Friday, August 31, 2012

Everything I need to know I get from the comics, part 4,791

It's been a long week here at the Undisclosed Location and at the Curmudgeon home besides. The carefully thought out, scrupulously sourced post that I've been planning will just have to wait -- and probably die a lingering death in my Drafts section.

It's Friday, and a three day weekend stands before us. It's time for cartoons.

From the webcomic Married to the Sea by Drew and Natalie Dee
Um, wait a minute -- I guess that's what I just did, didn't I?

Thinking about that makes my head hurt, so I'll just go to today's Brewster Rockit strip, by Tim Rickard; it's one of my daily favorites:

Image obtained from Yahoo! Comics
Brewster's running for Galactic President, see, and Dirk Raider is running against him and... wait, this is getting political here isn't it? Voter ID laws are controversial because, allegedly, poor people and old people and young people don't necessarily have photo IDs. Really? About the only place I don't carry a photo ID is in the shower. One of my kids had to get a State ID when he went on his Washington trip because he needed a photo ID to get into tours of particular buildings. No, he didn't have any other photo ID -- but he was 13 at the time.

Maybe it's because I'm from Chicago, where the dead have been known to rise from their graves -- in close races, anyway -- to vote the Democratic ticket, but I'm not entirely certain that I'm reflexively opposed to any sort of photo ID requirement. In Chicago, we sign ballot applications, and our signatures can be compared to the ones on the desk in front of the election judge. Really, why is that so fundamentally different from presenting a photo ID? Because the laws as drafted try to make it as difficult as possible to obtain acceptable photo IDs? That would be a valid objection -- but, to say that all photo ID requirements are per se bad, evil, racist, ageist, sexist, etc., etc., etc. strikes me as excessive. Nobody is really in favor of vote fraud, are they? Or does it really depend on who'd benefit from the fraudulent votes?

Oh, sorry, I'm getting political again. Weren't we supposed to be doing cartoons this morning? I could look at Doonesbury, I suppose -- no, wait, that certainly won't work.

How about dropping in on Pearls Before Swine, drawn by recovering lawyer Stephan Pastis? Maybe Zebra is finally getting along with the Crocs.

Image obtained from Yahoo! Comics
Also obtained from Yahoo! Comics
Apparently not.

Everyone is just so tense these days. It's definitely time for a three day weekend.

And a nap. A nap would be good about now.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

The extended family parking lot a/k/a the Curmudgeon home

Regular readers already know that Younger Daughter and her husband Olaf are residing with us for the foreseeable future. Their child -- our granddaughter -- is scheduled to join them in early October. Long Suffering Spouse, who knows a little about these things, doesn't think she'll hold out that long. Long Suffering Spouse is hoping that Younger Daughter will make it through most of September, but she's not accepting any bets.

Meanwhile, Oldest Son and his wife Abby came by yesterday, stopping off on their way to Dublin, Ireland and the Notre Dame - Navy game Saturday. It was not purely a social call. They wanted us to drive them to the airport and they needed to leave their car with us. The Curmudgeon residence is located conveniently near to O'Hare International Airport (the one Da Late Mare Daley used to refer to as "O'Hara").

They'd already left their dog. Oldest Son brought Rodent over to the house yesterday morning, on his way to work. He lives in Lincoln Park, near the Lake and Chicago's Loop, but he works as a consultant and his current project has him toiling in Vernon Hills, a Lake County suburb created to host a shopping mall. (No, really. But that's a different story.) He didn't plan to go all the way home yesterday. He had the luggage in his car; his wife, Abby, was bringing whatever she could remember that they'd forgotten and joining him at our house after she was through for the day at her Loop office. (She took the El, like I do.)

After the Notre Dame game, Oldest Son and Abby are going to wander around Ireland and England for a week or so. (Oldest Son is hoping he won't encounter too many language difficulties. Yes, he is a smart-aleck. I'm curious as to what the kids are going to do over there -- Oldest Son has never been one to get excited about touring castles and churches and museums. I'm sure there are a few breweries and distilleries on their itinerary, but for a week? Neither one of them plays golf seriously.)

Middle Son is not going to Dublin -- for one thing, he's not a Domer -- but he is going to California on Friday to visit a high school friend. His friend just moved to Los Angeles but he's self-conscious about taking in the tourist sites without actual tourists in tow. Middle Son and a couple other compadres have volunteered for this duty.

We're not sure when he's dropping his car off.

Long Suffering Spouse put a happy spin on things when we dropped Abby and Oldest Son off at O'Hare. "Have a good time for us, too!" she said.

We've never been to Ireland. I've never been east of Manhattan. Unless Newark is. (I flew into Newark once, for a deposition.) I went to California once, also for a deposition. I never left the vicinity of the airport on that latter occasion. It is a scurrilous falsehood that I wore a life jacket everywhere -- but I was concerned that a capricious fate might have picked my visit as the time for California to fall off into the ocean. I did go for a walk on the afternoon of my arrival and was followed by a police car for awhile. Apparently walking is a very suspicious activity in Southern California.

But we are genuinely pleased that the kids are able to travel.

In fact, something else has sort of dawned on me and it also pleases me. In America, it is an article of faith that each generation should expect to do better than the one that came before it.

This, of course, is impossible: Much as we'd like to think otherwise, not all of us will become the ancestor of a future Bill Gates or Warren Buffett. There has to be some backsliding somewhere.

Here is where I find a renewed sense of self-worth: I'm the backslider. At a comparable age, my father was increasingly prosperous and respected. I'm in steep decline. I'm waiting for my wife's paycheck so I can pay the phone and cable bills. I've billed so little this year that I'll be lucky to clear as much as my wife makes as a Catholic school teacher.

So I've taken the pressure off the kids. The three older ones, the ones already getting established in their careers, have already exceeded me. And I keep lowering the bar for the younger ones, too. In other words, as a failure, I'm a success.

(Don't dwell on that one too long. Let me have my moment, confused as it may be.)

The vicinity of our house is going to look like a used car lot for a week or so while the kids go gallivanting around the world on their vacations.

Meanwhile, on Saturday at some point, we'll be picking up Carl from the airport. Carl, for those of you who don't have total recall, is the husband of my wife's old college roommate, Penny. You met Penny here when Long Suffering Spouse and I had a surprise 25th anniversary party. (Well, at least it was a surprise to me.)Penny and Carl are the proud parents of four adopted kids, one of whom is in college, the next in high school, and then the Korean twins (adopted as critically ill preemies), Tim and Tom. They're 6 now; Penny and Carl decided they'd stay home with Penny this weekend while Carl comes here for a 25th anniversary party for our friends Steve and Charlotte.

With the exception of Charlotte, all of us went to college together, but Steve and Carl were also high school classmates; that's why he's traveling and Penny is staying behind this time. (If you need to know more about Penny and Carl check the stories about Younger Daughter's wedding in the June 2012 archives.)

Carl will be staying over Saturday.

Why not? Everyone else does. Carl will probably feel bad that he doesn't have an extra car to park with us.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Curmudgeon offers bipartisan election advice that neither party will take

I would proudly vote for the first candidate who promises to break up the banks (no more "too big to fail" nonsense). The risk of failure is supposed to be something that a capitalist accepts in exchange for the possibility of great reward. Our billionaire bankers are capitalists... aren't they? Shouldn't they be?

I would proudly vote for the first candidate to promise to vigorously investigate and prosecute banks and bankers for mortgage fraud, fee gouging and market manipulation. (You'd have thought the Obama administration would have made this a priority -- but, so far, nothing.)

I would proudly vote for the first candidate who admits that President of the United States has only limited influence on, and no control over, the American economy. I'll even donate a few lines for the speech:
Look, Stalin thought he could totally control the old Soviet economy. Stalin really tried. Every year a new five year plan. How well did that work out?

Tax laws are passed by Congress and must originate in the House of Representatives. That's Article I, Section 7 of the Constitution for those of you who never actually read the Constitution in your high school civics class. Or in law school. The President can propose tax policies and if he or she can get those tax policies enacted into law, these can have an influence on the economy, for good or ill. But influence is not control.

And the President can set spending priorities which may have an influence on the economy -- again, if Congress cooperates. Buying roads and bridges and rockets and planes and guns probably stimulates the overall economy a lot more than income transfers -- but it's political heresy to say so.

And gasoline prices? The President can release oil from the strategic reserves which should, in theory, suppress prices for a brief period. But, with that limited, temporary exception, the President has no control over gas prices. Even when they go down.  Unless there is illegal manipulation of gas prices; then the President can turn loose the Department of Justice.
Of course I don't know if a candidate reading such a speech would even be allowed to finish it. If the candidate wasn't stoned off the stage by his or her one-time supporters, the candidate's family would probably rush the stage and cart him or her off to a sanitarium.

But, speaking of gasoline prices, I would proudly vote for the candidate who promises to vigorously investigate and prosecute illegal manipulation of gasoline prices. Some mullah in Iran gets cranky and gasoline already in the pipeline goes up in price? Gasoline prices rose a nickel a gallon across the nation yesterday. Because it's raining in New Orleans? Really? Are we supposed be stupid enough to believe that?

We subsidize oil and gas production -- which might be defensible if these were marginal businesses and not making billions and billions every quarter. You want to encourage domestic production and end subsidies? Tax imports. But, of course, that would set off howls from consumers and environmentalists alike. But we are addicted to oil in this country and we need to get into rehab. Screaming will be involved. I would proudly vote for a candidate who promises Manhattan Project-type priority funding for an alternative energy program that actually works. Whatever happened to fusion research anyway? Wasn't the 21st Century supposed to be about fusion? (And jetpacks, of course.)

But forget about jetpacks for a minute (if you can). I would proudly vote for the candidate who comes out for a complete ban on political robocalling.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Going down the drain: Regulation in real life

Don't get me wrong: Some reasonable regulation is necessary in all sorts of contexts. I am not one of those crazy people who think that unthinking deregulation is the answer to every economic ill. Most of those people are billionaires or their stooges (witting, unwitting and Tea Party) who think that the only proper function of civil society is to protect the billionaires' wealth.

On the other hand, regulation should be reasonable, rational, and related to real civic needs.

This does not include putting most cold and allergy pills behind the pharmacy counter and making law-abiding citizens sign their lives away each time they have the sniffles. Apparently these pills, in mass quantities, can be used to 'cook meth' -- and that, of course, is frowned upon. But could 40 cold pills really be cooked into some significant quantity of any illegal drug? Isn't there a less restrictive way to accomplish this?

In Illinois, in addition to cold pills, certain types of drain cleaners are regulated. This apparently stems from a single Chicago-area incident in which a drain cleaning product was hurled in a woman's face -- with horrifying results. I do not mean to suggest that this was part of a trend of criminals using weaponized drain powder; I mean there was one and only one incident. However, in the outraged aftermath, a law was quickly passed and all similar products were removed from store shelves, to be sold only -- like cold medicine -- after signing one's life away.

The drain in the sink in the upstairs bathroom of the Curmudgeon manse has been slow of late and Long Suffering Spouse went into the hardware store on Sunday to buy a new can of this regulated drain powder. As best as I can reconstruct, this is the actual conversation:
"I'd like Product X, please."

"I'm sorry, ma'am, but we don't sell that anymore. It's been banned."

"Banned? I just bought some a couple of months ago." [The bathtub drain has been slow, too.]

"New rules. Sorry."

"But the plumber told me to use Product X because it was not harmful to the pipes."

"Let me think. We've got this stuff -- Product Y -- it should be just as good."

"OK, Product Y, then."
I can't be sure of how the cashier came into the conversation. Perhaps the drain powder was kept up at the large island in which the cash register is situated. But when the clerk produced Product Y and Long Suffering Spouse produced her driver's license ready to sign her life away the following colloquy took place:
CLERK: "You don't need to sign for this stuff."

CASHIER: "She doesn't? I just sold someone else Product Z and I made him sign. It came up on the cash register and everything."

CLERK: "New rules since August 10. Products Y and Z are now both exempt. We have to change the cash register then."

LSS: "So I don't have to sign?"

CLERK: "No."
And so Long Suffering Spouse was able to buy Product Y without making extravagant promises, under penalty of perjury, about not using the product as a weapon.

On the other hand, Product Y didn't work nearly as well as Product X.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Older Daughter to try again: Insult and injury and -- maybe -- motherhood?

Third time's the charm?

Older Daughter has decided she will try IVF again. Her husband, Hank, is not overly enthused.

It's not that he's lost his desire for children -- it's just -- well, the clinic that is providing this service for them entered into a 'three times and you're out' contract. After three tries, if no baby is produced, the clinic must provide a (partial) refund. (The refund would be a portion of the fee charged for implantation itself. The vast fortunes sunk into medications of one kind or another are not included in this refund policy at all.) Hank is looking forward and seeing the abyss. Older Daughter sees it, too, but her sister will soon have a baby -- all her friends are having babies -- she wants a baby. She wants a baby desperately.

The one thing the clinic is absolutely certain of is that neither of the two past failures were its fault. They are equally certain that Older Daughter is to blame.

The first time... well, there weren't enough eggs. She should have responded more to the egg-producing stimulation. But, that's OK, now that they knew Older Daughter did not respond properly to their perfectly correct medicine, they promised to increase her dosage (and hope her ovaries didn't explode -- no, seriously, they warned her that was a possibility -- and then they told her that she has to calm down in order to get pregnant).

When she still failed to "catch," the clinic was at first uncertain what to say. They'd have to look back at the data, they said.

They eventually decided two more things were wrong with Older Daughter.

First, she had a "little" endometriosis. But that was alright -- for another fee, and just a little post-surgical pain, they could remove that. At least temporarily.

Most recently, Older Daughter having recovered from the surgery and having recovered her willingness to endure the medications, shots, swelling, discomfort and other aspects of the procedure, the clinic told her she failed last time because she had "old eggs."

She's 28.

These are pirates. Cruel, sadistic pirates. And, now they've knocked her down again so low, they'll begin building her hopes up, little by little, to the point where she will go ahead with the procedure and....

Well, who knows what will happen?

Long Suffering Spouse has quoted statistics to me about infertility recently -- one in eight couples, she says, have trouble conceiving. At her Catholic school (and, remember, IVF is frowned upon by the Church) several of her students were produced by IVF. "You go through all of this," she said recently, "you spend mountains of money, you endure pain, humiliation, fear and if you finally do have a baby -- well, is it any wonder there are so many helicopter parents?"

I'm sure she's on to something.

As usual.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

In a kinder, gentler America, we might perhaps have a rational discussion about abortion

We might even be able, in such a Nirvana, to calmly and rationally explain why some would want to deny abortion even to victims of rape.

(And, no, Rep. Todd Akin, it has nothing to do with whether or not the rape was "legitimate." Keep your dunce hat on and stay in the corner.)

The woman raped is a crime victim, plain and simple. What is not so simple is when rape involves another victim, one brought into being by the crime.

This does not always happen -- (No, Todd, not because the woman's body 'shuts that whole thing down.' I'm not going to tell you again. Sit in the corner and be quiet!) -- this does not always happen because, as anyone who's ever intentionally tried to conceive a child will tell you, not every instance of intercourse produces a child. But, potentially, possibly -- and rarely -- the violent crime of rape will result in the victim becoming pregnant.

It sure as hell is not her fault. (Todd! Last time! Sit!) It sure as hell is not her choice.

But neither is it the fault of the unborn child.

Now many -- I dare say most -- people would not consider the few cells that could result within a few days of a rape to be an "unborn child." The ardent anti-abortionists do.

The zygote becomes a blastocyst about five days after conception. It is a little ball of cells, with no discernably human characteristics whatsoever. But this tiny ball of cells, unlike every other tiny ball of cells in a woman's body, can divide and grow and grow and divide into a baby. In this sense, the anti-abortionists have a point. And Older Daughter, in the throes of irrational exuberance before her first IVF failure, proudly emailed pictures of her blastocysts, taken at the time of their implantation, so that we could "see our grandchildren."

It hurt me deeply just to write that sentence.

In a kinder, gentler America we could see that, in the very rare case where pregnancy results from a rape, the needs of both victims should be considered. However, in any world I know from experience, the thought of saddling the rape victim with the obligation to carry, each and every day, for nine months, a swelling reminder of a violent assault seems cruel in the extreme. Perhaps in a kinder and gentler America the rape victim would receive adequate support from friends and family and society in general so that she could heal from her crime even while carrying the product of that crime to term. But not today. A contemporary woman who could make the choice to carry a baby conceived in the course of a rape to term, would be uncommonly brave. Her choice should be celebrated -- but the obligation to carry that child should not be imposed. And certainly not imposed in the unkind, angry America of the present day.

Since his nomination to the Republican ticket, Paul Ryan, who has been identified with the ardent anti-abortion crowd, has already moderated his stance to acknowledge that abortion should be available to victims of rape or incest or when medically necessary to save the mother's life (and that may be, from the standpoint of apolitical medicine, almost never -- see, this 2009 post in which a doctor explains why).

Americans support or oppose a right to abortion depending on the questions asked. When the question is posed whether abortion should be available to rape or incest victims or when medically necessary to save the life of the mother, strong majorities say yes, absolutely. On the other hand, when persons are asked whether abortion should be available "on demand" or used as a means of (or substitute for) birth control, strong majorities say no, no way.

I am a practicing Catholic. But I'm also a practicing cynic. And, as a good, practicing cynic I believe that most Americans, if pressed, would oppose abortion except in cases of (1) rape, (2) incest, (3) to save the mother's life, and (4) when a 'nice girl' gets 'in trouble.'

It is that last category that gets the ardent anti-abortionists up and out to the abortion mills, fingering their Rosaries and loudly praying and holding up horrifying pictures of aborted fetuses.

But I have news for them: They can not end abortion by making it illegal, or nearly so, any more than the temperance movement could end the scourge of drunkenness by enacting Prohibition and the Volstead Act. We haven't stopped idiots from texting while driving simply by passing laws banning the practice. We can't make gay marriage advocates go away by legislatively defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman, nor can we make gay marriage universally accepted by judicial decisions striking down those statutes. We didn't stop drug abuse by declaring a War on Drugs either.

At some point it should become obvious to even the densest among us that constantly hurling imprecations across a cultural divide, or banning practices that a bare majority opposes, or litigating to strike down practices that a strong and determined minority opposes -- that all of this is futile. And I say this as a politically aware citizen and, more, as a lawyer: The law has its limits.

Instead, we must build consensus. Persuasion, not compulsion. Slowly, surely... rationally. We gotta at least try. Maybe someday we can have our kinder, gentler American, can't we?

Can't we?

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Todd Akin: Bringing America together

Todd Akin, who somehow has been repeatedly elected to Congress from Missouri and is now the Republican nominee for a Missouri Senate seat, triggered a national firestorm when offered this incredible contribution to the collection of most stupid things ever said by a public figure: "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down."

Forget for a moment that there is no scientific or pseudo-scientific basis for this remark, not even a superstition or old wives' tale that he might have heard as an innocent, ignorant child and then failed to un-learn. Forget all of that. Legitimate? What in Sam Hill could he mean by that?

But, yes, for all his stupidity, Mr. Akin has accomplished what seemed impossible so far this political season: He has brought Americans together. Democrats denounced him -- but Republicans did too. He has been deemed persona non grata for the upcoming Republican convention. Pro-abortionists denounced him -- but anti-abortionists have too. Akin has confirmed that presumptive VP nominee Paul Ryan asked him to withdraw from the Missouri Senate race. Akin is an embarrassment and a laughingstock, but today all Americans are in his debt: He has brought us together.

Against him.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Fish and visitors stink after three days

So said Ben Franklin and, of course, what Franklin said long ago remains substantially true today even if, after the invention of refrigeration and showers, a guest's welcome or a fish's freshness may be prolonged for somewhat longer than 72 hours.

Now, a nocturnal is certainly more than a guest -- a child returning to the nest after a year of college should certainly be welcome for more than three days.

However... after three months of providing a base of operations for the nocturnals one has spawned... kids going out when you're thinking of retiring for the evening, returning when it's nearly time to get up and go to work... kids thinking they've accomplished one of the Twelve Labors of Hercules when they manage to get a dish or glass to the kitchen sink (in the dishwasher? you must be dreaming)....

Well, longtime readers of Second Effort will perhaps recall that this is a familiar complaint of yours truly (e.g. 2006 -- when I was looking forward to getting my couch back -- or 2007 -- when Middle Son thought that 2:00am was the best time to inform his entire acquaintance of his success at poker that evening -- or 2011 -- when Youngest Son had gotten under my skin).

But this year will be different.

Youngest Son will be gone by the end of the week -- but this morning, while he slumbers blissfully, his mother is washing all his clothes. (Well, he did bring them down to the basement... and she's afraid that he'll pack dirty clothes if she doesn't take care of this.)

But Younger Daughter will remain. So will Olaf, her husband. They will shortly be joined by my granddaughter.

Long Suffering Spouse and I had a whispered conversation in the basement this morning. Younger Daughter wants to get the crib set up in one of the bedrooms. Without moving the bed already there, it simply won't fit. Where will we put the bed?

And we'll have to do something about a shower and something for the Baptism, too, she said.

Two parties? We can't afford to go out for pizza.

"Well, why do we have to feed everyone after the Baptism?" Long Suffering Spouse asked. "Coffee and cake might be enough; the ceremony's at 1:30pm."

"We had parties for all the Baptisms," I recalled.

"For us. At our own house. Which they don't have yet." Long Suffering Spouse paused. "But that still leaves a shower."

The kids' wedding gifts already take up half the basement. "Where could we put shower gifts?" I asked.

Long Suffering Spouse had no ready answer. Perhaps they'll leave us a path to the washer and dryer, furnace and basement refrigerator, I thought to myself.

"They have a bassinet," I said, moving along quickly. "They won't need a crib for a couple of months after the baby is born, will they?"

Long Suffering Spouse favored me with the pitying glance one might give a hopeless imbecile.

I keep thinking that this is only temporary -- and it is! -- and that we don't need to be quite so accommodating. I want the kids to get on their feet and go.

And Long Suffering Spouse wants that also. But she is wiser than me and knows that "temporary" is a relative term. And it is relatively likely that we will have our temporary extra boarders for some time yet.

Arguably related: Back to School, August 24, 2009 (in which we reveals that teachers aren't always thrilled about going back to school either -- something we'd never have guessed when we were kids) or Back to School, August 18, 2008 (in which the attitudes of Curmudgeon and Long Suffering Spouse about the start of the new school year are initially not in sync, and how they became so).

Friday, August 17, 2012

Memo to David Axelrod: This chart does not help

From time to time, as the American presidential campaign oozes and bubbles to a close, I will offer entirely unsolicited advice to the candidates of both parties in a spirit of true bipartisanship.

Today's example comes to us from Facebook, an open sewer of dubious political content in this silly season, more foul and fetid with each passing day. I'm afraid I can't identify the originator of this doozy; I wish I could.

I can pretty much guarantee that this really didn't originate with the Obama reelection camp -- but it does seem to have come from a true believer that Mr. Axelrod may want to rein in, and soon.

Look, I was as happy as the next guy that Osama bin Laden got taken out, but I was deeply troubled by how and where it happened, as I wrote at the time. And, since then, far too much information has come out about the specifics of the raid, to the point where American operatives or sympathizers were certainly endangered. Dr. Shakil Afridi, a Pakistani physician, for example, was jailed in his homeland because of his alleged role in identifying bin Laden's hideout. The linked New York Times article (from May 23, 2012, by Ismail Khan) says Dr. Afridi was given a 33-year sentence by a tribal court "under a British-era regulation for frontier crimes that, unlike the national criminal code, does not carry the death penalty for treason. Under Pakistani penal law, Dr. Afridi almost certainly would have received the death penalty, a Pakistani lawyer said."

The alleged exposure of Dr. Afridi was reckless, at best, and, at worst, a cynical sacrifice of an American sympathizer on the altar of the President's reelection campaign. Indeed, the quantity and detail of the post-raid disclosures, smacks of thoughless election year cynicism.

But these objections are, I realize, too subtle for Facebook users. Let's get more basic, shall we? The Dow Jones Average is not expressed with a dollar sign.

That the DJA has recovered, largely, since the height of the market crash shows only that the privileged few were able to right their yachts and sail on ahead. The government bailouts worked well for those too big to fail -- and the big banks paid the government back by jacking up fees and costs and interest rates on credit card customers. This was a good thing?

Nor does the supposedly robust DJA support the basic premise of the chart, namely, that the Great Recession has ended on Mr. Obama's watch.

Where has it ended? (Except, perhaps, on Wall Street?)

If Mr. Obama's reelection depends on proving that the Great Recession is finally over, he'd better start dusting off the furniture in Kenwood, because he'll be back in Chicago by the end of January.

I hope Mr. Axelrod has a better reelection strategy than claiming the Republicans hate Grandma and speculating about Mitt Romney's tax returns -- but this chart sure isn't any help.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Is it sweeps week in the Blogosphere? Curmudgeon has new numbers over which to stress

I didn't get a memo, if there was one -- no surprise there -- but I noticed yesterday that über-blogger Ken Levine provided his (very funny) take on 50 Shades of Grey; today he offers a reminiscence of a visit to a strip club and a porn star's salute to America.

While Mr. Levine sometimes uses stronger language than I do (who doesn't?), most of his posts do not venture into the realm of, er, adult entertainment. (OK, he's sometimes hinted at a fantasy involving wandering in the vicinity of UCLA clutching his Emmy statuette -- here, for example.) As I thought about this seeming deviation from Mr. Levine's usual format, it finally occurred to me that it must be Sweeps Week.

On television, Sweeps Week has all the big season finales or crossover episodes or long-awaited weddings -- and the newscasts do hard-hitting investigations into UV-lit stains on mattresses at area hotels or prostitution scandals at the local shopping mall or anything else that might titillate -- or scare -- viewers into staying tuned for the late local news.

If they can do it on TV, why can't they do Sweeps Week here in the Blogosphere too? Not that I'd be any more concerned about numbers now than usual.

I've been stressing about ratings here at Second Effort pretty much since the blog was launched. After all, just because there's 55 million or 100 million or whatever bloggers out there, why can't my blog be a top-rated money-maker and lead to a book contract and maybe even a TV show?
OK, besides my lack of talent....
I used to really stress over Sitemeter (examples from 2007 here or here) but now I check only a handful of times a day -- and sigh as the numbers continue to trend downward.

I could say that I've stopped fretting so much over Sitemeter because I'm committed to working on my craft without worrying about the infidels and Philistines trolling around the Intertubes -- except that I hate to lie.

Actually, ever since I switched to the new Blogger format I've got something to stress over besides Sitemeter. In addition to telling me how few many page hits I get each day, Google now also tells me now how many hits each post has received. I have posts with (allegedly) no views but two or three comments. I'm not sure how that works. But some other posts seem to catch the attention of the search engines and bring traffic here, if only momentarily.

If you scroll down the page, toward the bottom of the sidebar, you'll find a list of the most popular posts on Second Effort. This is compiled by Google -- and it depresses the stuffing out of me: Two of the most popular posts on this blog were reprints of Cyanide & Happiness webcomics. Another is a compilation of snappy comebacks to cheesy pickup lines -- which I didn't write but merely sampled in admiration. Two are really my work -- but the essay comparing the structure of the modern law firm to ant hills or termite mounds is illustrated with ooey-gooey bug pictures and that's what's driving the traffic here. The other is a reminiscence of riding the school bus nearly 40 years ago -- but it's the bus picture that seems to drive traffic here.

According to Google, my two most popular recent posts concerned the Olympic basketball final and the death of Marvin Hamlisch. Both posts mention names often in the news and high on 'buzz' lists compiled by Google or Yahoo! or the like.

But would I stoop to simply mentioning Kim Kardashian, Jennifer Lopez, Taylor Swift, Kristen Stewart, Halle Berry, Anne Hathaway, Zooey Deschanel, Emma Watson, Diane Lane, Keira Knightley, Beyoncé, Pippa Middleton, Megan Fox, Sofia Vegara, Maria Menounos, Zoe Saldana, Gisele Bundchen, Penelope Cruz, Minka Kelly, Jessica Alba, Mila Kunis, Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson, or Kate Upton just to get a few extra page views?

Of course not!

For further reading: A serious post about being funny? -- and -- Dish it out, The Curmudgeon can take it

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

On Mr. Romney's selection of Paul Ryan

Image obtained from  (Original credit Reuters/Jason Reed.)

I have not studied the career of Mr. Ryan, though I was aware of him before the weekend.

I have not studied Mr. Ryan's career, or his positions, because -- before now -- he and his positions have been essentially irrelevant: Ryan could only sell his own party on any of them because it was certain that any of his bills that the House passed would die in the Senate.

My son-in-law Olaf hates Ryan with a passion. Older Daughter and Hank are coming to town this weekend. Given Olaf's opinion, inasmuch as Hank tends to be far more blatantly partisan, I am afraid that Hank may arrive foaming at the mouth.

Still, I know this much: Mr. Ryan is right when he says Social Security and Medicare cannot continue indefinitely as they are presently constituted. Something must give. Either benefits must be cut or funding must be increased or some combination thereof. When Social Security was instituted, as this Mental Floss article by Matt Soniak explains,
Roughly half of the existing private and state-run old-age pension systems, as well as the federal Railroad Retirement System, were using 65 as their retirement age, and the other half were using 70. It was practical for the federal plan to sync up with one half or the other, and the government’s actuarial studies suggested that starting the pensions at age 65 would allow for a system that could easily be sustained with moderate payroll taxes.
Soniak's article traces America's Social Security program back to Otto Von Bismarck's old-age insurance program in Germany. While the retirement age in German had dropped to 65 by the time our Social Security program came into existence, the original retirement age was 70. Writes Soniak, "The choice for the age of eligibility was actually more of a shrewd, and maybe a little cynical, cost-saving measure: it closely matched the average German life expectancy at the time."

In other words, the original idea was we'll provide a little comfort in your old age -- but not for long.

Times change. Medical science advances. I think 65 is the new 40 (something like that, anyway). Even if that's not exactly right, life expectancy has increased. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2012, Table 108, average American life expectancy has increased overall from 73.88 years for the period 1979-1981 to 75.37 years for the period 1989-1991.

These averages, of course, include all those who died young -- victims of wasting disease or violent crime -- soldiers or Marines in the nation's wars -- idiots who texted while driving -- we could go on, but why bother? The point is that, by age 55, according to this life expectancy table (compiled, it says, with information provided by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Social Security Administration -- and without taking into account individual health or lifestyle considerations), the average male can look forward to another 24.9 years of life; the average 55-year old female can expect another 28.3 years. The 67 year old person (the newest retirement age) can still expect, on average, 15.8 more years if male, 18.3 years if female.

The cold, hard numbers show the problem with the social security model: By living longer, we are sucking the system dry. I, for one, do not intend to die merely to accommodate everyone else; since I think this is probably a widespread (and I hope understandable) attitude, it follows logically that there must be some structural reform in order for the system to survive at all.

(The cold, hard numbers hint at the political problems that this logical conclusion creates: Life expectancies for men are shorter than life expectancies for women. And life expectancies for Whites are shorter than those of Blacks. Indeed, according to that linked Census Bureau table, the average life expectancy for a Black male in the 1989-1991 period was only 64.47 years -- not enough to reach Social Security even as formerly constituted.)

We could go through a similar analysis on Medicare -- and arrive at the same, depressing conclusions.

And we know that, as life expectancy has increased, and the number of pensioners increased, the number of persons paying into the system per pensioner has fallen. Our situation in the United States is not as bad as it is in Europe, where birthrates have really plummeted, but it is undeniable that there are fewer workers now to support each pensioner.

Moreover, we know that (despite the promises made from the inception of the Social Security program) the government has used and is using the money we pay into the system. There is no "lock box." There never was. However, revenues taken in for Social Security and Medicare have heretofore exceeded benefits paid -- but the day is coming, predictably, inexorably, when this will no longer be true.

The usual political response to these uncomfortable realities is denial or diversion. Anyone who suggests a problem is immediately accused of trying to 'pull the plug on Grannie' or trying to gut seniors' Social Security checks. Who needs that? Therefore, any sensible politician loudly pledges eternal fealty to Social Security and Medicare and silently prays, like Louis XV, that the deluge will come after he or she is gone.

Paul Ryan has stood up and said Social Security and Medicare are in trouble. He has been smeared and vilified in the traditional, predictable manner. That doesn't make him wrong.

Of course, it doesn't make Mr. Ryan's reform proposals valid just because he has some proposals -- nor are his proposals necessarily good because most of Ryan's Congressional colleagues (in rare bipartisan agreement) have their heads in the sand.

As Olaf told me last night, even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

But a man with ideas is potentially dangerous to the status quo. Those who think Mr. Ryan's ideas wrong may be forced -- * gasp! * -- to advance ideas of their own.

In that sense, Mr. Romney's choice is very, very interesting, and even potentially refreshing.

And, even if every idea in Ryan's head is wrong, wrong, wrong, he still stands head and shoulders above Mr. Biden -- a confirmed plagiarist who can't even craft an original speech. I could go on here, but it might sound like I'm taking sides.

I'm not.

I do begin to hope, however, for some discussion of vital issues which will transcend mere slogan-tossing.

Am I dreaming or what?

Monday, August 13, 2012

Curmudgeon confesses: I was rooting for Spain

Although I'd said I wouldn't, I did relent and voluntarily watched the second half of yesterday's Gold Medal basketball game.

Doug Collins was doing the color commentary on yesterday's NBC broadcast -- an interesting choice. He was a collegian (at Illinois State) back in 1972, in the days when our amateurs played the world's professionals in Olympic medal games.

Back then it didn't seem at all mean-spirited to root for the good old USA. It was, after all, our boys against the world's men. Yet American Davids were still favored over foreign Goliaths; in basketball, America never lost.

Photo of the short-lived American celebration
obtained from the Guardian website
The Soviets were out to change the script in 1972. They seemed to have the game in hand before the Americans mounted a furious late charge. Then Collins sunk what seemed to be the winning free throws in America's come-from-behind victory. This Mental Floss article (by Scott Allen) picks up the narrative:
International rules prohibited a team from calling a timeout after a free throw, so the Soviets inbounded the ball. The Soviet coach and bench ran onto the court to demand a timeout and Bulgarian referee Artenik Arabadjan stopped the clock with one second remaining. Arabadjan denied the Soviets a timeout, but allowed them to re-inbound the ball. After the Soviets’ ensuing pass was deflected and the buzzer sounded, the Americans began to celebrate.
But the celebration was short-lived. The Russians (aided and abetted by a British basketball official, Dr. William Jones, the secretary of FIBA, the international governing body of the sport) got three more seconds put back on the clock. Jones had a title, but no authority to change the rules of the sport on the spur of the moment; nevertheless, the Bulgarian referee complied.


Even then, the Russians flubbed this second attempt to give them victory despite their defeat. From the above-linked Guardian article:
Play resumed, the buzzer sounded as a Soviet long pass went awol, and again the Americans jumped and whooped and hollered.

They believed they had won their seventh straight Olympic title. But as the clock was in the process of being reset when play resumed, the floor had to be cleared again and the three seconds reinstated. The Americans, frustrated at the farce, considered pulling out. People say, 'Why didn't you leave?'" says Collins. "We were told that if left we would forfeit so we were pushed out on the court."

Finally the game got under way again. But the Americans, their emotions meleed by everything that had gone on and fearful of conceding a technical foul, had no pressure on Ivan Edeshko on the inbound line. His Hail Mary pass was caught by Alexander Belov, who brushed off Jim Forbes and Joyce and sunk a lay-up before running back to his teammates, arms aloft like a track athlete who has just crossed the finishing line....
An appeal was denied, 3-2, on an obvious political basis, with Cuba, Poland and the Soviet Union deciding the clearly irregular was regular enough, as long as the Americans lost.

Times change. International basketball has gotten much more competitive and besides, nowadays, professionals can represent their countries in the games.

American pro basketball was represented in London this year by players on the teams of several nations: Our home-grown millionaires playing against our imports.

In the Gold Medal game, five of the 12 players on the Spanish squad were NBA players, including brothers Pau and Marc Gasol.

As anyone who reads this blog knows, I am not a member of the 'hate America' crowd. I am an old-fashioned, sometimes starry-eyed (stripes and starry-eyed?) patriot.

But I couldn't help myself. The American 'dream team' led by LeBron James and Kobe Bryant were such overwhelming favorites. Like a lot of Americans, I sympathize with the little guy ('little' here being used in an entirely figurative sense given that the brothers Gasol are both 7-footers).

I rooted for Spain. I was sorry they lost.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Curmudgeon goes underground for a lunchtime walk

It's a nice day in Chicago today. The welcome rains of last night and this morning have subsided; the fairly thick cloud cover is punctured, here and there, by shafts of sunlight. The thought of getting out from behind my desk here at the Undisclosed Location, coupled with a pressing need for some office supplies, prompted me to take a lunchtime stroll.

I went above ground to the Staples at Washington and Wabash, and quickly discharged my errand.

But there were lots of folks today who must also have been itching for an opportunity to come out of the air conditioning and into the air and the sidewalks were crowded. I decided to go back via the Pedway.

The Chicago Pedway is not on the must-see list for Chicago tourists, nor should it be, not at this point. It's a way of getting from Point A to Point B, often a roundabout way, but for all that quicker, usually, than dealing with cars and stop lights and heavy pedestrian traffic. And it's dry when it's raining or snowing, warm enough in winter, and cool enough on even the hottest summer days.

Detail from the City of Chicago's current Pedway map.
No, it's not up-to-date.
Instead of heading back west, then, I walked over to Michigan Avenue and gawked at the tourists for a block or so before turning into what I guess is now called the Crain Communications Building at 150 N. Michigan Ave. In pictures of the Chicago skyline, taken from the lake and looking west, this is the white building that looks like some giant took a diagonal slice out of its side.

I could have gone straight back from there, I suppose, but I decided to go out to what I call the east end first.

At different times the Pedway network has been more extensive. After 9/11, for example, the skybridge over Madison Street between One and Three First National was removed. A mini-mall under the One North Dearborn Building provided another connection between the State Street and Dearborn Street subways. I could have sworn that it was once possible to walk from City Hall to Illinois Center, at Michigan and Wacker, without once stepping out of doors. In fact, I'm sure I've done it. But you can't do that now.

Still, there's some ground to cover. I doubled back from 150 N. Michigan underneath Randloph and then Michigan Avenues, through the Metra Electric Railroad Station (what us old-timers might remember better as the South Shore Station) and up into the Prudential Building. There's a spacious interior courtyard there, with some inviting seating areas in the middle, ringed by stores. The Pedway in the Aon Center, next on the tour, is a mini-mall, with lots of different restaurants for the office workers. There are also a couple of magazine stores and a post office.

The path leads next into the Fairmont Hotel. I don't know why, but the hotel smells like travel. I don't mean to suggest that the odor is offensive -- it isn't -- but it is distinct -- and it's the same smell in airports and hotels I've been in all around the country. Perhaps they all use the same carpet cleaner.

There's nowhere really for the Pedway to go past the hotel, but it does anyway, past the Lakeshore Athletic Club and all the way to the entrance of the garage of the Park Millennium Condo building. In between those two points of interest there is one more: Too wide for a hallway, it is really a spacious room, an underground ballroom.

Don't get me wrong. It's not fancy. There is drab carpet and utilitarian drywall and the constant sound of air handling equipment. But I've never seen another soul there -- and this is a trip I make at least a few times a month, just to shake off the cobwebs at work. On many prior trips I tried to figure out how I could commandeer that space for Younger Daughter's recent wedding reception. (Hey! I'd tell her when she screamed at me, how many brides get wedding receptions in downtown Chicago?) There are security cameras, though. I doubt that the fastest caterer could get set up before being challenged.

Still, that room's a continuing mystery to me. Surely someone must have had a different plan for this space, else why make it so big?

I got to think about these things all over again when I did the quick turnaround at the Park Millennium (my "east end").

Heading back, I turned left coming out of the Metra Electric Station and cut under the old main public library building (now the Chicago Cultural Center). Today, as on all days recently, a man was strumming a guitar, harmonica mounted on a chest harness, trying to fill the space with music. The Cultural Center links with a building at 139 N. Wabash which, in turn, links to the downtown Macy's -- Marshall Field's to us die-hards.

The Pedway here is a bit of a faded dowager -- well-intended, perhaps, wide, better decorated than most sections (you can see a section of this Pedway portion here) -- but the alcoves and columns often conceal homeless persons. Like the rest of us, the homeless also use the Pedway, and particularly this section, when it's cold, or too hot, or when it rains or snows. They weren't in evidence today -- I suppose the homeless folks must have wanted to get out and take the air, too. I can't help but think, when I wander through here, that this particular stretch could be put to better use. Tourists already shop at the Macy's that the Pedway winds around here; you'd think this stretch of walkway could be made a year-round tourist trap, too.

From Macy's we enter the Red Line subway station -- it used to be the Washington stop; for the foreseeable future, it will be the Lake Street stop. The station has been prettied up to the point where the change seems permanent.

The Pedway goes next under Block 37, the unromantically named shopping mall that occupies (what else?) Block 37 between State and Dearborn, Washington and Randolph, and then the Blue Line station (where the Washington stop is still Washington) and into the Daley Center. The Pedway passes under Clark Street next and into the County Building. The County Building and City Hall are two sides of the same building, really, east and west. You can turn north here and go back underground, past the Marriage Court and into the Thompson Building. You can if you want to, but I went straight through to LaSalle Street because I had to get back to work.

And I still do.

Life in the Curmudgeon commune - an Olaf update

Olaf's appeals to the math department (I've posted about this here and here) have met with some success. (To summarize, Olaf did not graduate because he suffered from uncontrolled migraines for a year and a half -- yes, he went to the doctor -- lots of times -- there were a couple of ER visits, too -- but Olaf's parents have an HMO and the doctor had no sense of urgency. The doctor wrote all sorts of prescriptions, and none worked. It was not until after Olaf was engaged to Younger Daughter -- and we found out that Younger Daughter was expecting -- that Olaf's mother was persuaded to demand that he son get referred to a specialist who might actually provide useful treatment. Only from Easter on did Olaf's condition improve -- and this was not, sadly, always a straight-line progression.)

While graduation this month is still extremely unlikely, Olaf was allowed to complete one course that had remained incomplete since the second semester of his junior year. He took the final in that course yesterday; his final paper will be turned in some time today. And the department chair relented on the idiotic one hour seminar requirement (her pet course, apparently) that mostly involved going to math lectures outside of school and writing papers about what was said. I argued that Olaf could get as much or more from viewing a couple of math-related TED talks on YouTube. Olaf adopted my argument and the department chair relented -- reluctantly. She liked the group bonding experience that occurred when the handful of math majors went together to these talks. Even yesterday she was trying to sell Olaf on deferring graduation until May 2013 in order to participate.

I would have killed the woman on the spot. My grandchild is coming by early October whether Olaf takes the seminar in the Spring of 2013 or 2257. Olaf refrained from any violence. On balance, that's probably to his credit.

In addition to everything else, Olaf took, and completed, three additional courses this summer. This gives him enough hours to graduate -- but it doesn't get him the math degree. He still needs, in order of increasing difficulty, (1) to complete the makeup work for the seminar, (2) to get a waiver of the 'service learning' requirement (promised now a couple of times because of his physical condition at the time he was supposed to perform the service, but so far not reduced to paper) and (3) to complete one more math elective.

This last may prove the insurmountable obstacle. Olaf was enrolled in a statistics course in the spring that would have fulfilled the requirement. Homework was due at every class and could only be turned in during class. Olaf's uncontrolled migraines made regular attendance impossible. According to the course syllabus, late homework was to be counted at only 50% -- and would be accepted only for a day. Well, Olaf did complete all his homework in the course eventually. As new medication began to take hold, his migraines subsided to the point where he could do serious work again. And he had gotten deadly serious about trying to graduate on time. So he did have everything ready to turn in at the time of the final -- but the teacher wouldn't hear of it.

Besides, there were three tests in the class. Olaf missed the first because of migraine. He agreed with the professor to count the second test double to make up for it. On the day of the second test, though, Olaf was in the grips of yet another migraine. This was in his beginning-to-improve phase and this migraine was not of the vomiting-in-his-bed-and-unable-to-stand variety that he had been enduring. So Olaf showed up for the test -- and failed.

By the final, though, Olaf was ready. His head clear, his coursework completed, he was willing to hazard the final. He showed up, completed homework in hand, ready to go. The professor, however, was not willing to let him take the test. He offered Olaf a choice: I will let you withdraw or, if you don't withdraw, I will fail you.

Olaf withdrew.

And his "voluntary" withdrawal is being held against him as he appeals for an opportunity to complete this class. The professor and, yesterday, the department chair, have rejected his appeals. The academic dean is next -- but the summer semester closes a week from today.

The homework 'rule' in that course is what really frosts me. I can understand the teacher wanting to compel attendance by enforcing such a policy. The penalty makes sense if the student is out singing melodies from "The Student Prince" in local beer halls by night, rendering himself unavailable for class in the morning. But, where the school is aware of a physical condition that is hampering attendance, and gives written direction to faculty to accommodate the student's inability to attend, enforcement of this policy becomes ridiculous -- and possibly actionable.

The problem with 'lawyering up' at this stage is that an August graduation would be rendered impossible -- and it might complicate Olaf's ability to get out in January, too.

I am reconciled, I think, to having Olaf not graduate until January. He can take another math elective and look for work in the meantime. The school will not charge him any tuition for the course (we're told) and he may be able to qualify, as a student, for university-provided health insurance that will protect our grandchild. With his migraines under control, he will be employable.

And they must be under control: If the stress of the last month or so hasn't brought the migraines back, Olaf's medication must be working very well indeed. I wish I could get hold of something that would keep me calm and focused. Long Suffering Spouse would want some for herself, too. I told you early last month that she was already beginning to chafe at our new living situation. She's still chafing. But we'll save that description for a different post.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Curmudgeon enrolls you in the Electoral College

For complete map click this link

At the present time, a person needs only 270 votes to be elected President of the United States. Under our Constitution, the votes you cast in November go, one way or the other, toward the selection of the Electoral College -- and it is the members of that college whose votes make the actual selection of the President.

According to this August 8 electoral map published on the Huffington Post, if the election were held today, reelection would be a near-certainty for Mr. Obama at this point. While this may (and probably will) change, according to the polls relied upon by the website, very few states (Colorado, Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida) are really 'up for grabs' at this moment.

Watching television in those states must be a real ordeal at this point, as both campaigns pour millions into commercials recruiting voters to their side -- or scaring off the other guy's voters.

But the states in light blue on the map are also potentially in play, even if they are presently leaning, to one degree or another, in Mr. Obama's favor.

If Mr. Romney is to win, he must focus on the four undecided states and those light blue ones and bring them into his camp. Television watching in these states, too, will become increasingly difficult as the campaign goes on.

The interesting thing about this map is that there are no 'soft' Romney states -- no states shaded light red. Mr. Obama will avoid campaigning in any of the dark red states and the good people of those states will be spared from competing torrents of presidential attack ads. Mr. Obama may go to Texas -- Austin, perhaps, or maybe Houston, for a fundraiser, but not to make any pitch to local voters. It would be a waste of resources.

Similarly, Mr. Romney will not bother the good people of Illinois, New York or California all that often this year. He was in Illinois this week to raise funds and he did make an appearance at Acme Industries in suburban Elk Grove Village to make a speech -- but that was intended for the evening network news, not local consumption. Illinois will not waver in its support of Mr. Obama (although if you were to look at a red-blue, county-by-county map of Illinois on the day after the election, you might not believe that Obama handily carried the state). Here in Chicago, however, we will still will get a hefty dose of campaign commercials: The most populous areas of Southeast Wisconsin, south of Milwaukee, a state Mr. Romney wants and Mr. Obama needs to hold, are in the Chicago TV market.

Nor will Mr. Obama come back to Illinois much. He'll be here this weekend -- a belated celebration of his 51st birthday, it will be said -- but all the invited guests are the big local donors who launched Mr. Obama on his meteoric rise from an obscure Springfield legislator to the White House. Neither will Mr. Romney spend much time campaigning in the states that comprise his base. This is all good, sound Electoral College logic.

Some people think the Electoral College is undemocratic.

It sure is.

It was intended to be.

We are a nation of sovereign states who together have formed a union -- out of many, one (e pluribus unum). It is the states, ultimately, who select the nation's chief magistrate. Although popular elections in each state now determine the composition of the Electoral College, it is the states' electoral votes that decide the contest. Thus, while Mr. Romney may have less ground to make up in Iowa, it is a poor prize (only six electoral votes) compared to the potentially rich harvest of 20 electoral votes in Pennsylvania or 18 in Ohio. The professionals advising both candidates will concentrate the resources of their respective campaigns as necessary to produce the most possible electoral votes.

Usually the Electoral College provides the healthy function of being a mandate multiplier. Only a few million votes will typically separate the winner from the loser in a national election. Out of nearly 130 million votes in 2008, for example, then-Senator Obama received only 9.5 million more popular votes than Senator McCain. But Mr. Obama won a clear majority of states -- 28 to 22 -- and that 52.9% of the popular vote ballooned to a much more impressive 66.2% of the electoral vote. In 2004, a close reelection contest, President Bush had only 3 million more popular votes than Sen. Kerry. But Bush carried 31 states, and his razor-thin 50.7% of the popular vote was a safer 53% majority in the Electoral College.

This mandate multiplication is even more dramatic when a third party candidate is involved, as in 1992. President George H.W. Bush lost to then-Gov. Bill Clinton by less than six million votes. But this small 5.5% margin in the popular vote became a whopping 31% margin in the Electoral College -- a 100 vote victory because third-party candidate Ross Perot did not win a single electoral vote (despite picking up nearly 19% of the popular vote.

The reason the Electoral College stands in bad odor with some is the Bush-Gore election of 2000. Vice President Al Gore narrowly won the popular vote -- a half million vote margin out of over 101 million cast -- but lost in the Electoral College 271 votes to 266. (And, yes, that's 537 votes, not the 538 that should have been recorded. According to Wikipedia, Barbara Lett-Simmons, an elector from the District of Columbia, abstained from voting -- she was supposed to vote for Gore and Lieberman -- in protest, she said, of the District's lack of voting representation in Congress.)

The only other times a president was elected without receiving a majority of the popular vote were 1876 and 1824 -- and voter eligibility was quite different in those far-off days. (In 1876, the election of Rutherford B. Hayes was determined by a single electoral vote; in 1824 no candidate received a majority in the Electoral College and the election was thrown, as per the Constitution, into the House of Representatives.)

That's a pretty good track record -- and a compelling argument for not tinkering with the Electoral College. The Roman Republic fell apart because it could not arrive at an agreed-upon method for the peaceful transfer of power; the institutions that served it well enough as a city-state proved inadequate to the task of governing an empire. In the United States, the Electoral College has helped ensure that transfers of power here are, and remain, peaceful down to the present day.

God bless the Electoral College. And, if you're in Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Florida or any of the other battleground states, the interference with your TV watching habits between now and November 6, however obnoxious, is a small price to pay for the continuation of the American miracle of peaceful transfer of power.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Marvin Hamlisch dead; Kanye West to blame?

Marvin Hamlisch wrote lots of memorable music for stage and screen, including the Tony and Pulitzer Award winning musical "A Chorus Line," the Oscar winning score for The Sting (Hamlisch's adaptation of Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer" became a Top 10 hit) -- and he also had a hand in writing Barbra Streisand's "The Way We Were."

Well, they can't all be winners.

But Hamlisch also wrote Lesley Gore's "Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows," and that makes up for Streisand, in my book.

Anyway, the sad news from Tinseltown is that Marvin Hamlisch passed away Monday at the age of 68.

Meanwhile, in other entertainment news, Kanye West has revealed that his latest magnum opus, "The Perfect Bitch," is really a song about Kim Kardashian -- and this while Kanye and Kim are still (as the gossip columns used to say) a coosome twosome.

This disclosure raises some interesting questions:
If romance is not yet officially dead, can we at least say it's in a coma?

Remember when you couldn't say words like that unless you made it abundantly clear that you were talking about raising dogs (and maybe not even then)?

What might Mr. West call Ms. Kardashian when (as is inevitable) trouble develops in Paradise?
Meanwhile, the cause of death Mr. Hamlisch's death has not yet been revealed. But I can't help but think there's some linkage here.

Scenes from the alleged economic "recovery"

I was home again Monday afternoon and I happened to be walking through the living room when I heard the letter carrier put the mail into the mail slot. Though not particularly eager to inventory the day's bills, I took the few steps to the mailbox and extracted the contents.

The top piece was a salmon-colored card that recited the attempted delivery of a certified letter. Holding onto that card, I threw open the front door and went scampering (well, galumphing) down the block after the letter carrier.

"I'm sorry we didn't hear you ring," I began, "the front bell works only on occasion."

"No, I didn't ring," said the mailman (a younger man, not the lady I've often seen in the past).

I held up the card. "Don't you have something for me?"

"No," said the letter carrier, looking the card over. "They just gave me the card."

"But we haven't gotten one before," I said, and the mailman and I scrutinized the card trying to discern clues.

"No," he admitted, "it should say 'final attempt' or something...." We went on in this unproductive vein for a few more minutes, the letter carrier finally apologizing for not having the letter, but saying he can only deliver what he's given. The question next became how to actually get the letter to which the salmon-colored card referred.

"I could put it in for tomorrow's delivery," the mailman offered (never mind that this seemed to contradict his prior statement about having no control about what he's given for his route) -- "but someone would have to be here to sign for it," I continued, "and that wouldn't be until the afternoon?"


So I decided I'd go to the post office myself in the morning to fetch the letter. According to the salmon-colored card, that would be my first opportunity.

I'll spare you the anguished speculation in which Long Suffering Spouse and I engaged concerning the certified letter. I was initially concerned it might be a small claims summons -- pretty dirty pool not sending the actual letter with the notice, but who could make the Postal Service participate in such skullduggery? But if it were the Tribune -- the most likely candidate, I thought, despite my so-far unanswered letters protesting their bill -- (this post will provide more details) the summons should have been addressed to Long Suffering Spouse; the salmon-colored card clearly indicated that the letter was addressed to me instead.

Next morning, I arrived at the local post office shortly after the doors opened. There was already a line.

An unhappy man was at the counter. He wanted to buy stamps and pay cash -- but the man at the window could not make change. He called out to those of us assembled in line, "Do any of you have two 10s for a 20?" There were six people in line; one did. (It wasn't me. Break a $20? I didn't have $20 on me.)

The customer at the counter was not mollified. An older gentleman, probably very nice in most social settings, he was nevertheless unafraid to express his opinion. "You'd think the Postal Service would give you enough of a bank to make change for customers," he groused. He was playing to the gallery -- those of us in line -- and the postal clerk at the window felt obliged to do the same.

"You think things are bad now," the clerk began, "but just wait. Things are only going to get worse. The good old days are gone."

Here was a man clearly worried about his pension.

Eventually, the old man left with his stamps and the line began to move again. The clerk continued to offer dark predictions about the future of the Postal Service to each new customer. Finally, it was my turn. (I was actually relieved. Based on the clerk's continuing remarks, I thought the Post Office might go bankrupt before I got to the window.)

I presented my card.

"Do you know what this is?" the clerk asked. "One of these boxes should be checked to say whether it is certified, registered or a parcel" -- he showed me that none were. His manner suggested that this was entirely my fault.

"I assume it's a certified letter from the number" -- I showed him the number scrawled on the bottom of the card, starting with 7011 -- "that usually means a certified piece, in my experience," I offered.

"Hmmmph," said the postal clerk, and off he stalked into a back room to look for my letter, muttering more to himself now.

Eventually he returned, letter in hand. I signed the green card. I signed a machine, like one of those credit card machines, at the counter. At that point I would have signed the palm of the clerk's hand if only I could just get out of there.

I took my letter and fled. The clerk was telling the next customer, "Oh, sure things are terrible now. But they will much, much worse."

I suppose you may be wondering about the contents of the letter at this point.

Well, it was a letter from Youngest Son's old dentists -- pedodontists, actually.

We'd started in with this practice when Middle Son was about two. He broke a tooth learning how to walk -- a cringe-inducing tale I'll save for another day -- and, since we (meaning Long Suffering Spouse, mostly) weren't entirely enamored of the general dentists we had taking care of us, we thought it prudent to put him in the care of a specialist. The younger children, including Youngest Son, also became patients of the group.

Youngest Son, however, is now 6'3" or so, nearly 20, and in college. He has aged out of the pedodontists' practice. Nevertheless, that group has called at least twice a week, and sometimes more often, trying to get Youngest Son to come back for another appointment. We never answered the phone. (I never picked up because Long Suffering Spouse told me she'd told the pedodontists that Youngest Son would be moving to a general dentist henceforth; I didn't find out until yesterday that she'd balked when they tried to stick her with a fee for transferring the kid's records).

From all their calls I'd guessed things must be tough in the pedodontist business, too, but the letter cinched it for me: After reciting the heroic efforts of the office staff to contact us, it went onto state that if all Youngest Son's teeth decay and fall out it won't be their fault.

After picking up the letter, I went to get gas for the van. I paid $4.21 a gallon for regular unleaded. Eight days before, at the same station (one of the least expensive in the area) I'd paid $3.85.

I read that the economy is getting better. But I see no proof in the world around me.

Friday, August 03, 2012

Toot toot toot, lookin' out my back door

Remember, as I tell this true story, that I live within the corporate limits of the great City of Chicago.

I was sitting in the den the other night at dusk, minding my own business, watching the ballgame on TV, when I chanced to look at the glass sliding door leading to the backyard.

I must have heard something. Or felt something. (With my glaucoma, it's unlikely that I saw something out of the corner of my eye....)

I looked out through the sliding glass door and a good size raccoon looked back at me.

He was about as close to me in my command chair as I am to the computer screen right now. That's pretty close. Too close, if you ask me, even with the glass door closed.

I stood up and started banging on the glass and that raccoon turned tail and ran away from the house, right over a skunk, who just happened to be patrolling the middle of the backyard at that moment.

Well, they looked at each other, each trying to size up the other's intentions. The skunk's tail did go up, but he was apparently inclined to accept the raccoon's apology because nothing bad happened after that. The raccoon continued toward the back fence (there's a garden shed back there and I'm going to be wary on opening it any time soon -- I couldn't tell for sure where the raccoon was headed in the dim light).

The skunk lowered its tail and looked around some, eventually resuming its evening patrol.

Who needs Animal Planet?

The post title is taken from the old Creedence Clearwater Revival song. But you already knew that, didn't you?

Thursday, August 02, 2012

On Romney's tax returns

Mitt Romney has stubbornly clung to the notion that he will reveal only two years worth of his federal tax returns. The President's surrogates are eating this up; they hope he never gives in.

Chances are, of course, that the reason Romney is reluctant to open up his tax records is (as the Democrats speculate) that there have been years where he's paid little or no income tax.

Romney doesn't earn money from wages; his money comes from investments. His investment income is taxed at a different, lower rate than comparable amounts of wages. Whatever those amounts might be.

Some years Romney's investments may have fared better than others -- even the very, very rich felt some pain from the Great Recession. If his investments fared poorly in a given year, he may have been able to reduce or eliminate his taxes by following good, sound, prudent advice from this tax lawyers.

He can afford good tax lawyers.

The other area where the speculators are running rampant is in connection with Romney's disassociation from Bain Capital. Romney apparently kept his titles in the company even after relinquishing day-to-day management responsibilities to work on the Salt Lake City Olympics. Maybe he was planning on coming back; maybe he kept his titles as security that he'd receive all the money he expected from the sale of his interest in the company. This makes a difference because Bain Capital indulged in some relocation of American jobs overseas -- but only after (Romney says) he was no longer running the company.

Again, I'm certain that Mr. Romney received excellent legal advice and he committed absolutely no "crime" in signing documents as Bain's president or CEO or whatever after he was allegedly no longer involved with the company's daily affairs.

You'd think that a rich man like Mr. Romney could afford good PR advice to go along with all that sound legal advice.

Right now, however, whoever Romney is paying to manage this issue is either incompetent or secretly working hand-in-glove with David Axelrod.

Romney should turn over the tax returns right now -- yesterday, in fact -- and if he wants to orchestrate the release with the simultaneous release of explanatory letters from tax lawyers or the lawyers who handled his Bain buyout, that's fine too. But Romney should stop stalling and put the returns in play.

Yes, the Democrats will rail about how rich Romney really is. That will have legs for about a day. The American people already know that Romney is rich. Americans don't hate rich people; Americans want to be rich people.

About the only folks who might be angry with Romney for disclosing his tax returns are his fellow billionaires. Think about it: Romney may not be punished by voters for paying in accordance with our crazy tax code -- but whoever wins in November will have to deal with the increasing clamor for some 'shared sacrifice' in the Internal Revenue Code. Romney's returns may not kill his campaign, but they may provide solid fuel for those who argue that the super-rich need to pay a more equitable share of the nation's taxes. Romney's fellow billionaires might not like having solid evidence of just how lightly the tax burden might fall on the super-rich.

Here's a newsflash for you, Gov. Romney: Your fellow billionaires don't like you anyway. Messrs. Soros and Buffett won't vote for you no matter what; most of the others -- even though they also don't like you -- won't vote for Mr. Obama (no matter what). So stop worrying about them and release your tax returns... unless you're working hand-in-glove with Axelrod, too?

Is that too paranoid? Can a student of American politics really ever be too paranoid?