Friday, October 31, 2014

1403 Talking to your Car

It’s 7:45 in the morning.  You’re on the highway crawling along to work as you have for all those years. You know where all the slow spots are.  You know where you can get up to maybe 30 on the 55 mph road.


But your George Orwell endorsed telescreen is trying to feed you 67 alternate routes.  You know all those alternatives because you’ve been driving this route since 1977.  They’re even worse than the highway.


Long ago, you learned that no matter the traffic and no matter the weather, the quickest trip is on the highway.


The telescreen tells you “Get off at exit 23 and make a right turn onto Parsons Boulevard.”  You know better. You pass exit 23.  The screen tells you “you missed the exit. Go two miles to…”  You know the next exit is going to be terrible. So you ignore the telescreen.


To do this, you push an on-screen button and nothing happens.  A few seconds later you hear “Say a command” and you command thus:  “Turn on WINS.”  The screen talks back: “There is no wine shop in the immediate vicinity.  Say a command.”


You want to hear the news and say “turn on the radio.”  The radio comes on and it’s playing the Polka Channel.


You push the on screen button again.  “Say a command.”  You say “switch to 1010 WINS.” Screen tells you “no team wins 10-10 that is a tie.”


You hunt for the “mute” button and can’t find it.  But you’re about to hit the bumper of the car ahead of you.


It took GM ten years to recall cars it should have recalled ten years ago.  It’s going to take at least that long to recall the inept telescreens that want to send you from the Long Island Expressway to Parsons Boulevard in hopes that you can make it to work before lunch.


Meantime, it’s time to pull the plug on these not-ready-for-drive time telescreens.

“Say a command.” “Turn on the air conditioner.”  “Did you mean ‘call the airport?’”
The telescreen is only trying to help.  Treat it kindly. It’s your friend.


“Say a command.”


“Go (censored) yourself.”


“There are no houses of ill repute in your area.  Would you like to see a movie?”



Shrapnel:


--The political call of a lifetime arrived about a month ago when a campaign worker asked if he could be sure that his guy gets my vote.  Yes. “Okay thanks, we won’t bother you again,” and so far they haven’t.


--GM to Chevy exec Rikk Wilde whose bumbling speech at the final game of the World Series drew laughs nationwide: “You get to keep your job…” Wilde lost his place in the little talk presenting a truck to the MVP.  Chevy now plans to use his line “we have good technology and … stuff” in its truck ads.  Wilde is one clunker GM is not going to recall.


--Remembering Emma McClain of New York, NY and Americus, GA.  She predicted she’d live to 101.  Unfortunately for the rest of us she didn’t make it, but had she, today would be the day.


I’m Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
Please address comments to wesrichards@gmail.com or click on “voice command.”

© WJR 2014

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

1402 The Election 2014

If you watch enough TV cop shows, you know by now that one of the big catch phrases is “there are no coincidences.”

If there are two dead bodies, one M.O. in the same neighborhood at around the same time, chances are there’s only one perp.

The TV Cops should give lessons to the real-life politicians, who would then stop insulting our intelligence with both word and deed.

Political coincidences are a little less cut and dried. But only a little.

Is it a mere coincidence that the amount of highway construction ramps up during the summer before election?

Is it a mere coincidence that the price of gasoline falls all the way down to outrageous just before election day.

Look at the pump! What was $3.59 or even $3.79 a week or two ago now is $3.19.

A miracle! A downright miracle.

It’s hard to say how an office seeker might force ExxonMobil and others to cut their prices, if only temporarily.

But put nothing between an office seeker and the electorate around election day. If there’s a way to do it, these inventive men and women will have figured it out and done it.

It’s surprising that there isn’t a way to make abortion laws both more and less restrictive at the same time.
It’s hard to believe no one’s yet figured out a way to continue and end the various wars at the same time.

It’s astonishing to notice that no one has been able to control the price of prescription drugs and maintain a free market in the price of drugs at the same time.

It’s not so hard to believe that they’ve figured out a way to make taxes go both up and down at the same time.
How?

Easy. Cut federal taxes.

Then, to make up the shortfall, everyone gets a new and higher bill from the city or the county or the school district or the state or all of the above.

The good news for most of us is that when the election is over, all this stuff will go away, or at least leave our immediate consciousness.

The major political parties are two giant corporations. They’re like the auto companies: essentially, they’re all selling a frame, a body, four wheels and an engine.

They may be incrementally different, but essentially, they’re the same frame, body, wheels and motor.

And look what’s happened to the car companies after 80 or 90 years of that nonsense.

Maybe it’s time for the Republicans and Democrats to file for Chapter Eleven.

But not until the roads are all smooth and the price of gasoline hits $1.99.

The office seekers think that we think they walk on water (or on gasoline.)

Got a match?

Shrapnel:

--New York’s infamous Rikers Island has lost three high ranking officials, fired only months after their appointment.  It’s part of the city’s effort to calm things in the most violent sections.  Next step from the brilliant mayor: no-violence zones… sure to cure all that ails Rikers.

I'm Wes Richards. My opinions are my own, but you're welcome to them. ®
Please address comments to wesrichards@gmail.com
©WJR 2014 (Self plagiarized in part from a similar set of thoughts in  2005.)

Monday, October 27, 2014

1401 An Opera Lesson from Spike Jones

Bizet’s “Carmen” worked in a cigarette factory.


When the comedy bandleader Spike Jones recorded parody of the opera, he portrayed her as a worker in a chewing gum factory.  Too bad the Australians didn’t seem to know how to make that switch.


When a sponsor objected, the Western Australia Opera Company crossed “Carmen” off this season’s schedule.


The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper reports that the opera company didn’t want to lose a two year, half million dollar sponsorship from the government agency “Healthway” which “promotes healthy living.”


Half a mil AU is worth $620,000 US.


The three largest tobacco companies in Australia divvy up 97% of the market.  They share combined revenue of close to three billion dollars. You’d think among the members of this trio, there’d be a few spare bucks lying around.


But no.  Tobacco companies are cowed.  And Carmen of “Carmen” is a chain smoker. Can’t have that!  


Does the singer/actress actually smoke on stage or does she just pretend.  Usually the latter. Guess it doesn’t matter.


As opera goes, “Carmen” is kind of mid-to-low girl on the ladder. It’s not Wagner or Verdi or any of the other really big guns.  


Take one step down and you’re standing on Gilbert and Sullivan.  One lower are Rogers and Hammerstein or Lerner and Lowe.  One more and you’re down with with Leonard Bernstein and Tupac.


Still, Carmen is part of the “standard” opera repertoire and deserves to be performed as written.  Even if Australia counts 15-thousand smoking deaths a year, which it does.


Of course the Smoking Police list every death of a smoker a “smoking death” even if the deceased is hit by a bus and lands on a stray Marlboro box.


Once again, we are tricked into false equivalencies  on the twin paths of illusion and reality.


Reality: Smoking kills a lot of people, and probably people shouldn’t smoke.


Myth:  Opera featuring smoking doesn’t hurt anyone.  Of course, the occasional patron of the arts can get bored to death.


And while we’re at it… Carmen’s a light story -- no pun intended.  There are plenty of operas about death: La Traviata, Madam Butterfly, and much more recently in the disgraceful “Death of Klinghoffer.”


Should we ban drama about tuberculosis, knives and cruise ships?


Chances are bandleader Jones changed cigarettes to chewing gum because chewing gum is funnier than smoking.


Carmen’s been smoking since March 3, 1875, more than 139 years.  And she ain’t been sick a day in her life.  But at her age, she better be careful about crossing the street in front of buses.


Shrapnel:


--Politics strikes science again.  Governors Cuomo and Christie of New York and New Jersey impose strict quarantines for people without symptoms but who may have  been exposed to Ebola.  A nurse in  isolation threatened to sue.  So now, at least in New York, the quarantines take place at home instead of in a tent with only a phone and a porta potty.


I’m Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
Please address comments to wesrichards@gmail.com
© WJR 2014

Friday, October 24, 2014

1400 The Humility Lesson -- Arthur Gelb and Ben Bradlee

Sometimes events come together and take you down a peg.  They sober you up.  They hose you down and wash off the hubris.

Two such things this week:  finishing reading all 672  pages of a book, and learning of a death.

The book is “City Room” by Arthur Gelb.  The death was that of Ben Bradlee.
Gelb was managing editor of the New York Times. He was part of a small team that brought the paper kicking and screaming into modern times. Bradlee was executive editor of the Washington Post. He took an OK local paper and turned it into a national powerhouse.

Both papers were bought out of bankruptcy on the cheap early in their lives.  Both rose to be influential, feared, loved and loathed.  Both set standards for their industry and kept raising them.

When Gelb was put out to pasture, he left with countless stories about names every reader knows and countless stories about events everyone knows about.  His energy remained in the newsroom and in retirement, he continued to propel the paper on the trajectory he and others had established.

When Bradlee left his paper, his energy hung in the room for awhile.  But the Post started its slow slide down the tubes… to the point that the long-time owners sold out to Amazon.com’s Jeff Bezos who seems willing and able to bring it back from the dead.

It’s a tough row for both papers to hoe.  The printed page, if not in its death throes, is on life support.

Old newspaper tales have a romance.  They’re about flesh and blood human beings. Interesting people. Quirky people. Quirky eras.

They are stories of times in which every employee wasn’t always looking over his or her shoulder hoping  the Pink Slip Gods weren’t stalking.

Many think Bradlee was trying to replicate the Times.  He wasn’t.  He was trying and ultimately succeeded in replicating the New York Herald Tribune.  Both were known in the trade as “writer’s papers.”  The Times was and is an “editor’s paper.”

There once was a place for both.  Soon there will be a place for neither.

The Times sets the news agenda for the rest of the industry and thereby for the American public.  The Post brought down Richard Nixon, published the Pentagon Papers when the Times chickened out under legal pressure.

Gelb was a genius wildman out of the Bronx and a product of “the poor man’s Harvard” as CCNY was known at the time.  Bradlee was a genius wildman
out of the Boston aristocracy and the 53rd male member of his family to graduate from Harvard, as Harvard was known at the time.

Backgrounds as opposite as opposite can be.  But with the same built-in story hound and “get it right” mentality.

Gelb died earlier this year.  Bradlee died earlier this week, so at this writing the myth builders are still at work, as they were with Gelb soon after his passing.

Except the myths weren’t all that mythical.

Two guys who did the impossible in the service of informing us.

You can read about their specific accomplishments easily elsewhere.

But when some of us old school old timers think about our own impact, we realize that the marks we leave can’t measure up to either of these guys.

Afterthoughts:

-The Post was credited with the Watergate story and rightly so... but without seed-spreading by the Associated Press and United Press International, it would have remained mostly local news.  The wires deserve some credit, too.

-For the first time in a century, the Times is being run by a frightened man, essentially a flyweight compared to his family predecessors. The newsroom is in the excellent hands of Dean Baquet, but he can’t do the job without the help of an expert publisher… which he doesn’t have.

I’m Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
Please address comments to wesrichards@gmail.com
© WJR 2014

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

1399 Let's Get Ready to Rumba!

Television performer and artist, Roger Price, once speculated that if all the rumba dancers on earth hip-checked in the same direction at the same moment while simultaneously grunting “Uhhh” the earth would fall off its axis.

Having no significantly better explanation for the current state of things, a rational thinker could consider that Price’s theory has been proven experimentally.  The Price is right?

America’s president has shown himself to be a liar, incompetent and impotent.  And the republican party in the House and Senate want to take us back to a time that never really was… when (white) men were men and everyone else “knew” who the Master Race was.

In the Middle East, a rump state is trying to rebuild the Caliphate on the backs of ordinary Syrians and Iraqis.  And we are sitting on our rumps.

Many people are busy-bodying in the Middle East, building false moral equivalence between Israel and and another rump state, while in New York a new opera by a seedy little man with a chicken neck and a permanent sneer glorifies as folk heroes the terrorists who pushed wheelchair- bound Leon Klinghoffer off a boat and to his death.

Poison Putin is busy disrupting Ukraine, after which he’ll be busy doing the same in Belarus, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania.  And don’t think he’s going to ignore Poland, either.

Ebola has swum the Atlantic and our seaports and airports remain open to the infected, although the usual suspects may only land at one of only five airports. They are JFK/New York, Newark, Washington/Dulles, O’Hare/Chicago and Atlanta.  Wisely, they have not chosen Teterboro or Dayton International.

Serial killers are so numerous and prolific that they’re lobbying for their own history month.

School shootings are on the rise, but “zero tolerance” weapons policies can get a kindergarten kid suspended for carrying a rubber knife.

Last month was the hottest September on record.  Climate change deniers say it’s not the fault of human beings.  Maybe they’ll think differently when the Atlantic works its way to Cincinnati and the Pacific to Denver.

Okay, now who has all those old Xavier Cugat records, and can you copy them for use on an iPod?


Shrapnel:

--Roger Price (1919-1990) was well ahead of his time.  And to call him a “humorist” as so many articles about him do, is both inadequate and an understatement. He was a writer and artist (sort of,) and picked up some nickels and dimes as a publisher.

--Price invented Droodles, a strange set of line drawings which you don’t understand unless you can guess what they represent.  If you read the answer and don’t at least chuckle, there’s probably more wrong with you than there was with Roger. They appeared in newspapers each day and later were collected in a book or two.

--He also co-invented MadLibs. And in 1956 he wrote The Secret Handbook of the Me First Party (Ballantine Books.)  All though absurd and funny in its time, it has become a chilling description of American politics in the 21st Century.

I’m Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
Please send accusations to wesrichards@gmail.com

© WJR 2014

Monday, October 20, 2014

1398 Corporate Thank You Notes

You get those insincere thank you notes all the time, either on the phone or logging out of your account.  Thank you for choosing so and so.

It’s getting annoying, especially for those companies you don’t actually choose.

Like Bank of America.  Thank you for choosing Bank of America.  Nuts!

I’m imprisoned by my own bad spending habits and their bad customer vetting habits.  Three credit cards, all of them with significant but not monumental debt.

Thank you for choosing Capital One.  Same story.  But only one card.

Thank you for choosing JPMorgan Chase.  I didn’t choose you.  I chose the First National Bank of Moote Pointe, New York which was taken over at various times by three other banks, ending with Chase.

Thank you for choosing Verizon Wireless.  Are you crazy?  Yours is the only signal that reaches my house… and not too well, I might add.

The gas and electric companies … there really was a choice.  Does Columbia Gas ever thank me?  No!

Does West Penn Power ever thank me?  Not only don’t they… but they regularly send me little charts that show what an electricity hog I am.  “You use x-times as much as your neighbors and 2x times as much as your energy conscious neighbors.”

Oh, yeah?  So how come all the neighbors get the same b-s in the mail.

And more recently they’ve sent a note saying my contract is up in December and they’re not renewing.  I never signed a contract, but good riddance.

My dentist and periodontist thank me in person.  And they mean it.  And my few remaining teeth thank them back.  And THEY mean it.

The gas pumps at every filling station say thanks with electronic writing at the pump.  A nice gesture.  What would be nicer is getting rid of the tele-screens that try to make you buy other stuff.

And while everything that isn’t tied down is privatized, this bad habit probably will spill over into government, probably starting with the post office, a hybrid of government efficiency and private sector arrogance.

They’ve probably figured out how to make mail boxes talk, such few as remain of them.

“Last pickup at this mailbox is Mondays at 2 PM except holidays.  Thank you for using USPS.”

“Thank you for choosing the IRS.”  Of course.  We could have sent our tax dollars directly to… um … somewhere else.

“Greetings from your Uncle Sam.  And thank you for choosing the United States Army.”  “Thank you for choosing the Walter Reed Medical Center.”

“Thank You” used to mean something.  Apparently it’s now in a league with “have a nice day” or the theme song of the table waiters who near the end of a meal say “May I get that out of your way?”  Or “no problem” instead of “okay” or… heaven forbid, “thank you.”

Shrapnel:

--Only the good die young.  This cliche springs to mind on learning that William J. Ronan has died at the age of 101.  Ronan was architect and first chairman of downstate New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which thanks you for riding MTA, as if you had a choice.

I’m Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
Please address comments to wesrichards@gmail.com
© WJR 2014

Friday, October 17, 2014

1397 Oil's Well



Let’s see if we have this straight:  Oil has become plentiful.  And prices are on the low side.  But demand is shrinking and we expect a price increase?

Doesn’t that violate some famous principle of economics?  Aren’t overstocks supposed to sell cheap?

Well… like many of those things we all know for sure, guaranteed, wrapped up, done, finished, here’s another one that’s not always true.

But, but, but… Adam Smith says it has to be so.  Didn’t Paul Samuelson… and he won the Nobel Prize? And Ludwig von Mises, the darling of the libertarians?

Joe has too many t-shirts and they’re cluttering up his warehouse.  So he knocks down the price, and bingo, they’re gone.

But not oil?  Too much production and the price is going to rise?

Yes, but.  Here’s the thing:  when the supply is too high the usual suspects will reduce their production. Presto, they kill some of the supply. So far, so good, right?

Then comes the United States, now among the world’s biggest producers.  This country’s huge oil output comes from shale. Fracking.  Which costs a lot.  So even though there’s plenty, we don’t benefit from supply and demand.

Oh, and there’s something else:  When they find oil from shale, the first few years the oil flows like Niagara.  After that, they have to frack deeper and deeper for less and less output.  That costs more. So… up go the prices.

Did you know that years and years ago, congress declared the byproducts of oil fracking are not hazardous?  But they can be.  So… a political decision based on no science.  And here you thought disbelief in science was something new the right wing cooked up.  Nope.  It’s been with us all along.

Environmental laws don’t apply.  Getting rid of that “non-hazardous” effluvia therefore is “no problem.”  Just put that slag anywhere, boys.  Not too near a river.  Unless it’s inconvenient or expensive to ship it farther away.

And don’t worry too much about the price increases either.  We’re used to paying four bucks a gallon for gasoline.

This problem eventually will find its way to natural gas fields, too.  So right now, gas is dirt cheap.  But ten years from now, watch what happens.

Good thing they don’t have to frack for water, else Perrier would be a bargain.

Energy independence has its price.

Shrapnel (Eboling for Dollars Edition):

--Ebola in Texas?  Maybe we won’t have to build walls on the southern border to keep Mexicans out.  Mexico will build walls to keep Texans out.

--Speaking of border closings, why haven’t we stopped letting people from Ebola- rich countries into ours?  Not permanently, but until this thing dies down?  That worked okay with Sars and Bird Flu.

Grapeshot:

-Eboling for Dollars… and the money -- charitable donations -- is not coming in, which is unsurprising… but where is Larry Kenny when you need him.

(Note to younger readers Kenny was NY-area host of “Bowling for Dollars.”)

I’m Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
Please address comments to wesrichards@gmail.com

© WJR 2014