Wednesday, April 23, 2008

What do you want to be when you grow up?

It was 12 years ago this spring when I was locking down where I wanted to go to college, combing through the acceptance and rejection letters and trying to figure out where I wanted to spend the next four years of my life.

Glossy handouts filled with pictures of smiling students, (most looking like a Benneton ad to stress the college or university's commitment to diversity) triumphant student-athletes and kindly professors crouched down next to eager young minds sat on my dresser through the early part of the summer.

In reality, I wasn't quite ready to be out on my own without much supervision and things went off the rails in the final semester in the spring of 2000. This is no one's fault but mine, but all of the warnings of the difficulties of those who don't finish college are starting to carry some weight, especially with the economy taking the plunge it has.

According to the 2005 census, roughly three in four Americans do not have a college degree (26 percent in the Midwest) but that's not much help when applying for jobs without any in-roads. Chances are, most of my resumes for higher level positions are automatically dumped when they reach the "some college" check box.

This is turning into the week to rectify that. With free tuition for family members as part of my wife's benefits package, we've been talking about when I'll be headed back to school to finally knock out the three remaining credits.

Involved with that process is getting old transcripts - which honestly are so terrible they should be sent in a lead-lined pouch to protect the good people of FedEx, maybe double-bagged to be on the safe side - and getting my ducks in a row with the new school here at home.

Starting Friday, I'll be meeting with an admissions counselor to map out the plan, which includes officially applying and figuring out which credits will transfer and which will not as well as any real life experience that can be applied for course credit.

I'm feeling an odd sense of uncertainty as I face college essays for the second time in my life and have been posing random questions to myself to try and prepare for the onslaught of questions like "If you could have dinner with three people, living or dead, who would they be?" and "Tell us about your most rewarding summer job." I wonder if there is a different application for those who aren't carded at bars anymore.

Stranger still is the blank check I've been given for education, courtesy of my wife's position at the university. In theory, I could rack up degrees for every major offered if we became independently wealthy and decided we never wanted to own a home, have children or eat.

After a series of dumb mistakes made by a teenager who knew everything and was positive that things would just work themselves out - which, to an extent they have - I'm facing the same questions I did a dozen springs ago.

What do I want to be when I grow up?

As much as I rail on about the sanity of asking teenagers to choose a career path when they've seen so little of life and the need for Americans to adopt some European ideas about taking a few years off after high school in the name of better decisions in college, things aren't that much clearer today.

While I'm now certain that I have no interest in a long-term career that involves sitting at a desk, the rest of the picture is still a little fuzzy. I've been a reporter, an editor, a service tech, a classroom tech with an emphasis on user instruction, a tour guide, a bouncer, a part-time bartender and a project manager for an audio-visual install shop. God help the admissions counselor who has to try and sort out that mess.

It's funny that after years of trying to chart career success based on the most palatable type of work as measured against the highest rate of pay, I still think I'd love those jobs that fall through the cracks and aren't at the top of most lists.

So, when push comes to shove Friday, I'll be looking to wrap up my English degree officially, with history courses if I need to fulfill a time requirement in classrooms here.

That's assuming that monkey trainer, astronaut or professional athlete degrees aren't added to the academic menu between now and December.

(Image from:

Monday, April 21, 2008

Winning the Internet war

Found this on Wired's site today.

He makes valid points about Dracula.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

It's happened again

Appearing on the Chicago Tribune's web site tonight is word that another cyclist has been killed on the streets of Chicago.

A man my age was killed at the end of February a few blocks from my house, struck by an SUV in the street. That one was strange for me because his memorial is something I pass weekly. And he's not the only one - just looking around for pictures of that memorial turned up a page dedicated to the Chicago Ghost Bikes.

While some cases seem to be cases of drivers not paying attention of bikes on the road, there are also some grey areas here as well. In both cases, it stokes the flames of biker advocate groups and those who don't understand why they have to share the road with bikes.

Even tonight, early reports suggest the biker may have been at fault, which is a bit disheartening. I'm not saying the drivers are faultless, but a simple mistake by a biker, compounded by a driver that isn't allowing room for error never ends well for the the cyclist.

I've seen plenty of people on bikes taking stupid risks - I saw one fire across a six-way intersection in front of the bus I was on the same week that the city released new rules of the road for drivers - but that doesn't absolve drivers of their responsibility.

At low speeds, a car/car collision results in a stiff neck and a trip to the body shop. That margin of error disappears when a bicycle enters the equation. An honest mistake made on a bike can be fatal - I can't help but think that some of those accidents could be avoided if drivers paid as much attention to bicycles as they do for other cars.

It's just something to keep in mind tomorrow when the blame is placed on the biker for being young or not obeying a traffic signal. If this story plays out the way Matt Lynch's death did in February, it goes from blame on the driver to finding fault with the biker to no one paying much attention outside of the cycling community.

Regardless of who is at fault, it's still a fatal accident. Bikers and drivers need to take on more than their fair share of the responsibility to keep this from happening so often. Once is bad enough - twice in two months is out of hand.

Monday's Update - No one was officially at fault.

(Image from Flickr user gavin)

Thursday, April 10, 2008

One of the greatest things to teach a dog

When I used to volunteer at the Humane Society's training school, we used to have occasional problems on someone's first night where the dog just wouldn't pay attention.

The funny thing was that people took that very personally, to the point that they were embarrassed that their dog - which was there for training - actually needed training. I imagine this is much like having a child that starts cussing a blue streak in a church or fast food restaurant.

The first level of troubleshooting was to check and see what kinds of treats they were packing. Most of the time, it was some tasteless pile of dry dog food or Cheerios, which we were assured, little Fido just looooooved at home.

Here are the two problems with that:

1.) At the introduction meeting, owners were told with varying degrees of hand holding that with other dogs in the room, you needed something good - like chicken, roast beef or hot dogs -
that would grab and keep the dog's attention. One trainer summed it up best by saying, "You need treats that are more interesting than the next dog's butt."

2.) Dogs use their tongues as toilet paper - don't trust their taste as an accurate judge of anything.

Here's where I'm going with this - when I'd have a little heart to heart with stubborn owners, I'd tell them about the two new behaviors I'd worked on my dog with over the summer. The first was that instead of peeing all over the yard and killing the grass, I wanted him to go under one specific tree each time and pee there. The second was to lay down and wait for me to give him the go ahead to eat after I'd filled his food and water dishes each night.

Guess which one he picked up faster?

Regardless of if you have an old dog or a new puppy, it's incredibly easy to get your dog in line with this program because it's directly related to when they get fed. It's all but idiot-proof, depending on how much of an idiot you are.

Here's how it works* - tell you dog to lie down (most dogs have a sit and a down, so we'll assume that baseline) and pick up the bowls to put them on the counter. If they jump up, stop working. Wait a few seconds and if they don't lie down again on their own, tell them (once) to lie down again. If they don't, wait another couple of seconds and repeat.

It kind of works like that gym class game, "Red light, green light," where the kids had to stop every time the kid who was it turned around. Every time your dog moves, it's red light time.

That's basically all you need. Get prepped to feed them, pour in the water and the chow and make sure that as long as they're down that you keep moving. If they get up, stop. It's really that simple if you stay consistent.

I'm recommending keeping the dishes up so that there's no mad dash and a reward if they decide to go over our head because they're sure it's dinnertime. When you go to set the full bowls down, the same rules are in play - if they get up, stand up and try again.

Within a few days, I was able to do the whole process with the bowls on the floor and then just called my dog over when it was time to eat. The whole thing should take less than two weeks (and probably much less) to work into your routine.

Considering all your dog wants in the entire world when he sees his bowls being filled is to get at the full bowls, make it work for you. It's really nice to not feel like you're being mugged every night at 7 p.m.

* If you get bit, don't blame me - you know your dog. Use some discretion if your dog has issues with his food.

(Image for Siberian, Minn.)

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Doing the right thing

I admit that I get a weird thrill from my daily perusal of and I can't quite place why.

Whether it's seeing that someone got royally screwed by a company I don't do business with or, worse yet, by one that I do, there's a nice feeling of relief that I dodged a bullet for that day.

No matter what happens, I didn't get a massive bill from AT&T or I didn't get taken to the cleaners when I was buying a flat panel TV (hint, buy online from a reputable dealer) and I can get a small degree of relief from that.

As I've grown fond of saying as I get older, "Things can always be worse."

The downside of seeing these stories churn through day in and day out is that you really lose faith in humanity when it comes to doing the right thing when an opportunity presents itself. Generally if there's a plausible excuse such as corporate policy or legal issues, people are more likely to take the easy route and avoid getting involved.

I'm not really passing judgment here - I'd probably do the same thing if I was a customer service rep getting screamed at over the phone - but it's disappointing to see every day.

That's why I'm happy I stumbled across this tonight. A series of letters from the Warsaw Rising appeared and a team from the Warsaw Rising Museum rushed to add them to their collection. The hitch was that despite the museum agreeing to pay the opening price in the auction, the collector who owned the letters decided he wanted to see what the open market would pay for the letters.

According to the article, there aren't that many letters still around because they weren't typical letters. These were letters that were hand delivered by a small, young delivery service (think The Postman, only not awful and too long) as the Nazis occupied Poland.

All of this was going on during the Warsaw Uprising, which was a 63-day standoff with German troops by an undermanned, novice army that lacked any sort of supplies. I'm not sure mail service would be at the top of my list at a time like that.

That service, run by teenagers and the Home Army resistance, was responsible for delivering 150,000 pieces of mail in two months. Their bravery is remembered as testament to Poland's long-held desire, even in the midst of battle, to function as a free state.

"You have to remember what it was like," said [Jerzy Kasprzak, a patron of the museum who was a 14-year-old scout in 1944], white-haired and brimming with memories. "During the Rising, after two or three days, it turns out people were not so concerned about food or other needs. They wanted to know: Is my son or daughter OK? And that's what those letters meant."

Skip to the end of the story, with the museum pleading for the collection - at what was seemingly a fair price - and the owner refusing to budge.

At 2:40 a.m.—and by this time the Poles were keeping minute-by-minute records of their high-stakes race—auctioneer Ulrich Felzmann had an epiphany.

He could not, according to his contract with the owner, change the actual terms of auction. But Felzmann told the museum team he had the power to change the time of the bidding.

The letters were set to be sold at an afternoon session, beginning at 12:30. Felzmann told curator Lang to find a seat when the morning session began at 10 a.m.

It's the first time this had been done in 32 years and the museum was able to bid unopposed to bring the letters home. Here's my favorite part - the quote from the managing director of the auction house, Axel Doerrenbach, when asked about what he'd done.

"No comment," Doerrenbach said. "But perhaps this helps you: This is the first time in 32 years—in the history of the auction house—that the course of auction was changed. ... And I will say this: We were very satisfied that the items went to the place—and people—where they originated."

Sometimes, it's not about money. Not often, but sometimes.

(Image from:

Wait, how many hot dogs did I eat?

I stumbled across a link in Wired - still the best magazine no one reads - for a graphic designer in New York who publishes a yearly recap of what he did during the past 365 days.

Not just in a bite-sized family Christmas card kind of way either, this guy gets down to the basics from how many iTunes songs he listened to (and a geographical representation of where the top 50 artists on that list are from) to clothes purchased by color.

It's really an amazing body of work on many levels and is a fascinating time-killer if you page through piece by piece.

This is the sort of thing I'd love to do, but don't have the patience (or short-term memory) for. I imagine that if I were to undertake a project like this, it'd play out like the running timer on Grand Theft Auto that tells you how many days, hours and minutes you've spent playing. While some see it as a badge of honor, others see it as an odometer of time wasted.

Well, that and my miles run would be significantly less than 190.5 - probably more like zero. Then again, I'd totally dominate in the sporting events watched category.

(Image from: Rockstar Games)

Sunday, April 06, 2008

No really, what gives modern art its value?

There are certain things on which I have no authority to speak about, even in short bursts. While these include the pain of childbirth, the benefits of a vegan lifestyle and intelligent decisions one can make in college, the one that comes to mind tonight is the value of modern art.

A few weeks ago, I visited the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art with a friend and she and I stumbled around making fun of each other and our complete stupidity when it came to the art on display. (In the interest of full disclosure, this was a friend of my wife's who was in town for the week and is infinitely classier than I am. She probably knew a lot more about post-modern art than she was letting on.)

For those looking for the virtual experience of going to such museums with me, just walk around your local modern museum and imagine someone shaking their head and repeatedly saying, "I don't get it."

Every third or fourth piece can be the, "I don't get it, but that's pretty cool." Every three hours, try to find a bathroom.

I mentioned that I had My Kid Could Paint That on my Netflix queue, but was wrong about the basic premise of the documentary. Instead of being a, "Hahaa! Fooled you!" story of a guy who tried to pass off his kid's scribblings as art, it was about a little girl, Marla, who was being hailed as a child prodigy after a few chance breaks fell her way and made her famous.

The story follows the family's trip to New York to appear on the Today Show and peaks with an episode of 60 Minutes where a few experts watch her painting on camera and decide that dad - a weekend artist himself - was doing some directing at least and finishing the paintings as a worst case scenario.

From there, there's a good deal of scrambling by the adults in the film and things get a little murky. I won't ruin the big finish for those who would like to see how it ends, but in the midst of all of this you have a circle of adults who are varying degrees of shady and it all plays out like an odd little drama. It's well worth the rental.

Here's the crux of the "value" argument - early in the film, one of Marla's big fans is buying paintings left and right because they're just... so... amazing. At this point, the paintings are going for $5K to $7K. A lot is being made about her childlike sensibilities and how those are transferred to the canvas.

This collector points to her favorite piece and says she bought it because it reminds her of being a child, it has vibrant colors, on and on. This is where things get confusing for me.

Are colors any less vibrant if Dad put them there? Does the emotion tied to being a child ebb if there was no child involved? If it was painted by an elephant, would the owner feel more like an elephant?

Big ticket: Is it the art or the artist?

One of the experts brought in for background - he's the arts columnist for the New York Times -begins the film talking about famous artists like Jackson Pollack and how their celebrity gave value to their work.

Safe to say, I'm incredibly confused tonight, but looking forward to the day I hand my kid a camera and make Ansel Adams my bitch.

(Image from: