Cars are Great

There is, among the set who truly believe that we would all be happier, healthier, better-off people by abolishing cars and just riding bikes everywhere, an inconvenient truth.

See because it’s beyond dispute that commuter culture is killing us. Americans burn 5.9 billion gallons of fuel, every day, sitting in traffic. We spent 38 hours a year just getting to and from work, 80% of American adults get less exercise than they should, and there’s an ever inrcreasing risk that as our national roads infrustructure crumbles around us that it will literally crumble beneath us.

A rational person looks at the efficiency of the bicycle, the time saving benefits of combining exercise and commuting, the sheer horror of sitting in traffic, and concludes that yes obviously  riding a bike is better than driving for pretty much every application that we really encounter from day to day. It is more affordable, faster, healthier, and arguably safer. But that person fails to recognize what we, those advocates for bicycle travel, collectively fail to consider.

Gasoline is awesome. Cars are great.

Seriously.

Fossil fuels store an unbelievable amount of energy, and you can just carry it around with you. For a few bucks, you can cruise in absolute, climate controlled comfort for hundreds of miles without every having to stand up on your own. There are buttons so that you don’t even need to use your feet. Soon you’ll be able to sit in the back while Siri just drives for you. It really is incredible.

The central challenge in addressing the public health issue of car culture isn’t a new one. Gas is awesome. So is nicotine.

The anti-smoking movement has been reasonably successful, although it wasn’t easy. Adult American smokers have dropped from 40% of the population in the 1960s to less than 20% today. This happened in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence that cigarettes cause cancer and an unprecedented effort by the tobacco industry to convince us that it’s fine (almost sounds like climate change, doesn’t it?).

But the conversation focused primarily on health and the social pressures that drive people to pick up smoking in the first place. Ad campaigns focused on peer pressure and tried to dismantle the notion that smoking makes a person cool, all while ignoring the essential fact that at the end of the day, nicotine makes you feel really, really, good.

The admission that smoking really does help with weight loss, increase energy and heighten focus adds credibility to claims that the costs outweigh the benefits. Simply saying there’s no reason to smoke is demonstrably untrue.

It’s the same deal with cars. They really are great. You can carry a ton of stuff without doing anything. You can sit comfortably and teleport to work. You can just roll up the windows when the scary guy at the red light tries to sell you a StreetWise.

Cars are great the same way that nicotine and chocolate fudge are great. They serve a real purpose and make us feel good. But that’s the thing about being an adult. At some point we’re supposed to recognize that what tastes good isn’t necessarily good for us. You wouldn’t feed your kid fudge and a pack of Newports for dinner, so why would you drive them to school every day?

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Celebrate the Fourth of July with Public Land

Ah, the Fourth of July. It’s the best holiday. The greatest. Huge. The best. It’s the best day to cram those pasty netherregions into this year’s latest swim fashion and bide our time until our thighs get all sweaty and stick together. It’s the best time to test the logical extreme of a sunburn. And the best day to burn boat gas by the barrel, to endanger the lives of friends, loved ones, and unsuspecting strangers with over the counter bombs, and to torment our pets just for the hell of it

Because this is more than “just a Tuesday day-drunk.” Today, when we slather that fourth ballpark frank with cream cheese and wash it down with a Bud Light Lime, it’s a celebration. A celebration of American ingenuity, and of forward thinking founders. A celebration of the up-by-your-bootstraps scrappiness that’s so well represented in our legislature. It’s a celebration of mankind’s greatest infrastructure project: The God Damn Constitution.

And we earned it. We deserve it. If simply being an American isn’t reason enough to throw a party, why did three million bad hombres sneak over the border just to vote? See? You can’t answer that.

Like any red blooded American, I’m going to be right there with you tomorrow. Hamming it up, brandishing a flag, dropping superlatives like the People’s Elbow. It’s going to be the best 4th of July ever. The best. But before we go down that rabbithole, I’m probably going to go for a bike ride, and I hope that you do too.

#keepitpublic. or at least #keepitoninstagram

Or you can go rock climbing or something. Or float down a river. Or walk to that park near your house and see what the weirdos are up to. Because any celebration of what makes this place (still) great would be incomplete without a nod to public land.

It’s easy to take for granted that we each own 640 million acres of public land. That’s an inconceivably large number, and most of it isn’t anywhere near your house. But it’s a representation of our strongest claim to greatness*. It’s a real manifestation of the idea that we’re in this together, and working to leave something better behind. And it’s more endangered than Grizzly Bears.

It bears repeating that the Republican platform explicitly calls for the de-federalization of our shared public land, and to charge states with the herculeian task of managing it. Our congress has made a game of eviscerating Federal land management budgets to ensure that those agencies cannot succeed – and that was before President Trump’s budget proposal futher reduces the USFS trail maintenace budget from $77 million to $12 million.

In the age of beetle kill and wild weather, only a couple years of deferred maintenance can wipe a trail from the map. These budgets are a recipe to disenfranchise the public from our land through strategic neglect.

So on the 4th of July this year I’m going for a bike ride. Who knows how long that trail will be around.

 

*it’s sure as shit not healthcare or education

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Bring Back the Draft

After the election we heard a lot about how things were going to get crazy, and that we really needed to pace our outrage. It would be all to easy, we were told, to get real fired up for a couple of months and then slip into a lackadaisical acquiescence of our dystonian reality.

“Yeah right,” we said. “Not me. I’m in this fight for the long haul.”

And then it happened. I’m not sure whether it was reassurances from some courts that reason could, conceivably, prevail, or additional despair over a run of luckluster progressive challenges in whackjob special congressional elections. Maybe we just saw something shiny, like, work, or something, and just sort of spaced out for a while. I stopped reading the news for a couple of weeks, and before long slipped into that familiar normalcy that comes so easily to armed white males in western states.

But then I woke up one morning and fired up the ol’ New York Times, and was reminded that while the world may not have stopped spinning yet, we do have a total solar eclipse right around the corner. Also we’ve got no real strategy for what to do in Syria, we’re alarmingly antagonistic with military superpowers, and now we’re running around drawing lines and making threats.

If this doesn’t sound like a recipe for another prolonged, directionless military foray into the middle east, I don’t know what does.

And so it’s time to renew drafting young Americans for combat roles, and to get us thinking a little bit more critically about how we spend the lives of our youth.

There’s a popular idea that the US military ranks are filled by minorities and the poor. And as convenient as that would be for this blog post, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Numerous studies have hinted that military demographics are approaching national demographics. And while the majority of enlisted recruits do come from households with below-median incomes, it isn’t as dramatic as you might think. The same is true for minorities; while blacks are slightly over represented in the armed forces, it isn’t completely lopsided.

But the fact is that while the makeup of America’s armed forces do represent an approximate cross section of our population, less than 1% of eligible individuals elect to go that route.

Certainly, compulsory military service would address the issue of whether or not the armed forces are representative of the population. But I’m not convinced that ballooning our military would be effective in encouraging thoughtfulness in our armed forays. (It seems most likely that it would create a lot of expensive, cush, redundancy and mission creep within the military).

Rather, a new draft for combat roles would use intermittent reinforcement (if it can be used to train dogs, why not an electorate!) of the notion that military engagement really is a big deal. With the draft comes the persistent specter that our friends and loved ones (or ourselves!) will be snatched and away sent to die.

A reinvigorated draft for fighting men and women will not swell the ranks beyond what is necessary, but it will force an awareness and care for how those ranks are deployed. When considering prolonged military intervention we need more skin in the game. A regular draft is the way to ensure that we all pay attention to where and why we’re starting wars.

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Sample Size

I guess there’s an election in Georgia today.

The candidates were interviewed on the radio this morning, sticking to talking points, defending the $50 million dollars they spent on the contest, and reiterating that old trope that we “all need to get out and vote.”

Relative to developed countries and autocratic dictatorships, US voter turnout is pretty low. In Belgium, turnout among eligible voters is 87%. In Sweden it’s 83%, and 80% in Denmark. Even Slovakia and the Czech Republic, which hover around 60%, embarrass the United States’ 55% turnout rate. And that’s not even to mention the landslide victory of Saddam Hussein’s 2002 campaign, where he won every single vote from Iraq’s 11 million eligible voters. That’s an engaged electorate!

And so it’s not surprising that we hear this a lot. “We all need to get out and vote, because every vote counts.” Somehow we’ve got this idea in our heads that in order to really know the will of the people, the sample size needs to equal the population size.

What?

We don’t count all of anything. That’s the whole point of statistics.

The fact of the matter is that a sample size of 55% is ridiculously high, and absolutely representative of the population. Plenty of us are voting. The issue isn’t whether our sample size is large enough. It’s whether the sample itself is representative of the population.

And so now this triggers the whole “gerrymandering” talk, which, if you want to have this conversation over Thanksgiving Dinner or in a wedding toast or something we suggest you use the term “congressional redistricting” so your uncle (you know the one) doesn’t get up and start yelling. But anyway gerrymandering is this idea that a political party can draw the lines of voting districts in a way that it benefits that party.

Here’s a picture that I found on the internet that does a pretty good job of showing how it works:

Now, this has been going on as long as our country has – it got started before our first Congressional Election in 1789, and both parties run with it as far as they can when they have the opportunity. But see now it’s running into trouble. Republican redistricting has had issues on the past on account of it being just totally, unapologetically racist, but less flagrant examples have a hard time being challenged in a meaningful way. But a real challenge could change as early as next year, when the Supreme Court will rule on whether a Wisconsin district map unconstitutionally limits the influence of Democratic voters.

It’s far from a sure bet which way the court will fall on this one. The only real conversations now indicate that it’s going to be a narrowly divided vote. But there’s a chance!

It’s easy, these days, to lose faith in our elective process. We’ve seen two of our last three presidents win the office while losing the popular vote. We’ve seen Citizens United pave the way for unprecedented, untraceable campaign financing and super annoying phone calls pretty much around the clock. And we’ve sat around for pretty much our entire nation’s history as the ruling party plays make-it-take-it with congressional districting maps. It looks like finally, we may see a win for those people who would like to see a government that represents its electorate.

It’s time we stop complaining about 55% voter turnout, and start taking the right sample.

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Down the Rabbit Hole

It starts innocently enough. You’ve got a few minutes free on a Sunday afternoon and you remember that the car needs an oil change. You flip open the owner’s manual just to doublecheck, and yep, sure enough, it calls for 5 quarts of 5W-20. Right. Easy. Just run to O’Reilly’s, grab five quarts of oil, you’ll be back home and done with the project in forty minutes.

But then you start thinking. “5W-20. Can that be right? Maybe for a winter oil, but it seems pretty light for hot weather.” So you fire up the internet and just check, real quick, to see if there’s a better option. We’re coming into summer, after all, wouldn’t a slightly heavier oil be better?

And right there, as soon as you open the browser, you can pretty much write off changing that oil.

In the first five minutes you’ve forgotten all about oil weight. You clicked on the first search result, which took you to a forum based on your particular model of car where they were, ostensibly, talking about oil weight and their preference.

But then that conversation deteriorated pretty quickly into a fight over conventional vs synthetic and a brief stint of (poorly punctuated, but informative) pedantics on the difference between the two. Before long denizens of the internet were arguing about how often you really do need to change the oil, mostly citing old episodes of Top Gear and their Uncle Bert, before proposing that the 3,000 mile cutoff really is a conspiracy perpetuated by the Rothschilds.

And then, naturally, you wonder what the Rothschilds have to do with anything here so you open a new tab and search for “motor oil rothschild conspiracy” and ho man now you’ve done it. But then holy crap that search returned 1.64 million results and it only took 0.59 seconds and how does that even make any sense so you ask Google how it works and sure enough on the first page of results (after a bunch of tutorials on how to use Google) there’s a thing called “Inside Search” and an article called “how search works.”

And that’s exactly what you’re looking for so you give it a click and sure enough it’s not all that helpful. It’s got a few tidbits of trivia on how many websites there are and some fancy Greek prefixes for really big numbers but mostly they gloss over the meat of what you’re looking for with a bunch icons that look like this:

and you think “gosh that’s a little insulting” because you’re, like, a smart person, and you don’t need to be talked down to about string theory, and physics, and whatever the hell a p-brane is. So you go to brush up, just a little bit, on your string theory but now Google is kind of on your nerves so you just go straight to Wikipedia this time and after a few minutes you’ve got a pretty good handle on string theory and follow links for Theory of Everything, then pre-Socratic philosophy, and pretty soon you’re out of physics and no one’s even talked about Nazis once.

But so then the next thing you know you’re learning all about Protagoras founding this idea of philosophical relativism in which truth only exists insofar as it is perceived by any individual and you’re like “ho man have I got a POTUS for that guy” and then you remember both that you haven’t read the news in a while and that you really have been trying to maintain a better balanced news diet (and get out of that echo chamber) so you fire up a few tabs and see what The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the LA Times, Fox News, and Al Jazeera America are opening with.

And then by the time you make it through the breaking news, feature pieces, op-eds, op-eds disguised as feature pieces, and horrifying anecdotes from small towns in the Florida panhandle you’re feeling pretty damn depressed and start thinking that you really do need to just take your mind off all this and there’s nothing better for that than fresh baked cookies.

But what recipe?

And before you know it, you definitely have not changed the oil in your car.

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