Friday, June 30, 2006

Tipping

The most insane of all Western customs that exists today is that stupid little practice known as “tipping”. Whoever first came up with this asinine idea should be paid minimum wage and then should be tied up and have unimaginable things happen to him as everybody passes by, bribing him for better service by waving dollar bills in his face.

Depending on the circumstance, the idea of tipping is either:
  a) to bribe a service provider to give you with superior service
    or
  b) to reward a service provider for providing such service.

At least, that’s what they’d have you believe.

Okay, so why do I have to tip the doorman at a hotel for carrying my bags? Isn’t that his job? If I don’t tip him, what’s he gonna do? Drop them down the elevator shaft? Maybe the idea of the tip is so he provides service genteelly. Is that what I’m doing? Paying a buck a bag for a smile?

And why am I supposed to tip the skycap if he takes my bag at the curb, but not the ticket agent if he takes my bag at the gate? And what about the poor guy who’s actually in the hot sun or blizzard-like cold throwing my bag on that conveyor belt that leads to the belly of the plane? He probably works harder than all of us, but he doesn’t deserve a tip because he doesn’t get a chance to smile at me? That’s ridiculous.

Since I have a hard time figuring out tipping of bell staff and baggage handlers, I’ve taken to always giving them their tip as wadded up dollar bills. They always smile and cram their reward in their pocket, feigning humility as they salute me with a tip their hat. Hopefully, my dollar bill will get mixed up with everybody else’s and they won’t know if I tipped them one dollar a bag or five dollars a bag or twenty-five cents a bag.

See? The tipping system is so out of whack that I have resorted to crumpling George. I should be ashamed.

I never have to tip the front desk people at a hotel. They smile without it. They’re polite. Heck, they usually even speak English intelligibly, unlike any taxi driver I have ever met. But they don’t need a tip. They just do their job. Duh. Like they’re supposed to.

What about casino dealers? I win a big hand so they think they deserve part of it? Like they had something to do with my luck? Did they put their money at risk? No, they just happened to be there.

But the silliest of all is waiters and waitresses. I know, they’re in a strictly service job. You’re totally at their mercy. Or they’re totally at your mercy. Or something like that. But they’re supposed  to provide good service. They’re supposed  to smile. It’s part of their job. Why should they have to be bribed to do it?

The room service menu on a hotel I recently stayed at says that a 20% gratuity is added to every bill. 16.57% of that goes to the delivery person and the remainder goes to the kitchen and support staff. Where in the world they came up with that formula, I have no idea. But that doesn’t stop them from having their hand out when they deliver my meal, begging for more. It’s insane.

Why can’t the restaurant owners just pay the wait staff what they’re worth? Makes sense to me. What? That would increase the price of the meal? Would that put anybody out of business? The price of a $5.00 hamburger would go up to $6.00. Would anybody notice? Probably not. But I’d be so happy at the prospect of not having to figure out a tip that I might just eat there every day.

So here’s the punch line. Workers: Do your job. I don’t get tips for my job; why should you? Employers: Pay people what they’re worth; let the economics level the playing field for all.

It just makes sense.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

New Car Smell

I got my car washed today. Notice that I didn’t say I “washed” my car. I can’t remember the last time I “washed” my car.

I take it to one of those full-service car washes. At this one, you pull up and talk to a well-groomed college kid — five years from now, he’s going to be a vice president at some bank or maybe a top salesman in his district. You decline the special that they’re having today on detailing and hand-waxing, take a receipt from him, and turn over your car for the bath of a lifetime. It goes into a long tunnel where it is showered, scrubbed, polished, and rinsed.

It emerges from the other side, drenched but generally happy. Then about three or four more college boys pounce on it to give it a good rubdown. (In ten years, they will all be cpas working for Mr. Order-Taker on the other end of the tunnel. But today, hey, working at a car wash pays better than spending your summer as a life guard.)

When they are done, they signal that your car is ready. You press a few dollar bills in their hand — nobody knows why, but everybody has to do it. And then they ask you “the question”.

“What fragrance would you like today, sir?”

The answer, of course, is always the same.

“New car.”

If people would stop and consider what the “new car smell” really is, they probably wouldn’t be so excited about it. It’s actually a complex combination of volatile organic compounds including several varieties of glue, solvents, and paint. Mix that with some fumes from freshly-curing leather and vinyl, bake it with sunlight in an enclosed environment for several hours each day, and you have a delightful aroma — sure to please your senses and remind you of the first time you sat in the car and look down, noticing an odometer that registered fewer than ten miles. What a treat!

There’s a good reason why we treat the new car smell with the same sense of denial that forbids us from thinking about what’s really in a hot dog. The reason is because the sense of smell is one of the most effective triggers for memories — usually fond memories. The source or the toxicity of the smell are overcome by the association to the memory.

And the association with “freshness” is one of life’s greatest joys.

A friend of mine once told our department secretary that she smelled like a freshly-mopped floor. It was intended as a compliment and she took it as such. She knew that “freshness” was the true association with the smell. It didn’t matter if she smelled like Ajax or Mr. Clean or Glade. The fact was that she smelled “fresh”, and that’s all that mattered.

Anybody over the age of 40 remembers the fresh aroma of a page printed by a spirit duplicator. Sparkling white paper and fuzzy blue ink were the rule of the day when I was in school. It didn’t matter that your algebra test was printed with a 50/50 combination of isopropanol and methanol. The fact was, you knew everything was going to be okay because, well, the test smelled “fresh”.

People are making millions of dollars today because they have perfected car odorants that smell like volatile organic compounds and women’s perfume that smells like Lysol.

I think I could make a bundle if I could invent a spray that smelled like a ditto machine. Image the sniffing that would happen in my next meeting if I were to spray the agendas before I passed them out. We’d probably have to adjourn the meeting early, just so everybody could go back to their cubicles and inhale to their heart’s content in blissful privacy.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The Uh-Oh Second

In this world of micro-seconds, nano-seconds, and pico-seconds, it is becoming more and more important to measure increasingly smaller units of time.

I’ve heard that the smallest measurable unit of time is the time between when the light turns green and the guy behind you begins to honk.

I have determined that there is an even smaller, more definitive unit of time. I call it the “Uh-oh second”.

An uh-oh second is the unit of time between when answer “Yes” to the computer’s question “Are you sure” and you realize you weren’t. Uh-oh.

You just deleted a file that you didn’t intend to. You just exited a program. You just closed a session. You just completed an order. Your credit card just got billed. Whatever. You did it. It’s too late.

The uh-oh second can be applied to many other aspects of life. It’s the time between when you slam your car door shut and you realize your keys are in the seat. It’s the time between when find yourself pouring catsup on a hot dog and you realize that your son had asked for mustard.

It’s the time between when you complete drilling a 3/4 inch hole and you realize you should have drilled a 3/8 inch hole. It’s the time between when you introduce your new wife to your best friend and you realize you just used your ex-wife’s name.

Uh-oh.

I discovered a whole new genre of uh-oh seconds recently when I purchased a new shredder for my home office.

The office trash can is a wonderful invention. It’s a kinda purgatory for paper. It’s the place where paper goes when you don’t think you need it any more, but before you’re really ready to give it the official heave-ho to the landfill.

But privacy concerns — and a burning desire to experiment with a new source of mulch — lead me to replace my office trash can with a brand new Fellowes shredder. This is the one that they advertise on television with a bulldog confetti-making machine, making a mess of the office to the delight of the owner. “Good boy.”

What I learned very quickly about office shredders is that they are very unforgiving. Instant judgment.

Credit card solicitation. Rrrrip. Another credit card solicitation. Rrrrip. Home equity loan solicitation. Rrrrip. Mutual fund solicitation. Rrrrip. Credit card bill. Rrrrip.

Uh-oh.

The shortest measurable unit of time is the time between when you shred a bill that you need to pay and you realize you have no idea what in the heck that was that you just shredded, but it must have been something important.

Purgatory never looked so good.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Systematically Learning About “Systemic”

A few months ago, I had a problem with bugs in my bushes. So I made a trip to my friendly lawn and garden store and explained my problem. An associate at the store reached up and pulled off a bottle off the shelf. “You need a systemic pesticide. This will take care of it for you.”

I consider myself to be somewhat of a master of the English language. I try to use words like “ubiquitous” and “esoteric” in everyday conversation just to keep people around me on their toes. But I absolutely hate admitting in public that I have no idea what’s going on. So there was no way that I was going to admit that I didn’t know what “systemic” meant.

Assuming the store clerk knew more than I did, I bought the potion, sprayed it on my plants, and the bugs curled up and melted away. Oh well, who needs linguistics when chemistry works?

Some time after that, I heard some people talking at work about their bug problems at home. “What you need is a systemic pesticide”, I overheard. Hmmm... Well, I still don’t know what it means, but it must have something to do with killing bugs. So that’s good enough for me. I filed it away in my brain with the definition of other horticultural things and went on with my life.

A few days ago, I was listening to some political commentary on the radio. The analyst said that corruption in Congress was “systemic”.

Waitaminnit. What does pesticide have to do with Congress? Obviously, there is more to this word than I originally thought. This demands some investigation.

I discovered that “systemic” comes from the original Greek word that means “to combine” and is related to other English words such as “system” and “synergy”. They all have something to do with the bringing together of disparate things so that they act together. Makes sense.

In agriculture, a “systemic” pesticide is one that is absorbed into the sap of a plant or the bloodstream of an animal which is harmless to the host but which renders it toxic to invaders. As an extension, it can be applied to anything that is rampant throughout an organization to the degree that it affects the body in general — such as the usage when applied to corruption in Congress.

The Tower of Babel aside, human language is essentially an invention of, well, humans. As such, it is an imperfect creation, but one that is rich in history, tradition, and culture. English as we speak it today has only been around for a few hundred years. Deciphering the language of our Founding Fathers only 250 years ago can be somewhat of a challenge.

But that’s part of the charm of the language. There is a wonderful serendipity that results when we discover that the same word can be used in reference to pests in the garden as well as to pests in politics. And we can trace it all back to ancient Greece.

I hope I never learn everything there is to know about English. It would be a shame to think that I already know it all and that there are no more mysteries waiting to be unraveled.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Rocking with Ringo

Men deal with mid-life crises in many different ways. Some men have an affair. Some buy a new convertible. Some quit their job and go on a world-wide cruise.

I brought a drum set.

I’ve been a musician my entire life. I think I’ve played the piano ever since I could read. And I’ve been a percussionist for the last 15 years or so.

But I’ve always wanted to be a drummer. My best friend in high school was a drummer. I had hung around drummers all my life. But I remained safely ensconced in the confines of timpani, congos, tambourines, and xylophones. All the while, I yearned for the free-wheeling and controlled-frantic feeling that only a rock drummer can enjoy.

So, being of sound mind, proper financial means, and appropriate motivation, I brought a drum set, a few sticks and cymbals, and yes, a copy of “Drums for Dummies” — just to keep from totally embarrassing myself.

How does one practice drums without a band or a regular venue in which to perform? I bought a set of sound-isolating headphones with an extra-long cable. I plugged it into my stereo, tuned the radio to the local “oldies” station, and started rocking to the greatest hits of the 60s and 70s.

With a little practice, I got pretty good. Soon I was playing along with the Beatles, the Stones, Elton John, Linda Ronstadt; it really didn’t matter who or what was playing. If it came on the radio, I rocked along with it. There was something comforting — fulfilling — about finally living the dream of being a great rock musician, even if it was only in my own mind.

One night, I was playing along with the Beatles’ “Let it Be”. Suddenly, I was struck with a sense of awe that took me quite by surprise.

I was playing drums with Ringo Starr.

It was almost like Ringo was right in the room with me, smiling approvingly as he watched his protégé learn his trade, albeit late in life. I literally had to stop for a moment and, with my hands to my side, listen to the symphonic orchestration of Ringo’s percussion for the rest of the song.

Ringo had already established himself as a great drummer before he was with the Beatles. John and Paul actively sought him out to be in their band. They knew he was exactly what they needed to round out their little group of musicians. And with the addition of Ringo, the Fab Four from Liverpool spent the next seven years rewriting the history of rock music.

In his early days, he played with a four-piece kit rather than the standard five-piece — eschewing the middle tom-tom. Even though he is left-handed, he played with a right-hand setup, often leading with his left hand. These innovations gave Ringo’s style a distinctive sound as he influenced the development of early rock-and-roll drum music.

Ringo understood that the role of a drummer in a rock band is a supportive one. His playing was never in the forefront, was never ostentatious. But if you listen closely, you’ll hear him doing things in the background that are so creative and so unique that it is no wonder he remains one of the most influential rock drummers even today.

And that’s exactly what I do. As I’m playing along with the radio, I’ll play just about any song that happens to come along.

But when a Beatles song comes on, it’s more likely that I’ll just be listening. Listening for inspiration. Listening to learn.

Thank you, Ringo, for everything you’ve taught me.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Mayor Bloomberg and His Money

Michael Bloomberg is the mayor of New York City. And he must have really wanted the job, because five years ago he spent $74 million on his campaign to get it. His own money.

He must have liked the job once he got it, because last year he spent $85 million to get reelected. His own money. That comes to about $113 per vote.

Mr. Bloomberg founded one of the largest and most successful financial information companies in the world and has a personal wealth of more than five billion dollars. So he can afford to drop a few million here and there on extraneous ventures. He doesn’t need to work another day in his life. So he has decided to lead the largest city in the world’s last remaining super power. The city that sits in the middle of a red bulls-eye for every terrorist organization with a plane ticket or a stick of dynamite.

When studying elected leaders, we are often urged to “follow the money”. The prevailing wisdom says that politicians are usually beholden to the whims of those who put him in power. That makes sense when the major contributors are labor unions or fringe activist groups.

But what does it mean when the major contributor is the politician himself? It can’t be that he needs the job to support his ego; there are much easier (and cheaper) ways to have one’s ego stroked. It’s not just a power grab. In spite of his great potential power, he still regularly rides the subway to work. And it certainly isn’t because he needs the money. Refusing the traditional mayor’s salary, he receives a token one dollar per year in compensation.

Bloomberg seems to be one of those rare breeds who actually is a public servant because he feels like he needs to serve the public. He spent his own money to avoid the repressive campaign finance reform laws that limited his opponents. As a result, he doesn’t owe anybody anything. Nobody can buy him. Nobody can influence him. He can stand on his own principles and govern in a way that is most beneficial to the people who elected him.

New Yorkers must like him. The staunchly liberal city reelected this Republican by a 20% margin last year.

You gotta admire a guy that puts up 17% of his entire personal worth to get a thankless job in a city that should be suspicious of a rich corporate suit. My hat’s off to him.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

The Original Diet Coke

In 1963, the marketing guys at Coca-Cola had an interesting problem. Coke needed to respond to the Royal Crown Cola Company, who had come up with a fairly successful product known as Diet-Rite Cola. Today we take diet versions of cola for granted. But in the early 1960s, that was a revolutionary concept. All these bikini-clad girls were suddenly concerned about their figure, but they still wanted to drink their favorite beverage without guilt. Substituting cyclamate for sugar seemed like a good plan.

So the product development department at Coke got busy and developed what was essentially Coca-Cola without the sugar. All that was left was to put it in a bottle, stick it on the grocer’s shelves, and kick some Diet-Rite butt with a 300-pound gorilla marketing plan.

Watiaminnit, said the Suits. What are they going to call this stuff? They can’t just call it (gasp) “Diet Coke”. After all, they had spent millions of dollars protecting and preserving the honored, hallowed, cherished Coca-Cola brand. To dilute it by putting the word “diet” in front of it would be — well, it would be heresy! (Today, we would call it “brand extension” — think “Honey Nut Cherios” — but that was a foreign concept at the time.)

So they turned to the market research department. Come up with a brand new name for this product. Some short, snappy, memorable. And do it quick! We can’t afford to have Diet-Rite eat one more fraction of a percent of our market share.

(Meanwhile, the execs at Pepsi were watching all this with a combination of amusement and blissful ignorance. It would be a couple of years before “Diet Pepsi” showed up on the market — with no apparent concern about diluting a trademarked name that had been playing second fiddle to Coke for years.)

The marketers at Coca-Cola huddled in their conference rooms in Atlanta, shuttering and shivering at the thought that they might make a marketing blunder. This was too important of a job for mere mortals. They must call upon the gods. The gods of ibm.

At the time, the ibm 1401 was a relatively new workhorse. It was the size of an average living room and had been introduced as a “business” computer, as opposed to a scientific computer. It was used to maintain customer records at banks and actuary tables at insurance companies. It was a 6-bit machine that contained a maximum 16Kb of data in its core memory. (For perspective, a typical two-page Word document is about 20Kb in size. Yes, folks, this computer could just about hold this entire article in memory.)

The folks in the it department were eager to find creative uses for their new toy. So they were overjoyed when the marketing department asked for their help. Could they use their brand new computer to generate a list of all possible four-letter word combinations?

The geeks put their slide rulers to work and their pencils to paper. Did they realize that would generate a list of 456,976 words to chose from? Back to the marketers. Hmmmm... Okay how about a list of four-letter words that contain only one vowel? Back to the slide rulers. Okay, that would be a list of only 192,000 words.

So the computer went to work. Disks whirred, tapes spun, lights dimmed. Green-bar paper spewed from high-speed printers. Long hours, late into the night.

Finally, the list was delivered. Marketing poured all over it, eliminating unpronounceable and potentially offensive words. Brows sweated. Pizza was consumed. Tensions rose.

Finally, they emerged with the winner. The new product was going to be named...

“TABB!”

The creative guys got their hands on it. Okay, that could work because they could use the double-entendre of keeping “tabs” on the calories that are consumed. But the extra “B” was kinda in the way. A logo was invented with distinctive capitalization: “TaB”. Yeah, that’s it. Genius!

The rest, as they say, is history.

The geeks were left scratching their heads. Hey, we thought they wanted a four-letter word. If they had asked for a list of three-letter words — gee, that would have generated only (putting the slide-ruler to work again) 17,576 potential words to pick from. Why can’t anybody in the marketing department get their requirements established before they ask us to do all that work?

The ibm 1401 computer is now legendary with computer history buffs. Today, you probably have more computing power in your wristwatch than the machine that named Tab. In fact, doing the research for this article, I wrote a macro in Excel that duplicated the effort. It took me about three minutes to write and 3.5 seconds for my computer to execute.

But this represented one of the first successful joint ventures between a marketing department and a computer department and is thus worthy of historical note.

Of course, 40 years later, it still doesn’t do what marketing initially asks for. And marketing still can’t write user requirements that they can live with through the end of the project.

Some things never change.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Buying Cred

Many years ago as a high school student, I gave piano lessons to my little brother for a few weeks. It was a big mistake. I’m surprised that we still talk to each other after all these years.

When it came time for my son to take piano lessons, I wisely opted myself out of candidates to be his teacher. There was no way that I was going to put my fatherhood on the line by trying to assume the role of piano teacher.

And the reason why? In my son’s eyes, I lacked credibility, or “cred” as it’s known on the street. (With the bro’s in the ’hood, why should one use five syllables when one will do?)

The funny thing about cred is that you first have to earn  it. Then, after it’s earned, it must be purchased  to be effective.

Consider this. If you have some problem — personal, financial, professional, whatever — the last person you should go to for advice is a close friend or family member. You need to go to someone who has earned  cred. That’s probably somebody with a degree, with appropriate experience or training, or somebody that is recognized as an expert in his field.

Even if you’re fortunate to have an expert in your family who has earned cred, they probably aren’t a good candidate to help you because of the other requirement — you have to buy  the cred from them. It doesn’t do any good to get advice from somebody unless you have some “skin” in the game. And the way you get “skin” is to pay for it.

Countries with socialized health care systems are learning this the hard way. When you have to pay for your medical advice, you tend to ration your need for it. The system balances itself naturally.

But when health care is free, the patient has nothing at risk. Even though the doctor has earned  his cred by going to medical school, the patient isn’t required to buy  his cred. With nothing to lose, there is nothing stopping the patient from consuming the product (in this case, health care advice) with aimless abandon. Soon the health care system is overloaded and would collapse if not for some sort of mandatory rationing.

Ask any doctor in Canada and they will tell you that their day is filled seeing perfectly healthy people that just want to have somebody to talk to. And nothing is stopping them from doing it because they have nothing to lose. They aren’t required to buy the “cred” from the doctor, so the system is imploding.

Back to the piano lessons. I may have earned my cred with my brother and my son, but neither of them had to buy it from me. So I was irrelevant and ineffective.

“Son, I think you should practice each hand separately on that song and then put them together only after you have mastered each one.”

“No, Dad. That’s not the right way to practice piano.”

See? No cred.

A couple of months later...

“Son, I’m glad to see that you are practicing your hands separately now.”

“Yeah, that’s the way my piano teacher told me to practice. It works so much better than trying to learn them both at the same time. I’ll put them together after I have learned them separate from each other.”

Same advice, different results. His piano teacher has cred. His dad — me — well, my cred might as well be crud for all it’s worth.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Dixie Hockey

I woke up this morning to the news that the Stanley Cup finals for the National Hockey League ended last night. And the winner was Carolina.

My first thought — after I realized they were still playing hockey in the middle of June — was, Carolina has a hockey team?  Isn’t the land of Raleigh/Durham/Cary/Chapel Hill the domain of Duke and North Carolina and NC State? Do they even know what a puck is? Heck, do they even know what ice   is? Do they know how to play any sports down there that doesn’t include a 10-inch round orange ball or a football-shaped brown, uh, football?

And for Pete’s sake, they beat some Canadians. Not wimpy French “Canadiens”, as they’re known in Montreal. These are real manly Canadians: the Houston, er, I mean Edmonton Oilers.

Shoot, the Canadians practically invented  hockey. They actually understand the definition of “icing”. And they know how in the heck somebody can be “offsides” when there are men skating all over the place instead of starting each play lined up neatly on each side of the ball, uh, puck. I think the Canadians deserve to win just for being cerebral enough to understand the game.

But wait, there’s more. It turns out this wasn’t just a Dixie-vs-Cannuck fluke. Yessir, ladies and gentlemen. Last year’s Stanley Cup was won by ... (are you ready for this?) ... the Tampa Bay Lightning. That’s right, they actually play hockey in Florida!

Sheesh, next you’ll be telling me that they play baseball in Montreal. Waitaminnit. That’s right. They actually used  to play baseball there, but nobody noticed. So they moved the team to Washington dc.

God bless America. At least Major League Baseball finally figured out what sport belongs where.

Now, if we can only convince the nfl to restore the St. Louis Cardinals, the Los Angeles Rams, and the Baltimore Colts to their rightful locations.

Monday, June 19, 2006

The Golden Rule of Business

Most of the work that I do is project-related. A project is identified, a team is assembled, and a team leader is chosen. Some projects last only a few days; some go on for months. They all overlap so I’m usually working on several projects at a time in various stages of completion.

One project team I was involved with had one very uncooperative team member. Although he claimed to be working on the project’s behalf, it was very obvious to me and to the other team members that he was much more interested in drawing attention to himself. I was the one on the team that had to work the closest with him — which meant that I had to put up with most of his foolishness and cover for many of his mistakes.

The project leader knew of my problems and was sympathetic to them. But in the best interests of getting the work done, we all agreed to do the best we could with what we had to work with — even if that meant putting up with the rudeness and incompetence of the most uncooperative team member I have ever worked with.

Toward the end of the project, the team leader caught me in a particularly “down” mood, pulled me aside, and said “Joe, it’s nice to have somebody like you on my team.”

What a breath of fresh air! With one statement, I learned what the project manager was actually looking for. And received a “stroke” to make me feel better.

As the project progressed, I watched the other team members’ behavior, compared it to my own, and put myself in the position of the project lead. I soon realized that the best behavior would be one that I would want if I were the leader of the team.

Obviously, “Mr. Uncooperative” didn’t understand that concept. I can’t believe that he would actually want himself on his team. Certainly, he wouldn’t want a whole team of people like himself. Nothing would ever get done because everybody would be fighting for attention for themselves.

When you were young, you probably learned something about the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” With this project, I realized that the rule works in business as well as it does in personal relationships.

I learned that the best way to be a team member is to be the type of member that you would want to have on a team. I now measure my behavior on a team with the question, “Is that the type of behavior that I would want a member of my team to exhibit?” All I have to do is remove myself from the process, turn around and look at myself, and observe what I am doing.

If the Golden Rule of life is “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, the ancillary Golden Rule of Business should be “Be the type of team member that you would like to have on your team.”

Friday, June 16, 2006

Why No Pope Joe

I have always been proud of my given name. There were several great men named Joe in the Bible. Joe was Jesus’ earthly father. A guy named Joe donated the tomb in which they laid Jesus to rest. And that fellow in the Old Testament with the Technicolor Dreamcoat was named Joe.

So when we got a new pope last year, I was excited that his name was Joseph Ratzinger. There had never been a Pope Joe before. At last, this fine name had a chance to be recognized in all its papal greatness.

But waitaminnit. Cardinal Ratzinger decided he didn’t like “Joe”. He was going to go down in history as Pope Benedict XVI. There would be no Pope Joe I.

Needless to say, I was crushed. “Benedict” may be a fine name in Vatican circles, but in American culture, it conjures up images of the traitor, Mr. Arnold. Nobody names their kid “Benedict” any more. Benjamin, perhaps. But Benedict sounds so 18th century.

That got me to thinking about why popes are named the way they are. Why don’t they like the names their own mother gave them? And what’s with all the X’s and V’s and I’s? So I did a little research.

It can all be traced to a 6th century monk named Mercurius. He had the distinct misfortune of being named by his mother after the Roman god Mercury. Poor kid. He might as well have been named Darth Vader. All the other kids in seminary laughed at him.

That is, until they he was elected pope. Funny how life-changing events like that turns everybody’s perspective around.

Knowing that he was due the last laugh, he could have gone on with his life as Pope Mercury. But there was something, well, sacrilegious about that. It was a legacy that he couldn’t bear to take credit for.

So he started a new trend. He decided that he should be named after his favorite ex-pope, who had reigned just a decade or so before. Nobody was going to argue because, hey, he’s the Pope. And that’s how Monk Mercury became known as Pope John II.

The Catholic Church treats tradition with as much respect as Tevye’s prayer shawl. So when one pope decides to do something, most of the others follow suit. For that reason, virtually every pope after that has assumed the name of some previous pope. There’s really no reason for it. It’s just something that Mercury, I mean, John II did. And it seems like a quaint little tradition to uphold for 1500 years.

But all those Roman numerals get messy sometimes. After all, there’s a finite number of names to pick from, so they start getting reused rather quickly. And it seems like every other one likes the name John. Or Paul. Or John Paul. Which brings us to an interesting story about Pope John XX.

When popes first started borrowing names from each other, nobody cared much to keep track of everything. (The marketing geniuses at the nfl figured out that numbering Super Bowls with Roman numerals was pretty cool; the marketing guys at the Vatican weren’t that on the ball.) After a while, there were a bunch of Johns and Pauls and Stephens piling up and somebody decided to make sense of it all. So here come the Roman numerals.

But that got even more complicated with anti-popes and the Holy Roman Empire (which was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire). How do you count the guys that laid claim to the papacy but that were later found to be heretics? Or how do you count heretics that were martyred although they were later found to be true men of God?

It took several hundred years to sort it all out. After a bunch of arguing about who’s “in” and who’s “out” as a pope, they settled on a bunch of numbers to give everybody.

And all was fine until the year 1276 when Pedro Hispano — the first Portuguese pope — wanted to be called John. Oops. They found out that he was only the nineteenth Pope to be named John, but there was already a Pope John XIX. So for some reason, they decided to skip a number and Pedro became John XXI. For that reason, there is no Pope John XX. And there never will be, either.

There’ll probably never be a Pope Joe I, either. I think that’s a shame. It’s such a nice name.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

How Knives Work

Have you ever wondered how a knife works? How is it that a machine as simple as a blade of metal is able to accomplish things so elegantly that we could only do with brute force?

Take, for example, a steak knife. If you want to eat a steak, you have the option of picking it up in your fingers and ripping off bite-size pieces to put in your mouth. But isn’t it much more neat and convenient to have a knife neatly slice through the meat, giving it a clean edge and a perfectly sized piece? How does it do that?

Everybody knows that a knife is better when it’s “sharp”. What does “sharp” mean? It means that the edge comes to a definite point instead being rounded.

Consider it this way. When you push down on a knife, you exert force through the knife onto the piece of meat. Let’s say that’s a force of, oh, five pounds or so. But it’s not just five pounds. That force is spread over the surface area of the meat where the knife meets it.

Hang in there. We’re getting close to understanding how this works.

Suppose you lay the knife on its side and push down. That five pounds of force is now spread over the surface of the knife blade — perhaps two or three square inches. Not much cutting power there, huh? Just a mushed-up piece of meat.

Now turn the knife on its sharp edge. Push down with the same force. That same five pounds of force is still being exerted on the meat. But instead of being spread over two or three square inches, the force is concentrated. Let’s see — how much area do you think is represented by the edge  of the knife as opposed to the side?   Infinitesimal, don’t you think? And the sharper the knife is, the less surface area is represented by the edge and the more concentrated the force is.

Knives work not because they are strong, but because they concentrate all their strength in a very small area.

There’s a lesson to be learned from this. When we are in a struggle, it often isn’t important how strong we are — individually or collectively. What really makes us effective is when all our strength is concentrated in a small area. The greater the concentration, the more effective our relative strength.

“Sharpening” our skills doesn’t refer to making us stronger, smarter, or better. It means learning how to effectively utilize the skills that we already have — concentrating them in a small area — to get the job done.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Katrina was not a Hurricane

A few days ago, I heard the voice of a commentator on the radio railing about global warming. Giving examples of receding glaciers and rising sea levels, he said “Katrina was just the beginning!”

A few days later, I saw a similar article in the paper. “If you thought Katrina was bad, just wait till you see this year’s crop of hurricanes spawned by the fastest rise in global temperatures in centuries.”

As bad of a storm as it was, the fact that these commentators are forgetting is that the tragedy of Katrina was not that it was a hurricane.

Most of the people that died in Katrina actually died a couple of days after the storm struck. They were the people that foolishly stayed behind and drown in the flood.

Most of the property damage was not the result of buildings being blown over. The buildings were destroyed by the resulting flood that left them standing in water up to their eaves for weeks after the storm went by.

Did you catch that? Katrina was not a hurricane. It was a flood.

Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans as a Category 3 hurricane, somewhat weaker than the Category 5 Hurricane Andrew that barreled across Florida over a decade ago. It was an unfortunate coincidence that a slightly stronger-than-average hurricane hit a heavily populated area. A little more to the east or west and it would have been a lot different story. A slightly stronger or weaker hurricane would have created a completely different scenario.

But there it was. A monster, but not the biggest monster ever. And not the product of increased global temperatures. Just an average hurricane that wandered into the wrong area of demographics. Literally a meteorological bull in a china closet. The bull doesn’t know how he got there or what damage he was doing. He just wants out. And that’s what Katrina was. She didn’t aim for a large population area; it just happened to be in the way.

The real tragedy was the failure of the levees.

Thousands of people had weathered the storm in their homes. Thousands more had sought refuge in the Superdome. And they all lived through the storm, wandering outside the next day to a clear sky and an uncertain future.

But then the levees broke. There is plenty of blame to pass around for the failure of the levees. They were managed by corrupt, disjunct local authorities who failed to communicate with each other. The Army Corps of Engineers now has evidence that they weren’t as structurally sound as they originally thought. The city of New Orleans failed to spend money properly that had been allocated for their maintenance. The federal government failed to properly oversee the distribution of that money. Everybody failed to heed years of warnings by engineers and in the local press that the entire levee system was a disaster waiting to happen.

Add to that, the population of New Orleans had suffered through years of corrupt Democratic rule which had trained them that the government was the solution to all their problems. So when they were told to get out of town, a large number of them decided to sit and wait, thinking they were going to be cared for. When the local government collapsed and the federal government was slow to respond, they had nowhere to turn, because they had no means or inclination to help themselves.

Katrina was a massive failure of engineering, government, and society which exacted a toll of epic proportions on the property and the population of New Orleans. But please, don’t use the words “Katrina” and “global warming” in the same sentence. They have nothing to do with each other.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Message to AARP: I Don’t Need You

This year, I celebrated one of those dreaded birthdays with a “zero” in it. Turning over a new decade is kinda like walking down a hallway in an office building and then rounding a corner. Everything is familiar, but suddenly different at the same time.

What do I get for my half-century of life on this planet? I am deluged with offers to join that most dreaded of all liberal organizations, the aarp.

They don’t like to be called their former name, the “American Association of Retired Persons”. They discovered a few years ago that they could get more members if they target “old” people, rather than “retired” people. Of course, they define “old” as anybody over 50. (We younger old people tend to hang around longer — less attrition, you know.)

So the aarp (Don’t you just love that acronym?) wants me to join, eh? Well, they can save their money. I have long known that aarp (It just flows from the tongue, doesn’t it?) is an ultra-liberal organization, much more interested in selling their services to finance their left-wing causes than they are in actually providing value to their membership.

In their marketing literature, the aarp (Aaaaaarp! They should fire the marketing department that came up with that name!) lists 22 specific “benefits” that I would receive by joining. I won’t bore you with all 22. Here are the highlights; the most comical benefits from aarp (Sounds like a cat with a fur ball, doesn’t it?) and the reasons why such benefits are totally irrelevant in my life.

A subscription to the bi-monthly magazine, AARP The Magazine. This thing used to be called Modern Maturity. They took a magazine that sounded like it belonged in a nursing home and changed the name to a combination throat-clearing sound and a redundant noun. I think I’ll write a book and name it the “Auugggghh Book”. It would make as much sense.

A subscription to the AARP Bulletin to “keep informed on current legislation and issues that affect you most.” Like cradle-to-grave government health care and other failed socialist programs.

Access to the aarp web site. What, is there something there that I can’t get anywhere else on the Internet for free? Have they never heard of WebMD? Or Google?

Savings on hotels, motels, resorts, airfares, cruises... The list goes on. A combination of Expedia and PriceLine is all I need.

Know that aarp is standing up for your rights like fighting predatory home loan lending. Oh, they’re protecting stupid people from making stupid investments.

Low-interest credit card. I haven’t paid a dime of interest to a credit card company in years. When you come out with a NO-interest card, I may be interested.

aarp endorsed auto and homeowners insurance. Just because an insurance company paid aarp to endorse them doesn’t make them a better deal.

Pharmacy services with convenient delivery to your mailbox. I haven’t taken a prescription drug in ten years. When I do, Walgreen's is just down the street.

Rewarding volunteer opportunities. What? I need to pay  to join an organization to volunteer?

aarp safe-driving course. Now they’re insulting my perfect driving record!

Reduced cost health insurance.They actually think it’d be a good idea for me to buy health insurance from a company whose primary customers are old people who consume 85% of all health care expenses in this country. That makes about as much sense as buying dental insurance from the nhl Player’s Association.

Sorry, aarp. You have nothing for me. You can save a bunch of money by not marketing to me.

Try me again in another 25 or 30 years, when I’m really old. I won’t listen to you then, either. But I could probably use another good laugh by then.

Monday, June 12, 2006

What Makes a Joke Funny

I have always wanted to write and get something published. There have been times that I thought the best way to do that would be to submit something to Readers’ Digest. After all, every issue practically screams the words “Earn $300! Just send us your funny stories.”

Some of the stuff they publish is pretty lame. It’s real easy to take the “gee-I-can-do-better-than-that” attitude. And they’ve made it so easy now with online submissions. Just go to their web site, fill out a form and click on “submit”. You don’t even need a stamp.

So a few weeks ago, I submitted what I think is just about the funniest little ditty I know. It goes like this:

  Roses are red,
  Violets are blue.
  Most poems rhyme
  But this one doesn’t.

I thought it’d be a perfect addition to rd’s “Laughter, the Best Medicine”. Or maybe it could be one of those little snippets they put at the bottom of the page when they can’t quite stretch an article to fit.

Apparently, the folks at Pleasantville don’t share my enthusiasm for humor. I never heard a word from them. Oh, well. Their loss.

At least the experience caused me to think about what makes a joke funny. And it gave me an excuse to write about it.

I have been told that to be funny, a joke has to have a sense of exaggerated reality. That’s what makes the comic strip “Family Circus” so funny. Everybody can relate to Bill and Thel as they try to raise their four young children in a house with two dogs and a cat. Haven’t we all pointed to a panel that we thought was particularly funny just because it was so dang true?

That may be one quality of humor, but I heard Bob Hope give another explanation that was equally true. He said that good humor often rests in its timing. The longer you wait before revealing the punch line, the funnier the joke will be.

He gave this example. In the late 1950s, the Cold War with Russia was at full steam. The Russians were sending satellites into space with alarming frequency. Meanwhile nasa was alternately blowing up rockets on the launch pad or ditching wayward spacecraft in the ocean without ever achieving orbit.

In one of his shows, Hope decided to poke honest fun at our misfortunes. Here’s the entire joke:

“Hey, have you heard the latest good news coming out of Cape Canaveral? They just successfully launched a new submarine!”

(Insert rim-shot here.)

The joke is rather dated now, but at the time it was hilarious. In a fraction of a second, the audience was on the edge of their seat only to be duped.

Good news from Cape Canaveral? Hey, we could sure use some good news right about now. Those nasty Ruskies are hammering us in the space race. Who knows what kind of nuclear stuff is floating around above our heads right now? Yes, Bob. Please tell us. What is this great news of which you speak?

They just launched... Great! They launched! They finally got one of those Roman candles in the air! Oh, I feel so much better now. And they launched a ... a what?

Oh, a submarine.

Heh, heh. Very funny.

By successfully delaying the punch line until the very last word  of the joke, Hope successfully turned a national embarrassment into good-natured laughter, teaching me a lesson in humorous timing in the process.

Now, look back my submission to Reader’s Digest. “But this one doesn’t.” I think that’s a great punch line. Delayed as long as possible. Definitely funny. Definitely worthy of inclusion in any fine literature.

Oh, well. I’m not going to quit my day job, waiting for somebody to realize my creative genius.

Friday, June 09, 2006

The Marketing of Redeployment

A friend of mine who had served in the military told me that there are three ways to do everything: the “right” way, the “wrong” way, and the “military” way.

The fact is that the military has a different way of doing several things. And they can get away with it because, hey, they’re carrying weapons and I’m not.

For example, the military has words that mean things only to them. In the military, you don’t eat “food”, you eat “rations”. They aren’t served in a “cafeteria”, it’s in a “mess hall”. And when you’re done eating, you don’t “clean” the area, you “police” it.

The military doesn’t “move” troops, it “redeploys” them.

Enter the Democrats.

Nothing would please the Left more than if we would pack our bags and leave Iraq right now. Or at least say that we’re going to leave next July 1st. Or April 1st. Or something. The point is they want to get out of there.

But Democrats develop foreign policy based on focus groups. And the focus groups don’t like the word “retreat”. They also don’t like “surrender”. They don’t like “defeat”. And they sure as heck don’t like “cut-and-run”. Sounds too “girly”, you know.

Notice that it doesn’t matter what word the Democrats like. It’s what the focus groups  like that matters. They learned their lesson from the Republicans during the Vietnam conflict when Nixon tried to convince everybody that “Détente” was a good thing. Most people simply shrugged their shoulders at that French word, leaving Nixon and Kissenger wondering why they hadn’t listened to the focus groups and called their strategy “can’t-we-all-just-get-along?”.

Back to the present. The Democrats needed a term that they could use that would mean, “Oops, we’re outta here. Good luck with your new constitution, y’all!” without sounding chicken.

Somebody at the dnc opened a military manual and discovered the word “redeploy”. Hey, that works. We’re not retreating; we’re just “redeploying” our troops. We’re just moving them to a place where they can be more effective. Yeah, that’s it.

In their fight for public opinion, they have taken a word that has a very specific technical meaning to the military and have marketed it as legitimate foreign policy. And they’re doing a great job with it.

Somebody should tie a Democrat to a chair and read the Constitution to him. Although Congress can declare war and authorize the spending thereof, nowhere is the authority to direct troop movement given to them. That still belongs to the “Commander in Chief”. That’s why he’s called the Commander.

The framers of the Constitution feared a government controlled by the military, so they wisely put the military under the control of civilians. But they also realized that a camel is a horse that was designed by a committee. You can’t have 435 elected representatives telling the military what to do and when to do it. For that, you need a boss.

You don’t have to agree with everything that President Bush has done in the execution of the war. But leaving Iraq prematurely would create a vacuum that would throw the country into anarchical chaos. And announcing a withdrawal timetable would simply signal to the insurgency that they have extra time to accumulate weapons, recruit teenage boys, and throw some of those charming ied-building parties that they’re famous for.

No, we owe the people of Iraq better than that.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Empty Space

Space is really big. And really, really empty.

If you look at a detailed map of our solar system, you’d think that it’s pretty crowded between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. There are thousands — millions — of little planetoids and asteroids floating around out there. Some of them have wonderful, exotic names like “Massalia”, “Alexandra”, “Petrina”, and “Seppina”. Others have sterile, provisional names like “(29075) 1950 da”, “(3360) 1981 va”, and “(15760) 1992 qb1”. It seems as though the sky should be filled with them.

As we started sending spaceships to Jupiter and beyond, many people expressed dismay that our daring little robots would be pelted to smithereens by flying space rock. As a child, I remember seeing movies where spaceships would fly through asteroid belts and it was like pushing your way through the crowd in the mall on the day after Christmas to buy wrapping paper at half price.

But after 30-some years of trans-Jovian exploration, not one craft has been as much as brushed by a pebble. Have we really been that lucky?

No, space is really that empty!

Cosmic scales are really hard to imagine. Let’s put it in perspective.

If the sun were the size of a basketball, the earth would be smaller than the round head of a push-pin. And it would be about 100 feet away.

And what would be between the two? Nothing. Well, Venus and Mercury would be floating around — even smaller than the earth. But they’d be just as likely as not to be floating around on the other side of the sun — far, far away. The largest of the asteroids would be smaller than dust particles in smoke.

Space is so empty that the odds of a spaceship being struck by a stray asteroid are literally billions to one against. You have to try really hard to catch up with an asteroid. We’ve sent a couple of craft specifically to track some asteroids. And we’ve gotten some good pictures of them as a result. But it ain’t easy, even when you’re trying.

So the guys at nasa had a special challenge recently with their New Horizons spacecraft. It was launched last January and is currently speeding toward Pluto faster than any craft has ever traveled before. So fast, in fact, that it’s already going through the asteroid belt.

The New Horizons project team wanted to have a chance to test some of their navigation and imaging equipment. After all, there’s not much else to do while you’re coasting along on the way to the most distant planet in the solar system. So they decided, hey, if we’re going through the asteroid belt, let’s see if we can spot one.

Yep. They weren’t concerned about being hit  by one. They were trying to even find  one.

Quite by coincidence, they found a tiny asteroid that they were flew close enough to track. They found and photographed asteroid 2002 jf56. It’s a little rock, about one-and-a-half miles across. At the time, it was more than 63,000 miles away. The most powerful of New Horizon’s digital cameras resolved the asteroid only to a couple of pixels.

So a casual cruise through the most densely populated neighborhood of our solar system yielded a chance encounter with a tiny rock tens of thousands of miles away. The paradox of space is that it is both crowded and empty at the same time.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Delegation and Control

I always have fun when I get to perform in musical or drama presentations for church, school, and civic groups. And I can usually learn something as I watch how the leaders of the production manage the process of “herding cats”.

There are probably no two groups in the world that have bigger egos than thespians and musicians. (Well, maybe politicians, but that that’s a whole nuther subject.) When you get thirty of them on a stage, you’ll have at least fifty different opinions on how a scene should be performed.

The secret to good management is knowing when to delegate  and when to control. I saw that perfectly illustrated in a recent rehearsal.

One scene was going particularly poorly and was restarted several times as new problems arose. Finally, all progress came to a halt as the assistant director, choreographer, music director, and several cast members argued about how to proceed.

The director of the play had been watching from the rear for some time without offering much help. After all, he had successfully delegated the responsibility for this scene to several of his underlings. And opening night was only a couple of days away. Finally, however, he realized the situation had reached an impasse.

He ran to the stage from the back of the room. “Hold it, everybody. This is my  decision!” Then he waved his arms in a controlled frenzy. “You go over there. You stay there. You enter from there. Now. Let’s try this again from the top of the number!”

Then he turned around, walked to the back of the room, and took his place on the back row to watch the rest of the rehearsal.

Everything went smoothly from that point forward. The director didn’t seize  control. He restored  control. He knew that he had placed the right people in areas of authority. He gave them all the rope they needed. But he also realized when enough was enough. He exercised just barely enough control to nudge the project back into sanity.

And he provided me with a perfect example of the appropriate way to manage my business, my family, and my life.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Frogs, Drowning, and Risky Behavior

Here is one of my favorite jokes — one that demonstrates how one can be presented with the facts in a logical manner and still reach the absolute wrong conclusion.

A young science student decided to experiment on a live frog. He placed the frog on an observation table and said, “Jump, frog! Jump!” The frog jumped eight feet.

Then the student cut off one of the frog’s legs and said, “Jump, frog! Jump!” This time, the frog jumped six feet.

He cut off another leg and said, “Jump, frog! Jump!” The frog jumped three feet. He cut off one more leg and said, “Jump, frog! Jump!” This time, the one-legged frog could hop only a few inches.

Finally the student cut off the last of the frog’s legs and said, “Jump, frog! Jump!” The frog did nothing; he just stared blankly at the student. “Jump, frog! Jump!” Once again, nothing. The frog didn’t move.

So the student wrote in his notebook: “When all the legs of a frog are cut off, the frog becomes deaf.”

Another example of possibly coming to the wrong conclusion involves the recent news item. It reported that 80% of all drowning victims are male. If you’re not careful, it may be tempting to conclude that women are better swimmers than men.

But I believe it has more to do with the way a man’s mind is wired than anything else. Men are inherent risk-takers. Given a set of possible actions, a typical woman will generally choose a safer alternative than a typical man. Women want stability and security; men want challenge and excitement.

So men are more likely to drown simply because they are more likely to put themselves in a position where drowning is a possibility. It has nothing to with their physical abilities and everything to do with the choices they make.

Since risk and reward are so highly correlated, that explains why men seem to be at the polar extremes of almost every category. It explains why men dominate boardrooms and lists of the wealthiest people. It also explains why prisons and homeless shelters are filled almost exclusively with men. Men choose risky behavior and are more likely to accept the rewards and suffer the consequences for their actions.

See? If you stick around me, you’ll be sure that you’ll always come to the correct conclusion.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Cats

I have had the pleasure this month of performing in a local community theatre production of “Cats”, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s record-breaking Broadway musical.

Cats has been rightly criticized for its apparent lack of plot. But I’ll cut it some slack. After all, it is a collection of T.S. Eliot’s poetry set to music with great choreography and a stunning wardrobe.

But what it lacks in plot, it makes up for in its study of human behavior — vicariously through the minds of felines.

The musical concerns itself with the tribe of cats known as the “Jellicles” as they prepare for their annual gathering at the “Jellicle Ball”. Every cat in the tribe is introduced individually as the audience slowly becomes aware of the distinct behaviors and personalities of each.

I have been especially drawn to the three oldest cats of the tribe — and I have been intrigued by the treatment each of these cats gets from the younger ones.

Old Deuteronomy is the oldest and wisest of all the cats. He’s the patriarch of the clan; heck, he’s probably the father or grandfather of many of the kittens. He is held in the highest esteem, virtually worshiped by all as he makes his appearance.

Gus is a “theatre cat”. He’s like the old uncle that shows up at the family reunion with old war stories — except that Gus’ stories deals with all the great theatrical parts he’s has played through the years. The kittens adore Gus and clamor around his feet, purring over his every word.

And then there’s Grizabella, "The Glamour Cat". She has led a hard, hard life. Her coat is dirty and mangy, she walks with a weak shuffle, and her eyes are sunken and sallow.

None of the cats like Grizabella. They shun her. They ignore her. They gnash and snarl at her. The old cats pull the kittens away from her and the kittens shirk back in fear. It’s a sad, sad, sight.

I always wondered why the cats treated Old Deuteronomy and Gus with such high regard, but they were always downright mean to Grizabella. The director of our local production finally gave me the answer.

Grizabella made all the wrong life choices. She left the tribe many years ago, seeking her own fame and fortune. She once had a life of glamour and charm and beauty. But she gave that up, seeking something more. In the process, she turned herself into a shell of what she used to be. She spent her fortune, she wasted her life, she prostituted her body. In the process of seeking more, she lost everything she owned.

Now she has returned to the tribe, seeking kinship. But the cats will have none of that. They have spent their lives acting like respectable cats. They have played by the rules, they have led a good life, they deserve to be called whatever they want to be — and Old Deuteronomy reminds us in one song that the proper term is simply ... “Cat”.

The cats love Old Deuteronomy and Gus for what they are. But they hate Grizabella for what she did. Perhaps they show no mercy, but you can hardly accuse them of being bigots. They realize that cats are ultimately responsible for their own actions. And the lesson to be learned is that there are always consequences for one’s actions — even if those consequences are harsh by our human standards.

In the end, Old Deuteronomy, in his supreme wisdom, redeems Grizabella and allows her to enter the “Heaviside Layer” — a place of reincarnation for the most-worthy of all cats. In doing so, he teaches the tribe a profound lesson. Whereas they hated Grizabella for what  she did, he loves her in spite of  she did.

That is a lesson we should all learn.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Microsoft Brands

A fundamental lesson you learn in Marketing 101 is that it is rarely a good idea to brand a product with a generic name. In other words, you can’t just put some tap water in a pretty bottle, invent a snazzy logo and brand it as “Water”.

Marketers often invent completely new words like “Kodak” or “iPod” for their product. If they feel like they need a generic word, they usually misspell it slightly to give it a distinctive feel. Like “ReNu” or “Embarq” or “Chex”.

But if your title is “The Richest Man in the World” (seriously, that’s what’s on his business card), you don’t have to follow conventional wisdom.

So when Microsoft created their new graphical operating system based on a series of windows that allowed multi-tasking, they named their product, uh, “Windows”. Real catchy, huh?

Seizing the opportunity to establish new standards of chutzpah in name branding, they created a pretty cool word processor and named it “Word”.

They didn’t stop there. Their graphics program is called “Paint”. Their project management software is “Project”. Want a calculator? They’ve got one. It’s called “Calculator”. If you want to explore the Internet, you’ll need a program called “Explorer”. Want to edit a photo? Try “Photo Editor”. And if you have some media that you want to play, the best choice is a little ditty they call “Media Player”.

If you have an office in which you want to run most of these software programs, you’ll find they’ve been neatly combined into a nifty little package named “Office”.

About the only time they actually came up with anything original is when they developed presentation software. For some reason that I’ve never understood, it’s called “PowerPoint”. I guess you use it to make a powerful point. I dunno.

I’ve decided that I’m going to compete against Microsoft on their own turf. I’m going to write the world’s greatest graphics-based word processor. It will be three times better than “Word” — much more granular. I’m going to name it “Syllable”. Or maybe “Alphabet”.

My lawyer told me that I needed to end with the following disclaimer: The trademarks mentioned in this article are the property of their respective owners. In other words, the people who own them are the people who own them — even the words that should be generic terms but for some inane reason, Bill Gates has determined that we should capitalize them when we are speaking of his domain.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Airline Travelers’ Religion

People pick the funniest things to base a religion on. I bet you never realized that there is an entire religion based on the baggage-checking habits of airplane travelers.

It’s true. There are two main sects in this religion: people who never  check their baggage, and people who always  check their baggage. Both adherents feel that they have attained some higher state of consciousness because they have discovered the universal truth to the definitive method of air travel. And both can rightly argue that their method is superior and that members of the other “denomination” are obviously doomed to eternal damnation for believing otherwise.

I have always fancied myself as an equal-opportunity apologist. The cynics in the audience will say that’s a fancy way of saying that I can argue out of both sides of my mouth. I like to say that I’m “objective” — so much so that I can effectively argue both sides of an issue without giving away my true feelings.

I shall now demonstrate such talent. See if you can determine my true religious leanings based on the contradictory arguments I give:

I always check my baggage

There is no group on the face of the earth that is any dumber than a bunch of passengers loading themselves onto an airplane. There’s something about hearing your row called while you’re holding a boarding pass that reduces the cumulative iq of the population by at least 50 points. I want to have no part in the madness.

People lose perspective when they attempt to gauge whether an item will fit into an overhead bin. I’ve seen people carry on golf bags, horse saddles, and mounted moose heads, thinking they were going to stow them above their heads. Hey, buddy, it ain’t gonna fit.

Even baggage that is specifically designed for overhead stowage seems to confound them. What part of “put the wheels-end in first” do they not understand? Folks, you can fit one roll-on baggage in a bin if you put it in sideways. Stow it correctly and you can put three or four in each compartment. Is that too difficult for your feeble minds?

No, I am not going to be guilty of such transgressions. My baggage goes to the nice man with his hand out and palm up at the curb. He takes my suitcase, puts a nice bar-coded ribbon on it, and loads it gently onto a waiting conveyor belt. Miraculously, it reappears on a suitcase merry-go-round only a few feet away from my rental car at my destination. No lugging through the airport and no cramming anything over my head getting dirty looks from all.

My laptop fits comfortably under the seat ahead of me. I fasten my seatbelt low and securely around my waist. And I watch the madness, wondering all the time, “How in the name of the Wright Brothers does that idiot believe that he’s going to stow that lampshade in the overhead bin?!”

I never check my baggage

People who check their baggage are stupid, wimps, and incredibly naïve. I can’t believe that anybody would actually trust their precious possessions to a bunch of nameless, faceless people on the other side of that conveyor belt who are making minimum wage and are only working in baggage handling because they couldn’t be trusted to work with metal detectors.

Did you know that the airline industry loses about 127 billion pieces of luggage a year? And they destroy the handles and straps of at least that many every day. They have a policy about “normal wear and tear” that must have been written by a team of lawyers, guaranteed that they are absolved of all blame.

Besides, when I get off the plane, I want to go where I want to go. What’s this idea of having to wait for you baggage to appear, if  it appears. I’m ready to leave; why isn’t my baggage?

No, my luggage stays with me. They always warn people to keep their possessions in their sight and under their control. Well, mine stays with me. It goes where I go when I go there. Under the seat, above my head, in my lap. I don’t care. It ain’t getting out of my sight.

Conclusion

There, I did it. I successfully argued both sides of a very controversial topic. And I did it in such a way that nobody who reads it could possible tell which side of the issue I’m on.

Nope, none of you guessed that I believe that people who never check their baggage obviously have the iq of warthog. Here’s hoping that their contents will shift during flight, because my contents are safely stowed in the lower levels of the aircraft. I’ll calmly pick them up on the way to my rental car, thank you.