Friday, May 29, 2009

Grill Gas Scam

You may have missed a small item in the news the other day. It didn’t make the front page, but if you have the kind of gas grill that uses propane from a small tank, you should know about this.
There’s been a trend for the past year or so to reduce the amount of stuff we’re getting in our containers at the supermarket, while keeping the price the same as if we were getting the “usual” amount.

Breakfast cereal and ice cream are two prime examples. The manufacturers have taken the “standard” size of the cereal box down a notch or two, while charging the same price. Often, it’s called “new value size” or something like that, with marketing language telling us they’re “giving us what we asked for!”. In some cases, they’ve made the cereal box a different shape - taller but thinner - and putting less cereal in it.

It’s pretty hard to fudge stuff like a gallon of milk. So far, it’s still 128 ounces. They’ve changed the shape of the container in many places, making it square and easy to stack, but I haven’t heard any reports of “new value size” milk cartons containing 100 ounces, or whatever.

But a lot of the ice cream folks have done it. What used to be a “standard” half-gallon container of ice cream is now more like 50 ounces than 64 ounces. And don’t even get me started on the “fun size” candy bars, where it takes about three of them to get the same amount of candy bar that I got for a nickel when I was a kid.

Now it’s hit the propane gas market. The small news item said many propane tank exchange outfits were now filling their tanks with less propane, but charging the same price. This, they say, is necessary to keep the price the same to the consumer in light of rising propane prices, or some such hogwash. The typical tank weighs about 17 pounds empty, and a “refill” should weigh 37 pounds. In other words, you’re used to paying for 20 pounds of propane.

The article said a lot of places were now putting in 15 to 17 pounds, instead of the 20 we’re used to getting. You wouldn’t know this if you’re used to just exchanging your tank at the convenience store. They’re obviously not going to call your attention to it, and may not even be aware of it!

My wife is planning a rib-fest on the grill tomorrow, so yesterday I took our almost-empty propane tank with me while running errands, and went to Mounds and had them re-fill the tank, rather than stopping at the gas station to exchange it. The young man who filled the tank for me set his scale at 37 pounds and filled to that weight and just a tad more. He said I had a few ounces left in the tank, and he wanted to make sure I got my money’s worth.

At the cash register, they charged me for 20 pounds of propane…and I got it. And a bit more, I think. It was well worth the extra three minutes, or however long it took, to make sure I got a “full” refill.

I told my wife we can put the money we “saved” on propane towards more ribs at the butcher shop tomorrow. Can’t have too many leftover ribs, can you?

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Not in MY back yard...

In parts of Columbia County, the rural landscape is dotted with signs saying “No Wind Farm” and “No Wind Turbines”. There’s been a wind-farm project pending in three townships up there for some time, and it’s supposed to start construction in about a year. If it ever gets final approval, there’d be about a hundred turbines built.

Now, there are allegations of coziness between a couple town board members with the developer, and strong protestations from the NIMBY’s. If you’re not familiar with the acronym, it means “Not In My Back Yard” and some of the people whose back yards are involved, and first supported the wind farm, are now against it.

Apparently they’ve been on that darned internet again, finding all sorts of information that wind turbines lead to nausea, strange noises, and all manner of bad things including dizziness. The developer, WE Energies, told a reporter for Channel 3 that there are no credible studies to support the stuff the NIMBY’s are worried about.

Sorta like those folks up in Poynette who got on that internet and found all sorts of stuff that says fluoride is a bad, bad thing - like puttin’ poison in the water. Did I mention they want to build these turbines in farm fields, not residential areas?

I know something about NIMBY’s because I was one, back in the late 80’s and early 90’s. I owned a house in the Burr Oaks neighborhood on Madison’s south side, and it was at a time when the city wanted to site every possible half-way house and social rehab facility on the south side. Our alder, Tim “Boss” Bruer, heard the property owners loud and clear, and talked sense to the city. He’s still the alder there, and still fighting the good fight.

When I lived in southern California, it was NIMBY heaven. They were everywhere. Talk about people who get involved in causes…..L-A was cause central. There was a sub-set of NIMBY’s who called themselves LULU’s - against Locally Unwarranted (or Unwanted) Land Use. And there were the NOPE’s. Not just in my back yard….Not On Planet Earth.

I’m not making this up.

Southern Californians are laid-back, but they can be pretty serious when they want to be. Madison can come close, but so far, I haven’t heard of any BANANA’s here. Build Absolutely Noting Anywhere Near Anyone. And there’s a faction in the golden state that calls itself “TEDAO”. Tear Everything Down At Once.

Madisonians will debate the routing of that new high-tension line ATC wants to build across Dane County, till the cows come home. They’re NIMBY’s, like the folks in Columbia County, but both are a long way from TEDAO’s. Thank heaven.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Can I Have EYE-talian Dressing On That Salad?

As the young folks would text....ROFLMAO. (For those who don't speak text, it's "Rolling on the floor, laughing my ass off".) That was my initial reaction to the ad that's just started running on local TV for Festa Italia this weekend. It runs about every 10 minutes on the local news and morning shows, so it's hard to miss. OK, I really didn't roll around on the floor, but I did laugh out loud the first time I saw it.

Miss Festa Italia 2009, flanked by a couple other Italians, invites us to Festa EYE-talia. EYE-talia. That's long "i" EYE-talia. Says it not once, but twice.

For the life of me, I can't figure out why the two Italians on either side of the young beauty queen didn't mention to her that since it's not pronounced EYE-taly, you don't say EYE-talian. It was one of my late father-in-law's greatest pet peeves....along with the people who pronounced his name "MARY-oh". Mario Zarantonello was Italian through-and-through, and had naught but disdain for those who said "EYE-talian" or called him "MARY-oh".

Mario and his wife ran an Italian restaurant on the south side of Chicago, a place where their daughter, my wife, was the "salad girl". It was a family enterprise all the way, and while I've never asked my wife what a "salad girl" does in a family Italian restaurant, I'm pretty sure it has something to do with making and serving salads. Presumably with "EYE-talian" dressing - NOT.

It's one thing for some regular Irish schmoe like me to say "EYE-talian", but quite another for a young lady who purports to be Italian mispronouncing it on an ad for a festival honoring her heritage. Probably half the folks who go to the fest this weekend say "EYE-talian" and don't think a thing about it. Not that big a deal, I suppose, if you're of descent other than Italian.

After all, about half the folks on radio and TV, who are supposed to be professional communicators, still say "EYE-rack" and "EYE-ran" when doing stories about the middle east, and even those who know enough to say "eh-ron" call the people who live there "eye-RAIN-ee-uns".

But I'm pretty sure if my father-in-law hadn't gone to his eternal reward, and saw the ad, he'd be on the phone to the Italian Workmen's Club, suggesting strongly that they re-do the ad.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

American Iron - Forever?

The very first car I ever owned was a Chrysler product. It was a puke-green 1956 Plymouth Savoy two-door sedan with a flathead six and three-speed manual transmission. I use the word “owned” in the sense that even though I was too young to have a drivers license in 1962, my buddies and I gave 25 bucks - a fortune at the time - to the owner of the clapped-out piece of Detroit iron (it was built in Highland Park, Michigan) and we had our first car.

We “drove” it to the Hortonville Homecoming, a civic celebration held the third weekend of June every year, where we’d paid five bucks for a permit to “display” the car. Prior to that, we’d gone to Tom O’Donnell’s Gambles Store on the main drag and bought a couple sturdy sledgehammers. We charged 25 cents a swing, and when the Chief Oshkosh and Adler Brau beer kicked in about 8 PM, we had a LOT of customers.

I believe we more than recouped our investment, including the cost of having the remains hauled off on a farmer’s wagon at the end of the civic celebration.

Through the years, I’ve owned a number of Chrysler products. In the salad days back in the 80’s and early 90’s, my stable of nine collector cars included a 1966 Plymouth Belvedere with the renowned 426 cubic inch Hemi engine in factory drag-pack trim, and a 1970 Plymouth Barracuda with the same engine - the so-called “Hemi-Cuda”. I bought and collected the cars I’d lusted after but couldn’t afford, back in the day, when they were new.

My wife now owns an ‘08 Dodge Magnum R/T, with the hemi engine. To be sure, it’s not the legendary 426 hemi that put out well over 500 horsepower. It’s a 345-cubic-inch hemi that puts out 340 horsepower. It’s not the pavement-ripper that the legendary hemi was, but it’s not tame, either. I wouldn’t have dreamed of driving my collector hemi’s in snow, but my wife’s car has All-Wheel-Drive and Chrysler’s great ESP (Electronic Stability Program), and not once did she get stuck in the snow last winter.

I guess my love for American Iron rubbed off on her, since she traded in her foreign-built sporty car for the hemi-Magnum. I didn’t have the heart to tell her Mercedes-Benz built the five-speed automatic transmission in her Magnum. But she tells me she feels “safer” in the Magnum - with all that Detroit steel around her. And, to be honest, whether she’s tooling down the beltline during rush hour on the way home, or on the NorthWest Tollway headed to her mom’s house, I feel better, too.

Chrysler stepped into bankruptcy a few weeks ago, but I’m confident they’ll emerge a better, stronger company. I have a feeling they’re not going to be making many more 340-horsepower station wagons like the Magnum, but I’m OK with that. Bankruptcy is supposed to give you a second chance, and I’m hopeful the Chrysler execs will use it wisely.

They’d better.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Remembering Memorial Day

It’s always been easy for me to remember Memorial Day. It always used to be May 30th, and we used to call it “Decoration Day”, a tradition that goes back to 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at the Arlington National Cemetery.

In May of 1949, my mom and dad were at the Decoration Day ceremony at what used to be called “North Park” in Oshkosh. Dad was a combat infantryman in the 96th Infantry. He volunteered for the draft right out of Oshkosh High School in 1942. First he helped General Patton win the war in Europe, earning a number of medals and decorations he never talked about. Then he served in the Army of Occupation in Japan.

He came home in 1946 and used the G I Bill to enroll at Oshkosh State Teachers College, married my mom in 1948, and on 30 May 1949, he and my nine-months-pregnant mom were at the Decoration Day ceremony at the park. As the solemn ceremony moved forward, military and civic officials laid a wreath on the waters of Lake Winnebago to commemorate the many lives lost at sea in the big war.

The story is told that when the uniformed soldiers in the honor guard at the ceremony raised their rifles to give the 21-gun salute to those who died in combat, my very-pregnant mother suddenly realized that the baby she was carrying must have heard the gunshots, and wanted out.
They went literally across the street to Mercy Hospital, and I was born a few hours later on May 31st, 1949, a true “baby boomer”. So it’s easy for me to remember Memorial Day, and why the holiday exists.

Congress, which fiddles around with everything, decided Decoration Day should be called Memorial Day, and eventually moved the observation to the last Monday in May.

A few years ago one of the young, part-time talk show hosts on the station I used to work for was going on and on about Memorial Day and how this is a day set aside to honor all our soldiers and sailors and troops who serve or have served in the armed services. When he went to a commercial break, I called him up on the “secret hotline” and explained that he had confused Memorial Day with Veterans Day.

I had to give this 20-something young man a history and civics lesson in about 60 seconds. He claimed he’d never been told the difference. They don’t have “civics” in schools these days, do they? Too many people like this young man don’t know much about the sacrifices families made back in the 40’s, and how many of the so-called greatest generation never came home from the war.

So, fire up the grill and enjoy the day off. But if you have kids, take just a moment to explain to them what we’re remembering on Memorial Day.

Friday, May 22, 2009

After a Long and Courageous Battle....

Along the course of our life together, my wife and I have had probably more than our fair share of unusual discussions. A couple nights ago, things took a decidedly weird tone.

Brian Williams was in the process of doing a promotional item - oh, wait, I mean a “news story” - about how nine million people had watched the NBC program about Farah Fawcett’s waning days dealing with cancer. Not all that big a number when you consider there are 304 million Americans by today’s estimate. But a large audience for a TV show.

We briefly discussed how neither of us would want our medical issues made so public, and after a pause, my bride announced “if I die of cancer, I don’t want you to put anything in my obituary about how I had a long and courageous battle. It’s so cliché and everybody does it.”

I am not here to disparage what anyone puts into their spouse’s obituary, because it’s so intensely personal and usually written under great duress. Many funeral homes have little forms that help you with handy tips about what to put in the obit. Nowadays, any funeral home worth its salt has a website where they list the name of the deceased and allow you to make online comments.

My wife and I have a mutual friend who has long-standing instructions to his wife that if it fits, she should write “died after WINNING a courageous battle with cancer” in his obit. He’s pretty good with prose, and loves to thumb his nose at dreck like sports clichés. Last night one of the Brewers coaches said “we have to keep our swagger but still be humble”. Huh? No one who swaggers is humble. Sports cliché dreck.

I’m not sure what lessons we were to take from the public expose of Farah Fawcett’s travails, since we didn’t watch the program. The snippets we saw as NBC populated its other programming with enticements to view the Fawcett tragedy were pretty grim. I’d prefer to remember Farah as the ultimate poster goddess of the 70’s. I am sad for Farah and everyone else who has dealt with cancer.

Both my wife and my mom are cancer survivors. My wife had that amazing Mohs Surgery that they do at UW-Health, invented right here in Madison. Because of my years living in southern California and the Gulf Coast, I’ve had three precancerous lesions cut off my skin. And that’s as “public” as I’ll get.

So what did we decide about the wording of the obit, if my wife should ever succumb to cancer? After a bit of discussion, we agreed I should write “cancer kicked my wife’s ass. I’m miserable without her. Send me large amounts of cash.”

Whistling past the graveyard.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

A Farewell to The ACTION MAN!

I will always remember Glen Loyd as “The Action Man” on what had to be the most outrageous ongoing television news broadcast in Wisconsin history….the group that held forth on Green Bay’s WLUK-TV Channel 11 in the early 70’s. They were deliberately outrageous. Stanley Siegel, the anchor who went on to a big-time career, said they HAD to be outrageous to generate talk about the newscast, which was up against entrenched ratings-leaders Channel 2 and Channel 5.

I got to know Glen when I was part of the media menagerie in the Fox Valley years ago as a stringer for WBAY-TV Channel 2, and every bit of Glen Loyd is genuine. He didn’t have an “off” switch. He’s a member of the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association Foundation’s Hall of Fame, and no one deserves it more.

Glen Loyd, square-jawed square-shooter, was the most serious and important part of the WLUK-TV newscast. He was Mike Wallace before Mike Wallace was Mike Wallace. Glen Loyd got action. If you were doing anything remotely shady anywhere in the Fox Valley and saw Glen Loyd roll up with a camera crew, you knew it was going to be a bad day.

He could (and did) get Bart Starr out of a team meeting to talk with him. But one of the most memorable things he did was sue half a dozen of the biggest employers in Green Bay for dumping crap into the air and water. He won.

For nearly the past three decades Glen Loyd has been “the man” at our state’s powerful Consumer Protection department. He’s made countless radio and TV appearances and has fought for people who’ve been wronged as though each victim was his best friend. He traded in his bully pulpit in Green Bay and later Dallas TV to become our watchdog, and we‘ll never see another his equal.
He’s seen every scam under the sun and knows exactly how the swindlers operate. And I did enough interviews with him during my days as a news anchor to know how passionate Glen is about exposing this stuff. You can’t fake the kind of energy Glen Loyd brings to the job every day.

Glen turns 70 in a few months, and is leaving his state job. But he’s not really going away. He’ll continue to fight for us through his blog and says he’ll continue to make broadcast appearances gratis.

Happy trails, my friend. Until we meet again…

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Flu Effluvium

Read the headlines, and it’s enough to scare you. Associated Press: First New York City Swine Flu Death. Los Angeles Times: Sixth Death Linked To Swine Flu in US. ABC News: Younger Swine Flu Cases, Deaths Raise Questions. BBC: New Swine Flu Toll Nears 10,000. Reuters: Mexico Swine Flu Death Toll Rises to 56.

One thing the media are good at is scaring us. American media are usually long on scare, short on perspective. I’m not sure if anyone can put this Swine Flu thing into perspective, because the institutions which can, have an “axe to grind”.

The World Health Organization is openly concerned that “rich” nations will buy up all the Swine Flu vaccine when it’s created, leaving people in the “poor” nations to fend for themselves. The Centers for Disease Control is a voice of reason, but at its core it’s a political organization. So you need to have a bit of skepticism when you examine the information on their websites.

Wisconsin has a relatively large number of Swine Flu cases compared to other states of similar population, but that’s probably because our state’s health care officials are far better at detecting and testing for the H1N1 virus. And our state’s health officials are saying we won’t really know the impact of the virus until this fall.

I don’t know whether to be alarmed, and if so, at what level, because I can’t seem to find any reliable source that will put this problem into proportion, and that’s the key to knowing how to deal with it. The pictures I see on TV of children wearing masks is typical of American media coverage. They love the extremes.

How many times did you see those houses fall into Lake Delton last June on the local TV broadcasts? And again last week when one of the stations did a series on recovery. Another excuse to run that footage of houses falling into the lake, if you ask me. But like many other pieces of compelling video, they’ll beat it to death.

Years ago during the gun deer hunting season in Wisconsin, all the media would faithfully report the number of deer hunters who had heart attacks in the woods. Since nobody ever put it into perspective, you’d think the riskiest thing a middle-aged man could do in Wisconsin was go deer hunting. The number of middle-aged Wisconsin men having heart attacks during any given ten-day period was the same as during the deer hunt, but that’s not “scary”.

There were precious few of us in the media who bothered to make the comparison. Come to think of it, one heavy snowfall probably kills more middle-aged Wisconsin men than any deer hunt.

Is the H1N1 virus on a track to kill scores of us this fall, or is it just another flu bug not really unlike the ones that come ‘round every year? I don’t know, and I can’t seem to find out. The media are too busy scaring us to really look into it.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

U R Furloughed

It’s a hallmark of political leadership. Stake out a bold initiative, make a big speech about it, and then when somebody actually asks you about the details….change the subject.

Diamond Jim’s latest dandy is his announcement that state employees will be required to take a mess of days off with no pay over the next two years. Sixteen is the working number. Can’t just tell them he’s whacking 8 days pay off their checks this year and next year; that would break way too many laws. Can’t just “average it out” and dock their checks a small amount every month. Breaks too many laws and union contract provisions. Or does it? Nobody seems to know for sure.

It didn’t take long for what’s left of the local news corps to start asking questions about who’s subject to furlough and who’s not, how’s it going to work, and the other typical basic questions you’d expect even a cub reporter to ask. Hospital workers? Jail guards? Barry Alvarez? Bo Ryan? Bret Bielema? Legitimate questions, since all are among the 69 thousand state employees.
Since Diamond Jim had no answers, he pitched the ball into the court of the Office of State Employment Relations. They’re supposedly getting back to the reporters in…oh, a couple weeks or so.

By the way, when the question of the UW coaches furloughs came up, the guv opined they SHOULD be subject. The UW system represents nearly half the total state employee work force. Public school teachers aren’t, in case you’re wondering, because they actually work for the local school board. But the DPI has 700 employees, including the teachers at the state’s schools for the deaf and blind. Which days during their nine months of teaching should they be “furloughed”? And when they’re on furlough, do we hire (and PAY) substitute teachers?

Questions, questions. Details, details.

Anybody care to guess whether the analysts and investigators at the State Crime Lab have to be furloughed? The people who do all that DNA stuff that links criminals with crimes ARE subject to the unpaid days, according to their boss, Attorney General J B VanHollen.

And the politicians? The gang of 132 up there at the head of State Street? The ones who took that “automatic” pay raise a short while ago? Well, they’re generously going to give up 16 days’ pay.
It’s so hard to figure these things out. But it’s so easy just to say “we’re going to furlough state employees to help fill the budget hole”. But don’t worry, Employment Relations will have the answers for us. Any day now.

Don’t hold your breath.

Monday, May 18, 2009

My Address to the Notre Dame Graduates

Notre Dame graduating class of 2009: my hope for you is that the Jesuits have taught you how to think critically. Whether you studied arts, science, letters, or math, the power of critical thinking will give you an advantage as you begin your professional lives.

All around you today are the symbols of people who are ruled by their ambitions or emotions. The former presidential candidate (Alan Keyes) who spent part of this graduation weekend in jail, for his actions over the past couple days on your campus. The collection of people intense in their conviction, who want control over your body and your decision-making. The extremists who think persuasion consists of finding the most extreme case and then shouting it, either in words or pictures.
These are the kinds of people you will meet in your careers and in your personal lives, and you must never abandon the power of critical thinking you developed here at Notre Dame.

Just as your leaders here at this institution in the past have invited other Presidents whose beliefs conflict with some of theirs, you must be willing to listen to responsible people who have viewpoints different from yours. You must not shout them down or ridicule them. You must remember that reasonable people can have different points of view, and that sometimes the clash of ideas produces a new and better idea.

You must honor your beliefs, but you must continually examine them in the light of new knowledge you acquire. You must not be afraid of changing your mind, or changing you path, because of the illumination of new ideas, new knowledge, or new experiences. You must seek these new things, not avoid them.

You must remember that in this country, our founders made one of our principal laws the freedom of speech, and you must know that often unpopular speech is that which is in most need of protection. That is why these people who have taken over your campus on this graduation weekend have a right to be heard. You need not honor their beliefs, but you must honor their right to express them.

There is another lesson you can learn from this graduation weekend. More often in life than you probably realize now, the sideshow gets more attention than the main event. Try to keep focused on your mission, whatever it is, and not to be too distracted by the things going on around you.

And as you move forward through life, remember that learning must not stop when you walk across this stage and receive your diploma. This event is an end, and a beginning. Go out and make your mark on the world!

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Tail Wagging The Dog

If you watched the state boy’s basketball tournament, you couldn’t miss Vander Blue. He’s a talented basketball player for Madison Memorial High, a junior guard. He was the MVP of the tournament. He made what the NCAA calls an “oral commitment” last summer to play for the UW Badgers.

It’s now become apparent that Mr. Blue likes to play basketball and is very good at it, but Mr. Blue doesn’t like academics and isn’t making good grades. In fact, his grades are obviously so crappy that SEVEN big-shots had a sit-down with him Monday and told him, in essence, to buckle down, or he wouldn’t meet the “academic standards” to be a Badger jock.

I would imagine those standards are, shall we say, fairly low.

Cap Times sports reporter Rob Schultz says after the meeting with these big-wigs, including Bo Ryan himself, and UW Admissions Director Robert Seltzer, along with two academic counselors, assorted other Memorial High top administrators, and his mom, Mr. Blue put thinly-veiled hints on his Facebook page that he was going to start shopping around for another school to make a “commitment” to. He’s going to take his ball and go…..elsewhere.

Let’s face it. He’s a teenager, and he’s acting like one. To further complicate matters for the young man, he’s under pressure from his peers to play for Marquette. Marquette and Memorial High alum Wesley Matthews has joined the chorus urging him to consider Marquette.

I’m not sure how Mr. Blue will “get into” Marquette if he’s already shy of the standards for the UW, but - stranger things have happened, haven’t they?

It is impossible for me to imagine a scenario where any other “department” at the UW would make such a big thing about recruiting one student. If a good trumpet player at Hortonville High was recalcitrant about going to Madison, I can envision Mike Leckrone MAYBE making a trip up there to sit down with the young trumpeter, and maybe the parents, and the kid’s band director.
But not with a phalanx of other high-ranking UW officials and counselors.

And let’s face another fact: a music scholarship is nothing like an athletic scholarship. Or a math scholarship or an engineering scholarship or any other kind of scholarship. And kids who are offered math, science, art, or any other than an athletic scholarship usually aren’t having any trouble whatsoever making A’s.

It’s a strange world we live in, when we place such value and emphasis on the young people we want to carry, bounce, throw, or kick a ball.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Art of Compromise

Old Diamond Jim is a through-and-through politician. He knows his way around a deal, and like so many politicians, makes my old pal Mark Belling look like a real man of his word. In case you haven’t heard, the fiery right-wing talk show host who decamped from Madison years ago and now holds forth on the Milwaukee airwaves is now waffling on a promise to vote for Doyle, based on that fifty-to-one shot that won the Kentucky Derby.

Mark picks his topics far better than he handicaps the ponies.

Diamond Jim pushed for, and apparently got a state-wide smoking ban, but being the politician that he is, he knew compromise was unavoidable. One of the first deals cut involved the date the state-wide ban would kick in. It was something like 14 months out, July 2010, to give the poor taverns and restaurants “time to gear up for it”. They wanted to push it even farther back.

The latest bolt-out-of-the-blue from the Capital was talk of exempting American Legion clubs from the ban. What? Did a bunch of those clowns that work at the top of State Street go and see Gran Torino? What’s this world comin’ to if Clint and his old army pals can’t light up in their own clubhouse?

We’d already heard that Diamond Jim was going to give his tribal pals a pass on the ban, so we can light-up willy-nilly while pulling the levers up at Ho-Chunk or over at DeJope. Until this American Legion thing came up yesterday, that would have left the tribes with a monopoly on gambling AND smoking!

As a politician, the guv thinks he gets to pick and choose which parts of the state constitution he’s going to support and defend. His smoking ban logic was to avoid a “patchwork of laws” enacted by various communities. This is the same guy who just said each municipality ought to be able to enact its own firearms laws.

I don’t like it when politicians or bureaucrats push things “because neighboring states have them” or “because we’re above (or below)” some neighboring state or institution. Sorta like Biddy’s twisted thinking on making the UW-Madison more affordable by raising tuition.

But it’s logic on a case-by-case basis for the guv, who’s also pushing for sobriety checkpoints in Wisconsin. Why? Because a dozen other states have them. It won’t come as news to Diamond Jim that 48 other states allow concealed carry. But he won’t talk about that.

Politics is the art of compromise. But we’re dealing here with the guv and 132 other players who’ve been known to deal from the bottom of the deck. It’s like the old radio broadcasters saying: “They listen only to WII-FM….What’s In It For Me”.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Government In Action

It's fashionable in some quarters to bash "the government".

If you ask the folks just up the road in Columbus how they feel about government, you may get a mixed bag of answers. If you ask them how they feel about their fire department, I’m pretty sure nobody will have a bad word to say, particularly after the big chemical fire.

Yes, the Columbus Fire Department is the government. Most of them true volunteers. Patriots. Responsible for covering 280 square miles. Acting Chief Tom Perry can be very proud of his department. It took them a mere seven minutes to be on the scene of the chemical fire.

While some will toss brickbats at them and second-guess their initial offensive response, to attempt to douse the fire with water, I’ll do no such thing. They recognized quickly that this was a part of the chemical plant where using water would be dangerous, and they adjusted their approach to defensive mode in an instant.

They trained for this, they actually had a working plan set up with company officials, and they executed the plan efficiently.

And the other firefighters who immediately responded and helped, from Dane and Dodge County? Government.

While the ditto-heads bash government and Reverend Limbaugh preaches about the evils of government, and while it does have spectacular shortcomings at times, on a very personal and very daily local level it works.

Stamps cost another two cents, but it’s still a bargain for the service we get. For millions of Americans, the postal service delivers those Social Security checks every month. EVERY month. Another government program that WORKS.

Police still patrol our neighborhoods, protect us, and do their best to catch the bad guys. And when emergencies arise, like the fire at the chemical plant in Columbus, the government swings into action and deals with the problem.

The fire gets controlled, people get warned and are evacuated by local police and sheriff‘s deputies, and it’s all because the government in Columbus works.

Next time you feel the need to bash the government, remember not to paint with too broad a brush. Sometimes the government is the young father down the street who leaves his home on a moment’s notice, dons his turnout gear, and runs TOWARD the danger.

Poynette Dweebs - Again, and Finally

As I predicted...a month ago....

The newly-elected village board was seated, and one of its first orders of business was to turn the fluoride on.

Thank you.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Adventures in Banking

Saturday night we went to one of Madison’s finer establishments to help celebrate the birthday of a friend. Nice place, great steaks, locally owned. Jacket and tie not required, thank heaven.

It was a fine evening from beginning to almost the end, when I had to endure one of those modern-day problems that no one will take the blame for, and no one seems to be able to solve. It was a great meal with great service, worth the price I knew we’d pay.

It was my friend’s birthday, and I wanted to treat him.

A moment here, to give you some background. My wife and I do not have any credit cards. We use debit cards exclusively, and I’m obsessive about knowing the balance on our accounts every day. We’ve had enough trouble with both our debit cards in the past year to make me constantly vigilant.

So when the waiter came back and discretely told me my card had been rejected twice, I gave him our other debit card. We’re so well acquainted with the friends we were dining with that I could “vent” to them. I said “there’s got to be at least three thousand bucks in that account, and they’re going to hear about this Monday”. The bill was a bit north of 300 bucks, and there was no problem processing the transaction on the other debit card.

To mitigate my pique, the birthday boy was kind enough to relate a tale of how he’d once been embarrassed by a credit card company, while he was conducting a transaction with his business. We’ve all been in these situations, when there’s no logical or apparent explanation for the failure of our credit or debit card to “go through”.

So yesterday I called the bank and asked why my card had been rejected on a 300-dollar purchase Saturday night. We agreed that at the time of the rejected transaction there was $3163.84 in the account, and every cent was “available”. (Another favorite bank trick: they love to restrict YOUR access to YOUR money.) Had I exceeded the one thousand dollar daily limit on the card?, the bank asked. It’s there for my protection, the banker-ette quickly explained. No, I had NOT exceeded the one thousand dollar daily limit. And by the way, just a couple months ago I paid a hotel bill in Mesa that was over $1500 with that card, and there was no problem then. So don’t talk to me about “thousand dollar daily limits”, unless you’ve changed policies since March and haven’t bothered to tell me. No response to that.

She then theorized that it was the restaurant’s problem.

In 30 years of being a news anchor, I’ve developed uncanny skills at tracking down stories. High-level skills like using the telephone to call the restaurant and ask if they had ANY trouble with ANY of their other credit- or debit-card transactions Saturday night. Nope.

So I called the banker-ette back and reported the restaurant denied having any issues with their equipment. She said she simply couldn’t explain why it didn’t “go through”. No apology, no offer of any further action on the bank’s part. Not that I expected anything.

This bank was good with us, when my wife had a debit-card issue in New York City a few months ago, so now, as far as I’m concerned, the score is even. One to the good, one to the bad. Next incident - and I know there’ll be one - and I move past the “talk” stage. If they’re reading this, I’m pretty sure they’re not scared, and they don’t really care. I'm a small fish, and if I swim away, they won't even notice.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Law of Unintended Consequences

Question for the environmentalists: are the greenhouse gases emitted by your idling internal combustion engine somehow mitigated by the fact that they were emitted in an effort to help the planet?

They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Saturday’s e-waste recycling event must have pushed the greenhouse gas emission meter off the scale in Madison, when thousands and thousands of cars were idling for hours and hours as people tried to drop off their old TV sets and computers to be responsibly recycled.

The well-intentioned folks who put the event together never anticipated such a response, but then they apparently forgot that just a few weeks ago, thousands of TV sets suddenly became essentially useless when the broadcasters converted from analog to digital transmission.

We got briefly stuck in the traffic mess coming from our south suburban home headed to the beltline along Rimrock Road, to do the weekly grocery shopping about 9 o’clock Saturday morning. Only my superior knowledge of the local layout enabled us to disengage from the mess by taking a secret path to the beltline to avoid adding to the exhaust fumes blanketing the south side.

As far as the eye could see, along Rimrock, John Nolen, Olin, Lakeview, and scores of other south-side thoroughfares, it was bumper-to-bumper, moving forward ten feet at a time, then idling again for another 30 or 40 seconds. The backups on the beltline were phenomenal. Fifteen cops dispatched to the scene did their best to try and “control” traffic, but there’s not much you can do when the lines were already several miles long before the event even started.

I’m glad that so many folks in Dane County take disposing of e-waste seriously, and had the best intentions of doing the right thing. Some of the stuff in those old TV’s and computers is pretty nasty, and we really need to keep it out of the landfills, lakes, and groundwater. And the fact that the organizers were taking the e-waste at no charge made Saturday’s event a very attractive one, indeed.

Best guess is that about 250 tons of e-waste….that’s about 35 semi-trailers’ worth…was collected Saturday and will be responsibly recycled. That’s a very good thing. I’m sure next time, and there should be a next time, the organizers will let the cops know well in advance that there may be a “traffic situation”.

Saturday’s huge greenhouse gas emission was the unfortunate price we paid as good citizens of the earth. Next time, we’ll be even better citizens. We’ll plan for better traffic flow.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Mayor Dave and the Demise of Local News

On his blogpost this week, my friend Mayor Cieslewicz decries the loss of still another veteran local news reporter, and alleges the college papers cover more city news than anybody else.

We’ll talk about that in a moment.

The Mayor misses his regular chats with Jennifer Miller, an acquaintance of long-standing and former reporter/anchor for the local ClearChannel radio cluster over on Fish Hatchery Road. Like so many of us in the last year, she’s been sent packing. In her stead, ClearChannel now runs newscasts from Julie Tedesco, a ClearChannel employee in their Grand Rapids, Michigan cluster of stations. Her half-hourly afternoon newcasts are filled with material written and produced right here in Madison by people like Robin Colbert and her dad, John, the dean of radio news guys in Madison. Ms. Tedesco is a pro and gets the local pronunciations right and sounds like she’s in Madison….but the mayor is right. She’ll never get the flavor of the City of the Perpetually Offended by living and working in Grand Rapids. Julie Tedesco will never know a tenth of what Jennifer Miller knows about Madison.

The mayor echoes the common belief that the demise of so many of us in the news biz is because of declining revenue.

Not really. It’s a factor, but more of an excuse than a factor.

ClearChannel, the largest radio consolidator in the history of the known universe, in its most recent iteration, was put together by two idiots who grossly overpaid, don’t know how to manage broadcast properties, and dance to the tune called by the even more greedy bankers who loaned them the money for the inflated purchase of all those radio stations. In the past few months, ClearChannel has fired over two thousand people, and ClearChannel still can’t meet its financial obligations.

Ever hear of a local broadcast MANAGER or PROGRAM DIRECTOR or NEWS DIRECTOR or EDITOR being “laid off” in an economic purge? The bosses fire the worker bees in news, to protect their own salary.

Too many broadcast properties, like the ClearChannel radio entities, are managed by people who were at one time good at selling commercials. They don’t have the foggiest idea of what it takes to gather, write, and produce newscasts. Many of these managers, and I speak from vast experience, cannot recognize or appreciate good news content. To them, news employees represent at best a cost item, and at worst a force for evil within the corporation because they have the temerity to point out from time to time in their newscasts that sponsors - cash-paying advertisers - sometimes fleece the public. Makes it harder to sell more ads to the offending merchant.

So, you see, my friend Mayor Dave proceeds from the false assumption that local professional news organizations (his words) WANT to keep their reporters. First, Mayor Cieslewicz, they’re not “professional news organizations”, particularly if you’re talking about broadcasters. Like the so-called “newspaper”, they exist to sell ads and generate revenue. News content is secondary, tertiary, or lower. Second, if the FCC would only drop that pesky requirement about addressing community issues through LOCAL programming, they could dump any pretense of doing “news” without jeopardizing their license.

Now if those young folks at the Daily Cardinal and Badger Herald want to sit though every city council meeting, and take notes on the debate about who should be a sister-city and who shouldn’t, and whether we should ban plastic bags from landfills, and impeachment hearings on George Bush and all the other stuff that masquerades as “city” business, more power to them. In my thirty-plus years in the biz, I never encountered a public official, board, commission, or council that wanted LESS coverage of its activities. In the news biz in 2009, it’s pick and choose, manage overtime, and prioritize your coverage.

I join Mayor Dave in lamenting the loss of still another experienced local news reporter. But lots of us are still here, Mr. Mayor….you’ll find us in places like this, on the internet.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Your Politicians In Action

It may not make it all the way to the guv's desk, but there's a proposal from the powerful Joint Finance Committee to take the state's legal notices of meetings out of the newspaper and put them online.

Since our state has a tremendous open meetings law, when the politicians get together to foist things on us, they have to "notice" their meetings to the public, whether it's the latest scheme to whack CWD, or a plan to change or add business regulations, and scores of other things.

The way it works now is the state agency places the ad in the Wisconsin State Journal, telling us about the meeting. You ignore that section of the paper where the notices run, but that's the way it works. In theory, if a meeting is "big" enough, the hard-working news reporters of the area pick up on it and do a story, which you may actually read. According to the State Journal, this would cost them about 150 grand a year in revenue. The state Newspaper Association doesn't like this idea one bit. And there are a couple Republicans who think this is just horrible, Bert Darling of River Hills, one of the richest suburbs in the state, who claims she's against it because not everyone has access to the internet.

While I’m certain that's NOT the case in River Hills, my guess is she's posturing for the poor folks up north, or whatever. It's true, not everyone has access to the internet to read the notices, if they decide to put them onlne rather than in print. But not everyone has access to transportation to GO to the meetings, either....and - here it comes - not everyone reads English. Putting the state's notices online is fine with me. You're reading this on the internet, and probably getting much of your news here anyway.

Oh, and nice job on the smoking ban - finally. Great-grandpa Risser wanted it to kick in today, but it’s not going to take effect until next summer. Politics is compromise, so much horse-trading was done to get to a deal. I suspect the folks in my old stomping ground in the rural Fox Valley (and points north) will simply ignore the ban, as another one of those “Madison” things….even though the folks in Appleton passed a ban a while ago.

What I don’t like that came out of the compromise with the Tavern League is that it prevents bars and restaurants from prohibiting smoking on outdoor patios. So, two years from now, on a gorgeous May day like today, us non-smokers will have to stay inside our favorite establishments, while the smokers foul the air on the patio.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Barry v. Biddy - Part Two

One of the big problems with the Enron collapse was that the accountants got too cozy with the big brass, lost their independence, and kept saying everything was fine. “Nothing to see here; move along; nothing to see here” got tossed out as an accounting concept in the reforms that followed the fleecing of the Enron shareholders and pensioners.

Monday night, the UW Faculty Senate made it clear to both Chancellor Biddy Martin and Athletic Director Barry Alvarez that there IS something to see here, and they want to see it with their own eyes. To put it in the words of my contact in the Faculty Senate, “Biddy sided with Barry at the meeting, but despite her objections, the Faculty Senate voted overwhelmingly to set up an ad-hoc committee to investigate the Athletic Board. Barry was there and left not happy.”

At issue is who really runs the jock department; is it a part of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, or is it a sort of separate entity that happens to be located on campus; and who really has the power to hire and fire head coaches - who after all, are UW employees.

The senators unanimously favored a return to the original, written concept that head coaches are appointed by the Chancellor, on the recommendation of the Athletic Director. Not the other way around, the way Barry did it when he named Bret Bielema his successor as head football coach.
The senators also made it clear that when it comes time to take a look at the Athletic Department, it shouldn’t be the Athletic Department alone that does the review. In other words, the senators said the Athletic Department at the University of Wisconsin at Madison will be run like every other department at the UW-Madison.

How un-Kathleen-Falk-like. Her response to the problems uncovered in the 9-1-1 Dispatch Center after the bungling of the Brittany Zimmerman cell phone call was to have the Dispatch Center investigate itself, and sure enough - everything was fine. Nothing to see here. Thank heaven the Dane County Board didn’t buy it.

The UW Faculty Senate is making it clear - the good old boy network at the Athletic Department is going to have to start acting like they’re part of the University…again.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Swine Flu Lunacy

I am well acquainted with a person who works at one of those high-tech outfits in the UW Research Park on the west side. One of the things the company does, is assist the hard-of-hearing to communicate with family and friends via a telephone/computer interface.

Many of the people who use this service are elderly, and they’re very concerned about the swine flu. But the conversations they have about it are very scary. The most common misconception which they keep repeating in conversations with each other, is that you have 12 hours between when you first start coughing, and when you die….unless you have a medical intervention.

Who knows where this stuff starts, but it sure gets repeated a lot.

Another frequent conversation involves eating pork products of any sort. If one elderly person tells another that it’s safe to eat pork products, odds are strong the other party will say something about how it’s called swine flu because it comes from pigs and anyone who eats pork products is gambling with their life.

We tend to believe our peers above all others. Senior citizens believe senior citizens; kids believe other kids. Ask any kid (or teacher). You can’t get pregnant if you do it standing up. You get breast cancer from wearing a bra to bed. You can’t get breast cancer if you wear a bra to bed. Putting an aspirin in a glass of Coca-Cola will get you high. And on and on. You remember the stuff we heard and believed as kids.

And then there was the Vice President’s insert-foot-in-mouth moment last week.

I have another acquaintance who owns a travel agency in Madison, and about an hour after Mr. Biden made his on-air gaffe on the Today Show, the travel cancellations began flooding into her business. I ran into her doing some shopping this weekend, and she was understandably cranky about it. She thinks Biden’s ill-advised anti-travel rant has pretty much killed her business for a couple weeks.

I suggested she contact Biden’s boss about getting some bailout money.

And don’t even get me started about how Twitter has contributed to the huge amount of misinformation out there. The swine flu is germ warfare from the terrorists. Thousands of deaths in other countries that the U-S isn’t telling us about. Incredibly crazy stuff that people who overdose every day on Facebook and Twitter thrive on.

The broadcast media, which could play such a huge role in educating people about the real dangers, goes instantly into full-panic mode. They’ll take whatever is the worst possible scenario suggested by the least reliable ‘public health official’ and run with it. The 24-hour news cycle thrives on the extreme.

When it’s all said and done late this fall, and we know how much an impact swine flu really had, will anybody go back and hold accountable those who made the wildest predictions this spring? Not likely. We’ll have some new crisis to deal with.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Barry v. Biddy

Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier! The chant Howard Cosell launched into in Kingston Jamaica in 1973 when George Foreman mauled Joe Frazier in the so-called “Sunshine Showdown” will live forever in boxing lore, and there’s another potentially huge heavyweight match today in Madison.

When the UW Faculty Senate meets, in one corner will be the reigning Chancellor of the UW, Biddy Martin; in the other, the reigning Athletic Director, Barry Alvarez. At issue: who really, really runs the jock palace: the University, or The Athletic Director.

My money’s on Barry.

Biddy and her faculty senate have to decide whether or not they’re going to take a secondary role in deciding who actually hires coaches, how much they’re paid, what their “bonus” criteria will be, and just plain is in charge.

Riding a wave of his tremendous success as a coach, Barry named his own replacement for that job (Bret Bielema), and put him into the position. Posting the job? Oh, ah, we forgot. My bad. Barry wisely had some other administrator take the fall for that “little” oversight. He’s pretty much had his way with the Athletic Board, which has, let’s face it, become a rubber stamp.

Never mind that the real and true rule by which the jock kings must abide says “Head Coaches are appointed by the Chancellor and the Board of Regents, on the recommendation of the Athletic Director”. That rule sort of got lost in the shuffle, and enough faculty members are displeased that they’ve essentially asked Biddy to rule on it.

She’s in a dilemma…classic definition: two choices, both bad. Choice one is to support the rule, but she does so at the risk of incurring the displeasure of the corpuscles…the old white guys who wear Cardinal and White and raise so much cash for the jocks. And this is a critical time for having some cash in the bank. Choice two is to bend to Barry’s will, and allow him to be King, and put him above her in naming head coaches and making big decisions. But she does so at the risk of sending a clear signal to her faculty and the state legislature and the Board of Regents that she’s just another jock-sniffer.

To abuse my wife’s favorite movie line from Betty Davis in All About Eve: fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night. Or, in this case, meeting.

As I said, my money’s on Barry.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Mifflin Street Beer Blast

I’m going to take it by his blog-post that the Madisonian most closely associated with the Mifflin Street Block Party won’t be there tomorrow. Hizzoner da Mare suggests 17 things to do on the first Saturday of May, and not one of them mentions Mifflin Street or the party in any way.

One could easily take the impression that Paul Soglin is not a fan of the beer blast, in what it’s morphed into. And, in the interest of full disclosure, I was NOT - I say again NOT - at the very first Mifflin Street Block Party in 1969.

I’ve been to a few of them in the past couple decades, in connection with my former obligations as a news anchor to “get out into the community”. But my kids took over that task when they enrolled at the UW. The most exciting thing I have planned for tomorrow is a haircut.

I’ve come to be more annoyed than anything else by the party, which for twenty years on the air in Madison I referred to as “The Mifflin Street Beer Blast”. It’s now just a big drunk, which costs somewhere between 50 and 75 grand in police overtime.

My kids can’t possibly understand what the block party meant back in ‘69. They understand their county is at war, just like we were back then, and that it’s a “bad” war, just like it was back then, but my kids have very, very few high school or college classmates that are actually fighting the war.
Just a few months after the ‘69 Mifflin Street Block Party, on the first of December, I was with a whole bunch of college pals watching a politician draw numbers out of barrel in the first draft lottery. One of the young men with me was born on September 14th, the very first birthdate drawn. About a year and a half later, he was dead, killed in VietNam.

My kids can’t possibly imagine how important music was to us back then, even though it’s a big part of their daily lives in 2009. Hopefully, they’ll never have the feeling we had in ‘67 when that famous Buffalo Springfield song played on the juke box or radio. Now, the songs and bands we cherished in the 60's are reduced to video games on Rock Band.

The young folks who’ll overindulge downtown tomorrow can’t possibly know why the Mifflin Street Block Party was so significant to folks my age, and maybe that’s a good thing. I hope they never have to pay the price so many of my friends did back then.

So party hearty; blow off steam; listen to music; have fun; and pay your own bail. But don’t pretend you know anything about what that first Block Party was all about.