Wednesday, November 22, 2006

A Little Privacy, Please?

I heard on the radio this morning that Jennifer Anniston invited Brad Pitt’s parents for Thanksgiving dinner. Angelina Jolie found out about it and e-mailed “Jen” to complain about her interfering with family matters.

Okay, first of all, I so VERY don’t care, and I’d really rather not have to hear about their personal lives when I should be hearing music. But a thought occurred to me – how did the gossip columnists find out all this? There was a private phone call – do they have the phones tapped? And a private e-mail – are they hacking the mail servers? Maybe the stars’ personal assistants overheard and passed on the gossip without their employers’ knowledge? And weren’t immediately fired?

No. The gossip columnists found out because at least one of the stars decided it would be good to get their name in the paper again. They crave the publicity, and they apparently don’t mind baring every intimate aspect of their personal lives as long as they get the attention. I suppose it is possible that the three people in this famous little triangle really are suffering through a bitter ongoing feud. Or perhaps they conference-call once in awhile to discuss what the next fascinating plot twist should be, and whose PR agent gets to make the press release this week. Or maybe they depend on an outside scriptwriter for their public “personal” life just as they do for their lines on the big screen. Anything is possible – but regardless of the reality behind the stories, the only proper treatment for an adult making childish efforts to get your attention is to ignore them until they learn it doesn’t work. It is unfortunate that their target audience can’t resist their spoon-fed gossip. Until the great mass of the public gets tired of it, the rest of us will be forced to learn more than we ever wanted about the semi-private life of Hollywood stars.

Monday, November 13, 2006

The Price of Stupidity

The city council in New Bedford, MA is pushing the state legislature to ban anything that looks like a gun unless it is made in bright colors and clearly a fake. Pellet guns, BB guns, toys, water pistols, gun-shaped lighters, replica guns – a red plastic tip on the end is no longer enough, the entire fake gun has to be brightly colored so the police know at a glance that it isn’t real.

This is the result of a fatal police shooting some time ago – a New Bedford police officer shot and killed a man who drew a pellet gun. Does anyone but me think that the city council is trying to solve the wrong problem?

A police officer is in a peculiar position. He may interact with dozens or hundreds of citizens every day – traffic stops, routine patrols, investigations of minor crimes – and never have to draw his pistol throughout his entire career. But any one of them, no matter how routine, could instantly turn into a life-and-death situation because he happened upon a hardened criminal, a psychotic, or an armed fool. Is it any wonder that they tend to develop a paranoid streak?

The public needs to keep that in mind. If I get pulled over, I try to get all my documents out before the officer comes up to the window. Once he’s there, I keep my hands visible, move slowly, and avoid grabbing anything that might be mistaken for a firearm. If I had to get out and be frisked, and I had anything in my pockets I thought might make him nervous, I’d say so – especially if it was shaped like a gun. And by the way, if I felt my rights were being violated, I’d still stay as polite and calm as I could manage – the time to complain is later, during the lawsuit, not right away, when a nervous armed man is ready to react to any hint of resistance.

The late idiot in New Bedford not only pulled out something shaped like a gun, it was in fact a weapon, capable of causing permanent damage or even death to the officer. Admittedly, that’s unlikely – you’d have to use a pellet gun at very short range and get a lucky hit in the eye or the temple to do any serious harm. He drew the weapon when threatened with arrest after being found in a crack house. I suspect the mandatory investigation on the officers came back with a verdict of “justified” – and it probably didn’t take very long.

Banning fake guns is not going to fix the problem. In the heat of the moment, almost anything can be mistaken for a gun or other weapon – a pipe, a pen, a pair of scissors. It won’t make the cops any less nervous when somebody hurriedly grabs something out of their pocket. And spotting bright colors won’t make much difference, either – how many criminals will paint their pistols bright orange or yellow to try to get the police to hesitate? And how many officers will get shot that way before the rest of the nation’s police start reacting to those bright colors as evidence of a REAL weapon instead of a fake? One, maybe two?

Let’s not write another law to fix the wrong problem. Instead, let’s allow all those fake guns – but stop sympathizing with idiots who pull them on police officers. Stupidity SHOULD be a capital crime – and pulling a water pistol or a lighter on a cop is stupid.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Good of Society

I read a USA Today "Opposing View" editorial yesterday. In it, the Vice President for Policy at the Family Research Center, Peter Brigg, made the statement, "Society gives benefits to marriage because marriage gives benefits to society." Apparently, homosexual unions cannot provide those same benefits to society, so they shouldn't get the benefits of marriage in return.
So what benefits does heterosexual marriage provide to society? Mr. Sprigg mentioned two - procreation, and providing children with both a mother and a father. Obviously, that's a bit idealized - many heterosexual couples fail at one or both of those, but for the sake of discussion, I'll grant the point. I can think of other benefits, though. A married couple tends to live a more conservative, stable life. (That's conservative in terms of not drinking and partying as much, not in terms of, say, voting a straight Republican ticket.) A married couple is immune to sexually-transmitted disease, as long as neither of the is cheating. A married couple uses less resources than a non-married couple - they only need one house or apartment instead of two, for example. I can't come up with anything else offhand, though - any ideas, anyone? Post a comment.

So let's look at these - in reverse order for my own narrative purposes. Obviously, a homosexual couple living together provides the same reduction in resource usage as a married couple. Or, for that matter, a heterosexual couple living together, but I suspect that Mr. Sprigg wouldn't be much happier about them than he is about gay couples.

Sexually transmitted diseases - certainly a curse that has fallen unequally on homosexuals. But a stable homosexual couple is just as immune to AIDS and such as any married couple.
A more stable life - I hate to use stereotypes, but anecdotally, gay people (especially men) tend to date a lot, party a lot, go clubbing a lot, and so on. I feel sure there are many committed gay couples that maintain that lifestyle, at least for awhile, but sooner or later - just like a hetero couple - they settle down and stay home.

Now for the two Mr. Sprigg felt were most important. Married couples provide their children with both a mother and a father. I have to mention it again, this is an idealized view - according to these statistics, about a third of children see their parents divorce before they hit 18, and as many as half of them see a second marriage fail. But, again looking at the idealized picture, a gay couple provides most of the same benefits to their children as a hetero couple. Two parental points of view, a "backup" in case one parent dies, twice as many people to take them to soccer practice and watch their school plays, and so on. I have to admit, they don't get the benefit of learning from parents of both genders. I don't know how much difference that makes, though, as every study I've heard about indicates that children of gay couples are no more likely to be gay than children of straight couples. Besides, the children can find role models of the other gender at school or other activities - and good gay parents will make sure that happens.

Of course, gay couples cannot procreate, cannot provide the next generation to continue our society. Well, that turns out to be only half-true - a lesbian couple can easily have children thanks to sperm donors, either anonymously, or by choosing a male friend to help. Even if we don't count that, many more children do we need? Are homosexual couples not having children really going to drop the birthrate, especially since they won't be having children even if they CAN'T marry?

Oh, and one more point - a gay male couple can't have their own children, but they can adopt. They can take one of the thousands of unwanted children from those oh-so-moral hetero couples, give it a loving, stable home, and raise it to be a useful and happy member of the next generation. I'd say that counts as a benefit to society.

So, Mr. Sprigg - got any more excuses for your prejudice and intolerance? Giving gay couples the right to marry does nothing to reduce the rights and privileges of straight marriages. And I have never heard an argument against gay marriage that doesn't boil down to "Eww! It violates MY religion, so YOU can't do it!" Last time I checked, the Constitution said that's not a good enough reason to prevent it.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Home Sapiens Assinus

How many man-hours are wasted every year by that worst sub-species of Homo Sapiens, the Common Two-legged Jackass?

Consider the gas station. Have you ever had to go in and leave your license or something before getting a fill-up, then go back in to pay afterwards? That extra trip to get them to turn on the pump is because the station had too many “customers” drive off without paying. Only an extra 30 seconds or a minute – but multiply that by every customer, every time, day after day.

Consider the grocery store. The idiot who brings 23 items to the 15-items-or-less line. She’s actually saving the time of the one or two customers in the regular line…but costing that same amount of time to the four or five customers behind her in the express lane. Net change, two or three people times the extra five minutes or so for her full transaction.

Consider a traffic jam on the interstate. The jerk who pulls out into the offramp or onramp to get around a dozen stopped cars, then forces his way in front of them. Not much of a cost, a few seconds – times the dozen cars he passed. Times the four or five people who seem to do this EVERY time I’m caught in traffic at the Fort Belvoir exit off of I-95. Plus all the idiots who do the same thing when I’m not there to see it. Plus all the other exits in busy areas where the same thing occurs.

Maybe those examples are too insignificant for you. Consider safety seals. Not just the extra few seconds it takes to peel off the extra plastic seals on any over-the-counter medicine bottle, but also the extra time and resources it took to PUT that plastic there. You can calculate it based on the time it took to wrap it on the bottle, to make the plastic, to crack the petroleum, to drill for the oil – or you can calculate it based on the extra cost to the consumer, in terms of his hourly wage. It’ll probably work out about the same, and it IS significant. All from one very successful jackass, the 1982 Tylenol Killer, and a few copycats.

Consider locks. If we didn’t have people who can’t be trusted to leave our possessions alone, we wouldn’t need them. Calculate the extra time we all spend locking and unlocking our houses, cars, offices, etc. Add in the extra time and resources to make the locks, alarm systems, security cameras. Add in the time and resources of police who have to investigate burglaries. The time of the courts and the lawyers. The extra prison space and resources we need to hold the crooks. Even the time of the thieves, themselves – if they weren’t committing crimes and/or sitting in prison, they could theoretically be doing something useful.

Heinlein said that time is the total capital of our lives – you can spend it, waste it, lose it, or have it taken from you, but you can never get it back. Ayn Rand suggests that every product or service is beneficial based on how much time it saves the consumer through increased efficiency. If we had some way to prevent all that sort of wasteful behavior by jackasses, big and small – how much more could we accomplish?

Thursday, October 5, 2006

Why Cover Up?

I think the Republicans missed a golden opportunity last year to take a moral stand, deflect a lot of the corruption issues that have come up, and reverse their steady decline in popularity over the past year. I find myself wondering why.

According to statements in the Washington Express (a mini-paper published by the Post), Speaker of the House Hasturt’s staff knew at least a little about ex-Representative’s Foley’s “indiscretions” sometime last fall. Apparently Rep. Boehner and Rep. Reynolds discussed it directly with the Speaker last spring. Now a senior Congressional Aide says he brought it up THREE years ago. According to those statements…he knew.

Picture it, Washington D.C., November, 2005 – House Speaker Hasturt accuses Rep. Foley of sexually harassing Congressional Pages. He has provided copies of e-mails and instant message logs to the House Ethics Committee. Rep. Foley is expected to resign later today. Republican and Democratic leaders have issued statements calling for improved oversight of the Congressional Page program and deploring Rep. Foley’s behavior…

The media would have gone nuts – much as they have this week. The Democrats would have pointed to the moral decline of the Republican party…but not too much. That pitch would have been deflected by the fact that the Republican leadership was hanging their own man out to dry. The Republicans could have collectively shaken their heads, expressed their disappointment in Mr. Foley’s conduct and the way he fooled them AND his constituents for so long…and then continued on with business. In fact, they could have held the incident up in the future. – “We will not accept such unethical and immoral behavior in the Republican Caucus – when we find it, we will remove it, just as we did with Foley!” By now, a year later, it would have become a positive point to bring up on the talk shows, instead of an embarrassment and distraction.

Admittedly, I’m looking at this with the ease of hindsight. But it seems so obvious that it could have been a boon instead of a blunder that I wonder why it didn’t happen that way. Has Congress as a whole gotten so used to covering up scandals that this one didn’t seem to be any different? Is it possible that it ISN’T any different, that this sort of thing is rampant within the House of Representatives, and we just happened to hear about this one? Or nearly as bad, is it possible that Mr. Foley knew of enough damaging scandals to paralyze the party leadership for fear that he would take them down with him? I don’t know. I strongly suspect that the Democratic Party would not have reacted any differently in the same situation. I’m also pretty sure that the first party to clean house, dumping their own rascals in order to make themselves scandal-proof, will end up with a major lock on both houses and the Presidency. To do that, though, one of them has to have enough honest members to sit as a majority in the House and Senate. It frightens me to think that neither of them may be able to manage that.

Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Duck and Cover

Here’s a hypothetical for you to consider.

A successful U.S Army Recruiter has been sexually harassing some of his 17- and 18-year-old prospective recruits. Someone discovers this and reports it to his Battalion Commander, a fairly senior officer. The Battalion Commander looks at the statistics and decides that without this Recruiter, his Battalion is going to come up short on their recruits for the year. He doesn’t report it, he doesn’t initiate an investigation, he doesn’t move the Soldier to a less-sensitive position. Instead, he covers the whole thing up and looks forward to making his annual goal.

Several months later, the papers get hold of the story. Certainly, the Recruiter is going to get slam-dunked – probably court-martialed. But what’s going to happen to the Battalion Commander? A brief “watercooler survey” of some Soldier friends of mine suggest that even if the media wasn’t involved, the officer would be transferred to a staff position and probably never again promoted. With the public watching, he’d more likely be relieved of his command (that’s a career-ending move, for those of you not in uniform), and possibly court-martialed alongside the Recruiter he protected.

Now, let’s replace some of the people involved. For the Recruiter, former Representative Foley. For the Battalion Commander, Speaker of the House Hasturt. And for the recruits, let’s substitute 15- and 16-year-old Pages.

So what should happen to The Honorable Mr. Hasturt?

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Hilton Heads For Trouble

For about two and a half years, a local restaurant in the basement of the Capitol Hilton hosted weekly dinners on Friday nights for wounded veterans and their families. The owners invited around 60 people a week from nearby Walter Reed Army Medical Center for a full steak dinner including buffet and dessert. After awhile, various patriotic organizations including the American Legion started assisting with the costs – but originally, the $3500-$4000 weekly expense came straight out of the owners’ pockets.

The owners of Fran O’Brien’s Stadium Steak House recently lost their lease at the Hilton. According to this letter from Hilton’s Senior VP for Corporate Affairs, the owners had not paid their rent, along with various other violations of the lease. This may be true. Or it may not. Various other blogs, such as Black Five and Leslie’s Omnibus appear to believe that those health and safety violations mainly included the perils of hosting disabled veterans in a facility that does not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act – a flaw that, according to those blogs, was Hilton’s responsibility to fix and that the restaurant owners had addressed repeatedly with their hotel chain landlords. Also, apparently the owners stopped paying their rent in an attempt to recoup the cost of the room service meals they provided to hotel guests, which the Hilton had refused to pay for four to six months. In fact, based on the numbers I saw here , the Hilton STILL owes the restaurateurs over $8,000 in room service charges after subtracting out that unpaid rent.

I tried a search of Hilton’s corporate website for any press releases or responses to this controversy and found nothing. The only thing I’ve found in Hilton’s defense was that letter – and it seems to have been amply answered. If Hilton’s detractors are incorrect, it seems to me that they are in serious danger of libel suits. In the absence of such suits, I rather suspect that the various friends of Fran O’Brien’s have their facts straight.

The restaurant is gone. It’s too late for to actually save Fran’s. Fortunately, others have stepped up to fill the gap. This story in Stars and Stripes tells me the Hamilton Crowne Plaza has hosted at least two of the weekly dinners, and apparently there are foreign embassies, including Italy’s, lining up to help out. This is wonderful – but it doesn’t change the fact that the Hilton Corporation cancelled the lease on Fran O’Brien’s. Until and unless I see much more specific information on why that lease was cancelled, I think I’ll be avoiding any hotels with the name Hilton, Conrad, Doubletree, Embassy Suites, Hampton Inn, or Homewood Suites. Yes, those are out of my price range today. That may not be true forever. And it may not be true for you. And I can hold a grudge for a long, long time.

Any of you out there staying in nice hotels from time to time? Or who has influence on locations for business meetings and conferences? Perhaps the Marriott would be a better choice.

Thursday, June 8, 2006

Semper Fi, Mr. Snyder

Apparently, the father of a Marine killed in Iraq is suing the Westboro Baptist Church for protesting at his son’s funeral. According to this story in the Baltimore Sun, his chance of success is pretty low – but I think it is certainly worth a shot. The invasion of privacy portion of the suit is almost certainly not going to work – apparently, the protesters stayed on public property. According to various lawyers, the defamation issue is also going to fail – not because the church’s statements were true, but because the church has so little credibility that people’s opinions about LCpl Snyder have not been changed by them.

That’s where I think there’s a legitimate question. Certainly, MOST people’s opinions were not changed by the outrageous and stupid claims. I’d go so far as to say that no RATIONAL person was influenced. But some people certainly were. At the very least, the 75 members of that church had to take it seriously. I feel sure that a thorough search of the Internet could come up with comments on message boards in support of the church, their preacher, and their message - and perhaps the authors of those comments could be found. Does the law require that a LOT of people were influenced? My best wishes go to Mr. Snyder for the success of his suit. I hope it is a jury trial.

There’s something that surprises me about the Westboro Church. Every time they protest at a military funeral, they are directly attacking about a million and a half men and women currently in uniform. Plus several million more veterans who served honorably and remember that service with pride. That’s a whole lot of people trained to kill. With a certain fraction trained in special skills – sniper, demolitions, infiltration, police procedures. The fact that the church still exists and there have been no attacks on their protests or their homes could be considered a sign of our honorable nature and our respect for the Constitution and the First Amendment – but in all honesty, we know that some members of our military aren’t all that stable and well-adjusted. I, myself, DO respect their First Amendment rights to protest, and would not condone an attack on them – I’d much rather see them taken down by legal means. But I admit to surprise that everyone else is as patient as I.

In the meantime, I’ve thought of another legal way to attack them – I only wish I had the time and finances to make it happen. Get a few hundred or few thousand people together in Topeka, Kansas. Surround the Westboro Baptist Church – preferably right at the start of one of their services. Pass out sheet music. Start singing. I recommend a very short song list – “The Army Goes Rolling Along,” “Anchors Aweigh,” “The Marine Corps Hymn,” “Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder,” “Semper Paratus” and possibly “The Star-Spangled Banner.” No other songs – just those that are nearest and dearest to those of us in the military. All the verses. Over and over. For hours. Days. Weeks. With enough people involved, we could set up shifts, bring people in for a week at a time on their vacations, replace them when they had to leave. I expect even a couple dozen would be enough to capture media attention – which would probably bring in help from all over the country.

I don’t think it would stop the Phelps family and their few additional followers. But it would annoy them, interfere with their hate-filled message, and might goad them into making mistakes, stepping across the border of legality – and allow us to get rid of them once and for all.

Tuesday, June 6, 2006


I don’t really have any subjects that rate a full-length entry today, but there’s a few items I want to make short comments about…

RenFaire – We went to the Virginia Renaissance Faire last weekend. This Faire needs work. The entire Faire was tents and portable booths in an empty field – no permanent buildings, no electricity or other services (useful for merchants who want to take Lady Visa and Master of the Card). It also failed to convey a medieval atmosphere. The “storyline” performers were weak, and the script was worse. Even the “professional” acts were weak – at least, the few we saw. The bellydancers weren’t bad, especially the one who WASN’T in traditional bellydancing costume – but they had not developed a real show, and spent most of their time watching the audience members they had brought up on stage, especially the three-year-old. The juggler was the absolute worst I’ve ever seen, so bad that he had quite a variety of prepared remarks for when his tricks failed. Admission to the Faire was only $5, so we weren’t surprised at the quality – but hopefully the owners plan to reinvest their profits over the next several years, to build this Faire into something worth attending. In the meantime…we still had fun. Any excuse to get into garb!

Immigration – The Washington Post recently published an article comparing the taxes paid by citizens born in this country and those paid by immigrants. An interesting answer to those foes of illegal immigration who say that the illegals are sucking up government services without paying their share – but why did the researchers find it necessary to combine illegal and legal immigrants into a single group? As far as I know, no rational person is claiming that legal immigration is a problem (members of the KKK do not meet my definition of “rational). So why are they mixing two completely separate cases? A possible explanation can be found in the article itself – the D.C. area attracts a large number of highly-skilled, highly-trained, and highly-paid legal immigrants. Since they make well over the national average, they pay well over the national average in income and property taxes…which, when combined with the sales and other such taxes that even people without a legal identity cannot escape, brings the average for this artificial group up close to the average for native-born citizens. While they did include some of the results that show that illegal immigrants pay less taxes than their percentage of the population, the very title of the article – “Immigrants Pay Tax Share” – tells the world what the point of the article is.

Gay Marriage – President Bush is pushing a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. I would have a lot to say about that – but since it has absolutely no real chance of passage, it hardly seems worth it. Politics is supposed to be “the art of the possible.” It is sad that this administration is so far down that the only thing still possible for it is to throw out stumbling blocks to prevent consideration of policies that could actually be accomplished.

Friday, June 2, 2006

Indy vs. NASCAR

I learned some things last time I asked for comments to a posting. (Who knew that other staff got a cut of the tips in some restaurants, or that the ritziest places actually charge their waitpeople to work there? Everyone but me, most likely…) So, I’m asking for comments again. What’s NASCAR got that IndyCar doesn’t?

The Indianapolis 500 ran last weekend, and once again lived up to the title, “The Greatest Spectacle In Racing.” A great run by Dan Wheldon all day gave way to a photo finish between a driver who had never managed to complete 500 miles before, and the rookie grandson and son of the great Andrettis. And yet, when I came back to the office on Tuesday, nobody but me had a clue. Meanwhile, NASCAR is still growing, pulling in more fans, more sponsors, and more TV exposure all the time. I can go down to the mall and buy all sorts of NASCAR memorabilia – hats, jackets, bumper stickers…but if I ask about Indy, they may point me to the back corner to find a couple of Danica Patrick posters and a dusty Rick Mears sticker - or they may just look at me funny and send me to another store.

Here’s what Indy has.

Speed – The top average speed for a NASCAR race is 188 MPH, with qualifying at 213. That was back in 1988, before the addition of various rules to slow the cars to safer speeds. This year’s Daytona 500 pulled an average speed of 143 MPH, with the polewinner qualifying at 189. That’s on a 2 ½ mile oval with banking on the turns up to 31 degrees. The Indy 500, on a 2 ½ mile rectangular oval with only 9 degrees of banking, ran a 157 MPH average, with the top qualifying speed at over 229. I’m scared to look up what speeds they get on a track with real banking!

Skill – I’m sorry, NASCAR fans, but bumping and nudging is not a measure of skill. In Indy’s open-wheel cars, a bump, nudge, tap, or any other form of contact usually means BOTH drivers hit the wall – so even the worst driver on the track is good enough to avoid that most of the time. If you want to see real white-knuckles racing, look at the picture I posted with this entry – four-wide on the straightaway, fighting for position at 220 miles per hour. None of them touched. Dan Wheldon in the red-and-white car went on to win the race. IndyCar drivers have the skill to stay within a few inches of one another WITHOUT scratching up their paint jobs – or the wall.

Diversity – Indy brings drivers from everywhere. We’ve got drivers from all over the world. A lot of our drivers come from Formula One racing, and find out that turning left 800 times is more challenging than they thought. We’ve got the most famous woman in racing, Danica Patrick – we’ve had women drivers from time to time over the last 30 years, but Danica has the skill and the backing to truly be competitive. She’s still young, but she’s learning fast – I expect her to win some races in another year or two. And we even enticed NASCAR’s own Jeff Gordon into an IndyCar several times. Still not a lot of black drivers…but we’ll get there.

Spectacle – Let’s be honest, some racing fans are watching to see accidents, and even the best driver miscalculates sometimes. This year, two-time winner Helio Castroneves pulled off a rookie mistake and sent himself and Buddy Rice into the wall. I don’t watch NASCAR, so I haven’t seen many of their crashes, but I can’t believe they could be more spectacular than an IndyCar hitting the wall – that usually brings a burst of flame and pieces flying everywhere. To add to the fun, the car may then bounce off and come shooting across the track to the infield – across the path of the other cars still running at 200+. Best of all, those spectacular crashes only rarely result in serious injury – those pieces flying off and the SAFER barriers developed at Indy absorb most of the energy and let the driver walk away, disappointed, but ready to try again at the next race.

Tradition – This year was the 90th running of the Indy 500. There’s not a motor race in the world that can touch that. It’s the most famous race in the world – period. Most people may not watch it, but everyone has heard of it. It has unbreakable traditions, like the playing of Taps, singing Back Home Again in Indiana, drinking the milk in Victory Circle, and of course, the ugliest trophy in sports. We’ve got famous driving families – this year we had a second-generation Foyt, a second-generation Unser (coming back from retirement!), a second-generation Luyendyk, a second-generation Jones, two second-generation Laziers, and a second- and a THIRD-generation Andretti. We have the team rivalries between Penske and Rahal-Letterman, Penske and Ganassi – well, really, Penske and everybody. We even have ongoing stories like the Andretti curse, now 37 years old – which reared up again this year to bite Michael and Marco on the last lap. I realize that the rest of the IRL schedule doesn’t have all of that, but there’s no race anywhere with more tradition than the Greatest Spectacle In Racing.

The only thing I can think of in NASCAR’s favor is the stock car tradition – and that is long gone. If they really want to make NASCAR interesting, give the drivers and mechanics new cars straight off the showroom floor and a limited budget at NAPA Auto Parts to buy improvements. Okay, make it an UNlimited budget – as long as the final result is both street-legal and something I could theoretically build in my garage. Now THAT would make for some interesting racing.

So I ask again – what’s NASCAR got that Indy doesn’t?

Monday, May 29, 2006

Supporting The Troops

Today is Memorial Day. Over the last week or so, there’s been the usual outpouring of support and recognition military personnel, past and present, living, dead in the fullness of time, or killed in action.

Make no mistake. Soldiers recognize and appreciate that support. Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day are times not only for us to honor the men and women in uniform that came before us, but to celebrate our connection to them, and to receive those reminders that our society appreciates our sacrifices. That appreciation truly does help keep us going in the hard times.

We notice other things, too. Those of us currently overseas can’t see the bumper stickers, but we see them when we’re home. Those of us who visit Arlington National Cemetary notice the respect that tourists show on that hallowed ground. Organized efforts like Operation Dear Abby and smaller efforts from elementary school classes truly get to us when we’re deployed, and truly matter to us.

But we notice other things, too.

In San Francisco, the Board of Education is considering banning the Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps (JROTC) from their high schools. The stated reason is to protest the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy – and, since it is San Francisco, that’s a believable reason, and one that I can respect. However, some of the supporters of the proposal believe that JROTC is “just an easy way for the military to get a foothold in public schools and encourage teens to enlist after they graduate.” (San Francisco Chronicle). San Francisco will have to pay for the protest, if approved – the Department of Defense helps pay the JROTC teachers, and the courses count for Physical Education credits. If they kill the program, they’ll have to pay full price for replacement courses. At any rate, I seriously doubt that the proposal would go very far were it not for parents’ fears that their children might choose the same career I did. You already know how I feel about that.

We notice when National Guardsmen and Reservists join us on deployments, and then return to find their jobs gone. Sometimes they get fired when they leave. Sometimes only when they get back. Either way, a lawsuit will get their jobs back – but not if their bosses manufacture excuses. The employers can document bad attitudes, missed work, low performance…especially subjective problems that the soldier can’t prove false. And then they can fire the soldiers after a few months, so they can hire someone who won’t be called away for weeks or months at a time. We notice when our brothers and sisters in the Reserves and Guard can’t find jobs – because they proudly included their military commitment on their application or resume. I’ll bet some of those employers have yellow ribbon stickers on their SUVs.

We notice how we are portrayed in movies, TV, books, and newspapers. We notice the little things – like misspelling ranks and titles in news stories. Since references for that are available through a brief internet search, mistakes show a level of concern. Mis-worn uniforms, incorrect patches and ribbons…a movie or TV producer could hire any decent NCO for peanuts and be sure of getting those things right. We notice bigger things, like the way enlisted troops are usually mindless automatons, obeying ridiculous unlawful orders with a lack of hesitation that would do credit to a Nazi. Or that officers are either warmongering fools or desk-bound bureaucrats – except for Our Hero who has to work around or actively fight his superiors to Do What Is Right.

We notice our representation in government, and how few congressmen have real military service in their backgrounds. We know the difference between an elected official that served as a grunt in World War II and one who signed up for the Guard but was never called up and rarely showed up for drills. We’re fixing this one ourselves – several Iraqi Freedom veterans are running for election this year. They’re running in both parties and on both sides of the question of the war. And they’ve got several incumbents very nervous.

We notice the nation’s overall level of sacrifice for this war. We know that in World War II, the country suffered through rationing of all sorts of foods to feed the troops, and coped with shortages of rubber and metal to arm them. We know that the sheer size of our forces drained so much manpower that women were pulled into the workforce, changing the economy forever. We know that the Vietnam War pulled over 8,500,000 men and women into the military – about 4% of our total population, enough so that everyone at least knew someone who went. Our forces right now are below 1,500,000, while the population has increased – less than half of one percent of the population are part of the current war. There’s no rationing…no sacrifices. Even taxes have come down. For the second time in our nation’s history (the first being Desert Shield/Desert Storm), the sacrifices of war are entirely on the shoulders of our men and women in uniform – and ther families.

Like I said before, we appreciate the support of our nation, in big ways and small. But think about us again next week, after the flowers have wilted and the flags have been put away. Think about us next month. Ask yourself – am I really supporting our troops? Or did I just buy a sticker?

My apologies to my family and friends – your support and love are unquestioned.

Statistics pulled from Office of Veteran’s Affairs and Wikipedia’s census entries.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Video Killed The Radio Star

Once upon a time, the most important characteristics for pop music stars were their voices and their ability to compose. You didn’t have to have both – you could sing someone else’s music, or compose for someone else’s voice – but you usually needed something special in one category or the other.

Physical attractiveness was useful, of course, but not critical. Cass Elliot was the butt of jokes about her weight…but nobody laughed while she was singing. Jim Morrison and Mick Jagger became sex symbols because of their musical talents – certainly not because of their faces. Yvonne Elliman, Steve Tyler, Alice Cooper, Phil Collins…some very popular singers are not merely unattractive, but downright ugly! Nobody cared all that much, since the closest you could get to them was the front row of a concert, and their sound was really your only connection with them.

Over the last 20 years or so, though, that has changed. Sure, the stars always worked to enhance their appearance. Some bands used their appearance to attract attention – KISS springs to mind. When MTV made pop music a video art form, though, appearance became more and more important. Since then, it has gotten worse. Madonna does some pretty good songs, but she’d have never made it without showing herself off. Brittney Spears and Jessica Simpson could probably lip-sync old Buddy Holly tunes and still be popular - in fact, that might be an improvement.

I think American Idol has finally finished the job, though. Clearly, an unattractive person is never going to make the final few rounds in Idol – he or she will be probably never even be a finalist, and will certainly not get the votes to stay til the end. And for unknown reasons (though my personal guess is that the U.S. has lost its collective mind), not only is Idol the most popular show on TV, but the winners and some of the more popular losers have truly become respected and popular musical stars. Since the recording studios can only really plug a certain number of stars, and since they like a sure thing as well as anyone, those manufactured icons of glitz are pushing aside other great singers – potentially better artists, but not able to make the cut on screen.

It probably doesn’t matter in the long run. The Recording Industry Ass. of America, with their “anti-piracy” attacks on their customer base, may well kill the entire industry anyway. But are karaoke singers writ large really supposed to be the future of music?

My apologies to The Buggles for the title of this entry.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Sleeping Peacefully

A week and a half ago, I spent the night in the hospital. No, it wasn’t an emergency – I was scheduled for a sleep study. Those of you who have had me as an overnight guest know that I snore. What you may not know is that over the last few years, it has gotten worse, to the point where I have woken myself up at times. Worse yet, my wife tells me that I actually stop breathing for seconds at a time, while my body struggles for air, until I finally start again with a gasp.

It doesn’t take much research online to discover that these are symptoms of sleep apnea. After several months of loving nagging from Rita (powered by her real worry that some night that gasp wouldn’t come), I finally went to sick call and got an appointment. I got there at 8:00 p.m. and watched a short video while the nurse wired me up – sensors on my forehead, my temples, my nose, my cheeks, my neck, my chest, and my legs. As if that wasn’t enough, the room was wired with a camera and microphones.

I was afraid that with all that gear on, I’d have trouble getting to sleep. My worries got worse when he told me I needed to sleep on my back – something I never, ever do. As it turns out, though, the written report tells me it took less than 17 minutes for me to get to sleep.

More surprising, I woke up still sleeping on my back. Even more surprising, I woke up wearing a plastic mask over my nose. The nurse told me that if they got a solid reading of apnea during the first half of the night, he’d put a CPAP mask on me for the second half to try to find out how much positive air pressure into my nose it would take to keep my throat from closing while I sleep. I just didn’t expect to sleep through the change! But sleep through it I did.

I got the written report yesterday. In the first three and a half hours, my breathing problems interrupted my sleep 436 times – that’s 126 times an hour. In the next four hours, with the mask, they slowly increased the pressure to knock out my snoring and “respiratory events,” and got them down to 4 per hour.

There’s an excessively long waiting list for appointments at the clinic, but in a few weeks I’ll be fitted for my own CPAP. I’m hoping for all sorts of benefits – more energy, a more even temper, better concentration – but I’ll settle for keeping myself breathing all night. Those of you who have hosted me overnight and were too polite to complain about the noise…you may notice a difference next time!

Friday, May 19, 2006

Tip Top

I’ve been reading another blog fairly often lately – It’s written by a waiter in a fairly high-class New York restaurant, who has some of the most amazingly rude and clueless customers. Of course, he also touches on events from his personal life, and his political opinions. He’s a pretty good read, definitely worth going back through the archives.

But reading that reminded me of something that has bothered me for years. Why is a tip always a percentage of the bill? My wife waited tables at Pizza Hut, once upon a time. A check there runs in the $10-$30 range, more or less and depending on the size of the party, so her tips should be average around three or four bucks a table. A friend of ours worked the tables at Bob Evans for a little while, where the checks are probably about that same range, maybe a little higher. Meanwhile, a waiter at Applebee’s, or Friday’s, or Red Lobster is getting tipped on checks in the $30-$100 range – call it an average tip around $10. Is he really working any harder than Rita, or our friend at Bob Evans? “Waiter,” the author of Waiter Rant, is getting tips on checks that probably range from $50 to $500…though that top end probably includes an expensive wine, and one does not usually tip for the full value of an expensive vintage. Still, he’s probably pulling in $25 or higher tips on a regular basis, and sometimes MUCH higher. Is it that much harder to carry a plateful of more expensive food?

While I’m at it, why am I tipping so high, anyway? Let’s go back to Rita and our friend at Bob Evans. A good waiter or waitress can probably handle 6 tables or more at a time. If they all tip correctly (15%-20% for normal good service, more for something special), that means they should be pocketing around 20 bucks an hour in tips. Of course, they don’t always have full tables…and not everyone tips at all, let alone correctly. That cuts into their average a lot – they’re probably lucky to get a quarter of that, which doesn’t quite meet minimum wage.

On the other hand, using those same guesses, the guy at Macaroni Grill is probably making $15 an hour, and Waiter is bringing down $35. And if people really did tip properly, you could double those numbers. Why am I tipping people at a rate that would be more than my own paycheck? And if anybody currently waiting tables is reading…how much do you REALLY make an hour? You can leave your answer anonymously – I’m not the IRS, I’m just curious.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m a firm believer in tipping waitpersons. They really have to be bad to make me drop the tip to 10%...and it takes active rudeness to make me not leave a tip. I have no plans to change that, either. But it sure adds a chunk to the cost of the meal – enough to keep me eating at home more often…unfortunately for Rita, who has to cook!

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Figures Don't Lie...

My son apparently developed an interest in the world around him, and has started watching CNN Headline News in the morning before school. That’s certainly not something I want to discourage…but it has the unfortunate side effect of forcing me to face the world before I’m fully awake. Ah, well, we all make sacrifices for our children, right?

Today, CNN was telling us about Congress’ recent approval to continue the Bush tax cuts, as they were modified last year. They posted a graphic showing the average savings for the cuts in various income brackets – taxpayers making $1,000,000 a year and up will save an average of over $42,000, while taxpayers making less than $25,000 a year will save only $9. There were two other brackets shown, but I was unable to locate them on – at any rate, they clearly indicated that the rich would be getting richer, while the poor gained almost nothing.

On further reflection, though, I’m pretty sure that’s misleading. After all, how much taxes are those poor people paying? Looking at the 2005 Form 1040A, I see that for a married couple with two kids making $25,000 a year, $22,800 of that is exempt from taxes. That’s the standard exemption plus the deduction for four dependents. The tax bill on that $2,200 remaining is $279. Then, of course, they get the Child Tax Credit of $2,000 to apply against that $279 – that credit doesn’t allow for negative numbers to be paid to the taxpayer, but it does kill that $279. In fact, for our family of four to actually come up with a positive tax bill, they have to make at least $41,000 – and then they’ll have to pay $4.00. Yes, that’s four dollars. Anything less than that, and they get back every penny that was withheld from them. And that’s not with any fancy tax strategies… that’s just the basics.

Note that I didn’t include Earned Income Credit or the Additional Child Credit – those programs actually pay the taxpayer above and beyond what they put into withholding, so any changes in the tax plan that let them keep more of that money count, for me, as a savings. But as far as I know, this plan didn't make changes to those programs.

Of course, not everyone is in a family of four. For a family of three, you have to make $29,600 (for a married couple with one child) or $33,700 (for a single parent with two children) to pay a single penny in taxes. Even a single parent with one child has to make $23,700 to pay any taxes at all. No wonder the average savings for incomes under $25,000 is so low…you can’t cut the price below zero!

I don’t want to play around with the other end of the spectrum, the folks pulling down a million or more a year. The top bracket is 35%, so they should be paying somewhere near $350,000 on that million (a little less – they get deductions and exemptions, too)…but we all know that various stupid tax tricks can reduce that number considerably, and I’m not familiar enough with tax law to make a reasonable guess on those numbers. But when you start looking at averages at the top of the scale, you run into the skewing that results from people at the extremes. The average savings in that bracket is $42,000 a year…but if nine multi-millionaires are saving $1000 a year (that’s a third of a percent of their tax bill), while one Bill Gates is saving $411,000 a year (on his billion dollar tax bill, so that’s one-twentieth of a percent), then that works out to that average of $42,000 a year, while still being an insignificant savings for all of them! (Yes, I made up the numbers for Bill Gates – I couldn’t find any numbers on what he makes from investments and capital gains, and I couldn’t properly account for his incredibly huge charitable donations. Replace his name with the multi-billionaire of your choice. Or do your own math, and tell me what you came up with.)

I didn’t check out the Fox News version of the tax story. Somehow, I suspect that they focused on the percentage savings for various tax brackets, showing how much greater a savings it was for lower- and middle-income people…while still being just as misleading. I think all news organizations that display statistics of any sort should be required to provide a full disclosure of where they got their numbers and how they did their calculations – they could post it on their web site, or whatever. I expect we’d see a lot less statistics. But since most people can't or won't do simple math anymore, the press can get away with whatever spin they want to put on the numbers.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Name Games

It seems that a Senate investigation has found that FEMA is completely beyond repair. The only way to correct the disastrous performance of the Federal Emergency Management Agency is to junk it completely, and start from scratch – build a brand new agency to do the same job. They’ve determined a new name for it – National Preparedness and Response Authority. And just to make it totally clear that this is a new a different agency, they’ll put it under the authority of the Department of Homeland Defense – oh, no, wait, that’s not the different part, FEMA fell under Homeland Defense. What was that new part? Oh, yes! The new agency boss will be authorized to report directly to the President in crisis situations, bypassing the Secretary of Homeland Defense. Cutting out that step should dramatically speed response time and eliminate the problems of communicating the urgent nature of a disaster.

But where are they going to get the employees to staff this new agency? With experience and training in handling natural disasters and terrorist incidents? Not to mention the administrators, mid-level managers, clerks, janitors, receptionists, and so on. Well, rather conveniently, it seems that a great number of current government employees are about to be let go. Since they’re mostly union members, they will need to be given equivalent positions somewhere within government service. It should work out very well – odds are pretty good the employees won’t even have to change desks…since they’re “transferring over” from FEMA.

While I suspect that for the most part this name change will result in little more than changing the stationery and business cards, it may actually prove beneficial. After all, the most senior leadership of FEMA will not be able to transfer over to NPRA, lest that expose the nature of the “rebuilding.” And changing the leadership may indeed result in changing the organization. I think we could save a lot of money by leaving the sign outside the building alone, though, and just firing everyone on the top floor.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Where's The Shortage?

As I mentioned yesterday, the reason the oil companies claim that they were forced to raise prices is because there is a temporary shortage, and they need to raise the price to reduce demand. But does that really work? Has anyone really cut back on driving as a result of those suddenly higher gas prices?

I know my driving patterns haven’t changed. I haven’t heard any of my co-workers or friends talk about changes in their habits. The roads still seem just as crowded where I live, and the daily traffic jams are unchanged. The airlines are still flying. Trucks are still delivering goods all over the country. My observations are certainly not scientific, but it really appears to me that there’s been no real change in demand. In the long term, that might change, as people could switch to smaller cars, hybrids, and and so on…but the price changes aren’t long term, they’re an immediate response to a temporary shortage, and only make sense if they produce an immediate effect.

So if demand hasn’t changed, but there’s a shortage, we should be seeing signs of that shortage. Where are those signs? I haven’t seen a single station shut down. I’ve heard about a few, but they seem to be scattered individual stations – I haven’t heard about any cities shut down because no one can get gas. As best as I can determine, the solution to the shortage in those few places that are experiencing it is to drive an extra block or two to the next gas station – or at worst, buy mid-grade because the station is out of regular…which of course increases your costs and the oil company’s profits.

So, once again, tell me where I’m going wrong. The prices have been raised as a solution that doesn’t work to a problem we don’t have, caused by the people who profit most from the price increase. And they wonder why people are upset and asking Congress to intervene. Unfortunately, Congress is much more likely to make a lot of noise about the issue than to actually put a crimp in the profits of their biggest financial contributors.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Planning To Fail

As we’ve all noticed, gas prices are up again. Follow this logic with me and help me see where I’m going wrong.

The reason prices are up is, again, the Law of Supply and Demand. There’s a crimp in the production line, dropping supply. In order to keep demand down and prevent widespread shortages, the industry raises prices. As a result of this selfless action to prevent panic, the oil companies also bring in massive profits, but that’s just an unavoidable side effect, not at all the intent.

But the press has also reported the reason for the shortage – a delay at the refineries in switching over to a “summer formulation.” The refineries change the formula for the summer months in order to reduce pollution – largely in response to government regulation, which explains why some states are not experiencing shortages.

Here’s where I start to have a problem, though. This changeover happens every year. The companies know ahead of time that summer is coming, and certainly have ample time to prepare for it. In fact, they’ve been doing it for years. By now, they really ought to have a handle on it.

So, if I’m understanding this correctly, the oil companies are forced to raise prices because of a shortage that they created by their own incompetence. A cynical and suspicious person might wonder if this annual delay in making the switch is intentional. Certainly, there doesn’t seem to be any real incentive for them to hurry.

It appears that in this case, contrary to the old adage, a failure to plan is planning to…profit.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

When Generals Speak

There’s been a number of former flag officers (that’s Generals and Admirals, for the military-speak challenged out there) speaking out about Secretary Rumsfeld and his handling of the war in Iraq. And of course, there’s been a flood of editorials and stories in the press about them. While I don’t intend to discuss my opinions on their claims and demands here, I thought that some of what the press is saying deserves a little explanation.

Many pundits have claimed that the number of Generals speaking out is insignificant, and that they obviously represent a fringe element that can be ignored. I have to disagree. There is a deeply-engrained tradition in the military NOT to speak out against our political leaders regarding military matters, even after we return to our civilian lives. Remember, the principle of civilian control of the military is written in the Constitution. It is taught in detail in each service academy and ROTC class. Every unit orderly room has pictures posted of the entire Chain of Command – and the people at the very top of that chain are the ones without uniforms, who nonetheless rate a salute from any soldier that they encounter. In addition to their civilian duties, they are by law and custom our superior officers, ranking above even the most senior General or Admiral.

For six retired officers to break that tradition over a single issue in such a short time is a major shock to those of us who live in that environment. It forces me to take their concerns very, very seriously.

I read another editorial that complains that the Generals took the cowardly path by waiting until they retired to make their statements. The writer claims that the officers were protecting their “sweet retirement packages” by waiting until they were safely out of the service to speak up. Again, I have to disagree.

First of all, that “sweet retirement package” isn’t all that sweet. Let’s take a Major General “Smith”, in charge of a Division. He’s effectively the CEO of a company employing as many as 20,000 people. His annual pay comes in at around $180,000. Yes, he also gets some benefits – travel allowances, expense accounts, and so on, much like any other senior executive does. For comparison, I found that the Goldman-Sachs Group employs about 19,500 people. Their CEO, Henry Paulson, Jr., made out a little better than our MG Smith – he made $21,400,000 last year, or almost 120 TIMES as much. Plus, of course, whatever expense accounts come with THAT position. Of course, MG Smith gets the bonus of getting shot at. But we were discussing retirement pay…well, a military retirement is not a “Golden Parachute.” MG Smith, after 30 years of service, will get 75% of his base pay. When you take out the various allowances that are not part of the base pay, and then take away another 25%, that works out to around $102,000 a year…before taxes. I’ll grant you, that’s a significant chunk of change, but odds are pretty good that any random Major General can get out and make over a million a year by working for a lobbyist, or contracting firm, or maybe taking a CEO slot at a smaller company. Even half a mil is a pretty impressive pay raise, even if his retirement pay gets taken away at the last minute.

So our Generals did not hold their tongues to protect their financial future. Why did they wait? Well, remember that I said those civilians at the top are effectively our superior officers. It turns out that Disrespect to a Superior Officer is a crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, punishable by Court-Martial. A conviction by Court-Martial, by the way, is considered a Federal felony conviction. I’m sure that, depending on the wording, various other felony charges could be added – Conduct Unbecoming an Officer, Incitement to Mutiny, and so on…some of those carry the death penalty in time of war, too. When a soldier still in uniform speaks out against his civilian leaders, he isn’t just risking his job and his retirement, he is potentially risking his life. Remember I said that we have a tradition of respecting our civilian leaders? I wasn’t kidding. This is an example of just how engrained that tradition is.

So, anyway, six or so former General Officers are speaking out against our civilian leaders and the conduct of this war. Whether I agree with them or not, I believe they have earned the right to be taken very seriously.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Rice vs. First Amendment reports that Secretary of State Rice has removed Playboy and Penthouse from the magazine racks of State Department. Apparently she was concerned that the existence of the magazines in the newsstand at Foggy Bottom undermined the Department’s attempts to champion the rights of women worldwide. She also believed that their presence in the lobby, with the covers mostly hidden in brown paper wrappers, could contribute to a hostile work environment, according to her senior advisor Jim Wilkinson.

Last I checked, those magazines are perfectly legal. The models pictured in the photos are all over 18, paid for their work, and have signed releases to allow the photos to be published. Also included in both magazines are a wide selection of interviews with important or celebrated people, men’s fashion and shopping advice, sports articles, and fiction. Playboy, in particular, frequently publishes science fiction (my favorite genre) by very well-recognized authors – I suspect the same is true for mainstream short fiction.

So why are these magazines singled out? And if they are so horrible and dangerous, why are they still allowed to publish? I could understand an objection to employees reading them during working time. But to remove them entirely?

In my opinion, this entire incident is more posturing by the current administration in their effort to appear morally superior. Maybe Secretary Rice is truly offended by the pictures in those publications, maybe not. But if she were not part of an administration trying to display a tender regard for religious sensibilities, this issue would probably have never come up. It is, of course, equally possible that this is an attempt to attract the “women’s vote.”

In fairness, I have to admit the possibility that Secretary Rice ordered the removal because she was truly, personally offended by them. That, however, is the most frightening of the possibilities that occurs to be. If that is the case, then it is a clear example of a government official abusing her power to censor a segment of the press within her domain. An attack on the First Amendment by a government official is even more scary if it stems from personal motives.

The article hints that Maxim, FHM, and other men’s magazines that feature pictures of non-nude women may be next to go. From a standpoint of taste, I could agree with that – while I don’t read any of these magazines on a regular basis, I’d rather read a Playboy with all the pictures removed than a Maxim left intact. But taking the censorship to that next level would be an interesting sign of the real motives behind it. Would she be so obvious as to remove Maxim…while leaving Cosmopolitan on the stands?

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Planning Ahead

There have been several stories in the media lately claiming that the Pentagon is updating plans for an attack on Iran.

Well, duh.

For those of you whose knowledge of the military is based on Hollywood movies, let me fill you in. Every unit in the Army, from the Battalion level on up, has a section devoted to planning. The other services have similar systems. Those planners naturally focus on responses to the most likely future events. At the lower levels, that’s all they have time for. At higher levels of command, though, the planners think about all sorts of possible operations, and write up plans to carry them out if and when it becomes necessary.

Naturally, if a potential trouble spot starts to look more troublesome, the planners haul out the old paperwork, blow the dust off of it, and update it to better fit the current situation. And also naturally, when the military writes up a plan to respond to a trouble spot, they write it up as a military solution. That doesn’t mean they particularly want to carry it out. It doesn’t mean they think a military solution is the best or the only option. It simply means that if things go bad in the political and diplomatic arenas, and the civilian leadership gives the order to take action, a good soldier does not intend to be caught saying, “Um, well, we’re not sure if we can do that, let me get back to you in a week or two…”

I’ve never seen the files of plans in the Pentagon, but I suspect that if the press got a look at them, our diplomats would be working overtime for years to smooth the ruffled feathers. There are probably plans in the files to carry out all sorts of horrible operations, too dreadful for anyone to contemplate – but the planners have to contemplate them, that’s their job. There may be plans to bomb Iran, and to invade it. Odds are pretty good that we have plans to attack China. To bomb either India or Pakistan, or both, in case their bickering goes nuclear. There’s probably plans to invade France or Germany, too – those protests they have from time to time might blow up, after all. There might even be plans on the books to destroy or conquer Canada, just in case they get tired of us stealing all their acting and comedic talent and declare war on Hollywood – which, unfortunately, we are still obligated to defend.

In the United States, the military functions under civilian control. We maintain plans to do all sorts of horrible things, because we never know what sort of stupidity our civilian leaders may get us into. All we know for sure is that when it starts to get ugly, it’s our job to fix it. And when that happens, we don’t have time to start from scratch.

Monday, April 10, 2006

When Is a Crime Not a Crime?

I’m a speeder. I admit it. I almost never drive under the speed limit. Usually in a 55 m.p.h. zone, I’m running between 65 and 70, and if the limit goes up to 65 or 70, I may be doing 80.

I know it’s a crime. I also understand the costs to society for my criminal behavior. I’m using extra gas, thus increasing demand and raising prices for everyone else. I’m creating more pollution. I am a greater risk for accidents, due to the longer stopping distance and reaction distance resulting from my higher speed. And of course, any accident I’m in will be worse due to the greater impact energy. And yet, I persist in my crime – and quite successfully. I haven’t gotten a ticket in my last several years of speeding.

In fact, I’ve persisted so long and so successfully, that I feel it should no longer be a crime for me to speed. After all, I’ve been doing it for so long, I should now be entitled to keep doing it. I feel the government should issue me a card that authorizes me to go up to 10 miles an hour over the limit from now on.

Does that make sense to you? It doesn’t really make sense to me, either. It doesn’t make sense to grant immunity to a speeder just because he’s been doing it awhile. Most businesses will fire you for lying on your resume even if you’ve done a good job since you were hired. If you lie to the Army when you enlist, you can be thrown out years later for Fraudulent Enlistment, and not only be convicted of a crime, but also be required to give back your paycheck for however long you were in. And staying in the United States illegally for several years should not suddenly make you a legal immigrant.

I know a lot of people feel that a person who has been here for years, has put down roots, contributed to the community, and so on, should be allowed to continue their life here without the threat of deportation. I’m sorry…but they knew the risks when they started. They knew they were subject to deportation at any point. In order to secure that position in society, they’ve had to lie to their employer (who probably knew better, and ought to face some prosecution, too) and either lie to the IRS or just avoid them entirely – while still benefiting from tax-funded services, like roads, schools, police and fire departments, and so on. Some of them have even collected money directly from the government, and Immigrants’ Rights activists seek to increase that.

I’ll skip lightly over the national security issues. Certainly a border that is porous enough to allow several hundred thousand people through illegally every year is far too porous to keep out a single dedicated well-funded terrorist – or a dozen, or a hundred, or a thousand. But that’s not really the issue, since the border security measures that WOULD serve to keep out most of the illegal immigrants would still not prevent terrorists from getting in. It would only make their task a little more difficult and a little more expensive – worth doing, but not a real national security solution.

The biggest reason for keeping illegal immigration illegal, though, is simply to discourage more of it. As long as we continue to legalize the illegals from time to time, we encourage more people to enter illegally, and then wait for the next amnesty. The current policies remind me of drawing a line and daring someone to cross it…then when he does, drawing another line, and another, and another…I’ll admit that it worked for Bugs Bunny when he got Elmer Fudd to walk off the cliff, but should we be developing our national policies by watching Loony Tunes?

I’m also aware of the benefits that illegal immigrants bring to our society. Cheap labor doing jobs that legal Americans won’t do. Keeping farm costs down, yard work costs down, maid service costs down. Enforcing our existing laws would end a lot of that, and raise prices throughout our economy in an ever-expanding ripple effect. Well, I’m sorry for that – but we need to decide what’s important, and then find a legal way to get there. If we cut illegal immigration, maybe we can expand LEGAL immigration. Or maybe we’ll just have to accept higher prices for everything. But a law that isn’t enforced isn’t a law. Either police the border, PREVENT illegal immigration and get rid of the illegals that are already here, or admit we can’t do it, open the border to everyone, and deal with those consequences. Meanwhile, I’ll keep speeding…but with the knowledge that sooner or later, I’m going to get a ticket.

Sunday, April 2, 2006

The Tomb of the Unknowns

My office had a Staff Appreciation Day outing last Friday. As part of it, we went out to Arlington Memorial Cemetery to see the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns.

I’ve been there before, but as always, I appreciate the solemnity of the ceremony. In itself, there isn’t that much to it – one soldier inspects another, then marches him up to his post and marches the previous guard back off duty. The true importance of it is in knowing what’s behind it – the guards perform the same duty exactly the same way all day every day. Some of the incidentals are different – the soldiers wear the more comfortable tactical uniforms at night, the shifts are longer when they aren’t providing extra photo ops for the tourists – but the duty itself never changes. Twenty-one steps to the left. Face the Tomb and pause for twenty-one seconds. Twenty-one steps to the right. Face the Tomb…the whole point of the duty, the honor of it, is to do it the same way every time. Every hour. Every day. In all types of weather – I saw a picture in the Pentagon of a Tomb Guard standing his post, with two inches of snow on the brim of his hat. His face showed nothing but the same steady expression of every other Tomb Guard on every other day.

I noticed something that gives me a little more hope for our society than I normally have, too. The Cemetary was filled with all sorts of people, including many groups of high school and middle school students on field trips. In most other places, one would expect yelling kids, loud adults on cell phones, litter all over, and so on. For the most part, it wasn’t there. Throughout the entire cemetary, the huge groups of kids…were subdued. The adults mostly left their phones in their pockets. At the Tomb itself, people stayed silent when asked, stood when asked, and stayed still until the end of each ceremony. In part, that was a result of strict enforcement – the Park Guards were quick to let people know about small violations like stepping over chain barricades, and quicker to stop worse violations, like people taking pictures of funerals. But I think the solemn nature of the place has an effect even on today’s cynical and rude populace.

While I was there, though, I found myself wondering about the full details of the Tomb Guards’ Special Orders. I’m sure there are pages and pages of details about how to march, how to conduct inspection, how to announce a wreath-laying ceremony, and so on. Those guards, though, are soldiers first, on the most important guard post in the Army. I don’t know for certain that their rifles are working models, nor if they are issued ammunition. I DO know that the civilian Park Guards would be happy to stop someone who wanted to do something stupid, so that the Honor Guard could continue to walk his post undisturbed. But I also know that those rifles have a perfectly functional bayonet, and the importance of this duty is drummed into each Guard for months before he or she gets to perform the duty. If some idiot decided that throwing paint on the Tomb would make a beautiful political statement, and a picture on the front page of the paper…I would not bet that the orders preclude lethal force. And if I were writing them, it would be specifically allowed.

Friday, March 24, 2006

My New Toy

I broke down last night, embraced my Inner Geek, and bought an MP3 player. Not an iPod, mind you – I settled for a Sony “Network Walkman,” with 1 gig of flash memory.

I had an excuse, of course. In order to save money, I need to start taking the bus to work more often. That’s about a 45 minute bus ride each way – a truly amazingly boring trip. I’ve tried reading, but about half the time that makes me ill by the end of it. Now, with portable sound, I have something to relieve my boredom that won’t nauseate me.

I really don’t intend to use it much for music, though. Even before I bought the player, I discovered the concept of “Podcasts,” basically an MP3 of a radio show – you download it to your player, then listen at your convenience. There’s a lot of free podcasts available out there. Not only music, but talk shows on pretty much any topic. For maximum entertainment on my bus rides, though, I subscribed to the Bob and Tom Show. (For you non-Hoosiers who aren’t lucky enough to live near one of their syndicated stations, that’s a really, really funny morning show that’s based in Indiana. Pretty juvenile humor, but several steps above the idiocy of Howard Stern.) No matter how much music you have, a couple hours of it a day is bound to get repetitive, but a daily podcast is always new.

Of course, we all know the real reason I had to get one – a geek MUST have new toys!

I must say, though, I’m a little disappointed in it so far. The player itself works fine. Not only did I listen to it on the bus, but it also worked nicely during my morning run – anything that distracts me from how much I hate running is a good thing. I need to get some headphones that’ll stay on, but for now, my stocking cap holds earbuds in well enough.

No, my toy is great once it’s loaded, but the software I have to use to load it is crap. You’d think with what is effectively a flash drive, I could just drag and drop my files into it, like I do with my flash memory keychain drive, and even with the flash card from my digital camera. But no, the reader installed on the player will only read files that have been transferred through their SonicStage software – and that therefore have Sony’s copy protection added on. Considering that Sony CDs were the ones that came with a nasty little “root kit” on them not too long ago, this is not designed to make me feel extremely comfortable with using their software!

Worse, the player will only read MP3s that are recorded at one specific bit rate. It turns out that the Bob and Tom files are recorded at a slightly different bit rate. Other podcasts are recorded at still other bit rates, as are all of the songs I’ve ripped from my CDs. In fact, I have yet to locate a music file recorded at the RIGHT bit rate! So, every file I transfer has to be converted to a new format – that, incidentally, takes slightly more than twice as much file space on the player. Thus turning my 1 gig player into what a 512 meg player would be with more open software. For my podcasts, that’s not really an issue. A day’s worth of their show takes up a little over 10% of my space, and provides almost two and a half hours of entertainment – and if that isn’t enough, I can certainly download some other podcast. I had also planned to use the player for long drives, though, like the 10 hour trip to Indiana. I even bought an FM transmitter so we could use my player over the radio in the van. I think that my player will hold a full 20 hours of music…but based on a hasty calculation, it’ll be pretty close, instead of having plenty of extra room.

Oh, and the conversion process is terribly, terribly slow. Like five to ten minutes for an album. As long as I’ve got an hour or two to load the player every time I want to change the files, I guess that’s not a problem…

I suspect that somewhere out there is a way to reformat the player and load it with simpler software that will play regular MP3s, without the need for conversion or copy protection. But my player might have some sort of hardware or hard-coded protection scheme to prevent that from working…is it worth risking my brand new player entirely in order to double the effective space and simplify loading? That’s going to take some extra thought…

Monday, March 20, 2006

The Stress Lingers...

I was walking to my subway train this morning and spotted a fast-food bag sitting near the sidewalk. I veered a bit away from it and caught myself thinking, “That could be a bomb…”

Now, I’ve been back from Iraq for two years. Even when I was there, I could count on my fingers the times I went outside the gate on a convoy. But still, that drilled-in caution lingers. Meanwhile, some of our soldiers go out on convoys practically every day – and some of them are on their second or even third year-long deployment.

How do they return to a regular life after that?

Monday, March 13, 2006

Galileo Died In Vain

My 16-year old son came home today and told me his History teacher asked a science question – if you drop a pen and a history book at the same time, which will hit the floor first? (It was a reasonable outgrowth of the topic at hand, but that’s not important right now.) Frighteningly enough, about half of this 11th grade class agreed that the book would hit first.

That’s just so sad that I cannot find words to comment. I don’t suppose it really needs any. It’s nice to know that my son was as appalled as I am, though!

Tuesday, March 7, 2006

Campus Recruiting

The Supreme Court decided yesterday that law schools, and by extension, universities, can’t exclude military recruiters just because the school does not support “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” In this instance, the Court and I are in perfect agreement.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I support gay rights. I believe that gays and lesbians have a stake in this country, and should have as much right as anyone else to help defend it. I further believe that the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy is the dumbest thing since Crystal Pepsi. It gives us the worst of both worlds. The gay-bashers are not protected from having “deviants” in the foxhole next to them, but since expressing homosexuality is still forbidden, they continue to have their prejudice justified by regulation. This makes them feel free to attack their fellow soldier if they SUSPECT he might be gay – verbally, through job-related discrimination, and even through physical force. Meanwhile, the gay people who decide to live with the restrictions can’t express themselves sexually in any way, not only for fear of attack, but in order to keep their job. That’s got to be destructive to their morale, stability, and emotional toughness – all important qualities to any soldier. I would much rather my buddy in the foxhole be free to make a pass at me, than for him to be nursing resentment at the last several years of repression and mistreatment. After all, I can always tell him “No, thanks, you’re not my type.”

Despite that belief, though, I support the Court’s decision. The Court unanimously agreed that providing facilities for an employer to recruit students does not equate to support for that employer’s policies – so it isn’t a free speech issue, as the school is not compelled to speak. Besides, as the Court stated, the school is free to organize a protest, send out mass-mailings decrying the discriminatory policy, or use any other free-speech means to make the point – as long as they give the Recruiters equal access to the students.

The Court also disagreed with the idea that forcing the school to allow the Recruiters on campus meant forcing the school and the military into an “association,” thus providing the appearance of support for the policy. The school isn’t hiring the Recruiters, nor even enrolling them as students. No reasonable person could see that as associating.

The most telling point to me, though, is one that the Court mentioned only in reverse. The Court stated that since Congress has the Constitutional authority to “raise and support armies,” the law could have simply required the schools to comply. Instead, the law gives the schools the option to bar Recruiters…at the risk of losing all Government funding for the entire university. For some reason, none of the major law schools is willing to accept that penalty in order to express their outrage. That makes me question their sincerity just a bit – is it possible that the schools’ moral outrage at the military’s discriminatory policy has more to do with attracting customers…I mean, students than it does with a genuine desire for fair treatment for all? Free speech is an important right, possibly the MOST important right we have. But if you are going to criticize the government, don’t expect the government to pay for the lecture hall.

Monday, March 6, 2006

And So It Begins…

South Dakota has passed a bill to criminalize abortion. The law makes no exceptions for rape or incest. It makes a limited exception for the health of the mother – only if the mother’s life is in danger. Note that is not to protect her health or her safety, but only to protect her life. Any doctor performing an illegal abortion is subject to up to five years in prison.

The enemies of a woman’s right to control her own body wasted no time in taking advantage of the changes in the Supreme Court. Governor Rounds notes that he fully expects this new law to be tied up in court for years. Since South Dakota already has a “trigger law” banning abortion that would take effect upon any reversal of Roe v. Wade, that court battle is the only possible point to the new law.

Of course, South Dakota is not the only state with a trigger law. According to the New York Times, Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri and Montana all have laws on their books set to activate if the Supreme Court changes its mind. Several other state legislatures are considering new laws to criminalize abortion.

This is, once again, the demands of religious believers that the rest of the population live by their rules. And regardless of your personal feelings about abortion, you should be aware that the demands will not stop there. A web search of several groups involved in the pro-life movement shows some of their other concerns. Some of the other things that they want to criminalize include contraception, sex education in schools, stem cell research, and assisted suicide. Some of the more extreme organizations throw in intents to stop homosexuality, gambling, women in the military, and non-Christian religions.

Much as I hate to say it, I believe the South Dakota law will be upheld. I believe that in the next ten years, a majority of the states will ban abortion. I believe that the incidence of unwanted children will increase, which will lead to an increase in the population, poverty, child abuse, child abandonment, and infanticide. The availability of illegal abortions will increase, with an increase in women’s deaths and permanent injuries. Many people are willing to accept all that. But when the Religious Right moves on to the next issue in an attempt to make the United States a fundamentalist Christian theocracy, remember that I told you so.

To support Planned Parenthood’s efforts to fight the South Dakota law, check their website:

Wednesday, March 1, 2006

The Good Old DPU

I hated my first assignment in the Army.

During my initial training as a Computer Operator, my instructor showed us an old mainframe system they used to train on – complete with 9-inch reel tape drives, a jukebox-sized line printer, and even a card punch and card reader! Fortunately, he told us, the Army didn’t use that antiquated equipment anymore. Imagine my surprise when I showed up at the 13th Data Processing Unit to find that same system, cards and all, mounted in tractor-trailers and still in 24/7 operation.

I hated the location, too. “Deep in the heart of Texas” it was, halfway between Waco and Austin. A native once told me how great it was to be there – we were only two or three hours away from several completely different climates and terrain! Everything from forests to mountains to desert to seashore, and with several big cities to boot! I had to tell him…if you have to drive two to three hours to find something good, is that really a selling point?

I hated the unit. We were the “red-headed stepchildren,” a non-standard company of computer geeks and other misfits. Usually ignored by higher command, the only time they paid attention to us was when our 24/7 shift schedule interfered with their plans for training. Of course, the usual solution was to ignore our schedule, and bring everyone in on our sleep time to work in the motor pool or attend CTT classes. The only good thing was that we were behind a locked gate with a buzzer, so when the higher-ups came to check on us, we had enough warning to make sure everyone looked busy…or at least, awake when the Battalion Commander stopped by.

I wasn’t alone in my feelings, though. Complaining about the unit, the mission, the equipment, and everything else was the single most common topic of conversation – after all, such complaining is the ancient right of enlisted soldiers, and we all did our part to keep up tradition.

When we deployed to Saudi Arabia for Desert Shield, I started to realize that for all the problems, there were some good in the 13th DPU. For starters, we were a team. We didn’t all like each other, but anyone from outside the gates was an intruder, and was treated as such. We also knew our stuff, and knew what we could do. Our sister unit from Ft. Bragg brought over the newer equipment that was slated to replace ours – we both did the same job, but their newer gear was supposed to do it faster and better. In less than a month, though, our workload started to increase…because their systems couldn’t keep up. Before we were done, we were processing about four times as much data as we did back on Ft. Hood, while our sister unit was struggling to manage a third of our workload.

Our team spirit showed up at home, too. We were tasked as the “OPFOR” for a Battalion exercise. Our little detachment of about 40 soldiers was supposed to attack the dug-in defenses of the main unit…over 150 defenders. We tore them up. Our CO brought in a helicopter from another unit to let us attack from the skies, while a tiny group with a loudspeaker practiced Psychological Warfare, shouting insults at the soldiers in foxholes. While their eyes were on the sky and their ears tuned to the speakers, the rest of us crept right in past their lines, blasting the defenders from behind, taking out their generators with flour or chalk “grenades,” and generally wreaking havoc. Our commander, armed only with her pistol (yes, that’s HER pistol) managed to storm their command post single-handedly – only to find that another of our soldiers had beaten her there and had already captured their CO and their guidon. (That’s “unit flag” for you civilian types.) We took so few casualties that during the after-action brief, the other unit accused us of taking the batteries out of our “laser-tag” gear, and tried to prove it by hitting us with their lasers while we stood in formation, knowing that our gear would be inactive…the loud beeps from our equipment drowning out the Exercise Judge’s speech were the final proof that they could only hit us when we were standing still.

As much as I hated it, it is only to be expected for me to be stuck in that unit for a solid eight years. I’ve been in three other units since then, and even went back to war with one of them. But I’ve never been anywhere else with such morale, such esprit de corps. It is only in retrospect that I can see just how good I had it there. And even today, there’s still more evidence of just how close we were back in the old DPU. I’ve been contacted by people from my other three units a few times, especially in my current job – and every time, it has been from someone looking for a favor. I’ve been contacted by several people from DPU, too – and the only one who was looking for something from me was the one who wanted me to come work for him. We’ve even got our own Yahoo group, with about a dozen members, still keeping in touch from time to time – almost ten years after the unit deactivated.

So thanks, Shane, Peter, Brent, Paul, Paul, Mike, Cap’n Ron, and the rest of the gang – it’s nice to have a reminder of the good old days!