The Penny Chronicles

My name is Penny.

This week I had the best day ever.  The Leader had a big bone.  She could have kept it all for herself.  That is what I would have done.  But the Leader gave the bone to me.  That is why I love the Leader!

When I get a bone, I start at one end.  I bite it and chew it and lick it and tug it until the end falls off.  By then, the end is very wet and chewy, so I eat that part.  Then I bite and chew and lick until I have eaten everything but the other end.  Then I do it all over to that end until it is gone.  By then, my stomach is so full!  Even though I am sad the bone is gone, I feel good.

When I get a big bone, it takes a long time to finish.  I carry the bone with me everywhere, even when we go out for walks.  I can’t stop looking at it, either.  I take it to bed with me, too.  I don’t even go to sleep right away, because eating that bone is so much fun.

There is nothing better than chewing on a big bone — except food.

Tuning Out

I didn’t watch the President’s State of the Union speech earlier this week.  It turns out I’m not alone.

According to the New York Times, 37.8 million viewers watched the President’s speech.  That’s down from 42.8 million in 2011, 48 million in 2010, and 52.3 million for the President’s 2009 speech to Congress.  In short, 15 million people who watched the President’s initial speech to Congress have just stopped watching.  And it’s not as if they lacked the opportunity to do so — the speech was carried on 14 different networks.

I’m sure those 15 million people have stopped watching for lots of different reasons.  I stopped because I think the State of the Union speech is stunningly boring and I hate the stylized standing ovations given with robotic predictability by the Members of Congress of the President’s party.  I’m sure others have stopped watching because they thought this year’s speech would be repetitive of last year’s speech, and some probably didn’t watch because they have just tuned President Obama out.  For those formerly hopeful people, perhaps, the bloom is off the presidential rose after three years of a bad economy and widespread joblessness, despite massive federal spending and huge budget deficits.

The falling viewership for the State of the Union speeches must be of concern to the President and his reelection staff.  In America, we vote as much with our channel changers as we do with the lever in our voting booths.  And, if I were the President, it’s the last group of non-viewers that would concern me most.  If Americans have given up and tuned out on President Obama, how can he turn around their negative perception of him?


The Road Gets Tougher For The Buckeyes

Ohio State pulverized Penn State tonight, 78-54.  The Nittany Lions were just overmatched, as Ohio State improved to 6-2 in the Big Ten and 18-3 overall.

It was a good victory for the Buckeyes, who have won their last three games resoundingly after a tough loss to Illinois.  Tonight, the Ohio State offense was clicking, and for the third game in a row the Buckeyes’ defense held an opponent to 20 points or less in the first half.  The Buckeyes pulled away early, led by 20 at halftime, and Penn State never made it close during the second half.  Jared Sullinger scored 20 points and was unstoppable inside, William Buford and Aaron Craft also hit double figures, Deshuan Thomas chipped in 9 and had some fine assists and rebounds, and the Ohio State bench got plenty of playing time as a total of 10 players scored.

The Buckeyes currently are tied for the Big Ten lead, but their challenges gets tougher starting now.  Six of their last 10 Big Ten games are against three ranked teams — no. 11 Michigan State, no. 22 Michigan, and no. 25 Wisconsin.  Those just happen to be the three teams vying with the Buckeyes for the Big Ten lead.  In that stretch Ohio State also plays Illinois, which knocked off the Buckeyes two weeks ago, as well as always tough Purdue.  This is the stretch of games that will determine whether the Buckeyes are contenders or pretenders.

The first big game is Sunday, when the Michigan Wolverines come to the Schott.  Playing the arch-rival Wolverines is motivation enough — but Michigan also just happens to be tied with the Buckeyes for the Big Ten lead.

Reasonable Expectations Of Privacy In A Digital Age

Earlier this week the Supreme Court decided an interesting case that begins what will be a long process of determining how the criminal justice protections of the Constitution apply to knotty issues raised by our increasingly linked-in, networked, mobile device-oriented age.

The case raised the question of whether prosecutors could attach a GPS device to a suspect’s car and track its movements for 28 days without getting a warrant.  The Court ruled, unanimously, that such conduct constituted an unreasonable search and seizure.  However, the Court split on the question of the nature and extent of the constitutional violation.  The majority opinion focused on the fact that prosecutors had physically attached the device to the suspect’s vehicle without consent.  The concurring opinions, however, raised broader questions of how the government may apply electronic surveillance to suspects in an age where people carry cell phones and send unencrypted text messages and cars broadcast their locations.  Do we have as much of a reasonable expectation of privacy in such information as we do in, for example, documents kept in a file folder in a locked desk drawer in our homes?

The Supreme Court’s latest decision is an example of how the law often has to follow, and respond to, technology.  The Fourth Amendment language on searches and seizures and warrants was written in the days of travel on horseback, flintlock pistols, and communication limited to face to face conversations and written letters.  The Supreme Court has had to revisit how the Fourth Amendment applies with the development of the telegraph, the telephone, and the automobile, and now it will need to do so again in our mobile information age.

I’m glad the Court came down, unanimously, against a warrantless attachment of a GPS device on a car — but that seems like a pretty extreme case.  The closer cases will tell the tale.  And one of the fundamental questions is likely to be:  does the prevalence of mobile devices, and the abundance of personal information we routinely carry and communicate to just about everybody, make it more or less reasonable for us to view that information as private?

Newt And Freddie

It’s amazing that Newt Gingrich has been able to depict himself as a “Reagan conservative” and surge to the top of the Republican field.  After all, soon after he left public office he began to do “consulting” work for Freddie Mac, the mortgage giant at the center of the housing crisis that crippled our economy.  Freddie Mac paid Gingrich’s consulting firm at least $1.6 million from 1999 to 2008.  It’s not the kind of resume that you would expect to find in a Tea Party favorite, given the Tea Party’s disdain for the cash-soaked, insiders culture of Washington, D.C.

Gingrich’s firm has now released one, but only one, of its contracts with Freddie Mac.  The contract covers only one year, which is curious.  Has the Gingrich Group really misplaced the other lucrative contracts?  If so, what does that tell you about Gingrich’s managerial abilities?  And if he really has misplaced the other contracts, why not just get copies of them from Freddie Mac and produce them all, so we can see what the entirety of the arrangement was?

The article linked above reprints the one contract that Gingrich’s firm produced.  It’s not scintillating reading — few contracts are — but it reveals that Gingrich’s firm reported to the Freddie Mac Public Policy Director, whom the Post article identifies as a registered lobbyist.  The firm was paid a retainer of $25,000 a month, which means its compensation wasn’t tied to how much work it actually did.  The description of what Gingrich’s firm was supposed to do is found in Exhibit 2, which states only that the firm was to provide “consulting and related services, as requested by Freddie Mac’s Director, Public Policy.”

However, Section 2(b) of the contract says that Gingrich’s group was to submit “an invoice that includes a detailed description of the Services performed” in order to get paid.  I hope a reporter somewhere is using public records requests and other methods to try to get those invoices, which might shed light on whether Gingrich really acted as a historian, as he states, or as a lobbyist and influence-peddler, as his opponents contend.  Interviewing the people that Gingrich reported to, and who requested the “consulting and related services,” would be a good idea, too.

I suppose it is possible that Freddie Mac paid more than $1.6 million for Gingrich to serve as a kind of historian.  After all, Freddie Mac was not exactly a paragon of fiscal responsibility, so it may well have spent $25,000 a month for unspecified historian duties even though its business involved mortgages, not histories.  Or, perhaps, Freddie Mac paid the former Speaker of the House to do other things.  It would be nice to know where the truth lies.

High Expectations And Electric Football

Life can be difficult if you approach it with high expectations.  You vote for a new President expecting him to live up to his promises, for example, and inevitably you are disappointed.  That’s not a problem for me, because I grew up with Electric Football.

Electric Football was a toy, but its ads portrayed it as more than that.  You would be a 12-year-old coach of a team of hardened football players.  You would put them on a beautiful green field of gridiron glory.  They would run plays that you designed, that pitted your football prowess against that of your opponent — tough up-the-gut fullback plunges, all-out blitzes, and the occasional, beautiful breakaway sprint down the sideline to the end zone.  This was a toy that UJ and I had to have.

We finally got it one Christmas.  We opened it, found the beautiful green field of Electric Football Stadium — and then found a bunch of cheap, flimsy plastic football players.  The football itself was made out of lighter-than-air pink foam.  We tried running a few plays, which meant placing your players on the field and then turning a switch to start the Electric Football Excitement.  The field would throb with an annoying hum, the surface would vibrate, and the players would rattle around.  No matter what the call, be it Cleveland Browns sweep, tight buttonhook, or long bomb, every play ended the same way — with every player moving randomly on the surface, some toppling over, and most eventually clustered on the sidelines, facing outward.

What a rip-off!  We quickly realized that there was no true gridiron glory to be had with Electric Football, so we decided to make the best of it.  We designed grossly illegal formations like the flying wedge or the ultimate volcano, in hopes a getting a player to the end zone.  When even that got boring, we gave up, put the Electric Football in the closet, and promptly forgot about it.

So, when it comes to our politicians, my expectations are low.  I anticipate random activity, I’m happy if they aren’t too lightweight and their humming isn’t too annoying — and I’ll gladly forget they exist after too many disappointments.

Ending Endorsements

The Chicago Sun-Times has announced that it will no longer endorse particular political candidates for election.

The Sun-Times concludes — accurately, in my view — that people don’t pay a lot of attention to newspaper endorsements anymore, that there are lots of other sources of information available to voters now, and that many people just view endorsements as a tangible sign of claimed bias.  The newspaper will continue to publish news articles about the races, as well as the candidates’ responses to questionnaires and video of the newspaper’s interviews of the candidates.

This development shouldn’t come as a surprise; the Sun-Times is just ahead of the curve.  Newspaper endorsements used to be crucial to election campaigns and were touted in campaign advertising and pamphlets.  But in the golden era of newspaper endorsements, there was no internet, there were no cable TV and political news channels filled with opinionated talking heads, and there weren’t thousands of bloggers and “fact-checkers” and political websites.  In the modern media world, newspaper endorsements have been lost in the din.  Indeed, the stodgy, sober, platform-based appraisals of the competing candidates that tend to characterize newspaper endorsements are at a decided disadvantage in an age when people seem to crave loud, shouting, over-the-top praise and denunciation.

I’d rather see print journalism stop endorsements altogether than try to compete in the shrillness department with the likes of MSNBC and Fox News commentators.

The Clarmont Closes

The Clarmont, one of Columbus’ landmark restaurants, unexpectedly closed its doors today.  The announcement ended 65 years of serving food and drink to hungry and thirsty central Ohio patrons.  No reason was given for the decision.

The Clarmont was one of the anchors on High Street in German Village.  From its dated, Jetsons-like sign, to its highball drinks and traditional steak and seafood menu items, the Clarmont screamed “old school.”  That was one of the charms of the place, and made the Clarmont a restaurant landmark.  It was a place to have a drink after work or, for some people, to have a “power breakfast.”  I recall going there for lunch a few times, but I haven’t been there in years.  Perhaps the clientele that appreciates old school restaurants has just dwindled to the point where the restaurant was no longer profitable.

The closing of the Clarmont is a reminder that many of Columbus’ former landmark restaurants aren’t around anymore.  The kitschy Kahiki is gone.  The Jai Lai (“In all the world there’s only one”) is long gone.  Jack Bowman’s Suburban Steakhouse is gone.  The Top is still here, and the Florentine, and perhaps one or two others — but there really aren’t many of the landmarks left.

The Race Rolls On, And The Big Issues Linger

The Republican presidential primaries, already seemingly endless, roll on.  With Newt Gingrich’s big win in South Carolina, the race is in disarray.  Gingrich is on the rise, Mitt Romney’s shield of inevitability has been dented, and Ron Paul and Rick Santorum are hanging on.

The focus now moves to Florida.  As has come to be the pattern, that means another debate tonight (No!!!!!!), lots more negative ads, and probably some new revelations before Florida goes to the polls on January 31.  We’ll hear lots of buzz words and scripted retorts and talking points, but what we probably won’t hear is much substantive talk about exactly how the remaining contenders are going to tackle the budget deficit.

You can argue about how we select a President in our country, and whether beginning with states like Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina makes any sense.  The early primary voters never seem to share my perspective on the big issues of the day, but perhaps that is just a reminder that ours is a large and diverse land where people have many different views.  In Iowa, social issues always seem to take center stage.  In South Carolina, the votes for Gingrich seemed to be motivated, at least in part, by anger — anger at the news media, and anger at President Obama — and a desire to select a candidate who, the voters believe, will cut the President to ribbons in debates.

Social issues just aren’t on my radar screen, I’m not mad at the news media, and scoring debating points with glib jabs at the President isn’t important to me.  Instead, I just want to hear how specifics about the candidates will cut our spending, balance our budget, resolve our debt issues, and get our economy growing again.  Those are the issues that are most important to me and, I think, most important to our country.  Maybe — just maybe — some Floridians share that view.

The Big Ten, On The Road

The Big Ten is tough this year, and road wins are especially hard to come by.  Just ask the Buckeyes — they lost two heart-breakers on the road.

That’s why last night’s win against Nebraska was so valuable.  Nebraska clearly is not one of the elite teams in the Big Ten, but this is a year when just about anybody can spring an upset at home.  You can’t take any game for granted — just ask Illinois, which lost at Penn State, or Michigan State, which fell at Northwestern, or Indiana, which got beat by . . . Nebraska.  The fact that the Buckeyes won comfortably at Nebraska means another bullet dodged and another step closer to being a legitimate contender for the Big Ten regular season title.

The Buckeyes remain very much a work in progress — and although progress is being made, there is still work to do.  Making your free throws and feeding the post aren’t crucial when you’re leading an over-matched opponent by 30, but there will come a point in a game against Michigan State, Purdue, or Wisconsin where being able to sink free throws with the game on the line will mean the difference between victory and defeat.  On the positive side, the Buckeyes have picked up the defensive intensity, and in the Big Ten the teams that play tough defense usually prevail.  Being able to maintain that withering defensive intensity will be crucial to the Buckeyes’ eventual success.  The Buckeyes also have been able to play a much deeper rotation this year, which may mean that the starters will be fresher for the challenging games to come.

As for the Big Ten generally, it’s a wide-open race with six teams within one game of the lead.  There’s still a lot of basketball to be played, and the teams that are still improving will be the teams that stay in contention as the season wears on.

Paterno’s Legacy

ESPN is reporting that Joe Paterno is dead at 85.  According to the story, he died this morning after fighting a two-month battle against lung cancer.

Paterno was a legendary coach who took the Penn State program to the pinnacle of college football, but his legacy will be forever tarnished by the alleged child sex abuse scandal involving long-time assistant Jerry Sandusky — and by Paterno’s apparent failure to respond appropriately to reports about Sandusky’s conduct.

By all accounts, Paterno was a generous man who gave huge sums to Penn State.  He was intensely loyal to that institution.  He was loved by players and fans and students.  During his long coaching career, he became a true college football icon.

I’m sure that many will argue that his many positive contributions far outweigh his what they consider to be his lapse in judgment about Sandusky.  That is a calculation that can’t be made today, tomorrow, or for some time — at least until after the criminal trials are held and the full story about the Sandusky scandal, and its impact on the poor boys who evidently were the subject of Sandusky’s attention and who were so ill-served by those in positions of authority, is told by witnesses testifying under oath.  The passage of time allows for perspective and understanding that is impossible to obtain when events are raw and recent.

It’s important not to forget Paterno’s good deeds, but it’s also important not to whitewash or overlook his missteps, too.  Human beings are complex and imperfect, and Paterno’s story is further evidence of that — as if we needed any.

Barbie, Our Cultural Ambassador

Barbie, the popular doll, has been the target of criticism over the years.  Many people think that Barbie’s improbable figure projects unhealthy concepts about the ideal female body for the young girls who love the doll.  Others say Barbie is too frivolous and clothes-obsessed.  Mattel, the maker of Barbie, has tried to thread the needle by offering Barbies with professional careers — like Barbie the architect — while at the same time selling the clothes and cars and houses that the pre-teen Barbie owners crave.

A recent news story, however, may help to rehabilitate Barbie’s reputation.  It turns out that the doll is the subject of a crackdown by the Iranian government.  It is removing the dolls from stores because they say that Barbie is a “manifestation of Western culture.”  In a benighted land where women must wear head scarves, interaction between men and women is strictly regulated, and opportunities for women are few, Barbie’s miniskirts, makeup, and general air of fun and freedom make the government uncomfortable.  So, the dolls are being confiscated — which won’t be easy because Iranian girls apparently love Barbie just like American girls do and have resisted previous crackdowns.

Who would have thought that a little plastic toy could carry so much cultural weight?  Anything that make the Iranian government feel uncomfortable — and might cause Iranians to see their government for the repressive authoritarian regime that it truly is — can’t be all bad.  Maybe, instead of architect Barbie, Mattel should introduce Ambassador Barbie.  Hey, or even President Barbie!

Hot Cereal Days

In the Webner household during the 1960s, there was a hard and fast breakfast rule:  during the winter months, you ate hot cereal, period.  No Frosted Flakes or Quake!  No sir, winter was for Malt O Meal, Cream of Wheat, Coco Wheat, Maypo, and particularly Quaker Oats.

On a cold day like today, my mother was a firm believer in the views expressed by this vintage Quaker Oats commercial (which aired in the days of the original, vastly superior Darren on Bewitched).  If it was cold outside, you needed to have something hot and gooey in your stomach when you started your day.

By the end of March, we Webner kids were sick of hot cereal and counting down the days when we could start our morning with something cold and sugary.

The President As Pitchman

Last week President Obama went down to Disney World to tout tourism in America and got his picture taken with the Disney castle in the background.

The trip was part of the President’s “We Can’t Wait” campaign, in which he does things by himself that are supposed to promote job growth and show that we have an active executive but a do-nothing Congress.  In this case, the presidential action was expanding the “Global Entry Program,” which makes it easier for frequent visitors to get into our country, and to direct the State Department “to accelerate our ability to process visas by 40 percent in China and in Brazil this year.”  The President noted that the more foreign visitors come to America, the more Americans get back to work.

The President’s “I can do it myself” campaign leaves me cold.  I always wonder why he hasn’t already done the things he’s now announcing with such fanfare.  He’s been President for three years.  Why wasn’t the Global Entry Program expanded back in 2009?  Why did he wait so long to direct the State Department to get off its duff and “accelerate our ability to process visas”?  For that matter, why not “accelerate our ability” by 80 percent instead of a measly 40 percent?

In this case, I had a negative reaction to the President’s speech for another reason.  I know that tourism has been an important part of our economy for years, but I never recall a President trying to entice foreigners to come here and spend, spend, spend.  My reaction to the President’s event was one of embarrassment — because our national leader seems to be begging those go-getter Chinese, Brazilians, and Indians to bring their new wealth to America and help us get back on our feet.  It struck me as not befitting the dignity of the presidency.  I also wonder:  if the President is going to promote Florida tourist destinations to our friends overseas, can a commercial for GM cars be far behind?


Today South Carolina Republicans vote in their state’s presidential primary.  Polls indicate it is a two-man race between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich.

Gingrich apparently has been given a boost by the most recent Republican candidates debate.  Gingrich was asked about the recent comments of his ex-wife, who said he asked that she agree to an “open marriage” in which he could have both a wife and a mistress.  In response, Gingrich lashed out at the questioner and the media, generally, for focusing on irrelevancies and making the first question in a presidential debate one about his long-ago personal affairs.  The audience of Republicans, who apparently hate the media with every fiber of their beings, ate it up and gave Gingrich a standing ovation.

I don’t care about Gingrich’s past personal behavior — but I also don’t see why his set-piece smackdown of a question about it is such a great thing.  Some rock-ribbed conservatives seem to despise the media and love to see them publicly criticized for any reason; I don’t share that view.

To me, the little diatribe was an obvious, planned bit of political theater, and the fact that Gingrich palled around with the questioner after the debate just confirms it.  Gingrich has deep roots and connections in the Washington social milieu of politicians, lobbyists, reporters, and consultants.  When he gave his little angry performance, his inside-the-Beltway buddies no doubt leaned back, nodded to each other, and agreed that Gingrich was just doing the necessary political thing, knowing the rubes would eat it up — and they did.

Gingrich’s debate diatribe may well win South Carolina for him, but I think his performance really exposes him as just another calculated politician.