Wednesday, August 31, 2005

You must realize, Smoke gets in your eyes.

While taking a leisurely lunchtime walk through the park yesterday, I was struck by another observation about the current cigarette imbroglio. Actually, I was almost struck by stray ash but the observation was a direct hit: while smoking is now prohibited anywhere on the grounds of local hospitals it apparently is still permitted in ambulances, for it was a shotgun-riding EMT who was flicking her way through the park on a mild and overcast day who thoughtfully discarded ash in my path. Although I can't say for sure, I would wager that her spent butt is now part of the park's well-kept landscape. Where have you gone Norman Rockwell?

Now that legislation has passed allowing municipalities to enact more stringent restrictions on smoking, expect this to be a hot-button issue for some time to come. The media have already come down pretty hard in favor of across-the-board bans in businesses, including restaurants, bars, and bowling alleys. They seem to be reflecting prevailing public opinion with their stance, although that opinion is far from unanimous and the dissenters have on their side the city's top dog.

If the mayor's vision for Springfield includes dense smog in local establishments, then he might want to start mounting a defense lest people believe that he is merely looking out for the best interests of his tavern-owning brother.

Being as that the all-important issues of health and public well-being, along with the majority opinion, favor the other side, he might be served best by creating a diversion. He could conjure up a straw man who would descend upon the city under the guise of an oppressive and dictatorial government. Today it would ban smoking at TGIFriday's, but tomorrow will insist on making wine selections at Indigo and imposing fines for chewing with your mouth open at Hardee's (not a bad idea, really.) The problem with creating an image of a straw man setting down a slippery slope is that it bursts into flames with the first carelessly discarded butt.

Although he was addressing a different issue, George Will combated this line of argument quite well:

Life, however, is lived on a slippery slope: Taxation could become confiscation; police could become gestapos. But the benefits from taxation and police make us willing to wager that our judgment can stop slides down dangerous slopes.

And so we too can feel safe that banning cigarettes in restaurants probably won't result in infringements on the freedoms of the press, as was suggested in a letter-to-the-editor today.

A more persuasive argument, at least as it plays to my pseudo-libertarian leanings, is that in matters of business, the market should determine the action. As such, people are free to frequent smoke-free establishments while boycotting those brimming in carcinogens. If enough consumers go this route, businesses will soon follow with self-imposed restrictions. Unfortunately, this doesn't take into account the people who work in these environments (admittedly not against their will) nor is the reasoning consistent with that that has led to current public health regulations with which few would argue, such as the limit on the number of cockroaches that can reside in food preparation areas.

Even still, I can't help picturing some weather-worn corner tavern where the owner, bartender, and all of the regulars are smokers. Why shouldn't they be allowed to light up, and the fact is, ban or no ban, they probably will.

Whatever type of ban is passed in the city, I would think that enforcement would come as the result of routine health inspections and complaints from patrons. The latter is much more likely to happen at restaurants than at bars, especially those where such persnicketiness would be met with the business end of a broken Bud bottle.

The government has been unable to stamp out illegal payouts on video poker games and so it's unlikely that they will be able to fully clear the air in every saloon, tavern, and thirst parlor. But since we can't have anyone operating above the law either, I propose an opt-out policy for those places that want to maintain their noxious appeal. Operating a cancer incubator would come at a price, however, in the form of a new tax, the proceeds of which could be directed towards the new medical district or be used to prop up a sagging dry-cleaning industry once lunch at D'Arcy's no longer requires de-fumigation of one's attire (In fairness, I haven't been to the new location so maybe the problem isn't as bad now.)

As much as I detest the foul air of cigarette smoke, I do have friends who smoke and this fact tempers an all-out assault on this issue from my direction. I wish that they would quit, for their own good, and maybe increasing restrictions on where they can light up will help them make that decision. Still, they should have some place where they can gather and enjoy a beer and a smoke with like-minded folks; they just shouldn't be allowed to do it any place.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Muni Tunes

The case of the disgruntled firefighter candidate was again the topic of conversation on the Jim Leach show this morning, this time with the emphasis placed on the most recent bumblings of the city’s legal department.

I agree that the city’s handling of this situation has been ham-handed at best, the document authorizing the release of background information to a candidate is simply the most recent example of their floundering.

Acknowledging that their hands are tied in many respects, it’s still confounding to me how virtually no attempt has been made to formulate a message to the public that maybe, despite all awkward appearances, the city is in the right here. And if they’re not in the right then a more convincing cover-up strategy needs to be concocted.

Listening and reading reactions to the candidate’s tale, the prevailing opinion seems to be that since he honorably completed military duty and passed scrutiny while landing a position in a bank, that whatever reason the city has for dismissing him must be discriminatory or capricious. Few suspect the existence of a smoking gun and so every action the city takes that in anyway impedes the release of his background information is viewed suspiciously.

However, the city’s case, from an outsider’s perspective, would seem to revolve around the presumption that there is a smoking gun, or at least a recoiled slingshot. So how best to further that assumption among the general public without getting specific and breaking the law?

I have it on good authority that the background checks the city conducts on firefighter and police officer candidates are much more thorough and inclusive than those employed in the banking industry. Were I Ernie Slottag, not only would I insist on being addressed as Slo-Dog at press conferences, I would also suggest to some eager reporter that they research the aspects of background checks and the varying depths at which they may be conducted in hopes that said reporter would conclude that it is quite possible that the city could have found something that the bank never looked for.

I have neither the time or the resources to do such reporting, nor am I all that eager. But I can and will postulate on why a bank wouldn’t screen prospective employees to the extent that the city does.

Obviously a bank would not want to hire-on any convicted felons, but neither do they rely on the honesty and virtue of their employees to protect them from theft or fraud. The various levels of security and operational safeguards implemented at a bank are probably built around the assumption that anyone, from the president on down, is a potential thief. For this reason and the fact that a bank does hire many lower wage workers, it would not be cost effective nor necessary to conduct hyper-intensive background checks.

Police officers, and to a lesser extent firemen, operate in a less controlled environment. Once an officer is on the street, his actions are largely unsupervised unless such supervision is requested or a situation develops that would call for it. The opportunity for mischief and ne’er-do-welling is great and the best, although by no means the only, preventative measure against such actions is the upright character of the individual behind the badge. Thus a more thorough background check would be required along with more stringent standards for passing. And what's good for the police, is good for the fire department.

I hope that my faith in the city isn’t misplaced. It occurs to me that I have offered them PR advice on this issue before, yet for some reason it still remains a concern. Hmmm. I suppose that it is possible that the mayor doesn't receive a daily debriefing of my blog posts. But perhaps he should because I also have some advice on how to handle the smoking ban battle (Hint: you’re losing already Your Honor.) Stay tuned.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Oh, The Places They'll Go

I’m not a big fan of sports movies, especially dramas. They’re usually very clichéd and follow the same basic premise: a group of disparate and often underestimated characters are brought together and accept the almighty concept of team which then culminates, in slow-motion, with either a dramatic victory or a heartbreaking loss that is actually a victory because they realize that it is the journey, not the result, that defines success. And someone dies or is maimed.

The one sports movie that I can think of that breaks from that mold, although there is a death, is also one of the few that I really like, Bang the Drum Slowly. It rarely gets mentioned by sports fans when the discussion turns to favorite movies, but it features great performances by a young Bobby De Niro and Michael Moriarty and is more gut-wrenchingly sad than Brian’s Song.

I did have occasion to watch Friday Night Lights this weekend, and even though it was a fairly typical sports story, it was quite enjoyable. Old Billy Bob may be a cad to his women and is a dang fool for leaving Angelina, but the boy can act. And of course the true life story of Booby Miles is one that every young athlete who thinks that their ticket is punched because they can run, jump, or throw should be made to know.

I thought of Booby when I read today’s SJ-R article on the young lady from Chatham who is pursuing her dream to be an Olympic* diver. I was somewhat taken aback by the comment that she will begin home schooling so that she can train all day. This makes me think that the schooling will be relegated for those evening hours that most kids reserve for a little homework.

What is even more troubling to me is how her training has taken her away from her family. I would never be so bold as to tell someone how to raise their child and I have no reason to believe that she won’t continue to grow as a well-rounded person despite the untraditional upbringing. Acknowledging that the hang-up is totally mine, I do have trouble understanding how a parent could give their daughter or son so fully to the pursuit of some activity that thrusts them out the door towards adulthood, when there’s still time remaining on their childhood.

My oldest daughter defied the very dimensions of time by turning six today. It doesn’t seem possible that my baby isn’t a baby anymore. And as quickly as the time has passed, it’s hard not to have an aching feeling when I think that in just twice that amount of time again, she’ll be leaving home on her quest to be an independent person who doesn’t need her daddy when the thunder get too loud.

I don’t know what I would do if one of my kids picked up a violin or jumped off a diving board and we discovered that he or she had a rare gift that required the finest instruction in a far away land to fully flourish. Part of me would want them to pursue that gift, if they truly did love it, but another part of me would want to break the violin and pretend the whole thing never happened.

Maybe I’m being selfish in wanting to hang on to my children as long as possible. Maybe it’s silly of me to think that if I don’t let my daughters get their ears pierced that they’ll stay little girls longer. Maybe it’s shortsighted that my dreams for my boys don’t take place on a football field on some distant Friday night, but in our backyard tonight. Time will show me the foibles of my ways soon enough I suppose.

Kids don’t stay kids forever like they do in the movies. And even though I can’t run the upcoming years in slow motion as I might like, I’ll do everything I can from hitting fast forward. Instead, I’ll enjoy each and every scene as it plays out across a totally unpredictable story arc that will result in a dramatic victory. But even then, it’s the journey that really matters.

*I may have committed a copyright infringement for unauthorized use of the adjectival form of the word Olympic. Apparently, they’re quite sensitive about such things.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

One way or another*, it's just not that funny.

Congratulations to the creators of Blondie who for 75 years haven't been making America laugh. I don't know what exactly they've been doing over there in the funny pages for all these years, but it hasn't been all that funny. Still, anybody who is able to pull one over on people for that long deserves to be recognized for their accomplishment.

There is a brand of humor that is quite popular in our society that has as its sole distinguishing characteristic, a total absence of anything that would remotely be considered funny. It shows up a lot in advertising, greeting cards, emails, and of course, the comics. There is usually just enough of a comedic set-up to let you know that it aspires to humor, but once the supposed punch line is delivered, you realize that you've been had.

Of course this is all subjective. Some people possibly do find Dagwood a real cut-up, but I suspect that there is also an "emperor's new clothes" effect going on here. Many assume that if it's in the funny pages it must be funny and to think otherwise is to be a bit of a fuddy-duddy. So they laugh the laugh of the easily amused without ever thinking of just why a guy with an oversized sandwich is funny. If Mary Worth didn't have such a pained expression on her face all the time they would have laughed at her too.

Although I try not to, I watched Oprah recently only because Jon Stewart was her guest and I do find him funny. It way a trying and ultimately nauseating experience. Since her guest was a comedian, Oprah had to be funny as well. And even though she wasn't, her audience shrieked with gleeful delight at everything she said. Perhaps they risked expulsion from the studio if they didn't join in on the group mind-laugh or maybe they just wanted to appear grateful in the off chance there were free Pontiacs waiting for them in the wings.

Practitioners of lame comedy take advantage of the jocular wantonness of their audience. Some people will make with a laugh for any and every lame bit that comes strolling along and winks their way. How else do you explain the career of Whoopi Goldberg or the entire oeuvre of Steve Gutenberg?

It shouldn't bother me that some find humor where I simply see random words strung together. The problem is that it lowers the bar for what is expected to legitimately illicit laughter. Why go to all of the hard work of creating something truly witty such as Calvin and Hobbes or the Far Side when you can just phone it and still get 2,000 newspapers to pony up for it.

But that's the way it is with almost every form of entertainment. The mundanity of everyday life makes us easy marks for even the vaguest promise of escapism and that's what art forms propose to deliver. So Blondie hangs around for 75 years, Hootie and the Blowfish sell a million records, and the inordinate number of elementary school-aged boys named Dalton can be directly tied to Patrick Swayze's role in Road House. "Pain don't hurt." Now that's funny.

*Get it? Blondie. Debbie Harry and the boys.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Barney, Fletch, and Videotape

More on T-shirts
I neglected to provide the local angle on yesterday’s post on novelty T-shirts.

Probably the most notorious shirt this town has ever produced was one promoting the fictional “Kelly Smith Film Festival.” Smith, you may remember, was bureau chief for WICS who fell from grace in an embarrassing, and to many, highly entertaining manner. He made the unfortunate decision to videotape what I’m told was a rather disgusting dalliance with a female companion and an oar. The highly sensitive tape, as these things often do, fell into the wrong hands. The rumor I heard was that a scavenging garbage man found the tape and duped it into wide release throughout the capital city. Smith is fortunate that the Internet was still in its infancy at the time or his infamy may have reached international proportions.

The anti-tourism line of T-shirts sold at Prairie Archives also made a name for themselves for a time. They featured made-up quotes from famous people that spoke unflatteringly of the Springfield experience. One had Abraham Lincoln proclaiming that they would have to shoot him to get him back to Springfield, while wife Mary Todd stated that she would have to be crazy to return. I’m not sure if they are still being sold, or if Richard Norton Smith sent a couple of heavies over to visit and “discourage” any further dissemination.

Irreverent T-shirts usually go over big. I might suggest a line honoring LLCC presidents of the recent past.

More on letters-to-the-editor
Barney Frank responded with a letter in today’s SJ-R to disavow a previous letter from a reader that claimed he was calling for the president’s impeachment. Not "a" Barney Frank, "the" Barney Frank. We know it was really him because his official title as U.S. representative appeared below his name.

I’ll say this much, he must have a crack team of P.R. flaks to make such a precision counterattack on what many would consider a rather harmless distortion given that it was made by a lone citizen far from his Massachusetts constituency. I’m not sure how they discovered the misrepresentation. The SJ-R does publish their letters-to-the-editor online, but a Google search of all of the relevant terms does not find the letter in question. Frank must have a confederate here in the heartland or maybe one of Durbin’s people tipped him off. We’ll see if Frank’s people snuff out a similar letter, probably from the same writer, that appeared in today’s Illinois Times.

The IT on JE
Speaking of the IT, the most sensible take I’ve read on the Edgar indecision comes from Fletcher Farrar in today’s editorial. While some are bellyaching that Edgar is holding the state GOP hostage and others are taunting “what’s so great about him”, Farrar lays it on the line. If Edgar has the drive to work with both parties to fix our ailing state and is willing to commit to it, then he should run. If not, stay home.

It seems to go against the conventions of partisan politics that a Republican governor could work better with a Democratic legislature in enacting reform, but the last two years under Blagojevich have made it an intriguing possibility. Farrar seems to think that Edgar has the ability to pull it off, but perhaps not the desire.

Farrar also includes a quote from Mike Lawrence that I thought was wonderful the first time I read it several months back in that it poses the perfect challenge for anyone who would be king: “Will the governor and lawmakers be statesmen who safeguard Illinois’ future even if it means jeopardizing their own, or will they repeat the sins of the past that helped create this mess?” Anyone who can genuinely answer affirmatively to the former, be they Republican or Democrat, will get my vote.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

I'm With Stupid

An ad appearing in today’s SJ-R pictures a “Vote for Pedro” T-shirt that is on sale at the Springfield Famous-Barr, a clear indication that it is no longer hip to wear fashions based on the movie Napoleon Dynamite.

The haute couture world of novelty T-shirts is a contemptible one where hot designs turn cold overnight. By the time a particular T-shirt hits major retail outlets here in flyover country, it’s safe to assume that its hipness factor has been depleted.

Napoleon Dynamite was released on June 11, 2004. According to prevailing cultural trends as dictated by NY/LA fashionistas, a person would have had to purchase and wear a Pedro T-shirt no later than Labor Day of that year to be considered at the vanguard of coolness. It could have been worn unironically throughout the movie’s theatrical run, but by the time it hit DVD in December, a hep cat in good standing would have had to delegate the shirt to workout or sleep wear.

Even among those that never aspire to make a fashion statement, novelty T-shirts have a notoriously short half-life. “I shot J.R.” shirts enjoyed brief popularity, but were considered déclassé long before Kristen was revealed as the shooter. Likewise, owners of “Big Dog” shirts shed them for good even before shearing the tails from their hair and shelving those horrible Zubas (which, coincidently, make an appearance in Napoleon Dynamite as marshal arts attire.)

For those who simply must purchase a “Pedro” shirt during F-B’s Super Sale, they should at least have the good taste to hang onto it until the inevitable retro period kicks in and it is once again acceptable to wear.

Currently making a comeback are those risqué-for-their-time “Co-ed Naked Volleyball (or whatever)” T-shirts that young people in the 90s made ubiquitous while announcing to the world that they were both a little bit sporty, and a little bit spice. Of course, this type of sexual innuendo is considered quaint compared to some of the T-shirts marketed today that boldly announce the wearer’s availability, proclivity, and dexterity in this regard.

A new craze, but one that will probably quickly fade now that Newsweek is reporting on it, is the celebrity-as-cause T-shirt. It started with the “Free Winona” (Ryder) shirts back when the only righteous Heather was up against shoplifting charges*. Today, people are displaying their humanitarian side by wearing T-shirts with messages such as “Free Katy”, from that lunatic scientologist Tom Cruise, and “Feed Lindsay”, lest the Herbie starlet waste away to nothing.

Some shirts endure the changing tide. R. Crumb’s classic “Keep on Truckin’” design is still adorning T-shirts, finding favor among fans of trend-averse musical artists like Beck. Andy Warhol’s famous banana design for the "Velvet Underground and Nico" album is still an avant-garde fashion statement, and the classic “CBGB” black T sold by the legendary New York rock club has weathered the years much better than their favorite sons, the Ramones.

I’ve never actively solicited comments to a post before, but I’d like to buck that trend by asking what your favorite T-shirt of all time is or was. Mine is one featuring the cover of the Replacement’s “Let it Be” album that I made almost 15 years ago while working at Primo Designs. The white shirt has yellowed rather nicely over the years, but it is relatively hole free and I still wear it from time to time when I don’t want to be mistaken for a middle-aged father of four.

That’s my favorite T-shirt, what’s yours?**

And another thing...
I came across this article in the Tribune as I was finishing this post, which means that BlogFreeSpringfield was this-close to scooping a major city daily on a totally insignificant puff piece.

*It’s believed that the “Free Winona” concept was itself lifted from a little-heard song entitled “Free James Brown” by the seminal Chicago band, the Hardy Boys.

**To be read with full Jack Connors inflection.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

A rabbi, an Indian, and a scientist walk into a blog

It’s common form in the letters-to-the-editor section to include only the name of the letter writer and the city or township from which the missive originated. Occasionally, today for example, additional information will appear under the name. I’m sure there are some standards at work as to why some are allowed to expatiate atop their professional title or associations, while others are only allowed to speak out as ordinary citizens. What's not certain is if qualifying people in this manner always has the desired effect.

The practice can be useful to the reader. Today, Barry Marks responded to a political cartoon that had suggested that the removal of Jews from Gaza was simply a matter of returning to the Palestinians what was stolen from them decades before. The message of the cartoon was rather misleading and not fair in its reading of history. Perhaps its creator was more interested in letting go with a politically-targeted zinger than attempting to convey the complexities of Israel-Palestinian relations, which would take at least a three panel dissertation.

Whatever the case, Marks was able to offer a rebuttal and his words were given weight by his identification as a rabbi. You would expect that a rabbi would have a thorough knowledge of Israel’s history, although you can’t assume that an editorial cartoonist can’t be equally studied in this area. Still, the letter does seem to carry with it some authority, some of which would be absent if the reader didn’t know the writer’s vocation.

On the other hand, there may be those who read the letter with some interest only to dismiss it as Zionist propaganda when they saw that it was written by a holy man.

Another letter today addressed the mascot kerfuffle still brewing over in Champaign, this one taking an anti-chief stance. Although it seemed a bit much to me to suggest that the NCAA’s decision to ban Indian mascots from tournament play is Nobel Peace Prize-worthy and symbolic in ending a 500-year-old war with Native Americans, Mr. Steven J. Kaufman is certainly entitled to his opinion.

But there at the end of the letter, pompously propping up his name, was listed his position as professor in the Department of Cell and Structural Biology at the university. The letter was no longer one man’s opinion, but rather a lecture from an intellectual superior. Or at least that was my impression.

I’ll grant that the opinions of employees, alums, and students of the U of I are more consequential than that of the average guy hoisting a beer at Sammy’s during March Madness, but beyond their association with the school, what difference does it make where on the institutional totem pole (hostile metaphor) they sit.

If Kaufman were writing about stem cells, his position in the biology department would be meaningful, similar to an oncologist or president of the Lung Association writing in about the dangers of smoking. But the Chief Illiniwek issue is a social and cultural concern, biology doesn’t come into play here. My impression upon reading his letter was that it was being suggested that the opinions of a man of science trump those of mere mortals. Who does this Kaufman think he his?

Actually, not who I assumed.

A little research on him reveals that he has been involved in the chuck-the-chief movement for some time. His interest in the matter arose from experiences with Native American students and his knowledge of issues surrounding the case are the result of his active involvement. It isn’t his ability to master the intricacies of cellular biology that inform his opinion, but his dedicated work towards righting a perceived wrong.

In this case, including his title with his letter was a distraction. Simply identifying him as a professor would have been fine, but throw in all of that stuff about science and guys like me start getting defensive.

I still think that Kaufman’s letter was hyperbolic, although his basic position is certainly defensible. I also hold to my prediction that Illiniwek will soon be gone, although the Illini will remain. My chief concern now is finding a suitable title for myself so that visitors here can be hoodwinked into thinking that I know about what I blog.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Scenes From a Lithuanian Parking Lot

A seasonal institution in Springfield and the answer to the proverbial question, "Fair parking! Where's the good parking?" was back in business after a year's hiatus as Joe's Parking returned to provide premiere auto accommodations to the discriminating fairgoer.

Working at a parking lot during fair week is a unique experience. There are always many fine accounts in the media about the goings-on inside the fairgrounds, but an interesting perspective can be gained by working the periphery. Here is a seldom-told account from a real-life parking attendant.

The first thing you notice is the people. They arrive enthusiastic and full of hope for what awaits them inside the hallowed grounds. They returned red-faced and haggard. The combination of excessive heat, fried food, and various equilibrium-altering amusement rides leaves them spent as the stagger back to their vehicles. Sometimes, too many hours in the beer tent are responsible for the stagger.

The second thing you notice is the vehicles. The SJ-R was correct in their editorial today by suggesting that decreased consumption is the remedy to rising gas prices. But observing what people drive these days leaves little hope for an immediate reduction in demand.

Just as airlines were forced to charge extra for passengers whose girth spilled into neighboring seats, soon parking lots will have to up-charge for the behemoths that people tool around in. The Chevy Silverado with the extended four-door cab, length-extending trailer hitch, and optional fuel depleting technology abounded, reducing side clearance in the well-marked parking spaces that have always distinguished Joe's as a professionally run lot.

You'd expect to see a lot of pickups at an agricultural exhibition, but what was amazing was how clean many of these trucks were. These weren't working trucks that were given a day off from farm duty to travel to the fair. These were city slicker trucks, passenger vehicles whose daily chores consist mainly of running to the mall and whose one ton beds carry nothing more than the oversized insecurities of their owners.

Because of rising gas prices, it was not surprising that most of the cars parked at Joe's carried Illinois plates. In past years it wasn't uncommon to see state's from coast to coast, including Alaska, represented.

Vehicles aside, the documentary worthy events always have a human element. This year, real drama included a daring but failed rescue attempt of a dog that was undergoing cardiac arrest. The dog's owner pulled his car over and attempted resuscitation measures to no avail.

The second Saturday saw city police stationed outside the fairgrounds in response to a call for back-ups. Traffic was diverted away from the main gate as cars traveling down Sangamon Avenue were sent down 8th Street. First reports were that the fair would be shut down early, but that didn't seem to be the case. There were also rumors of a bomb threat. By Sunday morning, police were still responding to inquiries with the standard "nothing to see here" bromide. It's believed that a crowded fairgrounds, including a packed grandstand and heavily populated beer tents, might have been seen by police as a recipe for trouble.

On a lighter note, There was the elderly neighbor who would ask random passers-by how tall they were, forgetting that she was first supposed to take a guess and then offer a prize if she was incorrect. She, the rarest of all birds as a smoker over the age of 85, was generally treated well by the bewildered guests who recognized that the years had had their effect.

What would a fair be without politicians? No one left their mark outside the fairgrounds more prominently than Jim Oberweis. His signs littered the roadside and were removed from some private properties whose owners didn't want to give an unsolicited endorsement.

The Oberweis signs carried the peculiar phrase "Got guv?" I know that it is a take on the popular milk campaign and Oberweis is a dairy magnate and all, but what exactly is being asked here? If the question is do we currently have someone who is governing our state rather than fulfilling a deep-seated need for attention, then maybe we don't got guv. If he's suggesting that he, like milk, is a wholesome panacea that will result in health and hardy growth for the state, then he needs to offer more proof to those of us who may be lactose intolerant in this instance.

Generally, the big events affecting the inside of the fair reverberate to the outside as well. This year, the story lines included lots of rain, a power outage, and state troopers who apparently don't react well in high temperatures and attempt to pick fights with concert goers, react rudely to drivers, and display an air of overall grumpiness. Although it didn't work out too well at Altamont, they may want to consider hiring the Hell's Angels to provide security next year. They may prove to be more pleasant.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Who Wants to Buy a Money Trap?

UIS is trying to unload a 19th-century farmhouse and get it the hell of its property. They would probably just assume bulldoze the thing, but I’m sure there is something in the school’s mission statement that dictates that they have to go the historic preservation route, at least at first.

The school is willing to donate the house plus a cool 13Gs to anyone willing to relocate the house, but only if they promise to be careful to respect its heritage. An architect has estimated that it would cost about $800,000 for the school to renovate it for its own use, so you can imagine the cost to a buyer who would also have to transport it to a new lot. So far, there haven’t been any takers.

It’s not surprising; these people don’t know the first thing about selling a house. In the same article where one UIS employee is at a loss at to why no one wants it, the school’s spokeswoman is calling is calling it a potential health hazard. They need to learn a little real estate marketing speak and talk it up Century 21-style.

First off, the house isn’t termite infested. Instead, it has a “naturally distressed foundation that lends an ascetic authenticity.”

That isn’t asbestos, that’s “organic insulation culled from mother earth’s minerals.”

And rather than come clean and admit that the house is in poor condition, just conjecture that “Bob Villa would be chomping on his carpenter’s pencil to makeover this old dream house in the rough.”

Sounds better already.

But if the marketing spiel still isn’t enough to convince some poor sucker, then UIS should turn to the local experts.

Selling real estate is a competitive racket and there has to be more than a little ego involved. I imagine that agents get together from time to time, have a couple a drinks and brag about that broken-down pile of sticks they just pawned off at an above market value price to some mortgaged-to-the-eyeballs saps. So maybe a little sales contest is in order to let them sort out just who is the big gun in town.

UIS should contact all of the top agents - the Wabners, the Pfisters and the like - and challenge them to find a buyer for this decrepit old farmhouse. Maybe a reality television element could be woven in by making all of the agents live in the house until it is sold. The show could combine the basic concept of the “Real World” with the realtors-behaving-badly subplot of “American Beauty” and a little “Animal House” thrown in to play off the campus setting.

I doubt that UIS will try and pitch my little idea to Bunim/Murray Productions. They probably already have a contractor lined up to flatten the old shack into a pile of dust just as soon as Carolyn Oxtoby is looking the other way. Sure it would be nice to see the house renovated and put to good use, but if the market doesn’t want it and government can't afford it, it's probably best to put it down.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Yellow simply won't do.

Yellow is passé. It’s out of style. Nobody cares about yellow anymore. Pshaw!

There was a time, however, when yellow could grab people’s attention. Get them to slow down and take notice.

Slow down. Remember when yellow meant slow down so you wouldn’t have to slam on the brakes when the light turned red? Remember when red meant stop?

Many drivers still recognize and abide by the three-colored system designed to ensure traffic safety at intersections. But a new breed of drivers has adopted a system more befitting their fast-paced lifestyle. It works like this.

Green means go. Right now, GO! The instant that a single fragment of emerald ray emits from the light standard standup on the accelerator immediately or face a cacophony of horns from the drivers behind you who have better things to do than to wait 2.3 seconds while you move your foot from the brake to the gas pedal.

Red means stop, but not with the same urgency that green means go. Red must firmly establish itself before its authority is recognized. The first few seconds after a red light appears are a transitional period. A chance for those who are late for work or dinner to pass on through. Think of red in this instance as the new yellow but without all the pretense of caution.

Yellow is a more immediate shade of green.

After yellow lost the power to slow cars down, it served to speed them up so the intersection could be cleared before a traffic infraction would occur. Now, there is no fear of committing infractions of this sort.

It’s almost impossible for police to effectively control red light violations using standard observational techniques. A lack of manpower and other resources make it impractical to position an officer at busy intersections. That’s why many cities, including Chicago, are turning to technology to curb the selfish tendencies of commuters.

Automated systems that use traffic cameras to take pictures of cars as they pass through red lights and then generate tickets that are sent through the mail are having a positive effect in many communities. Mark Brown of the Sun Times has pointed out a couple of cases where the wrong car was identified by the camera, but cases of mistaken license plates have been rare.

There is also concern that cameras cause rear end accidents as people slam on their brakes when they notice a camera. Proponents of the cameras acknowledge that this does occur when they are first installed, but people soon adjust to their presence and do what they were supposed to be doing all along, slow down on yellow and stop on red.

Public surveillance cameras often cause people to conjure up Orwellian scenarios and blame them on the government’s insatiable desire to control the lives of their minions. But the need for traffic cameras actually arises from the inability of drivers to control themselves.

Others protest that such measures are implemented underhandedly as a revenue-generating source for municipalities, when in fact, this is just a secondary benefit. City services cost money. Nobody wants his or her taxes raised. So if a city’s financial needs can be met in part by shaking down scofflaws, then all the better.

And as for the colorblind excuse, approximately 8 percent of men and .5 percent of women do have congenital red-green color-deficient vision, but that limitation should be effectively overcome by simply remembering that the red light is always the one on top.

It’s nearly impossible for any reasonable person to argue that they have the right to run a red light. Still for some, a yellow light just doesn't jibe with their plans and there's always time to sneak one more through (them) once it turns to red. It would be nice if a $75 citation could be waiting for them when they get home 2 minutes earlier than they would have had they stopped when they were supposed to.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Throw away the oar?

In a review of Sunday night’s grandstand show at the fair, the SJ-R’s Nick Rogers notes that the performances were marred by bad sound that made lyrics and between song banter unintelligible. Now I’m of the opinion that a crappy sound system could only enhance the listening experience at an REO Speedwagon concert, but I do understand that it can be frustrating. On Friday night, an otherwise fine performance at the Muni was somewhat spoiled by inconsistent sound levels and occasional feedback.

It would seem that with all of the advances in digital audio technology, when hearing aids and cochlear implants are restoring people's hearing, that they could come up with something better than a stack of speakers pointed at the crowd and turned to 11.

A while back I read an article about a new technology that delivered sound in a manner similar to a laser. If two people were standing side by side, the sound laser could be pointed at one and she would be able to hear it, but the other wouldn't. It was similar to the HyperSonic Sound described in this article.

I envision (for lack of a word to describe a foretold audio sensation) a time when concert sound will be delivered directly into the audiences ears. Every note and utterance will be crystal clear with perfect tonal quality. And the sound will be completely contained within the concert venue. This would certainly solve some problems at the Warehouse. Although it would make the vocal stylings of Kevin Cronin even more intolerable.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Say it loud, I blog and I'm proud!

The Chicago Tribune ran a story today on people who were fired from their jobs for airing their gripes about the workplace on their blogs. Apparently people either aren't aware that the Internet is a free and open source of information available to all, even their bosses, or they think that it exists in such a vast expanse that no one could stumble upon their little spot.

Even though some of the people mentioned in the article didn't reveal their identity on their blogs, once word reached the executive suite that somebody was playa hatin on the big dogs it was easy enough to decipher who the turncoats were. Anyone who would commit the time to maintain a blog on their perceived mistreatment in the workplace probably does so for the enjoyment of their coworkers and it wouldn't take long for word to make it through the corporate grapevine.

This isn't really a blog story so much as a stupidity story, blog technology just provided the rope that allowed them to hang themselves. People who can't stop themselves from grumbling about their jobs, even if it is justified, will do so in the break room, or through email, or on the phone and eventually their discontent will become known to everyone. It's just a matter of time then before the decision is made to cut them loose.

The story did make me consider an issue that is directly related to blogs. A thread on AbeLog a while back discussed the merits of identifying yourself on a blog versus blogging anonymously.

Many of the local bloggers listed on the right side of this page don't reveal their identity. From reading their posts it doesn't seem as if any of them are cowering from an employer, most post about the day's events. I guess it's possible that by day DownLeft is a GOP operative who has hidden his liberal leanings from his bosses, but I'm guessing that that isn't the case.

The case for identifying blog authors is that readers might afford them more credibility if they are willing to put their name on the line. Reading the Tribune article made me realize that there is another benefit, at least from my perspective, to putting my name on my blog.

I harbor no illusions as to the number of people who read my blog, but I do realize that anyone can and I might be surprised by some who do. Because of this, I'm very careful as to what I say and how I say it. I try to be fair when commenting on a story and take the time to try and get the facts right. I'm not suggesting that the anonymous Springfield bloggers don't make this effort, but I do think that I have a little more at stake as far as my reputation is concerned. And since I do make my living in the field of communications, it's important to me express my thoughts clearly and with a minimum of typos and grammatical errors.

I'm fortunate in that I have no reason to rail against my employer. I really have no ulterior motive for having a blog, I simply like to write. The SJ-R's Dave Bakke stated that vanity is a likely motivator for bloggers. He's right. I also think that it is a motivating factor for newspaper columnists as well. And if I manage to write something particularly pithy or dexterously turn a phrase, than I wants you all to no who wrote it.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Simulating Spitballs: Inherent Flaws in Online Education

Today's front page SJ-R article on UIS's online program points to a continuing trend in education, and while there are many positives associated with this trend, there's a downside as well.

Online classes have certainly opened doors for many individuals whose locality or schedule makes pursuing a degree difficult. They might also serve to keep the costs of education down since technology is cheaper than maintaining or expanding the physical plant of a university to accommodate students.

Even though I live within a mile of UIS, I took my last two classes towards my Master's degree online. One of the classes was taught by a professor for whom I had previously completed in-class seminars, so it provided a fair test for measuring the merits of online learning versus that in a traditional classroom.

As a father of four young children with a full-time job, the chance to finish my degree without leaving home for weekly classroom sessions was a nice benefit.

Online classes also played to my strengths in the respect that I have always been uncomfortable with public speaking, but can express myself reasonably well in writing. I may have, had the entire degree program been available online, decided to go that route when I first enrolled. But taciturnity is not a personality trait to be abided, but a personality flaw to be overcome. Enrolling in seminars where I was required to give oral presentations was a challenge that I met and it continues to serve me well.

Communication online is at a lower level than is experienced in the classroom. Discussions aren't as lively nor are they as intellectually stimulating. Following the progression of a debate is much more difficult when it requires checking the time and dates of comments on an electronic message board. And lost is one of the great pleasures of a live seminar which allows you to watch people roll their eyes when a student with a history of speaking at length on topics unrelated to the class discussion sets off on another meaningless tangent.

Also lost is the opportunity to learn from a professor who is skilled at lecturing and orchestrating class discussions. Moderating a message board does not allow a professor to impart his knowledge and experience at a level equal to that that is experienced when standing in front of a classroom of students and interacting with them directly.

There is also the problem of disreputable online universities tainting the efforts of legitimate programs. Even as he was explaining the school's desire to make online degrees equal in value to those earned in the classroom, UIS Chancellor Richard Ringeisen helped further the perception that online programs are nothing more than diploma mills when he used the expression "stamp UIS on your forehead" to describe the conferring of a degree. It paints the image of an assembly line rather than a deep educational experience, as students are passed through a network much like a conveyor belt.

I'm not suggesting that the online classes at UIS are devoid of legitimate scholarly worth. They are certainly valuable in complementing any degree program. But a degree completed exclusively in this manner does seem somewhat less complete when the human interaction that takes place in a classroom and on campus is factored out.

Last evening I attended the 25-year reunion of the St. Aloysius Class of 1980. Seeing people who I attended school with for nine years, but some of whom I hadn't seen since, was a great experience and can be counted as one of the many long-term benefits of receiving a formal education. The camaraderie that is forged in a classroom is every bit as important in preparing a person to deal with life as the subjects that are taught. That camaraderie won't be given a chance to develop if the educational experience takes place exclusively in front of a computer monitor.

Online learning will eventually trickle down to the beginning years of education, bringing with it many potential benefits. The learning resources available on the Internet are already allowing more parents to choose home schooling when public schools are deemed undesirable and private schools prohibitive. While online learning is the wave of the future, we should hope that the traditional classroom remains in the mainstream so that are youth don't become social pariahs and class clowns aren't denied their proper venue. Emoticons will never replace the magic of a precisionly targeted spitball.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

I Won't Be Ignored Dad*

Even though I’m a practicing carnivore and a firm believer in the food chain I still found this picture a bit disturbing. The silver platter on which the pedigreed hare was placed for judging at the fair doesn’t portend well for his future. While other best-in-show caliber species are at least given the opportunity to breed for a spell once their competitive days have past, this poor beast seems destined to appear as the featured ingredient in a dish of lapin a la moutarde. And sooner rather than later. I suppose the fact that it is competing in a class called “meat pen” should be indication enough of how the judges really view these furry little creatures, but still, for the kids’ sake, couldn’t the rabbits be presented for judging in a nice straw basket instead of on serving ware.

*From Fatal Attraction 3: Return of the Love Child

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

If a picture paints a 1000 words then some of them are probably lies.

Recent visitors to AbeLog have been treated to some photographs of a tasered Jim Leach en flagrante electro. A picture of Leach taken during an on on-air demonstration of taser gun technology made its way to a Web site ( where its members do the visual equivalent of music sampling by giving the PhotoShop treatment to existing pictures and creating their own, often twisted, interpretation of the original.

It’s obvious that the pictures on Fark have been doctored; many of them parody famous pictures or scenes, while others skimp on photographic realism in favor of a high gross-out factor.

Another site popular with PhotoShop samplers is Worth1000. Here, the remixed pictures are much more realistic and many, if presented in a different forum, would be mistaken for actual depictions. You’ve probably been taken in by some of them as they have passed through your inbox, sent by a friend who alerts you that you are in for a hoot. I have.

The urban legend busters over at Snopes have the goods on many of the more popular photos that make their way through cyberspace. A lot of those wacky or sick or embarrassing photos that leave you amazed at how fortuitous it was that a photographer was right there to capture the moment are in reality the work of a creative mind and a skilled mouse-operating hand.

Most of this type of thing is relatively harmless save for a few burst bubbles when it is pointed out that that can’t really be Paris Hilton in Osama bin Laden’s cave because the shadow from Martha Stewart’s Kalashnikov inexplicably stops when it reaches the miniature dog Paris is cradling.

Occasionally, however, someone will trick-out a picture with the intent to do more than just have a few laughs.

During the last presidential campaign, someone used the magic of computers to drop John Kerry a few rows behind Jane Fonda at a Viet Nam protest rally. The hoax was eventually revealed, but the image still remained in people’s minds and probably did play a part in tarnishing Kerry’s reputation.

It can be expected that such tactics will continue to be used for propaganda type purposes, and it’s also likely that sooner or later that it will infiltrate the more respected realm of photojournalism.

Janet Cook won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981 for a story she wrote for the Washington Post about an eight year-old heroin addict. It was later revealed that she not only fabricated much of the story, but she also falsified her background information in her desperate attempt to forge a career in journalism.

Someday, a photojournalist with the lust for recognition and the nerve to attempt anything will turn to computer trickery to create one of those photos that define an era and live on forever in the pages of Time-Life’s history of enduring images. It may not be a total fake, but a really good picture that’s lacking a single element that will complete the context of the visual story. How tempting it would be then to just pop in what’s missing and make history.

Digitally enhanced photography has also harmed the public’s perception of photojournalism, through no fault of its practitioners.

Several years back, the SJ-R’s Chris Young captured a shot of the state capitol as fireworks burst overhead. When I first saw the picture, which was later reproduced and sold as a commemorative print, I thought it a marvel of skill, patience, and maybe a little luck. Now when I see it, I can’t help but think how much easier it could have been created in PhotoShop and Young wouldn’t have even had to leave One Copley Plaza.

Now that PhotoShop has helped to shoot down the notion that a picture never lies, I’ve become a skeptic anytime I see a picture that seems a little too funny, amazing, awe-inspiring, or heartbreaking. I know that those shots of the Space Shuttle Columbia exploding in space are phonies. No way is that giant shark actually about to chomp down on that unsuspecting fisherman’s dinghy. And that astronaut who’s supposedly putting a flag up on the MOON? Please!!!

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Modesty in Advertising? Nothing to See Here

In the movie Roger Dodger, a womanizing advertising professional reluctantly takes his coming-of-age nephew under his wing for a single evening of carousing in Manhattan. He explains to his young charge that the most basic tenet of advertising is also the most successful technique for picking-up women: first point out that there is something wrong with them and then convince them that you have the solution.

He may have overstated the case a bit, but the link between sex, or sexiness, and advertising is definitely a strong one. But lately there has been a backlash against the more gratuitous attempts at luring customers with alluring ads.

In Great Britain, the U.K. Advertising Standards Authority rejected an ad from a maker of spirits because it showed three young women “winning” a hunky young man at a carnival-type game. The ad ran afoul of the recent prohibition against ads that suggest that alcohol will increase one’s attractiveness and desirability. The authority stated that if the “prize” in the ad were a regular-looking bloke, then there wouldn’t have been a problem. Once again, there’s such a fine line between clever and stupid.

Casting regular-looking people in place of models in ads is the theme of a campaign that is generating much attention here in the states. Dove is promoting a line of skincare products in what they are calling a campaign for real beauty. The six models featured in the campaign were selected after a national search for “normal” sized women who are comfortable with their bodies as is. Most of these women are quite attractive, more along the lines of Kate Winslet at her most voluptuous than what remains of Lindsey Lohan.

Despite the goodwill these ads have generated from women who feel that traditional models force them to identify with impossible body types, Dove is still playing the advertising game as described by Roger Dodger. It’s okay, they tell women, to have a body on the plus side of emaciated as long as your skin remains taut and cellulite-free.

Local advertisers rarely use provocative messages to convince us that we need what they are selling, a reflection perhaps of the conservative nature of Springfield. With the possible exception of Chester and Shirley who exuded irrepressible sexual chemistry in their ads for the Vogue, local ads have traditionally been more straight-laced. There was the middle-aged Dream Girl who prominently exposed herself in a vanity campaign to promote her tawdry boutique several years back, but that wasn’t really a call for customers so much as a cry for help.

On occasion a national or regionally produced ad will appear in the local media that ups the sauciness factor. Until recently, Pamela Anderson’s breasts, perched high upon a billboard on South Sixth Street, discouraged Springfieldians on behalf of PETA from dining at KFC. They made a compelling case.

One of the area betting parlors, I believe it is the Peoria-based Paradise Casino, occasionally runs ads in the SJ-R featuring a woman with a smoldering come-hither expression, not unlike those ads that used to run in the back of the Illinois Times.

And during the upcoming fair, we can expect to see that ubiquitous banner trailing behind a circling airplane, enticing fair goers with a little after-hours entertainment at Déjà Vu. Although there is nothing visually suggestive about the banner itself, I’m sure that it’s led to a few awkward conversations when young 4-Hers ask the judges how many blue-ribbon heifers Safire Rain had to raise to get her name up there in the sky.

But as for locally produced advertising, it remains pretty tame. And it's probably for the best. No one wants the Denney Jeweler guy to start recounting lustful evenings from his past when the flames of passion were stoked by a scintillating diamond "from the heart."

Monday, August 08, 2005

The Fighting Nonentities

It’s a telling indication of my level of concern with the current debate over university mascots that my first reaction when the subject arises is annoyance. Not over the issue itself, but due to the predictable commentary that will soon follow. Every time this issue hits the papers someone responds in a manner that he considers to be the height of cleverness by stating with shrieking sarcasm that they had better get rid of the Fighting Irish and the Blue Devils as well or we’re going to offend the Sons of Erin and Satan respectively. Or something along those lines. Yes, there are parallels that can be drawn between the use of Indian mascots and others that are not the subject of debate, but those parallels are already well established and sarcasm requires some degree of originality to be biting. Besides, such ramblings only serve to put PETA on notice that college athletics might be another good place to stick their beaks.

The NCAA is certainly within their rights to ban the use of Indian-related nicknames and symbols during their sponsored events. One aspect of their decision that was somewhat troubling was the waiver granted to the University of North Carolina-Pembroke due to the high number of American Indians that the school admits for enrollment. Either the use of Indians as mascots is offensive or it isn’t. I’m sure that an educational and research institution the size of the University of Illinois can point to many good deeds it has turned on behalf of or to the benefit of Indians. If Chief Illiniwek is a disparaging symbol, at what level must these good deeds accumulate before they are redeemable for a free pass from those so desperately offended. Contributing annually to the NAACP or the JDL doesn’t buy one license to throw about racial or anti-Semitic slurs, so if the U of I’s chief is distasteful, then so is UNC-P’s brave.

For better or worse, I suspect that Chief Illiniwek’s days are numbered on campus, as are any vestiges of headdresses and war whoops. But I see no reason to part with the Illini nickname, fighting or otherwise. For many, perhaps most, the word "Illini" is much more closely associated with the university than it is to the erstwhile tribe. Once the meaning of a word evolves in the public lexicon, the original meaning ceases to hold dominion over its use. Just as the word “spam” is more likely to evoke feelings of frustration rather than nausea to a generation not raised on the mysterious luncheon meat, the word “Illini” is more closely associated with three-pointers than a once proud confederacy of tribes. From a historical perspective this is unfortunate. But if the Fighting Illini are sent packing, then what little awareness the general public has of these native people will fade even further.

It wouldn’t surprise me if many people outside the state would guess that Illini is a sort of abbreviation of Illinois, just as Indy is short for Indianapolis. If the chief skips off to the big buffalo hunt in the sky, then that is the likely fate of the word. At that point, the school will then be free to adopt any non-threatening and non-offensive character it likes to serve as its mascot. Good luck to them.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Unhealthy Leaps of Logic

I don't know if Republican support of the city/county health department merger was based primarily on the desire to provide more efficient healthcare, or a power grab for jobs currently controlled by the Democrats. I do know that the Illinois Times'* conservative (because she's a mom who drives a minivan) columnist Dusty Rhodes doesn't make a very compelling argument for the latter based on the evidence she lays out in this week's editorial.

Rhodes looked to finance disclosure forms that show that the Republicans spent $20,000 in the period leading up to the referendum vote in April, versus $8,000 for the Democrats, and concludes that the Republicans won the vote "at a price of $1.66 per vote." And based on this she feels safe in ascribing the Republicans' motivation by stating that "the merger really was about patronage and politics." That's quite a leap.

No one can know for sure what effect pre-election campaigning on the issue had on voters. Therefore, you can't assume that the election turned on those activities, unless of course you are already predisposed to believe that the merger was a power grab and you're looking for any type of evidence to back it up.The Democrats could have spent three times as much and still not have won, or the Republicans could have spent half as much and still had the result come out the same. Or the opposite could be true. We just don't know.

Rhodes seems to rest her case on the fact that County Board Chairman Andy Van Meter spent $14,300 of his own money in support of the merger. It's one thing to question his motivation for doing so, it's quite another to assume that you know when you really have nothing else to substantiate your claim.

Rhodes mentions that Alderman Kunz (D) offered to support the merger if his friends on the other side could offer proof that it was a financially prudent decision. If they failed to offer up such proof, that would be compelling evidence that the merger was all about jobs. Of course if they did prove sufficient saving, that wouldn't mean that jobs played no factor in their quest for the merger, but it would run counter to Rhodes' case. Unfortunately, she doesn't bother to tell us what Kunz found out, if anything. She does say Kunz was punished for pledging to cross party lines if he could be convinced, but doesn't really say what that means or what it entailed.

In his attempt to combat allegations that the merger was only about jobs, Van Meter stated that the health department isn't exactly a hotbed of patronage hires because of the specialized health degrees required for most of the positions. If he was only blowing smoke with that statement, not only would that have been a health hazard, but it would also have been an opportunity for Rhodes to support her case by revealing the fallacy of his statement. But she offered nothing to that effect.

Rhodes is correct in her assessment that this issue became overly politicized, as, unfortunately, most issues are these days. But again, how is this proof that it was all about handing jobs to Republicans?

I didn't support the health merger because I was bombarded with pro-merger messages. I supported it because it seemed that most of the healthcare professionals in the community supported it. I figured they would know better than anyone if it was a good move and surely they couldn't all be lock-step Republicans bowing to the wishes of their party. This was a good enough reason for me, although I can understand how it might not have been for others.

I'm perfectly willing to be swayed on this issue, or any issue for that matter, if a compelling case can be made for the other side. I don't believe this indicates a lack of clarity on my part, but rather, an open mind. Rhodes claims that if you follow the money, you'll come to the same conclusion that she did. But the most the money will tell you is that the Republicans wanted to win more, it proves nothing about why they wanted to win. And Rhodes doesn't either.

In other IT observations…

My most heartfelt respect goes to movie reviewer Chuck Koplinski for slipping in a somewhat obscure reference to SCTV in his review of The Dukes of Hazzard, and to Tom Irwin for his profile on the Bottle Rockets. I've seen the Bottle Rockets live several times opening up for Uncle Tupelo and later Wilco. I would highly suggest, if you have the means, to check them out this Saturday.

*Thanks for the correction Aakash

Davlin Names Cracker as Executive Assistant*

If you wanted to have some fun with easily outraged right wing bloggers, send them a synopsis of today’s SJ-R article on the hiring of Mayor Davlin’s new executive assistant. Tell them how the opposing party’s aldermen referred to him as just “another white boy” and a member of the “old boy network”, and said that the only thing lacking from his lily-white pedigree was a private school education. You might embellish a bit by conjecturing that the aldermen stopped just short of calling him a jive-ass honky and that they reserved the right to ridicule his dancing ability until after the city council’s annual Christmas party. Add that the mayor’s allies on city council backed the selection, calling the new assistant “a pretty bright guy.” Then sit back and watch the charges of black-on-white racism and liberal hatred fly.

Of course the jig would be up as soon as the bloggers got a hold of the actual article and found that it wasn’t the party of Michael Moore dissing stupid white men, but rather the Republican aldermen who were making like Jesse. And that is was a black alderman who supported the hiring of the white assistant. But it would be fun for awhile.

The Republican’s outrage here isn’t really about race, it’s about politics. They saw a chance to jab the Democrats with their own stick, put on their black berets, and with one fist raised defiantly in the air, took to the streets. Well, to the floor of city hall anyway. It’s dangerous out there in the streets.

Such posturing really is distasteful and perhaps hypocritical. Does anyone doubt that if Karen Hasara had made such a move that the Democrats would have been the ones to work themselves into a little tizzy over the matter while the Republicans touted the hiring as sound and reasonable?

It’s also puzzling why one alderman used the occasion of the hiring of a Southeast High School grad to get in a dig at Sacred Heart-Griffin.

The always glib Davlin and the always frank Kunz, to their credit, aren’t having any of it. Their responses to the criticisms have been dismissive and strike just the right tone given the source of the disconcertment. It will be interesting, however, to see if a more thoughtful explanation for the hiring will be forthcoming if Ken Page of the NAACP weighs-in.

*Possible headline for a news release issued by Alderman Judy Yeager in response to the mayor's recent hire.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

What am I, a meshugana?

The City of Springfield, once again stung by charges of racism in the wake of allegations that a black firefighter candidate was unduly dismissed, might want to take a page from Rafael Palmeiro who is reeling from a suspension after a positive steroid test. A line of defense deployed by Palmeiro, which rings hallow and desperate in his case, just might be persuasive in tilting the tide of public opinion towards the city.

I’ll dub it the “What am I, a meshugana?” defense, which, as a side note, marks the first instance of a Yiddish word being used on this blog. The defense works like this. A person accused of wrong doing points out all of the obvious reasons that it would have been foolhardy of them to commit such an act and then declares that they would have to be crazy to have done so. Their statement implies that they are, in fact, not crazy, and therefore can not be expected to have perpetrated such an offense.

Palmeiro brandished this defense in the course of denying that he “knowingly” took steroids. Why, he ponders incredulously, would he risk such a transgression after vehemently denying it before Congress earlier this year, and while the spotlight shone bright upon him as he surpassed a major milestone in the annals of baseball?

A common response from baseball commentators is that he risked violating the league’s drug policy because he has gotten away with it for so long that it didn’t seem that great a risk. Others have pointed out that his fear of shrinking towards the last vestiges of his career before casting himself in stone as one of the game’s legends may have clouded his senses. And, of course, there is the possibility that prolonged steroid use does render one somewhat meshuga (second instance).

So why should the city adopt a similar line of defense when it obviously lends itself to speculation and skepticism? Because right now, almost the entire case involving the spurned firefighter candidate and the city’s civil service commission is made up of speculation and skepticism.

The facts of the case as we know them is that a seemingly qualified candidate was dismissed from consideration after the results of his background check were made known to the commission, but to no one else. We also know that the candidate is a bit of scofflaw which may be, but probably isn’t, the reason for his rejection.

The common reactions to the story range from allegations of systematic racism throughout the city, to insinuations that the candidate is fully aware that there is a legitimate reason for his disqualification, but since the city can not reveal it, he is feigning dumbfoundedness.

My reaction, while acknowledging that racism still lurks in the hearts of some, is that Jim Crow is dead and that such an obvious and discriminate act as dismissing a firefighter candidate based solely on the color of his skin is extremely unlikely. Even if the members of the civil service commission were secret card-carrying members of the Klan, with tailored sheets tucked away in the back of their wardrobe closets, they wouldn’t attempt such a brazen display of discrimination what with the NAACP and the media breathing down their necks over this very issue. They’d have to be, well, crazy to try such a thing.

The lack of minorities on the fire and police departments is the albatross around the city’s neck just as steroids are choking major league baseball. But unlike Palmeiro, who tested dirty, no hard evidence has arisen that proves the city’s actions in dismissing the candidate were in anyway influenced by race. In fact, they may be sitting on the facts that would exonerate them due to the legalities involved in releasing such information.

So the best the city can do at this point is to plead sanity and hope that time will shed some sunshine on this story. And should it later come to be known that the candidate was discriminated against, then I'll have to plead naïveté.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Hey! How about a little something, you know, for the effort, you know?

Jim over at AbeLog has got his dander up again over the time-honored practice of tipping at restaurants. It’s a frustration shared by many, myself included, and one that requires a creative solution if we are to preserve the prospects of a pleasurable dining experience.

Restaurants, most of which operate on the thinnest of profit margins, are obviously not interested in ceding their customer subsidized salary funding. It goes without saying that if tipping were eliminated, menu prices would need to increase to cover the higher hourly wage that would be required. As reasonable as it might seem to simply eliminate tipping at restaurants, many will be adversely affected.

Freeloaders, who feel no shame in enjoying pre-tip prices without leaving anything extra behind, will find it much more expensive to dine out. Given their total disregard for the accepted customs of society, it's best if these people just stay home and eat Hot Pockets while watching their stolen cable TV.

More of a concern are the waitresses and waiters at the top of their game who probably wouldn’t be compensated with a wage commensurate with their generous tips. It would be a shame to eliminate a decent paying job that doesn’t require a college degree, but does reward a person who is courteous, conscientious, and hardworking.

But perhaps the biggest loss would be the system of meritocracy that is created by tipping. While managers of fast-food restaurants must contend with employees who see no reason to speak when a customer approaches the counter, believing that the briefest instance of eye contact is sufficient for instigating the exchange of money for sustenance, sit-down restaurants can rely on a monetary incentive to encourage their employees to exhibit interpersonal traits at a level higher than is found in plant life. The quest for a healthy gratuity usually, but not always, provides the necessary impetus to keep water glasses filled and soup off of the customers.

While I’m not a fan of subsidizing private enterprises, I do favor performance-driven compensation in the workplace. That is why I would propose a social experiment be conducted at some forward-thinking restaurant to see if the former can be eliminated while maintaining the latter.

In this new framework that I’m proposing, customers could still have a say in their waitpersons compensation based on their performance, but they wouldn’t be required to foot the bill for the bonus.

A comment card would be presented with the check that includes a grade scale for rating service. The waiter would then receive an additional flat sum of money from the restaurant that corresponds to their grade, with some type of multiplier thrown-in to account for the number of people at the table.

Under this system, restaurants could reward their good employees and motivate the others to do better, waitpersons would have an incentive to do their best, and diners would still enjoy some semblance of the master/servant relationship that can make dining out a desirable experience.

The question that remains unanswered is will customers respond appropriately to maintain a measure meritocracy and to not expend the restaurant’s revenues beyond what is actually being “earned” by their servers. The skinflints who wouldn’t leave so much as a quarter behind even if their waitress Heimlichly dislodged a chicken bone from their gullet, might be a bit more generous since it isn’t coming out of their deep pockets. But for the most part, I think that diners would grade judiciously. People consider poor service an affront to their rights as a consumer and wouldn’t reward a wayward server.

By making the incentive pay a flat rate, the inequity inherent in the current system that arises from the practice of tipping a percentage of the entire check can be eliminated. For example: waitress A serves two house specials and a $40 bottle of wine to her table while waitress B serves two house specials and $20 bottle of wine to her table. Even though serving a more expensive wine doesn’t require any extra effort, waitress A would receive a much larger tip under the current system. Under the new system, each would be rewarded based on the diners' assessment of their performance.

It could be argued that anyone drawing a paycheck should feel compelled to do a good job whether they are working at Schnuck’s or Sebastian’s. This is true, but it ignores some very real differences. A restaurant requires that their staff provide a more intimate level of service. Diners wish to be catered to and their expectations are higher. A half-wit cashier can be tolerated for the amount of time it takes to checkout of a grocery store, but an inattentive waiter can ruin a much-anticipated evening out.