Thursday, April 30, 2009

It's Electric

I have a pet peeve and it's this. I find it annoying how some people, with a brassy personality and a measure of high-powered PR, can get a whole batch of publicity and dollars for ideas that are so full of holes they can't possibly float. No, that isn't quite the wording. It annoys me when people get publicity for very tentative things way off in the pipe dream realm while very real solutions, albeit incremental, are within our grasp.

Here's an example. Last fall the September 2008 issue of Wired magazine featured a cover story called The Future of the Electric Car, subtitled One man's audacious plan to change the way the world drives. The feature story was about an Israeli fellow named Shai Agassi whose idea is essentially an all-inclusive system of battery powered cars, re-charge systems and infrastructure that integrates computers, cars and GPS. It's a total system.

Here are a few clues to how things would work in a Better Place world.
1. Key fob tells how charged the battery is...
2. Driver unplugs and drives off...
3. During commute car locates three open parking spots to plug into during work day...
4. The car and energy control center connect and communicate...
5. While on the road, if re-charge needed, car OS locates best place for battery swap site...

Evidently it's this last item which is a central piece of Agassi's brainchild, I think. He envisions all these buildings around the country which operate like our car washes, where you drive in at one end and the equipment swaps the batteries so you can hit the road again quickly, efficiently, re-juiced.

But to be honest, I just can't picture it. First off, people hate waiting in lines. When I was growing up in New Jersey you had to go through annual vehicle inspections and if you weren't there a half hour before it opened, you could be in line for more than an hour, a line which sometimes stretched a block or more. Can you imagine having to wait in line to re-charge or swap out your battery every couple hundred miles?

The infrastructure issue alone for this system would be a nightmare. Converting enough parking meters and parking slots in cities like New York to accommodate a gazillion electric cars in need of re-charging would not be cheap or fast to implement. But this is not, as I see it, the biggest hurdle.

When I was at the New York Auto Show last year I saw a whole range of ideas for dealing with this issue, from hybrids to electric transmissions to hydrogen cells and the like. Before we see a technology become truly dominant, won't we have to see buy-in across the board to establish the infrastructure to implement it? Right now we have gas stations everywhere. There are so many gas stations that I almost never have to wait in line to fill 'er up. When we start a ramp up to one of these alternative technologies, how long will it take to put this infrastructure in place? Or more importantly, which infrastructure? Who is going to pay that kind of money to set up a system that may not become the dominant system of the future?

Video movies are a good example. VHS and Beta went head to head. Beta was better, I've been told, but VHS won out. In the automobile power game, a car wash costs about a million dollars. It takes time to recoup that investment. How much will these electric battery swapping stations cost to build or buy and own? Who is going to spend a million dollars on a technology that has a high possibility of not becoming the adopted system for tomorrow? The total rollout can be hundreds of billions... with no certainty of success either in implementation or adoption.

Well, Shai Agassi, on the force of his personal charisma alone, appears to have garnered $300 million seed money for the company he's called Better Place. But will Better Place become the better place he aims it to be? Some are already suggesting that the bloom is off the rose.

My prediction is that this guy Shai will be just another Mary Tolan.

In 2003, the mag Business 2.0 produced a laudatory article by Ralph King about a woman exec from Accenture named Mary Tolan who was pushing the notion that the U.S. could wean itself from big oil by 2015 by switching to hydrogen cell power. The article boldly stated, “Her ideas could help catalyze needed change.” (Mary Tolan’s Modest Proposal, Business 2.0, June 2003.)

Six years later, and where is Mary Tolan? Yes, she is still a connected exec with Accenture, but a zealous advocate for hydrogen cell batteries? Do your own research and you’ll see an impressive 2003 campaign that is just another blip in the history of the automobile.

This is not to suggest that I am opposed to electric cars or efforts to move toward green. If we're serious about being greener, there are certainly things we can be doing now if we wished. I just think there are too many unanswered questions with regard to going electric, straight up. How long will it take to get the power grid up to a level where it can juice all these cars? And when the power grid goes down, is it a paid vacation day or are we simply stuck?

Well, enough of that. Tomorrow's another day.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Is Swine Flu Really Montezuma's Revenge

One of the things I had wanted to see when we took our 30th anniversary cruise through the Southwest last month was some kind of ancient ruins, or the abandoned adobe homes of native cliff dwellers. When we were in Holbrook for a night, at the WigWam on Route 66, I was aware that a day trip north into reservation lands would give us such an experience, but it seemed a bit off the beaten path in light of our plans.

To my great surprise, while at one of those tourist information places in Sedona, I learned that Montezuma’s Castle National Monument was just a short piece down the road, proof that we can still find our way around without Mapquest and Google. Sometimes, if you want to find wonders, you just need to ask the locals.

Essentially, Montezuma’s Castle was a 20 room high-rise apartment tucked into a limestone cliff starting about a hundred feet off the ground. The Sinagua peoples lived here about a thousand years ago. The conquistadors who named it falsely assumed Montezuma, Aztec king, had somehow been associated with this region, hence the name.

President Teddy Roosevelt is credited with making this a National Monument because of its great “ethnological value and scientific interest."

The location is interesting, a very short distance from massive underground springs, an oasis in the middle of nowhere. The Sinaguans had to climb 100 foot ladders to reach their homes at night. Whether this was for security from wild animals or enemy tribes no one knows. Tourists were actually permitted to climb up into the “castle” up until 1951, at which time public access was discontinued.

No one knows why this site was abandoned before the arrival of the white man. Perhaps they were conquered by another tribe. Or perhaps they simply moved on. Archaeologists love mysteries like this and will continue to examine all the evidence they can uncover.
What we do know is that had they lived a couple more centuries they might have been wiped out by diseases for which they had no immunity brought from Europe by white men. This is how vast swaths of the native populations were washed away. It is a tragic piece of history which we often forget. A few thousand Spanish conquerors were able to overcome millions of natives not by their mighty weapons and ingenuity, but rather by the disease which swept through the Americas on first contact. Could it be that this swine flu is simply Montezuma's revenge?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Lions and Tigers, and Swine Flu… Oh My!

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown. ~ H. P. Lovecraft.

Evidently a lot of people are seriously concerned about the swine flu which has penetrated our shores. The Washington Post gave it a full page of coverage and in one hour yesterday there were 10,000 tweets on Twitter pertaining to the latest details of this potential epidemic. A search on Google News for swine flu revealed more than 33,423 news articles about the potential pandemic.

There may be good reasons for concern when it comes to these kinds of things. The 1918-19 Influenza Pandemic killed more people than World War I which preceded it. In fact, that flu killed more people than the Black Death Bubonic Plague of 1347-51.

Children would skip rope to a nursery rhyme about the flu that went like this:

I had a little bird
Its name was Enza.
I opened the window,
and in-flu-enza.


The number of actual deaths in Mexico from flu has been less than 200 and only 26 attributed to the strain of flu being called "swine flu." Ironically, while we're telling Americans not to travel to Mexico, the European Union is beseeching its people to forgo travelling to the U.S.

If all this flu news is giving you the blues and you want to keep current with it all, here are some steps you can take to track the swine flu.

I have not lost any sleep over this except to worry a little whether it's possible get infected thru online social networks. Actually, maybe someone will suggest that MySpace and Facebook are helping ameliorate the spread of the disease since we do all our socializing online now instead of face-to-face.

For the record, if you're especially concerned, the Center for Disease Control has a lot of good information available, too. And don't worry about those pork chops in the fridge. They'll be just fine.

To fear is one thing. To let fear grab you by the tail and swing you around is another. ~ Katherine Paterson.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Breaking Point (Part 2)

SHORT STORY MONDAY

With apologies for violating basic rules about blog length.

The Breaking Point (Part 2)

They talked about the movie and about the kids and about how busy their lives seemed. They didn't talk about birthdays or how frustrated Cassie was that he seemed lost in his own thoughts, not hearing a word she was saying.

After the sitter had gone, they prepared for bed. Although Carl's distractedness at Bridgeman's had bothered her, she chose to overlook it and gave herself to him with a passion she hadn't yielded in ages. He purred, she laughed and they held each other tight.

~~~

The weekend was hectic, as usual. On Saturday, Carl wanted to go fishing but grumpily agreed to finish painting the garage. It was fall and good painting days were numbered. Cassie drove Thad to little League practice, and Lisa to dance lessons, then picked up some groceries, picked up Thad, scrambled home put the groceries away, got the ice cream into the freezer, fixed a quick salad and sandwiches, then rushed to fetch Lisa, returning straight home to remove the shirts from the dryer. Hectic as it was, she was whistling the whole while.

Twice Carl became bothered with her that afternoon for one reason or another, but instead of Cassie reacting with her normal hostility, she overlooked his insults and even managed to project warmth and charm, which she held in check to some degree lest she appear too out of character.
Around four o'clock her sister Val called.

"I'm afraid I'm giving myself away," Cassie confided. "The way he's been acting I'd normally be climbing the walls, but I find myself almost oblivious. I don't know. He's a pain sometimes, but he can be a sweetheart, too."

"Last week you were talking divorce. What's gotten into you."

"I guess this is something I've always wanted... for Carl to care again, to do something special without my begging for it," Cassie said.

"Maybe he just feels guilty about something," Val said. "Men are like that sometimes."

"And women aren't?" Cassie said, laughing. She was not interested in having her bubble burst yet and turned the insinuation into a joke.

Her sister backed off and let Cassie, ever the optimist, cling to her hopes.

Cassie not only had hopes, she had fears, at this moment the largest being that she may have tipped her hand that she knew about the anticipated gift. To compensate, she decided to get stewed about his being late for dinner that night, which he always was anyways. When he came into the kitchen at suppertime, she was standing with her hands on her hips, a convincing outrage scrawled across her face.

One glance told Carl the story. Without a word, he slapped off the radio and stalked redfaced back out to the garage, slamming two doors along the way.

An hour later he returned to the house to say he was going out with some friends.

"Aren't you going to have something to eat?" Cassie said.

"I'll grab a bite somewhere. Don't worry 'bout it."

"I'm not worried about it," she snapped. "Just seems like you should eat something, that's all."

Carl cursed under his breath as he left the room.

~~~

The Sunset Lounge was crowded, but unusually subdued for a Saturday night. At the table where Carl sat with Ben Hinklow and Arnie Barnes, two buddies from work, the subject of women was active in everyone's minds and spilled easily from their mouths.

"Man, has my wife been acting weird the last few days," Carl finally said when his turn came to speak.

"Women can be like that sometimes," Ben agreed. "You can't figure 'em out and it don't matter much whether its ten years or thirty."

"Yeah, but I don't know. Cassie's really weird like she knows something. Know what I mean?" Carl tapped his fingers in a rolling rhythm, his head tilted to the side and lips compressed in a semi-disgusted expression.

"Knows about...?" Arnie asked, cocking his head to one side, not knowing whether Ben knew or not.

"You mean-" Ben knew, but didn't know whether Arnie knew, so he didn't say anything more.

"Oh, I don't know," Carl said, "She's just been acting so bizarre."

"Women are always acting bizarre. What's bizarre about that?" Ben said. "That's what it's like to be a woman. My daughter's hardly fourteen. She's gets weird sometimes, you know. Then the wife says 'It's that time of month,' and you know, that's just what it must be."

"I don't know. Maybe I'm just a little paranoid, I don't know."

Ben and Arnie each nodded indicating they understood. Ben then said, as if required whenever the mystery of Woman was discussed in any measure of solemnity, "Women! Hell, you can't live with 'em-"

As if mandated, Arnie cut him off. "And you can't live without 'em." Carl rose to find a restroom.

"Hey, where ya goin' man?" Ben said, grabbing his arm.

"I'll be right back," said Carl.

On the way back from the restroom he saw a pay phone. After checking his watch to make sure it wasn't too late, he slid his hand down into the pocket of his jeans to find a quarter. Carl picked up the receiver, slid the quarter into the slot, and listened to the clicks, the dial tone and then the rings at the other end of the line, counting them one by one till at last he knew there would be no answer. He hung up and returned to his friends who were in the midst of some heated bickering.

"How late you guys planning to stay?"

"What's your hurry, Carl?"

Carl seated himself as the waitress brought the next pitcher of beer.

Sunday was no better. From Carl's reactions, Cassie could do no right. She didn't like it but wouldn't say anything. He didn't like being unreasonably irritable either, but he also didn't like the idea of being the cause of a bad atmosphere and kept trying to blame Cassie for his bad temper.

Most of the day they managed to avoid having to speak to each other directly. Three children in the house makes that an easier achievement. They both knew intuitively that any effort to begin a discussion would soon be diverted to disagreeably chilly terrain.

The evening proved to be more hopeful. The fear of hostilities having diminished somewhat, they decided to rent a movie so as to keep the need for any real personal communication at a minimum. They did not voice it this way exactly, but they knew each other well enough to know that if one suggested a movie, the other would agree. "Would you like to maybe rent a movie tonight?" Carl said off-handedly.

Thad and Lisa looked up, first to dad and then to mom to see her repsonse.

After exhaling deeply, Cassie took the cue. "Is there anything we'd like to see?"

"Batman!" Thad asserted.

Carl pretended not to hear. "No, you pick something this time," Carl said, speaking directly to his wife. He didn't really care. He simply wanted their discord to go away. "In fact, why don't I do the dishes and you run pick something up."

Cassie paused, amazed, stood up and walked to the counter where she kept her purse. "I'll be back in ten minutes," she said, smiling genuinely.

When she returned, Carl was still a bit sulky, but that hard edge which he had carried all day had softened.

"Do you like musicals?"

"How long have we been married? What did you get?"

"Just kidding. These two wanted to see Honey I Shrunk the Kids."

"I wanted to see Batman." Thad whined.

"Well, Lisa wanted --"

"I don't care, really," Thad said, and they went into the living room. Carl didn't care either.

CONTINUED

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Today's Top Stories

"I am not the editor of a newspaper and shall always try to do right and be good so that God will not make me one." ~ Mark Twain

It is one of my rituals to walk out to the road and bring in the morning paper at the start of each day. I like the walk, about three hundred feet, to our rural mailbox. I also enjoy reading the headlines on the way back toward the house.

It has to be tough being a newspaper editor. With so much happening in the world, how does one decide what will be the big stories of the day, and especially the big story that blares out above the fold. Here's what you see above the fold in today's Duluth News Tribune. And as a profession, newspaperfolk sure have to put up with a lot of guff.

Top banner above the masthead: Northland Golf Guide in fairly large letters with a close up photo of a golf ball on a tee and the head of a driver. More than 70 area courses and a look at how the economy is affecting the game is the subhead. For a lot of folks that might be enough to get a person to fork over a buck and a half.

The major feature has its headline split in two with a photo of grave markers filling a good section of the page in letterbox style aspect ratio. Above the photo: As bones of loved ones erode into the Nemadji River, the Fond du Lac tribe wonders... And below the photo, in largest font on the page: What will be done to respect their dead?

The right hand column has a box with a dotted line that contains two marketing messages. $88 IN COUPONS INSIDE and then "Where to find your TV today" with a blurb pointing out that the TV grid was inadvertently printed in the wrong place. Ooops.

The last news item above the fold is also in the right hand column. Sent in '67, letter finally gets an answer. LBJ was president, Penny Lane was at the top of the charts and Dragnet had just premiered. A form letter was sent from the Duluth city attorney's office to comparably sized cities seeking salary information for legal stenographers. Utica, New York answered this week.

The last front page story in today's paper declares, 100 days, trillions spent, Obama's success unclear. A closeup photo of President Obama has this caption: Has signed executive orders in 100 days than any president since Franklin Roosevelt.

The article, which came in through a syndicated feed from the McClatchy Newspapers, is essentially about how the economic crisis has given the president the opportunity to strengthen executive power. The headline, though, is curious to me. Obama's success unclear? Some of the laws being written into the books won't take effect for years, and the impact of all this legislation being rolled out at a dizzying pace may not be fully recognized for decades. In short, the phrase "Obama's success unclear" is a tautology.

One thing I do like about the Sunday paper, besides the comics, is the Opinion section. I especially like when they take an issue and present pro and con perspectives on an issue. Today's debate deals with the Aad Shrine Circus which is coming to town next weekend. Just plain fun or Just plain cruel is the headline.

A picture of smiling kids mounted atop a brightly decorated elephant fills much of the page. The kids sure are cute. It might be interesting to explore the ethics of circuses some time. Right now, I think I'll finish getting dressed so I can start my day.

What are today's headlines on your local paper? If you don't want to post just send an email. I'd be interested in hearing what's hot in your neck of the woods.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Swamp Sisters Re-Opens with Special Music by De Elliot Brothers


For the record, Elliot is now back from the Renaissance Festival in Apache Junction just East of Phoenix, his annual winter retreat these past thirteen or so years. Just in time to organize a few more sightings of De Elliot Brothers Jug Band. One such sighting will be at the Swamp Sisters next weekend, May 2 at 10 a.m.

The Swamp Sisters Café & Gift Shop officially opens on Friday May 1st this year. There is no connection between this date and the historic May Day Parades in Moscow from 1917 till the Berlin Wall fell in October 1990. The restaurant, located on 7249 Industrial Road (known by many as Highway 7) 4 miles West of Twig, will again serve breakfast and lunch from 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays through October.

A special feature of the menu is Bonnie’s Swamp Skillet with buffalo sausage or ham, onions, peppers, mushrooms, tater tots, eggs and cheese. The lunch fare is equally exciting. It’s home cookin’ at its finest, seasoned with warmth and a sense of humor. In fact, even if you don't get the ham, Toot will probably ham it up a little as seen in this photo here. (click to enlarge)

In addition to making music, Elliot is an artist who specializes in those five minute caricatures you often see at carnivals and such. He's got a keen eye, good instincts, fluid fingers and that artist's sensibility that enables him to capture the moment, and the person. Our connection to Elliot was originally through his music, in particular the Annual Battle of the Jug Bands which he assembles each year at the Amazing Grace Bakery on Memorial Day Weekend. Jug bands from all over show up for this event, as well as a mass of music enthusiasts. It's doggone fun, and this year I might even get to be a part of it with my harmonicas, wash board, big smile and miscellaneous percussion tools.

For sure next weekend I'll be part of it at the Swamp Sisters as we make a little house warming jug band music to inaugurate their new season. The dining area will probably be too jammed for us to jam in there, so we'll be in the gift shop which features bison meat, antiques, crafts and, for one time only, live music. Be sure to buy something and tell 'em Ennyman sent you.

For more info on De Elliot Brothers jug band music or to hire an artist for special occasions, visit soon. This is an unpaid, non-political announcement.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Men, Women and Statistics

"Perfect numbers, like perfect men, are very rare." ~Rene Descartes

There's a scene in the 1988 film Rain Man in which Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) recognizes how profoundly numbers and data are oriented in his brother Raymond's head. Raymond (Dustin Hoffman) and Charlie are in a restaurant and the waitress drops a book of matches or toothpicks (I've since forgotten) and Raymond immediately, with a single glance, that there were 397 of them on the floor. Turns out that he was right. His mind was more than just pretty good with numbers.

In the film Raymond was an autistic man with savant abilities. The film was criticized for creating a stereotype about autistic people, but for the purposes of this brief discussion I am more interested in the fact that Raymond was a male.

Susie and I years ago befriended a street person who we ultimately became very close to named Robert. He too had some savant characteristics. We learned eventually of his schizophrenia, but were early on tuned in to his keen fascination with numbers. He loved baseball for this reason. Baseball is a wealth of statistics. Each player has stats, current and lifetime, which can be compared against other players' stats. Each player also has a birth date, and other personal data. More statistics, which Robert vacuumed endlessly into his voluminous memory banks. He was also a repository of railroad statistics, with knowledge too vast to report on here, but it was all about numbers. (eg.: the number of miles of railroad tracks in each state, and the percentage that was currently used as opposed to the amount that is abandoned.)

There are other reservoirs where statistics about. Hundreds of Government agencies produce whole libraries of stats. The Census Bureau is an agency committed to the accumulation of statistics. And Wall Street is has its own horse of minions collecting, and analyzing, statistics pertaining to valuations of everything from companies to international currencies.

Bell curves, standardized testing, probabilities, standard deviations, scales and a whole assortment of tools exist to evaluate the past, present and future for every kind of measurable, observable entity.

Personally, I am a numbers guy myself. I loved baseball in part for this reason. And the study of balance sheets and company stats for investment purposes is likewise fascinating. My career in advertising and marketing is similarly fascinating because of the stats generated. Stats regarding numbers of leads generated, conversion ratios, web stats, sales stats... Numbers are fun. Data is fun.

My question is this. When you read a book like The New Market Wizards, which is a set of interviews with investment pros who have excelled in that field, they're all men. I do not believe it is because of gender bias. My theory is that the kinds of people attracted to the analysis necessary to excel in that field simply love doing that kind of thing. Peter Lynch, former manager of the Magellan Fund, was so immersed in numbers crunching and data analysis that he missed two to three years of his daughters's lives when they went from 12 to 14. He was nearly a 24/7 slave of his passion, and he admit it was out of balance, an error of judgment on his part.

Women, it is my observation, are more relational. As a general rule people are more important than numbers.

This is, of course, an overgeneralization. It's not a black and white thing. But isn't it true?

So what I want to know is this. How often does this hyperkinetic fascination with numbers appear in women? Or do female autistic savants become oriented toward relationships more than numbers? Do they then call it a different name? I am sure there must be some stats on that somewhere? I'd be interested in those numbers.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Why GM is in a World of Hurt

I think the '64 Pontiac Catalina was our first GM car. We moved to New Jersey that year and it was one of those pretty aquamarine blue cars that were popular in that era. I remember the color because my mom and I used to argue about it. She said it was green and I said it was blue. Aquamarine is one of those colors you have a hard time pinning down.

The '54 Ford dad had that year was a little easier to peg as far as color was concerned. Robin's egg blue. I remember that car because when our house was being built, we lived in a rental property about a mile away. On one occasion mom was supposed to drive us over the hill to the house in that car. Dad was going to meet us there, so he left. I was packing the trunk full of stuff, and one item I dropped in the trunk wasn't supposed to be there... the car keys.

After a while, when we didn't show up, Dad eventually returned. He was not very pleased.

Out next family car was a Pontiac, also. Our neighbor next door had an Oldsmobile. Eventually mom and dad graduated to Buick's. My dad's youngest sister and her husband eventually graduated to Cadillacs. These were they kinds of decisions that made General Motors king of the hill in the auto industry. The gave the moniker Heartbeat of America to their Chev line, but the reality is, General Motors was the heartbeat of the auto industry, and the auto industry was the heartbeat of America.

But the world has been changing. American cars just ain't what they used to be. For a wide range of reasons. The quality of the merchandise is one of them. The old joke about hoping that when you purchased a car, it was "a Wednesday car" may have had a small basis in reality. While shooting a couple photos for an ad years ago, the perfection of the Toyota's windshield made the Corvette's window seam look amateurish.

On our last family trip to New York a few years ago I was astonished to see, as we entered the Lincoln Tunnel from Manhattan, that not a single car around us in any direction carried a U.S. nameplate. And so, Ford's strength has diminished, and GM is on the ropes. It's hard to imagine losing 74 billion dollars since 2004, and easy to see why they went to Washington for a handout. Now, this week's double whammy.

First, they announced they will be missing a debt re-payment. Evidently they don't have the money and don't have any more credit rating to get a short term package from the banks.

On top of these they are being forced to recall 1.5 million vehicles to fix a potential oil leak problem. This can't be a cheap fix and has to be a huge headache to execute. According to the announcement, "The recall affects various Buick, Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac models equipped with normally aspirated versions of GM's much-utilized 3800 3.8-liter V6."

Specific vehicle make, model and years include the following:
Buick Regal 1997-2003
Chevrolet Impala 2000-2003
Chevrolet Lumina 1998-1999
Chevrolet Monte Carlo 1998-2003
Oldsmobile Intrigue 1998-1999
Pontiac Grand Prix 1997-2003

These things no longer affect U.S. workers alone. While at a SEMA Show in Vegas a few years back I had breakfast with a fellow from China whose Beijing company employed 65,000 workers making parts for GM cars. Years ago I recall purchasing a tail light cover to replace a broken one on our '79 Pontiac and was told I would have to wait six weeks for the part to be shipped here from Korea.

For very visual summation of the forces, internal and external, which have crushed General Motors, check this out. My gut tells me this story isn't over yet.

Source for recall story: imakenews.com

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Yahoo! Buzz

If you're ever short of a subject to talk about at the water cooler and seeking ideas, one place to look is online to see what people are interested in today. Your first stop might be Yahoo! Buzz, which updates hourly so you can stay pretty up to the minute. This morning, the top ten searches were:

American Idol
Julie Chen
Susan Boyle
Iran
China
Gliese 581 D
Dancing With The Stars
Sri Lanka
Earth Day
Arsenal

One can immediately see a pattern here. Despite protestations that the Internet's a universe of its own, independent of the outside culture, quick analysis shows that pop media drives much that occurs online. American Idol and Dancing with the Stars are, of course, TV shows. Susan Boyle is from a British TV show Who's Got Talent. Julie Chen is a TV personality. (They're buzzing because, like whoa, wow... she's pregnant.) Earth Day made the list today because, in case you didn't know, today is Earth Day.

The big news in astronomy is Gliese 581 D, a planet slightly larger than earth which might be capable of sustaining life if it weren't so near to the sun of its own solar system. The planet was discovered in 2007 but Earth Day seemed like a good day to break the news about another earthlike planet.

The arsenal search listed here is actually a reference to Arsenal, a soccer team which just had a major match against Liverpool, a sports driven story.

Google has its own version of the Buzz called Hot Trends. Likewise updated every hour, these were the top ten hot trends as of 27 minutes ago:

1.
bacon bra
2.
katmai sinking
3.
earth day facts
4.
hashima island
5.
ignoramus
6.
meteor shower
7.
if i can t have you
8.
the phone
9.
google profile
10.
bobby jones

Clearly we have a different breed of user over at Google, though I couldn't explain why that is. The Google list is one hundred items long and for the life of me why people are searching for some of these terms I haven't a clue. mutombo is #22. coroflot is #49. And 1863 is #58. Why not 1861 or 1897?

Say, I have an idea. Why don't we all search for Ennyman today? Then everyone else will wonder, "What's that all about? Who's Ennyman?"

Or, we can all go on our way and note what everyone else is buzzing about today. Happy Earth Day, everyone.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Shills

In the early 90's I went with my brother and his wife to see Harry Blackstone Jr. in Atlantic City. We paid a dear price for those tickets and afterwards felt disappointed, but for one incredible trick which he learned (or inherited) from his father, which was truly remarkable. The rest were pretty much large scale versions of magic tricks I’d performed as a kid.

One of Blackstone's last tricks that evening involved taking ten volunteers from the audience and bringing them onstage as assistants. Their role, in addition to executing the trick, was to affirm it wasn't rigged, that indeed it was an impossible escape about to be witnessed. I leaped up, raised my hands to be one of these volunteer participants. To my surprise, he nodded in my direction and I ran up onto the stage. To my greater surprise, he was exceedingly irritated because the guy he nodded toward was either behind or next to me. He had eleven members of the audience onstage and, it turns out, one was just a grinning buffoon who was not a shill.

The trick involved tying a man’s hands so he could not escape. Blackstone gave instructions as the others watched, holding the ends of the rope or generally playing a role that would baffle and amaze the audience. Because I was not supposed to be there, he didn’t know what to do with me other than allow me to stand onstage in front of 1700 paid spectators.

What I observed was that because of the scale involved, ten shills seemed beyond what the audience would expect. Like everything else in the show, it was a matter of scale in which the quantity of pretenders gave an air of authenticity to their innocence. Ultimately it was a grand scam, the ten pretenders helping Blackstone deceive his audience.

Blackstone was annoyed at my presence on the stage. I saw clearly that the man’s hands were not tightly bound behind his back. In fact, they were hardly bound at all. And I'm sure he didn't like me standing there seeing it all so plainly, but there was nothing this big name magician could do but follow through. The shills all agreed that there was "no way" the bound man could escape. The audience pretty much bought in I suspect and it would have been bad form on my part to raise objections at that point.

Shills have played a role in many ventures throughout history. Dr. Ben’s Medicine Show in the wild west utilized shills who testified to the potent powers of Dr. Ben’s All Purpose Healing Fluid. Occasionally Dr. Ben and his shills would get carried out of town on rails, tarred and feathered.

Shills are sometimes used in auctions to bid up the price so as to gain better profits, both for the seller and the auctioneer whose take is dependent on selling price. For this reason, the use of shills is considered an unethical behavior, though it undoubtedly occurs on eBay and in other forms to this day.

In journalism, a shill is someone who mouths the talking points of a point of view, who has a vested interest in one side or the other in a controversial issue. The unethical part of this equation is that the shill conceals his allegiances. He pretends to be just another journalist, and even takes pains to assume this pose. But when called upon, he is only too eager to serve the puppet-master.

What frosts a lot of people is that our incursion into Iraq appears to have been an orchestrated manipulation of public opinion utilizing shills embedded in the media. Evidence was repeatedly hinted at and used as justifications to move forward because the risks involved in remaining passive were too great.

With Blackstone, it was the scale of the scam which proved so convincing to the audience. In today's media, it has become harder than ever to sort out facts from the fictions. Perhaps this is why C.S. Lewis said he didn't read the news at all because you never knew what was true until six months later.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Breaking Point

SHORT STORY MONDAY

It was gratifying to win the 1991 Arrowhead Regional Fiction Competition with this story. It was fun to write, especially as it was based on a true story. Turns out that 1991 was possibly the only year in which winning entries did not end up in print. Though I won some prize money, it seemed publication would have been more satisfying. Nevertheless, the award was gratifying, and I hope you will stick with it the next few weeks of Short Story Mondays.

The Breaking Point

It was a Wednesday when the bill arrived. Cassie Hedberg's birthday was the following Monday, so it wasn't too difficult to put one and one together to make two.

The envelope from Montgomery Ward was addressed to Carl, but thinking it junk mail, she dutifully checked its contents before throwing it. The bill for $523.87 startled her and it crossed her mind to call Ward's to correct their error. Then she remembered her upcoming birthday and a glowing liquid warmth pulsed through her veins.

Twice she picked up the phone to call one of her friends to tell them of Carl's thoughtfulness, to brag up her man. Each time she left off dialing and decided it would be best to wait.

Thursday she began mentally re-arranging the furniture. The old TV would go down to the den; the new one would fit nicely here in the corner. Carl was never good at concealing things from her, and she laughed now about the time four years ago when she caught him cheating, how flustered and ashamed he'd been, how easily she saw through all his pretexts, and how fortunate she was to have brought him back home. That was a hard year, her hardest since the year Thad was born while Lisa was still in diapers.

~~~

She was walking with an extra spring in her step and when friends called -- it
seemed like everyone was calling that day -- they were uplifted by her spunk and cheer.

"You win a lottery or something?" Donna Trumbull asked.

"Why's that?" Cassie pretended not to notice the melodic sing-song sound of her voice.

"My, aren't we happy as a lark today," Gloria said when she heard Cassie's lively trill.

~~~

Around one o'clock she turned on one of the soap operas she followed sporadically and for the first time in months Cassie was not annoyed by the poor reception she'd always endured with this television set. She especially hated it that when people walked around in certain parts of the room the color would fade; the set belching fuzzy static sounds.

At six, Carl called Cassie to apologize for being late, but said he'd be home by seven and that she should go ahead and eat. And for the first time in months she didn't mind his long hours or his busy schedule.

Friday, too, was a nice day. There was a light rain in the afternoon, but the farmers need it, Cassie thought, and the forecast for the weekend is nice weather ahead. Around four that afternoon, the phone rang and it was Carl. "What do you say we get a sitter tonight and go to a movie?"

"Is there anything playing? I don't think I want to see Dick Tracy," Cassie answered.

"We'll find something," Carl said, and Cassie said she'd try to find a sitter.

~~~

She always hated the way Carl never planned anything ahead and lived life on the fly. It's hard enough to find sitters on Fridays without having it be the last minute, but this annoyance, too, seemed to diminish when she thought of the new TV and the possibilities of romance returning to their flat, listless relationship.

At six, Carl phoned again. "Sorry. I'm a little behind. I've been breaking my ass to fix a busted gear on this new unit. I'll be home in twenty." It was six-forty when he came through the door, the house smelling aromatic from Cassie's homemade stew.

Cassie rushed through the agenda as she ladled the stew into his bowl. "We've all eaten. The sitter will be here at seven. Movie starts at seven-twenty. I'll go get dressed."

~~~

Before seating himself, Carl unbuttoned his shirt, gave his wife a peck on the cheek and fixed himself a drink. While he was finishing his dinner the sitter arrived, ten minutes early. Cassie showed the girl around while he washed and changed upstairs.

"What movie are we seeing?" Carl asked as they pulled out of the drive. Cassie said the one she wanted to see was at Cinema Five, but if he didn't want to see that one, there were two other movies that looked interesting.

Afterwards they went to Bridgeman's for ice cream.

"We should do this more often," Cassie said.

"I know."

She was surprised when he didn't add, "I just hate spending the money." His traditional tightfistedness with money had often made her wish she'd started earlier with a career. Because Carl was bringing home the bacon, Carl always had final say about how it was sliced.


CONTINUED

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Maltese Falcon

Dashiell Hammett has been called "the father of the hard-boiled detective novel" and creator of one of the 20th century's most famous sleuths, Sam Spade. Last week I found and finished one of his most well known works, The Maltese Falcon. Within a dozen years of publication it had already been made into three motion pictures, the most famous featuring Humphrey Bogart as the personification of Sam Spade.

Hammett purportedly worked for seven years with the Pinkerton detective agency, so he brings realism to his stories in a first-hand manner that conveys a believable jadedness. Even so, when I initially read The Thin Man years ago, it failed to make a deep impression. And I can't say I found this book compelling either. Maybe it was the story itself, or maybe Spade didn't hook me like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Holmes.

Perhaps Hammett's significance is that of creating a genre, the tough guy detective who is his own man, in cahoots with no one, the modern existential hero solving life's problems against the backdrop of a murder mystery setting. Evidently someone considered his work significant enough to have him listed among the greats (501 Great Writers) and there are critics who rave over him, but this Amazon.com review by a typical reader seemed to adequately capture my mood on finishing it.

"The Maltese Falcon is nothing to write home about. It's a good book, and I recommend it, but it is nothing discernibly 'special.' You don't finish it and go, 'Wow!'"

On the heels of completing the book I decided to track down and revisit the Bogie film of the same name. I perked up when I saw that John Huston (The African Queen, Moby Dick, Under the Volcano) directed the film. The casting was pretty much perfect, even if Bogart is not blond. But to be honest, I don't know what all the fuss is about.

Yes, there are a lot of raves about this film. It's considered by many critics to be one of the top one hundred of all time. And many of the reviews at imdb.com support this claim. Still, there are naysayers such as Jake, who wrote, "After having heard so much about this movie over the years I was surprised to find it so dull and so poorly executed."

This review, by someone named dogspit, also indicates disappointment. "I tried to like The Maltese Falcon, but it didn't quite do it for me. Bogart & Astor each were plastic in their roles, and the rest of the cast fared little better. The film lacked ANY character development and tried to push the pace too much to be very enjoyable. Watch it for the nostalgia of it, but do not expect a lot."

Actually, I don't entirely agree with dogspit. I found the opening section compelling. Bogart does reek with an aura of smooth cool. But the noir style has so pervaded the Hollywood atmosphere I just can't get past the caricature. Whereas the setup drew me in, the story made me tired.

Though more can be said, for now I let it pass. What's your take?

Friday, April 17, 2009

Ivory Towers and Pipe Dreams

"Whatever their future, at the dawn of their lives, men seek a noble vision of man's nature and of life's potential."
~Ayn Rand

I began reading Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead yesterday and it brought to mind an art project from when I was in high school. Everyone was supposed to design a house. The picture on this blogspot is the house I designed.
(click image to enlarge)

It is a somewhat hilarious memory because... well, the design problems are self-evident. First off, try supporting half the house with a staircase. Something tells me there's going to be structural problems here. Yes, the upside-down pyramid is suspended in the air by the staircase running from the low portion of the house.

I would guess that if the structure were built in Minnesota, you might also have a problem with accumulating snow adding additional weight. Furthermore, from my observation living in the Northland, flat roofs are notorious for springing leaks over time. Leaky roofs are not a fun thing to deal with either.

But when the model you build is made of paper, and your only barrier is the imagination, a young person can dream up some pretty far out images. Just don't ask too many questions, like what would the re-sale value be? Or, what would a wife think of the amount of closet space here and the lack of windows?

An unrealistic hope or fantasy is known as a pipe dream, the origin of the phrase being an allusion to the stimulated imaginations of opium smokers. Many a business has crashed and burned because their product or process or service was ultimately a pipe dream. Like my house here, it may have been imaginative, but was decidedly not practical.

(This isn't to say that such a house could never be built. Or that the idea could not be modified to become a little more stable. For example, if the upside-down portion were supported by its tip, and thin rods made of some super-alloy supported the corners...)

In point of fact, much of what man has achieved is because he didn't allow his imagination to be restricted too much by reality based thinking. Da Vinci wrestled with the problems of flight, and must have been thought a kook by many. He was simply ahead of his time. The Wright brothers showed that gravity could be defeated. And today there are people with jet propelled suits doing solo flights that make the Wright brothers' contraption to be but a baby buggy.

While it's true that some ideas are created in ivory tower environs that have no possibility of practical implementation, it is also true that what seemed absurd from one point of view is quite astonishing from another.

So let the kids dream. Tomorrow it will be their world anyways.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

What We Can't Live Without

This month's Letter from the Editor in Fast Company is titled Things We Can't Live Without. Robert Safian's editorial begins with a memory of his dad buying the first television in the neighborhood and people coming over just to watch the transmission signal. From here he transitions to iPods and automobiles, and steps up to Facebook and Twitter as the new "must have" apps.

It's a strange world when you start looking at what various people define as a must. For example, I tweet, but to call it a Must Have part of my life is a bit of a stretch.

The other night when the electricity went out, I recognized that electrical power was a "must have" for me. Either that, or leave Minnesota, because any duration of time without electricity when it is nineteen below is going to freeze your pipes, and be generally intolerable.

Maybe we're just a little glib about what we think we absolutely need. I did a Google search for the phrase what we can't live without and came up with quite a few things to look at. The first list I looked at was at the NewsCred Blog, Michael Arrington's favorite technologies that he uses every day. GoogleDocs, Skype, Dropbox, WordPress, Gmail, Twitter, Amazon Web Services, Songza, Google Analytics and Mechanical Turk. My guess is that if these are the things Arrington needs to be happy, then when the electricity is out he's screwed, too. And to see Twitter listed again just makes me scratch my head. (Though I have already tweeted that I am writing about this here...)

Now I am looking at a Computerworld web article on 25 things we can't live without, and Skype is here, too, as well as iPods along with things like the Siber Systems RoboForm for storing usernames, passwords, and other contact data for websites.

The real question, especially for Americans, is how to differentiate between what is a luxury and what is a necessity. Are two cars a luxury? Is air conditioning a necessity? Think of all our appliances which we consider an absolute basic part of owning a home. For some folks, having "land, lots of land and sunny skies above" is a necessity. They simply don't want to be fenced in.
Here's another site with a study called What Americans Need: 1996-2006. The report compares trends over a ten year period. It's more realistic and runs this way. Car, clothes washer, clothes dryer, home air conditioning, microwave, TV set, car air conditioning, home computer, cell phone, dishwasher, cable or satellite TV, high-speed Internet, flat screen TV, and iPod. Interesting. Nearly everything here is dependent on electricity, including that car some day possibly.

I'm curious where music and art and friends would fall on some of these lists. It's also interesting how we take our clean drinking water for granted as well.

My cell phone probably falls close to the necessity realm for me, but a television does not. I still haven't figured out how to hook up the new box for HDTV. I ought to add it to my TO DO list, but my motivation just isn't strong enough. Hopefully I'll get around to it, but it took us five years to purchase the first B&W television we got in 1984... Evidently TV is something we can live without.

Some of these lists, and there are quite a few, are simply a way to talk about new things. The catchy title is an apparent exaggeration, but it does catch your eyeballs, and your imagination. What are the things you can't live without?

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Who's Got The Power?

Well, last night was interesting here in the Northland. I was watching The Maltese Falcon while organizing some files on my laptop and vwoosh.... suddenly all is dark (except the laptop which reverted to battery mode.) I slipped on some boots, grabbed a flashlight and went out to the road. In all directions, darkness.

It wasn't a fuse, so we were powerless to do anything about it, but it set in motion a number thoughts. First, that I am glad it is early spring and not mid-winter where temps can be minus twenty or thirty at night. Second, at what point will the frozen goods in the freezers need to be dealt with?

In 1979 I spent a year in Puerto Rico, where blackouts and brownouts were a weekly routine. Evidently the infrastructure we take for granted here in the U.S. was not yet a reliable part of life elsewhere, something I did not know due to my limited experience with such things.

In fact, there was a lot I didn't know about Puerto Rico, that many Americans probably didn't, though I did know my favorite baseball player, Roberto Clemente of the Pittsburgh Pirates, was from Puerto Rico. I also knew that the country was under U.S. jurisdiction, and not a free state. But I did not know that Puerto Rico had four political parties. Two wanted the country to break free of the U.S. and become independent. One of these wanted a Capitalist democracy and the other a socialist state. There third political party wanted Puerto Rico become the 51st state in the U.S. and the last group wanted to keep the status quo, which was good for those in power and not so good for the fifty percent who were unemployed.

It was this last group which held the power, and so it is that Puerto Rico remained a "subject" of the U.S. Actually, people born in Puerto Rico are considered U.S. citizens who can vote.

My thoughts flew to Puerto Rico because whenever the power went out, the refrigerators and freezers had to be left closed. After eight hours they would be opened and we'd all eat the semi-melted ice cream, and cook the meat. The younger people all liked the ice cream part and when five or six hours had passed, they were very attentive to the passage of time.

Last night here, we weren't sure how long the power woulf be off. About a half hour after going to bed all the lights came back on, and the radio. Up we jumped, to take care of everything needing attention.

This morning I went online to find a news story about it, but am not seeing anything. A falling telephone pole snapped some lines and put out the power in a section of Salt Lake. The city of Niles had a brief power outage yesterday, as did the Whittier Middle School on Monday, which sent kids home early. There were also power outages due to winds in Monterrey County, CA, and a pickup us truck that hit a pole somewhere else.

We take it for granted, our roads and electricity and cell phones. Our infrastructure, however, didn't appear out of nowhere. Last night we had candles and a lamp to light the house. This is how it had been done for centuries until Edison came along. In the grand scheme of things, our modern era has been but a blip on the most recent page of history. Where it will end up is anyone's guess, but for now, I like it when they keep the power on.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Salaries in the New Economy

Sunday's Parade magazine featured the What People Earn story, which has become an annual event. The contrasts of megastar salaries with working class salaries is always bound to stimulate discussion by the office water cooler.

This year Jennifer Aniston is front and center, a 40 year old actress pulling down a cool 27 million. The smiling face of baseball player Alex Rodriguez is on the upper right of the front page, his 34 million dollar income displayed below. By way of contrast, sports blogger Josh Bacott to his left is making $10,700.

Barbie, the doll from Malibu who turned fifty this year, is pictured here as well. $3.3 billion. And by way of contrast, Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York, has an interesting expression on his face, with his one dollar salary listed for this assignment which carries fairly hefty responsibilities I would guess.

Others listed inside include Guv Sarah Palin at $125,000 along with rapper Jay-Z at $82 million. But there are a lot of ordinary folks here, too. A library director, a truck driver, website manager, probation officer, carpenter, sales rep, tugboat captain... there's a whole range of occupations listed here. I guess we value our celebrities and sports stars 'cause we sure pay them a lot.

According to the article, weekly income rose 2.5% in 2008, and personal savings increased as well. But in another place, one finds less thrilling stats. Unemployment for high school dropouts is over 12% and even college grads are seeing layoffs. This undoubtedly accounts for the shift in attitudes among many for the time being. According to an employment consultant quoted in the article, people are more concerned about job security than they are about job excitement at this time.

Personally, I can't tell whether these kinds of articles help us or hurt us. I can imagine that for some, these salary comparisons only stir up envy and jealousy. They don't show the sacrifices many of these people made to achieve what they've got. Though on the other hand, in many instances the rest of the story has not yet been told. Most of the images are of smiling faces, but we can't always see what's behind the smiles. In the end, we do get an interesting picture of what has value in our culture today.

You can read George Anders' What People Earn here.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Unfinished Stories (Part 10)

SHORT STORY MONDAY
Here's a trio of Easter Eggs we decorated Saturday evening.


Unfortunately, the Unfinished Stories of Richard Allen Garston appears to be... unfinished. Next week we'll start something new.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

A Thousand Lost Golf Balls

According to the book 501 Great Writers, which my wife Susie gave me for Christmas, T. S. Eliot was one of the great ones. Poet, essayist, critic, playwright and children's book author, his influence on the cultural landscape was extensive. I remember studying his works in high school with profound lines from at least two of his poems staying tethered to me now more than forty years. The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock made a powerful impression as did The Hollow Men.

which begins thus...

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats' feet over broken glass
in our dry cellar.

What powerful images and a worthy read.
Eliot, who was St. Louis born with strong New England roots, had three relatives who were U.S. presidents. Igor Stravinsky called him "A great sorcerer of words... the very key keeper of the language."

One of his greatest poems was The Waste Land. The bio here describes it a "a fractured, disjointed journey through a landscape exhausted both ecologically and culturally, inhabited by fragmented, almost ghostly voices that are connected by the yearning for rebirth."

Interestingly enough, this morning, Easter Sunday, our pastor cited another poem of Eliot's which was also a profound commentary on the modern world. Eliot had been a protege of Bertrand Russell, a brilliant mathematician, activist and notorious atheist. But in seeing the futility of this line of thinking, he turned to another path and became a Christian. Ironically he gives credit to Russell for this profound life decision.

The lines our Pastor Shannon shared with us this morning were from his poem The Rock. Here is an excerpt from that poem.

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Bring us farther from GOD and nearer to the Dust . . .
The Word of the Lord came unto me, saying:
O miserable cities of designing men,
O wretched generation of enlightened men,
Betrayed in the mazes of your ingenuities,
Sold by the proceeds of your proper inventions:
I have given you hands which you turn from worship,
I have given you speech, for endless palaver,
I have given you my Law, and you set up commissions,
I have given you lips, to express friendly sentiments,
I have given you hearts, for reciprocal distrust . . .
In the land of lobelias and tennis flannels
The rabbit shall burrow and the thorn revisit
The nettle shall flourish on the gravel court,
And the wind shall say:
"Here were decent godless people:
Their only monument the asphalt road
And a thousand lost golf balls . . ."

I immediately think of Shelley's Ozymandias, which offers a similar judgement on the vanity of man.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.

And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Life is more than the things we accumulate, the monuments we build for ourselves. Despite the injustice and suffering we see in this world, we can take comfort that there will one day be an accounting... along with the promise of better things. In this we rejoice.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The New Social Media: It Never Ceases To Amaze

This past year I picked up a book about blogging in which the author admitted upfront that in 2004 he thought MySpace and social media was going to be a passing fad. In three years MySpace was bigger than Mexico in terms of residents. And since late last summer FaceBook now has grown from 100 to 200 million... twice as big as Mexico.

My first foray into blogging was with MySpace maybe five years ago. I didn't get much out of it or understand it or devote any time to figuring out what it was about. Some guy named Tom became my friend, possibly for the purpose of guiding me into what MySpace could do. But mostly there were risque young vultures asking to be my friend only to be kicked out of the MySpace community shortly thereafter.

My daughter was on FaceBook around this time, but I avoided going there because I didn't want to appear to be a snoopy parent.

Plaxo, LinkedIn and other business networks began cropping up, and finally, I got some books and did some research so I could determine where to establish my own blogland real estate. The Google solution is Blogger. I like the price, too. It's free. It was also relatively easy. I hung up my shingle, Ennyman's Territory. Even the ESPN Fantasy game sites are social network communities. You can create your profile, fill in details, interact with others.

At some point in time last year the Twitter phenomenon blipped across my radar. By now, it is on a lot of people's radar. "Should I, or shouldn't I?" people are asking.

After all is said and done, here are a few things I like and don't like about the blogs and social media.

Likes
You can discover and meet interesting people whom you would have never come across in any other way probably, at least not in this lifetime.
It can be a form of cheap entertainment as millions of people share their most interesting thoughts, ideas, links of the day, or favorite quotes, or whatever.
I enjoy being part of something new, curious to see where it all will go.

Dislikes
A lot of these sites can be big time consumers as people tag and interact and play games.
I don't like having to log in to all the different networks in order to interact with people. I would rather do most of it by email me.
Because they are all Internet based, when you don't have Internet access, you're out.
Also, since other people are running the show, they can change things in how they're set up and you generally have no say.

Twitter
Of all the variations of social media, besides maintaining my personal blog, I like Twitter best. It is fast, easy, and influential. It looks to me like an especially great tool for journalists and net-related professions. You have to participate to get a sense of its potential. I intuitively felt it to be a very powerful tool early on.

Yesterday I came across an interesting blog article 10 Most Extraordinary Twitter Updates from this past year. Item 1 was a marriage proposal via Twitter. Interesting, but I can imagine someone doing that. Johnny Cash asked June Carter on stage, in front of an audience.

Item 2 was really unbelievable. Actually, it made me think of The Truman Show. Corey Menscher created a device and a Twitter account, kickbee, which sent out tweets anytime the infant in his wife's womb kicked his mom. Tyler, born on January 19th, 2009, now “tweets” from his new account, minimensch.

Many of us heard that news of the Mumbai terrorist attack broke first on Twitter. There have been other big stories in which Twitterers were first to break the news as well including a Continental Airlines crash in Denver and an earthquake that rocked China.

Obama used Twitter to his advantage during last year's campaign. Lots of other high profile persons are using Twitter. I've seen John Cleese and Richard Branson there. You can find Demi Moore and Twitteraholic Guy Kawasaki. My guess is that the Apostle Paul would have been tweeting from that Roman jail cell if he'd had access, but I doubt that Twitter was what Jesus had in mind when he told His disciples to "Follow Me," ...though this line of inquiry does raise the question WWJT? What would Jesus tweet?

Friday, April 10, 2009

Good Friday

"...but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews, and foolishness to Gentiles." ~ I Corinthians 1:23

Today is Good Friday, one of the high holy days of the Christian faith. The foundation of Christianity is not based solely on the long awaited revealing of the Messiah, fulfilling prophecies of a great prophet, the ultimate high priest, and eternal king of mankind, but on His sacrifice as literal fulfillment of the Passover Lamb of God, slain for the sins of the world.

He came into the world humbly, not as a nobleman, tycoon or royalty, and claimed that by understanding him we would understand what God was like.

There is little I can add to the historical record that has not already been, but on a human level put yourself in the place of his mother who had to watch her son’s ordeal, especially knowing the injustice of it all. And one of his best friends, John the disciple, also standing there, confused about everything he believed up until that moment on a lonely hill. And Peter, who only the day before had his feet washed by his master, who before the night had passed denied thrice any knowledge of his relationship with the Christ whom he loved. And the other followers who feared for their lives and fled, who went into hiding lest they too end up nailed to crossed on those isolated hills...

Hard to believe these were those who took the seeds of light that had been sown into their hearts and utterly transformed the future history of the world.

The following is a hymn written nine hundred years ago by Bernard of Clairveaux, to mark this day.


Thursday, April 9, 2009

Cinderella Man

Last week I came across an audio version of Cinderella Man: James J. Braddock, Max Baer, and the Greatest Upset in Boxing History. I'd seen the film starring Russell Crowe last year, and though well done (and I like Russell Crowe in nearly everything he does) it was not a film that made me feel wowed. An interesting story about a down-and-out boxer who makes a comeback and ends up world champeen.

The book is far and away a superior telling of the story, because it is not about a boxer. It is about two boxers who have two totally different life trajectories.

James Braddock was a New Jersey working class guy. A wife, kids, a man who was motivated to fight by only one thing: to put food on the table for his family during the dark days of the Depression. Max Baer, on the other hand, was a jovial, charming fellow whose successes as a boxer (his punch carried a powerful wallop that resulted in two deaths) led to a career in Hollywood, liaisons with famous actresses, and the perks of privilege.

Max Baer, incidentally, was the father of Max Baer, Jr of the Beverly Hillbillies, who you may recall as Jethro. Now you know where that Jethro's natural good-naturedness comes from.

Baer's life story is as compelling as Braddock's but in the film you only get hints of it. In the book you get all the details. He was young, strong, cocky, but also carried a measure of anxiety after one of his blows knocked a man cold, permanently.
One of the things I learned was how in the 20's and 30's the sportswriters and promoters played up the ethnic rivalries. The Italian vs. The Irishman. The German vs. The Jew. Baer, though one quarter Jewish, wore the Star of David on his trunks during his later fights.

A feature of the audio book, which I found in the local library here, is a lengthy interview with Braddock himself who lived to be 69 and died in 1974. Braddock is asked about every facet of his life, and every fight. In his thick Jersey accent he makes comments that reveal much about the man, his opponents, and the life of a boxer. It's a tough life.

The book is also about the entire culture of boxing during what some have called its Golden Era. Gene Tunney, Jack Dempsey, Max Schmelling, Joe Louis... they're all there, as well as the promoters, trainers, refs and sportswriters who sought to keep readers' passions stirred even when there was nothing to write about.

As for the film, Ron Howard did a professional job, but it comes across as a cliche of what a Hollywood film should be. Pretty standard fare. Maybe his heart wasn't into it? The soundtrack was manipulative and pointless. Yet, you can still catch a glimpse of what made the Cinderella Man a compelling story when the real James J. Braddock was on the scene. A Comeback Kid. A Seabiscuit. An ordinary many who did an extraordinary thing.

When I finished the book I went and picked up the film again. While watching it on one monitor, I watched the actual Baer-Braddock fight on YouTube. What a contrast. If able, you might want to try it.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

FDR's Folly

Books have a pretty high place in our home. My wife placed a little plaque just inside the front door that reads, "A house without books is like a room without windows." And so it is that many of our conversations with friends revolve about current readings.

Not too long ago a good friend of mine told me about the very interesting book he was reading called FDR's Folly by Jim Powell. In light of the Reason magazine article cited yesterday, in which a panel of economists expressed their concerns about the stimulus package recently passed, I thought this worth recommending.

It is apparent that there is a war of ideas at play in the world. In Washington, the Social Planners have been eager for their day, and it it would appear to have arrived at last. This book tells how it played out back in the 30's. Ironically, the spin machinery was effective at leaving FDR firmly entrenched as an icon of the 20th century.

Here are some observations regarding the book that can be found on Amazon.com, followed by additional comments from a reader.

Editorial Reviews of FDRs Folly

“Admirers of FDR credit his New Deal with restoring the American economy after the disastrous contraction of 1929—33. Truth to tell–as Powell demonstrates without a shadow of a doubt–the New Deal hampered recovery from the contraction, prolonged and added to unemployment, and set the stage for ever more intrusive and costly government. Powell’s analysis is thoroughly documented, relying on an impressive variety of popular and academic literature both contemporary and historical.”–Milton Friedman, Nobel Laureate, Hoover Institution

“There is a critical and often forgotten difference between disaster and tragedy. Disasters happen to us all, no matter what we do. Tragedies are brought upon ourselves by hubris. The Depression of the 1930s would have been a brief disaster if it hadn’t been for the national tragedy of the New Deal. Jim Powell has proven this.”–P.J. O’Rourke, author of Parliament of Whores and Eat the Rich

“The material laid out in this book desperately needs to be available to a much wider audience than the ranks of professional economists and economic historians, if policy confusion similar to the New Deal is to be avoided in the future.”–James M. Buchanan, Nobel Laureate, George Mason University

“I found Jim Powell’s book fascinating. I think he has written an important story, one that definitely needs telling.”–Thomas Fleming, author of The New Dealers’ War“Jim Powell is one tough-minded historian, willing to let the chips fall where they may. That’s a rare quality these days, hence more valuable than ever. He lets the history do the talking.”–David Landes, Professor of History Emeritus, Harvard University

“Jim Powell draws together voluminous economic research on the effects of all of Roosevelt’s major policies. Along the way, Powell gives fascinating thumbnail sketches of the major players. The result is a devastating indictment, compellingly told. Those who think that government intervention helped get the U.S. economy out of the depression should read this book.”–David R. Henderson, editor of The Fortune Encyclopedia of Economics

About the Book
For generations, the collective American consciousness has believed that the former ruined the country and the latter saved it. Endless praise has been heaped upon President Franklin Delano Roosevelt for masterfully reining in the Depression’s destructive effects and propping up the country on his New Deal platform. In fact, FDR has achieved mythical status in American history and is considered to be, along with Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln, one of the greatest presidents of all time. But would the Great Depression have been so catastrophic had the New Deal never been implemented?

In FDR’s Folly, historian Jim Powell argues that it was in fact the New Deal itself, with its shortsighted programs, that deepened the Great Depression, swelled the federal government, and prevented the country from turning around quickly. You’ll discover in alarming detail how FDR’s federal programs hurt America more than helped it, with effects we still feel today, including:

• How Social Security actually increased unemployment
• How higher taxes undermined good businesses
• How new labor laws threw people out of work
• And much more

This groundbreaking book pulls back the shroud of awe and the cloak of time enveloping FDR to prove convincingly how flawed his economic policies actually were, despite his good intentions and the astounding intellect of his circle of advisers. In today’s turbulent domestic and global environment, eerily similar to that of the 1930s, it’s more important than ever before to uncover and understand the truth of our history, lest we be doomed to repeat it.
A reader named Doug offered the following comments on the book.

A common historical misconception is that FDR's New Deal rescued the United States from the Great Depression. However, Cato Institute Historian Jim Powell argues that the New Deal exacerbated and elongated the Great Depression. With impressive attention to detail, Powell examines the long-term results of the New Deal and persuasively argues that they crippled the U.S. economy.

In this detailed book, you will learn about the numerous programs the FDR administration brought about, including the following:

* Programs that inundated private businesses with unprecedented waves of regulations, such as the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, the National Recovery Administration and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

* Programs that redistributed wealth from producers to consumers, such as the Federal Emergency Relief Act and the Reconstruction Finance Corporation.

* Programs that nationalized industries, centrally planned infrastructure or created make-work projects to increase employment such as the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Public Works Administration and the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Powell argues that these programs typically led to poorly planned infrastructure that was more expensive than what could have been acquired in a free market. The economic results of FDR's programs were devastating. For example, consider the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA). The price and production controls of the AAA led to perverse practices such as millions of tons of domestic oat and corn being burned while the U.S. simultaneously imported oat and corn, millions of peaches being left to rot and millions of "excess" pigs being needlessly slaughtered while lard was being imported from overseas. The extent of economic regulation under the FDR Administration reached such absurd levels, there was even a government board organized solely to control the production and pricing of milk!

In closing, a quote from F. A. Hayek: "We shall not grow wiser before we learn that much that we have done was very foolish."