May 21, 2010

Hey DC, Good Luck With That Medical Pot

Two weeks ago, the DC City Council approved the use of marijuana by patients with certain illnesses. Based on what has happened with medical marijuana in Los Angeles, DCers may be in for a wild ride.

California approved the use of marijuana for medical purposes in 1996, for "seriously ill Californians." A subsequent law made clear that medical pot dispensaries had to operate as non-profit "collectives." However, possession and use of marijuana for any reason, even medical purposes, is illegal under federal law, so there is always the potential for the feds to come cracking down.

In Los Angeles and other California cities, medical marijuana dispensaries -- identified by their signs with green crosses -- began sprouting up. In 2007, the Los Angeles City Council passed an interim ordinance to regulate the burgeoning medical pot dispensaries, establishing a moratorium on new dispensaries. The L.A. moratorium allowed only the existing 186 registered dispensaries to operate. However, the moratorium contained a loophole permitting dispensaries to apply for "hardship exemptions." Over 500 dispensaries applied for the exemptions, and were left alone while their cases were pending. In the meantime, dispensaries and doctors proliferated in the Los Angeles area, with estimates of as many as 1,000 dispensaries operating locally.

By 2009, things were out of control. Whenever I went to the beach in the L.A. area, pot was permeating everywhere. I called it the "Summer of Pot." On Venice Beach, bikini-clad girls on roller skates lured passers-by into a giant dispensary right on the beach. People joked about getting -- or got -- prescriptions for pot based on phony or exaggerated ailments. Fairly or unfairly, medical pot in Los Angeles gained a reputation as a giant scam being used more for recreational than medical purposes. Indeed, the dispensaries had lists of doctors to got to in order to get the prescriptions, and I never heard of those doctors and dispensaries turning anyone down.

But every bubble bursts, and so did L.A.'s pot party. First, L.A.'s City Attorney, backed up by the Los Angeles County District Attorney, declared that most of L.A.'s medical marijuana dispensaries were really for-profit pot shops in violation of California law. The pair vowed to prosecute offending dispensaries. They pushed the City Council, and L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, to crack down on the pot dispensaries. Earlier this year, the Los Angeles City Council passed, and Mayor Villaraigosa signed, a new medical marijuana ordinance containing strict zoning requirements (no dispensaries allowed within 1,000 feet of schools, parks, libraries, churches, etc.), and ordered the closure of all but the original batch of dispensaries fully registered with the City. A couple of weeks ago, the City sent letters to over 400 dispensaries in Los Angeles, ordering them to shut down by June 7. Hundreds more such letters are likely to follow.

But now, Los Angeles medical pot smokers are pissed. They had something, and it's being taken away, or at least it will be harder to get. Some of the dispensaries can be expected to the sue the City rather than quietly shutting down. Considering that many of them were left to operate for years, they may have a good case.

And this November, a statewide voter initiative to legalize small quantities of pot for use by adults for any purposes, even recreational, will be on the ballot in California. But as DC residents could probably tell Californians, that kind of party would be too much fun for the feds to permit.

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March 25, 2010

It Did Get Loud

The documentary "It Might Get Loud" isn't just for electric guitar freaks, or fans of "Guitar Hero" and "Rock Band 2." It's for music fans everywhere. Directed by acclaimed documentary filmmaker Davis Guggenheim, who directed the Oscar-winning "An Inconvenient Truth," "It Might Get Loud" brings together guitar legends from three generations -- Jimmy Page, Dave Evans a/k/a The Edge, and Jack White -- to share their passion for the electric guitar.

Meeting in a sparsely equipped sound stage in Los Angeles, Page, Edge, and White sit on sofas and discuss their favorite music, their songwriting techniques, and the career paths they followed to get to the top. The movie also spends time with each guitarist alone in his element and at landmarks of his past -- Page at the Headley Grange house in England where some of Led Zeppelin's legendary albums were recorded, The Edge at the Dublin high school where he and his fellow U2 band mates met and first played together and at home on the Irish coast, and White in the Texas countryside, where It Gets Loud for the cows near his front porch.

In the film, Page comes across as the guitar wizard, who helped usher in the modern era of electric guitar playing with innovations such as the distortion pedal and the dual-necked guitar (one with six strings, one with twelve, so he could play "Stairway to Heaven" live). The Edge is the most articulate of the bunch, his precision and economy with words echoing that of his guitar playing. However, some U2 fans may be surprised to discover that much of Edge's distinctive sonic wall guitar sound comes from a dizzying array of special effects technology, including a huge board of foot-activated switches through which separate effects for U2's most famous songs are pre-programmed.

But surprisingly, the true genius is the youngest member, Jack White, whose vision of re-creating the roots music of the original 1920s and 1930s bluesmen such as Son House is pure and unshakable. Of the three, White is also the performance artist, whose visual accoutrements range from the hat, vest, and bow tie of the bluesman to the red, white, and black aesthetic of his former two-piece band The White Stripes. In his film segments, White also incorporates a young, similarly dressed actor who plays White as a youngster, so that the older Jack White can impart his musical wisdom on himself as a boy. White also likes to play cheap, out of tune, even broken guitars, and constructs a crude electric guitar out of little more than wood, nails, wire, and a Coke bottle.

Perhaps the most joyful moment of "It Might Get Loud" is when Jimmy Page plays one of the most famous electric guitar riffs of all time, Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love." The supremely accomplished White and Edge are reduced to beatific smiles, White's head tilted like the dog in the old RCA ad, as they watch just how Jimmy does it.

If you rent "It Might Get Loud," be sure to watch all the additional footage contained in the special features. Besides extra playing by each guitarist alone and together, it contains a press conference from Toronto in which one clueless reporter engenders snickers by asking White about casting his "son" in the film. Then, White confidently shows his fellow guitar gods how to play The White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army." When finished, White tells them, "that'll be five dollars." And a worthwhile lesson it it is.

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February 12, 2010

Luge Tracks: Unsafe at Any Speed?

By now, most Olympics followers and news consumers are aware of today's deadly luge accident in Whistler, Canada involving Georgian competitor Nodar Kumaritashvili. NBC has been showing the crash over and over in slow motion. Much has been mentioned of how fast the Whistler luge track is. This misses the point. What I find most shocking is the row of columns, apparently made of steel, that Nodar crashed into. These columns appear to be just 2 feet away from the open embankment of the track. I can't believe this hasn't been identified as an obvious safety hazard.

Many sports have had to improve safety over time. While a full summary would take too long, one analogy comes to mind. The sport of auto racing was notorious in its early years for posing deadly hazards not just to the drivers, but to spectators in the stands. There have been some horrific crashes, especially the 1955 LeMans crash, in which the cars crashed into or over the wall, disintegrated, and sent shrapnel (described as "flying guillotines") into the stands at high speed. So, over time, this hazard was ameliorated by installing safety fences along the walls. Ditto for the glass above the boards at hockey games, the netting along downhill ski runs which you'll see in this and previous Olympics, improved helmets for football players, etc.

That's why I was so shocked at the proximity of those columns on the Whistler luge track. Surely the technology exists to put up some kind of safety netting above the embankments on those tracks. As often happens, someone will probably propose and require this now that such a tragic accident has occurred.

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December 21, 2009

What the East Coast Snowstorm and 9/11 Have in Common

This past weekend, as I walked along the beach in 70 plus degree weather in my Southern California backyard, I saw the snow-capped mountains in the background and remembered that my former home, Washington, DC, was getting walloped with record snowfall. I suddenly felt out of touch with the East. Then I realized that on September 11, 2001, the shoe was on the other foot.

On 9/11/01, I was living in the DC area and working just a few blocks from the White House. I was personally affected by 9/11 in a big way, including losing a former girlfriend on one of the flights, wondering if we would be targeted again in DC, being from New York, having friends and family working in the World Trade Center that day, and having once worked there myself. After 9/11, I was a mess for months, at one point being so distracted that I smacked my car into a support column in the parking garage of the building where I had been living for years.

But that was not necessarily the case with everyone in California. One person out here had an idea of how I and others in the East had been personally impacted by the events of 9/11, yet seemed oblivious and barely brought the subject up. I was plenty pissed off about that, and it caused a strain in our friendship.

Now, as I live here near the beach, and the weather is nearly perfect, I can see how folks in California can lose touch with their compatriots in DC, and vice versa. All those homilies we heard about how 9/11 brought this country together, even for a moment, were greatly exaggerated, in my opinion. There is a vast physical distance, and often a wide gap, between East and West. I tried to bridge that gap yesterday, on long telephone calls with my best friend and my sole family member who live in the DC area, to see if they were having fun and getting along okay in the snow.

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November 23, 2009

L.A.'s Medical Marijuana Program Sounds Like "The Godfather"

From today's Los Angeles Times:

“Cities have limited the number of dispensaries in two ways. The most common is to require them to be a certain distance from places that children frequent, such as schools and libraries. That's the approach in the proposed city ordinance. Less common, but gaining in popularity, is a cap on the number of shops.”


“The proposed Los Angeles ordinance would initially cap the number at the original 186 by requiring other dispensaries to close for six months before applying to reopen.

It also requires dispensaries to be 1,000 feet from each other, schools and other institutions. That would also reduce the number, but city officials are not sure by how much. A study of the 186 concluded that about three-quarters of them would have to move or close.

That has led some council members to suggest a 500-foot setback, but no studies have been done to show how many dispensaries that would allow.”

From "The Godfather" (1972):

ZALUCHI: I want to control it as a business, to keep it respectable. I don't want it near schools -- I don't want it sold to children! That's an infamia. In my city, we would keep the traffic in the dark people -- the colored. They're animals anyway, so let them lose their souls.

BARZINI: Then we are agreed. The traffic in drugs will be permitted, but controlled -- and Don Corleone will give up protection in the East -- and there will be the peace.

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October 26, 2009

Would You Have Children if You Knew They Would Die Before You?

Worse yet, if you knew they would rapidly age and then die before your eyes? That's why I can't get a dog.

I love dogs. I'm crazy about dogs. I grew up with dogs. I pet dogs, visit dogs, and walk dogs. But most dogs, depending on their size, breed, and other factors, can only be expected to live about 10 to 15 years. And after five or six or seven years, they may start to show clear signs of aging. The playful puppy who tireless chased down tennis balls is suddenly the white-faced older dog who has trouble climbing and descending the stairs. And then one day, not long afterward, ....

Maybe it's because, when I was a kid, I saw my four year-old dog struck and killed by a giant Cadillac. But even if that didn't happen, I would have outlived her, and a succession of other beloved dogs that I might have acquired, by many years.

I keep thinking of the verse from the song "Mr. Bojangles," which now I find out was inspired by a man who was grieving about his dog being struck and killed by a car:

He spoke through tears of 15 years how his dog and him traveled about
The dog up and died, he up and died
And after 20 years he still grieves

Like the man in the song, I just don't know if I could take it.


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October 20, 2009

D.C. Bar, You Got Some Balls

Note to D.C. Bar: you don't get to place deadlines on me to fix your mistakes. As a member of the D.C. bar, I pay my annual dues shortly after receiving their annual invoice. This year, I paid the D.C. Bar in mid-June. At the end of August, I received a refund check from the D.C. Bar, along with a note saying that I had paid twice. I didn't give this much attention, and figured that I had probably paid the first invoice, then received a reminder invoice before that payment was received, and then just reflexively paid again, forgetting that I had already paid once. I have done that before with my auto insurance company, which is also aggressive about sending payment reminders.

Then, a day or so ago, I received a voice mail message from someone at the D.C. Bar, stating that their refund to me was in error, and could I please return it. Today, I received an email message from the same person. However, her message states that "[t]he funds must be returned to our office by October 30, 2009." Oh really? As Sylvio Dante of The Sopranos might say, "what a fricken joke!" I sent an email back to the D.C. Bar as follows:

"Hi [name], I received a voice mail message from your office a couple of days ago. I am checking my records to verify whether the check was sent to me in error, as opposed to being sent to me possibly because I erroneously paid twice. Assuming that I agree that the check was sent to me in error, I will promptly send you a check in the same amount.

However, I find your statement that 'the funds must be returned to our office by October 30, 2009' rather curious. While I’m fairly confident that, if a check to the D.C. Bar is forthcoming, it will be sent well before the 30th, I certainly do not accept, and, frankly, am offended by, any D.C. Bar deadline placed on me to correct a mistake that the D.C. Bar has made and which the D.C. Bar took a long time to identify!"

That's as polite as I can be. Trust me, "curious" was not the first term I chose. Hey Sil, you believe the balls on these people?


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October 06, 2009

FTC Issues Rules Governing Paid Blog Endorsements

The Federal Trade Commission has issued new rules requiring bloggers to disclose financial or employment relationships regarding products they endorse on their blogs or in other online forums. The FTC's action, which began this past Spring, is a result of numerous cases of "blogola" (blog payola), whereby companies offer bloggers compensation, including free products, or instruct their own employees, to write rave reviews about the companies' products, without disclosing the relationships driving such inherently biased reviews.

Of greatest importance to bloggers, the FTC's new rules (which it calls "guides") contain a couple of online and blog-specific examples of when disclosure is required (violation of these rules would presumably subject the violator to the FTC's hefty penalties):

1. "A college student who has earned a reputation as a video game expert maintains a personal weblog or “blog” where he posts entries about his gaming experiences. Readers of his blog frequently seek his opinions about video game hardware and software. As it has done in the past, the manufacturer of a newly released video game system sends the student a free copy of the system and asks him to write about it on his blog. He tests the new gaming system and writes a favorable review. Because ... his relationship to the advertiser is not inherently obvious, readers are unlikely to know that he has received the video game system free of charge in exchange for his review of the product, and given the value of the video game system, this fact likely would materially affect the credibility they attach to his endorsement. Accordingly, the blogger should clearly and conspicuously disclose that he received the gaming system free of charge. "

2. "An online message board designated for discussions of new music
download technology is frequented by MP3 player enthusiasts. They exchange
information about new products, utilities, and the functionality of numerous playback devices. Unbeknownst to the message board community, an employee of a leading playback device manufacturer has been posting messages on the discussion board promoting the manufacturer’s product. Knowledge of this poster’s employment likely would affect the weight or credibility of her endorsement. Therefore, the poster should clearly and conspicuously disclose her relationship to the manufacturer to members and readers of the message board."

Any blogger with a modicum of integrity would already have thought of this. But if not, consider yourselves now "guided" by the FTC.

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September 30, 2009

Is Health Insurance as Important as Cable TV?

Screw the public option. We don't need it. Let's have good old-fashioned price regulation of health insurance, the way we had for cable tv. To recap, in 1992, Congress overrode President George H.W. Bush's veto and passed the Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act. This law, among other things, regulated the price for basic cable television service. The arguments made in favor of cable regulation apply even more clearly today to health insurance.

The 1992 Cable Act essentially treated cable television service as a utility, something everyone needs, like water or electricity, but which is prohibitively expensive for smaller competitors to produce and distribute. Congress noted that a relatively small group of cable operators controlled the market for cable tv such they were able consistently to raise prices faster than the rate of inflation. According to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), "Before the 1992 Cable Act was passed, cable rates were rising three times faster than inflation rates. I do not think you can name a consumer in this country who did not feel that he or she was being gouged."
Sound familiar?

Price regulation of health insurance makes even more sense than it did for cable tv. First, cable tv has lots of substitutes. Cable competes with satellite dish tv service, which has been gaining more subscribers than cable for some time, as well as broadcast television, which still gets the most viewers ("So You Think You Can Dance," the Super Bowl, etc.), DVDs (on which one can rent movies, cable and broadcast television programs), the Internet, and other forms of entertainment, such as live sports events.

Second, it's hard to argue that cable tv is more of a necessity than health insurance. The majority of bankruptcies in the U.S. are due to medical bills.

Third, not only does the health insurance industry have no competitors, many health care companies themselves have little or no competition. They have been given an exemption from antitrust laws, and, surprise surprise, have developed into regional monopolies and some statewide monopolies . As a result, it can be no surprise that the price of employer-sponsored health insurance premiums has increased at four times the rate of inflation over the past decade.

So, much more than cable tv, health insurance is a product that (a) nearly everyone needs; (b) has no substitute; (c) is controlled by a small number of companies; and (d) has skyrocketed in price, way beyond the rate of inflation.

Is it time to take away the insurance companies' antitrust exemption and regulate their prices at the federal level? Do you care about your health as much as your cable tv?

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August 29, 2009

My Ted Kennedy Story

February 1975. I'm a kid sitting at the Brodie Mtn. ski lodge in Massachusetts with an un-set just-broken right ankle. The first aid people had misdiagnosed my injury, slapped an Ace bandage on me, and sent me on my way. Since the ankle isn't immobilized, I can move my foot, which causes great pain. I've got the foot propped up on a table. I'm waiting for the rest of my group to finish their day of skiing (no cell phones that day), & feeling sorry for myself.

All of a sudden, Senator Ted Kennedy and his son, Ted Jr., walk by. Teddy Jr., not much older than me, is on crutches with 1 leg. It's a little over a year since Teddy lost his right leg to cancer. He's going skiing on the remaining leg, using those poles with the little skis at the bottom.

Talk about changing your state of mind. I learned a few lessons in that moment. Lesson 1: there's always someone in more misfortune than you. Lesson 2: sometimes, the less fortunate person is someone who you thought was more fortunate than you. Lesson 3: if someone's misfortune doesn't stop them, don't let yours stop you. Lesson 4: quit whining.

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August 14, 2009

My Earthquake Kit

While others obsess over phony health care protests, we in Southern California have a genuine health concern: earthquakes. Scientists predict that there is more than a 99 percent chance that a major earthquake will strike California within the next 30 years. I have felt at least four earthquakes in less than three years in Southern California and, in contrast to the reactions of many jaded natives, I do not find them amusing. Accordingly, I have done something to prepare for the next big earthquake.

In addition to the supplies I keep in my home -- water, canned food, candles, flashlights, hand-crank radio, simple plug-in telephone (note that cordless phones that require electricity will not work if the power goes out, even if the telephone lines still work), I have purchased a separate "earthquake kit" for my car. The kit arrived the other day from Emergency Essentials. I was most impressed with the very secure packaging in which the kit arrived. The list of the kit's contents can be found here.

Since the emergency kit seemed to be short on food, I also ordered a bunch of military-style Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) from the same company. Chicken and dumplings, mmmm. I also tossed in a jar of peanut butter, and will add some food bars and other snacks. My theory is that, in most cases. I will need no more than 3 days' worth of food and water for a couple of people (although I have considerably more water than that) before some help arrives. Emergency Essentials' website even contains a chart indicating how long the MREs can be expected to last in various temperatures. Even in the trunk of my car in California summers, I can expect the MREs not to expire for more than 4 years.

Hopefully, I will throw out many sets of expiring MREs before ever having to use them!

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July 28, 2009

One Giant Leap Backward For Mankind

No, this isn't about the moon. It's about the man. Specifically, it's about all the words that now begin with the prefix "Man." Here's a partial list:




"Mangina" a/k/a "Manwhore"



"Man cave"

New words beginning with the prefix "man" are seemingly cropping up every week. I'm sure that the journalists, screenwriters, and bloggers who invent them think they're so hip and clever. But are all these extra words necessary? Don't we have enough words in the English language already? Men have been wearing sandals since "Spartacus." Hell, since "Ben Hur." Wasn't the word "sandals" descriptive enough? And if there's no gender-specific term for female body grooming, why do we need one for men?

Next time you're standing by the fireplace womantle, drinking a Womanhattan, and thinking about whether President Obama received a womandate from the voters, you can ponder this one.

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July 26, 2009

Who is the Greatest Athlete of All Time?

Right now, my vote is for cyclist Lance Armstrong. Here is what Lance has done: Today, he came in third place in the 2009 Tour de France, arguably the most challenging sports event on the planet. Armstrong did this at age 37, nearly twice as old as some of his competitors. Armstrong's Tour de France podium finish comes less than four months after breaking his collarbone in a race in Spain. Moreover, Armstrong had just come out of a nearly four-year retirement from pro cycling. Before his retirement, Armstrong won the Tour de France seven times in a row, a feat that no one else has accomplished.

But more importantly, Armstrong did all of this after having survived cancer which had begun in his testicles and had spread to his brain, abdomen, and lungs. To be able merely to return to the top echelons of professional cycling after surviving this nearly deadly illness is itself wondrous. To win the Tour de France seven times in a row, retire for four years, and come back in third place at age 37 is absurdly improbable. Incredibly, Armstrong is already planning to race in the Tour de France next year, and some analysts say that, with a bit better conditioning, Armstrong has a very good chance to win it again.

Now, sports fans are among the most argumentative and passionate people, and I'm sure some fans have other ideas as to who is the greatest athlete of all time. Obviously, athletes besides Lance Armstrong have achieved extraordinary success in their respective sports: Tiger Woods in golf, Roger Federer in tennis, Muhammad Ali in boxing, Joe DiMaggio in baseball, Michael Jordan in basketball, Jim Thorpe in football and Olympic track and field, just to name a few. Indeed, some bike racing fans say that Eddie Merckx, who won the Tour de France five times, was a more dominant cycling champion than Lance Armstrong. But I cannot think of an athlete who has both overcome such severe illness and then reached and repeated such greatness in such a grueling sport as has Lance Armstrong.

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July 23, 2009

Don't Call it "Health Care"

The hottest domestic issue this month goes by the term "health care." For example, yesterday's headlines included "Obama Seeks to Rally Support For Health Care Bill" and "Obama Moves to Reclaim the Debate on Health Care." However, the term "health care" in this context is a misnomer. "Health care" is what you get from your doctor, if you are lucky. What is being debated in Washington this month is "health insurance," not "health care."

The difference is important, because insurance companies do not provide "care," nor, as we know, do they "care" about us. They would love for us to call them "health care" companies, as many people do, and to make the subconscious association of what they do with the warm fuzzy word "care." We shouldn't let them. Even "insurance" and "coverage" are euphemisms, since we know that these companies often don't "ensure" or "cover" anything.

Maybe the most accurate term for what these companies do on a regular basis is "insurance fraud." That's supposed to be illegal, isn't it?

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July 17, 2009

"Couple Texts While Having Sex!"

I haven't seen that headline yet, but I expect to within a year. People are texting everywhere else, so why not in bed? A girl fell into a manhole while texting. A guy I know was disturbed by the large number of people texting during a recent Hollywood Bowl concert. California joined seven other states by actually having to pass a law prohibiting texting while driving, as if common sense wasn't enough to prevent this act of colossal stupidity.

So, what's going on here? Is all this texting while doing other activities just an adaptation of the latest mass communications technology that has been taking place since the first men and women drew on caves? Or it the latest example of rudeness and inattention that one can commit with a cell phone or PDA?

I'm not sure. I think it may be a good sign of people's desperate need to connect with each other any way they can.

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July 07, 2009

I Watched It Today, Did You?

It was everything I hoped it would be. A formal ceremony in the round, complete with kind words, applause, hugs, and an outpouring of emotion directed at one man and his achievements. I'm referring, of course, to Senator Al Franken's swearing in at the U.S. Senate. Oh, you thought I was talking about something else?


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July 03, 2009

Michael Jackson Funeral: the Circus Comes to Los Angeles

Michael Jackson's memorial service will be held this Tuesday at the Staples Center sports arena in Los Angeles. Although I know some folks who will be covering this event, the Michael Jackson Memorial is now second on my list, after the Superdome during Hurricane Katrina, of Things I Never Want To See Inside A Sports Arena.

People are already camping out to get one of 11,000 free tickets to Jackson's memorial inside the 20,000 seat Staples Center. Vendors outside plan to hawk the same Michael Jackson t-shirts that were to be sold on Jackson's planned concert tour. The media mob inside and outside the Staples Center, and the area-wide traffic tie-up, will be legendary. I don't know how anyone will stop the news helicopters, which will probably number over a dozen, from crashing into each other. You think you've seen a lot of coverage of Jackson's death so far on the cable news networks? Just wait: the Michael Jackson Memorial will make Princess Diana's over-the-top funeral seem downright quaint in comparison.

Then again, I suppose this this combination of zoo and amusement park that will occur during the Michael Jackson memorial will be fitting for the former resident of a combination zoo and amusement park known as Neverland.

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June 25, 2009

It's a Great Day to Be a Cable Television News Anchor

Geraldo Rivera at Faux Noise: It's all about meeee! I was ready to shave off my mustache if Michael Jackson was convicted of child molestation. Let me tell you about my visits to the Neverland Ranch and the Playboy Mansion.

Larry King at CNN: It's all about meee! Here's a picture of me with Michael Jackson in 1971. Here's a radio interview I did with Michael Jackson in Miami in 1970. Here's me with Barbara Walters in 1957. Here's me with Joey Bishop before electricity was invented.

Keith Olbermann at MSNBC: It's all about meeee! Hear my deep, serious tone of voice as I fill 24 hours regarding the poignancy of Michael Jackson's death. Don't I sound like Edward R. Murrow or some serious journalist?

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June 17, 2009

Going Postal

Several days ago, I sent my parents an anniversary card with the wrong zip code on the envelope. Surprisingly, the card arrived at their home, all the way across the country, on time. This got me thinking about the U.S. Postal Service. The Postal Service is a favorite pinata for many people, who knock it for supposed inefficiency, lost mail, and workers who, every once in a while, "go postal" with an automatic weapon. But think about the millions of pieces of mail, many of which, like my card, are addressed with errors or at least bad handwriting, that the Postal Service accurately processes and delivers each day, for a measly 44 cents per letter. You can't buy a can of Coke for 44 cents. Nor a Snickers bar. Not even a day's worth of cable television or Internet service. And how many letters, postcards, and packages have you mailed in your lifetime? How many times has your mail gotten lost? I cannot even think of a single time that it has happened to me.

Some people claim that most everything in this world, including the Postal Service, should be "privatized." Imagine if the Postal Service was privatized. I cannot fathom that mail delivery would be any more efficient, or any cheaper. Just look at services like UPS and Federal Express. To me, they're quite expensive, and, despite their fancy online tracking capabilities, each of them has lost deliveries for me. The private Postal Service would also likely move its customer service call center to India, create an offshore tax haven in Bermuda, invest in risky derivatives, and then come to the U.S. Government -- meaning you and me, the taxpayers -- for a bailout.

So the next time the privatization crowd attacks the proposed public health insurance option (they'll do it again today), or other government agencies and functions, I'll be thinking about how our federal Postal Service workers delivered that anniversary card quickly and cheaply to its proper destination.

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June 08, 2009

GM, Charging Boldly into the Past

Last Friday, I spotted a new Chevrolet Camaro, very similar to the 2006 concept version pictured above. Although the new Camaro is great-looking, stirs the senses, and faithfully harks back to the original Camaros of the 1960s, the problem is just that -- the Camaro is, literally, a car of the past. On Saturday, I read this article in the Washington Post, which confirmed my fears about the Camaro, its bankrupt manufacturer, General Motors, and GM's 76 year-old Vice Chairman and former global product development chief, Bob Lutz. Incredibly, they just don't get it.

The Camaro comes with either a hefty 3.6 liter V6 engine with 304 horsepower, or a much heftier 6.2 liter V8 engine. The Camaro weighs from over 3,700 to over 3,800 pounds. Fuel "economy," if you can call it that, for the Camaro is rated at only 17 miles per gallon city/29 highway for the smaller engine, and an even worse 16/24 for the larger one. In other words, the Camaro is a "muscle car" that reflects little change from its forty year-old ancestors. This is at a time where President Obama has raised the U.S. fuel economy requirements to 42 mpg for cars by 2016.

So what does GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz have to say about this? Tellingly, he drives a Corvette, another GM gas-guzzling muscle car based on even older ancestors than the Camaro. But wait -- GM is developing and marketing the hell out of a true car of the future: the all-electric Chevrolet Volt. Isn't it? Well, not so much. As the Washington Post reports, Lutz says, "If you look at most of the mainstream media, you get the impression that 95 percent of Americans today want a vehicle like the Chevrolet Volt or a [hybrid such as the] Toyota Prius . . . . And that, by God, the reason General Motors is in trouble, is that we have not offered a vehicle like that. But when you look at the reality, at today's fuel prices, most Americans still want a conventional car." Then why is GM developing the Volt at all? Lutz says, "[b]ecause it is an important symbol. We need it. It has a chance to change our image."

What? GM is half-heartedly putting out a car that its executives think Americans don't even want, merely for reasons of "image"? And Lutz thinks people want to buy Camaros instead, based on "today's fuel prices?" Has Lutz paid any attention to the rapid rise of oil and fuel prices at the pump in recent months? It's obvious to almost everyone, except Bob Lutz, apparently, that we are never going to see $ 2 or less per gallon gas again. It's also shockingly obvious to me that General Motors executives like Bob Lutz still don't get it. When it comes to looking backward when developing cars like the "new" Camaro," they have no trouble seeing back decades. But when it comes to looking forward, the limits of their vision seems to be a few months at most. Meanwhile, Toyota is coming out with the third generation of its wildly successful Prius Hybrid, which gets 50 miles per gallon and comes with such innovative features as solar-powered ventilation. Whose business plan do you think is better, GM's or Toyota's?

Now that I and the other American taxpayers own 60 percent of GM, I'd like to vote my shares. My first vote would be to replace dinosaurs like Bob Lutz, and to get some new executives with some fresh, forward, realistic thinking in there, quickly.

UPDATE: Hours after I wrote this post and just as I am publishing it, news comes today that Bob Lutz is leaving GM. That's a good first step.

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May 31, 2009

Slumdog is a Dog

I finally saw Slumdog Millionaire. Hated it. I had a feeling that Slumdog wouldn't be quite as good as it was hyped up to be, even though every person I know who saw it in the theater told me Slumdog was the best movie of last year. These people neglected to tell me that Slumdog uses just about every Hollywood movie cliche to create an emotional experience that is no different from that found in the most formulaic movies of all time, including Rocky, E.T., and Titanic.

The most manipulative trick in Slumdog is the exploitation and placing of children in peril. That is probably three-fourths of the content of the entire movie. To me it's the cheapest of stunts. The remainder of Slumdog is made up of ridiculous coincidences in which *spoiler alert* the answer to each question asked of the main character on a nationally televised game show just happens to be something that he experienced precisely during that aforementioned traumatic childhood.

What is most disappointing is that Slumdog's director is Danny Boyle, who rose to prominence by directing such innovative films as Trainspotting and 28 Days Later. Other than the thrilling soundtrack and bright color palette (which sounded and looked, respectively, truly awesome on Blu-Ray dvd), I could find not a trace of the old, brilliant Danny Boyle in Slumdog.

It's true that, like Rocky, E.T.,and Titanic, Slumdog Millionaire was immensely popular and won some of the top Academy Awards. But I hated those movies too. I have not yet seen all of the Oscar contenders from 2008, but I can name at least three thus far (The Reader, Milk, and The Wrestler) that were ten times better than Slumdog. Watch some of them back-to-back at home, as I did with The Reader and Slumdog, and I think you'll find that there is no comparison.


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May 19, 2009

Federal Trade Commission Goes After Bloggers

Business Week reports that the Federal Trade Commission plans to issue guidelines this summer requiring bloggers to disclose when they are being compensated by an advertiser to endorse a product. The guidelines are being enacted in the midst of what is being called a "blogola" scandal (an ungainly term that tries to conjure up the radio "payola" scandals of the 1960s, wherein record companies compensated some of the nation's premier disc jockeys to play certain records), in which advertisers are compensating bloggers with cash, laptops and other goodies in order to write positive reviews of their products. I have received several such offers and immediately felt dirty about even considering them.

However, I'm sure there are more than a few bloggers who fiercely value their free speech, for good reason, of course, and who will say that the FTC's planned rules will violate their First Amendment rights. As they teach in law school, however, fully "free speech" does not exist in the U.S. The classic example is that you are not allowed to yell "fire!" in a crowded movie house. As Woody Allen once wrote, however, you are presumably permitted to yell "movie!" in a crowded firehouse.

Advertising is one area where speech really isn't free. Federal law prohibits "unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce," and the FTC is charged with enforcing this law. I for one don't mind this at all. For instance, I have no problem with the fact that it is illegal for a drug company to claim that a certain drug in their asthma inhaler helps kids breathe when they are having an asthma attack, when in fact the drug does no such thing, and a child then has an asthma attack, uses the company's inhaler, and dies.

If Business Week's report is correct, the FTC's proposed guidelines would not curtail bloggers' free speech in any event. The FTC would merely require bloggers who are being paid to endorse a product to disclose this fact. Once they do so, they are still free to spread their phony endorsements all over the Internet.

Law or no law, it seems to me that, if a company has to advertise its product in a secretive way, perhaps it should look into the quality of the product.

(h/t to The Huffington Post)

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April 26, 2009

Are You Panicked About the Swine Flu Yet?

I wouldn't blame you if you were. Once again, the media are fanning the flames of fear. Remember the killer bees from Africa? The Y2K computer meltdown? This time it's the swine flu outbreak from Mexico.

It's true that the U.S. Government has declared an "emergency" over the swine flu outbreak. "Emergency" sounds like a scary word that's not a big step from "panic," but really it's just an appropriate step for the government in order to release federal funds and the like. There have only been 20 confirmed cases of swine flu reported thus far in the U.S. That's hardly cause for panic, and is a tiny number compared to gun shootings, car accidents, mercury-filled coal plant emissions, high fructose corn syrup, and many other things that we really should be concerned about.

Unfortunately, the media tend to blow the latest thing out of proportion prematurely. And, coincidentally, they then run advertisements for pain relievers and other drug company products. I for one trust my body's defenses to fight off the swine flu, the killer bees, the Y2K virus, and most of the other germs that have caused the human body, through thousands of years of evolution, to become the powerful fighter that it is.


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April 04, 2009

Tom Braden and the Death of Cable Television News

You probably don't know the name Tom Braden. What if I mention CNN's "Crossfire" or the television program "Eight is Enough"? Tom Braden was an originator of both, and he died yesterday at age 92.

Braden joined the CIA, ran unsuccessfully for Lieutenant Governor of California in 1966, then became somewhat famous when he wrote the book "Eight is Enough," published in 1975, about his experiences as a dad raising eight children. The book was developed into a hit tv series of the same name, which featured dad "Tom Bradford" and his eight children, and launched the career of teen heartthrob-turned-pathetic reality show loser Willie Aames.

Braden, a liberal, then co-hosted a Washington, D.C. radio program called "Confrontation," which pitted him against conservative Pat Buchanan, tackling substantive issues of the day. The fledgling Cable News Network ("CNN") took on Braden and Buchanan and turned "Confrontation" into "Crossfire."

The fiery Buchanan and the equally feisty liberal lion Braden were perfect for the new 24-hour cable news medium. They would invite a guest to sit between them and get caught in the "Crossfire." I know -- I worked on "Crossfire" as a college student. Research and preparation for Buchanan and Braden was an easy job, because each of them was so knowledgeable and so well prepared that they didn't need my help. I remember one hilarious episode, recounted in this CNN article, where the guest was the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Braden was especially contemptuous of this man, asking "should I call you Mister Wizard?" At one point the guest had to remind Braden that he, the Wizard, had been invited on the program after all. Here's a YouTube video of Braden's "Crossfire" program in 1986, where guest Frank Zappa defended free speech in music.

After several changes in personnel on "Crossfire," CNN canceled "Crossfire" in 2005. In doing so, CNN President Jonathan Klein specifically cited Jon Stewart's memorable appearance on the program, where, as this YouTube video shows, an angry Stewart chastised "Crossfire" commentators Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala, as well as the cable television news networks generally, for "hurting America" by merely shouting opinions at each other instead of offering substantive information and holding politicians' feet to the fire. In canceling "Crossfire," CNN's Klein stated "I agree wholeheartedly with Jon Stewart's overall premise."

Unfortunately, neither CNN nor the other cable television news networks followed Stewart's advice. Just like Willie Aames, cable news gets both more shrill and more inane every day. For example, during last week's G20 Summit, against the backdrop of the worst global economic crisis since the Great Depression, how many stories about iPods and queen hugs have the cable news networks aired? It's gotten so bad that even I, with my background in and love for this business, have had to tune out. Somehow, I don't think that's what Tom Braden had in mind.

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March 31, 2009

Netflix Giant Price Increase Causes Customer Relations Fiasco

My new name for Netflix is Netfux. If you are a Netflix customer who rents Blu-Ray DVDs, by now you have probably received an email from Netflix announcing a huge price increase for Blu-Ray DVD rentals. The increase is supposed to take effect on your next Netflix monthly statement, on or about April 27. This is the second time in six months that Netflix has added a Blu-Ray surcharge, and this time the increase is much greater. In my case (3 DVDs per month plan), after a $1 increase last October, Netflix wants to charge me an additional $3 per month. Based on my $17 per month rate ($16 before last October's surcharge), these surcharges amount to nearly 25%. That's not going to happen.

The large Netflix price hike makes no sense. Netflix states that the price for it buy Blu-Ray discs is higher than regular DVDs. But Blu-Ray is becoming the DVD standard. Additionally, as more customers buy Blu-Ray DVD players and opt for Blu-Ray discs, Netflix will purchase more and more Blu-Ray discs in relation to standard DVD discs. So, Netflix is trying to have its customers pay a lot more for its regular and replacement product.

Also, Netflix is a huge buyer of DVDs. It should negotiate better prices for Blu-Ray discs from its suppliers, instead of paying through the nose for Blu-Ray discs (if Netflix is to be believed) and simply passing on the costs to its customers. The planned Netflix price increase is also unjustified based on the paltry number of Blu-Ray titles (currently only about 1,300 out of some 250,000 DVDs, or .52%) that Netflix makes available. I'm not going to pay more than 20% extra per month for a product that I only receive one-half percent of the time.

Perhaps most importantly, we're in the depths of an economic recession, or even a depression. Many businesses, including airlines, restaurants, home builders, and stores, are lowering their prices in order to retain customers. It's insane from a business standpoint to raise prices by such a large amount in the middle of an economic crisis, and not expect to lose customers and revenue.

Finally, we know from the history of DVD prices that Blu-Ray prices will eventually come down as production increases. Note how Netflix makes no promise to lower its prices when the prices it pays to buy Blu-Ray discs declines.

The planned Netflix price hike is also abysmal from a customer relations standpoint. Just go to the Neflix blog and check out the more than seven hundred responses received in just 24 hours thus far to the price increase announcement from Netflix VP of Marketing Jessie Becker. Virtually all of the comments are from angry Netflix customers who say they are either downgrading their service, or leaving Netflix entirely. How does less revenue and an army of irate customers, including bad press on the blogs and elsewhere, grab you as a business plan?

If you don't want to pay the Netflix price increase, do what I did:

1. Write a comment on the Netflix official blog post. Tell VP Jessie Becker what a dumb and ill-timed idea the price increase is. Tell her that the amount of increase is way too high. Tell her that you plan to downgrade your service or leave Netflix altogether for a competitor (such as Blockbuster, RedBox, or DVD Express) if they try to push their full price increase through. I checked the prices at Blockbuster, and they are cheaper than Netflix's planned prices, with no Blu-Ray surcharge and the ability to rent from and return movies and video games to Blockbuster stores. That seems like a no-brainer to me.

2. Call Netflix at 1-888-923-0898 or 1-800-585-8131. Calmly tell the representative why their price increase is unacceptable. I called today and was told that Netflix is not negotiating price for "customer retention" purposes at this time. That, however, may change in the coming days or weeks. If Netflix does not offer to negotiate with you over the increase or wipe it out altogether, tell them you plan to downgrade to a lower level of service (or terminate your Netflix service altogether). Point out how it makes no sense for their price increase to result in less revenue to them as customers are downgrading or leaving altogether. Note that cancellation of your service takes effect immediately, so you can wait until just before your next billing date to do so.

3. If you have nothing left to say to Netflix by phone and have made your decision to downgrade or cancel your service, you can also do so at the Netflix website. I haven't done it that way, but hopefully there is a "Comments" section where you can explain why you are taking this action. If not, hopefully there is the ability to do so in the "Contact Us" section of the Netflix site.

4. If you're a zealous letter writer, send letters to Netflix's CEO and top officers. Their names are listed here. Netflix's corporate address, according to Hoover's Online, is:

100 Winchester Cir.
Los Gatos, CA 95032
Phone: 408-540-3700
Fax: 408-540-3737

5. Publicize your views about the Netflix price increase, and the steps you have taken to counter it, on your blog and in other media to which you have access. It's hard to overestimate the power of negative publicity.

Perhaps when enough people take these steps, Netflix will realize the tremendous error they made, and either change their plans, or, if customers downgrade and leave en masse, ask us to return at our previous level of service at or near the old rate. If not, Blockbuster will do just fine.

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March 30, 2009

"The Cougar" -- it's all about Women's Empowerment, Right?

I just saw a promotion for a new television program called "The Cougar." On the program, which premieres on April 15 on the TV Land network, twentysomething men will vie for the romantic attentions of a fortysomething woman. The "cougar" will eliminate the guys one by one, presumably for not being boy toyish enough.

I find it a bit odd that older women who lust after younger men are now so widely referred to in terms of a deadly cat that pounces on its prey. Even "Saturday Night Live" has jumped on this trend, with a recurring skit featuring a talk show called "The Cougar Den," where desperate, hair-teased women with considerable mileage on them pounce, sometimes literally, on their younger male guests. It is not a flattering portrayal.

What would television executives call a program where women competed to be the most successful corporate executive -- "The Bitch"?

(Photo of cougar from Washington Dept. of Fish and Wildlife)

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March 15, 2009

How to Blog Like Frank Rich

If you want to be taken seriously as a blogger, do what New York Times columnist Frank Rich does in his columns posted on the New York Times website. Check out this latest example, regarding the shrinking influence of the "culture warriors" in the face of economic crisis. First, Rich packs a novel's worth of information into one column. His writing is about as tight as it gets. Second, Rich generously links his sources, his facts, and his quotes. I counted thirty links in this column alone. Unfortunately, too few bloggers do that, even so-called "journalists" who should know better. Simply arguing and name-calling, without providing the evidence, may provoke people who don't already agree with you, but it won't convince them.

You may or may not agree with Frank Rich's rather strong point of view, but it's hard to argue with the skill and thoroughness with which he presents it. That's a good model for any blogger to follow.

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March 05, 2009

I'm Blogging Less; Are You?

My blogging frequency is steadily decreasing. Interestingly, so is the blogging frequency of several of my blogger cohorts, the one impressive exception being Barbara at Looking2Live. As for the others, I won't single you out. You know who you are.

Why am I blogging less? For one thing, most of my earliest blog posts were about political or policy issues. That quickly got boring, especially given the number of blowhard bloggers who bloviate about politics. Also, moving outside the Beltway and to California has refreshingly changed my perspective on politics. "Inside the Beltway" is a genuine mindset.

Since I rarely write about politics anymore, and I don't write about my sex life, celebrities, or the television shows "Lost" or "24," what the hell am I gonna blog about? I've gotten very choosy about blogging subjects. I will only write and publish a blog post if (1) the subject is really on my mind, or near and dear to my heart; and (2) I think it will have wide appeal to readers.

Speaking of reader appeal, the other change in my blogging thinking involves the target audience. I no longer blog from the "inside out," to try to attract a following of readers/commenters. I don't bug my busy friends to read my blog. If they read the blog, fine, if not, that's fine too. On the other hand, the number of site visits I get from the "outside in," i.e., searchers on Google and other search engines, has steadily increased over time. My months-old blog posts on certain random subjects (layered t-shirts, Grouply, Sambo's restaurant, and euphemisms) consistently get hits every day. Perhaps some of those searchers are converted into regular readers.

I am also cheating on my blog with another group blog where I am a contributing writer. That blog is occupying an increasing amount of my blogging energy.

Ironically, however, the less frequently I blog here at Media Concepts, the more site visits, links and citations it receives, and the more popular it gets, according to the rankings. Is this a case of something being more attractive when it's more scarce? I don't know, but, given these results, what is my incentive to blog here more often?

I would be interested to know, however, if other bloggers besides the ones I have in mind are blogging on their personal blogs less frequently, and, if so, why? Did they get bored? Did the novelty wear off? Are they committing blog adultery with another blog? Or are their blogs, like mine, counterintuitively becoming more popular the less frequently they write?

This almost sounds like one of those government subsidies where farmers are paid not to grow crops. Oops, that's political, forget it.

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February 28, 2009

Don't Worry Bombay-bee

Whenever I am on the phone with a company's technical support department in India, the representative repeats the phrase "don't worry." Actually, it's more like "don't vorry." I find this phrase really patronizing and really annoying.

It happens every time I call Dell technical support. The other day, it also happened when I called Time Warner Cable's technical support. Apparently, there's a master call center or two in India (located, I believe, in Bangalore) where the training supervisors, among other things, teach the representatives to say "don't worry."

It's not up to these representatives to judge whether the customer is worried or not, or to suggest what state of mind we should maintain. That is very insulting. Rather, it's their job to try and solve our problem (the success rate for which, in my case, by the way, is far from 100%).

Speaking of state of mind, however, instead of staying annoyed when this happens, I now turn it into a joke. When I spoke to the Time Warner representative the other day and she said "don't vorry" for the first time, I politely asked her not to say this to me. When she said it for the second time, I started counting and said "that's twice." By the time she said "don't vorry" for the fourth time, we were both laughing.

Which, incidentally, is the best way to stop worrying.

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February 26, 2009

In Your Face Pie

I had never heard of a "Marion berry" when I purchased a "marionberry pie" at Trader Joe's yesterday. However, I am familiar with Washington, DC "Mayor for Life" Marion Barry, having lived in the DC area during an especially embarrassing period of Barry's rule (otherwise known as any point in Barry's adult life). I was in DC for Jay Stephens, the crack pipe drug bust, and "the bitch set me up!"

It still astounds me that DC voters keep electing Marion Barry to office. Not only did DC's Ward 8 residents elect Barry to the City Council after he served time in prison, voters then re-elected Barry as DC's Mayor! Now there are news reports that Barry is, surprise surprise, in legal trouble once again, this time for failing to pay his taxes. No matter, I'm sure that won't negatively affect Barry's popularity or electability one whit.

I am hoping that my digestive reaction to my Trader Joe's marionberry pie will be better than my digestive reaction to Marion Barry.

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