Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Of Time and the River

“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.” ~ Norman Maclean

A comment in a book I was reading yesterday made me think about rivers, about their origins, their flow and destinations. A river’s origin or source may be a spring, or a set of creeks which serve as tributaries into a channel which flows along toward a broader body of water such as great lake, gulf or ocean.

Here in Minnesota we have the headwaters of the Mississippi, the starting point of the world’s third longest river. Twenty-five years ago I used to run along this same river bank three mornings a week when I lived for a time in Bloomington. Over a century ago young Sam Clemens swam in this same river further south, traveling much of its length from Missouri to the Mississippi Delta.

And near two centuries ago the elderly Daniel Boone, who had moved most of his family to Missouri from Kentucky in order to escape the encroachments on his freedom by our U.S. legal system, decided to explore the Mississippi northward with a Negro via canoe. A brutal snowstorm from the north bore down upon them as they neared the headwaters here in Minnesota and for three days it appeared that he was about to die as they lay beneath the canoe striving to survive. He recited to his dark skinned companion his last will and testament, but the storm broke and he found himself recovering. They got back into the canoe returned to Missouri where he lived out the rest of his years.

Rivers have been part of human history for ages, serving as transportation routes, power generators, geographic barriers, political boundaries, and more. Rivers have also served as a source of inspiration for poets, writers, artists and philosophers.

An interesting feature of the Mississippi is that not far from its source there is an unusual triple watershed. Watersheds are high points where rain drainage diverges in different directions or to separate destinies. In the Colorado Rockies, for example, there is a divide where water falling to the West flows to the Pacific Ocean, and to the East it flows to the mighty Mississippi and ultimately to the Gulf of Mexico. But here, not far from where I am sitting, there is a triple point which Native Americans recognized long before the white man came, and held council meetings there.

Rain that falls in this small area can have one of three outcomes once it joins other creeks, streams and tributaries. It can flow into Lake Superior and into the St. Lawrence Seaway system, or it can flow into the headwaters of the Mississippi, or it can drain northward to the Arctic Ocean… a truly diverse set of destinies.

Our minds are like rivers sometimes. Ideas fall like rain into our mental landscape. Some drops evaporate quickly and are gone. Others merge with existing streams and make them more powerful as they cut deeper channels through the interior of our souls. Occasionally, due to weather patterns chiefly, there are floods which overflow their banks and spill across the landscape, sometimes tearing down trees and buildings and causing great upheavals.

The river’s origins are simple and small, bearing no resemblance to the mile wide expanse downstream.

When the river is flowing hard and fast, it energizes us. When the river becomes wide, flowing lazily through time and space, it relaxes us. So too, our minds and mental states.

The flowing river is a theme upon which many minds have meditated. Twain, Hesse, Annie Dillard, Norman Maclean have all included reflections on rivers. Here is the culmination of Hesse’s Siddhartha as the great wise man contemplates the meaning of his life while watching, and listening to, the river.

Siddhartha tried to listen better. The picture of his father, his own picture, and the picture of his son all flowed into each other. Kamala's picture also appeared and flowed on, and the picture of Govinda and others emerged and passed on. They all became part of the river. It was the goal of all of them, yearning, desiring, suffering; and the river's voice was full of longing, full of smarting woe, full of insatiable desire. The river flowed on towards its goal. Siddhartha saw the river hasten, made up of himself and his relatives and all the people he had ever seen. All the waves and water hastened, suffering, towards goals, many goals, to the waterfall, to the sea, to the current, to the ocean and all goals were reaced and each one was succeeded by another. The water changed to vapor and rose, became rain and came down again, became spring, brook and river, changed anew, flowed anew. But the yearning voice had altered. It still echoed sorrowfully, searcingly, but other voices accompanied it, voices of pleasure and sorrow, good and evil voices, laughing and lamenting voices, hundreds of voices, thousands of voices.

Siddhartha listened. He was now listening intently, completely absorbed, quite empty, taking in everything... He could no longer distinguish the different voices – the merry voice from the weeping voice, the childish voice from the manly voice. They all belonged to each other: the lament of those who yearn, the laughter of the wise, the cry of indignation and the groan of the dying. They were all interwoven and interlocked, entwined in a thousand ways. And all the voices, all the goals, all the yearnings, all the sorrows, all the pleasures, all the good and evil, all of them together was the world. All of them together was the stream of events, the music of life.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Terrorists Preying (cont.)

It’s Short Story Monday again. This is the first multi part story I have begun to post, and I’m having my doubts about the efficacy of trying to share such long stories in this manner. If it's a page turner that you can't put down, then such a piecemeal approach feels stifling, though Dickens did it with his weekly serials. On the other hand, a newspaper serial has a lot more room to work with than a blog, with it's unspoken prescribed 500 word limit.

Last Monday I offered up the beginning of Terrorists Preying. It is a first person account about a former art student from the east coast who now lives in Minneapolis. He visits the Walker Fine Arts Museum whereupon he unexpectedly witnesses a scene of great violence.

That scene of a group of three men assaulting an innocent man in an art gallery actually took place, but not in a gallery. It occurred in a dream I had one night twenty years ago. I mulled over where to go with it and wrote last week’s section, believing it a story. When I shared what I had written with a literary professor, he suggested that it was only a beginning. How did it change this man’s life? His soul? What happens next?

This, I agreed, was my homework assignment. What happens next?

Part two begins…

It’s evening and I’ve been changed.

I'm sitting in a chair, listening to music, recording my thoughts, trying to get in touch with my pain, trying to find a way to get inside myself. I don't even know where to begin. I've witnessed a terrible thing and I can't dismiss it. Why didn't I do anything? I want to excuse myself and I can't. Why did I just watch? Why didn't I scream? Or run for help? Or try to stop them? But what bothers me most is that I didn't do anything. I didn't do anything.

The hero regrets his passivity in the face of such violence. He tries to deal with it, gets drunk, remembers Les Garnet from college, his quest for fame at any cost. He recalls a dialogue in which he sees clearly that he and Garnet have different values.

He decides that he will return to the gallery and see if he can meet up with Les again.

I remember these things and wonder if I'm not watching someone else's life.

These were my thoughts as I left my car and began walking the two block hike to the Walker. It was late morning, the day after the assault. A steamy breeze whooshing through the shrubbery and trees blended with the traffic on Hennepin Avenue to create a white noise backdrop against which my memories performed. The headache remained lodged behind my eyeballs.

Once inside I was struck by how utterly different my experience of this museum was from the previous day. Was it only yesterday I was here?

First, the people were different. I looked at them differently, wondering to myself, "What if it had been her?" and "What if he had been the unlucky one?" What were these people thinking? What did they know about the thing that happened? Were they even aware of it? I found myself studying their faces for clues.

A middle aged man with a fat black mustache looked at me suspiciously and I became conscious of how different I was from the rest of these people. The thing I experienced has stained me.

The art today is different, too. The famous paintings are as wallpaper that has no attraction whatsoever now as I walk past on my way to Gallery 7. The Chuck Close piece gives me a start when I round that corner there, but as for the rest, it may as well be beige on beige.

I make the assumption that this is a temporary feeling. Then again, one never knows.

So I experienced the Walker differently this second time through, having been immunized against those very images that one day previous induced catalytic tremors in my soul.

I understand now why criminals return to the scene of the crime. It is not simply to see if there have been clues left behind. No, it's more than that. They return to reconcile themselves to the reality of horror. There has been violence, created and experienced, and they return to pay homage--in disbelief and in awe. Not a conscious homage, but in that same emotional vein. Will the blood stains still be there?

As I climbed the stairs leading to the Garnet/Benders show, the muffled sound of happy conversation reached me through the closed door of the gallery. The moment I touched the handle, the door flew open, revealing a man in his mid-thirties with rolling waves of thick dark hair, dark eyes and wide, fat lips. He wore the eager look of a Little Leaguer on his way to the Dairy Queen after a big win. He turned to say something to someone standing inside the gallery out of my view.

I enjoyed the process of writing Terrorists Preying, trying to let the characters determine where it was going. In many cases, I know where I want the story to go. But in this instance, it’s almost the closest I came to actually letting the hero decide where it should go.

To finish this story continue here ... One of my favorite parts is still up ahead.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The New Influencers

"A great man does not have only his own mind, but also those of all his friends." ~ Nietzsche

I've begun reading yet another book on the new social media, on blogs and blogging, this one by Paul Gillin called The New Influencers. Gillin begins his introduction with a confession. In a column in 2003 he forecast the death of blogging, stating that it had crested now and was on its way out. Sort of reminds you of the Decca records exec who rejected the Beatles because guitars were on their way out. Or the writer of this blog who in May 1994 declared the World Wide Web would never catch on because it was "too slow." (Netscape didn't exist then, and bandwidth was an issue.)

Today there are nearly a quarter million new MySpace users a day in this cybercity with a population near the size of Mexico, the world's eleventh largest country.

Gillen's book is a marketing book. Or rather, Gillen is trying to help marketers understand the new media.

One thing for sure, the blogosphere has influence. It helped unmask Dan Rather and brought down Trent Lott. But in manifold smaller ways it is creating new communities, and eroding the power of those power brokers who funneled news and information through the networks. It's also creating new rules for businesses who have marketing messages they want to share.

In the old model, and we're all too familiar with this, a message was created and during breaks in the action of what viewers are watching these one-way communications are shoved into your sockets and blasted into your ears. We've all noticed how the volume rises when many commercials hit the screen. Ouch.

In the new model, Gillen says, marketing must become interactive. Consumers want to dialogue about your product, not be "informed" or preached to or told what to do. In the new media, consumers must be respected. Interaction is the highest form of respect. It says, "I am willing to listen to you. What you have to say is important to me because you are important."

Interactivity is not the only benefit of the blogosphere. Depth of content is available here. I remember an incident about twenty-five years ago when I listened to a speech by a newscaster in which she essentially said that if television is your only source of information, you essentially have a very shallow understanding of what is going on. "After you take away time for sports, weather and commercials, we only have eleven minutes to deal with everything that is going on in the world." In short, if you want to be informed you need to read the magazines.

Well, that is how magazines became influential in the first place, they could and did cover stories in greater depth. But now, with the blogosphere, many magazines are finding themselves challenged as info junkies can skim a virtual universe of resources for news that is more personal, more diverse in its interpretations and more relevant. Our local newspaper, the Duluth News Tribune, has been forced into layoffs and is now even cutting journalists as readership drops and the old model of news distribution is challenged by the rising costs of paper and fuel.

At the beginning I cited a Nietzsche quote that is especially relevant in the media. As new communities form, we develop new relationships that help us become more multifaceted in our understanding, and thereby more influential. The more we are enriched by others, the more we can in turn enrich others.

I agree with Andre Gide who wrote, "Those who fear influences and shy away from them are tacitly confessing the poverty of their souls." We do not know where this will all lead, but I believe it will influence us all.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Mississippi Burning

Well, despite the economic fireworks on Wall Street, they pulled it off. Obama and McCain made their appearances at Ole Miss in Oxford Town just as scheduled. Strange PR antics this week, but my guess is that we’ve not seen the end of any of it, so let’s be sure to keep our collective seat belts fastened.

I just finished reading (listening to) another great book, Ten Days That Unexpectedly Changed America by Steven Gillon, based on the History Channel series by the same name. It was interesting because the key word here is “unexpectedly.” They chose ten dates that were not the ones we might usually choose, like the signing of the Declaration of Independence or the attack on the Alamo. Instead they chose more obscure dates and issues which had wide ranging ramifications. Shay’s Rebellion was one such event. The assassination of William McKinley was another.

Interestingly enough, the tenth day in the book's ten events had to do with Mississippi and race relations in America. It dealt with the killing of three young civil rights workers who were taking part in the Freedom Summer efforts to register black voters. Two were white students from the North.

The chapter details the background of this tragedy as well as the fallout.

If you are not familiar with the great lengths to which the Southern white politicians made it near impossible for a black to vote, I strongly recommend the last chapter of this book as a place to begin your homework.

What was galling to many black leaders, however, was that blacks in Mississippi had been dreadfully oppressed, terrorized and mistreated for a hundred years, and no Federal action was taken. But when two whites from good families got killed here, the FBI came in by the boatload. No expense was spared to insure justice was carried out.

The film Mississippi Burning, starring Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe, is a powerful portrayal of this specific moment in our history. Though criticized for bending facts for the sake of story, one does come away with at least a partial sense of the terror of those times. And the tenth chapter of Gillon's exceptionally researched book vividly acquaints us with those details.

That being said, one hopes that the problems of voter registration in the Deep South are behind us. We have on the ballot our nation's first black candidate for our land's highest office. It would be a shame if blacks were still still hindered somehow due to continued shenanigans.

It's hard to say what the next four years will bring whoever reaches office. George Reedy, in his book The Twilight of the Presidency, wrote, "One of the American people's most cherished notions about the presidency is that the office somehow ennobles the occupant and renders him fit to meet any crisis." (p. 30) The American people love their myths.

As for the future, we can only hope for the best.

Friday, September 26, 2008

More Numbers and Measures

Making measurements and measuring things is something we have done since the beginning. For example, it has been written that the world was created in seven days, the traditional unit of time marked by one rotation of the Earth on its axis. Of course, I will readily acknowledge that there is some disagreement on what this really means, since it says in another place that a day is like a thousand years, or vice versa.

To be more specific, and that’s what measuring is all about, the actual length of a day is 23 hours 56 minutes and four seconds. Over a period of four years these increments are assembled to create the leap year adjustment known as February 29th. (To be absolutely precise there are also occasional leap seconds added periodically to keep things tidy. I’d bet you didn’t know that.)

It is quite amazing how many kinds of measures there are. We have measures of time, such as weeks, hours, minutes, and years. We have measures of mass, such as grams, pounds and tons. We have measures of sound volume, of energy, of radioactivity, of pressure, of type font sizes, of land mass, and of speed.

A byte is a unit of information equal to eight bits in computer engineering. A bolt is a measurement of finished cloth. A board foot is a unit of volume for measuring lumber. (Bored feet is what you get when you’re not dancing.) A breve is a standard unit of relative time in music, equivalent to the length of two whole notes. Bushels are measurement units for dry commodities such as grains or fruits. In 1303 King Edward I defined a bushel as 8 gallons.

In fact, King Edward I made a lot of weights “law” in his day including the ounce, pound, wey, stone, and hundredweight. three decades later, all these units of weight were called avoirdupois, a French word meaning "goods of weight", intended mainly for use in trade. One bit of little known trivia derived from this is that a pound of feathers is actually heavier than a pound of gold. Why? Because gold is measured in troy ounces and feathers in the traditional avoirdupois.

Here’s another common measure where government intervened and changed things. The word "mile" comes from the Roman milia, "thousands." The Romans measured distances in paces, which were about five feet. So, milia passum, 1,000 paces or about 5,000 feet, was the length of a mile. The length of a mile used to be 5,000 feet. However, in 1575 the British Parliament added 280 feet to this measurement, declaring the mile to be 1,760 yards or 5,280 feet, so that it could be divided evenly into furlongs. One furlong is 660 feet long, giving 8 furlongs to the mile.

Automotive Related Measurements
Horsepower, as you might guess, is the amount of power exerted by one horse pulling. After many careful measurements James Watt, inventor of the steam engine, determined that a horse can lift 550 pounds at a rate of one foot per second, which translates into 745.7 watts. Some clever American engineers decided that manpower should have a measurement as well, equivalent to 0.1 horsepower or 74.57 watts.

MPG is the familiar acronym for miles per gallon, which measures the rate of fuel consumption in a motor vehicle. One mile per gallon equals approximately 0.4252 kilometers per liter. In most other countries the measure is actually liters per hundred kilometers.

MPH is our common measure of speed. One mile per hour equals 22/15ths feet per second or 1.609 kilometers per hour or 0.447 meters per second. I can tell why Americans balked at the idea of going metric. Wed have a hard time figuring out how fast were going.

RPM means revolutions per minute, a unit of frequency as a measure of rotation rates in mechanics. In cars RPM is measured by a tachometer. Some motorists pay attention to RPM so they don't over rev and cause component failure. Race car drivers try to keep RPM rates in a range that will provide maximum power.

Oil Measures
The quart is a unit of volume, so named because it represents one quarter of a gallon. When measuring liquid, one quart is 32 fluid ounces, or 57.75 cubic inches. On the other hand, when measuring dry goods like pecans or blueberries, a quart is 67.201 cubic inches. Go figure.

Drums are sometimes used for measuring oil, containing 55 U.S. gallons or about 208.198 liters. Drums are not the same as barrels, the standard unit of volume for measuring petroleum. One drum is equivalent to 1.3095 barrels. A barrel is equivalent to 42 U.S. gallons, which is coincidentally the same size as a traditional wine barrel, more commonly called a tierce. Strangely enough, a barrel of beer is only 31 gallons and the guy who shows up with it is usually the life of the party.

Measuring Success
And finally, we have measures of success. It is not enough to just measure everything. What’s important is measuring the right things. In baseball, what determines a game’s outcomes is runs, not the number of swings. Batters measure their hitting percentage because it has a bearing on the games outcome. Scorekeepers don’t really care how many times you swing the bat, but rather how often you hit the ball and safely reach a base.

For this reason the measure of success in life cannot be, “He who has the most toys wins.” As we know all too well, a lot of scoundrels have done great damage to our economy through theft, deceit, and other machinations. Many who ought to be in jail are going to have nice retirement villas in the Bahamas. And O.J., whose true colors have once more made the national press as his latest trial went to court, might be a “winner” by the sole measure of his lifestyle these past thirty years, but in truth, we know otherwise.

Character and integrity count in the success equation. Compassion would also have to be part of that mix, a component of how we treat others. What are things you evaluate when measuring success?

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Amateur Economist Speaks

So, it is official. President Bush pulled the contenders out of the ring, claiming "our entire economy is in danger" and there is more important work to do.

OK, and this work is... push through a piece of last minute legislation that will rescue Wall Street and apparently save the world.

According to an AFP story two hours ago, "We're in the midst of a serious financial crisis," Bush said in his 13-minute speech from the White House, after angry legislators on Capitol Hill declared the shock proposal dead on arrival. "Without immediate action by Congress , America could slip into a financial panic," the president said. "Ultimately, our country could experience a long and painful recession."

I suppose if we believe the ominous summons, our banks, retirement nests, homes and jobs are all on the brink of destruction as the world economy teeters on the edge.

How bad is it, really? Lebron James Signed '06 All Star Nike Zoom III Shoes are still going for nearly two grand on eBay. A 1993 Honda Civic DX (with 1984 miles on it) is fetching $10,000.

Companies are still paying six figures for ad space in Sport Illustrated, and thousands for every page in smaller circulation trade journals like National Oil and Lube News or Auto Services Operator. NASCAR ticket sales are still brisk. The shelves of all our grocery stores are still stocked with food. There are still too many TV commercials on network television, which means someone is paying for that air time.

OK, so I am only an amateur economist. I do know there are companies that have been hurt these past couple years. Nevertheless, it's official. They're postponing the campaign to roll up their sleeves and hunker down, Obama, McCain and the President. We'll see how successful everyone is at cobbling together a decision that turns them each into heroes.

No finger pointing now, children.

Where's the Dark Knight when you need him?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Great Debate In Oxford Town

Presidential elections, fortunately, occur only once every four years. For 2008 it seems the sawdust trail of stump speeches and all that goes with it has been longer than ever. With the conventions now behind us, we’re finally in the last leg of the journey.

This week the real head-to-head action was scheduled to begin. The plan was for a first debate to take place Friday night at Ole Miss in Oxford Town. Yes, the same Ole Miss made famous by its historical refusal to allow blacks as students less than fifty years ago.

The same Oxford Town where Medgar Evers led the fight for voters rights, for civil rights for blacks, and for one James Meredith to be enrolled at Ole Miss.

The same Oxford Town where Medgar Evers, a World War II veteran who put his life on the line for the freedoms we enjoy, put his life on the line for fellow black Americans to become recipients of the rights our laws had promised but failed to deliver in the deep South.

The same Medgar Evers whose life was taken for taking such a stand.

And so it is, all eyes were to be turned toward Oxford Town this coming Friday. Incredible as it seems, a black candidate for the president of the United States was poised to debate another candidate in the very town where a black man could not even enroll as a student. What an awesome twist.

Unfortunately, and it’s hard to say what the fallout will be from this, but John McCain announced today that the debate was off because of our national financial crisis.

Upon further investigation, it appears that both McCain and Obama had agreed that maybe the debate should be put off, but McCain announced it first as if it were his idea.

Again, hard to say what is really going on at this point. The New York Times produced an editorial stating that McCain was the better man on foreign policy, the topic of this week’s debate at Ole Miss. In fact, the editorial so puffed up McCain’s dominance in this arena that some felt they were raising expectations for malicious purposes. (i.e., if Obama fared well, then McCain bobbled an opportunity.) You would think, however, that McCain would use this opportunity to show his stuff. Who knows?

As of this moment, I can’t comment on the candidates’ maneuvers, but I can shine a light on Oxford Town. First, Bob Dylan’s tribute to Medgar Evers, Only a Pawn In Their Game. Both the lyrics and the manner in which it was sung, on his Times They Are A-Changin album, is on my top ten list of Dylan works.

How anyone can seriously listen to this song without at some point getting tears in his or her eyes over the tragedy of American race relations I will never know. Here are the lyrics.

Only A Pawn In Their Game

A bullet from the back of a bush took Medgar Evers' blood
A finger fired the trigger to his name
A handle hid out in the dark
A hand set the spark
Two eyes took the aim
Behind a man's brain
But he can't be blamed
He's only a pawn in their game.

A South politician preaches to the poor white man
"You got more than blacks, don't complain
You're better than them, you been born with white skin" they explain
And the Negro's name
Is used it is plain
For the politician's gain
As he rises to fame
And the poor white remains
On the caboose of the train
But it ain't him to blame
He's only a pawn in their game.

The deputy sheriffs, the soldiers, the governors get paid
And the marshals and cops get the same
But the poor white man's used in the hands of them all like a tool
He's taught in his school
From the start by the rule
That the laws are with him
To protect his white skin
To keep up his hate
So he never thinks straight
'Bout the shape that he's in
But it ain't him to blame
He's only a pawn in their game.

From the poverty shacks, he looks from the cracks to the tracks
And the hoof beats pound in his brain
And he's taught how to walk in a pack
Shoot in the back
With his fist in a clinch
To hang and to lynch
To hide 'neath the hood
To kill with no pain
Like a dog on a chain
He ain't got no name
But it ain't him to blame
He's only a pawn in their game.

The day Medgar Evers was buried from the bullet he caught
They lowered him down as a king
But when the shadowy sun sets on the one
That fired the gun
He'll see by his grave
On the stone that remains
Carved next to his name
His epitaph plain:
Only a pawn in their game.

Another evocative tune along the same lines is Dylan’s Oxford Town. At this point there will apparently not be a debate Friday night in Oxford Town. But, here are Mr. Dylan’s lyrics from that time. And in the meantime, this soap opera of a campaign will give us more to talk about tomorrow, I am sure.

Oxford Town

Oxford Town, Oxford Town
Ev'rybody's got their heads bowed down
The sun don't shine above the ground
Ain't a-goin' down to Oxford Town

He went down to Oxford Town
Guns and clubs followed him down
All because his face was brown
Better get away from Oxford Town

Oxford Town around the bend
He come in to the door, he couldn't get in
All because of the color of his skin
What do you think about that, my frien'?

Me and my gal, my gal's son
We got met with a tear gas bomb
I don't even know why we come
Goin' back where we come from

Oxford Town in the afternoon
Ev'rybody singin' a sorrowful tune
Two men died 'neath the Mississippi moon
Somebody better investigate soon

Oxford Town, Oxford Town
Ev'rybody's got their heads bowed down
The sun don't shine above the ground
Ain't a-goin' down to Oxford Town

Copyright ©1963; renewed 1991 Special Rider Music

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


Numbers are abstract symbols that people use for counting and measuring. For some reason numbers seem to fascinate us, perhaps because humans like measuring everything and without numbers we'd be stuck saying things like, "There sure were a lot of people at the protest rally today." Was "a lot" something like 18, 180, 1800, or 18,000? The number gives definition.

When I saw how much money the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has given away thus far in 2008, I was... well, impressed. Sharing that number was the impetus behind making Numbers my theme today.

The number of dollars the Gates Foundation gave away in first seven months of 2008.

Number of dollars Gates Foundation gave in July to World Health Organization to review the design and execution of the AIDS initiative in India.

Amount of dollars given to fight poverty in Seattle in July.

Amount given to the UC Berkely Foundation in July.

Worldwide box office receipts for Spiderman 2, in dollars.

Worldwide box office dollars for original Spiderman.

Amount of dollars lost annually to businesses due to counterfeit goods on market.

Number of seizures of counterfeit goods by U.S. government in 2007.

Number of hybrid vehicles FedEx has stated it wishes to get onto the road by 2013, but will likely fail.

Number of years since Dutch eyeglass maker Hans Lipperhey attempted to patent the first telescope.

Number of people worldwide who do not have access to safe drinking water.

Number of deaths last year from preventable illnesses and malnutrition.

Percent of insect species which have yet to be named.

Number of pages in Tolstoy's War and Peace, the Random House Modern Library edition.

Population of Easter Island in the Pacific, where my brother and his wife are on vacation today.

Number of people per square kilometer on Easter Island.

The number for Ed Newman in the 1969 draft lottery.

Number of U.S. soldiers killed in Viet Nam War.

Approximate number of these deaths that were not combat related.

Number of U.S. soldiers killed who were teenagers.

Number of U.S. soldiers wounded.

Number of U.S. citizens who served in Viet Nam.

Number of Internet users in North America, 2008.

Percentage of North Americans currently using Internet.

Percentage in Africa of Internet users.

Percentage growth of Internet use in Africa since year 2000.

Current number of Internet users worldwide.

My favorite number.

The number of books I own by Graham Greene

The number of large fish that Peter and disciples netted when fishing in John 21 after Jesus told them to throw their net into the water one more time after catching nothing all night.

Seating capacity of the Mexican restaurant in St. Cloud where I ate a Cancun (seafood burrito) after dropping my daughter off at college this past Sunday.

The number of Dylan songs on Barack Obama's iPod.

Number of dollars spent to build new stadium for New York Yankees, in billions.

Number of people following me on Twitter.

Number of people following Desarae Veit.

Well... I gotta head to the office, so... That's all, folks! Have a great day.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Terrorists Preying

It is Short Story Monday. This is the first section of the story I wrote about here on this blog last Friday. After sharing the first portion of this story with a professor and writer of fiction from Chapel Hill NC, I was encouraged by the words, "a good beginning." He suggested I develop it into a much longer piece. This is that first section.

Terrorists Preying
c 1992, ed newman
"The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths." ~ Bruce Nauman

Although I'd been an art major in college -- mostly painting and drawing -- I became discouraged with it shortly after graduation and gave it up. I was living with my family on Long Island at the time and for some while afterwards I still visited the New York art galleries, making regular tours of the Whitney, the Guggenheim and the Modern.

What finally got me out of art was the whole directionlessness of it all. No one seemed to know what art was about any more. DuChamp started it, of course, with his Readymades. It took the rest of the world a half century to catch on. Everything was art, the critics were saying. For myself, their steel-firm logic stubbornly taunted everything I'd built my life around, leaving me creatively disabled, impotent, and broken down. In the end, I became the essence of minimalism, and ceased to exist.

After leaving Long Island in 197-, I knocked about various parts of the Midwest until by some circuitous route I ended up in Minnesota. I hadn't been to an art gallery in nearly ten years when I finally decided, while living here in Minneapolis, that I should check out the Walker. By chance I had picked up some Twin Cities rag and saw mention of a show that included new work by Les Garnet, with whom I had shared a studio at Tyler where I'd gone to school in Philadelphia. Les was a small town Ohio hick who back in '72 got mesmerized by the Big Apple and turned freak, getting his hair kinked, wearing snakeskin boots and finding his way into the weird world of fashion design. On the side, he maintained a loft in SoHo, which was fashionable at the time, and began doing a lot of work with sprayers.

I remember how Les kept saying he hated the city and would one day get a farm in the country, but the review of his current show gave every indication that he and Kyle Benders -- it was a joint show -- were New Yorkers through and through. The review referred to Garnet and Benders as being in the forefront of New York's "New Breed Movement." Their work was described as "serious" and "provocative." The reviewer went on to praise their "refusal to compromise when dealing with the real issues of our time." Mention was also made of the "myopic vision of our age.

"Was this the same Les Garnet with whom I had painted at Tyler? I kicked myself for missing the opening -- he surely would have been there -- yet looked forward with eagerness to visiting the exhibition of Les' work as soon as possible nonetheless. I decided I would explore the Walker that following Sunday and experience first hand the hottest new trends in modern art.

Sunday afternoon. As I casually made my way through the Walker, I was impressed by the well-represented selection of Modern works, including pieces by nearly all the "names" of our century. The Chuck Close piece was strikingly placed. A prominent Frankenthaler, somber Rothkos, a colorful Morris Louis, some Pop art and kitsch by Lichtenstein and Warhol, pieces by Albers, Poons, Rauschenburg -- all these marvelous pieces hanging out together like an old gang.
They left their mark on all of us, the young painters who flowed through art schools in search of answers to the Big Q, "What is Art?" These are those who provided versions of the answer, annotated, up-dated, and outmoded, inebriating us with inframaddening inferences, delicious anti-art sentiments, and godlike gestures; fanciful creations that were probably not always authentic in their pretensions. So be it. I drank of that well and, for a time, it satisfied.

Had I not been seeking it, I may not have found the New Breed show at all, as it had been tucked away in a special gallery on another floor at the top of an unmarked flight of stairs. No doubt this would explain why there was no one else present to witness or experience what I was about to witness.

Entering the gallery, I noticed a small holder stuffed with silver brochures and I took one.

- Imitation Reality -
A Preview of Recent Works
by Kyle Benders and Les Garnet
Sponsored by The Walker Museum of Fine Arts
in conjunction with the "Best of Show" Modern Arts Series

Itself a very attractive piece, this silver chromecote brochure radiated slick sophistication, with its blazing blood red letters laying down the challenge, Imitation Reality, implying there's more here than meets the eye. I was ready. Still, I've never understood how the critics, the press and the galleries could take these guys so seriously.

Then I saw their work.

The first thing to capture my attention upon entering, on a wall directly opposite from where I'd been standing, was a series of eight or ten large framed pieces which gave the appearance of being the most grotesque color enlargements from a medical encyclopedia, body parts with the skin removed, infected with cancerous tumors but somehow distorted. The images were super-realistic, as if actual photographs, though the legend stated they were mixed media and non-representational. Title for the series: "Man's Essence in the Age of Science."I turned away and chose to find something else to dwell on.

There were a number of small paintings on the wall behind me and a number of unusual three dimensional constructions in various sections of the room. To my left there was a very large painting that was obviously Les' work, but before losing myself in it I was tantalized by the holographic image that was set before it. On a thick patch of lush grass knelt a life-sized image of a woman, a woman in motion, removing her robe in the most provocative way imaginable. She was kneeling with her back to the room so that one had to walk around to her other side to really see what men long to see, but as soon as I began to walk alongside her, she drew the robe back up over her shoulders and modestly bowed her head. The holographic scene was absolutely stunning in its effect and I walked around it twice to see if there were any way to gain access to some secret vision, and failing. I couldn't imagine how it was done. When I walked behind her, she slid the robe off her shoulders again and was about to let it drop. Yet when I stepped again to her side, she once more began pulling the robe back up over her shoulders.

The whole scene left me both amazed and amused at the clever use to which modern technology had been put in this provocative demonstration.

When I at last turned, I found myself standing beneath and before an exceptionally large canvas titled "The Light" and I saw what it was before which this woman was kneeling, unveiling herself.

From a distance the painting appeared orderly and actually restful to the eye. It was a yantra of sorts, a focus for meditation in which one stills the mind by becoming absorbed in its balance and symmetry. On closer inspection, from my new position between the woman and the wall, the painting was an incredibly detailed and graphic reproduction of scenes of sexual perversion and unspeakable violence, crushed together in a horrifying vision of hell. But these images of cruelty and ugliness -- painted beautifully, I might add -- which fanned out across the canvas were not the primary focus of the painting; rather, they were obstacles hiding from view the primary theme: behind all darkness there is light. Ultimately, it was light which illuminated these scenes of degradation and brutality, a light that was hidden by these same scenes, though from a distance one could see gleams of that brilliance breaking out from its hiding place beyond the wall of corporeal images crammed into this immense space.

While staring at this awesome painting, which filled nearly a whole wall, I wondered how long it had taken Les to paint such a volume of detail. Only the drivenness of obsession could propel a man to produce this kind of work.

Just then, a jogger in a grey T-shirt and red shorts walked in through the main gallery door. I had been alone for some several minutes at this point, so he startled me. And he, being unaware of me, breathing heavily and wiping his forehead, cheeks and neck with a bunched up hand towel, strode past me on his way through the center aisle of the room. His sweat-soaked T-shirt clung to him. I guessed that he'd just finished a lengthy jaunt around the lakes and came in here to cool off. His vacant-eyed head bobbed as he walked, hanging forward with bushy black brows too full for his thin, slack-jawed face. I could feel his fatigue as he ambled through the pristine corridors of the Walker.

As the jogger approached the far end of the room, three men emerged from the double doors there. The jogger stopped when he saw them and responded as if he knew them. I couldn't hear what they were saying.

The smallest of these men squared off with the jogger in a half jest sort of way as if to box, like old school chums do upon meeting. Next, the guy started poking at the jogger, once or twice reaching out and pinching his leg, then slapping him lightly.

Suddenly, they were all over him, grabbing him and bringing him down. The one man was a huge, bull-necked kind of guy, all bronzed and enormous like a Turkish bouncer. The jogger writhed, making desperate spasmodic efforts to escape. They shoved the hand towel in his mouth as a gag and while the other two held him down, the Turk began twisting his foot. The jogger moaned in anguish.

Waves of panic shot through me as I realized I should do something. Should I run to get help? Then I became confused. Was this even real? Or was it some kind of performance piece, like the three dimensional woman who appeared to be disrobing there beside me? "Challenging our sensibilities"... "new level of intensity"... I stood dumbstruck; I didn't know what to do.

The Turk now had the leg sideways. A crackling sound of breaking bone echoed through the gallery and the agitated jogger went berserk. Wriggling his good leg free, he crashed it into the biggest guy's side, without result. Quickly the other two brought the loose limb under control and continued their torture.

I was walking toward them now, walking the length of the room until I was standing over them, close enough to touch them, and they didn't even notice me, as if I were invisible, a mute phantom eavesdropper.

Their faces were serious, businesslike. They worked quickly, not frenzied. One of the two smaller men, a man wearing a green army jacked, perspired slightly. Glancing up he caught a nod from the Turk and pulled out a knife, which he flipped open with a click.

At this, the jogger was in fits. His left leg had been broken and was pushed forward, perpendicular to the floor, the foot twisted around backward, everything all wrong and stupid and unbelievable and sickening.

At this, the jogger was in fits. His left leg had been broken and was pushed forward, perpendicular to the floor, the foot twisted around backward, everything all wrong and stupid and unbelievable and sickening.

The Turk shoved the knife into the side of the knee and with quick jerking movements severed the kneecap on three sides. Grabbing the dangling kneecap in his fist he pulled it away from the leg and, with a twist, wrenched it from its place, leaving a gaping hole, torn tendons and bloodied flesh. Immediately, like rodeo cowboys who have just finished branding a terrified calf, the three men leaped to their feet. As if on cue, all three shot glances in my direction, then turned and bounded from the room, leaving me alone in the gallery with the jogger, who was lying on the floor at my feet, his head arched back, arms and hands convulsing at his sides, the leg flopping now, pathetic and strange.

Evidently a guard who heard the commotion had run to call the police. An ambulance had been called while others from The Walker rushed about to help administer first aid to the violated man. When the police finally arrived, I was seated in the stairwell, staring with unfocused eyes, my hands fastened to the handrail.

Continued next week on Short Story Monday

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Sunday, September 21, 2008

Public Speaking

“If I had a choice between getting a round of applause by delivering a twenty-six second applause line and getting a round of boos by telling the truth, I’d rather get the round of applause.” ~ former Senator Bob Kerrey, on why campaign finance reform won't work.

The Bob Kerrey quote, extracted from Naked Economics by Charles Wheelan, was used to illustrate why campaign finance reform favors small organized groups rather than the masses. But it also says something to me about politicians. They are people like you and me. They prefer being liked than being disliked. They prefer applause and hurrahs to brickbats and broken jaws. (Yes, I went for the cheap rhyme there.)

My thought upon reading this quote (one of many other extracts from this book I'd recommended the other day) is that politicians must get a rush when they encounter large, passionate crowds. And politicians who are good at working a crowd help their audiences enjoy it even more, stoking passions and making moments memorable.

Newsweek magazine, after the Kerry/Bush election, did a marvelously detailed and lengthy overview of the campaigns of John Kerry and Bush in 2004. Their reporters were embedded inside the campaigns, having agreed to share none of their inside observations till after the elections, much like the reporters embedded within the armed forces in their assault upon Baghdad.

One of the most memorable scenes in the Newsweek report was a description of Kerry at one of his last whistle stops in Iowa, the weekend before the election. He'd landed at an airport, the mobs were enormous that had come out to greet him. His children were there, including a daughter who lived in California and was (if my memory is correct) somehow professionally involved in some facet of public speaking herself.

This daughter observed her dad's power to mesmerize the crowd, and then while the energy level was peaking, while they were at a crescendo of emotion, in this particular instance he kept talking and talking and talking, and despite her having chastened him about this before he pretty much violated that basic maxim of public speaking, "It is better to talk ten minutes too short than two minutes too long." Kerry spoke for an hour when twenty minutes would have been more than sufficient. He essentially left them flattened because at that point they did not want to hear all this political jabber. They just wanted to get jazzed.

Whether you're an entertainer, a public speaker or a customer service professional, one of your goals is to keep them coming back for more. You don't have to say everything you know every time you have an audience. Like a daily blog, you just want to make sure there's something of takeaway value that will keep them coming back.

Rather than bore you with everything else I know about public speaking, just go out there and have a great day.

On another topic tangentially related to public speaking, tonight the New York Yankees will be playing their last game at Yankee Stadium. The season is winding to an end and the Yanks will begin next season at a 1.3 billion dollar ballpark across the street. Completed in 1923, a lot of history was made there. One of my most memorable personal moments was seeing the great Mickey Mantle knock in two runs with a one-hop-into-the-stands double to left on Bat Day in the mid-sixties.

Known as The House That Ruth Built, one of the greatest public speeches in baseball was given there by Lou Gehrig, the former Iron Man of baseball, the man for whom A.L.S. was named. Here's the opening line of that great speech followed by a YouTube link to that incredible moment. It was an awesome moment, preserved for us by the miracle of modern technology.

"Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth." ~ Lou Gehrig, July 4, 1939

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Love of Poetry & Other Surprises

Last night. I knew going into it that this would not be a typical Friday evening. Harrold and Nancy, my wife’s sister and her husband, were flying in from Dallas. My father-in-law Bud Wagner, WWII vet and author of And There Shall Be Wars, was picking them up at the airport. They were to be here for supper.

I’d hurried home, changed clothes and skimmed through email in an effort to clear my plate for an evening of playing host, and giving myself the liberty to temporarily have no responsibilities. The phone rang. It was my daughter calling home from college to ask if they were here yet. She was all cheerfulness. We shared a few minutes on the phone. I suggested she call back in an hour or so.

Ten minutes later, I heard the gate opening outside my opened office window. The dogs sprang up and went into their berserk welcoming agitation. I walked to the door and, lo! It was my daughter, beaming with joy, in part due to seeing the surprise on my face. She had not called from Morris at all. She’d been hitchhiking and was just down the road with a friend of hers named Matt.

“Happy belated Birthday, Dad,” she said, handing me a present and a card. After hugs and greetings (Susie had joined us at this point) we chatted, laughed, talked, listened to hitchhiking stories.

This kind of unexpected surprise visitation has become something of a tradition in our family, handed down thru the generations. Bud, my wife’s dad, pulled off surprise visits to Nancy and Harrold in Dallas – a thousand miles away – on more than one occasion. Susie and I with the kids in tow pulled off a surprise Easter visit to my folks ten or twelve years ago. A variation of “shock and awe,” you might say.

Shortly after, our guests arrived. A wonderful dinner was shared. At some point I opened the card, which contained a CD of music that Christina made for me with love, and then the package, a book of poetry by Czeslaw Milosz called Facing the River.

After dinner we’d broken up into pairs, jabbering enthusiastically, playing catch up after not having seen one another in a year. Harrold picked up the Milosz book, quietly read a couple poems, then made a soft “wow” type exclamation.

Over the years we've shared many conversations on the widest range of topics. The four of us -- Harrold, Nancy, Susie and I – went to Mexico together in the fall of 1980 to work at an orphanage. The shared experience taught us much, and though we live in different parts of the country, our paths have converged annually. Business, faith, philosophy, child-rearing, pets, home ownership, health, taxes, readings, music… over the years we have talked about many things, but last night for the first time that I can recall we got jazzed about poetry. Milosz set it off.

Sliding into the living room I proceeded to grab books by two of my favorite poets, Rainer Maria Rilke and Billy Collins. I read to Harrold "Another Reason I Don’t Keep A Gun in the House" from Collins’ Sailing Alone Around the Room. Harrold’s face lit up with that one, so I shared another… and then another.

We entered Rilke’s "The Panther"… then moved to my office where, online, I began to share a few of my poems beginning with one about loneliness called "Hitchhiking Across Antarctica." I recited other poems from my website, in part because I enjoy the reciting poetry and in part because I had a captive audience. Each became a catalyst for more stories from each of our life experiences. Like water overflowing its banks, the conversation spilled into new regions in unexpected ways. No harm done, not like hurricanes and floods. But a really fine beginning to their stay with us.

Here’s a poem from Billy Collins about poetry itself. Tomorrow maybe I will share a couple of my own, though as is often the case, sometimes you never know what will happen next.

Introduction to Poetry

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem's room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

Billy Collins

Friday, September 19, 2008

Ars Longa, Vita Brevis

“And so it is… Art is long and life is short, and success is very far off. And thus, doubtful of strength to travel so far, we talk a little about the aim – the aim of art which, like life itself, is inspiring, difficult – obscured by mists.” ~ Joseph Conrad

So many of today’s magazines and books on writing focus on the process of writing, with the subtle message that if your words dazzle and sing you will be a success. Too often, they overlook the fact that a writer needs to have something to say, a message worth printing, a story worth telling. Even when this is so, there is no guarantee of success, for “the race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but time and chance happen to them all.”

Nevertheless, we press on. We speak because we are impelled to speak, write because of an inner necessity. And at night, on our beds, we dream dreams.

My story Terrorists Preying, like many of my stories, began as a dream. The dream became the story’s seed, and as I breathed on it the breath of life it grew. Gide once wrote that his best work was produced little by little, rather than in great bursts of energy like Asimov, who sprayed more than 300 books into existence.

They say writers would do best to write about what they know. Sometimes the struggle is in part to identify what we know and don't know. Where does knowledge and knowing come from? And where do you stop once you start asking questions like "Who am I?" and "Why am I here?" And how do you establish your significance as a person? Terrorists Preying is one man’s struggle with these issues, with these kinds of questions.

“The person who appreciates a great work of art has the feeling that the work grows in him as he becomes involved in a prolonged capturing of emerging marginal meanings. He feels that he, too, is creative, that he himself is adding to his experience and understanding. Moreover, he wants to confront the work of art many times. He is not easily tired of it, as he would be had he read a purely logical statement. He realizes that the work of art does not merely transmit information; it produces pleasure.” ~ Silvano Arieti

What you've just read here is from the introduction to my second self published booklet called Potpourri. The first included Lu Lee and the Magic Cat, The Young Messenger and An Introduction to the Story of Samson & Delilah. The second Potpourri was the longer Terrorists Preying.

I love the Arieti quote. It explains why we never tire of the movies, poetry, art or music that we love. On my next Short Story Monday I will share the beginning of Terrorists Preying. I invested a lot of myself into that one.

And in the meantime, carpe diem. Seize the day!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Henry Poole Is Here

Went to see Henry Poole Is Here last night, a very interesting story well told. The film raises issues worth talking about. It's also not likely receive the audiences it deserves since it doesn't feature major stars, special effects or intense nail-biting horror or drama.

As a writer I came away saying, "I wish I'd written that." The way the story is told, something like a fisherman paying out line, little by little, letting a little more line out, or like a painter laying down thin layers of line and color... Each scene leads to the next in a rational manner, even though to some extent the premise is absurd. Through the normal interactions of the characters and Henry Poole's memories, motivations are revealed and the story takes shape.

Essentially, Henry Poole is a very depressed man who buys a house that he does not expect to live in very long. It is not the house he wanted. He had hoped to buy the house he grew up in, but the people would not sell it even though he offered them any price. Henry drinks and lies around, clearly depressed in an extreme way. We eventually learn he is waiting to die from an unnamed (in the film) disease which will ravage him quickly and soon.

His Hispanic neighbor, a cheerful woman who also has experienced hurt, tries to welcome him to the neighborhood in a warm manner. In the process she sees in a stain, on the back wall of his recently stuccoed house, the face of Christ. Through her well meaning meddling, she brings a priest, some friends and still more people.

There is also a relationship built with the woman who lives next door and her mute daughter. And the checkout girl at the grocery store also notices Henry's despair and tries to encourage him. She's a nice kid with coke bottle lenses for eyeglasses, a girl nearly blind with bad eyesight.

The tension in the story arises from Henry's desire to be left alone. Wallowing in his despair as he waits to die, he resents the invasion on his space by well meaning others. Henry has ruled out hope for himself, but is constantly challenged by Esperanza and others who begin to be influenced by the events taking place in his yard, for the wall begins to bleed the blood of Christ, and miracles begin to happen.

There are several refreshing aspects of this Sundance film. First, the priest in the film is not a fool or silly caricature, but a real man who responds like a sensitive person. Not your typical Hollywood stereotype for men of the cloth. Also, the story avoids a number of cliche side paths that could have cheapened the effect of the film. There are some who will see the film as hokey. For sure there is an element of implausibility in the premise... but through a directorial deftness, the film succeeds.

Henry Poole's story is ultimately about hope and despair, and what it takes to reach the deepest part of the soul when hope is utterly lost. If you get a chance, try to see it.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Naked Economics

Why did the entrepreneur cross the road? Because he believed he could make money on the other side.

The book Naked Economics, by Charles Wheelan, is a worthwhile read that I highly recommend to anyone. Wheelan puts in layman's terms many of the complex ideas and issues that have littered the minds of intellectuals and economists for decades. Of the book, 1992 Nobel Prize winner (for economics) Gary Becker wrote, "I recommend this book to anyone who wants to gain an understanding of basic economics with little pain and much pleasure."

One reason for reading books like this one, and getting familiar with how economics works, is because in our postmodern era it would appear that Capitalism has won the war against Marxist Socialism and it is important to understand the reasons Capitalism (with a capital C) became the force that it has in today's global society.

Another reason for reading books on economics is that with hailstorm of financial upheavals bringing major banks and investment houses to their knees, it can be helpful having at least a rudimentary understanding of why all this turbulence is putting so many retirement portfolios at risk today.

The reality is, capitalism is not a perfect system. Wheelan, in fact, argues that a market driven economy is to economics as democracy is to government: "a decent, if flawed, choice among many bad alternatives.”

Early on he states, “Economics starts off with one very important assumption: Individuals act to make themselves as well off as possible.” Is this not why many people from all over the world have striven to make there way to America? I've heard stories of people who came to the U.S. and we startled to find that the streets were not paved with gold.

In an early part of the book Wheelan notes that markets are not always fair, and that we especially see this in pay scales. “Small differences in talent tend to become magnified into huge differentials in pay... One need only to be slightly better than the competition in order to gain a large (and profitable) share of that market.” Horses that win by a nose, superstar baseball players... the difference in financial outcomes between best and runner up can be significant. If I have a job opening, and one person gets it, that person ends up with a living wage while the contender remains unemployed. Markets are amoral and not concerned with the apparent unfairness of this situation. In addition, they reward scarcity, which has no relationship to value.

Even if we do understand how free markets work, and why government controlled economies are problematic, I doubt we'll ever fully understand what's going on with the trillion dollar fiascoes like Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. I've heard it said that when you have autopsies without blame, only then can you know why the patient died. In point of fact, power is a more important than truth, and you can be sure Republicans and Democrats alike will do all they can to make sure that blame gets placed at the other's doorstep.

In this instance, the Bush administration is being tarred for not having provided more oversight to these major mortgage institutions. But in point of fact, in 2003 when the Bush admin pressed for greater oversight, it was the Democrats who objected. (Read the N.Y.Times story here.)

I sat on a plane last spring next to a fellow who works for one the nation's largest housing lenders. He said that five years ago the government put pressure on them to loosen lending standards in order to get more people into houses. Easy loans are not always an easy burden to bear. The mess we're in was created by people inside the beltway trying to manipulate the rules in a manner that violated the way markets work. To paraphrase a popular saying, the road to economic hell is paved with good intentions.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Mistake Proofing

Mistake proofing, or making things “idiot proof” as some engineers crudely call it, is a process in which a factor is designed in so as to prevent mistakes from occurring. Here are some examples from daily life that you may have encountered from time to time.

Filing cabinets can fall on you due to the altered center of gravity if you opened all the drawers at once. So they are designed in a way that makes it possible to open only one drawer at a time. This occasionally gets frustrating, but is actually a safety feature.

The old 3.5 inch floppy discs had a beveled corner which had to be on the right as you stuck the disc into the slot of your computer. This kept people from putting discs in upside down.

The safety bar on my push lawn mower is there so that I can’t stick my hand into the blades while the motor is running. The motor cuts off when I let go of the handle.

Circuit breakers keep you from putting too many electric devices into an outlet that would draw so much current it melts the wires and causes a fire. This is a wonderful safety feature which we take for granted.

The little hole near the top front of a sink is a mistake proofing device that keeps you from flooding the house by accidentally leaving the water running with the trap closed.

OK, now that we know what it is to make something mistake proof, what can we do to mistake proof the rest of our lives? How can we have mistake proof relationships? Is there some way to mistake proof our marriages? Ever notice how some men and women always get involved with the wrong kinds of people? How do they do that? Is there a safety feature that can be injected into social relationships that keeps such bad pairings from occurring? Can we mistake proof our social encounters so as to avoid wrecking a good time we've had together?

Wouldn't it be great if we could mistake proof our tongues so we never said things that hurt people or caused misunderstandings?

How can we mistake proof our hiring processes in business, so as to always get the right person for the job?

And what were hanging chads all about in Florida? Was there not enough thought given to making those election ballot machines mistake proof? If voters screwed up somehow, the blame must be laid at the feet of those who created the voting machines.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could mistake proof our elections so we don’t ever elect the wrong people?

I’ve read that there are quite a few instances in which the wrong person has been put in prison for a crime he or she did not commit. And sometimes, as it would appear happened in the O.J. case, the guilty party gets away with murder. How can we mistake proof our justice system?

Inquiring minds want to know.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The M Zone

I began building my first website in 1994-95 as a way to learn about the World Wide Web and also as a means for sharing some of my creating work, similar motives for the development of this blog. I usually learn new skills by reading books, buying a few for my personal library, and then applying through doing. I am not a great programmer, but the rudimentary HTML that I learned at that time has gotten me out of many a jam, including here on Blogger.

When Adobe Pagemill was introduced in the mid-nineties, they were in such a rush to get it to market that they forgot to include certain important information inthe User Guide. The day I got it, I went online to a PageMill user group to find out this crucial information. The author of the instructions was in the group! She said that they would add that info immediately.

My website included articles, art and short stories, plus a Labyrinth which I created as a tribute to Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentine short story writer perpetually fascinated by labyrinths. I am certain he would have loved the labyrinthine hyper connectedness of the web.

This story today, on Short Story Monday, was placed in the Creativity section of my website in the late nineties. In 2003 I was contacted by a Joe Sacher of Indianapolis who, for a film class, wished to make a short film based on this story. In his version, the film opens with a reporter out front of the building as events within unfold. It was a fun screen play. This was followed by a more elaborate version of the story. It was fun knowing that before the Internet, the unpublished version of this story would have been left sitting in a drawer. Instead, because of the Internet, some of my stories have been translated into three foreign languages and another has become a short film.

And now...

The M Zone

The revelation came suddenly. Like an "Aha!"... only it was an "Oh no!"

Richard Busby slumped into his chair, leaned his head back and stared off into space, attempting to make himself deaf to what he was hearing. "This is verified?" he asked, referring to the data in a report that had fallen from his hand.

"Yes, sir. I'm sorry, sir," Dr. Frey, Director of R&D, said.

Busby's brain was numb. Even though he begun to suspect it, had himself experienced the effects, he had remained in denial. "Do you realize what this means?" Busby asked.

Frey nodded, the small, thin line of mouth grimly expressionless. His dark eyes scanned the desktop and came to rest on the latest Forbes, which featured the ten most significant men of the first half of the 21st century. There, alongside Bill Gates, the world's first trillionaire, was Richard Busby, developer of the M Zone.

In the instant of Busby's epiphany his whole life flashed. His birthday in 1991. His celebrated experiments in computer design at age twelve. His national awards for innovation in computer aided brain mapping while still a teen. His leadership on the A.I. Research Team at Stanford resulting in the development of silicon implants to improve memory. His discoveries regarding the nature of memory, including his renowned theorem that memory is a series of hyperlinked rooms in an endless hallway, each room filled with neural impressions braiding internal and external stimuli.

His father had been an entrepreneur who distrusted government. Like his father he brought his ideas to the marketplace. Eventually he founded a company of his own with enough venture capital to attract the best minds from around the world. His breakthrough using wet wire connectivity allowed computer hardware to be integrated with brain synapses.

His chief claim to fame had been the development of the M Zone product line. By means of a cerebral probe a person could locate and re-experience memories. Busby verified, in his early research, that each memory is contained in a tiny shell or room within the brain, draped in such a manner as to both reveal and conceal it. When properly stimulated, the full and complete memory is revived and re-experienced.

Connections between man and technology were nothing new. The twentieth century saw the development of pacemakers, cochlear implants, pain relief modules and other forms of embedded electronics. Implantation of chips inside the heads of paraplegics to interpret brain signals and silicon retinal implants to recover sight were ancient history now.

Utilizing the M Zone Activator (MZA) one could safely locate, experience and re-experience the best times of one's life. Once approved by the FDA and BGS the patented MZA took the world by storm. At first it was presented as a means to comfort people in their twilight years. Before long Busby's marketing team exploited the general consumer markets with ads like, "Relive the Best Times of Your Life!" and "Can Memory Be More Real Than Reality? Try It & See" and "Deja View? Yes, You May!"

After its much ballyhooed market introduction the safety of the product had never been questioned. Testing showed that memory could be re-played endlessly without being damaged. Or so Busby had been told. Richard Busby never realized that Dr. Frey had not allowed his staff to present contrary findings. It was only a matter of time before inklings of a terrible truth began to emerge. The tech support hotline began receiving complaints from people who had trouble finding and dialing in their favorite memories. Tech support staff insisted that the product was not being used properly. The problems were being designated user error. That the MZA was slowly and imperceptibly depleting the contents of each memory until it was used up seemed inconceivable.

When Busby learned of the increasing number of complaints he requested new studies. The truth had not been discovered in part because memories are like a gas which expands to fill the space available within a container. While being depleted the gas thins but is still present. Likewise a nearly depleted memory can be re-lived in full force. Holographic in nature, one atom of a memory contains the whole. But when that last atom has been tapped, there is only a void and nothingness. A blank. An empty shell.

With horror Richard Busby understood what the MZA was doing. With an M Zone Activator in nearly every home in the civilized world his invention was erasing the best memories in human history. Everyone who had purchased his product will eventually erase all of their good memories, memories designed to comfort us in our old age when memory is all that we have.

Formerly heralded as a hero, he now realizes that he has unwittingly been worse than a fiend. His face is pale as he turns away from Dr. Frey and stares at the wall, then closes his eyes.

When he opens them again he is seated in a plush cushioned chair at his cabin on Lake Tweed. He glances down at the MZA which which is connected to his cerebrum via the electronic probe. On a notepad he is making hash marks, four downstrokes and a diagonal, four downstrokes and a diagonal. He counts 194 strokes. "Only 306 to go," he mutters to himself. "If I'm lucky."

He leans forward once more, double checks the settings and pushes the button.

The revelation came suddenly. Like an "Aha!"... only it was an "Oh no!"

Richard Busby slumped into his chair, leaned his head back and stared off into space, attempting to make himself deaf to what he was hearing. "This is verified?" he asked, referring to the data in a report that had fallen from his hand.

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