Sunday, August 19, 2012

Tragic accident in North Carolina

According to an article in the AJC:

GASTONIA, N.C. — Authorities say a car smashed into a tractor-trailer hauling tons of beer on a North Carolina interstate, spilling suds all over the highway.
Police say crews spent more than five hours Friday night cleaning up the mess on Interstate 85 near Gastonia, some 20 miles west of Charlotte. The rig was carrying nearly 43,000 pounds of beer.
J.R. Smith is with Gaston County Police. He says no one suffered any serious injuries other than scrapes and bruises.
The shipping company says the beer will go to the dump. Insurance will cover the cost.
Police say the car's driver was cited for driving unsafe for the road conditions.
The wreck caused major traffic delays.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The fetishization of the private sector

One thing I've always found mildly baffling about the right wing is its unrelenting fetishization of the private sector. To hear politicians like Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, and their ilk tell it, the private sector -- i.e., for profit businesses -- are always more efficient and more cost effective than anything the government can possibly do.

I can halfway understand it when it's politicians like Ryan, Newt Gingrich, and some others doing the bloviating. They have no substantive private sector experience. Gingrich, for example, went from grad school to teaching at a public university to being a professional politician. His private sector experience came after he left government, and then it consisted (and still consists) of selling himself, not a particularly useful product. Ryan has at least seen the private sector from the sidelines -- his great grandfather founded Ryan Construction, a company that grew into a substantial business -- although his entire adult life has been spent in government, first as an intern and employee and then as a career politician. The no real-world experience leaves them free to fantasize about how much better things must be outside the stifling constraints of a government bureaucracy. I get it. I worked for the government, too, and I'm familiar with the frustrations.

Mitt Romney, on the other hand, should know better. He was, after all, a vulture venture capitalist. He's intimately familiar with the major difference between government and the private sector. Businesses can fail; government cannot. Romney knows businesses fail on a regular basis. He knows this on a personal level (someone should ask him sometime about how well the car company that his father ran is doing these days -- anyone seen an AMC Ambassador for sale lately?) and on a business level. Romney may talk a lot about job creation, but the reality was that his company, Bain, specialized in finding businesses that were asset-rich, stripping those businesses of anything that could be easily liquidated, and then pushing the businesses into a shark tank. Bain can point to some success stories (the classic one being Staples), but they also nudged a number of companies into bankruptcy.

Of course, businesses fail all the time. Maybe Bain just sped up the inevitable a little for the companies it sucked the life out of. A person doesn't have to do much research to come up a lengthy list of companies that were booming not many years ago and have faded into obscurity or totally vanished today. Kodak, Enron, American Motors, Gimbels Department Stores, Woolworth's, Eastern Airlines . . . the "rust belt" is full of industrial ruins, the remnants of what used to be foundries and factories, and every state has its ghost towns that boomed for awhile around a sawmill, a copper mine, or a textile mill. It doesn't matter what area of the private sector -- manufacturing, extractive, or service -- a business is in, it can fail. It can fail fast -- the Small Business Administration optimistically notes that "70% of new business are still in operation two years later," which is another way of saying that 30% have gone belly up -- or it can fail slow. Studebaker was in business for over 100 years and successfully transitioned from building wagons to building automobiles, but bad management succeeded in killing the company in the 1960s. Woolworth's and Gimbels were both retail giants for decades, but longevity wasn't enough to save them.

The Small Business Administration also says that the five year survival rate for new businesses is a whopping 51%. Wow. That's definitely cheerful news. If you start a new business, you've got a 50/50 chance of staying in business long enough to pay off a car loan.

Which brings me back to my original question: why the fetishization of the private sector? Based on its failure rates, the private sector doesn't exactly inspire confidence it would be a good role model for government. The one thing it does well appears to be failure. You know what they call it when governments fail? Bosnia. Rwanda. Somalia. Afghanistan. Things get really messy, and people die.

[I do actually know the answer to my rhetorical question. Romney et al. want to apply the Bain model to the U.S. government, i.e., strip it of anything worth selling, award no-bid contracts to their cronies, and then pass the cannibalized corpse back to the next administration to try to re-animate.]

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Imaginary friends

I have this minor addiction to reading advice columns. Like a lot of people, I probably read them because seeing the weird and/or sad situations people manage to get themselves into sometimes helps to put my own problems into perspective. Some of the problems people describe are sad, some are tragic, and some fell into the WTF? category. You know, problems that aren't really problems at all, but the letter writer is busy tying him or herself into emotional knots over the non-problem anyway.

Lately the classic "Not a problem but the letter writer thinks it is" letters all seem to involve Facebook. There appear to be a whole lot of people out there who signed up for Facebook but haven't figured out yet that it's not the real world. They don't seem to understand that you don't have to say Yes to every person who sends you a Friend request. You don't have to read every single item posted to your various acquaintances Timelines. You can ignore the gazillion app requests -- the inane games, the trivia quizzes, whatever. You can prioritize whose status updates you see and whose you don't. If you get a Friend request from a person you remember as being a total dick (or the female equivalent) back in high school, you're allowed to ignore it. If they're people where your initial reaction is that you wouldn't piss on them if they on fire, why on earth would you want to be Friends with them on Facebook?

But, going by the letters I see Amy Dickinson, Carolyn Hax, and other advice columnists responding to, there are astounding numbers of people out there who feel obligated to do stuff that no rational person should bother doing. Their reasoning? They don't want to seem rude. Or stuck up. Or maybe they think they've finally got a shot at sitting at the Internet equivalent of the cool kids' table in the junior high cafeteria. So they say Yes, and then they whine about the obnoxious stuff the "Friend" posts. It never seems to occur to them to do the obvious: pull the plug. If the obnoxious "Friend" is someone you haven't seen in 10 years and wouldn't have gone out of your way to talk to if he or she lived on the same block as you, why are you wasting your time getting annoyed about what they do on Facebook?

Sunday, August 12, 2012

National Rifle Association weirdness

I should have remembered this quote yesterday and just walked right on by the NRA booth at the Vilas County fair. I didn't. I stopped. I became involved in a discussion -- if you can call talking to the human equivalent of a wall a discussion.

The conversation did actually manage to remain civil -- no raised voices, no yelling, no name calling -- although it was more than a tad bizarre. When I asked questions like "Aren't you concerned about the increasing number of incidents of mass shootings?" the response was "Those are all happening in states where they've suppressed gun owners' rights or places where you're not allowed to have guns. If bystanders had guns, they'd be able to defend themselves and others." My response: "You mean like in Arizona when Gabby Giffords got shot in a shopping center parking lot?" I reminded her that the only thing that stopped the shooter from targeting more people was someone in the crowd tackled Jared Loughner when he paused to change clips. He wasn't "taken out" by an armed bystander; he was physically tackled and (figuratively speaking) sat on until the police got there.

Her response to my mention of the Aurora, Colorado, massacre was to mention another incident in Aurora where an armed gunman shot a minister and someone in the congregation then shot the gunman -- except she had her facts totally wrong on that one. Her narrative was that the shooter walked into the church and shot the pastor; the reality is that the perpetrator crashed his car in the parking lot and freaked out when members of the congregation walked toward the car to help him (the guy had a long history of drug abuse, including PCP use, and had apparently exhibited freakish behavior in the past). One woman died. An off-duty police officer was also a member of the congregation, and it was that police officer (not an ordinary citizen who just happened to have brought a gun to church) who then shot the gunman. This story, incidentally, is making the rounds out there in bizarro land -- it's the "Aurora shooting the media won't tell us about" -- as if one off-duty cop happening to be at the scene of a random incident somehow cancels out the 13 people who died and dozens wounded in the theater shooting. Of course, that is a typical NRA tactic: you take one incident where someone having a gun possibly saves a few lives and totally ignore all the hundreds of incidents where, thanks to stupidity, carelessness, or craziness, people die.

She then trotted out the "Americans have always been well-armed; people used to walk around all the time with a six-shooter on their hip." I laughed a lot at that one. I asked her if she knew what caused the famous gun fight at the OK corral. She didn't. I said it was because the Clantons refused to check their weapons at the sheriff's office when they rode into Tombstone. The town, like most Western towns, had an ordinance saying you couldn't carry a gun within the city limits. She did some sputtering and said she'd certainly never heard that. I told her to Google it -- it's historic fact. Then she tried going back farther, to the founders and the right to bear arms. I said, sure, and do you know why the founders were concerned about having a "Well regulated militia?" No real answer, of course.

The most bizarre part of the conversation, though, was about President Obama. Half the table was covered with literature that portrays Barack Obama as the most rabidly anti-gun President of all time, a man who is just chomping at the bit to nullify the Second Amendment and turn us all into tools of the United Nations. As I was looking over the literature, I couldn't help it. I asked her just how nuts they were. That's when she gave me the literature that proves Obama is out to take away our guns. The flyer had ten points on it, most of which are paranoid fantasies (e.g., Obama's promoting an anti-gun treaty with the UN that's going to gut our gun ownership rights; this is a perpetual favorite lately with the tin foil hat crowd despite being debunked numerous times).

Point number 10, though, was a little gem that the NRA lady kept insisting to me was gospel: President Obama had told Sarah Brady they're quietly working on gun control, just planning to sneak stuff through without anyone noticing. She told me this several times, and it is indeed on the flyer. This is what the flyer says (and I quote exactly, right down to the punctuation): Obama admits he's coming for our guns, telling Sarah Brady, "We are working on [gun control], but under the radar."

You know what brackets mean in a quote? The speaker said something else, but the editor is substituting a word or a phrase that will make the meaning clearer -- or, in this case, give it the spin the NRA wants. And why did they feel the need to do that? Because, according to Sarah Brady, the one thing she and Mr. Obama did NOT talk about when they met back in March 2011was gun control. PolitiFact has given this particular claim by the NRA a resounding Pants on Fire, but I didn't have to do any research to know the claim was bogus: those brackets tell the whole story. Checking on it made it clear it's even more bogus than my initial reaction indicated: it's not a direct quote at all; it's paraphrasing from a Washington Post article in which the reporter surmised that Mr. Obama and Sarah Brady must have talked about gun control because Mrs. Brady is a strong gun control advocate. In fact, Mr. Obama made a courtesy visit to the Bradys on the 30th anniversary of President Reagan getting shot; the conversation they had was brief and superficial. PolitiFact has researched a number of other claims made by the NRA; it's not much of a surprise that the Pants on Fire and Mostly False findings outnumber any deemed True.

I'm old enough that I can remember when the NRA was a relatively sane organization. They focused on hunting, conservation, and gun safety. Now they obsess about the UN taking away our freedoms, promote  paranoia and xenophobia, and peddle lies.

For what it's worth, I'm not anti-gun ownership, and I don't have a problem with the Second Amendment. I do have a problem with organizations that have apparently decided the way to boost their membership and ensure a healthy income is through the use of scare tactics, groundless conspiracy theories, and hate-mongering. The NRA is working hard at turning the United States into a nation of paranoid cowards who huddle in their houses, fearing for their lives every time they hear a strange noise and convinced that the only solution to any problem is to shoot it.  

Friday, August 10, 2012

Old news

Michigan held a primary election this week. It was pretty much a nonevent locally. Just about every candidate running for office on the local (township or county) level was running unopposed and no one really seemed to give a rat's patoot about the state and national contests. It was pretty much of a given that the US Senate race was going to come down to incumbent Democrat Debbie Stabenow facing Republican hack Pete Hoekstra, and the poor sap planning to run against our tea bagger Congress critter* was unopposed (and who says backroom politics and insider deal-cutting is dead?). When it came to the state house of representatives, I think I heard radio ads for one guy, but that was it. Political advertising (yard signs, for example) was pretty much nonexistent in Baraga County -- the one exception being signs for the incumbent state rep (a Republican), although why he bothered is a mystery. I didn't see much of an effort, if any, on the part of his party to mount a challenge against him. It's not just the voters who are apathetic -- so are the candidates.

In any case, voter turnout locally was about what one expects for a primary: 22 percent of registered voters took the time to show up, probably because there were millage renewals on the ballot. They all passed. We've got our share of tea baggers and fools locally, but even most of them recognize the need to fund the county road commission and to make sure the ambulances keep running.

[*The man spends a lot of time fulminating about the evils of the federal government and the wonders of the private sector. Guess where he worked before he got elected to office? The federal government. Why is this no surprise? I think a lot of the federal employees who are anti-government have a classic case of "the grass is always greener" syndrome. Because they've never worked in the private sector, they fantasize that it's always better than the public.] 

Sunday, August 5, 2012

I threw someone's life away today

Figuratively speaking, of course. It was an odd feeling. I volunteer at the local historical society. We get donations all the time of stuff people think we can use. Sometimes we can. And sometimes, like today, it turns into a depressing project that involves hours of sorting through the bits and pieces of a person's life that are left after various family members have taken the photos, old letters, whatever, that mean something to them (or that they think they can sell). Then they hand us a box with the trash. Check stubs from a job that ended 50 years ago, school pictures of children that are worn out from being kept in a wallet for decades, receipts for union dues -- the decedent drove a truck delivering milk door to door in the 1940s, and they had a union -- and other bits and pieces that are basically meaningless out of context.

What to keep? What to jettison? The historian in me says to keep it all. The day may come when some researcher would like to see just what the wages were like for a milk truck driver back in 1948. The practical part says, but who's going to go looking in an obscure county museum for minutiae like that? In the end, it comes down to what makes sense to go into a file based on what people are usually looking for when they call the museum: family information. The man's high school diploma, family photos if they're labeled, a death certificate, some papers from the VA regarding his military service, and not much more. A log with hours worked and wages paid for a stint in a Ford assembly plant will go into our Ford Motor Company collection -- we keep anything related to Ford because, among other things, Ford had three sawmills in Baraga County so was a major influence on local history. And that's about it. Several shoe-boxes worth of paper distilled down to one not very fat file folder. The rest of it -- the wallet photos, most of the check stubs, several dozen unlabeled snapshots, greeting cards the man had saved, and a lot of other miscellaneous pieces of paper -- hit the waste basket.

I probably shouldn't have felt as depressed as I did when I saw those kids' photos go into the trash. They're all adults now, probably about the same age as me, and they'd already gone through the boxes and taken what they wanted. Besides, this man isn't going to be totally forgotten. He's now a file folder. If a generation or two from now his descendants come looking for information, they'll actually find something. That's more than is true for most of us.


1968 Cadillac Coupe de Ville
Saw this photo on another blog this morning, and was swept away in a wave of nostalgia. We never owned a '68. We had a '67 purchased definitely used from a dealer on Highway 99 in unincorporated Snohomish County, Washington. The car had moss growing in the back window. We didn't care -- everything on that side of the Cascades had moss growing on it or in it if it sat still for more than 15 minutes. The key things were the price (cheap enough that we could pay cash for it) and the fact it ran. Our Dodge station wagon was going through oil so fast we were starting to consider buying the stuff in 55-gallon drums. Buying a new used car seemed like a cheaper option than hauling home endless cases of generic motor oil from Fred Meyer.

I loved that Caddy. It was huge, probably got mileage that would make a person blanch today, but I didn't care. It was the ultimate road car. The thing was such a tank I used to joke about keeping a Honda in the trunk as a spare, but it still felt like it was just floating down the highway. It was probably the most comfortable riding car we've ever owned. We managed to hang on to that car through three moves (Panorama City, Tucson, and Reno), but had to make a choice between it and the S.O.'s Barracuda for the move back east -- and the Barracuda won.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Context is irrelevant

The context doesn't matter -- if the media or the opposition can't manage to find a sound bite to lift out of context, they'll just do some creative splicing or bizarre misinterpretation.People are always critical of politicians for being vague or vacuous, but as soon as a candidate says something that's an actual declarative sentence, no matter how mundane or seemingly innocuous ("Rain is wet"), some spinmeister will figure out a way to make it sound like that one statement means the candidate is one step away from either turning the United States into a socialist workers' paradise or handing everything in the country to the Koch brothers and their ilk. Even saying you're for something is now immediately twisted to suggest that you're just blowing smoke while secretly plotting to do the exact opposite. It's a broken system. No wonder so many voters are discovering the joys of apathy, the quiet rebellion of the powerless.