Monday, May 27, 2013

Good...or Not?

I decided in January to try to "up" my role in the lives of our grandchildren. None of them live here, so I write one letter (there are eleven of them) every week and send it by mail. After all, who actually gets letters these days?
It seems to be working. I've even started to get a few replies, though I don't ask for them. Henry, for instance, age five, told me about a report he made in school about ...wombats. The wombat, you may recall, has nothing to do with flying bats, but is a marsupial from Australia. They resemble what you might get by crossing a wildcat with a badger.
Henry's contribution was to note that the wombat poops in squares (although he didn't say how) as a way of marking his territory. So other Australian animals, upon seeing the wombat leftovers, would react the way we might if we saw a large sign reading, "Warning! Wombat land ahead! Abandon all hope, ye who enter here!" I'm not planning any trips Down Under, but if you go, be aware. You've been warned. Thanks, Henry.

Our local paper included an AP story on the trends in CEO pay. It said that the boss of a typical large public company now pulls in just short of $10 million a year. I know, you can argue that some bosses are worth much more than that, and that could be true, for all I know. It should certainly be enough to keep the boss off Skid Row.
Here are the figures that should mean something to us: 6.5%, 6% and 24%. Those are the increases the bosses took in in 2012, 2011 and 2010, respectively. In fairness, there were actually some down numbers in the two years preceding.
Compare those numbers to these: 1.6%, 1.2%, 1.1%. Those are the increases earned in the same years, on the average, by everyone else. Looks like either the bosses got smarter, the underlings didn't, or the top guys had plenty of pals on the Board of Directors goosing the CEO's check. It doesn't hurt that they also have the entire lobbying industry AND one of the two remaining large political parties on the payroll screaming their side of the story. Is it good? Depends on your spot in the pecking order, I guess.  

There's also the story last week stating that births to teenage moms the past five years are down considerably, and in almost all states. At first glance, this would seem to be good news to almost everyone, right?
Well, there is one little complication here. It's the church. They don't talk about these things in any detail, and in fact almost never mention them at all except to point out more items in a long list of things that seemingly can't ever improve. I know it sounds strange, but I listen to these things pretty carefully, and can say with some assurance that church leaders are actually more comfortable pointing out the shortcomings of the world, and the trend (Worse. Always worse) than in giving out credit for anything good which didn't come from the church itself. If this sounds like a fertile breeding ground for sourpuss cynics who vote GOP because they feel it's (cliche alert) "the lesser of two evils", I'd say that's sometimes pretty close. This means even good news to everyone else can't be accepted by the Faithful without heavy reservations.
Want to understand Mormons and their ways? Keep this little ditty in mind: Nothing bad or in any way negative regarding anything that comes from the Church. Nothing good with any lasting influence from anyone else. We actually assume the world is going straight to hell, but we keep smiling. Do I find this a little tough to internalize? Sometimes.  

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Lessons From Other Mammals

I saw a headline last week that struck me as one that could be in every paper, every day until early 2017. It read "Obama Acts, But GOP Dissatisfied".

Last week had two, let's not call them "big events", but bigger happenings than most weeks include. I had a tooth extracted. It came out pretty easily, and I haven't yet needed the pain-killer drugs they ordered me to buy. And our group of readers drove to a place called Petrolia to perform before a tiny group of schoolchildren and adults. It has a name which sounds like an environmental hell hole, but it's actually quite beautiful, backing up right to the ocean. There was some oil found there once, but not enough to justify the cost of extracting and transportation. It's pretty isolated. Even the road to reach there is a nasty little trail, paved but rough, called "Wildcat Road".

I watched a DVD last week, a short documentary about two places dedicated to helping baby wild animals survive, thrive and, eventually, regain their status as unsupervised "wild" animals. A group in Kenya works with orphaned elephants, while one in Borneo undertakes the same function for little orangutans. The elephants are no taller than an average man's ribcage. The orangutans are just slightly larger than human babies and are covered in orange hair.
There isn't great detail in this DVD, entitled "Born to be Wild", but it's easy to see that years of trial and error went into making these two facilities enjoy as much success as they do. Both species get lots of playtime and are fed  by bottle and by mixing solids together as the babies grow.
The decision on releasing individuals into the wild are based on different criteria. The orangutans live alone in the jungle. Elephants are usually in herds and are known to be happiest around each other.  A committee has to evaluate each orangutan to try to determine which have the best chance of success in the wild.
The elephants live, when they are thought to be ready, in a kind of "halfway house" prior to their final release. The DVD's most amazing scene took place there, showing a group of former orphanage elephants ambling out of the jungle to meet the little ones and offer them affection and support. It was meant to be reassuring to the little guys. It absolutely was to me.
We will probably never know exactly what these animals think or why, and who could blame the elephants and orangutans if human beings remain a mystery to them. But it was good to see people acting as helpers instead of exploiters, taskmasters or hunters. And may these two sets of orphanage graduates enjoy long, peaceful and wild lives.             


Tuesday, May 14, 2013

What's Working?

Directly across the street this morning is a scene that reminds me that the working world has, for all practical purposes, left me alone at the bus stop. There's work being done on trees which loom over a hundred feet above street level. A guy near the top is calmly trimming branches and tossing them down to a guy below who feeds them through the scariest (to me) of all power equipment, a large chipper, which turns the limbs into a wooden substance about the consistency of sand. The noise is huge, to say nothing of just the idea of feeding the chipper protected by nothing more than a pair of gloves. I may not faint, and perhaps it would be scary for them to act out stories for little children, as I still do, but to me the whole thing is more than a little unsettling.

I still have the (not always good) daily habit of checking the church-owned newspaper published in Salt Lake City. Lately, they have published four separate lists: the 10 states with the strictest and  most lenient gun laws, and the 10 states with the most and least gun violence. Someone else did the researching and compiling, and the paper itself has not used the information as a tool for leverage to support or oppose any legislation, either proposed or already enacted. This, of course, does not stop the paper's readers from doing exactly that in their online comments, which can be pretty forceful since they are composed and sent anonymously. Whenever I enter the daily cyberspace mano-a-mano, it's under the name Mark B, with the point of origin, Eureka, CA.
Anyway, some of the results of this study are a little surprising. Wisconsin, for instance, turns up on the "most lenient laws" list. More urban states are not necessarily the most violent. New York and New Jersey are both on the bottom ten for actual gun violence. Woodsy places like Maine and Minnesota are on the list of least violent states, along with wide open places like Iowa and Nebraska.
But the natural thing to do is to see if there are states with either high or low violence rates which  could be traced to the strictness (or leniency) of state laws. This survey found no state with strict laws (or, at least the ten most strict) on the top ten for gun violence. No state among the 10 most lenient laws achieved the top ten of lowest gun violence.
Three states with lenient gun laws paid (or are paying) the price of having higher gun violence: these states (do we dare call them "self inflicted"?) are Arizona, Alaska and Louisiana. All three are solidly Republican these days.
Five states on the "least violent" list might, in part, credit their strict laws, which are also "top ten". These states (dare we call them "self regulating"?) are Rhode Island, Hawaii, New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts. Politically, these are stats that lean Democratic.
I realize that massaging statistics is second nature to people set on a particular legislative or political goal. Sometimes what is not included is as important as what is. You could see the whole business for yourself on the site of the Deseret News. You can find the comments easily. Anyway, I can find them, so no one else should have a problem.   


Monday, May 06, 2013

Wars, Real and Symbolic

Back in the days of the second GWB administration, I wrote an entry on this space based on the possible odds of starting new wars with various countries. The exercise was partly meant to be funny, but not completely. Number One on the "hit" parade then was Iran. That war hasn't yet happened, but another nation has hopped over the Iranians to now claim top spot on the list.
It's Syria that is now in the Pentagon's cross hairs. Last week the Secretary of Defense, Mr. Hegel, declared in very vague terms that Syria may be using chemical weapons on its own people, a practice which President Obama had once described as a "red line" to the US on whether to intervene in this nasty civil conflict.
The Israelis are involved already, conducting bombing raids on Syria with the intention of stopping the shipment of certain dangerous materials to terror groups based in Lebanon. It probably would have happened even if the Syrians weren't in a struggle to throw out the despotic Assad regime, now well into its second generation.
We may or may not intervene. If we do, it will be more complicated than simply dropping a few bombs or lobbing some shells. This is a country with some formidable defenses, and breaking them down has the reward of having to stay until there's something else better to run the country. I think we've been through this before.

The new presidential library of George W. Bush opened to the public last week. These libraries are privately funded, and are not, therefore, required to be strictly objective regarding the administration being memorialized. That's OK, as long as you know it going in.
I've been to the Herbert Hoover presidential library in the little town of West Branch, Iowa. The library isn't a huge place, but it does emphasize the non-presidential years of Hoover's life, both before and after his days in the White House, including some worthy accomplishments that had nothing to do with the Great Depression.    
The Bush library, however, seems to carry a theme not necessarily held by most Americans: "We were right to attack Iraq", at least according to displays available to the public. Plenty of facts get left out, including the testimony of former GWB administration officials who now claim that the whole thing was poorly handled. I'm expressing this view more kindly than some.
Hurricane Katrina gets some coverage in the library as well. Unfortunately, it isn't shown as a gigantic humanitarian mission for Americans who needed help. No, it's portrayed as a law enforcement problem in which US soldiers are sent to protect capital assets first, people maybe later. Bush's popularity dropped after Katrina, and never again reached the level it held pre-storm.

As for symbolic warfare, meet James Porter, which is not English for "Wayne La Pierre". Mr. Porter takes over as Grand Wizard (or whatever they call the boss) of the NRA this week.
The REAL message of the NRA is pretty simple: "We work for the gun makers, and oppose anything that keeps them from selling more AND more expensive weapons to the American public." But that isn't a message that gets people excited, and so the NRA has become one more high-pitched scream in the GOP cause of taking power back and reducing taxes on the rich.
We live in an age of hyperspeak, with various groups trying to drown out the others. The NRA, therefore, is trying to bring back a term most closely associated with Patrick Buchanan - "culture wars". Unless someone else can claim the title, the NRA would seemingly like to be the ones to decide all matters pertaining to right and wrong, with individual Americans' role in this grand cause  that of (you guessed it) "soldiers".
How great to be this particular kind of soldier. No REAL bullets or artillery, no bombs, IUD's, terrorists or cowering locals bearing some awful racial ethnic or religious slur. No, just "Stand with us!" Send us money, scream our side of the story to your neighbors and be even meaner and less truthful regarding any sentence with starts with "Barack Obama" than even other Democrat-hating organizations. Soldiers don't have to care about the truth, only about being heard. That's what makes it a Culture War, with James Porter as leader against the forces of evil.
The NRA showed us already this year that they can overpower something like 90% of American voters. They scream at the public, and threaten their opponents in the US Senate - successfully. It may not be a real war, but it's as close to it as the NRA gets. You'll be hearing Mr. Porter's name quite a bit now. He may look and sound like a character from one of those "Smoky and the Bandit" movies, but he is armed and dangerous.