Tuesday, September 29, 2009
In case you missed it, there was a survey of Oklahoma public high school students that got released the other week, one of those our-kids-are-so-dumb-they-think-coleslaw-is-a-country findings that gets everyone worked up once a year or so. These students got asked 10 basic questions about the US government, and none of them could answer even eight of them correctly. Three out of four students didn't know who the first President was. Some news outlets and blogs picked up the story and then it got dropped because American high schoolers being dumb is not exactly news.
Here's the problem with that survey: those numbers that seem surprisingly plausible might very well have been made up entirely. Or so says political statistician Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com, who published several posts suggesting that Strategic Vision, the polling and advertising company that conducting the survey, tends to get results that--to put it delicately--do not necessarily resemble numbers you would get if you actually conducted random surveys of people, and rather resemble the numbers you would get if you made some data up.
Silver uses some math that I won't get into here (math sucks, right?), but one red flag is easy to understand, even if you went to Oklahoma public high school: out of 1,000 students (supposedly) tested, not even one got eight questions right. The more you think about it, the less sense it makes. Students as a whole might be dumb, but there wasn't a single civics nerd in the whole bunch? If that's a truly random sample of students, that's pretty weird.
It's pretty much impossible to prove that numbers aren't random, but if Silver's suspicions are correct, this could be one of the more important scandals of the year, something that could actually matter in the long run, unlike all those stories about politicians sticking their man-parts in odd places. If surveys and polls are being fudged or falsified, we're one step closer to living in a 1984-esque nightmare where there is no such things as facts. Think that's an exaggeration?
Look at how much we already distrust media sources. Thirty years ago, Americans mostly trusted the news. Liberals and Conservatives may have gotten commentary from different places, but they got news stories from sources considered "objective." The New York Times was really the "paper of record" and Walter Cronkite was "the most trusted man in America."
Now? Conservatives watch Fox News, Liberals watch MSNBC, and each side distrusts and attacks the other's media. CNN and the Times are slammed for the stories they don't run and the bias that's inherent in the stories they do carry. If the Watergate scandal broke today, a large portion of the country would be convinced it was a liberal media plot to bring down the unfairly persecuted Dick Nixon. The only entities that are (mostly) regarded as unbiased are the companies that conduct public opinion polls.
Some pollsters do lean left or right, of course, meaning they are generally hired by one side or the other, but their results are regarded as facts. During election season, reporters of all affiliations treat polling numbers like sports scores, and no matter how many people yell at each other on cable-news splitscreens, you'll almost never hear a talking head say, "I think those poll numbers are a lie." Pollsters are more trusted than any pundit, because the poll numbers are what many pundits use to make their arguments. Although we don't think much about polling agencies, I think many Americans trust pollsters more than the government, the church, the news, or their teenaged children.
When we discuss polling numbers being added up so that 2+2=5, we're discussing the removal of the last foundation of objective political journalism. What if both parties created their own polls, willfully falsified the numbers, and released a mix of inaccurate and accurate information--or what if that's what the public thought they did? Liberals and Conservatives would have no way to even begin discussing current events with each other, and the talking heads would have one more thing to yell at each other about, and what once was "news" will become "opinion."
Strategic Vision, for its part, has promised to release its "crosstabs," which will break down the demographics of the (possibly conducted) polls, but it's unclear how that's going to disprove Silver's suspicions. They've also threatened to sue him, a threat which he doesn't seem to mind. The print media, meanwhile, hasn't picked up the story at all, probably because so far as we know, no one at Strategic Vision is having sex with someone they shouldn't have.
But the dead tree guys have reason to stay away from this story. It's not like an entity that the public implicitly trusts has potentially lied to a whole bunch of people, including the supposedly-savvy media, right? Right? Because that would really be a scandal. Read more!
Monday, September 28, 2009
Should we be making it easier for teens to drink?
When I was under the drinking age, I would have said, "Hell yes, make it easier for me to buy alcohol!" Especially after a night of driving around aimlessly and complaining about having nothing to do, I would launch into rants about how draconian and oppressive US alcohol laws were, and how in Europe you could walk into a pub when you were 16 and blah blah blah. Then I turned 21 and stopped thinking about teenagers not being able to drink until yesterday, when I came across this quote from a former heroin addict in an article about the rise of teenage heroin use in Long Island:
“Believe it or not, as a high school teenager, (heroin) was easier for us to get than alcohol,” he said. “It’s cheaper than anything out there.”
That sounds absurd on the face of it, but then I thought back to my not-far-removed days as a teetotaling teen trying to find an intoxicant. Was it any easier to find alcohol than any other drug? I mean, you could find alcohol, there were liquor stores and gas stations all over the place, but getting it into your hands was more difficult. If your community enforced the drinking age like mine did, you had to: 1. find someone's older sibling; 2. Acquire a fake ID; or 3. Find a shady-looking adult on the street and pay them to buy you booze.
Unless the older sibling is feeling charitable, all three of these options cost money and take a fair amount of time, which raises the cost of acquiring alcohol for teens. More importantly, going through these channels means that you're going to end up in contact with some pretty shady people--the kind of people you would go to if you wanted to buy weed, or coke, or heroin.
Marijuana and alcohol are often denounced for being "gateway drugs," meaning that people--especially teens--who use them end up going on to harder drugs, which is where things can really start sucking. But one of the reasons these drugs are "gateways" is the channels teens use to get them are similar to the channels they go through for the bad drugs. The guy who sells fake IDs might have a coke business on the side; my local pot salesman also sells prescription pills. Entering the teenaged black market so you can experiment with alcohol or pot (things nearly everyone tries) also gives you access to drugs that ruin your life.
The above linked article compares the prices of drugs: a bag of heroin costs $5 to $25 for an eight hour high. That's a pretty good deal, if you want to get really fucked up. The problem with heroin is that it's too good at what it does--addicts feel so good when they're high and so bad when they aren't that they don't see a reason to do anything else. If you're a teen who is already predisposed to drug use, and you find a drug that's cheap and will get you really fucked up, and you haven't been educated enough on the difference in degree between alcohol and heroin--alcohol isn't good but heroin is really really fucking bad--why wouldn't you pick up a bag of horse from your dealer buddy?
On the other hand, if you were already comfortable with alcohol, and it was socially acceptable to drink in front of adults, and you weren't going through shady people to buy alcohol and being forced to drink in cars and parking lots, would you buy that bag? Or would you say, "No thanks, beer's good enough for me?" Or would the question never come up, because you wouldn't know the dealer?
We can't stop teens from drinking and getting high, because we can't really stop anyone from drinking and getting high. But Jesus, with the amount of attention we focus on drugs, you would think we could stop teens from shooting up. Maybe if we made it more legal to drink, and didn't turn a large percentage of teenagers into criminals for having a drink, we could avoid some of the worse consequences of teen drinking. Read more!
Saturday, September 26, 2009
Has technology made our lives better or worse? That's quite a big question, one of those questions that earnest young philosophy undergrads discuss when they get hammered. Some technologies, like the airplane or the cock ring, have unquestioningly made our lives better and without any technology at all we'd still be wandering the African savannah looking for food. On the other hand, thanks to technology that savannah is now is danger of being flooded by rising sea levels or blown into oblivion by advanced missiles.
And then there's the technology that is simply inexplicable, neither a giant leap forward or a step down the path leading to our own destruction, but a little hop that gets us nowhere in particular. If you want proof that these technologies exist, just watch TV after 2 a.m. and take a gander at the array of devices that you can use to vaccum your floor or slice tomatoes extremely efficiently. Or you can go to your local chain pharmacy, head towards the razors, and look at all the different ways a man can go about removing hair from his face.
Once upon a time, if a man wanted to shave, he had two options: go to a barber or shave himself. Either way, the device used was a straight razor, basically a blade with a handle attached to it. If there are any pretentious young men out there who've ever tried to shave with a straight razor, you probably didn't try it twice. You end up with a bunch of stubble still on your face and there's so much blood in the sink from your cuts your mom thinks you're suicidal and calls the fire department. Not that I would know.
Then, getting back to our history, someone invented the safety razor, which is pretty much what it sounds like. All of a sudden, you could shave your face (or your legs, if you were a woman or a nontraditional man) without cutting yourself up. Voila. Problem solved.
Then razor technology became, to quote Joe Biden, more fucked than a whore at the Republican Convention.
Razor manufacturers, apparently bored out of their minds, thought: it one blade was good, two would be better. And if two blades are better, three would be the best. And four would be supermega awesome, and five would be the motherfucking shit-king, master of the house, keeper of the inn, boss hog supernova excellent. And somewhere along the way, we got electric razors, then battery-powered razors because you don't always have an outlet when you need to shave. There are now razors that dispense shaving lotion (check out how the on/off switch is a "feature" in that listing), razors that pulsate against your skin , razors that have microchips, and for the ladies, a razor that will literally give you orgasms. Clearly, razors are evolving at an incredibly rapid rate. We can only hope that they will never become self-conscious.
Attention, R&D department heads of major shaving product companies, who I assume are avid readers of this blog: WE DO NOT NEED ANY MORE RAZORS. WE HAVE MORE ALL THE RAZORS ANYONE COULD CONCEIVABLY WANT. Nothing more is required of you. We can get close shave without cutting ourselves and that's really all we want. With the energy required to manufacture and power these devices and their microchips, you are probably hurting the world more than you are helping it. The only people who buy your products are people who aren't sure what their dad wants for Father's Day. Your industry is so stupid The Onion mocked your five-bladed razor before it even existed. If you want to help us, maybe you should turn your attention away from our beards and figure out a way to stop the savannahs from flooding. Read more!
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Let's say you go to the movies with your family. You want to see the new Sam Raimi horror-comedy, your older artsy brother wants to see a documentary about the exploitation of the natives of Papua New Guinea, and your little sister wants to see some faux-Pixar animated film. None of you can stomach each other's tastes, and all the movies start at different times, so no compromise seems possible—until your mom steps in and declares you're all going to see a romantic comedy starring Jennifer Aniston. You all hate the film, of course, since it has Jennifer Aniston in it, but at least you all hate it equally.
Does that situation sound awful? It sure does, but that's exactly what happened last week with health care reform: Senate Finance Committee Chairman (that title means he is extremely powerful, for some reason) Max Baucus introduced the Jennifer Aniston of bills—hated by nearly everyone, but because all the alternatives are hated even more by segments of the population, it's impossible to get rid of.
The Baucus bill is extremely complicated and I don't pretend to understand all of it. But basically, the idea is to create “co-ops,” which would be like private health insurance companies but a little different; fine people who don't have health insurance; and subsidize poor people who don't have health insurance. The government wouldn't be in charge of insuring people, but it would still cost 800 billion dollars somehow. And illegal aliens wouldn't be able to get health insurance (but aren't almost all of them uninsured anyway?).
Maybe that doesn't sound so bad to you, but if you take this bill apart, the more reasons you have to hate it. If Baucus had introduced the Mandatory Heroin Use Act of 2009, at least heroin addicts would support it; under this bill, they'd be fined for not having insurance.
Here's why you should hate this bill:
If you're a liberal, you were holding out for a public option or a full-blown government health insurance takeover (and a pony, while you're dreaming). This ain't that. You're saying, “This is the best those motherfuckering Democrats could do with the White House and Congress? That's not change, that's more of the same!”
If you're a Republican, you hate that this bill costs a lot of money. To break down Republican opposition further, there are
1.Libertarian: “I want to get rid of Medicare and Medicaid, so double-fuck this! I'm going to go smoke some weed and fire my guns at some cans!”
2.Fiscal Conservative: “We shouldn't be spending this much money during a recession, plus I probably already have health insurance so I don't really care about insurance reform.”
3.Career politician: “Any bill that gets passed looks like a victory for Obama, so we're just going to vote down anything that comes up.”
If you're a policy nerd, you are probably concerned about something in the bill that will make it cheaper for employers to get rid of health insurance altogether, destroying the current health care system.
If you are concerned about the influenced of business on politics, you won't like that this bill seems to complete a deal made between the health industry, the White House, and Congress.
Oh yeah, and Obama should hate this bill too, since it contradicts his goals by scrapping the employer-insurance system (see above) and basically screwing the middle class.
Even Baucus's fellow Senate Democrats have a variety of problems with this bill.
And even Baucus shouldn't like this bill too much, as there's evidence that all this hemming and hawing about health care reform is killing his poll numbers (and numbers of other senators). 50 percent for an incumbent senator who runs an important committee is about as bad as it gets, unless you got some woman pregnant and lied about it.
Whoops, one more: speaking of committees, who hates this bill the most? That's right, Baucus's own Finance Committee, who submitted 534 amendments to the bill. Yeah, 534—more than a 16-year-old boy masturbates in an entire week. Basically, Republicans on the committee wanted to do add some vague language in order to take shots at the idea of government health care (and ACORN, while they were at it), and Democrats wanted the bill to turn into the public option. So I guess only God and whatever talk show hosts have His home number know what's actually going to happen with this bill.
And I guess I should add that as an uninsured American, I hate this bill too. So I'm forced to get health insurance, which will involve a lot of choices and paperwork that I won't be able to understand? I don't even know how these mystical “co-ops” or “marketplaces” will function. I guess I'm around the poverty line, so I'll get some subsidies, but I'd rather just have the straight cash as long as the government is committed to giving me money anyway. (If insurance is so great, by the way, shouldn't not having it be punishment enough?)
Does anyone have a reason to enjoy the Baucus Bill? Well, there's only two groups that I know of. First, headline writers, who picked up a free alliteration opportunity (“Baucus Bill Bombs” is the low-hanging fruit here, and some people went for it). Secondly, Native Americans probably aren't too pissed, because they won't have to pay a fine for being uninsured, thanks to their own tribal (underfunded) insurance system. So that's the upside here: Max Baucus did not oppress Native Americans any further by introducing his terrible, terrible bill. And this bill won't directly lead to another Jennifer Aniston movie so I guess that counts as an upside. Read more!
Monday, September 21, 2009
Anyone who's ever had a child or a pothead roommate knows how difficult it is to get someone out of bed in the morning. Physically waking them up is never the hard part (if you have trouble, try splashing a little water on their neck or pretend that you are about to smoke some weed), the tough thing to do is convince them to take the covers and go to school or work.
But really, why should they? School is boring, work is hard and boring, and nothing in the day ahead is going to make them feel as good as they do when they're in bed--until they get back into bed after a long day of learning powerpoint or delivering pizza.
As far as I can tell, the main reason anyone ever gets out of bed is to earn enough money so your bed is not taken away and you have to sleep on a bench. If you are ambitious, you might want to earn more money to afford a larger or more comfortable bed, but I wouldn't advise that, as climbing the career ladder would leave you with less time to enjoy your bed.
But what if everyone stayed in bed, some busybody is asking somewhere--how will anything ever get done? ! I answer that with another question: what's so great about getting things done? If everyone stayed in bed longer we'd certainly have fewer wars, and fewer traffic jams, and less crime, and less stress. Lying in bed uses none of our precious natural resources and produces no harmful greenhouse gasses. What's the real downside?
Imagine if the September 11 hijackers had woken up on that fateful morning and instead of jumping right out of bed, praying eight or nine times and strapping on their guns, they had stayed under the covers for an extra five minutes that then stretched into half an hour, wriggling their toes in the hotel sheets and watching the soft gray light come through the blinds. I don't know for sure, but I bet those gentlemen, after thinking about how good the cool side of the pillow felt, would have said, "You know what? I'm not going to get on that plane today. I'm going to go to the hotel restaurant and get myself a big breakfast--with bacon. God bless America! God Bless American mattresses!"
As awesome as staying in bed by yourself is, staying in bed with another person--or multiple people, if that's your thing--is clearly way better. That's another of the main reasons to getl out of bed: to find someone who wants to lie in bed with you. Some people go from bed to bed fairly frequently and get criticized for it, but we should be encouraging this--they're just looking for the most comfortable bed possible, a far more noble goal than writing the Great American Novel or becoming Sub Vice President of Accounts.
A word of caution is needed here: like all good things, you can overdo lying in bed. Lying in bed for long periods of time and feeling miserable is a possible symptom of depression, and you should spend some time out of bed, if only so you'll enjoy being in bed more by comparison. (Also, you'll want to occasionally make yourself a sandwich, and you should not bring mustard or meat into bed with you.) If you are hiding under your pillow because you feel like you can't face the world, you're doing something wrong--lying in bed is supposed to be fun.
But don't get me wrong--I'm not advocating sloth or a lack of ambition. You can engage in a great number of activities while lying down. Marcel Proust wrote much of In Search of Lost TIme while bedridden, and Jabba the Hutt ran a successful smuggling business without ever standing up. The ancient Romans reclined whenever they could, including at most meals, and the modern Upper East Sider spends a great deal of his life lying on a couch under analysis. Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I wrote this entry while lying in bed, and maybe you're even reading this while in bed. If you are in bed, God bless you. The world needs more people to stay in bed whenever possible.
(The painting is by Gretchen Schmid, if you were wondering.) Read more!
Labels: things that don't suck
Friday, September 18, 2009
God knows the last thing the internet needs is another uninformed blogger blathering about health care, but it's my mandate to write about things that suck, and there's no way that I can ignore one of the suckiest issues of our time. Actually, I consider myself only semi-uninformed: I recently read an interesting book--Who Shall Live? by Victor R. Fuchs--that examined the sad state of health care in the US. The book was published in 1974, but many of Fuchs's remarks apply to the present day as well-- which proves that punk rock did not change the US health care system as promised. As a guide to the ongoing clusterfuck that is America trying to decide something, I've provided a list of seven quotes from Who Shall Live? that show why, exactly, the health care debate in America got so totally Fuched.
1."In medicine, the crisis is that point in the course of the disease at which the patient is on the verge of either recovering or dying. No such decisive resolution is evident with respect to the problems of health and medical care."
It probably wasn't the best tactic for President Obama and the Progressives (what an awesome name for a psychedelic funk band that would be) to frame health care as being "in crisis," since that introduced an element of panic and hysteria into the proceedings, but in America no one will listen to your issue unless it's a "crisis." Everything is in crisis all the time--the economic crisis, the drug crisis, the education crisis, our cities in crisis, the global warming crisis, the illegal immigrant crisis...if there were that many crises, some of them would have resolved themselves already, or we'd all be dead.
2. "The average family will always have to pay its share of the cost one way or the other...If the system is financed through taxes on business, then people pay indirectly, either through higher prices for the goods and services businesses produce or through lower wages."
Some Democrats have been talking about the public option as a sort of magic bullet, something that will solve all or most of the health care problems in the US, which proves the old saying that loaning money to a Democrat is like leaving a Republican in the same room as an Argentine woman. What the public option will do, mainly, is shift the cost of insurance away from businesses towards the government. We'll still collectively have to foot the bill, and if we insure more poor people we'll--duh--have to pay more. This plan is expensive because--duh again--insuring an entire country is expensive. We can have a lot of uninsured people or spend a lot of money. No amount of yelling anti-semitic remarks at town hall meetings will change these two options.
3. "No country is as healthy as it could be; no country does as much for the sick as it is technically capable of doing."
Obama recently encouraged Facebook users to lazily participate in the debate by posting this as their status update: "No one should die because they cannot afford health care, and no one should go broke because they get sick." But the issue isn't someone dying from no health care, the question is how much health care we want to provide everyone. Should an 80-year-old alcoholic who smokes a pack a day get a $100,000 operation so he can live for one more year? Or should he die because he can't afford health care? How much of that bill would we as a community be willing to pay? "Rationing health care" has gotten a bad name, but we obviously have to ration health care--we don't have an unlimited supply of it, and we'd like to devote some money to non-health care related goals, like building tall buildings and getting shitfaced. So we have to decide how to ration our resources. But this doesn't fit on a Facebook status update.
4. "[Private insurance companies] have been fighting tenaciously in an effort to reserve an important role for themselves in whatever system is finally adopted, an effort which most knowledgeable political observers believe will succeed."This happened months ago. There's not that much hope for a meaningful health insurance reform anymore. Whoops.
5. "The greatest current potential for improving the health of the American people is to be found in what the do and don't do for themselves." Too bad everyone keeps to talk about economics in health care without talking about the health of our population. If we weren't so fucking fat, for instance, we wouldn't have so many health problems and everyone's premium's would be lower, but no politician will say that. Maybe if we didn't work so many hours or if we took more vacations we'd have fewer stress-related health issues. Maybe our life expectancy would start approaching Sweden's or Denmark's if we stopped shooting each other with guns. Too bad we decided to limit the "health care debate" to "health insurance" rather than looking at our health as a whole.
6. "Common sense tells us that if a household is offered a choice of either a hundred dollars in cash or a hundred dollars' worth of health care, it ought to prefer the cash." The Republicans, in response to what they saw as wasteful government spending, recently suggested spending government money to solve the problem. Their idea was to give poor people money they could only spend to buy health insurance. Sure, they didn't plan to give households enough money to actually buy health insurance, the poor might want to buy some food or education instead, and they might not have time while working two jobs to intelligently compare plans, and sure, the Republicans were basically handing money to private insurance companies--but the GOP is against Big Government! Kudos to the Republicans to staying true to their principles: not the "free market," because then they would be giving out straight money instead of subsidies, but to the idea that if an industry gives you a lot of money, you try to return the favor.
7. "If the past is a good guide to the future, the emphasis is likely to shift to getting legislation that appearsto serve great and noble purposes. Then, if the system in fact fails to live up to the expectations, the failure can be blamed on the administrators or on subsequent Congresses...or on the health professionals for sabotaging the programs." Health care reform has been fought over since World War I, and will continue to be fought over until World War II. Sometimes the alliances shift--early efforts to nationalize health care was opposed by labor unions--and sometimes the proposed solutions change--Fuchs was a fan of HMOs--but somehow, after every health care "crisis," health care goes back to sucking. Read more!
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
Lately there's been a lot of pressure to do "green" things. Use canvas bags for groceries, install eco-friendly insulation in your home, stop burning massive piles of tires...the list goes on. And one of the greenest things we can do, we're told, is use public transportation. If we commute to work in a car, alone, the greenitarians say, we're worse than public masturbators (at least their emissions don't harm the ozone layer). By contrast, if we ride the bus, we can go to sleep at night knowing that if everyone was like us, the world would be free of problems.
The only problem is that taking the bus, as any bus-dweller will tell you, makes you completely miserable.
I take the bus every morning and unless I am savagely beaten by a biker gang, those 20 minutes are the worst part of my day--and I hate my job, so thats saying something. By the time I get on the Downtown-bound B52, it's completely packed. I have to shove my way towards the middle of the scrum until I'm literally ass-to-elbow with my fellow environmentalists for the duration of the ride. If someone gets on or off we jostle around and squeeze even more tightly together, and someone gets on or off at every stop. If a person in a wheelchair gets on, we have to make room for them, and we lose valuable minutes as the driver operates the wheelchair lift and lifts up some of the seats. One time a handicapped man got on the bus and rode it for two stops, and everyone muttered very quietly to themselves and stared daggers at him. That's how much buses suck--they actually make you hate the handicapped. All these delays mean that we are passed regularly by bicyclists, and sometimes I wonder if it would be faster to walk. (If you ride certain buses in Manhattan, it is faster to walk.) Meanwhile, the bus is constantly shaking and rattling, and passengers are tossed together at every tern. I feel like I'm spending $2.25 in order to ride the world's worst carnival ride
At least I live in New York City, so the second part of my commute is by subway, where I have room to read a book and occasionally sit down(!). Also, the buses run all night here (although the service gets spotty after midnight), so you're never stranded after a long, liquor-commercial-esque night. In Seattle, where I matriculated, buses refuse to exist after 1 a.m., and I spent many early mornings publicly sobering up while walking long miles home, wishing, like all hard-partyers, for an efficient public transportation system. (Party people, if they ever remembered to vote, would be a prime constituency for public transportation campaigns.)
Then there's my favorite piece of metropolitan whimsy, the bus timetable. Chances are if you believe bus timetables, you also probably consult psychics before picking Lotto numbers. Bus timetables are the most meaningless things you will ever see, unless you watch a lot of music videos. Buses obey no man or timetable--even Mussolini couldn't make them run on time. Buses obey mysterious laws of their won, appearing out of the mists either alone or in packs of two or three. You can wait for hours for a bus. Sometimes you see several buses going the other direction while you wait. Occasionally a bus will roar past with an "Out of Service" sign on it, or more cryptically, "To North Base." Where is the North Base? Why does the bus need to go there? How is an out-of-service bus traveling so fast? No one knows--the society of the buses is unknown and impenetrable. They're like whales, although with what we've learned about whales' migration patterns we can predict with some accuracy where whales are going to be.
Meanwhile as the bus people suffer in the exposed elements like street actors performing Waiting for Godot, the planet-consuming, gas-guzzling car commuters whizz past, listening to whatever music they like, casually sticking their elbows out their windows as if to say, "Fuck you, bus people. I can extend my arms as far as I want in either direction!" But I'm sticking with the B52. I'm going to wait in the cold rain tomorrow morning, then pack myself onto the bus like an oddly willing sardine getting into its can. And do you know why? Because I'm too cheap to pay for gas Read more!
Sunday, September 13, 2009
I saw one of the wonders of the world a few weeks ago, when I went in to a bank to deposit a check (my having a check to deposit is a wonder in itself, but never mind that). The teller took my check and began typing in whatever information tellers type in upon receiving a check and that's when I noticed her fingernails: bright red, several inches long, and as fake as a lesbian Russian pop duo. Somehow, she was able to type accurately on a standard keyboard with these grotesqueries attached to her fingers, and I couldn't help staring. It was off-putting and awe-inspiring at the same time, like watching a two-legged cat throw itself towards its water bowl.
People dress in so many bizarre and logic-defying ways that one hardly ever questions the reasons behind another's fashion choices, especially in large cities like New York. You can pass a man wearing a puffy-sleaved pirate shirt and lime green hot pants on the street without thinking anything except, "Wow, what unusually hairless legs he has!" But in the case of the bank teller, I wondered, and I wonder to this day: why was she wearing those nails? Does she think it looks good? DId she have to practice a lot before she could type with them on? What in God's name is the reason behind fake nails?
Twentieth-century humanity has produced many products that are fundamentally impractical; it has also produced products that are hideous to look at. But fake nails are that rare item that is both useless and ugly at the same time. They increase the difficulty of ordinary tasks like dialing a phone or typing and are expensive and time-consuming to put on--you would think that all that hassle would pay off by making the women who wear them much more appealing as potential mates. But fake nails don't make them more attractive, at least not to men. I've had plenty of friends with relatively depraved sexual attitudes, but not once has a man said to me, "You know what really gets my motor running? Two-inch long fingernails that have yellow and magenta stripes on them." Guys are not interested in fingernails. If a certain kind of woman wears tight enough clothes, we won't even notice if her nails start falling off.
After some consideration, I've come up with three reasons to wear fake nails:
1. You are a drag queen.
2. You have a disease that has caused your nails to fall off (in which case maybe cosmetic appearance shouldn't be your number one concern).
3. You want to look more attractive in front of other women.
Men often assume that women dress up to impress us, which is arrogant and blatantly wrong--if a woman wants to impress a man, she can just wear an extremely short skirt and no bra. The real challenge is winning the approval of other women. So I'm assuming that women wear fake nails and get elaborate manicures because other women are impressed by them. Right? Is a a sort of arms race where the woman with the longest nails wins? (If that's the case, my bank teller is definitely ahead of the field.) Do women show their ornate nail patterns off to each other like some men do with their cars? Is it like the old Chinese practice of foot binding, where the woman emphasizes her high caste status by her inability to perform household chores? Is the idea to use these pointy extensions as weapons against competing women?
I don't have enough X chromosomes to answer any of these questions, although I hope the answer to the last one is “yes.” All I know is that if you are a dyed-in-the-wool free marketeer, if you believe that capitalism is a collection of rational traders, if you believe that advances in beneficial technology are driven by consumer demand, if you think that the absolute value of something is whether people buy it--you should visit my bank. Read more!
Friday, September 11, 2009
After writing the first part of my NFL preview, it occurred to me that I didn't make one thing clear enough: I consider myself a football fan. The sport may be complicated, but there's some appeal in all that complexity--for one thing, you can always learn more about football, and the more you learn, the more you can appreciate the sudden, violent action that 22 players take in the five to ten seconds between the snap and the end of the play. And when a play really works--especially when there's misdirection involved, when the offense manages to get the defense to move one way and take the ball another--there's a real beauty not just in the athletic grace and power of the players, but in the precision and coordination of 11 men working in perfect harmony. Plus, watching football gives you an excuse to drink for five or six hours on Sunday.
That said, being a football fan is something I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy, whoever that is.
If you're an NFL fan, just for starters, your team probably hasn't won a Super Bowl in the past 10 years. The Browns and Lions have never even played in one. My Seattle Seahawks have gone to exactly one Super Bowl, and when they got there they promptly collapsed thanks to some bad luck and bad officiating. Besides that year (and last year, when injuries destroyed the team), the Seahawks have been a largely mediocre-to-good team, getting to the playoffs a lot without much chance to go farther than the second round. In that respect, they're a lot like most NFL teams--football pundits say the league has "parity," meaning a lot of teams that don't do better than 10-6 or worse than 6-10. Thanks to short player careers, random injuries to key players, and a draft that lets bad teams reload, a lot of teams can be competitive from year-to-year without having a shot at a championship. Unless you like the Patriots, Colts, or Steelers, being an NFL fan is like being a poor kid at Christmastime--always hoping for a big present under the tree, but usually settling for some Tinker Toys and a pair of Payless shoes.
But you can also root for individual players, right? Why tie yourself to a team when there are so many model citizens whose 80-dollar jersey you can drape around yourself?
So who's your man? The model-impregnating quarterback whose team was caught cheating? The linebacker who choked out his trashy, reality-show-having girlfriend? The guy who got caught running a dog-fighting ring or the rookie who refused to play for the team that drafted him because the millions they were going to pay him weren't enough? Or how about those guys who went on a cruise so debauched that the crew turned the boat around in horror? Maybe you like the washed-up quarterback who keeps changing his mind about retirement, or the receiver who shot himself accidentally with an illegal gun, or the running back who sold coke, or the guy who killed someone when he drove drunk. No one said NFL players had to be choir boys, but it's hard to root for people who spend the offseason recreating scenes from Training Day.
But hey, I can get past the felonious nature of NFL players. It's 2009, after all--we don't expect our athletes to be role models. But what I can't get past, what nearly ruins the sport for me, is the way NFL people talk about the sport.
Repeat after me: football is a game, like parcheesi. It's entertainment, like Transformers 2 or watching your friend trip out on mushrooms. But to the coaches, ex-players and "analysts" who talk to the cameras on ESPN, football is like World War II, only more complex and more serious. Press conferences with losing coaches are conducted in deathly seriousness, as if the coach was announcing that California was now underwater. Teams treat information about injuries like the USSR is spying on them. When Bill Belichek was caught cheating, everyone treated him like he was a cross between Richard Nixon and Pol Pot, when what he did could be compared to taking a peek at another player's cards during a spirited game of crazy eights.
In a rare display of common sense and decency, the NFL has moved away from using war metaphors to describe their amusing diversionary game, but the league isn't taking itself any less seriously. One of the NFL's most entertaining players, Chad Ocho Cinco nee Johnson, is also one of its most fined. Apparently, league officials want their wide receivers to quietly walk away from their touchdowns and humbly thank the commissioner for allowing them to play, rather than, y'know, entertaining fans who want to be entertained. The suits who control the game seem to believe that people watch the NFL because of how intense and serious it is, when in reality all the fans want is to watch some exciting games and gamble heavily on them. (Gambling is the elephant in the NFL's room--if it wasn't so fun to bet on, there's no way it would be as popular as it is now, but this is hardly ever mentioned by the NFL or the media.)
The NFL is the sporting equivalent of America: glamorous but run by stuffed suits and corporate money, inhabited mostly by criminals, frequently violent but intolerant of rule-breakers, inherently inequal (there are 69 Hall of Famers who are backs or receivers, but only 37 linemen in the Hall), and incomprehensible to those who are on the outside. Oh well--what else are you going to do on Sundays? Go to church? Read more!
Sometimes, in commenting on how much everything sucks now, this blog may give the mistaken impression that things were better at some point in the past. Nothing could be further from the truth. In our opinion, everything sucks, has sucked, and will suck for the foreseeable future. Man, That Sucked is a regular feature that explains why the past wasn't any better than the present. Today: September 11.
September 11, 2001 sucked for all kinds of obvious reasons. 3,000 people died immediately in a variety of horrible ways. The collapse of the towers spread dust into the air that caused hundreds or thousands of cases of asthma and other respiratory diseases. Rescue workers are still sick from the cleanup. And thanks to the pair of wars that were started as a more or less direct result of 9/11, the body count from the fall of the World Trade Center is still rising.
But worse than the lives lost is the pointlessness of it all. Even if you look at 9/11 from the point of view of the terrorists, if you think that America is the greatest evil in the world and must be destroyed at any cost, if your ultimate goal is to set the North American continent on fire and establish sharia as universal law--even then, how can you justify flying those planes into those towers? American global hegemony wasn't disrupted, capitalism continues to be a dominant force around the world..from their point of view, what did the suicide bombers accomplish? If they really ended up in Paradise, are they looking down on the world and smiling at their role in a war that their side has no hope of winning?
If you can call the global conflict between Western capitalism and fundamentalist Islam a war, it has to be the most hopeless, endless, pointless war in centuries. Neither side has a hope of winning. America and its allies invade countries, occupy land, kill terrorists and suspected terrorists that are replaced almost immediately by more fanatics equally willing to die. Meanwhile, these fanatics plot to blow up more buildings, set improvised explosive devices at roadsides in Iraq and Afghanistan, and kill a Marine or two when they get lucky. How is either side going to win? Even if America captures Osama Bin Laden and somehow sets up fragile democracies in the countries we're occupying, is there going to be a day when we've killed the last terrorist and no one wants to blow us up? And even if the fanatics somehow blow up the White House, or the Pentagon, is America going to stop killing people in the Middle East? Will the multinational corporations stop selling their sinful, sharia-defying products?
September 11 should be a day of mourning, not just for the people who died on that day, but for the soldiers who continue to get killed in dusty, foreign places, for the Palestinians who die from Israeli rocket fire, innocent Iraqis killed due to confusion or misinformed intelligence, Israelis who died just for riding the bus or going to a nightclub, suicide bombers who had their desperation and earnestness turned into weapons--we should mourn all of these people today, because not only are they dead, I can't see that any of their deaths have made much of a difference. And the war goes on. Read more!
Thursday, September 10, 2009
The National Football League, the professional home of the most complicated, most popular, most violent and most 'roided-up sport in the country, is kicking off its season tonight. Gamblers, fantasy sports nuts, fans of tailgating parties and beer, those who like watching concussions on live television—heck, everyone is excited to have us some football, at last. Along with eating disgusting food in artery-destroying quantities and carrying automatic weapons in public, watching the NFL is America's official National Pastime. Sure, some people claim baseball is the National Pastime, but these people believe that it's still 1958. In the last 20 years, no one except for George will and Bob Costas has actually watched a baseball game all the way through, while football has climbed the TV ratings and become entrenched in the American psyche.
And it's really just the American psyche. While basketball and, to a lesser extent, baseball have grown internationally, we can't seem to get any other countries interested in our obsession with the oddly-shaped pigskin ball. Yes, there's a league in Germany (last year the championship game was watched by 16,000 people—far more show up to see David Hasselhoff perform), and there have been a few games played in London to packed houses (the high attendance I attribute to a lot of US expatriates, the English's tolerance for oddities, and sheer morbid curiosity), but in general, the world has responded to American football the same way they would to a sport where the object is to stuff your fist into your mouth as fast as possible. Seen from a distance, football is a sport with overcomplicated and arbitrary rules, too many specialized positions, and a scoring systems that seems to have been designed by numerologists. Worse than that, watching a football game is often straight-up boring.
Even football fans will agree that in between the few moments of explosive action, there's a lot of down time in a modern NFL game. For every minute of actual football, there's at least two minutes of standing around doing nothing in particular. There's the time between downs when the coaches call the plays, the time when the quarterback is calling audibles at the line, the time when the referees are placing the ball at the new line of scrimmage (occasionally bringing the chains out to measure the distance, which takes more time), the time taken up by time outs called by both the coaches and the TV stations, the time taken up by the two-minute warning, the time taken by the winning team kneeling to close out the game or the half, and worst of all, there's the time taken by the coach's challenge.
The concept of the “challenge” might be the worst thing to happen to sports, steroids and the Black Sox scandal included. Challenges create the most boring moments on TV apart from text patterns and the Weather Channel at 4 a.m. For the blissfully uninitiated, here's what you see when a coach decides to formally “challenge” a call made by a referee: first, you watch the refs and coaches talking to each other for a few nail-bitingly exciting moments. Then a ref will go over to a television screen hidden, for what is probably a logical reason, in a black hood. He watches a slow-motion replay of the play in question, and the viewers see the replay too. Then they see it again. And again. Then they see a close up slowed down even further, then they see it from another angle. If you watch enough football, I guarantee you wee see many shots of a cleated foot brushing against a white line on the ground while the announcers discuss the position and disposition of the foot in the tone of lawyers arguing over constitutional law. If there are more than two challenges in a game, the broadcast begins to resemble the OJ trial in both tone and length.
Americans love the challenge. We love it so much we've started exporting it to other sports. Sure, it stalls the action and bores casual fans out of their skulls, but we need to get the call right. We hate the idea of a call being incorrect almost as much as we love arguing over arcane rules. We'll cripple football's appeal and highlight the worst part of the sport (the bizarre rules) because we simply can't accept referees' mistakes as part of the game—we'll even go back in time and change a score because of a blown call (something we won't do in the case of more important things like elections). America's best and worst qualities are fully on display during a football coach's challenge: our love of litigation, our desire to see justice done, our faith that if we slow things down and examine the issues, we'll make the right decision.
There's another side of America that gets put on display by football—our fondness for the modern corporate structure. Most sports have small teams of a dozen or two players, but with separate squads for offense, defense and special teams, NFL teams have 53 players and hordes of coaches, trainers and doctors to make sure the players memorize the playbook and don't get arrested or killed. NFL Head Coaches aren't coaches in the ordinary sense. They're more like CEOs overseeing a vast organization with a number of valuable but ultimately replaceable employees.
And NFL players are definitely viewed as replaceable. Every offseason, veteran players are tossed aside in favor of fourth- and fifth-round draft picks, and there's no team in the NFL that hangs on to players for sentimental reasons. Richard Seymour, who was one of the main reasons the New England Patriots won all of those Super Bowls, just got shipped across the country to Oakland. and Fred Taylor, the Jacksonville Jaguars' all-time leading rusher, just got cut outright.
More than most athletes, NFL players are treated as faceless commodities. A few players—mostly quarterbacks—become the “face” of the league (coincidentally, that face is white more often than not) by appearing in commercials and getting media attention. These players sell jerseys and put asses in the increasingly overpriced seats, while the vast majority of their colleagues remain anonymous, hidden behind pads and helmets every time they're on TV. No one buys their jerseys or gets their autographs, they play for a few years, acquire some broken bones and concussions, and then they die young—the average lifespan for an NFL player is 20 years shorter than the national average, despite all that money they have to buy health care with.
It sounds harsh, but the NFL really doesn't care about its players. If they did, they would have gone to lengths to provide them health care after retirement, or at least require current players to wear the concussion-resistant helmets that just got invented. (At least those helmets are allowed on the field now.) Boring, complex sports are one thing, but a boring, complex sport where the teams are run, consciously, as heartless corporations—that, to quote Vince Lombardi, sucks big fat engorged donkey dicks. Read more!
Monday, September 7, 2009
In elementary school, I had a music teacher who was one of the least pleasant women I have ever encountered. She sat her students, who were about eight years old, in front of keyboards they weren't allowed to touch and singled out those who didn't sing in tune with the rest of us. After I left the school, she got in trouble for throwing a book at a kid. The only time I remember enjoying her class was the week of Halloween, when she let us listen to Halloween-themed music, including the Ghostbusters theme and "Thriller," by Michael Jackson. Very few of us kids knew who Michael Jackson was, but we liked listening to the song way better than practicing "When the Saints Go Marching In" on our recorders.
Our reaction to Jackson's music wasn't exactly unique. A lot of people liked his songs and liked watching him dance around singing them. It's been nearly three months since Jackson died of a doctor-administered drug overdose and here in Brooklyn, I still hear his music floating around from open car windows and block-party boomboxes. Dozens of stores are selling quickly-produced t-shirts and buttons with both young and old Michael Jacksons on them. Someone spray-painted his likeness onto a fence near my house. And nine days ago there was a birthday party for him in Prospect Park.
The birthday party is ironic for a couple of reasons. Number one, no one would have cared much about his birthday if he was still alive, and number two, if Jackson were alive he would have preferred to celebrate surrounded by twelve-year-olds and the skeletons of deformed people. But the party, along with the memorabilia market and the overloading of Twitter, prove that, strangely, a lot of people really like Michael Jackson.
I don't think it's strange that people like Jackson's music. That guy wrote some catchy stuff and had a great voice (not to mention a lot of talented musicians playing and Quincy Jones producing). But Jackson as a person is another story--he was essentially an eccentric millionaire who exhibited a bizarre combination of naivete and arrogance.
Consider his molestation trial: he showed up twenty minutes late for a hearing, mumbled some answers to the judge, and danced around in front of the court house for his fans. He eventually got acquitted, after which he denounced the media for causing all his problems (whenever someone blames the media, you know it's an exaggeration at best) and retreated even further from the public eye. Yet his fans said things like this: “He stands for so much, all the goodness in the world and innocence.” (That's one of his supporters from England, quoted in the above link.)
No, he doesn't stand for all the goodness and innocence in the world. If you are idolizing Jackson because of what he stands for, you need new idols. The man became famous for singing and dancing, then mostly stopped doing both in order to become an increasingly unhinged drug addict--the only difference between him and Amy Winehouse is that he was more successful before his life fell apart.
In fact, I'm not sure Jackson ever tried to stand for much in particular. Sure, he had some nice "racism is bad" and "let's all love one another" songs, but so does every pop artist. As a lyricist, he was a step above Prince but not exactly Dylan-esque. I mean, his most famous line is probably that weird "shamona!" yell, right? And when he became fabulously wealthy he spent his money on prescription drugs and a private amusement park. You tell me how to turn that into someone worth admiring.
To me, Jackson represents a fundamental truth of popular culture: if you are famous enough, a lot of people will like you pretty much no matter what you do. Popularity has become a virtue in and of itself. Or maybe it's impossible for people to like a work of art without getting attached to the artist. It's hard to read The Cantos by Ezra Pound and think of Pound as a Fascist, and it's hard to listen to Thriller and picture Jackson as anything other than a paragon of virtue.
But whatever Jackson was, he wasn't a paragon. He was pretty damned good at singing and dancing, but that's pretty much it. He made some music that practically everyone liked, but he didn't seem interested in recording new music anymore. I liked "Thriller," but I liked the Ghostbusters song too, and I'm pretty sure I won't be in mourning when the guy who recorded that dies. Read more!
Friday, September 4, 2009
Schools have always been terrible places, from the seventeenth-century Puritan schoolhouses where the kids had the Bible beaten into them to the clique-ridden high schools of the 1980s which—if The Breakfast Club is as accurate as I think it is—were inhabited primarily by walking cliches who broke out into dance montages at the slightest provocation. But it's usually believed that schools are improving gradually. Hitting children with rulers is not common practice anymore (except maybe at Catholic schools) and everyone in America has access to public education (which sucks, but it's probably better than nothing).
However, there is something that has been infiltrating schools for the past several years, a teaching tool that is spreading like swine flu, only more damaging. It requires a bunch of money, wastes everyone's time, and might be actually making our children dumber—if the United States fails as a country thanks to the next generation, this practice will be at least partly responsible. I'm speaking, of course, of PowerPoint.
PowerPoint is basically a glorified slideshow. Actually, it's not even “glorified”: it's a computer program that lets you display slides, just like an overhead projector, only more complicated and less useful (you can write on an overhead projector with a marker, for instance). As a technology, it's right up there with the motion-activated paper towel dispenser. Putting a boring or poorly conceived presentation into PowerPoint does not make it better. In fact, it usually makes it worse—everyone has had to endure a meeting where someone stands in front of the room and simply reads from the screen (which the audience can see and read for themselves) in a monotone voice. The best thing that can be said about PowerPoint is that it saves time compared to writing things on a blackboard, unless the computer or projector has a problem, in which case PowerPoint turns into an enormous time waster. Essentially, schools are spending money on equipment and software in order to teach kids how to give boring presentations littered with clip art, graphs and bullet points, always more bullet points.
I had to “learn” PowerPoint in a tenth-grade Health class so I could give a presentation about calories or some other such bullshit. I put “learn” in quotation marks because if you're even remotely computer-literate, PowerPoint is incredibly easy to figure out. It's not some complex machine that takes years to master, or something that will help students later in life, for that matter.* But the bureaucrats on whatever sub-sub-committee decides what schoolchildren will be learning are computer illiterate and stuck in jobs where they have to deal with PowerPoint, so they figure that PowerPoint is both a difficult skill and a necessary one. (That's one theory for why PowerPoint is on the curriculum. Another idea is that these people simply hate children.)
Educators have gotten more forward-thinking in the teaching of PowerPoint, however. My little sister had to learn PowerPoint in middle school, and by this point, some poor kindergarteners are huddled in front of a monitor making a PowerPoint book report on If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.
But hey, classes have always been boring, and we've always taught our children worthless skills (like calculus), right? PowerPoint would be fine if it was merely boring, but it's actively destroying the brains of children.
For instance, instead of writing a report using traditional methods (just writing one, on paper), students might now be expected to make a PowerPoint presentation. They don't have to think about connecting their ideas using transitions and paragraphs, since they can lean on bullet points. They spend time looking for interesting images instead of choosing correct words. They fuck around for hours with fonts and layouts and use unnecessary “wipes” between slides like George Lucas. Then a bunch of class time is wasted by everyone presenting these slideshows individually while their classmates stare at the clock and have depraved sexual fantasies about one another.
And I've never had a teacher who bothered to teach how to make presentations interesting, a skill that has nothing to do with technology. Talking in front of groups of people is a useful skill, but more often than not students just learn how to read from a screen, and teachers won't bother to correct this behavior. The boring student presenters of today are the terminally boring adult presenters of tomorrow.
Recently there's been some positive signs of rebellion against PowerPoint. A Dean at Southern Methodist University is trying to eliminate technology, especially PowerPoint, from his classrooms because, big surprise, everyone hates having computers in classrooms. Older professors have to learn useless bullshit like how to hook up a computer to a projector and students get bored to the point of insanity watching slide after slide go by. The linked article references a recent survey of students that found "The least boring teaching methods were found to be seminars, practical sessions, and group discussions," things that are squashed when teachers use PowerPoint.
This guy, who wrote a book on PowerPoint and who looks like an asshole, says that boring presentations aren't PowerPoint's fault, but the fault of boring presenters. Well, duh. Homicides aren't the fault of handguns either, but handguns certainly don't help, and we don't allow handguns in our schools. That should go double for PowerPoint.
*Actually, learning to use and put up with PowerPoint might actually be useful, but that's only because businesses and institutions have stupidly adopted it as the main mode of discourse. For instance, the Pentagon has switched over to PowerPoint and has started making (more) faulty decisions as a result. It's possible that PowerPoint is responsible for the Iraq War. That's how much it sucks. Read more!
Wednesday, September 2, 2009
I knew a lot of smart people in high school. I went to a public school, but it was a “magnet school” that offered a lot of Advanced Placement classes, and let students take those classes without testing into them. A lot of kids from the “gifted” programs went there, and as a result the school regularly turned out National Merit Scholars and graduates who went on to places like Harvard and Columbia and CalTech. Among my friends and acquaintances it wasn't unusual to score in the 1500s on the SATs while taking four or five AP classes (and scoring highly on those tests as well).
Nearly all of these junior achievers took AP Calculus as part of a standard course menu. Few of them had a particular affinity for math (a lot of these folks went on to some sort of Liberal Arts degree and will probably make their living in the humanities, not the hard sciences), but it was understood that if you wanted to make your way into a respectable school and one day have oak furniture, you took AP Calc.
If you believe that schools exist to teach students useful things you probably have never gone to school, but you have also never seen a high school calculus class. Besides a few specialized professions—mathematician, physicist, calculus teacher—no one uses calculus at all. It's probably important for some people to know higher math so we can build rockets and make realistic-looking CGI monsters, but calculus is to people as guns are to ducks: potentially useful in some situations, but useless in practice.
The only point of AP Calculus (and most other AP courses) at my school was to be gatekeepers to exclusive colleges. Students took classes that taught useless information they had no interest in so they could demonstrate to the colleges they applied to that they were smart and motivated. It was resume-padding before these kids had resumes—not a terrible thing to learn how to do, but not exactly on the curriculum either.
I didn't take AP Calculus or AP Statistics, its less-demanding cousin, not because I was number-adverse (I had been on the math team in elementary school), but because I had taken Pre-Calculus and couldn't understand why any of this stuff was worth bothering about. Logarithms, factoring, SOHCAHTOA, Pascal's Number—I still have this stuff cluttering up my brain, and it would be even worse if had taken Calculus. Thank god I don't know anything about derivatives.
I might have been an idiot for not wanting to boost my resume like the other kids, but I don't think I missed out on anything. In fact, if I had stopped taking math after about ninth grade I don't think I would have missed anything. For ordinary people math is useful for handling money, reading graphs and calculating the area and volume of things for home-improvement projects—that's all I can think of. You learn all you really need to know by the time you enter high school, at which point math focuses less on real-world situations and more on right triangles, a shape I hardly ever deal with anymore.
The maddening thing is there is useful stuff that students could learn instead of calculus. What if you taught them about the stock market or managing a mortgage (things that it appears hardly anyone really understands)? Or what if you tossed the quadratic equation out of the window and taught kids HTML or video editing? There's lots of knowledge out there, yet calculus and pre-calculus continue to be taught to students who don't care about it and won't use it.
In early-twentieth century England, public school students (remember, their public schools are our private schools) were drilled in Greek and Latin extensively. They would memorize texts word for word and were beaten if they didn't learn fast enough. Greek and Latin weren't important skills—like calculus is now, it was a gatekeeper to test a student's ability to do something tough. We've gotten rid of the beatings, but we've kept the tradition of teaching arbitrarily difficult skills, which might be just as bad. Read more!