The Two-Party System

At least every four years I hear complaints about our two-party system. The framers of our constitution, all nine of them, had no apparent inkling that there would be two parties, but two parties emerged as soon as the date was set for the first election. That would be the Republicans and the Whigs, later the Democratic Republicans and the Whigs, then the Democrats and the Whigs, then the Whigs went the way of the Dodo and since then it’s been the Democrats and the Republicans. In fact the current Republicans are the only successful third-party in the history of the country, and they were only a third-party once, really, as the former second party disbanded not long after that election. I think it’s all the Celts’ fault.

Not the basketball team that pronounces its name wrong, but the actual Celts who once ruled most of Western Europe. Like America since the beginning they were a divisive and contentious lot, and they had the “code of the West” before any of them knew that North America even existed. I once read a report from an early Christian missionary to some Gallic Celts. The missionary asked what, since they did not have the Gospels to guide them, the Celts used for a moral guide. The reply was, “Strength in the arm, honesty in the heart, and truth on the lips.” Updated to 1875, that amounts to “be strong and self reliant, be honest in dealing with other folks, and don’t try to con a con man”, which is pretty much the code of the West. Interesting, huh? Getting back to the two-party system, here is part of a description of Celtic society by none other than Gaius Caesar, from his Commentaries:

“caes.gal.6.11”: [6.11] Since we have come to the place, it does not appear to be foreign to our subject to lay before the reader an account of the manners of Gaul and Germany, and wherein these nations differ from each other. In Gaul there are factions not only in all the states, and in all the cantons and their divisions, but almost in each family, and of these factions those are the leaders who are considered according to their judgment to possess the greatest influence, upon whose will and determination the management of all affairs and measures depends. And that seems to have been instituted in ancient times with this view, that no one of the common people should be in want of support against one more powerful; for, none [of those leaders] suffers his party to be oppressed and defrauded, and if he do otherwise, he has no influence among his party. This same policy exists throughout the whole of Gaul; for all the states are divided into two factions.

Isn’t that interesting? You know, President Jefferson was a Celt, and he was most influential in the early days of our country. More than that, our government, contentiousness and all, would almost seem to be modeled after the Celtic idea of two parties protecting the common citizen. To a Roman such an idea seemed foreign of course, as Rome always went to whichever would-be leader managed to pull it off. In Gaul and other Celtic provinces the leadership was always a matter for some serious, and occasionally bloody debate. Oddly, the two-party system seems more built in to our National psyche than to our public documents. Maybe that’s because a lot of Celts were early settlers, and have continued to move in for almost four centuries now. There were a passle of Welshmen in Jamestown, for instance. In the eighteen-forties, when about a third of the population of Ireland moved to the new world, we got a huge infusion of Celts. Anyone you know who’s a wee bit Scots is Celtic. My family and I look German as heck, but amongst our ancestors are Irish, Welsh, and Helvetians (Swiss.) In a sense, for the first time in their history, the Celts have succeeded in setting up a lasting nation. Who’d ‘a believed it, eh?

So maybe the way to look at our two-party system is in the Celtic manner: to regard it as a way to protect individuals from the excesses of government, since whenever any party starts to exert too much influence the other one immediately comes out in opposition to whatever the party in power is doing, just on general principles. Rather than howl about scoring political points at the expense of civility and effective government, maybe we should be grateful that our two-party system keeps re-pointing us in the direction of “that government governs best that governs least.”

Besides, it can be a good show. Other people’s hypocrisy is always entertaining, innit?

Spam for Porno?

I’m not even at work yet, but this has been nagging at me. For a long time the amount of solicitations for adult sites in my mailbox was really low. This after the first flowering of porno ads in the 90s, when every other thing I received was for some excitement or other of a sexual nature. Then a few months ago it all started coming back, only strangely different. The senders, for instance, are people like building.p.exhaustion or some similar combination of nouns and initials. Okay, you can get a computer to make up names, which saves time and as a bonus, makes it tough to filter the content. Unless, like me, somebody takes the time to carefully put in a filter for any words in the subject that indicate, you know, some sort of sexual activity, including of course, getting a hummer in the office (sorry, Bill C.).

That’s okay; all the stuff seems to wind up in my Junk Mail folder, where I could just delete everything except that every so often something I want to read gets put there by mistake. I always add whatever that is to my safe senders list, but I still have to look at the subjects of all the mail that winds up there just in case. Now, here comes my point at last. I assume that an ad for a pornographic web site is supposed to be attractive to some people. The subject lines are incredibly explicit about some activity or other, which is why my filter works so well. But, here are a couple of examples, and neither is particularly dirty so don’t worry about your mom catching you reading this.

“Cute babe sucks her toes.” “Sexy nurse puts her stethoscope between her legs.”

Like I said, I assume that those things are supposed to be attractive. Unless, maybe the cute babe is six months old, and it’s fun to watch the little babe learning to crawl. I mean, sucks her toes? So? She’s welcome to suck her toes all she wants, but why would I pay to watch her do that? And that nurse? Well, either she knows something about stethoscopes that I don’t, or that’s not going to do anything as a normal stethoscope, or as an adult toy. Do these guys know anything about anatomy? I guess not. So, the point is that apparently there are some damned odd people in the world, or whoever sends out those mails is a member of some other species than human. Whichever, I’m pretty safe from wasting any money on anything that they’re advertising. Although, they at least so far are leaving out the farm animals I used to read about. Not that was scary!

Ordinary in Las Vegas

My lovely wife Tami had never been to a hockey game, so we attended a preseason contest between the LA Kings (as close to a home team as you’ll get in Las Vegas) and the Colorado Avalanche. There were quite a few Avs fans in attendance, in spite of the announcements about “Staples Center Thanks You for Attending . . .” Staples Center? Oh, yeah. That place. Never been inside, but I know right were it is if I ever want to go there. But my point is that, although the arena is attached to the MGM Grand Hotel, Casino, Mall, Zoo and Tourist Trap, it is an entirely normal and ordinary place where you’d expect to see something like a hockey game. It is remarkable in Las Vegas for its total banality. No glitz, just the usual ads around the rink and small Jumbotron hanging from the ceiling. No gambling, no mostly naked women (they’d freeze, anyway) and nothing particularly glamorous.

One oddity: shortly after the game started there was a penalty assessed for “inciting a fight” and two more for “fighting.” It’s two minutes for the inciting, six for actually fighting. Hockey just isn’t what it used to be. The rest of the game was very clean hockey, with only a few minor penalties for tripping and such.

We left after two scoreless periods as I had to get to work. But, for the record, the Avs broke a 1-1 tie 57 seconds into overtime. (There was the extreme excitement of watching them replace a glass panel during the second period, however, so the evening wasn’t all dull.)

I came to work on the Las Vegas Monorail. Three bucks one way, five round trip. Some drunken tourists got on at the Flamingo, and got off at Harrah’s. I felt sorry for Harrah’s. You know how much fun it is to be obnoxious when you’re drunk? If you don’t, good for you. If you do, stop it! Oh, well, this is Vegas; be as drunk as you want. Just do not, and I mean this in all sincerity, let Metro (the cops) catch you driving drunk. If you do, your vacation will be extended, all expenses paid, and it may be a while before you get to drive again. Of course your hotel won’t be quite as nice, and the buffet really sucks I’m told, but you will get to stay in Vegas on us.

Nevada is funny that way. I could take you to a place where you can quite safely and legally spend your weekend drinking, gambling, and whoring (yes, whoring is legal in most of this state.) However, if you violate one of the laws we do have, then you should know that mercy is not a quality noted in abundance in Nevada court rooms. (Except for speeding outside of school zones and construction zones. As I’ve said before, if you’re from East of Nebraska, I’d advise you to just take a cab. It can be scary to drive here if you’re not used to it. Californians have trouble keeping up.) Besides, there’s the “most state of the art monorail in the country” to ride. Thirty bucks for a ten day pass. You know, for a tourist, it’d be worth it, although it does have a sort of Disney like aura about it. I guess the drunks are there to let you know you’re on Las Vegas Boulevard, not Main Street USA. (Wherever that may pop up next.)

Unsafe Drugs from Canada?

The State where I live, licentious as it is, currently has a team inspecting Canadian pharmacies to ensure that they will be a good place for Nevada residents to order drugs online. Not a lot of people, even the Libertarian wing, have much complaint about our government doing that for us. If I didn’t have insurance, I’d want a cheaper place to buy drugs, too. So, inasmuch as you’re willing to trust the State of Nevada team of Canadian pharmacy inspectors, you’ll know seven or nine reliable, honest online places to buy drugs from Canada at rates much reduced from those charged locally.

Unless, of course, the FDA and the rest of the Federal government has its way. The FDA insists that Canadian drugs might not be safe. This from the agency that approved Vioxx and other drugs like it, that has yet to fully approve the simple morning after pregnancy prevention pill that has been used safely in such backward countries as Canada, England, and France for some years now, and that also has managed over the years to approve such wonder drugs as Thalidomide, Bextor (sp?) and other drugs that apparently cure what ails you by killing you off. It’s effective, true, but that side effect is a bit harsh.

The drugs in question are often not made in Canada, but in terribly backward countries such as Ireland, which is a third world hotbed of unsanitary conditions that . . . huh? . . . Oh, it’s not, is it? The truth is that the drugs marked as “American” are made in those same foreign factories as the drugs marked “Canadian.” How many Canadians die from bad prescription drugs every year? Seriously, is it ten? Five? Two? Nobody? It’s probably somewhere in that range. What the FDA is protecting is not the health of Americans, but the financial obesity of pharmaceutical manufacturers who reap profits in the 20 percent range. GM makes half a percent or so, and they still manage to pay regular dividends. I suppose the only more egregious example of profiteering in the US these days is the price of gasoline, since the gas in the pump was paid for by the manufacturer six weeks ago, before Katrina, yet it reflects the spot prices of the oil market today. Maybe we should give the oil company executives some pharmaceuticals; it might mellow them out and give them some sense of responsibility. As for the drugs, it is utterly ridiculous to suggest that they are less safe in Canada than they are in the United States. What do they mean to suggest that Canada is? Some fourth-world level country in sub-Saharan Africa where government corruption will allow virtually anything to happen? Hardly. I don’t particularly think I’d like living under a governmental system like Canada’s, but that description comes closer to describing the situation at the FDA than it does anything North of the Border. Sheesh!

Titus Pullo, Lucius Vorenus, and Great Caesar’s Ghost

I’ve been a sucker for Rome, the classical empire that is, since I was about thirteen. So when HBO announced a new series set in that very place my interest was piqued. I haven’t been disappointed either, as the series, co-produced with the BBC (which explains why Romans all spoke with British accents), has been a really good one so far. Titus Pullo was a Legionaire, and Lucius Vorenus was whatever they called the next rank above Centurion. A Centurion was roughly equivalent to a sergeant in the field, so I guess that would make him the equivalent of a lieutenant. They were real, and in fact the only two soldiers Caesar ever mentioned in his writing. Nobody has any idea what they actually did to deserve the honor though, so it’s probably unlikely that Pullo ever saved the Roman treasury (accidentally) or that Vorenus ever resigned to become a grocer (it’s pretty sure he’s going back to the legion in an episode or two.) But they’re the two through whom we see the events of Rome about 2060 years ago.

The events, as they’re presented, all really happened, which is quite remarkable. Those people were effing nuts, or they were by our standards. They had the morals of alley cats and, in day to day life, the apparent self-control of a two-year old. But, and this is what always gets me, they had hot and cold running water, an effective sewerage system, amazingly good doctors, and they all ate pretty well into the bargain. It almost seems as if they advanced so far into modernity that, being essentially not at all modern, they had no idea how to handle it. I wonder sometimes if that’s a big reason for their downfall, that they simply were in over their heads, technologically speaking. Their social structure never evolved to accommodate all the wonders they’d invented or perfected. Consider that the formula for our modern concrete was written down by an engineer named Vitruvius over two millennia ago. After Rome fell, it was over a thousand years before we started re-discovering their innovations, or finding them in old books in some cases. So far we seem better able to handle the strain of technology, maybe because our government, ridiculous as it sometimes is, is a whole lot better than Caligula and his ilk. Whatever.

You can see these Romans operate, or at least a very faithful recreation of the Romans in action, on HBO every week. Just the other day Caesar rode into the city after crossing the Rubicon (yes, he did that, really, invaded his own city.) Because he wanted the people to continue to support him, he needed to have the gods (of which there were plenty, with Jupiter at the head of the class) bless his endeavors. A couple hundred sisteri to the head augur (fortune-telling priest at the temple of Jupiter) and lo and behold, the signs were favorable. Funny how that works. I wonder if that ever happens today? Nah, couldn’t be. Meantime the other Consul, named Pompey, is camped outside of town considering what to do about Caesar. What happens is history, but it sure is fun to watch it being made. There’s even authentic graffiti, in Latin, about the sexual preferences of various characters and other things. Makes me glad that I know a little Latin. She does what? Oh, my!

Oddly, the series is fascinating even though the final outcome is pretty well recorded in advance. Gaius goes to the Forum where the entertainment just kills him. Really. But what fun to watch it all unfold. And what strange birds those Romans were. Just think, maybe some day some archeologist will dig up our civilization and find a copy of the program(me). How thrilled he’ll be to find a window even further into the past than he expected. I guess that just shows how much nicer we are than the Romans, huh?

The Wages of Wheel of Fortune

Gambling’s often a bad idea. Take today, when I went in for Old Fart Triple Points Day at the Fiesta Henderson Casino. It’s on Lake Mead Parkway right where it turns into I215. Anyway, I played video poker (Deuces Wild) for about half an hour and lost about three bucks. Not too awful, but nothing great either. For one thing, I lost three bucks. So I pushed the cashout button and collected my ticket (there are no coins used in gambling machines anymore, in case you don’t have a casino handy.) I save that credit slip to use on the occasional Old Fart Triple Points Day. Every so often I get a free meal out of it, which helps make up for those devastating $3 losses. But today I happened to see the 25 cent Wheel of Fortune machines. I never put my credit slip in a regular slot machine, because I know I’ll lose it. But I figured that five bucks wouldn’t kill me, so I put in a fiver. On the second game I got three bars, which pays enough that I now had eight bucks credit. This was bad, because I like to play but my rule is that if I get half again what I start with, I quit. So I cashed out and got my eight dollars. Then I says to myself, what the hey, put the five back in and you can’t lose more than net two bucks. See? Well, after less than ten games on the second time I put the five in I got a spin, which paid 40 quarters. For the arithmetically challenged, that’s ten bucks. This time I cashed and went home, for a net profit of over ten bucks including the three I lost on Deuces Wild.

See how gambling destroys your finances? If I only had the nerve to bet real money I’d be rich, you know? Hah! If you believe that, I’ve got a bridge to show you. Of course, I actually am ahead of Wheel of Fortune, because for some reason that game loves me. Same with video blackjack. Want to know my secret?

I quit while I’m ahead. A highly recommended and seldom practiced technique. I’d recommend it to anybody. Hey, ten bucks is ten bucks, right?

Traffique

I’ve written some theoretically funny pieces about traffic, but just for lack of grins I’m inspired to say the same things without the humorous overlay. Sorry if I offend. Oh, no I’m not. Sorry about that. Oops.

Courtesy?

Think you’re courteous on the road? Well, most people are, some of the time. Most people, if you signal that you want to change lanes, will let you do it. Know how to tell the people who won’t? They’re the ones who cut in without signaling. Obviously, if I’m an inconsiderate jerk, I figure everyone is the same, so I get you before you get me. Bwaa-haaa-haaa. Know what? If you don’t signal your lane changes, you’re an inconsiderate jerk and that’s all there is to it. There are other terms for you as well. Asshole comes to mind. A commonly overlooked form of courtesy is keeping out of the way of other drivers. I know people who get righteously indignant that so many people zoom past them as they drive along at 5mph below the speed limit. The thing is, obstructing traffic just so you can feel virtuous about not being a speed demon is just as discourteous as failing to signal. Guess what that makes you?

Other Stuff

Opposite the drivers putting along below the speed limit is the person who tries to drive as if the road were vacant when in fact it’s full of other vehicles. Really now, folks, there’s no reason to drive like you can get to the head of the line. There is no head of the line! What are you, nuts? The US Interstate Highway System is an engineering marvel, involving tens of thousands of miles of interconnected concrete runways stretching sea to sea and border to border. It is also essentially unbounded. That means that if you had enough fuel and a huge bladder you could drive all over the country and never once exit from the Interstate System. That means that there is not a single place on the entire highway that qualifies as “the beginning.” You can’t get there because it doesn’t exist. If you’re in that big of a hurry, get Scotty to beam you in, okay?

If you aren’t skilled enough, well trained enough, or courageous enough to operate your truck or SUV properly and safely, sell the thing and get a VW Beetle or something more your size. You’re not safe in any vehicle that’s being driven in an erratic and unsafe manner. And while we’re on that basic subject, strap your kids in properly and don’t turn around to look at them while you’re moving! Other people have children too, you know.

I could rant on and on because this topic represents a lifetime commitment to frustration. Not that I want to be committed to frustration, mind you, it just happens. That’s because of something I noticed a long time ago: that the flow of traffic is more important than any one driver’s agenda. I read recently about a trend among those responsible for traffic control to use that viewpoint rather than the more rigid attitude exemplified by the decades old “Speed Kills” campaign. It’s true that if you get into an accident at a higher speed you’re going to cause more damage. What that attitude fails to take into account is methods to reduce the number of accidents that are independent of pure “speed.” The idea on an Interstate, for instance, is that everybody is moving at pretty much the same speed. That this is safer was illustrated in Colorado when the accident and fatality rate dropped after the rural Interstate speed limit was raised from 65 mph to 75 mph. At 75 you will need to dissipate one-third more energy to stop than at 65, a fact of nature often quoted by the speed kills campaign. You’ll note that 75 is not one-third faster than 65, but the momentum builds logrithmatically (you square the change.) But what happened in Colorado was that those who insist on never speeding now had official permission to keep up with those who insist on never going less than 75. It’s easy to blame the speeders for the carnage, but it’s easier to simply prevent the carnage by giving the nod to unfortunate human nature.

One thing a surprising number of states do that I’m sure contributes heavily to the overall accident rate is to post different speed limits for different classes of vehicles. Here again the extra weight of a truck adds momentum logrithmatically. But, having large trucks going ten miles per hour slower than cars means that cars are popping from lane to lane trying to pass the trucks, a condition that on its face seems to just ooze collision danger. California does it, Ohio does it, as do other states. Why? Well, those limits are frequently set by the legislature. In Ohio the Turnpike is run by a separate commission, and the speed limit is 65 no matter what you’re driving. Guess which road is easier to drive: the Turnpike or Interstate 75?

I absolutely refuse to believe that this posting will make one whit of difference to traffic conditions or peoples’ driving habits. Nevertheless, it does make me feel better. When I feel better I drive better. So, I guess, in that small way, it’s worked.

And the Terrorists Score a Hit . . .

No, not the World Trade Center or the Pentagon. Those hits were from 2001, and they weren’t the real point anyway, if you listened to what Osama Bin Ladin said at the time. He said that the intent was to disrupt the Great Satan (I sort of feel flattered by that designation — at least we’re the ‘Great’ Satan, and not some run-of-the-mill pipsqueak demon.) He intended, so he said, to get us working against ourselves until our society fails from internal strife. Things haven’t gone exactly how he intended, but overall I think the bearded wonderboy of terror must be fairly pleased with how his scheme has been working.

I just read another article critical of FEMA and the ongoing response to Katrina along the Gulf Coast. Well, yes, it could be a lot better, couldn’t it? But, as an official said, since 9-11 the public focus has been on terrorism, so response to plain vanilla disasters hasn’t gotten the attention or funding that it deserves. That Bin Ladin fellow must be so pleased that he’s redoubled his prayers of gratitude to Allah for delivering the Great Satan to righteous retribution, or whatever in heck he calls it in his warped mind. I don’t know what Allah thinks of all that, but I’ve got an opinion or two. First, maybe we should consider what terrorism really means.

Terrorism is a tactic that uses fear to try to bring the target population under control, or to eliminate the target population if possible. It’s not doing any particular thing other than to try to keep people scared. When people are scared they often act against their own best interest, so by using terrorism you can get your enemy to do the fighting for you, in a manner of speaking. Maybe Osama believes that god sent the hurricane deliberately, but most people think that hurricanes are just one of those awful things that happen from time to time. Or maybe Osama just feels lucky and also doesn’t credit Allah, but either way he wins. By getting us to be so afraid that we concentrated all of our efforts on combating terrorism he also got us to ignore basic domestic safety issues, such as ensuring that FEMA was ready to respond to any emergency. That was FEMA’s charter, and they’ve done a tremendous job in the past. It wasn’t racism that condemned those poor people, it was terrorism. They’re sin wasn’t being black, it was being poor. Poor people are invisible, or else why do we now hear that “nobody knew” about the level of poverty in New Orleans? Anyone who bothered to look saw that it was there; it’s just that there’s no real reason for most of us to look until something like a disaster hits. (I’ll leave it to your conscience to decide about the moral and ethical issues that fact might raise.)

But, what else could the terrorists do, in terms of actual acts of war and destruction? We’ve been assuming the worst all the time, from the series 24 and a nuclear bomb that almost destroyed Los Angeles (and then where would we have gotten our TV shows?) to the nonsense once spouted about plastic and duct tape for your windows. I suppose that somebody could detonate a stolen, or jerry-rigged nuclear device in a city. Somebody could set off a homemade dirty bomb in the Super Bowl Stadium, too. Somebody could probably close down Interstate 80 across Nebraska (don’t think that wouldn’t be a disaster.) But, as a practical matter, could somebody do worse than what Hurricane Katrina just did? In truth, probably not. What we’ve done, by acting out of fear, is forget the basic fact that an emergency is an emergency. The firemen in New York never had specific training in response to terrorism prior to 9-11, but they knew how to act in an acute crisis. That’s what we need, not blather about “terror alert levels.” The real “alert level” is red all the time, if you think about it. Personally I’ll feel safer when FEMA is back to full strength and doing what it used to do well: managing disaster scenes effectively.

This will seem like a digression, but it isn’t. Bear with me for a paragraph. I’ve read about the D-Day landings in France. The Germans were well entrenched and had the high ground. They had every opportunity to wipe out the invading armies, but they could not. One big reason, according to what I’ve read, is that the American troops were each one thinking independently enough to respond appropriately to whatever was happening in his immediate vicinity. If they’d gone up the beach in some centralized lock-step sort of manner, the Germans may have prevailed. Instead, those thousands of individual battle plans, each one with the overall goal of the day in mind, allowed most of the invaders to survive and prevail.

So, back in 2005, I think it’s not such a wonderful idea to centralize our response to terrorism in one agency, even if it does have the attractive name of “Homeland Security.” I’ve never really liked that term ‘homeland’ anyway. It sort of reminds me of the German ‘fatherland’ concept. Creepy. But, my bias about words aside, the folks along the gulf would have been a lot better off if FEMA had stayed independent. Their mission has been to respond to domestic emergencies all along. 9-11 was a domestic emergency, Katrina is a domestic emergency, the Oklahoma City bombing was a domestic emergency. Two out of three were handled well by FEMA. The latest, after FEMA lost it’s autonomy, continues to be criticised for ineffectiveness. I think there may be a lesson here, if we’re up for it.

Let’s relax our paranoia, look at the real situation, and deny the terrorists another victory. Whattya say?