Sunday, November 4, 2012

Duck! Here Comes Another Election!

Well, here we are again, four years later, and there's still no major party candidate that can even hope the earn my vote. They are so much the same in so many ways that it's beginning to feel like a nation with only one candidate on the ballot. Whoever wins, we all lose.

Unless, by some miracle, we wake up enough, as a nation, to realize that voting Democrat or Republican politicians into office won't really change anything. We'll have the same policies no matter which party is in power, because that's how they retain the power. But we have other choices.

In most states, you have the option of voting for Libertarian Gary Johnson or Green Party's Jill Stein. I'm voting for Johnson, despite the fact that he has never promised to go after the big banks for fraud, because at least I feel that he won't bail them out, and he will tend toward policies that increase freedom. He also wants to get rid of the 100-year-old Federal Reserve

But if Johnson were not on the ballot, I'd even consider voting for the very "progressive" Green Party candidate before either Obama or Romney. At the very least, Jill Stein would shake things up, and her Department of Justice would put some criminals in jail. And since I doubt even a miraculous presidential win for the Green Party would be accompanied by a congressional takeover as well, the more radical of her policy proposals would never take place.

You may think that voting for any third-party candidate is a waste of a vote. I disagree. The truly wasted vote is one given to a candidate you don't believe in.

I won't like the results of the upcoming election. But this year I can honestly say, "Don't blame me; I didn't vote for either one of them."

Friday, August 31, 2012

Deep Thought

I was listening to Radiolab this afternoon, and on it they had a segment about a software program called "Eureka," the task of which is to analyze very complex data and discover a formula (or set of formulae) that describe it. For example, the swinging of two interacting pendulums, or the patterns in a living cell.

And Eureka does a great job of extracting such formulae, but provides no meaning behind it. It has the answers, in other words, but not the questions. As soon as I heard this I immediately flashed back to The Hitchhiker's Guide To the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. Here is an excerpt from the fifth episode of the original radio series:

... [A]nd so one day a race of hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings built themselves a gigantic supercomputer called Deep Thought to calculate once and for all the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. For seven and a half million years Deep Thought computed and calculated and eventually announced that the answer was in fact forty-two, and so an even bigger computer had to be built to find out what the actual question was.

I quote Douglas Adams a lot, not only because his material is mind-bogglingly funny, but because so much of it, even when not based in fact, is nevertheless true. Which is, of course, what makes it so funny.

I wonder, now that we have built a smaller (and faster, apparently) version of Deep Thought, will we ever manage to build that second supercomputer to find the questions behind the answers?

By the way, if you're not familiar with the series, the second computer had a very dull name. It was called "the Earth."

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Dying of American Retail

On Wednesday, on the way to a fun day with my wife and youngest son in York, Maine, I stopped by to drop some old negatives off at Ritz Camera in Newington, New Hampshire, to be transformed into digital images. For this process, I had subscribed to something called Ritz Network, which takes about $20 a months out of my bank account and puts it on a card I can use to pay for the imaging work. In exchange for that, I got $50 off my most recent camera purchase.

I made this deal because I knew that I had a lot of negatives I wanted to convert, since I print very little these days, and because the store is as convenient as I can expect living out in the boondocks as I do; it's about 20 miles from where my wife works, and so in a location we are frequently close to.

Only problem is that the store is gone. Kaput. Empty, with half its sign torn down and a whole lot of nothing inside. So now, if I want to convert my old negatives using the Network card, I have to take them to Salem, 50 miles from home in a direction we almost never go. It one of the services Ritz only does in store, and it is the primary reason I got the card.

And it isn't just that the store is closed. It's that I had to show up at the mall, ready to do business, to find out it was closed.

I am a registered Ritz customer with an address in New Hampshire. I've ordered products and services online to be picked up in Newington. And yet Ritz did not see fit to inform me that the store nearest my location was closing, or offer me any kind of compensation for my inconvenience.

If this is how American retail acts (and it frequently is), then it's no wonder that customers are bailing. Look, we don't have time, money, or patience for this treatment anymore. If you want to keep your customers, you have to remember that you need them more than they need you.

I'm pissed off, and I want my money back. But I can live without my local Ritz Camera. I can find someone else who'll digitize my negatives, and I'll probably do it through the mail.

It's not just the economy that's killing American retail; in many ways, American retail is killing itself.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Job Creators

Let me put this out on the table: a company does not create jobs because it has extra money. If you give a company more money, it will keep it unless there is a good business reason to spend it. Tax incentives are not, in general, good business reasons. There is one force that drives, more than any other, the creation of new and better jobs:

Demand.

I think that supply-side economics is fundamentally, fatally flawed, in that it ignores the basis of all economics: incentive. Sure, Company X might have 100 billion dollars in cash reserves, but why should it turn around and raise wages or expand hiring? What's in it for Company X?

Nothing, unless it needs more workers, or workers who perform more work, in order in meet the increased demand for Product X or Service X.

Well (some say), if Company X doesn't hire new workers, they will still invest in new equipment and buy more supplies and build new buildings, and that will put more people to work in other companies.

Wrong. Company X won't invest one red cent in equipment, supplies, or buildings unless there is a demand, or at least a perceived demand, for the products and services that Company X makes.

Well (some say), if the owners of Company X have all of this money, and they decide to bonus it to themselves, then they will spend money, and help the economy that way.

And this is true, up to a point. But then, the owners of Company X will then be a part of the demand side of the equation, not the supply side. Demand drives the economy. Sorry, supply-siders.

So, the owners of Company X are just following the incentives. So what do we do to create jobs?

Well, here's one bit of heresy: we don't need more jobs. No, really. What we really need is more choices, and jobs that pay better. We don't need to perpetuate the necessity of two-income families (or in some case, two-income individuals) with more poorly-paid jobs that make it even harder to make enough money to get by on.

And we get that money by making sure that more money stays in the hands of the demand side of the economy. And that, overwhelmingly, means putting it in the hands of the poor and middle class.

But we can't just hand it to them, because money, being nothing more than a storage of value, has to come from something. It has to represent real goods and real services that contribute to the economy. Companies that take a long view would be smart to raise wages and give more people full-time opportunities, because that puts more money into the economy and makes everyone's long-term profits rosier.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where most very large companies, the ones that hire the most people, can't see past this quarter's bonuses. And so they do everything as cheaply as possible, and manage in the process to shoot themselves in the foot, along with everyone else. And then they wonder why their company went out of business for lack of consumer demand.

Or maybe they don't, since they have left the carcass of the dying company to go somewhere else.

Until we have companies managed for long-term health, what can we do? We can stop giving so much of our money to the least-productive but most-profitable sectors: finance and government, both of which take more and give less than any other.

Then we can start saving that money, and spend it (in cash, not debt) on real goods and productive services. If we demand things that people have to work to create, then we create more—and better—jobs.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

To My Sons

Sometimes your life colors outside the lines,
Thinks out of the box,
Scribbles, dances, weaves,
Ignores rules, patterns, limits, constraints, borders, boundaries,
And right and wrong answers.
Not walking but soaring, not sitting but leaping,
Splashing down the rocks where it wants to go, and wherever the landscape takes it.
Unleashed, uncaged, unfettered,
Broad strokes of color, clashing, blending, bleeding, dripping, spattering.

But sometimes
You
Have to rein your life in, grab it by the collar and make it
Color inside the lines.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

A Bad VIBE from Vidable

There is a real Web site called vidable.com. It has some videos on it. Sort of. They are actually on YouTube and just embedded on the Vidable site. What Vidable purports to do is make it easy for you to find coupon deals in your local area, actually see video from the merchant, and look at ratings before you decide to buy. They have a video to explain how it all works. Which is not, so far as I've seen, how it actually works and, to be perfectly honest, it's an incredibly cheesy video.

I tried looking at the channel for restaurants, for example, letting it think that my current location was Deerfield, NH (which is actually where my ISP is), and got one video. Of a culinary instructor from Vancouver, BC, Canada. Yeah, really local.

So how did I run across Vidable in the first place? Because in the last couple of days I've gotten no fewer than six emails touting its stock, VIBE (OTC). I am in no position to invest, of course, having just spent most of my allowance for the month on the props for my upcoming film shoot, but when you're blitzed with this much spam in a couple of days for the same thing, it kind of piques your curiosity. Well, at least it piques my curiosity.

So, what is Vidable all about? I can't say with certainty, but I'm pretty sure what it is. And so, if you've never heard of it, I'd like to introduce you to the concept of "Pump and Dump."

In the classic pump and dump scheme, you would get a message on your answering machine or voice mail giving you a stock tip, usually on an obscure penny stock (that is, a stock that trades for less than a dollar a share), and giving someone else's name as the intended recipient of the message. This was designed to make it sound as though you were accidentally getting an inside stock tip. If enough people fall for this and buy the stock (for the stock is real), the price of the stock will go artificially higher, until the pumpers, who already own the majority of shares, becoming dumpers, selling off their shares all at once.

At which time the stock crashes and becomes worthless, but not before the dumpers have made a killing, and killed your investment. Kind of sounds like mortgage-backed securities, but on a much smaller scale.

The modern version, via email, has some of the same earmarks. For example, none of the email addresses that show in the header are mine. In every email, the TO: field has my name, but at a different domain. These are legitimate domains (I checked), and so it makes the whole thing sound as if it might be real.

The things that bothers me most about this is that I can find no simple way to report this scam to the authority who has the power to prosecute the perpetrators: the Securities and Exchange Commission. If you look on the agency's Web page, there's information aimed at brokers, institutional investors, and advisors, but not consumers.

I guess in the world of finance, even penny-ante finance, Wall Street counts, and we don't.



Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Dear Google, et al

Google, I adore you, really I do. I can hardly get along without your search engine, and I use Blogger, Google Maps, YouTube, and other Google services on a daily basis. I just have one little—well, actually really big—favor to ask:

Stop trying to make my computer obsolete.

Although I have more than one computer, the one I use every day is a Mac Mini G4. The problem is not that I am using a Mac, or that the operating system is 10.4.11, but that the processor is a G4. It means that I can't upgrade to the latest browsers, or to the latest version of Adobe's Flash Player.

I understand that the world has gone Intel. I don't expect my old processor to do all the new things that developers are coming up with using new software they've only developed for Intel processors.

What I do object to is not being able to do things that I've always done without having to buy a new computer. Like uploading videos to YouTube. I can only do that now by using the old uploading screen, and something tells me that this option won't be available in the near future.

I've already lost the controls on YouTube videos. Well, they are there, but I can't see them. It doesn't matter what browser I use, so I suspect it's an incompatibility with my older version of the Flash Player.

And there's more. I can't use Street View in Google Maps anymore. How long is it going to be before my Mac can't use any of the Google services?

And it's not just the age of my computer. I have a Dell PC that's about the same age, but because it has an Intel processor, it can do all of the things in the Google world that my Mac can't. But I don't use the Dell unless I absolutely have to because, compared with the Mini G4, it's a crippled machine. (What's it crippled by? Well, Windows, for one thing.)

I'm not asking you to develop all of your new stuff for both processors; I understand how expensive that is. All I'm asking is that you leave ways for those of us who still have non-Intel processors to do the simple Google tasks we have come to rely on.

Thanks.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Defining Affordable

A lot of political rhetoric these days seems to include the word affordable. We're trying to make health care affordable, and create affordable housing. But just what makes something affordable?

Well, in government circles, affordable just means that you can manage the payments, though cheap credit, or longer-term credit, or through government subsidies. Or, it can mean, in effect, not in the least bit affordable by anyone who isn't rich.

Let's take the notion of affordable housing. I've seen some excellent ideas on how to make housing more affordable by actually making housing less expensive: smaller houses (but still very livable), more efficient construction techniques, and even just some good old elbow grease (which is how I've managed to live in a mortgage-free house).

But the government approach to affordable housing is low-interest loans and subsidies. But a low interest loan doesn't make an overpriced house into a reasonably-priced house, and subsidies just shift the burden of the expense to taxpayers (who also have to pay the costs of administering any system that issues and monitors the subsidies).

And the interest goes to banks and the subsidies end up in the pockets of big construction contractors. So who, exactly, is this affordable for?

I remember reading a story (which I have not been able to find the link for) of an architect who specializes in very small, but very comfortable, houses, who was offered the chance to design low-income housing. He was very excited, had great ideas on how to save money on housing, and was ready for the challenge. Until he got the specs, which stated that each house had to be a minimum of 1200 square feet with three bedrooms and two baths. Obviously, no one in that program is looking for any real innovation.

If governments really wanted to make housing more affordable, they would look at the many code requirements and, in some areas, minimum square footage requirements that make a pay-as-you-go home a pipe dream for most people.

When anyone in the government (and especially someone running for office) tells you that he or she is going to make your housing, your health care, or any part of your life more affordable, hold onto your wallet. Because somewhere down the road, in the long run, when all the costs are added up, the government's version of affordable will just give someone the chance to pick your pocket.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Vexing Vocabulary

I have, for some time, been dissatisfied with the content of my fifth-grader's vocabulary lessons. But the latest list just pushed me over the edge.

Before I get into specifics, let's think for a minute about the purpose of vocabulary as an elementary school subject. We teach our children vocabulary to give them a solid foundation of words that they will use in their reading, writing, and conversation. Simple enough, right?

Well, that's why I object to the use of non-root forms as basic vocabulary words. Verbs should be taught in root form, the standard rules of the different tenses and cases learned, and the exceptions to the rules taught as part of the structure of the language. So: shield, falter, depict, flourish, hover, trigger, and consult, not shielding, faltered, depicted, flourished, hovers, triggering, and consulting.

This is an important, but relatively minor objection. Making my blood rise a bit more is the inclusion in this week's vocabulary lesson of the words obelisk and flappers. And yes, flappers is in reference to the defiant ladies who swept the scene following Word War I, not to the part of your toilet that allows the tank to refill after you flush.

It's not that there is anything wrong with these words, it's just that they do not belong in a vocabulary lesson for fifth graders. Sidebars in a history text, sure (in fact, both the history of the flappers and the etymology of the word are fascinating, and one must know the meaning of the word to understand the wonderful song, Has Anybody Seen My Gal?), but what fifth grader will be using them in any of his or her school writing, or indeed in any of the writing that may follow in later life?

But even these two words have not dragged me to the computer to vent my ire. There is just one word in this vocabulary list that represents everything that is wrong with the teaching of vocabulary in today's schools, if the lists I've seen are representative. And that word is—wait for it—

Charry.

Yes, I can hear you now: "What? Charry? Never heard of it."

No, me neither, and I'm no slouch when it comes to the English language. My mother and stepfather were both newspaper editors. I grew up with word puzzles, discussions about grammar and usage, and jokes about unfortunate newspaper headlines. In my blogs and the books I'm working on, I probably write about five to seven thousand words every week, and it's not even my day job.

So why is my son wasting his time learning a word that no one has ever heard of?

The vocabulary list defines charry as "burned or scorched." I rushed to my Merriam-Webster pocket dictionary. Certainly a word that is taught to fifth graders would be in a 60,000-word dictionary for adults. Nope. How about the 1947 edition? Not there either. How about online? Yep. But don't think that lets the authors of this vocabulary list off the hook.

For one thing, there are two accepted definitions of the word charry that I have been able to find, and neither matches the one in the test. Charry means "Pertaining to charcoal, or partaking of its qualities." This is according to the unabridged 1913 edition of the Merriam-Webster dictionary. I've also seen some reference to its use by wine connoisseurs and wine makers to describe a burnt taste or odor.

When is any fifth grader ever going to use the word charry? In that report he or she is giving on fine wines? I think I have a problem with that. Even in the realm of the qualities of charcoal, I cannot find reference to this word in any literature within the last century.

And if this fifth grader did end up using the word charry, and started including it in some future writing, having learned it from this lesson, it would be used incorrectly!

Charry is the most egregious example of many faults I've seen in this lists over the course of this school year. It's almost funny. But not really. We owe our children much better than this. We owe them lesson materials by people who actually know the language, who know how to build a working vocabulary, who know the true definitions of the words in their list, and furthermore, how to make it as interesting as it is, indeed, capable of being.

This doesn't take extra money; no one's budget is going to suffer from the decision to provide a better vocabulary lesson. But the reward is better reading, writing, and speaking skills for all our our students. And, really, it is the least we can do.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Twisted Slinky

Child approaches with tangled mass of plastic Slinky knockoff,
Jumbled sculpture of wiry plastic,
Impossible challenge
For busy parent who can't resist entreating eyes.

Twists and turns transform jumble into coil.
But slowly. Ever so, painfully so.
Child has retreated to other interests,
But the parent cannot let the slinky stay unordered.

Finally the slinky is all coil and no jumble,
Placed quietly on the child's bookshelf.
Child is in the land of video game battles,
And does not even notice the perfectly restored slinky's return.

But the parent, today at least,
Has beaten the twisted slinky.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Politics and Race

I know I will catch a lot of flak for this, but I have to be honest. I think that race should play a very important role in politics. I'll go so far as to say that I will not vote for any candidate that does not share my race.

That's right. No candidate will get my vote if he or she is not human.

I am especially biased against snakes, sharks, and weasels.

I realize that this narrows the field considerably. But a man has to stick by his principals.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Grammar School?

I think I know why our the schools our children attend when they are young are now called elementary schools instead of grammar schools. It's because they don't know anything about grammar. Or at least the people that write the materials they use don't.

I've come to this conclusion after looking at homework from all three of my boys, the eldest now an adult, the youngest still in grade school.

What triggered this tirade is an article in none less than Time magazine, or at least an offshoot of it. Time For Kids is circulated through the schools and is actually used as part of my children's homework. And in a recent issue, the subject of the back page was eating a healthy diet.

That's right, I said a healthy diet, because that's what TFK called it.

What, you don't see the problem? That's because you grammar school lost its way when it comes to grammar. Diets are not healthy or unhealthy. If you wish to be healthy, one good way is to eat a healthful diet. People can be healthy, as can animals and even plants. But the animals we eat are not healthy; they are dead. Some of the plants may not be dead when we eat them, but they certainly are soon afterwards.

By the way, the thesaurus on my Mac computer screws this up, too. It says that the antonym for healthful is unhealthy. Wrong! The antonym for healthful is unhealthful. This kind of thing is infectious. And unhealthful.

Look, it really isn't that complicated. If something can get sick, it can also be healthy. By metaphoric extension, an economy can also be healthy, although not many are these days. But a diet can't be healthy because a diet cannot get sick.

A diet can be healthful. It can also be beneficial, nutritious, nourishing, wholesome, and sustaining.

But no matter what you do to it, your diet is never going to be healthy.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Bananas

I love bananas. Who doesn't? But would you think that there is enough to know about bananas to write an entire book? I don't mean some technical treatise aimed at botanists, I mean a popular book aimed at people like you and me. I wouldn't have thought so.

Until I read Banana: The Fate Of the Fruit That Changed the World, by Dan Koeppel. Koeppel writes not only a fascinating history of this delicious fruit, but an in-depth discussion of the dangers it faces from disease (much of it exacerbated by bad growing practices and bad politics). Bananas are not only the world's favorite sweet fruit, but a staple food in many parts of the world, where less-sweet versions are a basic starch, comparable to rice in Asia or potatoes in the US and UK.

Koeppel left me with a deep appreciation of one of my favorite foods, a craving to try a variety of banana nearly extinct, and more than a little concern that the fruit that is such an important part of my diet may not survive.

Of course, I should have known that, in the hands of a skilled and dedicated author, even so common a thing as a banana could make for fascinating reading. After all, just a couple of years ago, I read a very long, very interesting book on another common kitchen item: salt.

Salt A World History, by Mark Kurlansky, covers the topic of salt in detail that would be excruciating were it not for the fact that it so well written, and structured to carry you along in the political and practical history of something that everyone in the modern developed world takes for granted.

There are probably a lot of simple, everyday items—foods, simple tools, articles of clothing—that have fascinating back stories waiting to be uncovered by the right author. Something as simple as, say, a pencil.

Oh, wait. I think a friend of mine posted something on Facebook about a book on the history of the pencil. I think I might have to read that ....

Saturday, January 7, 2012

It's Not My Fault!

It's not my fault my weight is rising.
It's genetics, or it's advertising.
It's all those meals supersized
That make my scale's numbers rise.

High fructose corn syrup, that's the reason
My body shape's no longer pleasin'.
And dollar menus make me swell
At Mickey D's or Taco Bell.

I admit my waist is bigger,
But there must be some outside trigger.
It can't be that it's all my fault;
I take that with a grain of salt.
And yes, a pat of butter, too,
And just a spot of cream, it's true.

Alright, I know, I love to eat,
And spend too much time in my seat,
And tend to think that exercise
Is merely torture in disguise.
I wouldn't be so oversize
Were I less stubborn and more wise.

But every day I hear excuses
(Excuses have so many uses)
Absolving me of any blame
For sloth and gluttony without shame.

Pudgy people cannot stop
Chowing down until they pop.
Hidden messages and secret voices
Bombard them 'til they have no choices.

And something in their ancestral make-up
Decides just how much room they'll take up.
It's done, it's through, it's set in stone.
You can't be thin, that bird has flown.

You might as well enjoy the ride
(With hot fudge sundaes on the side):
Eat and drink! Scream and shout!
And feel free to slouch about.

Of course, there is a small contingent
Whose  ideas are much more stringent.
They believe that gaining weight
Is not to be left up to fate.

Move! they say, eat less, do more!
Get up! Get out now! This is war!
Beat that fat and beat that flab;
Chubby's horrid, thin is fab!

Voices haunt me in the night,
No excuses for my plight
I'm not in shape to mount a fight:
The fact is that they're probably right.