Sunday, December 20, 2009

David Allen’s Crossword Tips for 2009

As you know, I am hooked on crossword puzzles. This year, there have been some new words introduced into the crossword puzzle dictionary. Here is a sampling:

Eugooglewiki--verb. A combination of euthanasia, Google and Wikipedia. To cause brain death by searching the internet for knowledge.

Neumoania--noun. First used by Dr. Phil to describe teenage anxiety (neurosis) caused by cell phone spell-checkers that require correct spelling before transmitting text messages.

Emurhea--noun. A combination of “emu” and “rhea”; accepted as a 7-letter word for “flightless bird.” Coined by Capt. Sully Sullenberger in a radio message to tower (“The emurhea has landed.”) when his US Airways plane ditched in the Hudson River.

Humanaterrarium--noun. Found on page 1,462 of the new federal health care legislation. An observation facility where sick people needing expensive medical procedures undergo cost-benefit analysis to justify prolonging their lives.

Xenonutrients--noun. The politically-correct term for foreign (“xeno-”) or ethnic foods.

Algorerhythm--noun. The naturally-occurring cycle of global atmospheric warming and cooling. Coined in 2002 by leading climate scientists in their secret E-mail messages but only recently made public by computer hackers.

Wism--noun. Coined at the end of the Bush (43) presidency. An era of change without substance or direction.

Cyberyegg--noun. Variant of “yegg”, a crossword staple meaning safe cracker. A cyberyegg accomplishes the same by electronic methods.

Roamingpolanski--verb. A feminist term coined in 2009. To legitimize the drugging and raping of young girls by middle-aged, male movie stars with valid French passports.

Bidenmitongue--verb. To give in to the uncontrollable urge to say something preposterous when being interviewed on camera.

Buffetobama--noun. [1] A sumptuous meal for nicely-dressed, uninvited moochers who crash White House parties. [2] Generally, a free lunch.

Solonophobia--noun. From “solon” (legislator) and “phobia” (fear). State of paralyzing fear experienced by senators and congressmen when having a recurring nightmare in which the government can no longer borrow money.

Caddywhompass--verb. To destroy a luxury SUV. Reported in the Orlando Sentinel: “Using one of her husband’s golf clubs, Mrs. Tiger Woods smashed the windows of his Cadillac Escalade while Tiger was still inside. Casey Martin, the Woods’ next-door neighbor, told police, ‘She caddywhompassed him good!’”

Friday, December 18, 2009

Moving Mountains: As Humans, We Alter the Landscape

When you're talking about mountaintop removal, you're talking about moving millions of cubic yards of earth. How much is one million cubic yards?

Try this exercise: Go to the mall and buy 12 million yardsticks. Glue the ends together to form 3-foot-by-3-foot-by-3-foot cubes. Using a football field as your grid, arrange the cubes in layers (120 long by 53 wide.) When done, your stack of cubes should be 474 feet high or as tall as a 40-story building.

When you talk about mountaintop removal, you are likely referring to a southern West Virginia coal mining technique. In north-central West Virginia, however, we have been flattening hilltops for decades to create developable land.

By my estimate, during the past three decades alone, some 30 million cubic yards of earth has been moved to build shopping malls, motels, new roads, airport expansions, a new school, a championship golf course, new housing developments, the FBI fingerprint center and various other large sites. And this is just in Harrison County.

One airport expansion alone required 10 million cubic yards of excavation. The Eastpointe-Newpointe shopping area runs a close second if it is not, in fact, a larger project.

You won't need to wear out your pencil by adding up a list of small developments to arrive at 30 million. In fact, you don't even need to include the excavation required to build Corridor D (U.S. 50) and I-79. (That's probably 30 million cubic yards if not more.)

Robert C. Byrd High School's site required about 320,000 cubic yards of excavation. But that doesn't tell the whole story. The land was previously an underground coal mine. Then it was surface-mined and abandoned. Then it was reclaimed under the Abandoned Mine Land program. And, finally, that same dirt was moved a third time to build the school location.

People don't associate mountaintop removal with commercial site development. A perfect example of this is our new hospital site. Two-million cubic yards of earth were moved to flatten a hilltop for the new United Hospital Center.

This is not mountaintop removal -- the destruction of our beautiful hills. No, the hospital site is a beacon of progress. Healing the sick, tending to the injured and comforting the dying represent mankind's greatest act -- humanity. The modern hospital can achieve these goals far better than the old one can. The new hospital salves our eco-vanity in a humbling way.

I wanted to attend the UHC groundbreaking. I wanted to hear important dignitaries tell us that the hospital's good for the community far outweighed any harm to the environment. As I had a previous engagement, I missed all that speechifying.

A few days later, though, I did run into Alvin, the famous singing chipmunk. He told me that he had attended the groundbreaking to protest mountaintop removal. Still in shock, Alvin said, "The groundbreaking itself was a non-event. Then things got pretty dicey when the bulldozers moved in. My friends are still looking for places to live."

The Morgantown area has seen its share of mountaintop removal in the past three decades. It surely rivals that of the Clarksburg-Bridgeport area.

My best estimate of disturbed development land in the I-79 corridor from Clarksburg to Morgantown, and during the past three decades, is 50,000 acres or about 80 square miles. For the great bulk of this area, we have traded grassland and forest for rooftops and pavement.

I would think that even a weekend environmentalist would jump all over the disappearance of this carbon-consuming resource. Apparently, they are too busy potty-mouthing Brazil for wrecking the rain forest to notice what has happened here.

West Virginia is a great place to grow apples. Florida is a great place to grow oranges. That line of thinking has permeated the debate on mountaintop removal. In the northern part of the state, mountaintop removal is an economic development asset. In the southern part of the state, mountaintop removal is the rape of our most cherished asset.

The sound bite of our time has become "Mountaintop coal mine bad. Mountaintop hospital good."

Pray tell. Is the debate about mountaintop removal really that simplistic?

Humans don't live in isolation, nor do they live in regions. Humans live as a collective, and, collectively, we alter the landscape to suit our desires. We move mountains because we want to. We move mountains because we can.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Paley Sculpture Highlights Clay Center's Art World Status

It’s not often that a major sculpture is commissioned for a city of barely 50,000 residents. You need an appropriate place to locate it. You need a benefactor to pay for it. And, perhaps most importantly, you need a sculptor who can envision such a work and then bring it to completion. Albert Paley’s Hallelujah located at The Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences is such a sculpture.

Charleston may be the state capitol, but it is a shrinking city. A few years ago, the city started taxing anyone who worked inside the city limits $2.00 per week to help shore up its declining tax revenue.

But Charleston does have pockets of “old money” as evidenced by The Clay Center. Named for the Clay family whose charitable foundation was the major donor, The Center cost over $115 million in 2003. The Hallelujah sculpture was donated by the McGee Foundation.

Albert Paley is well-known as one of the world’s leading metal artists. He works with a variety of metals. In this case, he chose weathering Cor-Ten steel for the major elements, stainless steel for the ribbons, and bronze (which will weather green) for the carousel segments.

Artist-blacksmith Jeff Fetty of Spencer is best-known to West Virginians for his sculpture garden of large metal flowers at Trace Fork Shopping Plaza near Charleston.  Jeff has done commissions in Europe and around the United States,and he has known Albert Paley for many years. He took a class from Paley in Aachen, Germany, and he has visited Paley at his studio in Rochester, NY.

WV Public Broadcasting interviewed Jeff in mid-September and asked him what he thought of  Paley’s Hallelujah.
“After being a Paley fan for so long, when I first heard that the Clay Center was getting a piece of Albert’s work, I was in disbelief, but very pleased when I heard that it was a reality,” Fetty said. “I just feel that Charleston and West Virginia are very privileged and fortunate to have his work in our lives, and I applaud those responsible for this gift.”

As an artist, Jeff is right in his assessment of Paley’s work. Like owning a Picasso, just having a Paley lends credibility to The Clay Center’s status in the art world.

People have taken notice of Hallelujah, and their comments are predictable, yet intriguing. As you would expect, numerous people have called it “Junk”, and that is because the major component is rusted steel. While bronze and copper are downright beautiful when they oxidize, most people consider steel ready for the junkyard when it rusts.

Those who admire abstract art appreciate  Hallelujah simply because it is abstract art. They can enjoy the work because they aren’t looking for a hidden message.

Joe Mullins, the Charleston sculptor who designed the Veterans Memorial on the Capitol grounds, once told me that, in simplest terms, a necktie is abstract art. He’s right about that, and we don’t give much thought about the “message” of a necktie.

According the WVPB report, Hallelujah also has been described as a collection of drafting tools, a rocket ship, and something you’d see at Disney World.

Hallelujah will get many such critiques because it is in a prime location between Lee and Washington streets, two of Charleston’s busiest downtown thoroughfares. Because it is outdoors, Hallelujah will be the only Clay Center exhibit that thousands, or maybe millions, of people will ever see.

Or, it may be the magnet that draws in thousands of people who otherwise would never have visited the center. At  64 feet tall and weighing nearly 100 tons, nobody is going to miss seeing this landmark.

The Clay Center was an ambitious undertaking, and it has struggled to attract visitors and generate revenue. This year, the county commission voted to give the Center $100,000.00 to subsidize visits by the county’s school children. The money comes from the county’s share of gambling revenue at a nearby dog racetrack.

Hallelujah could be the event that changes the center’s fortunes. Or, it could be the exclamation point for a project that greatly overreached given West Virginia’s location and demographics.

Hallelujah was fabricated in New York, assembled there, then dismantled, and re-assembled in Charleston. If The Clay Center ever fails for lack of old money, Hallelujah can always be sold and moved.

Hallelujah’s intrigue lies in its ability to change color over the next decade or two. What we see today will disappear by next autumn as the bronze and Cor-Ten steel oxidize. And what we see in the next year after that will change again. Much like our hardwood forests when the leaves turn color, you’ll never see the same Hallelujah twice.

The Charleston Gazette offered an online poll to capture the community’s opinion of the sculpture. Over 1,700 people voted. This is a promising response rate because it indicates community awareness.

Half of those voting had yet to form a critical opinion. Of the remaining half, those who “hated it” outnumbered those who “loved it”  by a 2:1 ratio. In time, more of the undecided will favor the work than oppose it. That’s just human nature.

The opinion poll also indicates that the sculpture has done its job as a work of art. First, the community knows it’s there, and second, people are willing to study it before forming an opinion.

Albert Paley was most gracious when he attended the dedication on October 6th. When asked what the sculpture represented, he essentially said that would be in the eye of the beholder. “It is what it is.” is how he characterized his work. Mr. Paley should be congratulated for his humility as well as his talent.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Chrysler Looks Better in the Rearview Mirror

My first car was a 1970 Buick Gran Sport with four on the floor and 400 ponies—a Pontiac GTO incognito essentially.  From then on, I continued to buy “American-made” cars.  My Jeep CJ-5 was an off-road blast.  I’d take my Lincoln Versailles over a Mercedes any day. 

When I moved to the country, I switched to Fords—a Bronco II, two pickups, and an Explorer.  And when I moved back to town, I bought vans—a Ford Econoline and two Dodge Caravans.

My car-buying habits changed on September 30th.  I traded my Caravan for a Honda Odyssey.  I told the salesman that he should feel ashamed for taking a commission on the sale.  He asked why I would say that, so I replied, “The Honda sold itself.”

I actually considered trading for a new Caravan in 2008.  But when the economy turned, I thought it prudent to wait and see.  At the time, I figured that I would get a better deal the longer I waited.  As we now know, Chrysler was bust and on the verge of shutting down completely.

Chrysler’s recent failure brought back old memories.  I really wanted to buy a Plymouth Barracuda in 1970.  But the first one I saw in a showroom had a big hole in the carpet.  The carpet had been pre-cut (in the wrong place) for the gear shift.  Even though you could see the bare metal of the floorboard, that flaw did not stop Chrysler and its Plymouth dealer from showing the car.

It never surprised me when Chrysler asked for a bailout in 1979.  I was surprised, however, that Lee Iacocca was able to save the company given its culture at the time.

Here we are thirty years later, and history has repeated itself.  The doubling of the price of a gallon of gasoline from fifty cents to one dollar in 1979 put a terrible strain on Detroit’s automakers.  When gasoline hit $4.00 per gallon in June 2008, it had doubled in price in eighteen months.  As in 1979, Detroit was caught flat-footed trying to sell gas guzzlers.

I think I made up my mind to buy a “foreign” car when President Obama married Miss Chrysler to Mr. Fiat last spring.  The dowry needed to carry out such an arranged marriage is always proportionate to the bride’s homeliness.  In this case, the dowry amounted to the full faith and credit of the United States Treasury.

Daimler Benz thought it could make Miss Chrysler into a desirable bride.  In the end, Benz had spent $30 billion on lipstick and makeovers and was absolutely giddy to palm her off on another suitor.  If Daimler Benz couldn’t transform Chrysler, then there’s no way anyone else can either. 

Chrysler’s downfall has a West Virginia connection.  If you’ll recall, a Putnam county couple sued the company a few years ago over problems with their Dodge Intrepid.  The case went to trial, and the jury awarded them $6,950.  Since Chrysler lost, it had to pay the plaintiff’s attorney fees which totaled $143,026.  Chrysler’s own attorney fees were more than that.  The company was out-of-pocket about $300,000 when all was said and done.

Whether this expense was due to a management blunder or to a legal system gone haywire matters little at this point.  Courtroom battles take their toll on a company.  While it may take a ton of straws to break the camel’s back, each one, however slight, takes a measurable toll.

What sold me on the Honda were its buttons—the big buttons on the dashboard.  When I saw that Honda’s engineers had gotten over their “How many buttons can we place on the head of a pin?” design mentality, I said to myself: “This is an American car!”

On September 30th, Detroit lost a long-time, repeat customer.  Most likely forever.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Granite State's Liquor Strategy: “Live Tax-Free or Die"

According to the "Wall Street Journal", the state of New Hampshire made a profit of $122 million from liquor sales in FY 2009.  New Hampshire is one of those few remaining states that still sell liquor at “state stores.”  So how did the government of the fourth-smallest state manage to make such a profit?

The answer is simple.  New Hampshire does not impose a liquor tax.

As strange as this may seem to the political class, New Hampshire actually makes more money selling tax-free liquor than it could ever hope to make by taxing the demon spirits like West Virginia and other states do.  West Virginia was mentioned in the article, however.  An accompanying graphic listed our liquor tax rate of $1.85 per gallon as the highest state tax rate.

New Hampshire is a magnet for liquor sales in the northeast.  Bostonians, those quaint New Englanders who cannot tax themselves enough, take I-95 north when it’s time to re-stock the bar.  It seems that a Massachusetts legislator who recently voted for a liquor tax increase (to close the budget deficit, of course) was caught on film shopping for booze in his neighboring state.

And why not?  New Hampshire booze is priced to sell.

All of my life, West Virginia has kidded itself when it came to taxing booze.  One of the first lessons I learned about economics took place in 1955 inside a Virginia liquor store.  I was just six years old.  My father bought five ‘fifths’ of Old Taylor bourbon and told me, “Boy.  In West Virginia, the same money buys four ‘fifths.’”  I wasn’t good with fractions at the time, but I realized immediately how much twenty percent was.

I cannot begin to count the number of wedding receptions that I have attended in West Virginia but drank out-of-state liquor.  At one time, Washington, D. C. was the booze magnet for north central West Virginia.  Then LaVale, Md.  Fathers of the brides keep track of these things.

According to New Hampshire officials, about half of their liquor sales are to out-of-state customers.  You know they love it when the faithful liberals in Vermont, Massachusetts and Maine vote to raise liquor taxes.

West Virginia has missed a great opportunity over the last fifty years.  If the state had operated just one tax-free liquor store in Jefferson County, I am willing to bet that one store would sell more liquor than the other fifty four counties combined.  Or if that one tax-free store was in Wheeling, the same could probably be said.

That never happened because the mentality of West Virginia politicians has always been: When in doubt, raise taxes.

There is a subtle point made in the article that bears discussing.  As I mentioned, West Virginia is listed as having the highest liquor tax rate. 

The people who make decisions on where to locate business operations most likely share two things in common—they read the "Wall Street Journal", and they drink alcohol.  When they read that we have the highest liquor tax, they will draw two conclusions.  First, this is just one more category where West Virginia ranks worst.  And, second, those lunchtime martinis will be served with sour olives.

New Hampshire neither levies an income tax on wages, nor does it charge a consumer sales tax.  Don’t tell our politicians this.  If you do, it will cause a collective brain freeze. 

You can’t balance a state budget without taxing everything—everyone knows that!

Friday, June 26, 2009

Press 11 For No Customer Service

In the course of a decade, my telephone customer service has gone from absolute best to absolute worst.  Bell Atlantic maintained the best-trained customer service department that I have ever dealt with.  Always polite and always eager to get phone service restored, the Bell Atlantic “operators” set a standard of excellence that other companies have only hoped for.

Whenever I had to call Bell Atlantic, I always went out of my way to let the operator know just how much I appreciated his or her assistance.  They were that good, and they deserved respect.

Then came the Bell Atlantic—GTE merger which resulted in a new company called Verizon—a hopelessly vague and corrupted, techno-future noun probably invented by a committee of people with associate degrees in marketing.  To their credit, these marketing mavens did incorporate GTE’s famous “Gee!” ad slogan in the new Verizon-speak vocabulary.  As in, “Gee!  Why would a telephone company employee actually want to talk to a telephone company customer?”

So it was, then, that in this new Verizon world, the computerized version of an operator took over the virtual switchboard.

My Verizon DSL service recently went kaput in the afternoon of April 26th, a Sunday.  I reported the outage using my cell phone.  The Verizon computer, which speaks in a female voice, cheerfully told me that the problem was in Verizon’s line and that my service would be restored by—get this—May 7th. 

Gee!  That’s two weeks!

Fortunately for me, Verizon service to a nearby doctors’ complex was also out.  Verizon restored their phone service by 4:00 pm the next afternoon and mine by 8:30 pm that night.

Verizon does what every other American company does—builds a firewall between customers and customer service.  So it is unfair to single out Verizon when touch-tone menus and recorded messages are the norm. 

Even small businesses have succumbed to adopting a keypad hierarchy.  When I call my local plumber, I am instructed to press “2” for service.  A real plumber will then answer only to tell me his crews are jammed up. 

Gee!  Where have I heard that before?

Everyday, every American runs into a firewall when calling customer service.  Whether it’s personal business or corporate business, we are wasting a significant portion of the day trying to resolve routine problems.  The cost in non-productive time spent on the telephone has to be in the billions of dollars.

Companies also direct customers to their websites for customer service.  This feature is called: “Just the FAQ’s, ma’am.”  Again, this effort is most often counterproductive in resolving problems and wastes time and electricity. 

If you do use a company’s website to contact customer service, you will wait a long time for an E-mail reply, and that reply will likely be one from the FAQ page.  Contrast the delay in a customer service response from a website with the blinding speed that the same website can issue your purchase acknowledgement or redirect you to the UPS or FedEx website for shipping information.

Ten to fifteen seconds of calls placed to most customer service departments are wasted with this recorded message: “This call may be recorded for quality control purposes.”  Ten seconds doesn’t sound like much until you multiply it by the thousands of calls answered by these machines each day. 

Nobody calls a company to chit-chat.  We only call a company to resolve a problem.  And 99 times out of 100, it takes a person to resolve the problem. 

Corporate America has embraced false economy when it comes to dealing with customers.  Outsourcing the customer service department to places like India may save money, but it also upsets customers.  I cannot understand half of what Jindahar or Apu tells me when my call gets routed to New Delhi. 

As for talking to the computer, a scene from the movie “Burn After Reading” describes our frustration the best.  Frances McDormand is on the phone yelling “Agent! Agent!” to no avail.

Corporate America needs to adopt a new plan to evaluate their customer service departments.  Touch-tone menus should offer a new selection: Press 11 for “Gee!  Your service sucks!” (“¡Gee!  ¡Su servicio chupa!” en EspaƱol) 

Then maybe the message will get through.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Iacocca's Dream: Organizing the Automobile Community

Team Obama has concluded that Chrysler and Fiat are worthy of marriage, albeit one of those double-barreled shotgun marriages.

Lee Iacocca came out of retirement recently to champion the Detroit-Turin merger. You'll recall that Mr. Iacocca had great success in managing Chrysler's previous federal bailout. And he was the head cheerleader during Chrysler's merger talks with Daimler Benz.

I contacted Mr. Iacocca ("Call me Lee, please") at his Gross Pointe residence, and I asked him if Fiat and Chrysler could achieve synergy given their different automobile markets. Well, of course they could -- Lee Iacocca sees synergy everywhere.

Lee told me, "We've already made plans to import the boxy, three-door Fiat 500. Papa John's and Little Caesars have said they will make the 500 their standard pizza delivery car. Domino's will fall in line as soon as we do some minor retooling. And it won't be long after that before Pizza Hut offers free delivery."

"Heck," he continued "we're even going to rename the 500 'Topo Gigio' to bring back that 1960s nostalgia when the Big Three ruled the car business. Isn't this clever? Topo Gigio means 'Louie Mouse' in English! Can you imagine how much fun the boys in advertising will have with Louie Mouse delivering cheesy pies?"

Lee paused a long pause. And then he dropped a bombshell.

"Warren Buffett is buying our stock. He's pushing his gecko for our new mascot. I don't see it -- geckos send the wrong image when you're selling Italian cars!"

Lee's exuberance reminded me so much of the time when I interviewed him in Munich after the Benz merger was announced. Fresh from his tour of Hitler's bunker at Berchtesgaden, Lee told me that Chrysler would help Mercedes reclaim the "Joe Hofbrauhaus" market with the introduction of Europe's first dualie, the HummDee. The HummDee would be the first armor-plated, all-wheel-drive pickup truck sold to German civilians since World War I.

Lee proclaimed, "Germans will love the way our HummDee can maneuver through the Maginot Line."

But he missed the market. Germans were looking for softer, refined cars, and the HummDee didn't sell well. I was surprised that Lee didn't see that coming. After all, the cover story on that month's issue of European Road & Track was about the newly redesigned Volkswagen Beetle titled "Herbie Goes Gay!" in screaming pink letters.

But Lee was positively effervescent about Fiat's product line.

He continued, "You know, David, Fiat has pioneered 'hands-free' communication for motorists. We're bringing Fiat's patented KneeSteer(TM) technology to Auburn Hills. The whole Chrysler family will soon offer integral cell phones that will be compliant with all these new 'hands-free' laws."

With KneeSteer(TM) in every car from the Charger to the Caravan, Lee foresaw a sales edge that would carry Chrysler for the next decade.

"KneeSteer(TM) also lets us add two more cupholders to the dashboard," he said with his characteristic panache.

Lee had already met with President Obama to talk about the Asti Carbone, a hybrid version of Chrysler's PT Cruiser.

He told me, "We feel certain we can run this baby on Asti Spumanti sparkling wine if we can develop the right catalytic converter to pull more carbon dioxide out of the air. We just need a few more bubbles to make the Carbone purr! I told the president that the Carbone could make a real dent in global warming."

Lee and I talked for some time after that as he was wont to reminisce about his career. I thought that he might consider the Mustang, his signature car while at Ford, as his biggest achievement. However, he believed the K-car was his swan song.

"Yeah, sure, the Ford Mustang was 'can't miss' and a lot of fun to design and sell. But the K-car had to sell or Chrysler was dead in the water. The K-car is what paid that government loan off."

I asked Lee, "If you had it to live over, what would you change about your life?"

He didn't hesitate at all and said, "I would never have gone to engineering school. I would have become a community organizer."

"You're kidding me," I pressed.

"No! I've seen this Obama fellow in action and his breadth of knowledge is so great. He can run the Fed. He knows where we need troops. He can get tax cheats to pay up and perform government service. He knows which CEOs to fire and which CEOs deserve bonuses.

"David, if I had been a community organizer instead of a methodical engineer, I could have brought the Edsel back to life and made Ford the biggest company in the world." Such were the words of Lee Iacocca.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Cancer Center Contributes To War On Disease

The Mary Babb Randolph Cancer Center at West Virginia University is two decades old.  It seems as though the facility has been around for a much longer time.

We have learned a great deal about cancer in the past thirty years.  So much so, that the timeline of the historical record of mankind’s suffering from this disease has been drastically skewed.  In 1980, actor Steve McQueen traveled to Mexico where he took laetrile treatments to try and cure his mesothelioma.  Just last week, cancer survivor Lance Armstrong was back in the hospital, this time for a broken collarbone suffered while riding his bicycle.

Steve McQueen, the daredevil biker who did everything but sing “Edelweiss” as he toured the German countryside when filming “The Great Escape”, was hopelessly condemned by cancer.  Lance Armstrong, on the other hand, not only survived testicular cancer but went on to become France’s most famous two-wheeling tourist.  He didn’t sing “Edelweiss” either, but he did date Sheryl Crowe for awhile.

We have gone from cancer being a certain death sentence to being “doable” in a moment of time. 

The first designed chemotherapy drug, methotrexate, appeared exactly sixty years ago.  The drug proved effective against childhood leukemia, but medical science as a whole was skeptical that childhood leukemia was even curable.

It’s not that humans haven’t known about cancer for a long time.  The Greeks and Romans used their respective words for “crab” to also define cancer.  Cancerous tumors resemble the appearance of a crab.

The Greek physician Hippocrates described cancer about 400 B. C.  From this point, you can fast-forward to the start of the twentieth century because not much happened to expand man’s knowledge of cancer during that epoch.  The year 1902 stands out, however, with Madame Curie’s discovery of radium and Thomas Edison’s growing manufacture of X-ray machines.  It wasn’t long after until people learned about radiation and its consequences from overexposure.

Many of you remember wearing a lead apron while your dentist hid in a concrete bunker and pushed a button to X-ray your teeth.  The apron protected your torso (and little else) from inadvertent overexposure.  Unless you wore a tin foil hat, you can probably assume that some of your brain cells were fried.  Today, however, radiation oncologists can aim pinpoint beams of radiation at the actual tumor site.

The gains that we have made in curing cancer during the last thirty years are due in large part to a greatly expanded National Cancer Institute and the advent of regional cancer centers such as MBRCC.  As patients, we tend to focus on individual cancer treatment.  While the cancer center provides state-of-the-art patient treatment, its role goes far beyond that.

The research laboratories at MBRCC and the Health Science Center have had notable success in making critical discoveries.  For example, Dr. Laura Gibson’s team discovered that cancer cells can hide in the bone marrow where they cannot be reached by chemotherapy drugs.  And Dr. Wei-Shau Hu discovered that two retroviruses can infect the same cell and swap DNA.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then kudos to Dr. Kimberly Horn and Dr. Geri Dino of WVU’s Health Science Center.  In partnership with MBRCC, Drs. Horn and Dino developed the “Not On Tobacco” program which has been the model for teenage tobacco cessation programs across the nation.  The Centers for Disease Control recently launched a website to promote the N-O-T program.

As part of its outreach mission, the MBRCC will be sending Bonnie’s Bus, a mobile mammogram unit, around the state.  Women in rural areas will soon find much easier access to digital mammography.

The MBRCC opened its Blood and Marrow Transplantation program in 1992 and it remains the only accredited such program in West Virginia.

The MBRCC is a matrix cancer center and was designed to take advantage of not only the HSC’s elements but the WVU campus as a whole.  It has been a success.  This month, the MBRCC will double in size when it dedicates its expanded facility. 

I do hope, however, that cancer is cured before the MBRCC celebrates forty years.

There is a good benchmark to show how far we have come in treating cancer.  One of the drugs that cured Lance Armstrong was discovered in 1845 and named Peyrone’s salt after its discoverer.  Now called cisplatin, its anticancer properties were discovered quite by accident in 1970.  Cisplatin began clinical trials in 1978, just in time to save Lance Armstrong.

Friday, February 27, 2009

When Government Reaches Beyond the Grave

Two years ago this month, my Gart Wilson nightmare began.  It shows no sign of going away. 

Perhaps it is unfair to blame the late Mr. Wilson for my nightmare.  He did nothing personally to wreak havoc on me and a thousand other people, but his name always appears in the reference line of the legal correspondence that I receive regularly.

Gart Wilson was an ordinary man.  His obituary reported that he was a Methodist, an army veteran, a long-time employee of General Motors, and that he had enjoyed his 73 years of life.  His cause of death was cancer. 

In the summer of 2006, the City of Willoughby, Ohio began mapping its landscape under a grant by the U. S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).  The mapping contractor used sophisticated equipment to photograph structures and locate them with global positioning coordinates.  The mapping crews even carried Geiger counters during their surveys.  And all it took was one faint radiation reading to transform Gart Wilson into an extraordinary man.

Gart Wilson was interred in the Mt. Zion Mausoleum in Willoughby.  He was also entombed with the radioactive pellets that doctors had implanted to treat his prostate cancer.

With the news that the mausoleum was (ever so slightly) radioactive, DHS ordered FEMA to assess the building.  FEMA immediately sought a condemnation order in common pleas court where it hit a roadblock.  Since only Mr. Wilson’s niche showed measurable radioactivity, Mt. Zion’s attorney argued that it would be improper to condemn the entire structure and its remaining 299 safe niches.

FEMA’s attorneys were not to be denied this mission, however.  They countered that, because the corpses would dwell, or reside, for the foreseeable future in marked and individual spaces, the mausoleum therefore met the definition of a condominium under state law.  FEMA continued along this line arguing further that Ohio law allowed for the condemnation of such a contaminated residential structure.  In October 2006, Judge Jared Garrity ruled in FEMA’s favor which cleared the way for the mausoleum’s razing.

Before Mt. Zion could appeal Garrity’s decision to the Supreme Court of Ohio, the Environmental Protection Agency entered the fray.  The EPA muscled the case into federal court to protest FEMA’s jurisdiction.  The EPA won. 

The EPA then pursued a divide-and-conquer strategy.  The agency argued that the condominium’s owners (the deceased) should pay for the cost of the cleanup because each condo owner died with a valid will instructing his or her executor to pay for all burial and funeral costs.  The EPA reasoned that the lineal descendents of anyone interred in the mausoleum should pay for their ancestor’s share of damages.  In cases where there are no lineal descendents, then the deceased should be treated as intestate to determine next of kin.

Lo and behold, federal judge Henry Bemis swallowed this tripe!  In his decision, he declared that dead had not had their final burial.  The Mt. Zion Mausoleum, he wrote, had simply been a way station, a “Traveler’s Rest” he waxed eloquent, on their final journey.

This is where I entered the picture.  My mother’s youngest sister, Millicent, and her husband, Paul Radin, were childless “condo owners.”  Thus, as her nephew, I appear on the list of Aunt Millie’s kinfolk. 

Including me, there are 1,271 heirs (so far) named as defendants in this case.  We have come to calling ourselves the Royal Family, as in the royal “we.”

In August 2007, EPA hired Pinco Environmental Services of Youngstown to demolish the mausoleum.  Part 1 of the contract covered removing the non-radioactive rubble and debris and transporting it to a landfill some fifty miles distant.  Part 2 of the contract covered removing the caskets and all radioactive material, placing everything in special steel containers, and transporting the lot to Hanford Reservation in Washington.

Though paid in full, Pinco performed only Part 1 of the contract.  The caskets and radioactive debris were removed from the site and placed in special containers, but the containers never made it to Hanford. 

Pinco, we have since learned, was operated by two ex-cons—Pinto Sykes and Conny Miller.  Nobody knows the whereabouts of the duo and the $17 million of EPA’s money they collected for this job, but the caskets (still in their steel containers) were discovered last fall in a Cleveland warehouse.

The Royal Family just wants this travesty to end.  Generally, we want the dogs called off and our relatives re-interred at Mt. Zion.  We desire, of course, to be reimbursed for our legal expenses.  But in talking with others in the “family”, I sense this monetary demand is not a deal-breaker. 

The EPA, however, refuses to settle under any terms and has even indicated that it expects to defend itself against a countersuit by the Royal Family.  And until that happens, the EPA’s general counsel has said the agency has no intention of releasing the caskets.

We, the members of the Royal Family, have learned the hard way that the government will outlive us all and just like the Mt. Zion dead, perhaps more than once.

This is a hoax!  All character names are from various "Twilight Zone" episodes, as is the town name Willoughby.  Neither Gart Wilson nor this Willoughby exist.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Route 10's Judicial Pothole Swallows Constitution

When engineers design a new highway, they try to balance the quantity of excavated dirt and rock (the cuts) with the quantity of dirt and rock needed to fill in the valleys (the fills). Needless to say, our hills and valleys are never in direct proportion with one another.

Usually there is an excess of dirt from the cuts, and that excess is "wasted" in an off-site waste pit. When cuts fail to provide enough dirt and rock, dirt and rock are "borrowed" from an off-site borrow pit. Oftentimes, waste pits are needed for disposing unsuitable material, such as clay, marl, very thin coal or slate seams and other such material that you cannot use to build a road.

Ever since time began, it was up to the highway contractor to secure waste pits from landowners near the highway right-of-way. The system has worked very well because the landowner ended up with a few acres of level land as well as some income from what had been unproductive land. It goes without saying that, in nearly all cases, the land appreciated in value.

And in return for the waste pit rights, the landowner also had the flexibility to work with the contractor and negotiate for improvements, such as straightening a creek bed, building an access road to the ridge top and so on. It doesn't cost the contractor much to make these improvements with heavy equipment, but it would cost the landowner a tidy sum if he had to hire the work separately.

One other note applies here: Waste pits are designed by engineers and approved by the contracting owner. The land, therefore, is not laid to waste. But the excavated material placed in a waste pit is said to be wasted because it will not be used in the future.

This all changed on Dec. 15, 2006, when someone at the Division of Highways got the bright idea to have the state condemn private property for a waste pit. Ostensibly, the state wanted to provide a waste pit for the construction of state Route 10 in Logan County. However, to skirt federal law, the state could not mandate contractors to use the waste pit.

The feds have been down this road before. In every state, at one time or another, the politically connected just happened to own land in the path of a new highway. Need I say more as to why the feds frown on state-mandated waste pits? If I do, then let me call the applicable federal law a coincidence-management measure.

On Nov. 14, 2008, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals issued its approving opinion of the Logan County property condemnation (West Virginia Deptartment of Transportation v. Contractor Enterprises Inc., et al). The court relied heavily on established state law that allows the highway commissioner to condemn property for a variety of purposes to build highways. In this case, the purpose is that the commissioner can condemn property for the storage of road-building materials.

What puzzled me was that the court's opinion equated wasted dirt with stored materials. To drive this point home, the word "storage" is emphasized in italics so as to make it interchangeable with waste.

Waste is "damaged, defective or superfluous material produced by a ... process" or "to expend idly or without return." Store means "something that is kept or stored for future use" or "to place or leave in a location for later use."

There can be no confusion that these words (whether as nouns or verbs) are opposites, and, further, that based on these definitions, state law does not even contemplate the highway commissioner condemning property for waste pits let alone authorize the commissioner to do so.

Former State Highway Commissioner Fred VanKirk gave expert testimony in this case. VanKirk, a civil engineer who spent a four-decade career with the Division of Highways, testified that he knew of no instance of the state condemning private property for waste pits and explained (rather lucidly) that the state had no bona fide reason for making such a condemnation. His testimony alone would convince any reasonable person as to why the Division of Highways need not be in the waste pit business.

VanKirk also pointed out that the state's ownership of waste pits may result in some future liability, albeit unknown and undeterminable, that any landowner faces and that state ownership of waste pits removes that property from the tax rolls.

The Supreme Court of Appeals has erred in this matter. In reading the court's majority opinion, it was obvious to me that the justices misunderstood the issue at hand and misinterpreted state law concerning highway condemnations. The two dissenting opinions offered to rebut the majority lack the passion necessary to describe this outrage.

This decision allows for the unjustified taking of private property by the state for non-public use and should be reversed immediately.

West Virginia is not a Judicial Hellhole. No, it is a Judicial Pothole -- a condemned waste pit in the making.

Majority Opinion;
Dissent (Maynard);
Dissent (Benjamin);