What's All This Then?

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Friday, September 29, 2006

Or sub title: What’s death really like??

In the "meta names" of this blog - which you can look at by clicking "view" and then "source" in case you’re not familiar with this sort of thing, you’ll see that after the key words of "politics" and "current affairs" that describe the overall content of whatsallthisthen - the next three descriptive words are "religion, theism and atheism."

Based on the order of those first five subject areas, one would expect that I would have touched on religion far more times than has been the case over the past three years of writing this page. Probably the best explanation that I can come up with for this lack of attention to what I started out indicating would be a major topic of discussion of this blog - is that there are so many other things going on in the areas of politics and current affairs - by the time I’ve sorted through a bunch of them each day and penned a few thoughts - I’m too pooped to pop. Either that or the Devil is keeping me from doing God’s work. Or vice versa. But I’m going to ignore both of them today and talk about my second tier "meta" subjects.

Sam Harris has written a book called "Letter To A Christian Nation" which I haven’t read but plan to. Sam is an atheist who argues logically against theist belief and religion in general. His book seems to be stirring a lot of interest - which it should do. It’s a topic that isn’t discussed nearly enough - and it needs to be if the human race is ever going to start moving toward a greater level of maturity than our disparate beliefs in disparate deities prevent us from reaching.

Reviews - such as this one - or ones that Harris has posted on his web site can be found all over the place - but if you want to get a quick idea of this man’s thinking, I recommend this piece he wrote for the Huffington Post.

I’m not going to comment on Sam’s writings today. I just wanted to call attention to them - and maybe I’ll come back to them at a later date. What’s more on my mind today is the rapid passage of years leading to the inevitability that awaits us all and one aspect of that inevitability that bugs me no end. For those whose views on theism and religion are the antithesis of those expressed by Mr. Harris, death is something almost to be welcomed. After all, you’re about to enter heaven or paradise or whatever you want to call it - and be greeted/judged by whatever God you believe in.

For those of us who don’t believe in heaven or hell or Gods or Devils or being alive when we are - as the Coroner of the Land of Oz said of the deceased wicked witch of the East - not only merely dead but really most sincerely dead - it’s not quite that easy.

There are a couple of problems I have with the idea of being dead. One is trying to picture the concept of oblivion - of moving from sentience to nothingness, which - as a more or less non-believer, I have to assume is what death is. No "after life." No awareness. No sense of anything. But as bad as that is, what I find worse and have difficulty trying to accept - is the prospect of being dead without knowing that you’re dead.

In the movie, "The Sixth Sense" - the character played by Haley Joel Osment "sees" dead people who "don’t know that they are dead." As with the co-star of the movie, Bruce Willis - who indeed is dead but doesn’t know it. Frankly, that condition would suit me just fine - but I'd be willing to settle for being dead but being aware that I’m dead - even if that "awareness" is of oblivion!!

The two concepts - of total oblivion and an awareness of that oblivion - are of course a conceptual oxymoron. It’s the sort of thing that drives we non-believers to distraction. Much more frustrating than Hamlet’s worries about "what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil."

The burden of self awareness - and as a natural outcome of that - our own mortality - is, in my view, the root cause of all religious belief. It’s born of the inability - or perhaps just the unwillingness to accept what must seem inconceivable to most - having the gift of self awareness taken away at the moment of our death. How much easier to invent an "after life" where self awareness continues in a different plane of existence.

I have to say that it’s as difficult for me to accept the idea of death being the end of everything as it is for the most fervent believer. My problem is that I’ve thought about it all too much and I see not one scintilla of evidence to support the idea of the existence of a God or of an "after life." I see and read about and hear a lot of rationalizing to create "evidence" out of no evidence - but what it all boils down to in the end is a choice that billions of people make. They simply choose to believe - and fashion the stories of their particular religion to support their belief. It’s something I can’t do because it makes absolutely no sense to me. Even if I’d been brought up to believe in and follow a particular religious faith, I can’t imagine that I wouldn’t have one day begun to question the evidence for that belief and reached the conclusion that it was insupportable.

In my sense of rationality, if there was a God - what possible reason would there be for him, her or it, not to reveal his/her/its existence in a reasonable and verifiable way? It would be relatively simple in this modern age Simply take over the world’s communications for a as many minutes as needed - television, radio, the Internet - and - speaking or writing in the language of everyone watching, listening or reading - introduce him, her or itself and answer the basic questions of life - how did we get here, why are we here and what is expected of us? And oh yes. Do we or don’t we die?

Of course the religionists insist that such a revelation has taken place - more than once - but conveniently at times when there was no way to record and preserve verifiable evidence.

There are those who argue that one has nothing to lose by believing in a God and an after life. If they’re wrong - they’ve lost nothing - and if they’re right - they’ll be able to collect the rewards reserved for the faithful when they ascend to heaven. . What they call a win/win situation.

I wish I could join such people in their sanguinity - but I just can’t. It’s dishonest. So I guess I have to watch the moments tick away as I traverse down that slippery slope leading to an eternity of oblivion. But damn it - I just wish there was some way to take a peek at it once it gets here so that I can say to myself - so this is oblivion - and then surrender myself to it’s eternal blanket of non-existence.

What do you say after such a gloomy bunch of thoughts? Have a nice week-end? Well, it’s the Jewish New Year and coming up is Yom Kippur - the Day of Atonement. We’re supposed to confess our sins and ask for forgiveness. Maybe I’ll give it a try - and if I get a verifiable response I’ll be back here Monday with the biggest scoop in history.

But don’t hold your breath. It could kill you.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

It’s hard to let a day go by without giving some thought to the impending increase in electric bills that will be hitting ComEd customers in northern Illinois just a few months from now. One of the reasons it’s hard is because ComEd keeps wanting to talk to us about the increase and to tell us how bad is good - which I guess is on a par with assuring us that black is really white and visa versa.

Today it was a full page ad in the Chicago Tribune - and probably in other papers - to make just that "bad is good" point. We’re going to get a big increase - around 22%. That part alone is good instead of bad according to ComEd because it’s less than what some people had been estimating. But whatever the increase, it will still produce an electric bill that will be smaller than what they were charging us ten years ago - before the freeze took place. ComEd wants us to think that’s a good thing - not that maybe they were gouging the pants off of us ten years ago.

But to me, the biggest laugher in the ad is that that the new price - which will be "market driven" instead of regulated - won’t add a red cent to ComEd’s coffers. No sir. The suppliers of electricity will bid to supply electricity that ComEd will deliver to its customers and ComEd won’t mark up that supply cost one thin dime. What it costs them is what it will cost you. That’s what the ad is telling us.

So you have to scratch your head and ask yourself. If ComEd is going to buy electricity on the open market and then deliver it to consumers without adding any profit for itself - what’s in it for them? Why would it push to change the way electricity is purchased by them if it’s going to mean a much higher cost to its customers and a resulting angry customer base? The answer - or at least a partial answer - is in what the print ad and the television PR campaign that’s been running for months, conveniently leaves out. That ComEd had asked the Commerce Commission for a healthy increase in their delivery charges. The Commission wouldn’t give them as much as they wanted - but did O.K. an increase for that aspect of our electric bill as well as for the supply charge - which nobody understands except ComEd and so called experts in this field of endeavor. Oh, and of course ComEd’s parent company, Exelon, is a major supplier of electric power.

The reason I’ve come back to this subject in today’s musings is because of a couple of a couple of letters that have been written to the Chicago Tribune about the rate increase. One was from one of these alleged experts which left me shaking my head at the gobbledygook that these people throw at us with the same sort of cockeyed "explanations" that the gasoline people like to confuse us with when that annual price gouging season sets in. The other was from someone who probably joined me in the head shaking experience but took the trouble to explain the nature of some of the gobbledygook

I’ve reproduced both of these letters in their entirety because links to Tribune articles tend to expire after a few weeks. First the "expert’s" explanation of how the new way of arriving at much higher rates is a "good" thing!!

As I write this letter, Illinois is ushering in a new era for its electric industry. It will be based on the principles of supply and demand in a disciplined competitive market. It is the culmination of many years of hard work by state regulators to implement what the Illinois General Assembly mandated back in 1997.

The premise of the electricity deregulation law is that electricity supply, if separated from the electricity delivery function, need not be a monopoly enterprise, that marketplace competition will serve consumers better.

The state-approved, state-regulated Illinois auction is the process by which this transition is taking place. Through a reverse price auction, Commonwealth Edison and Ameren, electric delivery companies that own no generation and whose power supply contracts expire at the end of this year, will purchase power from suppliers that offer the lowest bid.

Essentially the auction aggregates the buying power of Illinois consumers to get the very best price for wholesale electricity. The process is tightly regulated by the Illinois Commerce Commission, which can reject the auction results for any reason including the slightest hint of price fixing. ComEd and Ameren pass along the costs of power with no mark-up.

As good as the auction is for consumers, however, it can’t alter the fact that electricity rates will increase in 2007.


First, because numerous national and international supply-and-demand factors have caused wholesale electricity prices to rise nationwide. And second, because since 1997 residential electricity rates in Illinois have been below market rates and are 20 percent lower than they were a decade ago.

But as has been demonstrated throughout time and in nearly every industry, competition among a large number of rivals drives lower prices. Competition encourages cost-reducing innovation, efficiency and reliable customer service. That is what the Illinois electricity auction is all about.

Mort Kamien
Professor of managerial economics
Kellogg School of Management
Northwestern University
There you go. How much more simple can it get? Competition. Supply and demand. If the price goes up - it’s the "market" at work. Supply and demand. Demand and supply. Just like crude oil and gasoline prices which seem to go up and the come down without either movement making any sense - except to the oil an gas "experts." Which brings me to letter number two, taking issue with the electric supply "expert’ about supply and demand determining price.
For competition to be fair, we need fair rules for competition. When we allow speculators to bid in an electricity auction, the rules are not fair because the speculators buy electricity contracts for the sole purpose to sell the contract at a higher price rather than use the electricity to light up their houses or run their businesses.

Electricity should only be available to bidders who can take delivery of the contract. Then there will be fair competition for the users living on budgets rather than the smart speculator with a lot of money who knows all the tricks how to make more money.

I do not mind if a speculator wants to buy a gold contract because gold is not the same as electricity. We can live without gold, but we cannot live without electricity today.

In his Sept. 22 letter to the editor, Mort Kamien, professor of managerial economics at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, said that competition among a large number of rivals drives lower prices. Remember that all they did at Enron was buy and sell contracts, never take delivery. If Enron had to take delivery before it sold the contract, the Enron fiasco would never have taken place.

What do history teachers always tell us? History repeats itself. The rich speculator is going to get a lot richer now that Illinois has approved auctions by our electric companies. The average Illinois user is going to pay more because of speculators.

Sometimes we need regulators to prevent the average person from unfair rules of competition.

Rudy Martinka
Now what do you think Mr. Martinka is talking about? Do you think maybe he’s talking about the same sort of thing that goes on in the crude oil futures markets that determines what we pay for gasoline? The traders of crude oil futures that never lay a finger on an ounce of crude oil - having no use for it except as a trading vehicle to make money?

I think so.

I mean if you had to name two companies that generated electricity in the state of Illinois - or any state for that matter - and your very life depended on your answer, is there even the slightest possibility that you would name J.P. Morgan Chase? Of course not. J.P. Morgan is an investment banking firm. Chase is a retail bank. They don’t generate electricity in their vaults so that ComEd can tap in and transport it to our homes and businesses. Yet companies like J.P. Morgan are part of ComEd’s infamous "reverse auction" that will bring us those higher bills next year and beyond. If you think that makes sense, you must have been taking a course with Professor Kamien at Northwestern University.

But if it doesn’t, do you begin to get the feeling that ComEd doesn’t have its customers’ best interests at heart, despite all of their advertising to the contrary? Do you get the feeling that the Commerce Commission made a bad decision when they approved this cockamamie way of allowing "competition" to set our electric rates? And do you begin to get the feeling that I’m right about who should own the companies that supply us with those basic necessities that come into our homes via wire or pipe?

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

I can’t say that I’m a fan of Walmart - for the most part because while there’s a Sam’s Club a few minutes from my house - there’s no Walmart anywhere nearby and the only shopping I’ve ever done in a Walmart store has been in my wife’s home town of Concordia, Kansas. . Also, the news we hear about their salary ranges and the lack of any widespread health plan for employees isn’t the kind of thing that endears them to the casual observer.

But Walmart may have started something that could lead to something that has been sadly lacking in this country for far too long - and that is a sensible pricing policy for the medications that we need to ward off disease - and often to sustain life.

At the moment it’s only a handful of generically available drugs that already are not terribly expensive - but pricing a whole bunch of them at $4 for a 30 day supply is making a statement that could lead to some very serious discussions - whether that was Walmart’s intent or not. So far, Target has announced that it will match the Walmart move. Walgreen’s and CVS are standing pat - but I would suspect that the mood is somewhat somber in their respective boardrooms.

One thing the move has done is to reveal where some of the high prices of medications come from. Mostly from the pharmaceutical companies of course - but the mark up that the retail pharmacies add is no small potatoes. In the weeks and months ahead, I expect to see more revelations about drug costs and add ons - all of which I hope will paint a clear picture for beleaguered consumers - and maybe get them to pressure their political representatives to put this who business of healthcare costs and delivery where it should be - at the very top of this nation’s political agenda.

The Walmart announcement caught my attention not just because it was - and continues to be all over the news, but because at the time the story broke, I was reading the following e-mail that had been forwarded to me with a request that I pass it on. It seems to have originated with someone actually in the Federal Government - putting a lie to those well known words associated with impending doom - I’m from the government and I’m here to help you. I can’t think of a better way of "passing it on" than reproducing it - or most of it - right here.

"Did you ever wonder how much it costs a drug company for the active ingredient in prescription medications? Some people think it must cost a lot, since many drugs sell for more than $2.00 per tablet. We did a search of offshore chemical synthesizers that supply the active ingredients found in drugs approved by the FDA.As we have revealed in past issues of Life Extension, a significant percentage of drugs sold in the United States contain active ingredients made in other countries. In our independent investigation of how much profit drug companies really make, we obtained the actual price of active ingredientsused in some of the most popular drugs sold in America . The data below speaks for itself.

Celebrex: 100 mg Consumer price (100 tablets): $130.27Cost of general active ingredients: $ 0.60Percent markup: 21,712%

Claritin: 1 0 mg Consumer Price (100 tablets): $215.17 Cost of general active ingredients: $0.71Percent markup: 30,306%

Keflex: 250 mg Consumer Price (100 tablets): $157.39 Cost of general active ingredients: $1.88Percent markup: 8,372%

Lipitor: 20 mg Consumer Price (100 tablets): $272.37 Cost of general active ingredients: $5.80Percent markup: 4,696%

Norvasc: 10 mg Cost of general active ingredients: $0.14Percent markup: 134,493%

Paxil:20 mg Consumer price (100 tablets): $220.27 Cost of general active ingredients: $7.60 Percent markup: 2,898%

Prevacid: 30 mg Consumer price (100 tablets): $44.77 Cost of general active ingredients: $1.01 Percent markup: 34,136%

Prilosec: 20 mg Consumer price (100 tablets): $360.97 Cost of general active ingredients $0.52 Percent markup: 69,417%

Prozac: 20 mg Consumer price (100 tablets) : $247.47 Cost of general active ingredients: $0.11Percent markup: 224,973%

Tenormin: 50 mg Consumer price (100 tablets): $104.47 Cost of general active ingredients: $0.13 Percent markup: 80,362%

Vasotec: 10 mg Consumer price (100 tablets): $102.37 Cost of general active ingredients: $0.20 Percent markup: 51,185%

Xanax: 1 mg Consumer price (100 tablets) : $136.79 Cost of general active ingredients: $0.024Percent markup: 569,958%

Zestril: 20 mg Consumer price (100 tablets) $89.89Cost of general active ingredients $3.20Percent markup: 2,809

Zithromax: 600 mg Consumer price (100 tablets): $1,482.19 Cost of general active ingredients: $18.78Percent markup: 7,892%

Zocor: /B 40 mg Consumer price (100 tablets): $350.27 Cost of general active ingredients: $8.63Percent markup: 4,059%

Zoloft: 50 mgConsumer price: $206.87Cost of general active ingredients: $1.75Percent markup: 11,821%

Since the cost of prescription drugs is so outrageous, I thought everyone should know about this.It pays to shop around. This helps to solve the mystery as to why they can afford to put a Walgreen'son every corner.

On Monday night, (date unknown) - Steve Wilson, an investigative reporter for Channel 7 News in Detroit , did a story on generic drug price gouging by pharmacies. He found in his investigation, that some of these generic drugs were marked up as much as 3,000% or more. Yes, that's not a typo.....three thousand percent!

So often, we blame the drug companies for the high cost of drugs, and usually rightfully so. But in this case, the fault clearly lies with the pharmacies themselves. For example, if you had to buy a prescription drug, and bought the name brand, you might pay $100 for 100 pills.The pharmacist might tell you that if you get the generic equivalent, they would only cost $80, making you think you are "saving" $20. What the pharmacist is not telling you is that those 100 generic pills may have only cost him $10!

At the end of the report, one of the anchors asked Mr. Wilson whether or not there were any pharmacies that did not adhere to this practice, and he said that Costco consistently charged little over their cost for the generic drugs.

I went to the Costco site, where you can look up any drug, and get its online price. It says that the in-store prices are consistent with the online prices. I was appalled.

Just to give you one example from my own experience, I had to use the drug, Compazine, which helps prevent nausea in chemo patients.I used the generic equivalent, which cost $54.99 for 60 pills at CVS. I checked the price at Costco, and I could have bought 100 pills for $19.89. For 145 of my pain pills, I paid $72.57. I could have got 150 at Costco for $28.08.

I would like to mention, that although Costco is a "membership" type store, you do NOT have to be a member to buy prescriptions there, as it is a federally regulated substance. You just tell them at the door that you wish to use the pharmacy, and they will let you in. (this is true)

Sharon L. Davis
Budget Analyst
U.S . Department of Commerce
Room 6839O
Office Ph: 202-482-4458Office
Fax: 202-482-5480
E-mail Address: sdavis@doc.gov"

No doubt the pharmaceutical companies and the pharmacy retailers will have perfectly logicalexplanations for why drugs are priced the way they are - and as soon as I find them, I’ll publish them right here!!

Saturday, September 23, 2006

It could happen. You never know.

At the moment, George Allen holds a slim lead over James Webb in the Virginia Senate race. He was doing a lot better before the "Macaca" debacle - and now it’s getting close to a toss up. If he loses, there goes his political career - and his supposed presidential ambitions. And that would be a shame, because there would be no possibility of a fantasy presidential face off without his participation.

In my dream world, I visualize a race between Allen and a second try by John Kerry. Allen vs Kerry. How more perfect a white Anglo-Saxon Christian presidential race could there be? On the surface that sounds like a simple question - and I suppose you could come up with other candidates that would be similar in background and appearance, but they would be hard pressed to generate the interest that these two would bring to the race. It would seem that things aren’t exactly as we thought they were with Messrs. Allen and Kerry.

Along with many others I’m sure, I’ve been wondering where Allen came up with "Macaca" to try to embarrass or insult or whatever - the young man from the Webb camp who was recording his campaign appearances. His people have put out a lot of possible explanations - but the one that now seems to make the most sense is that what the Senator was trying to say was "Meshugana."

I guess it’s in the blood of every Jewish kid to subconsciously revert to the occasional use of a Yiddish expression - even if he isn’t brought up Jewish. And yes, it seems that despite his upbringing and his all American waspish former NFL coach father, the Senator from Virginia is at least part Jewish - it recently being revealed that his maternal grandfather was of that faith and heritage. When a reporter asked him if it was so that his mother was Jewish he became angry and accused the reporter of "casting aspersions." Later, he said that he "embraced" his Jewish ancestry, for which I offer my congratulations.

So George Allan would be one half of my fantasy presidential face off. We’ve never had a president with Jewish ancestry - at least not known Jewish ancestry.

So where does John Kerry fit in? Take a look!! Our deeply religious (He told us during the 2004 campaign) Catholic Senator from Boston - has as much Jewish blood as any other kind coursing through his veins. It may shake a lot of people’s beliefs in what America is all about and what it stands for and who can be regarded as a true American - but just as the inevitable outcome of the Illinois 2004 Senate race was that a black man would be going to Washington, a presidential race between Allen and Kerry would put a Jew in the White House.

Can you image how the campaign would pan out? Bagel and lox fund-raisers. Crowds of supporters wearing red, white and blue yalmakas with either an elephant or a donkey on the crowns.. Theme songs for the two candidates. "Schleppy Days Are Here Again" for Kerry. "Hava Right- Winger" for Allen.

The Swift Boat people would crawl out from under their rock to claim that Kerry never showed up for battle duty on a Friday night or Saturday - "and now we know why!!" And both he and Allen will be accused of putting Israel’s interests ahead of those of the United States. Of course we don’t need Jewish presidential candidates to hear that one being tossed around.

Who will get the support of evangelical Christians should be interesting. For the most part they support Israel - so their vote should split fifty fifty based on that issue. The tilt in one direction or another may depend on which candidate shows more deference to Jesus - or which candidate makes the mistake of pointing out that Jesus was a Jew. I’m not kidding. You’d be amazed how many Christians think you’re pulling their leg when you talk about Jesus the Jew.

The only thing that could top a race between Allen and Kerry would be someone like General Wesley Clark heading up a third party try. He’s more Jewish than either one of them. Not that it did him much good in the 2004 Democratic presidential primaries.

But then I’m talking a fantasy race - not reality. Before a Jew vs Jew for the presidency of the United States could take place, we’d first see Hugo Chavez and George W Bush bound together as contestants in a three-legged charity race to benefit the children of suicide Al Qaida bombers.

Speaking of Hugo Chavez

I was shocked to hear "liberal" callers to so called "progressive" radio shows, saying that there was nothing wrong with the Venezuelan leader calling Bush "the devil." After all, they were saying, look at the name calling that Bush does. How about "axis of evil?" Isn’t that as bad as calling someone "the devil?"

I don’t think so and I don’t know what kind of muddle headed thinking would lead people to see equivalency here. As far as I’m concerned, nothing that Chavez said following the childish name calling attack on the President could be taken seriously. As someone as anti-Bush as Nancy Pelosi said, he demeaned himself and he demeaned Venezuela. She also called him a thug.

Politicians and pundits who have been attacking Bush almost since his inaugural day - are in lock step with the way I feel about the incident. You can argue with the President of the United States all you like - and you can do it while addressing a world body - but if you stoop to the kind of performance that Chavez gave us the other day - don’t expect to be taken seriously and don’t expect Bush’s domestic opponents to applaud you - as some idiots in the General Assembly apparently did - along with some grinning and tittering.

Yes, Bush has had harsh words to say about other countries and perhaps his speech writers could have come up with a better phrase than "axis of evil." But I would still equate that phrase more with Churchill’s "An Iron Curtain Has Descended Across The Continent" - than for example, Castro calling President Kennedy "an illiterate and ignorant millionaire" in his 1960 speech at the U.N.

You could perhaps agree with some of the things Chavez said - for example that Bush acts like a world dictator - but after the opening lines of his comedy act - you could only view it as just that - a comedy act. Chavez squandered a chance to open a serious dialogue which serious people from serious countries might have joined. Instead he decided to do his impersonation of a shock jock. It accomplished nothing except to spice up our morning newspapers, give the radio talk shows something a little different to talk about - and of course, supply material for Jon Stewart’s Daily Show.

A Better Class Of Torture Maybe??

Well I’m glad that one’s settled. McCain and his trio of maverick Republicans have faced down the President and forced him to accept the responsibility of interpreting the rules of the Geneva Convention all by himself. No writing anything into law here. And I don’t blame the hardy trio. Having made it clear that they would not accept some of the forceful methods the CIA has been using to interrogate suspected terrorists, they’ve tossed the ball into the President’s court. Now it’ll be Bush all by himself who will be responsible for the extra cost involved in having to use Vichy Water for waterboarding detainees.

Way to go guys!!

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

I may have expressed this sentiment before - but the older I get the more relevant it seems to be. It is that nature seems to have a way of preparing us to accept our inevitable mortality. It does it by slowly chipping away at the world in which we were born and grew up and began to grow old - and pretty soon we feel as though we don’t belong. It’s no longer our world. Fashions change. Mores change. Music fades and is replaced by cacophony and cacophony leads the hit parade. The icons that we knew and worshipped pass away - and the young people, whose icons we don’t recognize - ask Bing who - or Perry who? Thankfully, Tony Bennett is still out there, wowing the young and old alike, but he alone can’t sustain the illusion of immortality.

Most of all, it’s the passing of people we knew as we progressed through life. Some contemporaries - some just a step or two ahead of us in years. And as we learn of the demise of each one of them, the world becomes smaller and less relevant for those of us who continue to survive.

Today, I’m scheduled to have a medical procedure which will keep me at the hospital for most of the afternoon, so I won’t be able to attend the wake of my old friend and one time business colleague Bob Lewandowski. whose death I learned about in this morning’s Chicago Tribune.

I first met Bob when we both worked at WBKB - now WLS-TV in Chicago. Bob hosted one of the last live network shows to come out of Chicago - Polka-Go-Round. Those were the days when what you saw was what you got. The program was taped - but just so that while the second half of the live show was being broadcast in Chicago, the first half was being fed to other parts of the country.

Bob and I became business associates when I made the silly mistake of leaving WBKB and giving up a steady paycheck for an uncertain future. For a while, I shared an office with him at 203 North Wabash in Chicago when he created his own production firm, Le Van Enterprises - and we worked together to produce a number of projects. Our major television project was "Press Internationale" - a weekly round table review of the world’s press by local reporters who spoke foreign languages that appeared on WBKB - and of course hosted by Bob, though he didn’t do any of the reviewing.

Bob had a long and successful career in Polish language radio and was never short of sponsors to pick up the tab for his shows. But he wanted to expand his horizons and for a short time in 1963, launched an English language radio show called "Music With an Accent" - produced by yours truly and broadcast daily from the old Kungsholm Restaurant (now Lawry’s) in Chicago. Unfortunately, sponsors didn’t flock to that particular show - perhaps in part because it was on a weak signal, suburban station . I think Bob quit after a thirteen week stint. It might have been longer. It was a long time ago. But I have no trouble remembering what happened after he quit. I took over the show and had a ball being a radio broadcaster with a music and interview show. I never made any money at it, but I had a wonderful free lunch every weekday at the Kungsholm Swedish smorgasbord. I still treasure a Radio Guide clipping from the Chicago Sun Times of March 4, 1963. There, along with information about Bob Elson’s program on WCFL and Jack Quinlan on WGN, is the notation
1.p.m. WEAW - Jeff Smith’s show beams from the Kungsholm Restaurant, featuring popular music and guest interviews.
I have Bob to thank for that pleasant period of my life. Thanks buddy.

In 1963, Bob went back to Poland for a visit and came back with about a half hour of raw film shot by some friends who followed him around as he visited some old haunts. We took a look at it and decided to try to make something that could be broadcast as a documentary. It wasn’t easy. There was no excess film to play with. All we could do was write a narration and add music. I wrote a narrative for Bob. We recorded it - gave it a name - "A Walk Through The Curtain" - a reference of course to the "Iron Curtain" of Churchillian fame. WBKB agreed to air it, Budweiser picked up the tab for Chicago and a station in Detroit - and wonder of wonders, it got rave reviews - not to mention a 10.3 share and 23% rating in Chicago.

Perhaps my strongest memory of my work with Bob was what happened on November 22, 1963. We were in the studio taping an edition of "Press Internationale." on the twelfth floor of the Channel 7 building at 190 North Street. In those days, WBKB had only three floors, 10,11 and 12. Today I guess they occupy the whole building. I had gone downstairs to get some coffee from the drug store on the ground floor (no longer there) - when the news of President Kennedy’s assassination flashed on the screen above the lunch counter. I rushed back upstairs to find that the station management had given Bob and I the task of finding ethnic spokespeople in the city to come to the station and record their reactions to the tragedy. Though the nest few hours and days were a blur at the time - they remain strongly affixed in my memory as a time when Bob and I - he Polish born and me an immigrant from England - became bonded American brothers in our shared grief.

Bob and I drifted apart after 1963. I went on to work with John Weigel on the launch of Channel 26 in Chicago and other things. Bob had a show on that station but it was after I had left.

I heard a while back that he wasn’t too well and I wanted to get in touch - at least to say hello - but I never did, and now I feel bad about it. Maybe the next time I hear that one of my old friends or colleagues is ailing, I won’t let such a thing pass with just good intentions. I’ll remember Bob and I’ll make a real effort to get in touch with them.

And of course I’ll remember Bob and the good things we did together. He was one of the good guys and I’m glad I knew him.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Here’s a couple of stories that go well together. The screaming headline telling we hapless consumers that our electric bills will soon be soaring to the heights - some estimates say 25% in the Chicago area and as much as 40% in other ComEd service areas. And my comments of September 6, 2006 saying that that company should share the blame for the death of six children who perished in a fire because their electricity had been cut off for non-payment and they were using candles to bring light into their apartment.

Don’t the two stories look great side by side?

The best thing that the Illinois Commerce Commission ever did viz-a-viz electric rates was to freeze them close to ten years ago - and maybe the worst thing they’ve ever done is to allow this company to embark on this convoluted "auction" idea which is guaranteed to raise the rates consumers have to pay.

ComEd spokespeople are all over the airways trying to defend the upcoming rate increases. I’ve heard disingenuous garbage before from companies trying to explain why the screwing that they’re doing to their customers is a good thing - but ComEd is setting new standards in the BS department.

How about these comments? ComEd won’t be making a dime on the increase. They’ll just pass along the new supply cost without adding anything to it. If that’s the case - if all they charge for is their lines that bring the electricity into our homes - why the push to change the supply system that raises our bills by maybe 25%? Could it be because ComEd’s parent company -Excelon - supplies 90% of the electricity for northern Illinois?

ComEd has spent huge amounts advertising the coming rate hike. A ComEd spokesperson insisted today that the cost of that advertising campaign wasn’t being financed by ComEd’s customers. It’s being paid for out of profits, she said. And where do profits come from Mother Goose? Why they come from the profit fairy who puts them under our pillows when we’re asleep in our comfy beds. A caller to a radio station where this particular spokesperson was peddling the PR assault suggested that it was just a mite disingenuous to suggest that "profits" didn’t come from customer’s paid bills - and she stammered a non-answer, which was pretty much all she could do.

Most of the advertising has featured ComEd CEO Frank Clark telling us how much he’s concerned about his paying customers. So much so that there’s no way he’s going to hit us with this huge increase in electricity costs that the mean newspapers have been writing about. No siree sir. He’s going to "phase in" the increase over time - so that we’ll hardly notice it happening. What he didn’t tell us in these ads is that the "phase in" plan is one that you have to apply for and that you’d be charged interest for the privilege of having phased in increases over a period of a few years. Oh - and he also forgot to tell us that the so called phase in plan has yet to be approved by the Commerce Commission. And if for some reason they don’t approve it, what would that make all those commercials that weren’t paid for out of collected consumer bills. Lies maybe?

Maybe the thing that bugs me the most is ComEd emphasizing that the coming increase will bring our electric costs back to where they were before the freeze - which of course was accompanied by a rate reduction. During all these years when poor ComEd was stuck with charging us less than they did before the freeze, they’ve made money hand over fist - and their parent company - Excelon - has raked it in even faster. They don’t need any rate increase.

O.K. They are private companies. They’re supposed to be able to make a profit. Maybe even a huge profit. But as I pointed out in my September 6 comments, they’re also a supplier of a basic commodity. An electric company isn’t like a company that manufactures widgets. That’s why we have Commerce Commissions. To regulate them. To approve or disapprove of what they want to charge customers. It’s fine to say that market forces will determine what the widget manufacturer can charge for his product. It’s not fine to have "deregulation" of a basic commodity and let some amorphous "market" determine how many dollars can be sucked from the consumer who has no choice but to buy the product no matter what the price,

Maybe I sound like a Socialist or even a Communist when I suggest that ALL the basic commodities that come into our homes by wire or pipe - electricity, natural gas and water - should be owned and operated by municipalities - and without the need to pay out dividends or boost their stock prices - supplied at a much lower rate than the for-profit companies are charging us for the first two on that list.

In a rational world it would be a no brainer and no one would be calling me names for suggesting it. But of course this isn’t a rational world - and if you don’t think so, take a look at the headlines in your daily paper. Any daily paper. Any day!!

Monday, September 18, 2006

Maybe the Pope did the world a favor by quoting the criticism of Islam and the Prophet Mohammed by 14th century Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus. I think he was using the ancient emperor’s words to emphasize the point that trying to spread acceptance of a religious faith by violent means wasn’t a good idea. And there’s no getting around some of the verses in the Koran that clearly advocate violence against non-believers.

But whatever he meant - the world’s Muslim community reacted in a way that clarifies the problems the rest of the world has to deal with in confronting Islam. I wouldn’t venture to paint all Muslims with the same brush - but the widespread reaction to the Pope’s speech - as with the widespread reaction to the Danish cartoons - has been one of intolerance - and violent intolerance at that. Churches being attacked in the west bank and Gaza - and who knows where else in the world. The Pope’s life being threatened. After all, they feel insulted.

Can you imagine the same reaction to real or imagined "insults" from members of other religions? Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Israel should be wiped off the face of the earth and that the Holocaust was an exaggeration. Jews weren’t too happy to hear this garbage and said so as loudly as they could. But I don’t recall any mosques being burned to the ground in Israel or in London or New York with calls to newspapers claiming "responsibility." Or groups of militant Jews threatening to decapitate Ahmadinejad.

As readers of this blog may know or surmise - my view of religions is that they are all as crazy as each other with their elaborate creations of Gods and prophets and life after death with reward and punishment awaiting the demised. The Catholics and The Muslims have a pretty strong lock on that aspect of religion. If it was a contest I would have to say that Catholicism established a pretty big lead during the Inquisition - but in recent times, Islam has definitely nudged ahead. The difference between them is that while still as ritualistic as ever - the Catholic faith has adapted to the passage of time. It isn’t likely that you’ll be burned at the stake if you question the authority of the church - even though I wouldn’t want to own the company that sells Dan Brown life insurance. Islam on the other hand, seems to be moving backwards - reaching into the past for its inspiration.

We have to deal with it. As I’ve said more than once - the problem of international terrorism seems to be rooted in the Muslim faith. But the bigger problem - at least for the moment - is the notion that the answer lies in some massive military operation - such as the sort of thing Doctor Krauthammer visualizes in his most recent column.

But to get back to my opening line - maybe the Pope has done us all a favor - even though he’s now apologizing all over the place - if not in person, then through his various spokespeople. Perhaps he didn’t mean to directly challenge the Muslim religion or any of its premises - but in a way, he seems to have done so - and I think that could be a good thing - an opening salvo in what could turn into a verbal confrontation. Instead of apologizing - the Pope should say - O.K. Tell me where Manuel II Palaeologus was wrong about your religion. And then you tell me what is wrong with our religion. For that matter, with any religion that differs from yours. We all worship the same God - even if we do it with different traditions and rituals - but instead of threatening to kill each other over these differences - let’s discuss them. Let’s examine each others - and our own religions and see if we can’t find common ground.

It may not get anywhere. You’d need sane leaders of Islam and the other major religions and I’m not sure you could find enough of then. But it’s a hell of a lot better than the Krauthammer apocalyptic approach. After we’ve blown Iran to oblivion - what next in the so called "war on terror?"

I don’t know the answer to that - and neither does the author of this op-ed piece in today’s Haaretz. But I like the headline. "The Pope did us a favor!!"

We Don’t Torture - Except When We Torture

Just when you think you’ve heard as much convoluted nonsense as anyone elected to the highest office of the land could utter - the man currently in that position tops himself.

Now he wants Common Article Three of the Geneva Convention "clarified" so that the CIA knows how much torture they can use on terrorist suspects. And he says if he doesn’t get what he wants - the "program" or whatever you want to call it, won’t be continued. Which I presume to mean that the CIA will no longer torture detainees who are being questioned. To which I say bravo. We’ll be back to being civilized westerners who do not allow the non-civilized of the world dictate how we should conduct ourselves.

Mr. Bush says the CIA torture interrogations have saved us from all kinds of terrorist attacks. It would be nice to hear the chapter and verse of just one such thwarted attack. Say along the lines of what the Brits have so far revealed about the nuts who wanted to blow up a mess of airliners.

Not that I’m totally against torture. I’m against announcing to the world that we intend to use it in our battle against terrorism. For example, here’s something I may have mentioned in one of my posts over the past three years. I’m pretty sure I have because it’s something that I believe to the very core of my being. It is that you don’t ever announce that you will use torture under any circumstances. You just don't discuss it publically. But when you have a situation where you know a disaster is imminent and you have someone in custody who you know is in a position to provide you with information that can avert that disaster, you do what you need to do. You don’t spend time trying to revise the Geneva convention.

The Israelis understand this, probably better than anyone else on earth. I’m sure they have done whatever they had to do to extract information in just the circumstance I have described.

It might sound silly to cite a movie to make my point - but there is a movie that illustrates this concept beautifully. It’s called Guarding Tess. Tess is a former first lady who has been kidnapped She was kidnapped while out on a drive. Her chauffeur has been injured and is in the hospital and denies being complicit in the kidnapping. A secret service agent believes otherwise and is questioning the chauffeur. He knows that if he can’t find Tess quickly, she will be dead. The kidnappers can’t allow her to live and identify them. He shoots the chauffeur in the foot. He gets the information he needs. Ex first lady Tess is saved. The Geneva Convention remains intact.

Someone needs to rent this movie for the President.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

First a personal note for regular readers. There won’t be daily posts for a while and there may be some gaps of many days in a row in the near future. I’m having another myelogram next week in preparation for more back surgery. Anyone who has ever suffered from severe sciatica will understand that there are days when the only relief from agonizing pain is to get on a bed and stay there in a supine position. So if you don’t read anything here and I haven’t announced that I’m in hospital or post-op - that’s what’s going on.

And speaking of woes - George Ryan’s continue to pile on - and today’s lead editorial in the Chicago Tribune seems to approve!! Now the Illinois Attorney General has recommended that he lose his state pension - which, apart from Social Security, seems to be his only source of income. Despite the "State being for sale" during his tenure as Governor, as the prosecutors would have you believe. If he was selling the state - he sure didn’t rake in too much for it. Of course the amount of his pension - as with many government pensions - is way out of line. A theft from taxpayers. $16,000 a month?? How many people working in the private sector - in good paying jobs - end up with that kind of pension? Damned few I can tell you.

But as I said the other day - if he wanted to become truly rich by virtue of holding public office - and not get indicted and found guilty of any criminal activity - he should have got himself elected to Congress.

Take Curt Weldon for example. Someone was talking about him on the radio just the other day, so I looked him up. He’s a Republican Congressman representing Pennsylvania’s 7th District. Been there since 1986. Type his name into a search engine of your choice and you’ll get all kinds of information about his interests and the work he’s done and how well he represents the people of his district. Especially his family. He’s a good family man. So good that he’s able to make his daughter Karen wealthy by getting her a lobbying job that she had no particular qualifications to hold - except for the fact that all her lobbying efforts have to do with matters over which her Congressman father has influence.

CREW - Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (good luck with that) asked for a Department of Justice investigation of these shenanigans back in 2004. About the same time as that request went forward, people who live in his district were also asking questions about these activities.

How much did George Ryan toss his daughter? Wasn’t it around a thousand dollars? He’s on his way to the pokey. Weldon? He’s getting ready for this year’s mid-term elections. And Attorney General Gonzales. What’s he doing about the ancient CREW request? I don’t know. Maybe you should send him an e-mail and ask him. I can't find a personal address but you could try AskDOJ@usdoj.gov
What’s In A Name - Or A Gender? Obviously A Lot!!

Under the heading of "I wish I had thought of this" - here’s a beautiful piece by Capitol Hill Blue contributor Paul C. Campos, putting the "leadership qualities" of President Bush in perspective. I think he’s on to something really important here - almost "Jon Stewartish" in its wisdom. Read the bit - then think of how you would view the lives and accomplishments of other past and present well known and highly influential people if they were of a different gender. For example, Adolph Hitler as Joan Hitler and with a French, not Austrian background. Or Oprah Wimfrey as a middle aged, pot bellied white male named Jerry. He’d still give away cars but he may have drivers who deliver them to you at full speed - without hitting the brakes!! You could have a lot of fun with this. There may be a board game in it.
The Politics That Make You Sick

Here are a couple of stories that demonstrate the sorry state of our health care system. The first about a Blue Cross decision to cancel its agreement with a major Chicago health facility. If you’re covered by Blue Cross and go to the Rush University Medical Center for your care - your bills will still be paid - but at a much lower rate - the rate for "out of network" facilities - which means that the portion of the bill that you have to pay will be much higher.

Remember the days when your medical costs were between you and your doctor - or you and your hospital? If you’re old enough you might remember them. Before the bean counters took over. The insurance companies are now in charge of health care in this country. They decide how much doctors and hospitals will pay for procedures. They decide which procedures are "necessary." They even decide which drugs the doctor can prescribe - if your insurance covers any part of your medications. Some people say it will be worse if we ever catch up to the rest of the world and inaugurate a national health program - but I don’t think so. How could things be worse than having big business be in charge of a huge profit making industry? Making gazilions over the healthcare of our citizens. There’s something cockeyed here.

Then there was the announcement by Medicare that the monthly premium for "part B" would be going up nest year. A small amount for average retirees. More for individuals and couples with incomes between 80 and 400 grand a year, with premiums increasing accordingly. I would think that retired couples with incomes of 400 grand a year don’t have to worry about monthly premiums that could reach - gasp - $162 a month!! Each!!

So what’s my point or bitch about this item of medical news? A couple of things. First that there’s something cockeyed about any national healthcare system that asks people who have worked all their lives paying into the system - to continue paying once they’ve reached senior citizen status and retired from the work force and are relying on that system to maintain their health.. It’s bad enough when people with modest retirement incomes are forced to pay tax on their social security. What’s next in store for retirees? A monthly premium for Part A Medicare???

I’ve spoken often about my brother and his wife who live in England and have multiple health problems. They are seniors. They are older than me. Their retirement income - like mine, is modest. And they give thanks daily that they live where they live and not in the United States. Their much maligned (by us) system has kept them going for years at a cost to them of ZERO since they achieved senior citizen status. No premiums. No co-payments. No cost for their medications.

Some critics of such a system complain that it is far too costly to consider for this country - that social security itself will run out of funds in a few short years. And besides, it would lead to healthcare rationing. There are a bunch of doctors who don’t agree - and they deserve all the support we can give them.

I guess I just look at the problems ordinary citizens face in trying to maintain a level of healthcare without going into bankruptcy or applying for welfare in the context of what this country is prepared to spend for what it deems to be important to the welfare of its citizens. Like an operation (no pun intended) in Iraq at a cost of somewhere in the neighborhood of one hundred and ninety five million a day !! And if my math is right, today is the 1274th day of this "battle to save humanity!!"

And that leads me to the second reason I bring up the subject of national healthcare. It should be a major item of national discussion - and for sure it should be a major issue in the upcoming and every subsequent national election until we come up with a solution that replaces our woefully lacking current system. But you know what folks? It ain’t gonna happen. The Rove election assault is gathering steam. It’s not yet in full gear - but it’s already working. Fear. There’s a battle raging for the future of the world. For civilization itself. That’s the Republican re-election theme. They are the ones who can best lead this battle. The Democrats don’t even understand the danger. And already there’s been an improvement of Mr. Bush and his party in the polls. It’s something that I’ll never be able to understand. That people who have the right to vote can have their minds changed by what is nothing more than an obvious political tactic designed to sway the thinking of the ignorant or uninformed voters. And they have no idea they’re being manipulated in this way.

Some days, it’s not just sciatica that drives me to my bed writhing in pain!!

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

It has been a short five years since America’s first "NINE/ELEVEN" - and the memory is too fresh to let the anniversary go by with only a passing thought. That only comes with the passage of time - as indeed September 3 came and went without me even remembering that it was the 67th anniversary of England’s declaration of war against Germany - the true beginning of World War Two.

But when I checked to see what I wrote last year about 9/11 - I found nothing. There was no post for September 11, 2005. There were comments before and after that date - mostly concerned with the devastation of Katrina - and perhaps that is why 9/11 went by without a comment.

My past comments on 9/11 were on September 11, 2003 in which I included comments from 2002, written before I started this blog - and a brief review of those comments on September 11, 2004.

I look back at those comments and see that I was leaning heavily in the direction of Islamic extremism as the problem that the world had to deal with. I guess the same people who are now being labeled "Islamofascists" - though I don’t see that it’s helpful to pin labels on whoever it is that wants to cause us harm - and for sure I don’t think it’s helpful to compare them to Nazis or Communists.

My feelings haven’t changed that much. I still see the major problem of terrorist acts directed against western nations as being rooted in the Muslim religion. I just wish Mr. Bush would drop this ridiculous "war on terror" nonsense, which unfortunately many people buy. We can conduct a "war" against terrorists - but even that is a misnomer because such a war can never be concluded. How do we know when "victory" is ours? Do we get a declaration from around the world - "we, the last remaining professional terrorists do hereby surrender to the United States of America?" Sounds ridiculous doesn’t it? The "war on terror" is even more ridiculous. When and how do you declare victory over "terror?" There’s no nation called "terror." There’s no terror army or navy or air force. Yet this so called "war" gets used over and over by the President and his Republican cohorts as a political battle cry.

Yesterday’s speech marking the fifth anniversary of the attacks of 9/11/01 was supposed to be non-partisan - a memorial speech - a speech to honor the dead and the heroes who survived that horrible day. So what was Iraq doing in such a speech? Why were we being sold the idiocy that winning the amorphous "war on terror" depended on our "winning" the "war" in Iraq?? It’s hard to keep up with all the quotation marks needed to contemplate the degree of flim flam that this administration wants us to follow. What’s today’s watchword/catchword? Resolve? Wasn’t it "adapt to win" just a week or two ago? I can’t wait to see what it will be next week.

There is no question that we need to be alert to the possibility of more terrorist attacks by crazed extremists and that in concert with our allies, we need to be proactive in rooting out terrorist cells. Unfortunately, that’s the world we live in and it will probably stay that way until we all reach a higher level of maturity. But that’s a far cry from being engaged in a never ending "war" and being manipulated by Osama Bib Laden into making such ridiculous statements as the future of civilization being lost if we didn’t achieve "victory" in Iraq. What is truly ridiculous and at the same time frightening is when our president doesn’t realize how he is being manipulated by Osama Bin Laden when he says such things as
"Osama bin Laden calls this fight "the Third World War" -- and he says that victory for the terrorists in Iraq will mean America's "defeat and disgrace forever."
So Bin Laden says "jump" - and Bush says "how high?" Conservative columnist John Tierney talked about Bin Laden pulling Bush’s tail that way in an op-ed piece in the New York Times this morning. Unfortunately, the greedy NYT won’t let you access op-ed columnists unless you’re a print edition subscriber or willing to pay for on line access. I’m not, but if you want to, here’s the link.

Aside from freelance terrorists , we do of course have to be concerned about leaders of countries that say crazy things and pursue the acquisition of atomic power - possibly leading to atomic weapons. Iran has emerged as such a nation, with the greatest governmental power being in the hands of religious leaders - always, in my view, a potentially dangerous situation.

Just how dangerous has yet to be determined - despite the duo of Bush and Rumsfeld - those great readers of history - telling us that anyone who questions their historical interpretations -( perhaps as represented by the wonders of their Iraq policy?) - as being "appeasers" of the caliber of a Neville Chamberlain. But as religiously fanatic as the Iranian Mullahs may be, I am sure they understand what consequences they would face if they acquired and dared to use such weapons. MAD - the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, worked in our decades long cold war against the Soviet Union. I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t work with a nuclear Iran - or any other country at odds with us and so armed. If it is our policy to prevent any country with whom we are not closely allied from acquiring a nuclear capability by any means possible , then we will be going to war again and again. Bush and Rumsfeld seem to think that any other approach amounts to "appeasement." I think their approach could well lead to the fulfillment of what the letters M.A.D. stand for.

I’ve no doubt that when the sixth anniversary of 9/ll rolls around, we’ll still be deeply engaged in the "war on terror" - because Bush will still be in the White House, reading history and setting policy. I also have no doubt that we’ll still be deeply entrenched in Iraq and that the violence there will be continuing unabated.

I just hope that on September 11, 2007, we won’t be marking time for the first anniversary of the Iranian war.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Barring a legal miracle, the former governor of Illinois is on his way to jail, perhaps never again to live as a free man. With a six and a half year sentence, if he is compelled to surrender in January, he’ll be 79 before he gets out - and if he’s able to delay surrendering while he appeals the case and isn’t successful in his effort to get a new trial - he’ll be in his eighties by the time his sentence is completed. It’s entirely possible that he’ll die in jail.

But there are plenty of people in the state who think he got off easy!! Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass, who has been watching, commenting and gloating about the case from the sidelines like a latter day Madam Lafarge, called it a "light sentence." Today he called it "ridiculously light."

I don’t know George Ryan. I’ve never met him. I followed the case only casually, but I have a fair idea of the charges that were brought against him - and now that the case is over other than appeals that are likely to go nowhere, I have a few impressions to record in my observations of the passing parade.

One thing that I think was accomplished was the laying down of standards for awarding state contracts. To avoid the possibility of indictment and conviction, it is obvious that no state contract of any kind can be awarded to anyone who knows the sitting governor, has met the sitting governor, has offered a cigar to the sitting governor, has contributed to the sitting governor’s political campaign or is a friend of anyone who is a friend of the sitting governor. The Ryan trial made it clear that it is a criminal act to steer state business to friends - or to use the more accusatory term - "insiders" - even if the state business needed to be furnished and the "insider" had the means and the ability to supply those business needs.

The trial also made it clear that there are vast differences between state elected officials and federal elected officials - and that what may be the daily routine for a federal elected official - a representative or a senator - is a crime for a state official. The minuscule perks that Ryan got from his insider friends - freebies at a vacation resort for example - were all criminal acts and severe violations of his oath of office. If one wants to become an elected official and enjoy such perks, one needs to be elected to congress and travel the world on other people’s money to conduct federal investigative work - usually at world centers closely connected to the business of the federal government - Hawaii - The Cayman Islands - Paris etc. Ryan was obviously confused about the differences between state and federal rules covering such matters.

Similarly, the trial pointed out the different ways in which relatives of an elected official may benefit financially from their relationship to a state official as opposed to a federal official. The wife of a congressman for example, may find herself in a no show five figure job courtesy of a lobbyist or a major supporter - and though it might smell, it isn’t likely to become a count in a criminal indictment against the congressman or the wife. But - as Ryan has discovered - something as innocuous as a few bucks thrown in the direction of the daughter of a state official can send that official up the river lickety split.

O.K I’m being a little tongue-in-cheek in trying to express my impression that one of the things that brought George Ryan down was that he hewed to the tradition of being an old time politician - doing things the way the old timers did things - and very likely doing them without thinking that he was acting in a criminal manner. There are a few "new" old timers still doing things that way in Illinois - and so far, they’ve avoided the wrath of the federal prosecutors. So far. One local "untouchable" may yet find himself facing the kind of charges that sunk Ryan.

I’m also someone who was once indicted by the federal government in the same jurisdiction as the one that indicted Ryan - and after my personal experience, I always look at such indictments with a jaundiced eye. My indictment was also full of buzz words that made me look guilty just by what it said. Conspiracy. Mail fraud. Big time crooked stuff. The only thing was - not a word of it was true. It was a total distortion of non-criminal acts. Fortunately the case was in the courtroom of a judge who looked at things a little differently from the way Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer looks at things. He read the indictment, scratched his head and said to the federal prosecutor - "even if everything you allege here is true, what crime is being committed?" I paraphrase of course. But what happened was that the judge didn’t agree that the allegations - as untruthful as they were - amounted to violations of any law. But if he hadn’t dismissed the case - if it had been allowed to go forward and tried before a jury - I can see how they could have bought the idea that the untruthful allegations did amount to criminal acts - and I could have landed in the pokey for a year or two.

To continue - the prosecutors in Ryan’s case - and the columnists who have been calling for his blood for months - were disgusted at his lack of contrition - that he didn’t apologize to the court and the people of Illinois for his criminal acts. The last I heard, the man plans to appeal his conviction. He wants the verdict thrown out and a crack at a new trial. Wouldn’t it be a little premature to admit and apologize for guilt while you are still trying to prove your innocence?

Ryan and his co-defendant may indeed be as guilty as hell and deserve every minute of their jail sentence - but from the very beginning I thought that trying Ryan and Larry Warner together was unfair - because putting them on trial as a couple of co-conspirators made them look like just that to the jury - and made it difficult for defense attorneys to mount the same kind of defense they might have been able to present if their clients had been tried separately. That was another Judge Pallmeyer decision.

Finally, some impressions about an issue that wasn’t part of the trial - yet hung over the courtroom proceedings like a Sword of Damocles. The judge correctly denied the Willis family the opportunity to speak at Ryan’s sentencing hearing. Not that it would have made any difference. The pleadings of the prosecuting and defense attorneys amounted to little more than a charade for the benefit of the courtroom audience and the media representatives. Pallmeyer had already made up her mind and her comments made that clear. She read them from a prepared script. But she did allow the Willises to submit letters - and the Chicago Tribune, particularly its columnist, John Kass, who has practically been accusing Ryan of murder for years - printed them in today’s paper.

A couple of things seem to be indisputable. The driver of the truck that was involved in the accident that killed the six Willis children, very likely paid a bribe to get his license. I say "very likely" because I don’t know that he has ever admitted it. And under Ryan’s watch as Secretary of State, there was widespread corruption at some drivers license facilities, with bribes being paid for easy acquisition of drivers licenses and a good deal of that money going towards buying fund raising tickets for Ryan. After that, it gets murky.

There was never any evidence that bribes for licenses was Ryan’s idea - or that he knew about it and approved it. He might have been an old time politician - but he wasn’t nuts. To have personally approved of the idea of passing out drivers licenses to anyone who could pony up a few bucks would have been suicide for Ryan. And criminal to the max.

Much is made of the allegation that the driver, Ricardo Guzman, didn’t speak English and so didn’t understand warnings being yelled at him about a piece of metal that looked like it was about to fall off his truck. As far as I know, his driving skills or lack thereof didn’t contribute to the accident. The guilt that was associated with this tragic event - and which became attached to and has stuck with George Ryan - had to do with the allegation that Guzman wasn’t qualified to be driving a truck. He had a license but it had been obtained illegally. The argument is made or at least implied that had he qualified for his license legally, the accident might have been avoided.

I think this is a specious argument and keeping it alive - as Kass and others have done for years - only makes a terrible tragedy more terrible - for the Willises and for everyone who sympathized and grieved with them when it happened. Guzman didn’t speak English. I sometimes shop at a local produce store that has maybe a dozen employees who speak no English but who drive to work every day. I have gardeners who come to my home every week driving a large truck to which is attached a large trailer. It is a difficult vehicle to maneuver. The driver doesn’t speak a word of English. Neither do the workers who travel with him. I don’t know if any bribes were paid for the license of that particular driver - but if it takes a bribe to obtain a drivers license in Illinois if you speak no English - than what was uncovered in the Operation Safe Road scandal is just the tip of a huge iceberg. There are drivers all over this state who can speak little or no English - and I have to assume that if they are pulled over by a traffic cop, they’ll be able to produce a valid Illinois drivers license.

There were people in the Secretary of State’s office who backed away from investigating this accident - who in fact didn’t allow an investigation to go forward. They were protecting Ryan’s run for the governor’s office. They were trying to keep potential scandals away from him. They made political and personal decisions. They were wrong - no doubt about it. Ryan’s close friend and Secretary of State Inspector General, Dean Bauer, went to jail for his role in preventing an investigation and for other misdeeds.

But throughout the history of Ryan’s troubles - from the Willis tragedy forward, I have never been able to understand how people like the Tribune’s John Kass could more or less accuse Ryan of being responsible for the deaths of the Willis children. I’d lay odds that up to the moment the story of the accident broke, Ryan had never heard of Mr. Guzman or had any idea that he had driven in to an Illinois drivers license facility and driven out with a drivers license. Still, Ryan will be remembered for the deaths of the Willis children along with his conviction for conspiracy, mail fraud, tax fraud and other crimes - and his nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize will be little more than an asterisk in his obituary.

Mine is a minority view I know - but I don’t think that Ryan was a crook who got himself elected to office - just an office holder who didn’t see the hole he was digging for himself as he helped his friends make money, enjoyed the perks that people were anxious to shower on him because of his position and who endorsed the covering of his rear end when embarrassments surfaced that threatened to end his political life.

Which of course is now over - as are my post sentence impressions.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

For weeks, people in the Chicago area have been subjected to a television PR campaign by Commonwealth Edison, featuring its CEO Frank Clark telling us that he started in the mail room 40 years ago sorting the mail and now he’s the big muckety muck and he gets the mail - and he expects that he will be getting mail from ComEd customers if the company doesn’t cover their impending huge price increase in sugar and molasses to make it easy for their electric customers to swallow.

For a number of years, ComEd’s rates have been frozen - but they have still been a profitable company. Now the freeze has come to an end and it’s look out above. The sky could be the limit.

The sweet offer that he’s making is that the price increase won’t come all at once. It’ll be "phased in" annually. For how many years we don’t know. Just that it’ll keep going up - and the estimates are that customers will finish up paying as much as 40% more for electricity than in the past. But Frank Clark keeps telling us the company cares about its customers and is going to do everything in its power not to hurt us and to help those who will be needing help meeting these new costs.

While these ads were running, there was a fire in a Chicago apartment that killed six children. The fire was probably caused by a candle being tipped over. The family was using candles to light their apartment. They weren’t using Commonwealth Edison’s electricity. ComEd had cut them off for non payment of bills. How much they owed I don’t know and I don’t plan to find out . It isn’t relevant.

This was a horrible tragedy. It made the national news - newspapers, television, radio. And for more than one day. Probably internationally too. It was reported by Reuter’s and UPI.

Naturally, when Commonwealth Edison heard about this, they were horrified. At least I assume they were. CEO Fred Clark, who has been telling us for weeks how much the company is concerned about its customers, must have been in shock. Probably so much so that he didn’t personally authorize anyone to make a statement of sadness and regret on his behalf. No matter though. There was a statement from the company. It was that they were not required to inform any local authorities when they cut off someone’s electricity for non- payment! The Ramirez family hadn’t asked them or anyone else for help to keep their lights burning - and maybe a fan or two in the hot weather - so it wasn’t ComEd’s responsibility to check on any possible harm that might have resulted from their actions.

This stinks. This stinks to high heaven. If there ever was a story that evoked that ancient plaintiff cry - there ought to be a law - this is that story.

In this modern society - in these urban settings, electricity and/or natural gas - and water, are basic needs of life. These are not commodities that should be under the control of for profit, private companies - any more than the services of police or the courts should be provided by private, for profit companies, interested only in the bottom line. But since this isn’t utopia, we need to find a way to impose responsibilities on the for profit suppliers of basic needs that they don’t seem capable of imposing on themselves.

Commonwealth Edison seems to have no shortage of funds to produce television commercials to tell us how wonderful they are in a market where they have no competition for private consumers. They have a monopoly. And their bottom line has been healthy for all the years during which they have been burdened by the price freeze that’s about to disappear unless opponents of the impending increase can stop them in the courts.

It seems to me that the very least they should do is put together a small field staff whose sole responsibility would be to check up on the people whose electricity has been cut off - especially if such people haven’t applied anywhere for assistance. If the company has an assistance program, it should let people who have been cut off or about to be cut off know about it on a one to one basis - not through TV ads, which of course people without electricity couldn’t watch anyway - and not through a web site which people without electricity couldn’t visit - even if they had a computer and an Internet hook-up, which would be doubtful for people who can’t even afford to pay for their basic needs.

As usual, the first stirring of apportioning blame is being directed at the apartment building ownership - with stories about some smoke detectors in some apartments working and some not working or with dead batteries. The apartment where the fire took place had no smoke detector.. I once lived in an apartment in Chicago - more than one apartment as a matter of fact. And I don’t recall it being anyone’s responsibility to install a smoke detector but my own. Maybe in today’s world, apartment building owners have some responsibility to be sure that there are adequate detectors in the building - but it wasn’t the lack of a smoke detector that started the fire that killed six kids - it was the use of candles as a substitute to shed light on darkness in the absence of electricity to do the job.

After all the investigation is over, I doubt that the city authorities will assign any blame to ComEd. But I blame them. I blame them for being a callous money grubbing company that will cut off their often life giving or life sustaining product from someone who hasn’t paid sufficient monetary tribute to them - without having the slightest idea who is on the other end of that cold hearted business decision - or - despite their ads and their web sites - caring one whit about who it may be.

They should. They should be made to. There ought to be a law to make them.

Friday, September 01, 2006

If the object of the president’s speech at the American Legion convention yesterday was to frighten the American people, he certainly succeeded with this American. Not with his assertion that the future of the civilized world depends on "victory in Iraq" - but that his political desperation has driven him to the point where he will say anything in defense of the disastrous mess that has resulted from the decision to invade Iraq. And what he might do next to prove how right he is.

None of the pollyannaish predictions of the cabal of hawks who maneuvered us into the horrible mess in which we find ourselves have come close to being correct. Israel and the Palestinians are further apart than ever. A civil war is raging in Iraq. Iran has become the major player in the Middle East - perhaps in the entire Muslim world. Does anyone think that Iran would be as big a problem as it is today if Saddam Hussein was still in power next door instead of their Mullah’s co-religionists?

There is no question that crazed terrorists are sprinkled throughout the world’s populations and that most of them are Muslims who think they are doing something noble if they can die in the act of killing those who they perceive as being their enemies. But calling them successors to Nazis, Communists and fascists contributes nothing to our understanding of the threats they pose. And believing that they can be subdued by overwhelming military might is sheer madness. Like serial murderers, you first have to find them before you can deal with them - and you can’t do it with tanks and bombers. No more with shock and awe than with rock and roll!!

Terrorist militias such as Hezbollah or Hamas are something entirely different. They must be dealt with militarily before they can be dealt with diplomatically. When we confronted the Taliban in Afghanistan, the world was with us. It was the right thing to do - morally and logically. There’s almost nobody supporting our actions in Iraq.

When Mr. Bush tries to link AlQaida, Hezbollah, Hamas and Iraq together as cooperating branches of a world wide terrorist movement, he is being disingenuous. And if he is doing it to try to affect the outcome of the mid term elections, he is being disgustingly disingenuous - exactly the opposite of what we expect from the president of all the people.

But the truly scary feeling one is left with after listening to the "highlights" of his speech, is the possibility that he believes what he says. That a man who tells us that anyone who disagrees with him just doesn’t understand the nature of the world we live in, is himself that confused about the nature of the problems we do face and how to deal with them.

I guess Rumsfeld’s speech the day before was meant to soften up the American Legion audience for Bush, with his attempt to link anyone disagreeing with our disastrous foreign policy with those who tried to negotiate with Hitler in the years leading up to World War Two.

Nazis. Communists. Fascists. I’m surprised that there hasn’t been any comparison to Genghis Kahn or the anti-Christ. And that last possibility isn’t that outlandish. Not in a country where a prominent Republican from Florida who was instrumental in Dubya’s original presidential win and now running for the senate from that state, says that if we don’t elect Christians, we’ll be "legislating sin."

Aren’t they a great crowd?

If we really want to make comparisons with appeasers of the past - Neville Chamberlain’s Peace in our Time for example - we need look no further than what set me off laughing and crying yesterday - Kofi Annan telling us that Lebanese authorities have assured him that they will stop the flow of weapons to Hezbollah. But now he’s topped that piece of fiction, telling the world that he’s received the same kind of assurances from Syria’s Bashar Assad.

What we can learn from the living people mentioned in today’s comments is that we have to beware of those who want us to believe the unbelievable - no matter how high their office or their stature. What Kofi Annan wants us to believe is that both the weak Lebanese government and the Syrian dictator can be taken at their word when they say they will prevent Hezbollah from receiving more weapons. All I can say in response to that imaginary circumstance is that Annan must have studied European history up to September 30, 1938 and then switched to science fiction monthlies.

And what Bush and Runsfeld want us to believe is that we are beset with enemies pounding at our gates, that they are best suited to repel them because they say so repeatedly and that anyone who questions them is darned close to being a traitor. And they hope that Carl Rove was right when he told them that enough of us are stupid enough to buy it.

On which note I wish one and all a pleasant week-end and a happy Labor Day.