Opinions, Etc 4.28.04

In Memoriam: Oldsmobile. The last Olds will roll off the assembly lines in Detroit tomorrow, officially marking the end of one of the longest-running automotive brand names. I never owned an Olds, but it’s still sad to see a legend go down.

Hmmmm, a few things to talk about today. Not much, though. The Pimp Section is probably bigger than any of the specialty articles. There really isn’t much that’s floating my boat, but I’ll manfully get through it anyway. So let’s start off with the pimps…

THE PIMP SECTION

Memo to Gamble: I said back in 1998 that I’d never get back into inspection. Don’t make the same mistake I did.

Haley agrees with me on the creative viability (or lack thereof) vis-a-vis TNA.

Cocozza doesn’t really like Nelly. He’s firmly part of my “one song I like by an artist I don’t” pantheon for “Country Grammar”. So that means Cocozza’s cool in my book, but it also means that Nelly has a moment of glory to fall back on, and that’s putting the term “Hot Shit” in the Top Five.

Rutherford has renamed his column, but it’s the same scattering goodness inside. So, have no fear and read it. I happen to love him because he has the same opinion on Enterprise and the Beebs that I do.

And to answer his question to me in his Pimp Section, I turn to astronomer Lynn Carter:

Unfortunately, I think it’s pretty impossible to say exactly who first named the planet ‘Earth’. Actually, I really doubt one person really named it intentionally; rather it developed over time as part of the English language. Earth is Old English and German in origin, related to the Old Saxon ‘ertha’, the Dutch ‘aerde’, and the German ‘erda’. Terra is a French and Latin word, and so isn’t part of the ‘Earth’ etymology. I’m not really an expert on words and word origins, but it seems likely that people used Earth to mean ‘land’ and then it was the natural thing to refer to all the land and the planet…So, as with the names of the other planets that have been known throughout human history (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn), it’s difficult to say who first thought of the planet as Earth. The names were part of culture even before we really understood the significance of what planets are and where they are in space.

Or if you don’t buy that, do your own Google search. I used the term “Earth etymology”.

Yeager really needs a column name. I tried to think of one, but all I could do were puns off of his name like “The Mach One Games Report” and “The Wednesday Big Game Hunt” (yes, it’s a pun, but it’s a pun in German). Plus, I do expect Barbie to sue. She’s got a lot of free time on her hands now that Ken’s come out and admitted what we all knew about him. You did have one minor misleading header, though: “EA to release Lord of the Rings RPG game for all systems”. I didn’t see “PC” listed, and a turn-based LOTR strategy RPG would be quite welcome in this climes, thank you.

Sorry about misinterpreting your tone last week, Misha. However, I can definitely out-geek you any day of the week. Degree in a hard science, eidetic memory, and nearly four decades of experience, you know.

And in the Games arena, if anyone picks up Army Men: Sarge’s War for PS2, I’d like to hear about your experiences quality-wise, etc. This’ll be the first game of a former 3DO property released after the bankruptcy sale, and I’d like to hear if Crave did anything with it. It might ease my mind a little about UbiScum owning my beloved Might and Magic.

Sebert does the Marvel side of the aisle, while Stevens camps out on the DC side. He’s joined there by Erhardt, who stays there in brightest day, in blackest night.

SPINNING INTO OVERTIME

So how does one interpret the results of Tuesday’s Republican Senate Primary in Pennsylvania? It all depends which side of the fence you’re on, of course.

The facts, first: Senator Arlen Specter, a moderate Republican (whatever that means these days), barely got the voters’ nod for reelection against rock-solid conservative Congressman Pat Toomey. “Barely” means 51-49 in this case.

So…

Specter is vulnerable in November.

Possibly. Voter turnout was low and idealogues tend to turn out in higher proportions in primaries. Toomey’s numbers may have been inflated beyond his actual level of support. Dear God, I hope that’s the case.

But Specter’s a bit of a maverick, isn’t he? Voted against some of Dubbaya’s bullshit and all that. So could the voters be punishing him for his non-adherence to the party line?

That’s a very good possibility. Dubbaya supported him, but it was rather tepid. It’s pretty obvious that his words of support for Specter were based simply on the fact that you don’t bad-mouth an incumbent in your own party. Also, throwing support to Toomey would have meant that ideology was more important than the party, which would have put a bad taste in a lot of voters’ mouths. This year, the GOP can’t be seen as ideological beasts. They’d lose too much support from voters on the fence.

So what are your feelings about Specter?

I’m pleased that he’s gone against the Junta on a number of occasions, but I still remember what he did to Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas hearings. In this primary, he was the lesser of two evils, but still very, very evil nonetheless.

And his chances in November?

He’ll probably do better than in the primary, if only on the principle of incumbent inertia. However, the primary exposed a gigantic weak spot. Without the support of the Philadelphia metro area, he would have never won. His opponent, Joe Hoeffel, is a Philly-area congressman and has a good record there. If Specter can’t draw the numbers from Philly and the ideological right-wingers decide to sit this one out Senate-wise (while still going in to vote for Dubbaya), Specter could easily lose this one. This would give Keystoners one of the most schizophrenic representations in recent history in the Senate, with Hoeffel and Psycho Rick Santorum.

Hold it…Santorum supported Specter, didn’t he?

Yep. And that points out another weakness. Dubbaya and Santorum couldn’t give Specter an ideological rub. It’s clear that the ideologists would rather have “one of ours” than “someone that one of ours says is cool”. It magnifies the issue of whether or not the ideologists will hold their noses and vote for Specter despite his impurity or whether they’ll just throw the vote away. And if support for Dubbaya begins to erode, the ideologists may decide to sit this one out completely in Pennsylvania.

You want to hazard a prediction on November?

Sure, why not? Specter wins reelection with 54-56%, but Kerry still wins Pennsylvania handily. Never underestimate the power of incumbency.

I TOLD YOU SO

Comcast has withdrawn its plans to snatch up the Mouse. And there was much rejoicing.

There was much rejoicing because no matter how slimy, disgusting, and evil Eisner is, Comcast beats them in every area. I’m a former Comcast customer, so I know this intimately. Phantom download caps, licking **AA ass, shitty customer service, it’s all there. So screw ’em.

(And in case you’re wondering, before I wrote that, I checked whether or not Comcast was the cable provider in my future residence, and the answer is no, thank God.)

From a personal standpoint, there was much rejoicing by me because when Fleabag and I were discussing this, I told him straight out that it wasn’t going to go through, and he was certain the Mouse would take the offer. It’s one of the few times that I scored a win over him in his field. Maybe he’ll listen to me a little more often now about stuff like this. I may not know high finance like he does, but I sure as hell knew Disney and Comcast. This puppy wasn’t going to fly, period.

And, lo and behold, the spin on this from the Terrors Of Philly reflected the exact main reason I gave to ‘Bag: management instability at Disney. I do have to admit one thing: I thought that Eisner would be gone, and the deal would fall through due to that. However, Darth Roberts noted that Eisner’s presence was a drawback, especially after the vote of support/kiss of death the Mouse board gave him on Tuesday: “It has become clear that there is no interest on the part of Disney’s management and board in putting Comcast and Disney together.” So Comcast pulled their offer and the Street bought the line. Wednesday early trading showed a nice rise in Comcast stock and a decent-sized drop on Disney, even after Comcast announced that they didn’t Beat the Street on their Q1 profits.

Nice spin, actually, because the offer was shit to begin with. All-stock swap with the swap value below the market value for Disney…it’s a shock that the traditionally conservative Disney shareholers weren’t up in arms about that one, but it does show the level of dissatisfaction among the shareholders with Eisner’s antics that they were willing to consider it just to get the company in fiscally-sounder hands. Of course, the shareholders could have also been hedging their bets, and considering the box office failures of The Alamo and Home On The Range and the total breakdown of the Pixar talks*, it would have been a good hedge.

So now that the stock has been freed up, what’s Comcast going to do? They’re initiating a billion-dollar buyback program and with the spare cash, they’ll be going after the bankrupt Adelphia in an attempt to cement their position in the cable oligopoly. Well, that’s appropriate. Adelphia’s chieftains have been indicted, Comcast’s should be.

So Disney’s safe for now. The only enemies are now on the inside.

* – And isn’t it ironic that cnn.com’s story about the withdrawl contains a picture from Toy Story? Boy, you can read a LOT into that…

HOW THE GAME IS PLAYED

(By the way, if 1ryderfakin was running again, this puppy would have been expanded and gone into a separate column. But we’re still not back up, so it goes in here in the abbreviated version)

Right now, out in California, there’s a trial going on that I’m naturally interested in. Back in 2000, a third-generation meat plant owner named Stuart Alexander had some problems with the California Department of Agriculture (which had a full inspection program back then; it’s now been scaled back for “special circumstance” only) and the USDA. He decided to solve those problems in an interesting fashion: he shot three government employees to death. His trial is going on right now, for first-degree murder.

Guilt or innocence doesn’t apply in this case. He’s guilty. He’s not only admitted to it, but there’s surveillance videotape that shows him blowing the inspectors away. The angle here is temporary insanity, of course. It doesn’t alter the facts, though.

What shocks the f*ck out of me is the amount of sympathy people in the industry are giving this guy. It shouldn’t, really; being technical only, I’ve been insulated from things like P&L or even budgetary considerations. But this guy went absolutely overboard because he couldn’t have his way. Here’s what led up to Alexander pulling the trigger:

He disobeyed a shutdown order: The plant in question is almost eighty years old. I’ve worked in plants that are that old or older, and they’re, by and large, shitholes. There were physical problems with the facility, and a general attitude among the employees that they know better than the inspectors (you tend to get a lot of long-timers in a small plant like this who don’t want to listen to anyone), which compromised food safety. His ass got shut down because he didn’t want to implement physical improvements or employee retraining programs. Getting shut down is always a last-resort measure. He had ample opportunity to reform, but didn’t. And he kept running after inspection was pulled, and kept putting marks of inspection on his product. That’s one of the worst crimes you can commit in the industry.

He knowingly shipped product out of state: I have to explain something about federal and state inspection programs, something I definitely know about having been a state inspector. About half the states in the US have state inspection programs. They’re mostly for smaller plants who don’t need the full care and attention that USDA provides. As part of this “leniency”, the plants under state inspection have to accept some additional measures: they can’t ship product out of the state it’s produced in. You want interstate commerce, you have to be USDA-inspected. Now, this plant was under state inspection while California still had a full program. That means that he couldn’t sell product outside of California. But he was producing a specialty item and wanted to expand his market. Normally, the way to go about this is to apply for USDA inspection. But the approval process is onerous. I’m absolutely certain that he couldn’t have passed USDA’s requirements in both facility condition and employee behavior given his track record. So he decided to do it anyway. And, naturally, he got caught by USDA’s Compliance Department. Compliance is USDA’s cops, and I had dealings with them a number of years ago when one of the plants under my inspection got caught for the same thing (it wasn’t their fault; they sold product to a broker who ended up selling it to some place in Milwaukee). Compliance is normally very fair on these issues, but not in a case where someone blatantly violated this particular regulation. It’s padlock time, automatically.

He repeatedly violated regulations on cooked product and refused to do anything about it: If there’s one area you don’t f*ck with when it comes to food safety, it’s for ready-to-eat cooked product like the sausages this guy’s place made. There are very, very specific regulations when it comes to how hot the product has to be during the cooking cycle, especially when you’re dealing with pork, as these sausages were (and don’t even ask about the Byzantine regulations regarding cooked beef; there’s a weird-ass time chart involved in that one that even I haven’t memorized after all these years). But Alexander and his employees refused to increase the heat. The news articles on this didn’t have to mention why. I already know. They used the same old argument I’ve heard time and again about how heating the product up more would compromise its quality and their customers wouldn’t stand for it. Hey, tough shit. If you make product, you have to do it according to regs. This is what led to the initial shutdowns by the California Department of Agriculture.

He then proceeded to ship that product regardless of the fact that it had been placed under retention or condemned: In the business, this is called “breaking a tag”. If someone breaks a tag knowingly, it’s a $5000 fine and the padlocks come out, period. And if you let that product get into the marketplace, you’re liable to be shut down permanently. I’ve had to participate in trace actions when a tag was accidentally broken, and believe me, they’re a pain in the ass. For someone to do it willingly, especially when they’re in deep shit otherwise on the same subject and are being watched, demonstrates that this guy doesn’t give a f*ck.

So, we have a multiple serial violator of regulations. The California inspectors have bitch-slapped him and tried to shut him down, but were disregarded. USDA Compliance catches them in a flagrant disregard of federal law. Both entities decide to follow prodcedure and give him a chance to clean house. The next visit would definitely involve the state cops, who would apply the padlocks themselves. So what does Alexander do? He has the inspectors wait in the lobby while he loads three guns, one for the state inspector and two for the Compliance officers. He then proceeds to walk out and plug them. This after he’s told people in his employ that he wants to kill the inspectors for “harassing” him. That’s why they’re going for first-degree.

Frankly, there’s lots of blame to go around here. I’d like to put the blame in order of who I think is responsible for this situation arising in the first place.

Alexander: He pulled the trigger, after all. He was the one who interpreted enforcement of regulations as “harassment”. He was the one who ultimately created the conditions that led to this. It stops at the top. It doesn’t matter if he thought that the family business was going to be ruined. If you work in a regulated industry like meat and poultry processing, you accept that you have to follow regulations, period. You don’t know how many times I had to deal with people like Alexander, second-, third-, or fourth-generation owners. If kindness and talking to them like human beings didn’t work (which it did most times), I had to pull out the Eric of Borg act, and that wasn’t fun for them.

The plant’s QA Manager: If there was one. This was a small plant under state inspection, after all. As a state inspector, I had to end up being the QA Manager de facto numerous times. But if there was someone responsible for Quality Assurance, then where the hell was he or she? It’s that person’s job to make sure that you don’t violate regs in the first place. Let me inform you from personal experience that it’s a delicate balancing act, and if you have an owner who’s determined and willing not to care, it’s tough. It’s even tougher when you’ve been caught and are under the microscope. That’s why I left my job here in Nebraska. The plant was under investigation since before I got there, I was the one stuck with having to implement changes that the plant didn’t like but were committed to because of the less-experienced person I replaced, I was getting heat from USDA because they came to believe that I was a puppet just like the last four QA managers (not true), and I was getting no support from management. But the person responsible for QA should have done something to get them out of hot water.

The plant’s floor managers: At most plants, it’s drilled into the employees from the moment of hiring: if someone’s got a f*cking badge, you do what they say. The floor managers obviously didn’t. They created the company culture that opened them up to this situation in the first place. Albeit, that stemmed from Alexander; however, if they knew how much trouble was being caused, why didn’t they try to convince Alexander to make necessary changes?

The state program: There’s a rule of thumb every inspector should go by: “Be Firm, Fair, but Courteous”. I understand that there are limits, and believe you me, I reached my limit a number of times. But there are simple solutions to the problem of having an unresponsive plant. You inform your superior that these guys are a problem. Then you transfer the inspector out and hope that the plant responds better to another inspector. If it’s still happening, you go up as far as the director of the program, who will involve the state cops. There’s a limit to the number of chances a plant gets, and it sure as hell sounds like they surpassed that.

Alexander should get the f*cking needle for this one. Maybe that’ll teach recalcitrant owners to listen to their inspectors. And I would still feel this way if I decided not to go back to inspection. He has no excuse, insanity or not. First degree with special circumstances, ass in San Quentin, needle in arm, period.

(Memo to Hal Siegel, who told me that the trial was underway, which I’d forgotten about: I don’t go to Fark due to their mods’ treatment of Big Daddy a number of months ago, but I can imagine the comments that the assholes over there made about this.)

MAILBAG!

Thanks to the people who wrote in, especially BFM, and told me that current federal mileage recompensation is 37 1/2 cents a mile. It’s been a while and I wasn’t too sure they’d raised it.

Big Daddy wants an opinion:

Being the golf aficionado that you are, I definitely need your input Wednesday on the Bobby Jones biopic Stroke of Genius that opens this weekend. I have to wonder how it’ll play to anyone but golf purists, because the game was radically different then as compared to now (primarily because what people call the “Tigger Factor” hadn’t happened yet). Herrington’s doing a great (and proper) job of deifying Jones, but will anyone get fired up about a movie highlighting “old golf” after the shitty taste The Legend of Bagger Vance left in our collective mouth?

I don’t have much hopes for it, even with Cavieziel starring. I’m sure that half the audience will wonder when he’s going to get beaten by a mashie. It isn’t a “Bagger Vance” situation, since that movie was being sold on Will Smith. It’s just that the subject matter isn’t popular enough to reach critical mass with a film audience. Of course, everyone was saying the same thing about Seabiscuit. If the film’s quality, it’ll get an audience.

A number of people wrote me about my Alton Brown blurb, and some of them tweaked on to my reason for writing what I did in the first place. Kyle McCowin was the best at expressing what went wrong:

I’m not saying Alton wasn’t disappointing in the role of Dr. Hattori but let’s face it, even Hattori would get annoying rather quickly if forced to do the show alone.

Bingo. It was the one-man booth that was the major problem, and Brown didn’t have the capability to handle all of the responsibility. It also didn’t help when he said straight out that he was going to be Hattori and didn’t live up to those standards. Plus, the writing staff really annoyed me. They tried to play with continuity and got at least two utterly basic things wrong in the Sakai/Flay battle: 1) Sakai had lost a fish battle before losing to Flay (Battle Sea Bream against Kandagawa, the 21st Century Special, a match that earned five f*cking snowflakes), and 2) the original Kitchen Stadium did have an ice-cream machine, used numerous times for bizarre concoctions, mostly by Chen. The first mistake was particularly inexcusable considering that the other match in the 21 Century Special was Morimoto/Flay II. After those mistakes, I gave up.

Jason Siedzik agreed with this point:

About Iron Chef America: They really needed two people on commentary. Alton was just stretched way too thin doing play-by-play and color. Get someone else to do most of the work, let him take over the Yukio Hattori role, problem solved.

I would have preferred another color guy with Alton taking Fukui’s role, but I can see your side.

Back to Kyle:

Fukui was brought on from his play-by-play job during baseball games for a reason; the food expert needs somebody to ask questions, somebody to explain to, and somebody to keep the show from turning into 44 minutes of exposition.

Well, Kenji Fukui was a boxing announcer who did a little baseball, and that’s the way he always approached the show, as a boxing match. Unfortunately, that decision caused him a little strain having to do it week after week without any round breaks to assist in the flow.

Alton needed a play-by-play man and/or the tasters at his side for some conversation. If they’re going to copy the format of the original Iron Chef they need to keep parts that were refined to work their best.

Definitely agree that he needed a color commentator who knew the food better than he did. As for a taster, it would have been nice if they stayed away from Simpering Bimbette of the Week. Of course, they brought together tasters who didn’t really know food. The guy from Queer Eye was the closest.

But at least it wasn’t Emeril.

Thank God for that. I was really pleased with Batali. You could tell that he had a love for the show. When he whipped up that yellow sauce and said that he used yellow bell peppers in honor of Kaga, that was a mini-mark-out moment (the other one was Sakai admitting that he used shark fin in tribute to Chen, who really was busy; at the time the shows were taped, he had just opened a new restaurant in Japan and had to be there; ironically, that restaurant is in the same building as the newest restaurants of Iron Chefs Ishinabe and Nakamura).

Joe Walker wishes to continue this vein:

It’s usually the throwaway lines that people whine about.

Tell me about it. The trolls were out in force with my retard mention yesterday.

Geeky Alton Brown is one of the few reasons I watched any of Iron Chef America. Having a commentator who knows how ingredients become food is interesting.

Unfortunately, Alton Brown isn’t nearly at the level of Hattori, who runs a cooking school. Hattori’s also more intimate with the particular ingredients used on IC and took the time (whether in the original Japanese or in the very faithful dubbing) to ensure the audience knew the capabilities of the ingredients.

Though I’m not a huge fan of Iron Chef, I much prefer Alton’s blather to the goobers saying “It looks as if Iron Chef Morimoto is adding fish paste to his banana daquiri.” “Kisan! Iron Chef Morimoto is using fish paste!”

That’s “Fukui-san”, by the way. And Ohta went far and beyond what the geek floor-boy did on ICA. That was a big weakness. The spotter wasn’t doing her job right, and the floor reporter was an idiot.

Mike V asks me about something that he should be turned off by considering the above:

In your article, you mentioned your going back to meat inspection for the goverment. How does one get started in that feild? What expence do you need? See I’ve been a computer techniction for the last 5 years. I’m tired of it, and at this point looking at different paths. I’m trying to find a job that pays well, and is not stressful at all.

First of all, you’re not going to get “paid well”. Noob inspectors make twenty-six large a year. Try living on that in your average urban area. You’re also going to be stuck pulling slaughter duty for a minimum of seven years unless you get lucky. If I had to go in as a noob inspector, I wouldn’t have. I only have to do a minimum of three years of slaughter unless I can leverage my experience into a different job category.

You don’t need any experience. You have to do very well on the civil service exam, though, which tests mathematics skill, rapid thinking, and other cognitive abilities. You’re going to have to do a bunch of paperwork in order to get into the civil service exam in the first place. Go here for the details of what you need. Also, unless you want to play road warrior, you’ll have to wait for the exam to be offered in your area. I got lucky with the exam being in Chicago when I knew I was going to be in town (namely to finalize my move to Nebraska). You have to sign up about three months in advance for it, too, and it helps if you’re a veteran. In other words, it’s a real pain in the ass unless you’re absolutely sure you want to get into it and want to go through all of that.

There is some stress involved in it, but it’s not as much as I was getting in comparative private industry positions. But it’s a pretty low level of stress regardless.

As I said, unless you absolutely want to try it, don’t start. It’s a nightmare of paperwork. Don’t take it from me. Steve Kowalczyk has his own public employment horror story:

Word life on that civil service shit taking forever. I’m an engineer, (Sort of: 2 classes shy of actually earning my Associate’s and like 1 semester towards my Bachelor’s. Hey, calculus is hard, and I’m lazy) and the economy in upstate NY sucks so bad I’ve given up looking for any kind of job in that field and took the NYS civil service exam to become a DMV examiner in January. It took 6 weeks to get my results (Top 10 percent, 35th overall in the state), then another 6 weeks to get the form asking me where I want to work (Anywhere west of the Hudson River), and who knows how long it will take to get any interviews out of the deal. And this exam was listed last November or December. I guess that’s a pressing need if they can take 8 months to sort everything out. Even with my Associate’s degree I wouldn’t make as much as I would with that DMV job, to the tune of about 5 G’s a year, and the benefits wouldn’t be nearly as good as working for the state.

And I’ll close this puppy up. You enjoy yourselves until next week, when I’ll be back on Tuesday in Wrestling and Wednesday in Black.