Randomness for 4/4

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1) A captured ISIS car bomb that looks like something out of Mad Max. Video.

2) Mathematician teaches class on using geometry to become an expert witness in gerrymandering cases.

3) Pixar brings storytelling lessons to Khan Academy.

4) To be filed under: dudes doing stupid shit with GoPro cameras: Kayaking down a drainage ditch. Video.

5) Hieronymus Bosch action figures.

6) No cop show (that I know of) since HILL STREET BLUES has really tried to capture the real weirdness of police work.

7) A reader remembers the thrill of picking up a little known book called FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING.

Randomness for 1/27

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1) Gameification gone mad: China has made obedience to the State a game.

2) Thirty of the Most Important Articles by People of Color in 2016.

3) New superhero idea: the paper airplane gun. Video. Shoots 120 planes/minute. Warning: terrible music.

4) Episode one of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (1972). Video.

5) A CIA Operative’s Nine-Step Hotel Safety Checklist.

6) To follow up on the last entry: How to Book the Safest Room in a Hotel.

7) “Chatbot lawyer” originally created to help people get out of paying unlawful parking tickets now being used to prevent evictions and will soon aid Syrian refugees.

What a Month in Portugal Taught Me about Home

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In the autumn of last year I spent a month in Portugal visiting my wife’s sister and her husband. We traveled from Lisbon to Porto to the Algarve to a bunch of little towns with fabulous old tourist trap castles. We loved it.

And travel broadens the mind.

Here’s what we learned about the Portuguese culture: motherfuckers will just lie to your face. Also, they couldn’t stand to be told what they couldn’t do, or to be criticized.

I talked about this with my brother-in-law and a few other expats at some length. The upshot:

  • The Portuguese people are extremely friendly, helpful, and polite.
  • They’re also very passive aggressive.
  • The desire to avoid conflict is so strong that people will straight up lie to your face: “We aren’t allowed/That doesn’t work that way/We ran out/” and so on. Anything to smooth things over.
  • They don’t even lie convincingly. Why bother, since no one will call them on it?
  • The person who “creates” conflict by pointing out another person’s misdeed is in the wrong.

For example, your friend asks you to meet for coffee at 11 am. You’re there on time, but they show up an hour late. The expectation is that you say nothing about having your time wasted, or being made to wait. If you complain, they get offended.

For example, a piece of tech you bought does not do what you were told it could do, so you return to the store. The person at the counter tells you no no, that’s impossible. You’re sure they’re wrong, but the other counter staff backs them up. As you’re leaving the tech-savvy employee who sold it to you in the first place spots you and you strike up a conversation. You repeat your problem to him and he takes you in the back room and tells you that you were right, here’s how that works. The staff at the counter, they just don’t know how to deal with it. You suggest going over to the staff to explain so they’ll get it right for the next customer. The tech-savvy employee shakes his head. Oh, no. No, we can’t do that.

For example, a co-worker breaks the rules of the office. You tell them to stop because they’re making work difficult. They become offended and insist they can do what they like. You lose your temper. Who does management pull aside and demand a written apology from? Not the co-worker.

On our first full day in Lisbon, my sister-in-law arranged for a tour of the city in a tuk-tuk. Our guide was a friendly, outgoing guy who never stopped smiling–until he parked his vehicle in a no-parking space, and a cop told him to move it. Hey, it’s not like the spot wasn’t clearly marked, but after he complied he was livid for five very long minutes, just furious at being told he couldn’t do something he wanted to do.

That’s the secondary effect of a culture where criticism or conflict is frowned upon: people do what they like because they don’t expect to be taken to task. Corruption in Portugal is worse than in any Western European state except Spain. The sidewalks of downtown Lisbon have metal posts to prevent drivers from hopping the curb.

And of course problems can’t be fixed because you can’t tell people they’re doing it wrong.

When I returned to the US, I was glad to be back. Not that Portugal wasn’t great; it was. It’s a beautiful country with a ton of history and great wine. I got to see family, visit new places, eat new (mostly mediocre) foods, and spend a ton of time with my son.

Still, it was good to be home where, when wait staff lied to me, they actually put some effort into it.

A year later, it suddenly occurred to me that the US is very like the Portuguese in one area: the way white Americans handle race. For years, I’ve been watching the way white people freak the fuck out when someone points out their racism but I hadn’t noticed the parallels until recently: The way people act as though criticism is the start of the offensive behavior and the reluctance of many to offer criticism. The anger that anyone would dare. The way people lie about it to themselves and everyone around them. And, when you add in the typically American way many white folks have tried to make discussions of race a matter of partisan political positioning, you get people doing all kinds of outright racist bullshit because they consider all criticism illegitimate.

It sucks and I don’t have a good solution except to not be Portuguese about the issue. Speak clearly and honestly. Use techniques that reduce racism. Be kind to yourself and the people who need you. Accept that changing culture is the work of generations and it won’t be easy.

The 2016 Presidential Election

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It’s the understatement of the year to say that the results of the November election were a surprise, and what passed for analysis in the immediate aftermath was not what you’d call insightful. Even now, a week later, people are still looking at the numbers and trying to figure out what happened. But as emotions have settled, some things have become clear. With this post, I’m going to talk about what seemed to have worked in this election and what didn’t.

What worked: Voter Suppression

There was no single cause of Trump’s victory, but any analysis that ignores the hard work the GOP did to reduce voter turnout–especially among black voters–is incomplete. With the repeal of the Voting Rights Act, states felt free to purge the rolls, demand expensive or difficult-to-acquire ID, reduce early voting opportunities, and create long lines that forced people to wait hours to vote.

That was the plan: conservatives have long said, quite openly, that they do better in elections when fewer people show up on election day. The North Carolina state GOP even put out a press release bragging about how many fewer black Americans voted. They didn’t call it suppression, but that’s what it was.

What worked: Gerrymandering

The GOP has 55% of the seats in the House of Representatives but received 49% of the votes. If they still hold state legislatures when districts are redrawn at the end of the decade, it’s likely to get worse. The US needs to give non-partisan experts the authority to draw those districts so the election results reflect the people’s will.

What didn’t work: The Hatch Act

After Trump won, there was some eye-rolling from media figures when Hillary Clinton came out to say that James Comey’s letters to Congress about the email scandal tipped the election, but both Republican and Democratic polling shows that it was true. People keep talking about how wrong the polling was, but many Trump voters didn’t make up their minds until the final week when Comey’s first letter came out. The second letter, which acknowledged that the first wasn’t necessary, had a stronger impact that the Clinton camp didn’t have time to counter. Voters didn’t pay attention to the details, they just heard the scandal discussed once again, and assumed all that smoke indicated some kind of fire.

The Hatch Act makes it illegal for government employees to use their positions to influence elections, but somehow I doubt Comey is going to face repercussions from a grateful, empowered GOP.

What worked: The Electoral College

But wait! you say, how could the Electoral College have worked when the candidate that received the most votes was (once again) shut out of the White House?

Well, the Electoral College is designed to give outsized power to rural, underpopulated states, which are mostly white. Votes in Wyoming have a greater impact than votes in California and New York, and that’s no accident.

People have been saying that Clinton lost because the Democrats misread the mood of the electorate  and that voters wanted change. The problem with that is the majority of voters chose Clinton and her promise to keep/improve upon Obamacare, fix student debt, appoint a center-left justice to the Supreme Court, and generally continue Obama’s policies. A majority of voters did not choose change. Unfortunately, because of the way they were distributed and the way some votes count for more than others, change is what they’re getting.

The Electoral College should have been abolished years ago.

What worked: Republican Downballot Efforts

One of the reasons I didn’t throw my support behind Sanders despite the fact that he was closer to me, politically speaking, than Clinton, was that he ignored downballot races until very late in the primaries.

But it turned out that even Clinton’s efforts weren’t enough. It wasn’t the Electoral College that gave Republicans all those victories in state legislatures and governorships.

A month ago, the media was full of reports that Trump signaled the destruction of the GOP. Instead, it was the Democrats who took the hit. Without a real feeling of unity and a grassroots movement to retake ground at all levels of government, the Democrats will be swimming against the current for decades, and I’m not sure how we get that from people who think that voting Sanders into the highest office would move a leftist agenda forward when the rest of the government is against him.

What didn’t work: Authenticity

I heard an interview with a Republican voter who just couldn’t throw her support to Clinton because she hadn’t apologized for using a private email server. Then Clinton apologized and the supporter (big surprise) decided it wasn’t good enough. It didn’t sound “authentic”.

One of the knocks against Clinton was that people said they didn’t know who she really is. She’s supposed to be inauthentic. Once that charge gets hung on you, there’s no shaking it. Any time Clinton opened up or spoke about what she believed in, people responded as though it was just another calculated gesture.

Authenticity is a bit like shame culture: other people decide if you have it or not. Fuck authenticity.

What worked: White Supremacy

Trump supporters will really hate this one, but it can’t be avoided.

One thing about the primaries: Trump was nowhere until he called Mexican immigrants rapists, and he cemented his popularity by saying the US should ban Muslims from entering the country. Once he started spouting that bigotry and, more importantly, refused to back down from them, he had the enthusiastic support of the most openly racist elements of the right, and some from the left, too.

See also this video:

It’s pretty clear that the main reason his initial supporters aligned behind a scammy Manhattan real estate huckster with multiple bankruptcies and affairs was because Trump was willing to say into a microphone what they themselves only had to courage to type into anonymous comment fields.

This is why his supporters considered him an honest candidate despite the avalanche of lies he told from the podium. He gave voice to their discontent and he reassured them that their discontent was not bigotry, even though it was.

Add to that the willingness of many other white folks to doubt, minimize, and deny bigotry even when it’s right in front of them, and you have a solid block willing to vote in their racial self-interest even while they (mostly) deny that’s what they’re doing. When others pointed out the bigotry, his supporters laughed it off as weak sauce attacks from political opponents trying to make them “feel bad.”

As I said above, there’s no one reason for Trump’s victory. We also have to consider our common hatred of our own government, our irrational admiration for the rich, sexism, and many more things besides. But I will not be one of those who doubts, minimizes, or denies.

What didn’t work: The Media

Holy shit, the fucking media.

What didn’t work: Me

This has been a weird and stressful week.

On the campaign trail, Trump swore he was going to gut Obamacare, which is the only reason I’m able to work full time on my books. Without the ACA, I have to go back to a corporate job somewhere, because the plan at my wife’s work won’t cut it.

Do I temp-to-hire, which has always been better for me than interviewing? Do I start contacting people asking if anyone knows of job openings?

Well, no, not yet. My wife wants me to wait until the end of the year.

I also have family out of the country. My wife would probably love to be with her sister, and I’ll bet it would be good for my kid, but can I sell enough books to make up for the loss of my wife’s wages in another nation? Yikes. Probably not.

More importantly, if he keeps his campaign promises a Trump administration will be a disaster for this country. That’s a big if, considering how often and easily he denies saying things he’s said. Who knows what he believes, if anything?

Still, it feels like my duty as a citizen to dive deep into politics, to read and write letters and make my voice heard. It feels essential. Other things, like revising my book or reading or doing whatever, feel like a distraction. My son turns 15 next month. What sort of country is he going to grow up in? What will the state of our society be when he steps into a polling booth in 2020?

The moral arc of the universe does not bend toward justice. It bends toward chaos and entropy, like all things. Only by putting in energy can we shift–even if only temporarily–our society toward justice. What I need to do is find a way to contribute my share of that energy while holding my life together.

Randomness for 10/17

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1) Portugal’s Example: What Happened After It Decriminalized All Drugs, From Weed to Heroin.

2) The Man Who Invented Bookselling As We Know It.

3) Self-Destructive Beverages: a Guide.

4) Creating unconscious emotional responses with shapes. Video.

5) This house could be yours (if you’re looking for a shrine to terrible awful horrifying bad taste).

6) Carrie Fisher’s Legacy as a Script Doctor.

7) How to be Persuasive: Seven Secrets of a Hostage Negotiator

Randomness for 9/9

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1) Guy writes ridiculous requests in the “Special Instructions” space of his hotel reservation, and gets what he asked for. I hope he leave fat tips.

2) Woman Sues After Police Destroy Her Home During 10-Hour Standoff With The Family Dog.

3) An action figure for “Bulba Fett”.

4) Like Tanith Lee? Live/want to live in the UK? Her house is for sale. I wish I were successful enough for a beautiful house.

5) This longread is AMAZING: How parents of an elementary school child tried to frame a PTA mom for a crime she didn’t commit. Wow. For a crime/mystery reader like myself, this is wild. And it could have gone the other way so easily.

6) I’m a judge and I think criminal court is horrifying.

7) How to tell a mother her child is dead.

Randomness for 7/10

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1) ‘You are a coward’: Hate and misperceptions about substance abuse are broader than I thought

2) Gorgeous cars of the art deco era.

3) This pedal-powered roller coaster gets a massive NOPE.

4) Terrible manager stories.

5) How God Created Animals. <-- Funny 6) Investigative reporter goes undercover in N Korea to find out the truth about life there, writes book, sees book listed as a “memoir” because the reporter is a woman.

7) If you thought the movie WARCRAFT tanked, you missed the part where it changed the way blockbuster movies are made.

Randomness for 6/21

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1) An end to showering Apparently, the problem with smelly guys at cons is not that they don’t shower enough. It’s that they shower at all.

2) Drug or Tolkien elf? A quiz. I scored 23 out of 30, which is better than I expected.

3) 17 completed webcomics you can read from beginning to end.

4) AMC threatens to sue fansite over posted spoilers.

5) The defeat of the Confederacy should be a national holiday.

6) Funeral business dissolves the dead, pours them into town sewers.

7) The second-most-useful site on the internet.

Repeal The Second Amendment

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A few days ago, I tweeted this:

Followed by:

Note: repealing the second amendment doesn’t necessarily mean confiscating everyone’s guns. Other nations have guns in private hands without having an undeniable right to them. The only effect of the second amendment, as least as the most recent Supreme Court decision would have it, is to prevent us from regulating them. As the last few years have proven, regulation is desperately needed. If the second amendment is in the way of that, it needs to go.

I also tweeted out this:

Because I keep seeing people get caught up in counterproductive arguements. WHAT ABOUT THE TERRORIST WATCH LIST or BAN [SPECIFIC GUN] are easy to type on the internet, but it’s a bullshit way to conduct public pressure for legislative change. The Terrorist Watch List should be no one’s go-to policy choice, at least until the government is willing to be clear about how people get on it, and until they work out a system that will let people get their names taken off.

And arguing about this or that specific gun/type of gun is a mug’s game. People who oppose gun control love this argument, because it becomes all about semantics and petty details. What counts as an “assault” rifle? What about this or that type of gun? And then, every tiny error about terminology or technical specs becomes evidence that no one but the most avid gun fans can’t be trusted to speak knowledgeably about gun control.

Frankly, we already have the evidence we need to show that lots of guns lead to lots of tragic death–all we have to do is look at the rest of the world–but turning the CDC loose on the problem seems to be a necessary prerequisite to getting sensible legislation.

It’s time.

Randomness for 4/28

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1) An OKCupid profile for “A Normal Human.” #lol

2) New data supports Jane Jacobs’s ideas of what makes a city great.

3) Comedian reads fake book covers on subway, records reactions. Very funny, although the covers look fakey.

4) The Brilliant Career of John Cazale. If you’re only going to appear in five movies…

5) Toyota’s wooden concept car, as family heirloom.

6) Fun drawings of monsters added to photos of real world scenes.

7) 13 Short Guides That Will Make You a Color Expert.