Letter from California

An archive of the weekly "Letter from Calfornia", written by Jim McCarthy.

Wednesday, March 31, 2004

A couple weeks ago, I had lunch at a cool Hollywood hangout with a friend of mine that I’ll call Paul. Like me, he’s been in the Internet business for about as long as it’s been around, and he’s done very well. Today, though, instead of sounding like a high-tech hipster, he sounded like a dinosaur on his way out.
“There aren’t going to be any of these jobs left in this country, Jim,” he said. He’s worried about the fact that American companies have been hiring thousands of Indian software engineers. “How are we going to compete?” Paul said, looking at me through $100 sunglasses.
I’ve noticed that people have a much easier time accepting change when they don’t have any personal involvement. For example, when my five-year-old son has to stop playing and leave for school at 7:30 in the morning, his three-year old sister has no trouble seeing him march down the steps with backpack and lunchbox in hand. 30 minutes later, when it’s her turn, it’s a whole different issue. Suddenly the go-to-school question hits home, and she’s either too tired to go to school, has decided there’s no need for her to go to school or she just grabs the leg of the coffee table and dares us to take her.
I mentioned to Paul that the steelworkers, autoworkers, and textile workers of previous generations felt just like he did at one time. “Yeah, but that was different,” Paul said. “Yeah, this time, you’re actually affected by it,” I replied. Over the years, plenty of American companies have taken relatively low-skilled jobs paying relatively low wages to other countries because the workers there can do similar work for a lot less money. $10 or $12 a day might not sound like much to Paul, but it keeps a person in pizza and Pepsi pretty well in places like Indonesia or Mexico. American workers for a long time have had to face the fact that if you’re doing a job that you learned by reading a manual for an hour in the storage room on your first day, there’s a good chance that someone somewhere could do it about as well for quite a bit less money.
On the other hand, Paul is right. Exporting a job canning tomatoes and exporting a job writing computer programs don’t feel quite the same. The friends he worries about don’t have low-skilled jobs. They didn’t join the union the day they graduated from high school. Instead, they went to fancy colleges, got highly skilled, highly paid jobs in an exploding new industry. As software engineers, they did everything right.
When I was a kid in the 1980s, I used to dream of being a software engineer, but after a while, it became clear that my brain wasn’t wired right if I planned to make a career of sitting for hours on end staring at a screen, becoming one with the mind of the machine. Still, for me, the guys who could do that were like magicians, and they still are. Typing letters and numbers into a computer and producing “Doom” is like taking sand and making diamonds. Personally, I’ve always been impressed.
“Hey, “ I said, “Americans have always found ways to compete in these situations.” It’s true. Anybody who ever owned an American car made in the 70s remembers rattles, leaks, parts falling off or other tales of woe. I owned a car whose hood would occasionally fly open while driving. After the Japanese challenge, American cars, and American autoworkers, got better, and today, we have better cars and better car companies.
He took off his glasses and looked at me across his barbecue chicken and goat cheese pizza. “A software engineer starts out making $60,000 a year and after a few years, you can be 26 or 28 years old and make $100K if you’re good,” Paul said. In India, engineer salaries are so cheap that they run them in 3 shifts, sharing one computer among the three engineers that take turns working. For the Indians doing the work, the salary they get is a giant step up from the other work that’s available to them.
“Listen, Paul,” I said, “the industry is going to have to adjust. You know how it is. One superstar engineer is worth 10 or 15 average engineers. We’re going to have to figure out ways of doing more of that.”
“You’re right, Jim,” Paul said, as we walked to the parking lot. “It’s just scary, that’s all,” he said as he stepped into his leather-appointed Audi A6 and headed back to his challenging, high-profile, high-paying, highly-skilled, but now endangered, job.
I find Californians in general to be bright people. I live in a town, for example, where if you opened the phone book at random, you’d have an excellent chance that at least one person on that page would be a rocket scientist. Of course, you’d also stand a good chance of finding at least one person without a job because they’re waiting for the Mother Ship to come back and can’t be away from their HAM radio for more than a few minutes at a time. Come to think of it, you might find somebody who’s both.
Being smart does not, however, make you wise. Californians on occasion distinguish themselves in the category of the Famously Foolish. If you think it was a low IQ that led to the invention of bungee jumping, for example, you’d have the wrong idea. Combine a high IQ with a high FQ (foolishness quotient) and the results can be hilarious.
Aliso Viejo, a small town in Orange County, demonstrated how powerful this combination could be last week with its attempt to ban a dangerous substance that is known to be harmful or even fatal to humans. Indeed, it’s not just a dangerous substance; it’s also addictive, cheap and easy to get. When the town found out that almost everyone had been exposed to this substance, known as dihydrogen oxide, it decided that enough was enough and that it was time to ban the sale of foam cups made with this substance. The vote was scheduled to take place last week and looked sure to pass.
Then suddenly the whole issue was dropped. City officials admitted to being embarrassed to have raised the issue at all. Why the change? Did they get pressure from the dihydrogen oxide industry?
Not quite. Someone looked at the potential new law and thought it might be good to mention that dihydrogen oxide has another name.
So just days before banning foam cups made using water from being sold in Aliso Viejo, somebody finally asked what the heck they were about to vote for. From there, it didn’t take a high IQ, as Aretha Franklin might have said, to see what they were doing wrong.
The press picked up on the story, too. The City Manager, David Norman, admitted it was embarrassing and explained that “we had a paralegal that did some bad research.”
This is where the foolishness comes in. Unbeknownst to the hapless paralegal staff of the City of Aliso Viejo, the “dihydrogen oxide” thing has been hanging around the Internet for several years. Pranksters have put up several very official-looking websites that try to scare the bejabbers out of the paranoid when talking about good old-fashioned water.
But was it right for Norman to pass the buck and blame the $8.50 an hour paralegal? I think not. After all, people at higher pay grades must have seen the information as it made its way to the vote. It’s foolish to consider a blanket ban on something when you don’t even really know what it is. Remember, there’s an excellent chance that the honorable members of the city council of Aliso Viejo would have sat down last week and voted ‘yes’ to this crazy new law. I don’t blame people for not knowing right away that dihydrogen oxide is water. Chemistry class is pretty far in the rear view for most people. What makes this whole episode funny is that the prank didn’t just work on a harried, underpaid paralegal, as Norman would like us to believe. It worked on the whole council.
So I thought I’d see if I could slip an idea or two past them down there in Aliso Viejo. It’d be fun to see if one of my ideas could actually get passed into law rather than just almost passed into law. My method simply involves thinking of really simple harmless things that, with the help of a thesaurus, could be described with $2 words like “mastication.” Then, just talk about them in ways that sounds scary. Here’s what I came up with:

· Ambulatory mastication. Did you know that this condition causes the mentally disadvantaged to stop in their tracks or even fall flat on their faces? Can the city of Aliso Viejo continue to allow this dangerous practice to continue? Maybe, but don’t tell them it means walking and chewing gum.
· Photosynthetic radiation. Just a few minutes of exposure to photosynthetic radiation can cause skin to blister and over a longer period of time can lead to cancer. You’d think Aliso Viejo would be keen to ban sunlight within its city limits.
· Numismatics. Imagine people who hide in normal jobs, living next door to you now. They want you to believe that they’re just like you, but while you sleep, they’re figuring out diabolical ways to sell a nickel for a dime. Aliso Viejo might want to put a stop to these activities until they find out that a numismatist is just a coin collector.

I’m sure you can play along at home. Email me your results if you come up with some. In the rush to improve our lives, I wish politicians would stop long enough to find out what it is they’re outraged about.

Or I might have to contact that paralegal with some of my ideas.

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Letter from California-March 15, 2004

You’ve probably seen the T-shirt that says “I [Heart] NY.” That was the original, but over the years, almost every town with a shirt shop and a chamber of commerce has copied the idea. Just about anywhere you go people can make a statement of civic pride in the form of cheap athletic wear. In fact, with the Internet and desktop printing, I could print an “I [heart] The Four Houses on My Side of Cherry Avenue Past the Street Lamp” shirt and have it overnight mailed to me if I wanted.
Despite this, I’ve never seen the slogan “I [heart] Pollution” until someone sprayed it and other fun saying on a few dozen Hummer H2s at a car dealership in West Covina (about 20 miles east of Los Angeles) back in the fall. Not content to paint a few silly messages, the perpetrators of this dark deed set a fire that destroyed more than 20 vehicles, most of them H2s and accidentally caused a warehouse roof to collapse. Fortunately no one was hurt, but the fire did more than $2 million in damage.
This week, the FBI finally brought in a suspect. It’s one of these bad news-good news kinds of situations. The bad news is that the person they suspect of torching the trucks is William Cotrell, a 23-year old graduate student of the California Technical Institute. For those who don’t know Caltech, it’s a place where genius in math and science is required as a ticket of entry. From there, it’s only one step to Evil Genius, and so you can see how this might be a problem.
The good news, however, is that the suspect is a 23-year old graduate student at Caltech. When not in his secret underground lair, Cotrell probably couldn’t scare anyone but a 2nd level Elf without an invisibility cloak. Not known for their machismo or might, Caltech students won’t exactly intimidate Hummer drivers into doing their will. Cotrell may really be a Mad Scientist (mad about pollution, at least), but he’s going to have to finish his degree and build that Death Ray before I’m willing to give him the title of Evil Genius.
Any parents among you who might be sending a check once or twice a year to an expensive institution like Caltech, I do have a couple of encouraging words. First, you’re probably not paying as much as Cotrell’s parents because Caltech is really expensive. Second, rest assured that Cotrell and his friends have promised to keep their fiery destruction strictly limited to “non-human” targets.
That’s right. No need for alarm. Don’t bother to call Homeland Security because these crazy kids at the Earth Liberation Front (the group that claimed responsibility for the attack) swear they’re not trying to hurt anyone. ELF feels that anything it can do to stop the destruction of the environment, short of murder, is not only peachy-keen, but heroic. Let’s call the Nobel people. I feel a Peace Prize coming on.
Over the last year or so, they haven’t limited themselves just to enormous SUVs. Shortly before last fall’s Hummer attack, ELF members burned down a nearly completed housing development because they believed it was encroaching on wildlife. The owners of the housing development even got the creepy message, “If you build it, we will burn it.” Creepy, that is, until you get an actual look at the likes of Cotrell. He or one of his ELF buddies probably read that line in Lord of the Rings and has waited patiently since eighth grade to use it.
So we know they’re geeks and moral cowards, but it is the stupidity of it that surprises me. These should be smart people. Cotrell, I’m thinking you owe your parents some payback for those SAT prep classes because something went badly wrong in your logical thinking skills. They think it’s ok to destroy something that is going to harm the environment. It stands to reason then that anything I think is going to do harm, I should just destroy. As long as I never hurt anyone, I can basically go around all day bringing down Biblical vengeance on other people’s stuff. If, for example, I think that Celine Dion’s music, when heard at an early age, would lead a child to a life of crime, I have to stop it. It’s my duty to break into that parent’s car with a magnifying glass and melt the CDs before they can work any more of their black magic. And if the car happens to be a Hummer, it’s a twofer!
But my good deeds wouldn’t stop there. Suppose I thought that all those cinnamon apple pretzels down at the mall were going to make everyone as fat as walruses. Wouldn’t that eventually force the Fire Department to have to pay to rent those special cranes to lift people out of their homes when they can’t move anymore? Wouldn’t that take vital money away from other programs? Imagine the suffering if Midnight Basketball can’t get all the cash it needs because too many mall-goers have OD’d on the sweet yet salty flavor of fried bread. I simply must destroy the pretzel-making equipment before it’s too late.
The unfunny part of this is that someday, somewhere, whether they mean to or not, ELF is going to hurt or kill someone. That’s how it eventually goes when you burn down city blocks or fleets of cars. If Cotrell is guilty, he should be forced to bunk with somebody who has the same aggressive attitude toward attacking things he doesn’t like. For his part, Cotrell denies everything despite months of sending smart-alecky emails to the Los Angeles Times talking about how the Feds were missing all the signs of ELF’s presence and how awesome it was to burn SUVs.
So good luck, Cotrell. Good luck, ELF. You’ve really proven a point and made a strong statement.
And that statement is, “we’ve completely wasted our expensive educations.”

Tuesday, March 09, 2004

Letter from California-March 8, 2004

Lately it’s been almost impossible to turn on a TV or radio without hearing it: now is the time to re-finance all that high-interest debt. Rates are so low, you’re crazy not to do it, they say, and for that reason, millions of people have been saying “Yes” to wiping away old debts and replacing them with shiny new ones.

I’m getting in on the action myself. In fact, I decided to borrow $15 billion just last week. That’s right. And the salesman was so friendly and charismatic; I really feel like he’ll be there to make sure the whole thing goes well. He was a nice guy with a sense of humor, quite tall, and he might have been an athlete once. What was his name again?

Oh, yeah. Schwarzenegger.

By now, I’m sure you’ve figured out that I’m not talking about refinancing the McCarthy Estate. California home prices are big, but even Woody Harrelson can’t find a mansion for his marijuana so big that it costs $15 billion. No, I’m talking about California Ballot Proposition 57, passed in early March by a wide margin of California voters. This proposition basically asked California voters if the state should borrow $15 billion by issuing a bunch of bonds and paying it back over time.

Now what in the world could California need with $15 billion? After all, that’s a lot of money. In fact, it’s three years worth of South Carolina’s entire state budget. $15 billion could buy everyone in the Golden State a really nice new color TV or one of those awesome Tivos. Or maybe we could put a down payment on our very own state Army, just in case Arizona or Nevada ever get any funny ideas.

No, sadly, that’s not where any of the money is going. Over the last few years, California just racked up huge debts, by spending more than it takes in, and the money’s going to pay all of that off in one go. It’s not as though California doesn’t bring in plenty of money, though. Sales tax runs at 8 ¼% and the top California State tax rate is almost 10%, and when you add it all up, it totals to about $100 billion per year. Throw in an economic downturn here and an energy crisis there, though, and pretty soon, you’re out of whack.

Schwarzenegger took office in the middle of all this of course. In fact, he campaigned hard on the idea that he was going to take action and that former Governor Gray Davis was a pitiful girly-man whose only plan was to raise your taxes even more. Davis replied that he was not a girly-man, and just to prove it, he didn’t plan to do anything at all about the budget problem.

I think most Californians supported the Proposition (and its twin, Proposition 58, which basically requires a balanced budget every year from now on) because it seemed like someone was at least trying to do something. Sometimes Gray Davis seemed a little like Obi Wan Kenobi playing Jedi mind tricks on the bad guys: “Your power isn’t really going off,” he would say calmly, “I haven’t really hired 40,000 new state employees in 3 years.”

But all this borrowing has gotten me thinking about all the things that governments have to pay money to do. It’s obvious that they do too many things, even though we all benefit from some of it. Sure, there’s the fire department and the police. Everyone likes those. It’s also nice that the state will build and maintain a road or two. Roads definitely come in handy, particularly when you own a car. Then of course, there are parks. People like parks. Dogs like parks. People like dogs, so you can’t cut out parks. Then there is healthcare and education, and who can say no to those? Then there are scholarships for college. All of this just sounds so good, people find it hard to argue them out of the budget. Keep going down this path and pretty soon you have a small army of people being paid to learn to be beekeepers or entire bureaus of the state government whose job is to make sure that the peaks of the state’s mountains are the same height as they were last week. When you look at things like those on their own, they look crazy, but when you get there a step at a time, most people have a hard time saying no.

So you can say that Prop 57 is the easy way out, just a bigger, badder credit card for a state with a spending problem. That’s probably true. We probably have to get used either to bigger tax bills or getting a lot less from the state. No one wants to pay more in taxes, so the only solution would be saying no to the fun programs that everyone loves.

Next time. We’ll start doing that next time.

Letter from California-March 1, 2004

Do you know the feeling that starts to build at about 1 or 2 o’clock on the afternoon of Christmas Eve? Suddenly, the streets get busy, filled up with people driving around like mental patients to get one or two little things done before heading home to pack in for the holiday. The build up is more exciting than the actual event sometimes, what with the reality of forgotten batteries for the boy’s Killbot and the unannounced arrival of the cousin who always brings a new boyfriend that she’s about to marry.

Anyway, a few years back, when I first moved to Los Angeles, I was driving around on a Wednesday afternoon in March and I noticed that same Christmas Eve-thing happening. What could it be? Why are the grocery stores packed? Why does every other car on the road have a Domino’s Pizza light stuck to the top? What kind of crazy, mixed-up holiday do I not know about? More importantly, how can I get home and celebrate it?

It didn’t take long, now that my Holiday Senses were tingling, to ask around and figure out that today was indeed a holiday. A National Holiday. In Los Angeles.

It was Oscar day. In L.A., the day of the Academy Awards might as well be Christmas Eve because everyone heads for hearth and home to see if the Academy (playing the role of Santa Claus) will be bringing gifts (in the form of golden statues) to the children (movie people…no stretch there).

Even for a national audience, the telecast is popular, but in L.A., everyone’s either in something that’s been nominated, worked on something that’s been nominated or knows someone that’s been nominated. It’s a Company Town after all. Movie magic is bread and butter work for a lot of people here. For example, a friend of ours played cello in the orchestra during the broadcast. How’s that for tinsel town glamour? I bet he would have gotten teased a lot less when he first joined the school band and picked the cello if people had known then that he’d be performing for Ben and J. Lo someday. Ok, maybe it wouldn’t have helped much.

Another thing you might not know about the Academy Awards I learned from another friend of mine. A few years back, she started a company that provided the Awards with gift baskets for the award recipients, nominees, and other VIPs. All the big awards shows do it, and you might be not be surprised to hear that the Academy would splurge for a few oranges, bananas and a commemorative mug, but if you thought that, you’d have the wrong idea. These gift baskets have thousands of dollars worth of gifts in them, ranging from free spa treatments and silk pajamas to really, really expensive oranges and bananas. And just because they’re called gift baskets doesn’t mean they’re little wicker things with fake plastic grass in the bottom. One of the baskets, I heard from my friend, was actually a beautiful Chinese chest-of-drawers. It sounds a little excessive, I know, but hey, if anyone needs a little pampering, it’s those overworked, unsung movie stars. This is their night, after all. Don’t they deserve something?

As for the Awards themselves, this year it was all Hobbits, all the time. Usually, this is the kind of movie that doesn’t win anything because the Academy voters (about 6500 people in the movie biz whose names are somewhat of a secret) hate to give the good awards to the really geeky stuff involving elves, magic swords, special effects or for any movie where people can somehow come back from the dead (although we’ll see how The Passion does next year).

Best of all, Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn and Tim Robbins mostly kept their mouths shut. Unlike last year, where all the award recipients felt the need to talk about the war or the rainforests or the need for a new stop sign at the corner of Willow and Main, this year they stuck to discussing the movies. For that, we thank the Academy for keeping the awards fun. Movies should provide an escape from all the serious stuff, and that includes the Awards.

After all, it’s a holiday.