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February 28, 2013

Congressional Reform

Every poll I can find says that a majority of Americans (depending on the poll, between 40 and 55%) agree with the President's proposals of cuts plus taxation to deal with the current fiscal issues. Those same polls show that Republican leadership is receiving between 20 and 30 percent (most of the more recent polls have this closer to 20 than 30). Of note is that Republicans are also giving Republican leadership the cold shoulder. These polls go on to show that the majority of Americans do/will blame the Republicans for any consequences resulting from this latest fiscal impasse.

So, a pretty significant number of Americans want a balanced approached to the fiscal issues, they want to keep programs in place and "close loopholes" as well as raising taxes, and they blame the Republicans for this stand-off. The majority has spoken...

And yet, John Boehner and his cronies refuse to believe this and continue to play brinkmanship with the President over this. I say, "Good!"

The only way to break this brinkmanship politics scenario is to get those idiots out of office! I think that, if this latest fiscal policy comes into play, the American people will demand accountability and will vote some of these career politicians out of office, most especially Mr. Boehner and his cronies. The public may even demand Congressional term limits finally, which is the only sane thing to do and one of the few ways to keep partisan politics from being a constant and ever-growing threat.

Here are my solutions to this problem:
  1. No more than two terms. For the first 125 years or so of Congress, it was exceptionally rare for a Congressman to serve longer than two terms. They went home and had to live under the laws they had written. In the early/mid-1900s, Congress started passing laws that gave themselves higher salaries, fewer limits, lifetime healthcare, lifetime salaries, the ability to do insider trading legally, etc. Now that the money was rolling in, America started seeing career politicians and the divisiveness began.
  2. Perks only while in office. As I mentioned above, Congress passed laws that allowed them to increase their own salaries, provide for those salaries for life, gave themselves lifetime health care, and other perks (like travel, housing, food allowances, etc.). If they had to leave all those perks behind when leaving office and go back to living under the laws they have written and passed during their time in office, they would care a great deal more about those laws and what they say.
  3. Easier to get kicked out. Right now, the path for the public to kick a Senator or House member out is difficult and involves getting other Congressmen to perform the act. Well, gee, that seems self-serving. What Congressman wants to try to kick another Congressman out of office, knowing the bad blood he will be creating when doing so? If the Congressmen knew the public had a way (maybe by a majority vote or some sort of write-in campaign) to start this ball rolling, rather than the Congressmen policing themselves, they would sure try a lot harder to do the right thing by their constituents.
  4. Lower salaries. Right now, the average Congressman is paid approximately $175,000 a year, with leadership roles at or slightly above approximately $200,000 a year. The average salary in America is approximately $50,000 a year. Let's change the Congressional salaries to be 10% above the mean salary in America, with leadership roles getting mean plus 20%. In this way, people who want to serve the people will go for offices, instead of people who want to make a career of politics for the money and perks.
  5. All laws apply equally to all Americans, Congress included. It is completely legal for Congressmen to use their (inside) knowledge of laws and contracts while making stock purchases. It is illegal for anyone else in America to use insider information when making stock trades. Let's restrict Congress from making any stock trades at all while in office (on penalty of immediate, automatic expulsion). All current laws that give Congressmen perks and privileges that are not shared by all Americans will be repealed.
I think these five simple steps will ensure that Congress is working for the people, not for themselves. By putting term limits and reasonable limitations on Congress, you ensure that the people in office are there because they feel a need to serve the public. It is still a cushy job, just not one that you can go to and expect to stay in for dozens of years and make millions of dollars at. And, most importantly, you have to live and work under the laws you wrote and passed once you are out of office.

I doubt you will see the same sort of brinkmanship politics as has been evident for the last 15 years or so if, over that time, entirely new Congressmen had to be elected and work together. Knowing you had, at most, two terms to serve, I think most Congressmen would focus on the job and not the politics. I could be wrong, but I'm willing to pass these laws and see if I'm right. How about you?

Addendum (3/6/2013)

Isn't it interesting that Congress made sure not to include themselves in the budget cutbacks? Their salaries are completely safe from all budget cuts, even though we spend almost $100 million on those salaries each year. Seems like as good a place as any to start trimming the fat, to me.

February 16, 2013

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

I was fairly excited to watch this movie; what a let-down. It is nowhere near as good as LotRs. It is bloated, uses too much CGI (even when real effects would suffice and be better), and is way, way, way too long (which sounds the same as bloated, but is different; see below).

It is bloated in that they took a simple adventure story and added a whole bunch of extra stuff from other books into it. And those parts were primarily to "add tension" where none was needed or to connect it further to the LotRs trilogy -- also not needed. Every scene with Radagast and the giant white Orc could have been cut (saving about an hour of running time) without interfering at all with the story. Actually, quite the contrary, it would have kept the story better-focused on the dwarfs tale and their adventure. Similarly, completely changing the Stone Giants scene to add action was needless, felt long, and had no real impact due to how early it comes in the film -- you know that none of the dwarfs (or Bilbo) is in danger this early.

Another issue is that the adventuring company rarely succeeds at anything on their own merit. Happenstance and outside forces just happen to/accidentally help the dwarfs out in most cases. Elrond just happens to be out hunting goblins and helps the dwarfs escape. Gandalf just happens to arrive in time to help Bilbo save the dwarfs at sunrise from the Trolls. The Stone Giant just happens to fall against the mountain such that the dwarfs can jump to safety. The bridges and wooden structures just happen to break to allow the dwarfs to escape the goblins in the mountain. It is more exciting to stay focused on the main characters and let them (like in the book) solve their own problems. The audience grows more attached to them when the heroes prove to be smart and effectual.

Many of the action scenes were needlessly full of CGI. The white Orc, if forced to leave him in, should have been someone in makeup (like the orcs and oruk-hai in LotR 1). In all but the huge group shots, the goblins should have been real people in makeup. Having so much CGI was distracting and unneeded, and caused the scenes to look more phony than they would have with live actors in makeup. When Gandalf is throwing "fire bombs," the fire did not look real and the wargs/orcs did not look real. Using makeup and real fire would have added a sense of presence and immediacy to the scene.

Both of these issues lead to the last: the movie is just too damn long by about an hour (maybe more). If you take all of the unneeded, overly long, and over-done scenes out, you are left with what could be a very good version of The Hobbit. As it is, you don't get far enough into the book to justify sitting there for nearly 3 hours.

One other issue I have with this movie is the unnecessary and overly blatant homages to scenes in the LotR trilogy. Gandalf splitting the rock to expose the sun and kill the trolls -- too similar to his "you shall not pass" scene. Gandalf talking to the butterfly to summon the eagles. The Stone Giants threatening the path on which the group travels up the mountain -- too similar to the snow scene trying to go through the pass before turning back and trying Moria. The homage shots of the group traveling in a line along the forest and the hills. This is a new movie, based on different text, and should be treated as such; you do not need to beat the audience over the head with these homage scenes.

Peter Jackson plans two more films to finish this one book. I can only assume they will be as bloated and ill-made as this one is, so I will not be seeing them in the theater. I imagine that many fewer people will be seeing the second one in the theater. The Hobbit was written and designed as a children's adventure story, and is a fairly simple, self-contained story. It does not need three movies, extra bloat, or to be tied too directly into the films that came before it. One good 3 hour movie, or, at most, two 2-hour movies would suffice to tell all that needs to be told. By having the same direction, sets, and actors, you would tie it as much as is needed to the LotR films.

If I were to give this a grade, I'd give a D+. The wonderful cast saves it from an F and the scenes that show the actual story of The Hobbit were well-done. The rest... meh.

February 13, 2013

Talking Out of Both Sides

The Republicans talk out of both sides of their mouths, and they think the American public is too dumb to notice or too stupid to look up the facts. From one side of their mouths they say that they long for the days of Reagan's Republicans and conservative agenda. They point to history and say how Reagan led America out of an economic downturn and back to prosperity. They cite his great works and his Reagan-onomics.

From the other side of their mouths, they decry what Mr. Obama is doing as President and they dismiss his objectives. They call him a socialist (they should look up the term before wrongly using it). They claim that spending money and bigger government never solved any problems for the middle class. They claim that prosperity will somehow just magically appear if we take all the restriction and government away.

But the truth is, and I have mentioned this in multiple posts in the past, that Mr. Obama is following the Reagan playbook almost step-by-step. Reagan spent more to help the middle class, and it worked. He spent more to get people working on the infrastructure, and it worked. He made government bigger and put in place regulations in various areas that helped reign in a runaway economy and inflation, and then eased those restrictions in his second term. He taxed the richest among us to help the poorest and the middle. Does any of this sound familiar??

In Mr. Obama's speech last night, he mentioned that he wants to do some things that the Republicans, over the last 18 months or so, have strongly espoused, like closing the tax loopholes. Not every idea he presented was original to him, yet those that were first brought up by Republicans and strongly espoused by them during the debates and the election cycle, they refused to clap for, to stand for, and said would not work in their rebuttal. Er, what? The plans you pushed for for almost two years you now think is flawed? You can't have it both ways -- you can't simply say this is the way America will solve its debt crisis and help get middle-class Americans more money and then claim, when a Democrat uses the exact same idea and even gives you credit for it, that it is now flawed and without merit. Which is it? There are a number of areas where similar ideas were cherry-picked from the Republicans agenda that they are now claiming are flawed or bad.

If Ronald Reagan were alive today and espousing the exact same policies and procedures that today's Republicans keep pointing to as their guiding light, he would be considered a Democrat, and a fairly liberal one at that. Today's Republicans have moved so far to the conservative right that they do not even recognize one of their great leader's more moderate, bipartisan stances, nor do they see how he built bridges to the Democrats of the time to solve problems, something that these Republicans seem unwilling to do.

There are issues with some of what Mr. Obama has proposed. Much of it requires the Republicans to buy-in (not going to happen) and work with Democrats (equally unappealing to them) in order to get the balanced approach he discussed. Also, he doesn't actually write the policy. He sets the framework and the vision, and it is up to the Nancy Pelosi's of Congress to write the laws and try to get them passed. However, Ms. Pelosi has proven utterly incompetent at doing that, ignoring her President's directives to work with Republicans, not to raise taxes or spending (at least without offsetting it with cuts elsewhere), and pushing for bigger government and pork when her President expressly said not to. It is no wonder the Republican leadership doesn't want to help or work in a bipartisan fashion.

However, I have listened to every one of Mr. Obama's State of the Union speeches. In every single one of them he has asked for bipartisanship, he has asked for the Republicans to weigh-in on plans and make sure they have support. He has a weekly meeting with John Boehner and other Republican leaders. And, for most of his career as President, they have said one thing and then turned around and done either nothing or the opposite of what they have said. The President asks for their help and their buy-in, and then they poo-poo all over the idea and claim that the President doesn't want bipartisan help or Republican input.

I think Mr. Obama's win in the last election was a sign that the American people are tired of the lies. The Republicans can only get away with outright lying for so long before it all catches up to them. At some point, they will be left holding the bag and will be voted out of office. The last election was the start of that and, unless they wise up and start working for the good of the American people, more and more of them will find themselves looking for work in the next election cycle, too.

February 4, 2013

Scammin' Sam

Just had a call from "Sam," claiming to be from MasterCard and, due to my excellent credit rating and years as a customer, he can offer me a "low, low" interest rate on my MasterCard.

Conversation, as close as I can remember it (or understood it; his Indian accent was very thick and we didn't have the best of connections):

Me: Well, shoot, Sam, that is awesome news!
Him: Now, to be safe, I want to verify I'm talking to the right person. Are you John ****?
Me: Yes.
Him: Are you at postal code ****?
Me: Yes, I am.
Him: Great, great. Now I just need you to verify with me a few points about your account.
Me: Well, hold on a minute, Sam. You know, there are a lot of scammers out there. I don't want to get taken for a ride, if you know what I mean. Do you have my account information up?
Him: Yes, of course I do. But I can only do so much. My job is only to verify you are who you say you are. I need to transfer you to a secure account representative.
Me: I hear you, Sam. But if you have my account info up, we can quickly verify a couple of things and then I'm all yours. I can't wait to have that new low, low interest rate, Sam.
Him: Great, great... let me...
Me: So, Sam, can you just give me the last four digits of my CC number?
Him: I cannot do that, Mr. (butchers my last name).  I could lose my job for giving out that information.
Me: Oh, I'd hate for that to happen, Sam. But there are scammers, you know, and the CC company and the police are very insistent that we verify who we are talking with, Sam. Can you tell me the interest rate on that account?
Him: You have a very high 19.99 percent interest rate Mr. (butchered again). We can offer you a low, low rate of between 3.6 and 12.99 percent interest rate...
Me. Hunh. You know, Sam, not that I don't believe you, but it is odd that you have my information right in front of you and yet you have the wrong interest rate. It's kind of odd, Sam, don't you think?
Him: I'm looking right at the screen -- it says 19.99 percent!
Me: I want to make sure I'm looking at the right CC and we're on the same page, here, Sam, so why don't you verify the last two digits on the account. What can two digits hurt, Sam?
Him: I could be fired. The secure account representative can help you with that; my job is only to verify that I'm talking to the right person.
Me: I hear you, Sam. I understand. But there are scammers, you know? Maybe you could give me just the last digit, there, Sam? You've got a one in ten chance of being right, even if you guess.
Him: How can I be a scammer, Mr. (butchered again)? I know your name, I know your postal code, I know your phone number.
Me: Well, you see, Sam, all of that you could have gotten from a phone book or online. It's not that I don't trust you, but I just have to make sure, Sam. Scammers, you know?
Him: But I know your name, your postal code...
Me: And it is really strange that you say my postal code is ****, since my MasterCard isn't associated with my current address. It would have a different postal code. So, you see, Sam, I'm just having trouble believing you're looking at my data, Sam.
Him: But how could I know...
Me: I tell you what, Sam. I'm going to hang up with you and I'm going to call my bank and verify this deal of yours. If they released my data to you and agree I'm such a great customer, they should be able to tell me all about it and give me that sweet, sweet deal you've been telling me about.
Him: This deal is through Mastercard, not your bank. Your bank cannot match this offer, only we can provide it...
Me: Buh-bye, Sam.

The best part is that I kept him on the phone for quite a bit of time, so that's a few more people he couldn't call today. I hope he doesn't make his quota on phone calls and

February 3, 2013


Another athlete used the word "gay" to refer to something recently. Another actor referred to something as "retarded" recently. Both of them had to publicly apologize for doing so. There is talk of rehab. At some point, I'd like someone in the 35+ age range who is "caught" saying one of these words to respond with something like:
"Yes, I used the term 'gay'/'retarded' in reference to something I didn't care for. When I was growing up, these terms were used as mild pejoratives and it has been ingrained in me for many years. While I apologize for those who are now offended by those words, it is tough for this old dog to learn this new trick. Language has changed a lot since the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, when political correctness was non-existent or in its infancy and people were free to use more language more colorfully. Because of this, I may slip up and use them, or other words that have since become passe or offensive, again. It is hard to overcome what you learn as a child and what you have said for most of a lifetime."
I would have so much more respect for someone who said this than I do for all the celebu-tards who "go to rehab" for how they speak. I have asked a couple of my gay friends who are in the same general age-range of 35+ if they are offended by the word gay used pejoratively. Those who had an opinion at all were mostly okay with it, as they were raised in the same social environment. Of course, they had a preference for it not being used, but they understand that it was common then and is only now being phased out.

Retarded is much the same. The PC word police have deemed this word as socially unacceptable now, but refuse to allow that many of us were raised in a time when it was okay, and that it may be ingrained. It takes more than them saying it is a bad word for us to stop using it -- that's what ingrained means, after all.

Language grows, changes, and mutates every year. Rules for grammar I learned in grade school have changed today. Words I learned and used as a child are now considered unacceptable. Things I was taught were unacceptable are now commonplace (like taking a phone call during any meal, speaking about private things in public, etc.). Things change and it is difficult, after a lifetime of doing it one way, to change with it. It is time we stop vilifying people for what they say and instead put things in context and judge them on their whole person. We might just find we don't mind certain words any more if we do.

* = This is my 900th post on this blog. It is somewhat hard to believe both how long I've been doing this and how many posts I've made. Now for 1,000! Note: I just looked up the date on my 800th post, and it was -- today, February 3, 2011. Interesting.