Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Roller Derby Reruns

Are we watching the quiet death of the Winter Olympics as a “mega-media-event”? Much is being made in the dailies about the ratings for NBC’s wall-to-wall coverage. The games got beat out by American Idol. Well, sure, that’s reasonable. Anybody would rather see Simon Cowell trash some pathetic wailer rather than try to decipher the figure skating scoring algorithms. But, look further and you’ll see that the Olympics also lost in the ratings to Survivor, Dancing With the Stars and qualifying for the Daytona 500. The race day was a no-brainer for me—I’d much rather see Tony Stewart driving somebody into the wall at 190 MPH than the second leg of a 40 km cross-country ski relay.

Let’s face it; while it isn’t quite the White Supremacy rally that Bryant Gumbel wanted to paint it as, the Olympic Winter Games are boring. They aren’t generally events that Joe Six-Pack can identify with whether Black or White. Does any father want his son to grow up to be a figure skater? Did you see the get-up on the Italian guy who was having a snit with his partner in ice dancing? Donning old movie theater drapes with a powder blue organdy shawl around the shoulders is not very manly for a world-wide TV appearance. Can you picture the old man down at the union hall on Monday, saying, “hey did you see the triple toe loop my kid did in his short program?” Nah, dad want’s touchdowns, home-runs and triple doubles in good ol’ American sports to brag about.

Have you ever known a real bob-sledder? Do you know anywhere that you could buy a bob-sled? How do guys become bob-sledders? NASCAR drivers grow up at dirt-tracks around the country driving beat-up jalopies that they spend their evenings patching into competitive condition. But is there an equivalent venue for wanna-be bob-sledders? Can you find an old junker down at the used sled lot to take racing?

What’s with curling? It looks like fun—think shuffleboard with cold feet and a wet knee on your pants. Throw in some post-contest beer drinking and I might be able to go for it. But, as a spectator sport? Not in the U. S. of A.

Ski racing is fine. The downhill has a bit of wild-eyed psychosis appeal. With that great 60 Minutes hype job of Bode Miller as the iconoclastic drunk with talent who was going to sweep the competition, we had some reason to watch. At this writing Miller is “oh-for-four” on any kind of medal and I’m pretty confident there won’t be any gold for the bad boy when he gets to the slalom either. At least, there are a lot of American skiers who might watch some of the events. Alas, they won’t be seeing any local boys make good.

We’ve had a trick up our sleeves though. Yep, as the biggest international bully the world has ever seen, we can pretty much shape the Games to our liking. Simply witness the audacity of NBC in resisting the demands to call the host city by it’s anglicized name rather than what the residents themselves call it. Yep, NBC bucked some serious arm-twisting by calling it Torino—either that or Ford might be bringing that mid-sized sport sedan back for another Edsel turn.

The real trick has been the introduction of American popular culture “sports” so that we can win some medals. While we still get teary-eyed thinking about the “Miracle on Ice” we realized that it was pretty tough to repeat. So, we simply co-opted Russians, Finns, Czechs and other national stars to play in the NHL. Then we got the rules changed to allow pros to play Olympic Hockey. And with the collapse of East Germany and the loss of all those lovely, steroid-loaded lasses from the Eastern Bloc, we introduced women’s hockey so we might have an event to win.

Then there’s short track speed-skating. Let’s admit right up front, that short track isn’t an American invention. It’s Asian, but it’s got the right sort of body contact, luck required, randomness to make it attractive. It’s roller derby on ice, but without the tattooed girls. One try got us an American hero—but, Ohno it won’t happen again. Better change some rules before 2010.

The real trick has been the snow-boarding events. Yeah, now we’re talking. Real American stuff with iPods in the ears, baggy pants showing Plumber’s Butts on even the girls and possibility of real bodily injury doing a quintuple twisting triple flip off the kicker. That’s sport, American-style!

The latest “event” has been snowboard-cross. Full body contact shoulder to shoulder racing in four-packs down a set course with cut-offs, knock-downs, ski-overs and even an unintentional wipe-out at the cost of a gold medal while shining one’s butt on short final with a victory assured. If it didn’t look so much like a typical day on the bunny slope at Vail, I’d say it’s as close to NASCAR as the Winter Olympics are going to get.

Yep, I think we’ve seen the final wooden stake pounded into the heart of the Winter Olympics. Four years from now it’s going to be like the American presidential conventions—a week long event reduced to a one hour summary each night in which we’ll get the spills and fights boiled down to their most essential elements.

Oh, and one last gripe. Ditch the blue lines on the snow next time. Part of skiing is dealing with the tough conditions of flat light. Drawing references to outline the course and provide perspective for the racers is simply polluting the hillside and the sport as well.

It’s time for the closing ceremony and all that international good-will to boil over.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

It’s a Shame, This Name Game

Confess now, the last time you voted were you prepared? Think before you answer. I know you knew who your choice was for the big job. You’d made your mind up a long time before you walked into the booth. And, the VP choice was then made automatically.

No, I mean did you know who all those other folks were down the ballot? Try it today and see how you do. Do you know who your congressman is? What are the names of your two US Senators? Who is the Lt. Governor of your state? County Commissioner? State legislature representatives? If you didn’t do too well on this, you don’t need to feel very bad. The pitiful fact is that most Americans take great pride in announcing that they do their citizenly duty, but they don’t really know what it is that they’ve done.

Think now about election campaigns. As you drive around town during the silly season of elections you see signs on street corners and faces on billboards. They catch your eye and urge you to vote for Joe Bagadonutz. They might even tell you if Joe is a Republican or a Democrat. They don’t tell you what Joe stands for or what he’s going to do for you. You seldom know what his policies will be and you never hear what he’s done before to qualify himself for high office.

Very probably you simply notice that Mr. Bagadonutz seems to be quite popular since he’s got a lot of signs around the neighborhood. Must mean that the folks that really know something think he’s good. Hence, by some sort of halo effect, Joe gets your vote.

That’s why this editorial by Froma Harrup is so good: The Name Game Shame

It certainly escapes me why anyone would vote for Jimmy Carter’s son. It particularly seems a poor choice for the good folks of Nevada to be voting for Jack for Senator. Can anyone beside me remember the term “carpetbagger”? But, I’ll bet that ol’ Jack makes a pretty good showing.

Froma points out the number of famous folks who’ve won the election lottery in the past. How about Sonny Bono for Congress? Well, it becomes a bit understandable if you’ve ever spent much time in California. But Sonny as a Republican? Wow!!! It got a whole lot worse, though when Sonny ran into a tree while skiing and didn’t survive. Then, based on little more than name recognition his widow got elected to the seat where she continues to serve. Qualification? Dunno.

Is Ahhhnald “The Terminator” qualified to be governor of California? Well, after Gray Davis, he couldn’t be much worse. But was it a careful evaluation of his experience, his policy proposals and his conformity to the ideology of the majority of voters that got him elected? Or, was it simply that they knew the name and liked Conan the Barbarian.

Well, we’ve got it cranking up here in Texas. A governor’s race is on this year and we’re gonna have a real sideshow. The state is pretty much a Republican fiefdom with both houses of the legislature as well as the governor’s seat in the hands of the Grand Ol’ Party. Both US Senators as well and a majority of the Congress-critters too! Part of that is thanks to a redistricting engineered by former House Majority Leader Tom Delay, but it pretty well reflects the electorate.

But, we’ve got a challenge to Rick Perry, the Republican governor from within his own party—well, sort of. The Comptroller, a “tough grandmother” according to her own campaign, is challenging the incumbent. She’s a Republican. Well, she used to be a Democrat, but she switched. And, she’s running as an independent. And, she hasn’t really said what she’s for, only that she’s against Perry. Can you say opportunist? Can you say ideologically uncommitted? Can you say unprincipled politically? I knew that you could.

There’s a couple of Democrats duking it out as well. Most pundits don’t give them much of a chance.

The real entertainment is coming from Kinky Friedman. Maybe you recall Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys, his musical group? Or, maybe not. Go Kinky

Well, he’s got a black hat, a fine moustache, and an unlit cigar always clenched in his hand. He’s got personality and a lot of great one-liners about politics. When he talks about being governor, he’ll usually note, “how hard could it be?” His tee-shirts resonate with the message, “no teacher left behind” and his campaign is raising money hand over fist.

Will he get elected? I don’t know. First he’s got to collect more than 50,000 signatures of registered Texas voters who did not vote in the Texas primary. “Save Yourself for Kinky” is a serious campaign slogan since he needs people to stay home on election day to be available for petition signing.

Will he have reasonable policies and be able to establish himself with the voters? Last governor’s race there was a significant percentage that didn’t see enough difference between Tweedledum and Tweedledee to get out and vote. They’re the ones contributing now and they will be the ones who vote for Kinky in November.

Can he govern? We might just find out. Jesse Ventura managed the feat in Minnesota and surprised a lot of people when he turned out to be reasonably capable. Kinky might just have enough name recognition to do the job in Texas.

I won’t be surprised, but I will be a little bit apprehensive. Not a lot, but a little. After all, how hard could it be?

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Feeding Frenzy

Let’s start by acknowledging error. If someone is impacted by projectiles directed at something else, then an error has occurred. Let me further note that anyone who takes to the field hunting is responsible for the highest standards of gun safety. I’m a long time hunter and I’ve been fortunate enough to hunt with a number of good friends over the years. We’ve forged great friendships in the field and in the process no one has come away wounded. So, that being said, we can conclude that the Vice-President this past weekend made a mistake. Fortunately no one was seriously injured. In the classic political phrase of passive double-speak, “mistakes were made.”

But let’s now look at the media handling of this. This morning’s Dallas Morning Trash Bundler boasted the headline above the fold on page one: “Cheney Had No Stamp to Hunt Quail”! Read the frantic reportage and you learn that it has been discovered that neither the shooter nor shootee in this incident had the requisite $7.00 stamp on their otherwise valid hunting license to hunt quail in Texas. Yes, indeed folks, we’ve proof positive here of the level of corruption of the current administration. They willfully (or maybe inadvertently, since it’s almost impossible for the common Bubba to decipher hunting regulations) went afield to harvest incredibly valuable quail without a $7.00 tax stamp. Is this really front page news?

Or, maybe we should go to the “what did they know and when did they know it” mantra and ask what the motivation was for failure to report this to the media immediately. What were they trying to hide? But, if we read carefully, we learn that the Secret Service element accompanying the VP called the local sheriff within ten minutes of the incident. Report to local law enforcement in a timely manner? Sheriff said it seemed like exactly what it was—a hunting incident being handled properly with no criminal intent. Duly noted on the blotter.

So, who was hiding what and when were they hiding it? With the police notified, the victim in the care of medical facilities and the “crisis” apparently managed, the owner of the ranch calls the local newspaper and passes the word to the weekend journalism-student-phone-answerer-person. She reacts by calling the White House which responds to her call with what they know and the rest, as they say, is hysteria.

Cover-up? I don’t think so. Blow-up to mythic proportions? Apparently. How soon will we see the linkage to the East Coast blizzard? When will Cheney be asked to resign? Will Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer be demanding bans on shot-guns in the hands of senior administration officials?

One worries about the state of the Republic. What would Jefferson do?

Friday, February 10, 2006

Wright or Wrong, I Love It

Moving into a new region means learning what the major political issues are in that area. As a career aviator and an inveterate free-market capitalist, it is fascinating to observe the battle in Dallas over the Wright Amendment. OK, time for a quick review of history to put the issue in some sort of perspective.

Commercial aviation changed in a big way in the late fifties. The introduction of the first generation of jet airliners caused a lot of the nation’s municipal airports to suddenly become inadequate if not quite dangerous. The future of air travel was going to require long runways and open spaces that wouldn’t be filled with folks griping about the noise. That meant new airports and the decline of some landmarks like Midway, LaGuardia and Dallas’ Love Field. Big thinkers with an eye to the future built the airline hubs that we know today. O’Hare, JFK and DFW became the future. The old airports became ghost towns. I recall flying practice instrument approaches to Chicago-Midway in a Piper Super Cub in 1964 without seeing another airplane in the area as I meandered down final approach at a dazzling 85 miles an hour.

Don’t think for a minute that projects like these super-airports come cheap. There’s big bucks invested and it takes a while to recoup the up-front costs. That’s where we see the genesis of the Wright Amendment.

Jim Wright was a congressman from Texas, or more precisely the Fort Worth area. He was a powerful congress-critter; Speaker of the House with all that it implies. As an Air Force fighter type, I remember Wright as the guy who kept stuffing another bunch of F-111s into the Defense budget year after year so that General Dynamics’ plant would keep fueling the Fort Worth economy. We didn’t want those airplanes because they never quite did the job that they were supposed to do. They were technological nightmares that simply didn’t meet our idea of what a fighter was supposed to do—drop bombs on target and fly many sorties per day without fail. The F-111 was what we called a “sea-gull”—a bird that you have to throw rocks at to get it to fly.

Eventually, of course, General Dynamics gave us the F-16 which turned out to be an exponential improvement in fighter aviation. And, eventually, Wright went a bit too far and was driven from his seat. But, before all of that happened we have the question of DFW and his amendment.

It wouldn’t do for Dallas and Fort Worth to build this mega-airport out in the country between the two cities if people wouldn’t want to drive out there to use it. They would have to make sure that Love Field, the convenient downtown airport would be unable to compete. Not a real problem initially, but then came that upstart Southwest Airlines with that pushy entrepreneur, Herb Kelleher. What a concept he had—convenient, no-frills, low-cost travel from the uncongested, largely abandoned inner city airports like Midway, Houston Hobby and Love Field. Low landing fees, easy access to business centers, and no hassle for the customers. Surprise! People loved it and Herb continues to make money as one of the few airlines with a positive number in the bottom line.

Old Jim Wright couldn’t have that. It would be way too draconian to simply deny Southwest the right to fly from Love Field. It was a municipal airport, taxpayer supported and still open. Operations could be conducted safely, so there was no justification for denying permits. What to do?

Well, how about a restriction on where you would be franchised to fly from Love. Let’s limit your destinations out of Love to only those states adjacent to Texas. You can only fly to places like Louisiana, New Mexico, and Oklahoma from Dallas. If you want to serve other destinations you’ll have to split your operation and fly out of DFW. Initially, Wright limited Southwest to four states. In 1996, three more states were added to the permitted list. Surprisingly, with one wing figuratively tied behind their back, Southwest thrived.

Meanwhile, out at DFW, traffic was growing by leaps and congested bounds. No longer out in the country, DFW is now imbedded in a complex of towns and communities. The area is huge. Fed by limited access highways and Interstates, the complexity of which confounds my car’s navigation system, the airport is definitely a success. But, that’s not enough for American Airlines which is the hub’s principal client. Continental airline once hubbed here as well, but they’ve withdrawn leaving the majority of the gates to American. So, what’s not to like?

Apparently American doesn’t like competition. Oh, they claim they do. They continually advertise an invitation for Southwest to join them at DFW and really “compete”. Southwest seems to be quite happy right where they are, but would really like to have the Wright Amendment go away.

Politics being what it is Wright won’t die all at once. This last fall, a chip got knocked off of Wright. Another state was added to the approved destination list for Southwest from Love Field. They could fly to Missouri now. Two major destinations appeared on the menu, St. Louis and Kansas City. Doesn’t seem like a lot, does it?

But from the point of view of the traveling consumer, what did it mean? Southwest offered the route for a typical fare for a short leg flight in a 737, just $49 one-way. Not unusual if you are familiar with Southwest’s pricing and their Sunday newspaper ads. What was noteworthy, was that American Airlines from DFW was flying those routes at a one-way tariff of $350-500. Ahhh, do we see a value for free-market competition?

What’s in the fall-out from this? American says they must compete. So, they have slashed their price. They have started flying from the gates they already owned but didn’t use at Love. They have tightened the economic screws on a number of small towns which they had served from DFW which had not supported their battle in Congress against modification of Wright. They claim that they need the airplanes which served Tyler and Austin and San Antonio to meet the demand to fly out of Love. But, the real message is don’t vote with American’s wishes and you lose your airline service. That’s politics in America.

And, several congress-members and Senators from other states are beginning to see an advantage for their constituents if Southwest is allowed to serve their communities from Love Field. Ain’t the free-market wonderful?

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Side-Show and Non-News

Today’s the day when every political blogger will be dissecting the State of the Union address. The fact is, that is pretty much a “preach to the choir” exercise. If you are a Republican, you’ll belabor the point that the Big Guy hit all the right notes. He addressed the issues of war, the economy, energy, education and even the pseudo-scandals of the day. No doubt about it. The man was on fire.

If you’re a Democrat, you’ll point out the scandals, the attempts to justify a bad foreign policy, the grasping at motherhood/apple-pie issues like those nasty old internal combustion engines we all love, and the attempt to impose a socially conservative agenda on the nation’s failing schools. No doubt about it. The man was floundering.

Well, you all should know where I sit on the issues. I watched and was surprised at the lack of the usual (at least as we came to expect during the Clinton years) litany of almost-accomplishments. We didn’t hear all that much beyond a brief nod to emerging democracy around the world, a booming stock market, low unemployment, stable interest rates, and the outcome of lowering taxes on our general prosperity. We did get some honest appraisal of failures in things like the Palestinian elections, the constraint of Iran’s nuclear aspirations, the response to natural disasters, and even influence peddling in Congress. The candor, at least to me, seemed refreshing.

I don’t agree with all of the proposals. While I definitely want to stay the course in Iraq, support Israel against Hamas, and deny Iran nuclear weapons, I’m not in favor of some of the domestic suggestions. Just as when Bill Clinton got 100,000 cops enacted into law, the proposal to hire 70,000 science and math teachers isn’t going to do much. Spread that seemingly large number across the nation and you get much less than one teacher per school. Worst of all you increase the amount of federal capacity to interfere in that which is and should be a function of the states.

I don’t think we can realistically over any foreseeable short term wean ourselves from oil. Let’s admit that we have some foreign dependency, but it is by choice, not necessity. We can develop proven reserves in the Gulf, in Alaska, in California, and in Texas. We can develop refining infrastructure to cope with increasing demands. We can exploit oil shale resources with new technologies. We should develop alternative energy sources, but it isn’t wind and sunshine that we need. It’s nuclear power generation. At least that’s my opinion.

But, what really astonished me this morning while perusing the daily fishwrapper, was the appearance of that left-wing side-show, Cindy Sheehan on page three. Yep, there was old Cindy, being ejected from the House chamber because of…drumroll, here…violating the published and agreed to rules of decorum. C’mon, she’s worn out the grieving mother thing already. She isn’t the first to lose a son in a war she didn’t understand. She isn’t even the first to become a public figure for her anti-war stance. She isn’t a lot of things.

She clearly isn’t the sharpest knife in the international relations drawer. She isn’t the most disciplined, well-reasoned or rational of debaters. She isn’t very well grounded in issues, but she certainly is a bundle of emotional appeals and guerilla theater. And, apparently, she isn’t very fashion conscious. Who would seriously attend an event such as a joint-session of Congress wearing a T-shirt—particularly one with a questionable political message on it?

That’s why I loved this fairly extended opinion piece by James Taranto: This Guy Gets It

He points out a lot of things worth considering, ranging from media mis-reporting to Ms Sheehan’s non-issues to the Valerie Plame brouhaha. It takes a lot of facts to convince folks that the mainstream media has veered a long way from reporting in America. How, indeed, does Cindy Sheehan become “the story”?

The more important question, however, is the very basic one: Why does the media want so much to see America defeated, embarrassed and destroyed?