Wednesday, February 25, 2009
Despite all the comparisons of Obama to Lincoln, FDR and Kennedy, I think a better one might be to LBJ. Obama has big plans for domestic reform like Johnson. And like Johnson, he runs the risk of getting sidetracked by foreign wars.
Energy policy, in contrast, is much more open to debate. Free-marketeers, like the Wall Street Journal, would say that the U. S. does not need a national energy policy--let the markets decide. In theory I would agree. The problem is that we already have an energy policy. "What energy policy?," you might ask. "Where was I when they passed that?" I would argue that the U. S. has a de facto energy policy and it can be summed up in two words: cheap oil.
For about a century now the United States government has been backing oil to the exclusion of all other energy sources. This has involved supporting the automobile industry by building roads to far-flung suburbs and subsidizing ever larger homes through the tax code. And American foreign policy has ensured the free flow of oil from the Middle East by propping up friendly dictators and dispatching troops when necessary. This, along with U. S. support for Israel (another topic for another day), has gone a long way to creating the bitterness and resentment that has resulted in Islamic terrorism.
So where has our current energy policy gotten us? Two wars in the Middle East and a dangerous addiction to foreign oil. Not to mention what it's cost in lives, dollars, and reputation. How about pulling back from the Middle East and letting the price of oil find its true market level? Then maybe some alternative energy sources might make economic sense.
I'm with President Obama. We already have an energy policy, so let's stop debating that and start talking about what kind of energy policy we want.
Tuesday, February 24, 2009
The PepsiCo Americas Beverages division of PepsiCo is bowing to public demand and scrapping the changes made to a flagship product, Tropicana Pure Premium orange juice. Redesigned packaging that was introduced in early January is being discontinued, executives plan to announce on Monday, and the previous version will be brought back in the next month.
Also returning will be the longtime Tropicana brand symbol, an orange from which a straw protrudes. The symbol, meant to evoke fresh taste, had been supplanted on the new packages by a glass of orange juice.
The about-face comes after consumers complained about the makeover in letters, e-mail messages and telephone calls and clamored for a return of the original look.
Some of those commenting described the new packaging as “ugly” or “stupid,” and resembling “a generic bargain brand” or a “store brand.”
“Do any of these package-design people actually shop for orange juice?” the writer of one e-mail message asked rhetorically. “Because I do, and the new cartons stink.”
Others described the redesign as making it more difficult to distinguish among the varieties of Tropicana or differentiate Tropicana from other orange juices.
Now I can imagine complaining when the product changes. After all, I was one of those who were up in arms over New Coke back in the '80s, although I never actually wrote to the company or anything. But can you imagine caring that much about the container your orange juice comes in? Can you imagine caring enough to sit down and write to the company to complain about it? Can you imagine having your life sidetracked like this for even a few minutes? Who are these people?
Monday, February 23, 2009
The second movie I'd like to recommend is also in French with subtitles (the last one, I promise). It's called "Amelie" (2001) and was the breakout film for the French actress Audrey Tautou. Set in Paris, it tells the story of a shy waitress who decides to change the lives of those around her for the better, while struggling with her own isolation. It's also very clever. My wife and I selected it one night by the process of elimination (as good a method as any when it comes to movies). I liked it so much I went back the next day and saw it again by myself. I know what you're thinking--what a loser!
"Richard III" (1995) is fittingly the third movie on my list. It's an adaptation of the Shakespeare play with Ian McKellan in the title role but don't let that scare you away. Whenever people ask me if I like Shakespeare I always answer "no" because I don't speak Elizabethan English. But this movie is different. Again, like "Les Miz" it's set in the 20th century, this time a 1930s-ish England. That gives it an interesting mood and a context which makes it easier to understand, although I wouldn't have minded subtitles.
Lastly is "My Dinner with Andre" (1981), starring Wally Shawn and Andre Gregory. Shawn is the son of William Shawn, the famous editor of The New Yorker and the voice of Rex the Tyrannosaurus in "Toy Story" (another good movie by the way). It takes place almost entirely inside a restaurant and is in modern English! The conversation is essentially a debate between Plato (played by Gregory) and Aristotle (played by Shawn). While Gregory argues in favor of intuition and feeling, Shawn makes the case for intellect and reason. As far as I can tell, this pretty much sums up the entire history of philosophy. Everything else since then has just been tweaking around the margins. It might sound crazy to watch a couple of guys talking over dinner for two hours but it's really interesting. You might have to watch it twice to catch everything but it's worth it.
The Academy Awards were last night and although I didn't watch them (why would I care what someone else thinks of a movie?) I couldn't help noticing that "Slumdog Millionaire" won Best Picture. This had been widely predicted (as had all the other major winners--another reason not to watch) and so I saw the movie about a month ago. It was sold out; I had the absolute worst seat in the house--the corner seat in the last row. While I thought the movie was mildly entertaining (I didn't fall asleep), I really could only give it a "B" at best. I didn't see the others that were nominated because they just don't sound very interesting to me. One is about a guy who starts out as an old man and ages into a baby (huh?), another is about a city worker (snore!), a third one is about a TV show (double snore!) and the last is about a love affair between a young man and a former concentration camp guard (charming!). If "Slumdog" was the best picture of the year then I think I'll take a pass on the rest.
Saturday, February 21, 2009
Now what this really reminds me of is O. J. Simpson. I noticed that after the famous murder trial he dated at least two other women that I know of (good-looking ones, too). Help me out, ladies. What the hell were they thinking? Haven't women ever heard the term due diligence? What did they tell their girlfriends about their new boyfriend? He's really very sweet? He's misunderstood? And imagine the conversation they had with their fathers:
"Hey Dad. I just met a really neat guy."
"Great. Tell me about him. I sure hope he's nicer than that last guy."
"Oh he is, he is. He's intelligent, really good-looking and best of all, he played in the NFL!"
"No kidding! What's his name?"
"O. J. Simpson...Hello? Dad? Are you still there?"
"Honey, what did you say to your Father? He's passed out on the floor!"
Friday, February 20, 2009
As I said, I used to know Rick and aside from a few eccentricities (and who at the Merc didn't have at least a few?) he was a "good guy." He was very personable and well-respected for his spots on CNBC, which evolved into a full-time gig. Rick is a self-described "Ayn Randian," although I didn't know that about him at the time. Now I used to be a Libertarian myself--yes, that's with a capital "L." I was a dues-paying member of the Party and voted for Libertarians for about 20 years or so. I've read a great deal of Ayn Rand and others like her (much more than Rick Santelli, I'm sure) and I think she got much of it right. And yet...
While free markets have been criticized from the left and worshipped from the right, it has to be noted that the U. S. hasn't had free markets since at least the Civil War, if ever. So while free markets have become a straw man for the left, they have really only existed in the heads of people like Rick Santelli. For just one example, Rick gets a tax deduction for the interest on his mortgage. Therefore, the Federal government is taking sides in the "rent vs. buy" decision by incentivizing home buyers. If the market were truly "free," the State would be neutral on this question. There are thousands of examples like this. The truth is, the U. S. is not now, nor has it probably ever been, a free market economy. So let's move on. I like what Obama said in his Inaugural address about putting less emphasis on ideology and more on what works.
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
Monday, February 16, 2009
Saturday, February 14, 2009
Friday, February 13, 2009
But what was more interesting to me was the article on the front page of the section. Apparently the play "Wicked" was ending its 3 1/2 year run in Chicago on that Sunday, the 25th. It must be a good play because it's attracted a following whose loyalty would make Jerry Garcia envious. One 15 year-old girl had seen it 19 times and another had seen it 41 times! And the second girl was planning on seeing it four more times before it closed. She had already seen it twice in one day, four times in one week and twice every week for nine weeks in a row. She is home-schooled (red flag right there) and had been accompanied by her mother each time. (The mom saw "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" 18 times, 16 with Donny Osmond in the lead role--another red flag.) The tickets cost anywhere from $25 to $100, so at the very least the two of them spent $2250 ( 45 times x 2 people x $25)! (This is coming from a guy whose wife owns a horse, by the way.) And if they've been going since the opening, which is unlikely, then they've been attending about once a week for 3 1/2 years. In contrast, I've only seen the "Godfather" about five times in the last 30 years and most of the time for free. That must be a hell of a play! How was I so unaware of it?
So what's next for these two, hitch-hiking around the country following "Wicked" on the road? I can just picture them outside the theater selling grilled cheese sandwiches in their bare feet.
Now there's a lot more to Lincoln's presidency and I won't go into all of it now--it's just too vast a subject. (You've probably heard that more books have been published in America about Lincoln than any other man except Jesus.) But just suffice it to say that it's hard for me to consider anyone a success that presided over the deaths of that many U. S. citizens.
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
After Constantine's mother converted to Christianity (just one of many cults circulating in ancient Rome at the time), the emperor followed suit soon after at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. He still maintained his title of Pontifex Maximus, however, which emperors bore as heads of the pagan priesthood. The rest of the Empire also converted in short order, as most people were eager to adopt Roman customs in much the same way that people today admire American culture. But old habits die hard, and most of the new Christians continued to worship the pagan gods as well. It's also never a bad idea to hedge your bet.
So what's all this have to do with modern-day America and Charles Darwin? Just think of the Charlie Rose Show. Or at least the one in which E. O. Wilson and James Watson appeared. It's the best CR I've ever seen and you can watch it on You Tube. I highly recommend it. The two biologists not only agreed that Darwin was the most important figure in the history of science, but they also marveled at how much of it he got right. The high point of the show for me was when Watson (who along with Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA) said that Darwin and his theory of evolution implied "no designer." Never mind whether or not we evolved from apes; this to me is the bigger stumbling block for fundamental Christians. No designer means no God and that means that man's existence is accidental. This would naturally be a deal-breaker for Evangelical types. But you have to at least give them credit for consistency. Because Catholics and mainline Protestants, who have been exposed to science in school, are not as consistent. Like the ancient Romans, they carry on a double life, accepting evolution as the most reasonable explanation for the origin of man while at the same time clinging to their religion (my apologies to Barack Obama). They rationalize this contradiction by maintaining that God guided evolution. Neat, huh?
But just as Christianity eventually supplanted the pagan religions of the ancient world, so will reason eventually triumph over belief. After all, that's been the trajectory of history ever since the first man discovered how to use a stick as a tool. But it's an evolutionary process and takes a long time. I think Darwin would appreciate that.
Tomorrow I'll take up that other birthday boy, Abraham Lincoln.
The second thought I had was who, besides my sister, still gets Time magazine delivered to their house? In fact, who reads Time or Newsweek at all? When I saw Richard Stengel of Time on Charlie Rose talking about how they chose Barack Obama as Man of the Year I thought, does anyone still care about that? Could there really be anything in that article that we don't already know about Obama? And don't even get me started on Jon Meacham, the pompous editor of Newsweek.
(As an aside, Time was almost required reading in my house growing up. So much so in fact, that when I was discussing something with someone from Europe once, he finally asked me in exasperation, "You read Time magazine, don't you?" It's like when I hear someone today spouting the neocon or free market talking points I want to ask them if they read anything besides the Wall Street Journal.)
But the point of all this is to call your attention to two good pieces I read this week. The first is "How to Save your Newspaper," by Walter Isaacson in the current Time, and its rebuttal, "You Can't Sell News by the Slice," by Michael Kinsley in yesterday's New York Times. Since nobody reads anything that anyone recommends anyway, I'll summarize them for you. The first one takes on the subject of how newspapers are in decline due to free content on the Internet. The author gives his prescription for saving the industry by what he calls "micropayments," in which readers would be charged small amounts by the article. If this sounds like the end of the gravy train for us cheapskate surfers, don't worry, because Kinsley explains exactly how and why that won't happen. Phew!
According to Kinsley, it's a myth that newspaper readers ever actually paid for content in the first place. What they paid for was paper, ink, and the delivery cost. This, by the way, was a money loser for the papers. So not only has free content been good for readers, but it's actually been good for the newspapers. The reason your local paper (like the Chicago Tribune) is going out of business isn't that people aren't buying it at the newsstands, but that for the first time in history they are experiencing competition. Not only can I read the Times online before it's delivered to my door, but I can read dozens of other newspapers as well. (By the way, I can't resist mentioning the name of the new Mexican owner of the Times, Carlos Slim. Sounds like something out of a Quentin Tarantino movie, doesn't it?)
So that's my recommendation for today. Oh, and you can read both articles online, for free.
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
Imagine his day yesterday. The economy is tanking, Congress is considering the largest stimulus package in history, and the financial markets are waiting with baited breath for the latest bank bailout. Oh, and did I forget to mention that we're waging two wars? After speaking in depressed Elkhart, Indiana, the new president is scheduled to appear on TV in Prime Time for his first presidential press conference. Meanwhile over at the Post, some grizzled editor in the mold of Perry White is mulling over which of his many crack reporters to send. As he swivels in his chair, he fixes his gaze on this Fletcher guy. He slowly removes the cigar from his mouth and pauses for dramatic effect. "Okay kid, here's your chance. Don't blow it!" Fletcher gulps hard. "Don't worry, boss, I won't let you down. I've been waiting for this chance since my first day of Journalism School!"
And then the moment finally arrives when the president points his finger at him and says, "Yes?" The TV cameras focus on him. A hush falls over the room. Somewhere out in the country his mother gasps, "That's my son!"
"Yeah, thank you, sir. What's you're reaction to Alex Rodriguez's admission that he used steroids as a member of the Texas Rangers?"
You've got to be kidding! That's it? That's your question?!? Who wants to know, Andy Card? One blog I read wondered why he didn't ask about the octuplets.
Obama started in on a big, long, rambling answer. One blogger called him Talky McTalkerson; another said he was channeling Hubert Humphrey. I have to admit I was a little surprised when he mentioned Our Kids (isn't this the guy who was going to bring Change to Washington?) The best part of his answer was when he said "it's depressing." How 'bout it? What I wish he'd said was, "My opinion on that isn't the least bit important. It will be settled by Major League Baseball. These are serious times. Let's keep this press conference on a serious level. Next?"
Monday, February 9, 2009
An impressive career, and yet I can't remember him uttering one word in public in all those years. Now maybe I just wasn't paying attention, but I did hear his first impression of the Obama presidency last week. In case you missed it, you'd be forgiven if you thought he'd weigh in on the stimulus package or the bank bailout or even Gitmo. No, apparently he's bent out of shape that Obama isn't wearing his suit coat in the Oval Office. That's it? After all this time, his first public pronouncement is about that? And to make matters worse, pictures have been circulating of Presidents George W. Bush, Clinton, Reagan, Carter, Ford, and Kennedy in the Oval Office without their coats. Thanks for coming in, Andy.
Today's New York Times reports that Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers recently told analysts that his company had saved a lot of money during these difficult times by cutting back on travel. These cuts, he said, had taught Cisco a valuable lesson that would carry over when the good times returned: employees don't need to travel quite as much. Travel expense per employee has been cut in half as the company is now holding 4,000 video conferences a week.
The key phrase here is "...when the good times return." People tend to have short memories and more prosperous times might lead to more lax spending practices. But 4,000 video conferences a week sounds like a lot to me. How many other companies could be saving that kind of money?
Saturday, February 7, 2009
But that's what's great about science. Unlike religion, it's constantly changing. So if you don't like what they conclude today, stick around; they might conclude differently tomorrow.
It doesn't help to talk about All My Sons; they might get confused and think I'm talking about the Arthur Miller play that's so popular right now. And if I mention my Two Teenagers it sounds like I'm Fred MacMurray playing monopoly with Chip and Ernie. Joe doesn't even live at home anymore; he goes away to school. And even when he's here he's not here. Again, confusing. And there's no Uncle Charlie here, either (unless you count me). Or a Bub, for those of you who remember the estimable William Frawley, the original Boring Old White Guy.
So I guess it's another year of hemming and hawing. Oh well, happy birthday Joe. I love you and I'm proud of you. You've come a long way since "God damn it! I've got sand in my diaper!"
Thursday, February 5, 2009
Turning left at busy intersections has also evolved. Nowadays when you get the green turning arrow you often have to wait for cars turning left in front of you after their light has turned red. Then you often miss your green arrow and end up turning after your light turns yellow (or red). Again, not comfortable.
There's one practice that used to really throw me when I first started seeing it. I'd be driving along on a fairly busy street when someone perpendicular to my left would try to turn left into my lane. At first I used to get really distracted by this. I would slam on my brakes to avoid an accident. I gradually noticed, however, that they were often turning into the middle lane and using it as a merging lane. When the coast is finally clear they then complete their turn. When did this become commonplace? Is it legal? I've been meaning to ask a cop about this.
Do these things happen where you live or is it just suburban Chicago?
Wednesday, February 4, 2009
NFL fans of a certain age might remember Bum Phillips, father of Dallas Cowboys' coach Wade Phillips and one-time coach of the Houston Oilers. He was a good ol' boy that always wore a cowboy hat on the sidelines except when coaching at home in the Astrodome. When asked about this he explained that his mother once told him never to wear a hat indoors. But this isn't about the bad manners of wearing a hat indoors--another pet-peeve for another time--but more importantly of the silliness of some men who insist on wearing hats to conceal their baldness.
As a follicly-challenged male, I feel qualified to comment on this practice. I myself am rarely seen outside without a hat or a cap of some kind (no berets just yet). But this is more to shield my head from the elements than from any desire to deceive anyone into thinking I have a full head of hair. I take a fair amount of grief from my family members over the way I look in a hat, but it keeps my head warm in the winter and prevents it from getting sunburned in the summer. Once inside, however, I always remove my hat. I've heard all the bald jokes and, like references to Dick Tracy, learned to live with them.
The point I'm trying to make here is that there are worse things than being bald (although none come immediately to mind). Okay, here's one: trying to fool everyone into thinking you're not. Trust me, people are going to find out eventually (are you going to wear a baseball cap to a funeral?) and then you have to endure all the gasps and stares at your forehead while you're trying to carry on a serious conversation with someone. Also bald men of the world, I have some news for you: chances are, you weren't all that much better looking when you had hair. Most of us are average-looking to begin with, and having hair or not doesn't make that much difference anyway. And in at least Ron Howard's case, the world cares a lot more about how well he makes movies than in how he looks. If it were the latter, he would have been a footnote as Opie a long time ago.
So bald men of the world, take your hats off already (at least when you're indoors). Not only is it bad manners, but no one else cares what you look like anyway.
Tuesday, February 3, 2009
I read that Howard Dean may be Obama's next choice for HHS. That ought to make Republicans apoplectic.
..."The Best Years of Our Lives?" It's one of my all-time favorite movies and I'd be happy to lend him the DVD. He could make some popcorn, take his shoes off, and watch it with his kids some time since it's suitable for the whole family. I'd like to draw his attention in particular to the scene in the drugstore where Fred Derry ( the ex-fly boy played by Dana Andrews) is talking to Peggy Stephenson, the daughter of Al, another returning serviceman. He's showing her the vanishing cream display, which includes a product that removes vanishing cream. In a low voice, he lets her in on a little secret, "If you don't use the vanishing cream, then you won't need the vanishing cream remover." They both enjoy a good laugh, but there's some wisdom in what he said.
I was reminded of this scene while watching Fox News Sunday this past weekend. Chris Wallace brought up the subject of the Iraq elections:
WALLACE: And that is the elections, the provincial elections, in Iraq yesterday. And it is amazing that the situation has gotten so much better there that an election in which millions of people voted, in which there was very little -- almost no incidence of serious violence we're talking about in the final moments of the show.
We don't know the results yet. There are early reporting that al- Maliki -- the prime minister's party has done well. But just the fact that this vote was held, and held so peacefully, and with the Iraqi security in the lead, not U.S. security -- how important in terms of the development of Iraq in its political stability?
KRISTOL: Oh, it's awfully important. Every brigade commander I've talked to who's come back from Iraq has said the key -- now that we won the war, basically, now that the surge succeeded -- and let's just remind everyone this would not have happened if the Democrats had had their way in 2007. We would have chaos and terror in Iraq, not a peaceful democratic election.
Neocons, like Kristol, love to bring up the surge and say I told you so. Conditions in Iraq have definitely improved in the last year or so and someday the neocons may achieve their dream of a Western-leaning, freedom-loving Iraq. I hope so; it would be good for America. But to paraphrase Fred Derry, if you didn't blunder your way into this war in the first place, you wouldn't have needed the surge to bring the violence back down to pre-war levels. And 4,000 Americans and untold tens of thousands of Iraqis would still be alive.
Monday, February 2, 2009
As everyone knows, the Republican Party is in disarray. The neo-con foreign policy of the Bush years has been largely discredited and in domestic policy they have abdicated their traditional role as the party of small government. So where does that leave them and who are their leaders? Who knows?
While John McCain is a has-been and Sarah Palin lacks credibility with all but a small base, it's difficult to determine who the next leader of the party will be. Michael Steele, an African-American, was just voted the new chairman of the Republican National Committee. John Boehner and Mitch McConnell are the minority leaders in the House and Senate, respectively. All are capable and serious men but also drab and colorless. The GOP has a crop of rising stars in the governor's mansions, including Bobby Jindahl and Tim Pawlenty, and in the House, such as Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor, but none are exactly a household name just yet. Newt Gingrich is probably the leading intellectual in the party but comes with a ton of baggage. My guess is that he will play the role of kingmaker in 2012. So who does that leave?
Consider the case of Representative Phil Gingrey of Georgia. Never heard of him? No matter; no one else has outside of his district. But in an appearance on Hardball last week he said:
"I think that our leadership, Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, are taking the right approach," Gingrey said. "I mean, it's easy if you're Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh or even sometimes Newt Gingrich to stand back and throw bricks. You don't have to try to do what's best for your people and your party. You know you're just on these talk shows and you're living well and plus you stir up a bit of controversy and gin the base and that sort of that thing. But when it comes to true leadership, not that these people couldn't be or wouldn't be good leaders, they're not in that position of John Boehner or Mitch McConnell."
Big mistake. Gingrey received a high volume of phone calls and correspondence and had to go on Limbaugh's show and beg forgiveness:
"I clearly ended up putting my foot in my mouth on some of those comments, and I just wanted to tell you, Rush — and all our conservative giants, who help us so much to maintain our base and grow it to get back this majority — that I regret those stupid comments."
He also published this on his web site:
As long as I am in the Congress, I will continue to fight for and defend our sacred values. I have actively opposed every bailout, every rebate check, every so called "stimulus." And on so many of these things, I see eye-to-eye with Rush Limbaugh. Regardless of what yesterday's headline may have read, I never told Rush to back off. I regret and apologize for the fact that my comments have offended and upset my fellow conservatives--that was not my intent. I am also sorry to see that my comments in defense of our Republican Leadership read much harsher than they actually were intended, but I recognize it is my responsibility to clarify my own comments.
Now more than ever, we need to articulate a clear conservative message that distinguishes our values and our approach from those of liberal Democrats who are seeking to move our nation in the wrong direction. Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Newt Gingrich, and other conservative giants are the voices of the conservative movement's conscience. Everyday, millions and millions of Americans--myself included--turn on their radios and televisions to listen to what they have to say, and we are inspired by their words and by their determination. At the end of the day, every member of the conservative movement, from our political commentators and thinkers to our elected officials, share an important and common purpose in advancing the cause of liberty, reigning in a bloated federal government, and defending our traditional family values.
Does Gingrey sound afraid of Limbaugh? I think so. He should be; Limbaugh has millions of listeners. But he remains an entertainer, not a serious leader. If Obama can keep the focus on him and not the more legitimate Republicans, he should improve his odds in the forum of public opinion.