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Comic and blog post.
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wmorrell
8 days ago
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American Politics, 2017

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That this blog is a huge fan of the Drive-By Truckers is no secret, but part of the reason is that Patterson Hood is such a great songwriter and summarizer of the dark side of America. Thus, I bring you his interview that includes this description of American politics in 2017:

At the same time, the current situation in our country is just, you know, it sucks. And it’s hard to write anything with much finesse about what’s going on because it’s such a clusterfuck. It’s like writing about a bowel movement. It’s hard to write anything eloquent about diarrhea, and that’s kind of what the political situation in our country is right now. It’s just like a big exploding shit.

You know, is there a better way to describe our politics right now? I say that this is perfect.

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wmorrell
9 days ago
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The Four Stages of Republican Scandal Response

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I’d say this nails it:

A good interim step is to follow the Ted Cruz path of telling Republicans to “vote their conscience,” therefore earning yourself lots of praise for putting country above party from gullible pundits while leaving yourself free to support the Republican candidate if it looks like he can win without even contradicting yourself.

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wmorrell
13 days ago
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wreichard
13 days ago
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Earth
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sirshannon
13 days ago
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Pretty sure this is also the 4 stages of Bernie Sanders.

We Need to Talk About Kevin.

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Oh fuck, I think. I’m gonna get arrested again.

There’s a growing cluster of uniforms in the ravine abutting our property: city employees, police, a couple of guys wearing insignia I don’t recognize.  Two cops poke at the tent in the ravine just across the fence from our tool shed. Their cars are pulled up in front of the house: those ones with the new, aggressive gray-and-black styling because the old blue-and-whites didn’t look enough like the Batmobile.

It was only a matter of time. Kevin spent most of last night screaming death threats to the trees again. Someone must have complained.

I switch on my phone’s voice recorder, slip it into my back pocket, trudge grimly into the underbrush. I pass the two whose insignia I didn’t recognize from the window: Salvation Army, as it turns out (“Gateway: The Hand of God in the Heart of the City”). They look concerned and ready to help. I wonder if they know that Kevin’s gay; the Sally Ann’s a notoriously homophobic organization.

“So what’s going on?” I ask in passing. One of them shrugs, jerks a thumb towards the center of action.

The cops have ripped away the fly and are talking to the huddled figure rocking in the exposed shell of the tent. They look up as I approach.

“Hi. That’s my tent.” Maybe not the optimal ice-breaking line, but better than back away from the homeless guy and no one gets hurt.

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They look at me.

“I gave it to him to keep him from getting rained on.” There was a torrential rainstorm a few months back, punched a hole in our roof and soaked through to the living room ceiling. I came home that afternoon to find Kevin taking shelter on our porch. He apologized for the intrusion. It was the first time we spoke, although he’d been living rough in the ravine for a couple of months at least.  “He’s harmless, really. He yells a lot, but when he’s leveled out he’s actually kind of charming.”

One of the cops is about as tall as me, and broader. The other is short enough to be susceptible to Napoleon Complex. He’s the one who first tells me to back up, who says I’m interfering with their job.

“Kevin?” I say. “You okay, dude?” The figure in the tent keeps rocking.

They tell me, once again, to back off. “The problem,” I say, “is that you guys have a really bad reputation when it comes to dealing with black guys with mental issues. I’m worried about what you might do to him.” At some point during this exchange I’ve pulled my phone from my pocket and switched to video record.

“Look, you want your tent back, we’ll give you your tent back.”

“It’s not about the tent, he’s welcome to the tent—”

“You want to record this, go ahead and record. But you are interfering with our job. So back away.”

Which, despite my gut instincts, I have to admit is reasonable. I take a few steps back.

“Further,” says the littler guy.

Another step.

Further.”

I figure I’m far enough; certainly well out of Interfering Range. “I don’t think that’s gonna happen,” I say, “But I will stay right here.”

He doesn’t push it.

And I have to admit, they seem to be trying their best at a tough job. Nobody’s tasered or shot Kevin (or me) yet. They’re not escalating in the way that ends with unarmed people shot in the back, or choked to death for selling loosies. They’re actually trying to talk to the dude.

One of the Gateway guys has dealt with Kevin before. They bring him over to try and talk Kevin out of the tent. I end up chatting with the City people; against the law to camp on public property, they point out. They gave Kevin almost a week’s warning that they’d be coming. Came by just yesterday to remind him, left a note when he wasn’t there. And there are shelters. Gateway’s got a bed for him.

But Toronto shelters don’t allow pets, and Kevin has a cat: a skittish, overweight black-and-white shorthair named “Blueberry Panda”. They used to live together in an apartment run by the Toronto Community Housing Corporation. Kevin had arranged with the government to have his rent deducted automatically from his disability income. He went for months thinking that his rent was being paid; he believed that right up until the day TCHC evicted him last spring. Apparently they’d refused to authorize the direct-deposit arrangement after being unable to contact him by phone for “verbal confirmation”[1].

I explain this to the City people; they’re sympathetic but whatyagonnado. “Just hypothetically,” I wonder, “what if Kevin moves into our back yard?”

They look at me as though I’m the one rocking back and forth in the tent. “Well he wouldn’t be on public land, but there’d still be the disturbing the peace issue.” And they’re right, of course. The current situation is unsustainable. A few nights back I found myself standing out in the rain at 2 a.m., peering through the fence to see if the fire Kevin had lit was in danger of burning down our shed or setting the ravine alight. It wasn’t; but obviously the guy needs help. I just don’t know if the current system can give him any. In terms of mental health this place has gone to shit ever since the government decided to cut costs by classifying everyone as an outpatient. It’s a lesser-evil sort of thing.

Gateway guy has made no progress; Big Cop (Officer Baird, I learn later) approaches me and says, “I think we got off on the wrong foot. You don’t know me, you’re judging me by the uniform. I’m honestly trying to help this guy; you say you have a relationship with him? Maybe you could try talking to him?”

“Well, sure,” I say, suddenly feeling like kind of a dick.

We go back to Kevin’s tent— my tent, until I gave it to him on the condition that he stop screaming death threats in the middle of the night (or at least that he make it really clear that those death threats were not aimed at us). I remember he smiled when I said that, looked kind of rueful. Now that I think back, though, I realize he made no promises.

He’s originally from Trinidad. Speaks with this cool accent. Back in the nineties he earned a degree from the University of Toronto: dual major in chemistry and philosophy. How cool is that?

Now he huddles half-naked in the woods, and rages against monsters at three in the morning.

*

“Kevin?  Dude? Remember me?”

The tent stinks. There’s a tear down one side where the local raccoons tried to get at Blueberry’s kibble. A small mountain of Bic lighters spills across a dirty scavenged mattress.  A drift of empty plastic bottles. Half-eaten meals gone bad in foil wrappings. A couple of empty prescription vials (big surprise there). Kevin’s knapsack: the thin edge of a grimy Macbook peeking out from a nest of balled up socks and underwear.

He sits in the middle of it all, half-clothed: a dirty sleeping bag wrapped around his shoulders, a forgotten cigarette burning down between his fingers. He looks a little like a performance-artist channeling that mud-and-garbage Devil’s Tower Richard Dreyfuss sculpted in his living room, back in Close Encounters.

After our first sodden introduction, Kevin would wave a cheery “Hello neighbors!” at the BUG and me during his comings and goings. Occasionally he bummed a twenty to pay for a shower and a roof at the local bath-house; once he woke us late on a Saturday morning to ask if he could use our bathroom. Every now and then he’d push it a bit— asked if he could keep my hammer with him in the ravine, asked our house-sitters for the household WiFi password while we were out of town— but he also took No for an answer. We were a bit worried, at first, about getting sucked into a camel-nose scenario, but the dude always respected boundaries. Always cheerful and charming, in the light of day at least.

A centimeter of ash drops off the cig and smolders on the mattress.  I try to tap it out. Kevin flinches away and doesn’t look at me.

I ask how he’s doing, try to invoke past shared experience to bring him out of it: “Remember when we set this tent up? Fucking insects nearly ate me alive.”

Insects don’t exist in Alzheimer Space,” he snaps.

It’s a start. It’s more than he’s said to anyone else. I slide a bit of aluminum foil towards him across the fabric: “Just to keep the ash from, you know, setting the mattress on fire.”

Ash does not exist in Alzheimer Space. Mattress does not exist in Alzheimer Space.

“Dude? What are you—”

You do not exist. You do not exist in Alzheimer—

Finally it clicks: All time and space.

“You do not exist in all time and space. Nothing exists in all time and space.”

In principle it’s a decent coping mechanism. On some level he must know that the voices he hears at night, the things he rails against when the rest of us are trying to sleep, don’t actually exist. So he’s rejecting false input, only he’s— overgeneralizing. He’s rejecting everything as unreal.

I am false data. Why would he believe anything I say?

I try a bit longer, take some small satisfaction that at least I’ve got him talking, even if only to deny reality. Finally I crawl out of the tent, turn to Baird & Bud: “He’s gone totally solipsistic.”

“What’s sol—solistic?”

“He’s not recognizing anything beyond himself as real. I think he thinks we’re all hallucinations or something, like he’s some kind of Boltzmann brain.”

By now the paramedics have arrived. Officer Baird and I stand back and watch one of them squat down, ask Kevin to come out.  “Just want to test your blood pressure, buddy”— which, if not a bald-faced lie, is so very far from the whole truth that it might as well be. And yet, what else is there to do? Kevin couldn’t even pass a Turing test in his current condition.

“You know, the press paints us in a really bad light,” Officer Baird remarks. “There are a few assholes, but most of us are good people. I’m a good person.”

I actually believe him. That last part, anyway.

“I get that,” I say. “The trouble is, you good people cover for the assholes. You have to, because you need to count on them when you’re in a tight spot. I understand the dynamic, but you gotta admit that suspicion is a reasonable mindset to take into these things.”

“I’ve had training in this sort of thing. I go for de-escalation.” (I immediately flash back to a couple of other incidents in my past where LEOs, fully free to escalate, stepped back and chose to engage instead. And others where they, well, didn’t. Funny how the latter interactions tend to loom so much larger in memory.) “I always try to resolve things peacefully,” Baird continues.

“And ninety-five percent of snakes are harmless—” invoking my most-favorite ever biology-cop analogy— “but you still carry an antivenom kit when you go into the desert.”

He shrugs and, I think, concedes the point.

Kevin’s been contained. The paramedics wheel him past on a stretcher. He’s buckled down and strapped in. His hands are cuffed behind his back. He looks around, lost. “Could you take the cuffs off, please?” he asks. “I’m not a violent person.”

Three minutes, tops, since nothing existed in all time or space. Just moments ago he was stuck in a loop that denied the very existence of external reality. Now he’s perfectly coherent. He doesn’t understand why he’s being treated this way.

They don’t take off the cuffs. I don’t blame them. It breaks my heart anyway. I tell Kevin I’ll take care of Blueberry while he’s away (the little pudgeball fled into our backyard while all this was going down). Officer Baird and I wander after the gurney; he gives me his badge and phone number, and his email in case I want to follow up (“I probably won’t be able to give you any details— that’s Kevin’s confidence— but I can at least tell you he’s okay.”) I wonder if he’s the kind of guy who’d be willing to answer a few background questions if I ever put a cop in one of my stories.

The city employees move in with garbage bags and blue latex gloves. They say I can have my tent back if I want but it’s a write-off; I salvage the hollow bones (gotta be able to find a use for those somewhere) and let them collect everything else for disposal.

The ambulance drives away.

There are two people in Kevin’s brain. They don’t play well together; only one is in control at any given time. Some kind of switch toggles between them. I hope Kevin can find a way to keep his hand on it.

What? I told you she was fat.

What? I told you she was fat.

In the meantime, a black shape lurks in the underbrush and glares at me with yellow eyes. She’s lost her best and only friend; Kevin may have his issues but those two have been together for almost ten years, and he chose to sleep without a roof over his head rather than abandon her. So we won’t abandon her either. She still doesn’t trust us as far as she could throw an ibex, but she creeps out of cover to eat the food we serve, once we’ve gone back inside.

I guess it’s a start.


[1] This is typical of the TCHC; they treat their tenants with contempt and every request as a shiftless attempt to game the system. I lived there for years, fighting rearguard against bedbugs and bad electrical wiring. When I asked them to deal with the black mold in my bathroom or the meter-wide hole in my ceiling, they literally laughed in my face.

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wmorrell
22 days ago
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Pamela Fox

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Pamela Fox

Who are you, and what do you do?

I'm Pamela Fox. My day job is being the CTO at Woebot Labs, where we're making a chatbot that helps you track your moods and reduce your negative thinking habits, based on the techniques of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

For fun, I run a Friday Night Improv Club and the occasional Improv in the Park. Plus a quick improv every day at 2pm at work, to re-energize the troops. So, yeah, I'm pretty into improv.

For sanity, I have a daily morning practice, which consists of meditation, Tibetan Yoga stretches, compassion prayer, intention setting, and this other crazy awesome thing. More deets here.

I'm also a recovering craftaholic.

What hardware do you use?

Don't try this at home, kids: I'm using a 5-year-old MacBook Pro. Super heavy, broken webcam, broken-90%-of-time USB drive, and a trackpad that gets possessed every 3 months from the spirit of The Water Damage.

Totally works for writing code though, and hey, if ain't completely-and-utterly-broke, don't trash it.

What I actually spend my time fixing: my ergonomic setup. I was totally cool with slouching all day long for my first 10 years in the tech industry, but then I went on a Buddhist retreat for 4 months, and now I'm hyper aware of how my posture affects my mental state.

My setup now: Rain Stand, Bluetooth keyboard, Bluetooth mouse, and a lumbar pillow that I can strap onto any chair in the house.

My improv setup: a laser-cut Improv Marquee of my own creation. I can easily show our line-up for each night and rearrange games on the fly.

My meditation setup: a pillow, a belt or strap (to counter my slouching tendency), and a doorknob hanger to let my roomies know what I'm doing.

And what software?

We're coding up Woebot using JS gosh-darn-everywhere. The bot code is a Node.js AWS Lambda Function, the long-running tasks are handled by a worker tier Node Beanstalk server, and the website is another Node Beanstalk server. Our "CMS" is a Google Spreadsheet, and we use Google Apps Script (JavaScript) to lint and export the content.

We use Atom as our editor of choice, because all the cool kids use it these days, and we wanted to be cool. 😉

Besides coding, I'm an Adobe addict. I use Illustrator to make designs for the TechShop laser cutter, and Photoshop for anything else I can justify.

What would be your dream setup?

Here's what I'm envisioning:

My office is a small room with large glass windows. It overlooks a beautiful park with a garden and playground. There are little kids playing outside throughout the day, and I'm buddies with most of them. Sometimes my cats come to the office and just chill.

When I want to eat lunch, I grab some veggies from the garden, chop them into a salad, and eat at a little spot overlooking a tadpole pond.

When I want a break from coding, I go outside and swing on the all-ages swingset. I might do a quick ride down the mini zipline, too.

Instead of happy hour, we all head into the craft room that's shared by all the companies in this complex, and we work on projects that improve our office, like signs, terrariums, pots, whatever the craft of the week is.

Oh, and in this dream, my laptop would have a functioning USB drive.


Thanks for reading! If you're enjoying the interviews, you can help keep this nerdy lil' site independent for as little as $1 a month!

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wmorrell
26 days ago
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Hey, I was in a bunch of classes with her. Cool person, practically born coding.
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The Company Serving the Needs of the Permanent Rural Underclass

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This profile of how Dollar General fills the shopping niche of the nation’s permanent rural underclass should be sobering.

Dollar General’s sales per square foot have risen steadily in recent years, to $229, but they’re still far below the industry average of $325 and less than half of Walmart’s. Their gross profit margins were 30.9 percent over the last five years, though, compared with 25.1 percent at Walmart. The dollar chain doesn’t carry the big-ticket purchases—bikes, appliances—that Walmart does. It thrives mostly on selling low-ticket items and basics, such as toilet paper, that help shoppers on tight budgets get through the week. At Dollar General, a package of eight Pop-Tarts is $2, or 25¢ a tart. At Walmart, shoppers can buy the same eight-pack, but more often they save by spending $9.98 for a bulk package of 48—only 20¢ a tart. Dollar General doesn’t offer much bulk. A Dollar General store also has lower startup costs; it spends as little as $250,000 for a new store, vs. the more than $15 million Walmart puts into a new Supercenter.

The company declined to comment for this story, but in March 2016, Chief Executive Officer Todd Vasos outlined the chain’s “2020 Vision” for 125 investors gathered at a hotel in Nashville, south of the headquarters in suburban Goodlettsville, Tenn. (Shareholders include T. Rowe Price Associates, the Singapore sovereign wealth fund GIC, BlackRock, and Vanguard Group.) The presentation detailed a site-selection strategy focused on small towns, dubbed “Anytown, USA.” Then Jim Thorpe, Dollar General’s chief merchandising officer at the time, defined the core customer for the investors: “Our Best Friends Forever”—an extremely cash-strapped demographic, with a household income less than $35,000, and reliant on government assistance, that shops at Dollar General to “stretch budgets.” Thorpe said these BFFs represented 21 percent of the chain’s shoppers and 43 percent of its sales. His final slide touted a goal of increasing sales 50 percent, to $30 billion, by 2020.

There are really only two ways brick-and-mortar retailers can meet such a grand goal: open hundreds of stores or, much harder, radically increase same-store sales. Vasos’s presentation included a map that looks similar to an epidemiological forecast, with yellow and green dots spreading like a pox. The yellow dots represented the chain’s 12,483 existing stores. The 13,000 green dots were the “remaining opportunities”—some in low-income urban neighborhoods, but most in small and very small towns. There’s almost no white space east of the Mississippi, except for the tip of Maine and southernmost end of Florida. The Rust Belt is overflowing with green dots piled upon yellow, and the Eastern Seaboard is almost exclusively green.

Dollar General’s chief rival, Dollar Tree Inc., which also owns Family Dollar, has a plan that’s almost as ambitious. In a recent Securities and Exchange Commission filing, Dollar Tree indicated that it believes the U.S. market can support 10,000 Dollar Trees and 15,000 Family Dollars. That’s almost 11,000 more stores than its current 14,500, though it isn’t putting a timeline on the expansion. In August, Randy Guiler, vice president for investor relations at Dollar Tree, told me it would “determine each year what our pace of growth will be.”

“It reminds me of a craps table,” Brown, the commercial real estate analyst, says. “Essentially what the dollar stores are betting on in a large way is that we are going to have a permanent underclass in America. It’s based on the concept that the jobs went away, and the jobs are never coming back, and that things aren’t going to get better in any of these places.”

So the future of small-town America is not even Walmart. It’s the dollar store chains. And that’s not great when it’s your only option, either as a consumer or as an employee. But there are huge opportunities here because, combined, there are still a lot of people in these towns. The endemic struggles of these places is part of our broader national failure to have a rural planning strategy that makes any sense at all. It’s pretty much just about waiting for these people to move or die, which isn’t a strategy at all.

I will say that the one weakness of this story is that the whole thing is coded white. The profiled town is in the same county as Walmart headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, which is a white area, being the Ozarks. But the meatpacking industry there has led to a big racial transition. In 2000, the town was 16.5 percent Latino. In 2010, it was 28.4 percent Latino and presumably that number has increased since then. Yet every person talked to seems to be white. Given that Latinos tend to open their own stores, that’s part of the story too. Moreover, it’s worth noting that this nation has always had a permanent underclass–people of color. That’s hardly a new thing. But in this story, as in so many others, especially since the election, non-whites are largely erased from these stories of working class hard times. The article at least mentions Latinos in meatpacking, but that’s it. So there’s more to this story. But it’s still important in making us aware of the need for a real rural policy in this country. If nothing else, the outsized political impact of rural communities and low-population states should make this a priority for the left.

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wmorrell
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