Monday, January 30, 2012

Historian Gingrich wants to go to the Moon

At one of the recent Florida debates, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich tried to shamelessly pander to the significant segment of recently-unemployed Shuttle Program employees in the Sunshine State by suggesting that the U.S. should set up a lunar colony immediately. (Space program jobs for Florida! Yippee!)

Going back to the Moon, and establishing permanent bases there, is certainly a policy I support -- so, therefore, I must support Historian Gingrich's White House bid, right?

Oh, puleeeze.

Historian Gingrich doesn't mean it -- he said it only in hopes of grabbing a couple of votes in tomorrow's Florida primary. If he survives the Florida primary, the lunar idea will be conveniently shelved as he moves on toward Super Tuesday.

If, somehow, Historian Gingrich were actually nominated and elected, the plan would not be revived.

And if, somehow, the idea were revived, President-Historian Gingrich would find it unpopular, even among his fellow Republicans. Mitt Romney was, predictably, against the idea. Ron Paul, at least, got off a good line by stating that he would not want a full-fledged colony, but he could think of certain politicians he'd like to send to the Moon.

The future of this country is out-of-this-world. This is a frontier nation; we urgently need a new frontier. We've expanded from sea-to-shining-sea (much to the chagrin of most of our original inhabitants -- although they are slowly getting even with us, one slot machine at a time....)

We've expanded from sea-to-shining-sea and there's nowhere to go but Up. President Kennedy knew that that the space program wasn't about a handful of votes in one state's primary, but about our entire nation's destiny, about the dreams and aspirations of our restless people, bottled up in our increasingly crowded and regimented cities -- he knew we need new places to boldly go.

But Newtie won't take us there; nor has he any intention of really trying.

I imagine President Obama must pinch himself every morning, trying to reassure himself that he is really awake: With the economy still in the dumpster, our out-of-control national debt, our crumbling infrastructure, the stalemate in Congress, his poor personal polling numbers -- with all these negatives, he can't be other than thrilled beyond measure with the likely Republican opposition in November. And when President Obama kneels down at night by his Presidential four-poster, saying his evening prayers, I am sure that he includes a fervent prayer of thanksgiving for the Good Lord sending him Historian Gingrich.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Honesty is a pretty good policy

No, that's not the way I learned it either. But I think that's the way it is.

I'm not talking about softening the sharp edges of honesty for questions like, "Do these jeans make my butt look big?"

One can always safely give an honest answer to that question, as long as one is... careful. For example, explanations must be avoided at all costs. "No" is a perfectly sufficient -- and honest -- answer, especially where the explanation might be something like "your butt was big to begin with."

I'm thinking instead about the candid disclosure of unhappy information to prospective business partners or referral sources. I've touched on this subject before. Basically, when things are going great, lawyers insist they are on the edge of bankruptcy; when things are at their worst, lawyers tend to insist that all is well. Think about it: Would you feel comfortable entrusting your fortune or future or perhaps your very freedom to someone who's trying to keep the phone company from acting on its Red Notice?

I didn't think so.

So the lawyers who are obviously the most prosperous cry poormouth -- while the lawyers in desperate straits try and look prosperous and cheerful.

And we expect people to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

So... the lawyer who is plummeting into the abyss needs to reach out for help, for assistance, for cases -- but how? Too much sad truth and one is branded a leper; too much false bravado and possible sources of business may conclude that you don't really need their work.

I am sorry to say that this is my challenge for 2012. If I figure out how to do this, you may be fairly certain that I'll start to cry poormouth. So how, Dear Reader, will you know the difference?

Thursday, January 26, 2012

I don't know why this doesn't dominate conversation either

(This image taken from Yahoo! Comics. Arlo and Janis
appears locally in the Chicago
No less an authority than Steven Hawking states, "I think the human race doesn't have a future if it doesn't go into space." Yet only comic strip artists and Curmudgeons talk about it.

How sad.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Romney and Gingrich -- taxes and history

The 'revelation' that Mr. Romney pays a smaller percentage of his taxes because most of his income comes from investments is hardly shocking, the glee in the Gingrich and Obama camps notwithstanding. Our tax laws are written to reward those who take risks and invest as opposed to those who merely take salary. Just Plain Folks in traditional swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania -- and, of course, Florida, the immediate battlefield -- should not take umbrage at the relatively low percentage paid under these circumstances. That Mr. Romney donates extensively to charity should, indeed, help him in most circles; that these charities are mostly, if not exclusively, Mormon will cause murmurs among a few -- but these are bigots and others just looking to fan into flame any possible sparks bigotry among us gullible Just Plain Folks.

More interesting is that Mr. Romney closed a Swiss bank account just prior to entering the current presidential sweepstakes. He has acknowledged keeping some money in the Cayman Islands. These are two places where many rich people, from many countries, stash money to avoid paying taxes in their native lands. But the consensus, in the news reports I've seen so far, seems to be that Mr. Romney has not engaged in any overly 'aggressive' tax strategies. He's apparently paid his fair share under the law.

Meanwhile, what can one say about Speaker Gingrich?

Just before the South Carolina primary Gingrich's second ex-wife made a public accusation that he, Historian Gingrich, suggested that his not-then-ex-wife permit him to have an "open marriage," apparently because his affair with his not-then-present-wife had come to light. Somehow Gingrich turned this accusation into a positive -- into votes -- from arch-conservative Bible-thumping South Carolinians. This wasn't making a silk purse from a sow's ear -- this was the electoral equivalent of making a silk purse from pig 'stuff' (I'd use the more accurate four-letter Anglo-Saxon word, but I blush).

Somehow the serial adulterer became a champion of family values.

It occurs to me that Historian Gingrich may actually be a champion of family values. Really, really old-fashioned family values -- like droit du seigneur, perhaps? If the 'right' of the noble lord to deflower every virgin in the village was largely mythical, the noble's ability to pluck concubines from among the fairer flowers of the peasantry or servant class was often very real indeed. Fathers would push their daughters forward; the entire family might rise in the world. If a pretty girl could just catch the attention of a king long enough, her bastard offspring might be made a Duke.

Of course, these rules did not apply to peasants. But Historian Gingrich surely does not see himself as one of the sturdy yeomanry; rather, by virtue of his skill and intellect, he sees himself as one of Nature's Elect. But I can tell you this much: If Historian Gingrich is the nominee of his party, my wife will not vote for him. She would not vote for him even if President Obama campaigns in his boxer shorts.

President Obama must pinch himself every morning just to be sure he's not dreaming. This Republican field could not have been better designed to secure his reelection than if David Axelrod had recruited the entire GOP field himself. And, inasmuch as Mr. Axelrod is a veteran of many Chicago elections, I do not immediately dismiss the notion.

Several justices of the United States Supreme Court are quite taken with the notion that their task is to discern the original intent of the Founding Fathers. I wish I could convene a meeting of the Founding Fathers just long enough to ask them what they think about the fact that the next Chief Magistrate of their experimental republic will be named either Barack, Newt or Mitt.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Today is National Peanut Butter Day

Honest, I'm not trying to refocus this blog as a 'foodie page' or anything. It's just I ran across this tribute to National Peanut Butter Day, which just happens to be today.

Well, naturally, I was curious... if today is National Peanut Butter Day, is there also a separate National Peanut Butter and Jelly Day?

I've mentioned eating peanut butter and jelly in passing on this blog on prior occasions, but I don't seem to have ever said that PB&J has been my near-daily luncheon for pretty much my entire life. After I had large portions of my insides removed (nearly five years ago now) the doctor was trying to suggest dietary changes that might help keep me out of the bathroom for an hour or two at a time. "Have you ever eaten peanut butter?" asked the doctor -- and Long Suffering Spouse and I both burst out laughing. There probably haven't been more than 15 days since where I haven't had PB&J for lunch -- and I'm including Ash Wednesdays and Good Fridays (these are fast days for Catholics like me) in this total.

Anyway... today is National Peanut Butter Day, but National Peanut Butter and Jelly Day turns out to be April 2.

Mark your calendars.

National Pie Day yesterday -- and I missed it

Yesterday, January 23, was National Pie Day and I missed it.

Sorry, Bee.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Yearbook controversy brings back memories of yearbook controversies past

You probably saw this photo in the news earlier this month: A Colorado teenager -- we really don't need to put her name here -- who was miffed when this photo she submitted her official senior portrait was rejected by her school.

I'm not exactly sure why high schools would let kids provide their own portrait, as opposed to allowing the kid to make a choice from the standard photos taken by the school yearbook photographer. But I'll come back to that.

And in answer to your first and obvious question, according to this report from, the young girl's mother supported her daughter's protest about not being allowed to sport this getup in her senior portrait, even waving a placard out in front of the school one day recently along with other defenders of cheesecake shots.

I didn't run my take on the story when I saw this -- if it doesn't officially take me into dirty-old-man territory, it at least brings me uncomfortably close to Creepy-Old-Guy-ville. But that wasn't the only reason. I was sure I'd seen something like this before; I wanted to review the record first.

Well, yesterday I stumbled on this image, from back in December 2006, in the archives.

Surprisingly, the news story I linked to at the time is still online. This kid's mother did more than picket. She sued, demanding that this picture be published in the kid's yearbook.

Now... let's see... December 2006 to January 2012... that's over five years ago. The young man in the picture is probably through with college by now. Maybe he's out looking for a job.

Do you think maybe he's come to regret demanding that this be his senior portrait?

The young girl in the shawl and the smile could learn from Sir Goofyhad here. Although, now that I've looked it up, I guess the young man's picture is worse than the young lady's.

But back to the topic of senior pictures generally: The high school that my boys attended required all graduates to pose in a black tuxedo (with a standard white shirt and black tie) for the official senior portrait. The photographer supplied the tuxes, too -- so there were none of the embarrassing styles like I wore on more than one formal occasion back in the day. And my daughters went to a high school that made all the graduates wear a black sweater and a pearl necklace. The photographer supplied the pearls -- I know this for a fact -- and I think the photographer carried a supply of appropriate turtlenecks just in case some girl came unprepared. Or wearing only a shawl. At both schools, the kids were allowed to bring other clothes for other poses -- which the photographer would gladly try and sell parents. But there was no nonsense about what would go in the yearbook. And no lawsuits or morning TV show appearances either.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Grand Avenue comic explains parent-teacher conferences

Last week, Steve Breen, the creator of the comic strip "Grand Avenue," did a series of cartoons sending up parent teacher conferences. These, I thought, were the best:

I suspect Long Suffering Spouse would agree that these parent-teacher conferences are uncomfortably close to reality.

These "Grand Avenue" comics were obtained from Yahoo! Comics (locally, the strip appears in the Chicago Sun-Times).

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Curmudgeon should turn the TV off before falling asleep

Have you ever noticed that, when you fall asleep in front of the TV, whatever's on the screen has a way of working into your dreams? This happened to me again just the other evening, when a nightmare about our corporatist future got tangled up with an insurance commercial....
Int. auto -- day. An anxious-looking man, hair mussed, suit jacket rumpled, tie askew, is talking into a dash-mounted cellphone (hands-free). He becomes increasingly agitated, and begins gesticulating wildly.
Voice Over:
The pressure of providing superlative-quality customer service had begun to get to Agent Angus Nussbaum. Our PhoneTracking™ software detected evidence of suicidal ideation in Nussbaum's speech patterns. Nussbaum's possible self-destructive behavior might jeopardize sensitive customer data, so we activated our AgentControlChip™ in Nussbaum's prefrontal cortex.
Nussbaum's eyes suddenly pop wide open and he stops talking. As the voice over continues, we see Nussbaum pull over to the curb (a legal parking spot), remove his cellphone and computer briefcase. He locks the car and hails a cab....
Voice Over:
Under our direction, Nussbaum took all steps necessary to secure his vehicle and our sensitive customer data. He returned to Home Office and accepted our offer of therapy.
Ext. prison, day. We start with a long shot emphasizing the armed sentries in the guard towers and then zoom into one of the buildings. There we see Nussbaum, secured to a chair, wearing a gray jumpsuit and a telephone headset. His hands are free to type information into a computer and we see him chatting on the phone and typing away merrily, an idiotic grin on his otherwise blank face.
Voice Over:
Now Agent Nussbaum is living in company-provided housing, and once again providing the best possible customer service, six days a week, 12 hours a day, until he works off the cost of his therapy. (Beat.)

Protecting customer data and providing superior customer service; that's our policy. (Beat.)

What's yours?(Beat -- the camera is still watching Nussbaum work.)

You're in our clutches with Deva-State. (Fade to company logo -- a mailed fist ready to crush a stylized line drawing of a house, a car, and a family.)
If that voice-over sounds suspiciously like Dennis Haysbert, you're not alone. That's exactly who it sounded like in my dream....

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Time to shake the blues with silliness -- starting tomorrow

Yesterday was the King holiday in the United States. It was also "Blue Monday," the most depressing day of the year (although even Wikipedia dismisses the calculations that lead to that designation as pseudoscience).

The two are not related -- although one news report I heard suggested that a good way to cope with Blue Monday would be to take the day off. On the other hand, most people in the private sector here don't get the King holiday off. I took the day (courts were closed) but spent it working on my checkbook. That did nothing to help my depression.

This morning, I heard that today is the day that most Christmas bills become due and also the day on which most people abandon their New Year's resolutions. (Who spends time figuring this stuff out? And how do they live with themselves?)

It's still dark in the morning when we trudge to work, and dark when we start for home. The Christmas lights are gone, mostly, the desultory remnants merely a teasing reminder of the twinkling beauty that held back the night just a month ago. Nothing holds back the night now.

So... it's time to be silly. I promise to be frivolous and frothy for the rest of the week. (OK, I reserve the right to be bitter, as long as the intent is to be funny.)

But that's tomorrow. We all have to get through today.

Friday, January 13, 2012

How yesterday's snow (may have) made me lose my glasses today

It all has to do with pockets. Let me explain.

It snowed anywhere from 4-8" in greater Chicago yesterday; our little corner of the world, near O'Hare, probably got 7" or so.

A lot of that -- more than half, easily -- was on the ground before I got home from work yesterday and, to his credit, Youngest Son made a concerted effort to remove said snow from our sidewalk and driveway before my arrival. But it kept snowing well into the night; it was obvious that there would be more to shovel this morning.

I was pretty sure that I had nothing scheduled today, but I snuck down the steps in my boxers this morning to check my diary, just to be sure. As a solo practitioner I can set my own dress code -- and, now that I'd verified that I didn't need to dress for any court appearance or other appointment that might require a coat and tie, I donned blue jeans and a flannel shirt and went out to tackle the driveway.

Long Suffering Spouse was already out there, as I knew she would be. Between us, we got the accumulated snow reduced to a minimal film of packed snow and ice, leaving me time to drink nearly half my morning coffee.

But I mentioned pockets. I use my glasses more and more these days, particularly to see the computer screen. The focal point of my vision is changing -- moving away, apparently, from the monitor. The glasses help keep the characters on the screen, if not my actual prose, crisp and sharp.

But the glasses go in the inside right pocket of my suit jacket. When I'm wearing Levis for Old Fat People (these are actually marketed as "Dockers") the pockets are deep enough that I can slip the case for the glasses in the pants pocket. Of course, at that point I look like I'm wearing a codpiece -- and a very irregularly positioned one at that.

The glass case won't fit in the jeans pocket, at least not with all the other junk that has to be carried in the pants pockets (like my cellphone, for example) when I'm not wearing a suit coat.

Long Suffering Spouse was anxious to get started, and she has to drop me off at the train on her way to school. She was already in the car when I devoted a nanosecond or two to the idea of how to convey my glasses. I had to much garbage in my briefcase to fit the glasses in there -- not and carry my sandwiches too. So, I thought, there are big, roomy pockets in my old down jacket that I wear on days like this. There are two pockets on each side, a top-opening pocket and a side-opening pocket. I can't imagine what the side-opening pocket is for. Gloves, perhaps -- as long as those gloves are completely expendable.

I put the glass case in the top-opening pocket of the down jacket.

Or, at least, I think I did.

All I know for certain is that, when I got to the train platform this morning, I felt my pocket to reassure myself that the glasses were safely in place.

They weren't.

Either they fell out of my pocket when I jumped out of the car to get to the train or I forgot to actually act on my decision about where to put the glasses. I'm hoping for the latter, obviously.

If it hadn't snowed, I'd be wearing a sport coat at least. And the glasses would be in their usual pocket. So, unless I'm going soft in the head (certainly a possibility), I lost my glasses today because it snowed yesterday.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Not riding up to South Janesville College; it may snow today in Chicago anyway

Youngest Son's baseball coach asked our son if he would cut short his Christmas break and return to South Janesville College this week to work concessions at a couple of basketball games. (South Janesville College is the fictitious name I've given to the place where Youngest Son really does attend school.) The coach said he would square it with the residence hall people.

We haven't seen much of Youngest Son during the holidays. He's slept through most of them. Most of his few waking hours have been spent away from home, visiting friends. One wonders what he does at his friends' homes: At our house, if we can get him out of bed, he hauls his carcass down to the couch and falls asleep again in front of some sports program on TV.

So, while we might miss Youngest Son were he to leave early, there was an equally good chance that we might not notice his absence at all. We gave our consent for his early departure.

The residence hall people, however, did not consent to his early arrival.

They were offended, apparently, that the baseball coach presumed to tell them that six kids would be coming in before Sunday's scheduled check-in. So the baseball coach went to Plan B: He asked each of the kids to email the residence hall people and ask -- ask nicely -- beg, if necessary.

Youngest Son complied.

That's almost redundant, looking at it. Of course, Youngest Son complied with a coach's request. A coach can tell a serious athlete to jump off a bridge and the athlete will most likely ask only "which bridge, Coach?" Parental requests to the same kid are processed, if at all, as a much lower priority.

But, though I am certain that Youngest Son's email groveled appropriately, the residence hall people demurred. We've already covered this with your coach, the answer came back, and you are not allowed in the dorm before Sunday at noon.

This was a good thing.

We were originally going to take the boy back yesterday. Yesterday the temperature here in Chicago reached the 50-degree mark again. It's been so Spring-like 'round these parts that trees and flowers are budding and my sinuses are killing me. But the drive would have been easy.

Plan B would have delayed Youngest Son's departure until today. Today we are supposed to get snow in Chicago -- and more is expected in the vicinity of SJC than here.

We've had precious little snow here this winter. This is fodder, I suppose, for the climate change alarmists, or it would have been, had they not made such dire predictions about the probable severity of this winter.

I can't complain -- much -- if it really does snow significantly today. If the weather really does turn, people who have lived in the Chicago area for decades will mysteriously forget everything they learned about winter driving and there will be accidents all over the area. But I wisely took the train this morning.

If I were obligated to make the Wisconsin run today, you could bet the mortgage money on it snowing a lot. When the residence hall people got all prickly about their prerogatives, I was spared the opportunity of testing that hypothesis. But we've had so little snow here this season, I won't be surprised if we get some even though I'm not driving.

Last night, Youngest Son said he was thinking about making the trip despite the dorm veto.

"There's about a 98% chance that they'd never even know I was there. The keys will work and there are no guards," he told me.

"That means there's also at least a 2% chance that they'd catch you and put you out on your ear."

"Yes," he admitted. "We'd have a problem then."


"You'd have to come pick me up."

"No," I said. "You'd just have a problem."

I laughed. He made a rude gesture. Fortunately, his mother didn't see it.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Curmudgeon outraged by apparent need to haggle -- about everything

Photo © Peter Morgan, 2013
When did American commerce adopt the manners and methods of a Third World bazaar?

There was a time -- I think -- when automobile dealers were the exception. Automobile dealers and, a generation ago, in Chicago, anywhere in the famous Maxwell Street Market and at Polk Brothers.

Nearly 30 years ago, shortly after we were married and bought our first house, my wife and I went into Polk Brothers shortly before closing. I'd been home long enough to grab a quick bite to eat and change out of my suit. My wife was dressed for painting and deep cleaning, which was how we occupied our time in those days. (One of the bedrooms in our then-new home was painted a bright orange; the kitchen was two different shades of green. We never could completely cover up the darker shade in the 14 years we lived there.)

Anyway, we walked into the Polk Brothers store (it was somewhere near the Maywood Racetrack as I recall) and the store was pretty much empty. The salesmen were hanging near the front door so they could scout, and pounce on, any likely prospects that drifted in.

We did not look like likely prospects apparently.

The old guys took one step back, leaving the youngest among them inadvertently out front. His colleagues pushed him toward us. Go, they were saying, you need the practice. To the more seasoned among them, we must have looked like bums -- or, worse, browsers. But we needed a stove, a washing machine and a refrigerator and we were prepared to buy.

We picked the items out in 10 minutes. We didn't haggle. In Polk Brothers, you were supposed to haggle. I didn't know that then. Besides: the prices were in line with what we were prepared to pay, the brands were reputable, the store would deliver, and I wanted to go home.

The other salesmen trailed along behind their junior colleague, just a few at first, but in increasing number and excitement as he whisked us from refrigerators to stoves to washing machines. There was an audible groan from the peanut gallery when I produced a credit card. Here's where it falls apart seemed to be the consensus; surely the card would be rejected. I think some of the senior salesmen may have begun rehearsing insincere words of comfort for their soon-to-be-disappointed junior.

The young salesman took our card and went somewhere to seek credit approval. He was gone for a long time. My wife and I felt ourselves increasingly under the scrutiny of the elders.

Of course, my memory may be playing tricks with me, or I might be inventing this for dramatic effect in the retelling of the story, but I think the kid's legs were wobbling slightly as he walked back to us, bearing our card in one hand and a sheaf of necessary papers in the other. We signed and signed and signed and the kid may have made more money in commission from this one transaction than the other salesmen had all day. Looking back, I can almost hear them muttering to each other: Damn Yuppies -- Oh, sure, you said they looked like browsers -- Can't you tell a serious customer when you see one? -- They're idiots! I would have given them 10% off....

But -- again -- I thought Polk Brothers was the exception, not the rule.

I thought the American rule was that the merchant set his or her price and the consumer decided whether to pay it or take his or her trade elsewhere. I thought this was called capitalism.

I've decried the spreading of Polk Brothers-ism into health care (Blue Cross gets one price from the hospital -- Unicare gets another -- and the person who comes in off the street with no insurance is billed the most of all) and higher education (try and find a college that will tell you, straight out, what it charges for tuition, room and board -- go ahead, try). But now I begin to believe that the exception has swallowed up the rule.

Yesterday, one of my wife's colleagues asked her whether she takes any newspapers.

"The Tribune. Why?" (No names are being changed here to spare anyone's feelings or avoid embarrassment. No way. Indeed, I'm hoping to inflict some.)

"How much do you pay?"

"I don't know," answered Long Suffering Spouse. "$400? Something like that, I think." (She was right. Like a lot our bills lately, we haven't actually paid this bill -- which is substantially increased over last year's charge -- but that is roughly the amount of my most recent bill from the Chicago Tribune.)

"Well, that's what we were billed, too. But then I found my neighbor was paying $132 for the same one-year subscription."


"Well, that's how I reacted, too. So I called them yesterday."

"You called the Tribune?"

"Yes," my wife's colleague said. "I told them I wanted to cancel my subscription. The price increase was just too much, I told them. Right away, they dropped the price to $200." (That would be less than the price the Tribune charged me last year.)

"What did you do?"

"I said 'no way.' I told them I knew my neighbor was paying $132."


"The Tribune gave me the same price." My wife's colleague was proud of herself.

I'm outraged. I love newspapers. I've subscribed to the Chicago Tribune for decades. I read the Chicago Sun-Times every day I take the train. Yes, I increasingly get news online, but I like newspapers. I want them to succeed. Or I did.

Look: Discounting your price cheapens your product and insults your loyal customers. If you can make a go of it for $132 a year, that's your price. If you can't, charge the price you need. But don't charge $400-a-year-or-whatever-we-can-negotiate.

Haggling rewards obnoxious behavior: The person who screams the loudest gets the best "deal." Is this the way we really want to live?

God, I hope not. Am I totally out of line here?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Trying to be fair: On the TSA cupcake controversy

It was such a tempting story: A woman flying home to Boston from Las Vegas just before Christmas had her cupcake confiscated at the Las Vegas airport. In the stated view of the TSA agent on the spot, the frosting could be confused with an explosive gel. Either that, or the cupcake looked too delicious to be allowed on the plane. This was just the sort of story that I'd blog about. In fact, I checked the archives this morning just to be sure I hadn't.

I admit: I don't much care for the TSA. The TSA, in my opinion, is an enormous boondoggle, providing an authoritarian illusion of security, at tremendous expense and great inconvenience to the traveling public. (This is a bi-partisan complaint: The Bush administration foisted the TSA on us in the panicked aftermath of 9/11. But the Obama administration has done nothing to dismantle it. You'd think a constitutional law professor, even a part-time one, would know better.)

Anyway, I'm certain that most of the men and women who work airport security for TSA are just ordinary people doing a job to support their families. And a lot them probably take a lot of crap for it, too, from the unfairly inconvenienced traveling public. It must be particularly difficult for well-intentioned, conscientious TSA agents, especially because some of their TSA colleagues really are officious, nasty little tin-pot dictators with delusions of godhead.

The abuses of this minority lead to the inevitable parade of TSA horror stories (such as don't touch my junk! or searching Granny's diaper or many more in the Popehat essays linked below).

However. I want to be fair.

When I thought of "cupcake" I envisioned the pastry shown on the left in the photograph above. The AP reports today (via Yahoo! News) that the TSA is defending the actions of its Las Vegas employee on the grounds that the actual cupcake in question was a "cupcake in a jar" like the one shown on the right.

I wouldn't have recognized that concoction as a cupcake. And, I suppose, something bad could arguably be concealed beneath attractive icing.

I went looking for some of the initial press coverage about this matter that I'd seen online last month. I didn't find it. I can state that the press coverage I saw left no doubt in my mind that the cupcake in question was the familiar one, not the in-a-jar variety. Looking this morning, however, I find that the surviving coverage of the incident correctly identifies the kind of cupcake involved.

Indeed, this January 2 report, for the online Salem Patch, includes an image of someone (I believe it may be Rebecca Hains herself) holding up an exemplar of the controversial cupcake-in-a-jar.

My search today even revealed the original source for the story, an understandably sarcastic first person account by the aforementioned Rebecca Hains, an assistant professor of communications at Salem State University in Salem, Massachusetts, that appeared December 22 on Boing Boing. As one might expect from one who instructs others in communication, it is quite clear from Professor Hains' account that it was the in-a-jar sort of cupcake that was confiscated from her in Vegas.

I can't imagine how subsequent news accounts might have confused the issue....

Oh wait -- of course I can -- it's a much better story if the reader believes a traditional cupcake was taken. Starkly black and white -- no shades of gray. No momentary confusion on the part of fuddy-duddies like me who've never heard of a cupcake-in-a-jar to temper our initial flares of outrage.

So, to be fair, the cupcake in question was not what many of us think of when envisioning a cupcake. Of course, the TSA gate agent who questioned the cupcake-in-a-jar because of suspicions about the frosting, could have and should have allayed his fears by simply looking at the jar, opening it, perhaps, or maybe inhaling the fragrance. If doubt remained, one imagines that these could surely have been satisfactorily resolved by taking Professor Hains up on her offer to gobble up the cupcake right there and then, under the watchful supervision of as many TSA agents as may have been reasonably necessary to protect the western world against this sugar-based potential threat to national security.

Oh, wait, is my fairness is slipping? No. I am satisfied that I've now been fair: The confiscation of the cupcake -- even the cupcake-in-a-jar is still stupid and offensive. In my opinion.

But it's an ill wind that blows no good.

Wicked Good Cupcakes of Cohasset, Massachusetts has reaped a publicity bonanza from the cupcake contretemps, inasmuch as it was the supplier of the contraband confection. In fact, Wicked Good Cupcakes has changed the name of its "National Velvet Cupcake" to "National (Security) Velvet." That's wicked good.

And so, too, are these Popehat posts (beware of strong language):
Remember what Ben Franklin said (circa 1755): "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."

Monday, January 09, 2012

Curmudgeon stealing signal while waiting for the Almighty Telephone Company

In this post on Thursday I ranted and raved about my Internet being out... then mysteriously coming back on. There was no change in the physical connections in the meantime (I connect, or I'm supposed to connect, to the outside world via wires).

You can guess what happened Friday from the absence of a post here, and you'd be right: I had no Internet again. This time, however, in my frustration, I did call the Almighty Telephone Company for assistance. I went on the Passage to India. I clicked what I was supposed to click. I read the information on the screen to the man on the other end of the wire. I didn't ask if he was in Mumbai. I often do -- I usually like to learn about the world -- but I just wasn't in the mood Friday.

I went into the equipment room while he tested our modem. The green lights were replaced momentarily with red ones. He could communicate with it. (Happy day!) But the IP addresses showing up on my computer were not the ones they were supposed to be. I disconnected from the firewall, at the request of my Almighty Telephone Company service representative, and plugged the wire from my office directly into the cable modem.

Still, no communication.

Finally, the lightbulb went on. I am not reaching the Internet at all via the wires I pay for. I am stealing a neighbor's signal. I have no idea whose signal I'm using; his -- and I'm using the male pronoun here for convenience and not because I have any idea whether I'm being gender-appropriate -- wireless network does not bear the name of any company in the building. I checked. And if I had a wireless network in my office, I wouldn't want it to bear my company name either, as at least some sort of security measure. Of course, happily for me, my neighbor's wireless security isn't as good as it might be. Once I figured out what was going on, I proved it: Sure enough, when I disabled wireless access, I no longer had the globe representing the Internet on my "Network and Sharing Center" screen.

I think what happened was this: My neighbor -- whichever one it is -- probably took some time off during the holidays and worked some irregular hours. He didn't have his wireless Internet on when he was wasn't in the office. On those occasions "my" service was irregular or nonexistent. I thought it was my equipment. But my equipment -- the stuff I'm paying for -- is apparently irrelevant to my service.

This makes me feel real secure about the confidentiality of my data, too, let me assure you.

My service representative told me he could dispatch a repair person who would arrive between 4:00 and 8:00pm. On a Friday. I said no.

He said he could send someone between 8:00 and 12:00 this morning. I said OK -- as long as this one shows up. The last time I had a repair person promised for Monday, he showed up on Wednesday.

So, I'm waiting here -- impatiently -- at the Undisclosed Location -- for the repairman. Stealing signal in the meantime.

This is completely unacceptable.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Curmudgeon not the retiring type?

There's a little scene from Darby O'Gill and the Little People that's been much on my mind of late.

Lord Fitzpatrick is bringing his new caretaker -- yes, that's a very young Sean Connery, so young I think that may actually be his own hair under that hat -- to the manor house when he runs into Darby's daughter:
Lord Fitzpatrick: That Katie's a grand girl. Almost makes up for her father.
Michael McBride: What ails him?
Lord Fitzpatrick: Oh nothin' at all, but he retired about five years ago and didn't tell me about it. He'll be down at the inn now tellin' stories.
I'm beginning to feel as if someone retired me and forgot to tell me about it.

The office rent is due today. I don't have it. I'll charge my malpractice insurance payment this month because I don't have that either. I have a stack of unpaid bills in my drawer here that would choke a horse. It isn't quite as bad as it looks -- but only because foolish creditors keep sending new bills every month, and they tend to pile up. It's bad enough.

I can't get paid on anything these days. My case load is down -- losing a few appeals in a row will do that for you -- and the stuff I've got left ranges between awful and impossible. I said in my post earlier today that I spent yesterday curled up in the fetal position hiding under a table.

That's a slight exaggeration. But only a slight one. I couldn't move -- I'm afraid to move. When nothing is going right, why do anything? My wife thinks I'm depressed. Depressed? If depression were a contact sport I'd be a mass of welts and bruises from head to toe.

Of course, I suppose, like Darby O'Gill, I'm sittin' here at the Inn[ternet] tellin' stories.

And now I've told this one.

And, so, back to work.

And people wonder why I'm technophobic: Curmudgeon's Internet goes down again

I stayed home yesterday, largely curled up in the fetal position, hiding under a table. But I'll come to that in my next post, possibly.

The point is this: When I left work Tuesday my Internet was functioning normally; when I arrived this morning, there was a teeny-tiny yellow triangle on the status bar telling me I was not connected to the Internet.

And, yes, we paid the bill. I'm pretty sure.

Well, I went into our little closet/storage-area/rats'-nest-of-wiring here at the Undisclosed Location and unplugged this and that and counted green lights and did all the normal things one does in order to make the little yellow triangle go away.

But it wouldn't.

I pulled up the Network and Internet section of the Control Panel on my desktop and, sure enough, there was a big red "X" across the line that goes from my "network" to the Internet. ("Network" is in quotes because I don't have one. There's just me and my machine. My office mate and I do not share a common server, just an Internet portal. But the machine apparently considers that a network, too. Does it really matter?)

There are wireless networks in other offices here at the Undisclosed Location, as you might expect, and some of these show up on the list of available networks that my computer says it can detect... but to which I can not connect.

(Poetry in the digital age.)

One of these has a rather euphonious appellation, and one I'd noticed before (on a prior occasion when I was forced to look).

I checked the physical connections in my office, plugged and unplugged, rebooted, and clicked around the troubleshooting menu in the Control Panel. Eventually, the machine said I was connected to the network with the pretty name -- though, of course, I wasn't actually connected to anything.

It was at this point that I decided to go for a walk. I told our tenant I was thinking of trying jump in the river, but I was afraid I'd miss. Such has been my luck of late.

I walked. I walked through the Pedway that connects the Daley Center and City Hall to the CTA Red and Blue Lines and winds around the basement level of the old Marshall Fields State Street store (now just a larger, older Macy's). The Pedway is at its widest around Macy's. There are alcoves set in the wall, too, each one occupied this morning by a sleeping homeless man. Another man was leaning against the wall, shouting some of the lyrics to the old Commodores' song, "Brick House." What he couldn't remember he made up. He didn't seem to be trying to sing.

Once I got around Macy's, the Pedway took me to Michigan Avenue and the Millennium Station. From there I could go up into a couple of office buildings or out onto lower Randolph, past a subterranean entrance to the Harris Theatre. I could do any of these things; I did all of them, searching in vain for the Pedway connection into Illinois Center, just south of the Chicago River on East Wacker Drive. I went topside for just long enough to enter 205 N. Michigan and wander into the Pedway tunnels there. I'm pretty sure there's a below-ground connection. It seems to me there are others, going even further east, that I couldn't find today.

Eventually, though, I went back to the Undisclosed Location. Back to my desk. Back to my computer. It still said it was connected to a network with a pretty name that I know nothing about. And, of course, I wasn't connected.

Our tenant encouraged me to call the Almighty Telephone Company (my current Internet provider) and see if they could help. Let's see... the last time I made this Passage to India, the Almighty Telephone Company promised faithfully to send out a repairman that day (Monday). I was working from home on the following Wednesday when our tenant called to tell me the promised-Monday-afternoon repairman had just showed up.

For some reason, I was not thrilled at the prospect of calling the Almighty Telephone Company.

But I'd stalled away the whole morning now, and I swallowed my bile and resolved to make the call. First, though, I thought I would try... just one last time... just one time out of the hundred times I'd already tried this morning... to launch the Internet.

If this really publishes, you'll know what happened: The darn thing started. The network map still has me routed (via a "switch") into the network with the pretty name. And I'd done nothing new -- nothing even recently -- to try and reestablish contact.

It did it by itself.



I know I should be happy. I need the stupid Internet to function. But... as a person trained to believe in reason and logic and cause and effect... you have to understand that this is driving me crazy.

OK, crazier.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

When do the holidays end? An unscientific survey

When do the Christmas holidays end?

I've been reliably informed that the Chicago radio station that was playing Christmas music 24/7 since early November switched back to whatever its regularly scheduled format is on the Feast of St. Stephen (December 26).

I'm back in the office today. I expect that the holiday decorations at City Hall and the County Building will be gone today. Last week I saw workmen dismantle the Christkindlmarket that had been set up in the Daley Center Plaza before Christmas.

The City of Chicago will begin accepting Christmas trees for mulching on Saturday, January 7. The Catholic Church marks the Feast of the Three Kings on Sunday, January 8. I used to think that was the official end of the holiday season -- but the Allstate BCS Championship Game won't be played until Monday, January 9. The Magi will be well on their way back to the mystic East by the time that game ends. But how can the holidays be over when there are still bowl games going on?

Our Christmas tree might come down this coming weekend -- but it might have to wait a week, depending on what else needs to be done. Long Suffering Spouse returns to her classroom this Thursday. But Younger Daughter doesn't head back to school until coming weekend. Youngest Son doesn't start his second semester until after the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day holiday on January 16. How can the holidays be over when the kids aren't yet back in school?

When he worked for the county, my friend Steve used to consider King Day as part of the holiday season. Indeed, since Cook County offices are closed twice in February (for Lincoln's Birthday and Presidents' Day) and then again on the first Monday in March (for Casimir Pulaski Day), Steve used to say the holidays lasted until then (just in time, he might sometimes add, for the start of Chicago's High Holy Days -- the many observances of the Feast of St. Patrick).

So I'm uncertain. I therefore open the floor up for discussion. When do the Christmas holidays end in your opinion? And (if different) when should they end?