December 30, 2008

Scammers need not apply

From my inbox:

Dear Sir/Ma,



First, no one calls me “ma,” not even my child.

Second, stop yelling.

This rather long piece of scam spam solicits my resume for a job in the United Arab Emirates.

Yeah, right. As if an American Christian woman with a big mouth and a devotion to democracy would stand a chance in the UAE.

This particular scam seems intended to take advantage of our increased unemployment rate. I trust you are all too clever to fall for it. Unfortunately, as Scam-o-Rama points out, there are a handful of people who want to believe that the e-mails they receive are for real.

December 26, 2008

One cultural festival, hold the beer

It’s that time of year, when my black friends start celebrating Kwanzaa, and my white friends start complaining about it.

I can't for the life of me imagine why anyone gets righteously indignant about Kwanzaa, but some do.

Their chief complaint is usually that it's a "made-up holiday."

Except it's not a "holiday," i.e. "holy day," as such. It's a cultural festival intended to unify the descendants of slaves and remind them of their common African heritage.

Perhaps I have a different perspective because I grew up in California in the post-Kwanzaa era. It stood on the cultural calendar with Chinese New Year, Scottish Highland Games, and Oktoberfest. Those who didn’t participate in these events didn’t give them much thought.

Of these, Kwanzaa is the least boisterous and the most serious. It's observed chiefly within the home and is far less cheapened and merchandised than two true high holy days, the Resurrection and Christmas.

It seems everyone is willing to be Irish for St. Patrick's Day and Mexican for Cinco de Mayo, but no one wants to be African-American for Kwanzaa. Maybe that’s just because there are no happy hour specials involved, but I think not.

People to whom Kwanzaa seems a recent intruder to the calendar do not seem to realize that most cultural festivals and holidays had to be "made up" at some point.

Even one of the most sacred days in the Christian calendar, Christmas, is a ritual celebration "made up" by the early church to counter the Roman festival of Saturnalia.

That this holy day was "made up" more than sixteen hundred years ago does give it more historical gravitas, but it is no less a human invention. God gave instructions about Passover, but there are no such instructions about the observation of Christmas in the Bible.

Secular holidays are made up, too. Thanksgiving, for example, was not celebrated annually until its addition to the official calendar of U.S. holidays in the 19th century.

I could go on: Labor Day…President's Day…Columbus Day…Does anyone really take time on those days to think about laborers, presidents, or Cristobal Colon? Heck no. They just get annoyed because the Post Office is closed.

Was Kwanzaa "made up?" Why, yes, it was. It was "made up" by one person who thought it important to unify his people.

We should all strive to be so creative that we make up something that sweeps a country and changes a culture.

December 24, 2008

Full of cheesy goodness

When the Holy Land Experience opened in February 2001, most Orlandoans viewed it with a skeptical eye. A small, Bible-themed attraction in the theme park capital of the world hardly seemed rational. Believers suspected it might be a bit heretical, and unbelievers thought it silly.

I have to admit to thinking it was probably a little of both. Nevertheless, I was curious. So when the church youth director organized a trip, I put aside skepticism just long enough to be thoroughly entertained.

Back in 2001, my colleague Alan Byrd, then OBJ’s tourism reporter, was underwhelmed. His summation: “In a place where the average guest is filled with sensory overload, Holy Land just doesn't cut it.” In the second half of his review, Alan helpfully provided a whimsical list of suggested improvements.

The park didn’t take Alan up on his suggestions. But in 2002 it did add the Scriptorium, a 17,000-square-foot, single-purpose museum, built to house the Van Kampen manuscript collection.

I’m a history buff, so the Scriptorium was my favorite part of the park. Its only drawback is that the trip through is automated. You are cued by lights and recorded narration to move from one section to the next. Even if you didn’t have 16 fellows with you to drag you into the next room, the lights go down, so even if you stay behind, you can’t see much.

Still, the collection is a delight to see, and the presentation is first-rate.

Trinity Broadcasting Network acquired the park in 2007, and the live-action shows were described by the aforementioned youth director as “very TBN.”

I missed most of the passion play, because I was still in the Scriptorium’s bookshop when the seats started to fill up. The park was so crowded, some walkways became impassable, blocked by people watching the show. Several tour buses were there that day. A park employee told us it is not normally like that. The crowds were due to its being Christmastime, and a Saturday.

I say “most” because parts of the play are staged in different places. I happened to reach the Temple Plaza in time to see a priest run out and yell that the veil had been torn from top to bottom. Gave me a bit of a chill, actually.

I did see the Christmas musical, which was excellent. Entirely a Broadway-quality show. Music, lyrics, script, performances--all first-rate.

I must admit that parts of Holy Land Experience are undeniably cheesy. Bushes are carved in the shape of letters that spell out “He is Risen.”* The park’s one restaurant serves a “Goliath burger.” There is even a life-size statue of Jesus walking on the water, with fiberglass waves all around and a flat place where you can stand to get your picture taken.

After the Scriptorium, the live shows are the park’s real draw, and since I didn’t get to see all of them—there were ten scheduled that day—I intend to go back.

Just not at Christmastime, on a Saturday.

*—Our choir director decided this made the ideal gathering place. “Just meet us by the He is Risen bushes.”

December 15, 2008

When will they ever learn?

This just in: Students have the most difficulty staying awake and functioning during early morning classes.

Ya think? Most parents of teenagers had already figured this one out.

Except, of course, those parents who think after-school jobs and sports are more important than education. Those parents turned out in force, pressuring the Orange County School Board to reverse its earlier decision about high school start times.

Orange County high schoolers currently start at 9:30 a.m. In the fall, they'll be starting at 7:30 a.m.

Except, of course, for the ones who are asleep at their desks.

December 9, 2008

Fun with puns

Some of us collect bad headlines; I collect good ones. Of course, how you define "good" depends upon your tolerance level for puns. I classify this one, on a story about a woman who lost her hearing after a fervent smooch, as good:

Kiss of Deaf

December 7, 2008

Full-immersion fiction

One of the great advantages of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series is its richly imagined wizarding society, which exists parallel to but hidden from our own.

Rowling's new book, The Tales of Beedle the Bard, is the real-world version of the book that guided the heroes through the final installment of the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

At first glance, it seems that what Rowling has done in Beedle is to take the stories out of the story, and put them in their own setting.

It is ingeniously done. Each of the five tales reads just like an old fairy tale. Except, of course, that in these stories, the witches and wizards are rarely the villains. They are the heroes.

Following each tale is a "commentary by Albus Dumbledore," and the text is indeed imbued with his character, such as his observation "…clever as I am, I remain just as big a fool as anyone else."

For fans of the series, these commentaries in Dumbledore's own voice are like a visit with an old friend. Perhaps it is more accurate to say they are like finding the old letters of a deceased relative. They are what gives the book much of its charm.

For those unfamiliar with Harry Potter, this book will not be meaningless, because each of the tales functions as a morality play in its own right.

But for the rest of us, The Tales of Beedle the Bard conjures a precious spell indeed, because it offers the opportunity, for a few moments, to forget you're a Muggle and pretend these stories are a familiar part of your cultural lore.

December 5, 2008

Because I said so

This video, "The Mom Song" is one of the funniest things I have seen in ages. Anyone who is a mom or who ever had a mom will appreciate it.

December 4, 2008

Fooling computers

The folks over at Typealyzer claim to be able to analyze the personality types of bloggers by scanning their blog posts.

Typealyzer claims that The Factotum's Rostrum is written by someone who is "especially attuned to people and things around them and often full of energy, talking, joking and engaging in physical out-door activities.… happiest with action-filled work which craves their full attention and focus. …They might have a problem with sitting still or remaining inactive for any period of time."

I'm going to assume that the way-off-baseness of this analysis is due to the small amount of material the scanner had to work with, rather than the ability of the blogger to disguise her true personality through her writing skills. The one whose only "physical out-door activity" is walking from the parking lot to the office. The one whose most "action-filled work" is walking down the hall to the business manager's office for more chocolate. As for sitting still … they may have a point. Sitting still isn't really sitting still if you're knitting, is it? Knitting is an activity.

December 1, 2008

Using the "R" word—update

Many of us have been saying it for months, but the National Bureau of Economic Research today issued its official diagnosis of recession. The NBER confirms that we have indeed been in recession all year.

Thanks, guys.

After the release was issued, the NBER Web site spent part of the afternoon inaccessible. Error message? "The site could be temporarily unavailable or too busy."

Ya think? Time for a server upgrade, guys.

November 24, 2008

Card sharps

A co-worker received a scare-mail purporting to list stores that will close by the end of the year, thereby making their outstanding gift cards worthless. She wanted to know if it was true whether all the stores listed were really going bankrupt.

My co-workers often ask me such questions because I often have a ready answer.

Well, I must admit to not having memorized the names of all the retailers that have already declared bankruptcy. And I surely won't venture, as the generator of the aforementioned e-mail message did, to predict the future.

The simple answer is this: A bunch of retailers have already declared bankruptcy. A bunch more are likely to follow before the year is over. The folks at Snopes have done way more research on the topic than I care to.

In the present economic climate, I refuse to guess which store's gift cards won't turn out to be worthless. Because were I to name Some Big-Box Store—one with great sales numbers and a seemingly solid balance sheet—surely it would be the next one to make headlines, dragged down by hitherto unknown investments in subprime mortgage derivatives.

I will say this: I'm intrigued by this CNN story about charitable gifts. Charity Navigator's Good Cards look like an especially pragmatic answer to the annual quandary about what to buy for people who, as one friend of mine put it, "don't need one more thing to dust."

November 22, 2008

Clever, yes. Genius ... maybe not

My previous post, on the efficiency of the Apple Store tech department, was premature.

Was my MacBook fixed in less time than promised? Yes. Was it fixed completely?


When I retrieved it, the MacBook worked perfectly. But the bezel that connects the screen to the outer case was still separated, even though I had pointed out the problem to two people.

So I had to leave the MacBook at the store again.

When I picked it up the second time, all was well. Surprisingly, I was not charged for these repairs, despite my having told three people "I dropped it." Either droppage is covered under the warranty, or they gave me a freebie because it wasn't right the first time.

I only hit one other hitch with Apple's Geniuses. Since the MacBook had an all-new hard drive, the admin account was all-new also. Unfortunately, they didn't tell me what the admin password was, which made it impossible to install my applications.

Here are the instructions for resetting the admin password, if you ever need to.

November 16, 2008

Truth in advertising...or at least in nomenclature

In Star Trek, Scotty maintained his reputation as a miracle worker by multiplying his repair estimates by a factor of four.

I don’t know whether the folks at the Apple Store follow Mr. Scott’s advice, or if they just happen to be remarkably efficient. Regardless, they have a well-deserved reputation for great customer service.

I carried my broken MacBook—I had dropped it—into our local Apple Store at about 1 p.m. The next available appointment at the Genius Bar, my concierge told me, was at 5:54 p.m. I could take that appointment and come back, or I could wait in “accommodation” mode, the Apple equivalent of flying standby. If another customer missed an appointment, I would be seen. But that meant waiting around the store, and my to-do list was long.

So I opted for the “QuickDrop,” leaving the computer with the concierge rather than speaking with a technician myself. Within “24 to 48 hours,” she said, a technician would call me with a diagnosis.

That was fine and, frankly, what I expected. So I left the ’Book with her and went on to the grocery store.

At home, while I was still putting away the bread and milk, my phone rang. The Apple Store technician confirmed my hard drive had failed and needed replacing. I gave him the go-ahead.

Just a few hours later, while folding laundry, I got another call. The ’Book was fixed and ready to be picked up.

That call came in just a few minutes before the appointment time I was first offered by the concierge.

So an estimated time of “24 to 48 hours” to diagnose my computer resolved into less-than-five hours to completely finish the repair. The “QuickDrop” service is aptly named. If you’re ever in need of a Mac repair, I strongly recommend it.

November 7, 2008

Using the "R" word

Dennis P. Lockhart, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, addressing a business development conference in Palm Beach County today, said “Recent data indicate that the national economy is in recession.”

This is the first time I’ve seen anyone connected with the Fed make this admission.

The whole text of his speech is here.

Mind you, Lockhart is careful to point out that this is his view, and “not necessarily shared by my colleagues on the Federal Open Market Committee.”

Still, he’s in a position to judge. And the official arbiter of recessions, the National Bureau of Economic Research, is famous for being extremely cautious about issuing such statements. For example, it didn’t announce the November 2001 trough until July of 2003.

October 30, 2008

What the Pickens

T. Boone Pickens met with American City Business Journals editors at their annual meeting this week. Pickens explained his plan for diversifying America's energy sources.

His opinion on the two major parties' presidential candidates is particularly interesting: "They do not know anything about energy."

Pickens spent an hour and a half with ACBJ's editors. As of this writing, two video excerpts have been posted. I anticipate more to come.

October 28, 2008

Mainstream media fails the electorate--again

Orson Scott Card handed out some harsh medicine to local dailies in this opinion piece:

Would the Last Honest Reporter Please Turn On the Lights?

In which he accuses daily newspapers of bias in failing to cover Barack Obama's part in the run-up to the subprime mortgage crisis. An excerpt:

If you do not tell the truth about the Democrats -- including Barack Obama -- and do so with the same energy you would use if the miscreants were Republicans -- then you are not journalists by any standard.

Card's point is cogent, and eloquently put.

But many in the media are equally guilty of a less obvious bias: As long as mainstream media outlets continue to pretend that the Big Two are the only parties in this country, they cripple the democratic process.

An informed electorate is one of the keys to a successful democracy. Traditionally, Americans have looked to the media to consolidate the vast amount of information available. But when journalists employ bias in the process, or when they ignore third-party candidates simply because those parties are statistically unlikely to win, they prove themselves unworthy of the task.

The City Club of Cleveland hosted a debate today between Libertarian Party nominee Bob Barr, independent candidate Ralph Nader, and Constitution Party nominee Chuck Baldwin. C-Span recorded the debate for addition to its archives.

I'm glad someone is paying attention. Because when I checked the "Election" tab at Google news, the only mention I found of any of these gentlemen was in this AP story, which is about a poll, not the debate.

So far, the blogosphere is picking up the slack, if you can pick through the slag. While I was picking, I came across this article, which shows that 55 percent of likely voters felt Barr should be included in the presidential debates. But the commission that organizes the debates will only admit a candidate who has "a mathematical chance of winning a majority of Electoral College votes, and . . . at least 15% support in national public opinion polls before the debates."

Get this, though--younger respondents were more likely to say that third-party candidates should be included. Because of this, the parties--and the media--need to change their approaches.

The more the love-hate triangle between the Democrats and the media and the Republicans continues to follow the same worn-out plot, the more disaffected voters are going to look for someone telling a new story in a new way.

October 24, 2008

Do the clothes make the woman?

Or is it the other way around?

Everyone, it seems, is in a tizzy about the Republican Party having given Governor Palin a designer-clothing shopping spree so she would look appropriately vice-presidential on the campaign trail.

"What a waste!" They claim. "Wretched excess!"

Of course, you realize that if Governor Palin campaigned in her usual Wasilla togs, no one would praise her frugality and down-homedness.

"What a slouch!" They would howl. "Wretched stinginess!"

We like to pretend that we judge people, as Dr. King once said, on the content of their character.

Baloney. Americans judge by image more often than not.

And, as Senator Clinton and House Speaker Pelosi already learned, female politicians are much more likely than their male counterparts to be judged by their dress. Or pants, as the case may be.

Wealth of notions

Former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan, who was questioned by members of congress yesterday about his role in the economy’s breakdown, put another nail in Adam Smith's coffin, admitting that it was a mistake to presume that “the self-interest of organizations, specifically banks and others, was such that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders.”

During the 18 years Greenspan was the country’s central banker, he fervently opposed regulation. Now, he admits the industry needs more oversight.

I am a firm a believer in the free market, and regulation can certainly be taken to painful extremes, but the subprime mortgage derivatives market was questionable from the start. Greenspan's current position, that corporations packaging derivatives be required to hold some of them in their own portfolios, can be filed under the heading "too little, too late.

October 17, 2008

The Oracle has spoken

You know, when I hand out investment advice, I'm really not very surprised when people ignore me.

But I did think that when Warren Buffet handed out investment advice, people would pay attention.

In today's New York Times, Buffet writes, "Equities will almost certainly outperform cash over the next decade, probably by a substantial degree. Those investors who cling now to cash are betting they can efficiently time their move away from it later. In waiting for the comfort of good news, they are ignoring Wayne Gretzky’s advice: 'I skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it has been.'"

The man is a genius. Pay attention.

October 15, 2008

Libertarians use Internet to make flanking maneuver

This just in, from the Barr 2008 Presidential Committee:

"Using the latest advances in campaign social networking and Internet communication, Libertarian Party Presidential Nominee Bob Barr will be participating in a real time, virtual debate during the televised debate between Senators Barack Obama and John McCain. Barr's virtual debate will be streamed live over the Internet" beginning at 9 p.m. Eastern time.

I point this out not to endorse Barr, but because the Big Two have dominated American politics for far too long. Someone should have broken this stranglehold a long time ago. Ross Perot and Ralph Nader each gave it a good try, but let's be honest. Both of their parties proved to be too flaky to pull it off.

Russell Verney, Barr's campaign manager, says "It's important that voters hear all the voices in this election, especially since Republicans and Democrats—on whose watch all of these problems were created—have proven they don't have the answers Americans are looking for. The advances in Internet communication are making it harder and harder for the two-party system to shut out alternative voices, which American voters are desperate to hear."

I'm not sure the electorate is "desperate" to hear third-party voices. I fear most of them have forgotten there even are other parties than the Big Two.

October 13, 2008

'Fun' with M$ Office.1

I love Microsoft Office. I really do. But just as the people we love sometimes drive us crazy with their quirky little habits, the software we love has foibles that drive us mad.

Because I work in a "production environment," I have a font management program that controls what fonts are active or not at any given time.

Unfortunately, some applications--and MS Word happens to be one of them--don't group fonts by "family." Every font gets its own line in the menu, which is rather distracting when you have a font that has multiple types (such as Display, Caption, and Standard), and then sub-types within each type (Display Black, Display Bold, Display Italic). You get the idea.

So to trim down my font menu, I turned off a bunch of fonts in my font manager.

Suddenly, my dictionary in Word no longer displayed definitions.

Oddly enough, if I cut the text (which I couldn't see) from the dictionary pane and pasted it into a document, I could then see it.


As it turned out, the culprit was "Verdana," which is the font the dictionary uses. Once I turned it back on, my problem was solved.

A rather silly tech support story, I suppose, and a little embarassing. PEBKAC*, and all that. But I post it in hopes that someday, it will help some poor Googling soul who has the same problem.

* — Problem Exists Between Keyboard And Chair

October 9, 2008

Publicity requires forethought

Every day, I—and many people in newsroom jobs similar to mine—receive press releases that immediately go to the bit bucket.

Or, in the case of the one that was on my desk the other day, the real-world recycle bin.

This dead-tree release, which came by fax, goes along the lines of "[Firstname Lastname] recently addressed a meeting of [nonprofit group or industry association], speaking on the topic of [something probably very interesting that my readers might have cared to listen to].

The problem, of course, is that I have been told after the fact, when it is too late to tell my readers so they could attend.

If the senders of these notices—and I get dozens of them every month—ever read OBJ, they would realize that we don't publish this sort of post-event notice.

Look at this front page story from the Oct. 3 issue of OBJ. Had we been sent a release after the meeting that said "Dr. Deborah German recently addressed a meeting of BioOrlando, speaking on the topic of recruitment and funding at the UCF School of Medicine," we would not have known there was a story.

But our reporter was notified of the meeting beforehand, so she could attend, glean information from the talk, learn more about the subject, and transmit that news to our readers.

Getting such notices before the event allows us to
• Publicize speakers our readers might be interested in hearing for themselves
• Send a reporter to an event where appropriate

But Kristen, if Firstname Lastname's talk would be interesting to the readers, why not write about it afterward?

Because we weren't there to hear the talk firsthand.

Mr. Lastname's discussion may have been very interesting. But if he wishes to convey his knowledge to our readers, he needs to notify us of the event early enough for us to list it in our calendar section so the readers can attend.

Sending the release after the event tells me that he's not interested in conveying his knowledge to our readers. He's just seeking publicity for his public-speaking career. Sending a post-event release is not the best way to do that.

Here's the right way for a public speaker or other topic expert to get publicity:

• Invite media to attend events. (Mind you, I can't guarantee they'll show. Budgets are tight, and at many papers, staffs are shrinking. But if the event, like BioOrlando, is one that draws industry leaders, reporters might attend. Good reporters are always looking for new sources.)

• Provide editors and news directors with a bullet-point list of topics on which the expert is available for interview. (Don't expect to get a whole article written about you this way, but you might get quoted as a third-party expert in a story about someone or something else.)

• Submit bylined articles. (but— you must read the publication and customize your article for its style and readership.)

Of course, one could always pay for advertising, but few people seem to like that option.

October 6, 2008

Great Leadership

In Demon-haunted World, Carl Sagan pointed out that the founders of our nation were a highly educated group of philosophical thinkers—products of the Enlightenment.

Sagan noted that, at the founding, the population was about 2.5 million. At the time he wrote, the population was about ten times more. Now, it is even greater. Then, Sagan asks this profound question:

"If there were ten people of the caliber of Thomas Jefferson then, there ought to be 10 x 100 = 1,000 Thomas Jeffersons today.

"Where are they?"

Sagan wrote that book in 1995. We're still waiting for the answer. Ronald Reagan suggested that the great leaders were probably in business, but given what's been going on in the Wall Street soap opera these days, I'm not so sure.

Here, courtesy of The Teaching Company, are a couple of freebies--lectures that examine two great leaders: Lincoln and Churchill.

We still may not have leaders of this caliber today, but we can still look to the past--since hindsight is so much more acute than foresight--for what defines a great leader.

October 3, 2008

What this election is really about

Oddly enough, before the vice presidential candidates' debate started last night, I wasn't sure there was any point in it.

But when the candidates were speaking about health care, not only the debate but the whole election became clear to me.

Both candidates want to:
• Fix the economy
• Provide health care
• Create jobs
• Decrease the country's reliance on foreign energy sources

This election isn't about goals. It isn't even about change.

It's about methods.

The Democratic Party's method to solving these and other problems is to let the government manage them. The Republican Party's method, as Sen. Joe Biden sarcastically remarked, is to let the free market handle them.

Whom you choose to vote for, then, depends upon whether you want the federal government to control these elements of our society, or whether you think, as Gov. Palin said repeatedly, the government should get out of the way.*

Personally, I think there is a middle ground, in which matters are left to the free market as far as it is feasible to do so, and in which the government steps in with regulation or federal management only when the free market fails.

But the Republican and Democratic parties are so polarized now, having moved so far to the respective extremes of deregulation and government management, they have left the middle ground a vast, empty no man's land.

* It bears mentioning that the Libertarian Party, which has been excluded from the televised debates, is even more resistant to government intervention than the Republicans. If you didn't think it was possible to be further to the right than the Republican Party, this may come as a surprise.

September 30, 2008


Yes, stock prices seemingly dropped off a cliff yesterday. But please remember that, unless you are selling, your losses are only on paper.

In fact, relatively few shares traded hands. Average daily volume on the New York Stock Exchange is 3.6 billion shares. Yesterday, only 1.5 billion shares were sold.

This is basic supply and demand: when there are more sellers than buyers, prices go down. When there are more buyers than sellers, prices go up. Right now, there are few buyers for stocks, so prices are going down.

If you're investing in a 401(k), don't panic, just stick with it. Dollar cost averaging is one of the most efficient ways to invest. Your 401(k) dollars will buy more now than they did last year.

If you're interested in getting into the stock market but don't trust yourself to pick companies that will survive the turmoil and come out ahead in five or ten years—-whatever your investment horizon is--then stick with ETFs and other mutual funds.

As an aside: I find it interesting that, although exchange-tranded funds, or ETFs, and bargain-priced financials dominated the high-volume list in the last few weeks, that changed yesterday. Yesterday, what few buyers were on the floor stayed away from financial stocks. Instead, they took interest in technology, with six of the top ten most-traded stocks being tech firms. Apple, Microsoft and Cisco all traded at higher-than-average volume. So there are some buyers out there. They are just being very picky, and rightly so.

September 16, 2008

Letting the market do its job

I was surprised recently to hear my favorite Republican stalwart declare that someone needed to stop all those speculators who were driving up the price of oil.

Wait, I said. What about the free market economy? What about "laissez-faire?"

While he admitted the need for government to stay out of business as much as possible, he observed that there was obviously something wrong with $150-a-barrel oil, because the stuff is not intrinsically worth that much more than it was before.

And he's right. Like the housing bubble, the dot-com bubble and, indeed, the 17th-century tulip bubble, the oil bubble was not inflated by true market forces. It was inflated by greed and wishful thinking.

Yesterday, Lehman Brothers filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, the largest bankruptcy filing on record. Lehman is an investment bank, and it was among the big institutional investors behind the run-up in commodities prices during the last 12 months. Another of those investors, Merrill Lynch, was bought by Bank of America in a $50 billion deal.

Crude oil futures for October, meanwhile, have dropped to less than $93 a barrel.

Connection? Oh, yeah. That, my friends, is the free market in action.

September 15, 2008

Powerful insight

William Falk, the editor of The Week, combs through hundreds of news sources for each weekly issue of The Week. So, he says, he has a grasp of the usual party positions.

Or so he thought. But, he notes, "Conservative pundits who once disdained feminism are lauding Sarah Palin’s heroism in pursuing a demanding career while raising five kids. Liberal feminists, meanwhile, are suggesting that because of her unseemly ambition, Palin would be either an irresponsible absentee mom or a distracted vice president."

He also notes the conservative/liberal flip-flopping relative to teen pregnancy, in light of Bristol Palin as compared with Jamie Lynn Spears.

"One day," Falk writes, "Republicans say a lack of political experience is a fatal flaw; Democrats say it frees you to see things anew. Now it’s the other way around. It’s as if these strongly voiced opinions were simply debating points, chosen because they suited the circumstances—and candidates—of the moment."

In The Week's print edition, Falk has only a few inches to work with. In that small space, he makes the most concise, cogent observation about partisan posturing I have ever seen.

At the moment, the full editorial is viewable only by subscribers. It looks as if they free up the print edition content to non-subscribers after 90 days.

September 12, 2008

Straighter talk than most people care to hear

Because I do a daily stock report on the radio, I get asked questions like "can't the president or that Fed guy do something about the economy?"

People are not pleased when my answer is "no."

Neither the president nor the Fed chairman can solve our woes with the stroke of a pen. Nor should they.

The free market isn't perfect, but I believe history has shown that it's better than the alternatives.

The free market may look pretty ugly right now, but that's the result of individuals and corporations over-reaching themselves.

The free market, generally speaking, repairs itself over the long term.

Bob Barr, the Libertarian candidate for president, brings this issue up in a press release issued this morning. He says he will not promise economic prosperity. "Presidents do not control the economy and could not be trusted to do so even if they had that ability," he writes.

Barr's observations on the role of the federal government are so cogent, I'm going to excerpt several of them for you:

“I won’t promise to ‘invest’ in new energy technologies. That is the job of the private sector. The government has no money of its own and has an awful record in choosing economic ‘winners’ and ‘losers.’ ”

“I would not, as president, ensure that every child has an education, make sure every American has health insurance, or provide job retraining for every worker. No president can honestly make those guarantees. And none of these are the responsibility of the federal government.”

“The president takes an oath to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution. ... The president’s job is not to run America, or the American economy, or any particular industry. The president’s job is to be the chief executive of the federal government."

Barr's position, and that of many of the country's founders, is that the federal government's role should be limited to truly national matters, e.g. foreign policy, defense, international trade and interstate commerce.

Remember that, at the founding of our country, the union was seen as a confederation of independent rebublics. Right up to and through the Civil War, a subject of frequent debate was whether one's primary allegiance was to one's state or to the union.

The Libertarian party seems to be taking the old anti-federalist stance, calling to minimize the federal government and leave most matters to the states.

As for myself, I'm rather a Hamiltonian Federalist. But I do agree that some matters—education and health care are among them—cannot be solved by the free market. I also agree, as Mitt Romney pointed out repeatedly, that states need more latitude in dealing with such matters.

The federal government cannot remain totally aloof from adressing problems in the economy, health care, and so on. But the electorate would do well to remember that the federal government's power in such matters is limited, and rightly so.

September 8, 2008

Fun with homophones

English is so flexible, it can be bent until it breaks.

One common breakage occurs when various homophones—words that sound the same but are spelled differently and mean different things—have to be written down. Hair/hare, there/their … you get the idea.

People often know what to say, and if they said it, there would be no problem. But if they write it down, and put the wrong spelling, it's an error.

Most recently, I got a congratulatory message from a co-worker that said "yea."

I'm fairly certain she meant "yay," because she finished with an exclamation point instead of "…though I walk through the valley…"

Yea = adv. yes (archaic)
Yay = interj. an exclamation of approval.

These are related, obviously, since they both indicate approval. But the first is formal, and only connotes agreement or affirmation. The second connotes excitement. Cheerleaders do not jump in the air and yell "yea, team." They yell "yay, team!"

A related word, "yeah," is pronounced differently but also connotes agreement.

Yeah, grammar geeks really do fret over whether you mean yay! or yea.

September 4, 2008

Spelling lesson from Pogo

The Republican Party has been getting on my nerves a bit this week, blasting out more than a dozen press releases a day from the convention, none of which are relevant to my day job.

But last night's missive "Remarks by Alaska Governor Sarah Palin" was a delight, and not just because of her amiable anecdotes about taking Alaska's "good-ol' boys network*" down a peg or two.

In addressing energy independence, her prepared text stated that a McCain/Palin administration would "…build more new-clear plants…." Later, there's a reference to "new-clear weapons."

Thank you, thank you, to the speechwriter clever enough to spell "nuclear" phonetically. Apparently I am not the only person sick to death of hearing people talk about "nuke-ya-lur" power.

I suppose that means I'm also not the only one who remembers the Walt Kelly comic Pogo, in which the denizens of the Okefenokee Swamp knew how to pronounce "nuclear" because their creator spelled it "new clear."

This mnemonic of Mr. Kelly's was well-used in Ms. Palin's text -- except that someone really should have corrected the phonetic version before it went to the media.

Oh, well. I appreciated the chance to reminisce about good ol' Pogo.

* — For a discussion about whether "good-ol' boys network" is an apt phrase, see Bill Walsh's Blogslot.

August 26, 2008

Let's do away with datelines

Tupperware is based in Orlando.

Standard & Poors is based in New York.

Which doesn't explain why this article about S&P upgrading Tupperware's corporate credit rating is datelined "Mumbai."

Datelines originated with wire services, which would begin a transmitted story with the place and date the story was written.

Wikipedia's Dateline article gives this example:

"BEIRUT, Lebanon, June 2 — The outlook was uncertain today as ..."

That's how the story would appear to an editor pulling it from the wires. When it appeared in the newspaper, the date would usually be omitted, leaving the now misnamed "dateline" to carry only the location.

Of course, pre-Internet, a writer writing a story about Beirut was presumed to be in Beirut.

But now, in the interest of saving money, agencies are farming news-gathering tasks out to Mumbai and other points east.

I'm going to leave the question of whether this makes journalistic sense for another time. The truth is, the Mumbai correspondent did a proper job on the Tupperware story. What I want to address today is whether the story's having been written in India is of importance to the reader.

It is not. It is a useful piece of information, but the reader, for the most part, does not care. For his own good, he should be told, but not necessarily first thing.

We ought not yell "MUMBAI" at our readers before telling them a story about New York and Orlando. Let's spare them that incongruity. Let's just tell them the story and then, at the end, whisper, in italics, "This story was written by Our Correspondent in Mumbai."

There was a time when datelines made sense. They no longer do. Except when they're used to actually convey the date.

August 21, 2008

I am the Lorax..

I probably should have guessed that there was such a thing as a person who would use a computer to paperlessly shop for and purchase a product and then print a paper receipt. Should have, and would have, if I'd thought about it. But that's the sort of thing I actively try not to think about.

But now that I have thought about it, thanks to this paper-saving tip by J.D. Biersdorfer in the New York Times, I'm just sad.

I had hoped that by now, people wouldn't need these things explained to them.

...I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues...

August 16, 2008

Batteries included -- for what they're worth

Why does a $30 cell phone bleep at you before its battery dies, but a $30,000 car doesn't?

August 15, 2008

Care less? Or less care?

For the second time this week I have seen, in professional writing, the phrase "could care less."

If one could care less, that implies that, to some degree, one does care.

The idiomatic expression that describes a complete lack of interest is "could not care less." Which is to say that one doesn't care at all, so it is not possible to care any less.

I bring this up because I could not care more about the proper use of our language.

August 13, 2008

Sportsmanship — or sportswomanship, as the case may be

One of our favorite modern complaints is that the Olympics are too politicized. We imagine that the ancient games were pure and unsullied by such vulgarity.

Although the ancient games of Olympia were a sacred act of devotion to the Greek gods, they were not free of politicking.

The people of Elis organized the first games at Olympia, but other Greek city-states often tried to gain control of the area. The nearby city of Pisa (the Greek one, not the Italian one) did so several times. In 364 B.C., during one such occupation, the Eleans' battle against the Pisatans not only took place during the games -- a violation of the vaunted Olympic Truce -- but took place on the field of Olympia, while the wrestling portion of the pentathlon was taking place.

I learned this, and much more, from Ancient Origins of the Olympic Games, a lecture that's available for free download through Sept. 4 from The Teaching Company.

I listen to audiobooks, podcasts, and lectures during my commute, to keep the time from being a total loss. These lectures were a great use of time, not least for the story of Kallipateira, a widow who trained her son for the games. She accompanied him to Olympia, even though women (except, interestingly, young unmarried ones) were forbidden to attend on pain of death. She disguised herself as a man but was -- shall we say -- exposed when she leapt over a barrier after her son's victory. The judges pardoned her, not only because her son had won, but because her father, three brothers, and a nephew were all Olympic victors.

Yeah. Way more entertaining than top 40 radio.

August 11, 2008

Drawing the line when others cross it

Remember when I said ethical journalists don't charge for news content?

The Society of Professional Journalists announced that on Sept. 6, it will present its Ethics in Journalism Award to Glen Mabie.

If you've never heard of Glen Mabie, don't fret—I hadn't, either, and as a person who works with journalists, I probably should have.

Mabie was chosen for the award because on Jan. 7, 2008, he resigned from his position as news director at WEAU-TV in Eau Claire, Wis.— resigned over an ethics issue.

From the SPJ's news release:

"The general manager at WEAU-TV and the top marketing and communications person at the area’s Sacred Heart hospital negotiated an agreement under which the hospital would pay an undisclosed amount to the station to do two 'health news' segments a week. These segments were to be broadcast as part of the station’s regular newscasts, and the reporters were only to interview Sacred Heart employees as part of the 'news coverage.'

"Mabie protested this agreement but could not get management to cancel the deal. Mabie submitted his resignation a week later and made no public announcement of his departure. In the end, the station’s management decided to end its deal with Sacred Heart."

In his nomination letter, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire professor David Gordon wrote: "I believe that Mabie’s willingness to draw a line in the sand and to stand up for his ethical principles regardless of the personal cost is a perfect fit for the criteria set out for the SPJ Ethics in Journalism Award."

Acccording to the SPJ, Mabie said the award is "a reminder of the strong code of ethics to which journalists adhere."

That's true.

Mabie also said his colleagues in the newsroom contributed to the award. But Mabie is the one who put his job on the line, and therefore serves as a living example of ethics in action.

August 8, 2008

Goes without saying

Given the technology available, why do I still have to give directions to pizza delivery people?

It seems that, no matter where I order from, I get a phone call from the driver because he can't figure out how to get to my house.

I suppose if I were out on some uncharted rural track, this would be necessary. But I'm only 1.8 miles from the nearest pizza restaurant. To get from there to here is one left turn and a right turn. That's it.

But I just got the usual call about needing directions.

They have my address. Even if they can't afford GPS devices for all the drivers, can't they use this site or this one and figure it out?

August 2, 2008

Loose lips sink ships — or reputations

In this case, the ship -- or rather, reputation -- sunk by a loose-lipped soldier was his own.

---------- Forwarded Message ----------

“As you know I am not a very political person. I just wanted to pass along that Senator Obama came to Bagram Afghanistan for about an hour on his visit to 'The War Zone'. I wanted to share with you what happened. ...
“As the Soldiers were lined up to shake his hand he blew them off and didn't say a word as he went into the conference room to meet the General. ...”

---------- End Forwarded Message ----------

Well, dontcha know, the American soldier who fired off this miffed missive signed it with his full name, rank and unit – which, since he is in a war zone, is just a teensy bit off-protocol.

He later recanted this testimony, but not before his family, friends, friends of friends and probably a few thousand people he never heard of were forwarding it to everyone in their e-mail address books.

Then, one of those thousands forwarded it to me.

Now, you must understand, anything with “Fw:” at the beginning of it that lands in my inbox -- unless it’s a joke -- gets run through the Snopes-o-meter.

Sure enough, the folks at Snopes were getting this thing almost before Obama returned to the States. They also got a bunch of mail from troops whose experience with Obama was completely opposite that of the disgruntled correspondent quoted above. One of those soldiers wrote, “I don't know who this captain saw, but it wasn't the Barack Obama *I* just saw in Afghanistan. Unlike most of the pols who breeze on through for nothing more than brief photo ops before leaving he was warm, friendly & engaging (as much as security would allow) with the troops he met and he was genuinely interested in us and our mission and how we could best serve our country.”

As for myself, I disagree with Barak Obama’s political positions on ... just about everything. But let’s fight fair, shall we? I mean, if you are going to slam a candidate, do it on the basis of his benighted ideas about how to fight a war or his lack of support for manned space flight.

But don’t lie about him.

July 24, 2008

"Destroying the status quo"

A fellow writer pointed me to Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. She pointed out that this seems to be doing for film what print-on-demand is doing for publishing.

Dr. Horrible is produced by Joss Whedon, whose prior work includes Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Dr. Horrible is a supervillain musical (of which, Whedon writes, "there are too few").

If you visit the Dr. Horrible Web site, be sure to read Whedon's "Master Plan," in which he outlines why he chose to release his film this way.

It's a good film—both amusing and thought-provoking. It has a catchy soundtrack, too.

Warning: If you're as much of a prude as I am, you'll be annoyed by a few naughty bits of dialog and lyric. If you're more of a prude than me, you might even be offended. If you're like most Americans, though, you'll be wondering why I characterize those bits as "naughty."

July 20, 2008

Let them eat dog

Proving once again that the concept of "freedom" is anathema to communism, China has decided to improve its international image by ordering Beijing restaurants to stop serving dog meat during the Olympics.

See the news story here.

Ostensibly, this move is being made so as not to offend Western sensibilities.

Sorry, but Westerners traveling to the Orient can learn to cope with dog meat on menus. Some Westerners might even want to try it.

Not that I want to eat dog. But those who do oughtn't be prevented from it in a country where it's customary.

The Chinese government can't be bothered to clean up its image by doing hard things like allowing freedom of religion, or cracking down on patent infringements, or leaving reporters alone so they can do their jobs.

But they can protect Westerners from Oriental culture by instituting a pointless ban on a legal substance. Yeah. That's communism for you.

July 19, 2008

Putting the C in YMCA

The Dr. Phillips YMCA Family Center is holding a Back to School Community Prayer Breakfast Aug. 7, 2008, at 7:30 a.m.

I would have liked to put this in the paper, but there’s just no place for it, because it’s a back-to-school event, not a business event. I explained this to the PR person, and she replied that she knew that but submitted it anyway, “since everyone needs prayers for their businesses to last through the economy.”

And you know, she's got a point.

July 17, 2008

Oui, nous n'avons pas d'émail

Sometimes, it seems that only the lexicographers and grammarians are fighting this good fight. Luckily, there are quite a few of us.

Email, like the coneheads, comes from France, where it's pronouned "ay-MAYL." It translates as "enamel."

E-mail is short for "electronic mail," and, as Bill Walsh so eloquently argues in Lapsing into a Comma and also at The Slot, it needs its hyphen. It's pronounced "EE-mail."

Perhaps only pedants like me care whether there's a hyphen. Maybe so. But as long as my dictionary of choice shows a hyphen, I'm using a hyphen. For that matter, I'll probably keep using the hyphen even if the descriptivists rewrite all the dictionaries.

Vive le trait d'union

July 13, 2008

Over-reaching speculation

Looking for indications of connectedness among cultures is usually beneficial. Finding our similarities is enlightening. But sometimes, in the search for such connections, people reach a little too far, and in the wrong direction.

The History Channel program Egypt: Land of the Gods examined the influence of that country on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

In the segment on Chrisianity, the program speculates that Christian iconography of the infant Jesus sitting on the lap of his mother, Mary, was inspired by ancient Egyptian iconography of Horus sitting on the lap of his mother, Isis.

Yeah. Or maybe Jesus is depicted sitting on Mary's lap because children often sit on their mothers' laps.

The universality of motherhood is a given. No long reaches are needed to make that point.

July 7, 2008

Poor company

Writers must be hard to live with. I know I certainly have been lately.

I've been preoccupied with my novel, which I've been repeatedly told is about 60,000 words too long. I finally got some professional advice about just which bits need cutting and which plot loopholes need plugging.

So I've been plugging away, as it were, which means I've been investing all my thought-time on a fictional world instead of the real one. I have no doubt it's been hard on the people around me, since it's rendered me nearly incapable of having a rational conversation.

This is an occupational hazard, I think.

In 1996, when Viking was preparing to release his translation of The Odyssey, Robert Fagles was interviewed by Paul Gray for Time magazine:

"Fagles recalls a day during his long labors on the Iliad when he was standing in line at a Princeton, New Jersey, bank. 'I suddenly thought, "Don't these people know there's a war going on?"' The Trojan War, of course."

I can relate, even though most of my preoccupation has had little to do with that 3,000-year-old war. Until I started working on this post, I'd only spent 15 or 20 minutes thinking about Menelaus and Agamemnon.

July 1, 2008

Metaphorically speaking

Some words are too heavy-laden to use figuratively.

"Ground Zero," for example, brings with it images of death and destruction. Prior to 2001, we grammarians insisted that it be used only in reference to nuclear explosions. But even we have to make an exception for the site of the former World Trade Center in New York City. That is indeed a site of profound destruction.

Given the phrase's inherent qualities, it is not only absurd, but also insensitive to write of a shopping mall being "ground zero for the region's economic recovery."

People seem to like the word "epicenter." But, as Inigo Montoya said, "I don't think it means what you think it means."

Outside of seismology, there really is no good use for "epicenter." It doesn't mean "middle," and it doesn't describe a center that's better than all the other centers. It's the point of origin of an earthquake.

Yes, I suppose you could get away with using it metaphorically sometimes, e.g., "the subprime shakedown was the epicenter of credit troubles that shook the financial industry to its foundations." But unless you are talking about something destructive—earth-shattering either literally or figuratively—please use something less loaded. A new office building is not "the epicenter of the financial district," no matter how many bankers work there.

I hesitate to even address the use of the word "rape" to describe consumers' feelings about high prices. Suffice it to say that the experiences of people who must reduce their Starbucks budgets to gas up their Hummers differ from those of people who have been sexually battered.

June 30, 2008

Get real -- really

Any time an e-mail starts with something like "IT IS FOR REAL..." you can be pretty sure it's not.

This oldie that's not a goodie actually landed in my inbox today:

"…To all of my friends, I do not usually forward messages, But this is from my friend Pearlas Sandborn and she really is an attorney. If she says that this will work - It will work. After all, what have you got to lose? SORRY EVERYBODY.. JUST HAD TO TAKE THE CHANCE!!! I'm an attorney, And I know the law. This thing is for real. … Bill Gates sharing his fortune. … Microsoft and AOL are running an e-mail beta test When you forward this e-mail to friends, Microsoft can and will track it …"

And make you a billionaire without your having to spend years learning how to make software that billions of people use every day.

Bill Gates is sharing his fortune, all right, but he's sharing it with genuinely needy people who don't have, like, roofs over their heads and food to eat, OK? Not a bunch of folks who can't be bothered to Google "Microsoft and AOL are running an e-mail beta test" so they can find all the pages that tell them this a hoax.

I wrote about this in OBJ back in 2003, and bunches of people wrote about it before me, including the venerable, under the brilliant heading of "Thousand Dollar Bill."

So here we go again, kids. Do us all a favor: When you get one of these e-mails, before you forward it, go to and look for it. You will be amazed at how many of these things are just absolute lies.

I should say you may be amazed. If you're a jaded journalist, you won't be amazed at all, just sad. Not only sad that so many people pull these hoaxes, but that so many people fall for them.

June 28, 2008

Little orphan everybody

We’ve all heard of crazy legislation: bridges that go nowhere, museums dedicated to people you never heard of, etc. . .

But one piece of crazy legislation now being pushed through Congress is seriously worrying me.

Both the house and senate versions of the Orphan Works Bill—H.R. 5889 and S.2913—would dismantle copyright as we know it.

As it stands now, both in the U.S. and abroad, one’s original work is considered one’s own. Period. Those who use your work without your permission must pay you if they are caught.

Mind you, catching them is the hard part, but that’s kind of beside the point.

The point is that this proposed legislation would change the law so that those who use your work need not pay you if they can show they believed your work to be “orphaned.”

Traditionally, an “orphaned” work was one whose creator was either dead or unable to be located.

For example, I have an old photo of a lovely woman with a Gibson Girl hairdo. There is no name on the photo, and the only relatives who might have known this lady's name are dead.

This is an orphaned work. Both the subject and the photographer are likely dead, and even if those centenarians are still living somewhere, I can’t find them, because I don’t know their names, or even where the photo was taken.

But under the so-called “Orphan Works Bill” of 2008, any work, regardless of when it was created, can be considered orphaned merely because a potential infringer failed to find it listed in a database.

You realize what this means?

Every work not registered in one of the proposed databases (which would be operated by private companies) would be considered orphaned, even if it’s a photo I took of my child yesterday.

Under current copyright law, an artist who claims his work has been infringed upon must prove that he is the creator of the work. No registry, not even the copyright office, need be involved.

Under the proposed law, even the existence of the work in a registry would not protect an artist from infringement, because there could be any number of databases, and the potential infringer is not required to check all of them. He is only required to make a “reasonable effort.” But he, not the artist, gets to define “reasonable.”

So artists, most of whom have a hard enough time making a living from their art, are expected to spend their time and money entering their work in databases owned not by the Copyright Office, but by private, for-profit companies. The bill’s proponents claim this is letting the private sector solve the orphan works problem. What it’s really doing is creating a private-sector business model from a non-problem.

It actually creates a whole new problem, because it orphans every work not registered. And since the proposed registry—or registries—are not meant to incorporate current Copyright Office records, that means that the minute this bill passes, every creative work everywhere, including this blog, the paintings at my local Starbucks, and the “Tower of Light” sculpture in front of Orlando City Hall, are all “orphans” until they are registered.

In fact, this bill’s requirement that works be registered in databases stands in direct opposition to international copyright law, which prohibits countries from requiring the registering of works. Proponents of the bill say that registration is optional. But the only way for an artist to prove infringement would be to register his work. Brad Holland of the Illustrators' Partnership put it this way: "You'd have to start paying protection money to a bunch of commercial entities."

If anything, given our global economy, we should be trying to standardize laws across countries so as to encourage international commerce. Taking U.S. law so far from that of—well, everybody, frankly—makes us look like a bunch of lawless hicks who care more about stuffing corporate pockets than ensuring artists receive fair compensation for their work.

Lots more information about this matter is available at the Illustrators' Partnership. They also have a link that will help you write your senator or representative.

Mark Simon's interview of Brad Holland, along with an insightful article by Mark, are here.

You can sign a petition here.

We can't afford to just shrug this off and say "this legislation is too crazy to pass." We're talking about the same body that passed the "Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007," which legislates what type of light bulbs we may use.

“No man's life, liberty or property is safe while the legislature is in session.”—New York State Surrogate Court Judge Gideon Tucker, in 1866

June 23, 2008

Pored stiff

This is one of those fine points that shows up in just about all the grammar books, so I can only assume that the persistence of the error results from not enough people reading those books.

So I add my voice to the chorus warning about the confusion of pore with pour.

Never mind the pores on your face.* This "pore" is a verb. It means to stare or study intently.

Its homophone, "pour," (to cause a liquid to flow) is often used when "pore" is meant. You can't "pour over a document" unless you are emptying your glass onto its pages.

The confusion is understandable, since both words come from the Middle English pouren. Since our 14th-century predecessors were notoriously lax in their spelling, it's a wonder there's a distinction at all.

Now that I have finished poring over my dictionaries and usage manuals, I'm going to pour a cup of tea.

* — OK, since you asked, the noun "pore"—meaning the openings in your skin that get clogged with oil and turn to pimples—comes from the Greek poros, meaning passage.

June 21, 2008

What color is arthritis?

While shopping this weekend, I found a wide assortment of pink-ribbon branded products, sold as fundraisers for breast cancer research.

You can get a pink-ribbon day planner, pink-barrelled pens, a pink-ribbon cookbook; I lost track, frankly, of them all.

The breast cancer foundation really has its fund-raising act together. Or maybe it's just that women like to buy pink things.

But what about those of us who have other medical conditions? Can a guy not buy a manly planner to raise funds for prostate cancer research?

Heart disease affects far more women than breast cancer, yet the heart association's "Go Red" campaign has a long way to go before it matches the power that is the breast-cancer-research fundraising juggernaut.

This despite the fact that heart disease is the leading cause of death for Americans. Cancer—which is to say, all forms of cancer combined—is the No. 2 cause.

Meanwhile, although arthritis isn't a primary cause of mortality, 21 percent of American adults are living with it.

Let's compare shopping opportunities, shall we?

The American Heart Association's Go Red for Women site carries Red-branded clothes, jewelry, and household items.

The Susan G. Komen for the Cure's Promise Shop carries clothing, accessories, furniture, and a pink iPod Nano case.

At the Arthritis Foundation's store, you can get exercise videos, books, and free pamphlets. Whoo-hoo.

You see the problem. Other foundations need to tap into the same shopping gene that's done so well for the Komen group.

I mean, wouldn't it be great if all of us were able to fund research into the disease that most affects us just by buying pajamas?

June 15, 2008

I beg to differ

The phrase "begs the question" is so increasingly misused these days that even I recently caught myself using it, and had to self-edit mid-sentence to say "leads us to the question."

To beg the question is not, as I myself almost mistakenly put it, to ask the question that logically follows from what we now know. Now, it is true that the use of "begs the question" to mean "leads to the question" is now so common that some dictionaries recognize it. But I side with Bryan A. Garner, who writes in Garner's Modern American Usage, "Though it is true that the new sense may be understood by most people, many will consider it sloppy."

"Begging the question" doesn't mean to evade an issue, either. The phrase that's wanted when you avoid answering a question is "beg off," which is to say, ask to be excused.

To beg the question, as I well know from my philosophy classes lo these many years ago, is to engage in circular reasoning. In other words, to draw a conclusion that merely restates the original statement.

For example, we know that the Harry Potter books are massively popular.

This leads us to the question, "why?"

Some may beg off this question, because popularity is so difficult to explain.

And the one who says "Harry Potter books are massively popular because lots of people are reading them" merely begs the question.

June 13, 2008

Editing the Great Charter

Some, including British statesman Tony Benn, are claiming that Magna Carta has been "repealed." They're a little behind times.

What happened is that Britain's House of Commons voted to extend the length of time a prisoner may be held without charges being filed from 28 days to 42 days. That is a bit extreme, and I tend to agree with opposition leader David Cameron, who said, "Terrorists want to destroy our freedom, and when we trash our liberties, we do their work for them."

While it's true that the right to not be imprisoned without knowing the charges against you is included in Magna Carta, so are a lot of other things. Really useful things that are pillars of democracy, like allowing the king to levy a tax to pay for the marriage of his eldest daughter.

OK, bad example.

It is true that many of our diplomatic stanchions—like the right to a speedy trial—are descended from Magna Carta.

But to declare the demise of the entire document on the basis of one vote on one issue is rather like saying the Constitution was "repealed" when we threw out the Eighteenth Amendment.

In fact, like the U.S. Constitution, Magna Carta has undergone changes throughout its history. The U.K.'s Statute Law Database shows that most of Magna Carta's clauses have been repealed, though some were revised and incorporated into modern legislation.

Others were eliminated from modern law, and with good reason. For example, Clause 54: "No one shall be seized or imprisoned on the appeal of a woman for the death of any one but her husband." Yeah. Not exactly a pillar of egalitarianism, that one.

So let's not get the idea that Magna Carta is some kind of unchangeable holy writ—the Gospel of Runnymede—for which we face plagues and damnation should we add to or take away from it.

Magna Carta is a great document. It defined a great moment in history when the nobility, faced with a tyrant, made him understand that he, too, is bound by the law. But it is not carved in stone, nor should it be.

I don't believe in coincidences; I am certain it is Providence that this all came about on the heels of the National Archives' receiving a 1297 copy of Magna Carta. It's now on display just down the hall from the Bill of Rights. There's an article about that in the current issue of American Heritage magazine, which must have gone to press weeks before the current British brouhaha. It's also worth noting that this Sunday, June 15, is the 793rd anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta by King John.

June 6, 2008

Get used to it

My environmentalist brethren have been saying for decades that the world's supply of oil is finite, and is likely to run out by the middle of the 21st century, if not sooner.

So why does everyone act surprised when the price of it goes up?

Frankly, my dears, I'm getting a little tired of the moaning that inevitably sounds when the price of oil climbs. Oil was up to $139 per barrel today. So? Surely I am not the only one who saw that coming.

This is basic supply-and-demand economics, folks. Americans are still using Hummers as commuter vehicles, and people in China and India are buying cars faster than teenagers buy video games. The number of cars on roads is increasing, and the amount of oil in the world is decreasing. The price slope is easy to predict.

So can we please stop playing the "what is the world coming to" game every time the price of oil goes up?

The only time I'm surprised by the price of oil anymore is when it goes down.

June 1, 2008

Off the map

Jeff Gerke, founder of one of my favorite online hangouts, Where the Map Ends, is launching an independent publishing company, Marcher Lord Press. He recently posted the prologue to MLP's first release, Hero, Second Class, which Jeff describes as "a laugh-out-loud comic fantasy." I, for one, am really looking forward to this book. And I really did laugh out loud.

May 31, 2008

Lessons in Democracy

The long and dramatic history of Nepal's monarchy has drawn to a close. The recent events in that country are a spectacular example not only of democracy, but of common sense.

And what a relief, after so much power struggling between the monarchy and the government, the movement for establishment of a socialist republic by the Communist Party of Nepal, and a 10-year-long civil war.

King Gyanendra (who came to the throne after a tragic palace massacre that might have been conceived by Wagner were it not so horribly true), attempted to crush the Maoist movement by assuming full power and imposing martial law.

This, however, only stirred up public pro-democracy sentiment. A series of strikes, boycotts, and protests in 2006 led to the re-instatement of Nepal's Parliament, which appointed Girija Prasad Koirala prime minister, a post he still holds.

Then the democratic ball really got rolling. The power of the king was cut by parliament in 2006, and the bill to declare the country a federal republic was ratified this week by the Constituent Assembly.

Gyanendra is king no more; his palaces will become museums. Unlike some world leaders, past and present, Gyanendra so far seems to be handling the matter with equanimity.

Nearby, in Bhutan, an even more remarkable shift toward democracy is occurring: This one instigated by the king himself. For the last decade, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck has been transferring power to a council of cabinet ministers. In 2006, he stepped down, allowing his son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, to take the throne, now largely a ceremonial station. Earlier this year, Jigme the younger encouraged his people vote for a parliament that will further limit the authority of the monarchy.

It seems to me that Jigme the Elder and Gyanendra ought to make a visit to Zimbabwe, and give Robert Mugabe some schooling in democratic principles and the power of graceful acquiescence.

May 26, 2008

In memoriam

What could I possibly say about Memorial Day that hasn't already been said better by someone else?

Others have already pointed out how grateful we must be to those who died in the service of their country.

Others have already said that one's position on the present war (or, indeed, any other) should not preclude one from honoring the fallen.

Others have already written about the shamefulness that a day set aside for mourning has become just another excuse for picnics and white sales.

So what I can offer you, on this day that's supposed to be solemn but rarely is?

Only this:

In addition to information about the history of the holiday, this site offers a call to action: Move the holiday back to its traditional day of May 30.

Sen. Daniel Inouye has introduced a bill to this effect in every Congress since 1989. Of course, he meets with opposition—or at best apathy—because people are unwilling to give up their three-day weekends.

"Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic."
General Orders No.11, May 5, 1868, by order of Gen. John A. Logan, Headquarters, Grand Army Of The Republic.

May 16, 2008

From Russia With Loathe

If you thought Nigerian fee-fraud scammers were brazen, get this:

"Someone you call a friend wants you Dead by all means, and the person have spent a lot of money on this … As someone has paid us to kill you. Get back to me now if you are ready to pay some fees to spare your life, $30,000 is all you need to spend …"

This one comes not from Nigeria but, apparently, Russia. Some samples of the text's variants are on the wonderful Scam-o-Rama, and a more detailed report is at

The About article includes this note:

"The FBI encourages recipients of the scam message to file a report online at the Internet Crime Complaint Center."

Of course, you should never reply to such scams.

But if you do, you can catalog your adventures in that dangerous realm at The Scam Baiter.

May 15, 2008

All over but the shouting

A big thank you to Orange County School Board members Joie W Cadle, Anne Geiger, Kathleen "Kat" Gordon, and Daryl Flynn, who voted for moving high school start times later. To those who didn't, and to those parents who have already started the campaign to rescind this vote, I have to say: This was the right decision. Deal with it.

That, as previously noted, teenagers do better in school when they don't have to awaken at five o'clock in the morning is actually secondary.

The primary concern here is that the district has to trim $70 million dollars out of its budget. Ideally, that money should come from places other than classrooms and libraries.

That administrators figured out how to save $2.3 million in this budget year alone (and more in years to come) just by changing the bus schedule is a brilliant piece of accounting, and they ought to be praised for it, not criticized.

If anyone is really fired up about maintaining the status quo, I suggest they figure out where the district can get $70 million—or even a measly $2.3 million—when the citizens of this state keep voting themselves property tax cuts.

Psst…Floridians…yeah, I'm talking to you…schools are funded by property taxes. But you knew that. Didn't you?

May 12, 2008

Don't ask

Today — and not for the first time — a businessperson asked something like, "If I buy an ad, will it guarantee my press release gets in the paper?"




Questions like this really get my blood boiling. Let me make two things perfectly clear: First, asking this question is an insult to the integrity of a newsperson.

Second, if the answer is yes, you are dealing with a news organization that has no integrity.

With this second point, you understand, I acknowledge that not all news organizations have the same ethical standards. But what rankles—as it does with any group—is when all are painted with the same brush.

To imply that all newspeople lack integrity is precisely as prejudiced as to imply that all women are bad drivers or all men are too stubborn to ask for directions or … well, pick your subgroup and the stereotypical insult most commonly hurled at it.

I would say "all generalizations are wrong," but you see the inherent problem …

May 9, 2008

It's about time... more ways than one.

Superintendent Ronald Blocker of Orange County Public Schools is recommending that the district swap the start times of middle schools (which currently start at 9:30 a.m.) with high schools (which currently start at 7:20 a.m.)

And, you might well ask, why don't all the schools start at the same time?

Because that would require more buses. As it is now, the same bus that takes the elementary students to school turns around and then makes a second trip to gather the middle schoolers and take them to school.

Mind you, some teachers and parents have spent years clamoring for a later high school start time. Multiple studies have shown that teenagers do not perform well in the mornings. They need more sleep than younger children, and on a different cycle.

Of course, such a change couldn't be made only because it would be good for students.

No, it took $124 a barrel oil and a massive state budget cut for the district to consider a change.

And what a sensible change it is, too. Here's a quote from the district's report on the subject:

"The current schedule prohibits a significant number of buses from making three trips each morning and afternoon. Some only make two trips. Why? Because high school zones are so big they cannot complete their routes and be at bus stops in time to pick up elementary students. The flip allows all buses to run three trips."

The district's full report is available here.

So because the buses will be used more efficiently, the district can cover the same ground with fewer vehicles, saving several million dollars a year.

There are those who have concerns about after-school athletics and jobs. But the No. 1 objective of the school district is to educate students. Therefore a move that will improve classroom performance and save money must be given priority over extracurricular activities. Anything else would be both fiscally and educationally irresponsible.

I realize not all parents in the district will agree with me. Regardless of your opinion, please share it with your school board member. The board will vote on this matter May 13. Board members, with links to their e-mail addresses, are listed here.

May 1, 2008

Please join the rest of us in the 21st century

About a year and a half ago, at my day job, I railed against companies that snail-mail press releases.

Don't waste money mailing dead trees

The amount of dead-tree matter landing in my inbox has diminished significantly, yet I still received the occasional paper press release.

Most PR professionals understand that media outlets want e-mail, not bits of paper, to work with. But many companies don't hire PR professionals; they ask a secretary or some other person who doesn't understand the media to send out a press release.

I often get phone calls from these folks, because they don't know what a press release is, exactly, or what it should contain. The ones who call are a step ahead of the ones who don't, because they at least learn the e-mail lesson.

The ones who don't send me a piece of paper that winds up in a file that's not part of my e-queue, and so halve their chances of exposure.

So here's a shout-out to all you non-PR-professionals who get yanked into PR duty because there's no one else at your company to do it: E-mail. Plain text. Really.

April 22, 2008

Let the hacking begin

With Amendment 1, Florida voters — by almost a two-thirds majority — in January awarded themselves a hefty tax cut. They did it in spite of warnings from multiple industries, municipalities and nonprofit organizations that tax cuts would result in service cuts.

Well, the knives are out, and the results ain't pretty.

Workforce Central Florida (an agency that helps the unemployed find jobs) will, because of budget cuts, close two offices and lay off 50 people this year.

Florida Forever, a state-funded parks and wilderness preservation program, now has zero funding.

Also in the zero-funding category: the state's Crisis Pregancy Centers, whose measly $2 million annual budget is the latest victim of the chopping block.

Barney Bishop, president and chief executive officer of Associated Industries of Florida, a trade group, testified April 18 before the Florida Senate Finance and Tax Committee regarding the next tax decrease proposal the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission would like to get on our ballots [Amendment 5]. He called it a "pig in a poke," saying, "There is no free lunch in Florida. If citizens don’t pay out of their left pocket, they will pay for it out of their right pocket in increased sales taxes."

He's right, you know. So, Floridians, brace yourselves: It's all downhill from here.

April 11, 2008

Satirical anomaly

I love it when copywriters remember that entertainment is a much better delivery mechanism than shouting (I'd tell Billy Mays to listen up, but I don't think he could hear me over himself).

The best advertising does two things: it makes you remember the product, and it keeps you entertained.

We all remember those stupid "Head On" headache potion commercials. And, for that matter, we remember the variety of products Billy Mays hawks. But we remember them because they make us reach for the mute button. Not good.

You remember really entertaining commercials for a better reason—they were fun. Or moving. Or thought provoking. These are the ones you talk about in the break room at work "I saw this great commercial..."

Except that half the time, the story starts with "I don't remember what the product was, but I saw this great commercial ..."

Well, if you don't remember what the product was, its wasn't a great commercial. It was a great 30- or 60-second entertainment, but it wasn't a great commercial unless you remember that the beer in the magic fridge was Budweiser.

So here's a Web site that's a great commercial for clean energy. Copywriters, listen up: satire can be a very entertaining delivery mechanism.

April 4, 2008

Some of us saw this coming

When the national media talk about Florida's January election, it's usually in reference to the Democratic Party representatives losing their seats at the convention.

What often goes unmentioned is the misguided action by some of my fellow Floridians to cut our property taxes. The amendment passed easily, because a lot of people, apparently, are more concerned about their own short-term finances than the state's long-term solvency.

Cut property taxes, as my benighted neighbors chose to, and you cut funding to a whopping number of municipal services, including schools.

Last week, Superintendent Ronald Blocker of Orange County Public Schools sent out a recorded phone message to parents that must have been as painful for him to say as it was for us to hear. OCPS must cut $17 million from the 2008-2009 budget.

Now, the state Legislature must figure out how to pay for stuff. The latest suggestion? Increasing the sales tax.

Goodness gracious. Did you not see that coming? Police and fire departments, road crews, and schools do not pay for themselves. Those of us clever enough to have opposed Amendment 1 know that.

Jesus said, "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's,"* but it seems to me that a great many people are more interested in finagling their way out of rendering anything. They are, to apply the British idiom, penny wise and pound foolish.

My fellow Floridians, we must pay for our schools and roads and public safety professionals somehow. A property tax was an entirely reasonable way of doing this. Now we are faced with a sales tax increase, which will, instead of putting most of the burden on those of us fortunate enough to own real estate, put a disproportionate burden on the poorest of us: our service-sector wage-earning renters.

Of course, any new taxes have to go on the ballot in November, and I don't suspect the penny-pinchers to have come to their senses by then, if ever.

The squeeze is on the local municipalities, and there's no telling how they're going to manage, especially as we appear to be in a recession.

Pembroke Pines Mayor Frank Ortis summed it up very well. He's quoted in the Orlando Sentinel as saying "This state is on the verge of being in the toilet with the economy. This act could be the final flush to make that happen."


* Of course, people usually leave off the second clause of that famous quote from the Lord, which in its entirety reads: "Render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's."

March 26, 2008

What, no cheese?

NASA's press releases are often intriguing, but rarely are they this amusing.

The Cassini spacecraft "tasted and sampled a surprising organic brew erupting in geyser-like fashion from Saturn's moon Enceladus." Hunter Waite, principal investigator for the Cassini Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, tells us that "Enceladus' brew is like carbonated water with an essence of natural gas."

At least he stopped short of calling it "charming, with an herbaceous bouquet."

The full press release is here.

March 23, 2008

Bunnies and eggs have nothing to do with Jesus

Christ the Lord is Risen Today—Alleluia!

During the children's sermon this morning, the pastor asked, "What's special about today?" Sure enough, one of the little ones piped up "the Easter bunny comes!"

My heart broke a little. This is a child from an ostensibly Christian home.

Earlier, a couple of the ladies lamented the fact that our church no longer has an Easter egg hunt. More children might be brought, they theorized, if we did.

Well, as one of the committee members who had a role in ending the practice, I for one don't care. I think parents should bring their children to church for discipleship training and for worship, not for pointless activities handed down from pagans.

Truly I tell you: Eggs and bunnies have nothing to do with the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Even the word "Easter" has nothing to do with Jesus. It's derived from "Eostre," a pagan goddess whose festival was celebrated at the spring equinox. It's from that pre-Christian festival that we get those seasonal symbols that have nothing to do with resurrection. Eostre was a fertility goddess. (Rabbits. Eggs. Need I say more?)

Furthermore, "Easter" is the name of the holiday only in the Germanic languages. In Russian (Paskha), and in the Romance languages like Italian (Pasqua), the name is derived from the Greek "Pascha," which comes from the Hebrew "Pesach," Passover.

Better still are the Serbian (Vaskrs) and Croatian (Uskrs) names, which mean "Resurrection."

I wish we English-speaking Christians would abandon the word "Easter" in reference to our holy day, and call it Resurrection Sunday instead. Let's leave "Easter," along with the bunnies and eggs, to the pagans.

March 19, 2008

Five years on...

My media colleagues are fervently publishing lists of anti-war vigils being held around town.

Where are the pro-war vigils? Or, if that term is too hawkish for you, the pro-troops vigils.

I'm no warmonger. I pray, as fervently as anyone, that we would all just grow up and learn to settle our differences without blowing stuff up.

But when megalomaniacal dictators slaughter their own citizens in the hundreds of thousands, we must take action.

It would have been nice if, when confronted about his atrocities by the United Nations, Saddam Hussein had said, "Oh my goodness, I'm so terribly sorry. I'll step down now and let a peaceable person run the country."

As you may have noticed, this didn't happen.

On this discussion board, writer G. Glyn Shull Jr., under the pseudonym Christian Soldier, explains why our presence in Iraq is a good thing. He is now back in the states, but at the time he wrote that post, he was stationed in Iraq.

I agree with Glyn that we need to remain in Iraq to help stabilize that country and build a strong ally. If we pull out, as some would have us do, we'll just give people in that part of the world one more reason to bash Americans: "they don't follow through on their promises."

March 17, 2008

Fiction: A Novel Idea

In the last couple of years, we’ve been faced with a string of “memoirists” who turned out to have fabricated large parts—and sometimes the entirety—of their “memoirs.”

I wondered why these authors commit this kind of fraud. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with making up a story—I do it all the time—but you have to be honest with your readers about whether you’re writing history or fiction.

Margaret Seltzer, for example, made up a story about a south LA drug runner, called it Love and Consequences, and then marketed it as her autobiography. When found out, she admitted that she had claimed this fiction was her memoir because she believed “there was no other way that someone would listen to it.”

In a recent Boston Globe column, Steve Almond summed it all up better than I can. I find his conclusion troubling.

He writes: “Over the past few years, publishers have responded to declining readership by developing an insatiable hunger for books that come with ‘author survivors’ attached. Why? Because they know that such books are about 100 times more likely to get reviewed and featured on National Public Radio and anointed by Oprah.”

In other words, it’s easier to promote these books than, say, lengthy fantasy novels, which I'm told—more often than I care to think about—no one wants to publish.

This bothers me, of course, because I’ve written a lengthy fantasy novel.

Publishers seem to believe that readers only want to buy the autobiographies of people they see on Oprah.

They seem to have missed that whole “Harry Potter” thing, which, if you didn’t notice, was seven volumes worth of lengthy fantasy novels.