2014-02-01

Feeling Far Away From Home

Some things that I thought I would miss about home while I am working in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia turned out to be not all that significant. The lack of alcohol doesn't bother me as much as I thought it might. Yes, being able to come home from work and have a beer is always a wonderful, almost magical,  thing, but it isn't as necessary as I once believed. Pork products (not only bacon, but also the schnitzel that I make at least once a month) are a little bit harder to do without. Other things that I did not even consider to be important when I hopped on that airplane to leave the States seem to make me yearn to be back in my homeland more than I imagined. Super Bowl Sunday is one of those times.

I was in the Army for over twenty years, so this is not my first time out of the country. I had a good idea what it was going to be like to be separated from family, but every time I leave the States, different things bring my longings for home. This time, it's the Super Bowl.

After retiring from the Army, I discovered that the skill set I had developed during my time of service translated pretty well to a job working in Saudi Arabia helping their National Guard develop training programs. In fact, my skill set seemed to match so well, I did not even go through an interview process. Upon seeing my resume and application, I was offered a position contingent on being able to pass a physical and acquire a visa.

I had seen a company representative at job fairs on two different military posts and had assumed that multiple positions at the company would actually be a pretty good fit for me, but I did have some concerns. There were the obvious family concerns about living in a foreign land while leaving behind my wife, plus our grandchildren. The youngest had her first birthday about a week after I left. I also was not exactly sure that I wanted to expose myself to the Saudi culture, with its very strict adherence to Sharia laws.

There was also the concern about whether I really wanted to take a job helping the Saudi military. Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of Usama bin Laden and was home of a majority of the 9-11 hijackers. Looking into it, the kingdom actually has been a pretty decent ally of the U.S. In fact, since being here, it has been Saudi Arabia getting disappointed with the actions of the U.S. in regards to Syria and Iran that have caused most of the diplomatic tensions between the two countries.

Obviously, I took the position, because I am here now. The company I work for has us all living on a single compound that is in many way similar to a military compound. We stay in a walled, limited access compound with our apartments and some recreational facilities inside. The compound is protected with company hired security and is watched by the Saudi Arabia National Guard. The company provides internet access, but limits daily data usage. Cable television is also available, though I have not brought a television. I get my entertainment through websites and movies from the DVD library. Also, thanks to Vonage, I can spend hours a day speaking with my wife back at home, thought the 8 hour time difference means our schedules don't mesh all that well.

Because I live on the compound, the culture shock aspect of the move has been greatly diminished. I have to commute every day through the world's worst traffic (the highway fatality numbers here are well over double, almost 21/2 times that of Texas, which has a similar population), but work with Americans at the office. Generally the only time I venture off the compound otherwise is to go grocery shopping two or three Saturdays a month.

The most frustrating thing about being over here has got to be the time zone difference. About thirty one hours from now, the Super Bowl will be kicking off. I will just be getting up and ready to go to work. Between the early hours we keep at work and the time zone difference, I will probably be on my morning commute for at least a quarter of the game. That's if I can find someplace to watch it online. I really don't care about who wins the game, though either way I want to see a Richard Sherman post game interview. But more than that, even if I were able to sit and watch the game, I would still be missing out on all the commercials.

I know, generally the commercials are a good time for a bathroom break, but this is the Super Bowl. The commercials have become a cultural phenomenon all their own now. Some of the most poignant and impressive uses of any visual medium will be on display for all to see. (You can agree that the Dodge commercial featuring the Paul Harvey "God created a farmer" voiceover and the Budweiser Clydesdale reunion commercial were both vastly more entertaining than Transformers 2 or any episode of Girls.)  Except me, because whatever channel shows the Super Bowl over here will not be showing the American commercials.

And where am I supposed to catch the Puppy Bowl? Missing the Puppy Bowl is one of the true outrages of being overseas. Yes, most television events I can do without. The awards shows haven't interested me in twenty years, and I never much cared for basketball, so, for me, missing March Madness matters minimally. I seem to only take the World Series seriously when a Chicago team is playing (so, almost never.) I will be trying to follow the Olympics starting next week, and there are regular series that I can't keep up with now (when does The Walking Dead return?) But missing the Super Bowl and the Puppy Bowl is pretty bleak.

Other than Christmas and my  and my wife's shared birthday, there is really no time of the year that I miss being in the States more than this weekend. Of course, I still have quite some time left over here. I know that St. Patrick's Day, my anniversary, and Independence Day are still on the horizon for me. I know that those days will make me long for the States again, but, like the Super Bowl, I wonder what other events will trigger my homesickness.

2014-01-29

Assorted Notes About State of the Union

"The question for everyone in this chamber, running through every decision we make this year, is whether we are going to help or hinder this progress."

Who else noticed that some of the progress that the president pointed out was not really all that impressive when you look at it closely. Yes, the unemployment rate is the lowest it has been in 5 years, but the labor force percentage is the lowest it has been in over 35 years.

Then there is the oil boom of the last few years. This is not a result of administration policies, but in spite of them. New technologies have given us (well, not you and me "us," unless you happen to be a engineer for Exxon or BP, but "us" as in the country) the ability to drill oil from wells that were inaccessible just a few years ago.

Even the line about our deficits being cut by half is not really all that impressive when you look at it. First off, what year is he using as a baseline? Weren't 2008 and 2009 really incredibly bad years for deficits because of TARP and the stimulus (Didn't Tarp and the Stimulus open for Fall Out Boy at Ravinia in '03?) Cutting in half a redwood still leaves a lot of lumber to deal with.

"Let’s work together to close those loopholes, end those incentives to ship jobs overseas, and lower tax rates for businesses that create jobs here at home."

I agree that corporate tax rates do need to be cut. Ours are among the highest in the world right now and could easily be cut in half. In fact, I would even be happy to see a tax amnesty for companies bringing money that they have money earned overseas here to be invested in the U.S.

I must admit that I sense a bit of disingenuousness in the president on this one. I really don't think he is all that interested in cutting business taxes or making it easier for them to re-locate to the U.S. And when he says ending loopholes, what he really means is seeing companies pay more for their foreign investments. This tactic is much more stick than carrot. Besides, when you have a National Labor Relations Board that vetoes Boeing opening up a plant in North Carolina, you can hardly be said to have a real interest in attracting investors or creating jobs. If you are going to treat domestic businesses that shabbily, why would foreign investors want to come here?

"Moreover, we can take the money we save with this transition to tax reform to create jobs..."

Here President Obama is still speaking about the tax reform to close the loopholes that encourage companies to move operations overseas. He wants to use that money to help build better infrastructure.  I just want to point out that tax reform does not save the government any money, and it is contemptible to even suggest so. There is only one way to save money, and that is to not spend it. Either you forgo certain goods or services so you can keep the money, or you find those goods and services for a cheaper price. What the president really means here is that we can use money from increased tax revenues for other purposes.  Please note that this is the same paragraph that the president promises to cut back on bureaucracy to streamline projects getting approved. I honestly think that bureaucracy is on President Obama's list of "My Five Favorite Things in the World."

"Let’s continue that progress with a smarter tax policy that stops giving $4 billion a year to fossil fuel industries that don’t need it, so that we can invest more in fuels of the future that do."

 Once again the President is speaking like all money that you or a company does not pay in taxes is a gift from the government. If you think that oil, coal and natural gas companies aren't paying their fair share of taxes, say so, but don't say the tax code is giving them money.  It is particularly galling in this instance, since more of the money you pay for a gallon of gas goes to the government than to oil company profits. Are there actual direct subsidies to fossil fuel companies? Yes, but they don't amount to $4 billion, and they would not be ended by "a smarter tax policy."

There is also the matter that subsidizing any industry has its problems. The price of corn is artificially high because of subsidies for ethanol, (companies developing ethanol pay more for the corn, meaning all corn prices go up.) even though, as energy sources go, ethanol is terrible. Not just bad, but terrible. I mean the type of terrible that needs to be said in Charles Barkley's voice. This actually effects the price of all food, as farmers see the profitability of corn and switch from other crops, like wheat, to grow corn. Now there is less wheat available so the cost goes up. Also, as far as subsidies go, wind and solar power get far more in subsidies per kilowatt hour produced than any fossil fuel.

"Today, women make up about half our workforce.  But they still make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns.  That is wrong, and in 2014, it’s an embarrassment. A woman deserves equal pay for equal work."

First of all, female advisors in the White House earn less than the males. Remove the beam from your own eye before trying to get the speck out of your brother's eye. That 77% is a bit misleading. Outside of he White House, males and females with the same job experience and same degree of responsibility tend to get paid about even.

"In the coming weeks, I will issue an Executive Order requiring federal contractors to pay their federally-funded employees a fair wage of at least $10.10 an hour – because if you cook our troops’ meals or wash their dishes, you shouldn’t have to live in poverty."

So he is going to sign an executive order that affects absolutely nobody. Government contractor jobs aren't generally the type that pay minimum wage, even to the people who wash dishes in military dining facilities. For the private sector, there is always the possibility that an increase in the minimum wage means fewer jobs. In a business that has ten minimum wage employees, the cost for the business in wages will be about $80.00 an hour. Raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour will raise those costs to about $110.00 an hour.  To keep costs about the same, the company would have to fire three employees, or they could raise prices to try to cover the difference, or a combination of the two.What happens if raising prices causes business to slack off? Would the loss of revenue result in even more lost jobs?

"Citizenship means standing up for everyone’s right to vote." 

Then you should support Voter ID laws.
This is not because identification makes it more difficult to vote, but because it helps prevent fraud and gives people the assurance of a fairly run election.

Personally, I think we are trying to make it too easy to cast a ballot these days. While I can find a way to grudgingly tolerate "early voting," (even though it does put the local precincts in a jam to get volunteers, or even paid personnel, to man the polls,) I do not like the idea of computer voting. That is just a situation begging for fraud.

My ideal situation is for all states to periodically clear out the voting registration records and require everybody to register every few years. Citizens would be required to actually show up at the town hall or courthouse to register. No motor voter, no ACORN voter registration drives that are carnivals of fraud.

To go with this, I would like to see states waive fees for vital records. There is already a requirement for states to issue free identification cards if they require ID at the polls to vote, but they need to go further than that. Sometimes vital records are hard to acquire, so replacement birth certificates should also be free.

I support better methods for ensuring military members and people traveling away from home get the chance to vote by absentee ballot, but there needs to be safeguards to ensure that these ballots are not abused.

"When I took office, nearly 180,000 Americans were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Today, all our troops are out of Iraq."

And now al Qaeda has control of Fallujah.

Besides Fallujah, the president also seemed to neglect the fact that there have been two separate accidents recently that involved trains carrying oil. It sure would be nice if that Keystone XL pipeline were build to avoid that type of thing. No mention of the numerous people who had health insurance a month ago who no longer do. Nothing about the NSA (yes, he gave a speech on the subject last week, but this is the SOTU, it deserved mention.) No mention of the IRS targeting conservative groups. Surprisingly, when he was speaking about his hopes to do an end around the 2nd Amendment, he didn't say anything about stand your ground laws, and he didn't try to twerk, so it could have been worse.

The only part of the speech that was really worth paying attention to was the end when he was speaking about SFC Cory Remsburg. Obama actually did a pretty good job at speaking out about SFC Remsburg, his service and his struggles and courage during recovery. It was a very nice tribute to a the man, and a wonderful way to end a long, droning, not overly well delivered speech.


2014-01-27

Party Time-SOTU vs. Super Bowl

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this week we have two great party events, so make your preparations. Okay, technically the Super Bowl is next week, but party prep has to be done this week, so I am counting it. So, to be sure your party is a big success, you should probably consider which one of these events better matches the style of party you want to host. To help you out, let us look at some of the differences between a Super Bowl shindig and a State of the Union soiree.

First, have a look at attire. At a SOTU party, you get bonus points for a Windsor knot. At a Super Bowl party, the only thing that should be knotted are the pretzels.

To be well dressed at a SOTU party, look to what the audience at the event wears. Suits for most of the men and some of the women, conservative dresses for the rest of the women and a few of the men. Robes for the Supreme Court justices, but that does not mean to go looking through your closets for that Harry Potter costume from three Halloweens ago. For the party, follow tradition Suit and tie or conservative dress, no d├ęcolletage, please. You should also be able to pull off dress pants and a blazer. If you want to be really daring, see if you can get away with khakis and a sweater vest.

For the Super Bowl party, most of the crowd at the stadium will be looking like Eskimos. Since most parties will be taking place inside, this is probably not necessary. Wear a comfortable pair of jeans with a nice polo or t-shirt, even better if you can wear a football jersey over the polo. Do not go out and purchase any special attire to commemorate the event or of either of the participating teams. If you are a fan of either the Broncos or the Seahawks, of course dress in your team colors. If you support another franchise, too bad. Your team sucks and is not playing in the Super Bowl, so leave your Cleveland Browns shirt at home. If you want to be really daring, see if you can get away with khakis and a sweater vest.

Next, food choices. If you are at a SOTU party, expect to see some brie and water crackers. Yes, I realize that you are not a big fan of brie and water crackers. In reality, nobody is a fan of brie and water crackers, but we are trying to set a certain ambiance here, and that ambiance requires brie and water crackers. Also appropriate for this type of get together would be a vegetable tray, and maybe some shrimp cocktails. Remember, boring but serviceable. The food should be there for a quick nosh, but not tasty enough to distract you from the conversation. You are there for the speech, not the munchies, so eat before you arrive.

At a Super Bowl party, the food is a big part of the socializing. All manner of chips (potato, corn, tortilla) and dips (onion, queso, salsa) and similar items (pretzels, peanuts) should be available. There can be more substantial items too, such as sandwich platters and Buffalo wings. Pizzas are always nice. It is also possible to go a bit non-traditional, by providing quesadillas or egg rolls. The point is, you should be looking at having a lot of food with a large variety.

One final note on food- bacon is always appropriate no matter what the occasion (with the possible exception of a bar mitzvah or bris.)

Liquid refreshment- that would be the drinks. For the State of the Union, a nice red wine. I would suggest a good cabernet. You may serve a nice bourbon or other American whiskey, but please avoid the scotch- this is the POTUS talking to the United States Congress, so even if a good deal of the speech is spent discussing foreign policy and immigration, keep the booze domestic and protect our borders. (Of course, a martini is a timeless classic appropriate for any occasion.)

For the Super Bowl, lets have a beer. Let's have another one. Once again, celebrate your country by keeping it domestic. The big breweries will do a lot to entertain you during the commercial breaks, so don't feel ashamed to support them, but don't feel beholden. It is perfectly fine to purchase a local or regional brand.  Please remember that your guests are there to enjoy the football game, so this might not be the time to introduce them to the craft rutabaga infused pale ale that you discovered while antiquing last June. Good old, regular lagers and pilsners, please. And nothing that says "Light" or "lite" or "ultra" or gives any other indication that caloric intake was in any way a consideration in the brewing. Those items are not really beer. Also, have soft drinks available for any designated drivers or youth in attendance, but not Gatorade. You aren't actually playing, Skippy, so your electrolyte levels are fine. You should try to avoid mixed drinks and hard liquor. Drinking should be part of the socializing aspect of gathering for the game, and you want to have something that you can swill if the occasion calls for it. (Of course, a martini is a timeless classic appropriate for any occasion.)

Activities. Yes, for a SOTU party you are there to watch an event, but speeches can get to be really boring. Try to liven things up. Here are some suggestions:
Teleprompter Pong- Every time the president turns to read from the left teleprompter, the guys in the room say "PING." When he turns his head to read from the right teleprompter, the gals say "PONG."
Have a pool to see who comes closest to guessing the number of times the president asks permission to "be perfectly clear." The Las Vegas books have been extremely derelict in their duties in setting the Over/Under for this phrase to pop up in the speech, so I am going to set it at 5.
When the president says, "Let me be perfectly clear," the whole room should call out "Permission granted," (or "permission denied" depending on the type of people your parties attract.)
When he says "Sebelius" respond "Sebelius? Damn near killed us!"
If he says the word "energy," everybody chug a Red Bull.
When you hear the word 'inequality," ask somebody that earns more than you to give you a dollar, then tell somebody who earns less than you to get lost.
At the words "climate change," take off your jacket. When he says "global warming," put your jacket back on.

Looking for additional activities to make the Super Bowl more fun? Las Vegas has you covered.  Personally, I don't believe in gambling, but I bet most of you already have wagers on the game. But why stop there? That's right people, you can gamble on just about anything related to the Super Bowl. What team will win the coin toss? Over/Under of total points scored. Who will score first?  Will the first score  be a TD, field goal, safety or extra point. (Bit of free advice, don't take extra point in that one- it's burned me way too many times.) Who will get the first first down. Who will win the MVP. Will any of the players get treated for frostbite? Which coach will throw the challenge flag first. Will the Budweiser Clydesdale commercial feature a pony?

I hope that this article has been helpful in your decision on whether to host get together for the State of the Union or the Super Bowl. Feel free to expand on these ideas, and leave suggestions in the comments.