christmas is for children

Let’s not overlook the most important gift I could ask for this season: the Ravens in the playoffs. Expect to see a lot more of the #5 jersey over the next few weeks.

I’d say something clever in anticipation of the next playoff round, like, “I hope this year’s Dolphins play like last year’s Dolphins when the Ravens face them,” but the Ravens were Miami’s only victory last year. So … um … let’s just have a good game, yeah?

# # #

I sat down on December 24th to talk wedding details with Matt and Lydia, who I will marry in June 2009 (not to be confused with John and Melissa, who I will marry in May). Man, there’s a lot that goes into a wedding ceremony. How many readings, what kind of readings, who’s going to read them. Will there be a song? Who’s handling the vows? What’s everyone wearing? All sorts of crazy nonsense.

# # #

The TSA riles me up every time I fly through Baltimore, and I’ve finally laid a finger on why: it’s the “Simplifly” video that runs on constant loop while you stand in the security line.

The implied message – people who want to get where they’re going on time disrupt the system; people who docilely comply with the latest bizarre directive are quiet heroes – bothers me. What are you doing to make the TSA’s job easier? Does your packing style accommodate the Administration’s needs? Are you a cooperative citizen?

At about the 0:30 mark, a woman – the recurring villain in this video – sifts through sheaves of airline paperwork, looking for what the TSA demands of her this week (boarding pass, one form of ID). The scanner waits patiently for her to produce it, while the person in line behind her shoots her an, “Are you serious?” look. The nerve of these people! Not anticipating what they’ll be told to do before they’ve been told.

I’ve flown four times in the last forty days, as do many Americans around this season. No two trips through security were the same for me. For instance: despite being told repeatedly – through voice, sign and video – to put all liquids in a clear plastic bag for inspection, I never did. I only got stopped for it once: a thrower pulled my overnight bag out and rifled through my toiletries. If they can’t keep their own restrictions straight, why should I?

bum rush the sound I made a year ago

For folks traveling today, tomorrow or later: here are a list of items the TSA will confiscate from travelers. This list includes the following weapons of mass destruction:

  • Gel inserts in your shoes.

    gel_insert(Tom: “Are you gellin’?” “I’m gellin’ like a felon. No, literally, I have been arrested and am facing criminal charges.”)

  • Snow globes.

    (Dad: “It’s part of Obama’s war on Christmas. You know he’s secretly a Muslim and has been waiting for this chance to put his anti-Christian agenda into play.

    Professor: “Well, sure. He just takes the apparatus Bush put into place, and half the work’s done for him already!”

    An exercise for the reader: which of us were joking?)

  • Kubotans. Confiscating a kubotan – a six-inch plastic stick that hangs from your keychain – illustrates the shallow mentality behind the whole TSA process. “Oh, these things could be used as weapons,” some moron decides, after trolling a few websites and spending twelve seconds in thought.

    kubotan(1) Another thirty seconds of thought would have revealed the following: a kubotan is a six-inch plastic stick. 95% of the people who carry these things have no formal training and are no more a threat with it than without. The other five percent? The ones who have not only seen, but know, pressure points, joint locks, submission and escort techniques? They’ll just find another six-inch plastic stick.

    Excuse me, sir, can I borrow that pen for a second? That’s a nice pocket umbrella; mind if I take a look? Hey, can you pass me that stapler? I’d like a Lifesaver; could you hand me that roll? Got a light? Hell, taking off a metal watch and wrapping it around your knuckles would accomplish the same effect.

    (2) No one’s going to rush the cockpit with a kubotan. The entire point of a kubotan is to enhance strikes and submission techniques, not to inflict instant, fatal injuries. It’s not like a knife, where an untrained jackass swinging blindly is still a serious threat. I suppose you could kill someone with a kubotan if you jammed it up into their eye or struck them hard enough to collapse their trachea. But that’s a million-to-one shot for all but the most fanatically trained users, and taking their keychain away won’t help (see #1 above).

    My point: a kubotan is not a deadly weapon. Confiscating it is stupid. Then again, confiscating shampoo is stupid. Confiscating water is stupid. We’re at the mercy of thugs and morons. Why even leave your home anymore?

rappenin’ is what’s happenin’

I’m abandoning political discussion for a while. Looking back over the tone of my political entries, you could charitably call them “condescending” and justifiably label them “assholish.” If someone talked about the Ravens with half the venom that I devote to the Ruling Party, I’d spit on them. And lots of people like the Ruling Party. So I’m trying to soften up.

But I need to get it out of my system.

So in the future, if the Ruling Party raises the minimum wage or the Opposition Party subsidizes the auto industry, and you’re dying to know what I think about it, and years of reading my impotent snarling hasn’t given you a hint, then you can reference this post. If you’re happy not hearing me talk about issues I don’t vote on, then skip this.

What I Believe: The Short Version

  • Ninety percent of what Paul Krugman or Thomas Friedman write is bullshit.
  • One hundred percent of what Lou Dobbs says is bullshit.
  • Anyone who wants to improve the lot of poor people or minorities in the U.S. whose first suggestion isn’t “Decriminalize marijuana” doesn’t know what they’re talking about.
  • Not only is torture immoral, the fact that the U.S. reached a point where that was even up for debate is sickening.
  • Sending U.S. citizens tremendous distances at great expense to kill foreign citizens is wrong. Let’s not even get into the debate over whether or not it’s effective (at what?) or justified (by whom? to whom?). It’s just bad.
  • Siccing federal agencies on giant corporations will not make giant corporations more honest.
  • Any legislation passed to prevent the “terror of the week” – whether it’s shark attacks, school shootings, online sex predators, shoe bombers or hurricanes – is a bad idea.
  • Printing money doesn’t make us richer.
  • Neither the Opposition Party nor the Ruling Party are uniquely dumb. They have particular flavors of ignorance depending on current voting blocs. If you’re tired of your party’s religious fundamentalism or weak-willed centrism, just wait twenty years.

The cheat sheet above should handle most of the news cycle for the next two to three years. What follows are some more abstract (read: boring) ramblings on broader political / ethical philosophy. I will probably make updates to the following as ideas come to me, so you may want to check back. Or ignore it and move on.

Continue reading

you want stylin’, you know it’s time again

A coworker came by my desk waving a sheet of paper. “We’re doing betting squares for the game this weekend. You want in?”

“No thanks,” I said.

“Come on. Only five bucks!”

“Thanks anyway; I’ve got better things to spend my five bucks on.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know … lunch? Movie tickets? Beer?”

“You won’t miss the five bucks,” he insisted. “And you get to play along with the other folks in the office.”

“Really, I’m just going to keep my money.”

“Don’t you like football?”

I stared at him funny. “I love football.”

“Then why don’t you want to gamble on it?”

“That question doesn’t make any sense. There’s more to football than gambling.”

“Like what?”

I couldn’t believe I was having this conversation, but he looked serious. “Like watching the game? Cheering on your team? Wearing the team colors? Following team news? You know, all that?”

“Sure, sure, that’s cool, and I’m sure it makes a difference. But gambling’s what makes it a sport, instead of just something silly.”

“You’re not going to put me on the defensive. I can be a perfectly good football fan without gambling, and that’s that. Give me one good reason why I should bet on a football game.”

“Because everyone else is doing it!”

Another coworker, older and somewhat smarter, wandered by during this conversation; I shot him a pleading look while I answered the first guy’s riposte. “That’s not a valid argument and I think you know it.”

“The reason why you should gamble on football games,” interjected the older coworker, “is because it sends a message.”

I’d never heard an answer so bizarre, so I was at a loss for words.

He took this as a sign to continue. “The players in the game on Sunday know what the Vegas line is. They know that they’re six-point underdogs. That’s bound to discourage them. However, if there’s a lot of betting, Vegas will raise the line to make it a closer bet. They’ll do this to encourage more people to gamble. This will, in turn, encourage the players, since the game no longer looks like such a long shot. That’ll make them play better, and make them more likely to win.”

“Exactly!”, said the first coworker. He had never devoted that much thought to the question of Whether Or Not To Bet On Football. He’d been taught in sixth grade that betting was just Something All Good Football Fans Did. You weren’t really a good football fan if you didn’t bet. The notion of a football fan who didn’t bet on football baffled him.

“So you’re saying,” I said, gesturing with my hands as I struggled to line up concepts, “that if I bet on this Sunday’s game …”


“… and if thousands of other people bet the same way I do …”


“… that’ll encourage the bookies in Vegas to change the line …”


“… which will encourage the players to play better …”

“You got it.”

“… which will hopefully make them win?”

“That’s it!” He beamed, proud of his tortured chain of reasoning.

“That’s the weirdest rationalization I’ve ever heard. Why wouldn’t I just go to the game and cheer for the players directly? That’s bound to have a greater effect on their playing than betting on them.”

“Well, sure, you can go to the game and cheer,” the older coworker said dismissively. “But there’s no reason you can’t do that and place a bet.”

“Unless I want to keep my five bucks!”

“Look,” the first coworker interrupted, “don’t you realize how lucky you are, living in a country where you can gamble on professional football? If you lived in the Soviet Union, or Saudi Arabia, or China, you wouldn’t have that privilege. It’s your right – hell, it’s your duty to put five bucks down on this Sunday’s game!”

“Now you’re being ridiculous,” I said.

“Don’t you want our team to win?”

“Of course I do.”

“Don’t you like living in a city that has a championship team?”

“I love it.”

“Then why won’t you fill out this betting square?”

I threw my hands up. “You’re not making ounce one of sense here.”

“I give up,” said the first coworker, snatching up the half-filled betting sheet and walking off. “I don’t know how you can say you want our team to win if you’re not willing to wager money on them.”

The older coworker smiled – one of those patronizing smiles that distances one from a louder party, while still trying to draw in the reluctant sale – and leaned in. “Look, it’s not that much money. Is there any reason why you won’t chip in five bucks? Play along with the rest of us?”

“I’m not going to bet on this Sunday’s game,” I answered, “because I don’t want to. It’s my five bucks, to spend however I like, and I choose not to spend it on this. I won’t want to spend it until I hear a sufficient argument for why I should. And so far, I have yet to hear anything that even sounds like an argument, much less a persuasive one.”

He shrugged sadly. “All right. I gave it my best. Sorry to bug you.”

“No problem; I have this conversation every four years or so.”

“See you at the tailgate this Sunday?”

“You know it. I’ll bring the ribs.”

I ran like a cheetah with thoughts of an assassin

Observed in Target this past Thursday: a scruffy white guy in his late-20s with an oversized sweatshirt, depicting one of Snow White’s dwarves giving a fist jab to the Grim Reaper, under the motto “COUSINS.” I stared unabashedly at the guy until I recognized the dwarf as Sleepy, and then I was like, oh, yeah. I would have totally given him the cool nod, but it took me five minutes to make this connection.

* * *

Another Target observation: some commentators blame the current credit crisis on Alan Greenspan’s loose monetary policies encouraging easy lending. Some blame it on Fannie Mae’s decision to ease credit restrictions for home loans back in 1999. Both of these are correct, but I’d like to suggest an additional culprit: the fact that you don’t have to sign for credit card purchases under $20 with most cards.

When did that happen? I know I’ve been doing it for a couple of years now. I think it only happens at the larger chains – Shaw’s Groceries, CVS, Target, etc – but it’s started to expand. The cashier rung me up for $3.50 worth of generic wet-naps*, and I swiped my card faster than it would have taken me to pull out four singles and get change.

If I ever steal a credit card – and with your continued readership, it shouldn’t become necessary, hint hint – I’m going to rack up a string of $19.99 purchases all across Boston. I figure I could get away with it for days before anyone noticed. And the useful things you could get for less than $20 would surprise you.

* * *

In last Friday’s post about why I don’t understand a mandatory 30-hour work week, a few misconceptions surfaced (over on LJ, not here). So, to clear those up:

  • Yes, of course, only rich people have the choice between time and money.** Poor people – and I mean the genuinely poor, folks for whom the necessities are still touch and go – don’t have this to worry about. People with existing financial obligations, like children or debt, don’t have this choice to make. This is certainly true. And you know what? A law mandating that they can only work 30 hours per week would fuck them.

  • My blithe dismissal of the notion – “if you want more time, choose more time; if you want more money, choose more money” – isn’t a Four Hour Work Week thing. I was that kind of an asshole long before I picked that book up; that much should be obvious.

* Best way to wipe off fake blood, like the kind I’m covered with every night in Gorefest. Get your tickets today!

** “Rich” by the standards of either the planet or history, meaning: anyone reading this right now.

I hear more than I’d like to

The great thing about absolute tragedies, on the scale of the one we suffered seven years ago today, is that they validate whatever story you’re telling at the time.

Take Hurricane Katrina. Katrina proved to the social conservatives that only a strict culture of law and order would prevent people from rioting in a power vacuum. It proved to the liberals that the federal government would not go out of its way to help the poor unless prodded. It proved to the libertarians that private responders could address an emergency far quicker than FEMA. Everybody can claim a success.

If another terrorist attack struck U.S. soil, on the scale of the razing of the World Trade Center, think of the discussions that would bloom. Liberals could claim that America’s adventures overseas radicalized a previously lukewarm segment of the Muslim population: in other words, America needs to stop what it’s doing. Conservatives could claim that talk of drawing down troop levels had emboldened terrorists: in other words, America’s not doing enough.

And then pundits on both sides would snarl at each other, in one of those great debates that’s only interesting because neither side uses the same definitions, and the louder side would win. The louder side always wins. Democracy is not a war of ideas; it’s a war of volume. Civil rights were always a good idea, but they didn’t happen until people started marching.

Any event that both sides can claim as validation invalidates both sides. Any tragedy that lends meaning to two opposing narratives has no meaning. It’s the inkblot that we project our fantasies on. Political “philosophies” (such as they are) are cobbled together with glue and twine over generations of contradiction. Trying to shoehorn four thousand deaths into one philosophy or another makes no sense. We can’t make the real world conform to our theories; we must do the opposite.

September 11, 2001 doesn’t mean that America needs to be stronger or America needs to use its strength less or that Muslims are crazy or that Americans are crazier. It means our grip on life always gives when we least expect it. You can’t pick a convenient time, place or manner in which to die. So quit lying to everyone, stop wasting time, and experience.

And for the devil’s sake, get off the Internet.

Update: McCain, Obama put politics aside to mark Sept. 11 (AP)

If you find that headline hilarious, we can talk politics.

if the hate doesn’t make you want to die, try harder

I’m reprinting this op-ed from my birthplace’s paper of record on why the War on Drugs is destroying this country without further comment:

Imagine you’re Cheye Calvo, the white mayor of Berwyn Heights, an affluent part of Prince George’s County. Coming home one night in late July, you find on your front porch a large package that, unbeknownst to you, happens to contain a lot of marijuana. As it turns out, your spouse is the victim of a drug-smuggling scheme that targets innocent customers in the UPS system. You bring the box inside; moments later, the SWAT officers standing by break in and shoot your two beautiful Labradors. As the dogs lie there bleeding to death, you’re held in the same room, handcuffed for hours. Nearly a month later, you have yet to receive an apology.

Because of who he is, the nation knows what happened to Mr. Calvo a few weeks ago. Here’s what most Americans don’t know: There are perhaps 40,000 such raids each year, according to a Cato Institute report, “Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America.”

Now try to imagine that instead of a middle-class white man in the Maryland suburbs, you’re a young Latino boy in Modesto, Calif. Shortly before dawn, in early September 2000, a SWAT team forces its way into your house. Thirty seconds later, although you comply with police orders to lie face down on the floor, you are dead from a shotgun blast to the back. The officer responsible is later cleared of wrongdoing in what is concluded an accidental shooting – though it was not the first time his weapon had “accidentally” discharged during a raid. Alberto Sepulveda had just begun the seventh grade.

Or say you’re 57 and getting ready for work in May 2003. A battering ram breaks down your door shortly after 6 a.m., and a flash grenade is tossed inside. You’re coughing, you can’t breathe, while the police search for a stash of drugs and guns they’ll never find because it isn’t there. Alberta Spruill, a church volunteer and city worker in Harlem, died of a heart attack on the way to the hospital.

Or you’re a fierce 92-year-old Atlanta woman, frightened by the sounds of someone prying off the burglar bars that cover your door but determined to protect your home. The door is broken down; you fire one shot at the intruders before being shot at 39 times, handcuffed and left to die while the police (who have broken down the wrong door) realize their mistake and plant drugs in your basement. Two of the cops responsible for Kathryn Johnston‘s death pleaded guilty to manslaughter last year; a third was recently convicted of lying in the cover-up.

Many lives are lost, and many more are ruined, by these paramilitary operations in the ever-widening circles of survivors and families of those killed. You’re in extra danger if you happen to be poor or a person of color.

No-knock warrants may be justified in unusual circumstances. But unreasonable, routine no-knock raids must be stopped. Police should do their homework beforehand, show restraint and use the minimum amount of force necessary in a situation. They must take extraordinary care not to enter the wrong house when conducting a raid. Most important, they need to be held accountable to the communities they serve.

The fact is, raids like the one on Mayor Calvo’s home violate every precept of American liberty that is held up as integral to our “free” society. We can no longer allow our supposedly democratic government to terrorize communities across the country with the very tactics that are publicly decried when used by defense contractors and our own military in Iraq.

Unfortunately, racism in political structures and security forces still dictates who matters and who doesn’t – and for the most part, violence against those who don’t is tolerated. Because the vast majority of these raids are against poor people of color, we hear very little about them.

That’s what makes the Berwyn Heights case so potentially important: It is opening a window into the realities lived every day by innocent victims and survivors of the ineffective and destructive “war on drugs.” Let’s remember this case, keep this window open, and use it to address the misguided (at best), unjust and indisputably failed drug war policies that are destroying the fabric of our society.