Wednesday, April 30, 2003

Canary in a Coalmine

Warning: Gloom, Despair, and Agony on Me post ahead. Surf away if you desire happiness and light.

To my friends and family I've been squawking a long time about our government's steady erosion of our civil rights, and our protections from entities more powerful than us. If you don't have civil rights, you have nothing, because nothing really belongs to you (such as your house, your privacy, your life). For example, if the government can take your house and money for suspicion of a crime, as they can with civil asset forfeiture - brought to us by the drug war but steadily expanded since - then at any given time you are vulnerable to anyone and everyone who has power over you or even merely dislikes you. Simply put, if the government can take all you own simply due to a rumor, then do you really have any civil rights or do you really own anything? Answer for those of you in the cheap seats: No.

The government, exploiting the terrorist attacks on our country by non-Americans, foisted the PATRIOT Act upon us, giving them further right to spy upon citizens, tap our phones if they simply feel like it, come into our houses without our knowledge or even a judge's consent, and they can even arrest and hold us secretly without due cause, bail, or a trial. Well over half of the Constitution is now completely irrelevant. (The only useful section of the PATRIOT Act was the new ability to tap all of a suspect's phones - mobile, landline, etc. That ONE part made sense, as long as the previous protections regarding the tapping of a citizen's phone were in place, which they're not anymore.)

Also, there have been other, smaller recent "privacy" acts. When I went to pick up a prescription recently, I had to sign a piece of paper showing that I had read and "consented to" the new privacy legislation which essentially allows any corporation, insurance agency (including about any private person who would claim to have some need for it), or the government to get all the information on which prescriptions I get. And, I had to specifically ask for a copy of the thing I was supposed to read and consent to; they expected me to sign without reading it. Not that it mattered. The simple math is that if I had not signed away my rights, I would have been unable to get my prescriptions. So, not only do I have to pee in a cup in front of a nurse (I had to do this once with a female nurse in the room to insure I wasn't cheating) to prove to my employer that I'm not doing anything illegal on my own time (and, of course, alerting their insurance carrier to any potential life-threatening - read "expensive" - diseases), I now have to let everyone who wants to know what I take to heal or deal with any diseases for infirmities. Is anyone else getting freaked about this shit besides me? (Was I the only one who saw "Gattica" as a realistic prediction of our future?)

Though it's not directly related to civil rights, part of the equation is the infamous "deregulation" of industry, especially media outlets. This, so far, has brought you soaring cable bills and the ruin of popular radio since media giants, like Clear Channel, now own most of the radio stations, and thus can control the content of radio across the nation. This is small potatoes against the gutting of environmental laws, and other regulations that keep companies from poisoning, firing, or otherwise killing you. Still, once we had laws which regulated media outlets because they were recognized as immensely powerful forces in influencing public opinion. In response to the realities of WWII and concerns about propaganda being fed to Americans, laws were passed that forbade Germany or Japan (and perhaps it was any foreign media company) to own radio stations or TV stations for fear they could be used for anti-American propaganda. This was a good idea. I think those laws are gone now. And, yet, who could have imagined the surrealistic situation in which we find ourselves where the Dixie Chicks say something bad about the President and are immediately banned from the airwaves because most of them are controlled by cronies of the President? Didn't any of these bozos have to take the history classes where we learned about McCarthyism and other abuses of/by the state that I did? (Even the freakin' spellchecker in Word knows the term "McCarthyism".) I've read blogs recently that say things like a media owner's suppression of opinions they don't like isn't "un-Democratic," it is simply their exercising their right to free speech by not allowing others to have it. Dear God!

The "Right to Work" act in Colorado, and a few other states - brought to you by "Big Business that Cares!" (Motto: "Fuck You! Have Some Cake!") - essentially strips away any and all claims one might have against an employer for unfair practices. The only law left in place on the side of the employee in Colorado is that you can sue to be paid for documented hours worked, and that's it. If you are fired or laid off in Colorado in a way that is illegal most other places, you are primarily introduced to the concept of "tough shit". Lawyers say they'll take your money if that's what you want, but don't expect a win. Example: My wife got laid-off this last December (the favorite month for layoffs as it allows accounting to adjust the year's books to make profits look better, and the side benefit of suicides cuts down on those requests for aid from the government), and as she was getting the "heave ho" notification, her replacements were being trained in not 5 feet from her. In most states, a lay-off means there's not enough work, so the company can get "relief" by letting folks go for no other reason than financial ones. Thus, training new workers to replace the old ones is illegal. But not in Colorado and other states with the "Right to Work" act on their books.

Now lest you think I'm some sort of commie pinko socialist, let me divest you of that notion. I think Capitalism works just fine, thank you. However, I do agree with most of the legislation that FDR and other intelligent leaders introduced after the country nearly went belly up for good after the Great Depression, a lot of which was caused by the very situation our Republican leaders are trying to restore. The average working guy/gal needs some protection against huge conglomerates that would prefer to be able to use us like Kleenex. There has to be balance. Allow layoffs, but then enforce the laws when a company is just trying to finagle the bottom line by sacrificing people's livelihoods. Keep the government out of our lives and keep their damned hands off our property, like the Constitution says.

Anyway, let's recap; so far we have:
- Civil Asset Forfeiture -- Allows the government to take any and all of your possessions and money via simple suspicion of illegal acts.
- PATRIOT Act (with sequel in the works) -- Destroys most of the Constitution, allowing you to be spied upon without proper controls, and then arrested and held secretly without legal recourse.
- Various "Privacy" Acts -- Meaning you have none. And pee in this cup while you're at it; you look like a Democrat.
- "Deregulation" of media -- Providing the environment where you can learn the latest opinion you must espouse to avoid running across any of the above list, unless someone feels like fucking with your life anyway.
- Right to Work -- 75 hours a week with no overtime, unless your employer needs to balance the books because they've run things badly or illegally, and your paycheck will come after the lawsuit and after you've lost your house and you can only rent a flat in Pottserville, and of course since your company owns Pottersville, your rent will be subtracted from the check.

And now, to top it all off, the current wingnut Republicans are continuing their gutting of America by trying to remove laws concerning overtime and by changing when a company can decide to pay you for work you've done. Short version, they want all overtime gone, they want to replace it with "comp time", and if you still want overtime pay rather than comp time, the company can decide to pay you up to a year or so later, all that time earning interest on your money they've held back from you. (See the Molly Ivins' article below for details on "Consider the Family Time and Workplace Flexibility Act" (Senate version) and the "Family Time Flexibility Act" (House version).)

Is there an explanation for this other than it's just COMPLETELY FUCKING EVIL?

TLD: Notice how almost all legislation anymore is named the exact opposite of what the true intent of the laws are to be?

Note: I've included the whole article because doesn't provide permanent links to articles. Nonetheless: here's a link to Molly Ivins' current articles:

Molly Ivins

AUSTIN, Texas -- Boy, there is no shortage of creatively terrible ideas from the Republican Party these days. Those folks are just full of notions about how to make people's lives worse -- one horrible idea after another bursting out like popcorn -- and all of them with these sickeningly cute names attached to them.

Consider the Family Time and Workplace Flexibility Act (Senate version) and the Family Time Flexibility Act (House version). The Bush administration is leading the charge with proposed new rules that will erode the 40-hour workweek and affect more than 80 million workers now protected by the Fair Labor Standards Act.

To hear the Republicans tell it, you'd think these were family-friendly bills, something like Clinton's Family Leave Act, designed to help you balance the difficult combined demands of work and family. With such a smarm of butter over their visages do the Republicans go on about the joys of "flexibility" and "freedom of choice" that you would have to read the bills for maybe 30 seconds before figuring out they're about repealing the 40-hour workweek and ending overtime.

As The American Prospect magazine notes, when Republicans talk about "flexibility," it means letting business do whatever it wants without standards, mandates or worker and consumer rights. Ever since FDR's New Deal, working overtime gets you time-and-a-half in money, which has the happy effect of holding the work week down to 40 hours -- or at least preventing it from ballooning grossly.

The proposed Bush rules, which the two Republican bills codify and expand, would:

-- Exclude previously protected workers who were entitled to overtime by reclassifying them as managers. Companies are already using this ploy where they can get away with it. Say you're frying burgers on the night shift at McDonald's, making overtime, and suddenly -- congratulations -- you're the assistant night manager, with no raise and no overtime.

-- Eliminate certain middle-income workers from overtime protections by adding an income limit, above which workers no longer qualify for overtime. You like that? You make too much to earn overtime.

-- Remove overtime protection from large numbers of workers in aerospace, defense, health care, high tech and other industries.

Pay attention, this one is coming right out of your paycheck.

Big Bidness is lobbying hard on these bills. If you work overtime to pay your bills, look out. The trick is, employers get to substitute comp time for overtime, and the employers get the right to decide when -- or even if -- a worker gets to take his or her comp time. The legislation provides no meaningful protection against employers requiring workers to take time off instead of cash and no protection against employers assigning overtime only to workers who agree to take time instead of cash. Everybody gets screwed on this one, except the bosses. Isn't it lovely?

The proposed rules changes and the Republican bills provide a strong financial incentive for employers to lengthen the workweek, on top of an already staggering load. By 1999, in one decade, the average work year had expanded by 184 hours, according to Kevin Phillips' book "Wealth and Democracy."

He writes, "The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the typical American works 350 hours more per year than the typical European, the equivalent of nine work weeks."

The bills give employers a new right to delay paying any wages for overtime work for as long as 13 months. According to an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute, under the new bills an employee who works overtime hours in a given week might not receive any pay or time off for that work until more than a year later, at the employer's discretion.

"Without receiving interest or security, the employees in essence lend their overtime pay to the employers in the hope of getting back some time later as paid time off," the report states. "Employees' overtime compensation is put at risk of loss in the event of business failure and closure, bankruptcy or fraud. Furthermore, employees get no guarantee of time off when they want or need it."

The EPI explains why Big Bidness loves these bills: "A company with 200,000 FLSA-covered employees might get 160 free hours at $7 an hour from each of them (160 hours is the maximum allowed under the bills). That's the equivalent of $224 million that the company wouldn't have to pay its workers for up to a year after the worker has earned it. Considering that, under normal circumstances, the employer might have to pay 6 percent interest for a commercial loan of this magnitude, it could save $13 million by relying on comp time to ‘borrow' from its employees instead."

The slick marketing and smoke on this one are a wonder to behold. We're being told that private sector workers will get the same "benefit" of comp time as public employees. Wow, keen, except the government has no profit motive for pushing comp time instead of overtime. Boy, does this stink.

To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at

COPYRIGHT 2003 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC. Originally Published on Thursday April 24, 2003

Wednesday, April 16, 2003

Open Sez-me

James Lileks has a rumination (scroll down) on the cyclical geek reveille call for a new paradigm in computer interfaces. "We've got to come up with something better than the desktop" is the mantra. I agree with him that the desktop is just fine, thank you. Most other suggestions make you wonder if the presenter eats spaghetti with a spoon.

My only quibble is he wants for the day when we can talk to our computers, ala Star Trek. I think that would just be a mess. The formalized language you would have to use to address a computer would be harder to learn than using menus and buttons - and you'd sound like Spock with aphasia. Offices would sound like a Tourette's convention at echo canyon. No one could use the words "fuck" (men's most common choice) or "baby" (women's favorite) as a password because it would unlock half of the PCs in a 5-cubicle area. And since most operating systems get twitchy when you simply flip rapidly between windows, cutting, pasting and typing away, imagine what would happen if you were in the middle of dictating something, and the toddler approached the dog with a sharp stick and a lighter. "Sweetheart! What are you doing! Put that down! Owie! Where'd you get that?! Leave Muffin alone. Fire hurts! Stick hurts! Come back here! You're going to get a time out young lady! I'll paddle your behind! Watch out for the...oh DAMMIT! [large thunk and much loud crying in background] HONEY!" You'd come back to discover your computer had blown the hell up, reformatted the hard drive, or patchily transcribed the whole episode and emailed it to your boss. And forever afterward, your boss would be haunted by a mental picture of you dressed up in an all-leather hooded fetish suit, replete with zippers, suspended only from your nipple piercings while your spouse tortures you with hot wax and pointy things.

The sheer technical feat of teaching a computer when to listen to you, when to ignore you, and to be able to tell the difference between a command and content would be on the same scale as training cats to swim in formation. Theoretically it's possible, but is it likely it will ever happen? No, we're pretty much stuck with the keyboard for good.

TLD: This reminds me of a true story. I once managed a group of content editors for a text-searchable computer product (think of Google on CD). The workforce was mostly young men and women, fresh out of college or jail, because it was scut work, and most people moved on within a year to find something more meaningful to do, like bagging groceries or taking tickets at a movie theatre. Once, probably while in a boredom trance, one of the guys accidentally pasted a letter he was writing to a buddy into the middle of one of our regulatory documents. It was one of those mid-twenties crisis, is this all there is, I could stand to get laid more, we got sooo wasted last Saturday, kinds of epistles; we've all written and read them at one time or another. Cut to a couple months later, one of our sales folks was giving a demo, happened to get a search hit on one of words in this letter, and pulls it up to show the potential customer. There, in the middle of all this boring govt. regulatory text about blood clotting agents or something there is something like this: "I just don't know what to do with my life. I know! I want to dance!" I was the guy's boss at the time, so I had the onerous task of pointing out his error to him, admonishing him to be careful, and face the sheer mortification and embarrassment the guy went through. The look on his face conjured the image, to me, of an agoraphobic acrophobe standing at the open door of a skydiving plane, staring down the full 15,000 feet to the drop site, his pants and underwear flapping around his ankles, while that really hot girl he has a crush on is pointing at him (or "little him") and laughing. I tried to help us both get past it with a little levity, but I've never perfected crushing a beer can against my forehead, and to explain why I had my head bandaged for a couple weeks always lead to the earlier story. (OK, I made up the part about crushing the beer can; I think in reality I told him he could mail the CD to his buddy rather than the letter, and instruct him to search on "angst".) Anyway, he quit inside of a couple months, I think. Oh well. Sometimes you gotta cut ties, put out the thumb, and cross a state line to catch up again with your dignity.
"This house is clean"

Once in a while, I really enjoy starting with a clean hard drive filled with nothing but zeros, creating the perfect boot floppy, loading the OS, throwing on the apps, and then restoring the media thangs I like: pictures, docs, wallpaper, sounds, internet bookmarks, porn favorites. And then comes the configuring. Get it all just right. It's like a Zen thing, raking water-ripple circles onto the clean, white pebbles, placing larger stones where they think they should go. Or it's like spring cleaning, getting the stale air and dust out of the house. Trading blue screens for clean windows and blue sky. Pausing only for the upload of an occasional sip of beer and the obligatory download. Out with the old, in with the new. (And don't forget to clean up all the garbage files that Windows makes whilst forming itself.) Defrag. 'Tis a thing of beauty. 'Tis a thing of joy.

I've done it in Windows 3.0 through 98 (I refuse to move up to the new versions of Windows that allow Microsoft to check on your configuration and require you enter the registry key every time you fiddle with the devices. Microsoft will wise up about that someday, but only after Macs and/or Linux have thoroughly mopped up their ambivalent market share), hitting on NT along the way occasionally (NT is a total pain in the ass due to security and account management stuff - it's much like dating someone after they've had a messy breakup), reveling in the clean and pretty Macintosh experience, and finally lurching and tripping through Linux. (I did VAX/VMS way back when, but I finally tossed out those doorstop/childbooster manuals about 5 years ago when it was clear only crusty legacy systems and the military still use it). I've seen 'em all. They all hold special places in my memory. Some made me a better man, some were simply lessons on what to avoid in the future. To all the girls I've loved before.

The order in which you load the applications is key, because, much like the politics involved regarding how women run their households (see digression below), you have to load the applications starting with the least important and ending with the big dogs who will run the show, because applications, as they load, associate themselves to the file types they open, so the bosses come last. Determining this order is often as much fun as putting together the guest list for a huge barbeque and beer bash. You gotta get the charmers, the blowhards, the wallflowers and social butterflies balanced just right so the party rocks on until the last person drops or dawn arrives, whichever comes first.

TLD: Ever notice the tension between women who have to share a house or apartment with another woman? My wife and I are of the opinion the woman sets the rhythm and the tone of the household, determines what happens and when, decides where things are placed, so when you get two women in the same house for any length of time, let's say a mom-in-law visits for a week, there is invariably tension as they try to merge their calendars or, more likely, obliquely battle for dominance. Lesser mortals (for those of you in the cheap seats, that would be husbands and children) are wise to just stay the hell out of the way, not take sides, and when summoned for dispute management, respond in non-committal mumbles while furtively edging towards the nearest exit.

After everything's loaded, you have to go through and open each application, because most of them have some last-minute annoyance they spring on you, such as a registration key or some addlepated wizard that's supposed to help your grandma send email (she'll end up calling you for help, instead), and you don't want these things leaping into your path when you think of that perfect opening sentence for your next opus. Then comes the time to configure Word just the way it must be. I always need to add the thesaurus button (hey, Sting uses a rhyming dictionary, I'm gonna use the thes.), throw on buttons for hiding spelling and grammar errors, add the obligatory "paste special" button so I don't have to fight with whatever formatting some programmer thought was worth saving or not, and tell clippy to fuck off for good.

Finally, the moment has arrived for the final reboot wherein one revels in the speed, the lack of error messages, and the playing of the latest startup sound - I'm partial to the THX surround sound filling-rattler, myself. Then close it all down, because it's two A.M., and soon your wife will come hunting for you just to make sure you haven't choked on a pretzel or something.

Thursday, April 10, 2003


It's funny how sometimes the attic door on my memory seems to have come open in the night and one of the toys falls out while I'm taking a shower or brushing my teeth.

This morning I woke up with an old Mac Davis song called "Poor Boy Boogie" stuck in my head. I haven't heard that thing since prior to puberty. It was on the album that had his big hit "Don't Get Hooked on Me" where he warned young conquests that he would use them like Kleenex.

Mac Davis had a variety show for a while - remember those? Sonny and Cher, Carol Burnette, and Bobby Goldsboro (of "Honey" fame: "See the tree, how big it's grown, but yet it hasn't been so long it...wasn't big" ... "And Honey, I miss you, 'cause you'd help me rhyme..."). My mom thought Mac was something else because he shook his hips in a particular way when he sang, so we had the album and watched his show every week. After the Mac Davis show was the time to hit mom with requests for candy or a new toy because she wasn't on her game for a good couple hours following his hip thing.

Once in a while Mac would introduce the audience to the wonders of "eefing" or "eefn'". This is a form of scat-singing/boom-beat box vocal percussion that sounds like someone has a ping pong ball lodged at their epiglottis and is tragically trapped in indecision about either swallowing it or horking it up, thus making gasping, squeaking, "eefing" sounds, all while rhythmically slapping their knee and chest with one hand. Another way of trying to visualize it is it's kinda like Bobby McFerrin having an epileptic fit in the middle of "Thinkin' About Your Body".

"Poor Boy Boogie" was the "Stairway to Heaven" of eefin' songs. "Poor Boy Boogie" went something like this (if I recall correctly):

Po' boy don't need 'lectronics to make no rock 'n' roll
Po' boy got boogie woogie bubblin' in his soul
Po' boy got rhythm
Po' boy got blues
Po' boy got boogie woogie right down in his shoes

(...this middle part of the song must've been stored in one of those brain cells I killed in college, but eventually Mac worked up to the "eefing" part of the song...)

Now do your thang on the jug and the jews harp!
I'm gonna blow this old harpoon!
Now give me something to eef with!
Now add some funky old guitar!

At this point in the song, Mac would eef for a while.

I think next time they are blasting disturbing noises and songs at someone in a hostage situation, trying to wear them down, they should pull out "Poor Boy Boogie". It would take a strong man or woman to withstand that sucker at a few hundred decibels over and over.

By the way, if you think this is all a figment of my imagination, here's another story about Mac Davis and his effin' prowess that I discovered while researching how to spell "eef".

TLD: In an example of sheer, full-blown synchronicity, Dooce's post for today is about songs that stick in your head. Ain't that something?

(FYI, I get my sound links from CD Universe because it's the only place I've found that offers samples of all the songs on a CD since Amazon engulfed CDnow (the other guys who let you hear it all) like a big web amoeba.)

Monday, April 07, 2003

Oy. Evangelism. Oy.

Does anybody but an evangelist enjoy evangelism?

I have always been resistant to any kind of evangelism, for probably the same reasons most people are. I don't like to be told I've got to embrace this GREAT NEW THING that's going to IMPROVE MY LIFE. I also loathe the ersatz empathy and "caring" that all evangelists employ, outside of fundamentalist atheist evangelists, of course; fundie atheists tend to enjoy shaming their prospective converts. Christian fundies tell ya you're going to hell if you don't accept what they offer, laced with all the fake concern they can muster without a permit, and atheist fundies tell ya you're stupid and always will be until you join their mission to save the world from itself and embrace the great nothingness. Hey, guys, I gave at the office. Can't'cha see my "No Soliciting" sign there? Heck, "Blind Date" is on and I'm missing it. G'way.

Nonetheless, there we were, my wife and I, at a recent ultrasound because my wife is pregnant with what we hope will be our second child. We've had a couple early-term miscarriages as many couples do, and so during the ultrasound, my wife was answering some questions about those - pretty standard procedure. Of course, my wife expressed sadness at our previous losses, and then, suddenly, there we were, in the middle of an evangelism moment. This one was unique in two ways: 1) it was our first "live" Buddhist evangelism event (we'd seen Richard "gerbil boy" Gere on TV, of course), 2) the ultrasound wasn't over, and at this early stage in the game, ultrasounds are vaginal, so my poor wife had a wand the size of a cheerleading baton planted in her privates. The woman sat there and expounded on how the ego attaches to things and the only way to happiness (outside of the obvious immediate but ignored concern of having the wand removed, evidently) was to not allow our ego to attach to things, such as sadness over the loss of a potential child. Picture the tableaux in your mind for full effect: wife in stirrups with intrusive wand being held by evangelist; evangelist in full conversion mode; wife and I striving to keep our faces as blank and pleasant as possible to facilitate fast escape. It made telemarketing and pornographic email spam seem benign.

One time some Christian evangelists came to my door because my wife and I had stupidly put our address on a pew card when we were looking for a new church after we'd moved. This old guy didn't say a word; he just put the card and a pen in my hand and turned away. That should've been a clue, I guess. Anyway, so I open the door to these two forlorn souls: a man and a woman who were agonizingly shy, blatantly single, and clearly so uncomfortable about having to go and "witness" together - most probably because that was the most time they'd ever spent alone in the presence of the opposite sex - that they were both on the verge of either passing out, or dropping and fucking on the hallway carpet just to get past the tension. I invited them in once they announced their intentions and clearly would not leave until I entertained them for a moment. They robotically started in on "Have you heard the Good News of the Lord" or some other evangelistic cliché, and I raised a hand to interrupt. A full 20 seconds later, as they ground down to a halt, I explained that I was already a Christian, so they could save themselves some time and energy. They stared at me for at least a full minute, both through glasses so thick their irises looked tiny Indian beads in a glass bowl, and then started up again, more or less where they'd halted, as if I'd pressed "pause" on a CD player. So I held up my hand again, repeated my information, then did a little nutshell summary of the Apostle's Creed just to let them know I meant business and wasn't a Unitarian or anything. This only made them start over from the beginning. So I just surfed with it, path of least resistance and all that. Well, unfortunately, my wife chose that moment to come home from work. So they started all over again, even though they were very near the end of their script. Believe it or not, they were shocked, SHOCKED! when we announced yet again as we lead them to the door that we were already Christians, so conversion wasn't an option.

Needless to say, we never darkened the door of that church again. And, we haven't filled in a pew card since. However, we have a few more ultrasound sessions. Maybe I'll take along a Quarter-Pounder with cheese the next time as a subtle message...