Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Everybody Cries With George

As the First Family starts shuffling out of power, the first one to go will be Jeb, the President's brother. Jeb's two full terms as governor of Florida end next month, and apparently there are all kinds of parties and commemorations for him at his "Retirement". Today, his father, the elder George of the President Georges, broke down and cried while giving a speech about his son in the Florida State Capitol. I'm sure it was an emotional time for him. It seems that what most teared him up was talking about his son's defeat in the 1994 gubernatorial election. Jeb went on to win in the next election in 1998.
We all know the history. Jeb and Georgie ran for governor of their respective states in 1994. George defeated governor Ann Richards in Red Texas. Jeb couldn't knock out popular governor Lawton Chiles in Purple Florida. After a term and a half, George ran for President and won, in a well-known sign of the apocalypse.
If you think about it, had Jeb become governor in 1994, he might have run for President instead. He was certainly considered a better candidate. Despite his unconsitutional and highly political intervention in the Terri Schiavo case, he's smarter, more articulate, better traveled, and more thoughtful than his older brother.
It makes me wish I had voted for him instead of Chiles. It makes me want to cry for our country too.

Friday, December 01, 2006

How to Design a Better Alarm Clock

     It's no secret that I'm a night person. I've always had a really hard time waking up. The only good times of my life, waking up-wise, were during summer breaks from school and the year that I worked the night shift at work. That year, I worked from 8 to 5. PM to AM. I would usually get home around 5:30-6:00 and sleep until I woke up without an alarm clock at noon.
     Throughout the years, I've had a variety of alarm clocks. My favorite was a Star Wars clock that looked like C3PO and R2D2. Instead of music, they would talk. "It's time to get up!" They'd yell, along with some stuff about the rebellion needing me and the empire needing destroying. Unfortunately my rampant curiousity of my elementary school years combined with a Phillips screwdriver put an end to that clock. Since college, I've had a "gentle" alarm clock. That is, the music starts softly and gets progressively louder. I've gotten progressively used to it. So much so, that even after it is blaring morning radio shows at full volume, I still don't hear it. No matter what I do to get myself out of bed in the morning, I'm almost always still groggy and tired and totally not alert.
     One morning, in the beginning of August, my wife uttered three words which accomplished what no alarm clock in my 30-year history has ever been able to do. "Honey, I'm Pregnant!"

Wednesday, November 08, 2006


     For the first time in 6 years, it feels like I can finally breathe again. I need to admit to you that I had lost faith in the people of this country, as they allowed themselves to be suckered by weak vilifications of gays, pharmacists, doctors, judges, Clintons, Kerrys, environmentalists, and scientists.
     Yesterday, Democrats picked up 28 seats in the House (double what they needed to take control) and 6 seats in the Senate (exactly what they needed to take control). This is momentous because:
  • The Dems have not had control of both houses since 1994

  • This is the first time since 1948 that the Democrats didn't lose a single House seat

  • President Bush has never governed with anything except the full, unwavering support of both chambers of Congress

     However, this isn't what you might call a historic election.

     At the beginning of my post, I said that I could breathe for the first time in 6 years. Actually, 2000 is just when it got really bad. For my entire adult life, Republicanism has been on the rise in America. This is the first time it feels like somebody isn't waiting to jump down my throat. When Bill Clinton became President in 1992, right-wing talk radio smothered the airwaves with the 2-minutes hate. 2 minutes became 2 years, then 14 years, while the shrill cries of victimization continued to rain down on us. Today, those voices are silent. Well, if not silent, less noisy. They've taken to cannibalizing their own, something they watched Democrats do for years with great relish.
     But what's really exciting about these results is that the highly corrupt and ineffectual Republican majority is no more. For 6 years, they have been no better than a rubber stamp for Bush's inane ideas. Look, everyone knows Bush is an idiot. It wasn't his idea to run for President. He doesn't even do most of the Presidenting work. It's hard to blame him for that. He is what he is. It's not hard to blame Republican Congressmen for jumping to do his every crazy bidding. They've been guilty of dereliction of their duty. Their jobs are to serve their constituents. Instead, they serve the Party. That won't happen anymore.
     I'm really not hoping for the days of 60%+ Democrat majorities in Congress. I don't think that kind of power is good for anyone. Democrats have a long history of abuse of power in the 40 straight years of controlling the House. But Republicans seem to be worse. In 12 years, they have redefined abuse of power, from redistricting between censuses to allowing the President to defy the Constitution. Not to mention the excess of bribery, sexual abuse, and general corruption.
     We've got a long way to go to fix this country. But it starts today.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Is Sex Sex?

     In case this blog is your only source of news, here's a newsflash for you: Florida Republican Congressman Mark Foley was caught sending dirty emails to a 16-year old boy working in his office. A gay ephebophile[*] in Congress is bad. A Republican one is worse. That is, if you're the type of person to go into a frothing fit when the topic is sex. Like Republicans.
     Clearly, however, even to a level-headed blogger like myself, Foley is disturbed and his predatory actions towards children were criminal. And the GOP Congress wasted no time condemning Foley and beginning an investigation. Or did they? New revelations have come out showing that Republican leaders have known about Foley's actions as early as last fall. What did Dennis Hastert, the Republican Speaker of the House, do about this? He quietly asked Foley to quit it, and Foley promised he would. (Cue fond memories of the Catholic Priest molestation scandal)
     Now, as bad as Foley's behavior was, covering it up isn't a crime to the extent that say, sending 2,000 Americans to early deaths in Iraq is. But it does expose the faux outrage the House Republicans have been mustering up since ABC News broke the story last week. Um, you knew about this months ago, and now you choose to denounce it? How timely.
     Of course the wonderful Atlanta Journal and Constitution can't let a Republican scandal go by without at least getting a dig in at Democrats - perhaps Bill Clinton - as it goes by. In a so-called "equal time" column, Brent Bozell the Third expresses his, "Oh yeah, well your mother!" moment, by reminding us that even though Foley told his young victim he wanted to "slip off" his shorts, Democrats sometimes have scandals too.
     In fact, the sex aspect is too good for Bozell to pass up. He equates Foley's actions with Clinton's consensual adult "relations" with Monica Lewinsky. So someone out there tell me. Do all Republicans really believe that consensual adult sex is equivalent to a Congressman asking a 16-year old boy if he makes him horny? Is sex just sex? I guess this guy (and by extension the AJC) want you to think so.
     At what point do the loyal followers of the Church of Bush stop and think, maybe I should stop drinking the kool-aid? Maybe, even though "Liberals" are the root of all evil, Republicans don't have God-like powers of goodness. Are Americans really stupid enough to buy another weak excuse from this corrupt bunch of crooks?

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Evil or Entrepreneur?

     Given the success of national blowhards Rush Limbaugh, Michelle Malkin, and Neal Boortz, maybe I can't blame him. After all, it certainly seems like the era is past when an impartial newsman rises to national prominence through unbiased analysis. Clearly, appealing to the uneducated and the aggressively self-serving is in Jim Wooten's best professional interests.
     My question is, why does the Atlanta Journal-Constitution feature him? The AJC is supposed to be (was?) a newspaper. It provided news and analysis. As we all know, newspaper readership has been dropping. And so newspapers around the country resort to stunts to boost their numbers. Think you have to buy the Sunday paper to get the good ads? Think again. On certain holiday weekends, the AJC has delivered the advertising sections, despite the fact that I cancelled my subscription a couple of years ago. Still, that's not enough. Perhaps knowing that educated readers, looking for broad, unbiased, well-rounded news sources, are increasingly looking at the internet for their news, local papers like the AJC are going after the "mentally relaxed" market. Read Jack Shafer's July 27th article on this topic in Slate entitled, "How the New York Times Makes Local Papers Dumber.
     It's a shame the AJC is contributing to the decline of the national dialogue in the name of "balance". Just because some guy comes along promising to sell more papers to white supremacists doesn't "balance" him with reasonable authors. Jim Wooten's columns frequently play down to his readership's lack of mental acuity. And his positions come straight out of the wildest GOP caricature. George Bush notwithstanding, I believe most educated Republican voters are nuanced in their beliefs. Perhaps they don't approve of abortion, but they're not sure it should be outlawed. Or maybe they think the federal government should butt out of business, but worry about global warming. Not Jim. There's no nuance to him. Take any issue, imagine what some redneck in 1960's rural Mississippi would say, then read your imagination on the AJC's opinion page.
     Lately he's been railing about city planning issues. If you're not from Atlanta, you have to understand a little of its history here. Right now, Atlanta is one of the largest, sprawlingest cities in the country. This is due to a number of factors, including its small size before the Interstate Highway system and its rapid growth since, the lack of geographical boundaries like an ocean or mountain range, and its racist history. Yes, racist. The "City Too Busy to Hate" is one of the most segregated cities in America after Whites fled downtown during the Civil Rights era. Today, predictably, White suburbanites endure the nation's longest commutes as they drive an average of 35 miles from their home to their job. Today, there's no such thing as "going against traffic" in Atlanta. With sprawl, backups go both ways.
     Why is this happening? Not only are homes moving outward, but so are jobs. You might live 20 miles northeast of the city. Your job might be 20 miles northwest. Or southeast. Or 40 miles north. Cities in the past had large feeder highways going in and out of city centers. Now, we need one connecting every point to every other point. Imagine drawing a line from every square on a chess board to the center of the board. Now imagine drawing a line from every square to every other square. Plus, imagine that every time you draw a line, or make it thicker, the board gets bigger in that direction. It's just not possible to build roads to compensate. The only way to make life livable is to increase density.
     Jim, who is opposed to living near Black people, disagrees. "Move jobs outward", he says, pandering to the imbeciles living 40 miles north of the city who are convinced the jobs are going to move next door to them. What happens when the jobs move 40 miles even farther?
     I digress. It's so easy to point out the flaws in Jim's stupid columns that you miss the point entirely - he exists only to make trouble. Let's look at some of his recent works. Guess his position on college students using condoms. Correct - he's against. (It's all Bill Clinton's fault that college kids have sex, anyway) Is it right for a fraternity that celebrates slavery and civil war to relocate to a Black neighborhood? Yes, but only because the civil war was really only about being gentlemanly and wearing riding on horseback and wearing hoop skirts and because the Black people in the neighborhood were poor. Is government good or bad? Bad! How dare they try to regulate business. I mean, Good! If they pay for kids to go to Christian school. I mean, Bad! If it's taxing luxuries and corporations instead of poor people. Minimum wage? Please. Like you don't know. Ann Coulter? A national hero. Al Gore? A national villain, invoked in as many columns as possible, along with Bill, Hillary, and John Kerry, to rabble-rouse.
     Jim, you're a comic. You're a two dimensional drawing of an right-wing demagogue. You're a hypocrite and a shrill one at that, screaming about "liberals" hating everything and having no ideas, then doing the same yourself. You're the reason the dialog is so poisoned. You would think in a blood-red state like Georgia, you wouldn't be able to blame Democrats for your problems. But somehow you've managed. Just like your insistence that Republicans could clean things up in Washington if only they had control. I mean, for a few more years. That's all. Bill Clinton made congressional Republicans take bribes.
     And to the AJC: maybe people listen to AM radio to get pissed off. But that's not why I read newspapers. And that's why I don't buy yours.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Be Careful What You Wish For

     You know the rest of the title quote. "Because Republicans just might get it." In the July/August Issue of "Washington Monthly", Alan Wolfe wrote a piece called, "Why Conservatives Can't Govern". This piece was widely talked throughout the summer, mainly because of its stunningly obvious, yet largely unspoken thesis. That is, Conservatives can't govern because their basic philosophy is that government doesn't work. Read the piece - it's very interesting.
     Since liberal Democrats ruled the country for something like 40 years, Republicans have formed themselves into the party of opposition. The Conservative wing (which has recently gone wacko, BTW) became extremely strong. Among its tenets: government should butt out. Less is More, at least when it comes to government. Of course, a nation of 300 million people needs a government. And a nation of 300 million people that is highly sophisticated, with some of the best transportation systems, mandatory schooling, and well-run cities needs more government than you'll get in, say, Lebanon.
     "All Politics is Local", said Tip O'Neill. And today's article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution does not disappoint. Under the headline, "Tech students endured threats in free speech crusade" (free login), Andrea Jones tells the sob story of Conservative Georgia Tech students Ruth Malhotra and Orit Sklar. Ruth and Orit sued Georgia Tech to remove an anti-harassment rule for Tech's dormitories. The rule barred verbal assaults and harassment in Tech's common living spaces. Ruth and Orit, two of the people for whom the rule was originally designed, fought to have it struck down in the name of free speech.
     Hey, maybe they're right. The rules were put in place originally because "good old boy" group were harassing women and minorities, hoping to push them out of what had been all-male, all-white schools. By the way, today, Georgia Tech is less than 28% female and less than 25% non-white. This in a country in which 51% of the general population is female and nearly 37% is non-Hispanic White. Just saying. Anyway, maybe Ruth and Orit are right. The country was built on free speech. If women and Blacks can't handle the pressure, they shouldn't be in school in the first place, right?
     So it should be no surprise that after they win their court battle, and Tech is forced to repeal their anti-harassment rule, Ruth and Orit are...harassed! Surprise! Congratulations, ladies. You've gotten what you wanted. Except... you didn't really want this? You wanted to harass dirty liberals and those Southeast Asians that keep populating your dorms? Not good, White American red-blooded Conservatives? Better call the newspaper. Conservatives broke government again!
     Just as a note... Ruth Malhotra is a self-described "conservative Christian". Orit Sklar's name sounded familiar. When I looked her up, I remembered why. I'm embarrassed to report that she's the President of the Georgia Tech Jewish Student Union, an organization I helped found in 1997-98. Oh well. I can't be responsible for my successors. Imagine how Bill Clinton must feel right now.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006


     So the month-long war against the terrorist army Hezbollah has come to a halt. Predictably, everyone involved is declaring victory. Israel, Hezbollah, the UN, the US. They can't all be right, right?
     Right. What the hell does "victory" mean, anyway? Nasrallah thinks it means surviving against Israel. He's wrong. Israel thinks it means destroying Hezbollah. They're right, but when they didn't accomplish that, they changed their tune. The UN thinks it means we stop harassing poor, innocent terrorists. I can't even begin to assess that. George Bush thinks victory means everyone hates you and people are about to die. Mission Accomplished!
     Clearly, Israel did not come out of "Operation Change Direction" with a true victory. Hezbollah is still entrenched in southern Lebanon, is still being fed arms and money from Syria, Iran, and from terrorist sympathizers worldwide, and is still hell-bent on destroying Israel. However, Israel did do a lot of damage to Lebanon. And that sends a very clear message to every one of Israel's less-than-friendly neighbors. It says, "We'll do the same to you if you allow terrorists to attack us from your side of the border." It's a clear message to Egypt. It's a clear message to Jordan. And it's an especially clear message to Syria.
     Almost unanimously, the media highlight Hezbollah's burgeoning public image in the Middle East and points to it as Israel's failure. Israel wasn't fighting a public affairs battle. It especially was not trying to win "hearts and minds" in Lebanon. It was trying to tell governments - governments that actually care about the well-being of its citizens - that it will not stand for their tolerance of terrorists in their midst.
     The Anti-Semitic press screams about "massacres", most "proof" of which has been manufactured. But the world knows that Israel has been mightily restrained. Obviously, it really could have leveled Beirut. Obviously, instead of a few hundred casualties, there could have been a few hundred thousand. The reason there wasn't was because Israel wasn't fighting Lebanon. It was fighting a terror organization that happened to be inside Lebanon. Once Lebanon takes responsibility for its border, that won't be the case.
     Israel accomplished what it meant to do. It stopped the reign of terror in the north. It disabled Hezbollah's ability to make war without authorization from a sovereign country. Is Hezbollah gone? No. But that's a job for another day, for another country to handle. Ultimately Hezbollah is Iran's expeditionary force, and only a nation willing to take on Iran can stop them.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Life Insurance Racket

     Now that we live in a 2-income house (as opposed to a house that either my wife or I could afford on a single salary), we're investigating life insurance options so that in the case of the untimely demise of one of us, the other does not have to move.
     So far, I'm fairly disgusted by the industry. I mean, insurance is a scummy business as a whole, but life insurance has more obfuscations and fear-mongering than I'd expect outside a Republican election platform. When you buy car insurance, it's pretty straightforward. If you pay $X per month, the insurance company will fix your car, pay off anyone you damaged, and possibly pay for your own injuries in the case of an accident. Different policies cover different things, but it's not complex. I thought property insurance was as straightforward, but since reports came out from Katrina of insurance companies playing games and not paying for destroyed homes, it turns out that that sector is about as trustworthy as Mel Gibson producing a Holocaust movie. (The whole "wind" vs "water" debate is crap. People clearly believed they were buying hurricane insurance, and the insurance companies were happy to let them think so.)
     When I bought my first house, I purchased a "home warranty". That was probably the most worthless thing I've ever spent money on. It was supposed to cover anything that broke in the house, with a few small print items that were excluded. So when a pipe burst in my crawl space, I called the insurance company. "Not covered." Why? Well, the part of the pipe that broke is excluded in the small print. My A/C died. "Not covered." Why? The way it broke was excluded in the small print. After 2 years of having Every. Single. Claim. denied, I cancelled the stupid policy. I started getting warning letters. "This is your last chance!" I read. A month later, I got a letter saying, "This is your final chance to cover your house!" I got phone calls weeks after that offering discounts. I'd rather send my money to a deposed Nigerian prince.
     Which brings me back to life insurance. There are 2 types of life insurance. They're called "Term Life" and "Cash Cow". The insurance companies usually give prettier names to the second, calling it "Whole Life", "Universal Life", "Premium Guaranteed Life". And they talk down the first, calling it "Rental Insurance". Term Life is insurance. You pay the company $X, and if you die, they pay your beneficiary $Y. Permanent Life (Perm), what textbooks will call the Cash Cow, is actually a hybrid product. It's a mix of Term Life and investment account. Perm Life premiums usually stay constant over your entire lifetime, while Term Life premiums go up. But this is misleading. Term Life payments stay constant, while the insurance payments in Perm Life go down. They don't tell you this, because the dollar amount on the check will be the same. What they don't clarify is that part of the money comes from your own investment account. If you wanted to buy Term Life with a declining payout, your premiums could stay constant too. Think of your mortgage. Your payments stay the same, but behind the scenes, more of your money goes to pay down principal instead of interest, as time goes on.
     So where's the scam? After all, what's wrong with saving money? Nothing, if your retirement plan is to buy 40 year CD's that you can only cash after you die. Life Insurance companies pay really crappy returns. If all you're interested in earning on your savings is 6% annually, a CD will take care of that for you. Better yet, you can actually use a CD before you die.
     Now, I do have to mention that there is one huge benefit to Life Insurance - payments after death are tax-free. It's like a Roth IRA that pays out when you're dead. This is a good way to avoid estate taxes if you want to pass down money to your children. Since there are no estate taxes on spouses, however, nobody gains anything if your spouse is the beneficiary. Except for the insurance company, who's been making tons of interest on your money for 30, 40, or 50 years. Anyway, that's estate planning, and unless your estate is worth millions of dollars, you don't have to worry about it. (If it is worth millions of dollars, there are other ways to shelter the money before dealing with life insurance.)
     On the New York Life webpage, the insurance company tries to help you with the confusion. It's heard the saying "Buy Term and Invest the Difference", so it wants to give you a Fair & Balanced analysis on which is right for you. The page has headlines like "Do You Prefer Renting or Owning?" and "Invest the Difference in What?". Translations: "You prefer owning to renting, and we say Term is like renting", and "Do you really want to go through the hassle of planning for your future?"
     Maybe some of you who are older and wiser than me can cut through the bull that the insurance companies are feeding us. Explain to me a good reason why Perm is not a ripoff. If I'm disciplined and responsible with my savings, I figure I'm always better off buying Term, until the day comes when I no longer need Life Insurance (house is paid off, kids are through college). Why is someone always trying to steal my money?

Thursday, July 27, 2006

My Israel Manifesto

     I've not so much as refrained from posting about the war in Israel and Lebanon as I've been frozen into inaction. I've been thinking of the political implications. I still haven't decided whether or not Israel's tactics will be effective, or what the right solutions are to the many problems in the Middle East, including Iran. Of course, nobody's expecting a part-time unpaid blogger to have all the answers. The point is I didn't know what to write about.
     I've continued to read blogs, however. And many of the blogs I read have shocked me with their descent into ill-will for the Jewish state. And I decided I need to make a few things very clear.

My Israel Manifesto

  • The decision of supporting Israel is not, to me, a political one. I have family in Israel. Family who don't know whether the next time they step on a bus or walk into a pizza parlor will be their last. Family who are in the line of fire of Hezbollah rockets and future Iranian nukes. I support Israel, period.
  • In truth, all Israelis are my family. Jews, Christians, and Israeli Muslims. Sabras, Russians, Ethiopians. The soccer player from Ghana who risked his well-being to proudly wave the Israeli flag during the World Cup to thank his Israeli fans for supporting him the rest of the year when he plays for an Israeli club. They are the only people on Earth who will stand behind me when the rest of world stands against me. And I most certainly will not fail to stand behind them when the rest of the world stands against them. I support Israel.
  • To those bloggers I used to read who think it is OK to trash the legitimacy of Israel in the guise of disagreeing with its politics: You are wrong. You need to understand that this is personal. I am Israel. I will and do take things you say about it personally and I don't apologize for that. If you feel like you have to impugn Israel and its motives, you're doing the same to me. And don't expect me to forget how you really feel about me. I support Israel.
  • I don't always agree with the decisions the leaders of Israel make, and I'm more than happy to discuss for hours the implications of their actions. This is not the same as saying a) Israel should not exist, b) Israel's existence constitutes war crimes against Palestinians, or c) not letting Palestinians who have lived in Gaza or the West Bank into Israel proper is "oppression", "apartheid", or "genocide". Criticizing the Israeli government doesn't make you anti-Semitic. Singling out the Jewish state as the sole earthly target of your scorn does. That is not something I will discuss with you. I support Israel.

     I genuinely regret that the progressives in America - those that believe in individual liberty, in the government's role of protecting its citizens, of the government not controlling our personal, private lives, in equality and equal opportunity for all, is divided by this extremist faction that has fallen in love with the Palestinian cause. Arab-Jewish conflict is not Farm Aid. It is not Tibet. It is not "The Whales". The extremists are driving Jews to the Republican party, because when it comes down to choosing gay rights over the safety and welfare of your family, you have to choose the latter. It shouldn't be that way. Jews shouldn't have to compromise on basic moral issues just to feel like they have a place in the world.
     However, it is what it is. I support Israel wholeheartedly. And to tell you the truth, I'm not interested in hearing Arab propaganda about fake massacres or made up war crimes or revisionist history about Israel. Take your miserable drivel and hang out in your seedy corner of the internet with your brothers-in-arms, the skinheads, the neo-Nazis, the KKK. I'm done with you.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006


     In honor of Independence Day, I ran the Peachtree Road Race for the 4th time. The Peachtree is the world's largest 10K race with 55,000 runners, 3,000 volunteers, and an estimated 150,000 spectators. It's great fun, and in the later groups, more of a moving block party than a road race.
     Because it's held on July 4th, patriotic themes abound. People carry American flags while running, spectators blast the Star Spangled Banner on their stereos, and a giant American flag hangs over the starting line. My first race was in 2002, only 10 months after the September 11 attacks. Blackhawk helicopters flew overhead, police and SWAT were out in force, and even the National Guard helped protect the thousands of people involved in the race. At mile 4, firefighters waved a flag from the top of their ladder truck to great cheers coming from the runners below.
     Even today, despite rules forbidding costumes (due to the risk of heat stroke - the high today is 97!), some runners come dressed as the Statue of Liberty or Uncle Sam. But today I saw what is probably the least patriotic display imaginable, and unfortunately one that is perfectly accepted in the South. A man ran the race carrying a large Confederate flag. What could be less patriotic and inappropriate for July 4th than the one flag that represents rebellion and civil war? And even on days not July 4th, why is it that kids with Islamic headscarfs get harassed at school, but Confederate flags are OK? Can you think of anything less American than an armed insurrection against America?

Monday, June 19, 2006

World Cup Thoughts

     I'm a soccer fan by virtue of having played the game throughout my childhood. Since then, I've barely touched a soccer ball (although I have a deflated one in the trunk of my car for some reason). But I've gotten swept up in this year's World Cup fever. And I've even been watching parts of the games, which is mystifying to me, since I have no patience for watching sports that don't involve Georgia Tech. Over the past week I've made mental notes on the game and I wanted to share them with the wider world.

*    The tournament structure: Compare the straightforward round-robin first round of the World Cup with the sprawling NBA tournament going on at the same time. The NBA (and MLB) play a best-of-7 series which just sucks the life out of the sport. They say it's to determine who's "really" the best. That if the tournament were played like the NCAA's (single elimination) it would be "unfair". Screw that. It's "unfun" now. American tournaments could learn from the NCAA. But 7-game series make a lot of money for the networks. So compromise with the round-robin strategy. Each game is immensely meaningful, plus each game showcases a different matchup. Excitement and no repetition. Amazing!
*    The tournament schedule: Every day there is a different game on. I never have to miss Ivory Coast-Netherlands because ABC chose to show Croatia-Japan. In part, this is possible because the entire world shuts down during the World Cup, so viewers are available all day. But in practice, this means that spectators get the entire experience. Imagine if the NCAA tournament did this. Instead, we would have 4 games playing at once in the first round, then a 5-day break with no action.

     The guy I played tennis against last week, from South America, declared that the World Cup is perfect and refused to listen to my suggestions for improvement. I suspect that most people will agree with him. But here it goes anyway...
*    Soccer needs a backfield rule: To speed up the game and force more offense (which Newsweek declares is "the most attractive game"), soccer should introduce a rule like what basketball has - once over midfield, teams cannot pass back over to their own side. That forces an offensive game in basketball and it would do the same in soccer.
*    Implement a shot clock: Again, basketball has it right. Created in 1954 and praised by some as having saved the sport itself, the shot clock revolutionized basketball, raising scoring 20-30%. I know that for many soccer enthusiasts, what is important is the "beauty" of the game. But pressing teams to innovate on the fly and lose the delay tactics that are so common could energize the sport. Added shots translate to added goals. And added goals lower the likelihood of ties. At the very least, they lower the likelihood of 0-0 ties.

     That's all. Hopefully no soccer hooligans will show up at my doorstep. Enjoy the tournament - US vs Ghana in 3 days determines whether the US will advance to the next round!

Friday, May 12, 2006

New American Brethren

     There are two primary reasons that people migrate between countries. Every immigrant has both motivations, although the degree to which each one influences varies. Reason #1) The person wants to leave their origin country. Reason #2) The person wants to enter their destination country.
     Sounds simple, and maybe a little insultingly so. However, if you want to have a comprehensive discussion on immigration in this country (beyond, "We have laws and everyone needs to obey those laws" or "why don't they just learn English?"), we need to explore how these two motivations work in real life.
     In 2006, we don't seem to have much of a problem with Poles or Russians or Germans clamoring to get in. The main issue in 2006 is Mexicans (and if you live in South Florida, Cubans). Why do they want to leave their homes? Well, the easy answer is that their home sucks. Jobs may not be available, goods may not be available, cops might be corrupt. But why not stay in Mexico and go work in Cancún? Or Cabo San Lucas? Or hop in a boat and go to Cuba? Instead, they come into the USA and make their way to Tucson or Los Angeles or Atlanta. Why?
     The simple answer is that it's attractive here. There are jobs and the streets are (relatively) safe. You may not be able to survive on minimum wage, but if you're willing to live in a 2 bedroom house with 15 of your close friends and relatives, you can do it. In fact, that sort of lifestyle might be considered luxurious. In fact, just being able to turn on the kitchen sink and drink the water without getting tapeworm is something short of miraculous. So it's easy to understand why they would want to be come here, too. But why have we made it so attractive for them?
     I mean, sure, we demand clean water, too. But what we also demand is dollar menus at McDonalds. And we demand that our bed is made at the Motel 6. And, oh yeah, we demand that the Motel 6 charge no more than $39.99 a night. And while those are not excuses for taking advantage of underpriced human labor, and while those don't force businesses to hire new immigrants and illegal immigrants, there's certainly pressure put on these companies to hire people that won't charge much and won't make a fuss about working conditions.
     The Truth is, if you ran a grocery store and you needed someone to sweep up the storeroom, who would you prefer to hire? If you only spoke English, would you rather hire someone who only spoke Spanish if they were willing to work for the same price? Even if they were willing to work for a dollar less? If we had more English-speaking US citizens willing to do these jobs, there would be no demand for Mexicans. And if there were no job available, the torrent of people crossing the border might turn into a trickle.
     Enforcement won't work. We can see that with our nebulous "War on Drugs". Interrupting the transportation of drugs does nothing to stem the demand pressures. Eventually the law-enforcement dam springs a leak and drugs come through. The only way to solve the influx of drugs and of poor immigrants is to lower demand. And don't think that cracking down on employers will do the trick. The demand is there because of a lack of potential employees. Fining companies won't correct that.
     Here's my modest proposal: Every family should have at least three children. (Currently, the US average is 2.09) The oldest will inherit the family estate. The second will seek out work in the world and start out with a blank slate. And the third will be destined to remain poor, working for minimum wage or less in menial, but necessary, jobs.
     Of course, if you think you have a better way to drum up a workforce, please post your ideas. Mexicans aren't coming here against our wishes. They're coming here in response to an invitation. It's not sent through Evite, and it doesn't have calligraphy on the front. But the large number of jobs open to them is as good as one of those.
     It occurs to me that one long-term solution is to raise the standard of living in Mexico enough that its people won't go risking their lives in the desert to get a job polishing the insides of a toilet. But that still won't answer the question of who will do those things. Maybe the answer is to dump all of the restrictive immigration policies and open our doors wide open. If they can find a job, great! If they can't - time to move on. In that sense, an amnesty program might be on the right track, except it would be a one-time event.
     Or maybe the answer is to get rid of low-paying jobs entirely. At the grocery store and at Home Depot, you can check yourself out - no more cashier or bagger! If we automated jobs - think of a robotic janitor - there would be no need to look for a low-wage employee. And if we dump industries like farming altogether, nobody will look here for jobs picking oranges or harvesting sugar. They'll go to China or even Mexico. And we can turn that land into shopping malls and Infiniti dealerships and buy all our produce from overseas.
     I'm not being snarky. I'm looking for solutions to the root causes of illegal immigration. You won't fix it by putting the new Sons of the Confederacy at the Mexican border. And you won't fix it by putting the screws the each family that hires a Mexican nanny. If you really want to prevent unskilled workers from crossing the border, make it so US companies don't need unskilled workers in the first place. Or just let it be, and look for ways to help your new American brethren become citizens.

Monday, May 08, 2006

The GOP Immigration Disaster of '06

     For the past 25 years, the Republican party has been spectacular at rewriting the national agenda so that it could maintain its unnatural coalition between the fiscal conservatives and the bible-thumpers. (Except for a slight blip in 1992) At first it was easy. Ronald Reagan had Communists to rail against. And if there were ever an issue to unite the bankers and the good old boys together, it was those godless Commies who hated capitalism. But as the years went by, it was harder to keep reality out of the party line. It fractured in 1992 with the giant sucking sound of NAFTA and didn't recover until Bill Clinton got a BJ in the Oval Office.
     Now the Republican leadership [sic] is struggling mightily to keep the nation focused on terrorism and gay marriage. Unfortunately for them, issues like global warming and corruption and the war in Iraq and the aftermath of Hurrican Katrina and, oh yes, Immigration keep popping up to the fore.
     Nobody seems to know what to make of the immigration issue yet, because it's a complex issue that doesn't like to be painted in black and white. Dems aren't sure how to handle it and are privately thankful the issue is arising during a Republican presidency so they don't have to. Republicans, on the other hand, are going to pay a very large price because immigration will drive a wedge between the capitalists and the theocratists.
     Of course, observers are starting to realize that the issue isn't really immigration, but bigotry. The most vicious illegal immigration opponents fall into two camps - those who have recently emigrated legally and resent the people who did not have to jump through the INS hoops - and those who have absolutely no clue how the immigration procedures work. (This is not to say that everyone else is educated on the subject)
     Look, I have to admit I speak only one language - English. I specifically did not take Spanish in my South Florida high school as an ineffectual passive-aggressive protest against the Cubanization of Miami. I'm not a huge fan of the areas of town where homes hold 12-15 Mexican immigrants. On the other hand, I'm not hypocritical enough to forget that my great-grandparents lived 12-15 to an apartment in New York 100 years ago when they emigrated to this country. And I know they didn't speak English when they arrived, although they eventually learned it. Of course, they had their Yiddish newspapers and shop signs in their neighborhoods too. And since many of them traveled in steerage class, chances are they didn't apply for legal residency until they landed at Ellis Island. So I have some empathy for the Mexicans (and yes, the Cubans) coming to America looking for a better life.
     The Truth is, I'm ambivalent about illegal immigration. Its effects on wage rates, on prices, on schools, on social services, and on property values are complex. However, I'm not ambivalent about the motives of the anti-immigration movement these days. It's nothing but raw, naked racism. You can hear it in the voices of the people who call the radio stations. You can read it in the letters they write to the newspapers. You can sense it from the shock and outrage over a Spanish version of "The Star Spangled Banner", despite the fact that the anthem has previously been translated into German, Latin, Yiddish, French, and of course Spanish. The US State department actually offers multiple Spanish language versions of the national anthem. (President Bush's remark that "I think people who want to be a citizen of this country ought to learn English. only proves that he has no mastery of the English language himself.)
     The immigration issue deserves a lot more attention than one posting can give it. But it is becoming clear that "Hispanic" is the new "Black" in this country. The Republican Congress is trying to hitch its horse to a new "Southern Strategy" in a desperate new attempt to get racists to elect fiscal conservatives. If the strife in Congress is an indicator, the Dems might have a few good years ahead. On the other hand, if they manage to smooth over their differences, it could be Springtime for Conservatives.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Georgians Are Stupid

say Georgia Republicans.

This has been the Republican party's tactic for wooing voters around the nation, and I'm sorry to say it works very well in the State of Georgia. Once-educated readers who once rolled their eyes at terms like "Ministry of Truth" and "joycamp" now believe wholeheartedly in laws named "Clear Skies Initiative" or "No Child Left Behind" or "Fair Tax". And seeing how these simple, yet effective, diversions enrich them and their cronies, modern Republicans are emboldened to milk the public for everything they can get.
Which brings us to an unfortunate op-ed piece in the Atlanta Journal Constitution (Free Login) by state Representative Mark Burkhalter (R-North Fulton). What's unfortunate about the guest column is not that he is not identified as a partisan Republican lawmaker, at least online. It is not that the AJC printed no "Equal Time" column or at least tried to balance out spin with facts. Burkhalter didn't control these things. Those are just byproducts of a shoddy newspaper.
No, what is most unfortunate is that Burkhalter takes an idea that might actually have merit, and tries to sell it on a gullible Georgia by using misdirection, false innuendo, and a few outright lies. The column in question breaks down Burkhalter's objections to Georgia's ad valorem property tax. Unlike many states, Georgia taxes not only owners of real estate, but owners of vehicles, including cars, trucks, boats, and airplanes, on an annual basis. Every year, when you pay $25 for registration in your state, I pay a hundred or a few hundred dollars (depending on the value of my car) in ad valorem tax. It's a tough pill to swallow every year because it's not a hidden tax that nickels and dimes you throughout the year. It hits you once a year on your birthday.
That being said, it's not cheap to maintain roads. And an ad valorem tax is far more progressive than a gas tax or a road toll. It affects the people who are most able to pay the most. And it's not like the income tax, which doesn't take into account your expenses. The ad valorem tax only really charges people who are buying expensive new luxury cars. Why new? Because as the car becomes a used car, its value drops precipitously, and the ad valorem tax follows suit.
But it's costing Burkhalter money. And it's costing his donors money. So he's pushing hard to get rid of it. But all getting rid of it is likely to do is raise gas taxes to replace the revenue. So he and his rich friends save money on their Infinitis while the 1972 Pontiac driver sees his gasoline bill rise to compensate. Burkhalter's words are telling: "Government shouldn't punish citizens because they choose to own a car or truck." So much for the Republican party being the party of personal responsibility. Taxes aren't punishment. They're our dues for living in the United States. They are the user fees charged to make sure the $60,000 vehicle in your 4-car garage has pothole-free roads to travel on. And more importantly, that your fresh vegetables make it from the illegal immigrant picker in Florida to your local Whole Foods in time for your wife to cook them for dinner. And don't dismiss this as an anti-money rant. I've purchased new cars and paid the resulting tax bill. I've taken responsibility for my actions. After all, I could have chosen to get old, used cars. But since I acknowledge that my actions have consequences, I pay the tax gladly.
Burkhalter also feels drivers already pay enough. They have to pay for "state and federal taxes on gasoline; excise tax on gasoline; sales tax on vehicle purchases; tire disposal fees; mandatory smog inspections; and fees for driver's licenses." Earth to Mark! These fees all help mitigate the costs involved with owning a vehicle made from toxic materials that spews other toxic materials into the air. Perhaps we can get rid of the tire disposal fee in lieu of using the Burkhalter's backyard as a tire dump? It keeps coming back to the lack of personal responsibility Republicans have and their ardent desire to get the populace to pay for their lifestyle choices.
Burkhalter finishes his grand argument with a straw man. "Government doesn't dare tax other personal items such as jewelry, furniture, computers or tools. There is no reason to tax something as essential as our vehicles." When my kids develop asthma because of your jewelry, we'll talk. When thousands of computers are causing the state to pay millions of dollars to ease congestion on the road, we'll talk. When the wood from your furniture is being purchased from terrorist and dictatorial states that threaten our national security, we'll talk.
Representative Burkhalter, treat Georgians like adults. Who knows? One day they may even act like them.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Onward Christian Militants

     I don't know why so many of my posts seem to center around wanna-be American theocrats. Maybe it's because they've been so prominent lately. Maybe it's because in the death throes of the Bush disaster, er, presidency, they are preparing a fresh assault on religious freedom. Or maybe it's because they are stubbornly failing to recognize that the American public's patience with them is starting to grow thin. Really, there's only so much trashing you can do of basic American freedoms before the average American wakes up and yells "Sit the hell down - I can't see my football game!"
     So anyway, it's April, which means two things. 1) It's been a month since my last post. How low have I fallen that my once-daily blog has become a monthly? 2) It's time for the annual running of the religiots who think the Easter Bunny is the only thing holding civilized society together.
     I've recently moved from Norcross, GA to Dekalb County, GA. This means a few things for me. My commute is a lot shorter. The supermarkets sell more Kosher food. Cynthia McKinney is my Representative. And I get a local weekly newspaper called the Dunwoody Crier. And this week, the bottom half of the front page was plastered with a South Park-ian bunny who looks scared for his life below the headline, "'Spring bunny' almost trumps Easter at Perimeter Mall" "by Cathy Cobbs". Wow. Thank goodness for Cathy Cobbs. Otherwise we might not have known that Easter was ever in such danger. As the managing editor of The Crier, I'm sure she knows this is Big News. OK - I'm being facetious. Nothing happens in Dunwoody. Really. It's got to be tough to fill your paper with enough copy so you can sell ads when there's nothing to write. Still, it doesn't excuse irresponsible rabble-rousing.
     The story starts out with a reference to the ubiquitous, mysterious "some" people. Cobbs wrote, "In what some believe is another attempt to remove a religious connotation from holidays...". Translation: "In what I want you to believe.." Cobbs interviewed 2 people, the sole complainant Sherry Pettitt and the suckup marketing manager of the mall, Lisa Shepherd. It was Sherry Pettitt who got the whole ball rolling in fact. She was so upset to see how badly Christians were being persecuted in front of Dillards that she sent emails to a dozen news publications.
     Originally, according to the mall, they were not celebrating Easter at all. The bunny was there to help celebrate spring. As someone who eats lunch in the Perimeter Mall food court, I can attest that springtime at the mall is distinct from other times. People who were staying indoors during the cold weather start flooding the food court and departments stores once the mercury stays in the 70's and 80's. Too bad they didn't know that the rabbit is now the property of militant Christians and must only be used to celebrate Easter. (All rabbits are hereby named "Easter Bunny") And failure to celebrate Easter is nothing less than a vicious attack on Christians. God help you if you try to be inclusive. A 1996 survey found that 13% of the residents of Dunwoody and neighboring Sandy Springs were Jewish. Add that to the people who are Muslim, atheist, or adhere to another religion, and you have a sizeable population that doesn't identify with Easter.
     So what do Sherry Pettitt and her cabal of religious extremists say to Perimeter Mall's statement that "many backgrounds, cultures and religions do not celebrate the Easter holidah and Perimeter Mall wants our springtime children's character to be familiar and appealing to all shoppers"? She says, "I am sick of it!"
     I'm just dying to bump into this woman at Publix or Target.

Monday, March 13, 2006

March Mediocrity

     That's right - it's time for the second annual counter-cultural NIT bracket! Or, as I dubbed it last year, the "Pride Cup". Or lack thereof. My Yellow Jackets were an embarrassment to the ACC, to everyone who watched them go to the National Championship game in 2004, and to everyone who watched a game of theirs this year. They won't be playing again until this fall. However, the ACC seems to be slumping this year, and the NIT is very ACC heavy, with Maryland, Clemson, FSU, Wake Forest, Virginia, and Miami. And when you conside the SEC teams (Vandy, USC) and the other big name schools participating (St Joes, Penn St, Rutgers, MICHIGAN, Notre Dame, Temple, Louisville, Cincy, Stanford), playing pool with the NIT is betting on the teams you've watched all year.
     SO - this is an open invitation to all of you to join the NIT Pride Cup in its second year of glory. It is mostly for pride - after all, who'd going to bet $15 on an NIT bracket? Cost of entry is $1.50 per bracket. You can download a copy of the bracket HERE. Just fill it out and email it back to me. Or just email me your picks. (Not your pics, however. I don't care how cutesy-wootsy your dog is.)
     Scoring rules are simple: I'm copying ESPN's other bracket rules. 1 point for a correct pick in the opening round. 2 points for the First round, 4 for the Second round, 8 for the Quarterfinals, 12 for the Semis, and 16 if you somehow pick the NIT champion. To make things interesting, you get an extra half-point if you correctly pick an upset. (There are no upsets in the semis or finals). Tiebreaker will be the total number of correct games picked.
     So send in your picks and your $1.50 via PayPal to TheTruthBlog at Comcast.net no later than 5:00 PM tomorrow (March 14). First Place wins 60% of the net (after PayPal steals its share), Second place takes 25%, Third place takes 15%. Good luck!
P.S. Happy Purim! Hag Sameach

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Belief in Belief

     In the US Religion Wars (aka The Campaign to Distract Americans from Iraq), somebody, somewhere is attacking Christianity at any given moment. If a bunny is called the Garden Bunny, Christianity is being attacked. If someone sees a piece of a boob for a second & a half, Christianity is being attacked. If every American does not smile and profess ecstatic joy for Jesus's birth every December, Christianity is under attack. And not only Christianity, but Belief itself is in danger of crumbling.
     Which begs the question (at least for me), why do we care? I understand a lot of people have formed attachments to Christianity. But as far as belief itself, when did that become so important? And worse, why is belief so important for belief's sake? In Judaism, it is forbidden to eat pork. According to the laws of kashrut, Jews just can't do it. Even if you're a Jew who thinks pork is tasty, it's still against the rules. It would certainly help if you believed that God would punish you if you ate the pork. But it's not required. All that's required is that the pork doesn't enter your mouth (or any other orifice, for that matter).
     In Christianity, belief plays a more important role. According to the book of John, Jesus said, "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned." Of course, that belief was really meant to get people to accept him as a god. He didn't mean that believing in just anything was good.
     So why is belief itself celebrated? I once dated a Catholic girl whose father was very religious. He apparently approved of me because I was religiously active, albeit in a faith other than his own. Although I was certainly pleased and relieved at the time, I wonder why belief itself was more important than what I believed in. And why would it be wrong to derive your belief in God through reason and science and logic? Why would it be so bad to prove the existence of God through physical evidence?
     I read an article in Slate by Judith Shulevitz critiquing a book on religion by Daniel Dennett. Dennett invented a concept called "belief in belief". According to him (via Shulevitz), "people who believe in belief believe that civilization needs myths to live by, so we mustn't examine religious ones too closely." In other words, it is not God that holds our world together, it is our collective belief that does so. ("Myth" in this usage, refers to traditional supernatural stories, not necessarily a fictional tale.)
     For those of us whom the words "glorify God" never quite seem to make it to the top of our daily task list, this might seem like a laughable claim. Why would life fall apart if, say, there were incontrovertible evidence that Jesus had been a used chariot salesman who liked to partake in the local marijuana-oil? You would still love your family. You would still go to work so you could feed and house and clothe yourself and your family. You would still enjoy watching 4 Law and Order episodes a night on TNT and USA. After all, if God exists, surely He is not so childish and petty as to get mad about simple human failings.
     Dennett says that belief in belief is a "compromise formation" for those who attend church regularly but don't really internalize the strictures. I say these people make up the vast majority of American population. Last year, a major poll found that 45% of Americans attend religious services weekly, and nearly 66% pray daily. But when Dr. Phil asked America questions, 41% said they had cheated on someone and 68% said they had been cheated on!. Just today, the Catholic church in Ireland revealed that 102 priests are under suspicion of sexually or physically abusing children. Clearly there are people out there who are going through the motions of religion in public but don't follow the rules when they're in private.
     To me, their belief in belief is strong enough that they have a strong desire to retain religion, even as they ignore it. And while I feel that proponents of the Flying Spaghetti Monster make an excellent point about belief, they're preaching to two different choirs. On one hand, they're targeting people who already have their belief system set in stone, thank you very much. On the other hand, they're targeting people who have already discovered they don't need one.
     Of course Janet Jackson's tit isn't going to destroy Christianity. But it may help reveal the lack of real commitment many Christians (and members of other religions) have to their chosen faith. And that may help damage the pervasive idea that belief in religion is what keeps the world functioning. And that, of course, may convince the millions of people who pay lip-service to their religion to spend their time doing other things. And that is what could destroy Christianity. What is the solution? Well, it's only a problem if you believe your actual religion is going to fall apart, but the wisdom of Yoda comes to mind. "Do or do not. There is no try."
     Update: See Lindsay Beyerstein's take on Dennett's book.

Thursday, March 02, 2006


     According to the Washington Examiner, "President Bush now says his 2004 victory over Democratic Sen. John Kerry ... was inadvertently aided by al-Qaida terrorist leader Osama bin Laden." Duh. Well, half-duh. I think it's pretty clear that a Bin Laden tape endorsing Kerry in October of 2004 caused Americans to vote for Bush. But to call it inadvertent?
     Americans like to think their villains are stupid and 100% corrupt. In 2001, when the wounds of 9/11 were still raw, Bill Maher was chased out of town for suggesting that contrary to what President Bush claimed, the terrorists who piloted planes into our buildings were not cowards. In our culture, liars are people who never tell the truth and evildoers are people who never do good things.
     But in the real world, Osama bin Laden is not stupid. And he understands politics. In the late 90's bin Laden declared war against the West. That was to be war between the Christian countries and the Islamic countries. And while almost nobody understood the real reason behind 9/11 (other than "they just want to kill as many of us as they can"), I think it's safe to assume he had one. In fact, he told us his reason - we just don't want to listen to him when he tells the truth. Which of course is because we assume that since he's evil, he never tells the truth.
     Bush has given bin Laden everything he wanted - a conflict between the West and Islam. And furthermore, the United States is isolated in the world, having alienated its allies. The Bushies claim that we're winning, because we've killed many high-ranking Al Qaida members. But in any war, you expect casualties (except Americans. We expect to incur none.). And bin Laden's cronies have paid the price. But his goal may still come true. And if it does, he will have won.
     So back to the election. If Bush has given bin Laden everything he wanted, of course bin Laden wanted Bush to be reelected. He didn't want Kerry to start making nice with Islamic Arabs. He didn't want Kerry to reestablish relations with the Europeans so they could provide a common front. And what would be the best way to get his man Bush back in office? Endorse the other guy. It's a classic Good Cop/Bad Cop routine. It doesn't work on everyone, since it can be easily recognized. But police often use it successfully on people who are scared and frightened.
     Osama bin Laden got George Bush elected, alright. But it wasn't inadvertent. It was just the 21st century version of the October Surprise.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Short Term Memory

     I just moved to a new house this past weekend. It's a lot closer to work, which was the major attraction for my wife and me. In fact, commute time was one of the prime impetuses for moving in the first place.
     So in order to take advantage of this (and because I am now house-rich and cash-poor), I went home for lunch yesterday. And as I was sitting in my recliner eating leftovers and watching TV, I heard a report on CNN that said the gas prices had dropped 6 whole cents over the past week. They then added the commentary that we shouldn't expect to enjoy these "great low prices" for too long, since oil is poised to go up.
     Yesterday, according to atlantagasprices.com, the average gas price in Atlanta was $2.08 and the average gas price in the US was $2.22. Now, granted, this is a whole lot lower than in the aftermath of Katrina, when gas prices soared to $3.10. But that was only 5 months ago. Until April of 2005, US gas prices were nowhere near $2.22 a gallon. Three years ago, they were in the $1.50's.
     I understand the newscasters are adjusting to the new reality, and their greater point is that gas prices will only go up, an opinion I wholeheartedly agree with. However, to even suggest that we're experiencing low prices means that:
A) The newscasters really can't remember anything earlier than last September
B) The newscasters don't want you to think about the fact that you're now paying almost double for gas what you paid only a few years ago and throughout the 90's
C) Someone from the White House hypnotized the production staff of CNN to help get Americans to fell good about paying over $2 per gallon for gasoline*
D) All of the above

     Incidentally, it's this same short-term memory that causes Americans to forget that Iraq had no part in the 9/11 attacks, that Palestinians are not innocent bystanders in some Israeli tyranny, that oil shortages can cause real pain ala 1979 (although we're starting to remember that one). I know the media doesn't want to be seen as negative, especially since the Republican mouthpiece Fox accuses all other media as being anti-Bush. But Americans do quite well remembering good things and even deluding themselves into remembering bad things as good (1950's - otherwise know as Republican "good old days"). If the news is going to be complicit in asking us to forget, we're closer to 1984 than many people realize.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The Human Animal

     Every so often, mostly when I'm feeling very comfortable with myself and my supposed role on the planet, I notice something that disturbs me a little. I work in a large office building, and people here are paid a lot of money to scurry around, moving paper from one stack to another, surfing the web trying to look busy, and generally enabling global commerce in the way that corporations do. It's all very important, and it's easy to lose yourself in the idea that you are a cog in a very large machine, single-mindedly focused on a task. Or the idea that you are a very important, modern cog, doing things that your ancestors 50, 100, 1000 years ago couldn't possibly be capable of. And then you leave your cubicle with its tchotchkes and its photos of your wife/husband/dog and you go to the bathroom.
     The bathroom. A room dedicated to fulfilling your biological needs (without making too much of a mess). There's no higher purpose to a bathroom. Sure, some women might use it to touch up their makeup at a restaurant or club, and some men might like to use it as a respite from everyday life, bringing with them the sports page or crossword puzzle. But it's hard to argue that if humans didn't need to expel biological waste from their bodies every few hours, these rooms would exist at all.
     How much of our other rooms are dedicated to our subservience to our bodies and not to our minds? Certainly our kitchens and dining rooms. If we weren't required to eat, if we didn't get hungry, we wouldn't devote that much of our homes (much less our time) to eating. And of course our bedrooms. We spend more time there dead to the world than anywhere else in the house. So what would be left? Living rooms, family rooms, dens, playrooms... A very small portion of most of our homes.
     So how different are we really from our cave-dwelling ancestors? We have more comfortable caves, but to assume we're physically superior is probably delusional. If we still have to sleep and eat and defecate, if we still get sick and old, could our minds be that much improved? For that matter, how much are we different from other animals that sleep and eat and defecate, get sick and get old? Chimpanzees, dogs, elephants, water buffalo... It's a disturbing concept, at least to me. We're just a few creature comforts removed from cavemen. And it's not like most of us have any clue how to procure these things beyond running to Ikea in our Lexus SUV's. If the electricity we out tomorrow and stayed out for good, if gasoline and natural gas went away (which they would without electricity to produce and distribute), how long would it be before our civilization reverted 150 years or more? I say more, because with our current population of 6.5 billion people, a 4-fold increase over the population in 1900, we couldn't possibly feed everyone with 19th century technology.
     That's beyond the point, of course. Doomsday scenarios are fun to read about or watch, in a scary sort of way. There's a whole genre of apocalyptic fiction, from The Matrix to Planet of the Apes to Waterworld. But I prefer to focus on the future. If we want to believe we're better than humans past, what have we done to be better? To remove our need to use the bathroom, to sleep, to die? Some people argue that these are things that make us human. But the Truth is, these are things that make us animal. Humanity, as most of us understand it, is in our brains. Any cockroach can defecate. Only humans are smart enough to do it in the bathroom and flush afterwards.
     Although personally, I find it incredible that we still do so.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Crackberry Infringement

     I'm not a Blackberry user. I have a Palm Treo, but I'm too cheap to pay Verizon $45 a month for slow wireless internet. I already have Comcast's slow, wired internet at home, thank you very much. And I didn't even get my first cellphone until 2001. So maybe I'm not the right person to comment on Backberry's impending cycle of destruction. Full disclosure: I do get a little annoyed when everyone asks if my Treo is a Blackberry. It's petty, I know, but I have no interest in being associated with Crackberry Addicts.
     Anyway, I'm a little torn on this story. Like any American, I feel compelled to take sides so I can, you know, root for someone. But since this issue is mainly between one business, another business, and business-people, I don't really have a dog in the fight. Besides, it's much more fun watching Right-wingers battle it out with their unworkable dogma: Capitalism (and by extension business) is the best thing ever and we should let businesses do whatever they want.
     If you're not familiar with the case, on one hand you have RIM, the makers of Blackberry. On the other, you have NTP, a holding company for the patents of the late Thomas Campana. Campana came up with a method to integrate email systems with wireless networks back in the early 90's. He patented the system and put the patent in a file cabinet and waited. Along comes RIM with their Blackberries and their ability to access email on wireless networks. NTP said, "We own the patent, you have to license it from us." RIM said "Go to hell." And the war was on.
     Pro-Blackberry Right-wingers say that it's not fair that some stoopid little "company" that doesn't even make anything should be able to tell a big corporation like Blackberry what to do. They emphasize the fact that NTP is not a manufacturer in order to discredit them. Never mind that people like Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, and Ben Franklin all invented things without manufacturing them - their strengths were in creating products and not necessarily in overseeing someone operating machinery.
     On the other hand, Pro-NTP Right-wingers say this is just Capitalism in action and if NTP can extort $1 billion from RIM, then so be it. Forcing companies to license their technology to anyone who wants it and whatever price they name smacks of Socialism, and the Pharmaceutical companies are inclined to agree with that position. Granted, this group is considerably smaller, given that NTP requires the courts to collect. Wild West justice never used the courts (except as a handy place to lynch outlaws) and NTP seems to fit the Liberal whiny model.
     Some commentators complain that since NTP wasn't actively using its patent, there's no harm done. They say there's no proof that RIM ever actually copied NTP - maybe they developed the idea on their own. Of course, this is irrelevant. When NTP filed its patent, it made a deal with the US government that it would give out the details of its idea to anyone who wanted it, for free, in exchange for protection from unauthorized use. Without this protection, how many of our tools of everyday life would be little more than sketches sitting in someone's drawer? I might be a brilliant physicist who comes up with a way to copy matter and "reprint" it somewhere else. I don't really care, because I was being paid to look for something that would turn lead into gold. Without patent laws, I might just stuff the idea in my desk, hoping to be able to work on it someday in the future. With patent laws, I file for a patent, giving my idea to the world. Some engineer, reading the patent, realizes I discovered teleportation and creates a trillion dollar industry, wiping out UPS, the Post Office, and private school carpool lines. Because of this, every parent who picks up their kids from school should support strong patent laws. Our country (and economy) relies more than ever on innovation.
     On the other hand, the sheer number of ideas out there are simply overwhelming the system. The patent office is little more than a rubber stamp on patents, even when they have no merit. You could patent a method of rubbing peanut butter on bread before putting on jelly and then sue every elementary school for infringing. If innovation becomes too expensive, nobody will innovate.
     So who am I rooting for? I haven't decided yet. In my bitter old age I am enjoying the pain and panic of Blackberry users. But that scheudenfraude aside, it will be very interesting to see how this works out.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Holy Crap, I Missed It!

     I thought I was getting busy, after leaving my last job that gave me about 8 hours a day to read news and blog. But then my wife decided it was time to move, and I've even fallen behind on reading important (to me) blogs, much less writing them. I was reading Johnny Virgil's blog with Thunderbird when I came across his January 14th post in which he said, "Wow. I almost missed it. I just realized that exactly a year ago today, I started this here blog."
     Hmmm. When did I start blogging? It turns out that Johnny and I share an anniversary (blogiversary?). My one-year anniversary of blogging was also January 14th. So for anyone reading this, get up from your computer, drive to Publix (or Kroger or Piggly Wiggly or wherever you shop) and buy a little birthday cake and one of those cool candles shaped like the number "1". Light it, blow it out for me, and eat some cake. Thanks!
     In all seriousness, it's exciting to hit this milestone. 2006 looks like it will have less post-election angst than 2005, but it looks to be no less disappointing for those of us who had high hopes for our leadership. I'm sure I won't have any shortage of material to bring us to 2007. Thanks for staying with me, especially through my October disappearance. Anyway, here's to another great (belated) year of blogging!

Monday, January 09, 2006

Raison D'Etre

     A lot of people ask the question, "Why am I here?" The answer to this, of course, is called "The Meaning of Life". (The question is affectionately asked as "What do you get if you multiply six by nine".) Apparently, just being isn't enough for many people. There has to be a reason.
     What's funny is this issue came up in the recent science vs science fiction debates in Dover, PA, Cobb County, GA, and the state of Kansas. Some of the arguments against teaching science in school have been to the effect of "Human Beings couldn't have been created through random genetic mutations" and "I can't believe in an existence that has no purpose". Unfortunately, even if the Truth is that God (or the Flying Spaghetti Monster) created us, there's no reason to believe He did it on purpose, any more than Gary Cismesia hit the goalpost on purpose in Florida State's loss to Penn State. You could just be the funny-looking result of a batch of DNA brew God mixed up while he was distracted by the latest Desperate Housewives. Oops. Would it really be a comfort to learn you were just a reject in a long line of rejects in God's quest to build Natalie Portman?
     Anyway, people are good at that sort of self-doubting and need for outside affirmation. But apparently we have no such qualifications for the things that we create. Who asks, "Why do toaster ovens exist?" Who asks, "Why does IBM exist?" If we really must ask these Why questions, should we at least ask them about the items and institutions that we at least have a little control over? For example, it's been long said by greedy short-term stockholders that corporations exist for the benefit of their shareowners. Their entire purpose is to create value for the people who purchase shares of their stock. But is that really true?
     Name one successful public company that started out life as a public company. Name one successful company that started out in a situation in which the original owner(s) were not also employees. What's my point? The reason these companies exist could not possibly be to enrich stockholders, when there were no stockholders at the moment of the company's creation. Let's look at UPS for example. In 1907, Jim Casey borrowed $100 from a friend and became the first employee of a company that delivered messages and parcels around Seattle, Washington. 98 years later, that company has expanded into a global giant with over 400,000 employees moving over 3.6 billion packages a year (2002) to over 200 countries. Today, UPS is a publicly traded company on the New York Stock Exchange and a member of the S&P 500 worth over $83 billion. Why does this company exist? What is its raison d'etre? Ask its largest institutional shareholders and they might say it's them. If you could ask Jim Casey, however, he would tell you it was him. And his brother and his partners. They wanted to make a living and they saw an opportunity to do so by forming their own company. You could say that one of the initial reasons for existing was for its employees' sake. Also for its owners' sake, since they were the same people. And for the sake of its customers, without whom there would be no UPS. But basically it exists because Jim Casey needed a job.
     IBM has a similar history. In 1888, Dr. Alexander Dey invented the first dial recorder (whatever the hell that is). His business formed one of the three initial building blocks of IBM. This business existed because Dey wanted to earn money by building and selling his gizmadoodle machines. His company existed to earn its employees money. Which is funny, because last week (free login), IBM announced that it was ending its pension program. I'm sad to see pensions go. I firmly believe they are a great tool to retain qualified workers throughout their career. However, it's this money quote that really gets to me:
Companies with pensions are facing tough competition from newer firms and from global companies that aren't saddled with that cost, said Richard Brownlee, professor of business administration at the University of Virginia. When pensions were being formed in the middle of the last century, he said, "we didn't expect the kind of global competition we see now."

     So basically, pensions are now considered a "cost" that is saddling US business. That may be, but pensions are really a part of compensation. What IBM and this guy Brownlee are saying is that American workers make too much to compete globally. And they have a point. But what is dishonest and destructive about attacking pensions this way is that instead of admitting to people that their compensation is dropping, they are taking away money that employees won't see for another 10 or 20 or 30 years. If IBM took $50/month out of an employee's paycheck, there would be some serious morale problems for the company. But if it can sneak that same money out of the retirement plans without anyone really noticing the difference in their paychecks, well, all the better. The other downside is that pensions really are an effective compensation tool. 401k's are portable. And yet companies can't seem to figure out why their best employees leave for other companies each year. When you give every incentive to leave and none to stay, people are going to leave. Pension plans give an incentive to stay. In order to sneak money back out of compensation, these companies are mortgaging their futures. They are creating a system by which they have to rebid annually for talent, driving up compensation costs, training costs, and recruiting costs.
     Of course, IBM's puppetmasters aren't concerned. As soon as the stock price lifts a little from this new infusion of cash, they're going to sell. They won't be around in 10 or 20 or 30 years when IBM is crashing and burning from a lack of talented employees. So what is the reason for IBM's existence today? To satisfy day-traders and short-term stockholders? Or some combination of the logical descendents of the founder (employees), customers, and long-term owners? From where I'm sitting, the day-traders are eating everyone else's lunch. Sorry Dr. Dey.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Happy New Year!

     Happy, uh, what's today's date again? 2006? Whatever.
     I mean no offense to any New Year's Eve revelers out there. I'm sure you enjoyed every last second of 2005, including your bonus second granted by the US Naval Observatory in Washington. One more second of a slurring, pained Dick Clark keeping Ryan Seacrest off the air is certainly worth drinking to. And I mean no offense to those of you looking forward to a 2006 that will most certainly include President Bush admitting to all of his mistakes and then promising very, very hard to try not to make too many more. I myself enjoyed a wonderful "Pimp's & Ho's" New Year's Eve party at a friend's house. Remind me to post the pictures someday.
     However, it seems to me that ringing in the new year is a lot less significant than it used to be. First of all, I'm getting older, which means that as I personally slow down and get fatter, time is speeding up. So I feel like I'm experiencing New Year's Eves at the rate I used to experience Tuesdays. But that doesn't explain everything. I just don't feel any compulsion to ponder the new year anymore, to make resolutions, or eat black-eyed peas. (Although I do eat them on Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year) This week is just a continuation from last week, which was a continuation from the week before. It's sad, sure, but you know what I really blame for this annual malaise? Online billing.
     I mean, you used to be able to rely on having guaranteed non-weather related small talk in January, talking about how you keep writing the old year in your checkbook, hardy-har-har. When was the last time I wrote a check instead of relying on online bill pay? (It's not a rhetorical question - I really want to know!) I did some research for this post, digging my checkbook out of my desk at home. It was buried under dusty $0.32 stamps, rubber bands that crack if you touch them, and some tic tacs I bought in high school (and yet were remarkably still good). The 25-check book was half completed, although I started it in 2002. There was not a single check stub from 2005.
     When I think about it, not only do I not write checks, I never write the date on anything anymore. Part of that is because I'm not in school anymore and don't have to turn in assignments. But even when I was last in school, I was more likely to turn in a paper written on the computer, which automatically attached a date. More and more, students are submitting assignments electronically, preventing the need to write either the date or their names. Imagine if you forgot how to sign your name? Your signature would get so sloppy it would look like.... your signature.
     2000 was a big deal for the simple jarring fact that for the rest of your life, you would be looking at a '2' staring you in the face instead of a '1'. But even then, there was little in life that was seasonal and there's less today. There used to be a time when you couldn't eat fresh fruits out of season. Now you can enjoy oranges and strawberries 365 days (plus one second) every year. How about football? Arena football starts in January, so you never have to suffer through summers that only feature the most boring "sport" ever devised - baseball. With the invention of Las Vegas, humankind mastered the 24-hour day. Online bill payments are finally helping us master the 365-day year. Happy Two-thousand whatever.