Thursday, February 28, 2013

Starting an Internet trend (or launching a neologism) isn't as easy as you might think

Zay N. Smith, the host and proprietor of one of my favorite web sites, QT, has created a minor Internet sensation with the phrase "tap-dancing militant Islamic fundamentalists." In Wednesday's column, for example, he claims 2,460 Google hits for this phrase. He may be too modest: My own Google search came up with "about 36,500" hits. But there are duplicates, of course.

My own ambition is to create a word. I've set the word "microminiholidayette" free on the Internet -- it's a perfect word to describe many observances highlighted over at The Blog of Days -- with the hopes of it someday finding a home in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Alas, my own Google for "microminiholidayette" today turned up 55 responses, all of them this blog or BOD -- with the sole exception of a couple of foreign "scraper" sites which have, for reasons of their own, pirated BOD posts.

The OED is a looooong way off.

But you can help. Use the word microminiholidayette in your own blog. Use it in personal, private emails -- where only your intended recipients and the U.S. Government's supercomputers will see it. Drop it into casual conversation.

Not sure what a "microminiholidayette" is? Well, today is National Tooth Fairy Day, National Public Sleeping Day, National Chili Day, National Chocolate Souffle Day, and National Pancake Day. Surely, any of these would qualify.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Congratulations to Robin Kelly, the new Sheriff of New York

Robin Kelly, Mayor Bloomberg's hand-picked candidate for Sheriff of New York (he poured millions into her campaign via his personal super PAC, Independence USA PAC), coasted to victory over a crowded field of candidates.

Although the media did correctly report that Kelly "seized on gun control as the primary issue" in her campaign, the fact that Kelly (and, for that matter, all of her opponents) were actually candidates in Illinois' 2nd Congressional District seems to have been downplayed.

And politicians wonder why we're sick of them: What, if anything, will Kelly do to pass a national budget in Congress? She may be presumed in favor of 'tax hikes for the wealthy' -- but are there any Federal programs that she would cut by so much as a penny? In short, has she said anything about how she will discharge the core responsibilities of her new office? (Yes, Kelly must face a Republican opponent in April before being officially elected to Congress, but this is a mere formality.) Congress may have something to say about national gun policy -- but it is hardly the most important issue, at least at the national level, confronting our poor nation. And Congressmen do not police the mean streets of Chicago's South Side and south suburbs.

It's ironic that the 2nd District seat was bought and paid for given that the most recent Congressman from that district, Jesse Jackson, Jr., was implicated as a prospective buyer when former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich tried to sell Barack Obama's seat in the U.S. Senate. (JJJ's recent guilty plea has nothing to do with Blagojevich's 'bleeping golden' sales opportunity.)

Meanwhile, in near west suburban Cicero, Village President Larry Dominick avoided an April runoff by getting 60% of the vote, easily besting his nearest challenger, Juan Ochoa, former chief executive officer of the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority (we call it McPier). As the Chicago Sun-Times explained it this morning, "Cicero voters Tuesday ignored allegations of corruption, sexual harassment and nepotism in town hall and overwhelmingly re-elected Larry Dominick for a third term as the leader of the hardscrabble western suburb."

If the name "Cicero" sounds vaguely familiar to you (and you're not thinking of old Marcus Tullius) you may recall that Cicero is the town where Al Capone hid out when the heat got too hot in Chicago. Capone's successors ran the town for decades. A recent Cicero town president, Betty Loren-Maltese, the widow of a reputed mobster, just got out of jail. Cicero was, until recently, the last near suburban township to lean Republican -- not that the Republicans wanted them, the Democrats wouldn't take them. Larry Dominick was originally elected as a reformer -- but it's in bad taste to recall that these days.

In fact, the media here was embarrassed to report that Dominick had been reelected -- Kelly's election was the lead story, followed by the weather report (it snowed here yesterday).

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Curmudgeon getting used to baby noises

Our granddaughter is five months old today. In some ways that seems like an eyeblink-short period of time; in other ways, she seems to have been with us forever.

She's no longer a newborn. She's off the charts for height and weight and she's starting to eat cereal and baby food fruit. She likes baby fruit pears much more than baby food prunes.


She's more alert these days; she recognizes faces and voices. I am occasionally favored with a smile -- even though I don't feed her or change her. She apparently figures that the people who do feed and change her put up with me, so she should as well. Of course, I react like a complete idiot when she smiles... I make faces or noises or zoom in on her nose, looking for some additional reaction. Often, this is rewarded with a giggle -- at that age, it's more a gurgle than a giggle -- but it reenforces my odd behaviors.

Dignitas? Not around a grandchild.

When she lays on the floor, surrounded by toys and a mobile, batting at anything and everything, putting anything into her mouth, whether deliberately or not, she sometimes squeals in delight.

I've decided I don't mind these noises. It almost makes up for the bawling in the middle of the night a few months back.

Every now and then I realize I'm in danger of turning into an old softy. I make loud, deep, grouchy noises at no one in particular. Then I notice the baby is looking at me and smiling. And I start doing googlies again....

Monday, February 25, 2013

A serious visit from Middle Son

Middle Son stopped by the house Saturday after work to do his taxes. I have Turbo Tax installed at home and he'd asked me a couple of weeks ago if he could use it to prepare his tax returns.

But Long Suffering Spouse was certain that there were more than taxes on his mind Saturday. "He's not himself lately," she told me. "Something's bothering him."

Accordingly, our parental antennae were fully extended when Middle Son walked in Saturday afternoon and took over the computer.

His lease is coming up in May, he told us, and he plans to move. Who with, or where, is yet to be determined. One of his roommates has already moved out. This roommate moved out once before, too -- the last time he fell in love. There are still two others in residence with whom the enormous rent can be shared, but all are getting itchy. They have reached their mid-20s. Their friends are pairing off. Kegs in the bathtub are being replaced by babies. Middle Son appears to be serious about Margaret; whether this relationship is headed for the altar, however, is not for me to say. But they're both out of school now. And she's making good money -- better than Middle Son, in fact.

That appears to chafe. He's looking for work, he said. He thinks he must rent for at least another year. He doesn't want to bite off too much at once. On the other hand, he is obviously thinking about buying a home.

"But I can't do that alone, not yet," he said. He might be able to get a nice house with Margaret, he said, but "that would open up a real can of worms."

Yes, his mother and I both wanted to scream (although, outwardly, we were models of composure), but which ones? Are we thinking matrimony here or just moving in? Long Suffering Spouse would be particularly, and loudly, opposed to any of her kids "shacking." So too was I... although my resolve may have wavered a bit when I did my taxes this year and found that I lost my last year's deduction on Younger Daughter because she and Olaf "did the right thing."

"There's entirely too much emphasis on wedding ceremonies," Long Suffering Spouse said later, after Middle Son had gone home. "If they want to get married, they should do so, they don't need a big fancy wedding."

Actually, I wonder if that might not become the fashion: Get a young couple tied up by a judge at City Hall -- civil marriage -- and then, down the road, as financial circumstances permit, allow them to plan together to receive the Sacrament of Matrimony -- the church wedding. Civil marriage and religious marriage are in the process of an acrimonious divorce as it is; I wonder if this might not be a way for the church to more gracefully separate the two. I'll have to take this up with some of the priests in my acquaintance.

We spent some time Saturday afternoon with Middle Son looking at Zillow listings -- and at Zillow's estimates on houses not up for sale, including my own. "If we could really get that for this place, maybe we should move," I told Long Suffering Spouse. "Where to?" asked Long Suffering Spouse, ever practical.

We chatted about the evils of carrying balances on credit cards. "Don't do as I do, do as I say," I said, bemoaning my nearly $50,000 in credit card debt. Middle Son had a ready rejoinder: "With all the equity you have in this house, you could take out a loan and cut the interest payments way down."

"Yeah," I said, "but then the house is at risk again." There is no easy solution that I can see unless the income stream is made more reliable -- and the unreliability of my income stream is why I have $50,000 in credit card debt in the first place. I told Middle Son that I've been shopping for zero interest balance transfers as a stopgap. He'd made that suggestion in the first place, and it was a good one.

Middle Son counseled Younger Daughter about the need to get back in the work force as soon as possible and suggested she and Olaf not even think about buying a new car if they had any hope of finding a house of their own. Inasmuch as Olaf's car has 150,000 miles on it and was in the shop for repairs Saturday, that thought had crossed their minds.

Eventually, it was time for Middle Son to head home. "You know, you could always move back here for a year if you need to save up money," Long Suffering Spouse told him.

No! No! No! I thought -- but I heard myself say, "Yeah, you could join the commune we have going here."

"I don't know if we helped much," said Long Suffering Spouse, after Middle Son was gone -- but she was happy anyway. "See? I told you he was miserable."

Don't misunderstand: Long Suffering Spouse wasn't happy because Middle Son isn't -- she was happy because she still knows her children. She's still tuned in.

We take our happiness where we can find it.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Frivolous Friday: This would be cute even if it weren't true

I saw this at a site called Cheezburger and I immediately snagged the image with the intent of posting it here... but then it occurred to me... did Sir Paul really say this? (In this one small corner of the Internet, we are actually concerned with accuracy. Most of the time, anyway.)

Thanks to the miracle of Lexis/Nexis, I could check the alleged source -- and confirm that, indeed, Macca really did tell interviewer Dave Itzkoff, "My grandkids always beat me at Rock Band. And I say, Listen, you may beat me at Rock Band, but I made the original records, so shut up." (The interview, which was really about McCartney's recent Grammy Award, appeared in the Saturday, February 16, 2013 edition of the New York Times -- genuflection optional.)

Before you ask, Mr. Itzkoff apparently did not ask the obvious follow-up question, namely, what did your grandkids say to that?

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The dumbing down of America: Anecdotes only, because evidence is too hard

Actually, I don't know what's so terribly wrong with anecdotes anyway.

"Anecdote" is another word for story -- and humans communicate by telling stories. Well-designed and thought-out studies, chock full of relevant statistics, are, admittedly, better proof of just about anything -- but every study can be (and for public consumption, must be) boiled down to a narrative. And if that story isn't compelling -- if it doesn't ring true -- the study will be rejected.

And, besides, no one is offering me a grant to design and conduct studies, so I can only offer anecdotes here.

Which, now that this digression is out of the way, I proceed now to do:

You don't think America is dumbing down? Let me illustrate with just my own family: I took Calculus I in high school. (I didn't do particularly well at it -- I retook the second semester of the introductory calculus course in my freshman year of college. But I muddled through.) My wife took Calculus I during her senior year of college. We weren't married then, but we were dating, and although I had made it as far as Calculus III before abandoning the math major (I was done in by Probability and Statistics, which probably goes a long way toward explaining my willingness to accept anecdotes), I proved to be of no help with her homework. By that time, I'd already graduated from law school and begun the practice of law. In other words, my brain had already turned to mush. But my wife muddled through anyway.

We have five kids. Only one -- Oldest Son -- took Calculus I. Younger Daughter married a math major, but Olaf was a rarum avis at their school. There were a bare handful of math majors. Older Daughter's husband, Hank, is an architect and he, too, must have essayed some advanced math in the course of his training.

We used to laugh nervously at The Jetsons and Elroy's grade school struggles with calculus. But, surely, that was the direction of progress. It was unusual for kids my age to take calculus in high school -- but, admit it, didn't we all think that this would soon become the norm?

To secure the future, we Baby Boomers knew that we had to master science and math. The Russians weren't going to let up; we couldn't either.

We couldn't all be Einsteins. Some of us would drop out along the way and settle for becoming lawyers and doctors. But our kids would do better than us -- and they would learn more and learn faster. What the heck happened? How in the world did Elroy Jetson turn into Honey Boo Boo?

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Curmudgeon lobbies for more women engineers

Cross-posting today from The Blog of Days because this is an issue near and dear to my heart. We have lots of women who are doctors and lawyers (my late father used to speculate that the law would become a 'pink collar ghetto') -- but one profession still seems largely closed to women. Not entirely, of course, and certainly not officially. But we can -- we should -- do better.

Thursday, February 21 will be Introduce A Girl To Engineering Day.

Image obtained from Whiting School of Engineering
of John Hopkins University.
We need more engineers in the United States, period. Too many of 'our' American engineering graduates are taking their talents back home to India or China, where new engineers are also being produced in carload lots. If America is to compete in a global economy, we need all the engineers we can develop -- and, historically, in encouraging careers in engineering, we've ignored half our population. This must stop.

How can you help?

If you have daughters or granddaughters, obviously, encourage them to think about careers in engineering. But 'encouragement' is not enough.

Engineering is a practical discipline, and there are practical steps that parents can take to help make their child ready for a possible engineering career: First, every child should finish the first year course in algebra before graduating from grammar school. Completion of Algebra I in 8th grade puts a child on the road to possibly take introductory calculus before finishing high school. It is the small pool of kids who arrive on campus with AP Calculus credit from whom the majority of tomorrow's engineers will come. We've got to make that pool bigger -- and more co-ed. If your junior high does not demand Algebra I from at least your school's best and brightest, you should demand that your school raise its expectations.

One of the little sayings in the Sidebar of this blog is "Ve grow too soon old, und too late schmart." That's supposed to be a rendering of German dialect; it's something my father used to say. Not that he was German, mind you, but he grew up in a neighborhood that had many Germans and Poles and he picked up all sorts of dialects.

It is a saying that is particularly true when it comes to parenting. We learn so much as parents -- and usually too late for it to benefit our kids. But you younger parents can profit by my experience, especially on this Algebra I issue.

I didn't have Algebra I in junior high -- but I was allowed to double up in high school by taking both Algebra II and Geometry in my sophomore year. None of my kids were permitted that option. Oldest Son went to a college that made calculus a required freshman course; all my other kids managed to avoid calculus entirely. Thus, although he didn't become an engineer, Oldest Son is the only one of my five who's gone into any sort of technical career -- he's a business consultant who writes computer code. So you have to lobby for introductory algebra in junior high in order to put kids on the Calculus track. Or hope your kid goes to Notre Dame.

Not every kid can handle calculus, of course. I barely did. Not every kid can grow up, therefore, to be an engineer. Not every kid can grow up to play professional sports, either. But we encourage our kids to try out for teams so they can explore their athletic potential. We should provide the same encouragement for our kids when it comes to challenging fields of study.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Mayor of New York dabbles in Chicago politics

I had occasion this morning to be at the Sixth Municipal District Courthouse in Markham, Illinois. That put me right in the heart of Illinois' 2nd Congressional District, the one represented, until recently, by Jesse Jackson, Jr.

Jackson, Jr. (or Triple-J as he is sometimes known locally) is expected to plead guilty later this week to criminal charges involving the misuse of campaign funds. Among the more sensational allegations against Jackson is that he spent campaign money on Bruce Lee, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Michael Jackson memorabilia (a hat, supposedly, in the last instance). I can almost understand a politician wanting to acquire items once belonging to one of these three -- and, no, I'm not talking about Bruce Lee. Or Michael Jackson. But I can't understand the diversion of campaign funds. Triple-J has been in and around politics for just about his entire life, thanks to his famous father. If anyone should know better, he should.

But this essay is not about JJJ's legal problems (or those of his wife -- she's also been indicted and is expected to enter a guilty plea on tax charges soon); rather, this is about the race to fill Jackson's vacated seat.

I don't know how much play this is getting nationally, but the Mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, is pouring money into the 2nd District special election via his personal super pac, Independence USA PAC.

I can understand why the Mayor of Chicago might be interested in JJJ's successor -- although the district stretches all the way to Kankakee, it takes in a fair chunk of Chicago's South Side -- but I can't see why the Mayor of New York has any business dabbling in our elections.

Don't we have enough problems here without him?

Congressional candidate, and Bloomberg favorite,
former State Rep. Robin Kelly
The beneficiary of Mayor Bloomberg's largesse is former State Rep. Robin Kelly. Kelly served most recently as Chief Administrative Officer for Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle. Kelly resigned from that job to make this run -- and President Preckwinkle initially endorsed one of Kelly's many opponents, State Sen. Toi Hutchinson. Hutchinson, for her part, just dropped out of the race after being targeted by Bloomberg's attack ads. The other target of Bloomberg's blasts is former one-term Congressman Debbie Halvorson, who lost her seat in the 2010 Republican surge and is trying to get back to Washington. Halvorson lost to JJJ in the 2012 Democratic Primary. Jackson did not actively campaign in the primary. Even before the current Federal investigation became known, it was widely reported that Jackson was under investigation in the House for allegedly offering then-Gov. Blagojevich some consideration for Barack Obama's seat in the U.S. Senate. Instead of campaigning, Jackson Jr. retreated into isolation for treatment of an unspecified illness, which turned out to be depression and bipolar disorder.

For her part, Kelly denies any 'deal' with Bloomberg, claiming essentially to be just pleasantly surprised that Mayor Bloomberg has gone 1,000 miles out of his way to lend a hand. If Mayor Bloomberg is so eager to invest in this area, I wish he'd give me some money, so I could pay down some of my bills -- but I support Mayor Bloomberg's constitutional right to waste his considerable fortune any foolish way he wishes.

Bloomberg has chosen to burn money buying ads on our airwaves concerning gun control. His attack ads here have painted Halvorson and Hutchinson as being mouthpieces for the NRA -- even suggesting that they were in favor of arming criminals across state lines.

As I was driving back from the courthouse this morning, through the 2nd District, through neighborhoods plagued by street gangs and guns, I could understand why residents of the area might be concerned about out-of-control crime.

But... excuse me... has anyone read the Constitution lately? No, I'm not talking about the Second Amendment. I'm talking about something even more fundamental: The federal government does not police the streets of Chicago. All of these candidates are running for Congress, not for Chief of Police or Sheriff. Congress has a role to play, surely, in the national debate over guns -- but that role pales in significance, pales to the point of triviality, when compared to the myriad of other, real problems over which Congress has actual, constitutional responsibility: Taxes. Trade. Deficits. Budgets. We are in the midst of a Great Recession that everyone -- except those living in the Beltway -- knows to be ongoing. In Illinois' 2nd Congressional District we have families where generations have never held a job. Unemployment is at staggering levels in that distict. The South Side and south suburbs are among the areas hardest hit by the foreclosure crisis. Instead of talking about the sideshow of gun control, would it be too much to ask the candidates to talk about some issues or articulate positions that are more in the job description and responsibilities of a Member of Congress?

Am I asking too much again?

Friday, February 15, 2013

Blog of Days update, sort of

I've managed to keep The Blog of Days going on a daily basis now for 9½ months, which just goes to show you what you can accomplish by choosing a specific focus (unlike this blog) and writing deliberately short posts (really unlike this blog).

I think traffic is building over there, too (I hope you've dropped in). According to Google, BOD had 61 page views yesterday and 19,100 in total since I started the venture last April 30. By comparison, Google says this blog had 321 page views yesterday, and 186,097 since I've asked Google to keep track. Both of these lag well behind the traffic figures generated by my main 'public' blog (that is, the one I write under my real name).

The other thing that makes me think traffic is building at BOD is that it, too, is beginning to be plagued with spam comments. I've deleted 30 spam comments on this blog so far today (oops, make that 31 -- I just deleted one for phone sex), but I've also had to delete 10 spam comments today so far at BOD. My main 'public' blog also gets spammed -- sometimes 50 or even 80 comments are waiting for me to delete when I go over there.

Of course, this tells me that a significant portion of my audience is composed of spammers. Accordingly, I can't get too giddy over raw numbers of page views.

I also have a Sitemeter counter on this blog and on BOD. My most recent Sitemeter update for this blog says I averaged only 45 discrete visitors per day over the past week, and only 51 page views. My main 'public' blog averaged 142 discrete visitors per day, according to Sitemeter, with an average of 195 page views. Both of these figures are far behind what Google reports (naturally, therefore, I am more inclined to accept Google's numbers). But the real surprise is that, according to Sitemeter, BOD hasn't had any visitors at all for about a month.

Something's definitely not quite right here.

Neither fame nor fortune seem in the cards anytime soon for my little blogging empire. Maybe I need a catchy slogan to jump-start traffic. How about this one?

Read the Curmudgeon's blogs.
Spammers love 'em -- you will too!


Well, maybe I'll come up with something better over the weekend....

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

I have this problem, too

Crankshaft comic, by Tom Batiuk and Chuck Ayres.  Obtained from this site.
The man I see in the mirror each morning isn't nearly as decrepit as that old guy who always seems to jump in whenever 'my' picture is taken.

Talk about identity theft....

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The stomach flu as a business development tool

I mentioned, last week, that I'd been clobbered by the stomach flu. I spared you the gory details then, and I'll spare you the gory details now.

It's just that -- well, no one ever gets ill at a good time. I had a lot of stuff (certainly a lot of stuff by my meager standards) to do last week, some of them even billable, and none of them got done. Meanwhile, while I was out of the office, the phone was ringing off the hook.

By the end of last week, when I finally was able to start returning phone calls, I had messages from three or four prospective clients and two from returning clients (one who I hadn't heard from in four or five years). I've had days -- weeks -- where I haven't gotten any calls except sales or collection calls and the occasional call from my wife or one of the kids.

What accounts for this sudden flurry of activity?

Well, I wish I knew. But my current hypothesis is... the flu.

Somehow, there must be some karmic connection between viral infection and business development.

I took the train downtown this morning for the first time in a week. I was looking to sit next to someone who was hacking and wheezing.

I had no luck this morning -- but I'll keep looking.

I can sure use the business.

Monday, February 11, 2013

A real marriage penalty -- for Curmudgeon

Family gatherings can rise to the level of contact sport at the Curmudgeon house. Everyone has a little edge to them; it's part of the fun.

It's a little less fun, perhaps, when you are the object or subject of the conversation as I was on one recent occasion when the subject of taxes came up.

I'd mentioned that I'd just bought a computer program to assist me with my taxes again this year (there are several fine programs on the market; I've used Turbo Tax for several years). "Oh?" asked Long Suffering Spouse, in a voice just a half-tone too sweet. "Have you figured out a way, then, to deduct Olaf and the baby, too?"

Younger Daughter, her husband Olaf, and their baby have lived under my roof since their wedding last June. Olaf is working, but I am providing the roof over their heads and most of the food that they eat while (I hope, I hope, I hope) they are saving some money so they can strike out on their own.

"I imagine Olaf's parents may have something to say about me claiming him as a deduction," I conceded. "And I think the baby's their problem. But I sure as heck plan to claim Younger Daughter. I paid for her tuition, and most of her wedding, and she's still living here." The year after each successive kid's college graduation had always been bittersweet for me -- when I filled out my tax form the following year I knew I was making my final goodbye to the child as my deduction.

"Um, Dad?" Middle Son interjected. Middle Son is the accountant in the family; his girlfriend Margaret is a tax accountant. And "um" usually means he's about to contradict me.

As on this occasion, too: "Dad, Margaret's parents had a similar situation a year ago" -- I'd heard that, yes -- "and because Margaret's sister was married by the end of the year, they weren't able to claim her as a deduction."


"That's what I remember, anyway," he said. "I think Margaret looked into it at the time and she found out that those were the rules." He watched my jaw drop and face go red, then gray. "But I'll ask again," he added.

Middle Son was just trying to let me down gently. Within a day, he'd sent me an email confirming what he'd told me before.

So I wasn't terribly surprised -- just disappointed -- when Turbo Tax told me the same darn thing. I couldn't deduct 10 cents for Younger Daughter, not even for the college tuition I'd paid, all because she and Olaf did the right thing and got hitched.

Now, there's a pro-marriage, pro-family tax policy, don't you think?

We hear a lot about the marriage penalty for couples filing jointly, but I'd never heard this one. Knowing this in advance wouldn't have changed what we did last year, or how we did it.

I don't think so, anyway.

But remember how Olaf forgot to get the marriage license? Would I have been so insistent that he and Younger Daughter get over to the county and that taken care of if I'd known about this tax consequence?

We live in a time when civil marriage is being divorced from religious marriage -- the very meaning of the word 'marriage' may change, depending on whether you are talking 'marriage' in a civil or religious context. For a dinosaur like me, wouldn't I be inclined to think that the religious component more important... or real... or something? And, if I did, wouldn't I then be open to the possibility of not making the civil bonds official in order to...?

No. I wouldn't. Probably.

Almost certainly.

[Curmudgeon exits stage right, still muttering to himself.]

Friday, February 08, 2013

A little more spark goes out of Curmudgeon's life

We never did see the little blue or white tongue of spark or flame caused by the short circuit. But we could hear it. We could all hear it.

I felt it before I heard it -- not that I got shocked or anything -- it's just that, as I tried to reset the circuit breaker panel in the basement, as soon as I turned the switch back on, I could feel the pop -- and the switch would go back off.

Let me back off a bit to explain.

It's snowing today on the East Coast -- a major storm, I'm told, combining all the worst elements of a coastal storm and one that came from over the Midwest. Well, here in the Midwest, we were under the aforementioned component yesterday, with a 'wintry cocktail' of freezing rain and sleet and ice and plain old rain falling during the morning rush depending on where you were or the whim of the clouds overhead, all this ahead of a snowfall that was supposed to (and did in fact) snarl the evening commute.

I had to be in Wheaton yesterday morning for court; I had to drive. But, I thought, having discharged my obligations in (I believe) a satisfactory manner, it might be prudent on my part to go straight home rather than drive downtown to the office. The weather was one concern. The fact that I am still recovering from a bout of stomach flu (which hit me like a ton of bricks on Monday afternoon) was another. In fact, I thought I would head back to my recliner and, just maybe, if possible, work on some of the overdue paperwork I have to do for work. (Man does not live by blogging alone, would that it were different.)

I did get home -- many people had worse commutes than I did yesterday so I don't say there was nothing amiss... but I thought the panic-stricken tone of the newscasts just a bit much -- and I made it to my chair, ate my sandwiches (a major victory right there) and fired up the laptop in the hope of getting some work done.

Well, I didn't get too far -- I put something up here -- I read my daily comics -- I transferred my backup files (see I really was transitioning into actual work) -- when Olaf announced that the power had gone out upstairs.

Yes, Olaf was home from work yesterday preparing for his 'exit exam' at school. You'll remember he's not quite graduated yet, even though he is (thankfully) employed by a company that appears to like him and, more important, appears disposed to give him the kind of raise that will allow him and Younger Daughter and the baby to move to a place of their own once he does in fact graduate. This semester, he is taking a one-hour course that he was forced to abandon last spring (because of the migraines), one prominent feature of which is this 'exit exam.'

He failed the exam the first time. He was allowed to take it over the summer -- but without the review course, apparently, he was at a competitive disadvantage (the review course, and the test, both appear to focus more on nit-picky exceptions to general rules than on general rules themselves -- in other words, just the opposite of what he needs to know in his real-life job). Anyway, he failed again. Both times, we are told, by a single point.

He takes it again today.

(Thank you. We hope so, too. Believe me.)

Anyway, Olaf made his announcement and I went in search of the circuit breaker box and, no sooner do I get the box open than Older Daughter calls my cell phone to apologize needlessly for having 'jinxed' me. When she had been in Chicago over the weekend, I had insisted that my flu shot was a magic talisman against all infectious disease and Older Daughter R.N. pointed out -- correctly, by the way -- that the shot has no effect whatsoever on what is usually called 'stomach flu.' Or norovirus. Or Hobbes Disease (it is nasty, brutish, but the worst of it is usually -- and mercifully -- short).

I had to cut my conversation with Older Daughter short because of the developing crisis.

That's when Long Suffering Spouse called.

Long Suffering Spouse wanted to know what was going on and I told her and she told me to call the electrician and, of course, I did.

Meanwhile, I tried resetting the circuit breaker panel a dozen or so times and Olaf told me that it didn't work each time.

When the electrician showed up, we showed him where Olaf had pinpointed the arcing noise -- Olaf having slipped off in the meantime to the school library -- and when the electrician opened up the switches on the wall so we could observe, we took turns looking for the spark while the other played with the circuit breaker. The popping sound upstairs was loud; I jumped when I was there to hear it. But I couldn't see the spark any more than anyone else.

We live, as you know, in the City of Chicago. In the great City of Chicago electrical wires are supposed to be run in metal conduits in a house; that's code. When shorts occur, then, the arc or spark -- it's really a little blue tongue of flame -- is supposed to bounce harmlessly of the inside of the metal tube in which it is housed, in that way making it far less likely that the house will burn down.

This wasn't our first experience of a short circuit upstairs. I wrote about the prior incident in January 2011. In reviewing the archives this morning, I find that I do not appear to have mentioned the electrician's take on the problem.

What he told me then... and what we discussed again yesterday... was that the wires in our nice and safe metal conduits are more than 80 years old. Our original house is definitely pre-War (meaning it was built before World War II) and -- in Chicago -- pre-War also generally means pre-Depression. It is, as I have conceded in the past, possible that some houses -- a few -- were built around here during the 1930s. But not a lot of them. And certainly not ours.

In 2011 the electrician told me it would be prudent to rewire the house, or at least the upstairs, because this shorting and arcing and circuit-blowing would recur, from time to time, until repaired. He gave me his quote -- and it wasn't unreasonable. It was, however, impossible. I could no more have paid him then than, well... than I can pay him now.

By now you've certainly figured out that none of us ever found the short. Somehow, though, all that jiggling made a difference. After a few hours, power was restored. How long would it last this time? Well, let's just say the electrician's comment was not the most comforting: "I'm just hoping it lasts until I get safely out the door," he said.

So far, so good.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Curmudgeon explains the news

Norman Rockwell image obtained here.
Boy Scouts delay vote on allowing gays. The TV talking heads in Chicago, at least, seemed genuinely perplexed by this stall. After all, the President is in favor of allowing gay scouts; a lot of local churches and other sponsoring organizations have been strident in their demand that the Boy Scouts allow gay scouts and even gay leaders. And, of course, we all knew that several big corporate donors were threatening to pull (or have already pulled) their donations from the Boy Scouts on account of their policy.

What the talking heads here failed to take into account, however, is that there are a lot of other major Boy Scout sponsors who are just as adamant that openly gay scouts continue to be excluded, particularly from troop leadership positions.

In other words, the Boy Scouts have a difficult moral decision to make -- and they are instead adding columns of numbers. They will make many unhappy no matter what they decide -- and by waffling they run the risk of alienating those whose position they eventually propose to support.

The Scout movement is a private organization, not a branch of the government. Because it is a private group, the Boy Scouts of America can pick and choose who can join and who can not. They can refuse to admit atheists, or gays, or even redheads. To the extent that the BSA espouses values repugnant to public policy, it is completely appropriate that the BSA not receive funding, or meeting space, or other resources from public schools or other public agencies.

What would make sense (I think) is to allow each council to decide these matters for themselves. Maybe each council could decide whether these matters on a troop by troop basis. The national organization would support the decisions of each group -- but insist that all Scouts be accepted and respected at national events (Jamborees, for example). Scouts would wind up learning tolerance from each other, as they must, because we must live in the world, not just in our private, self-selected enclaves. I know that won't make either side happy either. It's just what I think may be right.

Justice Department to give Congress two memos purporting to justify drone attacks on American citizens. The memos, according to the linked article in the New York Times, date from 2010, and were crafted to excuse the killing of an American citizen, but Al Qaeda operative, Anwar al-Awlaki.

In other words, Younger Daughter was totally off base when she leaped to the conclusion that this sounded vaguely 'Republican' to her.

Sadly, this is one area of bipartisan agreement: Republicans and Democrats alike don't seem to give a second thought to human rights or civil liberties, even for Americans, so long as they're overseas (as al-Awlaki was).

So the government can kill Americans overseas, if those Americans are real bad guys -- even if they've never been charged with, much less convicted of, a crime. What if al-Awlaki had been found in Florida, instead of Yemen? Could government-sanctioned death come for him in Florida as easily as in Yemen? Why not? And we know gang leaders or organized crime kingpins are really bad guys, even if they've never gotten convicted of anything. Why should we bother with expensive trials and the uncertainty of juries when we can kill bad guys by remote control? What if we started with the Mexican nacrotraficos first? Would that make you less squeamish?

I'm squeamish. I'm deathly afraid. My country has completely lost its way.

Of course, no matter how lost we are, others are more lost by far: Saudi 'cleric' calls for baby burkas to protect infant girls from molestation. I heard this one yesterday, but, according to Islam Online, this story arises from an interview given by Saudi cleric, Sheikh Abdullah Daoud, on Al-Majd TV last year, but only now spreading across the Intertubes and social media. It is not a story in The Onion and -- as you'll see from the link -- the Sheikh's bright idea has been widely condemned in the Islamic world too.

But Paul Harvey is in the news again, a few years after his death, because of the Dodge commercial that used a speech Harvey once gave about farmers. As long as there are people like Sheikh Abdullah Daoud in the world, who think that on some level baby girls invite abuse from perverts if they are not wearing burkas, we are not (as Paul Harvey used to say) we are not yet one world.

Good day.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Thank goodness there was a good football game sandwiched in among last night's commercials

Granted, the game lasted for what seemed like forever -- the power outage surely did not help -- but the 49ers had a chance to win the game in the last two minutes -- and I agree with Coach Jim Harbaugh that his receiver was interfered with. Interference? It looked more like a mugging. "A good no-call," said one of the announcers, charitably, because, he said, the receiver was pushing off, too. Pushing off? He was trying to escape a hold that would have been called a Crusher Crunch or something in the WWE. But I don't know if the pass could have been caught in bounds. It looked to be on a rising trajectory as it, and San Francisco's chances, sailed away.

The commercials that stretched the game out forever are often the highlight of a Super Bowl broadcast.

This year, however, the commercials were about as weak as I can remember. (Yes, that's a link what appears to be all of them.)

Last night's commercials were not weak because they weren't elaborate, but because they were. In general, there was too much of a muchness about last night's commercials -- and most of the overdone productions were, as Ken Levine calls them this morning, "mini-Ishtars."

Of the big productions numbers, only this Oreo commercial made me laugh:

I don't remember commercials touting commercials in years past. This year, there were commercials in the interminable pre-game trying to set us up for the 'real' commercials yet to come. A very elaborate VW pre-game commercial ended up with a Jamaican driving away from a fantasy menagerie to the theme of the old Partridge Family TV show.

I expected something similar when the 'real' commercial aired -- and, so, I almost missed the little office drama with the white guy (from Minnesota) talking like he was pitching Red Stripe beer. I read online that the Jamaican Minister of Tourism liked the spot and is trying to figure out a way to capitalize on it for tourism in his country. If the Jamaicans don't mind the commercial, I guess we needn't get too upset about it, right?

But while I didn't think it 'racist,' I also didn't think it was very good. It did use the Partridge Family theme again. Why?

Another controversial commercial was the 'prom' spot for Audi:

Some felt that this commercial glorified an assault on the prom queen. I didn't see it that way -- I imagined a different backstory, something about their prior friendship, but he's a nerd and she's a cheerleader and she felt pressured to go out with the captain of the football team who was a violent lout and mean to her anyway.

But, look, do you really want a car that can make you lose your inhibitions and endanger yourself? Sort of like the Pepsi Next commercial with the parents coming home unexpectedly to a house party run amuck. Yes, says the son, but we weren't drinking anything but Pepsi Next. So who cares? The house has been destroyed. If Pepsi Next is the drink of vandals or inspires mob action, do you really want that in your fridge?

A rule of thumb in prior Super Bowls was that the car ads generally were the worst. Not last night... the 'Space Babies' ad for Kia was overmuch, but it ended well. The Hyundai Turbo ad was amusing.

But they come off particularly well mostly by comparison with the awful Doritos ad about the goat, or the aforementioned ad for Pepsi Next.

The Amy Poehler Best Buy ad was a little creepy. The Speed Stick laundromat ad was a little more creepy. But, of course, was the creepiest of all, in my opinion, with Bar Refaeli loudly 'swapping spit' with a pudgy, nerdy guy, played by actor Jesse Heiman. It was supposed to represent the meeting of 'sexy' and 'smart.' It was just... noisy.

That's my review of last night's action -- but I admit I didn't bet a single penny on the game. I'm not certain whether that admission might not be devastating to my credibility (I might as well grow a beard and become an anarchist). So what's your take on the best and worst of last night's marketing extravaganzas? Leave a comment.

Friday, February 01, 2013

Frivolous Friday: Everything I need to know I get from the comics, part 4,795

Zach Weiner's Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal webcomic had this one a few days back... and it struck me as uncomfortably close to true.

Even casual readers will be able to plot my position on this bell curve. Although... Mr. Weiner, Zach (if you'll pardon the familiarity): I have to take issue with you on the labeling of the horizontal axis of your graph. Retirement? A fiction. A fantasy. A fraud. No more real than crystal skulls with mystic powers... or unicorns. (Well, you are young still; sadly, you'll find out.)

Speaking of unicorns, Wednesday's Bizarro, by Dan Piraro, stuck me as funny. Although I've had an office on the 13th floor of a building before, I've also worked in a number of buildings where there really is no such thing -- the floor immediately above 12 is 14. Since this was the subject of a comic, I guess this must be at least a national phenomenon. Does triskaidekaphobia extend overseas as well? Do office towers in London, Rome or Paris have 13th floors? If the MacArthur Foundation is listening, I'm willing to do field research on this. Starting right now.

Long Suffering Spouse might have appreciated Wednesday's installment of Grand Avenue, by Steve Breen and Mike Thompson, with the principal coming to evaluate the teacher. But my wife, a teacher, doesn't read this blog (or know of it's existence); she doesn't even read the comics. She works too hard. I don't work enough (but I'd still make time to read the comics even if I had more work than I knew what to do with).

I didn't intentionally set out to do a post on comics from Wednesday (although that would be like me, a couple of days late on the uptake); it's just that Wednesday's installment of the ever-sly Brewster Rockit, by Tim Rickard, struck me as the funniest of the week.

I could use a jolt of Dr. Mel's anti-stupidity ray this morning -- if he could just get the settings right.