Thursday, March 30, 2006

To Blog or Not to Blog? Much Ado About Not Much.

Looking at the proliferation of blogs on the net, it looks like very soon everyone on earth will have 15 Megabytes of fame. ~ with apologies to M.G. Siriam
Paul McNamara of Network World posted a little gem in his BuzzBlog the other day which could be considered one more chunk of fallout from Microsoft's announcement about delaying the consumer version of Vista. In his item, Mr. McNamara tells us how Nicholas Carr, of “IT Doesn't Matter” fame, took Robert Scoble, of Scobleizer fame, to the woodshed for getting crabby in his blog. It seems that Mr. Scoble had a bad week and got rather cantankerous toward some of the comments being posted on his site. Mr. Carr uses the occasion to lecture one and all with several tips on corporate blogging, the first of which is “Don't.” (For particulars, follow the links in BuzzBlog.)
What a lot of hoo-hah. All Mr. Carr is doing is increasing Mr. Scoble's already formidable readership. I've checked out Scobleizer a few times. Mr. Scoble is what Microsoft calls an “evangelist.” Basically, his job is to espouse new ideas and spread the news. Mr. Scoble has been known to go off on some oddball tangents, spilling the beans now and then about something that he possibly should not have. Of course, that just brings more attention to Microsoft, which is what they had in mind in the first place.
I don't read Sobleizer because I find the writing to be rather sophomoric. Also, Mr. Scoble, like any good tech evangelist, is never far from broadband access (the lucky slob), so he blogs and blogs and blogs, giving us such deep insights as it being 2:44 AM and he needs sleep. Go beddy-bye, Robert, please. On the other hand, he has about 10 zillion times more readers than I do, so maybe I should try his approach.
Nah. When I get sleepy, I get even more incoherent than I usually am. No use pushing my luck.
Anyway, Mr. Carr is using Mr. Scoble's fatigue-laced blog as a prime example of why corporate blogs are a bad thing. I actually agree with Mr. Carr in principle, but the Scoblizer has nothing to do with it. Let's consider two types of corporate blogs: External and internal.
I can't imagine what a company gains by having a public blog. I can see content publishers, like Network World, wanting their writers to maintain blogs, because that's another way to draw readership, which draws eyeballs to their ads. The writers can write snippets about items that might not warrant a full article, and news reporters can use the space to freely editorialize. But other corporations have little to gain unless the “blog” is nothing more than a nice location for press releases or technical information. Give employees a chance to post anything they think of in an environment where everyone on the planet can see it, and sooner or later one of them will stuff their size nines right down their own throat.
It's part of the e-mail syndrome. Ever since the first e-mail, people have been shooting their mouths off and living to regret it. In the olden days, you had to dictate or hand write a memo which would then be typed and returned for you to proofread and sign. Many a foolhardy letter to a superior or customer never saw the light of day because of that fortuitous delay. Now, once the e-mail has been slammed out, that “send” button is just too conveniently place. Click and out she goes, typos, sarcasm, and all. Blogs seem to work the same way. Whether it's someone at Google blabbing out some internal info, or Mr. Scoble cussing out a reader (and potential customer), stuff seems to be getting into blogs that shouldn't be there.
Internal blogs aren't much better. Some Chief [insert function here] Officers were just wild about all the wonderful idea-sharing that internal blogs can generate. Or at least they were a couple of years ago. I haven't seen many of those articles lately, probably, I suspect, because internal blogs will surely tend to reflect whatever dissatisfactions are being felt by the employees. At some point, a manager will decide to put a stop to this nonsense by either a) firing off an ill-worded reply that only fans the flames, or b) punishing the malcontents which also fans the flames. The ultimate result is that the internal blog is removed, which only increases discontent.
Ever had a suggestion program where you work? Ever notice how fast it disappeared? Same kind of thing, except that the suggestions (like “Fire all top management!”) didn’t get published for everyone to see.
It's not that blogs are bad; I read a few on a regular basis, although they tend to be news-oriented. But there seems to be so much fuss over what some people put into them. There are taken much more seriously than their importance demands. Just because something is published on the Internet is no guarantee that it is accurate or even remotely intelligent. And that's okay, too, because sometimes people like to just sort of run off at the mouth without having to think a great deal about what they say. Some great ideas have come about that way. Some really dumb ideas come about, too, but that’s the price one pays for an open forum.
Blogs have their place, and people need to know where that is. Personally, I follow a simple rule. Never put anything in a blog that you wouldn't want to see on a billboard in the middle of town. Beyond that, go for it.
After all, it's only a blog.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The Devil and Mr. Twain

I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ. ~Mahatma Gandhi
We interrupt our fascinating radio memoir to step back into the more-or-less real world.
The Montgomery Advertiser published an article yesterday concerning an historic church and some problems it was facing. The Associated Press article, written by Martin Griffith talks about a church built in the 1860's in Carson City, Nevada. The church is serious need of renovation, and there is talk of tearing it down. This is a common problem, expensive renovation or destruction of a venerable old edifice. But this church has a little more cachet than many others that have been razed to make room for modern structures. It seems that Mark Twain contributed money to help complete the original building. Preservationists point that the church is both a link to Nevada's wild territorial times and one of four buildings still standing with an association with Mark Twain.
One would think the church members and officials would make hay about this link to help raise funds to preserve the church. One would think, but one would be wrong. It seems that the righteous congregation is not especially happy about being associated with America's greatest humorist. According to the chairman of the building fund, “It's only by his association with his brother that he raised money for the church.” In other words, Twain was not a member of the church, but he was willing to do a favor for his brother. Twain himself may never have set foot in the completed structure.
But it gets better. It seems that some of these fine people are upset with Twain's “anti-Christian” beliefs. “I have read where he was an atheist,” said one woman. “And I'm sorry he was ever mentioned [in connection with the church].” She doesn't exactly say Twain should have been burned at the stake, but I'd bet with a little prodding we could get it out of her.
Let's examine the “atheism” of Mark Twain. The article has a quote from “What is Man? And Other Philosophical Writings” by Mr. Twain:
“I believe in God the Almighty. I do not believe He has ever sent a message to man by anybody, or delivered one to him by word of mouth, or made Himself visible to mortal eyes at any time or in any place.”
Compare that thought to this one:
“I feel most ministers who claim they've heard God's voice are eating too much pizza before they go to bed at night, and it's really an intestinal disorder, not a revelation.”
So says the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who is (however you may feel about him) a bona fide Christian, but he isn't so far from Twain's philosophy. The main difference is that Rev. Falwell believes that God did talk to people a long time ago. Twain doesn't think He ever did so. Twain is certainly no Christian, nor is he a Jew, a Muslim, a Mormon, or believer in virtually any other monotheistic organized religion. But, Twain is certainly no atheist.
Twain had a great deal of respect for churches and for people's faith. He skewered the hypocrisies of organized religion, but he never belittled anyone's belief. Twain's writing shows an abiding respect for the Creator, albeit with occasional whimsy. Now, I've never actually gotten a message from God on this (despite having eaten lots of pizza over the years), but it's always seemed impossible to me to believe that God doesn't have a sense of humor.
Which is more than I can say for the members of The First Presbyterian Church in Carson City, NV.
Tell you what, folks. Think of Twain as the Good Samaritan. The point of the parable is not that Samaritans were nice folks. There was antagonism between Jews and Samaritans, so the fact that one would help an injured Judean when two of his countrymen passed him by emphasizes the idea the Golden Rule. So Mark Twain was a Samaritan, not belonging to your religion, but willing to help out when you were in need. And, he may be able to help you again, if you let him.
So cast no stones, people. In fact, you would do well to follow Twain's example of helping others in need. After all, it would be the Christian thing to do.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Radio Daze, Part the Second

I've had a wonderful evening - but this wasn't it. ~Groucho Marx
One of the most interesting times I had working at WRUW-FM came during a break in classes called “Intersession.” I don't know who thought this up, but as students, most of us thought the idea was perfectly brilliant. First semester classes and finals would finish before Christmas holiday. The second semester wouldn't start until February. The six weeks in between, called the Intersession, was a time when the student could: a) go earn some money to help pay for the next semester, b) earn some extra credit if a professor would sponsor a project, or c) stay on campus and goof around. I opted for b and c.
I got a professor to back a simple research project that involved just creating an annotated bibliography. That's where you don't have to read the books. Just list them and summarize the cover notes. This kind of project, which got me an easy A, is not a thing to be sneezed at.
For the goofing around, those of us who worked at the station who stayed on campus got together and proposed to run the station on a regular broadcast schedule. Normally, we had a different type of music on every night: rock one night, jazz another, blues another, jug band music on yet another. Most programs were two hours long. As you can imagine, some formats fared better than others (even the guy who played jug band music hated it). We proposed to do free-form programming, mixing jazz, rock, and blues (no jug bands) in four-hour program blocks, which fulfilled our egos. On Sundays, we'd fulfill our artsy requirement with classical music, taped dramas, and, oh yes, an avant-garde sort of show by Ron.
Ron, you may recall, was part of the partnership that had created our “War of the Worlds” production. His friend Paul had gone on to real life (sort of; he was running a movie theater that showed only old classic films), so Ron was soloing.
Somewhat to our surprise, the faculty adviser for the station went for the idea. Monday through Thursday, three programmers did shows each day. Friday and Saturday I did jazz, thanks to being a nerd in high standing (meaning I didn't get many dates). On Sundays, I engineered in the afternoon and early evening.
I wasn't supposed to engineer Ron's show, but the guy who had the assignment was new to the station and had trouble setting up the oddball things Ron wanted (sound effect tracks, echo effects, and the like; this was the good ole days of patch cables). Besides, he didn't like Ron's eclectic brand of programming. So, at Ron's request, I started engineering his show. Which is how I ended up performing a sketch that contained one of the worst jokes in history.
I wrote not long ago about supposedly having the funniest joke of all time in my subconscious, according to my wife. I've never been able to conjure up any of that joke. But Ron's is burned into my brain. How typical of life.
Ron came in one day and asked if we had a sound effect of a heart beat. Yes we did. Could I set up on an endless loop so it would play constantly during a sketch? No problem. Then he handed me a list that started out with surgical instruments and asked me if I wanted to participate in a doctor sketch. Well, that seemed harmless enough, so I agreed. Then he told me the punchline.
I begged him to let me out of it. But, no one else being around, and Ron being desperate to do this dumb routine, I acquiesced. I have been afflicted by this joke ever since. Therefore, in an effort to purge myself of this lame bit, I am going to foist it on you, dear readers (I know you're out there, I can hear you breathing).
It begins with the heartbeat thump-thumping in the background.
Surgeon (me): Scalpel (thump-thump)
Nurse (Ron): Scalpel (smacks something into my hand)
S: Clamp (thump-thump)
N: Clamp (smack)
After about four or five of these, they get silly.
S: Freemis (thump-thump)
N: Freemis (smack)
S: Flagstaff (thump-thump)
N: Arizona (smack)
At this point in the sketch, I have to say that I’m hungry, having skipped lunch to do this operation. Ron, ever the stickler for realism, had told me to take a bite of some bread he had brought to sound like I was eating a sandwich. Well, we'd been going for several minutes, so my mouth had gotten rather dry. You ever try to swallow a piece of bread with no saliva in your mouth?
After suitable choking, we come to the big moment:
S: Suture
N: Suture? Are you sure?
A comedic (we hoped) argument ensues, concluding with:
S: Listen. If I say I want a suture, I want a suture!
N: Ok. Suture yourself.
May God have mercy on my soul.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Radio Daze, Part the First

The play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king. - William Shakespeare, Hamlet
In talking about the demise of radio, I mentioned my days at a college radio station, WRUW-FM. Lest you get the wrong impression, I had a ball, mostly because I treated it as a lark, not as a potential career move. That's not to say that I didn't try to do a good job, which I hope I did. But, I did keep in mind that this was a 10-watt station (They’re a whole lot bigger now, a 15000-watt serious piece of broadcasting). It was unlikely that we were going to bump anyone down in the ratings book.
We were doing Public Radio Broadcasting before anyone knew that sort of thing existed. The beauty of it was we didn't have to do fund raisers (they do now, poor guys). The station was originally founded by Western Reserve University (hence the joke that the call letters stood for “Western Reserve University Wadio”), but WRU merged with my school, Case Institute of Technology, so the station staff figured that they could get a lot of engineering talent from Case. Of course, all the techies wanted to be on-air personalities, with the result that the station was still short of engineers.
Except for me. I loved being a radio engineer. You've got to realize that this was the old days of radio, with cables all over the place, 10-inch reel-to-reel tape recorders, and a guy behind the glass giving hand signals to the on-air talent. I was the guy doing the hand signals, plugging and unplugging patch cables, and generally having a jolly time making fun of the on-air guys, as engineers are prone to do. But, as things tend to work out, the guy who doesn't care about going on the air, gets on the air. I was engineering a couple of jazz programs. One of the programmers decided to return to real life, so the second one recommended me for the spot. Since no one else wanted to program jazz, I got the gig.
So I was a jazz programmer from the spring of 1969 to the end of 1970, except for the last six months I was there. During that period, I did an artsy program of readings and music called (in a real burst of originality), “Words and Music.” I was inspired to do the show by a couple of guys who were sort of nuts.
After my slot on Saturday nights, a show followed mine that was weird and wonderful. It was created by the nutty guys, Paul and Ron (at least I think that was his name; if it isn't I apologize and hope he'll let me know). It was one of those ethereal combinations of poetry, music, and offbeat humor that could only have existed back then. The amazing thing is that they usually came in with no script, no plan, just some disconnected ideas, a few books, and some records. They'd spend an hour throwing ideas back and forth, then go on the air. Two hours later, they'd finished a show that was reasonably polished, generally interesting, and always a little odd around the edges.
By way of contrast, when I did my take on this sort of thing, it took me eight hours to prepare and record a one-hour show. I think they had way more fun than I did.
Halloween happened to fall on a show night one year, and much to my surprise, the guys showed up a couple of hours early. It seemed that they had decided to do Orson Welles' radio version of “The War of the Worlds.” Now they knew that no one was going to think we were being invaded by Martians, but they thought it would be a hoot to use the end of my show to begin the radio script, complete with the ominous weather forecast that foretells the coming of the invasion.
The original radio play was slightly less than an hour long. The version Paul and Ron had cooked up was going to take close to three hours, which would run past our normal sign-off, so they had to get permission. The Assistant General Manager said he'd approve it IF he could have a significant role. So they let him do some of the narrative portions as a sort of news anchorman. I got to handle a couple of bit parts and got to engineer the extravaganza. It came off surprisingly well, except the the AGM's narrations became longer and more maudlin as the show progressed. You see, the Martians won in this version, although the whole point was to finish with a very funny interview with the head Martian. The AGM, however, got into the drama and personally added an hour to the show, doing Ingmar Bergman-style monologues.
Flash forward a year. I was hanging around the station one afternoon, when the program director, Art, saw me. He said they were planning to re-air our “War of the Worlds” on Halloween. The only problem was its length. Would I, he asked, help him edit it down? Well, that sounded like fun, so I figured, why not?
We began by creating a short opening, much like the original script, instead of the using the actual finish of my program the year before. That saved about 20 minutes. Then we came to the AGM's first narrative. I adlibbed a two minute version. We went along and removed some more of the AGM's stuff, removed some extraneous ad-lib material that had been tossed into the script, removed some more of the AGM's stuff, cut a repetitive scene that wasn't in the original Welles script, cut some more of the AGM's stuff ... Well, you get the idea. As we neared the end of the edit, we realized we had completely cut the AGM out of the show.
All that was left was his funereal closing monologue, which was followed by the funny interview. Since we had cut his other stuff, it seemed silly to leave that thing in, so out the AGM went. Art and I did a brief funny ending (something about 50,000 Browns season-ticket holders fighting off the Martians from the roof of one of the campus buildings in a vain attempt to rescue football season) then played the interview. Net result: Three hours of original cut to an hour and twenty minutes.
Since the AGM had become the GM by this time, I was concerned that he might refuse to air the version in which he didn't appear. Art said, “So who's going to tell him?”
I heard later that the GM told people he didn't mind being cut because we did such a nice editing job. He did allow as how he'd appreciate it if people would stop telling him how much better the show was without him.
That's show biz.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The Interview Game

Everyone has a price - mine is chocolate. ~Author Unknown
One of my coworkers who has been with the organization for next to forever told me one day that he envied the wide and varied experience I've had working in so many industries. I thanked him for the compliment. It was a very nice way to say I've never been able to hold a job.
Well, that's not strictly true. Most of the time I changed jobs by choice either to get more money or to move somewhere warmer. I did leave one company to avoid being a casualty in a political housecleaning and got “re-engineered” out of a job, thanks to a political housecleaning, at another. More recently, I've been a contractor, which always means being on the verge of being out of work. I was lucky enough to be with one company for almost seven years before the contracts ran out, so I was thrilled to finally get a stable job again.
I ended up working for the last client to whom I was contracted. Since I had been there for a year, they pretty much knew me and what my capabilities were. As a result, the job interview was pretty simple.
“So, you wanna work here?”
“Sure.”
“Better go to Personnel and apply, then.”
Most of the many interviews I have undertaken over the years have not been so succinct and pleasant. In fact, job interviews are boring and nerve-racking at the same time. They're boring in that you've heard these silly questions before; nerve-racking in that you're constantly watching what you say, trying to come up with just the right response, trying to gage the effect of the response, and trying to figure out if that look means something bad or is merely indigestion.
Hiring is a crap-shoot. My personal experience in hiring people was about 50-50 between good hires and not-so-good hires. So the process is stressful on both sides. That probably contributes to the pitiful nature of some of the questions that are tossed at the applicant. I have been asked some dumb questions in interviews. Some of these were unique, some I heard every time I walked into the office. Here are some unique questions and one common one to which I had a unique answer.
“Do you really make this much?”
A Personnel manager, holding my resume, opened the interview with that gem. What did he expect me to say? “Hell, no. I just pumped up the numbers so you'd offer me more money.” Nothing gets a conversation off on the right foot better than questioning the person's honesty.
“How can your company make stuff cheaper than [well-known and much bigger competitor]? You guys must make a lousy product.”
Another great opener. “Boy, you must work for a company that makes crap.” Well, gee, thanks. I like you, too. Oh, by the way, your dog’s ugly. What did I actually say? “Ours is cheaper because we only charge for the product, instead of having to charge for super bowl commercials.”
“I have a friend who's an airline pilot. He makes $200,000 a year. Another friend in New Jersey makes $400,000. Why do you want to work for what we would pay you?” (The top-end salary for the job I was trying to get was just under $100,000. The starting salary, obviously, wasn't going to be that high but was still respectable.)
Even as I write that question, I find it hard to believe that it was ever asked. I immediately thought of several apt replies. “I don't have a pilot's license.” “I never liked the idea of selling drugs.” “I dunno. Why do you work for what they pay you?” “Because no one is offering that kind of money for this kind of job, you nitwit.” Lord, I wish I'd have used one of them.
“How do we know we wouldn't be making a mistake in hiring you?” (Asked by a vice-president, no less.)
Golly, I thought that's why I've talked to sixteen different people here today, y'know? What I actually said was better. I looked him straight in the eye and said, “You're not making a mistake. But, if after a couple of months you think you did, you can always do something about it, can't you?” Believe it or not, I got the job.
“What is your greatest weakness?”
Almost every interview I ever endured had that question. Has anyone ever answered that question honestly? “Well, my cocaine use bothers me a lot.” Or how about: “I guess it’s my tendency to go into a homicidal rage whenever I fear rejection.” For the record, when I hired people, I never, ever, ever asked that silly question.
I finally got really tired of those words from prospective bosses and Personnel types. So finally, on a contract position interview, I looked at the supervisor who asked the queston, and said, “You mean besides my chocolate addiction?” She looked at me with wide eyes and almost shouted, “You too? I love chocolate!” So I said that, if she hired me, I'd bake her a set of my absolutely delicious low-fat brownies.
I got the job. She got the brownies.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

It All Depends on Whose Ox Is Being Gored

People who want to share their religious views with you almost never want you to share yours with them. ~Dave Barry

I don’t much care for Comedy Central’s South Park. For the two or three of you who are unfamiliar with this show, its not a program to do with dieting. It is a crudely animated (on purpose) cartoon that goes in for vulgar, heavy-handed parodies. I’ve seen one or two episodes, and it’s a show that has the potential to be very funny, but, for me, it generally falls flat because it beats you over the head and screams, “We’re funny! Laugh!”
Ironically, there is much humor to be found in an item reported on March 13 that informs us that Isaac Hayes is leaving the series because of the show’s “inappropriate ridicule” of religion. Strangely, Hayes, who voices a character called Chef, had no problem with shows that parodied (and that’s a mild word in this context) Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Mr. Hayes was offended when South Park took on the Church of Scientology.
You will probably not be overly surprised, as a result, to learn that Mr. Hayes is a member of the Church of Scientology.
Now, rather abruptly Comedy Central has shelved the episode, at least for the time being. The official reason for this is that they want to reprise a couple of fan favorite Chef episodes in honor of Hayes' departure. And, oh, by the way, they're not doing this because Tom Cruise, also a Scientologist, also parodied on the episode to which Hayes objected, had threatened to refused to do publicity for his latest Mission Impossible flick. Cruise, by the way, denies having made any such statement.
Actually, the Church of Scientology has never taken well to criticism, so it's more likely that Comedy Central is worried meeting the Church's lawyers than they are over Tom Cruise not wanting to plug a flick.
I'm not here to criticize the late L. Ron Hubbard's religious philosophies, though, or the fervor of his well-heeled Hollywood followers. I just wonder how Isaac Hayes is able to justify, even in his own mind, suddenly deciding that South Park has no respect for religious beliefs after participating in episodes that mocked just about every religious group around. I guess, Mr. Hayes doesn't consider their beliefs to be as important to them as his are to him.
I wish I could be amazed at his attitude, but I'm not. Trashing the beliefs of others probably goes back to the first time human beings became capable of expressing themselves. No sooner did Og explain how people become trees when they die then Oog hit in the head with his club and carefully outlined his own belief that trees became people.
I don't know any Scientologists, but I doubt that they are any more intolerant than anyone else when it comes to religion. It would be difficult for them to be so, since we live in a world where Conservative Christians demand that governments prefer them over other religions, Orthodox Jews can condone the assassination of their own Prime Minister because he was willing to give land to Palestinians, and extremist Muslims can use violence as a solution to every problem. Less extreme elements of these and other groups decry such attitudes, but it seems that the most fundamentalist elements manage to intimidate moderates into silence.
To be more intolerant than others, Scientology would have to use thermonuclear devices.
Anyone seems able to detect slights to their own beliefs, morals, or ethnic groups. Yet when a person acts in precisely the same manner toward another group, that person seems totally blind to the absurdity and danger of their own attitude.
 
Comedy Central needs to suck it up and air the episode. The network owes that much to the other religions, ethnic groups, and institutions that South Park has raked over the coals over the years. If you're going to air a crass, vulgar, and generally silly program for ten years, you shouldn't knuckle under just because some Hollywood-dominated religious group is offended.
Then again, maybe Isaac Hayes, who wrote and performed the them from Shaft and had a number of successful recordings, is the intimidating factor. After all, a large black man who performs his music wearing heavy chains criss-crossed over his chest not a guy to treat lightly.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Beating the Rap

I hooked up my accelerator pedal in my car to my brake lights. I hit the gas, people behind me stop, and I'm gone. ~Steven Wright


Speaking of moving violations (as I was a few days ago), I have been amazed at people who will go to incredible lengths to try to beat a speeding ticket. Years ago, an Ohio man decided to challenge his ticket for speeding in a 25 MPH zone and took his case all the way to the Ohio Supreme Court. More about him later, but first I have to tell you about A. B. Cummins, PhD.
A side note: My memory is fuzzy, so I may be misspelling Dr. Cummins’ name (it may be Cummings). It’s been about 35 years since I last saw the good Dr. Cummins, so I hope he and/or his descendants forgive me.
Dr. Cummins was one of those rare individuals who is not only a jack-of-all-trades, but also he was a master of those trades, too. Cummins was a professor on the staff of the Business School of Case Western Reserve U., and he was well into his sixties . A lot of professors, when they have reached the Elysian fields of tenure, have a tendency to go into cruise control, particularly when they are nearing retirement. Not Doc Cummins. First of all, he had no intention of retiring. Second, he was teaching subjects that hadn't even existed in a business curriculum 10 or 15 years before, like “Organizational Dynamics.” 

As if that wasn't enough, the good doctor was a Professional Engineer in a couple of states, a registered arbitrator in three states, and a lawyer. The first and the last were why he also held a fistful of patents. This was not a man to be trifled with. Nor was he a man to suffer foolishness.

Thus it was that, when Doc got a speeding ticket, he took it seriously. The attitude of the ticketing policeman didn't help either. I have previously discussed the almost obscene politeness of Highway Patrolmen. I don't know, maybe it's the hat, but these peace officers always look confident and professional, which is probably why they maintain their polite demeanor. Unfortunately, some policemen don't do as well. Suburban or small town police, in particular seem to take a little too much glee in pulling you over.

I did some time as a desk clerk, because my dad said I'd make more money doing that than washing dishes. Since I was the destitute college student dependent on the paternal handout, I generally took his advice. Anyway, this particular Holiday Inn was located in a little town called Boston Heights (population: not enough to care about). They had three policeman, who used to stop in, particularly at night. I certainly appreciated that because I preferred not to be robbed and having a policeman standing at the desk drinking coffee was normally a pretty good deterrent.

At any rate, they like to tell stories about how they pulled folks over and jerked their chains if they got the least bit snarky, with threats of jail and immense fines (this is especially effective with tourists). It was apparently one of these sorts of fellows who gloatingly pulled over Doc Cummins.

Well, Doc knew his law. It seemed that, at least at that time, there were only two legal speed limits: 35 MPH in a residential area and 25 MPH in the city. Anywhere else, you could drive at the federal statutory speed limit: 70 MPH. Most police are aware of this and don't write the ticket for “speeding.” They normal write it for “driving too fast for road and/or traffic conditions” or “reckless driving.” Unfortunately for this budding Dick Tracy, he wrote the ticket for speeding. Doc went to court and demanded a trial.

The officer gave his testimony, then Doc Cummins got up and read the applicable law to the judge. Since he had been clocked doing about 60 in what was shown as a 50 MPH limit, he was within the law. According to Doc, he wasn't sure what was more fun, the judge grinding his own teeth to powder or the policeman shriveling up in his chair. Doc got off.

He did avoid driving through that area for a few months, though.

Oh, the guy who went to the Supreme Court? Evidently, he also had some awareness of the way the law was written. He was pulled over for speeding in a 25 MPH zone that really should have been a 35. In his case, the judge was not impressed and found him guilty. Now, we're talking about a fine and costs of, at most, $50. But, no, this was a matter of principle. He took it to the higher courts.

By the way, we asked Doc Cummins if he would have appealed had he lost. Of course not, he told us. Why waste the time and money?

Well, one guy evidently had the time to waste and the money to spend and spend it he did. After several months, the Ohio Supreme Court sent the case back to the traffic court because the 25 MPH limit had been improperly applied.

Regrettably, while principle was served, so was justice. It seems that the gentleman had been clocked at 37 MPH by the following police car. That whopping 2 MPH over the limit earned him the same fine he would have paid had he simply pleaded guilty in the first place.


 You got to know when to fold 'em, brother.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

What Made the Music Box Run Down?

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. ~Lesley P. Hartley
I don't have trains of thought; I have buses. You know, you take the number 12 to here, transfer to the number 10, go to there, transfer to blue line, and so on. That's how listening to the Mamas and the Papas led me to discover the reason for the demise of radio and pop music.
The other day, I was listening to the Mamas and the Papas song “Monday, Monday.” I got to thinking about a disk jockey named Jay Lawrence. Lawrence was on KYW-AM in Cleveland, and he was a good DJ, but more than once, when he liked a new song, it disappeared into oblivion. One day, he was premiering “Monday, Monday” and began to wax eloquent on what a great song it was. Then he caught himself, saying, no, wait, every time I really like a song, it goes nowhere. “So, I hate this song! Do you hear? I hate it!” he shouted. Then he whispered, “But I really like it.”
People who have grown up listening to “formula radio” with its interchangeable voices and format du jour have no idea of the influence of disk jockeys in the 1950's and 60's. You may have heard of Allen Freed (mostly because they made a movie about him), Wolfman Jack (mostly because he was in a movie), or Dick Bionde (mostly because he was nationally syndicated), but it’s hard to imagine the impact that even the lesser lights had on music. Most large cities had several Top-40 AM radio stations that competed ferociously against one another. The front line troops in this combat were the DJ's, whose on-air personalities set the tone of the station. People became loyal to their favorite jock. If he moved to another station, they set a new button on the radio.
Allow me a brief digression. You should not get the idea that all DJ's were highly paid celebrities. Most of them were low-paid spear carriers for the main one or two big guns. On big stations, that is. On small stations, there were no big guns. ALL the DJ's were low paid serfs.
When I was in college, I did a tour of duty at the campus FM station, WRUW-FM (91.1 on your dial, if you’re ever up that way), a ten-watt powerhouse that had its antenna on a graduate residence house. Still, being in the inner city of Cleveland, we had a fair non-campus listenership, and a few staffers occasionally got delusions of grandeur about going pro. Whenever someone got started on that subject, I'd pull out the latest copy of Billboard magazine and turn to the want ads. There'd be a few offerings of minimum-wage ads in tiny little towns, where you did 4-hour shows six days a week, ran errands, mowed the lawn, did promotional appearances, and anything else to get enough money to survive. On the same page, there'd be three or four times as many ads for DJ's looking for work.
That's not the kind of job market that makes a career look attractive.
At any rate, AM Top-40 was king for a long time. KYW and CKLW (in Detroit, although the transmitter was across the river in Canada) were 100,000 watt clear-wave giants. “Clear-wave” meant that no other station could be on their frequency, so, unlike most AM stations, they didn't have to reduce power after sunset.
After sunset, atmospheric effects cause AM signals to travel farther, so stations end up jamming each other. FCC regulations force them to reduce power to avoid this. Unfortunately, it also means that, unless you live next to their tower, you lose the station. That's why the clear-waves had so much clout. Not only did they not have to reduce power, but the atmospherics let their signal reach even farther.
Big station DJ's knew their music. They also fought tooth-and-nail to introduce new records by big artists. Record companies knew this, and, a couple of times, this led to scandals where the record outfits bribed DJ's to hype some new hit. The “Payola” scandals ruined more than a few careers. Since bribery was out, the record companies had to satisfy the big stations by giving them “exclusives” now and then, like first shot at the latest Beatles single. In return, stations might look a little more favorably at a company's lesser offerings.
Also, the DJ's liked to showcase the local talent. If a local group could get a record cut, they were pretty much guaranteed of some air play unless the song totally stunk. Thus, AM radio exposed listeners to a variety of sounds. They didn't get into much heavy rock or extended songs, though. It was FM that filled that gap.
FM was the poor relation of AM for years, playing elevator music most of the time, simulcasting AM on occasion. I don't know who got the bright idea to actually develop formats for FM, but it was hard rock that broke through. Overnight, we could hear all 15 minutes of Inna Gadda Da Vida, or the full versions of songs by Hendrix and Cream. In addition, they would play cuts from albums that hadn't been released as singles, so you could really hear what an artist could do.
The music industry prospered, and listeners were happy.
Two things happened to louse this up. First, big companies started buying up clumps of radio stations, diminishing the importance of the radio personality while emphasizing advertising. When that happens, music is secondary. The top bosses determine the play list, which becomes very short, and increase the number of commercial breaks, which become very long. The companies go with formula formats that pretty much preclude a DJ getting experimental.
Second, MTV happened. I used to watch MTV when they played videos, but as the video got to be more important than the music, people seemed to lose the desire to simply hear the song and put their own images to it. It was easier to watch someone else's images. As well, small-time artists had a tough time breaking through unless they could get a contract with someone who could fund a video.
As AM disappeared and FM became more monotonous, music got to be less fresh. Ironically, MTV, which had done its part to kill radio, pretty much stopped playing videos, which cut exposure to new sounds even further. The net effect has been a dreary sameness as music has descended into its own repetitious formulas. If you doubt that, look at the various all-time listings when it comes to music. They seem to be dominated by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, and the like, with just a smattering of post 1980's groups. There's probably a lot of good music out there, but it's bloody hard to find. Kind of a shame actually.
Oh, excuse me, my bus is here.

Monday, March 13, 2006

The Joke

In the end, everything's a gag. ~ Charlie Chaplin
Monty Python once did a sketch about the funniest joke in the world, which is developed during the war to use as a weapon, since anyone hearing it would laugh themselves to death. According to my wife, I know that joke.
The subject came up again the other night, and, as usual, it ended the same way, with my wife insisting that I once told her this incredibly funny story and with me insisting that I knew no such story. For you to understand what this is about, I have to take you back about 30 years.
Back in that bygone era of leisure suits and gas crises, I worked for small manufacturing company as a quality engineer. That's not particularly funny, but it's true. One of the production foremen was a fellow named Bernie, a robust man in his fifties, who I have mentioned before in this blog, in his role as a great golfer. Bernie was also one of the funniest people I have ever met. He wasn't a jokester in the sense of witty one-liners (although he could hold his own). He belonged to an older breed of humorist, the storyteller. Bernie knew about a billion funny stories, almost all of which could be told in front of children without serious editing, in a mixed group of men and women without anyone blushing, and in mixed ethnic groups without anyone getting offended.
About the only reason I belonged to the bowling team was because Bernie was a member. He would keep up a nonstop delivery of one story after another, which served to take my mind off my 135 average. I never heard him repeat a joke in the seven years I worked with him. I don't know if Bernie is still around, but I hope he is, because he'd still be making people laugh, and that's a precious commodity.
At least a couple of times a week, I'd pass along a Bernie joke to my wife, who loved all of them. Now, I'm not the greatest joke teller in the world, but my wife, bless her heart, is terrible. She's one of those people who's so anxious to get the punchline out that she loses half the joke. On the other hand, she generally remembers when she's heard a good story. So, if we were in the company of others, she would feed me cues to tell Bernie jokes. I know her ulterior motive was to keep me from boring guests to death with the latest science news or, worse yet, details about my job. Statistical quality control is interesting to those of us who had to work with it, but to the average human being, watching caulk set up is a lot more exciting.
At any rate, one evening I was running through my repertoire of Bernie stories. Everyone was chuckling up a storm, with even an occasional guffaw or two. So the wife says, “Tell the one about the little boy and his mother.” I thought for a second, remembered one that had a mother and son, told it, and got the requisite laughs. When she stopped laughing, my wife said, “No, not that one, the really funny one.”
“Faye,” I said, “that's the only one I can think of. Which one are you talking about?”
“Oh, I can't remember the whole thing, just the punch line. You just told it to me the other day.”
“Dear, I don't remember telling you any such joke recently. Can't you recall any of the gag?”
“All I know is the punch line.”
So, I asked her to whisper it to me to see if that would jog my memory. She did.
“Faye, I have never in my entire life told you a joke about a mother and son that has that punchline. You must have heard it from someone else.” I told our guests the punchline, but none of them had ever heard a particularly funny joke like that. She remained insistent but let it pass, because it's not nice to cold-cock your husband in front of guests.
The next day at work, I asked Bernie if he recalled the joke. After repeating the punchline thoughtfully a couple of times, he said, “Nope. I know a lot of stories, but I don't have one like that.” I dutifully reported this verdict to the wife, who remained adamant that I had told this story. It was, she stated flatly, stuck somewhere in my subconscious, and if I really concentrated, I could remember it.
Friends, I have tried for 30 years to remember that joke. I have asked every person of humorous bent if they've heard it. I have googled it. But no one, nowhere, no time, has ever heard a riotously funny story about a mother and son sitting in the kitchen talking that has the punchline:
That's what happens if you don't drink your milk.
Frankly, at this point, I don't think I want to know. I'm not ready to die laughing.

Tuesday, March 7, 2006

Ticket to Ride

Never drive faster than your guardian angel can fly. ~Author Unknown
I am pretty much a speed-limit driver, for two reasons. Number one, it is safer and saner to obey the posted limits. You'll get where you're going within a couple of minutes of when you would have if you went 10 MPH over the limit. You're also less likely to end up in someone's trunk during rush hour. Number two, I am a cheap bastard who hates giving regular donations to the Exxon Fund for the Enrichment of Overpaid CEO's. The difference in gas mileage between, say, 70 and 75 is amazing.
Lest I injure myself trying to pat myself on the back, I have earned three traffic tickets in my life, along with one near miss. The near miss occurred when I was driving through Madison, Ohio, with the Daughter, who was around five or six. I've never figured out if the speed limit changes at the sign or when you see the sign. Well, in Madison it's at the sign. So, when I began to speed up as I went from a 35 MPH zone to a 50 MPH stretch, I got stopped. The deputy asked for my license and began to look at it with great interest. I knew it wasn't expired and couldn't think of anything I might be wanted for (the sauerkraut incident hadn't happened yet), but it was unnerving, nonetheless. Finally, he sticks his head in the window and says, “Didn't you used to work summers at the Sheraton?” Well, yes (good lord, my dad was the boss of the restaurant; had he absconded with the cutlery?). Then he said, “Hey, it's me, Eddie!”
Well, whaddya know. Eddie had worked as a desk clerk when I was washing dishes (and we both had agreed my job was more fun). So, we exchanged a few pleasantries, and he let me off. Of course, the Daughter had figured we were going to Sing Sing, so I had to explain to her that everything was okay. I think the trauma is what caused her to want to be a lawyer (and possible future hanging judge).
Prior to this, I got caught rocketing along at 40 in a 35 in a Cleveland suburb obviously in need of funds.
Before that, I got caught at a no-left-turn trap in downtown Cleveland. This was particularly galling. You could turn left except during rush hour; a little sign would light up to tell you it was no longer legal to do so. Usually, the little sign was over the left lane, under the traffic light. In this case, the no-left-turn sign was over the median strip. One does not normally drive on the median strip, so one does not think to look for traffic signals there. The cops had a little assembly line going where they pulled over victims and ticketed them. Unlike many of these serious offenders, I didn't complain or grumble. I took my ticket, drove three blocks to Central Police Station, paid the fine, and then lectured the clerk for ten minutes on what I thought of Cleveland's finest.
You see, I had had a car stolen a couple of years before. The police found it because they knew exactly where the chop shops dropped off the carcass. I asked the officer who called me why they didn't stake out the area and nail these guys. He said, “You want the car back or don't you?” I did, so I didn't push it. So the clerk got to hear about all this. It didn't matter to him; he had heard before, usually with far fouler language than I used. But I felt better.
The first ticket I got, though, was sort of a rite of passage. I was taking my mother and a couple of her cronies off to the bingo hall. She had a ride back, so I'd have the car for the rest of the night. Therefore, I was moving with alacrity but not, I thought, speeding. All of a sudden, there's the blue light special in the rear view mirror.
No one in the world is more polite than a Highway Patrolman. He politely asks you for your license and registration. He politely informs you that you were doing 60 in a 50. He politely asks you to sign the ticket. Then, to add insult to injury, he says, “Have a nice day.”
Frankly, this wouldn't have been a big deal, but I had never transgressed the law in any way. And now, I was going to have to go to court and face a judge! There was no mailing in your fine in those days, at least not in Ashtabula County. So there I was, the following Friday, in Judge Warner's court, above the office supply store (small town, y'know?). A guy ahead of me is going on and on about how he's going to beat the rap on his ticket for running a stop sign. Five minutes later, the same guy is cussing a blue streak because Judge Warner did not take kindly to some idiot telling him the law, proving his point by applying a stiff fine.
Great. Now the Judge is ticked off.
The judge's daughter was in my high school class. I was sitting there trying to remember if I had ever said or done anything to offend her, particularly anything she might have thought sufficiently offensive to report to her father. Fortunately, I thought I was in the clear. I went into Judge Warner's office.
“Hmm,” he said, “Haven't you been here before?”
“No, sir, that was my dad.” My father collected speeding tickets as though he thought he could redeem them for prizes. He was perpetually 1 or 2 points from suspension.
The judge looked over the citation. He looked sternly at me. “Son, don't you know enough not to get caught in our own speed trap?”
“Uh, sorry, Judge, but they changed the speed limit while I was away at school. I'll remember now.”
Ten buck fine and five dollars costs later I was free. But the judge had one last priceless moment for me.
“Tell your father 'Hello' for me, because I don't need to see him here again any time soon.”
You know, my dad never did say anything to me about me getting that ticket.

Friday, March 3, 2006

The Latest First Amendment Crisis

I'm frankly sick and tired of the political preachers across this country telling me as a citizen that if I want to be a moral person, I must believe in A, B, C, and D. Just who do they think they are? And from where do they presume to claim the right to dictate their moral beliefs to me? And I am even more angry as a legislator who must endure the threats of every religious group who thinks it has some God-granted right to control my vote on every roll call in the Senate. I am warning them today: I will fight them every step of the way if they try to dictate their moral convictions to all Americans in the name of conservatism. ~Barry Goldwater



It's a long quote, but, coming from the godfather of modern American conservatism, it's a telling one. I have to put Goldwater in the same category as Bob Dole as a man who probably would have been a pretty good president if: a) he had run at a different time (each was going against a popular incumbent); and b) he had spoken with his true voice rather than trying to appeal to the far right. But I didn't intend to talk about Barry Goldwater.
What tickled my little gray cells was something that seems to be all over the news suddenly the other day. It seems that Someone Took A Survey (a subsidiary of Someone Did A Study) and found that more people could name more than two characters from the Simpsons than could recall two or more of the rights spelled out in the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution.

Big whoop. I don't even watch the Simpsons, but I could name several characters from the show. As to the First Amendment, I'd score about three of five. I could list the items as various rights guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, but I doubt I could tie them to a specific amendment. It's important that we know what the Constitution grants, not necessarily which paragraph or amendment spells it out.

However, just to set the record straight, here is the First Amendment in all its glory:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Putting in as it is more commonly stated by us ordinary types, the amendment includes freedom of (or from) religion, freedom of speech, the establishment of a free press, the right to peaceful assembly, and the right to complain to the government, Patriot Act be damned. Not bad for for 44 words.

Notice that the amendment specifically prohibits laws “respecting an establishment of religion.” Not only Congress is supposed to leave religions alone, but it's not supposed to favor any one faith. Barry Goldwater knew his Constitution. He recognized that “political preachers” and others who would impose their morality and beliefs on others were as dangerous as those who would try to squash those beliefs.

So where does this leave prayer in schools, prayer at school football games, and other public displays of belief? And does this mean that atheists like the fellow who is panicked at “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance have a point?

First of all, we need to separate belief in a supreme being (AKA “God”) from the strictures of religion. Many religions believe in a supreme being. Even polytheistic faiths have a “head god” who runs the whole show. So a professed belief in God does not, by itself, favor a particular religion or, in fact, even favor the idea of religion, since many people who do not actively practice any religion still accept the existence of God. The Founding Fathers were well aware of the problems caused by government-sponsored religion, and they went to great lengths to avoid them. At the same time, they seemed uniformly to believe in the existence of God, although they were not necessarily uniform in their interpretation of God's nature.

That's the problem with some public prayer. The Lord's Prayer is a very generic paying of respect to God, making it a good prayer for anyone of any faith. Even though it's a Christian prayer, it does not push a particular doctrine in any way. People get bent out of shape because it happens to be Christian, but if they ever took the time to actually pay attention to the words, they might get over it. On the other hand, public prayer that invokes Jesus, however lovely and meaningful the prayer, is exclusionary of other faiths. If those who wish to use a public event to proselytize could keep this distinction in mind, and if those who feel any mention of God without identifying their own religious tenets is wrong could learn a little respect for others, we wouldn't keep making lawyers richer.

What about the atheists? Taken dispassionately, which is bloody hard to do when discussing faith, belief in a supreme being is a philosophical question. In fact, almost every first-year philosophy course in the world has a section dealing with proofs (or the lack of same) for the existence of God. And every course comes to the same conclusion: You can neither prove or disprove the existence of a supreme being. It is, therefore, a matter of faith.

I can certainly understand that an atheist wouldn't want to be ostracized because his belief system precludes a God. Whenever someone, no matter how well-meaning, does things that cause discomfort for a group, or, worse, discriminate against a group, or, far, far, worse, persecute a group based on belief or lack of belief, then that person must be forced to desist.

The trouble is that some atheists feel that they must impose their view on society as a whole. They may not see it like that, but that is precisely what their attempts have amounted to. Their actions are no different than those of the “political preachers.” Neither one respects the values of others.

If we could just respect the needs and beliefs of others, as Confucius, Buddha, Jesus, and Mohammed all said in slightly different ways, there would be no issue here. The First Amendment protection would be sufficient, perhaps even unnecessary. Because we can't seem to follow that simple path, we have persecution, unrest, and richer lawyers.

The next time you want to take a my-way-or-the-highway view of prayer in schools or “In God We Trust” on coins, think about that. Barry Goldwater did.