Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The modern economy is nuts -- a case study

In the old days, a man wished to sell something. For the sake of argument, let's pretend it was apples.

In order for figure out what to charge, he had to calculate what it cost him to acquire the apples. Did he grow the apples on his own land or did he have to buy them? Either way, each apple cost him something -- say 10¢ apiece. In addition to the cost of his product, there would be some cost involved in selling. Does he rent a store or use a pushcart? Either costs something. In the real world, there'd be insurance and utilities and, perhaps, advertising. Let's say this adds amounts to another 10¢ per apple. Now our man wants to earn enough from his apple sales that he can buy food and pay his rent or mortgage, his auto, home and life insurance, his charge card bills, his income tax, his property tax -- all that kind of stuff.

We're pretending this hypothetical apple vendor was making these calculations back in the good old days, so let's pretend the old days were very good indeed: Let's pretend that, if he could sell his apples for 25¢ apiece, he'd meet his bills.

So we'd not be overly surprised if he offered his apples for sale to the public at 25¢ apiece.

But fast forward now to the idiotic present.

Apples still cost something and there's still overhead and these are identifiable, readily calculable numbers. Using dollar values from the good old days adjusted for inflation maybe these costs are still 20¢ apiece. But it costs so much more to live these days -- to meet his obligations, he needs to average 30¢ profit per apple.

But he doesn't stick a sign in the apples that says 50¢. Oh, no. That's way too old-fashioned.

His sign says $2.50 per apple. Incredulous customers approach.

"$2.50?" says the first. "That's robbery. I won't pay more than a dollar."

"A dollar? The shine on these apples is by itself worth more than a dollar. I can't part with any apple for less than $2."

"$1.50, then."


The second customer (who didn't show up until the first negotiation was ended) settles for $1.37.

A third customer (who didn't hear either of the other two transactions) agrees to $2.

The apple vendor is rubbing his hands with glee; at this rate he will soon hit his target profit on the entire crop and he has lots more apples to sell.

But this only works while our vendor has no competition -- or until the vendor's customers compare notes at the local Starbucks.

The Chicago Tribune has been in bankruptcy for some time now. The biggest reason for this is that the economy crashed after Sam Zell overpaid for the business, using borrowed money, and the ad revenues he was counting on to pay off the debt dried up when the Great Recession hit. But another reason for the Tribune's woes is that the newspaper would send outrageous renewal bills to long-standing customers, like the apple vendor asking for $2.50 for a 50¢ apple. Some people paid; these are called "suckers." Other people would complain; they'd haggle for a price, like people do now every day for cars, refrigerators and furniture. Some haggle better than others. Others -- like me -- finally figured this out and refused to pay anything.

But where in our economy does anything have a real price? A couple of weeks ago I saw a story on the news about the "best" days to buy different things. It's best to go to the hardware store or auto dealer on Monday; it's best to buy gas midweek. Technology allows prices to fluctuate so easily these days; no one has to go around putting new stickers on all the inventory. Hospitals have one price for Blue Cross, another for Unicare, and another, much higher, price for the uninsured. Medicare or Medicaid, who will eventually pick up the tab, pays only pennies on every dollar billed to the uninsured person. Thus, it behooves the hospital to bill an outrageous amount to the uninsured -- far more than it bills the person with the Blue Cross policy -- because Medicaid will eventually pay far less than Blue Cross will.

(When your head stops spinning, plunge on.)

Recently, I was contacted by an insurance company to handle some defense business. I suggested an hourly rate; the insurance company suggested a lower one. I grabbed at it.

But there was a catch. I had to register with some third party -- I won't name it, but it is a subsidiary of a company whose name rhymes with "Hexes." This outfit wedges itself between attorney and client and intercepts all communications back and forth -- including, of course, fee bills. This is all in the name of "cost containment." This third party approves the bills -- so they have an incentive (at least) to cut attorney bills before "approving" them. Otherwise, what have they contributed to the process?

In the 1990s I ran across similar packs of legal locusts. They'd descend on your files, matching billing entries to letters and motions, seeing if the costs were "justified." They got paid a percentage of what they "saved" for the insurer-client -- that is, a percentage of what they cut from the lawyers' fee bills. Of course, this only encouraged padding -- if you know someone is going to cut you no matter what you'd better offer up something worth cutting, so that you'd be left with at least as much as you should have gotten in the first place.

In other words, these parasites might have saved money the first time through, but after that they were inadvertently causing at least as much bill inflation as they were detecting.

And the whole idea is stupid when comparing time spent to length of documents. Quantity does not equal quantity. Edward Everett spoke at the Gettysburg Cemetery dedication for over two hours; Lincoln spoke for only two minutes. Whose speech is remembered today?

When asked to give a talk, my father always asked how long he'd be expected to speak: Assuming his familiarity with the topic, he could speak extemporaneously for an hour or even two. But if the event planners wanted him to speak for only 15 minutes, preparation time became a very real consideration. It was the short speech that took longer to prepare.

A two page motion may be tossed off in 10 minutes -- but it may take a full day, too. Yes, I know it's the hoariest lawyer cliche, but sometimes it really does depend.

But the people looking at a file for the first time, even though trained as lawyers and licensed in some jurisdiction, really had no way of discerning (except, of course, for the extreme examples).

You'd think that insurers would have caught on to this by now -- and maybe they have. I guess I'll find out if and when I get my first bill paid by this new client.

My first bill to the client is more than 30 days old. Although I registered as requested -- a half day of my life I'll never get back -- the client says it still can not "see" me in this wonderful system. The young lady with whom I've been dealing at this third party said this was because, even though I'd done everything I was supposed to do the first time through, I now needed to make a different fee offer on a different screen. (She admitted that the offer I agreed to make is there, but she says I need to put it somewhere else, too.) But the screen she to which she directed me was one for making a "flat fee" offer -- which is not what I've offered to do.

When I was done -- or thought I was done -- registering with this third party, there was some mention of $275. I honestly thought the third party was sending me $275 to compensate me for my time spent negotiating their turgid, stilted screens. I was pleasantly surprised; I had figured that I would just have to absorb this downtime in the hopes of someday expanding my business.

But in my exhaustion, it appears that I misunderstood: I received an email Friday suggesting that I owe them $275 for the privilege of registering for this system that is presumably designed to pick my pocket -- a registration that is, moreover, and for no obvious reason, still incomplete.

Why do I think that this third party is the only one who is going to make out well on this relationship between me and my new client? It's as if a third party interposes himself between our hypothetical apple vendor and each prospective buyer. He takes a percentage of every sales price and a bite from every apple, just for good measure -- and he thrives in the modern economy.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Green economy? Let's start at the beginning -- with diapers

I took the day off today. As I sit in the den, blogging away, Long Suffering Spouse is in the next room making baby things, blankets and bibs and such.

Now, as you might understand, I haven't been in the market for baby stuff for, oh, 16 years or so.

And, gosh, things have changed.

Younger Daughter is going to go with cloth diapers, just as we did with all our kids. (We weren't zealots. We used paper on occasion -- when traveling, not that we did that often, or when visiting someone else's house. But, by using mostly cloth diapers with our five kids, we must have spared the local landfills from tens of thousands -- maybe a hundred thousand -- paper diapers. Looking back, I think we had days where we must have changed diapers a hundred thousand times.)

There weren't that many cloth diaper users in our time; there appear to be far fewer now.

We used cloth diapers with pins. (Children learn to fear you when you've got pins.)

Pins haven't actually been banned yet (although New York is probably considering it) but they seem to be in great disfavor.

Velcro is in vogue these days as the fastening mode -- but, having changed my share of diapers back in the day, I can't see why. Trying to be delicate here... there's a strong chance that the Velcro fasteners will get, um, icky, on occasion.

And, in our day, when we needed to get a new pair or new size of plastic pants, there were plenty to be had at the grocery.

But not anymore.

Younger Daughter and Long Suffering Spouse have found some browsing online -- but they're pretty darned expensive, I'm told.

People talk a lot these days about climate change and green economies and conservation and all that good stuff -- but they clog landfills with "paper" diapers, which (of course) aren't made of paper at all.

According to this EPA website, "biodegradable diapers" will decompose in a year -- but your standard "disposable" diapers will take 450 years to finally break down. (You'll quickly find other sites online that say that paper diapers will never fully decompose because of the plastic coating.)

If anyone were serious about greening the economy, wouldn't diapers be a good place to start?

Friday, July 27, 2012

Curmudgeon can't get too worked up about the Olympics

Sorry, NBC. It's the television coverage I can't stand.

Every footrace, every lap around the pool, every tumble on the mat is so freighted down with treacly "up close and personal" profiles of this athlete I've never heard of or that athlete I've never heard of, that by the time they actually show a race or a routine I'm generally in a diabetic coma.

I even understand why the networks lather on all this schmaltz (ABC used to do it, too; I remember): Track meets take forever. There's a lot of waiting around while the next race gets set up. Then there's a minute of action, or six minutes or whatever, during the actual race... and we all start waiting around again.

Fact is, in some events, we'd be bored before the track clears. People can be interested in who finishes first and second -- but no one really cares about the guy who comes in last. And they still have to wait until he's done before they can even start lining up for the next event.

And if they just taped the actual events and ran them one after another, what would they do in the second hour of coverage?

My less-than-enthusiastic attitude is really not sour grapes.

I don't think I was ever more than lukewarm about the idea of the Olympics coming to Chicago in 2016 (as I said in the linked October 2009 post, on the day the next Olympics were awarded to Rio instead of Chicago).

Even if the games had been awarded to Chicago, I'd still not be interested in the events. The IOC cut baseball as a sport. That's too bad; I'd probably have watched baseball games. But I'm really not interested in track and field. I can't swim. I feel like a dirty old man watching the women's gymnastics. And basketball? I don't much care for the NBA and I'd probably root against the multimillionaires on the American team.

But if Chicago had been awarded the games for 2016 I would be more interested in the logistics of the London Olympiad.

At left is the first logo we had here when Daley II decided to try for the 2016 Olympic Games.  It was a pretty neat logo -- the flame the torch resembled -- maybe evoked is a better term -- our distinctive skyline.

But, it turns out, using a torch-shaped logo was a bad idea.

The IOC thought that was a trademark violation or something.

So we were obliged to come up with a different logo, like the one below and to the right.

The six-pointed star is shaped like one of the four stars in the Chicago flag.  The Olympics, had they come to Chicago, would have been accorded a fifth star.

And the gravy train would have been running full-tilt throttle.  Imagine the boodle bags that would have been filled, the shady deals that would have been consummated.  To a life-long Chicago, the real sport would have been to watch the well-connected racing to find new ways to profit from the games.

The U.S. Attorney's office here would have had to add on a third shift just to keep up with all the indictments.

But that's not logistics.  I'd be interested in where would all the visitors be housed?  The City of Chicago had a plan for the Olympic Village.  But even our abundant stock of hotel rooms would be insufficient to house the athletes' friends and families, the world press, the fans, and all the other hangers-on that the Olympics might have attracted.

Could we have hoped to get to and from work with the Olympics in town?  Would there be any business to be done, other than restaurants and retail?  What additional security arrangements would have to be made?  (Some of the Olympic venues were planned for areas that are -- today -- shooting galleries for gangbangers.)

If Chicago had been awarded the Olympics, I might be watching the London games, trying to see if I could pick up clues or hints or tips for surviving the onslaught four years' hence.  But I still wouldn't be interested in the events.

But, for better or for worse, the next Olympics will be Rio's problem, not Chicago's.  So I've no incentive to watch these Olympics at all.  But I hope things go well for London residents.

Will you be watching the Olympics?  Why?

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Curmudgeon learns a practical lesson about the DCMA

I got my first takedown notice this week from Blogger -- and when Blogger says take something down, it isn't a suggestion.

Blogger's email said that it had taken my post, "You thought ants were bad at a picnic?" and reset the post to "draft" status.

This was not a random intrusion. Blogger said it had been "notified, according to the terms of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), that certain content in your blog is alleged to infringe upon the copyrights of others."

The words in the offending post are mine, all mine -- but when I'd finished writing it, I went looking online for a picture with which to illustrate the piece. To break up the monotony of mere words. To bring visitors into the tent, as it were.

Using Google Images and searching under the term "brown ants," I found a very interesting picture in a September 23, 2008 post on Myremecos, a blog by Alex Wild. I grabbed the picture and used it.

In the last few months, that post became one of the most popular on this site. I'd like to think that the my prose attracted readers -- but, deep down, I know it was the photo. And though I'd also like to think that that everyone who clicked in because of the image stayed to read the prose, and then bookmarked Second Effort (or added it to their "reader" or whatever it is that people are supposed to do), I'd also like to think that unicorns exist and there really is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Seven years of blogging in obscurity, however, suggests otherwise.

In my vanity (or misplaced optimism) I hoped that some -- a few? -- one, maybe? -- new readers might decide to return after they'd checked out the cool photo that first roped them in.

If that amounts to exploitation, that was the extent to which I was attempting to exploit Mr. Wild's copyrighted photograph.

But Mr. Wild looked at the matter differently. He sells images like the one I'd grabbed and used. (Mr. Wild's site for this purpose is called Alex Wild Photography).

Anyway, I republished the post -- after taking the photograph out -- but then I wrote Mr. Wild to explain what I'd done and why I'd done it -- and to ask, belatedly, if I might use the picture with his permission.

Because it really is a pretty neat picture.

Mr. Wild was very gracious and granted permission, and the picture is back with the post -- now with a link to his photography site. The problem, he explained (and I'm paraphrasing here), was not my use, as such, but the fact that he sells some of these images to persons such as those in the pest control business. An exterminator might pay Mr. Wild for a cool picture of swarming ants to attract customers for his business. But a less scrupulous pest control business might grab and use the unattributed photo (Mr. Wild's copyrighted photo) from my site. And you can imagine how upset one of Mr. Wild's customers might be if a picture he paid for showed up in a competitor's website or brochure. My failure to provide attribution unintentionally diluted Mr. Wild's copyright. The balance has now been restored (although now I'm worried about the cool bug photos in this post....)

I try to be a good citizen on the Internet (netizen?) -- when I use someone else's article substantively I always give a link back (I like to identify the author of the article as well) -- and I'm careful about giving credit where credit is due when I grab cartoons as well.

But I've been sloppy about providing attribution for photographs that I've pulled just to illustrate a post and break up the page. I'd like to think my prose can stand on its own -- but I also want this page to be attractive to people skipping around the web. I will try and do better henceforth.

(And if you're the owner of the copyright on a photo that I've already used without attribution that might mess with your business, please send me an email. I'll remove the photo or provide attribution. Honest.)

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Jim Thorpe and more on the dangers of rewriting history to suit any agenda other than accuracy

In its July-August issue, Smithsonian Magazine carries an article by Sally Jenkins, "The All-American."

The title of the linked on-line article is better: "Why Are Jim Thorpe’s Olympic Records Still Not Recognized?"

It's a darn good question -- and there's no good answer.

Jim Thorpe, a member of the Sac and Fox Indian tribe from Oklahoma, won the decathlon and pentathlon at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm. According to legend, when Thorpe received his gold medals, Swedish King Gustav V said, "You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world" -- and Thorpe replied, "Thanks, King." It was a pitch-perfect all-American we're-not-impressed-with-all-the-kings-and-crowns-in-the-world response. Wikipedia notes that Thorpe got a ticker-tape parade in New York on his return from the Olympics.

But Thorpe was not just a track and field athlete. He played professional football for the Canton Bulldogs before and after the formation of the National Football League in 1920. He played for a number of teams in the infant NFL, ending his playing career with the Chicago Cardinals after the 1928 season. He played his college football for the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, which wasn't really a college at all, but a Pennsylvania boarding school designed to "civilize" American Indians.

Yes, that was a thoroughly racist attitude. But the Carlisle Indians, coached by Glenn "Pop" Warner, played a major college football schedule and, for a time, led by stars like Jim Thorpe, so thoroughly dominated that sport (and sports generally) that, even today, athletic teams from grammar school through the professional ranks have names like "Indians," "Braves," or even "Redskins." The ignorant protests of the politically correct crowd (including, of course, the NCAA) that these team nicknames are racist slurs are simply wrong. Teams name themselves for other teams or qualities they admire, that they wish to emulate -- and early in the 20th Century, most athletes (of any ancestry) wanted to emulate the skill and success of Jim Thorpe and the Carlise Indians.

Thope also played major league baseball from 1913 until 1919. Indeed, it was baseball that cost Thorpe his gold medals. It seems that in 1909 and 1910, Thorpe -- like a whole lot of college kids -- played semi-pro baseball to earn pocket money during the summer. Most of the kids used aliases. Apparently, Thorpe did not.

In 1913, when word got out that Thorpe had made a few pennies from baseball, the IOC stripped Thorpe of his medals and rewrote the record books to edit out Thorpe's dominating performances. How dominating? Thorpe's time in the 1,500 meter run, the last decathlon event, was not beaten until 1972. And Thorpe ran the race in mismatched shoes (someone had walked off with his shoes early in the competition). Jenkins' Smithsonian article quotes Olympic historian bill Mallon, a co-founder of the International Society of Olympic Historians, as saying he believes Thorpe's 1912 performances establish him as "the greatest athlete of all time."

Thorpe was discredited because he was not a "pure" amateur. Times changed. LeBron James will be playing basketball for Team USA in London any day now. Jenkins' Smithsonian article notes that, in 1982, the IOC, ostensibly bowing to public pressure,
delivered two replica medals to [Thorpe's] family, announcing, “The name of James Thorpe will be added to the list of athletes who were crowned Olympic champions at the 1912 Games.” What’s less commonly known is that the IOC appended this small, mean sentence: “However, the official report for these Games will not be modified.”
But, of course, the records already had been modified. In 1913. They've not been put right yet.

I understand that you may not be as excited about this as I am. You may say this is only sports. It is therefore trivial. Who cares if records -- whether Thorpe's times or Penn State's football victories -- are blotted out according to the whims and fashions of the day?

If you accept the premise that we can rewrite the past to suit current needs and requirements (at least of the persons wielding the erasers), why can't the past be rewritten in other areas as well? Henry Ford supposedly said "history is bunk." George Orwell knew better.

We'd better know better too.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Is the NCAA's new slogan, "History is bunk?"

I'm deeply conflicted concerning the sanctions imposed on Penn State in the aftermath of the Sandusky coverup.

The NCAA has hit Penn State with a $60 million fine, a four-year bowl ban, and slashed the number of football scholarships from 25 to 15 (also for four years).

The bowl ban and the scholarship cuts hurt the kids who signed up to play football at the school in good faith -- and the current players, at least, are wholly innocent in any coverup of Jerry Sandusky's pedophilia. I was somewhat mollified by reports that current players would be allowed to transfer to other schools without having to sit out a year or any of the other interference that universities and the NCAA typically impose on their "student-athletes."

Still, I'm not certain that any of this is a good idea. Joe Paterno is dead. His statue has been removed, his cult disgraced. Graham Spanier, the university president that allegedly signed off on the decision to keep Sandusky's crimes quiet, has been fired. Former Athletic Director Tim Curley and former university Vice President Gary Schultz are under criminal indictment for perjury on account of their roles in the coverup. The university is going to get hammered -- and rightly so! -- in the civil suits that Sandusky's victims will file (some are already pending). I suppose the NCAA was motivated, at least in part, by the persistent denial that seems to reign in the Penn State community still -- as if Sandusky's real crime was tarnishing St. JoPa's legacy.

That's just sickening.

What Paterno and the other university bigwigs did was in many ways similar to what Catholic bishops did for many years in covering up the crimes of pedophile priests (often transferring the perverts from parish to parish, with no warning to the parishioners). Like the bishops, the Penn State administration -- Paterno included -- put the "image" of an inanimate institution ahead of the safety of living and imperiled children.

In both cases, by trying to protect the "image" of the church (on the one hand) or the football program (on the other), the persons responsible for the coverups did far greater damage to their respective institutions than exposure of a pervert ever would have done.

In one way the Penn State administrators were even worse than the bishops: By 2001, when Sandusky's crimes should have been apparent, the bishops' failings had become national news -- and a national scandal. In 2002, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops would adopt a charter for the protection of children that included a "one strike and you're out" policy for pedophile priests and removed all discretion from the hierarchy concerning the notification of criminal authorities when child abuse was suspected (the Dallas Charter).

So, while I think the NCAA did not have to punish Penn State further, I suppose I can understand that some meat had to be thrown to the mobs howling for further punishment.

But there is one aspect of the NCAA's sanction that I can not, and will not, abide: The NCAA has decided to "vacate" all of Penn State's football victories from 1998 on -- 111 or 112 wins or whatever the correct number is.

That's Orwellian.

And it's typical of the NCAA. As someone pointed out to me yesterday afternoon, in light of recent NCAA sanctions against Ohio State, a 2010 game between Penn State and Ohio State now (officially) never happened.

Oh, puh-leeze.

The NCAA does this to basketball teams, too. As Wikipedia notes, John Calipari "is the only coach to direct three different colleges to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, although two of those appearances (1996 at UMass and 2008 at Memphis) have been officially vacated by the NCAA. Calipari is also one of only two coaches to direct three different schools to a Final Four (1996- UMass[;] 2008- Memphis[;] 2011, 2012- Kentucky), with the UMass and Memphis appearances later being vacated by the NCAA. As a result, he is the only head coach to have a Final Four appearance vacated at more than one school, although Calipari himself was not personally implicated by the NCAA in either case." Calipari's current position, and indeed his entire fame and fortune, depends on achievements that, according to the NCAA, never happened. Mind you, I'm no apologist for Calipari.

But the games were played. It is foolish and stupid to pretend otherwise. This decision, at least, should be reversed -- and not just for Penn State. For Ohio State and Memphis and the University of Massachusetts and all the other victims of NCAA doublethink.

This bad decision by the NCAA, however, sets the stage for another post that should shortly appear here -- concerning the IOC's decision to rewrite the outcome of the 1912 Olympic pentathlon, an injustice done to perhaps the greatest American athlete of all time. Yes, even the Curmudgeon gives in -- temporarily -- to Olympic fever: Stay tuned.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Curmudgeon wants more outrage over Colorado shooting spree

We all awoke this morning to the horrific news that some idiot opened fire in Aurora, Colorado at a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises, the latest Batman movie.

The death toll appears to be 12 now, down from 14 in the reports I heard earlier, but several of the 50 or so that were wounded appear to have critical wounds; the death toll may yet rise.

Youngest Son was at a midnight showing of the The Dark Knight in suburban Chicago. Maybe that's what makes me so cranky.

But I took a look at the President's press release about the event this morning:
Michelle and I are shocked and saddened by the horrific and tragic shooting in Colorado. Federal and local law enforcement are still responding, and my Administration will do everything that we can to support the people of Aurora in this extraordinarily difficult time. We are committed to bringing whoever was responsible to justice, ensuring the safety of our people, and caring for those who have been wounded. As we do when confronted by moments of darkness and challenge, we must now come together as one American family. All of us must have the people of Aurora in our thoughts and prayers as they confront the loss of family, friends, and neighbors, and we must stand together with them in the challenging hours and days to come.
And then I took a look at Governor Romney's press release:
“Ann and I are deeply saddened by the news of the senseless violence that took the lives of 15 people in Colorado and injured dozens more. We are praying for the families and loved ones of the victims during this time of deep shock and immense grief. We expect that the person responsible for this terrible crime will be quickly brought to justice.”
"Shocked and saddened." "Deeply saddened." "Thoughts and prayers." "We are praying for the families."

These are certainly appropriate sentiments.

But they are not enough.

Good God, what kind of a country do we live in where kids can't go out to a stupid comic book movie without running the risk of getting shot up?

I'm not talking about the sick, twisted bastard that brought an AK-47, a shotgun, a pistol and some sort of gas dispersal device into a movie theater. They caught that mope (he apparently left his apartment booby-trapped, too).

I'm talking about the rest of us. Doesn't anyone pay attention to anything?

Hello? Didn't anybody think twice when someone walks into a public place with all that firepower? (I'm guessing it was concealed, somehow. So he's walking in with a steamer trunk or a giant duffle. I can't bring a can of pop from my house into the theater -- it'll be confiscated immediately, because they want me to spend money on concessions -- you mean no one questioned whatever this guy brought into the building?)

For that matter, how does someone sink so low that they'll try and reinvent themselves as a Batman super-villain by shooting up a movie show without someone around him noticing? The President wants to 'ensure the safety of our people.' Hey, I know! Let's pass a law against shooting people in theaters! I know all the usual suspects will be on the evening news tonight braying about how this terrible event shows the need for stricter gun controls. But gun control is a joke -- a dangerous, potentially lethal joke. Chicago has had a virtual ban on guns for decades -- and we have a body count every weekend that routinely beats anything in Kabul or Baghdad, where babies have pistols in their bassinets.

Every time some lunatic shoots up a public place, the neighbors are interviewed and they all say the same things: "He was a quiet young man." "Kept to himself." "We had no idea." What they're really saying is that they never looked at the dope, much less looked out for him.

The first and best protector of your safety is you. I'm not talking about the idiots who complain to airline flight crews that a couple of fellow passengers have swarthy complexions and are speaking a funny language. But when someone is genuinely acting odd, what's the harm in going to the manager or the policeman on the corner and asking if he or she notices anything strange? If I were writing the candidates' press releases, I mention that. I'd also point out that -- while we don't know yet about the shooter's mental state and we can't prejudge the facts -- horrific events like this remind us of the critical failures of our mental health system and the need to get people help before we get people hurt.

Feeling a little gloomy on Moon Day

I'm putting up the post that I put up today on The Blog of Days here too. I hope you make visiting The Blog of Days a regular part of your online experience -- there's something new there every single day -- and (unlike this blog) the entries over there tend to be much shorter.

It was on this day, 43 years ago, that a human being first left footprints on a heavenly body other than Earth. Thus, today is Moon Day.

I'm just finding it hard to celebrate. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are old men now -- not yet as old as John Glenn (I hope you did celebrate his birthday this week) but it's 40 years and counting since anyone has been to the Moon. Here's the complete list (complete with links to Wikipedia entries on each astronaut and mission):

Name Mission EVA dates
1 Neil Armstrong Apollo 11 July 20, 1969
2 Buzz Aldrin
3 Pete Conrad Apollo 12 November 19-20, 1969
4 Alan Bean
5 Alan Shepard Apollo 14 February 5-6, 1971
6 Edgar Mitchell
7 David Scott Apollo 15 July 31–August 2, 1971
8 James Irwin
9 John W. Young Apollo 16 April 21-23, 1972
10 Charles Duke
11 Eugene Cernan Apollo 17 December 11-14, 1972
12 Harrison Schmitt

In all the years since, we've flown no higher than the International Space Station. Yes, it is a remarkable achievement to build even a small outpost that's technically in Outer Space -- but the ISS is in Low Earth Orbit -- it's just camping in Earth's backyard compared to the wonders that lie before us.

You probably didn't know this, but a new crew just arrived on the Space Station -- launched from Kazakhstan on July 14. Yes, the new crew includes one American, CAPT Sunita L. Williams, U.S.N. Williams flew to the Space Station from Russia because we have no operational manned spacecraft in the United States today.

Today. Moon Day.

What went wrong?

OK, that's the end of today's Blog of Days post... but I wanted to give Second Effort Readers something extra... even if, this morning, it's not original.

I saw this cartoon on Zach Weiner's Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal a week or so ago. Substitute "manned space program" for "large particle colliders" and you'll have a pretty good idea of what I wish I could say to all those people who say "we have to solve our problems on Earth first before we venture into space...."

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Curmudgeon won't take sides in the looming Chicago school strike... however....

Maybe this isn't national news yet, but it will be: Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Teachers Union seem to be careening headlong toward a strike this fall.

The issues are familiar: The teachers want more money, smaller class sizes and job security. And they don't want to go along with the Mayor's plan to keep the kids in school longer each day (he's backed down from his original proposal of 7½ hours, to a 7 hour day).

Cynics might charge that the longer the kids are in school, the less time they have to be shot at in the streets.

I'm pretty sure our rising murder statistics have made the national news -- basically, the street gangs in certain areas of our fair city are at war with each other. While they don't always succeed in killing each other, they too often succeed in killing or wounding bystanders.

Of course, there are some areas of the City where some accommodation with the local gang culture (if not outright membership) is pretty much required. And there's a deeply ingrained "no snitching" concept that (as you might expect) makes police work so much more challenging. If it weren't for the unseemly mortality rate among persons willing to testify against gang members, it might be easy to criticize that "no snitching" concept....

But this is an essay about Chicago schools, not about (far too many) Chicago students.

Suffice it to say that the teachers believe that, in addition to a raise, the teachers should receive an increase in salary to cover the lengthening of the school day. On a superficial level, of course, this makes sense: If persons ordinarily work on the assembly line at the widget factory for six hours a day, and Mr. Simon Legree, the factory owner, decides that everyone must work eight hours instead, then, logically, the employees should receive extra compensation commensurate with the longer workday.

The Chicago Public Schools would lengthen the school day to seven hours (in recent years, many Chicago kids attended school for only five hours and 45 minutes). But the analogy to the assembly line at the widget factory simply does not hold -- as the teachers themselves argued! Quoting now, from pp. 36-37 of the fact finders' report (footnotes omitted):
The Union attacks any implication that CPS teachers have short work days, citing a study conducted by University of Illinois Professors Robert Bruno and Steven Ashby, Beyond the Classroom, An Analysis of a Chicago Public School Teacher’s Actual Workday (April 9, 2012), which concluded:
Results from this survey revealed that claims that teachers are working “too short a day” are unwarranted at best and intellectually dishonest at worst. The following are some key findings:
  • Teachers on average work 58 hours per week during the school year.
  • The work of a teacher happens before, during, and after the school bell rings.
  • Teachers on average work a 10 hour and 48 minute standard school day.
  • Teachers are at school an average of almost nine hours per day even though elementary students attend school for 5 hours and 45 minutes and high school students for 6 hours and 45 minutes.
  • A typical teacher spends almost 2 hours more working at home in the evening.
  • Teachers carve out another 3 hours and 45 minutes to do school-related work each weekend.
  • A teacher’s role goes beyond merely instructing in the classroom. Teachers spend just over 3 hours each day performing non-teaching related activities.
  • Teachers also spend an average of 12 days during summer break doing at least one school-related activity.
  • Teachers average 30 hours of professional development training while the school year is not in session.
But would a teacher's already-long workday really get longer because the kids are in the building (and off the streets) for an extra hour? That is by no means obvious, even if the fact-finder seems to have assumed it. And how much longer? Minute for minute, like the poor slob on the assembly line at Mr. Legree's widget factory? (That's the way the fact-finder calculated what CPS should pay as a raise -- even though he readily acknowledged that the money for such an increase doesn't exist.)

Of course, it doesn't really matter. The City rejected the report almost instantaneously, Mayor Emanuel offering his 'thanks' to Mr. Benn in the same tone of voice that one might 'thank' the IRS for demanding an audit. Not to be outdone, the Chicago Teachers' Union unanimously rejected the report as well.

Mr. Benn was certainly right about the "toxic" relationship between the parties.

But Long Suffering Spouse is happy.

Long Suffering Spouse is a teacher in the Chicago Catholic schools. Barring a miracle, she will never get paid what a kid straight out of teacher's college gets from CPS right now ($54,000). But the compensation is not what she's thinking about.

My wife is thinking about her own job security. Catholic schools are getting very expensive -- a family that undertakes to send their children to a Catholic school is making a major sacrifice. If the local public schools are even arguably competitive, it is very difficult to justify that sacrifice.

On the other hand, with the prospect of a public school strike this year, a possible attempt to break the union, labor strife for years to come... well, Mr. and Mrs. Bungalow Belt will be more willing to bite that big bullet and pay the Catholic school tuition after all. The CTU says it is concerned about job security -- and it is providing some... for my wife.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Why Curmudgeon does not like real estate closings -- Part II -- a case study

We owe you some money, but we don't know how much. Could you tell us, please, and we'll cut you a check?

How would you respond to such a question?

OK, how would you respond to such a question after someone splashed cold water on your face and picked you up off the floor?

Yet this is a question that mortgage holders face every day.

It is a fact that most of the houses that are sold have mortgages on them at the time of sale. The selling homeowners have not owned the house long enough to pay it off or, perhaps, back in the good old days of home equity loans (back in the good old days when homes had equity), they squeezed a few thousands out for a second mortgage. Maybe more than a few.

Now, when these folks go to sell, the new buyer -- and his lender -- need to make certain that, not only does the old owner move out, the old mortgages are released as well.

The existing mortgages have to be paid off.

So something very much like the question at the top of this post is asked. Someone at the bank pushes a couple of buttons on a computer and a number appears. The number is inserted in a form letter with a per diem amount of interest owed for every day until payment is received.

But the sellers' bank at my third closing last Friday did not issue such a letter. The sellers' attorney could not have been more apologetic. He was, in fact, the very picture of frustration, frequently excusing himself from the closing table to try and get an answer from his clients' bank. Apparently, the sellers' bank had only acquired this loan about two weeks before the closing (even after the collapse, mortgages are still being bought and sold with distressing frequency); perhaps they did not yet even know how much they were owed, he suggested... but that struck me as either odd... or insane.

Because of the goofy position taken by his clients' bank, the sellers' lawyer had drawn up a pre-closing occupancy agreement. By its terms, my client would be able to move in that day, rent free, assuming only the risk of loss to the premises upon taking possession. It was a fair agreement, even if it did contain a proviso allowing the sellers their attorneys fees and costs in the (extraordinarily unlikely) event that the sale fell through completely and they had to seek court assistance to evict my client.

My client -- a divorced school teacher, accompanied by her older sister -- had her worldly goods packed in a truck parked nearby. The second closing I'd had that day had been the sale of her house to a nice young couple with a couple of kids. They were moving in right away, of course; she had no place to go back to. And she'd promised the truck back by 6:00am Saturday.

My lady went through tissue after tissue, alternatively weeping and getting angry as I explained to her that the proposal was fine, under the circumstances, but that we could not accept it unless or until her bank approved it. She was eventually reassured by her sister that this was a reasonable proposal.

Now her bank had only just approved her financing -- and by "just approved" I mean sometime that morning. (Apparently closings these days are scheduled on wishes and hopes; no one's really sure the money will be there for the closing until the wire hits the title company.) Anyway, the loan and the rate were locked until August 6 -- meaning my client could have scheduled her closing at any time during that period and been able to count on this money. Supposedly.

Thus one might think that the bank would cheerfully acquiesce in a "dry" closing for a week or two -- or even to August 6 -- because it had committed money for this purpose during that entire interval.

One might think that... if one were rational and knows nothing about how horrible, rotten, and idiotic our too-big-to-fail banks have become. "Oh sure," the lender told our closer, "we can approve a dry closing. Until Monday. After that, we have to pull our package and reconsider."

Monday? It's Friday afternoon! The sellers' lender hasn't been able to produce a payoff letter in a week; what makes anyone think they'll do so now within a single business day?

My client and her sister moved to a different room where she could cry harder.

Here was a nifty variation on the collision between the irresistible force and the immovable object -- the irresistible incompetence of the sellers' lender and the immovable stupidity of the buyers' lender. We asked the closer to talk to the lender again -- perhaps someone could be found on the other end of the telephone with at least the intelligence of an amoeba. It really wouldn't take a brain surgeon to puzzle out what needed to be done. Meanwhile, the sellers' attorney got back on his cell phone.

I sat with the Realtors. They'd begun to sense that they might not get their checks today and were starting to look into their next appointments. They didn't run out immediately -- but it was raining. "I can't in good conscience put my lady into this new place when she might have to be out on Monday," I said to no one in particular. No one argued with me.

No, actually, that's too snippy. The buyers' Realtor had been a teacher before getting into the real estate business; she'd worked with my lady as fellow teachers and they were clearly friendly. She did try, several times, to reach the mortgage broker, hoping that he might have some influence with the lender. She could never get past his voice mail, however.

The closer returned to report another failure. "The lender says approval until Monday or we can reschedule," she said. I'll let you think about that for a minute. Maybe you can see something I missed. What could the bank possibly gain from rescheduling that it didn't already have if it permitted the dry closing to linger for, say, a week. "Do you think it might help if I talked to someone?" I volunteered. I didn't expect much -- but I felt it necessary to at least try. Then I could say, truthfully, that I'd done as much as could possibly be done.

The closer agreed. "I do have another closing scheduled," she said, "so we have to get to a decision on this soon."

I followed her into another room -- another closing room, as near as I could tell, but this one equipped with a computer terminal and telephone so the closer could communicate with persons outside the room. She called the same person who'd shot her down twice and asked if she could speak with a supervisor.

A supervisor was found in due course. The closer went through everything again -- and I have to stress this -- the closer did a thorough job in laying out the facts. The supervisor shot her down again: If the matter doesn't close by Monday, we pull our package and reconsider; otherwise, you can reschedule the closing.

That's when the closer played the lawyer card. "I have the buyer's attorney with me," she said. "He'd like to talk to you, if you're willing."

He was willing.

I went through everything the closer had again. I mentioned the weeping client and the rented truck piled high with all her worldly goods. I resisted the temptation to ask where he lived, so I could send my lady and her truck to his house, to move in with him and his family. I wanted to add that -- but I didn't think it would be helpful. Besides, he was probably in another state.

"OK," said the supervisor, "next Friday. But after that we'd have pull the package and reconsider."

I wasn't on a speakerphone. When I could contain my surprise, I said, "Thank you. Next Friday should do it. Now let me hand the phone back to the closer because she needs to hear that from you directly."

I handed the phone back. She heard. We set up a real escrow closing -- it happens automatically when the last document is received by the title company -- and we went out into the rain.

My lady was still crying, but now she was happy.

But why in heck was any of that necessary?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Why Curmudgeon does not like real estate closings -- Part I

There are actually several reasons besides my own terrible experiences.

Before getting to my recent experience (that's a teaser for a future post), let me run a few of these other reasons by you.

First, there's no money in it.

In a lot of states, lawyers aren't even involved in the closing of a house sale. Depending on where you are reading this, you may be scratching your head as to why having counsel representing you in the single most important (and expensive) purchase you are likely to make in your lifetime might be necessary.

Still unclear on the concept?

Well, let's see: You put a "contract" in as your bid on the house. Actually, it's not a contract -- it's an offer -- it becomes a contract only if your offer is accepted. But the terms of that contract govern a heck of a lot more than the price you are paying.

The contract governs what financing you will have -- because if you can't get the financing called for in the contract, the seller can go out and try and get it for you. And you'd better cooperate, or the seller will get to keep your "earnest money." And woe betide you if you say you're proposing a "cash" deal -- I've got a specific horror story on that one.

How much "earnest money" are you putting into this deal, anyway? The contract says that, too. In these days where buyers often borrow nearly all of the purchase price (to an old guy like me, anything more than 80% financing is "nearly all") the Realtors' commission might not be accounted for -- but you can bet your last dollar that the Realtor (who is going to have first crack at helping you craft your bid) is going to protect his or her commission. Either he or she knows you've been pre-approved for your financing or you're putting in earnest money that magically equals or exceeds the 6 or 7% commission being charged by the Realtors. (That way, if the deal falls through, the Realtors still get paid.)

So you wind up with a contract -- a complex legal document running to several pages of fine print with all the blanks filled in by a Realtor -- and, now, maybe, if you're in a state where lawyers are even involved, a lawyer finally sees what's been done to you. (Hopefully there's an attorney approval rider that allows your attorney to unwind some of the damage.)

Does the contract call for home inspection? Many states, like Illinois, have a mandatory disclosure statute. A person who paints over the watermarks on his basement walls and fails to disclose that the basement doesn't always stay dry may sell his house -- but he'll certainly buy a lawsuit. Who can do the home inspection? In some states, this is a licensed and regulated business -- in others it's a great way for out-of-work contractors to try and drum up new business. And the contract may be opened up yet again depending on what the home inspector finds. Who's going to handle these negotiations? Who's going to help you decide which issues are legitimate and which are not?

What personal property comes with the house? If you don't specify that the washer and dryer (or, perhaps, even the dining room chandelier) stay with the house in the contract, you'll find them gone when you move in.

There are a million questions that you, the home buyer or seller, have and your Realtor was always there to answer them for you... until the contract was signed. Now they're off trying to earn another commission. Can you blame them? You know how long it took you to find the right house -- or to sell the one you have. But don't worry. You'll see the Realtors again at the closing -- ready to pick up their check.

On a $300,000 house sale, a 6% commission is $18,000. This will probably be split between the seller's Realtor and the buyer's Realtor -- but the $9k each will pocket at the closing table will dwarf the $400 or even $600 that your lawyer will be able to charge.

Attorneys used to make money because they could do lots of closings -- they could be involved in far more transactions than even the most efficient, diligent Realtor. Showing houses takes time, even in the Internet Era. Then the real estate market collapsed. Some lawyers stayed in business by becoming title agents on the side. By producing the title report on the property, they can make three or four times what they might have made on the closing alone -- although still less than the Realtors, of course, on any one transaction).

But, as the volume of real estate closings has declined, their average complexity has increased. After the contract is signed, who's fielding the questions about the house inspection, or working with the bank to get the financing finally in place? The real estate lawyer had better have a real sharp paralegal or secretary to handle triage on these calls.

If, of course, you have a lawyer.

And, speaking of financing, did you realize that all those loan application papers that you fill out are legal documents that can get you in a whole bunch of trouble if you don't fill them out correctly? If you just put in as the mortgage broker suggests, without reference to the actual truth, you may be committing a federal crime. You could wind up in jail.

At the closing, you'll have to execute all those loan documents again.


Assuming it's not because the bank has pulled a switcheroo on you and changed your interest rate or payment terms (although that does happen), the purpose is to make it easier for the government to prosecute you for bank fraud. You didn't lie once, you see, you lied twice -- and you had weeks or months in between to think the better of it, didn't you?

But, except for the risk of federal prosecution for bank fraud, or the risk that the bank might try and defraud you, or the risk that you might not actually be buying the property you think you're buying, or any of the other risks inherent in entering into a contract that will tie up your finances for decades to come, what do you need a lawyer for anyway?

Residential real estate closings are high-risk, low-reward undertakings for lawyers. Realtors are not always truthful -- but they are saints in the heavenly choir compared to the banks. If lawyers could charge an hourly rate for residential real estate closings it would make them more profitable -- and lawyers might wind up, then, making something close to what the Realtors make, or even more, depending on the transaction -- but dealing with lenders and home inspectors and buyers and sellers at their wits' ends would still be highly stressful.

As I was reminded just last Friday....

To be continued....

Olaf update -- a marathon is likely, not a sprint

I wrote a pretty good letter, if I do say so myself.

And I have to, because the reviews at home were surprisingly tepid. "It's kind of mild, isn't it?" asked Long Suffering Spouse -- in a way that left no doubt that she thought it was mild indeed.

But the letter was written with a purpose -- not to attack or provoke, but to persuade. At least Olaf was impressed. "It's the kind of letter a math major should write," he said, "showing your work, like in a good proof." (I'd cited to 50 pages of documentation, also included in the email.)

Olaf had a couple of minor, but substantive, suggestions; after a final once over, he sent it out into the ether -- addressed to his professor, who is also his academic advisor and the Math Department chair, but copied to the Dean of Students, the Dean of Faculties, and the university President.

The responses came the next day.

The Dean of Students sent a very nice-sounding but essentially empty email that said she'd get back to him with information about an appeal process. The professor responded with what Olaf considers an ad hominem attack.

So much for the Mr. Nice Guy approach.

By Sunday, I'd crafted an additional letter, advising of the observations that Long Suffering Spouse and I had made of the situation (some of that covered in the post below). My epistle was not sent to the math professor but, rather, to the Dean of Students -- offered in support of any appeal Olaf might be asked to file (and sent before anyone could tell me not to).

I may have to refer this out -- but an ADA suit is not my first choice. Neither is it Olaf's or Younger Daughter's. But the Dean of Students responded to my email with a thank you note -- and she's not yet figured out how this "appeal" is going to play out.

The clock is running.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

And yet another domestic crisis -- Olaf's grdauation again imperiled

Younger Daughter and her husband Olaf, the newlyweds now residing under our roof, were supposed to graduate from college in May. Younger Daughter did. Olaf did not.

Olaf does not look like a delicate flower, but he's had his challenges.

Starting in the Spring of his junior year, Olaf began suffering migraine headaches, headaches sometimes so severe that he'd lose his lunch if you so much as looked at him.

We don't know where these came from. It may have been a cumulative side effect of the ADHD medications he's taken -- he was apparently diagnosed as ADHD as a freshman in college -- and, no, I don't know why he wasn't diagnosed as ADHD sooner either.

(Usually these diagnoses come early in grammar school. It seems the education industry saddles boys with this label every time one acts up in class. We have a whole generation of over-medicated boys coming to manhood now, guilty of no more misconduct than I regularly engaged in as a youth. The nuns whacked me with a ruler or dragged me by the ears to the principal's office when I acted impulsively -- one reason why I have big ears today -- today, the nuns' successors force boys in their care into a Ritalin regimen. Don't get my wife started on the aggressive amateur diagnosticians she's encountered among her teaching colleagues.)

It doesn't matter whether Olaf's problems were caused by ADHD medicine or whether they developed independently. What matters is that they didn't go away.

He went to his doctor -- he went to his doctor repeatedly -- but his parents had an HMO. He might as well have sought out a drug pusher and attempted self-medication; all the HMO doc did for the better part of a year was prescribe increased dosages of this medicine or that one.

I'm not privy to the details.

I could see that Olaf was zonked out on some occasions, strangely animated on others.

Olaf was trying to complete his math major under this chemical cloud -- if he didn't take the medicines he was often so sick he couldn't leave his room, much less attend class -- but, on the other hand, if he did take his medicines he was so numbed that he couldn't follow his lessons.

Younger Daughter was his nurse and companion throughout all this. That she stood by him during these trials was proof to Long Suffering Spouse and me that Younger Daughter and Olaf were headed to the altar eventually. That Olaf was not always incapacitated during this stretch is evidenced by the pending birth of our first grandchild.

I've only mentioned Olaf's troubles once (in Part 7 of my "family way" series earlier this year). At that time (March 1) we still harbored hopes that Olaf would be able to complete all the work he'd missed and graduate on time. Our hopes were dashed soon thereafter.

But a new timetable was agreed upon by Olaf and his teachers: He would take some additional courses this summer, finish the incomplete classes, and take his degree in August. As a math graduate he'd be employable.

But none of this -- none of this -- would have been possible if Olaf's mother hadn't finally gotten involved with the HMO drug pusher, and gotten Olaf referred to a reputable specialist (all too many HMO docs hate making referrals to real specialists because the HMO literally docks their pay on account of these referrals, no matter how necessary). Olaf's referral to a real doctor did not occur until this spring -- around Easter, I think, or maybe later. I wish it had happened sooner -- but who was I, as merely a pending in-law, to intervene between a mother and son and her HMO?

Again, I'm not privy to the details, but I've witnessed the results: After nearly a wasted year, after seeing a real specialist, the clouds parted and Olaf was able to resume working steadily toward completion of his degree. Even with the distractions of the hastily arranged wedding, Olaf got some, though not all of his work done for this semester. At our house he has been given one task: Do whatever is necessary to finish by August. He needs to graduate. He needs to take his first actuarial exam. He needs to get a job -- a job with real insurance -- before his child is born.

The child is not going to wait.

Olaf submitted his overdue work from one class to a professor in the past week, expecting her to sign off on that as per their prior agreement. It was to be another milestone on the march to his August degree.

Instead, yesterday morning, despite the prior representations to the contrary, and despite the justifiable reliance of Olaf, his wife, and his new in-laws on those representations, the professor refused to accept the work submitted. She said Olaf would have to retake this class -- and the other pending incompletes -- NEXT SPRING, when they are next offered in the usual course. She wrote that she and her department colleagues had a meeting in May -- a meeting to which Olaf was neither invited nor given notice concerning -- at which the department had decided to fail him in all the incomplete courses. Too bad, so sad.

Oh, and she congratulated him on his marriage.

(*There will be a brief pause here as I repair my keyboard. I seem to have struck the keys with particular violence these last couple of paragraphs.*)

After he got over his shock yesterday, Olaf wanted to go to school meet with this professor -- he's had classes with her in each of his four years -- she saw first-hand the decline caused by his migraines and the inadequate HMO treatment thereof -- and she'd always seemed sympathetic.

I had to explain to Olaf, in my usual soft, dulcet tone of voice, that this woman had dropped a nuclear bomb on his life and he was not going in to see her without first launching a retaliatory strike. No windows were broken by my soft, dulcet tones, although the panes did rattle a bit. (Younger Daughter told me this morning that Olaf told her that I could be quite persuasive. That's certainly nice to hear.)

Olaf and Younger Daughter are gathering the papers today from which I will craft a letter in response. This letter (for Olaf's signature) will be copied to the department chair, the Academic Vice President, the Dean of Students, and the college President. I have referred to this sort of correspondence as a 'nut letter,' but it will not be intemperate. It will be precise, accurate and specific: Olaf is a kid who was, until his mysterious migraines began, a star in the math department, an ornament, a credit to the school. He has a sheaf of awards and commendations -- I'm told -- and this school is small enough that his professors knew him individually. They saw him deteriorate. There is a paper trail documenting his medical travails and the various promises made to accommodate him during his recuperation (I'll find out soon how well that trail is papered, but there's some stuff to work with, I know that much). It's not Olaf's fault that his parents have an HMO.

(God knows, we may all be stuck with something similar, or worse, in 2014 or shortly thereafter.)

And when I'm done, Olaf will have a letter that will persuade his math professors to have another meeting and put him back on course for an August graduation. And if that doesn't work, we'll do something else.

I have a granddaughter depending on us. (And, of course, I want my house back....)

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Curmudgeon: The world's worst lawyer?

Sometimes I think I should reposition myself as the Bob Uecker of the legal profession.

Uecker wasn't half as bad a baseball player as he claims -- he was never a big star, but he has a World Series ring to disprove his many stories about his professional failings. (OK, Uecker didn't actually play in the 1964 World Series -- he says the team injected him with hepatitis just to be certain he'd not get on the field -- but he was on the team.)

Somehow, somewhere along the line, Uecker figured out that there were a million ex-jocks beating the bushes looking for work but only one of them could be the worst of all time. That insight was his ticket to fame and fortune.

Some examples of the wit and wisdom of the great Bob Uecker (obtained here):

"I set records that will never be equaled. In fact, I
hope 90% of them don't even get printed."

"I led the league in 'Go get 'em next time.'"

"In 1962 I was named Minor League Player of the
Year. It was my second season in the bigs."

"They said I was such a great prospect that they were
sending me to a winter league to sharpen up.
When I stepped off the plane, I was in Greenland."

"When I came up to bat with three men on and two
outs in the ninth, I looked in the other team's
dugout and they were already in street clothes."

"I signed with the Milwaukee Braves for three thousand dollars.
That bothered my dad at the time because he didn't have
that kind of dough. But he eventually scraped it up."

The problem I have with embracing this strategy is that I'm still harboring some slim hopes of getting legal work. Uecker didn't officially become world's worst baseball player until he took off his spikes for the last time. Still... I have to wonder if I'm not just wasting my time trying to find work. There are lots and lots and lots of lawyers out there -- and all of them claim to be really good. (It's the idiot judges who are bad, and that makes us look bad, you see....)

I've been a pretty good lawyer for 32 years -- and, nevertheless, I've looked pretty bad on more than a few occasions. Maybe I should stop trying to compete with all the other pretty good lawyers and seize the lonely territory of the self-confessed terrible lawyers for myself.

I was thinking about this yesterday when I was explaining to a retired judge a little background about the case he was mediating. We did settle the case, achieving a good result for the client in the process, but as I was explaining to him about how one of the defendants had gotten out of my coverage case, I thought I could see something in the good man's face....

"So, naturally, you brought a motion to strike," he said, "Rule 191."

"Of course, Judge," I said. "And the motion was denied."

"Denied?" His voice and his eyebrows shot up at the same time.

"And that was affirmed on appeal."

"You're kidding."

"I only wish I was."

The problem with staking out a claim as the World's Worst Lawyer is that lawyers generally have no sense of humor whatsoever. My brother and sister lawyers are too damned likely to accept my assertion at face value. Unless I become an overnight sensation in some other field, what then would I do?

Monday, July 09, 2012

Answer to Saturday's No-Prize Contest

What if I gave a no-prize contest and nobody entered?

Well, you can't discourage me -- I was bound and determined to put up a couple of videos of Frank Nelson tormenting Jack Benny and so I shall.

Yes, the answer to Saturday's No Prize Contest was Frank Nelson. And now I know why I haven't had one of these contests for awhile....

Saturday, July 07, 2012

You're probably at least as old as Curmudgeon if...

At least I thought you'd probably have to be at least as old as I am if you know the name of the veteran character actor to whom Jim Scancarelli is paying homage in these recent Gasoline Alley strips:

(All images obtained from the Chicago Tribune Comics Kingdom.)

Shall we make this another patented no-prize contest? (We haven't had one of those in ages.)

Anyway, a hearty handshake and virtual pat on the back goes to the reader who leaves the name of the actor in question in a comment.

I was going to offer, as an additional hint, that this actor may be most famous for torturing Jack Benny -- but, in researching this post, I found another homage to this actor in a more contemporary program -- The Simpsons.

So maybe some youngster, some mere callow youth or slip of a lass will come up with the answer. You're on the clock.

Friday, July 06, 2012

The real problem with texting and driving

The real problem with texting and driving is that the person texting may kill or maim others besides.

If it wasn't for the very real possibility that someone might take me or one of mine with them whilst killing him or herself, I'd be all in favor of texting and driving.

It would be a self-correcting problem, don't you see? Darwinism at its finest!

Long Suffering Spouse drove me to work this morning (there's next to no traffic on the inbound Kennedy during this hot spell/holiday week) and we were almost taken out by a panel truck that drifted unpredictably into our lane as we were passing him.

Because we were passing him, I could almost immediately see that the person at the wheel of the truck -- it is entirely too generous to call him the "driver" -- had his head turned to the right so he could better see his phone (avoiding the Sun's glare, I suppose). Perhaps we should be grateful that he was typing only with his right thumb.

Nevertheless, I remain against current texting-while-driving laws.

Why? you gasp. Some of you may flutter your mousepad as you read such lunacy, trying not to faint.

But think about it: Mr. Idiot-Behind-the-Wheel-of-the-Panel-Truck was not arrested for his obvious violation this morning. He got away with it. Thanks to my wife's timely evasive maneuver, we were not killed; a collision was avoided. In this sense Mr. Idiot-Behind-the-Wheel-of-the-Panel-Truck's bad behavior was reinforced: He did what he did and nothing bad happened. He is more likely, therefore, to do it again. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the Chicago area, in a pocket of congestion, someone picking up a phone to text briefly that he'd be delayed may have been observed by a policeman, perhaps one walking by. The driver in congestion was behaving in a far less dangerous manner that Mr. Idiot-Behind-the-Wheel-of-the-Panel-Truck, who was proceeding at full speed without even a glance through his windshield, but the observant policeman, because of the congestion that prompted the text in the first place, could stroll over, knock on the driver's window and give him a ticket.

I've actually seen this happen along Wells Street near the Merchandise Mart: I've seen a foot cop pull over cell-phone users stopped, or nearly stopped, in heavy traffic.

So we have a law with a good purpose -- protecting the rest of us from careless idiots -- but one which is selectively enforced, and not enforced at all in the most egregious circumstances. This is not a good law; it engenders contempt for the law generally.

Now, if Mr. Idiot-Behind-the-Wheel-of-the-Panel-Truck had managed to sideswipe us, as he was seemingly hellbent on doing, he might then have gotten a ticket for texting. Maybe. If we'd seen him. Assuming that we survived.

But I put it to you, ladies and gentlemen, that it makes more sense to have an anti-texting law that applies solely when the behavior contributes to an accident than one that applies any time traffic is moving slowly enough that a foot cop can enforce it (that time being the only time when momentary texting might arguably, possibly, potentially be safe). We can still educate, we can still run those very emotional anti-texting commercials. But we can avoid selective enforcement which breeds resentment in those stopped and reinforces bad behaviors in people who violate the law and are not punished.

What say ye?

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Curmudgeon shows restraint; refrains from accosting the mail carrier

It was not always thus.

Just before the turn of the century (don't you also find it difficult to believe that we can use phrases like this now in personal recollections?), my Undisclosed Location was on the South Side of Chicago, near my ancestral homeland (most of the Curmudgeon forebears, though not my parents, are buried along 111th Street, the necropolis that inspired the name "Seven Holy Tombs" in the works of John R. Powers).

To be specific, my office was on the second floor of a converted house overlooking a train station. I could tell you the stop, but then residents of that neighborhood would know the building without question.

In those days, I had only one reliable income-producing file. Actually, I'm quite proud of the case -- it grew to 10 consolidated suits at one point -- and involved some extraordinarily high-powered legal talent arrayed in opposition against me.

If the case had been 10 separate cases my cash flow might have been assured; I might even have had the pleasure of learning to exploit the labors of others. But it was one case. And the primary insurer on the file went into runoff before it was all over (meaning it stopped writing new business -- which meant also that there'd be no new business for me from that quarter). But that one file kept the phones and lights on for me for seven years before all was said and done.

When I would bill the file, as I would every 60 to 90 days, there would be an interval. One can't really expect a bill to be paid by return mail. But 30 days or so after the bill was sent, I'd begin to think we were 'in the zone' to be paid -- and no one could put a toe on the front porch of that building without my hearing it and bounding down the stairs in anticipation of maybe, possibly, hopefully getting that check.

That case wound up with an adjuster who made 'slow pay' into an art form. Part of it was that he was quite busy. His company insured a lot of businesses that had offices in the Twin Towers in Manhattan; you know what happened there. And, as his company sank into runoff, the various staff layoffs reduced the persons available to handle the existing business -- and process my fee bills.

But, when I was on the South Side, this was still early in the history of that file. And turnarounds were not then nearly as slow as they would become.

Still... that 'zone'... those days when every footfall on the front steps brought me to full Red Alert... would always last a week or more. The guys I shared the office space with thought I'd bowl the mailman over someday.

But I never did.

I am reminded of those times today because -- talk about your repeating plot elements! -- cash flow here is incredibly tight right now. I have a two-figure balance in my personal checkbook. I took home no money from my practice last month. But Saturday afternoon I received an email from a colleague with whom I share some business. She'd gotten two long overdue fee checks; she was mailing me my portion.

Tuesday, therefore... I was 'in the zone' again. But I wound up disappointed.

Today I almost couldn't get out of bed. I was a sleepwalker all morning, alive but not very alive, waiting for the mail to come. If it came, I'd revive -- but, if the mail failed again, I'd be lucky to drag myself home. All I could do this morning was wait.

My current Undisclosed Location, though small, is configured in such a way that I can't always hear the front door opening.

I couldn't tell when the mail carrier came by today so I couldn't meet him at the door before he could turn the handle. In that sense, I --arguably -- showed restraint.

But you know, now, just how I was feeling -- no more restrained or patient than I was sitting overlooking the train tracks on the South Side.

And, oh, yes, the checks came today.

It's not enough to get me out my hole. It's not even close. But it will stave off disaster for at least a little while longer.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Competing Declarations of Internet Independence get Curmudgeon thinking about how the Intertubes should be managed

... how the Intertubes should be managed, if at all.

I hope to return to this subject again, if you don't mind terribly.

With the Fourth of July nearly upon us I've been seeing all sorts of stuff lately about "Declarations of Internet Independence." Unfortunately, most of my browsing on the subject has come in those sleepy hours after dinner, when focus is impossible and only fleeting impressions can be made.

This morning after court, therefore, I thought I'd try and reconstruct what I've looked at and organize it into a quick and timely post.

That was a couple of hours ago. So much for quick.

First of all, I've found at least three Declarations of Internet Independence in circulation. The oldest, by far, is this one, datelined August 1996 from Davos, Switzerland.

Two more current versions were compared in this post on PC World Australia.

The first of these is the one I'd seen (although, in my twilight consciousness yesterday, I'm not sure where I saw it. On BuzzFeed, perhaps?)

The second of these is, according to the linked Australian post, "from free-market think tanks TechFreedom, the Competitive Enterprise Institute and other groups[; it] calls on governments to 'do no harm' to the Internet and to avoid getting involved in the broadband marketplace."

If you've been following Popehat's coverage of Carreon v. Funny Junk (and, if you haven't, you should -- and the link will take you to all the related posts in one fell swoop) or, even more relevantly, to Popehat's coverage of Kimberlin v. Walker, you'd understand that the legal system seems ill-equipped, or at least ill-prepared, to deal with the collisions among free expression, privacy, and copyright that happen everyday on your very own computer screen (and, perhaps, on your own blog).

Sites like YouTube exist for people to post stuff that interests, amuses or outrages them -- and copyrighted TV shows and movies are among the many things that interest, amuse or outrage YouTube users. Currently, as I understand it, YouTube stays out of trouble by immediately taking down anything when a copyright holder suggests the possibility of infringement.

The mouse on my computer gives me the power to swipe images and huge chunks of content with very little effort. I usually provide links to my sources (of course, even full-time scrapers often do that much). More importantly, I try and provide multiple links in a post and original content analyzing or discussing (or making fun of) the subject for which links are provided. This post, for instance.

If I include a snippet from one of the links, even a fairly lengthy one, it is my belief that I am making fair use of that author's content for an original post. But, at one point, AP was taking the position that more than four words from one of its articles constituted infringement, context be damned. That strikes me as an unreasonable position (and I haven't worried about it -- and I'm too unimportant a blogger for AP to worry about me).

Where someone's content is grabbed and reposted seems important to me, as well. If you think about it, most Facebook posts are the equivalent of stuff our parents used to stick on the refrigerator. The only difference is that a cartoon clipped and posted on a refrigerator was seen by only immediate family and any guests; stuff posted on Facebook may be seen by any user's "friends" -- and reposted ("shared") from there.

But I'm not at all persuaded that there is usually (or even often) any intent to infringe another's copyright by posting to Facebook. For the copyright holder, the abbreviated Facebook posts are really advertising for the original content. From what little I know about Twitter or Pinterest, I think that these may be considered as following a similar approach of advertising-rather-than-infringing.

A blog or other website where someone sells ads however, and reproduces other peoples' content, is fundamentally different. I recall hearing a prominent Chicago TV personality rail recently against the Drudge Report: The creators of that site link to all manner of news stories and sell all sorts of ads on their page showing the compiled links. No compensation is offered to those whose links are compiled, but the compilers earn income from ads which would not be placed but for those links. At least the selection of the links compiled makes the Drudge Report arguably unique and original; presumably a Drudge competitor would compile different links. And, at least in theory, an article or post 'picked up by' the Drudge Report should receive additional traffic than it might have otherwise, thereby potentially providing income to the actual creator of the linked work.

On the other hand, if a compiler provides not only links but also excerpts -- and no discussion or analysis or other original accompanying content -- readers may not be inclined to click through to the original content. The compiler there has hijacked traffic that could have inured to the creator of the linked post -- and has potentially earned income in the process. Is that really a fair use of the original work? (I'd be inclined to think not.)

If this is not something you've been following, or thinking about, I've thrown a great deal at you this morning (at least you'll enjoy the well-written Popehat links) -- but it occurs to me that those of us who use this medium have a pretty strong interest in trying to keep it open, accessible -- and civil -- and we should be leading the debate in the real world about how best to tame the Internet beast, rather than reacting (usually in horror) to attempts to impose controls on the free flow of information here in the ether.

Have a Glorious Fourth.