Mr. Sandman's Sandbox

The musings of a Deaf Californian on life, politics, religion, sex, and other unmentionables. This blog is not guaranteed to lead to bon mots appropriate for dinner-table conversation; make of it what you will.

Location: Los Angeles, California, United States

Monday, June 27, 2005

California COINTELPRO?

For some time now, those of us who are against the war in Iraq and similar military adventures have suggested that what's going on is becoming more and more similar to Vietnam. While they aren't mirror images of each other yet, there are quite a few parallels. Now it seems like our gummints, both federal and state, are starting to go back to the future with other things best left in the past.

Here in California, it seems that the state's National Guard is being given carte blanche to investigate people, all under the broad rubric of "fighting terrorism." While I don't have problems with streamlining information sharing and pursuing terrorism, both foreign and domestic (this is a problem I have with a lot of folks; they'll point to anyone in Middle Eastern garb and call them "towelheads" and shriek "terrorists," but these same people will quietly ignore the white supremacists in the Intermountain West, the KKK in the south, and the Timothy McVeighs and Eric Rudolphs among us), I *do* have a problem with broad mandates that allow for inappropriate snooping, compiling files, smearing the reputations, and destroying the livelihoods of innocent people who are merely availing themselves of the rights we supposedly hold under the U.S. Constitution. We already lived through the days of McCarthyism and the federal and state police abuses of the 1960s and 1970s; why go back and relive it all again?

What really irks me is why, when confronted with evidence like this, is the response always that there is some unfounded fear that a "riot" will take place or that those who are availing themselves of their constitutional rights need to be "protected"? In this case, a protest by a few dozen peaceful protesters on a rainy Sunday at the State Capitol hardly prompts visions of hell on earth, much less a riot. Rather it makes me admire the convictions of people who are willing to brave the weather to demonstrate. I certainly don't read a whole lot of articles about "intelligence units" monitoring anti-abortion protesters, pro-war activists, or others who hold so-called "mainstream values" (a phrase that makes me want to puke each time I read or hear it). This is all happening in addition to the Patriot Act, which is probably going to be renewed. *sigh*

What saddens me is that this is happening here in my native state, a state where tolerance has long been more than just lip service. It's the kind of thing I'd expect to read about in Kansas, or South Carolina, or some similar place, not California. It scares me that this topic received scant mention in most papers, and will probably be ignored, until it's too late. Are we really that willing to throw away our rights, the privileges that our forefathers fought for and established within our governing documents? What is America, really, without the Bill of Rights, without the U.S. Constitution? Are we really ready to destroy the village in order to save it?

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The Welcome Mat's Been Pulled

One of the central arguments that the British and U.S. gummints have made about leaving the military in Iraq is that the actions our joint gummints have taken has been at the request of the Iraqi government. We are simply there to assist the legitimate government reassert control over the country until the Iraqis can themselves govern without falling into chaos. When the Iraqis ask us to leave, we'll leave. Simple as that.

Well, whether Smirk, Scowl, and Blair like it or not, the welcome mat's been pulled. While officially the Iraqi government has asked the U.N. to extend the presence of U.S. and British forces, actual legislators in Iraq strongly disagree. Regardless of the fact that officially their asses are covered by the U.N. missive, I'd say we've long overstayed our welcome, and we're wearing it out faster each day we remain in Iraq.

I don't see any benefits in staying; while leaving will undoubtedly create a vacuum of sorts, it's pretty clear the country is heading towards civil war, if it's not there already. There's been warnings of this for quite some time now, but of course agencies like the CIA can't be trusted, can they? Whether or not you like the CIA and agree that we need a spy agency, the CIA exists and the information it gathers can be valuable if used the right way. I'd say there's a very valid point here: the country is fragmented among the Shiites, the Sunnis, and the Kurds, and getting them to cooperate and pull together is going to be extremely difficult. It'll be interesting to see if the arbitrary deadline for the country's new constitution holds, or if it simply becomes the last straw and pushes Iraq further into chaos.

In any event, it's a good idea (probably won't happen though) if we start thinking seriously about an exit strategy. We have a previous, painful history of suffering severe consequences when we stay where we're not wanted. Exhibit A: Vietnam.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Sailing the Ocean Blue

He may have had three ships and sailed from Spain, as the poem goes, but there's an awful lot of agreement Columbus wasn't the first European, or even the first from other shores to arrive in what is now the Western Hemisphere. He just came along at an opportune time, had great PR, and gave his already bellicose sponsors (Spain, who had just finished kicking the Moors out of Granada, was busy shooing the Sephardim out of the country, and had already experimented with colonial endeavors in the Canary Islands) an excuse to become a world powerhouse-- for a while, anyway, at least until 1588 (and some couple centuries thereafter), when England kicked Spain's butt and established its naval bonafides.

No, it's not October 12 yet; not for a few more months anyway, but I just saw this article in the San Francisco Chronicle that posits that Polynesians may have come to California ages before any Europeans thought to go beyond Iceland. While this theory has yet to be proven, it's a welcome change from the Euro-centric tone anthropologists, linguists, and historians have taken in the past regarding the "discovery" of and contact with the Americas.

In a lot of the history classes I've sat in, the textbooks and professors often start their U.S. narrative with the English exploration and settlement along the Eastern seaboard. Occasionally, a text or an individual professor will veer into Spanish territory, but summarily dismiss this tack as part and parcel of the history of South America. I've respectfully disagreed with this. For one thing, the French and Spanish poked around these shores a lot earlier than John Smith and the Pilgrims did (and even starting with these two, that ignores the lost colony of Roanoke, for one thing). In 1565, the Spanish established a fort at what is now St. Augustine, Florida, the first permanent European settlement on the shores of what is now the United States. The city of Santa Fe, New Mexico, was founded in 1610, ten years before the Mayflower. If you count the history of the continent as part of the history of the United States (and considering the increasing immigration from our southern borders, I think this is a very good idea), it would be wrong to discount the history of Mexico; Cortes invaded Mexican shores in 1519, just thirteen years after Columbus died, and just over a generation since the first voyage arrived at San Salvador that October of 1492.

While I think history as a discipline needs to look at the story as a whole and not necessarily break down into a million sub-categories of various groups discriminated by ethnicity, gender, race, and a host of other specifications, I still agree that there needs to be awareness and flexibility towards incorporating the cultural, linguistic, scientific, and political aspects of societies that are non-European in determining the actual history of the Americas. That's where this article I've linked to comes in. For too long, historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists have dismissed the folkways and oral histories of native or non-European populations. Sometimes it was inadvertent; for example, the Spanish destroyed most of the records of the Incas and the Aztecs in the years following the conquests by Cortes and Pizarro, and then attempted to reconstruct these histories and slant them towards a vaguely pro-Spanish narrative. But other times, it's more deliberate, such as the dismissal of potential contacts between Polynesian and American societies. This study takes a small step towards rectifying that.

While the European influence on the Americas is undeniable, it's sometimes fascinating to wonder at the possibility of things having been wholly different. I just got the July 2005 issue of National Geographic, and it contains an article about the Great Fleet of China under Zheng He and its travels throughout the shores of Asia and Africa. If the Chinese Emperor hadn't suddenly curtailed naval exploration, who knows what might have happened? While his book lacks concrete evidence, Gavin Menzies' recent book, 1421: The Year the Chinese Discovered the World argues that Zheng He actually reached the shores of the present-day American West. Although there's nothing to suggest this actually happened, it's part and parcel of the shift taking place in the perception among scholars towards non-European contacts in the pre-Columbian era.

I don't know if I'll ever get back to teaching, but if I do, I intend to take a more global and comprehensive approach than the U.S. history textbooks of the past have permitted.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Congressional Welfare

Just the other day, I spoke out about corporate welfare. Well, those high and mighty industrialists aren't the only one that have no problems with taking advantage of the gummint; our own legislators aren't above raiding the federal treasury for their own political purposes. This article from the Boston Globe discusses how Congressfolks are stuffing lots of pork into the Defense appropriation bills under cover of the current invasion of Iraq, and our involvement in Afghanistan.

While a bit of pork is part of politics and to be expected to some degree, I find it inappropriate at a time when we have spiraling deficits and real concerns elsewhere (oh, like a troubled economy, cuts in services for those of us that make less than $1 million a year, global warming, etc., etc.) for our elected officials to be padding the budget above and beyond what even our spendthrift "president" has allocated.

As the article states, quite a few of these earmarked projects have nothing to do with Iraq or terrorism: I'd like to know what "defending our freedoms" (excuse me while I snicker) has to do with a wastewater treatment plant or a research hospital, for starters.

This kind of thing has been going on for years, and isn't limited to either party: both Democrats and Republicans are equally guilty of pushing through pet projects so they can go back to their district and crow over bringing home the bacon. While some requests are legitimate on their own, others aren't, and all are probably better off being under the province of and funded by state and local governments.

What really ticks me off is that everyone is ready to throw money at pork, at weapons systems, at projects that will devise new ways to kill people, but at the same time they'll aid in cutting education, housing, Medicaid, and dozens of other programs that actually HELP people and benefit our society as a whole. For example, Smirk wants to eliminate Upward Bound, a federal program that helps poor kids who come from backgrounds where a college education is unknown achieve the opportunity to go to college; all vocational ed at the high school level; housing for the disabled, and housing grants for Native Americans (we took away their land, massacred them, herded them onto reservations composed of land "we" didn't want, and now we just screw them over again...), just to name a few specific programs.

It isn't just the defense budget that gets padded; all of them do, to some extent. It'd be nice if our gummint officials actually acted like real people for a change, and drafted a budget that not only was realistic, but conformed to reality. When I draft my household budget, the first thing I do is I don't spend money I don't have. The second thing is, I make sure all of the basics are covered: shelter, food, utilities, transportation, education (if I need it, and in the past, I've needed it!), health expenses, and *then* I might add in some "pork" for fun or carefree spending. When I'm confronted with a choice between rent and guns, I don't spend cash on the latest weapon; I go to the grocery store and make sure I'll make it through the month. Our gummint seems to prefer spending on guns and weapons in general than in making sure their constituents and taxpayers have the basics.

I don't care how wonderful an individual lawmaker may be; I think it's time to toss them all out and start over again, but of course, this'll never happen. I can still hope that somewhere in some district the citizenry will come to their senses and elect someone who actually is responsible enough to maintain our government the way it should be run-- and that's without massive debt, for one thing. A sense of responsibility towards the general population and not just the well-heeled, for another. Finally, some sense of compassion, which is missing from this so-called "compassionate conservative" bunch that's occupying D.C. these days.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Present-day Anomalies

I suppose at some point it was going to happen, but now there's chatter again about retaining records of what people do while they're online. The vastness of the internet is breathtaking; it's amazing knowing that the number of sites I check daily, weekly, and monthly are just a scratch on the surface of cyberspace. Right now, the current discussion focuses on making your ISP keep records of where you point and click, where I point and click, where Grandma points and clicks, where Junior points and clicks, and so on.

I suppose in this day and age, this was bound to happen, and at some point, I'm sure there'll be some regulations/restrictions/boundaries created. To some extent, this may (or may not) be necessary.

What bothers me though, is in the heat of creating all these different checks upon our movements and actions, from cameras installed at street corners and intersections, passwords and checkpoints for everything from the gym pool to your neighborhood school, proposed x-ray searches of airline passengers, and all the other intrusive nosing around, there remain gaping loopholes. Records of gun purchases is a prime example. Thanks to Ashcroft's interpretations of existing gun control laws (The Brady Bill, for instance), gun purchase records are now destroyed after 24 hours. So I guess if ISPs are forced to keep tabs what kind of lingerie you purchase online, or the cheap airfare to the in-laws, the gummint and cops everywhere will have no problems breathing down your neck if they want to. But if they need to track the fatal bullet from a shooting in a holdup? A gun used by a future terrorist in another tragic incident? Guess they're outta luck, huh?

Another paradox: we stand in line forever at the airports, get marched through metal detectors, get wanded by federalized security guards (that's basically what TSA personnel are, when you think about it), and if we get really lucky, pulled aside for a thorough check. Our bags sometimes appear at the other end with little slips of paper inside: Congratulations! The contents of your luggage have been viewed and paraded around for all to see! Don't worry, it's all over now-- you now have your bag back! That's not to mention the frustration if you find you're on the no-fly list. Additionally, as I mentioned in a previous blog, there's talk of installing x-ray scanners in the near future. Even pilots get checked out at the security gates.

But you know what? Other employees wander around with no problem. I read on a fairly frequent basis "Ask the Pilot" over at, and he discussed this just last week. With all the supposed boost in security, we have people running around the airports who can more or less come and go as they please? Doesn't exactly make me feel safe.

These kinds of absurdities are illogical, and certainly don't create a consistency that I feel comfortable with in this day and age. As far as the ISPs and the internet goes, I must admit the internet is still fairly new, and there are so many possibilities as to its future. It'll be interesting to see what happens...

Saturday, June 18, 2005

No Jake, Billy, or Jo Here...

On the heels of our successful walk down Santa Monica Boulevard from start to end, we decided to reprise our trek, but on a different street: Melrose Avenue. While we didn't see Jake, Jo, Michael, Jane, Billy, Alison, Matt, or even Amanda on our journey (and no, I wasn't crazy about that show!), we certainly saw quite a bit. Melrose isn't as long as or as much of an artery as Santa Monica Boulevard (it's only about six or so miles), but it still wends through some interesting neighborhoods.

Again, we took the 304 down Santa Monica, as if to re-enact our original walk, but this time we merely headed a few blocks south on Hoover to the very beginning of Melrose, just east of Hoover. The area around the eastern terminus of Melrose isn't as gritty as the first couple of dozen of blocks of Santa Monica, but it's still a rather mixed area. The first interesting sight we saw was a Russian Orthodox Church, complete with its unique dome. It was kind of a nice-looking church. Soon after, we spotted a panaderia, and decided to break for a quick mid-morning snack. The pan dulce here was delicious, not to mention cheap. I also bought some agua fresa, and my walking partner got some coffee. She was hoping for champurrado, but they were out of it that morning.

After sating our appetite, we continued our walk, soon entering the southern portion of Thai Town, not all that far from the church we encountered at the beginning. This is one thing I like about large cities like Los Angeles and New York: within just a handful of blocks, you see the ethnic, architectural, and cultural aspects of a neighborhood change. From storefronts to building styles to street signs, there is enough diversity to make it an enjoyable optical experience. No cookie-cutter surburbs, thank you!

Our next stop was an entertaining diversion: Chic-A-Boom (6817 Melrose, for you locals), a vintage toy store full of old magazines, collectibles, pin buttons with political and social messages (as well as tons of old campaign buttons!), elvis memorabilia, old school lunchboxes, vintage and campy movie posters (think 1950s "B" movies), and all sorts of esoterica. I looked around for a while, and then engaged the store owner. She was a friendly, rather good-looking middle-aged woman. I discovered that she originally had two stores: the one we were standing in now, and one devoted solely to rock-and-roll materials, among other forms of music. She closed that store, but still retained an entire warehouse full of goodies from the previous store as well as tons of other materials. I asked whether I could bring a few things in for trade or sale, and was told "no"-- too much stuff as it was! She'd been in business for 27 years and seemed to be doing pretty well.

Some stores I just go in, glance around, politely acknowledge the salesperson or counter help, and leave once my curiosity is sated. But in other places such as this, it really is interesting to talk with people and learn a bit more about the place, where we were, etc. Fortunately for me, the owner was fairly easy to lipread. There's a few things I might be interested in adding to the clutter around here, so at some point I plan to return.

Before long, we were in the thick of Hollywood, and we passed the main gates for Paramount Studios, the last major studio still in Hollywood (just about everything else is now in the Valley, clustered around Studio City and Burbank, or off closer to the beach). It's a well-kept piece of property, and screams "studio!" in the way a studio should. It's currently under a new CEO, Brad Grey, who is going to try to take the studio out of its doldrums and into the post-Sherry Lansing era. I wish him luck...

On the other side of Paramount, flush against its back boundaries, is Hollywood Forever Cemetery, which I detailed in the entry on Santa Monica Boulevard. Right across from Paramount, on the corner of Melrose and Gower, is another Astro Burger. This one apparently attracts a healthy amount of lunchtime business from the studio, but in my opinion the Astro Burger on Santa Monica has better food (both are Astro Burgers, yes, but they're under different ownership/management). What this particular branch has is Greek dishes alongside the burgers and sandwiches. I tried a spanakopita here once, and it was quite good, considering it was primarily a burger place.

We continued down the street, on the northern edges of Hancock Park, which is and always has been, a rather tony area. It was developed in the 1920s by the Hancock family, of La Brea Tar Pits fame. It's not a westside community, but its wealth makes it feel like it is. A lot of studio folks used to live in the area, and even today it attracts those with rather stratospheric incomes.

Because of Hancock Park, the area was generally middle-class, and not as sketchy as earlier in our journey. Before long, we got to the corner of Melrose and La Brea, and looking up the street, realized we were right by Pink's. We decided to break for lunch, as it's a rather cheap place to grab a meal. For the uninitiated, Pink's has been around since 1939, and is one of *the* places to grab a hot dog. They have several versions, all centered around an all-beef Hoffy wiener in a bun, with a variety of toppings depending on what you're ordering. They have quite a few chili dog versions, as well as more classic dogs, such as Chicago-style (which happens to be one of my favorites!). The queue at the counter can take a while, but once you order, they prepare your food VERY quickly. I've never been impressed by their fries, but they have decent onion rings. Oh, and did I mention the hot dogs? It's a rather tiny stand, with miserable parking, but it *always* has a line, no matter the time of day. It's also open fairly late at night, so it attracts a rather diverse crowd.

After ensuring we didn't need to stop for a bite again (we'd already enjoyed the panaderia and now Pink's), we continued our sojourn. After passing La Brea, we soon encountered the trendy section of Melrose, the part that most people think of when you mention Melrose. It seems like it's part of West Hollywood (although, to be fair, it's directly south of the eastern part of WeHo) or an area farther to the west, but it's really in Los Angeles.. In the past, there's been a good mix of restaurants, speciality shops, and clothing boutiques, but right now it seems every third store is all about clothes and shoes. There's quite a few vintage clothing stores, mixed in with more upscale offerings. Nevertheless, it's where many beautiful people and wannabes come to stock up, and it's definitely tres chic in the evenings, especially on the weekends.

One store we decided to check out is Necromance, which is definitely Goth heaven. It's full of things like badger claws, shark teeth, mink penis bones, coyote skulls, victorian mourning jewelry, lotus shoes, macabre postcards and pictures, black tees, medical tools, glass eyes, and the like. Definitely not everyone's cup of tea, but it's certainly worth taking a look at, if only once. One thing I did salivate at was a sign from Disneyland for the Haunted Mansion that was an oval "stone" piece that said "Haunted Mansion" on it; it was up for grabs at $300. Unfortunately, before I could decide what to sacrifice at home for the opportunity to own this, it got snatched up while we were there.

There were quite a few boutiques and the like that we passed fairly quickly, including one with the amusing moniker of Blue Balls (go ahead and give the obligatory titter; we did!). Near the end of this section of Melrose, we came upon a kind of cool shop: The World of Vintage T-Shirts (7701 Melrose). It's a second-hand shop with all kinds of t-shirts, mostly of 1980s and 1990s vintage, although there were some earlier examples (Black Oak Arkansas, anyone?). Most were the kind that were rather personal or weren't the kind you'd neccessarily want (Johnson County Country Fair, 1983), but there were a few cool ones. One essentially 80's piece of clothing was a black tuxedo t-shirt (anyone remember those?? *Definitely* so 80's!). I didn't see anything that jumped out at me or that I *had* to have, but it was kind of a fun place. On the south wall were scribbled autographs of famous people and wannabes and has-beens who had come in and perused the merchandise, from Tom Hanks to members of rock bands. We didn't see anyone remotely recognizable, but then it's been my curse to just be surrounded by the ordinary.

Just a couple doors down, is Golden Apple Comics. While (IMHO!) I prefer Hi De Ho Comics in Santa Monica, it definitely is a Holy Grail of sorts for the comics collector, and we went in to see what the latest was in graphic novels and the like. There's everything from posters to sculptures and busts of superheroes and comic characters, to paper- and hardback anthologies and graphic novels, to the latest issues of comics. There's also a section with back-issue bins and the requisite glass counters with valuable copies encased in mylar and supported by cardboard backs. There's an alternative comics section, including adult comix. It's definitely a large store compared with the average strip-mall comics store, which today seems to offer copies of the latest books, some back issues, and a healthy side business in gaming cards and equipment, which is pretty much how comic book store owners survive nowadays.

As we reached Melrose and Fairfax, we exited trendy Melrose and entered the West Hollywood portion of the street, which is the final stretch. Here, most of the businesses were furniture stores, upscale art galleries (read: *not* avant garde material, but more of the pretentious stuff), and the sort of chi-chi businesses you expect to be near such pricey places. A scattering of restaurants here and there, but nothing that we would have come back to later. There was one furniture store I liked quite a bit though; it had Art Deco or Art Deco-themed furniture. I'm rather old-fashioned when it comes to furniture, architecture, etc.; I personally think the world went to hell after 1945, with some exceptions. Obviously right now I can't pick up anything to cart home, but it's definitely a store I wouldn't mind shopping at eventually.

At this point, it was late afternoon, and we were in an area full of nicely-kept warehouses, storefronts, and the like that were still full of furniture, art, and the lot. The biggest "attraction" near the west end of Melrose is the Pacific Design Center, where professionals get a chance to show off and sell furniture, fabrics, and other interior design goodies. It's a huge blue building, with rather nice landscaping outside, and is hard to miss. Finally, we passed the Napster offices and just a block away, Melrose ended, at the intersection of Melrose, Santa Monica, and Doheny, right where Santa Monica passes from the Boystown called West Hollywood into the snooty environs called Beverly Hills.

We decided to walk a bit farther, as we were in the mood for gelato, and wanted to see if our favorite gelateria was open. So we walked down Little Santa Monica, only to find out that the store only takes cash, which was something I'd ran out of at Pink's. At this point, we were a bit beat, so we went up to Santa Monica Boulevard proper and took the bus home.

All in all, it was an enjoyable walk, though not as long or as diverse as Santa Monica Boulevard. But it definitely got us out of the house, gave us a chance to exercise, and the opportunity to explore more of the town we call home. I'd say that's pretty good for one day, don't you?

Friday, June 17, 2005

Corporate Welfare

Just a few years ago, the U.S. actually was running a surplus. Nowadays, we've headed back in the opposite direction, thanks to the federal giveway to the rich and the ever ballooning cost of war in Iraq, just to name two factors. Cuts are being made to services across the board, especially for those programs and services aiding the poor. There are rumblings from Smirk, Scowl & Co. about private accounts and an overhaul of Social Security, Amtrak and PBS receive annual threats to their funding, and fees and costs for all kinds of things are going up.

Yet there's one sector of our society that doesn't seem to be having any problems, no need to do any belt-tightening: I speak of course of the myriad corporations, many of whom are transnational, global entities. A fair number of them stash their earnings and mailing addresses in Caribbean nations, or Swiss bank accounts. They loudly proclaim how the business of America is business, and gleefully assist our gummint in turning the clock back to the 1890s, to the Robber Baron era when American industrial greed ran amok, totally unfettered by regulations or restrictions.

A front-page article yesterday in the Washington Post (registration required) states that the GAO has announced that thousands of non-defense contractors owe Uncle Sam tons of cash in unpaid taxes. According to the article, more than $3 billion is outstanding on the books. It's a bit of chump change when you realize the outlays for the war so far are far more stratospheric than just $3 billion, but at the same time, it's nothing to sneeze at. This unpaid set of bills is just what non-defense contractors owe. That's nothing to say of the tens of dozens of corporations that pay little or no tax at all, or move their legal addresses and headquarters overseas so as to protect their precious cash, all the while outsourcing jobs to Second and Third World nations, never to return. Some of the contractors discussed in this article merely refused to pay their taxes, while others did quite a bit of creative accounting and used their monies to build luxury housing, buy fancy cars, and the like.

Corporate welfare isn't restricted to winking at unpaid taxes; it's also all about federal handouts, subsidies, and tax breaks given to companies that don't really need them. It creates an uneven playing field in a lot of ways. For one thing, it provides an unfair advantage to those companies that receive extra cash for expenses that they really should be paying themselves. For example, subsidies for advertising campaigns, or offsets granted as part of protectionist measures. Another disadvantage is that corporate handouts of all kinds leads to cozy relationships that really shouldn't exist between businesses and politicians, and leads to actual or perceived quid pro quo, which in the end is a disservice to the average citizen. Enhanced leverage granted to giant corporations also permits said companies to destroy their competition: small businesses, the vaunted small businesses of many a Republican stump speech. You may argue that the demise of said businesses is a natural outgrowth of capitalism and competition: survival of the fittest. That's fine when all the competitors are on roughly the same playing field, but not when one entity is receiving tons of extra cash in whatever form from the feds. A very obvious problem concerning corporate welfare is the drain on the federal treasury. Our tax money is going to all these companies that then turn around and screw us over by reducing pension funds, eliminating health care co-pays, and transferring jobs overseas. At the same time, because they're getting our money, there's that much less left to pay for the services that we all want and expect.

Some blatant examples of corporate welfare are the ongoing handouts to the airlines; the overpriced hammers, toilets, and other items procured by the Pentagon in years past; and the ongoing support for military hardware and weapons systems such as the B-2 bomber that even the Pentagon didn't ask for and doesn't want. It's a travesty when people like me get overcharged for energy costs because of artificial constraints created by companies like Enron (which didn't pay taxes and actually qualified for $382 million worth of refunds. Where's MY refund??), which then gets away with murder (that reminds me, where is Ken Lay these days? Certainly not in prison, where he belongs...).

Another great example is the nominal amount the television networks pay for use of the PUBLIC airwaves. You'd think in exchange for use of various frequencies, we'd get a better deal, like better coverage of the Olympics (I could do without the blathering "experts" and "patriotic" shots of the flag, and more of actual competition!), no more game day blackouts of sporting events, and improved coverage of important political events such as the conventions and the debates (less commentary, more live speeches and actual pronouncements from the politicians, hacks, and the rare occasional statesman lurking about rather than some "journalist" with poofy hair). If we charged the actual market value for use of the spectrum, we'd at least be getting a better rate of return for the vast wasteland known as television.

There are a lot of changes that could be made, and a lot of places to start. But I think if we just concentrated on one area, taxes, we'd get a head start. I think it's time to tackle the problem of corporate welfare, and ensure that the vast corporations that have enriched themselves thanks to our taxpayer monies and our consumer habits gave back to the nation that sustained and continues to sustain them. I hope someone in the gummint actually pays attention to the article I posted, reads it, and starts asking for that $3 billion plus back.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Straight Talk

I've read a lot of stuff on Iraq; I've contributed to the discussion myself, a number of times, most recently the other day. But in the thicket of yammering talk radio hosts, televised talking heads, pontificating buffoons of politicians, lying leaders, outraged (or defiant) bloggists, spouses of National Guard members, and the like, there's one demographic I haven't heard a whole lot from. That's the most affected group, other than the people of Iraq: the soldiers, current and former, that have participated in this war and in other wars.

I just read a rather blunt open letter to current participants in the mess that we call Iraq from a long-time vet, someone who knows exactly what he's talking about. I encourage you to go ahead and read this offering, if just for the alternate perspective it provides. I agree with him: the loyalty of an army should be to the country and its principles, not loyalty to a bunch of lying self-centered sacks of $#&*, the majority of whom have never seen any military service at all (and some who have just pretended to; I understand the skies of Texas were rather dangerous some thirty-odd years ago). It certainly undermines the purpose of an army and what it's fighting for when platoon sergeants wrongly state that the "Geneva Convention doesn't exist in Iraq." Oh? Then where does it exist? This is the kind of thinking that gets us in trouble every time.

A Lifetime of Love

This time of year is the season for weddings. I've been to my fair share in the past, and have a few more to attend, I'm sure. They're always happy occasions, and I think it's neat that I'm privileged to be there at the beginning of a marriage (sometimes I'm even luckier and see a beautiful relationship right from the start!), and I wonder if I'll be around to help celebrate the milestone anniversaries such as the 20th, 30th, 40th, or even 50th. Who we marry is arguably the most important person in our lives; in some instances, we live with them and know them for far longer than we do parents, siblings, or other family members.

In one case I read about just a couple of weeks ago, a couple celebrated their 80th wedding anniversary; unfortunately, the husband just died. I've been present at family anniversaries of 20, 40, and even 50 years together, but I can't imagine 80 years. That's longer than the average lifespan for either men or women. When this couple were wed, WWI had just ended a few years previously. Both husband and wife were born during the Edwardian era, and together they witnessed 3/4 of the 20th century.

I should be so lucky.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Waka Waka Waka... Beyoop.

It's hard to believe Pac-Man is now 25 years old. I was just the right age to appreciate arcade video games, being in junior high and high school during its heyday. Today every kid seems to be born with a PS2 or Gamecube or X-Box attached, and even adults get into it. I had a friend several years ago who told me she and her husband were totally addicted to this one game and invited me to come over and play it sometime. Someone I know recently confided to me she wasn't getting any action in the sack, because her other half was totally addicted to a game that had just come out. Even my dad bought a Gamecube a few years back; during the holidays there's quite a few of us taking turns playing different games, from Sonic the Hedgehog to Pro Basketball to Zelda. My mom told me one night she woke up at 2 a.m., found the other side of the bed empty, and went through the house only to find my father still putting his Gamecube through its paces.

But these systems are the games of today. Back in the day, before even Atari, there were just pinball machines. Then there was Pong, and a few years later, a handful of other games, including Sea Wolf. (Pong and Sea Wolf were the first two video games I ever played). Pong was interesting for the first five minutes, but I liked Sea Wolf at the time (although I haven't seen a working Sea Wolf game in years). It was this submarine game, where you peered through a faux conning tower with buttons on the side. On the screen, you'd see different submarines and ships, and you'd try to shoot at them. A pizza joint where we lived had a pinball game or two and a Sea Wolf, and I'd play them while my family was waiting for dinner to be served.

About a year after I'd discovered Sea Wolf, Pac-Man hit the street and things were never the same. The game's instant popularity led to the rise of arcades, which quickly proliferated from a handful of games and pinball machines to new games that were added all the time. My friends and I would empty our pockets weekly as we headed off to our local arcade to check out the new games and play old favorites. I was never the type to enjoy games where you had to memorize five or six different buttons or controls, so the games I liked and played were, I suppose, "tame." Everyone played Pac-Man, but since the board remained the same (and if you memorized it, could win by following the same path every time), it was sort of a boring game after a while. The following year heralded the arrival of Ms. Pac-Man, which was a far more interesting game, and one of my all-time favorites. I have the Namco disc here at home with Ms. Pac-Man as one of the game choices, and I play it still from time to time. I'd prefer to have an original cabinet game, but right now money and space doesn't permit this. Ms. Pac-Man is still around in a lot of places though, and came out in a special anniversary cabinet version a couple years back, paired with Galaza, so it's possible I might try to pick up one of those.

Another game many of us liked was Donkey Kong, and it's one of the few games I'd love to have. I've been told surviving arcade cabinet and cocktail table versions are rather expensive though, so it may be a while before I can nab one and enjoy the experience of Mario battling Kong for the blonde girl. *grin* I haven't seen this game in a long, long time.

More and more games popped up in the next couple of years. Some games that we played were Joust (not one of my particular favorites), Tempest, Millipede and its cousin Centipede, Galaga, Pole Position, and Amidar. Others were Star Wars (still one of my favorites, and every once in a while I spot a machine and play for old times' sake), Elevator Action (a cool spy game-- at least it was cool to me!), Tron (the game was better than the movie, IMHO), Q*bert, Dig Dug, Tetris, and all the inevitable spin-offs of Pac-Man and Donkey Kong. I didn't care for most of these, although Donkey Kong Jr. was mildly entertaining. One of the best (but more expensive games to play!) during this period was Dragon's Lair and its cousin, Space Ace. This game was designed partially by Don Bluth, who used to work for Disney and then set up his own animation company ("The Secret of NIMH", "An American Tail", etc.). It was about a knight named Dirk who was searching for the beautiful princess, and he goes through this castle with all its perils and dangers. It was a cartoon within a game, and you had to use the joystick to make choices to help Dirk survive. There would be hints in the form of little flashes of light or other visual triggers to help you escape death. Unfortunately it cost fifty cents compared with a quarter, so it took a long time to master the game. Space Ace was the space version of the game, and while it was neat, I preferred Dragon's Lair. There was a sequel, Dragon's Lair II, but I barely got a chance to play it. It was an expensive game to purchase and maintain, so there weren't that many of them around, and I haven't seen one in probably fifteen years or so.

Before long, the games matured, the types of games broadened, contracted, and flatlined; there seemed to be more and more martial-arts games, superhero games, genre games, gimmicky games... There was even a Michael Jackson game, Moonwalker. I saw one the other day, and told the wife that the vendor should put a sign up on it stating "Must be over 18 to play."

All the old games started being replaced by others, and the arcades of my youth slowly vanished, one by one. In the town where I grew up, a high of five arcades is now reduced to just one. The development and rise of Atari and its brethren meant you didn't have to go downtown, you didn't have to spend a small fortune (for a kid, $25 is a chunk of change!), and you could eat and drink all you wanted, lie around in whatever state of dress (or undress!) you wanted, and just pay once for a system and a few games, and that would be that. Now it's a whole industry, with competing systems and a variety of games with graphics that are light years beyond the age of Pong. You've even got some very *ahem* interesting games, such as Grand Theft Auto (which I have yet to play). By the time I was in high school, the game scene had changed, I'd discovered the other half of the human race (read: GIRLS), and more important things were happening, or so I thought. But lately, now that we have a Gamecube and I've been playing some of the older titles, my interest has been reawakened.

A very good friend of mine shares my interest in the old games, and with the blessing of a *very understanding* wife has built up a small collection of games in his garage. He's passed on tons of useful information and we talk about games from time to time. I haven't seen the bulk of his current holdings, but hope to do so eventually.

There used to be a museum in St. Louis that had a number of games, and I always hoped to go there. Unfortunately, it closed its doors last year. Now that we're celebrating a milestone, maybe someone will bring a version of this back...?

In any event, happy birthday to Pac-Man, and many thanks to Namco for introducing him to the world.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Iraq Was a Choice

The Corporate Media has come to the "Downing Street Memo" story late, but I'm glad they're finally on it. Blogs everywhere have already been analyzing the situation exhaustively, which is good. My problem with that though, is that the average person isn't like me: they don't sit at home in their spare time ferreting through the internet to determine the truth of what's happening in the world, assessing and analyzing the news because TV reporters and "journalists" are too lazy to do the job they're supposed to do. Most people, understandably, have lives and the priorities that come with such lives. Because of this, most people have time for the morning newspaper, or perhaps the news for a half-hour before dinner or bed, and that's that. So when news gets filtered through such a fine spectrum, it's easily manipulated.

This is especially the case when just a handful of companies/individuals own the newspapers, TV networks, cable companies, and radio stations in this country.When reporters fail their obligations to disseminate information as objectively as possible, that means it's easy for the average person to either misunderstand what's going on or exist in a state of ignorance.

But it's not just the "Corporate Media" that's at fault; often the newsmakers themselves manipulate the news, and this is especially true of politicians. It bothers me when I see that so many people supposedly think Smirk is an honest, upstanding guy, a "straight shooter" in his words. This is a man who has changed his rationale for Iraq every five minutes, who most likely was wearing a hidden mike during the debates last year, and according to the Downing Street Memo (which neither Bush nor Blair has categorically denied thus far! Hmm...) lied to Congress and the nation about war against Iraq being a "last resort."

This article from the other day just convinces me even more that Bush and Blair knowingly lied to their respective governments and citizens about what their real intentions were in Iraq.

The opening paragraph of this London Times article from June 12 says, "Ministers were warned in July 2002 that Britain was committed to taking part in an American-led invasion of Iraq and they had no choice but to find a way of making it legal."

This was long before Powell's U.N. speech, Bush's State of the Union speech, the start of hostilities, the beginning of the occupation, the retraction of the "sixteen words", Wilson's article about the non-existent attempt to obtain yellowcake from Niger, the subsequent exposure of Valerie Plame, the lack of WMDs, the ever-shifting rationale for war, Abu Ghraib, similar abuses at Guantanamo, and the slowly spiraling toll of the dead, both military and civilian... and now the Downing Street Memo.

"Saddam had to be removed." "Iraq is safer with Saddam gone." "Saddam was evil."

This seems to be the sole justification left, the only fallback that Smirk and Poodle have for the incursion and occupation. I doubt you'd find too many people who'd disagree that Saddam Hussein was evil, or that he should be brought to justice for the things he's done (his treatment of the Kurds being Exhibit A). But there are tons of other governments and headsof state that are just as bad, or worse. North Korea is an excellent example. So I don't buy that argument.

Going back to that first paragraph, it states that during a meeting of the ministers in Blair's government, they were told that Britain was "committed" to going to war against Iraq and that they "had no choice but to find a way of making it legal."

If that isn't a load of b.s., I don't know what is. War is never a "commitment" beforehand. It is *always* a choice made by the aggressor. It especially aggravates me that Britain's leaders knew that what was transpiring was illegal, and that facts would have to be shaped so as to justify any invasion. The same is true for the U.S.-- Smirk and his henchmen knew beforehand that their "reasons" were awfully weak, their evidence woefully pitiful and thin.

The war in Iraq certainly could have been avoided. As it stands, the only valid reason to go in (and the only thing that is "positive") was to "get" Saddam. No matter how despicable Hussein is, there are and were better ways to go about it: the U.N. sanctions was one tool that was effective to a point. Additionally, "pre-emptive attacks" and "regime change" are not only unusually agressive behavior, but they set a chilling precedent: What's to stop some other country from determining we need to be contained, and that our leaders need to be toppled?

So far we have more than 1,000 soldiers KIA, thousands more wounded and maimed, tens of thousands of Iraqis killed, wounded, and maimed. People left homeless, lives and careers disrupted, children orphaned. All so Smirk could get the guy "who tried to kill my dad." We would all have been far better off if we had gone in, seized only Saddam Hussein, and then locked Bush and Hussein in a room by themselves. Then they could have settled a vendetta that was tragically taken public.

Hopefully the Corporate Media will follow-up on the Downing Street Memo; if we're really lucky (probably not possible, given Republican domination of the gummint), we'll get the investigation and hearings into the origins of this war that we deserve. But no matter what happens, don't let anyone fool you into thinking there was "no choice" in Iraq; the whole war, from start to present, was a "choice."

Monday, June 13, 2005

Governing at the Ballot Box

Grrr... Governor Herr Gropenfuhrer has decided to hold a special election. At a time when the state of California is suffering a massive deficit, the national economy is at best, lackluster, and we just got through an election in the fall, now we "must" have another election. It would be one thing if it was for a truly necessary reason, but the initiatives Schwarzenegger is pushing include the assignation of redistricting to a panel of retired judges; the limitation of budget spending and permitting the governor to make unilateral cuts; and changing from two to five years as the amount of time teachers must wait to obtain tenure. There may be a couple other initiatives, but this is the meat of it all.

Let's review: while I'm not a big fan of partisan redistricting, I'm also not a fan of just handing the job over to a panel which I assume will be appointed by the governor. Any way you look at it, you can't take partisan instincts out of the process. This isn't to say that I want California to be like Texas, where one party runs roughshod over another, but no matter the solution, politics will never be completely removed from the task of drawing legislative boundaries. In any event, if the proposed legislation passes, the changes won't be able to take place before 2008 at the earliest; that's just two years before the next census, when the population tallies will affect boundaries anyway. Why change them two or three times in between censuses?

The budget: while it would be nice to have governments that live within their means, it's not going to happen, and any attempts to institute "balanced" budgets or more control by one legislative arm over another is just phony, in my opinion. The real problem here isn't finding a balance: it's that Schwarzenegger doesn't seem to want to negotiate with the State Legislature, and California is hampered by a requirement that the budget can only pass with a 2/3rds majority-- something that is true for only a handful of states (I believe three states). Most states merely require a simple majority. This means the Republican legislators are able to hold an entire state hostage to their demands. It also means that both sides play politics with the money in order to achieve some sort of consensus on the budget, which is why I don't think this is a politically feasible solution. Finally, it isn't our job as citizens to regulate how the budget is created and passed; that's why WE elected these people, to do the job for us. It's pretty sad when they can't seem to do the job they're supposed to.

Finally, teacher tenure: this is such a stupid thing, really. An extra three years, fine. I'm sure most people won't have a problem with that. But is it really of such urgency that it has to be done NOW? Is it a piece of legislation that absolutely couldn't wait until the regular ballot just a year away, in 2006??

So far, I'm not impressed. I contacted Schwarzenegger's office at least twice, asking that he not institute the special election. The state supposedly has a deficit, so how are we expected to pay an additional $45 billion for an election that really could have waited another twelve months? Personally, I am extremely disappointed by Schwarzenegger's so-called bravado over this election. If he really wants this election so bad, maybe he should pay for it out of his own pocket. I'd be more than happy to help govern the state at the ballot box then.

Sunday, June 12, 2005


"Jurassic Park" aside, it's always neat when a window into the past suddenly appears. There's been quite a few the last several years, from the skeletons of the little "Hobbit" people in Southeast Asia, to the "Ice Man" in the Alps, to the half-blackened blob suddenly discovered in the back of the fridge the other day. Tests on this last item are still being run, and we should discover information about it anytime now.

But I digress... this article mentions the growth of an ancient date palm seed in Israel-- a seed that is estimated to be 2,000 years old. The little sprout has been named "Methuselah" and is so far thriving. Whether it will blossom and lead to the revival of the date palms of the ancient Middle East or not remains to be seen, but I still think it's utterly amazing that something like this has taken place, that we are afforded a chance to revisit life from centuries ago.

Even today, in our modern world where plants, flowers, seeds, and food undergo all kinds of tinkering, grafting, engineering, and manipulation to create the "perfect" look or taste, it's neat to think that we have the potential opportunity to taste dates (that is, assuming Methuselah is female!) as they must have tasted in the days of the Roman Empire, before the Judean Disapora. Although humanity seems determined to pave over the world, it delights me that we still have opportunities to see things not as they are or will be, but as they once were, and in the process, maybe understand better who we are and where we came from.

I'll be quite curious to follow the progress of this seedling, and see if the ancient date palm has truly survived, or if this is just a cosmic fluke.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

My Teef Redux

Back in February, I discussed the irritant that is my mouth, and my efforts to solve said problem. However, since I'm unemployed, I can't just run to any dentist. A lot of doctors and dentists aren't accepting Medi-Cal/Medicaid patients anymore. On top of that, I'm unfamiliar with who is a good dentist around here. Finally, while I'd prefer to see my dentist of 20+ years, I don't have the money to travel 400 miles just to get my teeth fixed. So I visited UCLA's dental clinic.

The upside of this is that UCLA is generally well-known as a good med school, and the dental program is no exception. It's also fairly close to where we live, so getting there isn't a problem. It's also affordable for someone like me, since the program charges less due to its status as a teaching institution.

The downside, of course, is that since it's a teaching institution, I have student dentists poking and probing about. The sessions take longer-- a bloc of three hours each visit, so as to allow the student time to conduct the entire exam/cleaning/operation/whatever. There's also the issue of interpreting: ten days' notice must be given in advance for scheduling, so I can't just wander in whenever. I first visited in February, and as of right now, I won't be finished til August. Fortunately, whatever was causing the pain in my tooth went away, but I still want it looked at.

Today was my second official visit, and the first one in which I'd actually be attended to by my student dentist. I had two dental students doing an initial examination today, and for the most part, they went tooth-and-comb over the forms I had filled out way back in February. An examination of my teeth was done again, and the verdict so far is that it isn't so much the fillings that are causing me problems, but gum recession.

Goodbye youth, hellllloooo adulthood. As we get older, our gums become increasingly prone to recession, and some people are more prone than others (read: your humble bloggist). But in the course of having my teeth and gums poked, prodded, and exposed, it was also revealed that it would be a good time to replace one or two fillings. There's also discussion of sealants, varnishes (what a little sandpaper, stripping, and a finish won't do), and possibly even a graft (*sigh*).

The two students were charming, and I kept the mood light when I could (i.e. making lame jokes and bad puns after every other question, and keeping the dental students and the interpreter in stitches as much as possible), but in the end, we set up our schedule and confirmed the rest of the appointments over the summer. I'll be back in a couple weeks. Luckily for me though, this was the last morning session, and the rest will be afternoon appointments. My teeth may not care what time it is, but I don't do mornings.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Flying the Friendly Skies?

I used to fly a lot. A few years back, I became a weekend commuter, flying from my job in Northern California home to Los Angeles, and in the process racked up enough miles to earn two free tickets. Said freebies have long ago been used. Since then I haven't had the opportunity to travel as much.

I'm not sure I'd want to though. While it's statistically safer to fly than to drive, the air travel experience is so much different these days. For one thing, the days when you actually walked out onto the tarmac and entered the plane via stairs is pretty much long gone on most airlines and most long hauls. On shorter trips at secondary airports or on certain airlines at certain airports (such as at Burbank via Southwest) you still have this experience.

Being served a meal, or even a decent snack? Not likely anymore. I've heard of people now having to pay $7 or such for a sandwich, or just having a small 1/32 oz drink (theoretically it's more, but all that ice, y'know) and a handful of peanuts (or more likely, pretzels) is what passes for "service." I can't remember the last time I copped a free magazine courtesy of the airlines. I remember I used to try to get on the plane as early as possible to snag a copy of Time, People, or some other such fun magazine, as opposed to Money or a similar rag. Nowadays I just save a few magazines from home, or visit the library's booksale area and buy a few recent issues of a general magazine, and just take them on the plane with me.

Seat space is a consistent woe, so I don't have to go into that, do I? But I do miss the days when people could actually go to the gate and wait for their friends, relatives, and guests. If you watch any movie these days, you can tell which movies were made pre-2001 by how the airport scenes are set up. The restrictions, parking costs, and other such rules means I now pretty much tell people to just get out of baggage claim and I'll just drive by and pick them up (or drop them off as the case may be).

Additionally, I'm sure those of us who have flown in the last few years have tales to tell about long lines, security checkpoints, and the like. It's bad enough I get pulled over and wanded every so often, but I shudder to think how some people have been treated in recent years, months, and days. Case in point: this article about a 57-year-old middle school principal who is branded a potential terrorist and put on a watch list because she inadvertently left a prohibited item in her luggage? When she protested her treatment, she was essentially told she didn't have any constitutional rights.

Speaking of constitutional rights, I dread a future flight where I certainly might not have any privacy rights. The current system of metal detectors, wands, and the like may be supplemented by machines that essentially x-ray you. I'm not so sure I want the TSA screeners having such intimate knowledge. However, I can certainly predict a rise in TSA job applications from thousands of voyeurs and dirty old men nationwide. I can predict our e-mail spam will soon advertise "x-ray pictures of your favorite movie stars!", thanks to some ethically challenged screener who makes a screen capture and then turns around and sells the image, either aboveboard or as a bootlegged, illicit offering to the porn gods of the internet.

Finally, I'm not so sure I want to entrust my life to an airline that doesn't have my safety first and foremost. Just recently, a federal judge ruled that United can temporarily suspend safety inspections. This, of course, is the same company that dumped its pension plan on the federal government. So much for responsibility towards its passengers and employees. Needless to say, I'll be using another carrier next time I gotta fly somewhere. What's disturbing about this is it sets a precedent. Will other airlines try to jettison their pension plans? Will other carriers decide safety inspections can be kept to a minimum? That road trip is looking better and better all the time. I think I may prefer the friendly skies to be above me rather than below me...