Monday, March 28, 2011

Quote of the day

ESPN the Magazine has a regular feature in which it asks athletes from different sports a question, and wants the answer to include a mathematical rating from one to 10 as part of the answer.

This week's question is: "How do you feel when you pay your taxes?"

Adam Jones of the Orioles answered this way:

"Three. If it went to a good cause, I'd be happy. But our tax money goes to lazy people who don't want to work."

Um, excuse me, Adam. You might have forgotten that 80 percent of our federal tax bill goes to four areas -- medicare, social security, national defense and interest on the national debt. The other 20 percent covers everything else, from the National Parks Service to the Interstate Highway system to, yes, social services such as food stamps and welfare. (Thanks for the push, commenting visitor.)

Congratlations, Adam. Usually it takes athletes more than three full years in the big leagues to be completely out of touch with reality.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

On the other hand...

Chris Collins, Erie County Executive, recently announced his candidacy for a second term. He's considered the big favorite to win reelection, mostly because he has a large campaign war chest ready to come out of hiding, while possible opponents won't be nearly as well financed.

Collins has admittedly gotten the county's finances in better shape than they were before he arrived, which isn't saying much. He reported in his State of the County address that the County has a fund balance of about $70 million.

I've been a fan of the always fascinating political process for many years. I have laughed this month when a Jane Corwin for Congress ad talks about Kathy Hochul as Nancy Pelosi's hand-picked candidate. Think Pelosi even knows Hochul's name at this point? Hochul probably will link Corwin to Michelle Bachman's knowledge of history in response any day now.

From this view on the sidelines, I could see the advantages of working on a campaign for Collins. For starters, you'd probably get paid -- which would be a step ahead of Carl Paladino, according to reports.

But wouldn't it be more fun to work for a Collins' opponent? The mischief-maker in me might have fun with ads concerning some of the other parts of Collins' record on the job:

* The classic moment in Albany when Collins told a woman that she'd have to give a lap dance to get a seat at the State of the State address. He later apologized.

* Collins turned down federal grants that would have funded jobs and programs without strings.

* Collins called for medicaid to not pay for clients' eyeglasses and hearing aids. Ever try to function when you can't see or hear?

* Collins thought it was a good idea to give full-time work to part-time workers, handing out less pay, more hours and fewer benefits for the same job. A court disagreed.

* Speaking of courts, Collins has consistently refused to follow the legislation passed by the County Legislature, leading to millions left unspent and a string of lawsuits. His record in those suits makes the Bills' record seem almost shiny.

* There's only one agency charged with oversight of the County Executive's financial activities, and Collins cut several auditors from the Comptroller's office out of his last budget.

There are others, but you get the idea. Throw a tagline in -- I'll let you write that -- and it's an instant campaign. We'll see if the so-called experts do better in the months ahead, and if it makes a difference.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Just Gus

Another video that's too good not to share...

Thursday, March 24, 2011

A good tip

It's that time of the year again. I've done my taxes and sent in the returns. Can't wait until I get my state refund back; that check for $18 hopefully won't damage Governor Cuomo's efforts to get the New York State budget back in order.

Sometimes I sit back and marvel at the whole system of collecting (or, in some cases, not collecting) tax revenues in this country. For starters, the classic 1040 form has all sorts of trap doors and loopholes.

Or, put another way, have you tried to figure out your capital gains income without the use of a computer lately?

With that on my mind, I recently finished reading Bill James' new book, "Solid Fool's Gold." (Review here.) When I was sailing along, reading about pitching rotations and the Hall of Fame, James snuck in a short essay about, of all things, tipping. And how ridiculous it has become.

It's become ever-present, if you haven't noticed. James points out that the number of services that expect/seek tips has grown quite a bit over the years, and so has the percentage that we're expected to pay out. And if we don't pay out something, we're cheapskates.

I always get a laugh out of the December newspaper articles that list the people who should get a holiday tip every year. The list gets longer and longer, and includes people like the mailman who probably earns more than I do. That's in addition to the dollar here and dollar there that come out of the wallet. For example, it's rather common to leave a tip for the cleaning staff of a hotel now, even though you'd think a clean room ought to be expected when you check in.

I'm not saying that many of these people don't deserve some sort of "thank you" for good service. But it's pretty interesting that the government more or less looks the other way for many of these payments, meaning the "underground economy" continues to grow with the practice.

In addition, it's always interesting to see what businesses come up with the tag line, "please pay in cash," when they quote a price. I'm not here to out anyone in this sense, but frequently it comes in an area where I'm just happy to find someone to get someone who can do the job for me. Therefore, I'm in no position to argue.

How odd is it, then, when you frequent the business of a one-person independent contractor (use your imagination), and pay that person for a service -- and then give an extra couple of bucks for a tip? It all goes in the same cash register. I have no idea how it is reported to the government, and it's really none of my business. As James points out, it adds up pretty quickly.

Even odder, sometimes the government even encourages such tax evasion. I'm not sure how the laws work from state to state, but some places allow restaurants to pay the wait staff less than minimum wage with tips making up the difference. Yes, I guess that those tips are supposed to be reported to the IRS, but there's not exactly a strong monitoring system in place.

James argues that tipping will eventually stop, because the trend can't continue to grow forever. I'm not sure if that's going to happen to all involved in that trend. But in an increasingly cash-less society, and in times when governments are looking harder and harder for revenue sources, you wonder if a bit of a reckoning for the practice is coming.

You never know what's going to be in a baseball book -- particularly when Bill James is writing it.

Back to dreamland

It happened again on Tuesday night. I couldn't go to sleep. When that happens, I tend to get up and flip around the dial and search for something that will make me doze.

Ah, Glenn Beck's 2 a.m. rebroadcast. That always works.

Tuesday's show was particularly odd. He had some tape of Steven Lerner, a former union (SEIU) leader, spouting about how bad things were in this country and that we needed to essentially blow up the system and start over. The way to do that, he claimed, was to urge people not to pay their mortgages -- particularly if they were affiliated with JP Morgan Chase.

Hearing this guy actually brought back memories. When I was in college in the Seventies, there were always left-wing newspapers floating around campus, preaching something close to economic revolution. No one took them seriously.

Then Beck had a clip of Barack Obama addresses a SEIU meeting at some point, saying that he stood with the union. From there it was on to a recap of facts, with our host saying that Lerner wanted to practice economic terrorism, was a former union leader, and had actually been in the White House a few times.

So reviewing here:

1. One former union member preaches some silly economic tactic, and everyone in SEIU will follow it.

2. Since Obama has worked with SEIU, and Lerner used to be a member, there's an obvious connection between the two men.

3. President Obama is responsible for making sure absolutely no radicals set foot in the White House grounds, which I guess means we soon will be giving loyalty tests to anyone who shows up for a tour.

Remember when Sarah Palin thought that since Obama and William Ayers were on the same college faculty and had run into each other a few times, Ayers was obviously successfully spreading his evil world view to Obama? That type of thinking is alive and well.

Tell me again why this guy draws five million TV viewers.

Unless they need the sleep.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Surprise package

As the cliche goes, sometimes you can't tell a book by its cover. You have to open the darn thing and look at the first page inside.

Here's why:

A while back, I was in "Big Lots." This is one of those closeout stores, medium size, which sells discount merchandise. It has everything from sofas to Diet Coke. There are a few items that I purchase there, such as blank compact disks.

On this day, I checked out the supply of closeout books, which usually isn't fertile but is worth a look just in case. Buried in the romance novels was a book called "Garden of Dreams." It's a book designed to pay tribute to the 125th anniversary of Madison Square Garden, published in 2004.

The book is mostly driven by the work of George Kalinsky, who is the official photographer of the Garden. He has shots of all sorts of events, everything from basketball to the dog show. The pictures also are enhanced by essays from a variety of people. Woody Allen writes about the Knicks, while Mary Tyler Moore prefers dogs.

Now, I wouldn't pay $35 for this book, which checks in at about 200 pages. But the price listed on this particular copy was much better - $3. I'll read a lot of sports books for $3, especially a handsome coffee table book. As I grabbed one on top in the pile on the shelf, I noticed that the top copy had a sticker with the words "autographed copy." Hmmm. It was a sticker that Barnes & Noble uses for such pronouncements, so at least I knew where it came from.

When I opened up the book, I saw that it was indeed signed by Kalinsky on the inside front cover. However, there was another signature underneath it.

Joe Frazier!

I have several autographed books at home, and one signed by Smokin' Joe was definitely worth $3. Sold.

The next time someone tells me about how great the Kindle is, I'm going to tell them about Joe Frazier and his signed book.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

March Madness, Lego-style

Did you miss some of the great moments in college basketball history? Good thing was around to recreate them in Lego figures:

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

On the other hand...

You want an argument about why the government shouldn't be in the business of supporting certain broadcasting outlets, even if they are commercial-free? I'll give you one, and I used to work in public radio.

Philosophically, it's difficult for me to argue that public television and radio deserve such funding. When there were three television channels on my set, an extra choice was welcome. Now that there are dozens and dozens, if I'm willing to pay my cable company for the right to see them all, that function has disappeared. The number of radio stations on the air hasn't increased much over the last few decades, but there are plenty out there. If you throw in satellite radio, though, there are lots more. Those public stations aren't fighting for ad dollars, but they are looking for listeners.

On the other hand ...

I'll keep it simple to start: Have you seen the competition lately?

On radio, listeners who want to hear some sort of long-form, in-depth news coverage have one choice: National Public Radio. Here in Buffalo, one or two stations do some local news in the morning in any depth (depending on the definition), but the rest barely or don't try. For the rest of the day, stations offer a few minutes of headlines in some cases, some local, some just national. And talk shows don't count; most of the hosts are in the entertainment business.

On television, no one is doing what PBS does. The children's programming alone probably is worth the price tag, but it does offer some other alternative shows that are unique.

Way back in the 1980's when I worked in public radio, I thought that advantage might go away. Cable television was cranking up, and I was afraid outlets like Bravo would steal the programming approach of PBS. When I asked the station president about that in a worried tone, he said that he was confident that PBS would continue to carve out a niche.

Now 25 years later, he was right, and my fears were groundless. Every time I turn in Bravo, it seems to be showing a marathon of "The Real Housewives of Omaha," featuring people that are so artificial they could be made of plastic. "American Masters," it isn't.

Besides, cable and satellite television aren't available to everyone. We still have a limited amount of choices over the air, so PBS still offers a clear alternative to those people who only have rabbit ears and a converter box.

Republicans love to throw the "liberal bias" label at public broadcasting, probably to feed the political base more than anything else. I've made this point before here, so I'll shorten it this time -- while media members are a little to the left philosophically than the public at large (we have a bias for action, because inactivity makes for more boring news), there are far fewer chances to slant the news in a particular direction that people think.

That brings us to the controversy surrounding the departure of NPR executive Ron Schiller, caught by Ron O'Keeffe's hidden camera as saying the Tea Party members are seriously racist people. It was a stupid remark by Schiller considering his professional situation, but he did have no input into editorial decision-making. Besides, it's difficult to feel anything but nervous over a filmmaking situation that would be called entrapment in a court case.

And how much money are we talking about here? President Obama has proposed a subsidy of about $450 million to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. That works out to about $1.50 per person per year. I'd pay that for a week of "American Experience" on PBS and "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me" on NPR. A week, not a year. And, I do, since I contribute to the local public broadcasting outlet.

Public broadcasting is always going to be under siege at times because politicians love to threaten funding cuts to gain political capital. It certainly would be nice to come up with a business model to eliminate such subsidies down the road to avoid such pressure. In the meantime, I trust that the Sarah Palins of the world will only make ideological, and not philosophical, arguments about the matter, and thus cloud and not help solve the argument.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Tidal wave

It's funny what goes through your mind at various times, particularly when faced with unprecedented disaster.

Back in 1975 or so, Roger Corman picked up the rights to a Japanese movie called "Tidal Wave." He chopped out some of the scenes, did some dubbing and added some scenes with Lorne Greene, and released it. The advertising did plenty of screaming and was all over local television for a few days leading up to its release.

In spite of that, I never went to see it, although the ads were the subject of jokes for a week. I just read a review of it on line (thanks for the movie poster image), and apparently it was bad enough that no known copies of it ever made it to home video. And there were few scenes of an actual tidal wave.

The real-life version in Japan this past week was a lot more serious. This footage from MSNBC is particularly chilling. I just wanted to tell the cameraman, "Get the heck out of there."

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Gift from the comedy gods

On Saturday, a co-worker was reading the newspaper when she burst out laughing. Hard.

Why? She was reading this story about a quote from Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann.

Ms. Bachmann seems to have more trouble with facts that Sarah Palin, which is an accomplishment. According to

Speaking in January to an Iowa anti-tax group, Bachmann claimed that the authors of the country’s founding documents sought to end slavery. “The very founders that wrote those documents worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States,” she said. While some of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were in favor of abolishing slavery, they were, of course, dead when the institution was ended following the Civil War.

As someone who is always on the lookout for material for an occasional joke column in the newspaper, I can only hope she runs for President.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Well-deserved plug

Can't say I've been to many flower shows over the years. In fact, I can't think of one.

But if you're going to go to one, the Philadelphia version is definitely the place to go -- if only to see the work of Michael Petrie. That's what my wife and I did this week; it was something of a retirement present for Mrs. Inquisitive Mind.

The Philadelphia Flower Show is held in the Convention Center, and it's the world's largest indoor show. It runs through Sunday. There are the booths from vendors -- a few hundred of them, in fact. Then there is some competition for plants, miniature designs, etc. (The judges' comments, by the way, are so pretentious that the judges must work dog shows at other times of the year.)

But the third of the hall that greets visitors is certainly the high point. Several special exhibits are set up in that area, all centered on a specific theme. In the 2011 case, the theme was Paris in the springtime. The bottom of the Eiffel Tower was recreated in it, and I particularly liked the floral representations of the movie "An American in Paris."

As for Petrie, he married a good friend of mine from college. (Kathye and I have writing in common.) Michael kept winning best of show awards in the Philly show, and has been written up all over the flower world. Finally, the show got smart and simply hired him to do the main exhibit. This year, he also did the exhibit for the presenting sponsor.

Now, what I don't know about flowers can fill the Convention Center. Heck, it could fill the Eagles' football stadium. But I do know creative, imaginative stuff when I see it, and it was pretty obvious that Michael's work was by any standard clearly ahead of anyone else's who showed off stuff in the building.

The picture is of a representation of Monet's garden in Paris. I'm not sure even how to describe the end of the display; it's something of a screen with a reflection of plant life on it. Whatever. It was clearly spectacular. (For more information on the work this year, click here.)

Michael is the owner of Handmade Gardens. He's gotta do something the other 50 weeks of the year.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

By George

One of the few good points about getting old is that you can sometimes put events into historical perspective. The really smart people write books about such comparisons; the rest of us tell our friends and write a blog.

That brings me to the situation in the Arab world right now.

Back in 1989 or so, the Eastern Bloc nations were crumbling one by one. You could literally turn on the television each night and find out about the progress of yet another Soviet satellite falling off the edge into democracy. For those of us who thought the Cold War would last forever, it was a pretty interesting time.

We're going through something like that now. First Tunisia, then Egypt fell. Libya is closing in on joining them.

What we might not remember now is how peacefully that collapse in Eastern Europe took place. There were no major conflicts, no large amount of bloodshed seen. That's in spite of the fact that there are some rather nasty dictators involved.

I'd submit that this was not an accident, and that then President Bush had something to do with how those events took place. It was a delicate process, and it was handled nicely as it turned out. I don't think Bush got enough credit for that, which is one of the reasons why he is currently an underrated President.

President Obama is currently learning that some heads of state won't go so quietly into the night. We know Col. Gadhafi is a little nuts, and sometimes he doesn't want to go where he's pushed. And, he's not above shooting his own people.

It's a tough job, and there may be false steps taken along the way. So let's remember that the outside world at least has an historical example on how to do this right.