Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Cooking Test: Stove-Top Pizza

Although not involving any delicious offal, today has produced yet another cooking adventure!

Specifically, the pilot light is out on my oven. And the diagram on the back of the stove is absolutely no help in figuring it out, which means I'm going to have to find a user's manual for this stove somewhere online. And given that I'm renting from a slumlord and the oven is approximately 17 years older than Christ, I'm not certain I'll have much luck with that.

But the stove top still works! And I forgot to go grocery shopping yesterday and am hungry now with only a frozen pizza to my name. But hey, ain't no rule sez you can't make a pizza not in the oven.

So join me, won't you, as we endeavor to make ourselves a frozen pizza without the aid of an oven.

First, I figure it's best to use a non-stick pan. Don't want my pizza sticking to that pan. It's also my larger pan, which turns out to be a fortunate coincidence, as the pizza just barely fits in there.

Pizza pie in a pan? Mamma mia!
So it fits, which I feel is already winning an important battle. Especially because I had already unwrapped the pizza from it's protective plastic womb, and I didn't want to have to put it back in the freezer and get all freezer burned. This is one of those hippie frozen pizzas that's way more expensive than the regular shit. You don't go around wasting a pizza like that.

Anyway, I put some olive oil in the pan to prevent sticking, and figure a low temperature is probably the way to go.
Kind of an oven
Then I figure to make it more oven-y, I should find something with which to cover the pan. Since this particular pan doesn't have a lid, a cookie sheet will have to do. Maybe it will even be better, as by not tightly fitting on there, it can let steam escape, giving me a less-soggy pizza. Or maybe not. This isn't really a very scientific process here.

It doesn't look much better not blurry
 It's about this point in time in which I realize I neither set a timer nor bothered to pay attention as to when I started this thing, so we're really getting into a guessing game here. I pull the ol' cookie sheet off to discover the pizza is indeed cooking, but not nearly as quickly as I want it to. How I determine it's not cooking quickly enough is somewhat of a mystery, as I just explained how I was not timing this at all. But it just felt like it should be cooking faster, so I cranked up the heat. This may have been a mistake. Or it may not have made any difference. But a variable to keep in mind for future attempts.

Hey, it's a pizza!
So after waiting awhile longer and then being summoned by the smell of burning, I decide the pizza is as close to ready as it will ever get. And as the picture above can attest, it looks pretty much like a pizza is supposed to look. What you can't see is that the crust is absolutely burned to shit, but when you're making a pizza on the stove top you're firmly in the "beggars can't be choosers" camp, so we'll look past that. And it's not like burnt crust makes it inedible. Just less than ideal. Which is more than acceptable to me. In fact, I feel like that's a pretty good model to strive for in all aspects of life: "Not terrible, just not ideal."

But Was It Any Good?

Eh, for the most part. It's still cheese on sauce on (burnt) crust. I mean, as the old saying goes, even the worst pizza is better than being repeatedly kicked in the crotch. Something like that.

Anyway, stove-top pizza, official verdict: acceptable!

Friday, September 25, 2015

Teaching Sociology: Materialism And Why The Selfie Is Not As Vain As Old People Think (Part Something In A Never-Ending Series)

Last night I was watching the Nightly Show, and what began as an almost interesting conversation turned to complaining about those damn kids and their damn selflies these days:

This certainly isn't unique to Larry Wilmore and friends, I just use this as an example because I saw it last night. But surely if you ever watch tv or read anything on the internet, you'll hear people complain about how vain kids these days are, because they constantly take pictures of themselves and what they're eating (why pictures of food make you vain I don't understand, but what do I know?).

Anyway, it's a pretty common argument. And it's pretty much completely wrong. Kids today aren't necessarily any more or less vain than previous generations, but instead, live in a materially different world.

Materialism is a philosophy most often connected to the works of Marx and Marxists, although not exclusive to Marxist thought. To dramatically oversimplify the concept, the idea is that it's the real, material conditions of an era that shape how people think and act (as opposed to idealism, which holds that it's great ideas that shape history and society).

As an example, I often use the higher incidence of drunk driving violations in the Upper Midwest (Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the Dakotas tend to be 1-5 in drunk driving rates in any given year); while it's possible some of this comes from a culture more open to the concept of drunk driving, I would argue it stems from the material conditions found in these places -- mostly rural states in which, outside of the few major urban centers, public transportation and even taxis are virtually nonexistent. Throw in the fact that these rural spaces are also geographically dispersed, and you get a situation in which most people have to drive a fair distance to go to a bar. Then, if they over consume, they are left with few options to get home -- if there's no friend they can call to come pick them up, it's not like they can take a cab or bus home. So often the only option is to just hop in the car and drive home drunk. So it's not that Midwesterners necessarily approve of or accept drunk driving more than people do elsewhere, but that they have far fewer options for avoiding drunk driving than do most people elsewhere.

So how does this apply to selflies? Well, a big part of the generational divide in how much teenagers take pictures of themselves now as opposed to in previous generations comes from not facing the same material limitations as previous generations did. Before the ubiquity of smart phones, taking pictures cost real money. You needed to own a camera, you had to buy film, you had to pay for the film to be developed, etc. There were also those non-economic "costs" that made it less likely you'd take pictures of yourself everywhere -- you needed to remember your camera, you needed to carry enough film with you, you needed somewhere to store all the photos you took, etc. There were direct, actual monetary and non-monetary costs to every photo you took, and as such, you had to be much more judicious with your use of film, thus making you less likely to waste it on pictures deemed frivolous.

But the technology explosion of the past few decades has rendered those physical limitations and costs mostly moot. If you have a smartphone, you not only have a pretty decent camera with you, but you also have significant storage space for pictures. And the cost of these photos is effectively nil -- sure, the phone is probably pretty expensive, but it's unlikely anyone is buying a smartphone solely for its camera capabilities. And while there are effective limits to how many photos you can store on your phone, it's also quite easy to upload those photos to a much more expansive storage file, and smartphone data storage abilities are continuing to grow.

So in a few short years, we've gone from each photo taken having a real, identifiable costs associated with it, to the cost of taking, developing, and storing a photo being essentially nothing.

This, of course, leaves one free to "waste" film on all sorts of things. Things previous generations probably would have deemed as not photo worthy not because they had really well-developed sense for what is and is not inherently picture worthy, but because that stuff cost actual money. Of course it's an impossible to prove counterfactual, but I think it's pretty reasonable to assume that had taking pictures been basically free for previous generations, they probably would have been taking selfies and dumb pictures of their food, too.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Happy Justice!

One of history's greatest crimes has been finally brought to justice. Well, not so much one of history's greatest crimes, but...uh...well, it's not really that big of a deal, but kinda interesting. As I wrote about in this space before, for years Warner Chappell Music has claimed to hold a copyright on the song Happy Birthday. How they got it, or why it was theirs, they've never explained, but they have been happy to charge millions to anyone wanting to use it.

But finally, justice has prevailed! And what's more, it's prevailed in the most American criminal justice system way possible -- the claim to copyright was not rejected because it's insane than anyone can claim they own the copyright to a possibly-centruies old folk song, but because Warner Chappell Music couldn't prove they had a copyright specifically to the lyrics. Kind of a convoluted way to get there, but we got there nonetheless.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Today's Lesson: The Costs of Procrastination or Listen to Your Mother!

After I moved into this place I'm currently living in, my mother, who along with my dad was visiting and helping me unpack, noted that the slumlord I rent from did not leave a fire extinguisher anywhere in the place (which, as far as I can tell, seems to be a violation of state law) and that I should get one before I use the sketchy-looking stove, which had clearly caught on fire at some previous point.

And I did intend to get around to that. Eventually.

Though I probably should have gotten to it before I attempted to cook some bacon in the oven this morning, as that resulted in a grease fire in the crappy old oven.

Fortunately, it was confined to the oven, and I'm only out one pan (which I may be able to salvage!) and one package of expensive bacon. The only lasting downside is that my entire house is going to smell like a campfire for the foreseeable future. But now you can sure as shit bet I'll always have a fire extinguisher on hand.

For as I was running around through the smoke opening windows and debating what to do in the absence of a fire extinguisher, all I could think was "should have listened to Mom." Well, that and being super glad I got renter's insurance last week.

Pictured: How I spent my morning

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Muslims, Clocks, and America's Strange Penal Rituals

By now you're aware of the story of Ahmed Mohamed, the 14 year old who made a clock and got arrested for fabricating a bomb. He also happens to be Muslim, which…oh, I was going to make some joke about how his arrest was just coincidence, but it's not even funny anymore. The kid was arrested because he's brown and has an Arabic name (after all, as many have pointed out, if they thought it actually was a bomb, why did they keep it around? Why did they not evacuate the building?). Here's a standard Glenn Greenwald withering take on how this is just one small example of the fruits of a decade-plus of anti-Islam fear mongering.

The whole story is insane in that special American way, but what stands out to me is that both the school and police, in their attempts to defend their blatantly prejudicial behavior, have cited the fact that Ahmed would not provide further explanation beyond explaining it was a clock. Of course, to a rational, sane person, that would be because it's impossible to add further explanation. It's a clock, it does clock stuff. Unless they were expecting him to detail a theory of the linear progression of time, there's not a whole lot of context to add to the concept of "a clock."

Despite the legal concept of "innocent until proven guilty," there's widespread belief among many actors in our criminal justice system that if you get arrested you are guilty of something. It may not be the particular charges you're facing, but it's a common attitude amongst police and prosecutors that if you end up in the back of a squad car, you're definitely deserving of some sort of punishment.

This is what leads to one of our more interesting penal rituals, the ritual confession the "guilty" are often required to make. If you want a thorough (and thoroughly depressing) breakdown of it, check out this superb Frontline documentary on plea bargains. A major part of a plea bargain is that the person taking the plea has to admit their guilt. But as the doc shows, a lot of times these people are not guilty, or at least not guilty of what they're being charged with. Which leads to the odd situation of a judge or prosecutor explaining to someone what they've done and then that person having to repeat back this fictive story as part of their plea deal.

Well, much the same happens in much police interrogation. After all, you wouldn't be being interrogated if you weren't guilty of something (so goes the attitude of many). And while they haven't (and probably won't ever) release the audio of the police interrogation of Ahmed, it's not terribly hard to guess how it went based on the story the police are telling. I would hazard a guess that a confused 14 year old was suddenly handcuffed and lead out of school for reasons he didn't understand (seriously, look at how bewildered he appears in this picture):

Pictured: The face of evil?
Then they ask him what this object is. He explains it's a clock. Then they tell him to cut the bullshit and tell them what this really is. And then he again explains it's a clock, but now he's starting to sound really nervous, because he doesn't know why he's there or why these large, armed men are so angry with him. His uncertainty reinforces the officer's belief he's lying about something, so he gets even more aggressive in his questioning, while Ahmed continues to just answer that it's a clock.

This is the kafka-esque nature of the criminal justice system for Black and Brown people in America -- you have to admit your guilt whether you're guilty or not, and you have to give them a story about your guilt, which can be very difficult when you're not guilty of anything. So your literally factual statement of "I made a clock and brought it to show my teacher" becomes evidence that you're lying, obstructing the investigation, and a hostile and uncooperative suspect because you refuse to explain to them how you committed the crime you didn't commit.

This is the only possible way both the school and police can still claim they acted appropriately. Even though their entire belief the object in question was a bomb is that it had wires. Again, a rational, sane observer might point out that typically a bomb needs some sort of explosives attached to it. Or the fact that most people who are planing to bomb their school don't bring the bomb to school and proudly show it to a teacher.

Thankfully it appears things will probably turn out well for Ahmed (after all, when the President* chimes in in support of you, that's typically a pretty powerful bit to have in your back pocket), but this is only so because it became a national media story. Imagine that Ahmed's didn't go viral and ponder what would be happening to him right now. Then take a second to ponder the fact that what you're imagining is happening right now. And then, you know, feel bad about it and maybe do something about it.

*Update: As Sam Biddle points out, Ahmed is lucky that he's American, because were he Yemeni, this would have been more than enough evidence to qualify for a "signature strike," and instead of inviting him to the White House, Obama would have likely killed him via drone strike. So…hurray for progress?

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The NYPD Should Have Drafted Peyton

Unless you live under a rock, you've probably seen this footage of an NYPD officer body slamming tennis player James Blake after mistaking Blake for a suspect (who, it turns out, was innocent anyway):

This is pretty inexcusable behavior. It's especially galling in that the response of so many law enforcement (and their supporters) to the cases of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and the many other recent victims of brutality has often been "well, don't resist and you'll be fine." Except videos like this show that to be the blatant lie is (not that it would be fine if that were actually true anyway, as we supposedly have rights and don't live in a police state); Blake is not only not resisting, he can't be said to be doing anything even remotely suspicious, let alone dangerous. Dude is standing still in a hotel lobby. Any rational person watching this video would conclude that is excessive force.

But you know who wouldn't conclude that? NYPD PBS spokesperson/off-brand Voldemort, Patrick Lynch, that's who. Lynch, of course, pulls out the old canard of "unless you're out there doing it, you don't know anything about it, and therefore can never judge it in any way possible." Now in this sense, the police aren't unique -- a lot of professionals will argue people who aren't in the field can never truly understand it and therefore shouldn't be allowed to judge it; just ask any physician how they feel about medical malpractice suits. Or any professional athlete how they feel about sports writers.

But the difference is that, for some reason, people accept it with police. It's like the argument that criminals don't follow laws so we shouldn't have any gun laws -- the idea that criminals don't follow laws and therefore laws are worthless would theoretically apply to every single criminal law we have, but for whatever reason, people only accept this idea with gun control. It's fascinating how arguments so obviously invalid get accepted in certain debates, but that's not what I'm here to write about today.

No, instead I want to address the idea that people who aren't police can't understand, and therefore can't judge, the actions of police. In a certain, very broad and theoretical sense this is true  -- hell, it forms the basis of the post-modern line of thinking most often referred to as "standpoint theory,"which is essentially the idea that one can only understand the things they've directly experienced. And to a certain extent, I'll buy this -- I don't know what it's like to be in every situation a cop may find themselves in.

But to return to the professional athlete example, I'll also never know what it's like to play quarterback in the NFL. Hell, I was a b-team second-stringer on my 8th grade football team, and that's the closest I've gotten to any actual football experience. But I can still tell you that Ryan Leaf sucks. Sure, he has infinitely more experience playing quarterback than I ever will and can play quarterback infinitely better than I can, but I can still look at objective measures of his play and come to the incredibly rational conclusion that Ryan Leaf was not a good NFL quarterback. I can come to this conclusion without any experience playing quarterback in the NFL because it's quite easy to look at someone playing poorly and conclude they're playing poorly. Maybe I'm not qualified to diagnose exactly why he played so poorly, or to give suggestions on how he could play better, but I think it's fairly safe to say my lack of experience playing professional football does not preclude me from looking at objective measures of Leaf's ability and drawing basic conclusions (like that he sucks) from those objective measures.

Well, the same is very much true of policing. Sure, I may not be able to really understand on a deep level what it means to be a police officer. But that doesn't mean I can't look at a situation, assess the objective facts, and then draw basic conclusions about what happened. And in case like Blake's, it's not like there's a lot of ambiguity. I mean, watch the video -- he's standing completely still, when some random dude (an undercover officer, but of course there's no way Blake could have known that) rushes up to him and tackles him. This is obviously bad policing. Blake presents no threat, there's no rational reason to believe he would all of a sudden pose a threat, and the crime he was mistakenly suspected of committing was credit card fraud, not really your most violent crime.

Basically, this cop's actions were the equivalent of Ryan Leaf's quarterback play in the NFL -- so obviously and objectively bad that you don't need any experience or deep knowledge of what is happening to know that what is happening is bad. So just like the fact that criminals not following laws doesn't mean we shouldn't have laws, not being able to exactly understand everything a police officer experiences in no way precludes members of the general public from noting that tackling an innocent man who is doing nothing is wrong and bad, regardless of how stressful the officer's day may have been, or whatever next excuse Lynch and his ilk are going to trot out to justify this kind of blatantly illegal behavior.

Monday, September 14, 2015

I Don't Think That's Exactly How It's Supposed To Work

Every day I get a form email from somewhere in the deep bowels of the University administration letting me know all the various goings on of the university. It's got stuff about upcoming speakers, new grants people have gotten, and various things to know about happening on campus and in the community. I usually give it a skim at best, but last week I found an actual reason to pay attention to these missives. Here's a screen shot of the section in question:

This…seems like an odd thing to announce in advance. I've actually heard that there's either a local ordinance or even possibly a state law that these things have to be publicized in advance (NOTE: I am far too lazy to spend the 5 minutes on google to determine if this is true or not), but that seems to pretty much destroy the entire purpose of these things, right? I mean, isn't a big part of a DUI checkpoint the elements of surprise*? I mean, if you saw this and then were out drinking that night, wouldn't you just not use that road, thereby greatly diminishing your chance of getting a DUI? Not at all to mention the idea that a DUI checkpoint would probably be a lot more effective on a Friday or Saturday night, right?

As with everything in Morgantown, this seems like a self-defeating, pointless waste of time, but then I'm no policing expert (NOTE: I am technically a policing expert). Nonetheless, if you ever find yourself in Morgantown intent on doing some drinking and driving, I'd recommend checking out where they've announced the checkpoints will be. Unless, of course, it's raining. In that case, you're apparently completely free to drink and drive. Because, come on, the police aren't going to stand outside in the rain. They're not superhuman.

*Semi-related to this: currently there's this ad constantly running on tv about how cops will catch you if you drive drunk. It features a bunch of people in work-type clothes stumbling out of a bar, and then some police painted to look exactly like what they're standing in front of so they blend into the background. So the drunk people, oblivious to these camouflaged police officers, get into their car and drive off, swerving all over, only to end up…at a DUI checkpoint. The voice-over then intonates something to the effect of "If you're driving drunk, the police will see you before you see them." Which while an empirically-flase statement on its face (lots of people drive drunk and never get caught, so they should say that if you drive drunk the police may see you), this makes no sense given the action on screen. Because it's not like the camouflaged police jumped out of the darkness to nab these unsuspecting people; in fact, the camouflage part makes serves no purpose, since the drunk people get caught by a stationary DUI checkpoint that is incredibly visible, with the police wearing bright yellow jackets, and with flares on the road, and cruisers with their flashing lights going. Hell, even in the very narrow sense of the video the voiceover makes is wrong, as the drunk people clearly see the checkpoint before the police there see the drunk people. I get that they're just trying to scare people away from driving drunk, but words mean things! You can't just string together a bunch of tough-sounding phrases when half of them directly contradict the other half! For God's sake, hire an editor! Or proof reader! Or someone who has passed a high school-level logic class!