Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Political Traffic

I’m one of the only people in the world that can take an issue like freeway traffic design and turn it into a political issue. Watch how I do it.

My recent business travels have taken me to a couple of cities where the freeways have hov (or “high-occupancy vehicle”) lanes. Sometimes they’re called “diamond” lanes. The idea is that there has to be at least two people in the car to drive in the lane. Yeah, that’s “high” occupancy. Two people.

The intent is to encourage carpooling. Maybe if we can get more people to share rides to work, we’d have fewer cars on the road polluting our air, filling our atmosphere with ozone, and melting those ice caps.

The problem is they don’t work.

hov lanes do virtually nothing to change people’s behavior. If you’re going to carpool, you’re going to carpool. If you’re not, you’re not. The prospect of saving a few minutes on the ride to work isn’t usually worth the extra time it takes waiting for Dagwood to plow into the mailman on his way out the door.

So hov lanes reward people for practicing the behavior that they would be doing anyway. They get to shave a few minutes off their commute just because they happen to have a friend riding shotgun. Oh, and sometimes that “friend” is an inflatable guy named “Irv” whose only purpose is to thwart the system and scare car-jackers.

And at what cost? Well, it makes sense that if one lane is less-traveled and going fast, the other lanes are more crowded and going slower. Yep, hov lanes not only reward the unworthy, they punish people just for trying to get to work on time.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to evenly distribute the traffic amongst all the lanes and give everybody a fair shot at a pleasant driving experience?

Which leads me to my political discussion. I have noticed that hov lanes appear primarily in cites with a predominant liberal bent. This is a rather unscientific observation, but it makes sense. hov lanes demonstrate exactly what liberals typically do. They attempt (and fail) to legislate behavior while giving the appearance of rewarding that behavior. The chief benefactors are people who don’t deserve to be rewarded. Although most people experience a reduced level of service, the authorities can pat themselves on the back for giving the appearance of doing something worthwhile.

I’m familiar with at least one city that has a different approach. Dallas has express lanes that let you fly past the stalled traffic. For a price. It costs something like a quarter or something to enter these lanes. Kinda like a toll road parallel to the main road. You can decide whether the improved experience is worth the cost.

What a concept! Making people pay for a rewarding experience and then giving them a proven benefit as a result.

Oh, yeah, Dallas is one of the most conservative cities that I’m aware of.

Conservatism. Works every time it’s tried.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Slaves to Fashion

Every year about this time, women’s fashion turns inside out, upside down, and just about every way except the one that makes sense. You start seeing parts of their bodies that you don’t normally see. Like their ankles sticking out from beneath their pants.

They’re called capris; pants that are almost long enough, but not quite. When I was growing up, “high-water” pants were any pants that didn’t quite meet the top of your shoe. And it wasn’t meant to be a compliment.

In the early 1960s, Laura Petrie delighted men with her amazingly-tight, painted-on capris. The culture of the time wasn’t quite ready for explicit displays of sexuality, but the producers of the show saw that young Mary Tyler Moore had assets that they couldn’t afford to ignore. So capri pants became popular, women showed their ankles, and men smiled.

Men are still smiling, but not because they are seeing women’s ankles. That’s old news. Seeing women’s body parts is no big thrill any more. But watching women being total slaves to fashion is still a hoot.

Capri pants left us after the Dick Van Dyke show went off the air, but they reappeared on the scene in the late 1990s. And for only one good reason: fashion designers — mostly men — love to mess with women’s minds.

The fashion mavens have convinced women that they need two completely distinct sets of wardrobe; one for winter and one for summer. It has nothing to do with the weather or with comfort. Rather, it concerns arcane rules like not wearing white after Memorial Day. Or before Labor Day. Or something like that. I can’t keep it straight.

Men like me have it easy. I have only a couple of fashion decisions to make every day. If I’m not going to work, it’s blue jeans. If I’m going to work, it’s not. Other than that, short sleeves or long sleeves. That’s not hard.

Before my company went to that oxymoron called “business casual”, the decision was basically my gray suit or my other  gray suit. Well, it really wasn’t a decision, I just rotated them. Luckily, I had two suits and there are five days in each week, so it wasn’t like I wore the same suit every Monday or whatever. (Think about it.)

My ties were in a similar rotation. After all, every tie goes with a gray suit and white shirt.

But women. Poor women. They have suits and pants and dresses and skirts and sweaters and shirts and blouses and shoes and shoes and shoes. And tops. I never have figured out what a “top” is. Isn’t it a blouse? Or a shirt? Why does it need its own name?

And double that list because winter pants can’t be worn in the summer. And summer pants show ankles and we can’t have that in February, can we? And tops may be sleeveless, but only a few months every year.

And sweaters aren’t built to keep women warm; their purpose has something to do with showing curves or hiding curves or something like that. But not in the summer. No, during that time they are moth food in some drawer somewhere.

I’m glad I’m a guy. I show my ankles only when I’m not wearing socks, which is usually only in the bathtub. Nobody tells me what to wear or when. I can wear the same shirt on Christmas or on the Fourth of July. My shoes are practical and functional, not fashionable.

And my “tops” are never sleeveless. For that, you should be eternally grateful.

Monday, May 29, 2006

My Favorite Wedding Song

My nephew got married last week and I had the honor of providing the piano music for the wedding.

This wedding, like most, could be pretty much summed up in a few key points: The bride was beautiful, the groom was clueless, and the father of the groom (in this case, my brother) was totally irrelevant.

When preparing music for a wedding, I usually work exclusively with the bride. After all, besides the obvious, the groom has only two jobs: Say “Yes, Dear” and “Where do I sign?” If it wasn’t for those two duties, the groom would be as irrelevant as his father.

A bride usually has a few songs in mind that she definitely wants included in the ceremony. I’m expected to “fill in the gaps”, based on my standard wedding repertoire.

This wedding followed that script exactly. The newest-member-of-our-family-to-be had a couple of songs that she wanted me to play. Beyond that, I was all on my own. Just the way I like it.

The reason I like it so much is because it allows me to “sneak” in a couple of my favorites — songs that the bride would probably never have requested, but that I like. And keeping the musician happy is part of any good performance.

Given my absolute and total distain for country music, it is ironic that my all-time favorite wedding song is (I cringe to say this) a county ballad. The way I play it, it sounds more like it came from Barry Manilow or Lionel Richie. But it was actually first made famous by Lee Greenwood.

I.O.U.
by Austin Roberts and Kerry Chater

You believe that I’ve changed your life forever
And you’re never gonna find another somebody like me.
And you wish you had more than just a lifetime to give back all
I’ve given you; and that’s what you believe.

But I owe you the sunlight in the morning
And the nights of all this loving that time can’t take away.
And I owe you more than life, now more than ever.
I know that it’s the sweetest debt I’ll ever have to pay.

I’m amazed when you say it’s me you live for.
You know that when I’m holding you you’re right where you belong.
And, my love, I can’t help but smile with wonder
When you tell me all I’ve done for you,
’Cause I’ve known all along.

But I owe you the sunlight in the morning
And the nights of all this loving that time can’t take away.
And I owe you more than life now, more than ever.
I know that it’s the sweetest debt I’ll ever have to pay.


If every groom would read these lyrics to his new bride on the night of their wedding, the world would be a much better place.

One partner may enter a relationship thinking that the other has done everything to give their life more meaning. But a great relationship begins when one realizes that they go into the partnership owing the other so much more.

It’s a debt they’ll never be able to repay. But should spend the rest of their life trying.

Friday, May 26, 2006

On Being from Missouri

I have lived in Missouri my entire life. That gives me the right to say some things about Missouri that people who don’t lived here can’t say.

Just because I live here, that doesn’t make me a “Missourian”. In fact, there is no such thing as a “Missourian”. We aren’t really from  here. We just happened to live  here.

I’ve always admired people who live in Oklahoma, Texas, or California because they can proudly and rightfully say that they are Okies or Texans or Californians. There is a distinct culture behind those words. People know exactly who they are and what they stand for.

Being from Missouri, however, simply means that I live in Missouri. In has no significance beyond that. There is no defining culture that we can associate with.

Missouri isn’t simply a diverse state; it’s a downright fragmented  one. There are two large cities: St. Louis and Kansas City. People from St. Louis don’t like the people from Kansas City. People from Kansas City don’t like the people from St. Louis. People who live in neither city don’t like anybody  who lives in a city.

Well, I’ll take that back. Everybody has an allegiance to one of the big city’s sports teams. Somewhere down the middle of the state — probably right along Highway 63 — there is a line that separates the Royals fans from the Cardinals fans. And it separates the Chiefs fans from the Cardinals fans. I mean, the Rams fans. Whatever.

Another line of demarcation is the Missouri River. It splits the state in the other direction. There are mountains to the south (if the Ozarks can be called “mountains”) and there aren’t  mountains to the north. Nobody from north of the river likes anybody from south of the river. And the people south of the river don’t care.

The city names in Missouri are funny, too. Did you already notice that one of the largest cities is actually named for a rival state? Who’s idea was that? Oh, well. Half of Kansas City is in Kansas, anyway.

Even though the largest cities are St. Louis and Kansas City, neither of them is the capital. That honor goes to — anybody? — that’s right, Jefferson City. Who woulda thought? It was named after the president that bought the state from the French. (The name “Missouriopolis” was first proposed for it. In a rare move, wiser heads prevailed.) It has the distinction of being one of the few state capitals that isn’t served by an interstate highway. Now, there’s  an honor that needs to be passed around.

Other cities are named for other states, too. It’s like they just couldn’t be original. There’s both a California and a Florida in Missouri. And there’s a Nevada, too. Except that they pronounce it Nuh-VAY-duh. Nobody knows why.

Some cities were named after exotic places like Paris and Versailles. (Don’t even ask how they pronounce that.) They just couldn’t think of anything better to name them.

Heck sometimes they’d just give up naming cities. Halfway is, well, half way between Buffalo and Bolivar. Ten Mile is ten miles from Macon. They might as well have named them “We’re almost there”.

We haven’t had our fair share of famous people originate from Missouri. Well, there was Mark Twain. But he didn’t want anyone to know who he was, so he didn’t use his real name. When he wrote his famous books, the non-anthropomorphic star wasn’t the town in Missouri, it was the river — the river that is named after another state! Sheesh.

Oh, yeah, and Harry Truman was from Missouri. Of course, he was a failed businessman who was used by the political machinery of the time to become a senator. Then he accidentally stumbled into the presidency. He was barely re-elected once and then he saw the handwriting on the wall and decided to get out while the getting was good. He was replaced by a Jayhawk from Kansas.

It’s hard being from Missouri. Easterners call it “flyover country”. Westerners think we’re somewhere near Pennsylvania. Northerners think we’re a Confederate state. Southerners call us Yankees.

Of course, I can say things like that about my state, but you can’t. After all, I am a Missourian. Whatever that is.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Soaps in Perspective

A recent interview with actress Kelly Monaco provided an interesting view of the unique perspective enjoyed by television daytime dramas (“Soap Operas”, to the uninitiated).

Miss Monaco said she hoped her win in last summer’s “Dancing with the Stars” reality show would provide more interest in daytime dramas. (Her “day” job is playing con woman Sam McCall on “General Hospital”.) She expressed that desire after noting that daytime television has “kind of fallen off a bit ... ever since the O.J. Simpson trial.”

Honey, that trial was ten years ago. And you’re just now noticing it?

Kelly’s confusion can be excused, considering she has spent the last six years in the fantasy world of the tube. Such is how things move on soap operas. They broadcast five hours a week with hundreds of pages of dialog in each show. But the plot moves at glacial speed. And that’s being generous.

I admit that when I was fresh from college and teaching in public school, I got hooked on “The Young and the Restless”. Since I generally had the summers off with little to do, I got involved in the lives of Lorie, Leslie, Lance, and Lucas as they bounced their affections amongst each other. It was a harmless diversion. And the neat thing was that I could occasionally skip an episode and never miss anything.

Being a school teacher, I had a week off during Christmas. What had happened while I was gone? Not much. Usually by Tuesday, I had filled in all the gaps. I swear that sometimes I would leave Lorie and Lance in the middle of a discussion in late August and they were just wrapping up their little chat in December.

We usually had a snow day or two in January and February. That let me keep up with things. When June rolled around, I was back at it. Except now it was Lorie & Lance and Leslie & Lucas instead of Lorie & Lucas and Leslie & Lance. You get the idea.

A few days ago, I had to get my car repaired. While waiting in the “customer service” room at the dealership, the television was tuned to — you guessed it — “Y&R”. (It is now hip to identify soaps by their initials. I dunno, I guess it saves electrons in cyberspace or something.)

Well, the four L’s are now gone. But wait. I recognize ... could it be? Yes! Victor and Nikki. Gosh, I hadn’t seen them in years. They were rather minor characters during the LoorieLancyLukeyLeslie era of the show. But, yeah, I remember them.

Turns out they’ve been there all this time. Gosh, 25 years or so. I think during that time they’ve each been married seven or eight times. To each other a couple of times. But they keep plodding along in one of the most-coveted gigs in the entire acting industry.

In the episode I watched, they were carrying on a discussion that I think they started last October. It had something to do with somebody’s baby who had amnesia and who looked a lot like the character that they had killed off a couple of seasons ago during a contract dispute. Victor said something profound. The camera zoomed in on a close-up of Nikki’s face to capture her reaction shot for, oh, about twenty seconds. It must have been a slow dialog day.

Then they went to a disposable diaper commercial followed by a tile cleaner commercial and another for some woman’s product that I didn’t fully understand.

Then I heard the announcement that my car was ready.

I think I’ll catch up with them at my next oil change to see if Nikki’s face is unfrozen.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Being a Great Employee

I have written a bunch of performance reviews in my life. I’ve hired a lot of people and have written reviews on them. I have written reviews on myself so my boss could claim ownership of the review while relieving him the stress of actually making a judgment on somebody else’s performance. And, through the miracle of “360” evaluations, I’ve had a chance to write performance reviews on my boss. (Those are usually a hoot.)

When I am asked for my philosophy on what makes a good employee, it is easy for me to narrow my thoughts down to two guiding principles. When these principles become the driving force of an employee’s work ethic, the employee is virtually guaranteed a stellar review and success in business beyond all imagination.

  1.  Make your customer happy.
  2.  Make your boss look good.

That wasn’t hard, was it? But that’s how simple it is. To look good at work, the secret is to unselfishly help those around you.

I have never worked in any retail environment in my life. Not once have I actually had to deal with the public. When I refer to customers, mine are always “internal” customers — people who work in the same company with me but that I do work on behalf of. But I suspect that the same principles hold true even with the more traditional definition of “customer”.

Notice that I stop short of saying “the customer is always right”. We all know that in many cases, the customer really doesn’t know what’s best for him. After all, that’s why we’re providing the service, right? So the secret isn’t to always do exactly what the customer tells you to do. Success occurs when the customer is “happy”. That way he’ll pay his bill on time, leave with a smile on his face, and tell all his friends what a wonderful experience he just had.

If the customer isn’t “right”, that’s okay; you just have to figure out some way to make his see the error of his ways. And make him think it was his idea — that’s the tricky part. A customer who has just been sold the “wrong” product won’t be happy, even if it was his idea. But a customer who believes he changed him mind of his own free will — and only because it makes sense — that’s a customer that will keep coming back for more.

Regarding the second principle, keeping your boss happy. Now that Scott Adams has appeared on the business books scene, it is finally fashionable to say out loud what we’ve all know for ages: bosses are clueless. Sadly, they kinda enjoy it. There’s really no reason to interrupt their ignorant bliss. But the fact is, they somewhat control our destiny. They have the power to hire and fire, they give and deny raises and promotions, and they provide for our general well-being. So what are we to do?

It’s not enough to make them happy. The funny thing about our bosses is that they are actually smarter than our customers. So they can’t be duped into believing that changing their mind is a good idea, whether it’s their idea or not.

But the one thing they do understand is recognition of their successes. They love to be praised for good work — whether they actually did the work or not. They have fragile egos that must be constantly stroked. (Most of them are men, after all.)

So your job as a good employee is to make sure that your boss is in a constant state of looking good to his boss and his peers. Your boss must look like the hero. Your boss must be the one who saved the company, who invented the perfect product, who raised revenue and cut expenses with one blow. You do the work, he gets the credit, and I can guarantee you, everybody will be happy.

Lay your selfishness aside; there is no place for it in business. Not when you could have pure greed instead. It’s much more rewarding. And it can be yours if your customers are happy and your boss looks good.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

My Commencement Address

One fantasy that I have had my entire life is that just once I would love to give the commencement address to the graduating class of a high school or college. It wouldn’t have to be a big school. A few dozen mortarboards in front of me would be fine.

I’ve done plenty of public speaking in my life, but it’s mostly been corporate presentations or training or some sort of church teaching. What I really want to do is face a group of skulls of mush who think that they know everything and impart upon them my half-century of wisdom. I figure I’d have plenty to say.

Actress Jodie Foster recently got her chance when she gave the commencement address to graduates at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. I’m not sure exactly what her credentials were that got her the gig. Well, okay, she did graduate twenty years ago from rival school Yale. I guess I can’t say that. My mba from a prestigious private school and my stellar career in marketing makes for a good résumé, but not much star power.

Oh, and she’s got four Oscar nominations and two wins. That beats my recent victory in the Pinewood Derby at church.

Of course, any Hollywood type with a penchant for left-wing activism can’t be satisfied with merely reminding graduates that this is the first day of the rest of their life. Or that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. No, she was obliged to insult the very country that gave her the right to speak to the graduates in the first place. And she didn’t disappoint us in that regard.

She told the graduates that the county is worse off than it was four years ago. Regardless of who is in power, when either side uses the term “four years ago”, it is euphemistic for bashing the President. So a free Iraq, lower taxes, a booming stock market, and virtually no unemployment are all Bush’s fault.

She also ragged on the administration for the “disastrous and shameful” handling of Hurricane Katrina. Hey, lady. I was there. The place was a mess. You think you could’ve done better? Anyway, both the mayor and the governor are Democrats. There’s plenty of blame to go around.

Okay, I’ll cut her some slack. After all, she graduated from an Ivy League school.

If I had been in front of that audience (or any appreciative audience, for that matter), I could have summed up my entire speech in three words: “Never stop learning.”

Well, maybe four words: “Never ever  stop learning.”

Don’t ever think that you know it all. You’re just beginning. You haven’t learned anything yet. You’ve just learned how  to learn.

School doesn’t teach you anything. It teaches you how to organize your life. It teaches you how to do research. It teaches you how to figure things out for yourself. Then you spend the rest of your life doing just that.

When I interview people for a job, I rarely care what kind of degree they have. I only care that they finished something. You don’t learn stuff for my job in college. But I need to know that the people I hire know how to learn. And want  to learn.

They need to display to me an insatiable desire to do better. To figure things out for themselves. Not just to think “outside the box”, but to figure out how to build a box and then build a better one.

There. That’s my graduation speech. Now I’ve just got to wait for my phone to ring from some Ivy League college president wanting me to say the same things to his graduates.

But why should I? They could just come here and read it for themselves.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Faking It

Just about anything that can be manufactured can be faked. Money. Drivers licenses. Designer jeans. Even conversation.

A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine told me that he had to hurry home to watch that evening’s episode of “American Idol”.

I acted unimpressed. “The chick’s gonna win,” I offered.

“I dunno,” he replied. “I think that skinny guy’s got a pretty good chance.

I smiled. Once again I had proven to myself that any conversation can be faked, even if you know absolutely nothing about the subject.

I hadn’t watched an episode of “American Idol” all year. I have absolutely no interest in the topic at all. I read an article in Reader’s Digest about last year’s winner and I had seen enough in the papers to know that most of the time a chick is usually one of the last ones standing. So I figured it was a safe bet to lead any discussion about the show with “The chick’s gonna win.” Can’t fail.

I live about half of my life making conversation about things I have absolutely no knowledge of or interest in. I’m one of those guys who knows just a little bit about a lot of things but not a lot about anything. So it’s relatively easy to find some common ground, run with it, and then just follow the lead of the other person.

When the topic turns to sports, it’s almost always possible to say something like “Hey, how about that game last Sunday?” It doesn’t matter that you don’t know who played on Sunday. The chances are that somebody  played. Once you figure out who played and whether they won or lost and if the game ended on a controversial play, the rest is easy.

This is possible because of two tendencies of human nature. One is that people will always fill in the blanks in their own mind. That’s why pixilation works. People can see that digital pictures on a computer screen or in a magazine are really just a series of dots. But their minds fill in the gaps between the dots to make a continuous picture. They do the same thing in conversation. When presented with incomplete facts, people fill in the unknown facts with facts of their own choosing. That’s why you don’t have to say the name of the chick that’s going to win or the name of the team that played last Sunday. Given an incomplete thought, people will instinctively fill it in.

The other bit of human nature that makes it work is that people tend to advertise their thoughts. It’s called “telegraphing”. Poker players learned this a hundred years ago. They don’t know if their opponent has a good hand by reading the back of the cards. They can tell a lot more by reading their eyebrows and the corners of their mouth.

Mind-reading magicians — they like to be called “mentalists” — have made a living of doing this. A common trick it to get an audience participant to reveal secrets without realizing it. A mentalist may ask a widow, “Did your husband linger before he died or did he pass quickly?” When the widow replies that his death was very quick, the magician can say, “Yes, I thought so, because I hear him telling me that there was no pain.” She goes away amazed that the guy actually talked to her dead husband.

Most of my friends don’t know how many conversations I fake, but my guess is that it’s three or four a day. It’s not really deception, sometimes it’s just the polite thing to do. I’d rather spare them the embarrassment of telling them that I’m really not even remotely interested in their trivial drivel. I’ve kept a lot of friends by being dishonest with them.

Besides, it’s kinda fun.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Continuity Goofs

Every movie fan knows that films are full of continuity errors. These are little inconsistencies from one shot to the next within the same scene that are usually blamed on somebody not paying attention in the editing room.

Meg Ryan’s sandwich reappears after having been eaten in “When Harry Met Sally”. Hugh Grant’s tie changes patterns in “Love Actually”. And Julia Roberts’ croissant magically turns into a pancake in mid-sentence in “Pretty Woman”.

Some people delight in spotting these subtle nuances of movie-making. The “goofs” section of imdb.com is full of user-contributed tidbits. Sometimes it seems that people spot these things just so they can say, “Aha! Gotcha with another error!” They can’t wait to email their brother-in-law with a new discovery.

Famous writer-actor-director Garry Marshall lets us in on a little secret about continuity goofs. Many times, they are included in the final cut of the movie for a very good reason: To make the actors look good.

Each scene in a movie is usually shot multiple times. They are shot from every conceivable angle. From above, from below, from the left side, from the right side. Sometimes that’s done to move equipment out of the picture. Sometimes it’s done to create an illusion of three dimensions on the set. Sometimes it’s done to create alternate dialog or alternate plot lines that may be selected from later.

And many times, it’s because directors know that actors are human.

To maintain a sense of spontaneity in dialog, movies aren’t always rehearsed as thoroughly as theatre productions. The actors are often creating their mannerisms and nuances of dialog literally on the spot. In one take they may raise an eyebrow or emphasize a syllable differently. They may look down or up or away at a particular moment. Those are the subtle little things that audiences see but never notice. But they’re the things that make a movie believable. The director is constantly looking for them.

In the editing room, a director will pick the best takes in each scene and cut them together to create a seamless stream of dialog. And that’s where Mr. Marshall is willing to fall on the sword for his actors.

When a continuity error is discovered, nobody blames the actors. It’s always the director’s fault or the film editor’s fault. But if an expression isn’t right, if a line is slightly mis-delivered, if the “magic” isn’t there, the actors take the heat.

As a director, Marshall would rather be blamed for a continuity goof than have his actors look bad. So he always takes the very best performance. If somebody’s hair style doesn’t quite match up from one camera angle to another or if a water glass is full after having been drunk, so be it. The actor’s performance is the sole determining factor in selecting a take for a particular shot.

In Marshall’s movies, the director’s job is to make the actor look good. The result is a great movie with believable action.

And if it adds a few more bullets to the “goofs” section at imdb, then at least somebody’s brother-in-law is happy.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

How I Eat

It’s a good thing that I never took up smoking. If I had, I’d be one of those guys that has about five different lit cigarettes in various stages of being smoked spread around in every ash tray of the house.

That’s assuming of course, that I would smoke with the same degree of self control that I exhibit when I eat snacks. And I think there is enough similarity between the two habits that that’s not a long stretch to make.

I often buy bags of potato chips from the vending machine and bring them back to my desk at work. Three minutes later, I absent-mindedly reach for another chip and discover — horror of horrors — the bag is empty.

And I don’t remember eating a single chip beyond the very first one.

My right hand is a venerable feeding machine. And my mouth is a most gracious receiving trough. The act is completely automatic and instinctive. It doesn’t matter if I’m actually hungry. If there is food within two feet of my right hand, it is scooped up and deposited into my stomach.

I used to work with a woman who had the exact opposite tendency. She was a tiny waif of a creature, and her eating habits matched her stature.

One time, a salesman brought a box of chocolates to me in the office so I decided to share them with my co-workers. I stopped at her desk and offered her a piece. Why yes, she graciously looked over the variety and picked one with the appropriate swirl.

Then she set it down on her desk next to her keyboard, smiled at me, and went back to work.

I almost fainted from the shock.

Waitaminnit! Don’t you understand? This is a piece of candy. A piece of chocolate  candy. It is designed specifically to be taken from the box and placed between your teeth. You don’t make a masterpiece like that wait until you’re in the mood to nibble on it. You devour  it. Then you look for the next one. And you repeat until the box is empty.

No thanks, she smiled. She’ll eat it later.

There was no reasoning with her.

Of course, this was the same 90-pound weakling that bought a bag of m&ms from the vending machine, sorted them by color, and lined them up on her desk to eat them one at a time. One “M” every ten or fifteen minutes.

She could make a three-minute bag last all week.

I may not have the most health-conscious eating habits in the world. But at least I appreciate the value of good, quality vending machine food. I only wish I could make it last longer.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The Paradox of Digital Data Eternity

Man has dreamed of eternally preserving data for, well, forever. The ancient Egyptians thought they had done a pretty good job of doing that by drawing on the walls of tombs buried in the desert. Until everybody forgot how to read hieroglyphics. Thank goodness for that Rosetta Stone thing.

The Romans assumed that their empire and their language would exist forever. Their language is kept alive in state mottos, but not much else.

In the twentieth century, we invented methods of converting all data into digital formats. And that, we thought, solved the problem. Not only could we preserve data for all eternity, we could effortlessly and precisely transmit that data instantly over virtually unlimited distances. And we could replicate that data over and over and over again with absolutely no loss in quality from the original to the ten million copy with a precision that those 12th century monks would surely be envious of.

Alas, it didn’t occur to us that the very technology that would make that possible would soon be replaced by — better  technology. Sheesh. Who woulda thunk that?

You have seen this problem if you have ever tried to recover that résumé that you “preserved” five years ago on a 3.5 inch floppy disk. Heck, most the computers today don’t even have a slot to plug that thing in any more. I worked for a company that had shelves of data sitting on eight-inch floppies. That was back when floppies actually flopped. That data might as well be sitting at the bottom of the ocean today.

The Census Department discovered the problem in the 1980s when they realized they could not read data from the 1960 census. It all existed on magnetic tapes that could only be read by tape drives that didn’t even exist any more. They spent $10 million dollars figuring out a solution to fix the problem.

nasa had a slightly different problem. It had acres of data from the early lunar explorations that it could read, but it couldn’t make any sense out of it. The documentation and original file structures had been lost and the men who worked on those projects had mostly retired. They had to pull a bunch of their old engineers off the golf courses to come in and make sense of the mess.

Since technology outpaces technology at an ever-alarming rate, this is not a problem that’s going to go away soon. The irony is that we can’t read data that we wrote half a decade ago, but 500-year-old books are just as legible today as when Mr. Gutenberg first moved the type for them.

The best advice is if you really want to preserve something forever, write it down.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Ants

I have always admired ants. I love the way they organize themselves into teams to get the job done. I love the way they leave an invisible scent trail behind so they can follow each other in a straight line. I love the way they communicate with each other by touching antennae. I love the way they can lift a billion times their weight. And I love the way they send out little scouts to find food, returning with a report of some new tasty treat that the queen will love.

In my house, however I absolutely detest ants with every fiber of my being. They are disgusting little scavengers. They can’t be killed fast enough. They overtake the tiniest crumb left on the floor and then they scamper all over the kitchen without even a polite “Please, sir, can I have some more?”

I live on the very edge of suburbia. My back yard opens up to a lake-front development, whose homeowner association demands money of me every year, offering me a swimming pool in return, which I have yet to ever visit. My front yard opens to a hay field and other assorted agriculture beyond. Being on the frontier of civilization means that I occasionally have to tangle with miscellaneous vermin attempting to invade my domain.

None of them are as hideous as the ants.

My front porch is especially susceptible to their advances. Ants don’t eat good wood, but they sure love the taste of decaying carbon life forms. Through an unfortunate mixture of building code violations and generally bad engineering, I have needed to replace several boards on my front porch as they rot away. And each time I discover a new board that has “bit the dust” under a million layers of paint, I have discovered a nest of ants that have decided to take up a tasty residence inside. Evil, nasty creatures they are.

And somewhere — I still haven’t found it — there is a crack between my deck and my dining room. Every once in a while, a scout ant finds his way through that crack and starts snooping around in my kitchen. If he finds the smallest morsel available to him, it’s only a matter of hours before he has summoned a million of his brothers to form a conga line and enjoy the feast.

This isn’t intended to be a commercial, but I’ll swear, there is one and only one product that does any good. Forget the traps, forget the sprays, forget the bait. If you have ants like I do, get a tiny bottle of Terro Ant Killer. You have to get the bottle; the traps by the same name are worthless.

You get a three-ounce bottle of a thick, clear liquid, about the consistency of molasses. Put a drop of that stuff on a small piece of cardboard or paper and place it directly in the path of the ants. As soon as they discover it, the magic occurs. Their first reaction is, “Wow, this is really good stuff!” Kinda like the first time you discovered Krispy Kream donuts. They stand there and suck it up like pigs eating Twinkies. Man, it’s a sight to behold.

Their next reaction is to race home and tell all their brothers. Of course, in the process, they take home a present to their mom. And bang! Overnight the whole colony looks like the day after a frat party with no hope of recovery. A sweet sight to behold.

I keep a bottle of that stuff in my kitchen. If I see even one stray ant, I whip out the bottle and I make sure he “discovers” the meal I have created for him. I can’t afford to let them get out of control. No tolerance. One ant equals a drop of Terro.

Remember that name: “Terro Ant Killer”. They didn’t pay me for this endorsement, but maybe they should.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Who Chooses Your Music?

In the beginning, all music was religious. After all, there was no other reason for music to exist except to please God — or the gods, in the case of the ancient Greeks. If you wanted music, you went to church. You kinda had to like what music they had there because that’s all there was.

The church  chose your music.

The Renaissance came and went and we were all thusly enlightened. So royalty took over the music industry. Music came out of the churches and went to the castle. If you were a peasant, you may hear something coming over the walls around the moat. But for the most part, musicians were hired by nobility and were thusly at their service.

The king  chose your music.

It pretty much stayed that way for a long time. The masses had some folk music. But the really good stuff was for the wealthy. It wasn’t until the first part of the 20th century that recorded music became available, which finally gave music to the masses. In fact, it wasn’t just available, it was downright ubiquitous. The Muzak Corporation decided that people worked better when they listened to boring music. Thus, they had the honor of seeing their corporate trademark devolve into a generic term for bland, retail music — heard everywhere, including elevators.

Corporations  chose your music.

When rock and roll came around, radio stations learned that they could win the hearts of teenagers by playing their music. Soon, dozens of music formats filled the airwaves. You still couldn’t pick your songs, but at least you could pick your genre. It was now possible to retreat to your car during lunch and tune into whatever you wanted — at least, you could if they were playing it.

Radio stations  chose your music.

Now you can put your entire music into a little box the size of a pack of cards. Two skinny wires can connect your ears to literally thousands of songs for your listening pleasure. You can control what songs to listen to, in what order, and how loud to listen to them. Heck, you can even choose to “shuffle” them (play them randomly) so it sounds like you’re actually listening to radio. But it’s your  radio, the way you  like it.

You  chose your own music.

When people plug into mp3 players, it is often because they want to withdraw from society. They want to create their own little reality inside their heads. Music gives them an opportunity to do that.

It’s ironic that in olden days, the church and the nobility isolated the populous from music. Now that it’s available for mass consumption, people use music to isolate themselves from the rest of the world. The isolated has become the isolator. Have we really made any progress?

Friday, May 12, 2006

Just for Feet

A few days ago, I worked in the yard for a couple of hours. The grass was damp and my tennis shoes were, uh, a little porous.

I came inside to do some more work. After a while I realized that I wasn’t comfortable, but I couldn’t figure out why. I walked around thinking to myself, something is wrong. What is it?

Finally, it dawned on me. I went upstairs, took off my soggy socks, and put on a pair of clean, dry, white socks. Ahhh, much better.

Pay attention the next time you watch the news and they interview somebody who has been kidnapped, or lost in the woods, or drifting at sea for a long time. What’s the first thing that they usually want — after they get a hamburger from McDonald’s?

They want a pair of clean, dry socks.

It’s been said that the eyes are the window to the soul. Acupuncturists tell us that the feet are the path to your internal organs and thus, all happiness.

An old saying goes: “Ain’t nobody happy until Mama’s happy.” A natural extension to that is: “Mama ain’t happy until Mama’s feet are happy.”

It’s true. Offer any woman a foot massage. None of them will refuse it.

Have you ever noticed that some people are “shoes” people and some people are “not-shoes” people? I know some people that declare that the first thing they put on in the morning and the last thing they take off at night are their house slippers. They are never without something on their feet. I know other people that declare that the first thing that comes off their feet when they get home are their shoes. They’re the ones that sneak from their cubicle to the printer and back wearing socks.

Both groups are equally adamant. Their feet control the way they organize their lives.

What is it about feet that make them such effective determinants of our happiness?

I think it’s because they are the foundation on which we literally stand. The health of a house can be measured by its foundation. And the health of a person is often determined by the health of their feet. It’s easy to forget about them — they’re just so darned functional. So I think every once in a while they remind us exactly how important they are.

Sometimes — just to get your attention — the feet have to say, “Hey, these socks are a little damp. Hey, hey! A little attention please! We’re choaking down here.”

See? The only tool they have to communicate is by signaling discomfort. It’s a special language that they’ve developed to get attention. And it’s very effective.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Answering “That” Question

Any parent who has a young child full of questions spends a great deal of time waiting for “that” question.

The exact definition of what “that” question is varies from one parent to another. It really doesn’t matter. You know what I mean. You’re not really sure if you want your child to ask “that” question. You think you’ve rehearsed a pretty good answer. But what if it’s not right? What if there’s a follow-up question? What if the answer isn’t satisfactory? What if it’s taken the wrong way?

The best a parent can do is to rehearse the answer over and over again until it becomes second nature. Don’t panic. Don’t draw too much attention to the question. Answer it casually. Answer it coolly. Perhaps a one-off sentence will suffice. This time. Maybe you’ll get lucky. Who knows?

But you’ve got to be ready.

We were driving home tonight when my nine-year-old son — completely out of the blue — said, “Dad, I want to ask you a very important question.”

Uh, oh. This is it. He’s going to ask “that” question. Okay. Get ready for this. What did I promise myself I’d do? Oh, yeah. Don’t over-react. Casual. But make sure I appear to be genuinely concerned. After all, it was important enough for him to ask. I have to demonstrate that I’m actually paying attention. But not too much.

I turned off the radio. That’s my universal signal to him that even though I have to keep my eyes on the road, he has my undivided attention.

“Okay, son, what’s your ‘important’ question?” Here it comes. Grip the steering wheel. Eyes straight ahead. Don’t over-react.

“Which would you rather eat: poison ivy? or a mosquito?

“Uh, a mosquito, I guess. It’d be a lot smaller. In fact, it’d probably be so small you’d hardly even notice it.”

“Yeah, that’s what I thought, too. Besides, I wouldn’t want to get poison ivy all down my throat because I wouldn’t be able to scratch down there.”

“That’s a good point.”

“But sometimes mosquitoes carry diseases.”

“Well, sometimes they do, but not very often. The chances that the mosquito that you would eat would be carrying a disease would be pretty small.”

“That’s true. Mom said that she’d rather eat a mosquito, too.”

“That’s nice.” Whew, at least I agreed with his mother. That was a relief.

Okay, it wasn’t “that”  question. I’m still waiting for that one. But I guess I cleared up the whole mosquito/poison ivy problem that had been vexing him for some time.

On the way home, we bought some ice cream. I doubt that he ever really understood why.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

This Information Highway is Super

I am constantly amazed at the power of the Internet. I had an experience today that reminded me of some of my very first Internet experiences.

In the mid-1990s, I was just starting to figure out what all the Internet stuff was all about. I had been programming mainframe computers for years. We had always noted with a certain amount of pride that computers were like “islands”. They had a vast amount of processing power within them. And, oh yeah, if you wanted to move data between them, that’s what tape drives were for.

But now I had my brand new Packard-Bell computer, complete with Windows 3.1 and a 2400 baud dial-up modem. A friend of mine had shown me a really cool program called “Netscape”. I was ready to impress people.

Of course, the easiest person for me to impress was my mother. So I hauled her into my office. I was going to show her this Information Superhighway that Al Gore was talking about.

I only knew about one site, a search engine called “WebCrawler”. Look, Mom. All you have to do it type a topic into this screen and it will go out to the Information Superhighway and find out everything there is to know about it.

I will never forget what happened next. Of all the things that I could have demonstrated to my mother, for some weird reason I picked — are you ready? — “Meg Ryan”. Look, Mom. Let’s see if there’s anything at all out there about “Meg Ryan”.

I pressed “enter” and 3.276 seconds later, a list of Meg Ryan pages came on the screen. Dozens and dozens and dozens of pages. I thought she might be mentioned in one or two places. But there they were. There were Meg Ryan pictures. Meg Ryan movies. Meg Ryan scripts. Meg Ryan fan clubs. There was a whole universe of Meg Ryan in my office in front of my eyes and Mom’s eyes.

I don’t know who was more surprised, me or Mom. No, it was me. Mom responded with a polite “That’s nice, dear.” My eyes were huge and my chin was on the floor. Oh, my God. What has just been invented, and I didn’t even know about it?

That was my first omg experience with the Internet.

In the intervening years, there have been several others. But for the most part, I have come to expect that literally the world of information is at your fingertips if you have an Internet connection.

Just think of the places to have your questions answered. You want a real expert to answer? Go to www.allexperts.com, pick an expert, type in your question, and you’ll have a response in a couple of days.

Can’t wait? Type your question into answers.yahoo.com. It’s like yelling a question into a room crowded with people. Within minutes, half a dozen people will have responded.

Want to clarify the meaning or spelling of a word? Mr. Webster is waiting for you at www.m-w.com.

Want to read a more seminal article about just about any subject from aardvarks to zymology? Check out www.wikipedia.org. My son has done research for compete homework assignments without ever leaving the Wikipedia site.

Which brings us to my current astonishment. A few days ago, a friend of mine told me a joke. I wanted to re-tell it, but I wasn’t sure exactly how it went. Could I possibly find something as mundane as an insider musicians’ joke on the Internet, knowing only the punch line?

Yep. I typed a couple of words of the punch line into my favorite search engine (I’m a Yahoo! guy — Google is for snobbish wimps. Real men search with Yahoo!), and there it was. Not only the joke, but four or five variations of it. The same joke in slightly different settings, slightly different set-ups, but the same punch line.

I shouldn’t be amazed. I should come to expect it. But I do this stuff for a living and I still don’t understand how it all works.

The Internet gives us jokes, facts, pornography, civics, movie critiques, mp3 files (free and pirated), weather reports, sports scores, driving directions, and advice for the forgotten and the forlorn. All mixed together like noodles and tomatoes in goulash.

I think my generation has done a pretty good job of gathering and delivering all this stuff. It’s up to the next generation to sort it all out.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Unpopular Presidents Just Can't Win

Few presidents are popular while they’re in office. Even less so in their second term.

Even John Kennedy, who barely won an election over Richard "I-am-not-a-crook" Nixon, didn’t enjoy overwhelming popularity when he was in office. History was kind to him because he was martyred. If he'd had a chance for a second term, he would have been totally ineffective.

His successor, Lyndon Johnson, realized that and got out while the getting was good.

George Bush is currently experiencing that phenomenon. His popularity numbers are in the toilet and he still has a couple more years of lame-duckness ahead of him.

When interpreting popularity numbers, it helps to remember that there are really three types of voters in America. There is the left, the right, and the middle. And they are approximately evenly divided. About a third of us are basically liberal, about a third are basically conservative, and the rest are somewhere in the middle.

Which brings us to the fallacy of popularity polls in presidential politics. When a politician says they don’t pay much attention to the polls, that usually means they are lying. But at the same time, a politician that is really true to his principals shouldn’t worry about polls for two good reasons. First, it’s a game he can’t win. And second, his job should be to serve his constituents, not to be “popular”.

The biggest problem with polls of this type is that they ask a question that is usually interpreted differently by either side of the political spectrum. The basic question is usually something like this:
  “Do you generally approve  or disapprove  of the job that (politician “X”) is doing?”

No matter what kind of job he is “doing”, those on the opposite side of the spectrum are always going to answer “disapprove”. After all, that’s the whole idea of politics, isn’t it? To make the other guy look like an idiot? No matter how well a politician is performing, he usually won’t score much more than 70% because a third of the people are going to hate him no matter what. In school, that’s usually about a C-minus.

But here’s the dirty little secret. Many people on the same  side are also going answer “disapprove”. Why? Because the guy isn’t enough. He’s not liberal enough or he’s not conservative enough. Kinda hard to win that way, huh?

Some of Bill Clinton’s harshest critics while he was in office was from the far left, who thought he had sold out his principles to the Republican-led Congress, especially on issues such as Welfare reform and nafta.

And many critics of Bush are from the far right, saying that he has sold out his constituency on issues such as limited government and border security.

Remember those thoughts the next time you look at Bush’s — or any president’s — numbers hovering below 50%. Many times, that’s not a sign of a president not doing a good job. It’s just one that is meandering too much in the middle while pleasing nobody on the fringes.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Why Doesn't Water Burn?

Every first year chemistry student knows that water is composed of two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen. That’s what that “H-two-oh” thing is all about.

In our chemistry classes, we also learned that hydrogen is just about the most combustible thing out there. You know the story of the Hindenburg and “Oh the humanity” and all that.

And we also learned that three things are needed to create a fire: fuel, oxygen, and heat.

And any third grader knows that you can put out a fire by pouring water over it.

Waitammint. Am I the only one to see a paradox here? You put out a fire by pouring two-thirds of the formula for fire on it? Gee, it seems like water should be a tinderbox, just waiting for a match to turn it into a lighter-than air blazing inferno.

What gives? Well, if you just sorta mixed up the hydrogen and oxygen then, yeah, you’d have a ball of gas that’s ready to light up like a Kuwait oil field. But that’s not what water is. The hydrogen and oxygen form together at the molecular  level.

In a union that is only fully understood by God, atoms can bond together to form something completely different — something that didn’t exist before. Something that that has absolutely no characteristics of the original raw materials.

God allows us to use electrolysis to break the hydrogen and oxygen apart. But He bonds them together so tightly that it usually requires more energy to break them up than what is yielded in fuel. When God sticks things together, He generally doesn’t mess around.

In the book of Second Corinthians, the Apostle Paul tells us that “if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature”. The implication is that we are made into a new species, literally something that never existed before, something that has no characteristics of the original raw material.

I guess God knows what He’s doing. After all, He can take the most perfect fuel in the universe and turn it into a pretty good fire extinguisher.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Children Don’t Have Governors

When I was a teenager, I mowed lawns for a living. Like most teenage boys, I had an obsession to take apart internal combustion engines any time I was around them. I didn’t know anything about what I was doing, but sometimes my Briggs and Stratton mower found itself in pieces in my back yard, just so I could figure out how to put it together again. Luckily for it (and for my career as a mower), I always managed to get it back in working shape without too many parts left over.

One of my discoveries was a nifty device that I later discovered was the engine’s governor. It was a spring loaded paddle attached to the throttle and located next to the cooling fan. As the engine turned, the fan blew air against the paddle and the throttle opened and closed appropriately.

If the engine speed slowed down, the fan blew less air, and the spring on the paddle moved it closer to the fan. This opened the throttle a little bit, giving more gas to the engine, which increased the air and moved the paddle back to its original position.

If the engine sped up a little bit, the paddle moved the other direction and the throttle delivered less fuel. You get the idea.

This delicate balancing act kept the engine at a somewhat constant speed. When mowing tall grass, the engine would slow down slightly, but the governor would deliver a little more fuel, preventing the engine from stalling. The governor also kept the engine speed in check by guaranteeing that no more fuel was being delivered than what could safely be burned.

It doesn’t take much technology to impress me. I’m always having those gee-why-didn’t-I-think-of-that experiences. I was struck by the fact that the governor didn’t actually measure the rotation of the engine. Rather, it measure the effect  of the rotation — the wind that was created. And the wind was actually just a by-product of the natural cooling of the engine by the fan. I was amazed at the simplicity and the economy of the unit.

As an adult, I discovered that children don’t have a governor. It’s not something that’s “built-in” to a kid when they are born. It’s something that comes from experience. It’s a sign of maturity.

Children don’t know how to “measure” their own activity. They live for the moment, indifferent to the consequences. I had a teacher in college that put it this way: Children only know two words — “Me” and “Now”.

The next time you’re at an amusement park, notice how many parents are carrying sleeping children on their shoulders at the end of the day. How can they possible sleep with all this excitement around them?

Lacking any built-in controlling mechanism, children spend all their energy as soon as there is an outlet for it. They ride every ride. They eat every hot dog. They gobble every cotton candy. They have no idea how tired they are or how sick they are becoming. They cannot measure it for themselves.

Finally, equilibrium kicks in and the body shuts down. Asleep on Dad’s shoulder, they ride home in the back seat, dreaming of the fun they’ve had.

The same thing happens with teenagers and video games. As they are consumed in the moment of the game, they have no idea of the effect it is having on them. They play and play and play until their brains are mush and their thumbs are as brittle as toothpicks.

It is our job as adults to be the governor for children. It would be nice if each of them had an energy meter in their forehead. Or a zombie meter in the case of teenagers. Or something that would let us measure the effect the activity is having on them.

But no such meters exist. Instead, we can measure them only indirectly. The lawn mower governor didn’t measure the engine, it measure the effects of cooling the engine on the atmosphere and made adjustments accordingly. In the same way, we need to search for clues in our children’s behavior and the effect they are having on the environment around them so we can let them know — in the most loving but parental way — that enough is enough.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Death by Rotting

In America, we are a land of rules and laws. Most of the time, those laws make sense. Sometimes they have unintended consequences. And sometimes things don’t seem to work out the way we think they should. But it’s the best system that’s available and we’re gonna stick with it.

We’re a land where juries often have the final say. That goes all the way back to the Magna Carta, which gave the accused the right to be tried by his peers. The prevailing wisdom is that a group of well-informed, impartial citizens usually make the best decisions. Most of the time, it works fine, even though every once in a while it means O. J. Simpson gets to play golf unfettered.

Juries often make decisions regarding punishment of criminals. Judges may occasionally soften the punishment, but they can never make it harsher. One particular case was recently in the national spotlight and deserves some commentary.

By all accounts, Zacarias Moussaoui is a creepy guy. He was arrested just prior to the 9/11 attacks as a possible terrorist while he was a student at a flight school. It seems that his flight instructor had notified the fbi after being suspicious of Moussaoui’s competence and motivation. No kidding. He was probably a lot more interested in learning how to navigate than to actually take-off or land the plane.

We’ll probably never know exactly what his involvement in the plot was supposed to be. At one time, he denied all involvement. Then he said that he was supposed to fly a plane into the Capitol. For a while, he was somehow related to Richard Reid’s shoe.

At least we know he didn’t like America. You’re not supposed to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater. And screaming “You will never get my blood. God curse you all!” in a crowded courtroom full of people that are deciding your fate usually isn’t a good idea, either.

So the jury was supposed to figure out whether we should give the guy a potassium chloride cocktail or if we should just let him rot in a jail cell for the rest of his life.

They decided on rotting.

The whole death penalty argument is one that has fascinated me through the years. After all, it is appointed to all men to die. So we really can’t invoke a death penalty; we can only cause death to happen sooner than it would have naturally. And on our own terms.

Some will argue that we shouldn’t spend money keeping prisoners alive that have no possibility of ever seeing civilization again. But it can’t be a strictly economic decision because the conviction and appeals process probably costs more than a bed and three square meals every day for the next forty years or so.

Some people actually have a death wish, so executing them is a favor to them. You can kill two birds with one stone — so to speak. The criminal gets his wish and society gets its revenge.

In Moussaoui’s case, it seemed to be a matter of relevance and knowledge. The more he knew about the planned attacks — the greater his involvement — the more he deserved the ultimate penalty: death.

But the jury decided he really didn’t know that much. He knew enough to get life in prison but — irrespective of what he claimed in his own “defense” — he didn’t know enough to deserve to die.

Pundits immediately spun that by saying that a life of solitary confinement was actually a sentence worse than death — which is exactly the opposite of what the jury intended.

Either way, Zach had determined that he was going to win. If he was executed, he would die a martyr and get his 40 virgins. If his life was spared, he could claim to have gotten away with it against the evil empire. And hey, that’s probably worth at least a dozen or so virgins.

He felt that he had a right to be defiant at his sentencing hearing when he declared, “America, you lost. I won.”

But Judge Leonie Brinkema had the last word. She said that everyone else in the room would be “free to go any place they want. They can go outside and they can feel the sun, smell the fresh air, hear the birds. They can eat what they want tonight. They can associate with whom they want. But you will never again get a chance to speak and that's an appropriate and fair ending. You will die with a whimper and never get a chance to speak again.”

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

The House Always Wins

It’s been said that gambling is cheap entertainment for people who are poor in math.

It doesn’t take much sense to know that, in the short run, the house always wins. Always. They wouldn’t play if they didn’t. They’re smarter than that. Many times, the same can’t be said of their customers.

It’s true that in the short run, it is possible to make more money in a few seconds than what the ceo of Exxon makes in a year of retirement. The chances of that happening are almost negligible. Let’s just assume that’s not going to happen in your lifetime. Or mine.

Which brings us to today’s story from the Associated Press. In 1991, John Daly entered the pga Championship as the ninth alternate. That’s kinda equivalent to starting the Indianapolis 500 on the outside of the 33rd row. Or starting a Major League Baseball season with the word “Royals” on the front of your jersey.

In other words, he wasn’t expect to win. But he won. Instant success. Instant fame. Fans everywhere. Endorsement contracts. Okay, so he wasn’t a Tiger, but he had a pretty comfortable life.

In the next 15 years, he won a total of five pga Tour victories. And he lost somewhere between $50 and $60 million dollars gambling. I can’t even imaging earning that much money, let alone losing it.

He’s rehabbing now, but he’s gotta be looking over his shoulder saying “Wow, I coulda been rich!”

Daly tells the story of last fall when he won $750,000 in a tournament, drove to Las Vegas, and promptly lost $1.65 million in five hours. How does one do that, you ask? By playing $5,000 slot machines. He was actually betting more on one pull of a handle than most cars that I have bought. And he was doing it over and over and over.

He tells another story about how he lost $600,000 in 30 minutes. What was his response? He borrowed another 600 grand from the casino. It took him two hours to lose that.

At one time, Daly owed $4 million dollars to casinos. Fortunately, he won the 1995 British Open. The earnings from that paid the casino debt. I guess the tournaments were kinda like an enabler, letting him make stupid decisions and then bailing him out of them.

During the time he was doing all this gambling, he was still playing a winning golf game. But his earnings from golf totaled “only” $8.7 million. I guess wearing all those Nike shirts made him enough money to play his stupid little games.

Okay, I’m not going to get into the moral aspect of gambling. But if you decide to treat it as “cheap” entertainment, at least practice “safe” gambling. Set yourself a “walk-off” limit and stick to it.

Approach the floor with only a certain amount of cash in your pocket and expect to lose it all, because you will. Play that money, have fun, get your free drinks.

And when that money is gone, get up, thank (and tip) the dealer, and get out of there as fast as you can. Enjoy your memories of the eye candy and adrenalin rush.

Next time, do the math and ask yourself if it’s really worth it. If you think you can afford to lose $60 million on earnings of $8.7 million, go for it. The Associate Press will do an article about you. And I’ll have material for another blog entry.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Julie is not Lisa

Just when you think you know a song, you run into it years later and, bam! you realize you had it all wrong.

Well, maybe not you. But it happens to me  all the time. After all, this forum is about what I think.

Back in 1975, Jessi Colter (better known as the wife of Waylon Jennings) had a melancholy country/pop cross-over hit, "I'm Not Lisa". I've always liked that song, and I used to think I knew what it was about.

I recently heard it on the radio again, looked up the lyrics on the Internet, and had one of those “hey, waitaminnit” experiences.

All I remembered about the song was the classic opening lines: “I’m not Lisa, my name is Julie.” I was so lazy, I just stopped listening there. I put the song in the genre of “guy-calls-new-girl-by-old girl’s-name-and-barely-lives-to-regret-it”. Been there. Done that. It’s not a pretty sight.

But that’s all wrong. It’s a beautiful love song. Not a song of jealously or envy. Or even forgiveness.

It’s a song of unconditional love. Of understanding. Of empathy.

And that’s the best kind.

Here it is:

I'm Not Lisa
by Jessi Colter

I'm not Lisa, My name is Julie.
Lisa left you years ago.
My eyes are not blue, but mine won't leave you
Til the sunlight has touched your face.

She was your morning light; her smile told of no night.
Your love for her grew with each rising sun.
And then one winter day, his hand led her away.
She left you here, drowning in your tears,
Here, where you stayed for years crying Lisa, Lisa...

I'm not Lisa, my name is Julie.
Lisa left you years ago.
My eyes are not blue, but mine won't leave you.
Til the sunlight shines thru your face.


The song is saying this:

"I know I'm not your first love. You were madly in love with her. And that's okay. But she's gone. She left you. Somebody stole her heart from you. That hurt. Bad. I know it did. I can't do anything about that.

“But you know what? I'm never going to leave you. I'm never going to hurt you the way she did. I'm going to stay with you forever. No, I'm not your first love. She was. But I'm here now. Love me."

Man, wouldn’t everybody love to have a "Julie". Somebody who will smile, love, and say it's going to be okay. Forever.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Upside Down with my Son

When my son was a toddler, he thought the world revolved around him, which is sop for kids of that age. So when he wasn’t getting enough attention, he would do whatever it took to draw attention to himself. This caused some problems when I needed to stay late after church to talk to anybody. With my son in tow, I would try to conduct my business with other church members. And he would, well, he would want to toddle.

Parents do what they have to do to get their kids to obey. You just kinda sorta gotta do whatever it takes. That’s why parenting classes aren’t always effective. Every child is different and every relationship with their parents is different.

In our case, I discovered that he could be distracted if I carried him upside down. I don’t know what it was, but whenever he was being fussy and I couldn’t devote as much attention to him as he thought he deserved, I could get him to obey by picking him up and simply turning him over. Something about the blood rushing to his head, or the sudden attention that he was getting, or maybe just the change in perspective would satisfy him and I could continue my business.

So that’s what we did. I talked to people at church carrying my son upside down. It became almost automatic. It was so easy to reach down and turn him over; I could do it without even thinking and without breaking my conversation.

Soon I came to be known in our church as the guy who carries his son upside down. I guess everybody’s got to be known for something.

Eventually, it extended to our nighttime routine. He would come downstairs in his pajamas and announce that he was ready to go to bed. That meant that I was supposed to carry him up the stairs to his bedroom — upside down.

Over the years, he grew up and I carried him less and less — upside down and otherwise. My back and my knees appreciate that fact, but I kinda missed it.

He’s nine years old now. A couple of nights ago, he said he was ready for bed. I asked him if he wanted me to carry him upstairs to bed. I saw that he hesitated a little bit. “I won’t carry you upside down. Just regular.” Okay, that was probably okay. “I’ll let you if you want to.”

If I want to?

What had started out as a disciplinary procedure had turned into a cherished ritual. And now it was in danger of extinction. My little boy was growing up and he was losing one more aspect of his child-ness.

But he was willing to revert to being a toddler for just a few moments — if it made his dad happy.

I carried him upstairs, my knee aching the entire time. My back finally forgave me when we got to the top of the stairs and I laid him in his bed.

That’s probably the last time I’ll carry him up the stairs. I guess we’ll have to find something else to build some more memories.