Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Every Cloud Is Lined

Have you ever wondered how often Albert Einstein thought, “Gee, who am I kidding? I’m no Einstein.” Or how often any of his kids thought it? I wonder about things like that all the time.

The other day I saw a report that said, according to a study commissioned by some charity in England, the life expectancy of homeless people in London is lower than for people in the Victorian era.

Now, Einstein was born in the Victorian era, and he truly was an Einstein, so I’ll bet he would have known what all that meant right away, but I had to look it up.

One of the things I found out was that the life expectancy of a British guy during the “Victorian era” (a British way of saying “the years 1837 to 1901”) was around 50. Whereas the average age of homeless Londoners at death these days is around 42.

Such factoids present interesting possibilities for political interpretation, or spin, or whatever you choose to call it. A former acquaintance once told me that she hated living in the present and wished she could travel back to simpler times, when scientists weren’t screwing life up. She said she thought that the 14th century would be “idyllic.” I think she picked the 14th century because the number 14 is big in the Kabala. It couldn’t be because of the actual 14th century, what with the Black Death and the Hundred Years War lowering life expectancy to 25 or less (in all the countries where she could speak the language.)

Here’s one way we could spin the news: Homelessness isn’t so bad. No, really. It’s better to be homeless than to live through the Black Death and the Hundred Years War. It’s almost as good as living during such an enlightened time as had telegraphs and trains and Florence Nightingale.

Now that every community in the land has to have a Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness (Philip Mangano, Bush administration “Homelessness Czar,” isn’t into the Kabala, he’s into the number of fingers on his hands) I look forward to the new creative ways that people will assess progress on this front when the homelessness that was supposed to have ended hasn’t. “Being homeless was always better than living in the 14th century, but worse than living during the Victorian era. But it’s now as good as life under Edward VII. Give us another ten years and being homeless could get as good as living through the Great Depression.”

Unfortunately, it turns out that being homeless is a lot worse than that British news report would indicate. There’s a problem with the conclusion of the study it mentions, having to do with averages.

Recently I said I love averages. This is one of those times when the appearance of averages makes me all tingly and excited.

It turns out that when folks work out the life expectancy of people in the Victorian era, or the 14th century, or any other period in history, the number they crank out refers to the life expectancy of anyone born. That means high rates of childhood deaths drive the average life expectancy way down.

It turns out that if you survived childhood during the Victorian era you could actually expect to live well past 60. In fact, even during the dreaded 14th century, if you were a member of the British aristocracy and you made it to 21 by around 1340 you could expect to live an additional 24 years to age 45, beating out our present day London homeless by 3 years, in spite of the Black Death!

“So what are you trying to say, Wes?” What I’m trying to say is, looking at things on the bright side gets harder every day. What I’m trying to say is, maybe the Black Death wasn’t so bad.

What I’m trying to say is, when you see everything in perspective, you really begin to appreciate modern anesthetics.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Plymouth Crock

I hate Thanksgiving. In fact, I give thanks that I am one of the few people around who sees through this holiday for what it really is, namely the systematic diversion of thanks from those who truly deserve it to anything or anybody else.

Take the original Thanksgiving Dinner. Who deserves thanks for that? Who has always deserved thanks for it, ever since it happened? We all know the story. It was the prior residents of Plymouth Rock who generously provided food from their own storage to the starving Pilgrims, right? But do they get the thanks? No!

Think about it. How would you feel if you gave, say, your lazy good-for-nothing brother $15 so he could eat pizza for a change, as opposed to the dead bugs he finds in the couch he never gets his butt off, and instead of saying “Thank You” to you for the pizza money, he turns his eyes to the sky and thanks God for the “miracle” of having turned your cold heart warm? And there are still people today who wonder what set off the so-called Indian Wars. Those weren’t Indian Wars; they were Ingrate Wars. At the very least, they should now be called the White People Wars. That would show some overdue perspective.

It isn’t just Native Americans who don’t get the thanks they deserve. There are millions upon millions of innocent people who suffer silently through this dreadful holiday, and don’t ever get the thanks they deserve for not turning it into an occasion for mass murder.

I will illustrate my last point with the case of Pekingese Woman.

I call her Pekingese Woman because whenever she spoke to me I could imagine her yapping like a Pekingese Dog. After warming up to any new topic, after the first couple of sentences, she would stop taking breaks, not even to take breaths. So conversations with her would degenerate into interminable yapping sessions.

Pekingese Woman never thanked me for letting her yap. Not only that, but, knowing that I was poor and starving at the time, the horrible ungracious windbag invited me to join her and her friends at her house for a big Thanksgiving Dinner.

I knew Pekingese Woman had an ulterior motive. She wanted my everlasting soul. I told her I would go on these three conditions: 1) she can collect her damned friends’ souls, but not mine, as I was sick and tired of always having my soul saved from me wherever I went, 2) she would not subject me to her cult (some obscure abominable sect with a name like “First Church of Christ, Overlord”) except for the unavoidable “grace,” and 3) the grace would have to be mercifully short. I said if she could not promise those conditions I would stay away and willingly starve. She promised them!

So I entered her lair at the appointed time. And what do you suppose I got? First, I got A TWO HOUR SLIDE SHOW OF HER RECENT EXTENDED TRIP TO THE HOLY LAND NARRATED NONSTOP BY HER INFERNAL YAPPING. I am not lying when I tell you that she had to change the slides a thousand times, and that she didn’t stop yapping about her tedious trip EVEN WHEN SHE WAS RELOADING THE PROJECTOR. She had a different slide for every single rock and bush along the Sea of Galilee.

Then, rather than one quick, sharp, grace that would only hurt for a second, she made everyone around the table say a separate, individual grace. Out loud.

When it was my turn I said, “Thank You God for not making me think that You put all this food here because we love You so much, because then I would have to think that the people in the world who are starving are going without because You are punishing them, and I know that’s wrong.”

Pekingese Woman never thanked me for not just screaming and running out.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

A Heavy Cross to SHARE

I hate talking about SHARE. There are many good reasons for this. Their name is Anitra “Legion” Freeman, on whose kitchen floor I have sometimes slept.

If it weren’t for Ms. Freeman I probably wouldn’t know that SHARE was an acronym, or where to look up what the letters stand for. It’s the Seattle Housing And Resource Effort, according to one of Anitra’s 35 or so websites.

If I talk about SHARE I will surely get some detail about it wrong and Anitra will tell me about it, and then she will never stop telling me about it, because once she starts doing anything she can’t stop. She has no brakes.

Unfortunately the city of Seattle has given me no choice. It has denied funding to SHARE because SHARE would not agree to comply with “Safe Harbors,” AKA Tag n’ Trak, AKA Seattle’s version of HMIS (Homeless Management Information Strategies.)

You know a plan is a bad idea the minute someone calls it a strategy. “Strategy” is related to the word “stratosphere.” Both come to us from the ancient Greek for “cloud.” In the case of “strategy,” the idea is that the use of one can cloud people’s minds so they can’t see how stupid you’re being, so you can get away with being stupider than usual.

In this instance the city of Seattle is being so stupid, it might as well be shooting itself in the groinal area. This can be demonstrated mathematically, as follows.

Seattle currently funds 1275 shelter beds. About a quarter of those are administered by SHARE. The total funding costs a total of about 5 million dollars annually. SHARE’s share of the city’s funding, which is the money they will be losing as of next March when the funding year ends, is around a quarter of a million dollars.

That means that 75% of the city’s shelter beds (the non-SHARE portion) suck up 95% of the city’s funding, while 25% of the shelter beds (the SHARE portion) only suck up 5% of the funding.

If the city has to replace the 300 beds now provided by self-managed SHARE shelters with conventional shelters the cost will be more than six times what SHARE has needed.

You can be sure that much money is never going to materialize. Last month Mayor Nickels said he’d work with the City Council to increase shelter funding by as much as $500,000 in order to maintain the same number of shelter beds in the city. That’s not counting the $500,000 per year it’s expected to cost us for the extra paper, paper clips, and the super-duper unhackable computer system Safe Harbors is going to require. But the facts show that without SHARE the city will need $1,500,000 to have the same number of shelter beds it has had with SHARE.

Since that money won’t happen, we can expect to lose at least 200 shelter beds after March. SHARE proposes to make those up by setting up new tent cities. Those would violate SHARE’s agreement with the city regarding tent cities. But I don’t care, since by demanding that SHARE accept Safe Harbors I feel that the city has already in effect reneged on its agreements with SHARE on its own side, big time. I want everyone, and especially Anitra Freeman, to note my careful use of “I” statements here.

Oh wait, who says the city can’t provide beds as cheaply as SHARE? Why, they would just have to imitate the SHARE model without the help of SHARE! Why didn’t I think of that before?

Here’s how it will work. They’ll set up 13 or 14 self-managed shelters all around the city. Only, because they’ll be city shelters instead of SHARE shelters, they’ll be able to make sure that the people who run these self-managed shelters comply with Safe Harbors. The city will be able to do that by managing its own self-managed shelters!

There’s a perfect strategy!

Wednesday, November 9, 2005

Breaking the Code

So you all know why George Bush called it “No Child Left Behind,” don’t you? It’s code. It tells those rapture-obsessed members of his constituency that he savvies their Left Behind books; it’s like, we’re going to make sure all your kids get teleported into Heaven while the evolutionists and abortionists and liberals have to stay behind and eventually queue up for Hell. He also says “savvy” to remind himself to say “sabe,” which is in turn to remind all of us that he speaks Spanish. That’s code too. He doesn’t speak in sentences, just code words and phrases. 9-11. Iraqi Freedom. Axis of Evil. “I speak your language.”

Given that Bush relies so much on Millennialist support and given that so many of them are aching for an opportunity to say “we told you so” if only while looking down from on high just before passing through the Pearly Gates, when theoretically the rest of us won’t be able to hear them anyway, I am creeped out by any mention of Armageddon in the news.

OK, it wasn’t really Armageddon that was mentioned; it was Megiddo, which I believe is Hebrew for Geddon Flats, but it’s pretty much the same place. Some archaeologists think they’ve found the mosaic floor of a third century Christian church there. The Israeli Tourist Bureau or Israeli Bureau of Tourism or whatever is really excited about this because it makes Israel look like a nice place for Christians to come visit, as of 18 centuries ago.

But actually what it does is pump up the Millennialists’ dream of living to see the day when the unsaved among us can experience the End of Times as nukes fly from one end of the Middle East to the other and the whole of Existence unravels from there. That is, from Armageddon, ‘cause the Good Book says so.

What else pumps the dream up? The new president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, saying that Israel should be “wiped off the map.”

Since first saying so as part of celebrating the end of Ramadan, Mahmoud has turned the volume down a little, but the damage has already been done: he’s totally creeped me out. I didn’t mind it so much when it was 1980 and Ayatollah Khomeini said it, because back then Iran wasn’t close to putting a nuclear weapons program together. We could all laugh then, because Iran couldn’t very well march its army through Iraq to attack Israel, because our valued ally Saddam Hussein would stop them for us.

Mahmoud says Israel is a “fabricated” entity. This is a lame excuse to destroy every nation on the planet. All modern nations are fabrications.

Secretly, Mahmoud idolizes George Bush. “Axis of Evil,” “Must destroy the evildoers,” “We cannot afford to wait until they attack us,” “Then it will be too late,” “Pre-emptive strike,” “We know they have weapons of mass destruction” – snippets of future speeches by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad about Israel. George and friends have already assembled all the code; Mahmoud just has to get it translated into Farsi.

The same day that Mahmoud said Israel should be destroyed he also said that anybody that recognizes Israel “will burn in the fire of the Islamic nation's fury.” He got that from George, too: anybody who is not with us is against us. Good thing for the folks of little Bahrain that we’re so protective of their oil and land for military bases, now that they’ve resumed trading with Israel.

If you didn’t see the similarity between Mahmoud and George before, you must have seen it when Kofi Annan expressed his displeasure with Mahmoud. Annan and I are together on this, along with all the other sane people around who would like to see the human species continue to exist for an indefinite period of time: George and Mahmoud, knock it off. We don’t want what you offer. Keep your death and destruction to yourselves and off our planet.

Wednesday, November 2, 2005

Hey, Man, Smell my FingerTM

While the rest of you have been contemplating Harriet Miers’ excellent career decision and Scooter Libby’s pending trial, I’ve been mulling over a little news story that CNN carried in its “offbeat” news category. A court in the European Union had denied someone the right to trademark the smell of strawberries.

What caught my attention about the story was that the court did not say that you can’t trademark smells. What the court said is that there is no one smell of strawberries. The court implied that the petitioner might later trademark one particular smell arising from strawberries.

Just so you don’t think it’s never going to happen, the story goes on to say that some Dutch perfume company has registered the “fresh cut grass” smell, and uses it to make tennis balls smell good.

What the EU court actually said was, "The olfactory memory is probably the most reliable memory that humans posses. Consequently, economic operators have a clear interest in using olfactory signs to identify their goods." So the Dutch company was really olfactorily signing, sort of like what dogs do when they pee on trees, only they’re doing it on tennis balls, and they get exclusive use of their sign.

Of course if companies can do it because they have a clear interest to identify their goods, who’s to say a dog-owner can’t do it, having a clear interest to protect the clear interest of their charge? So someday a dog owner may, acting as a guardian, trademark his dog’s sign.

What I’m focusing in on here is this clear interest business. Hey, maybe I have a clear interest to buy tennis balls that haven’t been marked by some perfume company. Who’s going to protect my clear interest when the day comes that every tennis ball has to stink of some corporation or other?

And don’t think it will only be tennis balls. Sure, not everyone plays tennis. I don’t. But I wear T-shirts. We’ve already lived through an age in which all T-shirts had to have a message and/or a brand. Well, brace yourself, in the future all your T-shirts will also smell of a brand.

Oh, you’ll have choices. You won’t have to choose between “fresh cut grass” and “grass gone to seed.” There will also probably be smells like strawberry A, strawberry B, strawberry C, Old Spice, refried pinto beans, roasted garlic, Chanel No. 5, horse sweat, Tabasco, and white chocolate, depending on the company that’s sucking up your money.

It’s all a natural progression. It’s the clear interest of businesses to sell you what you thought you already had. And the courts give businesses all the rights that are in their clear interest, because they never consider that the rest of us may have legitimate competing interests, like an interest in being able to play tennis or get dressed without having our nostrils assaulted by inappropriate smells that we could whiff any other time, thank you.

It happens all the time. When was the last time you were about to purchase a snack or sweet beverage, and you checked the ingredients to be sure that the product contained corn syrup, because you just had to have corn syrup at that moment? I’ll bet never. You have never had a jones for corn syrup. So why is it in everything? Because somebody had a clear interest in putting it there and you weren’t consulted.

Somebody had a clear interest in branding the baseball stadium in this town. It happens that somebody was Safeco and they had the money to make their interest coincide with the city’s. So we have Safeco Field.

In the future we can look forward to a local sausage company using money to make their interest coincide with the interest of our Seattle Public Utilities. Then we will all be able to enjoy pepperoni-smelling water, straight from the tap.

The free market marches on! Smell its boots!