Justifiable Schadenfreude

Any thought I had about perhaps being a big enough person not to revel in a little schadenfreude went right out the window when my friend Steve Smolinsky emailed me this headline a few weeks ago.

 

Suicide Bomb Instructor

(To read the full story, click here)

This was a revelation to me. I had no idea that suicide bombing is something you need to go to school for. I always assumed the instructions were pretty simple:

  1. Strap on vest
  2. Make your way to a place filled with innocents
  3. Push the red button
  4. Express great surprise at the absence of virgins

Obviously, there’s more to it, presumably starting with “When practicing, be sure to use a vest that’s not actually packed with explosives.” Good advice.  A little surprising that anyone needs to hear it.

I’ve been meaning to post this since it arrived, mostly because along the way, I picked up these wonderful bits of drollery from friends:

  • “One thing you know for sure about a suicide bombing instructor – no on the job experience.”

. . . and . . .

  • “Kids – they blow up so fast nowadays.”

Someone somewhere no doubt is blaming America for this mishap and using it to recruit and misguide yet more children.  I was hoping that this sort of over-the-top corporal punishment might discourage at least a few of them from signing up for this class.  Apparently not.  As I was getting ready to post this, I heard that yesterday in Iraq, suicide bombers killed 30 of their countrymen/women/children and wounded 70 more.

Misguided is the wrong adjective.

Start Your Year With A Smile

This is now the fourth consecutive year for this photo missive.  One of the benefits of it becoming a habit is that I’m starting to get photos from friends and family, for which I’m truly grateful.  Takes some of the pressure off.  I’m also grateful for the good fortune of a great scene that presented itself with only 40 minutes left in 2013.  But you’ll have to read on to find it.

Let’s get started.

The following four pictures are all from a single trip to visit a client in Milwaukee.  When I visit that client, I stay at a Crowne Plaza hotel, which is basically an overdressed Holiday Inn.  Nothing wrong with that – it’s clean and comfortable, and the staff is very nice.  But while Doubletrees give their guests a couple of cookies so good you know they have to be bad for you, the Crowne Plaza, gives you this:

Crowne Plaza

The blue bag looks suspiciously like something you might take with you while walking your dog.  On my next visit, the Keebler cookies were gone – replaced by a second bottle of water.

Driving back to Chicago, I saw this sign on a building just off the freeway.  It’s my favorite of the year – does the best possible job of explaining why you wouldn’t want to be this company’s customer.

Milwaukee Light Bulb

A little further south, just before Kenosha, I came across this.  It’s Wisconsin and there’s a party goin’ on.

Milwaukee - Kenosha Bong

(OK, heroism should get its due.  My friend Cliff Porzenheim points out that the sign actually refers to Kenosha native Dick Bong, who was America’s leading fighter ace in WWII.)

When I got to Kenosha (land of the BoDeans and a zillion outlet stores), I stopped to grab a bite at the Tuscany Bistro, which I recommend, by the way – it’s terrific.  And run by people with a sense of humor.  It’s Wisconsin, and there really is a party goin’ on.

Milwaukee Kenosha Tuscany

All of that from one trip to Milwaukee.  If I had any sense, I would quit while I’m ahead.   If I had any sense.  Let’s continue. . .

If you can’t make out the name of the company, it’s Key Sales, Inc.  Apparently, they can dish it out, but they can’t take it.

Key Sales, Inc.

My daughter, Julia, spotted this sign at the Wal-Mart in Hayward, WI.  Might they be better off simply not talking about their safety record?

Safe Shopping Experience

Here, thankfully (and thanks to Victoria Woodarski) is a little truth in advertising.  You gotta love the phone number.

Estate Junk

And courtesy of Scott St. Clair, here’s a smart buy for the not-so-smart.

Glove Deal

If you’re tired of your kids, my friend Steve Smolinsky found out where you can take them.  Of course, if they don’t sell, you may have to take them back.

East Vincent Kid Sale (2)

A couple of travel tales this year:

In January, I visited my daughter in Puerto Vallarta, where she was volunteering in an orphanage (yes, she has a very proud dad).  We took a bus to a nearby town, where we found these people waiting to take the bus back the other way.  I kept hearing a clucking sound, which turned out to be coming from the box in the middle of the picture.

030

Yup. . .that there is a Chicken In A Box.

I go to Detroit once a quarter to visit with my friends at EOS Worldwide.  We meet at the Detroit Airport Westin.  I’m glad I’ve never been given this room, which I suspect is the 10th Circle of Hell.  Note the Do Not Disturb sign.  Demons at work, I assume.

004

There used to be just a few of us at the EOS meetings, but now there are so many that the EOS folks give us really fancy name badges.  Here’s the back of one.  Care to guess what led to the badge-maker adding this legend?

005

This sight raised a bunch of questions.  Starting with who thinks of things like this?  And who buys them?

086

An aside: I had Tetra as a client many years ago.  Their HQ and factory are in the tiny, landlocked town of Melle, Germany.  By tiny, I mean that the only sources of economic activity are the Tetra plant and a Chinese restaurant. It seems like an extremely unlikely location for both businesses, and I have no idea how either one got there.  Thanks to the factory, the entire town smells like fish food.  So it really doesn’t matter what you order at the restaurant.  Like it or not, you’re ordering from the seafood menu.

In the automotive category, I was on my way to have lunch with my friend Julie Roth when I saw this.

010

Yes, that’s an Aston Martin parked in a handicapped spot.  To the owner:  You can afford the car but you can’t afford the valet?  James Bond is going to get you for this.

I saw this while stuck in traffic on the Eisenhower Expressway (a classic misnomer – there is nothing “express” about it).  I swear, I wasn’t moving when I took the picture.  Completely safe.  Really.  That’s my story.

019

It’s a little hard to see, but that thing in the right front seat is a giant, orange plastic cockroach.  There has to be a story behind this.  I mean, I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been in a situation where the right thing for me to do was put a giant plastic cockroach in any part of my car, let alone in the passenger’s seat.  Worse yet, the cockroach was sitting feet up, head down, and the driver was smiling.  You want to fill in the blanks?  I don’t.

If you’ve been following my year-end posts for any length of time, you know that I have an undeniably juvenile appreciation for restroom humor.  Perhaps it’s because the water closet is one of life’s great equalizers.  Or maybe it’s just because I’m undeniably juvenile.

Whichever, I saw this sign while trying to find a restroom in Mexico.

026

And this one somewhere else, maybe on an airplane.  With signs like this, I always wonder what set of events made someone decide it was necessary.  In this case, I think it was the milk bottle that caught my eye.

002

Speaking of wondering what made someone decide it was necessary, I saw this at a Doubletree (yes, the cookie people).  I’d never really thought about what goes into a decision to enter a public restroom.  I guess I’ve always been satisfied simply to know that it was intended for my gender.  Apparently, that’s not always enough information.  I suspect (for the obvious reasons) that this isn’t a standard sign.  Which means somebody thought about this, decided it was important, and had the sign made.  Someone else paid that person to do it.  Perhaps this is the OCDoubletree.

021

This logo made me want to run right out and by the stock:

Swisher

Imagine what the analyst call with the CEO and CFO is like:  “We’re pleased to report that primary demand is up thanks to increasing coffee consumption. . .”

And finally in this category – I got this piece of spam from what appears to be the Vietnamese version of Home Depot.  It was entirely in Vietnamese except for one word.

Vietnamese Spam (Toilet)

Using that as a segue to technology, I found this bit of brilliance while looking for some free Wi-Fi:

FBI Wi-Fi

Now go back and look at the Wi-Fi network below “FBI Surveillance Van.”  Someone was in a bad mood the day they set up their router.

On a much happier note, nature loves a plastic surgeon with a sense of humor.

Sea Cups

Here’s a bit of pith from the Russian playwright Anton Chekov.

035

Editorializing briefly:  I’ve sat through a Chekov play.  Once.  Which was enough.  If you want to know what REALLY wears you out, give that a try sometime.

This is my dog, who doesn’t offer much comfort but has no problem accepting it.

017

And finally (thank you for your patience), there I was at 11:20PM on New Year’s Eve, getting my car out of the alley behind my friends Anne and Doug’s house.  It was 15 degrees, snowing like mad, and this guy came down the alley.  There’s just never a St. Bernard when you need one.

Ice Emergency

Thanks for visiting.  Happy New Year – I wish you a wonderful 2014!

Fifty Years On

Like all Americans my age and older, I remember where I was in November 1963.  I was five years old, living in Arlington, Virginia (in a house my family called the White House because it was. . .well. . .white), attending first grade at a little Lutheran school that my parents sent me to because my near-Christmas birthday put me well past the public school cutoff date and they didn’t want me to wait another year.

The first weekend of that November, we went on an excursion into Washington, D.C.  The reason and the destination are long gone.  What I remember is that we were on Independence Avenue, one of the broad boulevards that border the Mall, when traffic was stopped by motorcycle policemen.  We got out of our car to see what was happening.  As we got to the cross street where traffic was stopped, a motorcade went by.  In the rear window of the second or third car, I saw a young boy sitting on an adult’s lap, and the adult’s hand waving out the window.  The hand was that of President Kennedy and the boy was John, Jr., then known as John-John.

Three weeks later, I came home from school on Friday afternoon, walked into the kitchen, and found my mother sitting on a stool and leaning on the counter.  She was glued to the radio and had tears streaking her face.  I asked her what was wrong and she said, “The President is dead.”

I have earlier memories, but those two stand out for obvious reasons.

Twenty years later, in November of 1983, I was back in Washington, D.C., this time as a Legislative Assistant to then-U.S. Senator Slade Gorton.  He was a moderate Republican back when that term had meaning.  Congress then was more civil, if no more productive, than it is today.  It civilly recessed for Thanksgiving on Friday, November 18.  So the following Tuesday, November 22, was very quiet.

It was quiet enough that around ten in the morning I left my office on Capitol Hill and drove across the Potomac to Arlington National Cemetery.  Whatever memorial events may have been planned must have been set for later in the day because the place was deserted.  So on the twentieth anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination, chilly and gray, I had a solid half-hour at his grave site entirely by myself.

Kennedy Gravesite 2 Kennedy Gravesite

I remember trying that day to gin up a good insight or two and coming up with nothing.  Eventually, I pulled my coat around me, watched a few more leaves blow across the grave site plaza and left.   But I’d gotten to be alone with my country for a few minutes.  It turned out that my country was an inscrutable conversationalist, but I was glad for the company.  Sometime today, I’m going close my eyes and head back to that place for a few minutes.  If you have the time, I hope you’ll come with me.

Kennedy Gravesite 3

One More Time – And Other Stuff

One More Time

I’m finding myself hugely aggravated by the Obamacare rollout.  Not because of the technological incompetence (see “Sibelius”), not because I think it’s ill-intended, let alone evil (see “Cruz”), but because it doesn’t address the economic reality of healthcare, which means that it can’t and won’t solve the problem it’s supposed to solve.  The unaddressed reality is that the vast majority of what we call health insurance isn’t insurance (see “my earlier posts on healthcare”).  Rather, it’s the confiscation and transfer of wealth from young, healthy people to older, less healthy people (see “individual mandate”). Until we face up to that reality, we’re doomed to a healthcare system that raises blood pressure instead of lowering it.

If someone can come up with a way to make healthcare function like an actual market, and to make health insurance actual insurance, I’ll be first in line to support it.  Failing that, we have an entity whose job it is to confiscate and redistribute wealth.  It’s the government.  Which means that like it or not, we’re going to wind up with a single-payer system for the bulk of healthcare.

To be clear, I don’t like it.  But it’s inevitable.  It reminds me of Ben Affleck’s great line in Argo, when his boss asks if he can’t come up with a good idea to rescue the American hostages.  “No sir, this is the best bad idea we’ve got.”

That’s where we’re going, and I wish we would just get on with it.

Other Stuff

First:  I loved watching Chris Christie clean up on Tuesday.  It turns out that people like candor and problem-solving.  Didn’t see that one coming.  I’m also amazed that he’s being challenged on his conservative credentials since his politics are basically the same as Reagan’s.

Second:  a few weeks ago, I heard on the radio that a group of (presumably wealthy) Saudi women had decided to protest their country’s prohibition against women driving by giving their drivers the day off and driving themselves.  My sympathies are totally with them, but this strikes me as a phenomenally bad way to make the point.  Call me crazy, but turning hundreds of completely inexperienced drivers loose on the roads as a way of proving that they should be there seems like an effort that might. . .um. . .backfire.

Third:  On the radio yesterday, I heard that Chicago Bears’ quarterback Jay Cutler will be returning from an injury sooner than expected thanks to “a new form of groin stimulation.”  (Again, I refer you to my policy of never making this stuff up.)  That someone could come up with a new approach to what seems like it must have been the first thing mankind ever did is a great testament to the inventiveness of our species.  It’s enough to make me regret both my career choices and my lack of athletic talent.

And finally this:  Over the past week, I’ve learned a couple of new things about the mortgage industry.  How I came to learn these things is a long story that I’m not going into here.  Suffice it to say that however bad you’ve heard the machine is, it’s worse.

One thing I learned is that Citigroup, a company with 300,000 employees, which holds billions of dollars of mortgage assets and services billions more, doesn’t know the difference between the words “approved” and “completed,” something most of us had our heads around out by the 3rd or 4th grade.   This in a standardized email they must send out by the thousands.  And which they claimed they hadn’t sent at all (although they had), which must be a scam (which it wasn’t), and which shouldn’t be opened (a little late, don’t you think?).  Billions of dollars.  Failing 3rd grade vocabulary.  Go phish.

The other thing I learned, which might go a long way toward explaining the first, is that the tax code apparently allows financial institutions to write off 100% of the losses they incur when they take ownership of underwater properties through foreclosure, but only 50% of the losses they incur when they settle without taking ownership of the property.  I was told this by a lawyer who specializes in such things.  I’ve looked online and haven’t been able to verify it (Google yields up only pages relating to the tax impact on the borrower, not the lender).  If it’s true, however, it provides mortgage holders with a massive incentive to NOT work with homeowners to find solutions short of full foreclosure.

A non-free market at non-work, not working.  Which brings us full circle. . .One More Time.

Short, Sweet and True

Watching the news over the past two weeks, I’ve been reminded of a conversation I had 31 years ago (so long that it makes me wish I could claim that I was 12 at the time).

I was managing a(n ultimately successful) campaign for a seat in Congress.  One day, I rang up a friend and political consultant whose services I couldn’t afford, but who had kindly invited me to call him when (not if) the crisis occurred.  It turned out to be a crisis of conscience.

Consistent with my pledge that I never make this stuff up because life is much funnier than I am, the conversation went like this:

Political Consultant:  “What’s going on?”

Me:  “I, um, um, I, I don’t know, I, um. . .”

PC: “I know.  You’ve become concerned that your candidate may not be intelligent enough to be a member of The United States House of Representatives.”

Me:  “Yes <sigh> . That’s exactly what’s going on.”

PC:  “Well, let me put your mind at ease. I know many members of The United States House of Representatives, and he is.”

The more things change. . .?  I’m not sure they change at all.  They certainly seem to stay the same.

Suppose We Gave a Tea Party and Nobody Came

I’ve been away for a while.  I hoped that when I returned I would have something funny and non-political to rant about.  Alas.  And this has the makings of a long one.

I’ve had very little direct interaction with the Tea Party.  I have one friend who’s a member.  He’s a great guy, very smart and very reasonable.  He tells me that when he goes to Tea Party events, he’s in the company of people who are deeply bothered by how much of their wealth the government confiscates, how much more it borrows, and the seeming endlessness of those appetites.

I get that.  I’m in the category of people who believe that being $17 trillion (yes, trillion) in debt, borrowing $2 billion more every day, and being one of the handful of countries whose public debt is larger than its economy (which puts us in the noble company of Greece, Grenada and Lesotho) is a bad idea.

I have grudging respect for a perspective that says, “You’re so deeply in debt that if you want me to let you borrow more, you have to at least show me how you plan to stop, even if I have to shut you down to make you tell me.”  That may be inelegant, but there’s a nice, logical harmony to using the debt ceiling to force a conversation on the debt.  And I thought it was good that the Tea Partiers were willing and able to bring this issue to the top of the national agenda.

What’s going on now, though, is completely beyond me.  I have my issues with Obamacare.  I like the exchanges because they at least start to move us away from our anachronistic reliance on employers as the providers of health insurance.  I’ve said in previous posts that the only actual role employers play is to provide insurance companies with randomized pools of people to insure, that the burden they bear for playing this role is enormous and distracts them from their real work of building competitive enterprises, and that there are much easier ways to create such pools.  The exchanges at least begin to address that issue.

Beyond that, I continue to believe that for any healthcare system to work, it needs to address two underlying realities.  One is that healthcare intrinsically lacks the essential characteristics of a market, which are the ability of multiple buyers and sellers to make informed decisions about whether to do business with one another and the ability to place a dollar value on the benefit of the product or service.  The other is that most of what we call health insurance is really the confiscation and transfer of wealth from young, healthy people to older, less healthy people.  Thus the need for the individual mandate.  Healthcare has much more the character of a pension system than it does, say, car insurance.

Since Obamacare doesn’t deal with either of those issues, I think it is likely to fail.  I would love to be proven wrong.

Those are my beliefs.  I hold them strongly.  But not strongly enough to go nuclear.

I don’t pretend to know what’s in the minds of the Tea Party contingent in Congress.  From where I sit, it sure looks like we have a group that is small but just large enough to be obstructive, and that thinks shutting the government down is either fun or a good idea, or maybe just another political tactic.  It sounds like “Hey Gang!  Time to shut the government down again!  What excuse will we use this time?”

More broadly, I don’t understand why believing that it’s a bad idea to be one of the world’s great debtor nations should bring with it a larger agenda that’s essentially anti-knowledge.

On that note, my other direct interaction with the Tea Party happened a couple of years ago, when my neighbors and I were embroiled in a zoning dispute with a Muslim group that bought a property behind ours and set out to turn it into their worship center.  The dispute was about parking spaces, and the neighbors who objected worked very hard to make sure it stayed about only that, despite the best efforts of many, including the press and the Muslim group itself, to make it about everything else.

Late in the game, the president of the local Tea Party chapter showed up at a Zoning Board hearing, got sworn in, and launched into a rant about national security.  Uninvited, unwelcome, uninformed and unhelpful.  When the County Board sided with the neighbors and the Muslims went to Federal court (where – spoiler alert – they won on summary judgment), she was Exhibit A.

This particular Muslim group is composed of people who fled Iran for the U.S. right after the Shah did the same thing.  Failing to understand what that says about their politics is simple ignorance.

I’d like both my conservative and liberal friends to remember that I am, or at least try to be, an equally opportunity ranter.  The last time we went through this, I commented that having gotten a significant tax concession from the Republicans, Obama owed them a dose of entitlement reform in return.  Didn’t happen.

This is just a plea on my part for a little touch of thoughtfulness, rationality and good will.  Wanting that, I suspect, puts me in the company of the vast majority of Americans.  On the other hand, we’re the ones who keep electing these knucleheads.

The Best of Who We Are

As cynical and pessimistic as I often am about my country and the state of things in general, I also am sometimes wonderfully surprised.  In my last post, I mentioned how impressed I was – moved is perhaps a better word – by the fact that in the instant after the first bomb went off in Boston, while half the people on the scene ran for safety, half threw their own safety to the wind and ran into the danger to help.  People who likely had no idea what they were doing waded into the blood of others, took off belts and shirts, fashioned tourniquets, gave aid and comfort, and no doubt saved many lives.

This week, we got another shining example.  It was this guy:

Charles Ramsey

Charles Ramsey is the neighbor who heard one of the women call for help, kicked in the door and. . .helped.  He is uneducated, washes dishes for a living – however scant a living it may be – and doesn’t have two nickels to rub together.  Given his 15 minutes of fame and the probable opportunity to promote himself, he didn’t.  When interviewed about his actions, here is what he said:

  • I’m not a hero.  I did what anyone else would have done.
  • I can’t sleep at night now that I know those women were right across the street all that time and I didn’t do anything about it.
  • Don’t give me a reward.  Give the money to the women to help them recover.  They need it more than I do.

This is the best of who we are – as Americans and perhaps simply as people.  The humility Mr. Ramsey displayed makes him a hero in my book.

The older I get, the more important I think humility is.  It comes from a deep and abiding belief that you might possibly be wrong, that other people are more important than you are, that part of what makes you special is the very fact that everyone else is every bit as special as you are, and maybe even a wee bit more.  There is no such thing as too much of it.

I would like to think that had I been in Mr. Ramsey’s his shoes, I would have done what he did and said what he said, just as I would hope that had I been in Boston, I would have been one of those who ran into the danger.  I don’t know and never will, unless I have the misfortune to find myself in a situation like that one day.  I also hope that when the time comes for someone to write my epitaph, first that someone will, and second that the word ‘humble’ will be in it.  It seems to me to be the highest of aspirations.

I wish my handful of loyal readers a happy – and humble – weekend.


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