September 28, 2007

Dhalaiwood Lama?

Has the Dalai Lama gone Hollywood? I received this advertisement from my alma mater, Emory University, today, stating that the Dalai Lama is appearing at Emory next month. I'm very happy that Emory has lured His Holiness to the faculty as a Presidential Distinguished Professor. When I was at Emory in the 1980s, ex-President Jimmy Carter joined the faculty. I love going to a school whose reputation keeps rising, and that, to paraphrase Groucho Marx, would not accept me as a member today.

But something does not sit right with me about the ad. The photo of the Dalai Lama looks like a standard publicity shot. It looks completely staged, down to the clasped hands. I know that the Dalai Lama is an important peace messenger, and that he makes appearances all around the world. But does he really need to have Hollywood-style publicists, agents and handlers, and a slick-looking publicity shot, as if he were Madonna?

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September 25, 2007

Who Opened Up the Crazy Can?

Events of the past two weeks have reminded me of the quote from Hunter S. Thompson: "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro." And the pros turned out in force, in virtually every field. Here are some of the highlights:

1. It all started with the MTV Video Music Awards on September 9. Britney Spears opened the show with a dance number that garnered reviews reminscent of Dean Wormer of "Animal House" fame ("fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life"). Britney's performance also spawned an especially passionate response by the extremely androgynous and appropriately named Chris Crocker. Chris' performance in turned garnered numerous satirical imitations. Expect Crocker to receive personal appearance contracts from the same folks who signed William Hung to his record deal.

2. O.J. Simpson. Need I say more? On the night of Thursday, September 13, O.J. Simpson and his buddies stormed a Las Vegas hotel room and robbed some sports memorabilia dealers at gunpoint of numerous items which O.J. claims are his. One of the robbers taped himself committing the robbery (can you hear the weirdness meter breaking?), and the audio tape also demonstrated that the gang trapped the dealers in the hotel room, which, under the law, is kidnapping. Three days later, the police arrested O.J. and charged him with 6 felonies and other offenses that could land him in jail for life.

3. In the world of politics, September 19-20 registered especially high on the crazy scale. The Democrats, who were elected to the majority in Congress last November, suddenly forgot that they control the place. On Wednesday, they failed to pass an amendment by Scots Irish tough guy Senator Jim Webb of Virginia to give our troops as much time at home between military deployments as they spend in combat. The same day, the Democrats failed to get a majority for Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd's bill to restore Habeas Corpus, the right of detainees to challenge their detention in federal court. It's not often that both support for our troops and our Constitution get thrown in the garbage on the same day.

The next day was no better. On Thursday, the Democrats failed to muster enough votes to pass a bill from Senators Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate Majority Leader, to force troop withdrawals from Iraq by next June, by limiting funding of the Iraq War after that point to non-combat duties such as redeployment of our troops.

Then, in the final blow, the Democrats not only allowed a ludicrous resolution from Republican Senator John Cornyn condemning the General Petreus ad to come to the Senate floor for a vote (the Democrats get to control what does and does not get voted on), 23 Senate Democrats actually voted for the resolution. It was an obvious trap set by the Republicans, whereby President Bush let Petreus spout Bush's Iraq policy so that any criticism of the policy would be seen as criticism of our patriotic General. The Democrats fell into the trap completely. I challenge anyone to go to, read the ad, whose facts are sourced and footnoted, and then tell me which part of it is inaccurate. Then again, I didn't think Britney Spears' performance at the VMAs was as bad as everyone says either, so maybe I'm just a contrarian.

4. On Friday, Rudolph Giuliani spoke before the National Rifle Association. Giuliani had previously called the NRA members "extremists" and has hammered them for, among other things, opposing the Assault Weapons ban. So he had to be on his best behavior, right? Not quite. In the middle of his speech, Giuliani takes a call on his cell phone, and starts talking to his wife.

5. The two-week crazy festival was capped by the appearance of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at Columbia University yesterday. In what was perhaps the strangest and rudest introduction in history, Columbia University President Lee Bollinger, who, after all, invited Ahmadinejad to speak in the first place, goes on a long tirade against the Iranian President, calling him "a petty and cruel dictator" to his face.

Ahmadinejad lobbed the craziness ball back in Bollinger's court when, in response to a question about the Iranian government's reported killing of homosexuals, he replied, "In Iran we don't have homosexuals like in your country ... I don't know who's told you that we have this." The auditorium erupted in laughter. Ahmadinejad went on to say that the Holocaust never happened, "Israel? What Israel?", and that Iran does not support terrorists but does give aid to the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus.

Hopefully, now that this two weeks of insanity has passed, we can get back to hooker-chasing Senators, celebrities dashing off to rehab, invading and occupying countries that didn't attack us, and other signs of normality in 2007 America.

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September 17, 2007


Here's a classic lesson in how not to do business: I have been buying writing supplies at Utrecht's, a national manufacturer and retailer of art supplies with stores around the U.S. Their store near me in Southern California is staffed by surfer dudes. Maybe that is a mean way to put it. How about "young artsy guys with black t-shirts, long curly sun-bleached hair and pookah shell necklaces"? They don't seem especially helpful or knowledgeable about the store's products. They are basically cashiers.

Over the past months, I have purchased a rather expensive portfolio from Utrecht's, to transport and show my writing samples. Then, more recently, I bought additional pages for the portfolio at Utrecht's. These pages have a clear cover and a stiff back, with holes to insert into the ringed portfolio. I have become a regular Utrecht's customer, eschewing another large art supply retailer just down the block.

When I brought the replacement pages home and opened the package, I found to my dismay that the pages are open on the sides, which allows the papers put inside them to fall right out. It's a rather silly design flaw, and one that I never dreamed could exist. So, last Friday, I came back to Utrecht's with the pages in their package, and my receipt. I explained the problem and asked to exchange the pages for a pricier brand that I assumed (and of course would confirm beforehand) has enclosed pages. I was very surprised at their response.

The first surfer/artsy cashier guy said he would have to check whether I could "return" the pages. He asked another pookah-wearing curlyhead, who presumably was more senior. The second guy came over, and this was our conversation:

Pookah: We don't take returns.
Me: This isn't a return. It's an exchange.
Curly (scratching curls): Huh?
Me: A return is when I ask for my money back. I want to exchange these for your fancier pages that are enclosed, and pay the difference.
Surfer: We can't take back packages that are opened.
Me: There was no way to know that the pages aren't enclosed until I opened the package and took one out.
Artsy (turning package over): You had the chance to look at the package before you bought it.
Me (very insulted): The pages are laying flat in the package. There's no way to see that they don't close, and there's nothing on the label that says so.
Cashier: We don't take returns on opened packages.
Me (trying different tack): I'm a regular, loyal customer here. I have a Utrecht's card. Would you really be willing to lose a good customer over this?
Bong Hit Guy: Sorry.
Me (spinning around and walking out the door): Thanks, I'll just go to your competition from now on.

When I got home, I found the Utrecht's website and sent an email to their customer service department, explaining what had happened. I further explained that, in my two careers thus far, including one as an attorney at a high-priced law firm in Washington, DC, I have learned that the best way to do business when clients have complaints is to work with these clients to resolve the problem, rather than turning them away to my competitors. I have found that, even if I could come up with a good argument against a customer who is complaining over a financial or other matter, the better course is to accommodate the customer and make them feel that they are important. This way, whatever minor, short term loss I may experience by reducing their bill or otherwise helping them is more than made up for in repeat business not just from that client, but from their friends, colleagues and family members whom they refer to me. This is what is known as "good business practice."

Apparently, the skater boyz at Utrecht's have not learned this lesson. Perhaps they have not been properly trained. Perhaps (no, definitely) they have no financial stake in the store or the company. Hopefully, my email to Utrecht's will cause them to work with me to solve this problem and keep me as a customer. Otherwise, I'll just head to their competitor, and to me and those around me, Utrecht's will forever be known as U-Trash-Us, or, more topically this week, U-Betray-Us.

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September 13, 2007

Forget What We Said Four Years/Four Months/Four Days Ago, We Didn't Really Mean It

"The United States has for decades sought to play a more permanent role in Gulf regional security. While the unresolved conflict with Iraq provides the immediate justification, the need for a substantial American force presence in the Gulf transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein."
--Project For a New American Century (William Kristol, Elliott Abrams, Jeb Bush, Dick Cheney, I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle et al.), "Rebuilding America's Defenses, Sept. 2000, p. 14.

"I would take the use of force very seriously. I would be guarded in my approach. I don't think we can be all things to all people in the world. I think we've got to be very careful when we commit our troops. The vice president [Al Gore] and I have a disagreement about the use of troops. He believes in nation-building. I would be very careful about using our troops as nation builders."
--George W. Bush, Presidential Debate, Boston, MA, Oct. 3, 2000.

"The coalition has no intention of owning or running Iraq."
--Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Baghdad, April 30, 2003.

"I have never, that I can recall, heard the subject of a permanent base in Iraq discussed in any meeting, . . . The likelihood of it seems to me to be so low that it does not surprise me that it's never been discussed in my presence, to my knowledge."
--Donald Rumsfeld, April 21, 2003.

KAREN HUGHES [Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs] : We want nothing more than to bring our men and women in uniform home. As soon as possible, but not before they finish the job. CHARLIE ROSE: And do not want to keep bases there? KAREN HUGHES: No, we want to bring our people home as soon as possible."
--"Charlie Rose Show," Dec. 8, 2005

"Charlie, we're not in the process these days of doing permanent bases anywhere. . . . It isn't a limitless commitment."
--Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, "Charlie Rose Show," May 7, 2007.

"They understand that their success requires U.S. political, economic, and security engagement that extends beyond my presidency. These Iraqi leaders have asked us for an enduring relationship with America."
--President George W. Bush, Oval Office Address, September 13, 2007

Sometimes it's better just to quote these people than to let our own words get in the way.

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September 10, 2007

Identity Theft, Lo-Tech Style

In recent weeks, people have been moving out of my new apartment building in droves. Was it something I said? Apparently not.

About a month ago, a notice was posted in our mailroom that there has been a theft of mail. I barely read the notice, and did not think about it. Then, a week or so ago, I received my latest monthly telephone, cable and credit card bills. All three bills indicated that my previous monthly payment had not been received. That was odd. I looked at my checkbook, and saw that all three checks had all been written (and presumably mailed) on the same day. I contacted my bank, and they told me that, a month after the fact, the three checks had never shown up.

I had figured that one of two things had happened. Maybe I had forgotten to mail the payments after writing the checks. But that would be a first. The second, and more likely, possibility was that my mail carrier had lost the payments. She had been through one too many Summers of Love in the Sixties, and now she has fewer teeth and brain cells than tattoos. She likes to pick up and deliver our mail while blasting Jefferson Starship and Boston (and pretty much any band with at least one album having a space ship on its cover) at distorted levels from a small cassette player. She probably spends her afternoons burning doobies and then delivering our mail to the dumpster. She was my prime suspect.

But then yesterday, I passed an apartment in mid-moveout, on my floor. I was greeted by a tank of a man who stood about six foot six, capped by a black beret. I figured that he must be one of the movers. As he rocked back and forth on his heels, I remarked to him about the number of people leaving.

"You know why they leaving?" he asked me.
"No. Big rent increases?"
"It's da fraud, man. They all got hit with da fraud."
"What fraud?"
"Somebody stealing the mail. They got all your information, credit card numbers and such."

Of course. Da fraud. Suddenly, it all made sense. My missing mail contained not only my name and address, but also my bank account number, credit card account number, and telephone company and cable tv company account numbers. That is quite a start for an identity and financial information thief.

I then dropped by a neighbor's apartment, told her about my missing checks, and asked her if she had heard about the goings-on. She told me that, come to think of it, she had a check go AWOL about a month ago too.
Then I called my bank and credit card companies to cancel my cards and change account numbers. So far, it does not appear that anyone has run up any charges on any of my accounts, but I don't want to give them a further opportunity.

The irony is that I still quaintly write checks and mail them with a stamp rather than paying bills online because I thought it was safer. Who knew that today's identity thieves still look at people's snail mail?

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September 05, 2007

The Gift that Keeps on Giving

This is supposed to be a critical month for George Bush's foreign policy and his presidency. Bush and his underlings are trying to sell two wars at once -- the continued war against Iraq and the new war against Iran. As former Bush Chief of Staff Andrew Card said about banging the Iraq war drums just after Labor Day in 2002, "from a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August."
But here comes Republican Idaho Senator Larry Craig to spoil the Republican war marketing plan. Just when Republican Senate leaders thought they had disposed of Craig with lightning speed, Craig has returned to fight his gay restroom sex charges on all fronts. After announcing a few days ago that "it is my intent to resign from the Senate, effective September 30," Craig now says that he intends to fight the ethics charges filed against him by Senate Republicans, as well as his guilty plea to disorderly conduct stemming from his arrest in the restroom at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Craig keeps sending mixed messages about resigning, the latest being that he will probably resign, but not until the end of September, and only if he is unable both to to reverse his guilty plea from the restroom arrest and to gain back his Senate committee assignments that his fellow Republicans yanked away so quickly.
Craig's refusal to slink away quietly is a nightmare for Republicans. After all their sexual and financial scandals of the past couple of years, the last thing the Republicans wanted was another scandal (especially one involving illicit gay sex, the biggest taboo for the Republican "values voters base) that could stick in voters' minds through the 2008 elections, especially if Craig somehow stays in office and runs for re-election next year.

Bush Administration officials must be very worried too. They know that, for the media and many voters, sex (and, in particular, illegal gay sex) will blow foreign policy off the television screen almost every time.

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You Know, For Kids!

Leave it to Microsoft to render my original XBox obsolete, and to make me get a new XBox 360. Leave it to my friends' kids to introduce me to the expensive XBox habit in the first place.

I was first exposed to the XBox years ago, when my friend Juan bought one, ostensibly for his son Carlos. I say "ostensibly" because Carlos was about three at the time, and could no more play XBox than he could drive Juan's car or write Haiku. But I spent many an afternoon at Juan's house, playing Project Gotham Racing and other games, while Carlos held an unplugged controller and thought he was playing along.
By far the most engrossing XBox game was Halo. This is a futuristic "single shooter" game in which the player takes on the role of the Master Chief, a body-armored cyborg who uses special powers and an array of weapons to lead a bunch of soldiers against a cavalcade of intergalactic evil creatures and viruses, to save the world. Putting our heads together, Juan, myself, and, eventually, the fast-learning Carlos become thoroughly absorbed in strategies for the Master Chief to navigate successfully through his harsh, high-tech environment.

I must not have hidden my enthusiasm for Halo and the XBox, because Juan's family bought me one for Christmas that year. Eventually, Halo 2 was released, and it was as much fun as the original Halo. Together, the Halo pair became Microsoft's killer app, selling millions of copies and becoming the benchmark by which all other games of its type are measured.

Then a funny thing happened. My XBox generated great interest among my friends' children. Whenever I told them that I had an XBox, their eyes lit up, especially if they had an inferior game player, or no game player at all, at home. When my friends came to visit with their small children, the XBox became a superb occupier of the kids' attention in my otherwise child-unfriendly home. The machine practically paid for itself when, this past July 4, I was able to lure my friends' kids and their dirty sneakers off of my yellow Rick Lee leather chair for some Amped XBox snowboarding.

The problem is that Microsoft and its game producers keep churning out new games that will only play on the second generation XBox 360, a machine that costs hundreds of dollars even without some of the nifty accessories (such as hard drives and wireless controllers) that many users find necessary. The last straw was when I found out that the long-anticipated Halo 3, which will be released this September 25 (to a consumer frenzy, I assure you), will only be playable on the stunning-looking XBox 360. My plain black original XBox will be officially useless.

So, when I purchase my new XBox 360, as will invariably happen before the 25th, I will probably say what my former girlfriend, a child psychologist whose office was near my home, used to say when she stayed over on weeknights: "it's for the sake of the children."

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September 03, 2007

A Message for Bloggers Everywhere

Direct from the license plate of this Volkswagen: "KPWRTNG".
Not that we were about to stop or anything.

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