Sunday, January 31, 2010

Sunday Afternoon Ramblings

It must have warmed up a bit. Looking out the window I can see that the area within the concrete barriers that I call Streeterville Bay is still frozen. The lake beyond, however, has returned to a frigid, but unfrozen blue. Michigan, on the other side and out of eyesight (due to the curvature of the earth, but I suspect you knew that), is still inundated with copious amounts of snow. Gotta get really warm to melt all of that. The slanting rays of late afternoon, mid-winter sunlight give Navy Pier a pleasant and inviting appearance. It's 31 degrees at the Mini. No word on the wind chill.

Babs and I spent a sizable chunk of the afternoon looking at hotels and airfares for a spring vacation in Rome. Then we decided to go to Florida instead and to look for reasonable places to retire and buy homes in the warmth. Well, I still have pictures of the Roman art and a bottle of Chianti Classico in the little wine cellar. Wine cellar? OK it's a little bitty refrigerator that keeps the wine at a constant 55-65 degrees for aging purposes. Don't really know why I need it. Very little wine stays around here long enough to need the controlled temperature environment. True, I have one bottle of expensive stuff that I've had for several years. Just waiting for a special occasion. Nothing special enough has come along as yet.

Speaking of special occasions, Babs has a new blog. It's called Babsray's Blog, and can be found at True, I'm married to her, but it appears to be well-written and a source of interest for one and all. Her latest post is "Corn, it's not what you think it is," or something like that. And you know, who would know more about corn than someone who grew up in Iowa? Anyway, check it out. Guaranteed edification.

The Illinois primary elections are coming up on Tuesday, as is Ground Hog Day. I'm not really certain if there is a viable connection between the primary and the ground hog making weather predictions. The Reverend R.D. tells me that when the primary falls on Ground Hog Day, it's a valid predictor of good or bad politics for the next 6 years. If the ground hog sees his shadow on that day, he retreats to his burrow and we'll have 6 more weeks of winter and bad weather. If the voters see their shadows, we'll have 6 more years of bad politics and further indictments for bribery and assorted political offenses. Frankly, I don't think we need special omens to tell us that. This being the City of Chicago, and the fine state of Illinois, we can expect that anyway.

As Ground Hog Day goes, in the past we at Views have held a predict off between Phil the Groundhog and Larry the Doorman. Turns out not to even be a contest. Larry the Doorman is the best weather predictor this side of the Mississippi. He's been tested against Punxutawney Phil, the groundhog. He's been tested against The Old Farmers' Almanack. He's been tested against the evening weather dudes on TV.

Turns out that we may be in need of a new weather predictor, though. Larry the Doorman may be retiring. Seems he's invented a device he calls "One for the Road." It's a device that allows guys who are driving long distances to relieve themselves while never leaving the comfort of their vehicles. I mean how many times have you been driving cross-country and needed to pee and just didn't really want to take the time and effort to find a gas station and a bathroom? Really? Me neither. But apparently there are those guys out there who would just as soon let 'er rip right there in the car. Well, good luck Larry. Just remember, if this doesn't work out, there's always a doorman's job and a chance at beating Punxutawney Phil year in and year out at weather predicting.

When I started this thing off today, I thought I had a valid point. Turns out I may not have or if there was one it was just that I can ramble on indefinitely about nothing. Well, this is January 31 and that makes it February Eve. It's an old tradition here on the 14th floor that I make "New Month Resolutions." My "New Month Resolution" for February of 2010 is to solemnly swear to have a point next time I grace these pages. And so I will. It is solemnly sworn. See you about election day. I'll probably have a point to make by then. In the meantime, it's just about Happy Hour.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Be a Clone! Be a Clone! Be a Clone!

I heartily beg the pardon of anyone infected with my last post. It seems that it just kept coming out and wouldn't quit. Next thing I knew, it was approaching epic proportions, though I doubt anyone will ever put it in the class of literature with other epics. It was long but The Iliad it's not. Something it did, however, was to get me thinking about some other technology stuff that is rapidly developing.

About 30 years ago I worked as a shipping/receiving clerk in the warehouse of a hospital. (I also had a shipping/receiving job at a toolbox manufacturing firm in Arkansas, but the only thing I received there was a hard time. Ba da bump.) Anyway, even in that age long ago, it was amazing the number of artificially produced replacement parts there were for people.

We routinely received hips, knees, replacement lenses for eyes, valves for hearts, and God knows what else I'm forgetting. I worked at another hospital in Minneapolis in the surgical pharmacy and that dude that invented the artificial heart came to do some transplants. Jarvik was his name? Not even talking about transplanting the real deal here. We're talking about mechanical replacement. Nobody is going there anymore. Too many real transplantable hearts, livers, kidneys, etc. available, and mechanical stuff is only a temporary solution until the real deal is available. Talk about your rejection of foreign bodies. But I digress.

The current direction of research in that area is cloning. A great many serious scientists now believe that we can take stem cells and grow whatever spare part you need, and with all the requisite DNA to match your own so you don't get that nasty rejection reaction and have to take those drugs that shut down your systems that protect you from infection by foreign bodies, etc. Personally, I'd like a full body transplant. Gotta keep the brain I was born with, but I could surely use an upgrade on the body it came in. Real doggone tired of being a short, fat dude with thinning gray hair. Looking for something in a 6'2" Adonis style with something other than this Northern European inherited pigmentation. Something more Mediterranean say. Now if the cloning dudes could get me that, I'd be happy, as undoubtedly would be my wife.

What got me off on this tangent was a piece I read in the newspaper a week or so ago, regarding the growing of pork strips from pork stem cells. Cool. Who needs "Soylent Green?" Who needs to get grossed out about the fact that real animals have to be killed so we can eat them? Just harvest some stem cells and put them through the process and "Voila! Ham. Pork chops. Pork tenderloin." For you islanders out there in the Pacific who are still addicted to Spam, I'm sure we can come up with something that replicates that. Sorry Hormel, the biochemistry lab is putting you out of business. Porky can avoid the slaughter now. Unless, of course, Hormel goes into the cloning business and subsequent manufacturing of cloning based meat products. Invest now. The stock is only going up.

And that's just pork. Won't be long until the labs will be producing beef, turkey, mutton, and scads of meat-like substances that "taste just like chicken." Ain't science grand? We can figure out incredible ways to feed every person on the face of this planet, and make our bodies healthier, but we can't figure out how to stop killing each other and the people with the money to reap all these high-tech benefits want to keep it all to themselves. Universal healthcare? Forget it. Cloned body parts for poor people? Let them clone their own damned body parts. Mass produced high protein food substances for all the 6 billion plus people on the planet? Well if they can afford it. Hey a guy/gal has to make a profit. How else do I pay for my 6 cars/trucks/SUVs/airplanes/boats/spacecraft? How else do I pay for my new swimming pool and all the domestic help?

Know what that means? I'm not getting that 6'2" Adonis body. Cheap meat that comes from cloned stem cells will only mean that a few rich people will have it available at Whole Foods sometime in the next 50 years. Meanwhile if you need spare parts for your body, I hope you have a really good job so you can afford the health insurance that will get them for you.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Art for Art's Sake, Technology for Utility's Sake.

I've been thinking a lot about technology lately. It changes so fast. The moment you think you have a handle on it, it changes again and you're adapting to the new and forking over the cash for the new. By the time you reach 50 years of age, you've done a lot of adapting and a lot of forking over. I can only imagine what it must be like for my mother and father in-law who weigh in at 93 years of age and 89 years of age respectively.

At some point you begin to question the legitimacy of every new advance. Is it worth it? Do I really want to adopt one more new technology? What will it cost? Can I get by without it? Will I be ridiculed by everyone younger if I eschew the new technology? Do I really care?

When it comes to technology, my older brothers and sisters used to tell me about in the pre-RD days when they listened to their favorite radio program on Saturday mornings. I believe it featured Big John and Sparky and was titled "No School Today." The theme song was "The Teddy Bear's Picnic." They gushed over the memories of sitting around and listening to the radio.

Well, after I came along the family got a TV. I was 5 at the time. It was a black and white TV with rabbit ears on the top and that teensy little black and white screen was encased in a wooden box that was furniture for goodness sakes. Turns out the polar bear lamp on his back that held the goldfish bowl was a bad idea. The cat was fascinated by the little goldfish and the lighting coming from the polar bear underneath. The lamp, the goldfish, and the bowl were not long for this world. The TV hung around for a while. I developed a thing for Captain Kangaroo, Mighty Mouse, Roy Rogers, The Three Stooges, The Mickey Mouse Club, Zorro, and when allowed to stay up late enough, The Twilight Zone. When I was still pretty young, there was "Your Hit Parade" on Friday nights. A little later on was "American Bandstand" on Saturdays at noon. Cartoons were over by noon so that was OK. Cartoons I loved. Ruff and Reddy, Huckleberry Hound, Quickdraw McGraw, Yogi Bear. Hanna-Barbera had a hold on my life.

I got my first record player when I was a teenager and became the proud owner of a few 45 RPM singles and two or three 33 1/3 RPM LP's. Telephones were black things on a long cord in a centrally located area of the house and they had a rotary dial. The first telephones I remember were party lines. There were three homes on a line and each had a specific ring. Ours was 2 longs and a short. Pick up the phone to call someone and you might get Aunt Estella talking to someone about who knows what. Got a private line by 1960.

Went to college and things began to change. Everyone had stereo systems. No one listened to AM radio anymore. It was FM album rock and underground sounds. Speakers the size of Volkswagen bugs. Cassette tape systems had been invented but everyone had 8 track systems in their cars. I can still hear the "Ka-chunk" sound that it made when going from one track to another in the middle of "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida." Then everyone ditched the 8 tracks and got cassette players. Some people replaced their turntables with cassette players. Real audiophiles had big-assed reel to reel players that could record your garage band (Assuming you had legit microphones.). All of these sported speakers the size of Volkswagen Bugs. Don't get me started on the amps that those who saw themselves as rock stars possessed.

Life in audio land went on. Turntables, cassettes, the whole mess turned into CD's. They were smaller, easier to manage, and supposedly produced superior sound. Then real audiophiles started hyping turntables and analog as superior in sound quality to digital crap. Then came I-Pods and MP3 players and downloads and the only people to be found in the CD section of a store were over 50 years of age. "Why would you buy one of those dude?"

Telephones developed push-buttons instead of rotary dials. They became wireless, so you could walk around the house while talking. Rich people got car phones. Car phones became cell phones. Everybody got cell phones. Phones with wires coming out of your wall at home began to look pretty stupid. Everybody started getting their e-mails and text-messaging and tweeting and carrying on ad infinitum on their phones so much that they barely interacted with each other face to face at all. Oh shit! Forgot about the computers (And e-mail and assorted things that can be accessed via cell phone in addition to said computer.).

In the summer of 1969 I worked for Arkansas Social Services as a gofer. Delivered mail. Printed forms. Got a permit and drove important people around in state owned vehicles. Arkansas Social Services had in their central offices this room full of IBM computer equipment. Took up the whole room. The room was carefully climate controlled. My MacBook Air currently has the approximate capacity of the equipment in that room full of electronics. Got a job at a hospital pharmacy in the early 1970's and they had a room full of computer equipment and patient charges had to be written out in numbered codes that were subsequently entered on these punch cards that had to be fed into the computers in order to get a printout. (Same setup when I went to grad school and took Statistical Analysis for the Social Sciences.) Oh! And when I first started to college, during that misguided period where I thought I wanted to be a chemist, I functioned with a slide rule. My first calculator came along about 5 years later and was the size of small laptop. It added, subtracted, multiplied, and divided. It didn't do logarithms. My slide rule did. I didn't have to take out a loan to buy it, but I could have bought a used car with the cash it cost. Such devices currently are the size of a postcard and are given away for free by banks to new customers.

At one time I thought the greatest advance of Western Civilization was the invention of the IBM Selectric Typewriter with a correction key. Then I got an electronic word processor with a memory of about 10,000 characters. Glory be! Wonders never cease. Then there came the personal computer with a word processing program. Every job I had began to use computers and the internet and e-mail were born. I became an e-mail junkie. Typewriters? How primitive.

Cell phones got smaller and smaller. Capacities got bigger and bigger. Everyone everywhere has to be in touch with everyone everywhere else 24/7. Some people actually talk on their cell phones. Others just text and twitter and constantly check their e-mail via satellite links. Blackberrys, I-Phones, 3G, 4G. Real luxury has become the ability to get away from all this constant in touch, but then we find that we're hooked on connectivity. No Facebook for a whole day? That's just crazy talk man.

Meanwhile my TV is a big honking flat screen. The sound system, including TV, radio, CD player/DVD player, and hookup for the I-pod are all a part of a home theater system that can be heard on speakers in the ceiling throughout the house. And it gets to be a real bitch to just keep up with all the changes.

Kids these days are so wired that I sometimes suspect that they have to be plugged in and recharged every night. They all have cell phones which also serve as a download point for music and a substitute for an MP3 player if you have the ear buds to plug into them. Very few kids wear wristwatches anymore. They routinely go to their cellphones to check the time. I"m surprised someone hasn't just installed jacks in the back of their heads to plug directly into the internet. Then there is me. I was surprised as hell to find out that my DVD player and a CD player are the same friggin thing. It plays both. OK, I adapt. Now if I only had a DVR or Tivo. Know what you're thinking. "What you don't have a DVR? How can you function?"

Like I said early on, "There comes a time when you begin questioning every little advance." I finally figured out how to program my VCR and it became obsolete. Bought a blue tooth adaptor for my cell phone, so I could talk in the car when I'm driving and found out it was more trouble than it was worth. Babs got a little thing that broadcasts the I-Pod to the radio in the car and the quality was less than spectacular. Sometimes you just get by with the old. If I'm a little behind the curve electronically, cut me some slack. I was born in 1950. So far I've adapted pretty well, and my mother in law tried the internet and e-mail only to find she preferred typing letters on an electric typewriter. Sigh. Now don't get me started on electronic book readers. Sadly, this little rant has gone on for way too long. 5 Brownie points to every person who actually makes it this far without checking their cellphone messages or e-mail.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

American Justice Ain't Blind. They Been Peekin'.

The Supreme Court is really starting to tick me off. The majority are a bunch of ignoramus right-wing Republicans with an agenda. The latest item on their agenda has been the further giving away of our country to corporate interests. As if 8 years of the Bush/Cheney administration hadn't done enough in that direction.

Seems somebody had the unmitigated gall to pass a law that would limit the amount of money a corporation or lobbying organization could spend on influencing elections or public policy. In a vote that split straight down party lines, the Supreme Court decided 5-4 that everyone in America has the right to freedom of speech, coporations, unions, and assorted lobbying groups included. Can't go limiting that.

The trouble is with this logic is that those with the most money get the most freedom and the most speech. Campaigns to choose the leadership of our country will continue to be in the thrall of big money. Not rich and you want to get elected? Better go find someone willing to finance your voice. You're going to need media attention, newspapers, magazines, internet, television, and lots and lots of sound bites. That gets expensive. So you go and find people who will spend the money for your media....for a price. They have an agenda. They seem to think you owe them for the help.

What about the politician with a conscience? Oh hey, vote against big old corporate America and they might just find a lot of money going into someone's freedom of speech in an organized campaign to defeat, denigrate, and defame them. And while there are notable instances where the most money doesn't result in a victory, that is the exception rather than the rule. The Supreme Court says everyone has a voice and it's free. Trouble is, in America, the more money you have the louder your voice gets, the more people you can sway. Is that really democracy in action?

Remember back in school when they were teaching you the basics of government in a democracy. Separation of power. Checks and balances. Legislature makes laws. Executive branch carries out the laws. Judicial branch is just there keeping watch over the whole thing, making sure it's all legal and constitutional. Horse feathers! Bull hockey! The courts are out there interpreting the constitution through glasses that are tinted according to each justice's ideology. Republican Presidents appoint justices with elephant colored glasses. Democrats appoint justices with donkey colored glasses. Decisions are made, based on what the party line is. To pretend otherwise is sheer unadulterated stupidity.

When John Adams was leaving office and handing over the Presidency to Thomas Jefferson he appointed a slew of new Federalist judges in the final hours of his Presidency to ensure his views would carry on in the next administration (The Midnight Appointments). Of course, Jefferson refused to sign the appointments putting them into action. FDR tried to get a Democratic Congress to enlarge the size of the Supreme Court so he could pack the court with justices sympathetic to the New Deal. (Didn't happen.)

Now we're experiencing a GW/Republican hangover in the judiciary and will until at least one more justice dies or retires on the Republican side. These guys have already made rulings that put GW in office instead of Al Gore (Remember the Florida debacle?) and now have ruled unconstitutional a law that would limit the influence of big money in national politics. To their chagrin, they have as yet been unable to reverse Roe v. Wade and outlaw abortion once again, nor have they been able to give away protected government land to Big Oil, despite massive efforts to get that done. Remember Warren G. Harding and the Teapot Dome scandal? Buncha Republicans went to prison in the 1920's over the same issue. Bribery. Public land. Oil reserves. Public officials. Big oil companies. This stuff has been going on for a long time. Let's hope the Supreme Court doesn't make the ultimate decision on this issue anytime soon.

Know what they call a Supreme Court justice who is non-partisan and makes decisions just on what is in the best interest of the nation? Sorry, I don't know either. Never seen one. If they exist they're probably alien infiltrators and looking to ultimately take over the world. And then they wouldn't actually be non-partisan would they? They'd be representing some alien group who want to make the country and the world a better place. Go aliens!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Filibuster. Can't Live With It. Can't.....Oh Wait. Maybe I Can Live Without It.

The Chicago Sun-Times this morning trumpeted, "GOP Senate win a blow for Obama." I cannot speak for Mr. Obama. True, I have supported him ever since he was running for the Senate in Illinois, way before he was the President of the United States. True, I have donated money to his campaigns for Senate and for President. However, I am of the mind that he is a public servant who serves the people of the United States, and was duly elected to that office so he can do what is necessary for the benefit of those people. More than a blow for Obama, the loss of a Senate seat in Massachusetts to a Republican, I feel is a loss for the people of this country.

Martha Coakley may have been a bland candidate, but what in the world were the people of the state of Massachusetts thinking? Remember that filibuster proof majority in the U.S. Senate? History. Gone with the wind, just like Ms. Mitchell's novel. And we haven't even gotten the healthcare reform thing completed yet. Oops. For the love of God, or at least someone godlike, people, there are Americans out there who are in dire straits as regards their healthcare. We are, embarrassingly enough, the only major industrial nation in the world that does not have universal healthcare, and we were on the verge of fixing that. Now that's as endangered as a Siberian tiger.

The sad thing is that the Democratic Party still has a 59-41 advantage in the Senate. That's a sizable margin. Yet that obscure little Senate rule that allows unlimited debate (Can you say filibuster?) unless you have an obscenely large supermajority, allows a minority of right-wing ideologues to cancel the will of the majority. Furthermore, the fact that every state, no matter how large or small, to have 2 Senators gives states with miniscule populations to dictate to those states that actually have the majority of the people in this country. The long and the short of that is that a minority of right-wing politicians, many of whom are from states with populations less than a million, are in a position to stop progress. (For the record, my city has more people than several of those states added together. Can we get a couple of Senators of our own?)

My suggestion is that Congress get their collective butts in gear and pass some version of this healthcare thing before that clown from Massachusetts gets sworn in. At least the people of the United States will get some universal healthcare bill, albeit flawed and limited in its scope. If we have to try to get this thing patched up between the House and the Senate after Mr. Brown takes office, it will get watered down even further.

Given the current state of party politics in Congress, it is doubtful that anything of realistic value will be accomplished there in the near future. Every effort to make any valuable change to benefit this country will be blocked just because the initiatives came from the Democratic Party. If initiatives get passed at all, they will be so severely compromised that they mean nothing. "What's in it for me and my state and my pals politics" will continue to prevail, as they have for the last who knows how long.

When the United States Constitution was written there was a belief in the need to protect the rights of the states. There was a great suspicion of a strong national power. The Senate with its 2 representatives from every state, no matter how large or small, was a way of protecting the little guys. Then the Senate established its rules of procedure so that a minority could debate endlessly, keeping the majority from bringing an issue to a vote, further protecting the rights of minorities. The filibuster was born. It has gotten to the point of absurd. I actually forget the actual numbers, based on the population, but what is going on is that easily less than 1/3 of the population is dictating to over 2/3 of the population. That is democracy gone awry.

I am not suggesting that we need to amend the Constitution and change the makeup of the U.S. Senate, although if I had been one of the founding fathers from a state with a large population, say New York, I have to admit that I would have bristled at the concept of being dictated to by a state with the population of Rhode Island or Connecticut. A modern day analogy would be California vs. North Dakota or Wyoming. It's time the Senate changed its rules of procedure. The filibuster simply serves to frustrate the will of the majority of the people in this nation so a minority can keep progress at bay.

Enough is enough. I want universal healthcare. I want the business community supervised so the rest of us don't get screwed. I want discrimination kept at bay. I want schools that are properly funded and not sold to the highest bidder so we don't have to pay taxes to support them. None of that is happening under the current system. Until we make some rational changes in our governance, we will continue to be governed by politicians who are at the beck and call of special interests. We will continue to be a country where the wing nuts can thwart real change.

Monday, January 18, 2010

In the End We're All Human, So Get Over the Differences Already

Today is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, and as every January we honor his memory and the memory of what he accomplished by taking a day off of work. I'm not at all certain that this is what we should be doing to honor his memory. Don't get me wrong. I like my three day weekends. I like having that occasional extra day off to soothe my mind mentally, to get caught up on life's demands, to do errands and chores that weren't taken care of over the weekend. It's just that Dr. King became a martyr to the cause of civil rights for all people. Shouldn't we be doing something to advance the cause of equality for all people? That, after all, is what he devoted his life to, and it is what he died for. Is it really too much to ask that we do something for that cause on one day that is dedicated to his memory?

Dr. King was African-American and his life was driven by the fact that Americans of African ancestry have historically been mistreated, discriminated against, and shoved to the peripheries of society. This is a group of people who, for the most part, arrived in America not by choice, but as chattel. This is a group of people who, when slavery was finally outlawed, were marginalized and kept in poverty and separate from the rest of society. This is a group of people who were victimized by institutional discrimination. This is a group of people who, after some three hundred years of struggles and the martyrdom of countless soldiers in the fight for equality, have finally reached the point where a man or woman of African ancestry can reach the highest echelons of our society, even the Presidency of the United States.

Yet countless African-American citizens still struggle in the throes of poverty, and there are still those who would have you believe that black people are an inferior race. And there are those within the African-American community who would have you believe that all white people are the enemy, that all African-Americans are somehow better in the eyes of God. These are those who promote separatism in the same way that white supremacists promote separatism and hatred. Neither address the realities of a society including some 300 million citizens of all races, ethnicities, religions, sexes, and sexual orientations. We are all in this thing together, and we all have to learn to work together, to respect one another, and to promote unity in order to raise all of us up. Another martyr to the cause, one Abraham Lincoln reminded us that "a house divided against itself cannot stand." Dr. King "had a dream." We all need to embrace that dream.

What we discover when we embrace that dream is that it goes beyond black and white. When we really open an honest dialogue, when we really begin to know each other instead of resorting to stereotypes and exclusionary practices, is that we all have much more in common than we do differences. Further, it takes us to a place where we move beyond black and white differences, and begin to consider male and female differences. It moves us to consider differences between religious views. It moves us to consider differences between people from different nations, who speak different languages. It moves us to consider the differences between heterosexual and homosexual. It moves us to understand that we are all human, all deserving of respect, all doing our level best to make some sense of our life on this planet, and hoping for a good life. We are all one in this. We are all homo sapiens.

All of that being said, I realize that we all are brought up with belief systems instilled in us by parents, family, community, churches, and schools. Some stay with those belief systems their entire lives. Some diverge by choice when they encounter a new thought and have an "Aha!" moment. Some diverge because of the nature of who they are, having no real choice in the matter, as is the case with the many gay acquaintances I've had in my lifetime. Nevertheless, for all the open mindedness in the world, things do not change overnight. Change is incremental. A journey occurs one step at a time.

Today I challenge everyone, myself included, to take one step along this journey to unity. Take a moment from your day and speak to someone who is not like yourself. If you are white, of European ancestry, take a moment to speak with someone who is black, or someone who is Hispanic, or someone who is from Asia. If you are black, take a moment to speak with someone from another racial or ethnic group. If you are devoutly religious, take a moment to speak with someone who believes differently than yourself. If you are mainstream heterosexual and have never spoken with a person who is homosexual, take the time to do so. If you are homosexual and live in an insular gay community, take the time to speak with a straight person. (Breeders are people too.) Take a moment and talk to a homeless person, and maybe give a little assistance. Everyone has a story, and not everyone is just a lazy bum.

Take the time to ask someone about their family, about their life. Take the time to really consider how just one person, not like yourself, may have legitimate concerns. Take the time to consider that we all really want the same things, and a lot of our differences are only happenstance of where we were born, what family we were born to, and simple genetics. When you look beyond the surface, there is a lot to like and love in each of us. And while you're at it, seriously consider giving some aid to the earthquake victims in Haiti.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

A Bad Day Deserves a Good Rant, or Two

Ever had one of those days when something is really bugging you, and that thing makes it difficult to concentrate on any one thing except being really pissed off about that thing. You try to put it at the back of your mind, but it refuses to stay there. The result is that you have the attention span of a gnat and you get really cranky. Well that being said, I currently have the attention span of a gnat and I'm a wee bit cranky, and I just feel like griping about stuff.

Earlier this week I was reading this article online called "10 Things Not to Buy in 2010." The list was led off by "a landline." For my money that's kind of a Duh Factor statement. Not earth-shattering. Another thing on the list was DVDs. Well "Duh," again. I've had Netflix for a while now and it's cheap, convenient, and did I say cheap. Why on earth would I buy DVDs? Anyway there was a lot of "Duh," on the list. I got to thinking, though, "Know how the vegetarian and whole and organic foods people have guilted us all into buying that brown colored sugar that's less refined, because it's supposed to be more natural and therefore better for you?" Well I ran out of the brown stuff and had some basic white granulated sugar, so I used it in my coffee. Guess what? The white stuff dissolves better. Let's face it, I like white granulated sugar better. It makes my morning coffee routine better and me less cranky. Never liked substituting carob for chocolate either, and some of that whole grain crap is like eating ground up processed twigs. Oh, and I like meat. Making no apologies for that. I'm homo sapiens and that particular species is omnivorous if you hadn't heard. Bottom line? Not buying that brown non-refined or semi-refined crap anymore. Not all it's cracked up to be.

Moving onward, the Republican Party just gets nuttier and nuttier, and blatantly racist to boot. First Sarah Palin joined the Fox News. Man if that news staff tilts anymore to the right it's going to fall over. Best short quip of the week regarding that addition to Fox, "Hair and unbalanced news." Not sure where that came from, but it strikes me as apt.

Now, as regards the racist comments from Republican cheerleaders, there are two that come to mind. One comes from Rush Limbaugh. After the recent earthquake in Haiti, the President was quick to offer humanitarian aid to a totally devastated country. Limbaugh went on the air and said that the President was simply trying to "highlight his compassion and humanitarian credentials and boost his standing with the black community." Would a white President have done less? I hope not. Are we, in America, supposed to withhold aid to Haiti in this crisis because the majority of the population is black? I fail to understand how one man can be this racist, this stupid, this unconcerned for humanity outside his own little cadre of rich white people.

And that's not all on the Republican right-wing front. In other news regarding Haiti, Pat Robertson seems to think that Haiti has suffered this massive earthquake as a punishment from God because they made a pact with the Devil. Yes you heard me correctly. Pat Robertson said, in all seriousness, that the Haitian slave revolt, led by Toussaint L'Ouverture, was successful in gaining independence from France because voodoo practitioners there made a pact with the Devil. Now they are suffering the consequences. OMG! Can't wait to hear what Sarah Palin has to say on this one when she weighs in. For the record, seismologists pooh pooh the notion that massive earthquakes are caused by curses from God. Seems there are things like fault lines in the earth's crust and consequent movement in the tectonic plates. Gets a little hairy up top when that happens.

You know, all that griping is starting to make me feel better already. There really are a lot of ignoramuses out there, and pointing out their ignoramusness is great fun at times like this. I really try to be a bit more magnanimous, but it's hard when faced with the utter stupidity of people in high places, or sometimes people in lower places as well.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Parties Are Supposed To Be Fun, Right?

It's January of 2010 and Lake Michigan is frozen over. February is imminent and primaries are coming up. The year-long blitz of political ads and punch-counterpunch between political rivals has begun. There was a time when I thought that maybe politics could be for me, but with the wisdom that comes with age I decided that it's way too ugly, combative, and fraught with lies, half-truths, and innuendo for those such as I. I can still encourage others, though. It's a dirty job but somebody has to do it.

I've done a lot of thinking about 3rd parties in the U.S. lately. In a parliamentary system like Britain's the majority party, or coalition of parties gets to choose the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister has the backing of the majority of the legislative body, and the system lends itself to multi-party democracy. Green Party, Social Democrats, Rightist Ultra-Conservative parties, and Lunatic Fringe are all welcome and usually manage a few members of Parliament. Not having anywhere near a majority, however, they have no effect on who gets to be the Prime Minister, except as a member of a coalition of parties.

In the U.S. our President is elected exclusive of any input from Congress, so it's entirely possible and quite often the case that a sitting President is of the opposite party from the one that controls the legislature. The party that controls Congress may lobby and campaign for a candidate, but they really have no effect. The people elect the person who is , arguably, the most powerful man on the planet. Party politics and ugliness have a great deal to do with who the person is who prevails.

The nature of the beast in America is that 2 party politics prevail. The 2 major parties swallow up most smaller groups, that in Europe would be separate political parties. The Democrats encompass everything from the center and just left of center on the political spectrum, to positions that are roughly where you would find Social Democrats in Europe. The Republicans encompass everything from roughly the center and just right of center to positions that are just shy of anarchy. Democrats are, on the whole, socially and economically liberal, and represent the working classes. The Republicans tend to be socially and economically conservative, and represent the monied interests and religious conservatives.

There has never been much room in American politics for 3rd parties and they tend to be short-lived. When they appear they take votes away from one of the two mega-parties and alter the shape of an election. We're talking Presidential politics here. Doesn't matter if the odd 3rd party candidate ends up in Congress. Has no sizable impact. Mind you there have been times in American history when 3rd parties have displaced one of the two major parties, as when the Republicans displaced the Whigs, but for the most part Democrats and Republicans have been slugging it out here since 1860.

What concerns me is the impact of a sizable number of dissenters who tend to vote say Green Party or Libertarian. These are people who are, for the most part, socially liberal, and who would normally fall into the Democratic camp, but differ in just enough respects to cause them to bolt. In the case of the Green Partyites, Democrats are not quite liberal enough on certain issues. In the case of Libertarians, they agree with Democrats on social issues, but agree with Republicans in that they are suspicious of big government and believe "that government that governs best is that which governs least." There are any number of parties from Communist to Nazi that populate ballots, but are so far out at the fringes that they have no impact and have no real standing in the mainstream.

Then there are those 3rd parties that emerge on temporary bases and represent such a rebellion in a major sector of society that they sway the election. They don't ever succeed in getting their candidate elected, but they take enough votes away from major party candidates that they change the outcome of elections. I am reminded of Teddy Roosevelt's Bull Moose Party and their progressive platform. They enabled Woodrow Wilson and the Democrats to prevail because he took moderate Republican votes.

George Wallace and his American Independent Party took away enough votes from the Democrats with his pro-segregationist stance that Richard Nixon and the Republican Party prevailed. H. Ross Perot and his Reform Party candidacy took away so many votes from the Republican Party that they enabled Bill Clinton to defeat incumbent George Bush for the Presidency in 1992. In the 2000 Presidential election, Ralph Nader of the Green Party took just enough votes from Al Gore to enable George W. Bush to take the Presidency via the Florida contested votes and consequent Supreme Court fiasco.

Third parties do not win the Presidency in America, or at least they haven't since the Whigs went out of business, the Democrats split between pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions, and the country went to war against itself. What third parties do is to keep other parties from winning by denying votes to a possible winner, Democratic or Republican. Sometimes the third party votes are over issues, more usually over a particular issue. Sometimes third party votes are in protest against a perceived slight or misstep by a party. In my humble opinion, they are almost always misguided (except for those votes for that Abe Lincoln guy.)

The bottom line here is that the Barack Obama hasn't totally transformed the world in one short year drumbeat is already audible. An awful lot of the people dancing to that drumbeat are not Republicans. They are people who helped to elect him. They are pissed off because change is not fast enough. Get over it people. Real change is incremental and we have had 8 years of devastation to our economy, our foreign policy, our social policy, and our nation as a whole, because of the Bush Presidency. It takes time and much thoughtful consideration to reverse all of this. To those who would bolt and vote Green, or Libertarian, or any other such protest vote, I have one really scary thought for you, a Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee Republican ticket.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

What Is Evil?

I was reading a post on a blog by mystery writers today and the subject of the post was "evil." The individual who put up the post made a difference between "evil incarnate" and "evil" that is mixed in with the everyday and mundane. She gave John Wayne Gacy as an example of evil incarnate, and some guy in a Polo shirt knocking on your door at night wanting to speak with her roommate as the other. She went on to add that sometimes the latter causes you to react, to realize that something is simply askew. There is evil in the normal, yet you sense it and it makes for fiction, I suppose.

The question that arises in my mind is, "What is evil anyway?" Do you react like the federal judge who, when ruling on a pornography case, said, "I can't define it, but I know it when I see it."? Do you draw firm guidelines, based on the Biblical? Are there shades of gray? When writing genre fiction, are you better served drawing characters who are either evil or good, or are you better off dealing with those who display characteristics of both? These are difficult questions and I suspect that every writer, and every piece of fiction has a different answer, that is to say that one writer may have different answers to this question on different days.

I know that many horror genre writers go for the pure good and pure evil. Stephen King has made a career out of drawing characters who embody pure evil. No nuance there. Yet he has made it work. He continually writes tomes based solely on the idea that there is an ongoing battle between good and evil, and his evil characters are definitely "evil incarnate." I must admit that he has written other kinds of fiction that are more nuanced, but these are not what the Stephen King franchise, the Stephen King fortune are based upon. Plain old good vs. evil, black vs. white are what he has sold the public, and he has done it well. It is, however, horror genre fiction. What about mysteries and thrillers?

I have read a good many crime fiction novels and there are those where the bad guys are the kind of guys who may be described as "evil." These are the kind of people who would just as soon shoot you as look at you, not immoral so much as amoral. They are people who are in it for themselves, and what they can get out of any situation. In real life there are people who fit this archetype. This is "evil incarnate." They are people, who you look squarely in the eye, only to find a moral vacuum that dares you to keep looking, that dares you to hold on to your own principles and morality in that piercing stare, that threatens to suck you into that vacuum.

I have encountered and felt that kind of evil. It offers possibilities for fiction. On the other hand most bad stuff that happens in this world is perpetrated, not by truly evil persons, but by ordinary persons who do stupid shit. There are basically good people who fudge the boundaries a little, thinking it's okay, and circumstances lead them further and further astray, until they are doing things that even they, themselves, find despicable. Some of them find God in prison, thinking that they have redeemed their previous faults. Some of them lose their bearings and drift further and further into the world of the truly evil. Some of them commit suicide, after realizing what they've done. Some just continue being dumb shits and straddle some line, sometimes being the saint, sometimes being the sinner.

For myself, in my current effort to write a mystery novel, it is the latter that intrigues me. How is it that basically good, normal people get sucked into doing stuff that is pretty bad? Dealing drugs. Killing another person in a fit of rage. How does the string of events that emerge out of the previous lead a person into a downward spiraling sequence of events that ends in shootouts with the police? How is it that people of questionable morality, bad, if not inherently evil, can end up being people who do good things for humanity? Who are the police, if not flawed individuals who at times embody both good and evil? What I'm talking about is the nuance and contradiction of the human condition. What I'm talking about is the sheer dumbassness of some people that cause them to go from being ordinary citizens and people next door to being somebody on the evening news.

Perhaps, next time I will have a character who oozes "evil incarnate," but for now I'm stuck on those who are just "sad sacks" who did something really dumbass, and set off a chain of events that result in a story worth telling. This is the nature of humanity more often than not. The other, the "evil incarnate," that's a different side of it altogether. While the movies and TV shows are full of it, it is much less normal as a happening than the mundane that somehow sprouts an act that results in evil doings.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Jesus Loves the Little Children

It's Tuesday already and I've been mulling over this thing in my head for two days now. On Sunday I read in the Chicago Sun-Times that "many national religious leaders lobby for increases in immigration," but huge majorities of the actual congregations feel that there are too many immigrants already. Huge majorities? What does that mean, you may ask. We're talking about 69 percent of Catholics, 72 percent of mainline Protestants, and 78 percent of Born-again Protestants. I guess Jews are a little more liberal on the whole. Only 50 percent of the Jews who were polled said there are too many immigrants in America.

So much for Judeo-Christian ethic. So much for being a nation of immigrants. I suspect all the native Americans, from Cherokee to Ute, would like to send all the damned immigrants back where they came from, but that's a different issue. I remember distinctly being taught this little song when I was a kid, "Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world, red and yellow, black and white......" I kind of took that to heart, as one of the core values of Christianity. I kind of believed that the religion itself was pressing the idea that all people are created equal. This was reinforced by social studies classes where I learned that the founding fathers instituted this idea in our constitution.

Of course I grew up in Central Arkansas and what went on in my little kid brain as regards religion and government was a great deal different than what was actually practiced all around me. On the government front, Governor Orval Faubus called out the National Guard to keep African-American students out of Little Rock Central High School. On the religion front, the church I attended with my family voted to not accept an African-American family in our congregation, and made them drive 45 miles to the closest church of our particular denomination that would accept people with just a little too much pigmentation in their skins.

Come to think of it this doesn't just apply to black-white relations in the South. Western Europeans adopted the Roman Catholic Church. Eastern Europeans adopted the Orthodox Church. Among Orthodox Christians, the Greek Orthodox wouldn't be caught dead in an Orthodox Chuch with Russian Orthodox sorts. Way too Slavic.

A Catholic friend of mine came to visit many years ago, and wanted to attend Sunday Mass. I've kind of gotten away from the whole church thing, so I just pointed said friend to the closest Catholic Church to where I lived. As it turns out, said friend was appalled that I sent her to a Mexican Catholic Church. Mexican Catholic? German Catholic? What? Aren't you all Catholics for goodness sakes?

In Northern Iowa where my wife, Babs, comes from there are separate Lutheran Churches for the Norwegians and Germans. Say what? Couldn't possibly be a Norwegian and going to a Lutheran Church with a bunch of Germans. They wouldn't even know what lutefisk and lefse are. Probably want you to eat sauerkraut at a church social. This is not even to mention the fact that the local Catholics have their own town. Lutherans and Catholics living in the same town and mixing? Can't have that. Next thing you know you'll have Lutheran girls and Catholic boys, Lutheran boys and Catholic girls getting married and having mixed faith kids. The horror!

In Chicago I've noticed that there are Korean Baptist Churches, African Methodist Churches, Spanish speaking Pentecostal churches, and lily white Episcopal Churches. There are Catholic Churches that cater to every race and ethnicity and don't go visiting some other group's church. People will stare. You'll feel darned uncomfortable. Some of these churches have roots in language differences. Some have roots in discrimination and prejudice. At some point, after we all become socialized into basic Americana, it all becomes a little ridiculous and xenophobic. It goes beyond religion and into clannishness.

I guess the point of all this rambling is that even if the ideals of a belief system are irreproachable, the actual practice gets somewhat skewed. Human beings are a clannish and suspicious group as a whole. They don't like anybody that isn't just like themselves and for the most part are a prejudiced bunch of Bozos. So much for my childish idealism and belief that all people are equal in God's eyes, that "all men are created equal." Just shove me off in a corner and I'll sing to myself, "Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world...." No, you can't sing with me. You won't let black people, Mexican people, Korean people, German people into your church. My church, The Church of There Ain't No God, but There Sure As Hell Is Morality, is all inclusive. On second thought, maybe you can sing. Even if I disagree with you, we're all inclusive here, and we try our best to be non-judgmental.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

The State of the World, 2010

It's the second day of the New Year, of the Second Decade, of the New Millennium and as the sun slowly fades in late afternoon the view from the 14th floor is nothing so much as frigid. The National Weather Service tells me it's 7 degrees (real temperature, not wind chill) in Streeterville. Having just come in from the outdoors, the Streeterville Weather Service tells me that it's colder than an Inuit at midnight on the Winter Solstice, and that's pretty darned cold.

New years always give one pause for reflection on the state of things, and new years that are also the beginning of new decades, that are part of a new millennium that hasn't really sunk in yet, well those really give one pause to reflect on the great questions of the day. Do they still call that movie company 20th Century Fox? If so, why? It's clearly the 21st century, and 10 years into it at that. That's right up there with the Los Angeles Lakers and the Utah Jazz on the absurd list. Of course the Big Ten Conference having 11 teams is also a real puzzler. These are universities for goodness sakes. Can't they count? If not, our future is in really sad shape.

On the economic front, unemployment is still running high, though not among people who read this blog. Amazingly enough, most people who read this are college graduates, many with advanced degrees. Go figure. There's seemingly no end of useless drivel that otherwise intelligent people will read to keep from having to do something that's actually useful. I seriously doubt, as well, that there is a statistical correlation between reading this blog and being employed. I'm not suggesting that unemployed people start reading my blog so they can become employed, although, they might be entertained. It's just a happenstance that many of my friends and relatives, and hopeless liberals who read this stuff are college grads and have a job. This is not likely to change, barring the apocalypse, in which case "Views From the 14th Floor" may fall by the wayside.

On the war front, the War in Iraq is still on, though I hear vague rumors that the U.S. is in the process of withdrawing troops a little at a time. I also hear vague rumors that U.S. casualties there are on the decline there. Not as many U.S. troops there to piss off the locals and get killed I guess. From all reports, though, Iraqis are still busy killing other Iraqis via car bombs and suicide vests, etc. Just goes to show that if there are no Americans left to target, there's always each other. Lots of room for enmity there, Shiites vs. Sunnis vs. Kurds who can always take on the Iranians next door if that starts to wane. Business as usual.

On the Afghan front American casualties continue. There was this whole thing about sending an additional 30,000 troops there. Get em out of Iraq. Send em to Afghanistan. The operating theory here is that a significant number of additional troops will be able to squash the Taliban and Al Qaida. (Is it my imagination, or didn't they use to spell Qaida Q-a-e-d-a?) Meanwhile the Taliban and Al-Qaida are hiding out next door in Pakistan and the Pakistani government has communicated to the U.S. that they're getting pissed off about all the drone attacks on the Taliban and Al-Qaida on their soil. Well if they'd get off their Pakistani asses and attack the Islamic extremists themselves, we wouldn't have to. Did I mention that the Pakistani government is corrupt, unstable, and prone to military takeovers, and they have nuclear weapons? What would happen if Islamic extremists took over the Pakistani government? Hmmmm. Oh boy, we have our work cut out for us there.

The boys in Washington are assuring us, however, that we'll start bringing them home a little at a time, sometime next year. I'm not putting any money on that one. That would be like betting on the Cubs to come out of their 100+ year funk and suddenly win the World Series. Possible, but not a good bet when you consider the odds. Count on U.S. military being involved in some way in the Middle East for a long time yet. Speaking of Middle East, who decides where the Middle of the East is, if the world is round? For that matter, where is East. East to me may be really different than to someone in, say China.

All of this brings up the point that, in the 21st century, 10 years into the 21st century, why are we still using terms like Middle East and Far East, that were invented by Europeans when they controlled the globe, when centers have power have obviously shifted? For the record, the Europeans have higher unemployment than we do. The Europeans are reluctant to do anything military because they think the Americans will. The Europeans don't even make the best wines anymore. Germans and Italians still make some kick ass cars, and the Italians still make some fine clothes. All in all, though, if you're looking for innovation and positive change for the world, you don't go looking in Europe for innovators. Great place to go for vacations, however.

At this point, the 800 pound gorilla in the room is Asia, and just any part of Asia. Japan bought into American and European derived modes a long time ago. We're talking about China and India. 1/3 of all the people on the planet live in China or India. They are both making incredible strides in industry, and in pollution as well. Now there's a real symbol of an advancing society. They are readying themselves to challenge the Americans and the Europeans for economic dominance and dare I say it, military dominance. Did I mention that both of those nations possess nuclear weapons, and a hell of a lot more people than we have? Did I mention that the Chinese are moving into the business of launching satellites? Did I mention that the Indians are moving into movie production and software development in a big way? In my humble opinion, not such great places to go for vacations, however. They have a way to go yet.

The thing is, with greatness comes all kinds of other stuff, like military commitments. The Chinese and the Indians have not yet arrived at this point. They still count on the U.S. and the Europeans to keep order in the larger world. There will come a time when they will be asked to shoulder their fair share of the burden. Want the U.S. out of Afghanistan and Pakistan? Guess who's right next door? China and India.

At any rate, this is the state of the world, as it stands on this 2nd day of January in 2010. Is it going to hell in a hand cart? Is the apocalypse imminent? Nah! There's still a lot of greatness in the U.S. There's still a lot to be said for our nation, our way of life. There's a lot of promise yet in the mix. We just have to keep working at it. And we have to ask ourselves, "Why do we still have land lines? Cell phones are the wave of the future, even if we're old farts who very rarely text anybody.