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Category: General


[ 19 ] January 4, 2016 |


This may be of interest to some of you. I only post the OLDMAN CAT posts that aren’t too self-referential or self-involved here, but 100 percent of all OLDMAN CAT posts will be on his new Facebook page, which in the two days since I put it up have given me new insight as to how Marshall Mathers must feel about “Eminem.”

On another note, a certain artistically talented person who posts here is collaborating with a certain elderly feline on a project. GET EXCITED PEOPLE 2016 IS THE YEAR OF OLDMAN CAT.

Here’s a sample of what you’ve been missing.


Resolution Assistance

[ 20 ] January 3, 2016 |

Autostraddle has “banged the drum on Habitica so many times,” and it reminded me that I should, too.

Habitica is a site that gamifies your to-do list and habits. Put another way, it’s a token economy, but one you administer yourself. It has changed my life. If you, like me, have trouble getting things done, like being on the computer, are highly sensitive to rewards, and find it easy to see symbolic systems as real, I could not recommend it more highly. It’s mildly embarrassing to be writing in public under my real name about the things Habitica has helped me get under control, since it reveals I didn’t have them under control until a couple months ago. But nevertheless, I will do it for you, dear reader, so that you start using Habitica forthwith.

A partial list:

I went to the dentist for the first time in ten years.
I got a maintenance haircut, three months after the last one, for the first time in my life.
I’ve been regularly checking and opening my mail. Today I mailed a form to get reimbursed for vision expenses. I put it in an envelope, bought stamps, put the stamps on the envelope, and put it in the mail. Nearly unthinkable before Habitica.
My room has been cleaner for longer than it has ever been.
I have a new system for being on time: Every day in the morning I make a list of all my commitments (this is a “daily” on Habitica). I also write out a budget for when I have to leave the previous place to get to the next one, and what time I have to start getting ready in the morning. I separately reward (or on failure, punish) starting to get ready when I said I would, leaving the last place when I said I would, and on-time arrival. Since starting to use that system, I have been late twice. Once four minutes, and once 10.
Even now, I’m writing this post during a designated writing Pomodoro, and I’m going to reward myself for that in Habitica, too.

I could go on and on.

I wondered whether self-administration of rewards in token economy might attenuate the problem of reducing intrinsic motivation, but in googling “self-administered token economy,” I found one paper that suggests: perhaps not. However, reading further, I also found this interesting review (link goes to full text, not just the abstract), which offers a critique, new to me, of that literature. The review argues that rewards only decrease motivation under a very specific set of circumstances: when the reward is tangible, expected, and performance-independent (it cites an earlier meta-analysis by the authors to support this claim). This makes sense to me. The effect goes in the other direction for verbal rewards and for rewards that are tangible, expected, and dependent on the quality of the work: those improve people’s attitude toward the task. Reading this article made me curious about the current vogue in education regarding behavioral reinforcers. It would be a shame if they were abandoned in the belief that they were counterproductive and that belief turned out to be false.

And in any case, my previous intrinsic motivation to deal with my mail was very low. In fact, I was anxiously avoiding it. So it’s not like rewarding myself for doing it is sapping some preexisting passion I had for opening letters from insurance companies. I even hope that in exercising more control over a lot of these administrative elements of my life, I’ll build associative links between the work I do and the relative calm I get to enjoy as a result, and then I will be more intrinsically motivated to open my mail. But evidently I needed a nudge to get to the point where I had that experience of exercising control. A nudge in the form of the occasional dragon egg to hatch.

All Star Wars Links All the Time

[ 220 ] January 3, 2016 |

So here’s a confession: I don’t like Star Wars. I don’t give a crap about Star Wars. I’ve never liked Star Wars. I’ve never given a crap about Star Wars. People talking about Star Wars actually poses a health risk to me because there’s a pretty decent chance I’ll instantly fall into a coma if I see/hear folks geeking out to it. But if there’s one thing that could possibly cause me to take even a passing interest in it, it’s conservative wackaloons and gamergate pissbabies ruminating on it. So if you ever catch me talking about Star Wars, just know that it’s the fault of MRA’s. Or Jonah Goldberg.

NFL Open Thread: The SUPERGENIUS Of Rex Ryan Etc.

[ 187 ] January 3, 2016 |


Certain elements of Rex Ryan’s failure in Buffalo this year were predictable. Attention to detail has always been a problem, and he was unchanged in that regard: Buffalo saw his usual blizzard of stupid penalties, incomprehensible challenges, and blown timeouts. None of this stuff is helpful, but nor is necessarily fatal. (The Bills will probably not break the penalty record held by…the 2014 Seahawks.) On a bigger picture level, the way Ryan failed in 2015 was rather strange and unpredictable ex ante. The biggest barrier for the Bills going into the year was that a coach who had shown little ability to develop offensive players was going to have to use either a 6th round pick with little NFL experience, a busted 1st round pick, or a proven veteran who’s proven he’s not an NFL-caliber QB. Only Tyrod Taylor proved to be a very capable player. More than capable, actually, this year: 9th in DVOA, 6th in QBR, tied for 5th in the NFL rating. If you had told me Taylor would play that well, I would have set the floor for the Bills as a 6 seed. But the problem is that the Bills defense, bellyflopping from 2nd in DVOA to 29th without an unusually large number of injuries. For Ryan to fail in this way is in fact pretty shocking.

Some people will undoubtedly argue that Ryan is just a complete fraud, but I don’t think that this claim can be justified by his record. In Baltimore, his defenses ranked 6th, 1st, 5th, and 2nd in DVOA. Sure, he was promoted within an established system with a lot of talent, but 1)it is not inevitable that talent on paper will keep producing (cf. the 2015 Bills), 2)no better as a DC than Marvin Lewis or Mike Nolan is still pretty damned good, and 3)by 2008 Ray Lewis was 33 and Ed Reed 30; I don’t think you can say that the defense was effective solely because he had the core Lewis won the Super Bowl with. And then, taking over a Jets team that had ranked 14th and 25th in DVOA the previous two years, he transformed the Jets into the an elite defense (#1 in DVOA in 2009, #5 in 2010) and won four playoff games in two years with Mr. Mark Sanchez. Granted, the run in 2009 was a little fluky — they only made the playoffs because the Colts called off the dogs in Week 16 and beat unimpressive Bengals and Chargers teams in the playoffs. That’s still pretty good for a team with a rookie QB with unimpressive credentials. And the 2010 team was just flat impressive — 11-5, beat Peyton Manning and Tom Brady on the road in the playoffs. With Mark Sanchez. Yes, that was his peak with the team — Sanchez never developed and Idzik was brought in to strip the team to the studs — but Ryan had an excellent track record as a defensive coach coming into 2015. There was nothing in his history that would have made what happened to Buffalo’s defense this year foreseeable. He’s done a lot more with a lot less talent in the past.

What happened? In the Football Outsiders Almanac this year, the guy who wrote the Bills section observed that the team manages personnel as if they carefully studied what Bill Belichick does and then tried to do the exact opposite. I think part of the problem was that Ryan seemed to adapt this philosophy to the coaching level. Belichick, as is well known, does not scheme and gameplan based on a System; he relentlessly focuses on the available talent and the matchups presented in a given week. The reports out of Buffalo — particularly with respect to Mario Williams — seem to suggest that Ryan spent the year trying to squeeze square pegs into round holes because that’s the way he wanted to play. I’m sure that’s part of it, but I don’t think that can explain how badly the Bills defense collapsed. Assuming the Bills keep Ryan, I’m sure it will improve substantially next year, although whether it will be enough to end the Bills playoff drought I don’t know. Taylor seems like an NFL QB but I doubt he’s as good as he looked this year.

Did the Bills make a mistake in hiring him? Possibly. It’s easy with 15 games in the books to look at the Jets, who in Todd Bowles seem to have gotten Ryan’s pre-2015 defensive mind with a higher level of discipline and professionalism, and argue that the Bills blew yet another easy one. But I think it’s more complicated than that. Ryan, as I’ve shown, really does have a strong track record as a defensive coach, and while Bowles was a hot coordinator so was Dan Quinn and that didn’t work out very well for Atlanta. I’m not sure there’s any way of telling before the fact which good coordinators will work as head coaches and which won’t. And after a look at this list of the 10 best non-Chip coaching prospects allegedly out there (Hue Jackson #1! (see comments; on reflection, Jackson is actually a really good prospect) Josh McDaniels #3!) I’d bring Rex back for another year.

A final point. As might have been expected, a lot of reports have surfaced suggesting locker room discontent in Philadelphia, leading some to suggest that Chip Kelly can’t hold an NFL locker room. Is there something to that? Possibly. I’m not wild about hiring coaches with exclusively minor league experience, as working with NFL players is a different and more difficult task than working with NCAA players. (And, obviously, giving full coaching and personnel control of your team to someone with 2 years of NFL experience is insane.) But I’m not sure that Kelly’s style can’t work in the NFL, either. He still had two winning seasons with poor quarterbacks to work with, and as Ryan shows their are equal perils in the “player’s coach” style too. I think Kelly’s inability to make talent judgments was a much bigger source of failure than his distant, authoritarian personality, which doesn’t seem all that different from the best coach in the sport. (I may be wrong, but the reports I read don’t suggest that Kelly treated his players as unprofessionally as some of the master’s lesser disciples.) Coaching professional sports is just a really hard job, and no matter what your style it’s hard to “hold your locker room” if you don’t win.

Consent and the GOP

[ 146 ] January 3, 2016 |

The former is a concept the latter will apparently never grasp.


[ 15 ] January 3, 2016 |


December in the east, was, to say the least, a bit warm. Now that we have hit the New Year, temperatures have cooled down to normal. But if you think it was warm in the east, why not try the North Pole?

A powerful winter cyclone — the same storm that led to two tornado outbreaks in the United States and disastrous river flooding — has driven the North Pole to the freezing point this week, 50 degrees above average for this time of year.

From Tuesday evening to Wednesday morning, a mind-boggling pressure drop was recorded in Iceland: 54 millibars in just 18 hours. This triples the criteria for “bomb” cyclogenesis, which meteorologists use to describe a rapidly intensifying mid-latitude storm. A “bomb” cyclone is defined as dropping one millibar per hour for 24 hours.

Now, obviously this is not all about climate change. It’s also about El Niño, a freak storm, and luck. But it is partly about climate change in a year that broke yet another global temperature record, with nearly the entire globe having above-average temperatures. Above freezing at the North Pole in late December? What? That’s scary.

Of course, this won’t stop the National Review and other right-wingers from being utterly disingenuous about climate change.

I Want to Sign Up for Professor Ra’s Class

[ 29 ] January 3, 2016 |


You need Sunday School today. Specifically, to listen to Professor Sun Ra lecture in his course he gave in 1971 at UC-Berkeley titled “The Black Man in the Cosmos.” The best part about this is that you can actually hear him writing on the chalkboard. I can only imagine what a whole semester of this was like. Also, what was on the final?

Sun Ra’s level of total awesomeness in all forms is unmatched in the history of American music.

Book Review: Mimi Sheller, Aluminum Dreams: The Making of Light Modernity

[ 28 ] January 3, 2016 |


Depleted bauxite mine, Gánt, Hungary

Mimi Sheller’s history of aluminum is one of the best books I read in 2015. Sheller splits her book into two parts. The first looks at the rise of aluminum, how it became synonymous with modernity and speed, and how we have embraced it in all parts of our lives. The second looks at the environmental and human cost of that modernity, with the massive energy use aluminum requires, the impact upon ecosystems and lives, and how protest groups are linking internationally to fight against this exploitation. While looking at the upside and then the downside of a product might not be an unknown way of structuring a book, Sheller adds in many layers of complexity, asking readers to consider their own complicity in this aluminum paradox, criticizing the too rapid spread of capital that has transformed the world in the quest for aluminum production, and wondering whether aluminum can be part of the solution for our energy and environmental crises, even as it played a large role in creating those crises.

Sheller explores how aluminum became a material not only useful for modernity, but synonymous with the entire idea of it. Innovative designers like Buckminster Fuller became apostles of aluminum, using it for his famous Dymaxion House (which you can see and tour at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn) and of course in his geodesic domes. Aluminum could become a sign of crass commercialism too (Sheller cites the fake tree in Charlie Brown’s Christmas), but even the hippies who criticized much of American material culture loved their geodesic domes. With its beauty, shine, and light weight, it because the material of modernism and speed in our minds.

People knew of aluminum’s qualities back to the Greeks and Romans, but it wasn’t until the 19th century that scientists began to understand how to process it in large quantities. The Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA), with the financier Andrew Mellon as its leading investor, became the dominant aluminum company in the U.S. and in fact one of the nation’s most powerful corporations. That’s because aluminum wasn’t just for zippy new consumer products. The military quickly saw its advantage and did much to increase our national dependence on it. Alcoa became the supplier for that aluminum, used in airplanes during World War II and rockets in the space age, among many other things. It was very expensive to produce, but the government found it so useful that it made enormous investments, especially in dams and military appropriations, to produce and use aluminum.

But all this beautiful design, lightweight materials, and speed has a very dark side. Although one of the world’s most common elements, it rarely exists in pure form and the energy needed to transform bauxite into usable aluminum is massive. As with every other product of industrial capitalism, there has been a worldwide rush by western companies to secure supplies and profit off of the resources of developing nations with little to no concern as to how it affected those people. Alcoa needed huge quantities of bauxite supplies to produce all this aluminum after World War II. Caribbean nations like Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, and Guyana had that bauxite. So Alcoa went into the region and provided a lot of very low-paying and dangerous jobs that spawned labor organizing and radical political activity. Alcoa as well as the consuming companies like GE who wanted to keep aluminum prices low fought against these movements. But Alcoa also sought to take advantage of its investments by commissioning its own steamship to bring tourists into the nations and to its plants, floating advertisements for potential investors, replete with advertisements playing up the decidedly premodern people those investors would see (beautifully reproduced in the book). The sleek aluminum ship used its lightweight property to send tourists around the Caribbean in style, hopefully spurring financial investment in that very modernity. Meanwhile, the conditions in the bauxite mines remained terrible and Alcoa became a symbol of Yanqui imperialism.

There is also a major environmental impact for producing this aluminum. Sheller discusses one dam built in a remote corner of unspoiled Iceland strictly for aluminum that is equivalent to what half the electricity the nation was using before it was built. The Indian company Vendanta has worked with the government to push out indigenous peoples in order to mine bauxite, destroying some of the last relatively unspoiled land in India to do so. The social impact of the global bauxite rush is no better. Sheller talks not only of Vendanta’s exploitation of Indian indigenous peoples, but how it has fueled the Russian oligarchs and poverty and political violence in Guinea.

One can critique the last chapter where Sheller wonders about the present and future. Of course, these sorts of chapters are far more difficult to write than diagnosing problems or charting histories. Sheller argues that we must understand the history and cultural meanings of aluminum if we are to reduce our usage of it, use it more efficiently, and limit the enormous environmental impacts of making it in a climate change era. Hard to disagree with that. But a lot of her solutions really come down just to people deciding to use less aluminum in order that we value it more. This feels a bit half-smelted to me. I obviously agree that consumers need to be more aware of the conditions of production, that placing things in our sight makes us more likely to act to contain the damage. Knowing more about the exploitation of the global aluminum industry could make a difference in building the international coalitions necessary to help create a more equal world. But going from that to telling people to just use less may be morally correct and it may be environmentally correct but it’s also counter to human nature, barring the rejection of capitalism. In other words, if we are really going to use less aluminum, it’s going to take the same government leadership and mandate that created the market in the first place to reduce it. But Sheller doesn’t go so far as to demand government restrictions or really to articulate what role government should play in this transition at all.

It’s worth noting that this book is also quite lovely as a designed object, with thick glossy pages and color imagery throughout. It’s actually pretty heavy for a little book. MIT Press again does a nice job with book design.

But most importantly, Aluminum Dreams is a fascinating and thought-provoking commodity history pulling together different parts of the globe and asking tough questions of the reader. I strongly recommend it to anyone.

And the home of the brave

[ 53 ] January 2, 2016 |

Four days ago, while they were still pretending they didn’t intend to cause any trouble, members of Ammo Bundy’s Squadron o’ Liberty & Patriot Tree Watering Service got into a dispute with the mother of Dave Ward, the county sheriff.

You will believe what happened next!

The sheriff said three militiamen and one woman, one with a gun strapped to his hip, engaged his 74-year-old mother and 78-year-old father at a yard sale being held at the American Legion. When the men criticized the sheriff, his mother bristled, and said she didn’t need their protection from the government.

Later, the men showed up at the sheriff’s office to complain about the exchange involving his mother.

She had, they said, threatened them.


The Workplace Toxicity Epidemic

[ 52 ] January 2, 2016 |


Work-related illnesses kill 50,000 Americans a year, yet very little is done about it. Congress has not increased the power of OSHA and most violations are just minor misdemeanors, even when they are criminal. Fines don’t even begin to make most companies take OSHA seriously. And 20,000 more Americans die of these illnesses every year than die in the horrors of gun violence. Democrats are starting to take this issue more seriously. The Obama administration has started tightening their statutes and Democratic members of Congress are introducing bills to help. But those bills won’t pass in the face of a Republican Party that is totally fine with workers dying on the job. In fact, Republicans are trying to make it harder to sue companies for asbestos exposure, primarily manifested in the horrors of mesothelioma that doesn’t manifest itself for up to 25 years after exposure.

Some members of Congress have different plans. In early January, the House is expected to vote on a bill proponents say would discourage “false or exaggerated” claims against asbestos trusts set up by corporations that made or used the mineral. The legislation, which passed the House two years ago, would require claimants to disclose personal information such as work histories, diagnoses, partial Social Security numbers, and the amounts of money being sought.

Key sponsor Blake Farenthold, a Texas Republican whose district includes industry-rich Corpus Christi, says all of this is necessary to “ensure that funds meant to benefit legitimate future asbestos victims are not used to pay abusive claims.”

But the legislation has triggered fierce opposition, notably from mesothelioma victims.

“We have heard that [it] is needed because of an epidemic of fraud against the trusts,” nine widows and patients wrote in a February letter to lawmakers. “But the evidence doesn’t support this claim. This bill treats us and other asbestos victims like criminals rather than innocent victims of corporate deceit.”

The real aim, they wrote, is to create delays so claimants die before they can recover anything from the trusts: “It’s astonishing to us that, of all the issues Congress could be addressing relating to asbestos, you have chosen one that does nothing for victims, but … gives additional tools to the asbestos industry to drag out these cases and escape responsibility.”

That’s pretty much the short of it. Congressional Republicans care only about protecting their corporate masters from lawsuits. This is a hallmark of the New Gilded Age, as it was the first Gilded Age. Politicians act to shield companies from any accountability and rig the court system so that corporations can do what they want. Dead workers and dead citizens are a result.

Rare Good News

[ 12 ] January 2, 2016 |


Sometimes, if you fight long and hard enough, you might win something and positive change results. At least that’s the case for 239 Citgo employees at the company’s refinery in Corpus Christi who finally won their case charging the company required unpaid labor after forcing them to brief the next shift for 15 minutes every day. Citgo now has to pay over $460,000 to those workers.

Unfortunately, in cases like this, just paying the back pay is not enough. What’s the incentive for Citgo or other companies to not exploit their workers if the downside is that someday, maybe, they might have to finally pay them. Only serious punitive damages on top of the back wages will provide any kind of meaningful incentive for corporations to treat employees with respect. At least Obama’s Labor Department is aggressively going after wage and hour violations in the oil industry, which will certainly end if a Republican wins in November.

Fat and Viral

[ 50 ] January 2, 2016 |

I’m really angry…so let’s all look at a picture of a baby bunny who looks like it’s clapping


I was going to include this in a links post, but I’m so morbidly curious about the cruelty that motivates things like this I decided to give it its own entry. It’s an unwaveringly funny and good-natured take on being the butt of an internet joke, simply for being fat and feminist on the web. The author won’t get angry about it, but I hope it’s ok if I tell you I’m frothing-at-the-mouth angry that things like this happen to women on the internet. Plus, I just cannot wrap my head around the kind of pathology that must motivate this kind of mean-spiritedness.

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