Saturday, July 30, 2011

Sequels Mostly Suck

Based on the writing schedule that I try to keep, I produce close to 2500 words per week on average in the way of blog posts and and columns. With a bit of simple math (which is about as much as I am capable of in spite of a couple of years as a math major in college), this adds up to over 10,000 words per month. I write on any number of subjects in a given thirty day period, some of which I would consider of some importance, some that act as intellectual exercises in writing, and some that are little more than mindless entertainment (usually for me rather than those few twisted souls reading them).

It may surprise you to find that not all of these exercises will ever be remembered as works of literary genius. (Yeah, I can tell you're shocked.) In fact, when looking back, I find that many of them barely pass the sniff test. The simple truth of the matter is that for me at least, it's lucky if even a tiny percentage of what I write is remembered 24 hours after I've sent them on their merry way into the ether of the Internet. If one of them is remembered however, more often than not it's a piece of ridiculous rubbish that wrote itself without any conscious thought on my part; and that I find myself barely able to take credit for. (Hmm, there may be something worth learning there...) 

Such was the case two weeks ago with an effort entitled "In Praise of Sliders". The whole thing started with a couple of my cousins complaining on Facebook about abdominal pains after a recent visit to White Castle, continued through the soul-crushing case of jealousy that I experienced because I couldn't get to one, and came to a head on a Saturday morning that required a writing effort that I couldn't come up with a subject for. What came next wrote itself with no more research that how to find the home position on the keyboard for touch-typing, and no more critical analysis on the subject than whether to use a comma or semi-colon at a certain points in a sentence. 

Now at some point I should probably back up and say that I actually take writing seriously, often agonize over every word and punctuation mark and edit my efforts almost to the point of nausea (something that many of you appear to experience while reading them). I enjoy taking on serious subjects, and occasionally even believe that my perspective on them carries some value by putting in writing what many might be thinking. (Yeah, I know. We all have our delusions.) 

All of that being said, it has become apparent in the last couple of weeks that writing about a steamed hamburger has had a far greater impact than much of what I've written of a more serious nature. To my credit, let it be said that not only am I not disturbed by this, but in fact am secretly pleased. Anyone who knows me can tell you that I'm mostly about nonsense, with a healthy sense of the ridiculous thrown in. (Some might even say that's its an unhealthy sense, but those are people that I never buy a drink for.) 

This is also the long way around to telling you that after agonizing for almost two weeks on a way to do a suitable follow up for the 'Sliders' effort, I have come up more sadly empty than that small, white cardboard box after its tiny treasure has been removed. I'd like to give you a suitable explanation for this, and believe me when I tell you that I had any number of grand excuses lined up for the attempt. (I edited them out of the piece, thank goodness.) 

I tend to believe however, that the actual reason for my lack of consistent achievement has something to do with blind squirrels and acorns. So if you're reading this today in the hopes of finding a riveting sequel to the posting on 'belly-bombers', you will be sorely disappointed. Good sequels, as most of us have come to understand, are almost impossible to produce. (Just look at 'Caddyshack'.) 

If you'll stick with me though, I promise to keep trying to be occasionally entertaining, if not insightful. I promise to be no more disappointing than your average politician, no more a waste of your time than your average reality show, and no more tasteless than the frozen variety of White Castles (which currently reside in my freezer, BTW). You know, the more I edit (and re-edit) this week's pitiful effort the more I come to the conclusion that no matter how hard you try, sequels mostly suck.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Schools Can't Seem to Count Properly

In a story coming out of Kansas City, Forbes and the Associated Press are reporting that States across the country will be bracing for "plummeting high school graduation rates". Could these numbers be the result of the draconian cuts to education by evil Republicans at the national level? Perhaps they are the result of reductions of funding from conservatively-led State governments unable to support local districts at the same levels in a down economy? Maybe its just local districts facing lost revenues from the reduced housing values that are being experienced across the country? Certainly it could have nothing to do with curriculum, textbook accuracy, or the dedication of classroom educators. The truth of the matter is that these numbers will be dropping because it appears that many States were not tracking individual students but were instead using a form of sampling. In other words, they have been using flawed calculation methods in determining these graduation rates. As a result these errors in theory and math, States could "see numbers fall by as much as 20 percentage points". The article goes on to say: 

"Much of the blame for past problems went to something called the "leaver method," a popular calculation for determining graduation rates also gained a reputation for being the most generous. The method, used by about half the states last year, works like this: If a school had 100 graduates and 10 students who dropped out from their freshmen to senior year, 100 would be divided by 110, giving the school a graduation rate of 90.9 percent. Schools weren't dinged if students took more than four years to graduate. When students disappeared, they often were classified as transfers, even though some of them had actually dropped out. Many schools weren't required to document that transfers showed up somewhere else." 

Michigan, which made the switch four years ago, says its graduation rate drop by 10%. In Kansas, the rate is expected to drop from 89% to 80% this year as it makes the transition (though one district is anticipating a 20% drop). Georgia school officials have stated that their rate could drop some 15% statewide. Interestingly enough, it's the Department of Education that is mandating the conversion to more accurate counting methods; and it's the DOE that could be mandating sanctions against individual districts and states as part of the benchmarks in "No Child Left Behind". 

Also interesting is the hoopla surrounding the change in the calculation method. In these days when residents in so many local districts are resisting property tax increases or additional levies, there is apparently considerable concern that these apparent drops in graduation rates would have a negative impact on public perception of education. 

Really? While this may in fact be the case, I would think that even more may be concerned that those responsible for teaching their children math skills have been attempting to circumvent proper calculation methods in the name of expediency, government funding, and public perception. Of concern to me as well, is the concept that rather than apologize for these factually correct but lower numbers, what we are hearing is yet more obfuscation of the issue. 

In a statement quoted in the piece by Kelly Smith, superintendent of the Belle Plaine school district, which is southwest of the Twin Cities in Minnesota, "The new system is not changing what we're doing in our schools, and we need to get that point across." 

All I can say in reply to Kelly Smith and many of the rest in education is: "I'm not sure if you should be more ashamed of these graduation rates or the false and self-serving methods of calculation that you were using. As to not changing what you're doing in schools however, perhaps you should ... "

Monday, July 25, 2011

Daily Newspapers - Last Call

Less than a week ago the Chicago Sun-Times announced that it would close the Ashland Avenue production facility that it built just twelve years ago, having reached an agreement with its bitter rival the Chicago Tribune to begin printing both it and the Chicago suburban newspapers that it owns. To put this announcement in perspective (and as someone who grew up in the middle of this competition and worked with both papers in Chicago), let me say that this would be comparable to Democrats announcing that Republicans would now be issuing all public policy statements on behalf of their party. They might as well have announced that they had cancer, that it was untreatable, and that it was terminal. We of us who have been around the daily newspaper business (though I am no longer) have known for some time that the business model that most have used was no longer a valid one. 

Unfortunately, like so many other businesses (and people) they spent more time wishing for a return of the "Good Old Days" than seeking a path forward. When advertising chose to leave ROP and went to stand alone inserts instead (for those who haven't heard this term before, it stands for 'Ripped on Page' and means advertising actually printed in the newspaper), newspapers resisted such change and placed obstacles in the path of those who were trying to find a way to give them revenue. When the Internet began to encroach on their turf, they wrote it off as a fad. When blogs and news pages became an alternative for younger readers (and older ones as well), they denigrated them as unprofessional and unworthy. 

When they finally woke up and began to embrace this new technology, they couldn't find a way to produce a user-friendly product or generate revenue from it. When they finally realized their past mistakes and began to put 'paywalls' up on their websites to rectify past errors, they found that like their television counterparts they had become largely irrelevant and little more than a supporting cast member. 

Oh some are still surviving like USA Today and the Wall Street Journal, but the far greater number are suffering under staggering revenue losses, staffing cuts, and a loss of credibility. For this last (and perhaps most telling) situation they once again have no one to blame but themselves. Daily newspapers have so far confused objective reporting with editorializing that they can no longer tell the difference themselves. Seldom, if you read carefully, can you find a story in one that does not inject the reporter's point of view into what is ostensibly a straight news story. And while it's bad enough that reporters are so busy trying to become columnists that they are already playing the part, the fact that their editors are no longer 'editing' these stories to correct the errors in perspective is an even more egregious offense. 

Now perhaps this has always been the case, and it's only now in the explosion of news sources available to the public that the bias is being revealed. Perhaps those of us who are still 'news junkies' have become more sensitized to the situation, and more critical. Perhaps 'The Fourth Estate' is returning to its 'Yellow Journalism' roots. Certainly newspapers here in colonial days were often little more than mouthpieces for political ideology. Newspapers in Europe in the same period was certainly no stranger to telling stories from the point of view of the ruling government. 

This time however, the chickens have finally coming home to roost. Daily newspapers may no longer be looking at a the beginning of the end, but at the middle of it. Some of these organizations may survive in some form, in the same way that land-line telephones are disappearing while cell phone use is growing, but their days of preeminence are now past. 

In truth, the best hope for such products are the weekly newspapers, since they focus on the local stories, the personal perspectives, and the contributions of local talent. Though their model will too change eventually, they are neither burdened by an inflated sense of their own worth, nor do these 'free' newspapers fail to understand that they survive only by the grace of advertising dollars and only as long as they serve their audience and advertisers. With what's now going on in Chicago, we may at last be seeing the "Last Call" for the daily newspaper as we know it today. The lights have been turned on and the patrons are moving to the door. As those of us who have unfortunately experienced this time in the wee hours of the morning have heard the barman say,

"You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here any more".

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Curious By Its Absence

The debate over raising the debt ceiling rages on and my patience is about at an end, but apparently I'm not the only one. According to the story in the Kansas City Star this morning the president, "demanded that Congressional leaders come to the White House this morning". 

It appears that the leader of the free world is a little peeved that that this problem is not going away in spite of the fact that he has called his political opponents names, castigated both parties in Congress in front of media microphones, and explained his willingness to compromise on everything but the things he's not willing to compromise on (in between fundraisers and rounds of golf). There are a couple of things however that seem curious by their absence: 

1. A plan put forward by the President himself. Oh I know he has delivered an outline, some notes, and a number of suggestions; but I for one have never seen or heard of an actual plan. Neither has he addressed in any meaningful way, a path to reversing the trend of government spending more than it takes in. He, those in the Senate, and much of the mainstream media seem to forget that the reason that we need to raise the Debt Ceiling Limit is that government is spending much more than it receives. No amount of taxation, even if agreed to, is going to solve that problem; and the sooner all the parties involved understand that, the sooner a real solution can be reached. Because words do mean things and since, at least according to Dictionary .com, Compromise means: "a settlement of differences by mutual concessions; an agreement reached by adjustment of conflicting or opposing claims, principles, etc. ..." it would seem that in order to reach any meaningful compromise on such 'plans', fully fleshed out ones by both sides would be required. 

2. Absent from these discussions as well is Harry Reid and the Senate. This is not to say that the Senate Majority Leader is invisible, in fact far from it. It's difficult to turn on a TV news broadcast without seeing the Senator from Nevada attempting to strike a pose while delivering strident oratory (mostly vitriolic) about the intransigence of others. Here's what we don't see from Harry and his colleagues however, a plan of their own or a straight up or down vote on anything that the House has proposed. The man who often called Republicans "the party of no" has yet to put forward a budget alternative himself, while allowing no straight up or down vote on House proposals including the 'Ryan Budget' and the recent 'Cut, Cap, and Balance' proposal. 

In fact, for those of you who haven't been paying attention, the Senate has not proposed a budget in over 800 days. Interestingly enough, Senator Reid is not mentioned in the story demanding the appearance of legislators in the White House today. (Evidently he is busy standing on the curb in front of the Senate and barking at cars as they drive by.) With the apparent inability of the Senate to propose or vote on anything concrete in the way of the national budget however, it would seem that he should be the first one called in to the White House and called on the carpet (unless of course, he already simply following the marching orders of the President)

One has to wonder in fact if the President is seeking to make the position of Senate Majority Leader irrelevant, or if he thinks Sen Reid is incapable of adding anything to the discussion. Perhaps the problem is that after sending out this 'attack poodle' to yip and the crowd and bite a few ankles, the President simply doesn't think that anyone will want to deal with him on substantive issues. So be careful as you watch the weekend's coverage of this pathetic dance marathon. While the mainstream media seems content to highlight the vitriol, acrimony, and unmitigated nonsense of these discussions, those of us out here in 'fly-over country' need to take note of what can actually be seen ... and what's curious by its absence.  

On a more personal note, if you're out there Maureen ... Happy Tweener!


Friday, July 22, 2011

TFP Column: Economics 101

While failing to produce a mid-week posting for this blog, I seem to have managed to write three efforts for publication in the electronic edition of the TFP in the last week. In this third piece, I have returned yet again to ongoing discussion over raising the Debt Ceiling in this country, for no better reason than that this debate may define the direction of this country for the next 2-6 years; as well as who wins the next presidential election. Now while I can make no claims to the teaching abilities exhibited by my youngest offspring, I will nevertheless attempt to offer a lesson plan in the instruction of Economics 101 entitled "Revenue Enhancements Are Tax Increases!". As heated as this debate in Washington DC is however, it's not nearly as hot as it is across the Midwest. My advice therefore, would be to find a place where the Internet is available and the temperature is comfortable to spend a little time catching up with what's going on in Northwest Ohio with Toledo's largest Sunday circulation and Best Weekly Newspaper, the Toledo Free Press.

Monday, July 18, 2011

TFP Column: More or Less

There appears to be a fundamental question that hangs over the discussions going on in Washington that must be completed before the August 2nd deadline. Unfortunately this critical question seems to have been ignored by most of those charged with answering it. Once an answer is reached, the rest certainly appears to be a matter of details. (Astronomical numbers of tedious and annoying details, as only government can create them, but details nonetheless.)
While attempting to provide no direct answers myself, I think that a reasonable person could discern the way that I am leaning through this latest attempt at putting my two cents in on the debate raging in Congress over raising the debt ceiling in this country. Editor-in-Chief Michael was kind enough to add "More or Less" to the TFP website today for your edification.
Since it's only Monday, this leaves both the mid-week TFP Star edition as well as the regular weekend edition to look forward to.
It promises to be a warm week in Toledo, and a stifling one in Kansas City. My recommendation would be to find a cool spot with Wi-Fi and spend a little time with Toledo's largest Sunday circulation and Best Weekly Newspaper, the Toledo Free Press

Saturday, July 16, 2011

In Praise of Sliders

Some of my relatives were indulging in the guilty pleasure of a trip to White Castles earlier this week. Having failed to invite this humble scribbler to the festivities evidently placed a curse on their efforts, and they suffered gastronomic retribution that should keep them from committing such offenses in the future. 

Having enacted what in the minds of many would already be considered an all but unpardonable action however, they went on to further transgression (some might even go so far as to call it blasphemy) by blaming their abdominal affliction on the objects of diminutive ambrosia that they had previously enjoyed. 

For those of you still confused through a lack of experience with this humble gourmet delight, I am of course speaking of those miniature marvels of ground beef ... White Castle hamburgers. But the 'White Castle' is not your ordinary hamburger. The meat of these little beauties is prepared in a fashion entirely different than that of its more plebeian bovine brothers. These burgers are not fried or broiled, but instead laid out on a grill covered in finely diced onions. They are then concealed by their buns (something that founder Walter A Anderson is credited with inventing) and left to steam through the patented five strategically placed holes in the meat. When the meat is cooked through (without flipping), bun and burger are removed together, a pickle is placed on it, and it is efficiently boxed for delivery. 

Though known by many names in the past, 'Whitey-one-bites', 'rats with hats', and 'belly busters', these gastronomic delights are best known by the nickname 'Sliders'. In so naming them, we must also clear up any misconceptions as to the meaning of this most commonly used moniker; so here at 'Just Blowing Smoke', this word shall hereafter be defined as:

Seductive Little Incredibly Delicious Edible Refreshments
(I have also notified the lexicographers at the SOS Dictionary to this effect)

While White Castle was in fact begun in Wichita, Kansas back in 1921, it is an unfortunate fact that no restaurants of the chain remain in the Sunflower State. In fact, no White Castle restaurants can be found now much past the outskirts of St Louis (though I've heard rumor of a couple in Columbia, MO). As a consequence, those of us this far west of the Mississippi who 'crave' sliders must make do with occasional ingestion of the frozen variety sold at grocery store chains around the country (a poor substitute at best), or make a 2+ hour trip one-way to buy a sack or two. And believe me when I tell you that buying these as White Castle advertises, "by the sack" is in fact a requirement; since these burgers are 2-1/2" square and comparatively thin besides. 

What they lack in size however, they more than make up for in flavor; and combined with either their french fries, or especially with their onion rings (no one was ever hurt by doubling down on onions) they make a unique dining experience. White Castle has experienced a wave of unfavorable publicity over the years relating to their potential side effects, earning them a reputation for gastronomic disturbance. 

There is some truth to this reputation, since the consumption of grilled onions on such an epic scale has been known to produce gastric anomalies such as the plentiful production of methane or a laxative effect of prodigious proportions (especially in those previously uninitiated). Like many of the things that offer potential health benefits however, the side effects are more than worth the risk taken. 

Much of the rest of the poor regard in which they are held has to do with the questionable behavior of its late-night clientele. Since all White Castles are open 24/7 (except for Christmas), these dining establishments often find themselves catering to a clientele that has recently been asked to depart an adult beverage consumption station when its hours of operation have ended. Waking up the following morning, they blame their emerging symptoms and afflictions not on the 12 beers and 6 Jaeger-bombs that they consumed, but on the Sliders which they attempted to use to soak up the alcohol afterward. 

So by all means set your fears aside and feel free to indulge yourself in the wonder of White Castles if you are lucky enough to live close enough (or at least within 100 miles) to one. Think kindly of me, if you will, while savoring the delectable nature of the 'whitey-one-bite'; lest I likewise divine your lack of proper respect for the porcelain palace and cast a similar curse upon you. And if you are feeling truly charitable, you might think about dropping a few off in KC on your way through; a humanitarian gesture for which you will no doubt find a reward in heaven. 

Speaking of dropping off Sliders in KC, I must recount a bit of family history ... Early in my traveling days and while living in KC for the first time, I was under standing orders from my parents to bring back White Castles if returning to the City of Fountains by way of St Louis. One Friday afternoon as I was making my way home, I realized this to be the case; and as it was already after lunch, decided to kill two birds with one stone. Finding the nearest White Castle (probably the one on I-70 & Cave Springs Road) and going inside, I ordered: 48 White Castles, 6 cheeseburgers, a medium fries, and a large Diet Coke. Without hesitation (or even the hint of a smile) the young counter agent replied, "Is that for here or to go?" In the spirit of full disclosure, I freely admit that I have also partaken of the Southern Substitute for White Castles ... Krystals. And while I will always be a 'Slider Pilot' (as they say, "been there, done than, and even had the T-shirt"), I grew rather fond of the Krystal burger in my days below the Mason-Dixon line as a "Damn Yankee".

Friday, July 15, 2011

TFP Column: Debt Ceiling Debate - Harrumph!

Get out the popcorn boys and girls, cause this week's effort for the TFP connects some classics of the big screen with the big doings in Washington DC. Of course it all started when I realized that the national debt was like the creature in 1958's "The Blob". It's an amorphous creature that grows to astounding proportions by sucking the life out of everything it touches (you know, like government). Once such insight had been reached, this weeks effort for the TFP, "Debt Ceiling Debate - Harrumph!", was off to the races. One aspect after another in the debate lent themselves to movie classic movie references, with a classic ending from an even more classic Mel Brooks effort. And while I will tell you in confidence that I am rather proud of my poor attempt to write by referencing cinematic culture (something Editor-in-Chief Michael Miller does far better than I), it would be both foolish and disingenuous not to admit that there will be far more (and far better) in this weekend's edition of the TFP than my struggling effort. My recommendation therefore would be to spend a little time with both the print and the website editions of Toledo's largest Sunday circulation and Best Weekly Newspaper, the Toledo Free Press.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The "Stuck On Stupid" Dictionary #31

Recognizing that there are now over thirty entries in the 'SOS Dictionary'. I would like to once again thank Maggie Thurber of "Thurber's Thoughts" for the inspiration to begin this effort over three years ago. Working on these particular posts allows me to walk the tightrope between meaningful perspective and humor, with generous doses of irony and sarcasm thrown in for seasoning.

Ongoing discussions continue between representatives of the legislature and the White House over increasing the Debt Ceiling of this country have mandated that those of us here at the SOS Dictionary continue our emergency sessions. While the effort is proving rather exhausting to our lexicographers, the fact that 'Just Blowing Smoke' is a non-union workplace in a 'Right-to-Work State' means that we can pretty much do whatever we want to the staff with complete impunity.

Now for those of you who have somehow managed to miss previous postings in this area (shame on you, now go back and read all of the postings under the title of dictionary, SOS, or Stuck on Stupid), the SOS dictionary is a reference guide to terms which nominally mean something to the rest of the English speaking world, but appear to mean something entirely different to those us who have come to understand the often peculiar political vernacular of Toledo and Northwest Ohio. 

 1. A number with 9 zeroes after it ( x,000,000,000). 2. A number which was once unimaginable to contemplate, except as a function of higher mathematics; but which is now considered little more than 'chump change' when speaking about government spending or debt. 3. A number once made famous by Carl Sagan for counting stars "billions and billions". Fortunately Carl passed into the great beyond before the numbers of stars were all but supplanted by those in the national debt. 4. A number which we now toss around in discussions of the federal budget with little or no regard for its value (relative or otherwise) and even less concern. (see Trillion) 

Government Debt:
 1. The money that the federal government borrows in the form of bonds or other promissory notes. 2. The money that the federal government borrows these days to, for the most part, pay off the money that it previously borrowed. 3. A snowball rolling downhill that threatens to take all of us out in the ensuing avalanche. 

Government Debt Ceiling:
 1. The limit of the debt that the government is allowed to incur by law. 
2. The limit of debt that the government is allowed to incur until it threatens Congress with dire consequences and is allowed to borrow even more. 
3. An amount of money which in fact appears to have no real or finite limit, only the ability to feed and grow like the creature in the movie "The Blob" (the original with Steve McQueen, not the silly remake.) 

Government Default:
1. A term used to define the inability or refusal of a government to meet a financial obligation previously incurred. 
2. A term used to motivate media pundits, terrify voters, and aggravate legislators into allowing a government that already owes too much money into borrowing more. 
3. A mostly meaningless term where this country is concerned with absolutely no basis in fact, which is of little use except to frighten those with no clear grasp reality (the aforementioned media pundits, voters, and legislators). 

1. A number with 12 zeroes after it ( x,000,000,000,000). 
2. A number which was once unimaginable to contemplate, except as a function of higher mathematics; but which we now toss around in discussions of the federal budget with little more than a yawn and a wave of the hand when speaking about government spending or debt. (see Billion)

1. Terms which the staff at the SOS Dictionary (in a rare exhibition of good taste) were willing to list, but seem adamantly disinclined to define further. 
2. The only terms that the staff seem to agree upon as adequately describing the current state of the Debt Ceiling, the plans being discussed to resolve it, and the likelihood that they will actually do so In order to provide perspective relating to the terminology of the Debt Ceiling, I reference the following chart from the Office of Management and Budget, as provided by Heritage. org