Friday, August 31, 2007

A truly inspired high school prank

I saw a brief story about this in this morning's Chicago Sun-Times and I was so hoping to find a picture -- and I found this instead!

According to this story in the Columbus Dispatch, the author of this prank, one Kyle Garchar, of Hilliard, Ohio (a suburb of Columbus) was given a three day in-school suspension as a result of this stunt. Garchar and his accomplice/girlfriend, Danielle Jewell, were also "banned from school activities for the rest of the semester."

You will see no "Free Kyle" protests here (although the semester-long ban seems a little harsh -- I'd have liked to see what he came up with for the first basketball game).

There are times when, as responsible adults, we must set our faces on grim and tsk-tsk gravely at a young person's behavior.

Of course, as soon as they leave the room, we can dissolve in hysterical laughter.

This is one of those times. (All the young people have left the room, right?)

I think this prank is extraordinarily creative and funny. But I'd never let that kid know I thought so....

Thursday, August 30, 2007

How the Curmudgeon participates in the parish golf outing

Golf is a game whose aim is to hit a very small ball into a even smaller hole, with weapons singularly ill-designed for the purpose.
-- Winston Churchill

(Churchill week seems to be continuing here at Second Effort.)

I am not a golfer.

I have nothing against golfers, mind you. I am simply unwilling to surrender myself, body and soul, to the game -- that being the minimum that one must do in order to (someday -- maybe someday) become adequate.

When I practiced with a firm we had to participate, from time to time, in golf outings; once or twice we even staged one. But since there is nothing quite so maddening for a real golfer than to have to go around the course with a duffer, and since the purpose of these exercises was to get (not lose) business, I always managed to stay behind. Someone had to watch the store, my partners would say if anyone inquired about my absence, and then I'd drive up and join them for dinner. My partners would make tut-tut noises about how sorry they were that I had to miss the fun and I would express deep regret at not being able to join them.

My Act of Contrition was silent, but sincere nonetheless.

Still, I was at one time willing to play golf -- as long as I could go around with other similarly inclined duffers.

My views on this subject were well known to others in the parish, some of whom were indifferent or even terrible golfers like myself. One of these decided to organize a foursome for the next parish golf outing, always held sometime after the Labor Day holiday. The trouble was finding two other golfers quite as bad as we were.

We interviewed several of our friends -- all of whom professed no talent for the sport. But that's the way with golfers, isn't it? No one ever claims to be a 'good' golfer; somehow, however, some people manage minuscule handicaps.

Every one of our fellow parishioners who even knew what a handicap was was immediately disqualified.

But then the questions had to be more carefully put. This is where I was able to use my legal training.

"Have you ever broken 100?" I would ask.

People would squirm at this: No one who plays with any regularity wants to admit that he doesn't, at least occasionally, shoot less than 100. On the other hand, no one wanted to say that they did so regularly; in the context of our discussion, that would be tantamount to claiming to be "good." I say again: No real golfer claims to be good.

So I would pounce before they could formulate an answer. "No, no, I wasn't clear," I would say. "Have you ever broken 100 -- on a nine hole course?"

Most people laughed; they were eliminated. A couple slumped in embarrassment: No, they said.

We had our foursome.

It was a great act of Christian charity that we four were to perform at this outing: We were certain to finish last, thereby giving satisfaction even to the foursomes composed of octogenarians with breathing tanks and walkers. Our sacrifice would bring a moment of satisfaction for everyone else: At least, they could say, in truth, we were better than Curmudgeon's foursome.

But we played our part too well.

Somewhere in the course of our back nine (it was a scramble event so we all started at different holes) we noticed that no one was playing through us anymore. The course authorities stopped sending round the beverage cart and began dragging the water hazards. We were feared lost. Someone suggested calling the police.

Cooler heads prevailed, though, and one poor fellow was designated to maintain a vigil at the clubhouse -- which he did, with increasing impatience, waiting for our foursome to straggle in.

We'd been out at least six hours.

"Don't you know," he snapped at us, "that this was a Best Ball tournament? How could you be out there so long?" This from a nice man who never snaps at anyone.

But I learned something that year: The Parish Men's Club invites businesses to sponsor holes or supply prizes for the golfers who participate. For the last few years, the price of sponsoring a hole has been the same as the entry fee.

So every year now I sponsor a hole. Everybody's happier that way.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

With apologies to Sydney J. Harris: A thing I learned while looking up other things

I regularly read Zay N. Smith's Quick Takes column in the Chicago Sun-Times -- although, I notice, he prefers the even quicker abbreviation QT these days. There's a link to Mr. Smith's column in my Sidebar. I have quoted the column from time to time in these postings, most recently on August 22 -- or May 2 (in a post about compact fluorescent light bulbs) -- or on February 7 or February 8 in two posts offering one explanation as to why Lisa Nowak may have snapped.

(For the record, I've not been contacted by Captain Nowak's defense team. I still like my explanation better than the one they've come up with -- even if we both wind up with an insanity defense.)

Anyway, I didn't read the Sun-Times on February 11, 2007. (I get that other paper at home on Sundays.)

And look what I missed: Second Effort made the Quick Takes column! (I came across this at a site called Find Articles):

Blog Subtitle of the Week (Second Effort at

". . . If you look carefully, you can see the twinkle in the old curmudgeon's eye. Or is that a cataract?"
This is a real thrill for me. Maybe you can't tell. And I didn't even know about it!

My first MSM reference... and I'm just as slow on the uptake as ever....

Thank you, Barb, for this award!

Barb, of Skittles' Place, has begun a new blog award and she has kindly named me one of the first to receive it.

I am truly humbled by this award. Of course, to paraphrase Churchill (continuing the theme from yesterday), I have so much to be humble about.

So the good news is that I'm a blogging star.

The bad news is that I could go nova at any moment....

Barb wants her recipients to pass the award along... so, quickly, before anyone else gets a chance, I'll hand this along to Captain Picard's Journal, the Empress Bee, Thermal -- obvious choices all -- and two more which may be less well known to most of you: Home in the Highlands and A Work of Art: Raising Our Exceptional Son. I could go on and nominate many more -- but I think I'd better stop here. Barb does ask all future recipients to mention that the award originated at Skittles' Place so she can track the award's progress in the Blogosphere.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Heads or Tails #3 (Hobby)

Technically, painting wasn't Adolf Hitler's hobby; it was, at one time, his ambition as a career.

Hitler applied to the Vienna School of Fine Arts in 1907. The linked article notes that young Hitler showed some talent for drawing buildings but his "drawings showed a lack of talent for artistic painting, notably a lack of appreciation of the human form." Of course, he also had a notable lack of appreciation for humanity.

I suppose all this is well known.

It was certainly known to Winston Churchill, who nevertheless derided Hitler as an "Austrian house painter."

Churchill was also a painter, taking up painting during World War I after being dismissed as First Lord of the Admiralty.

Churchill favored landscapes in his paintings. In fact, Churchill's painting of his home at Chartwell sold last month for £1,000,000.

Surely Churchill's eloquence and fame as a war leader has enhanced the value of his paintings, but the Wikipedia biography of Churchill notes, "In 1921, Winston Churchill's artwork was exhibited at the prestigious Galerie Druet in the Rue Royale, under the pseudonym Charles Morin."

And Churchill wrote about painting, too. (Churchill wrote about nearly everything.)

His book, "Painting as a Pastime" can be found on Amazon "from $2.97" -- but according to this site a signed first edition of that same book will set you back around $7,500.

Now that's some hobby.

Monday, August 27, 2007

So we're dropping Middle Son off at college....

Middle Son filled up the van once on Saturday and took it himself, then he came back for everything else.

Including Long Suffering Spouse and me.

That's one benefit of going to college nearby.

Well, the parking lot was full, of course, as everyone was moving in on the same day, so we double-parked. We weren't the only ones who hit on this solution; a girl was unpacking another van right in front of us.

Long Suffering Spouse stayed behind in case we needed to move the van; Middle Son and I carried stuff upstairs to his room. He carried a lot of stuff; he gave me some token amounts so my feelings wouldn't be hurt... and neither would my back.

(And, in the event, neither was injured.)

Middle Son and I got separated in our couple of trips, but the work was soon done and Long Suffering Spouse and I were soon ready to leave. We said our goodbyes and took off.

"The kids on Middle Son's floor sure seemed happy to see him again," I told Long Suffering Spouse when we were underway. "He seems to know everybody."

"Well," Long Suffering Spouse said, "he certainly knew the name of that little girl who was in front of us in the parking lot."

"That's good," I said -- and then, because I am a glutton for punishment, I added, "Of course, when I was in college, I knew all the girls' names, too."

"Yes, and they knew yours, too," my wife said, "because they needed it for the restraining orders."

I asked for that, didn't I?

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Can children be seen and not heard? Dining out with children....

The Chicago Sun-Times ran an article the other day about taking children to restaurants... and how some restaurants are "kid friendly" and some aren't... and how some parents keep their children under control in restaurants... and others seem to think that ordering a dinner gives their children license to scream, sing, or play anywhere on the premises.

The picture above ran with Misha Davenport's Sun-Times article. It shows restauranteur Dan McCauley and the sign he posted a couple of years ago at his restaurant, Taste of Heaven. The sign reads:
Children of all ages have to behave and use their indoor voices when coming to A Taste of Heaven.
Believe it or not, this sign was immediately controversial: "A couple of parents got ahold of a local school e-mail contact list and let everyone know they shouldn't patronize us," McCauley told the Sun-Times. Before long, the debate went national: ABC's 20/20 program, MSNBC (the link is to a 2005 AP story on the MSNBC website), and even the New York Times (*genuflection optional*) picked up the story.

McCauley has no children of his own. He has been excoriated as "anti-child."

Speaking as a father, I say McCauley seems to be speaking with the voice of sweet reason.

Taking children out to eat can be stressful -- at least at any restaurant that doesn't have a gameroom, high school kids walking around in rodent costumes, or animatronic musicians. It is, however, sometimes necessary.

My parents, before their health declined, wanted to take my children out to dinner. Once or twice they even tried to 'show them off' to friends.

I do not believe there was any connection between my parents' sudden decline and their attempting to dine with my children -- but the experiences were not always pleasant.

"Real" restaurants -- the kind with waitstaff and tablecloths -- take time. A "kiddie cocktail" (some variation on cherry juice and 7-Up, preferably with the cherry as a garnish) can keep the kids occupied for a little while while the adults get their drinks. Of course, if you must dine with children, you might be advised to skip the cocktails for once and order as quickly as possible.

But that was not the way my parents operated. They wanted a drink before dinner.

Knowing the ordeal that was to come, I sometimes managed to snag two drinks.

And, another thing about "real" restaurants -- the kinds without multicolored plastic balls and gerbil tubes in which the kids can disappear -- the meals tend to come out (for lack of a better word) piecemeal. Drinks. Then appetizers. Then salad. And only then the entree.

Meanwhile, the kids, having guzzled a couple of Shirley Temples, are staging sword fights with the stems of their cherries. Or maybe with their knives.

And they're loading up on bread.

Even reasonably-behaved children are not the most patient people in the world -- and they certainly don't understand that you'd sit still for a couple of hours and like it while strange-looking food is brought out in dribs and drabs. Oldest Son was by far the least patient of our brood. He was like this as an infant; I can't imagine him submitting to a gracious dining experience even now. Even if his business clients want to.

And you can't really expect children to wait for that hamburger when there's bread to eat... nor can you be too disappointed when the hamburger is barely touched by a bored child who has gorged on bread.

I think my parents forgot why they didn't take us out as a family when we were little. It wasn't just money.

Still, unless you count that linked story about Oldest Son (at which, thankfully, I was not present), we never had meltdowns in restaurants, nor would we have tolerated them.

Over the years, we've gone on trips and had to eat out as a family. We chose our spots: We could never afford really fancy places even if we were so inclined. And we tried to come in before or after the dinner rush so the waitstaff would be less stressed. A lot of times we'd eat at the restaurant in or adjacent to the hotel where we were stopping for the night. After having a couple of meals during the day from a cooler in the car (when we traveled we drove straight through as much as possible), getting out of the car and stopping to eat was actually a treat for the children. And they responded.

For the most part.

There were actually times when people approached me and Long Suffering Spouse in restaurants and complimented us on our children's behavior.

(Of course, we always kept the cattle prod discreetly under the table, hidden from public view.)

Children are not miniature adults -- but neither should they always be wild, free range monsters. Sometimes they should be adults-in-training. Because that's a big part of what parenting is all about: Training children to become adults. Hopefully. Some day.

Children should have opportunities to be "wild and crazy" -- but they should also have opportunities to be "very grown-up" and use "indoor voices." Like at a restaurant with their grandparents.

Just be sure to order an extra drink for yourself when you take them.

And extra napkins for everybody.

Bon appetit!

Friday, August 24, 2007

A "Snow Day" in August?

Image captured from the Chicago Tribune.

It was supposed to be Younger Daughter's first day of school today. Youngest Son is already in school; he was supposed to have his first football game tomorrow. And I had a dentist's appointment early this morning.

But it rained yesterday.

A lot.

This is already the wettest August on record in Chicago: This is supposed to be the season where the lawn turns a nice shade of cut-me-every-other-week brown... but it looks like April out there. April in South Florida.

And then, yesterday, I took a quick peek at the radar screen about mid-afternoon -- and saw some very ominous looking yellow, orange and red storms rolling across DeKalb County, just about to enter Kane... and seemingly taking aim at the City itself.

Long Suffering Spouse had to take Younger Daughter to the doctor; they arrived as those blobs became very real rainstorms over the Chicago area. It was about an hour after I'd first noticed the ominous radar.

Those storms were moving. I heard later that there were straight line winds associated with the storms of 70 mph or more. Middle Son was at home yesterday afternoon; he checked in with Long Suffering Spouse before leaving on his afternoon errands because of how incredibly dark it had become. In the afternoon.

Just after noticing the radar I looked out the window: It was bright and sunny.

I looked again an hour or so later, when Long Suffering Spouse called to tell me the storm had hit; that there was rain swirling in circles inside the parking garage. And, when I looked, I saw that night had fallen prematurely. All heck broke loose downtown shortly thereafter.

One of the attorneys with whom I share space at the Undisclosed Location had to take off during the height of the storm: A couple of large trees had given way to the winds and had taken up a new, uprooted position on the roof of his house.

We were fortunate at the Curmudgeon household; we had no real damage. Some basement seepage. A few downed branches. But nothing to compare with the stories Long Suffering Spouse and Middle Son returned with when they picked their way home from their separate errands, around downed trees and through busy intersections where the streetlights were out. We didn't even lose power at home. A quarter-million people in the Chicago area couldn't say that today.

And I was right about the course that storm took: It seemed to leave a particular swath of destruction right down North Avenue. Several suburbs along North Avenue had "boil orders" today for their tap water.

I waited out the rush hour at the Undisclosed Location, but there was still quite a bit of rain for my umbrella when I finally ventured out.

Getting off the el, I was struck by the Western sky: The Sun was setting and there were breaks, cracks really, just enough to let orange light leak out and set off the still-ominous, but now navy blue clouds. It was a Maxfield Parrish orange; the blues were too dark for him, though. And there was lightning north and east, some of it quite spectacular.

And another line of storms rumbled through later last night.

And this morning, before 6:00 a.m., we heard on the radio that both Youngest Son's and Younger Daughter's schools were closed. The dentist's office called an hour or so later: They didn't have power either, so my 8:00 a.m. appointment had to be canceled. But I couldn't reschedule -- not yet -- no computer.

And that, boys and girls, is how we had a Snow Day in August. I don't know what else to call it.

It's Skittles' Blogiversary Today... and Blogger is 8?

All the kids grow up so fast....

You can go to Barb's Blogiversary Party by clicking this link. And I found this on the Blogger sign-in this morning:
Happy Eighth Birthday!
Today marks Blogger’s eighth birthday! A time for reflection, a time to catch our breath from yesterday morning, and a time to break out the baby picture.

Thanks to everyone who has supported us over the past four-fifths of a decade, and thanks especially to you for all the blogs. Come back later this afternoon for a present.
Pete [8/23/07 1:28 PM]
P.S. -- I know Blogiversary is being spelled with an "a" -- Blogaversary. But I'm stubborn.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

What time is it? It's time to go back to school, son.

I woke up at 2:00 a.m. and noticed that the light in the living room was still on.

Odd, I thought, on a weeknight. Middle Son told me he had to be somewhere by 8:00 a.m.

But the light was on. This meant (a) he wasn't yet home, (b) he was home but had not come upstairs, or (c) he'd come upstairs but forgot to put out the light.

Now Middle Son never turns the porch light off when he comes in, but he usually manages to turn off the living room light we leave on for him so he doesn't trip over something coming into the house. So (c) seemed like the least likely alternative.

But it was 2:00 a.m. and sorting through all this was beyond my abilities at that hour. I went back to bed.

I slept fitfully, though, and was awake again at 3:00 a.m. The light was still on.

I became concerned. Not alarmed, mind you, but concerned. I looked out the window and I thought I saw the car across the street that Middle Son was driving. Or had he driven tonight? I couldn't remember. I checked his room. He wasn't there.

So this time, I went downstairs to look for him. If he wasn't home, I'd call his cell phone. If I couldn't reach his cell phone, then I'd become alarmed.

I wasn't halfway across the living room when Middle Son and I spotted each other. He was in the den, seated at the computer, typing away merrily.

"Yo! Pops!" he greeted me. "What's up?"

"You, for one thing," I mumbled. "You're supposed to be helping the freshmen move in this morning at 8:00 aren't you?"

"But Dad," Middle Son responded, "I won $30 at poker tonight."

He seemed to think that a perfectly logical response. I guess I had interrupted Middle Son in the middle of his informing everyone in his acquaintance about his good fortune.

It's definitely time for Middle Son to go back to school.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Heads or Tails #2 (Luck) -- a follow up

I saw this item this morning in Zay N. Smith's Quick Takes column and it tied in so nicely to yesterday's philosophical discourse on the nature of luck that I had to call your attention to same:
News Item: "A pig had a lucky escape after firefighters rescued it from a drain . . ."

The hard part about this story is knowing that the pig's luck is not going to hold.

Tagged by Skittles -- 8 more things

I better work through that hand-wringing on that to meme or not to meme thing soon -- meanwhile, Barb of Skittles' Place has tagged me, again, with the "8 Things" Meme.

Also known as the Meme that Would Not Die.

Barb mentioned in her post that she's done this one "a couple times already," so I suppose I shouldn't complain about doing it twice. (The first time was last month, at the request of Shelby.)

So... without further adieu... eight more random facts about the Curmudgeon. Today's theme is technology.
  1. My first computer was an XT clone -- I was supposed to assemble it myself but a schedule conflict prevented that. This computer had glorious monochrome graphics and a clock speed of 2 MHz. And those cool 5¼" floppy drives. It had two of 'em -- an A and a B drive. While those disks weren't as floppy as the 8" ones that then still in use on some of the fancy word processors, they were floppy enough that the name still fit.

  2. That first computer had a clock speed of 4 MHz with "turbo speed." The little yellow flashing line at the end of the "C:\>" (c-prompt) bulked up into a little yellow square when the computer was in "turbo speed." Other than that, though, I couldn't detect any difference.

  3. The other thing that first computer had was a 20 MB hard drive. My friend Steve -- who knew something about computers back then (he was working as an analyst for a government agency which used those huge IBM 360 mainframes) -- ridiculed me for this. "Twenty megabytes?" he said, incredulously, "That's like buying a warehouse to hang up a single suit of clothes. You'll never fill it up." I've never let him forget this.

  4. With the help of the manual, I was able to write some simple programs in Basic (that's a computer language) on this computer. And this was fancier than the Basic I'd learned in high school: When I wrote a random number generating program to pick my Lotto numbers, I also made the machine beep out an acceptable facsimile of "We're in the Money."

  5. The program didn't really work though: I never won the Lotto.

  6. My first laptop was a really great idea whose time, unfortunately, had not arrived. It came equipped with Microsoft Windows for Pen Computing 1.0 -- something like that, anyway. The 1.0 is the part that bears remembering: Don't ever get any computer software in version 1.0; it's a sure recipe for heartache. The computer had a stylus that could be used as a "pen," see, and the idea (I hoped) was that I would be able to handwrite my notes during a deposition and then turn these notes into a client-ready document shortly after attaching the detachable keyboard.... The software came equipped with a training program. In theory, the program would "learn" to read my handwriting. In practice, I was expected to re-learn how to handwrite in a manner the computer found acceptable. Somewhere there were Sisters of Mercy laughing at me -- I didn't learn the right way the first time... but now the machine would show me.

  7. It didn't happen. A few years later I tried the Dragon Naturally Speaking program -- it sure wasn't version 1.0! -- so that I could "dictate" my correspondence and have it type itself. Again, there was a training program. Again, the machine and I disagreed about who was supposed to be trained. I'm told the later versions of the program are much better -- but I'm not going to fall for that again.

  8. For awhile, back in the DOS days, I was the office computer guru. Proving the truth of the old adage, "In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king." Then Windows came along... and my partners hired a bald guy with an earring and a nipple ring to upgrade the office machines. And, yes, you could see the nipple ring through the shirt. But I was stubborn. I thought I could install Windows programs just the way I'd installed DOS programs. And then I learned otherwise. But at least I don't have a nipple ring.
No tags today; instead, an announcement: Did you know that Barb is about to celebrate her first Blogaversary? (This apparently is now the preferred spelling -- I've been using Blogiversary.) And, after only a year in business, she's had over 63,000 visitors and 2000 posts. (In stark contrast, I've had about 17,400 and this blog's been open since December 2005.) So be sure to visit Barb on Friday and wish her congratulations. And, whatever you do, don't tell her how jealous I am!

Oh! If only it were so... part II

While Blogger was down this morning, I stumbled across this link to a cartoon called the Joy of Tech. What a concept! Stay in bed and save the environment.

It's the least I can do.

And you can take that any way you want.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

For visitors looking for today's Heads or Tails....

That's Marlon Brando singing "Luck Be a Lady" from Guys and Dolls.

Brando played gambler Sky Masterson. Reportedly, Frank Sinatra wanted that role but, instead, he wound up playing Nathan Detroit in the movie. On the other hand, Sinatra made the definitive recording of the song.

And, if you're looking to see how I worked that into today's "Heads or Tails" post -- about "luck" you see -- that's the tie-in -- I didn't.

But scroll down and read it anyway.

Oh! If only it were so....

(From Yahoo! Comics, although I saw it in the Chicago Sun-Times on the train this morning.)

Of course, people who read stories like Lynne Marek's story in the August 20 National Law Journal might be forgiven if they see a grain of truth in this comic.

In her story, Ms. Marek talks about the growth plans of a Chicago-based law firm, Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, which has a goal of reaching 1,000 lawyers by 2009. In the course of her story, Marek reports that Sonnenschein's "profit target as announced to partners in the middle of last year is $1.4 million per partner, up from the $825,000 reported by the firm for 2006." The increased target is necessary, Sonnenschein says, to get and keep top legal talent.

You may be unfamiliar with the Sonnenschein firm.

But you probably have heard of one its lawyers, Scott Turow.

He has the cover story in this month's ABA Journal: "The Billable Hour Must Die".

(Judging from my timesheets, it's already dead.)

Turow laments that newly-minted lawyers in big firms are expected to bill 2200 hours a year. Assuming 50 weeks in a working year, that's 44 hours a week -- nearly nine hours a day. "Increasingly," Turow notes, "if we allow time for trivialities like eating, sleeping and loving other people, it is clear, as a simple matter of arithmetic, that we are getting close to the absolute limit of how far this system can take us economically."

At the really big firms, lawyers have legions of support staff -- assistants who type their every word, people to make copies, people to sort and distribute the mail, people to file the papers in court. All to minimize "down time."

But that's only for the very, very few. Smaller litigation firms may have similar targets, though, and less support to make it honestly attainable....

And then, down here, on the bottom of the feed chain, there's guys like me. I can find and clear the most obscure paper jam in our communal copier here at the Undisclosed Location. I do my own court filing, thank you, and someday -- honest! -- I'm going to catch up on my office filing, too. Oh, and the bills I do actually pay -- I write the checks and enter them in the checkbook program. There's a lot more men and women like me out here practicing law than there are Scott Turows.

With all this, if I could bill just four hours a day, I'd be profitable... maybe even profitable enough to start hiring that support staff that would let me build to five or five and a half hours a day... hire an associate... hire another associate.... (Insert evil, maniacal laugh here.)

Yes, some day I hope to be an exploiter of other people's labor. Then I could blog even more.

But, today, there's filing to be done. And some correspondence to be caught up on. I'll be lucky to bill even one real, collectible hour.


Another Palestinian tragedy

The title of this article, by Dion Nissenbaum, of the McClatchy Newspapers, Hamas TV's child star says she's ready for martyrdom, is self explanatory.

Remember Saraa Barhoum? You may not recall the name, but you may recall her on-air partner of recent months: Farfur (or Farfour, the English spelling varies) the Mickey-Mouse lookalike who promoted terrorism, murder, and an endless cycle of violence and vengeance to Palestinian children.

This image was taken from Deborah Lipstadt's Blog (f/k/a "History on Trial"). It shows a scene from Farfur's last appearance on the show, where he is "murdered" by an Israeli. You can read about this episode of this so-called "children's show" here.

Professor Lipstadt closed the linked post with this statement: "Next time I hear about a young person volunteering to be a terrorist I won't be surprised."

Now Saraa Barhoum has volunteered.

Heads or Tails #2 (Luck)

Barb's directions for today's Heads or Tails insist we are to "list a couple times luck has played a part in your life." That's difficult because, as I'll explain, I don't put much stock in luck. Nevertheless, I'll give you two instances in which I might have been considered "lucky."

Recently, as many of you know, I was diagnosed with colon cancer. But it was detected at almost the perfect moment: The diagnosis was serious enough to scare the heck out of me and motivate me to take immediate action, but the disease was caught early enough that, after surgery to remove most of my colon, no radiation or chemotherapy was necessary. In the sense that the disease was caught when it was, I was "lucky." However, I can assure you that I would have felt far luckier had I not had ever had that condition at all. Although then I'd never have known how "lucky" I was, would I?

Twenty-seven years and about a month ago, I went to the home of a friend for a party. It was at that party that I met the woman who subsequently became Long Suffering Spouse. Although we knew many of the same people, we'd never met before that evening. (You can debate among yourselves whether that meeting was lucky or unlucky for her.) Lucky for me, you may say, that I was out carousing instead of studying... because that was the weekend before the bar exam. If I'd decided to study more, we might never have met. So was that luck? Maybe. But I was sick of studying... and it wasn't in my nature to pretend to study if I felt I was ready for the test. Which I did. Which means maybe it wasn't so much luck as... what? Fate? Kismet?

"Luck," said Branch Rickey, the GM of the then-Brooklyn Dodgers, the guy who signed Jackie Robinson, "is the residue of design."

Or, as Thomas Jefferson reportedly said, "I'm a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it."

That's kind of what I believe about luck. Or, more precisely, I believe that hard work can produce what others attribute to "luck." So I guess I don't believe in luck at all.

Although... as Jean Cocteau said, "We must believe in luck. For how else can we explain the success of those we don't like?"

Hmmmmmm. My logic is so circular here, I'm getting dizzy.

And, I'm of Irish descent. And therefore superstitious. So I guess I might believe in bad luck, right? On the other hand, someone named Andrew W. Mathis once said, "It is bad luck to be superstitious." So maybe I'd better not. Be superstitious. Or believe in bad luck. (Andrew W. Mathis appears courtesy of The Quotations Page. I guess Cleveland Amory and Bennett Cerf were busy. I guess further that you have to have consulted a toastmaster's quotation book or two to get that joke. Ah well.)

Now: If I haven't gotten you dizzy enough, think on this....

We say someone is lucky because -- just a for instance -- he narrowly missed getting hit by a car while crossing the street. But -- maybe -- if he got hit, and recovered, and sued, and won -- maybe then he'd have money to invest and when the next Bill Gates tapped him on the shoulder with the next can't-miss thing. Then he'd be filthy rich and, oh boy, would people say he was lucky. Because he got hit by the car. But if the car missed, people would say he was lucky, too -- that's how we started this example -- but he's still the same poor schlub as he ever was. And then, when the next Bill Gates taps him on the shoulder, he'll just say he's all tapped out. Doesn't sound so lucky any more....

Nope. I think luck can only be determined in hindsight... and even then we don't know what lay ahead on the "road not taken." And good luck proving otherwise....

Oh, this cosmic stuff is tough, isn't it?

Monday, August 20, 2007

Dodo bones may yield DNA... and then... what?

I saw this story late last week on Yahoo! News. This, however, is a link to Andrea Thompson's story on Live Science.

I think this link may last longer than the one to Yahoo! News.

Probably not as long, however, as the DNA in the dodo skeleton to which the story refers.

Imagine: A fragile, badly decomposed dodo skeleton, discovered by chance in a cave in the highlands of the island of Mauritius, off the east coast of Africa. Despite its deterioration, scientists hope the skeleton may yield actual dodo DNA because of the "stable temperature and dry to slightly humid environment" in that cave.

The last of the dodos died out, according to Ms. Thompson's story, in the late 1600's -- that is, little more than 300 years ago. Her story does not reveal how old "Fred" (that's the nickname the scientists have given to their skeletal find) might be... but the imagination kicks in at this point, doesn't it?

Jurassic Park was true science fiction: fiction stretching science beyond its actual boundaries.

But science is catching up. Researchers are making progress in sequencing mammoth DNA; a "Pleistocene Park" may still be impossible... but seemingly just over the scientific horizon.

And if "Fred" is only 400 or 500 years old... and yields usable DNA... could the dodos be brought back?

Working through the weekend, I have uncovered an artist's depiction of what a restored colony of dodos might look like. I can't account for the porcine fellow in the middle of the sketch, however:

You were expecting more?

No, that's all folks....

Friday, August 17, 2007

When it has to get there overnight: War profiteers charge almost a million bucks to ship two 19¢ washers

A story by Tony Capaccio of Bloomberg News, posted yesterday on Yahoo! News, recounts how the Pentagonpaid $999,798 to ship two 19¢ washers from South Carolina to Texas.

That's the bad news. The good news, according to Capaccio's article, is that the company that sent the bill, C&D Distributors of South Carolina, and its surviving owner, Charlene Corey, pleaded guilty yesterday in a Columbia, South Carolina Federal court to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to launder money.

Corey may receive 20 years in jail on each count.

I submit she may have gotten off lightly.

If Capaccio's story is accurate, Corey and her late sister billed $20.5 million in fraudulent shipping costs over a six-year period. Again, according to Capaccio's story, citing Pentagon records, Corey's company "also billed and was paid $455,009 to ship three machine screws costing $1.31 each to Marines in Habbaniyah, Iraq, and $293,451 to ship an 89-cent split washer to Patrick Air Force Base in Cape Canaveral, Florida."

C&D was apparently able to milk American taxpayers in this way because of what Capaccio politely calls a "flaw in an automated Defense Department purchasing system." Citing Cynthia Stroot, a Pentagon investigator, Capaccio reports that "bills for shipping to combat areas or U.S. bases that were labeled 'priority' were usually paid automatically."

Investigator Stroot is also quoted in the article as saying that C&D got more "aggressive" over time in the amounts billed for shipping. Capaccio supplies some perspective: The cost of the parts shipped seldom reached even $100 -- a total of $68,000 billed over the same time that the contractor was billing $20.5 million for shipping those same parts. The outrageous charges were paid because (Capaccio quoting Stroot), "The majority, if not all of these parts, were going to high-priority, conflict areas." In order to evade oversight, all one needed to do was to claim that the shipment was "priority."

According to Capaccio, C&D's ride on the taxpayer gravy train finally came to a halt when a purchasing agent finally noticed -- and rejected -- a $969,000 bill for shipping two more 19¢ washers. That's when the government figured out it had just paid $998,798 for shipping two other 19¢ washers.

How brain-dead must one be to let that kind of charge sail through without so much as even a polite inquiry? Yes, send Ms. Corey to jail. Throw away the key. But fire the people who were paid to pay these charges, too.

Capaccio's story mentions nothing about the fate of any Pentagon procurement personnel.

He did say that, according to Stroot, fraudulent billing is not a "widespread problem." Although other questionable billing has been spotted during a review prompted by the belated identification of C&D, the next-highest contractor is suspected of only $2 million in questionable transport costs. The word "only" is mine. And it is inserted, like a dagger, dripping with intended sarcasm.

C&D was caught, apparently, because it was so incredibly outrageous that, finally, even the government noticed it. After six years.

Capaccio's article concludes with Investigator Stroot explaining that the Pentagon hopes to get some of that $20.5 million back "by auctioning homes, beach property, jewelry and 'high- end automobiles'" which the Corey sisters bought with taxpayer money. But, she says, they also "took a lot of vacations." So I guess we can forget about a 100% return.

American kids have died in Iraq and Afghanistan because they didn't have newer, safer helmets, or better-armored vehicles. Funds weren't available for these things -- particularly for National Guard units which, in the traditional view, were expected to operate behind the lines, providing support for regular Army or Marine units.

But there aren't any 'front lines' in Iraq or Afghanistan. And the $20.5 million that C&D bilked out of the Pentagon would have bought a lot of helmets and vehicle armor.

Ms. Corey and the people in the Pentagon who let her billing slide didn't just cheat American taxpayers; they helped kill American kids.

Of course, C&D was a small-time contractor. It didn't bill a lot for parts (only $68,000, remember) so, in order to score serious money, it couldn't just "pad" its bills -- it had to pile on heaping helpings of lard.

How much easier it would be for a contractor with a larger contract to add an extra $100 here or $50 there -- and maybe clear more, in the aggregate, than Ms. Corey ever dreamed. She forgot the old rule: Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered.

Is anybody really looking for fraud in military procurement?

How can we believe pious assertions along these lines when it took six years to pick up this scheme?

I don't care if you like or dislike American policy in the Middle East. I don't care if you marched in the streets to protest the invasion of Iraq or whether you TiVo Fox News while you're at work, just so you don't miss anything.

This isn't a matter of right or left.

It's a matter of right and wrong.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

To meme or not to meme -- still trollling for comments

Yesterday's discussion about memes drew some thoughtful comments.

I asked whether you like getting tagged. Do you feel left out if you're not tagged? Would you prefer not to be bothered with it? I'm ambivalent on doing memes: Some are more fun than others. I'm reluctant to tag people because I'm hesitant to impose... but I like the links and the extra traffic memes can bring in.

So, while I'm busy wringing my hands indecisively, the floor remains open. If you haven't already commented, please do. (Hello, lurkers....) I look forward to the discussion continuing.

For want of a nail... how a few wrapped cigars might have changed history

One morning in September 1862, outside the town of Frederick, Maryland, Cpl. Barton W. Mitchell of Company E, 27th Indiana, and a comrade saw a "bulky-looking envelope" protruding from the grass. Mitchell was moved to pick it up and inspect the contents.

And what a find it was for him: Three cigars, wrapped in a paper.

The expected course for a tobacco-craving soldier might have been to remove the paper and toss it away... but Mitchell was curious... so he unfolded the paper and scanned it.

It was labeled Special Orders No. 191 from the Headquarters of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Mitchell and his sergeant passed the paper to the company commander, Captain Kopp. He took one look and sent the paper up to regimental HQ. There, it went Col. Silas Cosgrove and then to Brig. Gen. A.S. Williams, who was at HQ that morning. Williams looked at it and summoned his adjutant, Col. Pittman, who stuck the paper in his pocket and rode off to find General McClellan.

That paper contained Lee's battle plans for the invasion of Maryland. McClellan now had Lee's plans, too, but even with this extraordinary advantage he was able to win only a technical victory at Antietam. But this technical victory was enough to force Lee to abandon Maryland... and set the stage for the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation... avoiding British recognition of the Confederacy... and paving the way for eventual Union victory.

The improbable discovery of Special Orders No. 191 is well documented; my source for the above is Bruce Catton, in "Mr. Lincoln's Army," ch. 5; here's a link to the Wikipedia article on the Battle of Antietam (also describing the discovery of Lee's battle orders).

But... what might have happened had those orders not been dropped? Or if they'd been found... and casually thrown away in favor of the cigars wrapped within? Lee's invasion of Maryland might have succeeded; Britain might then have recognized the young Confederate States and have attempted to negotiate an armistice. There were powerful interests in Britain lobbying for Confederate recognition before Antietam... right up until the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Harry Turtledove has written 11 books -- count 'em, 11 -- that proceed in logical order from the non-discovery of Special Orders No. 191, starting with "How Few Remain" in 1997. In this timeline, Lincoln was forced to accept Britain's mediation... and to agree to share the American continent with a triumphant Confederacy. Turtledove starts with several characters in the U.S.A. and C.S.A. (such as a George Armstrong Custer who did not die at the Little Big Horn) and follows them, or their descendants, through roughly 65 years of alternate history.

After "How Few Remain" came the three books of the "Great War" series -- World War I fought on American soil: The U.S.A. battles the C.S.A. across North America, while its ally, Germany, fights the Confederate allies, Britain and France, in Europe. Woodrow Wilson is President... of the C.S.A.

Then came the three books of the "American Empire" series -- The U.S.A. has occupied Canada and parts of the Confederate States (Kentucky, a chunk of Texas, a chunk of Virginia, and Oklahoma -- called Sequoyah in this timeline). The United States has set up a puppet state in Quebec. But it fails to enforce the harsh terms it obtained from the C.S.A. at the end of the Great War... and a disgruntled noncom from that conflict rises to become a national figure, building a political party based on race hatred. You will be forgiven if you see a parallel between the events in this alternate timeline and the rise of Nazi Germany in our own. The target of the Confederate ex-noncom's hatred, however, is blacks, not Jews.

The latest series is entitled "Settling Accounts." The fourth and last book in this series, "In at the Death," was just released at the end of July.

I've just finished reading it.

The "Settling Accounts" series is an alternate history of World War II, occupying roughly the same years -- but with the parties all jumbled up. The Kaiser won the Great War with the help of the U.S.A.; the Tsar never fell. And millions of black people are being murdered in the Confederate States. But some things are the same: The atom has been split and scientists around the world -- and in the U.S.A. and C.S.A. as well -- are trying to build bombs based on these discoveries. "In at the Death" takes us to the end of that war, and into the occupation of the losing country after its unconditional surrender.

Like its ten predecessors, "In at the Death" is a chilling look into a future that might have been. Yes, Turtledove repeats himself -- if I had a nickel for every time he has a character observe how cigarettes in the North are inferior to those made from Southern tobacco I could probably cover next month's rent here at the Undisclosed Location. The pace of these books makes the repetition forgivable: The action is constant, and constantly shifting from one character's point of view to another's. Some characters are high up on either side, some are in the trenches. Turtledove has obviously studied the strategy and tactics of the Second World War; he's simply moved the action from Over There to over here.

These are not children's books: There is no attempt to sugar-coat the language used by soldiers or sailors. Characters visit sporting houses. Some characters live, some die. Many people die horribly in combat -- or otherwise. I've read reviews of these books that criticize Turtledove's characters as 'wooden' or 'one dimensional.' But I think you may come to like some of them. You'll have grudging respect for others, and there are some you will certainly hate. You'll care if some characters live or die. Wooden or one-dimensional characters wouldn't produce these responses. But I will concede that these stories are not about Turtledove's characters; his characters are instead invented in the service of the story.

What makes the new book -- what makes all these books -- worth reading is the eerie plausibility of it all.

Can you jump in and read the 11th book without reading the first ten? I can't say that with certainty, mainly because I have read the first ten. But I think so. If you're a fan of alternate history, you probably have at least sampled Turtledove before. But, if you're a history buff, and unfamiliar with the genre, you may find this quite interesting. And you will probably come away from this series, as I have, very grateful for the curiosity of Corporal Mitchell.


If you're looking for a one volume exposure, try Turtledove's "Ruled Britannia" (the Spanish Armada wasn't sunk and William Shakespeare is commissioned to write two plays -- the Spanish occupiers want a memorial to Phillip II and the English underground wants a play that might rouse the populace) or "In the Presence of Mine Enemies" (the Nazis won World Wars II and III and occupy America, but the action focuses on a Jewish remnant -- in Berlin in the early days of the 21st Century.)

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Tagged by Bee -- the "7 P's" Meme -- and an Unscientific Survey

I've heard of sailing the Seven Seas... but sailing the 7 P's? That sounds... wrong somehow.

Nevertheless, duty calls, says the Empress Bee (the link being to the post in which this latest tag was made). Bee, in turn, had been tagged by Sandee, of Comedy Plus. The meme seems to have originated with Bucky in a blog called "The WVb."

No, I can't pronounce it either.

The idea is this: You take these seven "P" words and sort of fill in the implied blanks about yourself.

These are the 7 words:

I should caution you that I don't do these kinds of things well. (It's not just looks that would keep me out of any beauty contest.) However, here goes:

Purpose: To stay afloat long enough to get the kids through college. Anything after that is gravy.

Pursuit: Usually of the Almighty Dollar. Sometimes will also pursue a cold beverage.

Position: Right behind the eight ball.

Pummeling: One thing it is surely better to give than receive.

Progress: None, particularly of late.

Personality: Warped.

Now, the rules say I am to tag five people with this meme. And sometimes I have and sometimes I haven't. I guess this time I'll tag Linda, Barb, Patti, Shelby, and anyone else who wants to take a whack at this.


Now the quick unscientific survey: To meme or not to meme, that is my question. Do you like getting tagged? Do you feel left out if you're not tagged? Would you prefer not to be bothered with it? (Dr. A, I believe, declared his blog a tag-free zone at one point.)

I am certain that some people like being tagged because it gives them a ready-made subject for their blogs. It allows for the application of a little linkage and might even attract new readers, if only from the group of victims of the same tag persons tagged with the same meme.

I have a selfish purpose in asking this: In future, I want to tag people who want to be tagged... and not bother people who'd rather not. What's your opinion?

(I really am trolling for lots of comments on this, please.)

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Another milestone reached

Within the past hour, my Sitemeter crept across the 17,000 barrier.

Granted, there are bloggers who seem to get this volume of traffic on a daily basis -- but, hey, this is a big deal for me.

Now, my 17,000th visitor didn't leave a comment... but the evidence suggests that my 17,000th visitor was Ralph. And there is no doubt that the 17,000th visitor -- even if it was not Ralph -- came here via Ralph's blog, Airhead 55.

So, therefore, to Ralph, a hearty virtual handshake and pat on the back. Thanks.

Heads or Tails #1 (Beginnings)

I don't promise to play every week, but Barb from Skittles' Place has a new Tuesday feature called Heads Or Tails. (That's a link to Barb's introductory post.)

Here are the rules, copied straight from Skittles' place:
How To Play:
  • Check the calendar in my right sidebar for upcoming themes.
  • Interpret them in any way you wish. You can write a story or a poem, show photos or videos, scan and post a picture you drew, just about anything. The choice is yours.
  • Please link back to me.
  • Visit the other participants.
Every once in a while I will call "Tails." When I do that, follow the directions. (Giggle.)
That last "giggle" has me a tad nervous.

But, anyway, for my contribution on beginnings: A Coffee Break quiz I found. It's a multiple choice guess quiz where you try and match the opening (or beginning) lines with the novels from which they come. Some I remembered (even without reading the novels) -- "It was a dark and stormy night...." for example.

Or this one: "As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect." You don't need to have read the novel from which that line comes to figure this out; you just need to have seen "The Producers."

Anyway, the right answers are there before you and it's a fun quiz. And I was very pleased with myself, getting 11 of 13 right:

So pleased with myself was I that I tackled another beginning lines quiz, this one from the BBC. There'll be no bragging screen shot here, I'm afraid: I only got 5 of 10 right.

The beginning of the end of my little rush of self-confidence....

How to annoy people on elevators

This list of 22 things to annoy people on elevators was stumbled upon at this site.

These are a few of my favorites:

4) Greet everyone with a warm handshake and ask him or her to call you Admiral.

* * *

6) Stare at another passenger for a while. Then announce in horror: "You're one of Them!" -- and back away slowly.

* * *

9) Make explosion noises when anyone presses a button. (Making whoopee cushion noises might be pretty annoying... or saying "beep" as if the button was a number on a cell phone keypad... but I think this one is truly worse.)

Any of these techniques might be particularly effective in a building like the one in which my Undisclosed Location is housed. This building has s..l..o..w elevators... elevators that take f..o..r..e..v..e..r to open up even after they've finally arrived on your floor.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Tagged by Linda -- Things you shouldn't say around [fill in the blank]

Linda, of "Are We There Yet??," tagged me with a new meme, "Things You Shouldn't Say Around ______________."

How you fill in the blank is up to you. Linda was tagged by Bud; he was tagged by Frank, of Foxxfyrre's Honk'n'Holler (The link will take you to the post in which the meme originated; you can follow it, if you wish, to see whether I've followed the rules... or not.)

Linda picked things you shouldn't say around policemen; Foxxfyre chose things one shouldn't say around zombies.

I was going to pick children... but that only gave me one idea... not eight as suggested in the rules.

(That one idea? You shouldn't say anything around children that you don't want repeated. At the worst times. Or in the most embarrassing ways.)

So, I thought a bit more, and I came up with a number of things you shouldn't say to a judge. Be warned, these are a bit harsh:

8. What are you wearing under that robe?

7. I think you must have hit yourself on the head with that gavel once too often.

6. My brief is written using only words of one or two syllables so that you have a fair chance of understanding it.

5. Have you known opposing counsel long or did you only start sleeping with him recently?

4. Now I know why so many lawyers rated you "not qualified" in the last bar survey.

3. Contempt of court? Heck, no, I like the court fine; it's you I can't stand.

2. I'm so glad I didn't vote for you.

And the number one thing you should never, ever say to a judge:

1. Do I pay you off here or do I see your clerk after?

I'm afraid to tag anyone with this. Heck, I'm afraid to post this. But here goes....

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Change of season

The baseball season ended for Youngest Son as July ended; freshman football began this week. Today is the First Day of Hitting.

During the last week the kids have practiced long hours in the heat (it's been in the 90's pretty much every day in Chicago this week) -- but without pads. Now it gets interesting. Now there's contact.

Youngest Son explains it this way: There are nearly 90 boys out for freshman football, he says, but maybe only 50 really want to play. The others are there because their fathers want them there (I don't think the mothers every really push their sons into football) or else they're in it for a jersey.

There are no cuts; everyone who tries out will make the team. But not all will "see the field" with any regularity -- that is, there are some who won't get much playing time. Even in "B" team scrimmages. But they, too, will have jerseys... which they will wear proudly... particularly when girls are rumored to be nearby.

Nothing, apparently, says hunk-a hunk-a prospective man to a 14-year old girl than a pimply-faced, braces-wearing 14-year old boy in a football jersey.

And, inasmuch as freshman games are played at times when there are few teenaged witnesses likely to be in attendance (9:00 am on Saturday mornings), any person wearing a jersey is free to, shall we say, enhance his role on the squad.

This is even easier where the boys go to one high school and the girls to another: No one is necessarily available at the lunchtable to correct any disinformation that may have been given on Saturday night at the Freshman Mixer. Although, I presume, with the widespread use of Facebook, the lies will probably have to be more creative.

After today -- the First Day of Hitting -- the coaches will have a better idea of who can play and who will be most effective standing on the sidelines, cheering his comrades on. But during the week just past the boys were pretty much free to volunteer for any position. The head coach chided one boy who claimed too much expertise at too wide a variety of positions: "Son," he said, "I see you playing a lot this year at end, guard, and tackle. At the end of the bench, guarding the water cooler, and tackling anyone who tries to get at it out of turn."

Middle Son -- still at home -- has listened to his younger brother's tales of freshman football with obvious nostalgia. Last night he checked to see if his brother had correctly inserted the pads; he offered advice on boiling Youngest Son's mouthpiece; he helped Youngest Son adjust his helmet.

Inasmuch as the helmet adjustment consisted largely of bopping his brother on the head multiple times, Long Suffering Spouse and I began to suspect he was enjoying this assistance on multiple levels.

"You know," Middle Son said at one point, "I think our football camp starts tomorrow. I could play wide receiver." And he probably could: 6'4" with huge hands -- he's not blessed with blazing speed, but we are talking about a Division III program. A D-III football program that has not enjoyed much success of late. (His school's baseball team is much more successful, the proud father boasted.)

"And it would get me out of fall baseball, too," Middle Son added, and then I realized he was really thinking about it. From what I've seen these first two years, Fall baseball in Division III is a whole lot of effort which culminates in one day -- only one day -- of meaningless games.

There was a pause. Middle Son was sitting on the floor in our den but he was looking at some point in the future. "Of course," he concluded, "Coach would kill me."

And then I knew he'd thought it through enough.

So I'm here at the Undisclosed Location this Saturday morning, shortly to put this aside and start putting away some of the overwhelming stacks of paper on my desk and maybe -- please! -- starting to catch up on my timesheets. I'll leave at Noon to pick up Youngest Son from the First Day of Hitting.

I'll get him home and fed and watered, then Long Suffering Spouse and I will head right back out again. Middle Son still has one more summer game in which to pitch; his summer league playoffs may end today if his team wins both games of today's doubleheader.

So Middle Son couldn't have gone out for football today anyway.

But he feels the change of seasons just like most of the rest of us do -- as an observer, with a touch of wistfulness. Which means he's growing up.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Going back in time... would you be "technologically useful"?

Stumbled across this quiz at a site called The Universe As. Here's the set-up:
If you were to travel 2000 years into the past, how useful would you be in jumpstarting technological advancements? This 10 question quiz will help you figure out your technological usefulness. If you do poorly on the quiz, as most people likely will, then just let that inspire you to study up more on how things work and where raw materials come from.
Follow the link and take the quiz. I surprised myself by getting seven out of 10 right -- and to prove it, here are my results:

I was at least technologically useful enough to black out the correct answers before posting this. (No cheating!) And, as comforting as these results might be... I somehow doubt that a capricious fate would supply a multiple choice guess quiz when depositing someone in the days of Swords and Sandals. I'm afraid that -- even for someone who was genuinely technologically useful -- things would go more like they did for Mark Twain's Hank Morgan, in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. (Believe it or not, that's a link to the contents of the book. Public domain is a wonderful thing. And if you've only seen the Bing Crosby movie version, you really don't know the story.)

And besides, I really wouldn't want to go back that far in time, even if I could -- I'd much rather just take $1,000 back to the early 1960's so I could invest with Warren Buffett at the birth of Berkshire Hathaway....

As long as I could beam right back.

And start spending....

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Give me your "best shot" -- a chance to show off your work

Overflowing with self-confidence, Mr. Chris Lodge has an idea which, he says, "could spread far and wide across the internet, or die whimpering unknown and unloved." To date, the idea has at least spread here.

The idea espoused by the aforementioned Mr. Lodge, proprietor of both Thermal and Blog-Op, is contained in a Blog-Op post entitled Give Me Your Best Shot. Here is Mr. Lodge's vision of how this should work, shamelessly cribbed from the post aforesaid:

‘The Rules’

  1. Write a post telling your readers about your ‘best shot’ and link them to it.
  2. Link back to the blog which first asked you to give your best shot.
  3. Ask your readers for their best posts, and then ensure you read and comment on them.

I’m not looking to start another link train here, or have my name or URL stamped all over this, all I ask you to link to in your post, is the blog where you first learned of the idea: so if you’re reading this and decide to do it, then please link to me, but your readers should then link back to you and so on.


I stole got the idea from Blog-Op, to which I have accordingly linked back.

Now I refer you to a post from March 23, 2006, back to a time when I had no readers at all. The post is entitled The Journey of the Shoes -- Or -- Maybe We Should Just Bag the Whole Thing. It is a story that involves a sleepy (and therefore disorganized) teenager, an exasperated mother, and a clueless father. In this little family drama, I play the clueless father.

According to his own rules, the only one who actually has to read that piece is Chris -- but naturally I'd invite all to take a look and even leave a comment on the original piece.

Now, anyone who suffers through this and wants to resurrect an item from their archives can compel me to read said item simply by making your own "best shot" post and linking back to me. (Don't rely on Technorati to get word to me about the link; leave a comment.) I will then be honor-bound to visit and leave a comment. I get a new link; you get some traffic (hopefully not just me) to a hitherto neglected post.

Give it your best shot. And don't call it a "summer re-run."

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Tagged by Bee: The Alumni Meme

According to Bee, in the Alumni Meme one must write two paragraphs (only two?!?). One must be the nauseatingly upbeat, perky report about your own life -- the kind that some people send into their alumni rags... and the other must be a truthful translation -- a "franker, funnier one." (Bee acquired the meme from Michael C., of The Wonderful World of Nothing Worthwhile).

First, for the alumni rag:
Curmudgeon recently relocated his law practice to a new Undisclosed Location in Chicago's Loop. He wants all his classmates to know that he's accepting referrals in appellate work and insurance coverage cases and he'll be happy to work as co-counsel as well. Curmudgeon and his wife, Long Suffering Spouse, recently celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary. They have five children.
Now, the English translation:
Curmudgeon's so desperate for work that he'll even contact his law school magazine, knowing full well that he'll immediately go on 10 different donation-begging lists. You'd think the school would realize that these kinds of submissions are really pleas for help -- but they're pretty dense over there. And throwing in the wife and kids bit! Could he be more obvious? Talk about an attempt to play the heartstrings! Why doesn't he just come out and say they need shoes, too?
I'd continue in this vein... but all of a sudden I've got this urge to send a note to my alumni magazine and I want to work on that this morning instead....


I've been getting better about passing along tags... but, this time, I'll pass on passing. If you take up the challenge, leave me a comment: I'll be right over to take a look.

Bestest Blog of the Year Results -- Look, I got some votes!

Here's the Top 10 results (105 are listed) from Bobby Griffin's recent Bestest Blog of the Year contest:

  • 1: Bond’s Big Leather Couch
  • 2: Controlled Chaos
  • 3: Skittles’ Place
  • 4: Crazy Working Mom
  • 5: The Wonderful World of Nothing Worthwhile
  • 6: Here Comes a Storm
  • 7: My Marrakesh
  • 8: Second Effort
  • 9: Gem-osophy
  • 10: It’s a Blog Eat Blog World

  • I still don't understand the contest. But, seeing as how I got some actual votes, I guess I should figure out how his new blog works, eh?

    And, speaking of figuring it out, from comments left by the aforementioned Mr. Griffin to my last post, we have ascertained that he is a math teacher (although, disappointingly, he did not venture to explain my mathematical dilemma contained in that post).

    I was previously aware that Bobby Griffin was a teacher -- I'm just so relieved to find out that "Mr. Bestest" is not an English teacher....

    Friday, August 03, 2007

    New math: The difference between adjacent integers is not always equal -- or -- (n+1) - n is not always 1

    With a title like that, you know what this post is going to be about, don't you?

    C'mon -- you can guess, can't you?

    Why Sports, of course.

    My poor White Sox, for example, have just finished stinking up the Bronx, winning only one of three games from the hated Yankees. The Sox gave up home runs to nearly every member of the Yankee roster. I had my hands over my face so often during the series that I can't be sure if one or two Yankee pitchers might have launched dingers... and they don't even bat. (I have to state the obvious for Bee's sake -- and Chris's). The only Yankee who didn't get a home run during the Sox series was Alex Rodriguez. That's because poor A-Rod is stuck on 499. There's no great distance between 497 and 498 or 498 and 499 -- but there's a yawning chasm between 499 and 500.

    Just ask Barry Bonds, who's found it so difficult to move off of 754 home runs and tie and pass Hank Aaron. (Note to Bee and Chris -- don't really try and ask Bonds: He'd probably just snarl at you. If you're lucky.)

    And it's not just the larger numbers that are irregularly spaced. It turns out there's often an immense gulf between the numbers 2 and 3.

    We've just finished Youngest Son's baseball season. There's been a tournament every weekend in July and he's played a lot of games. And we've seen it time and again -- both when we've been in the field and (although not as often) when we've been at bat: Getting those first two outs seems easy enough... but getting to that third out... oh, brother.

    I don't know why they don't teach this in school. It's probably because they can't quantify it in a neat formula like the reasonable-looking (although, as we've seen, inaccurate) formula:
    (n + 1) - n = 1
    Is there a math teacher in the audience who can tackle this problem and report back?

    Chicago: Blogging capital of the world? BlogHer last weekend -- Yearly Kos this weekend

    According to Abdon M. Pallasch's story in this morning's Chicago Sun-Times Yearly Kos "is an outgrowth of the DailyKos weblog, which started just five years ago but has already become a potent force in Democratic politics." The Sun-Times story goes on to say that every one of the major Democratic presidential hopefuls will address the convention on Saturday; DNC Chair Howard Dean spoke to the group Thursday evening.

    The coverage accorded this weekend's blogging convention contrasts with the more limited coverage given last weekend's BlogHer convention. There's nothing on the Sun-Times website about it. Steven Johnson, the Tribune's "Internet critic," did a column on the BlogHer conference that ran July 27. I missed it in the print edition.

    But there was no missing today's story on page 3 of the Tribune about Yearly Kos. (Oddly, the story about a gathering of bloggers did not make the front page of the Tribune's Internet edition, although Pallasch's story was prominently linked on the front page of the Sun-Times web site. Steve Johnson does have a story online about Markos Moulitsas' Chicago-area roots -- as opposed to Kos' "netroots.")

    What do you suppose accounts for the differences in coverage?

    Yearly Kos is bigger -- 1,500 bloggers in attendance as opposed to about 800 for BlogHer (according to the links above). And, if there are many different agendas and goals for the BlogHer attendees, Yearly Kos is a completely focused political gathering. These are the true believers. These are the zealots that can, by concerted action and concentrated vitriol, deny (for example) the Democratic Senate nomination to a Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut. (He ran thereafter, as you'll recall, as an Independent and won reelection anyway.)

    I don't think the Yearly Kos bloggers would reject the "true believer" or "zealot" labels, by the way; I presume they see themselves as leading or shaping public opinion... but I'm sure they do see themselves out front, pulling the masses leftward -- not as a largely self-contained community that feeds on and reinforces the biases and prejudices they all share. And, if their growing reach extends beyond influencing primaries (which have always been where true believers have the most pull) to general elections, they'll be right, won't they?

    I express neither an opinion nor a prediction at this time. But, speaking as a Chicago taxpayer, I can say this to the Yearly Kos visitors: Welcome. Spend money.

    I wonder what blogging group is booked here for next weekend? The right wing true believers? Organic gardeners? Roswell conspiracy theorists? If you know, be sure to leave word....

    Thursday, August 02, 2007

    The worst Summer job? A reminiscence and an Unscientific Survey

    I've mentioned Middle Son's soul-crushing summer job as a telemarketer here recently.

    I can't imagine cold-calling strangers on the phone to sell them something; I have enough trouble calling people I'm supposed to call. I don't even like telephoning friends or family.

    I am certain that Middle Son will long remember this Summer job and how much he disliked it. (Even though his bosses took him to Florida recently to pitch in a baseball tournament. And they paid.)

    My worst Summer job did not involve a Florida trip....

    *flashback alert* *flashback alert* *flashback alert*

    After my first year of law school I hired on as a decoy, shield and foil for a builder of new homes.

    Technically, I guess I was a laborer, but I was really a decoy, shield and foil.

    I was a skinny kid in those days, weak as the U.N., and far happier reading books than working outdoors.

    But my father knew the general contractor, a dark, hirsute, Italian-American man about 5'6" and built like a barrel. "Kid, we're going to turn you into coiled steel this Summer," he told me. "Coiled steel." He had trouble saying that with a straight face.

    My father thought he'd conned the contractor into taking me on.

    The job was close enough to our home that I probably rode my bike to and from.

    I may have seen the actual contractor twice more in the Summer. The guy I reported to every day was the foreman. I'll call him Burt.

    Burt wasn't tall either, but he was thin and sandy-haired and he spoke with a twang that betrayed a Southern origin. I'm not saying he was from Georgia -- in Illinois, anyone born South of I-80 might have a Southern twang. Burt was the public face of the project; when home buyers came to see how their new homes were coming along, Burt was the man they came to see.

    This was a small subdivision. No homes were built on spec; each lot was under contract before ground was broken there.

    I was one of three laborers on the site; the others were Mexicans. I learned all sorts of words that Summer that my wife (a Cuban-American) claims not to know.

    Whatever time I got there in the morning -- and it was early -- the Mexicans were there before me. They kept working after I was free to go. I eventually learned that they were sleeping on the site. Looking back, I assume they were illegals. At the time all I knew was that they worked longer and harder on their worst day than I could on my best.

    But they couldn't be effective decoys, shields and foils... as I'll explain... eventually.

    I did a lot of sweeping here or toting supplies there. One recurring job I had involved pumping basements. Before the houses were enclosed, if it rained, the basements would fill with water. Depending on where the water table was, the basements might have filled with water anyway. This is why sump pumps were invented.

    And it was a sump pump I was using, hooked up to a gasoline powered generator. Unfortunately I couldn't just drop the hose in and walk away. I had to jump into the basements and direct the hose, because otherwise it would promptly be clogged with debris.

    The tradesmen used the basements for dumping whatever they needed to dump. Sometimes it was scraps of wood or shingles. Sometimes it was other things. I had to stand in the muck and mire and keep the business end of the hose from becoming clogged.

    This would be bad enough, but occasionally, in the afternoons, after drinking several beers at lunch, the bricklayers would be overcome by a predictable need. This was something else that would be put into the basement... whether I was there or not. Sometimes I think they were aiming for me. Maybe it was a contest. I was not about to inquire.

    The bricklayers weren't the only tradesmen to drink at lunch. I accepted the plumber's invitation to lunch one day. He drove us to a joint off the site. I let him buy me a beer... but I wasn't going to let him buy me two. Something in his manner or tone... well, I was glad to get back to work. Even with the bricklayers working above me.

    Another time I was bringing insulation to the carpenters. The youngest of them asked me if I was from the area. Yes, I said. He asked if I had gone to the local high school. Yes, I said. "How many years?" he asked.

    "Um. All four," I replied.

    "Oh," he said. "College boy." His voice carried something of a sneer. I certainly did not volunteer that I had by then already graduated college.

    But -- you ask -- when do you get to the part about being a decoy, shield and foil?

    Well, these houses were all under contract, as I said, and the contracts promised that the houses would be complete by such and such a date.

    Whatever the date was, it seemed always to be in the distant past.

    And the new home buyers -- young couples, really, maybe with a kid or two, maybe not -- generally moving up from an apartment or condo -- didn't realize that the scheduled completion date was not as firm as it had seemed to be on paper.

    We had people living with their parents. Or in their cars. With their furniture in increasingly expensive storage. And they were angry, angry young couples that came to confront ol' Burt every couple of days. I don't recall seeing any of them carrying ropes or torches or pitchforks... but they had the attitude of persons who might carry such things as they stalked around the site looking for Burt.

    And that's where I came in.

    Ol' Burt would weather their initial blasts as best he could. Sooner or later, he reasoned, they'd have to stop just in order to breathe.

    And that's when Burt would motion me over.

    "Bill, Sally," he'd twang, just as if they'd been discussing baseball and not threatening to tear his limbs out of their sockets, "have you met our young Curmudgeon? C'mon over here, Curmudgeon, and meet Bill and Sally."

    Now Burt would turn back to Bill and Sally and tell them, in a conversational, even conspiratorial, tone, "Curmudgeon here is a college boy. He's going to law school." Then he'd turn toward me -- and I'd better be there -- "Aren't you, Curmudgeon?"

    My job at this point was to have my hand extended. Yes, Burt would direct me, shake hands with Bill and Sally (or Ted and Jane or Ed and Edna). These same people, who moments ago had murder in their hearts and blood in their eye, would now shake hands with me and engage in pointless small talk about school. After all, they had no quarrel with me. Maybe one of them had gone to the same school as I had. So much the better if he or she had.

    The moment of danger would pass: Bill and Sally weren't hardened killers, they were just frustrated, but fundamentally nice, people who were sick of living in their car. So having exchanged conversational niceties with yours truly, they weren't able to immediately recapture their violent rage. Burt could then placate them with promises of one more week or 10 more days.

    Some of them must have driven away wondering what had just happened.

    Thirty years out I am more convinced than ever that this was my real value to the project.

    I'm sure I did get physically stronger working that job, although I never did rise to the level of "coiled steel." But what I really learned was that law school wasn't so bad after all. I'd had my doubts, after my first year, about whether I really wanted to go back. This job helped me to resolve to finish my degree.

    Which leads, inexorably, to today's Unscientific Survey: What was your worst part-time job... and did it have any effect on your life over and above the paycheck?

    Image from Flicr by donajo.