Apr 30, 2014

Crisis Across the Globe and half a Biggot

Sterling banned by Silver, fined Gold - sold for Platinum.

Banner headlines - the talk of the town, polite circles, locker room banter, my facebook feed and just about any person with a pulse is talking about the LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling being banned for life, fined $2.5 million, by the new NBA commissioner Adam Silver.  Here's a cartoon explaining the freedom of speech, in the context of the government, and the context in a social and organizational setting.

Personally, with all the yelling and hollering - no one has asked, why this 38 year old babe he was hanging out with was secretly and illegally taping his conversation? And she *might* be friends with one former LA Laker Earvin "Magic" Johnson - the same Magic Johnson who is interested in purchasing the LA Clippers. Owned by? You said it. One Donald Sterling. Team's not for sale, you say. Give me ten minutes and an open microphone. 

Is the man a racist jerk? I'm not contesting that or suggesting otherwise -- I'm asking, why is this "Magic" tape recording suddenly coming out? I've read at least one Elmore Leonard novel - okay, I got the gist of it from an Entertainment Weekly review ... okay, I've seen a couple movies. Not important. What is important is that the word BLACKMAIL seems to keep floating to the top of the oily surface of my ruined mind -- funny, no one else has the guts to even suggest it.

Meanwhile - the Soviet Union is reconstituting itself, NATO is amassing forces getting ready for the inevitability of Russia to invade the rest of Ukraine. New allegations of Syria using chlorine attacks on children. Yemen is about to collapse. Iraqis go to the polls despite the worst violence there in six years. And Best Korea is conducting live-fire exercises, escalating tensions there.

Obviously, what an 81 year old Jewish Democrat billionaire says to his 38 year old gold-digger mistress is the most important item in everyone's lives right now. Want to really embarrass him? Take back his NAACP lifetime achievement award, which they did. But they did not take back the Humanitarian Award he won in 2008 or the President's Award in 2009. That must have been way back in time when he wasn't a racist.

Or, maybe they spent the check already.

Apr 18, 2014

Old Ladies Seldom Pop the Clutch

slice of life by killre

Yes, I am guilty of ageism, or whatever the real word is.  Sue me.

Some might accuse me of sexism, too, but I won't cop to that.

I was on my way home with the kids and had to stop at the grocery store to pick up nine items.  Nine.  Not ten.  Nine.  I had eight of them in the cart when I told the kids, "Wheel that to the front and select a likely lane."  Yeah, I really talk that way, even to children.  In the case of my kids, the result is this: they understand what I'm saying.  Go fig.

My daughter pushed the cart toward the check-out lanes, her older brother tagging along.  I went two aisles over, grabbed the ninth item off the shelf, and made my way to the front of the store.  I spied my daughter at the far end of the check-out area, swishing the cart this way and that, unable to decide which express lane to commit to.  (For his part, my son was doing an absent-minded left/right shuffle to mirror each swish.)  I glanced at the second lane closest to me and saw a woman with snow-white hair and a relatively small hoard of groceries --they covered just one-third of the conveyor belt-- that had already had a few items scanned.

I planted my considerable frame at the upstream end of the lane and waved my kids over.  Choosing that lane went against one of my Rules To Live By --never get in line at the grocery story behind an old lady-- but I figured: I'm not in that big a hurry; she doesn't have that many items; half of them will be scanned before the kids get here; how bad can it be?

Worse than I would've wished, but not as bad as it could have been.  I thought it a blessing that she didn't pay by check, as so many of them do, and the disorganized deck of coupons she produced with a magician's flourish was nowhere near thick enough to stop a bullet, as so many of them are.  By that time, the kids and I had unloaded our cart and were just waiting... waiting... waiting...

I felt a shallow wave of fatigue wash over me.  I turned to my son, who at 13 years is fewer than three inches shorter than I, and slowly lowered my forehead to the point of his shoulder.  He doesn't like to be touched, but he stoically endured this aggravating assault for the short time it lasted.  Then I raised my head and whispered, "This is one of life's little lessons: never get in line at the grocery store behind an old lady."

He looked at me intently.  For one horrified moment I thought he was going to ask --loudly-- "Then why are we behind one right now?"

I quickly said, "I did it on purpose, this time, to illustrate the point."  Too late, I remembered to cross my fingers and whip them behind my back.  We eyed each other for a few heartbeats, and I waited for him to call me on my b-grade s.

He was preempted by his sister, who asked --loudly-- "What?"

I leaned toward her and said quietly, "You know... the old lady rule."

She had the grace to lower her voice a little when she said, pointedly, "Yeah, especially when it's not an express lane."

I threw her a narrow-eyed glare.  She threw it right back.

Finally, the transaction in front of us was settled.  The white-haired woman turned toward her cart and everybody in the store thought she was done.  She grasped the handle, stood there thinking things through for a short eon, then turned back to the checkout girl.  I'm pretty sure the checkout girl was new.  I'd never seen her before and, more telling, she didn't heave an obvious sigh before leaning over the counter and explaining some of the finer points of a grocery receipt.

The woman turned toward her cart a second time, and the world held its breath.  Everyone, that is, except the checkout girl.  She looked in my direction and came closer to rolling her eyes without actually doing so than I would have thought possible.  The white-haired woman again grasped the cart handle, took half a step, and stopped to think it over for another measured chunk of eternity.

I started a silent slow-count.  Honestly, I don't know how long it lasted, because at some point I started to slip into self-hypnosis.  When the checkout girl turned to us and asked, "So how you guys doin'?" I answered with a protracted moment of blank stare.  She seemed to understand.

So, as I said, I am guilty of a certain ageism, or oldism, or whatever the proper term is for thinking certain things about that, uh, broad demographic.  Some might accuse me of sexism, too, since I single out old women rather than old people.  To that charge, I answer thus...

A stereotype, Your Honor, is a cliché that has proven itself a truism so often it has become a convention.  Or something like that.

Furthermore, prejudice is diced stereotype sprinkled into a simmering stew of negative emotion.  The truly criminal ones consist mostly of fear.  Mine is merely mild impatience.  Chew on that awhile.

Besides, it isn't sexist to call a woman a woman, and when's the last time you saw an old man shopping for groceries by himself?

P.S.... Bud "I Always Wind Up With The Cart
          That Has A Sticky Wheel" Selig must go.

Apr 15, 2014

The Good Old Daze

commentary by killre

I was scrolling through my so-called news feed on Facebook when I came upon something one of my contacts had, um... "shared" I believe is the accepted parlance.  It was a slightly too big for bumper-sticker argument from something called The Progressive Radio Network.  It is an organization I admit to knowing little about.  The word Progressive --usually another way of saying liberal-- gave me pause, for three reasons: (1) were I forced to put a label on said contact's political leanings, that label would be "conservative;" (2) the post's message is undeniably libertarian, which is often hyphenated with conservative; (3) the word Progressive is juxtaposed with the word Radio, which, well... need I spell it out?

The post was a black-and-white photo so old it was actually brown and yellow.  The picture was of a very early model "horseless carriage."  Probably a Ford.  I couldn't tell you if it was a Model A or a Model T or a Model X,Y,Z because (a) I am not an expert in ancient automobiles, (t) the image was far less important than the caption, which was (x,y,z) laid over the image, partially obscuring it.

The caption in question, with all its pimples, says this:

"Up until 1913 Americans kept all of their earnings.  Despite this, we still had: schools, colleges, roads, vast railroads, streets, subways, the Army, Navy and the Marine Corps, (who managed to win 8 wars).  Tell me again why We The People need to be extorted???"

I would have responded to the post directly, but it is so egregiously riddled with half-truths and outright inaccuracies that the length of my rebuttal would have done to the customs of Facebook what the denizens of Westeros have done to the decorum of weddings.  So, I brought the discussion here.

Obviously, the post is an argument against income taxes-- specifically, I assume, the federal income tax.  The year 1913 clearly refers to the ratification (in February) of the Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which cleared the way for Congress to pass legislation (in August) requiring We the People to put our (then) two cents (of every dollar) in.  Just as obviously, I have no problem debating the merits of a one hundred years old Amendment-- just as I have no problem debating a two hundred years old Amendment, like the Second.  Unlike some (conservatives), I don't pick and choose which ones are open to criticism and which ones aren't.

Also unlike many conservatives, I feel such discussions should start in the realm of facts, not fiction...

"U... ntil 1913 Americans kept all of their earnings."  Not strictly true, unless you narrowly define "earnings" as "wages."  Various levels of government --including city, county, and state-- have exacted taxes since (and in some cases before) the nation's inception.  Prior to 1913, those taxes were largely on property, voting, and imported goods.  Note the second item on that list: voting.  Citizen had to pay in order to vote.  This, I suppose, was considered the flip side of the "no taxation without representation" coin: with representation comes taxation.  (This is as good a time as any to mention, contrary to popular belief, the American Revolution was not fought over Taxation; it was fought over Representation.)

Note also the tax on imported goods, called a tariff.  The purpose of tariffs --which were first enacted during the Washington Administration-- was three-fold: (1) the protection of American industry from foreign-made products, many of which were at the time both superior in quality and competitively priced; (2) the raising of revenue for the federal government, which then spent some of it (3) subsidized American industry (yes, Virginia, it happened even then).  Of course, tariffs are a proverbial double-edged sword: when you tax trade, the people you are trading with often respond by taxing it, too.  That hurts sales, which in turn slows the economy.  Some would argue that all taxes have this effect.  To some extent that's true.  However, while a sales tax (for instance) increases the price of all things for all people, effectively reducing Demand, it does not partition and punish a particular segment of the Supply side of the equation-- an action that tends to foster retribution.

"Despite this, we still had: schools..."  True, we had schools.  They were both funded and regulated locally or at the state level (much as they are today, rendering the caption writer's point in this category largely an empty one, but not entirely), which means many were not particularly well-funded and standards were wildly different from one region to the next.  Far too many schools a century ago were of the one-room variety, with one teacher trying to instruct every student in every subject-- often only as far as what was then considered an eighth- or ninth-grade level.  It is itself a symptom of federal intervention that it would now be considered only a fifth- or sixth-grade level.

How effective the system was back then probably varied greatly from schoolhouse to schoolhouse and teacher to teacher.  If you want to say our education system is no more effective today, I can't really argue with you.  All you would have to do is cite the caption we're discussing right now.  It contains at least three questionable choices of punctuation, one very questionable choice of capitalization,* and one giant error of applied arithmetic.**

* The Constitution of the United States begins We the People, not We The People.  I would agree with you that an upper- versus lower-case t in the word the is like debating how well-centered the dot over the i in nit is, were it not for two things.  (1) The person who wrote the caption is the same type of person who holds the Constitution up as being handed down from on high, so you'd think they could quote it accurately, specifically in print and especially considering (2) it's the first three [fornicatin'] words!  Seriously, if they are not the most-quoted words in the whole damned document, they are in close competition with freedom of speech and keep and bear Arms.

** By my count, the United States fought five wars between 1776 and 1913, not eight.  More on this later, after a quick dash through much of the list...

"...colleges..."  Yes, there were colleges.  Most of them were privately funded, and still are.  The others were only mostly privately funded; what little government money they received came from the state, and still does.  This is another point that works out to being a non-point.

"...roads..."  Oh, and what roads they were!  Whilst we wax wistful for the rutted two-tracks, washer-board byways and one-lane timber bridges of yesteryear, let us also click our heals and wish for a good ol' smallpox epidemic.  Sound fun?  I have always been of the opinion that no party really gets started until there's been a cholera outbreak.  As of 1913, there was no federal highway system --neither U.S. highways nor Interstates-- and absolutely no standards.  Simply put, the roads were atrocious: poorly built, even more poorly maintained, and lacking virtually any road signs-- meaning nobody knew where they were going unless they'd already been there.  At the time, it wasn't a major issue because few people had cars or trucks and almost all long-distance travel or commerce was done via...

"...vast railroads..."  Privately funded then; privately funded now.  Yet another non-point.  Debate the pluses and minuses of Amtrak as you like.  Our Comments button gets lonely.

"...streets..."  This is not just another word for "roads," it is another empty point against a federal income tax, since the building and maintenance of streets is funded the same way now as then: locally, by the city and/or county.

"...subways..."  See last paragraph; substitute "railroads" for "roads" and bring extra change-- there was probably a fare increase recently.

"...the Army, Navy and the Marine Corps, (who managed to win 8 wars)."  As I mentioned earlier, I can think of only five wars that the United States fought prior to 1913.  I don't count Shea's Rebellion; nor John Brown's Rebellion; nor the so-called Whiskey Rebellion; nor the celebrated skirmish near the shores of Tripoli, which involved all of, like, eight Marines... I'm talkin' WARS.

Discussing them is best done individually...

1. The American Revolution.  We had virtually no navy during the Revolution, nor any marines.  What we had was a pirate named John Paul Jones and a proverbial boatload of help from the French navy.  Do you want to go back to that?  What's more, we didn't have an army, either: we had a motley, disparate collection of militia that the Continental Congress one day decided to start calling an army.  They avoided levying a tax to pay for having an army by... not paying them.  Or feeding them.  Or supplying them with arms and munitions.  Or clothing them.  Or keeping them warm through some of the most brutal winters on record.  Congress also lied to the troops about their length of service.  In doing all of this, they risked the revolution against the British turning into a rebellion against the so-called United States.  General Washington averted that by putting the most active malcontents in front of a firing squad.  Sweet guy.  In the end, the French paid nearly all of the up-front monetary cost of the American Revolution.  We paid it back by levying tariffs on British imports, which, surprisingly, was not the major issue leading to...

2. The War of 1812, or "American Revolution 2: Twice the Impressment."  By now we had a navy --I think it consisted of two battleships, five frigates, and a fleet of fishing trawlers whose owners refused to fight-- and the aforementioned eight marines.  As for the army, consider the following...  The signature victory of the War of 1812 was the Battle of New Orleans.  Andrew Jackson was leading a militia force through what is now Mississippi, Alabama, and the Florida panhandle, fightin' Injuns.  U.S. Secretary of War James Monroe issued a fiat naming Jackson a Major General, drafting his rag-tag band of sharpshooters into the U.S. Army, and ordering them to defend New Orleans from an impending British invasion.  Jackson marched to the city, declared martial law, suspended habeas corpus, jailed dissenters, recruited a local crime boss for additional manpower, and built entrenchments that stymied a poorly executed British attack.  To use a football analogy, the Brits tried to run a play that day that should have been good for at least 40 yards, but they fumbled the handoff.  Kudos to Jackson for tackling them for a loss.  Too bad the scrimmage had already been called: the Treaty of Ghent had been signed more than two weeks prior.  Moreover, while we like to call this war a victory, history says it was more of a tie.  History also says we only pulled it off because we were playing the Brits' practice squad.  Their first string was at the Waterloo Bowl, playing the French (again).  We paid the French back (again), eventually.  130 years later, we liberated them from a Nazi occupation... but we did it with a federal income tax.  And war bonds.

3. The Mexican War-- a.k.a. the Mexican-American War, since we were there too.  Congratulations, you just beat Mexico.  Who are you playing next week?  Canada?

4. The Civil War.  Technically not a foreign war, unless you accept the argument that the Confederacy was an independent nation for four years.  Lincoln didn't.  The North won the American Civil War through the inexorable application of greater manpower, more highly developed industry, greater resources and, ultimately, more money.  How did they raise the money?  By instituting a federal income tax for the duration of the conflict, that's how.

5. The Spanish-American War.  The McKinley Administration defrayed part of the cost for the war against Spain by recruiting volunteers: 125,000 troops, plus a much-bullyhooed cavalry regiment known as the Roughriders.  Do you think asking for volunteers would work today?  They also sold war bonds, and levied taxes on tea (ironic!), tobacco, alcohol, and inheritances.  Yeah, you read that right: they paid for a war with a death tax-- which, by the by, sort of counts as a tax on income, doesn't it.

"Tell me again why We The People need to be extorted???"  I'm not even sure this sentence qualifies as a question, let alone one requiring three question marks, but I'll respond anyway.  Extorted is an ugly word.  Intentionally ugly.  Transparently intentional.  As long as we are discussing ugliness, this is as good a time as any to point out that yes, the United States made great strides during the 19th century-- in some respects.  It rode the wave of the Industrial Revolution, exploiting vast natural resources.  It had men who were rich enough and ruthless enough to do so-- scourging both the land and its people in the process.  What often gets trapped in the filter of nostalgia, though, is that the standard of living for the average American did not truly improve until the 20th century, with all its accompanying complications like labor unions and regulations and social programs and Federal taxes.  In short, We the People were mistreated then, too-- just not financially.

As I said before, the Revolution was fought over Representation, not Taxation.  I'm sure nearly everyone feels underrepresented these days, and I know for a fact nobody likes taxes.

There are, however, bills to be paid.

Discussions over which ones should not begin with intentionally inflamed rhetoric and long lists of empty arguments and historical inaccuracies.

P.S... Bud "Wait, I Thought It Was Reggie Jackson Hitting Three
         Home Runs Off Packenham In New Orleans" Selig must go.

Apr 11, 2014

The Politics of Monopoly

commentary by killre

Normally, I'd not bother you with the click-by-click account of how I stumbled upon the pixilated tidbit that fired the meat of this post.  In this case, though, I almost have to.  There is commentary to be found and be flung along the journey.  Besides, I should probably, you know, give credit where credit is due or something similarly noble.

I was casting about the cyber sea the other day, looking to satisfy my jones for a fresh and interesting discussion either of HBO's Game of Thrones or of the George R.R. Martin book series that inspired it, A Song of Ice and Fire.  The fact that I was doing so was a minor sacrifice in itself.  It spared you, dear reader, what would likely have been a two-page diatribe about the three instances in the show's season premiere --good as it was-- where the writers unnecessarily took a big steaming dump all over some very basic internal logic, and did so for the sake of two passingly clever quips and one ominous intoning.

In the course of my careening clicking, I landed on a site called The Nerdstream Era.  It is a blog written by a German professor named Stefan Sasse.  That's pronounced  SHTEFF-on SAH-say, and it's surely a sign of woeful immaturity on my part that the words "Kaiser Soze" run through my head whenever I hear it.  He is about 89% fluent in English, but that doesn't stop him from trying to write like he's 98% fluent.  You can imagine some of the idiomatic idiosyncrasies that ensue.  Lest that critique seem too biting, let me add that Sasse is clearly an intelligent homo sapiens whose substantive analysis is usually spot on.  It's just that his English-language prose would benefit from an editor who didn't graduate from the University of Everyone Gets a Trophy Just For Participating.

It was while perusing Nerdstream that I came across a link to a story about the common --but not necessarily popular-- board game Monopoly.  Sasse's caption for the link was this: "I still don't understand how someone can play Monopoly voluntarily".

The jump took me to an article written by Alison Griswold for Slate.  Hasbro, it seems, is planning to "update" Classic Monopoly --the version that was stocked on closet shelves for decades, before the relatively recent spate of not very limited edition cross-promoting mutations-- by officially codifying some of the best/most-popular unofficial rules that families have concocted in the privacy of their own homes for generations.  Some of the examples cited might be familiar if you've ever been snowed-in without power during the holidays...

- Jailed players cannot collect rent.

- Players receive $400 for passing Go.

- A player landing on Free Parking nets the current net of the Community Chest.

...and others.  Hasbro has apparently set up a website where those who are interested can debate the merits of the proposals.

Of course, the company isn't secure enough in its manhood to admit to caving to the will of the unwashed masses.  The excuses they do offer, though, point a big red arrow at the major reason the game gets started but seldom gets finished: it's a slow [expletive] game.  Staid, plodding, tedious, torturous and dull.  Monopoly may, in fact, have the dubious distinction of being the primary reason many Americans honestly believe board game is spelled b-o-r-e-d.

Hasbro wants to change that by putting more cash in players' hands.

This probably seems counter-intuitive to many.  After all, the object of Monopoly is to bankrupt one's opponents.  In fact, what most people don't know unless they've read the rules (because, really, how long can a blizzard/power outage last?) is that the ultimate goal is for one person to own everything on the board-- by bankrupting all their loved ones.  This end would seem (even) more difficult to reach if every player has mo' money.  (Income, it should be noted, is the only thing they propose to increase.)

Griswold quotes someone who has an answer to that.  His ready-for-fiction name is Jock O'Connell.  He is an international trade economist for a consulting firm called Beacon Economics, which also sounds made-up.  I'll not quote everything he says, but the gist of his argument is this: greater cash flow will lead to a quicker game because it will encourage players to take bigger risks more often.  Trades can happen more readily (because one party can sweeten the deal with liquidity), property blocs can be built more quickly, and improvements --houses and hotels-- can be made more rapidly.  Unspoken in all this is that some players will make personally disastrous deals earlier.

(O'Connell went on to say that these conditions would more accurately reflect the modern economy.  A reader with the screen name cchapman parried that thrust with the following comment: "Want to make Monopoly more realistic?  Make each player roll the dice at the beginning.  The highest roll gets 80% of all the money.  The lowest roll gets $20.  The middle players get $100.  Then see what happens.")

O'Connell's everybody-becomes-a-gambler argument sounds plausible... until you remember one thing: it only works if everybody thinks like a Wall Streeter.  Since most Monopoly matches are comprised of a grandmother, three children between the ages of 7 and 12 (one of whom is obstinate and won't let go of Pacific Avenue no matter what) and an indulgent aunt, uncle, or older cousin --none of whom have any experience in finance, commodities, macro real estate, nor any other wheely-dealy occupation-- hmm, yeah, not so much.

It was while ruminating on this that I glimpsed one of the basic truisms of American politics.  Those on the Left tend to preach what you should do, usually motivated by what they see as being for the benefit of all.  Those on the Right... well, except some on the Religious Right, who share the Left's affinity for preaching what you should do, albeit for different reasons... those on the Right like to tell you what you WILL do in a given circumstance...

usually because they assume you are a selfish [expletive], just like they are.

P.S.... Bud "I Tried To Learn Spanish, But All I Ever Retained
          Was How To Count To Forty, How To Order Beer,
          And How To Get My Face Slapped By Senoritas" Selig must go.

Apr 2, 2014

Surprise Ending

Yesterday it was Terrorism

It's true. That's why the Confederacy was entirely comprised of atheists.... or was it the godless Yank heathens.

One wonders what it cost to post this redneck Twitter feed.

Apr 1, 2014

Atheism Is As Bad as Terrorism

Linked lovingly from the State of Britain
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is going full in: they have enacted some new laws that declare not believing is equivalent to terrorism. 

According to Human Rights Watch:
The interior ministry regulations [introduced over the last three months] include … sweeping provisions that authorities can use to criminalize virtually any expression or association critical of the government and its understanding of Islam. These “terrorism” provisions include the following:
Article 1: “Calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based.
You're going to have a bad day in Saudi Arabia even if you’re not an atheist or a dissident, but merely think that people must be allowed to be left alone to stew in their own lack of faith. Expressing sympathy or support for folks who don't believe is now also a crime:
Article 4: “Anyone who aids [“terrorist”] organizations, groups, currents [of thought], associations, or parties, or demonstrates affiliation with them, or sympathy with them, or promotes them, or holds meetings under their umbrella, either inside or outside the kingdom; this includes participation in audio, written, or visual media; social media in its audio, written, or visual forms; internet websites; or circulating their contents in any form, or using slogans of these groups and currents [of thought], or any symbols which point to support or sympathy with them.”
Brian Whitaker at al-bab.com explains:
Since the entire system of government is based on Wahhabi interpretations of Islam, non-believers are assumed to be enemies of the Saudi state.

Remind me not to visit Saudi Arabia. Ever. On the bright side, I've never flown an airplane full of hostages into iconic New York buildings... or organized a Crusade, or a Children's Crusade... or any of these terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia