Friday, December 28, 2007


Right now I'm a happy man. One of the reasons I'm happy is that Vintage Crime/Black Lizard has just re-released two more long-out-of-print Ross Macdonald novels, The Doomsters and The Barbarous Coast. This follows the re-release back in July of The Ivory Grin and The Way Some People Die. It's almost criminal that these and several other Macdonald novels have been out of print so long, in some cases close to twenty years. These are classic American detective fiction, but more than that; they are books that bridged the genre gap into actual literary fiction.

Ross Macdonald (real name: Kenneth Millar) was the third of the seminal Big Three writers in the hard-boiled detective genre. First came Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man), who established the form from its roots in the pulp magazines of the day. He was followed by Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely), who combined Hammett's hard-boiled nature with a not-so-subtle romanticism. But it was Macdonald, through his alter ego Lew Archer, who added a psychological dimension to the standard detective thriller and turned it into true literature.

Unlike Hammett's all-business Continental Op or Chandler's slumming angel Philip Marlowe, Macdonald's Lew Archer was as much psychologist or father confessor as he was a hard-boiled private detective. Archer was compelled to get to the reasons why the crime was committed, even if that took him back multiple generations within a family.

As a critic once noted, Macdonald's books aren't so much who-dunnits as why-dunnits. Starting with 1959's The Galton Case, Macdonald probed the psychological depths of cross-generational family sagas; the sins of the father (or mother) were often visited on or repeated by the son (or daughter). Archer wasn't necessarily out to bring the criminal to justice or to avenge the victim, but to discover the truth and perhaps bring a little peace to the current generation. As Macdonald had Archer say in one of his cases, "I have a secret passion for mercy. But justice is what keeps happening to people."

I find the Lew Archer novels to be among my favorite novels, period -- no genre qualification necessary. I'd put Sleeping Beauty, The Underground Man, or The Goodbye Look up against anything from Hemingway or Steinbeck; they have the depth and intelligence and heart of true literature. I tend to reread two or three Macdonald books every year; having some previously unread (and hard-to-find) books re-released makes for a joyous occasion, in my book.

It's a shame, however, that Macdonald hasn't stayed in the eye of the reading public the same way that Hammett and Chandler have. Perhaps it's because there hasn't really been a faithful film adaption of Macdonald's best works; the slightly off-kilter Harper and The Drowning Pool (in which Paul Newman changed Lew Archer to Lew Harper and played him in an uncharacteristic rakish fashion) don't have the visceral impact of the movie versions of The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep -- two of the best movie mysteries (and most faithful adaptions) ever. (And, I suppose, Paul Newman is no Humphrey Bogart.) Of course, Macdonald's books are so layered that it may be impossible to condense them for the screen. In any case, it's a shame that so many of Macdonald's books have been out-of-print for so long. (Fortunately, Macdonald's final book, The Blue Hammer, along with The Instant Enemy, are due to be re-released on April 8, 2008 -- place your Amazon orders now!)

(The fact that Macdonald was the logical successor to Hammett and Chandler begs the question who was the successor to Macdonald. Some have granted Robert B. Parker that honor; as much as I love Parker and Spenser, his fictional creation, I'm less convinced over time of the heritage. More likely, there is no natural successor to Hammett; with the end of the Archer books, the detective genre splintered into multiple sub-genres and authors, each worthy on their own merits but none advanced the entire genre as the Big Three had.)

All that said, having two "new" Macdonald books to read makes me very happy. I hope you share in my delight by going out and purchasing your own copies of The Doomsters and The Barbarous Coast -- as well as special ordering any other book from Macdonald's distinguished catalog.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

At War

President Bush likes to justify everything he does by reminding us that America is "at war." Just this week he used that phrase to attack Democrats in Congress who are opposing both his nomination for attorney general and his requests for additional military spending:

"Politicians who deny that we are at war are either being disingenuous or naive. Either way, it is dangerous for our country. We are at war, and we cannot win this war by wishing it away or pretending it does not exist."

Those are the president's words, not mine. Because, you see, I don't think we're at war -- and I'm neither disingenuous or naive.

Yes, our troops are in a war zone in Iraq and thousands of them have been killed as a result. But just because a few hundred thousand troops have been injected into a foreign country's civil war doesn't mean that the country of America is at war with that country, or those individual factions that are warring between themselves. If we're truly at war, who do we surrender to if we lose? Who surrenders to us if we win? In fact, what does winning mean?

If America was at war, you and I here on the home front would know it. We'd have food and gasoline rationing; our factories would be converted to churning out munitions instead of Mustangs. More noticeable would be the draft; millions of our sons and daughters would be conscripted by the military. Every family in America would be affected.

But none of those things are happening. There is no rationing, there is no draft. The average American feels not one whit of hardship over this so-called "war" we're in. Our country is not being attacked; our country is not in peril. This is a military action of convenience, not a war of survival.

Perhaps the president, when he refers to us being "at war," is not referring to the action in Iraq, but rather what he has variously called the "war on terrorists," "war on terrorism," or "war on Islamofascism." These are "wars" like the "war on drugs" is a war, wars perhaps of ideas but not of realities. After all, terrorism is but a tactic, and one cannot go to war against a tactic. In addition, we're not fighting all terrorists, only those who might be targeting our country; we're not arming to defeat those using terrorist tactics in Northern Ireland, for example.

As to the so-called war on Islamofascism, I don't even know what that is or who they are. More to the point, I don't see any of these people, whoever they are, organizing to attack our country en masse. Maybe a few foot soldiers here and there, but that seems to be more of a criminal action than a military one. Where are the troops invading our shores? I don't see them.

Is America under attack? My neighborhood isn't, and neither is yours. Yes, there was the single deadly attack six years ago in New York, but that's all it was. It wasn't another country invading ours; it wasn't Hitler storming into Poland. It was an isolated action by a small group of international criminals -- whose leader, BTW, our incompetent government still hasn't caught and brought to justice.

Bottom line, America is not at war. Some of our troops may be in a war zone in Iraq, but that does not justify the sweeping powers President Bush seems to feel a "war president" is entitled to. He is no more a "war president" than I am King of All That is Right. So let's dispense with the nonsense language and view things as they are -- not as Bush and Cheney would like to pretend they might be.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Sunday, October 07, 2007


I live in Carmel, a suburb north of Indianapolis, and the Carmel post office is a big one and a good one. Busy sometimes, as you might expect, but even long lines move fast when they have all 4 main counter positions and the auxiliary Postal Store counter open. (Especially when Joe, the guy who looks like Radar O'Reilly, is working; he's twice as fast as the other employees.)

So I had no problems with my post office. Some people complained at the lines around Christmas, but what do you expect? It was a pretty good setup.

Emphasis on the word "was."

Last year, the post office decided to augment the normal counter workers with two automated postal machines. No big deal; just two extra ways to get the job done. People don't use the machines much, of course, because they prefer the human interaction. Plus the human beings are faster than the machines. Still, nice to have the option if you wanted it.

But that wasn't good enough for the United States Postal Service. Last month they took out two counter positions and replaced them with two more of those infernal automated postal machines. Not augmented -- replaced. So now there are two fewer human beings to deal with, and two more mostly unused postal machines.

I asked Joe if people were really using the machines, and he replied, "They'll have to." That's customer service for you -- give the customers more of what they don't want. Now the lines to the human beings will be twice as along, while a lone manager stands next to the unused machines imploring customers to use them. Which we won't, because we don't like them. We like the reassurance of dealing with a human being, as opposed to the uncertainty of dealing with a machine. Plus, as I've noted, in this particular instance a good employee is much faster than these machines. Why use something that's slower and inspires less confidence?

Because the Postal Service wants to cut costs, is why. Fuck customer service, let's cut costs! (And still increase the price of stamps, of course.) Now people will have a real reason to complain when they're waiting in the now-longer lines at Christmastime. Good job, USPS. Maybe I'll start shipping more items out via FedEx.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Friday, August 24, 2007


And here you have it, the the primary reason that our presidential elections are so screwed up, from a Reuters news story posted today:
The presidential election is 14 months away and with as many as 17 candidates now running, U.S. television and radio broadcasters are elated at the prospect of billions more in advertising dollars...

Wall Street analysts predict television stations alone could bring in a record $2 billion to $3 billion from the 2008 election cycle, up from $1.6 billion in 2006 and $900 million in 2004. Companies expected to benefit include CBS Corp., Hearst-Argyle Television Inc. and Meredith Corp., with the latter two particularly seen benefiting in the early voting states.

The candidates have to start campaigning earlier to raise enough money to compete. The earlier campaigning means they spend more money. It's a vicious circle.

Raising all that money makes the candidates beholden to their contributors, and to the ever-increasing number of lobbyists and special interests. This, in turn, taints those who win, with the lobbyists and special interests making sure to call in their favors when it's time to govern.

It's all about the money. Cut the money out of the process, and you get cleaner government, less campaigning, and shorter election cycles.

The problem is, who makes all that money? Big media companies do. And if we cut the money out of the process, they stand to lose enormous amounts of revenues and profits. So you don't see big media companies pushing for election reform. No sir, you don't. It's not in their best interests.

It is in the interests of ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, and CNN to prolong the election cycle. The longer the election cycle, the more money they make. So why not drum up false stories and suspense as early as possible? There's big money in it.

A shorter election cycle would be a good thing. Elections without billions spent on television, radio, and newspaper advertising would be a good thing. Politicians who didn't have to spend all their time raising money -- and then taking orders from donors and lobbyists -- would be a good thing. But the media isn't interested in a good thing, they're interested in their own profits.

And that's why we'll never have significant election reform. Hell, you'll never even hear about any such efforts; the media simply won't report them.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007


The I-35 bridge collapse in Minnesota is disturbing on many levels. The personal, of course; I've driven across that bridge several times, a friend of mine drove it every day, and one of my girlfriend's church friends was best friends with someone killed in the tragedy. But more than that, there is the sense that this particular incident is indicative of a larger decay in American society. If one bridge can collapse, why not more?

It's interesting that the I-35 bridge was located in Minnesota, a state with a very good record of infrastructure maintenance; the Minnesotans are a very civic-minded people. I would have thought a collapse like this more likely in a place like Illinois, where the state of the state's infrastructure defines the word decrepitude. I hate driving through Illinois; the roads are in horrible shape, and the bridges worse. It wouldn't surprise me to wake up some morning and find that the entire El system had turned to dust overnight, the crumbling streets having swallowed tracks and trains whole. But we can only dream.

The fact that something like this happened in a state like Minnesota makes it even more disturbing. But it's far from the first of these infrastructure collapses; in recent years, witness also the levees in New Orleans, the steam pipes in New York City, and other less well-known incidents. Things fall apart; the center will not hold.

The 20th century in America was a century of construction -- massive, impressive projects, from the Hoover Dam to the Empire State Building to the entire interstate highway system. The 21st century, however, will be a century of maintenance; all those massive constructions have to be maintained, or they'll fall apart. And, as the I-35 bridge demonstrates, things can fall apart quite quickly, and with tragic results.

The problem is, maintenance isn't sexy. No congressman wants to sponsor the "White River Parkway Repaving Bill," when they can put their name on the "Ted Stevens Bridge to Nowhere Bill." And it's not just our politicians; the public doesn't like to spend money on boring stuff like this. In fact, the public doesn't want to spend money on much, except perhaps big-screen TVs; they want the services, but without the taxes. It doesn't work that way.

Unless we start spending on maintaining our infrastructure, we'll see more tragedies such as the I-35 bridge collapse. Somehow we have to get our minds (and our wallets) around the benefits of spending to maintain the things we have, rather than buying new and sexier things.

Experts say it will cost $188 billion and take several decades to repair all those bridges similarly deficient to Minnesota's I-35 bridge. That seems like a lot, until you consider the $1 trillion spent on the Iraq war. Which is the better investment -- $188 billion to keep our country intact, or five times that amount to destroy a foreign country? I know which one I'd choose.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree

Sunday, July 15, 2007


The Chinese know how to deal with corruption. When they found Zheng Xiaoyu, former head of the State Food and Drug Administration, guilty of taking bribes to approve untested medicine, they executed him. Just like that. Bad official terminated -- with prejudice.

I'm not a big fan of capital punishment, so this seems a tad severe. That said, where I don't think the death sentence does much of a job in deterring most murderers, I can see where it might have an immediate and positive effect on governmental corruption. Take a bribe, get a seat in the electric chair. Say goodbye to undue lobbyist influence!

If this sort of thing were instituted in the United States, there'd be a long line for the firing squad. Messrs. Bush and Cheney would be at the front of the line, of course, followed closely by Brownie and Gonzales and all their minions, down to the hapless assistants who can't bring themselves to say much of anything in front of Congressional committees. There's so much corruption and cronyism in the Bush/Cheney administration, it would probably be easier to single out the innocent bureaucrats than to name all the guilty ones.

Unfortunately, in the U.S. our corrupt politicians don't get punished for their crimes; instead, they benefit from them. There's no deterrent when offenders get a medal from the president and a fat book contract, instead of being taken to task for what they've done. In China, they execute corrupt officials; in the U.S., we reward them. How's that for an enlightened Western civilization?

I'm not proposing instituting the death penalty for governmental corruption. (In fact, I'm an opponent of the death penalty in general.) But I do think we need to get our moral and ethical act together and root out corruption and cronyism at all levels of government. Even if we don't line the crooks up against a wall and give them a blindfold and a cigarette, we can still throw the bums out on their bums. The bad apples have to go -- it's time to clean up our governmental orchard.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Saturday, June 23, 2007


Notice anything different about Iraq war coverage lately? It seems that we're fighting and killing a lot of "al Qaeda" troops. Prior to a week or so ago, we were fighting Sunnis or Shias or just "insurgents." But all of a sudden all those factions have become "al Qaeda."

Except they haven't.

Al Qaeda represents a small fraction of the people fighting in Iraq. Very small. Most of the combatants are, as they have been, Shia and Sunni insurgent factions. That hasn't changed. What has changed is that the Bush administration is now referring to all enemy combatants as al Qaeda fighters, even when they're not.

This should not, I suppose, be surprising. The Bush administration has been lying to us for so long it would be difficult to take them seriously if they ever started to speak the truth. What is disturbing is how easily the lackeys in the press have accepted this new propanda, as witnessed by this headline from Reuters: "U.S. and Iraq Forces Kill 90 al Qaeda in Offensive." And this one from the New York Times: "G.I.’s in Iraq Open Big Offensive Against Al Qaeda." And this one from the Associated Press: "U.S. Targets Entrenched al-Qaeda Fighters."

None of this is true; the people we're fighting are not "al Queda fighters," they're the same Sunnis and Shias we've been fighting all along, as pointed out in exquisite detail by Salon's Glen Greenwald in this blog post. It's just that our government and military leaders are now calling them al Qaeda. But calling them al Qaeda doesn't make them al Qaeda; they're still Iraqi insurgents.

Why this particular lie? By defining our opposition as al Qaeda, the government links our fight in Iraq to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, thus justifying the war as "fighting the terrorists there so we don't have to fight them here." It's all bullshit, and transparent bullshit at that, but it takes on a certain weight when the mainstream media repeats the bullshit without question.

The press has an obligation to report the truth, not to repeat government propaganda. If there is a single reason why our country is in the situation it's currently in, it's not Bush and Cheney and their quest for ultimate power, it's the failure of the press to do its duty. While there are exceptions (thank you, Seymour Hersh), the media today has abandoned the truth and thus forfeited its responsibility to help maintain an open, informed, and free republic. When the press fails us, our democracy fails.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Monday, June 04, 2007


Fred Thompson is running for president. If you listen to the supposedly left-leaning mainstream media, you hear that Thompson is a good ol' boy, a down-home conservative from Tennessee who drives a pickup truck and embodies traditional (southern) American values.

What the press doesn't tell you is that this image is totally manufactured. Thompson is a high-priced attorney who's made millions as a Washington lobbyist. And when he's not busy buying off our legislators, he's out in Hollywood working as a high-paid actor.

All that down-home, pickup-driving, traditional conservative nonsense? It's just acting. The good ol' boy from Tennessee is just another role Thompson is playing; the Thompson we see (or want to see) is an amalgamation of his various movie and television roles. The reality is much different from the image.

That's fine; politicians have always tried to create optimal images for themselves. What's disconcerting is how the media buys into the image. Listen to any of the cable TV pundits, and they spout the pre-manufactured line: Thompson is a strong authority figure, he's a Washington outsider, he's a down-home good ol' boy. In reality, Thompson is the consummate Washington insider, but that's not what the media reports. They buy into the fabricated image, and perpetuate it.

I supposed it's not surprising; the media has long opted to simplify the complex, and present the story that they think will attract more viewers (or sell more newspapers). Just look at how the media helped to sell George W. Bush during the 2000 election (and beyond), as the good ol' boy from Texas instead of the privileged frat boy from Harvard. I suppose Bush as guy-next-door Texan is a more appealing story than Bush as spoiled rich kid, but it's not the real story.

Same thing with Thompson. It'd be nice to have a real, honest-to-goodness populist from Tennessee running for president. That's not what Thompson is, but it's what he pretends to be, and the press buys into it and perpetuates the myth. They're feeding us what we want to hear, as opposed to what we need to hear.

The press should do more than regurgitate campaign press releases. They should dig beneath the p.r. and unearth the facts, and then tell us what's really going on. That's the disappointing thing about this Orwellian world in which we live; it's not that the politicians are lying to us, it's that the press is falling down on the job. We expect our politicians to lies; we need the media to separate the truth from the fabrications.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007


The majority of Americans want the war in Iraq ended -- now. Yet the president ignores the public and orders more troops into combat in a pointless "surge" of death and destruction. This is not news.

It is dismaying that the new Democratic congress can't muster the backbone to stand up to our madman-in-chief. First it was the toothless "nonbinding resolution," now it's the "compromise" funding bill. They tried to tie additional funding to a timetable for withdrawal, but the president vetoed that version. They tried to soften the bill, but the president threatened further vetoes. He wanted a "compromise" that was no compromise at all, a funding bill with no constraints. That's what he's getting, as our elected representatives totally backed down to our power-mad leader.

Why is congress so spineless? America has its collective back; we elected this latest crop of representatives precisely to stop the war. The people no longer support the war, and no longer support the president. Why can't congress do the will of the people and stand up to Bush and Cheney to stop the war?

This tells me that we really do have a one-party system, the party of the powerful, and it will do anything to perpetuate its rule. Republican, Democrat, it doesn't matter; nothing must disturb the continued accumulation of power. The constitution be damned and to hell with the will of the people -- the ruling class must continue to rule, absolutely.

If our congresspeople listened to the people who elected them, we'd be cutting off war funding and considering a raft of impeachment proceedings, starting with Bush and going down from there. The people would support that; the people want change. But congress isn't listening, so the killing continues and America's democratic heritage is fast becoming a thing of the past.

The system isn't working. We need change, major change, and we need it soon. The spineless need not apply.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Thursday, May 17, 2007


It's impolite to speak ill of the dead, but there's no other way to reflect on the Rev. Jerry Falwell. I'm not a big believer in good vs. evil, but if there is such a thing as evil, Falwell's actions over the course of his career were just that. I don't know anything about the man himself; he may have been kind and loving. But the effect he had on American politics, religion, and the civil discourse was poisonous.

Where to start? Over the years, Mr. Falwell made comments in favor of segregation and apartheid, and strongly against civil rights, Dr. Martin Luther King, gays, and most forms of tolerance; he was anti-Muslim, anti-Jew, and anti-moderate Christian. His beliefs were profane to the extreme, especially his statement that gays and feminists and abortionists and the ACLU were to blame for the 9/11 attacks. In public at least, Falwell was a hateful, spiteful, and hugely intolerant man.

Even worse, Falwell's merger of politics and religion, both conservative, changed the face of politics starting with the Reagan era and continuing into the Bush monarchy. Instead of keeping private beliefs private, Falwell's Moral Majority gave rise to the Religious Right and helped to steer public debate away from substantive issues toward so-called social issues -- abortion, gay marriage, evolution in the schools, and the like. This undue influence of evangelical Christianity, in service to some future theocracy, could possibly undermine American democracy as we know it. And Falwell is at least partly to blame for that.

Whether Falwell himself was evil or not does not excuse his evil deeds. For a supposed righteous man, his actions harmed countless poor, minority, and repressed individuals. His theology was exclusive, not inclusive; his fundamentalist politics, as embraced by two generations of Republican politicians, have helped to make America both despised and the laughing-stock of the the modern world.

Am I glad that Jerry Falwell is dead? Any death is a loss, but we're all better off not having Falwell and his ilk trying to impose their intolerance on America and the world. Let's hope that Falwell's influence -- due in part to his appearance at the dawn of the cable television age -- wanes with his passing.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007


So now we know how Rudy Giuliani will run his presidential campaign. He's not just playing the 9/11 card (his only card, IMHO), but picking up the Bush/Cheney fearmongering approach.

This week, Mr. G. (I refuse to be so familiar with politicians as to call them by their first names) flat out said that if a Democrat is elected in 2008, we'll have another 9/11. If a Republican is elected (Mr. G., in particular), there won't be any attacks. So whom would you choose?

The proper response to this is one word: "Bullshit." This sort of fearmongering worked in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, but it doesn't play anymore. Vote for a Democrat and we'll get attacked? No one's buying that.

Of course, it would be nice if the leading Democratic contenders responded in this kind of plain language. Instead, we get typical politician-speak, where the point (if it is one) is buried in copious amounts of cover-your-ass verbiage, sure to inspire the average American to tune out and turn off.

For example, here's how Senator Clinton responded to Mr. G's outrageous claim:

"There are people right now in the world, not just wishing us harm but actively planning and plotting to cause us harm. If the last six years of the Bush Administration have taught us anything, it's that political rhetoric won't do anything to quell those threats. And that America is ready for a change.

"One of the great tragedies of this Administration is that the President failed to keep this country unified after 9/11. We have to protect our country from terrorism -- it shouldn't be a Democratic fight or a Republican fight. The plain truth is that this Administration has done too little to protect our ports, make our mass transit safer, and protect our cities. They have isolated us in the world and have let Al Qaeda regroup. The next President is going to be left with these problems and will have to do what it takes to make us safer and bring Democrats and Republicans together around this common mission of protecting our nation. That is exactly what has to be done and what I am ready to do."

Two paragraphs where one word ("bullshit") would do. This is why I don't like Ms. C. -- too much business-as-usual politics, not enough straight talk. Where's the beef? If it's there (and I'm not sure it is), it's well-buried.

Senator Obama's response was a little more direct:

"Rudy Giuliani today has taken the politics of fear to a new low and I believe Americans are ready to reject those kind of politics. America's mayor should know that when it comes to 9-11 and fighting terrorists, America is united. We know we can win this war based on shared purpose, not the same divisive politics that question your patriotism if you dare to question failed policies that have made us less secure."

And, just in, here's how former Senator Edwards responded:

"Rudy Giuliani's suggestion that there is some superior 'Republican' way to fight terrorism is both divisive and plain wrong. He knows better. That's not the kind of leadership he offered in the days immediately after 9/11, and it's not the kind of leadership any American should be offering now.

"As far as the facts are concerned, the current Republican administration led us into a war in Iraq that has made us less safe and undermined the fight against al Qaeda. If that's the 'Republican' way to fight terror, Giuliani should know that the American people are looking for a better plan. That's just one more reason why this election is so important; we need to elect a Democratic president who will end the disastrous diversion of the war in Iraq."

I like Edwards' response better than Clinton's or Obama's (Mr. G. is "both divisive and plain wrong"), even if it could be a tad more concise. That said, I'm longing for that aspiring public servant to give the appropriate one-word response, and put the fearmongering to rest.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Service Update

A quick update on the Best Buy customer service situation. Turns out they weren't as good as they initially appeared.

If you recall, I had purchased a Philips DVD player that crapped out within the month. When my girlfriend went to exchange it, BB was out of that model and instead upgraded her, for free, to the "next highest" model.

Turns out, however, that the "next highest" model wasn't really. We had purchased the first Philips player because it offered upconversion to HD resolution. The "next highest" model, while a DVD recorder (nice bonus), was actually last year's model and didn't offer upconversion. The lady at BB who offered the swap, no surprise, didn't even know what upconversion was.

End of story, my girlfriend took the non-upconverting DVD recorder back and paid the difference to get an LG upconverting combination VCR/DVD recorder, the better to dub her old VHS tapes to DVDs. BB tried to be helpful, but ultimately failed because their staff was poorly educated. Lesson learned.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Thursday, April 05, 2007


A couple of notes about customer service.

First, a good story. I recently purchased a new 32" LCD TV and companion DVD player for my girlfriend. We bought them at Best Buy, even though I haven't always been a fan. I run hot and cold on BB; sometimes I get good service, sometimes I don't. In any case, less than a month after purchasing these items, the Philips DVD player crapped out. My girlfriend returned the DVD player to the Apple Valley, MN, Best Buy, where we had purchased it. Unfortunately, they didn't have any of the same unit to replace it with, so they sent her down the road to the Burnsville BB. This store also didn't have any replacements, so they just gave her the "upgraded" model instead. The upgraded model is actually a DVD recorder that sells for twice as much as the original unit, so we got a much better unit for the same price, very little hassle. Good job, Best Buy. You have two very satisfied customers. (And the cheapie Westinghouse flat screen we purchased is a surprisingly good performer, considering the $699 price.)

Now, a bad story. Best Buy's competitor, Circuit City, had a bad year last year and is now in the process of cutting costs. The way they're doing that is to fire their highest-paid store employees. (Not management, of course, just the in-store guys.) So they're taking their most experienced, best trained, and presumably best performing employees and giving them the old heave-ho. This tells their remaining employees that there's no point in sticking around or improving their performance, as this just leads to getting canned. And it tells their customers that they'll be getting worse service from now on. I used to like CC, thought they had better service and better-trained personnel overall than BB, but no longer. Apparently Circuit City thinks their customers don't deserve good service.

As a customer who appreciates and demands quality service, I say "fuck you, Circuit City." The quality of service at retail has declined significantly since I was in the retail business twenty years ago. It's apparently what the consumer wants; lower prices take precedence over quality service. That's too bad.

So the next time you go into Circuit City or some similar big box retailer and get served by a disinterested, uninformed, incompetent salesperson, know this -- you get what you pay for. And for the American consumer, poor service is exactly what you deserve. (But the prices are so cheap!)

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Monday, March 19, 2007


Four years ago, George Bush's army invaded the sovereign state of Iraq, supposedly in search of what were actually non-existent "weapons of mass destruction." Four years later, the country of Iraq is in much worse shape than it was before, the country is embroiled in the midst of a bloody civil war, and America has become hated the world over.

Four years ago,
  • Iraqis had a fully functioning electric grid, with 24/7 power
  • Iraqis lived in one of the most modern societies in the Middle East
  • Iraqi women saw a level of independence and acceptance similar to that in Western societies
  • Iraqis felt safe to walk their streets at night
  • There was no sectarian violence in Iraq
  • Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were still alive
  • 3208 Americans were still alive
  • 32,000 Americans were unwounded

Today, four years after the invasion, here's how the world looks:

  • Iraqis have only spotty electricity, with other utilities similarly demolished and barely functioning; living conditions are much worse than under the previous regime
  • Iraqi society has devolved significantly; the upper class has fled, the middle class faces massive unemployment, and modernity has been replaced with near-feudal living conditions
  • Iraqi women have been forced to adhere to hard line religious rule and restrictions; freedom and independence are a thing of the past
  • Iraqis not only can't walk the streets at night, they can't walk the streets in the daytime without fear of being bombed, shot at, or kidnapped
  • The country is in the midst of a violent sectarian civil war
  • Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians have been killed, either by U.S. troops or by sectarian violence
  • 3208 American troops have been killed in combat
  • More than 32,000 Americans have suffered combat-related injuries, many of them horrific and unrecoverable.

In other words, and no one in power wants to admit this, things were much better under Saddam Hussein -- for both Iraqis and Americans. Since Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction (or even of everyday type destruction), he posed no threat to the United States. The Iraqi populace, while somewhat repressed, were at least alive. They had electricity and running water and no one was shooting at them every time they opened their front doors. Life under Hussein wasn't perfect, but it wasn't deadly.

Today, life in Iraq is deadly -- for Iraqis and Americans alike. The Iraq invasion has proven to be perhaps the biggest foreign policy blunder in American history. And yet the Bush administration shows no sign of ending our long international embarrassment. The incursion that was supposed to last weeks, not months, has instead lasted four years, with no end in sight.

Still, the president pleads for our patience in seeing it through to whatever end might await. "Four years after this war began, the fight is difficult but it can be won," Bush said. "It will be won if we have the courage and resolve to see it through."

He is wrong. He has consistently been wrong. The "fight" cannot be won. Courage and resolve have nothing to do with it. At this point, Bush's "resolve" is nothing more than suicidal stubbornness. Facts are facts; Bush and his cronies have made Iraq a much worse place than it was before we invaded. Iraq is in the midst of a bloody civil war, and it's America's fault.

We must own up to our mistakes and get the hell out of Iraq as fast as we can. The right-wing war hawks think it is a sign of weakness to admit and correct our mistakes. Instead, they'll stick to their wrong-headed ideas until there are no soldiers left to fight. I don't know what sort of psychological problems these people have, but our soldiers and the Iraqi populace are dying for the hawks' misplaced bravado. Fighting till the bitter end is seldom the best approach to any conflict, especially if you're fighting a losing battle.

Some war proponents argue that we have to stay in Iraq because the situation will get even worse if we leave. Maybe that's the case, but things are also getting worse the longer we stay. Four years is enough; each additional day only makes things worse.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Saturday, March 10, 2007


If Hillary Clinton wins the Democratic nomination for president in 2008, I'll probably vote for her in the general election. But I hope she doesn't win; I don't want her to be president. Not that she wouldn't make a good president. Maybe she would, maybe she wouldn't. All I know is that a second President Clinton would be a very bad thing for our country.

If Senator Clinton becomes President Clinton, that will mean that two families will have ruled the United States for a quarter of a century. Our country has been run by someone named Bush or Clinton since 1988; that's the kind of sequential family dynasty that our forefathers rebelled against in 1776.

It doesn't matter whether this Bush or that Clinton was a good or a bad ruler; the idea of a ruling family (or two) is antithetical to a healthy democracy. America was not created as a monarchy. We are supposed to be a country of the people, for the people, not a kingdom ruled by the privileged few.

Think if the trends continue. Senator Clinton wins in 2008, and maybe gets re-elected in 2012. By that time, the Bush stench has subsided and brother Jeb wins the Republican nomination and the general election in 2016. If he gets re-elected in 2020, we're now looking at a dual-family dynasty from 1988 through 2024 -- 36 years of Bush and Clinton. That would have been unthinkable to our founding fathers, and should be unacceptable to us today.

Again, I'm not judging Senator Clinton's fitness for the job. Personally, I think she's both a shrill and canny political manipulator, skilled and intelligent yet two-faced and purely interested in her own political ambition. In that regard, she's not unlike the two-faced Republicans currently in the race, such as Giuliani and McCain, both of whom are selling their souls for the blessing of the religious right. All things said and done, I'll take a two-faced quasi-liberal over a two-faced quasi-conservative any day.

That said, I'd rather have a better choice, as would most Americans. That's where someone like Barack Obama or John Edwards has appeal; Obama for his freshness and lack of old-school political ties, and Edwards for his populist stance and positive message. I think either of these gentleman would make a fine candidate and a fine leader. We need new faces and new ideas, not the tired old political platitudes and certainly not another member of our two-family royal dynasty.

So that's why I'm anti-Clinton, and think she should be taken out of the race before the primaries are over. She should sacrifice her own ambition for the good of the country; the Bush-Clinton dynasty should end with King George II.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Saturday, February 10, 2007


There are a lot of important things happening in our world today. One congressional oversight committee is investigating billions of dollars of fraud and waste in Iraq, another is investigating the fabricated intelligence that was used to sell the war, the vice president's top aide is on trial for lying to a grand jury about that same pre-war intelligence, congress is debating just what it can do to stop the president from sending more troops to Iraq, and the president himself is apparently making plans to invade Iraq's next-door neighbor, Iran. Yet with all this important news to report, what is our mainstream media reporting?

Anna Nicole Smith. And a deranged astronaut with romantic problems.

Our mainstream media has devolved into tabloid journalism. Television and newspaper reporters pander to the lowest common denominator; coverage is dictated by ratings, circulation, and web page hits. The result is perhaps the lowest point for our media since the yellow journalism of a century ago. The situation is deplorable.

Obviously, a great number of people are interested in Anna Nicole Smith. They're also interested in Tom Cruise's baby, Jennifer Anniston's body parts, and Bigfoot. That doesn't mean, however, that our respected news media needs to devote all their coverage to these vicarious subjects. That's what we have tabloids for. Let the National Enquirer and the Weekly World News report on dead ex-strippers and diaper-wearing homicidal space travelers; CBS News and the New York Times should eschew such frivolous topics and instead report on the life-and-death news that really matters.

Unfortunately, when newsrooms are ruled by accountants, only the bottom line matters. So our media gives the public what they want, not necessarily what they need. Yeah, the Scooter Libby trial is complex. Yeah, the news from Iraq is depressing. Yeah, no one really wants to hear about yet another pending war in the Middle East. But we need to hear about these things, or else our democracy becomes a sham; a well-informed public is essential to a functioning democracy, after all. And the public is not well-informed when it knows more about Anna Nicole Smith's sex partners than it does about who's running what in Washington.

The death of relevant media can be directly or indirectly blamed on the rise of the for-profit 24-hour cable news networks. One such network was fine; CNN in the old days served a very useful purpose. But today's three-or-more-way competition results in too much airtime to fill and excessive pandering to the know-nothing masses. Call me elitist, call me an intellectual (oh that word!), but I want to be informed -- and I need my neighbors to be informed, as well, whether they want to or not.

Real news isn't always pretty, and becoming informed takes effort. Our news media needs to facilitate that effort, not pander to the low-brow tastes of an apparently congenitally disinterested public. The media must help us rise above our intellectual sloth, not push us further into the muck. Give Anna Nicole Smith a short bio in the entertainment section, but leave page one (and the hour-long cable analysis) for news that really matters.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007


President Bush is about to escalate the war in Iraq, in defiance of the overwhelming majority of the American public, our elected officials, his military leaders, and the country's best advisers. It is a suicidal action that has resulted in poll ratings similar to those of President Nixon in the throes of the Watergate affair. Yet still he proceeds.

How can we stop this madman? Our Congress, emboldened by the anti-war mandate of the 2006 elections, has taken the dramatic step of -- wait for it -- introducing a non-binding resolution opposing the troop surge.

They could have voted to impeach the president, but they didn't. They could have voted to withhold funds for the extra troops, but they didn't. They could have voted to cut all military funding related to Iraq, but they didn't. They could have voted to repeal their previous support of the war, but they didn't. Instead, they voted for a non-binding resolution. Non-binding. Totally toothless.

Our representatives are weak, spineless, worthless wussies. They have a mandate from the public, and they back down. They could help to stop this war, and instead they piddle, twiddle, and resolve. Nothing's ever solved when Congress abdicates its duty in this fashion. While they argue about the specific non-binding language in the non-binding resolution, President Bush marches forward, leaving more bodies in his wake.

It wasn't always thus. Rick Perlstein has an interesting article on that details how the Congress of a different era produced real legislation that helped to scale down the Vietnam War in the late 60s/early 70s. They could have done a non-binding resolution (in fact, such a resolution was proposed in 1970 by Senator Edmund Muskie), but stronger wills prevailed. Congress can put the brakes on a runaway president. The fact that the current Congress, despite the bluster, won't, is pathetic.

We must stop the madman in the White House. Only our representatives can do this. Write your congressman and senators. Tell them you want action -- real action that produces real results. Not non-binding resolutions and political compromise, but hard and measurable results. We have the power, which means they have the power. The madness must stop.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Sunday, January 14, 2007


So President Bush plans to go ahead with his ill-conceived and universally reviled plan for a "surge" of 20,000 or so troops into Iraq. Most experts agree that this surge, more accurately an escalation of hostilities, will have no noticeable long-term effect, save for the needless deaths of hundreds of U.S. soldiers (and thousands more Iraqis, no doubt). This action positions Bush as the Nixon of our generation, out of touch with the reality of the war, the pulse of the populace, and the political winds in Congress. He has ignored advice from his generals, his advisers, and his fellow politicians, and truly is living in a delusional reality of his own making.

Bush's troop surge must meet with a matching surge of opposition. As sane and loyal Americans, here is what we must do:
  • Contact our senators and congresspeople to register our opposition, and to urge support for legislation that blocks funding for this troop escalation
  • Write letters to our local newspapers voicing our opposition
  • Remember which politicians are supporting this suicidal surge and make sure that they are not elected to office in the future (that means no executive office for you, Senator McCain)
  • Start talking about the possibility of impeachment -- of both the president and the vice-president

Nixon's escalation of the Vietnam War was one of the factors that led to his downfall; it was the first sign to many middle Americans that the president was out of touch with the reality of the times. Hopefully similar good can come from Bush's escalation of the Iraq War -- and lead to his eventual dethroning.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.