Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Hail to the (mmm-mmms)!

If you've been paying attention to the news, you might be aware that a panel from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's Trademark Trial and Appeal Board has ordered the cancellation of several federal trademark registrations that belong to the corporation that owns the Washington NFL team.

For more than 80 years, that team has used the nickname "Redskins."  For much of that time, the franchise has made significant use of Native American* imagery.  Its helmet logo includes the profile of an Indian chief.  Its cheerleaders have, at times, been referred to as the "Redskinettes,"** and have worn the "native garb" of a cartoonish squaw. Its marching band--the only one of its kind in the NFL, if memory serves--wore feathered headdresses for many years.

* - I have usually opposed the use of the term "Native American" when what is meant is "Indian," not because "Indian" is better--it's worse--but because "Native American" really ought to refer to people who are born here regardless of race.  It is much better to use the name of the individual tribe, in my view, but sometimes that's not possible.  I really like the term they use in Canada--"First Nations person," which manages to be sufficiently generic to be useful while being respectful and descriptive as well.  But "Native American" seems to be the preferred term, so I'll use it.

** - A term that is even more epically offensive than its root.

From a technical standpoint, this decision is a lot of flash and very little substance.  The TTAB, which is what we trademark lawyers call it, has the power to cancel trademark registrations.  But the cancellation of a trademark registration does not obligate the owner to stop using the trademark.  Neither does it make it possible in any real sense for someone else to use that trademark without repercussions.  In fact, I am hard-pressed in this case to find any real hardship that this decision will have for the Washington NFL team.

The reason for that is that trademark rights are obtained primarily through use of the trademark.  Most people are familiar with the concept of "common-law" marriage (still legal in nine states and D.C.):  A man and woman living together as husband and wife in those states are considered legally married even if they did not obtain a marriage license.  Similarly, a person or business can obtain trademark rights by simply using a trademark, even without getting a formal registration--and, by the way, that's true in all 50 states.

Registration is optional.  Getting a federal registration for your trademark is a good idea, because a federal registration will allow you certain advantages and presumptions.  For example, you can sue infringers in federal court without any difficulty.  (Being in federal court is often an advantage in intellectual property cases, because the judges tend to be more informed about intellectual property issues.)  Registration also gives you the presumptive right to use the mark in all 50 states, whereas your common-law rights only extend to the geographic areas where you actually use the mark.

For the Washington NFL team, that means that the common-law rights they have likely extend to every geographic area in the U.S., because their games are regularly broadcast everywhere.  So these registrations--and their cancellation--are mostly symbolic.

Some commentators have expressed dismay that the government can cancel a trademark registration because it is offensive.  But the USPTO routinely refuses registrations (and occasionally cancels ones that are already issued) because they consist of or comprise:

immoral, deceptive, or scandalous matter; or matter which may disparage or falsely suggest a connection with persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute[.]
That language is from section 2(a) of the Trademark Act of 1946.  An attorney I used to work with once had to deal with a refusal to register his client's mark because it included "immoral, deceptive, or scandalous matter."  The mark was for a nightclub in Charlotte, the name of which was "Ira G. Phartz."  My colleague managed to convince the examiner that the name was not pronounced like that and got a registration through.

Anyway, as the TTAB held, the term "REDSKINS," even when used as a trademark in connection with a football team, is indeed offensive to, and disparaging of, Native Americans.  I am in complete agreement.  The word is a racial slur, even if the people who use it aren't intending it as such.  It is long past time for the Washington NFL team to find some other name, just as numerous other teams have done.  We need only look to fair Jonesboro, Arkansas, and Arkansas State University, which dumped its "Indians" mascot a few years ago in favor of "Red Wolves," and the result has been very positive for them.

I'm not a particular fan of the Washington NFL team, although I did follow them when I lived there and for some time after.  But I have followed the Atlanta Braves for 32 seasons.  I don't find "Braves" to be disparaging, although there are some aspects of the imagery historically used at Braves games--Chief Noc-a-homa, I'm looking at you--that are pretty much as bad, and some aspects, like the tomahawk chop and the accompanying cheer, that are close enough to the line, if not over it, that they really ought to be abandoned.

I would fully support a name change for the Braves.

And for the Washington NFL team, it's a no-brainer.

In fact, it would probably be a huge moneymaker, as fans buy merch bearing the new logo.

I suspect that for Dan Snyder, the owner of the team, it's really more about ego.  More than anything, he seems to resent being pressured to change the name.  I have never understood the mindset that causes some people to dig in their heels when confronted with their bad behavior.  I have always been willing to excuse the missteps of others because they may not have realized they were causing offense, but decent human beings change their behavior when they realize it is harming others. Time is running out for Dan Snyder to prove he deserves that label.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Are you ready for some football?

So the 2014 FIFA World Cup kicked off this week in Brazil.  That's "soccer" for us Americans, but "football" for most of the rest of the world, and "footie" if you were in "Trainspotting."  The word "soccer" comes from the formal name of the game, "association football," which makes our word for it not incorrect, just out of favor in places where they are mad for football.

The World Cup tournament is played in two parts.  There are 32 national teams, most of whom went through a complicated series of qualifying matches to win the right to get to Brazil.  Those 32 teams were then arranged into eight groups of four, mostly along geographic lines, but also taking into account the expected quality of the participating teams.  Each group plays a round-robin schedule.  Teams get 3 points for a win, 1 point for a draw, and no points for a loss.  The two teams from each group with the highest point totals then move to the "knockout" stage, a conventional single-elimination tournament that culminates in the World Cup Final.

The Final will be watched live by about one in every ten human beings on the planet.  In fact, the average human being watches about three and a half World Cup matches every four years (the cumulative television audience in 2006, for example, was more than 26 billion viewers).

If you watch all 128 hours, you'll only want to cut off your arm.
There will be 64 matches, 48 in the group stage and 16 knockout stage matches, including the third-place game (between the two losing semifinalists). Since each match takes about 2 hours to play, that means the tournament will consume about 128 hours of time, a figure that invites a comparison with a certain James Franco film.

Americans are mad for football--the kind with pads and helmets and lots of hitting and falling down--and most of us view soccer as something you take your kids to play on Saturday morning.  But it's growing in popularity, even though the people responsible for soccer's rules seem bent on making it as foreign to American audiences as possible.  For example, unlike every other timed sport in the U.S., in soccer, the clock counts up, and it never stops, even if there is a gory injury on the field or naked men run onto the field, events that happen with some regularity in foreign venues.  Instead, some official keeps track of how much time was wasted with the more exciting non-soccer parts of the match, and they just add a few minutes onto the end of the half.  Nobody knows how much time will be added until the end, and even then the whistle blows at some apparently arbitrary time after the added time has elapsed.

One of the reasons why soccer isn't very popular is because there isn't a lot of scoring.  To the untrained eye, most of the times it looks like the players aren't very good because they can't get the ball in the net, and half the time when a goal is scored it appears to be mostly accidental.  Don't worry--it looks that way to the trained eye, too.

But a hardy and growing band of hipster and hipster-adjacent Americans insists on liking the sport, despite--or perhaps because of--its heavy anti-American slant.  They point out our proud soccer heritage.  Did you know that the U.S. won the first-ever World Cup match (actually one of two played simultaneously, I assume not on the same field), a stunning 3-0 victory over Belgium?  We may have peaked that year, reaching the semifinals, only to have our patriotic hearts ripped out by Argentina, 6-1.

And we actually have a reasonably good professional club league going.  Major League Soccer is growing in popularity, it's profitable, and its average attendance exceeds both the NBA and the NHL (although, to be fair, there are a lot fewer MLS matches than in the NBA and NHL).  Part of the reason for that is that the Latino population is growing, but it's also true that millions of today's Americans--young adults to middle-agers--played soccer as kids.

Apparently whatever FIFA official the group draw decided that soccer's just a bit too popular in America, because this time out, we've drawn Germany, Portugal, and Ghana.  Only two of those teams will advance.  Germany is a perennial favorite.  Portugal has Cristiano Ronaldo, widely regarded as the world's best player.  Cristiano Ronaldo receives 21 million euros (about $28.5 million) per year from his club team, Real Madrid (the best-known and richest team in the Spanish La Liga and, in fact, probably the most valuable sports franchise in the world), and last year for the second time won the Ballon d'Or, the FIFA award given to the best individual player in the world.  So at least we know whom we have to take out.

And Ghana.  We have history with Ghana, and it's not good.  In 2006, Ghana defeated the U.S. 2-1 in the last game of group play, denying us the opportunity to move to the knockout round.  And in 2010, our best chance in a long time to make a deep run in the tournament, after the U.S. beat England Algeria (sorry about that) on a miracle stoppage time goal to win our group and advance, Ghana defeated the U.S. 2-1 in the Round of 16, the first game of the knockout round, to end our tournament early.

I'm not expecting much from this team.  We'll have a hard time even earning a draw in any of these games.  But stranger things have happened.  So I'll be watching Monday evening.

Friday, June 13, 2014

An ordinary day

In a couple of days, my dad and I will celebrate our 38th Father's Day.  We'll eat grilled chicken and vegetables--we're both on a bit of a health kick lately, which we both need--and we'll talk about politics and what's going on in our lives, and about trivia, which is one of our common interests.  We'll probably have the U.S. Open on in the background.  We might play guitars and sing old songs.

I don't believe in luck per se, but my whole life I have benefited from circumstances that were not of my doing.  So much of how we end up in life is controlled by where we start.  I was born to parents who were ambitious enough to work hard to provide a good life for me and my brother, but well grounded enough that they knew who we were as we grew up. 

My parents are smart and kind people.  They gave the appearance of being entirely focused on us, whether that was actually true or not.  Their social lives revolved around ours.  We ate dinner together nearly every night at a time when it would have been easy for one or the other of them to have better things to do.

Then again, maybe they didn't have better things to do.  Maybe there aren't better things than having dinner with your family.

And they stayed together.  My generation was the first to experience being, on a widespread basis, the children of divorced parents.  One of the hard things for me about seeing criticism of the Baby Boom generation--the "Me" generation--is how unfair a descriptor it is for my own parents, who are the opposite of that. 

Growing up, I never had a curfew.  My parents had a different philosophy.  The rule was, "tell us where you're going to be, who you're going to be with, and when you're going to be home, and if any of that changes, call."  I remember thinking that it was a tremendous act of trust on their part, but I think now it was more about knowing me.  My mother once remarked that she always knew what flavor of ice cream I would choose.  It's not much of a stretch to think that she knew what my other choices would be. 

I don't think they ever missed a single game I ever played--baseball, football, basketball, or soccer--or for that matter, a concert I played or sang in, or a play I acted in, or anything else important that I was involved in.  It was an enormous expenditure of time and effort.  Most of the time, in sports, my dad was coaching--and he was a great coach, just the right combination of teacher, athlete, and fan.  Through sports, my dad taught me some important things--lessons I've carried and applied my whole life.  The most important one is that it only takes a little more effort to be first class.  You spend a little more time in the batting cage.  You hustle a little more.  Or you proofread that brief one more time. "Good enough" isn't "good enough" until you're sure you've given it 100%.

It didn't hurt that sports interested me, or that I was mostly good at them, but I got the impression that it didn't matter what kinds of things I chose to enjoy; Dad would be there, no matter what.

About a year ago, Michelle and I moved back to Arkansas full time.  We were tired of being so far from family and friends, and of never having time to make a life where we were.  But mostly it was time to come home to be nearer to our parents, to see them more often while we can.

He's getting older, my dad.  He just had cataract surgery on his right eye.  (Amazing surgery, by the way; for the first time in my memory, he won't be wearing a corrective lens in that eye.)  Years of football--he was a scholarship player in college--caused his knees to wear out early.  I'm hoping he's about at the point where he's ready to have them replaced.  When he does, and when he's ready, the first thing I want to do is play catch, just like we used to do when I was 9.  That will be a great day.

But the truth is that it will also be an average day.  We talk by phone several times a week.  I visit him, he visits me.  We do things together.  We're friends, and we like spending time together.

Not everyone has a father like mine.  Some fathers leave.  Some fathers die.  Some are so emotionally distant, or drunk, or absent, or harsh, that they might as well be gone.  Father's Day sort of celebrates all of them, and by doing so makes itself a silly, nothing holiday--a Hallmark-card travesty. 

But we'll get together, my dad and me, on that silly, nothing holiday, and we'll hug, and we'll enjoy a meal together, and we'll watch other people exercise, and it will mean something to both of us.  And I'm fortunate that it will be just like any other ordinary day.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Getting my hands dirty

Last November, my parents bought a new SUV, and rather than get next to nothing for their old one on the trade-in, they gave it to Michelle and me. 

That left us with three vehicles for two people, so we planned to sell our 2004 Ford Explorer.  The Explorer must have been listening, because a couple of days later, the Service Engine Soon light came on.  The friendly people at AutoZone checked the code for us, and the problem is something to do with the Exhaust Gas Recirculation Valve.

Before I get into the specifics of that repair, let me say, by the way, that the 2004 Ford Explorer XLT, with the 4.0L V6 engine, has been rated by several organizations that rate vehicles as one of the worst vehicles ever made.  The engineering of this particular vehicle is a model of incompetency--or, if your goal is to have the vehicle put into the shop for as much time as possible, for as much money as possible, then it was designed by a savant.

For example, the air conditioning system contains two separate features that (a) break easily and (b) require a minimum of 10 hours (if you are a professional, or two weeks if you are not) to replace.  One of those features is the door that opens or closes to let fresh air into the A/C system.  That door likes to break off and fall down, where it blocks the blower, rendering the entire system worthless.  You have to take the dash off to replace that door.

We jerry-rigged* a repair on that last summer, which took us about 4 hours total.  It's not a perfect repair, and we have full-time recirculation, but it works.

* - The term "jerry-rigged" is a Britishism, born during World War II, that referred to hastily repaired equipment that the Brits encountered as the Germans retreated.  ("Jerry" is a somewhat derisive term used by the British to refer to Germans.)  Some authorities believe that the term was a blend of "Jerry-built" (a similar term that referred to equipment that was poorly engineered to begin with) and "jury-rig," a sailing term that refers to the jury mast on a sailboat.  It is somewhat ironic that the Germans have developed a reputation today for solid engineering.

This latest problem, however, is an excellent example of good intentions gone bad.  Exhaust gas recirculation, which was first implemented in the 1960s, is supposed to aid in fuel economy and burn efficiency by circulating exhaust gases back through the combustion chamber.  The theory is that those gases contain unburned fuel, and recirculating the gases through the combustion gives the engine a second chance to burn that fuel.

On this vehicle, when the EGR valve goes bad, the entire powertrain system goes into "limp" mode.  That means that the engine loses significant power and the fuel economy gets cut by up to 50%.

In most vehicles, the EGR system includes an EGR valve and a sensor called a Differential Pressure Feedback EGR sensor, which monitors the content of the exhaust gases and adjusts the EGR for maximum efficiency.  When there is a problem with this system, sometimes it's the valve itself, but most of the time, it's the sensor that goes bad.  The reason for this is that valves are hardy components, while sensors contain sensitive electronics that go bad easily under tough conditions.  In most vehicles, the sensor costs about $30 and takes about 15 minutes to swap out, while the valve costs about $60 and takes about 30 minutes to swap out.

In the 2004 Ford Explorer XLT, however, some jackleg in the engineering department decided it would be a good idea to combine these parts into one part.  If one aspect of it fails, the whole thing has to be replaced.  This combined part costs $132 list (although you can get an OEM replacement for about $85).  The kicker, though, is that rather than putting it in an easily accessed location, it's hidden behind the throttle body (which has to be removed to access the EGR), and on top of that, the bolts that attach it to the intake manifold point toward the front of the engine compartment--in other words, you have to access them from behind the engine, near the firewall.

This turns a 15- or 30-minute repair into a 3-hour project (under the best of conditions).

Between the holidays, severe cold weather, my surgery, and my recent back troubles, we have not gotten around to fixing this problem--something we deemed necessary before we could sell the vehicle.  But this week, I decided to pick up the problem and try to get it solved.

After gathering the necessary tools, today I opened the hood and began disconnecting the throttle body.  Because it has never been removed, that was a challenge.  I did finally get it removed.  What I found inside was beyond disgusting--a solid 1/8-inch layer of carbon soot coating the engine side.  But I did get that cleaned up and set aside, and it looks brand new.

The next task was to remove the EGR valve.  I managed to get through the first two steps before a storm came.  I may get back to it this afternoon if the weather allows it.

When I tell people that I work on my own vehicles, they often ask me why.  After all, why not put that time to more profitable use by working on other projects, and leave the automotive work to the professionals?  I could do that, but there is just something about getting my hands dirty, about figuring out a problem and fixing it myself, that gives me a great deal of satisfaction. 

At least until I hit a snag.  I've got my fingers crossed.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

No soldier left behind

If there was any doubt as to the depth of the irrational, unremitting hatred the Republicans feel for President Obama--and there really shouldn't have been--the events of the last few days should have put that to bed.

It should have also put to bed any belief that the Republicans have respect for the military.

A few days ago, the White House announced that it had secured the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, a soldier who disappeared about five years ago from his barracks in Afghanistan, from Taliban authorities.  The price was the release of five men whom the U.S. had been holding at Guantanamo on suspicion of supporting terrorism. 

Exactly how Bergdahl came to be captured is a matter of some dispute.  He contends that he fell behind while on patrol and was taken.  The Taliban, in a propaganda video, alleged that he was taken in an ambush after becoming drunk off-base.  Others in his unit have alleged that he simply walked away from his post, unarmed, and accused him of desertion.

A few days before he disappeared, Bergdahl had written an email to his parents in which he expressed disillusionment with the Army and its internal politics and twice expressed that he was "ashamed to be an American."  Some have speculated that Bergdahl was despondent following the combat death of Lt. Brian Bradshaw, an officer in Bergdahl's battalion, who was the first casualty that battalion had suffered in Afghanistan.

The noise and outrage machine is presently cranked up to 11, spewing out GOP propaganda designed to denigrate Bergdahl for political purposes as a mechanism for their continued Obama-hate. 

The prisoners Obama ordered released had been senior Taliban officials.  None of them could be tried for the crimes they allegedly committed, because the government lacked evidence; they were being held as enemy combatants and probably would have had to be released when the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan later this year anyway.  Instead, they were furloughed to Qatar, which agreed to hold them for another year.

The manner in which this prisoner exchange was carried out ought to be subject to scrutiny.  There are legitimate questions about whether the exchange violates a law that requires 30 days' notice to Congress before the transfer of any prisoner from Guantanamo.  That law is probably unconstitutional because it interferes with the President's ability to discharge his duties as commander-in-chief.  POW camps--which Guantanamo must be; that's the only way even arguably that it could be maintained legally--are squarely within the purview of the President as a military function.  But it was at least a technical violation of the law.

But the GOP has it wrong on this one.  Whether you believe Bergdahl was taken because he was careless or unlucky, or because he deserted his post, and no matter what Bergdahl might have said about his situation in an unguarded moment while under significant stress, the simple fact remains that he is an American soldier.  We do not leave American soldiers behind on the battlefield, no matter the circumstances.  It is inexcusable for Republicans to suggest that the right thing, the moral thing, the American thing would be to leave Bergdahl to rot there.  That is never the right choice.

If Bergdahl did something that contributed to his capture, in violation of law or orders, then by all means, the military should discipline him.  Give him a dishonorable discharge, or throw him in the stockade if necessary.  But you don't leave him to live and die in Afghanistan.

In a broader sense, though, this is just one more data point in the mounting case against the GOP's military bona fides.   GOP leaders are quick to demand military action, and they give the impression that they care little about the impact that action has on those who are deployed.  When those servicemen and servicewomen return from war, they find endless budget cuts, little help in transitioning to civilian life, a medical system that offers them long waits for care, and little hope for change.  Instead of providing sufficient funding to fulfill the promise we make to our servicemen and servicewomen regarding medical care, their solution is to privatize the VA--apparently out of ignorance of how private-sector medical care works.

(Hint:  There are long waits for care in the private sector, too.  When I needed a procedure to deal with a ruptured disk in my back, the first available appointment was 8 weeks away.)

And when they can use members of the military to score political points--to the point at which they engage in character assassination to get there--the GOP is happy to do so, with no regard for the truth.

How do these sociopaths keep getting people to vote for them?