archives: February-March 2007

dave ["at" ] downingworld [.com] -- If you'd like to know what I think about a particular topic, drop me a line: I may use it for a future blurb. But remember: I'm not really a know-it-all; I just play one on the Web. Thanks for tuning in, from your host David W. Downing.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Eccentric? It's Not Brain Surgery

When I think of the word "eccentric," I usually think of some Englishman, living off of old family wealth. But don't sell America short. We can develop our own self-made eccentrics.

Exhibit "A" is Dr. Lonnie Hammargren, a wealthy Las Vegas brain surgeon who has planned his own funeral for this Saturday. The twist is, he's still alive. Afterwards, there will be a party at his compound/museum of a home, filled -- inside and out -- with amazing artifacts large and small. Most noticeably large. Here are some photos from his home.

And here's a story about his yard sale last summer.

Now, here's another twist: There's a Minnesota connection! Dr. Hammargren hails from Rush City, Minn., my mom's home town. In fact, before she was married my mom did office work for Dr. Hammargren's father Carl, an insurance agent in Rush City. I don't recall Carl, but I remember Dr. Hammargren's mother, Ruby. She was also eccentric -- and flamboyant, known for her big hats, feather boas, and brightly painted house.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Willing to Pay More...To Make Themselves Feel Better

Sometimes information comes together like parts of a puzzle. It started last week with this wonderful column by Joseph Rago in the Wall Street Journal Opinion Journal. Rago writes that Thorstein Veblen's "conspicuous consumption" has been replaced with "virtuous consumption." Rather than consuming extravagantly to show how rich they are, Rago argues, people now consume extravagantly to show how virtuous they are.

A trip to the supermarket is instructive. For some time, everyday food has groaned with every sort of moral sentiment: all-natural, sustainable, cage-free, free-range, organic, organic, organic. Foods like these are more than mere sustenance: They commodify values, making them real--material--in the world. They are virtuous goods. To consume a virtuous good is to make a statement. It is not only to do right, whatever that might mean, but to announce that you are doing so.

Thus we encounter the extreme specialization of virtuous consumption. Upscale boutique grocers like Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe's base their identities (and marketing strategies) on giving people a way to eat so that each of us may demonstrate where we rank in the virtue standings. The "holistic thinking" of Whole Foods Market, for instance, could not be fully expressed in a "vision statement," so the store is governed by a posted "declaration of interdependence" as well. Trader Joe's actually makes a point of advertising that it does not kill baby seals in the procurement of seafood.

Rago is spot on about trendy hybrid cars:

Take Toyota's hybrid auto, the Prius. Studies consistently show that fuel savings do not justify the price premium of a gasoline-electric power train. People who can afford the gesture continue to buy the Prius anyway, largely because it certifies personal enlightenment in the matter of global warming. The original design was adorned with cues to distinguish it from a normal car, such as a tapered rear end and skirts over the back wheels. Even without these particular elements, the Prius remains distinctive (or bulbous) enough for everyone to recognize.

Joining this wonderful column in my inbox the very same day was an announcement of an upcoming luncheon by the Center of the American Experiment. Speaking at the luncheon will be Arthur C. Brooks, author of "Who REALLY CARES America's Charity Divide: Who Gives, Who Doesn't, and Why It Matters."

Here's Brooks on his book:

"When I started doing research on charity, I expected to find that political liberals -- who, I believed, genuinely cared more about others than conservatives did -- would turn out to be the most privately charitable people. So when my early findings led to the opposite conclusion, I assumed I had made some sort of technical error. I re-ran analyses. I got new data. Nothing worked. In the end, I had no option but to change my views.

"I confess the prejudices of my past here to emphasize that the findings in this book -- many of which may appear conservative and support a religious, hardworking, family-oriented lifestyle -- are faithful to the best available evidence and contrary to my political and cultural roots."

So what are the liberals doing with their money? As Rago has pointed out, they're busy spending it "virtuously" -- on themselves!

This brings to mind Al Gore, the global warming evangelist who has been ridiculed for his own piggish consumption of fossil fuels. Gore says his hands are clean, because he buys some sort of "carbon offsets." I don't fully understand that, but I think it amounts to paying someone else not to pollute, so that you don't have to feel guilty when you do it.

To me, it sounds a little like starving your own children, but excusing it by saying, "I send $25 every month to sponsor a hungry child in Africa."

As others have pointed out, Al Gore could buy those carbon offsets AND lead a more modest lifestyle. But he chooses not to. Instead, he engages in virtuous consumption, while he goes on sinning against his Mother the Earth.

They say in the old days a wealthy man -- or a wealthy man's son -- who didn't want to fulfill his military obligation could pay a poor man to go in his place. Al Gore and his carbon offsets remind me of that. Al Gore went to Vietnam when he probably could have gotten out of it, like so many others did. Where's that Al Gore now?

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

St. Paul Activists to Republicans: Your Kind Not Welcome Here

St. Paul will be the site of the 2008 Republican National Convention. I think that's a good thing for the city. The city also made a pitch for the Democratic National Convention, which will be held in Denver. If the Democratic Convention were going to be held in St. Paul, I'd think that was a good thing.

But not everyone is as open-minded as I am. Oh, I'm sure there are plenty of Democrats who think it's a good thing that the Republicans picked St. Paul for their convention. But they're not the ones who turn out for public meetings. Yes, there's nothing like a public meeting to draw out the fringe element.

The city has been holding some public meetings about the upcoming convention, and I attended one Monday night. But I felt rather out of place, and not particularly welcome, as I heard people talk about Republicans as though they were people from another planet, and couldn't actually be in the room. There seemed to be an assumption that everyone there was a Democrat.

City Council member Dave Thune gave an odd little speech, sounding apologetic and telling people that the convention was a good thing, even if it was the Republicans. He pointed out that not everyone coming to St. Paul would actually be a Republican. There would be people working on the sound and lights for the convention, for example. And even Teamsters driving bus loads of people to town. You know, good, normal, union Democrats. (He forgot to mention all the media people.)

A woman in the crowd rose to supposedly ask a question, but instead turned toward the audience and gave a speech. She said that other cities that have hosted Republican conventions found out it was a bad thing. She was specific about Republican conventions being bad, not just that all huge events like this were bad. Then she went on to say that while she knew local Republicans, she worked with local Republicans, and she even liked local Republicans, we don't want anything to do with those "national" Republicans, because, essentially, "you know what they're like."

Her language was incredible. All you have to do is make some simple substitutions, and see how her reasoning sounds. Suppose it were an NAACP convention that was coming to town. Now, what if someone got up and said, "I know local CPs, I work with local CPs, I even like local CPs, but we don't want those national CPs here. We all know what those people are like."

Then we heard a woman complain that the anti-war groups had had their protest permits returned to them by the St. Paul Police Department, with instruction to re-submit them six months prior to the convention. The woman found this to be unfair treatment. "You've given the Republicans two years to plan," she said, "We should get two years, too. How is this not partisan?"

Assistant Police Chief Matt Bostrom tried to explain. He said that the police department had not issued any protest permits to the Republicans, and none had been requested. Instead, the Republicans have a contract to use the Xcel Center and convention facilities, the same as any other convention group.

"But you've given them all this space..." was the complaint.

The city attorney tried to explain that the city has not "given" anything to the Republican Party. The city has a contract with a non-profit, non-partisan host committee, to hold a convention, in facilities that regularly hold conventions for all sorts of groups.

But these protesters seem to think they are entitled to something. They could rent convention space and have their own convention if they wanted. No one would stop them. But instead, they seem to think that if someone else is having a convention, that entitles them to be given some sort of equal space and equal media access.

I wonder if they don't know that there will also be a Democratic National Convention held next year? Isn't that where opponents of Republicans can expect to have their turn?

I also have a question for the anti-war protesters, who want two years to plan their anti-war protest: How do you know there will still be a war to protest in September, 2008? Isn't Nancy Pelosi ending it before then, anyway? It's almost as though they will be disappointed if there isn't still a war going on then!

(Related story in the St. Paul Pioneer Press)

Monday, March 26, 2007

"Chicks Really Dig Him, Now That He Rides a Harley"

Is that a young Joe Soucheray on his first "hog"? Check out those DARK SOCKS with the white pants and shoes!

Click here to see this 1967 Harley Davidson magazine ad in its entirety.

Listen to Joe Soucheray on AM1500 KSTP, weekdays 2:00-5:30 pm central time. Those of you outside the Twin Cities broadcast area can listen online.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Al Gore Goes Off the Charts

Testifying to Congress this week, Al Gore said that more and more people are learning about global warming. He said that awareness is on a "trajectory that just goes straight up."

Apparently Gore charted awareness with the same graphing software he uses to chart rising sea levels. He said that if present trends continue, then 20 years from now 739% of the people on Earth will be aware of global warming.

OK, that last paragraph was a joke. The rest isn't.

Gore also told Congress: "I believe the purpose of life is to glorify God, and we can't do that if we're heaping contempt on the creation."

What happened to the wall of separation between church and state?

But there's more: "This is not a partisan issue, this is a moral issue," Gore said.

I thought you couldn't legislate morality. Has Al Gore turned into some sort of extreme right-wing religious fundamentalist? Does this mean that we can tell him to keep his beliefs to himself?

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Larry "Bud," I Hardly Knew Ya

Larry "Bud" Melman is dead. Let's salute him with a toast (on a stick).

Real name Calvert DeForest, the unlikely TV celebrity rose to fame in the early 1980s as a regular on "Late Show with David Letterman" on NBC.

I didn't really know the man. I did meet him, though. I even partied with him in college. (And no, I'm not that old.) But I don't want to bore you with that story.... what's that? Don't leave you hanging? OK, if you insist.

It was the spring of 1985. I was a senior at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. I was a member of a student organization that sponsored an event called "Dry Wednesday" every year. Wednesday was the traditional party night, and the idea was to get students to forgo partying that night and donate their beer money to a cause that fought alcohol abuse. As an incentive, we offered a night of free entertainment on campus.

That year, we pulled out all the stops and brought in Larry "Bud" Melman, then at the peak of his fame. He was travelling with a one-man show. All he required was some simple props and three suitable assistants, whom I think we found with the assistance of the theater department. The assistants didn't have to sing or dance or anything like that, they just had to fit the dresses that Larry "Bud" would be bringing with him.

I was in charge of publicity.* That was made more difficult by the legal requirement that we advertise the event as "Calvert DeForest appearing as Larry 'Bud' Melman." This led to confusion for some students, who thought we were bringing in a Larry "Bud" Melman imitator, and not the real deal!

Well, the show went off OK, I don't remember it as being particularly entertaining, but it was a thrill to have a late night hero on campus with us. One of my roommates even set up a "toast-on-a-stick" concession, hawking a product promoted on TV by Larry "Bud."

Now, there was another custom associated with Dry Wednesday, and that was the after-party. And since that took place after midnight, it was no longer Wednesday, so the beer was flowing again. (Funny we didn't all become politicians, with that ability to follow the letter but not the spirit of the law.)

That year, we had a party out on Park Point, at a house rented by some college gals. (This was more than two decades ago, when Park Point was home to cheap houses, not mansions.) Not having anything better to do, Larry "Bud," who would have already been in his 60s, joined us youngsters at the party. But he didn't seem to be fitting in very well.

I saw him standing alone and went over to try to strike up a conversation. What do you talk about when you want to make small talk? Family, right? So I asked him if he was married.

He tilted his head back, and he let out that trademark laugh of his. Stunned, I wondered what was so funny, but I didn't ask any more questions along that line.

Pretty soon, one of the hostesses came over. She asked Larry "Bud" if he was hungry. He answered in the affirmative. The hostess thought about it, and she said she didn't have much to offer, but she could make him a grilled cheese sandwich. He graciously accepted.

So that's the story of how Larry "Bud" Melman had a late night (or early morning) grilled cheese sandwich in a house full of college students on Park Point in Duluth, Minnesota.


*AN UPDATE: They say the memory is the first to go, right after the... No, that's not it. Maybe it's... no, there's a pill for that now. Well, anyway, I don't want to take credit where credit is not due. I erred in saying I was in charge of publicity. I was the publicity guy the two years previous, but not that year. Nonetheless, I was involved in the project. I thought I remembered making up flyers for the event, but to tell you the truth, I really can't remember whether I did or not. This getting older is rough stuff. Please tell me memory loss is the worst thing that happens as we get older.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

I Like Trains

Did I ever tell you that I'm a train guy? I am. I've taken so many shots at light rail, you might think I just don't like trains. But that's not so. I like real trains. I like model trains. I like old toy trains (American Flyer in particular). I enjoy studying the railroad history of St. Paul.

I just don't think light rail makes sense.

I also support mass transit. I used to take the bus every day when I worked downtown. It made sense.

But for what it costs, light rail doesn't make sense.

There was a good example why in yesterday's Pioneer Press, which reported that public officials are appropriating money to study the feasibility of linking St. Paul and Minneapolis with a passenger train during the Republican National Convention in 2008.

The story noted hurdles the idea would have to overcome, including this clincher:

Any link probably would require shuttle buses, at one or both ends, to make the route complete.

Picture that: People get on one bus; it takes them to a train. They get on the train; it takes them to another bus. They get on the second bus; it takes them to their destination.

Is that nuts, or what? Why not just get on the first bus, and let it drive them up to the door of where they are going, in this case the River Center in St. Paul? It would not only be simpler, it would be faster. And less costly.

That's why trains don't make sense. They're expensive to build, and they are inflexible. Buses, on the other hand, can go wherever there is a street or highway. One day they can take loads of people to the River Center. The next day they can take loads of people to the Mall of America. The day after that they can take loads of people to the State Fairgrounds.

For a fraction of the billion dollars we're planning to spend on an inflexible light rail link between St. Paul and Minneapolis, we could really spruce up the bus system.

It just makes more sense.

But the train is the latest fashion. It's the thing to have. Denver has one! I've heard that. We're falling behind Denver! St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman says that. It reminds me of the "Simpsons" episode where Springfield decides they need a monorail to keep up with their rival Shelbyville.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Remember 9/11? Did We Remember 9/6?

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." -- George Santayana

We've often heard that quote, or slight variations on it. But do we take it to heart? Do we learn from it? That quotation almost proves itself, in that we've all heard it, but we tend to forget its message.

We've often heard the ideas expressed that "9/11 changed everything," and "Who could have imagined such a thing?" Well, to start with, the same people tried to bring down the World Trade Center in 1993. But even setting that aside, we might not have been so surprised by 9/11, if we had only remembered 9/6.

September 6, 1970, that is. Thirty-one years prior to the infamous 9/11.

Last night PBS aired an American Experience episode called "Hijacked." (In the Twin Cities, it will air again tonight, 8:00 pm, on channel 17. If you're reading from elsewhere, check your local PBS affiliate's listings.) It detailed the multiple hijackings of September 6, 1970, conducted by a group called the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). I was just seven years old in 1970, and I wasn't knowledgeable about this event. Learning about it in the wake of 9/11 put it in a very interesting perspective, and I couldn't help but think how little we had learned from the 1970 event.

The PFLP planned to hijack three planes bound for the U.S. and divert them to a natural airstrip in the Jordanian desert. The plan worked easily with two planes -- TWA 74 from Frankfurt to New York, and Swiss Air 100 from Zurich to New York. Flight crews complied with hijackers' demands and landed the planes in Jordan.

But things worked a little differently on El Al 219, from Amsterdam to New York. Israeli security, using profiling (which we are still debating), identified four suspicious passengers prior to take-off. They had all purchased their tickets well in advance, but showed up to claim them only at the last minute. Two were seated in first class, two were seated in economy. Two of the suspicious passengers were Palestinians with Senegalese passports -- and the passports were sequentially numbered, quite a coincidence if they weren't planning something together. (I didn't note whether the program said they were seated next to each other on the plane, or pretended not to know each other.)

Eventually, the two with the Senegalese passports were removed from the flight. The other two suspicious passengers -- a Palestinian woman and a Nicaraguan-American man -- were allowed to remain on board. But they must not have been searched. Or not searched well.

After the flight took off, the remaining suspicious passengers showed that they had guns and hand grenades, and they demanded to be let into the cockpit. But El Al jets apparently already had their cockpits protected by locked doors (remember our post 9/11 discussion about the need to have doors that would keep hijackers out of the cockpit?)

The captain of the plane refused to comply with the hijacker's demands. Instead, he put the plane into a zero-G dive, which knocked people to the floor. In the ensuing chaos, passengers subdued the female hijacker, and a security officer shot the male hijacker. The plane landed safely.

(Remember how we said that 9/11 taught us that the rules had changed, that we shouldn't go along with hijackers but fight them? The Israelis already knew that 31 years earlier.)

But what happened to those two suspicious passengers who were kicked off of El Al 219? Rather than being held for further questioning, they were free to buy tickets for Pan Am 93, also bound for New York. Again, they aroused suspicion. The captain searched them, but not well enough. After the flight took off, they produced guns and grenades that had been hidden in their groin areas, and they easily took over the plane.

(Are we getting the idea yet that when people arouse suspicion we need to take that seriously?)

Here are a couple of other parts of the program, eerily similar to 9/11:

Veteran American newsman Marvin Kalb appeared on camera, saying, "This was America's introduction to global terrorism." But didn't we hear that after 9/11?

Another journalist, Gerald Seymour, was stationed in Jordan at the time. He recalled hearing about one hijacking, then another, and another. Slowly, he and others realized that their was a coordinated effort going on. Again, similar to our reaction to 9/11.

Did the U.S. overreact in shutting down all air travel after 9/11? Consider this: on September 9, 1970, while passengers were still being held hostage in the Jordanian desert, PFLP sympathizers hijacked a BOAC flight bound for London and forced it to land in the desert.

We've heard a lot about how the U.S. "overreacted" to 9/11. Or that we've gone too far. We hear how awful it is to "profile" people. But it seems that if we hadn't forgotten 9/6, we might have learned some lessons that could have prevented 9/11.

On the other hand, eventually the hostages were released. No passengers or crew members died as the result of those 1970 hijackings. So maybe going along with the hijackers' demands really was the best thing to do. At least until 2001.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Baghdad, Minneapolis, What's the Difference?

Minnesota's junior U.S. Senator is in Iraq, and according to this report in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, she knows what that country needs:

"We need a surge in diplomacy and a surge in the economic situation and a surge in the political situation," the freshman Democrat from Minnesota said in a conference call with reporters during her first visit to the country. "The solution is not more boots on the ground, it's a political one and an economic one."

I don't know how much stock we should put in Ms. Klobuchar's expertise in dealing with violent insurgents. She joined the Senate this year after eight years as the Hennepin County Attorney. Hennepin County is where you'll find the city of Minneapolis, which thanks to increasing violence in crime-ridden neighborhoods, has some people resurrecting the nickname "Murder-apolis."

If you ask me, her lack of success dealing with domestic insurgents doesn't give her much credibility when it comes to Iraq.

It reminds me of: "We don't need more police and prisons; we need more pre-school programs, free breakfast at school, and community listening sessions."

On the other hand, how do city officials typically react to rising violent crime rates? Usually, they blame lack of funds to hire more police officers -- they say they need more "boots on the ground"!

Monday, March 19, 2007

Straight Talk on Islamist Threat

Columnist Kathleen Parker nails it when she writes about the need to face up to the reality of radical Islamic terrorism:

Simply put, the present danger is a worldwide threat from radical Islamist terrorism that has a strong state sponsorship component, an overt and covert military component, and an "insidious peaceful component" that is now present in the United States.

That is to say, peacefully and without much notice, Islamists are trying to use our laws of tolerance against us to carve out exceptions for themselves. The radical Islamist faction that has infiltrated and intimidated Europe has found a home in our polite denial.

The question is: Do we wait until, say, a documentary filmmaker critical of Islam is stabbed to death in the street -- as happened to Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh?

Or do we risk hurt feelings and start talking honestly now?

Monday, March 19, 2007

Stalker Learns: If You Want a (Dirty) Job Done Right, Don't Leave It To Your Mother

Police easily tracked down the writer of creepy, threatening letters to a woman in Connecticut, thanks to the stalker's name and return address on the envelopes. Anthony Michael Perone, age 20, of Fairmont, Minnesota, has admitted to sending threatening letters to a woman who broke his heart back in third grade.

It's evident reading David Hanners' story in the St. Paul Pioneer Press that Perone isn't the brightest bulb in the string. Still, even he wasn't stupid enough to write his return address on the letters. So how did it get there?

His mother did it.

Yes, Perone was too lazy to drop his criminal missives in the mail box himself, so he left them with his mother to be mailed. Good old mom, who thought her sweet boy was merely sending friendly notes to his old pals back in Connecticut, "helped" by putting his name and return address on for him.

If you want a job done right...

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Happy St. Patrick's Day, Irish or Not

Today is St. Patrick's Day, which is a good time to talk about the politics of racial/ethnic identity. Having English heritage, I've always felt I should lie low on St. Patrick's Day, since the Irish hate the English. But I've learned it's more complicated than that.

My great-grandfather Richard Downing came from England in 1906. But he came specifically from Cornwall, the far southwestern tip of England which has been historically populated by the Cornish -- a Celtic people like the Irish. And the Cornish haven't always been so crazy about the English, either!

Furthermore, some Downings in the U.S. do claim Irish heritage. So who knows? Might my ancestry trace back from Cornwall to Ireland? (County Down, perhaps?) Or are my ancestors "true" English who moved into Cornwall somewhere back in time?

I don't know. I'll probably never know. But does it matter?

And if I'm "English," what does that mean? (I should point out that I also have Swedish and German roots.) Who exactly are the English? Historians tell us that the ancient Britons were Celts who were chased to the extremities of Scotland, Wales and Cornwall by Roman invaders. After the Romans left, Angles and Saxons invaded and took over. They were Germanic tribes. In 1066, William the Conqueror and the Normans invaded. They came from France, but were descended from Vikings, French and English. In the middle ages, Vikings conducted raids on the British Isles and even built settlements.

We know that throughout history, wherever conquering armies go they have left their DNA. Invading peoples inevitably intermarry So what exactly constituts a modern-day "Englishman"? He could have Roman and Norwegian genes for all he knows!

But all of that may be a moot point. Genetic studies now indicate that the Irish, English, Welsh and Scots are really not distinct genetic groups! They have different ethnic cultures, to be sure, but they are really all of the same bloodline. And that bloodline may actually be of Spanish origin!

I recently became aware of this thanks to a story by Nicholas Wade of the New York Times. I'm sorry I can't link it, they're protective of that. But I think it ran March 6, 2007, if you're so inclined to look for it. Wade wrote about the idea that the Irish and the English are distinct, saying:

"But geneticists who have tested DNA throughout the British Isles are edging toward a different conclusion. Many are stuck by the overall genetic similarities, leading some to claim that both Britain and Ireland have been inhabited for thousands of years by a single people that have remained in the majority, with only minor additions from later invaders like Celts, Romans, Angles, Saxons, Vikings and Normans. The implication that the Irish, English, Scottish and Welsh [Dave notes: The Cornish always get left out.] have a great deal in common with each other, at least from the geneticist's point of view, seems likely to please no one."

Researcher Stephen Oppenheimer of the University of Oxford claims that the invaders actually had a minimal affect on the genetics of the much larger population already in the British Isles. He says that about three-quarters of the ancestors of today's Brits and Irish actually arrived 15,000 to 7,500 years ago.

But Oppenheimer calculates that Ireland received the least of the invaders' DNA, making up only about 12 percent of the present Irish gene pool. That figure rises to 20 percent in Wales, 30 percent in Scotland, and about 33 percent in Eastern and Southern England. So Ireland is more "purely" Celtic than England, but England is still mostly Celtic!

Might this draw people closer together? Wade writes:

"Geneticists see little prospect that their findings will reduce cultural and political differences. The Celtic cultural myth 'is very entrenched and has a lot to do with the Scottish, Welsh and Irish identity; their main identifying feature is that they are not English,' [Bryan Sykes, another Oxford researcher] said."

Again, no mention of the Cornish! Where does that leave me? Proud to be English? Or proud to NOT be English? I know, I'll be proud to be an American. But that brings me to the central lesson here, which is that we should be careful not to put to much pride or self-worth into our ancestry. You never know what you might find. You might even find that you were adopted, which throws a wrench into the whole thing.

Or, you might find out that you're your own Strom Thurmond. That's what happened to black presidential candidate Barack Obama.

Shortly after it was announced that the Rev. Al Sharpton was descended from slaves once owned by the ancestors of the late segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond, it was reported that Obama's ancestors on his white mother's side had been slave owners.

But in some sort of convoluted sense of racial politics, Obama didn't see this as an indictment of himself, or offer to pay reparations. The Obama campaign seemed to embrace this new information, with a spokesman saying that the senator's ancestors "are representative of America."

Rather than run from this seemingly embarrassing disclosure, Obama attempted to use it to his advantage, embracing it as his own personal connection to the horrific legacy of slavery, which some American blacks say he lacks, since his father is a native African. They essentially have complained that Obama isn't "really black." Which makes sense to me, since he's just as much white as he is black. So why do we call him "black"?

The answer we get to that is either that he "looks" black, or that he "identifies" as black. The former is the old "one drop" rule in a new, politically-correct guise. The latter is meaningless to me. Can my pale skinned children "identify" as black and mark a box to get preference on their college applications?

Yes, we're funny about race. Tiger Woods, of course, is the great "black" golfer, with a Thai mother and a mixed-race father. The math doesn't add up, but Tiger is always called "black." Sort of ironic for a game that prides itself on following the rules to a "T."

Friday, March 16, 2007

Well, You Started It

The American Left like to claim that everything would be fine in the world, if only the Bush Administration didn't make people hate us. Never mind that Al Qaeda was killing Westerners during the Clinton years. And attempted to take down the World Trade Center in 1993.

Leading that chorus would be the Hollywood elite. They say we need diplomacy, and to educate ourselves to be more tolerant and learn to love everybody.

But what are the facts? The facts are that the radical Islamists have said that they hate America because of the moral depravity it exports. What could they mean by that? The filth that comes out of Hollywood and our music industry, maybe? Of course that's what they mean! That represents America to them, and they hate us for it!

Now, an Iranian official has lashed out at the Hollywood movie "300" for insulting the Persian civilization. (Iran is the ancient Persia). An advisor to Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (pronounced: I've-a-new-dinner-jacket) accused the movie of being "part of a comprehensive U.S. psychological war aimed at Iranian culture."

Ain't that a riot? Hollywood doing the work of the Bush Administration?! And remember, this is the Iranian government that denies the Holocaust happened. Yet, the Hollywood types think Bush is the bad guy, and we just need to understand the Iranians better.

Here's all you have to understand: They're evil. They lie. They're idiots if they expect us to believe the things they say. Wait, let me qualify that last statement: They're idiots if they expect anyone except the American left to believe the things they say.

Regarding the movie insulting Persian civilization, I'd just like to point out this inconvenient truth: The battle was fought in Greece. Persian was invading Greece to take it over. That makes them bad guys from the start. How is the movie supposed to make them look good?

You might be interested to know that the story of the 300 Spartans defeating 100,000 Persians at Thermopylae has been embellished. That's really no surprise. Victors write the history, and they write it in the best light, in the way that makes the best story. And as it gets handed down over centuries and millennia, it tends to get turned into an even better story than it really is. (We have similar history-myths about our own Founding Fathers.)

According to this accounting, the 300 Spartans were joined by at least 4,000 allies on the first two days of battle, and at least 1,500 allies were with them in the final battle of annihilation. But when the Spartans wrote the history, built the monument, and told the tales, it was the 300 who got the credit. (Though the battle was lost, the allied Greeks ultimately defeated the Persians )

This reminds me of the way we tell the history of WWII. Most Americans probably think that Hitler was defeated starting June 6, 1944, with the Normandy invasion. Less well-known is that fighting had been going on for two years already, as Allied troops kicked the Nazis out of North Africa and Italy.

But the particularly relevant point is that our American histories of the war have traditionally given little credit to the Russians. The Russians did much of the heavy lifting of the European War, and took more casualties than the Western Allies -- both military and civilian. They were fighting Hitler on the Eastern Front for three years leading up to D-Day. Beginning before America even entered the war!

Why don't we credit the Russians? I think that's pretty simple. We didn't like them even then, when we were on the same side against Hitler, and after the war they became our new enemy -- in a divided Germany and throughout a protracted Cold War. We didn't want to say anything nice about them. (And if you did, you might get blacklisted as a communist sympathizer. Can you imagine someone making a WWII film that gave the Soviets credit during the McCarthy era!)

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Just Spell My Name Right

Media behemoth Viacom has filed a $1 billion lawsuit against YouTube for copyright infringement.

I can't argue with Viacom's right to protect its property and keep its programming off of YouTube, but the real question is, is that what Viacom really wants? Or is any publicity good publicity, as long as they get your name right?

In the early days of radio, music publishers and record companies refused to allow their songs to be played over the air on this newfangled electronic medium. Why will anyone buy our records if they can hear them for free on the radio? they asked. So the broadcasters had to form their own music publishing company (BMI, or Broadcast Music Incorporated) to provide songs to play over the air.

But as the years passed, the record companies realized they had it backwards. The question became, How will we sell our records if no one hears them on the radio first? That led to "payola," which continues to this day.

So when clips of Viacom's programming are posted on YouTube, does that take away from their viewership? Or does it serve as free advertising that attracts new viewers? I don't know the net result, but that's the question.

Years before Napster, I used to borrow records and make a cassette copy of them. Yes, that was illegal. But I don't think it really deprived the record companies of money. I was a poor college student with limited funds. If I was unable to tape those albums, it wasn't as if I was going to go out and buy them all. But what happened was I was exposed to more artists and more styles of music. Later on I purchased albums by some of those artists I had learned to love thanks to the "TDK discount." I've even purchased CDs to replace some of those old tapes. The practice of illegal taping may have actually led to increased sales for the record companies!

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Check Out My Column in the Pioneer Press

I have a guest column on the Pioneer Press opinion page today. It's about development and shopping and "big boxes" and St. Paul's role in the metropolitan area. Check it out. Also, see the post below, it's closely related.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

How Many Big Boxes Should There Be?

"Big box" stores are the current state of retailing. But we have forces in St. Paul that oppose them, with almost a religious, moral conviction. I'm scheduled to have a guest column that touches on this in the Pioneer Press on Tuesday. If you're reading because you saw that, thanks for stopping by.

I noticed something interesting over the weekend that ties in with the whole big box, development issue. Sunday afternoon I was driving through Cambridge, Minnesota, and I had an intriguing thought. Cambridge is a formerly small town about 45 miles north of the Twin Cities, which is fast being assimilated by suburban sprawl. I grew up a bit north of Cambridge, and knew the town well 25-30 years ago. Now, I hardly recognize it.

What hit me was the number of new, big box stores in Cambridge, a town whose population sign reads just over 5,500. It struck me that it might be interesting to compare the number of modern big boxes in Cambridge to the number of similar stores in St. Paul, the capital city of Minnesota with a population of more than a quarter million.

Let's take a shot at it.

Cambridge is about to open a new Office Max store. St. Paul has one, too. That's right, one.

Cambridge has a Menards home improvement store. So does St. Paul. One.

Cambridge has a Cub Foods grocery. So does St. Paul. Just one.

Cambridge has a Wal Mart. So does St. Paul. Just one.

Cambridge has a Target. So does St. Paul. Two, in fact! Take that, you upstarts!

How about giant electronics retailer Best Buy? This Minnesota company actually got its start in St. Paul, with founder Dick Schultze's first stereo store at the corner of St. Clair and Hamline.

Cambridge doesn't have a Best Buy store. But neither does St. Paul.

OK, I know this isn't an apples-to-apples comparison. Those stores in Cambridge serve more than just the 5,500 people within the city limits. Cambridge is a regional shopping hub for people from four counties -- Isanti, Chisago, Pine and Kanabec.

So, here's what I did. I looked up population numbers for those four counties and added them together. I got 132,000. That's still only half of the population in St. Paul. And not all of those people go to Cambridge to shop. Much of the population of Chisago County, the most populous of the four, lives in the south end of the county, where they are more likely to shop at those same stores in Forest Lake, not Cambridge. Likewise, people in southern Isanti County will do much of their shopping to the south.

To the other extreme, there are people in northern Pine County who are actually closer to Duluth than to Cambridge, and would go there to shop. All together, I'd guess Cambridge serves as a shopping hub for no more than 100,000 people. Probably much fewer.

What does this prove? Nothing, maybe, but doesn't it seem rather strange?

Now, this is not to say that St. Paulites don't have anywhere to shop. We are surrounded by a ring of these big boxes -- they're in all the suburbs. Those of us with cars can easily enough drive to Woodbury, or West St. Paul (that's a separate municipality), or Roseville.

But why should we have to? And why shouldn't more of these stores be paying property taxes and wages in St. Paul? If St. Paul residents are spending their money in these stores, wouldn't it be better to spend it within the city?

And we can't overlook that the Minnesota legislature has given St. Paul the right to charge a city sales tax of half of one percent. When a St. Paulite drives to the suburb of Maplewood and drops $1,000 on a new TV, that's five bucks that didn't go into the St. Paul city coffers. Any city with the ability to charge a sales tax should be doing everything that it can to encourage retailing! Can't our leaders see that?

Friday, March 9, 2007

Democrats Wave the White Flag

So, the Democrats are calling for a date to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq. But why wait 9 months or a year? If that's what you want to do, just bring them all home today.

And call it what it is: surrender.

What are they thinking? There are two choices: 1) prosecute the war in Iraq in such a way as too win it; 2) give up.

What does it accomplish to schedule the "giving up" at some point in the future? Is that supposed to be some sort of "compromise"?

Scheduling a retreat is no way to win a war. Did FDR tell Ike, "You can go ahead and invade at Normandy in June, but you have to bring all the troops home by Christmas"?

Saying we'll withdraw by a certain date gives the victory to the bad guys. If I were an insurgent, I know what I'd do in response. After my victory party, I'd lay low. I wouldn't explode any more bombs. I'd let the stupid Americans forget about me. Meanwhile, I'd stockpile arms and strengthen my alliances with fellow thugs.

But the day the Americans left, I'd be back in business, trying to become the new Saddam. Remember when the U.S. withdrew from Vietnam? How'd that work out for the South Vietnamese?

Here's one you've got to read. Back in 2002, Al Gore opined that President Bush shouldn't invade Iraq, because Gore thought that Bush wouldn't have the conviction to stay in the country after Saddam was toppled. From the New York Sun:

"If we go in there and dismantle them -- and they deserve to be dismantled -- but then we wash our hands of it and walk away and leave it in a situation of chaos, and say, 'That's for y'all to decide how to put things back together now,' that hurts us," Mr. Gore said [in 2002]. This, incidentally, is the inverse of how Senator Obama advertises today on the stump his early Iraq war opposition. Mr. Obama says today, "I believed that giving this President the open-ended authority to invade Iraq would lead to the open-ended occupation we find ourselves in today."

Talk about irony.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Democrats: Swearing at the Pigs Is So '90s

It's still 18 months until the Republican National Convention will be held here in St. Paul, but the local Democrats (DFL) are cranking up the protest machinery. They've got big plans: Jumbotron screens, rock concerts, going to the library.(?)

How do they even know they will have something to protest 18 months from now? Could it be they intend to simply protest the existence of Republicans? I think that pretty much sums it up. They remind me of some bigots protesting an NAACP convention. "We don't want those people in our town!"

I vote Republican, but if the Democrats had selected St. Paul for their convention, I'd consider that a good thing. And I wouldn't be planning a protest or some sort of strategy to disrupt the convention. I'd want St. Paul to show the country that it was a great city, not full of crackpots.

Why do the Democrats even need to protest at the Republican National Convention? It's as though they're looking for their "equal time." Doesn't that come during the Democratic National Convention? Do you suppose Denver Republicans are planning nutty protests to coincide with that? (I found something about protests in Denver, but it sounds like it's disgruntled Democrats, not Republicans, who are planning protests!)

The local Dems say they're going to be creative:

"We just think shouting obscenities at the police in the street is so 20th century," said Martha Ballou, a St. Paul attorney quoted in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. That's right, you gotta keep finding new ways to stick it to the man. Power to the people! But why would you cuss at the police to protest the Republicans, anyway?

Another concern: The local homeless might have trouble getting access to their home.

Oh, what a strange world we live in.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

What Really Counts?

I sometimes wonder if this country is capable of really fighting a war. First of all, a lot of people (including the media) seem to think that we should be able to fight a war without any Americans getting hurt. If any soldiers die, then it's because someone (President Bush) made "mistakes." If properly planned, they figure, no one would get hurt in a war.

Secondly, the media are obsessed with counting deaths, and consequently, that becomes the focus for the general public, as well. Every day it's, "Two more soldiers were killed today." Or, "That's X deaths this month, the most since (fill in the blank) month."

What about what the soldiers were doing when they were killed? Do we hear that? No, it's all just about a body count.

Let's look at history. Is the main story of Thermopylae that the Persian army was stopped by brave Spartan soldiers, and Greece was saved? Or is it that 300 Spartans died to achieve that victory? Is the story from Gettysburg that the First Minnesota repulsed Pickett's Charge and the battle was won? Or is it that the regiment was almost wiped out in the process of saving the Union? Is the story of the D-Day invasion that the Allies successfully began the liberation of Europe from Nazi rule? Or is it that thousands -- yes, thousands -- of brave men died to make it possible?

In all those cases, history celebrates the victory, rather than obsesses on the body count. Yes, we recognize the sacrifices that achieved the victory, but the victory is the thing.

Why is it so different now? Is it because the media don't want good news, they only want body counts? Maybe. Or maybe not. Maybe it's that they don't really know what else to report.

In the initial days of the invasion of Iraq, the media were able to report on real progress -- territory being captured. People being liberated. But since then, what? That's the problem. What constitutes a successful day in the war in Iraq? It's pretty much "no news is good news." If nothing happens, we consider that a good day.

Maybe the media could report on some "good news" if they wanted to. You'd think they'd be getting fed story ideas, unless there really is nothing good to report. I don't know what to think.

I've wondered how the media of today would report WWII. How about D-Day? Instead of "Liberation of Europe has begun" would we get, "Thousands die in poorly-planned invasion. Congress demands General Eisenhower appear at hearing to answer questions"?

It might be even worse than that: "Oil slicks visible for miles." "Rare beach creatures threatened by poorly-planned invasion scheme." "Invasion comes at peak of breeding season for wildlife." "Shellfish and seabird populations will take thousands of years to recover, say experts."

Yeah, that's about what we could expect.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor, Anyone Who Can Mark an "X" on a Ballot

There was an intriguing story on the front page of the Pioneer Press today. Intriguing because there was no reporter's byline attached to it, which I understand can indicate that the reporter didn't approve of the way it was edited, but also intriguing for the questions it raises.

The story reports on the idea that non-citizens should be allowed to vote in local elections, which has been suggested by the left-wing group Take Action Minnesota. The group's executive director Dan McGrath said they wish to "start a conversation" about the issue.

Now hold your horses. I can hear those knees jerking out there (Some of you aren't as young as you used to be. Have you had a doctor look at that joint?). There's nothing wrong with a conversation. That's how we determine whether an idea is good, or expose it as bad.

As I understand it, non-citizens would still have to have legal immigration papers in order to vote. McGrath is quoted in the paper saying, "There's no reason that legal, taxpaying citizens shouldn't have a say in how those taxes are spent."

Now, wait a minute, doesn't he mean legal, taxpaying NON-citizens? Let's assume that he misspoke or the reporter made an error. Obviously, citizens do vote, so that quote doesn't make any sense.

(But this may also be indicative of the casual way we throw the word "citizens" around, often using it to mean simply "residents" or the masses. That's one of my pet peeves, that we don't attach enough importance to that specific word. I've often heard members of the general public, in attendance at public meetings, say to public officials, "I'm just a citizen, but I think..." Just a citizen? That's not a "just." That's a big deal. Those public officials work for the citizens. But maybe I'm digressing.)

OK, let's get back to the idea that people who are here legally and paying taxes should be able to vote. I can appreciate that sentiment. "No taxation without representation!" That's part of the our heritage, the founding of America, Boston Tea Party and all that.

Yet, if TAM wants to link voting to the paying of taxes, they're in danger of having it come around and slap them in the back of the head. If you can argue that paying taxes is a SUFFICIENT qualification to vote, then you can just as easily logically argue that paying taxes is a NECESSARY REQUIREMENT to vote. We've already been down that road in this nation, and decided that's not the American way. You don't have to pay to vote.

So under TAM's proposal, would only taxpaying legal immigrants be allowed to vote? That would be un-American. And if that was the case, then should we also disenfranchise any American citizens who don't pay taxes? I understand that some people actually pay negative taxes -- thanks to tax credits, they file and the government gives THEM money! (And I don't mean a refund of overpayment, I mean gives them money they never had in the first place.) In return for paying "negative taxes," should those people give up the franchise?

I can appreciate the sentiment that it would be good to get immigrants involved in local affairs, for instance, the school board elections. I can really appreciate that being in St. Paul. A huge percentage of the kids in the public schools may have parents who are not citizens. We have the Hispanic immigration evident everywhere else, yes, but the largest group here is the Hmong. They have chosen St. Paul as a favorite spot to put down new roots in America. (For those not familiar, the Hmong, who farmed and lived in the hills of Laos, were America's secret allies in the Vietnam War. Staunch anti-communists, they rescued U.S. pilots and conducted other military operations in support of the U.S. When the war ended, they had to flee their homeland, or be killed.)

Still, I worry that this is another instance of the slippery slope. Once legal immigrants can vote, do you doubt that the next push will be to extend the vote to illegal aliens? Already, we hear reports of groups of suspect "citizens" being bused to the polls, courtesy of left-wing groups, who "vouch" for them. I'm suspicious that the real motivation here is that groups like TAM think this would be a way to gain more votes for their own favored candidates; they aren't really concerned about the immigrants, they just want to use them for their votes.

Yes, that's cynical. But can you tell me that I'm wrong?

I also think the advocates of non-citizen voting are being disingenuous when they claim that that is the historical "norm" in this country. Just because you can find exceptions throughout history where non-citizens have been allowed to vote in some kind of election does not make it the norm.

Being a citizen carries rights and responsibilities. The right to vote should be an incentive for becoming a citizen. If we give non-citizens the vote, soon we'll be giving them more of the rights of citizenship, until citizenship becomes irrelevant. (Just as we've done with the issue of legal vs. illegal entry into the country. We're already paying for medical care and college educations for people who aren't even allowed to be here!)

Just as with borders, if we don't clearly define and defend citizenship it will become meaningless.

If they want to vote, people should be encouraged to become citizens. They should pledge their loyalty to this country. If they maintain citizenship in another country, why should they vote here? That could lead to foreign agents infiltrating the country and trying to influence our elections. Am I paranoid? I don't think so. Remember, the President must be a natural born citizen. That's to guard against a foreign "plant." For years we've maybe thought that was silly, but given recent events in this country and the world, I find it entirely plausible that Al Qaida could send us an operative who -- after many years -- would be embraced by the American left and swept into the Oval office. Remember, the terrorists are very patient. (Trouble is, Al Qaida has also found it possible to recruit from the ranks of American citizens.)

I am a citizen, and I vote "NO" on this issue.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Al Qaida Causes Global Warming

I was wondering one day just how it is that "global warming" has achieved such popularity in the past year, while so many of the climate change faithful seem so willing to stick their heads in the sand about global Islamic terrorism. If you're going to be concerned about what might be a problem decades from now, isn't the clear and present danger of al Qaida also worth worrying about?

Then I realized there is a link. Al Qaida causes global warming.

OK, al Qaida isn't changing the temperature, but al Qaida has a role in spurring global hysteria about global warming. Here's why I say that.

People are unhappy with the way the war is going in Iraq. It hasn't worked out the way we hoped it would. But people don't know what to do about Islamic terrorism. Many go into denial, because they feel powerless to deal with the clear and present danger of terrorism. So they put their heads in the sane, and blame President Bush, obsessing on how he is the villain, not the terrorists.

Then, they engage in some transference. They want to do SOMETHING. They want to feel that they have some sort of control.

So they seize upon the issue of "global warming." It makes them feel good to "do something" by changing their light bulbs and pointing fingers at President Bush and big businesses like oil companies.

But it's really more like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, or boiling water because the baby is on the baby. It's useless, even if it makes people feel better.

Is it mere coincidence that the first great wave of environmentalism occurred during the Vietnam War era? Or were people then also looking for an outlet for their frustration at feeling powerless? To be fair, in making that analogy I'd have to say that in retrospect, the Viet Cong don't seem like the threat to the U.S. that Islamic terrorists are now.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

How About a Vaccine Against Smoking?

Minnesota legislators have been withdrawing their support for a bill to required that girls be immunized against a sexually-transmitted virus that causes cervical cancer.

I don't know whether it's a good idea or not. One thing that troubles me is that the bill doesn't seem to be the result of some groundswell of support, but rather the result of lobbying by Merck, maker of the vaccine. Still, that doesn't mean it isn't a good idea.

But the decision has to be made on a scientific, medical basis. Some opponents have said giving girls this immunization is like giving them permission to have sex. I don't think that's at all realistic. If you think that's true, then you must think that there are girls out there who are abstaining from sex ONLY because they don't want to contract HPV, because that might lead to cervical cancer.

Yeah, right.

But I understand their point. Look at it this way: If it were announced tomorrow that a vaccine exists to protect smokers against diseases caused by smoking, would everyone support that? I think you'd have a lot of people saying, "They shouldn't be smoking anyway. They'll think this gives them permission to smoke."

In that case, that might be a more realistic concern. Still, I'm not sure how many young people decide not to smoke just because they want to avoid cancer decades later. Young people aren't into that sort of long-term thinking. They think they'll live forever.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Librarians Give Book the Sack

I didn't know if I should write about this one. You'll have to go to the New York Times website for it, and they require registration (but not money). But I finally decided that this issue provokes so many thoughts about sexual politics, double standards, and political correctness, that I couldn't let it slide by.

Here are the first three paragraphs from the New York Times story by Julie Bosman:

The word "scrotum" does not often appear in polite conversation. Or children's literature, for that matter.

Yet there it is on the first page of "The Higher Power of Lucky," by Susan Patron, this year's winner of the Newbery Medal, the most prestigious award in children's literature. The book's heroine, a scrappy 10-year-old orphan named Lucky Trimble, hears the word through a hole in a wall when another character says he saw a rattlesnake bite his dog, Roy, on the scrotum.

"Scrotum sounded to Lucky like something green that comes up when you have the flu and cough too much," the book continues. "It sounded medical and secret, but also important."

The story goes on to explain that many librarians are refusing to place the book on their shelves, saying that male genitalia has no place in a book intended for pre-teens. Others say that's censorship.

What do I think? On the one hand, we're talking about a medically-correct term for a part of the anatomy. And it's not even a human's anatomy, at that. Would the critics prefer that the author had used some school yard slang term instead?

On the other hand, tossing out the word in question on the first page does seem designed to shock. Yet, without reading the book, I can't judge whether the ends justifies the means. Maybe that shock is used to set up a great story.

Still, I have to wonder, how many of the worked-up librarians would rush to stock a children's book version of the much hyped "Vagina Monologues"? That play was supposed to help us get over our unwarranted discomfort with hearing that perfectly fine anatomical term.

Could there be a double standard at work in the female dominated fields of children's book publishing and library science?

Here's what sent me over the edge. Check out this quote from author Susan Patron:

"The word is just so delicious," Ms. Patron said. "The sound of the word to Lucky is so evocative. It's one of those words that's so interesting because of the sound of the word."

Oh, boy. Imagine that was a quote from a male author of a children's book. And the word in question was "vagina" (or "scrotum," for that matter). Not only would that book never be published, but I think there'd be a search warrant issued for the "pervert's" computer.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Bill Gates, Oprah, and Wal-Mart

Much-vilified Wal-Mart has announced plans to open nine more stores in urban areas suffering from high-unemployment. It also plans to open 50 stores over the next two years on vacant land, contaminated sites, or rundown malls. The giant retailer plans to support local businesses by providing free advertising inside Wal-Mart stores, and giving money to local chambers of commerce.

I read that in a little blurb buried in the business section. If Wal-Mart were Oprah, it would be on the front page, with everyone singing her praises.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Just Say "No" to Children

Or, tell your children "no." That's what I mean.

What have the Birthdays Without Pressure people been up to? They must be doing a good job of stamping out BIG BIRTHDAY PARTIES, because leader Todd Seabury-Kolod has found a new dragon to slay. Check out his letter-to-the-editor that appears in the Highland Villager that hit my porch this afternoon:

To the editor:

The St. Paul Public Schools have made strides in offering nutritious meals and limiting student access to junk food like candy and pop. The St. Paul Division of Parks and Recreation is trying to figure out its place on this issue. For example, Groveland Recreation Center currently has just one gumball machine. The malfunctioning M&M and Skittles machines were recently taken away after a long residence there.

Villager readers should call St. Paul Parks and Recreation director Bob Bierscheid at [phone number] and tell him the gumball machine has got to go, too. (Families can still get their candy at Widmer's, Pro Pharmacy or Regina's.) This will lead to a healthier environment at Groveland and at other recreation centers if the policy goes citywide. It will also curtail the endless begging of beleaguered parents by children seeking quarters.

Todd Seabury-Kolod

I think there's an obvious link here to Seabury-Kolod's Birthdays group. Whether it be gumballs or birthday parties, he represents a class of people who are unable to say "no" to their own children. They feel helpless to exercise their parental authority and just say "no." Once again, they want someone -- the government -- to protect them from themselves.

Monday, February 19, 2007

'60 Minutes' Shows the Success in Iraq

I hope this is generating some buzz. Last night, the CBS news program "60 Minutes" had a report on -- make that from -- Iraq, telling how the economy is booming, new schools and shopping malls are being built, the airport has been reopened to international commercial flights, and Americans are being celebrated as liberators.

How can this be?

The report was from the Kurdistan region of Iraq.

(You can read the transcript on the show's website. If you didn't see the show, you MUST read this.)

Judging by Kurdistan, how can anyone say it was a "mistake" to depose Saddam? Could you look into the eyes of those Kurds and tell them, "It wasn't worth it. We should have left Saddam in power, and we don't care how many thousands more of you he might kill with poison gas. Women, children, old people. We don't care. Just go ahead and die."

Did you read that Ed Lotterman column I told you about last Thursday? Lotterman, who is an economist, talked about the human tendency to throw good money after bad, rather than cutting our losses and moving on. He related that to issues such as the war in Iraq.

It's true, the discussion over what to do about Iraq is hampered by the past -- by the "investments" people already have in it. President Bush continues to seek an unqualified victory, to justify the decisions he has made so far. But his opponents are also heavily invested, in the quest for political gain and in their contention that Bush is wrong, so much so that they seem to have lost sight of Iraq itself, and their attention appears totally on a domestic political battle. They seem almost as stubbornly obsessed with failure in Iraq as the president is stubbornly obsessed with being able to claim some sort of "victory."

Here's what I think about Iraq: We need to drop all of the political baggage. Forget what's been done in the past. Forget about the "mistakes." (You don't think mistakes were made in "the last good war"? Thousands upon thousands of soldiers and civilians were killed by stupid mistakes in WWII.)

We need to start by agreeing on some things.

We need to all agree that we are not happy with the present situation in Iraq -- without using that as an opportunity to play politics. And no "I told you so's" because...

We need to admit that four years ago, we were pretty much in agreement that invading Iraq was the thing to do. The UN thought Saddam had WMD. Bill Clinton thought Saddam had WMD. Saddam acted as though he had WMD. It's important to remember, George W. Bush did not invent the Iraq problem out of thin air. It was a problem we were distracted by for a dozen years. We had even invaded Iraq once before, but didn't finish the job. There were sanctions, no-fly zones, it was already something we were involved with.

So invading Iraq seemed like a reasonable option four years ago. But there are no time machines in politics. You don't get to say, "Sure, I voted for it. But if I had known then what I know now..."

You didn't know then. President Bush didn't know then.

(What did I think? I knew it was risky. I hoped the people who are supposed to know these things knew what they were doing. I figured they knew more about it than I did. Maybe they didn't.)

Here's the big thing that gets overlooked: We don't know what Iraq and the Middle East would be like today if we hadn't deposed Saddam. We don't know that we would prefer it to the present situation. There are no "retries." There's no way to know. If we hadn't invaded, we might be arguing now that we SHOULD HAVE!

And, remember, we don't know what will happen if we do leave Iraq.

Life is full of uncertainties. And unless you live in a science fiction movie, there's no way to test out the options not taken.

So, we need to agree that while the invasion of Iraq hasn't worked out the way we would have liked, we thought it was a good idea at the time. And just because something doesn't work out, that doesn't mean that it wasn't worth trying -- or that it was wrong to try. In fact, the example of Kurdistan shows that it wasn't a bad idea. In Kurdistan, things have turned out the way the U.S. envisioned. The U.S. idea was right, it just didn't work in in all of Iraq. Not because the U.S. "broke" Iraq, but because Iraq was already "broken." That's why they are killing each other in many regions in Iraq.

But we have to let go of the politicized past in order to move forward. So why can't we agree that:

1. Invading Iraq was a reasonable decision, given a choice with no easy options.

2. Liberating Iraq was worth trying, for the benefit of the United States and the Iraqi people.

3. It did not work out the way we wanted it to.

4. It doesn't matter who would have voted differently if they had a time machine. It doesn't help to try to affix blame.

5. Now we must decide what's the best step to take next -- best for Iraq and best for the U.S. -- based only on the present situation in Iraq, not on politics in Washington D.C.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Kim Jong Il: "Who's Your Daddy?"

News Best Taken With a Grain of Salt

After warming up by extorting $400 million from the United States by agreeing to end his nation's nuclear weapons program, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il now has his eyes on some real money.

Downing News Network has learned that the despot's U.S. lawyers are preparing the necessary paperwork to submit a claim of paternity for Anna Nicole Smith's baby. If successful, fathering-babies-by-rich-widows would overnight become the single biggest contributor to North Korea's gross national product.

Cynics might well note that the diminutive North Korean and the statuesque Texas beauty never came within a thousand miles of one another, but to North Korea's faithful, it makes no difference. After all, any man who can get around the golf course in 18 strokes -- as the god-like Communist leader claims to have done -- can do pretty much anything.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Cold Is Hot, Cooling Is Warming, Let's Call the Whole Thing Off

A Minnesota electric utility has paid compensation to the Minnesota DNR after a power plant killed 3,258 fish in the Mississippi River. (Report at the bottom of this news roundup.) Can you guess how the nuclear power plant killed those fish? I'll tell you... in a bit.

If you had given me a blue book and told me to write an exam based on what I knew about power plant discharges of heated cooling water, fish, and the environment, I would have written down what I've always heard: That evil power plants destroy the ecosystem by releasing warm water into rivers, and upsetting the delicate balance of nature.

So, how did the power plant kill those fish? By warming up the water too much? By leaking nuclear radiation?

No, not even close.

Excel Energy's Monticello nuclear power plant killed those fish by... shutting down for two weeks.

Yes, as explained in the newspaper, stopping the discharge of heated cooling water resulted in fish near the plant dying of cold shock.

If shutting down a nuclear power plant is bad for the environment, then we can only conclude that we should build more nuclear power plants, and keep them running. Split an atom, save a fish.

Next thing you know, they'll be saying we're not doomed by a coming ice age, after all.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Is Climate Change "Progressive"?

Today I spied a car sporting a bumper sticker reading "A Good Planet Is Hard to Find." I took that as a indication that the car's owner fancied him- or herself an enlightened environmentalist.

But then I noticed a second bumper sticker, reading "Nothing Is Constant Except Change."

Does that mean the owner of the car views "climate change" as a normal, inevitable occurrence? I wish he or she had been around so I could have asked.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

No Place for Home (Depot)

There's a new proposal for Home Depot to build a store on a long-vacant parcel of land in St. Paul's Midway area. The company isn't asking for city hand-outs. They've unveiled an unprecedented "urban" design, with parking on the roof of the store and a glass-enclosed garden center. They aren't asking for any zoning changes. And they're promising to hire local people at good wages.

What's not to like?

Plenty, if you're one of the activists who hates cars and "big boxes."

Brian McMahon, who drives in from Stillwater to serve in his job as head of the University United activist group, said, "This is a major transit stop, and Home Depot is clearly not supportive of light rail."

That's right. It doesn't mesh with the beloved train -- the billion-dollar transit line being railroaded down University Avenue.

Activists say that any development on or near University Avenue (the Home Depot store would be at least a couple of blocks from the train) must be "transit-oriented." It must encourage train ridership.

Well, I've got a question: Who, exactly, do they see riding this train?

I think they picture a bunch of people buying sustainably-grown flowers and lazily stopping for cups of organic, fair-trade herbal tea. Serious business doesn't fit into their "vision."

But what about about people WORKING at Home Depot? Can't they ride the train to and from work? How about people SHOPPING at Home Depot. Can't they ride the train? I've heard St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman say "You can't carry a sheet of plywood on the train." Well, I've got news for him. Most of the time when I go to a home-improvement store, I walk out with one or two plastic bags I'm carrying. Just spend some time in the parking lot of a Home Depot store and you'll see that most people are NOT buying bulky items like lumber.

When I ask supporters who it is they expect to ride the train, they say "a variety of people." Why not Home Depot people? The darn train is already handicapped by a compromise. It's projected to take longer downtown-to-downtown than the existing express bus service, because it will have stops along the way. So why take the train instead of the express bus? But so that it doesn't get slowed down too much, it will stop only every mile. So unless riders want to hoof it, many will be better off taking the existing bus service, which stops every block.

So who's going to ride the train? The train is a solution in search of a problem, and supporters are determined to create a problem, if need be. All to justify the train.

It's the tail wagging the dog, pure and simple.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Good Money After Bad

Here's another interesting column from economist Ed Lotterman. Give it a read, and I'll try to follow up with some of my own thinking on Iraq.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Go Straight to Step #3, and Skip #2

The FDA has approved a new over-the-counter diet pill. Here's a summary of how it works:

1. Take the pill. It makes the body absorb less fat from food.

2. The unabsorbed fat is passed through the body, which can result in some undesired, toilet-related side effects.

3. To avoid those unpleasant side effects, users should eat a low-fat diet.

Huh? How about saving your money, and just eating the low-fat diet? Forget the pill.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Actions Speak More Loudly Than Words

I saw the final couple of hours of the Grammy awards program on TV last night. You know what really sticks in my craw when I happen to see the show (it's been going on for a long time)? They always trot out some industry exec to give us a speech about how we should all contact our elected representatives, and demand that they appropriate more of our tax money for arts education, so that the music industry can continue to have new artists. You know what they never do? They never pass the hat, so that all those millionaires sitting there showing off their bling can put their money where their oversized mouths are and chip in themselves. Nope, instead they feel all superior about demanding that the government give away more of my money.

That pretty much describes the politics of the crowd at a show like this. Which also goes a long way toward explaining the Dixie Chicks. They won several Grammys, and they were intent on making a political statement out of it. They seemed to think this proved them right for embarrassing the United States by dissing their country and their president on foreign soil.

That's the behavior that has lost them fans and airplay in the country music world. But this wasn't the typical country "red state" crowd giving out awards or in the audience. It was the overwhelmingly liberal Hollywood-type music establishment being represented by the Grammys. I wonder how many of those voters had no clue who the Dixie Chicks were, or who they sounded like, but voted for them merely because they had dissed the president? That's right, I'm suggesting that they won those Grammys not for their music, but for their politics.

I say, you don't go to another country and speak badly about your own country. You just don't do that. It's like airing the family's dirty laundry in public. You might sit around the table with your own family and try to figure out what to do about your good-for-nothing brother, but you don't sit around your in-laws' table and bad-mouth him. That's just not what you do.

Some people have been talking about the Dixie Chicks' "right to free speech." Have you seen them getting arrested for what they said? I haven't, either. They have the right to say what they want. But as public figures and entertainers, they have to be prepared to suffer the consequences. I'm sure many of the same people so sympathetic toward the Dixie Chicks would be first in line to boycott Mel Gibson or Michael Richards over what they said. Don't they have a right to free speech? I can easily see Charlton Hesston being denied an award because of his politics.

A lot of "open-minded" and "tolerant" people are anything but. If you aren't just like them, then you're wrong.

Can't remember who it was, but I recently heard some high profile entertainer saying he couldn't vote for a president who says "nuk-yoo-lar." If someone speaks differently from me, he must be stupid, right? So what if I said I could never vote for a president who said "I want to axe you a question"?

What's the difference? People learn to speak based on what they hear in their environment. If we can judge one person based on that, then why not everyone?

Thursday, February 8, 2007

U Liberals Have Designs on our Youths

I think many of you would agree that American universities are generally liberal environments. Maybe it's natural and inevitable that most professors will be liberals, just as bankers tend to be conservatives. Maybe it's even best that way. But bankers tend to stick to banking, and don't try to portray themselves as experts in the arts or social work. Liberal professors often lack such self-restraint, seeing themselves as all-knowing saviors of the great unwashed.

I'd like to share a little something with you. I have before me the winter 2007 edition of "M," a publication of the University of Minnesota. The cover story is about how the U has created a new College of Design, formed from the College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, and the Department of Design, Housing and Apparel. Disciplines will include architecture, clothing design, graphic design, housing studies, interior design, landscape architecture, and retail merchandising.

So, some kid enrolls at the U, just wanting to learn to design web pages, or blouses, or houses, or gardens, and what does he or she get? Here's an excerpt from the story, written by Tom Fisher, dean of the newly-formed College of Design (emphasis is mine):

Socially responsible design

Though design is generally thought of as a way to make things look good and work better, more and more it is being recognized as a way to improve lives and make the world a healthier place. The College of Design educates students to be leaders in the field of social change via design and to be visionaries for a better future.

And there are plenty of places to apply such leadership. With homelessness and slums growing at exponential rates around the globe, the need for better shelter and infrastructure has become a pressing equity issue. With greenhouse gases and solid waste rising due to increased consumer consumption, we need to design our world more efficiently. And with development taxing finite fossil fuel resources and degrading limited fresh water supplies, more sustainable ways of living and working have become essential to our future.

These opportunities and challenges guide the work of the new college. It already has some of the only programs of their kind in the state and some of the best among public research universities in the country. Preparing students to enter the "design economy" and to address the need for a more sustainable and equitable designed environment will focus its attention in the coming years. It will work to connect design disciplines to each other and to other fields not normally thought of as design related.

Wow, that's quite a load of ideology. Is this the College of Design? Or the College of Utopian Socialism? Is it any wonder conservatives complain about the "liberal bias" inherent in our public universities?

Tuesday, February 6, 2007


News Best Taken With a Grain of Salt

Power Like Ruth: What's Next for Super Bowl Ads?

It was the day after the Super Bowl, and what were people talking about as they gathered around the water cooler?

The ads, of course.

Perhaps the most memorable Super Bowl ad featured two men sharing a "Lady and the Tramp"-like kiss over a Snickers bar, before tearing out their chest hair in an act of redemption. Ewww! But it was memorable. (Although some thought it sent a mixed message: They kiss, then they take an interest in their body hair, and start to remove it? What's that really all about?)

But adhering to the old maxim that any publicity is good publicity, as long as they spell your name right, the Snickers ad was judged a success. And proving that in advertising, at least, imitation really is the most sincere form of flattery, other companies are following suit.

Downing News Network has learned that the makers of the Baby Ruth candy bar have begun preparation for a new "Behold the Power of Ruth" ad campaign. The kick-off will come with an ad showing that even on the hottest of days, just one Baby Ruth candy bar has the power to clear a public pool of swimmers. If terms can be reached, Bill Murray will appear.

Meanwhile, in a related story that shows just how quickly rumors can get out of hand in the Information Age, a representative of a Minnesota dairy products company dismissed as "utter Internet hogwash" reports that his company would use digital magic to allow the late Marlon Brando to appear in an ad with the company's beloved advertising icon, showing her new uses for butter.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Greedy NFL Wants It Both Ways

I don't like it when people want to have it both ways. Ever play a game with a small child, and the child has made up the game, and the rules keep changing as you go, every time in the favor of that child? Isn't that irritating? You try to be patient and play along, letting the kid have a good time, but what you really want to do is yell, "Either play fair or I don't want to play anymore!"

That's kind of like pro sports leagues. They want to have it both ways. One day, it's "We're part of the community. We're your team. Therefore, you have an obligation to support us and build us a new stadium." The next day, they're screwing everyone over and saying, "You have to remember, this is a business."

That's what the NFL is doing now. They've been telling churches -- churches! -- that they mustn't hold Super Bowl parties. The NFL doesn't want anyone using the term "Super Bowl," or charging admission, or showing the game on too large of a screen without paying a hefty fee.

So much for being part of the "community." You can't get a much better sign that you've achieved community integration than when churches start planning Sunday activities around you. But rather than seeing this as a sign of their success, all the greedy NFL can think is, "Hey! Why aren't they paying us!"

We also see this desire to have it both ways in advertising this time of year. You might hear a grocery chain advertising on the radio that we should stop in to pick up snacks for "the big game," because they NFL doesn't allow them to use "Super Bowl" unless they've forked over a big pile of cash.

So the NFL wants to claim that "Super Bowl" is their exclusive property, but at the same time, they want all the publicity they can get. They want the day of "the big game" to get hyped up to the point that it's practically a national holiday, but at the same time, they want to claim it as their own.

I say, you can't have it both ways. If you want the entire country to join in the observance of YOUR Super Bowl -- which makes you even richer -- then you should share a little. But if it's really all your and your alone, then keep it to yourself, and don't expect us to care.

If I owned a radio station or newspaper, and my advertisers weren't allowed to say "Super Bowl" in their ads, I'd tell the NFL, "If you want any news coverage of this upcoming game of yours, you're going to have to pay for it. Take out an ad like everyone else. Don't expect us to treat a proprietary, trademarked product like a news event. You can't have it both ways."

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Government: Our Great Provider

I saw Minnesota's junior Senator Amy Klobuchar on TV. She said now that Congress has passed an increase in the minimum wage, "For the first time in 10 years, American workers will get a raise." (I think that's a pretty precise quote.)

That's very revealing of her mindset. She must be one of those people who think that people are helpless, and must rely on the government for everything. Does she really think that the same people have been earning minimum wage for the past 10 years? I'd like to think that the people who were earning minimum wage 10 years ago have since increased their earnings, by finding better jobs, or earning raises.

I once worked for minimum wage. (Well, twice actually.) The first time, it didn't last long. I soon earned an increase from $3.35 to a whopping $3.40 an hour! That was a summer job, and I earned more each summer that I did it. Of course, I had my eye set on something better the whole time. I didn't expect to do that job for the rest of my life, hoping that Congress would mandate my next raise.

Mind you, I'm not arguing against raising the minimum wage. I've said before that the real question is whether or not we should have a minimum wage at all. But since we've decided that we will have one, it's only logical that it will increase over time, just to keep pace with inflation. So why don't we set it up to gradually increase every year or two? That would make more sense than waiting 10 years, then hitting employers with a decade's worth of increase all at once.

Friday, February 2, 2007


News Best Taken with a Grain of Salt

Harry Potter and the Mid-Life Crisis

It was announced yesterday that the final installment in the "Harry Potter" series will be released this summer. The Downing News Network has learned that author J.K. Rowling had several more books in the queue, but the publisher decided to end the series while the boy wizard was still a boy.

Rejected titles included:

-- "Harry Potter and the Receding Hairline"

-- "Harry Potter and the Red Convertible"

-- "Harry Potter and the Little Blue Pill"

-- "Harry Potter and the Denny's Senior Discount"

-- "Harry Potter and the... He Can't Remember Anymore"

Friday, February 2, 2007

You Can't Teach an Old Dog He's Too Old to Learn

Ever notice that for every wise saying, there seems to be another wise saying that contradicts it? (With the exception of the ones that are indisputably true.) You know, there's Absence makes the heart grow fonder, but Out of sight, out of mind. There's You can't teach an old dog new tricks, but You're never too old to learn.

Similarly, history offers us lessons to help us predict the future. But what happens when the lessons conflict? In Iraq, the lessons of failed foreign military adventures -- not just Vietnam, but going back through the ages -- tell us that we should have known better.

But what of the other lessons? The lesson of WWII is that you can't just ignore evil and hope it goes away.

Which lesson should we learn from? That appeasement doesn't work? Or that invading and pacifying a strange land is not easy?

I've been watching an interesting program on PBS. I first saw the series a few years ago, and it's being repeated now, at least on my local affiliate. It's called "Battlefield Britain." The hosts recount and reenact famous battles from British history, starting with a failed rebellion against the Romans 2,000 years ago, on through the Battle of Hastings, the defeat of the Spanish armada, and the Battle of Britain, plus some battles lesser-known to those of us in the U.S.

Watching battle after battle, a pattern has developed, and it applies as surely today as it ever has. When it comes to war, you can count on two things:

1. Things will not go as planned.

2. Decision makers will receive bad information.

These are two big criticisms of the war in Iraq: That the Bush administration made decisions based on bad information, and that the war has not gone as planned. Well, duh. It has always been thus.

In this week's episode, for instance, the 1745 Jacobite rebellion was featured. This was an attempt by Catholic Scottish Highlanders -- led by Bonny Prince Charlie -- to return a Catholic to the British throne. The Jacobites succeeded in taking control of Scotland, then headed south, marching on London. They encountered little opposition. But just when they were poised to take London, one of their trusted leaders reported that 9,000 English troops blocked the road ahead.

The Jacobites turned around and went back to Scotland.

But the 9,000 troops did not exist! The trusted leader was actually an English spy! Worse yet, the Catholic French were poised to launch an invasion in the south of England, in support of the Jacobites. The Jacobites would almost certainly have succeeded in taking the crown!

Instead, after returning to Scotland, many abandoned the cause. Others were hunted down by English troops, and thousands were slaughtered in one final battle.

(When we tsk-tsk about Sunnis and Shiites, it would do us well to remember that not so long ago, protestant Christians and Catholic Christians were slaughtering each other in Europe.)

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Humans: A Curious Species

Modern humans are fascinated by Stonehenge, the stone circle that researchers say is 4,600 years old. It represents a mystery to us. We wonder who built it, and for what purpose. We won't stop studying it until we're convinced we've solved the puzzle.

This week, it was announced that a village of the same age has been excavated nearby. Scientists think the village was inhabited by the people who built and used Stonehenge.

Do you think the people who built Stonehenge thought to themselves, "This will give people something to talk about 4,600 years from now!" No, I don't think they did, either. But it makes me wonder, what of ours might be a mystery to others in the future? We don't build much that is durable enough to last 4,600 years. How about Mount Rushmore? The Great Pyramids might still be around 4,600 years from now. Aren't they about 5,000 years old already?

If scientists had a sense of humor, here's what they would do. They'd build a stone structure apparently designed to serve as a calendar, or to mark the movement of the planets. But not make it accurately! Then, let it get overgrown in the jungle. Thousands of years from now, future scientists could try to solve the puzzle. Was the year shorter? Were there more planets back then? That would give them something to think about.

Sometimes I wonder about the unexplained things that modern archaeologists dig up. What if some of them are just pranks from the past?

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Candidates Are Only Skin Deep

Word is that Al Franken has decided he will run in 2008 to represent Minnesota in the U.S. Senate. Might as well. This is the age of the celebrity candidate. And the victim candidate. An alarming number of major party candidates seem to be chosen not for their ideas, but for what they are known for outside of the political realm.

In the "victim candidate" group I'd put Patty Wetterling, who lost a Congressional race in Minnesota. Her qualification is that her son was kidnapped two decades ago and has not been seen since. Then we had successful U.S. Senate candidate Amy Klobuchar. During the campaign, we were informed that her father is an alcoholic and she has a child with a birth defect. Minneapolis sent Keith Ellison to Congress. He's not just black, but a Muslim, too! You'd think Minnesota Democrats were octopuses, they managed to pat themselves on the back so much for nominating this doubly-oppressed victim. We kept hearing that he'd be the "first" this and the "first" that. Not much mention of what was actually inside the man.

Then we've got the 2008 presidential race. Should people vote for Hillary so she can be the "first woman president"? Or Barack Obama, so he can be the "first president with one white parent"?

These external descriptions seem to be all that matters. But what's inside the candidate? What are their ideas? What about their character? What do they stand for?

Does anyone even care these days?

dave ["at" ] downingworld [.com] -- If you'd like to know what I think about a particular topic, drop me a line: I may use it for a future blurb. But remember: I'm not really a know-it-all; I just play one on the Web. Thanks for tuning in, from your host David W. Downing.


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