Friday, April 28, 2006

Two Things Corporations Don’t Do

Gasoline prices are currently at or near all time highs. It really doesn’t matter when you’re reading this. The fact is that virtually everything that you purchase is currently at its all time high. It’s called inflation. It’s a natural by-product of capitalism and is nothing to be feared. Get used to it.

Nevertheless, it seems that petroleum prices have gone beyond the natural bounds of inflation, so people are looking for an enemy to blame.

It’s easy to blame oil companies. So oil companies are currently out of favor. They tend to rotate with the pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies, Microsoft, and Wal-Mart. At any given point in time, at least one of those will be in the dog house with consumers. Today it’s the oil companies. In a couple of months, one of the others will take over the bad-guy slot and oil companies can go back to business as usual.

Since we’re always blaming big business for everything from droughts in the Sahara to floods in the Midwest, maybe it’s time to have a quick lesson in economics. The following are two basic truths of big business. Don’t argue with me. You know I’m right:

Corporations don’t make profits

Corporations don’t pay taxes

I have yet to meet a liberal that understands these concepts. At least none that would admit it in public. Because if they would be honest and admit that these are true, they would have to reconsider every shred of public policy that they’ve worked so hard to establish in the last fifty years.

What do you really think happens when corporations make profits? Do you think it just goes into the pockets of the fat-cat executives? Well, yeah, some of it does. And I suppose you could make arguments as to the appropriateness of that. But even if the highest paid executive would distribute his entire year’s salary to all his customers, it wouldn’t put any more than a couple of bucks in your pocket. Executives make a lot of money because there are a lot of customers out there.

The dirty little secret that liberals don’t want to admit is that virtually all corporate profits go back to the shareholders. And we  are the shareholders. You and me.

Much, if not most, of the public stock of large corporations is held by mutual funds and retirement accounts. ira’s. 401k’s. You can rejoice when a corporation announces record profits because a lot of that money is going to be paying helping you put gas in your Winnebago in a few years. When corporations make money, we all make money.

Liberals would have you believe that it’s not fair when corporations make so much money. So they would rather impose insane “windfall” taxes on corporations. They have this crazy notion that they can tax corporations and nobody will notice it. They never met a tax they didn’t like, and they especially like the ones that they believe “nobody” pays.

Of course, they forget that corporations don’t pay taxes. It’s just part of doing business. It’s figured into the cost to the consumer. Sometimes the consumer actually “sees” it, as in the case of his utility bill or telecommunications bill. But most of the time it’s just baked into the cost.

Every time I read that some huge corporation has just received some big tax break, I say hurray, because I just put more money in my pocket. And when I hear that they have reported record profits, I say hurray again, because I put even more money in my pocket.

I thank them, my retirement fund thanks them, and some day my Winnebago will thank them.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

The Question My Dad Wouldn’t Answer

To an eight-year-old boy, Dad is perfect. He has no faults. Dad is on the highest pedestal in the land. He never makes mistakes. He never sins. He’s never wrong. He is, after all, Dad.

Dads get a lot dumber, of course, as the boy enters his teen years. But to an eight-year-old, Dad is perfection personified.

I know, because my dad was perfect. Even when he didn’t know the answer, Dad always had the right response. And that’s what I’m going to talk about today.

We were watching a movie on television that was not originally filmed in English. It was French or German or Japanese or something. Whatever. It wasn’t English. But it had been “dubbed” into English.

Even as a small boy, I understood the concept of dubbing. I knew that they originally filmed the movie in some language and then later some actors went into a sound studio and recorded their voices in another language to match the expression and tempo and dialog of the original actors as good as possible. It wasn’t an exact science, but it was certainly serviceable.

As Dad and I watched the movie together, it occurred to me that they had to get rid of the original dialog somehow. But there were all these other sounds in the movie. There was music. There were ambient sounds in the outdoor scenes; birds chirping, cars whizzing by, feet shuffling on the sidewalk.

How, I asked Dad, did they remove the dialog without affecting all the other sounds in the movie? I’ll never forget his reply.

“It ain’t easy.”

In other words, he didn’t know.

I accepted that as an eight-year-old. I accepted the fact that he didn’t know, but he wasn’t quite ready to admit that he didn’t know. But that was okay. Because Dad was perfect.

Over the years, I’ve had some experience in the recording and video production industries and now I know how they did it.

You wanna know?

When a movie is made, the sound is recorded in layers. The music is always recorded on a completely separate track. Usually the dialog is on a track by itself. As much as possible, the sound is recorded completely “dry”, without any ambient noises at all. No footsteps, no doors squeaking, no fingers rattling on computer keyboards. Those sounds are added later by “foley artists” — very similar to the “sound effects” actors in the old days of radio drama.

All these individual tracks are blended together to create the final product that we enjoy as a movie. But they are also kept separate so individual tracks — such as the original dialog — can be removed and new dialog inserted.

In rare occasions where it is impossible to separate the sound effects from the dialog, it is possible to recreate the sound effects on the foley stage along with the new dialog. It can be done so seamlessly that it’s barely noticeable.

So, there you have it, Dad. That’s how they do it. I thought you’d like to know.

And by the way, if you didn’t know it before, your secret’s safe with me.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

All Energy is Solar

We’ve been hearing a lot lately about alternative energy. I gained a better understanding of energy when I came to the realization that all energy comes from the Sun.

No matter what kind of energy you consider on the Earth, it all originated with the Sun. Petroleum started out as organic material, grown by the Sun. Hydroelectric power wouldn’t be possible without the sun’s role in evaporation and condensation. Even wind energy is the result of the sun’s uneven heating of the planet as it rotates on its axis.

All energy is solar.

If all energy came from the Sun, where did the Sun get its energy? Well, the Sun is basically nothing more than hydrogen and helium. The Sun keeps these two elements in a constant state of nuclear fusion, giving off vast amounts of energy and generating more energy in a few seconds than we could ever use in our entire lifetime.

All energy is nuclear.

But what sets off such fusion? After all, hydrogen and helium are the two lightest elements in the universe. How can they get together to create energy? They do it by simple mass. The Sun is so big that by its sheer gravity, these tiny elements are held together and compressed to a point of fusion. If it wasn’t for gravity, the electrons and protons would simply float aimlessly in space.

All energy comes from gravity.

Gravity is one of the greatest mysteries of the universe. Nobody understands what forces are at work that draws two masses together. But it’s universal. Every mass attracts every other mass. It is that attraction that creates the energy that we get from the Sun. Yet nobody can explain.

Well, I can explain it. God is pushing things together. There can’t be any other explanation. If you can’t see the power of God's creation in the structure of a flower or in the engineering of the human eye, surely you have to admit that the only explanation for such a force is that gravity is the Hand of God.

All energy comes from God.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

A Price for Everything

A basic axiom of capitalism is that everything has a price. Any product or service — regardless of its moral or ethical value — can be one side of a transaction in which the other side is money. The amount of money exchanged represents a point somewhere between the value of obtaining  the product or service to the purchaser and the value of delivering  the product or service to the seller.

An economics teacher once postulated this to his class in this manner: How many people in his class would be willing to have the tip of their little finger cut off? The class was understandably squeamish at the prospect, so he elaborated.

The tip of the little finger would be surgically removed at the first joint. There would be no pain and no ill effects from the surgery. The only thing is that the person would have to live with the inconvenience of missing the tip of their finger for the rest of their life.

Okay, given that, how many people would accept that offer?

No hands were raised.

Okay, let’s sweeten the pot. What if they were to be paid one dollar? Would that make a difference?

Again, no takers. So he doubled the ante. Two dollars for cutting off the tip of your little finger.

Nope. Nobody would do it.

Five hundred dollars? A few people in the room squirmed nervously.

Okay. Ten million dollars.

Every hand in the room shot up.

So the fair market price of cutting off one’s finger is somewhere between five hundred dollars and ten million dollars. The only thing left to do would be to work from both ends until the final price is agreed upon.

That’s how auctions work. That’s how eBay works. Heck, that’s how capitalism works. It’s a wonderful system. And, just like abstinence, it works every time it’s tried.

This is nothing new. One of the most enduring examples is in the world’s oldest profession. And it was wonderfully illustrated in Julia Roberts’ breakthrough movie, “Pretty Woman”.

Julie Roberts and Richard Gere negotiated her fee for a week’s worth of service. The auction takes only a few seconds — a few lines of the movie. Finally, they settle on $3,000.

Once they shake on the deal, she confesses, “I would have stayed for two thousand.” He replies, “I would have paid four.”

So the fair market price of a week with Julia Roberts at your beck and call is somewhere between $2,000 and $4,000.

Nah, that was in 1990. The price has probably gone up since then.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Midnight on Television

There’s nothing like comparing youthful memories of television with some young 30-something whipper-snapper to remind me exactly how old I am.

I recently discovered that some of my co-workers didn’t realize that tv stations used to play the Star-Spangled Banner every night at midnight. Why would they do that? That’s silly.

These kids grew up with mtv and fifty 24-hour cable channels. Now they have 200 satellite channels but they hardly ever watch any of them live because they TiVO everything. In other words, they have no idea what it was like to watch television in the 1960s.

Forgive me for a few minutes while I address such uninformed citizens and teach them about television at its finest.

When I was growing up, we could receive three television stations. Just three. One for each network. Yes, there were only three networks back then: cbs, nbc, and abc. That is, if you could really consider abc a network.

The evening news came on at 10:00. For the next half-hour, we were treated to a summary of the entire day’s world news in the first 10 minutes. Then there was a smattering of local news. After a commercial, we learned about what the weather was going to be tomorrow. Then 10 minutes of sports, which usually meant finding out whether the Cardinals won or lost that day.

What happened after that depended on what channel you were watching. If it was the nbc channel, you saw an hour and a half of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. If you were watching the cbs channel, it may have been an old movie or some rerun or something. Nobody knows what you watched if you were watching the abc channel, and nobody cared.

That means that all the stations ran out of programming somewhere around midnight. They were done for the day. Some sleepy engineer hung around to make sure the transmitter was still humming. But the news crew had all gone home by then and all the front office guys had left a long time ago.

So when the last minute of programming was done, it was somebody’s job at the tv station to play the Star-Spangled Banner. It was usually a tape of a choir singing — Mormon Tabernacle-style. Or it may have actually been the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. I dunno. Or it may have been a military band. Whatever. And it was usually accompanied by a film of a waving American flag.

And then there was an awkward silence. A test pattern may have come on for a few minutes. And then a pop. And then snow.

Then the engineer turned out the lights, locked the door, and went home. About six hours later, the day shift engineer would show up to broadcast the morning farm reports. On nbc stations, that was followed by The Today Show. On cbs stations, it was followed by Captain Kangaroo. Nobody knows what was on the abc stations because nobody watched them.

What is “snow”, you ask? That’s what we called the electronic blizzard that filled the screen accompanied with white noise. I know most of you people under 40 have never seen static on a tv screen. Well, that’s the stuff you get when you send a tv signal over the airwaves and it bounces off of the local water tower and you get a ghost image and...

No, no, tv doesn’t have to come over a cable. You could actually get a tv signal from the atmosphere. I mean without a dish. It didn’t come from outer space; it came from a tall, skinny tower that is usually visible from the interstate. But you needed an antenna as large as your kitchen table which looked like a bunch of coat-hangers that fell out of the sky into a symmetrical triangular pattern.

This is all very confusing for you, isn’t it?

Wait until I tell you about the days when CDs were twelve-inches wide. And black.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Conservative Activism vs. Liberal Activism

Every once in a while, I listen to liberal talk radio on Air America. From what I’ve been able to figure out, whenever I listen, the total audience of Air America increases by about 20%. (They’re being beat by Caribbean Music formats.) And based on listening to the callers to their shows, I have determined that when I listen, the intelligence of their audience quadruples.

I love studying the difference between conservatives and liberals — especially the different ways they approach activism. That was illustrated recently when I listened to Air America’s coverage of recent Minutemen activities.

The Minutemen Project is a group of citizens along the US-Mexico border determined to monitor the flow of illegal aliens and report their activities to US Border Patrol authorities. They recently discussed a proposal to help local citizens erect their own fence along the border if the US government refuses to erect such a fence.

The Air America hosts ridiculed the plan as the world’s easiest fence to “walk around”. In doing so, they demonstrated that they have no idea how conservatives view activism.

To a liberal, activism is chaining yourself to a tree. Or putting a flower in the barrel of a soldier’s gun. Or marching down the street. All these activities are designed to convince somebody else  to solve your  problem. After all, it’s never a liberal’s fault that a problem exists, so a liberal never actually believes that he can solve the problem. That’s what the federal government is for.

But to a conservative, activism means actually doing  something to solve the problem. And that’s what the Minutemen activists are doing. While the liberals are running all over the country wringing their hands, convincing Congress to change law-breaking free-loading aliens into legal free-loading citizens with the stroke of the legislative pen, the Minutemen are actually on the border solving the problem at the source. They are proving that where the federal government is inept, private citizens will be effective.

And that brings us to the fence.

The Minutemen have long supported the building of a heavily-patrolled fence along the US-Mexico border. From the Pacific to the Gulf. Through desert and along the river. Makes sense to me. Most countries have to build fences to keep their own people in. It’s not that we want to keep people out, but we need to control the flow of people as they enter. And it’s kinda hard to do that if they can just walk in after supper and show up at our schools knowing only three words of English: “Free lunch program”.

The Minutemen have enlisted a dozen or so landowners along the border that have agreed to build the fence on their land. Of course, building the fence on disjunct land won’t be totally effective unless the fence is built along all 2,000 miles of the border. Thus, the ridicule by the Air America hosts.

But they’re missing the point. The Minutemen are setting out to prove that such a fence can be built. It can be built by private enterprise using private money. In the areas that it exists, it can be 100% effective. The federal government has the money and the resources to build such a fence. The Minutemen are demonstrating that if the federal government won’t build the fence, it’ll get built anyway.

They’re actually solving  the problem.

No war was ever stopped by putting a flower in the barrel of a gun. But our county may be just a little more secure with some strategically placed barbed wire.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Great Scott! I Coulda Been Great. Like Scott.

Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert franchise, and I have a lot in common. We’re both about the same age. He used to work at a large telecommunications company in the West. I work for a large telecommunications company in the Midwest.

We both share a healthy cynicism of large corporations, although his is directed at the entire company whereas mine is usually focused on the IT department.

We are both software engineers who took the MBA route into business.

For many years, he kept his day job while writing Dilbert on his kitchen table late at night and early in the morning. I have kept my day job while I write this blog late at night and early in the morning.

Scott has made millions of dollars from people that clamber to read the words he has written. I ... still work at a large telecommunications company in the Midwest.

My path actually crossed with Scott’s once several years ago. I wonder if he remembers me. He had asked his fans to send in stupid things that we had heard our boss say. I sent him a list of, gosh, twenty or thirty stupid things I had heard bosses say. It wasn’t hard coming up with the list. My favorite: “It’s not that kind of zero.” Don’t ask the context; it can stand on its own.

In a few days, I got a nice email from Scott saying that he was going to use my quote in his next newsletter. Sure enough, a couple of weeks later, there it was. I was in print. Well, actually, a millionaire had just used my contribution for free to make some more money. I figure he earned about $15.37 by copy-and-pasting my words. Actually, my boss’s words. Hmmm... I wonder if I owe my boss a commission. I’ll pay him when Scott pays me.

Scott owns one of the world’s most famous email addresses: He regularly published that email address in the Dilbert comics years before it was fashionable to even have  email addresses. Heck, a lot of people probably didn’t even know what an email address was at the time. Of course, now most people have a dozen or so addresses. And probably gets ten thousand spam messages a day.

Dilbert was the first comic that actually understood technology. While Dagwood was still making sandwiches and Dolly was still “touching” Jeffy, Scott actually mentioned the term “control-alt-delete” in one of his earliest comics. I’m sure several editors got letters complaining that the comic was too out-of-touch for common folk. He was giga-years ahead of his time.

So Scott has his millions and I have my credit cards. Scott can stay in the finest hotels in the world and I drive miles down the interstate looking for the nearest Super 8. Scott’s books, comics, and blogs are read by millions and my blog is read by my mother — when I print it for her and put it under her nose.

Scott and Dilbert are featured in no fewer than a dozen Wikipedia articles. But I can lay claim to one bit of notoriety that Scott will never be able to surpass. I wrote the Wikipedia article about Manhattan State Hospital, the hospital that Scott Joplin died in. Really.

Hah! Top that, Mr. Adams. You may be able to become wealthy drawing a guy with no mouth. But I can write an article that nobody reads about a hospital that doesn’t exist anymore that once counted as its patients the greatest rag-time composer of all time.

Well, everybody’s gotta start somewhere.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Fire Alarms are Serious Stuff

We had a fire alarm at work today. Well, it wasn’t really an alarm, it was a false alarm. That meant it was really more of a drill.

I work in a big office building with a few thousand other people. It’s actually like a small city. It’s larger than the town I grew up in.

The standard protocol when the alarm goes off is that everybody is supposed to put down whatever they’re doing and calmly walk toward the exits. Don’t take the elevator on the way down; that would be bad luck. Then we are supposed to congregate in the parking garage across the street and walk around aimlessly until we notice that people are streaming back into the building because, after all, there never was any fire in the first place.

I’ve added a few rules of my own. For one thing, I always take my car keys. And my laptop computer. And I get one last good drink of coffee. (You never know when you’re going to get your next one.)

It’s hard to take these things seriously. If I would hear a big bang or actually see smoke some place, I’d probably be more anxious to get out the door. But as it is, I usually take my time to look around my desk to see if I’m forgetting anything.

We get these things every couple of months or so. They are almost always false alarms. Usually, it’s not a fire; it’s just some maintenance worker standing on a ladder with his head poked into a drop-down ceiling saying to himself, “Hmmm, I wonder where this  wire goes to?” Then “snip” and “tweet-tweet-tweet”.

My first clue today was the attitude of the maintenance people I saw on my way out. I noticed several of them congregating around the alarm command center. Laughing. Oh, well. The rules say to get everybody out of the building first and ask questions later.

Actually, I don’t mind. The very first fire “drill” in this company that I was involved with was a real fire. Really. It happened several years ago, but it changed the way I look at fire alarms.

A bunch of us were working on the 14th floor when the lights dimmed. Then all our computers re-booted. There was a collective “ugh” that went through the office as everybody realized that their work was lost. Then the whole floor went dark. The emergency lights came on. And a few seconds later, the fire alarm sounded.

The guy I was working with asked me if this was a drill. I said “I dunno, but I’m not going to hang around to find out.”

The stairwell was crammed, but we were all orderly. Concerned, but civil, as we walked down 14 flights.

We all congregated at the base of the building. After a while, we learned that there had been a fire in the main electrical transformer that fed the building. We were not in any danger, but it was going to be many hours before it was going to be fixed so we could all go home.

So I headed for my car. And then I realized where my car keys were. On the 14th floor. And all the elevators were dead.

Two lessons I learned that day: Take every fire drill seriously. Always remember your car keys.

My knees ached as I walked up the fourteen flights. They ached more as I walked back down.

Many years later, two airplanes crashed into the buildings of the World Trade Center. In the few minutes that followed there was a lot of confusion about whether or not to evacuate the buildings. Many people jammed the stairwells going down while others wandered aimlessly wondering what to do. The irony was that the people watching it unfold on the TV news knew better what was going on than the people in the building.

Thousands of lives were saved that day by people that knew to treat every alarm seriously. Get out of the building and ask questions later. Hundreds more may have been saved if everybody had taken that advice.

My guess is that at the end of the day, the last thing that was on everybody’s mind was whether they had remembered their car keys.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

In Real Life, Clowns Aren't Always Sent In

Remember the song “Send in the Clowns”? Judy Collins popularized it in 1975, although it was originally written a couple of years earlier by Stephen Sondheim for the musical “A Little Night Music”.

Like many songs of the era, the true meaning behind the lyrics is somewhat esoteric. It appears that the singer is going through some hard times, trying to figure out the disappointments of life in general and relationships in particular. Then this “Send in the clowns” line pops up. What’s with that?

Here’s a reminder of the first verse:

Send In The Clowns
Words & Music by Stephen Sondheim

Isn’t it rich? Aren’t we a pair?
Me here at last on the ground, and you in mid-air.
Send in the clowns.
Isn’t it bliss? Don’t you approve?
One who keeps tearing around, and one who can’t move.
But where are the clowns? Send in the clowns.

Allow me to explain about the clowns.

In any live performance, sometimes “stuff” happens. When it happens on Broadway, that usually means somebody forgot their line. Or a dancer has a sprained ankle. Or the tuba player has asthma.

But when “stuff” happens in the circus, it may mean that somebody just fell off the high-wire and is now laying in two pieces in the middle of ring number two. Or some trapeze artist ate too much buttered popcorn and his slick fingers failed to catch his partner. Or somebody got his head bit off. Literally.

Who cares about asthmatic musicians when performers are dying?

In the tradition of “the show must go on”, well, the show must go on. The traditional response by the circus management is to send the clowns in to entertain and distract the audience while the maintenance crew mops up the mess in the dark, leaving the audience to wonder if that was really all part of the act.

When tragedy strikes the circus, the cry goes out backstage: “Send in the clowns!” And everybody knows exactly what that means.

Sometimes life is like that. Sometimes things get so bent out of shape that you find yourself looking around for the clowns. Surely there must be some comic relief around here. Surely. Somewhere.

But not always. Here’s the last verse:

Isn’t it rich? Isn’t it queer,
Losing my timing this late in my career?
But where are the clowns?
There ought to be clowns...
Well, maybe next year.

The clowns don’t always show up. Sometimes there is no comic relief.

Sometimes you just have to face your problems with no help. Either that, or find your own clowns. Because this ain’t the circus.

Monday, April 17, 2006

This. Next. When? What?

Today is Monday the 17th. What will be the date next Friday?

Okay, show of hands. How many people said the 21st? How many people said the 28th?

You wanna start a big argument over something that should really be simple? Throw that question out at the next lunch table and see what your co-workers say.

People have been dealing with the concept of relative time for several millennia. But they have yet to figure out what to do with the word “next”. The problem comes when people confuse “next Friday” with “the Friday in next week”.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, you would say the answer is the 21st. If you’re saying to yourself, “What does he mean? They’re both the same thing!”, you would say the answer is the 28th.

See the problem?

There’s a very simple solution to the proper usage of the word “next” when dealing with relative dates.

Don’t use it. Never. Kinda like the word “bling”. Don’t try to use it in a sentence. It’s too ambiguous, too confusing, and totally unnecessary.

Here’s the real answer. (Remember, you heard it here first.)

This  Friday is the 21st. A week from this Friday  is the 28th. Next  Friday is undefined, just like dividing by zero. It just doesn’t exist.

See? Nothing hard about that.

Nobody is ever confused about “this”. It’s always the next one coming up. It’s the word “next” that they have a hard time with. But once you’ve established what “this” is, it’s only a small step to define “a week from this”.

No ambiguity. No confusion.

Sheesh, do I have to explain everything  to you people?

And you thought I was going to talk about taxes today, didn’t you?

Friday, April 14, 2006

Watching the Girl from Ipanema

I love people watching. I love to sit in the mall and just watch the world go by. There is something about knowing that you are “in” on a tiny sliver of a person’s life as they walk by that can be downright exhilarating at times.

Of course, when the subject is “people” watching, it invariably turns into a discussion on “girl” watching. And for a very good reason.

Men use the act of walking to get from point “A” to point “B”. It’s nothing more than that to them. They are not trying to communicate anything. They are just moving their carbon-based molecules through space.

Women, on the other hand, often feel like transportation — pedal or otherwise — is a statement. (Not all women believe this all the time, but enough do to make it interesting.)

Women treat walking as a three-step process. They get ready for it, they do it, and then they admire their accomplishment.

Whereas men simply move through space, women actually take over and occupy the space for a brief moment. After a woman has walked by, it is natural to stop and take a poll — ask the audience what they thought of the message that the woman left behind. To do so after a man walked by would be an exercise in futility.

If you’ve done as much girl watching as I have, you will notice that women are naturally divided into two categories: the attractive women and the not-attractive women. Don’t argue with me on this one; you know I’m right.

I have also noticed that the attractive women tend to naturally fall into two sub-categories: those who are aware of their attractiveness and those who are unaware of it.

It is that last group that intrigues me the most: the attractive women who are unaware. They are the most innocent, the most alluring. They go through life making a statement, but they don’t even know what that statement is. As they pass men, the men acknowledge that they are a beauty to behold but are the same time untouchable. For unless a woman is aware of the effect she is having, it would be a sin to take advantage of it.

Whenever I think of girl watching, I have to think of music. It’s only natural. Heck, Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass had a hit song on that very subject — “Music to Watch Girls Go By”.

But it is another song that epitomizes the very essence of girl watching. It’s one of the most recorded songs in the history of music — the one that introduced the rhythms of the bossa nova to much of the world.

The Girl from Ipanema
Music by Antonio Carlos Jobim
Original Portuguese lyrics by Vinicius de Moraes
English lyrics by Norman Gimbel

Tall and tan and young and lovely
The girl from Ipanema goes walking
And when she passes
Each one she passes goes "aah"

When she walks she's like a samba
That swings so cool and sways so gently
That when she passes
Each one she passes goes "aah"

Now there  is a beautiful girl who has absolutely no clue the effect she has on the men as she passes them.


Thursday, April 13, 2006

Just Vote “No”

When politicians run for office, they have to beg for votes. Most constituents won’t vote for a candidate unless they’re actually asked  to vote for them. And buying  votes is generally frowned upon in our society.

So here comes Mr. Candidate to Mr. Voter and he says, “Will you vote for me?” What’s the first thing that Mr. Voter is going to say?

“What are you going to do  for me?”

I suppose that’s a legitimate question. The problem is that politicians generally can’t really do much for their constituents.

Except spend money. Your money. My money.

And how do they spend it? By voting. Specifically, by voting “Yes”.

At this point, I should pause and say that most of this is directed at the federal level. The closer politicians actually get to the voters, the less this is true. I’d really like my city councilmen to continue to spend money to fix the potholes on my street. But I’m just about at the point where I don’t want my congressmen and senators to spend any money at all except on federal defense.

And the best way to measure how well they do that is to see how often they vote “No”.

Political organizations have been rating politicians for years based on how they vote. Most of these organizations track how politicians vote on specific issues of concern to them. A “Yes” vote or a “No” vote could be for or against that particular organization’s agenda.

I’d like to see a different view. I’d like to know how many times a politician voted “Yes” or “No” regardless of what the issue is.

I know there are some issues in which I’d like to see a “Yes” vote. But every “Yes” vote involves spending some money, even if it’s money that I wouldn’t mind them spending. The only cost for a “No” vote is the electricity to light and air-condition the chamber while the vote is occurring. I’d be willing to pay for that.

Imagine this. A candidate seeking a political position says something like this in his “stump” speech: “If you elect me, I promise that I will save more of your money than my opponent and I will not spend one dime more than what is absolutely necessary to guarantee the security of our country. I will do this by voting ‘No’ more often than any of my colleagues in Congress.”

That’s the guy who would get my vote.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Trickle-down Works in France, Too

When I was a poor, struggling college student, I got a job one summer working for a small factory on the edge of town. It was such a small factory, I was working with the owner.

I spent two weeks loading and unloading bags of cement and other construction materials into trucks. It was hot, hard, back-breaking work.

At the end of the two weeks, the owner of the company reached into his back pocket, withdrew two weeks’ salary in cash, thanked me for my time, and said I wouldn’t be needed on Monday.

I was disappointed. Even though I had been hired very casually, I kinda thought the job was mine for the summer. But, no, he just needed me to get through a busy part of the season and my services were no longer needed.

I was grateful for the work, thanked him for the opportunity, and went out looking for my next job — which I found a few days later. That job — in a local truck stop — lasted me through the end of the summer.

It’s a good thing I didn’t live in France. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have had a job all summer.

America’s unemployment rate usually hovers around 5%. France’s is now in the low 20% range. But that’s not good enough. The youth of France will not be happy until they have achieved a full 100% unemployment rate. With the help of French namby-for-president Jacques Chirac, they are well on their way to just that.

France seems to have a law that says that once you’ve hired somebody, it’s really, really hard to get rid of him. You can’t just say, as the factory did to me, I’m sorry, we have no more work for you to do.

No, you’re stuck with him.

When the French government tried to amend the law this spring to give just a little more flexibility to employers, the youth of France did what they’ve been doing since the 17th century. They revolted. And the leadership of France did what they've been doing at least since World War II. They caved.

Socialists gain power by claiming to represent the working class — usually at the expense of business. They have never realized that what is good for business is usually also good for the workers. And what is bad for business is invariably bad for the workers.

Trickle-down economics — like gravity — doesn’t have to be believed in to work.

Policies that are repressive to business — like minimum wage laws, guaranteed employment laws, and employee-financed health care — always look good on the outside but will almost always backfire in the face of the very people they are trying to help.

Thankfully, guaranteed employment laws didn’t exist in America when I was in college. If they had, those trucks would have never gotten unloaded.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

This Forger Got Away with It

One of this year’s most amazing stories involves a forger who recreated one of America’s most famous and iconoclastic paintings. And when the forgery was discovered, the official reaction was, “Well, that is certainly interesting.”

Here’s how it happened.

In the 1970s, Donald Trachte was best known as an illustrator of the famous “Henry” comic strip. That bald, speechless boy had been a classic in American newspapers since 1932. Trachte had been drawing the character with John Liney ever since the original creator, Carl Anderson, had died in 1948.

Trachte was also a good friend and neighbor of the great American artist, Norman Rockwell. When he wanted to buy one of Rockwell’s paintings for his private collection, he was offered Breaking Home Ties, for which he paid $900 in 1960.

This was one of Rockwell’s greatest paintings. Appearing on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post  in 1954, it depicted a young man ready to leave for college, accompanied by his farmer father. The elder, hat in hand, is contemplating his future and perhaps offering a last piece of advice as the son anxiously awaits the bus that is going to take him to school. They are both sitting on the running board of a beat-up pickup truck. A faithful collie rests his chin on the boy’s knee.

It can easily be said that Trachte got a bargain. Art critics often rated Breaking Home Ties  as one of Rockwell’s greatest paintings, in the same vein as Rosie the Riveter, which was sold for $5 million in 2002. Paying $900 for a multi-million dollar painting was a good deal.

Trachte proudly displayed the painting as the centerpiece of his private collection right up until his death last year.

And all along, he was displaying a forgery.

For reasons unknown, Trachte himself painted an exact copy of the great picture almost as soon as he bought it. It was the copy  that he had displayed all these years. And it was such a good copy — such a perfect copy — that nobody noticed the difference.

Nobody did, that is, until this year when the family discovered the painting — the real painting — hiding behind a wall in his house where Trachte had stashed it thirty years ago.

Nobody knows why he made and displayed the copy. It certainly wasn’t for financial gain. It couldn’t have been for security; the original was no more secure behind the wall than the copy was hanging in public.

Whatever the reason, it died with the forger. And no hard feelings are present, either. The plan is to display both the original and the forgery side-by-side in the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

Be sure to listen to Paul Harvey’s The Rest of the Story  in the next few weeks. My guess is that this remarkable story will be featured.

And you can tell your friends that you heard it here first.

Monday, April 10, 2006

The Right-Sizing of Self-Service

When the retail industry was in its infancy, self-service was non-existent. You told the clerk in Sam Drucker’s General Store (usually Sam himself) what you needed and he went around the store and fetched it for you. You went to a shoe store, picked out the style of shoe that you wanted, and a man in a suit went through a curtain to the back room or climbed a ladder that was on wheels and brought your shoes to you in your size. He even wedged them on your feet for you.

If you went to the lumber yard or hardware store for nails, there was always somebody there to scrape your nails from a bin, weigh them carefully, and put them in a brown paper bag for you.

If you needed to buy gas, driving over a black rubber hose was the signal to the mechanic that he had a customer. He would put down the wrench (where he had been changing the spark plugs or a fan belt on somebody else’s car), wipe his hands on a greasy red rag, and come out to your car. You stayed in the car while he pumped your gas, checked your oil, and cleaned your windows. If you were paying by gas credit card (virtually the only thing bought on credit those days), he would take your card inside, run it through the machine, and bring out a receipt for you to sign on a specially designed clipboard. You kept the carbon copy (a real carbon  copy). The receipt was usually smudged with grease from his hands.

Retail has now turned almost completely upside down. Store associates are there only to stock shelves and take your money. Sometimes they don’t even do that.

At many stores, you scan and bag your own purchases. Shoes are usually bought off the rack. And almost nobody will pump your gas any more.

Retailers have discovered that they can save a few bucks by making the customer do some of the work. And customers have decided that they like the lower prices and increased flexibility of self-service. So it looks like a good match.

But here’s the paradox: Even as we enter a more self-service  society, the largest growing sector of employment is the service  industry. Even as we are charged less for doing somebody else’s work, we are paying more to have other people do our  work.

We pay people to raise our children. We eat out more often, so we pay people to cook many of our meals. We pay people to clean our carpets, mow our lawns, and walk our dogs.

When I make pancakes, it used to be that I added oil and eggs to a pancake mix. Now I only have to add water to the mix I buy. Not only am I paying somebody to pre-mix the flour for me, I’m paying somebody to add dehydrated eggs and oil, too. (Dehydrated oil? Well, you get the idea.)

Heck, when I have Eggo’s for breakfast, I even pay somebody to cook them for me. All I have to do is pop them in the toaster.

It’s called the “Right-Sizing of Self-Service”. In areas where it makes sense, the consumer has taken over services that were previously done by professionals. And in other areas where it makes sense, consumers have allowed new professionals to take over. And we are willing to pay them a premium for doing so. Everybody wins when such adjustments in society are made.

This is best exemplified by studying what happens when I buy gas at my favorite convenience store. I am willing to get out of the car and stand outside in the weather to pump my own gas, wash my own windshield, and swipe my own credit card.

When I’m done, I go inside and pay them $1.50 to fix me a cup of coffee that I could have brewed at home for a nickel.

Everybody wins. The store gets more profit because they hired me to pump my own gas. And the store gets more profit because they just sold a new product to me at a 10,000% markup. I’m happy because my hands now smell like petroleum products and I get to spill hot coffee on my pants at the next stop light.

A free-market economy — like all forces of nature — tends to correct itself in the long run. And just like nature, it works best when it’s left alone.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Health Insurance, Not Health Care

A recent article in the Kansas City Star spotlighted doctors who work outside the safe confines of the insurance industry. When you visit one of these doctors, you either pay for the service they provide or they send you a bill. The patient is free to either pay the bill or file the charge with his insurance company for payment reimbursement. According to the article, approximately 10% of all doctors in America operate with such a policy.

Imagine that. Paying for a service that is provided directly to you. What a concept!

It’s not an original idea. The entire health care industry operated like that until somewhere around the middle of the last century. Then somebody got the bright idea that employers should pay for health care.

Where did that come from? Does my employer pay for my gasoline? Does my employer buy my eggs and milk and bread? Does my employer pay my rent or my mortgage?

Then why should I expect my employer to pay for my health care?

What’s worse, common thought is now trying to make my government  pay for my health care. Yeah, just like my government pays for my eggs and milk and bread and housing. I don’t think so.

The state of Massachusetts is trying to circumvent the issue. They recently passed a law that requires  all citizens to buy health insurance. Remember, any time a government says you have to pay something, it’s really a tax —  no matter what they call it. So the State of Massachusetts has just achieved the distinction of being the first state in 100 years to attempt to enforce a poll tax. That indeed is what it would be: a tax on living. If you live here, you pay this.

The problem comes when people confuse health care  with health insurance. I want to treat health insurance like car insurance. When I need an oil change or a new set of tires or new wiper blades, I buy them. When a large, unexpected expense occurs — like a major accident — my auto insurance is there to help me pay for it.

Did you get that? It’s insurance, not care.

Some people bristle at the thought of paying for their own health care. The dirty little secret is you are already paying for it. Health care benefits are currently paid from insurance premiums and taxes, which you paid in the first place. Why should I pay an insurance company to pay my doctor? I’d rather just pay him in the first place and take the insurance company out of the picture completely.

I’ll keep my health insurance as a cushion against large, unexpected health care costs. Other than that, I’d rather just pay my doctor in the first place. That’s the best way I know of reining-in spiraling health care costs.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Why the Poor Are Poor

Jackson County, Missouri, which contains most of the Kansas City metropolitan area, recently held an election to determine if a three-eighths cent sales tax should be imposed to pay for improvements to the local sports stadiums. Ostensibly, it was implied that the nfl Chiefs and the mlb Royals would bolt for more profitable venues if the tax did not pass.

Voters approved the tax by a slim 53% margin. The stadiums will be upgraded and the major league teams will be ensconced for at least 25 years.

Over the last few months, the debate had centered on the wisdom of a county imposing a sales tax on those who are arguable the poorest in the metropolitan area. (Rich suburban Johnson County made it clear that they were not going to be any help.) After all, a sales tax is one of the most regressive means of tax collection available. The poor pay a proportionally higher portion of their disposable income on sales taxes. Why should they bear the brunt of subsidizing rich franchise owners as they put on a show to entertain rich business owners and their rich clients in their rich luxury boxes?

Why, indeed? Good question. So it would make sense that poor  people would not be in favor of this, because they’d be the ones paying for other peoples’ pleasures. Right?

Nope, that’s not the way it turned out. The maps printed in the Kansas City Star reveal the truth. As a whole, the county was almost evenly split on the issue. But it failed overwhelmingly in the rural, suburban, and affluent sections of town. And it passed  overwhelmingly in the inner-city core.

That’s right. The poorest of the poor  are the ones who want to be taxed the most  so other people can benefit.

From what I can figure, the liberal mindset that made most of the people poor in the first place has as its core the belief that the government should take money from people because it knows how to spend it better than the population as a whole. And the philosophy that made them poor is the philosophy that will keep them voting for policies that will guarantee their poverty in perpetuity.

The Bible tells us that the poor will always be with us. The modern day axiom is that the poor get poorer because all they know how to do is to repeat the actions that got them there in the first place. And the rich will get richer because, well, all they know how to do is to repeat the actions that got them there in the first place.

It kinda reminds me of the advice that I once heard on learning how to run: “Place one foot in front of the other. Repeat vigorously.”

It works every time it’s tried.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Cosmic Dust, and Other Saturnian Stuff

The Cassini spacecraft, currently in orbit around Saturn, is solving one of the oldest mysteries about Saturn’s rings.

It has long been believed that the rings are the result of collisions of various solar system objects. But one thing has puzzled scientists for years. If the rings are actually made of pieces of collided matter, there should be a wide variety of sizes of matter. Until recently, only dust-like particles have been observed.

Think of it this way: Drop your favorite piece of fine china on a marble floor. Go ahead, drop it.

Okay, just remember  the last time you dropped your favorite piece of fine china. What did you get? Two or three large pieces, a dozen or so smaller pieces, some small chips, and some pieces that were reduced to dust.

Physicists tell us that whenever matter separates or coalesces, it will form a few large pieces, several medium-size pieces, and millions of tiny pieces. And what happens in your kitchen happens on a cosmic scale as well.

Back to Saturn’s rings. If the rings were formed by a collision, where are the larger pieces? Last year, Cassini found a few small “moonlets” inside the gaps between the rings, right where the theory said they should have been.

And last week, it was announced that several medium particles were discovered plowing a path through the rings. Finally, all three sizes of particles have been observed. Physics once again was proven by superior engineering.

What happens on your kitchen floor and what happens in the sub-system of Saturn happens in the solar system at large, too. There are a couple of large planets — Jupiter and Saturn — several medium planets — Earth, Venus, Mars — and millions of tiny planetoids — asteroids, the Kupier belt and a bunch of other stuff whizzing around out there. We’ve even discovered a tenth planet outside the orbit of Pluto. And we’ve found a few other planet “candidates” around the orbit of Neptune.

And remember all the glass “dust” on your kitchen floor? The solar system is full of it. The weight of the Earth actually increases by thousands of tons every year as it accumulates dust in its orbit. You see this on dark nights as shooting stars.

So here we are on our medium-size planet, zipping through space, accumulating dust, surrounded by stuff of all sizes. The solar system used to be such a “neat” place; nine planets and few asteroids. We are now beginning to understand just how incredibly complex it is. Just like that fine china on our floor.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Here's a Frog with His Head on Straight

I always liked Kermit the Frog’s song “It’s Not Easy Bein’ Green”, written by Joe Rapposo. I never realized until I studied the lyrics how much it lacked meter, form, and any real semblance of poetry. It’s really like a bunch of mumbling that Kermit is doing to himself while letting us listen in.

But there is a lesson to be learned in that mumbling. Listen with me:

He starts with a basic premise:

It’s not easy being green, having to spend each day the color of the leaves.  When I think it could be nicer being red, or yellow or gold — or something much more colorful like that.

I’ll have to agree, of all the colors I might want to be, green would not be one of them. It brings about images of Mr. Spock’s blood.

Kermit continues:

It’s not easy being green. It seems you blend in with so many other ordinary things. And people tend to pass you over ’cause you’re not standing out like flashy sparkles in the water — or stars in the sky.

Ah, that’s the real issue. Kermit doesn’t think he’s ugly. He thinks he’s unspectacular. He thinks he’s unnoticeable. And he’s right. That’s why frogs are green; to blend in. But Kermit is not your normal, everyday frog. He doesn’t want to blend in.

One of the greatest fears of man is that he will go through his entire life and not be noticed. That’s why politicians worry so much about leaving a “legacy”. They want to know that they made a difference. Everybody deserves to be told that, at the end of their life, they made a difference. Nobody wants to be “green” if it means leading a life of irrelevance.

Then Kermit’s thoughts take a turn.

But green’s the color of Spring.  And green can be cool and friendly-like.  And green can be big like an ocean, or important like a mountain, or tall like a tree.

If on the surface, green is irrelevant, Kermit realizes that it doesn’t have  to be. There are a lot of great things that are green — mountains, oceans, trees. And they aren’t irrelevant. It’s kinda hard to miss a mountain.

When green is all there is to be it could make you wonder why, but why wonder why?  I am green and it’ll do fine.  It’s beautiful!  And I think it’s what I want to be.

Yup, Kermit is happy being green. But he’s happy because that’s what he’s decided to be.

It isn’t easy being green. But you can make it work. It’s your choice.

Monday, April 03, 2006

It’s the Details

Actors learn lines. Actors speak lines. Actors remember their blocking. And they remember to always face downstage. But then, so do cartoon characters. True thespians, on the other hand, spend the first five minutes of their career  doing that. The rest of the time is spent working on the details. It’s all about the details.

When I was a budding, young, high school thespian, a theater major from the local college came to our drama class to give a miniature seminar on acting.

We were all in high school and he was still in college. I remember thinking, What can he possibly know? He’s, what, five years older than us? What can he have learned in five short years of drama training that we don’t already know?

Yeah, like most high school students, I was an arrogant brat who figured I already knew it all. Here was this college “hippie” that was going to teach me how to act.

Actually, he taught me a lesson that I still remember 35 years later.

He had just completed his school’s production of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. He played Snoopy. Oh, great, he knows how to play a dog. I, on the other hand, had just played the lead in Our Town. Top that, college boy!

I remember he talked a lot about the difficulty in playing a part that could talk to the audience, but could only communicate in gestures to the other cast members. That meant every gesture — every movement — had to have meaning. The audience was going to be noticing and interpreting everything he did. Everything.

I listened a little closer.

He spent ten minutes talking about one scene. No, he spent ten minutes talking about one part of one scene. He spent ten minutes talking about 30 seconds of acting. This was a guy that appreciated detail.

In this scene, he had to complete a “conversation” with Charlie Brown and then defiantly walk off stage. Stage left; I remember it well. And in the process, he had to direct the audience’s attention away from Charlie Brown, toward himself, and then toward his exit, and then across the stage and into the wings.

Everything he did had a purpose. His eye contact with Charlie Brown. How he raised his hand. How he literally threw his arm across his body in the other direction. How he twirled his head. How he directed his attention off-stage. Everything.

This was a guy that knew the importance of details. That short lesson affected the way I have evaluated theater ever since.

Many years later, I watched an interview of an actor from one of my favorite shows: Michael J. Fox from Family Ties. He talked about his favorite episode, a “coming-of-age” episode in which his 18-year-old character got into an argument with his mother, played by Meredith Baxter-Birney. It was a typical son-feels-trapped-by-his-parents, mom-can’t-let-her-baby-go script.

When Fox talked about filming the show, did he talk about how he got through it without missing any lines? Did he talk about how he could make his co-star giggle? Did he talk about blocking or camera angles or lighting or makeup?

No. He talked about electricity. The episode was filmed before a live audience, which always gives sit-coms a sense of “presence”, of “real-ness”. He talked about how he engaged the entire audience in the argument. He made everybody believe that this was a real son arguing with his real mother about real issues.

He created real electricity by paying attention to the details.

For a more current lesson in details, watch Reese Witherspoon’s performance as Elle in Legally Blonde. In one classic scene, she appears in a Playboy bunny suit at a party that she thought was supposed to be a costume party. She holds her head up high and gamely makes it through the evening. But then she has a confrontation with her boy friend and suddenly realizes that he cares much more about his friends than he does about her.

In a single camera shot, the color drains from her beautiful face. We see her go from happy to hurt in a few short seconds. Her smile disappears, her eyes sadden, her shoulders droop ever so slightly. She matures twenty years right in front of us.

No wonder many have proclaimed Reese to be the successor to Julia Roberts. She knows how to pay attention to the details.