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Posts Tagged ‘choice’

Perhaps I should note, right up front, that I am not equating Barack Obama to a douche. Or more accurately, I am, but not in the spirit of meanness. South Park fans will understand immediately. For the rest of you, let me explain. After major elections overseas and several state primaries, my thoughts turned to voting and the process of election. A friend, discussing similar topics, brought up episode 808 (#119) of the well-known satiric TV series South Park, wherein a new school mascot must be decided by vote and the two choices are anything but ordinary: a turd sandwich and a giant douche.

To cut a complex story short, a boy who is told he must vote refuses, citing that he doesn’t agree with either of the candidates and it is a pointless exercise anyway. After heavy pressure from family, friends, and community members, including threats of bodily harm, he relents. But before doing so, he is advised by the leader of a nationwide activist group that “every election is between a Giant Douche and a Turd.”

So we have our foundation. And I am inclined to agree with Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the creators and principal writers of the South Park series. Most elections do seem to come down to the choice between between a douche and a turd. It is one unfortunate result of a two-party system. As much as we tout the wide variety of choice in political preferences, it really comes down to Democrat or Republican on the ballot. Though a few shudders of revolt have been felt from the Independent and Tea factions, most candidates elected to major offices still carry an (R) or (D) by their names. (Is it a mere coincidence that douche begins with (d) and turd contains an (r)? I wonder.)

So what should one do, when faced with the choice of selecting between a turd and a douche? How can one determine the lesser of two evils? Either way, the populace effected is sure to lose. Yet not voting – refusing to choose – is seen as an insult, not only to the nation as a whole but to the many who fought and died to bring the nation to where it stands today.

I argue that refusing to choose is not an insult to the nation but a measure of the abuse the political system is experiencing. Without strong figures of reason and credibility to vote for, what impetus is there to cast a vote? Why mark the box for a turd if a turd isn’t wanted in office? It becomes a catch 22: the only candidates with enough political savy and sway to reach levels of importance are all douches and turds, so only douches and turds can be elected. Which I believe is the point made by Trey Parker and Matt Stone. And for the more patriotic, who see refusal as a dismissal of the battles that gave us the freedom to vote, I can only ask if those same battles were fought so that we would only be able to choose between two corrupt, greedy, unappealing, unwanted, money- and power-hungry candidates. I don’t believe that was what any of those men and women fought for. I don’t believe that is what men and women the world over continue fighting for.

I whole-heartedly support the right to vote. 1,000%. It was meant to be our greatest freedom, our most powerful weapon of peace and justice against our own government and political system. I value that right beyond words and will defend it to my last breath. With force, if necessary. But it has been so misused. It has become such a pitiful shadow of what it could and should be. It’s the 21st Century. We are surrounded with technological and biological marvels. And yet we vote as though we are still in the Dark Ages, ignorant, apathetic, afraid. James A. Mishener once said, “An age is called dark, not because the light fails to shine, but because people refuse to see it.” Well I see it, or at least the potential of it, and I refuse to vote for darkness. I refuse to vote for turds and douches and rampant liars and unconscionable thieves. Not when we, as a nation, are capable of so much better.

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The blog is now back up and running, with it’s usual unpredictable schedule.

And to start off a new year, a new infringement on our rights. Unless you were buried in an avalanche for the last two weeks, you’ve heard about the purported “underwear bomber” (who, luckily, managed only to injured himself) on Christmas Day. This sent airlines and government agencies into a frenzy of bad judgement and over-reaction. So what’s new, you ask? Well, it’s not so much what’s new as what is on-going … namely the hacking away of our constitutionally amended rights. Including our right to privacy (specifically, the fourth amendment; the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures). In case you hadn’t guessed, I’m talking about the full-body scanners. (Yes, it’s a much-discussed topic at the moment, and I’m just going to have to throw my two cents in as well.) And in case you hadn’t guessed by now, I’m not a supporter.

Let me preface the heart of this by saying that I do not wholly oppose the full-body scanners. I support them as an option to the current metal detector screening process. I do not support them as a mandate and the only alternative to full-body pat-downs.

First of all, even the most effective scanner is only effective against those it actually scans. Full-body scanners were in use and available in the Amsterdam airport where the (alleged) bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab boarded his flight for the United States. They certainly didn’t ward him off from a distance or go red alert as he walked into the terminal. He wasn’t suspected of criminal intent, and so he wasn’t scanned. It seems a person-by-person scanning process is as time-consuming as the metal detector queue (or moreso) so airports that do use the scanners do so with passengers who volunteer, or with passengers at random, or when someone rouses suspicion. Which Mr. Abdulmutallab did not.

Obviously, random screenings are hardly worth the effort; we would likely be as safe employing lie detectors. Because even at the absolute best, the penultimate of body scanning proficiency, it is no more effective than a metal detector and a full-body pat-down … because anyone can forego the scanner if they choose. So why the trouble and expense if the results are no different than the original conditions? Abdulmutallab’s “accessories” wouldn’t have been any easier to detect than when he went through screening at Amsterdam. And while I bet the TSA would gladly strike down that ability to choose between the scanners and the pat-down, I don’t believe it would pass legislature in the near future; it is not accepted widely enough for that. In fact, several European nations – including Belgium, Spain, Germany, and France – remain unimpressed with the scanners and unconvinced they are necessary.

According to the travel website Jaunted, the scanners are currently used in only 19 U.S. airports (listed at the bottom of this post), though the TSA intends to roughly quadruple the number of working scanners in 2010. Of course, that’s just in the States. Hundreds of international airports offer direct flights to U.S. soil … so getting everyone up to speed would be a multi-year, multi-billion dollar, multi-national project. That sounds quite easy. What could possibly go wrong? Oh, and did I forget to mention the fact that these scanners aren’t exactly accurate? How clumsy of me. Although the scan images are clear enough to violate child pornography laws, they show nothing under the skin, between sections of skin, or in orifices. Which means would-be terrorists still have plenty of options and the body scanners are, at best, mediocre in their results. Multi-billion dollar, multi-national mediocrities. Feel safer yet?

All that aside, there is still the fact that these scanners are designed to essentially strip-search thousands of innocent, law-abiding passengers (although that number will quickly rise to millions if the TSA has anything to say about it). Shouldn’t that fall somewhere under “unreasonable searches?” Especially considering you are more likely to be struck by lightning than injured in a terrorist attack in the United States. Quick, outlaw clouds! Jail anyone in possession of kites and keys! Strip-search the occupants of all vehicles and households for the presence of positive and or negative ions!

It’s ridiculous, and luckily not yet law. In fact, last summer the House of Representatives passed legislation limiting the use of the full-body scanners. But the Senate never took it up, and with Obama’s conference on airport security, I don’t expect those limits to stand long. However, what bothers me most is the American response. Countless authors of article comments and forum posts agree: “I’ll do anything the government wants if they say it’ll make me safer.”

Except we aren’t any safer. It doesn’t matter if there’s a full-body scanner on every street corner, it’s not improving the safety of passengers nor reducing the likelihood of a terrorist attack. Get over your sexually repressive phobias, supporters say, it’s just a quick naked peek and off you go, safe and secure, without even having to take your jacket off. But we aren’t any safer or more secure, and this isn’t about being digitally naked. This is about government officials wanting to mandate needless and ineffective infringements on personal freedoms protected by the Constitution’s Bill of Rights. It is the continued ruination of the singlemost important document protecting citizens’ rights which the government is supposed to answer to. Terrorists win because we allow them to win. It has nothing to do with the number of people they kill, or how they kill, or where or when. Merriam-Webster defines terrorism as “the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion.” Which basically translates to scaring people to force their choices or circumstances. Which the U.S. government is doing bloody brilliantly to its own people. What more could terrorists hope for?

“Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
– Benjamin Franklin

The following airports currently use (or allow the option of) full body scanners:
(ABQ) Albuquerque International Airport
(ATL) Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson Airport
(BWI) Baltimore-Washington International Airport
(DFW) Dallas/Ft. Worth Airport
(DEN) Denver International Airport
(DTW) Detroit Metro Wayne County Airport
(IND) Indianapolis International Airport
(JAX) Jacksonville International Airport
(LAS) Las Vegas-McCarran Airport
(LAX) Los Angeles International Airport
(MIA) Miami International Airport
(PHX) Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport
(RDU) Raleigh-Durham International Airport
(RIC) Richmond International Airport
(SLC) Salt Lake City International Airport
(SFO) San Francisco International Airport
(TPA) Tampa International Airport
(TUL) Tulsa International Airport
(DCA) Washington DC’s Reagan National Airport

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Cash For Clunkers seems like a pretty good program. Bring in a not-so-great vehicle and get up to $4500 in credit toward a new vehicle, a value virtually no one would get from a traditional trade-in program. There are a few stipulations but nothing outlandish. And it’s helping both the consumer and the economy, right? What could my beef possibly be?

The long-term result. But even the short-term isn’t exactly pretty. Right now, this program is “helping” people buy cars that get “better” mileage than what they had. But $4500 isn’t a great discount on a new car and I don’t know whether most dealerships will allow it to be paired with other incentives or not. If not, buyers are getting screwed. Secondly, the mile-per-gallon average is grossly overestimated and has decreased the last five years or so. Which means buyers get less bang for their buck even when they try to make the best choice. On top of that, until an amendment to the program passed today, August 1, 2009, the cars being turned in were to have their engine blocks “killed” at the time they were traded (officials recommended water glass, a sealant and bonding agent, be run through the engine in place of oil; the damage would be total and irreparable) … except that, at the time of purchase, many buyers do not know if their old vehicle will be accepted into the program. Some dealers required buyers to sign waivers and release forms to indemnify the dealership against damages. Because if the old car wasn’t accepted, or if the new car didn’t meet your standards, or you decided you couldn’t really afford it, or if you needed to back out of the deal in any other way, your old car was already toast. Sorry, Charlie, you said you didn’t want it anymore.

And the long-term outlook is worse.

If you hadn’t noticed, used vehicles are going pretty cheap at the moment. They have been for about, oh, the last eight months or so … since the stock market fell and the country began to worry about ridiculously bloated banking corporations. My biggest beef with this program is how it will take thousands and thousands of perfectly decent used vehicles out of the market. Just how many? Well, using a bit of fuzzy math, I’m going to take the total Cash For Clunkers budget (including the new increase) of $2.95 billion and divide it by 4000, since some people will get a $3500 credit and some get $4500 … and for the sake of brevity I’m going to assume it’s a pretty even split. Okay, now if even 1 in 3 of all those vehicles being turned in were potentially re-salable (I think the average would be much higher than that, but I’ll play devil’s advocate and remain conservative in that respect) that means roughly 245,000 re-salable vehicles will be crushed or shredded by time the program ends.

Want to see a few examples of the “clunkers” being traded in? Here’s a random group provided by the owners themselves.

(Click here to view full-size.)

Yup, those look like total and complete piles of shit. I don’t know how the owners managed to get them to the dealerships for trade-in.

Sarcasm aside, that’s almost a quarter of a million perfectly good cars and trucks, including those above, permanently and irrevocably destroyed. How is that bad? Well, for some sellers it won’t be, because the price of un-crushed used cars will go up. But, ultimately, all those cars and trucks permanently removed from the market will have an effect on prices. What happens when demand remains constant (or increases) but supply diminishes? The price goes up. And that means higher costs for people who can’t afford new cars. It puts one more burden on an already overburdened class and will result in real clunkers getting driven for longer periods because owners can’t afford to replace them. It means greater hardships and fewer choices for low-income owners. And not only will the price of used cars increase, the price of many parts will increase because those hundreds of thousands of vehicles were crushed or shredded with their drive trains intact. (By law, the scrapyards are not allowed to part them out.) So millions of perfectly usable parts will be wasted, salvage operations face a shrinking pool of resources, and low-income car owners foot the bill.

Granted, Cash For Clunkers will probably get some junkers off the road and likely help a section of lower-middle class consumers sign on for a car they couldn’t otherwise afford. But it seems to me that the “cons” here outweigh the “pros.” By far.

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I’m going to come right out and admit that I was an avid fan of Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. (I won’t feel too bad if you’ve never heard of them; it’s been roughly a decade and a half since they first appeared on our small TV screen late one night and the niche they fit was fairly limited.) I had tuned in to watch the requisite Star Trek episode that aired every Saturday night when, suddenly, it had been replaced by a yodeling woman in armor and a strong man in leather. I was intrigued. And, hey, there were pretty people in every other shot, so what was there to lose?

To back up a bit, I’m not exactly the nerd that first paragraph may portray me as. Yeah, I watched the mythical shows, and before that I was a Star Trek watcher of old … but I was never a trekkie (or trekker, whatever the difference is supposed to be), never played Dungeons & Dragons, and never felt the urge to dress up like the characters from TV. It just so happened that I cut my teeth on the original Star Trek (a la Kirk and Spock) which aired as re-runs late at night every weekend I can remember right up into the 1990’s. At some point it switched over to mostly Next Generation series re-runs, but it had long since become customary to stay up Saturday night and check out the adventures, whether I had seen them a dozen times before or not. And then in the fall of 1995, a new show appeared. Two new shows, really, and I met Herc and Xena for the first time. It was love at first viewing.

I blame Spiderman for all this. The old Saturday morning cartoons of our great hero Spidey were crude, cheesy, predictable, repetitive, and almost plotless. And, of course, I loved them dearly. I think it’s important for children to have heroes, even fake ones. Perhaps especially fake ones, because real heroes are just people, with real problems and shortcomings and flaws, and children rarely elevate a real person to true “Hero” status. But a cartoon character, a comic book sensation … they are already Heroes to begin with (the narrator says so, and the narrator wouldn’t lie), and children accept them unequivocally as such. These Heroes are constant companions, wellsprings of goodness and morality to help steer a child down the right path. Spiderman never killed. He never punished. He never lost his temper or gave in to temptation or compromised his ideals … not my good ole Saturday morning Spidey. He took dangerous people off the streets, saved innocent bystanders, and brought criminals to justice. He was a Hero. How could you not love him?

Herc and Xena hit the same sweet spot, but for a somewhat older and slightly more mature audience. While Herc was very much like Spiderman (except that he did occasionally lose his temper and often dealt out non-lethal punishments), Xena’s was a classic tale of redemption, of the sometimes daily battle to be the better person we all know we can be. If the shows also happened to be partially crude, cheesy, predictable, repetitive, or almost plotless in places, it didn’t really matter. The better points always shone through. Both shows also strongly encouraged fighting the good fight and putting the greater good before your own wants and needs. But perhaps more than anything else they stressed the power of friendship. Hercules and Iolaus, Xena and Gabrielle. Their relationships weren’t perfect and they sometimes quarreled, but when push came to shove they always backed one another up. That was the very heart of the shows; the rest was just entertainment. Like watching Spidey swing on his webs from skyscraper to skyscraper. It’s the main reason I kept watching. They pushed good morals and were imperfect heroes I could almost believe in.

And now I want more. I want another hero I can put some faith in, someone who’ll meet me every week and remind me to fight the good fight, to keep my nose clean and stay out of trouble and consider the consequences of my choices.

And to never ever give up hope. That’s the biggie. That’s what Superman, Mighty Mouse, Batman and Robin, and all those other heroes were really selling, hope. And really, I sometimes think that’s what we all need.

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