Friday, December 21, 2012

From Newtown Forward...

Just getting some thoughts out there.

1) Establish better monitoring systems and sensible limitations on ownership:
A) Require mandatory background checks - using a constantly-updated database for all gun purchases, including those at gun shows and in other private transactions.  Thanks to the miracle of the internet, this is not a very time-consuming task.  Failure to do so will result in prosecution for both the seller and buyer.

 B) Require the registration of all firearms, if not nationally, then at the state level or locally.  This registration must be transferred when a gun changes hands, just like for cars and houses (vehicle registration and deeds).  Failure to do so results in prosecution.  If we have a general idea of where all legally-registered firearms are at any given moment, I think that would help us all.

C) Require permits for both open and concealed carry in all states.  Permits must be renewed periodically (every five years seems fair).  In order to obtain a permit, applicants must pass a background check, a written exam detailing important gun laws and gun safety, and a demonstrative exam showing that the applicant is familiar with the upkeep, usage, and securing of their firearm.

D) Stricter enforcement of the Brady Act.  The federal government currently only prosecutes a small percentage of violators of the Brady Act.  Bottom line - if you own a gun and you're not supposed to have it, you're going to jail.  Period.

E) Ban the sale and civilian ownership of full-automatic weapons.  Currently, states can override the federal law restricting the sale and ownership of full-automatic firearms - that should end.  No civilian needs a full-automatic gun, under any circumstances.

F) Ban the sale and civilian ownership of magazines larger than ten rounds.  No one needs 30-round magazines for home defense or hunting, and certainly not 100-round drums.  Even the average police officer's magazine is 13 rounds.

2) Comprehensive mental health care reform:
A) Make early mental health problem detection and care part of "preventive health care."  Thanks to the ACA, the cost of preventive care is fully covered by all insurance policies, and detecting mental health problems early should benefit.

B) Increase assistance at the federal and/or state level for the care of individuals with mental health problems.  Both the federal and state governments have slashed mental health care in the past few years, and the results are clear.  Caring for these individuals, especially if they lack the means to care for themselves or lack others to care for them, should be the duty of the state.  It's certainly more humane than locking them away, and we should consider that an option for only the most dangerous circumstances.

C) Strengthen the public awareness campaign to de-stigmatize mental health problems.  Maybe if people took the time to understand these problems and not simply think those who suffer from mental health problems are "weird" or "strange," they wouldn't become so isolated, which seems to be a key step in the path towards the sort of violence we've seen lately.

D) Make programs available to help integrate these individuals into society and into our communities.  They are our friends, and our family, and if we cut them off, we only have ourselves to blame if they become a danger to themselves and others.

This is only part of the solution.  But I think it's a start.  I welcome sensible, rational recommendations.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The NBCFail of 2012 - How do we fix it?

Wow, I haven't posted in a long time.  Nice to be back.

As you've no doubt heard, a lot of people have been complaining about NBC's coverage of the 2012 London Olympic Games.  I won't go into the details - scour the interwebs if you want - but I've got a few ideas on what is good, and a lot more ideas on what could be improved.  Here we go...

Good Things About NBC's Coverage:
Generally, I've liked the play-by-play on the sports.  The announcers are fairly competent.  I especially like the use of Pat Foley for water polo; it emphasizes similarities between that sport and hockey, and as a Blackhawks and hockey fan, it's just generally nice to hear that voice again.  Color analysis leaves something to be desired, but doesn't it always in every sport?

The use of all five NBC channels is very good - if you decided to spend the money on cable.  If you did, you can probably find coverage of every sport at least twice during the Games.  The streaming web coverage is also good, but it has its own problems.  One of them is the need to have purchased cable beforehand, and the other is that there is so much "stuff" on the website like scrolling news and medal alerts that it makes video viewing difficult at best and punch-my-screen aggravating at worst.

Coverage of more sports has improved in the past few Games.  Remember curling in 2010?  When did you see that during Olympics coverage in past years?

Generally, if you have cable, live coverage has been pretty good, especially with basketball, soccer, water polo, volleyball, and even my personal favorite, fencing.

Bad Things About NBC's Coverage
Commercials:  I think they're rotating the same ten commercials throughout the entire Games.  It's the Olympics -- who wouldn't want to run ads during them?  Increase the diversity, perhaps by lowering the price and attracting more buyers.

Opening Ceremonies: Air the entire thing, unedited.  If you have limited commercial interruption during soccer and basketball, you can limit it during the Ceremonies - show more during the Parade of Nations, if you must.  During the actual artistic performances, keep the commentary to a minimum; if you have to explain something, either explain it in one or two sentences, or STFU (Tim Berners-Lee is perhaps the most important inventor of the past fifty years or more, don't just tell me to "Google him," Matt Lauer).  On that note, drop one or both of the Daytime TV talking heads in favor of one or two news journalists.  No offense, but Brian Williams and Richard Engle are less likely to mispronounce the names of countries or mis-locate them, make stupid comments relating those countries to meaningless pop culture, or generally blather on idiotically.  The Parade of Nations is a good opportunity to educate viewers about other countries, or major happenings (did you know that the 2012 Games is the first time every country sent women athletes).

Live Coverage: Generally, more of it.  I don't anticipate this to be as much of a problem in 2016, when the Games are in Rio, which is only one hour ahead of the U.S. East Coast).  If there is a final/medal round, show it live, regardless of the sport or U.S. participation.  There are between one and five finals every day of the Games, and NBC-Universal has five channels to choose from.  Surely MSNBC does not need to show another episode of Lockup instead of the Men's 58-68kg Taekwondo Final - instead of watching convicts kick the crap out of each other, let's watch the best athletes do that!  Just showing all of the finals live would solve a lot of problems.

Primetime: Have less coverage of heats and quarter/semifinals.  If something surprising happened, like a broken world record or someone important choked, show it.  Otherwise, stick to the finals.  This could easily shave half an hour off the primetime coverage (when your show goes until 12am, you aren't primetime anymore), and this would allow younger viewers to see some of the sports they love.  

Keeping in mind the live coverage recommendations, feel free to show recorded finals, as long as you showed the live versions before.  Also, front load. Gymnastics, basketball, and swimming in front. I know you're trying to maintain viewer numbers, but when the big event shows at 10:30 at night, you've probably lost viewer interest to Keeping Up With The Kardashians.  

Take part of the time to show a less popular sport, like kayaking, or fencing, or sailing, especially if something interesting/surprising happens.  Build some knowledge among viewers and do those members of Team USA a solid (we can't all be gymnasts or basketball players).

Editing: Generally, don't do it. In women's gymnastics, NBC edited out and made no mention of a Russian gymnast's error on floor routine (in spite of the fact that she was the world champion in that event) and didn't show scores in order to make it “more dramatic.” These are the best athletes in the world competing against each other for the highest stakes short of their lives – it's dramatic enough. Would you hide the score for Game 7 of the NBA Finals or the Super Bowl?

Interviews and Human Interest Stories: Keep human interest stories to a minimum. Agreed, some athletes' backgrounds are fascinating and inspiring (Lolo Jones, anyone?), but I don't need to know what they eat or what they do on a normal day. I just assume, as Olympic athletes, they're not scarfing down cheeseburgers and Coke (despite what advertisements tell me) and playing video games. That's me.

Let the athletes shower/change before you interview them in primetime. I was slightly amused with Bob Costas' interview of the women's gymnastics team after they won gold. It had to be at least two hours after the event took place, and they were all in their leotards and warm-ups. I just saw them compete, I'm pretty sure I know who they are and what sport they're in. They can wear civvies. Besides, you're probably recording the interview for later showing – what's your rush?

Drop the insipid questions before and after events. Are you really going to ask Michael Phelps if he thinks he'll either be a champ or a choker at the end of the upcoming race? First, do you really think he's going to say, “Oh, I think I'm going to choke on this one?” Second, is he psychic? And be less blunt. Swimmer Kathleen Hersey noted that it had been a rough year in an interview, and Andrea Kremer interjected, “You're talking about the death of your mother.” Way to be tactful.  Also...Ryan Seacrest...out.  Just get rid of him.

Spoilers: Obviously, you can avoid these if you show more live events.  In promos, don't ever show the athletes with medals – even ones they already won. Show them doing what they do (Missy Franklin swimming, Gabby Douglas on the bars). If you're going to mention results on the news before you show the event, give a clear verbal warning, and then just show the final results on the screen without talking (that way, viewers can close their eyes if they want, or quickly flip stations).

Is this a preachy post.  Hell yes!  But I love the Olympics and I want to see better coverage.  Sadly, I doubt NBC will make any changes like this for 2014 or 2016 - they're making too much money to give a damn.

Do you have any ideas to make coverage better?  Post 'em in the comments.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Ames Chili Cook-Off!

I just came back from a trip to an alternate universe, where in Ames, Iowa, the state fair is home to one of the major media events for the Republican Party. I speak, of course, of the nationally-recognized Ames Chili Cook-Off. I prefer the Chili Cook-Off to my home universe's Straw Poll, because the Cook-Off is just as accurate and relevant to national politics, but far more entertaining. I was able to get a taste of all the candidates' chili (including Mitt Romney and Rick Perry, who chose to enter in this alternate universe), and I've shared my tasting notes below.

Mitt Romney: No chiles, spices, or salt...just bland...I remember his chili as once having these and some kick, Gov. Romney denied this. Basically a poor tomato soup.

Tim Pawlenty: Looked promising...Gov. Pawlenty told me he took chiles out, didn't want to offend taste buds. Said it was better than Michele Bachmann's. Disappointing.

Ron Paul: Minimal ingredients – no extras here! Grew everything himself, no gov't inspection...worried me with the meat. Expensive, and preferred payment in gold, but took credit card. Inexplicably, recipe is popular on the internet.

Newt Gingrich: Gladly, no newt in chili. Looked appetizing and quite familiar...Too familiar, in fact – ingredients expired in late '90s! Declined to taste, wife was least, might have been wife?

Herman Cain: Lots of publicity – radio and YouTube...unfortunately, just a bowl of tomato sauce from Godfather's Pizza. Would have rather preferred a slice of pizza.

Michele Bachmann: Very fiery, but strange...why are there nuts in this? Why are there communion wafers?? Why is she staring at me like that???

Jon Huntsman: Similar to Romney, except with Chinese spices...more exciting – served off the back of his ATV. Huntsman wearing a flannel shirt.

Thaddeus McCotter: Has flying squirrel meat – odd. Acting like a snake oil salesman, and dressed the the chili cures dysentery...I get it! His name is real old-timey! Not funny.

Rick Perry: Tastes familiar...recipe close to the winner from 1999, but better looking. Served in communion bowl – nice touch...very dry. Asked for some water, he said pray for it.

Rick Santorum: Very straight chili...almost too straight, though detected slightly fruity notes. Tastes slightly past its prime, like left in the closet too long. Wait a minute...

Sarah Palin: Showed up, no actual chili...just her waving and screaming, “look at me!” Sad.

Overall, I ended up getting sick that night. I blame all the chilis. So, in conclusion, this alternate universe's Ames Chili Cook-Off can tell you a lot about the candidates, but if you go, make sure you bring some Pepto Bismol.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Zangief Kid: A Lesson in Bullying

In recent years, parents and the media have paid more attention to the occurrence of bullying at schools, mostly because those groups and individuals have finally realized that bullying has major ramifications (what can we say? Some people are just slow...). There may be some who do not agree with the importance of the issue, compared to bombing in Libya, earthquakes in Japan, and everything else on the world's plate. But this issue is important. We expect our schools to be a place of safety, without the fear of emotional or physical trauma. It happens though, and it happens more often than you think.

Our story today comes out of Australia. Casey Heynes is a 15 year-old boy. He's a little chubby, and a little awkward as most young teens are, but altogether seems like a sweet kid. He's been bullied for a while, because of his weight. Upon starting high school, the few friends he made abandoned him once the teasing started, and since then he's been called names, slapped upside the head, tripped, and generally abused. He was even duct-taped to a pole. According to an interview, he even contemplated suicide because of the bullying. Among his tormentors is a kid younger than him by three years, named Richard. One day, this younger bully and his friends thought it would be a fun idea to video Richard beating up on Casey, and then post it online.

The video starts with Richard shoving Casey against a wall, then punching him in the face. Read that again. Punching him in the face. Casey takes the hit like a champ. He takes second and third hit to the face like a champ. Casey blocks a fourth shot, but the bully gets more punches in.

That's the straw that broke the camel's back, as it were.

Casey shoves Richard back. The bully tries for another hit, but Casey grabs him. Using his size and weight advantage, he lifts Richard up and throws him down in what could best be described as a suplex. The other tormentors, stunned, do nothing as Casey walks away. Both boys were suspended for fighting (rumor is that Casey got 2 days, Richard got 20). But Casey became a hero – immortalized in internet lore as the Zangief Kid (Zangief being a wrestling character from the video game Street Fighter), or Casey the Punisher.

This was self-defense. There was no further kicking or stomping or attacking of any kind by Casey. Richard started it, Casey stopped it, and walked away – that was all.

Did he go too far with the suplex? Perhaps. It was the best use of his advantages in the situation – height and weight, and altogether is probably the result of heat-of-the-moment and fight-or-flight. He might be too slow to throw a punch, and a missed punch would result in a far worse beat-down from the bully. Did Casey have the right to defend himself? Absolutely. At essence, is Casey in the right? You bet your ass he is. Even the bully's mom, in an interview, said her son got what he deserved. You read that right.

What else is Casey going to do? He can't just stand there and take the punches, or try to run away. He's surrounded, and the resulting video would go up online and make his life worse. There's no faculty to get to, and based on the history of bullying Casey's received, it seems that they really don't give a damn what happens to the kids, until someone either gets seriously injured/killed, or it makes the school look bad on YouTube. Negotiate or plead with the bully? When? In between face-punches 2 and 3?

Sometimes, you have to fight back. That's what Casey did. In an interview, Casey does realize the danger posed to Richard from the suplex, but he is not in the wrong. Kids have to learn that violence – in all its forms – has its consequences; punch somebody enough times, don't be surprised if your nose gets broken – or you're suddenly lifted off the ground and thrown. Maybe if bullies realize that they are as at risk as the victim, we'll see less bullying.

For now: Casey Heynes, a hero to the millions of the bullied around the world. I salute you!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Fall of a Pharaoh - What Now?

"These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world. And then we fucked up the endgame." -- Charlie Wilson

What we have seen in Egypt is utterly incredible. It'll be talked about for decades, and the results of this revolution (which I think should be called the Friday Revolution, since most of its major gatherings occurred on Friday) will have major ramifications on the Middle East and the world for the next thirty years.

The Obama administration's handling of the event was very good. It was careful, balanced, rational, and well-timed. I cannot help but think that Mubarak's resignation today had something to do with the strong words from President Obama yesterday announcing support for the protestors. The questions remains: how should the United States proceed from here?

The army is in control of the government at this moment. Fortunately, the relationship between the American military and the Egyptian military is quite good, and has been for some time, particularly because we provide ample funding. We must maintain our good relationship, and at the same time convince the military that allowing for democratic elections and a revised constitution. Keep in mind, most of the senior government officials were military men, so the fact that the military now runs Egypt is not too different than what it has been for the past 60 years. The U.S. should work to make sure the police state comes to an end.

The United States should also work with opposition leaders (including the Muslim Brotherhood? Perhaps. We do need to clear up once and for all whether they are the radicals people claim they are). Provide funding, provide advice if they desire it. Perhaps most importantly, help them get back the money Mubarak stole from the people. First of all, a lot of it is money that we gave to Egypt to help the populace - it's OUR money that was stolen. Second, it is a sign of good faith that we are willing to back the Egyptians now to form a democratic government.

This is too important to fuck up the endgame. What else should the U.S. do in Egypt?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Plug for a Friend!

My dear friend Scott Resnick is campaigning for Alderman in Madison. He has just released his first policy paper on alcohol policy, available here:

Check it out!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Tuscon Tragedy: Fallout

First, let me start off by expressing my deepest condolences for those affected by the shooting in Tucson. My deepest sorrow is reserved Christina Taylor Green, the nine-year-old cut down before she reached her true potential. That she was born on September 11th and died in this horrible event is saddening; a life bookended by terror. It is indicative, I think, of how we live in an age of fear.

I won't be discussing the events directly, or the shooter, or the debate over the causes. We've heard them all, repeatedly. I am interested in solutions; finding means to insure tragedies like this become rarer, and eventually non-existant. What follows is a list of ideas.

Immediate Solutions
1. Outlaw the sale of high-capacity magazines. Why does the civilian population need a magazine that holds twenty or thirty rounds? Hunters shouldn't need more than two, maybe three bullets to take down game. If you need more than two rounds to defend yourself, you need the police more than you need your gun. Bottom line, I cannot think of a rational justification for civilians to own high-capacity magazines.

2. Improve the background check system. Currently the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) works like this: a prospective purchaser fills out a form. This form asks relatively simple questions, such "have you been convicted of a crime," or "do you currently suffer from mental illness." Notice the first problem. While it is relatively simple to ascertain the truth regarding criminal record, mental illness can go undetected and there may be no record. If the dealer is in a Point-of-Contact (POC) state, the dealer will then contact the POC, an automated system that accesses the NICS, which is linked to a number of federal information systems (criminal records, basic identifications). These records are federal only. They do not contain records held by the state, and some states do not run background checks on their own records. I would recommend that all states run additional background checks on the state level in addition to the federal background check.

Intermediate and Long-Term Solutions
3. Increase funding, at all levels, for mental health care. As a particular few of my friends will tell you, the brain is perhaps among the least-understood organs. From what I gather, care for mental illness barely reaches parity with physical illness. I am hoping that some of my more medically-inclined friends can expand on this point, but I don't think I am far off in recommending better funding for, access to, and education about mental illness and mental health care.

4. Better parenting. This is probably going to sound really soft. The origin of the Tucson tragedy, as with many tragedies, is hate. Loughner shot Giffords because, among other things, he hated the government. Shelley Shannon killed George Tiller because Shannon hated abortion, Sirhan shot RFK because Sirhan hated Israel (and Kennedy's support for that state), James Earl Ray killed King because Ray hated black people. Like it or not, hate is the primary motivator for people to take a gun to other people. We need to do a better job teaching that it's not ok to hate. Look at the bullying incidents of the past few years; those kids were not taught that it is not ok to hate. In some cases, they were taught it was OK to hate. Until people are able to know the difference between disagreement, dislike, and hate, then there will be more killings.

What else can we do to avoid future Tucsons?