House of Cards

I have eventually gotten around to checking out Netflix’s inaugural show, House of Cards, starring Kevin Spacey, Kate Mara, and Robin Wright.

Most of the hype surrounding this show centered on the fact that it was produced by Netflix, but it really could have come out on even the most traditional television channels. Its pedigree is impeccable; supremely written and directed, with a slimy, lo-fi soundtrack, and confident quarterback of a main character capable of carrying extended stretches of show. Kevin Spacey has been great as House Majority Whip Frank Underwood, a perfect fit for a show about Washington DC’s power players ruthlessly backstabbing one another.

There’s also a stable of interesting sub-plot storylines that really carry the water; an addict congressman, a rival back in the home district, and Freddie, a barbecue  restauraneur who seems capable of getting a plate of ribs under Frank’s nose on alarmingly short notice.  But for the most part, all these side characters serve as nothing more than detours to help flesh out the Frank Underwood character.

In one episode, a harried Frank calls on Freddie to take over catering on the day of a critical fundraiser. Good ribs take hours to make, yet Freddie is able to churn out enough ribs to cater a large fundraiser with almost zero notice? And usually in exchange for what appears to be a single bill, that is always elicits a reaction by the restauranteur that Frank paid way too much. The spectacle reeks of class inequality and definitely more than hints at racial showboating. Furthermore, whether intended or not, these exchanges underscore the depressing fact that the people who run Washington DC, are not the people who have to actually have to live in Washington DC. As Frank Underwood slowly builds his castle, Freddie slowly lives in a cloud of smoke in southeast Washington.

Frank’s wife, played by Robin Wright, is a machine that is fueled by the blood of 59 year-old service workers and origami-folding indigents. Every scene feels like she’s luring in a new character in order to drain them of their lifeforce.

Underwood’s protege/lover/confident, Zoe Barnes, is played by Kate Mara. Mara is arguably the more useful of the two female leads as her youth, lifestyle and profession put her on a different path from the Underwoods’ high society back-room proceedings. Zoe Barnes is the show’s wild card, growing from an entusiastic naivete to a strong-willed journalist who holds some ideals.

It’s hard to conclude how long of a shelf-life this show has. The first two seasons cost $100 million to make, which Netflix claims it has already recouped in terms of new subscribers. But will House of Cards keep up its subscription boost by the end of the second season? Maybe by then Netflix will have added more quality shows to its bullpen.

Additionally, Kevin Spacey is clearly hoping that a couple seasons on a critically acclaimed show is going to propel him back onto Hollywood’s A-list, at which it stands to reason that he’s going to leave the show. Of course, the other possibility is that he sticks around a while longer, collects a few more paychecks, and accepts his lot as a very good actor who probably is best suited as a supporting actor in good films, and a lead actor in mediocre-to-crummy films.

But at the moment, you can hang your hat on this show. The immovable characters; the main character, two female leads, are all keepers. There are enough shady Washington DC anecdotes that can be adapted to keep House of Cards standing for the forseeable future.

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The Fucking Post Office

As I’m bouncing around the Bay Area, I went into the post office to open a P.O. box, so I have a steady way of receiving mail. Now, it’s no revelation that the post office is a wretched place to be. The line is long, there’s always a whining human child, there’s no consistent average amount of time per transaction so you have no idea how long anything is going to take, and the people working behind the desk are clearly more exasperated than the customers that they serve.

In other words, I wasn’t expecting a smooth ride. Yet regardless, I left the post office so angry that I wanted to come back with a blowtorch to burn through their colossally shitty rulebook.

You see, all I was looking for was a P.O. box. I didn’t have anything to mail, I had my driver’s license to show as ID, and I had already paid for the box online. The only thing i was expecting to leave with was a key to my temporary mailbox.

But staying true to the rule that most public administrators are total failures at life, I was turned away for not having two forms of acceptable identification. Granted, I had a valid driver’s license, credit cards, a social security card, but as the worn out mongoloid behind the counter mentioned, “social security card is not ID”

Failures.

In order to receive a post office box in the United States, an applicant must also furnish one of the following: (1) Current lease, mortgage, or deed of trust, (2) Voter or vehicle registration card, (3) Home or vehicle insurance policy.

So I, who just moved to a new city without a car, am unable to qualify for a post office box. It also means that 90% of the people who actually have a reason to apply for a P.O. box can’t actually get one. Sorry, people who have moved. Sorry homeless people. I’m sure the creator of this policy will tell you from his or her home in Reston, VA that these new policies are a byproduct of post-9/11 concerns. Never mind that any terrorist worth half his salt could create a fraudulent apartment lease. It’s policies such as this that really argue how little public administrators have in common with the people they’re entrusted to serve, and it definitely makes me ashamed to have ever spent any time studying this field.

 

High-speed train construction gets derailed

It looks like Americans in support of a high-speed rail system will either have to break out their checkbooks or their car keys. Several state governors have cited budgetary issues in their reasoning for turning down the Obama administration’s offer of federal funding for the construction of high-speed rails through their respective states. This argument, at least according to the governors who said “no” to the funding, is based on the fact that federal funding doesn’t foot the entire rail construction bill. In order to attain the money on offer, each state will have to drum up a considerable chunk of dollars from the state budget in order to close the gap on construction costs, not to mention the annual bill that it takes to actually keep the trains running.

Amidst an economic climate in which everyone is facing deep cuts, it’s understandable for states to bristle at the prospect of adding long-term expenditures to the annual budget. Ohio Governor John Kasich has spoken out against the rail project, (which is expected to cost about $17 million per year to operate), declaring “That train is dead. I said it during the campaign. It is dead. Passenger rail is not in Ohio’s future.”

This sentiment has been echoed in the Wisconsin and Florida statehouses as well, with the primary complaint being the high cost of matching the giant wad of cash that the federal government has broken out as a carrot to incentivize state government action.

The logic behind the Obama administration’s requirement that states foot at least some of the railroad bill is rooted in the idea that one values an object more when they pay for at least some of its costs.  While this argument is consistently accepted when dealing with road construction, it simply hasn’t generated as much political juice when applied to trains.

The debate over funding for high-speed rail is an example of people not seeing, or refusing to recognize the larger picture. It’s hard to justify this duplicitous nature, as roads are unending money sinkholes in their own right. It costs a train conductor’s ransom to cover the money lost in traffic congestion and road repair, even while accounting for tolls and other sources of revenue. And that’s not to mention that it’s technically impossible to alleviate traffic by adding more lanes.

As far as high-speed rail’s economic productivity is concerned, one must consider the cost related to both the interstate highway system, as well as the short-haul airplane flights that far outstrip the automobile’s gas consumption. But that isn’t true.

Here’s an excerpt from argument against rail construction in Wisconsin:

“In Wisconsin, for example, a round-trip fare between Madison and Milwaukee would cost roughly $50 per person, even though the cities are less than 80 miles apart along Interstate 94. With a round trip between the two cities by automobile requiring only about six gallons of gasoline, depending on vehicle type, a high-speed rail ticket would cost a solo traveler at least twice as much as what the traveler would pay in gasoline driving between the two cities.” (link)

While the price for rail tickets may be correct, this argument circumvents the “wear and tear” issue almost entirely. Sure, a $50 ticket gets a passenger from point A to point B, but it also includes the cost of maintenance. The aforementioned 80 mile car trip doesn’t factor in any of the indirect wear and wear costs that are incurred both on the highway, but also the car itself. If we choose to go by the IRS’ valuation for wear and tear on automobiles, an 80 mile drive incurs somewhere between $11 and $40 of wear and tear. So a businessman who makes an 80 mile drive in a car that gets about 20 miles to the gallon is likely accruing $52 worth of costs in order to make the same trip that he could have made for $50. And that’s not even factoring in the costs of tolls and parking.

Instead, the issue comes from the fact that it’s hard to view these rails and roads as equal commodities. For one, People like driving their own cars. They are, in many ways, mobile homes. The average American spends an eighth of their lifetime either behind the wheel, or in the passenger seat. When you spend that much time anywhere, it’s understandable for one to grow attached to it. After all, it’s fun to roll down the windows, turn up the volume on the radio, and floor it down the open highway.

But that, like many past times, are little more than a fantasy. Most Americans aren’t cruising down the highway, but harnessed by long lines of gridlocked traffic. It’s an amalgamation of that guy who buys a sports car, only to spend most of his time cruising through 35 miles an hour residential streets.

Additionally, cars are bad for you. 33,000 people died in car crashes last year, and countless more are dying a slow death due to 3 hours a day of sitting in a car seat.

The rejection of high-speed rail funding is also a result of ignoring industry trends. Statistics show that more people are riding the train than ever before. Additionally, it’s not like rejecting the funding means that the money is going back to U.S. citizens, or likely even the federal government. Numerous states have moved in to snatch up the cash that Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin have so quickly rejected. Maryland, one of the states who has some in to pick over the leftovers, is sandwiched in a stretch of some of the highest traffic density in the western world. A fleshed out rail system across the Mid-Atlantic would help to provide a sample of what a developed high-speed rail system can provide to a region.

There’s plenty to like about a high-speed rail system. A 200 mph train ride is far faster than a car, and the prospect of circumventing the slow and degrading search methods employed at airports make it a viable alternative. Critics can point to the high initial and maintenance costs, but it’s not as if roads are cheap by any means. So opponents of a high-speed rail system can cite the high cost amidst a crummy economic period, but any other argument made is rooted in delusional, misinformed bias.

Nigerian Scam

Embassy row in Washington DC was dark that night, save a pair of lights that permeated through the ground floor windows of the Nigerian Embassy. A moment later, one of the of the lights dimmed to darkness.

Abashi, a man in his early thirties, propped his feet on the desk. His tie was loose and his collar unbuttoned.
“And that’s why we need your help”, he spoke wearily into the phone. The caller barked a response that made Abashi tip the receiver away from his ear. He scrawled a line through a name on his notepad, thumbed the hook, and punched in a new number.

Mazi, hat in hand, emerged in the doorway. He was wearing a unbelted beige overcoat, and a red tie spilled out from his neck, and down his white-cottoned belly. Grey strands threaded their way through his black curls.
“Mazi”, Abashi pronounced, widening his eyes and hanging up the phone. “What are you doing?”
“I’m going home”  Mazi replied, determinately.
Mbeke, armed with a ream of papers, arrived at Mazi’s size. Her hair looked jostled, and was pinned lopsided in the air with a ballpoint pen.
“Get back here Mazi” she exclaimed. She withdrew the pen from her hair, sending frizzy hair tumbling out to one side, and forced the papers towards his chest. Mazi aimed his palms in her direction and pushed himself away. “I’m not signing anything else. Mbeke. There’s no point.”
Mazi closed his eyes and released a long breath of air, before walking over to Abashi’s desk. Mbeke followed, her stiletto heels scraping against the tile floor. Abashi hung up the phone and set it down. He slid his legs off the desk, pressing soles to the floor. “Our nation is under attack, Mazi” Abashi stated. “What would the foreign ministry say to you deserting when you’re needed the most?”
“I don’t know what they’d say!” Mazi replied shrugging his shoulders. “We haven’t had contact with Abuja in, uh.” He turned to Mbeke, who examined her watch. “Thirty-five hours and 53 minutes” she replied, blinking slowly. “Thirty-five hours and 53 minutes!” he proclaimed, and donned his hat. “I’ve been on the phone with the foreign ministry of every country in the western hemisphere, and every single one of them has spit in my ear.”
Abashi frowned. “I know. And the same thing has been happening to me.” He ran rings on his temples with his thumb and index finger, and tried to think of something reinforcing to say.
Mazi pursed his lips and pointed east. “Look. We know the Delta Rebels took control of Abuja, and we know that we can’t pay their ransom demands unless the Minister of Finance authorizes it.”
“And we know that the Finance Minister is dead.” added Mbeke. “We don’t know who’s in charge.”
“So there’s nothing we can do from here.” Mazi said, donning his hat. “That’s why I’m going home. Mbeke, if you’re staying, please give Abashi anything he needs.”

Mbeke eyed Abashi indignantly, and rolled her eyes. Mazi took a final survey of the office, eying the empty, ransacked desks of former employees, who had departed under the assumption of unmet wages. Overturned files spilled papers over every surface, floor and desk. Mazi’s eyes met with Mbeke and Abashi, who stared back angrily. He then buckled his coat and departed.

Abashi stood in silence, grinding his teeth. He walked over to the water cooler, which dispensed its last few drops into his coffee mug. He approached the drinking fountain in the hall and held the mug under a stream so weak that the water dribbled backwards onto the metal spout. He then returned to his desk, plopped back down and dialed the next number on his list.

The call went straight to a voicemail. “Hello, Mr. Ambassador, this is Abashi Abacha, Acting Director of the Nigerian Embassy in Washington, DC. We have been informed by the Foreign Ministry that our President has been assassinated, and his family, along with his cabinet department and the Vice President are now being held hostage. We require a third party in order to help resolve this matter. Please return this call as soon as possible, the number is 202-545-4500, extension 434.”

“It’s late” said Mbeke, with a sigh. “Everyone probably went home already”

Abashi frowned at his new assistant. “Is that really the point? Call off our search simply because it’s practical?”

Mbeke nodded. “We should call off the search. With an empty office and no multilateral support, it’s crazy for you to think you can do anything right now. We should go home and continue in the morning.”

Abashi looked at her with sympathetic eyes. “If you believed that, you would have left with Mazi.” He approached her and rested a hand on her shoulder. “You and I are still here because we both know that there is nowhere left to go”

A phone erupted in a clattering of rings. Abashi slid across a desk, spraying papers through the air, and lifted the receiver. “Nigerian Embassy, this is Abashi Abacha”.

“Hello, this is George Riker of the Australian Foreign Ministry. I’m here on a conference call with the Prime Minister and his Chief of Staff. What is your situation?”

“Hello sirs”, Abashi said, grabbing a notebook and pencil. “At 8:35 am on Thursday, rebel forces took control of the capital. Our President has been assassinated, and the rebels have placed the remainder of our government in detention and are demanding a 120 million ransom.”

“What about the troops on the ground?”

“No contact since the rebel demands were issued” replied Abashi.

“And what is the word on your ability to pay?” asked Riker.

“Unfortunately, before being killed, our President called a state of emergency, which resulted in a freeze on all federal bank accounts.” Abashi said.

“So we have no access to money to pay off the ransom.” Added Mbeke.

“This is why we are using this opportunity to solicit your co-operation and assistance.” Abashi said. “We need urgent help to get the ransom money to Abuja as soon as possible.”

A click could be heard on the other end of the line. “This is Duncan Quick, Chief of Staff. What approach are you looking for us to take in regards to this matter?”

“Once you wire us the money, we will be able to pay the ransom, and then unfreeze our bank accounts. After that, we can pay you back.”

A pause was heard on the Australian end. After a moment, the Chief of Staff came back on the line. “So to summarize, you’re asking for 120 million dollars in cash to be wired to Nigeria?” Mr. Quick asked.

“Yes sir.” Abashi said excitedly. “Although the captors actually requested the payment to be made in Euros. Did I mention the 100 percent Nigerian guarantee?”

A low rumble of voices could be heard through the receiver, followed by shouting, and a click. Abashi’s mouth dropped. “Hello? Hello?!” But his shout was met with the line’s disconnection. Abashi held the phone in the air, staring at the receiver.

“What did they say?” asked Mbeke.

“They hung up.”

Mbeke exhaled loudly, and put the back of her hand to her head. “Well. Let’s hope they call back.”

Dumb blonde joke

A blonde driver is pulled over by a blonde police officer for speeding.

“Ma’am, can I see your drivers license, please.”

The driver rummages through her purse, before conceding that she can’t find it.

“Well do you have any form of a photo ID.” the cop asks, growing agitated.

The driver again digs in her purse, pulls out a compact, looks at herself in the mirror, hands it to the officer and says: “Here, this has my picture in it.”

The police officer looks in the compact and hands it back to the  driver.

“I am so sorry Ma’am, if I had known you were a cop I would have never pulled you over.”

DC has a disproportionate amount of jerks

I’m a firm believer in the “bad apple” theory. If one person in 100 is bitter, angry and selfish, everyone else is bound to be negatively affected simply by standing within their range. Consider that one jerk at the office. When he eats half your lunch from the fridge and then farts in front of your desk when returning to work, it’s natural to feel affected.

Life in Washington, DC can often resemble that gassy coworker. It’s hands-down the angriest, most divisive major city in the United States. For no singular origin, it’s easy to find yourself standing next to someone who doesn’t like you, doesn’t want to know anything about you, and if no one’s looking, might even lean over to step on your hand as you tie your shoe.

Fighting Words

Fortunately for the average fan of cities, much of the anger amongst Washington’s citizens can’t be recreated anywhere else. For starters, DC is ground zero for that endless war between Democrats and Republicans. When averaged out, the metropolitan area is almost exactly a 50/50 red-blue split, with the standard deviation resting on what party is presently in power. And in case you’ve never seen a political ad, speech, or poster before, these two sides hate each other. Elections, and government in general, are almost exclusively reactionary, and political change is usually trailed by a constituency that is motivated enough to make their voices heard. Some famous person once said that “Change is the result of a bunch of angry idiots”. I think that’s how the quote goes.

Job Turnover

The variance in ideologies also dictates the next major problem with a city that hinges on administration changes. Over 250,000 federal and government jobs are filled at any point in DC, but there is little job security because the new team in charge always wants to bring in their own people. This resonates throughout the city via massive turnover rates in almost every field. New lawyers at the Department of Justice, new economists at the Treasury Department, new Capitol Hill staffers and legislators. You see where this is going.

Critics of DC’s job environment will cite the influx of jobs being created every time a new administration takes office. Yes, there are still plenty of jobs to be had in DC, but this current recession aside, consider that most people in most cities expect their jobs to exist in four years. In DC, you’re rarely afforded that luxury.

This isn’t my house

When one feels a sense of disconnect, they’re less likely to react with the same regard for their environment. DC is a city of transplants. People come here from every corner of the country, but less than half of its residents are born in the district’s metropolitan area. If the average DC resident isn’t from here, it’s unreasonable to expect him or her to have a sizable connection to the area. It’s like a guest dropping a glass at a party. They may claim responsibility, even ask for a broom to sweep it up, but you know they’re not doing as thorough of a job, sweeping the corners, mopping the floor, as if it were their own house. “After all”, they might say to themselves, “There’s a bunch of other people here, and the host is going to have to clean up anyway”. Unfortunately, the host is from Texas, and didn’t have to put down a security deposit.

I’ve got a long drive ahead

The DC area is hard to clearly define, since people commute from humongous distances. According to Forbes magazine, DC area drivers spend about 60 hours a year stuck in traffic, and 15% of residents spend over an hour each day driving into work. Sure, other cities such as Los Angeles and New York experience traffic problems, but DC is a fraction of the size of New York and LA, so when you factor in another hour for the return commute, it’s easy to see why so many people have a frown on their face.

The “nod”

When I make inadvertent eye contact with strangers, I give them a nod, as if to say “I realize that we just made eye contact by accident, but I acknowledge your existence”. In the course of a day in a city, it’s easy to occasionally make inadvertent eye contact with strangers. And before I got to the DC area, I considered this gesture to be a good show of manners, especially because there was a 99.9% success chance that the same gesture would be returned.

But I urge you to walk around Washington, DC and test this gesture out. People will look at you with expressions ranging from “who is this person? what do they want? why did they nod at me?” to “I will absolutely try to murder you if you look in my direction again.”

It’s obvious that not everyone in Washington DC is a bad apple. There are thousands of people working in underpaid and stressful jobs for the single goal of helping others. But like a child who just found out the truth about Santa Claus, there are many jaded people who are marching to a downbeat.

One day, while waiting for a Metro train, I bent over to tie my shoe, just as a passing woman stuck the heel of her shoe into my hand. I looked up and asked why she just tried to punch a hole through my second favorite hand. She turned and looked up at me. “I didn’t see you down there” before continuing on. I boarded the train and pushed a man aside, as I made my way towards a seat. It’s hard to maintain a warm disposition when surrounded by frigid bodies.

Buffalo buffalo

In 1972, a graduate student in the linguistics department at the University of Indiana created what is possibly the zaniest sentence in the English language:

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

The inventor of the sentence, Dr. William Rapaport, argues that the syntax of his sentence breaks down to the use of “buffalo” as a place (the city of Buffalo), thing (those furry rhinos who used to carpet the Great Plains), verb (“to buffalo”, which means to bully or overwhelm), and style (e.g. Buffalo-style buffalo wings). So, buffalo who reside in, or at least culturally identify themselves with, the city of Buffalo, NY (i.e. Buffalo buffalo) are engaged in the act of buffaloing other Buffalonian buffalo in a fashion that is stylistically unique to the city of Buffalo.

Dr. Rapaport, who heightens the confusion by now working at the University of Buffalo, has managed to successfully identify a word with enough versatility to serve as an object, verb, and place on the map, all while appearing identical in both singular and plural form. He has argued that last point most vehemently, on the grounds that plural “-s” endings “lack a certain aesthetic simplicity”.

Discriminating tastes aside, I applaud Dr. Rapaport for his discovery, even if it resides entirely on a single page in a dictionary. But let’s face the giant animal in the room; repeating the word “buffalo” seven times doesn’t make any sense. For starters, it fails the most basic of English tests. If I approached a human English speaker on the street and recited Dr. Rapaport’s sentence, he or she would look at me as if I had just tried to offer them a ride on my spaceship.

The sentence also holds no historical value. It was first written in 1972, long after any significant buffalo-related buffaloing could have taken place. Plus, there may not actually be any buffalo who identify themselves as full-time residents of the city of Buffalo, New York. A search of city records yielded no results, although all it takes is one deranged citizen to take a stab at unregistered buffalo ownership. An aggressive door-to-door search of homes for unregistered herds may yield positive results, but it’s unlikely to gain steam, given the current economic conditions.

To this English speaker, however, the confounding element of Dr. Rapaport’s sentence rests not in how it’s read or written, but in the amount of time and effort that took place in order to authenticate his research: The cloudy chalkboard of scribbled variations; The late nights with his academic advisor by his side, peppering it with suggestions  (“Perhaps you could cross out the third “buffalo” in the sentence and attach it to the end”); the nods of approval by faculty members when his paper was published; and the faces of his peers, who were complicit to the entire event.

So maybe William Rapaport has added a valueless sentence to the English language. Maybe this is the first case of a toddler speaking on the same linguistic plane as degree-conferring academics. Maybe his verbal concoction is less than Shakespearean.

But times are tough for the world of wordplay. The English language isn’t as ripe for innovation as it was during William Shakespeare’s time. Nowadays, the only way for a linguistics professor to make a blip on the cultural radar is to repeatedly string together the same word. So, it’s likely for the best that Dr. Rapaport keeps his gold star. Because when there’s not enough low hanging fruit to go around, you have to pick the apples beneath your shoes.