Tuesday, July 18, 2017

My Body’s “Service Engine Soon” Light Is On

My Venerable Road Warrior SUV’s “SERVICE ENGINE SOON” warning lit up about a month ago, a couple days after the guys at Zimbrick had just given it a little more than fifteen hundred bucks’ worth of TLC. The Road Warrior is just shy of turning a hundred thousand miles on the odometer and in a few months it will be 12 model years old.

The Venerable Road Warrior is as old as our wonderful purebred collie Shadow. Both were “born” in 2006. Our old gal Shadow was born at our breeder’s home in suburban Franklin, WI and we took her home when she was six months old. The Venerable Road Warrior was born at an assembly plant in Ramos Arzipe, Mexico, a couple hundred miles southwest of Laredo, TX and began life as a Hertz rent-a-car at the San Francisco airport.

It’s amazing how easy it is these days to find out things about your car’s history. I have no idea how it wound up on the lot at Zimbrick in Madison, where I bought it in ’08. At that time, it had only about 20K on the odometer.

As usual, I digress.

The idea for this post came when, the other day, I was helping my buddy Shadow navigate the seven stairs between my office and the next level of our quad-level home, where our kitchen, dining room, and “living room” are located. We found out in April that Shadow has degenerative myelopathy, a disease of the spinal cord that develops in some dogs. The spinal cord degeneration causes the dog to gradually lose control of the hindquarters, which makes going up stairs a challenge.

Eventually, and our vet tells us it’s likely a matter of months, perhaps weeks, Shadow will completely lose control of her back legs. She won’t be able to stand, much less navigate stairs. So – we’ll have to help her across the Rainbow Bridge, as pet-owners say, at that time.  Our vet assures us there’s no pain to the animal as the disease progresses, but it’s irreversible and untreatable.
Here's Shadow, In Her First Summer in '07

As I gently lifted Shadow’s butt a bit to help her ascend the stairs, I thought “you know, Shadow, we’ve got three things around here that have the ‘SERVICE ENGINE SOON’ light on: you, me, and the Venerable Road Warrior”.

About the same time our vet had made the diagnosis of degenerative myelopathy on Shadow, I was diagnosed with peripheral neuropathy. Usually it affects people with diabetes, which I do not have, but it’s pretty common, with about 3 million new cases every year. It’s a degeneration of the nerves in the hands and or feet that causes numbness and tingling. In my case, it’s the feet more than the hands. This whole thing started out for me when I told my primary care doc that I was having trouble keeping my balance. Long story short, I wound up sitting in front of a podiatrist who told me what was going on, and made the diagnosis.

The podiatrist explained that the balance issues come from the inability of the damaged nerves in my feet to communicate vital information to my brain – information that’s necessary to maintain your balance when standing. You can have surgery on your lower spinal cord to help mitigate the effects, but it’s risky, not at all a guaranteed fix, and has a long rehab.

Oh – and the reason for the “SERVICE ENGINE SOON” warning light on the Venerable Road Warrior? It could be a bad oxygen sensor. Or a bad catalytic converter. So, for right now, until I decide whether it’s worth it to stick another grand or so into the ’06 SUV, the warning light will be a permanent feature.

So I guess the three of us….me, Shadow, and the Venerable Road Warrior….will just wait to see what happens.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Why Does Madison Tolerate This Annual Auditory Assault?

I sometimes daydream that I am in possession of a high-powered drone, equipped with an infrared camera, possessing the capability of dropping a small but extremely powerful munition that could be detonated about 50 feet over the head of anyone blowing off fireworks, instantly rendering them temporarily deaf, causing their ears and nose to bleed profusely, leaving them with a monstrous headache, and shattering every piece of glass in their home.

This magnificent imaginary weapon would have such a highly-developed munition that its incredible blast of noise would be limited to a very small footprint, enabling highly localized pain and devastation.

Because Independence Day fell on a Tuesday this year, people apparently felt some sort of Constitutional right to blow off unlawful fireworks Friday night, Saturday night, Sunday night, Monday night, all day and night Tuesday, and even Wednesday night. Five or six nights of relentless aerial bombardment by these wannabe pyrotechnicians.

In my tiny Town of Madison suburban neighborhood, which consists of a handful of homes arranged like spokes of wheel around a huge cul-de-sac (which I believe is the largest cul-de-sac in Dane County), the noise this year was relentless.

The explosions drive my younger collie nuts, causing me to have to stay up until 2 AM comforting her until the drunken pyros pass out or run out of ammunition. There is one particular cretin, who lives about a quarter-mile northwest of us, who each year loads up on professional-grade aerial bombs, and sets them off, about ten minutes apart, from 8 PM until 2 AM. This year, he started Friday night and continued through Tuesday night.

This is not the kind of stuff you can buy at the myriad tents set up around Dane County a couple weeks in advance of Independence Day. This is the kind of stuff that is used in professional fireworks shows. It doesn’t create a beautiful shower of brilliant colors when it’s launched; it just ascends to about 200 feet and then explodes. Its sole purpose is to make an extremely loud noise.

If I step outside, I can hear the WHUMPH of the mortar being fired, which propels the noise-making device to a couple hundred feet. A couple seconds after the initial, dull WHUMPH, the aerial bomb detonates, with a deafening roar. I have one of those decibel meter apps on my iPhone, and the explosion registers 116 db.

Suffice to say it’s loud enough to scare the wits out of my younger collie. She’s skittish in thunderstorms but the fireworks really scare her. Her older “sister”, who is less high-strung and far more mellow, couldn’t care less. Her ears flick when the aerial bombs go off, but she’s unperturbed.

There’s another guy about a quarter-mile southeast of us, who delights in setting off similar, but not quite as loud, aerial bombs all night. Those “only” register 95 on my handy-dandy DbA app.

I get it. People love to blow off fireworks on Independence Day. I can deal with one night of staying up late, comforting my scared collie. But five or six nights? Come on.

I posted a short rant about it on my Facebook page, and a friend, who is an executive at The Capital Times, commented “I keep waiting for someone to politically organize on this single issue. The volume and frequency increase each year and there are tents set up in parking lots up and down Verona Road selling the things. I'm told that veterans with PTSD are often affected by the constant explosions. Actual firing ranges don't sound as bad.”

This year and last year on July 5th, I phoned in a noise complaint to the cops, giving them the exact addresses from which the professional-grade stuff was being launched. (How do I know? Drive by in the daylight and observe the abundant wreckage of scorched cardboard and wrappings strewn about their yard.)

The dispatcher, both times, has asked me if I want “personal contact with an officer”, and I politely say “no, just arrest the lawbreakers and confiscate their unlawful contraband.”

Maybe some year, if enough people make their voices heard, the cops will do just that.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things

No, this isn't photoshopped. That's how Fox News introduced the story to its millions and millions of viewers last night.

In a few minutes, they pulled the "Resigned" story back. 

And then spent the rest of the night feigning befuddlement about why anyone would be upset that Don fired the FBI Director.

Fake news?

It's no wonder so few people trust the media. It's like the old joke, "one church says there ain't no hell; the other says the hell there ain't."

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Charlie Hart: Gone Too Soon

That guy at the bar having a beer in the recent picture above is Charlie Hartwig, or, as his friends and colleagues knew him, Charlie Hart. Charlie unexpectedly passed away Friday morning. This story is about the many years I spent working in radio with Charlie.

When I came from WMKC-FM to WOSH-FM and WTYL-AM in Oshkosh in the late 70’s, Charlie Hart could have hated me. For a few years I’d competed with Charlie’s morning show on WYTL-AM, and when Kimball Broadcasting threw me under the bus, WOSH/WYTL scooped me up.

Word was leaked (I can’t prove it, but I know who did it) that I was going to be paid a lot of money – more than anybody else on the on-air staff – Charlie could have turned a cold shoulder and froze me out. He did just the opposite. What Charlie – and only three other people at WOSH/WYTL knew – is that I was going to be their new morning news anchor. Charlie welcomed me with open arms and said “really looking forward to working with you, big fella!”

I’d never had a radio news job before; I was a programmer and on-air talent, but not a news guy. The boss at WOSH/WYTL at that time, Phil Robbins, said he wanted to use my robust baritone voice (those were the days….) to anchor morning newscasts on both the AM and FM station. The News Director at that time, the irascible Mark Belling (who has since gone on to fame as a talk-show host in Milwaukee, and as the principal fill-in guy for Rush Limbaugh) was in on the plan, and fully endorsed it.

The guy who was mad, and in fact quit when I was hired, was the Program Director, Doug Lane. I knew Doug professionally and we were friends. He didn’t quit because he was mad that I was hired, which is what a lot of people thought. He quit because they didn’t force me to change my name. The policy in place at WOSH/WYTL at the time was that nobody could use their actual name on the air. They had forced Doug to use the name “Doug Allen” and he was never happy about that.

When Mr. Robbins said “Doug, we have to make an exception here: Tim is very well known in this market under his real name, and we would look silly to force him to change it. It would cause needless confusion.” Well, Doug said “fine. I quit.” And that’s how Charlie Hartwig, known on the air as Charlie Hart, became Program Director.

As usual, I digress.

I got the sad news of Charlie’s passing from Charlie’s daughter, Christy, who was not much more than a toddler when I first met her. She posted an item to her dad’s Facebook page, with the shocking news. To say I was stunned is an understatement. It knocked me back into my chair, and I was overcome with sadness. A flood of memories came back.

(Here's a 1982 photo taken at the EAA Fly-In in 1982. We had just finished the morning show, live from the event. I'm on the left, that's Charlie in the center, and Steve Erbach on the right.)

Charlie and I had stayed in contact through the years; he’d just moved from Appleton to Rochester, MN to be closer to his family, and in particular his grandchildren. He was looking forward to spending his golden retirement years with those wonderful little kids, watching them grow up.

Charlie was a natural radio talent because he knew how to talk to people and was completely unpretentious. After his service with the Marines (including a combat tour in Viet Nam) Charlie came back to his native Minnesota, went to radio broadcasting school there (Brown Institute) and wound up in Oshkosh.

Working with Charlie and the extremely talented staff at WOSH/WYTL remains one of the most fun and rewarding periods of my life. I rose through the ranks quickly there to become the #2 man in the operation, before they threw me under the bus, but it was a real rocket-ride with some of the most talented people ever to be assembled as a broadcast staff.

(Here's a late-70's photo of Charlie interviewing B.J. Thomas. The photo was taken in the main news studio that I worked in at WOSH/WYTL.)

Doing the morning show with Charlie was a constant hoot. His intense love of country music and his naturally engaging personality and sense of humor kept that program the number one morning show in the market for many years.

Without getting too far inside baseball, let me give you an idea of how popular that show was. I still have the ratings books to prove it, to those who think I’m exaggerating. Charlie’s morning show had a 32 share of listeners 12 years of age and older. In layman’s terms, that means that during the morning hours, roughly a third of the people who were listening to radio in the Fox Valley market were listening to Charlie’s show.

Ratings that good just don’t exist any more, and haven’t for decades. Both WYTL-AM, which is the station Charlie’s morning show was on, and WOSH-FM, the sister station which broadcast out of the same building with many of the same personnel, were extremely popular in the late 70’s and early 80’s. The two stations had a combined 43 share in the broadest possible audience measurement, listeners 12 years and older, Monday through Sunday, 6 AM through 12 midnight. Again, that sort of dominance is now unheard of.

Charlie, as morning show host, was quarterback of the team. He set the pace, showed the way. Oh, there are those who think management calls the shots and does the leading, but that’s never been true. Charlie got to work early and didn’t leave until everything that needed to get done that day got done. Charlie was in his office by 4 AM, preparing for his show, which started at 5:30 AM.

Around 9:30 or so, a half-hour after his show ended, pretty much every day a bunch of us from the station would drive a few blocks to Mike’s Place restaurant, to have breakfast, drink coffee, and talk smart. After that, it was back to work for the rest of the day.

Sometimes, after work meant going to Harry’s Bar downtown, one of Charlie’s favorite hangouts. It was a regular place with regular folks, nothing fancy about it: much like Charlie. What you see is what you get.

(I'm not sure where I got this photo - it's in my file as "Geeks at Sea" and it looks like it was taken on the Wolf River in Winneconne. At the top are Charile and Sheree Sommers; the bottom row is Duane Gay, Steve Erbach, and Judy Fowler.)

There are so many stories I could tell about those heady days, working hard and playing hard; I’m just sad that Charlie, who never did things half-assed, wasn’t granted more years to enjoy his grandchildren and his leisure.

Radio is a transient business for on-air folks. When Charlie’s days at WYTL came to an end, he worked at a couple other stations in the Fox Valley; WYNE-AM and WPKR-FM to name a couple. Then he got out of the biz and went to work for Pierce, the big company in Appleton that makes fire trucks

Charlie and I chatted occasionally in the past several years, most frequently about the folks we worked with back at WOSH/WYTL, and what they were doing these days. Some are still in broadcasting; others started their own successful small businesses; some climbed the corporate ladder to positions of power.

The last time we chatted, we talked about getting together in Rochester so I could see his new digs. We decided to wait until there was no chance of snow interfering with travel, and that we’d set a date in April.

I shouldn’t have waited. Rest in peace, Charlie.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

"Health Savings Accounts For All!" - Said The Man Behind The Curtain

The man who some, for reasons I’ll never understand call “The Intellectual Leader Of The Republican Party”, was on the tube again today doing his best to pitch the “replace” part of the “repeal and replace” he claims his party has been preaching for the past eight years.

First off, let’s be clear: for 7.9 of those past 8 years, the rallying cry was “repeal”, not “repeal and replace”. But now that Mr. Ryan and his co-conspirators have control of all the levers of power, they’ve been forced to admit that simply repealing what they call “Obamacare” would likely lead to a real, honest-to-God revolution.

Since the election, apparently a lot of dweebs have figured out that their health insurance, obtained at HealthCare-dot-gov, is, in fact, “Obamacare”. And now these Trumpsters have had their “wait a minute” moment, and are beginning the rumblings of discontent about this “repeal” business.

As usual, I digress.

Ryan’s selling as hard as he can, but anyone who’s been around the block a few times knows that the stuff he’s peddling right now will never fly. Their hasty attempt to put some compromise crap together isn’t pleasing anyone except the fat cats that run the health insurance companies.

One of the big features of this new-and-improved Obamacare is the touting of Health Savings Accounts as a huge part of their “solution”. HSA’s for all!!! An HSA for you…and an HSA for you….and one for you.

Let me finally get to the point of this rant, which is Health Savings Accounts.

My wife and I have used the same accounting firm for more than twenty years. We’ve come to be friends with the man whose name is on the door of that company. His firm has more than 700 clients. He told us that of those 700+ clients, exactly ONE has an HSA.

That client is a multi-millionaire.

That’s all you need to know about HSA’s, folks. More stuff for the rich folks, from Ryan and his crew.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

One Nation, Divisible By Fake News

This “fake news” thing is like an aging hi-yield nuclear weapon.  It’s dangerous and unstable. And it’s not a play-toy, though some practitioners of fake news, according to multiple reports, just create fake news for the hell of it. Some are highly paid spinmeisters, some are just kids adept at the technical aspects of the internet.

Though I’ve never had a single course in journalism, I’ve been in the news business for a long time. I learned from some pretty tough teachers: experience, and mentors whose bedrock principles were accuracy, fairness, and restraint.

It’s not like that any more, though.

In no particular order, these are my thoughts on the rise of fake news and how dangerous it is.


Deregulation and leveraged buyouts decimated local radio, TV, and print newsrooms. In the Clinton era, Clear Channel bought up every radio station it could, and when it couldn’t sustain the debt load, shed personnel – starting in the news room. The same economic pressures from the advent of the internet, Craig’s List, et.al that started the problems with radio soon spread to local TV and print newsrooms.

While news gathering was becoming expendable as "too expensive" to the suits who run broadcasting at the local level, the network TV operations were creating more and more “news” programming. Because of the vastly different economics driving network TV, news (and "reality") programming is a lot cheaper than scripted shows.

The influence of local news diminished, and the influence of national news rose.

The Rise of Social Media and Specialized “News” Sites

Just as broadcast stations are constantly hungry for more content, social media sites presented a huge opportunity for content creators to spread content from their websites. Outfits like Breitbart, Gateway Pundit, Huffington Post, and Democratic Underground – just to name a handful – exploded in popularity because of Facebook sharing and Retweeting.
With varying degrees of slant, the stuff on these sites is not “news”. It is not, in most cases, written by impartial journalists, but rather by people who are helping promote a certain mindset or point of view.

Because we tend to filter out the news we don’t “agree” with, and expose ourselves to media which is congruent with our mindset, many of us have lost the ability to discern what is real, fact-checked, verifiable news, and what’s opinion. Far too many people who see a “story” headlined “Obama Behind Secret CIA Move To Impeach Trump” actually regard this sort of thing as “news”.

In the span of a decade, we’ve become a nation of people who can’t even agree on what a fact is.

Network News Headquarters Are In New York

This familiar map of the electoral results of the last election illustrates perfectly the divided nature of our country. News, by and large, originates in New York City or Washington DC. Network newsrooms are staffed by people who live in blue states. “Normal” to them has nothing to do with an outlier like Donald Trump, which is why at first they didn’t take his candidacy seriously (HuffPost covered Trump’s campaign as “Entertainment” for months) and later, as he steamrolled candidates from the Republican mainstream, they didn’t really know what to make of it.

With the exception of Fox News, liberal points of view dominate the mindset of people who work in network newsrooms, whether they’re producers, writers, reporters, or anchors. Even though they are professionally neutral, their default mindset is more liberal than conservative.

The Cult Of The Brand

Many reporters, who used to have a status about 15 notches below the national anchors, now seem to be as concerned about “developing their brand” as they are about presenting the facts in a neutral manner. Now, “reporting” has become a brand-builder: you’ll hear the national network correspondents use phrases like “my reporting indicates that….”

Even fledgling reporters at the local level are paying close attention to how they are presented, the kind of stories they do, and the manner in which they deliver the story all as part of “building their brand” to advance their career.

Fake News

All the things I’ve mentioned here have given rise to the dangerous phenomenon of “fake news”. People can’t agree on facts; the media outlets they choose reflect their personal bias; and the default position of the news gatekeepers is liberal.

The most dangerous part of all this is the “I’m entitled to my opinion” mindset. If you choose to believe Jenny McCarthy’s spewings on vaccination, and disregard the peer-reviewed reports of medical experts, you’re confusing opinion and fact. And that’s one of the many reasons you’re vulnerable to fake news.

And when there’s an entire professional class of people dedicated to making you doubt everything you hear and read, and label what they don’t like as “fake news”….well, we’re all in trouble.

Without facts, the decisions we as a nation have to make are no better than a roll of the dice.

Last Word

To understand what’s going on in the red/blue rural/urban divide, read UW Professor Kathleen Cramer’s excellent book “The Politics of Resentment”.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Is A Political Earthquake Coming?

Ask the scientists at the CalTech Seismological Laboratory how tricky it is to try and predict an earthquake. It’s a very, very difficult task. So many variables. So many unknowns. But I spoke with a longtime acquaintance yesterday in the course of doing the part-time day job that keeps me off the streets, who’s predicting a political earthquake.

Just as pressure builds and builds and finally lets go with a shift of tectonic plates, he thinks resentment against the political class, which has been building for quite a while, increased exponentially since the last debacle we called an election, and that we’re beginning to see the signs of a huge shift.

The news for the past several weeks has been full of political rallies and town hall meetings, and they’re getting progressively more nasty. People are beginning to demand that the politicians they send to Washington election after election start listening to them.

The politicians who thought they were immune from dis-election because of Gerrymandering and the power of incumbency, now have a lot more to worry about than being primaried by the NRA.

One middle-aged woman at a town hall meeting with her Congressman last night stood up and told the politician that her health insurance was literally a matter of life and death. When she saw his attention begin to wane, she said, angrily, “what kind of health insurance do YOU have” and suddenly the entire auditorium broke out in cheers.

It used to be that people hated Congress, but thought their own representative to Congress was a nice person and not part of the problem. Now, that’s changing.

Most of the people I know don’t give a rat’s ass about which bathroom someone uses, they didn’t think Obama was coming for their guns, they think building the wall is a stupid waste.

But now that the slower buffalo in the herd have finally figured out that their health insurance through the Affordable Care Act is….omigod….OBAMACARE….they’re suddenly starting to pay attention.

And those TV ads you see every 10 minutes from AARP showing our new President promising to save Social Security and Medicare? Folks are suddenly starting to get wise to what Paul Ryan and his pals really want to do with Social Security and Medicare. And that’s making them very uneasy. 

They've figured out that the billionaire (?) President and his billionaire pals that he has running things might not be too concerned about how much their Social Security checks are for. Or if their 401K will carry them through retirement.

And the regular folks are starting to make noise about it.

Although the spinsters would like us to believe that this noise is being made by “paid, professional protesters”, in their quiet moments alone, the pols are starting to figure out that enough regular folks are riled up that an earthquake may just be coming.