Accepting the System

I’ve played plenty of online games (as have most people who have computers).  I find it strange that we play games that offer different levels of “difficulty” and we don’t think twice about it.  Solitaire is the game that got me thinking about this.  Solitaire is Solitaire – 52 cards, win by stacking in numerical order by suit, everybody knows the game.  So how, exactly, does a computer game add difficulty levels to such a simple game?  Whether you play with a 3-card draw or a one-card draw, it’s 52 cards.  The answer is that the computer program alters the probability numbers – in other words, the games are rigged – and we seem just fine with that.  There is no such thing as a more difficult game of Solitaire than another without an overt change in the rules.  But that’s not what’s happening here; this is a deliberate alteration to make a game unfair and call that “difficult”.

This is what we’ve come to accept in today’s world as the norm.  How many of us actually understand what goes on in the computer world where we can say that our online transactions are safe?  More and more, we put our financial lives and our personal privacy at stake through online activity and we trust nameless and faceless entities to protect us, never knowing that they may be the first link in a long line of betrayal – and we wouldn’t know the difference.   It’s not so unlike the games: we don’t know what we don’t know and we don’t seem to want to be bothered with demanding better.  Have we become so collectively incurious that positing the questions concerning corruption or legal parlor tricks is asking more of ourselves than will ever happen?  After Assange and Snowden how do we know that anything has really changed… because somebody said it did?

How many other systems do we take for granted and just accept?  How many are rigged against us?  Is it too late to fix it?

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Ah, the Times in Which We Live… Sports and Money

Hardass-GM-is-a-hardass

©Paramount Pictures

Full disclosure: I am a Vikings fan; I have been since I was nine-years old and discovered these guys with big white horns on their helmets beating up on the Chicago Bears.  Over the years, what this shows, if anything, is that I can take a lot of misery.  What I can’t take is the seemingly endless line-up of overpaid prima donnas whose only contribution to the general consciousness is to play a sport.

Now I could spend my time here deliberating the pros and cons of one Percy Harvin, he of the migraine headaches and deliverer of headaches to opponents and front office personnel, alike.  His football talent isn’t really on my mind – it’s his yapping about his contract.  With the advent of big money in pro sports, there seems to be somebody, somewhere, on some team who doesn’t get the whole “team before self” concept.  These are the guys who gotta get paid.  Mo’ money, mo’ money, mo’ money.  Every year, we get to hear their Soliloquies of Self-worth, with a percentage for their agents.  These are the guys who treat contracts as nothing more than suggestions that are past consideration and college as nothing more than an opportunity to show-off for the pros while diplomas are for other people.  Who can blame them?  A single year’s payout from some of these contracts would set me up for the rest of my life!  Still there are those who complain they aren’t being paid enough.  And oh, how they are being disrespected by the teams who hold their contracts and don’t renegotiate!

I read an article several years ago, when corporate raiders were all the rage, that talked about how the obscene salaries for many executives of these Fortune 500 companies had gotten past the point of what was equitable compensation to simply one-upping the other big executives.  So while the earnings of average American workers have stagnated over the past three decades (and my salary from these years is testament to that!), CEOs across the country were engaged in some big corporate dick-measuring contest!  This is what goes on in pro sports and isn’t it about time somebody ask “how much money is enough”?

I suppose some “free-market”-types will step in and talk about pricing and salaries are commensurate with what the market will bear.  Well, the market is bearing public funding of stadiums (ahem, how are those pull-tabs working out for you, Minnesota?), PSL’s, and outrageous concession and parking fees.  I have been to one Viking game in my life and I got to see Cris Carter make his one-handed grab against the Falcons in Atlanta… sort of.  I had tickets where I could afford them and I would have seen the catch better if the Falcons would have stood more to the side so I could get a better view.  I watched a preseason game between the Buffalo Sabres and the Pittsburgh Penguins.  At the time, it cost me $80 per seat to sit on the glass.  During the season, that cost would have at least quadrupled.  Who can afford this?

So, Percy will just have to forgive me if I don’t share some sympathy for his plight of not garnering the financial respect he thinks he deserves.  Because if Percy was a smart fella, he’d have paid attention last year when the Vikings won four games when they absolutely had to win them and did.  Percy would have noticed that he wasn’t on the field during those games and that might mitigate the Vikings’ willingness to deal with an oft-ailing player who complains too loudly.  That sort of thing could find you a new home in Jacksonville and how much money would it take to ease that pain?

Whenever A Bell Rings, An Angel Gets A Job.

Now that the Republicans have taken the electoral pasting they so “richly” deserved, I get the impression that a lot of people in this country weren’t buying the line about tax breaks for the wealthy and corporations creating jobs.  So, I feel like talking about job creators.  This is the promise: we let the richest portion of the American business community have their tax cuts and everybody will benefit!  This is “trickle-down” economics.

Except that reality doesn’t work that way.  The aim of the capitalist is to get rich.  The aim of the rich is to stay rich.

What they are proposing is merely a continuance of making wealthy people wealthier and the rest get to suffer and starve on the false promise of prosperity that will never come because the system is rigged against the worker.  The disparity of executive to middle-class wages has continued to widen ever since Reagan was in office.  How many businesses have moved to foreign countries whose only promise was a low-wage workforce?  When was the last time you got a cost of living raise that actually kept up with the cost of living?  Have you ever asked yourself where all that money for the lobbyists and campaign donations came from and if they could have been put to better use elsewhere?

I find that Grover Norquist’s arguments against Warren Buffett to be laughable.  Warren Buffett is a businessman who knows how the business game is played and if he says that the richest of us can afford to pay more in taxes, I would be inclined to believe that he knows what he is talking about.  And what I really want to highlight is when Buffett says, “if I call you and ask about investing in a new business, you don’t ask me what the tax rate is.”  That is what is missing from the Republican argument and why what they are saying is so dishonest.  The wealthy get a portion of their money from capital gains, that is, investments.  That is the difference.  Investors aren’t job creators, they are… investors.

Now, it can be argued that without the investment, there won’t be jobs.  That is true, in part.  But an investment is just money: it isn’t the decision-making to run the business or the work it takes to make a business successful.  An investor doesn’t invest money because it will create jobs, an investor is looking for a return on his investment.  That’s it.  If the investment in the business creates a hundred jobs or only five, it doesn’t matter to the investor.  It doesn’t matter if the jobs created are even in the U.S.!  The only thing that matters is the bottom line.  This is probably why so many people saw through what Romney was trying to sell: it didn’t matter if he saved a business or not, he was determined to make money regardless for his investors.

Look at it another way.  We’ve all seen the commercials for organizations promising that for a certain amount of pennies a day, a child in a third-world country can be fed and educated.  What we are being asked to do is to throw money at a problem.  We aren’t being asked to run the charity or how to feed the children or anything else about accomplishing the work of the charity.  We are merely investors in the charity’s mission. We don’t expect a return on our investment other than the hope that we have made a difference in helping improve someone’s life.  This is the same condition that the so-called “job creators” find themselves in.  They are just throwing money at a business.

Now all of this isn’t to say that we shouldn’t demand responsible spending of tax revenue and cutting where cuts need to be made.  But let’s stop with the nonsense of looking at tax increases for the wealthy as a bane to business in the U.S.  If there is a chance that there will be a payoff, investors will invest.  Job creation is someone else’s responsibility.

The Lure of Radio

     I am writing a story about someone in distress and pleading into a microphone for a rescue.  Their only hope is that someone will hear and act to save them.  And the whole scenario got me thinking about the basic nature of that act – to broadcast one’s voice and hope to generate a response – and the early days of radio.  I’m not talking about the “business” of radio and payola and all that garbage or even Jack Benny and countless radio serials that played during the golden age of radio.  I’m talking about something more primal, more innocent: a radio station in the middle of nowhere, sending out a signal to countless listeners – or no one.  This is such an irresistible and evocative image for me.

     Even though I have what can be described as a “radio voice”, I have only been inside the control room of a radio station once and that was because I had a friend who was a late night DJ.  The pay was notoriously bad and after understanding that there has to be FCC licensing and all that, my urge to actively pursue a career as a radio personality was pretty much quashed.  But there was still something about the idea of being a lone voice in the night, smoking a pack of cigarettes through the shift, all the while saying whatever came to mind and playing whatever I wanted to listen to that I found immensely attractive.  The reality is that radio stations have historically been the dirty little tax write-off secret for many wealthy owners looking for a money loser.  Now it’s about ratings and demographics and I doubt I have the type of personality that could consistently hold a listening audience, because at the heart of what I want to do is whatever I want to do.  And today’s radio is so automated, so format driven that the type of radio existence I longed for is a very rare occurrence.

     But I still remember a 1960’s television spot for Radio Free Europe of a Hungarian-speaking DJ spinning a vinyl LP of The Drifter’s On Broadway and speeding through the intro in Hungarian until he emphatically ended with “Un Brrroodvey” (trill your r’s).  I would have killed to have a job like that!  I used to listen to Art Bell.  I look at Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly album cover and think about Wolfman Jack out in the Mexican desert broadcasting and shake my head, wondering what it would be like to live like that.  I’m sure the reality falls short of the dream, but what a dream.  What a dream, indeed.

George, George, You Really Weren’t Up To the Job In the First Place, Were You?

Yeah, I know, I’m not covering any new territory here.  George Lucas, for better or worse, has been one of the most important figures in moviemaking in the past fifty years and has been praised and vilified accordingly.  Over the many missteps that Lucas made over his career concerning his most important work, the Stars Wars franchise, the one that stuck out the most to me was that the excellent parody video, The Star Wars That I Used To Know, actually made Darth Vader a sympathetic figure, something that would be much preferable than what we were left with in Anakin being a short-sighted dimwit.

I know, without a doubt, that I could have done a much better character development with Anakin than was done in The Phantom Menace.  When the best plot line in your movie is a pod-race, it may be beneficial for creating excitement (aka merchandising), but it doesn’t make a “character examination” very character-driven, now does it?  Anakin should have been a bad seed from the beginning – not necessarily a mean kid and certainly not evil, but a manipulator, selfish, someone who is not likable.  Now I know what you’re thinking: “a main character who is not likable is not much of a step-up from a non-character-driven character examination and not a recipe for a successful movie.”  And that is where I say you would be wrong!  This is Darth Vader we are talking about!  This is the character who did not really have any sort of contrition for his life of evil, but still got the ol’ Free Pass from The Force at the end of Return of the Jedi.  So don’t talk to me about believability or that a bad guy can’t carry a movie.  What we got in the end was forced, dumb, and confused.

For all the wooden acting, the clothes-changing pretentiousness of Padme, the horrific attempt at comedy relief in the CG person of Jar-Jar Binks, the utter nonsense of the Clone War, one of the worst-named characters in the Star Wars universe in the person of who-the-hell-is-he? Count Dooku, the ridiculous concept of General Grievous (another bad name), the “prequels” could have been good, but Lucas was seduced by the dark side of moviemaking: special effects.  If you don’t have a solid story, you have jack.  Lucas surrounded himself with people who couldn’t work up the nerve to tell Lucas to go take a leap off the Golden Gate Bridge and take his bad ideas with him.

So why did I take the time to vent about things others have already covered ad nauseam?  Because when I see something as brilliantly done as The Star Wars That I Used To Know, I am reminded that something so important to the most important movie franchise in my lifetime was mishandled and my complaint is valid and shared.  Is it an important issue?  On the surface, no.  But if you think not learning from the Greek tragedies of real life could be a problem, if you think that people who worship money over all else are a problem, if you think people who revel in power without restraint are a problem, then, yes, this is an important issue.  George Lucas only screwed his movie franchise, there are others out there who are under the same delusions who would do much worse.  Are you really prepared to see the next sequel to Trickle Down?

Social Media: meh! (A Short Diatribe For Short-Term Memory)

Facebook!  Twitter!  My wife says I should get a Facebook account.  Why?  So she can “friend” me?  She already made the ultimate sacrifice, what is my being on Facebook going to do for her?  And Twitter?  I don’t need to see more examples of laziness in spelling and grammar in 140 characters or less.  Besides, I can’t work up enough energy to care to be that narcissistic or chatty.  I also don’t care how sites – including WordPress – and television shows try to push the whole Facebook and Twitter thing down my throat.  Can anybody write a sentence without jamming “@” or “#” before a name or subjective noun?  Geez!

Need some friends?  Go outside and get some.  Because you can get a hundred, a thousand, a hundred thousand, a million friends on Facebook and very few of them are really your friends.  They are just names (and probably made up) and will drop you as easily as they added you.  The ones who are your friends probably were already your friends!

I have two WordPress accounts, two YouTube accounts, a Newsvine account*, a LinkedIn account,  and two deviantART accounts – none of which I maintain with any measure of diligence.  Add the fact that I have my own website and I dropped my former MySpace account, and you may be able to see that Facebook and Twitter have no value whatsoever in my little slice of the universe.

So why do I put this here?  Because here I can actually write whatever I want to say in a proper form, just like an essay, just like a newspaper article and it’s there for all the world to see – or not.  If I give anyone pause to consider a topic, great!  If someone actually wants to read me, even better – and thanks!  But my thoughts would be here regardless; no affirmations, no “friending” necessary.  And I am not so self-absorbed that I think anything I write here could actually change someone’s mind – I think the internet is a lousy way to do that.  But I can do whatever I want without the added burden of Facebook or Twitter.

Besides, it’s more fun for me to patrol the internet and find things on my own.

*Dropped since the writing of this article.  I don’t miss it one bit.

The Chik-Fil-A-ing of America

This has nothing to do with the recent events surrounding Chik-Fil-A about gay rights or the rights of a private citizen to exercise his free speech.  This has to do with the way the company operates and how that type of business model is seeping into the way America thinks.

Chik-Fil-A is one of these so-called “Christian” businesses.  Like another business I know, Hobby Lobby, Chik-Fil-A makes a very public point of not opening on Sundays.  Great, but like those other “Christian” businesses that put the fish symbol in their advertising, I am in no way impressed.

So, with that as a backdrop, I once had lunch with my former boss, Dave, who I have written about before, and a colleague of his from Bob Jones University.  Dave’s son used to work at Chik-Fil-A and was a diligent worker.  They chatted about that for a while and then Dave’s friend commented about how Chik-Fil-A wasn’t open on Sunday and “that’s a good thing.”  There is something about that statement that rubs me the wrong way.

I wonder if Dave’s friend would think it’s such a “good thing” if everybody operated under the “closed on Sunday” philosophy of Chik-Fil-A and others.  I mean these people are not the stay-at-home-and-observe-the Sabbath-types.  They go to church but they will do other things afterwards.  They go to restaurants.  They go to movies.  They go to amusement parks.  They go to grocery stores, gas stations, the local mall.  They watch pro football, for crying out loud!  They travel for their businesses.  What if the airlines decided they weren’t going to run on Sunday?  What if all these businesses decided that Sunday was the Day of Rest?  It would suck, that’s what.

So here we have a business that makes a big deal about an empty gesture and they and others think it is somehow a commendable action.  It’s not, but it points out to me their lack of seeing the bigger picture: that we can’t operate the Chik-Fil-A way as a nation.  It’s this hypocritical myopia that’s turning the fixing of this country into a clash with dysfunctional ideologues.  You can’t go along thinking that you can enjoy certain benefits (not working on Sunday) while at the same time expecting others to be at your beck and call whenever their services are demanded.  It’s this type of thinking that infects the tax issues and social issues and it has to change.  We cannot survive as a nation if we are divided along the lines of empty gestures and postures all in the name of “no compromise.”  We need leaders who break the paralysis of political gamesmanship, not engender it.