Thursday, May 31, 2007

Jackass

Recently I wrote a post about one of the most dangerous intersections in downtown Chicago. At this intersection (with a little graphic that represents the cutting-edge of my limited skills) you can see that cars come out of Lower Wacker Drive (under the city, just like the "Blues Brothers") and cut across traffic.

Even though walking out against the light in front of traffic here is IDENTICAL TO WALKING OUT STRAIGHT AGAINST A RED LIGHT every single day jackasses, like the guy here, do it without a second thought. This picture is great because you can see the crowd of people following directions, standing by the curb, and then this guy just ignores the law and what everyone else is doing and walks out in front of traffic.

Now each of us has inadvertently broken a traffic law or got caught out in the street one time or another. However, what makes it worse is that 95% of the people follow the law and it should be obvious that you are the only guy breaking the rules. This always causes chaos as the cars coming out from Wacker get stranded in the middle of the intersections or buses get slowed trying to avoid idiot pedestrians. It is bad enough when cars, too, try to turn right on red not realizing that OTHER cars are already coming across (unbelievably the intersection does not bar right turns on red).

I guess the only thing that would make this picture more complete is if the guy was talking on his cell phone when he was walking in the intersection. One less cell-hole.

Sucker Punch

I have been going to Muay Thai lessons for a full month now and have a few thoughts about my progress.

First, I have not become bored with anything. Every workout is different and nothing ever seems to get repeated. I attribute this to the instructor. He is enthusiastic and seems genuine. I really think that on top of making a decent buck that he is concerned that his pupils progress.

It is interesting how many people show up on certain days. Typically I can attend twice a week. The time slots available for me are evenings and Saturday afternoon. Last night the place was packed, there were probably about twenty guys in there. Last Saturday there were only eight.

I like it when there are fewer guys there - I get more value. The instructor can give you more attention that way.

I have not seen a woman in there since my second lesson. I don't know if they tried it out and didn't like it or if they are just going at different times.

The punch/kickbag in my basement is great. On my off days I can workout down there with the heavy metal blasting, practicing what I learned the day before in class.

I have progressed quite a bit in my first month - so much to the point where I think I am probably one of the best "beginners" in the class. My hand and foot speed are still noticeably slow compared to the advanced fighters - I really need to work on that a lot with the bag. I also will probably take a private lesson from the instructor to tighten up my technique on punching and kicking.

The instructor last night brought something I was really hoping he would bring into the lesson. He has begun introducing street fighting into the classes. We were practicing what to do when your opponent in the ring brings a flurry at you. You need to cover and roll (a slight side to side motion) to deflect the blows and then come out of the corner or off the ropes and start blasting away yourself. He equated this to the street where a person may sucker punch you and bring a few more - you have to cover up, get it together and come back at them or risk serious injury.

It is this equating ring tactics to real life situations that impresses me the most about these classes. There are some martial arts that are better for personal protection (Jeet Kune Do, possibly others) but it is nice that the martial art that I am interested in can or may be used on the street if needed.

I got actually pissed in class for the first time last night. I was sparring with another beginner, and the instructions were to take three punches (at your face) with defense, then come out with three of your own at your attacker and move to the side (resembles an escape or coming out of a corner or off the ropes if you are in the ring). My partner was NOT listening to the instructor for whatever reason and kept throwing uppercuts and hooks at me when the strikes were supposed to be jabs and crosses. I took several blows and finally told him that if he didn't quit it I was going to JACK him one. He was a little upset, but I calmed him down and told him that it was supposed to be jab, cross, jab, not "fighters choice" - we are supposed to be practicing our defense not getting our asses kicked. He relented and the rest of our sparring went well. I did "accidentally" get a shot on him later. I made it count.

The last episode is definitely the exception, not the norm. I am getting a lot of bang for my buck in these classes and I now have at least something to defend myself with if I am not carrying. I am still hoping to earn my Thai Shorts before the snow flies - time will tell on that. I have a long way to go...but I am light years ahead of where I started.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Roscoe Village

About 15 years ago I briefly lived in Roscoe Village. Roscoe Village is an area of Chicago that is roughly north of Belmont and south of Addison (Roscoe is an East / West street at 3400 North) and between roughly Western Avenue on the West and Ashland avenue on the East. Probably the "center" of Roscoe Village is the intersection of Damen (north / south) and Roscoe (east / west), and the main strip of Roscoe Village is to go West on Roscoe from the corner of Damen.

At that time, Roscoe Village had a lot of apartment buildings, a lot of older single family homes, and a few 2 flats. On Roscoe avenue there were a few biker bars, a couple of restaurants (none distinguished), one good bar (The Village Tap, with a beer garden), and some dilapidated retail. The area was mixed Hispanic and white. The guy who lived next store to us was a real redneck; his backyard was strewn with broken down auto parts, a bathtub, and general debris. Across the street was a house with a large Hispanic family with guests at all hours day and night; someone had to work early there and a car would pull up and honk incessantly before 6am every day.
A few Saturday nights ago we took a stroll through Roscoe Village and I was stunned at the transformation. All along Roscoe avenue heading west from Damen there are great restaurants and sushi bars with outdoor seating, packed with throngs of very upscale yuppie types. This is a great street to dine outdoors because Roscoe is relatively free of traffic (it isn't a through street on either end for long so you don't get that much action).

It is amazing how this area has been transformed over the last few years. The residents seem to have turned over completely and it is a mini-Lincoln Park. I lived in a couple of other areas that went through gentrification and it seems slow when you live there but if you pop back in a few years later it just jumps out at you.

I'm sure that someone in a public policy class somewhere is trying to figure out how to make this happen by government fiat. But it doesn't work that way here... basically if the government gets out of the way local builders will buy up the older housing stock, raise rents (boot out existing people, basically, unless they can afford to pay more), renovate, attract new buyers and renters, and then these people will attract upscale restaurants, shops and bars, and voila! The area is brand spanking new, with a bit of color from the old left intact (a few buildings and stores here and there). If the location is solid, crime is kept at bay, and the economy is good, the area will be substantially upgraded as if by magic.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

An Interesting Conversation

Over the Memorial Day weekend I had a too short, but very interesting conversation with a self described liberal.

I know what you are thinking already, but really, hear me out.

The kids and wives had wandered off and I was left at the table with my friend, and a fantastic bottle of Las Rocas Grenache (ours was a 2005). It had been a couple of years since we last saw each other. Much too long.

The conversation wound around to politics and he tread lightly as he announced that he had become more "liberal" and that he understood that I was very "conservative". I just told him that simply these labels mean less to me every day as most liberal people I know simply aren't and most conservatives that I know simply aren't as well. I told him that I hold a lot of "conservative" principles very highly but some "liberal" ones as well.

It is liberal to be for abortion? Is it a conservative position to embrace the free market? The labels "liberal" and "conservative" have turned into Democrat and Republican in my eyes and that is incorrect. The media and the 'net have reduced political debate into poo flinging and name calling . I decided to elevate myself as my friend did and we had a very interesting discussion.

I started out with dispelling the label game and said the following statement to him, more or less:
I bet if we really sat down for a few hours and discussed to each other the way we run our lives that I would end up less "conservative" than you think and that you would end up much less "liberal" than you think as well.

This was a great ice breaker and the conversation flowed from here for about 15 minutes when he interrupted me and said that this was a very good conversation for him to have because his usual circle of friends are all "liberal" and nobody ever disagrees with anyone - he wasn't learning anything.

We came to guns and he was very interested to learn about how guns worked. He doesn't like guns and doesn't own one, however didn't seem to mind that I did. He understands that criminals will ignore all laws placed on gun ownership. He didn't understand the Clinton AWB, or the difference between semi-automatic and fully automatic firearms. He didn't understand why people should be allowed to own AK-47's. As I slowly and methodically explained to him many things about how firearms are constructed, how they operate and the folly of gun control in Washington DC and Chicago I think his eyes may have been opened some.

My friend is a very intelligent person and I like to think that I have it going on a bit between the ears myself. I wish the level of discourse in the media, blogs and elsewhere could be on this level of last Sunday instead of all of us calling each other Bushitlers and surrender monkeys.

It was very refreshing.

Monday, May 28, 2007

The Homeless / Panhandlers

On Sundays in River North and most of downtown the streets are deserted. On Monday, a holiday, I went out to pick up a coffee and a newspaper in the morning. At this time of day it is "derelict time" because homeless / panhandlers / street people are in an almost 1-1 ratio with the local residents walking their dogs, jogging or doing basic errands (like me).

I had my iPod on and walked straight ahead but was confronted by an angry homeless man. He crossed the empty streets and was conversing in a semi-coherent state as he walked towards me. He was on the streets and wanted money for food and to converse about something else. I just said "sorry" and walked on, checking behind myself from time to time to see if he followed me. In the three blocks or so over to the Starbucks I ran into two other panhandlers, one a calm guy who waited outside the Starbucks door for change (he asked for "spare change on the way out" as you walked in) and another just kind of wandering without a purpose.

During the work day there are more of these street people but then the streets are crowded with commuters, locals and tourists so your odds of a face-to-face with a nut are far less.

In my (unfortunately, vast) experience with these street people they generally fall into a few categories:

1) the guy who always begs in the same spot - for instance there is one guy with a guitar (that he doesn't play) on the bridge over Wells and the Chicago River; there is a guy who walks in front of you at the Civic Opera house and stands in your way; and there is a guy who stands by the exit from the "L" train at the merchandise mart. Note that these people "live" somewhere else; you don't find them there on holidays, for instance, because they know that there will be no traffic. I guess they stay at "home" and take a day off
2) the "roving" lunatics that can be aggressive - they are all over the map and seem to be going somewhere with a purpose. They may try to converse with you or get money and are more likely to be dangerous; people who are always in the same spot won't harass you too much because if you complain to the cops the police know right where to find them, and they will essentially give up their livelihood if they are booted (or have to fight some other bum who staked out a different place)
3) the "Streetwise" vendors - I don't know if "Streetwise" is a good idea or not, but these guys are "selling" their product and shouting on the street. They tend not to be too crazy and more like category 1) since they have something to lose. On the other hand, they can be LOUD and are more annoying from that perspective. Also - who the heck wants to read about the musings of street people? Is that a valuable product for sale?
4) the "musicians" - usually terrible "bucket" drummers or saxophone / trumpet players that play obnoxious songs like the Simpsons' theme song or the Pink Panther song OVER AND OVER for hours on end. These people can really drive you crazy if they happen to park themselves outside your window at work or at home
5) the "storytellers" - frequently their stories involve a church bus that needs $18 for a flat tire or some other similar item. Many of these individuals are well dressed and their stories can be quite convincing, except that you are likely to hear the same story OVER AND OVER if you are a local resident
6) the "exit ramp" blockers - at many / most exit ramps street people set up camp with signs and beg for change. Some even set up directly in the middle of the street on crates and risk death by passing cars. Most of these people aren't downtown but are endemic in the other neighborhoods; they were always in out by the ramps in Bucktown. In poorer neighborhoods, such as the exit ramp for Midway airport (Cicero), they can get downright aggressive and almost block your path completely with a car and jumper cables. If you are going early in the morning or late at night it is definitely not a fun experience when you are outnumbered

I guess an outsider looking at this post would think that I am heartless. But in fact these people COME specifically to my neighborhood because tourists and people from small towns will actually talk to them, listen to their stories, and give them change. They don't "live" in this neighborhood, because they mostly clear out on weekends or holidays when the streets are deserted, except for most of the aggressive "passing-through" types.

If virtually ANY of these people showed up in a suburb they'd be arrested immediately and carted off the property. Certainly, if they showed up virtually anywhere else where the average cost of a housing unit approached the average of River North, they'd be chased off to somewhere else.

Since I am a guy and reasonably fast and fit I don't worry too much about it, but if you were older or a single woman it could be quite uncomfortable. Certainly, it shows the city at its worst when aggressive bums startle and bother passerbys.

All of this aside, the act of dealing with them on an everyday basis, when I see someone like the person in the photo (at the city's worst intersection by the Popeye's Chicken) with all their meager belongings in shopping carts, it is very sad. Note that there is another homeless person across the street in the photo near the bus bench. You think to yourself - what happened? Is he an alcoholic? Is he mentally ill? Where is his family? To each a million stories.

Terrible Day for the White Sox

Sunday was supposed to have crappy weather. However, the day turned out to be beautiful as we sat in the bleachers for a 1:05pm game. Our bleacher seats are in the sun and it was hot... it will be very hot come August on those metal benches.

I was taking a photo trying to show the "Thome shift". On the Thome shift, the third baseman comes almost all the way over to second base and the other 3 infielders cover the gap between first and second base to try to cover Thome. It works a lot, but doesn't when someone is on base because they could just steal third. This is a photo of a pick off play with Ozuna on second (he had previously hit a double) and if you blow it up you can see that he is in pain... it turns out that he BROKE HIS LEG and now he is out for 2 months. I didn't mean to put that in the shot...

The bullpen absolutely fell apart. The Sox were leading 4-2 when they left in Vazquez in the 6th inning and he let in 2 more runs, by law. He can't make it past the 5th. Then the bullpen came in and got shelled. We left down 7-4 and then the bullpen ended up giving up more runs until the Sox had given up 11 in total. There were more than a few people shouting "bullpen sucks!" in the bleacher seats right above the bullpen, in fact it was a pretty big chant.

Ouch - I thought I was seeing the Cubs, whose bullpen collapses are legendary.

Gaia found after all


I did some more digging to Frank's post and figured out what Giai looks like... it's right here!

Here is a link to a site about the "clothing bin cult" so someone has already done the dog-eared research.

Crap Games



This post will be a discussion of the new Big Ten Network and how it may or may not affect the way I plan my Saturdays this fall.

First and foremost, lets lay a few things out on the table and accept them as facts.

The Big Ten Network is about football and to a lesser extent, basketball. Oh, let me clarify - MEN'S basketball. I would guess that 99% of the ratings (and advertising revenue) for college sports are from these two sports. When was the last time you read anything about the mens rowing team? Womens fencing? How about lacrosse? I have heard that lacrosse is fairly popular in the East. Do you know how well your college team did in gymnastics this year? Volleyball? Track?

There are some regional preferences. Lacrosse in the east, and some schools have strong hockey programs that may actually generate a bit of revenue (such as the Badgers here in Wisconsin). However, I think we can all agree that taken as a whole, football and men's basketball drag all of these other sports along for the ride. Do you actually think that women's soccer can support itself? Or men's soccer for that matter. The conclusion? The Big Ten Network was created to harvest ad revenue (through cable companies) from football and men's basketball. Period.

I was looking around at the BTN's site and they say they will be carrying approximately 35 games this season. There is an agreement with ESPN though. If you look at the FAQ page, almost all of the questions are about FOOTBALL, of course. This is clearly the big dog of all the sports from a ratings and revenue standpoint.

Here is how the agreement with ESPN goes. During the season ESPN and ESPN 2 and the ESPN regionals get to choose their games FIRST. Then all the rest of the games are given to the Big Ten to produce. Three times during the season the BTN gets to choose second and three times they get to choose third. So basically, the BTN will be getting the crap games.

Hold on to your seats football fans, the BTN has already announced some of their stellar lineup for the fall! I assume these are games that ESPN has already said "oh please, take these":

Sept. 1 Indiana State at Indiana, 8 p.m. EDT
Sept. 8 Syracuse at Iowa, 7 p.m. CDT
Sept. 15 Duke at Northwestern, 7 p.m. CDT
Oct. 13 Indiana at Michigan State, 7 p.m. EDT
Nov. 3 Illinois at Minnesota, 7 p.m. CDT
Yikes, what a bunch of stinkers! Hopefully Illinois will be halfway decent and make ESPN wish they had that game on Nov. 3 back.

The BTN is not clear yet on whether they will offer streaming video.

I don't like this part in the FAQ:

To best serve our fans, we have decided to use "split feeds" so that we can give local markets the game they care the most about. So, for example, assuming the game is on the network, if you live in Michigan or West Lafayette, you could see the Boilers play the Wolverines on October 13. On that same day, if you live in Iowa or Illinois, you could see the Hawks play the Illini. Additionally, as mentioned above, we plan to offer the games we are not broadcasting in certain markets to distributors so that fans who live outside their university's state can watch their teams on an "overflow" channel.
Of course living in Madison, guess which game would be on if Wisco and Illinois play at the same time? I don't like that word "distributors" either - that smells like pay per view.

The FAQ leaves out a LOT of stuff and I haven't heard from my local cable provider (Charter Communications) if they are handling the BTN yet. I can't believe the first thing that the BTN wouldn't do is create pay per view streaming of the games. For a NOMINAL fee, say $10 or less, if I had the time to sit down and watch the Illini I MAY pay that - and it would be revenue that they aren't going to be receiving anyway. How hard is it to set up a stream anyway? It is done all the time. This would be pretty attractive I think in the early season games with more obscure teams before the Big Ten season begins.

It will be interesting over time to see how this develops - hopefully I will be able to watch a couple more games of Illini football this year. With ESPN and ESPN2 and the regionals I have been averaging 4-5 live games, hopefully I can get that up to 7 or 8 if my cable provider picks up the BTN. Of course they will probably charge me (and everyone else) more for cable, so it is kind of de facto pay per view anyway.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

K-31 Cleanup

I acquired two Swiss K-31 rifles a few months ago and have scraped some time out this week to start the cleaning and restoration process.

I have decided to begin with the walnut version. It was easy to take down - you can see in my archives over on the sidebar under "K-31" that it took about five minutes. All I needed was one screwdriver.

The first thing I decided to do was read - a lot - about how these rifles worked and if there have been any problems with them. In general everything I have read has been very positive about them. I took a magnification loop and inspected the bolt lugs and they seem fine. The bolt sleeve on my walnut version had been replaced and that made me feel pretty confident. I honestly don't think there will be any problems firing these rifles once I get them cleaned and ready to go.

Last week after reading probably too much about these rifles I started in on the walnut stock with a rag and some mineral spirits. I spent about an hour with this method (recommended on many bulletin boards) again today. The results are not acceptable. There is only minimal improvement in the stock. I wasn't getting enough dirt, grime and cosmo off. I used mineral spirits because they are fairly mild and won't remove the original shellac that the Swiss applied to the rifle 65 years ago.

I have a sneaky feeling that the stock is so gunked up with cosmo that it won't allow the mineral spirits to clean it. I will find out as soon as we get some hot weather. I will put the stock in my car on the dash wrapped in a plastic trash bag - the famous cosmoline cooker. Hopefully tons of crap will leech out of the stock and I will be happy. If not, I have had a couple more thoughts.

I can use the old super hot water and mild detergent on it with a brush.

If that doesn't work, the last resort is just starting over - there are many methods I have read that look to work pretty well on stripping the whole damned thing down to the original wood, then I can make the stock look however I want.

It isn't like I bought the rifles to make money, I bought them to shoot. I don't have a lot of money in them in the first place, each costing less than $250.

Hmmm...decisions, decisions.

Baseball Pool Update 17

Whoops! Too long since the last pool update. The Brewers have cooled down quite a bit and are playing like a normal team, but their division is so bad nobody seems to be able to step up and challenge them for the top spot.
The Red Sox are on fire! Fire I say!

The current standings:

1. PSL Dave (Red Sox) 32 wins
2. PS Indy (Mets) 30 wins
3. Snakeye (Indians) 29 wins
3. Craig (Tigers) 29 wins
4. Dan from Madison (Brewers) 28 wins
4. Graphix (Dodgers) 28 wins
5. Carl from Chicago (White Sox) 24 wins
6. JohnnyJ (Cubs) 21 wins
6. John (Yankees) 21 wins

Total winnings if the season stopped today: $46

I have to admit this is much closer than I thought it would be. I am most surprised at the Flubs down in the cellar with the Yankees! Probably two of the highest paid teams floundering. Lets see...yep, Yankees have the highest payroll, with the Cubs in eighth. Look at the relative value the Brewers, Pirates and Injuns are getting this year.

2007 MLB payrolls:
New York Yankees $189,639,045
Boston Red Sox $143,026,214
New York Mets $115,231,663
Los Angeles Angels $109,251,333
Chicago White Sox $108,671,833
Los Angeles Dodgers $108,454,524
Seattle Mariners $106,460,833
Chicago Cubs $99,670,332
Detroit Tigers $95,180,369
Baltimore Orioles $93,554,808
St. Louis Cardinals $90,286,823
San Francisco Giants $90,219,056
Philadelphia Phillies $89,428,213
Houston Astros $87,759,000
Atlanta Braves $87,290,833
Toronto Blue Jays $81,942,800
Oakland Athletics $79,366,940
Minnesota Twins $71,439,500
Milwaukee Brewers $70,986,500
Cincinnati Reds $68,904,980
Texas Rangers $68,318,675
Kansas City Royals $67,116,500
Cleveland Indians $61,673,267
San Diego Padres $58,110,567
Colorado Rockies $54,424,000
Arizona Diamondbacks $52,067,546
Pittsburgh Pirates $38,537,833
Washington Nationals $37,347,500
Florida Marlins $30,507,000
Tampa Bay Devil Rays $24,123,500

And the graph of the season so far, click for larger:






Carnival at Dusk

Click for larger.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Memorial Day

Let's don't forget to put the bar-b-que and beers down for a few minutes this weekend and remember why we have Monday off.

Every year for memorial day I typically write a fairly long post honoring our war dead with an essay and a few photos. This year I will keep it simple - a heartfelt thank you to all of our service members past, present and future.

A small poem by Moina Michael sums my feelings up.

We cherish too, the Poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led,
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Deliberately Obscure

Recently there was an uproar in the easily outraged journalist community over plans for a newspaper based in Pasadena to hire two reports in India to cover local news. The local news was from city council meetings that could be watched over the Internet so rather than hiring expensive local personnel (and pay for travel, incidentals, etc...) they'd pay about $20,000 for two writers to cover the local meetings. Here is a response from a journalism site, and there are many other examples out there on the web.

The crux of their argument is that journalism can't be outsourced in this way because their snooping, sleuthing and all around journalism skills are important to the context of the story. For example, they would typically claim that not only do they get the story based on the immediately available facts, their contacts and knowledge of how people operate would let them "dig deeper" to get "the real story".

In a related topic, a prominent Associate District Attorney in DuPage County was recently killed in an automobile collision while she was drunk far in excess of the local limit. From this article in the Chicago Daily Herald (a suburban Chicago newspaper):

"A high-ranking DuPage County prosecutor whose life work included locking up intoxicated motorists was driving drunk when she died last week in a car crash."

The irony in this situation was palpable. A prominent public attorney, who railed against drunk driving, was herself killed and seriously injured others while driving at three times the legal limit of alcohol.

Now let's think this through a bit... the local reporters, those fact-digging people on the beat, who have all the contacts and can't be outsourced, wouldn't they have picked up on a fact like this? I assume that they would have had hundreds, if not thousands, of meetings with her as they gathered facts on the many, many prominent cases that she led. I have no direct facts that she had a drinking problem or that this was anything other than a one-time event, but the fact that she was three times the legal limit at THREE IN THE AFTERNOON on Friday might be some type of tip off for an enterprising reporter.

Here is another seemingly unrelated story. An off duty Chicago policeman named Abbate got caught on videotape stomping a small female bartender who refused to serve him more drinks. As if that wasn't bad enough, later it is alleged that he and his cohorts came back to threaten the bar that if they made the videotape public, the police would harass the bar and hurt its business.
In both of these cases, it is a reasonable assumption that an enterprising, driven fact-checking reporter could have "broken" these cases much sooner using their connections and journalism "skills".

But they didn't.

Why don't they break these kinds of stories? Because while they appear to be an objective party, they really are mostly interested in getting along with the various groups that they report upon. If you start asking lots of questions about attorneys and policemen, your life soon becomes very difficult. You find that your sources dry up, and maybe even other bad things start to happen to you. On TV and in the movies, the intrepid reporters push on, indifferent to the risks, because they are true to their callings.

Of all people, a comedian (whose name I don't want to mention to draw trolls) summarized it up best at this link:

"But, listen, let's review the rules. Here's how it works. The President makes decisions. He's the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put 'em through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration? You know, fiction! "

Journalism has been getting a free ride on the back of want ads in newspapers and fluff news on TV. Now that ads are going away, it is time for journalists to earn their money by actually having knowledge of their relevant topics and by digging deep to get the real story, even if it bothers those in power and makes the reporters' life uncomfortable in return.

Or they can just whine about it. I have my guess as to where this will fall out.

Blogo Tell's it like it isn't

Last week I wrote about a letter to the editor of the Chicago Tribune from the representative of Commonwealth Edison, the Exelon subsidiary, trying to steer away and confuse the issue of the power rate increase in Illinois with some "sleight of hand".

This week, the letter to the editor is from Rod Blagojevich, Governor of Illinois, and it is titled "Steering Taxes from the Middle Class". It challenges the Exelon letter for sleight of hand...

In Illinois, Blogo recently tried to ramrod a gross receipts tax (kind of like a value added tax which is popular in Europe) through the Illinois legislature. Here is a post on the gross receipts tax I put up previously if you are interested in the background on this type of taxation. . Even though he is a democrat and the legislature is solidly democratic in the house and senate, his measure failed the house by a vote of 107 to zero.

The Governor's letter has the following key points:
  • "the middle class and working families in Illinois are already overtaxed"
  • "we have a pressing need to expand healthcare and make it more affordable"
  • "we have a need to improve school funding"
  • "we need to meet our pension obligations"
  • "In March I presented a budget that would accomplish these goals by asking corporations that are not paying their fair share of the tax burden to finally step up"
  • "I believe the gross receipts tax I proposed is the right way to achieve the two principles Illinois residents believe in: no more taxes on the middle class and improved health care, education and pensions"
OK, now let's take this apart, and apply rational analysis.

Point one - the middle class are overtaxed.

True - like all residents of Illinois, middle class are overtaxed relative to the quality of the services that are received. For all of the corruption, scandals, and general waste, Blogo fails to mention how is going to deliver higher quality services and ensure that taxpayer money is well spent.

In addition, there are many ways to reduce the tax burden on the middle class. You could remove the sales taxes that are applied to gas, or cap them at a certain level. You could also roll back the high state sales tax rate. Or you could reduce the income tax rate. All of these items, along with rooting out corruption and featherbedding, would de-facto reduce the tax burden on the middle class.

Point two - healthcare. The governor seems determined to implement some sort of creeping single payer system on Illinois. Perhaps he should have a referendum on this, or campaign on this topic more explicitly. I don't remember a landslide victory for the governor on this topic nor resounding support even within his own party.

Point three - school funding. Illinois schools are either very good (the suburbs) or awful (the city, although there are a few exceptions). It is obvious to everyone that the schools in the City of Chicago are run terribly and throwing more tax dollars at these schools is going to work as effectively as it has for the last 50 or so years, which is not at all. Perhaps some "out of the box" thinking like letting the effective Catholic schools receive funding or even charter schools in the city might fix this gap, but since the governor is in thrall to the teachers unions, this is off the table. Note that his only solution to what is essentially a narrowly focused problem (the schools in the city of Chicago are awful) is to throw more money at it, there is no mention of the myriad other ways to attack this issue.

Point four -meet our pension obligations - well now we are at the end of a big circle. Why are pensions so underfunded? First of all, we allow all kinds of schemes to inflate pensions and encourage early retirement so that future generations can pay the bills. Secondly, a huge portion of these pensions are for the underperforming state workers in thrall to unions. Third, why do we even offer these pensions in the first place - the average worker doesn't get one, and they work a lot harder in the private sector. How about challenging the "root cause" of this problem at the source by demanding more from these employees and not kowtowing to unions... but no, the solution is more taxes.

Point five - paying their "fair share". This is a ridiculous statement. Illinois corporations are heavily taxed, and they are paying what the law tells them to pay. They aren't en masse defying the law. Are they supposed to voluntarily throw more money down the endless maw of our corrupt state government? Note that property taxes on businesses in Cook County are already runiously high. Mayor Daley and others know that it makes no sense to drive out the employers since there are 49 other states that will gladly take them. These corporations provide the salaries to pay workers and taxes to fund the government - since none of these facts are relevant to Blogo (his world is all unions, government workers, and institutions like schools, hospitals and the like which are linked in with the state) he has no care for businesses, at all.

Point six - the solution. Note that the gross receipts tax is "invisible" because all businesses pay it and it doesn't get passed on directly like sales taxes BUT THE MIDDLE CLASS WOULD PAY because products will become more expensive at all stages of the process. Do you think businesses just pay taxes and it doesn't impact behavior? The middle class people who do NOT work for the government will find less job opportunities due to this tax, and the fact that rational business people will choose to invest less in Illinois and deploy their capital elsewhere.

Remember, if you have health care already, this doesn't help you. If you aren't a government worker, you don't benefit from these pensions. And if you think that you can just tax businesses and 1) it has no impact on your job 2) it has no impact on future jobs in the state then you are just crazy from an economic point of view.

How about a real response:

  • Attack union featherbedding
  • Make state and local benefits (pensions, etc...) in line with the private sector
  • Use competition, charter schools, and the successful Catholic schools to "fix" the Chicago Public schools rather than throwing more money at the problem (which hasn't worked yet)
  • Demand high quality services for the residents of this state
  • If you want a single payer health care system, put it up for a vote, and watch everyone leave, since Wisconsin, Indiana and Iowa are but a hop and skip away
Really, it is frankly amazing that a democratic governor has to write a letter to the editor of a paper after getting blown out 107-0 in a legislature run by HIS OWN PARTY.

I used to think that the Republican Party of Illinois was the most dysfunctional party in the nation (George Ryan, Patrick Ryan, Keyes) - but now the Democrats really seem to be trying to give them a run for the money.

God save us.

Welcome to Seminole Forest

I live in a medium sized subdivision just to the south of Madison called Seminole Forest. On one side it ends at Seminole Highway, which I assume is why the subdivision got the name. With the crusades to get rid of all things named "injun" I assume that someday my subdivision will be called Eagle Heights, or The Pines, or something just as indistinguishable as any other place.

It is a very wooded subdivision and you actually have to pull a permit to cut down any tree with a trunk more than three inches in diameter, although nobody ever really goes through the permit process. If a diseased tree needs to go, it needs to go.

The subdivision is about 25 years old and so are most of the houses. As an aside, I just found out that many of these houses were parade homes back in the day. That explains a lot. There is some neat architecture in my subdivision. And there are the run of the mill, what I call "super seventies" Brady Bunch bi-level houses too.

In this mature, wooded subdivision we have an astounding amount of critters and wildlife. I have seen wild turkeys, foxes, and many other types of rodents, some of which I can't identify. We also have hawks that love to feed on these rodents.

Oh yeah, one more to add to the list - deer. Click for larger.
This carcass was there to welcome me home last night after my Muay Thai class and was clearly freshly killed. I am taking the photo from a street that enters my subdivision, and the cross street you see is county road PD, a very busy four lane divided highway. Well, very busy during most of the day, but not at 4:45 am when I took this shot.

Car deer accidents are costing the insurance companies (and consumers) a mint in Wisconsin. Look at these numbers - I live in Dane county. And these are just the ones that are reported! I harvested one myself with the mighty Honda Odyssey a couple years ago. These pests are everywhere now and hardly a morning goes by where I don't see one on the way to work. I just can't believe they live in my backyard now.

To every one reading this - please, please come to Wisconsin this fall and shoot as many of these pests as you can - we hate them and want them gone. But I think it is already too late.

I think my K-31's, which I am getting ready to restore, will be getting a workout this fall.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Ruse of Traffic Enforcement

The Founders, in their wisdom, knew that a society that was able to keep their papers and other personal items private would function much better than if the government was able to peek and peer into the affairs of citizens. They thought it was really important - so much so that they created an Amendment right off the bat to protect the privacy of the citizens.

The Bill of Rights, Amendment Four:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

I will be the first to admit that I am not a Constitutional scholar. I do read it several times a year, and always carry a small copy of it and the Declaration of Independence with me wherever I go. There are times that I am just "stuck" somewhere with nothing to do and it is a good way to pass the time. You can get yours at the CATO institute and they fit nicely in your pocket.

As the years have gone by I have been reading the Federalist Papers and other works by our Founding Fathers that go into great detail explaining the thought behind the words that are The Constitution.

I have been thinking about all of this the past several weeks as I have been seeing and hearing ads for the Click It or Ticket Campaign. I have absolutely had it with these seemingly useless programs, which to me are blatant invasions of privacy disguised under the banner of "safety".

Every year on our streets "x" number of people are going to die. That is a fact that we, meaning everyone that drives, have accepted. Just exactly how much money is a life worth? Just exactly how much money is your privacy worth?

These are tough questions. The knee jerk reaction is to say something like "well, all life is priceless". That is a nice view to take, but it is simply nonsensical. If we really cared to the nth degree about human life, we would simply outlaw any activity that endangers life - that includes, of course, driving. But we have mentally decided that there is some number, some risk factor that makes driving more financially viable to us than biking, walking, running, relocating, or otherwise avoiding driving a motorized vehicle.

Having accepted driving as part of our daily lives and accepting the risks involved in driving, there are things you can do to keep yourself more safe. Seat belts, supposedly, are one of those things. The whole mandatory seat belt thing started when I was a kid and I distinctly remember when these laws were enacted that politicians and police departments alike promised that they would never pull people over and give them a ticket for simply not wearing a seat belt. Well, as always, that was bullshit. We were lied to by the government, the police, and others. With the Click It or Ticket Campaign, the cops are going to be giving out tickets like candy, giving their coffers a nice boost in the process.

Along with pulling people over, roadblocks and the like come the questions. "Have you had anything to drink?" "Do you have any firearms in the vehicle?" "May I take a look around the vehicle ma'am?" All invasions of privacy, all Fourth Amendment violations. All accepted in our current day. The Fourth Amendment has been chipped away so badly that most of the people I know would simply let the cops rummage around their vehicle without a warrant or at least putting the police through the wringer a bit. It is simply ridiculous.

The constant chip, chip, chipping away of the rights of the individual leads us down the road to ruin. It is no body's business but yours how you run your life, and it is no body's business if you are following the laws, as to what articles you carry in your vehicle.

The only way I will have contact with the law in my private life is if I am pulled over for some random bullshit "safety" check, or am on a waterway and have contact with a DNR official. The more likely of the two is the road scenario. I will do everything I can to avoid this. I will play their games and drive UNDER the speed limit or very close to it, so as not to invite scrutiny.

It is distressing to me that the police and feds have nothing better to do with their time than embarrass and humiliate people by handing them tickets, costing us untold dollars in lost work, and clogging up the courts with even more traffic violations. Can you believe we have set up the words "traffic court" in the lexicon of our daily language usage? I have heard that over two thirds of all court cases are traffic related. Wish I could find a link to that stat. Ah, these things you will most certainly not hear on the radio or TV - only that you need to wear your fucking seat belt or we will pull your ass over and take your money and give you a ticket so your insurance rates go up - sucker. While real criminals are making hay, by the way.

In Wisconsin alone they plan on handing out 15,000 tickets. Is there really nothing better for police to do than waste their time on these efforts? If there is no real crime happening perhaps we should let a bunch of them go. Then again, if the cops have nothing better to do than give Aunt Mabel a ticket for going 41 in a 35 maybe things aren't so bad after all.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

sox fans



It was a beautiful night for baseball. The White Sox finally started hitting again, taking the first two games of the series from the Oakland A's.

No stereotypes were shattered with the sox fans in the bleachers, though... we had the worlds biggest mullet and a female Bobbi Jenks.

Monday, May 21, 2007

White Sox Fans Doin' The Wave

I was at US Cellular field tonight watching the White Sox vs. the Oakland A's when I saw something that I have NEVER seen in 200+ games at US Cellular and Comiskey Park... fans doing the wave. Shamefully enough, it started out in the bleachers, near the section where I have my season tickets.

Beauty and The Geek

On Saturday we went out to have some lunch and walked passed the popular bar "Rockit" in River North. Outside Rockit were scores of incredibly skinny (probably normal for LA but svelte for Chicago) girls milling around and we saw the "CW" network banner where they were casting for the show "Beauty and the Geek". I am not a big reality-show watcher but the premise is pretty self-explanatory - some dork (computer nerd type) is paired up with a skinny model-type and reality style hijinks ensues. Someone was even conducting an interview as we walked by rationalizing the social utility of this show and I had to laugh. Best of luck to these beauties...

Retraction

In my last Muay Thai post I said the following:
My shin was a bit swollen yesterday but today the swelling is virtually gone and the bruise is not as large as I thought it was going to be.

Heh heh, I take it back. The bruises on my right shin measure about six inches by four inches and are all sorts of wonderful hues such as black, blue, yellow and everything inbetween. We always want to keep the record straight here at LITGM.

The photo doesn't really do it justice.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Professionalism

A long time ago I used to listen to a radio show called "Loveline" late at night. The show was hosted by a doctor (Dr. Drew) along with a comedian (Adam Corolla) who fielded calls from listeners about personal problems. If you are a fan of the show check out the wikipedia page for Loveline you will laugh.

While the show did have some "jokey" elements, in general they were giving sound advice. The doctor could answer any question under the sun about drugs or intercourse of any type and the comedian had a "salt of the earth" attitude that made sense with the (relatively) low-IQ callers. For example, they would tell people to STOP doing dangerous behaviors, to GET AWAY from their family or relatives if they were losers, and generally try to get a job and be an upstanding citizen, as well as to NOT have children if they were a wreck (which represents the typical caller).

The callers would typically call in with "long time listener, first time caller" which meant they were a fan of the show and had listened for a while. One time a caller started with that and then started a typical question where he had children with different women, was using drugs, etc... and Adam joked that Dr. Drew was going to hang himself from the ceiling. Why? Because even though the caller had listened in on the show for years, his actions showed clearly that he HADN'T LEARNED ANYTHING since he was engaging in risky and foolish behaviors that literally every show would have counseled him against doing.

On a similar note, the Wall Street Journal had a guide to retirement with an article called "Spending And Spending Some More" on Saturday, May 12. This article examined the lives of individuals who had retired and how they were living their lives.

The article profiled a man called Phil Karsh and his wife. Here is the amazing statement:

"finding (medical) coverage for his wife, 58, has proved difficult... now I am paying 10% of my monthly draw in medical insurance. It's something I never thought about when I retired"

Really? This is a surprise? Who retires and attempts to purchase health insurance for someone in their 50's on the open market and is surprised when it costs an arm and a leg? Someone who is completely inept about finance...

"he also has some regrets about buying a new house in 2001... the couple mortgages only one-third of the house, using an interest only loan to get tax relief"

Aaargh... picking up a mortgage when you don't have current income (except by drawing down retirement assets) is nuts, and then paying interest to save (a portion) of that as taxes is also not a good plan. Also - why would you buy a new, more expensive house right before you retire and get rid of your source of income? Unless you have some inside scoop that housing prices are definitely going to increase, that is a risky call.

The portion that is aggravating about this article isn't the actions of the person in the article - after all, everyone makes mistakes, and not everyone has the knowledge, time or inclination to study taxation and financial policies. The odd part of this article is that the (obvious, to a professional) mistakes that the gentlemen was making were not being immediately "flagged" as mistakes.

The journalist should have been doing the financial equivalent of Dr. Drew pretending to hang himself when this person started talking. Why would the subject be in a major financial magazine making obvious or rookie mistakes? And why wasn't the journalist pointing them out immediately as obvious, rather than taking a "neutral" tone and just "reporting" what he heard?

Probably because it wasn't obviously stupid to the reporter... because the reporter doesn't know any better.

Knocked Down...But Got Right Back Up

Yesterday was the most strenuous Muay Thai class I have taken yet. At the end I just slumped into a pile of Dan-mush and had to put myself back together a bit before I left. It was one of my best workouts ever - I was totally ringing wet with sweat.

As I entered I noticed that a substitute instructor was there, a guy who had done the class a few weeks ago. His face was demolished. I asked him what happened? He had been to a fight in Fargo, North Dakota (he fights professionally). It was a mixed martial arts (MMA) fight. Many of the guys in my Muay Thai class also take other classes such as Jeet Kune Do or Jiu Jitsu so they can have all of the tools they need to prepare for MMA fights.

He was on the bottom, and received a punch to the face and a terrible elbow. He had three face fractures and a cracked orbital socket. His head was still pretty swollen and he said that it was a vast improvement from a week ago when he sustained the blows. He cannot have any contact for three months. He was paid $300 for this.

He would have received another $300 if he would have won the fight. Always curious about the business end of things I asked him some more questions. The promoter of this fight apparently did things right. Blood work was required of all fighters to test for Hepatitis and some other things (he didn't mention AIDS interestingly). They had an ambulance on site. Depending on the state, the promoter must purchase an insurance policy to cover emergency room care for all fighters. This promoter paid for room, gas money and food for the fighters for one day. After that they are on their own. The fee you are paid for fighting is negotiable, and you can get more money if you have a good representative from your gym who knows how to work the system. Some fights are not as well run as this one was in Fargo - some don't do blood tests nor pay as well. They are more a "show up and fight" type of deal.

The guy who I was speaking to mentioned that he had a piece of his skull still floating around in his cranium and that he had a 20% chance of needing surgery to fix that. Yikes!

I asked him if he had a day job and he replied that he managed a pizza joint. I also asked if he planned on fighting professionally again - he replied "of course".

I simply cannot fathom doing this to myself, but I guess people dig it. Many of the guys in the gym that I attend either fight now or plan to in the near future. Pain is one of the things that I try to avoid at all costs.

But as I write this Sunday morning I have a few bumps and bruises, all received fairly. Yesterday was an "all levels" class for Muay Thai, but only two lower level guys showed up - myself and a guy who has been doing it a much longer time than me. I was clearly the lowest guy on the totem pole here this day. As the instructor announced that we would be doing a lot of sparring today I said to myself "Oh shit".

Almost the whole session was indeed spent sparring - we worked on fighting against southpaws (left lead) and most of the time we were limited to only two weapons such as back leg and cross or jab and front leg. We were limited to body blows and 30-50% strength blows. We switched partners a lot and I was at times sparring with yellow belts and green belts. These guys I had no chance against. The sparring rounds were one minute standard lead and one minute southpaw lead, then switch partners.

When switching partners I had to ask each guy to take it easy on me as I have only been doing this for four weeks or so. I have to admit I am progressing. It is imperative that I move around a LOT so I don't get constantly tagged by these upper level guys. It is also helping me develop defense fighting against them. Then the knockdown.

It was partially my fault, partially his. He was an advanced fighter and was going to punch my body, but got the punch a little up, and a little hard too. On top of that I was dropping to deliver a low body shot - that combination ended up with a nice right cross perfectly landed on my jaw and I dropped like a sack of crap to one knee. It was only for a second though and I got right back up and kept going. He was very apologetic but you can't exactly take something like that back. Talk about learning the hard way. I did get a good foot jab right in on his gut later in the round and that made me feel a little better.

I guess I can take a (mild) punch because it only stunned me for a short while and I don't have any adverse affects this morning. My shin hurts though - even though our shins are padded up, it still kills when you kick and make contact with the opponent's knee. My shin was a bit swollen yesterday but today the swelling is virtually gone and the bruise is not as large as I thought it was going to be.

I think in the next few weeks I will take a private lesson to work on my technique more so I can practice on my punch/kickbag at home and try to make a dent in these upper level guys. They are so fast and defend so well it is hard to a beginner such as myself to make any kind of headway against them. I guess that is why I am a beginner and they are advanced.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Red Color Sox An Army Corps

One of my favorite sites I have been visiting lately is Hanzi Smatter. This post is an absolute classic. Check this Popeye's sign out, created from all of the Dice-K fanfare:Translated literally it means Red Color Sox An Army Corps. I simply cannot believe that people do not understand that Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Thai or any of these other languages that use characters CANNOT be literally translated into English.

Hanzi Smatter typically concentrates on tattoos that are posted on a public use board. Then they literally translate what they mean. There are some real doozies up there, but most of the time it is simply gibberish.

This hits home to me a little because a lot of guys in the gym where I am taking Muay Thai classes have tattoos with characters on them, I assume Thai ones. Anyway, if you have a few minutes, pop on over to Hanzi and laugh a bit at some of the obtuse sayings that people get tattooed on their bodies.

Tilt-A-Whirl Time









Click any photo for larger.


It is time again for the annual tradition every May that is the Tilt-A-Whirl post. On the sidebar you can see my previous posts on the Tilt-A-Whirl, including some history and interesting facts. I was really disappointed when I compared the serial number of this one to the one I rode last year at this same carnival...same machine.


But there are always things you find that you maybe didn't notice last time. Like these clowns that were painted on the back of the cars - kind of borderline evil if you ask me.










And for those of you who have never seen one of my world famous Tilt-A-Whirl videos, here is another for you. Hold on to your cookies!


Friday, May 18, 2007

Cubs vs. Sox at Wrigley May 2007 flyover

Here is a link to a youtube video of the national anthem at the Cubs vs. Sox game at Wrigley in May, 2007 along with a fly over. Note how Wayne Messmer holds the last note of the anthem until the jets fly over...

Crystal Ball

I love old store facades. Here is one from a McDonalds in Milwaukee. I particularly like the old time logo of the winking hamburger guy on top. Click for larger.

















Seeing this old (possibly just old looking) McDonalds reminded me to pat myself on the back for some crystall ball type stuff I did with the stock of the company. I am usually an investor, not a better or stock flipper. I buy quality stocks from quality companies that have balance sheets that I can understand and are involved in businesses that I can understand. I try my best to diversify as much as I possibly can to allow for ups and downs. The goal is to get 8-10% gain per year minimizing any tax impact, of course. Usually I have been beating that but pay someone to help me do it. I just don't have time to keep on top of it.

But several years ago I just knew I had a slam dunk on McDonalds. And I have the media to thank, as well as the American people.

In February of 2000 I purchased a quantity of McDonalds shares at 33.38 per share. The stock was doing "OK" for a while. It was one of my core holdings at the time and is always a solid pick IMHO. But in February of 2003 the stock took a major dive. Do you remember what happened?

Go ahead, think about it - then continue reading. I will give you this photo of a Big Mac while you think about it.
Did you remember? Maybe this will refresh your memory. After mad cow was identified in Canada and it was confirmed that McDonalds imported some of its ground beef from there the shares slumped big time, along with Tyson's and other large beef producing and processing companies. So now what to do with my investment that has lost over half of it's value?

Well, of course I doubled down. I purchased another lot of McDonalds shares in February of 2003 at 13.38 per share, bringing my cost basis down to 23.38 (less fees).

Why? The crystal ball. The media created (or tried to create) a panic scenario about mad cow and it worked for a very short period of time. As the article linked above explains the beef contracts on the Merc dipped immediately, and shares of beef linked companies were stomped for a short time. But I know how these things work.

People in this country, for whatever reason, have very short memories. Everything seems to be in the here and now. Once the story went off the front page everyone went back to their normal routines, buying burgers and steaks and patronizing fast food chains like Mickey D's. I knew I could count on fat, lazy and time pressed people to keep eating the junk they serve. Hell, I go there once every couple of months or so - I just like the food but can't eat it all the time. My god nobody should eat there too much. The salads are improving, I have to admit that.

So this is a very simple lesson in buying stocks. If a company hasn't changed from one day to the next AT ALL, there really is no reason to sell the stock, especially if you know their shares are being punished by a front page media story. Does anybody remember the Dubai ports story? Mad cow? Don Imus? These were all front pagers that nobody talks about or gives a shit about at all now.

Oh yea, the price of those McDonalds shares? Well, as of this writing it sits at $52.32 - and it pays a dividend of a buck a share. I still hold all of my shares.

Here is the chart of MCD over the last five years:
Steady as she goes, steady as she goes. Just like the ad says:



River North in Pictures

This family of Canadian geese stopped traffic on a bridge over the Chicago River while they methodically crossed the road. When the little ones are young their coats are almost a fluorescent green.
While walking home one night down Lasalle street in a busy part of River North we saw that someone just pushed a big copier down by the curb. Maybe it was like that movie "The Office" where the geeky guy took the bat to the fax machine, only on a larger scale.
I am always amazed at the uselessness of graffiti. Here, among the expensive condos, someone took the time to "tag" the Ohio Feeder bridge that brings in traffic from the Kennedy into the loop.
In my neighborhood one of our favorite bars is called "The Pepper Canister". It has surprisingly good food considering its Irish roots and gets crowded on the weekends, and they also set up tables outside which are very popular. The main problem is that it gets very smoky inside when someone lights up even a single cigarette, and you don't have to wait long for that in an Irish bar full of people drinking Guinness. The interesting part is, that it is May and someone has a leftover, brown xmas tree on the balcony of their expensive condo above the bar. The damn tree takes up the whole balcony!
Chicago is raised above the ground for various reasons that I don't fully understand because I am not an engineer. These grates kind of terrify me a bit because I fear the lack of investment in infrastructure that represents Illinois. These grates go down really deep over by the refurbished Montgomery Wards building and high end restaurants - that is my shadow on top and down at the bottom about 25 feet below, seems to be hanging in air.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

7:09

Muay Thai lessons are progressing and getting more and more interesting. At least now I have a little something to defend myself with if the occasion would ever arise. Not as good as a sidearm, of course, but I am not armed all the time.

I can compare Muay Thai to baseball, in a way. I never played baseball in any organized fashion when I was young. The schools I attended didn't offer baseball as an option and I was more interested in sitting the bench in soccer and basketball in high school anyway. Baseball was always available on TV though and I have always attended many games each summer. Attending so many games you eventually become used to identifying pitches, and understanding the many nuances of the game as far as strategy goes.

Have you ever gone into a batting cage? I do this once in a blue moon to remind myself how difficult it is to hit a round ball with a round bat. It truly is one of the hardest things to do in all of sports. The very best only do it right three out of ten times. Every time I enter a batting cage that has the 85 mph lanes I am happy if I make contact one out of ten times. And that is when you know where every pitch is going! And the velocity! Try it sometime and you will see.

Muay Thai, like any other sport has a lot of nuances, technique and skill involved. There is a proper way to defend strikes and there is a correct method for your stance, and to deliver punches and kicks. When I started I had no idea how to punch, kick or defend correctly. Muay Thai fighters on TV make it look so easy, just as it looks easy to hit a baseball.

I am already much better than when I started three weeks ago. It is fascinating to me to see how much extra power you can get into a kick or punch just from a very minor adjustment to your technique.

The workouts for the uninitiated look somewhat pell-mell and you never know what to expect. Every time I have gone to a class we have worked on something different.

Last night we did full sparring for the first time, body shots only, with "pulled" punches and kicks. When I say "pulled" I mean that we were instructed to only throw the punch or kick to the target, not through the target. But in a full sparring scenario, it is inevitable that some stronger shots get through. I did pretty well against the lower level guys. We were instructed to switch partners several times. One guy beat the snot out of me. He was so fast - and nothing I did could lay a hand (or foot) on him. He was nice though and encouraged me and said that someday I would be doing to someone else what he just did to me. It was interesting to say the least. Even though I took some shots in the chest and ribs I handled them better than I thought I would. I don't have any bruises and didn't have to pause at all. I suppose this is a good indicator of a well taught class that nobody was getting hurt, just enjoying a great workout.

I did excel in one thing last night that I didn't expect was coming - running. At the end of every Muay Thai class we do about 10-15 minutes of conditioning - ab work, push ups, cardio, other things like that. Last nights cardio was a one mile run. I smiled when I heard this, but realized that I didn't have running shoes so I had to use my work shoes. They were tennis shoes, but nowhere near as light as the running shoes I use on my treadmill. I finished the mile third out of twenty guys (and one girl) with a time of 7:09. I have to admit I impressed myself. My normal treadmill workouts are five miles, under 45 minutes. It made me feel pretty good to be standing there waiting for the more advanced fighters to finish their mile. If nothing else I can run.

For my anniversary my wife got me a kick/punch bag that will be in my basement. I think my future workouts at home (due to my schedule I can only take Muay Thai lessons twice a week) will be three miles on the treadmill and a half hour of practice on the kick/punch bag to work on my technique. I honestly don't think I could have chosen a better martial art. I suppose it is all a matter of preference, but I love the no bullshit aspect of Muay Thai. My goal is to earn my Thai Shorts by the end of the year - I think at this pace I will make it. We will see what the instructor thinks about that.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

State Taxes At Work

The State of Illinois and some of the major counties are starting to move some of their functions online. As anyone who has wasted an entire day in the bowels of a state or local government building somewhere can attest, going online is a much more pleasant prospect than face-to-face contact with our state workers.

In some areas the State of Illinois is doing a pretty good job. Illinois state taxes, in their current form, are pretty simple to file given that we have a flat rate of 3% after an exemption and it follows the Federal Tax income pretty cleanly (there are a few exceptions, but it is simple). You can file your taxes online and it seems to work well.

This screen shot comes from when I was attempting to activate my iPass account online. Illinois roads are famous for our tolls - and congestion. They recently doubled the non-iPass tolls as an incentive to move to iPass - I really didn't care about that because I don't drive very often and it was an excuse to get rid of more change that is just laying around the house. However, now the lines at the pay booths are obscene so I had to break down and join the iPass "revolution".

This wasn't a one-off error message - it took me multiple attempts over several days to get into the system and activate my account. Maybe it is tied to a mainframe system that is down at night (this happens more than you might think) for updating; however, a nice message to that effect might help.

What this leads to is - how much money does state government really need when you move most of the basic functions online? If it were like any other business in the nation, the answer would be, a lot less. When I started out in accounting there were rooms full of cost accountants manually putting together reports; with computers this dwindled down their numbers greatly (of course, they all came back with Sarbanes, but that is a different issue).

In the State of Minnesota, or "Land of 10,000 Taxes" as it is referred to in a recent WSJ article, the Democrats are in complete control and whipping up a variety of new taxes, even though the state is enjoying a big surplus. Most disturbing is this quote from the article:

"(why would they raise taxes when the budget is in surplus?) Well, it's simple. Here in the Land of 10,000 taxes it's called "ability to pay." State Rep. John Lesch, a liberal Democrat from St. Paul, once explained it clearly in a recent email to a constituent. "Once the wealthy simply pay their fair share, then we can have a discussion of whether government has greater or lesser needs," he wrote."

This is a frankly amazing statement. The state isn't like the Federal government, which pays for essential services like the US Military and other programs we can't do without. This isn't even your local government, which pays for your schools and road maintenance. This is for your state government, which does some stuff, mostly badly, and is usually some sort of middle-man between the Federal and local government. If there was any arm of government that you'd want to slim down (and no one would notice), it would be the STATE government.

And what these guys are frankly saying is that we ought to tax more to build up the state government because we can. In a time of automation that should help reduce the need for state spending, and even while the budget is in surplus, they want to raise even MORE money.

What this really shows is how out of touch the core liberal constituency is with the capitalist, market economy. Why would anyone put a business in Minnesota, with this sort of attitude? I worked in Minnesota for many years and enjoy the people and the scenery - they are hard working and well educated. But really, that only goes so far, if the state flat out wants to squeeze you just for the sake of doing so. And this to go to an arm of government that is a bad middleman in most cases, where we need to fund them, but we really ought not over-fund them.

I am very depressed for our economy and competitiveness with the potential Democratic sweep of congress and the presidency in 2008. I fear that we will get more Jimmy Carter policies, not even Bill Clinton (who at least understood that the economy mattered). From each according to their abilities (to pay), to each according to their needs, right?

Short Rant

I am not much for the typical rant on my blog. Essays that are well thought out and interesting are much more impressive to me. Taking a couple of seemingly unrelated items and tying them together and "cat blogging" can hold my attention over the rant 99 times out of 100.

Today I saw something that makes me want to rant though. Before that, as always, background.

I was born and raised in the Midwest, in a Protestant household. I had pretty much zero contact with Jews.

I met some in college and for the life of me still don't understand a lot of what they do and why. But I don't hate them - or anybody - because of their religion. I will give them the berries for not eating pork products though. Some things are just too good to pass up, no matter what your religion.

As of late I have been trying to understand the Jewish faith more - where it came from, what the different sects believe, why they have different holidays and what they do on those holidays. It is interesting stuff to a guy like me - lots of history there.

Over the past year or so I have been reading a few Jewish dailies - notably Ha'aretz and the Jerusalem Post. From reading these sites and through some discussions with my only Jewish friend, Jonathan of Chicago Boys, it appears that the Post has the more moderate (what we would call centrist) tone. Some of the stuff in Ha'aretz just didn't make sense.

What people in Israel go through on a daily basis is absolutely nuts, and you can't really get a grip on the sorrow unless you read about it day after day after day. Much (most) of it is caused by random events (random in placement) such as homicide bombers, and random rocket attacks. Here is what I saw that put me over the edge today. Click here for the video. There is no violence, language or anything else in this video that you need to worry about.

It is just so sad to see those kids running into the shelter - they give them 15 seconds to get there.

Can you imagine if the US had a city in Canada or Mexico lobbing random missiles into our country? I swear to God if our military was not directed to blow up those damned towns lobbing the random missiles I would do it myself or be killed trying. Having young kids as I do videos like these hit me right in the bread basket.

I don't understand why the left in Israel is such a bunch of idiots. They need to blow these idiots up so their kids don't get blown up someday. And I really don't understand why ultra orthodox Jews want to have their photo taken with presidents of certain Middle Eastern countries who want to blow them up just as well as any other Jew.

Sigh. At least it was a short rant, now I am happy.