Monday, August 31, 2009

Unfriendly Persuasion

In 1976, a film called "Network" written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet, won four Academy Awards for its satirical portrayal of a television network.

In it, long-time "UBS Evening News" anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) is being let go because of the show's low ratings. He has two more weeks on the air, but Beale announces that he will "blow his brains out" during an upcoming live broadcast.

UBS immediately fires him but they let him back on the air, ostensibly for a dignified farewell. Beale promises that he will apologize for his outburst, but instead in an obsenity-laced tirade, complains that life is bull, to put it mildly.

The program's ratings soar and UBS execs decide to exploit Beale's antics rather than pulling him off the air.

In one impassioned diatribe, Beale galvanizes the nation with his rant, "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" and persuades Americans to shout the same phrase out their windows which they do by the millions.

Soon Beale is hosting a new program called the "Howard Beale Show," billing him as a "mad prophet of the airways" which becomes the highest-rated show on television.

Ironically, what caused belly laughs in 1976 is causing belly aches 33 years later.

The script for "Network" was written long before the advent of cable television which has made it all come true.

Now, we have a veritable Greek chorus of prophets, mad and otherwise, who fill our screens with opinions great and small. And like the fictional Howard Beale, the more outrageous they become, the higher their ratings soar.

I was reminded of all this by the recent very public dust-up featuring Fox's Bill O'Reilly and MSNBC's Keith Olbermann, two gentlemen from opposite ends of the political spectrum who on some nights sound like a couple of guys arguing down at the other end of the bar in some beer-and-a-shot joint.

O'Reilly, from Fox, is the darling of the right who, while alleging that his show is fair and balanced, squashes anyone to the left of Ronald Reagan like so many ants on the kitchen floor.

Olbermann is a onetime Grade B sportscaster who reinvented himself as a liberal commentator throws mud at anyone to the right of Nancy Pelosi.

They are joined in this Tower of Babble by the likes of Glen Beck, Sean Hannity, Rachel Maddow and John Stewart.

These people define political discourse in this country? May God have mercy on us all.

In a recent incident, Olbermann called O'Reilly "a racist clown" on the air. O'Reilly in turn has refused to let anyone utter Olbermann's name on his show.

Wait, it gets more sophomoric than that . O'Reilly once initiated an online petition to have MSNBC remove Olbermann from his timeslot, purportedly to have former slot host Phil Donahue's show reinstated.

Olbermann responded by playing a selection of disparaging television clips featuring O'Reilly and mocked the whole affair in signing the petition to have himself fired.

O'Reilly raised the ante claiming General Electric, whose NBC News Division operates MSNBC, was "promoting the election of Barack Obama and then seeking to profit from his policies."

The sniping caused the chief executives at General Electric and News Corporation, which owns Fox News, to reach an unusual agreement last spring to halt the regular personal assaults on each other's channels, according to the New York Times.

Eric Burns, the former host of Fox's media criticism show "Fox News Watch" said, "Even in an age where there seemed to be no boundaries, people at the very top of two networks thought, 'Well, I guess there are boundaries,
because they've been crossed.'"

What's interesting is that the corporate suits were not only trampling on the First Amendment, but engaging in some dubious business practices since O'Reilly and Olbermann draw big ratings.

All of this would be mildly amusing if these clowns weren't contributing to the dangerous polarization of this country, a place where town halls become blood sport.

Olbermann once accused then President Bush of "subverting the Constitution, not in some misguided but sincerely-motivated struggle to combat terrorists, but instead to stifle dissent.I accuse you of fomenting fear among your own people, of creating the very terror you claim to have fought."

Fox's conservative pundits paint President Obama as everything from a socialist to a Marxist to a racist and "illegitimate Kenyan fraud."

It "invites, incites and prepares a prefabricated justification for violence," according to David Frum, a former speechwriter for President Bush.

I understand that reasoned, analytical and rational discussion of the issues facing this country can be boring stuff. If it wasn't, C-SPAN would be the most watched cable system in the United States.

But we have reacheded a point where the winner is the one who shouts the loudest.

It's time we all got as mad as hell and vow not to take it anymore.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Tough to Digest

GROWING up in the 1950s, my life revolved around Hopalong Cassidy movies, Superman comic books and Schwinn bikes.

And, believe it or not, the Reader's Digest.

The Digest was a staple in our house, rooted as we were in suburbia and living in the golden era of the Great American Middle Class.

Times were good. There was a roof over our heads, a car in the garage and chicken dinners on Sunday. Just the kind of life the Digest extolled.

Dad wore a suit and tie. Mom wore an apron. They drove us to church every Sunday in a Chevy and voted the straight Republican ticket.

I don't remember going to a lot of movies and TV didn't make an appearance in our home until I was nearly in my teens. But there was always plenty of reading material around. Most of it was rooted in the Reader's Digest.

We received the monthly magazine in the mail for as long as I could remember and there were dozens of Digest-produced condensed books in our home.

I lapped it up even as a young kid. I loved the cornball jokes - Humor in Uniform, Life in These United States - and even read Increase Your Word Power, all recurring features in the magazine. There were true-adventures stories and odd medical features written in the first person from the perspective of a body organ ("I Am Joe's Gall Bladder.")

The condensed books were just right for young men with more energy than attention span. It wasn't until I grew older that I wondered what was left out.

Nonetheless, they introduced me to such titles as "East of Eden," "The Last Hurrah," "The Ugly American" and "To Kill a Mockingbird."

The Digest was safe-for-the-family reading, claiming a circulation of close to 8 million worldwide and a readership of 38 million. I'm thinking those figures included several million copies in the waiting rooms of doctors and dentists.

And now this:

This past week, Reader's Digest, an American icon for almost 90 years, filed for bankruptcy, a victim of bad management, a precipitous drop in print-on-paper popularity and a disastrous economic decline that has squashed many famous American brands like so many grapes.

The Digest announced it would cut the circulation guarantee it makes to advertisers to 5.5 million and lower its frequency to 10 issues a year from 12. This doesn't mean it will soon disappear. But it may be a matter of prolonging the inevitable. The future of print isn't particularly bright.

According to an article in the New York Times, the Digest, after years of trying to broaden its appeal, is being pushed in a decidedly conservative direction.

It is cutting down on celebrity profiles and ramping up on inspiring spiritual stories. Out are generic how-to magazine features; in are articles about military life.

"It's traditional, conservative values: I love my family, I love my community, I love my church," said Mary Berner, the president and chief executive of Reader's Digest Association.

That struck me as odd. The Reader's Digest has for most of its history maintained a conservative and anti-Communist perspective on political and social issues. It extolled the virtues of motherhood and apple pie and offered its readers a cozy world view.

Democrats, ethnic minorities, non-Protestants and poor people were about as rare in its pages as Barbra Steisand at a GOP fund-raiser.

In fact, the Digest took issue with the characterization that they were being pushed in a different direction. Instead, they say they are focusing on core values.

The larger question for the Digest, and many more publications, is: where do they go from here?

"Magazines and cable channels are trying to figure out what they can add to the mix if people already have the basic facts from the Internet and elsewhere," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism.

"A lot of them will aspire to do that around ideology, because it's the easiest way, the simplest way, to organize an audience."

Indeed, the Digest plans to introduce a new multifaceted effort produced with Rick Warren, the evangelical pastor, called the Purpose Driven Connection. For about $30, subscribers get a quarterly magazine with religious workbooks, along with DVDs featuring Warren, and membership in a social-networking Web site, including tips on what to pray for each week. It is available through churches and at Wal-Marts.

Now we will see if God Himself can save the Reader's Digest.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Post Mortem

Dear President Obama:

With the national debt in the trillions of dollars, every little bit of savings helps. So, Mr. President, I've come up with a proposal to save a few billion dollars, not much by Washington standards but, what the heck, a billion here, a billion there adds up.

My plan is quite simple. Dump the U.S Postal Service. That's right, shut down the post office. Or at least, make it a shadow of its former self.

Let's face it, the post office ranks up there with pay phones, curb feelers and forward artillery observers when it comes to concepts made irrelevant by the march of time.

Oh sure, Mr. President, closing it down would be bad news to stamp collectors and those who can't get their fill of rudeness at the DMV.

But as I'm sure you know, sir, the post office is leaking oil like the Exxon Valdez.

This is not news to postal authorities. They plan to offer early retirement to 150,000 workers, cut management and close offices. The Postal Service lost $2.8 billion last year and is facing even larger losses this year.

Postmaster General John Potter has even asked Congress to consider allowing the agency to cut mail delivery back to five days-a-week to save money.

Over the past year, the post office by its own estimates has cut 50 million work hours; stopped construction of new postal facilities; frozen salaries for postal executives; began selling unused facilities; and cut post office hours.

The pony express probably faced the same sort of downsizing.

I've come up with this plan by watching my own mail over a long period of time. We get the occasional letter, an assortment of bills and enough junk mail and unsolicited catalogs to clog a landfill.

Like most Americans, we do most of our letter writing now via e-mail, pay bills and do banking online, buy tickets to movies, theater and sporting events and even do a bit of shopping by computer. Our kids Facebook and tweet to their heart's content without so much as licking a stamp.

The reality of it is you can buy a house, furnish it, purchase a car, find a lifelong soul mate, home school your children and, when it's all over, buy a burial plot on the Internet. Getting your mail electronically is not a big stretch

.I understand, Mr. President, that a lot of what passes for junk mail reflects the flow of commerce on which much of our economy is built. And I know there are rural areas in this county where computers are as rare as gourmet wine shops and spa showrooms.

But there are more than 227 millions computers users in the U.S. and that's about 75% of the population. According to Fiserv, Inc., a financial services technology group, 64.4 million households --nearly four out of the five households with Internet access -- pay at least one bill online, either at a bank or a company Web site.

And consider this, Mr. President: A Westlake Village company called Zumbox is offering consumers the equivalent of an online mailbox that is linked to their postal addresses. The virtual boxes can be used to receive electronic versions of documents such as personal correspondence, bills and promotional mailings.

The company claims to have created a digital mailbox for every street address in the United States. Companies would pay to send electronic versions of paper catalogs or other marketing materials to the mailboxes, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Zumbox plans to provide the mailing service for free to government agencies, non-profits, consumers and businesses for bills and other non-promotional purposes.

Users' mailboxes would be organized in the equivalent of folders, so that advertising-type messages are kept separate from traditional correspondence; they will also be able to block messages from specific senders.

Innovation breeds imitation. Zumbox is the first; there will be others.

The handwriting, Mr. President, is on the wall. Keep post office service where it is absolutely necessary, rural
areas with no viable alternative. Let it continue to service the military.

After that, I'm guessing you could reduce the size of the U.S. Post Office by 75 per cent. Since the post office will lose an estimated $6 billion this year, that's a fair chunk of change.

Providing less service will not improve the product, Mr. President.

You can't deliver what's not there.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Barack's Brew

Once around the new cycle:

News: Faced with an uproar over race relations following the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. by Cambridge police, President Obama did what any reasonable person would do: He called the protagonists together for a beer.

Gates, Obama, Police Sgt. James Crowler and Vice President Joe Biden gathered for a cold one in the Rose Garden one recent afternoon to hash out their differences.

Views: Nothing like cooling off a couple of hot heads with alcohol. But beyond that, if the President wants to bring the country together, next time he might serve suds from an American-owned brewry. Crowler had a Blue Moon (made in Canada) and the President grabbed a Bud Light (now owned by a Belgium firm). What's worse, Bud Light is to
beer what tap water is to Pinot Noir.

Gates for his part ordered a Red Stripe (made in Jamaica) but emerged as the patriot in this gathering by settling for a Sam Adams, a Boston brew.

Biden doesn't drink alcohol for which we can all be thankful.

Personally, I would have offered up a selection from Washington's very own Capitol City Brewing Company -- which owns a brewpub just a few blocks from the White House.

It's name? "Equality Ale."

News: The Pew Research Center, who brought us the startling news recently that rich people are more happy than poor people and, the somewhat more dubious finding that Republicans are happier than Democrats, have boldly tackled another hot topic.

They found that 34 percent of American adults had taken a nap in the past 24 hours. Men nap more than women, blacks more than whites and Hispanics, the unhappy more than the happy.

Views: We've come a long way in this country. Naps used to be attributable to the three martini lunch. Now we understand that if you're an unhappy low-income male, you are good bet to dose off during the day.

According to the Pew people, napping is quite common at the lower end of the income scale; some 42% of adults with an annual income below $30,000 report they napped in the past day. As income rises, napping
declines. However, at the upper end of the scale (adults whose annual income is $100,000 or above) the tendency to nap revives and reverts to the mean.

What this means remains unclear. We do know that unless you're an airline pilot or a brain surgeon, most people find that a "power nap" in the middle of the work day actually improves your performance.

Indeed, the National Institute of Mental Health discovered in a study that a midday snooze reverses "information overload."

To underscore that point, the more I read or write about this subject, the heavier my
eyelids get.

News: Astronaut Koichi Wakata is returning to Earth with the underwear he used during his four-and-a-half-month space station stay so scientists can check them out. He says he kept them on for a month at a stretch.
They're experimental high-tech undies, designed in Japan to be odor-free.

Views: I knew some guys in college who would have been ripe for this experiment. Wakata, however, was getting funky in the name of science.

The Japanese textile makers who supplied the special nano fabrics and fasteners have announced the experiment a success. The garments can repel static, wick away water, kill bacteria, neutralize odors and "prevent fouling, or permanent odor infusion."

Sounds like just the thing for old editors.

Look for these products to hit the market in the near future. Just think of the convenience and savings if you washed your underwear just a once a month.

Or maybe not.

News: A truck driver had a lucky escape when his cucumber-laden rig rolled near a crocodile-infested river after hitting a buffalo yesterday.

Views: What's this, a "Saturday Night Live" skit? No, it's all true. According to the dispatch from Australia, the 22-ton freight truck came to rest on its side when it ran into a power pole, spilling its load of cucumbers over the

The driver sustained minor injuries and was taken to the Palmerston Health Clinic before being transported to Royal Darwin Hospital.

The story described the incident at taking place along the Arnhem Highway near the Adelaide River Queen Jumping Crocodiles tour site.

Remind me not to include a place with "jumping crocodiles" in its name on my bucket list.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Green Is Gone

It's summertime, 2015.

I'm out tending to my front yard. It used to be grass but with increasing restrictions on water usage and a drought that has dragged on for years, it is now what we euphemistically call "California native."

That means it's dirt. We have some drought resistance plants - buckwheat, manzanita and the like - out front, but they don't begin to erase the memories of a green lawn dotted with begonias and zinnias.

You don't hear birds sing much any more. Nor crickets on warm summer nights.

We have a neighbor who tried to keep a bed of flowering plants going in a hidden corner of his back yard, but the drought cops - snoopy neighbors in this case - turned him in to the authorities and he was heavily fined.

There's no chance of that happening to me. I bricked over my back yard several years ago.

My work on this particular day consists of compacting the dirt out front. If I don't, it will blow into the house the first time a Santa Ana wind kicks up.

Afterward, I head for the shower. We are limited to three minutes of bathing time now so showering becomes an exercise in multi-tasking. With a little bit of skill, I can brush my teeth and shave at the same time I bathe. There's a bucket in the stall to collect extra water so we can use it in the toilet tank.

You can buy water around town but the prices have been jacked up sky high. The California legislature promised to deal with this type of thing but years have gone

by and the issue is still gridlocked by partisan politics.

Water isn't the only thing that's expensive. So are groceries. The drought has severely impacted the state's agriculture production and foods that were once commonplace are now hard to find.

Looking back, how did we get to this point? After all, the warning signs had been around for years.

"The U.S. West will see devastating droughts as global warming reduces the amount of mountain snow and causes the snow that does fall to melt earlier in the year," one study written in 2008 said.

"Our results are not good news for those living in the western United States," the journal Science reported that same year.

California may be at the beginning of its worst drought in modern history, state officials said in 2009.

One UCLA study warned that if the climate behaves the way it did the last time we had global warming, we should probably get ready to settle in to a more arid climate.

Glen MacDonald, the director of the UCLA Institute of the Environment, warned in 2005 that local officials were underestimating the likely duration of new droughts, which in the past century have not lasted more than about five years.

When drought struck, the burden fell on our residents. Most Southern Californians did the right thing and conserved. But even with restrictions and a willing public, Mother Nature was a tough foe to defeat.

Frankly, we had a lousy game plan.

Along with conservation, we should have been building desalination plants and made it easier to build them. Planning and permitting took 15 years for the Carlsbad Desalination Project in San Diego County. That's too long.

We should have encouraged the use of gray water by homeowners sooner. Gray water is nonindustrial wastewater generated from domestic processes such as dish washing, laundry and bathing.

For years, homeowners were forced by the state to build treatment centers if they wanted to use gray water for landscape purposes. It wasn't until 2009 that those restrictions were eased.

We should have done a lot more recycling, reuse and recovery.

We should have fixed a lot more leaky faucets and sprinklers.

We should have done a lot more planning and a lot less development.

But most important, we should have learned long ago that droughts are not a sometimes thing. They are a fact of life. And we should have learned to mitigate them before they struck.