Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Ball 8. Where's Monday?

Futility can take many forms (like being illiterate in several languages). "Where's Monday?" is a children's story condemned to the Purgatory of the Unread--although I'd like to believe not unreadable. After a decade of occasional pitches to publishers and agents, I surrender.

Wednesday was the first to notice that Monday was late for work.

"Where's Monday?" she wondered .

Thursday was doing his crossword puzzle and could not be bothered. "Ach," he grunted.

Tuesday began to fret. "I'm not ready to work today," she said, flitting about the room like an anxious sparrow. "It's not fair. For one thing, I don't have anything to wear."

"You can borrow something from me, dear," said Wednesday, who always kept an extra outfit at the office in case of emergencies. Everyone admired her wardrobe. She didn't have much, but she always dressed stylishly.

Thursday looked up from his puzzle and shook his yellow pencil at them like a conductor. "Hush," he said. "Can't you see I'm trying to concentrate?"

"Tuesday and I are concerned because Monday's late."

"Ach!" said Thursday, throwing his newspaper onto the table. "Has anyone tried to call him? Maybe he's at home."

"I did," said Wednesday. "I got his answering machine."

Friday loped in, wearing shorts and a baseball cap. He was carrying a cooler.

Tuesday ran to him. "Monday's gone AWOL," she said. "I'm going to have to work for him today. Can you believe it?"

"That's a bummer," said Friday. "I'm off to the ball game. I only came by to pick up a few files. I figure I can work on them between innings. Anyone care to join me?"

Wednesday shook her head. "Friday, I think you should help us find Monday. It won't do to have Tuesday fill in for him. After all, that means you'll have to take Thursday's place, and he says he's the hardest job of us all. Isn't that right, Thursday," she said, winking to Friday.

Thursday nodded. "Quite so, I'm afraid. It's all work and no play for me. The only day I always get off is Thanksgiving, and sometimes Christmas and New Years. You would hate it, Friday. No three-day weekends."

"Well then, we'd better find Monday, and fast," Friday said. "We can take my van."

The Days got into Friday's van and drove over to Monday's house. He lived in a small bungalow, surrounded by emerald grass and a bushy hedge. A magnolia tree, full of creamy blossoms, spread across the yard.

Thursday marched up the stone walkway and knocked loudly on the door. "Monday, are you in there?"

Tuesday elbowed him aside. "Monday, you answer this door right now. You're throwing everything off. Everything."

"Days, Days," Wednesday scolded. "Please try to be calm. We're here to find Monday, not punish him."

"Ach," said Thursday. "You think it's okay to be late."

"That's not the point," Wednesday said. "Of course it's better to be on time, as anyone can plainly see. But if something's happened to Monday, it doesn't help to make him feel bad."

"She's right," said Friday. "And anyway, nobody seems to care when I'm late."

"That's because you're Friday," Tuesday said sharply. "You're supposed to be late."

Wednesday stepped to the door and tried the knob. It was unlocked. The door swung open and the Days walked cautiously into the house.

Monday's house was a little messy, especially the kitchen. Dirty dishes filled the sink, and a pot of something that looked like beans sat on the stove.

Tuesday grimaced. "Doesn't he ever clean?" she said.

Friday walked to the bedroom and came back, shaking his head. "He's not sleeping. In fact, his bed is still made and hasn't been slept in."

"I think we should call September," said Thursday. "She'll know what to do."

September was the new president of the Months. She wasn't happy to be awakened.

Wednesday apologized. "We're so sorry to wake you," she said, "but Monday's late for work and we can't find him."

"Why are you calling me at home?" September said, her voice heavy with sleep and irritation. "Isn't June in charge this month?"

"We assumed that as president of the Board of Months, you should be informed first of any trouble."

"Good thinking, Wednesday. I'd forgotten," September said, no longer irritated. "So, you can't find Monday? This could throw the whole schedule off. I know for a fact that July is out of town and can't be reached. I'll give you another hour, and then I'll call the Years."

"The Years? Are you sure that's necessary? They're so…strict."

"And so they should be," September said. "They're the backbone of the whole calendar."

"Backbone of the calendar my foot!" said Thursday when Wednesday had hung up the phone. "We're the backbone of the calendar. Why, look what happens when one of us goes missing. Chaos. Pure chaos."

"Hush," said Wednesday. "We're all important in the calendar. Equally so. Every unit of time, from the seconds to the years, is precious."
"Ach," said Thursday, still upset. "Some time is more precious than others."

Friday came back from the living room, where he'd been snooping. "I think I've found something." He held up a scrap of paper. On it was written: Dinner 7:30.

Tuesday frowned. "This doesn't tell us anything," she said. "It could have been written weeks ago."

"Maybe," said Friday. "But I bet it's important."

"Friday's right," said Wednesday. "If Monday had dinner plans this weekend, we need to find out who he ate with. All I know is, it wasn't me."

"Not me," said Thursday. It wasn't Friday or Tuesday, either.

"Then it's obvious," Wednesday said. "Monday had dinner with Saturday and Sunday. Let's get in the van."

*** *** ***

Saturday and Sunday, the twins, lived on a ranch not far from town. They had everything a Day could want. A swimming pool, a volleyball net, a tennis court, a softball field. They had hiking trails and a fishing hole, stables and hammocks. In the summer, Saturday and Sunday would host cookouts for the rest of the Days. Sometimes the Months and Years would be invited.

Friday stopped the van beside a neat row of bicycles.

They walked to the door, and were about to knock, when it swung open and Saturday appeared.

"Thursday," she said with surprise. "And Tuesday, and Wednesday and Friday! What are you doing here?"

"We've come to find Monday," said Wednesday. "We thought he might have had dinner with you last night."

Saturday's mouth opened wide as a kettle and a gentle giggle escaped into the morning. "Come with me, but be very quiet," she said. She led the Days down a hallway, and stopped in front of a bedroom. "Listen," she said.

They heard a low, slow rumble. Someone was snoring.

"Monday?" asked Wednesday.

Saturday nodded. "Sunday and I invited him over. He spent so much time in the swimming pool yesterday that he got too tired to drive home. I forgot that we don't have any alarm clocks here."

She opened the door and the Days looked inside. Monday was in a waterbed, lying on his back. The light woke him.

"What time is it?" said Monday, blinking.

Saturday didn't have a watch, either. "It's a few minutes after nine," Thursday said sternly.

"What?" Monday shouted. He struggled to sit up, but the mattress was like pudding and would not cooperate. "I'm late for work!"

"Of course you are," said Saturday, helping him roll out of the bed. "That's why all the other Days are here. They were worried about you."

"Ohhhh," Monday moaned.

"Now, now," said Wednesday. "Don't get yourself all worked up over nothing. We're not angry. We just didn't know where you were."

"That's right," said Friday. "We thought something might have happened to you. We even went by your house. But you weren't there."

"Of course he wasn't there," said Tuesday. "He was here. Sleeping away the morning."

"I'm sorry, Tuesday," said Monday.

"That's good. You should be," said Tuesday. "But it doesn't help much. You're still late."

Monday covered his face with his hands. The Days heard the sound of sniffles.

Tuesday looked at her shoes. "I'm sorry, Monday," she said. "I shouldn't have been cruel."

"It’s not that," said Monday, wiping tears from his cheeks. "You're right to be mad. It just reminded me how much people don't like me."

"What are you saying?" said Wednesday. "Everybody loves you."

"No. Everybody loves Friday. People are always saying how much they hate Mondays. 'Oh, I wish it wasn't Monday already.' 'I'm so glad it's only a four Day week.' There's even a song: 'Monday I've got Friday on my mind.'"

"I don't know that one," said Friday. "Who sings it?"

"What's the difference," Monday said. "The point is, none of you would want to switch with me in a million Years."

Wednesday put her arm around his shoulders. "I know it's hard on you, Monday, but you have to remember that every Day has a purpose that no other Day can play. Without you, we wouldn't be able to start the Week."

Monday brightened up a bit. "So what's your role?"

"My job," she said, "is to make sure we keep from driving each other crazy."

*** *** ***

Saturday walked the other Days to Friday's van. "You really should visit more often. Sunday's a whiz at the barbecue and the pool's always warm."

"They also make the best frozen drinks," said Monday, who was now feeling much better. "Thanks, Saturday. It was so much fun."

"It was," she said.

Friday started up the van and headed down the driveway. As they passed the pond, it suddenly occurred to him: "Say," said Friday, "did anyone see Sunday?"

Friday, June 11, 2010

Ball 7. Brainy Birds

Are you smarter than the average dove? Want to bet?

In a finding that gives new meaning to the word "birdbrain," researchers in Washington State say pigeons outperform people when it comes to playing a common probability game called the "Monty Hall Dilemma."

Named after the host of the TV game show, Let's Make A Deal, the Monty Hall problem asks contestants to find a prize behind three closed doors. The odds of winning can change as the game progresses, requiring players to think on their feet.

The Washington researchers found that pigeons can be trained to employ the best strategy to win. Humans, they found, aren’t such able students.

Wally Herbranson, who led the research, calls the findings “somewhat surprising” (to everyone, perhaps, but the game show's producers).

“The advantages afforded to us by our large, powerful brains are not absolute,” Herbranson says. “The Monty Hall problem is presumably one of those cases where less is more: our sophisticated cognitive abilities actually trip us up.”

This research appeared in the February issue of the Journal of Comparative Psychology.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Banks Behaving Badly

The mail is full of pitches, so it seems reasonable to discuss a failed pitch that recently came my way.

One might expect that banks these days would be particularly careful about appearing to be honest brokers. Evidently, they are immune to shame.

Here's yet another sorry tale about mortgage shenanigans.

It happened right here in Clear Mountain. The other day, a FedEx envelope arrived in the mail from Chase. The first clue that something was amiss was that the envelope bore no waybill. In other words, it was merely a bulk-rate letter tarted up as urgent.

Inside was a notice from Chase happily informing us that we could cut the rate on our home loan by a full point and pay No Closing Costs (emphasis in the original). Act immediately, the letter said, and Chase would wave "all fees"—enumerated in the fine print as "any bank fees which means no application, processing, appraisal, credit report or origination fees. Third party costs associated with closing the loan are also waived."

The letter, signed by Jay Roth, senior vice president (of what division, silence) went on to add that any tax or insurance escrow shortages would be our responsibility. More on that bit in a moment.

Now, if you were like me, you'd think that no fees meant no fees. How silly!

I called the number on the offer and eventually connected with Mike, who turns out to be a Chase salesman based in an industrial park in Columbus, Ohio. Mike readily assured me that my interpretation of the no fee refinancing offer was correct: There would be no fees. We would pay NOTHING. He told me to watch the mail for another packet of materials from the bank that would lay out the terms of the new loan.

I was more than mildly surprised when the next letter arrived showing that our monthly payment would rise—not fall—by $1,200 a month. I called Mike. He insisted that the documents were mistaken, that they had been sent basically as placeholders by the bank and that the final documents would reflect the promised savings, which would amount to about $200 monthly.

Poor, misguided Mike. The documents kept making him a liar.

A few days later the wonderfully ironic "Good Faith Estimate" of settlement costs arrived. The amount? $11,429.36. For those keeping track, that's about $11,429.36 more than zero. Chase, it turns out, was generously offering to pick up about $3,300 of that, leaving us with some $8,000 in fees. What's more, our loan value was rising by $8,000--a suspicious coincidence.

I called Mike back. After a few minutes of dancing around the issue, I asked for his supervisor. Chris came on the line.

Chris insisted that I was mistaken. The $8,000 was not a fee but an escrow payment. But if that was the case, I wondered, why was our loan value rising? Escrow is our money, not the bank's, right? Why should I pay Chase interest on my money?

I then suggested to Chris that the deal was looking more and more suspect. He laughed and told me that "hundreds of people" had complained that it was fraudulent, but he swore it was legit. However, he graciously offered to close out our application if that would make me happy.

I hung up and contacted a local Chase branch. The loan officer promised to do some digging and get back to me.

Sure enough, he said--with what I took to be sincere embarrassment--the offer was bogus. Chase was indeed charging fees, as much as $2,000, but hiding them in "escrow" and building them into the new loan. He told me he would be raising the matter at an upcoming branch managers meeting.

Then, he added, his voice dropping to a near whisper, "to be perfectly honest," I should leap at the chance to refinance for only $2,000 in closing costs.

No thanks, I thought. The opposite of perfect honesty is imperfect deception, which is what started all this in the first place.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Ball 6. Revenge of the Birds

Here's another one from the archives. I thought this had the right mix of soft science and news. Evidently I was wrong.

European researchers have found that feces dropped on beaches by gulls may be an important reservoir of drug-resistant E. coli that could pose a threat to human health. Although such a risk remains theoretical, officials in Oregon believe that a gull may be to blame for a recent case of contamination of the drinking water supply in that state.

The findings appeared in the January issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Ball 5. Old Blue Eggs

Trolling through the abstracts of an ornithology meeting held a few months ago, I came across the following study: Robin's Egg Blue: Is Egg Color a Sexual Signal?

The authors, from Canada, didn't want to talk about their findings (a paper in the works, jeopardizing publication, etc., etc.), but it seemed like too nifty a story to let drop. Therefore:

The blue of the robin's egg is among the most vibrant colors in nature. In
fact, it's so striking that researchers have long puzzled over why evolution
would so obviously advertise robin’s eggs to potential predators.

Canadian ornithologists say they have an explanation. They found that male robins spent more time feeding their chicks that hatched from the most vividly colored eggs. That suggests that robin's egg blue is a signal to males about the fitness of their mates and the offspring they've
produced, according to the researchers.

A confession about eggs: As a birder, it pains me to think of even "trash" species suffering—particularly at my own hands. But the other night my wife and I were forced to clear a pair of vociferous house sparrows from their long-time home underneath a broken AC unit in one of our windows. Their noisy ways, and the dust from their grassy nest, had finally shattered whatever pretense of live-and-let-live we'd kept up for the children.

When we removed the behemoth machine, which was at least 30 years old and must have weighed 120 pounds, we found a clutch of seven, warm eggs in the nest. The parents, having been scared away by the commotion, were nowhere to be seen.

The next morning, the female sparrow was perched on the sill, chirping what at the time seemed like a confused and desperate question that nearly broke my heart. Until the morning after, when, at about 4:45, she was back to her usual, grating ways. In fact, she seemed louder than usual, with an insistence that I took to be hectoring of her mate for his poor choice of an apartment. So, the early bird may get the worm, but the earlier bird gets evicted.