Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Broken Windows

This week, Chuck Hagel made headlines as the second secdef under the same president to call for budget cuts at the DOD. So now everyone hates him, for the dumbest and most two-faced of reasons. Complaints focus on lies about how any cuts would translate into "standing down" - whatever possible meaning that could have in the context of irregular brush wars - and the usual noise about how we have to spend everything on defense because D-FENS and never mind how many Army and Air Force generals take off their uniforms after twenty or thirty years and go sit on the boards of Lockheed, Raytheon, and all the other welfare cases left over from the Cold War.

Except there's plenty to legitimately criticize in Hagel's budget. It keeps the F-35 billion dollar boondoggle but calls for retiring the good ol' A-10. The Hog has been the most reliable combat aircraft of the past decade, flying close air support in Iraq and Afghanistan with more success than even drones... But it's ugly and USAF brass are a bunch of dumb jocks who want to drive flashy cars and impress the girls. Really, "It's ugly" is the only criticism of the A-10 USAF pilots ever voice and the actual A-10 drivers love the thing. They swear by it and with good reason - the Hog doesn't just have the biggest gun in the sky, it can take the most punishment and still fly back home. One even made it back to base after a successful mission and losing a whole engine. Only the F-15, another solid Cold War design, can make a similar claim, having landed minus a whole wing.

So what can the F-35 do that the A-10 can't? Not a goddamn thing, unless you're a Republican congressman, then the F-35 is your own personal goldmine! Case in point, Michael Turner of Ohio's tenth district. The district that includes Dayton, home to both the National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC), the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Meaning Turner's entire political career is wedded to USAF contracting, which generates around five billion in annual revenue for his constituency.

If Hagel's cuts go through, Michael Turner will directly suffer. Because "defense" is a racket in this country and a very profitable one to boot. If NASIC and AFRL see their operating budgets reduced, you can bet Turner will be out on his ass in November. Which he deserves, being a water carrier for the biggest scam operation in the world... But Dayton is also turning into a main production center for drones, which will likely get squeezed in the new budget so as to better feed the worthless F-35.

See, this is what's depressing about America. Hagel is right to want to shrink the military into a leaner, more agile force but he's going about it utterly wrong. And Turner is a scaremongering swine who is nonetheless defending one of the few weapon systems that would best serve Hagel's plans. It's oligarchs feuding over how best to soak the peasantry, with the final concerns being nothing more than self-perpetuation and scoring the best blow.

Basically, America is like Ukraine. Without the backbone.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Fiction Friday: Balzac VS. Hemingway

So the Latest Thing is something called "hemingwayapp." It's a site - and a download - that will help you write like Ernest Hemingway. Because you want to do that for some reason. Dreamed up by the Long brothers, it claims to apply Hemingway's style to determine if a given text is clear and concise in its meaning. Nominally developed for business emails "to help us achieve clear writing... [with] short, declarative sentences."

Like a shotgun blast to the face!

So I decided to test this thing out empirically: Copy a shorter work by that gold standard of prose, Honore de Balzac, and paste it into the Papamatic. Naturally, it threw a fit. "150 of 948 sentences are hard to read." "262 of 948 sentences are very hard to read." "Beep-boop this writing is only 23% efficient." Okay, I made up that last one. But I think it captures the spirit of the hemmingwayapp. Or lack thereof...

Just for a lark, I tried to edit The Ball at Sceaux down to something that would plug Hemingway's socket. And what I got was this travesty:

The Comte de Fontaine fought in the war in La Vendee against the Republic. He liked to joke, "I am one of the men who gave themselves to be killed on the steps of the throne." And the pleasantry had some truth in it, as spoken by a man left for dead at the bloody battle of Les Quatre Chemins. Vendeen refused the lucrative posts offered to him by the Emperor Napoleon. He obeyed his aristocratic faith when he thought it fitting to choose a companion for life. He married Mademoiselle de Kergarouet, with no fortune, but belonging to an old Brittany family.

When the second revolution burst on Monsieur de Fontaine he had a large family. He took his wife's advice and moved to Paris. The greed of others made him sad. He received a ministerial dispatch. He'd been nominated as marchel de camp. He then later received the Legion of Honor and Saint-Louis crosses.

This shook him and he wanted to see the king in private. The audience, at once granted, was in no sense private. The royal drawing-room was full of old people. The Count met some old friends who were cold to him. He found the princes ADORABLE. No one asked about his finances. They weren't good. Later, he thought about making a joke at his own expense...

"C'est quoi ce bordel?"

That's not the whole thing but I'm not desecrating Balzac any further to make my point.

"But hey!" I hear you say. "Aren't you a writer yourself? Don't you have a novel available through fine online retailers like Amazon and Smashwords that can be had for a low low price of 99 cents per download or $9.99 for a paperback, plus shipping and handling?" In fact I have two novels available through fine online retailers but I see where you're going with this. Chapter 1 of Fiend - Hemingway-ized!

I'm a vampire.

Such an improvement...

My point here is that you still can't program writing. The Long brothers, despite their claims, have produced nothing but a very specific grammar check like you have in Microsoft Word. As the New Yorker put it, even Hemingway fails the Hemingway app standards because they're rote, literal, and dreamed up by a pair of chucklefucks in the grips of Dunning-Kruger.

It really highlights something that I've been thinking about lately... Thanks to its hippy-libertarian brainwave, the whole IT industry is turning into a massive circle-jerk for privileged First World dweebs. Open Source - while useful in some respects - has become such an article of faith among programmers that third party software is employed even in corporate environments without respect to utility or stability. Development processes actively discourage documentation and standardization, instead emphasizing a utopian fantasy of "Everyone should be free to program how and what they want because freedom and free software and free porn on Pirate Bay!"

And while the Longs and all the other software "engineers" are faffing around with their glorified spellcheckers,  materials scientists just created a steel-strong polymer with a micro-lattice architecture. You didn't hear about it on Twitter because it has nothing to do with the latest version of Mint.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Unsung Classics: E.A. Robinson

Pointing out the innumeracy of economic reporting in America is like screaming into a clogged toilet. You'll never actually fix the problem and after a while the stench gets to be too much to bear... So let's talk poetry!

I know this isn't the most popular of subjects. Most of you probably haven't read a poem since high school, unless it was in a greeting card. But even those of you who have probably never got around to Edwin Arlington Robinson. And that's a shame because he's probably the last good poet America will ever have.

More of a shame - that mustache isn't cool anymore.

I'd never even heard of him myself until senior year of college when I took Arthurian Literature for a laugh. The professor often referenced Mort d'Arthur as the definitive work in the mythos even though we never read it. Instead we read the moralizing dross of Tennyson, the soppy fanfiction of Marion Zimmer Bradley... And a surprisingly good modernist mock epic by one E.A. Robinson.

Merlin is one of those literary works too good to make it into the Norton anthologies. Instead of Arthur and his knights, it focuses on the complex relationship between Merlin and Morgan le Fay - renamed here Vivian - the femme fatale of Arthurian legend. Under Robinson's hand, she ceases to be the one-dimensional scheming witch and instead becomes a complex figure both enticing and reviling Merlin, who is compelled to chase after her by Fate - so he claims - with their interactions taking on shades of a strained marriage rather than an epic battle between good and evil. It's a synechdoche for Robinson's work as a whole, taking myth and grandeur and making it relatable without losing any power.

Let's take a look at his more well known piece, Miniver Cheevey, which I can present here in full thanks to public domain:

Miniver Cheevy, child of scorn,
Grew lean while he assailed the seasons
He wept that he was ever born,
And he had reasons.
Miniver loved the days of old
When swords were bright and steeds were prancing;
The vision of a warrior bold
Would send him dancing.

Miniver sighed for what was not,
And dreamed, and rested from his labors;
He dreamed of Thebes and Camelot,
And Priam's neighbors.

Miniver mourned the ripe renown
That made so many a name so fragrant;
He mourned Romance, now on the town,
And Art, a vagrant.

Miniver loved the Medici,
Albeit he had never seen one;
He would have sinned incessantly
Could he have been one.

Miniver cursed the commonplace
And eyed a khaki suit with loathing:
He missed the medieval grace
Of iron clothing.

Miniver scorned the gold he sought,
But sore annoyed was he without it;
Miniver thought, and thought, and thought,
And thought about it.
Miniver Cheevy, born too late,
Scratched his head and kept on thinking;
Miniver coughed, and called it fate,
And kept on drinking.

Something feels off when you read, doesn't it? Robinson's rhythm is out of whack, especially those last lines. But try this - read Miniver Cheevy again, skipping those awkward final lines... Flows much better, don't it? Conveys more pathos, more of that cloying desperation of the All-American Loser. The very American reality we all desperately pretend does not exist.

Because Robinson knew enough to write strategically bad. The whole poem is the titular Cheevy wallowing in self-pity,  a tale told by an idiot for himself. His verse fails because he is such a failure. It's much harder to do than you would think because Robinson had to know enough to write the poem well from the start, then go back and tweak things just so Cheevy's misery and failure is illustrated without just making a bad poem. It's a stunning demonstration of the craft - especially since Robinson was writing in the age of the Verse Libre poets, who liked to indulge in such stylistic quirks but lacked the substance to say anything of import. They were so terrible, they were later celebrated by every beatnik and hippy too dull to write proper pop songs. Robinson actively resisted the "free verse" of his day, explaining with the self-deprecation of a true artist, "I write badly enough as it is."

It's rare for that much humility to go hand in hand with such genuine skill. Rarer still that such writers get read so go pick up a copy of Robinson's poems now. It'll make you a better person.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Great American Socialists

This Presidents Day, let's take a moment to look back a those ultra-left, Marxist revolutionaries who helped to shape this great nation of ours!

Theodore Roosevelt

Over the course of 40 antitrust suits, he demolished the Too Big To Fail cartels of his day, such as Standard Oil and the Northern Securities Company, breaking the stranglehold of the robber barons on the levers of democratic government and opening the field to smaller businesses. And because that's not enough for Teddy, he further established such important regulations as the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act to ensure Americans knew what they were putting in their mouths.

Dwight D. Eisenhower

After conquering the Nazis and plowing his driver up and down Western Europe, ol' Ike returned to the land of the free to make things much more free. Next time you're on one of the many highways criss-crossing America, don't forget to thank this Fellow Traveler. This did more to modernize America than any self-important industrialist, all paid for by a 90% tax on those same industrialists.

Richard Nixon

Say what you want about him - it's all true - but at least Tricky Dick understood the business of government is to govern. We have this sweaty-lipped Sandinista to thank not just for the Environmental Protection Agency - which, toothless as it is, saves you from living in Beijing-like smog conditions - but also for the often overlooked Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Without OSHA, not only would you have fallen to your death by now even if you work in accounting, but you'd be soaking with more radiation and toxic chemicals than Homer Simpson.

*   *   *

It's an inspiring list of patriotic socialists, ain't it? Too bad it couldn't inspire our present day Kenyan-in Chief to give us a proper single-payer system instead of this Romneycare abomination.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Biggest Lie

Last week, every idiot was declaring Obamacare to be a job killer. The Congressional Budget Office said so! At least all those articles referencing one single part of this recent CBO report said so!

The pertinent section in the CBO report actually states "CBO estimates that the ACA will reduce the total number of hours worked, on net, by about 1.5 percent to 2.0 percent during the period from 2017 to 2024, almost entirely because workers will choose to supply less labor—given the new taxes and other incentives they will face and the financial benefits some will receive. Because the largest declines in labor supply will probably occur among lower-wage workers, the reduction in aggregate co mpensation (wages, salaries, and fringe benefits) and the impact on the overall econ- omy will be proportionally smaller than the reduction in hours worked." Or, as Dean Baker explained, "older workers with serious health conditions who are working now because this is the only way to get health insurance. And (one for the family-values crowd) many young mothers who return to work earlier than they would like because they need health insurance. This is a huge plus."

The only possible way Obamacare can be a "job-killer" is the same corporate malfeasance nobody ever bothers to hide: employers will downsize to avoid paying new taxes. Remember how Papa John himself bragged that he would do just that a few years ago? And the official line was oh, the poor put upon billionaire? Seriously, if you people fall for the "Obamacare Kills Jobs!" meme, then you deserve to get shafted like this.
The only reason I can see for this nonsense persisting is that we love the Lie. That very American Lie that, if not for the evils of law and order, we are capable of consciously steering our course in life. That we can be the absolute masters of our own destiny. We don't work more and more overstressed hours every week because of the price of living or stealth charges always bleeding our bank accounts or because that's the only way to appease the increasingly autocratic corporate managers who - at least until the ACA - determined if we get healthcare or not.

No, we choose to live in such a Hell. It's either the biggest Lie a nation has ever told itself or we're all just really fucking stupid.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

It's Reigning Men!

Teenage girls have terrible taste. That's the one thing I drew from Reign, the CW's new show about Mary Queen of Scots. Just being on the CW should have tipped me off, this being the same network to greenlight The Vampire Diaries - otherwise known as Twilight: The Series.

And yes, I know the books were written long before sparklepires were a thing but it's just like how 300 was written years before the War on Terror but still managed to be a sloppy suck-job to neoconservatism.

Anyway, Reign. It's a dramatic retelling of the rise of Mary Stuart, more commonly known as Mary, Queen of Scotts. In theory. From what I saw, it's the same goddamn teenybopper melodrama that's been cranked out with assembly line regularity since Aaron Spelling descended on the world. Mary is still a teenybopper herself in this telling, living at the French court which you could never tell was French unless the American actors affecting generic English accents said so. Mary is in a perilous poitical situation, being heir to the Scottish throne despite being an American with the most transparent of said accents, and must contend with plots hatched against her by her evil stepmother or something. But mostly she just makes moon eyes at this candyass -

At the time, a bare shirt like this would be the equivalent of walking around with your fly open.

My wife remarked while we were watching, "It's like The Tudors meets Dawson's Creek!" We loved The Tudors and expected this to be the spiritual equal. It even has a few of the many, many decapitated characters from that, like Thomas Culpeper as the other teen heartthrob. Who happens to be a druid.

"Because Pagans are still a thing in 16th century France, right?"

I'd like to talk a moment about The Tudors because it's a textbook example of how they should have done Reign. It took the transition from the Church of Rome to the Church of England and explored just how bloody, serious, and alien it all was to modern sensibilities. Sir Thomas Moore, a paragon of humility and a deep intellectual, demonstrates only the most fleeting remorse at burning one heretic after another. Historic changes in how people practice religion is driven as much by faith as the collisions of ambitious noblemen, who are themselves the puppets or cuckolds of wives who wield power despite the period's entrenched sexism. And Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry VIII chews so much scenery and mutton, you forget he's physically a third the size of the real king.

The real Henry VIII was around three hundred pounds. And six foot eight.

Reign isn't nearly that ballsy. Or interesting. It has the feel of something concieved by the laziest of committees - "Game of Thrones is big now, right? Castles and knights and all that shit? How do we sell that to chicks?" Because this show ain't interested in the actual Mary, who married her cousin and then had him killed. And married his assassin. No, this Mary wants to return to Scotland to lead and protect her People like some democratic fantasy, when not gazing into the eyes of her twoo wuv Prince Francis.

Then there's the soundtrack - weepy, twee indie-pop. It's like how Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette was full of songs by Wire and Joy Division and it was a shit idea then too. As if the total ignorance of history in this historical drama wasn't readily apparent, you've got some latter-day Jewel wannabe strumming away whenever Mary America is playing patty cake with Prince Francipants. Really makes ya root for the wicked stepmother...

Yet I can see this show running for another season. And another and another, because like I said at the very start, teenage girls have terrible taste. And this trainwreck couldn't be more explicitly marketed to teenage girls if it had Justin Bieber and cutting.