Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Putting the T&A in TSA

Just a few of my own thoughts (well, I suppose I'm not the only one with these thoughts) to close out the discussion on the TSA's aggressive security screenings…

Our own Midtown Miscreant rightly pointed out the other day that airport security screenings are not really that much worse than anything most ex-cons experience on a daily basis during their time in the big house.

His basic point, as with other proponents of the new measures, is that yeah it sucks to treat everyday, law-abiding citizens like the worst criminal in the world, but you have to do it for safety.
Is it the perfect fool proof solution? No. But I've yet to hear a workable alternative.


And this is part of the problem. MM, like decreasing majority of the American public, has bought into the scare tactics employed by bureaucrats and lobbyists who basically say "If you don't let us take naked pictures of you and grope you, you are going to be killed by terrorists."

In fact, many security experts have gone on record as saying none of these tactics would have foiled any of the terror plots that we've seen. Furthermore, the recent "tonor cartridge bomb" plot was discovered by other, less intrusive security measures.

Now don't get me wrong. I'd probably avoid the super backscatter scanning X-Rays they're using since I'm not crazy about having 1.21 gigawatts of radiation sent through my body (I like my chromosomes they way nature intended, thank you very much).

Of course, those of you more worried about modesty than radiation might not feel all that comfortable with a bunch of mall cop rejects checking out high-resolution scans of your nether regions. If you're one of those people, you might want to invest twenty bucks in some special X-ray shielded panties.

Personally, I enjoy a good groping by strangers as much as the next guy. And while I might consider having a sweaty, overweight guy with bad breath put his latex glove-covered hands down my pants at the airport a bonus, I can certainly see how some might find it objectionable, even invasive.

What concerns me more, however, is how we got to where we are.

It's like we've lost our minds here. We've been scared witless, and we're not thinking rationally. All the threats we've heard of — Shoe Bomber, Crotch Bomber, Tonor Bombers — are threats from abroad. Yet now we're clamping down on flights from Kansas City to Tallahassee? And that was only three or four cases out of hundreds of millions of flights.

So these measures, which are really just a kind of theater to make people feel like they're safer, have little real effect on a statistically insignificant problem.

I think a better approach is prudent and reasonable police work. The Israeli approach is probably pretty good. Use multiple checkpoints with security people actually trained in spotting real suspects — not frisking your 5-year-old niece.

Let's use our brains, citizens.

And there's one other germ of a thought that's been bouncing around in my brain lately. We, as a society, are expecting way too much out of our government.

Sure, the government likes it that way. The self-perpetuating bureaucracy loves the opportunity to assume more and more our responsibilities and is happy to accept more of our money and liberty in exchange for trying to keep us safe.

But the truth is, we have no reasonable right to expect to be 100 percent safe 100 percent of the time. A long, safe, healthy life is great. But for human beings, that's the exception, not the rule.

If I had lived 100 years ago, I'd probably have died before I reached my 38th birthday. Now I realize we live in the future and we've made advances in medicine and technology, but we're on a course toward asking our government to encase the world in Nerf for our own protection.

Anyway, there may be more on that line of thinking later.

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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Guest Post: TSA is here to protect the ingrates

As you know, from time to time I'll post guest editorials about various topical subjects. These guest posts do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the editorial staff of 3 AM. Today's guest post is from Nathan R. Jessep, a mid-level Transportation Security Administration agent, in response to recent criticism of the agency's aggressive screening tactics.
What? So a few prissy travelers in their faggoty business suits think I'm invading THEIR privacy? That's funny! That's a joke!

You want the truth? You want the TRUTH!? You can't handle the truth! Son, we live in a world that has airports, and those airports have to be guarded by men with latex gloves. Who's gonna do it? You? You, Mr. Jillette?

I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom! You weep for your groped genitals and you curse the TSA. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know: that the groping of your private parts, while tragic, probably saves lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives!

You don't want the truth, because deep down in places you don't talk about on your blogs and on Twitter, you want me in that airport! You need me in your underwear! We use words like "bend over", "spread 'em", "cop a feel". We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something.

You use them as a punchline!

I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a country that rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very safety that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it! I would rather you just said "Thank you," grabbed a tissue to wipe your tears, and went on your way.

Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a body cavity search kit, and stand a post. Either way, I don't give a damn what you think you are entitled to!

You fuckin' people. You have no idea how to defend an airport. All you'll do with your National Opt Out Day is weaken the illusion of safety that I provide. That's all you'll do. You'll put people's lives in danger.

Sweet dreams, son.

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Friday, November 12, 2010

The Groupon Paradox

I was having a quick lunch with a few of my closest friends a few weeks ago when the conversation wound around to the topic of Groupon.

I'm sure that by now, most of you are aware that Groupon isn't some kind of 1970s lingo for a swingin' good time. The social buying service has been around since 2008, and it's become a popular method of local advertising and deal hunting for today's cash-strapped consumer.

But for you nifty neophytes, the basic premise is that a business will agree to give a deeply discounted price on a service or product in exchange for a guarantee that a certain volume of that product or service will be purchased.

For example, today's deal was a 50% discount on carpet cleaning from a local service company, but only if at least 50 people bought the deal. As of this writing, they had sold 257 of the deals.

So you can see that for the savvy shopper, you can save a lot of money on some useful and neat stuff.

Except, there's a bit of a flaw in this plan, at least for me.

The first (and only... so far) time I bought a Groupon deal was when a new bakery in my neighborhood advertised a special. Natasha's Mulberry & Mott (which is fantastic, by the way) was selling $10 worth of pastries, coffee, ice cream or whatever for only $5. You could buy three of the Groupon's for a total outlay of $15 for thirty bucks worth of fancy pants breakfast.

Which is what I did. And apparently a lot of other people thought this was a great deal as well since they sold 1,451 of this particular Groupon. A little quick math puts the total take for Natasha's at a cool $7,255 American in just a few hours.

It was a few weeks before I made it down to the bakery to cash in on my deal. I printed out the receipt and stopped by on my way to work one morning. When I opened the door, there were about half a dozen people queued up in front of me.

And here's the thing: They all — every last one of them — were holding the same kind of Groupon receipt that I had. When I first noticed this, I kind of smiled ironically to myself. "Heh, we're all cheap bastards aren't we?"

But as I waited in line and watched everyone peruse the bill of fare, make their choices trying to get as close a possible to the $10 spending limit and then watch the harried woman at the check-out counter perform acts of mathematical heroism to get any additional money owed by the patrons, I just became more and more uncomfortable with my own cheapness.

After all, I don't need $10 worth of pastries. I don't even need $5 worth. Truth be told, my doctor would prefer I eat a bowl of oatmeal or an apple for breakfast.

And dire as the financial times are, I don't really need to save $5 on the pastries that I shouldn't really be eating in the first place. Don't get me wrong, we're not rolling in caviar and champagne. But we're gainfully employed and sticking to our financial plan, so if I wanted to drop a Hamilton on some expensive coffee and croissants it's not going to break the bank.

When it comes down to it, the only reason I bought the Groupon in the first place was because I could get for $15 something that I perceived to be worth $30. It was like getting free money.

But as I had time to stand there and stew in my guilt, I realized that another way to look at it was that I only bought the Groupon to screw the owners out of $15 worth of food (food that I don't particularly need).

When it was my turn at the counter, I ordered the items I'd been considering while waiting. Then I deliberately ordered a little bit more so that I ended up paying more than the five-dollar bottom line on my Groupon coupon, just to prove that it's not all about getting free stuff for me.

I've still go two more to cash in, and I'm sure I'll do it before they expire in January.

But the guilt will probably kill me.

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Tuesday, November 09, 2010

YouTube Tuesday: Photoshopping Life

Technology is supposed to make things easier. Wouldn't it be great if you could use the image editing tools in Photoshop to edit your real life?

Like maybe cloning in a couple of extra Scarlett Johanssons?

Yeah, I think this guy's got the right idea.



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Friday, November 05, 2010

Guest Post: November 5

Greetings, Internet.

Allow me first to apologize for this interruption. I do, like many of you, appreciate the comforts of every day routine — the security of the familiar, the tranquility of repetition. I enjoy them as much as any bloke.

But in the spirit of commemoration, thereby those important events of the past usually associated with someone's death or the end of some awful bloody struggle, a celebration of a nice holiday, I thought we could mark this November the 5th, a day that is sadly no longer remembered, by taking some time out of our daily lives to sit down and have a little chat.

There are of course those who do not want us to speak. I suspect even now, orders are being shouted into telephones, and men with guns will soon be on their way. Why? Because while the truncheon may be used in lieu of conversation, words will always retain their power.

Words offer the means to meaning, and for those who will listen, the enunciation of truth. And the truth is, there is something terribly wrong with this country, isn't there? Cruelty and injustice, intolerance and oppression. And where once you had the freedom to object, to think and speak as you saw fit, you now have censors and systems of surveillance coercing your conformity and soliciting your submission.

How did this happen? Who's to blame? Well certainly there are those more responsible than others, and they will be held accountable. But again truth be told, if you're looking for the guilty, you need only look into a mirror.

I know why you did it. I know you were afraid. Who wouldn't be? War, terror, disease. There were a myriad of problems which conspired to corrupt your reason and rob you of your common sense. Fear got the best of you, and in your panic you turned to the now high government. It promised you order, it promised you safety, and all it demanded in return was your silent, obedient consent.

Last night I sought to end that silence. Last night I wrote this blog post, to remind this country of what it has forgotten. More than four hundred years ago a great citizen wished to embed the fifth of November forever in our memory. His hope was to remind the world that fairness, justice, and freedom are more than words, they are perspectives. So if you've seen nothing, if the crimes of this government remain unknown to you then I would suggest you allow the fifth of November to pass unmarked.

But if you see what I see, if you feel as I feel, and if you would seek as I seek, then I ask you to stand beside me one year from tonight and together we shall give them a fifth of November that shall never, ever be forgot.

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Thursday, November 04, 2010

Who will saaaayave our souls?

I was humbled to get some link love from the great Joel Mathis at Cup o'Joel who latched onto my continued frustration with both political so-called parties after this week's elections.

He wonders if the government is even capable of governing anymore, and he rightly noted that we both think "that there's something unsustainable about the governance of our country."

I agree that our current government and bureaucracy is unsustainable. But it's not just our governance, it's our entire culture. As Americans we eat and drink more than is healthy. We consume way more than our fair share of energy. We live in homes that are way bigger than they need to be and pay for them much more than we should (indeed, much more than we can afford). We're more interested in voting results for American Idol than for American elections.

We demand free health care, free retirement, free food and water — hell, free digital cable converter boxes — even though, in the long centuries of human existence, no people have ever dared to dream of such things.

Somehow, over the last 80 years, we've become entitled.

So when Joel asks in the title of his post, "Can anybody save us?" The short answer is, no. If something is unsustainable and can't continue, it must come to an end.

The longer answer is something Cassius hit upon when he was having a beer with his good buddy Brutus at his boss's beach house in the hit film Weekend At Caesar's:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves… Hey, what's that thing stuck in Ceasar's back?

If we're honest with ourselves, we see that Obama isn't to blame for "the state of things," nor are the Republicans, the Democrats or the Tea Party; it's not Glenn Beck or Jon Stewart or Sarah Palin or Rachel Madow or that other guy who's name I can't remember from MSNBC...

When you get right down to it, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

We voted ourselves money and spending and benefits that we don't really deserve and certainly can't afford. And really, I can understand why we did it. That unsustainable culture I mentioned earlier? That's a fun culture to be a part of. I mean, who doesn't want to rock 'n roll all night and party every day?

It beats the hell out of allowing banks to fail from their own malfeasance... dragging us all into a great depression with them. That's just… depressing.

And aren't we all more than willing to take off our shoes and allow strangers to look at our naughty bits at the airport in order to feel a little safer about flying out to Las Vegas and maxing out our credit cards on overpriced booze and glorified money-sucking video games?

But we got ourselves into this mess. And we're going to have to get ourselves out. It's not going to be easy. I suspect that it will get much, much worse before it gets better. But I also think the best place to start is in your own neighborhood, in your own town, in your own city and state.

Democrats nor Republicans nor presidents nor senators will be able to help us. Relying on the government isn't the answer. We all need to pull together. Find people who need your help. There are a lot of great organizations and churches that are dedicated to feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, trying to heal the sick.

We need to focus on our responsibilities as citizens, not our rights. Make personal changes like eating better food and less of it, maybe start using less energy (I personally have lowered my body temperature to 94 degrees).

Voting is nice. But it is more important to get out and help than it is to get out the vote.

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Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Not so fast, my friend…

The Facebook message came through pretty early this morning. "I bet you're on cloud nine with the big Republican takeover in last night's elections..."

I responded with a rousing and resounding "meh…"

From what I can tell, in the scheme of things we still haven't seen any proposals for real change. And even if we have seen ideas for meaningful spending cuts and tax reforms from the newly minted House majority, there's no reason given the history of the last few decades to actually believe any meaningful steps will be taken.

I mean, many of the people who voted for Republicans actually think President Obama is solely to blame for "the state of things." But, for example, while Obama definitely had a role in the huge deficit spending stimulus packages that may or may not have had an affect beyond plunging us (and our grandkids) deeper into debt, the whole idea of TARP came about and was passed during the Bush administration.

The problem with campaigning against someone, as the Democrats have found, is that you're not really campaigning for anything in particular.

Of course, the problem with campaigning FOR something these days is that in order to really solve our most pressing national problems, you have to be an advocate of doing stuff that nobody wants to do. Nobody wants drastic, Grecian Formula spending cuts, but that's what we need. Nobody wants major tax and fee increases (certainly not me), but that's what it will take to balance our budget even if we cut spending.

So you get what we have now (which interestingly is frighteningly similar to what the Romans had near the end of their republic). Politicians make promises that, while popular, have little hope of coming to fruition without bankrupting the country. Political expedience makes meaningful reform impossible.

But at least we've got the new season of Dancing With The Stars to entertain us.

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Monday, November 01, 2010

TARPography

The comment from Lodo came, not apropos of the post it was on but certainly an apt continuation of a conversation we've been having here for some time.

The comment was thus:
All that TARP money everyone was harping about has been paid back with interest.
We've been tossing ideas back and forth about the TARP and various government bailouts. My point is that the financial bailouts in toto are a bad idea because of the monetary cost and the long term cost of cultivating a culture reliant upon bailouts instead of sound business judgment.

Lodo's point is that, as a practical matter, the bailouts and stimulus plans are necessary to stabilize the economy. And whatever the risks happen to be, they're better than the certainty of a second Great Depression (I hope I've characterized the point fairly).

So, it's only fair for Lodo to point out that all of the TARP money has been repaid in full, with interest. I assume he's referring to a White House report that was released last month.

Now, I have no reason to think the White House would tell us something that isn't 100 percent true. What motivation, after all, could they have for not being completely forthcoming about a program as popular as TARP has been — especially in this climate where pretty much everyone is strongly in favor of doing all we can as a country to make sure that the poor banking executives make it through this trying time of tumultuous tribulation with their multi-million dollar bonuses intact?

I mean, what could they possibly gain especially since their party is poised to make such great gains during this election season?

But, out of habit I guess, I just had to do some double checking on this claim "fully repaid with interest." So I jumped over to one of the only journalistic enterprises I know of that still has any integrity left. The amazingly awesome website ProPublica.

ProPublica maintains a Bailout Scorecard website, where they track how much taxpayer money has gone to whom and how much has been returned. And incredibly, the numbers they have on their site show that not only has the TARP program NOT been repaid in full with interest, there is still almost $170 Billion in loans/investments outstanding.

I just found this almost impossible to believe. I was shocked, SHOCKED, to learn that there may have been a bit of fibbing going on from the White House.

I just assumed that perhaps the database at ProPublica may not have been quite up to date. So I fired off a quick email to one of the contact email addresses listed on the site…
Hey Paul,

Let me first say how much respect I have for the ProPublica organization. It has become one of the only news sources I really trust. Thank you for your efforts.

My question is about the Bailout Tracker portion of your website (http://bailout.propublica.org/main/summary), specifically the information on TARP. When the White House recently announced that all TARP money had been paid back in full with interest, I thought I should really check with you guys before I believed them.

So I looked at your site and saw that, according to you, there is still quite a bit of TARP left outstanding. I just wanted to check to see if the numbers on your site have been updated recently.

Thanks again for the great work you guys are doing.
Within a few hours, Paul wrote back…
Thanks.

The short version is if you really listen to what the White House is saying, they’re not saying all the money has been paid back. They’re basically saying that they expect the money to be paid back eventually. Our database shows things as they currently stand (and yes, it’s up to date). Even if the administration is right and we’ll be paid back, that won’t happen for years.

Separately, you have to be careful when talking about this stuff whether you’re including Fannie and Freddie or just the TARP. We include Fannie and Freddie in our database because, even though it was a different pot of money, it’s still one of the big bailouts that was started in the fall of 2008. And as you can see from our site, that’s involved nearly as much money as the TARP, and it seems like it won’t be long before there’s more outstanding from that bailout than from the TARP.

Also, here’s a recent roundup post we did on the 2 year anniversary of the TARP: http://www.propublica.org/article/the-bailout-yearbook-the-stars-and-the-slackers

Best,
Paul
So, there you have it. Don't take my word for it, I'm just a cave man. Take the word of someone who tracks this stuff for a living and who doesn't have a political interest in trying to make everyone feel like hope and change will get us out of this mess.

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