Friday, December 27, 2013

UPS, FedEx, your late Christmas gifts, and the Grinch who stole functional government

  Could the Grinch be modeled after a Republican Congressman?
Well, anyway,  in exchange for having swiped this picture, I
feel obligated to tell you can order this Grinch as computer
 wallpaper by going here.

UPS and FedEx have taken a justified drubbing in the press lately for failing to deliver Christmas packages in time for Christmas. Their excuse? Well, umm, there were more packages than they expected, and, err, they all came at the same time, and besides, the weather was bad. (Uh, UPS? That’s logistics.)

Both shipping companies deserve to have their ears boxed – not so much for their disgraceful delivery failures, as for false advertising.

For decades FedEx has told us to go to them “When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.”

And UPS has cast itself as the “logistics” expert, first in a cloying jingle, now in a company slogan (“We love logistics”) both advertising lies delivering the implied promise of super competence.

But my beef with these two paragons of private enterprise is only secondary. I’m speaking up today for the United States Post Office, for the Constitution of the United States – and for the importance of the United States government being in and starting some businesses, rather then staying out of them.

A government post office
– and “original intent”

The founding fathers, from the very beginning, understood that some critical activities are too important to be left to private enterprise. Conducting war is one example. Can you imagine UPS and FedEx explaining to the American people, “Well of course the enemy has overrun and taken Florida. We had no idea there’d be so many of them, all coming at us at the same time. And besides, it was raining.”

Two others examples of businesses that the founding fathers intended the government to be in are the maintenance and operation of a post office, and the construction of roads. You can find the provision for both in Section 8, Article 7 of the United States Constitution.

True, the United States Postal Service is a mess today. But for that you can thank the Republican crazies in Congress who can’t read (or at least who can’t read the Constitution) and who think that the government being in the mail delivery business is an abomination in the eyes of God and a violation of the original intent of our founders to put private enterprise in charge of absolutely everything.

Who's sabotaging the post office?
Kindly glance to the right.

You can't help thinking it's likely that the destructive “libertarian” right is deliberately trying to cripple and destroy the post office, either in obeisance to their crackpot theories that private enterprise does everything better, or in exchange for the legalized corruption of corporate campaign contributions by commercial delivery services.

Congress has crippled the USPS with a requirement to pre-fund pensions in a way that saddles the postal authorities with multi-billion dollar obligations that no private enterprise or other government department faces. And, since Congress gives not a nickel – not a nickel! – to this constitutionally mandated department of government, postal rates contantly get driven explosively higher.

Little wonder that so many people have opted to use the virtually free Internet for everything from utility bills to Christmas cards.

Meanwhile, if you sent your Christmas mail via the post office a few days in advance, the odds are powerful that your gift and cards got there. In fact they got there the next day, if you sent them by Priority Mail. If your Priority Mail pakage didn't arrive on time, you can enjoy a money-back guarantee. Try that with a non-governmental service like UPS or FedEx.

But there’s this odd thing about the USPS. Without dabbling in the mysto-magic of logistics, in somehow understands that mail gets very heavy shortly before Christmas (What a surprise!), and that meanwhile the weather in December starts to get bad in many parts of the country (Another surprise!) and plans accordingly. And remember, the USPS is operating with its hands tied behind its back by Congress.

Government, private enterprise,
and the Obamacare screwups

But…but…but what about the screwups in Obamacare? Well, the President and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services certainly screwed up royally on communicating the facts about that one, and ought to have their fannies whacked for constantly “adjusting” dates and deadlines for political purposes, which add to the confusion. But let’s trace the malfunction back to its original source.

Who did the website work? Why, private enterprise, in the form of a for-profit company called GCI Federal and its various subcontractors. And it turns out that like other private enterprises, GCI Federal has a significant history of screwing up what they do.

Oh, and let’s not forget who built our (now underfunded and crumbling) highway system, and our triumphs in space. Those were government programs. Yes, private contractors built the components for the moon shot. But they did so under NASA supervision and NASA, should you need reminding, is a government enterprise, not a private company.

The Congressional grinches may want to turn over the nation to private enterprise. God help us if they ever completely succeed. They do enough damage each day as it is.

As I’ve already said in this piece, most things are too important to be left to private entrepreneurs out to make a buck. Or a few billion buck. And those range from healthcare to playing Santa Claus with Christmas packages.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

“It’s not necessarily your friends who get you out of it” – a (grudging) appreciation of Al Goldstein, and his own grudging defense of the First Amendment.

AL GOLDSTEIN - an unlikely but
authentic First Amendment hero

If they ever give a Pulitzer Prize for best obituary of 2013, will somebody with the clout to get this done please nominate Andy Newman of The New York Times? His piece on Al Goldstein is a classic of how to tell the brutal and brutally entertaining truth, expressed as a high resolution word picture.

Goldstein was the inventor, editor and publisher of a vulgar pulp newspaper called Screw, one of the first to offer classified ads for sex services, as well as nude and ranchy photographs of people performing sex acts, and reviews of New York’s once-ubiquitous “massage parlors.”

I know, I know, all this is very un-Christmas-y. But so was Goldstein, whose unregistered trademarks included a middle finger raised in defiant bad taste. Its very seasonal inappropriateness is what makes this an appropriate memorial essay.

Two meetings and an
Accidental run-in

I met Al Goldstein three times, twice in a more-or-less professional capacity as a “Madmen” era advertising copywriter moonlighting as a journalist. The third meeting was an accident.

I despised the man.

But also, I liked him a lot.

That’s not quite as contradictory as it sounds. Goldstein was both the sort of person you love to hate, and the sort you hate to love, but do. What was loveable about him was his abjectly vulgar and often highly irascible authenticity. He was a man who eventually won a major victory against censorship. True to form, he censored nothing, least of all the language that spewed out of his own mouth.

While you couldn’t be absolutely sure that everything he told you was the truth, it was surely the truth as he happened to see it at the moment he spoke it. And sometimes, things he told you that seemed patently false turned out to be pretty much true after all. Here's a case in point.

Goldstein, Ed Koch, and a
disputed case of “begging”

Back in the 1970s,while working for an advertising agency, I moonlighted by writing articles for a couple of iffy little magazines devoted primarily to, uh, sex. But I wanted to do legitimate journalism, so the editor of an “adult” magazine sent me to interview Goldstein, a friend of hers, about Goldstein’s candidacy for mayor of New York. (Yes, he actually did that.)

Goldstein insisted he was a viable candidate. In fact, he boasted, New York’s beloved Mayor Ed Koch, then up for re-election, “called me up and begged me not to run against him.”

That sounded like utter nonsense. Goldstein’s candidacy had been widely regarded as a self-indulgent joke. And Koch was a very popular mayor. Nevertheless, Goldstein had given me a good quote and Ed Koch deserved an opportunity for rebuttal. I called Koch, expecting either no reply or a flat denial. I was wrong.

Koch returned my call and what he gave me, couched in a pro forma denial, was an admission that Goldstein was essentially speaking the truth.

I told Koch, “Goldstein says you called him and begged him not to run against you.”

“That’s not true,” Koch replied. “What I said to him was, ‘Al, I wish you wouldn’t run against me, because the people who are likely to vote for you are the same people who would otherwise vote for me.’

I nearly fell out of my chair at the ad agency.  Koch had almost as much trouble censoring himself as Goldstein.

My story was published under a pseudonym, so as not to offend either my blue chip advertising clients or my bosses at the blue chip ad agency where, at least according to my title, I was an officer. My position was too exalted to traffic with the likes of Goldstein or a slick-but-trashy sex magazine. Especially not when the article I wrote bore the title, “Al Goldstein Throws His Pants Into The Political Arena.”

The 20 megaton temper

It was during my interview with Goldstein concerning his mayoral candidacy that I learned, first-hand, what it was like to be a victim of his infamously explosive temper. I had been taping the conversation on a cassette recorder. (This was decades before digital technology.) Suddenly the cassette failed and began spewing a twisted tangle of tape. Goldstein instantly exploded.

“I don’t know why I waste my time with assholes like you with your cheap piece of shit tape recorder,” his rant began. He continued in similarly vituperative language. No need to reduplicate all of here. However, I ought to point out that it’s in considerable part thanks to Goldstein that we can reproduce language like this for public consumption at all, if we choose.

After a while, Goldstein threatened to throw me out of his office and stormed out of the room. I was packing up my things when suddenly he returned with a yellow legal pad, which he flung at my head, followed by a ball point pen, aimed like a missile.

“Here asshole, write it down!” he said to the reporter who was about to write a magazine profile of him.

“Something tells me, Toto,
we’re not in New York any more”

Another interview with Goldstein was for a story I wrote concerning his battle with the U.S. Government. Powerful forces were lined up against him, intent on putting him out of business, perhaps because he had run an article in his publication, Screw, suggesting that J. Edgar Hoover was gay (which, it turns out, he most probably was.)

The problem was, most juries would, by then, roll their eyes at the Government’s prosecution of pornographers. Or at least they would roll their eyes in New York, where Goldstein was committing his “crimes” of printing vulgar nude pictures with language to match, and running massage parlor and swinger ads.

So the Feds tried a cleverly oblique strategy. They got some postal inspectors in Topeka, Kansas, where Goldstein had never distributed his newsstand publication, to order copies of Screw by mail. When the requested porn arrived, the Feds charged Goldstein with pornography crimes, in conservative and pretty-much-fundamentalist Kansas. Goldstein was creeped out, as you might be, if you went to sleep in Manhattan and when you woke up the words going through your head were, “Something tells me we’re not in New York any more.”

But the Feds miscalculated. The expected guilty verdict was reversed on an appeal alleging government misconduct. A second trial – even in heavily-fundamentalist Kansas – resulted in a mistrial. The government forgot that conservative fundamentalism often goes hand-in-hand with a stubborn streak of libertarianism.

“Who are a bunch of people in Washington to tell me what I can and cannot read?” commented one Kansas jurist after the trial. It was another illustration of the old saw, relating to finding yourself in deep dung, that “it’s not necessarily your friends who get you out of it.”

Death by legal expenses

But Goldstein didn’t escape the Kansas porno rap cheaply. He complained to me that each time he went on trial in Kansas, not only was his business interrupted, but he had to live there, and pay to keep his topflight attorneys living there, week after week until the trial was over. The previous trial had cost him, I think I remember him telling me, $90,000.

That may not sound like a totally crippling expense for a prosperous little publishing business today, but when Goldstein told me this, I had recently purchased a nice suburban house for considerably less than his $90,000 legal fees. To give you an idea of how badly Goldstein got hit, the same house last sold in June 2006 for $1.6 million, according to Zillow. The Kansas case was the beginning of the slow financial unraveling of his porn empire.

My third encounter with Goldstein was by chance. It was some time in the 1980s. By then I had moved from the ‘burbs back to Manhattan. The woman to whom I was then married and I decided to spend a summer weekend in a rough approximation of the country. So we checked into the resort-style Woodliffe Lake Hilton in New Jersey, where we could loll around the swimming pool.

By coincidence, directly across the pool sat Fat Al Goldstein and whichever of his five consecutive wives he was married to at the time. She was a pouffy-haired bottle blonde, attractive in a no-class sort of way. She sat on a chaise lounge at the pool apron, balls of cotton inserted between her toes, adding pink polish to her toenails. Goldstein sat on an adjacent chaise. I waved to him and nodded. If he recognized me, he offered no acknowledgement whatsoever. 

A few minutes later, the couple broke into a loud, vituperative fight. It was a big pool, and I couldn’t make out the precise nature of their argument, but after a while, Al muttered a thunderous obscenity and stormed off, his big belly hanging over his paisley bathing suit.. The wife offered the poolside audience a huge and wildly theatrical palms-up shrug. Then she shook her head and returned to her toenails.

The point of all this?

The next general
in the war to save humanity
may be a serial nose-picker

Great victories for freedom are not necessarily won by nice people. Or by attractive people. Or by well-mannered people. Or even by superficially pleasant people.

If today you can watch a show with overt sexual references and unrestrained language, whether live on Broadway, at the movies, or on Cable TV, Al Goldstein is one of the people whose ghost you can thank. (The inventors of the birth control pill and the lawyers and judges who defended and decided in favor of “I Am Curious (Yellow),” are among the several others.

[Another side note: Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis went to see the Curious (Yellow) movie when it opened legally in New York. Coming out of the theater, she decked one of the paparazzi who wanted a picture of Jackie exiting a porn flick. This soon inspired a rhyme in a New York Magazine contest: “Higgledy Piggledy/Jacqueline Kennedy/Flipped a photographer/Over her head/Changing his countenance/Melodramatically/ Curious (Yellow)/ To Furious (Red)”]

So say a grateful prayer for Al Goldstein. That fat, disgusting pig earned it.  But if there’s an afterlife and you run into his obnoxious soul, don’t expect him to thank you. More likely, he’ll flip you the bird, throw a sharp object or two at you, and loudly say something that, until he came along, used to be considered unprintable.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Phil Bin Laden and Osama Robertson: Separated at birth?

Okay, I deliberately garbled their names together a little bit, but you get the idea. Anyway, if you have trouble telling them apart, here are some hints.

1. One has a long beard with a lot of gray in it while the other one had a long beard with a lot of gray in it.

2. One has a great love of camo clothing while the other had a great love of camo clothing.

3. Both have/had plenty of firepower in the house.

4. Both think/thought homosexuals are an abomination before God.

5. Both are/were very religious.

The truth is, there's hardly any difference at all between the American Taliban and the Middle Eastern Taliban, except for one. The American Taliban bleats like a baby with wet diapers when you don't want to pay them to go on television and impose their views on the rest of us.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Monetary meltdowns, the stink of molten cash, bitcoin blues and other funny money

In addition to mortgage meltdowns and market
meltdowns, much of the world may soon be able to
 see it's money melt, like ice cream in a blast furnace.

Maybe it’s the Christmas spirit. The Christmas money spending spirit, that is. Everywhere I go, the news turns to money.

In today's paper there's an article about Great Britain’s move (along with the move of other countries) to plastic money. No, not the credit card kind of plastic. I’m talking here about the kind of money that most countries once printed on paper. Apparently everybody’s printing money on polymer plastic now. Except us.

Today's New York Times reassured all of us about the fragility of plastic money:
“Richard Wall, the director of currency at the Bank of Canada, dismissed claims that polymer bills melt after being left inside cars on hot summer days or become brittle and snap in extreme cold. He said temperatures that would melt the bills would also melt interior plastics in a car. Tests show that polymer bills can withstand temperatures as high as 284 degrees Fahrenheit and as low as minus 103. 
(In an unscientific test using a household oven set to 280 degrees Fahrenheit, a new Canadian 5 dollar note did not melt. But after eight minutes, it started to smell bad, shrink substantially and curl markedly. Its translucent security features also became opaque blobs.”) 

This gives new meaning to the old cliche, "Keep your stinking money."

Then there’s bitcoin, a new form of currency consisting of a string of numbers, which in turn consist of even longer strings of the numbers in various combinations of one and zero. I hear that you “mine” them by solving mathematical problems. And they have value because everybody says they have value, whoever “everybody” is. I can tell you that everybody isn’t me. The first person who tries to pay me for anything in bitcoin will get bitten.

You really wanna know the truth? I have no idea what the bitcoin market is all about, or how you can produce something of value by solving a mathematical problem that is designed for the sole purpose of giving you a bitcoin if you get the right answer. Or why anybody would want to indulge in this stuff. Bitcoin is supposedly good for money laundering and illegal drug transactions, although I don’t understand why, especially now that there’s easily washable plastic cash.

Besides, as I write this, bitcoin holders must be biting on sticks, while the value of bitcoin plunges.

Finally, there’s the stock market. That interests me because that’s where my old age money is, nary a penny of it in bitcoin.)

According to all the theories I learned both in liberal Idiot Econ 101 back in my college days, and from my high school econ teacher, Miss Estelle Dwyer, who was somewhere to the right of Attila the Hun, the market goes up in good economies and goes down in bad economies. Once upon a time, both the Left and the Right agreed on this.

Except that’s not true right now. Or at least not in the USA, where the market for the past few days has begun drifting down from all-time highs because the economy is getting better. That’s because, with the economy improving, the gnomes of Wall Street fear the U.S. Federal Reserve, (or is it the U.S. Treasury, or somebody ipretending to be Ben Bernacke or Janet Yellen?) will tighten up money, which will raise interest rates, which will make people less willing to invest to get dividends when they can put their money in the banks and earn interest without watching the value of some underlying stock see-saw up and down.

But if the economy starts plunging back into the toilet, the Fed will have to prop up the economy (and drag up the national debt) by loosening up money. In which case, a toilet bowl economy will create a stratospheric stock market.

Except, it turns out that these days the bank’s no place to put money either, even if the interest rates go sky high. That’s because, the banks appear to be back on their funny-money teeter-totters, and evidently if they fail again, there’s not enough money on the planet to bail them out. And also because, even if we do have a bailout, due to some technicality that causes me to grind my teeth with rage even though I don’t understand it, the government will be required to pay back the bankers who get us into the mess before they pay the insured depositors whose money got gambled away by the bankers. Which means, if true, that you rmoney is as safe in the bank as it is in 250 Shares Consolidated Hose Nozzle in the thieves market in Timbuctu.

Tell you what I'm gonna do. I'm gonna get in bed with a bottle of scotch and ... oh, wait a second. Have you seen what a nice bottle of Scotch costs lately?

I wonder if the liquor store takes molten plastic?

Friday, December 13, 2013

The “Affluenza” Killer: Nevermind the kid. Punish the government of Texas.

Judge Jean Boyd: unable to do the
right thing universally, she did the
wrong thing selectively.

I kind of agree with Texas Judge Jean Boyd, who recently presided in the case of a 16-year-old juvenile who drove drunk and crashed his truck, killing four people and gravely injuring two others, one of whom is now paralyzed.

She gave the drunken teen ten years’ probation.  Plus, if he does it again, she’ll really get mad at him. Plus he’s going away – for as much as a couple of years – to a posh country club-like rehab center in Newport Beach, California at his parents' expense.

In addition to the rehab’s outdoor swimming pool, he can enjoy gorgeous views, meals prepared by a chef, yoga lessons, something called “equine therapy” (does he have to bring his own horse?) and “unconditional love.”

A reasonable argument
with a great big “But”

The judge evidently bought the argument, as in fact do I, that the 16 years-old brat was a victim of “affluenza.” That admittedly hokey-sounding, made-up word essentially boils down the fact that the boy’s  parents have too much money, spoiled him rotten, gave him a truck but ignored his welfare, ethics, self-discipline, and sense of empathy, and somehow gave him to know that he had so much money, the rules of society that govern the rest of us don’t apply to him.

If there was ever an even better argument for an excess wealth tax and a 100 percent inheritance tax on legacies of over a few million bucks, I’d like to see it. But I’m straying off topic.

A psychologist hired by the parents evidently coined the “affluenza” diagnosis, and persuaded the judge that it wasn’t the kid’s fault. The boy is “the product of wealthy, privileged parents who never set limits for the boy.”

As I said, I'm on board with the diagnosis, despite the pun-ny name. Scratch most juvenile delinquents, and whether they’re just kids who made an impetuous mistake, or they’re chemically addicted, or they’re downright psychopaths, at that age the odds are they’re victims of the circumstances that shaped them. And a good many of them, if not the substantial majority, might well become productive adults with the right kind of therapy and reeducation.

The problem is, the judge has only been able to take a sensibly corrective course of action – intensive rehab – for a wealthy offender. Right wing Texas has no provision I'm aware of to offer intensive rehab and psychological treatment to any juvenile using their cheeseparing conservative taxpayers money. And that means, with the judge acquiescing however unhappily, that there's one standard of justice for the rich and another for the rest of us.

While the rich go to California
the poor go to the slammer

The poor Texans go to prison for long terms, and screw them. According to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Judge Boyd sentenced one juvenile this past July to ten years for killing someone as the consequence of a single punch. It's not that she thinks a fist is a far more lethal weapon than a truck driven by a juiced up teenager with a blood alcohol level that was three times the legal limit. But her hands were tied.

According to a story from Station WFAA's website, Anita Lauterbach, the mother of the dead punching victim...
...said she remembers the judge pushing for rehabilitation, much like the Couch case.
"She wanted to send him to one of these special places in Arizona, but no one would take him," Lauterbach said. 
 Of course they wouldn't take him. No money. No rehab.

And in the same county, a 19 year old who pleaded guilty to intoxication manslaughter pulled down an eight year sentence. But in both the other intoxication case and in the punch case, no paid psychologist stepped forward and said the boy was too affluent, and no parents offered to pay the $450,000 or so to send their child to Camp Coddle Me Sober.

The truth of the matter, based on the sworn testimony from their own hired psychologist, is that the parents of the drunk 16-year-old driver are just as guilty, if not more guilty, of the death of four people and grave injury of two others as their son. But there doesn’t seem to be a criminal consequence for them. 

So I do hope the families of the dead and physically injured victims of this chain of  parental neglect sue the living bank account out of the juvenile’s parents. It was their outrageous excuse for parenting, sworn to by their own expert witness, that put the truck keys in their kid’s hands, put the booze in his belly, and put the arrogance and total lack of accountability into his impressionable young mind. They deserve to emerge from civil court with nothing more than an application form for food stamps.

And what about the
double-standard judge?

As for the probably well-meaning judge, who demonstrated that justice is blind, but also has 20-20 vision when it comes to money – and who additionally demonstrated that there’s one definition of justice in Texas for the rich and another for the poor – she needs to retire for going along with the system. When justice has a double standard, justice really has no standard at all. She should be replaced by somebody who either sends nearly everybody to rehab (fat chance!) or nobody to rehab.

But that’s not gonna happen. In fact, Judge Boyd has been awarded a “Silver Gavel” by the local Tarrant County Bar Association because she has s exemplified “ability, integrity, and courage.” Well, I guess at least some of the time.

Maybe Governor Perry and the Texas Legislature, who support stern prison sentences and the busiest death chamber in he western world, but then provides a way for the rich to buy their way out, need to retire as well. And maybe Texas ought to spend more money on educating, caring for, and if necessary rehabilitating its kids, and less trying to punish them after the damage is done.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Five new anti-terrorism espionage targets for the NSA

Could this dog, caught with a hidden camera,
be part of a terrorist enemy plot?
Don't answer until you read the entire story, below.

To the National Security Agency analyst writing a briefing to his superiors, the situation was clear: their current surveillance efforts were lacking something. The agency's impressive arsenal of cable taps and sophisticated hacking attacks was not enough. What it really needed was a horde of undercover Orcs. 
That vision of spycraft sparked a concerted drive by the NSA and its UK sister agency GCHQ to infiltrate the massive communities playing online games, according to secret documents disclosed by whistleblower Edward Snowden.           -From a story by James Ball in The Guardian, Dec. 9, 2013

So listen guys, I know that all those gamers are harboring Al Qaeda fanatics who are actually using fantasy characters to dream up Plots To Destroy America. But why stop at spying on gamers? If you can think it up, or if I can think it up, Al Qaeda can think it up, too. So here’s what to bug next (if  you aren’t already doing it.)

Nut and potato chip factories. Thanks to fear of terrorism, before we can board an airplane we have to take off our shoes, take off our belts, take the change and phones and keys out of our pockets, get patted down, and even take our computers out of our carry-on bags. But while the TSA is patting down our private parts, who’s checking all those snack packs the airlines are selling on board – like the tasteless sandwich, sour apple, and bag of potato chips I paid $7.50 for on my last flight? Do you know how much explosive you can pack into a tiny bag with a picture of potato chips or nuts on it? Do I have to explain the rest? Kaboom!

Dentists offices, especially those in Washington, D.C. This plot is so completely obvious, I’m amazed it hasn’t been acted upon already. A Congressman goes to his dentist with a terrible toothache. The dentist says it’s a cavity and pretends to fill it. Actually, he fills it with a tiny high powered explosive that can be triggered either mechanically by pressure, or chemically with alcohol. The Congressman goes to a cocktail party and grabs a martini off a tray. Then he takes the olive out of the glass and pops it in his mouth. Kaboom! He blows off his own head and those of six lobbyists pushing to extend the embargo on Iran. And we're just looking for uranium enrichment plants there?

Offices of gynecologists, proctologists and urologists. I mean, do I have to explain this? You can probably guess how it works. The doctor uses some high tech instrument to peer up there. (Or is it down there or in there? Well, nevermind.) During the examination, the doc, a terrorist operative, inserts an IED into the willing or unwilling suicide bomber. Later, the bomber goes to the men’s room, say in Grand Central Station. Kaboom! Which means the death of 40 men standing at urinals, plus massive delays at rush hour for trains going out of, or coming into, Grand Central.

Hearing aids and eyeglasses. See, they look like ordinary specs, maybe the kind with hearing aids built into the earpieces, but actually they’re…oh wait! Google’s already on that one.

Dog Poo. No, I’m not suggesting Al Qaeda would put explosives in dog poo. Let’s not start getting silly. However with the NSA surveilling everything from cell phones to Orc Assault games, what’s a poor terrorist to do when he wants to communicate with his co-terrorists? Why not secrete tiny rolled up paper messages in dog poop? Here’s how it would work:

A terrorist buys a dog. Then he scratches a tiny message in waterproof ink on a fortune-cookie fortune-sized ribbon of paper. Then he walks his dog on a pre-arranged route, back and forth until the dog does his business. Next, the terrorist quickly inserts his rolled-up message into the poop and hurries away.

Everyone passing by will tch-tch that dog owners aren’t picking up, and how awful that is, but of course, nobody else wants to touch some strange dog’s droppings. So the stuff just sits there until the terrorist message recipient walks down the block looking for the poop. When he sees it, he pretends to be a public-spirited citizen, whips out a plastic bag, scoops the stuff up and carries it off. Back in a filthy rented room above an electronic games store, he dissects his treasure, reads the note, learns where to plant an IED, calls the right proctologist, and finally washes his hands.

Fortunately, dog poo secret messaging will be defeated when the NSA goes to America’s dog food makers and forces them to revamp their factories so that a tiny RFID tracking chip can be inserted in every last piece of kibble made in America. (Dog food imports will have to be prohibited as a national security measure.) Next, the NSA releases thousands of drones around America’s cities, disguised as Amazon package delivery vehicles. When an RFID chip in a pile of dog poo is detected, the airplane swoops down and scoops it up, for analysis at NSA headquarters.

Hey, I know all this is terribly expensive. But you can’t be too careful. Or too safe. 

Thursday, December 05, 2013

While America's press covers the mayoral clown act in Toronto, who’s following the clowns in your own city hall?

This likeness of Toronto’s Clown-in-Chief from the Huffington Post

The American news media, print and television and Internet, seem perversely focused on the biggest municipal embarrassment since the Emperor Nero whipped out his fiddle instead of calling the fire brigade. Yes, I’m talking about Toronto's Mayor Rob Ford, who doesn’t seem to know a municipal budget from a bong. 

For an American press corps rendered indolent by penury and falling standards, he’s a headline-making gift that keeps on giving – even though he’s a mayor in the wrong country.

Meanwhile, we live with a weaker and weaker press – stressed by interrupter technologies, wasting away on shriveling budgets, and milked dry by media conglomerates whose allegiance is to profits, not readers.

You want to know how it used to be? In my own lifetime, New York City had seven mostly-well-budgeted dailies. Actually, they were lavishly budgeted by today's parsimonious standards. Some of them were so hungry for political scandals that they ferreted them out, rather than waiting for God to drop a Rob Porter from Canada in their laps.

When some of those newspapers – like the Herald-Tribune, Daily Mirror, Journal-American and World-Telegram and Sun – eventually got flattened by a tornado of economics forces, the so-called “alt.weeklies” took their places, at least for a while. Raucous little papers like The East Village Other and The Village Voice strode where even the well-financed dailies feared to tread – calling out political crooks, corruption, and outrageous clowning with vigor, barely-restrained vocabularies and youthful enthusiasm.

The Village Voice had a columnist named Jack Newfield who wrote an annual piece called “The Ten Worst Judges In New York.” I once had lunch with a judge in a restaurant near the city court buildings. Just as a waiter was about to take our order, the judge became frantic.

“Move my table!” the distinguished judge, who was known to the establishment and addressed with the title "Judge" when she came in with me, whispered urgently to the waiter. "Move it! Hurry! Move it now!

That’s exactly what happened. In a flash, our waiter was joined by two others who literally picked up our table, glassware and silver on the white tablecloth rattling noisily, and carried it to the opposite side of the restaurant.

“What was that all about?” I asked her, when we were settled into our new space.

“Didn’t you see who sat down at the next table?” she asked. “Jack Newfield! I don’t want him to know I eat lunch. I don’t even want him to know I exist!”

Well, The Village Voice is still there, but now it's the property of a conglomerate from out-of-town, and doesn’t seem to poke its nose much into New York’s municipal affairs these days. And besides, a good many of the people who did the poking are dead or sucking their dentures in old age homes.

There are still a few “neighborhood weeklies” around New York, but from what I’ve seen, most of them are primarily repositories for press releases, puff pieces, frothy feature stories and echo chambers for politicians cheering their own good works.

But you didn’t have to be a New Yorker to commit formidable journalism in the first degree back in the 1960s and 1970s. I offer you here – with the advance warning that it’s lengthy, but worth every last delicious minute of the the read – a brilliantly written obituary by Paul Bass concerning the joys and triumphs of newspaper reporting in New Haven, Connecticut, back in the day.

Enjoy. And weep. And enjoy while you weep.

Monday, December 02, 2013

And you plan to land your drone with my Amazon package where in Manhattan, Mr. Bezos?

Source: Wikimedia.
Photograph by David Shankbone

It just never  fails! I sit down to eat breakfast with the TV on, and along comes some outrageous news item that makes me want to barf up my oatmeal.

This morning, it was the gullible news readers announcing that, while it might be five years or so years down the road before it happens, a new idea has sprung from the brow of Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos. He expects to deliver over 85 percent of his packages by drone, which will pick up the goods at various Amazon distribution centers and fly them to customers’ homes.

Here's what it looked like if you missed the 60 Minutes broadcast on it Sunday, or the gullible repetition by the TV newsreaders on Monday morning:

Bezos must live in a bubble.
Bubble-headed broadcasters, too.

Mind you, the newsreaders were broadcasting from the middle of Manhattan, an island bristling with shoulder-to-shoulder skyscrapers, meanwhile showing this fanciful film of a drone delivering the package practically to the front stoop of a private dwelling, presumably one in a sheltered suburban neighborhood, with nary a stray homeless person or mischief-seeker crossing the front walk.

Well, okay, this might make sense in Mr. Bezos’ bubble neighborhood. But not where a soon-to-be majority of “real people” live in our increasingly urbanized nation.

I repeat: the newsreaders were “reporting” news of the coming Age of Drone Delivery from their Manhattan broadcast studios, inside of various skyscrapers and surrounded by other skyscrapers standing nearly wall-to-wall. And yet they never thought to question the feasibility of drone delivery.

In the past I’ve lived in Manhattan buildings with 50 tenants. I currently live in one with over 200 tenants. There are some with well over 400 tenants. These buildings have no front lawns. Land a drone on the sidewalk with a precious wristwatch as a payload – or for that matter a couple of trashy paperback novels – and the payload, probably as well as the drone, will be gone in 90 seconds, scooped up by some passerby who thinks, “Why the hell not?”

Hell, street theft of unguarded articles is so common in New York that the makers of a “theft proof” bicycle lock offer  New York City as their standard of near-theftproofness. And even so, if you park a bike in the city with a super killer lock, annoyed thieves will come by and steal whatever parts of the bike aren't locked up. The saddle, for instance. Or the wheels. Or the brake levers.

Roof, shmoof. That won’t work.

What’s that, Mr. Bezos? You’ll say you’ll land your drone on the customers' apartment building roofs? Well, that eliminates roofs with swimming pools, except for packages that are waterproof to a depth of six or more feet. It eliminates roofs with sundecks, where an incoming package attached to a drone with eight propellers is likely to slice up one of the neighbors out to catch some rays, while bopping him over the head with a copy of "The Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich." and a portable seltzer maker. It eliminates locked roofs, in buildings where tenants lack general access for safety reasons. Besides, who’s going to go up there and retrieve the package for you when the tenant’s not home? 

Now if New York, with 50 percent of its inhabitants living in apartment buildings, were a peculiar anomaly, I’d back off. And I’m not sure whether that 50 percent figure is inclusive of all apartment dwellers, or just renters. Fifty percent seems kind of on the low side for New York City. At any rate, we’re talking about a bare minimum of roughly four million people, in just one city, to whom Mr. Bezos’ drones won’t be able to deliver squat.

But a huge and increasing number of Americans are currently living in multiple dwelling units – even in  conservative outposts of Americana-as-it-used-to-be such as Dallas where 40 percent of the population lives in apartment buildings, and Houston, (39 percent). Not to mention San Francisco (40 percent), Los Angeles (42 percent) and Washington D.C. (41 percent).

So unless Bezos plans to fly those packages in through our windows (and if so, will we have to leave them open in winter?) this is a publicity stunt, not a readily-relizeable plan that all those gullible dolts who read the news to us each morning have been telling us about.

Gentlemen, lock and load!

Oh, and one other thing. Perhaps Mr. Bezos plans to initiate this service only in countrified America. Well, think about this, Mr. Bezos. You know all those AR-15s, and AK47s, not to mention deer and elephant rifles, shotguns and for all I know, a stray anti-aircraft battery or two and a few thousand dozens of BB guns that you can find in rural and exurban locales? Think about those for a minute. You listen up, too, you idiot network newsreader. Consider this:

How much fun could you have shooting at a stationary target on a firing range? Not much compared to the full joy potential of taking aim at something mechanical in the sky, squeezing off a couple of dozen rounds and watching it crash to earth.

How about a drone buzzing around overhead, containing a dozen pairs of sweatsocks and a copy of “50 Shades Of Grey” for the dirty old man behind your back 40?  Dude, that’s a target just begging to get blasted out of the Bezosphere. And unlike shooting down innocent birds, your shot wouldn’t kill a single living thing.

At least not until Amazon starts selling kittens and puppies.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The text of this blog post was written by Pope Francis. Boldfacing my cranky own.

Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. 

How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. 

Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a “disposable” culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the “exploited” but the outcast, the “leftovers”.

Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.

54. In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and na├»ve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase; and in the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.

No to the new idolatry of money

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Ultimate combat. It's how to make a billion dollars getting people beaten to a bloody pulp

The idea for this post was hatched last night when I answered the phone and found myself talking to someone who claimed she was taking a survey. In short order, it became clear that she was really taking a “push poll” survey, which pretends to ask your opinion, while actually trying to persuade you to take sides on some controversial matter.

In this case, the topic of the push poll was a charming form of beating human beings into mush called “mixed martial arts.” I was taken off-guard and didn’t have a pen and pad in hand when the phone rang, but the questions ran roughly along these lines:

“Did you know New York State is the only state that won’t allow mixed martial arts events?”

“What if I told you that 49 other states have legalized mixed martial

“Mixed martial arts would create thousands of jobs in New York. Do you want those jobs to go to people in New Jersey?”

“What if I told you that mixed martial arts is actually just a mixture of judo, tae kwon do and boxing, all legitimate sports?”

“What if I told you that mixed martial arts would contribute $175 million to the local economy?”

“What if….”

Well, you get the idea.

The truth is, this survey was sponsored by a billion dollar business, controlled  by a pair of blood-sucking parasites out of Las Vegas named Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, casino business heirs who are stewing because, at least so far, they somehow can’t get their sucking mouthparts into New York’s revenue stream. They want to do this by arranging for people people to get beaten into bloody human compound fractures of facial and other bones in front of New York audiences.

They’re blaming Sheldon Silver of the New York State Assembly. Their twisted logic: there’s a union dispute in Las Vegas concerning some of the people who work at these events, and Silver is a tool of the unions. And the National Review buys into this baloney.

But consider. Aside from the human toll, a lot of the martial arts “athletes” will, almost guaranteed, become a drain on the public treasury ten or 20 years down the road, if they live that long, when their head injuries results in dementia and it becomes a public responsibility to keep a them fed, housed and their diapers changed.

But forget all that. Let's think bigger than mere body blows. If mixed martial arts is a "sport" worth billions, just think of the fortune that New Yorkers could make if we had to-the-death gladiator fights. Why stop at mere combat? Let's make a bigger buck by making executions a public spectacle again. How about gory decapitations, and drawing-and-quartering in Madison Square Garden?

Maybe people could live out their fantasies by paying to personally beat other live humans to death. Tie somebody up in an arena, give a high bidder a club, and let him go to work.

Or here’s something that will be really good for the economy, creating jobs for people to sell tickets and beer in Madison Square Garden (not to mention billions more for pay per view cable rights and ticket revenues going to the Fertitas):  

Let's burn people at the stake.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Hmm! You ordered a book with the words "kill kittens" in the title. You must be a cat lover. May we sell you a flea treatment for your pet?

I don't know whether what just happened is laughable or scary. Whichever it is, it takes a bit of explanation. So here goes:

I'm still, among other things, one of those "Mad Men." (An actual, well-fossilized leftover from the "Mad Men" era of advertising.) My professional interests put me on the mailing lists for  several e-mail advertising trade publications  related to the  business.

That's how I noticed mention of a book title called, "QR Codes Kill Kittens: How To Alienate Customers, Dishearten Employees, and Drive Your Business Into the Ground."

In case you were reared in a cave by people wearing bearskins back in the same era they reared me, let me briefly explain what a QR Code is. (You more advanced life forms can skip ahead to the next paragraph.) A QR code is one of those weirdly-patterned rectangular things you see on ads and in other places. Take a picture of one with your smartphone (personally, I could barely overcome my ingrained Luddite instincts enough to finally buy a "dumb" cell phone, but that's another story) and the advertiser will automatically send you various kinds of obnoxious things. He'll send you "white papers" and "reports" peddling his product. He'll fill your e-mail inbox with spam, give your phone number out to an assortment of real estate, insurance and cheese salesmen, keep your local letter carrier employed delivering junk mail to you, meanwhile "enhancing" your life in various other ways.

QR codes are a hot advertising topic these days, so I surfed over to to get a gander at the book about killing kittens and QR codes. I read a few pages, to see if this appeared to be a book I can learn from. I can, and I planned to order the book. And then it hit me.

The second I went to that book's Amazon page, various electronic bots, or whatever the hell they are, took note of what I did and added scads of  erroneous crap to the database on me that somebody maintains on some cloud somewhere, meanwhile affiliating me with various causes, scams, schemes, and subversive plots.

The computer bot sees me shopping for a book that has the word "kittens" in the title and a picture of a kitten on the cover.

"Ah hah, Crank!" declares the bot, "Now I know all about you!" And then, for my edification, the bot shows me something I can click on to purchase flea medicine. Presumably for my cat.

Uh, Mr. Bot? Or is it you, Mr. Bezos? Or is it Mr. Bozo? Listen to me carefully please: I don't don't have no stinkin' cat or kitten! I don't even want no stinking cat or kitten!

I tried keeping a cat, maybe 45 years ago. The arrangement lasted two weeks. I got rid of it after it refused to use its pristinely-clean kitty litter box and instead crapped each day in my bath tub while I was at the office. You say I should have discouraged the cat by filling the tub with water? I did that. The tub drain had a very, very slow leak. The cat would sit patiently, all day, on the edge of the tub, and when the tub had finally emptied,  the cat would leave another package there for me.

Then there was the woman I was dating who slept with cats. (This was some time before the Crank's late Beautiful Girlfriend entered my life.) Whenever I shared a bed with this cat lady, the cat got furious. The first time, it simply waited until I left the room and then pooped on my pillow. The second time, it peed directly on me. I got the message and checked out of the woman's life, leaving her to her stinking beloved cat. I hope they're very happy together.

I bring this up because the booboo that Mr. Bezos' committed by sending me a flea treatment ad is an indication of something far more ominous. It reveals how forces greater than you or me are collecting inordinate amounts of data about us and then inadvertently misusing the data. They add 2 + 2 and decide it adds up to 7, which in turn equals Worldwide Terrorist Conspiracy.

Think about it. If Jeff Bezos wants to send me flea medicine for cats because I ordered an advertising textbook with the word "kittens" in the title, what kind of mistakes do you think that the government is making about you when you browse a left-handed golf glove and the FBI decides you're a dangerous radical leftist?

Or what if you decide to look for tickets to the next concert by Cherri Bomb and the NSA decides you're a radical seeking to blow up a concert crowd – and sends in a SWAT team to get you on American soil? Or if it gets a drone to blow you up abroad? This could be all the more likely if, say, your kid is looking up his favorite girl punk band heroines while your wife goes here, shopping for something for the kitchen. Dude, stick a fork in yourself. You, your family, your house and your car are as done as a roasted Chechen.

The truth of the matter is, collecting so-called metadata on Americans willy-nilly isn't making us safer. Quite the contrary, it's imperiling us by making us targets for maurauding drones, set off by mindless computers, programmed by equally mindless morons.

What's that? You went to Google trying to figure out whatever became of your old high school budy, Alan Kwada?

If that's the case, it was nice knowing you, pal. Make sure your life insurance is paid up.