Archive for October, 2012

The Thinker

Hurricane Sandy reminds us why we need government

With the arrival of Hurricane Sandy here on the east coast yesterday, you got a timely reminder of why we need government. Yesterday was a day when you wanted to batten down the hatches and if you lived in certain areas also pray like hell. Unless you own a boat or ship you probably didn’t have to literally batten down any hatches, although I have to wonder if failure to do so lead to the sinking of the HMS Bounty during the storm.

For most of us storm preparation meant cleaning out gutters, removing chairs from our decks, testing the sump pump, stocking up on batteries, toilet paper and bottled water, and finding places for our automobiles away from trees. It worked for us here in Oak Hill, Virginia. Sandy dumped more rain than wind on us. Nearby Washington Dulles International Airport reported 5.4 inches of rain during the event, with peak sustained winds of 39 miles an hour, with gusts to 54 miles an hour. We also had a day of record low pressure, something I attribute to climate change. As hurricanes go this was a bizarre one. No tropical air and foggy windows this time, but cold air fed by a cold front on the other side of the Appalachians, driving rain for more than a day, and blustery winds yesterday afternoon and evening. Our house, windows and floorboards rattled from time to time, but the power and heat stayed on and we never lost Internet.

News reports indicated that millions of others are still without power. Sandy left much of New Jersey and lower Manhattan destroyed and/or underwater. I am monitoring my hometown of Binghamton, which likely has not seen the worst of Sandy yet. The area suffered two devastating floods in 2005 and 2010. This may be yet another one for that suffering area to endure. But its impact will be softened, thanks to local, state and federal emergency managers. Thanks should also be given to President Obama, who declared areas disaster areas before the storm hit, to speed aid and supplies.

The list of people and organizations to thank are immense. There is the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which coordinates disaster relief and works intimately with the states to stage disaster relief supplies. There is the National Weather Service and the National Hurricane Center, which effectively tracked the storm and issued the correct warnings. There is the Coast Guard, various governors, state and local emergency responders, power crews, ambulance drivers and cops on the beat.

Some of the best results were things that did not happen. My roof did not blow off or collapse. This did not happen by magic, but was the result of building codes and building inspections. In 1985 when my house was constructed, Fairfax County sent out inspectors to make sure my house was constructed to a code that would allow it to endure major storms like Sandy. In 1999 we replaced our deck and enclosed it. “Big government” building inspectors took a look at the roof of our new deck and told the contractors it was not up to code. They were forced to add additional beams to support the roof.

There is more evidence of big government across the street from my house. There a large dry pond sits awaiting events like Hurricane Sandy. It safely collects backwater then funnels it into the nearby creek in a measured manner, minimizing flood damage. Even in the event that it overfilled the dry pond, the codes required the road to be graded in a certain way to keep the water flowing gently downhill, never leaving a spot on the road for water to accumulate. Before the community was even constructed, an engineering study was ordered to make sure no part of our community was in a flood zone. Had these safeguards not been in place, it is likely that we would have experienced some storm damage last night. Possibly me and some of my neighbors would be dislocated, injured or dead. Big government could not eliminate these risks, but through a planning and an impartial inspection process it minimized these risks. One of the reasons our power never went out is because power lines are underground in our neighborhood, another outcome of big government. Doubtless it would have been cheaper to plant telephone polls instead.

Much of the wheels of government work this way. It’s the things that you don’t see and take for granted that minimize losses and deaths during these natural events. All these services cost money, but they cost less because their costs are borne generally through taxes. The cost per capita for the National Weather Service is a couple of dollars per year.

FEMA is an example of the services that Mitt Romney plans to drastically cut if he is elected president. And yet many of these services are already chronically underfunded and if anything need more funds. Moreover, the cost of funding these arguably essential areas of government are a pittance compared to the cost of entitlements and defense. At least now Romney claims says he won’t cut FEMA. But clearly you cannot balance a budget and not raise taxes if you don’t cut something. If you won’t do much to cut entitlements and keep bloating the Defense Department’s budget, these essential government services must be drastically cut.

You can say, as many conservatives do, it is better to leave it to the states to handle these things. But hurricanes do not respect state boundaries. It makes no sense for each state to have a redundant weather service when it can be done nationally. The whole point of having a United States is to ensure that if some states have to deal with disaster, we can pick up their slack by everyone contributing aid through federal taxes. We need these services because we are all in this together. These services are not nice to have; they are essential. We are bigger than the sum of our parts because we are united and federated.

Also essential is the infrastructure that makes all this possible. We need the National Science Foundation to stimulate research in national areas of interest. We need my agency, the U.S. Geological Survey, to do seismological research, biodiversity estimates and to monitor the nation’s streams and groundwater, so the National Weather Service can make flood and drought forecasts. We need the FDA to make sure our drugs are safe, agricultural inspectors to make sure our food is safe, ICE to handle illegal and legal immigrants, and the FBI to investigate intrastate crimes. Maybe if push came to shove we can do without funding Big Bird or sending probes to Mars. These costs are mere pocket change in the federal budget.

As I have noted before, taxes are the price of civilization. If this is not clear to you, then elect Republicans and watch as our highways and bridges deteriorate, our children become unable to afford college, watch our food become impure, our drugs become adulterated and see legions of poor and starving people living on the streets because no one will house them or feed them. Expect that when some future Hurricane Sandy arrives, the size of the problem will needlessly mushroom simply because we as a society have decided we have stopped caring for anyone but ourselves.

It’s your choice. I understand if your ideology tells you to vote Republican regardless, but the next Hurricane Sandy won’t care about your philosophy and you and your family may be needless victims. God gave us brains. Let’s use them.

 
The Thinker

Troy, Albany and Schenectady

Last week, business travel definitely put a damper on my blogging. While traveling on business gives me a chance to see parts of the country I would not ordinarily see, it mostly involves business. It started daily at 6:30 AM when my alarm went off. I hustled to shower and shave, and then grabbed a quick breakfast in the hotel’s breakfast room. In this case, it was the breakfast room in the Fairfield Inn in East Greenbush, New York. There the accommodations are clean but modest, the scrambled eggs taste powdered but coffee, decaf and tea are available twenty-four hours a day in the lobby. Each day ended around 8:30 PM when our bloated bellies staggered back from our evening meal after a day in a conference room, punctuated only by brief breaks and running out for takeout for lunch.

By 8:30 PM I was exhausted and ready for bed, not blogging. Some in our group were party people, anxious for more time together, a night on the town and various activities from karaoke to Frisbee golf. The business week meant scuttling from place to place with a few others in a rental car, long and tedious discussions on various projects under consideration and near the end of the day searching Trip Advisor for good places to eat. It meant a lot of dining out, principally in places serving pub food and locally made beers. It meant morning stops at Starbucks, not for myself, but for my traveling companions. It also meant some technical glitches: my laptop inconveniently died on Monday morning and left me keyboard-less, until a tech at the place we were hanging out gave me a loaner laptop to carry me through the week.

Still, I did get to spend some time in these triple cities: Schenectady, Albany and Troy, about two hundred miles north of New York City. They are clustered within about twenty-five miles of each other. My principle interest was in Schenectady, the city of my birth, which I saw briefly in 2004. After we landed early Sunday afternoon I managed to convince two coworkers to join me for a few hours in Schenectady and Scotia. Schenectady has the dubious privilege of being the city in New York State with the highest crime rate. It did not feel particularly unsafe during our brief visit, but like much of upstate New York it had seen better days as most of its manufacturing had left decades earlier. There were some abandoned houses but there were many houses just somewhat neglected: decks deteriorating and siding or trim in need of repainting if not complete replacement. Still, even in Schenectady there were charming areas. Parkwood Boulevard, where some of my family lived briefly in the early 1950s, retains a fading charm, enhanced by the glorious autumn leaves and cool autumn breezes. Downtown Schenectady, under remodeling back in 2004 during my last visit, was still a work in progress, with its streets torn up, steel plates on the roads and kidney-punching bumps in the road.

The Village of Scotia just across the Mohawk River was of more interest. This was where I spent the first six years of my life. I found it curious that I could still sort of navigate around Scotia without my GPS despite being in kindergarten when I had left. We wandered into Collins Park, where I was hit by a baseball in the bleachers as a child, and where baseball was underway as we visited. Clouds had settled in over Scotia. The geese honked noisily on Collins Lake in the park.

There is still baseball in Collins Park, Scotia NY

There is still baseball in Collins Park, Scotia NY

Our old house on North Holmes Street looked in good shape with an American flag proudly blowing in the breeze on its stoop. The street did not look as sad as it did in 2004, and the sidewalks were fixed as well. Driving north several blocks toward the high school, the houses turned from occasionally shabby to charming. The houses on Broad and Seeley streets felt out of Norman Rockwell. The church and kindergarten I attended on MacArthur Drive got several pictures but raised no particular memories. Much more memorable was Lock 9, a few miles up Mohawk Turnpike by the bridge to Rotterdam, which allows barge traffic to traverse what used to be the Erie Canal. As children it was a frequently weekend destination. We would sit there over the lock and watch the water be raised and lowered and ships went through the lock. Not only did we learn much about hydraulic engineering, but it also gave my poor, hassled mother a couple of hours a week free from the otherwise ceaseless din of children. Today, the lock is private property so I could only take pictures from the road. In the autumn the Mohawk River looked serene, except for the water cascading over a dam under the bridge. Overall, Scotia satisfied my limited nostalgia for the area. It is a pleasant and walkable village where a car is not a necessity and life proceeds at a simpler pace.

Lock 9, on the Mohawk River near Rotterdam, NY

Sunday evening found us in Albany at a brewpub near the capitol. Albany was bigger and with buildings much taller than I expected, but sleepy on a Sunday night. The New York State Capitol itself did not fit the mold of state capitols: no dome but spires, and looking more like a cathedral than a center of government. The whole Capital Hill area looks a bit strange, but strangest of all is The Egg, an egg-shaped building used as a performing arts center on the capital’s mall.

I found it strange that just across the Hudson River from Albany there was so much undeveloped country. To be fair there is the city of Rensselaer, but drive over the Hudson River on I-90 to the highlands of East Greenbush where we stayed and you had undeveloped country with a commanding view of Albany, with both the capitol and The Egg easy to see just a few miles to the west. There are more people than you think, as evidenced by the traffic on Troy Road around eight o’clock in the morning. Our destination for the week was an office in Rensselaer Technology Park a few miles up the road, but in the evenings were usually spent dining in Troy.

Troy is a bifurcated city that can’t decide if it wants to be ugly or grand. The grander parts are in the hills to the east of the city. The more ugly parts are its downtown areas. Troy too is trying to do some urban revival of its downtown with mixed success. Along with the brew pubs there are also bums, as well as excellent dining. I am part Polish, but until last week I had never dined at a Polish restaurant. Muza in downtown Troy offers excellent Polish dining. One of my coworkers said he had the best meal there he had had in many years. If only the road had not been chewed up for repaving and a panhandler was not aggressively pushing for “just seventy five cents” as we wended our way back to our rental cars.

I am confident that I gained weight last week. There was virtually no time for exercise but lots of opportunities for sitting and restaurant dining. I was glad to come home on Friday and glad to leave the powdered eggs at the Fairfield Inn in my rear view mirror as well.

 
The Thinker

The last debate

It’s probably a good thing that most Americans are geography impaired. Many Americans cannot tell you what their neighboring states are, let alone pick out Iran or Syria on a globe. Mitt Romney seems to fall into this category as well, since during yesterday’s presidential debate he came up with the preposterous claim that Iran needed to help Syria so it could have access to the world’s oceans. Maybe he confused the landlocked Afghanistan with Iran. In any event, Iran has plenty of access to the world’s oceans as the southern part of Iran presses up against the Persian Gulf, and it depends on access to it to export most of its oil.

Overall, yesterday’s debate with President Obama did not reflect well on Romney’s grasp of foreign policy. Worse, he could not draw clear distinctions between how his policies would vary from Obama’s. He either tacitly or explicitly agreed with most of Obama’s policies, the inescapable implication being that Obama was doing a good job as commander in chief. Moreover, he drew a lot of false conclusions. For example, he criticized the president for turmoil in the Middle East, as if it was his fault. Even the casual observer of the Middle East understands that revolution, particularly in that part of the world, requires turmoil. It’s an area where democracy is virtually unknown and despots are aplenty. His reasoning is also suspect because it suggests that we can actually control the political process underway across the Middle East. All we can really do is attempt to influence policy by reaching out to leaders, the opposition, and by working with other countries to affect jointly desirable outcomes, such as ending Iran’s nuclear program.

We have tried using force to get our way and it didn’t work in Iraq, although we did squander hundreds of billions of dollars before a wiser president than Bush got us out of Iraq. Sadly, I predict the same will be true in Afghanistan as proved true in Iraq. Yes, we will be out by the end of 2014. Even Romney wants that to occur. But Afghan troops will be no more ready to take control of their country than Iraqi troops were. Afghanistan is likely to look a lot like Iraq in 2015, likely with no clear winner but with a heavy and destabilizing Talibani influence but the government retaining control in most major cities. But we’ll be out of there and most importantly al Qaeda will not be coming back. They will wisely stay out of Afghanistan. The Taliban will not let them back in, as they lost power the last time they let them in. The Taliban knows that as long as they make mischief only within their borders that we will leave them alone. That’s the bottom line in Afghanistan that both sides know we will accept, just not state publicly.

President Obama demonstrated a firm grasp of these nuances, and rightly called Romney out on some of his more absurd statements, like his fretting that our navy had fewer ships than at any time since World War One. Aircraft carriers did not even exist then. One aircraft carrier today is the equivalent of dozens if not hundreds of navy ships in the World War One era. It’s actually much more than that since it allows us to project a large concentration of air power at trouble spots across the world.

Both Obama and Romney found plenty of reasons to talk about domestic policy, since most Americans yawn at foreign policy. As usual, the moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS Newswas caught in the middle and had trouble bringing their focus back to foreign policy. By this point in the campaign there was really nothing that either candidate could state that Americans had not heard before. Instead, the casual listener could only go with gut assessments of the candidate. Obama looked the image of the sober commander in chief he has been. Romney looked again like he was trying to imitate Ronald Reagan, not succeeding very well and seemed a bit trigger happy as well.

The sad fact for Republicans was that the debate was a sure loser for them. Americans overwhelmingly approve of Obama’s foreign policy. We are out of Iraq, and are getting out of Afghanistan. We are war weary, so Romney’s saber rattling fell flat. It was not surprising then that Romney was happy to turn the conversation to domestic policy, where he holds better cards. Overall, Americans see no compelling reason to spend lavishly on defense at this time, particularly when we are entering an era of austerity and the obvious foreign threats against us are diminishing. Moreover, it is astonishing to most of us who pay attention to foreign policy that Russia is our biggest national security threat, as Romney recently asserted. The Cold War is long over. Russia retains an impressive nuclear arsenal but does not appear to have any imperialistic desires at the moment. It has its hands full controlling its own population.

In short, Romney got pwned last night. By the end of the debate it seemed that Romney knew it as well.

 
The Thinker

The second debate

As a political junkie, I confess that I watch presidential debates not so much to learn what candidates believe on a variety of issues (which, of course, I already know) but for their pure entertainment value. Arguably, presidential debates are primarily theater. Unlike theater these debates can have real world consequences: the acquisition of power. So they tend to excite me much more than a good movie, in part because they are so rare.

In the first debate I felt cheated and a bit angry because to the extent that President Obama was acting, he was playing the role of Mr. Spock, where he is most comfortable. That left Mitt Romney to own the debate because he seemed to be the only one participating. The vice presidential debate was more theatrical than the first presidential debate, but with Biden’s many childish actions it was overall disappointing.

As theater, last night’s debate did not disappoint and proved to be hugely entertaining, as President Obama and Mitt Romney engaged in an elaborate fistfight, albeit without using real fists. If they were horses, they would have been both chomping at the bits. Unlike the first debate, President Obama largely owned this debate. However, Mitt Romney made a respectable showing. If it were a horserace, he would not have been more than two lengths behind the President at the finish line.

Since innumerable pundits have picked so much about the debate apart I won’t go into many of these already stated points. Romney’s remarks about women and binders went right over me, not because I am a man, but because I knew what he meant to say. On this issue (which was really a question about equal pay for women) what struck me is that Romney really never answered the question, leaving the implication that unequal pay based on sex doesn’t bother him.

I expected Obama to mention Romney’s often stated 47% statement (that 47% of Americans will vote for Obama because they are dependents of the government) at the start of the debate. Yet it would not have come up at all had not Romney raised it himself indirectly in the final question. He said one of the misunderstood things about him is that he is for 100% of Americans. What a stupid thing to say because it let Obama remind Americans of Romney’s 47% remark right at the close of a debate. Romney had a number of missteps like this but Obama’s more agile (and younger) mind kept him virtually gaffe free as well as at the peak of eloquence.

Both candidates were inventing new ways to command an open stage and appear domineering without actually touching each other or moving into each other’s personal space (a mistake Al Gore made in the 2000 debates). Of the two, Obama proved more agile with the assertive body language. He found ways to hunch forward while sitting on his stool as if anxious to lunge forward with a response at the soonest millisecond possible. He even had a way of holding his microphone that looked assertive. Both candidates had all sorts of assertive arm gestures, and fast walking motions that almost looked like prances. Obama is the master of the elevated, superior looking head, but his smile often bordered on smirky. Romney must have studied the last debate videos and had his smirks pointed out to him. In that sense he learned something: smirking is counterproductive and sends the wrong message. Thankfully, I did not have that distraction last night.

It got more entertaining of course when they interrupted one another, or when one candidate pleaded with moderator Candy Crowley for more time, or would not take “shut up” instructions from Ms. Crowley. Mostly though Obama proved a master of framing, often taking “sure to lose” questions like the terrorist assault on our consulate in Libya and turning them into wins instead. When he said he called the incident a terrorist incident the day after it occurred, and he was challenged by Romney, Crowley corrected Romney (she had clearly done her homework), even Romney must have felt the bat to the side of his head.

But what about the debate’s substance? For a debate, it was not bereft of substance but the constant posturing without really addressing the root problems was often maddening on both sides. From Romney, there was more obfuscation on how he could possibly cut taxes and still close the deficit. From Obama, there was no mention at all that increasing taxes on those making more than $250,000 a year (fine by me) won’t begin to seriously cut the deficit. At least Obama was correct to point out that real wealth does not trickle down, but is primarily a consequence of income growth in the middle class. It should not be rocket science that when the majority of people have more money to spend, and actually spend it, that it will cause broad economic growth. Nor should it be rocket science that the rich by themselves cannot save the economy. There is only so much money that rich people can spend to improve their lifestyles, and there simply aren’t enough of them no matter how lavishly they spend their money for it to have real impact on the economic growth of the country.

The debate succeeded in being a contrast in values between Republicans and Democrats. Those still on the political fence at least have these differences to chaw over, assuming they have been politically asleep the last few years. Still, so many real issues were not discussed. There were no questions about the catastrophic consequences of ignoring global warming. There were no questions on the wisdom of the Citizens United ruling, or whether gays should marry, or if we really need to spend $700 billion a year on defense while laying off teachers. Instead it was more about gas prices, “clean” coal, how wonderful the middle class is and the benefits of capitalism, families and apple pie.

The debate made for good theater, but felt much like a glazed donut. It felt great going down. It was not until it was all over that you realized it was only 30 percent substance and 70 percent prancing, and its thrill was quite ephemeral. I enjoyed all the theatrical prancing, but arguably the American people could have used a full diet of substance instead.

 
The Thinker

Two brief movie reviews

Temple Grandin (2010)

Temple Grandin is a salute, not just to the potential of the autistic, but also to the acting ability of Claire Danes. I should also salute the movie’s excellent makeup artists who were able to transform Danes into someone wholly unrecognizable from her previous movies. Danes was Yvaine in Stardust and Cosette in Les Miserables, among many other movie roles. Danes is a remarkably beautiful woman and no offense to the autistic but Temple Grandin will not turn too many heads, especially when she is wallowing in the dirt like cattle or trying to drive her truck out of a slaughterhouse with her windshield caked with cow parts.

Temple Grandin is autistic, which means that most of the world perceives you as intensely weird when in fact you are just intensely different. Temple sees the world as pictures, which gives her a unique perspective but one that is not embraced by polite society. She is physically unaffectionate, perceived as rude to her teachers, considered a freak by her classmates, and she has some unusual habits, including liking to go into a cattle squeeze machine because it calms her. Temple is also exceedingly bright, in her own way, but getting through school is problematic, and is only possible due to her amazingly devoted mother played by Julia Ormond. On rare occasion a teacher will take her under his wing. In high school she is fortunate to bond with her science teacher Dr. Carlock (David Strathairn) who helps bring out her potential, which is to see the world in new perspectives. Strangely she makes it into college and immerses herself the world of animal husbandry. When not calming herself in her self-made squeeze machine she studies slaughterhouses and bovine behavior.

The combination of a severely autistic woman combined with the gruesome business of cattle management and slaughter makes an odd premise for a movie, but Danes’ brash performance as Temple Grandin is surprisingly compelling, as is her story. Temple makes for a compelling and exceedingly strange character, but one that will stick with you. Autism is a condition I have never paid attention to, but now one I feel I sort of understand by seeing the world through Temple’s eyes. The movie is a tour de force for Danes, but also for a host of ancillary characters including Julia Ormond. For Danes, the movie proves that she can move beyond being just another pretty actress.

The movie is closely based on the real-life Temple Grandin, who became an example of the potential of people with autism. I like any movie that takes me on new human adventures, and this one certainly proves that a fascinating story and a compelling cast will stay with you a lot longer than yet another move rife in special effects and superheroes.

3.2 out of 4 stars.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

Argo

It must be exciting for an actor like Ben Affleck to be famous and talented enough to branch out on his own and both star in and direct his own film, like Clint Eastwood. In Argo, Affleck regresses us thirty-two years to the time of the Iranian hostage crisis and the crazy, crazy revolutionary world of Iran after the fall of the Shah. I’m old enough to remember those 444 days when American embassy employees were held hostage by revolutionary guards in their embassy. In Argo we get to see just how crazy it actually was. President Carter was able to eventually get all the American hostages home safely, but it arguably cost him reelection. (It really wasn’t his fault. If you had to pin blame, it would go to a host of presidents, but mostly presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy who promoted the shah and used Iran as a Cold War pawn at the expense of its people.) Argo is the mostly forgotten story of six American embassy employees who managed to escape from the embassy as it was being overrun, and hole up secretly in the home of the Canadian ambassador. The real trick became escaping from a revolutionary Iran. Affleck plays a CIA agent who executes a crazily improbable scheme: impersonating a Canadian film production company scouting locations for a bad science fiction movie. Revolutionary guards are everywhere, and even a hint that you were American was sufficient to get you interrogated, if not tortured and killed.

For someone old enough to remember those times, the movie is both a blast from the past and painful. The fun part is recalling how we dressed back then, which was quite badly overall. The guys had thick mustaches, wide ties, hair often blowing into their eyes and really enormous glasses. The women were usually in tight polyester and dark pantyhose. It was a manual, pre-Internet age where the Secretary of State had a secretary that used IBM Selectric typewriters, most color televisions rendered bad color TV and telephones were landlines that came from Ma Bell. People smoked recklessly in the workplace and never thought anything about it.

It’s no laughing manner when Iranian Revolutionary Guards execute people in the street or leave people hanging from construction cranes. The CIA’s plan to get them out seems as lunatic as the Revolutionary Guard’s antics, but no one can think of a better idea. It doesn’t take long for the viewer, like the hostages, to feel the oppressive weight of being inside a very crazy and dangerous country. You instinctively grab your seat’s armrests during the scarier parts of the movie.

Aside from Affleck, there are not many actors in the movie that you will recognize. I recognized Alan Arkin’s voice but not his face, as he is old and bald in this movie. John Goodman was easy to recognize as the movie producer fronting this Grade C movie, a role similar to one he recently portrayed in The Artist, which won best picture last year. Mostly the movie succeeds as a nail biter, in part because most of the actors are mostly unknown, which makes them feel plausible. This plus Affleck’s uncanny ability to recreate 1979 and 1980 in such meticulous detail leaves you frequently on the edge of your seats. But, like Temple Grandin, it is done without a single special effect. Once again, excellent directing, attention to detail and plausible characters win the day. This is the kind of movie that you don’t mind spending $10 to go see, and is good enough where had you spent $15 you would not feel cheated either.

3.3 out of 4 stars.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

 
The Thinker

The vice presidential debate

I don’t know whether to applaud or feel appalled. Maybe it’s okay to do both.

I spent much of this debate with my jaw agape as Vice President Joe Biden did everything to get attention but take off his shoe and bang it on his desk, a la Nikita Khrushchev. Whereas Barack Obama was unfailingly civil and understated in his first presidential debate, Biden went out of his way to be just the opposite with Mitt Romney’s vice presidential choice, Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan. Because of Joe, the debate was more carnival than debate. Biden managed to speak more than Ryan and felt few constraints to let Ryan finish sentences. If Obama could have an evil alter ego, Biden emulated it. The result was that he dominated the debate and dominated the clock as well. He was often rude, frequently dismissive, interruptive and sneering, as well as often wide-eyed when Ryan spoke and chortling, always flashing his impressive set of pearly white teeth.

The contrast made Paul Ryan appear entirely reasonable, unless you tried to parse what he was saying, which rarely made a lot of sense. While Biden dominated the debate, I found Ryan far more telegenic. In particular a feature of his I had never noticed before struck me: his hair, particularly a part of his hairline that uncharacteristically falls down the center of his forehead in a point. It was mesmerizing, even more so that Biden’s antics. His pointy forehead hairstyle is bizarrely uncommon and curiously makes him look like Satan himself.

The Devil in Paul Ryan's hair

The Devil in Paul Ryan’s hair

Biden is known to be flamboyant, but clearly he pulled out all the stops during this debate. It’s unclear who “won” the debate although most polls give Biden a narrow win. No one will deny that Biden was not forceful. His tactics, strangely enough, came right out of the Republican playbook. Those of us following the many Republican debates saw it time and again as candidates tried to break out of the pack. Bizarre, rude and loud behavior usually worked, at least for a while, in getting attention. It did not succeed in producing a nominee with these qualities. In the end Republicans chose Mitt Romney, overall a milquetoast candidate. But that’s the point. Biden is the sideshow and he knows it. He is not being elected president; the choice is between Obama and Romney. His job was to shake up the dynamic moving against the president. His tactics may have made you want to put the kids to bed early, but they probably were rather effective.

Biden actually did something very unusual for a Democrat: he talked backed emotionally more than logically. This approach makes most Democrats uncomfortable. It certainly made me uncomfortable. But generally it works as a strategy. Biden was championing the strategies that made Democrats such as Molly Ivins and Ann Richards so effective, and which I argued in May that Democrats needed to adopt if they want to win elections. Most partisan Democrats were ecstatic with Biden’s performance. Finally here was a man unafraid to say to Republicans exactly why Republicans were so full of shit, and to do so in unambiguously emotional ways.

That’s how you break through the noise and change expectations, and breaking through the noise right now is essential. So in this sense Biden’s performance reflected genius. Take, for example, the so-called Romney-Ryan plan to balance the budget. There is no plan. They won’t articulate one that we can actually study. It’s just more of the same: cutting tax rates, assuming it will lead to huge economic growth, closing unspecified “loopholes”, pumping up the Defense Department’s already bloated budget, cutting the size and scope of the rest of government somehow without impacting Social Security and Medicare for anyone currently over 55, and somehow it will all magically work. It didn’t work in the 1980s under Reagan or in the 2000s under George W. Bush, but this is what they are promoting with almost no details about how it will work. It’s an entirely faith-based economic plan, based on a faith that has repeatedly proven misplaced.

Such an approach to governing should be dismissed; consequently Biden’s behavior certainly was merited based on Romney and Ryan’s faith-based economic plan. Romney recently castigated Obama for substituting hope for a strategy. Yet he is hoping that the magic of supply side economics will substitute for a real strategy and plan to reduce unemployment and grow the economy. No one running for president should be peddling this kind of crap and expect to be taken seriously.

Let’s see a Romney-Ryan detailed economic plan instead of a hope-filled campaign web page. Let economists weigh in on it. They won’t give us one. Until they do, they deserve all the contempt and scorn that Democrats can deliver. Joe Biden did voters a favor by making it clear that they are full of crap. The message was heard loud and clear because his body language told people unambiguously Republicans were full of crap. Message received. Perhaps it will motivate some voters still on the fence to take a look. If so they will realize that if any party is substituting hope for a strategy, it is the Republican Party. And any party that does this deserves the contempt that Biden unleashed on Thursday night.

 
The Thinker

Revenge of the ex-retail worker

It’s no secret that I don’t like Wal-Mart. In fact, I pretty much abhor it. I abhor it not for its merchandise or its low prices, but principally because they give their workers the shaft. They push workers to crazy and dangerous levels of productivity, constantly look for ways to work them even harder, give almost nothing in the way of benefits or job security, and don’t begin to pay them enough to actually live on. On a Black Friday a few years back, bargain-crazy customers crushed a Wal-Mart worker to death.

Most of their employees are not full time employees, but part time workers. This is not unusual in the retail business, of course and it is fine as far as Wal-Mart is concerned. Part time employees cost less, are easily let go, can have hours cut on a dime and get no benefits like vacation pay. Granted that full time employees at Wal-Mart don’t make much either but they are entitled to some measly benefits such as overtime pay, if Wal-Mart will actually grants them, as they have been loathe to do in recent years.

The fact is that even full time Wal-Mart retail employees, with a few exceptions, cannot survive on Wal-Mart wages alone. This is true even if they have additional jobs. Most of them qualify as working poor. They can be found trying to make up the difference shuffling two or three jobs, hoping for handouts at food banks and when needed getting treatment at emergency rooms.

In most states, children of Wal-Mart employees make up the largest group receiving health care via the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). For example, in Alabama alone Wal-Mart employees have 4,700 children enrolled in the CHIP program, more than twice as many children as employees working at McDonalds in Alabama. Wal-Mart won’t raise salaries of their employees so they can afford health insurance, so taxpayers are left to pick up the tab.

Since Wal-Mart does not have to pay for their employee’s health insurance, and the few that are eligible for Wal-Mart’s very limited health insurance plan are able to afford it, this in part explains how they deliver low prices. In effect, taxpayers subsidize Wal-Mart’s low prices. Taxpayers are making up some of the difference between the real cost of living and wages that Wal-Mart is willing to pay. It is still not enough. Despite working forty or more hours a week, many Wal-Mart employees also qualify for food stamps. This strikes me as obscene: how can it be possible to be fully employed in this country and still not have enough to eat? How can we possibly permit a minimum wage that won’t even keep a person from going hungry?

In some ways though the workers in the stores have it good, at least compared to Wal-Mart’s warehouse workers. Wal-Mart will say that they are not their workers, so they don’t count, but the people who fill trucks at distribution centers mostly are loading trucks full of goods that are shipped to Wal-Marts. They are working in hellish and unsafe working environments. They too are often subjected to unpaid overtime, numerous violations of safety and overtime regulations as well as long and crazy hours.

Low prices of course are also made possible by squeezing the whole Wal-Mart supplier chain. When you keep squeezing distributors and suppliers, they keep finding ways to squeeze workers. The results are pretty obvious and accounts for much of the minimal wage growth over the last decade. Still, when you make as much in the way of profits as Wal-Mart does (about $15B a year), it’s clear that the company could afford to do a lot better for their employees, but simply won’t. Wal-Mart is emblematic of a general trend that stockholders win at the expense of workers. In the case of Wal-Mart, it is also at the expense of taxpayers. Arguably, Wal-Mart is a prime example of corporate welfare at work, which likely explains the company’s outsized contributions toward political candidates. However much they spend to influence politicians, it must be considerably cheaper than paying their employees a living wage.

It’s been ten years since I stepped inside a Wal-Mart. It’s possible I never will step inside a Wal-Mart again. My condition for shopping at a Wal-Mart again is that they have to pay their employees a living wage. Right now Wal-Mart simply refuses to do so, even for the full time ones, unless they are a store manager and maybe if they run a department. If an employee does earn a living wage, if you divide their wage by the number of hours these workers actually work, their wage per hour is still low. Many of them are salaried, which means you may be working sixty or more hours a week but being paid for forty.

Obviously Wal-Mart is not the only retailer screwing its employees. The same can be said for most of the major retailers out there, including Target and Kmart. However, there are prominent exceptions. Costco is one of the most successful retailers out there and is also quite profitable. Applicants are beating down its doors to get jobs there. That’s because Costco pays living wages and Wal-Mart does not. The grocery chain Wegmans also pays living wages. It’s obvious when you are in a Wegmans that its employees like their jobs. They almost gush with enthusiasm and energy. You can’t say the same for Wal-Mart greeters.

Recently, some Wal-Mart workers have realized they simply have nothing left to lose. There have been recent walkouts that resemble strikes at twelve Wal-Marts across the country. You can’t really call them strikes because Wal-Mart is famous for being non-unionized, at least here in the United States. Wal-Mart workers have made slight inroads elsewhere, like in Canada and ironically Communist China (although its unions are really puppets of the Communist Party.) Strikes are not problems at Costco and Wegmans, probably because management treats employees with respect and compensates them fairly. They happen when the frustration level becomes so acute that workers simply cannot endure it anymore. These Wal-Mart walkouts may be a harbinger of things to come.

I do know one thing: if the behemoth Wal-Mart can be made to scream uncle, then justice is possible for retail workers across the country. That it is starting to be felt at Wal-Mart through strikes and walkouts is poetic justice. If employees can be paid fair wages at Wal-Mart, it could create real change across the entire retail industry, whose employees desperately need to be paid living wages.

So I wish these strikers well, and hope that more Wal-Mart employees join them. I am glad to make a contribution to their strike fund and urge them to hang tough. For like many of us, I too was once an underpaid retail worker. More than thirty years has passed but I have not forgotten how shabbily I was treated. So far I have been able to do little more than avoid patronizing the more egregious employee-screwing retail chains like Wal-Mart. As I get older and find myself with more money in my pocket and time to become engaged in just causes, the more I feel the need to work for their justice and wreak some real justice on amoral corporations like Wal-Mart.

 
The Thinker

Smartphoned at last!

For someone who makes his living enabling information technology, I can be a technology laggard. So it was with the smartphone and me. Since I am parked in front of a computer for most of the day anyhow, there seemed little reason to buy a smartphone, particularly considering how much it costs to have the privilege of being on the internet all the time. Verizon Wireless’s prepaid plan is $50 a month, and that’s stacked on top of your other communications bills which for most of us is around $150 a month for high speed internet at home, cable television and maybe a home phone. So for me, my $7.99 remanufactured dumb as dirt cell phone with a prepaid $20 a quarter plan from Virgin Mobile (no longer available) made much more sense. I didn’t need the Internet on a mobile device and until recently I was lucky to get one call a week on my cell phone. If it was really that darn important, call me on my cell phone. Otherwise, leave me alone.

Eventually the cost of devices and plans gets low enough where I bite. I bit into the smartphone apple at last this week. Given my daughter’s positive experience with her smartphone and her $35 a month plan from Virgin Mobile for the last year or so, $35 a month did not seem an absorbent amount of money to pay for mobile internet and phone. This plus regular cash coming in from my online business gave me the excuse to take the plunge. So I ordered the fanciest Virgin Mobile smartphone I could find, the HTC EVO V 4G and waited for it to arrive in the mail. For a couple of days I have been getting acquainted with the device and pondering what it means.

One annoyance, which I hope is transitory, is its battery, which cannot seem to retain a charge for more than six hours even when it spends most of its time in sleep mode. I think my battery is a dud so under the phone’s warranty I plan to get it replaced. It may mean dealing with the hassle of keeping the phone’s battery charged more than with my old cell phone, which could go four to 5 days on a charge. I guess all its technology comes at the cost of needing more juice to keep the processor and circuits running.

The phone has 4G capabilities, which is the neatest and coolest IEEE standard in wireless communications. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to get a 4G signal, not even along the Dulles corridor where the technology companies are jammed together and the carrier I use, Sprint, has offices just half a mile away. So it is plain 3G instead, which is adequate but still kind of slow compared to the high speed Internet I take for granted at home and at work. This doesn’t bother me that much. I won’t be streaming many videos to my smartphone anyhow.

Buying an iPhone with Virgin Mobile is technically possible, but cost prohibitive, so I stuck with an Android smartphone. At least so far I have found little objectionable using Android compared with the iPhone’s iOS operating system. Navigating the menus and finger motions are a bit different, but not objectionably so. The main thing to understand about Android is that it is not Windows on a smartphone, and it is not a product of Microsoft. Google has bigger plans and understands the mobile market and mobile operating systems much better than Microsoft. So you are unlikely to find Android uncool, just perhaps not as cool as iOS on the iPhone. Moreover, Android runs fast.

A smartphone should marry voice and information intelligently, and my HTC Evo V and Android do a great job. If you are using an Android-based smartphone, it pays to be part of the Google collective, i.e. have a Google account with Gmail and Google calendar. Naturally, it works sweetly and smartly with Google’s services, almost scarily so. It automatically populated my address book with email addresses and phone numbers of people I know and knew. This included a guy I haven’t worked with since 1998, who I accidentally called. It also included a whole bunch of people I really don’t ever want to call or send email to. There was no obvious or fast way to delete these contacts. I ended up keying in many of the most important names and phone numbers myself, as I could not make the Bluetooth connection with my old cell phone quite work.

Some software engineer was also obviously wide-awake designing the phone’s home screen. It is actually incredibly useful. The time of day along with the local weather and current temperature are prominently displayed, along with the number of voice mail, emails in your inbox, and a count of missed messages, which includes text messages and Facebook posts. It is counterintuitive when you first see these that you first must drag a ring onto the screen to tell it you want to do business. Add a security PIN to unlock the phone and that’s quite a bit of pecking and dragging your finger before you can do anything useful.

Still, it’s slick, shiny and has a retinal display. Despite its razzle-dazzle, to my chagrin the smartphone part is quite useful. Appointment cards will soon be a distant memory. I know my calendar instantly now and what dates and times are optimal and it all syncs up in the cloud transparently and permanently. Paper boarding passes will be obsolete as well. Send it to my smartphone and scan it at the gate. Snapping photos is also always available, at least until the battery dies, and photos can be sent via email or social media with but a few strokes of the finger. And of course there is the Internet. The built in browser is adequate but so many sites are now mobile-friendly that most web sites looked stripped down. Most of the time I would prefer the full screen and to zoom into content when desired.

If all that is not enough there is of course a zillion apps, some free, some with price tags that you can easily download and run. It was just a matter of hours before I downloaded my first app, a multi vendor chat app, which can keep me in constant instant messaging status with loved ones and friends. Its main use is to let me know my 23-year-old daughter is alive, because if she is on a computer, she is on MSN chat.

And therein is the problem. By being always on there is the expectation that you are, or should be, always available to any of your extended family or friends on a whim. Sometimes it is not convenient to give attention to your smartphone. Sometimes you just don’t want to type a text message to a spouse or a friend. Sometimes you want to be alone and brood in a corner. Sometimes you need to be absorbed in your job. However, just as often you want those interruptions, because work is often tedious or you welcome some distraction. You find yourself, just because you can do it now, reaching out and touching a friend with a text message or shooting him a picture. There is no reason to wait until the evening to post pictures on your blog or Facebook. Just do it now and let the technology figure out how to handle the logistics of it all.

So I feel like I am giving up something but I am probably also gaining something more valuable. Technology is knitting me closer in relationship and in real-time. Whether this is good or bad I don’t know. Right now it is novel and kind of neat.

 
The Thinker

The first debate

It’s not October in a presidential election year without a number of presidential debates. Therein we largely–already-decided-voters get to watch the candidates jostle and parry with each other on national TV. The talking heads go into overdrive. Who won? Who lost? Why? What does it mean? What it mostly means is not a whole lot. Presidential debates rarely change the outcome of the election and these series of debates probably will not either.

On points most analysts give Romney a solid win, and I have to say the analysts are probably right for whatever it is worth. President Obama was in full Mr. Spock mode acting eminently logical and civil and when necessary flashing his proprietary toothy grin. The surprise was that, at least for ninety minutes, Mitt Romney emerged from his green eyeshades mode and resembled something animated and human. Moreover, his arguments sort of made sense, as long as you were ignorant of how he constantly contradicted his positions during the rest of the campaign. This matters little to most of the debate viewers, who could care less about previous statements and campaign minutia, and most of who were tuning into Mitt Romney for the first time.

I watched the debate on cnn.com where the screen was split between Obama and Romney, allowing us to watch the reaction of one candidate while the other blathered. Obama took a lot of hits for seeming disinterested. He was not quite the eloquent debater we saw four years ago when he was debating Hillary Clinton. Obama looked mostly tired and like he wished to be elsewhere. No doubt spending the evening romancing his wife of exactly twenty years was far more appealing than trying to focus on Mitt and his frequently meandering arguments. Obama would have been wise to simply say that Mitt was having many “Etch-a-sketch” moments. Unexplainably, Obama mostly let these many moments pass.

Like his infamous dog Seamus forced to endure much of a family vacation in a pet carrier strapped to the roof of the family sedan, Mitt really looked like he was a dog straining at the leash. He wore a half smirk, half phony smile and the longer it went on the more I was looking for things to throw at my monitor. Toward the end it became nearly unendurable. I shudder to think of him as president. How can we be expected to endure that “I am more superior than you” smirk for at least four years? And yet the press gave him a pass, and concentrated on Obama’s dispassionate and civil performance, which at least is standard behavior from him. Mitt looked the epitome of someone of high school age desperately wanting to be class president, not president of the United States. Gosh, he wanted to be popular! He wanted to sell himself, like a box of detergent.

Moreover, he looked and sounded like a bad imitation of Ronald Reagan. From the slicked back hair to the thick eyebrows, you could almost mistake him for Reagan, except he had none of his gravitas or his sincerity. He also looked Reagan-old. He looked more like the Ta-la-la-la guy than a human being, with a smile that seemed due to a surgical wire under his cheeks and wrinkles around the eyes that looked Botoxed. I found him to be more Martian than human, but at least he was animated. Obama looked like he was on sedatives.

For all the hoopla, there was little of substance exchanged, which was probably by design. Maybe it’s good that Romney’s spouse Ann is into horse dressage. Romney looked like he was competing in a human dressage contest. The debate for Romney was more about pomp and circumstance, gestures and body posture, tone of voice and arm pumping and reused zingers (“you are not entitled to your own facts”) than it was about substance. In that sense, regardless of who won the debate on technical points, the American people lost, since so little policy was actually discussed.

So Obama loses points for being cerebral and disengaged. He is smart enough though not to make the same mistake twice, and will learn how to exploit Romney’s weaknesses in subsequent debates. While Romney “won” the debate, what people are remembering is not so much his quirky animation, but some of his surreal comments. Two nights later what is really making the rounds is not Romney’s animation, but his remarks about firing Big Bird. Fire Big Bird, Cookie Monster, Count von Count, Elmo and all the other Sesame Street characters, not to mention PBS and NPR? This has garnered a huge amount of attention on line, and it’s not good attention. It says more about the real Mitt Romney than any eloquence he managed during the debate. I expect that by the next debate he will be walking those statements back. Actually, I expect before the weekend is over he will have walked the statements back.

I hope the next debate will at least have some substance in it.

 
The Thinker

It’s official: SiteMeter no longer gives a damn

Once upon a time when you wanted to meter your site, SiteMeter was the only solution. I started metering my blog with SiteMeter around 2004 because that’s what all the cool blogs were doing. Not that my “impressions” (page views) were ever that impressive, at least according to SiteMeter. Their meter went up and down but generally I was somewhere between a hundred and two hundred page views a day.

As I documented elsewhere, their metrics were grossly inflated, as they caught obvious search engines, which are not human beings. Still, it was useful to get a general snapshot of blog traffic. One click got you an up to the minute report. Google Analytics makes you log in and by default you are always a day behind. Despite its shortcomings, SiteMeter is useful. It excels in useful reports that always just one click away.

Around six a.m. on September 24, SiteMeter stopped metering my blog. The reports still come up but they just show zero traffic. Of course, this blog’s web traffic had not stopped, as evidenced by the fact that you are reading this. Both Google Analytics and StatCounter showed the usual site traffic. I thought maybe my tracking code had expired, but when I was finally able to log in to the SiteMeter manager and review my tracking code I found that it had not changed. So then I figured maybe they just weren’t aware that they weren’t catching my blog’s statistics. So I sent them a support request. More than a week later, I still have heard nothing.

Granted, it is hard to give me much attention when I don’t pay them anything. Most of SiteMeter’s customers don’t pay them. This limits us webmasters to the last 100 page views or visits and overall statistics, but they still have plenty of opportunities to make money from me. Every time I go to check out a SiteMeter report I see no less that two ads, one on the top and one on the side, will appear. And I typically checked the site a half dozen or so times during the day.

Go to SiteMeter’s web site today and it suggests that no one is minding the store. Their latest announcement was in February 2009. Their newest widget is for Windows Vista. They will still take your money quickly enough, if you want to pay for their service. It’s not worth paying for when there are so many superior and free alternatives. Why pay for a service when they cannot be bothered to maintain the site or troubleshoot problems? I imagine they hired some hacks to put the whole thing in the Amazon cloud and just forgot about it. To the extent they pay attention to it, it is to collect Google Adsense revenue. It probably pays for plenty of margaritas at the bar close to their deck chair along a beach in the Bahamas.

Not that they have cut off all my metering with SiteMeter. I also use SiteMeter on two other domains, and they are continuing to run fine. Their statistics, of course, are bogus and inflated as well, but I can still look at SiteMeter reports for these domains. For more official statistics, I go into Google Analytics.

However, Google Analytics tells you far more than you need to know. It’s an amazing product, just overkill for all but the most diehard web statisticians. SiteMeter’s user interface is simple, usable and clean. What I really need to do is emulate their reports and tie it directly into Google Analytics. Being lazy, however, I just haven’t gotten around to it. I’ve searched around to see if someone has taken the time to build SiteMeter-like reports for Google Analytics. If they have, I can’t find them or they are afraid of a lawsuit from SiteMeter’s lawyers. However, if I roll my own, I figure they’ll never know. So when I find some free time for the project, I plan to do it. It looks straightforward if you can write some code to parse a XML file.

Like Craigslist Casual Encounters, it appears that tracking your site with SiteMeter is now simply a waste of your time. So I’ll be removing my tracking code. No reason that I should give them my business since they obviously don’t care about retaining it.

 

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