Monday, February 28, 2011

828 My Hero

828 My Hero

(STATE COLLEGE, PA.) -- What’s the most dangerous place on earth? Is it Lybia? Or Madison? Iran? If you guessed “none of the above,” you’re right. The most dangerous place on earth is wherever you stand if it’s between a Penn State University student and his or her bar of choice. Especially at the onset of a fake and stupid holiday called “State Patty’s Day.”

Called WHAT? Maybe you need a little information first. A few years ago, SAINT Patrick’s day fell during the school’s spring break, and with students out of town, there was one less excuse for everyone to go out and get sloshed.

So some enterprising future teachers, accountants, business people, engineers, scientists, artists and others got together and made up and publicized the fake holiday. And it’s been going on ever since, even though the REAL holiday no longer falls during spring break.

State Patty’s day 2011 was Saturday, February 26th. And at late afternoon, the town’s main drag was jammed like Broadway on Thanksgiving morning. Here, the kids are older and there are no giant balloons. Or maybe the kids ARE the giant balloons. The locals wear green shirts with the holiday name in white, sometimes with pictures of the school’s symbolic mountain lion. A favorite says “State Patty’s Day Wear Green Get Drunk.”

Already, the locals are writing comments to the newspaper, most of them describing what they call the unspeakable acts of frat boys and girls, mostly on their lawns. Around here, DWI and alcohol poisoning mean cash flow for courts, lawyers and the hospital emergency room. Broadway on Thanksgiving morning. About two hundred cop stops, about 40 charged with drunk driving.

Now, to the hero, whose name is Jennifer Zangrilli, operations manager of six restaurants in the area, four of them downtown watering holes. And this day, they are either not serving alcohol or are closed entirely. It’s only a handful of restaurants in a town where there is at least one bar on every block, sometimes two or three. And Zangrilli is not the only owner to shut down for the day. But her company is old, well established and well -- and deservedly -- respected.

A hero because she doesn’t want her share of customer bar fights and bar-fing? Who can blame her? A hero because she’s setting an example? Sure, though the kids who want to get bagged will find places to do so. But here’s someone who’s putting the good of the community before profit. And THAT’s why she’s a hero.

There is a downside. First, no income on one of the busiest days of the year. Second, employees, many of them college kids with big tuition bills, or older hands with mortgages probably won’t get paid for the day.

But sometimes, you have to do the right thing. And when someone does, it’s worth talking about. And copying.

Shrapnel:

--Hunter College of the City University of New York has been named tenth best bargain in higher education. When mama went there, it was “girls only,” and it was free. For her graduate days at Columbia, which wasn’t and isn’t a bargain, she did something really shocking: earned scholarships and got jobs.

--Last Train to Clarksville? “Discovery” has arrived at the International Space Station, and then as the oldest traveler in the fleet will be grounded for good. But when it returns to earth, it will leave behind a robot spaceman with a twitter account, the better to tell you the latest... latest... latest.

--Discovery was to have made this trip in November, 2010, so it’s four months late. Computer problems delayed it, hatch problems lengthened the time of the linkup and there’s some insulation now missing from the side of the ship. Who’s running this show, the Long Island Railroad?


I’m Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
Please address comments to wesrichards@gmail.com
© WJR 2011

Friday, February 25, 2011

827 Radio News: an Opposing View

827 Radio News: An Opposing View

Colleagues will get out the flamethrowers and put snakes in the mailbox after reading the heresy to follow. But there are things here that need to be said. And while it’s radio-specific, there’s a lot that also applies to television.

A long time ago in a far off land, you could hear a radio newscast with a minimum of distraction and interruption.

New Yorkers did this by tuning in WOR and WQXR and WCBS. You turned ‘em on and someone told you the news. Period.

WOR’s news department was staffed by stentorian sounding announcers, many having no idea what they were reading on the air. But they were backed with a 25 or 30 person team of writers and editors who did.

WQXR had the luxury of news prepared by the New York Times and later the Associated Press.

WCBS had Ed Murrow’s late evening newscast. He told you what was going on. Murrow was a first class reporter-writer, despite the many people who said so, and he had two able right hands, Jesse Zousmer and John Aarons.

No tape. No BS. No reporters reporting about themselves. Few or no “live shots.” No “Man-In-The-Street” reactions to things. No sound bites with comments from people who had no standing in a story. No “pundits” or instant “experts.”

In all cases, plain prose you couldn’t misunderstand no matter how hard you tried.

As recording tape became cheap and available, more and more of the radio “news” was “sound.” Like comments from the fire chief, the police, the neighbors or the local congressman. And “natural sound.” Snow shovels scraping the ground, fire trucks, that kind of thing.

Adds little or nothing to a story. Just tell us the news. You think idiot sound makes stuff more “immediate” or “lively?” Ridiculous.

The Next Big Thing was I-A-V, Idolatry of the Active Voice. Or “people do stuff.” This may have been an overreaction to use of the passive voice at the time, but sometimes the action is more important than the actor. That’s why English HAS a passive voice. Eliminating it at all costs is ridiculous and results in sentences no one can understand.

Accompanying this was the wise-guy approach to writing. WNEW had a first rate news department, also 25-ish strong. Much of the time they squandered it by writing so cleverly that the words became the story, not the other way around.

The WNEW stylebook of that era, written by a guy who pretty much knew what he was doing, cautioned against overuse of cleverness. (He noted one item about a cemetery workers’ strike in which he said the lead sentence “Some cemetery workers are in grave trouble...” was too extreme. Apparently anything below that on the scale was acceptable.) Few paid attention to that caution.

Today, the template is audio packing peanuts that add nothing to a story but confusion, a reporter whose every other word is “I” and anchors who work at stations starting with the letter “W,” but who can’t pronounce the word “Double-You.”

Nobody’s perfect. Even Walter Cronkite declined to use the conventional pronunciation of the month, February, opting instead for “Feb-u-ary.”

Bring back announcers, writers and editors who just tell us the news. Please.

I’m Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
Please address hate mail to wesrichards@gmail.com
© WJR 2011

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

826 Lazy Mary

826 Lazy Mary

Anyone remember Lou Monte singing
“Lazy Mary, you better get up.
She answered back ‘I am not able.’
Lazy Mary you better get up
We need the sheets for the table.”

Lazy Mary is working in Wisconsin. At least if you read the publicity from those good folk with their heads firmly implanted... well, you know where.

She’s a municipal employee. Maybe a social worker, a nurse, a teacher, a clerk, a cop, a firefighter, an engineer (either on a rail line or in a planning office.)

And she’s union. And she’s not lazy and neither are her union brothers and sisters in Wisconsin and 37 other states where similar and support demonstrations are taking place. In fact Mary is so un-lazy with her job that the only way she could have found the time to attend a rally was to use some of her vacation time. You know, the time off the union stole from the state? State, federal and municipal workers won the right to organize about 40 years ago, trailing their private sector counter parts by decades. Now, they’re trying to take it away and there are two reasons: (1) Money and (2) the Great De-fanging.

Governor Scott Walker claims a $300-million budget deficit. This is after he awarded a $400-million tax cut to his loyal supporters. So, right, the state is short of bucks, even though Walker inherited a surplus.

More important: Municipal workers are the last man standing to organize voters, educate voters, register voters and make sure those voters get to the polls on election day. Many, if not most of those new recruits are people who are poor or minorities or both. And these groups tend to vote Democratic. This is part of the Republican attack on the two party system.

What’s the alternative for the workers? Fourteen hour days? Fewer holidays, less or no health insurance, an inferior retirement plan? What’s in it for the ordinary people who depend on these workers for health care, transportation, police and fire protection? Resources they need will used instead to further pay off the debt and the governor’s friends.

The police unions backed Walker’s election. They’ve changed their minds and gotten loud about the change.

Oh. Notice something about the Governor’s storm troops assigned to the demonstrations: There’s no storm. While an individual cop is not permitted (by contract!) from expressing political views while on duty, police are treating the demonstrators with kindness and respect uncommon for such a supposed confrontation.

And by the way, where’s Obama? He’s given lip service support but when he was in Milwaukee the other day, he apparently didn’t have the hour or so it would have taken to scoot 75 miles west to Madison and show up in person.

Probably too busy thinking up new ways to give the country to the Republicans and calling it the look for common ground.

Shrapnel:

--Note to Muammar: Time’s up. Forty-two years after his “socialist” coup, America’s newest best friend says he’ll die a martyr after fighting down to his “last drop of blood.” Let us know when the next-to-last comes out, Mu Mu, so we can get there in time to film the last one.


I’m Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
Please address comments to wesrichards@gmail.com
© WJR 2011

Monday, February 21, 2011

825 The Contract

825 The Contract

So it’s time to renew the homeowners insurance and here comes the bill and it’s maybe 15% higher than last year’s. Hmmm... maybe the house has gotten more vulnerable in a year. Or is it something else?

Let’s call around and get some quotes. It’s no problem to find a policy with more coverage for about 40% less than the bill sitting here, so we sign up.

One thing about insurance companies, they bill early. Okay, we’ll cancel this policy when we get the “second notice.” Sure enough, a second notice arrives and we call the insurance company to cancel and guess what? They don’t admit to having a customer service department, at least not via telephone.

But sneaky us! We fool around with the telephone keypad for awhile and sure enough, there IS such a department, only they don’t advertise it because (1) this is not a claim and (2) why bother with people like... um … customers needing customer service.

Surprisingly, the department is not in India, it’s in Hartford. Unsurprisingly they don’t want you to cancel, so they don’t make it easy.

“Call your agent.”

“I’m not on speaking terms with my agent.”

“I’ll send you the forms you have to fill out. You’ll get them in about ten business days.”

“What if I just don’t pay the bill?”

“We’ll cancel for non payment and report it to the credit bureaus.”

“Why can’t I just tell you on the phone?”

“We have a contract with you.”

“Yeah, but it has an expiration date and I want it to expire.”

Why all this hullabaloo? Why the price increase? Probably, because there was a claim during the past year. Not a payment, just a claim, later withdrawn.

But the “adjuster” did her job. A chirpy young woman who knows that her job is to make sure no claim is ever paid, and who knows her customers know and are not shy about reminding her.

Ever read the fine print in your insurance policies? It makes the credit card companies seem like they actually speak English. They should issue a dictionary or at least a glossary with the policy.



Shrapnel (insurance edition):

--Fifteen minutes did not help at least one customer save 15% or more on car insurance and did not present a quantity discount for combined home and car insurance, so, so much for that company.

--Another tells you to ask your neighbor about the quality of their work. Can’t find a soul with a policy, or even the one that assures you you’re in good hands and protects you against driving teen texters. So, so much for THOSE companies.

--Then there’s the one that “keeps you legal for less” and one that says “yes” without your having to supply any personal information. The first means “barely legal,” and the second is on death watch. So like King Kong Bundy, it’s a pin fall with a five count.

I’m Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
Please address comments to wesrichards@gmail.com
© WJR 2011

Friday, February 18, 2011

824 Going Buy the Book (store) and Book Look

824 Going Buy the Book (Store) and Book Look

We’re in the Borders on Park Avenue in the 50s with a gift card and a Latte at their coffee and pastry corner. About half way through the shared drink we find something in the cup that wasn’t on the menu: a roach.

They made nice on us after that, refunding our money (thank you,) offering a replacement drink (no, thank you) and willingly cashed out our gift card, a violating company policy. They were as happy to see us go as we were to leave.

That was one of two leading indicators that things were not going perfectly at Borders. The other was their stock. They had more strange and obscure books than any major retailer whose specialty was not strange and obscure books.

It seems their choice was either to imitate Barnes & Noble’s Wal-Martish approach (minus the censorship) or shrink to fit the obscurity market.

They did neither. Chapter Eleven bankruptcy protection is kind of like attempted suicide: If you’re caught in time, you live. Otherwise you die. As part of the filing, the company plans to close about one third of its stores of which there are something over 600. Something like six thousand jobs are going or gone. They’ve piled on $500 million in new loans from GE Capital to keep running while they figure out what else to do.

So what can they do? First, they can get with the Amazon program. The Border website is clunky, their prices are high, their e-readers are inadequate compared to what else is out there.

Amazon and B&N have turned books into a commodity. The only thing Borders can do is become the “important alternative,” the book store for book lovers.


Book Look: Heat & Light: Mike Wallace and Beth Knobel.

CBS’ Mike Wallace, 93, has built himself the best possible kind of monument. “Heat & Light” (Three Rivers Press 2010) is a guide for a future generation of journalists, most of them in great need of guidance, if not therapy.

His co-author, Beth Knobel is a former CBS producer and current professor at Fordham University with a pile of Ivy League sheepskins probably to heavy to carry all at once.

Tips on writing, on video on interview techniques, the law, a reporter-editor’s checklist, the balance between drama and information, and a gazillion good quotes from some heavy industry hitters.

“The Elements of Style” it ain’t. But close. At the end of the book, the authors thank the people who contributed, either gladly or by intimidation. C’mon. What idiot would or could turn down a question from Mike Wallace? And the seven most feared words in any politician’s vocabulary? “Mike Wallace is here to see you.”

===Readometer Key: 1 and 2 It’s already a paperback.
1 - Buy it.
2 - Wait for the paperback.
3 - Take it out of the Library.
4. Flip through it at the book store.
5. Forget it.


Shrapnel (New York Times edition):

--Bernie Madoff’s gave a jailhouse e-interview to the New York Times and said Wall Street “had to know” about his multi-zillion dollar King of the Ponzi schemes. Of course they did. But selective blindness is common on The Street.

--The Times also has reported recently that the NYSE is selling itself to the Frankfurt exchange. Technically, it’s a merger, but there ARE no mergers. Daimler Chrysler all over again.

--Gotta stop reading this paper. Something infuriating every day. Liberal-Shmiberal... The facts alone are enough to inflame.


I’m Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
Please address comments to wesrichards@gmail.com
© WJR 2011

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

823 More On MBAs

823 More On MBAs

The medical center called with some questions, and since the phone was unplugged they left a voicemail. Thewomantalkedsofast it was hard to understandasingleword. New Yorkers talk fast. We’re used to fast talking, both as speaker and listener. But this was off the charts.

When returning the call, the answerer was as s l o w as the f i r s t woman w a s f a s t.

Questions: are you still at this address? What are the last four digits of your social security number, any change in your insurance? That kind of thing.

“Okay,” she said “you’re now pre-registered for your appointment.” This is new. But so is the ownership of the medical service, an out of town hospital which has split the practice up and into little doc-in-the-box locations scattered around town.

The medical lab had been under the same roof as the doctors’ offices. No more. So a natural question would be “where is the lab?”

“Uh... I don’t know. I can give you the phone number.”

Brilliant.

Turns out the lab is across town at one of the doc boxes, but not the one assigned to this patient. So, two trips instead of one. Big improvement, as promised early in the year by the (probably now former) administrator.

Question: “Could you have told us that in advance?”
Answer: “uhhhhhh.”

The problem, as usual, is the back office MBAs who are trained (like chimps and Cocker Spaniels) rather than taught that “if you can manage one kind of thing, you can manage anything.”

No you can’t. A medical practice is not an auto manufacturer is not a software company.

This particular medical company is attached to a hospital which is attached to a university which is attached to another hospital. The university has a business school. It’s not exactly Sloan or Wharton or Harvard. But it’s SOMETHING. You’d think in this kind of closed circuit environment one tentacle would wash the others.

Too much to hope for. Not part of the training.

It’s nice to know the MBAs can use their noses to play “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” like any trained Smeals ¹.... er, seals. Good that they can get jobs. But if they screw up the others as they screw up this one, it bodes lousy for our future in addition to our present.

And do you know why Shakespeare recommended killing all the lawyers? It’s because the MBA hadn’t yet been invented.


Shrapnel:

--Reuters and others are reporting big demonstrations on the streets of Tehran. What do you call that? A good start.

--Valentine’s Day has come and gone again. Sales of roses went through the roof, as usual. But now, Mr. & Mrs. can get back to normal as the bell rings for the start of a new round.

--Someone with some audio skills could do the world a favor. That would be editing out and saving the side-effect warnings on drug commercials and piecing them together in a montage. Fastest way to make sure people don’t “talk to” their “doctor about “CavaShon,” the new wonder drug for curing butterflies in your stomach.

1. Smeal is the name of the business school that is part of the university under discussion.

I’m Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
Please address comments to wesrichards@gmail.com
© WJR 2011

Monday, February 14, 2011

822 You Want Fries With That Smoke?

822 You Want Fries With That Smoke?

Here’s the latest from the no-smoking nannies: some hospitals and companies are requiring prospective employees to take a “drug” test for nicotine as a condition of employment. And some are making existing employees take the same test as a condition of continued employment.

You want to ban smoking on your premises? Sure, go ahead. After all, they’re YOUR premises. But you don’t own Radkoj the Janitor.

The CEO of the United States of America is a smoker, although currently, he says, in remission. Do we fire him for that?

Hey, guys, smoking is legal. And one hand of the monster government heavily subsidizes the tobacco growers while another hand tells us to not smoke. Brilliant. (And shows you anti government anarchist creeps that the government is not one huge monolith.)

If you mainline Nicorette Gum, you’ll show nicotine in your pee sample. But you don’t smoke, and you don’t use tobacco.

But that’s just a fine point. The real question is “can a company restrict an employee’s right to smoke on his or her own time and in his or her own home or driveway?” Are they about to put spy cams in your bedroom? Is any of this constitutional?

If so, what’s next? Quarter Pounders and Whoppers? Fries? High test rum? Red meat? Are we to become a nation of sprouts? No, wait. You probably can SMOKE sprouts.

Some argue that non-smokers subsidize the cost of caring for smokers who get sick. So, charge the smokers more for their insurance based on probability of illness. Or better yet, don’t charge anyone for health care. We subsidize one another with Social Security, why not insurance?

They argue that smoking hurts productivity. No it doesn’t. Sloth hinders productivity. Over-driving employees hurts productivity. Putting profits before people hurts productivity.

Of course, they could outlaw tobacco. That would put a gazillion people out of work, cut tax revenues by a gazillion dollars and sharply reduce campaign contributions. So that’s not going to happen.

Even the anti-smoking lobby has questions about all this. The American Cancer Society, for one. But here’s the really scary part: the municipal workers unions, quoted in the NY Times, say this issue is “not yet on (their) radar.” These guys should have been the early warning system.

Meantime, when you work for one of these outfits and can’t smoke on the property, “I’d walk a mile for a Camel” takes on a whole new meaning.


--Shrapnel:

--You’ll hear more about this in the future, but here’s a preview of the Next Big Thing. When we write about ourselves, we use upper case “I.” but when we write about You, we use lower case “y.” Which means we consider ourselves more important than the person or people for whom we’re writing, which You better believe that’s not always true.

I’m Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
Please address comments to wesrichards@gmail.com
© WJR 2011

Friday, February 11, 2011

821 Let There Be Light

821 Let There Be Light

Bill the radio engineer liked to buy his equipment on the cheap. Not like it was his money, but it made him look good to the bean-counting boss. Sometimes, cheap was okay, sometimes not.

One of the nots was this tape recorder that reproduced voice and music and made it sound like fish gargling. We brought that to his attention and he showed us the specs. Perfect this, perfect that. Everything perfect. And then he hooked up his test equipment and showed us that the spec sheet was accurate.

But it still sounded like fish gargling.

You can’t always believe the specs.

This brings us to those corkscrew light bulbs with the mercury poison inside waiting to escape. If you break the bulb, you have to call a Hazmat team. But what doesn’t escape from these bulbs is... light.

You can make measurements from hell to breakfast, and read all the stats and even check them out. But like engineer bill’s tape recorder, the bulbs are the sight equivalent of gargling fish.

Never mind that they kind of have to warm up before they even gargle. Never mind that they (allegedly) last forever and a day. Never mind that they save all kinds of electricity. Try to read beneath one of them.

The day is fast approaching that we won’t be able to buy “regular” light bulbs. So, there goes the literacy rate. But we’ve saved the planet... those of us who haven’t contaminated it with mercury.

A planet of illiterates. Why? Because they can’t see to read.

Wait until they start using these things in hospital operating rooms, dental offices and baseball stadiums.

Dr. Billybob puts down his scalpel and takes off his mask. “I’m sorry. We couldn’t save him.” But doc, it was only a tonsillectomy. “Tonsillectomy? Then why did you let me amputate his leg?”

Bottom of the ninth. Three men on. Corkscrew lights giving the stadium a romantic glow. Here’s the pitch. He swings and misses. The umpire: “Ball three.” Here’s the pitch, he swings and hits it out of the park. “Ball four!”

The other extreme, of course, is Halogen. Plenty bright. And so hot your desk lamp can double as a cook stove or an instrument of arson.


Shrapnel:

--The unofficial but authorized NBC Alumni/Retiree Association, calls itself “Peacock North.” Wonder if they have to change 51% of the name what with the new majority ownership of the company. It’s hard to figure out why they call it “North” instead of “Peacock South,” since it seems like most of the members live in Florida and Arizona.

--Ever notice that there are some people at work and you don’t really know what they do but when they’re out nothing gets done? It’s important to identify these people and befriend them if you’re not one of them. And it’s equally important not to be one of them.

I’m Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
Address comments to wesrichards@gmail.com
© WJR 2011