Location: Indianapolis, Indiana, United States

I'm just trying to develop an online body of work (even if the work is throwaway nonsense) to advance my writing career.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Downing Street Groucho

One recent Monday morning, I spotted a coffee tin on a co-worker's desk. But this was not ordinary coffee; the label proclaimed "Real Coffee--With Attitude!" I'm not a coffee drinker, but this isn't a trend I like. I'm not sure I want my beverages to exhibit "attitude" or any other human trait; before long, they'll be demanding to know what right I have to drink them at all. And besides that, I'm a little weary of the word "attitude" and its catch all definitions. Everything from bad manners to smarminess to mental toughness can be described as "attitude" and my attitude is: knock it off already! Just because you can't think of the correct adjective for a given situation--"arrogant", "flippant", "resilient", "obstreperous", "mean"--doesn't mean I need to be exposed to your attitude about "attitude."

This story didn't seem to get much attention when it happened nearly two years ago, but I'm quite enamored of the Downing Street Doodles (I thought of this name myself, but I imagine someone else has already used it in print. If so, it's a case of independent evolution, not plagiarism). For those not yet aware, in early 2005 a London newspaper got hold of some silly little drawings presumably penned by embattled UK Prime Minister Tony Blair. After conducting an analysis on the doodles, a graphologist concluded the author possessed an "inability to complete tasks" and was besides "aggressive" and "unstable." What a delightful way to embarrass the PM, right? Not quite. It transpired that the drawings were not created by Tony Blair at all, but by a visitor from out of town named Bill Gates, whose inability to complete tasks must by now be legendary, to say nothing of his instability. Are you still comfortable with the idea of a handwriting analysis determining whether you get a job or not, assuming you ever were to start with? Let's hear it for graphologists!

Some people say newspapers are losing their relevance because so many people now get information from television or the Internet. As far as I'm concerned, this is preposterous. Newspapers are still essential for window cleaning and I wouldn't even consider using TV or the Web for wrapping fish.

Saturn is thought to be the only planet less dense than water, which means if there existed a large enough container for it to fit in, it would float. Wouldn't that make a great bath toy for somebody? Granted, only a fairly large person could get maximum enjoyment from it, but I foresee a market here for spoiled rich kids whose parents buy them everything at Christmas.
"I swear, these kids ask for the moon."
"Moon, hell, you're lucky! My kid wants Saturn!'
Just don't ask the store to giftwrap it.

I believe every business should be run by the Marx Brothers. This one measure could change the world as we know it. First of all, the field of genetics would have to advance profoundly just to make it possible. And can you imagine the economic benefits of having Groucho in charge?
Who's with me?

Sunday, September 17, 2006

From the Sidelines of Life

Not again! Please tell me it isn't football season again. Every autumn the public is subjected to the endless and insipidly overblown hype machine known as the National Football League. Equally obnoxious for different reasons is the college football circuit, but that's an entirely separate discussion; the professional game will be the focus here.

Let me make this perfectly clear: my favorite sport is basketball, but I like football. And the NFL has its strengths. Indeed, it is the most popular sport in the United States, and many of the reasons why are good ones. First, the season is compact and only sixteen games are played, making every contest crucial. Second, the vast majority of games are played on Sunday, when most people are off of work and looking to be entertained. The NFL is deftly marketed, offers good drama and can certainly brighten an otherwise dull and somber Sunday afternoon.

The chief problems with professional football stem from its enormous popularity; it's the sport people in this country are most likely to take way too seriously. Fans paint their faces, their bodies, go shirtless in frigid weather, indulge in entirely too much alcohol even before the games commence, and generally come across as pathetic goons whose lives are so absurdly unfulfilling they have to attach their hopes and aspirations to the fortunes of a sports team.

Worse still are the football commentators. All sports broadcasters say moronic things; it goes with the territory when you have to talk all the time. But football telecasts seem to have upped the ante on idiocy. First of all, in other sports, the ball can just be the ball. A basketball can be "the ball" as in "he shoots the ball" and a baseball can be a ball as in "he hits the ball." In football, the object that acts as the central concern of the game is mystifyingly never referred to as simply "the ball." It's always "the football", as though you might forget which kind of "ball" you're watching. Is this connected to its non-spherical shape, perhaps? "He threw the football and the receiver caught the football in a good football play."

Here's my abbreviated Hall of Fame for dumb football quotes:

"No one in football should ever be called a genius. A genius is a guy like Norman Einstein."

"In order for this team to improve, they've got to get better."

And probably my personal favorite:
Announcer #1: He's built like a doorknob...

Announcer #2: And just as hard to bring down!

If you know what the last one means, I imagine you'll be the first.

But the true double bane of football season are a particularly purposeless pair known as the sideline reporter and the fantasy football enthusiast. Similar in that they add nothing to the game, they have something else in common; both are doomed to observe rather than participate. Assuming there are still unitiated people out there, a sideline reporter is called upon to provide insight from near the actual football field. Let's say there's a collison on the field and a player is struck on the head so hard his helmet falls off. In that event, a sideline reporter will generally say something like this:

"The trainer told me the player has a bad headache and may have sustained a concussion. He's very dizzy. Back to you, Phil."

Now, how could that indispensable information have been collected without a sideline reporter? A headache and possible concussion after a sharp blow to the head? Thank you very much!

Fantasy football is a loose affiliation of fans who employ a complex statistical system to "draft" players and compete against each other for prizes or cash. Unlike sideline reporters, who get paid to do a useless job, these people actually pay to do something useless! And don't get one of them started talking about it, whatever you do.

Despite my gripes, I suspect the real reason football gives me a bad feeling is it's a harbinger of the long, dark winter. This sensation accentuates all the negative and makes me grumpy. What I ought to do with all that grumpiness is rid the world of a few fantasy footballers or sideline reporters. But, you know... live and let live.

Monday, September 11, 2006

What If We're Wrong?

This is cause for celebration. The time as I write is 10:30pm on September 11, 2006 and I have managed to avoid so much as glancing at a television screen all day. It's not that I have a particular aversion to remembrance, nor am I above woolgathering about the past, even sometimes wallowing in it, but I don't care to see it depicted onscreen.

It is often said that anniversaries are a time for reflection and I've been reflecting. I haven't drawn any definite conclusions, but a question keeps occurring to me: what if we're wrong? Perhaps our entire approach to the specter of terrorism is flawed and doomed to fail. Maybe the only way to win the game is not to play.

In terms of law enforcement, terrorist acts must be confonted. People who blow up buildings, drive vehicles into a mass of humanity or otherwise launch unprovoked attacks against civilians should be pursued, caught, tried and imprisoned. Like any criminal activity, complete victory over terrorism is probably an unattainable objective--even though to avoid sounding like defeatists, those who fight it should probably say they're out to eliminate it altogether--but with patience and sound techniques, relative triumph might be possible.

Five years in, the rest of the War on Terror appears ripe for re-examination. The present strategy, if accepted at face value, goes something like this: the West will attempt to undermine or attenuate despotic governments that either openly support or blithely tolerate terrorist organizations. In two instances--Afghanistan and Iraq--military action has been taken in order to facilitate regime changes and assemble fledgling democracies; a third country--Libya--has renounced terrorist sponsorship and relinquished weapons of mass destruction on a voluntary basis. Several other nations--North Korea, Iran, Syria, Sudan, Lebanon, Somalia, among others--either pose direct threats or suffer from instability which could lead to security risks in the future. Is this sounding stilted enough? I'm trying to write like a Pentagon employee.

The upshot of all this boils down to a frustrating lack of progress. The situation in Afghanistan seems to have regressed lately, after some encouraging developments in the last 24 months. Iraq appears no closer to tranquility than it did three years ago. Why has this happened, or failed to happen? There probably isn't a single person who could name every possible reason, for even if a particular person knew them all, he or she would die of old age before getting through each one, but one rarely mentioned is the old fashioned anti-outsider syndrome that took place in Vietnam forty years ago. It wasn't that everyone in the country who opposed to the United States occupation was a Communist; many were simply war-weary xenophobes who had seen Vietnam controlled by China, then by France, then invaded by the US. In the present day, then, bearing in mind the situations in Iraq and Afganistan are not exactly the same as that which prevailed in Vietnam two generations ago, maybe a lot of Iraqis and Afghanis are simply tired of foreigners dominating their respective countries. This is a necessarily oversimplified telling of the tale, but you can see how this sort of thing would give rise to disillusionment.

Another problem in the War on Terror involves a pervasive cynicism around the world. Very few people want the terrorists to win, but from the beginning, the motives of the United States and its allies have been questioned. This second guessing was not as loud at first, in part because the attacks on September 11th, 2001 offered a kind of honeymoon, but also because ulterior motives were harder to detect during the initial phase of the War, that is, the Afghan phase. A deserately poor country ruled for years by the tyrannical Taliban and before that victimized by Soviet expansion desires--which failed--it was easier for most people to believe that the reason for action in Afghanistan was the stated one.

The same did not hold true in Iraq, an oil-rich nation ruled by Saddam Hussein, with whom the West had already quarreled repeatedly. Immediately, people all over the world claimed the rationale for war was exaggerated and the reasons given for it were not the real ones. Burdened by a poor communicator in the United States and a decent one in the United Kingdom who was by many perceived, rightly or wrongly, as servile to America, the Western leadership was unable to convince most doubters that it just wanted to rid the world of a menace. Not coincidentally, one reason Iraq has been so difficult to secure is probably due to its oil reserves. As much as religious fanaticism plays into the equation, there are many people who simply want power, control, and resources. In fact, it's clear now that the religious aspect of the conflict is often used by cold and pragmatic elders as a ploy to attract idealistic and callow youths who volunteer for suicide missions. The elders, it seems, never get around to sending themselves on these engagements.

So what can be done? Could it be that the only way to really combat the sort of extremism we're up against is to disengage and let it fail on its own? To a large extent, this happened with Communism. Attempts to battle Communists head on met with mixed results, heavy loss of life on both sides, and questions about true motives and intentions. More indirect forms of pressure, along with a sort of scornful neglect of the Communist world, contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union and other Eastern bloc states, mostly because the system itself was unsustainable. Except for North Korea and Cuba, other nominally Communist nations have had to introduce sweeping changes just to retain power. Could the current crisis, which relies largely on religious zealotry and perceived disenfranchisement of Muslims around the world, only subside if it is addressed locally, by Iraqis and Afghanis and Iranians and other citizens who ultimately tire of its violence and rigors?

If this is true, it's a dreary prospect. Trouble is, critics of war often don't seem to have very workable solutions; they know they're opposed to war and that's about it. They use vague, ambitious words like "negotiations" and "diplomacy", but what do they really mean? In fact, one of the problems with every side of the debate--the pro-war faction, the anti-war faction, the Islamic extremists--is they all seem to suffer from the same narrow thinking: everything would be fine if you just did things our way! We know already this isn't true: none of these groups can be right all the time. What we don't know--and may be loath to discover--is if there's really only one way to do things: the hard way. Let's hope not. And if it must be this way, let's hope a better world awaits on the other side of it.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Universe Is Controlled By Cats

Where you see disorder and chaos, cats see constantly moving spheres and points of light, all of which need a good paw-batting.

One problem with the world today is people are too eager to condemn the indefensible actions of those they despise and too eager to mitigate the indefensible actions of those they like or support. So provincial. So simple minded. And personally, I detest people who behave this way unless they're from Indiana like me!

Based on my read of the situation, Mel Gibson does have anti-Semitic tendencies. He claims he's not an anti-Semite and his bizarre comments were "the bottle talking." I don't think the bottle lets him completely off the hook here. Gibson isn't, as far as I can tell, a Jew-hating, Jew-baiting, Israel-bashing, Woody Allen-thrashing vicious antagonist toward all things Kosher; he's just a guy who seems a little wary of Jews when he's drunk and makes movies that don't cast them in the best light. If I'm right--and before you get flippant, it has happened before--what would be so wrong with Gibson admitting his bias and saying he's working on it? Meanwhile, his punishment should be lunch with Peter Falk in full Columbo character, raincoat and Peugot included. "Just one more question, Mr. Gibson..."

Is it not rather cruel coincidence that the word "lisp" is very difficult to pronounce for people who lisp? And "hare lip"? Shouldn't people with speech impediments at least be able to pronounce their afflictions without embarrassment? It's a patently unfair thing. I don't have a speech impediment per se, but for a long time, I had trouble pronouncing the word "minimum", tending to say "miminum" instead. What causes these things?

I think one reason men behave in a selfish, obnoxious, loutish, narcissistic and sulking manner is because they see how much attention women give three year olds when they act that way.

It's a shame the capital of Pakistan is called Islamabad because I think that would make a great name for a place to send Muslims who misbehave.

A while back, I thought of a way to interrogate prisoners without resorting to torture: offer them lots and lots of money and then don't give it to them. Most people probably think this wouldn't work with religious extremists, but I say you never know until you try.

Speaking of Islam, in the winter of 1997, I attempted to observe Ramadan. For the uninitiated, no food or water can be consumed during the dayligt hours. I got sick. The lack of food I could handle, but not having anything to drink for so long got the best of me. Individuals who are traveling, sickly or pregnant may ignore the Ramadan restrictions and by the time it was all over, I felt all three. The family I was staying with at the time was very understanding. Although I fell short of my goal, the entire experience was Islamagood for me.

Yes, I'm ashamed so save your reproachful commentary.