Some “Red Light Districts” in Florida are no fun at all

I could have killed him but chose not to and it cost me.

As with many Florida summer days, a brief shower had turned an oily six-lane road into a frictionless surface fit only for Physics 101 experiments. However, it was the most direct route home.

Unexpectedly, the car in front of me flinched at the apparition of a yellow light and stopped short. From a comfy four-car-lengths distance behind, I applied my brakes which did a catch-and-release act with the blacktop. Going forward, my garnet four-door Dodge truck would have surely crushed the other driver’s blue Japanese Somethingorother compact.

Not wanting to have his soul on my conscience, or skin up my FSU tailgating vehicle, I used my emergency driver training to feather my brakes and smoothly pass his stopped vehicle on the left and continue through the vacant intersection.

Several weeks later I received evidence of my driving skill in the mail in the form of a red-light camera remote traffic citation. As it had arrived from out-of-state, the piece looked like junk mail to me. After I opened it, I was convinced.

For the few uniformed readers, many municipalities across Florida have begun using automated traffic cameras as their alternative to video poker slot machines to raise revenue. Instead of having marked (or even unmarked) police vehicles on the streets as reminders and enforcers of good driving, we now have Robocop-on-a-pole.

In the 2014 Florida Legislature, Senate President Don Gaetz (R-Niceville) and House Speaker Will Weatherford (R-Wesley Chapel) have both said that they favor doing away with the red light cameras. You would think that, with a GOP-controlled House and Senate, as well as a Republican Governor, it would be a done deal to repeal. As FSU alum and ESPN analyst Lee Corso would say, “Not so fast, my friend!”

Even though traffic stats show no statistically significant change in accidents where red light cameras are deployed, the Florida League of Cities and its ilk are loath to kill this sacred cash cow. There is also the governmental inertia to never give up power once it has been put in place. (A personal aside: Back home in my native Texas, the Legislature only meets every other year and still seems to pass enough laws to govern a bigger state. I’m just sayin’…)

My dispute with this issue has nothing to do with governmental avarice or a desire to turn Florida’s roads into an unregulated demolition derby. It’s philosophical.

As an Objectivist, I really can’t argue with facts. My truck was, indeed, in the intersection under a crimson glow. As Michael Palin said in a Monty Python episode, “It’s a fair cop. I done it all.”

I took my time about paying the fine and stretched to the last hour, looking for some means to have my Atticus Finch moment in court. However, this system, safely ensconced in the Florida Statutes and the Florida Administrative Code, is stacked against the accused.

The forms offer limited options to protest a red-light-camera ticket, such as the vehicle not being driven by you. So, if a family member, a friend, a mechanic doing a road test, or a car thief making a getaway had been driving, I could have dodged the ticket (no pun intended; sometimes they just happen.). I have no living family and almost never loan my vehicles so that is out.

Had I found a loophole by which to challenge the ticket, I still would not have gotten a day in open court; I would have been in a conference room with a State-appointed administrative hearing officer. Therefore, none of the rules of court procedure would have applied. This means that I would not get to challenge the evidence, such as requiring the State to produce the maintenance and synchronization of the camera, as you can do in challenging radar guns. I could not request all of the evidence against me via discovery. With more than the three-second online clip, it would have shown the car ahead of me stopping short and rolling over the white line (I wonder if he got a Robo-ticket, too.) AND that there was no cross traffic in the seconds that followed me.

I also would not have the Constitutional right to confront my accuser who would be some out-of-state data clerk and not a sworn and certified Florida law enforcement officer.

There is the real rub. In my half-century on this planet, including over a decade in government, I have known plenty of local, county, state, Federal and international peace officers. To a person, they have been among the best people I have known, professional, courteous, and dedicated.

Had a real cop pulled me over, I could have explained my reasoning and I bet that 99 percent of the time, I’d have heard something like “That was all you could do. Be careful out there.”

However, you can’t reason with a camera on a stick …

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one: A Russian meets an American at a bus stop …

They are a rugged people who conquered a rugged land. The territory was vast, ranging from forests to grasslands, from deserts to a mountain range that separated the country into East and West. The land did not yield its resources easily but that was no challenge to people who persevered through adversity. Instead, through hard work and sacrifice, the country was settled from ocean to ocean and the people enjoyed their success with quiet satisfaction.

Were these people Americans or Russians? Yes, on both accounts.

Political leaders and governments come and go but the fundamental character of a people does not change so easily. Be they Russian or American, the day-to-day life of the ordinary citizen has certain common goals. Give them meaningful work, let them raise their children, and let them hope that the next generation fares better. It doesn’t matter if the mountains on the horizon are the Urals or the Rockies; the aspirations are the same.

If a Russian farmer and his American counterpart were to meet, they would find they had much in common and worried about the same things; weather, crops, and livestock, and they both worked from sunrise to sunset. Likewise, factory workers would have the same aches and pains, the same headaches from the continuous noise of machinery, and the same pride in the tangible goods they produced.

S73-02395 (August 1973) --- An artist's concept illustrating an Apollo-type spacecraft (on left) about to dock with a Soviet Soyuz-type spacecraft. A recent agreement between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics provides for the docking in space of the Soyuz and Apollo-type spacecraft in Earth orbit in 1975. The joint venture is called the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.

S73-02395 (August 1973) — An artist’s concept illustrating an Apollo-type spacecraft (on left) about to dock with a Soviet Soyuz-type spacecraft. A recent agreement between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics provides for the docking in space of the Soyuz and Apollo-type spacecraft in Earth orbit in 1975. The joint venture is called the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.

International exchange programs between the nations have existed for many years. The Apollo-Soyuz joint test project launched only a month after my high school graduation in 1975. Having grown up in the Space Age and being a student of science, this was a source of great fascination and inspiration. Imagine how the Earth must have looked from orbit as the daring astronauts and cosmonauts looked down at it together, seeing no political boundaries, just one fragile globe. Those men had so much in common in their knowledge, training, experience, and passions, that language and political differences must have seemed trivial.

Many of the exchange programs between the Russians and Americans have taken place at high levels. While not at the level of Earth orbit, programs for scientists and scholars have allowed exchange of ideas along lines of common inquiry. As of this writing, there are exchange programs for firefighters and even for counter-terrorism experts, in advance of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. These are fine programs with the potential for benefit in both hemispheres.

But what about the “regular people,” who are not government officials, scientists, or university students? How can the man-in-the-street in St. Petersburg, Russia ever meet his counterpart in St. Petersburg, Florida? A useful way of considering this problem was originated in the same year as the Apollo-Soyuz mission.

Professors Charles Berger and Richard Calabrese developed “Uncertainty Reduction Theory” as a way to understand how strangers get to know each other. Since they have no foreknowledge of the other person, the first effort is to make the situation as predictable as possible, and then to use the knowledge gained to evaluate the next actions and communications exchanged. Each person is trying to reduce cognitive uncertainty, hoping to understand the other person’s beliefs and attitudes, and behavioral uncertainty, hoping to pick up cues on facial expressions, tone of voice and personal space. As each person engages in self-disclosure, telling the other person bits and pieces about himself, gradually a knowledge base is built and shared so that the two people can be more at ease with each other.

Using this theory, we can imagine a conversation between the two people from the two St. Petersburgs. Let’s make them shopkeepers, John and Ivan, waiting for a bus, and we’ll overcome the language barrier via creative license.

John: “Good morning. Been waiting long?”

Ivan:  “Only a few minutes. How are you?”

John: “Doing okay, thanks, but my feet hurt from standing at the cash register all day.” (Note the first self-disclosure, revealing something about his work.)

Ivan: “I know how that feels. I run a little shop back home.” (Note the deeper self-disclosure as Ivan reveals he is not from the area.)

John: “Me, too! I wait on tourists all day.”

Ivan: “I get a lot of tourists, myself. They complain about prices but they always buy something.”

John: “Mine always seem to want something with pink flamingos on it.”

Ivan: “My tourists are always looking for ushanka hats or matryoshka dolls.”

From there, the talk could turn to how hard it is to manage teenage workers or how their wives want them to take a little time off to go on holiday. Eventually, they would each learn that people really are the same all over.

If more meetings such as this imaginary encounter could be arranged, Russians and Americans might find they have more in common than previously thought. To have strong national pride, a sturdy work ethic, and a generally decent nature would mark these folks as potential fast friends. Online communication tools can cross the various time zones and borders but face-to-face, we can take the measure of each other and find that neither is lacking in character.

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The Big Bang Theory: Singular or Plural?

I have always been “into” astronomy, especially since I grew up in the Space Age while my father was in the Air Force and working at the Aerospace Medical Center at Brooks Air Force Base in San Antonio. He would bring home stories of spending time with the early rocket sled and high altitude balloon pilots. I built all of the spacecraft model kits and, from Mercury forward, I had all of the color books and magazines. I would sit in the living room with all of my stuff to watch Walter Cronkite,  Frank Reynolds and Jules Bergman report on the missions.

Walter Cronkite, CBS News. NASA photo.

Walter Cronkite, CBS News. NASA photo.

So, my viewpoint was shaped as a child of the 60s, growing up on a heavy diet of astronaut stuff, science fiction and fact books, and, of course,  comics. I especially liked ones set in space or that contained facts about astronomy and physics. This means that I have been wrestling with these ideas since I could read. All of Earth’s great religions feature some notion of multiple universes or layers to the one we inhabit. Without getting into the cosmology of the Norse gods and the world tree Yggdrasil or where Superman’s home planet of Krypton was located, I’ll discuss the three prevailing models that have shaped my thinking: the Steady State universe, the Big Bang, and the Oscillating Universe.

The Steady State universe as proposed by Sir Fred Hoyle, the universe that has always been and always will be, seems the easiest to dismiss, even from empirical evidence, let alone the various sacred texts like The Bible indicating a definite start to the universe, as we know it. Hoyle seems to be making an argument for intelligent design, as well. What God was doing prior to 13.5 billion years ago is one of the fundamental mysteries. (Note: However, considering that our national debt works out to over $1200 per year since the creation of the universe(!), humans can certainly work on theoretical and practical scales to consider the concept.) Hoyle’s theory required spontaneous hydrogen to be created continuously and that added volume would account for the observable expansion of the universe. Hoyle had no more answer for where the “new hydrogen” came from than where the original densely-packed matter came from for the Big Bang in the first place. However, developments in radio astronomy provided calculations that the universe is, at the very least, quite unsteady.

Or was it really the first place? The Oscillating Universe model  suggests that the universe “breathes,” expanding and contracting like a bellows. It seems more to me like a balloon that inflates and deflates. Since it has been observed that the galaxies are moving away from each other, there must logically be a point of origin. Therefore, at least one Big Bang has been accounted for. If the rate of expansion is increasing, then it may be that the matter of the galaxies is moving further and further from the point of origin and the pull of gravity is less. However, Feynman has presented a mathematical argument that gravity’s force has remained constant throughout  the life of the universe so it could not be contributing to an increase in the velocity of galactic movement unless there is a greater gravitational force pulling from some point unseen.

If the galaxies are moving out into more nothingness, Newton would hold that the velocity would be constant if there is no external force acting against the matter. If this was happening as expected, the galaxies would be slowing down as they consume their unknown source of propulsion, or maintain their velocity in frictionless space. This open and flat cosmology would accept a single Big Bang and its gradual slowing  until a final “Big Freeze.”


However, the Oscillating Universe is the cosmological view that makes the most sense to me. Empirical observations and measurements indicate that we are in the (a?) phase of expansion as the galaxies move away from each other. Even the material within the galaxies is in a period of expansion, according to Hoskin, and contraction with dynamic internal tension. If the universal material hits its limit (due to loss of acceleration or eventual “impact” against dark matter surrounding our universe), then it can fall back or be attracted back to its point of origin. All of the material re-compacts into a Big Crunch that is the compacted star-stuff for another super-heated Big Bang.

Since “our” universe contains many pulsars, the antecedents to black holes, our universe may be pumping out new universes into parallel universes all over the places. It is as if our expanding universe is a golf ball and the dimples could be the black holes. Being in three-dimensional space, our universe would need to be golf balls within golf balls, like Russian matryoshka nesting dolls, with a one molecule layer between each ball. These layers are like membranes and perhaps such a membrane is the balloon skin that will snap back 14 billion years from now and pull all of the stuff back into another Big Crunch.

None of these postulations answer my overarching question? Where did the star-stuff come from in the first place? No matter if it is primordial hydrogen and helium or God making a “universe meatball” with his infinite hands, it had to come from somewhere. That is the plane of understanding that still demands my attention.

Black hole with disc and jets visualization courtesy of ESA  Read more: black hole might be the device that acts like a trash compactor to receive, squeeze, and squirt down to a parallel dimension the hyper-crushed material that is the superheated nugget for a new Big Bang to kick-start a new universe. Every succeeding universe would then be smaller compared to the universe above that birthed it. Superstring theory, as described by Michio Kaku suggests that this is not only possible but provides a potential answer to where “our” universe’s star-stuff came from, that the membranes surrounding two universes collided and that frictions rubbed off the material that sparked 13.5 billion years ago.

One of my high school heroes, Carl Sagan, suggested that black holes might be passages to “elsewhen,” and the idea of all of these on and off ramps between universes has fed science fiction for decades. It has certainly fed my higher thought processes …

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Why the Justice Department had no “business” interfering with the US Airways, American Airlines merger

The concept of anti-trust laws goes back to the trust-busting days of Teddy Roosevelt. That makes it, literally, a late 19th Century idea that has lost some of its relevancy in an early 21st Century global economy.

When the industrial titans like Carnegie and Rockefeller were building their empires, it was done through one of a pair of prevailing business strategies. In a vertical combination, a business acquired all (or at least a controlling interest) in all of the factors of production. So, a steel company would need to dominate coal and iron ore so that it would be able to set the cost of raw materials to its advantage and deny that same asset to any competitors. In a horizontal combination, an oil company might want to dominate oil exploration and extraction, refining, and distribution. If you own the wells, the refineries and the gas stations, any time money is made on a petroleum product, you’d get paid on each transaction.

Since its creation, the United States was protected from other economic competitors by two oceans, controlling the natural resources of the North American continent meant that you could literally land-lock entire industries. However, “foreign oil” has become a catchphrase in political discourse because that is a global commodity and its trade cannot be controlled by a few robber barons wearing silk top hats in the United States. Now, royalty in very different attire also have a large say in the market price of crude. Federal government action, such as releasing a relative trickle from the strategic oil reserve has no more affect on the supply side than my pressing down on the gas pedal of my over-consuming, V-8 powered, four-door, American luxury car (and I press down often … my contribution to the job market for American oil men).

All of which brings us around to the allegedly deregulated American airline industry.
US Airways Boeing 737
The government does have a legitimate interest in maintaining a safe and orderly domestic airspace. Elsewhere I have commented on the applications of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and the FAA has released its framework for integrating pilotless aircraft into the system. That is a proper role of government and its nice to see it in front of a burgeoning technology for a change instead of trying to catch up to it.

However, the interaction between airlines, passengers and airports is a dynamic that would benefit from less governmental intrusion and more exercise of free market influences. Even the airports themselves are a hybrid of a governmental resource, acting like a business, guided by an advisory board of interested citizens who hire a professional manager. The various airports engage in advertising to attract passenger throughput just as the airlines do. The airports also compete to attract the air carriers so they can offer a menu of options to potential customers. The customers also engage in free market, picking among various combinations of airports, airlines, and flight itineraries so they can get the best deal that meets their wants and needs. With all of the online booking sites, airline seats have become commodities, traded almost as easily as baseball cards. These competing influences push and pull to create a dynamic equilibrium that undergirds flight routes and times, capacities of aircraft assigned, the range of services provided to customers and eventually the revenues earned by the airlines and their airports.

Note that I said, “earned.” Airlines that do not offer the flight schedules and services customers want should earn less. Airports that do not have well-run baggage systems (recall Denver International’s infamous opening weeks) or convenient parking facilities should get less support from customers.

In the interest of full disclosure, this story hits home to me because of the dowry that US Airways and American Airlines had to place on the altar of the imperial government to be granted the permission to wed. A sacrifice was required and gates and routes serving New York’s LaGuardia and Washington, D.C.’s Reagan National had to be relinquished “to be fair” to other airlines like Southwest and other discount carriers. Setting aside the observation that this merger would create a de facto premier national air carrier for the United States as other nations have had (There are British Airways, Air France, Sweden’s KLM, Japan’s JAL and even Russia has Aeroflot.), this Federal interference in free enterprise screws with my travel plans.

There is an old joke that still circulates down here in Florida. It goes like this:

A priest makes a call on a sick man who is lying on his deathbed in Panama City. Concerned for his immortal soul, the priest asks the old man, “My son, do know if you are going to Heaven or Hell?”

“I ain’t sure,” the old-timer replies, “but I know I gotta change planes in Atlanta to get there!”

That’s the way it had always been for me, Delta to Atlanta and then, a few hours later, on to where I really wanted to go. Then, once I moved to central Florida, the airline changed and so did the punch line. Just plug in USAir and Charlotte. As a somewhat regular thing, I’ve either had meetings in D.C. or, as a semi-annual instructor for FEMA at its Emmitsburg, Maryland, campus, I made that run often enough to have a “preferred airline” and also an airport of choice.

Dulles is a great facility but a bit out of the way if you’re going downtown. You have to rent a car and recall how to get from here to there. BWI (the Baltimore-Washington International) always seemed to have me delayed taking off in the summers, inevitably making me miss the Charlotte connection. This would require me to use a courtesy razor and toothbrush from the provided hotel before putting on yesterday’s clothes again for last leg home.
Reagan Washington Airport sign IMG 3996
Ah, but Reagan National, there’s magic in the very name. It’s only an escalator ride to get to excellent DC Metro system and that’s all you really need if your business is in the city. Even if going outside the District on a teaching assignment (or to visit the future ex-in-laws), I knew that after my labors, I could plan my flight to home to after a pleasant half-day at the National Air and Space Museum or the Hirshhorn Gallery.

There is the crucial difference. As a user of a free market system, I could choose what and where and how to fly, making my experience work for me. There’s some of that enlightened self-interest that ol’ Adam Smith wrote about back in the day. Not only could I eke out a little pleasure at the edge of my business, I could bank the frequent flier miles (a reward freely given by the airline because of my customer loyalty) to use at some unknown date when I would have free time for a pleasure trip. Now, the Federal government has decided that a system that was working just fine has to be punished because it wants to be stronger and more successful.

I wonder if Aeroflot has flights to Las Vegas …

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Working to live, not living to work, in the 21st Century

Any discussion of worklife needs to break this compound word into its component parts, work and life. Most people, if asked, would probably say that they work to live, not the reverse. There are people whose work is their life; perhaps those in the arts would say that they live to paint or write or make music and that they can make a living at it is a bonus. Otherwise, the cliché of the actress waiting tables is an example of someone who is working to live but not engaged in her life’s work.

This means the separation of “job” from “career.” Some jobs are not intended to be career positions. It’s expected that the student working at McDonald’s is just passing through although a few may decide that becoming a crew leader then store manager might be a good path to a fast food career. Working in retail sales might be classified as a job and not a career but some people develop the craft of salesmanship into a career and can be considered professional salesmen.

Professionalism might be the key to understanding what people do for a living. It is not merely getting paid for what you do. It is about whether or not you have an intrinsic ability that you are using and that you carry out your activities up to a recognizable standard or performance. We certainly recognize the major professions like medicine, law, engineering, and accounting. They have clearly defined ethical standards, regulatory boards and standards of practice. This notion of a moral code, even a special morality of a profession, has long been considered a hallmark of defining a profession.

However, self-regulation is more than lawyers regulating other lawyers via a state bar association. It is whether not people, engaged in their crafts, can be expected to rise up to a certain level of quality. If you can ply your trade anywhere that you can find clients and you are really the only person who knows if you are doing the best possible job, you might well be a professional. In this light, a registered nurse who takes his skills from one hospital to another is practicing a profession. A studio musician who goes from one recording company to another to accompany different performers is acting as a professional. Specialty bartenders or disc jockeys could well be considered professionals in the hospitality industry, able to pick up their skills and perform them for different clients. Portability, then, seems to be a key to professionalism.

Looking back a couple of generations puts us in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In this era, unions were still strong and manufacturing was a major part of the economy. The peak of private union membership was 28.3% in 1954, according to a Cornell University study. The nation had made its change from agrarian to industrial emphasis and those working across the Midwest were building cars and appliances or producing the steel and titanium needed for those products. Americans were enjoying a high standard of living, especially in these trades where good wages and benefits had resulted from strong unionization. In the United Steelworkers or United Auto Workers, members were assured of getting their hours, security in their jobs, and vacation time to enjoy the fruits of their labors.

Being a “company man” was considered a good thing and it was not uncommon to spend an entire career at Ford or US Steel. Living in a company town didn’t necessarily mean that your employer was your landlord but it was pretty likely that other people in your neighborhood worked where you did or in some supporting activity like shipping or supply. Your kids would grow up together and there was a stable community with stable values.

This was the life experience of my family, as well as the country. My uncles and aunts in Ohio benefited from the big union jobs, driving big cars and dressing their kids for the holidays as if they were going to be on the Andy Williams Christmas Special. My father, who did not want any part of the mines or the mills or the factories, elected to make the Air Force his career. After more than 21 years as a medic, he retired in 1975 and went to work for the county hospital for another two decades. Even though he earned promotions in both and retired as a department head, he really only had two jobs in his whole life.

Those halcyon days are long gone and it is more likely that workers will get 30 hours per week in combined part-time jobs than a 30-year career with one company. This may be why he never really understood the challenges of my career. While I have stayed in my field of higher education, just as Dad stayed in healthcare, my 35 years as a professional have been much messier. However, I think I have been as representative of my generation’s career path as he was of his.

To stay engaged in my chosen profession of education, I have had eight job changes, each requiring a physical move. Economics professor Enrico Moretti of the University of California, Berkeley, says that mobility inequity is a factor that is trapping workers in high unemployment areas. If they can’t afford to move, they can’t go where the jobs went. My father never understood why I didn’t “just get another job in Tallahassee.” After all, that was where most of my friends were and it was close to my folks in Panama City. Never having gone through it, he found it hard to believe that it took me eight months and over 200 application packages to get four offers, each hundreds of miles from home. Welcome to the new economy.

At the macro level, most people will change careers, not jobs, multiple times. These are not small moves like bookkeeper to accountant to finance manager. We’re talking military officer to banker to nurse, personal reinvention due to career necessity.

What does this do to self-identity? Instead of being able to say “I’m an autoworker” or even “I work for Pontiac,” it becomes “I’m currently working for Sears.” This is like saying “I’d like you to meet my future ex-wife,” as though there is no sense of permanence and no shame in admitting it. I know that I actually withdrew from society because I had no idea how to introduce myself without a job or business cards. All I had was my name and what good was that?

Into this new economy and job-scared landscape, the nature of the workday has changed. In an era where everyone is disposable, employers have a clear upper hand in making demands on workers’ lives. As private sector unions dwindle in membership and public sector unions cannot keep workers from getting furloughed whenever Congress’ dysfunction meter breaks 10, workers accede to whatever demands are placed upon them to preserve their tenuous employment. Harvard Business School Professor Jim Heskett calls modern workers “hostages” who are dissatisfied with their jobs by a 55-45 margin but, amazingly, 81 percent are not looking for another job, perhaps afraid they can’t find another job.

As we moved from an industrial to an information service based economy, there were supposed to be tremendous efficiencies from information technology, ushering in the paperless office and the four-day work week. What will we do with all of this leisure time? Apparently, it was sucked into a time warp and came out the other side as more workweek.

In the 1990s, I saw this when I was in state government. Senior managers were issued the new, clunky, and expensive cell phones because the Capitol might need to be in touch with them at any time. We in the next layer were issued beepers and AT&T calling cards. I recall being paged on a long pine tree-lined stretch of Interstate 10. Before I could find an exit ramp, I was paged again. When I finally found an exit ramp where I could pull into a gas station with a public pay phone, I called the office to find out what was so damned urgent. It was some routine question about a report that wasn’t due yet. As I walked back to my motor pool car, with the sounds of banjos receding into the distance, I realized that I needed a cell phone. However, the State felt that I should buy it and pay for my minutes myself. The State also needed my cell phone number so they could use it to get in touch with me day or night. Telling them that it was a personal line, only known to my girlfriend and bookie, did not seem to be sufficient reason for me to retain my privacy or authority over my own property.

Once it became commonplace for private citizens to have reliable Internet access, it didn’t immediately lead to telecommuting so that we all could become “Mr. Mom” or work in our bathrobes. Instead, it meant that work could be carried home for the weekend, official systems could be accessed remotely, and assignments could be made on Friday to be done “by Monday morning.” Even when flex-time and working from home became acceptable, it began to inexorably expand into an all-day affair. Now that email syncs to smartphones, I have had students contact me after 11 pm on a Sunday night to request extensions for work due Monday morning. Why would they even think I was checking my phone or computer at that hour? The idea of ever being “off duty” is becoming socially unacceptable.


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We Paid Too Much for this Government!

The Florida Republican Party has released graphics in which it takes credit for lower unemployment and more job creation here in the Sunshine State. When Mark Twain said that there are “lies, damned lies, and statistics,” he would still be correct today, according to officials of the Libertarian Party of Florida (LPF).

While the GOP reports that Florida had the greatest decrease in unemployment, down 1.6 % to 7.1% in September of 2013, from the previous year. However, the Florida Times-Union debunked that with a non-partisan Legislative report that almost half of that drop was due to people completely dropping out of the workforce and no longer being included in the calculations.

 “We think every unemployed Floridian counts,” said Dana Moxley-Cummings, Chair of the Libertarian Party of Florida, “whether the G.O.P. finds their inclusion inconvenient or not.”

The Florida Republicans also want to take dubious credit for being third in the nation in job creation over the past year. However, the payroll processing giant ADP does its own research and found that the largest portion of new jobs in Florida were lower-pay service sector jobs and that higher-pay manufacturing jobs continued to decline.

“What good is it to create more jobs if you need two of them just to pay the bills?” asked Cummings. “The state’s priority needs to be unchaining business so free enterprise can create more jobs that can support a family.”

The Florida Republicans also touted the $845.7 million budget surplus and Gov. Rick Scott travelled the state, emphasizing that he felt the lion’s share of tax cut next year needed to go to Florida’s job creators.

“If the government took in more than it needed to provide its authorized services, why not give that back to the citizens?” suggested Cummings. “Governments never create wealth. They acquire it through the power to tax. If we paid too much for our government, last year, give us a refund!”
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A Personal Tribute to Tom Clancy

Note: This is the article I wrote for the Encyclopedia of American Popular Fiction. Clancy was one of the most influential writers on my bookshelf and, on his passing, I wanted to share my thoughts.

             Insurance-broker-turned-novelist Tom Clancy’s first novel, The Hunt for Red October, became a best-seller in 1984 after President Reagan praised it publicly. Similar to the stir created when President Kennedy announced his fondness for Ian Fleming’s James Bond series, the Clancy “franchise” was launched with a Presidential impetus. Although often referred to as the father of the techno-thriller, Clancy himself awards that title to Michael Crichton of The Andromeda Strain, while also suggesting that the genre is faux and ought to be considered part of fiction as a whole.

            The core of the Clancy phenomenon is the series of books featuring Red October’s lead character, Dr. Jack Ryan, following his rise from CIA analyst to President of the United States. The “Ryanverse” is a window into the political and military milieu of the Cold War 1980s to the post-9/11 present and near future. The order of release (and writing) of the Ryan books does not track in a perfect line through the Clancy bibliography but it is the trunk from which the branches grew.

            Viewing the Ryan books as a series, The Hunt for Red October (1984), introduced readers the character through his involvement in the defection of a Soviet nuclear submarine. Next came Patriot Games (1987), in which Ryan was embroiled in conflict with the Irish Republican Army. In 1988’s The Cardinal of Kremlin, Ryan is instrumental in defections from the highest level of the Soviet KGB. In something of a pastiche of the Iran-Contra scandal, Clear and Present Danger (1989) saw Ryan rise to Deputy Director in the CIA and interact with the White House, presaging a wider role for Ryan in the books to come. The Sum of All Fears (1991) placed Ryan in the aftermath of nuclear terrorism at the Super Bowl and an attempt to avert a misdirected U.S. nuclear strike against Iran. In Debt of Honor (1994), Ryan became National Security Adviser as an economic war with Japan turns into a shooting war and, in an explosive climax that foreshadowed 9/11, Ryan went from Vice-President to President in a moment’s time. Assuming the Presidency in 1996’s Executive Orders, Ryan dealt with a united Iran and Iraq who together launched biological terrorism against the United States Domestically, Ryan also had to deal with a Constitutional controversy over the legitimacy of his Presidency, somewhat foreshadowing the 2000 UD election. President Ryan was next the central character in The Bear and the Dragon (2000) in which the U.S. acted as an ally to the Russian Federation to avert a war with China over newly-discovered oil and gold in Russia. Ryan “next” appeared in a flashback adventure, Red Rabbit (2001), a tale of Ryan in 1981 woven into the real-life assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II. The Ryan universe continued in The Teeth of the Tiger (2003) in which the now-grown Jack Ryan, Jr., began his career in post 9/11 counter-terrorism.

            Throughout this series, and its spinoffs, Clancy maintains a coherent worldview that there is right and wrong in the world and the United States should always act in the right. Ryan serves as the moral compass for the series, providing the “everyman” view into the messy world of geopolitics, much as earlier generations looked through Jimmy Stewart’s eyes in the movies. Jack Ryan has been portrayed in four film adaptations, The Hunt for Red October in 1990 with Alec Baldwin, Patriot Games (1992) and Clear and Present Danger (1994), both with Harrison Ford, and The Sum of All Fears (2002) with Ben Affleck. “Adaptation” might be too free a use of the word with respect to the last film which removed the Middle Eastern angle completely from the story. However, as Clancy stated in a C-SPAN interview, he merely sells the licenses.

            A second tier of novels featured John Clark, a supporting character in several of the Ryan books. With smaller roles in Patriot Games and The Cardinal of the Kremlin, Clark became a featured character in Clear and Present Danger. In that book, it was Clark who ran the counter-drug special operations force in Colombia and became closely allied with Ryan. By Sum of All Fears, Clark was in charge of Ryan’s close protection detail which included Ding Chavez, a member of the Columbian special ops team from Clear and Present Danger. In Debt of Honor, Clark and Chavez were conducting an operation in Somalia. Clark’s character was featured in Without Remorse (1993), which tells the story of his life as John Kelly, before his CIA recruitment. A former Navy SEAL, he took vigilante action against the drug gang that killed his fiancée’, which put him in conflict with Baltimore Detective Lt. William Ryan, Jack’s father. Faking his own death, Kelly was reborn as Clark in the CIA. In Rainbow Six (1998), Clark and Chavez were sent to England to start a multinational counterterrorism unit that Clark lead to foil a biological attack on the Sydney Olympics.

            One novel, Clancy’s second, Red Storm Rising (1986), was a tale of a conventional, non-nuclear war between the US and USSR. Co-plotted with Larry Bond (who would become a successful military thriller writer in his own right), the book gave a preview of stealth aircraft in a warfighting role. It also lent its name to the video game and electronic entertainment company, Red Storm Entertainment, which produces the Clancy computer and console games.

            The practice of working with a collaborator has led to additional successful series for Clancy. With Steve Pieczenik, he co-created Tom Clancy’s Op Center (1995), first in a series of novels set in its own universe. Op Center is the US crisis operations center, headed by Paul Hood and it was made into a television mini-series (re-released in a shorter movie version) starring Harry Hamlin in 1995. In addition to the Op Center series, Clancy and Pieczenik co-created Tom Clancy’s Net Force (1999), set in 2010. Net Force is a special unit within the FBI tasked with cybercrime and part of the Net Force adventures take place in virtual reality. Net Force also jumped to the small screen that same year in a mini-series starring Scott Bakula as director Alex Michaels. Both series had successful paperback runs and Net Force also spun off a version for younger readers featuring the teen “Net Force Explorers.”

            Another co-created series was Tom Clancy’s Power Plays, partnered with Martin Greenberg. In this case, the plots were based more in global economics and politics. An interesting case of media convergence was presented by the first book in the series, Politika (1997) as this was a novel based on the precursor computer strategy game. Politika also spawned, and was packaged with, a board game, as well. The Power Plays series also had a successful paperback run with several episodes.

            The gaming connection is strong with Clancy’s materials, as would be expected with combat and strategy games become a popular genre. Rainbow Six inspired a whole series of PC and console games featuring squad level counter-terrorist operations. Termed “first-person shooters,” this style of game allows the player to operate as one of the characters and some of the Rainbow Six characters, like Ding Chavez, made the transition to the games. The base game spawned numerous sequels and add-ons. A new game franchise, Splinter Cell, features near future counterterrorist Sam Fisher and it has spawned several sequel games and a novel, as well. However, the first Splinter Cell (2004) novel is only “created by Tom Clancy” but written by David Michaels. This marks a transition for Clancy into being even more of a “brand name” than ever before. Previous ghostwriters for the other paperback series, such as Net Force, were acknowledged but not officially credited.

            Clancy’s success in military fiction has given him remarkable entrée into the real-life military-industrial complex. He has written a series of non-fiction “guided tour” books, such as Fighter Wing: A Guided Tour of an Air Force Combat Wing (1995), that have the look of his novels but are instead highly detailed profiles of military units and equipment. In addition to those efforts, he has also co-authored several military non-fiction books with notable commanders, such as Every Man a Tiger (1999) with General Chuck Horner, USAF (ret.), who was the US and coalition air commander for Operation Desert Storm.

            Other than his failed attempt to purchase the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings in 1998, Clancy’s ability to turn geopolitics and military matters into thrilling fiction has given him remarkable business success. A native of Baltimore, he continues to reside in the Maryland area featured so prominently in his books.

Works Cited

Clancy, Tom. Debt of Honor. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. 1994.

 — Fighter Wing: A Guided Tour of an Air Force Combat Wing. New York: Berkeley. 1995.

 — The Hunt for Red October. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press. 1984.

 — Rainbow Six. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. 1998.

 Clancy, Tom, and Greenberg, Martin. Tom Clancy’s Power Plays: Politika. New York: Berkeley. 1997.

 Clancy, Tom, and Horner, Chuck. Every Man a Tiger. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons 1999.

 Clancy, Tom, and Pieczenik, Steve. Tom Clancy’s Net Force. New York: Berkeley. 1999.

 — Tom Clancy’s Net Force: The Deadliest Game. New York: Berkeley. 1999.

 — Tom Clancy’s Op-Center. New York: Berkeley. 1995.

 Greenberg, Martin, ed. The Tom Clancy Companion, revised edition. New York: Berkeley. 2002.

 “In depth with Tom Clancy.” C-SPAN, Feb. 23, 2002.

 Michaels, David. Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell. New York: Berkeley. 2004.

Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six. Morrisville, NC: Red Storm Entertainment. 1996.

Citation for the article:

Thomas, R. C. (2009). Tom Clancy. In Encyclopedia of American popular fiction. (pp. 62-64). New York: Facts on File.

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Can the Government Define who is a Journalist?

“Most of the other provisions in the Bill of Rights protect specific liberties or specific rights of individuals … In contrast, the free-press clause extends protection to an institution. The publishing business is, in short, the only organized private business that is given explicit constitutional protection.”  U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, speaking at Yale Law School, 1974.

When the US Senate Judiciary Committee approved SD 226 on Sept. 12, by a 13-5 vote, it took an amazing step in the infringement of a free press. Under the cover of passing a bill to protect journalists from the secret warrant and subpoena excesses of the Department of Justice, it took it upon itself to define what a journalist is.

Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) said “I think journalism has a certain tradecraft. It’s a profession. I recognize that everyone can think they’re a journalist.”

In the era of the nation’s founding, that was truly the case as printers and pamphleteers like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine arose spontaneously and they would probably not meet the Senate definition of a journalist.

The Senate bill defines a “covered journalist” as an employee, independent contractor or agent of an entity that disseminates news or information. The individual would have been employed for one year within the last 20 or three months within the last five years.

It would also cover student journalists or someone with a “considerable amount of freelance work” in the last five years. A federal judge also would have the discretion to declare an individual a “covered journalist,” who would be granted the privileges of the law.

Amazingly, Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Ala) feels that the proposed definition is too broad. It would be expected that a Republican would automatically oppose any definition that can slide down the slope into future regulation.  Once the Federal government can define what a thing is, it can also give itself the authority to control its behavior later.

The bill’s language already allows judges to decide who is and isn’t a journalist. A similar vague concept is “considerable amount” when it applies to freelancers. Does that mean paid or unpaid? Most scholarly publishing is done for free and is certainly sporadic. Does this mean that a professor writing for a journalism review would not be considered a journalist? What about persons who decide to begin printing small community papers? Are they covered because they publish?

The real issue is whether or not an individual blogger is a journalist. The work is published and the person is putting out news and information. However, in a one-person-shop, is that person an organization?

Consider this scenario: Someone has been out of the journalism business for several years, maybe to try another career or maybe to raise a family. To re-enter the marketplace, that person might want to go do some new stories on her own to have current writing samples to show prospective employers. Under the Senate’s definition, that person is not a “covered journalist” and would not be protected from electronic surveillance or be able to protect sources.

If I was hiring someone, I would certainly be impressed by the person who was bringing me a scoop, a major exclusive. However, such a person, if out of the game, cannot get back in. If that person is trying to do an expose’, then that person is at greater hazard. Under the Senate’s rules, Clark Kent could never have gotten his first job at the Daily Planet without exposure to secret surveillance, Superman or not.

Would Truman Capote have been considered a “covered journalist” while he was gathering the information for “In Cold Blood?” A book-length project can take years. Perhaps such a writer is earning a living by other means while working on the book project.

Here’s the bottom line: SD 226 is the camel’s nose into the journalism tent. This definition might seem to cover most of us but it if doesn’t cover all of us, especially in this brave new world of individual online journalism, then it endangers ALL of us. If this effort to create a definition doesn’t infringe upon the freedom of the press too much, is it still okay?

Maybe the next bill will infringe further and set minimum circulation levels for “covered publications” or minimum numbers of employees to be a “covered organization.” It sounds a lot like a legal precedent (or more correctly pretext) for harassing inconvenient viewpoints.

Journalists derive their rights to attend public meetings and view public records because all citizens enjoy these rights. Now, each citizen also has the capability to report and comment on those meetings and records.

Any government that feels the need to silence some individuals by creating a chilling effect on citizen-journalists must not want to hear from those citizens. This is the time to contact the members of Congress to let them know that this is not right, not now, not in the future, and certainly not in the times of the founders.

It will never be right. How effective can you be as a watchdog be when the government can decide who can be a watchdog and how long your chain can be?

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The Scoreboard from Syria: Putin 1, Obama 0

During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, President John Kennedy received two different messages from the Soviet Union’s Premier Nikita Khrushchev.  JFK had been working to get the USSR’s missiles removed from Cuba and, in addition to a naval blockade of the island nation, was also communicating via official diplomatic messages and a back channel run by his brother Attorney General Robert Kennedy.

President Kennedy chose to answer the message that provided the best way out for both nations, teetering on the brink of nuclear exchange. While the Soviets agreed to remove their missiles from Cuba, the U.S. promised never to invade Cuba (especially salient given the previous year’s disaster at the Bay of Pigs). However, secretly, the United States also agreed to remove missiles from Turkey and Italy. In chess terms, the Soviet gambit had gained the removal of many American pieces from the Cold War board.

If we fast-forward almost half a century, we have another instructive moment in Russian-American brinksmanship.

If Syria is in the place of Cuba, an adversarial dictatorship that possesses weapons of mass destruction with a Russian patron, we can see how this autumn chess match was played.

President Obama has had pieces removed from his board also as nation after nation refused to support any military action against Syria to punish the regime and degrade its chemical weapons capabilities. While some nations, such as France, would agree to some manner of logistical support, the military action would be solely an American operation.

Akin to the U.S. naval blockade of Cuba, America and Russian ships were steaming into proximity on the Mediterranean Sea. In this case, the back channel of communication was actually an off-hand comment by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. When he said that the only option other than a military strike would be President Assad agreeing to put his chemical weapons under international inspection and control, noting that it would never happen, the opening in the US game board was made.

Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized and seized the opportunity, publicly engaging the Syrian regime in an effort to make the international inspection concept the plan to stop the US military strike.

With President Obama losing Congressional and public support for his vague military action, it was becoming increasingly unlikely that Obama would have any support to take a shot. Even so, Putin removed the bulls-eye and Obama was left to rewrite his address to the nation yet again. As of this morning, and Reuters’ report that Assad has accepted the “Putin Plan,” Obama will be shut in with his speechwriters all day.

Obama’s address will probably feature him using the words “I” and “my” a lot as he tries to say that his military pressure is what made Assad blink in this game. The fact that Obama’s plan was losing so much steam that it had no pressure makes no difference. Why let the facts get in the way of a good story?

Consider how long it took to Saddam Hussein to allow international inspectors to come into Iraq and how many United Nations resolutions he ignored. Consider also how much progress in nuclear and missile technology is being made in Iran and North Korea while they do the slow walk with the international authorities.

What Putin has gained is control of the entire situation. His client state of Syria will carry on unmolested by any incoming ordnance from the United States. While the arrangements are being carefully negotiated (Note to Secretary Kerry: please don’t waste time on the shape of the table.), Assad can consolidate his positions and get back to the business of slaughtering his own people with conventional weapons.

Putin has also proven his superiority to the American President. I can see why Vladimir Putin is such a remarkable leader and totally representative of “Russian-ness,” a rugged nation that gets its soup and its liquor from the same potato. We’d have to elect Chuck Norris to the White House to match Russia’s bare-chested, hunting-and-fishing, judo-fighting, horseback-riding, secret agent leader. Putin vs. Obama in the octagon would be over in less than a minute.

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Striking Out at Syria: This Week’s “Shiny Object”

If you’re trying to take a picture of toddlers or pets, you are constantly trying to keep their attention on you and the camera. One tried-and-true technique is to jingle your car keys near the camera lens so that the subject will be looking at the shiny object and not directing their eyes in a direction you don’t want them to notice.

This works in a variety of fields. Quarterbacks fake a throw to the left to get the receiver on the right open. Stage magicians bring out the statuesque and sequined assistant to keep you from looking at their sleight-of-hand. Politicians make a big fuss over one issue to keep the public from looking at the one they’re really worried about.

As 9/11 approaches, being not only the 12th anniversary of the terror of 2001, it also reminds the public of the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, one year ago.

In almost 12 months, a lot has happened. There was a Presidential election, a Super Bowl, an alphabet soup of scandals (IRS, NSA, DoJ), another revolution in Egypt, and a “credible threat” that caused the U.S to temporarily shutter every diplomatic facility across North Africa and the Middle East.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch (Actually, CIA calls its training facility “The Farm.”), survivors of the Benghazi attack have been kept away from Congress, the press, and the light of day. The numerous CIA staff that were there have been made to sign additional non-disclosure agreements. This seems to be gilding the lily. When I was recruited by the same outfit, I signed such forms that essentially required me to mislead my own family and keep mum for life and thereafter. I can’t imagine what further oath these folks are being made to take.

What could possibly be so vital, so secret, so catastrophic that it outweighs the assassination of an American ambassador and three members of his team?

Numerous sources have alluded to the CIA facility, AKA the diplomatic annex, as a rumored waypoint for weapons on their way from the US, through Libya, on to Turkey and ultimately to the rebels in Syria’s ongoing and multi-layered civil war. Now that information is coming out regarding American weapons that were supposed to get to the rebels but never arrived, this transit system seems increasingly plausible.

There is no argument that the war in Syria has been brutal with perhaps two million people fleeing Assad’s regime and over 100,000 being killed. However, this has been going on for over two years. What makes this moment in time so special that the United States must kinda-sorta act sooner or later? It’s not the latest use of chemical weapons because, if that was so offensive, we would have jumped off quite some time ago.

However, we have the anniversary of 9/11 right around the corner, triggering Benghazi retrospectives, as well as remembrances of 2001. There is the G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, reminding us of the cancelled meeting with Vladimir Putin and the asylum granted to NSA leaker Edward Snowden. Domestically, another debt ceiling fight looms, casting a shadow over GOP efforts to defund Obamacare. Omnibus immigration legislation is also making its way through Congress on little cat feet.

If the President Obama can get us all to look at the pretty fireworks over Damascus, maybe we won’t turn our heads toward what goes on in Washington.

On the lighter side of the news, the monstrous Cleveland kidnapper Ariel Castro has apparently hanged himself in prison. If only he could do that every day for ten years.

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