Friday, February 29, 2008

Sprint

#366 Sprint

News Item: Sprint said it would jettison customers who called customer service too often.

News Item: Sprint lost something close to 30 billion dollars in its most recent reporting year.

News Item: Sprint's new CEO fired 4,000 workers.

Question: Any connection among these events?

You don't have to be a tel-com Sherlock Holmes to figure this one out.

The answer is the mindset that jettisons customers, fires workers on a grand scale and loses the GDP of Lithuania is likely not to last the night, and probably shouldn't.

Their attitude stinks. Their network is more like a patch-work and they bet the farm on an acquisition, Nextel, that they never should have tried to swallow. Nextel was in trouble when Sprint bought it. It had one feature that made it stand out -- a nationwide walkie-talkie system, which, when you activated it made a sound similar to that of a baby pelican missing a pass at a fish twice its size. Skweep--errr.

Why would you buy something that said Skweep-err every time someone started to talk with you and ended a sentence?

Here's a typical Nextel walkie-talkie phone conversation:

Skweep--errr. Hey Tom, you there? Skweep--errr.

Skweep--errr. Yeah Mike, I'm here. Skweep--errr. Skweep--errr. Waddaya need? Skweep--errr.

Skweep--errr. Did you get those 2x4s from the lumber yard? Skweep--errr.

Skweep--errr. Yeah, got 'em on the truck right now. Skweep--errr.

Skweep--errr. Okay. What's your ETA? Skweep--errr.

Skweep--errr. Say again? Skweep--errr.

Skweep--errr. I say When you getting back to the jobsite? Skweep--errr.

It could go on like that for hours.

For this, Sprint paid $35 billion and lost another 30?

Then, there was the "Dear John" letter: "Dear Customer, We're happy you chose Sprint/Nextel as your mobil telephone carrier. But you call us every five minutes with idiotic requests and questions and therefore, we'd like you to go to Verizon or at&t or maybe get a couple of oatmeal boxes and a length of string. So, at the end of the billing cycle, you're gonzo. Taillights. History. Someone else's worry. Sincerely..."

Imagine opening the mailbox one afternoon and discovering that you're unworthy of buying someone's phone service.

Never mind they need every customer they can get. Never mind they need to patch the holes in their service network. Never mind that they've purchased Skweep--errr, one of the top 100 annoying sounds in the known universe.

They have a new chief executive. He's supposed to be a pretty smart guy. Two of his recent decisions kind of pull in different directions. Decision 1: go along with the competition and give flat rate service (like a real telephone company.) Decision 2: Move the headquarters from suburban Washington, DC to the middle of nowhere in Kansas, Overland Park. Sprint had been based there, but moved a lot of its big wheels to Reston, VA where Nextel had it's office.

Another of those "mergers of equals" like Daimler and Chrysler, turns out to be anything but.

And while they're busy planning and executing the move, don't expect anything in the way of a service improvement.

Thing is, Sprint ain't Polaroid, which stirred many a nostalgic heart and mind when it announced the other day it won't make film anymore, and you guys with our cameras will just have to throw them away.

Polaroid once meant something, but Sprint didn't and doesn't, and no one's going to miss it when it goes under -- except the remaining thousands of stock holders, workers and the eight remaining customers.

Skweep--errr.

I'm Wes Richards. My opinions are my own, but you're welcome to them.®
©WJR 2008

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

#365 Family Politics

#365 Family Politics

This is a true story, and you can prove it because it comes from the Associated Press, and they would never, ever lie. It happened in a place called Collegeville, Pennsylvania, which is pretty near Norristown, which is pretty near Philadelphia. You probably never heard of the place. Most people haven't. And you probably never have heard of its architectural claim to fame, and one of its best features, which is the Twistee Treat Restaurant. Well, it's not exactly a restaurant. It's a 30 foot-tall ice cream cone made of fiberglass, in which they sell regular size ice cream cones that look like the building.

It's a great place to hang out. Imagine spending your leisure time inside a 30-foot tall fiberglass ice cream cone. There are a lot worse places of a similar nature (and one better one, the giant Long Island Duck.)

You probably never have heard of its worst feature, either. That's the Passion Cousins, Jose Ortiz and Sean Shurelds, a couple of guys in their 20s who have more than a passing interest in politics. Jose is a registered Republican, so maybe the argument the other night never should have happened. But it did. And it was about the candidates for the Democratic Party presidential nomination.

See, even though he's a Republican, Jose has an opinion on the Democratic vote. A VERY strong opinion. He wants Hillary Clinton to win the primary. And he wants it so badly, that when he and Sean got into a bit of a Big Discussion about the race, Jose, say the cops, got a little carried away. What he did, they said, was to haul out a knife and stab cousin Sean in the gut. Nothing like a Republican getting all lathered up about a Democratic primary. Sean isn't saying much of anything right now. The hospital has rules about that. But if you were in the house at the time, you'd know that Sean supports Barak Obama.

Pretty good chance cousin Sean will recover and still will be for Obama. Pretty good chance Jose is on his way to jail, and may or may not be re-thinking his politics.

Don't be getting all misty-eyed about the stabbing victim just yet. He wasn't exactly sitting there minding his business and goading his hot headed cousin on by calmly saying good things about Obama. As a matter of fact, there might be a bit of a self defense defense in the works, in that the police say before the stabbing victim was a stabbing victim, he tried to choke the guy holding the knife.

Neither of these guys will be hanging out at the Twistee Treat any time soon. But you can bet the locals who amble on down for an ice cream -- not the best choice of outdoor food in the middle of winter, but who can resist that sudden urge for a Twisty Treat -- will have plenty to say between bites.

I'm Wes Richards. My opinions are my own, but you're welcome to them.®
©WJR 2008

Monday, February 25, 2008

Death and Resurrection At Antioch

#364 Death And Resurrection At Antioch

They went to Los Angeles, 2200 miles west, to pull the plug. Antioch College has been on life support for many of its 155 years. And in one last insult, winter being a harsh time in Yellow Springs, Ohio, the people who call the shots decided they'd get some sun while pronouncing the school brain dead and executing it. The trustees could shower afterward (you'd want to, too) then head out for a night in Hollywood. Sun and sleaze. Nothing like it to clear the air after a murder.

Officially, they're going to close the undergraduate college for one school year and then, miraculously, re-invent it and resurrect it. About half the 200 students'll finish their degrees before the shut down and alleged re-start. The rest, and their "tenured" professors, will have to find classrooms elsewhere.

This is not to say that the entire university is going away -- yet. They still have campuses all over the place --- east coast to west -- and a degree-granting adult learning program which -- despite financial travails, has managed to find nice new modern (and expensive) quarters off the campus, which always has resembled the set of a haunted house movie, part stately, part Addams Family.

Antioch's pretty well known for a tiny school in the boonies. A lot of good people have attended. A lot of really good ideas have come out of those haunted houses. They're also slightly famous for some totally silly stuff. Like the sexual behavior code that is more like instructions for putting together a storage cabinet or a game of "Simon Says" and requires step by step, on-the-spot verbal permission as people progress though the stages of smooching, to make-out, to serious foreplay to actual sex. And like an on-campus fire department, complete with big, shiny red truck, cared for far more carefully than the school's physical plant or its finances.

Schools restructure all the time. Most can do it without missing an academic quarter or semester. Not these guys. Not even when alumni and friends pledge to put up the bucks to keep them going while they get their books in order.

This is the macro version of micro events that have been going on there forever. They keep trying new things, believing, correctly, that much of higher education is a sham and a shambles, and figuring out new ways to teach and learn. Some work, some don't. None stays around terribly long. But eventually, when you fiddle enough with bearing walls and foundation and plumbing and electrical wiring with no obvious plan, the house says "enough!" and starts to crumble.

That's what was happening until February 22, 2008, when the trustees in Hollywood confirmed their "temporary" shut-down, but with an added new wrinkle. (It is, after all, Antioch, where new wrinkles are a central operating principle.)

This new wrinkle is a game of chicken between the trustees and the people working to shut down the shut-down before it happens. The trustees tell the "outsiders," "You want too much control, so you can't play in our yard." The "outsiders" say "we think you've screwed up and we don't want you meddling while we clean up your mess." This is an academic politics-driven negotiating ploy and might or might not be resolved.

So, will there be a second coming? Stay tuned.

The school's motto from the get-go has been "Be ashamed to die before you have won some victory for humanity." This ain't that.

I'm Wes Richards. My opinions are my own, but you're welcome to them.®
(Disclaimer: I'm an Antioch MA and proud to be. But less today than yesterday.)
©WJR 2008

Friday, February 22, 2008

Bird Hunt

#363 Bird Hunt

There's a crow infestation here in Moot Point and the locals don't know what to do about it. Thousands of crows have crowded around a corner occupied by a bunch of downtown restaurants, and filled the streets with, well, the things birds fill the street with when there are zillions of them flapping around.

The restaurants are mediocre. But the crows aren't picky. Food is food. Why there are so many of them, and why they congregate in one spot is open to speculation. The crow corner is directly across the street from the local college, Party State University. And there's speculation the crows are auditing courses, trying to learn all the good stuff taught at this major school: drinking, football, tactical weapons design and Aviation.

Others think of the crows are good capitalist supply- siders and adding to the fertilizer supply that already abounds. (Or that colleges and the restaurants that surround them are where fertilizer should aggregate.)

The Big Thinkers at Party State are at a loss for a solution. They can shoot 'em. They can synthesize the sounds of the crows' natural enemies, the owls, or they can just put up brainless Oz-style scarecrows. But there are downsides to each of these. The first would bring the Save the Crows Federation out in force. The second would require wiring the Great Outdoors for sound. The third wouldn't work and would strike the crows as funny. It's embarrassing for guys with PhDs to get laughed at by a bunch of crows.

Eventually, the crows will realize the food at the restaurants is mediocre and move on.

So this is one bird hunt that will probably not need undertaking.

The OTHER bird hunt has been labeled a "success." The military has shot down a spy satellite, a bird of another kind, using a missile launched from a Navy ship called the "Lake Erie," but which is stationed in the Pacific Ocean.

They sent up this spy thing a couple of years ago, and as soon as it got into orbit, it refused to talk to its handlers here on earth. No manner or variation of "can you hear me now?" would get the thing to respond.

There were two things on board the bird, things that the Army didn't want to crash back down to earth. And when the satellite started wobbling, they knew things were going to get nasty. The two things were a tankful of poisonous fuel and some pretty snazzy spyware, not the kind in your computer, the kind that helps us find secret stuff, like, say, weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Also, there was a chance that the thing would come down in one piece. And no one knew where that one piece would land. If it chose North Korea, the North Koreans would say we were bombing them, thus starting a war, and retaliate. Meantime, they and the Chinese could steal our snazzy spyware. Of course, the military denies the snazzy spyware ever existed. "Nah, it's just a Sony digital camera and a pair of Nikon binoculars. Nothing special," say the generals.

Right.

The Army's worried about poisoning us? With rocket fuel?

So they shot the thing and saw a fire ball, which they assume is from the toxic fuel, since, as we all know, when you blow up a Sony digital camera and a pair of Nikon binoculars, you don't get a fireball.

The thing lands in the Pacific, and a year from now, you're going to get a whole slew of Pacific salmon, each with two heads and some with feet. And when you have one for dinner, you're going to glow in the dark. Handy when the power goes out, and, of course, no danger to your health.

Now our good friends in Beijing want assurances that we won't do that kind of thing again, because we're the good guys and should promise not to use offensive weapons in space, even to knock down our own bird.

The Russians don't like it either. But they won't make much noise, since they want us to help them pay for locks for the doors on the barns in which they keep their nukes.

Probably what the Pentagon should have done was capture the Moot Point crows and sent them to escort the errant satellite to earth.

The oddest thing about this whole story is that the guys who made the satellite, Lockheed-Martin, won't admit they did it. The only way you're going to find out for sure is by reading the company's next annual report, where a footnote will identify missed "performance payments" from the Pentagon. And an expense item for crow food.

I'm Wes Richards. My opinions are my own, but you're welcome to them.®
©2008 WJR

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Electro Girl

#362 Electro Girl

Oh, how politically incorrect. Girl, indeed. Electro Woman, though, just doesn't have the same ring.

Electro Girl is my automobile's (and sometimes my) companion. She's worthy company.

Works full time, doesn't have much to say -- but what she DOES say is important. Runs on batteries. Rechargeable batteries.

Electro Girl lives in a small plastic house, and that full time job? It's giving directions.

Electro Girl is the voice of one of those wonderful global positioning system receivers. Maps, destinations, points of interest. Gas stations, motels. She knows all about all that stuff.

Switch her on, and she makes you promise you won't fool around with her while you're driving. No 1950s seat snuggler, this lady. She makes you promise in advance to keep your hands to yourself and your eyes on the road.

Once, on, she starts speaking to you in a sweet but somehow sultry voice "awaiting satellite signal."

You let her know where you want to go and she gets you there.

Electro Girl doesn't see so well, though. She thinks home is in the woods. It once was. But since she got her brain and voice, they've built all these houses.

She tells you "go to the nearest road." I'm ON a road, but not one she recognizes. About a block away, she gets the picture.

"In 500 feet, turn right."

Do you have any idea how to measure five hundred feet while driving and resisting the overwhelming desire to touch her touch screen?

No matter. When you get to the turn, Electro rings a little bell. The bell is musical. But it seems to be saying "here's the turn, imbecile. Don't miss it."

She's far too polite to say it out loud in any of the three languages she speaks: English, Spanish and French.

Should you overshoot the turn, she'll politely tell you "when possible, make a U-turn."

Very considerate.

I can't keep my eyes off her. This is not an asset when driving in traffic. And I must confess, I have occasionally broken my promise not to touch her while the car is in motion. Sweet temptation, go away.

"Travel straight for two-point-two miles."

That you can measure.

"In 800 feet, destination on your left."

If you can't judge 500 feet, you can't judge 800 feet.

"Battery low. Please recharge."

Okay.

The one thing she can' seem to keep straight is the time.

She can tell the time in a dozen regular zones, plus Arizona, Hawaii where they don't do daylight time, and Indiana where the Central Time Zone border cuts through part of the state.

The minutes are always correct. But the hours must be on some kind of a time zone roulette wheel, because they're always wrong and never by the same number.

Now, about that list of highlights. Need a McDonald's or a Shell station, she's got a list. Need a motel? She knows that, too. Kind of makes you wonder what kind of a life she led before she and the car became friends.

I'm Wes Richards. My opinions are my own, but you're welcome to them.®
©WJR 2008

Monday, February 18, 2008

Movie Ratings

#361 Movie Ratings

We need a new system to rate movies. The old one works okay. This one would rate aspects of the movies we don't get in "X" or "R" or "PG" or "G."

But this is something that can help you decide whether to buy a ticket to or a DVD of a film.

Movies used to be made collaboratively. Now, they're made by committee.

Think about the credits for some of the old movies you see on TV. They're on and off in an eyeblink. The stars, the major supporting players, the producer, editor and the director, and that's it.

In today's films, you don't see the credits until half the movie's over. And then it takes 20 minutes for them to scroll by. AND they repeat them at the end, with plenty of editions.

What would DeMille or Hitchcock think if after five of the ten commandments or while Tallulah Bankhead gets cast adrift, the credits start to roll, with more junk than the lower third of a CNBC financial show screen or a CNN "Breaking News" banner?

Paramount Pictures Presents a LaGrande film. A Fognozzle Production. A film by Warren F. Tutankhamen. "The Ten Lifeboats."

These guys would retch. So would Jack Warner or any other Hollywood mogul worth his Armanis.

But it doesn't stop there. Not by any means.

Hollywood has borrowed some terms from television. Executive Producer. Senior Producer. Line Producer. These titles did not exist in "cinema." No one knows what they mean, not even the people who do them. But one each of Executive, Senior and Line producer isn't enough anymore. Now, you have GROUPS of them. And STILL, no one knows what they do.

Here's a tip: the more of these committee members listed, the worse the film.

And this brings us to the need for new ratings. In addition to the content, there needs to be a "staff rating." The more people of dubious function, the lower the score.

A movie with a Staff Rating of, say, 10, would have a dozen or so of these new people. A five rating would mean there may be only one Executive Producer, four Seniors and two "Lines."

So if you discover that "Halloween Part LXVII" has a rating of ten or 12, you keep your wallet in your pocket.

If "Rocky XXII" has a rating of, say, four or five, you might consider it.

And if "Dracula Meets Godzilla" has a rating of two, it's a definite "go."

I, for one, have always been fascinated with the credits. I may be the only guy on the map who knows who all the caterers were for all the location crews for all the movies made from 1975 to 1999. Rarely does anyone get the job more than once. That's because in movie parlance, "caterer" means the guy who buys the bagels and packaged donuts -- and occasionally a bunch of pre-made sandwiches and supplies the folding table (which he is not allowed to carry on set unless accompanied by a union stage hand,) on which they are set, and on which they generally remain, uneaten.

But back to the real issue: movies by committee are like anything else by committee.

If you settle for a producer, director, director of photography, a couple of makeup artists and a location coordinator, you're not only ahead of the game financially, but ahead of it artistically, as well.

I'm Wes Richards. My opinions are my own, but you're welcome to them.®
©2008 WJR -- And that's a wrap.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Airbits

#360 Airbits

Today, some stuff that made it to the radio show, or eventually will, but is too short for a single-subject blog entry.

Item: A woman is suing Best Buy because it lost her thousand dollar laptop and compensated her with a $500 gift card and a new computer. The suit seeks $54 million.

Okay, so what would motivate someone to lodge a suit of that size over an issue that small? Easy. She's a genius who has discovered the secrets of the universe and all those secrets were on her lost laptop and she can't remember them, so the damage to her very special self was inestimable. Of course, she managed to estimate it, but that's just a figure. The real loss was the secrets of the universe, not only to her but to all of us.

So, really, this should be a multi billion dollar class action suit, because we're all affected. The payout could be better than the White house economic stimulous package without spending a single tax dollar.

Of course the store should have been more careful about where it put its repairs. And, of course it should have given her a new computer and some bucks. Five hundred wasn't enough. But 54 million? This woman, with or without secrets of the universe, is never going to see a payday like that if she lived to age 250.

The principle behind this lawsuit is "I'm so very special and you're so very bad, that only a huge chunk of your money can soothe me."

Guess what, lady. You're not THAT special.

What's truly surprising about this whole case is that the class action lawyers haven't figured it out yet.

Probably, they're out for a smoke.

(And thanks to the "Pipskippy" blog for the concept. Here's how he put it:)

http://pipskippy.blogspot.com/2007/11/holiday-message-you-are-not-special.html

===
Item: A study says some fast food is bad for your liver, but helps build "good" cholesterol.

Oh, no. now what do we do.

There's something wrong here. Fast food is bad for your liver, but it raises your good cholesterol. The stars again are out of alignment.

You're supposed to wreck your liver with Jack and Coke.... not with Mac and fries.

And wait a minute... you mean if I wolf down a whopper and fries, my good cholesterol goes UP?

This is soooo confusing.

===
Item: Forbes Magazine reports there are more medical scanning machines in the city of Pittsburgh than there are in all of Canada:

While we may be going to Canada to buy cheap drugs... it's obvious that Pittsburgh must be filled with illegal Canadian immigrants who come down to get cat scans of their heads.... possibly to find out why they are so boring.

And while they're in Pennsylvania, they take jobs away from the rest of us, because as we all know, Canadians will work for lower wages than those of us born here. Plus, they line up in front of Home Depot every morning and whistle boringly at our women.

Oh. Wait. They don't do any of that stuff. I made the whole thing up. Except the part about Pittsburgh having more MRI machines than all of Canada... and the part about us sneaking over the border to Canada to buy cheap drugs.

Of course, the department of homeland security is training a squad of German Shepherds to sniff out Lipitor Cauduet, Viagra and Prozac. The dogs will be targeting grey haired drivers of cars like the Taurus and the Camry and ESPECIALLY, Buick Le Sabres made before the year 2003.

This is demographic profiling. And if we seniors can play our cards right, we can probably win dandy amounts of money from the department of homeland insecurity and real estate protection. Might even get to keep a couple of those nifty drug sniffing dogs.

"Pull over, grandpa. We know you've got a secret compartment in that Renault... we're going to pull that piece of tin apart and find your stash."

"Oh officer, I'm glad you stopped me. Is there a rest room at this checkpoint?"
===

Item: Here in Moot Point, PA, we have a school board that gets "input" from groups called "Citizens Advisory Committees." But citizens are not allowed to attend the meetings.
===

Item: a Fox Sports reporter was Tasered during a DUI traffic stop.

This may be exactly what it seems to be. On the other hand, it may be that Fox has realized that some of its fair and balanced news types may be in serious need of electroshock therapy and is thus sending them out on the road where it looks like a simple episode of that fox stalwart, "COPS."

They are planning a series called "SHRINKS" but that was stalled during the writers strike.
"Wat-cha gonna do when they come for you, bad boy, bad boy."
Only now, instead of handcuffs and prowl cars, it's guys in white coats, carrying huge butterfly nets.

I'm Wes Richards. My opinions are my own, but you're welcome to them.®
©2008 WJR
Pipskippy link is with the author's permission. But I STILL won't tell you who he is.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

I Am Sure

A reader recently asked why we're such greed heads. And he wondered if it was because the US basically follows the economic perceptions of Adam Smith of "Wealth of Nations" fame and have thereby institutionalized greed in the name of efficiency. Others have said greed is human nature and Smith just gives us justification. Smith and anyone with an economics degree from the University of Chicago and its many clones.

And he asks about if there isn't a nobler way to live.

We Americans love laws. We call ourselves a "nation of laws," and we're pretty busy making new ones all the time. Probably this is because we've broken so many of the old ones we're afraid that unless we build replacements, we'll run out and then we won't be a nation of laws anymore. If you stacked the law books of every municipality and the federal government, we'd have enough dead wood to build a stepladder to Pluto. And please remember a step ladder is a trapezoid, twice the length of a regular ladder, but folded in two.

Our love of laws is a symptom of our love of certainty.

Here's something that's driving the world of physics nuts. Physicists are looking for a "theory of everything," laws that will cover all possible occurances of all possible phenomena. So far, it hasn't worked. There's Newtonian physics which pretty much describes how stuff works on earth. There's Einsteinian physics which pretty much the way things work in outer space. And there's quantum physics which pretty well describes how things work at an atomic and subatomic level. And guess what? They don't seem to have a point where they join up.

It's possible that there isn't a "theory of everything," and that different physical laws simply work at different scales of size, and sometimes contradict one another. That discovery would send generations of scientists into the nut hatch, drooling and babbling to themselves.

It also is possible that there are laws of economics that work the same way. Chicago standards work in some cases, MIT standards work in others. Sometimes, von Mises is right, sometimes Keynes is right. And we don't always know which applies to what.

This discovery would drive generations of economists into the nut hatch, drooling and babbling to themselves.

(There are those who say it's perfectly normal for both physicists and economists to drool and babble to themselves, and that no nuthatch is necessary.)

Then, there's the reader's question about nobility. Maybe there are conflicting sets of the laws of nobility, too.

It's pretty easy for guys like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates to be noble. They don't need to worry about where their next ten trillion meals are coming from. The rest of us may have a little more trouble.

But as the philosopher John Dewey said in "The Quest for Certainty," we love to be sure.

Bible and Torah and Koran thumpers are sure. Smithian economists are sure. Capital "C" Communists are sure. And so am I.

What I'm sure of is that I don't know the answers. And neither do you. And I'm sure I don't know what "nobility" is, and that I don't want to be a nobleman. And that insecurity, with or without an invisible hand, is all I'm going to get in this life.

I'm Wes Richards. My opinions are my own, but you're welcome to them.®
©2008 WJR

Monday, February 11, 2008

Mind Games

#358 Mind Games

This is not the same as head games. Mind games. That's when you do stuff with your brain so it doesn't atrophy and make you into a prematurely demented codger.

There's been an awful lot written lately about how you can stave off stuff that's probably mostly genetic. And the boomers and the pre-boomers are all convinced that the key to life is to keep forever young. Those of us in a certain (undesirable) demographic have become totally obsessed with making sure our brains, such as there are of them, don't short out and shut down. It's a nice idea, if a bit obsessive.

But a whole industry has arisen over this, and there's an irony to it. We older folk are largely ignored by the world of commerce. Not entirely a bad thing. I like being invisible in an auto showroom, an appliance or furniture store or at a real estate open house. I don't like having become a target of the video game industry, which is over us like pigeons on a park bench these days, to get us to buy brain enhancing toys. You guys couldn't give us the time of day a couple of years ago. Now, you've learned to play on our fears and sell us expensive game consoles and even more expensive games that have us clicking away like a couple of 14 year old boys killing spacemen or aliens or "enemy" soldiers on video screens.

Crossword puzzles, writing thrice weekly blog entries, and just plain ole' thinking would do the trick. But no, you have to try to sell us fancy "scientifically proven" junk to "improve" our coordination and mental agility.

Well, I'm going to bust your bubble. Most of us already have an expensive video game that will do just fine in keeping the brain in shape. We don't have to buy it because it's already on the computer. Computer solitaire.

If you go after it like dog vs. bone, you can do as much mental calisthenics as you would by playing Senior Brainiac or any of the other expensive stuff.

You think it's simple? Just flip cards and take a chance? Not so. Computer solitaire is not just chance, though chance plays a part. It takes planning, strategy and thought. And it takes speed. The little numbers in the lower right hand corner show you elapsed time and actual score. Speed counts.

You have to figure things out. Like if you have a black king on the board and another black one comes up -- skip it in favor of a red king, if you have one. That sort of thing. You have to move face-up cards around a bit sometimes, and since the computer won't stop you from shifting the three of clubs from beneath the four of hearts to the four of diamonds, it's "legal." You have to be thinking.

And you have to be working a strategy. This is as good for you brain (and your increasingly arthritic fingers) as anything the Wii (is that pronounced "wee," or is it "why?") people or the Game Boy people can throw at you.

Another thing they tell you about keeping your brain fit is that you should play a musical instrument. If you have one, dust it off. If you have to buy one, here are a couple of suggestions.

If you want to annoy your family and neighbors, Wal-Mart sells a clarinet for under $200. That may seem a little expensive, but in the world of woodwinds, that's dirt cheap. Plus, a clarinet learning experience is sure to drive your neighbors nuts. Especially the ones who play hip hop music until three every morning. If your older, chances are you try to sleep early and you have to rise early. There's nothing like the squeak of beginning-clarinet at eight or nine in the morning to get those kids riled up. (Don't worry about the gang attack. These guys dress like cartoons and act tough so you won't notice they dress like cartoons, and the toughness is all surface.)

If you like your neighbors, get a solid body guitar and no amplifier. You can play at any hour of the day or night and no one can hear it but you.

And you can join the "Y" or some other health club to keep the blood flowing. That, too, is supposed to enhance brain function. Plus there's a lot of good scenery to view while you're on the treadmill or the stationary bike pretending to read back issues of "Better Homes and Gardens" or "Palates Quarterly."

I'm Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you're welcome to them.® If you'd like a copy of my brief monograph on how to cheat at computer solitaire, please leave a request and a working e-mail address in the comment section.
©WJR

Friday, February 08, 2008

Accounting Magic

#357 Accounting Magic

Jake's playing solitaire at Manny's Breakfast & Lunch on Fordham Road and Manny tells Rosa to get Jake to buy something more than the lousy cup of coffee he's been nursing and taking up a booth for four at the height of the lunch hour.

"Manny says you gotta order sumpin' Jake or he throw you outta here."

"Okay, Rosa, get me a fresh cuppa coffee and a prune Danish and let me think."

"All outta prune, chico, how about cheese or raspberry?"

Jake settles back to his game with the untouched cheese Danish and the second cup of coffee, which normally is on the house at Manny's except not when you're sitting on prime real estate and ordering nothing else and it's the busiest time of the day, besides the 5:30 to 8 AM rush.

Jake is waiting to buttonhole a presidential candidate when he (or she) comes in to campaign. Of course, no presidential candidate has ever come in here to campaign, at least not since Henry Wallace in 1948. Jake couldn't vote in '48 and the place wasn't called "Manny's" then, but close enough. Jake's an optimist, and this is the 60th anniversary of that visit, so the fates could conspire to have one of those dodo candidates waltz in here to mark the occasion.

"Hey Jake," Manny shouts from behind a dishrag behind the counter, "if the guy shows up, whatterya gonna ask him?"

"I"m gonna ask him howcome I couldn't get some of those big loans before the well dried up? I'm gonna ask him how to do business off the books, like Citi and Merrill Lynch, and all those other guys."

Jake reads the Wall Street Journal every day, and the business page of the Post. So he's wise to the accounting tricks that let the big banks and their accountants get away with financial murder for years."

"Hey," says Manny, "what do you care about that crap? You got a kid in Iraq, you got a grandson who's getting taught that God made the Dinosaurs and man at the same time and they all lived together. You got an wife thinking abortion is murder, you got a sure thing in the 9th at Tampa Bay. You got more to worry about than some guys with big ideas and wooden pencils."

"Nah. The pencil guys and the bankers who love them got us into this mess and I wanna know what these presidential turkeys are going to do to get us out."

Poor Jake. He thinks one of these candidates is going to clamp down on rogue bankers and rogue traders and regulators who don't regulators who don't regulate and Congressmen who keep gutting anyone and anything that makes any of this stuff happen. So he's starting his own hedge fund: He's going to buy bank stocks, figuring they'll eventually go back up because the diminishing field of likely candidates to walk through Manny's door is unlikely to put the help where it's needed -- even if they know what to do.


I'm Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you're welcome to them. ®
©2008 WJR

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

The Three Trillion Dollar Man

#356 The Three Trillion Dollar Man

Three trillion dollars! The mind cannot grasp a figure this large. It's like death. When you say the guy next door got killed when his wife put a bullet through his head, you can understand that. After all, you knew old Yashi, and he probably deserved to go. You saw the patrol cars pull up, lights blazing red and blue and ultra-white. You heard the bus drive up, siren screaming. You saw them take a gurney out of the front door. Yashi. Gone.

When you say 50 people were killed in a suicide bombing attack in Iraq, it gets a little iffy. You might see video footage, although it's such a common event these days it hardly gets noticed. You might envision the scene. You might grasp it.

When you say 3,000 people died when a plane hit an office building, your imagination freezes. No matter how many times you see the video, no matter how many times you visit ground zero, no matter what, your mind turns the thing into an abstraction.

So when you say three trillion dollars, no matter how many analogies you pull out of the air, the internet or your hat, you have no idea, and neither does anyone else.

The President of the United States the other day, proposed spending three trillion dollars on stuff. But much of it was the wrong stuff.

First, a question. If the defense budget has to be as high as it's proposed, where does the money go? It's not into the paychecks of the soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen and women. Not even to the Pentagon Colonels, of which there are enough to staff the entire army of Belize. It doesn't go for certified body armor. It doesn't go for mine-resistant Humvees. It doesn't go for first rate medical care either in the field or on the way home. So where DOES it go?

Yashi was already a corpse when they hauled him off in the police bus. But he got better care as a dead man than most of the war wounded get as mostly-living human beings.

So, let me get this straight. We manufacture a war and send over young men and women, whom we pay poorly, treat poorly and sometimes send to live on the street when they get home. And then we cut Medicare and Medicaid funding, so the old and the poor pay for what little care goes to the returning troops, but not to the old or the poor.

So this is a middle-age, middle class budget. Handy, since the middle aged and the middle class require far less government help than the young or the old or the rich or the poor.

And then are what the Associated Press called this president's "Signature tax cuts." (See Wessay #54, 3/4/06.) Signature indeed. A humongous giveback to people who largely don't need it.

The prez says the budget proposal's so high because of the economic stimulus plan. But that's about $150 million. A drop in the three trillion dollar bucket.

And then, adding insult to poverty, he says he won't allow the usual print run of 3,000 copies of his plan, and he posts it on the internet. Saves money, saves trees.

Yashi is turning over in his grave.

I'm Wes Richards. My opinions are my own, but you're welcome to them.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Details!

#355 Details!


At the restaurant, a buffet joint at dinner time, there's a show card on the table. It tells you about the breakfast buffet. It has pictures of all the stuff they offer. And it has a list of all the stuff they offer. And it has the hours the meal is served. And it has the price. Got that? Pictures, list, hours, cost. Pretty clear. Then, in the fine print (there's always fine print, it's a national compulsion invented by lawyers,) it says "ask your server for details. (I hate the word "server," it's so.... servile sounding. What's the matter with "waiter" for men and "waiter" or, perish forbid the political incorrectness of it, "waitress"?)

Anyway, I ask my "server," who is a young college woman obviously majoring in Cheerful, "what details can you give me about the breakfast buffet?"

"Oh," she says, "happy to!" Every sentence she speaks ends in an exclamation point. That act gets old in a hurry.

"We have...." and then she goes on to recite the list of stuff that's on the show card that's sitting on the table, plus the hours and the cost.

"Great, thanks. Why does it say "see your server for details? Is there some detail they've left off the card, some secret little thing that I can only find out by asking you? The nutrition content of each item, for example, or the maximum number of trips to the buffet table we can make and still get the stated price?"

She looks confused, which is hard to do when you're smiling, and says "oh, no sir, none of that! The nutrition content is posted on the wall menu near the register, and there's no limit of trips!"

Okay, no details for which to see my server.

"Would you like to speak with a manager? I can get him for you!"

"No thank you, I was just wondering, since the show card says ask you for details and the presentation seemed pretty detailed to begin with, that you might know something a customer'd consider important when evaluating such things as whether to have the scrambled eggs or the oat meal or both."

She walks away, a smiling exclamation point. I'm sitting there wondering.

Everything has details, and every piece of printed stuff that invites you to buy or try something mentions that they exist, but doesn't tell you what they are.

Telephone service has details. Oh, boy does it have details. There, you don't have to ask. They give them to you in writing. And to understand them, you have to be well educated in federal law, state law, economics, electronics and maybe clinical psychology. So, no one reads these details.

How many times have you seen or heard "see store for details..." in the last day or two or five?

Probably none. That's not because it hasn't been written at you or spoken at you. It's because you hear it so often, you don't hear it at all anymore.

But it isn't as meaningless as it seems.

It means "Not everything we're telling you about the car or phone or computer we want you to buy or the contest we want you to enter or the membership we want you to apply for, is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth." It means "there's at least a potential, if not an actual weasel deal going on here and if you don't ask about it we won't tell you. And then when you finally find out about it, we can say 'we asked you to ask for the details and you didn't.'"

I'm Wes Richards. (See store for details, member FDIC, an equal housing lender. No one under 17 admitted without parent or guardian. Title and taxes extra. Wessays is an equal opportunity employer. Union Made. Not Kosher for Passover. Contains peanuts. Take only as directed. While supplies last.)
My opinions are my own, but you're welcome to them.®
©2008 WJR!

Friday, February 01, 2008

The Dropouts

#354 The Dropouts

So, the dropout rate in the contest for the major party presidential nomination looks something like the dropout rate at an inner city high school in 1980.

Edwards the Democratic Party side and Giuliani the Republican side.

Let's dispose of Edwards first, because there's scarce little to say about him.

We've had enough of professional Southerner Presidents for awhile. Carter, Clinton and Dubya. Lumping the Present Occupant with the other two is likely to disturb supporters of all three. Earth to them: y'all have it coming.

Edwards adds to the professional Southern-ness a used car salesman kind of phoniness barking about stuff he can't possibly deliver. The only thing good about this guy's fake hair-do, side-of-his-mouth "hello suckers" pitch is he kept Hillary Clinton in check. He should go back to soliciting law clients who've been in accidents or fatally inhaled asbestos or anyone else who needs a sharp dressing, over-coiffed contingency fee lawyer in a hurry.

Now for the real phony, a guy Jimmy Breslin once described as a "small man in search of a balcony."

September 10th, 2001, Rudolph Giuliani, the Brooklyn-born New York Mayor from the Long Island suburbs couldn't have been elected dog catcher. A day later, Osama Bin Laden made him a hero.

Before that, he was the guy who'd rid the streets of those fearsome squeegee men and turnstile jumpers. A true champion of justice.

Then came 9/11 and Rudy was the television knight. Made us forget how many of the convictions he w as US Attorney were overturned. Made us forget the ugly Disney- fication of Times Square. Made us forget how he refused to meet with minority civic leaders, brushed them aside like dogs nipping at his cuffs. Made us forget how he turned City Hall and the Municipal Building into armed camps where ordinary citizens could no longer gather, let ale enter. Made us forget Bernie Kerik, his crooked chief jailer and later his crooked police commissioner. Made us forget his kids don't talk to him, that his two ex-wives don't talk to him, that he never bothered getting one marriage over with before he started working the next.

Rudy was television every five minutes. Yet, despite his tough ministrations and cheer-leading, we New Yorkers managed to get through the first trauma of those awful days. Rudy loved the camera, and the camera loved Rudy. And his past and his roughness and his street brawler persona was so brushed aside that we even considered extending his term as mayor. Fortunately, Mike Bloomberg and the City Council, wafflers the idea at first, showed Rudy the exit on schedule.

To those of you who weren't there, the guy's a real hero. Cleaned up the streets (they weren't THAT dirty to begin with,) brought down the crime rate (amazingly, crime rates in New York and other large cities, Rudy-less cities, was trending lower when Giuliani took office, and continued that way throughout his years -- and Bloomberg's two following terms. Yes, astonishingly, cities without a Rudy of their own also brought down crime, and by about the same percent. Can't figure why.

But while New York had this guy's number, the rest of the country seemed not to. He built a business on his unearned and undeserved reputation for heroics, while clients and executives (like the aforementioned Mr. Kerick,) kept getting in trouble with the law. No matter. Rudy was the hero of 9/11, the man who single handedly saved New York and New Yorkers from terrorists and squeegee men.

He built that whole thing into what his handlers, his campaign guys, called a momentum-proof lead in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. No matter his views didn't jibe with what looks to be the current party line. He is, after all, a New Yorker, which means for abortion rights, for gay rights, for immigrant rights, tepid about the Iraq war, pro divorce, pro free-love and not likely to be confused by others of the breed, with Superman.

Um. A funny thing happened along Florida State Road A1A, running what many consider New York City's sixth borough.

The old Floridians from up north said one thing and did another. They reverted to form. A Republican with roots in New York City has a shorter shelf life than a quart of raw milk. Those few who remain Republicans after the move south either voted their demographic and picked McCain, or figured "That Romney boy has a nice clean look about him. He should have a chance."

Rudy ran out of squeegee men.

I'm Wes Richards. My opinions are my own, but you're welcome to them.®
©2008 WJR