Tag: Congress

Day 994: The Game Of Milton Bradley’s Life

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I confess: I am but one week away from commemorating my 40th year on this planet, and I have yet to ever play The Game of Life. This is not due to some ethical or existential objection to simulating the course of one’s existence upon a square slab of cardboard, but rather due to my friends and I having spent our youthful recreation time with Star Wars toys and kindly ol’ Super Mario. I never got around to playing Candyland either.

As beloved as this board game may be, with its plastic minivans, its cruel cash-drains and generous paydays, buried deep within its roots is a transformative story. The original version of the game, concocted by Mr. Milton Bradley himself, elevated the concept of gaming from prescriptive quests for moral elevation to a more practical and modernized measure of success. More importantly, it came packaged with choice.

The Game of Life as we know it (well, as you probably know it, since I’ve never played the thing) features one early decision: go to school or get a job. After that, each soul is subjected to the whim of the spiteful spinner, suggesting that life is but a cavalcade of random collisions, and that we are always at the mercy of the fickle flick of fate. Mr. Bradley’s outlook on destiny was far more empowering.

Milton Bradley, 1860s

Tracing the Bradley lineage would suggest that a rather dreary definition of “life” could have taken center-stage in his outlook. The family tree was planted in America in 1635, and since then its bark shows the hatchet-marks of murder, Indian attack, kidnapping, and at one point hot embers being poured into an infant’s mouth. When Milton finally squeezed his way onto the planet in 1836, the Bradleys were a little less prone to being butchered, but far from being economic titans. Read more…

Day 983: Pistols At Dawn On Bloody Island

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Allow us a moment to reflect upon our broken culture and praise the glorious days of yore – the days of righteous morality, of a productive and contributory collective ethos, and of… duelling. Stupid friggin’ duelling.

Of all the ridiculous traditions that we hauled on our societal backs from the grubby landscape of the Middle Ages, duelling has to be among the most laughable. Honor and respect marked the blinding colors of the duelling flag, and men chose to end one another’s lives rather than take the more accepted modern approach of simply living in a perpetual state of passive-aggressive loathing.

When gloves would slap faces in 19th century St. Louis, the moment of stone-chinned confrontation would usually take place on a small divot of land in the middle of the Mississippi River called Bloody Island. This sandbar had crept above the water’s surface in 1798, and throughout that renegade century, Bloody Island was a lawless haven for antiquated honor defense.

Authorities agreed to look the other way when duels were to be fought on this crunchy piece of turf midway between Missouri and Illinois. Firing at pistols at one another in either state was illegal, but on Bloody Island nobody cared. It was all about nobility, about virtue, about manhood… and whatever.

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Thomas Hart Benton (also called “Old Bullion”, probably because he was a big fan of chicken soup cubes) was a Missouri Senator who pushed strongly for western expansion of the United States. He also pushed a little too hard upon the feelings of one Charles Lucas while they were battling over a land deal in court, back when Benton was an attorney. The two exchanged rather public words, which culminated when Benton had the audacity to call Lucas a “puppy.”

A puppy. More vile words were never spoken. Read more…

Day 975: All Hail Norton I, Emperor Of These United States Of America

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For all her achievements and triumphs, America just hasn’t been the same since the good ol’ days when the Emperor ran the show.

It was a brief sliver of eccentric history (or ‘eccentristory’ – I’m copyrighting that title) that should never be forgotten. And for some who live in San Francisco, where Emperor Norton breathed the free air of his glorious domain, it’s a cause worth championing. If nothing else, he was a testament to the spirit of the San Franciscan penchant for enfolding the quirky and unrepentantly goofy into the city’s lore. This wouldn’t have happened in Omaha.

Consider this an education on the potential of the politic of passion, a reimagining of a man’s place in the society that – to his mind – has clipped the wings of his security and left him abandoned in the ether. One cannot be defeated if one is the champion of one’s own self-proclaimed might. Kudos to Emperor Norton for making up his own rules, and Super-Kudos to San Francisco for buying in.

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No one knows for certain the details of his origin story, but we do know that Joshua Abraham Norton came to us from somewhere in England via South Africa in 1849 after receiving a hefty bequest of $40,000 from his late father’s estate. He parlayed that money into a successful dance around the real estate market, building his fortune up to a cool quarter-million within a few short years. But Mr. Norton was always on the lookout for the next big opportunity. In this case, it drifted beneath his nose in the form of a news release from China. Read more…

Day 899: Chanjing Our Speling So It Makes Mor Sens

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Ask anyone who has had to learn English as something other than their first language if it was difficult to soak in all the illogical rules and quirky exceptions in our spelling and they’ll probably look at you coldly while swearing under their breath in their native tongue. The English language is an uncompromisingly fucked cluster of clusterfucks. Our language is the bastard child of every conquering tribe and proto-nation that ever set its armed and faithful sword-wielders around the English countryside. Every silly rule and wonky spelling choice has a history, they just don’t all make a lot of sense as a whole.

There have been numerous highly-placed attempts at righting the wave-flopped ship of linguistic logic between the covers of our sacred dictionaries, but those brave soldiers of common sense have far too often ended up M.I.A., lost in the murk of traditionalism and phonetic disregard. This means we are probably stuck with all the inconsistencies and incongruities on our typo hit parade. And newcomers to the language will continue to question their decision to wade into this mess in the first place.

Just as headstrong, ambitious souls have offered up entire language replacements for English, based on logic, reason and ease of absorption among the masses, some have simply tried to fix our spelling. And just like those blazers of linguistic trails before and after them, they have mostly failed. We English-speakers are a stubborn bunch.

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Once the Norman leaders were scooted back to the continent after having planted three centuries’ worth of asses at the helm of England, our linguistic foreparents had to sort through a heap of French words that had filtered into the language. When the printing press showed up, things got even messier. A guy named William Tyndale translated the New Testament in 1525, and a few years later Henry VIII decided to defy the pope’s decree that the bible should never be mass-printed. The problem was, the people who did the actual printing of the bible in English didn’t speak a word of the language.

Tyndale outsourced the job. Read more…

Day 888: The Real Section-8-ness Of The Section-8

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On the 27th episode of M*A*S*H, only three shows into its second season, Corporal Max Klinger made his most serious and likely push for his dismissal from the US Army. It was a running gag throughout the first seven years of the show that Klinger would wrap himself in dresses, stoles and boas in an effort to acquire a sacred Section 8 – a discharge from the army due to a psychiatrically diagnosed case of nuttiness. But the gag should have been quashed after the episode in question – “Radar’s Report.”

In this episode, psychiatrist Dr. Milton Freedman (he’d be assigned the first name ‘Sidney’ in all subsequent appearances) tells Klinger he’ll give him the Section 8, but only by putting down in the official record that Klinger is a transvestite and a homosexual. Outraged, Klinger insists he’s none of those things – just crazy.

Beneath the surface of this punchline lies the real truth about the Section 8. This method of discharge was a frequent tool for commanding officers who wished to rid their platoon of “subversive” gays. It was a cold and calculated bayonet to the career of anyone whose preference in a mate – or even whose skin color – offended the sensibilities of a bigoted officer. Klinger could have taken Dr. Freedman up on his offer, but it would have come at a cost.

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In 1916 the US Army came up with a form of discharge that hovered in purgatory between “Honorable” and “Dishonorable”. It was printed on blue paper, and came to be known as the blue discharge or a blue ticket. It was originally used to send home kids who had enlisted to fight in World War I underage, though that act of teenage patriotism was eventually promoted to an honorable discharge. For gay troops though, the blue ticket was an easy get. Read more…

Day 880: Litigious Humping, According To The Supreme Court

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When Paul Ferber found himself behind bars for participating in a routine business transaction, he was outraged. How dare they? So he sold a couple of video tapes to an undercover police officer – is that a crime? Even if the videos featured young boys masturbating? It’s art! Maybe the songetto cavato score beneath the monkey-spankage was poignant, while the chiaroscuro lighting through the window shades evoked themes of loss and redemption.

Or maybe it’s just obscene and illegal. It certainly was at the time; the United States was guided by the landmark 1957 Supreme Court case of Roth v. United States, which enabled Congress to ban any potentially obscene thing they wanted, provided it was “utterly without redeeming social importance”. It was an improvement to a system that had previously nixed work by D.H. Lawrence, Balzac (even his name could make women in the temperance league squirm with disdain), Flaubert and James Joyce. But it left a few legal uncertainties on the table.

There was still no federal standard for what could be considered ‘obscene’. While films of free-flappin’ genitalia might be fine for the slobbery denizens of the East Village, they might offend the delicate sensibilities of Utah. It would take decades before the justice system would figure out where exactly they should land on the pornography issue. And of course it only took about a week of the internet existing to blow it all apart.

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In 1973, the Supreme Court had to engage the question once again. Marvin Miller, a California-based mail-order smut peddler (sorry, that’s not fair… sweat-laden-erotica peddler) sent out a brochure to plug some of his latest product. The brochure was not as suggestive and puritanishly murky as one might expect a pre-Deep Throat pornography ad to be. For some reason, one of those brochures found its way to a restaurant in Newport Beach, where the owner and his mother were outraged enough to call the cops. Read more…

Day 851: Eviscerating The Elected – Worst Politicians Part 1

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If a politician’s legacy was determined solely by how many bad things are said about them in public, then all of history’s worst politicians are either presently in office or they have served their terms since the advent of the 24-hour news cycle. This isn’t true of course – to truly dig through history’s nuances and rank our politicians’ situational responses would be an impossible task, and a magnificently arbitrary effort in academic wankery.

So naturally it has been done, several times over in fact.

I can see ranking our leaders as an interesting exercise, if performed by historians and political experts who can employ their breadth of knowledge of tariffs and policies and the various global goings-on that were impacted by each one. But expecting the general public to provide any insight on whether James Polk or Martin Van Buren had a more positive impact on America is going to produce a somewhat questionable result.

Nevertheless, we’ll dig through the filthy, obfuscated muck of public opinion as well as the academically-approved muck from the professionals. It’ll be nice to take a break from picking on history’s worst movies, TV shows and music and having a dig at actual people who – for reasons either selfless, corrupt, or a sprinkling of both – decided they wanted the chance to be in charge.

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Abe Lincoln, FDR and George Washington tend to top the U.S. Presidential rankings, with an honorable mention to Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and JFK. I’m looking at a collection of seventeen surveys conducted between 1948 and 2011, from sources like the Wall Street Journal and Sienna College. A few curious trends are immediately evident. First, in the half-century between James K. Polk’s term ended in 1849 and Teddy Roosevelt’s began in 1901, the only president considered to be even remotely above mediocre is Lincoln. In fact, three of the bottom four-ranked presidents served just before and just after Abe. Read more…

Day 847: Tales From Liberty Island

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If I were to brainstorm everything I know about the Statue of Liberty it would look like this:

–       The French donated it as a gift to mark the United States’ centennial (and probably as a thank-you for having whomped their perpetual enemy, the British, in the Revolutionary War).

–       It blows up in every disaster movie.

Not much history there. I almost visited Liberty Island once, but I opted to stay on the ferry back to New Jersey. I’d left my phone at the station, probably when I put it down to clap along with the chorus of John Fogerty’s “Centerfield” (a temptation I can never resist), which was playing on the speakers at the station. Our time was tight that day, and we’d have only had enough time to walk around the island and try to look up Lady Liberty’s dress until the next ferry, but I still consider it a lost opportunity.

That significant little slab of land has a history to it – one that stretches long beyond the 1886 unveiling of the grand statue. One that also features a phenomenal explosion. Like any amateur historian, I’ll pull at any thread that might result in an exciting kaboom.

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That appetizing slab of muck is actually an oyster bed. The tidal flats in Upper New York Bay used to be filled with these tasty little creatures, and they washed up en masse on the shores of the three islands that would later be known as Ellis, Black Tom and Liberty Islands. The trio were known as the Oyster Islands by the settlers of New Amsterdam, and they’d continue to supply non-Kosher goodness to folks in the region for centuries before landfilling expanded the islands’ footprints and messed with the natural coastlines. Read more…

Day 846: I Hereby Yield The Floor To The Member Of Parliament From Crazytown

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As much as I try to avoid writing about politics (mostly because I’m far more informed about other topics, like bacon and juggling), I am nevertheless somewhat boggled, baffled and befuddled at the fact that Rob Ford could very possibly win his bid for re-election this fall as Toronto’s mayor. Look, I can understand the appeal of a crack-smoking drunk – we all know the bad-boys got all the chicks in high school. I myself once wore a mullet and owned a ratty old jean jacket.

But I think there has to be a line of responsibility drawn here. Someone like Rob Ford should not be tasked with running Canada’s largest city. There needs to be a cap on how high a slovenly misogynist with a penchant for substance abuse can climb in society – I’m thinking an assistant manager at a Denny’s. Anything more important than that and we’re just asking for trouble.

Mayor Ford is hardly the world’s only example of a poorly-chosen leader, and I’m not even including the numerous corrupt dictators and store-bought US Congressmen. We North American types have been mostly oblivious to the antics of Godfrey Bloom, an independent Member of the European Parliament for the Yorkshire And The Humber section of England. This guy is classic Rob Ford material, minus the crack use.

Also, he sort of looks like the star of stage and screen, John Houseman.

Also, he sort of looks like the star of stage and screen, John Houseman.

Godfrey Bloom was elected to the European Parliament in 2004 as a member of the United Kingdom Independence Party, a right-wing libertarian group that supports the monarchy and frowns on same-sex marriage and climate change. Godfrey served as the party whip until September of last year when he (and the party) decided their fundamental differences in opinion were a little too wide for that relationship to continue. Read more…

Day 840: Baby You Can Drive My Car – Or Better Still, Your Robot Can Do It

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As I trepidatiously shuffle toward the edge of the board, ready to leap into the warm waters of turning 40 this year, I realize it’s time to release my hopes of seeing the skies filled with flying cars. That Jetsons-style future-scape is not going to cross paths with my personal timeline, just as I probably won’t experience the food replicator from Star Trek or the Cleveland Browns winning a Super Bowl. That’s okay, I can live with that.

But what we lack in personal airborne transport (I don’t see the jetpack taking hold as any type of standard either) we are making up for in robot technology. If we can’t buzz the upper windows of the Chrysler Building in our 2033 Buick Fly-lark then at the very least we can have a nap in the back seat while our car safely transports us to work and parks itself. And from the looks of things, I won’t have to wait until my octogenarian days to experience this.

The robot-car, or autonomous vehicle, is a reality. And we can thank Google, the company that has created the technology to allow us to accurately simulate the experience of walking in a strange city with blurred-out faces, for having successfully tested a driverless car to the extent where it seems almost marketable. This idea has been in the works for a long time.

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In 1926 the Houdina Radio Control Co., which had been founded by a former US Army electrical engineer named Francis P. Houdina, demonstrated a radio-controlled driverless car through the crowded streets of midtown Manhattan. It was a novelty and it very much required human control in some fashion, but it was a start. The experiment garnered enough attention to piss off Harry Houdini, who stormed into Houdina’s offices with his secretary and trashed the place, believing Houdina to be capitalizing on Harry’s famous name. The 20’s were a wild decade. Read more…