Friday, April 29, 2011

Birthers: The New X-Files

When the conspiracy is disproven with evidence, what do the conspiracy theorists do?

Deny the evidence.

So far no one has proven the existence of UFOs, Sasquatch (spelling "abominable" correctly in less than three tries is a big achievement for me) or what led Flight 19 astray.  But the theorists have their, uh, theories and they cling to them.  Evidence is just chaff put out by the conspirators, by the black operators trying to keep the wool pulled over the eyes of the public that really deserves to know The Truth.

So Obama finally released his birth certificate.  Since he had already released the short form and not satisfied anybody with that, he had to get the long form released, too.  Already the theorists are asking why he had to wait so long - did the forgers really need all that time?.  Already they're picking at the long form itself.

Already, Donald Trump is trying to hold this up as a personal achievement.  Man, that guy is his own biggest fan.

There are certain conspiracies you can believe in.  Is there a super-secret Air Force space shuttle?  You bet.  It's not a great secret since it's been on the news but they don't make a big business of showing it to people, the USAF doesn't invite Hollywood actors to launches and they don't talk about what they're sending up.  But did the US government secretly conspire with the 9/11 terrorists to demolish the Trade Towers, the Pentagon or anything else?  Don't be ridiculous.

Did Obama secretly have a "legit" birth certificate created from whole cloth to legitiimize his presidency?  Don't be ridiculous.

Obama's been in the public eye for a lot longer than just his Presidency.  Don't forget that before he was a president, he was a Congressman.  And before he was a Congressman, he was a Congressional candidate.  His records were examined pretty thoroughly quite a while ago.  Why no one wants to believe the evidence that was presented way back then is a mystery.  Why they continue to question it now is a mystery.  Some people just don't have a firm grip on reality.

That's called "cognitive dissonance."  Like doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, it suggests that the person in question cannot perceive the world in the same way as other people.  Sometimes that's not a bad thing - that's how we got Salvador Dali.  That's how we got Stanley Kubrick.  But you have to take the bad with the good, and that's how we got The Donald.

Trump is now claiming that his efforts alone are what finally forced Obama to produce his birth certificate.  Now that the certificate is out there, Trump is asking about Obama's school records.  Trump's own school records are in fact pretty good, but his business history leaves something to be desired.

I'd like to remind the nation that while Trump is supposedly very wealthy and a brilliant businessman, he has been in bankruptcy more than once and got his start when his dad left him a mountain of money.  Why can't you make a casino turn a profit, Don?  People walk in and literally hand you money, completely aware the odds are they will leave with nothing.  How can you not make that work?

Also, Trump gripes an awful lot about how China is eating America's industrial lunch, but 98% of all Trump-branded merchandise is in fact manufactured in China.

Cognitive dissonance, thy name is Trump

Thursday, April 28, 2011


Woohoo, a grand-plus.

What does it all meeeeann!?

Hand Sanitizers Are Killing You

Maybe you've spent a little time reading some of the copy on product labels.  For an example, some rodenticides tout how they're effective against warfarin-resistant rats, for instance.  You see stories in the papers - or if you're like half of America, on Google News - about the latest outbreak of MRSA or MRTB.

We create these things ourselves.  Warfarin-resistant rats are rats that have bred to become resistant to the anticoagulant drug Warfarin.  I mean, really resistant.  These rats can munch down entire blocks of poison bait, a dose suitable to kill an adult human, and shrug it off.  An ordinary rat practically melts inside after eating this stuff, but the resistant strains don't respond.  Somewhere in the past a few nibbled at the poison, got sick but didn't die, and reproduced.  Lather, rinse, repeat through successive generations until you have a rat that cannot be killed by the most popular rat bait on the market.

Typical human response: use a different poison.  Lather, rinse, repeat.  In a few more generations, rats will be resistant to that, too.

Let me point out, no rat has yet evolved that can resist a quick sharp rap over the head.  The challenge is to build a better mousetrap, but frankly they don't get better.  It's quick, inexpensive, and effective.

Back to the point!  Then there's multidrug resistant staph (MRSA), resistant tuberculosis (MRTB), and assorted others.  How many of these did you help generate?

Yes, you.  Human fixation with hygiene has brought about things like nasty infections that are increasingly hard to kill.  Combine that with occasional human lapses of attention or rigor and boom, the infectious agent gets a chance to regain its strength.  You've got a runaway illness.  Same as your immune system learns an invader and how to kill it, the invader can learn your defenses - by reproducing those strains that can defeat it - and get around them.  If you don't keep the pressure on until the entire illness is done, you're just accelerating the process.

It's become very trendy to do the half-measures.  Antibacterial products are legion all over the American retail landscape: sanitizers, dishwashing liquid, hand soap, sprays.  Treated linens, antibacterial infused hard surfaces, like on the high chairs at the restaurants.  It might work at killing whatever bugs are out there when the product is produced, but then what?  What happens after that?  Microorganisms life spans are measured in hours, there can be several generations of evolution taking place every day.  So if you don't kill every single one of the bad microorganisms, bad things happen.

So about those hand sanitizers.  Look carefully at the labeling.  It doesn't say it kills 100% of all the germs on your hands, no.  It says it kills 99%.  And 99% is pretty good, no mistake, that leaves just one percent of everything on your skin still alive, good germs and bad alike.  But what about that one percent?

That one percent just shrugged off a chemical attack.  Survived it.  So now when those germs reproduce, they're going to be that much more likely to shrug off the next chemical attack.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

Repeat each and every time you use a hand sanitizer.  Shake hands with someone, pass those resistant bugs along.  Touch a doorknob.  Touch the steering wheel.

Touch your face.  Inhale, lick your lips.  Now the resistant bugs are inside you.  Are they good germs or bad ones?  They don't carry little flags declaring their allegiance, so there's no way to know.  You just have to wait and wonder.

The vast majority of what's out there can't really hurt you.  If it could, you wouldn't have made it to the age you are now.  The human body's immune system is far more active and effective than you can even imagine.  But why help train the enemy?  Who needs to deliberately expose themselves to germs that have been carefully selected for resistance to chemical controls?

Not only that, but why would you deliberately weaken your body's immune response to such things?  Consider polio.

Here's where I step out on a limb.  I have a theory, but no proof.  Polio used to be a bad thing that happened to people, but it wasn't a big thing that people worried about.  You worried about it, but you didn't have it looming like communism or fifth period chemistry.  It was an environmental worry, like cars in the street.

Then around 1880 polio came on strong.  What happened?  I think a big shift in human behavior happened.  Hygiene became something you did because you had clothes that were nice.  Doctors on the battlefield of the Civil War had discovered that wounds infested with fly maggots didn't turn gangrenous like wounds that were covered up - flies were eating the dead tissue before it could rot.  Keeping things clean was better for humans.  And of course, the technology moved past the icky stage of fly maggots pretty quickly.  So soap and scrubbing and washing clothes all became really big.

Move up a few decades and other things happened.  Public pools became popular so there's all these people swimming and splashing in the same water, some not as clean as others, children playfully spitting water at each other.  It's not hard to see how it's a pretty busy place, communicable diseases-wise.  But that wasn't the real root of the epidemics in my opinion.  I think it has more to do with fastidiously clean hands, bathing, and baby formula.

Effective baby formulas were coming on at about this time, around the 30s or so.  The importance of handwashing was being spread far and wide, so that was picking up in popularity.  Up until this point you might be exposed to little doses of polio all through childhood.  Sometimes the worst that would happen would be a bad headache for a few days, a fever.  If you'd been exposed to assorted weaker strains of polio earlier in life, you were already somewhat immunized against the later versions and could probably shake them off.  If you were breastfed as an infant your mother passed her developed immunities to you through the milk.  But now with formula and handwashing and everything so spotlessly, modernly clean, maybe you haven't been exposed at all.  Maybe you have no immunity to draw on.  Boom, you've got polio.  It might be pretty bad.

Does this mean I think we shouldn't be vaccinating people?  No.  No way.  Vaccinations like for polio hold up a picture in front of your body's immune system, a color photo from three angles, of the germs your body should kill.  "This is what the bad guy looks like," the vaccination says to your immune system.  "If you see him, kill him."  It doesn't weaken you at all.  It puts you on your guard.

But hand sanitizers take down the bulletin boards where the photos are posted.  No exposure, no familiarity, no reaction from your white cells until it's too late.  Then reacting requires soaking your body with antibiotics, antivirals.  Closing the henhouse door after the weasel's already inside.

Skip the hand sanitizer.  It isn't helping you.  I mean, it is in the moment, but not down the road.  Plain old hand washing works every bit as well, and doesn't dry out your skin.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Looking at the Economies of Eating Out

Remember when you called it "eating out?"  It was something you did on a semi-special occasion.  After about 8:00pm or so, there were only a few businesses open, and restaurants.  Of course, by 9:00pm most of the restaurants were starting to close, too.

That's not the case anymore.  McDonald's - which barely counts as "eating out," it's the lowest common denominator of food purveyors - is open 'round the clock, at least at the drive-through window.  Several of the old fast food eateries are open into the wee hours anymore, supplying our need for cheap, easy food at any time.  And it's not special, it's just what you do.

But how easy is it?  How cheap?

Let's take a quick peek at the "easy" bit.  First of all, unless you actually live in a McDonald's (for simplicity of example, I'm sticking with that one, but there are any number of other options to choose from) then you're going to have to get from wherever you are to the nearest McDonald's location.  Unless it's ten blocks or less - a quarter mile or less - most people will drive.

So now you've fired up the car, burning fuel.  You're putting yourself and others at risk for a traffic accident - don't say it isn't true, if it wasn't then you wouldn't be required to carry insurance at all times.  Find parking, place your order, head back to wherever.  Fuel, risk, time, attention.  The only easy thing in this was the food itself, you didn't have to prepare any of it.

No guarantees that the food has been prepared properly.  There are guarantees of course but they aren't functional guarantees., They don't help you when you're white-knuckled over the toilet bowl in the middle of the night, wondering what in God's name could you have possibly eaten that wanted back out so badly.  Incidents like that are uncommon, but that doesn't mean impossible.  They happen.

Still looking at McDonald's for an easy example, how good is the food?  We know it's tasty - if it wasn't McD's wouldn't be the going concern that it is.  Is it any good once you've moved past the taste?  The fat content of the fries is stunning.  If you wanted, you could light a French fry on fire and it would burn for a couple of minutes.  The sandwiches aren't a bastion of nutrition, either.  There's a lot of salt, fat, assorted additives you can do without.

Time for a little math.  My example is not too far out of line.  My closest McDonald's is about three miles from my front door; let's call it about five minutes to drive there.  Five minutes back.  Five minutes on-site placing and receiving the order.

Sweetie likes to cook.  I like to cook but I'm not very good at it, so I do the mise en place stuff, getting her supplies under her hands just as she needs them, taking away those things that she's finished with so her workspace is still clear.  She can whip out two omelets in fifteen minutes while I make toast, set the table, pour milk or coffee.  Her omelets have two eggs, a dab of butter for the pan, some sausage or ham, cheese.  Sour cream if I haven't forgotten to add it to the grocery list.  For the sake of this experiment, I'm going to compare the Sausage McMuffin with Egg to Sweetie's omelet, and we'll see how they stack up.

Total Calories: 450
from fat: 250
Sodium: 920mg

Sweetie's omelet
Total calories: 399
from fat: 225

There's a slight fudge factor here: I'm not including the toast with the omelet, but the English muffin is part of the McD's sandwich.  Sweetie also sometimes makes up a mess of hash brown potatoes, but I always get the hash brown fried potato thing at McDonald's.  Two, sometimes.  Taken together, the combined caloric values of these breakfasts are pretty close.  But as much as I really enjoy the McMuffin sandwich, sometimes it comes back on me.  I think there's too much grease or something going on in there.  Sweetie's omelets have never given me a moment's trouble - and when she drains grease off sausage, what's left is pretty well strained.  You don't know how fatty your food is until you've spent some time working out ways to get the fat off of it.  Sweetie is pretty skilled in this regard.

What does it cost?

Sausage McMuffin with Egg, hash browns, coffee: $2.89 - plus fuel for going after it, insurance, associated prorated maintenance costs of operating the vehicle.  25mpg, 6 miles, call it a quarter-gallon of fuel.  At $3.60 per gallon, 90 cents.  We'll neglect the other stuff for the sake of brevity, and call it $3.80 for McBreakfast.

Sweetie's breakfast.  Eggs at $1.50 per 18 = ~17 cents for two
Slice of Muenster cheese, $1.89 pack of 10 slices, 19 cents
Sausage, $2.89 per pound for the lean stuff, about 4 oz if I beg for it, so 72 cents
Onion at $2.99 per 5lb bag, about 4oz in my omelet (by request!), 15 cents
Butter at $2.50 per pound (watch the sales!), about 1/2 ounce, about 8 cents
I haven't used sour cream in a while so I'm going to skip that one.  It's not like they put sour cream on a McMuffin anyway, so it wouldn't be a fair fight if I did.

Sweetie's omelet tips the scales at $1.31.  If I add in what I'm paying for coffee and toast and hash browns, it still won't break two bucks.  So even leaving off the cost of operating the car, I'm ahead of the curve.  And staying home I'm not likely to get in a traffic accident just for the sake of breakfast.   The potatoes at home are almost cheating; when you can buy a 50lb bag of potatoes for $10 and McDonald's charges $2 for its largest order of fries (which doesn't even weigh an entire pound), the economies rapidly tilt further and further in favor of staying at the house.

What about the time it takes?  Well, like I said Sweetie can do two omelets in fifteen minutes.  In that time she saves the equivalent of about two bucks, not going out.  Never mind the other money we save, right there you're looking at saving $8 per hour.  That's not a bad pay day.

This is just comparing to McDonald's, arguably one of the cheapest places you can eat breakfast.  Go elsewhere where the prices are higher, and the disparity gets even bigger.  Look at lunch and dinner and the disparities get bigger yet.  But as consumers and Americans we have somehow trained ourselves to prefer having others do for us, than doing for ourselves.  We've been trained to love our money and guard it jealously, to invest no more effort than whatever it takes to get the creative part of whatever we want done, done by someone else.

Stay home, roll your own, save some money.  It takes about the same amount of time.  It's better for you, it stretches your brain a little.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Discovering Love

I distinctly remember the very first time I thought like a grownup.  It was only for the briefest flash, a wondrous, terrifying, ecstatic moment of clarity and insight.  Even now, I'm not completely sure I could call it "thinking like a grownup," but maybe it would be better described as the first truly clear thought I ever had.  I had never had a more lucid thought in my life, and not many as indelibly stamped on my memory as that one.

I was ten years old, in the summer between third and fourth grade.  This isn't an age you associate with maturity of any sort, but then again Judy Blume made a perennial bestseller of this particular time of life with Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing.  I first read it in fourth grade and thought it was very believable, rather over the top with her description of Fudge and his shenanigans, but Fudge's older brother's viewpoint rang true.  Young, immature?  Sure.  But Peter Warren Hatcher (funny, the details that stick with you) was capable of insight, of discernment.

So.  Ten years old, rising into fourth grade.  Both my parents worked full-time, and still do.  At this young age, I spent my summers in the YMCA summer day camp program, which meant swimming every day, field trips, all manner of outdoor games.  It was fantastic.  The first hour or so of every day was pretty much free play, talking to friends and that sort of thing.  On my very first day, I was talking to one kid, getting to know people, when suddenly I felt a big weight on my back.

"I'm so glad to see you!"  To this day I'm not certain what her name was but I think it was Monica.  Even if it wasn't I'm going to say it was, because I've always been a little taken with that name.

Let me back up a bit.  In second grade I had gone to a school in Alexandria, VA.  But during the summer of that year, we had moved to a different city, different school district.  All new kids.  Just down the road, a thirty-minute ride on a bicycle but worlds apart when you're in second or third grade.  Monica had been one of my playmates in second grade, bright and cheery.  Sometimes we sat together at lunch.  Third grade, new lunchroom, new friends.  No Monica.

But now third grade is over and I'm going to the local YMCA for the summer, and the school districts aren't an issue at the Y.  I'm talking to other kids and learning names, when whump a weight lands on my back, a thrilled voice calls my name, and two arms wrap around my neck.

The arms turned loose and I turned around.  Boom, there she was.  My friend from second grade, smiling all over her face.  I called her name in delight, ecstatic to meet someone I already knew, overjoyed it was someone I really liked.  And right here is where I stepped outside of my tender ten years.

I stepped forward and embraced her like an old friend returned from a long trip, like we had known each other for decades.  Monica fell into my arms and hugged me back.

This isn't what you expect from ten-year-olds.  I certainly wouldn't expect it from any ten-year-olds I know now or even then.  And in this briefest moment of intimacy, I heard some small portion of my brain thinking, very clearly, "So this is what love feels like."

Not the carrier wave of love of parents for their children, that background hum that you don't learn to hear until you're older and wiser, no.   This was the first crash of the cymbals I had ever heard, the first time I felt an emotional response for a peer not in reaction to something they had done, but simply for who they were.  It was a galvanizing moment.  In the brief contact I understood that this embrace, as little as it was for two young kids on a playground, was what hugging people was all about.  So instead of the arms-over-shoulders of pals on the playground - which no one ever did to me - or the mismatched of little kid me and great big Grampa, this was someone my size, who just wanted to be in the same space where I was for a moment.  Cheek-to-cheek, like a dance with only one step and no music needed.  She had freckles.  Funny, the details that stick with you.

We turned each other loose.  Had she hugged me one moment longer, I might have melted.  She smiled at me with a brilliance like the sunrise.  "I'm so glad to see you!" she said again.

"Me, too!"  And being ten years old, I bopped her on the arm.  She bounced a playground ball off my head.  We ran off to play foursquare, and that was the extent of our relationship.  We were, after all, playmates.  Kids.  After that summer ended, I never saw her again.

As years went by and I floundered about on the capricious seas of teenage lust, young romance and the strange alchemy of communicating in close relationships, I never had that close contact.  There were good times and not so good times, but no crash of cymbals.  No melting.

Then I started to set relationships aside.  They tended to lose their fire, a brief flash of intensity followed by gradual cooling to indifference.  Why put all the effort into knowing this girl or that girl when I just didn't care about what she was thinking?  And she clearly didn't care much about me.  Is it really a break-up when neither party bothers to call the other anymore?

When I met Sweetie, she tried to sell me a tractor.  I turned it down and offered to take her to lunch.  More lunches followed, then dinners.  We went hiking.  We went biking.  We both enjoyed shopping, even when coming back from trips with empty hands.  We both cared about what the other was thinking.  We both had an irrational love for books.

One day after I had been seeing Sweetie for a few months, I flew home to spend Christmas vacation with my parents.  As glad as I was to be home in familiar surroundings, it was the first time I had ever been home and not really felt "at home."  I likened it, at the time, to the feeling you get when you arrive at your destination only to realize some of your luggage has gone somewhere else, without you.  So as much as I enjoyed Christmas and Mom and Dad and visiting old friends who were also in town, I was also looking forward to flying back.

I flew back.  Sweetie wasn't there to meet me at the gate.  I looked around for her but couldn't see her.  There were a lot of people around and we hadn't thought to agree on a place to meet.

I went down to the baggage claim, and as I was watching for my duffel, a big weight hit me in the back, a delighted voice in my ear.  "I'm so glad to see you!"  I turned around to look at her.

She smiled at me with a brilliance like the sunrise.  She stepped forward to be in the same space where I was for a moment, the quintessential meeting of lovers at the airport, dropped luggage and moist eyes and arms wrapped around each other.  Her hair smelled faintly of peaches - funny, the details that stick with you.  And this time, I did melt.  We have melted together, irrevocably intermixed.  I could no more live without her than I could unscrew my arm, or stopper up the chambers of my heart.  Every time she looks into my eyes, the cymbals crash.

This is what love feels like.

Monday, April 25, 2011

What to Do When Your Car's Paint Peels Off

Repaint the car.  There are different ways to do this, some less mainstream than others.

This happened to me.  I had noticed that for whatever reason, Chrysler seemed to paint their vehicles with nonstick paint.  It certainly didn't stick to the cars.  I also drove a Dodge van at work, whose paint flaked off in large pieces.  So here I was with a perfectly functional, relatively young Dodge minivan with only 150,000 miles on the odometer, a mere ten years old and running well, but its paint was just disappearing.

Sweetie said one day she was driving along and looked into the mirror to see what she mistook for a sudden fall of autumn leaves.  Looked like but clearly could not be, since it was in fact June at the time.

Later relating that incident to her niece, she said offhand, "I guess I'll have to paint it."

Niece said, "Cool, Auntie B!  What are you going to paint on it?"  Niece, whom I love dearly, is a bright, energetic and adorable little girl.  Well, she was little then.  Now I have to look up when speaking to her.  But she's still adorable, bright, et cetera.  But her question set Sweetie to thinking.

"Well, I was thinking 'blue,' but now you've got me going..."

The next day I came home to find Sweetie had repainted the van.  Oh Lordy, had she ever repainted it.

The hood was a striking swirl of whites and blues.  It was brilliant.  In retrospect I think I would have preferred the entire van done that way, but it was difficult to do just the hood, imagine how much more it would have required to do everything.  And I wouldn't have the rest of this interesting story to tell if Sweetie and Niece hadn't gone the way they had.

The hood was done in such a way as to resemble splashing water.  It worked.  In keeping with the watery theme, mermaids and dolphins, bubbles and seaweed played along the sides of the van.  The dolphins and mermaids were life-sized.

I'm guessing that the mermaids were life-sized, never having seen one to actually measure.  But if we assume a mermaid's human portion is approximately the same size as a regular human, then it was in the ballpark.

On the van's roof, Niece had been turned loose to create another mermaid.  On the van's side the mermaid's arm was in such a position that no puritanical sensibilities need be offended.  Everything even a little risque was covered.

Niece is a very matter-of-fact young lady.  On this day about ten years ago, she was a very matter-of-fact young girl.  Mermaids are women, women have breasts, and in most images of them you don't see them sporting the latest from Victoria's Secret.  And since the mermaid would be on the roof, she wouldn't be shocking anyone driving alongside.  The only people who would see our van's roof would be truckers.  "They're grownups," she had said.  "They can handle it."

She said it very matter-of-factly.

While painting the rooftop mermaid, Niece made two curvy swoops to define the mermaid's bosom.  Not satisfied with how it came out unevenly, she did it again, a little bigger to cover the old attempt.  No good.

Do it again.  No good.

Do it again.  Okay, that ought to get it.

Now we had an undeniably chesty bare-breasted mermaid smiling up at the truckers from the roof of our van.  She was blonde, happy, sporting a swoopy green tail and ... well, the word "tremendous" comes to mind.

I clambered up on a ladder to look at the results.  I had just got home and Sweetie and Niece had met me at the truck, telling me to hurry and come look at their handiwork.  Niece climbed up a ladder on the other side of the car.  "She looks a little like the choir director, don't you think?"

I had been stunned speechless by the van itself, but this statement shocked me back to life, and I had to think about it.  "Well, actually... She'd have to be a little - um - bigger."

Niece hopped off the ladder, and came back with a paint brush.  "Okey-dokey!"

"No, no!  That's okay.  Let's let her be unique."

"You sure?"  Niece cast an impish grin at me.  "I've been painting all afternoon.  It won't bother me to make changes.  It was Auntie B who said she was different sizes in the first place."

"No, honey.  I think this will be fine."

Cleanup took the rest of the evening.  Niece was conveyed back to her home.  The next day we took the newly-christened Mermaid Mobile for a spin and found ourselves the center of attention in traffic, and that truckers weren't the only ones who could see the smiling, busty beauty on the roof.

It turns out the kids in school buses could see the roof of our van just fine.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Why Unions Are a Pain

Some days, it sucks to be a large, technologically advanced corporation building a highly anticipated product.

Some days, it sucks to be Boeing.

Boeing is trying hard in spite of assorted delays to get its latest jetliner, the 787, off the ground.  Doubtless you've heard of Boeing.  They're the ones who built the iconic 747 with its singular design element, the humped cockpit.  Airbus is building a plane with a similar feature; most people look at it and say, "747."  That's what you get for being late to the party.   It's like Band-Aids and Kleenex, when you're the icon, it doesn't matter if someone else is making a similar product.  You win the recognition race.

Boeing also builds the 777, the largest twin-engine passenger aircraft flying.  And it's a doozy: the engine nacelles are almost as big around as the entire fuselage of the old 707.  A 777 on a press flight stayed aloft over 22 hours - that's impressive by any yardstick.  No in-flight refueling on passenger planes, you know.  The fuel economy of Boeing's planes just gets better and better.

But the 787, AKA the Dreamliner, keeps getting stalled.  Weight issues, technical issues, order cancellations all pile up.  Boeing's headaches are pretty big ones.  At least the union hasn't kicked up a fuss lately...

Oops.  Boeing, in order to keep costs under control, to keep development and production moving forward, decided to build its second 787 production line not in Puget Sound but in South Carolina.

Labor unions aren't a big thing in South Carolina.  That's where the trouble starts.

The National Labor Relations Board said, "Not so fast.  You said back in '07 you would build in Washington State."

At this point Boeing should be completely within its rights to say, "We changed our mind," and that be the end of it.  The company owns the lines, the company builds the planes.  The company builds the lines for building the planes.  The company should get to say where that happens.

You can bet South Carolina, not widely known as a manufacturing hub of much of anything, would be tickled to get the work.  But the NLRB is sticking its nose in just the same.  The NLRB claims that Boeing decided to move the plant as a means to avoid potential labor disputes, that they can't afford a work stoppage every three years, just when they're building one of the most technically challenging aircraft ever made.

Here's where I put my liberal hat away.  Hello, conservative helmet.  Why shouldn't Boeing build where they want?  Even if the stated reason for choosing a different location for the plant is as boldly stated as "We don't want to have to deal with unions quite so much," is that illegal?  I think not.  I thought this was a free country.

The gall of the NLRB trying to force any company to build where it dictates smacks of the worst of socialism. "You'll build what we tell you to build, where we tell you to build it."  Click your heels when the commissar rides by in his staff car.  If you own the company, you get to call the shots.  If you are the worker, you get to decide whether to work.  If you are the union, you are...what, exactly?  Unions are supposed to represent the workers, to uphold their rights.  What I take away from that is protecting the privileges of lots of workers while holding a Damoclean sword over the companies.  Before labor laws were a big thing in this country, corporate abuse of labor was rampant, but those days are pretty much behind us.  The need for unions isn't what it used to be.  I believe - honestly - that at least part of the inflation problem in this country is to be blamed on unions and their incessant pressure for higher wages and greater privileges.

Is it any wonder all the technically advanced work goes to where the labor is cheapest?  Americans demand low prices but they also demand high wages.  Something's got to give, people.  If you want an American-made VCR, you're going to have to find a labor scheme different from the Detroit model.  You're going to have to be willing to work for less.

I almost took a production job.  I would've been building mobile homes.  Some of the work would have been a bit demanding, but it was pretty much just assembly line stuff.  Granted, the assembly line would've churned out houses, but you get the point.  And it would've started at $7.10 an hour, comfortably above minimum wage just seven short years ago.  Something better came available and I took that instead, but I almost signed.  $7.10 per hour pays the bills.  If it doesn't, what are you buying? 

So.  Boeing wants to build planes.  South Carolina wants jobs.  Washington State already has some jobs and Boeing asserts that no jobs already existing are being relocated by the decision to build the line in SC.  If Boeing were to completely shut down the factory, the offices, the research labs, everything, would that violate union rules?  I don't see how.  The company decides for itself whether it wants to stay in business.  If the company's principals turned around after a while and said, "you know, building planes was fun.  Let's do that again, but this time someplace warmer," would that violate union rules?  I don't see how. 

I don't see a problem here.  What hasn't been done, hasn't been done.  What might be done, might not be done.  And it might be done somewhere else.  Boeing wants to build planes.  The NLRB needs to step out of the way, or else admit that it really doesn't have an interest in American business.

Labor Relations means the workers talking to the companies.  If the NLRB succeeds in hogtying the companies in this fashion, count on the companies just going away.  Then there will be no need for relations, and no need for the NLRB.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Characterization Exercises

One of the latest developments of our play's production has been discovering the depth of our characters.

I've mentioned before such things as the suspension of disbelief, which if you're in the film or TV industry, you'll hear from time to time, or maybe on the Congressional finance committee.  The audience has to set aside the reality of the stage, the lighting, the seats and the fact that they're in a room with two hundred other people, so they can get into the story.

That process starts with the set: little details like period-correct fashions, hats on the men, no quartz watches or other anachronistic elements that jar.  I can't remember the movie but I think it was The Ten Commandments; if you're on the ball you can spot a wristwatch on Charlton Heston.  As fun as that sort of thing is to spot when you're a film nerd, it pulls the viewer out of the thrill of the story itself, which is why he's there in the first place.

The next bit is the players.  How right are they as their characters?  Do they act is if they're acting, or do they act as if they're reacting?

Let me clarify: I can say a line because that's the part that comes next in the script, and that's acting.  Or I can say a line because that's what my character would do - that it happens to be in the script is coincidental.

So far one of my favorite exercises in this process has been giving my character a back story.  I created a history for him, one that explains how he got to where he is today.  This took a few hours and a fair bit of research.  It explained why he didn't have a distinguished military career (not that he shirked the duty, mind - he's a home front soldier, supplying the boys at the front) and went so far as to describe how he came to be in the predicament he's in now, stranded on the island with a bunch of strangers who may or may not be bad people.

Sounds a bit like "Lost."  Maybe I should've watched that show from time to time.

So I surprised even myself when I stepped onstage to deliver the lines after a tragedy has befallen me my character, and I burst into tears.  It was over the top, but for the first time I was feeling the situation not as a guy playing a character, but as the character.  So the playing became simultaneously much easier and much harder.  It took me the next day to come down from that.

It didn't help any when the director said, "That's amazing.  Can you come back in and do that again?"

Blubbering helplessly, "It took me fifteen minutes to get into this state!"

"Well, do your best."

So I came back in and did it again.  And it's so draining, so exhausting, I understand why actors don't do this every minute of every day.  Acting is hard work.  Worth $20M per picture, probably not - anybody can do this.  But is it a real job, you better believe it.

I'm frazzled.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Thank You, Charlie Sheen

...for continuing to be the on-again, off-again inconsistent performer we've come to expect.  If there's one constant in Charlie Sheen Land, it's inconsistency.

Early reports are that Charlie's DC show is a stinker and people are leaving before it's over.  Bummer.  So it's time to ask yourself, Charlie: are you still "winning?"

For a while there, Sheen was the highest-paid actor on TV.  That's not likely to ever happen again.  You can bet that whoever bankrolled this ridiculous tour of his is probably wishing he could push some huge RESET button somewhere, or maybe activate the Omega Thirteen.  When he's on his game, Sheen is supposed to be engaging, funny, watchable.  But when he's off his game...well.  And he's off his game so often.

Ticket buyers are throwing their money away.  If they like Charlie so much, their money would be better spent picking up a used copy of Hot Shots Part Deux.

So it's a bad risk, ponying up for a ticket to Charlie.  What about the scalpers?  Not that I have any sympathy for them, no sir - but still, you know some of these guys are taking a bath, buying up blocks of tickets on speculation, hoping to turn a profit.  Maybe a career change is in order there, guys.  Take up a real job, like flipping burgers.  It ain't a get-rich-quick scheme, but at least it's going broke slower.

And somebody hold a place in line for Charlie, too.  He could use an honest job for a change.  One where he's not the star, not powered by unfiltered ego and BS, one that gives him a chance to see what people go through to earn the money to spend on his pointless, spotty "tour."

Time to hang up the tour bus spurs.  You can only whine about your problems for so long, before we all realize that the one common denominator in all that misery is Charlie Sheen.  Then we stop caring.  Cancel the tour, go home, dry out, get a life.

Then we'll all be winning.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Calling Names, Killing Mercutio

Here's a term I've heard a couple of times, and it threw me: "liberal elitist."  The liberal part I get: I'm a liberal, sorta.  I'm also a conservative, but less so.  So I guess I'm more or less moderate, with leanings one direction or the most Americans.  There aren't that many people so polarized that they fit very neatly into one pigeonhole with nothing sticking out.

But then there's that "elitist" bit.  What the heck is that?  Is this a real label, or is it a character attack?

Inside my head, an elitist is someone who's taken some pains to achieve a higher standard, then takes some pains to make sure everyone knows both about the higher standard and the pains it took to get there.  He lords his achievement over all and sundry.

So "liberal elitist" goes...where?

Okay, looking it up gets me a little further.  "Liberal elite" speaks to the wealthiest liberals, Democrats with money.  Quake in your boots, Republicans.  Rich folks who back bussing for schools but send their kids to private academies.  But that isn't the whole answer, the phrase I'm hearing is "liberal elitist."

Further Googling took me here.  It's not the answer I was looking for, but it was funny.

Now take a look at a seething conservative viewpoint.

What I'm getting out of this is that a lot of political noise that's generated seems to be namecalling.  Really, people - is this the best you can do?  Your guy lost, and what's left is bitching endless complaining about all of the winner's character flaws?  Even the imagined ones?

If McCain had won the election, there would be similarly endless complaining about his character flaws, real and imagined.  There would be lots of debate as to whether he was eligible to even be President, due to his birth on foreign soil.

Bet you didn't know about that one, did you?  Yeah, it's a surprise.  Look him up on Conservapedia and it's nothing but sunshine and rainbows. 

Well, no rainbows.  Can't send the wrong message.  Wouldn't be prudent.  Look around though, and there's some indecision whether he was born on the post or not.  Was he or wasn't he?  Ultimately, does it matter?

But that doesn't get us to the crux of my question.  Viewed one way, "elitist" implies an individual with considerable knowledge and insight, one who should be listened to.  Another way, it's an individual who is of a select few.  Then there's the worst possible definition, the one that implies an individual is conceited, assuming of privilege, snooty.  Since that's the bad definition, that's the one conservatives are using when they fling it at liberals with higher educations, money, and power.  Never mind that there are also conservative elitists.

Donald Trump is filthy rich (sorta).  He cheerfully declares he can drop $600M on his own campaign if it needs it; does that not smack of elitism?

Sarah Palin describes herself as just another mom...who was also governor, had her own surreality show, and is the increasingly grating mouthpiece of the highly polarized right.  Does that not smack of elitism?  Well, in my mind it doesn't, not as much as cognitive dissonance.  But moving on!

I actually don't dislike John McCain.  Say what you will of his political stance, he's a tough dude.  Offered a chance to be released from his POW camp, he turned it down - no jumping the line for release.  I respect that sense of honor and duty.  I wouldn't not vote for him, but Obama talked a better game.  Was Obama's game better than McCain's, well, that's tough to say.  As Aslan said, no one is told what might have been.  The only way to find out would be for McCain to gain the Presidency, and we see how it shakes out.  But of course, preexisting conditions won't be the same, so we're back to Aslan's wisdom.

What I'm finding most from all this research is that I'm sorely displeased by the level of maturity represented by both sides of the political houses.  "A plague on both your houses!"  We, the American people, are Mercutio, caught in the middle of bitterly rancorous factions, with people I care for on both sides.

Mercutio was desperately trying to break up a fight between his good friend Romeo and his soon-to-be kinsman Tybalt.  The country is caught up by the increasingly incendiary distrust and dislike between the political parties of our government.  While it helps a bit to have the built in function of checks and balances, it also makes for difficult relationships.  Things get said that aren't easily forgotten, not even when mutual agreement is needed.  There doesn't need to be this low behavior, this ill will and short temper.  The namecalling is childish, the endless jockeying for dominance is counterproductive.  You're tearing our country apart.  It's beneath you.  You're supposed to be our best and brightest, our chosen leaders.

Our elite.

Deserve it.  Deserve it, or step aside.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Tax Day and Other Bits

Though April 15 is the official Tax Filing Day in the United States of America, for some reason it's been pushed back to April 18 for 2011.  So if you were procrastinating, your time's up.  Sharpen your pencils and warm up the car, 'cause at midnight tonight, the clock runs out.

Don't like it?  Tough cookies.  Move somewhere where there's no taxes.  Go on, pack up, get going.  And when you're done with your search, I'll still be here when you get back.

Taxes are a fact of life.  As the saying goes, "death and taxes."  Medical technology is pushing death further and further off, but taxes just get bigger and bigger.  Maybe there's some kind of mathematical constant between the two that must be maintained.  You can have lower taxes, but you have to die young as a result.

What do your taxes pay for?  Well, for starters the United States government is the single largest employer in the country, by a long way.  More Americans work for the government than work for any production industry.  There are more people collecting paychecks for shuffling mail, running the Patent Office and Lord knows what else (don't forget the several branches of the armed services) than are making cars, operating mines, printing books.  America has gone from a nation of makers to a nation of takers.  And the money that pays all those government employees comes from your taxes.

I'm not in a production industry either.  I've spent the majority of my working life in the services sector.

What else?  Roads.  The Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways (big name, you betcha - is it any wonder nobody calls them that?) is federally funded and operated.  That's an awful lot of mileage, and you'd miss them if they were gone.  The Interstate system supplanted rivers as hubs of commercial development to about as great a degree as the railroad; cheap and fast transportation can now get right into the center of a city, moving goods with no stoplights for hundreds and hundreds of miles at a stretch.

How about the United States Postal Service?  Now we all know the USPS has taken a big hit in recent years. Email has dealt a nasty knock to the Eagle, which remains committed to its mission to serve every address six days a week.  Do you think maybe you could get by with one day less?  That would cut the postage rates a bit.  Those little postal trucks are relatively thrifty, but there's a lot of them.  And as much as people complain about how expensive it is to send an old-fashioned letter, it's still cheaper to send anything anywhere by American post, the USPS still handles a gigantic volume of post faster than any other country, and you can be certain your mail hasn't been opened while in transit.

Hmm.  I mentioned the Eagle speaking about the USPS, but there's another Eagle, one I especially adore: the USCGC Eagle, a steel-hulled tall ship in current service with the Coast Guard.  Is there much need for sailing vessels in modern navies, not really.  But if we get hit by some nutjob's EMP attack, isn't it nice to know we have some tonnage available that doesn't need an engine or electronics to function?

We spend our nation's money on other things than ships.  There's our armed forces in harm's way, and armed forces on friendly soil.  Government-funded health research, to push death back further yet.  Space exploration, energy exploration, all of it costs money.  You have your opinion about what matters and what doesn't, but how do you determine whether your opinion is the right one?  It might be right but is it right enough?

Should we explore space?  You bet.  There's lots of land out there - the moon is closer than the number of miles my car has traveled, and a freakishly large natural satellite it is, too.  Some astronomers call the Earth-Moon system a double planet.  But do we have any permanent residents on such a conveniently close neighbor, no.  Why not?  It'd be a perfect place from which to launch deeper space exploration - low gravity, lots of minerals for building, close to the sun for plenty of power.  And if an asteroid creamed the earth and killed off all the humans, there'd be still humans left, living on other planets.  We should get some of our eggs into other baskets, quickly.

Energy exploration.  We're hooked on oil, but do we need it?  Solar energy is free for the taking.  It's been raining soup for the last four billion years, and only just recently have we realized we even have bowls to hold over our heads.  Let's lift up some bowls!

Nothing is free.  Social Security, Medicare, the breakdown lane on I-75 - it all cost money.  Money for materials, money for labor, money for upkeep.  You live in the country where these things are and make use of them.  So pony up.  I did.

Don't forget: TurboTax works great!

Friday, April 15, 2011


No, not Einstein's theory of relativity.  Rather, the fact that so many things we do and think about, we do by referring to their relation to other things.

Let's start with an easy one.  Sitting with Sweetie in our church's little memorial "garden," really it's a couple of benches in the wooded area that is popular for scattering loved ones' ashes, we both noticed some brand-new oak leaves, knocked out of the trees by the previous evening's hail storm.  I had a tiny leaf in my fingers, slowly twirling it, admiring its faint layer of fuzz and the delicate shade of newly-minted green.  Sweetie took it from me and examined it.

"You know what this means, don't you?"  Something about the leaf had been gnawing at me, and suddenly I remembered what it was - not just the leaf, but the fact that it was a tiny, new oak leaf.

"Time to plant corn."

Sweetie nodded.  "When the oak leaves are the size of a squirrel's ear, it's time to plant corn."  That's an old standby and as rules of thumb go, it's pretty reliable.  By the time such leaves are that kind of size, it's a fair chance that all your bad weather is behind you.  Get out the plow and lube up the seed drill, time to get some money in the ground.

Ooh, "Rule of thumb" is a good one, too.  There are different versions of the origin of the phrase, the most well-known and most quoted probably being that a man couldn't beat his wife with a stick thicker than his own thumb.  That's a pretty misogynistic thing to go bandying about and I think it's likely crap.  The thumb/stick relation is a misrepresentation of an old British common law that had nothing to do with anyone striking anyone, with a stick or anything else.  And there are other representations of things called "rules of thumb" that go back even farther in history than that.

In fact, in several languages, the word meaning "inch" is very similar to, or the same as the word meaning "thumb."  If you didn't have a ruler handy, you probably at least had a thumb.  Mark off your measurements with that, extrapolate, and off you go with your project, with everything measured to the same basic unit.  What difference does it make if you have huge thumbs or little ones?

I used to know a guy whose last name was - and probably still is, though I haven't seen him since high school - Smoot.  It turns out that all the Smoots in the US are probably related to each other, including to the one who, in a highbrow frat stunt, was turned end-over-end across the length of Harvard Bridge in 1958, to determine the bridge's length at 364.4 smoots.  Amusingly, when the bridge was renovated in the 80s, the concrete of the new sidewalks was scored at one-smoot intervals instead of the more traditional six feet.  So if you think the concrete sections on the Harvard Bridge are only 5'7" you're right.

You can also find distance in smoots on Google Earth.  I tried to paste an image of a screenshot but my kung fu is on the fritz.

Hmm, what else?  I do love the metric system: a meter is one hundred centimeters; one thousand cubic centimeters is exactly a liter, which (of water) weighs exactly a kilogram.  All the different measurements refer to each other, so if you can establish one you can find all the others with simple math.  But what determined the original meter?  It's not related to the "imperial" system at all.  In fact, the meter is based on time.

You heard that right: time.  It makes sense when you think about it, too.  We talk about music being played at this or that meter, and a meter's length was originally defined as being that length of a pendulum whose half-period was one second.  But certain vagaries come into play: a meter is slightly longer or shorter, depending on where you stand.  Slight differences in Earth's gravitational field make the period longer or shorter according to where you are when you measure.

And of course, there are certain difficulties in measuring the exact duration of a second.  It used to be defined as 1/86400 of a day, but that was hundreds of years ago.  Days are longer now.  Now you have to refer to other things to determine the length of a second.

Heisenberg was right.  You can't observe anything without affecting the phenomena you observe.  We observed the second, and depending on where you stand, it may be longer or shorter.  And by golly, that affects the length of the meter!  Which affects the weight of the kilo, which means pounds are bigger, which means more butter on my toast...

It's all relative.  Step out of your car this morning on your way to work.  Think about your shoe size, and barley.  They're related, believe it.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Donald Trump for President? Yipes.

I had originally called this post "Donald Trump: Too Right."  Let me clarify straightaway: I don't mean "too right" as in, more correct than we could have hoped.  No, no.  I mean, "too right" as in, he has no left.  But that's not entirely the case.  And while he's not the foaming right-winger that I feared he might be, I still don't think he's as balanced a candidate as we ought to have.

I wrote earlier in the week about birthers, that group that adamantly refuses to believe any evidence offered that Barack Obama might, in fact, be a naturally born American.  This issue was mostly dead and off in the fringe until Trump started shouting it again.  So this ridiculous Roswell-esque controversy is back in the headlines, and it's feeding off the reflected glory (?) of its loudest constituent, The Donald.

Let's consider the source.  What do we know about Trump?  He's a billionaire, he owns a short stack of Atlantic City casinos, he used to own a football team, he's been rich and he's been broke.

A lot of people, I think, have the mistaken assumption that Trump is rich because of his casinos and hotels.  Well, yes and no.  The casinos don't show consistent profits.  One of his hotel/casinos is selling so poorly - ostensibly as a direct result of the 2008 financial crisis - that he's tried to declare the financial crisis itself as an act of God, an unforeseeable disaster that has impacted his business like a tornado or tsunami...and tornadoes and tsunamis carry a lot of weight with creditors.  Maybe they could cut him a little slack?  Act of God, you know.

Well,'ve passed yourself off as a businessman for so long, a towering (ha ha ha) figure on the marketplace, trying to convince anyone that you had no idea the bad times were coming rings a little false.  Are you a brilliant businessman, or are you just some poor schlub that got blindsided by the banks?  Make up your mind, and then stick to it.

I never read Trump's book, The Art of the Deal.  It sounded too much like hucksterism to me, too much like patting oneself on the back.  Considering how far down in the dumps Trump was during the 90s, I don't think I was wrong.  But about the same time that book came out, I heard a little phrase and I don't remember who said it.  Here it is:

"Borrow $100,000 from the bank, and the bank owns you.  Borrow $100 million, and you own the bank."  At that level, the bank has entirely too much skin in the game to just pick up their ball and go home when the score starts to look bad.  And you being the game in question, they have to keep backing you.  Not indefinitely of course, but when you're holding the strings to $100 million of the bank's money, they're going to give you a lot more time and consideration than they do to the guy who's only got a $100,000 mortgage.

Another phrase heard during the financial meltdown was "too big to fail."  Now we know of course that nothing is ever too big to fail.  Observe the Soviet Union.  It was pretty big, and it failed.  That was something we were actually working toward making happen; with a little social engineering in the 80s we could have prevented the financial collapse of the 2000s.  But that ship has sailed, and we're getting back on top of things, sorta.  But my point is, with as much financial backing as he had, Donald Trump had become too big to fail.  Let me rephrase just a little: Donald Trump had become too big a liability to be permitted to fail.

Mmm, delicious.  Donald Trump = liability.

I won't speak a lot to Trump's politics.  They unfortunately tend to agree with some of my own views; damning them points an unpleasant finger back at myself.  Socially moderate, I'm there - but I'm not against gay marriage and Trump is - leery of Chinese trade imbalance, I'm there; against continuation or enhancement of our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, I'm there.  But these are just bullet points.  I can't get a complete view of his political stance because every time he comes across the TV, I have to shut it off before I start throwing things.

TVs are expensive, you know.

I've said it before and it bears repeating here, in print: it takes a certain amount of ego to run for President.  You have to have some gall to think you're the right guy for the job, and then to go and try to convince others of that.  As far as ego is concerned, Trump could run the table.  He's made such a name for himself by, uh, plastering his name on things, it's no surprise if he's started to believe some of his own hype.  I'm sure that he's sure he could do that job.

But the man is in a lot of debt, has been bankrupted more than once, and even now owes hundreds of millions.  If he's supposed to be so rich, why doesn't he pay those notes?

Maybe I'd rather see someone with a tighter budget history running the show.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Charlie Sheen = Fukushima

What do you do when the meltdown is on the verge?

Dump a lot of water on it, try to plug the leaks, run like hell and don't look back.

Charlie Sheen is slightly less stable than the Fukushima Daiichi reactor.  At least we know what's wrong with the reactor: an earthquake rattled the bejeebers out of it, cracked it in a couple of places, and ruined the controls.  Now it's halfway out of control and emergency crews are dumping water on it as fast as they can, trying to cool it down to prevent a runaway Chernobyl repeat.

There isn't enough water in the world to shut down Charlie Sheen.  He's irrationally convinced of his awesomeness, unresponsive to those trying to rein him in, and every once in a while he flares up and burns someone anew.  Mostly by now he's burning only himself.  But that's bad enough, I wouldn't wish ill on him.

His opening night was a disaster.  Then somehow he dragged himself into some semblance of lucidity and delivered pretty well for a night or two.  Now he's done New York and by all accounts the stopper was out and the water level dropping before he was halfway through.  What's going wrong?

First of all, too much of the material he's delivering is old.  You can't ask a crowd to pay money for a live act, then show them YouTube videos.  Do that, and the hecklers are already primed and ready for action.

Second and worst, he's inconsistent.  Up one day and down the next, and the ticket you bought is to a crapshoot.  If you get Down Charlie, you're stuck with a lousy night and lost money.  Well: consider it tuition on a lesson learned.

Charlie's biggest mistake is to try to make himself out to be a rebel.  You can't pick that mantle up and put it on - it's either something you are, or it's something you aspire to be.  You can't just choose to suddenly be one.  And for the record, being a reckless, abusive, destructive customer/boyfriend/husband doesn't make you a rebel.  No, that just makes you an asshole.

Sorry for the coarseness.  There really aren't any better terms for it.

So Charlie's image is a falsehood, an ersatz rebel who manages to get away with general churlishness by having deep pockets to pay off the offended.  As bad as that is, and it's pretty bad, I can't see why anyone would want to give money up to see that offender live and in person.  I mean - if you want abuse, why not visit the jail?  Those people are just as bad, and probably a lot funnier.

My greatest despair is to see the unrepentant spirit Charlie brings to his current status.  He's cheerfully irrational - "friggin' rock star from Mars," indeed.  He speaks ill of everyone he thinks may have crossed him, no matter how small the offense.  His appreciation for the people around him is thin and superficial.  He believes he's actually as good as he says he is, and can't understand when things go wrong.  Whose fault must that be?  Certainly not his.  No, no - it could never be that.

Excellent things have come out of this clown factory - oh, and what a clown it is - Two and a Half Men may be off the air for good.  That's good news for TV.  I have plenty of things to write about, that's good news for me.  And just maybe, this is the meltdown Charlie needs, the last descent that brings him to the point where he discovers that he isn't fabulous, he isn't winning, and he really needs some help.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Birthers Need to Get a Grip

Therer's a subset of the American population that are known as "birthers."  To the point, they are the ones who adamantly call for the production of President Barack Obama's original birth certificate, and quickly fasten onto rumors of forgery and allusions to other certificates.

Let's address some of the facts.  First, Obama has indeed made his birth certificate available.  The state of Hawai'i won't release it to anyone without a tangible interest, but the fact of the specious controversy surrounding Obama's nationality made tangible interest pretty much universal for every American.  So it's been studied by more than one individual, including those who can be regarded as neutral.  Obama's attending OB-GYN, for instance.

Obama's family tree is a little confusing.  His parents and grandparents are from quite literally all over.  Africa, Indonesia, wherever.  The man is a walking example of the Great American Melting Pot.  Me, I'm fourth generation northern European.  I'm from Minnesota, my parents are from Minnesota.  My grandparents grew up there.  Go further back though, and you find people living in Bavaria, Finland, Sweden.  Obama's family are a little more recently from somewhere else, and so what?  He's from Hawai'i, and Hawai'i was a state of the US nearly two years before Obama was born.  In fact, they almost share birthdays - both came to the US in August.

Documents purporting to prove that Obama is actually a native of Somewhere Else have universally been proven false.  He isn't native to Kenya, nor to Indonesia.  Perhaps most damning to the birthers' theories are the little incidental details of Obama's birth.

Dig back through the archives of Hawai'i's newspapers and you find a teeny little mention of a son born to Mr. and Mrs. Barack Obama on August 4, 1961.  And now here's the kicker, if you find a hard copy somewhere of the newspaper, one that somehow escaped lining the bird cage for fifty years, I reckon it'll still say the same thing.  Nobody's dug into the official archives and paid a ton of money to get a line changed here or there.

So what's up with the birthers?  Why the refusal to accept the reality?

I think it's for the same reason Democrats recounted the Florida vote so carefully back in 2000.  They didn't want to lose.  They didn't like the closeness of the vote and frankly some of the circumstances looked a little hinky: governor was kin to the Republican candidate, Dems were on a high note and how could it be so close?  So there was some bitterness.  Now Republicans were on a high note and God forbid we have to deal with Hillary in all this mess, certainly something about the guy can't be right - what's up with that family history?  It all looks so iffy...and yet it isn't.  Obama's as American as you, me, and the guy standing up to say the Pledge of Allegiance for the first time as an American citizen.  Stepping up as a candidate for the Presidency is to throw your hat into the most awful of rings.  There is no privacy as President.  You can't scratch your butt without getting caught on camera.  It's nigh-on impossible to get away with anything, and you can bet there's never going to be a way to close all the loopholes of your family history, if you're trying to cover something up.  So you take the path of least resistance: the truth.  Saying what's real.  You do what you can to eliminate or simply sidestep the friction of being a candidate, and then President, so you can get on with the job of actually being President.

Silk boxers.  That's all I'm saying.

The truth.  That's all I'm saying.  His birth certificate has been seen.  Whether you heard about it or not, that's not my fault nor his - if you weren't listening or watching, then who's to blame?  If you're not going to believe it until you get to actually lay hands on the birth certificate itself, please step up and shove your fingers into Jesus' side while you're at it, while I rustle up some name change forms for you.  "Doubting Thomas," that has a ring to it...and hey, you're already at the public records office, so there's a trip you've saved.

It's one thing to be passionate about your beliefs, to be 100% behind your candidate.  Well and good, and well you should.  If you think your candidate is the right one for the job, back him.  But to try to make him look better by tearing the other guy down, well, that's just lousy sport.  Not that I'm saying there's anything sporting about the American political scene, I'm saying that if that's all you bring to the party then maybe your position wasn't so strong in the first place.  If all you have in your favor are negative statements about the other guy, perhaps you'd do better as a journalist.

Donald Trump needs to step off his soapbox, because he's braying about facts that have already been verified - just not verified in the direction he wants.  Further braying only makes him look more an ass than he already does - which ought to really raise the bar for the next guy.

This issue is so old its sell-by date is covered with the dust of years.  To raise it again is to admit defeat before the battle's even joined.

If you don't like the President, say so.  Just don't say he isn't American.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Terry Jones is a Fool - On Behalf of the United States, My Apologies to Afghanistan


Of all the stupid things to do, burning somebody's holy book is one of the dumbest.  There are a few simple reasons:

1) If they're any kind of rational, the people whose holy text you've destroyed will simply pull another copy of the shelf.  Problem solved.  You've destroyed only one of millions, and even if you were to destroy them all, all you've done is burn a book.  Big whoop - the book's message is already out there, and all you've done is made it more interesting.  What's in there that you're so afraid of?  Hmm, gotta check that out.  Good job, Jones.  You were trying to scare people away from the Quran, and instead you've caused a spike in sales.

2) The close-minded and easily incensed practitioners of that faith - those people like yourself, Jones - will FREAK THE HELL OUT and go all bugnuts, rioting and revolting and generally raising all kinds of ruckus.  Witness the latest uproar in Afghanistan, where dozens are dead and hundreds wounded in the riots.  Way to go, Jones - I thought you were supposed to be some kind of holy man, dedicated to peace?  How did you get that job?

I don't hold with Islam.  There are entirely too many radical factions associated with it for me to take it seriously. Do I think Islam is inherently bad?  No, but neither do I think it is inherently good.  There's something that makes such radical fundamentalism so easy, and so easily corrupted to become the repressive, oppressive driving force behind so many factions.  I can't say whether that's an idealogical shortcoming, or a toxic combination of the faith and the culture where it's practiced.  I'm not educated or smart enough to be able to figure all that out.  And  I'm not saying Christianity is without blame, or Judaism.  If only there weren't all the pesky humans in the mix, lousing things up...

Well.  Can't have that.

Everybody calm down.  All he managed to do is burn a book.  Islam isn't even lightly toasted by this halfwitted stunt.

Just because Jones has to be immature and xenophobic, doesn't mean everyone else has to react to it.  Let him have his tantrum, but don't give him more attention than he deserves.

Thursday, April 7, 2011


I love comics.  Lots of people love comics and lots of people love webcomics.  I'm not unique in this regard, and in fact nothing I have to say at this juncture is really unique.

Webcomics are the latest iteration of the comic genre.  As difficult as it can be to generate comics on a professional level, there are lots of people making comics that never get off the drawing board.  They write, they draw, and they don't get seen.  Large companies with large budgets and large expenses can't afford to generate comics for every little writer and artist out there.  There has to be an audience big enough to push the sales past the break-even point.  There has to be enough people willing to make the purchase to validate the production.

You can't easily afford to be edgy, to be marginal.  You can't easily afford to not have a distinctive style or an unfamiliar plot.

What if some of those issues just go away?  Take out the gigantic expensive printing press, remove the bulky logistical staff and sales teams, the offices and all that.  What's left?

A writer.  An artist.  Both might be the same guy.  Maybe you just have a couple of people, but it gets to be pretty basic pretty quickly.  You get back to the core of the storytelling genre, one person with a story, telling it to the best of his/her ability.

Scott McCloud may be the Zen master of the comic art.  His body of work, aside from his contribution to actual comic titles (I have all of Zot!, though some is in graphic novel form) is uniquely introspective.  You don't see that many cartoonists that have made more of a splash talking about the craft of comics than they have as actual artists.  McCloud's books, Making Comics, Understanding Comics, and Reinventing Comics are permanent residents on my bookshelf.

McCloud's take on the craft of comics is like that philosophical question defining intelligence and awareness - every creature thinks, but only the intelligent creatures think about what they're thinking about.

Don't spend a lot of time on that.  I did once, and it started to make my head pound.  Too much self-awareness makes you forget what you're doing.

So I have an indelible love of print comics, but even so I haven't missed the boat.  Webcomics came on with a rush and I found a few that I thought were pretty interesting, but after a while you could feel the artist (or writer, whoever) losing direction or just losing interest.  When it used to update every day, then three times a week, then Mondays and Fridays, you know someone is caring less.  It'll be gone soon.

On the other hand, sometimes the pace quickens.  Sinfest and Questionable Content both used to post less frequently than they do; Sinfest even posts new comics on Saturday and Sunday.  Warning: both have occasionally coarse language.  And frankly QC can sometimes be downright shocking.  That said, it's also a hugely engaging story.  I've been reading it since day one: 2003.  There's over 1700 strips on the archive so if you want to catch up, don't plan on getting it all done in one sitting.  You'll also note that the quality of the art is off the charts - at the beginning, QC's writer and artist Jeph Jacques was not a noteworthy cartoonist (in my opinion).  But as you advance through the strips, there's a consistent, linear progression of art quality.  As they say, practice makes perfect.  If it never improved again from where it is now, I'd say that it was more than good enough.

Sinfest and QC follow distinct forms.  Sinfest during the week is three or four frames like a daily newspaper comic.  QC is four frames, very rarely there might be an extra.  QC goes in a vertical progression, so it's both scroll wheel and up-down button friendly.  Sinfest's Sunday iteration is a big, color spread like a Sunday paper comic, very nice.  And before you get turned off by the name, Sinfest doesn't live up to its name - spiritual topics get some serious exploration, and it can be touchingly sentimental.

But the web is so much more than a sheet of paper.  The comic I think that best exploits the potentially limitless canvas is the now defunct Framed! by Damonk.  In the years since Framed! wrapped up, the support has gotten a little wonky, at least on my end.  Your mileage may vary.

Perhaps the greatest thing the Internet has made available to comic creators is space.  Bill Watterson said it when writing about creating Calvin and Hobbes that in the comics, space equals time.  You get to draw out the perceived duration of a gag, an interaction between two characters, anything.  Just putting some space between whatever is supposed to represent then and what becomes now implies a greater span of time between them.  It's nothing we've been taught, but we've picked it up by reading comics.  The psychology of visual communication is fascinating stuff, and nowhere does it come more into play in such a direct way than comics, when it becomes an integral part of the story.

Some artists can do a bang-up job of making a whole, quick little story out of a single panel.  Bil Keane has done it for literally decades.  Gary Larson made more people scratch their heads over fewer square inches of the funny pages than anyone else, ever.  But when you have so much potential real estate to play with, why would you ever limit yourself in such fashion?

I don't know if Larson and Keane and any of the other single-panel artists ever made the conscious decision to pursue that format as a way to make sales.  I imagine a single panel is an easier sell to a paper than a strip.  But on the web, you're never limited to a panel.  You're not even limited to a Sunday half-page layout.  One of Damonk's strips was so big, I was reading the page for about five minutes, and mousing left, right, up and down - all over the page.  The navigation itself became part of the story, and it was both brilliant and hilarious.  Especially the bit with the snarky signpost.

So you'll see it in the news now and then that print news is suffering, that magazines are having trouble keeping readers, or finding new ones.  They're right, they are.  And for good reason - online is cheaper to do, quicker, easier.  With the growing sales of iPads, smart phones and other portable devices, it's easy to take your online news sources with you, nearly as conveniently as the old print versions.  And what of your favorite comics, the funny papers?  Fear not.

They're already online, waiting for you.  All your old favorites and so many more you've never even heard of.  It's a beautiful world out there.

Let's go exploring!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

No Specific Topic

Having been at this blogging thing for a few months now, I can see how a lot of people get started, then just taper off and stop.  It takes some effort to keep it going, a dedication to keep delivering.

That, or a certain level of vanity.

Moving on!  In a previous post I mentioned I had auditioned for a play.  I received a part, and we're into our second week of rehearsals.  I'll be the fourth person to die in the play, but that doesn't mean I don't have a fair amount of lines to remember.  Even so, as I settle into the part and become more familiar with his mindset, it's becoming easier to memorize the lines.  Being who and what he is, the character reacts thus-and-such a way, being that character means acting and reacting, not like that character, but as that character.

"Who am I?  What is my motivation?"  We hear them as cliches of the performing world, but they really are the touchstones of performing.  You don't want to portray, you want to be.  Achieve that, and you've eliminated the audience's need to suspend their disbelief in order to enjoy the play.  They won't have to suspend it, because they'll be watching not the actor being a character, but just the character.

I've already made the offer to trim my beard into whatever shape the director requires.  He said, "we'll see what Costume wants."

I'm halfway hoping for muttonchops.

In other news, mowing season has begun.  In spite of what I wrote earlier on the economies of buying good equipment and taking care of it, my mower may be toast.

Oh noes!  The horrors.  God forbid I won't be able to mow my lawn.

Actually I think it's very attractive in its current state, the lush, luxuriant growth of spring is very pretty.  But no, leave it long and the city will eventually get annoyed and issue a ticket.  That sort of thing makes me start shopping in the real estate ads for properties in the county.  It's far cheaper to either get the mower working or find a new one.  Eleven years of constant use is pretty good, so I'm not feeling bad about it dying if it is really dead.  Right now I'm going on the assessment of Son, who is a bright and inquisitive lad (and one of the few characters in the play that doesn't die) but may well have overlooked something.

In fact, I'm almost hoping it is dead.  That means I get to shop for an older garden tractor, something classically rugged and handsome and will do the walking for me.

This also flies in the face of earlier statements, that Americans are fat because they're lazy, they won't do for themselves what they can make a machine do for them.  It's true.

Let me back up a bit and touch on the play again.  With rehearsals four nights a week, I'm not watching TV.  Now, I don't have an antenna on my TV, nor do I get cable.  If it isn't on a DVD, I don't see it.  That limits what I watch to a degree, but frankly there's so little out there I do want to watch.  Whenever I see a cable show, almost invariably the thought that crosses my mind the most is, "dang, there sure are a lot of commercials on a channel I'm already paying to watch," closely followed by, "dang, they sure do show a lot of commercials about the channel itself."  DVD-based viewing means no commercials, which means the story flows very smoothly, and I get my watching over in only three-fourths the time.

But no TV in the evening hasn't hurt me a bit.  I'm off the couch and moving around, exercising my body and my brain.  It's even fun, and when was the last time you spent a couple of hours right after work and dinner doing something fun?

No, nooky doesn't count.  And unless you're Superman, it doesn't take a couple of hours, either.

So even if you're not playing a halfway-minor part in a local theater production, don't head straight for the couch after dinner.  Pick up a camera and go for a walk around the neighborhood - it's springtime, shoot some pictures of blooming dogwoods.  Play catch with the kids, draw a picture.  Crochet a doily.

What the heck is a doily?

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Tractors and the Man Who Loves Them

I've already spoken in this venue about loving cars, and to a much greater degree, trucks.  It's not that I love the device itself - not a lot of reciprocation - but the philosophy behind it. 

Let me state right now that I will be taking this opening statement out to the woodshed at a later date.  Right now, just roll with it.

But as much as I love a truck, I think I could kick the truck to the curb for a tractor.  Whatever the truck can do, the tractor can usually do.

Convey you to town?  Yes.  In a hurry, not so much but it will get you there.  And that's where the shared capability pretty much ends.  At this point, we park the truck in a safe place while the tractor flexes its muscles.

The tractor can carry a load.  Not directly, but its capacity to drag a loaded trailer is almost the definition of a tractor.  The machine was originally called a "traction engine," and haulage where rails didn't go was its stock in trade.  A traction engine's original purpose wasn't exclusively agricultural, but it quickly became exactly that as automotive technology and roadbuilding technology advanced side-by-side, and motor freight capabilities developed that could move as much as a traction engine, but much faster.  And even then in very remote or inhospitable areas, traction engines continued to serve yeoman duty in bulk haulage.

What else can a tractor do?  Modern ones are almost outlandishly sophisticated, calling on satellite navigation (and even satellite guidance - concepts are driving themselves!) to plant in the same place as last year to an accuracy of inches.  Not a lot of inches, either - three or four.  You know those popular corn mazes that crop up (ha ha ha) every autumn?  The old way was to mow the corn in the desired pattern.  New computer-controlled planters can plant the maze directly - that's how it comes out of the planter, that's how the corn grows.  Think of it as a supersized dot matrix printer, and the planter is the print head.

I have an old tractor.  Really old, if it was a person it'd be knocking on the door of the Social Security office.  It starts with a crank.  It runs on gas but if I wanted I could make a few alterations and run it on kerosene.  You might not be familiar with kerosene - think of a tiki torch like you see at Wal-Mart or Home Depot this time of year - the lamp oil inside those is pretty close to kerosene.  Or I could run it on paint thinner.  Alcohol (yeah, flex fuel, baby), probably I could get it to run on diesel with a little work.  It would still be spark ignited of course.  Hmm.  Have to think on that one for a while.  But what's it good for?

Dragging the giant stump out of the yard, for starters.  I had a tree blow down, and had to cut it up.  But I'm not going to mess with the stump, all that dirt and roots and whatnot, and it'll never split right for burning.  But how to get it out of the yard?  My old pickup is trusty and ready to serve, but its little tires will never get the traction to get going.  Subaru is out, too - even with AWD, the stump isn't going anywhere.

Enter the tractor.  Out comes the logging chain, and back away in reverse.

Everything stops.  Not the engine, just the motion.  As tractors go, mine isn't much.  18 horsepower on its best day, and did I mention it was 65 years old?  I don't reckon its best day was anytime recently.  But the engine never stumbled.  The tires spun.  18 horsepower, lots of gearing, and tires 48" with brand new lugs makes up for a mighty tug, but the stump stayed put.  If I could lift it, it would probably come in at something over 600lbs with no wheels or anything else conveniently low-friction like that underneath it.  So I change the angle, move the chain, and tug again.  Success!  That was two years ago, and the marks the chain left in the street as I dragged it to the city's pick-up spot are still visible.

What else can it do?  Dragging isn't that big a deal, after all.  Well, a tractor's designed to power things as it drags them around.  Power Take-Off, or PTO is its big party piece.  Plug a removable shaft in to that, and it runs tillers, post hole diggers (imagine a giant wood boring drill bit, 48" high and 12" across.  Where do you want the post hole?  Okey-dokey!), mowing decks as big as fifteen feet across.  Not my tractor, but some out there will do it.  Hay balers, sprayers, vacuums, blowers, combine harvesters - whoa!  Combines?  Yup - before there were giant self-propelled combine harvesters, it was a machine you pulled behind your tractor.  You can still find them for smaller farms.  Of course, a used combine in working condition can be had for about the same price, so maybe you wouldn't bother.

I don't love anything that can't love me back.  But I do love the wide-open potential it brings with it.

That, and the occasional bird nest on the intake manifold.  That's with the hood removed, between the engine oil fill tube and the exhaust.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Charlie Sheen: Ego on the Loose

I've talked about Charlie Sheen once or twice in this venue already.  The man is, in short, low-hanging fruit.  Or is that "fruitcake?"  Whatever.

On top of everything else he's done, grant interviews on the most mundane of subjects, talk about his past substance abuse episodes, describe the assorted women in his life in less-than-generous terms (unless she's a stripper or nude model, then she's a "goddess"), Charlie somehow got a tour organized.

Now, first question you might ask would be, "what kind of tour?"  That's the question I asked myself.  What kind of crowd would Charlie attract?

Let's break this down.  Charlie is an actor.  While there are a great many highly intelligent actors out there, your first takeaway of an actor is that he has to have a certain venue in which to deliver, rehearsals, a script, perhaps.  The Rock Star From Mars doesn't have a well-developed plan for what he's going to show his fans on his so-called "Violent Torpedo of Truth" tour.  At least, that was my first impression and judging by initial reactions from his first tour date, I was right.

Why would anyone buy a ticket to this show?  That's easy: in his highly public falling out with Warner Bros. and Chuck Lorre and apparently everyone else, Sheen has been kind of fun to watch.  But it's fun the way certain online videos are fun - some of those car crashes are pretty entertaining.  That one of the cars all slip-sliding through that icy intersection in Seattle?  I love that, it's amazing.  Chances are pretty good no one was seriously hurt, it all moves pretty slowly.  But at the same time, you know it's a disaster.  Those people in the cars are trapped, out of control, frightened.  So I like to watch it, but I feel bad a little inside, too.

And now, blithely plummeting down the icy hill of reality we have Charlie Sheen.  His stereo is on as loud as it'll go.  If his transmission has a gear marked "Sideways," that's the one he's in.  The convertible top is down.  He's actually smarter than he looks: he's bungee'd animals all over the outside of his car to protect it from minor impacts.  And for that inestimable effect, he's set his hair on fire.  Charlie is entering the intersection.  What will happen next?  You'll have to watch to find out.

In his string of interviews and press releases, Charlie set a tone for what his fans expect.  Irreverence, ego running loose, and an unending string of whacky quotes.  But in the tour, a slightly cooler head has had to do a little planning.  Charlie off the cuff is a lit fuse running into an unmarked box - you have no idea what might happen.  Charlie trying to produce on a schedule is another thing entirely - the fuse is running into an open box, which turns out to be mostly empty.

Charlie can't deliver.  His flash is only flash, and it's best when spontaneous.  Trying to put together a show for his audience, the audience that has formed around his chaotic antics, he has missed the mark.  It was fun watching him do things almost at random, it was entertaining to think he was "sticking it to the man."  But putting together the tour, Charlie has become "the man."  He's promoting himself as a "torpedo of truth," but the truth is really that Charlie is a dud.

His opening act was booed offstage.  Charlie himself was booed offstage.  Charlie isn't fun anymore.

When it looked like Charlie might be a car wreck in progress, that was interesting to watch.  When it looked like he was fighting for his job, or at least for more perks, that was interesting.  But when he's thrown himself overboard, vowing to swim to shore as a "torpedo of truth," what you take away from the sight is that, rather than flapping randomly in circles, Charlie might ought to strike it in one direction - any direction - and stick to it.

I said it before, I'm saying it again.  Rehab, lots of it, pronto.  While you're at it, maybe a little career counseling, and a visit or three with a skilled psychiatrist.