Friday, May 26, 2006

The Summer of Our Discontent

It's summer.
We know this because Memorial Day weekend traditionally kicks off the summer season in this country, even if your Christmas decocations are still up.
We know this because this weekend is the Indy 500, a blend of our love of fast cars with the prospects for death and destruction that attracts hundreds of thousands of people each year to Indiannapolis, a place they would otherwise never visit.
Vegetables are vegatating, graduates are graduating. Or, as an old blues song once observed: "The neighbors are fightin', the mosquitos or bitin''s hot."
So what are your plans for the summer?
On the travel front, about 200,000 more bodies are expected to pack LAX this year compared to last summer, according to published reports. At the same time, the number of seats available for U.S. destinations remain flat.
You don't need to be a genius to see that air travel this summer will amount to squeezing toothpaste into the tube.
"As load factors have crept up, we have been seeing involuntary denied boardings go up proportionately, and we'll see them go up even more so this summer," one airline official blithly told the Los Angeles Times.
In other words, it also means the chances of you getting bumped, or "involuntarily denied boarding," will rise in direct proportion to your blood pressure.
And stick this in your carry-on: The increase in traffic will mean longer lines at ticket counters and security checkpoints where LAX is already down 150 screeners.
Heard of Road Rage? Airport Angst is here.
So maybe a driving vacation is the ticket this summer.
Only if you refinance the house first.
The Energy Department announced earlier this month that drivers will pay more at the pump this summer than "previously thought."
"Previously thought"? We previously thought gas was going to cost us an arm and a leg. Now what?
Well, nationwide, retail gas prices will average 34 cents more than a year ago and 9 cents a gallon more than predicted a month ago, according to the energy folks in Washington. Stay tuned.
And if there's a hurricane in the Gulf? "Signaficant supply uncertainties remain," the Energy Department said.
Well, you can always stay home and fire up the grill.
Except that a recent study stated that while consumers perceive gas as a product that empties out their wallets, in reality, they pay much more for groceries. According the Consumer Price Index, long-term grocery inflation has exceeded gas inflation (89.4 percent versus 84.6 percent) over the past two decades.
Maybe we could try organ meat. If you put enough barbecue sauce on it, who knows the difference?
But there is a ray of light in this gloom.
If you have to spend a summer of discontent somewhere, I can't think of a better place than Los Angeles.
That's why I plan to spend part of my summer reexploring my own hometown. And by hometown, I mean the greater Los Angeles area.
I haven't been to the zoo in years. Or Grauman's Chinese. Or Farmer's Market. Or the Santa Monica pier. Or Olvera Street. I plan to go.
I'm planning on a visit to the Hollywood Bowl. And the Greek Theater. And the Getty.
There's a day trip to Santa Barbara by train in the works. A couple of visits to Dodger stadium.
Adventerous? Exotic? No. But in an era of limits, try exploring your own backyard.
If Heull Howser can do it, so can I.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

A Matter of Faith

Several months ago, I summoned up all my psychic powers and predictred that at this point in time, America would be under seige.
The threat was not from crazed terrorists, soaring gas prices or waves of illegal immigration but something almost as insideous: the Hollywood publicity mill.
And right on schedule, the promotional orgy surrounding "The Da Vinci Code" is in full swing.
As predictions go, this hardly ranks with Nostrodamus or Karnak the Great. The release of the movie based on Dan Brown's book, a mix of skewed catholic theology, crime thriller and conspiracy theory, was sure to generate the kind of hype for which Movie Town, U.S.A. is deservedly infamous.
What I didn't predict was the level of pouting by the religous community whose members appear to be the only people taking "The Da Vinci Code" very seriously.
If you are on of the two of three people in the country unfamiliar with "The Da Vinci Code," its central theme is that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, that she bore him a child, and that the Catholic Church has spent two thousand years covering it up while engaging in a distaste for all things feminine.
This conspiracy is wrapped inside a murder mystery wrapped inside a quest for the Holy Grail. A theological treasure hunt, if you will.
It is, as they say in the business, a page turner. And more than 43 million readers turned those pages since the book was published.
But several things the book is not:
It is not great literature. Anthony Lane, writing in the New Yorker, said: "if a person of sound mind begins reading the book at ten o'clock in the morning, at what time will he or she come to the realization that it is unmitigated junk? The answer, in my case, was 10:00.03..."
Acclaimed author Salman Rushdie called it "a book so bad it makes bad books look good."
It is not true: Despite Brown's attempt to add a veneer of truth to his book by identifying actual institutions and locales, few bought into it. According to one study, only five percent of the people who read the book said they changed any of their religious beliefs because of it's content. Indeed, one could safely assume that people who believed "The Da Vinci Code" also believed "Star Wars" and the "Dukes of Hazzard."
So why all this hand wringing?
"The Da Vinci Code' gratuitously insults Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church," said Vincent Nichols, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Birmingham, England. "It deliberately presents fiction as fact." In the Philippines, which has Asia's largest Christian population, the city council of Manila, the capital, passed a resolution banning the film in local theaters.
Greek authorities banned the film for viewers under 17, saying it touched on "religious and historical questions of major importance that a minor is not able to evaluate." Monsignor Angelo Amato, the second in command in the Vatican's influential doctrinal department, said the fictional work contains slander, offenses and errors, and if "they were directed toward the Koran or the Holocaust [they] would have justifiably provoked a worldwide revolt. Yet because they were directed toward the Catholic Church, they remain unpunished."
Does he want a revolt? If so, he shows a level of intolerence unseen since Muslim clerics whipped their followers into a deadly frenzy over the publication of cartoons portraying the prophet Mohammed in a Danish newspapers last year.
The fact is this movie is entertainment, not theology. It is no more a threat to anyone's faith than Indiana Jones or almost anything Oliver Stone has produced. The Catholic church has withstood hits from Martin Luther to Henry VIII. I think they can keep director Ron Howard at arm's length.
Is it controversial? Certainly, but so was "The Passion of the Christ" which was largel considered anti-Semitic by many and condemned by some prostetants for departing from New Testament story lines.
In the meantime, despite negative reviews, people are flocking to "Da Vinci." The church's posturing has probably helped boost ticket sales.
Does the Vatican truly believe that a Tom Hanks flick will be the undoing of their religion? If so, their beliefs rest on frail foundations.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Bush Leagues

KABC Talk radio host Doug McIntyre recently wrote that "most historians believe it takes 30-50 years before we get a reasonably accurate take on a President's place in history.
"So maybe 50 years from now Iraq will be a peaceful member of the brotherhood of nations and George W. Bush will be celebrated as a visionary genius..."
But "after five years of carefully watching George W. Bush," McIntyre writes, "I've reached the conclusion that he's either grossly incompetent or a hand puppet for a gaggle of detached theorists with their own private view of how the world works. Or both."
This is no small step for McIntyre, who concedes he was a Bush backer. "So I'm saying today I was wrong to have voted for George W. Bush," he writes. "In historic terms, I believe George W. Bush is the worst two-term President in the history of the country. Worse than Grant. I also believe a case can be made that he's the worse President period."
That, of course, remains to be seen. But it got me to wondering: Who were our worst Presidents?
Any compliation must be viewed against the backdrop of our country's slash-and-burn political atmosphere, in which the person on the other side of the aisle is not just your idealogical opposite but your mortal enemy.
If you didn't vote for him, he automatically moves to the top of the list,
But, mustering all the neutrality I can, one could make a good case in my lifetime for Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford or Jimmy Carter to make the all-flop team.
Historians and scholars, not suprisingly, are all over the map on the issue.
George Washingon, Abraham Lincoln and Frankin Roosevelt almost always make the top of their list.
Public opinion polls give high marks to Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Many historians do not.
Ranking at the bottom by most are Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson and Warren G. Harding.
Why? A bit of research into scholarly articles and encyclopedia entries explains it all.
Pierce makes the list because of his failure to take the steps necessary to head off the impending Civil War. A northerner with southern sympathies, he was ultimatley abandoned by his own Democratic party and not renominated for a second term when his popularity in the north declined.
Philip B. Kunhardt and Peter W. Kunhardt wrote in "The American President" that Pierce was "a good man who didn't understand his own shortcomings."
He is the great-great granduncle of current U.S. President George W. Bush.
Buchanan was also skewed for failing to prevent the country from sliding into the Civil War. On Buchanan's final day as president, he remarked to the incoming Abraham Lincoln, "If you are as happy entering the presidency as I am in leaving it, then you are truly a happy man."
Before Buchanan left office, seven slave states seceded and the Confederacy was formed.
Historians in 2006 voted his failure to deal with secession the No. 1 presidential mistake ever made.
Andrew Johnson, vice president under Lincoln, ascended to presidency after Lincoln's assassination. Johnson was president during part of the Reconstruction following the Civil War. His conciliatory policies towards the defeated rebels and his vetoes of civil rights bills embroiled him in a bitter dispute with the Congressional Republicans, leading the House of Representatives to impeach him in 1868; he was the first President to be impeached. He was subsequently acquitted by a single vote in the Senate.
Oddly enough, Johnson was elected as a Democrat to the Senate and served from March 4, 1875, until his death on July 31, 1875.
Harding presided over a number of scandals involving others in his administration and, after his death, gained a reputation as being one of America's least successful presidents. In numerous polls of historians, Harding is ranked as one of the worst.
The most infamous scandal of the time was the Teapot Dome affair, which centered on Interior Secretary Albert B. Fall, who was eventually convicted of leasing public oil fields to business associates in exchange for personal loans. In 1931, Fall became the first member of a presidential Cabinet to be sent to prison.
Thomas Miller, head of the Office of Alien Property, was convicted of accepting bribes. Jess Smith, personal aide to the Attorney General, destroyed papers and then committed suicide. Charles Forbes, director of the Veterans Bureau, skimmed profits, earned fat kickbacks, and ran alcohol and drugs. He was convicted of fraud and bribery and drew a two-year sentence. Charles Cramer, an aide to Charles Forbes, also committed suicide.
Harding didn't personally profited from these crimes, but he was apparently unable to stop them. "My God, this is a hell of a job," Harding said. "I have no trouble with my enemies, but my damn friends. . . they're the ones that keep me walking the floor nights!"
In the meantime, Grant, cited by McIntyre, is my most measures a bottom feeder. He is usually described as a brilliant militray strategist but a poor president, another vicitim of scandal plagued administrations but whose personal integrity was never questioned.
Does George Bush belong in this rogue's gallery?
He's clearly no Washington. But is he a Buchanan? Only time will tell.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Sorry Excuses

First off, let me say I'm sorry if you have been insulted or angered by anything I have written.
If I offended anyone on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, school afflilation, shirt color, hat size, lipstick shade or soft drink preference, I'm truly sorry.
But at least I didn't end up in a new book called "My Bad: 25 Years of Public Apologies and the Appalling Behavior That Inspired Them" by Paul Slansky and Arleen Sorkin.
The authors say one of the reasons American culture is in decline is that "any misdeed, no matter how egregious, can now be immediately negated by a bleat of casual contrition."
Not surprisingly, politicians or those making pronouncements about politics make up a great deal of this book. You can't beat our elected representatives when it comes to foot-in-mouth disease (See Bill Clinton).
But running a close second are sports figures and show business types. most of whom have never understood that having a pretty face or turning a double play doesn't provide you with unique insights into the human condition. (See Tom Cruise).
Apologies shared by the authors include this all-encompassing classic from Ted Turner: "I really, from the very bottom of my heart, want to apologize. At one time or another, I've offended almost every group. I'm sure I'll be apologizing again."
Or, "If I did the things that they say I did, am I sorry, do I apologize? Yes." That beauty was from Bob Packwood, after announcing his resignation from the Senate following years of apologizing for decades of unwanted sexual advances toward various women, or as he once put it, "for the conduct that it was alleged I did." You can also mull over these mea culpas:
"Well, my analysis was wrong and I'm sorry. What do you want me to do? Go over and kiss the camera? What do you want me to do?" -Bill O'Reilly, after being confronted on "Good Morning America" with videotape of him saying that if no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq, "I will apologize to the nation and I will not trust the Bush administration again."
"I'm sorry if she felt she was harmed." -Sportscaster Marv Albert, in court on sexual assault charges for biting a woman on the back more than a dozen times.
"The comment was not meant to be a regional slur. To the extent that it was misinterpreted to be one, I apologize." -Lawyer Kenneth Taylor, after referring to people living in the mountains of Kentucky as "illiterate cave dwellers."
"If my comments brought pain to anyone, I certainly did not intend for this to happen and apologize for any such reaction." -MSNBC talk show host Michael Savage, after telling a caller, "Oh, you're one of the Sodomites. You should only get AIDS and die, you pig."
And last but not least, this one cited by the authors as a classic but which was uttered too late to be included in the book:
"My family and I are deeply sorry for all that Vice President Cheney and his family have had to go through this past week." -Texas lawyer Harry Whittington, expressing his remorse for having stuck his face in front of Dick Cheney's shotgun.
In the interest of fairness, I should point out that newspapers make mistakes and crank out corrections by the bushelbasket full every year in this country.
They run the gamut from the sublime ("It has come to the editor's attention that the paper neglected to cover the civil rights movement. We regret the omission," from the Lexington Herald Leader) to the ridiculous ("Norma Adams-Wade's June 15 column incorrectly called Mary Ann Thompson-Frenk a socialist. She is a socialite." from the Dallas Morning News).
The Guardian once apologized, "In our...cover story about Hunter S Thompson yesterday, we mistakenly attributed to Richard Nixon the view that Thompson represented "that dark, venal and incurably violent side of the American character". On the contrary, it was what Thompson said of Nixon.
Even the stately New York Times once wrote: "An article in Business Day about Brendon Loy, the Notre Dame student who was one of the earliest to sound the alarm about the potential threat to New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina, misstated the name of Mr. Loy's dog. It is Robbie, not Becky (which is his fiance's name)."
From Us Weekly magazine, this correction is funny only if it didn't happen to you: "In our feature "Why She Left Him" ...the woman identified in the photograph as former adult film star Ginger Lynn Allen is neither Ms. Allen nor an adult film actress..."
Maybe comedian/musician Tom Lehrer was on to something when he said, "I wish people who have trouble communicating would just shut up."
Robert Rector, a former editor with the Pasadena Star-News and Los Angeles Times, is a freelance writer.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Cell Mates

By ROBERT RECTOR Like many other of my fellow Americans, I share a love/hate relationship with my cell phone. It can be the very model of convenience, allowing me easy and instant contact with business associates, friends and family, anytime, anywhere.
It can also be intrusive, rude, annoying and maddening. Like a lottery ticket, it promises a lot more than it delivers. I was reminded of this recently on a trip to Hawaii. While soaking up the sun along with a few mai tais, a friend called me from Los Angeles on my cell phone. We chated easily, a clear and static-free conversation that sounded like he was in the next room.
Trouble is, if he had called me at my home on the mainland, I would have never received it.
That's because the cell that works in the middle of the Pacific doesn't work at my home in Glendale or anywhere within a mile radius of it.
Which means I own an instrument that sends and receives calls and text, takes pictures, downloads television shows, plays the entire score of Swan Lake, rings to the sounds of "Jumpin' Jack Flash" but blinks "no signal" when I walk in my front door.
Sure, there are a few hills around by why is it a signal that can be heard in Maui can't make it past Montrose? Well, technological schizophrenia, for one thing. Most major cell phone companies in the United States use different operating systems which means one carrier might work where another won't.
The Europeans are smarter than us. They have one universal system for most of the continent which means you get reception from the bottom of the Paris Metro to the top of the Swiss Alps.
In the meantime, we Americans all suffer together. According to a Consumer Reports survey, 80% of U.S. cell phone users have experienced service problems.
The report said overall satisfaction with cell phone service is generally below average compared with other services rated by the magazine. We can presume that means they rank behind bank tellers and telemarketers in the minds of the public. This probably doesn't bother the Cell Phone Boys, who have managed to get us addicted to a device that is so ingrained in our culture you feel naked if you leave home without one.
Sure, there are some pesky problems: they may cause brain cancer, they do cause auto accidents, they can be used by terrorists to trigger bombs.
But you can bet your sweet Samsung that most families own more than one.
That explains why an authority like the CIA World Factbook tells us there are more cell phones in the United Kingdom than people. Then again, the CIA's batting average on fact finding hasn't been so hot lately.
There are some among us, however, who consider the cell phone to be the most reprehensible invention since the car alarm. Or rap music.
That's because, thanks to the cell phone, you are now a participant in, or a prisoner of, the intimate conversations of any stranger who stands within 20 feet of you.
We've all been there.
At a restaurant recently, a woman in the booth next to me loudly disparaged someone in such emotional terms she sounded like a prosecutor in the throes of closing arguements at a murder trial.
My daughter once was trapped in a jury assembly room one time with a guy who discussed his eye surgery for nearly an hour. She could recite the procedure in minute clinical detail when she got home that evening.
A college librarian wrote on the Internet that "I don't know how the students manage to study when they are on their phones every two seconds having pointless conversations that distract everyone else. One night I was forced to listen to one patron talk to her friend about how she tans her butt crack for 2 hours!! "
If the loud conversations aren't enough, I recently sat in an office when three unattended cell phones rang at the same time, each one playing a different 16 bars of music. It was rock 'n' roll hell.
I heard one go off in the middle of a funeral once, and more times than I care to count at plays, movies, restaurants, even rest room stalls.
It seems our world is being divided into two camps: the quiet and courteous and the loud and boorish.
But maybe technology is on the verge of rescuing us. There is such a thing as a cell phone jammer.
Simply put, a cell phone jammer is a device that emits signals in the same frequency range that cell phones use, effectively blocking their transmissions by creating strong interference. Someone using a cell phone within the range of a jammer will lose signal, but have no way of knowing a jammer was the reason. The phone will simply indicate poor reception strength.
The trouble is, they're illegal.
But it just might be worth 30 days in jail for the satisfaction it would bring.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Gas Pains

Next time you're stading there with a gas pump in your hand, watching the meter rack up a price that resembles your zip code, chew on these words:
"Of course [the world price of oil] is going to rise. "Certainly! And how...You [Western nations] increased the price of wheat you sell us by 300%, and the same for sugar and cement...It's only fair that, from now on, you should pay more for oil..."
Those words came not from Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejadnor, nor Hugo Chavez of Venezuela nor Osama bin Laden. It came from our longtime ally, the Shah of Iran, in 1973.
That's right, folks, 33 years ago.
That's how long we've been jerked around by a combination of geo-political shenanigans, price gouging and an appaling lack of political will and personal responsibility.
At first, there were the gas lines, brought about when Arab oil producing countries refused to ship to countries that had supported Israel in the Yom Kipper war.
Lines streched blocks, even miles. Tempers flared, violence erupted. Drivers followed tanker trucks on their delivery routes. I knew people who would wake in the morning to find the contents of their car's gas tank siphoned away in the middle of the night.
Finally, the odd/even rule was instituted. If you had a license plate number that ended in an odd number, you bought gas only on odd-numbered days of the month, while those with even numbers bought on even-numbered days. My routine was to arise at 5:30 in the morning, take a Thermos of coffee and the morning paper and queue up with dozens of other motorists waiting for the gas station to open. If you didn't get there early, chances are the station would be dry by 9 a.m.
The national speed limit was reduced to 55 mph, year-round daylight savings time was implemented, an advertising campain told us, "Don't Be Fuelish."
It was simple but effective. We made personal sacrifices so we could collectively survive.
Considering that we are being told today that this is a supply and demand issue, should we institute those restrictions again now?
It's clear we can't turn to Washington for help.
Jimmy Carter's solution to the energy crisis was to urge citizens not to turn up their thermostats and wear sweaters. He also installed solar power panels on the roof of the White House and a wood-burning stove in the living quarters. However, his successor, Ronald Reagan, ordered the solar panels removed and the wood stove dismantled.
Reagan removed controls on oil prices, which resulted in lower prices and a glut of oil. But he did nothing to encourage conservation which haunts us to this day.
Clinton dipped into strategic reserves as a solution. Now Bush is essentially doing the same thing by halting for the summer the purchase of crude oil for the government's emergency reserves and waiving clean air rules.
Bush also has directed the Federal Trade Commission, the Justice Department and the Energy Department to investigate whether the price of gasoline has been unfairly manipulated.
One might reasonably ask what took so long. But we can also say with some certainty that by the time such an investigation is concluded, Bush will be retired, tweaking the plans for his presidential library.
Ethanol? Hydrogen? Practically speaking, they are years away.
So why not return to the odd/even plan? Why not lower the speed limit?
Could you plan ahead for your gasoline purchaes if it saved you a buck a gallon or more?
Could you drive 10 mph slower if it put money back in your pocket?
Could you learn to restrict your driving habits if it paid dividends, not only for you but for all Americans?
Would you personally work to contribute to a Untied States that is less dependant on foreign oil?
People is this country learned to live with gasoline rationing during World War II, driving cars that were much less fuel efficient than they are now.
Why? They did it to defeat an enemy that threatened their way of life.
Do we face such an enemy now?
Think of it in these terms: If Iran succeeds in creating nuclear weapons, the American motorist would have paid part of the cost.