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Thoughts from TMQ: 4 October

Fun non-football bits from Gregg Easterbrook’s Tuesday Morning Quarterback 4 October column on ESPN.com. (find the whole thing here):

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Disclaimer of the Week: Reader Steve Seiferheld of Haddonfield, N.J., writes, “I drink Lactaid brand milk, whose formula is good for we who are lactose intolerant. On the packaging it says, ‘Allergen warning: contains milk.’ The name of the product is milk!”

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Wasteful Spending on Bodyguards Watch: Reader Josh Prinsky of New York City notes that Alex Rodriguez got a police escort to Yankee Stadium. Reason? Traffic was bad. Prinsky writes, “The Yankee media relations guy who’s quoted seems to think this is a positive story that would get them good press. How is this a valid way for an on-duty cop to spend time? If I was late to work, I couldn’t flag down a policeman for an escort. Rodriguez is a private businessman engaged in a for-profit activity — it’s up to him to be on time, not up to public servants to clear his path. In New York, police are punished if they play catch with children at a housing project, which sounds like a wise use of law-enforcement resources. But stop traffic to provide an escort for a very rich man? No problem.”

Though Chicago, Cook County and Illinois all have serious budget problems, nevertheless there is $600,000 a year to provide round-the-clock bodyguards for the city’s most powerful alderman, the Better Government Association has found. The taxpayer-funded bodyguards are not in response to any security threat — rather, they are to make Alderman Edward Burke seem more important, plus allow him to cut to the fronts of lines, double park, and speed through red lights. The Chicago Sun-Times further reports that former Chicago mayor Richard Daley used taxpayer-funded bodyguards to pick up beer and clean his lake house, while Daley’s daughters, who were not public officials, had bodyguards to get people out of their way when they went shopping.

In addition to surrounding themselves with bodyguards, politicians now expect to travel in luxury cars, not mere sedans like taxpayers drive. The chairman of the Washington, D.C., city council ordered himself a loaded Lincoln Navigator with a $67,000 sticker price. His rationalization was that he needed an off-road-capable vehicle — though the District of Columbia consists entirely of urban area. The luxury SUV gets only 15 miles per gallon, and the council chairman has a full-time driver. D.C. law prohibits public purchase of low-mileage vehicles, and stipulates that only the mayor may have a driver. The city council chairman simply instructed his staff to ignore the law.

This seems another example of TMQ’s contention that the reason fantastic sums are being spent by government, yet nothing’s getting done, is that much of the money vanishes to corruption or to luxurious living for officials of both parties. TMQ believes plain old corruption, especially, is a bigger factor in runaway government spending than commonly understood.

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Scientists Discover That When You Slam Members of Congress Together, Money Is Released: TMQ for years has complained about high-energy particle accelerators, which make abstract scientific discoveries at great cost. Physics breakthroughs of the past, such as the Michelson-Morley experiment, were done at private expense. Contemporary accelerators, such as the Tevatron in Illinois and the Large Hadron Collider in Europe, involve very large amounts of public subsidies, and essentially have become employment programs for physicists and their postdocs. The accelerators produce fascinating results, but have never found any information of tangible value to taxpayers.

Last week the Tevatron shut down after 24 years of operation, a rare example of a government-funded project that actually ended. But Fermilab, where the Tevatron is based, remains open and continues to employ about 2,000 people. You might think that wth the national debt reaching crisis proportions, abstract research into the nature of subatomic particles would be considered a luxury. Here, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, who’s been making windy promises about cutting the national debt at some unspecified time in the future, demanded that Fermilab’s $400 million annual budget not be touched. “We need to invest in crucial research that fuels American innovation,” Durbin said. Fermilab has absolutely nothing to do with economic innovation — the facility only studies the internal structure of subatomic particles.

Durbin simply wants to keep an Illinois boondoggle rolling in borrowed money. The trouble is that all senators and representatives want to keep their local boondoggles rolling in borrowed money. Congress is supposed to seek the greater good; instead its members fight to preserve boondoggles. That’s why the monster debt continues to grow. Right now the South Dakota congressional delegation is pushing the latest physics boondoggle, conversion of an old mine into a detector for neutrinos, at a cost of $2 billion or more.

The South Dakota project might produce some intriguing item of abstract knowledge — so let private donors fund it. Though physicists do interesting work, why should it be assumed that they must receive salaries from taxpayers? Playwrights, choreographers, composers and poets do interesting work too, work that contributes to the sum of human knowledge. Physicists would be entirely outraged if taxed to subsidize poets and playwrights.

Meanwhile the Large Hadron Collider, whose price tag is headed north of $10 billion, is mainly smashing the budgets of European Union nations. Last week Science magazine quoted Swedish LHC researcher Sara Strandberg as saying her part of the project is demanding more staff, “Even though there are already 3,000 of us.”

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Wacky Food of the Week: The New York Times declared a “flowering in the doughnut arts.” Hibiscus, salted caramel and passion fruit donuts are now baked in the Big Apple, as are mashed-potato donuts with chocolate-hazelnut icing. Yum! One donut baker, the newspaper opined, is “a mystic technologist” because he “makes jam from local fruit.” If making your own jam strikes the New York Times as mystical, perhaps the paper’s staff should get out more. One baker has “the power to amaze” with a donut that is “an homage to the carrot cake.”

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Unified Field Theory of Creep: John Smith of New Milford, Conn., writes, “My wife subscribes to Fitness magazine. The subscription ends in July 2014, which must be why the renewal letter she just got was marked SECOND ALERT.” Mike Kowalski of Camp Verde, Ariz., reports, “My wife and I were in the Target in Prescott, Az., in August. We walked by a rack of women’s swimsuits that had a sign touting them as fashions for ‘the 2012 season.'”/ Scot Anderson of Greenwood Village, Colo., writes, “The Appliance Factory Outlet store in Denver has already posted a Black Friday sale, advertising ‘Day After Thanksgiving Prices.'”

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Christmas Creep: Dan Ruef of Pittsburgh reports that Home Depot stores in his area have already begun setting up not just a shelf with lights for sale, but entire elaborate Christmas sections. Check this Pittsburgh Post-Gazette account, “By late October, most of the hardware chain’s Pittsburgh area locations will be a wonderland of acrylic snowmen, Martha Stewart ornaments and easy-to-assemble artificial trees.” Get your artificial Christmas trees before the Halloween rush! Tony Manganello of Upland, Ind., reports, “On Page A25 of Sunday’s Los Angeles Times, there’s an ad by a company called One Week Bath which reads, ‘Is your bathroom ready for holiday guests?”

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“Terra Nova” Producers: Don’t Use the Time Machine to View the Future of Your Ratings: “Terra Nova,” promoted by Fox as the most expensive television program ever made, based on the pilot may be the most expensive television program ever canceled by Christmas. Supposedly $20 million was sunk into the first episode. “Sunk” seems the word. Did even 1 percent of that amount go to writing?

In the year 2149, Earth is choked with smog-like pollution. On the plus side, everyone’s really good-looking. The notion that choking pollution will destroy our world has become a Hollywood standby, central even to the cartoon movie “Wall-E.” Hollywood thinks this, though all forms of air pollution except greenhouse gases — a big exception, but unrelated to smog — are in steady decline, even in most of the developing world. Air pollution in the United States has declined 57 percent in the past 20 years, despite population growth. China has acid rain and bad smog, but its air pollution levels are notably lower than 10 years ago, while smog is down in Mexico City. Smog has dropped dramatically in Los Angeles. Hollywood types don’t seem aware of what is happening right outside their own windows. Regardless, how could a future society possess the ultra-sophisticated knowledge necessary to build a gigantic time machine, yet not be able to control smog? That’s the scenario in “Terra Nova.”

Some plucky adventurers use the time machine to travel 85 million years into the past to “restart civilization.” Why they would go so very far back is never explained. The producers wanted the show to be about fighting dinosaurs, so our heroes travel 85 million years into the past. Having the most expensive television series ever be based on a nonsense premise is not promising.

In the past we see an old, beat-up automated probe, described as the first object sent through the time machine. We are told the arrival of the probe “created a new timestream,” so the past that the adventurers now occupy precedes a future different from the one from which they came. This seems to eliminate time paradoxes — otherwise the travelers might do something that prevented the society of 2149 from happening, thus causing the time machine to cease to exist, thus preventing themselves from arriving, etc. But to swallow the “new timestream” explanation, you are asked to believe the arrival of a small probe, which appears to be made from tin foil and duct tape, created an entire new universe — with an entire new Earth, a new Milky Way and 100 billion new galaxies. That’s some ball of tin foil.

It turns out that in the year 2149, one guy still can easily overcome a group of huge, muscular security guards by knocking them out in seconds with a single punch. It turns out 85 million years in the past, teenagers are still played by adults: 26-year-old actress Allison Miller portrays a rebellious 17-year-old. Teen girls still say “whatever” while adults still say “y’all.” It turns out the technology of 2149 builds flimsy, unreliable vehicles that appear to have been manufactured in Soviet tractor factories of the 1930s. And it turns out that machine-gun bullets from the year 2149 bounce off dinosaurs. My bet is that a World War II-era 50-caliber machine gun would cut even the largest dinosaur in half.

Reader Mike Wohl of Palo Alto, Calif., notes, “In the final scene of the ‘Terra Nova’ pilot, the family is staring at the seemingly vast full moon and the stereotypical cute little daughter asks if the moon was always so big. The stereotypical nerd daughter says the moon is moving away from the Earth at half a centimeter per year, so 85 million years in the past, it was far closer and thus took up more of the sky. Do the math; 85 million years ago, the moon was 264 miles closer to Earth, about one-tenth of one percent closer than its current position. The difference wouldn’t be noticeable. During the time depicted in the series the moon would have appeared almost exactly as today, except perhaps for fewer craters.”

According to this Hollywood insider sheet, Terra Nova has 13 “executive producers.” Nearly as many as the “Spiderman” musical! Many of the “executive producers” are Hollywood grandees receiving fees and vanity credits for little or no useful work. This industry insider sheet contains a wonderful Freudian slip about a veteran television figure named Brannon Braga, “After meeting with the coterie of producers, Braga went about flushing it into a series.”

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Pay.gov Accepts All Major Credit Cards: TMQ contends that rich people who advocate higher taxes on the rich — Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and Barack Obama number among rich people who have said this — should lead by example and tax themselves, either remitting to the Treasury more than they owe or deliberately raising their tax bills by not claiming deductions.

Reader Pavel Sokolov of Johns Creek, Ga., notes the Treasury Department has begun to offer voluntary self-taxation, including convenient self-taxation using the delightfully named website www.Pay.gov. The phrase “pay.gov” will define the lives of those under age 30, to whom the bill will be sent for years of reckless overspending by George W. Bush and Obama. If anyone is in the mood to use the website to donate $14.3 trillion to the Treasury, now would be a good time.

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Ideally from the Standpoint of Defense Contractors, Iraq Will Become Strong Enough That We Could Invade Again: When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, President George W. Bush declared that the chief reason was “to disarm Iraq.” In June, the United States began simply giving Iraq advanced U.S. weapons, including heavy howitzers and some M1 tanks, the best and most expensive tank in the U.S. arsenal. Last week, the United States agreed to sell Iraq the advanced F-16 fighter.

America has been refusing to sell more F-16s to Taiwan, a friendly nation. But advanced jets and tanks for a country that Bush said posed a “grave danger” to the world? No problem!

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Read the football parts, and other miscellany, here.

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