Friday, January 28, 2011

No Man is an Island - Except at Starbucks

Nancy and I are board members for a couple of home owners associations (HOA) for properties we own in town. Recently we have found it convenient to have our board meetings at the local Starbucks coffee shops. I don’t drink “gourmet” coffee, finding my morning cup of generic ole Yuban more than sufficient to get me on my way. So other than our periodic HOA meetings, I never visit Starbucks.

So maybe I am alien to this coffeehouse culture, but don’t people frequent coffee shops to socialize? I can’t tell you how many Rick Steves travel adventure shows I’ve watched on public television, but it seems he is always promoting planting your tourist ass in a coffee shop to people watch and meet the locals.

So why is it that each time I have visited Starbucks, everyone there is sitting alone at a table for four with their face buried in a notebook computer or i-phone? There’s no socializing, no conversations to eavesdrop on, only the incessant tapping of keyboards or thumbs dancing on a miniscule screen.

Why are these people there in Starbucks, NOT interacting with anyone present? I find it difficult to believe that none of these people have internet connections at home and have schlepped down to the coffee house merely for the free Wi-Fi. Do they somehow feel the need for the proximity other human presence but suffer from Terminal Geekiness which renders them too introverted to speak directly to another human face?

Seriously, the ONLY time I have witnessed more that one person sitting at a table in Starbucks has been us during our HOA meetings.

In researching this article I ran across Field guide to Wifi users at Starbucks. I swear that, in my few brief visits, I have seen at least half of these characters represented in the article. I think the next time I go to Starbucks, I may order an Italian soda with cream and sit down opposite one of these lonely folks and stare at them over their screen to see how long it takes for them to notice, or god forbid, say something.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Vanishing Hope of Jobs

I had lunch with a new acquaintance made recently through the blogging spheres. Like a few of my other friends, he is a former employee of Hewlett Packard in our city. At one time HP employed close to 10,000 people on it’s industrial campus in town; today there are roughly less than 2,000 people remaining.

The photo above is the empty Nypro manufacturing facility, a company that provided services to HP. Nypro shifted the remainder of it’s manufacturing overseas laying off all it’s workers and closed the plant. The empty Nypro building is located along an increasingly desolate row of empty buildings on “Technology Loop” not far from my home where I ride my bike.

The HP campus on the other side of the city is turning into a ghost town as well; many of the buildings are empty and shuttered, a few are leased by other companies as warehouse space.

I heard on the news recently that even companies considered particularly American, such as Cisco, IBM and Sun essentially have little to no domestic manufacturing facilities. Though the “design” may be done here, the manufacture of the actual products is contracted out to companies outside our borders.
Leo Hindery, a former CEO who heads the US Economy/Smart Globalization Initiative at the New America Foundation, is one of the foremost advocates of a U.S. industrial policy.

"I think you have to start with the premise that a country as big as ours -- the largest of the developed economies -- can't survive with less than 8 percent of its men and women making something,"

According to the latest figures, about 7.6 percent of the workforce is currently engaged in manufacturing.

"It needs to be 20 to 25 percent," Hindery said, "and it needs to be 20 to 25 percent of GDP, otherwise the gap that you have to fill is achieved only through consumer credit." 1
The country is scratching its collective head puzzling over our “jobless economy”. We have an expectation that things will turn around and be the way they once were; that unemployment will somehow return to 1980’s level. And we demand quick fixes - the Republican machine rode a populist wave into the House of Representatives on the implied promise that Jobs would mystically arise from thin air merely by putting the Conservatives back into power.

But I don’t think the Republicans give a damn whether or now the Great Unwashed have jobs. They care only to be in control of the factors which will direct corporate profits; and profits are no longer dependent on the domestic market any more, their sights are overseas. Indeed, the top few percent whose wealth is based on equities have seen unprecedented growth recently. But where are the jobs for the middle class? The answer is that the wealthy no longer need us as either employees or consumers.

I believe we are waiting for a recovery that is never going to come. Some of the vacant buildings on Technology Loop have now been rented by local governments needing office space. But now Americans graduating from university have almost a better chance of finding jobs outside the country than here at home. “Shanghai and Beijing are becoming new lands of opportunity for recent American college graduates who face unemployment nearing double digits at home.” 2

I have been accused of being depressed about the future of our country; that I lack the optimism that many others do. But optimism must to be based on something more tangible than faith and hope; and in romantic notions that our past reputation as a world leader in innovation will carry us into the future. That was then, this is Now.

Suggested further reading:
"The Real Economic Lesson China Could Teach Us", Robert Reich, January 19, 2011.

1. “Hu's Visit Is Reminder Of One Way China Leaves The U.S. In The Dust”, Dan Froomkin, Huffington Post, January 20, 2011
2. "American Graduates Finding Jobs in China", NY Times, August 10, 2009

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Writer's Workshop

I've been enjoying a bit of departure from my usual blogging experience. For those of you who have left comments on my previous entry, "It was a Dark and Stormy Night", I have eschewed my usual brief retorts to your comments, composing little vignettes from my imagination in the spirit of Bulwer-Lytton, in response instead.

So if you haven't already done so, I invite you to revisit the comment section and check out my replies to yours, and other's, comments. I've had great fun trying to come up with a little story line unique for each of you.

Alas, unfortunately I fear my creative juices are quickly being squeezed to a pulp and shall soon wither and run dry. Faithful reader, KleinstMotte, seems to be pressing me to turn this into a collaborative novel. I fear she will get the best of me in the end.

In a day or two I move on to greener blogging pastures. Besides, I've gotten behind in keeping up with all your blogs and need to catch up as well.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

It Was A Dark and Stomy Night...

I have a blog but I certainly don’t consider myself a “writer” in any remotely classical or professional sense. Many of the people who read my blog and comment are very good writers, in my opinion – some of them professional, many accomplished or aspiring. I’m flattered that some of these folks deem my blog worthy of reading.

As I say, a majority of those blogs I do follow I consider to be very well written; though clearly I am no expert on the craft of writing. As with art, all I know is what I like.

Some might argue that Charles Dickens remains to this day, one of the best writers of all time. Those same people might also argue that Edward Bulwer-Lytton is an example of one of the worst writers ever. To the extent that Bulwer-Lytton has been established as the standard of a poorly skilled writer, a reputation promoted in the past comic strip character, Snoopy, an actual contest has been set up in his name where people compete to submit examples of intentionally poor writing.

Recently the publishers of Skeptic Magazine were approached about publishing a scientific paper; A Scientific Evaluation of Charles Dickens. The underlying hypothesis being: is it possible for people to tell the difference between a good writer and a bad writer by reading excerpts of their work?

Mikhail Simkin, Ph.D. in physics devised a test whereby he invited people to read passages from the writings of Dickens and Bulwer-Lytton then select which selections they thought could correctly be attributed to either author. In other words, could people discern good writing from bad merely by reading excerpts of an authors writing.

I won’t keep you in suspense; the answer tabulated to be a resounding NO – roughly 50% were able to correctly attribute the writing samples to their correct author. That is: the ability to determine good writing from bad was no greater than random chance.

The overriding controversy from this experiment actually turned out not to be about determining good writing, but about the limits of what science can objectively study. How can subjective determinations about what is good versus bad art, music and literature be delineated scientifically? Still to this day, there are those who hesitate to consider Psychology and Sociology as true sciences. Yet these two academic pursuits frequently employ data gathering and statistical analysis in constructing theories. Still many see a fine distinction between art and science; areas where they intersect and overlap.

Writing skill may be indeed quite subjective; or more to the point, like in the words of a federal judge who was asked to define what he considered pornography, he said: “I know it when I see it”.

You can take the actual Scientific Evaluation of Charles Dickens test yourself here.

I am enjoying indulging a whim and responding to your comments as would the esteemed Edward Bullwer-Lytton. Enjoy.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Loving to Hate

The airwaves and bloggosphere are seething with the reverberations from attack on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords which killed six people and wounded fourteen others this weekend in Arizona. There is precious little I could possibly say in this forum which hasn’t already been said far more eloquently by a number of others.

The Conservatives are quick to turn this issue around onto the backs of those who have, for some time, been decrying the appalling decline in the stateliness that our political discourse has sunken to. Yes, it is quite likely that the perpetrator of this violence was acting from within a deranged mental state. Yet it is equally true that the litany of furious attacks from this individual’s sick mind also closely mirrors the incendiary bile spewed from the lips of Republican Party’s supporters.

I am having difficulty identifying just when it was that our country began finding it acceptable to embrace our lowest common denominator. A broad range of us seem disturbingly to be attracted to television programming where people objectify and abuse others. Whether it’s savoring the moment some ego-centric chef yells, humiliates and berates an lower employee on some reality program or Donald Trump leveling his finger at some celebrity apprentice, uttering the words, “You’re Fired!,” we seem as a people to have fallen into the abyss as did the ancient Romans; finding vicarious enjoyment in the pain of others. It seems a sickness from which this country has little interest of recovering.

My parents were loyal Republicans. When I came of voting age I became a registered Republican as well. In my younger years working as a young banking executive I voted for Ronald Reagan for president. Then something changed, in both me and the Republican Party. As some have said, they did not leave the Republican Party; the party left them.

I admired statesmen like Oregon Senator Mark Hatfield; an ethical and moderate conservative who opposed the Vietnam War. But today there would be no place for a statesman like Senator Hatfield in today’s Republican establishment. His moderate stance would likely find him labeled a “socialist”, a “communist” or even a “traitor” or “terrorist” some.

I think of the legacy my parents taught me; holding dignity, respect and integrity in high value. I cannot imagine that my mother and father, were they still alive today, would not be completely ashamed to be members of the Republican Party.

Perhaps that is what has been lost – a sense of shame; that hate is not a value on which any decent society can continue to exist. When did we lose our way?

Friday, January 7, 2011

What are the Odds?

As is often the case, the news media fills their slow news days with the ever popular coverage of people lined up to purchase lottery tickets. Apparently the Republican “takeover” of the House is now old news and eyes are glazing over regarding the pending repeal of ObamaCare.

Oddly, when a lottery like the Mega-Millions has accumulated a huge jackpot, people mistakenly begin to believe that the odds are tipping in their favor… somewhat like the belief that a slot machine that hasn’t paid out is a while is just straining to burst from pent up... odds, I guess?

As a result, thinking their dream of untold riches is close at hand, they line up to purchase lottery tickets… or as I like to term it; to pay their “Stupidity Tax”. Sadly, the demographics reveal that those in society who have the least amount of disposable income tend to purchase lottery tickets. The subtle disclosure on the Oregon Lottery ads even states: “For entertainment only, not for investment purposes”.

The truth is that most people have no sense of actually how astronomical their chances of winning the mega-jackpot are. A brief comparative look at the odds of various potential events is in order:

Being killed in a car crash: .......... 1 in 5,000
Being killed by poisoning: ............ 1 in 86,000
Being killed by a dog: ................ 1 in 700,000
Dying while in the bath tub: .......... 1 in 1,000,000
Being killed by freezing: ............. 1 in 3,000,000
Being killed by lightening: ........... 1 in 2,000,000
Being killed in a tornado: ............ 1 in 2,000,000
Being killed by falling out of bed: ... 1 in 2,000,000
Being killed in a plane crash: ........ 1 in 25,000,000
Winning the Mega-Millions Lottery: .... 1 in 176,000,000
Being killed by space debris: ......... 1 in 5,000,000,000

Some would argue that the odds are zero if you don’t buy a lottery ticket at all. And they would be correct. But once you decide to part with that cash; really, how strong is your potential return on that “investment”?

Some critics of government lotteries state that it exploits those who can least afford it. Yet the Stupidity Tax is also a voluntary one. I personally am not a strong anti-tax adversary, but I do freely exercise my choice to not pay this particular tax.

Still occasionally there are winners. Two ticket purchasers recently won $380 million. Hopefully the winners won’t be killed in a car crash on their way to the bank. Frankly, the odds aren't very good.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Come Hell or High Water

Recently in the news:
UK - Britain's winter is the coldest since 1683 and close to being the chilliest in nearly 1,000 years

MOSCOW — Prime Minister Vladimir Putin harshly reprimanded officials Wednesday over a winter weather shutdown at Moscow airports that left thousands stranded for days, and he banned high-ranking officials from taking vacations until further notice. Icy rains covered runways and planes with a thick layer of ice over the weekend and caused a blackout at the capital's largest airport, Domodedovo, which halted all flights for a day. Domodedovo resumed operations Monday, but a backlog of delayed flights left thousands stuck.

New York, ... all three airports were closed for a time, ... thousands of flights canceled by the storm—and especially the difficulty the airlines experienced trying to rebook passengers—was at least partially a consequence of an overburdened air travel system, one that lacked the flexibility to deal with an extreme event.

NEW YORK — As many as 9,000 passengers were stuck on the tarmac from three to 12 hours at John F. Kennedy International Airport as a result of this week's blizzard, and blame shifting has already begun.... "It was so frustrating, just sitting there for hours, waiting for more bad news," Cathay passenger Gigi Godfrey, 24, told the Associated Press.

New York mayor Mayor Bloomberg apologized for snow screw-ups during blizzard of 2010.
I want the significance of this statement to sink in – the Mayor is apologizing for not having enough GOVERNMENT employees on hand to deal with city services.

The “entitlement attitude” in western society, and in America in particular, is extremely annoying to me. We seem to have this expectation that we should be immune to inconvenience, delays and acts of nature. By god, we have a right to build our condo on the beach and the government better damn well replace it after the storm surge wipes it into the surf… for the third time. How dare the airline cancel my flight due to unsafe flying conditions!

I am particularly bothered by the public's disconnect between their disdain for all things government yet the equally contradictory expectation that government insulate them from all the uncertainties of human existence. People often bring up the anecdote of their Department of Motor Vehicles – they chaff at the necessity to stand in a line every eight years; yet they are equally as certain that the damn DMV, and government in general, is over staffed.

I level my own accusatory finger toward the news media as purveyors of the entitlement expectation. Often in the aftermath of disaster, the first thing out of news is speculation about how the response could have been anticipated and handled better... followed by the question of who should be fired. In other words, regardless of the cause, SOMEONE is to blame.

Were I Mayor Bloomburg, rather than apologizing, I might ask the press corps how they think the snow plow drivers get to work? Or explain how difficult it is to plow a street choked by the abandoned cars of those idiots who believed they had a right to drive regardless of extreme conditions. Bloomburg should, in my opinion, be saying: “You people wanted less government; you have the government you deserve.”

It reminds me of a poem I heard years ago, titled “The Job”:

I'm not allowed to run the train
The whistle I can't blow
I'm not the one who designates
How far the train will go
I'm not allowed to blow the steam
Or even ring the bell
But let the damn thing jump the track
And see who catches hell.