Monday, December 31, 2012

Breaking: A Fiscal Cliff Deal is Confirmed

But the central detail, the one that sticks out the most, is this: they're going to postpone deciding anything else for a couple of months.

Whaddaya wanna bet that means we go through this last-minute, headless chicken scramble again? 

Breaking: A Tentative Deal on the Fiscal Cliff

They may have pulled something out of their hats.

I have no faith.  Once again, our nation's "best and brightest" have failed us with their worst and dimmest.  They have waited until the last minute, scrambled like middle schoolers caught without their homework, trying to cobble some disastrous, ill-conceived half measure at the last. possible. moment.

I'm disgusted with all of them.

I'm so angy and frustrated I can't even think straight.  If you can stand it, check out the latest.  When I wake up in the morning, we'll see exactly how much poo is in the blower, and see what's next.

Friday, December 28, 2012

At the Precipice, A Decision

Can Obama and Congress come to a conclusion that averts the fiscal cliff?  We'll know in three days.

It's worth noting that the median net worth of Congress - Senate and House combined - is about $880,000.  That's a hell of a lot more net worth than I can claim, including the house.  It stands to reason that there should be a lot of friction coming from these people about raising taxes - they have an awful lot to lose.  Republicans and Democrats both, they stand to take a serious bath if their taxes go up.  Most of them don't fall into the category of the so-called "ultra rich," the top one percent income-earners in the United States.

It's pretty easy to see where the distrust and unease come from.  The richest people in America, even without insurance and government-funded health care, can afford what they need.  They can simply pay for things.  The vast majority of the rest of us, however, cannot.  A tax rate hike hits a rich person pretty hard, no doubt - an extra 10 percent is an extra ten percent, and when your income is 25 million that means shelling out a lot more money than before.  But unlike somebody getting by on $30,000 or less, that guy with the $25 million income can afford his necessities.  His groceries are a tiny portion of his income, his health care premiums are a vanishingly small sliver of his take-home pay.  If he isn't an idiot trying to pay the mortgage on a private island, the super-rich guy has very little to worry about.  He could lose 90% of his income and still be considered very well-off indeed.

A guy on $30,000, losing 90% of his income, would be on the ragged edge of homelessness.  With that kind of money, you can afford a nice used van to live in.

Obama and the four Congressional leaders (majority and minority heads, Senate and House) met for an hour - c'mon, you needed a whole hour? - and Obama is coming away saying he's "modestly optimistic."

I'm not optimistic, modestly or otherwise.  I'm damned annoyed.  In that same story, Obama is quoted as saying that "the hour for immediate action is here..."  No it isn't!  The hour for immediate action was months ago!

Politicians are playing hardball against each other, and they're using our country's economy as the ball.  I'm mad as hell, utterly disgusted that this kind of important issue must fall prey to such brinskmanship.  The stakes are too damned high.

I know I keep saying "let's just go over the cliff, and deal with it."  I'm still saying that.  But the most frustrating part is seeing this last-minute scramble to try to come to some kind of agreement.  This is a large part of how the US lost its favorable credit rating just last year.  Does anybody else remember that?  That was the same sort of problem, and it would appear to me that NO ONE HAS LEARNED ANYTHING FROM IT.

Well, I've learned something from it.  I've learned something pretty important, and I hope every politician that has anything to do with my part of the country gets the message, loud and clear.


Thursday, December 27, 2012

Gun Nuts

You've seen them before, in popular culture references, in magazines, and lately in the news.

That last reference is to Nancy Lanza, mom to the crazy guy that killed her and then a slew of children and teachers at the elementary school where she worked as a kindergarten teacher.  That's right, that gun nut was a kindergarten teacher, the kind of person you usually associate with almost anything but guns.

What constitutes a gun nut?  That's a tough call.  In my lifetime I've owned a couple, though at this time I don't have any aside from an excellent pellet rifle that can shoot through a 1/2" thick piece of plywood.  As a "home defense" weapon (more on those later) it's almost worthless, since it's in a box, in the closet, unloaded.  Home defense is about preparedness in an emergency, in that regard the pellet rifle is more effective as a club in its current condition.  I think it would be safe to say I'm not a gun nut.

My dad owns a shotgun, I think.  I haven't seen it in about 35 years, which might be about as long as it's been since he saw it, assuming he even still has it.  I haven't asked, but I feel safe in saying: not a gun nut.

My brother-in-law has a couple.  He occasionally takes them to the local firing range, runs a box of ammo through them, keeping his eye in.  Not a gun nut.

I think the term "gun nut" has to apply not so much to ownership and use (more on that later, too) of guns, as to the philosophy surrounding their ownership and what that ownership means.

The point of the Second Amendment was ostensibly to ensure that the newborn American government never grow up to be a tyranny.  It's difficult to oppress and threaten with deadly force when the entire civilian population has its own weapons to bring to bear against a despotic government.  As I said when describing NPR's problems during March of 2011, when you have to take action against a force that can destroy you, you tend to work hard to keep things fair.  I'm not saying that disgruntled citizens should take up arms at every vote their Congressman makes that doesn't quite suit them, I'm saying that it would be damned hard for our governmental to become a dictatorship that disregards the needs and desires of its citizens, now that we've had legal access to our own military might for quite some time.

In the beginning, when the art and science of gunsmithing was relatively new, the gun you used on the battlefield as part of a military unit was a close cousin to the gun you used as a civilian, hunting for food.  It was understood by the government and the military machine that only the cannons owned and operated by the nation's military represented superior firepower and even so, superior numbers of civilians and smart tactics could overtake slow-firing, logistically cumbersome cannon.  In short, it would be desperately unwise to attempt to overthrow the nation's own citizens.  When so much of the army was really local militia called up to service and they already owned the guns they would use in such service, it would be a doomed effort from the beginning.

But in more recent times gunsmithing has become something else entirely.  It is possible to manufacture weapons capable of firing over 600 rounds per minute.   The fastest non-automatic firing I've ever heard of is damned fast - eight rounds in a single second firing a conventional revolver.  But when the eight rounds are gone, the revolver has to reload.  The AR-15 just keeps shooting until the 30-round clip is empty.

There are people who are freakishly fast shooters. I know I can't pull the trigger eight times in a single second, but there are some who can.  And they hit their targets, so they aren't just whaling away at it.  But that doesn't change the fact that most people simply aren't going to shoot that fast or fire very many rounds in a single go.  The automatic weapon changes that.

But no problem!  You can purchase an automatic weapon if you want one.  Well, semi-auto.  The gun fires a round, resets the trigger for you, and you fire again.  That limits how quickly you can fire the gun, but that limitation isn't a big deal: you can still fire a round every second.

Now is when I ask the question: how quickly do you need to fire?  Sportsmen, legitimate hunters, will usually tell you that being able to fire another shot very quickly is pretty important, but those same hunters will tell you that if you need to fire more than three shots, you're a crap hunter.  Really.  If you can't hit the target on the first shot and need the second shot to end its suffering - suffering you, the hunter, have caused, by the way - a third round can only underline your lousy performance.  And if that third shot doesn't finish it off, that's because the wounded animal has gotten completely away.

In my book, gun control is hitting the target the first time, every time.  But the larger question is what kind of gun should I be able to have?  If actual hunters will tell you that more than three rounds at a time is poor performance, then the "legitimate sporting" argument for a 30-round magazine and a round every second is a pretty weak argument.

Here's where the gun nuts start getting their wind up.  They'll shout "Second Amendment" this and that, that the Constitution protects our legal right to own and bear arms.  They're a degree.  The Amendment clearly states that the right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed, so as long as the weapon can be owned, you can own it, absent legal reasons why you should not.  But in light of the Connecticut school shooting and now this nutjob in New York setting a trap for firefighters by setting his own home on fire, it points up the question, should some weapons be legal to own?

I don't hunt.  I know one guy who does, and I asked him a few questions about what kind of guns he owns, but it's been a couple of days since I asked and he hasn't gotten back to me.  I hope he does soon, because I don't want to file this essay without representing a legitimate user's view.

Having  a shorter magazine would not have stopped that murderer from killing all those kids.  It would have slowed him down, however, and maybe those heroic teachers who tried to stop him would have had a chance.  Maybe nothing would have changed.

Having to re-cock the gun for every shot would have slowed him down.  Maybe the teachers would have had a chance.  Maybe not.

Looking at the statistics, the United States isn't the worst place to worry about getting killed by somebody with a gun.  El Salvador, for instance, is way worse.  Colombia is way worse.  Brazil is way worse.  Countries, to put it bluntly, that are raddled by ultra-violent drug cartels that are killing indiscriminately are worse off than we are.  Third-world countries awash in organized crime are way worse off than we are.

I think it's high time we look very hard at whether having the capacity to deal out death at such a high rate is a good thing.  The many checks and balances already make it damned hard for our own government to take unchallenged control and become a dictatorship, a tyranny that dispossesses its constituents.

The right to own and bear arms shall not be infringed, but I think we need to look damned hard at whether the right to sell the capability of dealing death in bulk amounts should be infringed.  It really ought to be, since dealing death in any amount is by and large illegal, not useful in hunting, and a national tragedy every time it happens.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Internet Communication Is Killing Interpersonal Communication

I was going to lay all the blame for everything I'm about to talk about on facebook. But really facebook is a Johnny-come-lately, a newcomer to a paradigm shift that was already well underway when facebook hit the scene.

Letter writing is falling way off as electronic communications become more and more prevalent.  Now, this doesn't mean that people aren't talking to each other, but what it does mean is that a lot of what is getting said doesn't need saying.

Writing a letter was, at one time, a project.  You needed to set aside a small block of time for it, gather materials, find an envelope and a stamp, get it to the mailbox or, if you're like me, to the Post Office.  It wasn't a spontaneous thing to do, and with so much other effort bound up around it, the things that got conveyed in a letter were things that mattered.  And since so much effort was bound up around the letter, if you were going to send a page, you might as well send several.  If I recall, you could send as many as six or seven pages on one stamp.

Even with her largish, loopy handwriting, a friend who corresponded with me in college could send over 1,000 words on one stamp - and she did.  I might have enjoyed a closer relationship with her since we were good friends in high school, but as it turned out her conservative religion - and similarly conservative father - would have prevented it.  And I have no regrets with how my life has turned out so far, so no worries there.

But if you want to send 1,000 words now, it's not so easy.  Twitter aggressively prevents such in-depth reporting, limiting each message to 140 characters.  Not words, characters.  Twitter bills itself as a "short message service," which is definitely true.  I'm already well beyond 140 characters in the first two lines of this paragraph.

How much can you get said in just 140 characters?  Average word length varies depending on whom you ask, so that's a tough call.  Let's assume 4.5 letters per word for your typical person, add one (for the space, which counts), and we're at 5.5.  That's about 25 words per tweet.

Can't get a lot said in 25 words.  Sure, there are all those iconic "25 words or less" contests that some of us over a certain age would recognize from our youth, but really - you can't say much.

It's no surprise that "twitter" is defined as "an inconsequential sound," is it?  And reading some of the tweets that have made it to the news, it's amazing that they're even put on the news.  Isn't the producer embarrassed afterward?

Read some tweets from celebrities, and they're just pointless bits of noise.  Inconsequential, indeed.  It's one thing to have idle thoughts - do you have to share them?  Hell, no.

So now, with twitter, with facebook, with email, we're training ourselves away from the letter writing skill, the letter writing tradition.  We can dash off a note with any of those technologies, a quick little missive that doesn't dig into the meat and bones of whatever it is we're talking about.  And even though it's awfully convenient to have those, I don't think they're as good.  We're communicating a lot but an awful lot of the communication is just babble.

It's as if we were all buying newspapers, but only reading the headlines.  The actual story isn't getting out.

My address:
PO Box 552
Norris TN 37828

Write me.  Write me something a bit longer than just 140 characters.

Or, if you prefer, you can write something lengthy and in-depth in the comment box below.  Give it a try, share something meaningful.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Is This the Afterlife?

So, no Apocalypse, huh? If you had big post-humanity plans, bummer.

If you, like many others, kept your head as the Mayan Long Count Calendar came to its long-awaited end, then the winter solstice of 2012 was simply an opportunity.

Some folks held huge parties.  That the party took place in a gigantic nuclear Cold War Doomsday bunker was just fortunate happenstance.

Some folks stocked up on the essentials.

Even the Vatican, whose stock in trade is belief in what some would call the unbelievable, will tell anyone that predictions of the end of the world aren't worth discussing.  That's the Vatican's own head astronomer, Rev. Jose Funes, saying that.

Okay, I was going to make a link taking you to a couple of references I found to Funes, but they took me to a site called "Falling Angels," which is full of utter nutjobs.  People insisting that the ancient Sumerian planet "Nibiru" is real and is where Lucifer is assembling his army, that reptiles are Satanic and that - oh, what the heck.  I can't swallow enough bile to keep repeating what these idiots are saying.

You can bet they are disappointed the world didn't end.

Friday, December 21, 2012

It's The End of the World (as we know it)

But not because of the Mayan Apocalypse.

As I said over and over, what happens isn't the end of the world, it's just the end of the calendar.  So everybody just settle down.  Now we turn the Mayan pyramid over and start back at the beginning of the calendar, no problemo.

But in other news, Speaker of the House John Boehner's own so-called "Plan B," the counterproposal from Boehner's own mind to Obama's assorted proposals to fend off the upcoming "fiscal cliff," never racked up enough support to even go to the floor for a vote.  It was, in effect, stillborn.

A couple of interesting things come out of this.  First, it sharply undermines Boehner's stock in Congress.  If a challenger shows up to unseat him, he'll really wish he hadn't stuck his neck out quite so far with this Plan B.  Secondly and this is probably a lot more important, it leaves the ball flat in the Republicans' court.  Not only did their golden boy's proposal not gain any traction, but it was the Republicans themselves who let it fail.

So all the teeth-gnashing conservatives out there can rant and rave and rail against that bleeding-heart liberal, socialistic commie wannabee Obama all they like, they can froth and fume at how the liberal Democrats are ruining the country, but at least the Democrats aren't doing it by squabbling amongst themselves.  We're, you know, trying to help.  Meanwhile, the Republicans are bickering amongst themselves: one faction of the Republican party is saying, "we can allow the severely rich to hoist a slightly heavier load because they don't have to wait for sales at the grocery store," while the other faction is saying, "no, we don't need to raise their taxes any higher than they already are, not even for the people who make more than twice as much as the severely rich."  In that impasse is where Plan B crashed, burned, and embarrassed John Boehner.

Frankly I'm pretty disgusted at all of them.  Social Security should be rolled back a little bit.  Not much, just a little.

There are too damned many people receiving food stamps, and many people who do receive them are doing it fraudulently.  Get those people under control and you start saving a lot of money right there.

Encourage people to settle for lower wages, working at an assembly line, doing things that aren't exciting or especially engaging.  Having a job - any job - is a good thing.  Paying your own way for what you eat, where you live and what you want in your off time, that's a good thing.  Get off your butts, Americans.  Get back to work.  Sick and tired of seeing everything that passes through your hands being made in China?  Well, whose fault is that?

You don't deserve $10, $20, $30 per hour.  Nobody deserves anything.  And for doing a job that could as easily be done by a robot, you'd better be thrilled to get the job at all, at any wage.  Suck it up, get to work.  Pay your own bills.

Pay the taxes on the wages you earn.  Be willing to pay a little more.  If it means you have to eat a little bit less for a few weeks, well, 30% of Americans are obese, we could afford to lose the weight.  Take the job, pay the taxes, work a full, healthy life and continue paying into Social Security so you can expect a little support in your sunset years.  Suck it up.

This country needs a paradigm change.  The Fiscal Cliff is an opportunity for the short, sharp shock that people need, to make them aware that the way they've been living, the expectations they've had, are unrealistic and unsupportable.

The time has come for a whole new world.  Let the old one die.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Anonymous Smacks Down the Westboro Baptist Church...Again

Once again, the Westboro Baptist Church has been punted off the internet by the hacker group Anonymous.  Under normal circumstances the name of the church would be a hotlink but right now there's no point.  It doesn't go anywhere.

That's mostly good news, as anything that shuts up the WBC can't be all bad.  In the wake of the recent school shooting in Connecticut, the WBC had announced plans to protest at the school of those murdered children.  Stay classy, WBC.  Way to share God's love.

In response to their announced plans, Anonymous took them down.  Google the WBC and click the homepage link and nothing happens.  Eventually the connection times out.

But Anonymous is also publishing personal information of WBC's representatives: home addresses and phone numbers.  That's pretty hypocritical, for one thing: you'd think a group that calls itself Anonymous would have a bit more respect for the sovereign privacy of individuals.

If Anonymous keeps up its attack and keeps the WBC off the internet pretty much forever, I'm totally down with that.  As much as I'm for the First Amendment, I also think there should come quite a bit of responsibility along with such power.  And abusing that power to terrorize, demonize and ostracize should result in the loss of that right.  It's like prison for your mouth.  Commit a few crimes with your body, and society sends your body to jail.  Commit a few with your mouth, however, and you get to keep talking.  Except Anonymous is meting out a little civil justice - or editing, at least -  and I'm totally okay with it.

But while we're talking about abuse of power, Anonymous is robbing itself of much of its credibility by digging further into the WBC's databanks and completely exposing them to all and sundry, essentially exposing those people to retaliation from angry victims.

I'm not saying the WBC's people couldn't stand to receive a few righteous slaps, but we're talking about people who have been insulted and harangued even as they were experienced some of the worst moments of their lives.  As bad as the WBC has been, you can see how frustrated rage could stew and fester in a grieving parent and then suddenly Anonymous is holding out this poisoned apple, "look, here's where they live.  Go get them, punish them."  I can understand where that parent would be coming from even if he/she went through the entire WBC's directory and killed every member...but then imagine the horror and anguish that person would have to go through when it was all over.

Anonymous has been reckless with its power in the past and again it would appear a large dose of hypocrisy is evident in Anonymous' activities.  The stated motivation behind the above cited attack, for example, was to "teach a lesson in security," without actually teaching any lesson.  Anonymous punishes, but doesn't correct or guide.

In the real world, that's called bullying.

In fact, that cited example Anonymous calls out the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe for having been compromised by the Russian Mafia.  If Anonymous really has serious concerns about that, they might have more and better results by taking down the Russian Mafia's computers.

Just a suggestion.

So silencing the WBC isn't a bad thing, not in my opinion.  But Anonymous is bruising its own already damaged image by going too far in this instance.  They wield tremendous power with something approaching impunity; I hope they realize they have the potential to do tremendous good, and are wasting it.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Repair Parts: update

Well, that didn't work.  I may need to open up the chassis and take another look at the control board on the Maytag Neptune washer, but at this time I'm about decided to go ahead and order a new control board and install that.  Fortunately since this model is out of production, prices on the control boards have been falling as more of them fall out of use and demand for parts decreases.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Repair Parts: addendum

I have a Maytag Neptune stacked laundry pair.  I bought it when I bought this little house I live in; I added a few thousand dollars to the original home loan so I could also afford a few new appliances.  The previous owner took all the original appliances with her, and frankly she was welcome to them.

She also wanted free access to dig up plants from the yard for up to a year after she moved out; we offered to take our purchase offer back and continue looking.  She acquiesced immediately as the house had been on the market for over a year and she was well sick and tired of trying to sell it.

My Kenmore refrigerator has had its share of problems.  We had to replace the defrost timer, and it currently needs a new something-or-other to get the icemaker back in order.  But these are little things that aren't hard to fix.

The Whirlpool stove is on its second oven control.  That was easy to replace, the entire electronic module just pops right out and a new one pops in.  The hardest part is scootching the stove away from the wall.

The Maytag washer has had a couple of problems.  I don't remember precisely what the first one was because I called a tech to come fix it; the price was ridiculously high.  So when it stopped spinning out the load of laundry, I started researching it.  It turns out there's a known fault with these MLE2000-series washers.  If you have the brown-tipped "wax motor" actuator that locks the door, it's likely to get moisture intrusion, short out and blow a couple of components on the control board.

The wax motor is nothing to replace.  It helps if you have small hands, and finding precisely where all the screws are to get access to the motor can be tricky, but really it's a small matter of five minutes or so to get the old motor out and a new one in.

But the control board is still dead.  The prescribed fix is to replace the control board, which costs $200 or more depending on where you shop.  However, digging around on the internet - which is how I found out that this is a "known fault" and not just a random failure - I see that it's a consistent mode of failure that disables the control board, and it's not too difficult to repair.

So I did.

Costs associated:
New soldering iron, $20 (the old one has been repurposed into a woodburning iron)
Solder, $5
New wax motor, $18.50
New 3.9Kohm resistor, $2.50 (for two)
New NTE5657 Triac, $4.50 (plus $8.50 for shipping, for two)

Total, about $50.50 for everything.  I could have maybe borrowed a soldering iron from work, but I strongly prefer owning my own tools.  About an hour and a half for disassembly and reassembly, a grand total of about 30 minutes clipping out the old electronic elements and soldering in the new ones (and cleaning up my messy soldering job), and that's it.

The washing machine is running at this time.  The "Door Lock" light, which had not been lighting up for about a week and a half, is on.  We'll know for certain whether I've done the job right when it goes into a spin cycle.  If it spins, it's a good fix and I've avoided incurring an unnecessary $200 expense.

Fixing things saves money and avoids lots of unnecessary environmental loading: manufacturing that could be avoided, landfill space that need not be filled, etc.  When that cheap $50 toaster oven won't fire up, don't toss it because it was cheap: add to its value by making it last longer.  Replace only the broken components and keep using the rest of it.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Mayan Apocalypse

Oh, people.  Please.  Get a grip.

The world is not about to come to an end.

Certainly most of you have noticed that the so-called "Long Count" calendar comes to an end on a solstice.  Solstices, those longest and shortest days of the year, were natural stopping places for pre-Christian calendars.  When your life revolved around such natural phenomena as seasons instead of the arbitrary phenomena of months, it made perfect sense to make such days special.  December 30th being the end and January 1st being the beginning of years is completely arbitrary, a human-made observance.

And observing the end of a calendar is itself arbitary.  It doesn't mean a hill of beans, not even a small mound.

The Long Count calendar is thousands of years long.  Let's write that louder: THOUSANDS.  Long Count, indeed.

When you get to the end of your 2012 calendar and have flipped over the last muscle car or Weimeraner puppy, is it the end of the world?

No.  You go to Barnes and Noble and buy another calendar.

If you're Mayan, you've seen this coming for the last few centuries, round up a few thousand slaves and build another pyramid, and have your astrologers start carving a new calendar.  That's all there is to it.

It's worth noting that even in such a long calendar as the Long Count, there are individual pages, called by researchers a Ba'k'tun.  It corresponds to about 394.something years in our calendar.  So if the world really doesn't come to an end on December 21 (and it won't), we can all get together in March, 2407 and see what happens then.  Hint: nothing special will happen then, either.

Don't flip out over the end of the Long Count calendar, all you ridiculous sky-is-falling chickens.  If the Maya were such accurate predictors of the end of the world, don't you think they might have foreseen their own demise?  Just flip over another page on the calendar.  The world isn't about to end anytime soon, and all of you who are behaving as if it might are simply embarrassing yourselves.

Get a grip.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Bickering in a Burning Building

As the fiscal cliff rapidly approaches the two sides of Congress, Republicans and Democrats, are sniping at each other, presenting untenable plans and decrying each others' cognitive dissonance when the plans are respectively discarded.

Republicans admit some revenue generation would be a good thing.  Letting a few tax deductions go away might be a good way to do that, they concede.  Good.

Democrats are aware that a lot of programs are pretty expensive.  Running a couple of wars overseas hasn't improved things, either.  Time to wrap those up.  Good.

But Republicans insist that the wealthiest individuals already might pay as much in a single year as other taxpayers pay in their entire lives and shouldn't face any tax increase (or withdrawal of tax relief, however you want to phrase it it amounts to the same thing).  And while we might be ramping down activities in Iraq and Afghanistan, there's saber-rattling going on over whether or not Iran's stockpile of enriched uranium is for peaceful purposes.

I say step out of Iran.  If they do manage to build a bomb, I reckon there's about a 10% chance they'll just blow themselves up, and maybe a 5% chance they'll use it on Israel.  If that happens, Israel's flexible, highly capable military will simply wipe Iran out.  That ought to set their nuclear weapons program back a few years longer than anything we might do.  Even if they do manage to build one, I don't think Iran has anything capable of delivering it to US soil.  And most of our foreign friends in the region have pretty capable anti-missile defenses, so maybe we should let that be a neighborhood problem, and tend to problems in our own backyard.

There's only about four and a half weeks left in the calendar year, and the deadline for this fiscal cliff thing is January 1.  And what are our nation's leaders doing?  Throwing ridiculous plans back and forth at each other, and haranguing each other when the ridiculous plans are rejected for being unreasonable.

Meanwhile, the kitchen is going up in flames.  When the kitchen is on fire is not the time to begin the debate over dry-chemical vs. Halon fire extinguishers.  Just grab one and start spraying.  Worry about the pros and cons later.

But this is where we are: we knew this fiscal cliff thing was coming, we've known it for years.  Some of the triggers that will set the fiscal cliff in motion are over ten years old - from the Bush era.  Republicans who whine and gripe about the economy under Obama should be well aware that the economy was going on long before Obama, and Democrats who similarly gripe about how the economy fared under Clinton - wait, it did great under Clinton.  Never mind!

Now I see on the news that the Obama administration is perfectly willing to go over the fiscal cliff.  I say, go for it.  The budget is crazily out of balance and a Republican-heavy Congress isn't likely to make things easy for anything the White House has to offer.

I say, when things get harrowing sometimes it's easiest to just lay back and be harrowed.

Historically, unemployment rates under Democratic presidents tend to be significantly better than they are under Republican ones -an average of 4.3% vs 6.1%.  I think we're probably going to come out of this okay, but it's going to hurt for a while.  Don't fear the fiscal cliff - it might be difficult, but we'll be better off at the end of it.

It's just embarrassing to me as an American that we're handling things the way we are.  None of this is a surprise, but now that it's here everybody is acting as if it were an emergency.  Lax behavior has set the sofas on fire, now let's put the damned fire OUT and get back to a normal life.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Fire Everything!

There's a scene in the Star Trek reboot movie where the bad guy, Captain Nero of the Romulan mining ship Narada, sees that his entire plan for retroactive revenge on the Federation is going pear-shaped.  As you might imagine, a guy who's dragged his entire crew into the past to avenge the death of his planet (admittedly, that is a lot of trauma to deal with) can be expected to display some epic emotional outbursts.

As Spock pilots a tiny, high-velocity spacecraft full of dangerous materials on a collision course into the Narada, Nero bellows, "Fire everything!"  He commits everything he has against what he knows must be certain annihilation.

As in fiction, so in life.  The so-called "fiscal cliff" is rapidly approaching.  If we go over it, assorted automatic things happen: certain Bush The Younger tax cuts discontinue, assorted funding levels are reduced, certain tax rates go up.  If you're a Republican, rising tax rates are certain annihilation.  If you're a Democrat, cutting the budgets of assorted federal agencies like the National Labor Relations Board and the Social Security Administration are certain annihilation.  It sounds like it's a guaranteed bad day for everybody.

Why the fuss?  Because if we go over the fiscal cliff, economists say we're almost certain to enter another recession.  Here's where things get a little weird.

Economists teach a couple of things about recessions that are especially salient in this context:

1) Recessions are not always fully understood by the very people who are paid to study and analyze these things.

2) Recessions may be a necessary facet of modern economies.

If it's necessary and paradoxical and not fully understood and unavoidable, let's just pull out all the stops.  Fire everything!  Let's not just go over the fiscal cliff - let's dive over it.

Get the recession out of the way.  We just came out of one with the housing bubble, and a few nice things came out of that: banks aren't making ludicrous assumptions on future earnings of loan applicants, and so are less likely to create their own toxic debts, and also housing prices came down from their unreasonably lofty heights.  That's good for everyone.

Everyone, that is, except those people who actually listened to the creditors' siren songs of easy loans and earnings projections, only to find themselves entirely upside-down on gigantic houses they never had a reasonable hope of affording.  Consider that tuition on a lesson learned.

The dollar isn't especially strong these days.  No one can explain to me why inflation is an economic necessity - would deflation be so bad?  To have a dollar that buys a little bit more than it did last week, instead of less?  I understand stronger dollars would mean fewer exports overseas - so what?  We haven't been exporting that much overseas for quite some time now.  For some reason Buick is huge in China, but those cars are built in-country by Chinese labor and when's the last time you saw Japanese youngsters squabbling in storefronts for the hot new electronic devices from the US?

Right: never.

So go ahead and shrink the economy.  Reduce American workers' expectations a healthy amount.  Not that long ago minimum wage was only $3.50 per hour, but it was okay: a loaf of bread was only a buck.

We don't have to leap over the cliff and hit bottom the hard way.  Enact a few tax increases right now.  Nothing big.  Pare a percent or two off some funding budgets.  Give people a little time to adjust to the new load.  Then more tax increases, more spending cuts.  Get started right now, but you don't have to pop the clutch and go over the precipice like Thelma and Louise.  We can go over the fiscal cliff with a parachute, descending to a new, less-heady height at a measured pace.

But I think it's high time we had some contraction.  Inflation, expansion, biggerizing ad infinitum.  At some point it has to stop, at some point we must regain control of the economy instead of letting it continue to expand unchecked.  Things that expand too far burst.  Fire everything, make a few holes, let some air out.

NOTE: I am not an economist and know nothing whatsoever.  Yes, I am aware that recessions are "bad."

Saturday, November 24, 2012

One Danger of Consumerism

There's an ad on Youtube circulating, an ad that states "we need to make stuff again."


Why do we need to make stuff?  The specious part of that statement is the word "need."  Obviously as people we tend to want things, and the way we live predicates certain material things like houses and clothing.  But what else is there that we need?

Food.  That's not making stuff, that's growing stuff.  I guess you could call it "making" when you send it to a factory for canning.

China, and in fact all of Asia, is stealing a march on other parts of the world when it comes to manufacturing jobs in the electronics sector.  Up until fairly recently it was a given that the best electronics came from Japan.  But just recently both Sony and Panasonic, longtime leaders in the Japanese electronics industry, were downgraded to junk status.


So who's enjoying the bounce?  When major players fall from the heights like that, somebody else must be on the rise.  When the tide is going down here, it's going up somewhere else.  Samsung, a Korean company, is climbing fast as Sony's and Panasonic's influences contract.  Also on the rise are Lg (also Korean), Huawei (China), HiSense (China) and Vizio (ostensibly American, but with offshore manufacturing).  I contacted Vizio but got no indication of Vizio moving manufacturing to American soil anytime soon.  Admittedly, I didn't contact very high in the food chain and I didn't pursue very hard.

There's cars, of course.  We all know who the major players are there, and none of that has really changed much.  It's worth noting, too, that there really is no such thing as a foreign Japanese car anymore.  Subarus are manufactured in Indiana, Toyotas in California, Nissans in Tennessee...the only really foreign cars are European.  And even some of those are made in the States: Volkswagen has a plant in Chattanooga, BMW a plant in South Carolina.

But the question I'm asking is: do we need all this stuff?  Our economy is driven by people wanting, and buying, stuff.  Buying it in huge quantities, no less.  Huge quantities are stock in trade for such retailers as Costco and Sam's Club.  You can buy 1-gallon tubs of "heavy duty" mayonnaise.  Exactly how does mayonnaise become "heavy duty?"

You can make the case for 1-gallon tubs of mayo: if you're a church or club and you're putting on a picnic, there's a valid need for a large container.  Same with #10 cans of baked beans, a #10 can holds three quarts of food and delivers a lot of product for a relatively small outlay in packaging and handling cost.  But when you're just a family of four, it's going to take a lot of leftover dinners to get through the contents of a single #10.  There's not much point in having a can that size, let alone being a small family and buying it.

The things we use up need to be produced at a regular rate: toilet paper, clothes, food.  Energy products like fuel and electricity, those need to be generated at the source and delivered.  But so many things that people suddenly think they need, they don't.  Not really.

You can make the argument for a cell phone.  It's a lot harder to make the argument for a smart phone.  It's damned near impossible to make the case for, and really really hard to defend the decision to dump your old smart phone just so you can upgrade to the latest model.  People are knocking each other over for a brand-new iPhone 5, but why?  It's not that great.  Between utterly hilarious iOS Maps screwups and difficulty updating the silly thing to the latest operating system, you might wonder whether bothering with the new one is even worth the trouble.

An original iPhone got quite a lot done.  And none of what it does - aside from making and taking phone calls - is really what you need.  It's just what you want.

These capabilities these devices bring, the extra goodies we bring into our home, most of them only excel at one thing: making us less human.

Instead of calling someone and speaking to them directly, do you send a text message?  Too bad.  Texting leaves vocal inflection behind, and then you're stuck relying on foolish smiley and frowny faces to imply emotional weight to your otherwise dry, robotic message.

Bigger and better TVs so you can stay home and watch a movie that is delivered to you by the Internet.  Do you remember when going out to a movie was an event, something you planned?  If you're younger than about 25, you might not.  I certainly do.  I also remember sneaking out to movies at the local $.99 theater, a place that showed second-run titles.  When the big multiplexes were showing the brand-new titles for $5.00 a show - this was in the 80s, mind, and $5.00 was nearly two hours' wage for a kid my age - I could catch something affordable if I didn't mind waiting two months.  And forget waiting just four to six months for the movie to come out on video - you were lucky if it came out within two years.

A large part of being human is the social nature of humanity.  But as we further insulate ourselves from each other with our electronic devices that distract and entertain without requiring us to be anywhere near each other, we're giving up crucial skills that make us a powerful force.  We're losing our ability to interact, to cooperate.  We're becoming a nation of people that are used to having their every whim ready to be answered by whatever gizmo we're carrying.  Can't remember a name?  Look it up.  Want to order a pizza for dinner?  Just click the box, fill in your address, pay via PayPal.  Too bad you have to talk to the pimply guy driving that rustbucket jalopy the pizza's delivered in, but whatever, right?  You got what you wanted.

Our wants are becoming the driving force of social evolution, and we're allowing it to happen.  Put the gizmo down.  Turn off the TV.  Go find a book, read to your kids.  Play a game, shuffle the cards.  Be less connected to the huge wide world of distractions, and more connected to the family and neighborhood around you.  You'll be better off if you do.

Turn off the computer.


Friday, November 16, 2012

The Sunset of Twinkies?

In the hilarious post-apocalyptic zombie comedy Zombieland, Woody Harrelson's character "Tallahassee" has a serious craving for Twinkies.  He's met with some unfortunate turns of events, like finding a wrecked Hostess truck that is literally full to brimming with...Sno Balls.  His frustration is epic, and the irony is actually kind of tragic.  In a post-apocalyptic wasteland where finding fresh food is starting to become an issue, the poor guy can't find what he really wants.  They'll keep you alive, Sno Balls.  But if it isn't what you have a hankering for, it stops being a fun food and starts being unpleasant survivalist fare.  Like eating Tofurky on Thanksgiving Day, when what you really want is a great big slice of real ham.

Did you click on the link?  Did it work for you?

Of course it didn't.  The End Times are upon us.  Twinkies, that indefinable food product whose shelf life is supposedly most easily measured with a Mayan calendar, might be nearly done.

In fact, Twinkies are no more stable on the shelf than any other snack cake.  But compared to many other foods, they remain palatable in the wrapper much longer than other offerings, so while their shelf life isn't appreciably longer than anything else, they are tolerable longer than other items.

Why might Twinkies be done?  Because Hostess appears to be going the way of the dodo.  And why is that?  It looks like there are a few vectors pushing the ball in this direction:

1) Consumers are moving more toward healthier choices.  The Twinkie, and indeed most of Hostess' offerings, have never been associated with a healthy diet, not even white bread in the last 20 years or so.  (Hostess is also the purveyor of the ancient Wonder Bread brand)  As consumers move away from poor diet choices, Hostess is left high and dry as the tide goes out.  It was one thing when kids ran around all day and burned off all that fat and moms stayed home and made dinner, but so much of America's diet already comes out of boxes, cans and fast food bags that shoppers are choosing slightly less self-destructive snack food options.  At least, I hope that's what they're doing.  I'm tired of the "fat American" stereotype.

2) The Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union was striking hard against Hostess to try to force them to continue contributing to the pension fund.  This is where I butt up against the liberals: I strongly believe unions have had their day.  Now it appears to me that unions exist for only two reasons: money and power.  Neither of these is actually for the sake of the workers they ostensibly represent.  Unions wield tremendous power, yes...but the power they wield is destructive.  They browbeat the employers with the capacity to idle plants by calling the workers away from their jobs.  But what about when such activity is so destructive to the company that the company is forced to close?  That's exactly what is happening here.

Now, BCTGM, answer me this: how will you support all those workers now?  You exist to support the workers in their relationship with management, but that management is disappearing.  The Hostess company is going away, and taking 18,000 jobs with it.  I ask this question: if the jobs disappear, what happens to BCGTM representation for all those workers?

I strongly suspect they will be out in the cold.  I will investigate this further and report back.

Hmm.  At this moment, I cannot get on their website.  I bet it's completely inundated with traffic as a result of this, or else perhaps they have taken it off line for a while.  God knows I wouldn't want to hear what people had to say about me, if I had been a proximate cause in the dissolution of 18,000 jobs in the face of a new recession.

And there's the last vector: 3) the looming recession.  In the face of the so-called "fiscal cliff," people are going to be watching their money even closer than they have for the last several years.  Junk food is one of those things that people stop buying.  It's a luxury.  Granted it's a small luxury and an inexpensive one, but when you're taking jars of coins to the bank so you can afford groceries, you don't tend to spend it frivolously at all, not for anything.  A once-in-a-very-long-while treat for the kids, maybe.

Honestly I won't miss Twinkies.  I didn't like them much as a kid.  They were too sweet and not especially pleasant in the mouth, all gooshy and oozy.  If Twinkies and Sno Balls are gone (especially Sno Balls, I hate coconut with a pathological passion), I won't spend one instant wishing they could come back.  And besides, some other snack food company may buy the rights to the name and the recipe and keep Twinkies in production.  

But at this moment, it looks like Tallahassee's quest for Twinkies may be futile.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Election and perspective

It turns out that needing Virginia was not ironic for Obama.  He needed it.

By area, it looks like most of the country voted for Romney.  But acreage doesn't vote, people do.  When it comes down to it, more electoral votes went blue, and that's what matters in the long run.  In fact, 270 electoral votes are needed to win, and though the raw percentages show a pretty close race, the electoral count falls heavily in favor of Obama: 303 to Romney's 206.

It's interesting to look at the example of Virginia's polling map.  According to the map, it looks like Romney should've owned Virginia outright - it's a sea of red with a few blue speckles.  But where Obama won were mostly the population centers, and he took them by large margins, close to 70-30 in some places.  Where Romney won he tended to win by small margins.  He could've chipped away Obama's lead if Virginia had had two fewer population centers.  Alas, it is not so.

As with Virginia, so with the nation.  It appears to me that the largely rural parts of the country went mostly Republican, but it was the most populous states that voted for Obama - the most densely populated states with the largest numbers of electoral votes.  Historically racially tense parts of the country, the Old South and more sparsely populated western states like Wyoming and Kansas, landed squarely in Romney's court.  But places like Kansas and Wyoming bring a total of only 9 electoral votes, whereas the single win of California's 55 votes utterly wipes out such ephemeral victories and several more besides.

Ironically, Romney's own gubernatorial stomping grounds of Massachusetts went strongly toward Obama.  Massachusetts' own 11 votes cancels out both Kansas and Wyoming.

I'd like to take a moment to look at the tags of "liberal" and "conservative."  I think these are misleading.

"Liberal" implies that the person at whom the moniker is targeted is liberal with the government's power.  Some might replace "power" with "money," charging that those people believe strongly in taxing the citizens and spending the money on assorted programs, especially if those programs redistribute that wealth to lower income individuals.

"Conservative," on the other hand, suggests that the person supports limiting the government's power, limiting how much tax it collects and most importantly limiting how much money it spends.  But what happens when we change the perspective on these labels?

The Conservatives tend to be pretty free and breezy - you could even say "liberal" with how much oversight businesses should have to experience.  They will shout that to do otherwise is to tread on the toes of the free market, to hobble the bargaining power of business, to interfere where interference is not necessary.  To that I say: 2008.  That's when many years of lax oversight caught up with the banking industry and set off a cascade of worldwide economic collapses and panics.  We're still not out of the woods.  Maybe a little conservatism in the offices - or at least peeking over the shoulders of those in the offices - might have prevented that?  Too late to know, now.  All we can do is pick up the pieces and try to prevent it happening again in the future.

The Liberals are pretty darned uptight about business and jobs.  They seem to expect that people cannot be expected to do what's best for themselves all the time.  You could even call them "conservative" in their expectations of how future behavior will develop.  It's downright pessimistic, to try to sock so much money into all those greedy mouths and scrabbling hands, to hand out so many loans.  Yes, we're under a crushing load of debt...but did the current Liberal In Chief spend all that money?  Actually, no.  $10.73 trillion of that debt was handed to him by the outogoing President, George W. Bush.  You can say that Obama has incurred more debt in less time and you'd be right - but the dollar isn't worth as much now, and the US's credit rating has slipped.  A lot of that can be attributed to the effects of the '08 financial crisis.  Obama had little, if anything, to do with that.

But the point behind the loans is that the US Government wants its money back at some point.  You're expected to pay that loan off, after you've used the money to get through school and get a good job, get out of physical therapy and back on your feet, whatever the crisis is.  And all of those people who don't do that are letting their government, and by extension every last one of us, their fellow citizens and taxpayers, down.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Romney: Why Can't We Open Windows on Airplanes?

It's so you can't spit on all the little people* who are so far beneath you.

*...any more than you already have, that is.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Faithless and the Paranoid

What does it take to set off an international religious uprising?

Evidently, all it takes is one guy with bad judgment and a production budget.

In the United States freedom of speech is a heavily protected right.  I will be the first to admit that makes things harder for everyone.  It means whatever hateful thing you want to say, so long as it reflects your own opinion, you are pretty much free to say.  Whether it inflames anyone around you is not your problem, it's the listener's.

But of course, the listener has an equal and equally powerful right: to not listen.  The same as all Americans are empowered to say what's on their minds, all Americans are equally empowered to disregard what is being said.

So this "Sam Bacile" guy - it might be an alias - put together a short little movie that casts the Prophet Mohammed in a bad light.  It's insulting.  It's demeaning.  It suggests Islam's entire foundation is no more credible than that of Scientology, a scam of faith perpetrated unto perpetuity by its followers.

To which I say, so what?

Christianity has suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous commentary and shrugged it off.  Granted in its history the Church has visited horrible crimes upon mankind; the Inquisition comes to mind.  Nobody expected that.

Judaism suffered terribly at the hands of the Nazis in the 40s; remarkably one of the strongest hands held out to fleeing Jews were those of Muslims in the Middle East, offering aid and shelter as an entire population fled irrational oppression.  How short those memories last, hmm?

To swear fealty and fidelity to one's faith is great.  Even if I disagree with your faith, I totally honor your dedication to it.  That's awesome.  But to swear vengeance against me - that is to say, against all of America, of which I'm a part - for what some other guy did?  That's just mean.

Warning to all religious activists: raise a hand against me and I will defend myself and my family.  I don't care who your prophet is.  I didn't say anything bad against you or your prophet, and just because I happen to live in the same country as that Bacile guy doesn't mean I agree with him.

Now back to my earlier point: so what?  Whether someone believes in your Muslim view of God or not, what difference does that make to you?  None whatsoever...unless your faith is so poor that it cannot withstand a differing viewpoint.

Is that the case?  Is your faith really that shaky?  Is your universe that small, your god that jealous?  Goodness.

My non-denominational church - our pastor insists on calling it an "inter-denominational church" - tries hard not to take a side as to which view of God is the right one.  The point is to have a view.  But when I see huge crowds screaming bloody murder and killing ambassadors, I start to wonder if Islam is such a great path.  It seems to take itself much, much too seriously.

Yes, faith is very important.  Eternal souls, the Alpha and Omega - the stakes are quite high.  But really, if God made the entire universe and everything in it, and yet there's this faith over here and that faith over there, isn't it likely that God made them both?  They are both in the same universe, after all.  Maybe there's a little wiggle room for how one gets down the path of enlightment.  And anyone who dares tell you that his way is the only way is overstepping his authority - he's certain because of his faith, but he cannot prove it.  That's why it's called faith, and that's why it has to tolerate other viewpoints.  I say faith has to tolerate other viewpoints not because your faith might be wrong, but because the other guy's viewpoints might also be right.  Note: not "might be right," but "might also be right."

It makes me wonder whether Islamists - notice I don't say Muslim, the truly faithful - are aware of how sharply they undermine their own ideals and goals.  Islam is supposed to be a religion of peace and welcome.  Well, we're not seeing that right now, are we?  One badly-made little movie and they go completely crazy.

True Muslims watch out for other Muslims.  How many Muslims have been killed in the rioting in the aftermath of this lousy movie?  How many innocent, impartial people have been killed?  Notice I'm talking not just about Chris Stevens, a man whose mission was to improve and maintain good relations between the US and Libya, a man who was trying to HELP EVERYBODY, but even random people who get beaned with rocks thrown by angry Islamists.  And they're throwing rocks - at whom do they throw those rocks?  You're not going to hit many Americans from there, and if you do there's a very strong chance those Americans have guns.  Might ought to put the rocks down.  Just a suggestion.

And what did Mr. Stephens have to do with the making of the movie?  Not a damned thing.  Good job, Islamists.  Way to find relevance.  Just because he's an American doesn't mean he's responsible.

That's the same way I say just because someone is Muslim doesn't make him a terrorist, or a rioter, or even shallow-minded.  He might be any of those things, just like an American might be.  But this ongoing outrage is just over the top.  If you hate the movie so much, why don't you hack the author's computer and pull the file?  This nearly-random attack on an uninvolved person smacks of ethnic hate crime.  It's as bad as flying planes into office towers full of workers who were merely going about their daily lives.  What the hell did that have to do with anything about anything?  They were just regular people, doing what they do.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

It Isn't Always Discrimination, You Know

Imane Bloudlal is a lady with a problem.

Firstly, she's a Muslim woman.  I have my own issues with Islam in general and most organized religions' backseating of women, Islam not least among these.  But that's my own prejudicial bone firing up, and that's all I'm going to let be heard from that.  No, do not try to correct me.  I won't listen.  I won't listen, because I will not agree with you.

No, her main problem is that she's committed to her faith - that's a good thing, regardless of how I feel about the faith itself - and not shy about wearing that commitment literally, in the form of the hijab.  Also a good thing.  I used to wear a cross around my neck.  My brother gave me grief about it.  He moved away, I moved away, and I still have the cross.

Ms. Bloudlal says that once she started wearing the hijab, she started receiving harassment from coworkers at Disney's Grand California Hotel & Spa Storyteller Cafe.  She reported the harassment both verbally and in writing to her bosses, who subsequently did nothing.

And then, evidently, she was let go.  According to her complaint, she was ostensibly dismissed for refusing to remove her head scarf.

Digging a little deeper, we find that Ms. Bloudlal was offered some alternatives when she insisted on wearing the headscarf, even though she had not yet received corporate permission to do so.  And here's the important statement: the question of whether she would be allowed to wear the scarf was being discussed.

Disney is a gigantic corporation whose image is a large portion of its stock in trade.  You better believe the question was being discussed.  And even with the question unresolved, the young lady's immediate supervisor gave her some alternatives: cover the hijab with a hat, wear a scarf with a Disney theme, or take a position that isn't in the public eye, at least until the issue could be further and more concretely resolved.  Ms. Bloudlal found none of these acceptable, and was dismissed.

Not fired.  "Dismissed."  California is an at-will state, where either party can discontinue the employer-employee relationship at any time for any reason, up to and including no reason.  With an issue unresolved but under discussion, and what seem to me to be reasonable alternatives while the resolution was sought offered, Ms. Bloudlal refused to continue working without going her own way.  And when you're a huge image conscious company like Disney, it isn't the employee's way that matters.  Thank you for all your hard work, your paycheck will be mailed to you.

So what does Ms. Bloudlal do?  Let me point out that though she was born in Morocco, she has since become a naturalized American citizen and has picked up on how things are done in America: she sued!

I don't think her case has a leg to stand on.  Not as far as the dismissal goes, anyway.  Disney has a "look" section in its employees' handbook, and it lays out what is and is not allowed.  When the supervisor gave her the option of wearing a Disney-themed headscarf until the matter could be further resolved, I think he made all the allowance for her that was required of him, and if she chose not to take it, then that was her choice.  A choice, I might add, that put her at odds with Disney's own employee handbook.  By refusing to follow the letter of the law - the handbook - and the spirit of it too - the supervisor's proferred options - she rejected the company's commitment to its image.  And like I said, with a company like Disney image is everything.

Goodbye, Ms. Bloudlal.  You're done here.  We're sorry you weren't willing to make a step toward compromise.  We tried, you refused, we're done.

Now as to the harassment part of the lawsuit, she might have something there.  If she has written records of the complaints she filed, along with any kind of record of what happened as a result of those complaints, that part of the suit might have some legs.  But as far as discrimination goes, I think she should leave that horse in the barn.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Helpful Household Hints: The Car

This isn't the first time you've written about cars.

No.  But then I'm usually mulling on one make and model in particular.  Usually it's something that's near and dear to my own heart, or something that I consider noteworthy against the entire backdrop of cars.  The Toyota Corolla for example, venerable nameplate that it is, isn't really noteworthy for anything but being an efficient, compact family car.

So what's on the menu today?  The Fuller Dymaxion?

Not hardly.  But that's worth a look so by all means, click the link.  No, today is about your car.  The hoopy in the driveway.  Let's talk a little about that, and maybe a bit about the phrase "high performance."

My car's just a compact sedan.  No high performance in it.

Yes, there is.  There's the usual paradigm of high performance, making more power and going faster, which is fun in its own way.  Then there's taking what you've got, and making the most of what you have.

Chances are that, like most Americans, you aren't trying to race your car.  You just want to get there.  And you want to do it while spending no more money than necessary because, well, who has money to waste?  Not me, that's for sure.  So you're going to make your car do more than it usually does

Is this going to be about fuel efficiency?

Some of it, not all of it.  Some of it is just about making the car better.

First, an engine oil change is never a bad thing.  Oil is what keeps your engine from grinding itself to powder.  Under ideal conditions, there is virtually no actual metal-to-metal contact inside your entire engine wherever there are moving parts.  They should all be floating on a microscopically thin film of oil and in a well-cared for engine, that's actually pretty much the case.  But as oil ages in an engine, crud gets suspended in the oil and bridges the entire gap from one part to another, like a rock big enough to rest on the streambed and still poke out high enough for you to step on.  So change the oil and filter and get that gunk out of there on a regular basis.

I change mine every 3,000 to 5,000 miles.  You can go longer - no car manufacturer recommends an oil change interval that short, and in fact some Porsche models have 20,000-mile oil change intervals specified in the owner's manual.  But my paradigm is this:  cars are expensive.  Engines are expensive.  Oil isn't cheap either, but for the price of a new engine to replace the one you have, you can buy several hundred thousand miles' worth of oil changes.  So I'll go ahead and change the oil.

That's basic maintenance.  Anything earth-shattering in this post?

No.  Nothing earth-shattering.  Just record-breaking.

Keep your oil fresh.  Keep your tires aligned - that's important - and the excess weight aboard to a minimum.  Change the transmission fluid once in a blue moon while you're at it.  What about the lubricant in the final drive?  Many front-drive cars won't have this (it would be part of the transaxle), but if you're in a pickup truck, it's that big pumpkin back there between the rear wheels.  It has a quart or two of lubricant in there...unless you've never checked the level.  In which case you might be due for topping it up, or at least changing it with new.

You talk a good game, but can you offer any proof?

Yes.  I'm a member of, a fuel-efficiency enthusiasts' site.  Among other things, the site features the Garage, where you can record your vehicle's performance results as you adopt new driving styles and modify your vehicle for better performance.  With subtle changes in behavior, you can make your car deliver fuel mileage far in excess of what it's rated.  My truck is supposed to whistle up mileage in the 25-27mpg range; I've recorded mileage in excess of 39mpg on a couple of trips, and tend to average 30-33 without working hard at it.  You probably won't do as well as 33% above the EPA rating, but it isn't impossible either.  NOTE: my average is down lately because I drive the truck so little that fuel is evaporating out of the tank.  That's important to remember: fuel sitting around unused can actually just disappear.

What else can you do?  Now that you're making the most of an unmodified vehicle, let's think about modifying it.

Do you listen to the radio, or do you just have an MP3 player plugged in?  If you never tune the radio, take the antenna off.  That's a little frontal area removed, and some turbulent drag too.

That's pretty small change.  How sure are you that this will work?

I'm positive.  Every little bit helps.  The less drag there is, the less your engine has to do, and the less gas you have to burn to get around.  You have to change your driving behavior first so you aren't driving in a wasteful manner, and doing it consistently.  Once you've got that nailed, you can really start to see how all these changes add up.

Try replacing your existing wheel covers with ones that are smooth.  The wheels are big whirling air buckets; if you can cover the bucket, the whirling isn't as much of an issue.  It means you give up some style points, but if you're like most people, the car isn't for show.  It's just a tool to get you back and forth, and saving money counts for more than style.

If you drive a sedan, add a spoiler to the trunk lid.  This effectively makes the back of the car higher, and helps raise the trunk lid's edge into the smooth airflow zone tumbling off the back edge of the roof.  Hot VWs magazine discovered the classic "Herrod Helper" spoiler bumped up their mileage on their "mileage motor" project (getting a classic aircooled VW Beetle to deliver something close to 40mpg at 65mph like other modern cars) by 2mpg - nothing to sneeze at.  Not the silly wing style spoilers, just a little airdam lip poking up.  It makes a difference.  But to be sure, you have to test it with the spoiler on, then off, and compare results.  This requires some datalogging.  But if you aren't that meticulous or just don't feel like investing that much energy in it, a couple of coast-down tests can get the job done: find a spot where you can start at a known speed and let the car coast down, out of gear, to a slower known speed.  Whichever configuration takes you a longer distance before slowing to the lower speed is the better one.

Add wheel skirts.  At this point you have to get creative, because you can't just go and find wheel skirts to fit your car, not anymore.  You're going to have to make them.  Right now during election season there's lot of campaign signs around, and those things are made of Coroplast, which is the perfect material for making do-it-yourself wheel skirts.  Cut them to fit inside your wheel arches, and make them go as far down over the rear wheels as they will without rubbing.  If you don't want to screw them in, try sticking them on with 3M Command Strips or super-high-power rare earth magnets.

If I already have the smoothie wheel covers, do I need the wheel skirts?

Yes.  In fact you want both if you can have them.  The wheel covers reduce how much drag the wheel itself experiences - drag that your engine has to overcome.  The wheel skirts reduce how much drag the car's body generates, and that's another reduction.

The single biggest recommendation I have: slow down.  Nothing increases your fuel burn like driving fast.  The slower you go, the better, down to the limit where the automatic (if your car has one) will continue to hold highest gear and the torque converter locked.  If yours is a manual, your best mileage is probably right down there around idle speed, but that is generally not practical.  Most engines don't like that in any case.

Where are you going in such a rush?  Maybe if you left ten minutes earlier, you could cruise at a slower pace, arrive less stressed and having burned way less fuel per mile in the process.  Life doesn't have to be a constant hurry.  I've found that every car I've ever driven seemed to be especially happy right around 45mph, some of them seemed to barely even be running.  Don't try to comment saying that your car does better at thus-and-such a speed and does even better when it goes faster, because then you're asking me to disregard physics.  I'm too scientifically minded to disregard physics, especially for a hearsay report.

That's it.  Drive slower, do a little super-easy wrenching, save money.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Hell Freezes Over!

Fox News and I agree on something.

A young lady working the drive-through window at a Chick-Fil-A on the so-called "Support Chick-Fil-A Day" was harrassed and belittled by a customer who drove up for the free water and a captive audience.

She kept her cool.  Rachel - no word on her last name and maybe she'd like to keep it that way - never raised her voice, kept her cool and let the guy have his little rant.  No harsh language, even when he became insulting.

Fox News got hold of the video before the original was deleted and ran with it.  Big mistake, posting video of yourself being a jerk to people.  Sometimes you get caught before you realize how big a jerk you were and try to hide it.  So Fox News' commentators hang the guy out to dry, and he richly deserves it.  It isn't about who's gay or straight, who's married or not, who's working where or for what reason...

NEWS FLASH: the guy who shot the video?  Yeah, he's fired.  His boss won't tolerate that kind of thing.  Nasty turnaround, when your intolerance gets you intolerated.  That's a hot, juicy slice of irony right there.'s about personal behavior and rights.  The lady has the right to work there if they'll employ her.  The company itself never issued a statement regarding anything, it is the company's principals who did that.  And being a jerk to a random stranger who has no power over any of that is just plain hateful.

And THAT's what it's all about.  Accusing someone of hating and intolerance is a risky business when you think about it.  Too often, the finger you point should be pointed at yourself.

Irony in the News

Just remember: these are the representatives YOU voted for.  And now, with little finished and lots left to do, Congress is taking a vacation.

When's the last time you took five weeks off from anything?  Unless you've just had a baby, probably not since middle school have you had a full five weeks off.  Granted, those elected representatives are probably kissing hands and shaking babies to build some currency with their constituents, but still...

My tax dollars are paying for the big gorgeous office, the expensive house in the DC Metro area, not to mention YOUR PAYCHECK (yeah, I'm talking to you, Fleischmann).  So get your ass back in there and get back to work.  I don't get five weeks off, and neither do you.  If you want my vote at election time, earn it by doing some ACTUAL WORK, not by wandering the bizarre gigantic congressional district and gladhanding the voters.

And another thing: before you guys ever vote yourselves another pay raise, first ask us, the people paying the taxes that are the revenue behind the raise, whether WE approve it.

When Chick-Fil-A's founder and head honcho, S. Truett Cathy and his son Dan Cathy, stepped up to a mic and announced their support for traditional marriage, it raised one almighty ruckus.

As I said in a previous post, CFA is a privately owned company.  The Cathys can do what they want with it.  That includes using it as a bully pulpit, if they want.

But the thing about pulpits is that they usually have congregations.  Here in the Southeast in particular, that means lots of conservative Christians.  Our favorite CFA had to go to the nearby grocery store twice on Thursday, "Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day," a grassroots support for the Cathys and for CFA.  They had to go to the store because they were out of bread for their sandwiches.  Sales were off the charts.

So even though CFA is in the news for something that isn't necessarily good - alienating an entire segment of the population - it's getting lots of coverage, and coverage means recognition.  And today is supposed to be "CFA Kiss Day," when gay couples go to CFA and make out.

What do you want to bet some are hungry and want a sandwich?  No matter how you slice it, CFA is riding this crazy train all the way to the bank.

Obama thinks he's discovered the linchpin to the 2012 election.  He says it's Virginia.  There's a good chance he's right, and I'm not certain that this is an ironic bit of news.  I'm just putting it here for future reference.  We'll know whether this was ironic in November.

Russia is calling for UN monitors to remain in Syria to help maintain their struggle toward a democratic government.  That whole sentence is ironic.  Russia fighting for anybody's democracy in any capacity is just weird to someone who grew up during the peak of the Cold War.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

When Smart Becomes Dumb

I enjoy the Syfy show, "Eureka."

Not-quite-random aside: remember when the channel's name was "Sci-Fi?"  They're leaning away from the name so they can run stuff that isn't SF.  Too bad.  SF shows work hard to get their story across, and generally they're pretty smart fare.  But moving on!

"Eureka" is set in a fictional town, called Eureka (no state specified, but you get the feeling they're implying that it's in Oregon), that is entirely a government think tank and skunk works.  Filled chockablock with geniuses and gee-whiz scientific gimcrackery, it's a special effects and visual effects director's dream/nightmare.  Things fly or hover that shouldn't, cars drive themselves (or at least comment on your driving), the sheriff's gun shoots plasma bolts, et cetera.

Actually, the sheriff's gun doesn't shoot plasma bolts.  The deputy's gun does.

The sheriff is Jack Carter (please note the tip o' the cap to Burroughs' famous character John Carter), an otherwise ordinary guy who, through a few happy accidents, becomes the head lawman in this unusual town.  One of the defining characteristics of Jack Carter is that in Eureka, he's not just average.  In the regular world where his 111 IQ would be merely average, he is in fact at the very bottom of Eureka's barrel.  His own daughter's 157 IQ places her squarely in the middle of the pack among Eureka's brainy populace.

You would think that, lacking as much mental horsepower as the rest of the folks, Jack would be sorely outgunned at just about everything that goes on in Eureka.  This being a fictional TV show of course, that isn't the case, but it brings to light many truths in the real world, too.

Very often in the show Jack is faced with a stupefying array of jargon and concepts that go way beyond his experience, and which stress his ability to even understand the problem at hand.  But you don't get to be a US Marshal, and then recommended to be a sheriff for such a place as highly advanced as Eureka, by being stupid.  He has an innate ability to cut directly to the underlying foundations of the problems at hand.  The technologies and concepts are actually secondary - address the problem itself, using whatever technology and concept necessary while disregarding the complexities of those elements themselves, and the problem is fixed.  It's a highly pragmatic, very effective approach to problem solving.  I think any cop in the world could see the basic truth of this, and it stands to reason that, as a cop, Jack does exactly that.

I was watching video earlier today of the crewmen aboard the ISS entering the Spacex Dragon capsule once it had been mated to the Station.  Flight Engineer Pettit can be seen, in the video, clicking a pen and writing (he's a lefty) on a pad, and it reminded me of the old "Space Pens."

Note: as a lefty, Space Pens are my kryptonite.  The ink rubs right off the paper, directly onto my hand as it drags along the page behind the pen.  This was a much greater problem with the so-called "erasable pens," and it's a truism of pens and indeed pencils in any case with lefties, but as a direct result of my handedness I never consider Space Pens to be much of a muchness.

The legend that NASA spent a huge sum of money to develop a pen for use in space is false.  It was independently developed and the inventor invited NASA to try it out.  They tried it, and used several.

Where does Eureka and Jack Carter's practicality come into this?  Another show - I forget which - portrayed a disgusted Russian engineer pooh-poohing the Space Pen.  "You spend meeelions of American dollars inventing fancy pen.  We fly with pencil.  Ten cents!"

NASA stuck with the pen - and Russia adopted it too - because of the assorted and demonstrable dangers associated with wood shavings aloft in a pure oxygen atmosphere aboard the spacecraft, dust and graphite bits from broken leads getting into electronics and machinery (not to mention lungs).  The pen is actually a much better solution in a free fall environment.  But on the face of it, if there weren't a free fall environment, the pencil would be even better.

What other places is there such a thing as being too smart?  I recently watched a video of a 12-year-old Canadian girl holding the banking industry to task for running her country's debt into the billions of dollars for no demonstrable purpose other than to generate profits.  She appears to be right, and her solution is not only simple but doable.  Regardless of how old the kid is, when she lays it all out it's so simple it appears to be a crime, how the country's debt is handled.  If she can figure it out, why couldn't somebody else, somebody ostensibly smarter, more experienced, better informed?

It would appear that they're too smart.  This also starts to get into the neighborhood of "sacred cows," elements that have been in place for so long that nobody knows exactly why they're there, but they're treated as if they cannot be altered for any reason.

This is like when we were stuck with a disabled car on vacation.  We rented a car to get around while we waited for our van to be repaired, but dismayed at how much time we were losing.  Finally Son #2 said, "I wish we could just keep the rental, and keep going."  Wish, indeed.  We proceeded on our vacation with the rental car, having lost only a day.  We got it back by paring off a long sightseeing leg of the trip.

How much of our economy's inflation is generated by activity that doesn't really have to be there?  What are, exactly, commodities futures?  When an investor buys commodities futures, he does so knowing that he has no use for the commodities themselves.  He's purchasing their value, gambling on the possibility of being able to sell them at a profit.  He does this by buying them now at a low price and hoping to sell them at a high price in the future, or he does it by guaranteeing to buy in the future while paying now, hoping that their value in the future will have increased against his original purchase price.  Some of it is valid, like farmers buying insurance against their own harvests...but some is just capitalists gambling on the market, trying to make money out of thin air.

How productive is that?  Not a bit.  All it is, is shuffling numbers back and forth.  I fail to see how commodities futures does anything useful for the economy, except drive up prices.  Driving up prices doesn't necessarily drive up value, it only means that somebody has somehow managed to make the pie bigger so he can cut an extra slice out for himself...and we, the actual consumers, have to pay for this new, bigger pie that doesn't have any extra food in it.  Eliminate artificial pie inflation and you eliminate a portion of inflation in general.

Is inflation necessary for a healthy economy?  I don't think so.  But I'm not that good at economics so I don't have many bullets in my gun where that's concerned.  But I think the world's producer economy is rapidly approaching a cliff.  There are only so many material goods you can have before you have enough and don't want any more.  I have enough cars, enough houses, enough refrigerators and MP3 players.  I buy food and that's about all.  Other things I buy tend to be used or old - which is to say, they're already made and the only way they add to the economic machine is that I pay the person who found it for selling it to me.  No wages, no taxes, no production.

We're looking for new ways to house the world's burgeoning population, new ways to power their many many cars and homes and feed their teeming masses.  The new ways are brilliant, just staggering concepts vividly imagined and carefully considered.  It's the work of geniuses.

Wouldn't it be better to stop having so many babies?  Then we don't need gigantic cities that can house 20 million people in a space no larger than Manhattan.  We don't have to come up with ways to feed a world population of 12 billion people.

I know it sounds kind of a simplistic answer.  That doesn't mean it isn't a smart answer.  It cuts to the foundation of the problem at hand.  It doesn't gamble.

More on this later.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Chick-Fil-A Isn't Wrong, But Isn't Right Either

It's become a news item - why the hell does it have to be a news item? - that Chick-Fil-A, a fast food establishment that focuses on chicken-based dishes, has an anti-gay stance.

So what?  So do lots of churches, individuals, and assorted other organizations.  What's the big deal?

Well, the big deal is the Chick-Fil-A is a service company.  They provide a service, but they propound a philosophy that alienates a segment of the population.  That's just bad business.  More on that in a moment.

What other organizations have an anti-gay stance?  The Boy Scouts of America, for one thing.  Never mind that evidence exists that Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts, himself might have had a homosexual pedophilic inclination of his own, they are a privately held organization with a deeply religious foundation.  As such, their philosophy isn't something that can be regulated by government.  They are their own deal, and should be.  And how to deal with their anti-gay stance is simple:

If you find that objectionable, don't join the Boy Scouts.  I did join the Scouts, but shouldn't have.  I didn't enjoy it very much, though there were a few lessons that stick to this day.  The most useful ones have had to do with how to tie assorted knots, but I picked some of those up from my dad, and Dad was never inclined to recommend anything as harebrained as a winter campout, so on balance Dad wins out as a more trustworthy former of young minds than the BSA.

So, back to Chick-Fil-A.  I'm going to be completely honest, I love Chick-Fil-A.  The food is very good and did you know that if you asked them nicely, they'll make a lunch sandwich for your breakfast?  It takes a few minutes extra, but it's no problem at all.  Anywhere else you go, the lunchtime menu is simply not available and won't be until 11:00 or so; Chick-Fil-A's people (in my admittedly limited experience of exactly ONE store on Clinton Highway in Knoxville, TN) are extremely pleasant, accommodating, and efficient.  You want the chicken club sandwich for breakfast?  "Just take a seat and we'll bring it to you when it's ready."  Table service at a fast-food joint, no less.  The quality of service at CFA blows everyone else out of the water.

But now here's this other matter: CFA's anti-gay stance, or to be more precise, anti-gay marriage stance.  Well, that bugs me a little - it's kind of like being bitten by a dog you like.  I like CFA and that isn't going to change, but I stand firmly in approval of gay marriage rights.  I don't think that's a right that should be withheld from anyone for any reason.

As comedian Denis Leary says, "Gay people should absolutely have the right to marry each other.  Then they too can harbor years of resentment, bicker about bills and be generally miserable just like everyone else."

I never understand where comedians are coming from when they say stuff like that.  I don't harbor resentments or bicker with my wife.  If I did, we wouldn't have gotten married.

The Bible-based argument against gay marriage is right there in black and white, and since CFA is both privately owned and operated by a devout Southern Baptist who takes his denomination seriously, he's totally within his rights to use his company as a bully pulpit, if he wants, to make his convictions known.  I hope he backs away from them just a bit, however: as I said, alienating a portion of your market is just bad business.  If it bites you on the ass, you have no one to blame but yourself.  But again since it's a privately held company, no one else will be blaming you, either.

One of the arguments I keep hearing against gay marriage is this: that it somehow dilutes straight people's marriages.  How is that, exactly?  I only married the one person, the only dilution my marriage can experience is going to come from exactly two people: her or me.  No sign of that yet.

No, if you really want to prevent the devaluation of marriage, don't get divorced.  Make the commitment and stick to it. I think it's asking too much to do something as crazy as outlaw divorce, people change over the course of years and undisclosed preexisting issues can come to light that cause intolerable interpersonal strain.  Divorce has to exist as an option.  But the fact that it does exist, in my mind, is one of those things that makes marriage even stronger.  If I've been married for forty years when I could've gotten divorced at any time, doesn't that simply point up the depth of my commitment?  Not lashed to each other by laws or religious tenets, our marriage is what the Bible intended for it to be in the first place: a permanent, voluntary union of souls, not an artificially enforced union of government assets or religious practitioners.

My point, at the end of all this verbiage, is the Chick-Fil-A is actually doing marriage no favors.  Not in my opinion.

And on an aside, it's absolutely stupid of Boston (yes, the city) to disallow Chick-Fil-A to open any locations because of their professional convictions.  They're many of the same convictions espoused by churches of many different denominations; have they disallowed any churches?