea of all things Natural being inherently superior that they have knee-jerk reactions against anything pharmaceutical or chemical entering the body. An author astutely called Whole Foods the "temple of pseudoscience" earlier this year, and although it pained many of my friends and colleagues to admit it, that is not inaccurate. Objectively, nothing separates the touted "holistic" and "natural" cures for various health issues from snake oil salesmen on infomercials. Or from the kind of awful science practiced by the religious right.

For the kind of person who believes that a bunch of herbal supplements* can cure your ailments "Nature's way," the intellectual leap to anti-vax arguments is not very far. That movement ties together several strains of American political paranoia – the distrust of Big Corporations, the insistence that things were so much better in the good ol' days, and the insistence that thanks to the internet, we all know better than any "expert" excepting of course the self-identified ones who tell us that what we believe is correct. It is popular among liberals, myself included, to take great joy in mocking the various stupidities of modern conservative ideology. We are less eager, logically, to point out that different flavors of that same poisonous logic pop up on the left as well. There are knuckleheads among us, and they sure as hell aren't talking about 9/11.

*This is not a blanket statement implying that there is no value in non-pharmaceutical medicine or that no conditions can be treated "naturally". It is instead an argument that the vast majority of what are offered as natural or herbal remedies have no scientific evidence to support their claims whatsoever – a problem endemic to the unregulated "dietary supplement" industry.

NPF: MELODIC WANKING

Posted in No Politics Friday on September 5th, 2014 by Ed

Despite being a huge and nearly exclusive fan of guitar-based music, I've always hated guitar solos. They strike me as cliched theatricality at best and pointless filler at worst. There is nothing that interests me less than how many notes some Steve Vai worshiping d-bag can play in 30 seconds. A guitar solo is what you shoehorn into a song when you can't write a decent bridge.

When one of my friends challenged me recently to resist writing off all guitar soloing, I spent a long car ride with my mp3 player trying to find out if I like some without realizing it. Apparently I do. If a guitar part actually sounds like it's a part of the song rather than some noodling crap layered on top of it because the band couldn't think of anything else to do or because (as in a lot of kinds of metal) every goddamn song needs three solos in it just because, a guitar solo can be not-the-most irritating part of an otherwise good song. In no particular order (and obviously limited by my less than all-encompassing taste in music, tending toward the noisy and loud) here are four pretty excellent guitar performances. Feel free to add yours in the comments and let's just go ahead and not waste time trying to prove who has the better taste in music. OK? OK.

1. Bob Stinson, "Customer" (off The Replacements, Sorry Ma Forgot To Take Out the Trash). The magic happens from 0:45 to about 1:10. The liner notes say "Bob's lead is hotter than a urinary tract infection" and who are we to argue. He was the Drunken Master of the music world in the 80s. It's slop, but the best kind of slop.

Stinson drank himself to death, which is a pretty predictable ending when you get kicked out of The Replacements for drinking too much. Think about that for a second.

2. Tom Morello, "Know Your Enemy" (off RATM self-titled debut). Solo from 3:15 to about 3:45. This old RATM stuff sounds really dated and more than a little juvenile (although if teenagers are going to listen to juvenile music, they might as well get something other than right-wing talking points out of it). There are about 50 Tom Morello solos you could put in a pile and throw darts at. The guy just makes more sounds out of a guitar and cheap stompboxes than anyone, period. This was one of the first ones he got a lot of attention for, and it has all of the things we came to associate with his sound over the next 20 years.

3. Tim Sköld, "Putting Holes in Happiness" (off Marilyn Manson, Eat Me Drink Me). Solo from 2:30 to about 3:30. OK you're just going to have to trust me on this one. It's a really good solo. The off-key parts jump out of the speakers.

Not a great album, but I think a lot of "music people" would be shocked to give it a listen and hear how good of a guitarist Sköld is. I don't even play guitar and it was a real "Damn this guy can play" moment. Not a lot of people can be interesting soloing for a full minute in a musical environment as restrictive as this kind of sluggish blob of goth.

4. Kurt Cobain, "Sappy" (not "Verse Chorus Verse", which it's usually and inaccurately called – the "hidden track" on that 99 cent bin legend, the No Alternative compilation). Solo from 1:40 to 2:10. Here is a guy who had more technical skill than anyone gave him credit for, yet he rarely showed it off.

This is a perfect example of a solo that actually fits perfectly into the song. It makes the song better. Nobody cares that the average Guitar Center employee or bar band member could play this with ease. Side note: it's funny how a throwaway Nirvana song sounds about a thousand times better than the best the bands on the radio today can pull off. Turns out that it's more interesting to listen to people playing instruments than sounds manipulated to death by a producer armed with every post-effect known to man.

CRY FOR HELP

Posted in Rants on September 2nd, 2014 by Ed

The tale of a professor who "banned her students from emailing her" (note: that's not what happened, but good clickbait headline Mr. Editor!) made the rounds over the weekend as thousands of college courses went through the Syllabus Day ritual last week. This kind of story is tailor-made for social media, appealing to all the major demographics (young people, NPR types, and right wing assholes itching for a daily outrage).

Let me be clear up front that I would never do this, but I'd be lying if I said I would not like to do it. Obviously, part of what we are paid to do is answer students' emails as part of being accessible to them in general. But god almighty, I wish everyone who freaked out about this story/headline could see a semester worth of the emails we receive. Suffice it to say the highlighted comment in the link hits the nail on the head: 95% of them are questions that the students could easily answer themselves if they made the slightest effort to do so. The other 5% are excuses for absence, which do not interest me in the slightest; as college students are adults, they can be in class or not as they wish.

When I say that 95% of the questions could be answered with the tiniest bit of effort, you read that as hyperbole. It is not. Putting "The Constitution (available online)" on the reading list guarantees 5 to 10 "Where is the Constitution" emails because I guess Googling "The Constitution" never crosses their minds. Where is the syllabus? (It's on our course website, where it says "Syllabus".) What is the reading for this week? (It's on the syllabus). When is the first exam? (It's on the syllabus). How much of my grade is ____ worth? (It's on the syllabus). On and on and on.

I get basic questions that don't even relate to the class and are even easier to answer. Where is the Registrar's office? Who is the Dean? Who is our Congressman? Can I register to vote? I want to grab/shake/scream at them, "YOU ARE ON THE INTERNET 12 HOURS PER DAY, HOW IS IT POSSIBLE THAT YOU CANNOT ANSWER BASIC QUESTIONS WITH A SEARCH ENGINE." They can, of course. They just want either A) someone else to do it for them, because many of them are quite used to Mom and Dad doing everything or B) someone to hold their hand or tell them to do it even though they already know what to do.

This annoys us not only because we are lazy and irritable and hate having to answer stupid emails (although those things certainly are true, no doubt). It annoys us because it reflects an absence of basic life/coping skills that they were supposed to learn in junior high and instead we have to teach it in college. Remember in junior high or middle school when you were dragged down to the library and shown how to find something in a card catalog? How to look for books or other information online? Yeah we have to do that with 20 year olds now. And they still don't seem to get it.

Over time I've gotten really self conscious about "The Kids These Days" rants because in truth educators have been saying the same things about kids for…ever, really. But the tendency of this generation of students to ask questions they could easily answer themselves (more quickly, mind you, than they could answer it by awaiting my response) as a result of either laziness or helplessness is alarm. As I try to communicate to class after class of freshmen, their future employers are not going to hold their hand and do everything for them. If your boss gives you instructions and schedules – not unlike the syllabus does – and you continually email her to ask for information you have already been given, you will get fired.

The problem is that they all envision themselves as the boss in that anecdote.

SEPARATE BUT EQUAL

Posted in Rants on September 1st, 2014 by Ed

Here are some scenarios.

1. You work at Shipping Giant processing packages in a distribution center. Since you work in the middle of the night, you cook up an easy scam with your friends whereby you identify obviously valuable packages (for example, a crate of Playstation 4s) and change the addresses to redirect them to your friends. You quickly sell the pilfered goods on eBay, Craigslist, pawn shops, etc and split the profits. Eventually one too many packages turn up missing. Company security watches you closely and catches you in the act.

2. You work at a busy cash-only bar. With literally thousands of dollars in small bills flying around every night, it's very easy to pocket the occasional $5 bill as "bonus money." You also sell drinks out of your own bottles of liquor (come on, you remember the scene in Road House) and give away freebies to friends. The boss notices on a slow night and calls you into the back room.

3. You're a cashier at Retail Giant. You arrange with an accomplice to scan a barcode for a cheap item over the barcode on a much more expensive item. Too many electronics end up missing and eventually the security cameras catch you red handed. The manager on duty discreetly takes you off the floor and into the office.

All three scenarios are a variation of the same theme: you, the employee, are stealing from the employer. In addition to termination, what are the odds that any of these scenarios would not end with you in handcuffs facing eventual criminal charges and jail time? I'm going to estimate them at zero, plus or minus zero percent.

Simple enough. Now here are three more scenarios:

4. You work 55 hours per week at Shipping Giant but never receive the overtime pay required by law. After some complaints and threats, the company creates the legal fiction that you do not actually work for Shipping Giant but instead a subcontractor or as an "independent contractor." Thereby they exempt themselves from legal requirements to pay you 150% and effectively steal 7.5 full hours of pay from you for every 55 hour week.

5. The owner of Busy Cash-Only Bar illegally confiscates and takes a heavy cut off of your tips at the end of the night. Often what you receive in tips is below the "estimated" amount of tip income on which you must pay taxes.

6. Retail Giant regularly has you work another hour or two after clocking out. When you do submit a time card with the phantom hours included, your paycheck is still for 40 hours on the dot. You find that your time card has been altered by the manager to make the would-be overtime hours disappear.

All three scenarios are again a variation of the same theme: the employer is stealing from the employee. Odds on handcuffs, police cruisers, and criminal charges being involved? Again I'll go with zero. The absolute best the employee can hope for is to file a lawsuit to receive what he or she is already legally owed (minus the 30-50% cut the lawyers will be paid for their services) and get it after months or years of litigation.

These six scenarios, regardless of what semantic games we play, are essentially the same. Legally and morally, they all amount to theft. The employee is taking things to which he or she is not legally entitled or the employer is taking the employee's labor without paying the compensation required by law. In one set of scenarios both justice and punishment would be swift and severe; in the other, justice is an uphill battle and punishment is nonexistent.

Employment is a legal arrangement. You provide something of value to the employer in return for compensation at an agreed upon rate. As simple as that seems, we appear to have forgotten that collectively.

LABORIOUS

Posted in Quick Hits on September 1st, 2014 by Ed

As one of the growing number of Americans who work on Labor Day, join me in stealing a few minutes of company time to re-read this classic post on Battered Worker Syndrome and why nothing about the Right to Work-era attitude toward employment makes any sense.

NPF: FAST FORWARD

Posted in No Politics Friday on August 28th, 2014 by Ed

Fun trivia: the 1976 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria were originally awarded to Denver. Colorado voters turned it down because they thought it would cost too much and the predictions of the revenue that would be generated were overly optimistic. It foreshadowed the modern issue of the inversion of the IOC selection process from cities fighting over the right to host in favor of the IOC struggling to find suitable candidates willing to take it in the financial neck to host games that routinely are monuments to cost overruns and optimism biases. Increasingly the only countries willing to host things like the Olympics and the World Cup are ones with quasi-autocratic national governments that can decide to do things that make no financial sense, or Brazil types that see the huge losses as a marketing fee to show the world that They are Way Cool.

The other major issue with hosting is what to do with the copious (expensive) infrastructure after the games are over. The internet is littered with photo galleries of dilapidated Olympic sites – the ruins of the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics are particularly poignant in light of what happened to that city in the following decade. What is amazing is how rapidly these flashy, expensive, modern sites turn into decrepit ruins. China's $40 billion investment in the Beijing games yielded a number of architecturally significant stadiums that are now white elephants; the only revenue generated by the "Bird's Nest" today comes from itinerant tourists who pay $20 to ride Segways around the Olympic track.

Even though the sad sight of abandoned Olympic infrastructure is by now a familiar one, it is stunning to see the speed with which the Potemkin village build by Putin's Russia in Sochi has fallen into disrepair. Sochi was a disaster from the get-go – like the 1976 Montreal debacle, very little of the construction was actually finished when the games began. What was finished was held up to worldwide ridicule for the shoddy construction and downright bizarre design. And now, even though the Games seem like they just ended a few weeks ago the "city" already looks like Pripyat minus the background radiation count.

With most industrialized nations starting to see hosting the Games for what it is – a classic boondoggle – it's going to be interesting to see where the IOC and similar organizations like FIFA go in the future. My guess is that the 2022 World Cup in Qatar is the beginning of a trend of events being hosted in Flashy Oil Money countries run by gaudy sheikhs. When they get tired of competing to see who can own the most Rolls Royces, they'll turn to building stadiums that will someday be about as useful as an asshole on their collective elbow.

Here's a gallery of former Olympic sites if you feel like your Friday needs to be a little bleaker.

DEATH BY MISADVENTURE

Posted in Quick Hits on August 26th, 2014 by Ed

On Tuesday a 39 year old firearms instructor was fatally shot near Kingman, AZ when the nine year-old girl he was instructing on the use of an Uzi submachine gun lost control of it…while it was on full automatic. This resolves once and for all the question of whether it is a good idea to give a nine year old girl who appears in the linked video to weigh about 20 pounds (note: the video shows only the events leading up to the fatal incident, but does not include the incident itself) a submachine gun set on full auto. The facility, according to the Las Vegas Review Journal, caters to the vacationing yahoo crowd:

KINGMAN, Ariz. — An instructor who was shot by a 9-year-old girl who fired an Uzi at a northwestern Arizona shooting range died Monday night at University Medical Center in Las Vegas.

The girl fired the weapon at the outdoor range that caters to heavy tourism traffic along U.S. Highway 93 between Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon Skywalk.

Highway signage and Internet advertising beckons visitors to stop in, fire a machine gun and enjoy a meal at the Bullets and Burgers enterprise at the Last Stop, about 25 miles south of Las Vegas.

The instructor had, among others, the following hilarious pro-gun images posted on his Facebook wall (h/t Balloon Juice):

cap2

Capture

Charming. Get it? Ha ha. If you don't love guns you're a great big Fag. While it's hard to argue with scientific reasoning of that caliber, I'd rather be Gun Gay than have the coroner's office scrape my cerebral cortex into Ziploc baggies because I wasn't smart enough to realize that a tiny child should not be handed a fully automatic weapon designed for Israeli special forces units.

A+ parenting too, by the way. I'm sure the child will not be haunted by this incident forever because her dad, presumably some d-bag Fox News enthusiast from Seacaucus, thought it would make for hilarious video to allow his nine year old daughter to be given the aforementioned weapon. I guess the prospect pulling off the highway on the way to the Grand Canyon to fire submachine guns screams "family fun." If you're an asshole.