Friday, May 30, 2008

The Tax We Needed

Suppose that politicians had raised taxes on gas, starting in the early 1990s, at the very time when Newt Gingrich and his fellow Republicans were so successfully attacking taxation as a Democratic disease. What difference would it have made? With steadily rising gas taxes, we might have been spared the SUV craze. Some of those people who were killed when their small autos were speared by SUVs would still be alive, as would some of those SUV drivers and passengers who were killed when their topheavy vehicles rolled over. To the extent that people bought smaller and less-expensive vehicles, some of those SUVs' purchase prices would still be in the buyers' bank accounts. An enormous quantity of petroleum that the SUVs guzzled would still be in the ground, and huge amounts of money that have now been transferred to oil-producing nations such as Russia and Saudi Arabia would still be in America. To the extent that persons in those nations fund extremist and anti-American activities, the world and this country would be safer than it is. Now that oil producers have finally forced sharply higher gas prices upon us, consumption patterns have belatedly begun to change. In a way, it was a question of who would get smart first: the Saudis or the Americans. If the Americans had been smart enough to vote for politicians who would have imposed high gas taxes at an early date, consumption patterns would have begun to change back then, and it would be more difficult for the oil producers to jack up the prices now: we would already have built a substantial alternative infrastructure in response to the high cost of petroleum. Instead, now that the Saudis have been the ones to impose the higher prices, in response to rising global demand for oil, it will be very difficult for politicians to raise additional tax dollars without absolutely crippling the American economy. So now, instead of putting those tax dollars to work in the United States, we can put the higher oil cost dollars to work in Abu Dhabi. Speaking of rising global oil demand, we might have provided China and India with a template for effective, enviable mass transit. Instead of using television to teach the world's deprived people that they must all crave their own personal vehicles (and must consume inordinate amounts of cement, steel, and other materials in the process, thereby driving up world prices of those materials as well), we might have sent the message that the really smart, up-to-date thing is to have mass transit systems that serve the large majority of people in a far more convenient and stress-free manner than old-fashioned highways could ever do. Because if gas had become expensive enough to discourage its use, people might have welcomed the mass transit systems that gas tax dollars could have helped to build. It was not fashionable to develop good government or charge high taxes in the early 1990s. If it had been -- if, indeed, we had been emphasizing that there is no substitute for effective regulation as a safeguard against financial exploitation -- people might have taken Hillary Clinton's healthcare proposal more seriously. Many of the people who have died because of inadequate health care would still be alive. American healthcare would not be among the worst of the developed world. We would be arguing, not about some candidate's belated introduction of suitable healthcare, but rather about ways to streamline the Clinton healthcare system to make it even better. The penny-wise, pound-foolish mentality that gave our money to doctors and pharmaceutical companies -- instead of paying taxes to benefit everyone -- would properly have been ridiculed and dismissed. If gas had become inordinately expensive in 1993, we would not have had another 15 years of developing unsustainable, far-flung suburbs that require ever-increasing commuting distances and ever-growing amounts of traffic. We would then, not just now, have been talking about liveable city centers; we would have begun taking bicycles and bike paths more seriously. Some of the bicyclists who have been injured and killed by auto supremacy would still be alive and doing fine. The mortgage crisis that threatens to engulf our economy might have been very different or might not have existed at all; certainly the abandonment of whole neighborhoods to foreclosure (and, in places like Cleveland, their ultimate bulldozing) would have been far less likely. Imposition of high gas taxes in the early 1990s would have prompted people to re-evaluate the total costs of an auto-oriented economy. The huge bill for badly needed maintenance of the nation's highways and bridges would not now be overdue; people would likely have begun to question new road construction far more closely. Some of those roads and bridges now needing maintenance would not have been built in the first place -- especially where the far-flung suburbs they serve would not now exist. The food system would look different too. We would not be eating potatoes made of oil, as one person described the large amounts of petroleum that our mechanized agricultural system tends to consume. The nutty and apparently inefficient idea of burning food as biofuel, instead of eating it or sending to those who are starving, might never have gained traction. Small farms that provided farm lifestyles and livelihoods to so many families might still be in existence, instead of being driven out of business by taxpayer-funded subsidies to large agricultural firms -- firms that foster neither the love of the land and the animals nor the farming community life that so beneficially informed previous rural generations. We were selfish. We did not want to pay an extra dollar in taxes because, God forbid, there might be a black person on welfare, somewhere, who would get that dollar. Taxes were bad, government was bad, and good government was worst of all. It was a crazy, nonsensical era, driven in good part by people who got their economic wisdom from crank preachers' interpretations of carefully selected and artfully interpreted Bible passages. Ultimately, I suppose, we will never really know exactly what would have happened if we had voted for politicians who would have jacked up gas taxes in 1993 -- or 1973, for that matter, when the first of the Arab oil embargo shocks hit our economy. We can speculate that, by taking the matter in hand rather than waiting until someone else handed it to us, we would at least have been proactive in shaping our own destinies. What we do know, for sure, is that failure to act is action in itself. We did things one way rather than the other. We are not too happy with the outcome. Perhaps we can learn something from that.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Another Cynical Bush Foreign Entanglement?

In December 1992, after he had lost the election to Bill Clinton, the internationally knowledgeable outgoing president George H. W. Bush sent U.S. troops to Somalia. In effect, he saddled Clinton with a foreign entanglement that he had known would likely be a failure and a mess. It was a cynical political move, done at the expense of American lives and prestige. So now I see reports that his son, George W. Bush, is contemplating an attack on Iran shortly before he leaves office. Would anyone care to bet that the odds of such an attack rise if a Democrat wins the White House in November?

Monday, May 19, 2008

It Might Be Hillary After All

I heard an interesting comment the other day. The comment was that, if we were starting the primary season all over again, Barack probably would not survive it. The reason, probably due to the Rev. Wright matter as much as anything, was that Barack was not going to be able to deliver states like Ohio and Pennsylvania for the Democrats.

I’m not too eager to see the Clintons back in the White House. Hillary will doubtless be a very competent president. It’s just that, every now and then, something comes back to remind me of that era. Today, it was Rwanda. Yesterday, in a conversation, it was the furniture-moving fiasco when they were exiting the White House. There was just too much of that sort of thing.

But whatever. It seems there is a good chance that, somehow, Michigan and Florida are going to weigh in on this thing; and given Hillary’s seemingly growing momentum, I expect they will favor her.

What I think the Democratic party may be angling for is a graceful exit from Obama, at least for now. Give him eight years to become a seasoned veep, and everything will look different. But at the present, I think the party leadership may feel that an Obama vs. McCain race will be too close for comfort. Not so much because of the polls, but because of the perceived potential for liabilities and unknowns.

It also seems that Hillary is seen as more of a centrist than Obama, in the sense that some who are denied a chance to vote for her may defect to McCain, while a similar defection seems unlikely for most would-be Obama voters. Given what sounds like a growing sentiment at the moment, my odds on Hillary becoming the nominee somehow are up from 10% to more like 40%.

We'll know in a few days. If that meeting of delegates in late May doesn't produce an irrefutable conclusion for Obama, then my bet goes over the 50% mark. At that point, in other words, I'm thinking the tide will have turned.

Registry Edit to Let Excel 2003 Read Quattro Files

After much screwing around with the Microsoft advice and reading of other postings, here are the contents of the REG file I created that now allows me to read old Quattro and Lotus (e.g., WKS, WK1, WQ1) files with Excel 2003, after getting an error message reading, "You are attempting to open a file that is blocked by your registry policy setting":

Windows Registry Editor Version 5.00 [HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Office\11.0\Excel\Security\FileOpenBlock] "LotusandQuattroFiles"=dword:00000000 "LegacyBinaryFiles"=dword:00000000 "LegacyDatabaseAndDatasourceFiles"=dword:00000000 [HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Office\11.0\Excel\Security\FileSaveBlock] "LotusandQuattroFiles"=dword:00000000 "LegacyBinaryFiles"=dword:00000000 "LegacyDatabaseAndDatasourceFiles"=dword:00000000
Note: in case it wraps oddly in your browser, each opening quotation mark begins a new line, as does each opening bracket. You also need the title line. To make it work, copy and paste those lines verbatim into a Notepad file. Save it in Unicode formatting to a file called "Enable Excel to Read Quattro Files.reg". Close it. Double-click on it and run it. Same basic instructions for another REG file I have here, which I have named "Enable Excel to Open Old Spreadsheets.reg". I didn't have to run it today, but I believe the updating of Office 2003 with Service Pack 3 (?) did require it previously:
Windows Registry Editor Version 5.00 [HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Office\11.0\Common\OICEExemptions] "ExemptDirectory"="E:\\Current\\Projects\\Computer and Data\\Old Data\\Old Spreadsheets"

Catching Up: Best of 2005: January & February

Here's another installment in the continuing effort to distill the best postings from my personal mailing list. These are from January and February 2005. It was a big time for attacks on President Bush and his policies. I thought about editing them out more aggressively, but for future reference I decided to hold onto these reminders of the political climate of that time. * * * * * Why You Should Have Boycotted the 2004 Presidential Election Excerpt from S. Templeman & L. Mitchell, "Challenging the One-Size- Fits-All Myth: Findings and Solutions from a Statewide Focus Group of Rural Social Workers," Child Welfare, September/October 2002, pp. 757-772 (at p. 761, citations omitted): "A study by the Children's Rights Council [in 2000] ranked Texas 48th among states for raising children, down from 25th in 1995. The status of children in Texas lags far behind that in most other states. This places rural children in Texas among those Americans at greatest risk on numerous indicators of well-being. For example . . . Texas ranks 41st in the percentage of children in poverty and 50th in the number of children without health insurance. It also ranks 44th in the percentage of babies born to mothers who received early prenatal care and 48th in childhood immunizations for 2-year-olds. Texas is among the 10 worst states in the United States on most factors related to teen pregnancy. CDF found the teen birthrate among Texans to be 70.9 per 1,000; the national rate is 51.1" These may sound like reasons to have voted against George Bush in 2000, not to mention 2004. But since a majority did not do that, at least in 2004, the question arises whether the majority does not care about these indicators of child maltreatment in the state that George Bush governed. I think the majority does care. But I did not notice that these issues were front and center during the election. The process is broken. Instead of focusing upon the outcomes for hundreds of thousands (and in some instances millions) of Americans, the election process, for some years, has been fixated upon such questions as whether George Bush is smart, whether John Kerry flip- flops, whether Bill Clinton is a sleaze, whether Ronald Reagan was senile. Until we can have perfect candidates, these personal attacks are worse than useless. They are a positive distraction from what counts. And that is what our elections are all about now. They are a joke -- and so, in too many instances, is the person who becomes president. We can't expect to fix the process without acknowledging that it is broken. When we talk and act as though voting is a good thing, we endorse the process as it is. And that is, increasingly, a mistake. [The situation appears quite different, so far, in the 2008 campaign.] * * * * * Late-Night Political News from About.com "So the president doesn't read the papers. The only real information he gets he gets from his loyal aides and even when he goes to a town hall meeting, to meet the people, they have been pre-selected. Our president is living in the 'Truman Show'. Nothing happens around him that isn't planned. I don't even think he knows we're out here watching." --Jon Stewart "Did you hear about this? The U.S. is sending a top secret reconnaissance team into Iran. How secret can it be if a dumb ass like me knows about it?" --David Letterman "Some groups are calling on people to fast and pray on the day of Bush's inauguration to protest the re-election. That's not going to work. The people who fast and pray are the ones who voted him in. That's his audience." --Jay Leno "News from Washington -- Condoleezza Rice ... says there are no plans to invade North Korea, which can only mean one thing -- they don't have any oil." --Craig Ferguson "Traditionally the president's inaugural committee pays for these expenses; this time around it's stiffing the District of Columbia with a 12 million dollar security bill -- just their way of saying 'thank you' to the community that went nine-to-one for the president's opponent." --Jon Stewart "In an interview in USA Today, President Bush said he is not wasting any more money on programs that are not working. Well that's good news. I guess the war in Iraq is over." --Jay Leno "You know there was a bounty on Osama bin Laden -- $25 million and they have now doubled it. $50 million is the bounty on Osama bin Laden. And it makes sense because if you're a goat farmer in Tora Bora, $25 million just isn't going to get your attention." -David Letterman "How about this for a mystery? Over in Iraq, United States authorities have admitted that $9 billion is missing. They have misplaced $9 billion in Iraq. Wow. I am fairly confident they'll find it though. It's probably somewhere with the weapons of mass destruction." -David Letterman "President Bush said today he wants another $80 billion in Iraq funding. So when he said Iraq isn't free yet, he ain't kidding." -- Jay Leno "The president announced today new budget slashes. And he's slashing education. It is a genius plan -- when the kids graduate they won't have the math skills to calculate how much debt they're actually in." --Craig Ferguson "Former baseball star Jose Canseco has a new book out. It's a tell-all autobiography in which he claims he injected his former teammate - - superstar Mark McGwire -- with steroids. He also claims that President Bush, who was then a co-owner of the Texas Rangers, was aware of steroid use among players. A White House spokesperson says Bush was not aware of it -- nor was he aware of most anything during the early '90s. Mark McGwire vehemently denies the accusation - he got so angry when he heard about it, he picked up his house and threw it onto the freeway." --Jimmy Kimmel "As you know President Bush has been traveling around the country trying to sell his new Social Security plan. He wants to take our retirement money and invest it in the stock market. He says nothing can go wrong. I'll mention that to Martha Stewart the next time I see her." --Jay Leno "Today they announced the big winner of the Iraqi election -- Halliburton." --Jay Leno "Attorney General Alberto Gonzales started his first week on the job. Remember those two naked statues that John Ashcroft had covered up when he took the job? Well, they're naked again, but now they just have leashes around their necks." --Jay Leno "Everybody was commenting that Stephen Breyer was the only Supreme Court justice at the State of the Union. But it turns out that is not true. It turns out Justice Scalia was there. He was in Dick Cheney's pocket." --Jay Leno "In his State of the Union Address, President Bush announced a new initiative to keep young people out of gangs, a new program called Do Right And Follow Through (D.R.A.F.T.)." --Tina Fey, Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update" "A Marine general who served in Iraq is in trouble this week for saying said it is fun to shoot people. Thanks to his remarks he now has now received a job at the LAPD." --Craig Ferguson "According to a new poll, Democrats are favoring Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nominee for 2008. Democrats say they are looking for a fresh and exciting new way to get their asses handed to them." --Tina Fey "Bush's new budget proposals cut $1.1 billion from the federal food stamp program. I guess the president feels if rich people aren't going to get their full tax cut for a while, the poor people with food stamps should have to help out too." --Jay Leno "The U.S. Postal Service issued a new stamp of Ronald Reagan today. I can't wait for the George W. Bush stamp. That's when your letter goes to Iraq for no reason and the stamp can't explain why." --Craig Ferguson "Right now President Bush is in Europe, he's in Germany, and he stopped in Frankfurt and he got off the plane and he electrified the crowd with 'Ich bin ein Frankfurter.'" --David Letterman "President Bush had dinner last night with the French President Jacques Chirac and in one, kind of awkward moment, President Chirac gave Bush a souvenir statue of the Eiffel Tower and Bush said 'Oh this is great a little oil rig! I love it!'" --Jay Leno "President Bush said when he goes to Europe, he's looking forward to talking about how we can extend peace even further around the world. Then the Pentagon told him, 'You know, Mr. President, we really don't have enough ammunition left to do that.'" --Jay Leno "In a speech today President Bush said contrary to reports, he has no plans to attack Iran. The president said 'That's ridiculous. We didn't even have plans when we attacked Iraq.'" --Conan O'Brien "It seems a friend of the Bush family, Doug Wead -- I think he's Linda Tripp's first husband if I'm not mistaken -- secretly taped a number of conversations. Bush admitted as a young man he smoked marijuana but he quit when it interfered with his drinking. ... Although he acknowledged trying marijuana, no one has come forward to verify they've actually seen him do marijuana, so it's like the National Guard thing all over again." --Jay Leno "Jeff Gannon ... He is a White House correspondent who has been lobbing softball questions at the president and his press secretary, turns out he is actually a paid escort for wealthy homosexuals. ... He actually had two jobs -- one obviously was sleazy and shameful and the other was a gay male prostitute. ... I think I know what Bush meant now when he said he has a mandate." --Bill Maher "Amid this stuff with Jeff Gannon what is our new Attorney General Alberto Gonzales doing as his first act of office -- going after the porn industry. ... Apparently this is the guy who is pro-torture but anti-porn. You can put somebody on a leash and wag wieners in his face but don't film it." --Bill Maher "The Bush administration is proposing a change in the social security system. They want to cut benefits in nearly a third in the next twenty or thirty years. The new program is called 'good luck grandma you're on your own.' You've fallen and you can get up." -Jay Leno "Here in New York, thousands of people partied in funny hats and popped balloons in Times Square. Those who were there said it was just like the Republican Convention, but with black people." --Conan O'Brien "As you know, Time magazine has named President Bush 'Person of the Year' -- quite an honor. Although I'm not sure Bush understands it. Like he said today, he can't decide if he wants the free travel alarm clock or the tote bag." --Jay Leno "The international space station is running low on food. They asked Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld about this. And Rumsfeld said, you go to space with the food you've got, not the food you want." -- David Letterman "President Bush said that he is standing by Rumsfeld. And you know what that means, he'll be gone in a week." --David Letterman "A lot of Americans are worried now. They say they can't rely on Social Security anymore. And you know something, they're right. If you want the government to pay for your housing and your food and your medical bills until your 80 or 90 years old you're just going to have to kill somebody and go live on death row because that's the only way it's going to happen." --Jay Leno * * * * * Top 50 Bushisms (abridged) 48. "You teach a child to read, and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test.'' -Townsend, Tenn., Feb. 21, 2001 44. "I'm the commander - see, I don't need to explain - I do not need to explain why I say things. That's the interesting thing about being president." -as quoted in Bob Woodward's Bush at War 42. "The war on terror involves Saddam Hussein because of the nature of Saddam Hussein, the history of Saddam Hussein, and his willingness to terrorize himself." -Grand Rapids, Mich., Jan. 29, 2003 40. "Oh, no, we're not going to have any casualties." -discussing the Iraq war with Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson, as quoted by Robertson 38. "Haven't we already given money to rich people? Why are we going to do it again?" -to economic advisers discussing a second round of tax cuts, as quoted by former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neil, Washington, D.C., Nov. 26, 2002 37. "We need an energy bill that encourages consumption." -Trenton, N.J., Sept. 23, 2002 35. "Do you have blacks, too?" -to Brazilian President Fernando Cardoso, Washington, D.C., Nov. 8, 2001 32. "It is white." -after being asked by a child in Britain what the White House was like, July 19, 2001 31. "I couldn't imagine somebody like Osama bin Laden understanding the joy of Hanukkah." -at a White House menorah lighting ceremony, Washington, D.C., Dec. 10, 2001 27. "I'm the master of low expectations." -aboard Air Force One, June 4, 2003 26. "I'm also not very analytical. You know I don't spend a lot of time thinking about myself, about why I do things." -aboard Air Force One, June 4, 2003 25. "I know what I believe. I will continue to articulate what I believe and what I believe - I believe what I believe is right." - Rome, Italy, July 22, 2001 21. "The really rich people figure out how to dodge taxes anyway." - explaining why high taxes on the rich are a failed strategy, Annandale, Va., Aug. 9, 2004 20. "My plan reduces the national debt, and fast. So fast, in fact, that economists worry that we're going to run out of debt to retire." -radio address, Feb. 24, 2001 18. "See, free nations are peaceful nations. Free nations don't attack each other. Free nations don't develop weapons of mass destruction." -Milwaukee, Wis., Oct. 3, 2003 11. "Can we win? I don't think you can win it." -after being asked whether the war on terror was winnable, "Today" show interview, Aug. 30, 2004 9. "I trust God speaks through me. Without that, I couldn't do my job." -to a group of Amish he met with privately, July 9, 2004 8. "Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed." -speaking underneath a "Mission Accomplished" banner aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, May 1, 2003 7. "We found the weapons of mass destruction. We found biological laboratories … And we'll find more weapons as time goes on. But for those who say we haven't found the banned manufacturing devices or banned weapons, they're wrong, we found them." -Washington, D.C., May 30, 2003 4. "There's an old saying in Tennessee - I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee - that says, fool me once, shame on - shame on you. Fool me - you can't get fooled again." -Nashville, Tenn., Sept. 17, 2002 3. "Too many good docs are getting out of the business. Too many OB- GYNs aren't able to practice their love with women all across this country." -Poplar Bluff, Mo., Sept. 6, 2004 2. "Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we." -Washington, D.C., Aug. 5, 2004 1. "My answer is bring them on." -on Iraqi insurgents attacking U.S. forces, Washington, D.C., July 3, 2003 * * * * * Bird Brains In a laboratory, when a crow named Betty was given metal wires of various lengths and a four-inch vertical pipe with food at the bottom, she chose a four-inch wire, made a hook and retrieved the food. ... Clark nutcrackers can hide up to 30,000 seeds and recover them up to six months later. Nutcrackers also hide and steal. If they see another bird watching them as they cache food, they return later, alone, to hide the food again. Some scientists believe this shows a rudimentary theory of mind - understanding that another bird has intentions and beliefs. Magpies, at an earlier age than any other creature tested, develop an understanding of the fact that when an object disappears behind a curtain, it has not vanished. At a university campus in Japan, carrion crows line up patiently at the curb waiting for a traffic light to turn red. When cars stop, they hop into the crosswalk, place walnuts from nearby trees onto the road and hop back to the curb. After the light changes and cars run over the nuts, the crows wait until it is safe and hop back out for the food. Pigeons can memorize up to 725 different visual patterns, and are capable of what looks like deception. Pigeons will pretend to have found a food source, lead other birds to it and then sneak back to the true source. Parrots, some researchers report, can converse with humans, invent syntax and teach other parrots what they know. Researchers have claimed that Alex, an African gray, can grasp important aspects of number, color concepts, the difference between presence and absence, and physical properties of objects like their shapes and materials. He can sound out letters the same way a child does. * * * * * Funny Definitions Rectitude (n.), the formal, dignified bearing adopted by proctologists. Pokemon (n), a Rastafarian proctologist. Oyster (n.), a person who sprinkles his conversation with Yiddishisms. Circumvent (n.), an opening in the front of boxer shorts worn by Jewish men. Take a word from the dictionary, alter it by adding, subtracting, or changing one letter, and supply a new definition. Bozone (n.): The substance surrounding stupid people that stops bright ideas from penetrating. The bozone layer, unfortunately, shows little sign of breaking down in the near future. Cashtration (n.): The act of buying a house, which renders the subject financially impotent for an indefinite period. Giraffiti (n): Vandalism spray-painted very, very high. Sarchasm (n): The gulf between the author of wit and the person who doesn't get it. Inoculatte (v): To take coffee intravenously when you are running late. Hipatitis (n): Terminal coolness. Osteopornosis (n): A degenerate disease. Decafalon (n.): The grueling event of getting through the day consuming only things that are good for you. Dopeler effect (n): The tendency of stupid ideas to seem smarter when they come at you rapidly. Arachnoleptic fit (n.): The frantic dance performed just after you've accidentally walked through a spider web. Beelzebug (n.): Satan in the form of a mosquito that gets into your bedroom at three in the morning and cannot be cast out. Caterpallor (n.): The color you turn after finding half a grub in the fruit you're eating. Ignoranus (n): A person who's both stupid and an asshole.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Al Gore as Vice President

I don't know if Al will want the job. If he doesn't take it, he'll go the way of Colin Powell: someone who was in line for the White House, but who failed to stay in the limelight and therefore no longer has the chance. Al's environmental crusade is important and global, but it's everyone's concern now. Even as its frontman, I don't believe he will have enough visibility four years from now, or eight, to be in a position to run for president. Being vice-president again would be a been-there, done-that role for Al. But it would also put him back, a heartbeat away from the presidency, where he would have some advantages for environmental purposes that he will not have in the political wilderness, especially if he bargained with Obama for an express environmental portfolio. And in the keep-it-clean campaigns that Obama and McCain talk about, running as Veep might not sully Al overmuch. He could be bigger than the job without necessarily letting it diminish him. Al as vice president would bring some advantages for the Democrats. There would be, for some, the inevitability and historical factors: Al won it already, for chrissake, let him have it -- and hey, we can still have a whiff of the Clinton era without the Clintons. The white male voters who have not been too keen on Obama might find Al's portly presence reassuring. Finally, Al could play the role of the unifier, between the Clinton and Obama camps.

Catching Up: Best of 2004: November & December

Here's another installment in the continuing effort to distill the best postings from my personal mailing list. These are from November and December 2004. * * * * * The Cowboy

An old cowboy sat down at the bar and ordered a drink. As he sat sipping his drink, a young woman sat down next to him. She turned to the cowboy and asked, "Are you a real cowboy?" He replied, "Well, I've spent my whole life, breaking colts, working cows, going to rodeos, fixing fences, pulling calves, baling hay, doctoring calves, cleaning my barn, fixing flats, working on tractors, and feeding my dogs, so I guess I am a cowboy."

She said, "I'm a lesbian. I spend my whole day thinking about women. As soon as I get up in the morning, I think about women. When I shower, I think about women. When I watch TV, I think about women. I even think about women when I eat. It seems that everything makes me think of women." The two sat sipping in silence.

A little while later, a man sat down on the other side of the old cowboy and asked, "Are you a real cowboy?" He replied, "I always thought I was, but I just found out I'm a lesbian." * * * * *

Late-Night Political News from About.com "John Kerry said yesterday, 'In an American election, there is no loser.' Uh, earth to John." --Jay Leno "There's a rumor that Attorney General John Ashcroft will resign before the inauguration. The White House feels that since Bush is going to swear to defend the Constitution, they want to make sure it's still around." --Jay Leno "As you know, Osama bin Laden has released another video. He bragged that he will 'bankrupt the United States.' And today President Bush said, 'two can play that game, pal.'" --Jay Leno "Down in Washington, D.C. today a man tried to climb the fence to the White House. Luckily the man was knocked over by fleeing Bush cabinet members." --David Letterman "Here's a late breaking bulletin from the Bush White House -- the White House Christmas tree has submitted its resignation." --David Letterman "This just in -- Yasser Arafat's funeral went well. Only 30 people died. ... Mrs. Arafat is so distraught she could barely shop today." --David Letterman "The temporary successor to Arafat, Mahmoud Abbas, escaped a shooting by militants as he was visiting Arafat's grave. See, that's why he's called a 'temporary successor.'" --Jay Leno "Dan Rather announced he was leaving. President Bush said, 'I didn't even know he was in my cabinet.'" --Jay Leno "There is good news back home. Congress finally signed a bill completely reorganizing America's intelligence community. And all is took was three years of nagging from grieving 9/11 widows. Cause you know, it was a back burner thing for Congress. It ain't Freedom Fries, people." --Jon Stewart "Donald Rumsfeld held a question and answer session with soldiers on their way to Iraq and one soldier asked why a lot of their vehicles still don't have the proper armor and Rumsfeld said, 'You go to war with the army you have. Not the armor your wish for.' And then he got into his armored car and drove away." --Jay Leno "Senator John McCain thinks that congress may have to step in to control the use of steroids in sports. The Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig agrees. Is this congress' number one priority now? Baseball players. Did we win the war? How about global warming. Have we fixed that already?" --Jay Leno "After an attack at the American consulate, Saudi Arabia has renewed their fight against terrorism, and they're serious, this time they may actually stop funding them." --Jay Leno "President Bush announced that the new head of Homeland security is Bernard Kerik, the former New York City police commissioner. You can actually tell he's a New Yorker because now the color coded warning system will go from green, to yellow to orange to forget about it" -- Conan O'Brien * * * * * Great Quotes "As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron." - H.L. Mencken (1880 - 1956) * * * * * Borowitz Report Excerpts Breaking News CANADA REPORTS HUGE JUMP IN IMMIGRATION Over 55,000,000 Requests for Citizenship Since Tuesday Night Canadian immigration officials have reported a huge increase in the number of requests for Canadian citizenship in the past twenty-four hours, with over fifty-five million such inquiries pouring in since late Tuesday night. . . . Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Pierre Pettigrew said that he was "flabbergasted" by the fifty-five-million-plus requests for Canadian citizenship, adding that it was difficult to pinpoint the precise reasons for the staggering increase. "My only theory is that after many years of exposure in the U.S., hockey is finally starting to catch on," Mr. Pettigrew said. He cautioned, however, that it is impossible to know exactly what is sparking the sudden interest in America's frozen neighbor to the north: "People answering our immigration hotline say that it is hard to understand many of the American callers because they are sobbing uncontrollably." Breaking News GEORGIA SCHOOLS TO STOP TEACHING LAW OF GRAVITY Murphy's Law Could Be Next, District Warns A suburban school district in Georgia has thrown itself into the vortex of a legal controversy after deciding to stop teaching the law of gravity as part of its science curriculum. The Dunnsville Unified School District fired the first salvo in the ongoing debate over the law of gravity last year when it mandated that stickers be affixed to all science texts in the district's schools indicating that "the law of gravity is a theory, not a fact." District superintendent Charles Leverall said that initially it was not Dunnsville's plan to eliminate teaching the law of gravity altogether, but merely to inform students that there were other equally plausible explanations for why things fall down. Breaking News IRAQI ELECTIONS DELAYED TO ALLOW TIME FOR NEGATIVE ADS Swift Boat Veterans Parachute into Baghdad The Iraqi elections, originally set for January 2005, have been delayed six months to give the Iraqi people enough time to produce and air negative political ads, the White House announced today. * * * * * The Concession Speech John Kerry Should Have Given (abridged) [A note that I posted at the time: "This one is bitter, and I wouldn't have phrased it entirely this way, but it does make a point. My own view? Bush in 2004 means Hillary in 2008."] My fellow Americans, the people of this nation have spoken, and spoken with a clear voice. So I am here to offer my concession. I concede that I overestimated the intelligence of the American people. Though the people disagree with the President on almost every issue, you saw fit to vote for him. I never saw that coming. ... I concede that I misjudged the power of hate. That's pretty powerful stuff, and I didn't see it. So let me take a moment to congratulate the President's strategists: Putting the gay marriage amendments on the ballot in various swing states like Ohio... well, that was just genius. Genius. It got people, a certain kind of people, to the polls. The unprecedented number of folks who showed up and cited "moral values" as their biggest issue, those people changed history. The folks who consider same sex marriage a more important issue than war, or terrorism, or the economy... Who'd have thought the election would belong to them? Well, Karl Rove did. Gotta give it up to him for that. I concede that I put too much faith in America's youth. With 8 out of 10 of you opposing the President, with your friends and classmates dying daily in a war you disapprove of, with your future being mortgaged to pay for rich old peoples' tax breaks, you somehow managed to sit on your asses and watch the Cartoon Network while aging homophobic hillbillies carried the day. You voted with the exact same anemic percentage that you did in 2000. ... More than 40% of you Bush voters still believe that Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11. I'm impressed by that, truly I am. Your sons and daughters who might die in this war know it's not true, the people in the urban centers where al Qaeda wants to attack know it's not true, but those of you who are at practically no risk believe this easy lie because you can. As part of my concession speech, let me say that I really envy that luxury. I concede that. Healing? We, the [blue state] people at risk from terrorists, the people who subsidize you, the people who speak in glowing and respectful terms about the heartland of America while that heartland insults and excoriates us... we wanted some healing. We spoke loud and clear. And you refused to give it to us, largely because of your high moral values. You knew better: America doesn't need its allies, doesn't need to share the burden, doesn't need to unite the world, doesn't need to provide for its future. ... And I make this pledge to you today: In the next election, there will be no pandering. Next time we will not pretend that the simple folk of America know just as much as the people who devote their lives to serving and studying the nation and the world. They don't. ... * * * * * Clippings In a recent issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, the Atlanta-based federal agency said that bigger luggage is not the only thing weighing down airliners and causing them to burn more costly fuel. In fact, the CDC said, the average weight of Americans increased by 10 pounds during the 1990s - requiring an extra 350 million gallons of jet fuel to fly them around each year. SALT LAKE CITY, Nov. 16 - In a case that has spurred intense soul- searching in legal circles, a 25-year-old convicted drug dealer, who was arrested two years ago for selling small bags of marijuana to a police informant, was sentenced on Tuesday to 55 years in prison. The judge who sentenced him, Paul G. Cassell of the United States District Court here, said that he pronounced the sentence "reluctantly" but that his hands were tied by a mandatory- minimum law that required the imposition of 55 years .... Judge Cassell said that sentencing Mr. Angelos to prison until he is 70 years old was "unjust, cruel and even irrational" .... The question of Mr. Angelos's sentence was at the center of a debate as to whether it was fair to send a minor drug dealer to prison for 55 years when a murderer, rapist or terrorist, according to the same sentencing directives, would ordinarily receive no more than about 25 years. [China] today has more church-going Protestants than Europe, according to several foreign estimates. Buddhism has become popular among the social elite. Beijing college students wait hours for a pew during Christmas services in the capital's 100 packed churches. American universities, which for half a century have attracted the world's best and brightest students with little effort, are suddenly facing intense competition as higher education undergoes rapid globalization. The European Union, moving methodically to compete with American universities, is streamlining the continent's higher education system and offering American-style degree programs taught in English. Britain, Australia and New Zealand are aggressively recruiting foreign students, as are Asian centers like Taiwan and Hong Kong. And China, which has declared that transforming 100 universities into world-class research institutions is a national priority, is persuading top Chinese scholars to return home from American universities. ... Mr. Payne briefed the National Academy of Sciences on a sharp plunge in the number of students from India and China who had taken the most recent administration of the Graduate Record Exam, a requirement for applying to most graduate schools; it had dropped by half. Foreign applications to American graduate schools declined 28 percent this year. ... Some of the American decline, experts agree, is due to post-Sept. 11 delays in processing student visas, which have discouraged thousands of students, not only from the Middle East but also from dozens of other nations .... International students say it's not worth queuing up for two days outside the U.S. consulate in whatever country they are in to get a visa when they can go to the U.K. so much more easily. ... According to one survey, 56 million Americans say that nighttime pain interferes with falling and staying asleep. * * * * * Worst Political Quotes of 2004 "You bet we might have." —Sen. John Kerry, asked if he would have gone to war against Saddam Hussein if he refused to disarm "All of a sudden, we see riots, we see protests, we see people clashing. The next thing we know, there is injured or there is dead people. We don't want to get to that extent." —California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, on the dangers posed by gay marriage "Too many good docs are getting out of the business. Too many OB-GYNs aren't able to practice their love with women all across this country." —President George W. Bush "I actually did vote for the $87 billion, before I voted against it." —Sen. John Kerry, on voting against a military funding bill for U.S. troops in Iraq "Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we." —President George W. Bush

Monday, May 5, 2008

Catching Up: Best of 2004: September & October

Here's another installment in the continuing effort to distill the best postings from my personal mailing list. These are from September 2004. * * * * * Things to Look Forward to: Beijing Olympics 2008 Here are the top comments made by NBC sports commentators so far during the Summer Olympics [2004] that they would like to take back: 1. Weightlifting commentator: "This is Gregoriava from Bulgaria. I saw her snatch this morning during her warm up and it was amazing." 2. Dressage commentator: "This is really a lovely horse and I speak from personal experience since I once mounted her mother." 3. Paul Hamm, Gymnast: "I owe a lot to my parents, especially my mother and father." 4. Boxing Analyst: "Sure there have been injuries, and even some deaths in boxing, but none of them really that serious." 5. Softball announcer: "If history repeats itself, I should think we can expect the same thing again." 6. Basketball analyst: "He dribbles a lot and the opposition doesn't like it. In fact you can see it all over their faces." 7. At the rowing medal ceremony: "Ah, isn't that nice, the wife of the IOC president is hugging the cox of the British crew." * * * * * Late-Night Political News from About.com "Pundits are saying that Kerry's message is garbled. You know you're doing badly when you're running against Bush and you're the one who is garbled." --David Letterman "In a shocking new book by Kitty Kelley, acquaintances of President Bush say that when he was in the National Guard that he liked to sneak out back for a joint or go in the bathroom and do cocaine. Isn't that unbelievable? They actually found people who saw Bush in the National Guard." --Jay Leno "That's quite a claim that Bush did coke and marijuana. You know who's going to get hurt by this? John Kerry. This means Bush could now carry California." --Jay Leno "President Clinton had quadruple bypass surgery over the weekend and is recovering nicely. The doctors told him he can resume having sex in about two weeks. And Hillary said, 'If he does, I'll kill him.'" -- David Letterman "In the debate, stern-faced John Kerry looked like he was at a funeral while smiling President Bush just looked giddy. It was like a before-and-after ad for Prozac." --Jay Leno "I thought it was a pretty good debate. Both candidates got to dodge a range of issues." --David Letterman "The candidates were asked if they thought homosexuality was a choice. John Kerry said it isn't. Good thing he doesn't think it's a choice. Otherwise, he'd still be trying to make up his mind." --Jay Leno "The third presidential debate asked the most important question of all – which of these guys do I hate the least?" --Jay Leno "There's a new three strikes and you're out policy. But enough about President Bush in the debates. Let's move on." "Bad news for Ralph Nader. Today the state of Ohio rejected Ralph Nader's attempt to get on the ballot. Experts say this will hurt Nader's chances of losing all 50 states." --Conan O'Brien "Florida Governor Jeb Bush announced that to avoid any election return problems in Florida this year, this time he is going to announce the results before people go to vote." --Jay Leno "The latest polls say Bush and Kerry are in a dead heat. Reuters' three-day tracking poll says it's tied at 45 percent; the CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll has it 49 percent Kerry and 48 percent Bush. In an election this close, it's gonna come down to who wants it more and which candidate's brother is governor of Florida." -- Jimmy Kimmel "President Bush and Vice President Cheney have officially conceded that Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction. And today the soldiers in Iraq said, uh, can we come home now?" --Jay Leno "There are photographs of President Bush from the first debate and he's got some kinda lump in the back of his coat, and the rumors are flying that he had a special radio receiver and he was getting answers from someone off stage. Wow, it's like he's back at Yale." — David Letterman "President Bush's approval rating has now dropped down to 47 percent. You know that lump on his back? Well, it's moved to his throat." -- Jay Leno "Sparks were flying again today. Al Gore accused President Bush of using religion to support his presidency. And George Bush fired back that 'Al Gore's just mad because God made me president.'" --Jay Leno "They're doing the early voting in Florida and there are already irregularities in the early Florida voting. You know it's sad when the voting goes smoother in Afghanistan than it does in Florida." -- David Letterman "Ralph Nader said he has no intention of leaving the presidential race. It's not so much he wants to stay in the race. It's just that he has nowhere else to go." --Jay Leno "It's the last minute of the campaign and both candidates are using fear tactics. And honest to God, my fear is that one of them will actually get elected." --David Letterman * * * * * In a recent study, the strongest predictors for future suicidal behavior were a history of a previous suicide attempt, a higher subjective rating of their depressive symptoms, and a history of cigarette smoking. * * * * * Websites of Note Weapons of Mass Destruction http://www.coxar.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/ The Candidates, in Drag http://www.stickergiant.com/cand/cand_drag.htm

Saturday, May 3, 2008

The Linux Newbie Replies: WFM?

I published this one at, I think, Freshmeat.org in 1999. * * * * *

The Linux Newbie Replies: WFM?

Skilled computer users nowadays often tire of newbies asking questions that are fully answered in the available documentation. "Why are you asking me this?" they ask. "Why don't you Read The Fricking Manual?" That phrase, oft repeated (usually with a stronger F word), has formed a rut in the earth and is now known simply by the acronym RTFM. For more detailed documentation of this acronym, see http://harmless.rrnet.com/~glen/Unix/rtfm.html.

This acronym deserves a second look, however. Let us think back to its roots. Some of us may remember the corporate heyday of the 1970s and 1980s, when managers would put programmers on the spot with their own famous acronym, DYRTM (short for "Didn't You Read The Memo?"). In those days, many managers were liberal arts majors, journalism graduates, lawyers, and other verbose individuals who could easily crank out memoranda twice as fast as the programmers would read them, and about four times as fast as any ordinary individual could understand and apply them. So it was child's play for such managers to concoct new policies and procedures, and then yell at the programmers for failing to memorize and worship these endless piles of engraved dogma.

Yet observe how the worm turns! With the aid of this snide DYRTM acronym, management won the battle -- but it lost the war. Computer people took careful note of the way in which a simple, honest question could thus be turned aside with a smart-ass bureaucratic response. And now that the rug is getting worn out in the other direction, with managers traipsing down the hall for advice from computer gurus, we hear the mighty response: Ha! Take that, capitalist pig! RTFM!

Of course, programmers are generally more reasonable and logical than their managers. So rather than get dragged into another generation of tug-o-war with the so-called managerial elite, the discriminating programmer might consider several regards in which RTFM somewhat overshoots the mark. The general idea, here, is to observe that cute phrases, like profanity, are only useful when they are reserved for radical souls who know how to make a point with them. When everyone starts saying "Way, dude!" or "Go to hell!" or "RTFM!" indiscriminately, these terms begin to lose their impact, and someone must think of new verbal devices to take their place.

Let us consider, then, the following instances in which a newbie, upon being accosted with a shout of RTFM, might validly retort by saying WFM:

1. What Fricking Manual? In the late 1980s and early 1990s, WordPerfect had a marvelous manual and excellent tech support. By contrast, Microsoft assigned the production of manuals to a separate division, which would charge a separate price for them. This had great efficiency from the producer's point of view, but most users predictably did not wish to spend $30-50 or more for a manual in addition to the already high prices they were paying for Microsoft software. (Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, the so-called online help files that accompany Microsoft programs are often not as helpful as the books that Microsoft would like to sell you.) So for casual users of many Microsoft programs, and for other software that follows Microsoft's concept of documentation, it became much less obvious that a person could or should find and consult a manual.

2. Which Fricking Manual? The documentation for Linux and its affiliates, associates, parents, subsidiaries, siblings, friends, neighbors, and offspring (including Unix, Emacs, X-windows, and four bazillion other Linux-related programs and operating system variations) would now fill Yankee Stadium; and for newbies staring at a Linux command prompt, it is not always clear which of those commands, shells, or programs is (or should be) at work. Given that, RTFM is often inefficient advice. Users will reasonably resist the idea that they should spend four days seeking the answer to a relatively trivial question. It is not crazy to suggest that the expert who has the answer should provide it -- or, better yet, should point to the best source of documentation for questions like that one. Indeed, RTFM may aggravate the problem in some cases, where the user is asking dumb questions because of some emotional problem (e.g., lack of confidence that s/he really can make this program work). In such cases, a harsh reply is worse than none at all. It's worth pointing out that everyone's a newbie in one way or another.

3. Why not write a real Fricking Manual? After fifteen years of assembling PCs, I am here to testify that few things are more amusing than being told, by a native Arabic speaker at some PC clone shop, that I should just RTFM, which happens to have been written by a native Chinese speaker. Even today, amazingly, there are still producers of computer hardware who have not yet discovered that journalism majors -- the type who used to become managers -- are available cheap, and in many cases would be delighted to justify their liberal arts eductions by rewriting the company's impenetrable, alien manuals and Web pages in scintillating, entertaining, thoroughly absorbing English.

4. Where's the Fricking Manual? By this point in the game, I may not have succeeded in installing a working version of Linux, but I certainly have accumulated a list of 916 Websites containing tons of useful information, often phrased in ways I do not understand (probably because they do not tend to parallel the concepts that, for better or worse, I inherited from Microsoft). Call me crazy, but I begin to suspect that not every software engineer in this world is half as good with the written word as s/he may think. Let us learn from the example of lawyers: someone can use complicated terms about subjects that other people have never heard of, but that does not prove that this person knows what they're doing, that they make any sense, or that they are providing a genuine service to humanity.

5. Who needs a Fricking Manual? It is remarkable that, in an era of holograms, high-quality video, and million-color graphics, people still think we should all be learning by reading words scratched on parchment. Just imagine how you'd feel if someone required you to communicate by spelling out every word you say, one letter at a time! I mean, you could do it, but you'd probably refuse to. Similarly, we appreciate users who are excited about computers, who develop a taste for extremely rapid, hands-on learning -- but then we yank them up short and say, "OK, now it's time to read the manual and become bored and confused." Small wonder they balk! Many times, when we hear RTFM, we are dealing with a computer expert who will not, or cannot, understand and respond to the reactions that a piece of hardware or software is generating in a human mind.

No manual -- not even the Bible -- is written so well that it can keep its readers from forming their own sensible or nutty ideas about what it says. RTFM -- like "No way" and "Go to hell!" -- is sometimes a valid and reasonable response; but often it is a revealing comment on the personality of the speaker, or at least on the existence of some bad bureaucratic influences in the speaker's past. I regret that we had so many DYRTM-spouting MBAs floating around our corporate corridors in the 1980s; I only hope we can get over them.

It does seem bizarre, I agree, that developments in software (both the actual complexity of the programs and the ways in which players like Microsoft market them) should produce a situation in which people no longer know how, when, and where to consult the relevant manual; but that does seem to be the case at present. I hope it doesn't stay that way, though. I say that because, at this moment, I need some answers about Linux and I really have no idea where to get them, other than to write to this one helpful guy named Igor.