And they’re not married, because? Oh yeah, right…

If you're in the Central New York area, you may have caught the piece back in August about Jeff Kramer donning a Winnie-the-Pooh costume to marry couples at the New York State Fair.

I like Jeff a lot. It's not about his columns – sure, he's funny, and he knows how to stir up trouble (oh the things I'm not allowed to tell you about) – I know him personally. He's a nice guy. Calls me Justin all the time, but I've been called worse. And I'd be saying that even if his hands weren't 18 inches across and he couldn't crush my head like it was a potato chip.

But a letter-writer hit it smack on the nose. Go on, she said, look me in the eye and tell me about the sanctity of marriage.

I was at a wedding this weekend. The officiant was the first one in tears. It was under a minute, by the way. The woman who accompanied me to the wedding had never met either of the couple, and she was crying. During the 10-minute ceremony, there were two rousing ovations, plus a third, standing one.

Of course, they're not married, because this is one of over 40 states and they're both women.

Sure, they own property together, have pets, are talking kids next year, maybe livestock, too. But nope, sorry, while you (quite clearly) love each other, your families and friends are totally gaga over your relationship, and you're even planning on that stuff that's supposed to make marriage sacred, you both have the same equipment, so it doesn't count.

Horseshit.

So, on the way to their honeymoon, they're going to make a stopover and make it legal, and hopefully that will stick – and they'll both be able to do things like, say, visit each other in the hospital and do the parent-teacher conference thing.

Thoughts on Michael Vick

Michael Vick, the quarterback you want on your team if you can't figure out how to get rid of your coach, has finished serving his 23-month federal sentence for running a dog-fighting ring. And now he gets his NFL sentence.

It's not as though he's been out on the field these past two years, but commissioner Roger Goodell has decided that, if he turns out to be the fine, upstanding young man rehabilitated criminals are supposed to turn into, he can start playing long about Week 6 this year.

To put that in perspective, Donte' Stallworth got in a car drunk at 7:00 one morning and hit a construction worker who darted out in the middle of the street, killing him. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter, and served 24 days of a 30-day sentence. Technically, he's suspended from football, but he's expected to play most of the year.

The thinking goes, Vick was running an interstate gambling ring, while Stallworth wasn't really to blame, he probably would have hit the worker even if he was sober. Stallworth is only a few years younger than I am; I'm guessing he had pretty much the same driving instruction I did, which means he spent a lot of time with people yelling, "don't drink and drive!" at him.

Drinking and then getting behind the wheel is pretty close to the worst thing you can do as a human, we were more or less told in driver's ed, high school, youth groups, college, you name it.

I'm not saying Vick's a good guy for fighting pitbulls and killing the weak and the old ones. That's despicable, too. But he's paid a debt to society and to his career. This additional suspension is going to damn this season for him, too.

Anybody willing to spend Michael Vick money probably needs a quarterback now, not in Week 6. Sure, he can practice now, which means a team could sign him and start working with him, but he'd miss the first few games. Enough games to put a team out of it, if they have to go with their second- or third-choice quarterback.

Now that Brett Favre has actually retired (we think), maybe the Vikings would be willing to live with Tarvaris Jackson for a few weeks and then look at Vick to bail them out the rest of the way. I can't see him going anywhere else.

Any team willing to take him would, of course, have to deal with the protests from animal rights groups, who always turn out in force when they're angry. Personally, that's a headache I'm willing to deal with as an owner—sure they're loud, but it's not like they're football fans. Ticket sales aren't going to suffer.

Fighting pitbulls? Bad. Spending 18 months at Leavenworth and another 5 under house arrest? Adequate punishment. Further keeping him out of the career he has made for himself? Really, you're just giving him a month and a half to get back into trouble.

Israel vs. Hamas, round infinity


Daryl Cagle - See more cartoons

I have a long history of bothering friends and relatives by occasionally declaring my support for land-for-peace efforts, and for more often than not, failing to blindly support Israel in offensive maneuvers against its neighbors.

So it may come as a shock to some people that I'm supporting Israel in its current offensive against Hamas in Gaza.

I've been mostly following the action in the Jerusalem Post and Al Jazeera, so I'm getting a fair balance of unbalanced news.

The cool thing I found today, was that the Israeli Consulate General in New York, David Saranga, gave a live Q&A; on Twitter (you don't need an account to read it).

He and his staff will be releasing a FAQ tomorrow, as they got flooded with questions and ran out of time.

There was a protest today in Syracuse, with those turning out largely against the Israeli action against Hamas.

But one commenter takes a good approach:

Allow me to introduce you all to a concept: gray. It's the thousand shades that come between black and white. It's where 99% of human actions and decisions fall.

Most of you are taking a very complex situation and boiling it down to two absurdly simple sides, then choosing one or the other. Have any of you ever tried any of these ridiculous ideas in your own life?

It's a shade of gray that makes me support Israel's offensive here.

Israel pulled out of the Gaza strip – a territory it had occupied since it overcame an attack in 1967 – in 2005. They pulled out enough that the U.N. said they were out of there. That has to be good enough for pretty much everyone.

Hamas was put in control of the territory by a plurality of voters (about 40%).

Hamas does things like build schools, staff hospitals, and train suicide bombers. The U.S., Israel, and others list it as a terrorist organization.

Israel and Hamas agreed on a six-month cease-fire earlier this year, and as the clock wound down on it, Hamas started launching rockets out of Gaza and into Israel, killing several Israeli civilians.

Israel responded by launching an all-out attack, killing hundreds of Hamas operatives and dozens of Palestinian civilians living in Gaza.

But I have to blame Hamas for those civilian deaths.

When Hamas shoots its rockets, it just shoots them into cities, killing whatever happens to get in the way. Most frequently, that would be civilians, who live in cities, while military bases tend to be out of the way.

Meanwhile, Hamas builds its bases among apartment buildings in densely-populated areas, making the civilians who live nearby the next best thing to human shields – a violation of the Geneva Conventions (like they're concerned about that).

If you're not familiar with the concept of a human shield, it's simple. You grab a gun, and you grab a civilian, and you figure the other guy won't shoot at you because they don't want to kill the civilian. If they do, you have a good piece of propaganda to use.

I always feel bad in war. I always feel bad when people die. But I feel worse when a country sits by and takes it, like Israel was forced to do during the first Gulf War. As I remember it, Iraq at that point said that if the U.S. invaded (which it did), it would bomb Israel (which it did), and the U.S. told Israel, "don't worry, we'll take care of this, just if you see a scud missile coming, run."

I have to think that if Israel keeps it up, the people of Gaza will realize it's Hamas' fault, and they will oust their leaders.

Saranga, the Israeli consulate, said that the Israeli government is pro-cease-fire, and that it thinks the only way to go is with a two-state solution.

I think a two-state solution is a great idea, but I don't see it working out: the Palestinian Authority will want Jerusalem (which has holy sites for both Jews and Muslims), and that's just a non-starter. I don't even see Israel giving open passage to Jerusalem.

Is there a solution? I'm not confident there is. Jerusalem has changed hands 24 times in the last (roughly) 2,200 years. The violence hasn't ended, and there's no reason to think it will stop now.

But we can certainly do our best to try to figure out how not to shoot at each other.

The proposed state budget

Governor David Paterson appears to be attempting to make New York a really miserable place to live, in an effort to shore up a $15 billion budget gap.

OK, that's a lot of money, I get it. But among Paterson's proposed measures are 88 new taxes and fees, along with service cuts.

There are some definitely reasonable measures. Upping sin taxes (beer, wine, cigarettes, cigars) and removing the 8-cent-per-gallon gas tax cap, no worries. Upping the auto insurance surcharge from $5 to $10? OK, fine.

But then there's things like...

• Taxes on non-diet sodas, and other "non-nutritious" beverages like juices that aren't really juice (officially, less than 70% juice). You can't really call this an "obesity tax," as some news outlets have dubbed it, because, well, where's ice cream? Cheeseburgers? Bacon? And if you tax non-diet sodas, you get people drinking diet sodas. So, what, they get cancer instead of fat? That will do great things for the health care budget, eh?

• Taxes on services like gym memberships and hair cuts. This might be fine at upscale places, but people will leave gyms if their memberships go up $6 a month (adding weight to the health care problem), and you start pricing people out of some services – if you're generally only willing to pay $15 for a haircut, when taxes send it to $17, you're going to go every other month instead of every month, and your barber will close, meaning a decrease in the business tax base for cities.

• New license plates, which will cost you $25. Why don't you just up the registration fee? Why do I have to stand in line at the registry to exchange my tags, then notify my insurance company, the bank that holds my car loan, and my landlord?

• Raising fees for camping and parks in general and cutting services. Pay more for less? OK, sure!

• Increase fees for fishing licenses by $10 – but only if you're fishing for salmon or trout. Hmmm...if I don't know my fish, will can I catch one by accident?

• New fees for cable TV, satellite TV and satellite radio. I would be in favor of this if these weren't monopoly industries. If there were price competition, it would be easy to swallow an extra $5 or $10 a month (well, maybe $10), but since you pretty much pay $15, $50 or $99 for cable from the local company (at least in this area), you're held hostage for whatever the company wants to charge you to pay those fees.

• Taxes on bus and cab fares. First off, we should be rewarding people for taking public or mass transit, not finding new ways to make money from them. Second, you wind up diminishing public transit services. Centro, the local bus company here, isn't likely to raise their fare to $1.08 per trip, they'll make their rate $0.93 so the sales tax makes the trip $1. And losing even seven cents per passenger means they're going to have some trouble, especially when gas prices go up.

• Taxes on less expensive clothing and shoes. Many states charge a luxury tax for some items (I remember growing up that it was a $70 item you had to pay taxes on in Massachusetts), and in New York, $110 is the demarcation point. You don't pay taxes on on a $109.99 dress, nor on a $3.99 t-shirt. Maybe you lower that threshold to $50 or something, but eliminate it all the way and you have retailers who make their livings on selling $3.99 t-shirts closing up because people are now buying two shirts at a time instead of three, taking away fully a third of their income.

• Taxes on entertainment, like movie tickets, tickets to sporting events, and movie, music and book downloads. I'm sure the anti-piracy firms will love the last bit. When you jack up prices, you encourage stealing of intellectual property.

The budget proposal also includes cuts to SUNY hospitals, increases in tuition at SUNY schools, a removal of a tax incentive to renters in New York City, an eight-fold increase in the cost of taking a civil service exam, and large increases in professional fees for certifications for physicians, lawyers, social workers and others.

And for just a brief second, let's talk about one of upstate's big problems: Brain Drain. Do you see that list of stuff up there? A lot of it hurts younger folks, and that means that once they finish high school or college, they're gone, to some place they can afford to live.

I don't think this budget is going to pass in this form, but if it does, I think we're going to start seeing more problems at ground level – more housing foreclosures, more businesses closing up shop, more people leaving the state.

At some point you have to realize, it's not just a hole in the state budget, it's a hole in people's pockets, and holes in people's pockets means holes in New York – as a whole.

Poverty isn’t just someone else’s problem

Today is Blog Action Day, a day when bloggers band together to hit on one topic. This year: poverty.

I'm going to focus on poverty in the U.S., because, well, I can't begin to imagine what it looks like in other countries. Countries that might be considered "underdeveloped," "developing" or, God help them, "poor."

We don't eliminate poverty in the U.S. until these three things happen:

(1) People recognize the sources and cycles of poverty
(2) People who aren't suffering realize poverty is their problem, too
(3) The federal government grows a brain about realistic guidelines

Let's look at item #3 first.

Federal minimum wage is $6.55 an hour, and goes up to $7.25 an hour next July.

If you work 40 hours per week, 52.5 weeks per year, at minimum wage, right now you're pulling in $13,755 now, and you'll be pulling down $15,225 next year.

According to this year's poverty level guidelines (PDF), right now you'd be below the poverty line for a family of two; next year you'd be above that, but below the line for a family of three.

Let's assume that someone making minimum wage pays no taxes. None.

Let's take John McCain's word that $5,000 will cover your health insurance.

Let's say you pay $500 in rent.

Let's say you drive a used car that you're paying $150 a month for.

Let's say you fill your gas tank once a week for $25 per week, and you skimped on the auto insurance so you're paying $50 a month.

Let's figure your heat and stove are electric, so you're averaging about $50 in utility bills all year round.

Everybody get $15,300? Have you eaten yet? Put down a co-pay on a doctor's bill or a prescription? Bought any clothes?

OK, maybe the car is a luxury, so let's knock of the $3,000 in car-related expenses.

But let's add $40 a month in bus fare and $10 a week in cab fare, since you can't load all your groceries onto the bus.

OK, so now we're at $13,300 in expenses for one person – again, we haven't eaten yet, we haven't been to the doctor, and we're still naked (not to mention sleeping on the floor).

The federal government's poverty guidelines says one person needs to make $10,400 a year to live. We've just racked up nearly $3,000 more than that, and we haven't even done some basics.

And if you're a single parent raising a kid? Forget about it.

Yes, there are social programs available, but they're getting cut left and right, and things are going to continue that way.

Minimum wage jobs tend not to have paid sick days, personal days or vacation. So, people working them are putting excess stress on their immune systems and are encouraged not to have any sort of family life. And if you're not emotionally strong enough to handle that? Too bad.

So people working minimum wage jobs tend to have little job security, and they bounce from minimum wage job to minimum wage job.

They see others around them – friends, parents, neighbors – doing the same thing, and don't learn how to break out of that rhythm or cycle.

#2 is a big one, too. People who don't consider themselves victims of poverty, have to lose the "I'm doing OK, why can't they?" attitude.

Everything from accidents of birth to circumstance to bigotry helps to keep a cycle of poverty going, and if you can't see that, maybe you need to spend a week actually walking in someone else's shoes.

Walk 6 miles to work one day because you spent the $2 bus fair on a can of beans and a pound of rice so you could eat for three days. Heck, keep your other comforts and consume only a can of beans and a pound of rice for three days – drink only tap water, give up the morning coffee and forget happy hour.

Figure out how you'd live if had to choose between paying your electric bill and your doctor bill, and when you've made that choice understand that your resulting bad credit keeps you from getting a checking account, so you have to carry around whatever cash you earn. Do your best not to get robbed, when everyone else around you could really use a sandwich.

You might complain about your taxes taking away your ability to live comfortably, but without taxes, governments can't provide services. No services means more poverty, especially if we're not going to regulate the industries everyone needs – insurance, pharmaceutical, etc.

Poverty is everybody's problem – yours, mine, the CEO of your company's, and yes (as the general election approaches), government's as well.

Wise up.

CNY Speaks: Second forum

I wrote yesterday about the first CNY Speaks forum Thursday, and then I went off to the second incarnation Sunday afternoon.

I'm starting to see these forums as interesting, necessary evils.

Don't get me wrong – just like the first one, there were a lot of interesting people with tons of good ideas in the room, but the action plan on this is to have public forums with candidates for mayor, common council and county legislature in the spring, ahead of the 2009 local elections.

That feels like a long way off, and we need some change now.

Sunday's incarnation was smaller, with about 40 people in the crowd.

I sat at a table with a young artist and two retirees, one of whom is actively involved with (or leads, maybe?) the CNY Public Art Forum, which hopes to get a public art space open in downtown Syracuse.

As with Thursday, our two top issues were public perception of downtown and storefront development.

Moving the bus hub also came up, for the second time, as did cutting red tape for potential small business owners.

I still think I'm getting something out of going to these, even if, at least at my seat, we're talking about some of the same issues: it's different people, with different ideas and different desires.

Action items for me include writing letters to Centro, the development committee and the MOST to think about moving the bus hub up to the old trolley ramp behind the museum. I think the MOST will get on board because it gives them more visibility, and since it's already an existing structure, the city won't have to enforce its eminent domain taking of the Red Cross building.

Sean Kirst also showed up to this one; here is his take.

CNY Speaks

The local newspaper, The Post-Standard, several months ago appointed Greg Munno to the position of Civic Engagement editor.

His first task was to launch a blog called CNY Speaks.

His second task was to create a series of public forums to discover what people felt would help improve downtown.

The first of the three forums was Thursday evening. It drew about 90 people. The goal was to get them talking about the results of a survey (PDF) that outlined some of the issues people had with downtown.

We were distributed at registration into tables. I sat with two real estate agents, an employee at an architecture firm, owners of two downtown businesses, a reporter (there as a citizen), someone who has had trouble opening a downtown business, and a retiree who is an advocate for various causes.

Also in the crowd were other reporters-as-citizens, developers, at least one person from Adapt CNY, and a bunch of other people who had bright ideas about what we could do with downtown.

Not in the crowd: Mayor Matt Driscoll, any member of the Syracuse Common Council, or people with overarching negative ideas about downtown.

For me, while the large attendance was a big success, those absences were a big problem.

There's a second go at the forum today (Sunday) at 2 p.m., and a third Tuesday at 6 p.m. I'm going today, and if there's a significantly different crowd with different ideas today than there was Thursday, I'll also go Tuesday.

My concern, though, is that we're in danger of ending up with a lot of good ideas, a great series in the newspaper, and nothing in the way of implementation.

For me, what could vastly improve downtown is a change in public perception. Sure, there are vacant store fronts, and more businesses downtown would certainly bring people. So would affordable housing – I'm sorry, but $1,250-per-month lofts don't fly when you're trying to attract young professionals in a market where they're lucky to make $30,000 a year.

But let's face it. One of the things people are most concerned about is safety, because they read about a lot of crime. They don't read far enough into the story to understand that most of that crime happens when drunk people are wandering the streets between 1 and 4 a.m. I'm not exactly an imposing figure, and I walked from Armory Square to the Hotel Syracuse (10 blocks or so) with a laptop on my shoulder to get to the forum. I never questioned my safety.

Could downtown use more people? Absolutely. Can we do it without public officials and an action plan? Absolutely not.

Who will step up? They might have my vote in 2009 local races.

Tearing down Interstate 81

If you've managed to jump around blog-to-blog with me, you know that taking down the elevated portion of I-81 between I-690 and I-481 is one of big things.

People have to understand that the bridges either need expensive shoring up or expensive taking down, so it's not like it's a project that's coming out of nowhere.

The Onondaga Citizens League has started a blog (h/t to Greg Munno), and their first case study is I-81.

They start with some history, which is really instructive for me. I didn't grow up here, and at any rate, even if I did, I wouldn't remember the end of the Erie Canal and what that meant for the city.

There used to be rail service down Washington Street, and it was really difficult for people at street level – and not real safe, considering some of the cargo.

One solution was to consider elevated tracks. But people were adamantly against that. It would divide the city, they argued.

That's exactly why elevated tracks weren't built, and exactly what happened when the interstate was.

Huh.

If I had my way, frankly, we'd rip up Washington Street and Salina Street, not allow cars on them, and restore passenger rail service to the old Syracuse & Utica rails that are still buried throughout the city.

We'd continue to run the freight trains where they are now, but turn the north-south corridor and the east-west corridor through the city into mass transit and pedestrian ways. With two-to-four trains running per hour on each corridor (depending on the time of day), I bet ridership could be huge. A couple of elevated walkways would solve the crossing-the-street problem, and trains aren't really any louder than buses, trucks and other traffic.

The other piece to the puzzle is University Hill, which is entirely cut off from downtown, thanks to I-81 (and don't give me that "why don't people just walk under the highway?" crap; it's seriously unsafe). A study was finished last year assessing the needs of the university area, particularly as concerns bike and foot traffic (PDF).

Imagine if all the Syracuse University and SUNY ESF students were able to easily patronize business in other areas – and people in the rest of the city were easily able to patronize the Marshall Street businesses without fighting with university parking?

Wow.

There apparently is already a group dedicated to taking down freeways, and they outline challenges and successes.

If you want to get involved locally, watch the the SMTC's I-81 Web site for news, including some citizen forums.