Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Hello Boys, Remember Me?

    One of my favorite lines from "Independence Day", a movie with lots of great one-liners. (And by no means was it my intention to exclude the wonderful women who read my blog).
    Anyway, I'm back! And I'm swamped with catch-up. Relaxation is hard work, especially when you have to accelerate to more than full speed on your return. It's like stepping on the moving sidewalk at the airport. One second you're minding your own business, the next you're flat on your back wondering where the hell the floor is going. (Actually, it's more challenging getting off the sidewalk, especially when the person in front of you drops their 50-pound bag right where the sidewalk ends. But that's another story.) So I'll have to postpone a real post until tomorrow when I've gotten a chance to catch up with work and read my mail at home (see: pay bills that came due when I was in the Caribbean) and catch up on the posts and responses on the blog. Super thanks to The Oh Really Factor for filling in while I was gone. ORF, you did an awesome job, and anytime you get your political hackles raised but don't want to alienate your own readers, you're more than welcome to alienate mine!
    So enjoy the break - I've had a week to let things simmer and I'm all pissed off about the world is being run, so see you tomorrow!

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Stemming the debate

Back in April, Scott predicted that the increasing rash of smoking bans in the country from state to state would begin to divide the Republican party along its fault lines. It would become the GOP's internal third rail. I have to say I disagree with him in that I don't think a smoking ban is a strong enough issue to divide any party because of two reasons: a) it's long been established that smoking is hazardous to not on the smoker but those around him or her and b) bar attendance has not flagged or faltered a smidge in any of the cities and states where smoking has already been banned, so those crying about the injury of commerce will dry their tears soon enough.

However, I do believe their IS an issue that will begin to make the cracks under the pancake makeup show for the Republican party, and possibly quite soon. That issue is embryonic stem cell research.

Last summer, during the Democratic National Convention, Ron Reagan, often at odds with his father's conservative politics, spoke in favor of supporting stem cell research. Nancy supported his appearance, and she was known as one of the most conservative doyennes in modern Washington history. Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger backed California's Proposition 71 last fall as well, which allocated $3 billion in bonds to support stem cell research in the state, circumventing the federal ban. And Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA), despised by many for his conservative politics, has put his name at the top of a bill newly introduced into the Senate this week to open up federal spending for embryonic stem cell research and has threatened that he has the power to override the veto Bush has guaranteed he will put on the measure. Even Orrin Hatch (R-UT) is in on the action.

Many of the measures that come before Congress often pan out based on whatever purpose they might serve, first and foremost, for the Congressional leaders themselves as recipients of special interest funding, favors, kickbacks and tax breaks. This measure is no different, except that many of the members of Congress are elderly white men who are at a point in their lives when dire medical diagnoses begin to pick up steam. In other words, they are at risk, so it is in their interest to help themselves. It just so happens that this measure is beneficial to the electorate as well. Senator Specter is undergoing treatment for Hodgkin's disease, and admits that the rigor of his radiation regimen has upped the ante for him. But Senator Specter also opposes abortion. More and more Republicans are filing themselves into the camp of what was once considered a more liberal view with regards to medical research because they are realizing the distinction that must be made between ending an existing pregnancy and using a single-celled organism to potentially alter the course of modern medicine for the good of the entire world.

The scientific community argues that opening up further stem cell lines for research (the one's currently available for use as of Bush's 2001 mandate, in which he stated that research could only be done on the existing 20-odd lines, are all considered contaminated or damaged) will possibly lead to cures for such diseases as diabetes, heart failure, Lou Gehrig's disease, Alzheimers, cancer and countless others. Many Senators and Congressmen are aware that they may face one of these maladies at some point in the near future and when I personally look at the list of disease that could be cured, I can think of someone I know who has died or suffers from nearly all of them. In short, there is a great potential to save a lot of lives or at the very least, improve the quality of life for people already ill.

But many on the Right refuse to even consider the bill because they feel that doing work on embryos is akin to abortion since the embryo is no longer viable once it is used for research. The counterpoint to that argument is that embryos from fertility clinics are destroyed anyway once a couple has been successful or stops trying. The bill calls for the cells to be obtained in an ethical manner by seeking the approval of donors by allowing them to put the cell up for "adoption" by another (infertile) couple, storing them, destroying them or giving them to science. President Bush sees that as murder and states that "This bill would take us across a critical ethical line by creating new incentives for the ongoing destruction of emerging human life. Crossing this line would be a great mistake." Tom DeLay concurs: "An embryo is a person. This bill tramples on the moral convictions of an awful lot of people who don't want their tax dollars to be spent for killing innocent human life."

It would seem that the ongoing debate on fetal rights, embryonic determination and at just what point can we call a fetus a human being will be brought into the forefront should this come to the floor. It is still hard to say whether or not Senator Specter can truly overcome Bush's veto power, but recent votes in the House on this issue were not as strongly divided along party lines as they typically are. It was passed earlier this week 238-194, with fifty Republicans in favor. This is a highly positive sign and while I personally have no idea just where I think a "life" begins, I certainly know when it ends and I know how tragic and upsetting the death of a loved one from a debilitating (and conceivably preventable) disease can be. And I would respond to Speaker DeLay to say that tax dollars might be spent to "end" a human life, but those same dollars would be spent to save countless more in the long run.

When I was sixteen, my grandfather, whom I adored, died slowly and frustratingly of Lou Gehrig's disease. He was only 72 and his mental facilities were intact. But he couldn't speak to me to tell me he loved me and he didn't eat solid foods for the last six months of his life. Breathing was laborious because the muscles in his chest stopped functioning. I couldn't visit him without crying because I was heartbroken at the way his body had shut down on him and I was utterly helpless in the struggle he alone faced. There are billions of cells in the human body and the truth is, I hardly ever take the time to get to know just one. I would readily sacrifice an entire strand of hair and all the thousands of cells it contains (to say nothing of my entire left arm) if I thought it would help to save others from suffering from the disease and prevent the people around them from having to endure the pain of watching someone deteriorate in that way. President Bush is being obstinate and narrow-minded in his approach to the potential for saving human life by insisting that we not be allowed to further this type of research.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Yes, but what does Benedict say about Viagra?

Scott's away this week on a crooooooze, hopefully soaking up lots of sun instead of getting soaked by the rain that he told me was predicted. I'm here to humbly take his stead. He asked for a controversial topic so I figured I'd turn this into a gender-and-religion thing of sorts for the day. I'll hopefully have time to do at least one other post before Scott gets back on Saturday. I think that's when he's back. Not sure. Anyway, enjoy!

There is a turn of phrase in "Much Ado About Nothing" where Beatrice plays a pun on Benedick's name as it relates to the male anatomy. 'Tis true that Shakespeare was an admirable wordsmith. I had that in mind as I was drafting this last night since our new Pope is aptly named Benedict and this post is about Viagra. If you still haven't gotten the joke then here's a hint: "bene" means "good" in Latin.

I saw a spoiler on the evening news last night saying that Medicaid is apparently happily reimbursing sex offenders' prescriptions for Viagra in New York State. And, finally, thankfully, Alan Hevesi, state Comptroller (who invented that word, anyway!?) has wised up and is banning the practice. I have a couple of questions about that:
-First of all, aren't these people under house arrest of some sort? And don't they have to disclose their sex-offender status? I think they need to take pills to cure their sociopathy before even THINKING about getting laid.
-And next, it seems to me that most people who are sex offenders don't tend to suffer from impotence. They have the opposite issue of being incapable of keeping it in their pants. (Insert reference to Catholic priests here.)
-Finally, so...you'll pay for Viagra but not birth control? That is just so rich. So freaking rich! But I'm not going to get into that here, except to say that it would be a fairly safe assumption that most of America is run by men over the age of 45 and I guess we know what state their sex lives are in...

The Catholic Church, as well as a growing number of evangelical congregations, does not condone birth control of any kind. (Ok, so PJP II approved the rhythm method, but everyone knows white people can't dance, which pretty much negates the efficiency of that means of keeping the stork at bay. Evidently the previous Pope was not as clueless as we all thought.) The idea being that sex should be intended not for mere sexual pleasure but rather procreating, thus ultimately extending the church membership. So where does that leave Viagra and Levitra? Or their French cousin, Cialis? (The drug is referred to as "Le Weekender" in France since it lasts 36+ hours.)

I did some poking around on Lexis-Nexis and Google to try to see if the Church had indeed come out with a mandate about Viagra and its ilk. While it doesn't appear there was ever an ammendment made to Vatican II about this whole thing, most holy speculation says the Church approves Viagra so long as it's used by a man and a woman who are married to one another. No funny business outside of wedlock. Other than that, you're golden! The rationale being that the ultimate goal of intercourse must be that the man ejaculates into the woman and potentially fertilizes her and using an unnatural means of blocking that potential life (i.e. the Pill, a vasectomy, sponges, condoms, diaphrams, etc.) is sinful. But, if he needs a little help from a little blue pill to sew the seed, well, that's ok by God because it happens to lots of guys. And because at least those crazy kids were most definitely trying to make a baby. And since God created the Heavens and the Earth and said it was all good, then I'm pretty sure that just behind the pomegranate and the serpent, there was a prescription bottle hanging from the tree of knowledge. So, you know, it's only natural!

I just love it when religious groups truck along yarping about "natural this" and "God-like state that" and then don't seem to have a problem with advocating modern medicine as something God gave us. No He didn't. Don't even ACT like he did. Pfizer gave it to us. And if God is in the habit of creating exorbitantly wealthy pharmaceutical companies who are in bed with the insurance carriers, all of which is highly questionable and base, then he's a no good jerk to begin with!

Furthermore, there is a gross inconsistency in the ads for these drugs featuring 40-somethings. That set is usually well past prime baby-making age and they appear to do a tremendous amount of flirty frolicking (c'mon, bathtubs in the sunset?!?!), which would frankly bother me were I Pope Benedict XVI. Those people have NO intention of making a baby, they just want to get it on. Face it, Viagra is a recreational drug and that notion is reinforced by the Viagra parties that became so popular in the late 1990s when the drug was introduced. It is about one thing and one thing only: improving your sex life. Which is just fine. I don't have a problem with Viagra, etc. but is the Church really buying the suggestion that Bob Dole wants more children as opposed to being motivated by a strong desire to once again be a stallion in the bedroom? Because I'm pretty sure Liddy is post-menopausal which means that if Bob IS looking to sire more kids then he's going to have to do so with his secretary, thereby committing adultery and breaking God's heart. In summary, Viagra is clearly a very dangerous drug that will make men lust in their hearts, leave their wives and consort with prostitutes. But hey, who knows...maybe we'll get another Messiah out of this modern miracle.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Filibuster & Hiatus

     I am about to embark on a 7 day excursion to the eastern caribbean (the hiatus). It's apparently the doldrums of the blog season anyway, with people going on vacations and such, but as selfish as the thought may be, I'd like to see some of the previous discussions fleshed out (the filibuster). The biggest downside with having a new topic each day is that we leave a lot of good discussion on the table in order to pay attention to new ones. So if you have the inclination, skim through some older posts and post inflammatory and incendiery (but not derogatory) comments. I may also have the privelege of a super-secret guest blogger one or two days this week. I'm actually very excited about the possiblity but I don't want to get anyones hopes up, especially my own. Also, since the remnants of a Pacific hurricane seem to be headed toward my very expensive vacation, I may have a good bit of time to compose a lot of future blogs next week, so watch out!
     I leave you with these parting, inflammatory thoughts: Lindsay Beyerstein, on her delightful philosphic blog that is 50% of the time over my head, suggests that a potential outcome of removing the threat of filibuster from appointments may cause "judicial activism" to explode like never before. Now, judges try to appear neutral, even when they're not. They try to be neutral as much as possible, especially if they're itching for a federal judgeship. But if the ruling party can install extremist judges (not to imply that Bush's judges are extreme, just that the possibility to do so exists), judges will try to pander to the party lines to be nominated. Earlier in their careers, judges will try to get the attention of the party elite by moving farther and farther from the center - from objectivity. "Judicial Activism" on both sides of the fence will go nuts as judges try to twist the constitution to their will in order to get appointed to higher and higher office.
     Case in point - my Congressional district is solid red. No Democrat will get elected here in my lifetime (unless minorities start moving in enmasse - then the Repubs will flee north again like they did in the 60's in Atlanta). Therefore the Republican primary was the election, and the two main Repub candidates battled it out in extremism royale, competing to see who could call the other gay-friendly more, who could call the other abortion-friendly more, despite the fact that both were extreme homophobes who would stone their daughters if she tried to have an abortion even if she had been raped by Adolf Hitler.
     So the question is, what do the Republicans have to gain by getting rid of the filibuster? I understand the appeal when Republicans are in power, but image if Hillary Clinton were President. Would they want her to have no opposition in choosing the judges of her choice? If this plan would increase judicial activism, maybe the Republicans are blowing a little smoke up our skirts. Maybe they don't hate the idea of judges creating law at all, as long as it's in their favor.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

This is Why Football Coaches Make the Big Bucks

     Few headlines outside Colorado have made mention of the religious discrimination accusations at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado. There have been serious claims of religious harrassment at the Academy, including a case where a Jewish cadet was told by his fellow cadets - the men and women he would trust his life to in war - that the Holocaust was revenge for the death of Jesus. There are other instances in which non-Christian cadets were explicitly and implicitly told that there was no room for them in the US Air Force. Enough that the Pentagon in investigating whether this discrimination and harrassment was supported by the administration of the Academy. Even if you believe that it is a Christian's role to spread the gospel, surely you have to recognize how weakened America's military would be if it were fragmented by religion - if Jewish and Muslim and Buddhist and Athiest and Christian soldiers thought of their religious differences before they thought of their national identities. This harrassment extended to the Air Force football team, which is also being investigated.
     This week, Bobby Bowden, the longtime coach of the Florida State Seminoles, spoke to the Southern Colorado Fellowship of Christian Athletes and told them that "The coach has a responsibility to these boys to try to influence their spiritual life..." and "I want my boys to be saved." Now I know why coaches make millions of dollars - part of their job is to get the football players to accept Christ. Private schools may indeed make this mission part of the job description for their coaches. I wouldn't at all be surprised if Notre Dame or Trinity asked their coaches to shill for Christ. But at a public university, all students have a right to be there and to be involved, no matter their religion. If Bobby Bowden wants to preach, he should do it in a place and time where the people he preaches to do not fear his retribution. By having a power position over his players, he bullies them into religion because he can make or break a player's career. It is akin to forcing people to church at knifepoint. Let Bobby preach his religion to people who aren't cowed by him, who see him as an equal, not a boss.
     On a personal note, this revelation absolutely disgusts me. I admired Bowden for his football program while I overlooked the many transgressions of his players. Having heard what he said, I can't help but think of the many scandals his team has faced over the past few decades, including theft and rape and the institutionalized breaking of NCAA rules by his program. Bowden speaks out of the corners of his mouth when he talks about looking after his players. He's not interested in growing them up to be men. He's only interested in winning - in winning games and in winning converts. He couldn't care less about how he does it, and in my eyes, that loses him the rightful title of "coach".

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Who Started the Fire?

     CBS must be breathing a collective sigh of relief this week. Yesterday's conservative whipping-boy, CBS has been replaced at the top of the scorn heap by Newsweek, the liberal-minded international weekly news magazine. Last week, Newsweek reported that interrogators at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, desecrated the Qu'ran, the Muslim holy book, to loosen inmates' lips. When this word got out, riots erupted throughout the Muslim world, including in Afghanistan, where many people thought major unrest had ended months ago. The Pentagon spoke out, saying that the allegations were untrue and unfounded, and Newsweek, which had based its article on an anonymous source, backed away and halfheartedly apologized.
     This is all relatively old news (by internet standards, I suppose) and surely blog fodder for the conservative bloggers, licking their lips about the liberal media. They blast Newsweek for causing the rioting and deaths that ensued. Scott McClellan, the White House Press Secretary said,
"I mean, it's -- this report has had serious consequences. It has caused damage to the image of the United States abroad. It has -- people have lost their lives."

     Newsweek has now officially retracted the article. However, it's still not clear that the allegations were false, only that they were unconfirmable. And just like the CBS story on Bush's record in the Air Force National Guard, this was a story that never should have made it to print. Here's what I find interesting though... Conservatives also complained about the reporting of the Abu Ghraib scandal, saying that it emboldened our enemies and was in itself, traitorous. Notice the theme here - reporting these things is the crime. Conservatives almost uniformly dismissed the allegations of torture as little more than fraternity hazing, but making it public was what was criminal. They also said that our image was so bad in the Islamic world that a little negative publicity was worth whatever information we gleaned from these prisoners. Clearly, this week's riots show that our image did have room to fall, and that our actions, real or not, still have a serious impact on world opinion.
     It's also interesting to note how McClellan said that the article caused people to lose lives. A) because it was the alleged action that spurred the riots, and B) because officially the Pentagon does not track civilian deaths in Iraq or Afghanistan. How come suddenly they're the protector of the average citizen of these countries? How come each life became so precious to them? How come despite the tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis who died, a few killed in riots earn their scorn?
     One last thing - this incident is sure to bring up the Conservative complaint, "Why don't they ever publish about the good things we're doing over there?" To paraphrase an overused Chris Rock quote, "We're supposed to be doing those good things, motherf***er."

Monday, May 16, 2005

Smoke This, Part II

     Starting July 1, two positive, unrelated, yet related things are going to happen in Georgia. First, smoking will be banned from any public place that admits children under the age of 18. Second, state employees who smoke will begin paying an additional $40 a month in health insurance premiums. These are unrelated items in one sense - either one would have happened if the other had not. Obviously they're related in another sense - a lowered toleration of smoking in the United States. Smoking is an issue that has crossed party lines. Libertarianism isn't particularly appealing to either major party, really. Both believe that society must dictate some form of life - they just disagree on the specifics.
     Georgia's smoking ban is incredibly positive, IMNSHO, and a good compromise for restauranteurs and patrons alike. Unlike New York's rules against any smoking in public buildings, Georgia's has a number of exceptions, including designated hotel rooms, bars and restaurants that bar children, and specially designated rooms in any restaurant or workplace that has its own ventilation system. It strikes a fine balance between individual rights and, well, individual rights.
     The second thing, additional premiums for smokers, has been a long time coming. Keep in mind this only applies to one insurance plan - the one for state employees. Private health insurance companies are already doing the same thing, quietly. It's a positive step for a number of reasons. First, it helps shift some of the additional costs smokers impose on the system back onto the smokers. Second, it perhaps offers another financial incentive to quit. Third, unlike other risk factors like genetics or weight, smoking is purely voluntary. (Weight isn't voluntary - it can be a symptom of excessive overeating, which itself is voluntary. Other causes of weight gain are involuntary. Smoking is 100% voluntary.) For some reason, this small thing is causing an uproar. Smokers spent about $710 a year on tobacco in 2001. $40 a month ($480/year) is a significant cost increase for them, but compared to the $15,000 extra they cost us in health care costs and the 4 extra sick days on average they take (for a smoker making $50,000 a year, 4 workdays is worth $800), it seems like a fair start.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Who Likes Ike?

     Who said this and when?
"Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H. L. Hunt (you possibly know his background), a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid."

     The author was none other than Dwight David Eisenhower, the 34th President of the United States and a Republican. He said this on November 8, 1954. Do you think he'd guess that a Texas oil millionaire would try to do just those things 50 years later?

Thursday, May 12, 2005

A Rose by Any Other Name Would be Tolerated

     Do words really matter? I mean, is my choice of words still important, or is it just the thought that counts? Ironically, in a time which grammatical rules are easiest to follow, with spelling and grammar checkers, with online dictionaries, with word processors that can change a single word in a 500 page paper, words seem to have less meaning than ever. You can see it in the youth culture, which probably began with my generation, instant messaging on AOL in 1989. Now text messaging is mature, and millions of kids (and many adults) speak and write in a code language, mostly devoid of vowels and articles and tenses. I've always thought of myself as tech-savvy, but things like this make me feel old: "WAT CAN I SAY... IT WUD BE AN UNDERSTATEMENT 2 SAY NOT MUCH HAS CHANGD N R LIFE DIS DAYS".
     We also live in a time of uber-jingoism not seen since the Spanish-American War. And a time of unprecedented propaganda, eerily similar to George Orwell's 1984. We're so used to being lied to and having words twisted into unrecognizable shapes that we may have lost the ability to differentiate between connotation and denotation. I recently came across a conversation about the word, "Tolerance". Someone mentioned that people were offended by the use of the word. I replied that I think a better word is "acceptance", since "tolerance" means putting up with something you dislike, while acceptance means coexistence without having to approve or disapprove. His response was, "Again, it's one of those things that means something different to different people." Case closed. End of discussion.
     I'll admit that connotations are fairly subjective. Still, there's general agreement what words mean. If you want to communicate with other people, you don't just decide a word means something else. Sure, it seems fairly petty to be arguing about which word to use when there are larger problems in the world. But it's still not unreasonable to see that people can be hurt by the words you choose to use.
     I've had a lot of conversations about the "rules of dating". (Granted not so many since I've been married, but bear with me.) Many of my (single) friends hate dating. They see it as fake and grueling and time consuming. Why can't you just say what you feel, they ask. Why do I have to wait before saying "I love you" or "how many kids do you want" or "your ass looks nice"? They don't want to play the "game". The truth is, it's not a game. It's more like a dance of death, where two people are trying to get to know each other without getting hurt themselves, guessing as much as they can about the other from the small bits of interaction they experience. Love at first sight is a very romantic ideal. But there are too many weirdos and stalkers in the world to not be scared by someone saying "I love you, can we move in together" on the 2nd date. We watch what we say because we have a lot riding on the other person not misunderstanding us. The same goes in real life.
     There's so little trust in the real world, that when a group that has made my life miserable in the past says they'll be "tolerant" of me, I'd like to think they mean they'll respect me. But I'm not naive enough to dismiss the meanings of the word that say they'll permit me or endure me. Why not use words that are clear and inviting? Why not look for ways to get along instead of trying to defend outdated ways? Or do we just not want to get along? There's a certain belligerency in the air lately - people are looking for a fight. Where did that come from? Or was it always there? Or is "getting along" just some liberal claptrap that has gone along the wayside along with the Democrats?
     Some of my coworkers were talking about child killings today at lunch. "Oh, the ones in Illinois?" "No, the one in Florida" "This is why I don't watch the news anymore" While I don't see how hiding from bad news actually makes it stop, I agree that with the 24-hour news cycle and increased news competition, TV news is trying to frighten us into watching, blowing every incident out of proportion (ahem, Runaway Bride), and causing us to become defensive. Lock the doors, don't talk to strangers, don't show kindness because the predators can sense any weakness. We've turned our country into the land of paranoia, and differing opinions into things to be tolerated, at best.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

MCI Promotes Child Porn

And other gay long distance stories
     I can't believe I almost missed a post today! I wanted to share this little gem I found on the Poly Sci Fi blog. Apparently there's a company called United American Technologies which provides "Christian" internet service and long distance. The internet service is new, but the LD side claimed that AT&T is a pornographer, MCI boasts kiddie porn, and that Verizon asked their employees to accept gays. Comedian Eugene Mirman made and recorded a few calls to this company. Here they are:
Conversation 1
Conversation 2

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Hello, My Name is Scott and I'll Be Your Waiter

     Today I was talking to some coworkers about cruises and looking forward to going on one. (It's a slow day in the office. Nothing new.) I remarked how cost effective they were when one coworker commented how extra costs piled up, including 3 days worth of his wife's duty-free shopping, an $800 bar tab, and the usual "voluntary" tips. (God help me, I'd better not get Dooced for that.) Do you ever think about the process of tipping? I'm sorry if I offend any of you current or former waitstaff, but it's a pretty corrupt way of doing business, and it's probably time to put a stop to it.
     The straw that broke my proverbial back was at a bowling alley. I had ordered chicken fingers at the greasy food bar and saw the ubiquitous "tip cup". I'd always been led to believe that tips at restaurants made up for the low wages that servers made, usually far below minimum wage. Tips apparently make up a large portion of their salaries. But at the bowling alley, this guy was making minimum wage. In addition, his job was not complex. If I ordered chicken fingers, his job was to get them for me. Somehow I got the feeling from this guy that I needed to tip him - not a feeling I usually get from tip cups in Subway's or Dunkin Donuts. Sure enough, when I got my food, it had a double portion of fries. My fried who didn't tip, had a single portion of fries and it looked as if he was missing a piece of chicken as well. All I could think about was how the tip cup encouraged corrupt behavior. The owner of the bowling alley paid for my extra fries, yet I paid off the server. And my friend developed a little bit of "bad will" for the place, which the server got a mouthful of chicken. I can't understand why any fast food manager would allow a tip cup in his or her store, and to this day I refuse to contribute a penny.
     Tipping in full service restaurants promotes bad behavior as well. Shouldn't the employees treat the customers well all the time, not just when they're being bribed? The arguments I've heard are that servers aren't paid enough (fair complaint) and that I can't expect someone to be on their feet that many hours and still be pleasant. You know what - I can. I've been very consistent with this issue. If you have a job, you are expected to fulfill the obligations of that job. And if you can't, you need to find a different job. This applies to bowling alley attendants, to waiters at fancy restaurants, and to pharmacists who balk at dispensing birth control. This is not to say that employees should get taken advantage of. But when the job description is clear from the start, I have no sympathy for not fulfilling your duties to the job.
     In addition, when I pay good money for dinner, I expect to be treated nicely. If I'm not, I simply won't go to that restaurant again. Is competition so lax between restaurants that they can afford to alienate customers? This brings me to server pay. Why am I, the customer, asked to subsidize the cost of employment for the restaurant's labor? If the restaurant advertises steak for $25, why should it cost me $30? Put $30 on your menu and don't expect me to pay your waiters' salaries. Can you imagine another business that relied on customers to pay the salaries of its employees? Imagine tipping the UPS guy $10 so your packages arrive on time. Imagine having to pay off the woman at the DMV to get a new license before the old one expires. Imagine having to pay off the cops to get better treatment. These are stories we attribute to 3rd world countries like Mexico or Pakistan.
     It's not that difficult to ensure quality in a world without tipping. Those of you lucky enough to be familiar with Publix supermarkets know that tipping is prohibited. Yet you'll have a hard time leaving the store without someone asking if they can help you with your bags. Why? Because service is an expectation of the staff, and because salaries compensate for the lack of tips. Surprisingly, Publix also has lower prices than its competitors. Maybe it's because customers feel more comfortable in their stores and come back. You may recall when Saturn was launched 15 years ago, it touted its no-haggle policy at dealerships. It made money because people preferred to know the price of the car before they went in to buy it. No sneaky dealers, no trying to outfox the foxes. They promised great service with no hidden extras. And guess what - they charged less, too.
     I'm pretty sick of tipping for mediocre service, having the true cost of goods and services hidden from me until the end, and allowing poor service to exist in exchange for a few dollars of tip. What happens when I get bad service at a restaurant? I withhold $5 from the server? $5 buys a server a night of misbehavior with no other repercussions? And even that $5 I feel guilty about, because I know part of that gets split with the dishwashers and the busboys and the cooks. Isn't it time to stop tipping?

Monday, May 09, 2005

More Church Expulsions

On April 19, I posted about a church in Atlanta that expelled members for disagreeing about demolishing a historic building. I must have missed the article about a church in NC that expelled members for being Democrats. In an update, it seems the pastor of the church is backpedalling a little bit and there's a little backlash brewing in the congregation.
By the way, this was not an anti-church piece or even an anti-East Waynesville Baptist Church piece. Just a reminder of the politically intolerant times we live in and possibly a foreshadowing of things to come, both bad (expulsions) and good (backlashes).

P.S. Hints in parentheses were there to clear confusion.

UPDATE 5/11/05: The pastor of this NC church has abruptly and unexpectedly resigned due to the backlash in the 100-congregant church. What makes this all the more amazing is the fact that undoubtedly nearly all of the members agree with the pastor with regard to abortion and gay marriage and the other hot-button topics of the day, yet still draw the line at political thuggery, even when it is aimed away from them. Maybe there's hope for the world after all.

Friday, May 06, 2005

North Korea Scariness

     North Korea is a scary place. Ever since I read Red Phoenix in high school, I've been concerned about North Korea as a military threat. Of course, Red Phoenix is just a novel, and the book was mostly concerned with South Korea and our inability to protect it in a conventional war. The problem with North Korea that makes is scarier that, say, Iraq, is that we're technically still at war with them and have been for the past 50 years. Unlike Iraq which we indisputably defeated in Kuwait in 1991, we were stuck in stalemate with North Korea and only our continued presence there ensured that South Korea remained free. (That is, free of communism. South Korea didn't have democratic elections until 1987.) Now North Korea has nuclear weapons and the missile technology to send them at least as far as Japan (whom they hate since Japan invaded them in 1910 and indirectly caused them to be divided between the USSR and USA at the end of WWII) or possibly some US possessions.
     If South Korea is worth protecting, with its Hyundais and Samsungs and LGs, then surely Japan, with the 2nd largest economy in the world and our largest agricultural importer is worth protecting. Of course, we're contractually obligated to defend Japan since we kicked their ass in WWII and took away their military. So now North Korea has nukes and could potentially destroy the world's economy for the next 20 years (and lets face it - what do the North Koreans care? Their economy is shit anyway.) as well as millions of American business partners in South Korea and Japan.
     We can't really invade North Korea - they have the largest military in the world at 1.2 million soldiers. Despite our overwhelming technological superiority (and the fact that our soldiers are well nourished), the only way we could ensure that we didn't incur unacceptable fatalities would be to nuke the entire peninsula, which is probably a bad idea. Ironic too, since preventing North Korea from doing the same thing would be our rationale for invading in the first place.
     The news today is that North Korea is about to test one of its nukes. And the UN is trying to get every country in the world to try to put pressure on Kim Jong-Il to stop. Despite that, this looks like a situation in which military action really is necessary. 1) WMD's are present 2) US interests are being threatened 3) Our allies face the potential of being annihilated 45 seconds after Kim hits the little red button. Unfortunately, we don't seem to have the military capability to do anything more than watch from the sidelines. (I swear I read this a few days ago from a general testifying in front of Congress, but I just can't find it anywhere. Help?) And we've squandered whatever willingness the rest of the world had to follow us. Who will support a military adventure in Korea with us? Most governments around the world would get voted out of office if they cooperated with the US. So watch this weekend as North Korea tests its first nuclear weapon, only days after it tested a missile capable of hitting Seoul or parts of Japan. Watch as a new nuclear power is born while our brothers and sisters, our neighbors, our friends are fighting and dying in a third world country that never had more than chemical weapons, and those 15 years gone. Watch as South Korea and Japan move to kiss North Korea's ass, as the corrupt communist regime benefits from bullying the world. And watch as other rogue countries see this example and do the same. Like I said.... scary.

Thursday, May 05, 2005


     California wildlife regulators are working to ban internet hunting in their state. Last November, a rancher in Texas set up a camera and a gun attached to the internet where paying visitors could aim and fire at game from anywhere in the world.
     I find this story disturbing on so many levels. Here are only 2 examples:
The idea came last year while viewing another Web site on which cameras posted in the wild are used to snap photos of animals.
"We were looking at a beautiful whitetail buck and my friend said, 'If you just had a gun for that.' A little light bulb went off in my head," he said.
     I'm not a fan of hunting, but I understand how some people enjoy it. Yet these people were looking at a nature website as if it were hunting porn, salivating over killing everything in view of a camera hundreds or thousands of miles away.
     In the California story:
"We don't think Californians should be able to hunt sitting at their computers at home."
     As odious as internet hunting may be, if it's legal in Texas, how can California legislators ban Californians from participating? It's one thing to have control over criminal acts in your own state. You can't prevent people from engaging in legal acts in another.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

The Rise of Little Government

     Growing up in South Florida, the topic of "Condo Commandos" was in the news often. South Florida is heavily populated with the elderly, and condominiums seemed to be the residence of choice for many of them. It made sense, seeing as so many were used to apartment-type living in New York and most were unwilling or unable to take care of a house and a yard. Condos have boards, and some retired residents adopted board meetings as a new hobby to fill their time. Commandos would make life miserable for other residents, imposing rules and enforcing others. Requiring a resident to appear at multiple board meetings to get approval to put up a sign on their door or to pay a fine for leaving an umbrella in the hall. I always assumed the Condo Commando problem was fairly unique to South Florida. Litle did I know that they were on the forefront of the newest trend in democracy.
     Homeowners associations are popping up everywhere. At first, they were voluntary. They were good groups to form a neighborhood watch, maintain communal spaces, or organize block parties. My current neighborhood has one - I think. I'm at work during the week and I keep pretty busy on weekends, so I don't have much time to talk about flowers and speed bumps. Then, developers started putting homeowner associations in their contracts to buyers, making them, in effect, mandatory, and giving them the power to fine members and put liens on their houses. The argument there is that if you're going to raise money to build a neighborhood pool, you couldn't rely on voluntary contributions due to social loafing. That is, some people would not contribute, but then would want to enjoy the benefits. There was also the additional benefit of being able to force homeowners to maintain pretty exterior appearances of their houses. But when there's power to be had, there will always be people looking to abuse it.
     I think a lot of people are in similar circumstances to mine. Both spouses either work all day or are taking care of children and only have so much time for things such as beautification. If it rains all weekend, for example, maybe the lawn doesn't get mowed for a 2-week period until the next weekend. Or perhaps the house is being cleaned and there's so much junk in the garage that a car has to be parked on the driveway. Or maybe a car breaks down and a friend generously lends a pickup truck. What happens when the association rules conflict? In an Atlanta suburb a year ago, a condo owner got into a particularly nasty fight with her association that had decided to ban pickup trucks. Eventually she was forced to sell her property.
     Would your city or county be able to get away with fining you for having a pickup truck? For not mowing your grass weekly? Probably not. There are restrictions on what kind of power a local government have have over you. For starters, they're bound by the US Constitution and the state Constitution and some other rules as well. But a homeowners association is like a club. You can buy into an association or not - it's your choice. And if you make the choice to be bound by a contractual agreement, you have to abide by its terms. Associations are not bound by very many of the rules your city is. And in some ways, that's why they're attractive. You can rest assured that your neighbor's lawn won't be overrun with weeds and that there won't be unsightly clunkers littering their front yard. (In the South, that can be a problem. In the North too - you might have the Squattersons as neighbors.)
     But are associations really that voluntary? I bought a 20-year old house. Had I bought in a newer neighborhood, I would not have been able to avoid signing my rights away. As older neighborhoods fade away and are replaced by new ones, there won't be any housing choices free of association entanglements. So if it's not so much of a "club" anymore, aren't these associations really small governments? They're run by the people for the people, and they do have the power to tell you what to do. And if that's the case, shouldn't they be subject to the same sort of restrictions on power that any other government has? In a recent article about faux grass, some Nevada homeowner associations banned the fake grass as tacky. Tacky? It may be, but don't I have a right to be tacky? And what's to stop one association from banning families in which both parents work? Or banning Christmas decorations? Or the American flag? Imagine if you lived in a neighborhood with 100 households and 51 of them decided that every house had to fly the Iranian flag? It's legal. And it's coming to a suburb near you.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Disturbing Tuesday Commentary

     One new tradition for Pesach is to put an orange on a seder plate to honor women. That's all well and good, but if I were creating seder plate traditions, I would include a prune, and I'd put it right next to the matzah.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Racism, Republicanism, and the South

      The South has long been a mystery to most outsiders and newcomers, even while true Southerners can't figure out what the fuss is all about. (For the record, by South here I don't mean Mexico, San Diego, Antarctica, or South Florida. I mean the South - always with capitals - as in bible-thumping, slow talking, grits eating, "y'all" saying South.) Full disclosure: I am not a Southerner. I don't say this with any connotation - it's just a fact. I was born in Brooklyn, lived in South Florida (the 6th borough), and have only been in Atlanta for 11 years. Atlanta is no longer part of the South, although it certainly has a Southern flavor.
      The South has always played a disproportionately large part in national politics. It was largely because of the underpopulated southern states that the republican Senate was created instead relying solely on the more democratic House. The Civil War, of course, was the South trying to exert overt control over itself after having a hand in creating states like Kansas and Missouri. Civil Rights turmoil swept through the country in the 60's with the epicenter in the South. And today the South dominates national politics to the extent that no Democratic president has come from anywhere else since JFK.
      In the South, local politics can only be described as what people in other places call "corrupt". It's not so much about party here as it is in the North (and by North I don't mean Canada, Alaska, or North Florida - I mean New England/New York), it's a curious mix of personality and apathy. I was watching the History Channel yesterday - something about El Cid 1000 years ago. In that time, Spain was mostly Islamic, controlled by the Moors. What I found interesting was that small regions were controlled by Moorish kings, who didn't actually rule cities and villages. Rather, they fought battles and ran a protection racket, taking tribute from their subjects and terrorizing those who wouldn't pay. There were also Christian kings who actually took tribute from the minor Moorish kings, even though they rarely ventured into Moorish territory. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of Middle-Age Spain went about their daily lives, only taking note when some king was fighting another king over their tribute payments and sacking or besieging their cities (which happened all too often). They had no control over the kings and they didn't want any. I guess they figured the kings could do what they wanted and paying tribute was just the way things were.
      That's what Southern politics have been like for decades. Powerful small-town mayors would set up small protection rackets and act like mafia bosses. Even in big cities, mayors felt entitled to reward their political friends and punish their political enemies, while the populace kept voting them into office, not caring to know about the corruption and assuming it was just part of life. This was completely independant of party or race or wealth, although all three drive Southern politics. Black mayors, White mayors, Republican or Democrat, rich or... well, they're all rich by definition, politics are purely about local fiefdoms and personalized power.
      A few weeks ago I mentioned how the people in Sandy Springs near Atlanta are trying to become a city. Fulton County, in which they're located and the city of Atlanta have been fighting this for 40 years. Now Republicans control the state legislature and the process is moving forward, which means that the city and county are now on the verge of spending millions of dollars fighting this eventuality. There are pros and cons to incorporation and plenty of ulterior motives. But people want local government and frankly, Georgia's tendency to have counties compete with cities is just weird. Sandy Springs will become a city and that will be a good thing. The problem for Fulton county is that they have become used to living off of that part of town's taxes and using them to subsidize poorer areas of town. Had they been smart, they could have done this forever and the residents of Sandy Springs would have been happy. But what did they do wrong? What happened 40 years ago?
      40 years ago was the Civil Rights era. To northerners, this meant that great injustices were corrected as Americans moved closer to real equality and brotherhood. To Southerners, this meant it was time to pack up and move because the Negroes were about to move into their neighborhoods. White residents fled "the city too busy (evacuating) to hate", as the city became majority Black. They rushed into the quiet suburb of Sandy Springs thus starting the sprawl that has plagued the metro area since. The mayors (all Black since 1973) and the county commission did what any self-respecting White mayor or commission would have done in their places - they consolidated power around their base and set out to punish their political enemies. They sucked taxes out of the affluent Sandy Springs and fed it to the (now very poor) city center. Thus began the fight to incorporate. Apparently when a city incorporates, it is no longer subject to county rules, and Sandy Springs would retain its tax dollars. This has led county leaders to compare the incorporation to the Indian Ocean tsunami which wiped out over 300,000 people and to talk about the inherent racism of such a move.
      The catch is that Sandy Springs really was the product of racism, as Whites fled the prospect of having to live side-by-side with Blacks. But today, as White as Sandy Springs is (78%) and as rich as it is (median household income=$60,000 compared to Fulton's $47,000), it should be incorporated into its own city. It's hard not to see the Republican hand in all this, given that their recent history is one of racial tension. But they're not being racist either. Vindictive, maybe. Southern, absolutely. Sandy Springs is heavily Republican. (White Southerners were solidly Democrat from the Civil War until Civil Rights. By now they're almost solidly Republican.) Atlanta is heavily Democrat. The Republican State legislature is probably taking this step as much to punish the Democrats and reward Republicans as it is to correct an injustice in city administration. Call me a cynic, but it fits the Southern pattern. Democrats have been guilty of it here for a long time, but should that really make it the Republicans' turn? Americans are turning towards more localized government (See neighborhood associations), and although that trend is taking a disturbing turn, it is clearly the way of the future in the US. Still, it is undisputed that the poorer residents in other parts of the county will suffer through no fault of their own, except that they have relied on the county to bring them services such as water, fire, and police protection that have been partially paid for by Sandy Springs. It would behoove the county to figure out ways to fund these services for their other residents quickly and fairly before they find themselves victims of the next backlash of political patronage.