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Sat, 30 Jun 2007

Emptying The Desk Drawer

So far, this Ironwriters marathon has been not unduly difficult for me. There have been the usual amounts of fretting and worrying, mostly along the lines of, "What shall I write about this month?"

After making my monthly submission, my usual routine has been to spend the next week or so trying to answer that very question. Often, while driving to or from work, say, I will have a moment of inspiration and a subject will come into my head unbidden. Then, to make sure I do not forget it, as soon as possible thereafter I will jot the idea down in a small notebook I keep in the desk drawer in my den. Sometimes the words just come tumbling out, and that month's article seems to "write itself", as the saying goes. In other months, more than a little writer's block sets in, and I find myself having to spend several evenings over the last few weeks of the month outlining, reoutlining, filling in the details, editing, reediting, and finally fine-tuning and wordsmithing the content until the last day or so of the month.

Not every month's submission is a gem, but at least each tries to be a polished stone of some sort. But so far, I have never been at a real loss for words, so to speak.

Until this month.

I do not know why nothing obvious has sprung to mind this month as a suitable subject. Each week so far, strangely, my thoughts were basically, "Don't worry about it, something will turn up. You've got plenty of time." Repeat this mantra to yourself often enough and pretty soon you will begin to believe it. It is the siren song of the procrastinator, sure to lead one to utter demise on the rocky shoals of lost opportunity. In fact, I am sure that it was just this tendency -- to put aside and postpone when the going gets inconvenient or difficult -- that led to the initial challenge at the heart of this competition: could each of us find the inner reserves to not surrender to the call of manana and keep producing a reasonably high-quality product on a regular schedule, not just over a short interval, but over the course of a real marathon? Would we be able to persevere over the Heartbreak Hills along the way, or would we drop out before the finish? (Note that I cast no aspersions on my fellow one-time Ironwriters who started out with us but are now no longer with us. I have no idea of the reasons they could not continue, and by no means wish to imply any sort of slothfullness had anything at all to do with it.)

So I now find myself having postponed and procrastinated until I now have less than forty-eight hours to go before this month's deadline, and so far, not a word to my credit. It is just this situation that I have always worried about in the back of my mind: getting a very late start, and then getting hit by a bus, or coming down with a case of dengue fever, or some such thing, that would prevent me from finishing my article in time. And, worse, I have chosen no subject to write about yet.

I am thinking I could just extend this exposition on writer's block out to the requisite three thousand words, but, as with many ideas I have, I instantly think, "How am I going to write three thousand words about that?" And all at once I realize how I am going to surmount that little problem.

That notebook in the desk drawer represents not only the initial stirrings of the ideas that eventually became my submissions, but also holds many more ideas that I put aside, mostly for later development and refinement. I will use them now to at least have a topic to cover this month.

Or, topics. Nearly every month, I have striven to produce a monolithic essay on a single subject (I believe there was one month when I submitted two pieces of more moderate length.) But there is nothing in the rules of our friendly competition that require that this be so. Thus, in the spirit of the blogsphere, I offer up this month a series of shorter takes on several subjects, with the sincere hope that this will not soon happen again.

The National Primaries

The mechanics of the process by which the President of the United States gets elected has been little changed in the last hundred years or so. Candidates of the Democratic and Republican parties would declare their candidacy, and begin the arduous process of obtaining their party's nomination by amassing delegates to their national convention by campaigning in caucuses and primary elections during the first half of the presidential election year. Starting with the Iowa Caucuses and the "first in the nation" New Hampshire primary in February, our intrepid candidates would strategise their way through a slew of state primaries over a period of more than six months. Sometimes, candidates would try to ride the momentum of early victories into future wins; often this would lead to "Stop So-And-So" campaigns, the rise of "Favorite Son" candidacies which tried to fragment the overall vote and thus provide leverage at the party convention. More than anything else, it was the element of time that gave party bosses and political strategists the opportunity to game the system and manipulate the outcome as best they could.

Most other democracies in the world use a much different process for electing their national leaders: candidates are either nominated directly by their parties, or the major-party candidates all face each other in a single, nationwide primary election, possibly with a runoff between the top vote-getters if none captures an outright majority on the first ballot; the general election campaign is then usually mercifully brief -- on the order of weeks rather than months.

Over the last several years, though, the traditional American primary system has been quietly but steadily morphing itself towards a system much like the rest of the world uses, mostly fueled by resentment of states with later primaries towards those held earlier. In the last several campaigns, the major party nominations were "decided" fairly early on in the primary season, without any of the insurgencies or "Stop" candidacies of decades earlier. So the early front-runner, confident of the eventual nomination, would cruise to the convention without campaigning very hard -- or at all -- in many of the later primary states, large or small. These late-primary states felt neglected by the candidates and parties. So what to do?

The obvious answer: hold the primary earlier, thus making it more "critical" to the eventual nominee, and thus much less likely to be ignored or taken for granted. One after another, the late-primary states have done exactly this, sometimes leapfrogging dates with neighboring states in a succession of earlier and earlier dates, each trying to "get in" before the others, until for 2008, over twenty states will hold primaries at the same time in early March, a kind of "Super-Super Tuesday" which will decide the allocation of a significant plurality of convention delegates when the process is only about a month old. (The absurdity of the "me first" games that these states are playing with each other is best evidenced by a recent resolution in the New Hampshire legislature which threatens to move the New Hampshire primary into 2007 should any other state try to hold a primary on a date earlier than theirs in 2008.)

So instead of a six month primary campaign, followed by four to six weeks "off" for the nominating conventions, followed by a two month sprint to Election Day, the 2008 presidential campaign nominations will almost certainly be decided by March instead of June, making the general election campaign nearly six months long. In effect, like much of the rest of the other democratic countries, we will find ourselves holding, more or less, a national primary election to choose the nominees.

Although the date of the general election is not being shifted backwards in proportion to the earlier primary dates, and thus we will not be spared a long election campaign, there may be certain advantages to the system as it seems to be evolving.

One advantage would be more time for the nominees to speak to each other and to the issues. Instead of two or three pseudo-"debates" crammed into the weeks between Labor Day and Election Day, there would be plenty of time for holding a series of real debates on a series of subjects between the leading candidates after the national primary. Lack of time or the press of campaigning would be little excuse to refuse to debate in a six-month general election campaign.

Another advantage would be that the post-primary candidates would have a much longer window of time in which to decide and name presumptive nominees to key cabinet posts. In many other countries, the major parties often have standing "shadow cabinets" paralleling those of the current government, so voters generally have a clear idea of who would be filling which roles if that party came to power. American presidential candidates rarely name any potential cabinet members until after the general election, during the so-called "transition" between administrations, what is in reality pretty much a scramble to fill thousands of appointive government posts in the couple of months between the election and Inauguration Day. How much better would it be both for the candidates and the voters if those who would become Secretaries of State, or of Defense, or the Attorney General, were announced and known well in advance of the general election.

Finally, holding a de facto national primary will force the candidates to organize and allocate resources for much as they would for a general election campaign. Voters often look at how well a candidate's campaign is organized for a suggestion of how well they might govern as President. By using an early kind of Darwinian winnowing of the field in this way, it is more probable that the better-organized campaigner will come out on top, making it less likely that an inexperienced "outsider" will manage to ride momentum from a handful of victories in small primaries into the party nomination, or to victory in the general election.

Probably less uncertainty in the large sense, but it should make for a heck of a catfight in the early months of 2008.

Can One Man Own All The Media?

June 17, 2014 (The Wall Street Post) -- With its acquisition today of the Moab, Utah Beehive and Plain Dealer, Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation announced that it now owns all the newspapers in the United States serving areas with populations of 2,500 or more. A spokesman for NewsCorp said that all its newspapers would adopt the new corporate slogan: We report. And we decide. Asked if the company planned to take over the few remaining privately owned newspapers, or the remnants of the now-defunct Gannett newspaper chain which had not previously sold out to NewsCorp and its leader, Rupert Murdoch, the spokesman had no comment; this silence has led some industry watchers to speculate that that indeed is exactly NewsCorp's plan.

A white House spokesman for President-for-Life Michael Bloomberg, owner of all the television stations in the United States, also had no comment.

Time Capsules

The urge to leave something of ourselves and how we lived to future generations is as old as mankind itself. Even the graffiti found on the walls of the ruins of Pompeii is evidence of our wanting to leave a message to the future, even if it was something as simple as the inscription, "Marcus Kilroius Was Here." Closer to our own time, elaborate capsules intended to be emplaced for tens of thousands of years were buried at the sites of the 1939 and 1965 World's Fairs. More recently, the two Voyager spacecraft, which once surveyed Jupiter and Saturn, and which are now cruising quietly through interstellar space, carry what are essentially large early versions of what we now call compact disks, replete with sounds, images, and text from Earth, in the hope that someday some other spacefaring civilization will come across them, and manage to decode the disks -- a cosmic message in a bottle, saying too, "We were here."

It occurred to me not long ago that it should be possible for everyone to do much the same thing, and for a far less nebulous purpose than a simple statement of our existence. My idea was spurred on a visit to my parents, at which time my mother presented me with a small pile of papers, books, and other memorabilia that they had kept in storage since the days of my youth, but which had not survived a recent cleanup and purge of old boxes in the basement. Much of the items were related to school: elementary school report cards, a couple of old lunchboxes, a fourth grade class picture, even a couple of workbooks and notebooks.

I studied the lunchboxes carefully. One was of Batman and Robin, with the Joker, Riddler, and Penguin reeling from the assaults of the Dynamic Duo -- Bam! Pow! Zowie! The other was a James Bond 007 box: alas, no hints of Pussy Galore or any of the other early Bond Girls, but a smirking, tuxedo-clad image of Sean Connery, along with all the famous Bond gadgetry and his famous Aston-Martin car. (I had paid only cursory attention to the Bond movies when I was a kid, but I did think the spy toys were very, very cool.)

Sitting around the dinner table later that evening, my parents and I were reminiscing about my younger days, stories of the same vintage as much of the memorabilia I had been presented with earlier that day. The conversation turned to a brief (eighteen month) sojourn my family had in southern California in the mid 1960s, and my family's visit to Disneyland in Anaheim. We went through pictures of our trip to the park, and shared memories of how the Disneyland of forty years ago compared to the theme parks of today. And I remembered what seemed at the time to be a pretty inconsequential thing just as you came to the exit: near the gate, in a small, covered stand, there was a man standing next to a series of card tables; and on each table, a bunch of not overly large carton boxes. Inside the boxes, available for ten cents a piece to anyone who wanted to help them clear out some of their warehouse space, were original, hand-drawn, hand-painted Disney animation cels, from their first "golden age" animated films. Snow White, Cinderella, Pinocchio, Bambi, Fantasia -- all available dirt cheap and by the boxful to anyone with a dollar or two to spare on a special souvenir of their visit to Disneyland. "Dad," I teased him, "didn't you realize that for ten dollars, you could have bought twenty cels for each of us, and then sold them ten or fifteen years later to pay for our college educations?!" Dad just grinned a little sheepishly. "Who knew?" he said.

Indeed, who would have guessed that cels that once were practically given away for a few cents each would, starting a decade or so later, sell for hundreds or even thousands of dollars a piece? I also recalled a television program about a lunch box collectors society, whose members bought, sold, and traded lunch boxes the way Wall Street traders exchange stocks and bonds -- sometimes at substantial prices for rare or hard-to-find lunch boxes.

And that is where I got my idea: to put together "time capsules", not for our progeny many generations hence, but as a calculated investment for our children's future. What new parents should do, at the time they gather and wrap Christmas or birthday presents for their young kids, is take one or two of the gifts and put them aside in as secure a space in basement or attic as possible, marked for easy recognition and to prevent accidental damage or discarding during periodic purges. One would add a couple of additional items each year as the children grow, until the time they reach the age of eighteen or so. Then would come the grand assessment, the cache being brought down (or up) to the main part of the house, the contents inventoried and their condition checked, and (most importantly), the trove's items valued, most obviously by comparing prices for similar items on an internet auction site like e-Bay. I would be willing to bet that over the course of fifteen years or so, a good percentage of the things taken for granted as "nothing special" at the time will be found to have significantly appreciated in value. (Who would have guessed that the original Pong video game, incredibly primitive by today's X-Box/PlayStation/GameBoy standards, would be considered a collector's piece?)

Granted, it's kind of a crap shoot -- the great difficulty about the future, of course, is how hard it is to predict it, so there is no obvious way to tell what will be considered collectible and what will not many years from now. But even in the worst case, if one's parents turned out to be horrible prognosticators, you would still be left with a cache of tangible memories from one's own childhood. Sentimental value is certainly worth something, and just having these kinds of material links to our own past is no small thing. And, of course, one's parents might have set aside for you the early twenty-first century equivalent of a Beatles lunchbox (how I wish I had asked for one of those years ago!) or a Mickey Mantle baseball card (how I wish I had kept even a few of my shoeboxes full of those!), and which could then, if one wished to part with them, could be sold and the profits used for some good cause -- a time capsule with a tangible benefit (monetary or sentimental) built right in to it.

Posted Jun 30, 2007 at 21:43 UTC, 3045 words,  [/richPermalink