Jim Winter Is “The Graduate”

It finally happened. I finished the associates degree I was supposed to finish in 1997. In 2009, I basically started over again from scratch. Only my English comp classes from 1994 counted.

The Three Stooges in caps and gowns

Source: Columbia Pictures/Sony

In the nineties, I got about halfway through a computer programming degree that focused on COBOL and mainframe technology (this was the ramp up to Y2K.) But hey, it was the tech 90’s. I didn’t need no steekeeng degree. Anyone who got involved in computers was going to make HUGE money.

I eventually landed at BigHugeCo, who appreciated my talents, but did not pay me HUGE bucks. At least I was making decent money. And then the field I landed in became a dead-end job. I was a PC technician. That job’s salary has dropped in recent years, even before the crash of 2008. Hey, the nineties were over. I needed the steenkeeng degree.

I went back a few months after Nita and I got married. I now had a family, and I needed to do something more to take care of them. So I entered Cincinnati State’s .Net program. I’d already had some web design experience. Now I wanted to make web pages do something more than display static information.

One layoff, four contract jobs, and six weeks of unemployment later, I landed a job where .Net programming was 50-60% of my job. Happy? Boy, howdy.

I was supposed to wrap up last year, but communications issues resulted in my having to retake my capstone project. Fortunately, my capstone was a work project. I wrote a knowledge base for the IT department to use. I left a long paper trail this time. The grades came in Monday morning.

With that A, I became a college graduate.

It’s been a worthwhile journey. AJ is starting at the University of Cincinnati this fall. Nita is already going, telling me she was inspired by my going back at 43. She’s going for web design. Why? We both like creating things instead of being a cog in a wheel.

Yes, I finished the degree I originally should have finished in 1997. Now I start at Wilmington College in just over a week. There, I will start on the bachelors I should have finished in 1988.

Thursday Reviews: Future Babble by Dan Gardner

Future Babble: Why Pundits Are Hedgehogs And Foxes Know Best

Dan Gardner

Dan Gardner has a problem with pundits. They make grand proclamations about the future, often telling us their vision of things to come is inevitable. More often than not, they get it spectacularly wrong. And yet we keep going back to them for more. Why?

The reason, Gardner says, is that pundits often predict the future with a high degree of confidence and certainty. It’s the certainty that the audience craves. And yet the future is, by definition, uncertain. Human beings do not act rationally. Doomsayers are often thwarted by someone else who reaches the same conclusion only to also reach the conclusion that maybe we ought to take some action.

And, of course, even when they get it wrong, they point to the lack of evidence as proof they were right. Why is it we believe this?

Gardner states that humans are hard-wired to hate uncertainty. This is why a pundit who makes predictions along the lines of a weather forecaster (“There’s a 75% chance of X happening, 20% chance of Y, and a 5% chance of Z) is often seen as unsure or hedging their bets. And yet these, Gardner insists, are the people we should be listening to. He calls these people foxes, crafty and able to adapt to random changes.

It’s the randomness that most people don’t like. They want to know how the world is going to be with pinpoint accuracy. And yet, even when the predictions are wrong, we keep going back to the same people for more.

Gardner breaks down the psychology of such pundits, whom he dubs hedgehogs, and illustrates why they look so good when they get things right.  He points to Peter Finch, the economist generally credited with calling the 2008 mortgage meltdown. There was a series of videos on YouTube showing Finch sounding the alarm while several other economists, including Ben Stein, called the crisis a blip. So Finch was right, and he’s a genius. Right?

Wrong. Finch, according to Gardner, who shows evidence from the 1990’s, is a stopped clock, and the time he is stuck in happened to strike in 2008. There was this pesky Internet boom and a housing bubble that sort of ruined his predictions in earlier years.

Gardner shows predictions as far back as World War I showing that a war in Europe was not very likely (one made only a week before the Archduke Ferdinand was murdered in Sarajevo), that 1930 would be a boom year, and that Japan would emerge as the world’s only superpower by 2000.

Gardner’s evidence is compelling. There is no denying that the randomness of human behavior makes forecasting anything but the weather a few days out is little more than a crap shoot. However, Gardner seems to have an axe to grind with environmentalist Paul Erlich. True, Erlich has been sounding the alarm over and over about overpopulation since 1967. However, rather than pointing at a host of other experts for calling it wrong (and they are legion), Gardner repeatedly hammers on Erlich. It’s unfortunate because it undermines an otherwise important premise, that the future is, in the end, unknowable.

But don’t tell that to Glenn Beck. He’s got gold to sell, and wouldn’t it be a pity if his future was wrong and he was stuck with all that cheap metal?

Excerpt: Second Hand Goods

A little treat for you today: An excerpt from Second Hand Goods.

Against my better judgment, I headed out to Bedford Heights and parked myself at the coffee shop across from Izzy Washington’s apartment. He lived over a laundromat in a shabby, two-room flat cooled by a window-mounted air conditioner. No one went in or out of the laundromat during my first fifteen minutes. Who did their laundry on the Fourth anyway? The drapes in Izzy’s apartment never moved. I got out and crossed the street, slipping down the alley between the laundromat and a barbershop on the left. The building had a narrow parking lot in the back with two slots reserved for tenants. A rusted Ford Taurus sat leaking transmission fluid in one of the tenant slots, the only car there.

I bounded up the rickety steps leading to the second story. Skipping Izzy’s door, I moved over to the second apartment on the upper floor and put my ear to the door.

“Oh, yeah, baby,” a woman’s voice said. “You’re hittin’ it good.” I heard her suck her breath through her teeth, then cry out.

Between grunts, a man asked, “When’s your husband get home?”

I debated billing Izzy’s neighbor for the inadvertent surveillance. I was pretty sure her husband might want to know who’d been hittin’ it good while he was out. Instead, I moved slowly back to Izzy’s door. It was unlocked. I pushed the door open.

The smell of must and old tobacco hit me immediately. At least I didn’t smell a corpse. Then again, if Izzy died in the last few hours, I wouldn’t have noticed any scent other than the apartment’s own. I slipped inside.

Furniture, dishes, appliances, all lay smashed on the floor. The bedroom, too, had been destroyed, but with one major difference. A dark, reddish-brown stain formed a cloudy spray pattern above the headboard. I sniffed the air for the scent of corpse but only smelled Izzy’s lousy housekeeping.

I looked down at the floor and saw a faint blood trail leading back into the living room. I checked the bathroom. Wrecked as badly as the rest of the apartment, it had only a couple of smelly towels lying around. I took a washcloth that had begun reeking of mildew and started wiping any surfaces I’d touched.

Stepping outside, I admired the view. Izzy had a stunning vista of a brick wall across a backstreet that barely escaped status as an alley. I could still hear the visitor next door hittin’ it good. Had I simply been visiting, I’d have left a card in the mailbox. As it was, no one needed to know I was there. I jogged down the block, around the corner, and back up to the coffee shop. As I pulled out of the parking lot, I called Lenny.

“When’s the last time you saw Izzy?” I asked.

“Wednesday night.”

“Have you heard from him since then?”

“Yesterday afternoon, not long after you were here. Why?”

“I think Izzy had a rough night last night. He’s not home now.”

“Maybe he went out.” Lenny was stoned again, damn him.

“His place is trashed and there’s a big red stain over his headboard.”

Lenny said nothing.

“Lenny, whose car is that in your garage?”

“I don’t know. I was hoping you’d tell me.”

“Well, we’d better find out. I’ll tell you about it later.”

I hung up and looked for a payphone. I didn’t want my next call to be traced back to my cell. From a gas station, I called 911, gave them Izzy’s address, and got out of Bedford Heights as fast as I could.

Second Hand Goods is available on Kindle, Nook, and Smashwords.

Second Hand Goods Arrives!

At last, the follow-up to Northcoast Shakedown sees the light of day. Second Hand Goods has Nick Kepler trying to leave Cleveland on a vacation to nowhere. He just wants to get in his car and drive until he finds some place interesting. Instead, he spends the night with a sexy Russian named Valeria who seduces him into a web of deceit and murder looking for a stolen limo.

What Nick realizes and the beautiful Valeria doesn’t know is that the limo has ended up in the chop shop of Lenny Slansky (from “A Walk in the Rain”), Nick’s long-time informant and occasional disposer of evidence. Lenny’s partners are mixed up with the same Russian gangsters Valeria is either searching for or hiding from. In the meantime, Nick comes under the scrutiny of one Nikolai Karpov, aka “The Antichrist.” Karpov also wants to know where the limo is. And he wants to know why Valeria has hired him.

Boxed in on all sides, Nick soon finds his only chance to survive is to throw in with Karpov, and his only ally is his far-too-loyal secretary Elaine.

When the blossoming mob war claims a casualty too close to Nick, he goes on the offensive. It’s no longer a case spiraling out of control. It’s about revenge, and Nick Kepler doesn’t care if he goes down. He’ll take as many of Cleveland’s underworld denizens as possible in an explosive battle at an abandoned steel mill.

Kindle | Nook | Smashwords

Favorite Bands: Aerosmith

In 1976, when I was ten, I was busy trying to get my hands on any Bicentennial crap I could because, when I grew up, it would be important and valuable! (And I didn’t complain a few years later when my mom threw out my 1976 Cincinnati Reds cards. Never mind how much that Pete Rose card would fetch today.) And while I was wrapping my head around the idea that America was now 200 years old, this song came drifting out of Boston and onto Cleveland’s WMMS. It was in a minor key and had this guitar work that sounded almost like a harpsichord. The singer almost sounded like the guy who sang “Stairway to Heaven.” By the time school started up again in September (Remember when school started up in September and ended right after Memorial Day? If not, you’re probably under 40.), I and my classmates were screeching the the song’s final chorus:

Dream on! Dream on! Dream on! Dream until your dream come true!

Ah, yes, my friends, Aerosmith had arrived. And “Dream On” had knocked “Smoke on the Water” off its perch in our collective consciousness (only to be replaced by “More Than a Feeling” by Boston, then “Do You Feel Like I Do” by Peter Frampton, who’d own it until we reached junior high and began mimicking Pink Floyd’s “We don’t need no education…” This is the soundtrack of the children of the seventies.)

We heard “Dream On” and wanted more. So suddenly, an earlier minor hit began making rounds again. It had this really cool bass line at the beginning that just hypnotized you. The band sang “Sweeeeeeeeeeeet Emoooooooooootiooooon” twice, then the jam began. I tells ya, kids, it was magic on our pre-adolescent minds. Looking back, these five partiers out of Boston knew how to put a song together. Neither “Dream On” nor “Sweet Emotion” was like any hard rock we’d heard up to that point. And mind you, this was the age of Led Zeppelin and a decade where you could still pull down seven figures writing and playing progressive rock. (Now, you might make a living at it, as long as you do session work when you’re not trying to sound like Yes in their classic phase.)

Then came “Walk This Way,” a song that got me in trouble with my parents every so often because it’s so damn catchy, but the lyrics are so…  Well, let’s just say mom didn’t want her little boy dating girls like that. (Later in life, I actively looked for them.) But then they starred in the ill-advised Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band doing a cover of The Beatles’ “Come Together.” Yeah, it rocked, but why the hell would they do such a turkey of a movie? It wrecked their career, as well as Peter Frampton’s, and damn near wrecked the Bee Gees.

That was 1978. Aerosmith started getting national attention in 1973, so it was a good five-year run. So long and thanks for all the groupies. Right?

The guitar players, Brad Whitford and Joe Perry quit. But lead singer Steven Tyler, drummer Joey Kramer, and bassist Tom Hamilton carried on. They went through a Spinal Tap guitar player period (because they never lost a drummer. Get it? Huh? OK, that one died on the pad.) How successful were they?

They achieved a coveted spot on the old PM Magazine syndicated show that basically told the nation (well, those not watching Hollywood Squares or reruns of the original Star Trek in PM‘s usual time slot) that they had not broken up. I couldn’t tell you what they released in that time frame. I never heard a note out of them. Wikipedia lists albums for that time, but they were usually shoved in the back with other classics by their contemporaries like Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s Love Beach and whatever Orleans was calling themselves that month.

So high school was Aerosmith-free, and we were good with it. There were more important things on our minds anyway: Like British synth pop and hair metal. I mean come on! Motley Crue, right?

Then Perry and Whitford returned in 1984, and the band released Done With Mirrors. It stayed in record stores, but I, on a classic rock jag, found it. Listening to it, I found it hard to convince coworkers that Aerosmith even existed. When they were convinced, they had given up on the band completely. Why?

When you tune into MTV and see the band you grew up on singing with a rap group, the world has come to an end. Mind you, in the mid-1980’s, many of us used to say “What the hell is rap?” (Now we say “What the hell happened to rap?” Good times!) But Aerosmith wasn’t going after us adults. No, that swingin’ music all the crazy kids were listening to in 1985 was the embryonic hip hop, and RunDMC were Aerosmith fans.

Wait a minute. Hair metal’s getting big, and Aerosmith is the original hair metal band. What if we did the cover of “Walk This Way” with Aerosmith? It’s so crazy it just might work!

And it did. The rap version of “Walk This Way” funded Permanent Vacation, featuring that 80’s classic, “Dude Looks Like a Lady” (ensuring Robin Williams would have a song to turn the trailer for Mrs. Doubtfire into a music video years later.) It also produced “Rag Doll.”

What saved the band was the members getting cleaned up. They ended up in a studio in the late eighties with Motley Crue after Nikki Sixx had his overdose which, literally, sobered up that band. Joe Perry later said that if Aerosmith and the Crue had booked the same studio only five years earlier, half of each band would not have survived the ensuing party.

They carried on with Pump and the rather disturbing “Janie’s Got a Gun,” a violent tale of an abused child who’s had enough. It also spawned “Love in an Elevator,” singularly responsible for a spike in stopped elevators and public indecency arrests in shopping malls and office buildings in the early 1990’s.

There have been other hits since then. “Livin’ on the Edge” (now the theme to Ice Road Truckers) and “Cryin'” are examples of Aerosmith’s ability to create a hit without using a cookie cutter to structure the song. That’s probably the secret to their longevity. They moved toward power ballads in the 1990’s, but most of their hit singles show a willingness to do something besides write “Sweet Emotion” parts 2, 3, 4, 5…

Thursday Reviews: The Last Days Of Marilyn Monroe

The Last Days of Marilyn Monroe

Donald H. Wolfe

There are a lot of questions surrounding the death of Marilyn Monroe. Did she really overdose? Or was she murdered to keep her quiet about the Kennedys, the Mafia, or communists in Hollywood? Donald Wolfe suggests the latter.

I take Wolfe’s combination conspiracy scenario and biography with a grain of salt, mainly because it’s probably the first in-depth look I’ve read or viewed about MM’s death. Some of Wolfe’s assertions are known facts. However, he paints everyone around her – aside from the usual Hollywood suspects such as the Rat Packers and Clark Gable – as communists circling Marilyn for her relationships with Jack and Bobby Kennedy or as a series of men treating her as a trophy. I don’t discount it, but much of Wolfe’s assertions, including the identity of Marilyn’s murderer, require a considerable amount of corroboration.

But whether you take Wolfe’s tale of Marilyn as a Cold War casualty seriously or not, he does spin a compelling tale that includes Norma Jean Baker’s incredibly sad yet impressive life and spectacular death. While Wolfe clearly says she was murdered, he also demonstrates how her burn-out and descent into darkness at the end of her life might have overtaken any chance she would have had to take charge of her life and move on. Either way, her death was the loss of a major talent, one many people still underestimate.

Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner

I’ve held back on the whole Chick-fil-a thing. It’s one of those controversies that could be out of the public mind tomorrow (which would make this blog post pointless, since I wrote it on Saturday.)

Look, I understand the underpinnings of the whole thing. Dan Cathy is holding his breath and stamping his feet because he doesn’t like gay marriage. And he’s shoveling tons of cash to politicians and interest groups who will try their damnedest to make it not happen.

In short, he’s a douchebag. I get it.

But a few thoughts before I share with you why I’ve been rather silent on the subject.

  • Cathy is perfectly within his rights to do as he pleases, as long as he’s not denying employment or harassing anyone on that basis. If he is, well, then we have a problem.
  • Not every Christian is against gay marriage or thinks it’s the end of the world as we know it. If you believe that they all are, go read this, then ask me my opinion. Go on. I’ll wait.
  • Finished? Good. Now you know where I stand on this God business. (And if you still think you’re in a position to lecture me on what I believe without bothering to ask me, you’re an idiot.) Okay, here’s the deal. I have been married twice, as has Nita. In both cases, it was heterosexuality that threatened the first marriage. Nita has several gay and lesbian friends in partnerships (because Ohio hasn’t lifted the ban. Yet.) I have a cousin who’s been with the same man for a decade and a half (by my reckoning). Do we feel threatened by any of this? Is our marriage threatened by same-sex pairings? Let me check. Good communication between us? Check. Share our finances? Check. Tempted by the fruit of another? Since neither Tony Stewart nor Shirley Manson have come a-calling (both on our respective exception lists anyway), nope. Last people we had sex with? Both of them are in the wedding picture on my desk at work, and frankly, I enjoy having sex with the blonde in the wedding dress. She seems pretty happy with the dude in the suit. Any gay couples stop by to break up our marriage and take us away from each other? Well, the dog might scare them off, but I’m betting that such a marauding horde of homosexuals does not, has not, nor ever will exist. So all in all, I’m pretty sure that gay marriage does not threaten my marriage. In fact, the only times my cousin in DC showed any remote interest at all in my marriage was at my first wedding, when I got divorced, and when my brother Ziggins informed the rest of the family that Nita and I ran off to Tennessee to get married. Gee, that’s funny. All my straight relatives felt the same way. And no one protested. Hmm…

Now, what to do about Chick-fil-a.

Nothing.

That’s what I do. But when I want a chicken sandwich, there’s a place I go to that serves a better chicken sandwich than Chick-fil-a, and they’re open on Sundays. They have a cause, too. See, their founder was an adopted child. That seems to have worked out pretty good for him. He was one of the first franchisees for Kentucky Fried Chicken. So successful, in fact, that he started his own chain of hamburger stands. And what did he do? He promoted adoption. He wasn’t in your face about it. He didn’t make it about abortion or throw passive-aggressive bullshit at the public. He simply said, “Someone did a good thing for me, and I think you ought to consider it, too.”

To this day, Wendy’s still promotes adoption as a good cause. Wendy’s isn’t about “I hate all those people.” No one is picketing Wendy’s over their adoption stance. Wendy’s picked this cause because their founder, Dave Thomas, thought it was a good thing to do. And to be honest, that’s where I buy most of my fast food chicken sandwiches. (I have been known to stray to BK or KFC occasionally. I am not a faithful chicken eater. It’s a weakness.)

Wendy’s is about doing good, not freaking out over change.

Now that’s better.