Sunday, February 26, 2012

Obama and the long con

Wednesday's Daily Show included a fantastic takedown of the hyperbole that so often dominates our national politics. At least, a takedown of some Republican examples of it. My favorite comes about 2 minutes in, when NRA President Wayne LaPierre references "a massive Obama conspiracy" to "destroy the Second Amendment."

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: If one administration can destroy your country, your country wasn't much to begin with.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Is your congressman much like you?

I'm listening to an audio book about James Madison and his role in the debates that led to a Bill of Rights accompanying the U.S. Constitution.

And a particular passage, from a Madison speech to the Virginia ratifying convention, seems relevant to some of the recent coverage of just how differently members of Congress live compared to their constituents.

Said Madison:
"Powers are not given to any particular set of men. They are in the hands of the people, delegated to their representatives chosen for short terms. To representatives responsible to the people and whose situation is perfectly similar to their own. As long as this is the case we have no danger to apprehend."
I wonder, are we there still? Or have we arrived at a place where our leaders no longer live in situations "perfectly similar" to our own? Do the short terms House members serve offset this effectively, or have the over-riding result of our partisan redistricting process and the advantages of incumbency negated that check on out-of-touch congressional influence?

The median net worth of a member of Congress is more than $900,000, compared to $100,000 for the average American, according to The New York Times which looked at this issue in December. As ABC's The Note summarized:
The average American’s net worth has dropped 8 percent during the past six years, while members of Congress got, on average, 15 percent richer, according to a New York Times analysis of financial disclosure.
Members of Congress also saw their wealth advance faster than the country's richest 1 percent over the last six years, The Times found. You have to think that's at least partly due to stuff like this, this and all sorts of this.

I'm not in a position to say whether today's wealth disparity is unusual in our country's history. Neither was The Times, other than to say Congress "has long been populated with the rich ... but rarely has the divide appeared so wide." Madison himself was well-off, growing up on one of the larger plantations in Virginia.

But when you look at the money it takes to run for Congress, the subsequent $174,000 annual base salary paid to House members, their staff budgets, health and retirement benefits, various privileges and the fact that House members represent nearly 710,000 people each, it's difficult to trust that the majority of them know what it's like out here in the cheap seats, even if they have to stand for election every two years.

It seems we've evolved a system that elects a disproportionate number of wealthy representatives from our political fringes. Which is perhaps what made this section of The Times' report particularly disheartening:
In an effort to gauge how directly the country’s economic problems affected lawmakers, The New York Times contacted the offices of the 534 current members (one seat is vacant) for an informal survey. It asked if they had close friends or family members who had lost jobs or homes since the 2008 downturn.

Only 18 members responded.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Understanding N.C.'s gay marriage amendment

I'm covering North Carolina's vote on Amendment 1, which would write the state's ban on gay marriage into the N.C. constitution. I'd like to use this post as a call for input and to think out loud about the way this amendment would interplay with some of the principles on which our government was built.

Nuance and questions about the amendment's full impact on domestic partnership benefits aside, it's fairly easy to understand why people are against the amendment. What I'd like to hear more about is: Why are many people so passionately for it? What is so threatening about the government allowing gay people to marry?

Does it really boil down to God says it's wrong to be gay? If so, are you sure he does? And if you are, are we the kind of country that codifies the majority's understanding of God's word on social issues?

And if we are, why isn't, say, adultery illegal?

It is not my place to decide or advocate. I just want to put as many relevant facts and voices before voters as I can, and play a part in North Carolinians deciding issues from a position of knowledge.

That's my role in our democracy as a member of the press - to verify, to agitate and to question. But I believe in democracy not because it's intrinsically great, but in large part because it seems to be the best method developed to protect individual rights.

And because I believe individual rights are a foundation of society, it's hard for me to understand the argument against allowing gay people to marry each other. That's the point I'd like to hear from people on: What is so dangerous about it, how does it so violate your own rights, your safety or society's needs  that it should be banned by the state's constitution?

I'll be covering this issue for the Winston-Salem Journal, but this is my personal political blog and unaffiliated with the paper. If you'd like to share your thoughts, and your name, please contact me via cfain (at) Thank you for your time.

"A majority taken collectively is only an individual, whose opinions, and frequently whose interests, are opposed to those of another individual, who is styled a minority. If it be admitted that a man possessing absolute power may misuse that power by wronging his adversaries, why should not a majority be liable to the same reproach?"

- Alexis DeTocqueville, Democracy in America.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Newsweek's "Gladiator" Cover: Awful

This is actually Newsweek's cover:

Obviously Newsweek is continuing its strategy of hoping controversial / ridiculous / Mad Magazinesque covers will sell magazines. But as you soak this one in, realize that something along the lines of this conversation took place last week:
Newsweek Editor: We need to do a GOP primary cover, and we're thinking - let's paint Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich dressed like gladiators on the White House lawn.

More Senior Newsweek Editor: Yes. That's a good idea. Do that.
I honestly don't see how you can think that's a smart move and be qualified to run a national news magazine.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

In North Carolina, corporations are people, my friend

Reading the N.C. public records law the other day I saw a reference to this definition:
"Person" means an individual, corporation, government, governmental subdivision or agency, business trust, estate, trust, partnership, association, joint venture, or any other legal or commercial entity.
That's N.C. 66-152(2), part of the Commerce and Business Chapter in state law. It seems to have been written in 1981 under Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt and a Democratically controlled state legislature.

Something to remember this year when/if North Carolina Democrats bash Mitt Romney for an off-hand remark the state codified 30 years ago.

Update: Some have noted other sections in NC and federal law identifying corporations as people, including Gerry Cohen, the NC General Assembly's head of legislative drafting. It was not my intent to portray this post as a comprehensive review of this issue, nor was I looking to assign blame.

My point is simply that Democrats have signed off on the idea that the law should treat a corporation like a person, much as Republicans have.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

For Google AdSense, competition

Google's stock took a 9 percent hit in after hours trading today because the company committed the gravest of sins: Generating $8.13 billion in net revenue over 3 months when Wall Street analysts wanted them to generate $8.4 billion.

In the aftermath analysts remained fairly bullish on Google, but cited a few chinks in the Internet's behemoth's armor. But something they didn't cite sticks out to me: There has been a sizeable increase recently in the number of companies offering online ad services to small and medium-sized Web sites, a la Google AdSense.

Granted that's just one part of Google's revenue stream. Their search engine dominates the paid-search ad business. They're behind Android phones and apps. They own YouTube, and who knows what Google+ will turn into.

But I run a family of SEC-focused college sports Web sites, including the UGA version, The Dawgbone. We've been contacted over the last few months by three different entities offering the same services as Google AdSense - user-targeted advertising, paid-by-impression revenue sharing and ad performance tracking.

It used to be that Google, and only Google, offered this service, as best I could tell. Believe me, I looked.

Yahoo! has had their own ad service and a partnership with newspapers for years, but they don't work with amateur and semi-amateur content providers. This recent proliferation of companies that do creates competition in a segment Google didn't just dominate, they essentially owned in full.

Is this micro analysis of a macro issue? Granted. A small piece of Google's pie? Maybe. Worth noting that Google saw total ad clicks rise 34 percent last quarter anyway? Absolutely. But the point is, when you're an innovator you have to keep innovating, or the pack starts to catch up.

And it ain't easy.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Conrad Fink, UGA and AP great

Conrad C. Fink, the foreign correspondent, Associated Press vice president and newspaper executive who taught journalism at the University of Georgia for 28 years, died Saturday, according to numerous media outlets and the university's Grady College.

He was something else. He had bushy eyebrows that inspired a range of emotions most easily categorized as "fear." He was quick to the point, usually with a red pen.

He taught generations of reporters and editors the right way to do it, and his lessons will live on, not just through his students, but through theirs.

I was told as an undergraduate that Fink was the only professor at the University of Georgia without a masters or doctorate. He once pointed to a column in The Wall Street Journal's stock listings and told me, "See that? I told them to put that in."

He was a U.S. Marine in the 1950s. He was, as Barry Hollander told The Red & Black, "old school in all the good ways about what journalists should do, and how they should act, and the way they should pursue a story."

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Trouble a Brewin'

You can say, "don't worry," or you can say, "we don't know what's happening." You can't say both. From Our Amazing Planet, about a rapidly expanding volcano in Bolivia:
"It's one of the fastest uplifting volcanic areas on Earth," de Silva told OurAmazingPlanet."What we're trying to do is understand why there is this rapid inflation, and from there we'll try to understand what it's going to lead to."

The peak is perched like a party hat at the center of the inflating area. "It's very circular. It's like a big bull's-eye," said Jonathan Perkins, a graduate student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who recently presented work on the mountain at this year's Geological Society of America meeting in Minneapolis.

Scientists figured out from the inflation rate that the pocket of magma beneath the volcano was growing by about 27 cubic feet (1 cubic meter) per second.

"That's about 10 times faster than the standard rate of magma chamber growth you see for large volcanic systems," Perkins told OurAmazingPlanet.

However, no need to flee just yet, the scientists said.

"It's not a volcano that we think is going to erupt at any moment, but it certainly is interesting, because the area was thought to be essentially dead," de Silva said.

Uturuncu is surrounded by one of the most dense concentrations of supervolcanoes on the planet, all of which fell silent some 1 million years ago.

Supervolcanoes get their name because they erupt with such power that they typically spew out 1,000 times more material, in sheer volume, than a volcano like Mount St. Helens. Modern human civilization has never witnessed such an event.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Borrowed Lewis

Let's move heaven, earth for this angel
BYLINE: By Lewis Grizzard
SECTION: LIVING; Section C; Page 1

Melissa Segars is a doll, a pretty little doll with a face taken from an angel.

She sits there across from me, the 70 or so pounds of her, and she breathes from a tube that is attached to an oxygen tank sitting on the floor.

We talk shop, Melissa and I. We both were born with what doctors called heart murmurs. Melissa, in 1968. Me, an eon earlier.

We've both had teams of doctors do a great deal of carving upon us. Melissa, 25, has had heart surgery and has had a lung removed. She's even had gall bladder surgery.

I've had three heart surgeries.

Melissa is a transplant candidate. I was one, too, for an awful week back in March when my own heart decided it wouldn't beat anymore after my third surgery.

That's where our similarities end. My heart started doing its job again, and I was taken off the transplant list.

Melissa still needs a new heart and a new lung. If she doesn't get them, a doctor has been quoted as saying, she is "at great risk of dying."

A call came as early as last week. Melissa was at a movie.

Her mother explained the call came from the St. Louis Children's Hospital. They said they might have a heart and a lung for Melissa.

Why are there always catches in life? The one here was there was another young person in the hospital with a higher priority than Melissa. If that child could use the heart and lung, they would go to that child.

If not, Melissa would get them.

Melissa Segars speaks in a soft little squeak.

"Mama got me on the phone and told me to come home quick," she said. "I kept asking her, 'Is this it? Is this it?' She just said, 'Get home quick.' "

The jet was ready for the trip from Atlanta to St. Louis.

Then the hospital called back. The heart and lung went to the other patient. The wait continues.

Insurance won't pay for Melissa's surgery when it comes. (And too many people have worked and prayed too hard for it not to come.) That's because her surgery is classified as experimental. Don't you just know some bureaucrat-type is responsible for that?

So, for months now the Fayette County community, where Melissa and her family live, has been trying to raise the money to pay for what it will cost to try to save the young woman's life.

Soaring health care costs? How's the fact the surgery and post-op care will cost a million?

Helluva thing. The Fayette County community, which used to be dirt roads before it soared to metro Atlanta status, has come forward with $ 550,000.

There have been auctions, rallies, barbecues, concerts, pancake breakfasts, and Tommy Lasorda of the Los Angeles Dodgers is coming this fall for a fund-raiser.

And there has been the flood of printed pleas for help for Melissa. And, you guessed it, here's another. Hey, we're brothers and sisters in the scalpel.

Melissa used to want to be a veterinarian. Now, she says, "I guess I'm too old to go to all that school now."

A friend says, "You've got your whole life ahead of you. You can do what you want to."

If she can get that million. If she can get and survive that surgery.

I wish you could all see her. I wish you could look upon that little face and see those eyes. I wish you could sense the courage in her as I have.

Make checks payable to "COTA for Melissa." Mail to Fayette County Bank, 150 West Lanier Ave., Fayetteville, Ga. 30214.

We don't have enough angels as it is.

For my money, that's the best column Lewis Grizzard ever wrote. Happy Birthday, sir.

I've borrowed one of your columns from The AJC to mark it. Hope you don't mind.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A good read: The W-S Journal

People may not think much of the newspaper industry, but individual newspapers are still pretty good. You really can't beat the medium yet, it's just that you can come close enough to really, really mess it up.

These stories were all in the Winston-Salem Journal today:
PETA plans porn site

Iraq: 40,000 more U.S. troops home this month

4.2 million have classified security clearance. That's nearly the population of metropolitan Washington, D.C.

Bomber kills leader of Afghan Peace Council; Karzai cuts U.S. trip short.
Hell, I didn't even know Karzai was in the states. That's pretty good story selection.

Google: World's most "gets it" company

From Google Adsense, via email:
"In the next month, we'll introduce the +1 button and personal recommendations to display ads. ... Soon, your users will be able to endorse specific ads and make the ads more likely to appear to their social connections."

Continued brilliance.

For random comparison's sake, I went to Harris Teeter tonight. Their "application" for one of those savings cards lists your drivers license number as "required information."

It didn't make me want to shop at Harris Teeter.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Ashley Henderson-Huff: A soldier 5 years gone

Even though I wrote myself a note, even though the University of Georgia honored her last week, I almost forgot today was the anniversary of my friend Ashley's death in Iraq.

I saw a reminder on Facebook, through a friend of mine that I didn't know knew her.

That is how life is.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Forbes Rankings: From Worthless to Worth Quoting

Since I showed up in North Carolina last year, I've been fascinated by the adamance state GOP leaders have displayed in arguing that the state is, in fact, a terrible place that hates capitalism and lies in ruin solely due to decades of Democratic control of the state government.

And I kept saying, "Then how come you and 9 million other people live here? How is it the state does so well each year in Forbes' ranking of best states to do business? How have all these America-hating North Carolina commies managed to fool Site Selection Magazine into naming the state No. 1 in business climate 9 out of the last 10 years?"

And I learned that Forbes was just "some magazine." That taxes are far too high. That outsiders don't fully understand the problems Democrats have created for North Carolina businesses.

Which is why I was surprised today when I came to the fourth paragraph in House Majority Leader Paul Stam's press release on the General Assembly move to prohibit gay marriage:
"According to Forbes Magazine ranking of best business climates, eight out of the top 10 states have defined marriage in their state constitution."
Interestingly, of the other two states in the Forbes' top 10, 50 percent of them are North Carolina.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Gay marriage: You sure we need a law?

California Gov. Jerry Brown put out a quotable veto message last week, rejecting fines for kids who won't wear a helmet while snowboarding:
The measure would impose criminal penalties on a child under the age of 18 and his or her parents if the child skis or snowboards without a helmet.

While I appreciate the value of wearing a ski helmet, I am concerned about the continuing and seemingly inexorable transfer of authority from parents to the state. Not every human problem deserves a law.
While the specifics of this particular issue are fairly ... specific, the theory Gov. Brown worked from put me in mind of the gay marriage question before the N.C. General Assembly during the special legislative session starting today.

Does the disagreement over gay marriage deserve a law? And not just a law, but a place in your state constitution?

Note: I'm not labeling marriage or sexuality of any kind as a "human problem," beyond the fact that it's something we don't all agree on.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

May Flights of Angels

The University of Georgia honored Ashley Henderson-Huff and Noah Harris during half time of Saturday's South Carolina game. Both died serving their country, and their families were given framed University of Georgia jerseys.

I'm very proud to say Ashley was a friend of mine, and my thoughts this weekend are with the people whose lives have been so horribly changed by the events of Sept. 11.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Post Office double dealing with employees on leases, contracts

This was my last freelance story before moving to Winston-Salem. Basically, the U.S. Postal Service has all these longstanding relationships with local postmasters, who make extra money by renting space to the post office, particularly in rural areas.

The USPS also contracts with former, and in some cases current, employees to handle rural mail delivery routes. It's not clear whether any of this is really costing the post office which has major financial problems, more money. In some cases it seems to save money, because the rent hasn't gone up that much in 40 years.

The Post Office Inspector General's Office breaks much of this down in a report you can download here. Auditors determined federal and postal regulations were violated. They also questioned the wisdom of renting from and contracting with employees, particularly since, in some cases, postmasters helped make the decision to rent their own building.

Also, the names of the contractors are being kept secret for reasons that don't sound like good reasons to me.

At any rate, read the story. I also have databases of the leases and contracts that weren't included in the Inspector General's report. If you want them, let me know and I'll email them, save you a FOIA request.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Reporter, Hired

I started a full-time job with the Winston-Salem Journal today.

I suspect the blog "Lucid Idiocy (Politics)" will continue here, but it's url will almost certainly change from

Aah, accuracy. You've hassled me yet again.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Lawyers: Dotting t's in 'not a contract'

Just finished signing a 13-page lease that required my wife and I to initial the bottom of nearly every page. About halfway through, the lease noted that it "shall not be strictly construed against either the landlord or the tenant."

Then I can't help but think it could have been condensed.

To be fair, the phrase "this is not a contract" appeared only once in 13 pages, on a document from the state REALTORS (TM) Association. It's got a real "required by state law" feel to it, but I do not see a code sight.

Voting Mitt Romney's pocket book

Click image to enlarge.

Turned out this car belongs to a young man (19) who was home schooled and listens to Rush Limbaugh while he delivers pizza. So, while the car inspired my headline, it wasn't the example I might have hoped for.

It still reminds me of something my dad says, which has been a political truism for many years: People vote their wallet.

But I don't think that's true for a lot of people right now. Many vote their philosophy. Some are so frustrated by the size of social welfare programs and the evident impossibility of slowing government spending that they've said, "Enough, period."

Others, I don't think they know when they're screwing themselves. Manipulated correctly, they'll do it with a passion.

February 2012 update: The New York Times shows what this hypothesis looks like when you turn it into a real news story:
He says that too many Americans lean on taxpayers rather than living within their means. He supports politicians who promise to cut government spending. In 2010, he printed T-shirts for the Tea Party campaign of a neighbor, Chip Cravaack, who ousted this region’s long-serving Democratic congressman.

Yet this year, as in each of the past three years, Mr. Gulbranson, 57, is counting on a payment of several thousand dollars from the federal government, a subsidy for working families called the earned-income tax credit. He has signed up his three school-age children to eat free breakfast and lunch at federal expense. And Medicare paid for his mother, 88, to have hip surgery twice.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Wake schools spokesman: $126K a year

My goodness: The chief communications officer for the Wake County public school system, who resigned Friday, made $126,000 a year.

That's about 3 years salary for me in my last full-time newspaper job. It's three starting teacher jobs, with enough left over for a teacher's assistant.

It's $40,000 more than a high school principal with 34 years experience makes. It's double what teacher with a masters degree, national board certification and 20 years experience makes.