Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Happy Halloween

I wonder if this would deter any would-be eggers.

Seems pretty scary to me. (Another picture from the mailbag.)

And here's two pictures that I took of the Daley Center Plaza a few days back, all decorated for the holiday. I posted another one showing the fountain -- and was surprised at the negative reaction:

These buildings are temporary -- they'll be gone before the end of the week....

This will be replaced by the sheds for the Christkindlmarket, which will be open by Thanksgiving... and then there'll be a giant Christmas tree... and Santa's House, too.

But more about that... in season. May the Great Pumpkin visit your pumpkin patch.

There's always someone who didn't get the memo

(Today's Brewster Rockit. Click to enlarge.)

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Heads or Tails #12 (Spooky, Scary, Halloween-ish)

It occurred to me that Barb started this "Heads or Tails" project one week too late... wouldn't it be appropriate to be doing Heads or Tails #13 today? (*cue evil laugh and scary music*)

So: Today's theme is "Spooky, Scary, Halloween-ish."

A couple of my kids, Middle Son and Younger Daughter in particular, are into horror movies. Middle Son has seen the first three "Saw" movies, for example, and he's probably seen "Saw IV" by now, too.


I tell them -- you want to be scared? Look in my checkbook... but they don't understand.

But they will. They will. (*cue evil laugh and scary music again*)

Oldest Son was still in high school and Halloween was approaching. Some bright lad decided it would be really cool to go visit haunted graveyards. (*Have we overdone the scary music already?*)

There's more to the Internet than dirty pictures and blogs, you know. Maybe not a lot more... but, anyway, someone found a website that identified the creepiest, spookiest, most-haunted cemeteries in the Chicago area and a pilgrimage to one of these was suggested.

Various proposals were considered and rejected on the basis of distance... or security. Some cemetery proprietors are not keen on teenagers roaming the premises trying to scare each other; these might summon -- not a spirit -- but the police.

But then the planners found an isolated country cemetery. In the middle of nowhere, a fence that could be readily scaled and easy access to a road in case a quick getaway from frights spiritual or temporal was required. Oldest Son was interested in joining the party... until he found out which cemetery was to be visited.

"Uh, guys," he said, "that's where my grandparents are buried."

I believe an alternate site was decided upon. (*cue "Twilight Zone" music*)

We have candy ready, for the neighbor kids. And the others.

But it's some of the others who have soured Long Suffering Spouse on Halloween to the point where there's not one pumpkin at our house this year, not one skeleton or witch hung up. My wife has a box of Halloween decorations, including treasures that the kids created when they were little, but they remain tucked away.

Long Suffering Spouse is a junior high teacher at our parish school. All five of our children attended that school. The location of our home is well known.

Somewhere along the line, several years back now, a group of pimply-faced, hormone-laced dweebs decided it would be fun to egg our house on Halloween.

One year I drove on Halloween, intending to come home early to see the kids trick-or-treating. I kind of missed the days when ours were young enough for that. Long Suffering Spouse sewed dinosaur costumes one year that got used by several of the kids when they were little.

Of course, I wasn't as early as I hoped, but as I pulled in across the street I saw a large group of kids coming toward the house. Still in time! I thought. And I got out of the car... and heard *plop*, *plop*, *plop* noises: The little bastards were egging my house.

I put on my best bull rush, roaring like a madman and charged. Unfortunately, I did not pick a particular target. I might have caught one that way; as it was, they scattered successfully.

A couple of teachers' homes got pegged that night, but ours has gotten hit every year since. One year we did ID who'd done it -- and it was high school kids. Ex-students.

Long Suffering Spouse was devastated. "Who am I to them?" she lamented. "Why don't they move on?"

But we both knew the answer: They wouldn'tdare try this at a high school teacher's home. They'd be in serious trouble.

And this time, since we did have a good look, we called the high schools involved... and there were repercussions.

But you know what?

That made them more determined, not less. And more sneaky. We got pegged at 1:00 am once. I did my bellowing bull rush down the stairs and out into the street, barefoot, in my shorts, toward the alley from which they'd no doubt launched their attack.

But I was again unsuccessful.

Another year I waited in the car across the street. Another year we got pegged while I was out at one of my sons' football games, out in the suburbs. The memories of these unpleasant events merge in my mind; I can't separate one year from another.

But Long Suffering Spouse can tell you chapter and verse. Each year. Each egg. And it hurts her terribly.

I'm hoping that the kids who were the most enthusiastic of our tormentors -- now upperclassmen in high school -- will have finally moved on. Maybe they've discovered girls... maybe they're going to haunted graveyards this year....

But they're not that bright.

So I'm not real hopeful.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Water-powered cars?

Speaking of saving the environment -- and making the Middle East irrelevant -- I stumbled upon this article this evening at a site called

The linked article claims that a technology has been "patented to convert H2O into HHO, that could run a car for 100 miles on 4oz of water."

Can you imagine?

According to this article, "a Vehicle System that will run a car on a Hybrid System of H2O and Gasoline" has been developed and is "scheduled to... debut in 2008."

An entirely water-powered vehicle is supposedly also in the works, but not yet ready to roll.

Doesn't this sound too good to be true?

The problem with things that are too good to be true is that -- usually -- they are. Techies in the audience, please chime in and tell me this is plausible....

Let's save the environment -- but don't make me ride the bus?

Younger Daughter has conned us into letter her drive to school four days a week. On each of these days she has band class that starts at 7:00 am. That's before the start of the regular school day -- and before the scheduled bus arrives.

Younger Daughter seems to hate band. She harbors a profound dislike for her teacher, which is apparently reciprocated, and -- though she will play her mother's guitar (upside down and pointing the wrong way) for hours on end (with, admittedly, increasing skill) -- she will not practice her trumpet. At all.

She will not even bring it home so that her instructor thinks she might be practicing.

I don't know what's worse for the instructor: That Younger Daughter will not practice her instrument, or that Younger Daughter is pretty good at that instrument anyway and better than anyone else he has available. The presence of her trumpet on a shelf in the Music Room each night must be a regular irritant for the man.

Long Suffering Spouse and I have suggested -- several times -- that Younger Daughter quit band. She has no ambitions of a musical career. But she will not quit.

So: Despite the state of war that exists between Younger Daughter and the band instructor, Younger Daughter simply must drive to school.

And it's not that band furnishes her with an excuse to drive -- no, indeed! It is, rather, that she is determined to finish her four years in band so that she may wear a pink tassel on her graduation gown. I am virtually a war criminal for suggesting otherwise.

But there's a catch... band meets only on Tuesdays through Fridays.

On Monday, therefore, I have decreed, Younger Daughter must take the bus.

This has met with howls of protest, both from Younger Daughter and from Youngest Son besides. And these howls are renewed every single Sunday night.

Youngest Son attends a different school, but it is generally on the way to Younger Daughter's and he therefore also rides with her each morning... and, thus, on Mondays, he too must take the bus.

You might think I have decreed that on Mondays they must eat sawdust and walk across beds of hot coals.

Mind you, these are the same children who will lecture me on the environment, who will preach to me about Global Warming (just as they've heard it preached to them at school) and who consider me to be a Neanderthal reactionary.

Which I may be... but I generally take the train.

Oh. And I also turn off the lights that they leave on in every room of the house that they've visited....

What is it that I'm missing here?

Saturday, October 27, 2007

15 worst TV shows of all time?

The Chicago Tribune published this provactive list of its nominees in yesterday's paper.

I'll copy the list -- but delete the descriptions. (Let's respect copyrights people, right? Fair use only? The link will take you to the descriptions anyway.)

15. "YOU'RE IN THE PICTURE" (1961)

14. "PETTICOAT JUNCTION" (1963-70)

13. "MY MOTHER THE CAR" (1965-66)



10. "PINK LADY AND JEFF" (1980)


8. "MAMA'S FAMILY" (1983-90)

7. "MANIMAL" (1983)

6. "SMALL WONDER" (1985-89)

5. "LIFE WITH LUCY" (1986)

4. "COP ROCK" (1990)


2. "BARNEY & FRIENDS" (1992-present)


I have to confess: I watched "My Mother the Car" and I don't remember it being that bad. Of course, I was very young at the time....

Some of these others I've never heard of... some of these I've heard of but wish I hadn't -- "Mama's Family" or "Joanie Loves Chachi," to cite two bad examples....(*shudder*).

But how can such a list be complete without mentioning the only show that, so far as I know, was canceled after just one episode? I refer to "Turn-On" which lasted just one episode in 1969.

I couldn't remember the name when I put this post up this morning... but it came back to me... welling up out of some dark, suppressed place in my consciousness.... I believe the gimmick was that the "comedy" was written (generated?) by computer.

It couldn't have been much of a computer... according to IMDb, the show was actually canceled 10 minutes into the one and only episode. And IMDb actually blames a human writer for "Turn-On," so my recollection may be proved imperfect once again.

Anyway, I nominate "Turn-On" for the top of my list. What would top yours?

Friday, October 26, 2007

Trust -- but how to build it? How to earn it?

There is a new disciplinarian at Youngest Son's high school.

Well, actually, he's the one who was there during Oldest Son's tenure and some of Middle Son's too, but his successor left this Summer and the old Dean of Students was pressed into service anew.

He's tough.

The man who held the job recently was physically imposing -- you just knew, coming into his presence, that you wanted him on your side in the fray. But the new/old Dean is not.

He doesn't have to be.

When he explained the discipline policy to the parents of incoming freshmen at Back to School Night he never made a threat and he never raised his voice. But he did raise the hairs on my arm. He made it abundantly clear that the highest compliment he can pay a student is to not know who the student is at graduation. The Dean is not one for small talk, boosting self-esteem, or second chances. He will tell a misbehaving student, "Give me your ID." And the student will get a JUG. And if the student doesn't have his ID, he will get two JUGs. (A JUG is a detention -- an unpleasant after-school experience, that can be ratcheted up to an unpleasant Saturday morning experience if not served properly. My kids tell me JUG means "Justice Under God." I do not believe them. But I capitalize it anyway. Just in case.)

True story -- going back to the Dean's original tenure: His sons have all attended the school. He would drive, with his sons, to school in the morning. They live some distance away -- at least a half hour drive.

There is a uniform code at that school. Hair must not be too long -- or too short. Certain trousers only may be worn; shirts must be plain and have collars. On Mass days, ties must be worn.

One morning the Dean's son came down to breakfast wearing non-conforming pants. The Dean said not a word. They went to the car and drove to the school. The Dean said not a word. They parked the car and walked to the school. Still, the Dean said nothing.

But then they crossed the threshold and went into the school building. The Dean turned to his son and said, "Give me your ID." He gave his son a JUG.

The kids and the teachers alike at Youngest Son's school know there are rules, they know what the rules are, and they know they are enforced. There is a trust in the system... and there is, accordingly, far less work for the Dean to do than one might suppose in a school of some 700 teenage boys.

That trust is so sadly lacking in so many other areas. I've mentioned reading Second City Cop and The Capitol Fax Blog here recently. Read any entry; read the comments. There is no trust whatsoever in our political leadership in Chicago. Of course, anyone who did trust the people in charge would also believe in the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny.

Take a recent example: The Chicago Tribune reported this week how a once-contaminated piece of land located along Bubbly Creek was bought by a Daley insider for $50,000 in 1998 -- and now sold, to the City, for a park -- for $1.2 million. The Sun-Times reports this morning that Mayor Daley defends the purchase -- and insists there was no "sweetheart deal." Even though Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown reported yesterday that the City forced People's Gas to clean up the site, thus enhancing its value and before making the purchase. Oh, and the property was appraised -- and the sales price determined accordingly -- as if it were residential property. Which it certainly was not. A Tribune editorial concluded yesterday, with tongue firmly in cheek, "Some folks are just lucky. What else could it be?"

Trust. You can't legislate it. You can't demand it. You can only earn it. Like the Dean of Students at Youngest Son's school.

Out of town readers may not recognize the name "Bubbly Creek." The unsavory history of the stream is hinted at in the linked news stories, but this Wikipedia entry gives it to you straight. The name is that unofficially applied to the South Fork of the Chicago River. "The South Fork became an open sewer for the Chicago stockyards, especially the Union Stock Yards. Meatpackers used fat (as lard), hides and flesh (as meat), but blood and entrails usually found their way into the nearest river. The creek received so much blood and offal that it began to bubble methane and hydrogen sulfide gas from the products of decomposition. Two heavily polluted streams that joined to create the south fork were filled in, and their courses can still be seen today in the configuration of streets and rail lines in the area. By the 1990s the only living metazoans in the creek were huge numbers of bloodworms feeding on the estimated two meters of rotting blood in the bed of the hypoxic creek."

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Must take today off....

Fighting -- and losing to -- a change of season cold. I don't feel humorous and I lack the strength to mount my soapbox.

Play nicely among yourselves today.

And thanks, as always, for dropping by.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Facing up to history -- for our own safety

I read this story yesterday on Yahoo! News, how the Japanese are, once again, looking to rewrite history, this time to avoid facing up to the fact that the Japanese military ordered civilians on Okinawa to kill themselves in the face of invading American forces. Not only did they order the suicides, they prepared the populace to embrace suicide, over the course of a long propaganda campaign, promising that the Americans would subject the civilian population of Okinawa to unspeakable savagery -- basically the kind of things that the Japanese had done in China.

Which they don't admit either.

Reading this, I was reminded of a recent column by Neil Steinberg in the Chicago Sun-Times:
You want to feel good about [America]? Talk about slavery.

How, you may ask, can this shameful peak of human cruelty, whose lingering bad effects are felt to this day, be a source of pride to the nation that tolerated its existence for nearly a century?

Because at least we recognize it. We are aware of it; we teach about slavery in schools. We can talk about it. And if we don't face facts as much as we should, then at least debating them isn't against the law.
Steinberg was writing about the Turkish attitude toward -- and legislation concerning -- discussion of the deaths of hundreds of thousands, maybe more than a million, of Armenians in 1915 -- but I believe it applies in this context as well.

The horrors of the Battle of Okinawa helped persuade American authorities that it was necessary to use the atomic bomb: Tens of thousands would be killed by the bomb. But millions on both sides would have died in an invasion of the Home Islands -- if the Japanese military insisted on fighting to the death as it had throughout the island campaign and at Okinawa. And if their own military ordered, forced or frightened Japanese civilians into mass suicide -- as at Okinawa. Whitewash what the Japanese military did to their own people at Okinawa and future generations will not understand the desperation that led America to use the ultimate weapon.

That might make the world less safe from nuclear war, not more safe: Take away the agonizing balancing that American planners had to perform in deciding to use the Bomb and you make it merely an exercise in power. As in 'we have it, let's use it.'

Is that the false precedent that we want to transmit to military strategists in North Korean or Iran or Who-Knows-Where?

Most readers will recognize that slavery lasted on this continent for more than a century... but Steinberg went on to explain in his column that he used "less than a century" deliberately, since the United States of America did not come into existence until 1776.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Seasonal picture... from the mailbag

This came with lots of others, actually, but this is about the funniest.

Well, the funniest one that isn't, uh, gross. Or risque....

Not seasonal, you say? Look again, please.

I may get to those other ones later....

News gathering in the 21st Century? A case study

Annie Sweeney and Fran Spielman report in this morning's Chicago Sun-Times about the arrest of a CTA customer service representative. The employee is charged with "stealing credit card numbers from four CTA customers, some of whom were purchasing fare cards or updating fare cards," according to the newspaper story.

I was looking for the story this morning in the paper -- because I'd read about it yesterday on line. Second City Cop, a highly unofficial blog by one or more anonymous Chicago police officers that I've only recently discovered, featured the story yesterday, adding alleged details about events following the arrest (if you compare the links) that the Sun-Times did not report.

And SCC complains, this morning, that the juicy post-arrest details weren't reported by what the blog derides as the "dead tree media."

But reporting those allegations would have been entirely inappropriate -- unless and until they could be verified. It is not sufficient for a newspaper to rely solely on an anonymous tip to an anonymous blogger. SCC complains this morning that it is "good enough to use as a source when it's just some 22 year old moron using her job to rip off CTA customers. But when the heavy lifting of investigative work comes along that might embarrass the mayor or his people, we're just a rumor mill."

But that's not what happened. Yes, someone at the newspaper read or was tipped about the post. But the paper didn't rely on the blog for the story about the arrest either: The arrest could be verified. The allegations of station-house shenanigans that SCC also reported would not have been so easy to confirm. So today's story could only be about the arrest. Who knows what tomorrow's paper may bring?

In the meantime, what an illustration of the power of blogging: From blog comment, to post, to page 3 of a major Chicago daily in just a day or two.

Of course, at some point, the powers that be will try and land on SCC with hob-nailed boots. But this is not Myanmar, or even China. If this site is suppressed, other sites will surely burble up and the press is right to review these sites for the story tips they will most assuredly provide. The way news is gathered, and the way we read and understand the news, really is changing.

Heads or Tails #11 (Trains)

Welcome to this week's installment of "Heads or Tails," a wholly owned subsidiary of Barb's blogging empire. Today's challenge: Trains.

I've whined so much about the Blue Line of the CTA since this blog went up that I could just pull up snippets from past entries and satisfy today's obligation. With a little editing, they might even be enjoyable....

Of course, most of the entries here suffer from want of editing.... And editing is work....

I was thinking about this morning's entry as I waited for the train to pull in. I was fortunate today: A train arrived just as I descended to the platform... and it was relatively empty. I watched the cars roll by and thought for a moment that I would sit one car further back than usual... but, on that car, I saw, my seat was taken. I hurried back to the preceding car.

My seat?

When I was in law school I lived with my parents, well out in Exurbia, near where Christ lost His shoes. My father took the Chicago & North Western train both ways and I rode down with him in the morning and sometimes returned with him at night.

I never needed to look for him: He was always in the same car, in the same seat. During most of those years he was reading the Daily News. (Yes, children, once upon a time, we had afternoon newspapers in this country as well as morning ones.) I'd get through Mike Royko, at least, before I fell asleep. But I always fell asleep.

Nor was I the only one. This was an express train and it ran for a good 40 minutes before reaching Exurbia, and ours was the first stop. Almost all of the riders left their tickets or monthly passes out and surrendered themselves to the arms of Morpheus; the conductor moved quietly through the car at some point... you knew he'd been there, if you had a ticket, because it had been punched. Or collected. But you never saw him.

Now that I think about it... a pickpocket could have really cleaned up on that train....

My father's seat selection was personal -- but I've come to believe that this is something men do. That men have to do. We function best in a routine: My wallet must be put here at night. My watch and pen must be there....

"My" seat on the el isn't always on the same car: The trains arriving at my station come from O'Hare and they will be crowded or empty according to the number of planes arriving. But I'll scramble for that seat on any car I can. Things aren't right somehow if I can't get it: The coffee cup doesn't fit the same way or I have no room for my feet... and, if I have to sit on the other side of the car, or facing the other way, the Sun will surely blind me or I'll spill or... something.

Of course, I can vary my routine: Sometimes I run into my friend Steve on the platform. I'll ride down with him. "His" seat is in an entirely different place within the car, and always more towards the front of the train than I prefer. But, then, I'm riding down with him so it's OK. If we chance to meet riding home, however, I always aim for "my" seat.

That's normal, isn't it?

Monday, October 22, 2007

Trick or treating tips?

Stumbled upon at this site. (Click to enlarge.)

Long Suffering Spouse has soured on Halloween to the point where I might even get away with the behavior depicted in panel no. 4.... (Hmmmmmmmm. I may even try this....)

On leaving comments

You know how I try, at least, to control my impulses to spout political opinions here at Second Effort... but, from time to time, I allow myself the luxury of reading and sometimes commenting on other, more political, sites.

I recently left a little bit of doggerel on the Capitol Fax blog in a contest for a tongue-in-cheek 'pledge of allegiance' to the State of Illinois. The link above will take you to a follow-up post on Mr. Miller's site: My effort was judged among the finalists. That post, in turn, was picked up by Eric Zorn, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, in yesterday's paper. So the Curmudgeon's hit the big-time... sort of.... (Naturally, the link is unavailable at present -- but I'll update later.)

And speaking of leaving comments, special thanks must be given to Patti of Late Bloomer Boomer who left comments on 10 of my recent posts over the weekend. I logged into the email account that handles comments here and about fell over in shock when I saw the number of waiting messages.... So, Patti: Special thanks.

The Sunday column is not on line; I missed Zorn's column last Tuesday when he first solicited pledges. Here, however, is Zorn's follow up in his blog last Friday and his post yesterday linking back to the Capitol Fax Blog... wherein I was named one of the winners.

Go figure.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Do not adjust the color on your monitor

That really is orange-colored water coming out of the fountain in the Daley Center Plaza in Chicago yesterday -- part of the decorations for Halloween, of course.

Sure, too, around the Feast of St. Patrick, the waters in that fountain will be dyed a lovely shade of green.

However, there is no truth to the rumor that the waters are dyed blood red around St. Valentine's Day. Why, anyone suggesting it would be massacred....

Two jokes for Friday morning

Found here...

A cab driver picks up a nun. She gets into the cab, and the cab driver just can't stop staring at her. She asks him why. He blushes and stammers, but finally he replies, "I have a question to ask you but I don't want to offend you."

She answers: "My son, you cannot offend me. When you're as old as I am and have been a nun as long as I have, you get a chance to see and hear just about everything. I'm sure that there's nothing you could say or ask that I would find offensive."

"Well, I've always had a fantasy about having a nun kiss me."

She responds, "Well, maybe I can do something about that... but let me think... two conditions: First, you have to be single and, second, you must be a Catholic."

The cab driver responds immediately: "Yes, I'm single and I'm Catholic too!"

The nun says, "OK, pull into the next alley." He does and the nun fulfills his fantasy. But when the cab pulls back onto the street, the cab driver starts crying.

"My dear child." said the nun, "Why are you crying?"

"Forgive me sister, but I have sinned. I must confess. I lied. I'm married and I'm a Baptist."

The nun says, "That's OK, I am on the way to a Halloween party, and my name is Kevin."

...and here.

A man is taking a walk in Central park in New York. He sees a little girl being attacked by a pit bull. He runs over and pulls the dog off the girl. It's a ferocious struggle, but the man finally succeeds in killing the dog and saving the girl's life.

A policeman who came upon the scene ran over and congratulated the man. "You are a hero," he says, shaking the man's hand, "I can see it now in tomorrow's papers: Brave
New Yorker saves the life of little girl."

But the man said, "I am not a New Yorker."

"No matter," said the policeman, still enthused. "Then tomorrow the papers will say 'Brave American saves life of little girl.'"

"But I am not an American," said the man.

"Oh, what are you then?"

"I am a Pakistani!"

Thus it was that, the next day, the headlines read: "Islamic extremist kills innocent American dog."

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Why sci fi is more fun to read than proper literature

From "Letter Illustrations" by Tom Gauld. From Cabanon Press.

A really scary story for Halloween -- with pictures

You're looking north on LaSalle Street at City Hall in Chicago. The photo was snapped a week or so ago. Doesn't it look nice?

And inside there are festive decorations --

Ooooooh. A scary witch flying along the ceiling! Oooooooh.

And a Haunted Halloween Circus display, too.

Pretty scary, eh kids?

Well, that's nothing compared to this: Mayor Daley wants to raise City taxes by $293 million.

Cook County Board President Todd Stroger wants to triple the sales tax and double the gas and parking taxes -- a total of $888 million in tax hikes.

Oh -- and the State is considering a sales tax increase to keep mass transit going.

Witches and warlocks don't scare Chicagoans. Heck, here in Chicago, ghosts even vote. No, nothing is scarier here than politicians at budget time.

Happy Halloween.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Car phones... and car phone users: An Unscientific Survey

It is illegal, in Chicago, to drive while holding a cell phone.

This is in the news again here because a Chicago alderman -- who voted for the ordinance banning hand-held cell phone use in cars -- was recently ticketed for violating that ordinance and then, after making another call (presumably not while driving), got his driver's license returned to him, hand delivered by a Chicago policeman.

No special treatment was requested, says the alderman.

Of course not.

Anyway, as I have mentioned previously, and as reinforced by the fabulous photograph in the post below, I have a new cell phone. Not only does it take pictures, but it has a "loudspeaker" mode so that, in theory, I could drive and converse at the same time without violating the Chicago ordinance.

Because no cop is ever going to personally courier my license back to my office should I ever get a ticket.

But, remember, no special treatment was requested, says the alderman.

Are we clear on this yet?

I'm not entirely comfortable with some people using cell phones in their cars at all. Ever.

Ordinance or not, I can't tell you how many times I've seen (and been narrowly missed by) a driver -- chatting away merrily of course -- executing some sort of crazy maneuver that only a stunt driver should attempt.

Are horns honking up ahead? There is some cell phone yakker at the root of it, probably saying to his caller, "Sorry, could you repeat that? Some morons are honking." Is a car swerving? Driving too fast? Driving too slow? At certain times of day, drunk driving may be the primary suspicion -- but at all others you can bet that it's a cell phone user. Sometimes it's probably a drunk driving cell phone user: "No, honestly, I didn't shtop anywhere. Jusht traffic's been bad, zhat's all...."

But, sometimes, cell phones are useful. A quick, reassuring 15 second call: "I'm five minutes away." Or a time-saving 10 second call: "Junior just called home. He's ready to be picked up. Can you get him?"

At this point I am not entirely persuaded that a "loudspeaker" mode -- like the one on my new phone -- is in fact "safer."

It may even be more dangerous: I could place the phone on the seat next to me and chat away, I suppose... until I had to stop for the next light... whereupon the phone would slide off the seat and onto the floor. I could cradle the phone in my lap, but then I'd be talking to my belt buckle or something... and the phone might still slide away.

And you know that there are people out there who will -- heedless of traffic -- reach down to grab the phone as it is sliding or after it slides away. But these are the ones who were swerving while gesturing to their unseen caller with their cell phone at their ear.

See, my theory is that it's not the cell phone which is dangerous in a car. It is, rather, the cell phone user. What do you think?

A sort of instant request

An offhand remark in yesterday's Heads or Tails post -- prompted requests from both Barb and Katherine for me to show off the rubberband ball on my desk.
Now usually I never honor requests for pictures of anything in my real life... no surer way exists to lose one's 'secret identity.'

But, on just this one occasion, I thought -- what's the harm? (And no, that's not my desk -- I put it on the floor.)

Not impressed? Well, remember, I am left-handed. This is pretty sophisticated for me.

And wait... it's only going to get bigger.

Look at what Ralph was kind enough to give to me

Here is a link to the original source of this lovely graphic; Ralph's post kindly bestowing this award on me may be found here. (With your sound on, run your mouse over the "Santa" button in the lower right hand corner -- g'wan, try it.)

In describing the award, Santa's Community Blog says, "Quite simply it is [for] those that have a generous and giving nature. Those who care about others. Those who have a kind word to say or a broad shoulder to lean on in the times that others need that. Those who display the 'Spirit of Christmas.'" (Santa, as you will see if you check out that blog, has a pretty sophisticated understanding of Technorati for a guy who lives up at the North Pole and hangs around with elves all day....)

Anyway, thank you, Ralph, for this very nice award. I'm not certain, though, whether I more often reflect the spirit of Christmas in these essays... or the Spirit of Scrooge. It may have been my white beard that suggested Santa-esque qualities to Ralph. Certainly my kids were calling me "Santa" when I had the beard... and I'm not at all certain that I responded as a 'right jolly old elf' might.

And, besides, the beard is gone now. (My wife and I had a vote about whether I should keep it, and I lost 1-1.)

Now the rules say that I can pass this award along -- and there are many deserving potential recipients in my Bloglink List. But, if I may, I'll hold off for now. I expect to come back to this later.

In the meantime, thanks again, Ralph.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

And what did the President say when he met the Dalai Lama?

Answer below.

Meanwhile, according to this AP story by Foster Klug posted today on Yahoo! News, the Chinese are miffed that President Bush met today the Dalai Lama at the White House. President Bush will also attend a ceremony at which the Dalai Lama will be awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.

Klug's original story quoted Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi as strongly protesting these honors for the exiled religious leader: "We solemnly demand that the U.S. cancel the extremely wrong arrangements. It seriously violates the norm of international relations and seriously wounded the feelings of the Chinese people and interfered with China's internal affairs."

The Chinese are expected to recover from their wounds.

Klug's story notes that the Dalai Lama is the "spiritual leader of Tibet's Buddhists" and is revered as "a god-king" in Tibet.

China considers the meetings with the Dalai Lama to be an interference in its "internal affairs" because it swallowed Tibet in 1951. The Dalai Lama's continued international prominence continues to give China indigestion.

(AP writers Anne Gearan and Ben Feller in Washington and Anita Chang in Beijing contributed to Klug's report. The Dalai Lama's Congressional Gold Medal was taken from this article on USA Today.)

Answer to today's news question? Why, "Hello Dalai," of course.... Or is that what Frank Caliendo would have said while channeling G.W.B.?

An intentionally funny law firm commercial?

Except that this has nothing to do with any law firm. It was posted on AOL and is entitled "What Men Are Really Thinking."

Are we really that shallow?

Heads or Tails #10 (Ten things)

Today's challenge from Barb, the proprietress of "Heads or Tails," is to list "ten things staying within any category of your choosing."

So, without further adieu:

Ten Reasons Why I Can't Do Today's "Heads or Tails"

  1. It's too cloudy and damp outside to be creative.
  2. The mortgage isn't paid -- and neither are several credit cards. It's hard to be funny when collection calls are coming into the house.
  3. My Westlaw account isn't paid either -- and they call here.
  4. I have actual work to do -- hourly work -- and in 60 or 90 days (the Lord willing and the creek don't rise) I'll be able to start digging myself out of this hole. In the meantime, who has time for weekly memes?
  5. I forgot to take my new medication today. And I just remembered. How can I be expected to come up with 10 things when this one realization has crowded out everything else on my mind?
  6. The category is too broad. Ten things? Any things? Why I'd spend all day coming up with just one category.
  7. I'm no good at lists. People who make lists are organized -- and I have never developed the knack.
  8. I fear rejection. What if the blogging public doesn't want to hear about "Ten Things on My Desk Right Now"? (Although I am very proud of my rubberband ball.)
  9. I like other numbers better than 10. Six, for instance. Or 17.
  10. I have to get ready for court. I don't have time to do this this morning.
Oh, wait.

I just did it, didn't I?

A depressing realization for a would-be writer

Today's Lucky Cow comic; I read it this morning in the Chicago Sun-Times.

A priest does 'research' and an appeal in Minnesota

According to Sunday's Chicago Tribune, a high ranking official in the Vatican's Congregation of the Clergy, the Vatican department which manages the 400,000 Catholic priests across the world, has been suspended from his job after being "caught on hidden camera making advances to a young man."

That's what the Tribune story says, adding that the monsignor claimed, in an "interview published Sunday" in an Italian newspaper "that he is not gay and was only pretending to be gay as part of his work." The Italian newspaper quoted by the Tribune quotes the monsignor as claiming, "It's all false; it was a trap. I was a victim of my own attempts to contribute to cleaning up the Church with my psychoanalyst work."

Saturday's on-line edition of the Tribune had an entirely different slant. It was more like this AFP story, posted on Yahoo! News that says (as of this moment anyway) that the monsignor "confessed his homosexuality on a television programme, even though his face and voice were made unrecognisable."

His face and voice may have been disguised, but he made the mistake of being filmed in his Vatican office -- which was recognized on TV, according to the AFP story.

Meanwhile, in Idaho, Sen. Larry Craig announced plans to appeal a Minnesota judge's refusal to let Craig withdraw his guilty plea in his airport bathroom cruising case.

I'll bet Craig wishes he'd come up with this "research" angle first, eh?

Monday, October 15, 2007

Blog action day: Environment

I do not subscribe to the Gospel of St. Albert of Gore, so I know I will be a lonely voice crying out on the fringe of today's Blog Action Day.

I can so bravely proclaim my heresy because I don't think the enviromaniacs would burn anyone at the stake -- they'd be concerned about the excess release of toxic fumes into the air or something.

But that doesn't mean that I am not also a conservationist. Indeed, as the Devil may quote Scripture, let me cite to the Gospel of St. Albert: "Think globally, act locally."

Here, in my office, at the Undisclosed Location, there is a cardboard box for paper recycling made available by my building. I use it every day.

But my building does not have a recycling program for aluminum, and I bring a can of pop to drink everyday with lunch. So I have a separate bin set up for aluminum. When it gets full enough, I bring it home for recycling. I haven't yet carried the bag of cans on the train -- so there are days when I drive to work -- but not many. I take public transportation when I can -- and that's most of the time. And I save empty ink cartridges, too, because our local grammar school recycles them.

Before I moved here, I got all of the tenants on my old floor to dispose of their used computer equipment (printers, keyboards, monitors as well as CPU's). Yes, there was a selfish purpose: Disposing of computer equipment in that way satisfied our professional obligation to safeguard client data -- but it benefited the environment, too.

At home, we recycle cans, plastic, newspapers, cardboard, ink cartridges and plastic bags. In the City of Chicago the recycling program is highly suspect, so we've found alternate sources for our plastic bags and for the newspaper and cardboard. We're working on others.

The extremists in this world may be pitied or ignored according to your taste. But conserving our resources is only common sense. You do have some common sense, don't you?

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Snippets from the monologue

So we're flipping channels the other night between Game One of the NLCS on TBS and "A Few Good Men" on AMC.

And I had to say to Youngest Son: That's not Frank Caliendo playing the Marine colonel, son.

Joe Buck on last night's ALCS broadcast: "I hear Frank Caliendo's getting his own TV show -- but I haven't heard much about it...."

And how about Al Gore winning the Nobel Peace Prize?

I heard he's disappointed. He thought he was going to get the prize in Physics -- for inventing the Internet.

I'll be here all week. Remember to tip your waitress.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Visitor 20,000: Doesn't it just figure?

Here's what Visitor 20,000, from Springfield, Louisiana came here to see:

Well, let's be more accurate: This is the picture my 20,000th visitor actually saw.

You are looking at ex-Air Force Sgt. Michele Manhart who was, *ahem*, stripped of her rank when she posed for Playboy wearing only her dog tags. I did this post about the story in January. And I did mention her a couple of times in follow ups. And, as Visitor 20,000 shows, I'm still getting several hits a week from people who are vitally interested in this aspect of our national defense.

It is just a guess on my part, but I'm thinking it is the Playboy pictures that my 20,000th visitor hoped to find here. Call it a hunch.

I recalled -- at one point -- discovering those pictures on a link from Dr. Blogstein's blog -- but the link no longer works.

(Now don't be throwing stones! -- I had to check. That was research -- a public service to my readers, OK?)

It appears unlikely that Visitor 20,000 will be back.

Finally! Clear instructions

Chris posted about these cartoons this morning. It just seemed to fit in with my first post today:

From this site. By Dave Walker.

Curmudgeon seeks the comfort of the 19th Century. Word.

Whilst making the rounds recently, I ran across this post at Skittles' Place -- if you follow the link you will find a music video by an artist named Sir Mix-a-lot entitled "Baby Got Back," a big hit, apparently, in 1992. So says Wikipedia.

I am not often accused of being a feminist -- but I was, uh, uncomfortable with some of the lyrics. (I'd never actually viewed the video before watching it on Barb's site; I must have heard at least snippets of the song previously.) I am informed, though I do not really understand, that these lyrics are tame by comparison with some other "hip hop" hits. Word. (I believe that expression is correctly used in context.)

So I went Stumbling around the Internet looking for things that were more my speed.

And I found The Gentleman's Page, subtitled "A Practical Guide for the 19th Century American Man."

With this I can relate.

So, with apologies to Mother Jones RN, who has done so many marvelous posts about antiquated nursing practices, I herewith steal shamelessly cite limited examples from "The Gentleman's Page." (I have added my own comments in italics.)

"It is the duty of a gentleman to know how to ride, to shoot, to fence, to box, to swim, to row and to dance. He should be graceful. If attacked by ruffians, a man should be able to defend himself, and also to defend women from their insults."
Rules of Etiquette and Home Culture. 1886
Unfortunately, I can't swim -- and, as a practicing coward, I generally run at the first sign of ruffians....
"Never scratch your head, pick your teeth, clean your nails, or worse of all, pick your nose in company; all these things are disgusting. Spit as little as possible and never upon the floor.
The Curmudgeon always aims for the spittoon. And my aim is, gradually, improving.
"If you are going into the presence of ladies, beware of onions, spirits and tobacco."

The Art of Good Behavior. 1845
Unless you've brought enough to share?
"A gentleman never sits in the house with his hat on in the presence of ladies for a single moment. Indeed, so strong is the force of habit that a gentleman will quite unconsciously remove his hat on entering a parlor, or drawing room, even if there is no one present but himself. People who sit in the house with their hats on are to be suspected of having spent most of their time in bar rooms and similar places"
Martine's Handbook 1866
It's a good thing I don't wear a hat. Now they'll never suspect me....

* Never allow butter, soup or other food to remain on your whiskers
* Never wear gloves at the table, unless your hands are for some special reason unfit to be seen.
* Never, when serving others, overload the plate nor force upon them delicacies which they decline.
* Never make a great display when removing hair, insects or other disagreeable things from your food. Place them quietly under the edge of your plate.
Hill's Forms
I didn't see what to do if the bug was too big to fit comfortably under the side of the plate.

A milestone for this Second Effort -- and some sobering perspective

According to the not-always-reliable Sitemeter, sometime today -- maybe even this morning -- this blog will receive its 20,000th visitor.

This is exciting for me, anyway: Among other things 20,000 visits is roughly 19,950 more visits than were made to my original, long since discontinued first blogging effort. And my family knew about that one.

But the number of daily visitors ebbs and flows -- 60 one day, 40 on too many others. This is both good and bad -- it's a lot better than I was doing a year ago -- but Ken Levine gets roughly 4,290 visits per day. His blog started at the end of November 2005 and this one started about 10 days later so they are of roughly the same vintage. Yet, here I am, giddy as a schoolgirl to welcome my 20,000th visitor -- and he's had about 1.25 million.

Of course, it's not a fair comparison: He's funny.

And Levine is also an Emmy-winning writer, director and producer who's worked on some of the biggest hits in American television ever (M*A*S*H, Cheers, Frasier, The Simpsons, Wings, Everybody Loves Raymond, and other popular shows including Becker and Dharma & Greg). I've watched M*A*S*H, Wings and Cheers -- and I remember when Shelley Long was doing local commercials in Chicago -- but somehow it's not the same thing, is it? And did I mention he's also a former major league baseball announcer? Did I mention I can keep score?

But, I consoled myself, even though this blog has not yet begun to compete effectively with Mr. Levine's, my "public" blog -- as I mentioned here recently -- has begun to attract some actual traffic. Yesterday, for most of the day, my "public" blog was actually running ahead of this one in terms of visits.

That other blog is narrowly focused, both in terms of topics and geographically. So one shouldn't expect that a purely local blog would get Ken Levine-esque type numbers, right?

Ah, but then I found another purely local blog, Second City Cop, by an anonymous Chicago police officer written for other Chicago police officers. Sitemeter says Second City Cop is drawing an average of 4,630 visitors per day -- over 1.63 million since the site was launched at the end of May 2005. And this despite the fact that, according to this story in the Daily Southtown, the blog is "banned from police computers."

So I guess I won't start crowing about 20 hits a day, huh?

Well, anyway, welcome 20,000th visitor, whoever you are. Come back 4,000 times a day, OK?

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Hot off the CTA

Here's the Blue Line train pulling into the station near where I live. The picture was taken one sunny day some weeks back with my new camera phone.

I thought about using my new camera phone today, because the train -- nice and empty in this photo -- was so full this morning. At Damen, just before reentering the subway tunnel, we left people standing three and four deep on the platform: There was no way for them to squeeze in.

I mention this because, for the second time in as many months, the CTA is threatening massive service cuts and fare increases. A "Doomsday Budget" is soon to be announced. The last threatened round of fare hikes and service cuts was narrowly averted when the Governor provided next year's transit subsidy in a lump sum in the hopes that the Legislature (with whom he is locked in a blood feud) would provide a more permanent solution. Alas, that trick can work only once a year, and the Governor has promised to veto the only legislation that the General Assembly stands ready to approve (by a not yet veto-proof majority).

Now, since I have almost no readers in Chicago proper, why do I burden you with these sad, but for you irrelevant, facts?

It is because I am struggling with what the proper role or purpose of government subsidies should be for mass transit.

Some will say that if the system can't make it from farebox revenues then it should go under, like any business. But this would put more commuters into cars -- driving on roads built and maintained by one or more units of government. It is not exactly a level playing field.

And there are environmental concerns and quality of life concerns, too. My one hour trip to the office each day on the train also takes close to one hour by car -- if you figure in time for parking -- at rush hour. (On a Sunday morning, the train takes at least as long -- and the intervals between trains is greater -- but the same trip by car will take 20 minutes.) Cut mass transit -- or raise fares -- or both -- and traffic will go up... and increased congestion means increased pollution, too.

Of course, this is Chicago. It is generally assumed that there must be massive waste and fraud and idiot nephews and girlfriends and mistresses and ghost payrollers and featherbedders haunting the CTA -- as in every public agency -- but I can't tell for certain you where to find the waste and fraud and so forth in the budget. If this could be cut, could the crisis be averted?

The crowded trains will be the last to be cut, as I understand it, although fares will go up, particularly during rush hours. It will be the weekend and late-night services and the lesser-used routes that will vanish first -- but these are ones most important to the working poor and lower middle class who use them. And where 'early bird' parkers pay only $21 for Loop parking ($26 or $28 or more for later arrivals), is it so terrible to increase fares? (I pay $2 each way on the train now -- $1.75 for me because I pre-pay on a 'transit card' -- and I get an additional discount if I pre-pay $20 at a time.)

It is, I think, a question of measuring the value that mass transit provides society as a whole, but I don't know the proper units of measurement.

Fearless NLCS and ALCS predictions... sort of

In light of my recent spectacular failures in prediction the outcomes of the first round of the MLB playoffs, gamblers from around the world may be hovering in the wings waiting for me to proclaim my choices in the ALCS and NLCS... so they can go the other way.

And I'm sure that Boston fans (being instinctively more superstitious than Cleveland fans, I think) are hoping I won't pick the Carmines to advance.

As for the NLCS, Sari doesn't care who I pick: She sees the hand of Destiny guiding the Diamondbacks.

But (*drum roll*), without further adieu, I predict (1) that both series should be great, and I'll enjoy them more because I don't care who advances,(2) I'd enjoy the NLCS more if Chip Caray weren't doing the play-by-play and (3) I'd enjoy the ALCS more if Tim McCarver weren't providing 'analysis.'

Now, about the migration of major sports events to cable... and cable companies trying to create "premium" sports packages... a whiny rant is in formation, but you feel free to start the discussion in the comments already.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Don't blame me for this one --

Bennie, of Ben and Bennie, left this off-topic comment to yesterday's post: "No gloating over the Cubbies loss? I'm severely disappointed!"

I hate to disappoint anyone -- but I didn't want to be accused of being a "hater."

On the other hand, I got this video from both Oldest Son and Middle Son in the past week, so I suppose I have to share it....

And since we're sharing -- well, here's another one I got in the email:

Now, tell me, honestly: Does the rivalry of the Yankees vs. Red Sox or Yankees vs. Mets or Giants vs. Jets even come close to the rivalry of White Sox vs. Cubs?

Fall arrived yesterday afternoon -- a family roundup

News, Weather & Sports

We'll do today's essay in the format of the late news broadcast: News, Weather, and then Sports.... First the news....

The Curmudgeon faces some anxious times personally. The disability money has come and gone and the cash flow from his practice has not yet restarted. No whining here -- there's plenty of it in the Archives if you feel the need. Things are too serious for mere hand wringing.

However, there are signs that things are picking up. If we can get through the next couple of months... maybe... hopefully... things will be at least OK again. In the meantime, charge card companies, not realizing how great is their peril, are thrilled to receive minimum payments and cash "convenience checks."

So I'm not spending as much time reading as I have in the past -- some of that time is actually devoted to working -- and now that there is work, work which at least holds out the prospect of eventual compensation, this does not strike me as unreasonable.

Some time also is being devoted to my other blog. The one with my real, actual name on it. I've figured out a strategy to build traffic on that -- traffic that can, potentially at least, turn into business for me -- and, in the meantime, build my web presence even as I throttle back, in cost-cutting measures, on paid listings that haven't developed the kind of leads I need in my practice.

And it's working, too, which is kind of exciting. But that blog and this must remain entirely separate. The other one is rather dry, anyway....

The air conditioner was on yesterday morning at the Curmudgeon home in Chicago because it has been unseasonably warm here. But, looking at the weather forecast yesterday, we switched it off before leaving the house.

I returned early for a doctor's appointment yesterday afternoon and Long Suffering Spouse and I found the house cool... but a tad stuffy. So we threw open the windows and let the beautiful Autumn air inside.

By the time we returned from the doctor, it was time to close the windows a bit: It was too cool. And when Long Suffering Spouse retired last evening, she closed the last of the windows and pulled out the extra blanket.

It doesn't take long for the seasons to change in Chicago. People were fainting in the heat at this past weekend's Chicago Marathon; today the predicted high is 53° -- a difference of some 34° from Sunday.


Youngest Son is playing freshman football at his high school and, until this past weekend, he was assigned the position that even football-wary mothers (and that's most of them) can appreciate: Second-string quarterback.

That means he practiced with the first team (and the moms don't see the hitting that goes on in practice, so they can pretend it never happens) and stood on the sidelines during the games, helmet on, looking grim and determined -- and very safe.

He had seen the field in only limited circumstances this season because the kid playing in front of him is very, very good.

There was a hint in the middle of last week that things might change. The freshmen scrimmage the sophomores every week on Wednesday; during last week's scrimmage the starting QB's hand got hurt when he was tackled. Youngest Son got additional reps in practice on Thursday and Friday but it was expected that the starter would be able to play on Saturday morning.

Older Daughter and Middle Son came out for the game; Oldest Son had talked about coming out, but he had come to last week's game, and he found something to do on Friday night that apparently left him somewhat sluggish on Saturday morning.

We had actually tried to talk Older Daughter out of visiting, especially when she had threatened to bring the Boyfriend.

Older Daughter's Boyfriend (or ODB, if you will) is a good sport -- but to travel two or three hours to watch a high school freshman work on his posture while standing on the sidelines? Was ODB, now a graduate student at the University of Illinois, really to be expected to forgo the opportunity to attend the Illinois-Wisconsin game? We didn't think so either -- and Older Daughter, thankfully, did not insist. (And Illinois beat No. 5 Wisconsin, which presumably means that an NCAA investigation is underway....)

Older Daughter and Younger Daughter went to pick up Middle Son at his school on Saturday morning. Long Suffering Spouse and I went directly to the game -- and arrived much sooner.

So we saw the starting QB grimace through the first half. After every play, as he jogged to the sideline to pick up the next call, he favored his right hand. Toward the end of the first half, he threw a 30 yard strike to his favorite receiver. Peyton Manning could have done no better -- but we saw the QB's face after he released the ball and gripped his hand.

Youngest Son began warming up immediately thereafter. He played the entire second half and his siblings saw it.

That's a good thing. But he's now the starting QB -- the other fellow does have a broken hand. Now Youngest Son shoulders the responsibility for keeping his team unbeaten in the final two games of the season.

I am anxious for him; I am trying not to let it show.


So that's the news from here. If this had been a real newscast, you would have been subject to a number of commercials as well....

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Politician disappears -- and people are upset?

This is, for now anyway, the Mayor of Atlantic City, New Jersey.

Wayne Perry's story for the AP, posted this afternoon on Yahoo! News, says that Mayor Bob Levy called in sick on September 26, then "climbed into his city-issued Dodge Durango and seemingly vanished." Aides now say the mayor is hospitalized somewhere, but they won't reveal where or the malady from which he may be suffering. (He certainly is suffering, according to the story, from a federal investigation arising from recent disclosures that he exaggerated his service in Vietnam.)

According to Perry's story, a move is underway to declare the mayoral office vacant and install someone in Mayor Levy's stead.

It's not the way we do things here.

Recently, when the President of the Cook County Board suffered a massive stroke, voters here renominated him anyway. Then, when it could no longer be pretended that he would ever resume his office, his son was substituted in his stead... and elected.

Ah, democracy at work.

(Of course, we knew the incumbent was at home or in the hospital -- although he managed to be conveyed to or from at least once without the press finding out -- so he was never actually missing.)

And then there's the budget mess in Illinois: Despite the fact that the Democrats control both houses of our state legislature, and despite having a Democratic Governor, our State could not pass a budget for months after the legal deadline and the various parties are embroiled in public, personal feuds. (This Sun-Times column by Rich Miller will give you a taste -- a bitter, unsavory taste -- of just how bad things have gotten here.)

A lot of people here would like our politicians to go missing.

Atlantic City: How did you do it?

Heads or Tails #9 (Explore)

It's the day after Columbus Day and today's challenge from Barb, the proprietress of "Heads or Tails," is timely. Today's word: Explore.

So, let's see, what shall we talk about? Columbus?

No -- that's just what they'd expect us to do.

Whoever they are.

I've recently written about space exploration, as in this recent post about how Asian nations are mounting a serious effort to get to the Moon while the United States is merely pretending to revive our space program. But there's a follow up: NASA's administrator was recently quoted as saying that, when America goes back to the Moon in 2020, he fully expects our astronauts to be greeted by the Chinese. And he's apparently OK with that. (Of course it was George Bush who promised to take America back into space; therefore the next President -- who will not wish to be associated with Mr. Bush in any way -- will bury the program.)

I can just imagine how it might be if modern attitudes had confronted Chris Columbus (the explorer, not the film director) when he pleaded his case to Queen Isabella in the newly unified court of Aragon and Castile. "We have problems of our own," he'd be told. "It's taken us almost 800 years to re-unify the country after the Muslim invasion and you want us to go out on some speculative foreign venture?"

Of course the Indians wouldn't have minded. Perhaps the Aztecs might one day have discovered Europe.

It's ironic that the Chinese will probably get to the Moon before America returns. It took China a long time to come around to the idea that exploration pays benefits for a country as a whole -- they turned inward after the voyages of Zheng He in the early 1400's and were nearly swallowed up by a then-vigorous West in the centuries that followed.

Emphasis on "nearly." But China -- as I've so often read -- plays for the long term.


And speaking of Asian explorers, meet Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor of Malaysia, scheduled to launch tomorrow aboard a Russian Soyouz rocket for an eight day stay at the International Space Station.

The link will take you to an article on Discovery Channel News wherein Shukor's efforts to appropriately practice his Islamic faith while in orbit are seriously addressed. From the article: "Malaysia's Department of Islamic Development prepared a 12-page booklet, titled A Guideline of Performing Ibadah (worship) at the International Space Station, to address such delicate issues as the Ramadan fast (postpone it until the return to Earth) and cleansing rituals (use a wet towel)."

The article quotes Shukor as saying, "Islam is very lenient. If I can't fast in space I can always come back and do later."

Lenient, tolerant Islam. So that a man in orbit can practice his religion.

Meanwhile, in a cave in Pakistan (probably), resides a model of intolerance (although, as you will note from the before and after pictures, his rejection of all things modern doesn't extend to hair dye).

Explorers can fire the imagination of the world. What a wonderful thing it would be if Sheikh Shukor's vision of an Islam that can be compatible even with space exploration catches hold in the Muslim world.


I'll try to be more frivolous next time. In the meantime, check out the rules and graphics for Heads or Tails by clicking this link and playing along yourself.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Fearless MLB playoff predictions -- revisited

I suppose I could hit the "edit" button, rewrite the post and delete the inconsistent comments... but that would be wrong, wouldn't it?

Let's see: I'm 0 for 3 so far. And, in each of these cases, my suggested favorite not only lost... but was swept. (And, a footnote regarding the Cubs' abject failure against the Diamondbacks: The first reading at Mass on Sunday was taken from the prophet Habakkuk. It began, "How long, O Lord? I cry for help, but you do not listen!" Ninety-nine years and still counting. It's almost enough to make one feel sorry for the Cubs. Almost.)

The prediction on which I expressed some hesitation -- Cleveland over the hated Yankees -- where I said I was picking with heart over head -- is the only one which might come true. Emphasis on "might."

For the next round, I am picking with neither my heart nor my head.

I am thinking of picking with my liver. Or maybe my spleen....

Friday, October 05, 2007

Is there a real cost of health care? A horrible example -- and some questions about a suggested alternative

President Bush recently vetoed a proposed expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) (the link will take you to the government site explaining the program) and the usual suspects are predictably aroused.

Here, for example, is an ABC News story about the feared consequences of the veto. Although the proposed SCHIP expansion had bipartisan support, not all Republicans favored it. Here is a link to an op-ed piece in the Kansas City Star by U.S. Representative Sam Graves (R. Mo.) defending the veto.

I'm not taking sides here on a political question, but I'd like to add a couple of observations and ask questions of anyone who comes across this.

I write as a lawyer who has some experience of the ridiculous nature of our health care pricing system. Let me give you a real-life example from a case that is settled and done.

You'll understand that I can't use actual names and must fuzz the details.

But I represented a middle-aged woman and her mother who were involved in a traffic accident downstate about two years ago.

Accident is far too polite a term for what happened to them. It was still daylight, but the driver coming in the opposite direction down the Interstate was roaring drunk. He hit something or swerved to avoid something in his own lane of traffic -- even the police were vague on the details -- and, because he was traveling at such a high speed, literally became airborne. His car flew into oncoming traffic, directly into the path of the middle-aged woman and her mother.

The mother was driving. And she could see, in that awful split second, what was about to happen. A maternal instinct kicked in and she turned the wheel of her car so that the airborne car would hit her side of the vehicle and possibly spare her daughter. The middle-aged woman saw her mother do this.

And the daughter was spared. But her mother's decision to turn the wheel was the last decision she would ever make.

Surprisingly, the drunk driver had some liability insurance. Not a lot, mind you, but some. And my client had underinsured motorist coverage. And since neither of their policies were issued in Illinois the policies were stackable (that's not true for Illinois auto policies).

Now the health insurance angle: The middle-aged woman and her mother were working poor. The middle-aged woman's husband had a job with a major retailer, one which has a justly deserved reputation for preventing its employees from ever qualifying for health benefits. My client had no health insurance.

My client was taken from the scene to a nearby hospital. She was kept overnight for observation and released the next day. There were a number of diagnostic tests performed -- all coming back negative. And because my client had no insurance, her bill was over $17,000. A health insurer would have been billed a far, far smaller amount.

And the hospital found a way to bill the mother, who was killed at the scene, another $10,000.

These bills helped me get the maximum available auto insurance benefits, yes, but then I had to deal with the liens.

The hospital had gotten med-pay benefits from my client's auto policy -- $5,000 for each accident victim. The balance of the mother's claim was submitted to Medicaid -- not Medicare, don't ask me why -- which paid only a few hundred dollars of the thousands of dollars still claimed. And the hospital took it, willingly, and closed its file on the mother. But that hospital wanted full value from the surviving daughter. And the hospital had its own lawyers seeking payment on the lien.

Well, sure, you say, but shouldn't the hospital be entitled to collect its fee?

But what should its fee be, please? What is the actual cost? What it charges Blue Cross? What it charges some other health insurer? What it would accept from Medicare or Medicaid? These are all different -- far lower -- prices.

I listen to the politicians bloviate about letting the market work, or making the market fair and I see insurance distorting any semblance of any market I can understand.

In the example I'm using today, this money -- which the hospital would never have gotten from Blue Cross -- was taken from a woman who needed this money to bury her mother. And, frankly, losing the mother's social security check -- whatever it was -- was a blow to the family's finances. These people were not retiring to the South of France on this settlement.

So I ask: Is it too late for the market?

I have to tell you that I don't have high expectations for a government run health system. Seems to me the recent scandal involving the treatment of returning war veterans at Walter Reed Hospital provides a strong starting point for any argument against "socialized medicine." We have been providing health care for soldiers, sailors and marines since we became a country... and we don't have even that down pat. Will adding hundreds of millions more people to the ranks of those who are entitled to government health care make things better?

This is why I was intrigued to read recently about SimpleCare -- doctors who have opted out of the insurance system, and coding bills, and large staffs devoted solely to tracking insurance payments and claims. From the SimpleCare website:
Better care for less money – it’s just that simple!

How does it work? We call it PIFATOS – Pay In Full At Time Of Service – and it is truly a "Cash-Based Revolution." A patient sees a doctor for a non-catastrophic reason – yearly check-up, a nagging flu, a twisted wrist, an aching stomach, etc. The doctor bills the patient after the visit. The patient pays in full before leaving. Because doctor charges are anywhere from 25 – 50% inflated due to administrative costs caused by the health insurance industry, you’ll be paying drastically reduced rates for your medical expenses. In conjunction with a regular catastrophic health insurance policy to cover extremely costly procedures, PIFATOS can save the average healthy adult and/or family up to $5000/year!*
The asterisk takes you to an example: It claims a catastrophic health policy can be had for $3,000 a year while a regular health policy must cost at least $9,000 a year. (In the last year I paid health insurance premiums -- a few years ago now before my wife got benefits from teaching full-time -- I was paying $18,000 for the family, and that was with several large deductibles that had to be satisfied before the customary 85/15 split would kick in.) If you spend $1,000 going to the doctor in that year, you've saved $5,000.

I am intrigued that there would be -- could be -- a market-based price. A real price -- and not one that depends on who's asking.

So, gentle readers, tell me: Is such a Nirvana attainable? Have you heard of this? Does it really work? Could it?