FISHY

Posted in Quick Hits on September 8th, 2016 by Ed

So I'm trying hard to collect more data on this, but I noticed an odd anomaly on the the "Poll of Polls" aggregator on Pollster.com (now part of Huffington Post). There are three blue dots (representing Clinton support in the respective polls) that are equal (at 37%) and clear outliers, showing much lower Clinton support than any other polls.

All three are conducted by the same agency, Rasmussen Reports. Rasmussen is a well-known partisan hack outfit that makes its money by generating results that please potential conservative donors. It tells clients what they want to hear, which in this case would be that the presidential race is either close or even favorable for Trump. The rightward lean of RR has been well documented, most publicly by Nate Silver after the 2010 midterm election. The green arrows identify the three Rasmussen results that stand out, as you can verify for yourself on Pollster's interactive site.

rass

Two questions: What does the "poll of polls" look like without Rasmussen's data? Since they contribute only a few polls to a very large pool of data for a site like Pollster, I wouldn't expect a dramatic change. Their inclusion is, however small, exaggerating the competitiveness of the race in national polling. Second, why is data so clearly suspect not being looked at more closely, or perhaps withheld until its notable skew toward Trump relative to other polling can be explained? I tend to be suspicious of media efforts to depict the race as competitive, so although the explanation is probably innocent ("We need to be Fair and Balanced! Which means including intentionally skewed data as long as it's skewed to the right!") part of me feels like we're beginning a repeat of 2012 when all the networks insisted up until the last possible minute that Romney was OMGSOCLOSE to winning in order to prevent viewers from getting bored and wandering away.

FORESIGHT

Posted in Quick Hits on September 7th, 2016 by Ed

The travel/adventure writer Robert Young Pelton is not the first person that would come to most minds when asked to name an expert on global politics and international affairs. He is an entertaining writer with a large supply of war correspondent / stringer / freelance journalist "So there I was, in the middle of the chaos" anecdotes. His books are readable and fun, occasionally informative. That said, he really deserves some credit for writing as early as the mid to late 1990s that the South China Sea was going to be a key axis of international conflict in the early 21st Century. Seriously. This guy was writing about the Spratly Islands, the Paracel Islands, and Scarborough Shoal back when the rest of the world was still in the mindset of the Cold War or sagely explaining that India and Pakistan seem not to like one another very much. Pelton has made me sound prescient more than once for being able to cite the conflict over rock and coral clumps in the South China Sea long before the international press started bandying about terms like "Great Wall of Sand" and The Nine-Dash Line over the past year or two. Simon Winchester was also ahead of the game on this one, as were (I'm sure) many Asian experts whose writing is not widely available in this hemisphere. Searching "South China Sea" on Amazon shows a dozen nonfiction books on the topic written in 2014, 2015 or 2016. It's pretty impressive that some people were 20 years ahead of the game on it.

The Japan Times has a good Scarborough Shoal piece today, and other than to give Pelton some props I don't think I can explain the conflict any better than I could inform you by sharing some useful writing on the subject. Long story short: China and a number of others in the region – Taiwan, the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, and others – assert historical ownership of a number of tiny, uninhabited rocks that were of no interest to anyone until modern times. They contain no resources, which one might expect, but they are outposts for establishing Exclusive Economic Zones and national-military sovereignty in an economically and strategically vital area of the world. China's approach has been one of extreme belligerence, building artificial islands (hence "Great Wall of Sand", referring to landfill) around rocks barely big enough to stand upon and staging military personnel and equipment there. Shipping lanes, fishing areas, potential undersea oil resources, and the patrol lanes of international navies (particularly the US Navy) are all affected by the outcome of this strategic land-grab.

One interesting thing I can add is that all of this has been made possible in part by a volcano. True story. When Mount Pinatubo erupted in 1991 in the Philippines – the largest eruption of the 20th Century, incidentally, which not many non-Asians realize – the US closed Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Base. Both were heavily damaged and in the post-Cold War mindset of the 90s, once evacuated the decision was made not to return to either. The US withdrawal from the region left a power vacuum that the Chinese armed forces were more than eager to fill. In March of 2016 the Philippine government cordially invited the US military to place personnel and equipment at 5 bases in the region, a result of Obama's "Asian Pivot" strategy.

Thanks for helping me sound like I know what I'm talking about sometimes, RYP.

UNLOVABLE AT ANY SPEED

Posted in Rants on September 5th, 2016 by Ed

I write a lot, albeit intermittently, about architecture and related topics like urban planning and the built environment in general. And it is endlessly fascinating how so many Americans can create for themselves ghastly, fundamentally unlovable living spaces and then wonder why nobody – themselves included – loves them.

Try to love a McMansion, or even a smaller-scale new construction suburban Box o' Siding house. Try to love a subdivision. Try to love a strip mall, especially one surrounded by fifteen more. Try to love a six-lane divided street with no sidewalks and Fall of Saigon traffic. You won't. You won't because you can't. Tens of millions of Americans have moved to the suburbs since the end of the Second World War, and the design of new suburbs and the living spaces that fill them are not only a symptom of the malaise of "What's wrong with this country?" but also a cause of it. A Boomer who grew up in the 1950s in a 900 square foot brick home eight feet away from a similar home on either side and in 2016 lives in a 2500 square foot empty beige pastiche of gaudy anti-architecture on a big lot can ask without the slightest hint of self awareness or irony, "I wish things were more like they were in the good ol' days."

We complain that people don't know their neighbors anymore, which is a choice. When people move to the suburbs, the physical manifestation of the psychological impulse to withdraw and escape, it makes perfect sense that they don't know their neighbors. Their neighbors are probably just like them – misanthropes who want nothing more than to hole up in four cheaply built walls and shut out the scary world without. Add in an acre or two of lawn and a tall "privacy" fence and what do you expect? Of course you don't know your neighbors. That's the whole point of the lifestyle you chose for yourself.

I hear people make this complaint often and I never pass the opportunity to point out that I know my neighbors, which is pretty amazing considering 1) I have bad social skills, 2) They speak about 10 words of English and I speak about 10 of Polish, and 3) I'm kind of an asshole. But I know them because we live in the same building and arm's length from another building. We know each other because we have not chosen to live in an environment constructed to prevent us from having to know each other.

To live in the Midwest or New England is to be close at all times to urban decay and the depressing skeletons of places that obviously used to be very nice places; places people older than me are remembering fondly (and not without reason) when they pine for the way things used to be. The new, sterile, antisocial spaces they've built for themselves pale in comparison. They are by design shoddy replicas of a real urban setting, an authentic small town, or something resembling a community in which people interact with one another. But the places they once loved and are now depressing relics didn't get that way by accident. They fell apart because the people who now bemoan their loss chose to ran away rather than live near immigrants or black people. Maybe this is why they're so angry. What's the line? "That's what really hurts: you did it to yourself"?

There's a reason people under 40 want to live in urban areas and even those who can afford suburban living rarely choose it. We believe our parents when they say that life doesn't feel like it used to in this country, that something feels wrong, that something undefinable is missing. Unlike them, however, we haven't watched the Local News at Nine and Fox News to the point that we're terrified at the very thought of living in something other than self-imposed isolation, segregated from Scary Non-White People and without the lawns and parking lots and cathedral ceilings that they insist are going to make them happy someday.

It isn't rocket science. Create for yourself a home, a neighborhood, a town, a state, a country that is ugly, impersonal, cynical, and unlovable and you will not love it. To hear people who want to Make America Great Again bemoan everything wrong with the country as they experience it is to watch someone who has locked themselves in a closet for three decades complain that they're bored and lonely. When you construct a life for yourself behind a panoply of physical and psychological barriers it shouldn't come as a surprise that people seem different than they used to back when you had to talk to and interact with them.

BELABORING

Posted in Quick Hits on September 4th, 2016 by Ed

If I can offer you some advice on the American version of Labor Day, stop reading the internet and go do something. I mean, finish reading this and then go do something.

Rather that recount at great length the pitiful condition of the labor movement in the United States – and, surprise, since it declined we've been working more hours, more productively, for essentially the same income we were earning 35 years ago – I'll simply ask you to review this series of nine figures summarizing the extent of wage stagnation in the past few decades. Like most non-wealthy Americans, when inflation is considered relative to (hypothetical) changes in my income I'm actually working for less money with each passing year. Meanwhile the people in charge seem to be doing alright. They must be smarter and better than the rest of us.

There is a breaking point for this. I've no idea what it is or if I'll live to see it, but this trend can't continue indefinitely unless we revert to feudalism.

Shit. We're probably going to revert to feudalism, aren't we.

IT'S ONLY A METAPHOR FOR MY XENOPHOBIA

Posted in Quick Hits on August 30th, 2016 by Ed

Throughout this campaign we've all laugh-cried at Trump supporters pressed to name any policy position he holds that they find appealing. No matter how clueless, every Trumper can name one (if only one) thing: Build. The. Wall. They chant it. They wear shirts and wave signs printed with it. They talk about it incessantly. If there is any one thing that Trump and his supporters agree upon unconditionally – one universal truth in their bizarre alternate reality – it is build the wall. I daresay the wall is a deal-breaker for them. They do not appear willing to negotiate about this wall. They want The Wall. Demand it, even.

So of course Trump, in some sort of idiotic effort to "court" "moderates" and perhaps convince a slightly larger portion of the GOP that he is not an actual fascist, spent the weekend trying to backpedal on the goddamn Wall. Because any competent campaign would strongly consider, nine weeks out from the election, injecting huge amounts of ambiguity into the one idea, however misguided, that its supporters agree upon without exception and about which they are rabidly enthusiastic. Over the past few days the campaign's surrogates have been sent out to float the idea that maybe the Wall isn't actually a wall, but a "virtual wall" – which Trump supporters cannot but note is not a wall at all. I give up; he may actually be trying to lose.

But wait! It turns out that when they said The Wall was not a real wall but actually just some kind of metaphor, it turns out they were being misquoted. It is, in fact, A Wall. The same sad-sack surrogates, who cannot help but deeply regret their decision to be in any way involved with this three ring circus, are being pushed before the cameras less than 48 hours later to "clarify" that their previous introduction of confusion into the conception of what exactly The Wall is has focus-grouped poorly and is being banished to the Land of Wind and Ghosts. Because obviously the way a campaign floats policy trial balloons is by appearing on media watched closely around the world and throwing out the possibility that what they have been saying all along may not actually be what they mean. And then abandoning that when it isn't well received.

The kind of person who is all-in on Trump 2016 is not likely to be a big fan of subtlety, nuance, symbolism, or metaphor. When these people say they want A Wall, they mean A Wall. One might assume that if the campaign understands literally nothing else they would understand that their supporters really, really want A Wall and it might not be a good idea to do a soft rollout of the possibility that The Wall is actually a thing that exists in our hearts and minds.

YOU HAVE TO PICK ONE

Posted in Quick Hits on August 29th, 2016 by Ed

It's not exactly a startling insight to point out the logical inconsistency of the extreme patriotism, if not outright jingoism, found among people who believe that America needs to be Made Great Again. How can America simultaneously be the greatest country in the history of human societies AND a nightmare, degenerate hellscape in need of a Strongman to make it great again? Well, if semantic issues like this bother you there's an excellent chance you're not a Trump supporter. Suffice it to say that the mental gymnastics necessary to reconcile these viewpoints are strenuous.

Nowhere is the underlying message of "Make America 'Great' Again" more apparent than when a prominent public figure who is not white complains about America and white people absolutely lose their shit at the thought of an ingrate (insert racial slur) defaming their beloved country…the same country about which they complain bitterly and incessantly. If you have any doubt that Trump's inane slogan is a racist dogwhistle wherein "Great" and "White" are interchangeable, then explain how the same people who believe in the right to hoard guns so they can violently oppose the government so completely fly off the handle when a black man says he has a difficult time respecting a country that treats people like him with so much obvious disrespect.

If angry-as-hell white people have the God-given right (and, as some of them see it, duty) to malign the country, its government, and their fellow citizens incessantly and in every available format but Colin Kaepernick can't exercise a simple, tame protest without the explicitly racist knives coming out, then the social scientist in me suspects that there is something other than the expression of an opinion involved here. Then again I'd expect no less from people who envision themselves having the right to violently resist any attempt of the state to impinge upon their imaginary version of their rights but can't watch a video of cops killing an unarmed black guy without using words like "comply" and "obey."

NPF: THE CENTENNIAL

Posted in No Politics Friday on August 25th, 2016 by Ed

Either the headlines or your social media feed no doubt made you aware that this week (Thursday, specifically) the National Park Service celebrated its 100th birthday. It has been called the best idea America ever had, and although a good argument could be made in favor of nachos it's hard to dispute that.

Growing up in the featureless, flat, expansive Midwest the NPS was not a thing I was familiar with directly until my late teens. During a trip to Arizona during a very difficult time in my life I passed a sign for something called Walnut Canyon National Monument and, on a lark, I decided to stop and see what this place I had never heard of was all about. I'll spare you the sappy writing about the experience and say simply that I was hooked immediately and amazed that something that obscure could be so great. It was natural (puns!) for me to wonder what else was hiding in plain sight behind those NPS signs.

Having the complete-ist personality that compels me to Collect 'Em All when I become interested in something, from that moment in 2003 (and a few follow-up visits to other sites in Arizona) I decided that before I depart the mortal coil I am going to visit every one of the 413 units and counting of the National Park Service. Oh, I was so naive and ambitious back then. It was an unrealistic goal.

Just kidding. I'm currently at 217. At this rate I'll have them all before I'm 50.

Basically all of my vacations involve me checking as many of them off my list as I can. Very few things make me happier than finally reaching a destination that until that moment has only been a name on a list and a green dot on a map to me. True, not everything in the System qualifies as "mind blowing" but I can count the number of times I have been disappointed or failed to see or learn something interesting on one hand. The NPS is very important to me. It's melodramatic to say it Saved My Life; that's going a bit far. But it did give me a sense of purpose, a mission to complete, a list that seems to go on and on and ensures that there is always something new for me to get in the car and find the next time I can get away from work.

If I can muster the time and motivation this weekend I'll post some highlight pictures of places I've been. I'm not a souvenir buyer, but I do take a ton of pictures. If I could go back in time and tell 2003 Ed that a dozen years down the road he would be more than halfway through the list, he would probably roll his eyes. In hindsight, the only regret I have is not starting sooner.

Happy birthday, NPS. Even George W. Bush couldn't slow you down, although god knows he tried.

STEP ONE: TAKE OUT YOUR FOOD

Posted in Rants on August 24th, 2016 by Ed

There's an old joke among outdoors types, some variant of, "If you're lost in the woods alone, how do you get something to eat? Step one: Take out the food you brought with. Step two: Eat some of it." A hearty laugh is had by all, and valuable lessons about preparation are learnt. Good times.

Like most humans beings, I'm getting older. The older I get, the more I think about, well, not quite "retirement" but some way I can avoid working until the very last minute before I drop dead. My job's decent as far as jobs go, but let's face it. Nobody wants to see any more of the inside of an office than they have to. I have had a comfortable life but do not come from any sort of Wealth. That is to say, even though the members of my family are all doing alright individually, we're all dependent on a paycheck. Without that, there's nothing to fall back on (or, what there is to fall back on wouldn't last long). Professors aren't paid poorly, objectively, but even without a spouse and kids I struggle to save a meaningful amount of money. Sure, I save. But I can't save a really meaningful amount of money. Not a "How do I pay my bills if I'm out of work for a year" money.

So, lately I've thought a lot about making some investments in the future. I've done a good bit of research on buying rental properties, which would allow me to bring in some small but consistent additional income that would continue even if, god forbid, I couldn't work for an extended period of time. They say property's the best investment anyway, as long as we black out and forget a few years here and there. And the more research I do, the more it becomes apparent that there are a good number of ways (not guaranteed, of course) to make money in the world of real estate. In fact, any reasonably creative person can think of a number of ways potentially to make money.

The thing is, of course, that I can't afford to actually do any of them. It turns out that the easiest way to make money is to start with a lot of money and use it to make more. It wouldn't be difficult at all to collect rent checks on nice new apartment blocks in popular neighborhoods in Chicago. As long as, you know, I had a million dollars to start with to get the process moving.

When people say things like our current Republican presidential nominee say – Oh, I got started by borrowing a little money from my parents, just $9 million, no big deal – or people less toxic and spoiled than him say similar things on a smaller scale ("Oh, my parents 'helped me' with the down payment on this house") it underscores everything that gives the lie to the meritocracy we insist we live in. It's not impossible to get ahead without starting halfway there, but…let's put it this way: people who start closer to the finish line are represented disproportionately among those who reach it. It turns out that if you already have food with you, finding something to eat isn't much of a challenge.

Again, this isn't a Horatio Alger pulp story. I didn't grow up as a wretch in Victorian London. I afford housing and clothing and feeding myself much more easily than the majority of Americans, and I feel fortunate that this is the case. It's alarming, though, to think about our lives and how quickly everything would go to shit – even for most of us who are comfortable – were the paychecks to stop coming. It's frustrating to be able to conceive of ways to get oneself off the paycheck to paycheck treadmill but not be able to make any of them a reality. While there may be a great range of incomes and levels of comfort among "The 99%" (to abuse an already abused cliche) but at least we all have this one thing in common – come up with all the bright ideas you want, unless you're sitting on a winning Lotto ticket it isn't going to matter.

THE SOLUTION WAS RIGHT THERE ALL ALONG

Posted in Rants on August 22nd, 2016 by Ed

If it's not too early in the morning for you to handle some rage-bait, check out this Gothamist article about (warning: low hanging fruit) a Brooklyn millennial buying an apartment. Make sure your reading area is clear of potential projectiles.

To summarize, if you don't feel like subjecting yourself to it, Kendall (a "design assistant") is paying $1800 for half the rent in a seedy East Village apartment she shares with a roommate. Certainly we can sympathize without sarcasm with anyone earning a normal or even below-average income trying to make the NYC rental market work. If splitting $3600 for a flophouse was the best I could do, I'd be upset too. But Kendall is quite resourceful, so she solves the problem by having her parents make a down payment on a $400,000 studio apartment for her. Why doesn't everyone in NYC think of that! It's so obvious.

But wait! Not all is well. Kendall soon discovers that even $400,000 won't buy her a studio in Williamsburg anymore (Again, this is legitimately horrible. How can any normal person living paycheck to paycheck live anywhere near a place with $400,000 studio apartments.) but she is, and I quote, "a person who can make a lot out of nothing." Nothing is $400,000. A lot of which is being given to her by someone else.

After finding several in her price range, another tragedy befalls her: they're not in Cool neighborhoods! They're so far away from her friends, she might as well be living on the Azores! But fear not. As the author puts it, the Government is here to save her from this series of tragedies. Taking advantage of a housing assistance program called the NYC Housing Development Fund, Kendall receives tax subsidies and price breaks that allow her to find a place in Williamsburg for $400,000. Mind you, it's a sixth-floor unit (which, I kid you not, she actually bitches about in the original article) but

She concludes, "It's great to own. It feels kind of adultish and comforting and stabilizing." I bet it does, Kendall. I bet it does. Despite being gainfully employed with an advanced degree, I will never, ever be able to afford to buy a home unless it's a trailer unit in Pigsknuckle County, Indiana, so I'll have to take your word for it. You really have to marvel at the lack of self-awareness that allows someone to agree to have such an incredibly unflattering portrait of her printed in a major newspaper. Rich girl gets parents to buy her a home, pisses and moans that she can't find one she wants, abuses government program intended to provide assistance to low-income people who can't afford anything, and then gets (sort of) what she wants but not really because she still has to point out the things wrong with it.

That this is presented originally in the NY Times as some kind of light-hearted tale rather than a sickening indictment of everything that is wrong with the positively criminal real estate market in New York City almost defies belief. Change the tone and the headline and this is a muckraking piece worth of Lincoln Steffens. Instead, we just gloss over the fact that everyone in the city essentially admits that home ownership without inherited wealth (and not a small amount of it) is all but impossible, with prices that put even one-room studios well beyond the reach of anyone earning less than a quarter of a million dollars.

Welcome to day one of this week's theme: Your life will suck if you're not born into money, and there's nothing you can do about it.

NPF: PLAYING WITH FIRE

Posted in No Politics Friday on August 19th, 2016 by Ed

Ethnic and racial prejudice are not only vile but also dangerous. Remember that time we surrendered the right to get drunk because we hated the Germans?

Well. It's a little more complicated than that. But without good old fashioned anti-German sentiment Prohibition likely would have gotten no further than the "Bad Ideas" drawing board. The short version? Glad you asked.

The year was 1915. America's involvement in World War I was that of a spectator, at least until Germany came up with the brilliant idea of unrestricted submarine warfare on Atlantic shipping. Their theory was that any shipping to its European enemies aided the Allied Powers and hurt the German war effort. So, they sunk the passenger ship RMS Lusitania, which carried nothing but civilians. It sank in less than 15 minutes and 1,198 people died. Many were women and children. Many were Americans. Germany, to its credit, immediately apologized for the unfortunate incident.

Just kidding. They celebrated the sinking like a great battle had been won.

"Fuck Germany" attitudes were peaking in the United States, and an opportunistic weasel and Anti-Saloon League activist named Wayne Wheeler, a masterful politician if a very silly human being, seized upon this pretext to build public support for prohibition by framing it as a patriotic blow against the German-dominated brewing and distilling industry in the United States. Nearly every alcohol enterprise of significance was run by German-Americans or non-citizen German immigrants at the time, so Wheeler's characterization contained enough grains of truth to feel plausible. Thus were Americans who loved a good drink convinced to support Prohibition.

Well. Sort of. That was part of it. The other part was that Prohibitionist lied a lot about what their goals were.

When the 18th Amendment was passed, it is historically accurate to say that anti-German prejudice was an important component of building public and political support for it. The other part was the widespread belief that Prohibition was not really full Prohibition. The 18th Amendment proscribes "intoxicating liquors" and nearly everyone – even the people voting directly on the Amendment – believed that this was to be read literally, meaning that beer and wine would continue to be available. As the 18th Amendment is not in itself an enforceable law, specific legislation (which became known infamously as the Volstead Act) was required to spell out the minutiae of what, when, and how the spirit of the Amendment would be put into practice. The public, not to mention many elected officials who had supported the 18th Amendment, were effectively stunned to discover after the fact that they would in fact lose the legal right to purchase or manufacture any alcoholic beverages.

As everyone knows well, the law was widely flouted and it is fair to say that most Americans did not panic too much when they realized that Wheeler and his small group of influential Congressmen behind the Volstead Act had pulled a bait-and-switch. But no one really seemed to realize what Prohibition was until Prohibition began. It was a disaster, and a disaster that we as a nation stumbled into – blindly, and practically by accident.

The good thing is that we all learned a valuable lesson about the futility, danger, and enormous cost of trying to enforce the prohibition of something widely consumed (whether legal or illegal) and harmless in moderation. And we never made that mistake again. The End.