Thursday, May 27, 2010

State Journal Editorial Page Editor Pushes Back!

My prior post, about the incorrect usage of “anxious” on the editorial page of the State Journal Monday, has again made my point about the people who fill slots in journalism these days.

They NEVER admit they’re wrong.

I pointed out that “anxious” and “eager” are two distinctly different words, with different meanings, and the man in charge of the editorial page, Scott Milfred, posted a couple comments (which you can read for yourself by clicking on the headline of my prior post) proving (in his estimation, I’m sure) with geometric logic that he is NOT wrong.

I don’t know Scott. Never met him. But I know him by reputation. A couple years back the editorial page he manages was a Pulitzer prize finalist, and praise doesn’t come any higher than that. I like his style. As he points out, he tries to write conversationally. Scott’s writing is not the old-school method favored by other editorialists, like my friend Neil Heinen.

Scott points out that the third reference to “anxious” in both the Merriam-Webster online and hard-copy dictionary lists “anxious” as a synonym for eager.

Point taken. If you go three deep in any reference, you start to encounter “popular usage” references. My counterpoint is, the references are there because so many people misuse the word.

Feeling anxiety about something is not at all like feeling eagerness about something. It’s a pretty different feeling, and a pretty different shade of feeling. Of course, you can have both feelings at once – sort of like before boarding a new thrill ride at a theme park. Eager to have the experience, but anxious about what it’s really going to feel like.

Tenacity and the characteristic of never wanting to admit you’re wrong seem to me to be hallmarks of a good journalist. I know because I’ve worked with plenty of them, and I have no doubt that Scott is an accomplished professional journalist. They love to argue.

I’ve dealt with this attitude in coaching writers for decades. They always think their approach, their methods, their usage is right. And like Scott, they’ll go to great lengths to defend their point of view.

Why would a journalist, whose editorials are read every day by thousands and thousands of people in the state’s second-largest newspaper even bother to argue with me, a one-man band with a computer, an internet connection, and a few hundred readers?

To prove that he’s right, and I’m wrong, ignoring the old adage “The eagle does not hunt flies.”

Neither of us is going to back down, Scott. But it’s been fun going back and forth, and I think my readers got a kick out of your tenacity in defending your view. You’ve illustrated quite nicely the points I’ve made over the past couple years on this blog about the mindset of so many people in the media today.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Wisconsin State Journal Reluctant to Expose Wrongdoing?

Being one of the dwindling number of dinosaurs, I read the print edition of the Wisconsin State Journal essentially every morning. Monday morning, turning to the editorial page, I was disappointed to learn that the State Journal has apparently never embraced its role in exposing corruption in state government.

And there’s so much corruption to expose, these days.

The paper’s editorial yesterday morning was about the importance of whistle-blowers exposing fraud and corruption, and giving kudos to the guv for signing the “Whistleblower Protection Act”, which gives some protection to news sources who tip reporters to dirty dealing.

Like most papers, the State Journal provides “subheads” (newspaper folks probably have a name for these things, and I probably have it wrong) for people who just want a quick take on a story, to decide whether or not they want to read the entire story. The editorial was titled “Whistle-blowers welcome here”, and the sub-head said, in bold black print, “With the governor giving tipsters more protection, the State Journal is as anxious as ever to help citizens expose wrongdoing – wherever it may be found.”

Damn. And I thought the paper relished the role, particularly its victory in exposing all the political crooks in the so-called caucus scandal a few years back. (By the way…wanna bet on whether Scooter actually stands for retrial in Waukesha County?)

By now, some of you may have caught on to my ruse. Whoever wrote the sub-head for the editorial made one of the most common, entry-level writing mistakes, using the word “anxious” as though it meant the same thing as “eager.”

Even though “anxious” is incorrectly substituted for “eager” by casual speakers, Wisconsin’s second-largest daily newspaper shouldn’t make this common mistake. It’s another example of the mediocrity that’s become the hallmark of contemporary news media.

Every so often, when I hit a nerve in skewing the local media, somebody will go through my post and pick it apart, and expose errors I’ve made. Fair enough. I’m a one-man-band with a computer and an internet connection. I don’t have an editor, who theoretically would catch my mistakes.

Last week, one smiling local TV anchorette cheerily informed me, during a story about “LZ Lambeau”, that “LZ” stood for “landing zone, which is a safe place for soldiers to be.” Wanna ask any soldier who jumped out of a Huey at a landing zone during the Viet Nam War if it was a “safe place”?

Sunday night, a reporter for a TV network informed me that we were coming up on the “ten-year anniversary” of the 9-11 attacks. (Tenth anniversary, in English.)

Another told me oil was washing up on the shores of “four different states” in the south. (My friend GH is rolling his eyes at this one -“different” is superfluous here.)

I know I’m obsessive about this stuff, but common mistakes like these used to be far rarer in professional media.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Living In A Bicyclist's Paradise

Presumably, the $147,000 the City of Madison will spend on the latest bike-friendly scheme – “bike boxes” at busy intersections – will just come out of some department’s operating budget. Because if you put this latest scheme up to a vote, I’m convinced it would be soundly rejected.

Briefly, here’s the story: Dave and Kathy and 19 of their friends went to Germany and the Netherlands a few weeks ago on a “fact-finding” mission. The facts they were looking for, apparently, were related to making bicycling a more safe and appealing thing for the folks back here in the People’s Republik of Madison.

I’m not grousing about the junket or its cost, most of which was picked up by sources other than the city and county coffers. And they came back with some good ideas after spending some time in bike-friendly cities on the other side of the big pond – like pointing out that the typical bike sold in the U.S. is anything but “commuter friendly”. 15 speeds and those low-raked handlebars don’t make for an easy jaunt to work. You need old-fashioned stuff like high handlebars and chain guards.

But the bike-box thing? Please.

The first one went in a week ago today on Williamson Street at Wilson, an isthmus neighborhood where you KNOW the homies loved it. The bike-box is a huge red box on the pavement, with a separate “stop” line for bikes and cars. The bikes are allowed to queue in FRONT of all the motor vehicles, and when the light turns green, the bikes move out ahead of the cars and trucks.

So far, it’s just another one of those things that make Madison one of the most interesting cities in the nation. The topic got a workout on local radio talk shows all week long, with people grousing about how it’s another example of how cars take a back seat to bikes in Madison, blah blah blah.

We know that.

But I didn’t hear anybody discussing the COST of this latest bike-friendly program: EIGHT THOUSAND DOLLARS per. It’s not just red paint; it’s some sort of thermoplastic material that’s affixed to the pavement with a blowtorch, and it includes reflective glass beads in the mix. EIGHT THOUSAND DOLLARS????

The company that’s hawking this bike-box scam is a North Carolina outfit called Flint Trading, and they’re being so kind as to charge the city “only” three grand of the 16 grand the first two bike boxes will cost. And the city has plans for 18 more of them, presumably sans the friendly discount. That’s 147 grand.

Isn’t THAT stylish?!

Just another day in bicycle paradise. But you gotta wonder how this special hi-tech red reflective box will stand up to a winter’s worth of salt, sand, and plowing. Perhaps the good folks of the Willy Street neighborhood will just ban salting, sanding, and plowing this winter.

Oh, so what. It’s only money. And it’s for the bicyclists.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Scooter The Gamester

It’s been 2,772 days since Scooter Jensen, former Assembly Speaker, was criminally charged with misconduct in office. I know that because the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign keeps a clock on Scooter on its “Big Money Blog” website. Seven and a half years of delaying and denying.

And Scooter (who hates to be called that) has gamed the system again. His expensive lawyers have convinced our nearly worthless State Supreme Court that he should be re-tried in his home county. That would be Waukesha County. The supremes announced the ruling yesterday morning. And the Waukesha County D-A claims to be too busy to prosecute the case. Nice.

Never mind that the crimes Scooter was already convicted of happened here in Dane County, under the big top at the head of State Street. Never mind that the circuit court and appeals court both say he should be re-tried here. Talk about “Loophole Louie”! Scooter’s lawyers used a nice big loophole, getting the Supremes to go along with a law passed by his pals in the legislature AFTER he was convicted, giving politicians an advantage no other Wisconsin citizen has.

You and I would be tried in the county where our (alleged) crime was committed. That’s the way the system works. Except for politicians, who wrote a law in 2007 giving themselves “home court advantage”. Never mind that Scooter was convicted before that law was written. His re-trial, which will probably never happen, would be tried in the district where all his cronies live.

He’s gamed the system since the day he was caught in the so-called “caucus scandal” for using state-paid employees to work on political campaigns. This latest disgusting decision by our state’s highest court shows again that if you have enough money, you get a different kind of justice.

When failed and disgraced politician John Edwards talked about “the two Americas” in his failed Presidential campaign several years ago, he was alluding to the economic haves and have-nots in our nation. Scooter’s lawyers have convinced our supremes to demonstrate again to the citizens of Cheesetopia that there are two kinds of justice in our state.

One is the kind available to you and me; the other is the kind available to those who can afford staggering legal bills for seven and a half years.

Again, for about the fifth time, I plead: Will somebody please put Scooter in jail?

This sucks.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

New Rules

One of my favorite parts of the Bill Maher HBO show “Real Time” is just before he gives his concluding monologue, when he lists the “new rules”. Such a scenario played out at the health club Tuesday morning. I had finished my morning workout at Pinnacle Health and Fitness in Fitchburg and was headed out for a day of slaving over a hot computer, when the owner of the club, Mike McMahon, greeted me.

I was wearing one of my many Brewers t-shirts, and he glanced at the logo and said “another tough night”. I shook my head in disgust and said “if they play any worse, I’m going to have to stop wearing this stuff”.

Malingering behind the front desk was Matt Hanson, the fitness director of the club, who helped me develop a program to re-hab my left leg after I had hip replacement surgery back in ’01. “Naw, they just need a new rule….games are over after the sixth inning”.

Stroke of genius!

How many times in the past couple weeks, particularly when playing at home, have the Brewers lost a game because the bullpen couldn’t finish the starter’s work? The night before, on the road, the Brew-Crew’s bullpen imploded and wasted a great start from Yovanni Gallardo, allowing the Reds a five-run rally in the 7th inning. Another game lost by the ‘pen.

Tuesday afternoon, they allowed the Reds three runs in the 9th to end up losing 5-4. Last night they were tied at 3 after six, and let the Pirates beat them 5-4. Ryan Braun’s boneheaded base-running in the 9th killed any chance for a win.

The answer to the Brewers woes is as simple as Matt’s suggestion. Call the game at the end of the sixth, and you don’t have to worry about the bullpen serving up a bunch of cupcakes to the opposing batters, or boneheaded base-running mistakes.

Some guy who was sitting nearby reading the Wall Street Journal put down the paper and said “softball rules – if you’re up by 10 runs or more in the 5th, the game’s over”. The old “mercy rule”.

Several decades ago, when I played bar-league softball every summer in two leagues up in the Fox Valley, we got “run-ruled” out of more games than I can remember.

I don’t know how many games the Brewers would have won so far this year if the game had been called in the sixth, and quite honestly, I’m afraid to look.

Sounds like a good idea, though, and I believe I’ll take it up with Mr. Magoo (a/k/a Bud Selig).

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Poacher's Paradise

One of the most colorful characters in Madison’s past, Eddie Ben Elsen, announced his run for D-A in the nude, on the stage at the long-gone Dangle Lounge (a downtown strip club / bar), proclaiming that he would enforce “only the good laws”. Ah, the 60's.

Eddie’s spirit is alive and well in our fair city.

In what other city in America would you have a uniformed police officer and a plain-clothes police captain stand across the street and watch, while people who have unlawfully entered a home take it over in the name of “affordable housing”?

The “Operation Welcome Home” people are back this week, and their latest target is an unoccupied duplex on Turbot Drive, just a few blocks off Fish Hatchery Road. They entered the vacant home through what they claim was an “unlocked back door” (yeah, for sure) and took over the home, in a stunt similar to the one Z! and his pals pulled off on Tucson Trail last week.

Having duly notified the local media that they were doing it again, in front of the TV cameras they set up a PA system and proclaimed that the duplex, which was in foreclosure, was “owned” by Freddie Mac (the popular nickname for the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation), and hence is “owned by the people”, and they were taking over the duplex in the name of the people, for affordable housing.

Squatting in a home you broke into is, apparently, “affordable housing”.

The police told the assembled media they can’t do anything until the “owner of the home” makes a complaint. As of this morning, there’s a “no trespassing” sign tacked onto the front door.

Breaking and entering is apparently a “bad law”, not to be enforced in Madison if it pertains to people operating on behalf of “affordable housing”.

One speaker said something like “don’t ask about payment, because we’ve already paid for this home through federal bailouts and by the sweat off our backs from the years of underpaid labor this country was built on”. That’s not an exact quote, but I think it captures the spirit of what I heard.

A man claiming to be a realtor called into Mitch Henck’s talk show yesterday morning and said he and other realtors were getting e-mails from lenders saying they’d rather have the people who defaulted on their mortgage remain living in the home, rather than being evicted, even after sheriff’s sale, so the property didn’t become the latest target for the poachers and squatters.

I asked a realtor friend if she’d gotten such an e-mail, and she said she hadn’t.

The realtor representing the vacant duplex on Turbot Drive says she has an offer on the place.

Should be interesting to see how this one plays out. Maybe the addition of the “no trespassing” sign will discourage the squatters. Last week, the squatters were removed from the Tucson Trail home after the dispossessed owner made a formal complaint to police.

And, I think I’ll develop a list of “bad laws” to discuss with Scott Gregory, our Township Police Chief. I’m sure he’ll be delighted to find out which laws I’d rather not have him enforce.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Hairy-Legged Chief

They are the Indians, and unabashedly so. The small farming community of Mishicot says it’s not going to drop the “Indians” nickname for its high school, and have told the state Department of Public Instruction they will keep the logo of an Indian chief in full headdress.

Mishicot is a pretty little town, just north of Two Rivers and just west of Lake Michigan in Manitowoc County. The town has the standard white churches and rising steeples; a tidy main street; a covered bridge; and one of the largest golf resorts in the state, Fox Hills – 45 holes in total, including a championship-caliber 18-hole course.

There are about a dozen school districts in the state that have some sort of Indian nickname or logo who have not bowed to pressure from the politicians in Madison to abandon the name or logo. A few weeks ago, the guv signed a law making the state Superintendent of Public Instruction the ultimate arbiter of Indian nicknames and mascots, with power to ban Indian nicknames and logos.

Colleen Timm has been the principal and administrator of the Mishicot School District for the past six years, and says she has yet to hear a single complaint about their nickname or logo. Perhaps it’s because the district has written permission from the Hannahville Potawatomi to use the Indian nickname and logo.

Indian roots go deep in the small village of about 15 hundred people. A fellow by the name of Daniel Smith ran a sawmill there in the 1840’s, and as more folks began to settle in the area and hotels sprang up to serve people going to the trading post there, Smith named the settlement “Mishicot”, after his friend, Abraham Mishicot, leader of the local Potawatomi tribe.

I guess Smith figured “Mishicot” was a better name for his settlement than “Smithville”.

As is usually the case, there’s difference of opinion about what the Indian word “Mishicot” translates to. Some scholars say it means “turtle”; some say it means “covered with clouds”; but it seems the most reliable translation of the Chief’s name is “hairy legs”, according to Mishicot’s official website.

The high school athletic teams wear bright orange with the words “Mishicot Indians” on their uniforms, and their logo is a very stylized and updated facial rendering of a modern Indian in full headdress. The school newspaper is the “Indian Headline”.

There’s nothing derogatory or demeaning about any of it. It’s a reflection of the town’s heritage and a tribute to the person the town was named for. More importantly, the keepers of that heritage, the local Indians, agree – and have made their feelings known, in writing, to the school district.

Let’s see if the political and administrative forces in Madison have enough sense to keep their hands off this one.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Kicking The Bottle

Concord, Massachusetts has just joined about a hundred other cities in the county banning the sale of bottled water. Backlash against bottled water has been growing, but nowhere near as fast as the sale of the product itself.

We’ve been led to believe that water in plastic bottles is somehow better than what comes out of our tap. We’re being sold filtration devices to hook up to our tap to “clean” the water that comes out of it. We’re being sent subtle messages that what comes out of our tap is unhealthy, even dangerous.

Of course, for those who live in Madison or get their water from the Madison water utility, a little manganese is an added bonus…and, for those who live on the near east side, a few carcinogens from an old chemical dump are thrown into the mix once in a while. Mmmmmmm…. tap water.

The problems of the Madison water utility aside (and most of them have been solved or are being addressed), bottled water is ubiquitous. Hundreds of millions of people spend sometimes exorbitant amounts of money to buy and drink water out of plastic bottles.

And that’s why Concord has joined the anti-bottled-water parade.

Every second of every day in the U.S., a thousand people buy a plastic bottle of water. Every year, 17 million barrels of oil are used to produce plastic drinking bottles, and you need look no farther than your nearest recycling facility to see how many empty plastic water bottles have piled up. Giant companies like Pepsi, Coca-Cola, and Nestle have changed the way we consume water.

With the wide latitude given to advertising, we’re led to believe the water in those plastic bottles with the attractive labels comes from a spring or glacial melt or some other romantic source. Most of it is just plan tap water, filtered a bit, and put into an attractive and convenient package.

One estimate is that 40% of bottled water comes directly from some municipal water system. An industry executive told author Peter Gleick “when we’re done, tap water will be relegated to showers and washing dishes”.

Anybody as old as I am remembers Perrier – the fizzy water sold in green glass bottles. It was once the Cadillac of bottled water. The imitators soon followed, and when marketing execs realized we’d spend big money to buy water, the race for our wallet was on. Now, Perrier is marketed as a “lifestyle” item.

My wife and I briefly fell into the trap. We’d buy a case of “cheap” bottled water at the grocery store every week, and toss a few bottles into the ‘frig every day. Soon, we began doing what the bottles tell us NEVER to do…refilling them (with good old tap water); and now, we have a handful of polycarbonate bottles that get filled and refilled from the tap, and thoroughly cleaned once a week.

My wife drags a 1000ml bottle out of the ‘frig and hauls it to work every morning; I toss a package of generic flavoring of one sort or another into my bottles, and pour the stuff over tap-water ice made in our ‘frig.

The money we save is spent on recyclable glass bottles filled with fermented malt beverage. PS: Capital Brewery’s new “Supper Club” beer tastes kinda like the old Blatz beer. Worth a try.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Squatters "Rights?"

Everywhere I went this week, everybody was talking about it; all the media were covering it; it’s the kind of story that brings out strong emotion. The basics: a 24-year-old single mom and her two small children were moved into a vacant Tempe Drive duplex by a group calling itself “Operation Welcome Home”, led by some character who says his first name is “Z!”. Please note the exclamation point after the capital letter Z.

The duplex is in foreclosure and has been vacant for a while. So these “Operation Welcome Home” folks just decided to move the family into the home. And Z! wants the bank that owns the duplex to give it to “the community” for “affordable housing”.

Are these people insane?

Not one single person I talked to this week registered anything but amazement, disgust, and anger about this story. I talked with folks at the bank, at my health club, and folks I ran into on State Street Wednesday about this story.

If there’s a more liberal community in Wisconsin than Madison, I’m not aware of it. And yet every one of my acquaintances, who collectively represent the full political spectrum, said this house squat was little more than a cheap land-grab attempt.

Comments on the story that ran on and the online postings from the local TV stations reflect a community that’s not yet ready to embrace the concept of “squatters rights”.

The young woman and her two children were moved out of the duplex a short time after squatting there by the same folks who moved her in, the “Operation Welcome Home” people. This came after the Madison police department finally ordered the woman out, after claiming for a day that its hands were tied because the owner of the duplex hadn’t officially asked them to evict the squatters.

The local TV stations covered the story well, including the organized news event to publicize the squat, complete with Z! and his minions unfurling a banner which said something like “housing rights are human rights”. And Z! and the folks say they’re planning more of these takeovers, calling them “liberations” of property.

Perhaps it’s because every one of the people I talked with this week pay rent or a mortgage note that they so strongly resent this. Perhaps it’s just because of the audacity of it. Perhaps it’s because we seem to know, at some fundamental level, that this house-squat is just wrong.

Homelessness is a huge problem in this community and in most other cities of any size in Wisconsin and every other state. But this young woman was not homeless before she agreed to let Z! and his folks move her into the duplex, and she’s not homeless now. She just went back to where she was living, at her parents’ home. She has a job and can afford to pay rent, but has an eviction (which she disputes) on her record.

The duplex on Tempe Drive is up for auction Tuesday.

Perhaps Z! and his folks can come up with a backer and bid on it.

Not likely. The entitlement mentality doesn’t work that way.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Save The Drama For Your Mamma

Virtue is its own reward, goes the old saying…and apparently college kids who major in drama do it because they love the theatre. Most of them are aware they’re not likely going to get rich because they have a degree in drama. For every Denzel Washington or Meryl Streep there are hundreds of thousands of people with drama degrees who will not likely earn more than about 56 grand a year, tops, during the best years of their career. And they’ll start at a bit over 36 grand a year if they’re lucky enough to find a job.

Drama is the worst-paying college degree according to the Yahoo hot jobs survey, and just one notch above it is a fine arts degree, which pays only slightly more on average for starting salary and mid-career earnings.

But, college is not a training ground. And there’s much more to life than a fat paycheck. Still, the average college grad earns 20 grand a year more on average than someone without a degree. Engineering graduates tend to earn the biggest salaries, and that’s been true for some time. It’s confirmed just about every year by the website if you’d like to check for yourself.

Third-worst on this year’s list of earning power for college degrees is hospitality and tourism. But it’s hard to get a handle on the “real” pay now, because the industry is so far down in the recession, and the perks of many hospitality and tourism jobs offset the lower pay.

Fourth-worst on the list is no shocker….education. The average starting teacher pay is just above 36 grand, and with a bachelor’s degree only, teachers can expect to make just over 54 grand in the middle of their career. But the Bureau of Labor Statistics says the demand for teachers will grow by 14% over the next decade – hard to believe, when so many school districts, like Madison, are in the midst of cutting teachers and budget.

Horticulture is next on the list, but like drama, teaching, and the hospitality industry, horticulture grads know they’re not likely to make a lot of money.

A degree in Spanish will get you a job as a translator, and maybe a teacher, but not much money. It’s next on the list. A degree in music is similar – except the starting pay is slightly lower. And it’s a field like acting: a few make a lot of money. Most scrape by.

Eighth from the bottom is theology, but, as the folks at Yahoo say, it’s the perfect example of the degree earned by someone who’s not in it for the money. Ninth from the bottom is a degree in elementary education, where your starting pay will be about 33 grand, and if you don’t get a master’s degree, you’ll probably never make more than about 42 grand.

And tenth from the bottom is a degree in social work, but again, people who gravitate toward this profession understand that you don’t get rich by helping other people.

I spent most of my professional life in a career where a college degree means absolutely nothing: on-air broadcasting. One of my friends who’s a big-time broadcast consultant says it’s a business for kids who got “B’s” in high school.

But there’s always room for an “A” student in a “B” student’s business.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

I'm Out Of The Office Until...

Early in a career in writing, you learn that short communications are the most powerful. You’re overdrawn. You have cancer. You won the lottery.

Did you just realize that the relationship with the wonderful person you’ve been seeing for several months now should become exclusive and you can’t stand the thought of life without this person…or, did you fall in love?

There are exceptions to the rule, particularly when you’re trying to be clever or creative, but brevity is the soul of wit.

I have several writing contracts, and luckily when I e-mail one of my employers and they’re not in the office, every one of them has a succinct and direct message, like “I’m away from the office until X. If you need immediate action call my associate X at X.” None of the people I work for give long, rambling messages about why they’re away, where they’re going, or anything else that really doesn’t matter.

People who ramble on phone messages are liable to ramble on their out-of-office e-mail response, and I’ve had some dandies. The other day a friend sent me an e-mail with some of the “best” automatic replies. Here are a few:

“Sorry to have missed your e-mail, but I’m at the doctor’s having my brain removed so I can be promoted to our management team”.

“E-mails will be deleted in the order in which they were received”.

“Thank you for your e-mail. Your credit card has been charged $5.99 for the first 10 words and $1.99 for each additional word in your message”.

“Your e-mail message has been added to my inbox queuing system. You are currently number 654 and can expect a reply in approximately 19 weeks”.

And, one which is sort of a test to see how many barely computer literate people you know: “The e-mail server is unable to verify your server connection and is unable to deliver this message. Please restart your computer and try sending again”. You’ll know how computer-illiterate they are by the number of times they re-send the message.

The one that I consider a classic is “I’ve run away to join a different circus”.

Experts say dealing with our e-mail load is a contributor to the general “technology stress” that many of us feel. So, feel free to “borrow” any of the ones here for your out-of-office message. A smile is a good way to help beat stress.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Strategic Default

In the end, it amounts to a contract. Most mortgages say, in essence, if you make your payments you can keep the house. If you don’t, it’s ours. If it works out the way the lender hopes it does, they make a ton of money, you get an appreciating asset, and a place to live and store your stuff.

But these days, when a house is often a depreciating asset, more and more people are fulfilling the mortgage contract in a different way: turning the keys back over to the lender and walking away. Many of the people who are doing this can afford the monthly payment; they’ve just decided the contract is far too favorable to the lender, and are willing to take the “hit” on their credit for a few years, give up their equity (if any), and walk away.

Veteran newsman Morely Safer did his best Sunday night on 60 Minutes to shame a few people he found who are walking away from their mortgage, but he really didn’t succeed. He even dragged out that old saw about “back in the depression, when people lost their house, it was a mark of shame”.

Big difference between “losing” your house and walking away from your mortgage, Morely.

And the depression Mr. Safer was referring to was 80 years ago, not the one we’re in now.

Remember the first time you ever “closed” on a house? If you’re like a lot of folks, you were probably in your late 20’s, married, tired of renting, had saved up for a decent down payment, and when you looked at how much money you’d actually be paying the lender over the term of your mortgage (usually 30 years), it probably staggered you. You’d actually be paying for the house twice or three times over.

The lender made a huge amount of money, and you owned a hugely appreciating asset.

In 1962, my parents built the big 5-bedroom colonial ranch-style house our family grew up in, for 28 thousand bucks. Dad borrowed 25 grand at 1.875% over 30 years. He paid off the mortgage early, and in 1987 sold that home for well over a hundred grand to buy the smaller “retirement” home on the lake. They paid cash for the lake home – no mortgage.

That’s the way it used to work.

The last few years have changed that model dramatically. Liar’s loans, zero down payments, inflated prices, housing bubbles, collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps have changed the model.

Every couple that Safer interviewed for his 60 Minutes piece said they’d tried to work with the lender to strike a new deal, but the lenders refused, saying the borrowers were “able to make the current payment”. I’d call that greed on the lender’s part, and they’re now about to reap the harvest of their greed.

When you strip the emotion from buying a house – which is practically impossible – you’re left with a business deal. Business deals revolve around contracts and terms. Those who have chosen strategic default, and can afford to live with the impact it will have on their credit for a few years, have interpreted home ownership in its essence: a contract.

As the lenders are learning, the terms of the deal can work in ways they didn’t bank on.

Monday, May 10, 2010

4 Bucks For A Cuppa Joe?

The rhetorical question a lot of people ask, about Starbucks, is “who’d shell out six bucks for a cup of coffee you could get for 50 cents at the gas station?” Well, you can’t get much of a cup of coffee for half a buck, but there are gas stations where you can buy Starbucks coffee. And it's not six bucks.

There’s a whole bunch of them on the Illinois Tollway System. Pull into an Oasis to fill the tank, and stroll a few feet farther and find Starbucks, McDonalds, and other big national brands.

My friend Tim Moore, who’s a top-notch radio consultant, puts out an e-mail for his clients and friends every Wednesday called the “Mid-Week Motivator”. In his most recent one, Tim explains what broadcasters – and, for that matter, anybody in business – can learn from Starbucks.

First of all, Starbucks customers don’t pay six bucks for a cup of coffee. The average is $3.89. And the most telling thing about the way Starbucks trains its “partners” – not employees, not associates, not baristas, but partners – is the principal that “There is no customer request under our coffee umbrella we can’t or at the very least, attempt to fulfill”.

The customer, as Tim points out, really does come first.

My wife has dragged me with her into a Starbucks countless times; I’m off-put by the phony Italian lingo about “vente” or “grande” or whatever. Hey – this is America. Large, medium, small. And since I’m an obstinate old cuss, many times I say something like “what have you got that’s cold and good”….and the partner, no matter where in America we are, makes some suggestions.

One time, at a Starbucks in Tempe, AZ, a partner made a suggestion to me; and then said “tell you what – I’ll make it for you, and if you taste it and don’t like it, we’ll pour it out and try again”. Now THAT’s customer service. And, for the record, I loved it. Whatever it was.

Moore also reveals another lesson from the Starbucks playbook: “You are the company, you are important, and we will never promote someone from the outside, before we promote you”. Holy smokes…their people really are their company, and they acknowledge it. Employee turnover is minimal, and it’s no wonder.

Some people half-jokingly say Starbucks is out for world domination. According to Tim, part of the Starbucks creed for reaching customers is “We want to be your third place: standing behind your family and your place of work, we want to be part of your typical day”.

Radio used to be like that, and in some cases still is – but as Moore and his fellow top-notch consultants know, radio is losing its grip on its audience. Too much great local radio talent has been tossed under the bus in the past three years in the name of cost-cutting.

Radio station owners and owners of any business that has direct contact with people would do well to learn a lesson or two from Starbucks. It’s not just the coffee, silly.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Friday Media Rant: Mediocrity In News Coverage

One of the most frequently-heard words when my cronies and I discuss the state of news today is “mediocrity”. The recent coverage of the failed Times Square bomber illustrated the point to me.

After 9-11, law enforcement and public safety agencies said one of the biggest problems was timely sharing of information – everything from NYPD not being able to monitor NYFD radio transmissions, to the FBI, CIA, and NSA not talking to each other.

Nearly ten years later, here in Dane County, we’re STILL fighting about a radio system that would allow all the cops, firefighters, and EMT’s in the county to “hear” each other when there’s an emergency. Here, it’s a fight about who’s going to pay for, not about whether it’s needed.

It was apparent from my “monitoring” (there’s an old saying: broadcasters monitor; listeners listen and viewers view) of CNN and NBC’s coverage of the bomber that their reporters in the field didn’t know what information their colleagues had developed. It pains me to say it, but Fox News didn’t seem to have that problem. All their anchors and reporters in the field seemed to be on the same page.

Monday night, watching the NBC Nightly News, they had four reporters in the field doing live “stand-up” reports, mixing in video they’d gathered earlier in the day. Reporter number one said the bomber was caught after the plane had pushed back from the gate and was taxiing to the runway. The reporter even had the audio of ground control, telling the pilot to immediately bring the plane back to the gate. Agents then boarded the plane and arrested the would-be bomber and two other people.

Reporter number two said “the bomber was caught before boarding the plane”….an obviously erroneous assertion, as evidenced by the tape of the ground controller calling the plane BACK to the gate. CNN made a similar error in its reporting earlier in the day…obviously conflicting reporter stand-ups about how the terrorist was caught.


And how come Emirates Air isn’t checking its passengers against the notorious “no-fly” list? Another “communications” problem…or, just incompetence and mediocrity?

Many of the people I know who’ve survived all the purges in local newsrooms say they’re pressed more than ever before to do more things in the same amount of time, and with fewer people to help. Some even say the situation is a huge contributing factor to the mediocrity.

Whatever the cause, it’s apparent there are a lot of news managers and reporters who are NOT paying attention to detail – in a profession that demands attention to detail.

News organizations can make mistakes like this, and nobody really gets hurt. That’s not the case for a lot of other folks, like our law enforcement and public safety and intelligence operatives.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

TWD - Texting While Driving

With a stroke of the governor’s pen yesterday, Wisconsin became the 25th state to ban texting while driving. The law will take effect in December. First question: why wait until December? Can’t we put it into effect NOW – or, say, on Memorial Day or the 4th of July? How many more lives will be lost, how many wrecks will there be, how much property damage will be done in the seven months we have to wait?

And how many more times will I be nearly run off the beltline by some idiot who’s concentrating on his or her cell phone, and not on driving?

Not that the new law will likely change any behavior. Every text message is apparently so important to some people that they will readily risk life and limb to read and respond to it.

The new law will carry with it the same fines connected with inattentive driving, ranging from 20 to 400 dollars. I say it should be 400 bucks for the first offense, and a year in prison for the second.

Why is it that people can’t just wait till the next off-ramp and stop their car before reading or responding to a text, or simply ignore it until they get where they’re going?

The law also will mean a mandatory unit on distracted driving for kids in driver ed classes.

I have had harrowing experiences dealing with texting-distracted drivers of all ages and both sexes. Last Friday, my wife and two dogs and I were loaded into my gas-guzzling foreign-made SUV, headed west on the Beltline, bound for the Badger Prairie dog park in Verona. Near the Park Street exit from the belt, I saw in my side-view mirror a Chevy Impala start drifting into our lane, behind us.

I was in the far right lane; the young man “driving” the Impala was in the center lane; and he was paying ZERO attention to driving. I slowed a bit so he’d be ahead of me, so I could keep an eye on him. He passed us, and as he went by, I looked down into his car and saw him with his cell phone in his hand, texting.

He weaved into our lane about a hundred feet ahead of us; then quickly corrected as he looked up for a moment; then, about a half-mile farther down the road, near the Seminole Highway exit, he weaved way over into the far left lane, and a moment later, again “corrected” sharply.

We got off at the Verona Road exit, thankful that someone else would be killed by this idiot.

And this is about the tenth time this has happened to me in the past month. Soccer moms, young kids, grown men – I’ve had to change lanes or speed to accommodate their wandering while they text.

This new law is one of the few that I welcome. I hope the cops write ticket after ticket, and I wish the penalties were much, much stronger.

People are getting killed out there.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Dogs Give UW Students A Break

We didn’t have pet therapy study breaks back when I was a college student. We studied all day and all night for finals and didn’t sleep for two weeks and the tests were much harder back then and you were lucky if you got a “C”.

Yah, right.

Today, it’s much different. My college experiences from the ‘60’s are a world apart from my kids’ experiences. But then they never had the unforgettable experience of walking to class through teargas and phalanxes of cops and protesters.

And, I can’t remember having to take a final exam on Mother’s Day, as my son has to do Sunday, splitting time between mom and hitting the books.

If the weather holds up this afternoon, staff from UW Counseling and Consultation Services will bring their dogs to Library Mall from 3:30 until 5, to let the hard-studying students get a chance to pet and play with them – something the experts say is a known stress-reducer. If Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate, it’ll happen Friday afternoon.

And the dogs won’t mind it a bit.

UW Health psychologist Bob McGrath says pet therapy has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety, lower blood pressure, and lift moods. So there are benefits to the dogs…who will no doubt soak in all the pets they can…and the students, who get a nice break from studying.

Counseling staff will also be hanging out, available to chat informally about end-of-semester stress, and to offer advice on how to lighten the load.

Back in my day, all the motivation we needed was to know that if the old GPA wasn’t high enough, we’d get a letter from our draft board back at home, informing us that the coveted “2-S” deferment was going bye-bye. At least, for the guys. Girls, I believe, were more serious back then about studying, and still are. My daughter got her UW degree in three and a half years; my son is on the now-familiar five-and-a-half year plan.

That ill-conceived, foolish, and deadly Indo-China war back in the day was a real “motivator”.

A college education today is also far, far more costly than it was back in the ‘60’s, and from what I’ve heard of my kids’ experiences…and stuff like this pet therapy break today…the UW is far more serious about helping kids get through school successfully.

So if they’re offered a free therapy session on the Library Mall to play with some nice dogs for a while, I’m all for it. You gotta take your breaks where you can find them!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Scamsters All Around Us

The phone call came in the early evening one night last week. My wife grabbed the cell phone and listened for a moment, shaking her head, and then handed the phone to me, saying “It’s Park Bank”.

The robo-voice said “to activate your new check-card, please press 1”. Hmmm. I’d just gotten a letter in the postal mail from Park Bank, saying a number of their Visa Check-cards had been compromised in some scam, and we were going to get a new card in the mail. So, I pressed 1.

The next thing the robo-voice said was “please enter the 16-digit number of your debit card”. Wait a minute…the scam-alert red flag went up immediately. If this really is Park Bank, they know my debit card number, and would never ask me to enter it – especially to a robo-call device.

So I hung up and called Park Bank the next morning. They’d been inundated with calls like mine, and were assuring all of us that Park Bank will never make such a call, and that we were wise not to give our card number to a machine over the phone. The nice lady said when our new card comes, the letter will ask you to call us, and you’ll be talking with an actual Park Bank employee who will first verify who they’re talking to, and then activate the card.

The scamsters are everywhere.

My sister, who lives up in the Fox Valley, told me she came in from outdoors one night a week or so ago, to hear her husband on the phone, apparently responding to a series of questions. She said “who is that?” and he said “the government…it’s the census people, and they’re asking some questions”. She convinced him to hang up immediately, which he did. But they called right back and said “we were interrupted, can we continue?” This time my sister took the call, and gave them some choice expletives.

The caller ID screen said “U S Government”. These scamsters are good at what they do.

Of course it was not the government calling, and it was not the census. The scamsters started out by asking the street address of the residence where the phone was, how many people lived there, and was it likely that someone would be home during the day to speak with a census employee.

My sister’s guess…and mine…is that the scamsters were trying to figure when would be a good time of day to come over and rob them blind.

You can’t be too careful these days. I worry about my mom, who is 82, and still lives in her own home. Will she be careful enough when someone calls and tries to run a scam on her? I hope so. My brothers and sisters and I warn her about these things, but her generation tends to be more trusting. We always tell mom “ask the caller to send information to you about whatever they’re proposing, in the postal mail” and don’t feel pressured to give answers to anything on the phone.

It can be a very cruel world out there.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Nice "Work", If You Can Get It

I’ve been around long enough to remember when the state legislature was a part-time job, and members of the Senate and Assembly had “regular” jobs in addition to their gig under the big-top. I remember the arguments advanced to make the job of Senator or State Representative a full-time job with benefits and greatly increased pay.

Gotta have a full-time professional legislature, the politicians said. Gotta pay enough to attract good people, gotta give ‘em big staffs, gotta give ‘em dandy per-diems so they can afford to lodge and dine in our fair city; gonna get a lot better laws and a lot more work done.


Only nine other states have a “full-time” legislature. Ours is among the best-paid, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which sent ‘round a newsletter about this, last week. The WDC folks say the full state Senate convened in session on 17 days in 2009 and 14 days in 2010 before adjourning a few days ago.

The full Assembly was in session only 23 days in 2009 and 13 days so far in 2010, including two notorious all-nighters at the end of the just-completed session.

How do I find a job like that – where I only have to “work” a few days a month, make 50 grand a year plus the tasty “per diem” pay of several thousand bucks for most legislators – and get essentially automatic pay increases?

I’m not na├»ve. I know the politicians “work” just about every weekday, for weeks at a time, but they’re doing their business behind closed doors in their caucuses.

Another “benefit” of our full-time, professional state legislature: the people’s business done mainly behind closed doors.

Did I mention the lawmakers don’t even really have to write the laws they pass? Most of the time, the lobbyists do that for them. Unless one of the politicians gets a bee in his or her bonnet about some pet project, and they actually attempt to write a new law which will affect about ten people.

And once you get hired for this job, it’s pretty much yours as long as you want it. The deck is so stacked in favor of incumbents it just about takes a series of convictions on gruesome felony charges to get a politician out of office.

Yah, I’m cynical. I think we should return to a part-time legislature – about 3 months a year oughtta do it - and reduce the pay to 15 grand a year, so nobody can really “live” on the pay; and I think we should have term limits, so nobody gets a job forever.

I can dream, can’t I?