Friday, September 24, 2004

Activist Politicians

"Activist judges" is a code phrase used by conservatives to attack courts that make decisions they disagree with, which usually involve granting or protecting rights to some person or group who have been excluded or discriminated against.

But what about "activist politicians," who pass extremist laws to give themselves more power? Governor Jeb Bush tried it in Florida in the Terri Schiavo case and it took until yesterday for that state's supreme court to remind him that, in the constitution, there's a little thing called "separation of powers." He's not the emperor of the state, and can't just will himself imperial powers over life and death.

Now, the US House has passed a bill, pushed by Missouri Congressman Todd Akin, that would deny the US Supreme Court and other federal courts the right to rule on whether "under God" should remain in the Pledge of Allegiance. There's a similar bill in the Senate from another Missourian, Jim Talent, that attempts the same end run. Whether you think those two words belong in the Pledge, or not, is immaterial. You should be concerned about activist politicians trying to uproot the Constitution of the United States and rebuild it for their own purposes.

It's purely a political move in an election year, and cheap exploitation of a wedge issue. Anyone who votes against the bill can be positioned as being against the Pledge of Allegiance, and thus unpatriotic. If I were running against them, I'd remind voters that the law itself is unpatriotic, that the US Constitution, which clearly states the powers delegated to the three branches of government, is more important to defend than the Pledge of Allegiance.

This is the same House of Representatives that voted this summer to strip the Supreme Court of its right to hear any cases involving same-sex marriage. That one didn't become law, but if this keeps up, what's to keep activist politicians from passing all sorts of unconstitutional laws granting themselves more and more power, and then preventing the judicial branch from denying their implementation? Isn't it enough that Congress can give itself a raise with your tax dollars any time it likes, while running up a huge budget deficit?

Ironically, were the Akin/Talent bills to become law, there would almost certainly be a challenge, and the Supreme Court would eventually have to decide the constitutionality of a law that removes their power to decide the constitutionality of a law.

The good news is that Congress has fixed all of the other problems in America, so it has time to waste on nonsense like this.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Vegas Vacation

Just back from a quick vacation in Vegas with a few stories that aren't going to stay there.

My brother-in-law, Stuart, and I were there for our annual poker-and-football weekend, in which we played in several no-limit Texas Hold'em tournaments, including one at the Golden Nugget.

It was a beautiful day, so before entering the tournament, Stuart and I went for a walk down Freemont Street, the pedestrian plaza that connects most of the major downtown casinos. The whole aura there is a throwback to a time before Steve Wynn turned the Vegas strip into an experience beyond simple dice, cards, and slot machines. The difference between these places and the giant resort hotel-casinos is like night and day. Inside, all the games and slot machines work the same way, but on the outside, where the strip is all glitz, downtown is all plain, all the time. I have no idea how some of these places make enough money to cover their nut. There must be a steady stream of people going for the cheap rooms and food, somehow allowing the places to stay in business every month, but I don't see why.

The sign for one such place, a motel, caught my eye from a half-block away. The first two lines read: "Chief Hotel Court" and "Vacancy." But it was the third line that made me do a double take. There, in neon tubing, was the two-word phrase, "Steamed Meat."

Unsure if this were some local delicacy or a coy marketing slogan approved by some psycho focus group, I nudged Stuart and asked him, "Does that sign say Steamed Meat?" He glanced over and confirmed that it did, at least from this distance. We walked closer to verify this odd sight, debating what Steamed Meat could mean. Perhaps it was an old-school buffet specialty, or perhaps connected in some weird way to the city's ever-present strip club and sex industry.

When we reached the base of the sign, we realized that the neon tubing had been done badly, and the first letter of the second word wasn't M, it was H. So, the phrase spelled out before us wasn't "Steamed Meat," it was "Steamed Heat."

Mystery solved. Or not. Now our discussion turned to wondering what kind of selling point that could be for a motel in the middle of the desert. Stuart wondered in which decade those two words on a motel sign would help bring in customers. It seemed incredibly old-fashioned, as if the sign should continue with other bygone come-ons: "Color TV!" "Phone in room!" "Bedsheets washed monthly!"

We didn't have time to investigate any further, because we had tournament seats awaiting us at the Golden Nugget, a downtown landmark whose customer base has been reinvigorated by overflow from the World Series of Poker and by the recent Fox primetime reality show, "Casino." It may not have gotten great ratings (in fact, executive producer Mark Burnett said it was among the worst things he'd ever done), but business was up.

During the tournament, Sammy Farha -- second to Chris Moneymaker in the 2003 World Series of Poker -- came into the room, not to play in our smalltime tourney, but to talk to the manager about getting a high-limit game going against another player. Once setup, they sat down at opposite ends of the table and bought in for what looked like $500,000 each and proceeded to play $2,000/$4,000 limit hold'em.

Someone at my tournament table asked casually what I thought was going on. I replied "It's Monday, a workday for Sammy. He's on the job and making money." That's why these guys are called poker pros. It's their profession, and high stakes are as standard for them as ill-advised marriages are for Britney Spears.

I didn't recognize the other guy, but someone in the room said he had a reputation as a fairly good hold'em player. Unfortunately, Sammy was better. It didn't take long for his stack to begin growing.

Meanwhile, mine was shrinking. After a couple of hours, I had only played a few hands and won a couple, but the blinds were getting too large for me to survive much longer. When I finally looked down at ace-ten on the button with an unraised pot, I pushed it all in, only to run into the small blind, whose ace-queen held up and took me down.

Stuart got better cards and played them better than I did. After winning a satellite to earn a seat at the big Sunday night game at the Mirage (but not ending up in the money), he went on to finish fourth in the tournament at the Golden Nugget, long after I'd gone out. He ended up with a nice chunk of prize money.

Me, I didn't even get a plate of Steamed Meat.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

Loretta Swit

Here's my conversation with Loretta Swit, who played Major Margaret Houlihan on TV's "M*A*S*H." We discussed why the plug was finally pulled after 11 seasons and why she had such passion for the Hot Lips character, what her favorite episode was and how Hot Lips evolved through the years, why she didn't do a spinoff show, and her relationship with McLean Stevenson (Col. Henry Blake).

Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Start Me Up

Good news from the automotive front.

My wife came home at lunchtime to report that an indicator on her dashboard was lit, and when she looked in the manual, it said that was a warning about the car's lights. We checked out the directionals, the head lights, the brake lights, and everything seemed normal, although one of the bulbs was a bit dimmer than the rest. We figured it wasn't a problem that needed immediate attention, so we'd take it in whenever we got around to it.

After lunch, I took my car and left for work, with a quick stop at the post office. After dropping off some letters and packages, I got back in my car, turned the key, and heard guh-guh-geh, followed by silence. It wouldn't start. No power. We'd been worried about the electrical system on my wife's car, and it's mine that's dead.

I quickly narrowed down the problem to two possible causes. Either the battery was dead, or I needed a new alternator. I'm no expert (my entire automotive knowledge base consists of knowing when I'm low on gas and where to put more when I need it), but I immediately knew it would be the alternator, based on one simple factor -- that was the most expensive option. Under my Automotive Inverse Proportionality Theorem, the correct solution to the problem is never the cheapest. This is expressed by the equation P = $$$.

I called my wife, who was about to run out to deal with about a dozen different things, and asked her to drive to the post office, trade cars with me, and then stick around to deal with the problem. She replied with a long sigh, followed by "okay." We've been together for 21 years, so I know her verbal shorthand pretty well. That long sigh meant: "I'll be right over to help you, but you are gonna owe me, big time!" Fine, whatever, I gotta get to work.

While waiting for her, I called AAA, who promised a tow truck within an hour. By that statement, you know that it was a clear, sunny, not-too-hot day -- if the weather conditions were any harsher, it would have been a four hour wait.

Although the weather was beautiful, Mother Nature decided to add to the fun I was already having. As I hung up, a gust of wind knocked over my briefcase, sending a folder full of paperwork flying. It quickly scattered throughout the parking lot, giving me a chance to play the Chasing Paper With Your Foot game. You know this one. This is where you run after a piece of paper that's being blown around and, just as you're about to clamp your foot down on it, a quick breeze moves the paper another yard away, leaving you with nothing under your foot but the ground. Oh, for a pair of giant clown feet! You then repeat this fun process until you're completely frustrated.

The upside to this activity was that it killed the time until my wife arrived, just as I picked up the last piece of paper (what was that, a couple of reams?). We made the switch, I thanked her profusely, and went off to work, twenty minutes late for a meeting, with a briefcase full of wrinkled, dirty notes, leaving her in the post office parking lot to act as my vehicular ombudswoman.

Fortunately, the AAA tow truck showed up not long after and gave the battery a jump, allowing my wife to drive to the service station. When she got there, the automotive diagnostician (!) gave my car the once-over and determined that my analysis of the problem was incorrect. I had thought it would be either the battery or the alternator. It turned out to be both.

Doh! The dreaded third option, even more expensive than the other two! I should have seen it coming: P = $$$ x 2.

So, what's the good news, you ask? Once the repairs were complete, my wife was able to fill up the tank before the station owner invoked yet another of his semi-regular twenty cent per gallon gas price increases.

So, with a complete fillup, that's three bucks in savings, right there. Hey, you take your wins where you find them.

Saturday, September 04, 2004

Political Death

When I heard about Bill Clinton's heart problems yesterday, I found myself wondering, "If he died, would the Clinton-haters give him a break for even a day, or would they see this as yet another opportunity to pound him?"

While the current president did use a moment in a speech to offer his thoughts and prayers for the former president, I heard a right-wing radio host sounding positively gleeful about Clinton's medical problems on Friday. So much for a grace period.

The hatred works both ways, of course. If Bush were to suddenly die, I have no doubt the extremists on the other side would feel and say similar things (and then realize their worst nightmare had come true with Dick Cheney taking the oath of office).

It's not always like that, but I never know what the rules of etiquette are when it comes to death, or whether everybody deserves them. I have one former boss who I considered so evil that I made a pact with a co-worker -- when either of us hears that this jerk has died, we're to call the other one immediately so we can go together to dance on his grave. He's the only guy I've ever felt that way about, with the possible exception of the kid who beat me up everyday in first grade.

Yet, politics and death have an even more awkward relationship. Neither brings out the truth in people.

When Richard Nixon died, the eulogies at his funeral played up only his good side. Even Clinton, who was president at the time, went and said only positive things. I'd have thought at least one speaker would whisper "Watergate" under his breath, or cough and mumble "lying weasel scumbag," but there was none of that. And the media played along. It was as if Nixon hadn't been the living personification of absolute power corrupting absolutely.

So I wasn't surprised to hear laughter at the expense of Clinton's health on the same day it was announced. Once the political pit bull is trained to do nothing but attack, it's awfully tough to make him sit, roll over, and play nice.