Friday, December 23, 2005

In Search of N.H.

     As I've mentioned before, I use Sitemeter to keep track of the unpopularity of my blog. It's always exciting to take a look at the stats at the end of the day and see that people have visited my page. And I'm always curious about the people (that would be you) who read my blog, especially repeat visitors. I like to see what search engine results brought people here because I feel like I get to know them a little by seeing what they're looking for. (I could get you know you all even better if everyone commented, but I understand you're not all comfortable with that)
     But it's not particularly gratifying when people stop by my blog because they were looking for something unrelated and only stay for about as long as it takes to find the "Back" button. I'm especially tired of the people who, day after day, come searching for "NH" (I'm instituting a policy of not writing out her name again so I stop showing up on the first page of Google) Part of my annoyance is due to the fact that I tend to complain a bit too much. And part of it is due to my incredulity that so many people are still actively involved with this story that they are performing internet searches. Just so we're on the same page - someone comes to my blog every single day looking for news on NH.
     I just fail to understand the obsession. Last night, checking out of Publix, I saw a tabloid with her face on the front that said "[NH] Was Pregnant!" Please. But I guess this is why I'm not a tabloid reader. I do feel pretty bad for Aruba, though. State after state has called for a boycott on visits there. I somewhat understood when it was just Alabama. I mean, it's pretty stupid to hold a whole country liable for an underage drunk girl wandering around at night on her own, but NH did live in Alabama so he had to look good for her parents Jug and Beth Twitty. But then Mississippi and Arkansas and Pennsylvania made noises about boycotting Aruba. And then this week in my own state of Georgia, Governor Sonny Perdue called for a Georgia boycott of the island. I tell you, with us being last in SAT scores, trying to discredit evolution in schools, and now this, it's a little embarrassing to tell people where I'm from.
     Jay Bookman of the AJC wrote an excellent column about Perdue's spotlight-grab. (I'm a little sorry that when he stopped by my page while doing an internet search for references to his column, it was to read a negative complaint. Jay, if you come back, I'm sorry!) In it, he points out that there are 34 unsolved cases of missing children in Alabama and 68 in Georgia, some of whom have been missing since long before NH was born. (note: I only found 42, but I spent 30 seconds searching) I know that NH was pretty and all, but is she 34 times as important as a child missing in Alabama? 68 times as important as a child missing in Georgia? How can anyone trust a single word that comes out of the Governor's mouth when he so blatantly lies about his motivations? Because clearly, wanting to boycott Aruba has absolutely nothing to do with finding NH. It has everything to do with - actually I have no idea.
     So for goodness sake, stop bashing the Arubans. And if you're planning a Caribbean holiday this year, think about visiting Aruba. Because they could understandably use some support right now. And if you found this page by searching for NH, a word: Don't you ever come back here, or I will hunt you down over the internet and bash you with your own mouse.

Children currently missing in Georgia: Reyna Gabriella Avlarado-Carrera (since 5/6/05), Michael Anthony Bennett (6/21/89), Monica Renita Bennett (6/21/89), Andrew Lee Brown (7/24/87), Miranda Elaine Budman (10/31/98), Michelle L. Burdette (4/8/05), Kyle Wade Clinkscales (1/27/76), Jamaree Clarence Coleman (7/24/93), Jessica Danielle Cox (9/22/95), Teresa Melissa Dean (8/15/99), Dustin Lamar Dyer (12/13/05), Jamilahalake Oleesah Ebo (7/14/05), April Elder (8/9/05), Gabriella Larasati Elprana (7/30/03), Ashley Marie Hires (3/30/05), Catrina Renee Jackson (5/30/86), Amanda Jo Johnson(4/26/05), Courtney Paige Johnson (5/11/05), Arjang Karami (4/8/03), Mani Karami (4/8/03), Sabah Nasheed Karriem-Conner (7/17/00), Valentina Mendez-Hernandez (7/31/05), Sheila Garcia Nicasio (11/10/05), Destiny Lucero Ojeda (11/4/05), Shy'kemmia Pate (9/4/98), Valeria Grisel Sanchez (3/16/05), Yazmayra Sanjurjo Colon (1/8/05), Alisha Smiley (6/6/85), Stranterria Leatrice Smith (3/12/04), Tavish Sutton (3/9/93), Tony Yael Toledo (4/12/03), Yaribeth Toledo (4/12/03), Priscilla Trejo (8/7/03), Elyssa Marie Vasquez (1/28/03), Nichelle Launyeh Veasley (9/7/05), Brandon Lee Wade (10/14/02), Alan Perez Watson (8/3/01), and a number of unidentified children. If you even care a little about the NH case, call Governor Perdue at 404-656-1776 and tell him you would like a little more focus on your missing neighbors.

Monday, December 19, 2005

In Defense of "Merry Christmas"

     I've come to the realization that I've come across as a Christmas-hater. It's not really that - it's more of a Christmas backlash. Like everybody hating Kevin Costner for making long movies and trashing Waterworld without ever seeing it. I thought Waterworld was good! Plus, the little girl grows up to be the love interest in the counter-culture Napoleon Dynamite, so you know it can't be all bad. I would like to formally say, "Mr. O'Reilly, I am not attacking Christianity and I'm not looking to ban Christmas. I'll take my global conspiracy and go now."
     I'll admit, I have been somewhat swayed by the latest effort to keep the Angry, White Man angry. (Your regularly scheduled anti-gay marriage polemic has been moved to the next election cycle. Check back in November.) I've always been a big proponent of calling things what they are. A Christmas Tree is a Christmas Tree, not a "Holiday Tree" or a "Chanuka Bush". And students are out on Christmas Break, not Winter break. Who are we kidding? And when we talk of "Judeo-Christian" values? I know you mean "Christian Values". December Holiday Parties at your office? Not really - they're Christmas Parties. I know these things. I'm not an idiot.
     It would actually be really nice to hear other people call them these things, too. Because maybe it would finally open peoples' eyes to what the Religious Reich has been doing for the past 20 years. Americans like to think they're enlightened. And for many of the past half-century, they made great strides towards egalitarianism: feminism, anti-racism, and religious pluralism. But along the way, the forces of backwards thinking realized that they could just talk like they were being progressive and people would believe them. So now they can say, "The school calendar doesn't revolve around Christianity, it's just coincidence that Spring Break and Winter Break fall around Easter and Christmas." "It's OK to preach intolerance, as long as we preface it with 'Judeo-Christian values'." So let's get back to telling things like it is. I'm not sure the evangelicals are going to like the results.
     I do believe most Americans are reasonable people. Not necessarily good critical thinkers, but reasonable. (In large part due, IMNSHO, to crappy post-cold war education systems) So when they realize that their kids are getting a holiday for Christmas but the Jewish kids have to choose between taking an unexcused absence or attending Rosh Hashana services, maybe they'll begin to see. When they notice that their company is having de-facto mandatory Christmas parties complete with food no observant Jew or Muslim would eat, maybe they'll begin to see. Maybe they'll understand when one house on their street doesn't have Christmas light. It's easier to understand that than the one house that doesn't have Holiday lights.
     I look forward to this day of honesty that will never happen. It's ironic that it's the "religious conservatives" that are pushing this War on Christmas, because it was the religious conservatives that were the ones who renamed Christmas to start with in order to keep it in public life. Maybe once the name returns, we can start to tone down to celebration. And then maybe we can all start appreciating the real holiday a little more.

Friday, December 16, 2005

What People Want

     One of the most frustrating things about having a new job and actually being busy at work is that I had gotten so used to being able to write blog posts at my leisure. Basically, I want to write an essay on every topic that strikes my fancy. Unfortunately, I just don't have an hour or two every day to do that anymore. So here are two mini-essays. First I want to welcome new readers from the Jewish Times, which has been kind enough to mirror some of my blog posts. Feel free to click on the "Comment Globally" button and join in the conversation! (Regular blog readers - don't bother looking - the button is not for you)

Is That a Dollar Coin in Your Pocket?
     I've always been a fan of the dollar coin. At least, I was a fan of the Susan B. Anthony coin and the Sacagawea coin. Neither is used much now, and you probably can't even get your hands on one unless you're getting change from a Post Office vending machine or you specifically ask for one at a bank. Actually, last December when I tried to get 10 Sacagawea coins from the bank as a gift, they didn't even have that many in stock. I walked away with Anthony coins instead.
     I first learned to appreciate coin money when I visited Israel for a month. Walking around in a foreign country where only half the people I saw spoke my language, I appreciated not having to dig out my wallet stuffed with cash and travelers checks ever time I wanted some falafel. But here in the US, people don't want them. Or do they? It's hard to tell when they don't even get a chance to have them in the first place. I went out of my way to get Sacagawea coins when they came out. But no store ever gave them to me as change. That's where I get all my money in denominations smaller than $20. Every store handed me wrinkly dollar bills, not shiny dollar coins. I ended up having to put a $20 bill in the stamp machine at the post office to buy $2 worth of stamps. When I did spend my dollar coins, golden or silver, everybody took them without a question. Everybody gave me the correct change. Cashiers didn't act like I had just gotten off the boat. The US Mint said demand just didn't exist for the coins. But if Congress really wanted to switch to the (cheaper and more durable) dollar coins, they would stop issuing the paper bills altogether.
     In 2007, the Mint is issuing "Presidential Coins", just like they're doing with the state quarters. Unless they start printing fewer bills, I predict you'll never actually see one in circulation.

You're Not Going to Be Happy in 2008
     The latest polls are showing that people think the Democratic and Republican nominees for President in 2008 will be Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani. I predict neither one will be on the ballot in November, as Prez or as VP. Hillary is no surprise. Right-wing pundits have pushed her towards this job since 1993. According to my law of politics, their "reporting" of her presidential ambitions has created reality. Giuliani isn't really surprising either, unless you remember what people thought of him on September 10, 2001. Clinton was 30 points ahead of another Democrat in the poll, but Rudy was a mere 8 points on top of John McCain, another man who won't be running for President in November (although I could see him running for VP).
     I'm not going to start a discussion of electoral votes or the order of the primaries or the fact that both Clinton and Giuliani hail from New York (at least now they do). The simple truth is that Clinton is too conservative for the Democratic primaries (yes, despite what Faux News tells you) and Giuliani is too liberal for the Republican primaries. It's a Christmas-time wishlist of an election slate. Clinton and Giuliani are so similar it would actually be a dull campaign, which is probably what 280 million Americans are hoping for.
     In a way it's a shame that the candidates Americans most want (in aggregate - I know you want someone else) they can't have. In 2004, nobody was particularly excited about John Kerry. The word most people used for him was his "electability". Not exactly someone who moves you. Personally, I would have loved to have seen Lieberman do well, although I never thought he had a prayer. I can't predict who will get the nominations in 2008. It would be pretty cool to see Clinton go up against Condoleeza Rice. That won't happen either, any more than we'll see a Michael Bloomberg v. Joe Lieberman race. Maybe Karl Rove will run, if he's not sent to jail. That would be exciting. Who do you think will get the party nods? Who do you want to get the party nods?

Wednesday, December 14, 2005


     Another of my favorite blogs has bitten the dust, at least until 2032. It's once again time to take a fresh look at the links on my blogroll. It's true that I read these blogs every day - I'm not going to clutter up my screen with hundreds of links which nobody will ever click on. However, I actually read a few others just as regularly. Because I'm too indecisive (and lazy) to make this decision myself, I was hoping you all could help. After all, the links aren't there for my benefit - I read all my blogs from my Thunderbird RSS reader. (Quick note about all links, including those in my posts - they will all open a new window, so you can click on them to read them later without having to interrupt reading the post.) Here are the candidates (in no particular order):

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Nachos -- "A little insight on how the world should be experienced..." -- A political issues blog, but in a soundbite sort of way. No dry figures or philosophic ramblings here. You might recognize Otto Man, StudioDave, and Thrillhous from their comments here.

PolySciFi Blog -- "Random musings on political science, science fiction, and anything else that strikes our fancy." -- In-Depth issues discussion from people in the know. It leans libertarian, but not the kind of libertarian that's really a Republican in denial. Always an educational read. Jody lives here.

Life is a Bowl of Garlic Hummus -- "Life, Opinions, and Random Thoughts" -- Purely personal observations from an Indian Atlanta Doctor-to-be.

Comments from Left Field -- "a Progressive news and opinion blog." -- An unabashedly left-wing news blog, complete with lists and cartoons and a healthy dose of piss, vinegar, and humor.

Contrary Brin -- "An occasional online journal to handle discussions generated by "The David Brin Site" -- A very sensible commentary from a noted scientist and best-selling author. He probably leans more conservative, but skewers both the liberals and conservatives. Always a thoughtful read.

     I only have room for one right now, but if you think I should remove a current link to make room, let me know. Write-in votes are of course more than welcome, although they'll probably get put on my private blogroll and the candidate list for next time. Vote today!

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Thin Blue Lie

     In the news in the last week or so, there have been two airline tragedies in which an innocent was killed. The other night, a Southwest airplane overshot the runway at Chicago-Midway and careened into a busy intersection, crushing two cars and killing a 6-year old boy. Now, I love flying. I almost always buy a window seat and I bring my camera onboard to take pictures of the landscape below. I love the feeling of taking off - the amount of power pushing me forward is exhilarating. But landing scares the bejeezus out of me. Of course, in almost every airport I've flown into, there's a hill or a lake or some other obstacle at the end of the runway which would seriously damage me if the plane didn't stop in time. I was surprised that a landing plane could just roll out to an intersection. So I pulled up Midway on Google Earth (my new favorite toy to waste time at work) and was shocked to see a small, square airfield in the middle of a neighborhood.

     This picture is probably what the pilot saw before the plane came down. The orange "X" on the top is where the plane ran off the runway and hit 2 cars. Yes, all those things around the airport are houses. I found a great picture on that shows a house right behind the nose of the plane. It's like what happens when you invite John Travolta over for Thanksgiving dinner.
     As disturbing and scary as that story was, the next one makes me feel far less safe. (As long as I'm not flying into Midway during a snowstorm, that is) Last Wednesday, Federal Air Marshals shot and killed an American citizen. Like the last case of shrunken Right to Life on the London Underground, this one raises more questions about how free we really are. As you might recall, in July, London police shot and killed a Brazilian immigrant in the subway. In fact, they shot him point blank in the head after he was on the ground. They then lied to the public, telling us that he was acting highly suspiciously, had been running through the subway station despite calls to halt, and was wearing a very heavy jacket on a very warm day. As it turns out, none of this was true, but it didn't keep wingnuts from declaring the shooting a victory in the War on Terror.
     Well, they're declaring another victory in Miami, because on December 7th, another innocent man was murdered. After claiming Rigoberto Alpizar had yelled that he had a bomb and was reaching for his pocket, federal officials have been backpedaling as it turns out it was not true. But while the wingnuts claim victory in the best case and overreaction in the worst, this is a very disturbing development in our backyard. (Your front yard, if you're reading this from South Florida) First is the fact that Alpizar was shot and killed, not in the high-risk environment of a flying plane, or even the tightly crowded environment of a landed plane, but on the embarkation ramp leading to the plane. Where shooting first and asking questions later might be good policy at 30,000 feet, American police don't (and shouldn't) operate that way. What's the police procedure for dealing with a man who may have a bomb? I have no idea. But keep in mind that this was a man who had been through at least one security clearance already. Second, why would air marshals think Alpizar even had a bomb? Not one of the passengers interviewed even recalled him saying the word "bomb". That's pretty rare, because in most stories like this, we hear conflicting stories. But not one other passenger heard "bomb". Which brings us to Third: Why are we being lied to?
     I have to say, I hate being lied to. Hate, hate, hate, hate it. I've gotten used to it, though, from this administration. I don't trust this administration. I do have to trust our police, out of necessity. But it's clear that they're as willing to lie as anyone with 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on their driver's license. Shoot an innocent man? Make up a lie about him. Smear him in the press. Make him unbelievable and unsympathetic. I actually have a lot of respect for the Air Marshals, but if someone isn't harshly punished for breaching the public's trust on this, I will have lost a lot of it. Killing people and covering it up are hallmarks of the KGB or Nazi SS. Are they now going to be tactics of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)? We all say that if we behave we'll be OK. Is it true? We may never hear the full story on Alpizar because the MSM is too scared of real controversy. But if the police are allowed to get away with shooting one innocent man mere yards from his frantic wife and then lying about it to get away with it, what's to stop them from shooting you and making up a lie? They may already have a backup lie ready, just in case. Think about that the next time you're flying with a cranky 7-year old who might decide to get back at you by telling security you're a terrorist. And just hope to God you don't look South American.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Dispatch from the War on Christmas

From Daily Kos - Read it out loud in a South'rn Accent
(Sorry for cheating, but this is too perfect)
Dear Aunt Mabel,

     I hope this letter finds you well. I am writing you from the Christmas frontlines, currently in front of Cinnabon at Twin Oaks Mall. May Jesus and Santa forgive me, but I have to say that this is the worst I've ever seen it.
     What a horrible place, the mall. The architecture of these things is all the same. Malls are the architectural scat of the biggest American colossus, corporate capitalism -- a cogs-and-bricks-and-money giant that thunders, three miles high, across the landscape, stopping and squatting occasionally to crap out one of these rectangular jumbles of cement block. May Jesus forgive them for sucking so bad.
     I have some sad news -- John has been in an accident. It was his first day here, and we were eating lunch in the food court, in front of the Peppy Peppy Pizza. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a lady carrying three bags stop in her tracks, like she saw someone she knew. She raised a hand, and shouted it, right there in the middle of the mall. "HAPPY HOLIDAYS!"
     The carnage was bad. Real bad. I'm sorry to say John wasn't prepared to hear it, and he accidentally stabbed himself repeatedly in the eye with a plastic fork.
     The doctors say he'll be fine, but he'll lose that eye. Even in his sleep he's mumbling Merry Christmas, over and over. He's a damn fighter, that one. He's one of the lucky ones, because I'm pretty sure some other people got trampled in the rush to get out.
     This whole war has been a nightmare. I was at Circuit City yesterday, looking for a cheap DVD player. Out front they had a "Happy Holidays" banner that must have been in letters three feet high. I stepped under it, may Jesus forgive me, because I knew I had to get in there, but inside was no better. Some damn wreaths, here and there, and lots of lights, but no tree. I swear to God, no Christmas tree at all -- I looked everywhere. It was like being in Iraq or something.
     I stumbled around with the rest of the shoppers. Everyone was in a daze, bumping into each other. I don't think any of us knew what to do, except just keep shopping, but I could tell everyone was thinking what I was. But I wasn't ready to see the DVD player prices, and I lost it.
     I knew then that I was among heathens, and I dropped all the DVDs and batteries and stuff that I had scooped up, and just left. I swear, some days I don't understand what this war is even about.
     Over and over it's the same. Every damn store. Some of them just say "Happy Holidays" out front, and I don't even go in. Most say Merry Christmas, but even then, it rings hollow. If they really were celebrating Jesus, they'd have more lights. The music would be louder. The giant inflatable snowmen would be bigger, and there'd be more of them. There was one place that had a little nativity scene, and that was cool, but the baby Jesus was laying in a manger and instead of straw, they had little optical fibers that glowed all sorts of different colors. But sometimes it glowed RED, because that was one of the colors in the cycle, and when that happened it looked like they were trying to barbecue the Baby Jesus and I had to leave.
     I've seen a lot of pain, on a lot of faces. I know that "Holidays" and "HolyDays" are related, but it's not the same. One has an "I", and one has a "Y". One is about the self, and one is about the Holy Mystery.
     Y. Y, indeed. These damn heathen bastards.
     They're making us forget the Y.
     I know a guy who ran right off the road, just last week. He was passing a Kentucky Fried Chicken (I know, they call themselves "KFC" now, but that's just so fucking stupid I can't even handle it) and they had on the sign out front, right under the price of a 12-piece family bucket:
     "Seasons Greetings"
     Dear sweet God. Of course, he ran right off the damn road. Even "Happy Holidays", you can sort of swallow hard and pretend you saw the Y and move on, but "Seasons Greetings?" It doesn't even sound human. It sounds like a brand of instant fucking stuffing.
     In fact, that's exactly what it sounds like. A brand of goddamn Satanic turkey stuffing. That's how far we've sunk, as Americans.
     Wal-Mart was the best and the worst. Oh sure, they said Merry Christmas. Or maybe it was the guy outside ringing the bell that said Merry Christmas, I'm not sure -- I'm pretty sure the greeter said it too. But they had the DVD player like I was looking for, and at twentyfive bucks each I got two of them so the kids don't have to share.
     I had to wait in line about a half hour, but I passed the time by talking to the person behind me in line, who was buying a bunch of clothes and stuff. I let her know which things Jesus would and wouldn't approve of, because I'm pretty good at knowing stuff like that. I thought that the Christmas Tree sweater with the little lights that light up using a teeny battery was pretty damn cool and a pretty good celebration of the Birth of Our Lord, but that I thought the socks had too much blue in them and not enough green. I also told her to make sure to check that the little snowman figurine wasn't made in a communist country, but we couldn't remember if Taiwan counted or not, so I told her it was probably OK, especially at that price.
     It was all going OK until i got to the checkout and put everything down. The guy who was checking me out looked funny -- he was polite and cheerful, sure, but something was off about him. As he turned to recheck the price on a twentyfour pack of Rudolph and Frosty paper towels, because I was pretty sure the price was supposed to be sixty cents cheaper than it said, I saw what it was -- he was wearing a yarmulke (Is that how you spell it? Wierd, but I looked it up). Seriously, I'm not kidding, right in the middle of the store. What kind of person just rubs his religion right in your face like that?
     I was prepared. My mind is always ready for these challenges, and I knew what to do. I waited for him to ring me up, and paid my money, and got my receipt.
     "Merry Christmas," I said, experimentally.
     "Merry Christmas," he replied cheerfully.
     I narrowed my eyes with a snarl, and with all my strength, I hit him as hard as I could with the twentyfour pack of Rudolph and Frosty paper towels.
     "What are you doing!?" the person behind me shrieked, lunging over the counter in a really ripping move to prevent the guy from knocking over a bin of $2.99 plastic mini flashlights. "He said Merry Christmas! He said it!"
     "But HE DIDN'T MEAN IT!", I shouted as loud as I could. "LOOK AT THE HAT! HE DIDN'T MEAN IT!"
     I gathered my bags up, but I was just getting started, and I lit into everyone in the whole store. "CHRISTMAS IS SUPPOSED TO BE ABOUT PEACE ON EARTH, ALL YOU GODDAMN COMMUNIST BASTARDS! WHEN WILL YOU GET THAT? PEACE ON EARTH! YOU HAVE TO MEAN IT!" I marched out of the store, head held high. Because all the Wal-Marts in the world, all the Targets, all the Circuit Cities -- they just don't get it. They don't understand.
     How long must we be persecuted? Christmas is about Peace on Earth and Goodwill Towards All, and how dare the pagan alliance of liberals, non-Christians, hippies and multinational corporations turn this into a damn war zone, where I have to look at every damn sign, and second-guess every greeting, and measure every Christmas tree to make sure that everyone understands that like we do. This is OUR time of year, as Christians, to show the world what Christianity is, and that Peace on Earth and Goodwill Towards All isn't some hollow greeting card thing, but is the way we live our lives, and fuck them all if they can't see that. I, for one, will make sure that we understand about Peace On Earth if I have to hit every last damn greeter and fast food teenager and checkout person in America with a paper towel value pack. I'll boycott them all, until every last one of them understands that I am here in the name of Our Lord and Savior to bring PEACE ON EARTH if I have to shove it down every last throat. Especially the damn pagans.
     Anyway, I'm so damn glad our church is closed this Sunday for Christmas, I need a break. Best thing they ever did, because you know come Monday, we are all going to need that strength to return oversized sweaters, and fucking ugly placemats, and all that made in China toy crap that breaks the first day. In Jesus' name we'll come back down on those malls and return stuff to celebrate Our Lord and Savior just like in the olden days, and besides it'll be good to have that Sunday to rest and just plug the new DVD players in and stuff.
     Hope things are well there. I'll keep fighting, none of us want to leave before this job is done. Tell Uncle Bill I said hi and Merry Christmas and stuff, and that I'll be dead in the cold cold ground before I recognize the goddamn pagan "New Years".



Wednesday, December 07, 2005

More Christmas Spirit

     I saw a weird headline yesterday: Some megachurches closing on Christmas. What?? Are they going out of business? Are people actually going to stop acting like they're at a football game and join a smaller church where they practice religion and can know everyone?
     Apparently not. It seems that these megachurches are closing their doors on Christmas Day (and New Years Day) despite being Sundays, because nobody will show up. One church is so large it actually requires 500 volunteers to get it up and running on a Sunday morning. The religious reich, of course, is going nuts. Long used to just attacking liberals and athiests, they probably feel betrayed by their baptist brethren. One evangelist (he actually teaches other people to be evangelists. Does that make him a "mega-evangelist"?) said "I think what this does is feed into the individualism that is found throughout American culture, where everyone does their own thing." (underlining mine)
     Individualism? Some of these churches have 30,000 members and generally seat 8,000 of them on your average Sunday. And these members acting in unison are showing individualism? Look, I know we can argue until we turn blue about how extreme some of these people are, on abortion and sex and Sunday beer, but how extreme do you have to be to call a sheep in a 30,000 sheep pasture an individualist? And to imply that individualism is a bad thing? It's scary that these people have any power over our current government. Considering our nation has a long tradition of individualism, where one person bucks trends and becomes a hero, it's pretty frightening to think that people who think like our President believe that 30,000 people acting in unison are "too individualist".
     Maybe by "individualism" they mean "not exactly like me"?

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Schrödinger's Cat

     The funny thing about politics is that everyone pretends it's a "thing" - a subject in school, a topic to be understood, a section in the newspaper. A static "thing", too - something that just is. Really, politics is THE "thing". It IS the news. (although it still remains just a subject in school, called Civics or History or Government) Nick and Jessica's breakup isn't news. Not in the sense that it is A) important B) impacts your life in any way or C) the result of something important. Of course, if you're Nick's mother, or Jessica's agent, it's all three. However, I'm willing to bet that neither Nick's mom or Jessica's agent are reading this right now. For you (gentle reader), this is just gossip. Front page AJC and CNN gossip, but gossip.
     On the other hand, most of what happens on CSPAN, boring as it might be, is news. These are the things that will impact your life in a meaningful way. Your representative government making decisions in your name are just as relevant to you as Red Hat Society meetings or even family decisions to have your 15-year old dog, Muffy euthanized. I guess it's the nature of the beast that it bores us - instead of making decisions ourselves, we hire people to do our deciding for us. Can you imagine that kind of decadence in our home life? Hiring someone to to menu planning for our families? Hiring someone to purchase a car for us? Hiring someone to choose what clothes we'll wear to work today? Basically, we've lost all competence in our ability to make decisions of national importance anymore. We've become a herd of sheep waiting to see which dog of a politician will direct us to where we will graze next.
     So that brings me to the physics I alluded to in the title. Republicans these days love to live in the two-sided world where on one hand, they denounce those who watch the polls. I believe the phrase they like to use (they probably heard it on Rush Limbaugh) is "he has no core beliefs, he sways with the wind." Actually, on the web searches I did, you can replace the "he" with a democrat of your choice. On the other hand, Republicans love to denounce the Dems as being "out of the mainstream" and love to show polls when they favor their positions. So what gives? Are they just hypocritical bastards? Well, yes. But more importantly, they understand a very fundamental concept of modern politics. This concept is the idea that the public's opinion is based on what politicians tell them what their opinion is. That is, the more they tell us that "mainstream Americans" support the war in Iraq and support restrictions on abortion and support the President, the more we believe them.
     So what is politics? Is it listening to your constituents or is it shunning them? We fight about which of these two cats is in Schrödinger's box, while the real cat is in our kitchen drinking our milk and knocking over our trash cans. The Truth is, we are politics. And the people who think they're not involved are the people most involved. Is Bush ever going to win over committed environmentalists? No. But he can marginalize them by turning the apathetic and disaffected against them. Can the religious reich make Bible stories into science? No. But they can publish polls telling you how most Americans believe God created the world. Can neoconservatives make the Iraqi war less bloody? No. But they can tell us that the Liberal Media is filtering out the good news. Are these polls and papers reporting on our "core beliefs" or are they creating them? What kind of sheep do they take us for, anyway?

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Christmas Nazis

     I'd like to say I have nothing against Christmas, but that's not entirely true. I resent it a little bit. I feel like I can't really admit this, though, because I'm Jewish and I don't celebrate Christmas anyway. It probably requires a devout Christian to stand up and say, "OK enough with the crappy music piped in through the mall, enough with the crass commercialism, enough with the stupid notion that if you don't send everyone you've ever met a card you're a bad person. That's not Christmas." It probably requires that sort of person, so I won't say it. My job is to say, "Of course I don't mind being bombarded with lousy music, pushy salespeople, people asking me if I've got my tree, or when I as a kid, asking me what I wanted Santa Claus to bring me. I love the season because it brings out the best in people, plus the lights are so pretty."
     That's what I'm supposed to say. I think. Except that it's bull. I know most people love this season - they approach it and turn into kids again. Except I guess most people weren't very good kids. The fighting in the stores is the least of it. The gluttony of the month is disgusting and the lack of personal self control is appalling. The manager of my company gym told us today that the average American gains 7 pounds between Thanksgiving and Christmas. (Even the Canadians who celebrate Thanksgiving 2 months earlier don't gain that much!) Think - an average of 7 pounds. That means there are plenty of people out there gaining 10 or 20 or 30 to make up for those of us who aren't stuffing our faces. Then of course there's the inevitable intolerance.
     You know what I'm talking about. It happens every year. It even happened this year at Easter. People stop being happy and start being angry. I think they forget that Christmas is a one-day holiday. They demand that stores and people they meet on the street celebrate Christmas all month long. If a cashier doesn't wish them a "Merry Christmas", they blow up. If a store sign says, "Happy Holidays", they write an angry letter. Forget that the owners may not celebrate Christmas. Forget that not all of their customers celebrate Christmas. Forget that they may not even be in a holiday-related store. They're not looking to celebrate Christmas early - they're looking to force everyone around them to pretend to celebrate.
     Someone I know (who shall remain nameless) works for investor relations for a large company. That person showed me a letter send to the company from a very angry man about the use of the words, "Happy Holidays".
"I would like to provide feedback on the customer profile of the vast majority of your customers. I would like to repeat, ?The vast majority of your customers?. Everyone I know is offended by companies trying to take CHRISTMAS out of CHRISTMAS. I suspect that sales would flourish to retailers that aren?t afraid to call it what it is, CHRISTMAS. I also believe that retailers will find shrinking support for those who are attempting to secularize our culture. Since we celebrate CHRISTMAS on December 25th, I personally won?t buy gifts from companies attempt to disguise it as something other than Christmas. They are, in fact, Christmas ornaments, they are Christmas trees."

     Uh, OK. It's interesting that the demographic that is the first to say we can't tell corporations it's not alright to pollute is also the first to tell them how to recognize their religion. But let's go over this one more time. Just because the majority of this company's shoppers celebrate Christmas, it doesn't mean they are obligated to tell everyone "Merry Christmas". If that were the case, would companies have to tell you in the evening, "Have a good dinner?" How about, "Hope you have a good bowel movement when you get home"? "I hope you have good sex with your spouse tonight?" Most people do those things when they are at home. Why isn't this guy pissed off that the store doesn't tell him that? Or is it just the religion part that gets his panties all bunched up in a wad? Then why isn't he threatening to boycott them if they don't tell him, "Enjoy church tomorrow" on Saturdays?
     It's not just the lone wackos writing letters to corporate offices though. If that were the case, this would be a pretty stupid article I'm writing. It's mainstream right-wingers like Neal Boortz who keep propagating this bizarre idea. In this blurb, he basically echoes the nut in the letter above (Or could it be the other way around..... hmmmmm) when he says that 85% of Americans celebrate Christmas (I think it's more) so everyone has to say, "Merry Christmas". Somehow the citizens of America have turned "equal protection for all" into "if I have more votes, I win and you lose". Life has become a football game. But while Presidential elections have to have a winner and a loser (2004 had 2 losers), not everything else does. If you're ordering 4 pizzas for a bunch of friends and a 3/4 of them want pepperoni, you don't have to put pepperoni on all 4 pizzas just because you have a majority. That wouldn't even qualify as selfish, because it just doesn't make any sense and it wouldn't benefit you anyway. The best way I can characterize it is evil - you just want to see someone lose.
     So if you're shopping, and some of the people don't say "Merry Christmas", don't be evil just because you have a majority. There are other people out there who don't need to "lose". If you really believe that everyone has to conform to your beliefs in order to make your world bearable, well, Happy freakin' holidays, jerk.

Monday, November 28, 2005

What's the Point?

     I was "back home" in South Florida all last week for the Thanksgiving holiday. If there's one thing South Florida has a lot of, it's old people. Between the downed trees and powerlines, the oppressive heat and humidity, and triptophan sleepiness, there were lots and lots of old people. Most of them seemed to be driving on the roads and highways at 5 miles per hour. (If you're on the metric system, that's equal to "slow as crap")
     My grandmothers are old people, too, but I'm rather fond of them, so I won't make fun of their driving. My grandmother's boyfriend, however, is another story. She met him in the Independent Living community she lives. At 90 years old, I applaud her for being social. On the other hand, he's an annoying old man and when I visit, I wish I could spend time with my grandmother alone. That's just me being selfish.
     But about his stories. I was in the car with him going to Thanksgiving dinner and he talked non-stop for an hour. It was all about his son and how rich his son was and about how he gambled in every casino in Vegas and how the guy at Caesar's knew him and comped him for everything. He even pulled out his wallet to show me card from every major casino. They were the elevator keys for the "club floor", whatever that is. I was in the car with him going to Thanksgiving dinner and he did not stop talking once during the hour-long car ride. Thankfully (it was Thankgsiving), he was talking to my grandmother, not me, but I had a hard time shutting him out. Most of it was bullshit, pointing to a building and making something up about it. "See that building? Blah blah blah blah."
     But when he's talking to me (or my sister, or my parents, or the other people in the independent living center), he tells us how rich his son is, about the nightclub his son used to own in Atlanta until the schvartzes made the place undesirable, about how he himself gambled at every casino in Vegas and how the guy at Caesar's knew him and comped him for everything, about his elevator key card for the "club floors" which he still keeps in his wallet "just in case", about how Steve Wynn begged him to come gamble in his new casino. Most of his stories revolved around what an awesome gambler he was. Now the man's a few short steps from the grave, he's living alone in a retirement home, his son hasn't spoken to him in 10 years. What was the point? So he could brag to his 90-year old girlfriend's grandson?
     There are a lot of things I'd like to do in this life. I want to travel the world, buy a yacht, own a mansion or two, invent a better mousetrap, run a company, be a famous columnist ... Being a big macher at Vegas casinos would be pretty cool. But if that's the biggest accomplishment of my life, shut me up. And if I have nobody to share those stories with except random people in the retirement home cafeteria, shoot me. Because I'll have completely wasted my life anyway.
     I've been fortunate in my life so far to be spared from a lot of death. I've known a few people who have died, but baruch hashem they've all been old and lived full lives. But I would think that assuming you have an unlimited amount of time is stupid. If you were to die at 30 or 40 or 50, what would you leave behind. It doesn't matter whether or not you believe in an afterlife. What did you leave here? When you're gone, will anyone ever remember you were here in the first place?
     So imagine you A) have no children, B) do nothing during your life that could not have been done by someone else, and C) make no impact before or in the act of your death (like donating the contents of your will to your alma mater). Were you ever really here? And if your answer is yes, then why? Why did you take up my oxygen? Why did you put garbage in my landfills? Why did you waste the valuable real estate it took to bury you?
     And forgetting death, once you no longer have the ability to work enough to fund your casino trips, or maybe once your knees have gone enough to keep you from hiking in Europe, or maybe once your heart has gotten bad enough that you can't travel, what then? For your own sake, do you want your last 10 or 20 years spent bragging about what an awesome person you were when you were young? Now that's a depressing thought.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Happy Thanksgiving

And To Hell With Georgia!

     I'm in Florida for the Thanksgiving Week. I might post, but I doubt it - I've been running around visiting family I see only once a year. Everyone eat lots of turkey, get good deals on Black Friday, and root for Georgia Tech over the inbred rednecks, er UGA fans, on Saturday at 8:00 pm on ABC. (For those of you who will get the Notre Dame game instead, root for Stanford)

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Confirm This

     Some of the biggest headlines and political controversies over the past 6 months have been over confirmation hearings of judges. In April, all the politicians could talk about were filibusters or a "nuclear option". But the Republicans not only control Congress, they control it in a way no party has ever controlled it. Because the Republicans would rather cut off their balls than vote contrary to the President, Republican Congressmen are about as worthless as Presidential Electors. (I'm comfortable saying "balls" because only 28 out of 286, or 9.9% of Republicans in Congress are women. Only 22% of Dems are women, FWIW.) So what options to Democrats really have if they don't like a judge?
     In normal times, even if there aren't split majorities in Congress and the White House, some members of each party will cross the aisle to vote against the President's pick. Integrity used to count for something, after all, and each of these Senators and Representatives were elected by local people in their home districts, not selected by the national party office. Extremists of any persuasion were rarely appointed and almost never approved. But today, Republicans are certain to approve anyone that makes it to the floor for a vote. By a unanimous vote. (You know who also used to win by unanimous vote? Saddam Hussein. But I digress.) So what's a Democrat to do without a majority when an incompetent or extremist like Darth Miers or Scalito is nominated?
     As it turns out, Dems have a few options. They can vote "No" and complain loudly, either on C-Span or their local news. This option is called, "Preaching to the Choir, but they get to maintain their integrity. They can filibuster, but this option has 2 problems. One is that Americans are not comfortable with the idea of a minority blocking the will of a majority. Despite being one of the pillars of American society from Day 1, it remains unpopular. A filibuster, of course, doesn't allow a minority to pass unpopular legislation. It just keeps majorities from doing so. And there's a limit on the power of a filibuster - minorities in the Senate must have at least 41 participating members - hardly a tiny fraction of the 100 member Senate. But because of its unpopularity, it would be unwise for minority Dems to use this tool too often. Clearly a filibuster would have been used in case Harriet Miers had not resigned her nomination, since she was so unpopular and unqualified. But the Democrats' beef with Scalito is that he's too partisan. They just don't like him. And if they choose to filibuster him, Senate Republicans might just remove filibusters altogether, making the need to ever compromise again on anything non-existent.
     So Scalito will most likely be confirmed, barring some revelation of his past in which his wife had an abortion or he accidentally used Jesus's name in vain. So why are the Democrats not using Option #3 - using the confirmation hearings to trash him, trash the Republican opposition, and trash Bush, but not hindering the actual vote? They're wasting their everloving time asking him about precedent and abortion memos and conservative rulings. He's getting confirmed anyway and you know the answers, so why bother asking stupid questions that put even the producers of C-SPAN to sleep? Dems need to ask questions in the vein of, "Are you sorry you beat your wife?" - questions with no good answer designed for public relations value only. Show a little backbone, for goodness sake. (Note: I don't condone asking the man if he's sorry he beats his wife, unless it's actually true) I mean, you have one shot at national press before you shuffle back off into obscurity. Make the American people believe that you believe in something, because for some reason the Rush Limbaughs and Karl Roves of the world have convinced Americans that the people who stand for civil rights and the environment and diplomacy and charity and responsibility don't stand for anything anymore. You're going to lose this battle. Don't quit the war.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

What Does Democracy Mean?

     One of the troubles with Democracy (and the reason that the United States is not one, is that true Democracy often turns into a tyranny, of sorts. Democracy is mob rule, and while I wouldn't deign to question the collective wisdom of mobs, it tends to be unworkable in the long run. Maybe this is just my low opinion of human nature coloring my words. But the Truth is that the United States is a Republic with a tinge of Bureaucracy, not a Democracy. In a Democracy, we would be voting on laws, not electing members of Congress who would be doing it for us. We would be voting for the head of the FCC, the head of the FDA, the head of the FBI. We would be voting on whether to allow Vioxx to be sold, and whom to. We would be voting on whether Janet Jackson's breast violated decency standards. In other words, in a nation of almost 300 million citizens, we would be voting all day, every day. But since we're a Bureaucratic Republic, we allow our elected and unelected representatives to do the work for us. There's a level of trust there, whether or not we like it.
     Still, a Republic is very much like a Democracy, if only on a superficial level. We still come together to vote, except we choose the people who will make decisions, and we choose them every few years, so nobody rules absolutely. We have checks and balances and we've made government as inefficient as possible so that nothing gets done unless it's really important. We've limited our Democratic rights to those involving choosing our representatives. So it's very important that we retain those rights.
     That's why a recent news story is puzzling to me. On Monday, a new poll was released showing that President Bush was enjoying his lowest approval rating ever at 37%. By historical standards, it's bad but not fatal. Clinton's low was 37% in 1993 and Reagan's low was 35% in 1983. Of course, that assumes that Bush's popularity has bottomed out. If it went lower, he could be in real trouble, keeping company with his father (low of 29% in 1992), Jimmy Carter (28% in 1979), and Richard Nixon (24% in 1974). Be that as it may, Bush is still the President (as so many "W" stickers like to point out) and we do live in a Republic, so he's got three more years to govern. But it's mystifying to me why "The White House has said it doesn't pay attention to poll numbers and the figures do not affect policy." Why shouldn't poll numbers affect policy? The American people elected him, don't they deserve to at least have their opinion respected? When Clinton had his lowest rating in 1993, it was due in large part to his attempts to nationalize health insurance. He quickly dropped the effort when it became clear that the American citizenry did not want it. What exactly is so bad about respecting the American people now?
     I'm not suggesting that Bush waver between policy when his approval teeters from 52% to 51%. That would be poor judgment and weak leadership. But when his approval dropped 20 points from 57% in February to 37% today, that's getting the sense that 300 million people (or at least 189 million people) are unhappy. If Democracy means anything, why is it a point of pride for him to ignore the people?

Thursday, November 10, 2005

How to Search the Internet(s)

     I'm taking a break from "Tax Week" because, frankly, even my Accountant wife is getting bored. I can only imagine how the rest of you feel. But don't worry - I'll be back tomorrow for all of your insomnia needs.
     Like many bloggers, I have a web counter that tracks how many people visit my blog. It also tells me what city the visitor is from, how many pages the visitor has looked at, and what web page referred the visitor to me. If you used a search engine to find me, I can see what words you used to do it. I've read a lot of blogs that poke fun at the crazy ways people find them. It is pretty interesting. I mean, why did the person searching for "top snobbiest schools" (9/9) or "investigative reporters channel 19 scott taylor cleveland oh" (10/19) land on The Truth by Scott? And how on earth did I ever get near the top of the search for "cat"?? (10/20)
     Some I understand but are just funny. "cnn liberals to pay back 1.14 million" (11/7) and "capitalism will be wiped out" (11/8) and "american red cross scandle" (10/5) are obviously from someone who just listened to Rush or Neal. And why the hell are people still searching the web for news on Natalee Holloway?? You think if they found her body, it wouldn't make the front page.... oh wait. You assuredly don't read newspapers. Well, MTV news would still let you know. Since I've started tracking my stats on August 26, 58 people have come to my page looking for "natalee holloway", "natalie halloway", "natalee haolloway", "natalie halloway poker", "intrigue natalee holloway". But some of these people really drive me crazy with their stupidity. Someone searched for "truth natalie holloway" on November 1. Oohhhhhhh - the Truth! If the web had only know you wanted the truth about Natalee the whole time, it would have told you what happened to her! Doh! Someone else searched for "updates on the natalie holloway case in aruba" on September 9. Besides not spelling her name correctly, did the searcher think the web would understand that "updates" means "don't show me stuff I've already seen before"? I mean, there were "updates" the day after she went missing.
     So this leads to me having to teach the internet how to perform searches. Finding information is a little different here than it is in other parts of reality (which you may just be visiting. In that case, welcome). The internet does not speak English. When you ask "did natalee's cellphone work in aruba" (10/17), Yahoo will look for the word "natalee's", certainly, but it will also spend time looking for the word "in". Yahoo does not understand your question. There is no hamster on a wheel inside your monitor that understands the question. And even if you had put that phrase in quotes (which you didn't), why do you think someone who had the answer you were looking for would post the exact same words? Searches on the internet require key words. In this case, I might have searched for "natalee 'cellphone service' aruba" and maybe done more searches replacing "cellphone" with "wireless" or "mobile" or "telephone".
     How about "natalee halloway -latest information on the case" (9/7)? This one's great. What the fudge did the searcher think he was doing with the dash? A dash in a search engine means "not". Basically they searched for a web page that had the words "case information holloway on natalee the" and did not have "latest". That's sure to be a winner.
     I'll leave you with a few more gems that I've collected over the past couple of months.
  • the truth hurts bush -- I agree, but I doubt this combination of words will find you what you're looking for

  • pics of injusticeness -- I'm pretty sure George W. did this search, or at least he invented the word "injusticeness"

  • inheiritance taxes -- I like the play on words here - heir and inheritance combined

  • both sides of the smoking-in-public-buildings issue -- both sides you say?

  • +1,canada "haig" -- I have no clue what this was supposed to find

  • how many members of congress aren't white men? -- beating a dead horse, but STOP WRITING AS IF THERE'S A LITTLE SEARCH ENGINE ELF HIDING IN YOUR MONITOR!

  • "the witches" by roald dahl unconstitutional -- I'm not sure this searcher really understands what "unconstitutional" means.

  • tsunami how bad was it 2005 -- Isn't it great how the web knows exactly what you mean when you say "it"?

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

More Tax Week

Or "How I Bored my Readers to Tears, Part II"

     I'm not going to make a secret that I'm one of those crazy, nerdy people who enjoy taxes. Not paying them, exactly, but understanding the nuances and motivations and real-world effects. Still, if you're one of the other 99.999% of Americans whose eyes glaze over when someone mentions "itemized deductions" or "deferred capital gains", you're the target audience of a government panel empowered to make decisions about the future of the IRS. Because they're hoping you are going to pay attention so little to their proposals that they'll be able to get away with anything.
     Yesterday I talked about one of their proposals - a change to the mortgage interest deduction. Today I want to address another proposal - the one to change how dividends are taxed. And while I generally approved with the mortgage recommendations, I don't exactly feel the same way about the dividend recommendations.
     The President's tax panel proposed making dividends from domestic earnings tax free. Yes, that's right. If you're a trust-fund baby, you might pay no income taxes whatsoever. How's that for a kick in the pants? (And by pants, I mean ass) Not only do poor and middle-class people have to spend 40-80 hours a week working to make enough money to live, they may also soon get to pay all of the income tax collected. What a great deal! Hey, it's your own damn fault for not being born rich, you slacker hippie! Get (another) job!
     OK - nobody else but me is saying this, as far as I can tell. But lets dig in a little further. Currently most companies pay a very small amount of dividends relative to their share price. UPS, for example, pays like 35 cents every three months per $75 share. The old (2003) reason for cutting dividend taxes down to 15% was because Bush claimed money was being "double-taxed", a phrase that has about as much real meaning as "liberal" and "activist judge". People, your money isn't being "double-taxed". It's being taxed hundreds of times! You earn it, it's income-taxed. You buy a house with it, it's sales-taxed. You hold onto the house, it's property-taxed. You sell the house, it's capital gains-taxed and the buyer pays sales tax. And the whole stupid cycle starts over again. That's what taxes are - a mechanism to give money to the government so it can operate. Some people pay more taxes than others. Maybe it's because they make more money than others. Maybe it's because they engage in more activities that are taxable. Maybe they just have a bad accountant. It's just life, and if you don't like it, email me and I'll send you the name of a good anarchist group in your area.
     Anyway, back to dividends - the trouble with the "double taxed" idea is that many corporations pay little or no income tax, even when they make a profit. If you think you found a nifty tax loophole last year, you wouldn't believe some of the loopholes corporations slip through. So if you remove tax on dividends, much of this money will be "never taxed". And that's a real problem. Because it's not like the government uses a debit card to buy things. It uses a credit card. Getting less tax doesn't mean it is spending less. And therefore it has to get the tax from somewhere else. Who benefits most from a tax cut on dividends? The wealthy. When tax revenue has to be found to replace dividend tax, do you still think the wealthy will be paying as large a proportion?
     Here's the scarier thing: my salary is a corporate expense. When my company figures out its profits, it subtracts my salary first. Then it gives dividends to shareholders from its profits. Say I owned a bookstore with 5 employees working for me. I would pay the 6 of us a salary and we would all pay income tax. Now imagine in 2006 I give all of us "shares" of the bookstore and instead of paying us a salary, I declare a huge dividend that just happens to be the same as the salary we used to get. Except now it's tax-free.
     I know - at first I thought that was awesome too. But then I started wondering, "who is going to get stuck with the bill?" Well, that will be the people unable to get such a sweetheart deal. They're the ones making $9 an hour at McDonalds or $30,000 a year at a public school. You can bet CEO's will quickly get private stock in a small subsidiary of their employer that pays $3 million dividends.
     And lets ask why dividends should be taxed lower than salary anyway. Is it more productive for Americans to spend their time day-trading or producing? Are dividends more desirable than bank interest? More than a teacher's salary or an engineer's salary? Do we really want investors demanding that companies give away all of their profit as dividends instead of investing in expansion that would power America's future?
     Dividend Tax Cut proposal Final Grade: F+

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Tax Week

     One great thing about reading news on the web, as opposed to watching it on television, is the inadvertent juxtaposition of certain headlines. You'll almost never see this sort of analysis on "Fox & Friends", but it's so amazingly simple when it's laid out before you. For example, in late August of this year, on the same web page, I saw one headline that mentioned an upcoming summit on climate change and global warming and another headline talking about the fourth most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic (at the time - Katrina was later surpassed by Rita and Wilma). Funny, huh? I'm not blaming Katrina's wrath on Bush's coziness with the energy industry. It's just hard not to appreciate the appropriateness of the timing. God may not play dice with the universe, but He certainly knows how to play jokes on it.
     Anyway, last week, the "big news" was that a tax reform advisory panel appointed by Bush made certain recommendations about revamping the tax code. Mostly they were tasked with trashing the Alternative Minimum Tax and finding money to pay for it. There's a lot to talk about, and it's interesting even if you don't work in finance. We'll discuss a lot of it during TAX WEEK, aka November 8-11. One of the proposals suggested was to alter the mortgage interest deduction. Interestingly enough, a headline on the next column on read, "Housing Gets Less Affordable for Americans". Hmmmm.
     While I disagree with much of the panel's motivations, I actually think they have some very good ideas. The biggie change would be that instead of deducting interest on any mortgage up to $1 million, the maximum size of a deductible mortgage would range from $172,000 to $312,000, depending on the market. I hate to sound like a Republican, but for the record, a $300,000 loan isn't terribly extravagant. I live in one of the cheapest metro areas in the country (although you can find way cheaper homes if you move to rural Idaho), and the average "starter home" is like $224k. Of course, a lot of that price is related to low interest rates. The point is, this is HUGE. It makes owning a house more of a purchase and less of an investment. It effectively raises your interest rates for houses above the panel's recommended value. In one sense, this is good news for the economy, because instead of sinking wealth into overinflated property, people can invest it in things that will get businesses going. On the other hand, it's a tough blow for those people who enjoy having twice as many bedrooms as family members and a finished basement the size of their parents' whole house. Still, the whole point of a mortgage interest deduction is to spur home ownership, not subsidize luxury home ownership. One of my major concerns is that the panel (or Congress?) will be setting that maximum value in each market. A $250,000 cap in Alabama might be plenty for a McMansion, but if you give New York City anything less than $500,000, it will be extremely unfair. In Manhattan, a nice 1-bedroom apartment goes for $450,000. The fear is that maximums could be politically motivated. What if a Republican Congress wants to punish Blue-State New Yorkers and Californians?
     An interesting twist on the panel's proposal is changing the deduction to a 15% credit. What does this mean? It means everybody gets to remove 15% of their interest from their taxes. Everybody, regardless of whether their normal tax bracket is 10% or 30%. This is such a progressive proposal I'm shocked it came out of a Republican administration. Again, I feel like a Republican when I say that 15% is not high enough. Married couples making a combined $60,000 are out of the 15% bracket. That's hardly wealthy.
     Overall, however, I'm pleasantly surprised by this proposal. If Congress can somehow convince me that they can objectively set maximums in high-cost areas, I'll be very happy. I can adjust to getting a lower tax break if it means a fairer tax plan overall. I don't like the idea of shifting the upper-class's burden to the upper-middle class, but I expected nothing less of Bush. At least this proposal doesn't shift the burden to the lower-middle class or the poor.
     Mortgage Interest proposal Final Grade: B

Monday, November 07, 2005

Happy October!

     Happy October! Wait, it's November? What the hell happened to October? I was, um, abducted by aliens and returned to Earth on Halloween with no memory of what they did to me. Well, now that I've certainly lost my 3 regular readers (Sorry, Mom! - no, I'm just kidding. I would likely die of embarrassment if my mother read this), it's well past time to start writing again.
     So what happened to me? Well, the easy answer is that I've changed jobs and indeed careers in the past month (although I still work for the same company). Where before I had maybe a half hour's worth of real work to do a day, I've actually had to neglect reading my favorite blogs for a long time. Now I'm learning a lot and I don't have as much time to read the entire internet from start to finish each day, but I'm going to make it a priority to write something, even if it's not the 1200-word researched treatise on ... whatever.
     The harder answer is that this blog has launched a second "mini-career" for me. I've started writing a bi-weekly column for a local magazine. (Thanks to Mike Todd for the inspiration and encouragement. He was also the first random internet person to comment on my blog with encouraging words, leading me to start writing for a wider audience than just Ben and my own ego.) Anyway, as exciting as the opportunity is, writing has now ostensibly become a chore, and as my aforementioned mother and my wife can tell you, I avoid chores like the plague. It has also become like homework - when I was facing a deadline to get three columns in at once, I felt guilty about writing about anything other than the columns. No more - well, I hope no more. But I feel more confident I can pound out a 900-word essay in a few hours if I need to. I used to do it every weekday, after all. By the way, if you're really interested in reading the column, email me to ask. It's fairly personal, so you'll excuse me for not advertising it to everyone.
     Anyway, if anyone is reading this, welcome back. There's certainly no shortage of news to talk about. I had been starting to feel like all I was doing was getting in arguments with fundamentalists about why they felt so insecure about their religious beliefs. (It would usually end with them telling me I hated God or I was discriminating against religion) Now I have all kids of things to get into arguments with them about, including more news from the 19th century... I mean Kansas... and beer on Sunday and things like that. Plus the President's henchmen have recommended shifting more tax to the Middle Class and the war on intellectualism has found a new battleground at the University (sic) of Georgia. I can't wait. See you tomorrow!

Thursday, October 20, 2005

I'm Still Alive

     Fear not, I'm not dead.... yet.

     I'm sorry for having appeared to have fallen off the face of the earth. And I'm sorry for allowing real life to interfere with this blog. But I'm in the process of changing jobs, so I'm training my replacement and getting trained in my new role at the same time. The extra work (and having someone sit next to me in a cubicle) keeps me from blogging much lately.

     I shall return.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Why Capitalism Doesn't Work

     You know the old saying, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it"? I know something that's so broken that you don't want to fix it. In fact, it also works so well that you can't fix it. I'm talking about Capitalism. But before you denounce me as a Commie or Anti-American or just dismiss me as a kook, hear me out. More has been written about Capitalism than I could ever do justice to. And a lot of it is still very controversial. But a lot of it is pretty settled as fact. It's like the theory of evolution like that. (But of course who would dare put a sticker in economics book in the US saying "Capitalism is only a theory, not a fact"?)
     Here's the thing: Capitalism describes a lot about the economic system of the United States. On any given day, you produce what you want to produce, you consume what you want to consume. The free markets moderate supply vs demand and the prices do what they need to all on their own. Sure, there are quirks on the individual level, but on the whole everything works out. But the dirty little secret is that the world economy is Capitalist. Even Cuba, a Communist bastion, is part of an unregulated world economy. And even within Cuba, Capitalism reigns, moderating the relative price of a chicken or of repairs to a 1957 Chevy. Money might not always be trading hands, but money isn't required for economics. It's just an intermediary product with a specific value.
     So what's the controversy? Well, Capitalism doesn't work as a political system. It's not a political system. It can't be a political system any more than you can smell the color blue. You might have political systems that work well with Capitalism or you might not. But if you try to replace our Republic with Capitalism, you will end up with what is commonly called, "Anarchy". Anarchy, by definition is the absence of political authority.
     Here's a recent example of something Capitalism doesn't work for. There is a potential for a severe flu pandemic in the next few years based on reports coming out of southeast Asia. Certain bird flus are being shown to have the ability to infect humans, and some scientists feel that strains found this year might be as virulent as the flu that wiped out between 25 to 50 million people at a time when the world population was only a third of what it is today. The best way to combat a reappearance of this disease is to eliminate it at its source - birds. But where is the Capitalist incentive to do that? Poor farmers don't get paid for birds they kill, unless their government intervenes (a Capitalist no-no). The idea of individual property rights would preclude outsiders from killing those birds. And in any event, it only takes a few infected people to start the chain reaction that would spread disease across the world at the speed of a 747.
     Or here's another flu example. The majority of flu vaccine recipients are elderly, and why not? They're the most vulnerable to dying of the flu. But the vaccine is only 28% effective. "So what?" you might ask. "It's their money. 28% is better than nothing." All true. But did you know that it is more effective to protect grandparents by vaccinating their grandchildren? And not just their grandchildren, but all children. Kids, apparently, have a 90% effective rate of vaccination. And if you took the limited number of flu vaccines available and vaccinated kids instead of adults, fewer adults would get the flu. But where's the incentive? Vaccines are somewhat risky themselves. Parents don't necessarily like the idea of sticking another needle in their kids arms. Plus they can be expensive. And why should a parent spend the money to vaccinate his or her kid when the kid's risk of becoming seriously ill from the flu is very low in the first place?
     The answer here is that Capitalism doesn't work for these situations because Capitalism has nothing to do with them. As human beings, we have recognized this fact for thousands of years, which is why we create binding associations. (We call them governments.) Capitalism is swell at selling excess flu vaccines. But if we want to protect grandma from the flu, we need government intervention. We need government intervention to kill sick birds in Indonesia. We need government intervention to vaccinate our children. What the government looks like is up to us. But one thing is for sure - it won't be Capitalist.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Shanah Tovah

Happy New Year! May you all be inscribed in the book of life.

See you Thursday.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Separated at Birth?

Harriet Miers, Supreme Court Justice nomineeEmperor Palpatine, Lord of the Sith

     Seriously, though, I know nothing about this woman. If her background is interesting enough, I might post on it this week.

Photo thanks:;

Friday, September 30, 2005


     I know you've complained before about me using a medley of news stories instead of one long post. Tough. Here's some stuff I've just got to say.

Bill Clinton's a Commie Bastard
     The real headline reads, "Elián González, 11, calls Castro 'friend,' 'father'". WTF? When I was a kid I used to call my mom's old college friends, "Aunt Whoever", but there were no headlines about it. If you read the whole story, it comes out that Janet Reno (and actually US child custody law) made the right decision, sending Elián back home to his father. Elián is happy living at home, especially since he has become somewhat of a local celebrity. He's certainly better off than being used as a political tool in Miami, used to try to get the US government to turn Cuba into the 51st state, or turn Miami into a province of Cuba or whatever it is they want. The Truth is that if Castro were really that bad that a boy calling him a "friend" is so horrible, then we would have had US marines conducting "regime change" 90 miles south of Key West. But the reality is that Cuba isn't much of a threat anymore since its former patron, the USSR, ran out of money. He's just a mean dictator that deposed our mean dictator almost 50 years ago.

Bush's New Nickname: Slippery George
     The Valerie Plame case won't go away. Originally, Bush promised that anyone in administrationtion who was "involved" in the affair would be terminated. A few months ago, the shocker was that Bush confidant Karl Rove was one source, but he still works in the White House. Yesterday, another source is confirmed as the VP's chief of staff "Scooter" Libby. No word yet on when the firings will commence.

Jews are Anti-Christian Bastards
     If the real title ("Jews attack Southern Baptist evangelism") isn't quite as inflammatory, it's close. Basically, this is not new news. The Anti-Defamation League (which I've criticized before for having poor timing) is sick and tired of official Southern Baptist attacks on Judaism. It's bad enough to get blamed for Arabic terrorism and to be accused of pulling George Bush's strings, but then the Southern Baptist Convention has targeted us for extinction. If there's any consolation, at least they're not doing it at gunpoint, like the Nazis did. Still, why the need to make Jews look like the evil aggressors? Again.

Does She Still Look Good on your Posters?
     I don't want to take anything away from Ashley Smith. The poor woman was invaded upon by mass murderer and rapist Brian Nichols and not only survived to tell the tale, subdued him and turned him in to the police. She's a brave woman and a hero, and nothing can take that away from her. But she became a poster woman for the religious wingnuts who couldn't get enough of the dubious tale that she turned him from a savage to a saint merely by talking to him about God and Jesus. It turns out that it also took Crystal Meth. So anyone out there looking to go to downtown Fallujah carrying only a King James should pack some crack, because preaching to someone with a gun pointed at you isn't necessarily the best personal safety precaution I can recommend.

God Wants Us to Stop Learning
     This is one of my favorite responses to the Religious Right's efforts to Christianize America. Slate extends the "ID" theory, which says that some creatures and plants are so complex that they cannot be explained by any natural phenomena. If it's good enough to have students stop learning evolution, why stop there? "You know those damn theoretical gaps and conundrums that send microbiology graduate students into dank basement laboratories at 3 a.m.? They don't need to be resolved at all. Go back to bed, sleepy little grad students. God fills those gaps." "What accounts for the phenomenon of spontaneous remission in some cancers? With intelligent design, we don't ever need to find out. Years from now, we'll all lie in our hospital beds while ID-trained doctors hold our hands and assure us that we are merely dying of God." Since everything we don't know yet is "unexplainable", it's clearly the direct result of the hand of God. So we must stop trying to look further and learn things, and just accept everything the way it is. That's OK - I wasn't really looking forward to a Treo running Windows. I know that my phone runs on God instead.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Easy Meme

     So many of the blogs I read are more personal than political, and on many levels I enjoy them more. It's like reading a sitcom or a soap opera. Sometimes I can't wait to find out what happens next. Although my blog reading is certainly limited (maybe 20 on a given day out of over 18 million that Technorati is tracking), I like to think that it gives me a little insight into what different people think and do on a daily basis. Certainly in some ways I have very little in common with a yoga instructor in Astoria or an ESOL teacher in Vegas or an obsessive gardener in Wisconsin, so it's like a window into worlds I would never otherwise see.
     There was an interesting article in Newsweek this week by Anna Quindlen that said politicians should watch more television. She made the point that for people who are so separated from normal American life, television might be the only way to possibly connect. George Bush, who last lived a private life in 10 years, has never really live the life of the average American. I'm not picking on him - his situation isn't unique for a career politician, especially one born into a life of privilege. Why was it last month when thousands of Katrina refugees were huddled in the New Orleans convention center, every American glued to their TV sets knew it, but the President and the head of FEMA did not? Because they were not watching the news. They did not see what we saw. If you think about that for a moment, it's scary. They have access to classified reports from their field agents, but they are completely isolated from 280 million Americans and are unable to know what's going on.
     So by reading blogs I get to feel a little superior, knowing what's going on in some small corner of Cleveland or reading a daily diary from Brooklyn. For those of you who read such personal blogs, you should be familiar with "memes" like blogger interviews, What kind of Star Wars character are you, What day will you die, 100 things about me. As tempting as they are, I've decided to keep The Truth less personal and more about ideas and analysis. But I've broken down today and will participate in one I found on Majikthise. It talks about the 100 most challenged books - the ones parents try to ban from schools. It's a very eclectic list. How many have you read? I've only read 19 20 (UPDATE: Oops, I didn't recognize "Earth's Children" as the "Clan of the Cave Bear" series), but I don't know if that's admirable or not. My list:

     3) I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
     4) The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
     5) The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
     6) Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
     7) Harry Potter (Series) by J.K. Rowling
     9) Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
     13) The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
     20) Earth’s Children (Series) by Jean M. Auel (This was hot when I was in middle school. I picked out all the juicy parts and showed all my 6th grade friends)
     22) A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
     27) The Witches by Roald Dahl
     32) Blubber by Judy Blume
     41) To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
     47) Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
     51) A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein
     56) James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
     62) Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret by Judy Blume
     70) Lord of the Flies by William Golding
     84) The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
     88) Where's Waldo? by Martin Hanford (WTF??)
     96) How to Eat Fried Worms by Thomas Rockwell

Monday, September 26, 2005

Awakening the Inner Democrat

     Katrina and Rita were monster storms, transforming the Gulf Coast from Texas to Mississippi into a flooded mass of debris and death. This unprecedented confluence of events (and by unprecedented I mean happens every few decades) has had a profound effect on our politicians. New Orleans and Louisiana officials put a halt to the corruption and apathy (for the time being); Mississippi and Texas officials forswore their vows of conservatism to declare that the region would be rebuilt no matter what the cost; and Georgia's Republican governor jumped on the conservation bandwagon.
     Well, that's not all exactly true. But the hurricanes do have Republicans acting like Democrats, or trying to, just like the 9/11 attacks had, well, Republicans acting like Democrats (meddling in foreign affairs, giving the government more power). But in 2001 the Republicans said the Dems were acting like weaselly surrender-monkeys, so all was forgiven. In 2005, the Republicans are taking it on the chin, after failing to adequately respond to two natural disasters (In part because they happen to be the ones in power, and in part because of the deadly combination of Bush's cronyism and the Right's desire to "starve the beast"). Much has already been made of the Republican Congress's zealousness in doling out Brazillions of dollars, most recently to the hurricane victims. Rebuilding the Gulf Coast is a complex issue, and beyond the scope of this little article, so I'll leave to others the analysis of whether Congressional Republicans have become "Cut and Spend" liberals (Yes) and whether or not that's a bad thing.
     On Friday, Georgia governor Sonny Perdue made his own foray into liberalism, calling for Georgia schools to close Monday and Tuesday (Free Login) to save fuel. I think I understand his thought process: school buses won't run for two of the days when fuel shortages may be worst, keeping gas prices reasonable until the refineries and pipelines can get going again after Rita. In addition, a lot of parents will probably decide to take a vacation day from work so they can watch the kids at home. Some parents might even telework. It's such a wonderful, simple idea that a third grader could have thought of it. A fifth grader, on the other hand, would have pointed out to the governor that not every one of his constituents has the flexibility to take off work at a moment's notice. How many parents out there cannot just leave work or afford two days of emergency childcare? How many businesses out there can't let their entire offices or warehouses have a vacation day? Consider some of our essential services - our police officers and firefighters work on Christmas and the Fourth of July, when their kids are out of school. But they have advance notice and many people in that situation are paid extra for the inconvenience. Governor Perdue, is it OK for half of the state's police force to "call in sick" for 2 days to save gas?
     What happened here is that Perdue was struck with a liberal idea, but lacking a Liberal's foresight and long-term thinking, decided conservation could be accomplished in two days. Had he wanted to do this right, he would have worked to discourage driving and push through mass transit solutions. Instead, he has spent much of his term pushing through additional highways to the detriment of transit money. Had he wanted to do this right, he would have long ago raised the gas tax, which is currently one of the lowest in the nation. Instead, he temporarily repealed the gas tax in the wake of Katrina.
     I have to stray for a minute to talk about what a boneheaded idea suspending the gas tax was.
1) Georgia has about 15 cents of tax on each gallon. Therefore, his idea was that suspending the gas tax should lower gas prices by 15 cents. However, many stations didn't completely do this, maybe lowering gas prices 13 or 14 cents. Besides, prices have been so crazy lately, jumping up and down 20 cents at a time, who's to say what portion is gas tax?
2) This stunt cost the state of Georgia over $75 million. This is money the state desperately needed for highway and transit projects. However, lets assume the state wants to donate $75 million dollars to the effort. Wouldn't it have been a lot more helpful to pay people to go fix the pipelines and refineries quicker? Or if you wanted to get really liberal about it, spent that money on water and food and housing for refugees?
3) In a time when gas stations were (are) regularly running out of fuel on a daily basis, why on earth would you want to encourage more driving? Keep the cost of fuel high so people don't take a 2,000 mile Labor Day trip in their 5 mpg SUV!
end of gas tax rant
     These terrible twin tragedies are waking America up from its "screw the world and screw you" attitude it developed in 2001. Will our Republican leaders be able to adapt and truly become "compassionate conservatives"? Or will their penchant for ignoring the poor and unfortunate just become more apparent?

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

A Solemn Oath

     If there should be a single nail in the coffin of the so-called "Liberal Media", it should be last week's CNN headline, "Federal judge declares Pledge unconstitutional". The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, long derided by the Redneck Right as too liberal (or maybe too Yankee), posted the slightly less biased headline, "Judge: Pledge violates rights". Both of these, plus the countless inflammatory headlines from around the nation are certain to push the buttons of religious conservatives who believe that Christians are being persecuted in the United States.
     What the hell am I talking about? Well, if you don't know, it is because of the fortunate (unfortunate?) timing of the latest battle over the Pledge. Despite certain pseudo-news channels chasing ratings over actual news, Katrina mostly dominated news coverage last week, and Texas Rita has headlines this week.
     So what are the nuts and bolts of this case? On September 14th, a US District judge ruled that requiring students to recite the Pledge was illegal. He explained that forcing students to affirm God violated the First Amendment. This is significantly different from the ruling in June 2002 that said the actual words, "Under God" were unconstitutional. The 2002 ruling caused a religious backlash around the country (in part because there was no news to report and because we were still undergoing patriotic anti-Islam fervor after 9/11) and Congress voted nearly unanimously to support a resolution keeping the Pledge intact with "under God". That ruling was overturned by the Supreme Court on a technicality, so it's really no surprise that the issue has resurfaced.
     I think people tend to forget what the Pledge of Allegiance really is. It's a solemn oath of eternal loyalty to the United States. Swearing loyalty to the US is not a bad thing for an American citizen to do. It's the solemn part that gets me. If you're older than 17, think back to the last time you said the Pledge. It was probably either back when you were in school or when you were visiting your children's school, right? And it's not that I think having kids swear allegiance to the US is a bad thing, either, but do they really know what they're saying? You have to be 16 or 17 to hold a driver's license and you have to be 18 or 19 to buy cigarettes. You have to be 18 to sign up for the military. You have to be 21 to drink and 25 to rent a car. And you cannot vote your preference for President or Governor or Mayor until you are 18. We don't trust children to do any of these things. So what do we get out of making children recite this oath 5 days a week? Most certainly don't appreciate the seriousness. And an oath is worth nothing if the speaker doesn't understand.
     So that makes it a farce. And the "under God" language makes it even more so. Students who don't believe in God but who do believe in the United States are swearing a false oath every single day. And what is confusing to me is that the Supreme Court in 1943 ruled to protect students from being complelled to salute the flag and say the Pledge because the government had no right to take the "free" out of "free speech". This is an argument any Libertarian should get behind. Imagine if instead of the flag, your kids were required to swear fealty to George W. Bush or Bill Clinton personally?
     That being said, I'm really not against the Pledge. And back to my original point, it is dishonest for the media to pretend that the recent court ruling is, either. 2002 saw an athiest try to remove the words, "under God" from the Pledge. Obviously, like so many of the 50's and 60's misguided laws (see the Georgia State Flag), the Pledge became ingrained in people who started to believe it had always been that way. But 2005 only reaffirmed free speech. And it reconfirmed that there are some people wanting to religiouscize our free nation no matter what the cost. We would do well not to heed their propaganda.