Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Here's one I didn't know...

...only three other Democrats have won presidential elections with more than 50.1% of the vote: Andrew Jackson, FDR and LBJ.

Despite all the comparisons of Obama to Lincoln, FDR and Kennedy, I think a better one might be to LBJ. Obama has big plans for domestic reform like Johnson. And like Johnson, he runs the risk of getting sidetracked by foreign wars.

I watched Obama's speech last night...

...and although I thought his timing was off a little, I liked the content, especially the parts about health care and energy. Health care requires little comment from me. The U. S. spends more per capita, has a higher percentage of uninsured, and has worse outcomes than most other industrialized nations. Clearly, our system is in need of reform. If you don't believe me, ask any European or Japanese if he'd trade his health care system for ours.

Energy policy, in contrast, is much more open to debate. Free-marketeers, like the Wall Street Journal, would say that the U. S. does not need a national energy policy--let the markets decide. In theory I would agree. The problem is that we already have an energy policy. "What energy policy?," you might ask. "Where was I when they passed that?" I would argue that the U. S. has a de facto energy policy and it can be summed up in two words: cheap oil.

For about a century now the United States government has been backing oil to the exclusion of all other energy sources. This has involved supporting the automobile industry by building roads to far-flung suburbs and subsidizing ever larger homes through the tax code. And American foreign policy has ensured the free flow of oil from the Middle East by propping up friendly dictators and dispatching troops when necessary. This, along with U. S. support for Israel (another topic for another day), has gone a long way to creating the bitterness and resentment that has resulted in Islamic terrorism.

So where has our current energy policy gotten us? Two wars in the Middle East and a dangerous addiction to foreign oil. Not to mention what it's cost in lives, dollars, and reputation. How about pulling back from the Middle East and letting the price of oil find its true market level? Then maybe some alternative energy sources might make economic sense.

I'm with President Obama. We already have an energy policy, so let's stop debating that and start talking about what kind of energy policy we want.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

What's your excuse...

...for not writing a prize-winning book? Christopher Nolan died Friday at age 43 in Dublin. He was mute and a quadriplegic since birth who initially communicated with his family only through eye movements. At 11, supplied with a new drug to relax his neck muscles, he began writing with a "unicorn stick" strapped to his forehead, pecking a letter at a time on a typewriter as his mother held his chin with her hands. By 15 he had produced a highly praised volume of verse and short stories and went on to publish his autobiography and a novel. He was working on his second novel when he died last week.

Just when I thought I was nuts...

...I find someone nuttier. I switch around a lot when buying orange juice. I don't have any great brand loyalty and like to try different kinds from time to time. Keeps life interesting. Lately I've been buying Tropicana (some pulp). I like it but I have to confess I don't give it a lot of thought. I did notice, however, back in January that they changed the design of the carton. I must admit that it threw me a little at first as it looks like quite different. "Is this the same stuff I've been buying?," I asked myself. It must have extended my trip to the grocery store by at least 30 seconds or so as I tried to regain my bearings. I quickly recovered, though, and bought the juice in the new carton and got on with my life. After all, it's just OJ, right? Apparently not everyone else is as easy-going as me. According to an article in yesterday's New York Times business section:

The PepsiCo Americas Beverages division of PepsiCo is bowing to public demand and scrapping the changes made to a flagship product, Tropicana Pure Premium orange juice. Redesigned packaging that was introduced in early January is being discontinued, executives plan to announce on Monday, and the previous version will be brought back in the next month.

Also returning will be the longtime Tropicana brand symbol, an orange from which a straw protrudes. The symbol, meant to evoke fresh taste, had been supplanted on the new packages by a glass of orange juice.

The about-face comes after consumers complained about the makeover in letters, e-mail messages and telephone calls and clamored for a return of the original look.

Some of those commenting described the new packaging as “ugly” or “stupid,” and resembling “a generic bargain brand” or a “store brand.”

“Do any of these package-design people actually shop for orange juice?” the writer of one e-mail message asked rhetorically. “Because I do, and the new cartons stink.”

Others described the redesign as making it more difficult to distinguish among the varieties of Tropicana or differentiate Tropicana from other orange juices.

Now I can imagine complaining when the product changes. After all, I was one of those who were up in arms over New Coke back in the '80s, although I never actually wrote to the company or anything. But can you imagine caring that much about the container your orange juice comes in? Can you imagine caring enough to sit down and write to the company to complain about it? Can you imagine having your life sidetracked like this for even a few minutes? Who are these people?

Monday, February 23, 2009

Tony Blankley... a conservative columnist who appears regularly on TV. He was born in London in 1948 and immigrated to the United States shortly after World War II. I can't find the exact date, but he was a child actor in Hollywood in the early 1950s. That means he's lived in this country for at least 50 years. So why does he still have a British accent?

Since I'm always bitching...

...about movies, I thought I'd mention four that I actually liked. It's all part of an effort to be more positive. The first is "Les Miserables" (1995), starring Jean-Paul Belmondo as the Jean Valjean character. I say "character" because the movie is only based on the Victor Hugo novel. It's set in the 20th century and if you were as bored as I was by the musical then you might like this treatment. It's very clever and better than any other version of the novel I've seen. (In French with subtitles.)

The second movie I'd like to recommend is also in French with subtitles (the last one, I promise). It's called "Amelie" (2001) and was the breakout film for the French actress Audrey Tautou. Set in Paris, it tells the story of a shy waitress who decides to change the lives of those around her for the better, while struggling with her own isolation. It's also very clever. My wife and I selected it one night by the process of elimination (as good a method as any when it comes to movies). I liked it so much I went back the next day and saw it again by myself. I know what you're thinking--what a loser!

"Richard III" (1995) is fittingly the third movie on my list. It's an adaptation of the Shakespeare play with Ian McKellan in the title role but don't let that scare you away. Whenever people ask me if I like Shakespeare I always answer "no" because I don't speak Elizabethan English. But this movie is different. Again, like "Les Miz" it's set in the 20th century, this time a 1930s-ish England. That gives it an interesting mood and a context which makes it easier to understand, although I wouldn't have minded subtitles.

Lastly is "My Dinner with Andre" (1981), starring Wally Shawn and Andre Gregory. Shawn is the son of William Shawn, the famous editor of The New Yorker and the voice of Rex the Tyrannosaurus in "Toy Story" (another good movie by the way). It takes place almost entirely inside a restaurant and is in modern English! The conversation is essentially a debate between Plato (played by Gregory) and Aristotle (played by Shawn). While Gregory argues in favor of intuition and feeling, Shawn makes the case for intellect and reason. As far as I can tell, this pretty much sums up the entire history of philosophy. Everything else since then has just been tweaking around the margins. It might sound crazy to watch a couple of guys talking over dinner for two hours but it's really interesting. You might have to watch it twice to catch everything but it's worth it.

I don't see as many movies as I used to...

...and I don't know if it's because the movies have changed or if I've changed. I suspect it's the latter, because I watched "Sunset Boulevard" last night and it didn't thrill me like it once did. Maybe I just don't have the same attention span that I used to. It seems that if I don't fall asleep during a movie I often just turn it off and do something else.

The Academy Awards were last night and although I didn't watch them (why would I care what someone else thinks of a movie?) I couldn't help noticing that "Slumdog Millionaire" won Best Picture. This had been widely predicted (as had all the other major winners--another reason not to watch) and so I saw the movie about a month ago. It was sold out; I had the absolute worst seat in the house--the corner seat in the last row. While I thought the movie was mildly entertaining (I didn't fall asleep), I really could only give it a "B" at best. I didn't see the others that were nominated because they just don't sound very interesting to me. One is about a guy who starts out as an old man and ages into a baby (huh?), another is about a city worker (snore!), a third one is about a TV show (double snore!) and the last is about a love affair between a young man and a former concentration camp guard (charming!). If "Slumdog" was the best picture of the year then I think I'll take a pass on the rest.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

A Muslim man in suburban Buffalo... in the news for cutting off his wife's head. Apparently, she was his third wife and was trying to leave him because of domestic abuse. Why did the first two leave? Surprise! Domestic abuse.

Now what this really reminds me of is O. J. Simpson. I noticed that after the famous murder trial he dated at least two other women that I know of (good-looking ones, too). Help me out, ladies. What the hell were they thinking? Haven't women ever heard the term due diligence? What did they tell their girlfriends about their new boyfriend? He's really very sweet? He's misunderstood? And imagine the conversation they had with their fathers:

"Hey Dad. I just met a really neat guy."

"Great. Tell me about him. I sure hope he's nicer than that last guy."

"Oh he is, he is. He's intelligent, really good-looking and best of all, he played in the NFL!"

"No kidding! What's his name?"

"O. J. Simpson...Hello? Dad? Are you still there?"

"Honey, what did you say to your Father? He's passed out on the floor!"

Friday, February 20, 2009

National Review online...

...has an article about Palin-Santelli in 2012. Rick, that's what guys like us used to call a "sell signal."

I'm still bullish on stocks... least in the near term. The major market averages are now all down about 50% from their highs and are poised for a bounce. It may only be temporary but I still think it's going to happen.

I used to know Rick Santelli...

...back in the '90s when he and I worked for the Sanwa Bank of Japan. Who is Rick Santelli? Sounds a little like "Who is Jon Gault?," that famous question from Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, the libertarian bible. Rick is a reporter for CNBC who is all over the news for his rant yesterday about Obama's new mortgage relief plan. If you haven't seen it you should watch it on You Tube.

As I said, I used to know Rick and aside from a few eccentricities (and who at the Merc didn't have at least a few?) he was a "good guy." He was very personable and well-respected for his spots on CNBC, which evolved into a full-time gig. Rick is a self-described "Ayn Randian," although I didn't know that about him at the time. Now I used to be a Libertarian myself--yes, that's with a capital "L." I was a dues-paying member of the Party and voted for Libertarians for about 20 years or so. I've read a great deal of Ayn Rand and others like her (much more than Rick Santelli, I'm sure) and I think she got much of it right. And yet...

While free markets have been criticized from the left and worshipped from the right, it has to be noted that the U. S. hasn't had free markets since at least the Civil War, if ever. So while free markets have become a straw man for the left, they have really only existed in the heads of people like Rick Santelli. For just one example, Rick gets a tax deduction for the interest on his mortgage. Therefore, the Federal government is taking sides in the "rent vs. buy" decision by incentivizing home buyers. If the market were truly "free," the State would be neutral on this question. There are thousands of examples like this. The truth is, the U. S. is not now, nor has it probably ever been, a free market economy. So let's move on. I like what Obama said in his Inaugural address about putting less emphasis on ideology and more on what works.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

I think the stock market will trade...

...up for a while now. The Dow tested the November 20th lows yesterday and I think we should see a little bounce from here. The S&P could trade down a little first and test their lows from late November, but I think we may have seen the worst for a while. Also, sentiment just got too negative, especially with that disastrous GDP number out of Japan Monday morning.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Darn! I forgot my evolution joke...

...on Darwin's birthday. A gorilla is in his cage at the zoo reading two books simultaneously. In one hand he's holding the Bible, in the other The Origin of Species. Another gorilla sees this and asks what he's doing. "I'm trying to decide," says the first gorilla, "If I'm my brother's keeper, or if I'm my keeper's brother." Ba-da-bum.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Isaacson-Kinsley debate...

...continued on the Charlie Rose Show this week. Walter Isaacson himself, Mort Zuckerman, the publisher of the New York Daily News, and Robert Thomson, the publisher of the Wall Street Journal appeared on the show to discuss the future of newspapers. Isaacson once again raised the idea of micropayments which would allow newspapers to charge for content on the Internet. Thomson appeared to gloat a little after it was acknowledged that the Journal has been more successful than others in requiring subscriptions for its online users. This was especially so when it was noted that even its cross-town rival, the good, grey New York Times is available online for free. Zuckerman pointed out that the Journal is different, however; businesses can write off the subscriptions as a tax deduction. I found that to be a little ironic: the free market bible is actually government subsidized.

The Chicago Tribune has an article today...

...about some jamoke who named his firstborn child Addison Nicole Clark after Wrigley Field's famed location (Addison N. Clark, get it?). That's nothing. The guy who owns the local Dairy Queen (yes, Jim and Tom, the one near Loyola Academy) has three sons, Addison, Clark, and Sheffield, and two daughters, Grace and Ivy. Beat that!

Friday, February 13, 2009

I thought my local newspaper had two weather sections yesterday...

...until I realized one of them was from January 22. Good thing, too, as it was forecasting a low of -2 on Saturday. "Our pipes are going to freeze again!" I shrieked to my wife, who calmly pointed out to me the date at the top of the page. Oh well, it was a Thursday; I got that part of it right. How it has avoided the recycling bin all this time is beyond me.

But what was more interesting to me was the article on the front page of the section. Apparently the play "Wicked" was ending its 3 1/2 year run in Chicago on that Sunday, the 25th. It must be a good play because it's attracted a following whose loyalty would make Jerry Garcia envious. One 15 year-old girl had seen it 19 times and another had seen it 41 times! And the second girl was planning on seeing it four more times before it closed. She had already seen it twice in one day, four times in one week and twice every week for nine weeks in a row. She is home-schooled (red flag right there) and had been accompanied by her mother each time. (The mom saw "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" 18 times, 16 with Donny Osmond in the lead role--another red flag.) The tickets cost anywhere from $25 to $100, so at the very least the two of them spent $2250 ( 45 times x 2 people x $25)! (This is coming from a guy whose wife owns a horse, by the way.) And if they've been going since the opening, which is unlikely, then they've been attending about once a week for 3 1/2 years. In contrast, I've only seen the "Godfather" about five times in the last 30 years and most of the time for free. That must be a hell of a play! How was I so unaware of it?

So what's next for these two, hitch-hiking around the country following "Wicked" on the road? I can just picture them outside the theater selling grilled cheese sandwiches in their bare feet.

In at least one home in the northern suburbs of Chicago...'s the first day of Spring. Cubs' pitchers and catchers report today!

Yesterday was Abraham Lincoln's birthday...

...and I postponed writing about him for a reason: he's not my favorite president. In fact, until recently I considered him the worst, just behind FDR. He was just too much of a Statist for the libertarian that I used to be. Without going into all of that, I'd like to focus on just one piece of his presidency, the 600,000 Americans that died during the Civil War. As I'm sure you learned in school, that's more than all the other American wars combined. Now whether or not you think preserving the Union was worth it, that's still a staggering number. Consider the Iraq war, which I think went a long way to electing our current president. It's claimed only 4,000 American lives so far. The Vietnam War, which lasted about ten years, resulted in about 50,000 American deaths. The battle of Gettysburg alone, to put it in perspective, had over 50,000 casualties in just a few days! Chickamauga had 34,000, Chancellorsville had 30,000, Spotsylvania had 27,000, and five others had over 20,000. And many of these battles took place after the war had already been fought for a few years. The hardest hit state was North Carolina, which lost over 20,000 men alone. To give you even more perspective, the 1860 census recorded 31 million Americans. 600,000 would be almost 2% of the total. In today's America, that would be like losing 6 million people!

Now there's a lot more to Lincoln's presidency and I won't go into all of it now--it's just too vast a subject. (You've probably heard that more books have been published in America about Lincoln than any other man except Jesus.) But just suffice it to say that it's hard for me to consider anyone a success that presided over the deaths of that many U. S. citizens.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Today is Charles Darwin's 200th birthday...

...and Yahoo! reports that 63% of Americans say they believe that humans and other animals have either always existed in their present form or have evolved over time under the guidance of a supreme being while only 26% say that life evolved solely through processes such as natural selection. Another poll found that 64% of Americans support teaching creationism alongside evolution in the classroom. Depressed? Don't be; consider the Roman Empire.

After Constantine's mother converted to Christianity (just one of many cults circulating in ancient Rome at the time), the emperor followed suit soon after at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. He still maintained his title of Pontifex Maximus, however, which emperors bore as heads of the pagan priesthood. The rest of the Empire also converted in short order, as most people were eager to adopt Roman customs in much the same way that people today admire American culture. But old habits die hard, and most of the new Christians continued to worship the pagan gods as well. It's also never a bad idea to hedge your bet.

So what's all this have to do with modern-day America and Charles Darwin? Just think of the Charlie Rose Show. Or at least the one in which E. O. Wilson and James Watson appeared. It's the best CR I've ever seen and you can watch it on You Tube. I highly recommend it. The two biologists not only agreed that Darwin was the most important figure in the history of science, but they also marveled at how much of it he got right. The high point of the show for me was when Watson (who along with Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA) said that Darwin and his theory of evolution implied "no designer." Never mind whether or not we evolved from apes; this to me is the bigger stumbling block for fundamental Christians. No designer means no God and that means that man's existence is accidental. This would naturally be a deal-breaker for Evangelical types. But you have to at least give them credit for consistency. Because Catholics and mainline Protestants, who have been exposed to science in school, are not as consistent. Like the ancient Romans, they carry on a double life, accepting evolution as the most reasonable explanation for the origin of man while at the same time clinging to their religion (my apologies to Barack Obama). They rationalize this contradiction by maintaining that God guided evolution. Neat, huh?

But just as Christianity eventually supplanted the pagan religions of the ancient world, so will reason eventually triumph over belief. After all, that's been the trajectory of history ever since the first man discovered how to use a stick as a tool. But it's an evolutionary process and takes a long time. I think Darwin would appreciate that.

Tomorrow I'll take up that other birthday boy, Abraham Lincoln.

Just when I thought I'd heard everything...

...I went to a meeting last night at the high school about extra-curricular activities. Everyone was very nice and the whole thing was very impressive. They have just about every club imaginable and if you can't find one to your liking, you can start your own. You have to jump through a few hoops, but they'll pretty much do anything they can to accommodate you. Sounds great, doesn't it? One of the teachers talked about how he started a club for the Off Campus students (those are the ones with behavioral issues; in the '70s we called them "troublemakers"). They meet in the metal-working shop--I had to confess I didn't even know they had one--and make suits of armor. Suits of armor? Really? I had to stop him right there and raised my hand (we were in school after all). I had to ask: what do these kids do with the suits of armor once they're done making them? The guy got a blank look on his face. "I really don't know," he said. "They take them home, I guess." Now I don't know about you, but I'm not so sure I want a bunch of juvenile delinquents in my town marauding about in suits of armor. I might get a little anxious walking into my local 7-11 for a carton of milk. What's next, a zip-gun assembly club?

I was at the doctor's office the other day...

...and I picked up the current issue of Time magazine in the waiting room. Two thoughts ran through my mind. The first was the old Seinfeld bit about waiting in the waiting room only to be led by a nurse to a second, smaller "waiting room" where you take off your clothes, sit up on a table, and wait some more for the Delicate Genius to show up. Personally, I've always chafed at calling doctors "Doctor." I guess it's just my egalitarian nature. So I always make a point of calling them by their first name (hell, most of them are younger than me, anyway) and wait for their reaction. I usually chuckle a little as they often look startled as if I just swore at them or something. Who do these people think they are, anyway? They were just the nerds in college who stayed in and studied while the rest of us were out getting drunk. I had one dentist who insisted on calling me "Mr. Tracy" even though I always called her "Ruth." I wanted to say, "Stop it, we're the same age! You're the kind of chick I used to moon!"

The second thought I had was who, besides my sister, still gets Time magazine delivered to their house? In fact, who reads Time or Newsweek at all? When I saw Richard Stengel of Time on Charlie Rose talking about how they chose Barack Obama as Man of the Year I thought, does anyone still care about that? Could there really be anything in that article that we don't already know about Obama? And don't even get me started on Jon Meacham, the pompous editor of Newsweek.

(As an aside, Time was almost required reading in my house growing up. So much so in fact, that when I was discussing something with someone from Europe once, he finally asked me in exasperation, "You read Time magazine, don't you?" It's like when I hear someone today spouting the neocon or free market talking points I want to ask them if they read anything besides the Wall Street Journal.)

But the point of all this is to call your attention to two good pieces I read this week. The first is "How to Save your Newspaper," by Walter Isaacson in the current Time, and its rebuttal, "You Can't Sell News by the Slice," by Michael Kinsley in yesterday's New York Times. Since nobody reads anything that anyone recommends anyway, I'll summarize them for you. The first one takes on the subject of how newspapers are in decline due to free content on the Internet. The author gives his prescription for saving the industry by what he calls "micropayments," in which readers would be charged small amounts by the article. If this sounds like the end of the gravy train for us cheapskate surfers, don't worry, because Kinsley explains exactly how and why that won't happen. Phew!

According to Kinsley, it's a myth that newspaper readers ever actually paid for content in the first place. What they paid for was paper, ink, and the delivery cost. This, by the way, was a money loser for the papers. So not only has free content been good for readers, but it's actually been good for the newspapers. The reason your local paper (like the Chicago Tribune) is going out of business isn't that people aren't buying it at the newsstands, but that for the first time in history they are experiencing competition. Not only can I read the Times online before it's delivered to my door, but I can read dozens of other newspapers as well. (By the way, I can't resist mentioning the name of the new Mexican owner of the Times, Carlos Slim. Sounds like something out of a Quentin Tarantino movie, doesn't it?)

So that's my recommendation for today. Oh, and you can read both articles online, for free.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

If you're at all like me...

...(your smart aleck remark goes here) then you're probably wondering who in the hell asked that stupid question last night about A-Rod? After much surfing, I found out his name is Michael Fletcher and he writes for the Washington Post. Yes, the same paper that broke the Watergate scandal and drove a president from office. I scoured the Internet for info on him but didn't turn up much. He must be new.

Imagine his day yesterday. The economy is tanking, Congress is considering the largest stimulus package in history, and the financial markets are waiting with baited breath for the latest bank bailout. Oh, and did I forget to mention that we're waging two wars? After speaking in depressed Elkhart, Indiana, the new president is scheduled to appear on TV in Prime Time for his first presidential press conference. Meanwhile over at the Post, some grizzled editor in the mold of Perry White is mulling over which of his many crack reporters to send. As he swivels in his chair, he fixes his gaze on this Fletcher guy. He slowly removes the cigar from his mouth and pauses for dramatic effect. "Okay kid, here's your chance. Don't blow it!" Fletcher gulps hard. "Don't worry, boss, I won't let you down. I've been waiting for this chance since my first day of Journalism School!"

And then the moment finally arrives when the president points his finger at him and says, "Yes?" The TV cameras focus on him. A hush falls over the room. Somewhere out in the country his mother gasps, "That's my son!"

"Yeah, thank you, sir. What's you're reaction to Alex Rodriguez's admission that he used steroids as a member of the Texas Rangers?"

You've got to be kidding! That's it? That's your question?!? Who wants to know, Andy Card? One blog I read wondered why he didn't ask about the octuplets.

Obama started in on a big, long, rambling answer. One blogger called him Talky McTalkerson; another said he was channeling Hubert Humphrey. I have to admit I was a little surprised when he mentioned Our Kids (isn't this the guy who was going to bring Change to Washington?) The best part of his answer was when he said "it's depressing." How 'bout it? What I wish he'd said was, "My opinion on that isn't the least bit important. It will be settled by Major League Baseball. These are serious times. Let's keep this press conference on a serious level. Next?"

Monday, February 9, 2009

Andy Card was White House Chief of Staff...

...under President Bush and headed up the White House Iraq Group. Prior to that, he served under President Reagan as Special Assistant to the President for Intergovernmental Affairs and subsequently as Deputy Assistant to the President and Director of Intergovernmental Affairs, where he was liaison to governors, statewide elected officials, state legislators, mayors and other elected officials. Under the first President Bush, Card served as Assistant to the President and Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy. He also served as Secretary of Transportation, coordinated the administration's disaster relief efforts in the wake of Hurricane Andrew, and directed the transition from the Bush Administration to the Clinton Administration. Card also ran the Republican National Convention in 2000.

An impressive career, and yet I can't remember him uttering one word in public in all those years. Now maybe I just wasn't paying attention, but I did hear his first impression of the Obama presidency last week. In case you missed it, you'd be forgiven if you thought he'd weigh in on the stimulus package or the bank bailout or even Gitmo. No, apparently he's bent out of shape that Obama isn't wearing his suit coat in the Oval Office. That's it? After all this time, his first public pronouncement is about that? And to make matters worse, pictures have been circulating of Presidents George W. Bush, Clinton, Reagan, Carter, Ford, and Kennedy in the Oval Office without their coats. Thanks for coming in, Andy.

Business travel...

...has always been a bit of a mystery to me. I understand the value of face-to-face contact, especially in sales, but I've always wondered if the vast majority of it was worth all that money. In the days when I used to travel, I was always struck by the expense of the plane ticket, hotel, and restaurant bills. Coupled with the opportunity cost of spending time away from my day-to-day responsibilities, it seemed a little extravagant to me. (Maybe this says more about my value in the workplace, or maybe I'm just a cheapskate.) But when I would look around me at all the other business travelers in airports and all the other people staying at expensive hotels and taking colleagues or clients out to dinner, I would often wonder aloud if all this was really necessary. After all, couldn't most of this be done over the phone? This was invariably met by an irritated response somewhere along the lines of "Are you nuts?!?" (I seem to get that a lot from people.)

Today's New York Times reports that Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers recently told analysts that his company had saved a lot of money during these difficult times by cutting back on travel. These cuts, he said, had taught Cisco a valuable lesson that would carry over when the good times returned: employees don't need to travel quite as much. Travel expense per employee has been cut in half as the company is now holding 4,000 video conferences a week.

The key phrase here is "...when the good times return." People tend to have short memories and more prosperous times might lead to more lax spending practices. But 4,000 video conferences a week sounds like a lot to me. How many other companies could be saving that kind of money?

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Think you're smarter than a freshman in high school?

Quick: Is the giant panda more closely related to the raccoon or to other bears? If you, like me, said the raccoon you would have been wrong. I learned this from my son today. Maybe you were thinking of the red panda, which is more closely related to the raccoon. Good spin! Apparently, scientists studying radioactive DNA strands and biochemical comparisons of enzymes and other proteins have recently concluded that the giant panda is more closely related to bears than to raccoons. Huh? Apparently, there's a lot more grant money sloshing around out there than we thought, too. And somewhere--right now--John McCain is grinding his teeth as a result.

But that's what's great about science. Unlike religion, it's constantly changing. So if you don't like what they conclude today, stick around; they might conclude differently tomorrow.

My older boy is nineteen today...

...and I still don't know how to describe him to people I meet for the first time. If I say I have an adult child people usually get a confused look on their face. I guess "adult child" is an oxymoron. Sometimes I think what they actually hear me say is "adult/child," and then they look really confused. And if I have an adult child what does that make my sixteen-year old, a non-adult child? A child-child? I've never heard either of those terms used in conversation before. I suppose if I delivered them with enough authority I could look like I'm on some linguistic cutting-edge and they're just out of touch. Instead, however, I start turning red at that point and my armpits start getting sweaty. They in turn look like they think I'm making it all up, that I really don't have a family at all, that I actually live alone at the YMCA. If I tell them I have a child that's really an adult, then I sound like one of those obnoxious parents with a precocious 12 year-old that takes classes at the local community college. This is when the ship begins to take on water and no amount of grinning can help. Some people look at their watches right about then and mumble something about needing to be Somewhere Else, right now!

It doesn't help to talk about All My Sons; they might get confused and think I'm talking about the Arthur Miller play that's so popular right now. And if I mention my Two Teenagers it sounds like I'm Fred MacMurray playing monopoly with Chip and Ernie. Joe doesn't even live at home anymore; he goes away to school. And even when he's here he's not here. Again, confusing. And there's no Uncle Charlie here, either (unless you count me). Or a Bub, for those of you who remember the estimable William Frawley, the original Boring Old White Guy.

So I guess it's another year of hemming and hawing. Oh well, happy birthday Joe. I love you and I'm proud of you. You've come a long way since "God damn it! I've got sand in my diaper!"

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Is it just me...

...or has driving changed in recent years? I guess running yellow lights has been common for a while now, but lately I've seen people go through intersections as the light is turning red. That seems a little new to me. My kids used to call me Old Man when I'd stop at yellow lights. (I thought that's what you were supposed to do.) After watching more than one driver in my rear-view mirror get all animated, I decided to start running yellow ones, too. I felt a little guilty for doing this at first until I noticed that one or two cars behind me would run the same light. Do I have to start going through red ones now? I don't think I'd feel comfortable doing that; it seems a little dangerous.

Turning left at busy intersections has also evolved. Nowadays when you get the green turning arrow you often have to wait for cars turning left in front of you after their light has turned red. Then you often miss your green arrow and end up turning after your light turns yellow (or red). Again, not comfortable.

There's one practice that used to really throw me when I first started seeing it. I'd be driving along on a fairly busy street when someone perpendicular to my left would try to turn left into my lane. At first I used to get really distracted by this. I would slam on my brakes to avoid an accident. I gradually noticed, however, that they were often turning into the middle lane and using it as a merging lane. When the coast is finally clear they then complete their turn. When did this become commonplace? Is it legal? I've been meaning to ask a cop about this.

Do these things happen where you live or is it just suburban Chicago?

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

One final word on the subject of hats...

...I promise. There's an article in today's Chicago Tribune about TV reporters and how they're dressing to stay warm in this brutal winter while still trying to look good for the cameras. Since they usually only appear in a head-and-shoulders shot, the only thing you see is their hat. And no matter how much they try to maintain their dignity and stay warm at the same time, they usually fall short in one way or the other. So I offer this piece of advice at no extra charge: All winter hats look ridiculous, so wear a warm winter hat that looks ridiculous.

Michael Steele has been elected...

...the new chairman of the Republican National Committee. While he promises to aggressively rebuild a party in dire need of rebuilding, I can't for the life of me figure out what he stands for. I think it's great that the Republicans tapped an African-American for the job, especially when they are in danger of becoming a party limited to old, white, Southern, Christian males. And I'll continue to scour the web for info on exactly who he is. But for now I'm afraid he may be just old wine in a new bottle, or maybe no wine in a new bottle.

I can't decide who's dumber...

...Tom Daschle or Michael Phelps. I've already mentioned Daschle's sin of not being careful enough with his taxes. Phelps wasn't careful enough about how he was photographed. Doesn't he realize that his sponsors might be a little reluctant to pay millions of dollars to someone without the "correct" image? Doesn't someone of his generation realize that we live in an era of cell-phone cameras and YouTube videos? Even boring old white guys know that. He probably thinks he has a right to some privacy, but that's not the Faustian bargain he's made. If he wants to cash in on his Olympic success, he'll have to live by the sponsors' rules. And that means not being photographed breaking the law. Duh!

I just saw another picture of Ron Howard...

...wearing a hat indoors. Ron, I've got some news for you: not only are you bald, but everyone else knows it. So unless you're outside, take off the hat.

NFL fans of a certain age might remember Bum Phillips, father of Dallas Cowboys' coach Wade Phillips and one-time coach of the Houston Oilers. He was a good ol' boy that always wore a cowboy hat on the sidelines except when coaching at home in the Astrodome. When asked about this he explained that his mother once told him never to wear a hat indoors. But this isn't about the bad manners of wearing a hat indoors--another pet-peeve for another time--but more importantly of the silliness of some men who insist on wearing hats to conceal their baldness.

As a follicly-challenged male, I feel qualified to comment on this practice. I myself am rarely seen outside without a hat or a cap of some kind (no berets just yet). But this is more to shield my head from the elements than from any desire to deceive anyone into thinking I have a full head of hair. I take a fair amount of grief from my family members over the way I look in a hat, but it keeps my head warm in the winter and prevents it from getting sunburned in the summer. Once inside, however, I always remove my hat. I've heard all the bald jokes and, like references to Dick Tracy, learned to live with them.

The point I'm trying to make here is that there are worse things than being bald (although none come immediately to mind). Okay, here's one: trying to fool everyone into thinking you're not. Trust me, people are going to find out eventually (are you going to wear a baseball cap to a funeral?) and then you have to endure all the gasps and stares at your forehead while you're trying to carry on a serious conversation with someone. Also bald men of the world, I have some news for you: chances are, you weren't all that much better looking when you had hair. Most of us are average-looking to begin with, and having hair or not doesn't make that much difference anyway. And in at least Ron Howard's case, the world cares a lot more about how well he makes movies than in how he looks. If it were the latter, he would have been a footnote as Opie a long time ago.

So bald men of the world, take your hats off already (at least when you're indoors). Not only is it bad manners, but no one else cares what you look like anyway.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

If you were Tom Daschle... old Washington insider, and you had some inkling that you might want to return to public life at some point, wouldn't you tell your accountants to be extra careful? Don't you think someone might want to look at your old tax returns and don't you think they might notice if you failed to pay over $100,000 in taxes?

I read that Howard Dean may be Obama's next choice for HHS. That ought to make Republicans apoplectic.

I wonder if Bill Kristol has ever seen...

..."The Best Years of Our Lives?" It's one of my all-time favorite movies and I'd be happy to lend him the DVD. He could make some popcorn, take his shoes off, and watch it with his kids some time since it's suitable for the whole family. I'd like to draw his attention in particular to the scene in the drugstore where Fred Derry ( the ex-fly boy played by Dana Andrews) is talking to Peggy Stephenson, the daughter of Al, another returning serviceman. He's showing her the vanishing cream display, which includes a product that removes vanishing cream. In a low voice, he lets her in on a little secret, "If you don't use the vanishing cream, then you won't need the vanishing cream remover." They both enjoy a good laugh, but there's some wisdom in what he said.

I was reminded of this scene while watching Fox News Sunday this past weekend. Chris Wallace brought up the subject of the Iraq elections:

WALLACE: And that is the elections, the provincial elections, in Iraq yesterday. And it is amazing that the situation has gotten so much better there that an election in which millions of people voted, in which there was very little -- almost no incidence of serious violence we're talking about in the final moments of the show.

We don't know the results yet. There are early reporting that al- Maliki -- the prime minister's party has done well. But just the fact that this vote was held, and held so peacefully, and with the Iraqi security in the lead, not U.S. security -- how important in terms of the development of Iraq in its political stability?

KRISTOL: Oh, it's awfully important. Every brigade commander I've talked to who's come back from Iraq has said the key -- now that we won the war, basically, now that the surge succeeded -- and let's just remind everyone this would not have happened if the Democrats had had their way in 2007. We would have chaos and terror in Iraq, not a peaceful democratic election.

Neocons, like Kristol, love to bring up the surge and say I told you so. Conditions in Iraq have definitely improved in the last year or so and someday the neocons may achieve their dream of a Western-leaning, freedom-loving Iraq. I hope so; it would be good for America. But to paraphrase Fred Derry, if you didn't blunder your way into this war in the first place, you wouldn't have needed the surge to bring the violence back down to pre-war levels. And 4,000 Americans and untold tens of thousands of Iraqis would still be alive.

Monday, February 2, 2009

My vote for best...

...Super Bowl commercial? The one with the three mob guys sitting around breakfast discussing a possible hit. The boss (who bore a slight resemblance to a young Martin Scorsese) kept getting interrupted by a ditzy waitress putting whipped cream on his pancakes. I had to drag my wife away from the computer to watch it and we replayed it about three times. The one immediately following had a nice sight gag about a guy who had to work under the back half of a moose. And honorable mention goes to the one with Alec Baldwin, who makes me laugh a little just by reading his lines (gotta start watching "30 Rock"). Other than that, I thought the ads were kind of lame. In fact, Super Bowl commercials in general haven't been great for years.

I'm going to repeat myself...

...I can't help it, it's in the Tracy DNA. But the more I think of it and read about it, the more I think Obama is consciously and shrewdly making Rush Limbaugh the de facto head of the Republican Party. Limbaugh has a huge following in absolute numbers but only from the 30% or so that still approve of George Bush. He's the perfect straw man.

As everyone knows, the Republican Party is in disarray. The neo-con foreign policy of the Bush years has been largely discredited and in domestic policy they have abdicated their traditional role as the party of small government. So where does that leave them and who are their leaders? Who knows?

While John McCain is a has-been and Sarah Palin lacks credibility with all but a small base, it's difficult to determine who the next leader of the party will be. Michael Steele, an African-American, was just voted the new chairman of the Republican National Committee. John Boehner and Mitch McConnell are the minority leaders in the House and Senate, respectively. All are capable and serious men but also drab and colorless. The GOP has a crop of rising stars in the governor's mansions, including Bobby Jindahl and Tim Pawlenty, and in the House, such as Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor, but none are exactly a household name just yet. Newt Gingrich is probably the leading intellectual in the party but comes with a ton of baggage. My guess is that he will play the role of kingmaker in 2012. So who does that leave?

Consider the case of Representative Phil Gingrey of Georgia. Never heard of him? No matter; no one else has outside of his district. But in an appearance on Hardball last week he said:

"I think that our leadership, Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, are taking the right approach," Gingrey said. "I mean, it's easy if you're Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh or even sometimes Newt Gingrich to stand back and throw bricks. You don't have to try to do what's best for your people and your party. You know you're just on these talk shows and you're living well and plus you stir up a bit of controversy and gin the base and that sort of that thing. But when it comes to true leadership, not that these people couldn't be or wouldn't be good leaders, they're not in that position of John Boehner or Mitch McConnell."

Big mistake. Gingrey received a high volume of phone calls and correspondence and had to go on Limbaugh's show and beg forgiveness:

"I clearly ended up putting my foot in my mouth on some of those comments, and I just wanted to tell you, Rush — and all our conservative giants, who help us so much to maintain our base and grow it to get back this majority — that I regret those stupid comments."

He also published this on his web site:

As long as I am in the Congress, I will continue to fight for and defend our sacred values. I have actively opposed every bailout, every rebate check, every so called "stimulus." And on so many of these things, I see eye-to-eye with Rush Limbaugh. Regardless of what yesterday's headline may have read, I never told Rush to back off. I regret and apologize for the fact that my comments have offended and upset my fellow conservatives--that was not my intent. I am also sorry to see that my comments in defense of our Republican Leadership read much harsher than they actually were intended, but I recognize it is my responsibility to clarify my own comments.

Now more than ever, we need to articulate a clear conservative message that distinguishes our values and our approach from those of liberal Democrats who are seeking to move our nation in the wrong direction. Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Newt Gingrich, and other conservative giants are the voices of the conservative movement's conscience. Everyday, millions and millions of Americans--myself included--turn on their radios and televisions to listen to what they have to say, and we are inspired by their words and by their determination. At the end of the day, every member of the conservative movement, from our political commentators and thinkers to our elected officials, share an important and common purpose in advancing the cause of liberty, reigning in a bloated federal government, and defending our traditional family values.

Does Gingrey sound afraid of Limbaugh? I think so. He should be; Limbaugh has millions of listeners. But he remains an entertainer, not a serious leader. If Obama can keep the focus on him and not the more legitimate Republicans, he should improve his odds in the forum of public opinion.