Sunday, November 28, 2010

How I'm spending my winter vacation

There is no perfect crime. We live in an imperfect world. But Gerald Applethorpe thought he could come close (but not too close, or there'd be no story).

A gun would be too obvious; an axe too uncommon for contemporary mayhem. No, it would be something easily available, perhaps a shovel. A large one. The gardener comes on Wednesday.

So begins my novel.

I will be taking my annual winter break from writing this blog. For the next month I will be working on my other writing projects.

In addition to my novel, I'm currently working on a rewrite of a screenplay with my writing partner Vincent Blanco. I can't disclose the details of it right now, other than the fact that it's a romantic comedy set in the worlds of advertising and coffeehouses. It will be low budget, similar to all the crap that Tyler Perry puts out, only funnier - and with Jewish people. Don't expect any car chases or explosions. Here's a rundown of my other projects:

I’m producing a reality show that I hope will be picked up for the 2010-2011 season. Because the television networks have been cutting costs, I’m putting my detective show on hold. All the networks have passed on my crime show about an alcoholic bipolar homicide detective and his sexy young female partner who work the streets of South Central L.A. looking for murdered tourists. Even filming in Vancouver would be too expensive, so even though CBS likes the pilot script, it’s just too expensive to film, especially if I get my first choice, Christian Slater, who commands a high salary. ABC was initially interested. They wanted Pauly Shore for the lead, but he wanted too much money and his own trailer, so they passed.

It’s all about the budget, so that’s why I’m switching to reality shows. I’m pitching my new show, called “Dumb Factor,” a remake of “Fear Factor,” which ran on NBC from 2001-2006. For $5,000, contestants will bungee-jump off a freeway overpass with an extremely frayed rope. The cars will run over the contestants until someone is stupid enough to get out and help, also getting splattered onto the pavement in slow-motion. This scenario will keep repeating until the commercial break. All that we’ll see after the commercial will be a bunch of dead bodies and a massive pile-up of Camrys. The winners will now compete for the second stunt, jumping out of an airplane with a placebo parachute, after which an Internet poll will be taken for the viewer to guess the winner. For those wanting to be a contestant, sign-ups will be on our website at . This show will be perfect for ABC’s schedule, because they’re in the process of cancelling all scripted shows.

The tall, gray-haired man in the tan trench coat made his way up the elevator and stopped at the fourth floor. The receptionist said "hello". The man didn't look up. Something was wrong. He didn't belong there. It was clear by his demeanor.

An uneasy silence came over the room. All the people looked downward, trying to avoid eye contact. Then the man pulled out a shotgun and killed everyone in the room.

To be continued...

I'm also writing a light-hearted book of short stories about life in the San Fernando Valley, the area known for tract homes laid out on asphalt grids which make up part of the northern edge of Los Angeles, where the smog settles in like cheap hairspray and you can fry an egg on the streets during the summer.

As you can see, I have a very busy schedule. When I return from my break, this blog will continue on an as needed basis, so that I can devote time to my other projects. I look forward to your comments and feedback on my articles.

My blog, started in April 2009, originally appeared daily, until I realized that I didn't enjoy writing every day, and instead preferred to sit around the house eating Cheez Doodles and watching "Law and Order" reruns.

Thank you for the unprecedented support for my blog. Many readers have asked for more information about me. I graduated from Hudson University in New York with a B.A. in criminal justice. I started my writing career at the Los Angeles Daily News where I honed my skills writing obituaries and getting coffee for the city desk editor. I was fired for making fliers for my band on the company copying machine.

After many years in the music business playing trumpet and keyboards, I quit to work full time as a freelance journalist. After that, I became a consultant and news commentator. I then took off a year to try to sell my television scripts and reality show ideas. Now I'm concentrating on my screenwriting career. The media can contact me through my representatives.

Parts of this article were reprinted from my July 20, 2009 and September 2, 2009 blogs at It's not just that I'm lazy. I want my new readers to catch up on my earlier works. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I'll steal from myself.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Marijuana is a hot topic in California

As California's economy was going up in smoke, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said in May of 2009 that it was time to study the possibility of legalizing and taxing marijuana. And now, Proposition 19 is on the California ballot. Interestingly, Schwarzenegger now opposes Proposition 19, calling it "deeply flawed" and claiming that its potential for generating tax revenue has been overstated.

When President Obama was asked last year about the subject, he wasn't interested. "No, I don't think that is a good strategy to grow our economy," he said at the time. His current strategy is to avoid discussing the issue altogether. But Schwarzenegger sparked the debate in California, and the nation joined in. A Zogby poll, commissioned in May of 2009 by the conservative O'Leary Report, showed that 52% of Americans favor legalization of marijuana, with only 37% opposed. The statistics are similar in California to the national numbers and have stayed about the same since that time.

Legalizing marijuana not only allows for the regulation and taxation of marijuana, similar to cigarettes and alcohol, but it removes the criminal element, freeing up our legal system to deal with actual criminals. Medical marijuana is already available in California. The U.S. Supreme Court on May 18th 2009, upheld the right of states to implement and administer their own medical marijuana laws, affirming the long held position that federal law does not preempt state medical marijuana laws.

Passage of Proposition 19 would make it legal under state law for anyone over 21 years old to possess marijuana, and the federal laws would probably again be trumped by state law. The federal government has indicated they may challenge the law if it passes, but the feds will most likely lose out to the will of the people and move on to more important things. The legal battle over medical marijuana was a win for the state, after all.

Marijuana hasn't always been illegal. Because of sensationalistic stories of murder and mayhem associated with marijuana use, it was criminalized federally in 1937 by the newly formed Bureau of Narcotics. Up until that time it had been used as a household drug treating headaches, toothaches, depression, menstrual cramps and of course just plain stress, and drug companies were working on developing a stronger strain. In 1938, the mayor of New York, Fiorello LaGuardia, who it was rumored would light up a joint before important meetings, formed a committee to study the actual effects of marijuana. It found, despite the governments claims, that there was no scientific reason to criminalize marijuana. The study found that it did not cause insanity or act as a gateway drug. It did not cause people to go on killing sprees, and it did not cause other types of deviant criminal behavior.

Like any substance, the potential for abuse is there, but studies have shown that not only is marijuana safer than most drugs, users don't get symptoms similar to what some have called "Starbucks head," commonly known as headaches associated with caffeine withdrawal.

Further studies have shown that marijuana use actually cuts down on crime, even when used by criminals, because it makes them more mellow. Even President Nixon took up the debate. In 1972, his Shafer Commission also concluded that marijuana should be legalized. Speculation that Nixon used to get high before giving major speeches has never been proven, but many experts site the famous "Checkers speech," when the then-Senator and Vice Presidential candidate got emotional before millions of viewers, as an example of an obviously high politician.

Leading California Democrats, including Jerry Brown and Barbara Boxer, are officially against Proposition 19, but the Democratic party stands to benefit from a larger voter turnout. This is due to the fact that normally apathetic groups such as young voters, who would normally skip midterm elections, may buck the trend and turn out in droves precisely because an issue that they are passionate about is on the ballot. The Wall Street Journal has recently pointed out that Democratic strategists are watching the race very closely. That's because this could be the same kind of "hot button" issue to energize the Left, much the same way that banning gay marriage energized the Right. If Proposition 19 is successful in California, look for variations to appear on the national stage, in time for the 2012 elections.

Brown, the current California Attorney General and candidate for Governor, was known for his eccentric behavior when as governor of California from 1975 to 1983 he was referred to as "Governor Moonbeam." Although there were rumors of marijuana use by Brown in the governor's mansion, it was never proven. Brown did, during his tenure, however, propose the establishment of a state space academy and the purchasing of a satellite that would be launched into orbit. Interestingly, a similar program was later adopted by the state, as a satellite was launched to provide emergency communications. Supposedly the cost of this venture, and other liberal expenditures by California politicians are what got us into this mess in the first place. In any case, billions of dollars have been spent over the years on marijuana enforcement nationwide. A 2007 report, "Lost Revenues and Other Costs of Marijuana Laws," by Jon Gettman estimated that law enforcement costs relating to marijuana nationally comes to 10.7 billion annually. The California State Board of Equalization estimates California's possible revenue from legalizing marijuana would be $1.3 billion per year.

Even though President Obama admits he smoked a little pot in his day, he has consistently been against legalization. It has been politically expedient for him to try and ignore the issue completely, but he was forced to address the issue because it outpolled all other questions in his first "online town hall" meeting early in his term.

Schwarzenegger, another famous ex-pot smoker (he can be seen in the movie "Pumping Iron" toking up), now favors cigars, at least publicly. He's the one who brought the matter to the public stage, but is now backtracking because it is politically correct. But California is on the brink of bankruptcy, and decriminalizing marijuana is a logical solution. A recent study showed that cigars are a much worse health threat than cigarettes. Schwarzenegger would be wise to give up his cigars in favor of marijuana. It's healthier.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Stopping Homegrown Terrorism - Pipe Dream or Pipe Bomb?

If the car bomb hadn't been a dud, there would have been many dead tourists and a crater in Times Square. But Faisal Shahzad was not good at the art of bomb making. If he had taken just a few more lessons on the Internet, things might have been different. The American citizen, originally from Pakistan, left his crude homemade bomb smoking in an SUV in Times Square in May. While counterterrorism authorities tried to claim some sort of victory for the failed bombing, even though quick response by New York city police would not have stopped a more skilled terrorist, the case highlighted how difficult it is to find terror suspects in the U.S. Authorities repeatedly pointed out that Shahzad had not come to the attention of any counterterrorism investigators prior to the Times Square attempt.

Since 2009, over thirty American citizens have been arrested on federal charges related to Islamist extremism. Fourteen people, including seven U.S. citizens, were charged this week with trying to join a Somali terrorist group allied with al-Qaeda, and were tied to two deadly bombings in Uganda. The Justice Department said in a statement that they were charged with trying to join or provide support to the group, known as al-Shabab. They were indicted in Minnesota, Alabama and California.

“Somebody's going to get through,” a counterterrorism expert told Newsweek in June. He chose to remain anonymous, but he is not alone in his fears. In New York City and throughout the country, there is an inevitable sense of impending danger among law enforcement officials. But, although Republicans accuse the Obama administration of being soft on terrorism, there has not been a major successful attack on American soil since 9/11.

Many top officials and politicians are saying that the U.S. will be attacked again, and it will be soon. “We must be honest with ourselves,” said John Brennan, the President's top counterterrorism advisor, on May 26. “No nation, no matter how powerful, can prevent every threat from coming to fruition.” He pointed out that the U.S. is more susceptible to attack because the terrorists can take advantage of our free and open society and rely on the so-called “lone wolves” and self-radicalized terrorists.

Attorney General Eric Holder is quick to dismiss this kind of speculation. After the indictments this week in Minnesota, Alabama and California, he said: “These arrests and charges should serve as an unmistakable warning to others who are considering joining or supporting terrorist groups like al-Shabab. If you choose this group, you can expect to find yourself in a United States jail cell or to be a casualty on a Somali battlefield.”

It will take more than tough words from the Attorney General to stop what many think is an inevitable attack on American soil. Although most American Muslims have no interest in extremist ideology and don't want to be stereotyped, the very act of treating them as potential enemies could make matters worse. Some impressionable Muslims decide to join terrorist organizations after reading or listening to English-speaking al-Qaeda propaganda on the Internet. And although conservatives continue to portray Obama as soft on terrorism, his administration continues to kill al-Qaeda operatives in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. Since Obama took office in 2009, the military and the CIA have launched over 100 drone attacks against al-Quaeda and the Taliban, more than twice as many as President Bush had ordered during his entire second term.

There is some evidence that these remote-control drone attacks risk what the intelligence community calls “blowback.” Terror suspects have repeatedly told investigators that they were at least partly motivated by the desire to seek revenge for drone strikes. Any military action in a foreign country has consequences. Because the Internet has made it possible for terrorists around the world to be recruited, Western Muslims seeking to bring jihad to America are more common than ever.

Attorney General Holder continued to speak of this week's indictment of the fourteen al-Shabab recruits. “We are seeing an increasing number of individuals – including U.S. citizens – who have become captivated by extremist ideology,” Holder said. “It's a disturbing trend that we have been investigating in recent years and will continue to investigate and root out. But we must also work to prevent this type of radicalization from ever taking hold.”

But is it possible to prevent this type of radicalization from ever taking hold? Most Americans think this is just a pipe dream. President Obama clearly has no inclination to stop killing terrorists with unmanned drones, even if it means killing a few civilians. We may have to deal with the “blowback” sooner rather than later.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Fighting terrorism is hard work - Times Square bomber makes it look easy

“The harder we work, the luckier we get,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said last week, objecting to Republican criticism that the Obama administration is relying too much on luck in confronting terrorism. In response to the failed Times Square car bombing attempt on May 1, she admitted that “the vigilance of the American people” is an important element in the fight against terrorism.

Shortly after the failed bombing attempt, President Obama telephoned Times Square vendor Duane Jackson to commend him for alerting authorities to the illegally parked SUV that was left with its engine on, keys in the ignition, and smoke mysteriously seeping out of it. The 58-year-old handbag vendor alerted a passing New York City mounted police officer.

If you want to do damage with a well-rigged car bomb, Times Square, one of the most popular tourist destinations on the planet, is just the place. But luck did come into play. The bomb attempt allegedly carried out by 30-year-old naturalized citizen Faisal Shahzad was about as amateurish as you can get. A clock used as a timer in the car looked like it was purchased at Toys“R”Us. The fertilizer which was supposed to enable the bomb to detonate was incapable of exploding. It turned out the car was less harmless than a late-model Toyota. Because of the inept nature of the attempt, it was originally thought that Shahzad was a “lone wolf”, the phrase which has come into frequent use to describe any nut job who is acting alone because of some misguided political ideology fueled by mental illness. This type of terrorist is scarier, in some ways, because he lives among us.

Obama administration officials said Sunday that the Pakistani Taliban, the group that had originally claimed credit for the failed bombing attempt, did in fact mastermind the plot. Obama's critics can't admit that our success in dismantling these terrorist groups overseas has caused them to attempt unsophisticated attacks such as the one in Times Square. “We haven't bent their determination one bit, but these are smaller, lower-quality efforts,” said Brian Jenkins, a terrorism expert with the Rand Corporation.

The new breed of terrorist, which includes U.S. Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan in Fort Hood, Texas, and Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who failed in his attempt to blow up an airliner as it approached Detroit last December, present a difficult challenge for law enforcement agencies. “These are primarily one-offs,” said Jenkins. “That means there's no warning.”

Since we can't have a bomb squad on every corner, what can we do to fight the enemy from within? We can add more cameras, but that does not necessarily deter crime, although it can help find the perpetrators, as demonstrated in London, which has one security camera for every 14 people. We can't stop every car, and we can't have bomb-sniffing dogs in every parking lot. Aside from the fact that the Times Square bomber was so incredibly inept, it was a good example of how things should be done. The street vendors were keeping a vigilant eye on their territory. The authorities were notified. The area was cleared in an orderly fashion. The bomb squad investigated. The mayor congratulated the “best police department in the world” for doing its job.

Dennis Blair, the Director of National Intelligence, publicly criticized the Obama administration for its handling of Shahzad, who is a naturalized American citizen, giving him more rights than a foreign suspect. Shahzad should have been treated as an enemy combatant, according to Blair, and many Republicans agree.

After defending the Obama administration's decision to read the Times Square bombing suspect his rights, Attorney General Eric Holder said the administration wants to give interrogators more flexibility when questioning suspected terrorists. Holder said in an interview Sunday on NBC's “Meet the Press” that the administration would shift its approach to Miranda rights in light of evidence that Times Square bombing suspect Faisal Shahzad was trained by the Taliban in Pakistan.

Under the Supreme Court's 1966 ruling that established the Miranda rights, statements made during a police interrogation are not admissible in court unless a suspect has first been informed of his rights to remain silent and to consult a lawyer.

A little-known exception to the Miranda rights already exists. First crafted by a 1984 Supreme Court ruling, it allows law enforcement to delay reading someone their rights if there is a public safety concern involved. Federal agents reportedly used the Miranda exception for Times Square suspect Shahzad, who was questioned for several hours before being read his rights. Reportedly, after he was read his rights, Shahzad waived them and continued talking.

Attorney General Holder said he is giving “serious consideration to at least modifying” the public-safety exception. “We want the public safety exception to be consistent with the public safety concerns that we now have in the 21st century as opposed to the public safety concerns that we had in the 1980s,” Holder said.

Under Holder's proposal, terror suspects could have statements made during interrogations used against them in court even if they had not been informed of their Miranda rights. “We want to work with the Congress to come up with a way in which we make our public safety exception more flexible and, again, more consistent with the threat we face,” Holder said.

In Shahzad's case, he continued to talk even after he was read his Miranda rights. “He has talked to us and he continues to talk to us,” said Holder.

With the public safety provision being updated, we are basically throwing out the Miranda rights of suspected terrorists. If it makes us safer, most Americans would be willing to go along with this. Evidently, it didn't make any difference in the current situation, as Shahzad continues to talk. On the other hand, Sen. Joseph Lieberman has proposed that suspected terrorists, if they are American citizens, be stripped of their citizenship. This is where most of us have drawn the line. Lieberman has evidently backed down after the public backlash that followed his proposal.

Along with more leeway in the questioning of citizens accused of terrorism, the public needs to continue to be vigilant. The Republicans' criticism that the Obama administration is relying too much on luck in confronting terrorism has some merit. In this case, he was lucky. But Obama has to be credited with dismantling the terrorists capability to conduct large-scale, centrally-directed operations. By using the so-called “lone wolves”, terrorist groups have made the news recently by being dramatically unsuccessful, whether by wearing inoperative exploding underwear, or by putting together a car bomb without proper explosive material. As terrorism expert Jenkins said: “Clearly, there's a quality-control problem.”

In the interest of public safety, President Obama has employed a highly efficient military force overseas, which has the use of modern and efficient equipment such as unmanned Predator drones. But with all the high-tech equipment we're using and billions of dollars we're spending in the fight against terrorism, it was ultimately a handbag vendor and an NYPD cop on horseback who were the first line of defense in Times Square. But if the bomber had been a little more efficient, all hell would have broken out.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

How to balance the budget in the age of exploding underwear

How do you win a war against an enemy that wears exploding underwear? This is just one of the seemingly unanswerable questions faced by President Obama after a turbulent first year in office.

While the deficit is expected to reach $1.6 trillion by 2011, the President's proposed budget would increase military spending next year to $750 billion, up from around $720 billion this year. To put this in perspective, military spending will be 26 times the outlay for humanitarian aid and development assistance and six times the outlay on education.

Government programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, along with military spending, take up pretty much all the tax revenue of the Federal Government. That explains why we won't be returning to the moon anytime soon. While we can put off for a decade or two our need for a Starbucks on the moon, we can't discontinue most other spending, much of which is needed for national security or to keep the economy from collapsing. That is why we are in so much debt to the rest of the world, mostly China. Some things we can't cut: homeland security, unemployment compensation, infrastructure such as roads and bridges, environmental protection and conservation, emergency relief and reconstruction (from natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina), and the judicial and penal systems. Programs such as food stamps and other welfare programs are needed, even though some people would like them to go away.

The best example of gridlock in Washington is the battle for health care reform. Most of those who swept Obama into office were in favor of a major overhaul of the health care system. Even the public option was thought of favorably by a majority of Americans. Even most Republicans agree that the status quo is unsustainable, and others, like Sarah Palin, are just plain misinformed...or worse. She talks of government “death panels” as if she actually believes it. The sad part is that she probably does. Many Americans believe what they hear, especially when it comes from Palin, who is now more of a rock star than a politician. Palin is trying to position herself as the Republican nominee for the 2012 presidential election, but although she has a loyal following, it's not big enough to win.

Comedian/talk-show host Bill Maher has challenged Obama to “stand up for the 70% of Americans who aren't crazy”. I assume he's referring to the other 30% of Americans who support Sarah Palin or listen to Rush Limbaugh. And don't forget those who believe Dick Cheney knows what he's talking about. Maher, though, had harsh words for Obama. He called the current administration “cowards” for not fighting back hard enough against right-wing attacks on everything from end-of-life counseling (i.e. Palin's “death panels”) to Obama's speech to schoolchildren, which the far right warned was an indoctrination to socialism and a viral spread of liberal propaganda.

As for his criticism of Obama, Maher had a point. Obama has said he'd rather be a “really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president." If that's really the case, Maher points out, why is Obama trying so hard to win over his “delusional” critics, the “sentient majority” as Maher calls it. Maher makes a lot of sense, but it is safe to assume it's easier being a comedian/talk-show host than president of the United States.

Obama is the first to agree that his first year in office wasn't a complete success. But even Bill Maher agrees that we would be in a lot worse shape had John McCain and his side-kick Sarah Palin been on the winning side. In this age of government bureaucracy and partisan political in-fighting, there is a lot that Obama has accomplished. The economy, for example, would be in much worse shape had Obama not stepped in with government stimulus money and help for the banking and auto industry. For example, did he move too quickly, not regulating bonuses for bailed out company's executives? As Sarah Palin would say, “You betcha!” But Obama averted something that could have been much worse – a depression, or at least a more severe recession.

A short-term and effective boost to the economy was Obama's $787 billion stimulus package, which included a $288 billion middle-class tax cut, $275 billion to bail out financially strapped states and a large-scale infrastructure plan. Addressing House Republicans at their annual policy caucus in Baltimore on January 29, the President noted: “A lot of you have gone to appear at ribbon cuttings for the same projects you voted against.” As Obama's approval rating declines, it's clear that much of the public isn't paying attention to the Republicans' obstructionism and hypocrisy.

Well into his second year in office, now is the time for Obama to reclaim his popularity. After all, as Bill Maher has said, there are 70% of Americans who aren't crazy. So how does Obama govern from here on?

First, we must answer the question: How do you reduce the deficit without raising taxes? The answer: Apparently you don't.

If Obama truly believes his statement about being a one-term president, he may need to take a cue from George H.W. Bush, who famously said, “Read my lips,” when declaring that he wouldn't raise taxes, and then changed course. Even if we immediately pulled our troops from Afghanistan and Iraq, we'd still be deeply in debt. Health care costs are still spiraling out of control, including Medicare and Medicaid, which could surely be made more efficient. But even in the area of health care reform, where doing nothing isn't really an option, we're fighting an uphill battle. How do you offset the rising bills that are inevitable, given our aging population? The good news is that because of medical advances and new technology, every child born today will have a 50% chance of reaching 100. The bad news is, what happens to Medicare, Social Security and other government services? Even if we reform the core entitlement programs, we're not going to be able to see any substantial savings. Eliminating the infamous earmarks would save less than 1% of the budget deficit.

Obama's campaign pledge of tax cuts for all households earning less than $250,000 per year got a lot of votes. That promise is not feasible if the government is going to bring back some form of fiscal responsibility. There is no way to close the budget deficit by merely cutting waste and taxing the wealthy.

America is living like my 18-year-old son. He's got a good part-time job for $8.00 an hour, but he hits me up for $20 a day for things like food, clothes, headphones and sneakers. He's living beyond his means. He's spending more than he's making, and he'll probably repay me someday when I'm 90 or 100. To complicate matters, he's planning to go to college, but doesn't quite know or care who's going to pay the $53,000 a year in tuition. The only way he can afford his lavish lifestyle is by still living at home. When he leaves for college, it will be a different matter. He'll have to take out student loans, guaranteeing that when he graduates, he'll owe $200,000 plus, and the only thing he'll be guaranteed is his $8.00 an hour job. I guess he won't have enough money to repay me when I'm 90 or 100, so I'm on my own. President Obama is in a better position than my son, however. Not only can he set this country on a path of fiscal responsibility, but he can help college students and the elderly, the two groups most impacted by our country's staggering financial inefficiency.

When our children are older, will they still be dealing with the financial burden of the previous generation? That's a tough question. Obama must make decisions that can somehow be explained to the American people so that they don't start believing the rants of people like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. If Sarah Palin can so eloquently explain the falsehood of “death panels”, why can't the Democrats expose the truth?

Still, the biggest question remains: Does it really take $750 billion to stop a bunch of fanatics who are trying to build a better underwear bomb?