Wednesday, March 30, 2011


Well now united we will stand, divided we will fall,
come on everybody and let's,
get on the ball,
let's work together....

Oh hey, hi Steve.

What was that I was singing? Oh just a little thing from my "long haired hippy type pinko fag" days... "Let's Work Together" by Canned Heat.

Say what? Hey hold on there a sec. You're not exactly Enrico Caruso yourself buddy. Well (grinning sheepishly), to tell 'ya the truth I was the only one in my senior class production of Show Boat that they forced to lip sync the words...

Anyway, that song came to mind as I was reading an article in USA Today about Michelle Rhee. As you may remember, she's the gal who blew into the D.C. school system back in 2007 and applied a deeply conservative, "free market" based strategy to improving the District's school system. You know, the kind of strategy you hinted at in our little dust up over the Wisconsin teacher's unions.

How'd she do? Glad you asked. Well, in an act calculated to gladden the heart of any free market ideologue, Ms Rhee set about firing the worst performing teachers hither and yon. And by golly, it looked like the results were dramatic and next to instantaneous. At one school she had targeted specifically, Crosby S. Noyes, math scores shot up like dandelions on the first warm day of spring. According to the USA Today article:

"Standardized test scores improved dramatically. In 2006, only 10% of Noyes' students scored "proficient" or "advanced" in math on the standardized tests required by the federal No Child Left Behind law. Two years later, 58% achieved that level. The school showed similar gains in reading."

Wow! We continue:

"Michelle Rhee, then chancellor of D.C. schools, took a special interest in Noyes. She touted the school, which now serves preschoolers through eighth-graders, as an example of how the sweeping changes she championed could transform even the lowest-performing Washington schools. Twice in three years, she rewarded Noyes' staff for boosting scores: In 2008 and again in 2010, each teacher won an $8,000 bonus, and the principal won $10,000."

Let's see. First, fire the worst performing teachers. Check. Provide market based performance incentives for those who are left. Check. Result: scores shoot up. Check and checkmate. Would you like a little mustard on that crow, Mr. NEA?

But waitaminit. Something smells like somebody left the Limburger out on the counter. Back to USA Today:

"A closer look at Noyes, however, raises questions about its test scores from 2006 to 2010. Its proficiency rates rose at a much faster rate than the average for D.C. schools. Then, in 2010, when scores dipped for most of the district's elementary schools, Noyes' proficiency rates fell further than average." (my emphasis)

Well for heaven's sake. What happened?

"A USA TODAY investigation, based on documents and data secured under D.C.'s Freedom of Information Act, found that for the past three school years most of Noyes' classrooms had extraordinarily high numbers of erasures on standardized tests. The consistent pattern was that wrong answers were erased and changed to right ones."

"...On the 2009 reading test, for example, seventh-graders in one Noyes classroom averaged 12.7 wrong-to-right erasures per student on answer sheets; the average for seventh-graders in all D.C. schools on that test was less than 1. The odds are better for winning the Powerball grand prize than having that many erasures by chance, according to statisticians consulted by USA TODAY."

What, pray tell, does Ms Rhee have to say about this?

In a formal response, Ms Rhee more or less accuses USA Today as being an "enemy of school reform". Sorry I can't copy the whole statement, but you can find it here under USA Today's full ledger of materials on this episode (look under "Responses to USA Today's Report".

I ought to remind you that we here in Georgia have become depressingly familiar with these kinds of test score alterations as a result of the recent (and if anything), more wide spread scandal involving many schools across the state. Ms Rhee offers that erasures of over 12 to 1 are not conclusive evidence of cheating. Neither is a dead body perforated by a half dozen .38 calibre slugs evidence of a murder. She says the erasures might indicate students are were just spending more time on each question. But 12 to 1? And, in almost every case an erasure produced a right answer? Come on man.

So what do we learn here?

This may shock you, but liberal minded, teacher's union supporting individuals - not to mention the NEA itself, are probably the biggest losers. Here we have an example of free market principles rashly applied to public school management and accompanied by unrealistic expectations. Ms Rhee basically told D.C. teachers their jobs were on the line if test scores didn't improve, and offered cash bonuses if they did. With this kind of pressure and these kinds of incentives, who should be surprised that it would encourage cheating?

But Steve, that doesn't mean the free market doesn't have a great many useful and effective techniques which deserve consideration when it comes to the crucial issue of school reform. We desperately need better teachers and more "results oriented" curriculum's. At a minimum, we need kids coming out of our public schools with the tools to overcome the complicated challenges of real life.

We're not going to get that so long as conservative ideologues like Ms Rhee and liberal "traditionalists" in the NEA remain at loggerheads. Genuine reform is only going to come out of a mature partnership, patiently applied. And scandals like this don't really help either side. Thus, the song. Enjoy:

Monday, March 28, 2011

"Freddy" ...a prose poem


I played freshman football in high school and I admit I wasn't very good at it. Fortunately, after one season of getting my head knocked off every afternoon on the practice field, I decided to join the swim team. But the football team went on without me and eventually went undefeated in my senior year.

Our best player was a monster of a kid named Robert Cline. I mean this guy was big in every sense of the word. Big legs, big arms, big torso... not fat mind you, but huge, and built like a combination of Andre the Giant and Shaquille O'Neal. He didn't leave anything in the locker room either.

On the field he played both defensive and offensive lineman. I can still remember his gutteral, blood curdling bellow as he came off the ball and leveled some unfortunate kid. He broke other player's bones more than once - no kidding.

Off the field it was a different story. If the only image of him you had was his face, you would have guessed him to be some kind of math wonk: big eyes behind thick, horn rim glasses, high forehead, short hair and flaired out ears. You know, the kind of kid who went around school with a slide ruler hooked to his belt like a Roman short sword.

Off the field he was gentle as spring rain - soft spoken and never, never came close to getting into a fight. I honestly don't think he would even have defended himself if somebody had hit him.

He and I were friends for quite awhile. One summer in particular I remember going over to his house up on 4th Street and then walking to the public library downtown. Man I loved that library Steve. It was everything you could ever want in a small town public library. Greek revival architecture, cool terrazzo floors, quiet reading rooms with long maple tables... and packed floor to ceiling with books.

Modern libraries don't do that any more Steve. They're constantly paring the collection down, like lions thinning out a herd of antelopes. Back when I was a kid I don't think they ever got rid of a book. Once they got hold of a book it was like a ray of light caught in a black hole. Some guy donates a 12 volume history of the Gas City Masonic Lodge? Don't worry, they'll find room. As the years went by the shelves just got higher and the aisles between them narrower.

Anyway, back to Robert Cline - the Incredible Hulk of high school freshman...

That first time we went to the library I wondered what kind of books Robert would look for. So I followed him up to the kid's section on the second floor. The kid's section Steve. You know, little, dinky first grade kids, with little dinky tables and chairs about a foot and a half high.

Well Robert went straight to one low shelf as if yanked towards it by a tractor beam, pulled out a "Freddy the Pig" book, gingerly sat his massive body down on one of those tiny chairs and began to read. You had to be there, but I hope I've told you enough about Robert and the library to visualize this amazingly touching scene.
Savor that for a moment.

Turns out there were 26 Freddy the Pig books and they were just about the only thing Robert liked to read. He checked them out, took them home, pored through them over and over, and came back for more.

Freddy the Pig was the creation of one Walter Brooks (1927-58). Freddy lived on The Bean Farm along with his friends, which included Henrietta the Hen, Jinx the Cat, Mrs. Wiggins the Cow and Charles the Rooster. There's even a "Friends of Freddy" society, and I'd like to think Robert is a member.

So here's to good friends (you're one, Steve), lovely libraries, the loss of innocence and the curative power of golden memories.


Saturday, March 19, 2011

15 Minute Hammy Pasta Salad


As you know, Chef Christophe routinely circles the globe in search of flavorful recipes which have the important characteristic of being so easy to prepare an organ grinder's monkey could do it. And its a good thing, since Chef Christophe himself rarely aspires to that level. Today's entree: "15 Minute Hammy Pasta Salad".

Put one box of vegetable rotini on to boil (remove it from box first).

While you are waiting, drain a can of medium black olives and cut them up into halves. (While you are cutting up the olives, drink a bottle of Yuengling "Black and Tan".

When the rotini is done, drain it while drinking another Black and Tan. Then mix it together with one can (undrained) peeled, diced tomatoes, the olives, a bottle of creamy Italian dressing and about a pound of diced, fully cooked ham.

Whew! That was hard work! That calls for another B&T... Now, where was I? Oh, now add about a half cup grated mozzarella cheese. Then stand back and hit the ice box for another 12 fluid ounces of that delicious Yuengling restorative.

When your done, you should have enough to fill five, 16oz. storage containers. Fill them, set them on the counter and wait for them to cool a bit. Two or three more of that fabulous brewery's dark brown porter seem to be in order here.

Now, put the storage containers in the fridge or the freezer. You might have to make room for them in the fridge by removing a couple more beers (and popping the tops, natch!). While you are waiting for the Hammy Pasta Salad to cool off, run down to Kroger and pick up another 12 pack, since, if all goes well, you will be out of beer by now.

Tomorrow morning, take two ibuprofin and use one of the Ham/Pasta containers as an ice pack for that pounding hangover. You can eat the rest later for all I care.

Bon Appetit!

-Chef Christophe

Monday, March 14, 2011

"If I Want Your Opinion, I'll Give It To You"

I recently ran across this segment of "Through The Looking Glass" by our friend S. Lewis. It relates a portion of the conversation between Alice and Humpty Dumpty. I couldn't help but think of how Humpty Dumpty uses the meaning of words corresponds directly to what passes for political discourse these days...

Further comment seems unnecessary. Enjoy.

* * * * *

`I don't know what you mean by "glory,"' Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. `Of course you don't -- till I tell you. I meant "there's a nice knock-down argument for you!"'

`But "glory" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument,"' Alice objected.

`When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.'

`The question is,' said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.'

`The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master - - that's all.'

Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. `They've a temper, some of them -- particularly verbs, they're the proudest -- adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs -- however, I can manage the whole of them! Impenetrability! That's what I say!'

`Would you tell me, please,' said Alice `what that means?`

`Now you talk like a reasonable child,' said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased. `I meant by "impenetrability" that we've had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you'd mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don't mean to stop here all the rest of your life.'

`That's a great deal to make one word mean,' Alice said in a thoughtful tone.

`When I make a word do a lot of work like that,' said Humpty Dumpty, `I always pay it extra.'

`Oh!' said Alice. She was too much puzzled to make any other remark.

* * * * *

- Steve

Thursday, March 10, 2011

You're kidding me, right?


So I'm reading Parade magazine while waiting for the coffee to perk (er, drip).

Then when I get to the back cover I have a WTSH (Sam Hill, this is a G rated blog Steve) moment. Its one of those ads which features the typical before and after shtick - in this case, some blob of a woman with bad hair reclining slothfully on an inner tube in a lake, contrasted with the same gal as a svelte debutante with a new doo, dressed for an evening at the White House. Her secret? She dropped 74 lbs with NutriSystem. Nice work there lady.

But what got my eyeballs popping out and, as Bertie Wooster would say, "waving about on their attendant stalks", was the price of said system. Well, not really the NutriSystem costs that is. According to the ad its only around $260.00 for a month's worth of food - a figure which would barely keep me in beer and nachos. The cost that got my head to revolving like an Exorcist stunt double was the cost of the comparable Jenny Craig system - which comes to a mind blowing $752.44 a month!

Don't bother, I already figured it up. It comes to $25 bucks a day. Gee whiz Steve, if you're fat, I can see parting with 9 or 10 bucks a day for what amounts to 30 versions of freeze dried asparagus, but 25 dollars? Hold me Steve, the room is getting dark.... !

Now if you don't have a farm, go out and get one so you can bet it on the concept that the cost comparison in this ad is about as reliable as a Newt Gingrich marriage vow. Which is to say both dieting "systems" probably cost about the same and that cost is somewhere between 260 and 760 - oh, say, 15 or 20 smackers a day.

Let me give you a little background here. For years I ran residential heating and cooling service calls. One thing I learned was show me a fat person and I'll show you a person with a NordicTrac or a Joe Weider Gym gathering dust in the corner of a garage or basement. I swear, I once ran a call on a fat guy who was in the process of screwing together a bunch of stuff for a home gym. By coincidence, the very next year I went back to the same house, only to find the gym stuff pushed off in a corner and the guy about 10 pounds fatter.

Now I don't mean to be cruel here. Like smoking (and you know I smoke), being fat is no laughing matter and I'm sure its as tough to lose weight as it is to quit smoking. But why is it when people decide on a "commitment" to lose weight, the first thing they do is go out and buy something?

Here's a clue. People, if you want to stop smoking - stop buying stuff - stuff like cigarettes for example. The same strategy works for dropping the pounds. Folks, wake up and smell the Aspartame!

All the weight loss outfits out there use the same Big Lie: that you can lose weight without effort or discomfort. Home exercise outfits tell us you only need to use their silly machines for just "minutes a day". Diet plans want you to believe you can stuff yourself like a hog on "full, rich meals" and the pounds will fly off.

Come on people, THINK. The only sure bet here is you know you are losing weight when you are HUNGRY. Your body wants to be fat. Every one's does - and hunger is just its way of blackmailing you into throwing it a slice of peach pie or a bag of Ruffles potato chips. Deal with it. And NutriSystem or Jenny Craig can't make a chicken drumstick any less fattening than Kroger can. And by the way, the only exercise you really need is the "forearm push". That's where you learn to push yourself away from the dinner table after the salad and before the spaghetti and gnocchi.


You can thank me later Steve.


Monday, March 7, 2011

"USA Inc."

Submitted for your approval... I was alerted to a site here, which refers to "USA Inc.". From their blurb:

"USA a non-partisan report that looks at the U.S. federal government (and its financials) as if it were a business. Mary Meeker, partner at KPCB and former financial analyst at Morgan Stanley, created and compiled the report with the goal of informing the discussion about our financial situation and outlook. USA Inc. examines the country’s income statement and balance sheet, aiming to interpret the underlying data and facts, and illustrate patterns and trends in easy-to-understand ways. The report also analyzes the drivers of federal revenue and the history of expense growth, and discusses basic scenarios for how revenue and expense growth might change to help America move toward positive cash flow."

I'm just starting to review this: no comments, yet. It has the appearance of being interesting. We'll see...

- Steve

Thursday, March 3, 2011



I just got back from a short stay in Naples (FL) with my dad and stepmother. They have a small but very nice condo on the sixth floor of a complex just opposite the beach on Gulf Shore Boulevard. The view on the back terrace of that condo takes in hundreds, perhaps thousands, of condos in similar high rises which line the beach from north to south. Mixed in with these and further off the beach are a host of small neighborhoods with homes ranging from the small and neat to the huge and ghastly - the least expensive of which start in the upper six figures and can easily top out in the tens of millions.

Everybody here drives a nice car and you don't see any pick-up trucks. The main drag is usually jam up with Volvo's, Infinities, and Acuras - here and there a Bently or some European exotic, not to mention at least one Rolls. There's no waiting lines at the hospitals and clinics, of which there are many. Everyone's fully insured and the health care is beyond excellent. Neither is it hard to get a tee time at a first class golf course or a table at a fine restaurant. Steve, everything a person who favors a life of ease and comfort would want is here in Naples. Just be sure to bring your pocketbook.

Sitting on the terrace one evening I got to thinking about the economic model which produced places like Naples. I'm sure every story is different but most typical I think would be that of a man who went to college and got a Masters in Business Management, went to work at a corporation, bought a house, raised a family, earned a pension - then sold the house, bought a place in Naples and now lives off his combined income of pension and social security. More often than not his retirement from the corporation would include some form of extended health care, which, combined with Medicare, provides him with all the extra care a person over 65 requires. This would include that man's wife, who, again more often than not, spent most of her life in that now practically vanished occupation of "homemaker".

There's still some construction going on in Naples. The really, really rich are buying up a few choice properties, demolishing the homes and putting up obscenely extravagant mansions: places where the landscaping in the back yard costs more than any home I myself will ever live in (though of course to a man of your virtually unlimited wealth it would be mere petty cash). However the building boom of high rise condominiums has pretty much come to a screeching halt. To be sustained, this boom required a steady, strengthening supply of retirees entering the market with sufficient cash to pay for them - and that supply now scarcely covers the sales of existing units made available by simple attrition. It doesn't take a genius to realize that sooner or later, the supply of new buyers won't even cover that - if in fact this point has not already been reached.

When that happens, prices fall - slowly at first, then sharply. And with each precipitous drop in real estate values, come new buyers who are very different from the group who built this place. They won't be driving Infinities or SAAB's - more like Corollas and Civics. They won't have the pensions or the private health insurance, and can't afford to play golf or dine out more than once or twice a month. Many of them will work part time jobs - not to stay busy - but to pay for a life in what remains of Camelot.

Why, you ask? The fictional Camelot is changeless: a timeless ideal in an evergreen world. Our Camelots however, like Naples, are firmly attached to real life. They are the top layers of a pyramid - and their vitality depends on whatever is happening on every level beneath them. True - while suffering near the bottom of the pyramid involves doing without food or shelter whereas suffering near the top involves driving a Camry rather than a Cadillac, still - the effect of an economy in a state of gradual collapse is making itself felt everywhere.

Everywhere that is, except for two places: among the very rich and the desperately poor. This economy of ours has a big head and big feet, but a steadily shrinking waistline. Manufacture, the bread and butter of a strong, assertive middle class has all but disappeared. Take an afternoon and drive around some of the industrial parks around Atlanta, where each one seems more depressing than the last. Now the average man or woman, working 45 hours a week in one of those now abandoned factories would never have made it to Camelot. But their income would have supported some white collar guy or small business owner who could. In one way or another, the very rich in this country have learned to make their money from the labors of people in the third world and growing economies like China and India. Their capital - their resources - are not confined by national borders anymore. But what's left of the middle class is stuck.

Steve, it took a hundred years to build Camelot. And who knows? Maybe a hundred more to rebuild it after it falls. Let's hope they do a better job than we did.


Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A Hidden Welfare State? Really?

I was told about a recent LA op-ed article, called "Hidden federal benefits" here. I include a small portion below, but feel free to read the entire article. It is more of the same.

Three programs make up most of this "hidden welfare state," as another scholar calls it. The first is employer-based health insurance, which is subsidized by the ability of businesses to deduct some of the costs from their taxes. The second is the home mortgage interest deduction for individuals, and the third is the creation of tax-free retirement accounts, into which employers and employees can contribute. Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker calculates that such "tax-advantaged" programs make up almost a third of America's social welfare spending.

Yet a lot of citizens simply don't recognize these as government benefits. We don't get U.S. Treasury checks for mortgage interest deductions (the deduction just lowers our tax bill). Nor do we directly see the hand of the government in our healthcare; we deal with a private insurer, private doctors and our employers' benefits representatives, not a national health service. And our 401(k) plans just seem like savings accounts, not a government benefit. The way we've set it all up has, in Mettler's words, "shrouded the state's role, making it largely invisible to ordinary citizens."

In fact, according to a 2008 survey by the Cornell Survey Research Institute, 60% of respondents who received a home loan interest deduction told surveyors that they had never used a federal social program, not realizing that the tax break was the result of the government intentionally forgoing revenue to further the social goal of homeownership.

* * *

Notice I didn't highlight or emphasize any specific statement, because I want it to stand as presented. It's pure drivel. I say that because the article operates under a perspective I completely disavow. Using his own example, he states the government allows you set up "tax free" savings accounts, and by not taxing the money from you, it (government) is giving you a hidden benefit. Then, he has the gall to call this "social welfare spending".

The foundational premise behind this thought (using the "thought" word quite loosely) is that everything you own (including yourself and any/all efforts you make) *BELONGS* to the government. And, then, government graciously gives you a "benefit" by NOT taking some (or all) of the results of your labors. Further, it establishes that government - in its infinite wisdom - will determine what is "best" for its citizens by deciding "who" gets to keep "what". And oh-by-the-way, anything government DOESN'T take you should be humbly thankful for being allowed to keep it.

The only good thing about this article is you can tell exactly where this clown stands... right over there, with his hand in my pocket, telling me I should thankful he is stealing from me...


- Steve