Given the Trump Meltdown, Is the House Winnable? (Probably Not But Maybe Kinda Yes)

Submitted by Charlie on Mon 17 Oct 2016 - 11:41

"I'm worse than Hitler?" - Jay Sherman
"Not worse, just less warm and cuddly. Jay, test groups like this determine what you watch on TV, what kind of car you drive, even who runs this country." - Duke Phillips

Back in July, I took a detailed look at the House map and concluded that the Democrats had only the longest of long shots to retake the House. Three months and one Donald Trump poll implosion later, and the odds have improved enough that it actually makes sense to take another look. So, how hopeful should we be for a Blue House majority?

First, there are three (3) big unknowns to overcome. 1) House polling is expensive, and doesn't lend itself well to clickbait articles, so there is very little publicly available polling on individual House races. The main tool we have is the "generic ballot" question, which is usually tacked onto other polls and used as a stand-in for the House race overall. This means we simply don't have the data to make a prediction on a district-by-district basis, so we have to use the generic number as a stand-in.

That brings us to problem number 2), there isn't a 1:1 correlation between the overall House vote and the number of seats each party wins. Because each district is its own self contained contest, an increase of 1% in the Democratic vote nationwide might translate into anywhere from zero extra seats to five or more depending on where those votes come from. As a further wrinkle, Republican controlled seats tend to come from much whiter districts (duh), so the shift in the white vote will affect Democratic House outcomes a lot more than a surge in Latino voting or 2008/2012 turnout levels among black voters.

Muddling matters even further is number 3): this will be the first Presidential election run after the grotesque Shelby County decision. Since 2013, a slew of Republican controlled states have enacted all manner of voter suppression laws, and many of them are actively fighting and ignoring court orders to drop them as we speak. We can't know how many, but we can be damn sure that thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands, of Democratic votes will be "missing" because of reductions in early voting, restrictive ID laws, and similar fiendery.

TL;DR for the above is that we're trying to use a general number to account for hundreds of distinct contests, each of which has its own complications based on local politics, voting restrictions, and gerrymandering. So the best we can do here is make some educated guesses.

The baseline we're going to start with is the 2012 election, which saw the good guys win a 1.2% overall victory in terms of House ballots (a margin of 1.4 million votes). Despite that, the resulting House was a Republican blowout of 234-201 in terms of seats. That's the hole we have to climb out of. Our own Stephen Wolf puts the likely margin needed at 7-8 points which accords with what Harry Enten (now of 538) thinks.

The generic ballot polling in 2012, especially once it got into October (when polling accuracy tends to get much better) was pretty close to the actual outcome, with a slight Republican lean. The polls from October forward ranged from +3 Republican to +2 Democratic, with Real Clear Politics placing their final weighted average at +0.2 Republican, which was 1.4% off from the actual outcome.

The current RCP average is +5.0 Democratic, and the polls that produced it range from +3 to +10. That's probably not going to be enough, but if the Democrats out-perform their polls by the same 1.4% margin they did in 2012, that would put the margin at +6.4 Democratic, which is still short of 7, but close enough that immeasurable factors could flip the chamber. Plus there was a Politico/Morning Consult poll this morning that isn't in the RCP average yet. It was +7 Democratic.

Given all the fudge factors above, I'm not going to assign a probability to whether or not the Democrats can take the House. Any number I give would be pulled straight out of my ass. But what we can say is that if the polls hold roughly where they are, the Democrats have a puncher's chance, which is a hell of a lot better than things looked over the summer.

Modern Segregation and the Trashcans of Patterson Park

Submitted by Charlie on Fri 14 Oct 2016 - 14:42

Patterson Park, Baltimore, Marylnd, 14 October 2016

"Cool, wrong side of the tracks..." - Bart Simpson

My little journey landed me in Baltimore this week, where I have yet more generous friends who are willing to put me up for a little while. As we were sitting around the other night, one of them got an email about a local fundraiser. The good people at Friends of Patterson Park have raised $7,000 out of a goal of $11,000 to put some extra trashcans in the sprawling, 137-acre park. The message notes that this isn't something the city is going to pay for, and that Baltimore in fact has one of the lowest levels of parks funding per capita of any big city in the country.

On the face of it, this a worthy little civic initiative. Folks from the neighborhood get together to make their community a nicer place to live, film at eleven. Scratch the surface, however, and you'll see some of the ugly structural problems that undermine American civic life.

Baltimore, like a lot of other major American cities, has seen its taxbase eroded to the point of budgetary starvation over the last fifty years. There are a lot of reasons for that - entire academic subdisciplines study this sort of thing - but it can be roughly chalked up to some combination of de-industrialization, globalization, "drugs" and the war on them, lead in the drinking water, suburbanization, automation, and good old fashioned racism.

I'm sure I missed a few, but you get the idea. Cities like Baltimore (and Cleveland, and Detroit, and Kansas City, and Fresno, and and and) may not be exemplars of clean governance or good policy, but they were crushed by forces far, far beyond their ability even to influence, much less control.

A relative lack of trashcans in Patterson Park isn't going to make the first ten pages of a list of the problems caused by all that urban decline, but it nicely illustrates how deeply those problems have gotten baked into our civic infrastructure. To understand why, start with my favorite shorthand tool to 21st Century America, the Racial Dot Map:

Patterson Park Is Surrounded By White People

This is Baltimore, a city that was 29% white and 64% black in the 2010 census. The green dots are black people, the blue dots are white people, and Patterson Park is the blank spot in the small sea of blue on the southeast side (circled on the above image). Put deliciously, it's a vanilla park in a chocolate city. (Since Blogger Law requires that I mention The Wire at least once in anything written about Baltimore, I'll simply note that Tommy Carcetti came from District 1, which is that same blue area around Patterson Park.)

For all its complex factors then, the problem is simple and plain: the city as a whole cannot afford trashcans for all its parks, but the people around Patterson Park can afford trash cans for their park. That leads engaged, civic minded people of the type every city needs to pass the hat locally rather than city wide. This has the immediate good of getting trashcans into the park, but also has a lot of unseen effects that reinforce the broken system that made the local fundraiser necessary in the first place.

What the Friends of Patterson Park are doing (and none of this is a knock on them, they're just trying to fix a problem) is privatizing a public good. If parks are going to stay green and pleasant, they need places for people to put their trash, they need paths to be maintained, they need the grass to get cut and the leaves to get raked. All of that costs money, and in a city that struggles from year to year just to pay its bills, cutting the parks budget is an easy way to save.

And what happens when Patterson Park gets its privately funded trashcans? All kinds of things:

- The already wealthier and "nicer" part of town becomes that much nicer than the rest of the city

- The residents around Patterson Park have a pain point relieved, and have less incentive to get involved in local affairs

- The residents not around Patterson Park who may nevertheless visit it from time to time can plainly see that somebody else's part of the city is better than theirs

In other words, the overall unity of the city takes a hit. This is the process of suburban segregation writ small. People with more options (which usually means being more prosperous, whiter, or both) pull themselves away from those with less, deliberately or inadvertently. So while it's nice that Patterson Park is going to get its trashcans, it's really not the way we want these things to happen. But in a city surrounded by suburbs with a narrow taxbase, it also probably wouldn't happen any other way.

Donald Trump Was Right

Submitted by Charlie on Thu 13 Oct 2016 - 08:23

Harrassers and Rapists, Congress, and the Women who will hopefully deliver it to Democrats.

"Now I'm gonna grab me something sweet." - Dennis Franz as Homer Simpson
"No, Mr. Simpson, that's sexual harassment! If you keep it up, I'll yell so loud the whole country'll hear!" - Movie Ashley Grant
"With a man in the White House? Not likely!" - Dennis Franz as Homer Simpson

Since last Friday when The Washington Post reported the video of Donald Trump bragging about serial sexual assault to media sycophant Billy Bush, the political press has given itself the green light to actually believe women about stories of Trump's gross behavior towards them. There's been a reporter for People, countless beauty queens, a Florida local, a receptionist, and even a women who just had the misfortune to sit next to him on a plane. As of this morning, the flow shows no signs of stopping. (Slate is keeping a an ongoing tally. I hope they don't run out of space.) It is a category-5 media shitstorm and when the dust settles the gender gap in Trump's poll numbers is going to be visible from orbit.

Perhaps the best part of all this is that Trump is imploding at the most opportune of moments. Early voting has just started, and sober people are now saying the House might be in play, which would mean something other than legislative gridlock for the next two years. But as heartening as all that is, there's a horrific reality to face that goes beyond Trump's actions. When he said, "And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.", he wasn't wrong.

Donald Trump was fifty-nine years old when that audio was recorded, he's seventy now, and there are accusations ranging from harassment to violent assault going back decades. Bill Cosby is nearly eighty years old, and once the rape accusations against him finally gained media traction two years ago, women came forward in droves. Dominique Strauss-Kahn was sixty-two in 2011 when he assaulted a maid in a New York hotel, after which a small army of other women popped up with similar allegations.

For each of those women, there are probably a dozen or more who haven't said anything publicly. And for every Trump, Cosby, and Strauss-Khan there are hundreds and thousands of other men - "stars" in their own little worlds - who've also been getting away with it for decades on campuses and in offices. And for all of those guys, there are untold numbers of fameless men who have more money or power than whatever woman happens to be in front of them, everywhere. 

Despite all that . . . Donald Trump wouldn't be getting in trouble right now if he wasn't running for President. As good as it is to see his campaign and all the ugly shit it stands for going down in a Hindenburg sized fireball, amidst the glee we need to remember that this isn't about him. The attention that's caught up with him is never going to fall on most men who behave like him. For this to have meaning beyond next month's election, laws have to be changed. Social expectations must be raised. Above all else: women need to be believed far more readily than they have been up to now.

If the Democrats take the House next month, it will have been on the shoulders of all those unwilling women. And if they don't push for laws that meaningfully protect the bodies and minds of girls and women, everywhere from grade schools to board rooms, they will have committed an act of enabling and betrayal far worse than all the Billy Bushes of the world put together.

That's the deal, Democrats. If you win unified control of Congress because of grabbed asses and groped breasts, you've got to act to stop the Trumps, Cosbys, and Strauss-Khans of the world. Because if you let even this most eruptive of media volcanoes pass without action, you're just one big, collective laughing asshole on a bus. And then, despite his defeat, Donald Trump will still be right. Men like him will still be able to "do anything".


From Bike to Bus

Submitted by Charlie on Wed 05 Oct 2016 - 14:24

Give Us Your Trumps, Your Proud, Your Huddled Masses Yearing for Tax Breaks

Above: Quite possibly the least attractive picture ever taken of the Statue of Liberty.

"If you do not remedy this malparkage within seventy-two hours, your car will be thrown into the East River at your expense." - NYC Parking Hotline

I am sitting next to the Atlantic Ocean. (Since I'm in Battery Park, I think it's technically New York's Upper Bay, but that's definitely salt water out there.) It took me two and a half weeks of pedaling to go the approximately 800ish miles that took me across Michigan, up to the ferry, then south in Wisconsin, through Milwaukee, to Chicago, and then across northern Indiana and Ohio to Cleveland. It took about ten hours, including stops, for the bus to take me the 460ish miles from Cleveland to Manhattan. I have clearly been traveling the stupid way.

Being homeless on a bike works, but only sort of. The biggest problem is food and finding enough of it. It takes a lot of calories to propel me, the bike, and all the crap I've got fifty or so miles per day. And while it's easy to figure out how to eat cheap in any given location if you stick around long enough, when traveling you're basically stuck with whatever happens to be close or open, which isn't always a grocery store with reasonable prices.

The other major drawback is simply time. I figured I'd be able to spend at least a few hours each day happily sitting at my laptop, pecking away at the keyboard to create something of at least mild intellectual interest out of all my exertions. But between finding someplace to camp, figuring out my route, packing and unpacking my tent, keeping up remotely with my stupid real job, and the increasingly short amount of daylight here on the autumnal side of Labor Day, keyboard time was in very short supply. Two and a half weeks of riding and all I had to show for it was two finished posts and three or four unfinished ones. Emotionally tortured novelists work faster. 

Beyond money and time, there was also a physical complication that I'd hoped would be less severe. Back in July, during the first really long (50 miles) test ride for this little adventure, I'd noticed a small ache in my right knee. It stuck around through increasingly longer training rides, but didn't get any worse when I did long trips on back-to-back days, so I hoped it'd be manageable. Just a few days in, however, it was undeniable that even keeping myself to only thirty or forty miles per day (2-3 hours, depending on hills and wind) wasn't going to be sustainable long term. My knee was hurting even when I wasn't on the bike, and a close comparison with its counterpart on my left leg revealed small but tender swelling.

I spent enough of my youth getting yelled at by lunatic sports coaches to have learned the difference between annoying pain you can ignore and serious pain that's a warning sign of impending injury, and the spikes I was feeling when I'd get off the bike after an hour or so were definitely the latter. That it ached enough that certain angles became uncomfortable for sleeping - even with large quantities of ibuprofen - was a further warning sign which seemed unwise to ignore.

Long story short, I made same damn mistake I always make: underestimating how long things will take while overestimating my own capabilities. So, instead of a two month bike trip, I took a two week bike trip. But since I still have no place to live and lots of places I want to visit, the trip itself will continue, albeit via different means. So the bike is now in my friends' garage outside of Cleveland, and I am now a Gentleman Bus Hobo instead of a Gentleman Bike Hobo. I will not, however, be getting new cards:

Technically it's just a "Card" since "Business Card" implies that I'm profitable.

Note: next year, order fewer cards.

The final aspect of the trip that's been a major disappointment is completely beyond my control: the fucking Democratic Party. I'm a big believer that the downballot is the most contested part of this year's election, and, being an occasionally good citizen, I tried to volunteer for no less than four different Democratic House candidates whose districts I rode through. I went to their website, clicked the "Volunteer" link, and entered my information. Three of them just ignored me and put my email on the fundraising list. The one that did reply took two days to do so and then didn't tell me where their office was. I eventually found it and spent a couple hours making phone calls, but then they too didn't reply when I asked what else I could do. [Will Rogers Quote Emoji]

That the DCCC is running a clownshow I already knew. That they're running a clownshow so hapless that it can't even reply to emails I did not know. Lesson learned.

Anywho, bike trip over. Bus trip beginning. More internet complaining hopefully on the way.

Your 1-Minute Presidential Debate Watching Guide

Submitted by Charlie on Mon 26 Sep 2016 - 14:09

I've been mostly off the internet for the last few days, but having dipped my toe in just now, I gather that the politics geeks are in a near sexual frenzy over tonight's - ahem - debate. Herewith is your extremely short guide on how to watch the big show intelligently:

DO - Watch all 90 minutes of it. It'll be fun. It's a genuine national moment. And it's a good excuse to drink on a weekday.

DON'T - Watch any of the pre or post debate "analysis" on any of the following: ABC, CBS, NBC, MSNBC, FOX, or CNN. Pay no attention to what anyone who lives or works in D.C. or NYC says on Twitter.

That's it. The debate itself will be watched by huge numbers of Americans, including millions who are either undecided or who are thinking about voting for a third party. Historically, basically all of those people will end up voting for one of the two major candidates. This kind of event will help some of them make up their mind. But those few persuadable voters 1) overwhelmingly do not watch political talking heads and "analysts", and 2) don't care about what those people say or think anyway. As the national media focuses on one or two moments its collective stupidity deems important, those people will be thinking about something else.

If you really feel the need to have someone else tell you what other Americans are thinking, try clicking over to something like the Toledo Blade or the Tampa Bay Times. Their reaction - closer to the few movable voters in states that will matter - count for far more than all the yammering from wannabe celebrities on cable and national news shows.

To recap:

1 - Watch the debate
2 - Do not watch any "analysis"
2a - If you must find some analysis, try a few local sources in swing states instead of the overpaid, blow-dried entertainers on the national broadcasts


Campfire of the Careless

Submitted by Charlie on Sat 24 Sep 2016 - 07:36

Modern Camping

"How many of you drove your house to school today? . . . Well, I did. No, I'm not Superman. I just own an RV." - Milhouse's Grandfather


Last night I pitched my tent at a big campground here in the lovely Amish-Mennonite country of north central Indiana, although the term "campground" might require a little explanation. A huge multi-acre complex, there are 136 individual sites listed on the map they gave me when I checked in. Of those, fourteen are for tents, i.e. the more traditional definition of "camping". The other 90% of the sites, comprising all but a tiny back corner of the campground, are for RVs and big trucks pulling bigger trailers.

This is camping with all the comforts of home and then some: beds, kitchens, satellite television, comfy chairs in which to watch said television, and serious air conditioners. There was a sign posted in the bathroom warning people that - no matter how high the temperature - to please refrain from using more than two (2) full air conditioner units per RV/trailer. (Somewhere, Carbon Footprint Jesus weeps.) And while I am the only occupant of what is quaintly termed "Tent Lane", the rest of the park is mostly full, a sprawling, if temporary, rural downtown.

After I got my tent up and took a shower, I moseyed down to the "Community Fire Pit" to eat my gas station dinner of cookies, trail mix, and chocolate milk. Sitting there, happily chatting away while a couple of logs burned, were five people, two married couples and a man whose wife had apparently already retired for the evening. The youngest of them looked to be in her mid-sixties, and the oldest couple were easily in their 80s. Grandchildren were mentioned, and they were not tykes, but rather people in their 20s.

They were friendly and polite (the harshest word used was "butt"), and we swapped tales of life on the road, me discussing rush hour traffic in Grand Rapids, they the time they accidentally went down a road that was marked "Not recommended for RVs" on the map. It was fun. I have little to no conception of retiree life, much less retiree life when six months of the year is spent driving around North America (one couple had taken their RV all the way to Alaska). There are unfortunate breakdowns, broken windshields, and nightmarish encounters with customs at the US-Canadian border where an entire RV can get unpacked by some young pups showing off their authority.

In the back of my mind, however, I couldn't help but silently contemplate this vagabond armada of old people, traversing the country in vehicles that get single digits to the gallon before pulling into a "campground" like this one to hook up to a 50amp electrical box and blast the twin air conditioners needed to keep something that poorly insulated from becoming a sweatbox. Careless doesn't even begin to describe that lifestyle, especially given temperatures in the 80s this late into September. 

And yet, I can't get mad at them, or even their deeply irresponsible choices. They certainly seemed like honest people, and they worked for decades, saving pennies along the way, to enjoy what the industries that advertise to them euphemistically refer to as "sunset" or "golden" years. The only thing these people are guilty of is failing to realize something that billions of dollars per year are spent to prevent them from realizing, namely that their home away from home is going to make their adult grandchildren's retirement considerably less pleasant. They are in effect, if not intention, stealing from their progeny.

But to tell them that they cannot have this life that they labored for and enjoy is its own kind of theft. (It would also spoil the amiable mood around the campfire.) The couple who'd been to Alaska have been coming to this campground for thirty years, that's more time than its been since James Hansen's famous testimony before Congress in 1988. They're never going to get talked out of it, and there's no point trying.

Aboard the SS Badger

Submitted by Charlie on Thu 15 Sep 2016 - 11:55
Badger Aft Port Lower Hall

"I hate the sea, and everything in it." - Captain McAllister

There is no maritime romance to this vessel. After all, it is a ferry: an ugly, utilitarian thing, all blocky lines and ill fitting angles. It is also a coal belching holdover from an era when the atmosphere we breathe was assumed to be a limitless dump site. Each crossing of Lake Michigan, which it does between two and four times a day for six months of the year, makes the lake and the planet upon which it sits just a little less pleasant and habitable.

Nevertheless, there is an immediate humanity to this ship that was noticeably lacking on the only comparable vessel with which I have any experience. Eleven years ago I took a big car ferry, easily twice the size of our humble Badger, across the Puget Sound in Washington state. I'm sure it had a name, though what it is has long since faded from my memory. It had many of the same amenities: a nice little cafeteria, a lounge with televisions where people could pass their journey, and a friendly (if bored) staff.

But while the Badger was originally constructed to carry rail freight and a few passengers, that vessel in Washington had no purpose other than people's commutes, and commuting is a far uglier thing than even the most spartan naval architecture. A commute - which virtually no one enjoys - is an off the clock, uncompensated daily time suck. It is minutes and hours (that quickly add up to days and weeks) of people wishing they were doing almost anything else.

Worse, it's routine. Most days, the wasteful absurdity of sitting somewhere - behind the wheel of a car, on a train or bus, in a giant car ferry plodding across the natural miracle of the Puget Sound - doesn't even enter people's thoughts. One doesn't need to be brimming with a seize-the-day/life-is-precious kind of attitude to understand that commuting is an atrocity, but we so easily become inured to it that even noticing how bad it is takes conscious effort.

Put another way, if a stranger grabbed you and strapped you to a chair for a half an hour, the first time it happened you'd be yelling and struggling and very pissed off. But if they do it twice a day for long enough, eventually you forget that yelling and struggling and being very pissed off is the natural and correct human response.

The Badger, for all its faults, has none of that. The passengers here aren't commuters. They are travelers, going from one side of Lake Michigan to the other because that's what they actively want to do. There are families on vacation, dudes on their motorcycles, and cars and trucks of all kinds, some pulling boats or trailers.

Even the ship herself seems to understand this. Once a proud working vessel that sailed heavy cargo year round, here in her sunset years she only works part time and with considerably lighter loads. The impressively thick hull that once batted away icebergs now has merely to contend with the occasional choppy wave. The cavernous cargo hold that could be filled end to end with rail freight has the easier task of securing sedans and those hatchback mini-SUVs that are so popular these days. It may not be high adventure, but it isn't shlepping to and from another immemorable day, either.

Of the thousand plus people aboard that car ferry all those years ago, what tiny few still remember that crossing? The staff probably doesn't, and even among most of the passengers it was just another day. Here on the Badger, I saw a father telling his very young son that the last time he went on this ship, it still had rail cars in the hold. That was decades ago, but that man remembered it. And in all likelihood, decades from now, his son will remember this as well.


Some Thoughts on Trump Lawn Signs and Dialing For Hillary

Submitted by Charlie on Tue 13 Sep 2016 - 11:45

"Now, here's the problem as I see it. While Governor Bailey is beloved by all, 98% of the voters rate you as 'Despicable or worse'." - Burns for Governor Campaign Manager

I spent the last weekend biking around mostly rural Michigan and stopped into the Jackson Democratic office to make some calls for Hillary and MI-07 candidate Gretchen Driskell on Saturday afternoon. None of the below is exactly earth shattering or conclusive, but a couple of things did strike me:

- Lawn signs are a notoriously poor gauge of candidate support. A lot of the time people who get them are the ones who want to think they're "doing something" without dialing a phone or knocking on a door. Except in local races where only one side might even be able to afford them in real quantity, usually a lack or abundance of them doesn't mean anything.

That said, I have logged a couple hundred miles on my bike the last few days, mostly through very rural and/or very Republican parts of Michigan. Now, Trump isn't going to win our state anyway, but what struck me wasn't just the lack of Trump signs, it was the lack of Trump signs even in front of houses and businesses that are *filled* with signs. I didn't snap a picture of it, but there was a large, commercial farm outside of Jackson that must've had signs for every Republican candidate from House and state rep down to dogcatcher, and there wasn't a single Trump sign. I can't say for sure, but I'd be willing to bet that Romney and McCain signs weren't similarly absent four or eight years ago.

I have seen a grand total of six Trump signs so far, only one of which was accompanied by signs for any other Republicans. I don't know if ticket splitting is going to make a big comeback this year (let's hope it doesn't), but on the literal ground, a lot of Republicans are clearly keeping their distance from their nominee.

- There is a layer of Democrats that are *very* leery of Hillary. I was only making calls for two hours, but I got through to two people who were definitely planning to vote Democratic but were still talking themselves into Hillary. (I tried to help them along, of course.) There was another person who said he was only voting Hillary because Trump scared the crap out of him. And finally there was one person who was defiantly voting for Trump because he couldn't stand Clinton.

Those four people were a little less than half the total who actually answered, and the numbers I was dialing came from a Democratic call list. The rest were generally enthusiastic, including one young woman who was excited to be able to vote this year, so that's very encouraging. But the overall picture fits with a nominee who is unpopular but far less so than her odious opponent.

In closing, here is the yuugest Trump sign I saw:

The private entrance gate really makes it special.

Note the private entrance gate on the left. They fancy.

Operation Hobo Sweatpants Introduction: Will the Lifeboats Be Seated According To Class?

Submitted by Charlie on Fri 09 Sep 2016 - 13:18

"Unkie Herb, what advice would you give to a boy who will most likely become a bum like yourself?" - Bart Simpson
"Discarded pizza boxes are an inexpensive source of cheese." - Herb Powell

I freely admit that the following introduction is overly wordy. Therefore, I have broken it up into three chunks, each of which should give the emotive reader ample opportunity to feel thankful, superior, or that kind of self-gratifying pity that made Upworthy somehow popular. Enjoy.

1. Middle Class Homelessness: Yup, This Is Happening

2. Going Broke: It Sucks

3. Let's Talk About Politics: Cycling with Trump on the Fury Road


Part 1 - Middle Class Homelessness: Yup, This Is Happening

Flanders Camp Out

"You're going to live in your car?" - Homer Simpson
"Oh, no, it's just a little camp out tonight. Then off to my sister's apartment in Capital City. Hey, what do you think, kids? The big city!" - Ned Flanders 

The concept of at least temporary homelessness is something that even well situated people have contemplated. It may just be some variation of "I have to stay with friends or at a hotel for a few weeks", but not having a kitchen, bathroom, and bed of your own for a little while has crossed most people's minds. Back before my professional life went completely to shit, I once lived for a month between leases at a friend's apartment while he and his future wife were out of the country.

Becoming homeless with no scheduled replacement is different, and considerably more disconcerting. The first thing that happens is a daily awareness of the date you have to leave. For me it started months ahead of time. Knowing when the lease expired and that I couldn't afford something new became one of those facts that crossed my mind several times a day whether I wanted it to or not. Moving in general can cause that to happen, but it's far more intrusive when you do not have a new place or the income to rent one. At first the count is in months, then it's a hundred days, then it's just a few weeks, and before you know it you're thinking things like, "I'll go to the store next Tuesday to get food that doesn't need to be cooked in an oven".

Thanks to the social capital that comes with a middle class background and a college degree, I had the luxury of not being thrown out on the curb with my meager possessions. I've split the five weeks since between my office couch and my sister's apartment. But my failing company is unlikely to have that office much longer, and my sister's place is a semi-legally rented basement with no thermostat in which I sleep in the kitchen/living room.*

(*I should point out that it's a very nicely furnished semi-illegal basement and that my sister is a wonderful and generous person, but it's not workable as long term housing.)

And so, with my recently returned security deposit check in hand, I decided that living in the wind would be a lot easier and more comfortable with decent equipment. Eleven hundred dollars(!*) later, my bicycle is rigged for long distances and I've got a (used) laptop and a (new) cell phone that will let my on-line life continue (work included) even as my meatspace life changes radically. As another demonstration of the money saving power of having non-poor friends, I got a sleeping bag, water bottle, handlebars, and some camping gear for free from people who weren't using them. That alone probably saved me two hundred bucks.

(*Middle class homelessness is just like every other middle class thing - relatively comfortable and shockingly expensive.)

Could be worse.

Home sweet home.

Decent gear or not, however, I now reside at no fixed address. The most pressing and intimidating aspect is the constant insecurity. Even if you live someplace where there's no need to lock your door, you still have the lock. Your bathroom has a lock. Your bedroom probably has one too. You may live with a bunch of screaming children, but you have at least somewhere to change your clothes, take a shower, or just sit for a minute without worrying about some stranger walking up. A tent near the side of a highway just isn't the same thing.

None of this concerns me from a physical safety standpoint. I'm a six-three white guy with a shaved head. Nobody's going to fuck with me unless I give them a reason, and in rural, white America, where I'll be doing most my of my pedaling, me and my rockin' farmer's tan don't even stick out. But waking up in a place you've never been before, where you are tolerably welcome at best, is a lot different than waking up in a familiar bedroom. The feral part of your brain that worries about getting attacked by something with large teeth simply won't relax without the accustomed reassurance of a roof and walls. 

Still, being on a bike and in a tent is a lot safer and less unpleasant than, say, being a refugee caught at the Macedonian border, or burning e-waste for a living in Nigeria, or working in a North Korean salt mine. I may have fallen most of the way out of the comfortable class in America, but I'm still in America, and still a lot better off than people even poorer than me in this great land of ours.


Part 2 - Going Broke: It Sucks


Homer writing goodbye letter.

"You deserve all the finest things in the world. And although I can give them to you, they will be repossessed and I will be hunted down like a dog." - Homer Simpson

My tiny, family software company took one on the chin in the Crash of '08. And while it survived, and has had many ups and downs since, it's never recovered. We had an okay 2012, but saw things stall out in 2013. By 2014 a new and general deterioration was apparent, which became critical in 2015. Repeated acts of desperation have maintained a pulse, but they're getting more frequent and less effective. Even on teevee they only shout "Clear!" so many times before someone says, "Let's call it", and that's about where we are.

Since this is a family company, it's a more drawn out process than if I'd simply lost my job. Instead of the paychecks just stopping, at first there's one you have to hold for a few days before depositing. Then there's ones you can't cash at all. After that, you get a smaller check just so you have something, and then those, too, become smaller and intermittent. Even living like a monk and surviving on pasta and rice, years of savings can't withstand that kind of disruption for long, and pretty soon you're having a very awkward conversation with your landlord. There is still a trickle of revenue, and even the occasional spurt, but we've had the "what *is* the furniture worth?" conversation more than once now.

If this were a steady downward process, it'd be easy know when to head for the exit. But then there are good months and encouraging developments, and the dreadful thought of walking away from all that work with nothing to show for it makes you hang on to each one. Basically, a family company is like a tontine with people who share your DNA: it gets *really* grim before it ends.

Which is not to say it's all bad. Office politics are basically nil, you don't have to attend pointless meetings, even the occasional overripe fart is cause for laughter rather than any seething, workplace resentment. Crucially, there's none of the Mickey Mouse bullshit that prevails at so many offices: dress codes, mandatory training sessions, bland holiday acknowledgements, and all the other stuff that made Office Space a cult classic. Case in point: the last time my nominal boss yelled at me was when I was about eleven.

The hands down best part of it is that your efforts are benefiting people you care about, not faceless stockholders or wasteful rich people. There is no way to overstate how much easier that makes putting head to pillow every night.

Nice as all that is when there's money coming in and growth year-on-year, these days it isn't paying the bills. The good news is that I'm still *just* this side of the federal definition of homeless. (I don't have stable housing of my own, but I can still find short term shelter with friends or family.) The bad news is that I have a very mixed score when it comes to risk factors for long term homelessness.

On the good side of the ledger: I'm only recently unemployed (or underemployed, as the case may be), I'm relatively young (36), and I have no arrest history. On the bad side of the ledger, my housing disruption was anticipated but unavoidable, I have significant unsecured debt (usury laws really need to make a comeback), and I've recently skipped medical care that affects my ability to work for reasons of cost. And, if we're being honest, there's also substance use that crossed from funny into worrying well over a year ago. (Just pot and booze, but still.)

Because this is America and it's 2016, the unsecured debt and the lack of medical care are intricately intertwined. Like many a foolish small businessman before me, I forwent pay by stacking up a decent credit card balance - twice. (The first time we got back to zero, this time I'm less hopeful.) That lack of pay also led me into the world of Obamacare, which is both a vast improvement over the previous system and a kafkaesque nightmare that borders on a human rights violation. I'm on track to make about $15,000 this year, which means that the federal government will send $223 dollars per month to Blue Cross to "insure" me with a plan that has a $6,350 deductible. In other words, for me to see any benefit from my insurance, I would first need to spend over a third of my annual (pre-tax) income out of pocket. This is somehow legal. #ThanksObama

So last December when I fell off my bike (I sold my car a long time ago) and smashed my shoulder, I didn't go to the emergency room, or even to the urgent care place around the block. A four figure bill means that I'm bankrupt, which will torch my credit rating, which is just about the last vestige of the steady paycheck life I have left. Beyond the moralizing symbolism of it, a healthy credit number will make it a lot easier for me to rent a place again should I ever have the means, so the shoulder will have to wait. And, hey, my clavicle is still attached at one end out of two, and that ain't bad. If you count the other side, I'm at three of four, and that's enough to pass most college and high school classes.

I don't think it's supposed to bulge out the top like that.

Shoulder selfie!

For the first three months it was getting better; then it stopped getting better. Recently, however, it's started to get worse. To arrest this deterioration, it will need an X-ray, and then it will likely need surgery. The soonest I'll be able to afford even the first visit is January, and that's *if* it holds together until the sign up period in November and *if* I can afford a more expensive plan by then. Life at 138% of federal poverty level sucks unwashed donkey balls. I don't know how people below that line even manage.

That said, and however much it hurts, my shoulder is still mostly functional. And since it's lasted eight months with only informal treatment, it can last four more [crosses fingers]. In the meantime, I have much for it to do.


Part 3 - Let's Talk About Politics: Cycling with Trump on the Fury Road


Bart for President!

"You'll never go broke appealing to the lowest common denominator." - Lisa Simpson

The hardest realization for political junkies to accept is that most of the happenings they/we obsess over don't matter a damn. Whether we're talking about legislative machinations or election results, the story-du-jour rarely affects an outcome. For example, Willard "Mitt" Romney's remarks castigating "47%" of Americans as hopeless moochers was a nuclear level event for the politics set, but actually mattered very little for his eventual defeat. Similarly, when Ted Cruz and his cadre of fanatics shut the government down in 2013, the widely publicized expectation, left and right, was that it was Bad for Republicans, but the 2014 electorate didn't care a bit.

That humdrum reality has to be borne in mind at all times as CNN, FOX News, and their counterparts at otherwise respectable publications spend time hopping about over the latest mouth sounds from Donald John Trump, Republican nominee. Did he just insult Latinos? Wink at Illinois nazis? "Soften" his approach to rounding up immigrants? Feh. In all likelihood, none of it will matter.

What will matter is that he has no meaningful ground organization, has barely been advertising, and is generally incompetent as a political candidate. He is going to lose, probably by a huge electoral margin. But saying so won't generate any clicks, and that matters more than anything else in a time when a lot of news outfits are unscrewing lightbulbs to save on the power bill.

Nevertheless, he is still going to get well over 40% of the vote, probably something just shy of 60 million (60,000,000!) ballots. (For the record: my prediction is that he'll take every Romney state minus North Carolina and Arizona, that's 358 for Clinton and 180 for Trump, though I wouldn't be surprised to see the Buckeye State go Red because Ohio gonna Ohio.) Beyond just casting votes for him, Trump's unique brand of substance free bitterness has given many of his supporters free license to indulge their worst impulses. Whether this is brown kids getting picked on, wait staff getting stiffed, or this putz, our freak flags are flying.

Charming gentleman loves Donald Trump.

Dude. You're giving roided out meatheads a bad rep. Chillax, brah.

Donald Trump's America is a very peculiar place that is going to come crashing down in just under nine weeks. Like a vanishing natural habitat, I want to see it before it's gone. The people who vote for him will still be with us, of course, but their plumage won't be this festive ever again. (Well, I guess one of the Duck Dynasty guys could win the 2020 nomination, but even that probably wouldn't wind them up as tight as they are now.)

The only viable alternative is a pro-war ex-First Lady with deep ties to some of the crookedest sectors of American business . . . whom I badly want to win. This is some serious banana republic shit, and since I can no longer afford to put a roof over my head, I might as well be there as it happens.

But Trump-Clinton is overdetermined. He's outmatched in every category from organizing and fundraising to the simple ability to give a coherent speech. The real action this year is on the Senate and House levels, which will go a long way toward determining how functional (or not) our federal government is next year. With that in mind, my planned route will take me through competitive Senate and House races in Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and New Hampshire.

In particular, Democratic control over the Senate is looking very dicey indeed. Failure to take the Senate wouldn't be a Trump level catastrophe, but it would still be very bad. To understand why, just imagine what a freshly returned Red Senate majority will do to the thousand or so nominees Hillary Clinton sends them. If the prospective ambassador to Fiji once filled out a dental insurance form incompletely, Mitch McConnell and Bob Corker will make sure it's national news for weeks on end. It will be ugly in ways that will make us pine for the days of Trump, and that's before you start thinking about the possibility of the Supreme Court only having eight or fewer members until sometime next decade.

So, with all that on my mind and a bike seat up my butt, I'm planning to spend the weeks between now and the election doing a bunch of campaign volunteering, and hopefully having enough time left over to mingle with some Trump fans in between. Mindful of the way my luck has been going of late, I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if I get splattered across a highway ten miles out of town because some guy in a semi was taking a picture of his dick.

But assuming I survive and have the time and energy to type anything up, you can follow along here at this site or on my worthless Twitter feed. Hopefully this fake work will be more fun and interesting than the real work that no longer pays enough for me to have a front door.

Terminator 2: Judgement Day Is a Woefully Underrated Movie

Submitted by Charlie on Mon 29 Aug 2016 - 09:52
As nuclear war metaphors go, boys fighting over which one of them just killed the other is pretty good.

"We're not gonna make it, are we? People, I mean." - John Connor
"It's in your nature to destroy yourselves." - Cyberdyne Systems Model 101
"Yeah. Major drag, huh?" - John Connor

To say that Terminator 2: Judgement Day was a massive hit is a gross understatement. Sure, it was the highest grossing movie of 1991, but that barely begins to describe it's cultural staying power. Not only is it the defining role of Arnold Schwarzenegger's career, but it pioneered the use of big budget CGI in films (it came out two years before Jurassic Park) and remains the go-to metaphor for our ever increasing dependence on ever smarter machines. Whenever Google makes something easier, people make Skynet jokes.

Despite all those accolades, however, Terminator 2 is actually an underrated film. Even pretty serious movie fans tend to think of it as little more than a high quality sci-fi action movie. It's on a lot of "best of" lists, but mostly because people think of it as cool and fun rather than serious and intellectual. But doing so overlooks three of the film's most interesting aspects: 1) it's the only major Hollywood blockbuster to ever depict a nuclear detonation realistically, 2) it's very sneakily an anti-war movie, and - most importantly - 3) its real villain is the military-industrial complex. (<- seriously)

Terminator 1 depicts more of the atomically ravaged future than its sequel, but Terminator 2 shows us a detailed and *very* graphic nuclear detonation. Large American cities get destroyed on screen all the time, of course. Los Angeles alone has succumbed to everything from earthquakes to alien attacks. But none of those films are nearly as explicit as Sarah Connor's nightmare wherein we see cars, buses, and trees thrown about like toys, buildings vaporized, and women and children charred alive before they "fly apart like leaves".

It's a rough scene to watch, but that's sort of the point. When a nuclear missile inexplicably goes off near the end of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Franchises, it's little more than a brief flash. Starship Troopers uses them as infantry weapons. Even Dr. Strangelove, the ur-film of nuclear weapons in movies, sticks to stock footage of test explosions. Terminator 2 actually showed tens of millions of Americans what a nominal yield airbust nuclear detonation would do to them.

The child filled playground that gets nuked is also used for the opening credits sequence, which is one of the few other pieces of 20th century art that can be legitimately compared to Picasso's "Guernica" (again: seriously). It's play equipment entirely in flames, for well over a minute of that hauntingly mournful theme song. Swing sets, a tricycle, a merry-go-round: all turned into an inferno by the cleverness of man. The movie's relentless message is that nothing is worth more than human life.

Play safe, kids!

Guess they should've ducked and covered.

To understand how exceptional that makes Terminator 2, consider that most action movies see even the good guys kill a huge number of people. Bruce Willis has variously disposed of way over a hundred henchmen in the Die Hard movies. Guys like Stallone, Vin Diesel, and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson routinely rack up healthy body counts. Schwarzenegger himself has killed several hundred people on screen even if you exclude the last thirty minutes of Commando. By contrast, the good guys in Terminator 2 don't kill a single person.

The film uses this central idea for everything from jokes to its most touching moments. On the funny side of the ledger, there's Schwarzenegger's deadpan, "He'll live" after kneecapping the guard at the mental hospital, as well as the fourth wall breaking "I swear I will not kill anyone". On the emotional side, there's the scene where Linda Hamilton tries to kill Joe Morton - a man whose work will result in the deaths of billions of people - and can't do it. The movie resolutely believes that killing is always wrong, and it's hard to think of a more anti-war message than that.

A hall of fame fourth wall break.

Most movie heroes can't make this promise.

Finally, we come to Skynet, the super-intelligent computer that all but wipes out humanity. Since this is important, it's worth quoting in full:

Sarah Connor: I need to know how Skynet gets built. Who's responsible?
T-101: The man most directly responsible is Miles Bennett Dyson.
SC: Who is that?
T: He's the director of special projects at Cyberdyne Systems corporation.
SC: Why him?
T: In a few months he creates a revolutionary type of microprocessor.
SC: Go on. Then what?
T: In three years, Cyberdyne will become the largest supplier of military computer systems. All stealth bombers are upgraded with Cyberdyne computers becoming fully unmanned. Afterwards, they fly with a perfect operational record. The Skynet Funding Bill is passed. The system goes on-line on August 4th, 1997. Human decisions are removed from strategic defense. Skynet begins to learn at a geometric rate. It becomes self aware at 2:14am, Eastern time, August 29th. In the panic, they tried to pull the plug.
SC: Skynet fights back.
T: Yes. It launches its missiles against the targets in Russia.
John Connor: Why attack Russia? Aren't they our friends now?
T: Because Skynet knows that the Russian counter-attack will eliminate its enemies over here.
SC: Jesus.

Set aside the fact that the predicted apocalypse is now nearly twenty(!) years in the past and take a look at the detailed vocabulary of James Cameron and William Wisher's screenplay. Most movies inappropriately use the word "exponential" when they want to say "big numbers!". Cameron and Wisher employ the more mathematically plausible "geometric". August 29th wasn't just plucked from a calendar at random, it was the date the Russians tested their first bomb in 1949, so it was also the day that nuclear war became possible. There's even a hint of machine pride with the remark about a "perfect operational record".

The whole thing is made even more memorable by the fact that we now indeed have fully unmanned stealth bombers (made by a company called General Atomics, no less). But what really reveals the movie's anti-military-industrial ethos is this line:

The Skynet Funding Bill is passed.

It's only six words, but it means that Congress voted humanity out of existence in pursuit of slightly better weaponry against a country that isn't really our enemy. The entire backstory of the film is that the "defense" industry killed America and the rest of the world. That is not a message you will ever see in Pentagon approved movies like Top Gun, Zero Dark Thirty, or anything Michael Bay has ever directed.

Terminator 2 is a great movie for a lot of reasons. It's funny as hell. It's got a perfect cast. And it concludes with a breathtaking forty-five minute action sequence that includes special effects that still look good twenty-five years later as well as amazing stunts. (They flew a helicopter under a freeway overpass, for fuck's sake!) But underlying all that is a very smart and well researched plea for people to be just a bit less stupid. Nobody thinks of it as a sappy movie, but it's hard to imagine something more earnest and hopeful than its final line:

The unknown future rolls toward us. I face it for the first time with a sense of hope, because if a machine, a terminator, can learn the value of human life, maybe we can too.

Maybe, indeed. For today, humanity has made it past another August 29th. But here in 2016, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has us at just 3 minutes to midnight, noting:

"Unchecked climate change, global nuclear weapons modernizations, and outsized nuclear weapons arsenals pose extraordinary and undeniable threats to the continued existence of humanity, and world leaders have failed to act with the speed or on the scale required to protect citizens from potential catastrophe."

When Terminator 2 came out in 1991, we were at 17 minutes to midnight.