Tuesday, February 19, 2019

The Coming Storm of Major League Rugby

In 2018, I watched the inaugural season of Major League Rugby with excitement and a tiny bit of skepticism. Excitement because I grew up watching my dad play rugby - in Birmingham, Alabama, of all places. I played in college for the University of Alabama, and later for men's clubs - the Birmingham Vulcans, Birmingham Barbarians, and Rocky Gorge Rugby. I've been a coach, a referee, a player, and I founded a youth team in Howard County, Maryland that will celebrate its 20th Anniversary this summer (2019). And I've founded, promoted, and run successful tournaments in Alabama and in Maryland. To say I have a passion for the sport is an understatement.

The skepticism is from having watched USARugby flounder in recent years with its attempts to promote and professionalize the sport here in America. Not the least disappointing of which was the debacle that was PRO Rugby. It seemed like a disaster from day one. I'm sure I wasn't the only one with the internal monologue saying "here we go again" when Major League Rugby teams started playing exhibition matches in 2017.

Then came the 2018 season. It wasn't bad. It wasn't great, but it wasn't bad. There were technical issues - the camera work needed... work. There were access issues - it was hard to find the matches on TV, or online. There were issues with the quality of the product, itself - it just wasn't as tight as you would expect a professional sport to look. And of course, there were promotional issues - it was difficult to find any information on the sport. But all in all, for the 1/2 dozen or so matches I was able to catch in the first season, it wasn't too bad. Unfortunately, the only team anywhere close to the East Coast was New Orleans, which isn't really anywhere close to the East Coast. But maybe that would change.

It wasn't until June of 2018 at the Wales / South Africa match in Washington DC that I discovered there was a movement afoot to bring an MLR team to Washington DC. All of a sudden, I was much more interested. My wife and I immediately bought the rights to two season tickets, in the hopes it would come to fruition. And I started looking for information on the local backers.

As the months have passed, I've found out more about the league, the local organization, the business model, and what other new teams will be joining. In 2019, the Toronto Arrows and Rugby United New York joined the league. In 2020, Old Glory DC will join the league, along with New England Freejacks and an as yet unnamed team from Atlanta.

And now the new season has begun, and there's reason to be optimistic. Seattle is selling out their home matches and creating quite a buzz. RUNY and Toronto are making serious waves and generating a great deal of buzz and media coverage of their own (RUNY even secured a broadcast deal with NBCSports Philadelphia, and NBCSports Washington). The quality of play has increased dramatically - with a plethora of internationally capped players joining the ranks. The camera work is better, access is improving (various matches are now available on ESPN+, NBCSports, CBSSports, and Facebook Live, as well as several local channels in the different markets), and the noise on Twitter is growing with each passing week.

The business model, based on that of Major League Soccer, seems to be sound. It has certainly been successful for MLS. And we have a natural and very passionate market in rugby players and fans. The challenge is to attract NON-rugby fans. In the last several years, through increased media coverage of the sport, in general, and through the recent success of our men's and women's national teams, there seems to be an uptick in interest even among non-rugby familiar sports fans. Couple that with fans souring on American Football for a variety of reasons - from head injuries, to politics - and you can see how we may be entering a 'perfect storm' scenario for professional rugby in America.

Of course I'm biased. I'm a huge rugby fan already, having attended three world cups, many Eagles Internationals, officiating in the National Championship tournament, and being affiliated with 2 time national champions, Rocky Gorge Rugby. Additionally, I live in Washington DC so I'm SUPER excited about the prospect of a professional rugby team right here in the District. They haven't announced yet where they'll play and they haven't named a roster yet - but I understand they're working hard to nail down those details - even hosting player combines in various cities over the next several months, and information sessions at marquee matches, such as Arkansas State v Clemson.

And with RUNY already greasing the media skids in our back yard (NBCSports Washington, and Philadelphia), Old Glory's media prospects look good. Add to that all the embassies in DC - particularly Britain, Ireland, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and France - and you can see where the potential interest could explode.

It's a good time to be a rugby fan in America - and next year will be a GREAT time to be a rugby fan in Washington DC. Let's hope they can match or even exceed the success enjoyed by their predecessors in Major League Soccer.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

(Oh) Dear American Airlines...

On Tuesday, May 15th, I was scheduled to fly from Amsterdam to Philadelphia on American Airlines Flight 203. The flight was scheduled for 10:50am, with the final boarding call scheduled for 10:20. Since I had stayed in the Hague the night before, I got in the taxi at 7:30 to make sure I got to the airport in plenty of time to check my bag (I already had my boarding pass) and get to the gate.

I got to the airport and looked for the counter to check my bag but couldn't find it anywhere (to be fair, this isn't American Airlines' fault - the Amsterdam airport is chaotic and their wayfinding is poor). I finally saw some self-check kiosks and tried one of those, but American isn't active on those. So I asked a ticket broker who pointed me in the direction of the counter AA was currently using. I got my bag checked and headed to the gate.

After a couple of wrong turns, I made it to the gate (again, this is owing more to the Amsterdam airport than to AA). However, American doesn't actually have a gate, which I understand is part of the reason for all the problems that followed. Because they don't have an actual gate, passengers are loaded onto buses and taken about a half mile away to board the plane (this is not an exaggeration).

We all boarded and I settled in for the 8 hour flight and started reading and listening to music and quit worrying about anything else. After probably 30 minutes of waiting, the pilot announced that we were light on fuel so they had called for a fuel truck. Since the plane was so far away from the terminal, it took about 15 minutes for the truck to arrive. So they got there, loaded the fuel and were gone.

After another 15 or 20 minutes, the pilot announced that we had a full tank but the gauge was showing we still didn't have enough fuel, so they were calling maintenance to come check it out. As a result of the same issue mentioned before (distance from the terminal) it took 15 or 20 minutes for maintenance to arrive. Then there were more maintenance crews, and many folks on and off the plane. Understand, I'm not really complaining at this point; There's no one in the seat next to me, I have plenty of room and other than it being very cold on the plane, I was comfortable and happily reading and I WANT them to make sure the plane works and has enough fuel.

After some more time, and some pretzels being distributed, the pilot announced we were sorted out and as soon as a pushback truck driver arrived, we would be off. Finally the pushback started and we began our 1/2 mile taxi to the runway. We got to the runway and stopped to wait for an all clear. It was announced we were next up - and then we turned around and headed back to the stop. Apparently, the pilots timed out so we couldn't take off.

When we got back to the parking spot, they told us they were trying to find another crew but if they couldn't find one, the flight would have to be canceled. They couldn't, and it was. I immediately got on the phone to American to make sure I had a seat on tomorrow's flight, or even better, some other arrangement through another airline or city. They couldn't get me home today (we had sat for four hours on the plane so all the trans-Atlantics were either gone or on the way gone) but I was able to keep the same seat for the following day.

Now, I'd like to pause at this point and say that I understand sometimes things happen. If there's a problem with the plane, I'd rather they fix it. And the overtime rules are out of their hands. I don't really fault them for this kind of one-off episode (except I found out later, this was completely preventable). It's what followed that really pissed me off.

Since this was an international flight, we had to go back through passport control. There were no other incoming international flights at the moment, so this didn't take long, then we had to clear customs but we couldn't do that without our bags, so we had to wait for the baggage to be transported from our plane, 1/2 a mile away, to the international baggage claim area. After about a 45 minute wait, I decided to ask the people at the baggage desk when our bags would be coming. It was about 3:45 now, and I was informed our bags would be arriving between 5 and 6. She wasn't joking. She told me that because they were busy (there were no other customers in there at the time) and they hadn't planned to unload the bags off that plane, they didn't have anyone available to do it, but they were trying to find someone. Eventually, the bags arrived around 4:45, so better than we had been told, but still 2 hours after we arrived in passport control.

So we all headed upstairs to the customer service desk to find out about accommodations, transportation and food and we were informed where the bus would be picking us up, what hotel it would be taking us to, and that we would be fed at the hotel.

After some wrong turns and wandering around the airport with the other passengers trying to find the bus (again, the chaotic nature of the Amsterdam airport is not AA's fault, it just added insult to injury) we finally found the spot where the bus would be picking us up. A bus had left at 5 and we expected another one to leave at 6. Around 5:45 a standard size tour bus arrived to pick us up. Unfortunately, there was far too much luggage to fit into the luggage area so we had to put luggage in seats which meant we couldn't take everyone. The bus driver informed the leftovers that he would be back in an hour to pick them up. He couldn't have been serious.

When they told me the name of the hotel (NH) I looked it up and found that it was right off the motorway, not far from the airport, so I didn't think anything about his telling the other passengers he'd be back in an hour. But when we passed that hotel, I started to wonder. After a 40 minute drive into the hinterlands of Holland, we arrived at a sprawling and dated NH hotel in the middle of nowhere. The reception area was nice, and the staff were friendly, but that's where the pleasantness ended. Directions on how to get to the room were terrible. I asked twice before finding a manager who walked me part of the way. And when I tell you that the elevator to the tower where my room was located was about 1/4 mile away, and through a banquet hall and around several turns, I'm not exaggerating. But I got there.

The only difference between the amenities in the room I was assigned, and those in my Freshman dorm in college, was that my dorm room had air conditioning. The windows in my room faced west, and I was on the 3rd floor. It was hot. There was a dial on the wall under a vent so I turned it to the blue, following the instructions on how to make it cooler, then I left to go eat.

I walked back to the banquet hall through which I had to go to get to my room, but this time I stopped there because they had set up a buffet for us. When I say "buffet" what I'm referring to is 4 chafing dishes, a couple of bowls of shredded cabbage or lettuce and a couple of desserts. In the chafing dishes there was a choice of some unidentifiable brown nuggets of fried something, and overcooked barbecue-style chicken chunks. And for sides, a choice of noodles or rice. I opted against all of it. I asked one of the waiters about the choices and he proudly told me it was all free including water, tea, coffee and a couple of fruit juices. At this point, I needed a beer. So I asked at the front desk if they had a restaurant on property. There was a rundown casino next door with some kind of "wok" restaurant, but I didn't want that, and because we were in the middle of nowhere, I couldn't walk to anything else. The front desk guy told me there was, indeed, another restaurant and pointed me in the direction.

After some amount of confusion about how to get in the restaurant (what is it with the Dutch and directions??) I asked the people if they were still serving. It almost seemed like they didn't want to feed me because they kept telling me about the lovely buffet that was set up in the other restaurant and that they were renovating and only had a couple of choices. I told them I just wanted to sit and have a beer and decide for myself what I wanted to eat. The beer was good. The food was marginally better than how the other looked. I'll send the bill to AA.

Food and drink done, I headed to my room to get some sleep. They still hadn't worked out the plans for transportation back to the airport in the morning but had told us they would post it later and that breakfast was at 7am. 7? I thought. That's cutting it close for that long drive through rush hour traffic, but whatever.

Back in my room, I discovered the AC wasn't working, so I called the front desk and told them. The woman who answered, cheerfully told me that my room doesn't have AC. I asked about the windows and she said I should feel free to open the windows. Two problems with that: 1) With the black-out curtains closed, it didn't allow any circulation in the room, so I had to have the curtains open, 2) because Holland is so far north, and we're only a month away from the longest day of the year, the sun didn't fully set till around 11 PM. Oh, and a seagull had taken up residence atop one of the other towers, and he was not the quietest fellow.

After a quite fitful night of "sleep" I decided to get up at 5:30 and take one of the early buses to the airport, grab some breakfast there and just be done with it. So I showered, dressed, packed and headed to the lobby where there were already a 1/2 dozen or so of my fellow passengers having coffee and awaiting the next bus (a 4:45 bus had left to take people who had arranged earlier flights).

According to the posted information, the next bus would be leaving at 6:45, with the one after leaving at 8. 8am seemed to me cutting it awfully close if you have to go through rush hour traffic, check in, drop bags, etc. So I decided I would take the 6:45. By the time the next bus arrived, there were probably 15 people outside waiting. But the bus that arrived was an 8 passenger van. What the heck were they thinking?

I decided, better to let the people who have earlier flights take the van, and I'll just get a taxi. So I called for a taxi and shared a ride with another couple in the same situation. I'll send the bill to AA.

When we arrived at the airport, the line was crazy so I told the woman at the customer service counter I just needed to drop off my bag, since I was already checked in. She pointed me at a line that said "baggage check" and said it would move faster. It did not. I stood in that line for an hour waiting to check my bag. When I got to the second position in line, an announcement was made for all Dallas customers to make their way to the front. When the ticket agent began strolling past and asking if people who weren't going to Dallas would back up, I told her "no" and explained I'd been cancelled after 4 hours, 2 more hours waiting for luggage, an hour in this line this morning just to drop a bag and I wasn't moving. She took my arm in hand and in a snotty tone of voice said "Ooohh, if YOU inSIST!". I had been relatively calm up to this point, and even now I was outwardly calm. But inside I was seething. I wanted to punch her in the throat.

When they started pulling the Dallas people out of line and just bypassing it altogether, I had had enough, so I just jumped in front of them to the next open counter, dropped off my bag and headed to the gate.

Boarding ran the same as the previous day and as smoothly as it could. I sat in my seat and waited. When the pilot announced there was a fuel issue, I expected Ashton Kutcher or Alan Funt to come out of the cockpit at any moment to tell us it was all a joke and we were going to be on television. No such luck. But this pilot was more honest than the previous one. He explained to us that the 757 couldn't carry enough fuel to make it all they way from Amsterdam to Philadelphia. So we might have to stop in Bangor, Maine to refuel. So that's what it is. It all comes down to American being so damned cheap that they have a plane in service on a route it can't really accommodate, without some luck, some favorable winds, and a very specific route. The pilot told us we MIGHT make it to Philly but we would have to be on a particular path, at a particular altitude and with little to no headwinds. Unfortunately, he wouldn't know for several hours, so he would let us know when he knew if we would have to divert to Maine.

Fortunately, on this day, we had a tailwind, the right altitude, and the right path, and the pilot flew slower to conserve fuel, and we got to Philly - an hour late. Then it only took 45 minutes to get our bags to us.

I've reached out to American Airlines and requested (I think the word I used might have been 'demand' but whatever; tomato tomato) a refund of half the fare I paid for the roundtrip. But I don't expect anything. They don't care. It occurred to me that they would have been much better off just giving all the passengers a $500 gift card and sending them on their way for the evening. Let each customer decide on a fancy hotel - or a cheap hotel and keep the difference. Take a taxi - take a limo. Eat from a vending machine or go out to dinner. Whatever you want. Here's $500; see you tomorrow. But, no, they figured it'd be cheaper to just treat their customers like cattle. Since that's all we really are to them.

The airline industry is ripe for disruption. Where will it come from?

Monday, December 11, 2017

A Rambling Essay on Politics, Tribalism, Outrage, and the Human Condition

If you know me well enough, you know I'm fascinated with human psychology and behavior. So fascinated that my career revolves around observing behavior to help make products easier to use and understand, and more efficient to build and maintain. This stems from a lifelong joy in people-watching.

I'm not unique in the pleasure I get from sitting in a hidden corner of a public space, watching people and listening to them interact. Many people enjoy this. I think I might be a little obsessive with it though. I like to provoke people with rhetorical grenades, just to watch the fireworks that ensue. And typically I don't even participate in the follow-up arguments.

The last couple of years have proven to be exceptionally interesting in this regard. We have had some really polarizing, and really terrible candidates running for various high offices. In fact, it seems the worse they are, the more likely they are to be successful. This is kind of bizarre. We all know they're terrible, but we all believe the opponents to be more terrible, or just not viable. So we elect terrible people to preside over our government, to adjudicate our laws and to represent us in our legislatures. Why do we do this?

Our presidential election in 2016 featured 5 prominent candidates - Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Gary Johnson, and Jill Stein. I include Jill Stein and Gary Johnson not because they ever really stood a chance at winning, but because they got a lot more press than they would have in most years, simply because the other candidates were so terrible. Bernie Sanders didn't stand a chance to get the Democratic nod against the collusion and shenanigans of the Clinton machine, but he was no less terrible a candidate. But at least his terribleness was because he's a delusional, socialist crank and not because he's a power-hungry crook. Or at least that's how it seemed.

In the end, we were left with the two very worst presidential candidates in US history. There's a lot of blame to go around for how we ended up here. From years of liberal pandering and marginalizing working class white people, to years of right-wing religious pretense at being persecuted, to Facebook's and Twitter's enabling of wingnuts to shout their bizarre opinions at large audiences, to DOJ meddling, to Russian meddling, to corporate meddling, to media malfeasance, to race-baiting, all the way to the people who, when given an option, decide to pull for a (D) or an (R) every single time, regardless of the issues or the candidates.

Really, though, how could it be any other way in a democracy? In a democracy, everyone (of legal age) is allowed to vote, regardless of any actual knowledge of issues or any actual ability to process abstract information. Yes, what I'm saying is that the biggest problem with democracy is that dumb people are allowed to vote. That doesn't sound very egalitarian but the truth is that this has happened in every democratic republic throughout history and it will continue to happen until we learn our lessons.

Here's what I mean... It's not because dumb people are dumb that they shouldn't be allowed to vote. It's because dishonest people are dishonest. Democracies work as long as the electorate have moderate, thoughtful, honest people to choose from. But it doesn't take long before the dishonest people start making promises to the dumb people in exchange for votes. And the more successful the dishonest people become, the more dishonest people follow the same path - leading us to Clinton v Trump. Honest people tell you the truth. The truth isn't always pleasant. Dishonest people lie. Lies are always pleasant, or at least offer a chance at pleasant. And if you don't have the mental capacity to breathe and scratch your backside at the same time, you are more likely to be swayed by dishonest arguments. And then you vote for the guy who promises the bread and circuses. Eventually it gets really muddy because all we have is dishonesty and even smart people are left with a Hobbesian nightmare or a Morton's Fork.

This is really kind of tangential to what I intended to write when I started this, but it's also important as a basis for understanding human behavior. We are, as humans, tribal by nature, prone to irrational superstitious beliefs, and we will defend those beliefs in the face of all contrary evidence - our very identities depend on it. That makes it a little easier to understand what's happening, politically, in Alabama right now.

President Trump nominated Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions to be the new Attorney General. He was confirmed, vacating his Senate seat. Governor Robert Bentley appointed Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange to serve as interim Senator. Subsequently, Bentley's own scandals and those of his supporters, including Strange, widened, eventually leading to Bentley's ouster, and the imprisonment of several high ranking state officials (and investigations continue). With Bentley out, Lieutenant Governor Kay Ivey became Governor and decided it would be wise to call a special election for the Senate seat, if only to get the Bentley stink off it. Of course Luther Strange put his name in the hat - and he was a shoo-in, since he was already occupying the seat.

But in stepped Roy Moore, and this is where it's important to understand tribalism, superstition, defensiveness, spitefulness, and why dishonest people convince dumb people to vote in dumb ways. If you aren't from Alabama and aren't familiar with Roy Moore (come now, really?) he's the Etowah County judge who became famous in the 90s for affixing a homemade wooden plaque of his preferred version of the Ten Commandments on the wall behind his bench in the courthouse. He did this because 'we've thrown god out of schools and what these criminal offenders really need is a healthy dose of that old time religion to get 'em on the straight and narrow!' (I'm paraphrasing)

Never mind that the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States prohibits this sort of thing. Never mind that there are multiple versions of the Ten Commandments in Christianity, and that in Judaism there are actually 613 commandments. Never mind the Tenets of Islam or the Wiccan Rede, or the 11 Satanic Commandments. There are the Ten Zoroastrian Commandments, the Code of a Scientologist or even the Scientific Method. 'We are in Alabama, by God, and we're Baptists and we're going to worship MY version of the Ten Commandments.' (I'm paraphrasing)

This action resulted in some minor notoriety for Moore and catapulted him to statewide prominence and led to his running for, and winning the office of Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court in 2000 to return "God to our public life and restore the moral foundation of our law." also citing that Christianity's declining influence "corresponded directly with school violence, homosexuality, and crime." Onward, Christian Soldier!

Pretty much immediately after his inauguration, Moore had a 2 ton monument to the Decalogue installed in the rotunda of the State Supreme Court building. Citing that his name was on the lease and he was therefore responsible for maintenance and decor of the building, it was well within his right to install the monument. The ACLU (in Glassroth v Moore) sued and won. Moore appealed, lots of other shenanigans and details that you can look up if you're interested, he lost the appeal, refused to remove the monument and by late 2003 he was suspended from the court and by mid 2004 he was officially removed for defying a court order. But now he was a Christian martyr and hero.

Moore ran for governor in 2010 and was trounced. But we hadn't heard the last of him. In 2012 he ran again for Chief Justice (why he is still eligible is anyone's guess) and was again elected but only by a thin margin - and against a Democrat, that's important to note. By 2015, Moore had defied another court order, this one regarding marriage licenses for gay couples and, again, he was removed (well, suspended; he finally resigned in April, 2017). Now he's doubly a Christian martyr and hero, but has less support among better educated, urban Republicans.

In September of 2017 he won the primary election against Luther Strange, and really against all odds, since the Republican establishment backed Strange, the Governor backed Strange, the President backed Strange. But don't forget, this was a primary - only Republicans. And it's Alabama, the majority of the state is rural, under-educated, and very religious, or at least outwardly so.

Since that win, many Republicans, Democrats, and independents have been very vocal in their opposition to a Roy Moore election. Even the Governor and President were wishy washy on the subject at first. Then stories began to arise about some questionable moral conduct on Roy Moore's part when he was a young attorney in the DA's office. These stories have been investigated, vetted, and corroborated by dozens of people. They are, in all likelihood, true. But don't tell Moore's Christian supporters this. They will bend logic in all kinds of ways to call the information "Fake News", and because our news media have been so terrible for so long at getting facts straight, and presenting balanced stories, the "#FakeNews" label is sticking, in the face of all contrary evidence, in this particular case. Here are just a couple of the stories:



And it appears still that tomorrow, December 12th, 2017, Alabamians will go to the polls and vote for this creep for one of two reasons
a) they don't believe it because he's a good Christian and so it must be untrue
b) they can't stomach the thought of being represented by a Democrat

So where am I in all this? Well, it's no secret I'm a skeptic, and a radical centrist. I think Hillary Clinton is a narcissistic, opportunistic harpy. I think Bill Clinton is (or was) a sexual predator and guilty of rape and abuse of power. I think Bernie Sanders is a delusional communist goofball with no idea how the economy works. I think Trump is an opportunistic, narcissistic blowhard (also probably a sexual predator) with no moral compass and no values beyond immediate gratification and what is best for him at the given moment.

I'm not a conservative Christian (far from it) nor am I an SJW liberal snowflake (far from it). What I am is a pragmatist who can see through the bullshit all these people are throwing around. And I'm not alone. Hell, even Alabama's Senior Senator - a GOP stalwart - Richard Shelby isn't going to vote for Moore. That should tell us all a thing or two.

Where am I going with all this? Well, on Sunday, December 10, 2017, I posted some jokes about Roy Moore. Sophomoric jokes to be sure, with punchlines about preferring teenage girls. I made no mention of anyone else (well, except in the joke about Trump pardoning Roman Polanski). There was no mention of religion, or Alabamians, or ignorance, or stupidity, or even the election at all. There was no allusion to anything other than Roy Moore being a creep who likes teenage girls. But the response I got from his supporters was visceral and unhinged. Essentially their criticisms came down to three things -

1) #FakeNews - okay, I can sort of see that one. If you don't believe the allegations and you think the reporting is slanted and defamatory, then this is a reasonable criticism of jokes that reference these allegations.

2) You hate Jesus -What? There was no allusion to religion; no mention of it at all. It's no secret that I have a real problem with people who push a religious agenda - including Roy Moore. But these jokes were about his penchant for young girls, not his professional proselytizing.

3) You're calling Alabamians dumb and that's why Moore is going to get elected - What? I did no such thing. I made a joke about his peccadilloes. I said nothing about Alabamians and how they vote. By assuming that's what I meant, you made a far more telling statement about your own beliefs than anything I said. Also, if you're suggesting that being called dumb means you should vote for the worst people, just out of spite, well I don't know what to think about that.

All this is to say, dial back your outrage, people! I make jokes about politicians all the time. Left, right, center - it doesn't matter to me; if you're a successful politician, chances are good that you're also slimeball - at least to some degree. Roy Moore's an easy target because he's positioned himself as some latter day crusader, but under scrutiny, his self-molded image doesn't hold up. He's a charlatan and a creep. Don't fall on your sword for this asshole.

This whole thing makes me wonder why those on the right are so quick to sling the "snowflake"epithet around. Remember - Hit Dog Hollers!

Here are a couple of good Wikipedia sources - the pages themselves aren't as useful as the resource links at the bottom. Take your time. There's a lot to go through.


Thursday, August 17, 2017

I'm not afraid of Nazis, I'm afraid of overreaction

I've struggled over the last several days to come to terms with what is happening, in re the Charlottesville, VA events last weekend. For the first time since probably late 2001, I'm fearful for the future of the country and, more especially, for my young son's future. But it's not the Nazis I'm afraid of. It's the overreaction to what they actually represent.

So this group of impudent twats rolled into Charlottesville last weekend to have their little Tiki Torch Parade and shout their epithets of white power and whatever other bilge that their cro-magnon crania could conceive. So what? Here's a group of people who disavow the legitimacy of the government by going to that same government to get a permit for their march. By expecting that government to provide police protection. And let's be honest, with the exception of a hardy and evil few, I would bet my bottom dollar there would not have been much of a march last weekend if the police had told them "you're on your own". Because they're pansies who didn't get enough hugs as children.

We had this march on Friday and Saturday, which culminated in the death of Heather Heyer when some douche-canoe coward from Ohio drove his car into a crowd of people, injuring many, and killing Heyer. And as is par for the course, our buffoon president totally fumbled the response. Was there some amount of truth in what he was saying regarding "blame on both sides"? Sure. But he's such a terrible speaker, it came out all jumbled and sounded like victim blaming. Later, after having a few days to think about it, he had another rambling press conference where he reiterated that point, adding "there are bad people on both sides and good people on both sides."

Let's talk about that. Were there bad people on both sides? Sure. We don't need to talk about the bad people in the Tiki-Torch Parade, I think that's well understood. But there were also agitators in the counter-protest who went with the intention of starting some shit. And start shit they did. And the idiots in the Tiki-Torch Parade were more than happy to reciprocate. But what about the good people on both sides? Sorry, I'm not buying it. If you went there to join the Tiki-Torch Parade, you knew why you were there, and it was not for a good and righteous reason. There were no good people on that side. To claim so is to completely ignore (or perhaps agree with?) their very publicly stated intention.

As for the good people in the counter-protests, most of those participating probably were truly there to show solidarity and support for each other, for minorities, for the town of Charlottesville, and for the well-being of our nation. But there were some who went with the intention to engage and incite. And that's exactly what these troglodyte twats wanted to accomplish with their silly Tiki-Torch Parade. They WANTED to be attacked. They WANTED to be the victims.  That way anyone riding the fence on white nationalism, who happened to be watching any number of media outlets might be convinced that he, too, is a victim and should be joining in with those neanderthal nitwits.

Engagement is the oxygen for their fire. Our best action is inaction. Let them have their silly little parade, keep an eye on them, embed spies to make sure they're not up to anything truly dangerous, and watch them swim away into their limited gene pool. Don't fall for their trap. Don't give them the attention they so desperately need and want.

But enough about the Kooky Klutz Klan and their neo-Nazi suck buddies. I'm not afraid of them. They're impotent and worthless. What I AM afraid of are these sudden calls for censorship by people I've always considered very level-headed. When you start talking about willingly stripping away foundational rights, like freedom of speech, you give me shivers. Our ability to say whatever needs to be said without worry that some government agent will spirit us away in the night, never to be heard from again, is what built this country and what maintains it today. To suggest that some groups and some speech should be limited is to suggest the destruction of this great society.

The reasons these people cite are sound, on the surface, but it doesn't take very much noodling to see the logical flaws. What's been most often repeated is that freedom of speech doesn't cover inciting violence (true) and doesn't cover hate speech (false). I'll address them in order. Yes, your right to free speech doesn't cover inciting violence. But that's a very narrow definition. What the people supporting this limit are doing is constructing a syllogism whereby supporting a philosophy that calls for genocide is de facto inciting violence. Well, in a grand philosophical sense, yes, what those people want is violence, but it's a more nebulous call for violence. Not violence now, but violence at some undetermined point in the future. What the restriction against inciting violence covers is things like "Kill that guy, now!"

As for covering "hate" speech... that's really too much of a broad term. Define "hate speech". The problem is that no one would ever be able to sufficiently define it in narrow enough terms that it isn't applied to just about anything controversial that anyone could say. Besides which, even if we could define it, it's still just words, and as long as it isn't calling for violence, slandering an individual, or creating a dangerous situation (e.g. "FIRE!" in a crowded theater) then there is and should be no restriction on it.

Finally, a hypothetical for you. Let's say we all agree that there should be restrictions on freedom of speech. Who decides what the limits are? The president? Yes. Congress? Yes. The Supreme Court? Certainly. Currently, those three branches of government are dominated by right wing conservatives. Do you really think white nationalists will be their first target? No chance. First up would be Black Lives Matter, followed by Pro-Choice groups and then Muslim groups. And the reason would be exactly what the current calls for limits are asking for - it would be because "they incite violence." Is that really what we want?

Consider that you cannot lose a right, without assigning the management and oversight of that right to someone else. Do you really trust any of our politicians to do the right thing with that kind of power? I sure don't. If we start stripping away our basic, foundational rights, we might as well get ready for the next revolution - it will follow soon after.

I understand; emotions are raw, these ne'er-do-well nincompoops with their silly Tiki-Torch Parade struck a nerve in all of us (well, most of us). But let's show them what we're made of. Let them know in no uncertain terms we aren't afraid of them; that they can say whatever they want, and hold their useless Tiki-Torch Parades to protest the removal of racist symbology, but it won't stop us from the march toward freedom for all. And it won't make us stoop to their level.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

More on the Minimum Wage

(For an earlier piece on minimum wage, see my post from 2013 titled "Minimum Wage")

It’s certainly noble to wish for everyone to have a “living wage”. The unfortunate reality, however, is that with the sheer size of our country, and the disparity of cultures, resources, and costs of living, a federally mandated, minimum “living wage” is an unrealistic goal - at least from a national perspective.

Putting aside the racist origins of “The Minimum Wage,” the argument from the far left has always been “it’s not fair that you can’t feed and house a family of four on minimum wage.” Which, like the flintlock argument the left like to employ when talking about gun control, is silly. “Minimum” means exactly that. It’s not intended to be a “living wage”, whatever that actually means. Maybe you have to work two jobs. And why is someone working for minimum wage trying to support a family of four? If this is a regular occurrence, we have larger problems.

In this instance, the more laissez-faire, fiscal conservatives are correct. If you increase the minimum wage, you increase all costs across the board. And since companies don’t actually pay for anything, this will necessarily increase the cost of living, putting it once again out of reach of minimum wage, leading to more calls to increase it again. It’s a vicious cycle, and simple economics.

The answer, then, is to peg the federal minimum wage to the lowest “living wage” in the country and automatically increase it with inflation, then leave it up to individual states and municipalities and other jurisdictions to manage it at the local level. The recent calls by many for a $15 / hour minimum wage don’t make sense, as it would put undue burdens on small businesses in areas with low costs of living, while not having any impact at all in places like New York and San Francisco. In this case, one size does NOT fit all.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Softening Our Philosophy on Criminal Justice

The United States of America, arguably one of the wealthiest and freest nations to ever exist, also has a prison problem. At 724 people per 100,000, we have, by far, the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world. Fully one quarter of those prisoners are in for minor drug offenses. So assuming we take the path toward the legalization of drugs, let’s forget about them for a moment and focus on the “real” criminals.

The recidivism rate for all prisoners, adjusted to omit those in for minor drug offenses, is more than 60%. Clearly we are not doing a very good job of rehabilitation. And if you know anything about the criminal justice system, you know that we aren’t really putting much of an effort into rehabilitation. This is an expensive and dangerous proposition. By warehousing criminals, instead of working to rehabilitate them, we are creating more dangerous criminals, instead of better citizens.

We, as Americans, must make a choice about the goals of our criminal justice system. If our goals are vengeance and punishment, along with protecting innocent civilians, then our system is on the right track but not going far enough. Since we’re already incarcerating violent criminals and making them more dangerous, with no thought toward rehabilitation, then we are wasting a lot of money and effort. We should change “3 strikes” to “2 strikes” and just lock them all up for life, with no possibility of parole. And we shouldn’t bother worrying about overcrowding. The term “cruel and unusual punishment” can really be interpreted in whatever way a good lawyer can make. It sounds harsh, but it will definitely make the rest of us safer, while wasting no resources on repeat offenders.

However, if our goals are protecting innocent civilians, while providing opportunities for rehabilitation, reparations, and a small modicum of punishment, then we need to overhaul the system. It goes against our human nature for vengeance, but if we can get past that, to our other human nature for self-preservation, then we might realize we’re far better off taking non-violent criminals (and even first-time violent offenders, depending on the nature of the offense) and offering them counseling, education, job-training - in a word, dignity. In our current system, these new and non-violent criminals are warehoused in giant, brightly lit, concrete boxes, with a host of other, older, violent criminals. After a time of sitting and doing nothing but being a prisoner, they are turned violent and dangerous themselves. It should come as no surprise that nearly ⅔ of them return to prison in short order.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Solving Our Drugs Crisis

Prohibition doesn’t work. This is not news. Or at least it shouldn’t be news. The 18th Amendment to the Constitution lasted just 12 years before it was repealed by the 21st. It was an abysmal failure. It was an attempt to legislate morality - and this is always a recipe for disaster. So knowing what we know about prohibiting mind-altering, recreational substances, why do we insist on keeping draconian laws on the books that carry harsh penalties for merely possessing something as innocuous as a dried weed?

Conspiracy theories abound (and they may well be true) that the government, and specifically the CIA, doesn’t want legal drugs because they make too much money off prohibition - from government funding of overseas adventures to fight cartels, to selling drugs in sting operations. If that is indeed the case, it’s a highly cynical, immoral and unethical reason to continue the prohibition.

What is also probably true is that the private corporations who run prisons don’t want to end prohibition because it would result in a precipitous drop in incarceration rates. More than 25% of the prisoners in the US are there for minor drug offenses. That’s indefensible. And never mind the pharmaceutical companies who OF COURSE don’t want people to buy effective, non-chemical, grown in the back yard pain relievers that easily.

It’s been said that war cannot be fought against ideas or inanimate objects but only against people. And this is being born out by the “war on drugs.” Countless lives have been ruined and lost as a result of this war. Yet, to date, there has been little, if any success, in curbing the American appetite for mind-altering substances. In fact, new ones surface all the time.

The solution, of course, is to legalize and regulate drugs, and then collect the VAT from the purchase of those drugs. There is no reason one shouldn’t be able to buy a pack of joints in a drug store or liquor store, just like the purchase of cigarettes or alcohol. If you’re of legal age, we have no reason to stop you doing what you want to do.

The arguments against the legalization of drugs are little more than scare tactics; we’ll have an epidemic of drugged out zombies, or kids will die in huge numbers, or what about our eternal souls... The first two items can be answered by looking at other countries that have decriminalized drugs (as well as California, Colorado, and Washington) and the last one is, well it’s just silly. Not surprisingly, no place that has legalized drugs has turned into a wasteland of stoners. In fact, abuse of drugs has actually ebbed since legalization. Imagine that.

There is no good reason, in a free society, to prevent people from doing whatever they want to do for recreation, provided they are not infringing on the rights of others. If someone gets whacked out of his mind and commits a crime, well, he’ll be prosecuted for that crime - whether his substance of choice is alcohol or meth. If someone wants to spend his Saturday night with an 8-ball and a hooker, I have no problem with that - so long as the 8-ball was purchased legally (i.e., not stolen) and the hooker is of legal age and has entered into the arrangement willingly.

There was an allusion to this essay in an earlier essay I wrote on immigration. Here’s where they relate. Most of our illegal drugs are crossing our southern border with illegal immigrants. It is entirely plausible that we could take care of both of these problems with one solution. By legalizing and regulating drugs on this side of the border, and working with our neighbors to the south to enact practical, legal ways to produce and ship drugs to this country, we force all the players to operate above ground. If the drug cartels don’t have to operate like militias any more, but have to operate like corporations, we’ll see more job opportunities and less violence on both sides of the border. The tax man is far scarier than the cops. He always gets what he’s after. So instead of spending a fortune on illegal weapons and soldiers, guys like “El Chapo” will have to invest in accountants and lawyers - as well as market researchers, web developers, salesmen, logistics specialists, government lobbyists, etc.