20 November 2007

A frightening look inside the mind of government

The web already groans under the weight of political blogs representing every viewpoint (and paranoid fantasy) imaginable. One day I may be unable to resist the temptation to bring politics to this particular corner of the 'net but this post is simply intended to identify and analyze.

The DMV ranks right up there with the dentist's office on the list of unpopular destinations. The waits are (over)long, the staff range from surly to unhelpful to preachy to threatening.

Most people don't realize it but the DMV provides an excellent case study of how government views citizens and/or taxpayers (and make no mistake - a license is a form of taxation) and how government views itself. Licenses and registration may have the dreaded good intentions behind them (sorting out accidents, solving crimes and ensuring unsafe vehicles stay off the roads) but the implementation and administration of these rules has devolved into the usual bureaucratic boondoggle.

A breakdown:

A) Staff - plentiful government holidays and benefits aside, what type of person is drawn to a job that involves the daily incessant quoting of arcane rules and regulations and a guarantee that 99% of the public doesn't want to be there in the first place? The DMV teems with overgrown hall monitors and petty control freaks. No doubt they are worn down by having to repeat information and instructions day after day but I always pose the same question to other surly "service" types such as receptionists, bank tellers and cashiers - you knew what the job would entail from day one. If you don't want to deal with the public then why are you here?

B) Administration - is there any? Those are nice pictures of the governor and commissioner(s) on the wall but who is minding the store here in the real world? I suppose the most revealing anecdote is that one individual was assigned to ask questions and enter data on a terminal - DESPITE THE FACT THAT HE COULDN'T TYPE AND USED A PENCIL ERASER TO HUNT AND PECK ON HIS KEYBOARD. It doesn't require a Lee Iacocca or Steve Jobs to pair skills with duties does it? Even in civil service?

C) Organization - a Catholic High Mass doesn't involve this much standing and sitting (no kneeling but don't worry they will force that on you one day). Many state DMVs have eliminated lines (but not waits) by using the take-a-number system. Psychologically one is supposed to feel that his visit is a priority but of course that illusion is broken quickly when one observes the dance steps forced upon others that precede him. Let's use a simple driver's license renewal to count the steps:

1 - enter and approach information counter. Take number.
2 - sit and wait
3 - approach window to pay fees - sorry, taxes
4 - sit and wait
5 - pose for license photograph
6 - sit and wait
7 - obtain license

Keen-eyed readers will note that sitting and waiting is the primary activity. Also note that many DMV 'customers' are often forced to return to their vehicles or even their homes to obtain documentation. The DMV is especially fond of a certain kind of bureaucratese that says nothing but takes 500 words to do so. Instead of providing a simple checklist they often bury essential information or steps in fine print - providing plenty of unwanted surprises and delays for taxpayers.

Finally, the prerequisites for many licenses, permits, endorsements and titles are revealing indeed. For a driver's license renewal one must prove state residence - despite the fact that he is holding a currently valid license, which means he's already proven it at least once! Over HALF of this so-called proof involves some form of being on the government dole. In other words, government is so convinced of its own benevolence and pervasiveness in everyday life that it assumes the rest of the world shares its perception of itself.

Except for paying taxes, for many people the DMV is the only direct involvement they have with government. For their time, money and trouble most people receive that especially annoying American brand of false politeness that barely masks contempt and open hostility. It is a lopsided cat-and-mouse game combined with convoluted procedures that would make Rube Goldberg hang his head in shame.

The next time you watch the pantomime of the inefficient appearing daily at your state's DMV ask yourself: isn't it probable that other government departments that you CAN'T see operate this way?

13 November 2007

The best rivalry

It's amusing to watch the "which rivalry is best?' contests staged every year by ESPN and the usual suspects - in reality they are nothing more than advertising blurbs since the contest is "sponsored" by some megabrewer pushing their latest horrible-tasting mass-produced concoction.

You might call it a rivalry between rivalries except it's not. The best/strongest/most intense rivalry is Michigan-Ohio State (Ohio State-Michigan if you prefer) and as sports talk radio is wont to say "it's not even close."

What is required for a strong rivalry?
1) A large, insanely loyal fan base. When you have two huge Big Ten institutions the students and alumni alone provide an ample population. Throw in the majority of residents in each respective Rust Belt state and you have two opposing armies with "foreign legions" in every state and every corner of the world.

2) Two unique identities. The schools, the states and the people provide enough of a contrast but the Woody-Bo years intensified the rivalry and made it forever strong.

3) Success outside the rivalry. Other rivalries have teams with plenty of underwhelming seasons, including Alabama (say the words Shula or Dubose and watch them twitch violently), Auburn, Stanford, Cal, Pitt, West Virginia, and of course Army and Navy. Ohio State and Michigan might have 10 lean years combined since 1960. Appalachian State and Illinois notwithstanding OSU and UM find themselves in contention for the Big Ten title yet again.

4) Transcending the sport. Let's push Auburn-Alabama to the top of the list for a moment. The biggest drag on this rivalry is its intrastate nature. Oh sure there's more than enough banter, bitterness and outright hate to fuel a year-round feud but the fan bases must interact on a daily basis. And...the football game is always the most important thing in AU-UA. Michigan-Ohio State transcends the sport because it engenders/perpetuates dislike between two entire states. Apocryphal stories about Woody Hayes pushing his car south across the border so he wouldn't have to buy gas in Michigan aside, a Michigander meeting an Ohioan (and vice versa) will elicit a squint and a size-em-up reflex every time. When either visits other states, even foreign countries they are asked about the rivalry. Doesn't happen with any of the rest (although Cal/Stanford fans may still be asked about the Lateral Game).

Thus Ohio State-Michigan wins almost by default. It has too many advantages and almost no disadvantages. In successful years (i.e., national contention) Michigan's interest has occasionally wavered as they faced a Notre Dame or another tough out-of-conference opponent but during the leaner years they certainly look forward to the OSU game as a chance for redemption or simply spoiling another's parade. Ohio State could play the New England Patriots for the first 11 games of the season but their focus would still be on Michigan (just ask John Cooper). That is obsession. That is monomania. That is passion. That is a rivalry.

01 November 2007

New bands and the paradox of the music mags

Say this for British music mags Q and Mojo: they love a good myth.

In fact they sometimes appear to love mythology more than music itself. Mojo has all but exhausted the Beatles individually and collectively. There can't be an album, a period or a member left who hasn't gone under the microscope. While the amount of detail on offer is fascinating it can occasionally be depressing since the events chronicled are 30-40 years old.

Oasis were a godsend to these mags - a quintessentially British band with enough humor, menace and top-shelf songs to generate dozens of stories, news items and covers.

For the last few years Mojo and particularly Q have taken to slagging their former heroes off whenever the opportunity arises. Celebrity questionnaires (as if we're bothered what Noel Edmonds is listening to) include snarky items such as "Oasis: do you still care?"

Of course the British music press have been looking for the next Beatles since 1965 and naturally they have come up empty. Their MO is to find just-signed and even unsigned bands and build them as the next big thing. If the band complies via record sales and live appearances then the mags go along for the ride, hype machine in full effect mode. Those bands who fail to meet the high standard set by Oasis, Arctic Monkeys or the Stone Roses are thrown out with the rubbish a year or so later only to appear in mocking "What went wrong?" retrospectives a few years down the line. It's all great fun but do the mags really understand that their no-stone-unturned approach has the potential to interfere with the organic rise and fall of bands? In other words, a scriptwriter can't be a historian simultaneously. Bring on the details but give these poor lads a chance to breathe.