Saturday, July 24, 2004


Professional beggars in the US today create a moral dilemma for Christians (yes, I know the politically-correct term is "homeless person". I'm not politically correct). On the one hand, we are enjoined to help the poor. On the other hand, we are enjoined to love people. Giving money to an addict to help him buy drugs or alcohol is not an act of love, it's an act of "here's an insignificant bit of money, go away and leave me alone".

Most beggars are beggars because they have a drug or alcohol problem that is so severe it prevents them from holding down a job. There are also some mentally ill beggars, but if you give them money, most of it gets stolen by the addicts. So what do we do? How can we help the poor and downtrodden while not aiding and abetting life-destroying activity?

Thanks to government programs to help these people, one possible choice is to just refuse them any help. Presumably, the government will give them enough help to keep them from starving to death. In San Francisco, the government used to not only give them food, it gave them $400 per month to support their habit. The cash payment has ended (at least temporarily, the beggar lobby is very strong in this city), but I can still tell myself that if anyone really needs help, they can get it elsewhere.

This isn't an entirely comfortable solution. In the first place, Jesus didn't command us to vote for government officials who would feed the hungry and clothe the naked, he commanded us to do it ourselves. And in the second place, I don't trust the government to do anything right. The incentives just aren't there. If a beggar freezes to death, what consequence is suffered by the city official who is supposed to prevent that? And what reward does he get for keeping it from happening? Yes, many government people do a good job just from good will. But it is foolish to rely on that.

So I adopted this solution with reservations and with a minor modification I'll discuss below. Before I get to the modification, let me explain a bit about tactics. When I first moved to San Francisco I treated beggars with the same courtesy I would grant anyone else. If they spoke to me I would make eye contact and answer them politely. I soon noticed that the beggars seemed to bother me more than they do other people.

Why? I don't dress in expensive clothes. I'm a big guy. I've been told by several people (quite a few, in fact) that my relaxed, neutral expression looks angry or intimidating (I've had to practice looking pleasant, and it takes an effort). Why would beggars pick on a big, mean-looking guy that doesn't look like he has much money?

It seems to be the eye contact. If you make eye contact, they feel more comfortable talking to you. After several experiences of being followed for half a block by someone begging and pleading, after having to shout "No!" angrily several times to get beggars to leave me alone, I decided that I would have to dispense with basic courtesy.

This decision troubled me quite a bit. Not only do I think it is demeaning and insulting to refuse to make eye contact with someone, I think it is, to some extent, an act of social cowardice. After all, I could instead have decided to continue to offer the initial courtesy of eye contact, and been prepared to more quickly offer the earned discourtesy of an angry rejection.

One angry "no" always gets quick and satisfactory results. Sometimes it is accompanied by a whining complaint about my meanness as they drift off, but I can deal with that. The real problem is that I can't sound angry without getting a little angry, and I don't want to have to spend all my time downtown being angry. Easier to just be rude.

When I decided to go with this new tactic one thing bothered me: how do I distinguish between a professional beggar and a stranger on the street who genuinely needs my help? So my modification was that I decided to try to be aware enough to see the difference between professional beggars and strangers who legitimately need my help.

But the rudeness can become automatic. Once at a 7-eleven, in a suburb where I had never seen a beggar, a woman asked if she could borrow a quarter to make a phone call. I rudely shook my head without making eye contact. As I walked past, I realized that she was clean and well-dressed. I had just insulted someone who politely asked me for a trivial favor. I was so embarrassed that I couldn't even go back and give her the quarter.

After that, I promised myself that I would be more cautious. More discriminating.

Today, a man stopped me on the street in downtown San Francisco. I started my usual head-shake, don't make eye contact, but he sounded genuinely distressed: "Mister, mister, can I get you to just listen? Just let me ask you something!" I was one step past him when I remembered the woman at 7-eleven. I stopped. I turned.

The man was dirty and his clothes were old and torn. But I had to listen. He quickly assured me that he wasn't drunk (he was either drunk or had mental problems). He showed me that there were no track marks on his arms and breathed at me so I could smell there was no liquor (like I don't know there are liquors you can't smell).

He told me that he'd been thrown out of the house by his wife after he caught her sleeping with his best friend, and since he worked out of his house he couldn't make a living. He said all he wanted was something to eat. I could take him and buy it for him instead of giving him the cash.

Now this is an old dodge. The idea is that you believe the story, or can tell yourself that you believe it, and since he's an honest guy, you give him five bucks to go get himself something to eat. I asked him why he wasn't at a shelter. He said there was a waiting list and he was going to get in tomorrow, but he was on his own tonight. I didn't believe the story, but I was thinking, what if it's true? I couldn't really know for sure. So I said I'd take him to get something to eat.

This is when he showed me the surgery scar. He claimed that he wasn't allowed to eat meat, greens, or onions for two more weeks. I'd never heard of such a thing. It turns out the only thing he could eat was cheese pizza. And the only pizzeria he knew was six blocks away. Fortunately, I knew of one closer so I didn't have to just give him the money. As we were approaching the pizzeria, he started telling me how he had begged a clerk at a $35/night hotel to just let him get a shower and the clerk told him that he couldn't do it, but he'd let they guy in for only $18.73.

The beggar said he'd give up the pizza if I'd just take him to the hotel and get him a room. He showed me that he had three dollars and said he'd chip that in for the room if I could pay the rest. I figured that even if he was conning me, I would hardly feel bad about getting a guy a room and a shower for one night. It's not like he would have given up any of his booze money to pay for it if I didn't. So I agreed.

That's when it turns out the hotel is ten blocks away. He said we could take the bus. I said, OK, but I'll get you the pizza first. He didn't seem thrilled, but I bought him the pizza and he scarfed it down. The guy really was hungry, but he didn't spend his own three dollars on food.

Next the hotel, right? The guy asks me if it's 7:30 yet. It's only 6. It turns out his good buddy at the cheap hotel doesn't start until 7:30. Hmm. I've never heard of a 7:30 shift before. I can either wait around for an hour and a half or just give him the money and trust him to spend it wisely. I tell him I'll pay the full room price.

Oh, no. That won't do. It turns out that the day clerk won't let him in the room without an ID. No, it has to be his good buddy who doesn't start work for an hour and a half.

This all sounds like an obvious con as I write it, but the way the guy said it was very disarming. He only once suggested that I just give him the money. The rest of the time he was just encouraging me to verify that he spent it wisely. He was, in fact, acting just like an honest down-on-his-luck person might act.

I was in a moral quandary now. First, although I'm not especially concerned about being mugged, it did occur to me that his good buddy the night clerk might be twelve guys who weren't interested in a measly $35. Second, my feet were killing me and I needed to get home.

So, I said I was going to stop a cop and ask him if there was any place they could take him. For just the second time, he suggested I simply give him the money. After a few minutes, he said that if I didn't trust him, if I thought he was conning me, I shouldn't waste my time with him. I said I was just trying to help him out, would he rather be on his own? He said that if I wouldn't trust him, he'd just as soon be on his own. I took my leave.

It used to be that the main problem with charity was that no one really had much excess and it was a real sacrifice to help another person. Now the problem is that you never know whether charity is the right response.

UPDATE: Thanks for the interesting comments.
I've continued my thoughts on this subject here.

Friday, July 23, 2004

counting the cost

Well, it's over. My much older sister was in town for a week on business. Thankfully she's gone. Don't get me wrong, I love my elderly sibling and I had a great time visiting with her.


But, she's trouble. I'm sorry to have to say it, but there it is.

First of all we went to nice restaurants every night (you have to do that when you are visiting San Francisco). To make matters worse, I didn't have time to work out with all the time I was spending with her. So in those eight days, I probably gained eight pounds.

I also drank more alcohol in those eight days than I did in the previous eight months. I don't drink much. It's not worth the acid reflux penalty. But the sister had to have wine with every meal. And a couple of nights we went out for drinks. And, we went on a wine-tasting expedition to Napa Valley. I was eating acid blockers like candy.

She made me get a haircut. Now, OK, I needed a haircut. I have this thing about people waving scissors around in the vicinity of my face so I get infrequent haircuts. I like to make it a semi-annual event and I was overdue even on my extended schedule. The haircutter cut the front too short so I can't get it to lay down. I'm not sure how this is my sister's fault, but I'm blaming her anyway.

We spent a whole Sunday afternoon outdoors at Pier 39. Sunburned my forehead and bleached my hair to a light blonde. With my hair sticking up, I looked like a blonde carrot. A fat, drunk, blonde carrot.

And it didn't get more attractive when I started peeling.

So goodbye, Sis. I'll miss you. But next time can we just stay in and play Scrabble or something?

UPDATE: the elderly sibling resonds:
First of all, I am not your "much" older sister. I don't think anyone would agree that 16 months qualifies as much older!!! Second of all, your hair was not cut too short in front. It looked great!!! Third, I like your hair with more blonde in it. Fourth, you had a wonderful time so admit it!!! Sometimes we have to take a little time off from our ordinary lives and live a little. Face it my dear brother, you were in a rut and my visit freed you from the rut for a very short but I think, educational time. Fifth, NOBODY cares about your needing acid blockers so stop talking about it and just take the stupid things quietly and privately. Go and see your doctor and get some Nexium. ...
and so on, yada, yada, yada. She's obviously in denial about her destructive behavior but I'm too polite to point it out.

UPDATE: Cosmo of Catholifarian takes my sister's side in the comments. I feel like I'm being ganged up on on my own blog.

Seriously, though, I hope everyone realizes that the post above is entirely a joke. I had a great time with my very young-at-heart sister and asked her to come back as soon as she could.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

ketchup wars

Andrew Stuttaford goes after Glenn Reynolds on that grotesque fries experiment:
The Instapundit has now waded into the murky red swamp that is the great W vs. Heinz ketchup debate. This could have been interesting and it could have been enlightening, but he chose to make a mockery of the proceedings by adding the sauce to, ugh, McDonald's French Fries. As anyone with a taste bud will know, these fries have been shadows of their former selves ever since it was decided no longer to use beef tallow, Heaven's ingredient, in their preparation.
I can't tell you how glad I was to see this. I would have commented on it myself, but it seemed hopeless putting my little blog up against the Instapundit.

I'd like to thank Mr. Stuttaford for his courage in leading the attack on fraudulent fries. He has always been a leader in the world of junk food blogging. His insight and judgment are nearly impeccable ( but I should note his deplorable tolerance for McDonald's tasteless hamburgers).

As to Glenn Reynolds, what can I say? The man is a blogging legend. He writes so much that some have been led to speculate in the quiet corners of our email correspondence that he isn't really an important law professor with a sexy car and beautiful family; that he's really a lonely nerd that blogs full time, drives a Yugo and lives alone in his mom's basement. I don't endorse this rumor, I only report it.

But this ketchup contretemps is beyond the pale. McDonald's is the fast food place of last resort. No one would eat that crap if he even thinks he might have the strength to make it across the street to a Taco Bell.

Wendy's, Whataburger, In-and-out Burger, Burger King, Jack in the Box; you name it, they have better burgers than McDonalds (I'm going to have to hurry up and finish this because I'm getting hungry). And that's before you ever get to those alarming fries. Even that new green Tabasco sauce can't make those putrescent potatoes worth eating.

Assuming we discard the tasteless-nerd-in-his-mom's-basement explanation of Reynolds's appalling fries choice, what else could explain it? I have an idea, and it's not pretty. I hate to say this, but I suspect Reynolds's has been bought off by the Kerry campaign.

Consider this scenario: an upstart ketchup company comes out with a product that they claim can compete with Heinz Ketchup. It's called "W". There is panic in the Kerry campaign headquarters. They've just had a disappointing week following the announcement of his running mate and now their ketchup credentials are in peril as well.

What are they going to do? They bring in the big guns, the guys who know how to play dirty. They think, OK we don't have anything to win in this ketchup war; we can only lose. Heinz is already the premier ketchup; it can't go anywhere but down. The safest course for us is to sabotage any competition.

And some evil genius comes up with the McDonald's Maneuver.

I, of course, would never actually endorse an unfounded rumor like this, but there it is.

Say it ain't so, Glenn.

guys with no shirts

I was at the store the other day shopping in the men's clothing section and the walls are covered with posters of really good-looking (dare I say, effeminate?) young guys in various states of undress.

Why? It's not like any significant number of men are going to be prompted to buy anything by a display like that. In fact most of us (I claim) find it annoying. We want to spend less time in the store because of it.

I have several theories:

(1) The marketers have decided that most (or a lot of) men's clothing is actually bought by women, so they direct the posters at women.

(2) The marketers are gay and since that kind of marketing works for them, they assume it works for everyone.

(3) The marketers are women and since that kind of marketing (with female models) works for women, they assume the opposite works for men.

(4) A combination of 2 and 3.

(5) I'm completely atypical and those ads actually do work on significant numbers of men.

I'm really kind of curious about this. If anyone knows the answer, I'd like to hear about it.

Volker vs. Congress

Volker is telling Congress to butt out of the Oil-for-food investigation (maybe it should be called the "Grease-for-Weapons" investigation). Congress didn't back down. Good.

Up to now I've been cautiously optimistic about Volker's intentions in this, but as I've said before, the fact that Kofi Anan picked him suggests that Annan thinks he can control Volker. This is the second hint I've seen that Annan is right. The first was the long delay in getting the investigation underway.

I really hope I'm wrong about this.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

economic war

Omar at Iraq the Model reports that two new caches of weapons have been found. These new weapons have apparently been smuggled in during the occupation (rather than being leftovers from Saddam's military). Omar remarks on how expensive these weapons are.

One effective war strategy is for the side with a stronger economy to burden the economy of the other side by making both sides burn up wealth at a fast rate. This works to the benefit of the side with the most wealth. In WWII, the US responded to Germany's submarine warfare by mass producing cargo ships. Each time a submarine fired at a cargo ship there was a chance the submarine would be destroyed by defenders. The US simply made so many cargo ships that the Germans could not keep up with submarines. And the money the Germans spent on submarines did not go into bombers or landing craft for an invasion of England.

Something similar may be going on in Iraq today. The US has thrown down the gauntlet in the middle of the Middle East, virtually forcing the Islamists to respond. They are expending all of their resources --money, men, and organization-- on that front. Hopefully, it will leave them with fewer resources to attack us elsewhere.

Monday, July 19, 2004

the FOX news memos

John Moody is taking some heat over some memos of his that were released. You can find them on Wonkette along with this comment
... about 30 memos from Fox News chief John Moody, released to journalists by the makers of the anti-Fox documentary "Outfoxed" to support their claim that Fox bends the rules and twists the news. And boy howdy, do they.
... Such rock-ribbed partisanship may rub media critics the wrong way...
I read the entire thing and couldn't find anything that I would remotely describe as "bending the rules" unless by "the rules", they mean things like "Rule 1: hurt George Bush. Rule 2: The US is a cruel imperialistic bully." There was also no sign of "twisting the rules" or partisanship.
Yes, there are some editorial directions in the comments. He is the news chief after all. And yes, he wants the Iraq war portrayed in a positive light for the US, but this makes him patriotic, not partisan. And there is no reason to think that he is any more positive about the war than the other news channels are negative about it. Being pro-US is no more (and no less) "twisting the news" than being anti-US.

As to his partisanship, there are several places in the comments where he mentions that Bush and Kerry are both giving speeches and he wants equal time for both. In response to John O'Neal, who is a harsh critic of Kerry he writes:
Let's not overdo the appearances by Kerry's swiftboat mate John O'Neil. While his appearances so far have been OK, he represents one side of the 30 year recollections of what Kerry did, or didn't do, in uniform. Other people have different recollections.
That's hardly the attitude of a strong Bush partisan.

And yes, his outlook on the war is good for Bush, but he doesn't go overboard there either. For example:
We've given the escape of Thomas Hamill pretty good attention since it became known. Let us not overdo it. It's good news for him and for Macon, Ms., but it's weekend news.
There will be a service for Pat Tillman, the NFL player turned army ranger turned symbol of patriotism. We can do some lives on the service, but as before, be cautious about making his death, though tragic, any more significant than the deaths of non-famous GI casualties.
Nock Confessore has this to say
Even I was shocked at the tone of the diktats, which quite clearly contain instructions to slant the news coverage (especially of the Bush administration) in a certain way. He tells his people what side to take and what arguments to make, and evidently they take. Read them and try to tell me you believe Moody when he says his staffers are free to make suggestions or raise objections. Puh-leeze.
Puh-leeze yourself. There was nothing in any of those memos that suggested any negative consequences for people who disagree with Moody. Just because he gives directions doesn't mean he won't listen to dissenting opinions or that people would be afraid to offer them. I suppose Confessore thinks that a manager has to sit back and not let anyone know what he thinks in order to avoid stifling the creativity of his hapless, frightened little minions. Confessore continues:
What struck me was not so much that Moody frequently urges the taking of a conservative or pro-Bush line, but that he cleaves so tightly and uninquisitively to GOP/administration talking points about the issue at hand. It's kind of what I imagine Pravda to have been like.
OK, let's get back to that "Puh-leeze". No one at FOX news has to fear a knock on their door at midnight due to something they said at work. They don't have to fear being dragged off with their families to a slave labor camp to slowly starve to death. There is no evidence that they even have to fear losing a promotion. Another difference is that Pravda was a part of a government monopoly on news sources. FOX is one of a half-dozen news sources, all of which take diametrically opposed positions on most issues.

Even if it were true that Moody "cleaves so tightly and uninquisitively to the GOP/administration talking points" (and this isn't clear from the memos), what harm would it do if the GOP to had one news channel in its pocket? It's not like the whole news industry is wedded to a specific platform. Now that would be harmful, right Nick? Were you complaining about that when the entire news industry was a part of the Democrat political machine during the Reagan years?

UPDATE: In response to Donald Crankshaw, I should note that when I said the memos are not partisan, I did not mean that they don't press a particular point of view; I meant that they do not directly promote a party. His policies might have that effect, but only because he has similar goals to the Republican party. To show partisanship (favoring a party), you would have to show that he is driven by party loyalty rather than ideology. I saw no hint of that in the memos. This is not to say that it isn't true, just that the memos don't support the allegation.

Sunday, July 18, 2004

Back of the Envelope moves, more to follow

Donald Crankshaw has moved off of Blogger. Here's his new site. I wrote a post about the new site and about how I'd like to move too but that I procrastinate too much. Then I hit the "more" button on the blogger window to see if they had a spell checker and lost the entire post.

Blogger sucks.

The new Blogger interface sucks even more. I write my posts in an email program so that I can run a spell-checker, but the email program (which sucks too) adds all kinds of formatting I don't ask for and don't want. It used to be that when I copied the text into the Blogger window it lost all this stupid formatting. Now it keeps it. So now, to post a blog entry I have to start an email program, compose, start Notepad, copy the text to Notepad to get rid of the formatting, and then copy to the blogger window, and then make use the preview to make it look right in Blogger. The process is just too painful and it's going to eventually make me either move or give up blogging.

UPDATE: As I posted this, I found another bug in the new Blogger interface.