Tuesday, October 18, 2005


The Bad News: I didn't win Powerball.
The Good News: Nobody else did either!

Now, I'm sucked in, and will have to continue playing until the jackpot is gone. It's up to $340 Million, next drawing on Wednesday.


Update - 10/24/05 - I'm not the guy from Oregon, thus am $2 poorer as opposed to $340 Million richer.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Now it's worth it

I don't play lotteries. Aside from the odds of winning, which are about as close to zero as you can get, mathematically, it just seems like tossing money into the fire. The not so dirty little secret of each state that runs a lottery is that those who have the least amount of disposable income end up spending the most of lottery tickets. I once saw a gentleman, who appeared to be of modest means, drop a hundred bucks on quick picks while I was buying a newspaper.

Having said that, have you noticed that Powerball is now up to like $300 Million? OK, now I'll take the plunge and plunk down my buck. When the jackpot is sitting at the tiny numbers like $10 million, $50 million, etc, what's the use? I can't even calculate how astronomical the odds are of winning this thing, but suffice to say that if you didn't buy a ticket at all, you would have just about the same chance as me.

I'll let you know how I did!

(Hmm....$300 mil, after taxes I'd clear about $160 mil...which would result in a lovely "I Quit" on Monday morning. Wish me luck.)

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Hoodwinked By iTunes

I love iTunes. I recently was fortunate enough to win a free iPod mini, and find it to be just about the coolest thing in the world. I had tons of digital music on my hard drive, and if I wanted portability I was forced to tote my laptop around and plug headphones into it. Effective, yes, but not the best way to get the job done.

Each week, Apple puts a free single up in the itunes music store. This is a nice way to sample a new artist that you’ve likely never heard of, and if you like, maybe purchased some more music from them, or anyone else for that matter.

Anyway, the single of this week for this particular period was a song called “Let Go” by a group called BarlowGirl, who, surprise, I had not heard of. What the heck, let me take a chance. I grabbed the freebie song, listened to it, and immediately liked the guitar sound and the harmonies from the girls. Bear in mind I listened to it with the TV on, and two kids in the room, so I wasn’t able to detect the subtle nuances of the song, namely, any lyrics other than the chorus. I played it a ferw more times, and liked it more each time.

I did notice something odd when I saw the song in my iTunes list, though. Under “Genre”, where I expected to see something like “power pop” or “College” or something along those lines. This read “Inspirational”. Wha? I then popped in the ear buds and played the song, with no white noise or distractions. Holy crap, it’s freaking Christian Rock! The title refers to how the singer will “Let Go” and turn everything over to God.

Now, it would be terribly closed minded of me to dismiss a song outright because it was “Inspirational”, even though I have never made any attempt to listen to any of the various offshoots of Christian Music, from Stryper (remember them, the Christian Heavy Metal band?) to any other artists who exist outside the mainstream. I like this song, and since I am a Christian, really don’t have a problem with the message. What makes me think, however, is that nowhere in the description of the song on iTunes was it mentioned that this was an “Insprirational” song. I wonder how many people of other faiths grabbed the free download? I guess since the song never mentions which version of God things are being “Let Go” to, it can be used by just about any faith, and only an atheist would have a problem with it. I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple received a small number of complaints, though.

I guess I learned something. I'm not sure what, but it was something.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Because They’ve Solved Every Other Problem…

Saw a story last week that the US Attorney General’s Office was instituting a new “War On Pornography”. Did I miss something? Isn’t this a legal, constitutionally protected industry? Oh, right, it’s “immoral”, thus the heroic watchdogs need to swoop in and protect us from ourselves, yet again. Didn’t they try this in the 80’s, with the Meese Commission? The big epiphany from that million dollar waste of time: Detective magazines from the 40’s and 50’s could maybe lead to people raping women. Huh?

Now, I could be cynical and call this for being a diversionary tactic from an Administration who is looking to get our attention away from other, more pertinent things. For example, the ongoing mess in Iraq, the bungling of the entire Katrina mess (of which blame can actually be shared by state and local governments), or the fresh (Tom DeLay) and pending (Karl Rove) indictments. It may in fact be exactly that, but only partially.

The real aim here, in my view, is a blatant pandering to the religious right. In that case, it’s a slam dunk: play up the immorality angle to win some good PR from the Christian Right. Good times all around. Maybe they can even entice leading Democrat Joseph Lieberman to join the fight, and make it a bipartisan effort. After all, ol’ God fearing Joe was at the forefront of the whole “War on Video Games”.

Let me see if I get this straight. The Republicans, champions of the free market, supply and demand economy, are going to somehow attempt to take on an industry which rakes in, literally, billions of dollars each year? Legally? It’s not as if the people who purchase porn, in any of its forms, are doing so outside the law. Obviously, there is a ridiculously large market for the stuff, with an equally large number of consumers willing to plunk down cash for it. I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that it is possible that maybe, just maybe, a significant number of those in power, on both sides of the aisle, are porn consumers. Any group of 100 guys will contain at least 50 who go to strip bars, 20 who subscribe to Playboy, and 5 who have a stash in the closet.

Another issue which I think will doom this to failure (again), is the dirty little secret of many large corporations: they make a tidy little profit from porn too. All major hotel chains, at least every one I’ve ever stayed in, have the pay-per-view movie option on every TV in every room. Aside form the usual selection of recent mainstream films, there are usually quite a few adult choices as well. (This is a great racket – aimed mostly at males, at something like $9.95 a pop, and I’m reasonably certain nobody ever watches the whole movie, if you get my drift). Every cable system has an increasing number of pay-per-view “Spice” channels, “on demand”, which are over and above the monthly fees charged. These channels make boatloads of cash, otherwise they wouldn’t be there very long. Large corporate donations are paid out every election cycle, and I can’t imagine these politicos, who are addicted to free money like a crack whore, essentially biting the hands that feed them.

It should be noted that I am only referring to consenual, adult generated stuff here. Anything that features acts between anything otehr than consenting adults is a completely different story altogether. That is illegal, and with good reason.

Legislating morality has been attempted many times over the years, and in some cases, laws were enacted. Even amendments to the Constitution, such as the 18th which made Prohibition the law of the land, were made. Hmm…prohibition, well we know how well that turned out (see the 21st Amendment for details). The question, as always, is whose morality rules? Something you find repulsive, or distasteful (example: Christian Rap), might be the coolest thing I’ve ever seen or heard. Conversely, something I hold in the lowest regard (example: Gangsta Rap) could be the one thing that gets you through the day. Neither one should be banned, per the law.

The founding fathers thought long and hard about personal liberty when drawing up the constitution, and while they probably never anticipated the forms of entertainment we have today, they made the wording broad enough to be applied to just about everything. Something done in the privacy of ones own home, which is not seen nor heard by any other, and causes no harm to any person nor to any persons property, should be completely permitted. It’s also none of my business. Be afraid, be very afraid, that there (still) exists a large number of people in this country who would like nothing more that to take those rights away from us.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Encounters With The Homeless

Like many of you, from time to time I find myself walking through the city, from a large metropolis like New York to smaller ones like New Haven or Hartford. Spending time in most any city eventually leads me to see many people less fortunate than myself. Oftentimes, I am approached and asked to help them by giving spare change, etc. I know, I know, this is hardly a unique experience.

Why, though, does this make me so uncomfortable? Is it guilt? Maybe. Fear? Possibly….It truly sucks that people are in these situations, and many of us or one or two paychecks away from being thrown into a similar situation. I am by no means rich, but I’m comfortable I suppose. I find myself trying to avoid the encounters altogether, which in turn makes me feel more guilty. I feel fortunate that I have what I do, and that it turn leads to guilt that the person in front of you who has his or her entire wardrobe on his back, and all worldy possessions in a shopping cart. Jeez, am I freakin’ nuts or what?

Worse, part of me feels doubtful that some of these panhandlers are really being honest about their situation. Horrible, I know, but I’m just being honest. I only say this since I’ve found literal examples of this up close. Once a relatively healthy looking young man approached me while I was waiting for a bus. His clothes were clean, and in good shape, so “homeless” was the last thing I thought of as he began to speak. Then he proceeds to tell me, “Excuse me, sir, but the homeless shelter won’t let me in tonight until I give them $5.” Huh? Since when do shelters have a cover charge? Was there a band that night? I immediately activated my brain macro – I think it uses Shift-Ctrl-F8 – which is coded to say “I’m sorry, but I don’t have any change.” This was actually true, but the brain macro kicked in automatically anyway. I have never heard of a shelter asking for donations form those who would be actually using it, so I didn’t feel too guilty here. Honestly, if you’re going to panhandle, go for it, but at least don’t insult the intelligence of the potential donor (panhandlee?) with such a ridiculous cover story! The fact that there are scammers out there just compounds the issue in my mind. Will I be forced to ask for homeless credentials before I fork over some change?

People like the guy mentioned above poison it for the people who really are in need. Still the question rattles around in my head, why do I purposely work to avoid encounters with these people? It sucks that I do that! I wonder if fear plays a factor (oh man, I apologize if that reminds you of that stupid TV show). After all, it is generally accepted that a large number of homeless could be mentally ill. While this alone is a travesty in the richest country on Earth, it remains a fact. What if one of them gets violent, and smacks me in the head? Don’t laugh, I have actually seen panhandlers verbally dress down people who gave them money for not giving them enough! Which guilt trips them into giving more. “Here, take this $20 and don’t hurt me!” Unbelievable. So it’s not too much of a stretch to assume someone might take it to the next level. In this case I think of folks who are veterans, who probably have some hand-to-hand combat training…….and dammit if my mind isn’t running to some far away places now. The overwhelming majority, however, are very thankful, and express gratitude. So, my Avoid-At-All-Costs strategy protects me here against the occasional bad reaction, but is mostly based on things that could happen, but likely won’t.

My wife, who is 1000% more charitable than I, took it to another level recently when she signed up to provide bag lunches for the local shelter. She went and bought all of the food, and put together the most incredible bag lunches I’ve ever seen. I mean, I put all 15 of them into a laundry basket and practically needed a hand truck to get them into my car. These things were loaded. All she asked of me was that I do the legwork and deliver them. Easy enough. I drove to the shelter, and had to be buzzed in. As I brought in the basket, I was greeted warmly by the volunteers, and was directed to the large refrigerator. Several of the people who would be spending the evening there were gathered at the table, having dinner, and all were extremely grateful. This is where I felt like I was taking way too much credit, since all I did was deliver. That would be like falling all over the guy at the 7-11 when he sells you a winning lottery ticket – he was just the delivery mechanism, and had very little to do with you winning. Still, while there I felt uneasy, partially for being there to take credit for my wife’s good deed. Sort of like guilt-by-association, but in a good way. For reasons I still can’t figure, I really couldn’t wait to get out of there.

Writing about this topic provides a bit of a catharsis, and some self awareness. I think I am an optimist at heart, and feel like things such as homelessness just can’t happen to me. This isn’t based on any reality, just a self harbored delusion. I tend to try to avoid conflict wherever possible, and I think avoiding these situations is just another way of denying that the problem exists. Man, is that pathetic. I have absolutely no problem donating things anonymously, such as clothes, money or toys, and I’m a sucker for any televised plea for assistance. One night I found myself sucked in to a 30 minute commercial for a children’s cancer center, and within 20 minutes I had us locked into a monthly donation, which we are still paying out. (I defy anyone with a pulse to watch what I saw and not take action). I guess removing the actual victim from the equation somehow makes it easier. As I said, pathetic.

I’m curious, what do all of you do when confronted with the ugly realities of the real world, such as homelessness? I wonder if there are others who feel as I do, or if I am simply an idiot!

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Civility, R.I.P.

Not to pose a ridiculously open ended question, but, what is wrong with some people these days? It has been remarked upon by people much more eloquent than I about the decrease of civility in everyday life. I could list, literally, thousands of examples of how civility has seemingly disappeared from day to day life, but let me single out two personal instances in particular. One occurred yesterday, while on the road. Indulge me for a moment, if you would.

Since gas prices are at the highest they've ever been (still over three bucks here, obviously your mileage may vary), it only stands to reason that sensible folks would decide to change some long standing habits regarding its use. For example, by using mass transit, telecommuting, car pooling, etc. I decided to make a concerted effort to drive a bit slower, around 60 - 65 MPH, and try not to exceed it. Has it worked? Probably a little, but at least I feel like I'm doing something.

The funny thing to note is that when driving the speed limit, everyone, with the exception of perhaps some old people, will pass you. (I could only imagine what would happen if the speed limits were actually enforced - the state would make boatloads of cash). Most pass with little or no fanfare, but I always wonder what the big rush is, especially when going to work.

Anyway, yesterday, I'm humming along at 62, in the center lane, when I see an eighteen wheeler two cars back. The car that was between us eventually moved aside and got off, and the truck quickly moved up on my back bumper. At this point I'm expecting him to flash his brights at me, which is the universal symbol for "I'm an arrogant a-hole, get out of my way". He didn't, which I chose to interpret as a sign that he was okay with the pace, or maybe he was aware of some state troopers on the horizon. (Do truckers still do that stuff like in the "Convoy" days, like warn other trucks when "smokey" is around? Remenber "Convoy", and when CB radios were all the rage? "Hey, I'm talking to a REAL TRUCKER!" Ah, the 70's: when entertainment was so much simpler. Think variety shows.) After a few miles, the truck decided to move to the right lane, which had been available to it for at least two miles. Okay, if he passes me, no big deal.

So what does he do? Well, he gets up to the right side of my car, and is matching my speed, and by this point I'm not really paying him alot of attention. Then, "BURT", a short, loud burst of his horn, which scared the hell out of me. I look over and see, as he begins to pull away, a meaty arm, flipping me off, from his driver side window as he pulls away and moves ahead of me. I am ashamed to admit how I reacted: with a stream of profanities, heard only by me, mostly involving how his excessive girth, which I determined by seeing his sausage like fingers, would signal an any-day-now coronary. My point is this: if he was so intent that I was ruining his day, why not just pass me, or at the very least, flip the lights? I find the light flashing to be incredibly obnoxious and annoying, but it usually does get the desired result. I continued home, pissed.

The other story I use to illustrate the death of civility occurred a few years ago. My family and I were taking part in a charity walk, along one of those linear trails that have sprang up in my area over the past few years. Normally these trails are used by people running, rollerblading, cycling, walking, etc. On the day of the walk, a Sunday morning, when approximately a thousand people are going to be walking on the trail, some very slowly, others pulling wagons and pushing strollers, using this trail to get in your morning run might not be the best idea, don't ya think?

Well, you can probably guess where this is going. I had my family, walking with two other familes, as far to the right side of the trail as I could get them, with me on the outside. I had a backpack on, loaded with stuff. As I was turning to my right, I heard a voice shout "On your left!", and as I turned I felt a "BAM" on the backpack. I was barely knocked around, but as I turned to my left I noticed a female rollerbalder going ass over teakettle and slamming into the ground. Fortunately, she hit the ground off the side of the trail and landed (mostly) on the dirt/grass area, and mostly missed the pavement. I quickly moved to help her up, and was genuinely concerned that she might be hurt. That is, until I heard the first thing out of her mouth: "You f_cking people! Always in the WAY!" Needless to say she refused my extended hand to help her get back on her feet. What really shocked not only me, but my wife, was my reaction. I smiled, waved as she sped away angrily, and said "Have a nice day!" I honestly don't know what prevented me from unloading a verbal tapestry of profanity on her; must've been the chartiable mood I was in!

Honestly, what the hell was her problem? She chose the absolute worst possible time to use the trail, and had she waited about 90 minutes the damn thing would have been cleared out. Then, after her recklessness results in her taking a fall, she blames me?

I think both examples point to a larger societal trend - that MY needs supercede anything else. I need to get here, and you're in my way, this you must move! I think this happened gradually, with the 70's being dubbed "The Me Decade", then the "Greed Is Good" self-indulgent 80's taking society down the path of "It's all about me, dammit". The only examples which run opposite, unfortunately, is when there is a catastrophe of some type, from 9/11 to the tsunami and most recently, Hurricane Katrina, which shows the generosity and compassion of most people. I guess it's easy to throw five bucks in a jar toward relief, which makes us all feel like we're doing something, then we can go back to our self-indulgent lives. I honestly hope that Sausage Fingered Trucker and Crazy Ass Rollerblader each made some donations, and felt a little better about themselves for a short while, Then they went back to cursing all who cross their paths.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Bootlegging Butts

I don't smoke, so I can't fully appreciate the addictive nature of nicotine. I mention this as a prelude to the story below, since I recently was used as a "procurement agent", to buy cigarettes "cheap" in a different state.

I don't follow the price of cigs too closely, but I see various signs in my state (Connecticut) showing them to be anywhere from $4 to $6 per pack. That is just nuts. I know that the "Sin Taxes" in this state are the easiest to levy, the thought being that people will still want to use this stuff and will pay through the nose for their particular poison, but these prices just seemed excessive.

I'm old enough to remember being able to buy cigarettes as a kid, too. My sisters used to smoke as teenagers, and since it was being kept secret from Mom, I had some good blackmail material. Couple that with their laziness, and unwillingness to schlep over to the local 7-11, and I had myself a nice little racket going, as they would often enlist my services as the courier. Not only would I buy them their cancer sticks, but was able to extort the change from them, which went a long way toward building my baseball card collection. The kicker? I would be sent to the store with $1, and get change. Granted, this was 30 years ago (God I'm old...), and the price of everything has gone up, but not to the tune of 400%!

Anyway, my family was planning to spend a long weekend in New Hampshire recently, and when my In-laws caught wind of this, they asked if we would pick up a carton of cigarettes, since they are supposedly very cheap up there. I thought it odd that they gave us $50 to work with. Again, just as in my youth, we were told we could keep the change. Sweet! I was already thinking how much beer (not baseball cards) I could end up with after buying one lousy carton of smokes. This would be a sweet deal, indeed. Keep in mind that despite having a general idea of the per pack price in CT, I didn't think to do the math and estimate that a carton would cost around $50 (or more) in the Nutmeg state.

I arrived in NH, and headed toward a grocery store to pick up some food items, and figured that would be as good a place as any to grab the smokes. Since cigarettes are now kept under lock and key, I had to walk over to the case and point out which brand I wanted. (How many freakin' brands are there? How different can they all be from one another? I defy any smokers to smoke 10 different cigarettes in a row and tell me the brand names.) I chose Vantage, low tar. Mmmm....tar. Then I saw the price - $37. Thirty seven dollars! This is a bargain? Surely I would return home, deliver the goods to my in-laws, and get a response like "That wasn't much of a deal", right?

Nope! Apparently, that is a bargain! They could barely contain their joy at this news, and regretted that they didn't ask us to pick up a few more.

How in world could someone have this habit, and afford to keep it up? At this point, crack is cheaper. At what point does the financial strain begin to outweigh the obvious health risks? These must be the most powerful, most addictive things on Earth - people use them despite 1.) knowing that they are ridiculously bad for their health, and 2.) paying an ever-increasing amount of money for them. Not to mention the impact later in life when the health issues inevitably kick in. To underscore this, I've actually seen people wheeling a portable oxygen tank to the smoking areas in an office building, and lighting up. Huh?

Get some will power people! The habit is costly, deadly, makes you smell like crap. How do you get started? By trying to look cool as a teenager, despite the fact that nobody's first experience inhaling smoke could be described as positive?

Yet the tobacco companies are virtually printing money, and have grown large enough to acquire so many other companies and products that even the most ardent anti-smoker is lining the pockets of Big Tobacco when buying products like beer and certain food. What a country!

These are very odd times indeed. Smokers (in the US anyway) have become social pariahs, being roped off and sent to specific areas to do their smoking, and being prohibited outright in most others. It seems that there are less people smoking now than before, doesn't it? I can't even think of a handful of people I come in contact with who smoke, whereas many years ago there seemed to be smokers everywhere.

Admittedly, I come off as an activist, but I'm no zealot. Smoking killed my father, and despite the fact he was hooked long before the Surgeon General's warnings were first published in 1964, he continued right up until his death six years later. I guess he was too far gone to stop by then, and quitting might not have made a difference for him. I'll never know. But cigarettes are legal in this country, and I fully support the rights of any American to do whatever they choose so long as it doesn't harm another person or another person's property. Smoke away, smokers, just don't do it around me.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Tokin' Resistance

The Supreme Court ruled against the use of medicinal marijuana this past week, overruling what several states had previously determined to be allowable.

Give me a break.

Let's clear one point up right away - this was not a blow against the stoners you knew in high school (and maybe still know today). This was directed at those people who are currently suffering pain on a daily basis. Cancer patients getting regular chemotherapy use marijuana to ease the nausea and discomfort associated with the treatments, while glaucoma sufferers notice an ease of their pain and tension when using the plant. Talk show host Montel Williams, who sufffers from Multiple Sclerosis, is perhaps the best known celebrity medicinal user. Woody Harrelson, as far as I know, suffers only from the occasional case of diahrreha mouth, which wouldn't fall beneath the medicial umbrella.

Now, my (self appointed) job is to point out the patent absurdity of the entire operation. Basically, it boils down to the court being worried that someone who is allowed to use this, even for the express purpose of easing their suffering, might sell it to someone else, which is a crime. Nobody ever seems to worry about this happening with the percocet or viagra presecriptions the big drug companies are making millions of dollars from though. That isn't what gets me, however. My big beef is with the hypocrisy of the rules pertaining to a substance that is, on the whole, less harmful that two wildly popular LEGAL substances, namely alcohol and tobacco. How can this be justified? Those two combined kill more people annually than anything else you can legally purchase, even guns!

I can hear you now: "Obviously, this writer is a full blown pothead, yapping about how it should be legal so he can sit back, get baked, and listed to Pink Floyd." Sorry, that just ain't the case here. I do not use it, neither recreationally nor medicinally. Have I tried it? Sure, many years ago, and I did inhale. I defy you to find anyone around the age of 30-40 who hasn't tried it at least once. But my particular poison of choice remains good ol' beer. Mmmm.....beer.

Let's break down the biggest arguments that anti-legalization forces use when justifying their point of view:

  • "It's a harmful substance!" - Yes. Yes it is. So are alcohol, tobacco, and eating an excessive number of Pop-Tarts (Mmmm...Pop-Tarts....). Wite-Out and Lysol, which have also been used by kids looking to get high are harmful as well, but I've yet to see a movement to ban them. And, on the harm index, pot falls well below these items when regarding long term damage.
  • "It's a GATEWAY DRUG"! - Really? I've never understood the school of thought which postulates that every high one achieves leads him or her to seek a newer, stronger high, and forces the user to use more powerful substances. If this were true, those of us who started with beer and wine would be full blown herion addicts by now, right? I still can't get past the beer, so I'm either really dumb, or not a very good substance user! The only "gateway" marijuana leads it's users to is the automatic sliding door at 7-11, in a quest for more Doritos.
  • "What about the children? How do we tell them it's okay to get stoned?" - Um....the same way we send ridiculously mixed messages regarding alcohol and tobacco. The DARE programs teach kids all accross the country about the dangers of drugs, and also alcohol and tobacco. I'm curious what they tell the perceptive child who raises his hand and wonders why only one of these deadly items (ironically, the least "deadly" item is the one you can't buy) is illegal. But then again, these kids are being medicated at such an alarming rate, maybe they're too mellow to ask.

Again, though, the main point here is for those individuals who are suffering. The fact that people who may not have much time left on this earth, and spend a good deal of that remaining time in pain, can't seek alternative treatment is absurd. You mean to tell me that the DEA agents in this country could conceivably smash down the doors of a bedridden cancer patient whose only pain-free moments occur after ingesting some of this "deadly" stuff? Yes! Don't you feel safer now?

I can go on for hours about the other reasons we should not be concerned with the use of this substance. I'll close with a few bullet points to buttress my argument for legalization:

  • Resources - We have enough real crime in this country to worry about without having field agents, intelligence resources, and the court system getting bogged down fighting a "problem" which barely exists. Wouldn't you feel better if cops and FBI were devoting more time finding the next terrorist cell as opposed to a cancer patient puffing away?
  • The plant itself - Hemp is one of the cheapest, most versatile crops this country has ever produced. Textiles and paper are just two things which would not only be made more cheaply using hemp, but would also be of better quality. Several of our founding fathers grew hemp on their farms, and for a brief time American farmers who didn't grow it faced penalties from the government.
  • The Criminal Element - When something in demand is illegal, only bad people profit. The lessons learned from Prohibition, which, it could be argued, was the principal reason organized crime was created, have apparently been lost. Making it legal, therefore taxable, would be a boon to society. Think of all the funds that would flow to the government, and away from criminals. Insert your own squandered tax dollars joke here.

For some great info on the topic, I recommend the following:

Peter McWilliams book Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do: The Absurdity of Consensual Crimes in our Free Country, is a brilliant work which touches on many subjects, with a chapter devoted to hemp.

Jello Biafra's "Grow More Pot" (link is to Amazon, which has a sample available) riff is an eloquent plea which describes some of the background facts as to why it became illegal in the first place.

I love to debate this topic, so let me know your thoughts.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Sell Your Song, Pimp My Stuff

Believe it or not, young readers, there once was a time when mainstream (and non-mainstream) musicians did NOT supplement their income by allowing their songs to be used as advertising jingles. Honest, it’s true! I know! Seems like sometimes the CD is barely out of the factory, and on your radio, that you can also hear it in a commercial – yes Pink, I’m looking at you and your “Bally’s Mix” of that “I’m Coming Out” song of yours.

Now, I might have some kind of quaint, antiquated notion that musicians /singers (even Pink) are “artists”. That they got into the music biz not because of a desire to be filthy stinking rich, at least primarily, but because they had a gift, a talent, and had to express it somehow. I am not ignoring the fact that getting rich is a big lure, especially when you’ve been raised in relative poverty, heck that’s the American Dream right? Hell, if someone paid me to write this, I would gladly accept the cash (but then again, I’m no artist!). What I’m specifically railing against is the naked greed involved with pimping your song to sell deodorant, sneakers, cars, drinks, whatever. An additional example, to a somewhat lesser extent, of this is having your tour underwritten by a corporation, which makes performers traveling shills.

The first example of the latter that comes to mind occurred in 1982, for The Who’s “farewell” tour (their first of several moneygrabs promoted under the guise of their “last performances”). Once seen as the forefathers of the British Mod movement, and one of the original inspirations for early Punk, The Who were bad asses back in the 60’s. Famous for trashing their instruments on stage after each show, the high pitched perfect screams of Roger Daltrey, and the manic Keith Moon pounding his drums like they owed him money, they were the most notorious live act of the day. Couple that with their notoriety for thoroughly destroying hotel rooms while on the road, and you were looking at a band which no respectable corporate entity would ever dream of aligning itself with. “Hope I die before I get old”, indeed.

Fast forward to the aforementioned farewell tour, where the 40-ish British lads would be playing very large venues (e.g.. Shea Stadium). The tour was announced amidst great fanfare, and it would be brought to you by Schlitz. “Schlitz Rocks America”, they told us. Um..okay, if drunken frat boys stumbling over their beer can pyramids on their way to puking on the lawn was what they were after, they were in business. The logo would appear on every t-shirt sold, making the audience members pay for the privilege of pimping this piss water while proving to everyone that they were at the show. There were articles written by music journalists (specifically Rolling Stone’s Dave Marsh, who took the band to task), but like every other outrage foisted upon the public, the fanfare eventually died down, and the practice continued to the point where it has virtually become standard operating procedure.

Touring can be an expensive enterprise, and having a big corporation underwrite some of the costs in exchange for splashing their logo all over the place seems, on the surface, to be a good idea. BUT, it is well known that most artists derive the majority of their income from touring, not record sales, and a big name act like The Who, going out on tour for one last time (ahem), would have absolutely no problem selling out large stadiums, and would likely have made everyone associated with the band a tidy profit. Why then, would their management have enlisted this? Well, a company like Schlitz was looking to score points as being “hip”, and what better way than to associate yourself with the rock and roll music that the kids seem to like? The following year, Schlitz “Rocked America” with ZZ Top, but it would appear on the surface that this had little effect on the beer’s long term popularity. Still, the whole thing smacked of pure, unadulterated greed.

Still, I don’t fault the artists as much in these instances. I’m betting that, these days, the record company has more to do with setting up the cross promotions and putting the tour together than they do, so they can almost get a pass here. Almost.

Where they catch flak from me, though, is when their songs are used in commercials. God, does this drive me nuts. This is the height of artistic prostitution, in my book, and it pains me to list some of the names of the guilty parties. I’ve been tempted to make exceptions in some cases, most notably with one hit wonder type acts, who probably aren’t rolling in the dough, but it still irks the hell out of me to hear a throwaway bomb like Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy” being used in an ad. Not only that, but it displays a decided laziness coupled with a lack of creativity on the part of the Advertising agencies, who find it easier to throw in some familiar ditty than to actually come up with something catchy. There was a time when ad jingles were almost an art form unto themselves, and to this day most people over the age of 35 can sing the entire Burger King song from their youth (“Hold the pickle…hold the lettuce, etc.”). That is a rant for another time.

Like most public outrages, this started slowly, and eventually became so prevalent that we got numb to it in a hurry. In the mid to late 80’s, one could hear older songs like “Good Vibrations” by The Beach Boys used to sell orange soda. Most of the songs were from the 60’s, meant to capitalize on the whole Big Chill era yuppie’s newfound purchasing power. Again, when using the Motown catalog, the blame falls not on the artist, but on the record company, since the artists on those great old records were notoriously underpaid (and in the case of the house band, virtually uncredited). Gradually the fertile field of old pop songs was mined, and it became almost impossible to watch an ad that didn’t feature some old tune.

Now, the trend is to use things that are a bit more current, what with the 15 second attention span of the average person today, and the prevalence of the clicker. The biggest asses are the ones who don’t even wait for the song to become ingrained in the public consciousness, or even wait for the song to become an “oldie”, but instead use it to cross promote their current record. Lenny Kravitz, who likes to paint himself as some psuedo-new-age-hippy-Jimi-Hendirx for the modern age, is a big offender here. His “Get Away” was being used by Toyota while his record was dive bombing down the charts.

But the real kickers are the ones like Eric Clapton, who probably lights his cigarettes with $10 bills, selling a song to Michelob in the 80’s, and placing his mug in their ads along with having the beer giant sponsor his tour. Clapton, an alcoholic mind you, saw nothing hypocritical about this little arrangement. What was he trying to tell us? That he was so completely recovered from his alcoholism, he could sell beer to you and not have an issue with it? Was he using the irony of this setup to show us his twisted sense of humor? Whatever the reason, it smacked of greed, and was a complete joke. Then he hooked up his old pal Steve Winwood with Michelob as well, allowing the aging former child prodigy to peddle his Yuppie Muzak to a whole new generation of deep pocketed thirtysomethings. I won’t even discuss Phil Collins’ jump into this same setup.

It pained me personally to hear acts I respected, like The Ramones, get caught up in this. Granted they were never a chart topping act, but had a large enough following to move beyond cult status, thus earn, I suspect, a decent chunk of change. Hearing “How Soon Is Now?” by The Smiths used in a Toyota ad was painful as well. At this point I begin to wonder if the artists no longer had full control over their catalog, as was the case when Michael Jackson peddled “Revolution” by The Beatles to sell Nikes. Not a chance in Hell the three surviving lads from Liverpool would have allowed this, but nobody ever said the King of Pop (his term, not the rest of the world’s) would ever shy away form a chance to line his pockets. I don’t know the circumstances for these artists, so they get a temporary restraining order from me on the rant. Only those who willingly pimp their own songs receive the snark from me.

Which brings me to one person who is a genuine hero here. A performer who has been approached multiple times, and has never succumbed: Bruce Springsteen. At the height of his popularity, at least in a pop music sense, in the mid 80’s, The Boss was inundated with offers to use “Born In The U.S.A.”, and said no every time. The irony here is that the song was far from a patriotic anthem, which shows either how dumb the ad agencies are, or how dumb they think you are. Also, some of then-President Reagan’s staff also approached Bruce about the song, and he politely refused to let his art be used to pimp a politician whom, it could be argued, was directly responsible for some of the hardships Bruce wrote about in this and other songs. There are a few others who come to mind who also haven’t succumbed, at least as far as I know, but none were at the level of stardom attained by Springsteen.

The bottom line is this: yes, this is America, with free enterprise and all that. Everyone in a capitalistic society has the right to make money. I understand how some of these artists feel the need to strike while the iron is hot and the need to capitalize. Still, unless you were thinking about selling out when you first put the pen to the paper (like many Rap artists, who think nothing of dropping actual product placements in their rhymes), the practice is, in my book, inexcusable. But, I’m only one guy, with one opinion. What do you think?

Friday, June 03, 2005

Celebrities - Arrogant or Just Plain Dumb?

I finally got around to hearing the infamous Pat O'Brien voice mail messages today. You remember Pat, the Access Hollywood host/ass-kisser extraordinaire, who used to be one of the big sports guys at CBS? The apparent coke/booze/broads fiend left some risque voice mails for his mistress/whatever, and she made them public. Lets just say, after listening to them, you could gather that he was kinda into this chick. Get somebody to pay you $1 each time Pat says "I'm so into you", or "You're so [bleepnig] hot" and you'd be rich. At times it sounded like he was reading from a grocery list of things he wanted to do, and have done, and watch done. One could almost envision him running down the list with a pen, chcking off the acts as he mentioned them. Sexy!

Of course, Pat is already well into Celebrity Recovery Mode. Unlike regular folks who go on booze and coke binges and likely lose their jobs, celebtities like Ol' Pat can take a different track:

Step 1: Admit you have a problem, at least privately. Check into a rehab until the news storm blows over.

Step 2: Endure the inevitable round of jokes, as the tapes become public and spread like wildfire. Make sure agent is aware to keep media on speed dial for frequent updates on your condition. Alert celeb friends in the media to vouch for what a great person you are, and make sure they mention your addiction as a disease.

Step 3: Contact Dr. Phil for match made in Ratings heaven. Arrange interview/confessional, milking it as much as possible.

Step 4: Emerge "A Changed Man". Listen humbly while Dr. Phil plays the tapes, and immediately imply that that wasn't you talking, it was the coke. Plead for mercy in the court of public opinion. You'll get it.

Step 5: Reclaim job, celebrity status intact, if only damaged a bit. After all, it's not like you're O.J. and actually killed anybody!

I'm not famous, and nobody outside of a small circle of people even knows who I am. I like it that way. If, at some point, for whatever reason, I do attain even a small measure of celeb status, there are two rules I will stick to at all times:

Rule #1: Don't leave voice mail for anyone after drinking and/or doing coke

Rule #2: Never videotape yourself having sex.

Regarding Rule #2, the most popular recent examples involve Pamela Anderson and Paris Hilton. Obviously when these tapes are made, they are not intended for public consumption. Each was leaked under different circumstances, but the sheer idiocy of the existence of the tapes is the real issue here. Knowing that you are famous, wouldn't you think twice before you A - Paris) Hooked up with some loser who suggested he turn on the camera, even if he was using Night Vision, or B - Pam) at least agree that the tape would be kept somewhere secure, like a safe?

What's odd is that these two have not only weathered the storm, but a case could be made that they are more popular since the tapes were made public. Paris Hilton, who has no discernible talent and is famous simply because of her last name and plastic looks, has used the tape to her advantage. Some suggest that the timing of the tape being "discovered", which coincided with the premiere of her ridiculous Fox show "The Simple Life", was intentional.

Whatever the motives, Paris seems to have followed a different path to Celebrity Recovery:

Step 1: Deny, deny, deny that you had anything to do with the tape being released.

Step 2: Express shock that these personal, intimate moments are now being made public.

Step 3: Keep name in the public by continually expressing "shock" and "outrage" over the tape. Be sure your publicist mentions your upcoming Fox show in every release.

Step 4: Continue to be a vapid, narcissistic idiot, and laugh all the way to the bank.

I guess the joke is on us, since both Pat and Paris continue to be famous, make more money than any of us, and enjoy lifestyle perks far beyond anything we peons could possibly imagine. What a country!

Michael Jackson

Well, today is the big day - the case goes to jury.

Honestly, who gives a damn? I wish this whole thing would simply go away. Our corporate media has to bombard us with daily updates like this was something important.

Enough already. There are more important things to worry about.