Thursday, July 31, 2008

Packers offer Brett Favre money to stay retired

That's the report in this morning's Chicago Tribune: Green Bay has offered Favre $20 million over 10 years just to stay away from their training camp. That's $2 million a year for 10 years.

Hey Green Bay management! I'll stay away from your camp for just $1 million total. Honest.

This Favre situation is the opposite of the Michael Ovitz situation back in the mid-90's. Ovitz was hired as Disney's President -- and then canned after only 16 months. He was allegedly paid tens of millions in cash and stock... just to go away.

At the time, I said I could have failed for far less than that.

And in less time, too.

But here? Favre is being offered money so management doesn't fail. To protect management against the off chance that Favre might actually succeed somewhere else.

Either way... being offered millions of dollars to do nothing is a wonderful dream of mine. And I do nothing better than almost anyone....

Favre photo obtained from the New York Daily News web site.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Heads or Tails #49 -- Doctor

No, I didn't do a 'Heads or Tails' last week. And, no, I don't have a note from my doctor. Nor do I believe one is required. But, speaking of doctors, our own wonder drug, Barb, says today's Heads or Tails challenge is to riff on the word "doctor." Don't much care for doctors? Oh, well, suture self.

I once tried to explain here why doctors tend to look young and fit -- while male lawyers tend to look, er, bald. My theory then was that only the strong and healthy types can make it through residency. But that doesn't explain the overabundance of baldness in male lawyers. It may have something to do with the sickly green light produced by photocopiers.

(Lockhorns comic obtained from this site, though I read it in the Chicago Tribune).

I'm not the only one who's noticed that doctors look so young.

Nor is this a recent observation on my part.

See this fellow at left? He looks very much like a resident who interviewed me when I was hospitalized some 20 years ago. (OK, more than 20 -- I probably wasn't 30 then.)

The resident was there on morning rounds to take my history. He asked about why I was hospitalized and how my surgery had gone. I said I would wait to roll over and show off my scars until the rest of the kiddie corps caught up with him. So he started to ask background information -- but he decided to guess my age.

"Around 50, right?"

Did I mention this was over 20 years ago and I wasn't even 30? I won't mention exactly how I responded.

Monday, July 28, 2008

An answer for Mr. Ebert & a modest blow for civility

I read Roger Ebert's scathing review of the new Will Farrell vehicle Step Brothers on the train going to work Friday and I was composing a blog post en route in answer to this question posed by Mr. Ebert in the course of his review:
Sometimes I think I am living in a nightmare. All about me, standards are collapsing, manners are evaporating, people show no respect for themselves. I am not a moralistic nut. I'm proud of the X-rated movie I once wrote. I like vulgarity if it's funny or serves a purpose. But what is going on here?
What's going on here is that people think that because they can do something they must. Artistic freedom has been confused with wretched excess... the dumbing of America continues... lowest common denominator....

Oh, yes, I was on a roll -- but, once I got to the office, I was swept up in the turmoil of a number of end-of-the-week crises and I never had the opportunity to finish my essay and inflict it on the Blogosphere.

And aren't you grateful.

But I brought home the pullout Weekend section from the Friday Sun-Times, the section containing all of Mr. Ebert's reviews. I had a premonition I might need to cite the Step Brothers review.

I figured Youngest Son would be the one who'd lobby to see it first, since 15 is about the upper limit of the mentality that such a movie aims for.

But, as usual, I was wrong. Sunday afternoon Younger Daughter said she had made plans to see this movie with some friends. I pulled out the review and read it to her... and to an increasingly horrified Long Suffering Spouse.

The language used in the film, Ebert wrote, "would seem excessive in the men's room of a truck stop.... In its own tiny way, it lowers the civility of our civilization." And Mr. Ebert was equally as enamored of the violence in the film as he was of the language.

Long Suffering Spouse, as I'd hoped, put her foot down: Younger Daughter would not be allowed to go see this movie. The Death Glare from Younger Daughter did nothing to sway either Long Suffering Spouse or me. Middle Son and Youngest Son both tried to lobby on their sister's behalf: They were interested in seeing the movie, too. But we stood firm. A few minutes later, after Long Suffering Spouse left the room, Younger Daughter tried to bargain with me: If we would let her go see it with her friends, she said, she'd promise not to like it.

The bottom line: Younger Daughter did not go see Step Brothers yesterday. I have no illusions: I'm sure she'll see it at some point; she just won't tell us about it. Middle Son will see it too. They are both past 17 and can see R-rated movies whether we like it or not. But we struck a modest blow for civility yesterday and the children may -- some day -- come around to our point of view.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Next we'll go for the early bird special at the diner?

I don't see what the big deal is. Middle Son went to see the 10:50 showing of the new Batman movie Friday night; Long Suffering Spouse and I went to a 10:30 showing of Wall-E.

Of course, we went to a 10:30 a.m. showing over the weekend, and caught no end of grief for it.

My friend Steve and his wife chided Long Suffering Spouse and me after Mass on Sunday for acting old. Sure, I said, playing along, and then (I told him) we went out to eat. Did you know, I asked as innocently as possible, you can get a big discount in some places if you go there before 4:00 pm? Steve eventually stopped kidding me for acting old and instead began giving me grief as the last of the big-time spenders.

Middle Son also accused me of being cheap. I prefer to think of it as 'frugal.' OK, yes, the tickets were four bucks apiece before noon. Why should I pay $9 or whatever the evening price is when I can see what I want for $4? Plus, I'm far less likely to fall asleep during the day than during the evening. Shouldn't that count for something?

But the real crime that we apparently committed, at least in the children's eyes, was in turning off our cell phones during the movie.

Imagine: We were out of touch for perhaps two whole hours.

We did turn on our phones after leaving the theater, at which time both Long Suffering Spouse and I were both treated to a two-screen message, ENTIRELY IN CAPS, detailing Younger Daughter's proposed plans for the day, plans that were in imminent danger of falling through because we had gone incommunicado.

Can I help it if she wasn't awake before we left the house? She made the choice to sleep in... we just moved ahead in our day without her.

And Middle Son left a message on our home phone telling us where his game was that afternoon and also complaining, rather pointedly, that we should have left our phones on.

But this experience raises a question: Is it now become a crime in America to be out of instantaneous phone contact at any hour of the day or night?

Friday, July 18, 2008

NASA: Return to the Moon slowed yet again!

Cost overruns and budget cuts may delay America's return to the moon, according to the linked AP story in the Chicago Tribune.

According to this July 18 story on, NASA not only concedes that it's hoped-for launch of the Orion program will be pushed back from 2013, the actual targeted 2015 date is also in doubt. Citing a 117 page internal NASA report* posted on NASA Watch, reports that "Orion engineers were told to plan for continuing the program under a FY 2009 continuing resolution, which would hold NASA's budget at 2008 levels... with none of the additional funding contained in the $20.2 billion NASA budget approved by the House of Representatives in June."

Let's see: The President says we should go back to the Moon. Congress doesn't much care for the President. So it's no surprise that Congress doesn't fund the President's requests. But look closer: This is Washington, where nothing makes sense, at least not for long: The House apparently gave the Administration more than it asked for. Thus, says, "NASA is concerned that budget won't make it out of the Senate... and if it does, that the Bush administration will veto it."

Let's pause to parse that, shall we? The Democratic-controlled House gave NASA more money than the Administration asked for but the Democratic-controlled Senate may not concur. If it did, however, NASA fears that the President, who'd asked for an increase in the first place, would nevertheless veto it. Presumably because the Democrats wanted it.

And people want to stay on this planet?

Says, "Such a defeat would push Orion back even further, making even the March 2015 target a nebulous one."

Meanwhile, reports Michael Barkoviak, in a July 16 report on a site called Daily Tech, some 57 NASA engineers are apparently working, on their own time, to design a launch vehicle for NASA's return to the Moon (called "Jupiter") that is allegedly easier and safer to build than the officially sanctioned Ares vehicle. NASA, however, is committed to the Ares launcher and has dismissed the Jupiter design as unworkable.

Is NASA protecting its little (Earthbound) empire? Barkoviak writes that the "Ares team is made up of thousands of NASA engineers and government contractors" and that $7 billion has been spent so far on Ares development.

It certainly would look bad for NASA if 57 men and women working in their spare time came up with something better. But this is precisely the kind of effort needed to breathe new life and hope into the moribund space program. I wish some person or company with enough money or vision could pick up Jupiter and see if it really would fly.

If nothing else, it would make NASA work harder and better on Ares.

I was not yet a teenager when Armstrong and Aldrin left their footprints on the Moon. At this rate, if I'm alive at all, I will be an old man before another American gets back to the Moon. (Several Asian nations seem more likely to get to the Moon for the first time before America gets there again.)

I'm getting impatient. Isn't anybody else getting impatient also?

*I think this is the link from which you could access the entire report. No, I haven't tried it at this point. If it's wrong, perhaps someone will correct me and I'll update accordingly.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Do scientists owe carbon dioxide an apology?

And, while we're at it, does the United States Supreme Court owe carbon dioxide an apology, too?

Here's the set-up: The disciples of St. Albert Gore proclaim that our polar ice caps are melting, our sea levels are rising, and our future is threatened by an overabundance of greenhouse gas -- specifically, carbon dioxide.

Last year, in Massachusetts v. EPA, --- U.S. ---, 127 S.Ct. 1438, 167 L.Ed.2d 248 (2007), the Supreme Court of the United States, working with a typically mushy definition crafted by Congress, found that carbon dioxide was a "pollutant."

Of course, carbon dioxide occurs in nature -- indeed, it is vital to the presence and continued survival of all life on Earth. But the theory is that we humans are producing far more of the stuff than nature intended, thus causing global warming.

Of course, global warming -- and cooling -- has occurred long before mankind appeared on this rock and will inevitably continue even if we all disappeared tomorrow.

But this is how science works -- and how it differs from dogma. In science, we come up with an idea and see how it fits reality. We keep learning new things; we keep coming up with new ideas. Dogma, says, is "a system of principles or tenets, as of a church" or "a specific tenet or doctrine authoritatively laid down, as by a church." But there may also be political dogma ("prescribed doctrine"). Basically, dogma is something in which you must believe in order to be part of the group. Dogma doesn't have a lot of room for new ideas.

Which is why global warming "science" far more closely resembles "dogma," at least as practiced by the devotees of St. Albert Gore.

But those pesky new ideas keep coming up! And, sometimes, the new ideas explain things ever so much better than what was formerly received wisdom.

We may be on the cusp of one of these times. It was widely reported last week that a new and truly scary greenhouse gas, nitrogen trifluoride, has been identified. A July 8 story in the Los Angeles Times, for example, reports that this gas has 17,000 times the global warming effect of carbon dioxide. And when it gets out into the air, it can last 550 years... and maybe as long as 740.

The gas is used in the manufacture of silicon chips... and flat-screen TVs. When the Kyoto Treaty was negotiated, nitrogen trifluoride was not widely used. The linked Wikipedia article will tell you that only 100 tons of the stuff was made in 1992 -- but 4,000 tons of the gas were produced in 2007, and 8,000 tons may be made by 2010. It takes a lot of gas to weigh a ton.

"It is not currently known how much is ultimately released into the atmosphere," says Wikipedia. "[E]stimates are either less or more than 2%, but there is not good independent data about releases, nor measurements of atmospheric concentration."

What that means is... nobody's been looking for it. Nobody's tried to measure it.

The gas is generated for specific industrial applications. The manufacture of silicon chips and flat-screen TVs is concentrated in fairly discrete sections of the globe. Gas released in the process would go... where?

One of the problems that even the most loyal acolytes of St. Albert have in selling global warming is that -- if it's happening anywhere, such as at the poles -- it's certainly not happening everywhere. Sea levels aren't rising (at least not yet) in accord with predictions. If higher temperatures are noted at some locations, the increase is not universal. Of course, gas being released only at specific locations around the globe may be carried by the currents and eddies of the atmosphere to distant places. Maybe it will turn out that hitherto unsuspected greenhouse gases, like nitrogen trifluoride, are concentrated in particular areas and causing localized warming there.

If so, I'd say that St. Albert and the scientists owe carbon dioxide an apology.

But this is only an idea. A hypothesis. It is something that can be tested and either verified... or refuted. But I'd bet that -- if science is allowed to proceed and not be petrified in dogma -- when the story of human-influenced climate change is written, gases invented for industrial applications -- if not nitrogen trifluoride itself -- will prove far more to blame than carbon dioxide.

St. Albert Gore's "moon shot" isn't -- but solar energy may not be as impractical as it used to be

Capture the wind, says St. Albert, and the sun and other "Earth-friendly" energy sources and produce every kilowatt of electricity used in the United States from these sources alone in the next 10 years.

St. Albert likens his proposal to another national commitment made, nearly 50 years ago, by John F. Kennedy, to put a man on the Moon.

These are not remotely comparable proposals.

Kennedy's was a visionary quest -- literally pushing mankind to boldly go where no one had gone before. St. Albert's is like a plan to remodel the kitchen.

That doesn't mean that Gore's idea is bad; indeed, like a lot of kitchen remodeling plans, it's probably long overdue. There are problems, though: Blades from giant fans harnessing wind power would need to be placed where the wind blows freest. Oddly enough, these are also pathways traversed by migrating birds. Large bird populations... giant whirling blades... it doesn't take much imagination to see the potential problem. And, of course, these giant fans will be giant eyesores wherever they are placed.

Solar technology, too, has long been more expensive and less efficient than the fossil fuel technologies that upset St. Albert so. But I recently heard, on the Osgood Files, a report concerning a promising new advance in solar cell technology.

Actually, it's not so much an advance as a return to a technology that was briefly considered, and abandoned, in the 70s. CBS Radio's Charles Osgood reports that Marc Boland, a professor of electrical engineering at MIT, is leading a team of researchers there in the development of solar cells that consist of glass with a very thin layer of paint or dye on top of it. This, Boland says, "allows us to concentrate light onto a much smaller area of solar cells" -- using "off-the-shelf" materials and making more solar energy, more efficiently, without motorized moving mirrors.

This is exciting stuff -- not a "moon shot" by any means, but a wonderful, hopeful, idea. And energy plans using off-the-shelf materials sound a heck of a lot better to me than massive government forays into huge construction projects.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Filtering out the important stuff

Like a lot of you, I spend what seems to be an inordinate amount of time checking my email. And not just for blog comments, either. Increasingly my clients and I are communicating this way.

Lately, I've been getting phone calls from clients: "Did you get my email?"

All too often the answer is "no."

Unless I've corresponded with a client by email in the past, too many of these important emails are routed into a spam filter. Especially (and, I suppose, understandably so) when there is an attachment to the message.

But this is like having a secretary who gives you all the junk mail and holds the important stuff at her desk.

You wouldn't like having to stop what you were doing to confront your assistant and ransom your important mail, would you? Well, I don't like chasing down important client material in my spam filters either.

It makes me worry about what I didn't know I got but should have seen.

I don't know what the answer to this conundrum is. I'm certainly grateful for spam filters that remove all the pharmaceutical advertisements and pornography solicitations. But that's not where I want to look for stuff that clients sent. To be safe, however, I now check my spam filters, at least once a day.

Once again, the time we've saved with the convenience of this super-duper fast method of communication is nullified by the additional tasks that are added on as the unintended consequence of our supposed advance. Humans are not quite obsolete yet.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

All Star ranting

This started out as a comment on Ken Levine's post this morning, but it just kept going....

I thought it was nice of the Cubs to open up their roster this year for some players on other teams to come to New York and play, too. Gosh, I hope it doesn't backfire on them.... They really think they are playing for home field advantage.

And seriously, if the NL roster isn't just a matter of Cubs-plus, how could anyone explain the selection of Carlos "Meltdown" Marmol?

Meanwhile, my son the conspiracy theorist figures that the reason White Sox third baseman (and soon to be free agent) Joe Crede and his 17 errors got selected this year (for the first time!) as a reserve was to permit Terry Francona and the Boston staff to pitch him and his agent, Scott Boras, about taking up similar responsibilities next year in Fenway. Without tampering, see?

And about that Home Run Derby: It was amazing to see Josh Hamilton hit ball after ball after ball into the seats.

For awhile.

Then it kind of got... boring. After all, it's still just batting practice.

Still, Middle Son was impressed. "Forget about steroids," he said. "From here on out, I'm going after meth."

I'm almost certain he was kidding.

Actually, although I can hear my late mother's voice saying, "It's all his own fault" -- and it was -- Josh Hamilton's fall from the number one draft pick in the entire country to three years out of baseball because of alcohol and drug abuse (including, I've been told, crystal meth, crack cocaine, and LSD) and then back to the majors is truly inspirational. His story might already be on film if he didn't play for the Texas Rangers... but free agency will take care of that soon enough.

Why women are smarter than men: Part 6,721

Temperatures are expected to reach 90° F in Chicago today (thankfully, this is one of the first times all summer -- don't tell Al Gore, but it has been far cooler than usual in Chicago lately).

Today's hot weather provides an opportune moment to reflect on one of the many reasons why women are smarter than men.

You will see many women out on the street today -- office workers all -- wearing summer dresses. When a woman gets to her office she takes off her sneakers and puts them in the same drawer from which she removes her heels. She takes the sweater from the back of her chair and puts it on. Because it's cooler in the office than outside.

Compare this with what a man does: Men wear their jackets and ties on the street, perspiring profusely. When a man gets to his office, he takes off his jacket, loosens his tie and sits down to work. When he has to go somewhere again, he will tighten the tie, put on the jacket and step out into the heat.

The man will catch cold.

Now this pattern is no longer as universal as it once was. A female lawyer would not wear a sun dress to court, for example. And many men -- even male lawyers who don't have court today -- will take advantage of the move to 'summer casual' that has become popular in many offices. I work for one such enlightened employer (myself) and, because I have nothing up in court today, I wore neither a tie nor a jacket to the office. And I keep a sweater here because it truly is much cooler here at the Undisclosed Location than it is outside. Proving, I hope, that, though women are still smarter than men, we can catch up. Someday.

But I do still have a cold.

Heads or Tails #47 -- Joke

Today's Heads or Tails challenge seems simple enough. Our mistress of ceremonies, Barb, says today's topic is "joke."

But nothing is ever easy with lawyers involved, is it? And, besides, here at Second Effort, we take our humor very seriously. Which, unfortunately, is why many of you don't laugh at anything I write.

Except, of course, when I get political. *Sigh*

But I Stumbled across the following joke at this site. I've edited a little. Probably ruining it in the process....

The beautiful student comes to the young professor's office. She had chosen her costume with great care: Short skirt, heels, tight white blouse. She glanced down the hall, making sure she hadn't been observed. She slipped in the office, closed the door and sat down in the office chair across from the startled professor's desk.

She leaned forward. And as she leaned, the young scholar couldn't help but notice that, despite the student's evident care in arranging herself for this interview, she seemed to have missed a button or two on her blouse.

She spoke in a low and seductive voice. "I would do anything to pass this exam," she breathed. She flipped back her lustrous long hair, moistened her lips and stared meaningfully into the professor's eyes.

"I mean," she purred, "I would do...anything."

He stared back at her. "Anything?"

She said it again. "Anything."

He lowered his voice: "Anything??"


He dropped his voice still lower. "Would"

Monday, July 14, 2008

Another shortage at the grocery: Media's to blame

I was maneuvered into accompanying Long Suffering Spouse to the grocery store yesterday morning after Mass. I will spare you the usual stranger-in-a-strange-land description of the journey. Suffice it to say that I don't like grocery stores and they don't like me. I wonder how much money is spent each year researching how to put every single item that I might need to buy on a bottom shelf where I am never likely to find it.

But yesterday's shopping expedition departs from the ordinary because of what we did not, and could not, buy.

There was no watermelon.

The kids like watermelon. Youngest Son in particular consumes prodigious quantities of the stuff in between baseball games and football practices.

Long Suffering Spouse was quite agitated after she inspected the giant (and empty) cardboard bin in which watermelons had been offered, on sale, earlier in the week. "It's because of the sale," she guessed.

"No," I told her, "it's because of the news."

"The news?"

Yes, I told her, it was recently disclosed that watermelon contains a substance that has the same effect as Viagra. I saw the story on line; I'd also heard about it on the radio.

Long Suffering Spouse didn't believe me. You can follow the links.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Stuff I don't understand: special iPhone edition

We learn this morning that Apple has released a new iPhone model, this version doing more, and costing less, than the one so highly touted, and so eagerly sought after, only last summer.

The people who waited in line then must be so pleased now. (Although, to be fair, Dr. A has a twitter update on his blog this morning advising that his iPhone 1.0 is working just fine. He is putting a brave face on and I, for one, say bravo!)

Yesterday I noticed that, in anticipation of this momentous product unveiling, Google was advising gmail customers that they could Google chat with their contacts right from their iPhone.

I am certain that this must be a stupendous technical achievement. I am particularly certain because (as is often the case) I do not understand a single word of the explanation as to how this modern day miracle may be performed.

But, however grand this code-writing accomplishment may be, isn't the iPhone a phone?

Couldn't one actually dial the number of the person with whom one wishes to chat -- and thereby avoid the dangers of permanent damage to the tendons of one's thumb?

Of course, I suppose the Apple devotees will assert that Google chat is easier, faster, better than mere text messaging.

But texting is another thing I do not understand.

I have learned how to do this, of course, since the kids seem to insist on texting me from time to time. But capitalization and punctuation take so long to input into a text message that I believe I could write out the message, capture and train a carrier pigeon, and dispatch it to the sender of the text message faster than I could accomplish a proper reply.

Apparently the primary benefit of texting is that one can surreptitiously send and receive messages at times when talking on the phone might be forbidden. As in the time I caught Younger Daughter texting at Mass. "But Dad," she protested, when I chastised her on the way home, "it was after Communion, during the announcements."

This morning we were waiting to find if Youngest Son's baseball games would be played today despite the torrential rains in the Chicago area overnight. The coach called Youngest Son directly with news of the cancellation, while Youngest Son was in his Driver's Ed class.

Youngest Son considered this a serious breach of etiquette: The coach should have texted.

Long Suffering Spouse and I were upset that Youngest Son's phone was on during class. "Isn't that why you have voice mail?" I asked. But I received only a pitying look in response: People of a certain age, it seems, can not imagine being out of touch for even the 90 minutes of a class.

"Didn't you get in trouble for talking on your phone in class?" asked Long Suffering Spouse.

"I have skills," bragged Youngest Son in reply and he pantomimed for us how he bent over and cupped the phone in his hand while making it appear that he was trying to pick up a notebook he had conveniently allowed to fall to the floor. And he said he will give the coach what-for when next he sees him, too.

Or maybe he'll send a text message instead?

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Can America still compete? Boeing in circles....

For more aerial refueling photos, see this January 2007 post.

Yesterday, I asked if America can still compete in the world. If I had music on my blog, you'd have heard the fifes and drums building by the time you got to the end of the piece. I'd like to be optimistic. I'd like to lead the cheers.

And then I opened up the Sun-Times this morning. Just a little AP story, on page 39, about how Boeing Co. and Northrop Grumman Corp. will once again submit "new offers for a disputed $35 billion Air Force tanker contract."

You can read about the half century of service of our tanker fleet at this link to an article on Air-Scene UK. But even with meticulous maintenance, time and the advances of technology dictate that these machines must be replaced.

And here's where this ties into yesterday's post. The latest bid process is not the first. It's at least the third. This Wikipedia article seems to have the timeline down. Without looking, I recalled that Boeing had won the contract first -- but it was thrown out amid whispers of corruption and sharp dealing -- then Northrop Grumman got the deal -- and it, too, was thrown out. Now this.

This is no way for us to compete, people.

Part of it is that we've throttled back so much on aerospace programs -- the few surviving contractors fight like wild dogs over the scraps (multi-billion dollar scraps!) available. Boeing and Northrop Grumman have their partisans and stalwarts in the halls of Congress and the corridors of the Pentagon and nothing seems ever likely to be decided.

If we were to ramp up space colonization, there'd be plenty for these venerable industry icons to work on... and room for new players to enter as well. We need to get beyond the Lewis and Clark model of space exploration -- that's really what our astronauts have been, modern day Lewis and Clarks who've ventured on government missions into unknown territory. We need someone to design a 21st Century Conestoga wagon, a vehicle that can find its way into private hands and take our children to the stars. It's Manifest Destiny, I tell you....

Natural gas going up 30% this winter? Yikes!

In our shock and awe about soaring prices at the gas pumps we forget about Gasoline's twin sister, Natural Gas.

Natural Gas, however, is soon to be heard from if this cheery forecast from Chicago's People's Gas proves true: According to the linked article (from WBBM Radio, quoting a CBS-2 news report), gas rates are "going to be 25 to 30 percent higher than this past winter." For Chicago customers, the article says, "The average home heating bill of $1,500 a year will jump to $1,800."

There are those who say global warming is a bad thing.

I say I wish global warming was for real... and I hope it gets here soon. But I don't hold out great hope.

Sweaters will be worn at the Curmudgeon home this winter. Sometimes more than one at a time.

Paranoid rantings about a printing problem

When I'm under a deadline it would be nice -- just once -- to print a document without incident.

It's always something different. Yesterday I was trying to get an amended pleading filed, but I couldn't make it print. It wasn't a mechanical problem with the printer. (Ink has run out on me at critical moments in the past; once, on the eve of trial, my printer died entirely. Instead of working on motions in limine I had to run out to the nearest store and buy and install a new printer.)

I have learned not to push Escape or Alt-Tab or click my mouse in frustration when these freeze-ups occur. Eventually, if nothing happens, I will use the trusty Ctrl-Alt-Delete and bring up the Windows Task Manager.

I push my chair back and wait. With gritted teeth. Yesterday, it was for 15 minutes, during which time Older Daughter called seeking instruction on the Plan of Her Life. At least I had something to keep me occupied. As I watched, with unblinking eye, the little hourglass that mocked me from the screen.

When the error finally revealed itself, I was too far gone in frustration to carefully note its name. It wasn't a "spooling" error; I know what those are. And even if I didn't catch the exact name of the immediate problem, I know what the underlying, overall problem really is.

My trusty computer is getting old.

Bought in a fit of pique in late 2003 after my Windows 98 machine deteriorated to the point where it was crashing every five minutes or so, my computer is now ancient. Almost five years old. Dog years are measured one for every seven human years and I think computer years are measured one for every seven dog years... I think that means my computer is somewhere between 196 and 245 years old.

It doesn't have the capacity to handle all these video ads that pop up on Yahoo! or the newspaper websites regularly. I'm convinced that an open tab on the Tribune site has been the cause of many crashes.

And, of course, there's the Bill Gates factor. Deep in his retirement lair somewhere in the mountains of Washington State, Gates prowls the Internet looking to punish those who are not 100% Microsoft. Yes, I use Windows XP... but I run WordPerfect and Firefox. I am a heretic.

And, yesterday, when the crisis came, I had Windows Media Player open. Music hath charms to soothe the savage beast... and I like it as well.

That was my mistake. From deep inside his mountain hideaway, Gates pointed a finger at my machine. As the Byrds tried to give way to the Mamas and Papas and I pressed "print," he struck.

It all worked out in the end, though. The pleading eventually printed and got filed and I came one step closer to realizing the day must soon come when I retire this machine and get a new one, with more storage, more memory and a bigger, beefier video card that can handle the video ads.

Sometimes I can actually look forward to that day.

Then I realize I'll be getting Vista, too.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Can America still compete? Some suggestions

Click to enlarge.

This Jeff Danzinger cartoon, lifted from Yahoo! Comics is not false or misleading. But it is incomplete.

It isn't just Korean imports that "add to industrial decline, community erosion, disastrous unemployment, and staggering foreign debt." What about the Chinese? The Japanese? (The Japanese in particular have long resisted American efforts to sell beef; the Chinese just send us 80% of our toys, 50% of our kitchen appliances, 9% of everything you'll find on the shelves at Wal-Mart and, for good measure, every year or two, a new tree-destroying insect to ravage our forests and urban parkways.)

And then, of course, there's the billion dollars a day (that's a figure I heard this morning) that we spend on imported oil. Every day.

All these "add to industrial decline, community erosion, disastrous unemployment, and staggering foreign debt."

Now I'm not as crazy as you may be thinking: We could no more live without imports than an addict without his fix. Unless you want to take the economy through cold turkey, of course, a self-inflicted wound that would destroy the future for our children and their children and theirs....

No, my anti-NAFTA, anti-CAFTA, anti free-trade friends, there's no going back.

But there is a way forward. And, as in so many other things, George Washington instinctively knew the way.

Washington showed up for his first inauguration dressed in brown homespun -- domestically made clothes.

His suit that day was meant as a symbol and a message. Washington knew we had to develop industry in this country if we wanted to be truly independent.

We still do.

If the Chinese or the Vietnamese or the Bangladeshis can make some things faster and more cheaply that we can, well and good... if the things they make are safe and fit for consumption. (Do you hear us Chinese toy makers?)

But we must identify what we can make, and sell, better than anyone else.

And we'd better start making it.

I think alternative energy is one area where we can lead the world. Of course, we would have catch up with the Brazilians first -- their sugarcane ethanol has virtually freed Brazil from oil dependence. Meanwhile, although this is widely disputed in corn-growing states, corn ethanol seems to be less efficient and cost effective than the Brazilian stuff. But we have a host of other products that might be pressed into service... starting with our own garbage. What a win-win-win that could be!

Another area in which we could still lead the world is space exploration and colonization. Let's not just go back to the Moon; let's subdivide it. (In fact, that might be a good place to send the sub-prime lenders... but I digress.) The technological advances that we'd make along the way could result in a whole new generation of consumer products with which to amaze the world. And, of course, it would give us a true frontier again. America needs a frontier... and the best part is that there are no indigenous populations in the path of an expansion into outer space.

All it takes is popular will and determination. Do we still have it in us?

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Heads or Tails #46 -- beginning with "O"

OK, then. In today's episode of Heads or Tails, our oracle Barb asks us to contemplate anything beginning with the letter "o." I feel like I'm going in circles.....


Oil is "down" to $141 a barrel according to the newspaper this morning. That's up, just slightly, from $4.65 a barrel as it was before the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973. (Follow this link for a walk down memory lane, Curmudgeon-style.)

Gasoline prices have soared -- it's not just an inconvenience at present. Some people are unable to get to work, much less go on vacation. And because people who are working are not taking as many vacations, other people who live by tourism are losing their jobs.

Over the road truckers are getting killed by high gasoline and diesel prices. Food prices are rising in response, putting a further squeeze on families trying to shell out (get it?) for gasoline.

Yet neither political party appears too upset about it. Here's why:

Both parties' (very different) agendas are advanced by high oil prices.

The Democrats never did much care for suburbs. Not only were they infested with Republicans, suburban sprawl offends their green sensibilities. St. Albert Gore does not approve.

But if gas prices rise high enough, people will abandon the suburbs in droves and bicycle back to the central cities where they can be more closely watched. We can all link arms and walk to political meetings in our Birkenstocks, where we can be harangued about the dangers of transfats or the virtues of veganism.

High oil and gasoline prices mean people will modify their behaviors -- although maybe not quite to that extent -- reducing our big ol' carbon footprints. That will save the world from global warming! Then St. Albert Gore will be happy.

Meanwhile, the Republicans have also benefited from the rising price of oil: Haven't you seen the new commercials assuring you that you -- if you own a pension fund -- are probably benefiting from rising oil prices too?

Someone should have told the bank where my IRA is to buy oil futures -- my retirement accounts have plummeted just about as much as house prices. My IRA must have been heavily invested in mortgages instead.

And why exactly is oil traded as a commodity? We have markets for corn and wheat and other farm products because farmers need futures markets to hedge their risks that not enough rain will fall, or too much. But oil just gets pumped out of the ground.

And that's the other agenda item the Republicans are pushing: We have oil reserves in America, lots of them, but there are polar bears or dewy-eyed fawns sitting atop of them or whales swimming around them. Republicans would like to start drilling in Alaska and offshore and other places locally where we could keep the money we're now paying to the sheiks and the tyrants. Or, rather, some of them would.

Neither party is really pushing for oil alternatives -- oh, ethanol made from corn is touted, particularly in farm states, but it is inefficient and has helped put pressure on food prices too.

But swine excrement and animal fat from slaughterhouses and even old french fry grease have all shown promise as sources for an oil substitute. Could we have the solution to our energy crisis in our own garbage? But that would open up the suburbs again (Democrats frown) and the technology is not wholly owned by a small cadre of corporations (Republicans frown)....

Monday, July 07, 2008

Smokin' hot re: smoking bans on stage and screen

In Britain, the British Medical Association has, according to the July 7 issue of the Guardian, asked film censors "to give an adults-only classification to all films that portray positive images of smoking."

The BMA's goal is to end smoking in Britain by 2035, the Guardian says. However, persons with an ounce of common sense have pointed out that many old and beloved children's movies would receive adults-only ratings under such a system. Idiotic? Certainly. But no more so than the current producers of children's favorite Sesame Street hawking early episodes of the series with parental guidance warnings because Cookie Monster not only eats unwholesome cookies, in a parody of the old Masterpiece Theater intro, 'Alistair Cookie' eats a pipe.

Can you imagine?

And in related news comes word that meddlesome busybodies in Chicago have forced the local production of the Jersey Boys to eliminate actors' smoking from the performance. According to Chris Jones' July 7 article from the Chicago Tribune online, someone complained to the police that actors portraying young people in the 1960s were smoking on stage during the show and, under Chicago's draconian anti-smoking ordinance, the "police have no choice but to issue a warning."

But... didn't young people actually smoke during the 1960's?

I do not smoke. (I did -- but I quit, over 20 years ago, after hundreds of attempts.) And I'm certainly not encouraging anyone to take up the habit.

But to tag movies as 'adults only' or to ban characters smoking on stage during a performance, particularly during a performance depicting a period when most people did smoke, strikes me as the height of lunacy.

On the other hand, I quite agree that producers should voluntarily avoid filming scenes with actors smoking for no particular reason. I am willing to accept that our films and TV shows help establish behavioral norms... in many ways encouraging impressionable kids to ape the behaviors they see on screen. And by voluntarily refraining from including smoking scenes, writers, producers and actors aren't being censored, they're simply being responsible citizens, right?

Of course!

And therefore, as long as we're all being responsible, I additionally suggest that writers and producers also stop having their characters use language that would make a sailor blush. Particularly in casual conversation. I realize that 'Great Caesar's Ghost!' may not be the most realistic substitute for the kinds of extreme verbal ejaculations one routinely hears in any shopping center parking lot... but don't we want to try and encourage more civil behavior?

And, while we're at it, why don't we stop portraying young people living together without benefit of clergy... or having children out of wedlock... or having sex on every possible occasion? Granted, all of these things sometimes happen in real life. Young people sometimes take up smoking in real life too.

But many among us are afraid that by showing this smoking behavior on screen our young people will emulate it. Why doesn't this same logic apply to these other problematic behaviors? Is it because these aren't considered problematic behaviors... unlike smoking? Or have we concluded that young people don't emulate these other behaviors just because they see them portrayed on screen... but smoking is somehow different?

I don't see the difference.

Americans lose #1 standing in yet another area

Americans are, according to this Time Magazine article, posted this morning on Yahoo! News, no longer viewed as the world's most obnoxious tourists.

That dubious honor, according to the article, belongs to the Chinese, the Indians and, of course, the French.

The French don't even like the French: According to the linked article, the French "finished second to last among nations ranking the popularity of their own tourists who vacation at home."

Even though Americans are still widely perceived as "the loudest, most inclined to complain, and among the least polite," we earn high marks for attempting to speak the local languages... and those of us who can still travel spend freely and tip much.

This just tells me that fewer and fewer Americans are traveling. And it's no wonder why:
  • We can't afford the gasoline to drive to the airport.
  • We can't stomach the oppressive and pointless indignities imposed in the name of airport "security."
  • If we are willing to suffer the humiliation of airport security, we are likely to emerge on the other side and find our flights canceled, and/or the ticket price trebled, and a $3 fee for a bag of gravel that is represented to be airline peanuts.
We may still have theoretical freedom of movement... but movement is no longer free. We can't set the horrible example for tourists everywhere anymore because we can't get there from here.

Sabathia trade two-sided winner for White Sox fans

The expression "two-sided winner" may be obscure for younger readers: It refers to the days when hit records could be purchased as singles on 7" 45 rpm disks. (Those were the ones with the big holes in them, for those struggling to remember.) The "good" song was on Side A. On Side B there was something that was usually awful and sometimes worse than that.

However, occasionally, a brave DJ on a top-40 station would turn over a record and play the other side and discover... with surprise and pleasure... a quality song on Side B. Both songs would then get air time and the record would sell a lot of units and, I always imagined, somebody at the record company lost his job for putting out on one 45 what should have been divided up into two.

That last bit is speculation, of course.

But I'm not speculating about the trade that is sending incumbent AL Cy Young Award Winner C.C. Sabathia from the Cleveland Indians to the Milwaukee Brewers. This looks like a deal that couldn't be better from a White Sox perspective.

Why? First, thanks to the unbalanced schedule, the White Sox play Cleveland about 875 times a year. Sabathia always seemed to start about 500 of those games, sometimes (seemingly) twice or three times in the same series. And while the Sox beat him occasionally... it seemed to be all too infrequently. He's good.

So... the Sox and their fans win because Cleveland has bid Sabathia adieu.

That's Side A.

But on the flip side, Cleveland has sent Sabathia to Milwaukee, home of the Brewers, and already contenders for the National League Central Division title.

That's the division in which the Chicago National League Ball Club, a/k/a the Cubs, plays... and they have an unbalanced schedule in that league, too.

Which means -- Side B -- not only will the Sox miss Sabathia about 350 times more this season, the Cubs will have to face him.

Mean spirited?

Probably. And the way the Cubs are playing this year, they'll probably beat Sabathia like a bongo drum. But, today at least, Cleveland's loss looks like a two-sided winner for White Sox fans.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Miss deadlines online just as easily as by mail!

Anyone with a credit card knows that you have to mail your payment well before the due date if you want to avoid the dreaded $39 late fee (and, at least potentially, a jacked-up interest rate or some other consequence too hideous to mention).

Cash-strapped people like me have learned, over the years, that some cards can be paid in person, at the bank or at a cash register or customer service desk in the store, even on the due date itself and avoid these pitfalls.

And then there's technology. The charge card company would accept payments by phone... for a $15 fee (that amount seems pretty uniform, in my experience) right up to the witching hour. Or pretty close.

And now many bills can be paid online. The bad news is that the credit card company magically sucks the money out of your checking account as soon as you hit enter... but the good news is that you can pay at 11:59 pm on the day in question and still be "on time." Because you have in fact paid on the day by which the blood-sucking credit card company has demanded its pound of flesh. Right?

Of course not!

Case in point: Large, soulless megabank (which recently acquired, by corporate conquest, a huge presence in the Chicago market) sent me a credit card bill for a big sum of money.

I have lots of these kinds of bills. When you read about the irresponsible people in this country who are fueling their American dream with charges they can never pay... well, that's getting uncomfortably close to a description of yours truly.

But this particular bill from Soulless Megabank, though large, was something I had hopes of paying off entirely by the due date... last Sunday, June 29.

It depended on funds being received... and the last of these trickled in on Friday the 27th. Now for one reason or another I couldn't get to the nearby branch of Soulless Megabank before 4:00 pm on Friday -- that being the latest time that one can pay in person without having the payment carry over until the next business day... Monday... which would have been a day late.

But I did not despair. I have online access to this account. I planned to pay the bill online. I recently did this with American Express: When I went to pay online, the site asked if I wanted to make the payment immediately... or if I wanted to make it on the due date itself.

Well, wouldn't you have done the same?

Thus my plan for the payment of the bill from Soulless Megabank.

I signed on.

I correctly remembered both my user name and password. I navigated successfully through the security challenges.

I brought up my bill... but when I went to pay it, Soulless Megabank said it would be only too happy to take my money, but it wouldn't post the payment until Monday, June 30. A day late. A day late? It was the evening of the 27th and the bill wasn't due until the 29th.

Now, what follows is not a legal opinion: It is merely a suspicion built largely from my bitterness and cynicism as opposed to actual research. However, it would seem that Soulless Megabank is required to provide a certain number of days 'grace period.' However, in order to screw the public -- er extort monies from its unsuspecting customers -- er maximize revenues, it sets (as often as possible anyway) a due date for a bill on a day... oh, a Sunday, as in this case... on which it will not accept payments. Very pious of them. It would appear that Soulless Megabank is running a scam here -- reaping all sorts of interest and late fees for its corporate coffers.

I expressed these opinions on Friday evening, seated in the den in front of the computer, as the rest of the family was trying to watch a movie. By the time the windows stopped rattling, the room had cleared. The TV was off.

Oddly enough.

I then called Soulless Megabank at the 800 number thoughtfully provided on its bill... went through the menu... yes, I want to continue in English... no, I'm not seeking an increase in my credit limit... no, I'm not reporting a lost or stolen card... and, when I finally reached a human, expressed my opinions again.

"Sir, there's no need to shout," he said.

Actually, I thought there was, but I remembered that he was not the person responsible for this policy. Ultimately, I paid by phone... and the $15 fee was "waived."

And the sin and the shame of it is that there's probably no class action pending anywhere on this because Soulless Megabank -- like so many other charge card providers -- has inserted an arbitration clause in its credit agreement. And our courts, conditioned as they have become to upholding arbitration clauses between parties in a variety of other commercial contexts, are actually upholding arbitration requirements even in these kinds of one-sided, oppressive, and anti-consumer situations.

There is a simple solution: If Soulless Megabank insists on having its money by Friday, say so. I'll pay it all or as much as I can by the deadline imposed. If it can't say so -- because some law or regulation requires that it provide a full 20 days grace period in which to pay -- amend that law or regulation to say, in addition, should the due date fall on a non-business day (Saturdays in some cases, Sundays or federal banking holidays in all cases) then the due date is automatically extended to the next following business day.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Observed: Earbuds make you funnier

Here at the Undisclosed Location we have very slow-moving elevators. There is often time for chat -- like "do you think it's stuck?" -- or "I was stuck on the middle elevator for two hours last week" -- as we wait, seemingly forever, for the doors to open.

Sometimes I venture to fill these awkward silences with a quick witticism. Sadly, these are often unappreciated. Frequently I get looks that can only translate to, "Back off, Creepy Old Guy."

But this morning the elevator was unusually slow and a number of floors were selected. So I had the opportunity to toss out a few bon mots. I said something to the young lady who was first in line to get off. And she smiled. This encouraged me to add something else. And she giggled -- as the doors opened and she made good her escape.

It was only then that I noticed that she was wearing an iPod (or similar device) with earphones.

The elevator resumed its upward journey and the next person drifted to the front. I said something devastatingly clever (I thought) and he smiled and nodded knowingly.

And when he nodded, I saw his earbuds.


One more occupant before my floor. She worked her way toward the door. I said something along the lines of, "Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy."

She smiled.

I added something like, "A kid will eat ivy, too. Wouldn't you?" She smiled more broadly... and I saw the earbuds.


It turns out, upon reflection, that I am much funnier when people can't hear me.

Which leads to another hypothesis which I'd like to test out with you now. You've just read this. Now go back to the beginning and read it again -- this time with your eyes closed. Was it funnier that way?

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Heads or Tails #45 -- summertime memory

In today's episode of Heads or Tails, our meme maven Barb asks us to strike one of those mystic chords of memory and share a reminiscence of summertime. I think I'll share this one without any further preface at all.....

One summer I was engaged as a decoy, foil and shield by a local general contractor. I detailed some of my adventures on that job in an August 2007 post. (If you want to see why I describe my job that summer as decoy, foil and shield instead of 'laborer,' you'd have to read that post.)

These were mostly young couples moving into this subdivision still under construction. Which means the wives were young enough, or I was old enough, that I couldn't help but be very aware of these facts.

Very aware.

When I would get to work, one of the things I would do would be to check out all the various houses under construction -- just quickly -- making sure that nothing terrible had happened overnight -- you know, checking for vandalism, that sort of thing.

One morning, whilst in the course of these rounds, I was hailed from the driveway of one of the few finished houses.

By a young housewife.

In a nightgown.

Well, that got my attention.

Her husband, she told me, was out of town. Would I be so kind, she asked, as to step into the house for awhile?

Would I? Me?

Yes! she said. And quickly, she added, and she turned back toward the house, bidding me to follow.
I can see you're getting a little overheated. Maybe I shouldn't tell this story.

Maybe I should finish it.... tomorrow? No? You want me to finish the story now?

If this were a book, this is where I'd tell you to turn the page.......

Well, I followed her in of course.

It would have been horribly ungallant for me to do otherwise, don't you think?

And as soon as I caught up with her, she practically pushed me...

...into her family room.

There, by the fireplace, was a mousetrap. In the mousetrap was a mouse who had somehow positioned his shoulder between the business end of the mousetrap and his neck, which would otherwise have been broken. Thus, this mouse was very much alive.

And the excited young housewife? She wanted me to remove the mouse and the mousetrap and set the mouse free.

It was quite one thing for this woman to kill a mouse by leaving a trap... but if the trap didn't kill the mouse she was not going to kill it with her hands. Or a broom. Nor was I to kill it, she said.

So I picked up the trap and it's wriggling content, went out into the field behind the house, pulled out a screwdriver and opened the trap. All along, of course, I was talking to the mouse, explaining what I was doing. He might have been small, but I still didn't want him to bite me.

I was successful in my mission to liberate the mouse. How the mouse coped with his injuries thereafter is beyond the scope of this narrative.

I returned my attention to the young housewife who had been hovering nearby, observing carefully my every move... but at a distance where she could quickly retreat to the house if the mouse decided to avenge itself on her.

The lady was quite grateful for my assistance.

She was, in fact, so grateful...

... that she said 'thank you.'

We're No. 1 (and who needs it?)

Today Chicago acquires the dubious distinction of having the highest sales tax rate in the United Stated -- 10.25%.

As merchants in Cook County -- especially those situated near the county's borders -- will soon be reminded, the power to tax is indeed the power to destroy.