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Jack Bog's Blog, by Jack Bogdanski of Portland, Oregon

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January 2003 Archives

Monday, January 27, 2003

Planned outage

My day job will be making it difficult, if not impossible, for me to blog between now and next Monday. My only regret is that readers may find other authors to read, and never come back. There are so many fine bloggers out there. As the sci fi hippie water brothers used to say, I am only an egg.

Sunday, January 26, 2003

Holy moly

From VodkaPundit comes the news flash that one of the funniest writers on the planet, Dave Barry, is now blogging.

We're not worthy!

They're not all bad

All this talk about the worm that ate the internet yesterday reminds me to say something good about the worms that eat my garbage.

At our house we have a compost bin, and in it live thousands of redworms. We started our relationship with this colony's great-great-great-great-grandparents around 10 years ago, after hearing about the benefits of worm composting from a co-worker. At the time, some friends of mine were starting up a new ecology institute called the Northwest Earth Institute, and they had us all buzzing about small things we could do to move our lives toward the ecological ideal. They held some really interesting classes called "Deep Ecology," and included in our class was one stubborn skeptic who forced us all to admit that ecology is really a religion.

But an hour later, a lot of us said, O.k., but it's still something we want to do.

Shortly after that class I went out and bought a humble little book called "Worms Eat My Garbage" by a gal from Michigan named Mary Appelhof, who is the queen of worm composting (a.k.a. vermicomposting). It explains how you do it. Basically you set up a bin; make a nice bed of straw, leaves or shredded newspaper; add water; add worms (we bought a particular strain of redworm through a local greeny store); and start dropping in all of your fruit and vegetable waste, eggshells, coffee filters, and a few other items (no meat, bread or grain). Next thing you know your little buddies are eating it up and pooping out these little black crumbs -- "castings" is the polite word -- that come together to make some of the best fertilizer you ever put on shrubs, flowers or vegetables.

As Appelhof's book points out, it's easy to make your own bin, but you can also buy one already made, for not much money. Our first one (we inherited a bigger one when we bought our current home) was a pretty small plastic bin, a little bigger than the size of a newspaper and maybe 18 inches high. Air holes in the top, drain holes on the bottom for the small amount of worm "tea" that sometimes runs off. (Which house plants love, by the way.)

It sounds gross, but when you start doing it you see that it isn't. There's no odor if you do it right -- neither a garbage smell nor a poop smell. And it's hard to do it wrong. These guys can handle neglect. You don't have to turn the compost, ever. If the bin is big enough, you needn't get around to removing and using the "doo" for years. The stuff compacts down. Every few months, the little devils actually eat the bed they're in (and their deceased brethren, ewwww), so you add some more straw, shredded newspapers or leaves. No big whoop.

You do get fruit flies, lots of fruit flies, so you probably don't want to do this in the living section of your house (although some people do so and simply set up a "trap" for the flies). And the worms can't withstand heavy frost, so in many parts of the world, it isn't feasible unless you winterize your bin. But they can handle a few days at a time below freezing, and in a place like Portland there's never more than that.

One week when we first got the worms, it got really cold for several days and we forgot to move the bin inside. The poor guys froze solid in their mucky little home. So we brought them inside, giving them up for dead. The next day, they were thawed out and recovered fully.

After a while you figure out which kinds of garbage these guys eat quickly, and what takes them longer to chew on. (Yes, I think I read that they actually do chew.) Banana peels disappear in no time. Corn cobs might still be in there when your grandkids are gardening. They (the worms, that is) eat slowly in the winter and pretty darned fast in the summer.

You don't have to be a hippie or a green to try this. It's easy. You can't not like the extra space it makes in your garbage can, which you can use to discard styrofoam if you are so inclined. You also get a ready supply of bait for fishing -- catch-and-release or otherwise. And when you scoop out your first batch of beautiful, free fertilizer and see how rich it is, you'll thank Mary Appelhof, and her billions of little pals.

The prodigal blogger

He's back.

Saturday, January 25, 2003


Well, the war has almost started -- I guess W. has to wait until the Super Bowl is over -- and the question of the day is, should we be doing this?

As I try to formulate my answer, I ask myself what the political leaders of my childhood in New Jersey would have done -- the most powerful people I observed back in my wonder years.

The Cosa Nostra. You know, the Mafia. The mob. Tony Soprano. What would this character (not entirely fictional) tell us?

Tony: These people have f*cked with us, big time. These Muslim terrorists, they hurt us bad. You can't just let sh*t like that go. You have to send a message back.

But Tony, we've already gone into Afghanistan and unseated the Taliban. We're rounding up Al Qaeda operatives all around the world, and making examples of a bunch of other people who look a little Qaeda-ish and have screwed up with immigration papers or something. Isn't that enough?

What about your own people? Ya gotta make it so that your own people know that you're their protection, and you're still there. Here these guys are on TV telling us they're gonna keep doin' this sh*t. Just tonight I see some bastard tellin' us 9-11 was a picnic compared to what's gonna happen next. That affects your people. You have to send a message. I'll give ya your Al Jazeera, pal -- you'll be eatin' sand pretty soon.

But that's not the American way, Tony. We worry about justice. We honor human life. When someone kills your people, you hunt down and punish the people who did it, but with due process of law, and only after it's proven beyond a reasonable doubt who the true perpetrators were. We don't go killing other, innocent people just because they have the same religion and share the desire to do us harm. At least not if they haven't tried to harm us yet. If one of your capos was assassinated by one of the New York families, you wouldn't be entitled to take revenge on some other family next door, would you?

Hey, look, I don't understand this sh*t. They're all Muslim terrorists to me. We got whacked big time by the Muslim terrorists, and here's their hotshot boss Saddam Hussein over there, and he's been livin' on borrowed time for as long as I can remember. I can understand Bush wantin' his a*s. Plus he tried to kill Bush's old man, ya gotta look at that.

Isn't this an exceedingly dangerous move? In addition to the lives lost in Iraq, we risk igniting a powder keg in that region, and maybe other regions as well.

Yeah. That bothers me. Bush is stickin' our neck out. But he's an oil man, right? He needs the friggin' black gold from under the desert to get him all hot and bothered. Well, let me tell ya, if this thing gets outta hand, it ain't gonna be good for the oil business, or any other business. There's too many nut cases running around with smallpox, anthrax, atom bombs, all that sh*t. He better hope it stays contained.

So you agree it's a risky business.

Yeah, sure. The whole thing could blow up in his face. But whaddya gonna do? Just sit here and turn the other cheek while these punks take out the friggin' World Trade Center? That sh*t's for girls.

There's no proof it's the same people.

Hey, there's no proof of a lotta things, but you know they're right. There's no proof I can come over there and shove that phone up your a*s, but we both know I can do it, right?

Tony, you're a Christian. The Bible says, "Thou shalt not kill." The Bible says, "We forgive those who trespass against us." You even say that when you go to church.

Hey, don't give me that Bible sh*t, erright? The Bible says not to eat scampi or scungilli too, but they're eatin' them in the Vatican right now. I been there, my friend, and let me tell ya, there really ain't a choice in the long run. Eventually we are gonna have to, like I say, make a f*ckin' statement. So we do it here, with Colonel Mustache. Maybe some of these other freaks over there will lay off. Plus, our people see that we're doin' somethin'.

Y'know, all this war bullsh*t is makin' me nervous. I wish we'd get it over with already. I got enough other sh*t to worry about as it is.

Friday, January 24, 2003

This won't hurt a bit

I still have the scar from my last smallpox vaccination.

I remember getting it before I started school somewhere -- either college or law school. I'm pretty sure the school required that I get revaccinated, even though I had received the vaccine once before as a child. The second time around, our regular family doctor was out of town, and a substitute in his office did the job. For some reason he made the circle of pinholes in a larger outline than we expected, and the scar is still visible.

Today I ponder the fact that I might be getting another one sometime soon. But it won't be in the bright, hopeful spirit of a young man going off to school, that's for sure.

The news that smallpox vaccinations of civilian health care workers is about to begin in the United States saddens me deeply. In the nearly five decades I have been taking in air on this planet, vaccination against exotic diseases has always felt like protection against a careless mistake, or an act of God. Somehow in my mind's eye, the danger being avoided was the possibility that some infected person or animal might enter our country without anyone's knowledge of their health problem, and inadvertently give us the deadly illness in question.

Now the threat is qualitatively different. Suddenly we're concerned that someone might deliberately dose us with the awful disease, perhaps by lobbing it into our midst by remote control.

A year and a half ago, that threat was unthinkable. Now it seems obvious.

The decision to vaccinate civilians with a live virus has problems on a couple of different levels. Most importantly, people worry about the side effects, and wonder whether those risks outweigh the risk of bioterrorism. (If you want to see some disturbing pictures of the side effects, go here and click a few times; or just take my word for it, they're gruesome.) Thank goodness we live in a country in which folks can raise those concerns and not be persecuted, because the potential harm should be well understood before anyone consents to getting the scar.

But even those of us who won't be getting revaccinated will bear a psychic scar. The world we've made for our kids is one in which they may need to be vaccinated not only against what Mother Nature might bring, and not only against what a sick stranger might do to them accidentally, but also against what the bad guys might do to them deliberately, because the bad guys hate us enough to kill even the most innocent people among us.

I'm not proud to be here.

Thursday, January 23, 2003

Blogger's block

Maybe it's the time of year, or maybe it's how busy things are at work, but I haven't had much to blog about the last couple of days. The Portland City Council debated yesterday whether to pass a resolution opposing the war in Iraq, and in the end it decided not to, but for some reason I'm not interested. To me, it's like they were debating a resolution on whether we should have a rainy February. As if they had any influence over the matter whatsoever! Vera Katz, Sheryl Crow -- yawn. Now if it were a resolution before the Board of Directors of Shell Oil....

Nope, not a lot to say at the moment. What to do? Pray to the Muses, of course, those goddess sisters who in Greek mythology inspired all art. But I'm not remembering, which sister was the Muse of Blogging?

I believe it was Polyrantia, wasn't it?

Tuesday, January 21, 2003

Don't feed them after midnight

Looks as though some interesting creatures have been visiting my blog this afternoon and evening. I hope they're gone now. Sorry if they spoiled your enjoyment.

Nina's dad

From Alas, a Blog comes the sad news that Al Hirschfeld, the greatest caricaturist of our time, has died at the age of 99. I have admired this man's work for more than 30 years. To think that he was in his late 60s when I discovered him blows my mind. Words can't describe how much he'll be missed. Alas says some good stuff. I wouldn't even try.

I can't believe it's not butter

As I dig through a huge backlog of reading, I find in the pile a couple of issues of the Oregon State Bar Bulletin. As an Oregon attorney, I'm required to be a member of the state bar, and as such, I receive this magazine every month.

The January issue never fails to crack me up. Every year the cover story in this issue is a long puff piece about whoever it is that's becoming the new president of the state bar. The bar president is chosen for a one-year term from among the bar's board of governors -- an unpaid panel of 12 lawyers and four nonlawyers from around the state, who serve four years each, keeping an eye on Oregon's attorneys and the bar system that regulates them.

I have no doubt that the new bar president and his predecessors are, and have been, very good lawyers, generous public servants, interesting individuals, kind employers, and fine leaders. But from the sound of the annual Bar Bulletin profile, the incoming president for the new year transcends mere prominence and popularity -- ex officio, he or she walks on water.

This year's issue shows just how thickly one can slather on the flattery while keeping a straight face. Let's start with the pictures, all taken by a professional photographer. We have the full-page color cover shot of the new prez; not one but two images of his face on the table of contents page; a full page of color candid poses (walking with his spouse, strumming a guitar, and sitting with a group of smiling co-workers at his law office); and on another page, three head-and-shoulders shots of the new leader as he responds to an interviewer's questions. That's nearly three pages of photos alone.

Then there's the text, written by a bar staff member. Nothing but glowing praise for the new boss, of course, and lengthy quotations from him about the issues of the day. Two large sidebars give him an additional forum to expound on the daunting challenges that seem to face the bar year after year. In all, a seven-page article.

This is very unseemly, for a couple of reasons.

First, the annual presidential profile is an unfair slight to the many, many other lawyers who donate impressive amounts of time, money, ideas and energy to the state bar. Do we Bulletin readers get seven-page accounts of their lives, education, career paths, practices, families, pets and pastimes? Of course not. Now and then you'll catch a blurry, amateur black-and-white picture of one of them getting a plaque in some dismal hotel ballroom, but that's usually about it.

Perhaps more importantly, the cult of personality being fostered by these articles reveals a potential conflict of interest. One of the many tasks that the bar president is called upon to perform is supervision and oversight of the bar's operations. This includes constantly monitoring programs, facilities, overhead, and personnel to insure that the bar machinery is effective and efficient. One would think that from time to time, the president's job would involve asking tough questions -- questions that might make some long-time bureaucrats in the bar office at least a bit uneasy. Even if the staff is doing a bang-up job, its relationship with the president should be a professional one, not a gushy love festival.

Watching the staff as it so publicly strokes the new president's ego every year does not inspire confidence that the relationship will be the arm's-length interaction that it should be.

Monday, January 20, 2003

The day

Sunday, January 19, 2003

Outta there

Looks like Jim "Attend to me, my minions" Treacher has shut down his blog. Sounds like it was under bad circumstances.

And I think he was the world's only user of that super-funky Blogger template of his, too.

Boo to the hoo to the hoo-hoo-hoo.

Saturday, January 18, 2003

Profiles in bad driving

If you are endangered or annoyed by a motorist on a Portland-area road, chances are good that the offending vehicle is one or more of the following:

-- Manufactured by General Motors, particularly Chevrolet.

-- Large, such as a pickup, van, SUV, or full tuna boat-sized sedan.

-- Bearing Washington license plates.

-- White.

Portlanders, keep these attributes in mind as you motor around town. When the bad driver strikes, take a quick inventory of these four categories. Bad drivers with scores of 0 out of 4 are rare.

Just one of those fabulous flings

From the Ultimate Insult comes this great way to kill a few minutes. Plus, figuring out how to play while not being able to read the instructions may bestow a feeling of techno-superiority.

Friday, January 17, 2003

Transition time

Here we are. It's Friday evening. As one of my old partners always used to say (dripping with irony) at this time of the week, only two more working days 'til Monday.

But in the wee small hours of this morning, a blessed event occurred: I finished grading exams for another term. Yes, those 250 lovely little essays -- each with its own individualized meaning, of course -- have all been read, re-read, and arranged into the hideous grading curve. Grade reaction time starts next week, and that can be draining, but it's a Sunday stroll in the park compared to sitting up nights with the bluebooks.

By the way, I'd like to thank the makers of Sanford Col-Erase erasable colored pencils for their fine product. They are the official marking pencils of my tax classes.

Now it's time to start digging into the huge pile of other work that has taken shape on the floor of my den while I have been separating the wheat from the chaff. I ought to be caught up by the end of spring break, in late March!

But hey, it's nice to have a good job these days. I dig in gladly.

Thursday, January 16, 2003

Technology in Big Sky country

Here's a shot of the latest version of the Montana Palm Pilot, courtesy of MTPolitics over in Billings.

Working blue

I could never be a politician. I can't keep a civil tongue in my head when I get worked up about something. And I'm a rotten poker player, as my colleagues over the years can gleefully attest.

As I get older, it only gets worse. My brain is shrinking, and there's little doubt that I'm getting crankier.

But if you think I'm bad, check out the blog called Grouchy Old Cripple in Atlanta. This guy has it down to an art form. The site is not for the easily offended, but for some reason I find it immensely entertaining. (Thanks to Oregon's own Just Some Poor Schmuck for the tip.)

Flush with excitement

The Oregonian reported yesterday that the Portland City Council is going slowly on the question whether to install an expensive water filtration plant out on Powell Butte. Apparently the Council's going to postpone that decision until after it decides whether to cede control of the city's water supply to a suburb-dominated regional board.

All this talk about putting the water supply in play makes me very nervous. My neighbor, Commissioner Jim Francesconi, apparently believes that if we don't sell the system to the suburbs, we won't be able to afford filtration and will have to go with some cheaper treatment technique. (It seems federal law requires that something be done to improve the current system.) I wonder why that's true. Can't the filtration costs just be financed, and added to everyone's water bill, including all the folks out in the 'burbs who drink Portland's Bull Run water? He seems to be suggesting that only water users in Portland would pay for a new system, or would pay for it disproportionately. Why is that? If I owned a precious commodity and could sell it on an open market, I would charge outsiders more than I would charge my family members. Couldn't Portland in fact make the suburbs pay more of the cost, rather than less? Or at least pay for it by the same number of cents per gallon? How "regionalization" would make filtration cheaper is beyond my current ability to reason. In the end, the water users of the region should, and will, pay, and the city's selling Bull Run isn't going to change that.

Perhaps the most disturbing feature of this story, however, was its explanation of why water rates are about to jump 10.6 to 14.4 percent, not even taking the needed capital improvements into account. According to The O --

Water rate forecasts already call for increases in July of 10.6 percent to 14.4 percent to deal with the bureau's troubled billing system and lower water use.
Got that? Higher rates due to lower water use? Apparently, since there's less demand for water, the price must go up!!! That's the way the water market works in Portland. John Stuart Mill is rolling in his grave.

I'll keep this in mind next summer when I decide how careful to be with water around the house and garden. Let's see, the less we use, the more we pay per gallon. In the end, will I wind up paying pretty much the same regardless of what I use? Why conserve?

Finally, one of my council favorites, Erik Sten, weighs in with this: "It would be penny-wise and pound-foolish to leave the system as is. If we do the cheaper option, we're going to have less customers 20 years from now."

As they used to say on Seinfeld, Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Tuesday, January 14, 2003

What to do

Monday, January 13, 2003

First day of classes, spring term

Blogging's been on hold the last two days while I have attended to a number of things, including the start of a new semester. The first day of spring term is not at all like the first day of fall term. In fall term, everything's still light and bright, with green leaves on the trees, summer breezes, nice sunsets, fresh notebooks, school supplies still in their wrappers. When spring term starts, it's dark, cold and wet, everything's soggy, and many folks (students and teachers alike) are looking back over their shoulders at their performances from last semester. Fatigue and sniffles are everywhere. But there's no use complaining, and so we smile and tough it out.

In case you are inquisitive enough to wonder what it's like to sit in one of my advanced tax classes on the first day, here's a taste. Just think, you could have been dealing with this:

Saturday, January 11, 2003

Kid stuff

Assuming you're not going to just say no to the whole lot of it, choosing mass media entertainment for infants and toddlers can be really tricky. Parents and gift-givers need to pick wisely, because many kids get so attached to the program du jour that they want to see or hear it over and over and over. Of course, with today's technology, that's entirely feasible from a technical standpoint. It's the frailty of adult nerves -- and the wisdom of rationing TV and stereo time -- that typically sets the upper limits for most of the stuff.

At our house we went through a couple of stages early in our child's life. The first videos we showed her were from Baby Einstein, then a homegrown company somewhere in the Rockies that specialized in really simple programs. The early ones were sweet and elegant: interesting movable kids' toys in action, set to nice classical music, and silly, wordless puppet shows. Foreign language training, too: Songs and counting to ten in a handful of languages, for example. The whole thing looked as though it was shot in the creators' basement, but it was extremely well done, and it got rapt attention around our house for a long time. Just as our baby was beginning to outgrow this series, Disney took the production company over, and we were not pleased with the obvious resulting changes that appeared in the newer shows. But the early videos were, and still are, priceless. Just last month we watched the Christmas tape several times with the 2-year-old. Still thumbs up.

After Einstein came the Wiggles. This is a kiddie rock "band" (if you can call it that) from Australia. I believe they're also in the Disney stable now, but they weren't when they started. Let's see, four dark-haired guys with English accents and cute uniforms making rock music -- sound familiar? Anyhow, we went through several months complying with constant requests for "Wiggies? Wiggies?" We even caught their live act at the mid-sized theater in the Portland Performing Arts Center. They sold out four or five shows, all done in a single day. The show we saw ran about an hour, but of course, the toddler attention span maxes out at about 20 minutes, and so by the end of the concert only the parents were still grooving. The videos were in good humor, with some skits and several costumed figures jiving around on stage with the new fab four, but they got old after only the first few hundred plays.

Then one day, suddenly, our daughter lost all interest in the Wiggles. She knows who they are -- we noted their appearance on a Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade float -- but on our VCR they're now officially over. I hear tell they are coming back to town to play the sports arena, and that they are charging even bigger bucks for tickets than what we paid. Guess we'll be missing them this time.

Music-wise, perhaps our best finds have been the Music Together classes and Dan Zanes. Music Together is a series of weekly classes, around 45 minutes or an hour in length, at which kids and their grownups get to celebrate music. A single instructor leads a group of around 8 kids and their accompanying adults through a changing array of music exercises. Lots of singing, dancing, noisemaking, hugging, and fun, although hidden beneath the ease of it are some important lessons about tone, rhythm, harmony, etc. They have these all over the country, and while a great deal depends on the particular teacher, the music and program is apparently uniform throughout all the locations. It's a great idea. Rather than the teacher having to police wayward kids -- even newborns are allowed, so there's lots of corralling involved -- a parent or adult buddy is there to keep an eye on each kid (or pair of siblings). Thus, the teacher, and the class, get to stay focused on the music -- some traditional, some original. It ain't cheap, but it's very good.

Dan Zanes is a veteran rocker and blues man whose most familiar resume item was a stint with a band called the Del Fuegos. Now he's making music for kids out of a studio in New York -- Brooklyn, I believe -- and the three albums he's produced in that genre are quite enjoyable for adults, children, or preferably both together. He's become sufficiently hip that he can get heavy-hitting music industry celebrities on the albums with him, but it all boils down to consistently good fun no matter who winds up in the credits. We can throw a Zanes CD on as a backdrop for play time or even dinner, and everyone does just fine. Buy a child one of these albums, and you do his or her parents a big favor, too. In contrast, though they're doubtlessly all good for you, some passages in the cassettes and CDs that come with Music Together can get downright grating at times. With a skip button handy, however, they're proven performers.

Our current TV favorite is Oswald, a blue cartoon octopus at the center of a wonderful cityscape, on Nickelodeon. Gentle, beautiful, well written, with spectacular whimsical scenery and exquisite story lines. The characters' voices are some familiar figures from TV's past, such as Fred Savage and Laraine Newman. The frumpy penguin friend is done by the guy who played Squiggy on Laverne and Shirley. You get two episodes over a 24-minute period, and no commercials until both stories are over. Very nice. Soothing. I'm no expert, but it seems very healthy.

In stark contrast, we got Beauty and the Beast for Christmas and tried putting it on the DVD. Our child alternated between being threatened by the violence and confused by the story line. Then the attention span alarm clock went off. At about 35:00 on the timer, we switched old Beauty off. Our "peanut" obviously is not ready for that sort of thing yet.

Neither am I. Like the little one, I would much rather watch Oswald. I love that guy.

Friday, January 10, 2003

Whaddya know?

Sometimes you have to go halfway around the world to see someone who's usually close at hand. From Bag and Baggage comes a link to an excellent blog called Mellow-Drama by Jennifer, who lives in Portland and goes to the school at which I teach. Looks like she's been blogging since last March, which is apparently before she came to Portland, but how could I not have known about her before now?

Thursday, January 9, 2003

Why blog?

So the reporter asked. There's no simple answer, although parts of the complex answer are obvious. Ego. Extroversion. Frustrated careers as a journalist, comedian, disc jockey, politician. Suppressed creative urges. Anger, I'll have to admit to lots of that.

And around this time of year, there's another big reason to add to the mix. Yes, I'm talking about the age-old practice of work avoidance.

I make my living in higher education, and twice a year, we encounter the part of our job that most of us like the least: giving and grading exams. Once our exams are taken by the students and presented to us by the expert pain administrators in the Registrar's Office, most of us take them home and try to deal with them there.

We sit and look at them in the box they came in. (One year, in an attempt to integrate various facets of my life, I put the box under the Christmas tree for a few days.) After a while, we take the exams out of the box and put them in a pile. The students at our school (like most law schools) take their tests anonymously, and identify themselves only by a number, and so we can always put them in numerical order. We can check them to see if they're all there. My exams come back in manila envelopes, so there's always the task of taking them out of the envelopes.

The pile sits there. We stare at it. We think about opening the first one and reading just a little. But it's too painful a thought.

There's got to be something else that needs doing. Clean out the closet. Rearrange the sock drawer. There's that article I've been meaning to work on.

Anything but grade those exams.

Take the cat to the vet for a checkup. Trip to Costco, we're down to our last 18 rolls of toilet paper. Wash the car. Trim the rose bushes. Heck, wax the car. Feed the rose bushes. How about that inventory of household goods that the insurance agent has been after us to make?

Now's the perfect time. Anything but grade those exams.

And when everything around the house is in total ship-shape? Just when it appears that there is no further excuse to postpone grading?

Now that's where blogging comes in mighty handy.

Wednesday, January 8, 2003

Photo op

I feel the earth move

In the professional world in which I operate -- tax nerds -- this week there has been some major, major news. Our leader, George W. Bush, is proposing to eliminate the income tax that individuals must pay on dividends they receive from corporations whose stock they own. Academics have proposed this (or something similar) for many years, but when it comes from the White House, and the White House's party controls Congress, it might actually happen.

Already the commentary pro and con is flowing hot and heavy. Meanwhile, slower students of tax law such as myself are pondering some of the implications of the President's proposals. It seems to me that if they pass, it will make less sense to put money in an IRA, at least if the IRA is going to be in the stock market. For example, the big advantage of the Roth IRA is that the earnings on your account are never taxed. But if you skip the Roth, just put all your money in the stock market, and hold on for the dividends, under the Bush plan, I think the same thing will happen. You'll have dividends all your life, but pay no tax on them. And in contrast to dividends earned by a Roth, you will be able to spend dividends on stocks you own individually any time, any way you want, without penalty. I guess the Roth will still be better if you have capital gains, because the Bush proposal wouldn't exempt those outside of an IRA. But if you're not expecting too much in the way of capital gains (such as with preferred stocks), using the Roth will just add a bunch of red tape and needless restrictions. A traditional IRA or 401(k) plan holding stocks may also become a stinker, because withdrawals from those accounts apparently will still all be taxed, whereas dividends on stock that one owns individually won't be.

Not that these changes will necessarily be a bad thing. But the landscape sure will be different. And there are going to be a lot of losers as well as the hoped-for winners. For instance, fewer people will be interested in holding bonds, because bond interest will still be taxable, while dividends on stocks won't be. When fewer people want to buy bonds, bond prices fall, and interest rates go up.

As for the malarkey about the proposal helping senior citizens, come on. Most seniors are very low income people, and so even if they do have some stocks, they pay little or no tax on the dividends. The only oldies who will be laughing all the way to the stock broker's office will be guys like Rumsfeld, Cheney and Bush Sr.

Another thing that occurs to me is that this plan may be a major step down the road toward a pure wage tax. The President says dividend income shouldn't be taxed. Maybe if he gets re-elected, next term he'll say interest shouldn't be taxed, either -- bonds should be treated the same as stock. Sounds plausible. Then the real estate lobby jumps up, and the next thing you know, rents aren't taxable income, either. The oil and mining folks grease a few campaign palms, and before long royalties are exempt, too. Somewhere in the shuffle, the tax on capital gains, already very low, and the tax on other income from property sales can be dispatched as well.

At that point, the only kind of income that will be left to tax is income from labor. Now that's a hot dream for the GOP.

In any event, I hope there's lots of time for ample public debate before this plan is voted on. But given the haste with which the 2001 tax cuts were enacted, I wouldn't count on it!

UPDATE, 1/9: As it turns out, the Bush plan will be even more favorable to individuals who own stocks than I first thought. Not only would actual dividends be tax-free, but companies that didn't pay dividends could check a box on a form and make believe that they did. This would allow their shareholders to reduce or eliminate the taxable capital gains that they experience when they sell the company's stock. So not only does this proposal kill the dividend tax, but it also puts a major dent in the capital gains tax. Wage tax, here we come!

Tuesday, January 7, 2003

The shining

Famed astrologer Sydney Omarr died last week, and it gave me a chance to read about him and his illustrious life. I never laid eyes on the guy when he was alive, but I did religiously read his Capricorn predictions every day in The Oregonian. I am as much a skeptic as the next person, but man, there were days on which he called it for me with such accuracy that the hairs on the back of my head would stand on end.

The obituaries tell us that Omarr's staff will continue to write the horoscopes under his byline. Toward the end of his life, he was pretty banged up, so maybe the people who have been writing the predictions that have impressed me so much will be the same people who carry on in his name. I hope so. Call me a fool, but I do believe that somebody in that camp has had vision beyond what we ordinary mortals can see.

More Portland links

A reporter's recent inquiries about blogging in Portland have led to another internet discovery for me: a site called Portlandweb[dot]net. Today's posting there points us to PDXHistory.com, which has all the beautiful antique postcard images of Portland that I knew were out there somewhere, but have never seen.

Monday, January 6, 2003

Blessed event, or blogbastard?

My blogchild Matt infers in a recent post that a guy named Eric is his blogchild. If so, that makes Eric my second bloggrandchild. And I don't even know him!

Cue the Temptations: Papa was a rollin' stone...

Speaking of blogbirths, it was exactly six months ago today that this weblog began. It has been great fun to write, and I hope readers out there have been, and are, enjoying it as much as I am.

With six months of posts rolling around down in the archives, I am toying with the idea of starting up an old-fashioned index, just as an experiment. I know that some feel these are passe', what with Google and other mighty search engines available. But those of us who enjoy flipping through a book's index may beg to differ. Anyway, it might make for a nice half-birthday present to the blog, if I can figure out a way to do it elegantly.

More on 28

My recent post on the upcoming Oregon tax ballot measure (which I support) noted the administrative difficulties that the proposed retroactive tax increase poses. I hadn't thought about the fact that tax returns might be used for other purposes, including use by students applying for financial aid. A reader writes:

The revision of the taxes also affects college students in Oregon. We have to fill our our federal financial aid forms knowing about our tax returns. Being that the most important form, the Fafsa, needs to be sent in during the first five weeks of the new year. (Now that January 28 date makes me laugh. And cry.)

Most Oregon residents attending college in Oregon will all be affected in the same manner. No one will be able to send in their forms, and no aid money will be distributed among Oregonians. However, Oregonians going out-of-state for college seem to be put at a disadvantage because they get their forms later (the later the forms are in, the less aid is received), and out-of-state residents attending Oregon schools will be at an advantage, because their aid forms will be in earlier.

As I commented in the earlier post, this is a crazy way to run a railroad. The Oregon Legislature has been a disgrace.

But I'll mark my ballot in favor of a few extra hundred bucks in income tax, even though I shudder to think about the process by which it will be spent.

And I'll be thinking about those college students who will be scrambling to meet their deadline, regardless of how the election comes out.

Sunday, January 5, 2003

Two down, one to go

As noted here the other day, I'm on a three-day program of denying myself one familiar comfort per day. Friday was a day without radio or stereo -- quiet, awkward, and just a wee bit boring. On Saturday, the waking day just now ending, the program was caffeine deprivation. This was more difficult than I expected, because my dependence on that particular drug is heavier than I pictured it. Without my daily "fix" or two, I have experienced fatigue, a noticeable inability to concentrate, and now a nasty little headache to cap off a most hazy day. I'm glad to see No. 2 coming to a close.

But Sunday will be perhaps the most difficult day of all -- no internet. Ordinarily, this might not be so bad, but I am going to be chained to the computer most of the day performing a host of offline tasks. The little Explorer and Outlook icons will be taunting me, but I'm not to click on them to save my soul. Literally.

How to cope? Bury my head in the work. For distraction, try the Sunday New York Times, old-fashioned print edition. Interesting music on the stereo.

And a couple of delicious, icy cold Diet Cokes.

See you Monday.

Saturday, January 4, 2003

One hand washes the other

Check out Hanlonvision. He said some nice things about me the other day. That made me realize what a genius he is, so then I read his blog. It's good.

Friday, January 3, 2003

I can go for that

The Voter's Pamphlet arrived in the mail today for the upcoming statewide referendum on a temporary increase in the Oregon state individual and corporate income taxes. It was a pleasant surprise, in that the proposed increase in the top rate of individual income tax is only 0.5 percent, from 9.0 percent to 9.5 percent. (The top rate kicks in at a ridiculously low level of taxable income, but that's a post for another day)

For some reason, I was under the mistaken impression that the increase was going to be to 10 percent, which seemed a little steep. (Out-of-state readers who are gasping at these rates, remember that Oregon, blissfully, doesn't have a sales tax.)

Now, I'm as cranky as the next old coot about the huge wastes of tax dollars that are going on at all levels of government, particularly at the local level here in Portland. But it really isn't worth quibbling over a half percent to prevent the supposed catastrophes that our lawmakers have manufactured if this increase doesn't pass. After taking into account the fact that Oregon state income taxes are deductible on one's federal tax return (if one itemizes deductions, which most middle and high-end taxpayers do), it works out to a few hundred dollars a year or less. With so many people around here out of work, I can pay that little extra.

To be sure, there's enough hypocrisy here to give one pause. By its terms, the measure is only temporary -- covering last year, this year, and next year. You can bet it will be right back on the drawing board the following year. Heaven forbid we should plan for the long haul. And one wonders why we go through the agony and expense of a public vote if it's such a small increase. I've lost track of whether all the ill-advised tax limitation initiatives that we've passed in this state over the last decade or two actually require a vote for something this small. But there really shouldn't have to be one. If the folks we elect to send to Salem to represent us can't tinker with our taxes by a couple of hundred bucks a year, why do we send them there at all?

And shouldn't this all have been taken care of before now? The retroactive element of the tax increase is not only theoretically impure, but also a big administrative mess. The election won't be over until January 28. Lots of Oregonians like to file their tax returns earlier than that. The Department of Revenue has had to print the forms for 2002 already, not knowing what the proper rates are. So there are two alternate sets of tables in the instructions, which will doubtlessly confuse many taxpayers.

Finally, I sense that the Legislature set this measure up to fail. You couldn't find a bleaker time of year for the average consumer than January 28. The financial hangover from Christmas has just set in big time, with all those charge card bills sitting on the desk making obscene gestures. As most charitable fundraisers know, it's a dumb time to be hitting people up for money.

But anyway, count me in on Measure 28. And while we're at it, let's hope the Oregon Legislature somehow miraculously grows up this time around!

Radio silence

People who aren't Catholic don't know what they are missing. One of things we do is something called the Sacrament of Reconciliation, but old-timers like myself still call it confession. You tell your sins to the priest, you feel sorrow for them, you do your assigned penance, you resolve to do better, and your sins are forgiven.

That last part is really important. Forgiven. Clean slate. That's why you go.

At a recent session with an old school confessor, it was suggested that I perform three acts of self-denial as my penance. Giving up something that I like and that I'm used to, to show contrition. Today I decided to start with music. No radio, no stereo, for a whole day.

It's only 1:37 p.m. and already I'm jonesing.

There's a lot of music around my den, and in the kitchen and in the car. A couple of thousand titles. And as I discovered today, I can't be in the car alone and not instinctively turn the radio on. In all three trip segments, I actually turned the dial and had it on for a second before I caught myself.

Now it's time to tackle the most tedious chore of my job -- exam grading -- and to do so in silence is going to be difficult indeed.

Tomorrow, no caffeine, for a whole day.

And on Sunday, the big one: No internet for the entire day, even though I will doubtlessly be seated in front of the computer as part of my grading chores for most of the time.

To people who are really suffering in this world, stories like this one are disgusting. Here's this rich, spoiled American boy bitching about no music, or caffeine, or internet for a day like it's real deprivation.

But to me, today, it is.

I'm doing my penance, wimpy as it is. I don't want to end up in hell like Tony Pierce.

Wednesday, January 1, 2003

Remember, the judges' decisions are final

What were they thinking? It was tough to narrow it down to 10, but here they are, with malice toward none, but constructively critical toward all, my --

Top 10 Nitwits of the Year 2002


Neil Goldschmidt, one-time visionary Oregon political leader, now selling influence to the highest corporate bidder. Recent clients include groups interested in building new nuclear plants on the Columbia River, and developers pushing an aerial tram project down the throats of a very unhappy Portland neighborhood. Sample idea: Corporate executives shouldn't have to go through the same airport security as common folk. Next up: Running the governor's office from behind a curtain.


Martha Stewart, who should have admitted insider trading even if she really did have an "oral stop-loss order."


Outgoing Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, whose eight years in office were a net setback despite five years of unprecedented resources.


Linda Lay, who thought she would evoke public sympathy by tearfully pointing out on national television that she and her husband, disgraced Enron executive Ken Lay, were down to their last $10 million.

5 (tie).

Portland Mayor Vera Katz and Commissioner Erik Sten, a double-spouted font of bad ideas for economically troubled times. Among their current proposals: Take over the state's largest electric company; take over the failing minor-league baseball team as a way of salvaging their Civic Stadium fiasco; turn over the Bull Run Reservoirs to the suburbs; tackle campaign finance reform at the municipal level; cover Pioneer Courthouse square with an ice skating rink for a third of the year; make city contractors pay a fee to list the city as a customer; narrow the city's busiest street; and oh yes, the tram -- we must buy the developers a tram.


Portland Trail Blazers guard Damon Stoudamire, who, shortly after getting off on a technicality after the police found roughly a pound of marijuana in his house, kept a low profile by smoking weed with two colleagues in his yellow Humvee going 80-plus miles an hour down Interstate 5 in the middle of the night in central Washington State. Had it not been for his contrite $200,000 contribution to public school sports programs, he would have ranked higher.

2 (tie).

Sen. Trent Lott and Bernard Cardinal Law, neither of whom had enough wagons for a decent circle.


Michael Jackson, who, after blaming a flop album on supposed racial discrimination by music industry executives, went out and demonstrated that there are plenty of other reasons that the public dislikes him.

UPDATE: Identifications and explanations added 3:30 am 1/2.

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