February 24, 2007

The Apple-Panera Industrial Complex

My latest trip to Panera necessitated desperate measures. This time, in addition to the usual loud businessman, there was the loud old lady who dominated the conversation with her friends. Old lady, we in Panera do not need to hear your Oscar picks. We already know that "Helen Mirren was exquisite in The Queen." I was left with only one choice.

As I snapped my laptop shut, the aproned assistant turned and picked up the glowing red telephone that has no buttons. Seconds later, at the other end, a young man clad in black picked up his identical flashing red receiver.

"This is A2."
"A2? P6 here. Another goose is on the way to lay the golden egg."

Fifty-three minutes later, I had purchased from Apple Genius Trevor, as if that was his real name, a black and red U2 Special Edition video iPod, plus numerous accessories. I am hoping the boys from Doob-lin can help me counteract the Panera din with "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "Bad."

Military-industrial complex? Who knows? But trust me, the Apple-Panera industrial complex is thriving. And I think I know just who is at the center of it all.

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February 23, 2007

The Scooter, the Shooter and the Dream Nightmare Scenario

The jury in the Scooter Libby trial may render a verdict at any time. If Scooter is found guilty, prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald is expected to pressure Scooter to flip and say what everyone already knows, that Dick "Shooter" Cheney was behind the entire Valerie Plame leak scandal, and that Shooter instructed Scooter to lie to the FBI and the grand jury in order to cover up Shooter's wrongdoing. If Scooter names Shooter, it is possible to envision a scenario under which Shooter would then be forced to resign for "health reasons," Bush would name Condoleeza Rice as Vice President, and then Condi would be positioned to run for President in 2008, the only person who could truly carry on the Bush legacy.

It's fun to imagine all of this. But really, wouldn't Bush simply pardon Scooter, and render the grand Valerie Plame leak coverup permanent?

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February 20, 2007

The Good German

Not that Good German. One of the best films of 2006 is The Lives of Others.

This German production nominated for an Oscar for best foreign film is about East Germany's secret police (the Stasi) and their obsessive surveillance of artists, intellectuals and other citizens through the use of thousands of informants, prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The story is effectively told from the point of view of Hauptmann (Captain) Gerd Wiesler, who, due to a superior's petty desires, is tasked to investigate a prominent playwright and his actress girlfriend. In a storyline reminscent of Ray Bradbury's novel Fahrenheit 451, Wiesler becomes drawn into the rich lives of his targets, which causes him to question East Germany's oppressive socialist system, and his own role in it.

What is so astounding about The Lives of Others is that it accomplishes all this and creates a riveting story almost entirely through internal psychological means. Most notably, the story is stripped down and told through the wide, expressive eyes of Wiesler, who, throughout the film, is clad in a ski parka that is as grey and oppressive as the country in which he lives. The film's somber color tones match this mood and help to create an atmosphere of claustrophobia and paranoia. While watching The Lives of Others, I kept thinking what it would have been like if it had been made in Hollywood. There would have been shootings. There would have been car chases. There would have been choreographed martial arts combat scenes. In short, we would have had another deafening installment of The Bourne Identity. Instead, The Lives of Others demonstrates how less can be so much more.

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February 16, 2007

The Cable is on the Other Foot

I used to work for the cable companies. As their lawyer/lobbyist in DC, I defended the cable companies both professionally and personally. Whenever anyone complained to me about their cable company, I immediately took my clients' side. Now, however, I am simply a cable customer, and things look very different on the other side.

A few days ago, I was at a friends' house when the cable guy came over. She was having a problem with her new LCD flat panel tv. While high definition broadcasts were coming in perfectly clear, regular, non-hdtv broadcasts were blurry. After doing everything we could with the television and the cable box, including returning the tv for a replacement, we decided that the problem must be with the cable signal, and called the cable company.

The first thing the cable technician did was fail to show for his appointment. He or his supervisors didn't even call to say he would not be showing up. This was on a weekday where my friend had to be home from the office for a four-hour block of time. It was also the second time in a row that her cable company technician had failed to show for an appointment with her.

Several days later, the technician finally arrived. As is typically the case, he was a subcontractor rather than a direct employee of the cable company. Apparently, his compensation is not tied to sales or subscriber numbers. After being told of the problem, and that the television picture looks nothing like it did in the store, he replied, "that's because they use DirecTV in the stores." I was stunned. I asked him, "you mean to tell me that DirecTV has a better picture than your cable company?" "Sure," he replied. I said, "so I guess we should just cancel our cable service and get DirecTV."

The cable tech spent about 45 minutes with the tv, trying different types of cables and connections. During that time, my friend and I were joking about what it would be like to bring your Mercedes to the dealership with a problem, and have the mechanic say that Lexus makes better cars, and that they would not have such a problem. Ultimately, the cable tech was unable to improve the picture quality. We asked him to call his supervisor and see what they could do from the cable company office. He said he wasn't going to bother, because he knew that the company couldn't do anything to improve the signal.

The last thing my friend said to the cable tech, after thanking him for trying, was that she would call customer service and tell them that if they could not address the problem, she would switch to satellite tv service. The tech did not disagree that this would be a good idea. Given this level of service from the cable company, I am not surprised that, over the past five years or more, the satellite tv companies have experienced higher subscriber growth than the cable companies, and have poached many more cable subscribers than vice-versa. They just might add another subscriber soon. Maybe two.

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February 14, 2007

What is the Value of a Life?

In the case of Anna Nicole Smith, measured in television news coverage, apparently quite high. The Daily Show With Jon Stewart ran a hilarious segment the other night, about the amount of television news coverage Anna Nicole's death is receiving. I could not possibly compete with this Daily Show piece in the humor department, so I would like to approach the topic from a slightly different angle.

U.S. servicemen and women are dying every day in Iraq, along with scores of Iraqis. The U.S. House of Representatives is currently debating George Bush's plan to escalate the Iraq War by sending in thousands more troops. Yet what are CNN, MSNBC, Fox News and the other news networks devoting their time to? Anna Nicole Smith. Who at CNN, MSNBC, Fox News or the other tv news networks wishes to tell me that Anna Nicole Smith's life, or death, is more important, more meaningful, and deserves more coverage than the lives and deaths of our servicemen and women, or the people of Iraq?

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February 12, 2007

If Iran a Post Office as Badly as Iran the Government, I'd Have Been Run Out of Town

U.S. officials have been giving a PowerPoint presentation to diplomats and journalists, alleging that Iranian weapons are killing U.S. troops in Iraq. The U.S. presenters won't publicly identify themselves, presumably because they are afraid that they will end up with their reputations sullied like that of Colin Powell after his now-infamous February 2003 U.N. presentation of Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction.

By focusing on Iran's alleged involvement in Iraq, George Bush and Dick Cheney appear to be trying to lay the groundwork for a U.S. attack on Iran by bootstrapping the authorization Congress gave Bush in October 2002 to use military force against Iraq, without requesting new authorization from Congress specific to Iran. The reason? Given all the lies and manipulation of intelligence that has been exposed regarding the Bush and Cheney rush to war in Iraq, Congress might not give Bush a similar authorization against Iran, at least not without some very harsh statements about the Bush/Cheney record.

What I find most curious about this Iranian-weapons-in-Iraq effort is, how many of Iran's weapons that are supposedly killing U.S. soldiers were supplied by the United States during Ronald Reagan's arms-for-hostages debacle in the late 1980s? For that matter, how many of the Iraqi weapons used by Saddam Hussein's army, and now by the Iraqi insurgents, to kill U.S. troops were supplied by Ronald Reagan and his Vice President, George H.W. Bush, when they gave weapons and weapons technology to Saddam in the late 1980s?

Why is it that Republican presidents sell weapons to bad guys, and then, twenty years later, other Republican presidents go to war against those same bad guys? If we're supposed to attack those who supply the weapons to the people killing U.S. soldiers, does that mean we need to launch the next attack against the U.S.?

It's all pretty absurd, and makes one wonder if some people in the U.S. power elite have an interest in creating and maintaining a perpetual state of war.

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February 07, 2007

Little Miss Partly Cloudy

I just watched two movies. Both were titled "Little Miss Sunshine." I stopped the dvd at about the halfway point to receive a telephone call. The person I spoke to had previously told me that she did not like the movie because it presented a rather dark portrayal of a dysfunctional family. At the halfway point in the movie, I agreed. The first half of "Little Miss Sunshine" was indeed dark, along the lines of "American Beauty." It made me think a bit too much about dysfunctional families, and I suspect it had a similar effect on other viewers. These types of films do very well on the coasts and at Oscar time, but I wonder how they play in Peoria. The only saving grace was the always-zany Alan Arkin, as the randy, foul-mouthed, heroin-snorting grandfather.

After my phone call, I resumed watching "Little Miss Sunshine." I enjoyed the second half much more. There seemed to be more comic moments. It's true that the film devolves into a formulaic message movie (just be who you are, etc.), Toni Collette replicates her role of mother-of-kid-about-to-embarrass-himself/herself-on-stage from "About a Boy," and the ending is the feel-good kind you have seen many times before. The overall result is a somewhat predictable ride whereby we are made to care about the family members, bad things happen to them, and ultimately we have the emotional payoff. Still, I appreciated the film's perfect casting, fine acting, edgy script (including a scathing portrayal of little-girl beauty pageants), and celebration of quirkiness.
As one character says, "A real loser is someone who's so afraid of not winning he doesn't even try." "Little Miss Sunshine" tries, and, by the end of the second half, succeeds, perhaps even for those in Peoria.

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February 06, 2007

How the Toyota Prius Exposes the Republican-Democratic Divide

I'm driving with someone close to me who is a staunch Republican. We see a Toyota Prius. The following conversation ensues:

She: I hear that the Prius doesn't pay for itself in gas money for five years. (Note: I guarantee that factoid came from Fox News. It assumes that the Prius costs some premium over what? An imaginary Prius with a gasoline-only engine? A "similar" car, as if there was one? This factoid also assumes some fixed price of gasoline. Who knows what price Fox chose? Anyway, all of this misses the point, which is...)
Me: That is such a Republican way of thinking. You would only buy a Prius if it saved you money. What's in it for me? I got mine, you get your own. Democrats buy Priuses because they use less gasoline and help the environment.

It continues to amaze me how different the Republican mentality is from the Democratic mentality in the U.S.

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February 05, 2007

Why I Don't Argue Politics With Those Who Do Not Agree With Me

Here is a conversation I had yesterday with someone close to me:

Him: Why should I be subsidizing health care for poor people?
Me: I don't hear you complaining about your Medicare drug benefit, which we are all subsidizing.
H: Why should we subsidize health care for people making over half a million a year?
M: Good question. Why are we subsidizing oil companies making tens of billions per quarter?
H: Because when oil was in the twenties per barrel, the oil companies needed the subsidies to explore for new oil.
M: That was years ago. Now that oil is $60 and $70 a barrel, why not simply end the subsidy?
H: Now the oil companies are getting subsidies to develop alternative energy. Why don't you buy stock in these companies? Middle class people are making a bundle on these stocks.
M: Huh? It's the wealthy who own the stock in those companies. Who do you think owns most of that stock?
H: Farmers own it. And factory workers are retiring on their 401ks in their company stocks.
M: Farmers? That stock is mostly held by the companies' upper management, wealthy individuals, and institutions.
H: Who do you think the institutions own the stock for?
M: Themselves, of course. And wealthy investors. Individual farmers and teachers and firemen own only a tiny fraction of stock relative to the wealthy. Those workers are losing their pensions when their companies, like United Airlines, go bankrupt, and upper management earns millions in golden parachutes.
H: When are you going to stop being a communist the rest of your life?
M: When are you going to stop being a fascist the rest of your life?

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February 03, 2007

The Secret of Life Should be Bottled and Sold as Pizza Sauce

I have discovered the secret of life, in a most unlikely place. A pizza place, to be exact. Are you ready for the secret of life? Here it is: the secret of life is to say "yes." To just about everything possible.

I was in a beachside pizza parlor several days ago. I had planned to pick up a slice or two and bring them home. It was my first time in the place, and it was a gourmet pizza parlor, with lots of different designer pizzas. I was looking at the pizzas displayed behind glass, and up at the menu board, to try to determine what they had available. I wasn't paying attention to the line. I didn't notice that two women in front of me had stepped out of the line. I must have moved forward to take their place.

Then, a woman approached me and asked whether she was in front of me or behind me. Her friend came over and said she thought they were in front of me. She said they had stepped out of the line to grab a menu. I must have been in a relaxed mood, because I smiled and said, "go ahead, I'm not in a rush." They seemed surprised at my response. Then the first woman asked me what kind of pizza I was ordering. By the time we got to the front of the line, they had asked me to stay and eat with them. So I sat down with these strangers and had a very interesting conversation.

The first woman lives in the area. Her friend was in town from Chicago to direct a television commercial (apparently the weather in Chicago is not permitting at the moment). The two of them proceeded to rapid-fire questions at me, including very personal questions regarding my professional, romantic and religious status. Instead of being offended, I just smiled and answered their questions as rapidly as I could. I also found out that the first woman lives with her boyfriend, and she is looking to meet girlfriends. She says it is difficult to meet people in this Southern California beach town. I learned that the second woman is married with kids, but is seriously considering leaving her family to move here for work. Interesting stuff.

We traded phone numbers on napkins, and went our separate ways, each of us with a new friend. I can't think of more than a couple of times in many years in the DC area where anything like this happened to me. It is amazing what can occur when one simply decides to say "yes" to the universe.

P.S. New Blogger is horrendous. Who wants to say "yes" with me to a class action lawsuit?

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February 02, 2007

New Blogger Sucks

I accidentally switched to New Blogger with a couple of careless clicks. Big mistake. I am unable to log in to the new Blogger in any sensible or convenient way. I am unable to migrate back to old Blogger. I am in Google Blogger hell. Google's "help" is anything but. All I get is FAQs, Google searches and no humans. Shame on Google and Blogger.com for making the switch to New Blogger so user-unfriendly and non-functional.

I recall the AOL fiasco over ten years ago, when millions of users were unable to log in to AOL's inadequate servers. The result was a giant class action lawsuit and a huge settlement paid by AOL. Google and Blogger.com, are you listening? Better call your lawyers, you're going to need them.

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