Friday, July 30, 2010

The end of summer... and, yes, I know it's still July

The late summer cicadas are in the trees now, their pulsating whine in the early evening drowning out the airplanes coming into O'Hare (no mean trick in and of itself). They seem to have started particularly early this year, probably because its been warmer than usual. Certainly it's been lots warmer than last summer, which was one of the coolest on record in Chicago.

But the cicadas are not the only harbinger of approaching autumn.

You know how the "bees" (really they're yellow jackets but we're City folk and not supposed to know the difference) get more aggressive as the first frost draws near?

Well, they haven't started yet. Not really.

But Youngest Son's baseball season is almost over and the fiction of football "camps" is shortly to be discarded in favor of good old-fashioned practices. My wife has been working non-stop on school-related stuff all week. She even went into school a couple times looking for things. I even went with her once.

The school year is almost upon us. Youngest Son will start classes two weeks from Monday. Long Suffering Spouse may have seminars week after next. She'll be in her classroom more and more now. Younger Daughter will hold out until nearly the end of August -- but not all of the yellow jackets get aggressive at the same time, do they?

Summer's almost over and I could have sworn it was just the 4th of July.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Secret document dumps and gut decision making

It's the volume of paper involved that gets to me in the recently disclosed mass document dump of Afghan war secrets. I understand that the leaker -- whether it was the Army private under suspicion or someone else to be determined -- did not empty a warehouse of documents. He pushed a button -- and the digital equivalent of a pile of paper that would fill a small library was conveyed through the ether to the hidden lair of Wikileaks.

I don't think very many readers will have ever tried to get their minds around much more than a thousand pages -- at least not since they were sentenced to read War and Peace in high school. Sure, there may be tens of thousands of volumes in the local branch library, but you go in looking for Stephen King or Neil Gaiman or Tom Clancy or Sara Paretsky... maybe an armload of books... but not 76,000 pages, much less 76,000 documents.

I had a case once in which I had to manage a huge volume of documents. A huge volume for me, anyway. There were probably over 30,000 pages of documents produced in discovery that I had to keep track of and be able to refer to for particular witnesses and discovery progressed. I bought several cases of binders and punched holes forever and made indexes for each volume. I bought a couple of library carts for the most frequently used binders and before every deposition would push these out of my office and into the conference room. (I usually made choo-choo noises as I went. Dignity. Always dignity.)

Anyway, I'm here to testify that 30,000 pages is a lot of paper -- and difficult for one person to digest.

There are lawyers who might stumble upon this post who would guffaw at me for thinking that 30,000 pages is a lot of paper: There are cases in which hundreds of thousands, even millions, of pages are produced, and and legions of minions are assembled to manage and sort and sift these paper mountains (which, of course, aren't on paper any more at all -- like the Afghan documents, at some point, keeping paper copies becomes too unwieldy and the collections are reduced to bits and bytes). But my point is that there is an individual limit -- only so much paper that even the grindiest, wonkiest lawyer -- or policy analyst -- can handle. As reports are collected from the field -- whether in discovery in sprawling mass tort litigation or from the towns and villages of Afghanistan -- they must be compressed. Summarized. Synthesized. I'm not referring to mere digitizing, although that happens now as well in this modern age. I refer, rather, to the process by which this information is compressed so that the next person up the chain of command can absorb the gist of the information.

Those 76,000 documents dumped on Wikileaks -- and their brother and sister documents (I'm sure there were others) -- had to be squeezed and compressed multiple times before they turned up as... what?... a page or two in the President's morning briefing book? How many levels of compression must there have been before the information even made it out of the military and into the civilian chain of command?

There are so many opportunities, at each choke point, for the person editing to extract only the favorable information, or the information that the editor thinks that his or her superiors wants, so that the end product may bear no resemblance whatsoever to the source data.

I wonder that anyone, in this age of information overload, can presume to make an "informed decision."

I've read recently that research shows that humans retain an instinct for 'gut' decisions. Some people are better than others at these, obviously. But the point of the research, as I understand it, that most people's initial gut decisions are better than their considered opinions after careful study.

I found this research fascinating because of my own experience taking a whole bunch of sample tests before I took the bar exam 30 years ago. I had answer keys to refer to when I was done. I discovered that I might guess wrong on a multiple choice test -- but, if I went back to reconsider my initial guess, and really thought the question through, my second answer was almost invariably wrong. (I tried, and largely failed, at transmitting this epiphany to my children over the years. I called it the "Pillar of Salt" school of test taking, after the Old Testament story of Lot's wife. "Don't look back," I warned the kids, "you may not turn into a pillar of salt, but your second guess will not be better than your first.")

Anyway, sanitized, compressed, refined information edited by all sorts of underlings with their own agendas may yield wholly unreliable conclusions. Our policy makers might be better off going by their 'guts' alone rather than by studying the thoroughly winnowed information that makes it to their desks.

And, whoa nellie, that makes me nervous.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The enormity of the Afghan leaks -- and the limits of secrecy

I'd heard different figures bandied about -- 92,000 documents, 95,000 -- this updated story on the Chicago Tribune website refers to "more than 76,000 reports published by WikiLeaks, many of them brief and routine."

Gosh that's a lot of paper.

The linked Tribune story reports that an Army PFC is suspected of forwarding the documents to WikiLeaks.

You have to wonder, though, how secret things really are when privates have access.

And that's just the first clue that something's wrong with the secrecy classification on all these materials.

This analysis from the Los Angeles Times (the link is to the Chicago Tribune site, however) talks about how the documents detail the extensive cooperation between Pakistani security forces and the Taliban. Pardon me while I try, unsuccessfully, to feign surprise.

Pakistan has long sought to be (at least) the predominant foreign influence in Afghanistan. I am dismayed to read of apparent confirmation of long-standing rumors that some Pakistani security agents helped Taliban forces plan and execute attacks on Western forces including, necessarily, Americans. But it's not something really new.

If I've been reading about these issues on line and in newspapers and newsmagazines long before this "leak" -- not top secret documents, mind you, and I have no security clearance whatsoever -- how secret is it?

How secret should it be?

It seems our government has a mania for secrecy in an age where secrets are harder to keep than ever. This is neither a Democratic failing nor a Republican one -- it is a statist reflex, apparently.

The funny thing is that secrets have always been hard to keep. As Ben Franklin said, long, long ago: Two people can keep a secret -- if one of them is dead.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

An inauspicious beginning to a bad day....

I did get a seat on the train this morning, but we're close enough to the airport that I usually do. And there was no air conditioning on that car. Even at 7:45am, thanks to our ongoing heat wave, the car was stifling. I think the heat was actually on.

But, good news! The train stopped at Jefferson Park and remained standing for a minute because of a stopped train ahead. I could bolt from my airless car and search for one in which the A/C might be working.

And, in fact, the next car back did have the air on. It was delightfully cool. And there was a seat just for me. I sat down... and my feet got stuck to the floor.

Maybe it was beer spilled on the floor; maybe it was soda pop. All the same, my shoes made skritch skritch sounds with every step when I got off the train and walked into the courthouse.

And then the day went downhill....

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A true courtroom story

I had a fire case once. I represented the owners of a building that burned down on one of the coldest nights in Chicago's recorded history. It was so cold that nearly all of the nearby hydrants were frozen solid. The Fire Department had a terrible time getting water on the fire. Because of this the fire communicated to several surrounding buildings.

Thankfully, no one was seriously hurt in the conflagration.

But that did not mean there were no lawsuits. There were many. There were, at one time, 16 separate cases arising from that one fire, all consolidated. The complete case caption was several pages long.

A non-lawyer will read a set-up like this and assume that this will be a story about the dramatic moment at the eventual trial where, by a combination of skill and daring, I elicited testimony from my opponent's expert that made the jurors gasp -- and won, in that moment, a verdict for my clients.

Non-lawyers watch too many lawyer shows on television.

Actually the case never went to trial. Eventually, it settled. I will admit (modestly, of course) that I had a few good moments in the course of this marathon litigation -- but this story is not about any of these either.

Rather, it is about the last of the several judges to whom this litigation was assigned.

With all these consolidated cases, we were in court on this case a lot. Sometimes we were in court a couple of times a month. There were occasions when we were in court far more often than that.

In our state court, we have a modified master calendar system. While there are today several individual calendars, where a case may be handled from filing through verdict, most of our larger (Law Division) cases are assigned to one of five motion judges who handle preliminary matters until the case is determined to be ready for trial.

Most cases never get to trial.

When I started, a generation ago, there were only two Law Division motion calls and no individual calendars. Now there are five motion calls and several individual calendar calls to which any Law Division case might be randomly assigned and many more individual calendar calls to which contract cases are assigned.

But my story goes back aways, as most of the best stories do. There were already five motion judges and I don't think there were yet any individual calls.

That means each judge saw 20% of the cases filed in the Law Division.

And I had a lot more cases than this one complicated fire case -- it's just that, for reasons of pure chance, none of them were on Judge Willard's motion call (I'm making up names again). Judge Willard had taken over for Judge Thomas, who'd been promoted to the Chancery Division. Judge Thomas had taken over for Judge Joseph after Judge Joseph was elected to the Appellate Court. There may have been others too, but you get the idea.

Now in the insurance defense practice that I had in those days, I might have auto cases or product cases or premises liability (fall-down cases). I might have contract cases (we represented insurance companies in first party matters, too; these would be suits claiming the insurer had failed to pay a covered claim). But, for the longest time, I was never before Judge Willard in any of these cases.

I was only in front of him in this one fire case. Frequently. Regularly. Judge Willard got to know who I was in terms of this case.

Too well, as it happens.

The wheel spun and the seasons changed and the giant fire case settled. Little by little, I had new cases assigned to Judge Willard's calendar. I'd bring my motions attacking the pleadings.

I was really good at that, back in the day. Illinois is a fact pleading state (as opposed to the federal courts, where only notice pleading is required). The difference between fact and notice pleading is that, in fact pleading, a plaintiff must set out legally sufficient facts supporting every element necessary to prove his claim. That's actually pretty easy to do, if you've thought the case through, and you know the facts. But sometimes the opposing lawyer hadn't. And sometimes the lawyer didn't want to get very specific. Sometimes it would be in the best interests of the plaintiff's lawyer to be a little vague -- because anything you plead you promise to prove: The allegations of a complaint will potentially be a jury instruction. And, obviously, the plaintiff wants to recover as much as possible by pleading as little as he can. Just as obviously, the defendant wants the plaintiff to be hamstrung by pleading all sorts of stuff he can't prove. The judge decides what's necessary.

Thus, my motions.

And I came before Judge Willard with an easy motion in an auto case.


I was shaken. I'd always done well with Judge Willard. In my gigantic fire case, I always felt if I'd received a respectful hearing. I didn't always win -- who does? -- but I more than held my own. But here I felt as if I'd been swatted away -- virtually ignored.

Next came a premises case. This was an easy one, I thought, because it was clear that the plaintiff had tried to skip over all sorts of necessary facts. I had won similar motions in other courtrooms dozens of times. When the case was called, I walked up to the bench with confidence. I opened up my mouth to speak --


Things went from bad to worse. In the course of the next few months it seems that every new file I got was assigned to Judge Willard. I kept filing motions and I kept losing. Construction case? Denied. Contract case? Denied. More auto cases, more premises cases -- denied, denied, denied. False imprisonment? Denied. Intentional infliction of emotional distress? Denied.

After the court rules, the lawyer writes up the order and presents it to the clerk for the court's review and signature. Assuming that the judge finds nothing amiss, the clerk will stamp the copies and give them back. Usually, it's the prevailing party that writes up the order -- but I always volunteered to write the order, win or lose. That's a whole other story in itself.

Suffice to say, I was waiting one day for the clerk to stamp proof of my latest defeat. The courtroom was empty. My case had been one of the last on the morning call. My opponent had approved the wording of the order and had taken off. The judge had left the bench.

Judge Willard's clerk was a nice, matronly lady. She was relatively new in that room, though I'd seen her in other courtrooms over the years. In fact, she'd arrived in Judge Willard's courtroom right around the time my terrible losing streak began. As she handed back the copies that morning, she had a deeply concerned look on her face. "I don't know how to ask this," the clerk began, "and I don't mean to give offense. But... Mr. Curmudgeon... do you ever win any of these motions?"

I had no answer to that question. I'd begun to ask it myself.

But I was saved finally by a case involving -- have you guessed yet? -- a fire. It seems that a fire originated in the wall behind a stove at a community organization I was representing. That fire had allegedly communicated to an adjacent building, causing property damage.

The case had been assigned to Judge Willard and I approached the bench on this occasion with some trepidation. The clerk leaned forward from her desk adjacent to the bench, offering silent support or maybe even encouragement.

I began to speak.

Judge Willard, as was his habit, was leaning forward on the bench, resting his head in one of his hands. When I said the word "fire," though, he suddenly sat upright.

"Fire?" he asked.

There was further colloquy -- but that was the decisive moment. Motion granted.

Thereafter, every case became a fire case in Judge Willard's courtroom. Nobody fell down without a cigarette burning in their mouth; there were flames or at least sparks of some sort in any product case. In any auto case, somebody was driving a Firebird. Or at least something that arguably looked like one.

I still didn't win every motion -- again, who does? -- but I started winning my share again... once I learned that I'd become a specialist.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Museum of Science and Industry seeks blogger for 30 day stay; Curmudgeon interested

The Chicago Tribune reports that our Museum of Science and Industry is seeking a blogger to move into the museum for 30 days "to experience all the fun and education that fits in this historic 14-acre building."

Now, the museum folks don't just want a blogger, although that will be part of the assignment -- they'll want someone who can Facebook and Twitter and Tweet and Chirp or whatever it is that those darn fool kids do these days.

No doubt the winner of the contest (that's a link to the museum contest site) will be a 20-something underemployed graduate student. Probably with piercings and tattoos and everything.

But I wish the museum would consider an alternative -- an aging, but-not-yet-entirely-decrepit lawyer, for example. Someone who recalls that the Museum is housed in the Palace of Fine Arts built for the Columbian Exposition of 1893 -- that it is the only major building that remains from "The White City" constructed for that world's fair. (And no, despite what my children may tell you, I did not attend the Columbian Exposition!)

Anyway, the Museum should consider someone who's seen not only the U-505 -- the only World War II German U-boat to be captured intact by the Allies during the war -- and a star attraction of the Museum of Science and Industry, in case you didn't know -- but also an American counterpart, the USS Cobia, housed further up Lake Michigan at Manitowoc, Wisconsin. (The vintage American sub -- though tiny by contemporary standards -- is nevertheless far bigger than the U-boat.)

I suppose my inability to tweet and twirp may be held against me, but I'm sure I could pick up enough of the skill to hold my own.

I'm halfway tempted to fill out the application in my own name -- there is a $10,000 stipend involved so I don't think Long Suffering Spouse would object too much, even if I were required to absent myself from the family home for the 30 day stay.

Don't you think it would be a pretty darn cool thing to have an entire museum to one's self, after hours, without crowds?

Friday, July 16, 2010

Long Suffering Spouse opens the cell phone bill

I wasn't in my office when my wife called. And I didn't have my cell phone with me either.

When I got back, though, there was a text message on the cell -- from Younger Daughter -- something along the lines of "so you know, Mom's on the warpath."

Only she didn't write "on the warpath." She used a single, earthier word that means the same thing in America; Britons, however, use that word as a synonym for inebriation. You can probably figure it out from there. I made a mental note to both thank Younger Daughter for the warning and talk to her -- again! -- about finding more appropriate ways to express herself, particularly in writing.

And then the office phone rang.

It was Long Suffering Spouse and she had up a full head of steam. "We have to change phone companies!" she began.

"What happened?" I asked.

"Well, I got the mail," she began. "Nothing much, really, except the cell phone bill. I opened that so I could get the due date."

We have a System at the Curmudgeon home for dodging late fees. We calendar the due date for every bill. If our cash flow were both regular and sufficient, we could pay our bills twice a month like they do in the movies. Some bills would be paid a few days early that way, but -- if you have the money -- what's the harm?

As it happens, our own cash flow is seldom regular or sufficient. If the grace period on a charge card is 26 days, our best case scenario is to have something together by Day 25. Or Day 25½. As a business owner, I'd be much happier getting 100% of my bill paid a day late than 10% paid on the due date. But lawyers can't charge interest -- at least I don't know any who do. Credit card companies, though, are thrilled to take 10% -- because they can charge exorbitant interest on the balance. And 100% paid a day late isn't 100% at all: Interest is charged on the whole amount... and there's a "late fee" of $39. Except, sometimes, now that we have post-Great Recession, Obama-inspired credit card reform, the late fee may be as low as $29.


Well, we have this calendar, anyway, and we put all the bills on their due dates. And all we have to do, to avoid being late on any bill, is look at the calendar.

Which I only forget to do sometimes.

This was one of the reasons why Long Suffering Spouse checked the front of the bill to see if last month's payment was reflected. "I saw you paid the bill last month," she told me, "and then I saw that this month's bill was $20 more. And I wondered why."

Our cell phone provider started out life as a Baby Bell, in Texas, as I understand it, but grew to swallow most of the other Baby Bells, including Ameritech here in the Midwest, and eventually grew large enough to swallow Ma Bell herself. For the classically trained, that's a switch on the old myth of Cronus, or Saturn, if you insist -- the god who used to swallow up his children -- until Zeus (Jupiter) managed to avoid getting eaten and consigned Daddy to Tartarus. I never name companies here, exactly, especially big ones that might sue me for portraying them in an unflattering light. So let's just call this company BP&P, because that rhymes, sort of.

Anyway, our BP&P bills are usually 10 or 12 pages long, chock full of fees and charges and taxes on each of the three lines that are still on that account. (Older Daughter, Oldest Son, and Middle Son have all aged out of our home cell phone account. Oddly enough, none of them use BP&P for their mobile phones.) Cryptologists should consider using the BP&P billing format for their most secret codes: All the information is there, in plain sight, but it's entirely unintelligible. No mere mortal could ever hope to decipher it.

We pay one fee for my wife's line, then $10 a month for each of the lines used by Younger Daughter and Youngest Son. We pay a fee for unlimited texting. If the bill is to be believed, Younger Daughter is really stretching the meaning of "unlimited." Supposedly, she had something like 4,500 texts this past month. That averages to 150 a day -- and a little more than six per each hour in a 24 hour day. Assuming there must be times when texting is impossible -- while asleep, presumably, or in the shower -- and other times when texting is decidedly not adviseable -- while driving, for example, or attending church -- the number is truly staggering.

There are times when one can not text, right?

Long Suffering Spouse walked me through the entire bill, phone line by phone line, line by line within each phone line, until we got to the charges ascribed to Youngest Son.

There were charges for a "people finder" service and some sort of data plan. According to the bill, as Long Suffering Spouse interpreted it, Youngest Son was surfing the Internet from his phone, downloading many kilobytes of digital goodies.

There's one problem.

We purposely disabled any Internet access from the kids' phones. So Long Suffering Spouse knew that wasn't right.

After further scrutiny, she found an 800 number for customer service. She called.

Now, as I heard the story, Long Suffering Spouse did not have flames shooting from her eyes at the outset. This was a simple mistake. A computer glitch. Easy to fix, in her mind.

Her good attitude largely prevailed as she punched through menu after menu after menu... after... menu... trying to find a living, breathing human being to whom this problem might be explained.

Eventually, an alleged human being was connected. My wife explained the problem.

"Let me access your account," said the alleged human being.

There was a pause.

"No, there's been no mistake," said the alleged human being. "Your son is using the service. In fact he's already downloaded one item this billing cycle."

Now, the sparks began to fly. But Long Suffering Spouse is a teacher, and not prone to losing her temper immediately. More tersely now, she began to explain, using small words, how all Internet-related services had been disconnected one month after we got the phones. (We had to take the services for a month, my wife reminded me later. But she called on the first day everything could be canceled -- and did so.)

"Well, that may be," said the alleged human being. But, she went on to explain, Youngest Son had supposedly received a text in April or thereabouts offering these people finding and data services free for one month. He had not responded. Anyone not responding is automatically enrolled in the program -- at an a la carte rate. However, BP&P offers a package rate for this service which would effectively reduce the monthly cost and provide unlimited access to these services and would Long Suffering Spouse be interested in this?

I'll pause for a moment here, as you both imagine the sparks emanating from Long Suffering Spouse's eyes changing to geysers of flame and get your mind around the concept of BP&P "enrolling" customers in a program when the customer -- a minor, mind you -- fails to respond to the invitation to join the program.

* * * * * * * * * *

I understand it is fashionable among the Red Meat Republicans to decry our legal system generally and class actions in particular. But if this sort of skullduggery doesn't cry out for class action, what in heck does?

My office cell phone is also with BP&P. For years -- until the kids made me -- I did not have texting on my phone. Nevertheless, I'd get hit every other month or so, with a 10¢ charge here or a 20¢ there for texts I'd never sent. I called once or twice and -- after my own epic journeys through phone menu Hell -- got the charges reversed. After awhile, though, I stopped. I was spending $50 in time to save 20¢. Even a bad businessman like me can figure out that this is not the highest and best use of my time. But phantom 10¢ or 20¢ charges multiplied out over tens of thousands of users, maybe millions? It could add up quickly. And, here again, this is exactly the kind of abuse for which class actions were invented. It's a shame they've been effectively gutted.

And, for that matter, I think BP&P has inserted a mandatory arbitration clause in its customer agreements. Can you see paying AAA rates to challenge a bogus 10¢ charge? Now that I reflect a bit, I think that's when I stopped challenging the bogus text charges. And, of course, eventually I was obliged to buy a text package anyway.

End of interlude.

* * * * * * * * * *

Have you gotten you mind around the concept of how BP&P enrolls kids in monthly plans without the account holder's knowledge or consent yet?

"You enrolled him in this plan because he... did... not... respond?" asked Long Suffering Spouse.

Mind you, I wasn't a witness to this conversation -- thankfully -- but I have seen my wife in flaming-eye mode from time to time. And I can readily see her biting off each word, with impeccable diction and increasing ferocity. Still, she did not lose control. Yet. "My son is here," she said, and for a wonder, he was. And he was even awake! "Please talk to him."

And the alleged human being agreed.

Youngest Son got on the phone and the alleged human being walked him through the steps for accessing the data package. When she got to the screen where he should be on the Internet, the alleged human being asked, "What does the screen say?"

"Access denied," said Youngest Son.

I don't know if Long Suffering Spouse was by Youngest Son's side or listening on the extension during this exchange, but Youngest Son quickly got out of Dodge and Long Suffering Spouse took control of the conversation, "Now do you understand?" she asked.

"I don't know how he's doing it," conceded the alleged human being, "but somehow he is. It says so on my screen. Do you want to cancel this service?"

That pushed Long Suffering Spouse right over the edge.

"Cancel the service?" she asked. "Cancel the service? No! Cancel all the lines. Close my account!"

I really don't know how Long Suffering Spouse was talked back from this, especially by the alleged human being. But, as Long Suffering Spouse explained it to me, BP&P agreed to cancel all the data charges on this bill -- and on the preceding bill that I'd paid without protest. And they'd knock the alleged data use off the next bill, too, though it will probably appear anyway when the bill comes in next month. She'd saved us about $50 and Long Suffering Spouse was pretty pleased with the way she'd handled it.

I was pretty pleased, too, especially in that she hadn't burned down the house with the jets of fire erupting from her eyes. And in that she didn't sound too angry with me for failing to catch the unrequested "service" on the last bill.

"And I'm looking at the cell phone bills from now on," Long Suffering Spouse told me. "And whenever we're out of contract, we are getting a new phone provider."

"OK," I said -- although I wonder if any of them are really any better.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Isn't it amazing...?

Isn't it amazing how much work you can get done in the morning if you don't spend two hours... or three hours when you're searching for just the right illustration... putting together a blog post? Of course, I'm squandering my advantage this morning... but I have the best of intentions for making up for this momentary frolic and detour.

Of course, I usually do.

Isn't it amazing that nobody bothered to check for leaks in the latest equipment being used to try and plug the BP oil disaster? But, it's all OK now -- BP says the valve leak is fixed so they can go back to testing their latest improvisational stop-gap repair idea.

Why am I not comforted?

Isn't it amazing that JPMorgan Chase is reporting huge second quarter profits?

No, it's not.

In related news, the Senate is poised to pass a financial reform bill this morning. The Democrats claim that this will prevent another financial meltdown; the Republicans claim that the bill institutionalizes "too big to fail" and portends future government bailouts. And the linked Reuters article says, "Nearly half of those surveyed in a Bloomberg poll released on Tuesday believe the bill will do more to protect the financial industry than consumers, while only 38 percent believe it will protect consumers more."

Is that amazing?

No, it's just sad.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Curmudgeon goes to the show

I don't think the expression is current. I certainly don't know if the expression was used nationwide. But, unless you're talking about professional baseball players achieving the major leagues, "going to the show" has always meant taking in a film to me.

Long Suffering Spouse and I saw a movie on Saturday. The accompanying illustration no doubt destroys any suspense I might otherwise have built up about what we went to see.

I love Pixar movies. I've seen nearly all of them in first run. I didn't get a chance to see Up in the theater and I wasn't entirely interested in going to see Cars, but I own every Pixar feature on DVD and I love them all. Even Cars, which surprised me.

Pixar movies are animated, but they're not for kids. Or, at least, not only for kids. That's the way good movies should be -- a little something for everyone.

And Pixar movies play shamelessly with the heartstrings. My sister Betty and her daughter walked out on Monsters, Inc. when Boo's door got shredded. She wasn't the only one. I remember feeling devastated myself when I saw it, and thought the film had been ruined for me. Except Pixar found a way to make it all better in the end. Now I just trust Pixar and surrender.

Of course, I did wait three weeks to go see Toy Story 3 -- I always planned to wait at least a week and let the crowds die down and, in the meantime, other things got in the way of our going. And, of course, Long Suffering Spouse and I went to the earliest show at the local movie palace, when ticket prices were only $5 apiece.

I was so happy with the bargain, I even offered to spring for popcorn.

"Please don't," said Long Suffering Spouse. "Leave me with my illusions."

I am amazed by the ability of the Pixar folks to take a corporate mandate -- make sequels! -- and turn it into a wonderful movie. I choked up several times during the movie, and laughed out loud, too -- I did not, mind you, LOL, I really and truly laughed. At the end, my eyes were moist. I hate it when my allergies act up that way....

On the way out, Long Suffering Spouse pointed out that the bad guys in the last two Toy Story movies have been grouchy, bitter old farts. I was forced to agree. I like Pixar, but Pixar doesn't like guys like me....

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Movie shoot 'transforms' Loop -- Curmudgeon safe

(Photo obtained from this site.)

So far.

Yes, it's Sunday and I'm here at the Undisclosed Location, the street in front of my building having been closed off to facilitate the filing of Transformers 3.

A block west of here there are some giant prop boulders suggesting torn-up pavement. There's a truck parked in the middle of it. It is tilting suggestively. One guesses the occupants of said truck did not fare well in the shooting script. The scene reminds us that, apparently, not everything can be done, even in this modern age, with CGI.

The picture with this post is from a different, though nearby, street, Washington Street, looking east from Wells towards LaSalle. I assume that the photo was taken yesterday. I haven't heard any explosions or anything like that this morning, even though I've cranked a couple of windows open here (no A/C here on Sunday).

I don't think I'm in any great danger of getting stomped on by a giant metal robot that can disguise itself as a truck: My Undisclosed Location probably isn't recognizable at all as a Chicago office building to anyone from out of town. What's the point in destroying such a building? I think the filmmakers prefer landmark-type buildings that moviegoers can readily identify. Thus (as I was reading just the other day), the Great Pyramid of Khufu has been "destroyed" several times now in various movies.

You know, I was raised thinking that the Great Pyramid was the Great Pyramid of Cheops -- and I just had to look that up now to find out why. It turns out that the Cheops was how the Greeks referred to the old fella. The name stuck for centuries... but fashions change.

But I digress.

I came here this morning to clean off my desk and I should be about that task. Assuming no Transformers demolish my building overnight, that should give me a leg up as the week begins....

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Blago and me

Today at the Blagojevich trial, the Chicago Tribune reports, the jury heard testimony that, as governor, Blagojevich hardly ever came into either of the offices provided for him, in Chicago or Springfield.

The testimony, from Blagojevich's last chief of staff, was that Blagojevich would come into work for no more than two to eight hours a week.

(I mean -- who did he think he was? A blogger?)

This testimony was no surprise to me. I thought I'd blogged about it here, but I couldn't find mention of it in the archives. But there was a piece on one of the local TV stations well before the impeachment about how infrequently Blagojevich left his Northwest Side home. I know I saw it on the Capitol Fax Blog. When Blagojevich did venture out, it was to a staged event or, possibly, to his campaign office.

(Why do you suppose Blagojevich flirted with the idea of appointing Oprah Winfrey to Barack Obama's Senate seat? Oprah was someone that Blago at least saw every day... on TV at least.)

Whether Blagojevich is guilty of the crimes with which he's been charged is for the jury to decide. But what has been proven beyond doubt is that Blago was not happy being Governor. He hated the job. He was jealous of Mr. Obama's ascension. He couldn't cope with the General Assembly (and Speaker Madigan in particular). The budget was a shambles.

But still: This man was governor of one of the largest states in America. No one forced Blagojevich to take the job. He campaigned for it. You or I might think he had a pretty good gig -- and you'd think he must have thought so, too, or else why run for the job? Why the heck, at least, would he run twice?

And then I stop and think. I'm not real wild about my job either: Constant money issues (and I don't spend $400,000 on clothes either -- unlike an impeached governor whose name is just too hard to type sometimes), ungrateful clients, indifferent or unprepared judges....

(Also, I'm self-employed and sometimes I really can't stand my boss. Do you think that makes me nuts?)

I'll bet a lot of folks would gladly trade places with me for all my gripes, just as a lot of folks would gladly have traded places with Blago -- at least before his indictment and impeachment. I should look at the positives (my boss never complains about my blogging, for example) and stop wallowing in self-pity. If Blagojevich had done that, he might not be stuck in Judge Zagel's courtroom day after day, listening to those awful tapes.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

The barbarians at (and within) the gates

"Barbarian" is such a pejorative term. It conjures images of savage thugs, destroying for the sake of destruction. For most of us, when we think of "barbarians," we think of the Germanic tribesmen that sacked Rome. All subsequent "barbarians" are compared to these.

But these Goths and Visigoths and so forth weren't really savages. They had no great cities, but they had a sophisticated culture and extensive trading networks. Living adjacent to the Roman Empire for centuries, they provided increasing numbers of troops for Rome (barbarians had provided cavalry for Roman armies at least since Julius Caesar's time) as time went by. Many of their chiefs and kings were raised among the Romans; Alaric, the Visigoth king who sacked Rome in A.D. 410, at one time commanded "barbarian" troops in the service of Rome.

Since the Dark Ages it has been known that the "barbarians" invaded Rome's borders because of incursions into their own lands by the Huns. Remember, Attila the Hun was himself at the gates of Rome by 452, only to be turned back by Pope Leo the Great. Alaric and the other "barbarian" leaders did not want to destroy Rome. They wanted Roman protection against their own invaders.

The "barbarians" did not hate everything Roman. Alaric was probably even a Christian, although, if he was, he was most likely an adherent of the Arian heresy. Certainly many of the so-called barbarians were Christians before taking over the territory of the old Western Roman Empire.

The problem with the barbarians of old was that, though they liked and respected and sometimes even venerated Roman civilization, they did not know how to keep it going. They weren't going to give up their own ways and live in cities; they had no interest in understanding the engineering principles that kept the aqueducts flowing, the farms growing, and the roads in repair. The Roman Empire perished in fragmentation and famine, not in flames.

Today we have barbarians, too. Like the barbarians of late Roman times, these barbarians are not uncivilized. They are merely different. Many of them like, respect, even venerate parts of Western culture.

But only parts.

Thus, Palestinian native Muzzammil "Mo" Hassan could come to America and set up a successful, Muslim-themed cable-TV station in Buffalo, New York -- but when his wife, Aasiya Hassan, had the temerity to try and divorce him, Hassan decided to behead her. Her head and body were found, separated, in the studios of the TV station they'd built together. I wrote about the story in 2009, soon after it happened. Hassan is coming to trial soon. An insanity defense is apparently planned. An effort to suppress Hassan's confession failed recently, according to an article by Patrick Lakamp first published on June 29, 2010 on the Buffalo News website. From the article:
When Muzzammil S. "Mo" Hassan turned himself in to Orchard Park police about an hour after his wife was slain Feb. 12, 2009, he shook a police lieutenant's hand and appeared "calm, cool and collected" during their one-minute exchange.

"I want to tell you I just killed my wife, and I'm here to turn myself in," the 44-year-old Hassan told Lt. Joseph A. Buccilli in the police lobby.

The two sat on a bench, and Buccilli asked where she was.

Hassan replied she was in the office of the Muslim-oriented Bridges cable television station they co-founded.

When Buccilli asked whether he was sure she was dead, Hassan used a downward hand gesture and said, "She's gone; there's no doubt about it."

At the time, Hassan's children were outside the police building in a van.
An actress from the Harry Potter films, Afshan Azad, has been in the news of late because her Muslim family allegedly tried to kill her. According to the allegations, Azad's father and older brother beat the stuffing out of her because she'd been dating a Hindu boy and did not seem eager to break off the relationship.

Younger Daughter attended an all-girls Catholic high school. There aren't a lot of Muslim high schools -- yet -- in this country, so many observant Muslim parents will send their daughters to a girls' Catholic school to limit their exposure to boys. And, of course, Catholic girls' schools require uniforms which are, at least in theory, more modest than the attire favored by girls down the street at the public school. Some girls' schools will even let their Muslim students wear headscarves.

The subject came up in the Curmudgeon home recently when Younger Daughter remarked how one of her high school classmates, who is now attending the same college as Younger Daughter, presently comes to classes veiled from head to toe. "She didn't wear that in high school," she said. "I think she does it for shock value."

"Possibly," I said. "And also because there are males present at college."

Well, yes, Younger Daughter acknowledged; that might also be part of it. Then she recalled the story of another high school classmate, from a Sunni family, who dated a Shia boy. Her family never found out that she'd "dated" -- but her father beat her when he found out that she had an unsupervised conversation with this young man.

The barbarians who sacked Rome did not mean to destroy Roman civilization. They thought they could pick and choose what they liked about it and disregard the rest and all would remain as it was -- only better. That didn't work out too well, though, did it?

We have a tremendous advantage in America over the Romans: The Romans never really understood how to assimilate new peoples. In some circles, even as he climbed the highest ranks of the cursus honorum, Cicero was regarded as a country-bumpkin and little better than a barbarian himself. (He was not of pure Roman extraction.) You can generalize too much, but one interpretation that fits the death of Julius Caesar is that he was killed by the Boni for trying to expand Roman citizenship too far.

In America, we have not always welcomed foreigners -- not in practice. Before the current illegal alien crisis there was the Know Nothing Party of the 19th Century, whose sole guiding principle was intolerance of immigrants. But we have always intended to welcome foreigners. Thus Theodore Roosevelt could write, in 1919:
In the first place we should insist that if the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed, or birthplace, or origin. But this is predicated upon the man's becoming in very fact an American, and nothing but an American. If he tries to keep segregated with men of his own origin and separated from the rest of America, then he isn't doing his part as an American. There can be no divided allegiance here. Any man who says he is an American, but something else also, isn't an American at all. We have room for but one flag, the American flag, and this excludes the red flag, which symbolizes all wars against liberty and civilization, just as much as it excludes any foreign flag of a nation to which we are hostile. We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language, for we intend to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans, of American nationality, and not as dwellers in a polyglot boarding-house; and we have room for but one soul loyalty, and that is loyalty to the American people.
(I mention the year of Roosevelt's statement so you understand the reference to the "red flag.")

Anyway, we've gotten away from assimilation in this country. While our immigrant grandparents and great-grandparents wanted their children to be more American than the snootiest Boston Brahmin, too many among us today are willing to accept a "polyglot boarding-house" instead. We are losing national consensus on who is an American and what an American believes. We are not asking our neighbors to assimilate. There are kids wearing "burkinis" in our neighborhood pool today.

America is flexible enough to assimilate Muslims -- if Islam is flexible enough to accept accommodation with America. I believe that this is still a possible future. But if we fail to insist on this, our civilization too will be brought down, just as Rome was, by barbarians who desired only to share their civilization, but who did not understand it.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Educating the next generation

One of the nicer things about the kids getting older and bringing home significant others is that I get to educate said others.

No, I'm not teaching physics or math -- but I am trying to expose people to culture... at least as I see it.

Older Daughter's husband, Hank (whom I've sometimes called ODB, for Older Daughter's Boyfriend), was my first victim. Hank dated my daughter for seven years so I had a number of opportunities. He'd never seen The Quiet Man, for example. At Christmas, I made him sit through The Bishop's Wife. (Well, Hank's an Episcopalian himself.)

Hank's an architect by trade, so I contributed to his professional education by exposing him to Cary Grant in Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House. Older Daughter didn't mind this so much -- but she really objected when I made Hank sit through George Washington Slept Here. (Older Daughter can't stand Jack Benny. This disappoints me. On the other hand, she is one of the few 20-somethings around who knows enough about Jack Benny to have an opinion, albeit a misguided one.)

Hank is a bit of an Anglophile. In the wrong company he might be mistaken for a bit of a snob. But I can use his highbrow leanings against him. Just a few weeks back, I was looking to suggest a film for Hank and, without naming the title, I said we might try a Sondheim musical based on the works of the Roman playwright Plautus.

"I thought I knew every Sondheim musical," Hank responded, swallowing the bait before he knew the hook had been set, "but that doesn't ring any bells."

I popped A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum into the DVD.

Older Daughter wandered into the den a half-hour later and began chastising me, but it was too late.

I haven't had as much success with Oldest Son's wife, Abby. She's very quiet -- in my presence -- probably because my disloyal son has warned her what might happen if she expresses any interest in anything.

But I have a new victim now: Younger Daughter has a beau and he's spending quite a bit of time at the Curmudgeon home these days. From my point of view, Olaf also has wide gaps in his cultural education, but he's not an in-law yet. So I have to be careful: He can easily avoid me.

Thus, I must become a trusted provider of cultural information. I built some credibility over the weekend.

Olaf is not a musician -- which makes him different from every boy Younger Daughter has fancied in the past (usually, whenever she revealed an interest in a new boy I would just ask 'guitar' or 'drums'? and that pretty well covered the waterfront). On the other hand, even though he doesn't play an instrument, Olaf has an interest in music, and apparently a particular interest in classical 20th Century European music. Like the Beatles, for example.

So, the other day, when he was hanging around the house, I thought to pop in the Powerpuff Girls' classic Meet the Beat-Alls DVD. This impressed Olaf no end: He remembered the Powerpuff Girls cartoons fondly from his childhood -- he even vaguely remembered this episode -- but had never caught the references before.

Now, I have to top this.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Even Ozzy doesn't know why he's still with us

Ozzy Osbourne is a walking example of the perils of doing drugs.

The remarkable thing is, he's still walking, even if it's more correct to call it shuffling, and talking, even if the noises he makes sound more like mumbles than anything.

I mean -- seriously -- how can this guy still be alive?

Even Ozzy doesn't know. But, the Chicago Tribune reports today, Ozzy is trying to find out. According to the linked story, Ozzy has gone to a Cambridge, Massachusetts company, Knome, and a St. Louis-based company, Cofactor Genomics to map his DNA and find out whether he possesses some genetic characteristic that makes him survive doing things that would kill anyone else.

Maybe the tests will even explain why he likes to bite bats.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Interludes in an elevator

If you think that title sounds a bit racy, and you're hoping for some sizzling, purple prose... prepare to be disappointed. It seems to me that I did push the stop button once in an elevator, or maybe it was the young lady who was in the elevator with me -- but that was a long, long, long time ago. Maybe I even made that up from something I saw on TV, like the Bill Murray character in Scrooged. But even if it was only my imagination, I seem to recall that nothing much really happened anyway.

And nothing much really happened in the crowded elevator this morning in the Daley Center. It's just that I was looking at my fellow travelers, and almost all were looking at their smart phones. Now I can't tell, at a distance at least, an Apple from a Rutabaga, or a Heart of Palm, or an Android. You'd think an Apple would look different from an Android, from the names at least, but form follows function.

The elevator is dimly lit, dimmer certainly than the screens of the phones that light up the lawyers' faces on the way up to court, each intent on sending or receiving some last message before entering the courtroom. The devices must be turned off then, or at least put on truly silent mode, because judges get pretty steamed when a phone goes off. The man closest to me seemed to be checking a calendar. It was colorful; I could tell that much at my distance without my glasses.

Why have we allowed ourselves to be tethered to these devices? I don't have a smart phone; mine is still basically a phone. It can be rigged to check email and I tried that once, but found it annoying. There's too much email. I wouldn't mind a smarter phone, but I think I'd need better eyes and smaller fingers in order to get any serious use out of it.

My business in court this morning was quickly concluded and I found myself back in the elevator descending to the lobby. Some young male lawyers were chatting -- actual conversation instead of phone-gazing! -- but it was, after all, a special occasion. One of their number is about to become a father. He was lamenting that the baby is due this weekend which, in the collective opinion of the group, was a shame because it would intrude on his ability to drink. At least until after the baby comes. One of the party suggested that he should just drink anyway; that's what cabs are for. Should his wife go into labor, he can always tell her he'll be right along as soon as he finishes this round. The doors opened before the conversation ended but it appeared -- thankfully, I suspect, for the new father's future happiness -- that this suggestion had been rejected.

My co-counsel sent the appellate brief on which I was working to the court last night. The next brief will be teased out of three document boxes that are now in my office. Thirty volumes of appellate record -- and the case never went to trial. It was decided on a motion to dismiss. Soon I will know why so many trees died in the ascertainment of that order.