Sunday, February 22, 2004

The American Dream Debate

This entry is a replay of a spirited discussion in which I've engaged many times with female friends, partners, associates, near strangers, and even my mother. I had at least one relationship end over my position on this (apparently) critical issue.

In contrast, my male friends and relatives don't give a hoot about this topic. Nor do they see any need to save me. We simply don't talk about it.

The issue is home ownership, that much ballyhooed "American dream." I don't think the benefits outweigh the costs, at least for me.

I don't bring up this subject, ever. Why would I willingly subject myself to that kind of abuse? Answer: I wouldn't. Nevertheless, the topic simply keeps coming up.

So, in hopes of simplifying my life (always a personal goal of mine), I will post the debate here. People who want to have that discussion can read it here and perhaps save both of us the aggrevation. The following conversation is with a fictional composite to whom I refer as FF (for female friend). All of the points presented are derived from real conversations.

FF: So are you still living in that apartment? (with derisive emphasis upon that last word)

Every Fool: Yes, I am. (sensing danger)

FF: Aren't you going to buy a house? (spoken with a tone that awaits a negative answer)

Every Fool: No. (hope of escaping this conversation is now itself escaping)

FF: You know, of course, that you're just throwing your money away on rent. (OK, now the debate is officially underway)

Every Fool: I'm not throwing it away. I'm getting precisely what I pay for, a place to live. (ducking as I utter those inflammatory words)

FF: (now clearly disgusted) But you're missing out on all of those tax benefits.

Every Fool: You mean that I could deduct interest that I don't pay at all today?

FF: Oh, you pay it all right. It's just bundled up in your rent check. (thinking she has me trapped now)

Every Fool: Writing fewer checks and having simpler taxes sounds like a good thing to me. (smiling)

FF: Never mind that, you're not getting any equity. (eyes rolling)

Every Fool: With my lower monthly payments, I have money left over for more lucrative investments.

FF: Believe me, home ownership is a good deal. (quite sure of herself on this point)

Every Fool: When you count in the interest, fees, and taxes, I can pay $400,000 for an already overpriced $200,000 house I don't need in the first place. How can that possibly be a good deal? Besides, 25 years from now when I'm retired, how on Earth would I make those huge monthly payments?

FF: (long exasperated exhale) You don't actually have to make all of those payments. You can keep the house until you're done with it and then sell.

Every Fool: I can't imagine agreeing to buy something I don't intent to pay for. That seems dishonest to me. If I want the flexibility to relocate when the situation changes, an apartment is an ideal arrangement.

FF: (pausing to regroup before beginning again from a different angle) Most people derive enjoyment from having a place of their own - a yard to work in, a place to grill out, you know?

Every Fool: I work hard all week. The last thing I want is to come home to chores like mowing grass, pulling weeds, raking leaves, cleaning gutters, or shoveling snow. If that's enjoyment, please let me be miserable.

FF: Aha! If that's your objection, then you need a condo! (closing in for the kill, or so she thinks)

Every Fool: I'll grant you that option is a little better from the upkeep standpoint, but condos are a terrible investment, especially when you factor in those skyrocketing condo fees. In this economy, many sellers can't even recoup their original purchase price.

FF: You know, you would have a lot fewer low life neighbors if you lived in a nice condo community.

Every Fool: Yes, but if there's even one loser, then I'm stuck with them for years to come.

FF: You're just afraid of commitment. (when all else fails, hit below the belt)

Every Fool: That's a cheap shot. Let's get back to the point.

FF: Don't you want to be able to decorate your living space without a lot of restrictions?

Every Fool: What restrictions? My concept of decorating is pounding nails and hanging pictures.

FF: You certainly have low expectations.

Every Fool: I've always said that I could be happy in a nice dry, well-ventilated cave. My needs are simple.

FF: I just don't understand you. (looking both baffled and frustrated)

Every Fool: What, because I have no female nesting instinct?

FF: Now you're hitting below the belt.

Every Fool: Yeah, OK, sorry. Let's just agree that we have different perspectives on this issue. We can still be friends and I'll forgive you for not saving me from the evils of apartment living. I promise to never again raise the subject in mixed company. (never mind that I didn't raise it this time)

FF: Fine by me, but you'll be sorry...

Every Fool: Have you eaten yet?

So, that's pretty much how it goes. I can't win, but neither can I give in. It's a classic Sisyphian stalemate.

Saturday, February 21, 2004

Blogging on Blogging

I've been recording my words here for a couple of weeks now. In the process, I've learned a little more about myself.

First, I actually have something to say (at least *I* think I do). That was the concern that prevented me from trying this medium long ago. Sometimes the topic is serious and other times it's silly. But that's a reflection of me.

Secondly, I enjoy writing for pleasure. I do a lot of writing in my work, but it's just that, work. Whenever my colleagues need some words dispensed, I get the call. That's not to say that I don't like creating a slick turn of phrase. But I seldom get to choose either the subject or the timeline.

This wild ride we call a lifetime offers up some unpredictable twists and turns. When I was in school, I never received all A's at any level. I was a pretty good student for most of my school career. I could usually get an A in social studies or science without too much effort. I even received A's in math when things went well.

English class, however, was always my nemesis. I don't recall even once receiving an A in English. The teachers didn't like my writing and I didn't like their lessons (diagramming sentences was particularly painful). I used to dread those essay assignments. I recall topics like "Write a 1000 word essay about your most unforgettable person." I was fourteen! We lived in a small town. What chance had I had to meet unforgettable people? I made up something lame because I had to submit an essay. I hated writing.

I improved my writing when I attended college, mostly through repetitive practice. I still didn't like it much, but it was a means to an end. In graduate school, I learned that the professors rewarded flowery writing with unusual words and complex sentence structures. I wallowed in purposeful obfuscation. It was kind of fun, but it didn't help my style. It took a couple of years for me to get back to simply stating what must be said.

In my thirties, I agreed to author a monthly article for a computer publication. This was probably the first time I truly embraced writing outside of a work situation. I wrote about computer-related subjects, but I blended in humor and insight whenever possible. In many ways, this blog is a logical extension of those columns.

That brings us back to today. Now I get to say what I want when I want. I'm having a good time writing this blog and I hope you gain some satisfaction from reading it. For the time being, at least, I'm going to keep pushing these words out into the ether.

Friday, February 20, 2004

It's Still the Economy, Stupid

The current president's father was ousted from office in the 1992 election largely because of a widespread perception that he failed to deal with an ailing economy. Democrats repeated the phrase "It's the economy, stupid," as both taunt and rallying cry.

It's now twelve years later and the sitting president appears to have precisely the same vulnerability. Like his father, he led a high profile war in the Middle East. However, also like the original George Bush, the son seems intent upon running on that record alone.

Since the current administration came into office, America has lost 2.2 million jobs. 231,000 of these losses were in Ohio alone. Behind these faceless numbers lie real people and real tragedies.

Even for those of us who are fortunate enough to still be employed, the impact of recession is evident everywhere. In the past week, two different restaurants I have patronized for years closed their doors.

I visited a media superstore last night. To my surprise, the store had been dramatically reorganized. Where once stood densely packed shelves of books, music, and video, I saw open floorspace and sparcely populated racks. I estimate they had 25% of the merchandise I had seen last summer. These guys are in trouble too.

Last month, a grocery chain founded in our city back in the 1930s was ingloriously liquidated. Even though this firm had been on the ropes for several years, the finality of their death was a bit startling.

An economist might observe that the free market system, like ecological systems, works by thinning the weaker members of the herd. After three years of recession, however, I would argue that the weaker members are long gone. The current generation of victims, both human and corporate, are those who should be helping to build our future.

Without a renewed focus upon the economy at home, this recession will claim many more victims. America needs to realign our priorities. Resources that should be used to improve our competitiveness in world markets have been diverted for dubious military adventures, corporate handouts, and tax cuts for the wealthy. It's as though the US is running a race while wearing a ball and chain.

George Bush Jr. might still be able to win re-election, but only if he can address the country's economic problems in a meaningful way before November.

My Ten Favorite Minor Simpsons Characters

I love the Simpsons TV show. I think the great characters are a big part of the reason why the writers have been able to keep the show fresh after so many years.

The minor characters are especially enjoyable. They are used again and again in lots of different ways. Sometimes, they get an entire episode dedicated to them. Other times, they're simply a member of the crowd.

Here are some of my favorites.
  1. Waylon Smithers, personal toady to Montgomery Burns - One can imagine few leaders less deserving of idolization that the weasely, conniving Mr. Burns. Yet Smithers positively relishes that role. We can despise him for mindlessly adopting the shallow greed of his boss, yet at the same time, we must pity Smithers for giving Burns years of ceaseless and utterly unrewarded devotion.

  2. Comic Book Store Guy - A big part of what makes this character so humorous is that we've met him! He's a very big fish in a very small pond. The comic book store guy is an absolute expert. Trouble is that his chosen field is one so trivial that most people aren't even aware it exists. He sneers at those less knowledgeable, all the while completely unaware that his special skill has no applicability outside the walls of his store.

  3. Apu, proprietor of the Kwik-E-Mart - It would be easy to label Apu as a cheap stereotype, and sometimes he acts that way. Yet the writers have given him a personality and a life (complete with a wife and octuplets). That wasn't easy since he seldom leaves his 24-hour convenience store. He sells disgusting food at ridiculous prices, but never touches the stuff himself.

  4. Krusty the Klown - Krusty does all of things that children's entertainers shouldn't do - smoke, drink, swear, gamble, chase women, associate with underworld characters, and so forth. At least for a while, Krusty was wealthy thanks to a line of signature products.

  5. Captain McAllister - Though he appears relatively infrequently, the captain is a colorful character. He talks like a pirate and always smells like fish.

  6. Hans Moleman - This pathetic guy is pretty much the designated random victim. He can be easily identified by his rodent-like appearance, croaking voice, and coke-bottle eyeglasses.

  7. Jasper (Abe Simpson's buddy at the Springfield Retirement Castle) - Foil to Grampa, Jasper only occasionally gets a few lines of his own to growl. More often, he stands around with an expression that blends amazement with bewilderment.

  8. Chief Clancy Wiggum - The number one law enforcement agent in Springfield always seems to be around trouble. Unfortunately, he never seems inclined or able to do much about it. He always holds a trusty donut, and by the looks of him, he does more than just carry them around.

  9. Mayor Quimby - This corrupt politician talks like a Kennedy and stands for anything that will get him re-elected.

  10. Disco Stu - This character is too cool for words. He's also too cool to appear very often. Disco Stu is trapped in the age of disco, but somehow sees nothing wrong with that fate.

What fun!

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

The Scream Heard 'Round The World

I saw today that Howard Dean gave up his bid to be president. I had no strong opinion for or against this guy. His message about the need for change had some appeal (though politicians affiliated with the party out of power always want change). In any case, he's officially finished.

Lots of politicians have bowed out of the primaries over the years, and for lots of reasons (besides just not getting enough votes). In 1968, Michigan Governor George Romney left the Republican primary race after claiming to have been "brainwashed" by the US military regarding the Vietnam war. In 1972, George Wallace's third presidential campaign was stopped by an assassin's bullet. In 1988, Gary Hart made a rather inglorious exit after the press revealed that he had an extramarital affair aboard a boat appropriately named "Monkey Business." This year was certainly not the first time a candidate left the race under unusual circumstances.

For months before the primary season began, Dean was viewed as the consensus front-runner among the Democratic candidates. He was said to have a modern, well-run organization, lots of eager young volunteers, and enough funding to stick around for the long run. Article after article praised his high tech approach to sharing his vision of hope for the future.

Then came that fateful day, January 20, 2004. Howard Dean had just finished a disappointing third in the Iowa caucuses. He spoke before his loyal supporters. He offered but a hint of concession before vigorously spurring the faithful to carry their message throughout the nation. After listing the states he planned to visit, Dean did the unimaginable. He unleashed a maniacal scream unparalleled in the annals of American stump speeches.

Pundits labeled it the "I Have a Scream" speech. Late night talk show hosts replayed the audio clip endlessly. Radio DJs set the scream to music. Even mild-mannered public broadcasting had fun with this bizarre sound effect. By the next day, the general populace had decided that Dean was clearly out of his mind.

Afterward, Dean campaigned on, but never regained his momentum.

How strange it is that a single non-verbal utterance could sink an otherwise viable campaign. Is this really the basis upon which we select our supreme leader? I guess it must be.

I've already heard the conspiracy theories about how the media conglomerates plotted to get Dean out of the race. These stories seem a bit far fetched. Those guys are no angels, but I don't see how they could get Dean to squawk like a crazed parrot on espresso.

No, if this story has a moral, it is that the American people don't want their leaders to act like fools.

Too bad. In times like these, a little levity might be just what the country needs.

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Driving the Spike

Have you seen the Spike channel? It's the cable TV station that used to be known as the Nashville Network until they ran Lil' Abner, Daisy Duke, and all those singing cowboys out of town. Now they bill themselves as "the first network for men." I guess I thought that distinction belonged to ESPN, but no matter. Welcome to the clicker rotation, Spike.

I can only imagine the corporate thinking that produced this outlet. Picture if you will, a boardroom filled with stuffed chairs and stuffier executives. Each dark wood wall is lined with portraits of scowling ex-leaders. An ambitious junior suit proclaims "We've got a network for women, two in fact. They play all day tear-jerkers, health information, fashion tips, and intimate interviews about life, love, and relationships." The plumb chairman in the three piece suit shifts restlessly in his seat and growls back "Yeah, so what?" The eager assistant continues by posing the question, "What if we invented a channel just for men?" "Like ESPN?" inquires the now slightly interested chairman at the head of the table. "Well, um, yes," stutters the increasingly nervous executive-in-training, "but without the, uh, sports." The assembled heads of the media conglomerate look at one another with a mixture of puzzlement and awe. Repeatedly they whisper, "ESPN without sports..." "I like it," roars the chairman, smiling for the first time. "Make it happen!" Thus was born Spike (at least in my imagination).

They show a lot of Star Trek reruns. That's good. There are also plenty of car crashes and police chases, or maybe it's the other way around. There's Baywatch. I suppose there was no getting around that. There are the inevitable lame reality shows and Jackass rip-offs. Spike celebrates traditional male holidays like Super Bowl Sunday with special programming like Sports Illustrated swimsuit models on parade.

Then they have one show that almost defies description (I'll try anyway). The show is called MXC. It stands for Most Extreme Elimination Challenge (yeah, I know). Anyhow, they took a bizarre Japanese TV show called Takeshi's Castle and dubbed it into English. I have no idea what the show was like in Japanese, but it's astonishingly idiotic in English. They have two teams that compete, though we never find out what, if anything, the winners receive. The contestants are incredibly enthusiastic about performing stunts that are embarrassing at best and life-threatening at worst. They swing on ropes, slam into walls, and fall into brackish water. They dress like giant Chicken McNuggets and then slither down a greased slide. They run a crazy obstacle course while half-wits sit on the sidelines and throw things at them. The dubbed dialog is right out of a middle school locker room and has little relationship with the video. The whole experience borders on the surreal.

All of this carrying on is fine, but if Spike really wants shows men like to watch, they've missed a few great concepts. Here are ten new programs that appeal to real men:

Are you listening, Spike?

Monday, February 16, 2004

Chernobyl by the Lake

First Energy Corporation recently asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission again for permission to restart the problem-plagued Davis-Besse nuclear power plant near Port Clinton, Ohio. The Davis-Besse plant has been shut down since February, 2002 when a large corrosion hole was discovered in the 6.5 inch thick reactor lid. Only a thin stainless steel liner prevented a major disaster. Experts believe the corrosion resulted from coolant leaks that had been present for several years. Routine inspections by First Energy should have revealed the problem long before it reached these proportions.

Computers at the same plant were temporarily out of service in January, 2003 when they became infected with a computer worm known as Slammer. Fortunately, the plant was not operating because of the reactor problem.

First Energy was also implicated in the massive blackout that struck the eastern US and Canada in August, 2003. Apparently, their grid operators failed to contain the blackout and permitted it to spread to other parts of the electrical grid. The estimated cost of this episode was $6 billion. That figure does not begin to capture the impact upon the 50 million people whose lives were disrupted, and in some cases, endangered.

I think there's a clear pattern of institutionalized negligence here. It's difficult to avoid the conclusion that First Energy is more interested in profits than in safety. Several million people live directly downwind from Davis-Besse. Should the plant release radioactive material, the safety and heath implications could be staggering. This facility should be retired. First Energy has proved they cannot be trusted with ensuring the quality of the extensive repairs and establishing credible safety programs. Whether First Energy should be permitted to operate other nuclear power plants is a subject worthy of public debate.

The current administration tends to be very supportive of energy interests. However, no politician ever wants to be associated with a disaster. If they recognize the danger that Davis-Besse represents, pragmatic politicians might be willing to jettison it in order to safeguard their reputations (not to mention their constituents' lives). I encourage you to contact your elected officials. Let them know how you feel about the proposed reactivation of Davis-Besse.

Surf Guitar Remembered

I lived an analog childhood. TV, like society, was black and white. Every kid learned through careful observation just the right spot to slap the television set to stop the picture from rolling. We had three channels and much of the time there was little worth watching. We watched anyway.

In the music world, there was a time when payola scandals had almost silenced the voice of rock and roll. The Beatles had yet to arrive. One light that shone brightly through this darkness was beach music. This was genuine American rock and roll. These pioneers crooned about big waves, fast cars, and pretty girls wearing bikinis. What surrounded these slightly exotic lyrics was even more remarkable. The surf guitar sound featured a whammy bar and good old-fashioned reverb so thick it sounded as though the guitarist was in a cave. Sometimes, they added a piano. Other times, it was a saxophone. But that haunting guitar was always the centerpiece.

Even though Duane Eddy had already assembled most of these components back in the late 1950s, there was something incredibly fresh about beach music and the young musicians who created it. It was the first music aimed squarely at the emerging baby boom generation. This world seemed, at least to us, new and exciting.

I had heard beach music on AM radio, but the first big dose came at the movies. In those days, the best way to spend a warm summer evening was a trip to the drive-in movies. Beach movies, like Beach Party, were my favorite. I know Frankie and Annette seem ridiculous by today's standards, but these movies were more entertaining than a lot of films of that day. Harvey Lembeck was superb as the clownish bad guy, Eric Von Zipper. Lest we forget, they did, of course, have plenty of cute half-dressed girls. Best of all, the beach movies always featured a great band like Dick Dale and the Deltones. Even through those goofy metal drive-in movie speakers, that guitar twang was unmistakable.

Unlike most popular music from the first half of the sixties, beach music has held up pretty well over the years. It no longer sounds fresh and new, but the jangly sound retains its appeal. Here is my top ten song list, presented in stream of consciousness order:

      1. The Ventures / Walk, Don't Run - Perhaps the best instrumental rock song ever
      2. Dick Dale and the Deltones / Miserlou - You know this song from movies and commercials
      3. The Belairs / Mr. Moto - A lost classic
      4. The Pyramids / Penetration - Totally under control, but could break loose at any moment
      5. Ronny and the Daytonas / GTO - Trademark falsetto chorus
      6. The Chantays / Pipeline - My favorite
      7. The Marketts / Out of Limits - The Twilight Zone theme goes to the beach
      8. The Rivieras / Warm California Sun - Just sounds like a good time
      9. The Safaris / Wipeout - Every drummer wants to play this song
      10. The Beach Boys / Surfing USA - Thank Chuck Berry for that cool riff

Perhaps the real proof is that forty years later, the influence of this music is still heard in contemporary songs. Listen, for example, to Sleepwalker by the Wallflowers.

Beach music takes me back to that gentler, more innocent time. We can't go back (nor would I choose to), but it's fun to recall an age when we were all simpler too.

Sunday, February 15, 2004

Planning is Only Half the Battle

Anyone who knows me is aware of my inclination toward planing. There are few things I enjoy more than a great plan well executed. My best work almost always results from careful prior consideration.

Please understand there are many things in life I fully recognize cannot (or at least should not) be planned. Nor do I create plans so intricate or rigid that they can't be adapted to a variety of unanticipated circumstances (though sometimes, I try to plan the contingencies as well).

Most of my plan plans work, if not flawlessly, then at least reasonably well. Once in a while, however, my plans simply don't yield the desired outcome. Last night was one such occasion.

Yesterday was Valentine's Day - that most romantic of all holidays. It's a time when married people buy the obligatory card and hopefully remember to tell each other how much they are still in love. For single guys like me, it's a different kind of event. Valentine's Day represents a golden opportunity to demonstrate to that one special woman how much I value her presence in my life.

Anything worth doing is worth doing well. So I crafted my plan accordingly. I had a V-Day card. I had a dozen red roses. I had dinner reservations at a truly excellent restaurant. I had premium tickets to a very entertaining performance. Every box was checked. I was running ahead of schedule and had everything I needed.

When I arrived at the home of my beloved, I encountered a reality upon which I had not planned at all. My poor dear partner was not feeling well. Trooper that she is, she was all for making a go of it, but I could tell she'd have been better off staying home. She was, at least in part, playing along for my benefit.

She liked the roses and the card. She enjoyed our five course gourmet dinner. She laughed at the silly happenings on stage. But I worried about my unfortunate partner all evening. She was clearly exhausted and simply not her usual lively self. I felt a little guilty dragging her all over town in search of a good time she was unlikely to fully appreciate.

While I may get credit for a good effort, fate prevented us from having that magical evening I envisioned.

So what did I learn from this episode? Not much. Next year, I will be striving to create an even better plan. I will get it right next time!

Saturday, February 14, 2004

Misleading the Lost

It seems that for every person who is down on their luck, there exists someone who wants to make a buck from their misfortune. Obvious examples include loan sharks, rent-to-own stores, check cashing establishments, phony credit counselors, and car dealers catering to those with poor credit. These are opportunistic people who live by exploiting the poor, the weak, the sick, and the gullible. They are truly the jackals of society.

As lucrative as these businesses are, their target has been primarily the urban poor. Now, however, there is an incidious new scam aimed directly at the middle class. Worse yet, it takes advantage of the universally held belief that education is the key to a brighter future. I speak of certificate mills.

Almost every day, I hear a radio advertisement that goes something like this:

Are you stuck in a dead-end job? Are you looking to make a career change? With training from Skillsmack, you can move into the lucrative information technology field. Will you be ready to accept one of the thousands of new jobs opening up in this fast-paced industry? Skillsmack training can get you there. After just six weeks, you can be certified as an MCSE, CCNE, or A+ engineer. Lots of high paying jobs are waiting for people with the right skills. Call Skillsmack at 555-1212 today and learn how you too can become a respected IT professional.

Every time I hear one of these commercials, I want to call the radio station and ask them why they accept ads from these con artists. Since I don't make a practice of asking questions to which I already know the answer, I've thus far skipped that step. Nevertheless, something needs to be done about these scams.

Let's examine the claims above. Here's what's true:
  1. It is possible for many people to pass a certification test after six weeks of training.

  2. Some IT positions pay well.

  3. There probably will be openings in the IT field in the next ten years as baby boomers retire or change careers.

However, our Skillsmack promotional spot ignores several very important considerations:

  1. Because of the current economic ills, large numbers of experienced IT pros are out of work or underemployed.

  2. In this environment, few, if any, companies find it necessary to hire candidates with neither relevant experience nor a college degree.

  3. A certification can provide a competitive advantage to a job-seeker who already has plenty of other credentials, but walking into an interview with that alone is a recipe for failure.

  4. For that "intensive six-week" program, our friends at Skillsmack will want as much as $10,000. The world is full of better investments.

  5. I see lots of people who say they want to get into the IT field. Unfortunately, as with any occupation, not everyone possesses the aptitude, commitment, and tenacity necessary to succeed. A worse tragedy than giving one's life savings to Skillsmack is doing so and then discovering that you don't like the work.

  6. One of the great things about IT has always been the multiple paths people can take to get into the field. In contrast, if one wants to be a physician, they simply must attend an accredited medical school. This comparative flexibility has allowed the information technology field to be populated by a very diverse group. This variety of backgrounds and styles is ideal in situations where much of the work involves solving complex problems in a team environment. Breadth of knowledge is therefore more important than the number of facts an employee can recite. Six weeks of any training cannot provide this.

  7. Even if there were legitimate jobs for which this type of curriculum prepared students, it's unlikely that the newly certified students could actually move into one of these positions before they forgot most of what they learned. Any educator will tell you that unless they are used regularly, technical skills are fleeting. Hence, a two year old certificate possessed by someone working in another area is suitable for mopping up spilled coffee.

Over the past twenty years, I've been involved with hiring well over 100 IT employees. I've seen the success stories and listened to the tales of woe. If someone wants to break into IT, it definitely can be done. However, there is no easy shortcut (save perhaps that well-placed uncle inclined toward nepotism). Here's the right way:

I don't mean to discourage anyone by sharing this insight. My intent is rather to help people avoid senseless pain. Please don't give your money to these charlatans.

Friday, February 13, 2004


Last night, we saw Catco's staging of the play Copenhagen. It is a fascinating script (a Tony award winner) and the cast of three was clearly up to the assignment of bringing the story to life.

The play revolves around a 1941 visit by German physicist Werner Heisenberg to the home of his mentor, Danish physicist Niels Bohr. For readers not familiar with these names, Bohr and Heisenberg were just one step behind Albert Einstein in terms of their prominence in the world of physics. Specifically, they were more responsible than anyone else for the development of quantum theory.

In 1941, Denmark was occupied by the Nazis. Heisenberg was a German. Bohr was Jewish. We know they met and talked on that day in 1941, but there is little definitive knowledge about what they discussed. Copenhagen presents several speculations about how the conversation might have progressed. Playwright Michael Frayn cleverly invites the audience to draw their own conclusions about the characters and their motivations.

I salute Catco and the entire production team for a great job. They nearly filled the house on a Thursday evening. Hopefully, that's a sign of better times ahead.

A Distant Addiction

I was never much of a gamer. Sure, I've played computer games, and occasionally really enjoyed them. However, compared to a lot of techie folk I know, my involvement has always been pretty superficial. I was never truly hooked, except maybe once, long ago.

When I was in graduate school, I spent a lot of time playing a primitive text-based game called "Adventure." It was also sometimes referred to as the "Colossal Cave Adventure." It operated from a command line interface. The player navigated by typing in simple instructions. The game itself was a maze with a cave theme. There were treasures to find and puzzles to solve. It was the great-grandfather of games like Myst. It may sound lame by today's standards, but in those days, it was downright fascinating. More than once, we stayed up half the night trying to figure out some of those puzzles.

I discovered this site that describes the game and its history. Better still, it's possible to play the original game over the Web here. For anyone who ran in geek circles during the late 70s or early 80s, this topic might bring a smile. It did for me.

Thursday, February 12, 2004

Radio Days

Even before I wrote my first computer program, I guess I was always a bit of a geek. When I was a young teenager, we lived at the edge of a small town in the lower Midwest. There weren't a whole lot of organized activities for kids, but that arrangement suited us fine. We would much rather find our own fun.

One summer, I spent every free dollar on audio equipment at Radio Shack. I loved Radio Shack. They had what seemed like an endless array of gadgets. I installed an amplifier, then a mixer, and then a couple of turntables. Add in a microphone, headphones, and an eight track tape deck (no kidding!) and soon I had my own studio up in my bedroom. I impressed my friends by creating custom eight track tapes.

Still, I felt a need for something more. That something was a 100 milliamp radio oscillator. It had a shiny aluminum base with three vacuum tubes sticking out of the top. There was a crude control knob to adjust the frequency. When connected to my audio out, the oscillator would broadcast a low power FM signal. The range was not very far, but the sound quality was surprisingly good.

Not one to allow a new toy to go unused, my brother, Slim, and I concocted a practical joke. Our other brother, Wally, was up in his bedroom listening to his transister radio. When he left the room momentarily, Slim slipped in and clandestinely tuned his radio to my frequency. I was spinning records and cross-fading them just like a pro. Sure enough, Wally soon returned to his room as the radio blared away. After a couple more songs, I broke in with a special announcement (using my very best faux DJ voice):

The following is a emergency notification from the National Weather Service. Please be advised that a flood warning has been issued for Pear Creek in Washington County. Rising flood waters present an immediate danger to persons and property. Residents within one mile of Pear Creek are advised to evacuate to higher ground without delay. Please stay tuned to this station for further announcements.

As soon as I had faded in the next song, Slim and I poked our heads out into the hall so as to not miss whatever happened next. Sure enough, Wally burst out of his door and ran down the stairs screaming "Mooooooooooooooom! There's a flood coming!"

It was a clear, sunny day with barely a cloud anywhere in sight. Our mother must have suspected that Wally had lost his mind. He tried in vain to convince her of what he had just heard on the radio. "They said anyone within a mile of Pear Creek was in danger! We need to evacuate now!!" She was unimpressed. "Now Wally...", she said seriously, "let's think about this."

About that time, Mom detected Slim and I laughing uproariously upstairs. Under questioning, we freely admitted our role in this little hoax. We were still giggling all the while. After a short lecture about why we shouldn't pick on poor Wally, an eye roll, and a dirty look, she instructed us to go play outside.

I never found any better use for that oscillator, but my brief broadcasting career was certainly a memorable one.

Wednesday, February 11, 2004

My Top Ten All Time Concert Experiences

I love a live concert. I've been fortunate over the past 30 years to see some of the greatest bands on Earth. Here are (IMHO) the best of the best, in alphabetical order:

      Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young
      Eric Clapton
      Paul McCartney
      Pink Floyd
      The Allman Brothers Band
      The Eagles
      The J Geils Band
      The Rolling Stones
      The Who

I've also seen BB King, Little Feat, the Grateful Dead, U2, Bob Seger, Fleetwood Mac, Genesis, Peter Frampton, Bad Company, ZZ Top, and a whole bunch of lesser known groups. It's been a fantastic time.

I can't wait to see which bands will be coming around next summer. I'll see you there. I'll be the guy holding up the lighter before the encore.

Tuesday, February 10, 2004

The Pie

Let me take you back, way back, to the hazy, crazy 1970s. The story you’re about to hear is true, but the names have been changed to protect the guilty.

The place was a coed college dormitory at a large state university. It was spring quarter. Each day, the weather grew warmer and the sunlight lasted longer. Partying was everyone’s major. Music blared from windows and that peculiar smell of burning leaves was omnipresent. This was an era before AIDS, “Just Say No,” or the 21-year-old drinking age. We had a lot of fun, no, I mean a whole lot of fun. We’d long ago jettisoned the idealism that characterized our older brothers and sisters during the prior decade. This was instead one big celebration we vowed to enjoy for as long as possible.

Picture a blend of Dazed and Confused with Up in Smoke, then add in a dash of Animal House and the Three Stooges. It was sort of like that.

I remember one guy who took courses that quarter in wine appreciation, human sexuality, and music history. He called it his wine, women, and song curriculum. Another character took a class on deviant behavior in hopes of gaining some pointers. It might have been the only ‘A’ he received during his entire seven year college career.

My roommate, Artie, had a fleeting fling with Molly, a well-endowed girl who lived on our floor. Such dorm romances were common. Most started quickly and ended the same way. These two lovebirds hung together for a couple of weeks. One downside of dorm living was learning far more about the roomie’s love life than you ever wanted to know (and no doubt vice versa). In that regard, these two put on quite a show.

One morning, I detected more than a hint of sarcasm in Molly voice. At that moment, it became clear that this shooting star affair had passed the apex of its short existence. But rather than simply extinguishing itself, this particular relationship went out with a bang. It started with practical jokes. Artie filled Molly’s pillow with baby powder. Molly poured stinky cologne all over Artie’s pillow. Each successive stunt escalated the nastiness and raised the stakes. Finally, Molly destroyed some papers that Artie needed.

He was so angry that he could barely speak. His face was bright red. He vowed to concoct a truly vindictive counterstrike. At this point, I felt my role as roommate called for me to interject what passed for sanity. I encouraged Artie to consider instead a clever comeback. “How about,” I suggested “the old pie-in-the-face gag?” It was a classic. The Stooges, the Marx Brothers, Spencer Tracy, and Bugs Bunny all used it. Best of all, it brings closure, it’s funny, and no one gets hurt.

We laughed ourselves silly before deciding to adopt this plan. Naturally, there were no pies close at hand so we would have to be resourceful. We were in fine form when we wandered the four blocks to the grocery store. They didn’t have any cream pies and a pumpkin pie just didn’t seem right. If necessity is the mother of invention, then foolishness is surely the father. We picked out a collection of four day-old bear claws because they came in a standard aluminum pie pan. We then selected a can of the cheapest shaving cream on the shelves. With our special ingredients purchased, we were certain we could create a wonderful ersatz pie.

Upon our return, we ditched the bear claws and salvaged the pan. It was a simple matter to empty the contents of the shaving cream can into the pan. The result looked more like a blob of bargain shaving cream than a pie, but we figured it was close enough for this stunt.

I moved into lookout position in the hallway and tried to appear causal as I munched on a stale bear claw. Finally, I spotted our target. Molly was wearing her bathrobe and heading toward the shower. This was a perfect setup. Artie could nail her as soon as she opened the door to exit. If it turned out that she didn’t like pie, she could always go back and take another shower.

I alerted my roomie. Artie positioned himself against the wall right outside the women’s bathroom. Molly must have enjoyed a long shower because ten, fifteen, and then twenty minutes passed. Still we waited in silence. By this time, half the floor had taken notice of Artie and his homemade pie. It wasn’t very hard to imagine what was about to happen. The crowd pressed close with each person jockeying for the ideal viewing angle. We began to worry that Molly had heard the whispers and muted snickering. What if she wouldn’t come out? Could someone have tipped her off?

Finally, the door opened and out strode Molly. By the look on her face, I was quite sure that she had no clue what awaited her. POW! Artie pushed the shaving cream pie right in her face. She practically walked into it. It was a direct hit. Molly was speechless. The crowd surrounding her, though, couldn’t contain their amusement. Molly turned around, her face covered with dripping, white, gooey shaving cream. Her expression was equal parts shock, bewilderment, and rage. She then returned to the bathroom in a sulk.

Needless to say, this was the end for Artie and Molly. Each went on to enjoy better times, and hopefully, better relationships. That moment, though, will be forever immortalized in the minds of all who were present.

Freedom-Hating Terrorists

On November 30, our president declared that terrorists hate freedom. Now this was quite an interesting revelation. If true, it might suggest a clever strategy for rounding up the remainder of al Queda and the Taliban.

Experts think many of these nasty characters have been hiding for the past two years in the rugged mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan. At this time of year, it has to be cold, snowy, and generally miserable up there. Worse yet, they're still free!

I figure all we need to do is drop pictures of their evil comrades locked up and basking in the warm Caribbean sunshine. In no time, the terrorists will be sprinting down that mountain looking for someone to whom they can surrender their unwanted freedom. It simply couldn't get any easier than this.

Monday, February 09, 2004

Janet's Overexposed Boob

The subject has been talked to death, but let's toss out one more quick take.

I missed the storied event during this year's Super Bowl halftime show. I think the halftime show has long been the weak link in an otherwise entertaining day of television. I don't pay much attention because I've been conditioned by years of lame performances.

OK, truth be known, we were talking and eating corn chips with delicious fresh homemade guacamole.* Anyhow, I didn't even hear about the controversy until I turned on the radio the following morning.

So Wacko Jacko's wack-job little sister (no, not the one who appears in Playboy) displayed her breast on national TV... So what! I find it difficult to get even slightly excited by or about this event. Boobs aren't particularly rare. Every woman comes equipped with a pair (a good arrangement, I think). Nor are they particulaly offensive. Oh, you say, what about the children? Aren't breasts specifically designed to be given to babies? I do believe they are. So what's the big deal?

I think the whole episode serves to illustrate how our society's twisted puritanism tries to dictate that something good is really something bad. I, for one, am not buying that argument. Janet Jackson is undoubtedly a half-wit, but so are we collectively for reacting so strongly to her stupid stunt.

*Or as a young friend says "wacky-molee" - it's sort of like that arcade game with the mallet, only messier.

Sunday, February 08, 2004

Ban the Privacy Tax!

Every time I visit my local grocery, I am assaulted by pervasive sales incentives. Nearly every product in the store is tagged with a special discount price, but only for those customers who show a store savings card. Some products are as much as 75% off, but only for those who possess the magical card.

Anyone can have a card, but to obtain one, a customer must first surrender lots of personal identification information. This includes full legal name, address, and home telephone number. Some stores even want a driver’s license number!

I don’t have a savings card. Nor do I want one. The stores assure us that they don’t plan to sell their customers’ personal information. I simply don’t believe that.

These grocery stores spend a lot of money collecting and managing all that data about who people are and which products they buy. All businesses exist to make money. They don’t invest without some expectation of a return. From this perspective, the store’s claims about wanting the data to design future advertising campaigns simply don’t make financial sense. There must be something else.

The something else is that they share this information about people and purchases with data aggregators. These sleazy characters collect information from many sources, both public and private, and use it to build detailed profiles about individuals. Their data bases can contain banking and credit information, purchase information, driving records, court records, Internet use, and data from many other sources. Such information is definitely of interest to insurers, lenders, investors, potential employers, mass marketers, and private investigators.

The products people buy at the grocery store can tell a lot about their lives. For example, someone who likes high fat foods might be considered a poor insurance risk. Insurers are always looking for advantages in terms of rating risk. So much so they are willing to pay for those advantages. All of a sudden, the economic value of those savings cards becomes clear.

This is why I skip the card and always pay in cash. Unfortunately, this means I often pay what I call a “privacy tax.” The savings the card provides are artificial because the store raises the prices so they can then provide a discount to cardholders.

I confirmed this assertion by visiting another store where they don’t use savings cards (I would simply shop at this store were it not so inconvenient). Their prices are very close to the “discounts” at the first store.

Every time I visit the grocery, I try to avoid the “discounted” items and the associated privacy tax, but they make it very difficult to resist the siren’s song of savings. For example, there are times when every single box of breakfast cereal has some level of privacy tax assessed. On other occasions, they will offer attractive fresh produce with a privacy tax of over 100%. My privacy remains intact, but the contents of my wallet are not.

One answer to this dilemma would be for the government to choke off the grey market for personal information. If stores were prohibited from selling customer information (as medical providers now are), there would be no reason for the cards or the privacy tax.

Barring that, we the public may be able to have some beneficial effect by exposing these shady practices and the companies that engage in them. If large numbers of customers objected to savings cards, the stores would have to eliminate them, or at least rethink how they handle customer data.

I encourage you to speak up. Tell your friends and family about this issue. Don’t patronize stores that profit by selling customers’ personal data. Our privacy should not be for sale.

One Hundred Things I Dislike

You knew there simply had to be a dark side. Well, this is it. This list contains items and people without which my life would be better. It was a little disturbing how easy it was to compile a list of 100, and how difficult it was to keep it to only 100.

1. Abstinence education programs
2. Aggressive drivers and road rage
3. Anyone who wants to cut down old growth forests
4. Apple Computer
5. Art Modell
6. Aspartame
7. Bacon
8. Banks and mortgage companies
9. Bottled tap water
10. Brent Mussburger
11. Brussels sprouts
12. Bryant Gumble
13. Bureaucrats
14. Caffeine
15. Campaign financing and special interests
16. Cellular phones
17. Censorship
18. Check cashing storefronts
19. Clinic bombers
20. Clueless people in charge of anything
21. Companies that send US jobs to the third world
22. Computer virus authors
23. Conceal carry laws
24. Consultants
25. Corporate raids on pension funds
26. Creationists
27. Crinkling candy wrappers at the theater
28. Deadbeats
29. Defense contractors and arms merchants
30. Defense of marriage laws
31. Dubious dietary supplements
32. Enron
33. Fad diets
34. Faith-based initiatives
35. Family values
36. Financial analysts
37. Frat boys with monogrammed button-downs
38. French Ministry of Culture
39. Gossips, busybodies, and blabbermouths
40. Green peas
41. Grocery store savings cards
42. Guys who abuse women and children
43. Hamas
44. Hip-hop fashion
45. Hummers
46. Hypocrites
47. Insurance companies
48. Jerry Falwell
49. Kathy Lee Gifford
50. Labor unions
51. Land mines
52. Lazy people, goldbricks, and clock watchers
53. Likud party
54. Liquor
55. Litterers (especially those who flick cigarette butts)
56. Little Japanese trucks
57. Long boring meetings
58. Lotteries
59. McDonalds
60. Microsoft
61. Molesters
62. Monosodium glutamate
63. Nazis, Skinheads, and Klansmen
64. New Jersey
65. Nuclear industry
66. Oil companies
67. OJ Simpson
68. Outsourcers
69. Palestinian Liberation Organization
70. Personal data aggregators
71. Pharmaceutical industry
72. Political correctness
73. Polluters
74. Potholes
75. Publish or perish in higher education
76. Ragweed
77. Reality TV
78. Realtors
79. Recording Industry Association of America
80. Rednecks, hillbillies, and trailer trash
81. Religious extremists of every stripe
82. Rent-to-own stores
83. Restaurants that make you wait when they have lots of tables
84. Rush Limbaugh
85. Saccharin
86. SCO Group
87. Self-appointed experts on everything
88. Spammers, direct mailers, and telemarketers
89. Spyware and tracking cookies
90. Taliban
91. Talking during a movie
92. Talking on the phone while driving
93. Terrorists (both government-sponsored and freelance)
94. Thoughtless dog owners
95. Tobacco smoke
96. Tom Peters
97. Toxic waste
98. US firms that move offshore to avoid taxes
99. Voters who would rather fund war than education
100. White guys with baseball caps on backwards

This is just my opinion. If you find yourself among those described above, please understand it's nothing personal (well, OK, in a few cases, it is). Anyhow, if your list is different, I invite you to create your own blog and post it.

Why “Every Fool?”

Why (you haven’t yet asked) do I refer to myself as “Every Fool?”

I guess there are several reasons. The first, and perhaps most obvious, is that it’s fun to play the fool once in a while. For the amusement of children (and occasionally inebriated adults), I can mimic a variety of voices. I love humor, and the goofier, the better.

Some people, for whatever reason, perceive me to be smart. I’ve heard it for most of my life. In high school, it was said as a disparagement. Later in my career, it was spoken with a hint of admiration.

The truth is that the older I become (and I’m well on the way), the more certain I become that the world is full of stuff about which I know nothing and probably never will. Even now, I’m quite certain that I don’t know what I don’t know.

I do remember a lot of trivial facts and possess a talent for playing along even when I have no idea what is happening around me, but that makes me little more than a resourceful fool. So be it.

I make no claim to be everyman. I’m far too quirky for that. I’ve aspired to many things, but normality was never among them. So Every Fool will have to do, at least for now.

Saturday, February 07, 2004

One Hundred Things I Love

These are some experiences that make life worthwhile for me.

1. A day with nothing to do
2. A kid’s smile that is half mischievous and half affectionate
3. Air conditioning
4. Allman Brothers
5. Attending football games
6. Autumn in the Rockies
7. Back rubs
8. Being right
9. Blues
10. Bongo drums
11. Bookstores
12. Buying stuff on the Internet
13. Caller ID
14. Cannons
15. Channel surfing
16. Cheech and Chong
17. Chimps dressed as humans
18. Chocolate anything
19. Coastal redwood forests
20. Concerts
21. Confidence
22. Cool code that actually works
23. Creating electronic music
24. Curvature of a woman’s hip
25. Debating
26. Desert in bloom
27. Dilbert
28. Doing goofy voices for my son
29. Durango, Colorado
30. ESPN Sports Center (da-da-duh da-da-duh)
31. Fine dining
32. Giving gifts
33. Grateful Dead
34. Helping a friend
35. Herbal tea
36. Hiking in the woods
37. History
38. Hypocrites exposed
39. Kitties who talk
40. Late night discussions with my brother on the telephone
41. Laughing
42. Learning from other people’s mistakes
43. Leisurely breakfast on vacation
44. Live theater
45. Lovemaking in the morning
46. Maps
47. Mel Brooks
48. Monday Night Football
49. Money well spent
50. Mountain lodges
51. Movies
52. MP3 music files
53. My lover’s hands gently touching my face
54. National “do not call” registry
55. Native American cliff dwellings
56. NFL Primetime with Chris Berman
57. Oak Creek Canyon, Arizona
58. Opera
59. Oregon coast
60. Parody, satire, comedy, humor, and farce
61. Peering into my lover’s eyes
62. People who ask my opinion
63. Physics
64. Plans that work out just right
65. Politics
66. Recreational explosions
67. Road trips
68. Roller coasters
69. Science magazines
70. Serious kissing
71. Shakespeare
72. Sharing a warm blanket on a cold day
73. Sharing my favorite places
74. Silly girls
75. Simpsons
76. Sleeping late
77. Smoke free restaurants
78. Solving problems
79. Sopranos
80. Sound of rain on the roof at night
81. Space exploration
82. Spam filters
83. Star Trek
84. Stupid 1960s TV shows
85. Summer thunder
86. Super Bowl
87. Swapping stories with old friends
88. Taking time to do things right
89. Talented people
90. Thai food
91. The Blues Brothers movie
92. Three Stooges
93. Tidal pools
94. Trivia
95. Understanding a woman’s point of view
96. Vegetarian sushi
97. Walking on the beach
98. Warner Brothers cartoons
99. Waterfalls
100. Web surfing

Every Fool’s Guide to American Political Parties

Successful candidates have long worked to capture the center of the political spectrum by stealing the message of the opposing party. With all of this theft, it can be difficult sometimes to ascertain the real differences between Republicans and Democrats.

As a public service in this election year, our staff has assembled the following series of attributes intended to allow voters to easily differentiate the two parties.

Pro-life, but likes gunsPro-choice, but wants to ban cigarettes
Wants government run like businessWants business run like government
Filet mignon (medium rare)Free range tofu
Sin taxes Sin
Government contracts for croniesGovernment jobs for relatives
Chivas RegalSamuel Adams
Tricky DickSlick Willie
Won’t tell where the money wentDoesn’t know where the money went
Government monitoringMonitoring Government
“Read my lips”“I did not have sex with that woman”
Double shot espressoOrganic herbal tea
Socializes at country clubSocializes in Internet chat rooms
Scandals involving money and influenceScandals involving sex and drugs
Pat RobertsonAl Sharpton
Golden parachuteSocial safety net
Talks to JesusTalks to homeless
Free trade Free love
War on terrorWar is terror
Hunting for deer Hunting for bargains on e-Bay
Defense of marriageAlternative lifestyles
Drives while operating cell phoneJogs while operating iPod
Pensions for those who don’t need one Pensions for those who don’t deserve one
Just say noI didn’t inhale
Weapons of mass destructionHuman rights abuses
Family valuesFamily planning
Hummer 2 Volkswagen Beetle
Jobs to IndiaQuotas for Indians
Arnold SchwarzeneggerWillie Nelson
Homeland SecuritySocial Security
Tree harvestingTree hugging
Borrow and spendTax and spend
Ketchup is a vegetable Meat is dead
Horsepower and torqueFuel economy and emissions
Worried about domestic partnersWorried about domestic violence
Wanted to be a cowboyWanted to be an astronaut

OK, I’ll grant you there might be a few unfair stereotypes, but this list should leave no doubt in the voter’s mind about party differences. Please feel free to share this handy guide with your friends and neighbors. After all, an enlightened electorate is the foundation of a great democracy.

So which choice is better? Please show us in November.