Category Archives: Seeking answers

What in the world are these things?

Went to Greenville over the weekend, and was puzzled the whole way by these things, which were spaced more or less 100 yards apart all along the median of I-26.

I have no idea what they are. They appear to be covered in some sort of synthetic fiber, but moving at 65-70 mph, it was hard to tell. (And no, I was not driving. It was hard enough capturing one of these in a frame on my iPhone as we whizzed by even as a passenger. It took a bunch of exposures to get one as clear as the one above. The blurry one below was second best.) I could not tell whether they were solid — made, say, of concrete — or mere covered frameworks. There may or may not have been gravel about the base.

They were four or five feet in diameter.

Drains of some sort? Shock-absorbing barriers for cars that wander into the median? UFOs? I don’t know. If they are drains, they seem … excessive. Like maybe DOT had some stimulus money it didn’t know what to do with.

Anyway, can anyone tell me the correct answer?

Which of these best exemplifies the uninhibited nature of the genre?

Really, really, REALLY have to get a bunch of nonblog stuff done today, and don’t know when I’ll get back to you. So while I’m doing it, ponder the question I just posed on Twitter:

What’s the best full-momentum, unleashed rock ‘n’ roll song: Seger’s “Katmandu,” CCR’s “Travelin’ Band,” or Elvis’ “Hard-Headed Woman”?

Why those three? Well, I was coming back from an errand with a cup of Starbucks, and “Katmandu” came on the radio. And I thought, what’s better — at what it does — than that? And the answer quickly came — “Travelin’ Band” and the best of all, “Hard-Headed Woman.”

Oops. I just gave away the answer. Well, my answer. This is one of these things where opinions are just that, without anyone being right (and despite what some people think, not everything is like that). So I’m really interested in what you think, as your opinions on the matter are just as valid as mine (he said with an air of self-congratulatory generosity and a tone of condescension).

Bonus question: To follow the Hornby orthodoxy, what other two songs sharing those characteristics would fill out the Top Five?

Woulda Coulda Shoulda: Could Sheheen have won with a better campaign?

Last night, when it was all over, I was struck by two things: How much better Vincent Sheheen’s concession speech was than any speech I heard during the campaign, and how much worse Nikki’s was.

As I said on the air last night, that “victory” speech was so… low… energy. The people in the studio laughed, saying, “It’s after midnight!” So what? I wasn’t tired (I didn’t hit the sack until about 3, and then only after a couple of beers). She shouldn’t have been, either. She should have been PUMPED! The crowd that had had the patience to wait for her (the folks in the WIS studio were puzzled she made the world wait for her so long; I told them to get used to it, because Nikki will have no more use for the people of SC going forward, as she continues to court national media) ALSO should have been pumped. But they sounded like an average group of supporters listening to an average, mid-campaign speech.

Maybe she was saving her energy to be on the Today show today. (Here we go again, folks. More of the same of what we got with Mark Sanford, Mr. FoxNews.)

As I urged people on TV last night — go to that clip I posted on the blog of her speech the day Sarah Palin endorsed her. Where was THAT enthusiasm? It’s like she had this finite supply, and it was just… enough… to carry her BARELY over the finish line in a remarkably close victory for a Republican in 2010.

As for Vincent, when he said that line about how he and his supporters “wished with all your might to take this state in a new direction,” it resonated so that I thought, “Where was THAT during the election?” Sure, he talked about not wanting more of what had under Sanford and such; he made the point — but he never said it in a way that rang out. He didn’t say it with that kind of passion.

It’s so OBVIOUS that that should have been his theme. Instead, we had the complete and utter absurdity of Nikki Haley running as a change agent. It’s so very clear that in electing Nikki Haley, the voters chose the course most likely to lead to more of the malaise that we’ve experience in recent years.

But hey, woulda coulda shoulda.

I just raise the point now to kick off a discussion: Is there something Vincent Sheheen could have done that he didn’t that would have put him over the top? Or did he come so close to winning, in the worst possible year to run as a Republican, because he ran the perfect campaign?

I mean, he came SO close. It was so evident that Nikki was the voters’ least favorite statewide Republican (yes, Mick Zais got a smaller percentage, but there were several “third party” candidates; Frank Holleman still got fewer votes than Vincent). I look at it this way: Mark Hammond sort of stands as the generic Republican. Nobody knows who he is or what he does, so he serves as a sort of laboratory specimen of what a Republican should have expected to get on Nov. 2, 2010, given the prevailing political winds. He got 62 percent of the vote.

Even Rich Eckstrom — and this is truly remarkable given his baggage, and the witheringly negative campaign that Robert Barber ran against him — got 58 percent.

So Nikki’s measly 51.4 percent, in the one race with the highest profile, is indicative to me of the degree to which voters either liked Vincent, or didn’t like her.

So the question remains: Could Vincent have won with a better campaign, or did he do as well as he did — ALMOST pulling off what would have been a miracle in this election year — because his campaign was so good?


Anyone know what this Wilson “ethics” thing is?

I haven’t written anything about the supposed ethics investigation of Joe Wilson because I don’t have the slightest clue what it is supposedly about. Neither the MSM nor the campaigns themselves have been particularly helpful on this point.

For instance, this release I just got from Rob Miller:

Dear Brad,

By now, I’m sure you have all heard the news.  Congressman Wilson is under investigation for breaking Congressional ethics rules.  Joe would have you believe that this is about some “glorified shot glasses” that he bought on one of his many taxpayer-funded junkets.  You and I both know that you don’t get investigated over $12 in trinkets.

Joe Wilson knows that, too– it’s why his staff won’t stop talking about $2 goblets, but won’t say if those are the limit of the investigation.

I believe in the iceberg rule.  The corruption we see in Washington is only 10% of the problem; the rest is hidden away, protecting the insiders, because if the public knew what was going on, they wouldn’t stand for it.  Joe Wilson was willing to steal $12 from taxpayers in public.  What is he willing to do in private?  Pocketing any amount of taxpayer money is not only wrong, it’s illegal.

From raising his own pay five times, to giving away hundreds of billions of dollars to Wall Street, to voting against South Carolina teachers and jobs, to being investigated for breaking the public trust, Joe Wilson is everything wrong with Washington today.  We deserve better.  Stand with me and fight for it.

Semper Fi,

… which as you see doesn’t indicate one way or the other what is allegedly going on. It merely insinuates, and lamely. Personally, when I see the tip of an iceberg I at least know, by implication, what lies below. I have no such helpful clues here.

Mr. Wilson himself is no more helpful, merely sending out such nonsense as the following:

Dear Subscriber,

Public disapproval with the liberal establishment in Washington is at an all time high. Folks have become aware that the path of smaller government and Reagan conservatism will lead us out of this dark era of liberal recklessness. This sentiment is felt all across the country, and people in South Carolina are demanding that their legislators respond with conservative solutions.While many representatives are hiding under their desks in fear of the public outrage, Congressman Joe Wilson is out touring the state to help cultivate this rich environment for change and reform. He is meeting with the real economic experts in this state – workers and small business owners.

On the “Joe Means Jobs” bus tour, folks in every corner of the state are talking with Joe and telling him how much they want the era of Big Government to end. Joe strongly agrees with this demand and is under attack from the liberals in Washington because of it. Nancy Pelosi and her liberal friends are funneling money into South Carolina’s liberal campaigns, in an effort to oust honest conservatives like Joe Wilson from office.

It is a long uphill battle that Joe must fight until November, but he is not backing down from Nancy Pelosi’s intimidation tactics. It is imperative that Joe stay out on the campaign trail to help spread the word about what liberals in Washington and even here in South Carolina are doing to bankrupt this state and country.  And to let folks know what he is going to do about it.

Click here to watch a video of Joe while on his bus tour!

Will you stand with Joe today and help him defeat the liberals in Washington? It is obvious that they desperately want Joe gone, since they specifically targeted him with their opposition money.

Please help Joe by clicking here to make a donation today!

I don’t know about you, but “It’s Nancy Pelosi’s fault” doesn’t help me any more than when the Dems moan about everything being Bush’s fault. Just another sad attempt at misdirection. In fact, he doesn’t even mention the charges in this particular piece, merely alluding darkly to “Nancy Pelosi’s intimidation tactics.” Sigh.

Has anyone read anything that I’ve missed that would shed a light? If so, please share…

Why are there tanning parlors in our world?

Reading about the new federal tax on artificial tanning, both in national and local media, and I find myself wondering: How come things like tanning beds and tanning parlors exist, anyway? In the 21st century and all.

I’m not saying we outlaw them or anything — taxing them heavily seems like a great way to produce needed revenue, as long as they exist — but how is it that anyone would ever pay money to do something so pointless — something that no one in the world needs, ever, and so likely to lead directly to cancer?

Aside from the fact that I just don’t think deep tans are becoming on white people. If you doubt me, look at Larry Marchant on the Jon Stewart video. Looks weird, doesn’t it? Unnatural? Like, what’s wrong with Larry?

Anyway, that’s how it strikes me — as something that exists with no rational underlying explanation. Another of life’s mysteries.

Is the M4 a lethal weapon (to the user)?

Something Burl wrote in a comment reminded me of this story the other day:

WASHINGTON — In the chaos of an early morning assault on a remote U.S. outpost in eastern Afghanistan, Staff Sgt. Erich Phillips’ M4 carbine quit firing as militant forces surrounded the base. The machine gun he grabbed after tossing the rifle aside didn’t work either.

When the battle in the small village of Wanat ended, nine U.S. soldiers lay dead and 27 more were wounded. A detailed study of the attack by a military historian found that weapons failed repeatedly at a “critical moment” during the firefight on July 13, 2008, putting the outnumbered American troops at risk of being overrun by nearly 200 insurgents.

Which raises the question: Eight years into the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, do U.S. armed forces have the best guns money can buy?…

I’ve sort of wondered for years why this country couldn’t simply produce a weapon as simple, as effective, as cheap, and most of all as RELIABLE as the AK-47.

I read part of the recent book by Larry Kahaner about that remarkable weapon (one of the many books I’ve read “part of” while drinking coffee but not buying anything at Barnes & Noble, my favorite leisuretime activity), and it reads like pretty much an indictment of the free enterprise system. The way it developed was this: A soldier in the Red Army, dissatisfied with what guys like him had to rely on in battle, decided to design a multi-purpose infantry weapon that would get the job done, and always work. So he did, the Soviets mass-produced it, and it became the number-one weapon in the world, the favorite of rebels, terrorists, thugs, and child soldiers everywhere.

It’s cheap; it’s ubiquitous. It puts a LOT of high-impact bullets on a target in a big hurry, so you definitely don’t want to go up against one if you can help it. It’s simple, and easy to maintain. It requires so little skill — and upper-body strength — to operate that it makes a child soldier into a particularly dangerous person.

In other words, it’s pretty horrible. But it’s a way better weapon, in lots of ways, than anything we’ve mass-produced.

We’ve heard about the troubles with the M16 since Vietnam, and the M4 is its descendant. The M16 fires a lower-weight slug at a high velocity, so it rips up whatever it enters — although it doesn’t have much knockdown power. (In Black Hawk Down — the book, not the film — a Delta team member gripes about the M16 because when he shoots somebody who’s shooting at him, he wants to see the guy go down.)

Meanwhile, nothing ever seems to go wrong with Kalashnikovs, no matter what you do to them. The story Burl told matches one I’ve heard before:

A friend (now deceased) who was part of the Army test team for the M-16 told me this anecdote.
He thought the M-16 was delicate and undependable, told the Army so, he was told to shut up and buy stock in Colt.
A few years later, he’s in command of a firebase in Vietnam, and they’re clearing a kill zone. The bulldozer uncovers a dead Viet cong who has buried for a year or so, along with his AK-47. Dave jumped down in the hole, said “now here’s a REAL weapon,” and cocked the muddy, rusty AK, pointed it at the sky and pulled the trigger.
It fired.

So — are our soldiers taking unnecessary risks because of inadequate weapons?  I’d be interested in particular to hear from Capt. James Smith and others who have actually taken the M4 into battle (that’s him below getting his ACOG zeroed in on arriving in Afghanistan — at least, I think that’s an M4).


Folks, help me help out the new readers…

In light of the changes on the blog, I’ve got some first-timers trying to log in and leave comments, and having trouble. I’m hearing from them via e-mail.

Problem is, I don’t know how to figure out how to tell THEM how to log in, because when I try to do it for them, my browser insists upon recognizing me, and I don’t find any way to log in as someone else — or indeed, to create a new log-in. In other words, I can’t see what they’re seeing. (And yeah, I feel really stupid; good thing for me I’ve just banned insults and catcalls, huh?)

Since some of y’all have done this more recently than I have, would you mind posting instructions. Of course, with the new rules, they won’t post until I approve them.

Complicated, ain’t it?

Another stab at civility: “Unapproving” comments

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one blogger to dissolve the permissive bands which have connected him with trolls and to assume among the powers of the Web, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitles him, a decent respect to the opinions of the Blogosphere requires that he should declare the causes which impel him to the separation.

I hold these truths to be self-evident, that all discourse is not equally valid, nor constructive, nor is anyone endowed by his Creator with any unalienable Right to destroy all Harmony and chance for Civil Discourse in a forum provided by the Labour of Another. All men are equally free, however, to start their Own Blogs, where they will be fully entitled to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

— from my old blog, July 4, 2007

Folks, after getting a number of complaints from some of you — mostly in sidebars, via e-mail and other means — about the increasing incivility on the blog, I went in and “unapproved” a bunch of comments from over the weekend.

Removing all the ad hominem attacks, irrelevant rants and pointless catchphrase-shouting is a lot tougher than it may sound. You end up throwing out a lot of stuff from people with the best intentions, but whose comments make zero sense without the offensive comments to which they are responding. So just about everybody has lost at least one comment. Among those I’ve censored, if only briefly, are Lee Muller, “Libb,” “Mike Toreno,” bud, Randy E, kbfenner, BillC, and Burl Burlingame.

This of course is not to say that I consider all “offenders” to be the same. Lee Muller seems increasingly incapable of making a point without peremptorily declaring the illegitimacy of anyone who disagrees. The pseudonymous Mike Toreno and BillC have some really serious hostility issues. On the opposite end of the spectrum, people like Kathryn Fenner labor, often in vain, to elevate the tone.

I’m not sure what to do about this going forward. I’m as sick of the nastiness as Kathryn and others who have simply given up on this forum. So I find myself considering a number of possibilities:

  • Requiring active approval from me before comments will post. I’ve done that before, on the old blog, and I really hated it. It killed spontaneity. I want y’all to be able to converse in real time, and I simply can’t spend all day making that happen.
  • Banning some commenters from the blog permanently. I’ve done it before, just not for awhile. Some of the greatest offenders are people I’ve banned before, then allowed to come back — perhaps because of misplaced optimism on my part. So I guess it’s time to do it again.
  • Requiring a higher level of permission from me, as the moderator, before a commenter can post comments at will. (I’m not even sure this is technically possible, but I intend to look into it.)
  • Simply doing what I just did — going through every couple of days and weeding out the worst offenses, with the hope that folks will start to get the idea what will pass muster and what won’t.
  • Dropping the blog altogether. Not something I want to do, but it is on the table.

That last option arises from simple weariness with this problem, and the acknowledgment that I can’t (or at least, don’t want to) spend my days policing grownups to get them to act like grownups.

Other (good faith) suggestions are welcome.

As you know, I’ve wrestled with this problem from the beginning. And at various times, the tone has gotten better for awhile. But we’ve done some backsliding lately. I’m going to try, up to a point, to fix it.

(un)Critical Mass(es)

Let’s have a little discussion about human nature.

First, take a look at this story from yesterday’s WSJ, which reveals the rating inflation that plagues (or blesses, depending onyour point of view) the Web:

The Web can be a mean-spirited place. But when it comes to online reviews, the Internet is a village where the books are strong, YouTube clips are good-looking and the dog food is above average.

One of the Web’s little secrets is that when consumers write online reviews, they tend to leave positive ratings: The average grade for things online is about 4.3 stars out of five…

Did that surprise you? It did me, a bit. But then I got to thinking about the one place where I’ve done a lot of rating — Netflix, where over the years (in a vain attempt to teach the site to predict my preferences) I’ve rated more than 2,000 movies. And since I love movies, and do a certain amount of selection before watching them, I knew I had given really high ratings more often than really low ones — specifically, I had awarded 5 stars (to such films as “Casablanca,” “The Godfather” and “It’s a Wonderful Life”) 156 times, and 1 star (examples: “Dances With Wolves,” the made-in-Columbia “Death Sentence” and “Dune”) only 24 times.

Still, if you count up all the movies I’ve rated between 1 and 5, you come up with an average rating of only 3.4. And if you factor in the 815 flicks I’ve rated as “Not Interested,” awarding them a 0 score, it drops to 2.0. But that’s misleading, because some of those are good flicks that some time or other I gave that rating just as a way of saying I wasn’t interested in seeing them at that time. But if you count just a fourth of those, it lowers my average to 2.9.

Which is about where you’d expect me to be. I’m a born critic — flaws leap out at me, and I remember them. And my detractors (such as those who think I’m too tough on Mark Sanford) see me as all criticism, as one who never gives my subjects their due. Actually, though, some of my detractors (such as those who were furious that I continued to admire John McCain throughout the 2008 campaign) attack me for the opposite trait — the fact that I can the good outweighing the bad in some people and some things. (You ladies who love Jane Austen may think of me as a health mix of Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley, only without their wealth.)

Back to human nature: Why would folks be so overwhelmingly positive on the Web (except, of course, here on this blog)? The story in the Journal speculated as follows:

Culture may play a role in the positivism: Ratings in the U.K. average an even higher 4.4, reports Bazaarvoice. But the largest contributor may be human nature. Marketing research firm Keller Fay Group surveys 100 consumers each week to ask them about what products they mentioned to friends in conversation. “There is an urban myth that people are far more likely to express negatives than positives,” says Ed Keller, the company’s chief executive. But on average, he finds that 65% of the word-of-mouth reviews are positive and only 8% are negative.

“It’s like gambling. Most people remember the times they win and don’t realize that in aggregate they’ve lost money,” says Andy Chen, the chief executive of Power Reviews Inc., a reviews software maker that runs Buzzillions…

Aha! I think I understand… at least, I now understand a possible reason why people gamble.

I don’t know about you, but I have not gambled since I was in college. I went through a period when I shot pool (nine ball being my game) and played a few hands of poker. But the last time I played pool for money and the last time I gambled with cards are etched unforgettably on my mind because of the spectacular ways in which I lost. My opponent at the pool table had had a shocking run in which he had pocketed the nine ball on the break several times in a row. After hours in which no one had had a hand nearly as good, I risked all (even writing a check to another player to get cash to stay in the game) on a full house — only to lose to a full house that was one card better (queens as opposed to jacks).

I’ve never understood, since then, why people would gamble. But this tendency to remember the anomalous wins more clearly than the losses would explain it.

But is that truly human nature?

Frankly, I find myself doubting the very premise of the story. As a newspaperman of 35 years experience, I am so accustomed to hearing from the people who are AGAINST something, or who didn’t like something in the paper, that such universal satisfaction seems unlikely to me. Take letters to the editor. One of my favorite examples were the letters we got for a week or so after U.S. troops first went into Afghanistan in the fall of 2001: They were overwhelmingly against U.S. military action. I knew they were not representative of South Carolina, not by a long shot, but they were the people who were taking the trouble to write. And that seems to me to be the norm.

Yet this story is saying otherwise. What do you think is true, and why do you think it’s the case?

Do you think things are getting any better?

Consider this another in my fitful efforts to gauge how the economy is coming along. Noting this item today:

Statewide home sales increase 13% in June

Monday, 20 July 2009
Staff Report
COLUMBIA – The number of homes sold in South Carolina rose for the second straight month. Nearly 4,200 homes were sold in June, an increase of 13% over May, according to the latest report from the S.C. Association of Realtors.

In May, home sales totaled 3,704, an increase of 16% over sales in April.

June’s figures also represent the best year-over-year showing so far this year, with just an 11.3% drop compared to June 2008 numbers.

Of the 15 regions reporting home sales for the association, 14 reported an increase in sales over May. The only area that reported a loss was the Southern Midlands Association of Realtors. It sold three more homes in May than it did in June, according to the report.

Of the state’s three major metropolitan areas, Greenville posted a 13.3% increase in June sales over May, followed by Columbia with a 10.5% increase and Charleston with a 9.4% increase, the report said.

The median price of homes in South Carolina was $147,000, up from $142,000 in May. The average number of days a home was on the market was 144, down from 155 in May.

For the full report, click here.

… which follows on news Friday that unemployment held steady, I wonder — do you see signs that things are starting to look up?

You can’t tell by me, since I still don’t have a job. For that matter, you can’t really tell by South Carolina. The state Board of Economic Advisors called for more state budget cuts last week.

But South Carolina lags, and I am a South Carolinian, so I guess that means I lag, too. Still, even I have seen positive signs in recent weeks — such as packed parking lots out in the Harbison area.

What are you seeing?

Before we move on, could you (briefly) explain the Jacko thing to me?

My first thought glancing over the news today is, OK, after today can we move on? No more Michael Jackson this, Michael Jackson that, wherever I turn?

But then my second thought was, While I don’t want to delay the moving-on thing, could someone explain to me what everybody is worked up about?

I don’t get it, and I never will. It’s related, I think, to the phenomenon on reality shows in which the audience screams constantly — not when something remarkable happens on the stage, or someone shouts “fire!” — but at everything that happens, everything that is said. It drives me nuts, and my wife and daughters get tired of me complaining about it when they’re watching their dancing shows, but it still bugs me because I don’t get it. Why is it that exciting?

As for Michael Jackson — well, I don’t want to speak ill of the dead; I just look forward to when we’re not speaking about him at all. What I think about him now is what I thought four years back:

Tuesday, 14 June 2005

What’s WITH these people?

Celebrity worship is a mystery to me. This puzzlement is deepened by the case of Michael Jackson.

OK, I can sort of understand how someone might have become a fan of his at one point. In the early ’80s, he was a remarkably talented young black man. But now that he is no longer young, or black, or manly in any way you’d notice, and hasn’t put forth any striking evidence of talent lately, about all he’s got left is being remarkable. And not in a good way.

I’m not saying this to be mean or anything like that. I just don’t see how, beyond memories of some catchy tunes and dancing that seemed to defy physical laws, anybody would feel any sort of emotional involvement in anything that Mr. Jackson does, or anything that happens to him or doesn’t happen to him.

And yet there are people who really, really cared what happened in his trial. Michael_jackson_fans They were willing to put their whole lives in suspense over whether he was found “guilty” or “not guilty.” They made it their business to be there at the courthouse, as close to his side as possible. They were ecstatic at the verdict.

What I want to know is, Why? It seems to me that even a cursory examination of the stipulated facts regarding Mr. Jackson would give any sensible person considerable pause. I mean, I can seeing pitying a man who lives in a fantasy world and sleeps with young boys to whom he is not related (even innocently), and has obsessively done bizarre things to his own body. But I can’t see how anyone would admire him, or hitch one’s own happiness to his fate.

I’d appreciate any insight that anyone out there has into this phenomenon. If I could understand this, maybe I could understand the whole celebrity culture.

Anyway, before we move on, does anyone have an explanation for me? Preferably, a brief one?

Urgent call for field peas

A reader in Tennessee who apparently read this post of mine from last summer is obviously a guy who's got his priorities straight, and I'd like to be able to help him out:

I'm TN and would like to know where I can order Dixie Lee Field Pea seed for my garden.
Thanks Chris

Anybody know where he might be able to obtain these seeds? One of our correspondents wrote in July as follows:

A few years ago I planted a patch of these peas and I agree that they
are some of the finest. I purchased my seed at Bob's Ace Hardware in
Leesville, which is across the street From shealy's bbq. Also, you may
want to try Consumer Feed and Seed in Lexington, which is next to Addy

… but I don't know whether that will be helpful or not, to a guy in TN. Any other tips for a guy who knows what's good? (Actually, I'm assuming the "guy" part, and on thin evidence, it now strikes me. If Chris is a gal, I apologize.)

The slowdown: What are YOU seeing?

Peggy Noonan had an intriguing column Saturday, about what she was seeing in Manhattan in terms of real, street-level effects of the recession. Here's an excerpt:

    This is New York five months into hard times.
    One senses it, for the first time: a shift in energy. Something new has taken hold, a new air of peace, perhaps, or tentativeness. The old hustle and bustle, the wild and daily assertion of dynamism, is calmed.
    And now Washington becomes the financial capital of the country, of the world. Oh, what a status shift. Oh, what a fact.

Here's what struck me about that: She implies that — because of the stimulus, the TARP, etc. (I guess) –  the hustle-and-bustle that's missing from the not-so-mean streets near Central Park has somehow been transferred to Washington.

And yet, weirdly enough, I had been talking to someone else last week who had made a similar observation about a loss of activity in Washington. It was USC President Harris Pastides. When he came to see us with Mayor Bob and the gang last Monday, he had just stepped off the plane coming back from D.C., and his impression was that it felt dead, deserted. Of course, he acknowledged that the contrast was particularly sharp because he had last been there for the Obama inauguration just weeks earlier, but he seemed to be suggesting that he was seeing was a loss of activity from the norm, not just from the inaugural excitement.

(I heard that with particular interest because one thing that had always struck me when I visited D.C. — and mind you, I haven't been there in years and years — was something that my libertarian friends can identify with. I thought, crowded onto a metro platform with well-dressed commuters, or walking past swanky shops, "There's too much money in this town." Of course, part of that is the sheer size of the gummint, a good bit of which should be devolved. But part of it is the amount that the private sector freely spends on lobbying. I have no idea how to separate it out. But I know that in my limited experience, the lobbyists are snappier dressers.)

I haven't been to New York in almost a year, and I last went to D.C. in 1998 (yes, more than a decade). I don't know what impression I'd have if I visited either today (although I'm pretty sure NYC won't be as busy as when I made this video). Come to think of it, I don't know what impression I have of right here in the Midlands. For instance:

About three weeks ago, I went to the Lowe's out on Garners Ferry for the first time since before Christmas. It was late on a Sunday afternoon. And I was shocked, because when I walked in, there were about a dozen or more of those carts you use to stack your lumber on — the kind that when it's busy, you've got to hunt around for — lined up in a neat row in the lumber aisle before me. So there were at least that many carts free, and an employee had had time to gather them and make that neat row. Then after I left and got to thinking about it, I thought I had seen about as many employees as customers.

I've mentioned that several times since then, and sometimes people nod their heads and sometimes they dispute it. For instance, Cindi said she's been to Lowe's (including that particular store) maybe six times in the last few weeks, and it's always been busy.

Then when she said that, I suddenly remembered that I went out to Harbison Saturday, and the traffic was the worst I'd seen in several years. I thought I'd never get there, or get home. And the stores I went into were at LEAST as busy as the norm, if not more so, so I don't think it was just a matter of my having hit the traffic at a bad time.

From where I sit, there's plenty of evidence of our economy tanking in the aggregate, from the state unemployment figures to the horrific effect that reduction in advertising has on newspapers and TV. We can quantify the cuts that have occurred already and are coming in state government, or local school districts. And I know of quite a few specific cases of people close to me — personally and professionally — who have lost their jobs or are facing the high probability of such losses.

But then we still see the anomalous things, such as all that activity out at Harbison. And not just there. Over the weekend I thought, not for the first time, that the Vista is just TOO successful. Yes, I'm being ironic, but it's frustrating when that district has become so popular that you can't park within a block of Starbuck's.

So I'm wondering — what are YOU seeing out there, as a worker, as a businessperson, as a consumer? What's the true picture of what's happening thus far in the Midlands? Maybe we can get a snapshot — or better yet, a panorama — of that right here on the blog. So how about it? What are you seeing?

What IS that heavenly body?

Any astronomers out there, amateur or otherwise? I feel really stupid asking this question — in earlier centuries, any educated person would have known the answer to this, but in our light-polluted modern era, we take too little note of the heavens — but I'm going to ask it anyway. After all, the valedictorian of my high school class used to ask the stupidest questions I ever heard — our physics teacher's jaw would actually drop with incredulity — but those of us who were too cool to ask dumb questions didn't get to be valedictorian. (My wife says her class valedictorian, her friend Mary, was the same way. And look at her today; she has a giant flat-screen HDTV and I don't.)

Where was I? Oh yes — what in the 'verse is that superbig, superbright, object in the sky at about 30 degrees elevation, a little south of west as of 8 p.m. Eastern? Is it Mars? Venus? Some other planet, that has just wandered closer than usual? (I'm thinking Mars, because it seems to have a bit more of an orangish cast than the other, far less bright, stars and planets.)

It's the biggest, brightest thing I can ever remember seeing in the sky aside from the sun and moon.

Who can tell me what it is?

Retail watch: How’s business, as of this Cyber Monday?

Just a few minutes ago, I was reading a piece at the WSJ site that attempts to get a handle on how retail sales went across the country on Black Friday, and over the weekend. (Short version: Better than expected, but a lot of that was the loss-leader items on Friday, and once folks bought those up, sales slowed.)

That’s a hard thing to get a grip on. But it occurs to me that it would be interesting to enlist you blog readers in a reporting effort. And what better time to do it than on Cyber Monday? We know that one piece of the economic crisis is the reduction in consumer confidence — and, more substantially, in consumer spending. Hank Paulson a couple of weeks back starting emphasizing that at the expense of bailing out Wall Street.

Everyone expects this holiday season to be a bummer for the consumer economy, so let’s see if we can gauge, through our own experiences, how that’s going.

I’ll kick it off with some of my own purely anecdotal observations:

  • I started thinking about this weekend before last. It was the weekend after Circuit City had filed for bankruptcy and Best Buy had "sent a shiver through the retail and financial markets Wednesday as it
    sharply reduced its profit forecast due to plummeting sales." I was at Best Buy — the new one near Lexington — picking up my first Chrismas gift of the season. It was about 6 or 6:30 p.m. on a Sunday. I didn’t have to wait in line, so it occurred to me to ask the clerk whether they had been busy earlier in the weekend. He said they had. But you couldn’t tell by me. We also went to Lowe’s (the one closer to I-26) to pick up a couple of things and to look at charcoal grills, and I pointed out one to the wife that I would like very much to have.
  • On Thanksgiving, my kids who were in town and I were over at my parents house, and after dinner there was a good bit of looking through the ads in that day’s paper and discussion about who planned to shop Friday and who did not (I did not, since I had to work), which I’m sure would have pleased the folks down in advertising. One of my daughters, evidently shopping for things Dad might want, kept pointing things out in a neutral sort of way and asking what I thought. One idea stuck with me, and I later mentioned it to my wife (I didn’t want my daughter spending that kind of money on me). It was a loss-leader "door-buster" USB turntable — you know, a thing for turning all my old vinyl albums into MP3s — at J.C. Penney. It was $78.88, I think. Unfortunately, by the time I found the ad again and showed it my wife, I realized it was bit late for a "door-buster" price. Anyway, I’m worried that talking about that may have put the grill out of her mind, which would be a tactical error on my part.
  • Then we went back to Alice’s and had another Thanksgiving dinner that couldn’t be beat… no wait; wrong story… (But I did get to hear that part on the radio later that evening.)
  • Yesterday, the wife and I did a full-bore Harbison run starting around 3:30 p.m., and I’m sorry to report it was way easier than it would have been if retail were booming. (It WAS raining, of course.) We went to Verizon first, because she had left her phone charger in Memphis, where she had visited her Dad for Thanksgiving. We had perhaps the shortest wait I’ve ever had there — not even long enough to browse. We then hit the mall itself, and there were large swaths of parking lot empty. It was bustling, but not Christmas-season bustling. Long line at Starbucks, but that’s always the case at that Starbucks. My wife stopped at several kids-clothing shops looking for Christmas outfits for the twins, which struck me as impractical, but anything in the name of boosting the economy. She was disappointed not to find more bargains, except at Sears, where she made a purchase. Hot Topic didn’t have the thing my youngest daughter had specifically requested, but the clerk (who may have set a Midlands record for body piercings on the face alone) suggested we look on-line. We then went to Ross, Marshall’s, T.J. Maxx (all places where at least one of my daughters likes to shop), Best Buy (where I found a Sony USB turntable was $164, but that’s not why I was there), Publix, and home.
  • At home, I spent a good bit of time trying to find the item we couldn’t get at Hot Topic. I found it at the chain’s Web site, but then spent a bunch of time trying to find something my daughter might like just as much, but which I would not find as objectionable. Most of what I found, unfortunately, was in the UK rather than here at home, and I wasn’t sure how to negotiate pounds when I have dollars in my debit card account.

Anyway, that’s for starters. What do y’all have to contribute? I’d particularly like to hear from our own resident retailer, James D. McCallister. In fact, I might check to see whether he can get that item I’ve been searching the Web for…

Whither the blog?

Seems like this comment I put on this comment string is worth a separate post, since I’m looking for feedback:

Above we have 32 comments. Seventeen of them are by or about Lee
Muller (10 by him, including the first and the last; seven about him.)

That means the majority of comments are not about the subject at
hand. The subject at hand, of course, is my effort to elevate public
discourse above the level of polarization and pointless shouting.

I’d like to thank Harry, Karen, Phillip, Bart and, eventually bud
(once he decided not to "harp on the past") for engaging the topic
positively, and Randy and David for at least engaging the topic.

Anyone have any suggestions as to what do do with the fact that most
of the string was occupied with polarizing distractions? This is a
serious question, because now that the election is over I’m evaluating
how much energy to put into the blog, given that we are so short-handed
and I’m so harried these days.

When I started this blog, I had a staff of six full-time people
(including four associate editors) and one part-timer to write for,
edit and produce the editorial pages. And even then it was extremely
difficult to squeeze out the time from a 24-hour day to blog. Now I
have three full-timers (down to two associate editors) and one
part-timer in the editorial department. Finding time for the blog long
ago reached the point where most people would say "impossible."

My Sunday column spoke directly to why I do this blog. It’s about
carving out a place that is an alternative to most of the hyperpartisan
blogosphere, which reflects the style of nondiscourse framed by the
parties, the advocacy groups and the shouting-head television "news." A
place where people can interact constructively, and even listen to each

I deeply appreciate those of you who try to have a constructive
conversation in spite of all the shouters in the room. Unfortunately,
there are many, many people of good will who simply won’t try that hard.

Anyway, anybody have any constructive suggestions for going forward?

Of course, the very first comment I get it likely to be from Lee. But after that, I’d very much appreciate some relevant feedback from the rest of you.

Your voting anecdotes here


t took me an hour and forty minutes to vote at the Quail Hollow precinct — most of it standing in the breezy fine mist of rain, which gets cool after awhile even in a camel-hair sport coat. This was the first day in more than a week that I did NOT wear a sweater, which was stupid. I had looked at the weather report on my Treo — mid-60s, it said — and it simply never occurred to me that I would spend 90 minutes of the day standing outside.

But it was OK. Here are some pictures. The one at top was looking toward the front of the line, just after I joined it. Voting3The blurry one at right is a little later, showing all the way to the front of the line. (That’s my wife in the white sweater and dark hair about halfway up, although I didn’t know that until I called her on the phone and she told me she was there; I had thought she was in Shandon watching the twins. If it had been any other sort of line, I would have gone up and cut in to join her. Somehow that seemed a violation of electoral etiquette, though.) The one below is from
about 15 minutes later, at which point the line stretched back about twice as far as the point where I had joined it at 10:08. Note that the mist was falling when those behind us got out of their cars, so they had umbrellas. Many of them did anyway; the lady colonel in the foreground did not, but she was dressed for inclement weather.

All during this there was a steady flow of old folks being escorted to the front of the line, and after a while, I must confess, I was tempted to say, "Oh yeah, right! Like you really need a walker — I’m onto you!" But I didn’t think it would be nice, so I didn’t say it.

When we finally got inside the little building behind the church, the line waiting to check in consisted of about 10 people. Then there was a long, undulating space for a line after registering with only four or five people standing in. Apparently it didn’t occur to the poll workers that they weren’t managing the flow as well as they might. The lady checking in the first half of the alphabet was moving people along pretty well — story of my life; if there’s a way to screw over the W’s, it will be found and acted upon. My half of the alphabet had to wait while our worker was distracted by the old folks bypassing the line. (The whole curbside voting thing seemed very haphazard. They had a van for awhile, but that left. Some cut to the front of the line; some went to a side door, and I got the impression that each person who did so was a bit of a surprise, and was dealt with in an ad hoc manner. But perhaps I didn’t fully perceive what was happening.)

At the front of the line, there were seven machines (not counting the young lady holding the curbside machine — why she was in there, waiting for people to check in and then accompanying them out to the voter in the car, I don’t know). But only five were in use. One of them was specially equipped, I overheard, for the hearing impaired (what role hearing played in the process I don’t know). Maybe it was rigged for sound for the blind, and I misunderstood — it appeared to have headphones attached, which for all I knew was so that the "Rock the Vote" kids could hear loud music while voting.

Why the seventh machine wasn’t in use, I don’t know.

So how did it go for you?


Who (if anyone) is John Vierdsen, and why does he want to be my ‘friend’?

Call me a mossback, but I admit it: I don’t get Facebook. It’s not that I ain’t hep! Blogging is second nature to me. Almost everything else about the Internet, from Google to e-commerce, I do as though I’ve always done them. I’ve essentially been instant-messaging since the early ’80s.

But Facebook foxes me. It doesn’t make sense. I don’t understand why information flows the way it does on that site or is structured the way it is; I have trouble obtaining the simplest information from it.

But most of all, I don’t get the whole "friends" concept. Mind you, I’m not the world’s most sociable guy. There’s family. There’s co-workers. There’s sources. There are nice people I see at church or at Rotary. But friends? Not so much. We’re not encouraged to have "friends" in my business. I’ve been the recipient of disapproving remarks from colleagues on the rare occasions I’ve called someone a "friend" in a column. It’s considered unprofessional.

But ever since I set up a Facebook account (I did it when my youngest daughter’s boyfriend died last year, and I’d heard his sister had set up a page where a lot of people had said nice things about him), I’ve had this steady trickle of e-mails saying

(Name) added you as a friend on Facebook.  We need to confirm that you know (name) in order for you to be friends on Facebook.

To confirm this friend request, follow the link below:

Sometimes these are people I know, usually professionally. I usually confirm them, if only to keep open the lines of communication. Some are members of my immediate family, such as my children. I approve those, of course, although "friend" seems an awfully inadequate way to define the relationship. Some are people whose names are only vaguely familiar, although I generally recognize them when I go to their pages. Then I have a dilemma — should I snub this person who has asked me to be his or her "friend," or potentially compromise myself by declaring to the world that this person is a "friend?" (This category includes a lot of people, usually younger ones, who work in politics professionally.)

Yeah, I get it that the site using the word "friend" to describe a range of relationships much broader than the original meaning, but I’m still not sure what to do.

Then there are the total strangers asking me to be their friends — some of them attractive young women (and some of them young men whose motivation I wonder about, but never mind). The very first person who asked to be my "friend" was an attractive lady (which I knew from the glamor shot) who lives in Germany and is married. I "confirmed" the friendship just so I could send her a message asking, as delicately as I could, whether we knew each other. She said we did not. OK. Whatever.

That was a year ago, and I still don’t understand what’s going on.

Now, along comes a message saying that "John Vierdsen" wants to be my friend (that is allegedly a picture of him at right). That rang a bell. Sure enough, I went back and found this e-mail I’d received from Randy Page of SCRG on Oct. 13, to wit:

I trust that you are doing well.  I noticed that “John Vierdsen” is quoted in the S.C. Blogs section again today.  From all accounts, “John Vierdsen” is a pen name because no one knows who “John Vierdsen” is.  Rumors swirl about his possible identity, but no one really knows….

So I decided to make use of my vaunted "social network." I went to the page on Facebook where I was being asked whether this John Vierdsen is my friend, and saw that we had a number of "friends" in common. I noticed they were mostly Democrats or fellow travelers, such as Bob Coble, Joe Darby, Joe Erwin, James Smith, Laurin Manning, and so on…

… and former colleague Aaron Sheinin. So I sent e-mails to both the mayor and Aaron asking if they knew who, if anyone, this guy is. The mayor responded with possibly the shortest e-mail I’ve ever gotten from him:

I do not know him.

I haven’t heard back yet from Aaron.

So can any of y’all shed light on this guy? Basically, I just want to know whether we got hoodwinked on our Monday blog rail, as Randy alleges.

And then while you’re at it, maybe you could advise me as to whether I want to be "friends" with Darrell Jackson (his is the only "friend suggestion," rather than "friend request," which I take to mean that HE didn’t want to ask me, sort of like getting a third party to ask whether you want to be friends, which sort of takes me back to the 5th grade), or Tom Fowler, or Scott Sokol, or a lovely young lady from Connecticut named "Tiffany…"

Manholes in the Midlands

Back in the early 90s, I was one of a handful of editors who helped shape a drastic reorganization of The State‘s newsroom, challenging and in some cases throwing out fundamental assumptions about what we covered and how we covered it. (I was also the first one, months later, to say the new system didn’t work, but no one was listening to me at that point.) We came up with some pretty wacky, high-concept beats, but there was one I could never get the others to go for, one that I still think would be a good one — the "driveby beat." Basically, it would involve assigning a reporter to answer the kinds of questions that occur to you driving around the Midlands — What are they building there? How long will I have to take this detour? Whose responsibility is it to fix that pothole? What do all those people waiting for the library to open do the rest of the time? Essentially, just about anything that might occur to you to wonder about when you drive by it, and that normally you would never get an answer to.

For instance, Sunday morning I wanted to know why I couldn’t get anywhere closer than a couple of blocks from the Gervais Starbucks in my truck. It apparently had something to do with people riding around on bicycles in silly outfits, but I had to wait until this morning to get an answer. And I’m still not satisfied, by the way (that is, I’m not satisfied that was worth diverting traffic for, but then I’m a real curmudgeon about these things).

One of the letter writers on our Monday page got me to thinking about another one that I usually forget by the time I get to work. Here’s the letter:

Manholes are hazards around Columbia

Why is it that with the technology to provide a smooth, correctly profiled, beautifully laid asphalt roadway, no one seems able or willing to address the numerous manholes that seem to dot every block of roadway on our main thoroughfares?

When you ask a paving contractor about it, he or she sounds like Freddie Prinz of “Chico and The Man” — “It’s not my job!” How about, at least, a composite disc to raise the low ones to the roadway elevation?

With so many diverse utilities — the water and sewer department, SCE&Grab, Bell South/Southern Bell (whatever), etc. — nobody wants to take the time, expense or effort to raise (or lower) these units to the proper elevation before paving, and they are legion. Ride over to Forest Drive and take a look.

There is one in front of the State Museum (outbound lane) that would knock the treads off an Abrams tank if hit at 30 mph.


More specifically, here’s what’s on my mind: I’ve grown accustomed to the periodic indentations along Sunset Blvd. in the left-hand land heading down to the river through West Columbia. It’s been like that for years, and I either stay in the right lane, or dodge the manholes, or put up with my truck being jarred into rattling every few seconds.

But now, on the days I take that route, there’s a new barrier — coming up from the river on Hampton. You know, the part that’s several lanes one-way? It got repaved last month, and apparently it got ground down WAY below the manhole covers before repaving, but was not paved back UP to the manhole covers. The pavers dealt with that by constructing volcano-like slopes around the manholes, creating a sort of slalom situation — particularly right at the top of the hill, at Hampton and Park — if you don’t want to experience the equivalent of multiple speed bumps.

I am as sure as anyone can be of something like this that this situation did not exist BEFORE the repaving. I’m pretty sure I’d remember it if it had been like that.

If I we had created that driveby beat, and if I still worked in the newsroom, and if I were that reporter’s editor, I’d have him or her call around to find out who’s responsible, and whether anyone plans on doing anything about it.

Or if I were an editorial page editor in another state, one where government isn’t impossibly fragmented, I’d just call City Hall and probably get an answer.

But since I’m an editor in South Carolina with half the staff he used to have, I’m going to use the same technique I used to check Nicholas Kristof’s math — post the question on a blog, and see if I get an answer.

Now I’ve got to run; there are proofs on my desk that need reading.