Monthly Archives: May 2015

Cars For the Blind

blind driverWhile lying in bed in the dark Sunday night, listening to the radio and hoping for sleep to come, The Curmudgeon heard an advertisement for an organization, he believes it was the Federation of the Blind, asking people to donate their cars to the organization.

And in his half-awake, half-asleep state, all he could wonder is why in the world blind people would want cars.

Surely they’re not going to…

Advertisements

Is This What They Mean by Irony?

Only twenty-four hours after a speeding Amtrak train jumped the tracks in Philadelphia, killing eight and injuring 200 more, the U.S. House Appropriations Committee voted to cut Amtrak’s federal funding fifteen percent – about $250 million.

While they were at it, those voting in favor of the cut criticized those voting to increase Amtrak funding for politicizing the crash.

But that raises the question…

What’s wrong with politicizing the crash? Amtrak is a government-sponsored rail service and one of the reasons contributing to the crash was it lacked adequate funding to install a safety device, an automated speed control system called positive train control, that could have prevented the accident. According to preliminary reports, the train was traveling more than 100 miles an hour on a stretch of tracks where the speed limit is 50. If the positive train control device had been installed, that would not have been possible. The lack of funding that contributed to the absence of the positive train control device was a political decision, so what’s wrong with politicizing a crash that, if not for politics, might never have occurred?

But that’s not to let Amtrak’s leadership off the hook because its members deserve most of the blame. The area of track where the derailment occurred had a lesser form of accident prevention technology called automatic speed control, but it was installed only on the south-bound tracks and not the north-bound tracks where the train derailed. Amtrak management decided to skimp on this safety measure. A law requiring the installation of positive train control technology, the more advanced technology, was passed in 2008 but that law gave railroads until the end of 2015 to install it and Amtrak officials, not Congress, made the ill-fated decision to put off installing the device until the absolute last minute.

A last minute that the eight people killed in the crash will never see.

Politicize the accident? Wouldn’t failing to politicize it be as criminal an act as what occurred on those tracks in Philadelphia last week?

 

Once Again, Cheaters Prosper

When we were young (and our heart was an open book) we believed it when the grown-ups told us that “cheaters never prosper.”

But then we grew up.

The financial crisis of 2007-2011 brought us countless examples of people whose cheating led to unbelievable prosperity. Companies lied, deceived, and swindled, shamelessly and often, but the people running them were never held accountable. To the contrary, they prospered to an unimaginable degree.

A while back The Curmudgeon wrote about one of major league baseball’s steroid cheaters who managed to get a job as a manager of a major league baseball team, proving once again that in professional sports, cheaters can and do prosper.

Recently, the New York Yankees announced that they won’t pay a contractual bonus to Alex Rodriguez for passing Willie Mays on baseball’s all-time home run list. Rodriguez is a cheater who never should have been permitted to play baseball again because he benefits permanently from his cheating; the physical benefits derived from steroid use don’t disappear just because you stop using the steroids. Rodriguez is clearly committed to sucking every dollar he can out of his baseball career even though, according to the authoritative baseball-reference.com web site, he will have earned $420 million – not a misprint – playing baseball by the end of the 2017 season, when his current contract expires. Rodriguez will sue the Yankees if they don’t pay that bonus because the man knows no shame; if he did he would have quietly disappeared for good when major league baseball suspended him for a full year for using steroids and lying about it. He’ll probably win that lawsuit, too, because the Yankees put the bonus in writing even though they had a pretty good idea he was a cheater. Now, though, they’re outraged – outraged! – over his past conduct. You have to wonder, though, whether they’re outraged about the cheating he did to help make himself a great player or whether they’re outraged that he was careless enough to get caught cheating.

If Rodriguez, his steroid use aside, wasn’t so thoroughly unlikeable, there would undoubtedly be people expressing admiration for his willingness to do anything it takes to succeed and help his team. That’s the culture of professional sports. The Curmudgeon remembers well back in 1980, when the infamous Billy Martin was managing an Oakland Athletics team that was short on talent and long on hustle, and one of his tools for compensating for its lack of talent was the stolen base. At one point someone thought they saw something funny and measured the distance between first base and second base in Oakland’s stadium and found that it was eight-nine feet and not the regulation ninety feet – an excellent way to facilitate base-stealing. Sure enough, there were people who expressed admiration for Martin and his willing “to do whatever it takes” to win, as if it wasn’t cheating because it was in pursuit of a greater goal.

And recently we saw two more examples of athletes cheating or breaking the rules and the penalties they have and haven’t endured as a result.

A four-month investigation commissioned by the National Football League concluded that it was “probable” that the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots succeeded in part by deflating footballs to make it easier to throw and catch them and that the team’s quarterback, all-American boy Tom Brady, was at the center of this cheating. The league responded by suspending Brady for the first four games of the 2015 season, which will cost him $2 million in lost wages (he has been paid about $150 million during his career, so he’s not going to need to resort to clipping coupons and applying for food stamps).

footballsBut is Brady really being held accountable? If you consider what he did not to be that bad then you may be satisfied with the punishment. If you view his actions as more serious then you may see a four-game suspension as little more than a slap on the wrist and you also may note that Brady’s team may suffer more than he will. Will Brady be hurt? Will his name be erased from a Super Bowl trophy? Will he be denied entry to the football hall of fame? Will his endorsements disappear? Probably not. Will his squeaky clean, good-guy image be tarnished? Maybe a little. Will he care? Probably not. He cheated and he prospered.

Maybe we should cut Brady a little slack because the team he plays for has a well-earned reputation for cheating. In 2004, his New England Patriots were accused of videotaping the practices of their Super Bowl opponents, although it was never proven. Three years later they were caught in the act of videotaping the hand signals future opponents used to transmit plays from their sidelines to the players on the field. Like the Wall Street brokers who persuaded customers to buy stocks their company was dumping and the mortgage companies that lent money they knew the borrowers could never repay, the Patriots have a real culture of cheating. For their most recent cheating they were fined $1 million by the NFL, which doesn’t seem like a whole lot of money, and were stripped of a few future draft choices, which will hurt them. But they get to keep their latest Super Bowl trophy and get to keep the money they got from winning that game, so will this punishment, such as it is, discourage the team from bending the rules again?

Doesn’t seem likely, since they’ve been down this path before.

Someone else who broke the rules was banned from his sport “forever”: baseball player/manager Pete Rose. When irrefutable evidence surfaced that Rose bet on baseball games while he was managing a baseball team, he was banned from baseball for life and excluded from consideration for baseball’s hall of fame. Supporters of Rose like to point out that he only bet on his own team, but anyone who doesn’t understand how that really doesn’t matter should feel free to contact The Curmudgeon and he will be happy to explain why that’s irrelevant.

Every few years people speculate that maybe it’s time that major league baseball lifted its lifetime ban on Rose, and that talk resurfaced recently when Fox Sports announced that it has hired Rose to serve as a baseball studio analyst. It’s a terrible, terrible move that major league baseball has chosen not to oppose. It’s an awful, morally bankrupt decision both by major league baseball and by Fox Sports.

The Curmudgeon got a good laugh recently when he read on the Comcast Sportsnet Philadelphia web site that “Rose was banned from the sport in 1989 after reports emerged that he bet on baseball while managing the Reds. The debate over his eligibility for the Hall of Fame (or lack thereof) has raged ever since. The idea that Rose was banned because “reports emerged” is ludicrous. It was more than “reports”: major league baseball conducted an exhaustive investigation of the allegations against Rose and found irrefutable proof of his gambling; you can read that report here. For years Rose denied betting on baseball games, but if he didn’t, why did he sign an agreement to a lifetime ban from participating in anything having to do with the game? He’s never explained that, never even talks about it.

And now it looks like a “lifetime ban” doesn’t even cover an entire lifetime.

Rose is a cheater, and the major punishment is his ban from the baseball hall of fame. If you’ve ever been to the hall of fame, it’s actually two parts: a literal hall of fame – a room full of floor-to-ceiling pillars bearing plaques of those chosen to be in the hall – and a museum displaying memorabilia associated with the game’s great players and their achievements. Rose’s accomplishments are on display in the museum but it’s access to the hall that’s been denied to him.

And that’s as it should be. He has no place being honored by the game he dishonored, just as he has no place being employed as a studio analyst by a national broadcast network showing major league baseball games.

roseRose’s baseball life should be relegated to attending autograph shows and signing his name on the baseball cards of geezers who think there’s nothing wrong with what he did and are willing to fork over twenty dollars for his signature. (And it’s worth noting that Rose spent five months in jail after being convicted of tax evasion: he hid the money he made signing those autographs and winning at the race track. In addition to going to jail he was fined $50,000 and had to pay more than $360,000 in back taxes and interest. This is a guy who clearly has trouble distinguishing right from wrong.) A lot of people are willing to spend that twenty dollars – enough of them, anyway, for Rose to make a living doing it.

Yet another cheater who has prospered.

Letterman’s Last Guests

Next week will be David Letterman’s last as host of Late Show With David Letterman and CBS has announced that his final guests will be Tom Hanks, Bill Murray, and Eddie Vedder.

lettermanWhich leaves The Curmudgeon wondering:

What, no Jay Leno?

The Latest Public Service, Courtesy of Big Pharma

People still suffer from cancer and heart disease and stroke and AIDS, they struggle with cirrhosis of the liver, diverticulitis of the colon, diabetes of the pancreas, and the heartbreak of psoriasis, but never let it be said that the pharmaceutical industry doesn’t have its priorities straight.

And that priority is…making money.

That’s why the latest product of Kythera Biopharmaceuticals, with freshly minted approval from the Food and Drug Administration, is a new drug called Kybella.

And what pressing ailment will Kybella address?

Double chins.

Yes, double chins.

On its web site, Kythera describes itself as

…a biopharmaceutical company focused on discovering, developing and commercializing innovative drugs and medical devices targeting large, global market opportunities.

And how does Kythera describe Kybella?

For improvement in the appearance of moderate to severe convexity or fullness associated with submental fat in adults.

That’s what they’re calling it: “…moderate to severe convexity or fullness associated with submental fat in adults.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that

According to the FDA, Kybella, made by California-based Kythera Biopharmaceuticals, is injected into fat tissue under the chin.

“Patients may receive up to 50 injections in a single treatment, with up to six single treatments administered no less than one month apart,” the agency said.

So forget hypertension, hyperthyroidism, and hyperglycemia; never mind Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and pneumonia; and no need to dwell on septicemia, MRSA, and nephritis.

Never fear: the cure for double chin is here.

The Wisdom of Rich Guys

We all know one – or more than one: a bright, ambitious, aggressive guy who’s done well for himself in life, made some good money, and has come to believe that his financial success means he knows more than everybody about just about everything and is not at all shy about telling everyone he comes into contact with how things should really be: where and how they should live, what they should do, how they should invest their money, and especially, how the people who run the government are idiots and would be better off doing things as he says they should be done. Mr. Know-It-All’s conversations are peppered with anecdotes about how he came up the hard way, how no one ever handed him anything in life, and how he’s a self-made man. If you don’t believe he knows everything about everything, just ask him and he’ll gladly tell you. (And no, readers, the irony of The Curmudgeon complaining about a guy on a soapbox isn’t lost on him, but he thinks there are some pretty clear differences. You’re free to decide for yourself whether you agree.)

Once, wealthy people were a little more gracious than they are today. Andrew Carnegie, the steel magnate, believed in the power of reading and of books, so from 1883 through 1930 he single-handedly underwrote the construction of nearly 1700 public libraries in the U.S. (including twenty-four in The Curmudgeon’s home town of Philadelphia, nineteen of which still stand today, seventeen of which are still public libraries, and two of which The Curmudgeon has driven past in recent weeks). Towns didn’t have to come begging for Carnegie to build them a library: he asked them if they needed a library and if they said they did, he gave them the money to build one. His only conditions: they needed to provide the site on which to build and had to pay to operate the library once it opened.

And that was it.

Contrast that with the likes of Bill Gates, who launched his own foundation to solve the world’s problems. He makes people in search of money jump through all kinds of hoops in exchange for his largesse because he’s so certain he knows everything about everything and he’s so demanding in at least one area, public education, that he’s literally trying to overthrow almost everything about how public schools do their work. How? By bribing public school systems with tons of money in exchange for doing things his way – his way or the highway, actually. It’s his money, so that’s certainly his right, but still, the hubris is sort of overwhelming.

So what happens when you give one of these know-it-all types some space in a magazine? Well, Philadelphia magazine – a publication not exactly known for the quality of its journalism (when The Curmudgeon was in college, he and his fellow urban studies majors would sit around before class and take turns identifying the many, many factual errors that punctuated almost every article in the magazine; yes, we were on the geeky side) – turned over a few of its pages to one of these “I’ve made it and I’m therefore an expert in everything” types to preach from the mount on the subject of college education. His credentials for doing so: he’s currently paying to put three of his children through college.

The problem is that Mr. Know-It-All is more like Mr. Doesn’t Know What He’s Talking About. In an article titled “I pay $110,000 a year in tuition” – with a title like that, he’s bragging before he even starts – he offers some of his “wisdom.”

Like…

Speaking of his observations of his kids’ schools from his perspective as a guy who’s “navigated my 10-person company profitably through the economy’s ups and downs over the past 20 years,” he assumes his expertise in whatever he does for a living gives him similar expertise in the field of higher education, writing that “…from what I’ve seen over the past year, as both a parent and business owner, there is lots of room for improvement.”

He writes that

Removing tenure would significantly reduce a university’s fixed costs. It would allow the allocation of funds elsewhere or free up additional funds that could lower tuition. And rather than being an obstacle to hiring, it would likely attract those smart, motivated people who want to work around other smart, motivated people…

A quick observation: is there something more important for a school to have, or to allocate its resources to, than the best teachers it can find?

Also, this process is already under way: it involves eviscerating college and university faculties and hiring what they call “adjunct faculty” – people who are paid on a course basis. These teachers, who aren’t even faculty members or school employees, teach a course and get a fee for teaching that course; if they teach two courses, they get more, etc. Most don’t get benefits, most teach too many courses a semester for one person to teach, and many teach at more than one school and are relatively inaccessible to their students because they spend half their day in their cars driving from one college campus to another to teach another course so they don’t have to live on ramen noodles like their students. Almost all of them are inferior to a school’s “real” faculty – the “fixed costs” for which Mr. Know-It-All has such disdain. Some, without question, are good – The Curmudgeon has known a few – but if this guy really wants his kids learning from second-tier teachers, he may not love his kids as much as he thinks he does.

So if Mr. Know-It-All wants education cheap rather than education good, this is the way to do it: hire the people that the hiring process found weren’t good enough for the tenured positions and pay them less.

Great strategy – if mediocrity is the goal.

Colleges are supposed to be places of learning, but they’re also supposed to be places where students are prepared for jobs.

Says who? Says guys like him who are all about money and pursued vocational education for themselves? This guy has mistaken college for vocational school; they’re not the same thing. Most of the courses of study in college aren’t vocational training. If that’s what he’s looking for he should have sent his kids to a vocational school or a community college, not a traditional four-year college or university. (The Curmudgeon, who regrets going to college, often wishes he at least had pursued a more vocationally oriented course of study himself.)

What else does Mr. Know-It-All want?

…more involvement from local companies who provide actual people to teach actual skills-based materials that students can apply in the real world.

For starters, we’ll overlook his belief that companies are people – “companies who…” – maybe he’s a fan of the U.S. Supreme Court, which also thinks businesses are people, or he just didn’t take any English courses as part of his superior education – and ask him this: are you prepared to spare one of your ten employees to spend a significant amount of time teaching at a local college instead of doing his or her job at your shop?

Didn’t think so. But Mr. Know-It-All would certainly like others to do this for him.

…too many college students are graduating with little relevant work experience. My clients need people who have experience and job skills. Most businesses don’t have the resources to provide a lot of training.

Seriously? How much “relevant work experience” does anyone have any business expecting of a twenty-two-year-old who just finished his seventeenth year in school? Once again Mr. Know-It-All is mistaking colleges and universities for vocational schools and acting like it’s their job to prepare people to go directly from college to his payroll. It’s not, of course. What Mr. Know-It-All’s really saying, though, is that he doesn’t want to invest in developing his own workforce. Instead, he wants others to do it for him. Of course, he’s always free to go out and hire people who have the experience he seeks, because we all know they’re out there – today’s job market has tons of grossly underemployed people slumming in jobs that don’t even begin to tap their full abilities – but he doesn’t just want good help: he wants good, cheap help. (Actually, his reference to “my clients” suggests he’s a headhunter, which means he’s unhappy that he has to work hard to serve those clients instead of just pocketing their fees with little effort.) He has no interest in paying for quality, experienced professionals because that comes out of his own pocket. That’s fair – but then it’s not fair to blame others because he’s too cheap to pay for quality employees or to develop his own.

My kids sometimes have to suffer through the required (and very critical) math, business and science tutorials taught by inexpensive grad students who’ve come from far-flung places with not-so-great language skills.

The Curmudgeon feels his pain, he experienced the same thing himself in college – but wasn’t Mr. Know-It-All just calling for jettisoning high-quality faculty and using cheaper part-timers instead? Well, Mr. Know-It-All, meet cheaper part-timers.

My experience with the financial aid programs at my kids’ schools has been disappointing and frustrating. These offices are understaffed and overwhelmed. And on top of that, most parents (like me) are too busy and too ignorant of all the choices and nuances to really take full advantage of what’s available. The federal aid system is complex, and there’s no way you can be aware of all the potential grants and programs to help you finance your kids’ educations. There are too many parents (like me) who are probably not getting the aid or help we deserve to make college more affordable. And any businessperson will tell you that affordability adds to value, which adds to the overall experience of the product, which then makes a happy customer. No one wants to leave money on the table. If I were in charge, I’d allocate more resources to this area, with the goal of making sure every parent of every student maximizes whatever financial resources are available for them.

A few observations here. First, he was too lazy to do the work and investigate all of the financial aid options. How is it that a guy who raised himself up by his bootstraps is suddenly afraid of a little hard work?

Second, how is it that the kind of guy who likes to note that nothing was ever handed to him now wants this handed to him?

Third, we’re talking about an investment that, for his three kids, approaches a half-million dollars. How is it that he didn’t think a half-million-dollar investment wasn’t worth more of an effort on his part? Does he treat his business that way, spending a half-million dollars with little investigation or analysis? And if he doesn’t, why does he care more about his business than he does about his kids?

And fourth, doesn’t this just sound like sour grapes because even though he likes to brag about how much money he makes he still thinks he deserves a break on tuition and resents that he didn’t get it?

Professors would be paid based on how well they teach.

Actually, this isn’t a terrible idea – it’s just an idea no one’s ever figured out how to implement. How does he propose judging that? Based on students’ appraisals – the same students who are getting bad grades because they didn’t come to class and didn’t do the work? Based on standardized tests in a higher education environment in which there’s no standardized curriculum? The idea’s also based on the mistaken assumption that teaching is the only thing professors do – an assumption that any decent institution of higher education would, and should, absolutely reject.

In the end, the number one priority of universities is to teach our kids…

Actually, if you ask university people, they don’t accept that premise at all. University people will tell you that their mission consists of three equal parts: teaching, research, and the dissemination of knowledge. Again, this guy has mistaken his kids’ universities for a community college or vocational school. None are better than the others but they’re unquestionably different – a difference, alas, that’s lost on Mr. Know-It-All.

For some inexplicable reason, my kids’ colleges only conduct their correspondence with them, not me. Except for one thing. Can you guess? The tuition! For that important communication, we parents are fully informed with letters, invoices, emails and cumulative statements. My child is important, but the reality is that I’m the customer. I’m paying the bills. And I want to know what I’m getting for my money. I get it that we want our kids to be more independent — they’re over 18. But the reality is that they’re still just kids. And they’re not paying. If I were running a college, I would make sure my customers (that is, the parents) had access and full communication.

There’s one problem here: what he wants is against the law, so his beef is with his congressman, not the dean of the college. What he really wants here is someone to make up for his own bad parenting. We all know people who said to their kids, “If you want me to pay your tuition, you have to do the work. I get to see your grades and my willingness to continue paying depends on your ability to perform.” He failed to do this and now wants someone to bail him out. Sorry, Mr. Know-It-All, but you made a really bad business decision and are now living with the consequences of that decision and blaming others for your failures.

My university would have a balance of public and private representation as owners and board members. I’d change up the financial model. I want outside investors who desire a return on their investment. They’d drive better financial reporting, ownership and accountability. They’d question how resources are applied and infrastructure money is spent.

This is just stupid, and it’s based on that same “If it was good enough to work for me in my business it’s good enough to work for a college” nonsense. First of all, colleges and universities already have boards of trustees that demand financial reporting and accountability and most of those trustees already come from the private sector; if he had ever bothered even to open one of his kids’ college catalogues he’d certainly know that. Second, we’re starting to learn that for-profit colleges are an enormous rip-off, promising the world but more often than not leaving their students with nothing other than years of student debt and no job training to enable them to pay off that debt. And third, he’s already decided he wants to skimp on quality professors and buy teachers on the cheap, so where else does he expect to derive “profit”? Colleges and universities figured that out a long time ago: night school, taught by those same cheap adjunct teachers. That’s where the money is in higher education: getting revenue out of empty classroom space when it’s not being used (kind of why McDonalds started serving breakfast: they already had the buildings and the cooking equipment and wanted to find a way to make more money by using those buildings and that cooking equipment at times of the day they were otherwise idle), but is this guy going to send his kids to Strayer University? No way – not his kids.

…do college students really need to live in dorms equivalent to a five-star hotel, or could money be either saved or better spent elsewhere?

Actually, The Curmudgeon agrees with Mr. Know-It-All about this, but this ship sailed long ago: it’s a competition for students, parents are letting their kids make the decisions, and the kids are choosing the schools with the best amenities. Deep down, Mr. Know-It-All understands this. He runs a business and he knows his clients aren’t coming to him because he’s a swell guy. Maybe he offers better services, maybe he offers better products, maybe he’s more convenient, or maybe his prices are better, but somewhere along the line he successfully differentiated his company from his competitors in some way – and he knows it worked. The college with the great dorms is choosing to differentiate itself that way – and he and his kids fell for it. Rest assured that Harvard and Yale and MIT and Cal Tech aren’t worried about their dorms turning off potential students; they offer a great education and that’s their defining quality and competitive edge. This guy’s not the only one who allowed his kids to call the shots and then got suckered by a place with upscale dorms: The Curmudgeon saw someone close to him make this mistake not that long ago, choosing one college over others that interested him because the dorms and campus were nicer. When The Curmudgeon gently attempted to point out to the teenager’s parents that their child had chosen a school that didn’t even offer the major the kid said he wanted, his words had zero impact. It proved to be a one-year visit, not a four-year experience. Sympathy to the $110,000 dad in this case, but he needs to look at his own kids and ask them why they picked the schools they did.

Mr. Know-It-All also needs to ask himself why he didn’t ask them that question before he wrote the first tuition check – at the same time he asks himself how it’s possible that a guy who’s so damn smart and so damn successful and knows so damn much could so seriously botch the last truly important thing he may ever do for those kids of his.

 

The $30 Million Man

Comcast, the cable giant and television network owner we’re all learning to hate, has just announced that its new CFO could earn as much as $30 million during his first year on the job.

That includes a $10 million signing bonus.

You have to wonder what a glorified accountant can possibly do to make him worth $30 million – and how paying this accountant so much money is going to affect your cable bill and the sad-sack NBC programs you channel-surf past because these people may know a lot about how to transmit programming into your home and collect what their customers owe them but seem to understand so very little about how to produce, commission, or select any quality programming of their own.

$30 million.

For a numbers-cruncher.

Good lord.

Hardly a Surprise

The Transportation Security Administration – the folks who do everything but squeeze your privates when you fly anywhere – recently released a report on the guns its workers confiscated in U.S. airports in 2014.

In all, TSA workers seized 2212 guns last year.

Would it surprise you to learn that six of the fifteen cities in which TSA agents seized the most guns were in Texas?

Here’s the breakdown:

  • Dallas – 120 guns
  • Houston – 77
  • Houston (it has two airports) – 50
  • Austin – 44
  • Dallas (it, too, has two airports) – 43
  • San Antonio – 38

texas gunsThat means these airports alone accounted for 17 percent of all guns confiscated by the TSA in 2014.

Does this surprise you?

It shouldn’t. After all, we’re talking about…Texas.

Reflections on a Mini-Vacation

ocean cityThe Curmudgeon hasn’t been out of town or taken a day off work since late August, so in light of his current inclination never to set foot in an airport again, he settled last week for three days and two nights in a bed-and-breakfast in Ocean City, New Jersey – a town he’d never spent more than three hours in at a time until last Thursday. The following are a few observations from his mini-vacation.

*            *            *

In the spring it’s important to pay attention to the forecast when you head for a beach town. Because the water temperature is still in the low fifties, the beach area can be ten degrees or more cooler than inland. As The Curmudgeon drove down last Thursday morning the temperature on the thermostat in his car registered a consistent seventy-four degrees. About two minutes before he reached the Garden State Parkway exit of the Atlantic City Expressway it plunged a quick five degrees, to sixty-nine. By the time he pulled up at the bed and breakfast at which he would be spending the next two nights it was fifty-seven – a drop of seventeen degrees in about seventeen minutes.

*            *            *

In anticipation of variable weather, The Curmudgeon came equipped with two different jackets and four different hats. Over the course of forty-eight hours he wore every single one of them.

*            *            *

bed and breakfastPeople seem enamored of bed-and-breakfasts – The Curmudgeon keeps accidentally referring them as bed and baths (inexpensive housewares and an inexhaustible supply of twenty percent off coupons on the brain, no doubt) – but this was his third, and frankly, he finds them a little creepy. The innkeepers are a little odd – nary a Bob Newhart in the bunch – the rooms seem to embrace the concept of shabby chic, emphasis on the shabby, and the bath accommodations are always lacking, no doubt because these places are in large, old houses with original plumbing that passed its expiration date decades ago. Next time: a hotel. Better yet, a motel.

*            *            *

While Ocean City is in New Jersey and is a shore town, this part of the Jersey shore is not part of the Jersey Shore memorialized by the silicone- and steroids-inflated freaks who infested the television airwaves a few years back. This is the shore in southern New Jersey. Snooki and friends were at the shore in central New Jersey. Same coastline, whole different culture.

*            *            *

When you’re fifty-seven years old you start to get accustomed to being among the older people in any crowd, so it was a nice change of pace to be part of the younger crowd for a few days.   Other than young moms pushing strollers, the only thing most of the people you run into in Ocean City this time of year are pushing is seventy-five.

*            *            *

Every fifteen minutes on the Ocean City boardwalk, loudspeakers – emphasis on the loud – offer announcements: a rotating script of 1) please don’t feed the seagulls; 2) this is a smoke-free boardwalk; and 3) dogs are not permitted on the boardwalk. Each announcement declares Ocean City to be “America’s greatest family resort,” which of course it is not. It’s very intrusive and obnoxious and in no way necessary in light of the many signs pasted all over the boardwalk conveying the same messages.

*            *            *

seagullsSpeaking of seagulls, the sound of the gulls, more than anything else, is what makes The Curmudgeon feel he’s at the beach – or “downashore,” as some people insist on calling it.

*            *            *

People were riding bicycles on the boardwalk throughout his stay in Ocean City, and on his first day there The Curmudgeon encountered a group of about twenty-five or thirty young people riding very generic one-speed bikes. They were all impossibly lean and therefore easy to hate, but The Curmudgeon resisted the impulse. He was surprised to think that someone was renting bikes this time of year and wondered where they got them, so he asked one of the riders. “At school,” the young woman said. “This is gym class.” What a great idea: kids getting exercise during gym class doing something almost everyone that age seems to like doing.

*            *            *

bikeInspired by the high schoolers, The Curmudgeon rented a bike the following morning and as he was forking over the fee, he told the man at the rental stand about the source of his motivation. “I started that program at the school thirty years ago,” the guy declared. “I was a gym teacher there. I’m retired now. They stopped the program when one of the kids ran into a pedestrian and the person sued, but they finally decided to revive it.”

*            *            *

The Ocean City boardwalk is 2.5 miles long, which means going to each end from the bike rental place is a five-mile ride. The Curmudgeon did it twice, a total of ten miles, and never broke a sweat, so it looks like all the time he spends on his stationary bike is paying off. Of course, the boardwalk is perfectly flat and you barely need to pedal, but his tuchas is still sore. The seat on his recumbent stationary bike at home is much nicer.

*            *            *

Is there a rule that at least seventy-five percent of the local women pushing strollers or running on the boardwalk must be blonde? That certainly seemed to be the case; The Curmudgeon hasn’t seen such a high percentage of blondes since David Lee Roth stopped making videos. And how do they get that sun-bleached look in their hair in early May? Does someone actually bottle a hair color called “straw-looking from too much sun?”

*            *            *

For many people, no trip to Ocean City is complete without a slice of pizza from the legendary Mack and Manco. Mack and Manco parted ways a few years ago, with Manco keeping the boardwalk stores, and recent newspaper reports suggest that maybe Mack knew Manco was cooking more than pizzas and it was bound to catch up to him. Newspaper accounts just last week suggested that federal prosecutors are investigating large amounts of unreported income by Manco. The Curmudgeon wonders if that will stop people from eating Manco’s pizza. He knows it would certainly stop a certain curmudgeonly consumer, who’s pretty firm in his belief that this kind of bad behavior should not be rewarded. The pizza’s good, but really, it’s nothing special.

*            *            *

The Jersey shore has an old-fashioned rock’n’roll radio station – the kind where the DJ talks way too much and thinks people tune in just to hear him talk. The Curmudgeon found him pretty obnoxious but also realizes he’s not exactly the target audience for this kind of programming. The station has what it calls “Thousand-dollar Thursday,” and when listeners hear a song by the featured band – last week it was Led Zeppelin, because lord knows there’s a band that need more exposure – the first listener who calls in qualifies for a chance to win the $1000. While The Curmudgeon was on the Garden State Parkway Robert Plant started wailing, the song played, and when it was over the DJ spoke to the qualifying caller, explaining that he knew this person was the first caller because “I busied out the phone” before starting the song. The Curmudgeon always appreciates a well-placed verbification.

*            *            *

beach houseThe Curmudgeon spent a little time in the beach towns of Stone Harbor and Avalon. These are probably the most expensive towns in this part of the Jersey shore, but in early May they were like ghost towns. He drove up and down block after block after block after block of seven-figure homes with nary a passenger vehicle in site – just countless contractors installing jacuzzis and tile showers for people who spent five million dollars for a house they won’t spend thirty nights in during the course of an entire year. It’s conspicuous consumption at its greatest because it’s practically non-consumption, purely for show. Every time The Curmudgeon hears one of those corporate mouthpieces or television apologists for corporate America talk about the debilitating effects of the recent recession he wants to grab those people by the neck and slam their heads into a turnbuckle. Except for about an eighteen-month period in 2008 and 2009, corporate America thrived through the recession, with many companies earning their highest profits ever. One of the ways they did it was by laying off people because they knew that kind of behavior was expected and they could get away with it. They didn’t need to but they had an opportunity to find a way to squeeze out greater profits and they took it. All those corporate executives and lawyers and financial types who claimed hard times during that period were talking out of their you-know-whats as they made their deliberate decisions to profit, both as corporations and individually, at the expense of working people by lying and deception and outright swindling, and seeing the block after block after block after block of their empty seven-figure show homes gained at the expense of people just trying to live from paycheck to paycheck was infuriating.

*            *            *

Ocean City has some of those opulent houses, too, but most are less opulent – and the owners are a lot less wealthy. It was surprising to see how many of them had “For Rent” signs on their front lawns, a clear sign that while these folks were able to come up with the money to make a down payment on their beach house, a lot of them can’t hold onto those houses unless they can find a way to make them generate enough income to cover a few mortgage payments.

The people who own these homes, and those who live in beach towns in general, like to refer derisively to those of us who visit for vacation or even day trips as “shoobies,” but what they blindly and ignorantly fail to recognize is that without those shoobies, their quality of life would decline precipitously: many of the stores they patronize and the restaurants at which they eat would close, motels would board up their windows and leave abandoned, blighted stretches of once-prime real estate, the towns would have no basis for claiming federal aid for beach replenishment because the beach would no longer be important to their economy, the tax base would decline and local services and infrastructure would suffer, and their properties would plunge in value. So on behalf of those all those despised shoobies, allow The Curmudgeon to say this: you’re welcome.

Trapper John, Social Commentator

While nursing a cold last weekend The Curmudgeon found himself sitting inertly on the sofa, sort of like a beached whale, channel-surfing dumbly. Every cable operator numbers its networks differently, but where he lives he rarely finds it worth surfing past channel 56 (HGTV, if you’re interested).

Momentarily too tired to get up and do something productive, he kept surfing – and came upon Fox News (channel 61). There, a panel of Fox’s world-class reactionary analysts was discussing what was really wrong with all those people in Baltimore and how really, really bad they were to protest that anything was wrong in this great country of ours.

Among the panelists was Wayne Rogers, best known to the television viewing public as “Trapper John McIntyre,” surgeon and cut-up on the series M*A*S*H. Rogers has only dabbled in acting since then, focusing instead on making money through investments and advising others on their investments.

rogersBut there was Trapper John on Fox News, spouting his theories about “the culture” of the people in Baltimore who were rioting, as if he had even the remotest understanding of what drives people to protest violently when their non-violent protests have been ignored for generations. According to the web site “Celebrity Net Worth” Rogers is worth about $75 million, and his commentary, which The Curmudgeon only heard for a few seconds before rolling his eyes and changing channels, suggested that the guy was totally out of his element and about 75 million light years away from having anything even approaching a useful insight. Except for the end result, which was Rogers conveying the Fox company line, it’s hard to understand how Fox viewers, even those who agreed with him, weren’t seriously insulted to have Wayne Rogers presented to them as an authority on this subject.

But for Fox News, that’s never been an impediment. You put someone on the air because he’s available and maybe a little recognizable, and whether he actually has anything to offer isn’t terribly important. (And that goes more than one way: MSNBC and CNN and others do the same thing.)

It was enough to make an already-ill Curmudgeon feel just a little sicker.