Wednesday, June 23, 2004

It's a Good Start

This week's Webrant on the Memphis Flyer website is by Ruth Ogles. She calls it "an immodest proposal."

[Politicians] talk about their experience in office and ask us to trust them for another term. They spend mounds of money to buy ad space and airtime to detail the successful programs they have overseen. But one thing they do not talk about is the limits of government and more importantly, the limits of government spending. Neither do their opponents because voters don’t elect people who tell them what they’re not going to get. Nobody ever comes to power by promising too little.

Recent op-ed space was provided by The Commercial Appeal to our county mayor, sheriff and district attorney to publish earnest requests to keep their budgets intact. Other public officials have joined the refrain with their equally heartfelt pleas. All imply that chaos will reign in the streets if these "essential" services are so much as nicked in the imminent budgetectomy.
She goes on to list some steps to help correct the budgetary excesses we're all familiar with. Some are good, like expecting the application of business acumen, but some seem like more government and more tinkering with the structures of government to produce a desired outcome.

John Adams warned us long ago:
We have no government armed in power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Our Constitution was made only for a religious and moral people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.
Benjamin Franklin also warned:
When the people find they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic.
To expect laws and governments to change the nature of people is to espouse socialism and authoritarianism Remove temptations, by removing the ability of legislators to hand out our money to their friends.. Find a way to put virtue and morality back into people and these problems solve themselves to a great extent.
Old Story, New Reporting

Remember the kerfuffle a month or so ago on this blog when I did some investigating on the Jackson Baker article about Representative Harold Ford's strange denial of being involved in a Rev. Sun Myung Moon event? Turned out Ford didn't attend and good for him, as the event was Moon's coronation as the Messiah!

Well, ABC World News Tonight had a report on that story this evening! They had good quality video of the event and were able to interview the few actual Congressmen who did attend. I'm guessing Ford is breathing a sigh of relief tonight. ABC made a few people look pretty foolish.

Congrats to freelancer John Gorenfeld for hitting the big time. He was an invaluable help in my research on the local angle.
Hey, Someone Listens

Happened to catch WMC news this evening and, in a story about the County budget, the anchor mentioned that the County budget was online at their website. Well, I scooted on over and sure enough, it was! How 'bout that?

Be forewarned that the link takes you to a PDF document (Adobe Acrobat format) and that the file is huge, 385 pages. But there it is, the budget document in all its numbing glory, for you to read for yourself.

Kudos to WMC for the public service. Well done!
More Thoughts on Firefox .9

I've been using the latest version of the Firefox browser for several days now. No question, it is noticeably faster on my machine than the .7 version was. It loads much faster, too.

I've sorted out some of the problems I initially had, but had to give up TabbedBrowser Extensions, as it was a memory hog and a drag on the processor. Otherwise, I'm back to normal browsing, with a slightly smoother feel. Pages seem to render in a different fashion than they did on .7, as I occasionally have to wait a bit for text to appear on the page, something that .7 rarely did. That's another of the beauties of Firefox: text appears on the screen right away, then all the formatting and images. It means you can start reading the site without waiting.

Only quibble: make all pages load in a new tab as the default. I'm running back into having two browser windows (or more!) open on me, if I'm not careful about how I click on links. Ooh, I hate that. Tabs, baby, yeah!

Overall, I'm very happy with .9. Kudos to the Mozilla team on this iteration!
Memphis Blogs Keep on Coming

Doing my daily rounds earlier, I found a commenter on Rachel's site who plugged his new blog: In The Memphis Mud, "Southern views on politics, sports and entertainment." And it is that! Early days, but looking good.

He calls himself "TT Boy," which I think is the nom du cinema of a well-known porn actor. I don't actually watch porn, mind you, or search it out on the web, so I don't know for sure.... Yeah, that's the story and I'm sticking with it.

Anyway, he pointed me to this story, from the Memphis Business Journal, that gives a better look at the closing of World News than the Commercial Appeal did. It has more of the details that make the place come alive and it gives a better historic sense of the newsstand. Worth a read.

Speaking of the Death Star, I'll also remind folks about the new thorn in their side, Memphis-Media blog. Posting continues apace, and today he has some fun with the County Assessor's Office online property search engine.

Speaking of that, I had some fun with it too. Can anyone tell me why Carol Chumney doesn't show up as a property owner? Her family sure does! Does she stay in an apartment or something? Or is she living with someone who is the property owner? Just curious.
Press Bias: Some Other Ways of Looking at it

I enjoy reading Jay Rosen's PressThink column. It's always thoughtful, well argued, and insightful.

A recent column, "Editor and Publisher Wants Answers: Are Newsrooms Too Liberal? Very Tricky Question." takes a long, hard look at "liberal bias" and the efforts of Editor and Publisher magazine to reach some answers in light of the Pew Study results showing significant liberal bias in the media.

Rosen applauds E&P for tackling the subject but thinks they might be doomed to just provide more ammunition for the endless "wars" he believes news reporting, and commentary on journalism, is devolving into. Rosen has a unique (to me anyway) take on the labelling of the press as "liberal," the rise of FoxNews, and the response of CNN and the usual academic journalism commentators. He sees "liberal media" as a wedge being used to politicise news reporting and fragment it into partisan camps. (Regular readers of the blog LeanLeft will recognise that tgirsch uses a variant of this argument.)
So I sent him some questions. He said he got a flood of e-mail after announcing his intentions. "I think a lot of people really want an open-minded look at this and we will do our best to respond." The focus will be not on the "liberal bias" charge generally but "the newsoom composition issue," meaning the mix of liberals and conservatives at a newspaper, how that affects the news, and what might be done about it-- if we buy the proposition. The E & P report, he said, will not be "yet another commentary on liberal bias in national coverage, yes or no." Instead:

Our small "team" of reporters will first look deeply at the Pew numbers and methodology, and try to find every other survey in recent years on make-up of newsrooms and beliefs. We will also see what's out there in surveys of j-school students, their poltiics--and what happens to them afterward. There's a theory that the liberal types go into newspapers, the non-ideological to TV and radio, and the conservatives mainly to publicity and other business-oriented fields. True? Maybe not.

We will also look at j-school faculty, what is their political orientation, what do they teach about "objectivity," and what do they think of all this. Then we will interview dozens of editors at papers big and small about what they think of the make-up of their newsrooms, do they see many conservatives applicants, what questions do they ask of applicants, what do they think of bias at their papers, etc. Then we will ask them, and some outside observers, whether there needs to be an ideological "affirmative action" program at newspapers. And there are many other issues as well....
It's a long, long, deep look at the issue and I recommend it strongly for the way it will provoke you to think about this issue. The comments section starts off pretty well, but quickly collapses into an extended argument between a handful of long-winded parties.

One thing I want to mention in connection with this article is Rhetorica, a website run by a Missouri professor of rhetoric that I've linked to in the past. Professor Andy Cline argues very persuasively that what many folks mistake for "liberal bias" is, in fact, narrative and structural bias. He shows how the media frequently lock stories into templates that are hard to break out of. He blames it mostly on the speed of the news cycle and quantity-over-quality compromises. While he doesn't argue there is no liberal bias, he deprecates it to narrative bias.

Lastly, be sure to read Dr. Cline's post "Information and Authority" from June 17th.
Yesterday I began exploring the practice of quoting anonymous sources with these questions in mind: How are the concepts of "discipline of verification" and "custodian of fact" related? And is a discipline of verification really opposed to the idea that reporters can and should state the facts as they understand them outside the confines of verification by anonymous sources?
he elaborates on a controversial theory of reporting where the reporter can insert some of his own experience and knowledge into weighing the veracity of anonymous and expert sources in his stories. I'm not sure I understand it correctly, so read for yourself.

Whew! That's a lot of deep reading for one post. Almost feels like homework. But trust me here, it's worth it.
Good News for Tennessee...And You

Remember back during the Income Tax Wars and the State of Tennessee had to endure having its bond rating dropped from AAA to AA+ to AA? The story from the Sundquist administration was that not having an income tax was the culprit.

Via Bill Hobbs come news that Tennessee's bond rating has been raised! This means savings on interest payments, which eases tax pressures.

From The Tennessean:
S&P credited the upgrade to a structurally balanced budget, a turnaround in state finances that led to a surplus last year, and Bredesen's conservative approach to revamping TennCare, the state's troubled health-care program for poor, disabled and otherwise uninsured residents.

''The revision highlights the importance of financial responsibility in state government, and it confirms we're on the right track,'' state Finance Commissioner Dave Goetz said in a statement.
And it was all done without an income tax! It's a miracle!

All the more reason to watch our legislators like a hawk. As our sales tax revenues continue to provide healthy surpluses, folks in Nashville are itching to start spending again. Don't let them! Make sure next session that we get a decrease in the sales tax, to put more money back into our pockets. After all, we'll likely have to pay more property taxes by then.
Liberal Bias: Still Not Out There

Science fiction writer Orson Scott Card, in his regular column for the Ornery American, takes a gander at "liberal bias." He takes a swipe at reporters with deficient science educations while he's at it.

Thanks to Jemima for the tip.
Hollywood's Missing Movies

Are you familiar with Total Eclipse? Directed by Steven Speilberg from a script by William Goldman, it stars Dustin Hoffman, Jurgen Prochnow, Robert Duvall, Harvey Keitel and Linda Hunt. The movie tells the story of the creation of the pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany in 1939 that divided Europe into fiefdoms and freed the Nazis for some of their worst depredations in Western Europe. The movie shows some of the Soviet invasion of Poland, secret meetings, Moscow trials, torture chambers, and the efforts of American Communist sympathisers to keep America out of the Soviets' way.

Haven't heard of this movie? There's a good reason. This essay by Kenneth Lloyd Billingsley looks at Hollywood's tangled relations with the Communist Party, the Soviet Union and their sympathisers and agents in America. He tells you the seldom-heard truth about the Hollywood "blacklist" and the history of Communism in Hollywood. Long, but a revealing read.
Sad, Sick, Pathetic

Most folks are probably aware of the Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen "countdown clocks." These are websites that count down the days, hours, minutes until the twins turn eighteen, "legal" if you get my drift. It's more than a little sick, but then that's America for you.

I stumbled across a similar site for Harry Potter actress Emma Watson several months ago. I debated posting about it, but for heaven's sake the girl is only fourteen! That one really turned my stomach, and since there was no other redeeming feature involved, I let it go.

Today, I found another one. This time, there's enough here to justify posting about it.

For starters, the doof doing this has called it a "Hermione Granger" site. Because she's a fictional character, who just happens to be portrayed by Ms. Watson, it's not quite actionable Never mind that her birthday appears to coincide with Watson's and he includes at least one picture of Watson outside of her Potter character.

What makes it worth clucking over is that this ephebophile has posted his name, picture and pathetic fantasies and embarrassing personal story all over it.
I was introduced to the entrancing world of Harry Potter by Greg Lentz, a coworker in the IT department where I work (Centripulse Network Systems). From the first moment Greg handed me the book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, I knew it was going to be good. He's actually the person who introduced me to Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series so I knew right off the bat I could trust him. I mean, I'll get back to my desk from lunch every once in a while and find a well-worn Dragon Lance book just lying by my keyboard that Greg left there for me. I may be 37-years-old but Harry Potter really brings out the kid in me. Honestly. I went to Wal-Mart a few weeks after reading the first book and got a bunch of the Harry Potter Lego sets, which I built and proudly display all over monitor at work. I even have a Harry Potter screensaver on my computer that shows Harry in the middle of a heated quidditch match, swooping down on his broom, reaching out precariously to grab the golden snitch. Then the phrase "CAN YOU DIG IT?" flashes up on the screen. It's pretty awesome. It was well worth the $19.95 I spent on it.

My favorite character in the Harry Potter books is definitely Hermione. I think that's because I can relate to her so well. She reminds me of me when I was a kid with long wavy shoulder-length hair, my hand always shooting up in class to answer whatever question the teacher might volley our way. Sometimes if she called on someone else, I'd just shout out the answer before they could even guess. I love books, as you already may have guessed I was always using my wits to get my friends out of trouble. One night at a D&D role-playing game party in 6th grade, my friend Joey spilled Dr. Pepper all over the couch. I used a special mixture of baking powder, salt, and ground oregano to bring out the stain. We'd always argue over which soft drink had the most caffeine. Those were good times. And the other reason why Hermione is my favorite character is because she is bewitchingly beautiful. To be quite honest, she cast a spell on me from the moment I met her. I guess I should wrap up this up. So I'll leave you with a poem I wrote about my favorite character, Ms. Hermione Granger.

Hermione, oh me, oh my
Oh my, oh me, for you I'd die
You charmed me with your wand and smile
And I've loved you for a long, long while
You raise your hand so high in class
I'd take you on a date, alas
You're not quite old enough and yet
My heart burns for you like a smoldering sunset
There's also his hand-drawn artwork. Like I said, he's posted a sad photo of himself, so I can hope the apporpriate authorities will give him a visit.
Things (Local News) Viewers Never, Ever Say

I found this on Lost Remote:
"Margaret! They're going to give me the details of that man wanted in the downtown robbery. Get me a pen!"

"The police want MY help in solving this crime? Cool!"

"One person was slightly injured in that accident? Good thing they had a helicopter there."

"That thing that happened half a world away? I hope this local newscast tells me if it could happen here."

"I'm glad this news station knocked on that neighbor's door next to where the shooting took place."

"Sadly, the station that I am watching presented this story to me 15 seconds after its competitor did. I know this, for I watch four televisions at once."

"It really helped my understanding of that story that they asked a couple of random idiots on the street what THEY thought of it."

"10 minutes into the show, they needed to establish the male anchor on cam before going to that VO. I had no idea who was talking."
Plenty more where these came from!
Bias, Marketing or Greed?

CBS has been getting flak from the Right because their flagship news show, 60 Minutes, has been doing high-profile interviews with the authors of anti-Bush books who also just happen to be published by a company owned by CBS' parent company, Viacom. The relationship blurs the line between news and marketing to a dangerous degree.

This week, 60 Minutes had an hourlong show devoted to CBS News anchor Dan Rather giving a soft-ball interview to Bill Clinton about his new book. In this case, although CBS' judgment might be called into question for the handling of the interview, the book was published by a non-Viacom publishing house.

That's OK, right? Maybe not. Turns out CBS has been hiding a business partnership with that helps the network profit from sales of the book, which CBS has had a big hand in promoting.

Objective and neutral? Not so much anymore....

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

That Budget Monster

Still plowing through the County budget document. I have to call the County offices tomorrow to get some clarifications on terms. "Vector control?" Why does the County have a single "Medicare physician?"

Anyway, I just wanted to let folks know I haven't forgotten or abandoned the project.
A World Without Superpower

Niall Ferguson has an interesting essay about a possible world where America retreats from its position of hyperpower to leave a political scene where no one dominates. It's a pretty dire place.

Ferguson makes some compelling projections about what could happen soon, but even he is forced to admit that there have only been two periods in 2000 years of history where the world was without some kind of power at the top. Far more likely in the short run is a world of several regional powers, with wars on their edges and chaos in the forgotten parts.

Ferguson also notes the coming decline of Europe into either senescence or Eurabia.

It's a good and thought-provoking essay.
The CA, At Last, on the County Budget

The Commercial Appeal at last weighs in on the County budget mess, but not without hitting their favorite new hobby-horse first.
PICTURE A doughnut whose hole is getting wider. For almost every new home or business built on the county's periphery, the hole grows a little larger. That's what is sometimes called "growth" in Shelby County. In fact, growth has been inconsequential. The population increased by 8.6 percent through the 1990s and by an estimated 1 percent between 2000 and 2003.

There has been a huge shift in investment and population, however. County government is now $1.6 billion in debt, largely due to the demand for new infrastructure, particularly schools, created by so-called "growth."
A nice, but failed, bit of misdirection going on here. If you're going to play the "big picture" game, then let's also look at the growth of the counties surrounding Shelby (here, here and here). You'll see explosive growth all over, except Crittenden for some reason. For the whole region, yes, there's been growth. Everywhere except the City of Memphis.

The $1.6 billion figure elides the fact that much of that was money the County had to give to the City for school construction, money that effectively enriched the City schools at the cost of the County's financial health. The formula that leads to this continues to this day, unaddressed. For that matter, what has happened with the nearly one billion dollars that the City schools got for free from the County? I never hear about that....
It would be disingenuous to blame those who move to newly developing areas for the debt. They're trying to lower their tax bills, acting on their perceptions about inner-city crime or schools, looking for more affordable housing or simply exercising their freedom of choice. There have been some shoddy home building practices, but by and large it would be wrong to blame the builders and developers who are in business to meet that demand.
"Perceptions?" Try reality. No one I'm aware of is saying the City schools are adequate to the task of educationing all Memphis children. Neither is crime a "perception;" it's a reality of everyday life in the city, especially for black Memphis.

I also love how the paper quickly removes the developers and builders from any blame. Could it be that the Commercial Appeal's revenue stream would be crippled if they decided to protest any investigations or criticisms of them? Ah, let's not be "disingenuous." After all, it's not like the City Council could encourage the Zoning Board to rewrite the rules to make building more favorable in the middle-area of the City, or the Mayor could spear-head initiatives to get them back.
But it would be irresponsible for Shelby County's political leadership to continue to ignore the mounting debt problem and count on "growth" to solve it.

Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton might have created controversy but he has also opened a vital public discussion of the county's financial picture and possible solutions, which include a temporary halt to the issuance of new building permits in unincorporated areas of the county.
Which, as I've noted before, is County suicide. Look again at the growth numbers for the counties surounding Shelby. All a moratorium will do is spike property prices in the parts of the County where building can still proceed under already-issued permits, and send everyone else even farther out. Across county and state lines.

The problem isn't growth in Shelby County, but the City of Memphis and the way it conducts itself. Look at all the lavish spending on the downtown. Whatever is good there is good by the Commercial Appeal. The rest of the city is just left hanging, hoping for scraps of attention and money. Imagine a "tiger team" like the one that got us the FedExForum, but focused on education and the schools. It could happen, and would produce tremendous results, but where's the will for it? There isn't because there's no profit for the small cabal of...ahem, builders and developers...who have the inside track at City Hall.
While a moratorium is not a political certainly nor is one imminent, it has to be on the table. The county needs to find a way to develop a clear and intelligent strategy for development.

Shelby County is two years away from a rewritten set of building and zoning codes and ordinances that could prove useful in the battle against the county debt load bulge. It also may need time to develop a new approach toward school funding, and Wharton has properly launched a quest for new sources of revenue that could slow down the rapidly escalating property tax rate.
Controlling growth is too late. Anything tried now will cause county-skipping. Not to mention that a whole lot of newly-prosperous black Memphis will bang its head against that moratorium, then understandably cry "racism" as a result. Our sprawl is too far along, too mature, for controls.

School funding? I talked about that already, and the time for that was also a while back, but it's still never too late to change that one.

Has anyone compared the property tax rises against the rate of inflation? My guess is that it's not way out of sync with inflation and population growth in the County. If you compare Shelby County alone with other counties in Tennessee, we're in the high side of the middle. It's only for Memphians in Shelby County that we end up with the highest rate in the State. Hmmm....

Then there's the subtle prod by the paper for new taxes. It doesn't matter. All taxes of this sort still come out of one place: our wallets and pocketbooks. Perhaps a geographically targeted tax on new construction might be defensible, but the County is looking at an unconstitutional payroll tax in a typical over-reach. Putting a payroll tax in place only assures the flight of businesses across county and state lines, along with the population.
There are immediate budget problems that will have to be addressed in the meantime. The growing debt service is taking a larger bite out of the budget and forcing officials throughout county government to search for cost-cutting measures that are bound to reduce the level of service residents can expect.

But a comprehensive, long-term examination of alternatives will necessarily have to include possible new fees and taxes to help offset the public costs of suburban growth and inner-city decay as well as incentives that would help stop the hole in the doughnut from widening.
Why is Shelby County suddenly responsible for Memphis decay? Memphis put all its money into the downtown instead of spreading it around. Blame our Mayor and the weaklings on the City Council.
"Right now the only way we can build schools is I borrow money and repay it with property tax proceeds," Wharton told The Commercial Appeal's Kate Miller Morton. "The resounding message I'm getting here is don't increase property taxes. Right now that's the only game in town."
I'd like to feel sympathy, but none of this was a surprise to anyone since the middle of Rout's administration, and the Commercial Appeal wasn't making noises at him about "smart growth." That's a Wharton idea. He's trying to sell it, but it's a product no one is buying. The problem isn't the County today.

Fix the school funding formula, if you can wean Memphis off all that free money. Good luck there. Get the City to pay more attention to the areas outside the traditional downtown, especially newly annexed areas. In fact, slow down annexation so that the County can hang on to those property taxes!
The mayor recognizes the delicate nature of such an examination. A moratorium on new building permits, as well as any new development impact fees, real estate transfer taxes or the like could cause some potential investments to be diverted to faster growing areas such as Fayette, Tipton and DeSoto counties. The notion of slowing the growth in Shelby County suburbs is anathema to developers and builders.

But it doesn't sound at all bad to some suburban residents who wonder if school campuses crowded with temporary classrooms and frustrating traffic jams constitute a permanent way of life or a problem that local government is eventually going to solve.
What does it say about Memphis schools that people still move out to the County, even knowing that this is true? Again, the problem is Memphis, the corpulent giant sitting at the dinner table and monopolising all the food.

Perhaps Wharton ought to try teaming with Herenton on a renewed consolidation drive? That would eliminate a lot of the problems discussed here.

OK, OK, I'm kidding....
Urban sprawl is the product of many individuals exercising their right to choose where and how they want to live. Individually, their impact is small: One or two more children in a crowded school. Another car or two on a congested interstate that will have to be widened again soon. The loss of a few more trees in an area that seems to have plenty.

Collectively, however, these decisions lead to sprawl, which is costly in terms of the community's financial stability, its environment and its quality of life.

The conversation Mayor Wharton has started is necessary and useful. It was long overdue.
Notice how a discussion of the County's budget problem turned into a lecture on the mechanics of sprawl and the need to stop it? "Smart growth" is not an answer that will work now. Long range study of how the school age population will change in the future is first needed, to see how schools should be built and where. Then, repurposing of older schools; ie. making middle schools into elementary schools, etc. should be studied. Maybe even get really innovative and look at existing structures in the commercial and industrial realm to see what could be retrofitted less expensively than new construction?

Fixing Memphis is second. As long as the City unjustly sucks money from the County through the school funding formula, we'll be stuck with County budget problems. If the Commercial Appeal wants to argue that it hasn't been growth, but movement, then they should support this, right now. Flat growth or shrinkage in Memphis, if the paper really believes that, means shifting resources back out to the County, where the movement goes. N'est pas?

Governments can't "fix" people's behavior. That's social engineering and we see how it hasn't worked for almost fifty years now. Governments should adapt. They serve the needs of the people, not alter the people to serve its needs. Let's get governments that serve the people, not the cabal of developers and builders; let's get newspapers that do the same.

Make the City, not just the downtown, an attractive, safe, prosperous place with good neighborhoods served by good schools and you'll have people flock in. But if we keep the same lousy people at the top, serving the same circle of friends and contributors, then we'll never get there.

The Commercial Appeal opined earlier this year that we keep electing the same old folks over and over, expecting new results. When election time comes around this year remember that and see who the paper recommends for local government. Wanna take bets on who they support?
Indirect Evidence

Stumbled across this story from Lycos that "Paul Johnson" was the most requested search term on their search engine last week. "Nick Berg" was at Number 7, still on the list. Completely missing from the Top 50 was the term "Abu Ghraib." Does that tell you something? Like maybe that people want to see the whole, unedited and unsanitised, story?

Well, the media doesn't agree. I noticed right after the story broke that no media source I heard or went to named the Arabic / Al-Qaida website that was breaking the story. It was always "an Arabic website." It took some digging around to find it. (Sorry, I don't have the link any more.)

Then, on the evening news, it was more "sparing the details." Dan Rather flatly announced that CBS wouldn't show the pictures. The other three main news shows only showed brief clips from his initial capture video, or the terrorists' final statement. No horror for you!

And then it was on to Abu Ghraib. Really. I'm not making that up.

A Lycos search back to May 1 shows that when the Abu Ghraib story broke, it had a similar effect, but the search terms were lumped together, so we don't know the real effect.

The lesson? When the gatekeepers of the national media try to "protect" us from the truth, the American people leap to the Web to learn for themselves. I think that also explains a lot of the popularity of the blogging world as well. Someone's doing it wrong and someone's doing it right.
Write the Story, Not the Agenda

I got an email from regular commenter Lance, who is about to head to Iraq with his National Guard unit, alerting me to an AP story (which ran in the Commercial Appeal) that covered his regiment, the 278th Armored Cavalry.

Let's start with the story itself. The reporter includes some pretty obvious "insights" like this:
Once in Iraq, the morale among National Guard troops is far lower than their counterparts in the regular Army, according to a December survey by Northwestern University sociologist Charles Moskos. Guard soldiers also felt less prepared than regular Army troops, and reported disliking full-time Army life.

Guard troops feel like Army commanders treat them as second-class soldiers, said Moskos, who noted that the Army is trying to fix the situation by getting them new equipment....

The average Guard soldier is older, with a fair number in their 50s. And while an Army unit is a cross section of America - a unit from the 278th is a cross section only of Tennessee cities such as Knoxville or Athens or Cookeville.

Older, part-time soldiers aren't as fit as younger troops in the Army, but age has its advantages, said Lt. Col. Wayne Honeycutt, second in command of the unit.
Some of this is just plain silly, like making an issue of the Guard unit's make-up versus the Army's. Does the author even understand how either work?

But after making the case in the first part of the article that the unit isn't ready, the author then refutes both the headline and the original thrust by showing that's not the case! It's only if you read all the way down, though, that you'll learn this. Skimmers will miss it altogether.

For example, early on the author writes:
And they say those units are being set up to fail because they haven't been properly trained to fight.

"They are nowhere near the level of proficiency that active troops are," said retired Army Col. David Hackworth, a critic of current Pentagon policy.
and then mere paragraphs later notes in passing:
The unit is making stops in Mississippi and California at the National Training Center to make sure soldiers are trained to fight insurgents. It could be six months before they see Iraq.

"There's no doubt in my mind we'll be equipped properly and trained to standards," Honeycutt said.
Well, Lance was incensed enough to write a letter to the editor about it to his local paper.
Many Guard members are offended by the incorrect idea that we are “being set up to fail because (we) haven’t been properly trained to fight.” Before we deploy, National Guard units spend six months training stateside to reach the active duty force’s level of proficiency. Actual time spent overseas for both active and reservist components is roughly 12 months. It is precisely because we are not a full-time force that we spend an additional six months preparing to deploy before our year-long tour....

The idea that the “278th never expected to be fighting in Iraq” is particularly egregious. While not knowing where or when, I knew I would eventually be deployed the moment that second plane hit the south tower on Sept. 11. Like other Guard members, I will leave a career and family I love (I report on my six-month wedding anniversary) to make sure the battle is fought on shores other than our own. Contrary to popular belief, members of the National Guard do not enlist for tuition benefits or other incentives — they join because they wish to serve their country.
Lance also pointed me to a new blogger who had this to say:
The article calls into question the National Guard's readiness to fight in Iraq. It also leaves readers, particularly readers with loved ones in the 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment, worried if the unit is trained and prepared to confront the challenges that lie ahead.
Note to baseball fans, the blog is called "South End Grounds" and it's a baseball blog!

I see all this as FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) on the part of the writer. A story that says "In spite of all the hardships they face, the 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment is looking forward to serving their county." doesn't fit the "us vs. them" structure most reporters look for. Pitting various "experts" around the "Are they ready?" question is more their form. Plus, my example reeks of... you know, patriotism and stuff. Can't have that!

Thanks to Lance for pointing this out, and for speaking up. Please keep him in your thoughts and prayers as he serves. I've had the pleasure of the occasional email exchange and he's a pretty rockin' guy. (Literally! But he'll have to tell you that story. Maybe if you buy him a beer when he returns...?)

Good luck, Lance and, from all the regular Americans, be careful, OK?
FedEx Forum Money Problems?

WMC reports that County Commissioners have requested the audits from the Sports Authority, regarding the FedEx Forum. The news is that the Sports Authority doesn't seem to have the audits from 2001, 2002, and 2003, and that even though they were requested two weeks ago, still haven't been delivered! Sloppiness, incompetence, or cover-up? I guess we'll have to wait and see.

The reason for the audit requests is that "someone" (not sure who from the reporting) wants to refinance the bonds that are paying for construction. Refinancing will cost an additional $25 million or so, on top of the $220 million originally financed. This will add to the $300 million the FedEx Forum already is costing the City and County.

I can't wait until the audits show up. How much more do you think this "great idea" for Memphis will end up costing?
We Are Going To Win

SouthKnox Bubba is waving the white flag. He has backed nothing but loser candidates in the Democratic primaries (Dean, Graham, Clark, Edwards) and now he's even tempering his support for Kerry. How bad is it? SKB is actually calling for Kerry to step aside and let the convention pick the nominee!
That's why I think Kerry should withdraw from the race and let the Democratic National Convention delegates nominate a stronger ticket. I realize that the current DNC rules prevent a "brokered convention" at this point, and that with the delegates he already has pledged Kerry has earned the nomination. That's why I believe he should withdraw and give Democrats a better chance in 2004....

That said, if Kerry is indeed the nominee (which is inevitable at this point) I will support him. I will work harder to find something to like and good things to say about him.
Wow. With such rousing and fervored support how can Kerry fail?

SKB's luke-warm Kerry support is a trend. It'll be interesting to see what happens once voters start paying attention in the Fall. (Notice, too, that Nader is still hangin in there at 6%.)

At this point, it looks like only Bush foolishness, which he seems to be getting a handle on lately, or national media "bad news" pressure, which really seems to be in overdrive right now, will cost Bush a second term. But it ain't over until it's over.

UPDATE: Monday Noon Well, ol' SKB has pulled a bait'n'switch, so I took down the link. I'm guessing he was "re-educated" by the right-thinking cadres of the Democratic Party Ideological Purity Committee. He took down the post he had and then filled the space with mewling drivel from his peanut gallery of capering monkeys. No sense exposing decent people to propaganda. It's sad to see honest doubt and disagreement beaten down by fearful power-grabbers.
Holy Crap!

If there's anyone in the boats in this picture, you can bet they are crapping their pants right about now....
Bill's Little Slip

Bill "It's All About Me" Clinton is the only president to have been found guilty of a crime while serving in office (lying under oath), something nearly everyone seems to not be mentioning during his book promotion, unlike the way nearly everyone found ways to mention Reagan's "failings" during his funeral week. It's all about the politics. Clinton's the only elected president to have had impeachment proceedings. Not even Nixon got that far!

Now Bill himself, admits to having lied under oath a second time:
Clinton's own legal battle with independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr accounts for one of the book's more peculiar revelations. In his August 1998 grand jury testimony, Clinton said he began an inappropriate sexual relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky in "early 1996." His testimony, as was widely noted at the time, was in conflict with Lewinsky's story: She testified the relationship began on Nov. 15, 1995, in the midst of a government shutdown.

Starr's prosecutors, in their report to Congress, accused Clinton of lying about the date of their relationship in order to avoid admitting that he had sexual relations with an intern, as Lewinsky still was in the fall of 1995 before being hired for a paying job in the winter.

Without explanation, in his memoir Clinton departs from his grand jury testimony and corroborates her version: "During the government shutdown in late 1995, when very few people were allowed to come to work in the White House, and those who were there were working late, I'd had an inappropriate encounter with Monica Lewinsky and would do so again on other occasions between November and April, when she left the White House for the Pentagon."
So, if a powerful man initiates an affair with a lowly subordinate, is it still a personal failing? She was on his payroll at the time. Is that public now or still private?

Didn't anyone think to vet the book? I have to wonder what other gems still lurk in that tome.
Thoughts on Michael Moore

So, Moore's film, Flabbythighs 451 lbs. is going to open and the debate is on. I've seen some folks try to compare him to Leni Reifenstahl as a film-maker -- great fims in the service of evil -- but I think a more apropos comparison would be to Ed Wood: earnest incompetence elevated by a cult of worshippers.

Let's looks at them. Both have a serious fashion fetish. Wood was well-known for his love of angorra sweaters and cross-dressing. Moore has a thing for ballcaps and dressing like he's still a working class slob. Problem is, Moore lives in Upper West Side New York, in a very expensive condo, and hobnobs with the folks in Cannes and Hollywood.

And then there's the Reifenstahl comparison. Triumph of the Will is masterful film-making. The film's most ardent critics, those who abhor the Hitlerism she gloried, admit that it is compelling and stirring cinema. You can't not watch. You get sucked into it and are repeatedly shocked when you realise you are finding yourself admiring the Nazis. Her conclusion may be revolting (Hitler is a god among men.), but her construction of the argument is flawless.

Moore? Not so much. His films are riddled with errors and sloppiness. Just like Wood's. His arguments are no more convincing than the pie plate UFOs Ed Wood hung from string before his camera. Wood's films bore the marks of his alcoholism; Moore's, the jitteriness of a caffeine and attention addict.

Bowling for Columbine and Farenheit 911 are like Triumph of the Will? No, they are more like Glen or Glenda and Plan Nine From Outer Space. An obscure failure in his own life, it was only with death and time that Wood gained his notoriety. Moore is celebrated today, but I think the next generation will regard him just as sadly and peculiarly as we do Wood today.

Monday, June 21, 2004

New Blog, With Pointy Stick

I've found yet another new Memphis blog, and this one means I'm not alone any more. Memphis Media is a blog of criticism of the Commercial Appeal! It's really new, but already the knives are out and the cuts are drawing blood. To the pseudonymous person behind it, who seems to know the names and where to aim, welcome to the fray.

Made it downtown and got my copy of the County budget. Man is it huge! Four-inch ring binder with about 2 -3" of paper; print just a hair smaller than my reading glasses can work with.

Shelby County is just a notch under a billion-dollar enterprise.

I scanned it quickly and found some things worth bringing up later, but no obvious smoking guns. Payroll is, unsurprisingly, the single biggest part of County expense.

I asked the woman I got this from if any other folks had come by and gotten a copy of the budget. She said no. Isn't that sad?

More later.

Sunday, June 20, 2004

Firefox .9

I installed Firefox' latest iteration today, release .9, and I was surprised by how easy it was. It was precisely like any other Windoze file installation, with a GUI interface that had recognisable window styles and questions. Things went without a hitch.

Beyond that, it got a bit sticky. Importing all my bookmarks from my previous version (Firefox .7) took some creativity, as the Import function initially layered the old bookmarks over the new, empty one. I went ahead and loaded the History file by simple copy'n'paste with Windows Explorer, though that altered the History list a bit. Everything was still there, but re-ordered.

I chose not to import the cookies and passwords. I'm going to use Firefox's cookie filter, which is working well enough so far, and I'll rebuild my passwords and Form auto-completes. One thing I noticed is that you can individually edit auto-complete items now. Good!

It's still early days, but I've already noticed that things run a bit faster. I didn't upgrade to version .8 because the minimum requirements were the same as my machine (300mhz), and .7 already ran a bit slow and choky as it was. It's minimum requirements are a lower 233mhz and the file size itself is more than a third smaller than .7, which is astounding if you think about it. Version .9 runs much faster and without quite so much choke when more than one operation is running.

There are only bad things. So far, trying to install themes and plug-ins fails. It just doesn't happen. And there appears to be no version of Tabbed Preferences or Preferential for .9 yet. I'll keep working on those; maybe there's an answer I haven't found yet. I miss right-clicking links to open in a new tab.

There is also no version of my favorite skin, Px Classic, for .9. I love the smallness of its icons and how you can reduce all the menus and toolbars to a real minimum that leaves lots of real estate for the browser window. I'm stuck with the default for now, which is a real space-waster.

Overall, I really am enjoying Firefox .9. I'll have to use it for a while, but if someone is curious about trying the Firefox broswer, I'd say download this one and give it a spin. Automatic pop-up blocking and tabbed browsing will change your life.

UPDATE: Mon. afternoon I think I've discovered the cause of my choky, sluggish browser problems: the Tabbrowser Extensions plug-in. After installing it and rebooting, I noticed a performance hit right away. I may have to reconsider using it, which I hate because it has some great features. This plug-in may also be the source of a memory leakage I've long had trouble with. We'll see.

I forgot to mention extensions (plug-ins) and themes as another reason to use Firefox. The browser itself is very stripped down, though functional enough for nearly everyone, right out of the box. But the way it is designed, you can add all kinds of functionality with extensions -- small (some only a few kilobytes big) programs you download and install on the fly, as you decide you need them. This helps to keep the main program very small, while letting you customise it to a very high degree. There are nearly 200 plug-ins available, for almost everything, and more keep coming.

Themes are just like Windoze themes and WinAmp skins. You can change the appearance of your browser to reflect your personality. There are still only a couple dozen themes, but more keep coming there as well. As I noted above, though, my favorite theme (Px Classic) hasn't been updated for Firefox .9. I like a minimal browser interface, with just the major controls visible, to keep maximum screen space for the pages.

That's another selling point of Firefox, how customisable it is. Everything is changeable: toolbars, locations, context menus, placements, colors, themes, features, everything. If you like to tinker, there's a plug-in that will take you under the hood for dozens more adjustments you can make! Your browser really is your browser.

Dowload and install it just like any other Windoze program. Reboot, then get on the Net. Fire up Firefox and see if it doesn't amaze you. And yes, you can run it on your computer right alongside whatever browser program you are using now. See if Firefox doesn't charm you.
Just A Thought

Looking over the Father's Day Commercial Appeal it struck me. It begins with a top of the fold, front page story on fathers. Continues across many sections, including a big splash over the Editorial section, with lots of columns, pictures, etc. It's quite a spread, lots of thought, attention, work.

Compare that to the Easter Sunday Commercial Appeal, which had a single-column, below the fold story of a drug-addict who found special solace in Easter, another picture or two elsewhere, and that was about it. I don't think even David Waters' column was so much about the Resurrection as it was yet another tedious lecture on not measuring up.

Not sure what it means, but I sure noticed it. And I'm an atheist!
The CA on the County Budget

Today's editorial by the Commercial Appeal is the paper's most direct address yet on the County budget situation and it's a weak, limp response. But what else would you expect? Let's take a look.
SHELBY COUNTY officials are right to avoid proposed budget cuts to the Sheriff's Department's uniform patrol, gangs and narcotics units that were recommended last month by Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton.

Safety is one of the most important services provided by government. No one wants his or her neighborhood overrun by criminals. Uniform patrols, drug and gang unit deputies are crucial to maintaining a safe environment.
Strangely, the paper didn't criticise the Mayor for doing that. Had he run for office under that kind of promise, you can bet the paper would have been scathing and brutally dismissive of him. Why they treat him as a serious offer-maker and not a lunatic and high-stakes bluffer is for the ages to decide.
Wharton's $300 million "bare bones" budget was submitted to the County Commission after an earlier budget - which called for a property tax increase of up to 23-cent per $100 of assessed value - received a near universal thumbs-down.

Wharton's second budget suggested cuts to many county departments next year, including an almost one-third reduction in the number of deputies patrolling roads in unincorporated Shelby County. He said he submitted a balanced budget that maintains services required by state law.
I'm picking up a copy of the County's budget tomorrow and will scour it to see what recipients of funding remain, even after the cuts. Prepare to be surprised, I'm sure.

Calling Wharton's revised budget "bare bones" is an insult to Shelby Countians. How about: lunatic, insulting, doomsday, scare-tactic? He took a cowardly request from the County Commission ("Save our asses by not proposing anything that requires a property tax raise.") and threw it back in their faces, with a dare to pass it. Rather than throw it right back at him, they elected to simply rework it. They had to go back and request a detail of his cuts (which should tell you something about the Mayor's proposal right there), then wait for it, putting them well behind in doing their job.

Once the Commission started work and word of their proposed cuts and restoration of Wharton's cuts got out, the Mayor launched a full-on attack on what they tried to make of his mess. Sheriff Luttrell was right behind him, shouting "lawsuit!" The foolish cowards at the Commission got themselves here, but they've been out-maneuvered by Wharton and Luttrell ever since.
Sheriff Mark Luttrell reeled at the idea. The 230-mile area his department polices is bursting with new subdivisions, businesses and crime. To remove officers from these areas would be pure folly.

"We will become a reactive force instead of proactive," Luttrell said. "We'll just go out and clean up the mess rather than try to prevent it. We actually need more patrol officers, rather than fewer."
Luttrell didn't "reel" until the Commission reacted, don't forget that. And, as a Second Amendment supporter, I have to ask why he hasn't mentioned citizens learning how to defend themselves and their neighborhoods as a matter of course?
Wharton said he submitted the revised budget with great reluctance. He does not support cuts to law enforcement programs that would put citizens in harm's way, but he correctly noted the county must find alternative funding sources.

"We are simply flat against the wall, faced with cutting services we consider critical or with finding new sources of revenue other than the property tax," Wharton said in a guest column in the June 13 Viewpoint pages. "This reality serves as a warning that we must move away from our over-reliance on the property tax."
You'll notice that no one in the local media, except yours truly, seems to be questioning those cuts, as to whether they are the only ones that can be made. No one has gone in and looked at what survives the cuts, no one.

Has anyone done a study to see what the effect is on the property tax when formerly rural land is converted to residential and commercial use? My guess is that property tax revenues rise as a result. In a booming market like East Shelby County we should be seeing massive amounts of increasing revenue, yes?

This whole thing, I'm beginning to believe, is a charade to make the public more amenable to those "new sources of revenue" Wharton is talking about. I don't doubt Wharton's personal integrity, though as someone who has been long-active in politics you have to assume he's made some concessions and accomodations along the way. We must also never forget that Wharton is, by training, career and avocation, a lawyer. That absolutely affects and influences the way he approaches and handles things. I believe it has affected his approach to how we are going to get new and increased taxes sometime this year.

By scaring the public as he has, by launching a hullabaloo completely unncecsary to the process of securing spending and funding priorities, we see that lawyerly approach in action. He could have simply explained what he needed and why. It would have been a hard sell, because few believe that government isn't wasteful and that some pet projects and spendings are still being retained in the new "bare bones" budget. He chose not to do that, but to take the Sundquist/Naifeh "scare the voters" route to passage of new taxes. It's shameful. Doubly shameful is that local news and newspapers don't tell you this.
Fortunately, the County Commission's budget committee last week heard a compromise that would preserve key funding to the Sheriff's Department while regrettably reducing as much as $2 million from the Regional Medical Center at Memphis and $1 million from libraries. The plan also proposes closing the Shelby County Show Place Arena and the county rifle range. But, unfortunately, this compromise may be the most logical way to avoid a property tax increase.
Carefully worded to make it sound like the proposal was the Mayor's and not the work of the Commission's staff. And after a long series last year about the importance of the Med to our community, requesting additional funding from the County and State -- even from Mississippi and Arkansas! -- now the paper calls the loss of millions merely "regrettable" and "unfortunate." How noble of them! How stiff of lip and manly of demeanor!
The plan outlined by Jim Huntzicker, county director of administration and finance, would divert $7 million from repayment of the county's $1.6 billion future debt service to pay for debt costs this year, freeing up tax money for other crucial services.

Huntzicker said that while the county's debt would increase if the funds were used to balance the budget, he felt the money could be recouped from other sources, such as real estate taxes or transfer fees.
Go to the Shelby County site and look at the Mayor's "Revised Budget Proposal." The original budget had a line item that was called "unrealised revenue." This was, when you read the detail, simply a made-up way of picking up the last slack they wouldn't cut! It was hoped-for but not actual revenue to come from sources the County either hadn't raised taxes for yet, or hadn't gotten approval from some legislative body to levy yet! It was yet another sham.

Wharton removed that item in his revised budget to make the shortfall look worse, but now Huntzicker is putting it back hoping, I'm sure, to prod some action along that front. Aren't you glad the watchdogs of the media pointed all this out for you?
The Sheriff's Department still would take a $4 million hit, but it is hoped in areas that would have less public impact.

Huntzicker said cuts to The Med would be softened by the recent infusion of $10.2 million from the state.
The State gave the Med money, more than expected, so we'll adjust our contributions accordingly -- downward. Remember this little shell game, because you will see it used by the State with lottery funds and the Education budget in a few years. This is merely the local version.
The compromise budget also would maintain the mosquito and rat control programs, pretrial services and half the funding for the crime victims' center. Those programs deserve as much support as possible.

In an effort to control costs, Huntzicker said the county could hasten the sale of some county buildings, and he urged commissioners to approve a two-year budget.
These "solutions" Huntzicker is talking about are one-time-only. They do not address revenue or spending, much in the same way spending the tobacco settlement money on State budget shortfalls several years back didn't address the problems there. Folks just don't learn and your watchdogs don't, either.

Notice how these programs "deserve as much support as possible" where the Med was "regrettable" and "unfortunate." Would the Commercial Appeal also care to venture their opinions on the constitutionality of them? That would be instructive.
The budget compromise may be the best option to avoid a significant property tax increase next year. But in case someone revisits the plan to cut funds from the Sheriff's Department's uniform patrol, it should be noted that more people, traffic and crime in the county translates into a need for more and not fewer patrol cars. Funding for these crucial services should remain intact.
Since when does the Commercial Appeal care about our taxes? They've backed every initiative that has cost taxpayers for years, including the Pyramid and the FedEx Forums.

What we're not hearing is the paper's own thoughts on what should be done. They have only commented on the work of others, in a wishy-washy way. They need to go ahead and suggest what they think is important and what should be done. That hasn't happened yet. I'm not betting it will happen at all.