Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Reading The Tea Leaves

If you’re old enough to remember the TV show “Hee Haw”, you’ve been through a couple pretty big recessions in your life. There was a recurring skit on the show where four hillbillies surrounded by moonshine jugs would recount tales of woe, accompanied by a song:

“Gloom, despair, and agony on me; deep, dark depression, excessive misery! If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all; gloom, despair, and agony on me!!

I thought of that old tune yesterday while glancing through the morning news items. Everywhere I looked I got another dose of gloom about the economy, with predictions that we’re headed for the feared “double-dip” – a recession where the economy takes a nose-dive, comes back up a bit, and then takes another big nose-dive.

The National Bureau of Economic Research officially decides whether the economy is expanding or contracting, and the NBER, despite urging from a number of politicians and public officials will not say the recession is over. Nor will the NBER predict a double-dip, but that doesn’t stop the pundits from doing it.

Near as I can tell, the tea leaves some of the financial pundits are reading concern housing, employment, the bond market, and a few other intangibles.

Housing is still way, way down. You don’t need to know that last week’s official housing numbers were horrible, with a steep drop in new home sales. If you have anybody in your family or in your neighborhood who works in the building trades, you know housing isn’t “back” yet.

Unemployment is still very high, and “under-employment” is rampant. Everyone interprets the weekly unemployment reports differently, it seems, but Monday Vice President Biden said there’s no possibility to restore 8 million jobs lost since the beginning of the recession, a remark easily interpreted as gloom and doom.

Another sign of the world economic climate came last weekend at the G-20 meeting, where most of the policymakers disagreed with President Obama about more stimulus spending, and said now is the time to cut spending and pay down debt, rather than launch more new programs and create more debt.

The bond market’s not exactly roses: the yield on the 20-year Treasury hit its lowest levels since 1962 last week.

All these things lead some of the economic tea-leaf-readers to predict that dire times are ahead.

I’m no economist, and while my native tendencies run more toward pessimism than optimism, I’d prefer to believe that the worst is behind us, but the road to recovery will be long and twisting, and it’s going to take a while to get to whatever the “new normal” is.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Peggy West: FAIL

You’ve either seen it or heard about it by now. The video and audio track was all over the national media Friday. Milwaukee County Board Supervisor Peggy West, whose official county profile proudly declares her to be the first Latina elected to the Milwaukee County Board, proposed a boycott of Arizona.

She opined, during a county board meeting, that it would be one thing if Texas, which is right on the border with Mexico, passed restrictive laws against illegal immigrants, and denigrated Arizona’s new law, referring to the state as being “a ways removed from the border.”

Everybody from CNN to Rush Limbaugh played the clip, and the blogosphere was ablaze with snarky comments about the kind of people Wisconsinites elect.

Peggy West’s 15 minutes of fame (notoriety) are over, and the news cycle has moved on. But her ignorance still resonates. It’s one thing for the average Joe or Jane to be unaware that Arizona does indeed share a border with Mexico, but quite another for a public policy maker suggesting a boycott based on her abysmal ignorance not only of geography but of current events.

A few moments later in her spiel, she refers to “the troops on the border” in Arizona, further demonstrating that Supervisor West’s brain really is out to lunch.

Of course, after the onslaught of media attention to her stupidity, Ms. West attempted to lie her way out of the situation, claiming she got passing marks in Geography in the Milwaukee public school system (another ringing endorsement of Milwaukee schools) and at Milwaukee Area Tech College, and that she knows Arizona borders Mexico, blah blah blah.

Her south-side Milwaukee constituents will only remember that she tried to “represent” for them. She’ll be re-elected to her 50-grand-a-year county board seat. ($50,679 to be exact.)

In the grand scheme of things, I guess it’s not that important for most folks to know whether Arizona shares a border with Mexico (350 miles) or if Idaho shares a border with Canada (45 miles). It’s one of the myriad things that fall under the category “if I need to know, I can look it up.”

I’m sure some curriculum consultant would tell me that there are far more important topics for teachers to cover these days than back in my grade school days, when we were shown a map with only the outlines of the states, and the teacher would point to one and we’d have to name it.

However, I do expect that an elected representative, prior to making a major public policy decision like boycotting an entire state and its products, would have spent enough time studying the issue (and I don’t mean “Googling it”, as Ms. West said she did in her spiel) to understand WHY the people of Arizona passed such a law.

I don’t think that’s too much to ask of somebody who holds a 50-grand-a-year job.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Bob Bodden: Broadcaster's Broadcaster

Bob Bodden passed away last week. He was 91 years young. Everybody in the Platteville area knew Bob, and generations of Wisconsin broadcasters all over the state knew, liked, and respected Bob. He started his career in Wisconsin radio back in 1941 as a student at Marquette, and over the next six decades touched the lives of countless people. They don’t make ‘em like Bob Bodden any more.

Bob was elected to the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association Hall of Fame in 1991, and I have no doubt that no matter which profession Bob chose, he would have been in that profession’s hall of fame. Bob still gave regular commentaries on one of the stations he founded, WSWW in Platteville, until he passed. And he had something of substance to say every time he turned on the microphone.

In addition to his many leadership positions in the Broadcast industry in Wisconsin, Bob was deeply involved in his community, leading several civic organizations in Platteville and as a member of the Grant County board.

But I always regarded Bob as the consummate radio news man.

When I was a still-wet-behind-the-ears fledgling radio announcer, news was usually gathered two ways. One was the staff member – the “News Director” - who went out and covered local events and wrote up stories about it; the other was via the Associated Press teletype. Back in the 60’s, if you gave a tour of the radio station to a friend, the thing that fascinated them the most was the AP teletype.

Here was this glorified typewriter, about three feet tall, with a huge roll of paper feeding into it, and it just sat there and typed line after line of news copy. Visitors would stand transfixed in front of it, reading the news copy from all over the world as it was spewing out, fascinated. Three or four times a day there’d be a “state split” on the wire, when the AP would send about a dozen Wisconsin stories.

Since the AP is essentially a big co-op, member stations would contribute stories. It seemed every time there was a “state split”, there’d be a story from southwest Wisconsin, and, as is still the practice today, after the story there’d be a credit line, like “Thanks to Bob Bodden, WSWW.”

All I knew was that this Bodden guy really had a handle on anything that was happening in southwest Wisconsin. His contributions were all over the AP wire. Eventually, as I advanced in my career, I finally met Bob at an Associated Press meeting in Milwaukee. We had a brief chat about radio news, which I’m sure Bob would never have remembered, but to me, it was a brush with fame. This guy was an icon!

If you applied for a broadcast news job in Wisconsin and had WSWW on your resume, you got hired. Bob Bodden trained and developed countless news people, and if you worked for Bob, it was like getting a PhD in local news. Whether you’re covering news in Potosi or Pittsburgh, the principles are the same. And Bob Bodden was truly a man of principle.

Bob Bodden: father of 10 children, 33 grandchildren, and 39 great-grandchildren; and mentor to thousands and thousands of Wisconsin broadcasters.

If there’s news happening in heaven, Bob knows about it, and has filed a story on it.

Friday, June 25, 2010

We'll All Burn To Death In Our Sleep

Could this burned-out hulk be your home (cue video of smoldering pile of rubble)? Are you living in a death-trap? Is your family safe? Are you and your family at risk of dying in a horrible fire? Do you know what your house is made of?

I keep waiting for one of the local media outlets to pick up on the story of the house fire on Stockbridge Drive on the far east side, and try to scare us to death. If we were in a ratings sweep, I’ll bet somebody would do the story.

The article yesterday morning in the State Journal quoted Fire Lt. Dave Peterson saying homes built in the past 15 years use a lot more lightweight, pre-fabricated pieces, which meet code – but fail a lot faster than old-fashioned lumber in a fire. The paper also had quotes from local home builders talking about the newer materials and construction.

City Fire Marshall Ed Ruckriegel told the paper firefighters want the state building code updated to reflect the changes in construction materials, with a code requirement for sprinkler systems in single-family homes to the tune of a few thousand bucks.

Earlier this week I read a column by Paul Fanlund in the Cap Times talking about how “emotional heat” may be at the core of the future of news, and this house fire story is perfect for some media outlet to try and make us lose sleep about what our house is really made of.

The house Toni and I bought in 1999 is built like a rock. It was a builder’s home. The contractor built it as his “dream home” in 1997, but not too long after he and his wife moved in, the marriage fell apart. I’ve often joked that the coldest place I’ve ever been was Madison on August 18th, 1999. We closed on the house that day at Lawyer’s Title on Applegate Court. You could hang meat in that room, and it wasn’t because of the air conditioning. The two former owners really hated each other. Needless to say, we were able to get a good deal on the price. The wife got the house in the divorce agreement and she wanted cash, now.

The floors are built over real wood joists with real plywood, not OSB (oriented strand board), which a friend of mine calls “glit”, a combination of glue and s*it. Ask somebody whose floors are OSB what it’s like when the OSB gets wet in a kitchen flood or from storm damage.

There’s 5/8 drywall everywhere, not the thin stuff. This house holds heat in the winter and a/c in the summer. The three outside decks total a bit under a thousand square feet, and with all the sealant I’ve put on them in the past decade, they’re probably our biggest fire risk!

I have a bone to pick with the electrical contractor who wired the house, though, and all I’ll say is thank goodness our son’s best friend is a licensed journeyman electrician. We’ve dealt with a few “issues.” And the guy who built the house did his own cable wiring and had no clue what he was doing. Two installers from Charter spent the better part of two full days ripping out his nightmarish arrangement and re-wiring every room in the house. (It helps to have a senior exec at Charter corporate who was an old college drinking pal.)

So if one of the other local media outlets picks up on the State Journal’s east-side house fire story, they’ll be able to scare a lot of homeowners, who probably have no clue how their house was built or what kind of materials were used.

Maybe they’ll save the idea for the fall ratings sweep.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Four-Star Failure

They don’t put a 4th star on your shoulder-board because you’re popular. And they don’t do it lightly. There are rules about how many general officers there can be, but, the rules also say the Commander in Chief can pretty much make up any rules he (or she) wants, concerning who is and who is not a four-star general.

Right now, there are only a dozen 4-star generals in the Army, and General Stanley McChrystal has only had the fourth star on his shoulder-board for a year. He got the 4th star in June last year when he took over command of our troops in Afghanistan.

And yesterday, when the Commander in Chief called him on the carpet for saying stupid things about members of the Obama administration and its policies, the Commander in Chief accepted General McChrystal’s resignation from his command in Afghanistan, and put General David Patraeus in charge.

It’s not the first time General McChrystal has been connected to a controversy. Several years ago, when he was Special Operations Commander in Afghanistan, he came under great criticism for the cover-up regarding the friendly-fire death of former NFL player Pat Tillman. We were told Corporal Tillman died valiantly fighting the enemy, but later the truth came out that he was actually killed by friendly fire. There was no enemy fire whatsoever. The Bush administration and General McChrystal were lying.

What McChrystal did in the Pat Tillman incident was to submit a fraudulent recommendation that Tillman get the Silver Star for his actions against the enemy, in an attempt to cover up the fact that Tillman was killed by friendly fire. Of course, then three-star General McChrystal then lied to congress about it last June when he was up for the new job and the 4th star.

In case you don’t know, the Uniform Code of Military Justice forbids our troops from making disparaging remarks about the Commander in Chief, the Congress, and political appointees. General McChrystal could have faced a court-martial for his snide comments about Vice President Biden and other top officials in the Rolling Stone Magazine article.

General McChrystal must have made the mistake of thinking the Commander in Chief would give him a pass, because he knew what he said to the reporter was clearly out-of-bounds, if not downright insubordinate. He apologized to the President and the Vice-President and several of the other civilian officials he denigrated in the article.

It takes a special person to qualify for a four-star slot in any of our armed services. General McChrystal made a big mistake, and he’s paying the price. He may still have four stars on his shoulder boards – for now – but he has no doubt now that the Commander in Chief – a civilian – is in charge.

And that’s the way our Constitution says it should be.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Wednesday Media Rant: Them Changes

We got a bit of water in the lower level of our home in Monday night’s storm; not a lot. My wife sopped it up with a bunch of towels and I manned the mop. Several years ago, our lowest level would flood every time it rained hard, so we replaced the carpet with tile, and installed commercial six-inch rain gutters. We have a lot of roof to “drain”. Expensive, but it turned out to be one of the best investments in the house we’ve ever made. Now, it takes a downpour like Monday night’s to get us wet, and we can clean it up quickly. The sump pump ran almost continuously until about 10 PM.

I have a pretty good amateur weather station set up at home, and we got 1.76 inches of rain in 40 minutes at our south suburban Madison location. That’s a LOT of rain in a short time, a rate of almost three inches an hour, and that’s serious rainfall.

We were watching TV until DishNet gave out about 7:45. Channel 15’s David George said the cloud tops over Rock County were between 40 and 45 thousand feet – VERY unusually high – and since our dish looks south, there was just too much “weather” for the signal to get through. Our Charter broadband stayed up, though, so we were able to get weather coverage and radar on my wife’s iPad. DishNet popped back on about 8:45, when the storms south of us had moved away to the east.

I have railed year after year about the excesses of the local TV stations when there’s a storm; but, to be honest, I really think they’ve toned it down a bit. At least it seemed so, Monday night. All 3 stations – Channels 3, 15, and 27 – had their chief meteorologists on board; all had one of their principal news anchors contributing; and their coverage was WAY toned down compared to prior years. No gloom-and-doom; just the facts.

I sense the public still weighs in on my side of this weather coverage equation, because the anchors kept acknowledging the number of calls they were getting about interrupting programming, and re-stating their “policy” of staying on continuous weather coverage any time there’s a tornado warning in the area.

Local radio? WIBA-AM had the full crew on, going wall-to-wall with News Director Robin Colbert coordinating and anchoring the coverage, with live reports from all over Dane County and constant weather updates from the Channel 27 crew. My old alma mater, WTDY-AM, was in syndicated programming, with “Doctor” Drew and his locker room pals holding a disgustingly graphic discussion about anal sex. Fail.

The biggest media change I noted was Tuesday morning’s State Journal. A couple hundred words on page 3 of the print edition. Just a brief narrative about the regional aspects of the storm.

But – when I fired up the computer Tuesday morning and went to I found a great article about the storm, written by that crafty observer and talented wordsmith George Hesselberg, complete with details about local street flooding, regional affects of the storm, and accompanied by several interesting photos of the storm’s aftermath.

That’s a BIG change. The paper’s best and most compelling coverage of an event that everybody talked about all day Tuesday was not in their print edition, but in their online portal.

Toned-down local TV weather coverage, and the State Journal’s best stuff is online? Certainly the apocalypse is nigh.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

What We Won't Give Up In The Recession

Folks up in the Fox Valley always used to say the area had a great hedge against economic downturns because people will always need toilet paper. But – surprise! – US News and World Report says we’re actually buying less toilet paper now than a year ago. We’re being more frugal about using it.

The magazine lists a number of things we’ve cut back on, and a few that we won’t cut back on, and at the top of the list is the portable computer. Not necessarily the flashy new iPad, but your basic, portable computer. We won’t give them up. Even homeless people log on to free wi-fi services to stay in touch. Sales of notebook computers have skyrocketed over the past three years.

Similarly, we’re not giving up our high-speed internet access. It’s one of those “microwave oven” things: once you’ve had it, you won’t give it up. And use is still expanding: one prediction is that within the next three years, more than 90% of American homes will have high-speed internet.

We’re still going to the movies, too. Ticket sales were down in 2008 but bounced back strong in 2009 and are looking good for 2010. Theater owners were concerned about losing ground to home theater systems and the wide array of DVD’s and streaming online movies available now.

In general, Americans are spending less on entertainment, but we’re watching more TV these days. Some of the increase could be more unemployed people who have nothing better to do with their time than sit in front of the tube, but the typical American now spends 18 hours a week watching TV at home.

Kitty and Fido aren’t feeling the impact of the recession. We love our pets and continue to spend money on them. Pet food, supplies, grooming, and vet care have been growing uninterrupted at about 5% a year for the past decade with no sign of slowing down.

Smoking continues to decline, and US News and World Report says we’ve cut back our spending on high-end booze. But we’re drinking more of the cheap stuff, which is typical during economic downturns. Restaurant and bar sales are down, so it’s likely that more people are drinking at home, and they’re not buying expensive beer or booze.

More people are brewing their java at home, while places like Starbucks are reporting steady declines in sales over the past couple years. The National Coffee Association says 86% of coffee drinkers are making their own at home, compared to 82% a year ago.

And, we still love our tunes. More people considered an iPod a necessity in 2009 than in 2006, despite the recession. Downloads of singles and albums are up 21% in the past year.

Retail sales are down; sales of homes, cars, and appliances are way down; we’re using less toilet paper and going out to eat less; but we still spend money on our pets, entertainment, and high-speed internet; and we’ve cut down on the $5 latte and the high-end booze.

Most of us are still finding a way to have fun once in a while; we’re just not spending as much to do it.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Statewide Smoking "Ban" Two Weeks Away

Two weeks from today, on the 5th of July, the statewide ban on smoking in bars and restaurants goes into effect. Problem is, it’s not really a ban. Bar and restaurant owners have already found scores of loopholes to exploit, because nobody seems to be able to explain exactly what the law means.

No surprise, given that the law was written by lobbyists. In case you haven’t been paying attention, lobbyists now write all our important laws. They wrote that useless, toothless payday lending law; they wrote the educational “reform” law; they wrote the bill “regulating” the phone companies, and on and on.

And you thought our lawmakers wrote our laws? Come on.

The lobbyists put a neat little feature into the smoking ban law, which allows tavern and restaurant owners to create “accommodations” for their clients who smoke. But nobody can explain how these accommodations should be built, or even what they really are. Is it a patio? A deck? Some outside smoking area? A room adjoining the main facility, set aside for smokers?

The lobbyists wrote a law that nobody can understand, and that no city planner or building code enforcer can explain or interpret.

And that’s just the way the lobbyists wanted it.

When the politicians got up and gave speeches about this statewide smoking ban, they said they wanted to create a level playing field for all bars and restaurants, a level playing field that wasn’t possible under the patchwork of local smoking ordinances passed by municipalities across the state.

What the law does is essentially create two classes of bars and restaurants: one class that can afford to build or expand to handle smokers by squeezing through the loophole; and another class of bars and restaurants that can’t afford to do that, and will of course lose the business of smokers who can be accommodated by the other class of bars and restaurants.

Some of the pigs are more equal than the other pigs.

So, two weeks from today when the new law takes effect, don’t expect your favorite bar or restaurant to be smoke-free. Here in Wisconsin, where lobbyists write the laws, a ban is not really a ban.

Friday, June 18, 2010

She Blinded Me With Science

I’ve always liked Thomas Dolby’s 1982 song “She Blinded Me With Science”, because it’s goofy and weird and has a catchy hook. I’m really not sure what the song is supposed to mean, but I’ve always liked the title.

The song came to mind again the other day when I read a report on the latest E.coli outbreak in Minnesota. This strain, E.Coli 0157:H7, is particularly nasty, and there is no doubt among scientists and epidemiologists in our neighbor state that it came from the Hartmann Dairy – which sells raw milk. It has a clear DNA marker. Quite a few kids got really sick from drinking the tainted milk, but so far nobody has died.

Predictably, the Hartmann Dairy Farm denied responsibility, and accused the Minnesota Health and Ag Departments of defaming them.

Now, where have we heard that story around here?

Our highly-paid full-time professional state legislature passed a bill a few months ago which would allow the sale of raw milk in Wisconsin. The bill essentially rejected decades of hard science, going all the way back to some guy named Louis Pasteur, a Frenchman who discovered a way, over a hundred years ago, to make milk safe.

Governor Doyle did the legislature a favor and vetoed the stupid bill, probably saving the core of our state heritage, that slogan we put on our license plates: America’s Dairyland.

One of the many clowns who now inhabit the legislature was full of fake outrage, vowing to drink nothing but raw milk for the rest of his life, to “prove it is safe”.

No matter what science says, there will always be luddites and deniers. Such is the raw milk gang. Same as the folks who are convinced childhood vaccines cause autism. Never mind that the vaccine/autism study and the bogus scientist who published it have been completely and utterly discredited. They believe what they believe, and nothing is going to change their belief.

“She blinded me with science; and failed me in biology” goes the song.

Go ahead and roll the dice with your own life, and drink all the raw milk you want. But please don’t ask others to ignore hard science, and don’t try to pass laws that could potentially bring ruin to the state’s signature industry.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

UW Med Flight Teams Up With NASCAR

When you think of NASCAR, you likely think of the Sprint Cup version of NASCAR: colorfully painted cars, drivers with names like our own Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmy Johnson, and their highly-decorated driving suits, with nearly every square inch covered by some sponsor’s ad; race tracks with names like Daytona and Talladega.

But NASCAR has other “divisions”, and one of them is called the Nationwide Series. If I call it the “minor league” of NASCAR, a lot of fans and drivers will be mad at me, but that’s essentially what it is.

For the first time ever, the NASCAR Nationwide Series is running a race at Road America near Elkhart Lake. Qualifying starts today and the racing continues through Sunday. Because it’s a very competitive league, and it’s a very tricky course with twists and turns and hills and valleys, the potential for crashes is high.

The NASCAR folks have requested UW-Hospital’s Med Flight to be at the track and ready to go, just in case. And Med Flight is sending one of its two medical helicopters and nine crew members to the race track, to keep an eye on some of the fastest drivers in America.

The NASCAR and Road America folks paved a special landing zone at the track to accommodate take-offs and landings in case a driver is seriously injured in a wreck.

Med Flight program director Dan Williams says NASCAR is paying all costs associated with this assignment, and assures that it won’t compromise emergency air medical service to the Dane County region.

Williams says it’s an honor to be chosen from among all the air medical services in the upper Midwest for the NASCAR assignment. He says it’s a credit to the Med Flight physicians, nurses, and pilots, and the high quality emergency care they provide.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Good Day Sunshine (not by The Beatles)

Mayor Cieslewicz calls it the “Good Day Machine” in his blog; a counter to the cold war “Doomsday Machine” that supposedly would launch nukes even after those charged with “pushing the button” had been annihilated. The “Good Day Machine” is what he calls the ongoing generosity of Irwin and Robert Goodman, the State Street jewelers who amassed a fortune and then systematically gave it to the city to support great civic projects.

Even though the brothers both passed away a few months apart last year, their generosity is still very much alive and well. The Mayor says their foundation has given a quarter-million dollars to close the private funding for furnishing the new South-Side Library.

Can I get an “Amen” here? These guys are nothing short of fabulous.

I’m a voracious reader, and when I’ve finished reading a book, I put it into a cardboard box and when the box gets full, I take it over to the South-Side branch library and donate the books. I can’t count the times I’ve been in that branch in the old Villager Mall, how busy and cramped it was, people waiting in line to use computers, and people of all ages looking through books or periodicals.

That’s all changing, though, because the city has spent 3.5 million bucks to build a new South-Side branch library – state-of-the-art – right in front of the old one, in that gorgeous building that fronts Park Street and also houses the Urban League and Planned Parenthood. The new digs will quadruple the space for the branch (from 3,000 to 12,000 square feet) and the South-Side branch, which is one of the busiest in the city, will be fully equipped with the latest amenities to serve its patrons.

I believe I need another “Amen” here on behalf of the Goodman brothers.

If ever there were more good-hearted philanthropists than Bob and Irv Goodman, I haven’t heard of them. They gave their money to help build practical, useful things that may not be as flashy and showy as some philanthropic projects, but are used and enjoyed by regular folks all the time. The municipal pool that nobody could build in Madison for decades. The softball fields at the UW. And on and on, hundreds of other projects we’re probably not even aware of.

Making sure that the South-Side branch library takes its place among the city’s finest public facilities may not be a flashy-showy-sexy thing. But it’s going to affect the lives of thousands of neighbors and generations of young folks yet to arrive.

I think the Mayor is right. The Goodman brothers are indeed a “Good Day Machine.”

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Horn Of South Africa Drones On

I’m not a soccer fan, but I enjoy watching the USA play in the World Cup. The tie with England, I’m told, is as good as a win. But watching the telecast was a distinctly unpleasant experience. All you could hear was those damnable 3-foot-long plastic trumpets constantly blaring.

They’re called vuvuzela horns, and they’ve generated more talk than anything else in the first few days of competition in the World Cup. But you’d better get used to the constant din if you’re going to watch the Cup….they’re here to stay.

There was some talk over the weekend of banning the noisemakers, with complaints coming from all quarters: players, coaches, broadcasters, fans. But the South Africans love their vuvuzela horns, and even though World Cup CEO Danny Jordaan first gave hints that he might abolish them, yesterday he made it clear he won’t.

If you’re not familiar with the din and drone of these plastic noisemakers, try to imagine the sound a swarm of 20 million bees would make.

A World Cup committee member says the vuvuzela horn is ingrained in the culture of South Africa, and harkens back to tribal days when horns were used by the elders to call the tribe to a meeting. So, the "horn of South Africa" is made of plastic? Please.

That’s all well and good, say many of the other 31 nations participating in the Cup, who cite the 80-year history of the World Cup and claim they deserve better treatment from the home nation, and complain on behalf of the billions of people who are watching the games on TV.

All you can hear is those damnable horns.

The World Cup committee admits the vuvuzela horns are a “love it or hate it” phenomenon, but Monday made it clear they’re here to stay for the duration of the games.

So, Friday morning, when the US plays its next match against Slovenia, I’ll have the TV on here in my office at home, but as usual, the sound will be muted.

And that will be a good thing.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Monday Media Rant: Decency Isn't Common, Apparently

Tonight will be a sad night. Our small neighborhood will gather at the home of one of our neighbors, whose 22-year-old daughter died in a car wreck early Friday morning. I’ve talked about our neighborhood before and how close it is. Eight families in homes that share a huge, common cul-de-sac. We all know each other and have watched each other’s kids grow up.

We all knew the young lady who lost her life early Friday morning. A bright, spirited, happy young woman with lots of friends, just beginning to make her mark in the world. She was just a couple years younger than my daughter; they were at Sennett Middle School and LaFollette High together. She made a poor decision – the kind of poor decision every one of us has made many times in our lives – and lost her life in a car wreck.

It’s difficult for a parent to imagine the feelings her parents must have. We all hope, wish, and pray that such a tragedy never befalls our children; we mourn with the young woman’s stunned family. We share their grief, with a renewed realization that life is not fair.

My grief is tinged with anger.

The local TV stations and the newspaper carried the brief story and all posted it to their websites Friday afternoon. As of this weekend, one station’s website had one comment on the story; another had 8; and a third had well over a hundred. The State Journal’s story on does not allow “comments” to be posted. That’s the way it should be – a news item about a personal tragedy that needs no comment.

The TV station website that had over a hundred comments was disgusting. First, their story was written extremely poorly, saying “A 22 year old Madison woman was killed after an early-morning car crash on Madison’s West Side” (sic). What? Did the cops pull her out of the car and shoot her? Killed AFTER the crash? How about IN the crash.

After the carelessly-written story came the comments. It’s hard to imagine what kind of lower form of human life would write such mean, nasty, thoughtless comments about this tragic loss of life. But there they are….scores of them…anonymously pontificating, spewing hatred, making judgments, sniveling gutless rock-throwers.

It does no good to talk to the station about this irresponsible crap. My wife did, after having spent a half-hour with our grieving neighbors. She e-mailed a station official after reading some of the hateful comments allowed to be posted after the story and registered her disgust.

I know what the station’s attitude will be.

They’ll say “it’s a public forum and everyone has a right to express their opinion.” They’ll drag out some non-relevant First Amendment argument if they have to, and say so long as no threats of violence are made, people have a “right” to say what they want.


I say they have no business allowing anonymous posters to spew hatred, no business allowing “comments” on a story about a human tragedy, and at minimum, have an obligation to moderate the content of the forum.

Or they should be considered as spineless as the anonymous hate-spewers.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Inmates Running The Asylum

A person or persons you’ve never met, seen, or heard of, is deciding right now who you can vote for.

Who are these often nameless and faceless people who decide who we can and can’t vote for? Mainly, they’re a bunch of political insiders and power brokers who decide the fate of far too many actual and potential candidates for public office, from the county level all the way up to United States Congress.

My friend Neil Heinen’s editorial on Channel 3 a couple days ago got me thinking about this. Ever wonder why Barbara Lawton suddenly dropped out of the race for governor? We never got the full story, but I have no doubt some big-time operator in the Democratic Party dropped a dime, and she was never heard from again.

Certainly wasn’t the slanderous reason my old pal Jerry Bader gave on his Green Bay radio talk show.

Jim Klauser, a savvy political operator who was Governor Tommy Thompson’s enforcer, is asking Mark Neumann to drop out of the Republican primary for governor.

Think “the Kathleen” – County Exec Falk – would like to run for gov again? I do. But Tom Barrett’s crew no doubt have given her a clear message to stay out of the way. I’ll bet they’ve had a few words with Ron Kind, as well.

Heinen says the capital-D Democrats have anointed (great word, Neil) Julie Lassa as the replacement for Congressman David Obey, discouraging any and all challengers to her candidacy.

And don’t tell me Republican operatives weren’t behind the sudden disappearance of Terrence Wall and Dick Leinenkugel from the race to unseat Russ Feingold. Good Lord – Leinenkugel consorted with the Democrats when he briefly held that cabinet position for Democrat Jim Doyle! His beer may be made with pure western Wisconsin water, but his politics were not pure enough for the party!

Even here on the local scene, County Board member Dave DeFelice is on the outs with the local “progressives” for even thinking out loud about running against Tammy! One of the least effective members of Congress, Tammy is automatically re-elected every time.

But maybe not this time.

Heinen opines that it’s becoming a closed system with politicians and paid party staff deciding who runs and who doesn’t.

My opinion: this fall we’ll have a crop of candidates, hand-picked by party operatives, talking about issues you and I don’t give two hoots in hell about, with ads run by faceless organizations telling us how horrible the other candidate is.

Hell of it is, they’ll probably be right.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Wind of Change is Blowing

Change is coming (where have we heard that before?)and it’s apparently not the tea party. A lot of people are becoming less and less happy with the tea party and the controversial candidates it runs. A Washington Post – ABC poll says voters are now beginning to see the tea party as another thing not to like about politics.

Candidates that identified with the tea party won in Nevada, South Carolina, Maine, and Georgia. But three tea party candidates lost in Virginia.

Newcomers to politics were popular this week, winning races from coast-to-coast.

And voters in exit polls are saying partisanship and gridlock are among the main reasons they despise Washington. Only 22% of Americans now say they trust the government, and that’s as low as it’s been in the last half century, according to Pew Research. The President’s job approval rating has stabilized at around 50%.

But perhaps the most telling statistic in the new Washington Post – ABC poll is that less than a third of Americans say they’re inclined to vote for their House representative in November. That’s even lower than the levels of support in 1994, when Democrats lost control of the House after four decades of being in charge.

Four big-name incumbents have already lost their seats this spring: Senators Bob Bennett of Utah and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, and Representatives Alan Mollohan of West Virginia and Parker Griffith of Alabama.

Senator Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas defied the anti-incumbent wave by saying her opponent was backed by “outsiders” trying to “buy their votes.” Bill Clinton, whose name is still golden in Arkansas, stumped for Lincoln. It sounds crazy, but it worked: an incumbent positioned her opposition as a “Washington establishment” candidate.

While results were mixed and incumbents got battered in some states and won in others, the only thing the tea leaves seem to be clearly saying is that the voters are demanding change.

Nobody, and I mean nobody, who holds a seat in Congress, is safe. It’s a powerful wind that’s blowing.

Tomorrow: who’s picking the people who run for political office?

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Finding An Ass To Kick

The residents of coastal Louisiana have already had their behinds kicked, for 50 days. And there are a lot more days and a lot more butt-kickings ahead for those unfortunate people, who’ve had their lives turned upside-down by the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

On the Today Show Tuesday morning, I watched Matt Lauer interview President Obama. He’s clearly agitated about the entire situation, and acknowledges that it’s not some academic exercise or college seminar, but a very much real-world drama for a lot of very real people.

Asked about some of the stupid statements BP CEO Tony Hayward has made in the past few weeks (“I want my life back”), the President made it clear he would fire Hayward if he were his boss, and that he was looking for some “ass to kick.” He wanted to make sure it was the right butt to boot, though.

Some polls show people believe the government’s response to the massive leak doesn’t show enough outrage. Part of what the President did yesterday morning was to address that perception. I guess people expect the President to get right up in Tony Hayward’s face, on live TV, and cuss him out.

Not that it would stop the leak or solve the problem. Sometimes it’s cathartic just to yell at somebody, even if it’s the wrong person. Married people understand this.

Thad Allen, the Coast Guard Admiral in charge of the government effort, says “everybody wants certainty, and with an oil spill like this there isn’t any.” Allen is doing a workmanlike job, but I think the President needs another General Russel Honore.

Honore is the Louisiana-born Creole who came into New Orleans after Katrina, and just plain took over. I’ll never forget the live TV coverage of General Honore in his first moments in the French Quarter, commanding the troops. He barked out one order after another, directed soldiers, cops and anybody else he could see, to take specific action.

This man was obviously in charge, kicking ass and taking names. He was given an extremely difficult mission, to bring together civilian, military, and governmental authorities – along with a couple intransigent politicians – and make them work as a unit to get things done.

General Honore made up for many of the huge gaffes the Bush Administration made (“you’re doin’ a great job, Brownie!”), mainly by giving people hope that something really was going to happen, and through action, not talk. His daily press briefings were famously short and to-the-point.

President Obama needs a leader like General Honore to step up and take over.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Fake Outrage About Bus Drivers

Some guy named John Nelson made over 159 grand last year wheeling a bus around the city; and a handful of other city bus drivers made over a hundred grand. The State Journal runs an expose of this sort every couple years, just to ruffle a few feathers.

People act as if these city employees, who are working the system to their advantage, were doing something illegal or immoral. With seniority comes higher pay and first crack at overtime, and the big earners tend to absorb the most overtime.

The last time the paper ran such a story, a couple years ago, pointing out that the city’s highest-paid employee is not the mayor, the fire chief, or the police chief, but a bus driver – there was similar reaction. Lots of “how can this be!” and “it’s just not right!” pushback. There was some clucking about whether it’s safe to allow a bus driver to put in that much overtime, week after week.

I think more than anything else, the reaction among many people is a combination of jealousy – how can a bus driver be “allowed” to earn that much money? – and a sense that the system is out of kilter. How come cops and firefighters, who risk their lives for our safety, don’t make that kind of money?

With so many people out of work and still unable to find a job, I’m sure resentment is a factor for some people reading the paper’s expose.

The paper has run similar “exposes” in 1997, 2003, and 2009. City hall doesn’t care. The unions write the work rules, just the way the UAW did with GM until that model became completely “unsustainable”, to coin a Madison-ism.

If I’m reading the article right, one of the big differences between city employees and private-sector employees is that city workers can “cash-in” unused vacation time. Most folks in the private sector have “use it or lose it” sort of deals: either you actually take you days off, or you lose them. You can’t pile them up, and you can’t cash them in.

Since when is it unusual for public or private sector employees to “work the system” to their own best advantage?

Apparently there’s not enough substance here to cause some alder to demand an investigation, and there’s no evidence that city busses aren’t being operated safely by the drivers who are putting in all the overtime.

Many state and municipal jobs – with a few notable exceptions – start with mediocre pay and benefits, and the payoff is years down the road, in the peak earning years, when salary is competitive and the pension is excellent.

Anyone can apply for these jobs. It’s not like the mayor or department heads are putting their spouses, kids, nieces, or nephews into the jobs.

It’s just General Motors, on a smaller scale. Except we already own the company.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Madison Must Ban All Fireworks!

My late friend Jim Selk once wrote a column in Madison Magazine (back when he was editor) calling Madison the “City of the Perpetually Offended.” Probably not a lot of people know it was Jim’s phrase, because so many have used it that it’s long ago moved into the public domain.

Sitting with Jim and his court (local ruffians like columnist Doug Moe and colorful attorneys like Jack McManus and Jeff Scott Olson) at the bar at the old Fess Hotel was often an experience that defies categorization. Somewhere between a séance, an exorcism, and a rave.

Jim would have loved my pal Pat Simms’ story in Saturday’s paper, reporting that the city’s Committee for the Environment wants to look into whether or not the annual bloated 4th of July fireworks/bad music extravaganza at Warner Park might be bad for our health.

Bad, in particular, for the “landing area” where the crap from the exploded fireworks falls to earth. The greenies are worried that the perchloric acid used in the manufacture of the bombshells somehow leeches into the ground, and, well, you can imagine what happens then. Gets into the water, gets into our thyroid glands, and not too much later it’s Goodnight Irene.

Crap from exploded Chinese-made fireworks dangerous? YA THINK???

Some researcher will no doubt find that if you went to a fireworks show every day for nine years and drank 18 ounces of water from the swamp where the remains of the fireworks fall to earth every day for 17 years, you’ll have a .004% higher chance of developing a cancer.

That ought to be sufficient to shut down that barbaric event.

After all, this is a city where the geese that roam Warner Park are more precious than the lives of the people on the airliners that fly into and out of the Dane County Regional Airport.

You gotta love Madison. We have committees and boards and neighborhood associations that spend countless hours protecting us from all possible evils: meat, hotels, smoking, drinking, chickens, construction projects, new business development, you-name-it.

To best understand the mentality, if you’re new to the area, consider the Brat Fest, which actually happens on Willow Island in the Township of Madison, not the city. It’s an annual Memorial Day Weekend celebration of the Wisconsin food pyramid: beer, brats, and cheese. They sell literally tons of brats and raise a pile of cash for charity. Again this year, the event set a new record for gluttony – and charity.

On the Facebook page for the event, the day after it concluded, the organizers asked the question “what can we do to make next year’s Brat Fest even better?”

First response was from a woman, who wrote “healthier food choices.”

That lady fits right into the City of the Perpetually Offended.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Imperfect Perfect Game

Armando Gallaraga was a perfect gentleman about it. The Tigers' young pitcher threw a perfect game Wednesday night, a feat so rare that there have only been a couple dozen of them in the history of baseball. If you don't follow the sport, a perfect game means the pitcher retires all the opposing team's batters....27....with none of them reaching base.

In the top of the 9th with two outs and Cleveland's Jason Donald at bat - the 26 prior Indians' batters retired - Donald hit a weak grounder toward first. The first baseman scooped up the ball, and tossed it to the pitcher, young Armando Gallaraga, who caught the ball and stepped on first base before Donald got there. 27 outs; nobody got on base; perfect game.

Except for one thing.

First Base Umpire Jim Joyce signaled "safe". A stunned silence fell over Tiger Stadium. The Tigers salty old manager, Jim Leyland, rushed to first base and argued for his young pitcher. But, baseball is baseball. Umpires never change their call because somebody else saw the play differently.

The next batter grounded out and what will become known as baseball's most famous one-hitter was over.

To his credit, immediately after that, the ump went to the locker room and asked their assistant to cue up the play. And to his further credit, Joyce says he immediately realized he'd blown the call. He went to the Tigers locker room and apologized to Jim Leyland and to Armando Gallaraga. And then on the sports talk shows following the game, Joyce "manned up" and owned his mistake.

Doesn't change anything, but it was classy. Everybody involved was classy.

This morning, Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm went live on a Detroit radio station (WJR-AM) and "issued a proclamation" setting aside the blown call and declaring it a perfect game.

One step remains. The Commissioner of Baseball, a strange man named Mr. Magoo, must act in the best interests of baseball and declare it to have been a perfect game. But many of the talking heads in sports say "slippery slope - nope - don't do it."

I think it would be a rare, decisive, and courageous thing to do.

But I don't think Mr. Magoo has it in him.