Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Disasters and Dollars

It's not always easy, but most journalists try to keep an emotional arms' length distance from a story.

Emotional involvement can cloud one's judgment. So we set aside personal feelings when the need arises.

But we're not soulless automatons. When I witnessed the apocalyptic disaster that is Japan this past week, I reached for my checkbook and contacted the Red Cross.

I've done it before. After Katrina. After Haiti.

But this time I felt a twinge of donor's remorse. Primarily, I wondered how much of my donation would get to the people in need.

I remembered an Associated Press report from Haiti on the first anniversary of the devastating earthquake reporting that "a year after the quake, workers are still finding bodies in the rubble. About a million people remain homeless. ... A cholera epidemic that erupted outside the quake zone has killed more than 3,600 people. Less than 5 percent of the debris has been cleared."

And this was after donations that by some estimates exceeded a billion dollars. Then there was something else.

Katrina struck my country. It hurt my people. My family lived in New Orleans for a number of years so the feelings ran deep.

I didn't hesitate on Haiti, a nation so dirt poor that it needed humanitarian relief on an unprecedented scale. Hundreds of thousands died. Some 250,000 residences and 30,000 commercial structures collapsed.

But Japan is a wealthy nation. It's a highly developed and educated country whose GDP is similar to the United States. And like the U.S., it's not a place one thinks of as needing international aid.

Did they really need my donation?

Apparently I wasn't alone in asking that question. Through midweek, charities raised more than $47 million in the first four days after the disaster struck in Japan. By contrast, four days after the earthquake struck in Haiti last year, more than $150million had been raised.

Some organizations aren't event asking for money. Nicole Wallace, a senior writer for the Chronicle of Philanthropy, told MSNBC that 14 relief organizations her publication spoke with were not actively raising funds, either because they focus only on developing countries or because they were holding off to see if they were needed.

And while U.S. corporations have promised $50 million in donations, it's largely because many have close business ties to Japan and have employees there. But the money has to come from somewhere and the cost will probably be passed on to you.

Finally, Japan rejected most international offers of help following the Kobe earthquake in 1995 that killed more than 6,000 people.

So are we foolish to donate to Japan earthquake/tsunami relief?


First of all, it fulfills an emotional need. We cannot watch the innocent victims of a disaster without the feeling that we need to do something, anything to help. It's what makes us human. That applies globally as well. Foreign countries offered the U.S. $854 million following Katrina.

Second, donations to a reputable charity do some good. The American Red Cross is channeling donations to the Japanese Red Cross which, in the first 24 hours, dispatched 62 response teams. These medical relief teams - made up of about 400 doctors, nurses and support staff - are already providing assistance in affected areas through mobile medical clinics.

And if your donation isn't put to work in Japan, it will be used for the next disaster whenever and wherever that will occur.

Finally, the nuclear component of this disaster makes it unparalleled in recent history.

A massive earthquake followed by a killer tsunami that may trigger a nuclear meltdown would be rejected as unrealistic for a movie script.

And yet it happened. Real people suffer and die. Entire cities are demolished. Hundreds of thousands are displaced.

It will take all of us to put Japan back together again.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Dating game

My wife and I met the old-fashioned way. We were introduced by
friends, a chance encounter than led to love and marriage.

We were lucky. Had computer dating existed in those days, we would
never have met.

She was raised prim and proper in a small town in western
Pennsylvania that resembled a Norman Rockwell painting. I was from
Los Angeles, had been a rock musician, a frat boy, a cop reporter.

She had gone to work for the federal government after graduating from
college. I worked for the federal government, too, but not by choice.
I had been drafted into the Army and spent my days as a soldier.

Clearly, some computer program would have declared us incompatible.

Yet, without the assistance of algorithms to make sure our tolerances
and preferences interfaced, we have been wed for 44 years.

I’m not knocking computer dating. If I was single, I might give it a
try, especially if they had a category for aging journalists with a
skeptical world view.

After all, thousands participate and revenues
for online dating services reach into the hundreds of millions of

You can always tell when Valentine’s Day is approaching. Commercials
for computer dating services flood the airways, battling jewelry ads
for prime TV exposure.

And it’s often a hard sell. One popular website apparently has taken
to sending out e-mails on a person’s birthday to remind him or her
that another year has gone by without a significant other.

They call it marketing. I call it emotional waterboarding.

The dating game has become as complex as the society we live in. But
the electronic lonely hearts club business has made it easy. There
are websites now that promise to link up couples from every ethnic,
religious, life-style and sexual preference subgroup imaginable.

Among the unique: Women Behind Bars, which offers to link
incarcerated women with interested men. Moto Date offers a solution to an age-old problem. You see a hottie next to you in traffic and have no way to make contact short of a fender bender. Members of this site receive a four-digit sticker to
put on their car, and if someone finds them attractive while behind
the wheel, all they have to do is go online, type in that code, and
make contact.

Trek Passions is for, you guessed it, those who desire to live long
and prosper with another Star Trek obsessed earthling. Or Klingon. Or
Romulan or Borg or whatever.

Since I’ve never come across many female Trekkies, I’m thinking the romance rate on this site is something less than warp speed.

Diaper Mates is the premiere destination for adult interested in
people who enjoy wearing diapers or looking at others who like to
wear them. We’ll leave this one without comment other than to note
the site has 11,000 members.

Ayn Rand Dating is for those whose lives have been forever altered
after reading “The Fountainhead” or “Atlas Shrugged.” First dates
include discussions of the morality of rational self-interest and
laissez-faire capitalism. Sample user profile: “ I am rational,
integrated, and efficacious. So far, I’ve never met a person who
lives up to the standard I hold for myself...I only kiss those who
deserve it, and so far I have only encountered one who did. I would
love to find someone I can learn something from; someone who
challenges me to think; someone I can feel like I’ve won, rather than
lowered myself to.”

With all these choices, you’d think computer dating would be an
unqualified success. But there’s a fly in the ointment, a flaw as old
as the mating ritual itself.

People lie.

According to an exhaustive study conducted by an online dating site,
the biggest fibs are, in no particular order: Height - people, mostly
guys, are two inches shorter in real life.

Income, people exaggerate it by about 20 per cent.

Pictures - The more attractive the picture, the more likely it is out of date.

If that’s not bad enough, there’s datetalk, in which words take on
new meanings: 40-ish means 49. Athletic: small breasted. Emotionally secure: on
medication. Fun: annoying. New Age: doesn’t shave her legs. Open
Minded: desperate. Outgoing: loud and embarrassing. Voluptuous:
overweight. Needs soul mate: a stalker.

Which reminds me of the Dorthy Parker ditty, written long before the
age of computers:
By the time you swear you're his,
Shivering and sighing,
And he vows his passion is
Infinite, undying -
Lady, make a note of this:
One of you is lying. -

Hold the Phone

I was playing golf recently when my attention was drawn to four young
men on an adjacent fairway.

They walked toward the green in a single file, heads bowed, silent,
as though they were initiates in some sort of Druid ceremony.

Upon closer inspection I realized they were absorbed in their
smartphones, either texting or reading e-mails or surfing the web.

In the middle of a match. On a beautiful course dotted with all manner
of flora and fauna.

The incident underscored my belief that we may very soon evolve into
a race of people with bowed necks and downturned gazes, the result of
continuous smart phone use.

I offer as evidence a recent YouTube video of a young woman at a
shopping mall who was so intent on her phone that walked straight
into fountain where she splashed like a turtle on its back for
several minutes before pulling herself to dry land.

Well, I vowed, they won’t get me. I will remain head held high and
eyes forward for the rest of my days.

Alas, fate intervened. I lost my cellphone, a simple model that
merely made and received phone calls, and allowed myself to be sold a
new model that records videos, has movie, TV, magazine, newspaper and
social network access, offers games, displays your e-mail, functions
as a calendar and alarm clock, gives you directions to your
destination, plays music, even finds your car if it’s lost. Among
other things.

And while they call them smart phones. I’m not sure I was so smart in
buying one. Because once you’ve become adept in operating them,
you’re addicted.

Like the unsuspecting citizenry in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,”
I have become one of Them, a member of the mesmerized cell phone
zombies to whom all life outside of their hand-held devices is
irrelevant if not nonexistent.

That’s not exactly true. I have maintained enough humanity to lead a
somewhat normal life. Just because I’ve skipped a few meals so I can
afford to pay for all the extra goodies my phone has to offer doesn’t
mean I’m a bad person.

These extra goodies are called “apps,” short for applications. The
lovely young salesthing at the phone store told me there are 100,000
of them available through the phone. Some are free, most charge extra.

To be sure, many of these apps have some legitimate value, offering
books and reference, business and education downloads, health and
fitness advice.

Then there are these culled from my smartphone and the Internet:

The iNap@Work app plays a series of recorded typing, clicking,
stapling or pencil sharpening sound effects to fool your coworkers
into thinking you're being productive. Meanwhile, you're fast asleep
at your desk enjoying a post-lunch nap.

One app keeps track of how many beers you drink. You have to pay for
it but it’s probably a lot cheaper than getting a DUI after
forgetting how many beers you’ve had throughout the course of the

Health officials in New York have released an app to help its
citizens find free condoms. It’s designed to locate the five nearest
venues that distribute official NYC Condoms in jazzy wrappers printed
with colorful subway maps or other city themes.

It could be used in concert with the Roman Catholic App, designed to
be used as a confessional, with a personalized examination of
conscience for each user.

The Taxi Hold em application makes a loud whistling sound and
displays a bright taxi sign to get the attention of nearby cabbies.
It also alerts muggers that you are near.

iMouse is a call alert application. Whenever you have an incoming
call, a little naughty mouse appears, knocks at the screen and shouts
“Hey! Haaaay!! ‘knock knock’ Please answer your phone.”

Then, for those who just can’t get their fill of Fascism, there’s the
iMussolini app that includes audio, video and transcripts of 120
speeches by the wartime Italian leader.

And for those who can’t be separated from their smartphones even
momentarily, there is the LM Technologies Bluetooth bracelet. It
vibrates if the user moves more than five feet away from the phone.

Ain’t technology grand.

The New Poll Tax

What happens in New Hampshire should stay in New Hampshire.

One might reasonably come to that conclusion based on the antics of
the state’s politicians in recent weeks.

Last week, we reported that two New Hampshire pols advocated charging
TSA agents with sexual assault for doing their jobs.

Specifically, random airport security pat-downs and body scans would
make "the touching or viewing with a technological device of a
person's breasts or genitals by a government security agent without
probable cause a sexual assault."

"Let's put their name on the sex offender registry, and maybe that
will tell them New Hampshire means business," huffed bill co-sponsor
Rep. Andrew Manuse, R-Derry.

OK, that’s just plain goofy. Among other things, it’s in all
likelihood a federal matter and the state’s jurisdiction is
questionable. Nothing to see here, move on.

But now New Hampshire House Republicans are pushing for new laws that
would prohibit many college students from voting in the state - or
maybe even voting at all.

They are rallying behind House speaker William O’Brien who, in a
speech to a Tea Party group, said college kids are “foolish. Voting
as a liberal. That's what kids do," he added. Students lack "life
experience," and "they just vote their feelings."

Just as an aside, I’m betting Mr. O’Brien voted with his feelings
when he marked his ballot for John McCain and Sarah Palin. And I’m
willing to bet that those in his tea bagger audience would loudly
voice their feelings at the drop of a three-cornered hat.

But back to the issue at hand. To weed out these “foolish” voters,
especially those who might vote Democratic, two bills were
introduced. One would permit students to vote in their college towns
only if they or their parents had previously established permanent
residency there - requiring all others to vote in the states or other
New Hampshire towns they come from.

Another bill would end Election Day registration, which O'Brien said
unleashes swarms of students on polling places, creating
opportunities for fraud.

What’s next, a poll tax? That kept African-Americans out of the
political process for a hundred years or more. It just might work on
a bunch of college kids.

In a unique burst of rational thinking, the New Hampshire legislature
temporarily sidetracked the bills this week, perhaps realizing they
were unconstitutional.

But the issue isn’t dead. A hearing will be held this summer on the
measures in plenty of time to change the laws before the 2012

We could chalk this up to a handful of misguided zealots tucked away
in the deep northeastern woods. Except, as an article in the
Washington Post points out, the measures in New Hampshire are among
dozens of voting-related bills being pushed by newly empowered
Republican state lawmakers across the country - prompting partisan
clashes akin to those already roiling in some states over GOP moves
to curb union power.

I’ve always believed a party that comes to power does so because it
appeals to the greatest proportion of voters. Sure, there’s been
fraud in the past but for the most part democracy works just as our
forefathers designed it to do.

But apparently, there’s a new strategy at work. If you want to win,
disenfranchise those who oppose you. Simply raise the specter of
fraud and cut them out of the political process.

"It's a war on voting," said Thomas Bates, vice president of Rock the
Vote, a youth voter- registration group mounting a campaign to fight
the array of state measures. "We'd like to be advocating for a
21st-century voting system, but here we are fighting against efforts
to turn it back to the 19th century."

We could also presume that if the Republicans succeeded in this
Draconian exercise, the Democrats might try to play the same game,
say banning people over 65, who tend to vote Republican, on the
grounds that age has diminished their judgment.

Insanity begets insanity.

Here’s the bottom line: In the last three general elections - 2004,
2006, and 2008 -- young voters have given the Democratic Party a
majority of their votes, and for all three cycles they have been the
party's most supportive age group.

In 2008, according to a Pew survey, 66% of those under age 30 voted for Barack Obama making the disparity between young voters and other age groups larger than in
any presidential election since exit polling began in 1972.

The GOP is clearly running second in a two-person race and has a lot
of work to do to win the hearts and minds of young voters.

They can start by reaching out to them. But treating the young as
political lepers which will only further alienate them.