Wednesday, September 28, 2005

A Lack of a Lack of Faith

I find your lack of faith ... disturbing.--Darth Vader

In a little treatise I wrote last July, I was talking about religion and faith, and somewhere along the line, I mentioned an atheist who was suing to have “under God” removed from the Pledge of Allegiance. I allowed as how it was strange that he was concerned that his own value system (no, I'm not being sarcastic) was so weak that his daughter would be turned to – gasp – religion by the daily recitation of the words “under God”. Rather than ruling on the merits of his case, the Supreme Court ruled (if one call such judicial wriggling a "ruling") that, since he was not the child's custodial parent, he had no standing to file suit.

The Supremes tried to weasel out of making a decision, but they reckoned without the fact that this guy has waaaaay too much time and money on his hands. He merely talked some other parents into filing the same suit. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, or “that bunch of loonies” as they are known, once again upheld his suit, leaving it to the Supreme Court to try to weasel out of again. The Ninth Circuit seems to come up with these sorts of decisions just to see if the fossils in Washington are paying attention, since they have had more decisions overturned than any other appellate court.

Now let's consider just how nuts this whole thing is. We have a person who doesn't believe in God. That's fine. If he wants to go that route, he is entitled to do so, but not because of the First Amendment's religious protections. That amendment keeps Congress from making laws that restrict religious worship. He doesn't do religious worship, so that can't apply. However, the amendments free speech provision and other amendments allow for freedom of expression and equal rights, which allows for freedom of your beliefs, whether on politics, religion, philosophy, or who's going to win the American League pennant.

When your belief system is a non-belief system, it's a bit hard to understand how you can be threatened by the inclusion of two words in a bit of ceremony recited by children day in and day out. Most kids are cataleptic first thing in the morning and are barely cognizant of what they are saying. It's a bit of rote memorization, unfortunately, that doesn't carry the weight that it should. So, how is “under God” going to make this guy's kid (and his current clients' kids) suddenly turn into card-carrying proselytizers?

If he should somehow succeed in this case (and anything is possible these days), what next? Football players can't kneel in the end zone after they score? Baseball players can't cross themselves before stepping in to bat? Public Television can't do any programs about electing the Pope? Obviously, these things are much stronger images than “under God” in a mumbled pledge.

What makes this entire debate doubly ridiculous (and a waste of the court system's time) is that the Pledge of Allegiance in its original form did not contain the words “under God.” That was added by Congress in the early 1950's as a swipe against those Godless commies. Apparently, Congress felt that someone who was a Red pretending to be a good U.S. citizen would, upon reciting “God” turn into a pumpkin or some such.

Ironically, Communists have nothing against God; it's religion that scares them. If you are going to have a good dictatorship of the proletariat, sooner or later the proles are going to figure out they're getting it in the neck. Religious organizations have, in many cases, proved to be a rallying point for organized opposition to the ruling class. So religion has to be subjugated, which it was in some, but not all Soviet bloc countries. But, God? God was invoked by Stalin many times during World War II. Nothing like facing annihilation to give a guy faith in a higher power.

By the way, the words “In God We Trust” didn't appear on U.S. currency until 1864. It seems that the Founding Fathers just weren't as concerned with wearing godliness on their sleeves as later generations have been.

There could be one ultimate irony awaiting us. Madeline Murray, the avowed atheist who went to court to stop prayer in schools many years ago, became a devote Christian. Can you imagine the fun if this guy gets religion 20 years from now and petitions the court to put “under God” back in the the Pledge?

Wouldn't surprise me a bit. When the possibility of meeting a Maker gets closer, a lot of people seem to hedge their bets.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Homo Ineptus

You're killing me here. ~ Bob Vila to a contractor breaking the bad news to him.

Hi, my name is John, and I am mechanically inept.

I am the guy that car companies put “OIL” on the dipstick for. I don't know a crosscut saw from a rip saw. For that matter, I don't know a crosscut saw from a chrome reverse ashtray. I can turn any 15 minute job into a four hour descent into Hell. If Homo Habilis was the “handy man”, I am Homo Ineptus, the klutzy man.

I try, Lord knows, I try. I read the directions to assemble that bookshelf over and over, yet somehow still manage to skip step 34, leaving a gaping Slot 12 into which should have gone Thingy F. Doors that should close smartly thanks to their Swedish adjustable hinges (as seen on This Old House), sag outward and a little to the right, no matter how must I adjust. I used to be able to hook up a TV (plug in, turn on) until it involved audio/video hookups, connections to the VCR, DVD, and satellite receiver. Now, if I'm lucky, the remote for the CD player doesn't turn on the TV ... and the CD player isn't even connected to the TV!

Oh, sure, there a few things I can manage without injuring myself or the equipment. I can change a light bulb, although fluorescents can be a challenge. I can check the oil in most anything and actually add just the right amount of oil if it's low. I can add air to the tires on my car, ending up, believe it or not, with more air in the tires at the end than when I started. I can even (hold on to your socket wrenches) replace my windshield wipers! It took me around 20 years to figure out how to do it, but, by Binford, I can do it!

I come by this ineptitude honestly. My father could take any working engine and render it into a useless pile of metal within minutes. He wasn't big on maintenance, either. I can promise you that I didn't learn my oil-checking skills from him. Back in those bygone days, you drove into a gas station, and a fellow came out and pumped your gas, cleaned your windshield, and checked your oil. This last was always embarrassing.

“Uh, sir, when was the last time you had your oil changed.”

“Oh, not long ago, “ Dad would say, which translated meant, “Sometime since the late Jurassic.”

“Well, you might want to do it soon, because your oil looks like peanut butter. Chunk style.”

In those days of 30-cents per gallon gas, and 50-cents per quart oil, we had a deal. When I borrowed the car, I paid for the gas, and he paid for the oil.

Besides being mechanically inept, I am congenitally clumsy, so while screwing up I can generally manage to hurt myself as well. Put together, these have convinced my wife that she should prevent any interaction between me and any tools that can cut, pinch, poke, or generally maim. As a rule, whenever I say I'm going to fix, refurbish, or build anything, she says, “Oh, dear, you work so hard during the week,” then she'll do it herself or bug my son Stephan to do it. I suppose I should appreciate this, but my ego is sorely wounded, because my son tends to do a good job once he sets his mind to do something. So when I go to check out his work, I can't even pretend that I could have done it better.

To show just how pathetic it is, I got a new toy today that came sealed in that heat-sealed-forever packaging. So, I had my scissors, knives, crosscut saws (or was it a chrome reverse ashtray?) all laid out and was just commencing to hack my way in, when Stephan went by the door. “Oh, God! Stop that now, Dad. Give me that before you hurt yourself!”, he said, proceeding to expertly cut his way into the package without harming the contents.

Geez, I only nicked myself once. You’d think he’d never seen blood before.

But there are certain tools, like chainsaws, that my wife and even my son are scared to use. So when a tree has to come down, it's up to me. Not to say that my son doesn't offer to take an ax to the tree, ("No problem, Dad, it'll just take me a couple of days") but I won't have it. So fare I've kept all my extremeties, but I must say that it's hard to concentrate with my son holding the phone with 911 on speed dial, and my wife sitting in the car, our medical insurance card in one hand, the keys in the other.

Bob Vila's wife and kids wouldn't act like that.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Football, Rugby, and whatever the game we play is

My father grew up in Hungary and was, like all of his friends, a huge football fan. Keep in mind that when he said “football”, he meant what we call “soccer”. When he came to the U.S. in 1949 with wife and very cute little boy (bless his soul, I thanked him many times for making that trip), he found no soccer, but he found something called “football.” One of the first things he ever saw on television was the 1950 championship where the Cleveland Browns beat the Rams (formerly of Cleveland) on a field goal by Lou Groza in the last seconds of the game.

No, I don't remember watching the game (although I guess I was in the room), but Dad told me about it so many times, I feel like I was at the stadium.

I could never get into soccer for a number of reasons. First, the U.S. has never learned how to broadcast a game. The only intelligent way to televise a soccer match is with a wide view to take in as much of the field as possible, since much of the action on the field is away from the ball. For example, people whose only exposure to baseball is from TV have never seen how fielders go in motion or subtly shift their position with each pitch. With men on base, the field is a veritable merry-go-round of fielders moving and base runners taking off, but you can't see that on the average broadcast. American sports broadcasting, especially by the seventies, has been into closeups of the players, which is ok, but it misses all that movement, concentrating instead on the shot from the center filed camera showing the catcher's fingers wiggling in his crotch.

Let's move on...quickly.

Ahem. Another reason soccer hasn't become ragingly popular is the style of play. Frankly, the U.S. players tend to play a style developed by the English in the 1930's which is designed to make for tight defense and low scoring. Now low scoring games can be exciting if there are lots of scoring attempts. Unfortunately, the English style does not generate many shots, which makes for a dull game.

Try as I might, I just can't get excited about soccer games, although the women's soccer teams proved a few years ago that an exciting game still exists somewhere. Trouble is, the women's league didn't last while the boring men's league continues.

Finally, there are the histrionics when a foul occurs. When a soccer player is fouled, he drops to the ground clutching his leg or ankle, writhing about as though he's bleeding to death, all the while listening for the referee's whistle. In any sport, there are players who react emotionally to getting hurt, but it's because they're actually injured. Soccer players go down as though they were hit by the blast from Mt. St. Helen's. Seeing that three or four times a game is enough to make a man watch figure skating, just to see some tough athletes.

So, I'm a fan of our football, and I like it. The college game is much more fun than the pro game, but any football is better than none. But the game I really enjoy and wish I'd played in college when I had the chance is rugby. Rugby has all the contact and violence of American football, played by guys in gym shorts and t-shirts, with no pads or helmets. Well, there are a few players who wear something like the leather helmets of Jim Thorpe's day, but some guys like to protect their ears. Many a rugger has a cauliflower ear that any old time fighter would be proud of.

The game moves along. Like soccer, there are no time outs, and, unlike soccer, there's usually a lot of scoring. Oh, and unlike soccer, a player has to assaulted and battered before he'll lay on the turf rolling around in pain. In fact, injured ruggers don't roll around much because they're usually unconscious.

Truth in Rugby Alert: Be aware that there are two forms of rugby, one of which is the action-packed game I enjoy, and one which is duller than dirt. You can recognize the dull one because, unlike the exciting form, the dull game has downs like American football and lots of stoppages. You'll know it if you see it.

Rugby is a great game, and I can't imagine why it's not popular here. It's got violence, athleticism, drama, and players an average guy can relate to. No 300 pounders running down 180 pound quarterbacks in this game. You've got players of ordinary dimensions running and crashing into each other for 90 minutes. Well, they do take a half-time break, but that's only to stop the bleeding.

Of course, if you want real action, try to find a broadcast of Australian Rules Football. If American football is a game, rugby is organized mayhem, but Australian football is a bona fide train wreck. You have to see it to believe it. Years ago ESPN used to show the Australian game, but the good ol' days of ESPN actually covering varied sports are long gone (and still going; now they have ESPN Hollywood, a gossip rag on TV).

I'll tell you this: If reincarnation exists, the next time around, I'm gonna play rugby. That is, I'll play rugby if I can't get to Australia. If I do then I'll play rugby and Australian Rules football.

With no helmet. Ears are overrated anyway.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Short Paragraphs, Short Attention Spans?

I have noticed, partly as a result of blogging, I guess, that a style has developed toward making paragraphs short. I mean, I do it, news sites do it, birds do it, let’s fall in … er, sorry about that. I sort of got into a rhythm there.

Seriously, though, it seems that the one-to-three sentence paragraph has become de rigeur in most writing today. News and business have tended toward the short, choppy, but direct writing. In both cases, it’s because the target audiences are not going to take a lot time to read a great deal of verbiage. (Two..three. Okay, new paragraph.)

When I got my first jobs in business, it was difficult to adjust to this terse style. In college, exposition is important, primarily because a skill at slathering on blarney can pay dividends on the GPA. In fact, I was in demand as a lab partner because of my ability to rescue a flopped lab session with a brilliant write-up that had little or nothing to do with the fiasco that took place during the experiment. The same techniques were golden in lit classes and, of course, philosophy. Unfortunately, when I had to start writing business reports, it became obvious that, if I actually wanted the reports read, I would have to trim down considerably (my writing that is; my girth stayed the same, unfortunately).

On the other hand, if I didn’t want any action taken, I could guarantee getting the matter shelved by writing a major opus. One trait shared by most managers is that they don’t want to appear ignorant an issue, particularly if they’ve received a report on the subject. Thus, they’ll avoid making a decision nearly forever.

News writing is designed to get to the point, because newspapers were designed to be read quickly (except the Sunday edition, but the objective there is to get to the funnies and sports). The object is to get all of the key information into the first paragraph of the story. Nowadays, though, it seems we’ve got the short paragraphs, but you have to read about thirteen of them to actually find out what’s going on.

Literature once abounded in long, languorous paragraphs, constructed with sentences that were intricate threads woven into a complex cloth that eventually came to be the tapestry containing the author’s innermost thoughts.

Didn’t think I write like that, did you? Well, I got more.

wrote descriptions so detailed that you could feel the warmth of the sun crossing the forest floor. Edgar Allen Poe could build suspense and terror to such a pitch that the reader might begin tearing up the floor of his own living room trying to stop the Telltale Heart. Melville, in Moby Dick, wrote the single longest sentence in English literature, yet it’s not the only one in the paragraph. Even in our century, Ayn Rand could write page after page of Howard Roark laying out his beliefs to what would have been a stunned jury.

This is not a lamentation of how modern authors are not the equals of the giants of the past. There are writers who will be recognized in years to come as the equals of those mentioned above. It’s just a recognition of how our approach to information has changed. The only lament, if there be one, is that the Internet generation has become used to getting its words in bits and nibbles, concisely packaged, designed to fit a specific time period of web page space. It was hard enough for kids of my generation to appreciate the writings of the past, which seemed stilted and archaic. How must it be for current teachers to maintain interest in The Return of the Native?

Okay, bad example To me, Thomas Hardy could be mind-numbing. However, the point is still valid, because a lot of people, including my wife happen to enjoy his books. I do find that when someone tells me how much they enjoyed Hardy, they're never talking about The Return of the Native.

Perhaps that's part of the problem. There should be more of an effort to choose books and stories of wider appeal, maybe less Thomas Hardy and a little more Alexandre Dumas.

I hope this generation is able to see past the quick-and-easy-to-digest prose of today and, at least, occasionally take in the gourmet meal of a well-written novel or short story collection. The long paragraphs may be a challenge, but there’s gold to be found there.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

The New Luddite

I freely admit it: I am a technological luddite.

This is not an illogical position for someone who is over 50, raised in those long ago gone days of dial phones, 30-cents-per-gallon premium gasoline, and three channels viewed on a snowy black-and-white Motorola.

Trouble is, I'm also a network system administrator, responsible for implementing new technologies. I get to play with wonderful new toys all the time, and, in fact, I actually like it. I am, in the memorable lyrics of King Crimson, the Twenty-first Century Schizoid Man. I probably should be in therapy.

I just happen to think that there's a place for everything. Microwave ovens, personal computers, and satellite TV are proper wonders of our time. Cell phones, computer watches, Palm Pilots, and their kin, on the other hand, are spawn of the devil. I'm sure the difference is obvious, but I will endeavor to explain in case it isn't. Cell phones, which are the real ring leaders of the evil technologies, and their kin all have one thing in common: The ability to reach anyone just about anywhere at any time.

I just don’t feel the need to be so connected.

Oh, sure, some people have to be on call for emergencies, and it's good to be able to reach out and touch someone if the buggy breaks down. But really, do we need to be able to read e-mail at the beach? Do we have to get weather reports on our wrist rather than look out a window? Is it really necessary to be able to call from the store to find out if we need grape jelly? Well, okay, I've done that one, but it wasn't really necessary, as my wife who was trying to take a shower will attest.

We just don't need to be this in touch. It's become part of the culture to say people lead such busy lives that don't have time to do anything, which makes you wonder what their actually doing. I mean if they don't have time to do anything, they must be doing something, but what is it? One of those really stupid hair restoration commercials (I know, “stupid” and “commercial” is almost a redundancy) has a guy saying his “busy schedule” doesn't allow him to apply some sort of goo several times a week. The poor guy must find it difficult to schedule any personal hygiene at all.

A coworker of mine finally decided he could take a vacation cruise with his wife. Since he is one of the most gotta-be-connected people I know, it promised to be interesting to see how he could cope with being miles from shore, without cable modem, without DSL, without even a wireless connection. Well, it seems that I was wrong about that last one, since I received an e-mail from him from the cruise ship. Whatever happened to post cards? As it turned out, the rates charged for ship-to-shore Internet access were sufficiently dear that common sense kicked in after a couple of messages.

In fact, that's one of the other things wrong with all this “in touch” necessity. It's bloody expensive. Every service costs. Ten bucks here, ten bucks there, and you're paying a couple of hundred a month so you can be annoyed at any hour of the day or night. I'll bet the guys who sell these services turn off their cell phones every night.

Other devices are designed simply to suck money out of our pockets. MP3 players and iPods are the prime examples. Download songs for $.99? Fine. The recording company has put zip dollars into producing and distributing media, but they charge you as if you were getting the whole banana. Get the latest storm warnings from the Weather Channel on your watch? Great, but you can get them free from a radio. Pay for the latest headlines? Haven't you ever heard of CNN?

All right, I'm a cheapskate, but I still don't think I should have to pay or overpay, as the case may be, for things that were once free, or least cheaper.

The original Luddites smashed weaving machines trying to protect their livelihoods. Pleasant as the thought is, we can't go crushing phones, Palms or Blackberries every time one goes off in an inappropriate place.. So, I just wage my own little campaign of looking with pity at the person showing off their latest privacy-destroying or money-sucking toy. It confuses them. Of course, then they think I need therapy. But I know better (insert Renfield maniacal laugh here).

Saturday, September 10, 2005

A Couple of Words for Ol' Jimmy

I mentioned Jimmy Carter in “Gas Fumes”, and it might be recognized by the perceptive reader that I have a soft spot for the former president. Well, I do.

It’s not that I think he was a great president. He could have been, but he wasn’t. He was a man of great intentions and wonderful ideas, but he had no idea how to get them done. He is the Democratic equivalent of Herbert Hoover. Hoover didn’t create the Great Depression; Carter didn’t create the fuel crisis or the hostage crisis. Hoover couldn’t understand the common folks; Carter couldn’t fathom those who had the power and the wealth. I don’t say that sarcastically. Great leaders don’t thumb their nose at any group whether weak but numerous, or few but powerful. Carter put fear into the hearts of corporations and the defense community. Great leaders mobilize everyone during a crisis. Hoover was oblivious to what the economy was doing, then paralyzed at the start of the Depression. By the time he realized he had to do something, it was too late. In Carter’s case, his energy solutions were wonderful, but needed to have been put into effect 10 years earlier. What he needed to do was along the lines of Kennedy did to stop the steel industry from increasing prices: Use a carefully crafted strategy combining threat, sweet-talk, and media manipulation to get the industry to back down. Without the support of the powerful in industry and finance, Carter couldn’t even begin to pull that off, even if he and his advisors could muster the nerve. As to Iran, well, there is the matter of Carter’s staff.

Carter’s biggest problem was the people he trusted. Some, like Bert Lance (I’ve probably spelled that wrong), were political hacks who had no business in Washington. Others were worn-out Kennedy-era Democrats who should have retired long before. All in all, this group managed to consistently generate the wrong answer to most of the important questions of Carter’s term in office. They completely misread the Iranian situation and it cost them.

Carter’s gutting of the nation’s defense forces was his ultimate failure (although begun during the Ford administration). It culminated in the gut-wrenching humiliation of the botched rescue attempt in Iran.

(Parenthetically, it was Carter who negotiated the release of the hostages. Even with all his failures during his term, he didn’t deserve to have to listen to Ronald Reagan taking credit for their release during his inaugural.)

But, the man’s ideas and ideals were something to be admired. No man has had a greater desire for peace in the world. No one. Period. Unlike the many Bible-quoting pious hypocrites who talk about prayer while either starting wars or supporting conflicts in the name of “democracy”, Carter was a true Christian, a man who seemed to desperately want to live by the precepts of the New Testament. Unlike, say, Pat “take him out” Robertson. Jimmy Carter works have earned a Nobel Peace Prize; evidently Robertson thinks Jesus wants Mutant Ninja Christian Soldiers.

Ultimately, though, there’s one really ironic legacy of Jimmy Carter that most people don’t even seem to recognize. For the last 15 or so years, military minds have gone ga-ga over stealth technology. During the first Gulf War, stealth bombers were a key to clearing the way so conventional bombers could their job without being blown to bits by antiaircraft weapons. There are stealth ships now in the Navy, even stealth tanks. Know who proposed that the country develop stealth weapons? By now you do. It was the ol’ peanut farmer himself. And when he did, “experts” in the media and the political circuits had a field day. One of the funniest cartoons showed a stealth blimp, simply the word “Goodyear” floating through the air. Everyone made fun of the smiling guy in the White House, even Ronald Reagan. But when Mr. Reagan went to Washington, one of the first things he did (besides generating the biggest deficit in U.S. history) was push hard for the development of stealth aircraft.

I’ll bet Jimmy has always gotten a chuckle out of that. He’s the sort of guy who would.

Gas fumes

I was not going to write this piece, nope, no way, no how. Everybody has had a say on the price of gas, one more commentary just didn’t seem necessary. But, after CNN’s report on Exxon profits (which strangely seems to have disappeared, but you can read virtually the same article here) and a smart-aleck remark about Jimmy Carter’s energy policies, it became obvious I was going to have to do this to avoid internal hemorrhaging. The reader may have missed it, but Exxon announced a profit---that’s profit, not sales—of $10,000,000,000 for the QUARTER. That’s 10 billion, with a “b”, and that rhymes with ‘c” and that stands for “cartel.”

Everyone knows about gas prices over the last two weeks, but this money was made over the last three months. Here was another cute tidbit: Exxon has been spending $5,000,000,000 (yes, that’s billions again) per quarter to buy back stock. That does two things. First, it pushes the value of the stock up. Second, it makes for larger dividends for the remaining stockholder, the largest of whom, are most likely on the board and in top management. Guess what they haven’t spent money on? New exploration and refiner upgrades and expansion.

Now it seems that the government feels that impoverished concerns like Exxon need a tax break to encourage finding new oil sources and building refinery capacity. Lord knows with profits like that, they’re going to need a break to actually pay their share.

Okay, I wasn’t surprised. What surprised me was why it took a year of inflated gas prices for anyone to notice that oil companies were making obscene profits. If a company can spend $5 billion a quarter to buy back stock, it stands to reason that they’re pulling in considerably more than that

Of course, the artificial “shortage” from Katrina was galling. It was reminiscent of the nonsense of the ‘70’s when gas stations opened for two hours a day, selling gas for $2.00 a gallon (on a par, after inflation with current prices) then closing because they were “out.” Except that they opened every day, but the tanker truck only showed up once or twice a week, as always. Somehow, this has been labeled Jimmy Carter’s fault, despite the fact that gas prices began to jump during the Nixon administration, along with inflation rates that went so wild that the Republican Nixon actually attempted to impose price controls (but not on fuel). The shortage mania caught on with other suppliers, too. There were coffee shortages, chocolate shortages, and most idiotically, toilet paper shortages (which was by a joke on a late-night talk show).

All of which is why I got aggravated at the remark about the ineffectiveness of Carter’s energy policies. How the policies can be deemed to have been a failure when they were never implemented is beyond me. Carter wanted research into alternative fuels, increased auto power sources efficiency, conservation, with appropriate tax incentives for all of these things. What happened was that Congress and the Reagan administration began the process of gutting these ideas that was followed up by the Bush the First until nothing was left of them. Clinton, thanks to the fact that fuel prices had dropped, had no need to do anything, so he didn’t.

By the way, that drop is rather interesting. The previous “gas crisis” had so damaged the economy that fuel usage dropped as fewer goods were produced and shipped. The crop of fuel efficient cars didn’t help the gas boys much, either. With usage down, prices dropped. Even when OPEC tried to push up prices artificially, the use pressure wasn’t sufficient to make it stick. The economy under Reagan was stagnant for eight years (it didn’t go down much, but it grew only minimally in real terms), and under Bush it actually went into serious recession. It takes a long time for the economy to make its moves, so it was actually Bill Clinton who benefited from the improvement generated by low gas prices, low interest rates, and the expanding tech sector. If Bush had somehow won a second term, he would have been the guy who "improved" the economy.

To mangle the Santayana quote I used the other day, “Those who cannot recognize the economy are doomed to get screwed by it.”

But the seeds were being sown for our current mess. Alternative power source research simply disappeared. The big thing was “gasohol” which was basically a way for Congress to provide a subsidy to corn growers, which made corn-based fuels more expensive than good, ol’ unleaded premium. Auto maker fuel efficiency requirements were gutted by exempting pickups and – are you ready for this?—SUV’s. So, it didn’t matter how big a gas hog that Expedition or Suburban was because it didn’t count against the fleet average. And conservation? Yeah, right. People who buy 6 mpg SUV’s are buying into a lifestyle that consumes like a swarm of army ants.

So we’re getting ripped off by petroleum companies that give hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign contributions to politicians who ensure that policies are in place that must increase fuel usage. At the same time, those same politicians seem not to have noticed that the petroleum industry behaves suspiciously non-competitively. Forget the fact that much of the raw material (crude) is controlled by a cartel. In a competitive situation, some gasoline suppliers would improve refining methods to reduce costs or find ways to extract oil from other sources at lower cost than the spot market.

The solutions are all simple enough. First, real campaign reform that keeps the gas companies (and other special interests) from playing rent-a-Congressman needs to be passed. Second, bring utilities back under full regulatory control. The only way alternative energy sources will come about is if the power companies have no choice.

Oh, horrors, say the free-marketers, we can’t have that. It would never work. Well, it did for about 50 years, while de-regulation has been a marked failure wherever its been applied. The airlines are broke, yet they’ve cut service to small markets that used to mandated by regulation (when they were profitable). The phone system is rapidly turning into an unregulated monopoly as all the Baby Bells come back together, while we’ve gotten little or no benefit from the so-called “competition” between these unregulated regional monopolies, unless you consider inflated wireless charges, hokey access charges, and incredibly bad service personnel to be benefits. And, of course, there’s that ultimate deregulation success story, Enron.

So don’t groan to me about the evils of regulation.

Finally, the Justice Department needs to get off its dead butt, and start investigating the monopolistic practices of the petroleum industry. Oil companies have merged, creating an oligopoly. Oligopolies have indulged in collusion before, so it would hardly be surprising if it wasn't going on now.

Never gonna happen? Well, maybe not soon, but eventually, people will get sick and tired and vote the rascals out. It’s time, in fact, for a voter revolt, where everyone votes against the incumbent, regardless of party or philosophy. And, when things get bad enough, they can be changed. Teddy Roosevelt busted the trusts and championed land and resource conservation. A relative of his, Franklin, created the TVA and the social safety nets, among other things. Sometimes its been Democrats, and sometimes its been Republicans who are the agents of change. All it takes is the right man or woman.

Tuesday, September 6, 2005

The Devaluation of the Cuss Word

“May you live in interesting times” is supposedly a Chinese curse, although a native-born Chinese friend has sworn the first he heard of it was from me. Be that as it may (and it is), the sixties were both a blessing and a curse. In the blessing column, it was a fascinating era of new ideas, new ideals, great music, technological advances, and new visions. In the curse arena, some of the visions came from a new proliferation of drugs, the Viet Nam war divided the country, racial strife came close to tearing us apart, Nixon began his infamous dirty tricks that ultimately led to his downfall, free love led to increased VD, and an open attitude toward speech led to a proliferation of profanity in literature and entertainment that has culminated in a daily comic strip featuring the phrase “Son of a bitch!”

. I'll try not to do that again. 
Before it even occurs to you, this is not a diatribe against Lenny Bruce. Lenny Bruce was somewhat more vulgar than mainstream comics of the period, but what got him busted was not the F-word. It was talking openly about sex. You see, innuendo was fine, the kind of stories a Redd Foxx might tell were okay, but to actually get into what men and women were doing in the bedroom, in detail no less, was downright obscene to some people.But, then again, there are people that would have everyone arrested for running around naked under their clothes.
At any rate, I’ve no problem with Bruce because he wasn’t telling his stuff at 7 or 8 PM on a general network that the kiddies might be watching. He actually had material he could perform on TV and did. He saved the heavy stuff for adult audiences in an adult environment. 

Then came Richard Pryor. He was telling us about the streets using the language of the streets. There was a legitimacy to that approach that made it work in a both funny and visceral way. Unfortunately, comics began to see that Pryor could get laughs using, well, dirty words. And they found that they could get a cheap laugh just by throwing in an F-word or one of its friends into a lame gag. 
Perhaps the ultimate irony comes from George Carlin. Early in his career he didn’t use much vulgarity in his routines, but he did do a riotously funny routine about the seven words you couldn’t use on television. The bit is brilliant because it diffuses the words and renders them harmless in a way that would lead you to think, “Ah, what the heck, say them, don’t say them. Who cares?” Unfortunately, Carlin has decided that there is something liberating about saying them as much as possible to the point that, to me, it detracts from the meaningful messages he’s delivering. 
And then there’s rap. I can’t say much because I’ve never thought much of the style, I don’t care for the whole rapper/gangsta scene, and frankly I find the style to just plain boring.What I don’t understand is how profanity reached the point where it’s so ubiquitous. It seems that no one is capable of speaking in a movie or a novel for more than a dozen words without some sort of cuss word, especially if he or she is supposed to be “hard” or “tough”. I could barely get through “Pulp Fiction”, a movie I otherwise thoroughly enjoyed, because of the endless F-bombs. And “Reservoir Dogs” I couldn’t get through at all. And don’t just blame Quentin Tarentino. Anything that’s supposed to be “indie” or “cutting edge” is vulgar to the point that it’s simply distracting.
By the way, the need for vulgarity has gotten so common, that in Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood film, one of the characters drops an F-cuss. What is funny about this is that the word was not in use in England at the time. What do expect for a movie where Robin Hood doesn’t have an English accent? 
People curse; they always have. I’m sure that Neanderthals made good use of their hyoid bone, primitively placed as it was, to gurgle appropriately salty phrases when a flint tool cracked during napping. Profanity has always been a mark of anger, frustration, or disappointment. It has been a mark of intense emotion. Or rather it used to be. Now it seems to have become a commonplace, as pithy as calling the weather cloudy. We have even reached the point where the Vice President of the United States would use the F-Word while presiding over the Senate. At least, Nixon and his associates kept it in the Oval Office. 
The Internet has become a constant cacophony of F-bombs, racial and homophobic slurs, and sexist insults. It sounds like a junior high school playground on forums, blogs, and the vast majority of web sites.
A while back, I realized that I had fallen prey to this kind of coarseness. Oh, it wasn’t like every other word was profane, but too many were. It was a convenient way to avoid thinking of an appropriately strong adjective, I guess. But, I decided that it was just too much, so I’ve cleaned up my act considerably. I think we need a moratorium on cussing. Everybody needs to set one day a week where no coarse language crosses their lips or their keyboards, no matter how aggravated or aggrieved they may be. We should challenge ourselves to find ways to express our feelings that can actually be spoken to a group of Quakers without worrying about any of them fainting dead away. 
Besides there are such dramatic ways of expressing disgust, anger, or angst. Think of the opening to Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”: “You blocks! You stones! You worse than senseless things!” That is so much more effective than, “You dumb mother-------s!”

Friday, September 2, 2005

What's in a Name?

We have three dogs, all mutts (which is the way we like it), although they all have certain similarities to real breeds. The three dogs, all females, are, of course, spoiled to the extreme, even to the extent of having an embarrassing large number of names.

For example, there’s Emily, our Labrador Deceiver, known variously as Emmy, Wee, Wembley, Emmytoo, and Emmy Sue. Strangely, these names all came from adults, despite sounding like a two-year-old’s early language developmental phase. Then there’s our Rottenweiler, misnamed Tiny, also known as Beans (of which she is full) and Murphey (based on one of the sounds she makes: “murph, murph”). Finally, there’s Stinky, a Chihuahua, crossed with a terrier and a bio-terror device. She looks like a Chihuahua, is the size of a Jack Russell, and has breath that could stop a Panzer division. She answers to the aliases of Tinky and Stinkerbelle.

I blame this on my wife.

When I was first dating this woman whom I would marry, I became confused about the number of siblings she had. There was Judy, Curt, Helen, Carol, Chris, Lois, Dorn, and Dean. Now with eight brothers and sisters, you’d think there’d always be a crowd around, but somehow the number of people I was meeting didn’t add up. Clearly, either I was being misinformed, or someone was buried in the basement. As it turned out, there were only four: Judy Carol (who never uses her middle name), Lois Helen (who is only slightly crazy), Curtis Dorn (who never uses his first name), and Chris Dean (who doesn’t care what you call him as long as you call him for…oh, never mind). Oddly enough, my wife Faye is the only person in the entire family who lacks a middle name. If she were the youngest, that would be understandable; anyone could run out of names after by the fifth kid. But, no, Faye is the eldest. Evidently, her folks kind of picked up a naming momentum as the kids increased.

But back to the dogs.

I am not responsible for any of the dogs’ names (nor for the names of any of Faye’s siblings). If I were, they would have much more distinctive names. Names that I have supplied were so appropriate and catchy that the pets didn’t need a bunch of nicknames to confuse them. For example, there’s Hector. Hector was part sheepdog and part Shetland pony. He could shed hair clumps the size of a rat, which had us jumping when we came across some of these leavings lying around the house. I chose Hector because I had always wanted to use the phrase “since Hector was a pup) and then be able to point at the dog while nodding sagely.

Then there was Clyde. Clyde was a dog dog. He was as pure a mutt as we ever had. But there’s was just something about him when I first saw him that made me think, “That dog is a Clyde.” For years, my wife has said that Clyde was the most aptly named pet we ever had. Even my kids agree. No one can say why that is exactly, but everyone agrees that Clyde was a Clyde.

I also got to name a cat, a Siamese that managed to even try my wife’s cat-loving nature to the point that she gave him up. Personally, I hate cats, and cats know it. The feline mind immediately senses the animosity and determines that the only person in the room who should get attention is me. Ask any cat-hater. You can find us in any cat-infested house; we’re the ones pushing the creatures off our laps. The only person who gets more attention from a cat than a cat-hater is someone allergic to cats. These are truly evil creatures.

But I digress. My wife had lured this animal with food and milk. “He must be lost because he just keeps hanging around here.,” she’d insist. Listen, you offer me food and a warm place to sleep, and I won’t leave your house, either. Anyway, because it was Siamese, even I had to admit that it was a very classy critter, so I finally gave in but demanded the right name the devil. I called it Mishkin. My wife loved the name. It was several months before she asked me how I ever thought up such a cute name. It was then that I told her that the main character in Dostoevsky’s novel “The Idiot” was Prince Mishkin. 

Fortunately, I was younger and quicker then than I am now, for I would have surely received an injury had I not been able to bob and weave so successfully.

Unfortunately, my wit was my undoing. My family now names all animals before I can get at them. You’ll have to excuse me now, because Emmy and Beans are reading this and offering criticisms, and I think I caught a whiff of melted Panzer division behind them.