Friday, September 30, 2005

American Airlines - Something Sane In The Air?

American Airlines announced today that they are cutting 15 round trips due to rising fuel costs. With one airline after another filing for bankruptcy, it is about time somebody had the common sense to reduce flights. There are simply too many seats in the air. In order to fill them, the airlines offer cheaper fares, often matching or undercutting competitors. But you can't make a half-empty plane profitable, and you have to accept that it is better to let another airline take some of your business than to continue losing money.

For example, a flight is being cut between Chicago O'Hare and Houston Bush Intercontinental. American has four round trip non-stops now. Look at next Monday's O'Hare departures. In addition to American's flights, United has six, Continental has ten, and US Airways has six. These flights are inevitably clumped together on the O'Hare schedule. Four airlines have flights leaving O'Hare around 8 AM. Three airlines have flights departing around 10 AM. Four flights leave around noon, three flights leave at 3 PM, and three flights leave around 5 PM. Do we real need this kind of redundancy? Am I missing something here? Granted, I am not privy to booking data, but this seems like a clear case of overcapacity (though maybe I'm biased because I don't care to ever return to Houston).

The bankruptcy troubles of the airline industry, which predate 9/11, are clear evidence that something is fundamentally wrong with the way they do business. Either they have too many underbooked planes or they don't charge enough for their tickets to make a profit (or both). If there were fewer flights available, each flight would carry more passengers. With tighter supply, the airlines could charge higher fares and be profitable. Then they wouldn't have to cry to the federal government for bailouts or screw their workers out of their pensions just to keep selling underpriced tickets. The free marketeers may preach that more competition is better for consumers, but I cannot see how the instability of the airline industry as it now operates is good for anyone, especially when it must be propped up by our tax dollars. I think American Airlines is making a smart move, and I hope other airlines will follow suit. It's too bad it took higher jet fuel prices to bring them to their senses.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Public Editor Tackles Farm Aid Story

Well, the Tribune's Don Wycliff doesn't really tackle the story, but he sort of forces it out of bounds. His analysis comes a bit late considering the the original article ran almost two weeks ago, but it's better than nothing. Let's start with this:

The story does not say that grantmaking is Farm Aid's only programmatic activity; in fact it says quite the opposite. But it implies that only grantmaking is or would be a legitimate activity...
This ignores the comparison of grants to the standard for program expenses, which makes it sound as though the two numbers are equivalent measurements. The story may say "quite the opposite" about Farm Aid, but it is buried several paragraphs further down. And Wycliff surely knows that not everyone reads through an entire story to see if it contradicts itself later. I would like to hear from Naomi Levine, who was paraphrased (not directly quoted) as saying, "An organization should be giving away at least 65 percent of its revenue to be considered performing adequately." I'll bet that "giving away" isn't really what she said, or at least not what she meant. Plenty of worthy charities don't "give away" most of their money. Does a food pantry or a homeless shelter give money away? No, they use the money to provide food and shelter to the needy. At least Wycliff notes the false implication that grantmaking is the only good thing a charity can do. Next...

Jim Kirk, the Tribune's associate managing editor for business news, said the story accepted the grants/expenses dichotomy as legitimate for purposes of the Farm Aid story. It did so, he said, because grants are a relatively straightforward thing, while an organization can shove all sorts of spending under the category of "expenses," whether or not it is legitimately related to the organization's purposes and the expectations of donors.
So Kirk is saying that the inappropriate comparison is in fact "legitimate" because Farm Aid might be hiding something in its expenses? That assumption sets the bar pretty low for journalistic integrity, doesn't it? And again, would Ms. Levine agree with this "dichotomy?" (I'd ask her, but I'm sure she has better things to do than correspond with the 79,471st most popular blogger in the world.) To his credit, Wycliff goes on to note that Kirk's claim is specious because it assumes that grant recipients don't waste any money themselves and that Farm Aid isn't doing good work with the money that doesn't go to grants.

Wycliff's summation is probably the best admission we'll get from the newspaper that their story was garbage:

The Tribune's story told readers something interesting about Farm Aid. It's not clear that it told them anything very meaningful or important.
That begs the question, If something is not "very meaningful or important," is it news? I don't think so. Then why report it?

There are two problems caused by the original story. First, Farm Aid has been sullied in the minds of readers who don't pick apart stories the way I do, especially those who only read the first few paragraphs. Second, those readers might decide to judge all charities by the misleading standards used in the article. Quite frankly, that would hurt a lot (probably a majority) of the organizations out there. While I am glad to see that somebody at the Tribune is willing to publicly acknowledge some of the Farm Aid story's troublesome aspects, I lament that most readers will never see this follow-up.

UPDATE 09/29/2005 - Hmm, maybe I was too easy on Wycliff. Check out the latest from Jack Siegel at Charity Governance:

UPDATE 09/29/2005 - The always insightful Michael Miner takes apart the Tribune's story in this week's Chicago Reader. He even talks to Naomi Levine. Guess what she said...

She told me she didn't remember talking to the Tribune and knew nothing about Farm Aid, wasn't sure she'd ever heard of it. You did speak to the Tribune, I told her, and they reported you said 28 percent was too small a cut of a nonprofit's revenues for donations. What about 75 percent of its expenses going to grants and programs?

"It seems OK to me," Levine said. "If they're giving that much in grants and programs, it's a respectable number."

In Levine's defense, I imagine that the reporter approached her for a general number without mentioning what he was saying about Farm Aid or how he was going to twist her words to imply something else. Or maybe he plucked it out of some other interview in a secondary source. Who knows? Whatever he did, he sure screwed it up.

UPDATE 10/04/2005 - Farm Aid Executive Director Carolyn Mugar finally gets her say in Voice of the People. She points out the mistake of comparing grants to the program expense standard, then goes on to discuss the concert:

The story unfairly compared Farm Aid to another benefit concert. Every benefit concert has different goals and a different financial structure. Farm Aid's concert raises funds, promotes food from family farms and highlights the importance of family farming. The concert galvanizes gifts and generates revenue. The concert has consistently achieved these goals. (I condensed these sentences into one paragraph.)
Mugar makes a good point. Perhaps Mr. George should have thought about Live 8. The sole objective of that concert series was to raise awareness with no fundraising expectations whatsoever. Farm Aid falls somewhere between Live 8 and the Bridge School concerts and shouldn't be compared to either of them.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

The Hammer Gets Nailed

After years of mischief, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay is finally getting his due. He was indicted today by a Texas grand jury for conspiracy in a campaign finance scheme. It's probably the least of his sins, and I'd love nothing (well, okay, one thing) more than to see this guy hang for his crimes.

Notice how DeLay keeps ripping on Ronnie Earle, the Travis County District Attorney. He is trying to frame this as a partisan issue. But wait... although he is a Democrat, Earle has prosecuted many more Democrats than he has Republicans. That doesn't sound like the record of a party hack; it sounds more like the work of a rare crusader against corrupt politicians. DeLay is going after Earle because he doesn't have a good defense. Besides,
The grand jury's foreman, William Gibson, told The Associated Press that Earle didn't pressure members one way or the other. "Ronnie Earle didn't indict him. The grand jury indicted him," Gibson told The Associated Press in an interview at his home.
Good point! I wonder if the Republicans will create another media diversion a la Terry Schiavo to draw attention away from this. One may recall that the heat was on DeLay for his ethical bankruptcy when the Schiavo battle conveniently pushed him off page one. To follow the DeLay story from a slightly biased point of view, check out The Daily DeLay.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

More About Farm Aid

Today I finally googled the Chicago Tribune-invented Farm Aid "controversy" and found another Chicago blogger who has written more extensively about it than I have. As an attorney, CPA, and author specializing in non-profit organizations, Jack Siegel has much more experience in this arena, but we make a lot of the same points. I was amused by his attempt to hold various local charities to the false financial standards implied by the article, a clever way to demonstrate the flaws in the reporter's analysis. Here are Siegel's Farm Aid entries in chronological order:

UPDATE 09/28/2005 - In private correspondence, someone suggested that my objective is to defend Farm Aid. Let me be clear: I don't have strong feelings about Farm Aid one way or the other. I think I called in a pledge while watching their first concert on TV twenty years ago, but it was probably my parents' money anyway. My ambivalence can be summed up by a critique of the board members: I like Neil Young a lot, I respect Willie Nelson but don't listen to his music much, I think John Mellencamp became irrelevant at least a decade ago, and I never paid any attention to Dave Matthews.

But seriously, my interest here is in fair and accurate journalism. Any charity could have fallen victim to the Trib reporter's misunderstanding/misuse/abuse of financial data. It just happened to be Farm Aid, and the story's publication came at a critical fundraising moment for the organization (in the business they call that the "news hook," but the false charges and flawed logic within the story made it look almost like "sabotage"). I hope that the Tribune publishes Siegel's letter because unlike the "rah-rah for Farm Aid" letter published on September 26 or Young's passionate defense, his response thoroughly addresses the problems with the story itself.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Corgan: Wrigley Music Reeks

A Cubs fan asked former Pumpkin Smasher Billy Corgan about the music they play at Wrigley Field. I haven't been to the ballpark in several years, but I can't believe they are still playing Van Halen's "Jump." They've been doing that for what, two decades now? That song just reminds me of the awful collapse of 1984, when the Cubs were up 2-0 in the NLCS and lost three in a row to the Padres. It's like an anthem for crushed hopes. Even worse, the last few times I went there it seemed like the highlight of the afternoon for many fans was "Y.M.C.A.," which is even older and cheesier. Corgan had a good suggestion:
How about playing songs by Chicago artists? Every city I go to plays songs by their local artists. The theme song for the Boston Red Sox is `Dirty Water', a song by the '60's group The Standells about the River Charles (and other sundry goings-on). It is absolutely criminal how bad the music is that is played at Wrigley Field. Discounting myself from this idea, how about nine innings worth of Chicago blues, Cheap Trick, Styx, etc. Instead we get passe hits and out-of-touch classics.
Okay, maybe nine innings of Styx isn't such a great idea, but there is plenty of Chicago music that could be played. On the other hand, I never went to a baseball game in lieu of listening to the radio anyway. They should dump the canned music entirely and let the organist go wild. Did you know that the Cubs were the first team in major-league baseball to have an organist back in 1941? The Cubs are also the only team that still plays introductions on the organ when players come to the plate. The best reason to see a game at Wrigley is for the nostalgia (though many inexplicably go there just to get drunk on high-priced, low-quality beer). The organ is nostalgic. The canned tunes are garbage.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Federated Dumps Field's Name

The way Marshall Field's stores have been passed around like a hot potato over the past couple of decades, I suppose this was inevitable. The Chicago legend's latest owner, Federated Department Stores (could that corporate name be any more lifeless?), announced today that they are changing all Field's stores into Macy's stores.

Field's is a Chicago tradition dating back to 1868--three years before the fire. Chicago shoppers have a strong emotional attachment to Field's. The huge store on State Street is lauded as a monument of retailing, and suburbanites visit with the reverence of pilgrims to some holy shrine. My family goes downtown every December for lunch at the Walnut Room beneath the gigantic Christmas tree. And even though sometimes they don't find much to buy that day, they return year after year. Field's patrons are so steeped in tradition that there was a tremendous uproar years ago when the store did something as seemingly trivial as changing the color of its shopping bags.

Chicago has a rich retailing and mail-order heritage, but it has faded in recent decades. Sears moved to the suburbs. Carson's and Field's were swallowed by larger corporations. Montgomery Ward's went bankrupt and closed its retail stores. The legacy of the golden years of Chicago merchandising is found on Chicago's lakefront. Marshall Field himself donated a large sum to start the Field Museum of Natural History. John G. Shedd, the second president of Marshall Field's, gave money to build the Shedd Aquarium. Julius Rosenwald of Sears funded the Museum of Science and Industry (he gave money to build YMCAs and thousands of schools throughout the country, too). Max Adler, who also made his fortune at Sears, bankrolled the Adler Planetarium. And A. Montomery Ward fought a twenty-year legal battle against lakefront privatization and development.

Replacing the venerable Marshall Field's name with Macy's especially hurts. Macy's is so "New York." I cannot imagine Chicago shoppers will ever feel the same about Macy's as they do about Field's. Mayor Daley, however, doesn't quite get it:

"Things change in life," he said. "If you are not willing to accept change, you stay in the past." The mayor called Federated a "very good corporate citizen." Regarding the State Street store, Federated plans to "reinforce that store," making it even more a "destination" than Field's has been.
Mr. Mayor, people come to Chicago to shop at Marshall Field's, not Macy's. Federated could have enhanced the State Street store without renaming it, and they will fight an uphill battle just to maintain the store's status, much less improve upon it.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Chicago Tribune Attacks Farm Aid

When I read reporter Jason George's skewering of Farm Aid, my first instinct was to find reasons for the group's apparently poor performance. According to George, only 28% of Farm Aid revenues went toward "grants" while the standard for charities is 65% or more. That statistic was alarming enough to raise his article to the top five of most e-mailed articles since the organization's 20th anniversary concert is in the Chicago suburbs today.

Then I dug deeper. It turns out the story is flat-out wrong, based on a false premise. According to Charity Navigator, Farm Aid spent 74.2% on "program expenses." This is the category on which the 65% guideline is based. Farm Aid, like many charities, is about more than just handing out grants (awareness and advocacy being two other objectives). Now it is clear why the Farm Aid people interviewed by George seemed surprised by his accusations--he was inventing his own standards. It is hardly fair to measure a subcategory of one group's expenditures ("grants") and compare it one-to-one with the broader category ("program expenses") for other charities.

As far as I can tell, George's biggest mistake was trying to count concert expenses as "administrative" or "fundraising" rather than "program" expenses. But one of Farm Aid's primary goals is to raise awareness, and putting on the concerts is the way they achieve that goal. It doesn't generate a lot of revenue once expenses are deducted (although performers are free, Farm Aid probably has to pay for security, advertising, and many other costs), but it sure gets the word out about the plight of family farmers.

This article is a prime example of an untrained eye digging through annual reports and drawing uninformed conclusions. I expect better from a leading daily newspaper. I have contacted Mr. George and the Tribune's Public Editor about this misleading story. I'll let you know what I hear back from them. Because the story has been e-mailed so much, I fear that Farm Aid (with which I have no affiliation, by the way) will be tarnished since most recipients will never see the correction/clarification that is owed by the Tribune. I couldn't think of a less charitable 20th anniversary gift.

UPDATE 09/20/2005 - I am still waiting for the Tribune to acknowledge their mistake, but music critic Greg Kot
reports that Neil Young fought back at a press conference before the concert on Sunday.

UPDATE 09/23/2005 - As of this afternoon, the Tribune hasn't said anything with regard to this article. I was assured by one insider, however, that they are looking into it. Something curious has happened between this morning and now (3 PM): a search for "farm aid" at no longer displays any of the articles surrounding last weekend's event. Let's hope a retraction is in the works.

UPDATE 09/25/2005 - No such luck. While Greg Kot lets Neil Young defend the organization in an interview published today, the story includes this disheartening paragraph:

Clearly, Young had plenty to discuss with his visitor. But the first order of business was Farm Aid and the Tribune article. In response to Young's remarks and a phone conversation with the artist last week, James O'Shea, the Tribune's managing editor, said: "The Tribune stands by its story."
How can you stand by a financial story that shows a complete disregard for standard accounting practices? The article clearly compared Farm Aid's grants (28%) with a non-profit rule-of-thumb for program expenses (65%). George screwed up and O'Shea is standing by his screw-up. Disgusting. Maybe I should start giving to Farm Aid--I can start with the money earmarked for my Tribune subscription.

UPDATE 09/26/2005 - The Tribune finally printed a response from people familiar with Farm Aid. They note that Farm Aid does much more than pass out grants. I wish they had hammered the Trib more directly for the apples to oranges financial comparison as well. I suppose this is now a closed issue from the newspaper's standpoint. By the way, the article that sparked this entry is back in the Trib's online search results after a mysterious weekend absence.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

The Folly Of Rebuilding NOLA

A common argument used by atheists is that if there is a God, why does He let natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina harm His children? To accept God, one must acknowledge that He does allow these things to happen. In fact, many see such events as "God's will." In this context, Bush's plan to rebuild New Orleans should be downright offensive to the fundamentalist Christians who support him. He is essentially giving God the middle finger, saying, "I don't care if you wiped out our city, we're going to make a new one! You can't control us!"

For once, I am on the side of Dennis Hastert, at least before he backpedaled and told us that he didn't really say what he said. How can we defiantly rebuild the city exactly where it was, knowing that this could happen again someday? And it may not be centuries from now; random bad luck could make it happen as soon as the reconstruction is finished. The same factors that have increased the danger to the city over time -- lost wetlands, channelization of the river, etc. -- are not going away and will probably get worse. It makes very little sense to me. I think any area that didn't flood can be repopulated, but any area that did should be abandoned. Sure, we could build stronger walls, install bigger pumps, whatever, but a coastal location below sea level is inherently vulnerable. Some people argue that New Orleans is too vital as a port to abandon, but it doesn't take a million people to service a port. We could create a much smaller city on the higher ground for that purpose.

I know this isn't a popular point of view these days. Heck, Eric Zorn recently got lumped together with Jack Kemp and David Brooks for daring to question rebuilding. The American mindset is to overcome all obstacles and reshape the earth to suit our desires. We flatten mountains, harness or even reverse rivers, make the desert bloom, etc. Plus, many people have a romantic attachment to New Orleans that clouds their judgement. I wonder whether a town like Biloxi, MS or Mobile, AL would be rebuilt at similar expense.

Valmeyer, IL is an example of what we should do. I visited Valmeyer, which is about 25 miles south of downtown Saint Louis, for the first time this summer. I thought it was strange how new everything was. The town's welcome sign offered a clue with the slogan "Rising To New Heights." Valmeyer was located on the Mississippi River floodplain. After a disastrous flood, the town moved -- now it is located on top of the bluffs instead of beside the temperamental river. I know that New Orleans does not have towering bluffs on which to build, but the point is that sometimes relocation just makes a lot more sense than reconstructing what was swept away.

I don't see how rebuilding helps the people of New Orleans. What is compassionate about putting people back into the same place with the same looming threat that destroyed their lives once already? Are we really doing them a favor? I am reminded of Sam Kinison's solution for the starving Ethiopians -- don't send them food, send them moving vans to take them where they can grow food. It would be wiser and probably cheaper for the government to help former New Orleans residents rebuild their lives elsewhere than to reconstruct the city itself. It is one thing to keep protecting or living in a city whose position has grown increasingly precarious over the years. It is another thing altogether to recreate that same situation and send people back there. Some would even call it cruel.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Carless And Carefree?

The Chicago Tribune has a story today about people who live without cars. It isn't that difficult to do in this city--I lived without a car for 3-1/2 years until I moved in with my wife who already owned one. If she didn't work late hours and we didn't have pets, we could probably live without it. Oddly enough, I grew up in the car-crazy western suburbs and she grew up in the city, but she is the one who wants to drive everywhere. I just don't think it's worth the hassle or the expense, and walking is so much healthier (city air pollution aside).

Anyway, this article presents a few examples of people living without automobiles. Unfortunately, the reporter loses credibility in the second and third paragraphs:

They are the carless people of Chicago, the folks who don't own a car either because they don't want one or they can't afford one. Either way, they are relatively immune to rising gas prices because, for the most part, they don't buy gas.

Having a chunk of the population car-free is good for Chicago's economy, economists say, because it means those people won't have to cut back on the rest of their spending to account for the bigger bite taken by gasoline.

Not owning a car does not mean a person is immune to rising gas prices, and an economist with even half a brain would have to agree. The problem is that everything is affected by rising gas prices. Every product on every shelf gets transported using gasoline and/or diesel fuel. Consequently, rising fuel prices will impact the price of everything one buys. Even people who don't buy gas are going to pay plenty more for everything else. I am shocked that the reporter would disregard that fact. And while higher gas prices won't take an obvious slice out of a non-driver's pie, it will leave that person with a smaller pie--getting fewer goods for the same amount of money. To put it another way, more expensive gas and diesel will take a "bigger bite" out of every slice before it gets to the consumer's mouth. No economist is quoted in the story, so I am inclined to believe the reporter simply made this up without thinking it through logically.

This is why I am concerned about dwindling resources and "peak oil," the point in time when we have used more oil than we have left, which will essentially be the "beginning of the end" of transportation as we know it. Unless the automakers, truck manufacturers, airplane builders, and train locomotive producers are holding back some wondrous alternative until we run out of oil (a popular but doubtful conspiracy theory), we are in for a world of hurt. How will we eat? It doesn't matter whether I walk, bike, or drive to the grocery store if the shelves are going to be empty when I get there. Living without a car is a great way to simplify one's life, improve the environment, and get exercise, but it absolutely offers no protection from increases in fuel costs.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Presidents And Poverty

On Paula Zahn Now Monday night, former Bush campaign advisor Rev. Joe Watkins had an interesting take on poverty under our last two presidents:

...under Bill Clinton, 15.1 percent of the population was poor; under President Bush, 12.7 percent of the population is poor. That's a reduction, that's a good thing.
Okay, that may be technically true BUT... Those numbers are taken from Clinton's first year in office (1993) and Bush's most recent year (2004). By the end of the Clinton administration, however, that 15.1 percent had been reduced to 11.3 percent. And guess what? The percentage has risen every year under the Bush administration! It isn't exactly fair to compare Clinton's first year, when he hadn't had time to implement any policies, to Bush's fourth year, when his policies have had time to work their magic. If you want to compare "fourth years," Clinton reduced poverty 1.4 percent by 1996 whereas Bush increased poverty 1.0 percent by 2004. The gap grows much wider when comparing families in poverty: Clinton reduced this by 4.0 percent in eight years, while the number have increased by 1.1 percent in four years under Bush.

Aside from the game Watkins played with the numbers, I wouldn't put much stock in those percentages anyway. Heck, Ronald Reagan reduced poverty during his term, from 14.0 percent in 1981 to 13.0 percent in 1988. Aside from those who have canonized him, no one would cite Reagan as a hero in the War on Poverty. In many respects, the poverty numbers are merely a reflection of the general economy. That's why Bush the First and Jimmy Carter look bad, with increases of 2.0 percent and 1.4 percent respectively. I cannot imagine anyone saying that Carter was trying to screw the poor (or maybe he was... and he joined Habitat for Humanity to assuage his guilt!). If you're looking for some good news about poverty, at least we are still ahead of where we were before Lyndon Johnson, when 19 percent or more of Americans were below the poverty line.

UPDATE 09/17/2005 - The right-wing echo chamber is at it again. Parrotting Watkins, Bill "Loofah" O'Reilly claimed on his radio show that "the only fair comparison is halfway through Clinton's term, halfway through Bush's term." Of course, that ignores the obvious, which a caller was trying to point out to him: Bush didn't take over halfway through Clinton's term, he took over at the end of it when the poverty percentage was lower. I don't know why callers even try to correct these rambling idiots. I'll admit that the first few times I heard O'Reilly and Hannity, I thought about calling in to question their ridiculous logic. But it didn't take long for me to see that there was no point in trying.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Why Chief Justice Hearings Don't Matter

There is a lot of talk in progressive circles this week about how we have to interrogate John Roberts thoroughly before he is confirmed as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. While the appointment is a critical one, the hearings are trivial. Democrats can ask Roberts about Roe v. Wade, for example, until they are blue in the face, but the answers, if given at all, are ultimately meaningless. If Roberts says one thing at the hearings and does another on the bench, no one has any authority to hold him to his word. He won't necessarily "lie" this week, but he could easily "change his mind" between now and the time these issues arise in court.

Judges have always been held to a higher standard of honesty than politicians, but that doesn't mean we should expect any more integrity from Roberts than we have seen from the man who nominated him. I am starting to think that all these conspiracy theories are floating around about Katrina and 9/11 precisely because Bush has done so little to cultivate our trust. Once you determine that your commander in chief lies regularly (Iraqi WMDs being the most egregious example), it isn't such a big step to concoct wild ideas about what "really" happened. This isn't to say that I believe such theories, but I wouldn't be shocked if some of them turned out to be true.

All this talk by the Democrats about holding Roberts' feet to the fire is hollow rhetoric anyway. They have already for the most part waived their right to filibuster, and the Republicans run the show. As long as Roberts doesn't say anything to offend conservatives, he will breeze through the hearings.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Hunt For The Missing Manuscript

No, this isn't about the manuscript for my new book, thank goodness.

In late 1990, I set out for Los Angeles on old Route 66. In the months after my adventure, I wrote an extensive journal of my experiences. For those who have read about my
2002 cross-country bike trip, this could be considered an automotive "prequel." I suppose you could call it my first self-published book, too. I made about eight copies, put them in three-hole folders, and distributed them to family and friends. Assuming they haven't been thrown away, there are copies in at least four states spread from coast to coast. Alas, my own copy has disappeared. I know it's here somewhere, but I've moved several times since then and I have a big stack of boxes containing random papers where it could be. I don't have the original disk, but it wouldn't matter if I did--I wrote it on a Commodore 64 with a 5-1/4 inch disk, so I have no way to read it now anyway.

I've had a little luck so far. This afternoon I found a rough draft that I didn't even know I still had. Then tonight I found what could have been the mother lode of "The Mother Road." Many years ago before I even had my own PC, a friend at work liked my story so much that she scanned it into her computer (IBM-compatible) for me. I thought the file must be long gone, but lo and behold, I found it in my forgotten collection of 3.5 inch disks in the attic. Heck, I even found two copies. When I opened the file, I remembered something that friend told me many years ago: "I only got to scan half of it."

Oh well, half is better than nothing. When I finally do find the hard copy, my scanning workload will be cut in half. I'll have to read what I have and decide whether to put it online. I am critical of things that I wrote long ago because I'm such a different person now. A lot has happened in 15 years. I wasn't such a cynical, bitter, old bastard back then.

Rolling Stones 1994

My brother went to see the Rolling Stones on Saturday at the same place on almost the same day of the year that I saw them eleven years ago. I was going through a bunch of old papers and computer files (more on that later) when I came across a set list from that show. I don't remember it vividly, but I went with friends from work, and it was less than two weeks after I moved to the city. From the reviews of Saturday's show, it sounds like they did a lot of the same songs except that songs from the new album took the place of the Voodoo Lounge songs. For what it's worth, I thought the concert was expensive then, but my brother paid even more, $100/ticket for the cheapest seats. But heck, they're the Stones, and everybody should see them once. They're not bad for a bunch of old dudes.

Rolling Stones at Soldier Field, September 12, 1994

Not Fade Away
Tumblin' Dice
You Got Me Rockin'
Rocks Off
Sparks Will Fly
(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction
Beast Of Burden
Wild Horses
All Down The Line
I Go Wild
Miss You
Honky Tonk Women
Love Is Strong
Monkey Man
Street Fightin' Man
Start Me Up
It's Only Rock & Roll
Brown Sugar
Jumpin' Jack Flash

A Hero For Our Time

Dr. Ben Marble is the man who spoke for all of us to Dick Cheney in New Orleans last Thursday:
"So we grabbed my Canon digital rebel and my Sony videocamera and started walking down the street," Marble wrote. "And then right in front of the destroyed tennis court I used to play on Dick Cheney was giving a pep rally, talking to the press. The Secret Service guys patted us down and waved the wands over us, and then let us pass."

As he stood about 10 feet away from Cheney and his friend and some camera operators from CNN and other media filmed the scene, Marble suddenly yelled, "Go f*** yourself, Mr. Cheney! Go f*** yourself, you a**hole!"

Hey, at least Marble was polite. After all, he referred to Cheney as “Mr. Cheney.”

"I had no intention of harming anyone but merely wanted to echo Mr. Cheney's infamous words back at him," Marble wrote.
Although Senator Patrick Leahy must have chuckled, the veep's stormtroopers didn't share Marble's sense of humor. After Marble left the scene, they tracked him down, handcuffed him, and detained him for 20 minutes. Eventually they had to admit that he hadn't broken any laws (damn that pesky First Amendment), so they let him go.

Not As Bad As I Thought

While working on my book, I read a lot about our most overrated president, Illinois native Ronald Wilson Reagan. As much as I wanted to hate him, I found that he wasn't such a bad guy. He had a sense of humor and he had a personality. He led an interesting life as a lifeguard, radio broadcaster, actor, and president of the Screen Actors Guild. If you take away 1980-1988, I would probably like him, but I can't overlook all the disastrous policies he promoted and enacted as president. And the legacy-building cult that developed around him disgusts me. Still, I would never be as charitable about our current POTUS, who is evil through and through. And no, this post has nothing to do with my learning yesterday that The Reagan Review Blog(!) links to me.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Condi Goes To NYC

The leaders of the Bush administration truly have no shame. In August 2001, Condoleezza Rice ignored a memo titled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US." For all her supposed brilliance (Stanford provost, blah blah blah), she simply brushed this memo aside as "historical information." Oops. Today she was in New York talking about September 11 on the anniversary. Sending Condi to NYC to commemorate 9/11 is like having Steve Bartman throw out the first pitch for the Cubs on opening day.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Teddy Comes Home

Yesterday my wife went to the vet's office to pick up the modest tin that holds Teddy's "cremains" (I don't like that word--it reminds me of craisins). When she got home, we realized that we had never figured out where we were going to put him. She suggested the china cabinet in the dining room, but that just didn't seem right to me. Teddy didn't spend much time in that room, and we hardly do, either (which probably explains why Teddy didn't). In fact, that was his favorite place to go if he had an "accident." No, the dining room wasn't a good choice. I proposed the corner shelves in the living room, and she readily agreed. Then she asked if we were going to keep an item that occupied the top shelf. I said that regardless of whether we did, I wasn't going to put Teddy up there. If that New Madrid fault ever triggers a big earthquake, I would hate for Teddy to tumble from that height. It would be too weird cleaning up the ashes off the floor. I chose the second shelf instead, figuring that the lid would hold for a one-foot drop. Tonight I got the idea to add his collars to the shelf, but I'll have to ask my wife where she put them.

Rosco's reaction has been interesting to watch. He lays on Teddy's bed a lot, which he never did while Teddy was alive. Somehow I think he knows that his big brother is gone forever this time. It's hard to tell whether he is depressed or he is enjoying being the top dog. My wife is noticing that a lot of the traits she attributed to Teddy are actually dog traits. Rosco is acting more like Teddy did, and Teddy isn't there to push him out of the way. I also sense that Rosco is more attached to my wife than he was before. I always thought that when Rosco came to our house, Teddy told him, "The woman is mine" (she used to call him a "male chauvinist dog"). Rosco was always "my" dog, which made me feel a little guilty about Teddy being my favorite. Ah, but now we see Rosco's true colors...

My wife says she is ready to get another dog, but she admits that she would be looking for one like Teddy. I told her that means she isn't ready. Besides, I'm not going to be ready for a while.

UPDATE 09/11/2005 - Maybe Rosco reads my blog. He has been coming around me more today.

Sky News Gets It Right

Irish broadcaster Sky News reported a quote from President Bush about Katrina, but it didn't come out the way they intended... or did it?

(from Snopes via Wonkette via Lakshi Choudry)

Those Wacky Arbitrators

From today's Chicago Tribune... Federal arbitrators told Metra, Chicagoland's commuter rail service, that they have to rehire three train engineers and give them back pay. The engineers were terminated after they were found responsible for an accident in River Grove that killed a boy in 2004. The arbitrators determined that the engineers were not given a fair hearing before they were fired. It is a follow-up to a sad story, of course, but I couldn't help chuckling at this sentence:
The Aug. 31 ruling did not address whether the engineers were responsible for the accident, but it called the disciplinary proceeding a "railroad job."
Heh-heh, a railroad job. Those arbitrators slay me!

Friday, September 09, 2005

Chicago's Seven Wonders

First I have to say that this entire exercise is rather silly, but the Chicago Tribune has been collecting nominees for the "7 Wonders of Chicago," and today the masses are voting on which of the 14 nominees should make the final list. I hate the final list of nominees, actually. As Eric Zorn blogged in a Rumsfeld-esque way, "But you go into the voting booth with the wonders you have, not the wonders you want." Being my family's only resident Chicagoan (I'm speaking only of my "side"--several of my wife's relatives live in the city), I feel compelled to weigh in with my choices. Here they are, in no particular order:

  • Sears Tower - This inspired Zorn' s statement, and I agree with him that the John Hancock Center is far more appealing. Chicago architecture is legendary, however, so some famous building has to be included, even if it's not particularly impressive aside from having once been the world's tallest. The Hancock Observatory (or better yet, the Signature Lounge) is a must-see (the ladies' restroom up there has a great view, too, but I'm not supposed to know that). People visiting Chicago by themselves go to the Sears Tower, but Chicagoans take visitors to the Hancock instead.
  • Chicago Bungalows - Maybe these are not truly a wonder, but as the owner of an official "Historic Chicago Bungalow" built in 1918, how could I vote differently?
  • Chicago Blues - This is rather broad to be a wonder, and I think the heyday of Chicago blues has passed, but it's one of our city's most recognizable cultural features.
  • The "L" - I will admit to having a sort of public transportation fetish. It may not really be a wonder, but I like it.
  • The Lakefront - This is a legitimate wonder, but not for the reasons one might think. Sure, there are fantastic views and myriad recreational opportunities, but the wonder is that it exists as a public space. How many cities have 18-20 miles of contiguous, public waterfront? People like A. Montgomery Ward battled tirelessly to protect this land for the masses. (Shameless plug: my upcoming book includes two bike rides along the lakefront.)
  • Wrigley Field - I'm not much of a baseball fan anymore, but a visit to Wrigley can almost make you picture a time when it truly was America's favorite pastime, when the players weren't overpaid, spoiled, performance-enhanced babies.
  • Lower Wacker Drive - I'm not sure how much of a wonder this is, except that it is a wonder that more people (including myself) haven't been killed driving down there! It is, however, an elegant solution to some of the Loop's traffic problems.

What didn't make my list?

  • Milennium Park - It's interesting, but it's just too new to be a wonder. The corporate sponsorship of every last fixture is rather off-putting, too.
  • The Water Tower - It is a symbol of the city since it survived the fire, but it isn't a wonder. Architecturally, it was skewered by Oscar Wilde, and there isn't much to do there besides look at it. At least the pumping station across the street has a restaurant, a City of Chicago store, and a tourist information center.
  • Chicago Theater Scene - I dont' think there really is such a great theater scene, but that's not my thing so I shouldn't judge. I think Chicago's comedy scene (i.e., Second City), is more renowned than its theater scene.
  • Chicago Hot Dog - I suppose I'm not a real Chicagoan because frankly (pun intended) I don't like Chicago-style hot dogs. I don't eat many hot dogs, but when I do, I like them plain or with only ketchup. At Wrigley Field, I hated the way the hot dogs used to come with mustard already on them (dogs from the roaming vendors had mustard, so I had to go downstairs to the concession stand to get one without). If you want a real Chicago culinary treat, have deep-dish pizza or an Italian beef sandwich. I have sampled a lot of pizza in this country, and ours (whether deep-dish, stuffed, or thin) is head and shoulders above pizza anywhere else. If Chicago pizza had been nominated, it would have received my vote!
  • University of Chicago - It's a neat place with some interesting architecture and a fine academic reputation, but it's not a wonder. Everyone in Hyde Park probably disagrees with me.
  • Museum of Science & Industry - This would have earned my vote as a favorite school field trip destination, but it didn't impress me as much when I visited in my 20s. Maybe I'll have a change of heart when I see the refurbished U-505.
  • Chicago River - The wonder isn't that it was reversed. The wonder is that downstate Illinois didn't start a war with Chicago when the city pulled this stunt, which sent tons of sh*t (literally) down the Illinois River. This screwed up that river for years and destroyed the fishing and button industries. As far as rivers go, the Chicago isn't that impressive anyway. People from St. Louis would laugh at us for calling our river a wonder. Heck, people from Morris would laugh at us. Plus, it still isn't clean enough to swim in (much less drink from) although it has been improving.