The Column

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Global warming conference is well-attended

(Photographer unknown. anyone claim this?)

I guess you already heard about that big conference on global warming?

You didn't?

I don't understand that; it was so well-attended. Here's part of the crowd.

(Special thanks to my brother
Rick for sending this along.)

Conundrum o'the week: Cut deficit with what?

President Barack Obama said Monday that he plans to cut his inherited budget deficit in half by the end of his first term.

H'mmm ... and he's going to do this after signing that gigantic $787 billion stimulus package into effect?

I'd like to know what drugs have leached into the Washington, D.C. water supply.

Southern GOP governors to sit out feeding frenzy?

Ever since President Barack Obama signed that massive $787 billion stimulus package into effect, a number of states and municipalities have been lining up at the trough, wish lists and pet projects in hand.

However, a few GOP governors -- mostly from the Deep South, in states that could sure use the bucks -- banded together to call the stimulus package by its right name. They're calling it the mother of all spending sprees, saying there are too many strings attached, and suggesting they may even sit this one out.

These governors are not a bunch of backward country boys, either. There are some real stars in this group, including Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who along with Sarah Palin is considered the future of the party.

Ad South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford to this mix, too. In fact, you can probably call him one of the ringleaders in this mini-rebellion.

Readers of this column know I respect mark Sanford. I don't know the man, but I like what he's been doing here, and I especially like where he's coming from. Don't be fooled by his party affiliation. He's listed as a Republican, but in reality he's a libertarian in elephant's clothing. Sometimes, especially with guys like John McCain and Arnold Schwarzenegger floating around, it's hard to tell the pachyderms from the donkeys on the political landscape. Maybe it's because they all tend to be jackasses. But Sanford stands out.

Sanford's not exactly been enthused about accepting even a dime of the stimulus package, but later softened his stance some. Some. Just a bit. Meanwhile, Congressman Jim Clyburn, a Democrat from South Carolina's Sixth District, is trying to bypass recalcitrant governors (such as Sanford) and get stimulus money into the states without them. Oh, well. So much for states' rights.

This past weekend, Sanford said it's lunacy to mortgage the future and hock the family jewels for a few stimulus bucks today. OK, he didn't use those exact words, but you get the drift.

I don't claim to be any kind of economist. For me, high finance is making sure I can feed self and dog, pay my bills, and maybe salt away a few bucks. I could say I put my money into CDs, but they're usually of the Miles Davis or Willie Nelson variety. I can work up a personal budget and make it work, and that's about it for economics. But I do know a few basic truths.

Like, you can't creat money out of thin air. You can't make something out of nothing, though a few corporate heads have tried. And you can't spend like a drunken sailor today without getting a huge bill for it tomorrow.

OK. Governments are slightly different in that they have a few more ways to raise revenue than private citizens do, and they can play with the time line a bit. They have a few more tools at their disposal, but the basic truths remain the same.

Here's the reality: Floating money now means the bill will still come up big in the future. No way around that. The time line is a lot looser, though. If you run up a lot of debts, you'll get phone calls within months. The government can spend, string the taxpayers along, and the bill will still come up. Only it'll come up far in the future. Would you care at that point? Probably not. You may be dead by then, or at least at the point you don't know what color Jell-O they're feeding you at The Home. Your kids or grandkids will get the bill. OK, screw 'em, you say? Wrong at every level ...

OK, you say. The government still has an out. Crank up the printing presses, spit out more $100 bills. Let 'em eat funny money.

It is a possible scenario. Our money is already funny, not backed up by anything. It's not like you can tie one dollar to x amount of gold or silver, so good luck trying to define a dollar. If I remember correctly, the print-'em-like-crazy angle has been tried, and it was a big reason why the economy did its tank job in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Gold was up to $850 an ounce, silver up to $48, inflation was in the double-digit range, and unemployment was ridiculously high. Forget it. Don't want it, don't need it.

Getting back to our holdout governors, I don't expect many others to pick up that ball. The Jindals and Sanfords are operating from a principle (though I'll admit their statements are ideologically motivated, too). And principle doesn't pay in politics, especially when the trough is full and all the barnyard creatures are lined up for what they feel is theirs.


[You tell me! Do governors like Bobby Jindal and Mark Sanford have their constituents' best interests at heart, or are they just a bunch of cranks? And what's your take on Clyburn's efforts here? Use the comments section for input.]

You got a password for that?

I have a theory that the human brain is like a hard drive. OK, a floppy drive. Anyway, the theory holds that there is a finite amount of room on it.

And, like your computer drive, if you load your brain with a bunch of crap, there's not a lot of room for the really good stuff.

OK. I hear folks snickering and whispering here, what with my own fondness for useless information (some of which I recently shared in this space). Gee, no wonder I'm brain dead, considering all the political and sports trivia, factoids, chord progressions and lyrics to various songs, and who knows what else I have bumping around in that organ I call a cerebrum.

I think it was Albert Einstein who said a person should never make an extra effort to remember something that could easily be looked up. Einstein was plainly a genius at unraveling the mysteries of the cosmos, but by all accounts he was a real space case when it came to remembering unimportant things like his own address.

Oh, yeah. Many of my valuable brain cells are used to just juggle passwords. And I'm not alone here.

Back in the early 1980s, I had only one password to deal with -- the code so I could access my bank account through an ATM machine. And already, that was one too many. It was too much like work.

I've simplified my banking, somewhat. I deposit my paychecks in a savings account, and order bank drafts to pay my bills. I don't even bother with an ATM. No problem there, except I still need to use my account number for all of this. Fortunately, that number is in a card in my wallet. And it's a small enough bank that the tellers can remember my account number faster than I can drag the card out.

But, like everyone else in this computer-happy world, I have passwords coming on top of passwords. I even have a computer program to keep track of all these passwords. And, yeah, there's even a password to work that program. A password to access all my passwords.

A fast inventory of where I have passwords:

- On the handheld computer I use at work. I was assigned a username when I was hired, and I make up my own password. I'm required to change it every couple of months.

- Two usernames and passwords on my personal computer. One is for the user account, and one for the root account. This is probably a little excessive because I'm the only one who uses this computer, but it still makes sense. My user account allows me to do my usual work. To do any major work on the system files, I go to root. It's an extra level of protection, a built-in warning. It's like the computer is asking me:

"Do you really want to do this?

"I mean REALLY want to do this?

"Whatever it is, you'd better be right.

"OK. Fasten your seat belt. I hope you're right, 'cause if you're not, you WILL bork the system."

By then, I'm definitely awake. A good thing, too. Since I like to live on the edge with my computer, I'm always running that risk, and I have borked the system more than once.

But hold on. I have more passwords:

- A password to access voice mail on my cell phone.

- Optional passwords to operate my cell phone, and to run my mp3 player. I have not activated these. Enough already!

And I haven't even gone online yet. That's where things get real interesting:

- Five email accounts, two of which I actually use. Email accounts are cheap these days.

- Three blogs which I actually maintain, at least every once in a while.

- Other communications programs -- Twitter (which I use), and Jott (which I don't any more).

- A nifty little program called "Remember The Milk," which keeps to-do lists. Also another one called "Backpack," which I fooled around with.

- Three advertising accounts that are there to put said blogs on a paying basis (hint hint). Plus my PayPal account, which is where any advertising revenue ends up. I think the balance is about three bucks and change now.

- At least four job-search boards, because most bloggers sure don't make a living at it.

- Several social networking sites: two MySpace accounts, Facebook, Eons (social networking for us golden oldies), LinkedIn (a professional networking site), and a few others. Most haven't been maintained.

- A few blog communities, such as I've captured some readers from those.

- Many online forums, for each of my interests. As an example, I'm in at least a half-dozen Linux forums.

- Some of the online newspapers I read require a password, too.

Depending on how I count them, I'm up to 30 or 40 passwords by now.

To be sure, I don't have a different username and password for each of these. Are you kidding? I use two or three username/password combinations, with variations of each. And I use Firefox as my Web browser, which saves my passwords. Without that feature, I'd be lost. Except I sometimes use Opera, or Seamonkey, or Lynx, or Dillo to surf.

Ugh. After thinking of all this, I need to step outside for some fresh air. I just wish I can remember the password to open my front door ...
[You tell me! How many passwords do you have? Are you afraid to count them? How do you manage them? Use the comments section for your input.]

Another Friday the 13th? Have a lucky day ...

Has anyone noticed we will have Friday the 13th for two consecutive months?

That's right. You thought you made it through the one this month, but sit tight. Another one is coming in a couple of weeks.

Two consecutive Friday the 13ths are as rare as, well, as the aforementioned "perfect month." In fact, this phenomenon can only occur when there is such a symmetrical February, so the next time this happens will, again, be in 2015. But don't take my word for it. Check any so-called perpetual calendar to see this -- you may find it in your phone directory, and definitely in something like the World Almanac.

My thoughts on Friday the 13th? Balderdash. A bunch of hooey. Hogwash. Bushwah. But then, I'm one who charges ahead without seeing whether I'm walking under ladders. I break mirrors simply by looking at them in the morning. And, back in my Nevada days, one must-pick number on my Keno tickets was 13 (I often won, too).

I do draw the line at black cats crossing my path, though. Especially when I'm not looking where I'm going.

February 2009 an OCD dream

(Graphics from

OK. You've been staring at it for more than three weeks now, and you might have caught on to a relative anomaly. February 2009 could be called "the perfect month."

So what's this perfect month? It has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of the month; in fact many people will say that February 2009 has really sucked so far. I'm talking about how it lays in the calendar, four weeks, starting on Sunday, ending on Saturday, with nothing left hanging over on the first or last lines. A perfect month, if only for the esthetic standpoint. Or, if you have a slight case of obsessive-compulsive disorder -- one of those types who checks five or six times to make sure the stove is off before leaving for work (and more if you actually turned it on) -- it's a dream month.

A neat bit of trivia, too. These perfect months are not real common. In my 51 years, I've lived through six of them. I've seen them in 1959, 1970, 1981, 1987, 1998, and now -- always February, of course.

This isn't as big or splashy or rare as Halley's Comet, but I find it kinda interesting (admittedly, I find a lot of mundane things to be interesting). The next "perfect month" will be in 2015, and my OCD self will be ready. By then I'll have straightened the pictures at home numberless times -- that's something that really bugs me.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Meditations from the throne room

In a companion posting I wrote about how the newspaper industry is going through massive changes, making the argument that your small local newspapers will probably outlast the giants from New York and L.A.

And while those papers are going to Web sites more and more, don't expect them to lose the presses and newsprint anytime soon.

Figure it this way. You can't roll up a Web site and smack your recalcitrant puppy on the butt. You can't wrap fish in the .pdf version of your local paper. And, unless you're a) a real techno-geek or b) have a real bad problem with ADHD, you're not going to take the laptop into the bathroom with you.

Don't discount this last part. It doesn't matter what the news outlet is, your local paper is tailor-made for bathroom reading.

We discussed this topic at work a few days ago, and the folks in my department all thought I was crazy for mentioning the subject. Well, it might be because I'm the only male in the morning crew, and taking a newspaper into the bathroom is probably just a guy thing. I did admit that homesteading in the latrine is about the only way a guy can rest his ears for a few minutes, and to say I'm lucky this all-female crew likes me a little bit is probably stating the obvious here.

I'm big on bathroom reading, and if it's indicitave of ADHD, so be it. But I'm not the only one. Some years ago some publisher came up with an ingenious concept -- ultra-condensed versions of many books, bound as the Great American Bathroom Book. Single-sitting classics is what the publishers called the final product, and they did kick out several volumes of that work. Granted, it's a real stretch to condense Plato's Republic or Aristotle's Ethics down to two pages. Even breaking down Stephen King's The Stand (at 1,141 pages, not a small book) down to a two-page capsule leaves a lot of the good stuff out, but it still was a neat trick. Of course, after reading the single-sitting version of The Stand, I had to pick up the whole book.

For bathroom reading, though, you still can't beat the World Almanac. It's the classic. Now, this book is an old friend of mine -- I've had nearly all of them from about 1969 or so -- and it's one of those books where you can start anywhere, finish anywhere, read as much or as little as you like, and educate yourself. Or, if you're like me, you'll at least absorb an awful lot of useless information.

Some samples:

- Loving County, Texas, favored John McCain in 2008, with 67 votes to Barack Obama's 12. King County, Texas, wasn't even that close, with 151 for McCain to 8 for Obama. Kennedy County (of course) favored Obama, 108-93.

- There really is a Deaf Smith County in Texas. I could have told you that anyway; I drove through it. Wasn't much there.

- Mario Andretti was the well-rounded race-car driver, winning the 1969 Indianapolis 500, NASCAR's Daytona 500 in 1967, and the 1978 Formula One World Grand Prix championship.

- Famous South Carolinians include jazz pioneer Charles "Buddy" Bolden, boxer Joe Frazier, Senators Strom Thurmond and Fritz Hollings, John C. Calhoun, Jesse Jackson, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Ronald McNair, and "Swamp Fox" Francis Marion.

- In 2007, Americans spent more on medical care ($1,681 billion) than they did on housing ($1,460 billion) or food ($1,329 billion). Scandalous, just plain scandalous. We also spent $340 billion on gas and oil, $102 billion on new cars, $93.4 billion on tobacco products, $85.3 billion on casino gambling, and $49.3 billion on nursery, elementary, or secondary schools.

- In 1969, the average American production worker pulled down $120 per week, at $3.22 per hour. In 2007, the average weekly earnings for production workers was $589, at $17.42 per hour.

- About a third of the world's population (or 500 million people) was infected in the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1919. Fatalities worldwide: Between 50 million and 100 million.

- The Rolling Stones concert tour of 2005 played 42 shows in 38 cities, grossing a record $162 million. OK, so Mich Jagger was 62 years old for this tour, and Keith Richards was pretty well perserved himself. Or something.

- Riverside County, CA, checks in with a 2,073,571 population in 2007, up from 1,545,387 in 2000. This is a guesstimate, as the turnstiles broke in Moreno Valley around 2002 or so.

- As the old joke goes, "There were these two Chinese ... now look at how many there are." Like, 1.3 billion as of mid-2008.

- The highest per-capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the world in 2007 is ... Qatar, with $80,900 per head. The U.S. ranks 8th with $45,800 behind Qatar, Luxembourg, Malta, Norway, Brunei, Singapore, and Cyprus. Zimbabwe is the lowest, at $200 per capita. Somalia sits at sixth-lowest ($600), and Afghanistan at 17th lowest ($1,000).

These reading habits may explain why I have so many factiods bouncing around in my brain, ready for all occasions.

Other bathroom-reading possibilities include the dictionary -- one of my co-workers who doesn't read in the bathroom goes to her paperback Webster's to burn off a few minutes here and there (look that up in your Funk & Wagnalls, kiddies). Writers and journalists will do well with the Associated press Stylebook. Others worth mentioning are The Psalms (good uplifting meditative reading, and they're just the right length). Reader's Digest (again, a good length for short stays). Any collection of poetry or short stories.

One more:

- American Nobel Prize winners for literature: Sinclair Lewis (1930), Eugene O'Neill (1936), Pearl Buck (1938), William Faulkner (1949), Ernest Hemingway (1954), John Steinbeck (1962), Saul Bellow (1976), Isaac Bashevis Singer (1978), Joseph Brodsky (1987), and Toni Morrison (1993). Most of the earlier prize winners were pretty heavy hitters at the bar, too.

Sorry. Couldn't resist.

[I'll throw this to you, the reader. What reading material do you take into the bathroom? Or would you actually admit to such a practice? Use the comments section to give me your input.]

Mainstream media dying out, or is it just paper?

I'm hearing scuttlebutt that the print journalism industry is on its last legs, that the newspaper will soon become obsolete.

Some blame the failures of mainstream media, and I'll admit there's a point to that. Even when I was in the business, few newspapers could afford to devote a team of reporters -- or even a single staff writer -- to any story that takes more than a few days to develop. The pressure is to fill that news hole now. With the smaller dailies -- where I did most of my best work -- I'd usually have two or three stories per issue. Every day. And newspapers then were reluctant to run anything that might upset one of their advertisers or any of the local power brokers, as advertising revenue is the grease that keeps the presses humming. No industry deliberately craps in its own nest.

But that part is old business. During the most recent elections, mainstream media took a back seat to electronic news -- the web sites, the blogs, and just about anything else that isn't printed on paper.

Much of this is just a shifting of the technology. Last week, the Charleston Post & Courier -- that local newspaper I pick up on the bus every morning for free -- ran two side-by-side, quarter-page house ads in Friday's sports section. Here's part of the copy from one of the ads:

"The Internet is killing the newspaper business?*"

"*Unless you consider that most of the people who go online for news and information go to local newspaper websites."

The other ad claims the Post & Courier, along with its companion site, has an audience of 376,400 readers -- the largest in South Carolina.

Readership figures are wholly manufactured, anyway. Generally you can assume that so many people are going to read one copy of a newspaper. Only one newspaper may make it into your household, yet everybody in the house my read it. The kids may battle over the sports section and the comics, but that counts. See?

What I find interesting with this double ad pitch is that the P&C is nodding to the Internet phenomenon. It's as much a part of the newspaper as the copy that rolled off the press this morning.

Although the big guys -- the N.Y. Times, the L.A. Times, the Washington Post, USA Today -- may find themselves losing out to the smaller newspapers. Even with more electronic publishing and shrinking news crews, the small guys will still hang onto their niche for a while longer.

The New York Times will go toes up long before the Posey County (IN) News, the Mohave County (AZ) News, or the Fontana (CA) Herald-News. Folks still like that news-from-home touch, and few are going to do it better than those one-reporter-and-a-few-stringers operations.

The Herald-News, by the way, did shut its doors in 1990, a few months after I left their employ and moved to Arizona. That state of closure lasted maybe a few minutes, as the paper was quickly bought up and resurrected. I have no idea what the actual newspaper looks like, but its Web site is still my main source for news from the town that had been such a big part of my life.

The so-called mainstream media may be in deep stuff here, but expect local reporting to be alive and well.

$enate to vote on late$t golden trough

I'm still trying to figure something out.

The big news out of Washington is this so-called stimulus package, which is billed as a far-reaching, broad-based effort to crank up the economy and create jobs. That's how it's promoted, anyway.

OK. What we have here is a package that costs a lot (estimates start at $800 billion) and is, according to the Obama administration, expected to generate up to two million jobs. Assuming it's that many jobs actually created and the package rounds out at $850 billion, that's $425,000 spent per job created. But that's OK. It's only funny money, and the bill won't come due until future generations pay the taxes.

The Senate is expected to vote on this bill this week, probably Tuesday. Already some states and municipalities have their hands out for a slab of that pie.

Later with the golden parachutes companies offer. This is the golden trough.

In North Charleston (just a duck snort up the road from its more famous namesake), Mayor Keith Summey says he's eyeballing a wish list of almost $315 million in stimulation from the federal government. He's looking at $100 million for a light rail system, $50 million for various street projects, $40 million to continue redeveloping the Navy base, and more than $37 million for a new City Hall. OK, that last one smells particularly porky to me, but commuter rail sounds interesting and I'm impressed with a lot of the work already done on the mothballed Navy base.

Maybe I just don't have much of an imagination, but I don't see where many of these projects can create jobs. But then, maybe it's a shortfall of imagination on my part. It's possible I'm failing to see that many jobs because, well, I swore off the hard drugs decades ago. Yeah, maybe that's it.

Instead of jobs, I'm seeing a lot of pork. I'm seeing a lot of political favors being called and packaged into this thing that our legislators have the gall to call a "stimulus plan."

Perhaps the more solid aspect of this stimulus plan is in some of the infrastructure improvements here and there. But even that is a touchy subject. When you're talking infrastructure you start getting everything from the essential to the screwball, and the only thing linking the projects is that they're all expensive. Folks old enough to remember the Depression (and it's a shame there are fewer and fewer of those) will tell you about the make-work programs that came up in the 1930s to put people to work. Maybe the Works Progress Administration (WPA) did some good things, but most of the Depression-era stories I'd heard were of people leaning on their shovels. We Poke Along, that's what WPA meant to some.

And what better "thanks for the support" letter can be sent anywhere than a new stretch of highway, or a bridge, or a military installation? That's pork at its finest. Alaska Governor and recent vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin drew kudos for her opposition to her state's Bridge To Nowhere. Now, think of a thousand bridges to nowhere. If you look, you'll probably see that in the stimulus plan.

[What do you think? Is this stimulus plan more pork than progress? Are you applying to the federal government for a little economic stimulation yourself? Use the comment section for any ideas and/or diatribes.]

Monday, February 2, 2009

Job scene looking bleaker

About the only good news happening is that gas prices are lower. Not that it does much good; few people have the right kind of disposable income anyway, so it doesn't really matter what a gallon of gas costs.

If you're following my occasional news dispatches in the left-hand column of this blog (and if you're not, shame on you) you'll get an on-the-fly sampling: Layoffs, layoffs, and more layoffs.

Like in a three-day period last week, more than 100,000 people got notice that they're no longer working. Now, that's rough. It's more than rough. It's unspeakable. It shouldn't happen here in these United States.

Even the seemingly invulnerable industries are taking it in the shorts. I mean, what's this about Microsoft laying off a few thousand people? I guess world conquest is a tough business. And Pfizer? THE Pfizer? Those wonderful folks who brought you Zoloft and Viagra? Yeah, THAT Pfizer. They're cutting research and development right between the eyes. I'm having trouble with this one. When there's a financial free-fall going on, the only thing people can do is a) get depressed or b) have a lot of sex. Or both. At least you'd think so.

But when the Microsofts and the Pfizers start cutting back, you know things are not good. These are companies that practically print money.

In my news dispatches (usually sent via text message through Twitter), I'm stuck on a catch phrase: Are we in a depression yet? Economists say no. The government says no. But keep in mind none of these guys never really owned up to the fact we're in a recession until when? Last December? About nine months after the average guy in the street was calling it a recession, anyway.

Locally, a few companies have either left town or are in the process of doing so, all in the name of downsizing. The biggest of these is Maersk, the Denmark-based shipping giant that accounts for nearly a quarter of the containers coming in to the Ports of Charleston. Yeah, the party line is that they're still negotiating with the State Ports Authority, but their bags are packed. And this is affecting several other industries -- several trucking firms have cut back, for example. Last week, Atlantic Trucking shed 11 driver's positions, and I'm wondering how they can legally do this because the drivers are owner-operators, meaning they're independent contractors. About the only way I can think of canning an independent contractor is if the driver violates the terms of the contract -- for example, if a driver has too many tickets and is uninsurable. It's a good bet the drivers aren't telling me the whole story, but you never know.

But that's peripheral stuff. Again, things are bad. Jobs are scarce. In the Charleston Post and Courier, job ads were down to a little more than one column for at least one day last week. That's one column, and there are nine of them per page. When times are flush, expect more than a page -- often two -- of just job ads. It's beyond ugly. It's butt-ugly. It's bugly.

Here's the deal. Right now, if you have a job, you're Texas-lucky. I'm one of the lucky, though my hours were cut back about a month ago. And with the economy showing so few signs of life, nervous time is not quite over for me. For now, though, no worries. I was talking to a truck driver about it the other day.

"I have this job," I said. "I have my benefits. I can still fog a mirror in the morning. Life is good."

Sometimes the only thing keeping a fella sane is that kind of attitude. Even if things get totally messy, I still have that mirror-fogging power.

Oh, yes, and gas is cheaper, too.