24 October, 2007

The California Conflagration

As I'm writing, blessedly unseasonable rain and snow is falling upon the Southern California fires that have devoured over 3,300 homes and 1,100 square miles. This is a wonderful turn of events, although the TV newscasts, after a week of nonstop coverage of the conflagrations, are now warning of that tragicomic offspring of wildfire: mudslides.

But that's life in California: one disaster after another. California is a particularly fragile place for 35 million people to live in. And the cost of cramming more people into the state keeps rising.
Brushfires and mudslides used to seem more amusing because they afflicted Hollywood celebrities significantly more often than average citizens. This was not just a matter of God's good taste. Average citizens lived in the cheaper and safer flatlands. The rich poised precariously in the hills, where construction and maintenance costs are higher—especially if you want your home to survive what Mother Nature keeps up her sleeve.

But the plains of Southern California filled up long ago. So the ever-growing population has been spilling into the more treacherous wild areas. This is regularly denounced as "sprawl," which implies that individuals are wastefully consuming more and more land per capita. But in California the driver has been population growth. According to a 2003 Center for Immigration Studies report, from 1982 to 1997 the total number of developed acres in California grew by 32 percent, but the per capita usage was up only two percent. Essentially all of California's population growth in the 1990s was due to new immigrants or births to foreign-born women. (Indeed, close to one and a half million more American-born citizens moved out of California during the 1990s than moved in from other states.)

As low-income immigrants pour into Southern California's lowlands, crowding the freeways and overstressing the older cities' public schools, the middle class (at least the ones who don't leave the state) have responded by taking to the hills. The hill country's environment is benign most of the year. But the local ecosystem evolved to require periodic blazes. Up through American Indian times, these brushfires were frequent and thus relatively mild.

Unfortunately, we modern people haven't really figured out how to manage the chaparral and pine forests yet—especially when the canyons and mountains are home to housing. The best-known remedy, controlled burns, is disliked by people who live in the backcountry because they pollute the air, and they can jump out of control. The 2000 Los Alamos fire set by the Forest Service ended up destroying hundreds of structures.
Thus the policy has been to try to suppress all fires. This, however, causes fuel in the form of dry brush and dead trees to build up each decade, inevitably leading to infernos like those of 1993 and 2003. Indeed, an order of magnitude more homes could have burned this year if the hot Santa Ana winds had blown for another week.
It’s just California's problem? ‘fraid not! Taxpayers across the country always end up chipping in, through government disaster loans, new federal firefighting and forestry management programs, lower stock market prices for insurance companies, and other forms of burden-sharing.

And, in some ways, that's fair, because so much of California's current crisis traces back to the federal refusal to adequately enforce immigration laws.
California desperately needs a slower population growth rate until it learns how its current vast population can live with its lovely but sometime lethal landscape. And the state's burgeoning numbers are solely driven by immigration.

The logical solution: cut back on immigration. Reality is literally lighting a fire under us.

22 October, 2007

Cowboy up!

Gene Autry must be spinning in his grave.

"Many of my peers think Blackwater is oftentimes out of control. They often act like cowboys over here ... not seeming to play by the same rules everyone else tries to play by."
- A senior U.S. commander in Iraq, quoted anonymously in The Washington Post

And as for the many cowboys who work for a living on the range in the Golden Spread, they need some sort of massive public relations campaign to counter the damage being done to their image.

That great icon of the American West - the cowboy - is now a derogatory term.
Thanks to the Blackwater scandal currently stagnating in Congress, the cowboy is being lassoed and blamed for the failure of U.S. foreign and military policy. Blackwater USA is a private company that provides security in Iraq. Blackwater is under fire for allegedly violent and deadly actions by its employees, many of them former members of the U.S. military, against Iraqi civilians.

Erik Prince - the company's chairman and a former Navy SEAL - testified Tuesday before Congress, denying the "cowboy" allegations. "Blackwater cowboys" is now the term used to describe those who allegedly shoot and kill Iraqi civilians. As of Wednesday, there were more than 730,000 references to this term in cyberspace. An Associated Press headline from last week read "Cowboy Aggression Works for Blackwater."

Last month, The New Zealand Herald ran a story about private security in Iraq. Supposedly, at a meeting of such groups, there was a concern of "an influx of criminals and cowboys" working in private security in Iraq. The world of blogs - many of which are the junior high bathroom wall of journalism - rode herd also: "In any other country in the world it would be called cold-blooded murder and these Blackwater 'cowboys' would be sent to jail for life."

Calling someone a "cowboy" is often the sticks-and-stones attack style of the media. The Guardian, Britain's liberal newspaper, once referred to President Bush as a "hopelessly inarticulate, trigger-happy cowboy." Better cowboy up, cowboys. Your good name is well on its way to politically correct hyphen-word status. There's the n-word, the b-word, the h-word. The c-word is already taken, right? I'll have to update my vulgarity meter. How about the cow-word?

Speaking of Autry, he is credited for creating the "Cowboy Code." The first rule is the cowboy must not shoot first, hit a smaller man or take unfair advantage. Real cowboys will have to excuse the media brand being applied to "cowboy" by those whose only relationship to a horse is acting like the rear end of one.

03 October, 2007

Why I hate (and love) C-Span

I find myself in sunny Auburn, Indiana this fine evening, ruminating over the last few days since I posted to this blog. Last night, I had quite a bit of trouble sleeping. Now, I am quite used to spending nights in a hotel (167 nights so far this year), but no matter how many times I stay in a Holiday Inn Express, I have never found a comfortable bed.

So, after an hour or so of tossing and turning, I gave in to insomnia and clicked the TV back on about midnight or so. After channel surfing through the vast wasteland of infomercials, sitcom reruns and assorted celbri-crap, I happened upon good ol' C-Span. Now if anything can put me to sleep, it's gotta be this channel, right?

C-Span was replaying the Blackwater hearings from earlier in the day. Erik Prince, company founder and CEO (and brother of Betsy DeVos) was testiying about his companies activities in Iraq over the last 4 years as a private security contractor working under the Department of Defense and now, the State Department. Part of the debate was the discussion of the cost-justification of using private enterprise contractors versus active-duty military.

One of things that absolutely frustrates me to no end is the inability of television and print media to actually cover an issue. They would much rather spend inches of columns and minutes of air-time discussing pointless items about who is dating who than actually devote the time to discuss something of substance that affects all of us. That's why I really like C-Span, issues is what they do. Finally!! I get to see something intellectually stimulating, right?

Oops...I forgot. While the medium is set up to discuss issues, the players involved - not so much. For the next 3 and a half hours, I sat watching a train wreck of pompous, grandstanding, ill-informed and flat-out ignorant doofi demonstrate to everyone watching why our government is so ineffective. Both sides of the aisle completely wasted the opportunity to have a constructive discussion as how to best use tax dollars and how we should set our policy going forward. No, why do that? There's name calling to do!! We're discussing Blackwater...I know, I'm going to go on a 3 minute rant about MoveOn.org! And I'm going to answer that rant by complaining about Rush Limbaugh!

As if the posturing about unrelated issues wasn't vomit-inducing enough, the complete lack of preparation by these congressmen blew me away. One Democart demanded to know why Blackwater had not incarcerated their personnel who had been terminated for improperly discharging their weapons. When he was told that Blackwater could not detain people because they were not a law enforcement agency, he exploded and demanded to know whose fault that was. Hello?!?!?! It's your fault - Congress made the law!! A Republican senator from Indiana responded to this exchange, not by using facts or even reasoning, but by claiming that all Democrats hate profit and want to see rich people suffer. Thankfully I was able to stop from smothering myself with a pillow.

This is the reason why I sometimes hate C-Span. Our elected leaders choose to self-aggrandize rather than govern and lead. And all the posturing seems to be done for the benefit of the cameras. The chairman of the committee, Henry Waxman, actually addressed "the viewers" when ranting about something completely unrelated to the issue at hand. Is this what we've sunk to? Is being "electable" and "telegenic" more important than visionary and inspiring?

I know we started on this slippery slope during the Kennedy-Nixon debates, but I can't just give up hope that our integrity is a lost cause. I can only hope that one day C-Span can put me to sleep because of the depth of the issues being discussed and not because I exhaust myself screaming "You morons!!" at my TV.

25 September, 2007

The Juice gets the squeeze...

By now you've all heard that O.J. Simpson was arrested Sunday in Las Vegas for allegedly stealing, among other things, his own signed memorabilia from a hotel room. This is a bit like me being arrested for stealing copies of my own signed canceled checks. Both would be difficult to explain away and yet, somehow, O.J. attempting to reclaim pictures and items from a time before he was the most reviled man in America, is both tragic and appropriate. And completely expected.

Simpson disputes this characterization, telling the Associated Press, that it was a "self organized sting operation." Which makes perfect sense. Because if there's one person I want to organize a sting operation, it's O.J. Simpson. Especially if he consults with Kato Kaelin in advance. If we sent these two guys to Tora Bora, Osama would be done for. Would anyone else love to see the transcripts of the planning of the sting operation? It's probably as confusing and malformed as the University of Michigan's punt coverage instruction. Plus I'm convinced this phrase was used, "Remember cats, we got to keep the po-po's out of this."

Simpson claims, according to the AP, that he entered the room after pretending to be interested in reacquiring the suit he wore in 1995 when he was acquitted of the double murder. Presumably the only reason Simpson would be interested in the suit is because he could then sell it for even more money than he already sold it for. So he'd be re-scalping his suit. Classy.
Who buys this suit in the first place? There isn't a double murder Hall of Fame. And even if there was, everyone knows the glove is what you'd want. How odd would it be to go to some rich guy's place and see that he had this suit? It would be almost as awkward as visiting LeBron James and having to say something nice about the statue of himself he's created or visiting Monica Lewinsky and seeing her blue dress hanging on the wall. Having said that, right now several defense attorneys reading this column are smacking themselves on the side of the head for not buying the suit and using it as a prop for their DUI commercials on television.

Regardless O.J. has been charged with 10 felonies. Ten! Including kidnapping, robbery, and assault with a deadly weapon. Even Michael Vick was blown away by this many charges. Worse for O.J., he was initially denied bail, which is pretty solid evidence that he's being treated differently than most defendants charged with crimes in Las Vegas. Pacman flew in and out on the same day of his felony charges. Fortunately O.J. has been keeping himself busy in his jail cell reading -- I'm not making this up -- The Purpose Driven Life. Although one does presume that this makes his quest to find the real killers of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman much more difficult.

A legal prediction for you: If allowed by his/her superiors, some ambitious Clark County (Las Vegas) district attorney is going to refuse to plea this case out and attempt to get convictions on as many counts as possible. Getting O.J. convicted would make several attorneys' careers and lead to lucrative paydays down the line. Not to mention the heinous Nancy Grace would blow smoke up your keister for an entire year. Which, for prosecutors, is like being nominated to the Supreme Court.

Since Nevada state law requires that the robbery with a deadly weapon and assault with a deadly weapon convictions be served consecutively (as opposed to concurrently) O.J. is facing enough prison time to keep him behind bars for the rest of his life. I think everyone sort of assumed that O.J. would eventually get himself back in trouble, but not over autographed memorabilia. It's almost like O.J. thinks the law doesn't apply to him.

My favorite O.J. anecdote comes from Miami, where it was reported by a former University of Miami football player, that O.J. had approached Kellen Winslow Jr. at a Coral Gables mall shortly after Winslow's "I'm a soldier" rant. O.J. told Winslow that he knew from his personal experience that you had to be careful of the media. Yeah, that's definitely the lesson I would have taken from being acquitted of double homicide, too. The media just completely made up that entire story. Nevertheless here are six further O.J. questions that come to mind after the latest arrest:

1. Who does O.J. hang out with now? It seems like being charged with double murder would have a tendency to whittle down the friend list. Can you think of someone you would least rather be out in a bar with? What if O.J. turned to you while you were drinking and said, "Get me a screwdriver." I'm just saying this might be confusing.
2. Do black people think O.J. was framed again? These stories and polls are inevitable.
3. Reportedly, among the items taken, were some autographed cleats from Joe Montana. Don't you hope Montana gets drawn into this case? I'm praying that Stephon Marbury is somehow involved as well. There's no better witness on earth.
4. Could O.J. still beat me in a sprint? Admit it, you were pretty impressed at what good shape he was in for 60 years old. The Juice even had cool jeans on. Do the jeans help him pick up women? Can anything help this?
5. Why does the sports memorabilia dealer also have a photo of former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover that was reportedly taken? Is there any overlap in the market here? How many sports fans even know who J. Edgar Hoover is? Are there that many people who call up the memorabilia guy and say, "I want Joe Montana cleats and a framed photograph of J. Edgar Hoover. Also, if you've got them, Rudyard Kipling's pajamas."
6. How has O.J. only paid $10,000 of his civil judgment to the deceased families? He had to get at least that much for the suit, right? What about the new 2k legends football game? Where's his money going? These memorabilia shows seem like easy ways to get celebrities tripped up because they get paid in cash. I wouldn't be surprised to see the IRS sniffing around the Simpson tax returns as these felony cases proceed.

19 September, 2007

Why "Cameragate" could be the best thing that ever happened to New England...

Perhaps the oddest thing about a very odd week in the history of the New England Patriots, a franchise that has known its share of very odd weeks, was the identity of the commissioner who finally brought the hammer down on the lawless regime of Bill Belichick (last seen stalking the sidelines dressed like he'd just knocked over a 7-Eleven while his enraged team performed public ritual murder on the San Diego Chargers). Way back in 1970, Sen. Charles Goodell, R-N.Y., lost his political career at least in part because he took legislative action to curb the unilateralist excesses of Richard Nixon. (Sen. Goodell lost to William F. Buckley's less-easily parodied brother James.) So, here's his kid, Roger, conducting himself in such a way that he probably should be standing on a balcony somewhere, his medals gleaming in the tropical sun. No wonder Nixon lusted after the job of the commissioner of the National Football League. Everything about the position would appeal to him.

Anyway, seeing a Goodell acting as the New Sheriff in Town—to use the John Ford-ism that's become trendy among America's sporty press—has brought out the latent authoritarian in everyone, it seems. He'd already knuckled Pacman Jones for gunplay, Michael Vick for aggravated Rovercide, and Dallas quarterback coach Wade Wilson for practicing pharmacy without either or a license or a decent lie. Goodell couldn't very well have taken a pass on laying the wood to Belichick, who went out of his way to steal defensive signals on a sideline only 20 miles or so from Goodell's desk. In truth, he should have suspended Coach Beyond-The-Law for a couple of games, too, but a half-million bucks is a considerable fine, and the loss of a draft pick makes any football executive cry. People who have been waiting six years to see the Patriots get their comeuppance seemed generally quite happy with Goodell. And then the game started.

Quite simply, no NFL team in recent memory has played a game as well from start to finish as New England did Sunday night. The 38-14 final is not even remotely a measure of it. Neither is the 407-201 margin in total offense, or the 35:46 to 24:14 gap in the time of possession. This was one football operation beating the other one into the ground. The Patriots built this lead in the offseason. San Diego canned head coach Marty Schottenheimer because he lost a playoff game to the Patriots, replacing him with Norv Turner, who has now coached 325 NFL teams in his life. For their part, the Patriots picked up receivers Wes Welker, Donte Stallworth, and, most notably, Randy Moss to give Tom Brady some actual weapons to use. They also signed Adalius Thomas, a frighteningly athletic linebacker from the Baltimore Ravens. It was Thomas who broke the game open, stepping in front of a terrible Philip Rivers pass and outracing all of the Chargers more than 65 yards for a touchdown. By the time Thomas made his play, Brady already had used two of the other newcomers, Welker and Moss, to carve up the Charger secondary, the latter on a 23-yard post route that bisected two San Diego defenders and was as perfectly an executed football play as ever has been. Brady looked off the defenders and came back to Moss, who found the ball on his fingertips as he crossed the goal line at full speed.

On the other side of the ball, Thomas has given Belichick so many options on defense that the coach's creativity is at floodtide, and the team doesn't even feel the absence of all-pro defensive lineman Richard Seymour and explosive safety Rodney Harrison, the latter of whom Goodell earlier busted on a banned-substances rap. The beating was so obvious and thorough that the postgame commentary from the Patriots had more to do with the vicissitudes of the previous five days than it did with the problems inherent in beating a team that went 14-2 last season. There was all manner of chortling and gloating about how the team had managed to overcome the stigma of the media's pointing out that its head coach had gotten caught behaving like an arrogant jackass. A team this good, this dominant, got to cast itself in its own mind as outraged innocents battling to stick it to The Man.

It was like watching conservatives talk about how Michael Moore was picking on them while they were running the entire government.

It's why, absent catastrophic injury, New England can win every football game it plays this season.

For years, the rest of the NFL has chafed at the ability of the Patriots to play Poor Widdle Us while pushing the envelope of league regulations on everything from the injury list, to media obligations, to what you can and can't do on the sidelines. If, ironically, Goodell is Nixon as "the president," then Belichick is the Nixon who hired the "plumbers," right down to the ludicrous written statement that remains his only public comment on the affair and which lacks only a reference to his mother, the saint, to match old Tricky's farewell speech for unmitigated smarm. When Belichick finally got caught this week, you may have noticed that the rest of the league wasn't exactly rallying to his side. Jerome Bettis grabbed onto a retroactive alibi for having been whipped by New England over the past decade, and Tony Dungy offered up a plaintive "what-about-the-children" rumination that was just inches from actual sincerity. This was not an accident. In many ways, everybody in the NFL is against the Patriots, and a lot of them have damned good reason for being so.

However, the only thing that New England didn't pick up in the offseason was a cause, and now it has one, especially if the investigation is as thorough and ongoing as Goodell seems to be saying it will be. It is possible that we will have a revelation a week in which New England's "integrity" comes into question. More ill-feeling. More bad blood. More grist for Belichick's endlessly grinding motivation mill. Moreover, the players seemed all week to resent most that their work in winning three Super Bowls suddenly had been devalued by their coach's misbehavior. That's the obverse of a general feeling that has arisen among Patriots in recent years—that their own talents have been made subordinate to their coach's alleged genius.
One of these is inspiration enough. Both of them together is a volatile mix. If more sordid details come out, and Goodell feels obligated to suspend Belichick for a week, the New England players themselves might beat some team 100-0. The whole mishegas puts the 1972 Miami Dolphins' distinction as the only team to play an entire NFL season undefeated in serious jeopardy. Roger Goodell did the right thing last week, but he also created a situation in which, come February, when the Patriots win the Super Bowl, and he has to hand the trophy to Bill Belichick, it's perfectly plausible to wonder if it shouldn't be the other way around.

13 September, 2007

The morning routine...

Wow...8 months since I last updated this blog. I actually had to check my web browsing histroy to remember the name of the site. So sad. I have decided to make a resolution to myself (I know, I know...it's September, not January. Work with me here a little, will ya?) that I will try to update this puppy at least once a week. Since I usually tend to suck at keeping resolutions, we'll see how this one works out.

Fall is finally just around the corner, and with it comes all the things I tend to associate with the season. Crisp morning air, football games, falling leaves...and the sound of my children complaining about having to get up early for school. Ahhhh, I love the smell of whining in the morning!!! Few things bring joy to a fathers heart like watching his beloved offspring stagger around the kitchen at 7:00 in the morning like extras from "Night of the Living Dead".

This year marks the beginning of my youngest sons scholastic career. Seth is a mischievous little 5 year old who will proudly tell anyone who will listen that he now gets to go to all-day kindergarten. He is more fired up than I have ever seen him about all the cool things he gets to do now. He gets to ride the bus, he gets to eat lunch at school, he gets to hang out with "the big kids". While his older brother and sister wander around the kitchen in the morning like condemned inmates, he sits at the table eating his cereal with the biggest grin on his face. I asked him the other day what he was so happy about and he looked at me with a very serious look on his face and said "Dad, I get to go learn all of my letters. How cool is that?"
Wow. Kinda made me stop and think. I miss having that kind of joy about what I'm doing each day. Some mornings it feels like I'm the one staggering about like a zombie, just going through the motions. Seems like I'm always trying to find that next big project, the one that'll make a difference , the one that'll get me noticed. Looking at that little guy makes me realize that I don't need to be searching for that one big thing that I'm supposed to be doing that's going to bring meaning to my life. It's the little things, the stuff like Seth learning his ABC's that's cool. I get to be Dad to three awesome kids and try and help shape their lives. How cool is that? It's not curing cancer or solving world hunger or even balancing my companies budget, but you know what? It means a whole lot more to me.
So thanks, little guy. You got to help Dad remember what he's here for. How cool is that?