Thursday, December 31, 2009

Battling for TV's Relevance

Have you heard about the battle royale between Time Warner cable and the Fox network's threatened walk-out from the cable television system? Or Time Warner's pending decision to drop Fox from their lineup? The story varies depending on who's telling it.

Seems that Fox is demanding new, higher rates from Time Warner to carry the network to its cable subscribers. And Time Warner is barking back, saying they're not going to pay a higher fee because the cost would ultimately fall on their precious subscribers.

In the middle, as usual, sit the subscribers themselves: people who have been paying their cable bill and - from what I hear friends say - putting up with shoddy service for years. At risk are the many sporting events scheduled to air these next few days on the Fox network, as well as several popular Fox prime time shows. If Fox and Time Warner don't reach an agreement by midnight tonight, some or all of Fox's programming might be blacked-out across our area for people with cable TV. The world won't come to an end because of it, but considering how football-crazy this part of Texas is, one might think it has.

Me? I don't have cable. I don't have a dish, either, or any other fee-based TV provider. You think I want to PAY for the trash that constitutes network television these days? Fortunately, I don't live in a neighborhood that bans TV antennae (thus requiring homeowners to purchase fee-based TV). Neither do I watch much television except sitcom re-runs and PBS anyway. So, for me, fee-based TV isn't worth it. For a lot of other people, however, it is; and the ones I know who have cable seem to complain a lot about its reliability, cost, and customer support.

But Fox and Time Warner don't care about any of us anyway, except when it comes to cable subscribers paying their bill. Because all they care about is revenue, they're looking for any way they can find to get as much money out of their product, and if cable customers are going to get jilted along the way, so what? While making a profit isn't a bad thing, how one goes about making a profit says a lot about one's perception of the people buying their products. Both Fox and Time Warner say they're not going to keep football programming from north Texas, but they've certainly dangled the possibility low enough to make people sit up take notice. What this episode is doing to both company's credibility is anybody's guess at this point.

After watching Fox and Time Warner duel, out have come the pundits who say this is all part of the preliminaries for the end of free broadcast television as we know it. They say because producing new shows for network television has become so expensive, plain old advertising doesn't cut it anymore. Today's television audience has become so sophisticated and demands such technological wizardry in its entertainment that sponsoring companies once relied upon to cough up advertising dollars are balking at what it costs for a 30-second spot on even a poorly-rated show. Indeed, the old advertising model of cigarette companies trotting out celebrities before half-baked backdrops and fake plants is so passe as to be absurdly amateurish. Indeed, even the amateurs of today (which encompasses 90% of current TV actors) command a level of showbiz that would stun the medium's founding fathers (and mothers).

While it's amazing that costs have risen but quality has fallen, what's more amazing is the rate at which American viewers - who claim they don't have enough time - seem to be able to justify the dollars they spend on fee-based television. Most of middle America pays for their TV access now, leaving the elderly, folks in the rural hinterland, or in the slums to serve as the backbone for free broadcast television. And what market do you think advertisers are going to go after? They want the viewers who have already proven they can be bought - because they're paying for their TV broadcasts! If they're that careless with their money, maybe they'll drop a few more clams on this car they can't afford or the home trinkets they don't need.

Of course, I'm being cynical, aren't I? After all, I've already acknowledged that some people have cable because it's forced upon them (more's the pity). And if you're really a sports freak, ESPN probably is worth it to you - college football is certainly better for you than most everything else on Fox. So I'm not saying that all television is bad, or even that people shouldn't have to pay for it. On a certain level, it's a basic function of capitalism for people to pay for what they use, even if they still have to put up with all the commercials.

What gets me is spirit with which this whole Fox - Time Warner deal is going down. Fox's Rupert Murdock was quoted recently as saying it's impossible for him to produce programming without raising a lot more money. To Murdock I would ask, "and what makes you think your programming is good, just because a lot of people watch it?" A democracy is good when it comes to deciding political leaders, but just because a lot of people like something doesn't make it good or right. A lot of people used to like to smoke. A lot of people used to think the world was flat. Just because Fox produces a lot of programming that people like doesn't mean that programming is any good. It just means Fox is capable of appealing to the lowest common denominator. And you need MORE money to do that?

I'm not just blasting Fox; take any of the networks and really think about their programming. Where are shows that will be legendary for their quality? Shows like Seinfeld, which spent as much time nurturing their characters as they did spitting out ingenious catch-phrases like "no soup for you!" What about the Gunsmokes, Paper Chases, Columbos, or even the campy Star Treks? Maybe these don't qualify as the best entertainment of all time, but they're certainly classic for the medium of television, whose own legitimacy as an art form, even at the dawn 2010, has yet to be completely accepted anyway.

Here's another question: how can the BBC, Britain's quasi-governmental production company, produce such programming gems as "As Time Goes By," "Office," and others at a fraction of what it costs Hollywood studios? Is it because they pay their actors far less, and their production staff even less? Is it because they re-use props? Or is it because they rely heavily on well-honed scripts and classically-trained actors to compensate for what the technical sophistication may lack? In other words, do they strive more for the upper end of the entertainment spectrum, as opposed to the lower end?

At what point will American television executives - both in the production and distribution sides - realize that they serve the American viewing public far better when quality acting, writing, and directing (the core components of any performance-oriented art) serve as the medium's standard-bearers?

Free broadcast television may soon be a thing of the past. But if we're all going to have to pay for TV, it better get much better pretty fast.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Oh, What Fun It Is...

In case you were wondering, suburban Detroit is not America's most scenic Christmas vacation spot.

And while the refurbished terminal now housing American Airlines at Detroit's Metro Airport is brighter than the old terminal, it is woefully less efficient. I think we walked half the way from Dallas to Detroit in that interminable terminal.

On Christmas day, some idiot Nigerian tried to blow up a plane preparing to land at the same airport, but the explosives packed between his legs malfunctioned. Meanwhile, the Fort Worth - Dallas area enjoyed its first white Christmas since the 1920's.

A strange way to spend the Christmas holidays. Fortunately for us, our family time pretty much revolved around everything else. Funny, isn't it - how five kids can draw the focus from your own world onto their antics?

Upon returning home, I started checking out FaceBook, and discovered an obscure presidential order that was signed under the cloak of darkness (the darkness being the current healthcare debate) on December 16. You won't find this on any news site; you'll have to read about it on your favorite blogger's site. Just Google "amending executive order 12425". I'll wait while you check it out.

Hadn't heard about "amending executive order 12425", had you? That Obama has granted INTERPOL exclusive privilege to ignore standard law enforcement procedures regarding the rights of American citizens, our privacy, and due process? Depending on the website you researched for this topic, the vitriol against Obama ranges from "maybe we don't know the full story" to calls for impeachment. I would agree with one friend on FaceBook who wondered when Obama is going to prove he's on our side.

Not that Obama is as atrocious a president as Rush and his cronies claim him to be. If George W. Bush was a Democrat, right-wing pontificators would have had similar ammunition with which to blast him (think government spending, immigration, bailouts). From where I stand, the last good president - despite his flaws - was Ronald Reagan. Reagan had the Iran-Contra scandal and a wife who consulted mystics, but he was in the right place at the right time to help push open the Iron Curtain, along with the much-maligned Iron Lady of England, Margaret Thatcher. Maybe anybody who was president at that time could have done the same things Reagan did, but it was Reagan who sat in the Oval Office then, and I don't mind giving him credit for the role he played in the historic stand-down from the Cold War.

Flash forward to December 16, and we have President Obama amending the original amendment signed by President Reagan actually certifying INTERPOL in the USA to begin with. Except Obama went someplace Reagan would never have gone: on behalf of the citizens of the United States, Obama signed away our rights to due process so that INTERPOL can operate virtually without impunity despite our national sovereignty. That, my friends, is not the mark of a good president, whether they be Democrat or Republican.

So, with all of the weird goings-on this Christmas season, from the warped, sleazy healthcare mess to an impotent suicide bomber, we add the sly bit of sovereignty-busting by our very own president.

Oh yes, add the sloppy, poorly-thought-out missive from the Department of Homeland Security - after the Detroit incident - that airplane passengers couldn't go to the restrooms during the last half-hour of their flight. As if that's the only time during the flight in which an explosive can be detonated!

With the Year of Our Lord 2010 looming in the windshield, you'll understand if I'm not terribly optimistic.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Reid, Greed, and the Status Quo

Frustration doesn't even begin to describe my reaction to Senator Harry Reid's latest comments regarding the pending heathcare legislation.

Shocked? No, politicians have been greasing their own palms for years.

Angry? No, I'm way past mere anger when it comes to the shameless duplicity and vapid rhetoric of Washington.

As if the current healthcare debate isn't nerve-wracking enough, on Monday, Senator Reid casually acknowledged the key problem with Washington today. He wasn't even trying to; as if he realizes it's way too late to try and cover up anything anymore.

When asked by an NBC reporter if the buy-out of Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson (in which Senate Democrats bribed Nelson by paying for Nebraska's medicare costs) was an ethical way of doing business, Reid brushed off the question by saying he wasn't going to go through the bill and address all of the other parts of the legislation that were cobbled together through bribes, pay-offs, and downright pork.

It's as if Reid didn't even recognize that pork is one of Washington's most destructive habits. He could have answered, "Well, we've got a ton of pork in this thing, and it would take too long to go over it with you item by item. Besides, the pork is really what this bill is all about. This is another opportunity for us to bring the bacon home to our individual constituents - in other words, sleazy lobbyists. The fact that President Obama has allowed us to cloak all of this garbage in the guise of fixing healthcare for all really helps us obscure what we're really up to in these closed-door arm-twisting sessions. But as I said, we really don't have time to get into that right now. Besides, most of the media won't report it anyway, so we'd be wasting each other's time, wouldn't we? There's a good lap-dog, right, boy?"

By wilfully stating that the Senate's healthcare bill is full of pork and other gratuitous spending, Reid both confirms the fallacy of this and other recent legislation, and also the entrenched modus operandi of people elected to Washington. To read more, check out this article from the New York Times, whose writers also seem taken aback by Reid's brazenness.

Obviously, this bill is about more than healthcare. It's more than the hollow platitudes of insurance for all and reduced healthcare costs. It's even more than trying to achieve a historic decision that will become a keystone to American society, grander than Social Security and Medicare. It's more than anything good that even the most altruistic optimist could ever hope for in this bill.

It's about greed.

And with greed as the centerpiece of this grand initiative, how can it possibly benefit anybody else but the players in the game, the people who have "crafted" this legislation to serve their own ends? How can the senators who held out for the biggest pork payout say they're working for the common good? How will all of this pork save taxpayers - who are also healthcare customers - any money?

For shame, Harry Reid.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Tony Gets His Stripes

While in basic terms, the trial of Tony Marshall has been a somber story of financial misdeeds, it has also been a saga of unrequited parental love, manipulative spousal greed, and nefarious legal shenanigans (the latter of which is redundant).

Today, the late socialite Brooke Astor's only child (born, that is - she admitted to at least 1 abortion), was sentenced to one to three years of prison for his role in what a jury determined to be criminal books-cooking by him and his lawyer. Apparently, this was the minimum sentence the judge could impose in terms of jail time. Tony also must repay over $12 million to Astor's estate, although a repayment schedule wasn't announced.

Because of his age - 85 - and his frail health, chances appear strong that Tony will avoid spending any time in the slammer. His lawyers will probably appeal on health grounds, and in reality, the real kicker of the sentence just might be the $12 million restitution levied against Tony and his social-climbing third wife, Charlene.

Charlene has been a hovering figure in all of this mess - not only as a constant companion to Tony at everything from press conferences to courtroom appearances, but also as the shrewd power behind the throne that was Tony's already lucrative position as his mother's financial adviser. About 20 years ago, Charlene left her children and Episcopalian rector husband for Tony. They met at her then-husband's parish on Mount Desert Island, Maine, where industrialist wealth and social glamor glide between the whispering pines of Maine's idyllic summers. The sea air apparently got to be too much for the married Tony, too, because it wasn't long before the two of them became quite the topic of conversation in normally-reserved Maine. My mother even remembers the time my grandmother - a stoic Maine native - called to report the extraordinarily scandalous goings-on within the summer set.

And you can see where I'm going - the vamp of a rector's wife runs off with the son of a storied philanthropist with her eye on an even bigger prize: the millions in cash, property, and jewelry her husband would soon inherit. Or, would he? After all, nobody foresaw that Brooke Astor would ride her own red carpet (she was born of humble means and married up 3 times herself) to the grand old age of 105, dying in 2007 when her son was already in his 80's. (All the dirt is in Meryl Gordon's book that I referenced on Friday).

So my question is: where is the jail time for Charlene? Tony has gotten his stripes, although he may never actually have to wear them. Their lawyer is getting his own comeuppance sooner or later, and the three of them have lost whatever status they may have tentatively held in New York's high society. But the person who just may have been the catalyst for all of this mess - the woman who scorned her own family for a chance at the super-big time, the woman who was bested at her own game by the grande dame who "lucked" into her own prize at a surprisingly early age (Brooke's sugardaddy husband died after they were only married for a few years); that woman, Charlene, may be persona-non-grata, but at least she doesn't have a rap sheet.

Then, too, Tony could have settled quietly into Upper East Side retirement - enjoying his post on the Metropolitan Museum's board, ensconced in the haughty Knickerbocker Club - if his own morality kept him from a dalliance with the rector's wife.

Update:  Tony Marshall passed away Sunday, November 30, in New York City, at the age of 90.

Friday, December 18, 2009

News-n-Views Roundup

A fake French mansion, truckers, and Brooke Astor? Go figure:

Arlington (TX) mansion sells for over $2 million at auction
Here's proof the real estate market isn't as bad in North Texas as it is in other parts of the country. This week, a gaudy pseudo-French mansion here in Arlington sold at auction for $2.23 million, just short of its $2.6 million taxable value. Word has it that the buyer is a Houston sports lover who thinks the 9,370-square-foot domicile is the ideal sports weekend hangout (the new Cowboys stadium is here in Arlington). What this sale means for other pricey property in Arlington remains to be seen - not that there's much of it anyway - but it can't be bad news that people with means are willing to plunk down some serious cash for humble ol' Arlington, can it? Imagine the trend if Frisco and Southlake get eclipsed by the very town a lot of new-money people snub because we're supposedly not exclusive enough. Maybe exurb trendfollowers - who pay mightily for the opportunity to endure excruciating commutes - will get the picture: location, location, location!

Another big rig wreck, death, and huge clean-up
A 12:30am wreck this morning at the Dallas North Tollway and Bush Turnpike killed the driver of a tractor trailer truck hauling diesel. The wreck's cleanup dragged into the morning rush hour, with a ramp leading from the Tollway to the Turnpike closed and drivers forced to find alternate routes around this busy interchange. How many big rig wrecks does this make for the week here in the Dallas - Fort Worth area? For the month? Whatever the number, it's way too high, especially for an area that relies as heavily as it does on our freeway system. When will the damage to highway infrastructure, lost wages from workers sitting in freeway parking lots, air pollution from idling traffic, and the loss of life finally force changes in the way the trucking industry polices itself? Obviously, for now, they're content that all these costs (most not borne by them) are part of their cost-of-doing-business calculations. Well, for the rest of us, it is just too big a price to pay. If they don't like regulations and government interference, then the trucking industry needs to be stricter on itself, or they may face increased meddling from Uncle Sam. Somebody has to wrest our roadways from the menace that is our irresponsible trucking industry.

Whoopi gets "heir-time" in Astor sentencing
Probably nobody but people with connections to both New York City and Maine have even an inkling about the celebrity trial that has been dragging on - in and out of the courts - for the past several years regarding the late, great New York socialite, Brooke Astor, and her only son. That son, Tony Marshall, has been found guilty of complicity in a scheme hatched by his third wife and their lawyer to defraud his mother's estate of millions in cash and valuables. For a fascinating in-depth perspective of the saga, check out Mrs. Astor Regrets by Meryl Gordon. For marks in chutzpah, check out the comments by Whoopi Goldberg - a most unlikely ally for the WASP Upper-East-Sider Marshall, in her letter to the court in his behalf: "Please don't put him in jail. It would only amount to an unnecessary cruelty that would serve no real purpose. Hasn't Tony been through enough?" Apparently, dragging his own mother down the paneled hallway of her Park Avenue duplex to make her sign papers against her will is something Tony was accused of doing in his sleep? At any rate, we'll be hearing more about this on Monday, when the 85-year-old son is sentenced.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Communes or Communism?

Caveat: Wars have been fought over economic theory, and I'm no Nobel Peace Prize candidate (I haven't been doing this blog long enough).

What is the extent to which the employer/employee relationship becomes - or should become - some sort of partnership? Why do some hard-core capitalists talk like borderline communists when it comes to the role of the worker? Should the workplace be a commune or a totalitarian regime, or something in-between?

Having recently been booted out of the corporate workforce, I've had time to consider the whole phenomenon of work. Since I've never been a company president or owner, I can only imagine what that must be like. However, I've had over 20 years of being an employee from companies ranging from high-end retail to freight forwarding to church accounting. I'm no corporate titan, but I've seen a few things in my time.

What's Wrong with Illegal Immigration?

At the risk of instantly complicating matters, let's first look at illegal immigration. When my Republican friends began debating the topic several years ago, at first I thought the issue was cut-and-dried: people who cross our borders illegally should be deported.

However, I soon learned that many conservatives actually encourage illegal immigration, because it provides a steady flow of cheap labor. It's far easier to pay somebody below-minimum-wage salaries when the worker isn't supposed to be here in the first place. On-the-job injuries are dealt with easily - just replace the injured worker; to whom can they file a grievance? Complaints about low pay and bad working conditions? Just get new workers, fresh from the border, who are too naive or desperate to care about such petty things.

Silly me always thought that if you do the crime, you do the time. However, when one side of the Republican Party is pushing for closing down the borders, and another group is secretly pressing for them to remain open, no wonder President Bush couldn't get anything accomplished when people clamored for immigration reform.

And What About the Red Horde?

Where does communism come in? Well, consider the two major philosophies when it comes to a job. Any job, really.

One philosophy is that a job is something that a person does to earn a wage. The wage is roughly the value of the job performance to the employer. As long as the person is adequately trained for the job, and can produce what the employer needs, and a wage for that work is agreeable to both parties, then the worker does the job, is paid their wage, and the basic contract is kept as long as the worker is needed and the job necessary. The employee is an interchangeable factor in the overall productivity of the firm. Period.

The second philosophy takes the employer/employee roles a bit further. The employer still has a contract with the worker for the job that is necessary. However, the employer takes the extra step of factoring in the satisfaction quotient of the employee. The logic is this: if an employee is content in their job, is rewarded for extra performance, enjoys a relatively stable work environment, and is treated respectfully, the employee has a greater incentive to play their role with more gusto, take extra steps during crunch times, contribute to the overall functionality of the team, and take greater ownership in the quality and quantity of their job and its production. Am I right?

This theory holds that when the employee receives greater respect from the employer, productivity is greater, which means profitability is greater. This may seem altruistic, and it may require a bit of effort to quantify, but does it really run counter to economic logic?

Now, you can probably tell which side I prefer! To me, it simply makes sense. In looking back at my own work history, it's obvious when productivity was the highest - when I was valued as more than just a factor in an equation.

Isn't just having a job - where the worker is just a worker, a means to an end - similar to communism? Any worker fails for some reason, and they are replaced that day, like a malfunctioning component in an assembly line. The worker isn't expected to find any altruistic fulfillment from the work they perform, and the employer has no obligation to look out for the needs of the worker because that would cut into the bottom line. Sure, the Soviet Union liked to brag that communism provided solidarity for the workers, but the sheer magnitude of the implosion that was Soviet communism stands as testament to the long-term impossibility of using workers as interchangeable components. (It was also this philosophy that drove the rise in workers' unions during the Industrial Revolution, when corporate titans ran roughshod over basic human rights on the shop floor in their quest for bucks. While unions played a vital role in creating a stable, marketable middle class in North America, most of them have probably outlived their usefulness as they've overstepped their part of the employer/employee equation.)

Most people are wired to desire some sort of satisfaction from expended effort, whether it's waterproofing the deck, dispensing medicine, or running a company. Let's face it: a lot of jobs aren't very fulfilling in and of themselves, but value can come from affirmation. To what extent should this reality affect employer/employee roles? Does capitalism in its purest interpretation adequately compensate workers for the sheer drudgery or danger of their jobs? (I'm not talking about NYC sanitation workers being paid more than public schoolteachers!)

If profitability is the name of the game, doesn't it makes sense for company owners to try and nurture as much employee buy-in as possible? Is it really hard to calculate the economic benefit of finding, training, and retaining happy employees? If an employer doesn't care if their workers are satisfied, what part does morale play in the expense of lost productivity, employee turnover, and minimalist customer service?

In terms of illegal immigration - about which I'm sure I'll comment in a later blog - this means that the people one hires for a job may be low-skill, but that doesn't mean their contribution should be marginalized to the point where they're taken advantage of. You don't have to break the law by hiring illegals if you're paying at least minimum wage and providing a healthy work environment. That's just human decency, although there are degrees of "healthy work environment" that can range from the basic to the outright silly.

If you'll allow me to quote from the Bible, 1 Timothy 5:18 says that "a worker is worthy of his hire," which cuts both ways. Not only should the worker provide their employer at least the minimum amount of production for what they're paid, but the employer should be fair in what they pay their workers. So just because an employer can get undocumented workers to perform at below-scale pay doesn't mean that is the value of their work. If you're only going to pay somebody $4 an hour to mow lawns, and you get an illegal worker to do it, you can't say that nobody else will do it for $4 just because legal Americans expect the base minimum wage rate for the same job. If you don't like the minimum wage laws, then work with your representatives to change them.

Exploiting the Chinks (careful!)

At what point should you expect "buy-in" from your workers who are mowing lawns? And why do I keep using illegal immigration in an argument about corporate-think communism?

I'll answer question two first: when an economy runs on an even playing field (a concept at which some hard-core corporate types may scoff; although finding the valid chinks in the even playing field is what separates the men from the boys) the laws provide parameters that should provide protection from unscrupulous, harmful interlopers. Having all lawncare contractors hire documented workers means that a baseline is set, like in a sporting event: everyone knows where the boundaries are. The best team wins by playing within the rules and exploiting the chinks in the other team's armor.

Now, about the "buy-in:" that I can't tell you, although I used to know of a guy who was trying hard to keep his lawn-care business legit by only hiring documented workers at minimum wage. His guys liked and respected him for that, and he believed they were doing an excellent job, and his customers were very happy. However, as nefarious lawn care contractors continued to under-cut him by hiring illegal workers, money eventually talked to even his most satisfied customers, and his business began to falter.

How fair is that for a company owner who was trying to do the right thing?

Monday, December 14, 2009

Brats in the Belfry

The next sound you hear will be the wail of a single man with no kids.

Who's really to blame for toddlers behaving badly? The toddler who is committing the unsocial behavior, or its parents who appear to be complicit in the toddlers actions by being complacent in their parenting?

I'm not talking about an "oops" moment - when as a kid, you did something before really thinking about it, and then got an instantaneous correction from your parent. I'm talking about when a kid perpetuates a bad behavior while the parent sits by and makes no effort to correct it.

On Saturday, I had lunch with a friend at a Dallas La Madeleine's, and a young couple let their toddler run around the dining area, about 60% of which was outside their line of sight. Not that the parents were even watching their child - they were busy reading the newspaper. Customers carrying food had to watch for this little brat as he bobbed and weaved, having a grand time on his own. The father finally scooped him up, the mother bundled up their newspaper and they trudged outside, moving on to the next venue where their child would be unleashed on a bunch of unsuspecting citizenry.

On Sunday night, the annual Christmas concert was held at my church. (By way of full disclosure: I am a member of the Chancel Choir, and I've been working hard since September to learn all of the music, so I have a personal stake in this event).

This isn't just a church musical. This is a worship service, but at a much higher level than a regular Sunday morning service, which some would consider almost "high church". For Christmas, our music department hires about 50 professional musicians to form an orchestra, we have an adult choir of about 80 people, plus children's choirs of about half that. We have special decorations, professional lighting, guest soloists, and real candles (to the consternation of the facilities staff). The sanctuary is bursting at the seams with poinsettias, musicians, and concert-goers anticipating a beautiful evening of worship.

So while the orchestra glides through a newly-commissioned score of "In the Bleak Midwinter," who should decide to join them but a couple of toddlers who think it's the perfect soundtrack for babble noises. Only it's not. A soft harp is not ideal accompaniment for babble noises.

Now, to the extent that these kids are making sounds toddlers make, it can be understandable and even excusable. For all I know, the toddler may be telling his parents that the music is the most beautiful thing he's ever heard. The problem comes when parents allow (and by allowing, encourage) their young offspring to continue its disturbance without admonishment, correction, or being taken outside. It's as if the parents either cannot hear their own child's fussing and shrieking, or they think everyone has come to church just to hear their child. The orchestra and choir are just there in case their own kid is quiet, to fill up the dead air between their child's performance.

For those parents, I hate to break it to you, but we really don't want to hear your kid. Your kid isn't listed in the program. It doesn't really matter if people paid money for tickets, or if this event is free. It doesn't really matter how cute your kid may look (when it's asleep). It's not about you, it's not about your kid, it's not about having fun. By your abdication of your responsibility to train and nurture your child, they're acting like the brats you didn't like when you were single. You're going to be the only ones who could possibly laugh about this tomorrow.

My beef here is with parents who sit there while their kid babbles and shrieks. We all know that virtually any child will whisper loudly, drop something, wiggle and squirm, want to be held, and otherwise cause momentary disturbances. The key here is "momentary." When the toddler creates a distraction, shouldn't its parents quietly provide corrective action (assuming discipline already plays its rightful place in the daily running of the household)? However, the repetition of bad behavior that is never countered by parental discipline is what I just can't abide.

Particularly when I'm in the choir and I know the effort that has been expended to craft a beautiful service!

Shouldn't courtesy be paid to people who are trying to lead the overall congregation in worship? What's supposed to be the objective here: letting your family carry on like they're in your living room, or worshipping the Person we believe to be the Creator of the world?

For those parents who didn't take advantage of the available nursery, haven't cultivated a family rubric of social etiquette, or didn't put their toddlers to bed and hire a sitter, then I feel they're responsible for compromising the quality of worship for the entire congregation. It is a church worship service, and I'm not shy in my opinion that keeping it "set apart" is important.

As far as the parents in La Madeleine's are concerned, I suppose they figured the amount they paid for their quiches and coffees also included baby sitting by everybody else. Funny... I didn't see that on the menu.


Having said all that, I'm compelled to add this caveat: To the extent I extend graciousness and forgiveness to people who frustrate me, I demonstrate aspects of God's holiness that benefit all of us. I suppose this is a lesson that applies not just to parents of brats, but to everyone about whom I write in this blog.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Gordon Gekko Is So Wrong

Did you ever see the movie "Wall Street" with Michael Douglas? He plays the part of a conniving financial big-wig, Gordon Gekko, whose most famous line is "Greed is good."

Well, looking around at the shambles of America's greed-inspired mortgage mess, you can see the fallacy of that statement. At its core principle, greed is the worst expression of ambition. Unfortunately, some people think greed - at least in small doses - can be helpful for motivating competition. But in the end, isn't greed just destructive?

Look at the greed of homeowners, trying to buy more house than they realistically could afford. Look at the greed of mortgage brokers, glossing over reality to convince customers to assume risky mortgages. Look at the banks, who took all of these risky mortgages, bundled them into securities, lied about their risks, and sold them off to avoid accountability. Look at the investors who salivated over the hollow promises from banks selling mortgage securities, without doing their own due diligence on the risks involved. Greed, greed, all the way around. Now, people who bought a home they realistically could afford and have been dutifully paying their mortgage every month - the bedrock American taxpayer - are bailing out their foolish neighbors.

Consider this anecdotal evidence of the mortgage mess as told by my brother, who lives in suburban Detroit:

- My brother and his wife looked at a house last year that had a $475,000 mortgage on it in 2006 that eventually sold for $225,000.

- Near their current home, there is a street that has several modest, well-tended 1950's-vintage homes for sale at less than $4,000 apiece.

- The foreclosure section in their newspaper's Sunday real estate classifieds is bigger than the rest of the paper combined, including the ads.

- My brother, a helicopter pilot, flew some mortgage representatives last year who desperately offered that for $10,000, he could have his pick from several thousand properties in Wayne County (suburban Detroit) on the spot.

- My brother and his wife personally know of homeowners, too far upside-down on their mortgages, who have simply stopped paying on them. The voluntary default will eventually result in a foreclosure in about a year and a half. During this time, they will continue to live in the house while saving the mortgage and tax payments for a down payment on another home - sometimes just next door or across the street - that’s also in foreclosure. They can buy it for a fraction of it's 2007 value (even in cash - the money they saved by not paying their own mortgage).

If you think greed can still be good, look people like my brother and his wife - who've never missed a mortgage payment - in the face, and tell them so.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Environmental Bluster

And here I was, thinking I didn't have much to say about Tiger Woods, climate change, and the H1N1 "scare."

Well, I really don't have much more to say about Tiger Woods, mostly because I don't want to come across as a tabloid opportunist. His is a sad predicament about which noble outsiders would do well to refrain from clucking.

There's not much more to add about the H1N1 "scare," either, except that a friend of mine contracted a particularly potent strain during a business trip to China. He suffered a fever for eight days straight until it broke, but even a month after his "recovery," he's still struggling to recover his energy and stamina. In my best concerned tone, I advised him that the next time he travels to China, he bring back some souvenir chopsticks instead.

Global warming, on the other hand, is a topic that doesn't seem to elicit a significant amount of logic on either side. Consider these points:

1. Scientists say we've had a historic ice age before... what's to say a "tropic age" isn't part of that cycle?

2. If the earth does get warmer, how much of an increase in evaporation could occur? If evaporation of water from the earth's oceans were to increase, would that negate any concern for low-lying/coastal regions to be flooded?

3. Where do we stand with water desalinization technology? If the earth's oceans are to rise, what percentage of that increase can be siphoned off for irrigation and human consumption?

4. Despite our hemorrhaging of manufacturing jobs to third-world countries, the US remains a significant industrial polluter; however, what about China, India, and other emerging industrial polluters who have far fewer emissions regulations - if any? Don't those countries realize that our companies have been sending overseas the work that creates too much pollution for North Americans to tolerate? Making plastics and pesticides didn't suddenly become clean industry by relocating to low-wage countries. And if companies thought they could skirt their environmental responsibilities by shifting production away from "educated" consumers, and dumping their pollution on people too desperate for jobs to think about their long-term health, then shame on them.

5. What about Brazil's storied deforestation of the Amazon rainforest? What about the primitive countries of Asia and Africa who rely on wood fires and whose cattle churn out piles of dung? Just because North America is an easy target in the environmental blame game, wouldn't fairness dictate a broader swath when it comes to any levying of sanctions?

6. Yesterday I mentioned the Cuyahoga River fire in Cleveland, an event which came to symbolize industrialization run amok. Many people blame the clean-up of the Cuyahoga and the stringent anti-pollution legislation which followed for the loss of jobs and economic development for Cleveland, and indeed the Rust Belt as a whole. However, isn't the real problem the fact that companies didn't want to consider non-polluting alternatives to waste disposal because they calculated the cost as too steep? What would have happened if industry had been allowed to continue dumping waste into the air and water? Who would have been able to live and work in those communities?

7. At what point does personal responsibility - the attribute so often regaled by Republicans - need to kick in? Are profits and jobs really worth more than good health? Should mankind really be able to squander natural resources in a twisted interpretation of "ruling and subduing the earth," as some people blithely quote the Bible passage? Or, as part of mankind's opportunity to extract resources for living from the earth, should we be sure to take only what is necessary, strive to replenish what we take when we can, and safeguard resources for future use? Wouldn't that be a more prudent, economically-viable, and long-term vision for "ruling and subduing" natural resources given to us?

8. What's wrong with admitting we don't know all the answers to why icebergs are shrinking and weather patterns don't fit our computer models? What's wrong with assuming that since we don't know all the answers, maybe liberal scientists are at least partially correct in saying industrialization is contributing to negative changes in our environment? Maybe the doomsday scenarios are fallacies, but where's the logic in denying the possibility that pumping chemicals into the atmosphere isn't hurting anything?

9. By the same token, why can't liberal environmentalists scientifically consider and rigorously test the valid challenges to their global warming research? Isn't science a discipline based on corroboration of evidence? Since we've been studying our climate with relative accuracy for only a hundred years or so, isn't that a statistically irrelevant timeframe when contemplating a universe much older than that?

10. Since when have prevention and proactivity become such nasty concepts to conservatives? If we're such an entrepreneurial country, where are the clever thinkers and tinkerers who are creating new economic opportunities for diverse responses to possible challenges? Where are the Henry Fords and Thomas Edisons of the 21st Century? How much of the climate change opposition is really simply a group of old fuddy-duddies who don't want their existing cash cows to have to change?

Monday, December 7, 2009

Tiger, Warming, and Vaccines, Oh My!

"She Whose Idea This Was" suggested to me that utilizing bullets (the non-weapon kind) is an effective way of communicating a variety of items, so how about we work our way through my thoughts on a sampling of current events:

- Tiger Woods, alas, has proven to be quite the hit with ladies not his wife. I don't follow much sports, and certainly not golf, but I don't live in a cave. I'm aware of the squeaky-clean image Tiger cultivated for himself, but how hard must that have been for him, having carried on with these women in such secrecy? Of course, we're all assuming these women-without-virtue are telling the truth, which is a bit curious, considering they get paid for being a fantasy. Tiger needs to face the press, since it's the press who have helped cultivate his image, come clean on everything, and then move on. For all of its lust for celebrity gossip and for watching heroes fall, our society also has a tendency to celebrate recovery, particularly for sports figures. What rebuilding Tiger needs to conduct in his home life, however, should be as private as he and his family want it to be.

- Global warming advocates suffered a stiff setback when an English scientist resigned over e-mails in which he belittled opponents and suggested the tweaking of data to further his cause. There seem to be as many respectable scientists opposing global warming theories as there are supporting it. Liberals generally claim global warming is mankind's fault, and conservatives fear draconian economic fallout if industries are forced to cut back on "greenhouse gas" emissions. I'm not sure how the average layman can stake a claim in this debate when eminent scholars can't agree, but I do know that the air is cleaner since environmentalists started calling for low emissions back in the 1970's, and we all benefit from those advancements. And the country's economic health certainly hasn't suffered as a result. Look at China today, and how people were fretting about Beijing's air during the Olympics. Sure, they're economic output is enormous, but pollution is choking their air and water supplies - what kind of quality of life is that? How healthy would America's economy be if polluted waterways still caught on fire (like Ohio's Cuyahoga did in 1969)? What good is economic development if the quality of life is killing you?

- H1N1 vaccines are now so plentiful that doses are being given away for free. Compare this scenario with the panic fomented by the press just a month ago, when swine flu fever gripped the country and people freaked out about the .1 % of victims who died of it. What lessons should we learn from this? First, that pharmaceutical companies need time to develop proper vaccines, and that as much as we want things instantaneously, some things still take time. In the meantime, following logical precautions like washing one's hands, using sanitizers, and simply staying home with the flu can work wonders. Second, we need to turn off the media when they start hyperventilating about a particular topic during otherwise slow news days.

Above the Fray?

So I'm having dinner with one of my best friends at one of my favorite restaurants, and we've just ordered our usual. And my friend, who has had his own blog since before Al Gore even invented the Internet, wanted more info about the type of topics I would be addressing on my own bit of Internet real estate. He'd read my post about George W., which apparently either whet his appetite for more, or made him wonder if something better was coming down the pike.

I don't think my response filled him with anticipation. I rambled on about Republicans seemingly refuting Scripture by balking at healthcare reform, how people still revere the Kennedy men after just about all of them proved to be such duplicitous morons, and some other political axes I tend to grind.

"So, it's going to be about politics," my friend summarized, somewhat nonplussed.

"Well, no, um, I want to cover other topics as well..." I stammered back, without much of a clue as to what those topics would be. In an instant, my friend had presented me with a platter of deserts to try, and all of them were political. Yuck.

So, doing one of the things I do best, I spent the weekend stewing over what else I could talk about. Any yahoo can talk about politics, as Michael Moore and Rush Limbaugh have made careers proving.

But here again, I'm getting bogged down in politics, a subset of our culture that is, in fact, taking such a toll on America that the general electorate doesn't think straight anymore.

Maybe it's elitist of me to hope, but I'd like to be above the fray. Hopefully, by the time my friend and I dine at Uncle Julio's again, I will have made some headway in crafting a better position for this blog.

Day of Infamy

Before I log off for now, I'd like to at least mention the historical significance of this day, December 7. On this date several decades ago, Japanese pilots unleashed a horiffic strike against United States forces stationed at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. At the time, the attack was considered a surprise, and for its victims, a surprise it surely was. However, history has unraveled clues that point to the possibility that our government may have at least been aware of the potential for a Japanese attack. While it would be easy to debate who knew what and when, the undisputable fact is that the attack on Pearl Harbor cost America a shocking loss of life and forced our country into the Pacific Theater of World War Two. Let us never forget the significance of December 7.

Thursday, December 3, 2009


Is "evolutionizing" a word? Well, it's a word on this blog, because it represents what's been happening for the past couple of days.

Yeah, sure, the whole "New York, Maine, Texas" thing was never very attractive or catchy, but having never really thought about a personal blog before, and therefore never thinking about blog names before, that was my first attempt at a blog name.

Then, yesterday, I went back to a theme that has been haunting (or saving, depending on the situation) me throughout my life. Being outside the sphere of activity that people call life... never connecting in meaningful ways with the reality in which others are engaged... seeing how I interpret interpersonal relationships and events with logic that others either intentionally or unintentionally don't use. So I tried to register "outsidelookingin" and discovered that a dormant 2003-era blog in the Philippines already had it. I even looked into purchasing the URL in several formats, but they were all taken. I was surprised that so many people feel the same way I do. So much for trying to find a "niche" in the blogosphere!

For Example
It's early days yet in this blog, but I'm going to go out on a limb and dive into a touchy subject. You may not agree with the thoughts I'm going to convey, but at least bear with me while I give an example of being "outside looking in."

I don't understand the popularity of George W. Bush among most of my Republican friends. His governorship of Texas was adequate but not stellar. Once in Washington, he seemed to let Cheney, Rove, and Rumsfeld hijack his agenda. He pulled the plug too early in Afghanistan and took after Saddam without any just cause - grave mistakes we're still paying for. Bush waffled on illegal immigration because some Republican businesspeople wanted cheap labor. The national debt skyrocketed during his watch, and his presidency ended with a spectacular refutation of key principles of conservative economic dogma: bailing out banks and setting up the Detroit bailout. If his had been a Democratic administration, Republicans would be hollering for impeachment, especially after the whole Iraqi WMD cover-up. But the Scripture Bush referenced and his refusal to admit mistakes (otherwise interpreted as "being a man of his word" and "taking a hard line") pacified and electrified America's right wingers, and helped set up an environment of antagonism that ushered in an administration of polar opposites. Throughout his presidency, I watched for logical clues as to why conservatives idolized Bush like they did, and I couldn't find many.

Of course, a number of my friends would read what I just said and dismiss me as a closet liberal. I won't deny that in political parlance, my views aren't as "conservative" as they could be. However, when I look at the Bush administration, and compare it with what I assume the Republican party would like to see in an ideal president, I don't see where Bush matched the hype from his supporters. Did my Republican friends like him simply because he was a better candidate than Gore and Kerry (which he was), did they like Bush because they thought he'd protect their wealth (which, ultimately, he didn't), did they like Bush because he sent a hawkishly defiant tone to the international community (which worked to our detriment), or did they like him for his pantheistic faith (for which both Clintons - who have also used Scripture - have been belittled)?

Sometimes I wondered if Bush's supporters weren't doing him a big disservice by not being open and frank with him about policies he and his cabinet were pursuing. Bush himself generally may have strived to do the right thing, but his cabinet was blasting away using his integrity as a cover.

Standing on the outside, looking in, I didn't interact well with the majority of my acquaintances who were pro-Bush, because I didn't get "it." It was like there was some pro-Bush manifesto they had read, but I hadn't. Yet nobody bothered to come outside and explain to me why they thought Bush was doing a good job. But then, how hard would I have listened?

Because at the end of the day, spending too much time outside looking in, one tends to develop opinions and perspectives that - whether they're correct or not - calcify as time goes on.

Hopefully if I keep asking questions, somebody can explain what I'm missing - if indeed, I'm the one missing reality.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Problem With Blogs

Of what benefit to the human race is the addition of another blog to the Internet? Before yesterday, my primary opinion of blogs was that they are a dangerous new world where people of questionable qualifications and integrity can say just about anything they want. It's like giving used car salesmen free space in the New York Times (which some conservatives might say would be an improvement).

To create this blog, all I had to do was go to and Google guided me through the easy steps to creating my own mouthpiece on the web. I didn't have to certify any educational achievemments, I didn't have to promise that everything I write will be true and accurate, I didn't submit myself to any governing authority other than the website's policy police.

So how do we know that Osama bin Laden doesn't have his own blog? How do we know that somebody writing under a Rush Limbaugh alias isn't really a covert Taliban operative? How do you know that any blogger you read really knows what they're talking about?

How do we know that Google isn't a secret arm of the CIA, quietly monitoring every blog for subversive content that will be forwarded to a clandestine White House department compiling new McCarthy-esque un-American activities (whatever those are)?

The only guarantee which I can offer readers of this blog - to let you know that I'm an honest, thinking person who is willing to consider alternative viewpoints and use logic to reason away fallacy - is this: if I ever sing the praises of Hillary's Vast Right Wing Conspiracy and/or the late Ted "glug glug" Kennedy, you'll know an imposter has commandeered this blog.