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Monday, September 28, 2009

The Digital Self

The idea is reminiscent of something out of a Phillip K. Dick or Isaac Asimov story but it is almost a reality. Think of your entire life on a computer. Every memory, every moment uploaded onto a server that is your life, digitized forever. Sound too far fetched?

Consider that we have our lives spread among several different systems. You have photo albums on Google or Photobucket. You have them on your home computer and CDs that you’ve burned. You have public, private, career, and educational information stored in your computer and online in your social networking sites. Your emails, conservations, tweets, texts, everything that makes up you is somewhere in the digital world. What if we were to take existing technologies and somehow aggregate all of that scattered information into one server configured strictly for you? Consider it one large “you” database. Then on another server an application sits and runs a program that creates an avatar of you using all of that stored information in the database as a profile. The application server could then run a series of engines that uses the database as a primer for who you are. In essence you exist as a fully rendered artificial representation of your natural self down to the idiosyncrasies like cracking your knuckles or grinding your teeth.

Think of being able to preserve yourself, digitally? You become sick or start to feel the effects of old age and you can pass on your memories and wisdom onto your virtual self, becoming immortal. Think Jor-El’s presence in the Fortress of Solitude within the world of Superman. Your family could still talk to you through your virtual self. You could continue to learn and experience life beyond the grave. You could become immortal.

Then, take the concept of MMORPGS and you can create a world for those avatars to live in and interact. Facebook 3D. You could play scrabble with your grandchildren or chat with other dead friends. You could get a job and earn money performing certain tasks that a computer program would automatically do. A new species of human existence could eventually come about.

Despite being a fully sentient experience we have the technology in its dismantled parts. How long before we are able to put the pieces together in the right sequence? Considering the amount of computing resources needed to accomplish such a task, it’s almost mind boggling. Ultimately, there would be a host of problems to contend with in order to have an operational virtual self. Look how bad it gets when Gmail or Twitter goes down.

Cost is one thing. Upgrades and maintenance is another. Disaster recovery would be a huge issue. It would be the virtual equivalent to a heart attack or stroke. How could you perform the necessary tasks to reboot or reformat your virtual self if you are dead? You would also have to have the necessary environment for such a system. Cold rooms, ventilation, and power would be essential to maintain yourself, electronically. The technology may be there, but the conceptualization and execution may still be decades away. But let’s imagine a world where it is a reality.

You wear a device similar to one from this article. You wear this thing around your neck. It’s a multi sensory device that records audio, video, still picture, and other sensory stimuli that you experience every day. Additionally, you have an application for your phone, computer, and what not that records transactions such as receipts, texts, calls, and emails and converts them into code. Each night you remove the device that you wear and plug it into a docking station where it downloads and updates the database as well as the application from your transactions updating the database in real time. Your online self learns those experiences like, “Ooh, I just tried a fish taco today and I don’t like them.” or “I just watched the new Harry Potter movie and I can now discuss it with my other virtual friends.”

Or, let’s take the concept into a whole new direction. I don’t have a blackberry or another smart phone so I don’t know if this is already a possibility, but how about the next generation PDA. This time, though, the Personal Digital Assistant is really just that. You take your entire set of habits and input them as rules for the online self. Money Management, Scheduling, etc. I know we do this now, so the concept doesn’t sound new. I already have direct deposit of my paycheck and automatic withdrawal on all but a couple utilities. However, that is still something you need to set up manually. What if your digital self had the logic to make those payments on particular days other than the ones you already have designated? It was a good month for work, let’s up the credit card payment 10%. The holidays are coming, let’s not pay that electric bill until the next pay day before it’s due.

You can let your online self check your scheduling and make appointments for you. Say you just had a dental appointment and you would like to schedule the next one. The digital self knows you just had an appointment because it was schedule in your calendar. It knows you prefer Saturday appointments and it has to be scheduled sixth months or more out. It checks your schedule, contacts the dentist’s office and asks for an appointment to be made at a certain date and then leaves you a message that it has been scheduled and added to your calendar.

Using the digital self database, the digital you can see receipts for the last year and plan ahead based on what you tell it to be looking for in terms of scheduling. The digital self sees that you have gone out for your anniversary to the same restaurant for the last three years. It can then ask you if you would like to make a reservation for the same time this year. Perhaps you’ve gone to two or three different ones over the year. It can give you a choice. Once you give it the go ahead, it makes the reservation, electronically, with the restaurant. It also reminds you at a preset time to get a present for different holidays or birthdays.

Now, a lot of things are contingent on this actually working. First of all, the places your digital self interact with need to be able to communicate with each other, although, a lot of restaurant and stores already have the ability to make online reservations. It’s just a matter of the digital self being able to use the web to do so. Also, I’m not sure how many doctors have the capability but it could be as easy as them having an email address for the receptionist.

Having a tool, regardless of the application, would be a huge time saver to a lot of people. Not to mention, it could do several of these transactions or tasks simultaneously. In the short run, just having apps on your smart phone that talked to each other would be a huge advancement, but of course, there are concerns . If you give a program that much control of your life it could lead to piracy and theft. Rogue applications could be made to go out and strip your identity. Not to mention, it could tweak it or clone it giving the hacker the ability to make your life hell. Also, like before, if the system crashes or goes on the fritz, the information you have stored would be lost. It would be nice if there was a backup hard drive for the table each day or week to be able to hold all your appointments, allowing you to go to a desktop or other type of computer to access that information and maybe print it out.

As much as I would love to see this become a reality, I would rather see the tech sector focus on ways to solver bigger problems in near future. The personal interaction with people we get on a daily basis is what makes us human. Not to mention, giving our lives over to an electronic device is one step closer to the evils described in The Terminator series or The Matrix. Computers making decisions for us instead of at our request is one of the basic premises of all “Evil Computers/Robots” films. Perhaps we are not ready for this type of advancement, but the ability to preserve ourselves after we die may be one step closer to immortality. I’m sure there is a philosophical debate on whether this is a wise thing and it probably questions the existence of a soul. If we exist solely online outside of ourselves it will never be the same as existing in the real world. But think of the possibilities.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Protestors at the Pittsburgh G-20 Are Idiots

I am sitting roughly 20 miles from the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, in Pittsburgh, and the members of the G-20. Now, since I live and work in the areas surrounding Pittsburgh I have been bombarded by all the plans for the summit, as well as the security measures. If I wanted to travel downtown, I would have a hard time doing it. Most of the off ramps, from what is called “The Parkway East” and “The Parkway West” as well as other major roads around the city, have been closed and have security, and in some cases a camouflaged Hummer, blocking them. Apparently, that guy couldn’t get credit for his clunker, so they put it to good use. Regardless, my proximity to the event leaves me in a state of information overload when it comes to the news about the summit.

Local stations are covering the event nonstop, at least until they leave. Had the summit gone on through Sunday there would have probably been a break in coverage for the Steelers – Bengals game. Sorry, world leaders, but you come second to us talking about how bad we kicked the snot out of Ocho Cinco. So, without constantly watching CNN or Fox News, I have no idea how much the rest of the country knows about what has been going on or if they care.

Let’s give you a little recap. Protesters have been bitching and moaning about their rights in the weeks leading up to the summit. Primarily, they’ve complained about permits not being issued or change of venues from where they are allowed to march. Point State Park is considered a iconic location associated with downtown Pittsburgh and you know, there is going to be some reservations already made for these spots. Nobody in the protesters’ ranks thought of call ahead seating? They should have checked a site like Priceline or Orbitz.

So, since they can’t be directly in the face of the delegates, they’ve taken to hitting the surrounding areas. In some cases, there have been warnings issued to local business owners that they could be targets for groups. Places like the Gap and Starbucks have been warned that because of they are “big name economic” entities, they are targets. Of course, looking at the list, you have to wonder why Cheerleaders Gentlemen’s Club was included on that list. I guess a couple of guys in the group figured, “Hey why not catch the buffet and afternoon show, then spray paint the outside of the building?”

You have to love the irony of some of this. A lot of the protesters are associated with a group called POG (Pittsburgh Organizing Group) which, by their own admission on their website, is an anarchist group. I don’t know, I kind of thought that anarchy was a lack of organization. Perhaps, when they were coming up with a name they didn’t have a dictionary handy.

Then there was the dry run for testing Pittsburgh’s security response on Tuesday. Three protesters on bikes blocked a tour bus full of International Coal Conference experts, unfurling a sign that said, “It’s time to move beyond coal.” I tip my hat to the young lads on ten speeds who were able to cripple the movement of a giant amphibious truck belonging to a group called Just Ducky tours. Unfortunately, what they didn’t realize is that they had a good chance of turning Market Square into Tienanmen Square. I’ve been behind those trucks as they zip along the roads in downtown Pittsburgh. The sight lines are not optimal for the driver to notice someone standing three feet below the hood.

Then, of course, there was my favorite. Members of Greenpeace decided to make use of Pittsburgh’s biggest feature, the bridges, by hanging off the West End Bridge in an effort to unfurl a banner saying “DANGER: CLIMATE DESTRUCTION AHEAD REDUCE CO2 EMISSIONS NOW” Now, for those of you, not familiar with Pittsburgh, the West End Bridge is about a mile West of the Downtown area of Pittsburgh, hence the name. So, I don’t exactly know who this banner was for because anyone standing at the Point would have not been able to read it because it was facing the opposite direction.

Also, the additional text had to be small enough to fit on the banner making it harder to read from the opposite side. They would have been able to see DANGER…. And then something about…. I don’t know, is that a C or an O. Did they hang an over sized eye chart from the bridge or what? Better here or now? How about now? If they wanted to be more accurate they should have had it facing away from Pittsburgh. That would have meant Ohio was responsible for climate destruction. After all, Cleveland set one of its own rivers on fire, for God’s sake.

Look, I am all for a good cause, just look at my Facebook profile. Although, I’m sure people will quibble over the “I bet I can find a million people who don’t care about Kanye West” as being a worthy cause. Hey, I was trying to clean out my requests. I wish there was just an accept all button on my requests, kind of like what Jim Carrey did as God in Bruce Almighty. Ok, I’m rambling. My point is, that while I support the Bill of Rights, I also support common sense. Does the average protester, who chooses to make a statement at one of these things, really believe that anyone cares what they think? “Protesters, the new Blogger.”

I can only imagine the hard ons these guys get when they think they’re being all clever with their message and execution. “Oh, I’m so eco-conscious and cool.” Um, but what was that banner made out of, hemp? Looked like plastic to me. So, Greenpeace just spent a huge boatload of their donors money on a big ass non biodegradable banner that is surely going to end up in a land fill somewhere. Nice job, d-bags. Way to take care of the planet.

For all the protesting going on, the only thing you’re going to accomplish is adding an arrest to your record. That doesn’t bode well for job hunting. Of course, the groups I’ve seen on television look like they don’t have jobs, unless they are in a Dexy’s Midnight Runners tribute band. If you want to get your message across you’re going to have to come up with something better that stopping a duck tour or doing your Turk 182 impression. This is post 9-11 folks, anything you even attempt to do will get your ass arrested, or worse.

Now, if getting arrested is part of your overall goal for your cause, then by all means protest in a vacuum. I think if you are going to risk jail time to hang a banner during a government event, you ought to at least get their attention. All the hippie messages and hate speak gets drowned out as white noise against all the others. And, let’s face it, Cindy Shehan pretty much ruined protesting for everyone. I empathize with her grief but she gave herself the persona of a pest not a protester. But, I think it would be more productive and thought provoking if you were a bit absurd in your protesting. Think Soy Bomb or “What’s the frequency, Kenneth?” Absurd, but memorable. Instead of hanging an eco-conscious banner off the bridge, do something spontaneous and hysterical, like “Dan Onorato is a horrible tipper,” or “Hey G-20, show us your….” Well, you get it.




What The Protestors Should Have Hung
On the West End Bridge


In all, I think there is a bigger problem with people being malicious instead of trying to peacefully protest. It seemed as if these were protesters with nothing to say. They appeared to be marching for the sake of marching with no common message. In that case, you deserve to be dumped on your ass by guys in riot gear. You have to understand, we gather in the streets outside the bars when we win major sports championships. The police kind of just babysit us until we start burning couches and flipping vehicles. This is a major political event, the stakes have been upped a little.

So, it came to pass, that on Thursday afternoon and evening, two unlawful protests broke out around the city, one in Lawrenceville and the other in Oakland. They are being considered unlawful in that they did not have a permit. Frankly, I don’t understand the laws there. I thought that’s what a protest march was. The one in Lawrenceville also sported people dressed in black clothing and wearing gas masks and hoods; another no, no. Hey, come on folks, if you are going to protest and make a statement, don’t hide your face. The gas masks alone made it illegal as it deters the police’s ability to control the crowd if it got out of hand. And it did get out of hand.

Windows were broken, ATM’s were trashed. They broke a bunch of windows in a Boston Market. Now, there’s your symbol of corporate greed right there, a rotisserie chicken place. In Oakland last night, LRAD devices were used to try and push back the protesters. LRAD stands for Long Range Acoustic Device. It’s a sort of annoying high pitched repetitive sound that is supposed to be unbearable and forces you to move away from it. It sounds like a car alarm.

Unfortunately, what police fail to understand is that people in Oakland are used to that kind of noise. For four and a half years I lived on the third floor of the Litchfield Towers Dormitories, which is a block away from where the major problems were. In that time, I listened to car alarms going off all night, helicopters landing on the hospital roof a block away, and the sound of thousands of beer bottles being broken as they were poured into the metal dumpster right outside my window.

As we push forward into Friday, things have been deemed rather mild in comparison to other countries that have this sort of ridiculousness. Pittsburgh is far from being like Iran or Afghanistan in its protests. We aren’t exactly seasoned veterans at this kind of stuff. Like I said, we burn couches in the street when we win the Stanley Cup and the Super Bowl, so our priorities are a little off when it comes to expressing our feelings. What people need to realize is that Pittsburgh is somewhat removed from the rest of the area. Yeah, we have bridges and tunnels that lead into the city, but for the most part, you have to either go over water or underground to get into the heart of downtown and that allows for a moderate amount of control when it comes to keeping the place secure. There are routes around these bridges and tunnels, but it’s not a major road that gets you there. There’s a lot of landscape to cover in dense urban areas.

If you think about it, if there are any major issues, the three trauma facilities in the area are not in the city proper. They are either on the North Side, across the Allegheny River, or in Oakland at the edge of the city. For anyone who has played Fallout 3 or seen Land of the Dead, you know how much of a corner you’re backed into if you get stuck on the wrong end of a crisis in downtown.

While I’m glad that Pittsburgh is getting a lot of exposure thanks to this Presidency, it sucks that we as a city can’t take part in the glamour that comes with a major lens focused on our city. A lot of the shots of the area show empty streets and boarded up businesses. It kind of sucks, that, as a city that has experienced a major rebirth in terms of economy and infrastructure, we aren’t getting to showcase the best part of this whole renaissance, the people. Instead, we get these idiots doing what idiots do best.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Fall Into the Season

It was an easy decision at the time. After all, out of five or six applications, I received one acceptance letter, accompanied by a tee shirt. I was going to be a student at Coastal Carolina College, soon to be called Coastal Carolina University. I was on my way. I was leaving Pennsylvania.

Now, I had made it perfectly clear from the moment I got accepted to Coastal Carolina that I was ready to leave the area. I was going to go live it up on the beach and in the sun. I also regarded my hometown as a burned out burgh suitable only for high school football fanatics, gas stations and red lights. The sentiment continued as I constantly was referred to by the nickname “Pittsburgh” by a few folks on campus. I didn’t want to be defined by my hometown which I worked hard to get away from and here I was being constantly reminded of it. But I was wrong and it only took a few months to realize it.

At first, I enjoyed having great weather into the Fall months. I was swimming in the ocean in late September. It felt like a warm bath. Being able to wear shorts into October was another bonus for someone who was used to wet and rainy Octobers back in PA. By the time I reached our Fall Break, I was more concerned about seeing my girlfriend and family than I was about what the weather would be like at home.

One of my friends was nice enough to drive me to Florence, SC to catch a train. I could have rode the Amtrak all the way to my hometown. It would have taken a full 24 hours of travel having to go through Philadelphia, first. I opted for the nine hour trip to DC and four hour drive, by car thereafter. I wanted to maximize my mini vacation.

When I got home, the sky was a bit overcast but there it was, that feeling. I was home. The air was crisp like biting into a fresh, cold apple. The colors were tremendous. I hadn’t seen the leaves turn colors, down south, because I was primarily surrounded by pines and other conifers. I spent time just walking around my yard to hear the sound of leaves rustling under my feet. For once, I was content with putting on a warmer jacket like it was security blanket. I missed this.

That first night I went to visit my girlfriend, who I hadn’t seen in two months. It was nice to get behind the wheel of my car and drive out to her dorm in the wooded areas of suburban Westmoreland County. After some “catching up” we went out to dinner and I stopped in my tracks at the top of the steps that led down to the parking lot. She wondered what was wrong but I just stood there breathing in the cold air, relishing the sight of my own breath in the night. I smiled and cried out, “I’M HOME.” I made a tough decision at that point, though it was easy in my mind. I wanted to come home. After break I started the process to transfer from Coastal Carolina to the University of Pittsburgh.

Now, the reasons behind this decision ranged from the weak, “I wanted to be closer to my girlfriend,” to the immature, “I think there’s too much partying going on and I need to get myself away from these types of risk behavior.” Quite frankly, it was a combination of a lot of things. I gave up grants, being in an Honors Program, a 3.6 GPA, the beach, and friends. I also gave up a big benefit to my collegiate experience. I went from being among 3000 to 4000 students to over 30,000 students. There was a more intimate environment in having a small student body that allowed you to really craft a better career and path towards a degree that I knew I would never see in a university setting such as Pitt. I pretty much sunk my education.

But for what it is worth, I gained a lot of experience in life from that move. I learned to become more dependent on myself to get things done, though that took a few years and a couple of other trial and error trips away from home. I also gained a better appreciation for family and my upbringing in the area. I wore that “Pittsburgh” moniker with pride and as much as I joke about and poke fun at my growing up in an area that we sometimes call Fayette Nam , I appreciate what it has given me in terms of character. I also appreciate being able wear put on some flannel and watch the leaves turn colors. However, I hate raking them. I mean I really hate dealing with them once they are on the ground.

Beyond the changing leaves, there are other things I really enjoy about Fall. The cold air of Friday nights was made for high school football. I used to love getting a cup of hot chocolate and watch our high school play. I also live for Steelers Sundays in the Fall. Just firing up the crock pot with some hot dogs and sauerkraut makes my mouth water. My wife makes an excellent taco dip with cream cheese, salsa, ground meat, Taco Bell seasoning, and grated cheese. Actually, I don’t really need a reason for this meal. It’s good any time of year. Although, working in the yard all day and coming in the house to smell is just heaven in the Fall. It’s a sickness, I know.

It does suck that the days are shortened. Those leaves take a lot of time and if you don’t get to work early in the day, you run the risk of having to work outside in the dark. But to its benefit, waking up at 6:30 AM on a Saturday or Sunday morning to feed the cats, knowing that I get to go back and crawl under the covers for a few more hours, is worth the feeling of cold hardwood floors underneath my feet and the darkness of the house.

There is also something rewarding from getting some fall colors into the house. Next to Christmas, my favorite decorations are Halloween and Harvest themes. I do hate having to lug the six or seven tubs out of the attic for my wife to pick through them. She ends up leaving a few things in the tubs to be taken back up to the attic when they should just keep heading in the direction of the curb for pickup on Wednesdays. As much as she considers me a pack rat, she’s worse when it comes to stuff like that. But, it’s nice to see a change to the usual knick-knacks that sit on the shelves and end tables for eight months out of the year.

And while I sit on the couch and stare at the decorations, I watch the bombardment of Holiday themed television shows and movies. I can usually catch up on some annual viewings of Night of the Living Dead or any one of the original Halloween movies on AMC. I don’t care how many times I’ve seen them, the remote gets put down if I happen to channel surf into their path. Another one is Planes Trains and Automobiles. One of John Hughes finest movies, not dealing with teenage angst. It’s a road trip movie to which others aspire to be as good, yet never are. It’s sad to think we’ve lost two great artists in John Candy and John Hughes. For the kid in me, comes the end all be all Fall holiday special, It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown. I have to watch this every year. It is a moral imperative. I actually own it on DVD so if I wanted to watch it in May, I could. However, there is something about watching it on television, Halloween night, that adds to the magic.

Even though I am not a kid anymore, I still get a nostalgic sense of awe over trick or treating. It’s one of those events that is sadly not as revered by kids these days. In fact, I see a lot of laziness on the part of people taking part in this time honored tradition. Piss poor costumes, lack of manners, and kids that have no respect for adults are the majority of what I see. Maybe nothing has changed except my perspective. Transitioning from being a participant to a spectator may have taken some of the luster off the event. There was a time when choosing the right costume was a big deal and I just don’t see it these days.

I guess the only real thing I hate about Fall is that it lasts three months. Winter tends to last too long in my book. Unfortunately for us, in our region, Winter tends to tighten its grip into the last few days before Spring. Spring is fine but it takes too long to get cooking before it’s over and Summer can be feast or famine in its offering around here. This past Summer was a mixture of extreme hot or soaking wet days. Nope, Fall is the one season that holds the most excitement and I look forward to it. If only those damn leaves would all come down at once, I’d be happier.

Monday, September 21, 2009

But We're Rebuilding: 17 Losing Seasons of Baseball In Pittsburgh

17 years. 17 years. Do you realize Pittsburgh, that our battling Buccos haven’t had a winning year since 1993? Does it bother you that there are kids who will be attending college who have no idea what a winning baseball team in Pittsburgh looks like unless they are looking at the visitors? Do you think that “rebuilding mode” is a poor excuse for why the team has fallen below .500 for another year? I was born in 1975. That means I was four years old the last time they won the World Series and graduated high school the last time they had a winning season. From then on it’s been downhill ever since. As always, I love to offer my opinions where I have no expertise. It makes for me being a complete and utter a-hole. I welcome any comments, criticisms, or snide remarks. Please contribute.

Truthfully, I was a big fan of the Pirates growing up. I loved going to Three Rivers Stadium and sitting there with my glove ready for my chance to catch a home run or foul ball. At first, I was a little peeved that they were razing Three Rivers in order to build Heinz Field and PNC Park. However, after seeing PNC Park, I was impressed. It is a great field, but not deserving of the team that plays there. In fact, I really don’t remember ever paying to see a game there. I’ve been to the park a number of times because of tickets that I had acquired through work or from a friend of a friend. I pretty much go for the food and the chance to enjoy the view of the city. I also have a long standing bet with a few bookies over the pierogi races. Unfortunately, I didn’t take the over/under on the chance that a pierogi would do a flying tackle on a dead Ex President.
So, what gives? How can a team that has in a built in attendance of over 9000 in season ticket holders not have the money to bring in some good players? Granted, that’s a shrinking number since 2007 was listed as 11,000, but that’s still instant capital. Additionally, gimmicks like all you can eat for $35 tickets get another few thousand people in the seats.

A lot of Pittsburghers consider the Pittsburgh club a farm team for the rest of the league. They groom players to be good and then they trade them. If you plan on being with the team for awhile, it almost seems like a punishment for someone to do well because you won’t stay there into the post season…not that there is one. On the surface it doesn’t seem like a bad idea, to the player. We’ve had some players go to some top contender teams in exchange for some guy named Toby Namedlater. I don’t know who he is, but I hope he shows up soon.

If the Pirates dealings seem a little suspect consider this. Major League Baseball requires revenue sharing from its top teams. Think of it like TARP funds for flailing teams. The money that is pumped from big market teams to mid and small market teams is supposed to be used to increase the payroll of the team and allow for better players to be brought into a club, giving a more balanced playing field among the league. However, when you grow your own players and they do well, you bank on that money to bring in late season prospects for pennant runs. You begin banking on your utility players being able to shift to vacant positions as the big guns fill up their primary ones. You also add more bats and arms to your arsenal in order to make the run. That money gets used in both aspects very well like the Colorado Rockies a couple of years back.

The problem with this ball club, and this is an amateur opinion from an outside observer, they build up the players and then trade them for a premium. Usually, the Pirates get two to three seasoned players who aren’t exactly the same level of ability and then they get pushed into the rotation or built up and traded again. Look at last season. Jason Bay was a Chuck Tanner award winner and an all around good player. Nate McLouth made the All Star Team and received the Roberto Clemente award. Xavier Nady was a great player and named Player of the Week at the open of the season. This year, Nady plays for the Yankees, Bay plays for the Red Sox and McLouth plays for Atlanta. While the Braves aren’t exactly the best team in the league right now, looking to be third in their division, they are above .500 and are trying to get a pennant. You see my point, though.

From this outside observer’s opinion, it looks as if the Pirates are turning a profit by keeping the payroll low and trading for more players that can share the salary of the ones they trade and then build and trade, build and trade, keeping the profits in the front office instead of out on the field. Now, a few years ago when the Steelers played for and won their fifth Super Bowl title, they did it on the road. That meant no money came into the club, or the city by means of Heinz Field. Paul Brown Stadium, The RCA Dome, and Mile High Stadium saw those profits plus more as The Steelers bring in a huge crowd of displaced fans and admirers no matter where and what time a year they play. Yet, the return of that on the road investment was seen over the next years. The Pirates are steadily losing fans, ticket holders, and what little patience the city has with them. Of course, can you fire the owners? The blame gets thrown down the hill towards the middle management.

“We’re rebuilding,” they say. So is New Orleans, and there has been improvement there. Anyone who is from Pennsylvania or knows the area real well has a love/hate relationship with PENNDOT. It seems as if construction projects take place year round on the same road and end up being restarted once they are finished. The Pirates appear to be the same type of organization. They never fix the problems, they just patch it instead, hoping to be able to get through another season without it completely falling apart. Unfortunately, the winter months are like trade deadlines for the Pirates. Every year, plows and salt trucks degrade the road by scraping the patches and the freezing and thawing, that it especially rough on PA roads, makes things worse. For the Pirates, as the players get better, the trades degrade the overall cohesion of the team.

If you really want to affect competition among the teams in the League, instead of revenue sharing, how about a salary cap or a better restriction on how revenue sharing is to be allocated? A salary cap would improve the chances for great players to be employed by teams that can afford to have them but not break the payroll in the process. It also means that big ticket players could go, not where the money is, but where they could do more good and have more fun. If the Yankees want a better team, they have to grow it from the ground up, not buy it by outspending other teams. If the Pirates want a better team, they can spend the same amount of money the Yankees can. Still, they probably won’t because they will chose to keep under the cap and employ mediocre players while trading away top notch talent for second rate prospects. If you reform the revenue sharing, you can cut them to the quick and ensure that any revenue that comes in from other teams needs to be earmarked for player development or salaries. Give them an ultimatum of “Use it or Lose it.”

At any rate, a new generation of kids are growing up never knowing that their home team has four World Series Titles to their credit. They only know that the team is rebuilding. Coming soon, a new Pirates Team will take the field. Each year a new slogan touts the efforts of this aspect. “We Will.” We will, what? Suck? Lose? Trade? How about, “Better Bucs for your Bucks?” I will say that I still get a chill watching the opening cinematics at the field. It’s the one with the pirate ships flying the different teams’ banners before settling on the Pirates’ ship and the team they are playing. In the end, the Pirates are the only ship left floating. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the actual team on the field. They are a ship in trouble and the owners are like Captain Bligh.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Being Cool

So, what is cool? Seriously, what is the definition of cool these days? As I have slipped further into my 30’s I’m sure I have fallen way off the cool radar. My wife seems to think I may have never been on it. I think I have cool tastes. I like cool things. Does that inherently make me cool? Probably not. But that still doesn’t answer the question.

Growing up I knew I wasn’t cool. No matter how hard I tried to think I could ever be, I knew I wasn’t. In sixth grade, I ditched the Sears brand shoes with the Velcro laces and started wearing Nike high tops. Now, I have no proof of this, but there was a trend in the late 80s where you never tied your high tops. I think I started that. I say that because I never saw anyone do it, previously. I was really just lazy, not cool or trendy. In Junior High, I ditched the hand me downs for Bugle Boys and Ocean Pacific labels but I still did that pegged thing with my pants which negated the whole cool factor if I had one. By high school I had gotten rid of my Coke bottle glasses and braces and started paying attention to how I looked. I began wearing button down shirts, that weren’t tucked in, and I did the whole jeans with a white shirt and flashy tie as if I was working at the Olive Garden or an alternate for Boyz II Men. After all, it was the Alex Vanderpool era, am I right? But then there was the awful phase of cardigans and turtle necks along with the gold chain. That was the dreaded Cosby Sweater era. Seriously, I looked as if I was dressed like Seth Rogen in Observe and Report, only 20 years early.

Now, as an adult I look back on the kids growing up today and I see my worst fears being realized. I am turning out to be one of those adults that doesn’t “Get it.” I am that grumpy middle aged man who thinks the music sucks, the movies suck, and the clothes suck. This was something I promised myself I would never become, but perhaps, it was inevitable. Maybe we can’t stop the natural progression into becoming cantankerous. As cool as we think we are, we are not cool to those that come after us. Coolness is an idea that does not transcend into younger generations without changing its parameters.

But my opinion is just that and I guess I am a hypocrite in some ways because I find certain things cool and not others in the same grouping. I am a bit of a music snob when it comes to what I feel is good and bad. I cannot stand popular music today. It all sounds like the same crap. Frankly, most of the people I find cool are not making music anymore. There are some exceptions. I won’t list them because it’s a bit much. However, I say I might be a hypocrite because I like a lot of different music but I don’t buy into the artist’s complete catalog. I find what I like, usually download or copy a few songs and then disregard the rest. I didn’t go buy the complete discography of Jay-Z just because I liked "Encore" mashed up with Linkin Park’s "Numb. "

Now, when I look at kids today wearing Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd shirts I have to wonder, “Are they a huge fan of those groups or do they merely think being a fan of them gives them coolness?” Here’s a little test Ask your average 13 to 15 year old if they like Led Zeppelin. If they say yes, ask them if they like the songs "Misty Mountain Hop" and "Ramble On." If they again say “Yes,” then ask them if they think J.R.R. Tolkien is cool. If they say, ”No” or have no idea who that is, then I suggest you smack them. Then tell them to relinquish all their downloaded Led Zeppelin songs from iTunes and the Internet and tell them to go listen to All American Rejects or Fall Out Boy. Oh, and then ask them where Fall Out Boy got their name from and if they can’t answer that correctly, tell them to give up all together and listen to the Jonas Brothers, instead.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I said myself that I like only certain songs from an artist and don’t buy into the whole background and complete discography, but then again, I listen to them and enjoy them. I don’t go out and buy a brand new shirt for the band or go to a so-called “Thrift” or “Vintage” store and buy a shirt of the band that is made to look like it is old. Of course, if those same kids come to my shop and buy a faux vintage shirt based on a pop culture idea from before they were born, is different. They are giving me money for it. That’s cool. *snort* Hell, in 1984 I was wearing my brother's Hall & Oates: H2O concert tour shirt and I was in fourth grade. How uncool was that?

So, do we have a better definition of cool, yet? No. Maybe it’s not up to us. Perhaps it’s the observer who needs to determine what is cool. Maybe those kids with the Led Zeppelin shirts are cool because their friends perceive them as such. Maybe there shouldn’t be a standard for what is cool. I don’t think you can make “cool” happen. Being cool is a state of mind. If you think you are cool, then you probably aren’t.

Here is a short list of what I think is cool. Again, you may disagree. Your determination on what is “cool” will be different.

My daughter… Even though she can be a hand full, at times, I think she’s cool. She says the funniest things. My dad said something about a “dumbass” the other day and this two year old kid said, “That’s not nice to say. Ladies don’t say that.” This, of course, is because my wife and I have been trying to reinforce to her that when she called me a dumbass one night, while it was hysterical, it was not a good thing. She is starting to get better, but still thinks it is funny to say Douchebag. We’re still working on that one.

Robot Chicken… Actually, I used to think it was really cool. It’s still an awesome show but they are starting to run out of cool ideas. I am a big fan of Family Guy, too. While it is a little formulaic and referential to pop culture in an effort to try and be cool, some of the stuff they have been able to reference is awesome. For example: In the 100th episode entitled “Movin' Out (Brian's Song)" Stewie attempts to cheer Brian up by presenting him with two different robots. Just showing the robots would have been cool enough but the fact that he has to reference them being the robots from SpaceCamp and Rocky IV totally negates the coolness.

Patrick Swayze… he’s cool. I don’t mean that in a derogatory way. He got picked on a lot as a kid because he was a dancer. That was until one kid pushed him too far and took a swing at him. That kid ended up in the hospital. “I want you to be nice until it’s time to not be nice.” That is cool. His career didn’t hold up well into the new millennium but his overall body of work including Red Dawn, Dirty Dancing, Road House, North and South, The Outsiders, and Ghost is cool. He fought Pancreatic cancer and lived longer than predicted. Like Randy Pausch, that makes him really cool.

Stephen King… King will always be cool because he doesn’t give a crap what you think and he doesn’t pander to the pop culture masses, unlike other EW columnists who wrote one cool movie and is now ramming her pop culturisms down your throat. Go read King’s columns over at EW.com He extols the virtues of many different aspects of entertainment, whether it is music, movies, or books. Half of them I’ve never heard of before which is probably why they are cool.

The Office… The US Version... Sorry, as a purist I am trained to loathe American shows based on British ones but I've never really seen the original, yet. I am hoping to catch up on it, though. However, having missed the last couple of seasons of the American Office due to DVR overload on Thursday nights I’ve been forced to watch them in reruns or online and the show is still as funny as it is uncomfortable to watch. I say that with crumpled up lips and big eyes as I look into the camera.

J.S. … I won’t spell this one out in order to protect his identity. He’s a former piano student of my wife. Besides being cool, he’s hysterical. Some of the stuff he’s pulled throughout his 18 years on this Earth is nuts. To give you an idea of how extremely funny and borderline obscene he is, chew on this. One Halloween, he went and bought a kid’s costume that was way too small for him. I’m talking midriff and knees showing among other things. When asked what he was supposed to be, his answer was simple. A Pedophile. I’m sorry but that was funny. Wrong, but funny. I hope he can make the transition to college and just remember the following. Agility is crucial. Being able to not let the system get you down is a huge key to success.

My friend Jer... Once again, full name not given. He and I have been friends for the last 13 years. We worked together during the summers at Cedar Point. He was also in my wedding. Quite frankly he’s hysterical. It’s a different kind of funny, though. We both loved Chappelle’s Show and classic 80s movies. In fact, he’s given me a few very good ideas for the shop and some are actually selling. I might have to figure out a way to cut him in on the profits.

My Mother In Law… Besides being a gadget head and lover of cool toys, she’s been kicking cancer in the ass for the past 12 years. She was diagnosed as Stage IV Renal Cell Cancer in 96. She had a football sized tumor, a kidney, and an ovary removed in 1997, her spleen and part of her pancreas in 2006 along with another tumor, and in 2009 add a brain tumor, a full hysterectomy to get another tumor and is now undergoing chemo. It has taken its toll, though. She has diabetes, hypertension, blood clots, OSA, and other normal maladies of a 65 year old woman, but she is still kicking it her way.

Hatchbacks… I bought a Malibu Maxx in 2005 and regardless of the usual GM issues I have with it, I cannot fault the car because the hatchback is the biggest pro on this vehicle. I love being able to fit a lot of things in this car and put the seats down for more storage space. I am one child shy of needing a minivan and that probably will be my replacement for the Maxx but that is a couple years away. However, I still have a Sunfire POS that I am going to have to replace in the next three to four months. I’ve bounced between the Chevy HHR, Kia Soul, Scion XB, and a couple of others yet I still see no clear front runner for the money. Yes, I could get a Chevy Aveo or Toyota Yaris cheaper but I want to be able to be safe in my car. I do a lot of driving in wooded areas and somehow I think if a deer challenges a Yaris or Aveo, I will lose. So, if there are any dealers or auto industry giants out there that follow the blog, make me an offer. I’d be willing to be an advocate for your car and your service if I like them. I ain’t cheap but I can be bought.

Johnny Cash… Hell yeah, he’s cool. Cash featured prominently in my upbringing and I used to play guitar with a group of older guys, including my Father in Law, and we would do some of his standards like “Walk the Line” and “Boy Named Sue.” So, I think I get to take a pass on the finding him cool though he’s from a previous generation. And it’s not even that he was strictly a big influence on music or Nashville as a singer and songwriter and then ended back in the 60s. He was able to update himself in such a cool way, sticking to his guns and his black threads. Go back and listen to his collaboration with U2 on “The Wanderer.” Go listen to his cover of “Hurt.” Go listen to “The Man Comes Around.” Actually, go back and listen to all of the American Series. Now that is cool.

That’s all I got. I had planned on going through my list of things I find “not cool” but felt it was a bit preachy and anyone who knows the blog, knows what I find “not cool.” In fact, the last few weeks have been filled with events that I consider “not cool.”

Monday, September 14, 2009

Racing Cars

I like driving. I’ve said it before. When I’m in the mood, I could drive for hours as long as I have some music going. As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve noticed I’ve slowed down a bit. This only occurs when my wife and kid are in the car with me. Otherwise, I’m usually pushing ten miles over the speed limit, depending on the road. If it’s back roads or wooded areas, I tend to be a little more careful. If it’s the highway or open roads, look out. I may even crank it up a bit more.

While I’ve never owned car that could be considered race ready, I have attempted to put what I did have through the paces. On three occasions, I have raced someone and won all three times. All three occurred while I was in high school and with close friends.

Now, in my hometown there aren’t a lot of places to race. On the outskirts between cities, there were more suitable locations for drag racing. In the neighboring county there was an old abandoned Volkswagen plant just off the main highway. Now, it’s an abandoned Sony plant. Yeah, economy! Anyway, leaving the main highway there is a long stretch of road that ends in an intersection with a traffic light. Cars would drag race from a preset distance using the lights as a signal. For me, I really didn’t care about this kind of racing. The ability to accelerate or shift with precision in order to beat a car based on engine and transmission performance is something I could care less about. For me, it was about endurance. This is why I can’t get into NASCAR. They don’t go anywhere except left.

However, my town was situated in the middle of the main highway and offered plenty of cross country races. You could race towards the Pennsylvania Turnpike or race towards West Virginia. In any case, you have open road, four lanes, and a lot of chances to make your move.

The first race came with my acquiring the car I drove all through high school, a 1984 Pontiac Firebird. My buddy had a Ford Maverick and we talked about racing the two. We started out at the red light in the downtown area near our houses and went all the way to the Uniontown Eat N’ Park, which was about 10 miles away. I held onto the lead the whole way there, while my copilot, a kid nicknamed Weezil, held onto the dashboard which had begun to shimmy and shake over 70 mph. I actually had no idea how fast I was going as my speedometer only went up to 85. From what my friend, in the Maverick said, he was pushing 103 and I was in front of him. The next year he bought a similar Firebird and I knew for a fact that he could beat me on a straight away as it was newer and in better shape.

The second race took place with another friend of mine who owned a 1987 Camaro. It was the typical T-Top model, red in color. For some reason he kept insisting that he had better chances of winning because of his four barrel. I laughed and said, “OK.” I wasn’t about to let him in the truth since we were going to race the two soon after he got it.

Our course led us to a friend’s house in Greensburg, about 20 miles away. We started at his house which was right down the road from mine and twisted through town and out onto the open road of Route 119 North. The first leg of this race pitted our maneuvering ability as we had various red lights and single lane roads to contend with before we reached the outskirts of town and the four lane highway. Always seeing this as a race to the finish, not just race to be in the lead, I pulled a questionable move that may have been considered foul play. As we approached a busy intersection where Routes 119 and 982 meet, he had pulled ahead and just missed the green light. I could have pulled up alongside him at the red light and waited for the lights to turn green, but I had another idea in mind.

Knowing we would be waiting for awhile and not wanting to draw attention to our racing, I quietly slipped into the turning lane and cut across 982 into the Sheetz parking lot and back out onto 119 on the other side of the intersection. This gave me a comfortable lead but not wanting to relax, I just laid the hammer down all the way to Greensburg. When I got there, my friend was nowhere to be found, although he came around a different corner in an attempt to say he had already been there and went around the block. I saw through the lie and claimed victory.

The final race occurred on February 26, 1993. One of the perks of being in the musical productions was that after our first performance on a Thursday night, we were given off Friday as a gift. Tradition held that members of the cast and crew would meet for breakfast at the Eat N’ Park in Uniontown. This was the same Eat N’ Park I had raced to before. But first, we would meet in the McDonald’s parking lot on the East side of our town and then car pool. This became an all out race, ala Cannonball Run if you will.

Some will dispute that I held an unfair advantage this time around because instead of relying on my trusty old Firebird, I pulled out the big guns. I rolled up into the parking lot with my parents’ 1990 Oldsmobile Eighty-Eight Royale. My reasoning was that I needed the extra passenger room to hold at least one more person. There were cries of shenanigans by fellow cast members but I didn’t think of it that way. Besides, there were plenty of other cars with V6 engines. As we pulled out of the parking lot and onto the highway, I never looked back. I pulled into the Eat N’ Park lot way ahead of everyone and savored victory.

This was, of course, the last time I ever raced anyone in a car. Over the next four years I racked up three speeding tickets. The first was for going 66 mph in a 35 mph zone. I was driving home from working at a summer job and didn’t realize that there was a small stretch of back road that went from 50 mph down to 35 mph. I ended up losing my license for 15 days on that one. The second was a year later coming home from the same job, only by a different route. This time I got nailed doing 75 mph in a 55 mph. The State Trooper who pulled me over said he wouldn’t have bothered if I was doing less than 15 mph over the speed limit. I thought he was kidding but he was being dead serious. This one resulted in me having to complete a remedial driving course in downtown Pittsburgh to shave off two points from my license in order to keep it. The next year I managed to keep myself out of trouble since I didn’t have the use of a car for the summer…or a license, but that’s another story. However, in 1997, I managed to get nabbed doing 55 mph in a 45 mph in Ohio. I still feel like that was a bogus charge but, then again, if any state would enact the death penalty for speeding, it would probably be Ohio.

Since then, I’ve gained a sense of discipline and responsibility when it comes to driving. I don’t live under my parents’ roof and I am responsible for my own vehicle and insurance. That’s not a good reason to be a safe driver but eventually maturity made me become one, primarily. Like I said, I still manage to open it up on the highway, although my wife is notoriously worse when we go on vacation. On more than one occasion, I’ve handed the wheel over to her to get some shut eye, only to wake up and see her doing 85 mph in a 65 mph zone. She would get her Mountain Dew and the right music and just fly.

For the most part though, we try to be safe drivers because of our daughter and quite frankly, I’m just not in any rush to get another ticket. Though, there was that time in 2006 when I was going 21 mph in a school zone. That one nearly got me arrested. But that, too, is another story.







Friday, September 11, 2009

Remember Days Of Skipping School

We are roughly two weeks into the school year and already kids are skipping. Am I teacher? No. Am I an administrator? No. How do I know this is occurring beyond a completely blind assumption based on my knowledge of the average school going youth? I will tell you.

This morning, around the back of my place of employment, which sits on a hill, overlooking a major road, an act of truancy was observed. Actually, it was more like, “Oh my God, there’s a kid lying dead in the grass behind the building.” He wasn’t really dead, although Ray Brower, as I will refer to him was lying in the grass unresponsive. All you could really see was a shoe, at first. Upon closer inspection, the body of the teen appeared to be sprawled out in the grass, clad in regular clothes, a can of Skoal and an iPod. Hence the unresponsiveness. He was told to move along and from there; your guess is as good as mine.

This delinquency reminded me of my own upbringing. I was never absent from school during the years between first and twelfth. I guess Kindergarten doesn’t count. Yes, I was one of those nerds. Actually, that’s a misnomer. I wasn’t a nerd because of that. I had years of 12 sided dies and playing in the marching band to cause the assignment of that label. For what it was worth, I should have enjoyed the days of calling in a “Lack of Interest” day from school. Of course, I more than made up for it in college. Hell, I skipped graduation. But from the age of five through the age of 18, I went to school every day and never complained. I spoke, briefly, about this feat in It’s Good to Be the King.

The reasons for why I never missed a day of school are simple. My Mother was a Stay At Home Mom and I never got sick. Now, I as well as any other person know that being healthy has nothing to do with skipping school. After all, the movie wasn’t called, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off With a Head Cold. But to that end, I never really wanted to skip school. Overall, I had a pleasant experience. Yes, there were times I wanted to crawl into a hole and hide but throughout those 13 years the good outweighed the bad. Even still, skipping school isn’t primarily about dodging a bully or gym class. It’s about bucking the system and telling Teach’ “I got better things to do.” But for me, I enjoyed being around my friends and having fun with them. I didn’t take school seriously as it was.

During my senior year I had three real classes (Sociology, English, and French V), three electives (Chorus, Band and Gifted) leaving two study halls. A new system was put into place giving students a different option for gym class. Instead of the normal two day a week schedule, we had gym everyday for half of the year then a study hall for the other half. I was lucky in that I had gym the first half. That year was a breeze as I hardly studied and still came out in the top 10% of my class of around 435. Of course, had a couple more kids actually graduated, I could have moved up to 9%.

I could have skipped, though. In fact there was one day I was supposed to skip, senior skip day. Depending on the social environment, it varies as to what day it will fall. The fogginess of approaching my mid thirties has degraded my memory of the rule but I recall it being the 93rd day of school which was also the number of the year in which I graduated. Also, there was a tradition of skipping the day after the class picnic to Kennywood. That had become such a recognized event that even the teachers paid little attention to the syllabus for that day. However, at that point in my scholastic career, I had already gone 11 years with no absences, what was another 87 days. Besides, I could only imagine what awards would await me for completing this mission. Perhaps I'll get a scholarship or maybe a new car. You never know.

As graduation approached, I counted down the days. During the ceremony I waited for my chance. I wasn’t Valedictorian or Salutatorian or even an officer. This was my only distinction among my classmates. When that moment finally came, as stupid as it seemed to other kids, I was proud to accept that honor. As the speaker began to run through the acknowledgements, I waited with anticipation. “One year of perfect attendance.” “Five years of perfect attendance.” Then it came down to it. “Twelve years of perfect attendance.” It was my time. Then, in a twist of fate, I found out that I wasn’t really that special.

Someone else managed the same achievement. Now, I had to share that bright, shiny car and distinction with someone else. How unfortunate? But I wasn’t about to let that deter me. Somewhere nearby had to be a car about to be driven in like on the showcase showdown on Price is Right. As I walked up to the stage, I passed by the other members of the “also ran” club. Their prize was a ruler. That’s right. It looked to be gold plated, but came off looking more like brass. Each one of them brandished it with some pride, but I scoffed at their inability to hold out a few more years for the grand prize.

I reached the middle of the dais and extended out my hand to be shaken. I would have settled for the principal kissing my class ring, but I didn’t want to appear too pretentious. With my other hand I reached out to accept the small box he held out as my reward for my achievement. My heart pounded as I imagined what I would find inside. It could be the keys for sure or maybe even a check for a scholarship.

As I stood there to receive a round of applause with the rest of the lightweights I opened the box. Inside was the same ruler. The only difference was the number of years of perfect attendance etched into its plating. I was crushed. I never had any accolades to speak of in school except the fact that I had been there every day and not earned one. This was my moment. This was my chance to be recognized and I was given the same measure of success as everyone else on that stage.

I got over it a couple of hours later. I even laughed at how silly I was. I didn’t take myself as serious in college as I missed a heck of a lot of classes over those four and a half years. Now that I am a Father and my daughter will begin her education in a few years, I wonder if she will try and sneak one past the judges when it comes to going to school. I probably won’t be as strict considering my own experience. Of course, I will want her to go to school every day and do well. I wouldn’t condone rampant absenteeism but if there was a day she wanted to just blow off for something important or like I said, “Lack of Interest” I wouldn’t become extremely upset but I would expect her to be smart and not camp out on private property like Ray Brower did this morning. That would be an inexcusable absence of common sense.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The End of the Beginning

Ok, you’ve all had time adjust or digest or discard the changes that are coming to the blog. This is the last post that will be used primarily as a topic for Caf├ęPress store discussion. After this, I am unhooking this blog from the Facebook page that is devoted to the store and attaching the new blog. In case there are any fans who wish to continue seeing specifically blog posts dealing with the writing aspects of Mongo, here is a place to become a fan of on Facebook. Those of you who are already friends of the man behind Mongo will still see his self delusional attempts at writing legitimacy posted to his profile and your news feeds if you haven’t already tuned him out.

For those of you who wish to continue seeing posts about Caf├ęPress shirt designs and are interested in seeing how some of the effects are achieved, then become a fan here, if you haven’t already. Starting tomorrow, I will begin posting some designs to the new blog. Mixed into the offerings will be a couple of tutorials on how to achieve certain effects like aging your images and making them look like they were inked, to name a few.

It’s been swell having you as a reader for the shirt side of Mongo but in order to deliver quality posts to the masses…yes you four know who you are… I need to separate the business from the pleasure and focus on one at a time.

Take care, so long and thanks for all the fish.

Mongo


Friday, September 4, 2009

Healthcare Makes Me Sick


"After very careful consideration, sir, I've come to the conclusion that your new healthcare system sucks."

I’m not going to get into a debate over single payer insurances, government run healthcare or any of that. Quite frankly, I have a bigger problem with how the current system is managed and quite frankly, if competition is a good thing, I hope it inspires the players to step up their game and become better proponents to reform instead of being obstacles. Currently, the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing and the right hand is currently underneath its own seated ass, becoming numb in order to perform The Stranger.

Back in May, my daughter caught the stomach flu. In February she had come down with it and passed it along to myself, my wife, and my wife’s parents. This time, none of us seemed to get it, which was good. However, to see this rambunctious child, who runs around constantly, lying on the floor and unresponsive to various stimuli gives a first time parent pause. We had taken her to the ER in February and they pretty much observed her and sent us home after a few hours. My insurance, at the time, had a $35 co-pay. No big deal. Fearing this was more severe a case, we made the decision to take her again and she was found to be severely dehydrated. We had tried giving her juice, Pedialyte and anything else to keep her fluids up but she refused.

We walked into the ER and she just sat there in my arms, something she hardly ever does, anymore. They took her to cubicle and pumped her with two bags of IV fluid. Her fever spiked at 103 and they administered medication to reduce it. Since she had been vomiting anything she ingested, they had to do it rectally. After a few hours of trying to bring down her fever, the ER docs made the decision to admit her. Now, this was the hospital that our daughter was delivered two years ago. Since then, the hospital was acquired by a bigger group and the Obstetric and Pediatric care was dissolved. This meant an ambulance ride to a nearby hospital. From there, she was released later in the evening.

Now, here’s the problem and let me preface this by stating that I have no issue with the care she received. I am grateful for it. She was a completely different kid when she got released as the pictures will attest to. That being said, what followed was a complete and utter breakdown of communication, administration, and severe frustration on the part of my wife and I concerning the billing of this stay.


Little One at the ER before being admitted.


Little One playing with balloons before being released.

As I said, before, my insurance in February had a $35 co-pay for ER visits. Our insurance was changed at the employer level and the new provider and coverage, which begun in April, had a $100 co-pay for ER visits. If you were admitted to the hospital, that co-pay was waived. We also had a $100 deductible per family member, which my employer opted to waive for the rest of this calendar year because of the transition. So, for those of you playing at home, with no prior medical billing experience, what was my total bill for the ER and Hospital stay*?

a) $0
b) $100
c) $236
d) $136

For those of you who chose a), you made the same mistake as me. I received two separate bills from this event. One was the co-pay for $100. The other was a bill from the ER doctor’s practice in the amount of $136. Now, before everyone flames me for being nitpicky over $236 remember, I had a $100 co-pay that was waived on admittance, and no fulfilled deductible for the remainder of 2009. I admit that if I was responsible for paying the full amount under any other circumstances, I would be glad to. My daughter’s well being is worth millions.

However, I felt that there was something rotten in the state of Pennsylvania, and I wanted it take care of one way or the other. Most adults will handle the situation in of two manners. They will call and track down the responsible parties, confirming or debunking their responsibility for paying the bill, or they will just let it sit and hope that it goes away. I prefer a more hybrid approach. I let the bills sit while I contact our internal support folks in these matters and ask them what the hell is up? Unfortunately, in this instance, no help was really available.

So, the $100 co-pay bill kind of sat in a pile, soon to be joined by a reminder and finally a letter from credit and collections in the matter. All the while, the issue was being investigate by internal associates who met with brick walls and unanswered emails. Then, the Explanation of Benefits came along and stated that the Insurance provider had fulfilled a portion of the services at the ER and that the doctor had the right to “balance bill” the member for the remainder, which was $136. If you’ve ever looked at EOBs it’s hard to understand sometimes but eventually once you sift through the medical mire of line items and coding you can find out the important stuff.

I took the reins in the matter and made several phone calls and left several messages. The billing parties were conveniently holding office hours while I and my wife worked which made it near impossible to get a hold of them in person. Finally, we called the insurance company to get some explanations.

In the matter of the $100, the insurer stated that my daughter was an outpatient observation case. I said, “Then why did they admit her?” The rep could not answer me. This was beginning to look like a case of clerical error made on the part of the hospital. After all, the patient advocate who helped in the transport of my daughter when she got admitted said that she was being admitted and that the co-pay was going to be waived. So, I started calling the hospital, the billing department and anyone else who could tell me what was going on with this thing.

Finally, I got an answer from someone totally unrelated to my daughter’s care. A doctor, who was listed as part of the practice that treated my daughter at the hospital, got on the phone after medical billing gave me her name and number. She did not remember treating my child nor did she understand how I got her information. She did, however, take the time to delve into the case and stated that my daughter was admitted as Observational as most pediatric Gastro patients are. So, I was pretty much screwed on that front. The insurance provider said that I would have to get the doctors to re-bill the visit as inpatient and this doctor was telling me that this wasn’t the protocol in my daughter’s case. So, why couldn’t anyone involved with the matter explain this to me? I would have hemmed and hawed and cursed insurance companies for a bit, but would have paid. I did pay it, though, once someone had finally explained it to me.

Now, the matter of the $136 came to my plate as it was billed in August, almost four months after the initial hospital visit. I explained to both the billing office and the insurer that we had a $100 deductible and that would negate the $36 left on the bill. Also, being that our deductible was fulfilled automatically by my employer, I should be free and clear, outright. Apparently, that wasn’t the case. It was also odd that there was no mention of amounts on my EOBs as there had been with the previous insurer. Each EOB used to come with a breakdown of your responsibility towards fulfilling deductibles, in-network and out of network amounts. The new carriers were lacking in this department. Regardless, at the bottom of the EOB for the $136, it stated that the carrier paid the maximum amount for “in-network” providers and that the provider that treated my daughter was “out of network.”

I read that statement a few more times. From what this stated, the hospital system that I visited was in my network, but the doctors working in the ER there were not. Now, how is that even a logical premise? According to what I’ve been told by people in the business, the new methodology in healthcare providers is to stop holding the hand of the member and explain to them that they need to be an informed consumer. That means that when you go to an ER and request treatment, you need to determine if the doctor assigned to your case is in your network. So, regardless of how severe the situation is, whether it be the stomach flu in a two year old or a severed limb packed in ice next to you, you need to ask for a list of participating providers before receiving care.

Another suggestion by insurance carriers today is for members to shop around for care. Ask if there are any specials or benefits to getting care there. Imagine that scenario, “Yeah, I need to have kidney transplant. What specials are you running today? Two for one? Great. Now, can I have the SSN attached to that kidney? I’d like to go online and request a donor history report.” I’m sorry, but if my daughter is listless and expelling fluid from either end of her being, I’m going to the ER and asking for care, not credentials or a menu.

So, I called the insurer and explained my disbelief over this flawed process. They offered no sympathy and continued to be the Teflon carrier pushing the matter back to everyone else but them. I called the ER and requested to speak with the doctor listed on the bill as the presiding physician. They said she was not on staff, there. I called the billing department at the hospital system and they did not even know who this practice was. Not to mention they said that this matter had taken place before the merger. I informed the person on the phone that was impossible; otherwise you would not have sent me into collections over a co-pay from that visit. You can’t have it both ways. They were completely clueless over the whole matter. They informed me to call the billing party. I had already left a message and received no response. Finally I started to formulate a theory as to what was going on here.

The ER that treated my daughter was still doing business as they had before the merger. The hospital continued to let them do so with only dotted line responsibility. This is why they had no clue as to who this physician or practice was that treated my daughter. This also gets them into a double dip area where they recognize the hospital as a part of their network but allow them to staff with people who could be considered out of network. It would make more sense for a hospital system to operate as a whole entity in terms of membership to providers. It makes for a one process system instead of bolt on processes that can bastardize the system as a whole. This was neither here nor there. I wasn’t in the business of fixing the system, just being screwed by them

After getting the run around for three days over this, I finally got a response from my internal contacts, two months after initiating the request. I was told to contact a rep from another company and explain the situation. Now, this was the original co-pay problem, not the bill. She explained what I had already found out, that the visit was, is and always shall be an observational event. However, when I mentioned the other matter with the “out of network” providers wandering the ER and treating patients, she became intrigued. She said she would put a hold on the account and investigate further.

Within an hour, the entire matter of the $136 was cleared up. The insurance carrier had an error that systematically declared the provider as an “Out of Network” group. Because of that, I got billed. The problem was fixed and I was going to receive an updated invoice for $0. She also initiated a fact finding mission to how this happened to make sure it didn’t occur in the future. Unfortunately, I see two problems with this.

  1. Will they go back and investigate other claims made by this provider that were not fully reimbursed because of the glitch? Obviously, they either didn’t catch it before my case or had done so and took to remitting the balance of claims to the provider only if someone cried foul in each case.
  2. How many other providers experienced this glitch in their system? How many other parents or patients experienced this same ridiculous event in other hospitals across the state, or even country? The level of accountability and transparency over ownership in such matters is shoddy.
I called the insurer on three separate occasions, each time being pushed back to someone else. Another call to another entity. That person pushed me back to the carrier or to another party. If they would have just confirmed with the provider whether or not they were a member of the network, this could have been resolved. Of course, if I would have called as soon as I got the bill, it might have been. But even so, the event happened at the beginning of May. The rebill to me occurred less than two weeks ago.

This is my issue with the system as it is. Yes, premiums are skyrocketing. Yes, the level of involvement by insurance companies in your care is increasing. Yes, the economy sucks, people are unemployed, and have no insurance. But inside that system that is flawed resides a bigger problem. Not the costs associated with the care, but the administration of that care and the communication between the provider and the insurer is flawed. It shouldn’t be this hard. How many elderly or individuals with reduced capacity have been bilked out of hundreds or thousands of dollars because of a fundamental lack of understanding of how medical billing works? How many actually suspect a problem and contact a patient advocate to investigate?

The other problem lies at the heart of medical insurance, coding. The process shouldn’t be that hard. If you are going to issue insurance to someone and state that they are responsible for a co-pay, unless they are admitted, then they need to stop the line right there. If you are going to say, “If they are admitted, the co-pay will be waived unless the following happens… that’s where you start to dilute the message. A or B, not A.1, B.2, B.2.3. This will solve two problems. First off, you’ll get paid quicker. If there is no debate over if A or B happened, then there is no question of ownership. That leads to the second problem being solved. If you state that either you will or won’t be billed based on a set number of actions then you don’t get people calling you up to complain, debate, or question the matter. This leads to a reduction of service requests made on the call center. That leads to a reduction in escalations and man hours spent investigating the matter. I could go on down the line to the actual cost of an employee to a company involved in any given dispute but who cares. The matter is simple. You pay or you don’t. This meeting of certain criteria revolves around a interpretation of procedure or a refusal to see outside the box. Take thinking out of the equation. Yes or no. Was that person admitted? Then the co-pay is waived. Did that person get released from the ER? Then they pay.

I said before if the matter was not up for debate, I would have gladly paid off the balances and just gone about my way. My daughter’s health is more important than a couple hundred bucks. But, I’ve learned to not accept anything at face value. I should understand the importance of my care and my dependents and seek out the best possible choice that results in proper care at the proper cost. I bet the insurance company didn’t think that meant them in this equation. I know better. I am an informed consumer. Now you are, too.


* The correct answer was b) $100. Additional costs were eight ibuprofen, a few bruises from banging my head against my desk, and the color from a few hairs.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Mongo 2: Electric Blogaloo

I thought about titling this something different but quite frankly I can’t stop dipping into the Breakin’ movie sequel well enough times for it to get old. That’s just my opinion, I could be wrong.

Ok, here’s why I’ve called you all here. This decision was not an easy one and I thought long and hard over a refreshing trip to the bathroom. I’ve decided to spin off the blog. Now, before you all start saying, “Mongo, you so craaaazy!” hear me out. Oh, who am I kidding, would you care one way or the other? Thought not.

Why am I deciding to take all the hard work I’ve done over the past 18 months and franchise it? My head is getting a little too crowded for all the voices in it. Really, thinking about it, it might be a good idea. The blog has had no real structure other than I post on a semi regular basis. Beyond that, it’s a chaotic cluster frak. I have posts about storytelling, pop culture musings, grumbles about society, and a heavy dose of CafePress shameless plugging…peppered throughout with some political nonsense and set to frappe. I need to organize my thoughts and separate the wheat from the chaff. Well, I’m not saying any of my thoughts are wheat, but at least for the sake of sanity, I need to make changes to this mess.

What’s changing?
Coming soon, I will be unveiling a new blog dedicated solely to CafePress dealings. I’ve decided to use it primarily for design tips, marketing, and showcasing of my work. There will probably be some way of incorporating the store functionality into the new blog with a direct order button makes the transition seamless, but I haven’t the foggiest on how to do it, yet.

The blog, here, will be business as unusual with the same smattering of tales from the life and times of Mongo, but the new blog will be a business first, and a distraction second. The only change to what you see here will be the absence of CafePress store updates and design posts (YEAH)…unless there is a pop culture or news worthy event that ties directly into a design… and possibly a reduction in the amount of posts to the blog (BOO). It all depends on my free time. Yeah, ok, bad idea. In any case, I think it will be a relief for anyone who is unlucky enough to have friended me on Facebook as well as become a fan of the M.A.M.S store page. They get a double dose of blog posts show up in their news feed and too much of a bad thing isn’t even tolerable.

Timeline
Once I chase down and tase my scattering thoughts, I will make a concerted effort to release the new site. After that, I will detach the feed from this blog on the store’s Facebook page and attach the new blog feed. Next steps will be to go through the whole process of advertising on feedburner and other sites, build up brand recognition again and hopefully drive some traffic to the new site while keeping some following here.

Unfortunately, I feel like a kid trying to open up a lemonade stand in Times Square, using only crayons to advertise on lamp posts. I’m probably investing more time and energy into all this with little ROI. For the most part, I may be blogging in a vacuum. Still, I never intended my site to become a huge success followed by millions of adoring fans. Fine, don’t believe me. I’d rather have longevity and a cult following than become the next Huffington Post or God forbid, Perez Hilton. I still like having a sense of anonymity, after all. And among those who know me personally, their opinions and support have been enough fame and fortune for me.

Now, I could give you a sneak peek into what the blog is going to look like but it’s not ready yet. I still have some bugs to work out in one of the features. So, as things become clearer, I will update it here. Until then, I’m sure you’re just quivering with Antici……..pation….or it could just be gas…

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