Saturday, April 3, 2010

High-Tech Hunting!

Admit it, you like the thrill of the hunt. We all do, but for the stuff that we use every day it’s not necessary to buy new and pay retail PLUS tax. Yes you can go to the second hand stores, but these days to pay for all that brick and mortar, their prices are only marginally cheaper PLUS you’ve still got that pesky tax thing. Logically then, that means garage and estate sale shopping should be your primary big ’inlet’ for the odd-ball everyday things you need, as well as the far smaller outlet for your hard-earned cash!

I have good friends with good jobs who seek out garage sales as a way to make extra money rather than a need. They enjoy the challenge of purely poking around to find that 'DEAL' of a lifetime. My wife is more of a repressed anthropologist. She will study other people’s leftovers and think about their lives which is not typical of most junk-jockeys. She wants to find that trinket or some bit of history that has been overlooked and cast aside. She is not particularly interested in the ‘Antiques Roadshow’ ultimate find to sell. She is shopping for recreation only and is more interested in the hunt and capture, rather than the ‘killing’.

The one problem though, at least in our area, is that garage sales are not all that easy to find. There are a few spotted here and there but if you just get in the car and drive back and forth it is not very efficient and you’ll spend far more time in the car than shopping for bargains. Plus today, gas is too expensive to just burn off willy-nilly – even the shiniest deal loses its luster when you’ve spent double the savings on fuel alone.

So the wife, being the master of efficiency she is, has found a perfect website (linked here) for all you bargain hounds. Just simply pop in your location and let technology perform its magic. You’ll be ready, willing, and able to fulfill your need for ordinary ‘things’ at extraordinary prices that’ll make WalMart cry. By plotting your garage and estate sale route, you won’t waste fuel, time, and cash. As a bonus, you and your family will be happier too; because your new-found ‘social awareness’ will get your oh-so-GREEN ‘children of the bio-corn’ squarely OFF your back. And oh, I almost forgot – the ‘Tax man’ will be a little miffed that you avoided him too. Now THAT’s what I truly call a Thrill - Happy hunting!

Hotel Heaven

Where have all those cheap, independent motor hotels gone? You know the ones where the window panes don’t match and the place needs a fresh coat of paint. I think we can safely say “by the wayside” down here, and probably to “hotel heaven” if you are a person of faith. No I’m not talking about the marginally fancier, Best Westerns, Days Inn, or those hotels whose name escapes me right now with the very red roofs. No, I am remembering those unique one-story, quaint (a tad homely), 10 to 20 unit motor courts that you park your car in front of the door.

I miss those little motor inns that dotted America’s highways when I was a kid. They were a little ‘less perfect’ and some of the furnishings did not match, but every place was an adventure to visit. Now most hotels and motor inns are just homogenized cookie cutter experiences. They all look the same, feel the same and cost about the same. Yes they are all bigger, more consistently maintained, and offer more amenities like coffee, exercise rooms, continental breakfasts, and free wireless internet. But with all that, they are not special or memorable in any significant way.

I fondly remember a motor inn that I visited named the “Monkey Tree Inn”. You know with a name like that, the place was going to have palm trees on the matchbooks – and they DID! On Lake Michigan’s Western side, we stayed in a tiny motel just off the sandy shoreline. The location was gorgeous but the hotel was unapologetically tattered and the water smelled of sulphur. No big name hotel would ever build a property with the smell of rotten eggs percolating throughout the water supply. But for my kid, to wander and wade endlessly on the beach, from dawn until dusk - yes the place was PERFECT for us.

The only exercise room at these type of places was the great outdoors. Most small motor inns had some kind of hole in the ground filled with water that passed for a pool. They were often surrounded with cracked concrete or the water was a tad ‘greener’ than ideal. But after a long day on the road, there was nothing better than a dip in the pool to stretch out and cool off before dinner. We relished every minute, because all too soon, the quarters would run out in the “magic fingers” vibrating bed, and early the next morning our family was off on our next adventure.

Yeah I miss all those heaven-sent weird motels of old. Unlike today, such establishments were never pretentious ‘wanna-be’ resort destinations. They were more of a means to an end; a way regular people could travel without going into debt all year to do it. Their style was in the fact that they had ‘no style’ and that was ok. Because, our only expectation was a temporary respite from the endless ribbon of highway, and a brief look into a small, but odd window into American life.

Friday, April 2, 2010

(#3) 9 ‘UN-Blockers’ for Writers (Pt. 3/3)

This is a continuation and last of a three part series on the prime nine tips to avoid writer’s block for bloggers or any type of regular writing task. Check archives if you wish to start from part one first. Thanks for stopping by. Enjoy - W.C.C.

-------------- Prime 9 ‘Un-Blockers’ – Part 3 of 3 -------------

7) Do crosswords, Sudoku, & mind puzzles before bed. – Huh, I don’t get it? Credible research shows that the human mind is at its best when it is being taxed. Your goal is to keep that gray matter of yours from truly turning gray. The more your mind works, the more fresh synapses are formed, networked, and linked to one another. As you read riddles or do math, your brain is building endless tables of relationships and storing it all away in your sub-conscious mind. Amazingly, that exercise will help your writing wordplay and speed of thought in ALL facets of life, not just your writing. I know this point is a bit ‘heady’, but if you keep ‘an open mind’, your effort will put you ‘head and shoulders’ ‘ahead’ of other bloggers! ( … Sorry )

8) Interrogate yourself OUT LOUD. – Oh no, now you’ve crossed the line? Whenever I am really stuck for an idea, I simply ask myself a few questions as if I am being interviewed by someone else. Yes, it helps if you have multiple personalities, but you will be surprised that it is far easier to dictate your ideas than it is to initially translate them into the written word. It’s easy, just hide from your spouse so she does not keep answering you while your practicing. Simply start asking simple questions about your topic and then try answering back to yourself. As you work your way to the more complex stuff, jot notes down and outline your answers as you continue to audibly answer your queries. Soon enough, you’ll have to get a towel to clean up all those overflowing creative juices. (Yuuuch?)

9) Be Smart and Flexible but ‘limit’ yourself. – Yes I am the master of contradiction. The implication is however that set yourself up to SUCCEED not to fail when you start blogging. Send the kids to school, close the door, turn off the phone and WRITE. The more distractions you allow in, the slower your brain will work. No matter what you’ve heard, brain research shows that in fact there is no such thing as multitasking. The truth Is that each distraction by definition is pausing or DISTRACTING you from your writing. If you hit a log jam and must remind your spouse to ‘buy milk on the way home’ then get up, take a measured break, do some jumping jacks, and eliminate the distraction. Try to define set goals such as “ I will write a half hour per day” rather than “I will write from Noon until 12:30”. The reason is that you want to be flexible enough that if you get on a writing roll, then keep going. Conversely, if you happen to magically become deaf, dumb, and catatonic over lunch, then why sit there staring at your keyboard forcing inspiration and suffering desire. It is important to set limits on your writing however. Since writing is still a subjective skill you need to accept that no matter how long you work, your blogs will never be as perfect, or as complete as you desire. If you fail to set limits, you will find yourself writing longer but not necessarily better posts. Also your eyes will become big bloodshot dinner plates from all that quality time in front of that glaring monitor. Do yourself and your blog followers a favor. Set reasonable writing limits and once reached do SOMETHING else.

So that’s your ‘Prime Nine’ ways to un-block your Nirvana-seeking noggin when writing blockage-free blogs or just about anything else. Once you have found your blogging niche and writing voice, then all that’s left is to ‘Hunk up’ those skinny little ‘sea legs’ of experience. There’s no magic to get there however; it’s just a matter of practice at regular intervals and the discipline to get up and repeat the process over and over again. When all’s said and done (never), with diligence, a little organization, and some sun-time away from your computer, it won’t take long for you to bulk up to that ultimate blogging-builder’s physique that we all dream about! Oh yeah, even if that blogging thing doesn’t work out – at least you’ll end up with a really nice tan.

------------- END PART THREE of THREE PARTS -------------

Ok, there you have it - more than you probably ever wanted to know about avoiding Writers Block. If you missed any of the three parts, just check the archive in March for part one and April for part two. Remember to check back often, unless on travel or server issues, I try to post by 1400 Hrs. and 0200 Hrs. Central time every day. –W.C.C.

Georgia, Matlock & Guam

First off as a disclaimer, I think America’s 13th original colony, Georgia is 'peachy'. In fact I love almost anything to do with Georgia. My daughter and I spent many a happy afternoon truly in awe of Atlanta’s most famous (and fictional) defense attorney, Ben Matlock. His legal machinations and folksy subdued intelligence could win over any jury in the name of true justice. However, I am really curious about this other REAL Georgian attorney turned Congressman, Hank Johnson, and the comments he made recently.

The Congressman, leaned forward from his big imposing, black leather chair and queried United States Admiral Robert Willard on the repercussions of adding some 8000 military service people and another 17,000 or so family members to the American territory Guam, in the Western Pacific ocean. Apparently Representative Johnson was primarily concerned that an ISLAND that is 4 -11 miles wide and roughly 34 miles in length, might be sufficiently destabilized by the introduction of these additional people. Now I’m not talking just about ecosystems, infrastructure, April Fools day, or anything approaching SANITY like that. The Congressman actually was seriously concerned that the island may “tip over” on its side?

WHAT? I cannot believe Admiral Willard, the former Pacific Fleet commander and TOPGUN F-14 pilot, had the composure to even bother forming an answer to this moronic question. Talk about the discipline of the American military – how the Admiral avoided rolling his eyes like a disgusted teenager, I’ll never know. Is the U.S. Taxpayer really forking out the salary of Admiral Willard to suffer this indignity? The substance of the Congressman’s question could have just as easily been posed from a talking ‘helium balloon (at a far less costly taxpayer salary).

Honestly, I can accept a one term ‘slip through the cracks’ Congressperson. Georgian’s might drink a little too much Peach Schnapps; everybody gets caught up in the moment and stops thinking. Then one thing leads to another and voila – another vacuous attorney, turned Congressional politician is born, unwanted and unloved. I get it, bad things happen to good people, but Representative Johnson was RE-ELECTED for a second term – so in this case bad things happen to uninformed, apathetic and ‘incumbent-loving’ voters.

So take a look at this link and judge for yourself if you think I am being too harsh on the Congressman. All I know is the next time I’m buzzing through Atlanta, if I get into trouble, I’m not calling Matlock. Nope, I’m looking up Hank Johnson to represent me. That guy can pull the wool over anyone’s eyes or he's just incredibly lucky - either way, I am sure to be a winner! Too bad I cannot say the same for the great State of Georgia and the U.S. taxpayer.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

(#2) 9 ‘UN-Blockers’ for Writers (Pt. 2/3)

We continue on today with part 2 in a series of 3 on the prime nine easy ways to avoid writers block when writing a blog or anything else on a regular basis. If you missed the first installment, simply check the archives to get caught up. As always, I’ll post my normal random blogs during the overnight update for those who prefer other topics in the morning. Enjoy! - W.C.C.

---------- (cont.) Prime 9 ‘Un-Blockers’– Part 2 of 3 ----------

4) Piggy-Back off of somebody else’s idea. Wow isn’t that cheating? No, don’t copy somebody else’s work but add to the collective ‘experience’ of the topic. In fact some of the best blogs and essays are interactive and contain links and track-backs to other articles on the same general topic. You may have a completely different experience when “choosing a new bed” as I did. Both of our blogs will benefit in such indirect collaboration because the readers that are interested in a particular topic, are probably interested in another article on the same topic.

5) Carry a notepad and digital camera with you at all times. Hey isn’t that two things in one? Maybe but who’s counting. The point is you need to be ready to document that ‘slice of life’ or odd-ball blog topic no matter where you are. So if you are driving and see a rather funny vanity license plate, write it down (safely please!) and either use it or commit it to your Fragment file. Eventually if you find enough funny plates, your blog can write itself as you simply “spell them out” for your readers. Take pictures of particularly stunning or particularly ridiculous subjects. If you are attracted something photographically, then chances are others will be as well. Many a great blog post simply start off with a visually jaw-dropping or funny picture.

6) Make lists of things with a fresh twist. Oh no, I just gave away the technique which gave life to this article. If you have some meat to your idea already, it sure is far easier to choose the right wine or appetizer. The more unique twist or niche revelation to your list the better. Readers need more than topics like “10 things I think are GOOD”. But you will have to fend off blog traffic with flaming torches (literally) if your topic is more akin to “5 Veggies that give you uncontrollable GAS”. The point is to give ‘em new, fresh, and accurately intriguing content and they will come.

------------- END PART TWO of THREE PARTS -------------

Ok, that’s the second part. Check back tomorrow for part 3 (the conclusion) after 1400 Hrs. CST. Thanks for stopping by! –W.C.C.

Giving is half the fun

Especially as I have gotten older, ordinary gifting has lost its appeal. It’s not that I don’t want to honor people on their special days or celebrate holidays or big events. I love all of that hoopla. But I am one of those people who really tries to match the “perfect” gift with the recipient. I take pride in trying to find just the right thing for that special someone and at times, the task can be hard.

As you can imagine, with the advent of chain stores in every mall in America, there is little I can buy that is truly unique anywhere. Giftees are imminently more practical today as well. How many cool stainless steel coffee cups does one need? Yes, they may find themselves attracted to the occasional hot new gimmick I purchase, but in the end, we all know the unspoken truth is that the gift will probably end up at next year’s church charity bazaar. So what’s left? Gift cards are available from every store imaginable but they are good for only one store and a check if lost, is so much more secure than a gift card. Cash? Oh sure who in their right mind would send cash today? Hmmm … sounds like an interesting challenge.

One such favorite cash gift we gave was all about the packaging. For my nephew’s graduation, I acquired a small sack of those gold looking Sacagawea $1 coins. I went to a Goodwill store and bought the dirtiest little stuffed bunny I could find. When I got home, my wife performed abdominal surgery on that unlucky rabbit and wrapped the coins tightly in his little bunny stuffing innards. My wife, sewed the little guy back up so the stitch was completely invisible and we shipped him off for the upcoming celebration.

Now this particular nephew has gotten used to our pranks over the years, so to make the receipt of a dirty bunny a believable gift, I included a touching letter. This fictional letter explained that the rabbit used to be our daughter’s favorite stuffed animal and she wanted her cousin to have it for good luck. We figured that would prevent my nephew from recoiling in horror upon opening the gift and throwing away ‘Mr. Stitchy’; or at least long enough until he could discover the secret stomach stash.

The final account of that rabbit’s life was told to us second hand, since we were 2000 miles away at the time of the party. Though my nephew politely received the gift as a true honor, his kid sister was so enchanted with that dumb bunny that he GAVE it to her. We hadn’t told anyone about the gag, so when we made our congratulatory follow-up phone call, we were audibly dismayed to hear that the little sister had LOST the ‘booty bunny’ out the car window by accident. We were crushed. We had hoped to share in the expectation of a mutual hearty laugh at our creative packaging, but instead we were frustrated, shocked and saddened instead at our stupidity and bad luck.

Uh, at least for a minute or two. Our dubious family of double-crossers were ACTUALLY on to us and had decided to GIVE us a taste of our own rabbit stew. It must have worked as we have swallowed that bitter pill for the first and last time. We still like to give creative gifts. But we did learn a valuable lesson about perfect gifting… ONLY stuff dusty bunnies with gift cards – cash can get lost all too easily!

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

9 ‘UN-Blockers’ for Writers (Pt. 1/3)

Ok, folks in an attempt to work in a little more protein into my blogging diet, I am going to experiment with a short serial blog. This essay will be broken into 3 parts over 3 consecutive days. While yes, it may prolong the pain if the topic doesn’t light your fire. But the format will allow me a little more latitude in addressing topics that take more time to explore than my typical 300 – 500 word blogpost. Regardless, the idea is still to enlighten and entertain, so I’ll do my best to move it along. Also, I’ll continue to post my normal random blogs during the overnight update, so every morning topics will be fresh and new to start the day off right. Enjoy! - W.C.C.

---------- Begin Prime 9 ‘Un-Blockers’– Part 1 of 3 ----------

Let’s face it, you like to write and read, or you would have never started a blog. The only problem is that in a fairly short period of time, unless your life is rife with ACTUAL ‘taxi-cab confessionals’, your fresh ideas start to wane. Never fear as I, and millions of other bloviating bloggers, feel your pain and want to do something about it. We all start out with that same weak and wimpy blog-body. But if you bulk up on these 'prime nine' tips to sit down, lube-up, and start working out your blogging chops – then soon, you too will surely find writing Nirvana as the ultimate blockage-free blogger.

Now let me tell you first hand, as someone who posts at least two essays daily in addition to other writing tasks, blogging can start ‘dogging’ you big-time when those self-imposed posting deadlines are looming. Writing is like any job, no matter how much you like it, you have to find ways to keep it fresh and hone techniques to streamline the workload. In the end however, it all comes down to that dirty word ‘practice’ and finding your natural voice when you write. The best blog writers don’t struggle to ‘make it fit’ because their blogs are already custom fit to their natural style, expertise, and – you know … VOICE!

1)Start a ‘running’ document. Huh? This is a basic Notepad or word processing file named something original like “BLOG IDEAS”. I never shut down this document on my computer – it just RUNS all the time. Why? Well, some of my best blog posts materialize when I am doing completely ordinary things. In fact those things are so ORDINARY, that I will forget the “hook” that caught my attention in the first place. For example a “Pop Tart” may get caught in the toaster and I might reflect on how much “I hate cheap appliances”. Or maybe I’ll simply wonder how Pop Tarts got their name and figure that other people may be interested too? Anytime you find inspiration, expand on any of your running document topics but feel no need to finish. At this stage, we're not producing polished gems - your job is just to get those fleeting observations and ideas on paper. We'll clean it all up later with a few 'scrub-downs' and a final edit prior to posting.

2)Like your running blog document, start a “fragment file”. This document you can close normally but often it is a good place to throw funny word pairings or great mind visuals that you might be able to work into your blog posts or jog your writing-mind later. Random alliterations like “Apple’s Applets” or “invigorating ignorance” begin to help form word pictures in your writing. You should also store curious or interesting news headlines that may need further research such as “Winter Olympics trucks in snow” or “Prehistoric fish tastes just like chicken” would be oddball attention grabbing fragments I might keep. By maintaining a file of these ‘Big N’ Blasty’ fun phrases and entertaining news clips, you’ll be miles ahead in future writing ideas as compared to your blogging brethren.

3)Simply start writing. Oh gee thanks, I never thought of that? Ok, it is the oldest one in the book but guess what – IT WORKS. I often in fact cannot think of a clever hook or title for my stories but I have a general direction in mind to take the essay. Start smack dab in the middle and start laying out what you ALREADY know or at least write down what you think you know. You will be surprised how a few words will lead you to a few more, and suddenly you have a completed paragraph. Better yet, usually you’ll have an idea of how to hook your topic into that body copy and a good starting point for further research if your article requires sourcing.

------------- END PART ONE of THREE PARTS -------------

Ok, that’s a wrap. Check back tomorrow after 1400 Hrs. CST for Part 2. Have a great day! –W.C.C.

A Tale of Two Loans

After America’s financial hub-bub last year, we all heard that lending had all but stopped for businesses and was painfully slow for even small personal loans. It seemed to make sense. After any kind of major shockwave in life, regardless of source, it is human nature and good business savvy to pull up the drawbridge and rely on your moat for your defense. Luckily, the worst never happened. Yes more financial institutions dissolved than usual and some of the shakier banks and lenders had to shore up their reserves ala the government bailout. For the most part however, everyone came out on the other side, a little more wary and hopefully a little wiser, but most of all - we survived!

Fast forward to my present day situation. Since financial trends still remain difficult to predict and we had some higher than market interest loans, we decided to consolidate two real property loans under a single lender umbrella. Our goal was essentially to have the same debt load and save with some minor tax advantages. Also, a much lower interest rate would be easier to pay off even more quickly down the road. It is a change of strategy for us and counter to much of my life’s training and experience to rapidly build long-term wealth.

See, it was not long ago that I would professionally advise clients to conserve cash at all costs and to do so they should load up on as much secondary lending as possible. At the time, as long as your history was clean, you could parlay a small amount of cash into a truckload of credit. I also have better than a decade of experience in packaging real estate investment loans for conventional lenders; so I know the game and the numbers required to close a loan and make money for the banks, the borrowers, and ME! We personally have led a moderate life and have avoided extremes, so I was confident that for such a conservative package of lending, we comfortably had the credit, reserves, and the history to pull it off.

Don’t worry, this tale will in all probability end in success. The point has never been the loans but the speed of the entire transaction itself. In the golden days, I have personally closed more complicated deals in less than 3 weeks and one with a private lender in an amazing 7 days. This current transaction was originally on track to close in under a month – very quick, even by the old standards. But curiously now, we will be lucky to sign on the dotted line in anything less than 8 or 9 weeks – half the original pace. Commitments are made; the paperwork is done; I cannot explain the delay – it’s just eerie silence.

So while we all indeed survived the financial crunch, it is clear that things are far from normal. I can assure you if my relatively small and highly secure personal financial package is mired in molasses, then I cannot imagine what small business lending is like? For small firms and medium sized businesses to break out of the doldrums they need credit NOW not tomorrow, to buy new machinery, raw goods, and finance payrolls. It is wonderful that we are all a tad more wary, but to move America’s economic engine, we need vision and innovation. To get there, our qualified businesses and borrowers need that credit drawbridge lowered, locked and ready to lend. Only then can we get past that dark and scary moat overflowing with unemployment, economic stagnation, and those oh-so-ugly financial alligators.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Vote Veneration

With all the political flap in the news lately, sometimes you have to pause and take a step back to remember the noble tenets upon which our Republic is based. Those of course, among others, are the ideals of liberty, self determination, and who can forget – the old fashioned run-of-the-mill vote! Today all 'past-accepted' constants in America seem to be perpetually in flux and lacking permanence. The truth is however, when you clear away the chaff, liberty and choice still reign supreme.

I guess why this sunk in, is that I just realized how often we as Americans engage in expressing choice even when our President, Congress people, and local city officials are NOT on the ballot. In my case, much attention was paid this week, by our local lacrosse squads to select Captains. Even the coaches debated carefully on what way was best to present candidate criteria to our 3 teams. The goal of course was to ensure that our athletes were fully engaged and the ultimate vote was fair, respected and valid.

Further this week, I have begun to prepare the ‘Official Ballot’ for Women With Wings, an aviation group in which my wife, daughter and myself are voting members. As a non-profit , we do not employ thousands of people or operate costly facilities the world over. But when it comes to the ballot and the value of each vote in choosing a new governing board; the task is treated with same reverence as that of a multi-national corporation.

Biographical information and photos are gathered for each candidate. The ‘official’ hierarchy of that data is placed on the ballot and chosen by a blind draw. In seeking the fairest vote, each candidate’s photo and ballot bios are cropped to conform and look similar to one another. Additional experience and biographical data is offered as an addendum for the membership’s review. The goal, as with the lacrosse team, is to handle the process seriously and with respectful diligence. There should be no doubt that every vote cast will have EVERY reason to be done so with careful thought and informed consideration.

So when you get more than a little tired of all the bickering and political discontent, take a breath and flash a knowing smile. From choosing who will be the banker on family game night, to the line-up manager of your office softball team; the principles of the mighty ‘vote’ are STILL very alive and well. Ok, now please forgive me, I really need to turn off this 'Pollyanna voter' perpetual motion machine. I'm way past the SPF rating to fend off this sunny glow of optimism, and I'm afraid I'm about to get burned!

Lost Food Vacation

The refrigerator is one of my favorite vacation spots by the end of the week. Yeah after spaghetti on Sunday, kraut n’ brats on Tuesday, and tacos on Thursday, I pretty much have the world tour of leftovers by Friday. I try to find new ways to serve up remainders but invariably I will miss a container or two. Never fear, eventually the abandoned chow will send up an olfactory billboard as a not-so gentle reminder of their presence.

The freezer has it share of lost souls on board as well. No matter how well I wrap meats, if I don’t cycle through them in a couple of months, the frost bitten parts become pretty tough and flavorless. Mmmm now that’s what I call good eatin’ in a Donner party kind of way. Occasionally I come upon an ice cream bar or fruit bar that got separated from the rest of the platoon. It is a sad sight indeed to see the shrunken dehydrated remains of a once able-bodied ice box confection.

Some of the best action takes place out in the open and right under my nose. The bananas pungently spot up quickly in just days and get so sweet that they require peanut butter or a blender of milk and cream to temper the flavor. Potatoes are great for a month, but after that, they grow spiny prehistoric looking roots all over their little spudly bodies. If you let the Russets rest much longer than that, they will begin to weep putrid stinkwater and hatch tiny flys to give your kitchen that genuine 3rd world feel.

Halloween leftovers, as well as random hard candy collected during the year are always loads of fun. I remember when I was a kid, my Great Aunt would offer me up the same dish of Christmas ribbon candy every year. I would remember the exact placement and pattern of each chunk, but it never would change. In later years though my memory was worse, the task was far easier because you could actually see the Mesozoic dust layers on the candy – YUM!

So never fear if you find an interesting tub of rainbow sherbet in the fridge that never started out life as sherbet at all. Don’t get discouraged if you go to scoop the brown sugar and you find an adobe block instead. We’ve all had our passports stamped in that same vacation spot at one point or another. Just smile, don your wet-suit and industrial nose plugs, and dive on in – the STINKWATER is fine. Now where did I put my flyswatter?

Monday, March 29, 2010

Daylight Savings Syndrome

I admit it, I have a clock problem. I know I’m a bit bi-polar when it comes to clocks and their maintenance. It is imperative that all of my daily clocks be accurate and run within seconds of each other. That’s my logical Jekyll side which values precision and hates being late, as it is one of the few things in life that I should be able to completely control. On the ‘Hyde’ side of my clock thoughts, I am a brazenly irresponsible, laissez-faire loving, certified tick-tock scoff-law.

It is not just Daylight Savings time, but any kind of time change function which haunts me. When the power goes out, our microwave clocks will simply flash dots and continually taunt me while I heat up a cup of tea. Our answering machine flashes ‘CL’ and is particularly irritating because I know I am not REALLY receiving messages at 3 o’clock in the morning – I am not that heavy of a sleeper.

I still have a wall and a desk clock in the office that will startle me once in awhile when I’m lost in thought and magically think, ”I’m an hour ahead of schedule”. Yes, these clocks may NOT have jumped forward appropriately for Spring. But they are off by EXACTLY 1 hour - to the second, so I hesitate to mess with them. Most recently, I got into my car to find I had well over an hour until my appointment. It was relaxing until I remembered that this was one of those EVIL clocks that required a manual and a PHD in car maintenance for updating. Why can’t clocks just be set once and never messed with again?

To help with my problem, my wife and family routinely will give me ‘bomb’ clocks (Oops – I mean ATOMIC) for gifts on special occasions. Those are the battery clocks that compare their time accuracy daily against that of a local radio station. Since the fundamental requirement for radio broadcasts is to be synchronized all across the nation, all radio stations receive their time standard from the nation’s official clock-vault in Washington D.C. It is the job of the U.S. Naval Observatory (linked here) to monitor and maintain some 45 atomic clocks - 33 Cesium based and a dozen state of the art Hydrogen masers, to ensure precise timing for the military, GPS array, and U.S. standard time applications. Hence if the USNO has done their job, then the radio stations will follow, and ultimately my clocks will too! Problem SOLVED!

So now you know how I’ve learned to deal with Daylight Savings Syndrome. It’s a burden that Jekyll and I have unfairly had to deal with our entire lives. In fact in time, we hope to raise community awareness of this horrible affliction through telethons or group sing-a-longs with uber-famous music celebrities. The only obstacle to my dream is I’m not sure if I’ll ever find the time, or more likely if those ‘Hollywood types’ will ever give me the ‘time of day’!

Captcha’s & Word Verification

I am still fairly new to the blogosphere. While I understand the need for those anti-spam word verification boxes on web pages, I often wonder if they have to be so hard to read? I mean the letters and nonsensical words will wrap, twist and run into each other like they are under water; or worse, written on a wilting stick of butter. It’s enough to drive you mad – or at least to drink!

These popular little goodies are known officially as “Captchas”. They are designed as a quick ‘challenge test’ so a website or form knows it is being accessed by a live person rather than a computer program or spam-laden ‘crawler’. These webmasters however, have to be sensitive to oldsters in training like myself though. I can barely spell REAL words much less these made up consonant and vowel pairings of letters that are generated willy nilly. That is the problem you see, if the verification query would at least randomize real words, then I might have a chance.

Last week, I was happily perusing a Spanish website and they offered up a genuine Spanish word for verification when I wanted to leave a comment. See I don’t even write 'en Espanol' very well but I can sure as heck recognize the difference between ‘tostados’ and ‘txlwnze’. Another site had the audacity to challenge me with a math problem Captcha? This was not something like ‘2+4’ either, it was a long series of addition, multiplication and subtraction. Who thinks this is a smart way to get followers back to their site, by proving immediately, that your readers are truly, DUMBER than a 5th grader?

I know things are changing for the better though. I ran into a website with word verification that asked me to answer a common question instead of requiring a transcription of letters. The question was “What color is snow?” Boy this site was lucky that I had not finished off that 64 ounce Big Gulp of Mountain Dew. My answer might have been WRONG if I had dropped that drink and made an off-colored mess.

Happily technology keeps advancing and continues to become easier all of the time. Today I came upon a British company with a Captcha that had a little audio button by the challenge word. When you push the icon, your computer reads aloud the ‘single’ word that is required to verify your entry into the website. Sadly the system is STILL not yet foolproof - I never did get into this site. Apparently over there, they’re still working out a few ‘Captcha kinks’ on their software? Hmmmm, where’s my double Mountain Dew on the rocks when I REALLY need it?

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Raccoon tails

Of all my nature encounters, Raccoons are one of my favorite beasts that grace the suburban landscape. I know the popular sentiment in the world is to leave nature alone but can you honestly look a raccoon in the eyes and ignore him? Well the obvious answer is that if you are in that close with a raccoon then believe me you won’t BE ABLE to ignore him.

A lot of suburbanites have had trouble with raccoons because they turn over trash cans and get into mischief inside, out, and under homes. The internet is rife with hidden camera vids of nature’s bandit breaking into people’s houses through cat doors and wreaking havoc when cornered by homeowners. I have linked our video from 2005 here.

My daughter, while growing up, seemed to have an unusual gift to ‘connect’ with raccoons both young and old. Over the years, she literally came to know by name, dozens upon dozens of these interesting creatures. Yes, initially the relationships were started with food conditioning, specifically CAT food conditioning. At the height of our raccoon healthcare distribution, we were burning through 20 pounds of cat food per month and we only had one cat (but 20 raccoons).

As nature takes its course the raccoon’s grew up and moved on as so did my daughter. Our family also unexpectedly and abruptly moved away from our home, so it sat empty and lifeless for a couple of years. Our time as a raccoon soup kitchen had ended and though it was a relief to save money on the cat food, it was a little sad too. We had enjoyed many memories with the raccoons and had more than a few tall tales to tell.

Eventually we moved back to our home and within a few weeks, a knock came at the back patio door. There was a raccoon I had never met, but it was waiting patiently and respectfully for me to come to the door. I offered up a few stale tortilla chips but not the full buffet of the golden era. He seemed satisfied and proceeded to finish his meal unhurried and unconcerned with a human standing less than a foot away. Now many years later, occasionally still, such as this week, a new masked face will come by and tap on the back door just as his ancestors had done before him. I opened the door and placed an apple in his out-stretched hands. He said not a word, but as I looked him straight in the eyes, just for a moment, I could have sworn, he blinked in morse code “T H A N K … Y O U”!

No Waste Tort Reform

On occasion I get a question or comment which requires far more than a single sentence or ‘witty’ explanation and gratuitous wink, to adequately answer. By in large, these posts are meant to entertain rather than deliver hard news, so rarely will I run back to back ‘sourced’ essays on the same, (particularly serious), topic. However this will be one of those rare exceptions so bear with me. I typically post twice per day, so if political/economic/legal theory and debate is not your cup of tea, then be sure to check back in twelve hours. I’ll brew you up a tall, cup of smooth chamomile to make up for my transgressions. Now THAT’S what I really call a ‘tea party’!

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I believe that TORT reform as popularly defined, is related to malpractice and Doctor liability. I concede that many sources will cap savings from such reform at about 2% of the current national healthcare expenditure. While that is low, it is a SAVINGS nonetheless, approaching $55 billion annually rather than an expenditure. I will never understand why the current legislation (now law) refused to address this AT ALL and pretend the healthcare bill was a COMPLETE legislative effort?

Further, as noted in the Beacon source linked here, in Missouri, the State saw insurers profits increase as much as a 20% when liability claim caps were imposed by law. These same firms were constantly losing money in malpractice payouts just before legislation was passed. So what is a REASONABLE expectation of savings if malpractice liability is controlled? I, nor anyone else can definitively say? However by NOT addressing the issue at all, Congress in all certainty has left significant money on the table.

I personally also feel that malpractice is but ONE factor in TRUE tort reform. Using Social Security disability claims as an example, current law allows UNLIMITED appeals to claim denials. Consider that for a moment. Regardless if your disability is legitimate or NOT, a cadre of highly trained Social Security researchers, medical specialists, U.S. attorneys, and civil service personnel will review your entire case history. Your alleged disability, expert testimony, you, and your counsel will receive a private hearing before a Federal judge, adjudication officer, and other Federal civil service support staff.

Once a legal opinion is rendered, if positive, you begin collecting your claim from the Social Security pool (rapidly closing in on bankruptcy). If your claim is DENIED, your attorney simply goes down the hall and files an appeal, and the case begins a NEW file and starts through the process again. Eventually If that appeal isn’t going well, your attorney obtains a new expert or some other evidence and YES, files yet AGAIN even while the current appeal is STILL pending? It is simply a numbers game in hopes of eventually finding ANY judge who might interpret the claimant's evidence in their favor to secure payment on their disability request.

Imagine the cost to the taxpayer for a SINGLE cycle in this process regardless of legitimacy of the claim. Also imagine the disheartening reality that no matter how hard those highly skilled civil servants work, they will NEVER get ahead, much less dream of ‘catching-up’. Just in this SINGLE U.S. BUREAU, the result has been a five-fold explosion or more in repeat legal claims over the past decade.

Now mind you, I am not arguing the particular NEED for this program or the validity of the government adjudication process itself. The system was designed with high ideals as a safety net for truly disabled workers with few options. However, in reality this department has become reflective of the problems encountered across the whole of big government. The out of control costs of processing endless legal claims, counter claims, appeals, and resultant payouts cannot be sustained forever. Despite good intentions and its effort to be a all things to all people, at some point, if continually burdened, even the most powerful economic engine, will eventually fail to move forward on track and stop working.

Tort reform in the TRUEST sense, is far more than taking the myopic view of simply addressing malpractice liability. Effective cost savings and system-wide service improvements, can be realized with a comprehensive plan to reign in ALL legal waste and claim redundancy. Only then can a complete legislative solution be crafted to protect the long term health of not only our citizenry, but our bloated and obese government as well.