July 31, 2015

This is just a brief not-for-nothing post, but a couple days ago over on Medium I published an interview I had with author Sarah Stodola, who wrote the book Process: The Writing Lives of Great Authors. I know what you're going to say before you say it: "Why, Brent, based on the past eleven years or so of writing on this website, you've given the impression that a book like that is exactly the kind of book that would 'gag you with a spoon,' as it were."

Reader: I did not gag! On a spoon, or any other inconvenient thing!

I found it thoughtful and informative and not a little bit deft, and it left me with a lot of big thoughts, which big thoughts got batted back and forth by me and Sarah.

So maybe a long-ish interview about writing and the ineffabilities thereof (with an awful lot of Old Brooklyn nostalgia, most of which did not make the cut, as I recall) is not exactly what your own personal doctor order on a sweltery TGIF, but maybe it is!

In fact, you'll never know until you try.

Posted at 11:08 AM

July 30, 2015

Possibly the most interesting thing about the conflict between NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio and $40bn taxi pimp Uber is that it went from What are you talking about? to Please do shut up in about three business days. And it was as divisive as it was quickly-escalating, with people who thought that private companies shouldn't try to strong-arm municipalities on the one side, and people who think Uber is "neat", have been bought and paid for by Uber and/or Ayn Rand fans on the other side.

And already too much has been written about this, like this story on reverse race-baiting or this shrill bit of triumphalism or even this blast from the past on what it really means to have one of those capital-J jobs that Uber keeps bragging about, but I personally received two pieces of direct mail from Uber (pictured), and as annoying as the endless promoted Tweets and targeted webvertising, that was the last straw. I look forward to receiving mail, dammit, and I do not need such poison tainting all the other good mail.

I think that a lobbying plan aimed at voters is just as insidious as any lobbying, but three times as unethical, and even more galling than Uber (impotently!) threatening the electoral chances of city councilmen was the mantle assumed by Uber, as the creator of jobs and the protector of the outer-boroughs (which is, as we know, a load of crap).

So then, some rhetorical questions that I would love to see answered by Travis Kalanick or David Plouffe:

If Uber is so focused on the well-being of outer-borough car service patrons, why does Uber insist on charging money for the service?

Further to that, considering that a credit card is needed to access Uber's services, they're helping the outer-borough, low income patron exactly how again? The consumers you're talking about are marginalized out of bank accounts, let alone credit cards. So you're somehow disrupting dollar vans?

Is Uber organized as a not-for-profit entity or B corporation (or any other entity that is by formation intended to take into account the public good)? And if not then is there a provision in the by-laws, operating agreement or other organizational document that actually impels Uber to act in any public way intended to do anything other than increasing shareholder value?

Or are you just pretty much spewing bullshit and hoping that we're stupid?

How much did Uber spend in its campaign to intimidate the de Blasio administration? For that matter, how much (and in what form) did Uber compensate Kate Upton, Ashton Kutcher and (sadly) Neil Patrick Harris to publicly endorse Uber's extortion campaign?

And finally, these thousands of jobs that Uber is threatening to create, are these like, actual jobs? As defined by the NYS Labor Department? Do they get unemployment insurance, do you pay social security for them? And, if not, why the fuck are you calling it a job?

I guess mostly I want to ask what sort of monster feels the need to fuck with an entire city so that their taxi pimp business takes off and everyone sees that Ayn Rand was right all along, but that answer is self-evident: Travis Kalanick and his mouthpiece, David Plouffe.

At the end of the day this is just one more useless half- rant of a not universally-held conviction. But for a clear and cogent explanation of the actual ways Uber is no better than a drug cartel, I recommend this brief piece by Frank Pasquale and Siva Vaidhyanathan.

I mean it's fun to get all mad and say mean things, but this issue, the greater issue that includes "gig economy" entities that aren't exactly the remorseless assholes that people Uber, is an important one in determining what the employment playing field is going to look like in the next couple decades.

Posted at 9:41 AM

July 22, 2015

I've been meaning to jot this down for about a month, and it was news of this rally last week in Union Square that goosed me into actually getting this done. The rally was one of those things that I probably wouldn't have gone to even had I heard of it, because the goal of the rally is one of those ephemeral things that raised voices and placards (and yellow roses) can't really affect:
A day after a cyclist was fatally struck by an SUV driver near Barclays Center in Brooklyn, hundreds of safe streets advocates gathered for a vigil at the north end of Union Square, and pledged to stop referring to traffic collisions as "accidents."

Many of last night's attendees wore bright-yellow Families for Safe Streets t-shirts on which "accident" had been scribbled out with thick lines, and replaced with the word "CRASH." More than 23,500 single-stem yellow roses, piled at the base of a podium and distributed throughout the crowd, represented the 23,463 New Yorkers who have been injured, and 123 who have been killed, in traffic collisions this year to date.

Myself, I'm famously cautious when driving. I have been called "Gramma" more than once by the friends and family in the passenger seat. And the only goal of this was that I wanted to never, ever be in an automobile accident. Just too dumb of a way to go. So I basically drive in line with advice given to bicyclists who drive in traffic: act like every single vehicle in and out of the line of sight is actively trying to kill you.

And it worked for a long long time. Up until the middle of last month, as a matter of fact. The linked photo is not the car I was in, for the record. Long story short, some friends and I were returning from a very pleasant wedding weekend up in Ogunquit, ME on a Monday afternoon. We were on a surface road in Hartford, CT, in the left-hand turn lane, in fact, trying to get back onto the Interstate, waiting at the red. And we heard it — it sounded like an avalanche but made of metal — but we only had time to maybe furrow our brows and the car slammed forward ten feet. What had happened is that a car was coming down the hill towards the traffic light, doing about 50 mph, and never even touched the brakes. The car in the photo is his car. The first car he hit was sent clear across the intersection, about twenty yards, after which we were the second car hit, obviously with much less force.

Me and my passengers were fine. The driver in the car that got launched was wearing his sealtbelt and his airbags deployed. He was up and around, but the EMTs decided that based on the condition of his car, he was getting a trip to the hospital anyway. The driver who never stopped was not wearing a seatbelt, and yes, the impression in his windshield is from his head. When my friend checked on him immediately after, he was conscious, and muttered, "I musta fallen asleep." He too went to the hospital, once an ambulance with the proper equipment to transport him arrived. As far as I know both of them were not in mortal danger.

So that's how I got to be in a traffic accident that was very nearly a very big problem: not because of lack of concern on my part, but because of the three hundred million people that live here there is never a shortage of people who are more than happy to endanger everyone else because they're drunk or sleep-depped or just careless and staring at their phone.

And that's why I agree with the rally referenced above, but yet, as useless as I think rallies are, they did not go far enough. Traffic Accidents should not be renamed as Traffic Crashes. The word Crash does not go far enough in imputing responsibility. These are Traffic Mistakes, and only in the rarest cases are these tragedies entirely blameless. As in, if you were texting and you clip a bicyclist? That wasn't an accident. You made a mistake. You fucked up.

I might feel pretty strongly about this because of the residual rage at the man whose negligence threatened my life and the lives of my friends. But at the same time there are so many small episodes of the same lack of regard, usually resulting in annoyance or minor hindrances. People who stop at the top of a flight of stairs, people who talk loudly in ATM lines, that sort of stuff. It's like a race to the bottom, species-wise.

Yeah yeah yeah.

But the bottom line for me, aside from hugging your loved ones as frequently as possible, is not to be that guy, that guy who was unable to understand that a consequence of his actions would be plowing into sitting target cars at an excessive speed. It'd be a start, and maybe just as an example to the rest of everyone (and I'm pretty sure that putting strangers in the hospital is the last thing you want to do).

Posted at 10:14 AM

July 10, 2015

Donald Trump is obviously a problem.

He's not a problem for you and me, of course. For us, he's a freak looking for a sideshow, a vain, vain man with a nasty case of early-onset megalomania, an incurious chump who is just stupid enough to have absolutely no idea how stupid he is. And he's not only running for president, but he's doing quite well! And that may be problematic — in all honesty, it is problematic for me, in the same sense of when you serve jury duty and realize "These are my peers?" — but he's not a candidate we'd ever vote for and as such he is somebody else's problem.

And that problem belongs to the Republican Party.

Since the start of Mr. Trump's presidential campaign, a vexing question has hovered over his candidacy: Why have so many party leaders -- privately appalled by Mr. Trump's remarks about immigrants from Mexico -- not renounced him?

It turns out, interviews show, that the mathematical delicacy of a Republican victory in 2016 -- and its dependence on aging, anxious white voters -- make it exceedingly perilous for the Republican Party to treat Mr. Trump as the pariah many of its leaders now wish he would become.

And then the terrible outcomes are contemplated: Trump could last long enough to throw the debates into utter (racist!) disarray, or the eventual rebuke of Trump could irk these "aging, anxious white voters" or, and even worse, irk Trump himself to the point where he takes his voters and runs a third party candidacy. None of these are attractive outcomes for the GOP.

It is cute to speak of this in the language of politics, of candidates and campaigns, of potential voters and the Base and all the rest of that. It's clean, almost surgical. But the greater, greasy truth behind this, the invisible elephant in the room, if you will, is that the "aging, anxious white voters" are noxious in their entirety, picking toxic elements of each of the past six or seven decades to blithely wield as if they were virtues: the Red-hunting of the 50s, the overt racism of the 60s, the self-obsession of the 70s, the poor-shaming of the 80s, etc. Sadly, these voters, the regular folks pouring in to watch Donald Trump cuss, fuss and compare running a nation-state to building a golf course or licensing one's name for a line of steaks, are monsters. And yes, I'm speaking plainly, and, as one Twitter buddy (who is also a very practiced troll) puts it, that's no way for me to understand the motives of these voters, by calling them stupid.

But the thing of it is, they're stupid. And retrograde and a-scaired of any people that don't look just like them. Furthermore, I'm not actually here to understand them, any more than the Republican establishment is. The Republican Party also doesn't particularly care about what could cause people to believe for a hot second that Donald Trump is qualified to be state flower let alone President of the United States of America; they only care that these people vote, reliably. And when they vote, unless there's a Ross Perot or a Ron Paul there to muck it up, they vote GOP, in such numbers, in fact, that it's hard to imagine a path to electoral victory without them.

And that is the problem. This bloc of voters is indistinguishable from the stalwart souls who saw the backlash on the Confederate battle flag as some sort of pitched battle against white people and were so moved as to march around waving such flag in front of TV cameras, saying words that they had memorized without learning the meaning, like "heritage." Oh sure they vote, but their optics are terrible, and no one wants to be painted with that brush of oafish-yet-still-evil by association.

So then the quandary for the smart guys running the greater Republican effort is not just some academic electoral problem. Actually, the trick is how to give the impression of distance from the know-nothing dumb-asses that normal Americans dislike without actually convincing the dumb-asses that their support of GOP candidates is unwelcome. And I don't know if this reluctance is on some moral grounds, as there are an awful lot of near-hateful positions that are planks of the GOP campaign. But I do know that to publicly admit that this bloc of (awful) voters is integral to the success to the GOP would be to admit that the GOP is the party that nine out of ten know-nothing dumb-asses support, the party of bigotry and sexism and naked, very un-Christlike greed. Which it is, of course, but part of the self-delusion of this particular ideology is that as long as you never admit it out loud, you get to imagine yourself virtuous.

So sure, the temporary ascendancy of Donald Trump is an intriguing little labyrinth of pitfalls to be navigated by the Republican Party during this election season. But the real issue with the Donald is not that he's making a unholy mess of these well-laid plans (which plans largely consist of demonizing Hillary Clinton, but whatever). What Trump is doing is dog-whistling too loudly, and when the normal people can start hearing it, there's a whole bunch of very uncomfortable party-wide explaining to do.

Posted at 10:36 AM

July 8, 2015

There's really no other way to read this than as an epic burn, or as we used to say in junior high, "FACE!" The NYT, intrepid as ever in its coverage of the '16 presidential race (and also judicious considering the sheer number of candidates wandering across Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina) runs a very by-the-numbers story of Sen. Marco Rubio on the trail, rolling out some thoughts on education reform. Let's go to the videotape:
As part of his higher education plan, Mr. Rubio has proposed two innovations that are aimed at making student loans more affordable. First, he said, he would put into effect an income-based payment system to allow graduates earning lower salaries to repay creditors on a timetable that he said would cause "less strain." Those who earned more would have to repay their loans at a faster rate.

A form of income-based repayment plans for student loans already exists.

Not so by-the-numbers after all!

And I read that on the train in to the office (sorry, B train, I was the dude who went, "Whoa!" somewhere over the Manhattan Bridge), but looking it up to share with you I discover that this epic burn is now a titanically epic burn, because in the online version, the phrase "income-based repayment plans" is a hyperlink to an independent summary of student loan repayment, reduction and forgiveness programs. Which is makes it then a titanically epic servicey burn.

Between you and me, I don't know why Rubio doesn't suspend the campaign right now, if not for his general lightweightedness, then for the prospect of coming in third behind Donald Trump in endless polls for the next couple months.

Posted at 10:52 AM

June 29, 2015

I have unfortunately specific enthusiasms when it comes to the news stories that I choose to follow, and one of my favorites is back on the front page! Well, page three. Of the business section.

So this story broke earlier this month:

For years, the California Public Employees' Retirement System, the country's biggest state pension fund, paid Wall Street billions of dollars to help finance the retirement plans of teachers, firefighters, police and other state employees.

Now Calpers, which has just more than $300 billion of assets under management, plans to cut back drastically on those fees by severing its ties with half of the external investment managers of its funds, according to Ted Eliopoulos, the chief investment officer.

This is important for this reason: pension funds, and Calpers is a big one in dollar amount and in reputation, are a very reliable source of capital for your basic financial services industry players — the hedge funds, venture capital, private equity, etc. Pension funds have billions and billions of dollars just sitting around, and the managers try to manipulate the different ways you can apply money sitting around, interest-bearing accounts, stocks and bonds, index funds, etc., in such away that the pension funds is hopefully earning scads of money, or at least outperforming inflation.

Hedge funds love this, as pension funds are as close to a fish in a barrel as you can get. And the hedge funds get paid not only in the form of a management fee (a set annual percentage of the fund), but also in the form of a performance fee, a big old chunk of the net gains of the fund. The latter fee is also known as "the carry," as it is treating as carried interest by the IRS and taxed more favorably as a capital gain and not as income.

So, a couple weeks later, it is revealed that (from information from last April) that in the review of the management of Calpers funds, the fee structure of the third party managers hired by Calpers was a little less than transparent:

Earlier this year, a senior executive of the California Public Employees' Retirement System, the country's biggest state pension fund, made a surprising statement: The fund did not know what it was paying some of its Wall Street managers.

Wylie A. Tollette, the chief operating investment officer, told an investment committee in April that the fees Calpers paid to private equity firms were "not explicitly disclosed or accounted for. We can't track it today."

If you read the story, you see that investigators are on the case, which is what it is, depending on your faith in such efforts, but the important aspect of this is, for those of you that are not weirdly fascinated with pension funds, is that the hedge funds, PE firms, etc. have a rapacious need for dumb money for the myriad ways they have devised to subject such dumb money to dedicatedly opaque fees. And, this dumb money — and not to say that pension funds, in this example, are actually dumb but rather duped by fast-talking Wall Street types — is basically helpless when it comes to monitoring the arrays of fees charged by the financial services actors.

It's a tiny little story buried in the business section, but just with Calpers alone, we're talking about billions not millions that may or may not have been paid as fees spuriously linked to performance. And the financial services industry is banking on the fact that stories like this will fly under the radar.

Posted at 10:38 AM

June 23, 2015

Sometimes David Brooks is wrong in a very personal way, as in, Oh that poor David Brooks, trapped in some alternate universe of beigeness in which he can only long to wear a novelty T-shirt. And other times, David Brooks is wrong in a way that (accidentally, I presume) is illustrative of some greater flaw in our culture. Usually, when David Brooks inadvertently aligns with the Zeitgeist, it concerns a specifically David Brooks-ian topic, like punctuality, or hygiene.

But this week, in a column characteristically bizzaro, he accidentally strings two sentences together that are a big part of why we're doomed:

Within marriage, lust can lead to childbearing. Within a regulated market, greed can lead to entrepreneurship and economic innovation.

Now, the premise of the column is that the Pope is just too dour in his recent encyclical, which basically indicts technology and free market capitalism, which is why a whole lot of people who wear a suit and tie while they write their think-pieces are bent out of shape.

But those thoughts, intended to show (I guess?) that all of that nasty sin that the Pope is all down on can actually have positive effects, instead show that David Brooks, and those that think like/agree with David Brooks, have some really really twisted ideas about virtue and vice. The target here is greed, as the Pope is talking about the free market economy, and, well, we're grownups here, but duh. But David Brooks still has his VCR so he can rewatch "Wall Street" once a year, and is not about to take lightly anyone clamping down on greed, even if it is God's single representative on earth. Surely there must be some equivalency, David Brooks thought, that I can employ rhetorically. But David Brooks needs another sin, one to compare greed to! But it's gotta be a good one, a sin that ranks right up there with greed! Oh, David Brooks has got it!

Lust.

Of course we all agree that lust is one of the Seven Deadlies, and sure there's a doctrinal prohibition of carnal concupiscence in the Catholic Church, but, really? As far as walking around the world, trying to deal with people as the planet actually burns, lust is maybe about the last bad thing that I or anyone I know am worried about. But you and I and everyone we know are not David Brooks.

And then there is the good thing that is the unintended consequence of lust: childbearing. Some of us might call that a consequence of biology, but okay. But as bonkers as it is that David Brooks would say out loud that childbearing makes lust A-OK, it's even nuttier because in this rush to develop a moral argument that greed is good, it is revealed that David Brooks does not know what lust is. Biblically, lust is not, "Hey there, lawfully married wife, let's go smooch some and see if we accidentally procreate." Lust is not just the desire to get busy. Nope. As far as the Church is concerned, lust is interchangeable with covet. So basically when David Brooks brings up the miracle of conception, he is inadvertently implying the miracle of conception but with another man's wife. Which may be the opposite of the good thing that David Brooks was trying to invoke.

But the whole point of the exercise for David Brooks is not to reveal that he's got some pretty complicated feelings about getting busy and making babies, but rather to defend this free market economy that he loves so much, and so the unintentionally good byproduct of greed? That would be entrepreneurship and innovation. But here's the thing, and this is the thing that burns my grits not just about David Brooks but also the other free marketeers and very very specifically the technocapitalists of the alleys and valleys Silicon who think that "There's an app for that!" is somehow going to lift billions out of poverty. First of all, entrepreneurship and innovation are not actual tangible things. They are concepts, each a pretty little word signifying ineffable conceits. And if you break them down into actual descriptive English, it is a whole lot less impressive: "starting businesses" and "changing business practices."

And yet, and this would be the second of all, the words entrepreneurship and innovation are bandied about as intrinsically good and virtuous values almost as much as efficiency is, and it is markedly not the case. There are many many ways to measure and economy or an economic venture — gross profit, net profits, market capitalization, mean employee wage, median employee wage — take your pick, be you a University of Chicago Neoliberal or a pinko commie like me. But as you think to yourself, you will note that of all of the concrete and even whimsical metrics by which to measure a business, it is impossible to do so by "starting of new business" or "changing of business practice". Well, not impossible to do so, but ludicrous and silly to do so. But the pointlessness of the context of entrepreneurship and innovation has not stopped the fetishization of entrepreneurship and innovation in the least.

It's another case where deliberately opaque jargon becomes commonly accepted as axiomatic virtues because a bunch of privileged yo-yos with similar educations and backgrounds agreed that it would be so. And it is so, to the point that these terms are no longer used exclusively in incubators and the start-up conferences of the world, but to us rubes, as proof. Even as proof that the Pope is mean.

Of course we're used to David Brooks being solipsistic and sometimes obtuse and always living in some utopian Otherworld in which the wisdom of David Brooks (confusion about smooching notwithstanding) is accepted and admired, but it is not every day is which David Brooks is wrong is such a revelatory manner.

Posted at 10:35 AM

June 9, 2015

A month or so ago I was sputtering with rage because the Corinthian family of for-profit colleges are naked scams that bilks the Feds out of billions in guaranteed loans and then runs the business into the ground like a fucking Jart. Oddly enough, there appears to be a bit of good news concerning this, at least with regard to the students who got suckered into attending one of the Corinthian Colleges:
In a move against what he called "the ethics of payday lending" in higher education, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced Monday that the Education Department would forgive the federal loans of tens of thousands of students who attended Corinthian Colleges, a for-profit college company that closed and filed for bankruptcy last month, amid widespread charges of fraud.

Mr. Duncan also said the department planned to develop a process to allow any student -- whether from Corinthian or elsewhere -- to be forgiven their loans if they had been defrauded by their colleges.

That's a good one, "the ethics of payday lending" — credit where credit is due.

So good for the students who were bilked and that will be repaid. But here's some questions: So sure, the great Corinthian experiment of for-profit education fell on its face. But before it did, exactly how much money did the owners, CEOs, management etc. make? And considering that it's a couple billion dollars of public money that's going to remedy this, shouldn't maybe the public try to get some of the money back from the criminals behind this fraud in the first place?

And second, it's great that the students who were enrolled at the time of Corinthian's failure are being bailed out from their student loans. But what about all the other students, the one who graduated with a useless degree, the ones who never finished but still have tens of thousands of dollars in loans, before Corinthian failed? What about them? Shouldn't they be bailed out too?

Posted at 11:33 AM

June 2, 2015

One of my explanations for the Slow Degradation of All Things is this theory that I think of as Institutional Incompetence. Basically, in any career or trade or activity, it is written in stone that some percentage of the practitioners will suck at it. And I'm not positing some set percentage across the board. For example, I'm guessing for the position of Walmart floor staff, it may well be pretty high. And for brain surgeon, we of course pray that the percentage is very very low, but be assured that there are at least a handful of them that are just not very good at brain surgery. Institutional Incompetence! Or, human beings have the tendency to fail themselves.

This story, in which Homeland Security conducts an audit of how good the TSA actually is at screening airplane passengers, is what brings the issue to mind. I mean:

According to officials briefed on the results of a recent Homeland Security Inspector General's report, TSA agents failed 67 out of 70 tests, with Red Team members repeatedly able to get potential weapons through checkpoints.

That obviously would be a very high degree of institutional incompetence. Takeawy: either the TSA auditors are really good at sneaking weapons, or no terrorist has actually tried to do so in the past 14 years. But why is the TSA so crappy at their jobs? Is a general lack of motivation? Is it indolence? Is sneaking stuff onto planes just so easy to do that the TSA inspections are just window dressing to make the public think that the government is doing all it can?

Or is it that if you give the average person the chance to fail, they will? Moreover, and this is where my interest lies, although I have absolutely no answer, is this institutional incompetence becoming more and more endemic as time progresses? As in, if there were such a thing as a TSA back in 1960, would they have been better at there jobs than they are now in 1960? And for that matter: do you maybe remember a time when Walmart, back when it was Wal-mart, as icky as it was, actually hummed with efficiency and a weirdly happy staff? As compared to today, when walking into a Walmart is like a peek into what happened between Beyond Thunderdome and Fury Road.

And the other way to phrase this is: are people getting awfuller or am I just know realizing that people are actually awful?

Thinking out loud! As usual.

Posted at 10:07 AM

May 28, 2015

If you are not local to NYC this story might not be known to you. Thirty-five years or so ago, a little boy, Etan Patz, disappeared from Lower Manhattan, never to be heard from again. There have been a number of suspects over the years, but recently a man from New Jersey was charged and tried. No physical evidence existed. The prosecution argued purely on the strength of the suspect's confession. The trial ended in a hung jury, as one juror remained convinced that the state did not prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt.

Now I have no idea if the suspect did it or did not do it. I have a lot of hard time giving confessions a lot of evidential weight, first of all because they are factually meaningless. I can confess to killing JFK and it certainly does not mean that I did. And on top of that, I do have a hard time trusting cops when it comes to confessions. All of these are facets of human nature that are uncomfortable but true. But at the same time after three decades it is likely that there is no physical evidence at all, and someone surely did something terrible to Etan Patz, so it would be a good thing if someone was ever convicted.

Where I'm going with this is that Tuesday morning, I noticed a news item on the first page of the local section, with the headline Etan Patz Jurors, on Anniversary, Meet at Scene of Boy's Disappearance. Apparently some portion of the hung jury have taken the case on as a cause. And yes, there are some hard feelings towards the hold-out juror:

Many of the seven jurors and one alternate juror who gathered on Monday said that they were bitter about [holdout juror] Mr. Sirois's stand, which he has defended as a principled position based on what he saw as a lack of evidence.

"He had an agenda," Alia Dahhan, Juror No. 1, said. "He used this as an excuse to become famous."

Okay, so, this Juror No. 1, accusing someone of shirking their duties as a juror in order to seek fame, is doing this at some sort of organized photo opportunity that the news media somehow knew about, and her words are being spoken to somehow holding a microphone, while someone else is taking her picture.

I'm just saying that it turned my stomach a little bit, not just the hypocrisy, but the idea of the spurned members of a hung jury taking their case to the people in the most public way possible.  This is not the way juries are supposed to work, and the judgment being shown by these runaway jurors makes me seriously doubt their ability to come to a fair verdict.

It's all just so now, isn't it.

Posted at 10:30 AM

May 19, 2015

Okay, I know that it's a function of time, but things are changing.

Like, the really crushing one is my sister's dog passing away. The dog had a good long life (18 years!), and actually survived jumping off my friend's Brooklyn roof in 1999 (1999!), but as usually happens my sis sorely loved that dog, and eighteen years is such a long time that it really feels emblematic and not just an isolated experience.

As does the slow farewell that David Letterman is throwing. This is an actual big one for me as I starting watching that show when he first started on NBC. I was in junior high, and I'd stay up until 1:30a every night to watch and then haul my ashes to school six hours later. I haven't consistently watched for the entire run, but I stole my sense of humor from him, I guess I got used to him as almost a parental backdrop. It was reassuring to know that Dave was in the world (and I'm sure people a generation ahead of me felt the same way about Carson), and the fact that it's over — well, things are changing.

But worst of all: the news, my God the news. I've never not been a consumer of current events, but there is some shit happening these days that WE DO NOT BLINK AT that decades ago would have been International Crises. Say, ISIS taking the time to destroy antiquities in between beheading hostages? Say, counties sending out navies to push back starving boat people (in both the Mediterranean and the Andaman Sea)? Aww, I know, this kind of shit happens all the time?

But I picked up this morning's paper, and there on the front page on the right hand upper corner, right under the weather, was the story of what basically amounts to Boko Haram running rape camps in Nigeria. And this kind of knocked the wind out of me, because we live in a world where such a horror story, literally unimaginable, can sit next to less horrifying stories about biker brawls and currency-fixing as if it's just another day on the front page of the New York Times.

I dunno. It feels like a shift of some sort, a shift that will be more indelible in the rear view mirror.

And it also occurs to me that this could be a small case of me mistaking something happening to/with me for something happening in the world.

Posted at 11:07 AM

May 12, 2015

Well now that Uber is rumored to be valuated at $50 billion, this is as good a time as any to share this, my favorite bit of reporting on Uber. Oh, and for the record, the market cap of McDonalds is a little over $90 billion, so yes you live in a world in which a taxi pimp is worth more than half of largest fast food chain on the planet.

Back to the story. Part of the gospel preached by Uber and its disruptionist acolytes is that Uber is an awesome place to work and its drivers have all sort of flexibility and make ninety large per year! So Emily Guendelsberger of Philadelphia CityPaper decided to put it to the test and got a job as an Uber driver/independent contractor.

It is deeply researched and well-reported and I can't recommend it highly enough.

But I already said that I didn't like the idea of using other people's data -- all that was secondary to my own. And after 100 rides, I felt like I had enough to work with. Over that duration, during which I maintained a 4.83 adjusted rating, high enough to qualify me for Uber's VIP program, Uber would say I "earned" $17 an hour in gross fares. But subtract the 28 percent that went to Uber and the 19 percent that went to expenses, and I actually made $9.34 an hour (plus a grand total of $16 in tips, $10 of which were for meeting up with a guy who left his Porsche keys in my backseat).

But the point is not just that Uber is stretching the truth when citing how much its drivers are earning — this is just one more facet of the strange dissociative disorder that is the Disruption Industry, the need to believe the utopian crap that should be limited to the press release. Uber is nothing but a taxi pimp. They have no responsibility as an employee, they have no responsibility for the vehicles (though they do lean on drivers to invest in new vehicles for better customer service) and they have limited insurance coverage (all of which Guendelsberger goes into). They make third parties take the risk and Uber gets paid either way. Which is fine, hey, late capitalism, go for it. But Uber has to insist that this is not plain old money-grubbing but rather some sort of force for social good, not just for the customer but also for the "employees" without whom Uber has no johns.

This is to say, what is so galling is not just they are abrogating livery regulations and employment laws (both of which are there for a reason), and not just because they are nakedly exploiting a naive workforce, which workforce will be thrown to the curb once driverless cars are widespread, but mostly because they insist that they, and the rest of the disruption industry, be venerated as enablers of social good. Which is hooey.

But back to the piece: it is a piece of journalism, so there's nothing rant-y about it. It is really worth your fifteen minutes

Posted at 11:46 AM

May 7, 2015

There's a little story in the National section earlier this week that I think buries the lede a little bit.  The actual news contained therein is that the Department of Education forced Corinthian Colleges, a sketchy-but-formerly-enormous operator of for-profit colleges out of business, and the students want forgiveness on their student loans, considering that, even before Corinthian went belly-up it was basically fleecing the student body:
"The rep I talked to told me how great it would be, how they'd help me find a job when I graduated, and how their grads were highly sought after," [Corinthian alum Brittany Prock] said.

But when she graduated in 2010, Ms. Prock said, the only career help she got was a listing of jobs from sites like Craigslist -- and one call about a job with a janitorial service. Now 36, she o wes $83,542 in federal and private debt, and is no closer to a criminal justice job.

And this is not a bit of lefty bellyaching about how the free market is a big mean old bully — for the last decade Corinthian has been dancing with not just Education but also state regulators and a passel of Attorneys General.  Corinthian was a bad actor.

And the article does dip its toe into why the Education Department is in a bit of a sticky wicket, considering that it's gonna be on the hook for a lot of student loans issued under fraudulent conditions (by the Department) that it now has to either collect or forgive, but it does not go far enough in explaining exactly why Corinthian was such a bad actor.

Sure Corinthian engaged in dishonest practices, promising job placement that would never come, inflating graduation figure and its own stature as an institution of higher learning, and targeting the type of student least likely to ever be able to pay back the loans.  But, the article does not get to the motive for all this foolishness.  Corinthian is not just looking to trick students into enrolling for the sake of bragging rights.  Schools like Corinthian want students, especially poor students, because of the the federal student aid that is underwritten by the Education Department.

Basically, they dangle a bootstrap story of life improvement, help filling out FAFSA forms (and by help I mean falsify), then provide a bare-bones education and a piss poor job placement program because the grift has taken place — they've taken twenty or thirty thousand of Education's money and left they student holding the bag.

It's not just galling.  It's fraudulent.  And articles like this shouldn't have the tone of, Private Industry Under Scrutiny.  They should be more like, Private Industry Revealed To Be Criminal Enterprise.

(And credit as usual to Maria Bustillos for lighting the fire under my ass on this with this great Awl piece from a few years ago.)

Posted at 2:17 PM

Happy election day United Kingdom!  And instead of me bloviating on the impact and likely outcomes, I'm going to turn it over to my friend Kevan, who lives in London and is very astute on these sorts of things (as well as military history and British comedy and punk rock).  Kev:

**

Remember that Scottish referendum, the one where the loyalists only just lost?

Well, it just hasn't gone away and the loyalists are back, using the National Election to further the cause.

Basically, until five years ago, the British electorate preferred to vote for one of two parties, Tory or Labour. Before Labour emerged as a force in the 1920s it was Tory v. Liberal, but always a two-party system.

Then, after 13 years of Labour rule, tainted by entering a war on George Bush's behalf, the public wanted out, but still didn't trust the Tories, and so the 2010 election brought a stalemate. Although the Tories had won the most seats, they had not won enough for a majority government, and so they unexpectedly did a deal with the Liberal Democrats to form a majority coalition, which survived the length of the parliament.

Five years on, and the public is still undecided and we face another coalition, and the prospect that this may become the norm.

Why? Probably from the growing apathy with the professional class, and the disintegration of the old political tribes.

Regardless, the nation faces an election where no-one dares call the result, as, even though there is consensus that it's almost certainly going to be a "hung parliament", it's impossible to tell what form of coalition will emerge from the vote.

The focus of this scenario has been Labour's inability to make up ground and the stark reality that they face the potential decimation in Scotland where the Scottish National Party (SNP) could actually take every seat from the Labour Party. (Note: the Tories have as much chance of winning a seat in Scotland as (add punch-line here).

This is serious shit because: a) Labour rely on those Scottish seats to maintain their core vote, without which, Labour could never achieve a majority at Westminster, and b) an SNP landslide north of the border would be the launch of a return of the referendum, and the Nationalists push to have a second, rapidly held, attempt at breaking with rule from Westminster.

Once the SNP ascendancy over Labour was recognised, the pundits commentated how Labour would need to form a coalition with the SNP in order to form a parliament. This seemingly pragmatic approach to keeping the Tories out became vehemently dismissed by the Labour leadership, as they were unwilling to encourage the Scots to abandon Labour as their default representatives, as conceding defeat north of the border would not only presage the break up of the union, but would signal the end of any future Labour majority at Westminster.

For the Tories, their vote is being diminished by the far less credible, but potentially damaging in marginal constituencies, United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) home to the bigoted unhinged that believe that they are entitled to say anything they wish about the poor and foreigners. The Tories therefore equally need to ally with someone, other than UKIP, yet, aside from the Liberals, none of the minority parties can make up the numbers to create a majority government and keep a Labour coalition out.

As for the Liberals? Siding with the Tories in the previous coalition damaged the brand gravely, and even the Liberals know that they'll lose a shit-load of seats. In fact, their plight is marked by the Liberals optimism that they'll defy the polls and win around 30 seats, despite having previously won 57 seats in the 2010 campaign. Without those 57 seats, the Liberals lose a lot of clout with the others as an attractive coalition partner.

So what are the predictions?

i) whichever of the two large parties that lucks out with the highest number of seats will declare themselves in a minority government and take their chances by wheeling and dealing with other parties, and dissent members of the opposition to get their policies through.

ii) either of them form a coalition with the ragbag of outsider parties, which, majority or not, is the most attractive to Parliament. That is, the line-up least likely to implode in the eyes of the House of Commons. This could be one party with lower votes than their rival, outmanoeuvring the larger by better use of the parliamentary apparatus.

Does anyone know what will happen? No.

Will British politics change as a result? Very probably. This may well be the unfolding of 21st century politics in the UK.

**

Hey that sounds dire!  Thanks, Kevan!

Posted at 11:27 AM

April 30, 2015

Maybe this is a new thing for me, but nowadays when we find ourselves in the middle of yet another city torn apart because of bad/dumb policing, I get struck mute.  (And I have a very peculiar affection for the city of Baltimore.  Not that I have nothing to say, and not even that it seems that enough people are saying enough things that I would just be repeating myself, I just, well, I guess the way to put it is, can't even.  It makes me queasy.  The L.A. riots were, what, twenty-three years ago?  And even still there are white people who think that a black "thug" severed his own spinal cord while in police custody.  It pains me to see how far we have not come.  An empty stadium baseball game?  We are abhorrent and ridiculous.

But one small bright spot in this week of me assiduously not-writing: this piece on Baltimore by Colette Shade.  Shade was covering the Maryland Hunt Cup last Saturday, which just so happened to be the day that the city started to ignite.  And it is a fabulous piece: she keeps herself well out of the narrative and lets the subjects tell the story.   I almost hate to pullquote and spoil it, but, holy shit:

"So you came to Hunt Cup to ask a bunch of lily-white people about what's going on?" the man in the sweatshirt said.

"Well, yeah," I said.

"Here's a quote," he said. "The police in this country are doing their job. What would it be like if we said let's let all the cops have vacation for a week?"

I wrote that down and thanked him for his time.

That little bit of elegance is the kind of stuff that made me fall in love with non-fiction and journalism in the first place.

I mean, it's not exactly uplifting or anything, but I still a bright shiny thing to get you through this week.

Posted at 11:13 AM