Archive for March, 2005

News and Notes from Here and There

Monday, March 28th, 2005

Dateline: Canyon Lake, Texas. An interesting story in the L.A. Times about Tom DeLay’s own end-of-life decision when his father was critically injured in a freak accident. (Link via How Appealing.) I’m not trying to make a point here other than to say these are always sad cases.

Dateline: Sacramento. Lawmakers in California are greasing their muscles and chalking their gloves and popping their steroids as they gird for battle against Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. This Washington Post story would certainly give that impression, anyway. If you took a shot every time you read the word “battle,” you’d be over the legal limit by the time you finished the piece. Not to mention the “contests,” “defyings,” “challengings,” and, running out of euphemisms, “at wars” in the article. It would seem that things are a bit testy in the Golden State. Woops, back to steroids — sorry about the “bit testy.” For an article suggesting that compromises may yet occur, see here.

Dateline: Austin and Houston. From the Irony Department. An article saying that new crime bills before the Texas legislature might have the effect of greatly increasing the prison population. Meanwhile, according to this article, the cost-saving measure of cutting out overtime pay for prison guards has drastically reduced staffing levels as turnover rates soar.

Morgan City, Louisiana. Also from the Irony Department. A Louisiana representative is pushing a bill that would mandate reporting of infection rates at hospitals. A worthy goal, I’m sure. But the lede of this story made me chuckle:

Three years ago, as Butch Gautreaux was slipping under the anesthesia for an operation that would last nearly five hours, the Democratic state senator from Morgan City had these words for the operating-room crew: “Everybody had better be clean.”

Hmm. A Louisiana lawmaker exhorting clean dealings. (Okay, this is a joke; I’m sure Sen. Gautreaux is a regular Mr. Smith gone to Baton Rouge, but it’s still funny.)

Dateline: Lansing. From the This-is-what-you-get-when-you-elect-a-Canadian Department. According to this story, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm is close to settling a deal that would land a Toyota plant in Michigan, the first foreign automaker to invade the turf of the Big Three. I’ve driven a Chevy and two Toyotas, and there’s a reason I didn’t go back to Chevy. Of course, I’m sure Michael Moore will have something to say about this. Trust me, I won’t be reporting whatever that is.

Dateline: Richmond. Virginia lawmakers plan to institute evaluation forms for that state’s judges, which are elected by the legislature. The surveys will go to lawyers, jurors, and retired judges and will ask about the “judges’ demeanor on the bench, the quality of their explanations of opinions and their ‘professional behavior,’ among other criteria.” I don’t think this is a terrible idea so long as the evaluations are but one factor in the decision to retain a judge. This is the kind of thing that is easily misused, though — it makes for a nice objective, quantifiable reason to oppose a judge you just don’t like (or disagree with), but is easily overlooked as “not dispositive” if you’re otherwise eager to re-elect the jurist. Still, if the surveys are made available to the judges well before re-election time, they could be useful tools in changing bad behavior. I also hope that lawyers and other judges understand that not every opinion needs a lengthy exegesis, and that busy judges won’t be docked for omitting pointless reiterations of clearly controlling case law.

Dateline: Madison, Wisconsin and Logan, Utah. According to this article, several University of Wisconsin faculty members have left the school recently because the state does not provide benefits to same-sex domestic partners. Maybe they’ll land at Utah State University, where officials are considering approving domestic partner benefits. I guess it just goes to show that red state, blue state, whatever…the only color that matters is green.

Dateline: Knoxville, Tennessee. Prison officials in Tennessee are dealing with a new type of contraband: cell phones. They have confiscated hundreds of them in the past couple of years. My favorite part of this story is this delicate bit of wordsmithing: “The phones are being smuggled into corrections facilities through a variety of ‘creative and crafty ways,’ she said. Random searches are conducted, but the phones sometimes are taped to and inserted in places where they wouldn’t be located during a pat-down.”

The Tipping Point

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2005

A Twin Cities denizen sent me this fun story about pizza delivery guys and the adventures they run into. That article led me to this blog full of pizza tales and in turn to Tip the Pizza Guy, with way, way more thoughts than you’ll ever need about tipping and pizza delivery generally.

These days, I always get my pizza to carry out, rather than delivered, for several reasons, but somewhere in the calculus is the fact that it saves me the tip (and the delivery charge, which TPG informs me does not go to the driver). I’m not a good tipper. By that I don’t mean that I’m cheap but rather that I don’t do it well. I always think about it roughly two seconds too late, and then sometimes I don’t know how much to tip. Also, I didn’t grow up in a big city or some other tip-heavy situation, so it never came natural to me: all those times when people like cab drivers and doormen and concierges and porters and paperboys and so on get tipped are relatively new to me. And then I went off to college and things got worse. At college, a lot of delivery places — not just pizza but subs and regular restaurants too — were part of our meal plan. So if you didn’t want to go eat in the cafeteria, or saunter over to the Burger King in the student union (also on the meal plan), you could just have some food delivered. As a consequence of everything being paid for via our i.d. card, it became a cashless society. (Even vending machines were on the card!) You could probably find American dollars more easily in a Mexican prison than in my dorm at college. Also, on top of the ordinary delivery fee, the stores would charge higher for meal plan purchases, and usually had a minimum charge, in order to recoup the huge fees the schools charged them to participate in the meal plan. As a result of all this — no cash, the sense it’s coming out of the meal plan and not “real money,” aggrievement at supposed gouging — tips were usually pretty low. The standard tip was probably a dollar or two for the ordinary run of two or three pizzas to a few guys in a dorm room. I know, I know — that’s beyond shitty. I know that now. But we got accustomed to the norms of our isolated little enclave. To all those delivery guys I stiffed in the past, I’m sorry. But the overall experience in the days before I lived on my own led to two things: first, I just was not used to tipping, and second, I’m unsure of proper tip amounts in many situations.

I’m not one of those people who is against tipping for philosophical reasons. I would be happier if restaurants paid their employees a wage sufficient that tipping was a true gratuity rather than a chunk of their wages the employer has me pay directly. (An aside: I worked briefly once at the host stand in a restaurant. We got a percentage of the tips the wait staff reported to the management. My hourly wage was $2.50 plus this percentage. So as to not violate federal law, they had to promise that I would at least get minimum wage regardless of the tip percentage, but I wasn’t guaranteed anything more than that. But the point is that the restaurant relied on customers’ tips just to get me to minimum wage.) But I don’t get worked up enough about to agitate for change, and I’m not foolish enough to think that a meager tip from me will “send a message” about the way things ought to be. On the other hand, I am against tipping people just for doing their job. Example: I’m not going to slip the cable guy a few bucks for coming out to install my cable. The pizza delivery guy is a convenience for me and saves me the trouble of going to the store if he comes out. I’m willing to pay for that, especially since I know he depends on tips as wages. The cable guy, on the other hand, doesn’t save me anything — it’s not as if I could walk the cord from my place down to the office and hook it up to the satellite. The way it works is they have to come to you. I also don’t like tipping in the jars at the end of a counter in a place where I order food, like an ice cream shop or the burrito place where I walk down the line and tell them what I want in it. I appreciate that they work hard (usually), but it’s not like they brought the ice cream to me — I went to them. I’ll toss my coinage in there, and I wouldn’t stiff them if the service is extraordinary or I have some huge or intricate order — something above and beyond. But I hope tips aren’t expected or relied upon in that situation, because they’re not getting it from me. Also, I get confused about why and when tipping is expected. For example, I had a plane trip not long ago. When I checked in inside the terminal to leave, I was at the little kiosk and the agent printed out the tag and slapped it on my checked bags. No tip. But when I returned, the cab dropped me at the curbside check-in. I wasn’t familiar with the airport, so I didn’t want to try to find my way inside to check in. (And given the layout, at first it didn’t seem like I could have even if I had wanted to.) So the skycap does the exact same thing as the inside agent — prints the tag, affixes the sticker, and places my bags on a conveyer belt. I realized, again about two seconds too late, that I should have tipped him. But (a) in my defense, this was the first time I had ever used curbside check-in, and (b) what did he do differently from the inside agent warranting a tip that she doesn’t get? I’m not asking in a rhetorical fashion to show my outrage — I’m genuinely curious why a tip is expected at curbside but not inside. (And just to clarify: inclement weather was not an issue in any way.)

I was going to discuss some more my philosophy of tipping, but I got sidetracked and lost my train of thought. Anyway, I’ll share a few tipping stories. I try to be generous once I know the convention, although in some ways I’m still a neophyte. But I’m not going to open my wallet and say “Take what you like.” I remember one of the first times, maybe the first time, I paid for a cab myself. I was going from the Metro to a friend’s house in the DC area. I might could have walked it, but (a) I only had an address and vague directions and wasn’t familiar with the area, and (b) I discovered that getting there would have required crossing a major highway not conducive to pedestrian travel. So I got a cab, and the fare came to something like $1.85. The smallest I had was a five. Now, I know that there may be some minimum standard even for small fares, and if I had thought about it, I would have realized that the guy had opportunity costs to taking me such a short distance — he might have missed the next guy needing a trip to the airport or something. But I still didn’t think a 270% tip was appropriate. So I asked for some change, figuring I would give the guy a couple of bucks and keep a dollar. Suddenly, he seemed incapable of comprehending me, and he took so long trying to puzzle through what I wanted that I finally gave up and told him to just keep it.

My two favorite tip stories are from my Dad and a friend from college. When Dad was a high school football coach, he got a little bonus at the end of the season like all head coaches got. It was compensation for their extra duties. Well, Dad didn’t want to just pocket it, so he always used it to take his assistants and their wives out to dinner, because they put in hard work too. So one year they went to a nice seafood place, and the waitress worked her tail off for the eight or ten of them. The bill came to something like $190 (this was a long time ago). Dad went to settle it and asked the assistant coaches to get the tip (this was an arrangement, not something he sprung on them), assuming they would recognize that she worked hard and they were there a long time. They gave the gal ten bucks. Dad had no idea until the waitress caught him as he walked out of the restaurant, shoved the ten-spot in his shirt pocket and laid into him about what a cheapskate he was. My Dad was mortified and severely pissed at his assistants. I don’t know if the tradition continued after that.

My other favorite is from a time during college that four of us decided to get off campus and went to some place like Applebee’s or Chili’s. The service was as bad as I’ve ever seen anywhere. The waiter was curt and inattentive most of the time. But some times he actively ignored us — we were in a booth at the end of a row, and he would walk to the next table, and then walk all the way back down the row rather than pass our table for the most convenient egress. We had to wait and wait for any service. We were all pretty steamed. Finally, he brought the check. We could have paid cash, but one of the guys was so upset about this shoddy treatment that he waited almost a half hour for the credit card receipt. His bill came to something like $9.96, and wrote in a tip of $0.04. He figured that would be even more annoying that just stiffing the guy, which is what the waiter deserved. Who knows — maybe the guy figured we were college students and only expected a dollar.

Finally, to pre-empt Mr. Poon, I’ll mention the old joke: Did you hear about the rabbi who didn’t charge for circumcisions? He just took tips!

Shining, Gleaming, Streaming, Flaxen, Waxen

Monday, March 14th, 2005

I got a haircut today and I have decided that I’m disappointed with my hairstyle. I’ve had the same one for a while, but it’s not the staleness of it that bothers me. When I find something I like, I tend to stick with it. What gets me is that I’m not sure if this is the best haircut I could have. In other words, I think I could get something more flattering or less dorky or whatever. I’ve actually had a woman tell me that I was decent-looking except for my haircut, which makes me think it must be especially bad.

For those of you who know me but haven’t seen me in a few years, I’ve got a part in it now that it’s getting thinner on top. It’s not a combover, a style I will never adopt (and shoot me if I do), but it’s easier to deal with thin windblown hair when it’s parted. I have just enough natural curl to cause problems when it gets longer or the weather is humid, so I think it looks better shorter, although my Mom thinks that makes my head look too big.

But I’m not sure what to do about it. I am loathe to spend a lot of money on haircutting and hairstyling if I have to do it over and over forever. I guess I would be willing to spend a lot of money one time if I ended up with something that the gang at SuperCuts could approximate every couple of months. Really, though, I have doubts that there’s much anyone could do with me. I don’t want anything spiky or trendy, not only because of my job but also because that’s not me. Oh, and I don’t ever want to have to put “product” in it, or use some special $90 bottle of shampoo that has rain forest water and essense of koala in it.

So I guess what I’m looking for is suggestions for how to go about getting a better hairstyle within these narrow confines. It’s probably all moot, because my hair is going the route of George Costanza eventually. But it would be nice to have something that looks better than Kramer’s hairdo until then.

My Five-Point Plan to Save Hockey

Monday, March 7th, 2005

I meant to post this a few weeks ago in the midst of the last-ditch negotiations to save the National Hockey League season, but it’s not like it’s untimely now with the lockout still going. Here’s my thinking. The hard-core fan, like McPan, will come back regardless of how long the lockout lasts. The casual fan probably won’t. I consider myself a casual fan at best. I usually know, by catching a few minutes of “SportsCenter” here and there, which teams are doing well. I don’t watch regular season games. I watch a few playoff games, though, and a lot of the Stanley Cup finals, which I think are often compelling, especially when we get sudden-death overtime in critical games. So, the NHL can decide it wants to make do with the hard-core fans, or it can take my advice and capture a few casual fans. I doubt it will ever make me a big-time fan, but it would at least make me a little more likely to go to a game. By the way, my advice isn’t available only to hockey; you can find my plan to save the WNBA here (item #8).

1. Don’t contract, expand. There’s been lots of talk of contracting a few teams from the NHL if and when the lockout ever ends. The idea is that the league grew too fast, is spreading revenue too thin, and is in too many markets that can’t support a team. I say that the NHL should go the way of the Arena Football League and expand into ten or twelve more markets. Hockey’s not like the NFL, where people will drive a couple hundred miles to make a weekend out of a game. People need to be able to get to hockey games and feel like it’s their team out there. The way to support more teams in more cities is, first, go to cities like Las Vegas, Winnipeg, Hartford, Seattle, and Portland — cities with strong minor league hockey traditions or cities that have lost NHL teams or have shown that they can support other sports franchises; and…

2. Contract the roster. Play four-on-four. It frees players for the expansion teams, it opens the ice to create a more free-flowing game, and it will put a premium on speedy skaters and not lumbering goons.

The other points all have to do with the biggest problem in getting casual fans to embrace hockey — not enough scoring.

3. Shrink the goalie, expand the goal. I’m waiting for an NHL team to install a sumo wrestler in goal. That’s what current goalies look like anyway, only they’re less mobile. So reduce the size of the padding the goalies can wear. At the same time, expand the goal a bit. It doesn’t have to be too much, maybe a foot or so in each direction. The inspiration for this point was my Dad’s plan to get Americans interested in soccer: make the goal a bit smaller, but remove the goalie. While we’re on the subject of the goalie and soccer, another change ought to be outlawing the goalie diving on the puck when in it’s the scoring area to prevent a rebound goal. Currently, when the goalie smothers the puck like this, it results in a face-off in his own zone. But rebounds mean scoring. So what they ought to do is say that if the goalie smothers the puck, the offense gets a penalty shot. The penalty shot is the most exciting play in sports, and is a great chance to score, so there ought to be a lot more of them. A lot of goalies will take their chances on a penalty shot rather than get beat when they’re out of position for a rebound, so it’s not like it would never happen. But the hockey goalie ought to be like the soccer goalie in the way that he makes a save and then just clears it if he can, not covers it up like he’s taking a grenade for the team.

4. Do away with all the other rules that inhibit scoring. For example, there should be break-aways like basketball has — two-on-ones with only the goalie back to defend. But this never happens because of the two-line pass rule and offsides and whatever else gets in the way. Do away with trap defenses the way the NBA used to outlaw zone defenses. Hockey ought to be an up-and-down game, not a grind. I’m sure there are lots of other little rules I don’t even know about, but we ought to get rid of them too.

5. Two words: shot clock. The sure-fire cure to low-scoring games has always been a shot (or play) clock. You can set it high, like sixty or even seventy-five or ninety seconds, but there needs to be one. More shots always equals more scoring. It puts an emphasis on offense and play-calling, and builds in tension every possession.

I know what the purists are going to say: that’s not how they play it in Europe. Well, the NHL ain’t selling tickets in Europe, and right now it ain’t selling tickets in the U.S. either. And for that matter, the NBA plays by some different rules than the internationals, and they’re all coming here anyway. And the NFL is the most popular sport in America, and they don’t play it like that anywhere else. So have a national team that plays by the international rules so they can go to the Olympics. But if you want to put fans in the seats (in the arenas and in front of the tv), the key is more scoring, but more importanly, a faster-paced, more fluid game. And it ought to be very easy to understand (another good reason to do away with all the lines and offsides and whatnot). My version of hockey will do it, and I’m giving it away to the NHL. All I ask is for one day with the Stanley Cup like all the Cup winners get. For saving hockey, you think that would be the least they could do for me.