Sunday, November 20, 2011

Complaints about America

I'm not sure how people multitask. I've been working 70 hour weeks for the last few months, and I've barely had enough time to brush my teeth everyday, let alone write posts no one is going to read.

Anyways, so I fell behind and have some old thoughts to get caught up on here. I went to Orlando for work a few months ago. I stayed in a hotel near Universal Studios, on the crappier side of town (government cutbacks), and it drove home how effed up our country's priorities are. The town is organized around entertainment, chain restaurants, and outlet malls. There's asphalt, concrete and traffic everywhere. Contrasting this to my home in rural Germany, where they've managed the trees and lakes to keep the area beautiful, where the towns are organized to have pedestrian zones and all your necessities in walking distance, it depressed me. Maybe that's like comparing Orlando to Asheville, NC, and it's just not fair, but there is something representative about Orlando's place in America. Orlando is an epicenter of entertainment, a place you work and save up for (assuming you still have a job) to take your kids on vacation. People also come from around the globe to get a taste of America. But outside the parks, this mecca for family fun is cheap and somewhat dingy. There's nothing aesthetically pleasing about the traffic or buildings. And shopping at outlet malls while not at amusement parks is like switching to beer after a three day binge of hard liquor. Either way you're an alcoholic, you're just getting your fix from a different source.

I heard on AFN radio the other day about a Target worker protesting the 12AM opening for black Friday. It's crazy the bind that workers like him are being put in. We have a shitty economy and a terrible social safety net. People have to choose between spending time with their family on holidays, or working to avoid losing their jobs. How is it these stores do it? A country where it's acceptable to force your employees to work at these hours without a social stigma? Americans really think the predominant goal in life is to make money. And on the demand side, how do we have consumers who shop at 12am instead of spending time with their families (or sleeping)? Maybe some of these consumers shop with their families at that hour? Is that what fills the void? Buying stuff at a cheaper price to give to yourself and others, because if you don't have these consumer goods that you otherwise couldn't afford then you would disappoint yourself and them?

So anyways, it's just disappointing to think of our screwed up priorities. How we organize our cities, our society, how we spend our time. We don't let others rest on the holidays, since we can't stop consuming. We can't afford to turn off the perpetual motion machine of being distracted. We expect our movie theaters, amusement parks, stores, etc. to be open. And we hype these cities of entertainment, but outside the parks they're gross and disappointing. So what are you going to do? Hope that we can reconstruct our society at least from a city planning perspective to encourage green spots and walking zones? Reprioritize the population to focus on anything other than materialism (community? family?)? Complain about it on my blog and hope that somehow makes a difference? Anyways, it's just a little bit of a screwed up country. But I don't see what can be done about it. For now I'll be spending Thanksgiving at home, eating food and watching grown men try to kill each other on the football field. Because I don't care about the time these guys get to spend with their friends or family. It's not my problem.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Value Over Replacement Prosecutor

Bill James has read hundreds of crime books and he synthesizes a comprehensive volume's worth of stories in his book, "Popular Crime." It's a familiar formula for him, digesting a bunch of old information and offering a new perspective. James has obviously proven he's a smart guy that deserves to be listened to. Here he offers a new perspective on the media, the criminal justice system, and some of the centuries most famous crimes. The Jon Benet Ramsey saga is a case in point, and James' chapter on this was one of the most interesting in the book. I always considered the parents to have been culpable without paying the story too much attention. I felt that if I ignored our silly media, then they'd stop bothering with this nonsense. But James convinced me I was mistaken to ignore this story. And after his arguments and review of the facts, it appears that there is no conceivable way the parents killed their daughter.

The Ramsey saga deals with levels of human nature that I find truly fascinating. The police's certainty of the parents' involvement in the face of so little supporting evidence (and a great deal of contradicting evidence. By the way, did the Ramsey's not have an alarm system? That was never properly addressed by James and I'm surprised rich people like that wouldn't have their basement windows wired.) is a characteristic that has always intrigued me. The police arrived at their belief and then spend the rest of the investigation searching for facts that support it. It's what has infuriated me about people throughout my life. It's political or religious dogma by another name. James' quote (in another chapter dealing with the failure of cops to understand serial killers until the 1980s) that, "The capacity of mankind to misunderstand the world is without limit. The external world is billions of times more complicated than the human mind. We are desperate to understand the world; we struggle from the moment of birth to understand the world - but it beyond our capacity. We thus sign on to simplifications of the world that give us the illusion of understanding," is exactly what I tried to get at with my last post. We're arriving at beliefs and then going forth in this uncertain world. We do what we can to justify those beliefs, contradictory evidence be damned.

James also spends a good part of the book arguing for a more rational justice system. One of his attempts to create such a system is to standardize what it takes to cross the threshold of "beyond a reasonable doubt." He assigns numerical values to evidence and requires that evidence go beyond a specific total number, so that we can prevent wrongful convictions. An admirable call to reason, but one that will probably go unheeded because of the difficulty in arriving at such values. Perhaps books like this, though, will create some rough guidelines or make us more thoughtful on some minimums before we should take away life or liberty. Or perhaps it'll just inspire prosecutors like me to convict less innocent people. (Here's hoping.) And while I'm taking everything he wrote to be factually correct (probably a mistake) he does speak of convictions that are based on evidence that should've been considered legally insufficient, but judges allowed juries to make unsupported decisions anyways, such as Rabbi Neulander, and Randall Dale Adams.

James also hits many more interesting topics that and I'll just hit a few briefly. He raises the issue (in passing) of America's long history of a higher crime rate than Europe, a phenomenon that I've been contemplating ever since I got to the ridiculously safe and unmean streets of Germany. (And again, how can the Ramsey's have not had an alarm system? If there was a take home point from this book it was get a guard dog, a semi-automatic weapon, booby-trap your yard with land mines, and never leave your house under any circumstances.) Based on the ballistic and witness evidence, James also suggests that the fatal shot that killed John F. Kennedy was an accidental discharge from one of his secret service agents. It's a scandalous theory that I've never heard discussed before, and one I'd like to see him debate on television with a well-informed person of an opposing view. In fact, in a perfect world this book would be made into a movie where well-informed people could debate him and most of his contentions (in a more perfect world, I'd get executive producer credit). Anyways, it was a really sweet book. And man are there a lot of psychopaths out there.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Seeking Certainty in an Uncertain World

That Scientific American subscription is proving a huge inspiration for this blog. There was an article last month on the biases that lead people to skew the truth. One of my favorite topics on this blog, one my brother told me to stop writing about because it's a truism not worth exploring, is the tribalism of American politics. Anyone who's been paying attention to the events of the last few weeks/decades/centuries knows that factionalism has been around almost as long as our republic. And as I like to point out from time to time, I knew this president's attempt to move past political factionalism would not succeed because tribalism is ingrained in human nature.

"The Believing Brain" sheds some light on the phenomenom. The article explains how people come to understand reality. Humans form their beliefs first and see reality second. One of the many biases that lead to these beliefs is the in-group bias of tribalism, where opponents are demonized and dismissed while friends are listened to and empathized with. (Which can explain how a political party can ignore their own significant contribution to the problems they blame another party for.)

In the same issue of SA there's an article on how unknowable reality just may be. In the "Bad Boy of Physics", Leonard Susskind explains that reality may be too complex for us ever to understand fully. He even says we should stop using the word reality, but rather focus on what is "reproducible,": knowable discreet events. He then goes on to say things that I cannot comprehend: that physics currently predicts this universe is 1000 times bigger in volume than the portion we can ever see? That there are most likely multiverses, meaning this large forever-completely-unobservable universe of ours might not be the only one?

And it all reminds me of why we use these biases to shape reality. Without them we'd have to admit our inability to understand ourselves and our places in this uni-or multiverse. It's a big, confusing, unknowable existence. We're just a small speck in a small corner of a place infinitely larger than we can ever comprehend. And for many politically active people in the US, certainty and meaning come from battling it out with the opposite members of a political party. It's a lot more empowering to see yourself in a battle of good v. evil then to come to terms with your own ignorance and insignificance. The world becomes us v. them because without that simplified division of reality, we would not know what to make of this thing we're doing.

Monday, July 4, 2011

My Honeymoon with Kaka

So at this public place where I pour my heart and soul into issues of social significance, I've attached pics of Kaka, hoping to draw the increased traffic of celebrity chasers who are also interested in examining human nature and improving public policy. (One of my many untapped demographics.)

Me and the Mrs. were in Taormina, Sicily for our honeymoon. At first I just thought Kaka was just your average rich guy with a neck brace, seeing through his worker's comp scam in case the Italian authorities saw him living it up on the beach. It wasn't until he played soccer with his son in the square that I realized who he was. I didn't want to bother him by getting too close, but I noticed in my other pics (ones came out much crappier than the one above) that people were standing and kneeling 3 feet from him to take their mementos. So I effed that one up. This other one is from the beach. He seems like a pretty cool guy, even if he looks like he's letting himself go. He was really enjoying the days with his family, playing with his children and what not. Makes sense he has the reputation for being so nice.

I also want to take this opportunity to expound on the importance of a guide book you can trust. Rick Steves is my guy, but he doesn't have a Siciliy Book. So I had to take the Lonely Planet people at their word. And anyone who would describe Palermo as having a "magnificent disorganization" and Cefalu as a "postcard pretty town" is not someone I want planning my trips. These places are dilapidated towns on an incredibly beautiful coast. Most people don't want to travel half way around the world to see Tijuana, Mexico. I wish there was a disclaimer on the cover that said "for pretentious travelers whose enjoyment comes from going off the beaten path just for the sake of doing so." Although it's food recommendations were right on. Anyways, I'm not sure what to do when I next travel to a country Rick Steves doesn't cover. Let me know if you have any recommendations. And I've also attached a pic of my beautiful bride here just to brag.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Freedom Doesn't Mean You Have to Be a Dick: Driving

There's a side character in Jonathan Franzen's Freedom who won't let anyone pass on the highway. It's a revealing anecdote of America's hyper-competitive culture, and reflective of many similar driving experiences I've had. Contrast this to my experiences driving in Germany, where cars move on the autobahn like it's a well-orchestrated ballet. The left lane is left open unless you're passing, and slower cars almost always move immediately to the right. It's a social norm that's rigidly followed for the greater good. And while there are dicks who drive in Germany, there aren't as many who take a passing car as a personal challenge to their manhood.

Part of this American reluctance to let people pass may be explained by the unnecessarily low (and often ignored speed limits). People are probably keeping the faster drivers going accorded to the posted speed limits, or at what they regard as the appropriate speed. But there are better mechanisms for enforcing the law, like cameras. And again, Germany should serve as a good example. In the more congested ares and on the smaller highways and city streets, Germany has a speed limit that's strictly enforced. After being caught by a camera, I got a 25 euro ticket for going 2 km too fast. I was annoyed, but 25 euros isn't too bad. It's an efficient system. They let you drive as fast as you want in certain areas. But where there's a speed limit, it's there for a reason and you better follow it or else a camera will catch you and give you a reasonable fine.

I can think of many Americans who would lose their shit over getting a ticket in the same circumstances: a camera catching me for going about 1 mph over the limit. There was even a ballot proposal in my hometown that preemptively banned the use of red light cameras at intersections despite the increased safety they offer. That second link is a good indicator of the craziness we're dealing with as a nation. People are somehow claiming red light cameras increase red light running. That's like claiming more firefighters lead to more fires. We all know fewer people would run red lights if they got a ticket every time they did. People make up facts to win arguments, but it's insane how easily accepted these crazy facts are in our country and how they can lead to unwise public policy. I now obey the German speed limit a lot better than I used to because I know there's a good chance I'll get a fine if I don't.

So move over when someone wants to go faster than you. Put red light and speed cameras up to increase traffic safety. And make speed limits more rational, because most people go over 55 or 65 mph and enforcing the law when someone is going with the flow of traffic seems arbitrary. Simple steps to a better society really. Maybe then we could use the revenue to fix potholes, put in better mass transit options, or just have safer roads. Or maybe we can pretend red light and speed cameras increase accidents, lead to socialism, and take us away from the laissez-faire paradise where optimal traffic safety is achieved through drivers acting in their perceived self-interest.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Extreme Weather in a Hotter World

In last month's edition of Scientific American, they had an article that says Americans trust scientists above all other professions, save the military. But when it comes to specific findings, people often choose to reject scientific consensus. A few pages later, they reminded us of one of those examples, as climate models have predicted more instances of extreme weather in a hotter world. The article explains that you can never point to one storm and say "that's global warming" but that there's been a dramatic rise in the total number of extreme weather events just as the climate models said there would be. Then it gives a few famous examples: abnormal floods in Pakistan, and Nashville, blizzards in the US, the epic heat wave and fires in Moscow, drought in China (and the article didn't even mention the record year of tornados in the US or flooding on the Mississippi).

So it's here, climate change. The scientists have been warning us of these consequences for a while now. And while we trust men of science to land men on the moon, diagnose and treat our diseases, and process the crime scenes on our TV shows, we selectively don't trust them when they tell us we're killing the planet and endangering ourselves. Makes sense. So considering the collective action needed to save us from our world's fate, and considering that these deniers are not letting us listen to the experts attempt to warn us from our calamity, I propose a way to let climate deniers suffer their own downfall. Every denier of climate change should not be allowed to listen their doctor's medical advice. From now on, they must only get their diagnosis and treatments from organizations secretly funded by the oil industry, the Bible or Fox News.

Celebrating the Accomplishments of Other Men

I've been a huge Lebron James fan for years. I like the way he plays the game. A superstar who can score with a pass-first mentality. Chris Paul, Steve Nash, Magic Johnson: these are players I've always loved because they get everyone on the team involved. I always liked the Get Along Gang growing up. I'm just wired for admiring this type of behavior, and I like the basketball players who don't have to selfishly dominate.

Lebron was unfairly maligned in Cleveland, playing with scrubs and making them better than anyone in the world could. (Remember how well Kobe did with those Laker teams who didn't have Shaq or Pau/Bynum/Odum in the front court?) I got riled up that people weren't putting Lebron in the right perspective. People were debating whether Kobe was better because he had so many rings (just as many as Steve Kerr) even though every advanced metric puts Lebron way ahead of Kobe. (They were also putting Kobe in the same league with Jordan, even though Jordan never needed a dominating center or front court to win championships.) So when the consensus flipped out because Lebron took less money and sacrificed his ego to play with better teammates, it made me that much more determined to root for him.

But a funny thing happened with a few minutes left in Game 6. I realized I didn't care that the Mavs were going to win. At the end of the day, this is another man who's personal accomplishments have no bearing on my self-worth.

So why do we do it? What draws us into the drama of professional sports, to celebrate the accomplishments of other men? Why was there so much hatred for Lebron, with almost the whole nation rooting for the Heat's downfall?

For the geographical sports fan, the one who loves the team from the location he happened to be born, there's validation when the team wins. "I'm a winner because me and my hometown are winners." There's also a sense of community that comes from victory. As humans we're wired to look for connections, to be a part of something larger than ourselves. And being winners together makes us feel that much more important. But there's also the entertainment aspect. Sports can distract from what ails us. We root for the good guys against the enemy. And sometimes we have to dig deep to explain why someone is the enemy. So we manufacture a narrative to help direct our hate against them. It beats thinking about why our life turned out so much more disappointing then it should have.

The Decision plus party in Miami gave an excuse to hate, a chance to focus a collective anger. The Heat were the bad guys, no matter how unprincipled this stand was. I mean, how often does everyone say they want athletes to take less money and sacrifice their egos to win as a team? Does a pre-season party and TV break-up with an old team really make for basketball villains? Remember when Kobe raped that girl and Jason Kidd slapped his wife? (Or does that just show us we have a propensity to forgive and forget? Or does it show that we forgive and forget winners?)

Anyway, at the end of the day, who cares. People have already moved on (hopefully) and have stopped taking pleasure in Lebron's failures and the Mavs accomplishments. As much as people pissed on Lebron for saying it, he has a point. Once this ended the haters still have to go back to their lives. That is, until they find the next athlete to root for in this perpetual made up struggle of good v. evil that we use to distract ourselves. I'm still waiting for Kevin Durant to have America turn against him in a few years when he does only God knows what.

Monday, May 9, 2011

I've Never Been So Happy to See Another Human Being Dead

That was some incredible news the other day. And those scenes of spontaneous celebration, in NYC, in front of the White House and at the Phillies game...I felt connected to my countrymen in a way I can't remember. Maybe 9/11, or when I was 8 watching the Olympics when the USSR was still in the mix. But the feeling didn't last long. Nor did I expect it to. It only took a few hours for the bickering to start, whether Obama is sharing enough credit with Bush, or if dead Osama pics should be released, or whatever other nonsense is out there.

And it's not that these questions are being asked that bothers me, but the nature of the debate. People are starting with their conclusions and working their way back to the facts that support them. The Salon did a good run down on the hater's guide to keep on hating. But most of us are aware of the ridiculous political conversations we see on our televison and read on the internet, the tribal partisanship that subdivides this nation. What can we do? Tribalism is just who we are as people, whether that's America or anywhere else.

No, the surprise wasn't the rehashing of the political arguments I've seen since my childhood. It was my joy in another human being's death. And it seems like I'm not alone. Even the Dalai Lama sanctions the hit. Although I was annoyed to see that Human Rights Watch thinks it was morally wrong to kill Osama. I was also bummed that Kurt Vonnegut is no longer alive to share his thoughts. He had such mixed emotions about human nature, it's hard to know where he would've ended up on this.

I just reread Cat's Cradle. Vonnegut had such a sweet perspective. That lost narrator working towards the book's resolution and finding his fate, clearly seeing what was wrong with other people, especially himself. He was at a loss to do anything about our collective fate except write. And my fleeting nationalism, that feeling of connectedness with my fellow countrymen, that was just a granfalloon. The nation is an arbitrary boundary which connects human beings on a superficial level. For the deep connections, I'll have to search further than the nation. Hopefully the new wife will be my duprass. Things are looking good so far, but only time will tell.

But what struck me most about all of this is how much one man directed world events in the last decade. Osama ordered 19 men to fly 4 airplanes (3 successfully) into U.S. buildings, killing nearly 3000 people. In turn, the US responded by invading two countries at a cost of 345 billion for Al Qaeda's protectors and 3 trillion for Al Qaeda's avowed enemy. The low end of total deaths as a result of these two wars is around 120,000, while it is possible the real number is much higher.

And yet Osama spent the last 6 years inside a mansion compound, his last days video taping himself watching himself on a 20' television, while we burned through that 3.5 trillion dollars and 120,000 plus people. And in the end it was a ridiculous amount of intelligence gathering, surveillance, patience, and a ballsy commando raid that took him out. All of it a reminder there was another way we could have conducted the war on terror, and how pointless that Iraq invasion was.

Anyways, I'm not sure how to end this post. Just a collection of thoughts on this guy and the last 10 years in this country. We overreacted at a terrible expense to our Treasury, our Armed Forces, and the civilian population of one Muslim country while not focusing early enough on the other. It felt great that he's dead, and it still feels good when I see unvarnished announcements of the death replayed. But it's a joy that doesn't last when I see d-bags talking about it. It's a reminder that nationalism is a false connection for those looking for real human contact, and that Kurt Vonnegut books are amazing. That guy really had a good sense of the complex beauty, humor and effed up aspects of human nature.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Human Nature

My wife and I started a pretty amazing diet 6 months ago, mostly because she had high blood pressure. She's 28 and was reluctant to take medication for the next 40-50 years. After talking with her brother, he got her to try the Paleo diet, something he's been doing for a while. Her blood pressure has gone from 150/100 to 125/80 without her significantly changing anything else about her lifestyle. The result can't be from anything other than the new diet (even though none of her doctors will credit the diet, and they've only recently conceded she doesn't need medication).

As for me, I've never eaten more fruits and vegetables in my life. That's sure to pay health dividends in the future. And while I've never been obese, I've still lost 10 pounds. I haven't been this lean since I was 25. I've also suffered from acne for the last 16 years of my life, along with shiny and plasticy skin. But all of that has cleared up, and my complexion has never looked better. (Alas, the receding hairline has remained. This diet is incapable of miracles.)

The Paleo diet has also given me a greater appreciation of foods. I enjoy the natural flavors much more. I no longer consume full bags of chips, or nearly as much tortillas, breads, and pastas; stomach fillers that dilute the nutritious meats and vegetables. Every week my wife makes salmon, steaks, rotisserre chicken, egg scrambles, fruit smoothies with cocunut milk... and writing this now makes my mouth water. It's really hard to communicate how delicious this diet is, and how great it makes you look and feel unless you try it for a month. The first few weeks are hard. The carbs and processed sugars are like a drug you need to cleanse out of your system. But once you've broken free of these substances, it's easy to stay on the diet. Now when I cheat (this diet also allows you to cheat a few meals each week without feeling guilty) and eat too much bread, candy, or drink too much booze, my stomach hurts in unnatural ways. And that's the point of the diet. Our bodies didn't evolve to digest most of the food we put into them.

So I like this diet. I feel like shouting it from the mountain tops. But I can't because most people don't give a shit (and why should they?) and the rest take it as a personal attack on their own eating habits. So I've gone with my blog, since if you've made it this far it's your own fault, and not because I trapped you in a corner at a party. Anyways, the diet is great and maybe you should try it. But if you don't want to, cool. I don't really care.

It's just that there are a small percentage of people who are annoying as shit about me being on this diet. (It's probably about the same percentage of people who are annoying as shit generally.)

The most common phenomemon is when other people tell me I'm cheating at my own diet. It's funny how many people suddenly become experts in the diets of caveman, even when they are saying things directly contrary to what I've read. The literature also makes it clear is there is considerable debate about what caveman actually ate. These people are clearly just making shit up on the spot. Again, a reminder that people find certainty that doesn't exist when they want to prove a point to win an argument. But I can't understand why people become personally invested in an argument about the food I choose to eat.

Probably the most frustrating thing that has happened is the behavior our active friends. Upon learning of my new diet they informed everybody that Paleo was stupid. A lazy man's version of the zone diet, which was also not that great. Essentially it was a waste of time with no health benefits. They're now on the diet. I can only guess this happened after they saw the physical affects the diet had on us both, since my wife also lost 10 pounds without changing her workout routine. Whenever talking about what they eat, it's all Paleo. But they can't bring themselves to say "We're eating Paleo". The other day, the husband finally admitted it's Paleo, but they still refuse to call it that. But he blamed the annoying hyped-up things cross-fit people say online about it, not that they just can't admit to their friends that they followed their idea (which we followed from a whole line of other people). God only knows why they want people to think they made it up. Anyways, so in conclusion this diet is great. And people can suck.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

One Place to Cut from the Pentagon Budget

The housing allowance for military members serving in Europe wastes a tremendous amount of US taxpayer money. For those of us who live in private housing, we rent large apartments and houses that we don't need, enriching European landlords at taxpayer expense.

In Europe, Soldiers pay for housing with what we call OHA (Overseas Housing Allowance). OHA allows a Soldier a set amount of money for rent. As a married captain who lives in the middle of nowhere Bavaria, my OHA is 1250 euros a month, way more than I need to live comfortably. (In larger cities like Wiesbaden, OHA for a married captain is at least a few thousand euros a month.) I could easily get a comfortable apartment for less than my OHA, but I don't. And no one I know lives in private housing on less than their OHA.

The main problem is that OHA is set too high. It's more money than I need for a nice apartment. But another issue is that I don't have any incentive to use less than the total amount of OHA. I don't keep the difference between the 1250 euros and what my actual rent is. Perhaps if I were a better man, than I wouldn't need an incentive to save the taxpayers a few hundred euros a month. But even if I were to unilaterraly declare war on government waste, it wouldn't solve the problem. If you looked at the apartments of me and my friends, as well as every other apartment or house of a Soldier or civilian (Perversely, the civilians get even more money than we do, and some of them have mini mansions.) I've seen in Germany, we are living well beyond what is necessary to be comfortable. And it's not just the Army. I just visited my wife's cousin in London. She is a lovely lady who lives in a cozy apartment. We talked of OHA and she told us of her airforce friend who has an outstanding flat, where the kitchen is larger than her entire apartment. I can guarantee that if the money that airmen was spending was his own, he would have a cheaper flat instead of a Rachel and Monica sized apartment in one of the most expensive cities on earth.

So not only should we reduce the total amount of OHA, we should change the incentives for servicemembers. The military should allow servicemembers to pocket the different between their OHA and the actual rent. In the US, the Soldier gets a specific amount of money based on zip code and rank, and then it's up to the Soldier to find housing. (The term is called BAH, or Basic Allowance for Housing.) The Soldier pockets the difference between the ceiling and the actual rent. At least with this system, the incentives keep the money with the Soldier. (It has also been my experience that BAH is set too high, but this does not anger me as much. BAH is a backdoor way to pay Soldiers more money and Soldiers are underpaid as it is. The problem with OHA is that it enriches European landlords.)

I guess the underlying cause to all of this is the number of US Soldiers living off-post in Europe (the deeper underlying causes, like why the US military is still in Europe in such numbers or why the US military is so large at all is not the concern of this post). If we can somehow enlarge bases (or not close bases like Wuerzburg that just got built up only to be closed after construction was finished) then at least we wouldn't be putting money directly into the pockets of European landlords. So if we are going to continue our large precense abroad, we should expand bases where possible and build more government housing. Another problem is that when a Soldier deploys from Europe, their apartment stays empty, injecting millions of American tax dollars directly into the pokcets of landlords who don't have to do anything. They don't have to fix a leaking pipe or broken heater, just collect rent for 12 or 15 months while sitting on their arses. (In the US, Soldiers have the option of breaking their lease when they deploy under the Servicemember's Civil Relief Act, "SCRA", something that was not negotiated in the Status of Forces Agreement with Germany.)

I know posting this may make me an enemy of those of us who benefit from this system. It is a good system for Soldiers. I like it. I'm living it up out here. And for the Soldiers who have gone through multiplie deployments, if they have a nice apartment in Germany that they can use as a base to travel Europe, God bless them. But in a time when we are talking about ways to save money for the US Government, this is an area where there's a lot of fat to trim with very little cost to the Soldier. If OHA was reduced and I moved from an apartment with 4 rooms to 2, I wouldn't suffer. Of course, I would prefer it if we could combine an OHA reduction with a redesign of the system. That way Soldiers could pocket the difference on their actual rent and OHA, a win/win. Soldiers could get some extra money and the US taxpayer could reduce their payments to European landlords.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Winter's Bone

No one should care about the Oscars. Ranking movies is as arbitrary as computers deciding football champions. And having a personal stake in the accomplishments of entertainers that are not friends or relatives is silly, Kobe and Lebron notwithstanding. Yet here we are.

So how does an average movie where nothing happens get nominated for best picture? My theory is that the Academy picks movies that demonstrate they are decent human beings. It was interracial relations in Crash. The struggles of poor Indians in Slumdog Millionaire and now the plight of poor rural whites in Winter's Bone. None of these movies are as polished, interesting, entertaining, complex in plot or revealing about the human condition as good movies should be. And yet they're put on a stage that they don't deserve. So the message is clear to those of you who aren't as talented as Christopher Nolan; if you want to get outsized critical acclaim then you need to pick the right theme. So I've come up with a few thematic suggestions to help budding filmmakers get to the Oscars:

1. Man struggles to survive in poor country when ethnic tensions boil over to racial violence. The world superpowers don't intervene in a timely fashion. Wait, Hotel Rwanda already did it.

2. Inner-city youth overcomes unimaginable personal hardships, in addition to the regular socio-economic obstacles. Wait Precious did it.

3. Inner-city youth struggle to survive in the face of arbitrary gang violence. Wait Boyz in the Hood did it.

4. People struggle to survive racial violence brought on by the Nazis. The world superpowers don't intervene in a timely fashion. Wait, Schindler's List, Sophia's Choice, Life is Beautiful, Defiance, Judgment at Nuremberg, The Reader, The Diary of Anne Frank, The Counterfeiters, already did it.

5. Regime goes genocidal on its own people. The world's superpowers don't intervene in a timely manner. Wait, Killing Fields and The Last King of Scotland already did it.

6. Homosexual. Wait Philadelphia, Brokeback Mountain, Milk, The Kids Are All Right, already did it.

7. Okay, so I'm thinking the way to go is something out of Haiti. I don't think anyone has done Haiti yet. Make it earthquake related, but not all about the earthquake. Use the earthquake as a touchstone to delve into the historical problems, how the country has been a mess for generations, people have no hope, the world superpowers didn't intervene in a timely manner. Etc. Maybe add a love story. Love that can't be because of the resulting cholera epidemic? No, too depressing. Maybe have the love interest randomly meet up because of a game show and do a big dance number at the end in a train station.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

It's Easier to Get a Gun in Arizona than Attend Community College

It's 2011 and I'm still opening a window to make love to the world with this blog. Sometimes a man gets an itch so bad only writing a blog post will scratch it.

So it's pretty upsetting how often America faces these violent tragedies. It's also upsetting to read that the killer's college wouldn't let him attend classes until he got a clean bill of mental health from a psychiatrist, yet he was able to get a semi-automatic pistol. It's somehow easier to get a gun in Arizona than it is to attend their community colleges.

The discourse on this tragedy is predictably annoying in some places. But there are three outstanding editorials at the NY Times alone. The great thing about those columns is that they contradict each other artfully, indicating the unknown possibilities that motivate a crazy person to kill 6 people, including a 9 year old, while a congresswoman holds a political rally. Did violent political speech play a role? Or was it just that this guy was a nut job with political beliefs that can't be placed within our partisan paradigm? And does it really matter since we're a violent country and won't use this tragedy to change one bit?

That's one thing I'm not looking forward to when I return home from Germany. It's pretty ridiculous how safe Germany is in comparison. One of my few fears in Germany is running into is a group of drunk American Soldiers. (The other is not having enough groceries before the stores close on Sunday.) Part 4 of this Wiki article I'm linking has the international crime stats comparison. And it's crazy to see how really dangerous we are. Is that because it's so easy to get powerful weapons? Is that the Founders fault, because when they said "well regulated militia" they clearly meant for criminals and crazy people to have whatever guns they wanted? Or is it because we have a limited sense of community? The Germans have so many local events. The whole country is like a county fair during the summer. Maybe it's our American impulse to outdo each other economically? And this leaves those with little ability to climb the ladder, yet huge competitive appetites, little recourse but violence?

Who knows why we're so violent. But I do know that when I return home I'll get that alarm system for my house and a gun to protect me from the home invasions and the crazies. U.S.A.