Monday, February 28, 2011

Did You Catch These?

They handed out the Oscars last night. I admit to seeing more than my share of movies, but I don't pretend to know what deserves an award and what doesn't. I'm one of those grimy millions who, when he sees a movie he likes, falls back on the phrase praising it as "well done", hoping that will suffice. No, they aren't really making movies for people in their sixties (though gosh knows there are plenty of would-be geezers around), but I can still recognize that it's a real industry, with lots of people working hard to get the final product out in theaters. Is all the awarding out of proportion to the industry's importance to the economy? Sure, but who really cares about businesses that make carpets or soup? And who could put on a better show? No, I didn't watch it, but I reserve the right to. So there!

I was amazed to read last week about an item coming up for auction soon in New York. Before the Soviet Union sent a manned orbiting vehicle into space in the early 1960s, they sent one up containing only a dog - no pilot. This same space capsule somehow got into private hands during the lean post-Soviet days, and could be yours for a bid perhaps in the range of $2-5 million.
This blows my mind. It's a little like finding Lincoln's stove-pipe hat for sale at the local junk store, or having a guy sidle up to you and offer a "great deal on Washington's false teeth" with the proof that they're real! I once read that Yeltsin-era Russian pilots could only get flying time by selling rides to tourists, who paid enough to keep the jets fueled. For what it's worth, the capsule these days shows its age. It looks like something that's been the centerpiece of the city's roughest playground for a couple of decades, so its never going to fly again, but, who knows? With the right setting and decor it could be quite a conversation piece for some techno-nerd collector. Good luck getting it home.

Finally, there's the story of the young woman who has already fulfilled her lifelong dream - she's pitching batting practice at a big league spring training camp. It's an unusual ambition for pitchers of any gender because the job involves helping the batters succeed instead of trying to fool them. I presume the job requires modest power and maximum control in order to give the hitters plenty of quality swings.
But of course the guy doing the interview just had to ask if she could foresee the day that women will play/pitch alongside men on equal terms. She must get this question a dozen times a day, so she had some thought behind the answer - She thinks that the first woman baseball player in the big leagues will be a left-handed knuckleball specialist. Hitting the knuckler is a little like trying to make solid contact with a butterfly fluttering around home plate. The pitcher deliberately offers a knuckle ball with a minimal effort, so power isn't a factor. I guess the whole prospect is only worth considering if your daughter wants to drop the ballet lessons in favor of daily baseball games, but this could be the answer for some frustrated parents somewhere.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Minor Holidays

February features two very different days to celebrate. First, there's Valentine's Day, when even the desperate get a shot at romance. I spent the day the same as with the last several - singing the high notes in a barbershop quartet in order to raise scholarship funds. We made around 15 stops in the day, finding our way to a supermarket, a laundry, a medical office or two and the local newspaper, as well as to private homes. We broke in a new lead singer this year, and I wasn't sure we'd make the musical grade, but we ended, I think, with fewer clinkers than I had expected. You know you're getting it done when there are tears, and I'm happy to say that happened a few times. I just hope they weren't shed on behalf of any mangled music.

Then there's Presidents Day, the compromise made after someone noticed that Washington and Lincoln had both been born in February. Historians, normally ignored the rest of the year, get the chance to opine about presidential administrations, both successes and failures. About half the population can't go backwards naming presidents beyond Reagan, but we should still put out the flag with the energy we would normally spend fetching the mail. As to who's over or underrated as president, I have enough opinions to guarantee that if I wrote them all down, you'd never read this blog again. Let's just keep it short and say Truman was a success after taking over from FDR. Buchanan was a failure, barely even trying to head off the Civil War.

And it's possible, though not likely, that future generations will pause to recall the events in Madison, WI happening as we speak. The state has a newly-elected GOP tough guy governor determined to balance the state's books on the backs of public unions, particularly teachers. It's not just a matter of givebacks, which the teachers have done before and say they would do again. It's retaining the legal right of collective bargaining. The Guv and the state GOP majority want to turn the clock back to the days of "take it or leave it" for teachers. Their level of concern for retaining or recruiting future good teachers for today's young people? They're too young to vote yet, right?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Don't Get Fooled Again

I got a little chuckle from someone who described a possible GOP presidential pairing of Sarah Palin and Congresswoman Michele Bachmann as the "Twisted Sister" ticket.

Well, President Hosni Mubarak has gone, not to the next life, but towards the scrap heap of history, leaving office as Egypt's president a full day after having been convinced by his son to NOT leave. I looked it up, and President M. was born in 1928, making him a minimum of 82 years old. Did you ever notice that he never (his entire LIFE!) had a single gray hair? I thought for a second that his departure might ruin the male hair coloring industry. Admittedly, there could be a downturn in that part of the world, though I think most men there feel just fine about going gray. In this country there's a role model who should keep the shelves full of whatever they call the stuff these days - Mitt Romney, who's in his early sixties but only shows a bit of gray around the temples. There are others, mostly Hollywood types, who might do as well, but Romney figures to be on TV just about every day for the next year plus, so he gets the nod as dark hair successor to Reagan. What is it the Bible records - "Vanity of vanities" - something like that?

OK, now let's be serious. Egypt got what no one even knew was in the works a few months ago - a shot at democracy. Perhaps ousting the old tyrant will turn out to be the easiest part of the process. They could tell you all about that in France, Iran, Italy, Haiti, Chile, Argentina, Cuba, China and even Russia. Moving forward to something better while counting on the unselfishness of those who hold temporary power can be tricky. But hey, the Czechs, Filipinos, Slovaks, and some others could tell you that it can be done. Our own country did something similar, though different in some important ways, too. The goal is, of course, getting what you wanted when your necks were on the line, and not some watered-down imitation that leaves you with the refrain from The Who, from whom this week's title is borrowed.
Right now, the army is in charge. Normally, that's not the best way to begin, but this group showed themselves worthy of a little trust when they showed considerable patience with the original Cairo protesters. The legislature's been dissolved, also not ideal, but it was probably full of Mubarak suck ups anyway.
There are some other good signs. The revolutionary use of technology means it could be done again, and that the Egyptians are no clueless rabble up for sale to the biggest talker. The country isn't at war with anyone, The local group with the scariest name, the Muslim Brotherhood, may not be as benign as Boy Scouts, but they officially gave up arms decades ago and also stayed out of this latest crisis. The new guys will, we hope, realize that our old friendship with the dictator doesn't mean we can't make new friends if our interests don't clash too violently.
No, there are no guarantees here. The Israelis will no doubt step up their spying on Egypt and the guys with the petrodollars might be reluctant to share any secrets they night have, but nothing here prohibits the country's moving forward to try to give a little more opportunity to their poorest, least free citizens. Good luck to them.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Reagan Lives!

Today, everyone is justified in being sick of "seams in the zone", advances to the "red zone" and calculations of quarterback efficiency. They've played the last football game until July. I was too caught up in the commercials to actually watch it. Anybody know who won?
Here's my favorite sports story from the past weekend. One of the high schools of the area, a pretty small school, took their girls basketball team on a road trip. The first half didn't go so well, but a second half rally enabled them to dig all the way out of a 13-point deficit to force overtime. But there was a problem. All the varsity players who had taken the trip except three had already fouled out, so they were forced to go three-on-five for the entire overtime. It would be nice to say that they triumphed against all odds, but, not this time. The home team ran off with the overtime period by 20-0, winning the final score by, yes, 20 points. I guess it's one of those stories you can tell your kids and feel good knowing it's actually true.

In the years following the Civil War, the Republican Party had no qualms about what became known as "waving the bloody shirt" to remind folks that "every rebel" had been a Democrat during the war, and that it was Republican leaders who had preserved the Union, earning in the process the right to continue in office. I'm not saying this was wrong, although elections are supposed to be about the future. What the tactic was was - very effective.
Today's GOP has to reach back pretty far to try to replicate this tactic. We saw that this weekend, which marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ronald Reagan. On hand to join the party were the Beach Boys, two of whom Reagan actually outlived, and whose remaining performers must be pushing 70 years old unless they've got a deeper bench than the basketball team referred to above. Sarah Palin was there adjusting the spotlight to show her best side while she pretended to be an historian. Any real historians, who could have shown any number of ways The Gipper was unlike those dopey Tea Party slobs incapable of holding more than one thought in their heads at a time, had to check their credentials at the door and swear an oath of ignorance so as to keep the TPers minds uncluttered
Yes, it's a little unfair to attack Mr. Reagan. We have the advantage of hindsight, while he had to depend on his business pals to assure him that only good could come from deregulating a stuffy industry like saving and loans or starting up a plan called "Star Wars" that would "shield" us from incoming nuclear warheads. Ditto for selling missiles to Iranian "moderates", then using the proceeds to finance an illegal revolution in Nicaragua. Heck, the man's own Secretary of the Interior told him that improving the quality of the air and water was a waste of time since Jesus was coming back soon, and He would set all that right. Reagan wasn't really a churchgoer, but he made it a point to wave on camera to antiabortion activists gathered each year.
Oops. Did I get off on a rant of some kind? Well, there I go again.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

On the Tightrope

First, an explanation and a correction. We've been doing some traveling, and it's a bit impolite to use up your time as a guest trying to beat together a blog for the entire world (in theory). Now we're back. And the song I referred to last week isn't "Swing, Swing, Swing", but "Sing, Sing, Sing". There are so many dancing baby elephant commercials on these days that I want to avoid any confusion.

Oh, and there's the matter of the Superbowl. This year, the NFL has managed to sell some tickets that are at the stadium (in Dallas), but do not afford the ticket holder an actual view of the game. These little ducats go for $200 each! They must fit under the category of "How NOT to impress your date". I think I'll pass.

But this week's main spectator sport centers on Egypt and its future government. We begin with the question "What starts a revolution?" It's not an easy one to answer. The North American British colonies were both lightly taxed and lightly governed, but had a revolution anyway. Iraq had a dictator, as do many other countries today who still see no real need to change things, or at least not enough to risk their own neck in the effort.
The proof that this is a tricky business comes from places like Cuba. We were sure that a little invasion from ex-locals would bring down the Castro government. The result? The disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion, an old Eisenhower era plot that Kennedy failed to squash. Half a century later, Fidel Castro is headed for a soft landing to his lifelong legacy.
Why does Mubarek's one-party democracy in Egypt go along pretty smoothly for almost thirty years, and only then break down in the face of lightly armed but determined opposition? We pay enormous dollars to the CIA (and other spook agencies) to get us answers to questions like this, but they don't know, either.
One thing I notice is that when these revolts finally start rolling, they're almost impossible to stop. The Czar couldn't stop the Bolsheviks, the Shah of Iran couldn't stop the Islamists, and even French royalty was no match for the ragtag forces of the French Revolution, who correctly realized that they had literally nothing to lose by reaching for their pitchforks and clubs. Someone might have told Mubarek that naming a vice president and offering to NOT run for reelection wouldn't be enough to get the folks back in line. Now he can't even depend on his army to dependably slaughter the rebels in Cairo.
The situation is pretty fluid, and the US, on the tightrope between standing up for real democracy and losing an ally in a difficult part of the world, has to be content just observing, dealing with whoever comes out the winner, as we did when the Filipinos decided that they had finally had enough of Marcos and his family. Egypt has no oil to speak of, but they do have close to 100 million people and some status as a center of Islamic culture. They deserve better than what they've had. Maybe we could do our part by offering Mubarek a retirement home in the US. Think he'd like Nevada?