Monday, December 26, 2005

Going for the Gold

Why not go out on a limb? Isn't that where the fruit is? ~Frank Scully

Each weekday morning, for about 20 minutes, I listen to a local sports radio station because it comes into range just as I hit Birmingham's inbound traffic, and I can get the latest wreck report. The traffic reports are encased in a program called “Matt and Jay In The Morning”. The “Jay” of this duo is Jay Barker, former University of Alabama quarterback and career backup NFL quarterback. Jay, who seems to be a very nice person with an excellent radio voice, evidently was trained in the “Robert Siegel Meandering Mouth” school of radio announcing. This school has two fundamental principles. First, even one second's worth of dead air is evil. If you think anyone is going to stop talking, you must fill the gap even if you have to interrupt them. Second, to make your guests and/or co-hosts comfortable, don't tax them by asking simple questions. Ask long, meandering questions then answer the question for them so that all they have to say is “yes” or “no”.
Unfortunately, Jay has the meandering down so well, he can go on for five minutes asking questions, beginning to answer them, starting another question, finishing the answer to the first, starting a third question...well, it's something like this:
“Matt, do think Bronco Studley will decide to become a free agent? It's his option and I think that he certainly-- but if he gets hurt he'll diminish his value, so you might think he would want to take it easy this season-- I don't think he'll do that-- or he could renegotiate but that brings up his agent's role in the recent statements he's made and I don't think a guy should disrupt the clubhouse-- of course the team might not want him back if does that sort of thing so he might be doing it on purpose--. do you think so?”
Thus it was that I was amazed when he managed to tell a funny story about a former teammate the other morning, in order, without embroidery. I was also so entertained by the story, I thought I'd pass it along. You don't have to be a football fan to appreciate this story, just a person who, at one time or another, had a brilliant idea that turned out to have a slight flaw.
The sports show guys were talking about how college players get to bowl games. I always figured they all got into the same charter or commercial flight and arrived together. But, it doesn't work that way because bowl games occur around the holidays, and the players get time to go home, if the schedule allows it. So the players may be given a plane ticket to fly to the game site, or they may be given the cash to buy a ticket, or they may be given a mileage fee, if they choose to drive to the game.
Back in Jay's collegiate days, Alabama was a regular at bowl games, so players got this choice frequently. One year, teammate George Teague thought he had it made. Seems that his parents had moved overseas. George, therefore, figured he would claim mileage money from overseas to the bowl site! One can imagine his eyes alight at the prospect of pulling down 8,000 miles of mileage expense. Unfortunately, the NCAA explained in no uncertain terms that, since he was not driving across the Atlantic Ocean, he could only claim mileage from the airport to the game. George evidently decided that flying into New York and then driving from there just wasn't nearly as worthwhile, so he took the air fare.
You can't blame the guy for trying.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

The Fallacy of the “Internet Community”

O Lord, help me not to despise or oppose what I do not understand. ~William Penn

Years ago, the folks at Coca Cola, attempting to cash in on the love-peace-flower-power generation of the sixties created a lovely advertisement featuring lovely young people standing on a lovely mountain holding lovely bottles of Coke and singing about buying the world a Coke (thereby putting lots of lovely money in Coca Cola's coffers). The premise of the ad (aside from buy lots of Coke) was that if you could just bring people together, they could see past the differences of their governments and love and peace would rule (sing a fast chorus of “This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius”, then return to reading).
The ad actually got resurrected recently, but somehow it just didn't seem to have the impact this time around. I think the reason for this is that people are beginning to realize that the premise of the ad may have been a fine concept but was, in reality, hooey. The Internet is teaching us this the hard way.
The 'Net has many faces, but they're pretty familiar when you get right down to it. It's a mailman, the Sears catalog, and a huge magazine rack. Then there's this “Internet community” thing. If one is to believe the pundits, out there in cyberspace is an electronic equivalent of communes with people of like minds just exchanging great ideas and good vibes.
This is more hooey.
What the Internet “communities” are proving is that human beings are essentially anti-social, vulgar, ill-tempered, and xenophobic. It's nice to imagine that people are inherently good, but history, archaeology, and anthropology are showing a different story. Basically, small groups can get along with each other reasonably well, because they have few differences and their goals are pretty much the same. If someone steps out of line, he or she ends up starting their own little group.
Bring a couple of disparate groups together, and one of two things can happen. If the groups are pretty similar, and there are sufficient resources for both groups, they'll probably get together. If the groups are somewhat different or resources aren't adequate to support both, they'll fight with each other. This is caused by a reptilian remnant living in our brains. What curtails our killing strangers every time someone moves into the neighborhood are higher brain functions located in the main grey lumpy section called “morality” or “civilized behavior.”
So what about those Internet communities? Well, the 'Net can allow you to be anonymous. Or, you can at least feel confident that there's physical isolation from the people in the community. Either one of these situations seems to bring out the reptile brain in a lot of the community members. The sort of hate, bigotry, jingoism, and general nastiness that we see on the news each day gets manifested in forums, chat rooms, and web sites. Someone who hates the French is not only not going to understand them any better because a French person posts on Slashdot, but they will also take the occasion to respond to the “debate” in a manner every bit as vituperative and illogical as any racist argument in favor of the supremacy or inferiority of an ethnic group.
Now, if you're waiting for the punchline, whereby I magically solve the problem of humanity's inhumanity to itself, you're going to be disappointed. Well, probably not all that disappointed, because after all, it isn't costing you anything to read this. If you were paying for the privilege, now that would be a reason to be disappointed ... and probably really ticked off. Of course, if you were paying for this, then I have to resort to proofreading, researching, and actually attempting to write good stuff. So it's just as well, then, for everyone concerned.
Moving right along...
Since you're not paying, calm yourself. While I certainly don't have a magic solution, I do know one thing. We're going to have to stop expecting Coca Cola, the Internet, the media, or any other deus ex machina (look it up) to come and save us from ourselves.
It's our reptile, and it's up to each one of use to tame it.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Stupidity: Nurture Division

Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former. ~Albert Einstein

I have learned that, in order to actually maintain a blog with some semblance of regular posting, I have to prepare pieces when I think of something. If I sit down to specifically post a blog entry, my brain cramps up. Of course, the occasional reader of these contributions to the blogosphere might be convinced that brain cramping is a normal condition in my case, but no matter. The point is that I have a few posts “in the can” (quit snickering) so that I can maintain my semi-regular posting schedule.

All of that is lengthy preamble to my explanation that, having prepared my article about teaching, the instructor who inspired the article was felled by some stranger’s stupidity. By the time you read this, hopefully she will be healed up.

What happened is this: After our first class, our instructor, Lisa, went to a burger joint to have dinner. While she was there, a woman came in with four children in tow, one of whom was a two-year old who was just over the flu – or so this “good” mother thought. The reason Lisa knew all this is that the mother told her after the kid threw up all over Lisa. Better late than never, I guess.

Despite rushing back to her hotel, burning her clothes, showering at lobster-cooking temperatures with anti-bacterial astringents, in short doing everything short of drinking a bottle of Lysol, by 5 AM the next morning, Lisa was violently ill. So the class which had gotten off to such a great start had to be postponed for a month until a) she got better, and b) the facility would have a room available.

By the way, according to Lisa, you get much better service at those doc-in-a-box establishments if you puke in the waiting room. Not for the faint of heart, but you must admit it would have to be an effective way to get by Attila the Nurse at the reception desk.

Back to Typhoid Mother, though. My wife and I have raised a couple of kids. I have watched them go through fevers, sniffles, flu, chicken pox, measles, and various other forms of galloping crud. My wife handled these expertly, particularly the intestinal problems. She brought out the 7-Up, Jello water, saltines, and various other very light comestibles that had a reasonable chance of staying down. If they didn’t, they were mild enough not to be too horrific coming back up.

(Times change. My mother’s solution, which worked quite well, was garlic toast and hot, hot tea, accompanied by that staple of European health care, home made chicken soup. Upset stomachs never lasted long around my house.)

But, above all, Faye’s Rule One was that, just because the kid appears to be feeling better, you should not let your guard down. Kids live in the moment. If they’re not vomiting, coughing, or bleeding, kids tend to think everything is all right now. In the next moment, they’re candidates for the emergency room. Tough business being a parent.

Most assuredly, just because the kid gets through a meal, you don’t take them out to the grease burger joint and feed ‘em french fries. Believe me when I say that I have nothing against grease burgers. In fact, I can offer reasonably expert opinions on the best greasy burgers in Birmingham. But even a glutton like myself would not presume to have one right after recovering from stomach flu.

So what kind of noodle-brain was this woman anyway? Was she trying to convince the kid that she was okay? Was she trying to convince herself? Or was she trying to see how many people she could infect with the kids germs? I really don’t think that this woman was evil or abusive to her children. From all reports, the other three seemed happy and healthy. Of course, in her care, how long they’ll be healthy is an open question. Because basically, this woman is stupid.

With people like this around, I keep wondering how the world ever got populated with billions of people. If she doesn’t put her own kids in the hospital, she’ll put a few dozen other people in intensive care with cramps, nausea, and bazooka-barfing. In the Neolithic, the tribe would have sent her away to be eaten by wolves before she could do any more harm. Today, she’s a soccer mom. (NOTE: Not all soccer moms are stupid, and not all stupid people are soccer moms. The preceding was inserted for humorous effect. Don’t shoot the blogger. Besides the image of wolves chasing a Neolithic soccer mom is kind of funny all by itself.)

Every day, I see ads for wonder drugs (that will kill you, if you’re unlucky, but they’re still wonderful) and hear of miraculous new cures for diseases I never heard of. They’ve got shots to prevent small pox, polio, measles, and facial wrinkles. But everyone is worried about the coming plague, the one that will ravage mankind and destroy civilization as we know it. Supposedly scientists are constantly searching for a way to prevent this coming catastrophe, but I’m not confident they’re on the right track.

I haven’t heard a single report of anyone working on a vaccine to prevent terminal stupidity.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The Fun of Learning Stuff

All the world is a laboratory to the inquiring mind. ~Martin H. Fischer

I’m taking a class about database administration, which may seem as exciting as watching paint dry, but actually I’m enjoying it, for a number of reasons.

First, the location is unbelievable. It’s not someplace exotic (unless one considers Birmingham, Alabama, exotic, in which case I’ve got some swampland in my back yard I’d like to talk to you about), but it’s being held at a local company that has a fabulous facility. It’s not so much the training facilities, which are quite good, as the setting. This company is on top of a mountain. The view from the cafeteria is breathtaking. The facility itself is blended into the rocky landscape, surrounded by trees and immense boulders. I took a walk around the building on a flagstone path that encircles it most of the way and felt like I was out in the forest primeval. I thought Evangeline might come around the other corner at any time.

Second, I wanted to take the course. Over the many years I’ve been getting educated, I’ve probably wanted to take less than half the courses I had to. I realize that to take some of the good stuff, you’ve got to take some unpleasant stuff. For example, if you’re going to read and write intelligently, you’ve got to suffer through vocabulary and grammar classes. It ‘s just nice to get the reward for taking the dull stuff once in a while.

Third, the course is being taught by a good teacher. Now that’s a killer combination for learning. Location, desire, and good instruction doesn’t come together very often.

All of this gets me to thinking about what makes a good teacher. I ought to have some idea, having taught some professional courses in the past and getting good student reviews in the process. But, what success I had was in emulating certain traits of teachers I admired. Somehow, these teachers always got even the troublesome students to at least be less troublesome; sometimes, they even managed to get them interested, which is no mean feat when you consider just how dead-set some people are not to learn anything.

At any rate, for what little it’s worth, here are the traits I think are important to being a great teacher.

Passion and enthusiasm: If the teacher is excited about his subject, some of it will rub off in spite of even the most recalcitrant student’s resistance. I really don’t’ much care for poetry, but I had an English teacher in high school who could make you feel the sense of the verse. He wasn’t a particularly good reader; in fact, his Boston accent (how he ever got to Ohio, I’ll never know) was downright distracting at times. But somehow, he got the message through.

Imagination: Some teachers just have the knack. Whether it’s though a vivid example or a clever project, they make the subject more alive. One of my physics professors in college had a gift for pantomime. To demonstrate potential energy, he pretended to squash an immense spring against the wall. He said releasing the spring would release its kinetic energy, then jumped back as if letting the spring go. Everyone in the room ducked. Believe me, the entire class grasped the difference between potential and kinetic energy.

Expertise (and the willingness to find out): We like to think the teacher knows the subject very, very well. But, what’s even more impressive is the teacher that admits she doesn’t know but promises to find out. What’s even better is when she brings her own new learning back to the class. Too many teachers are forced into teaching subjects which is not in their field, due to shortages or scheduling issues. The good ones do the best they can to get up to speed and keep getting up to speed as the course goes on. The bad ones just read the book and let you founder. What’s worse, the bad ones give bad tests because they don’t understand the material well enough to design intelligent questions.

The worst teacher I ever had was a Library Sciences major who was forced to teach a Microeconomics course. Now, Micro is a tough subject which I had previously taken at another school, so I was familiar with it. She wasn’t, and it showed. Just to make sure, though, she told everyone she didn’t know anything about it and really didn’t want to be teaching it, but they had no one else.

Having failed two of the three criteria, she decided to go for Imagination when she gave her mid-term. I don’t recall how many questions there were, but virtually all of them would qualify as trick questions (supply-and-demand curves with only one point, that sort of thing). Being that I’d had the material before, I could spot the tricks and finished the exam very quickly. The rest of the class went down in flames. Soon after that, I moved to a new job, so I didn’t finish the course, but I always wondered if any of my former classmates ever carried through with some of their threats.

I doubt they did; burning at the stake was never very big in Ohio.

Saturday, December 3, 2005

Ford's Folly

You can be sincere and still be stupid. ~Charles F. Kettering

My son came into my den the other day to ask me if I realized that there was a member of the Ford family named "Edsel". Sure, I said. Why not? Steph exclaimed, "They named someone after that car that was such a flop?" Given that my son is 32, that was a reminder of how old I am in that I recall that it was the car that was originally named after a member of the Ford family, not the other way around.

I have always been easily moved to reminiscence, and mention of the one-time costliest business disaster in U.S. history is just the sort of thing to get me to recall intriguing trivia, like how the Edsel got its name. It's a fitting topic at a time when GM is laying off 30,000, Delphi is laying off 24,000 (and a merry christmas to all you automotive workers), and all three U.S. auto makers seem to be totally unprepared to offer the public the fuel-efficient cars they actually want.

[Aside] The auto makers have been bragging how fast they can bring out new models. Now might be a good time to prove it.

However, let us get into the Wayback Machine (patent pending) and go back to the mid-1950's when the auto makers could do no wrong, car sales were through the roof, and truly if they built it, the buyers would come. Ford was about to burst that bubble.
[NOTE: My memory isn't that good. I owe much of this reminiscence to a book by John Brooks called Business Adventures, published by Weybright and Talley in 1969. It's a very entertaining book that also has chapters on Xerox, GE, and Piggly Wiggly to show how far it ranges.]

Ford had a problem, despite all the happiness in the auto industry. GM had an ownership progression. A guy might start out with a Chevy, move up to a Buick or Oldsmobile as he got more successful, then graduate to a Cadillac in his mature and presumably wealthy years. Similarly, Chrysler owners could start with a Dodge, move up to a New Yorker, then cruise along in an Imperial (although they didn't; Cadillac mopped the market floor with Imperial). With Ford, there was the basic Ford then a quantum leap to the Lincoln. They tried to make Mercury an intermediate link in the chain, but somehow the Merc became the young man's hot rod, from which he moved to a Ford. When he got outgrew that, the natural step was to Olds, because Ford didn't have anything in that range.

Thus was born the E-car ("E" stood for experimental, supposedly). The E-car would have models that would fill the gap from Ford to Lincoln. It would be a wonderous engineering triumph that would lure drivers from GM and Chrysler in droves. But, as engineering progressed and release time came near, it needed a name.

Ford executives, for some reason, wished to call the car "Edsel" after the only son of Henry Ford, who had died in 1943. Edsel's sons, though, were staunchly against it because they felt their father "might not have cared to have his name spinning on a million hubcaps." For all of you too young to know, hubcaps came before wheel covers. They were solid, kept crud out of your brakes, kept your lugnuts from rusting solid, and frequently had a logo on them. What a concept! At any rate, the marketing gang, led by one David Wallace were back to square one. And time was a wasting. His first take, based on the advice of one his junior assistants, was to come up with gems like -- and this straight from Brooks' book -- "Utopian Turtletop", "Pastelogram", or, for the musically incline drivers, "Andante con molto."

So the marketoids started evaluating these and many other names. Much of the evaluation was done through endless flipchart sessions. The names were written on giant tablets. An audience then sat while someone flipped through them, seemingly for hours on end. They were then quizzed on which ones made an impression. At one such mind-numbing session, according to Brooks,"somebody suddenly called a halt to the card-flipping and asked, in an incredulous tone, 'Didn't I see "Buick" go by two or three cards back?' Everybody looked at Wallace, the impressario of the sessions. He puffed on his pipe, smiled an academic smile, and nodded."

Despite such birlliant methods, the sessions were fruitless. So Ford execs called on Foote, Cone & Belding, a major Madison Avenue advertising firm to come up with names. And so they did. They delivered a massive printout with 6,000 names on it!

Believe it or not, Ford execs were not pleased. This demanding group thought that paying thousands of 1950's dollars ought to result in some culling. Sent back to their drawing boards, the agency came up with a culled list of four names: Corsair, Citation, Pacer, and Ranger. Hearing these, Ford execs, called up Henry Ford II (who was on vacation), and said, essentially (but probably more politically correctly) all the names we have suck. Please let us call the car Edsel! After talking to other family members, Henry II acquiesced. (In other versions of this story, the family was not informed until the press conference was called, thus making it too late for them to do anything about it. Personally, that sounds more like the thing executives would do, but who am I to argue with John Brooks.)

The rest, as they say, is history. The design process went much as the naming process. The car ended up taking too long to get to market, arriving at the start of a recession. It was also the wrong car for the market. It seems that there were few drivers looking for an overweight, ugly, and mechanically unreliable car. I'm not sure there's ever been a right time for that sort of car, but evidently Ford thought there might have been so they went ahead and released it anyway. As Brooks put it, "... in a way, the Edsel wasn't so bad. It embodied much of the spirit of its time -- or at least of the time when it was designed, early in 1955. It was clumsy, powerful, dowdy, gauche, well-meaning..."

So was Tugboat Annie, but I wouldn't have wanted to date her.

Thursday, December 1, 2005

One Last Word on Fishing

Nothing makes a fish bigger than almost being caught. ~Author Unknown

I've explained the reasons I quit fishing, but I must admit that I still have the occasional hankering, because, when the skiers were still asleep, the tournaments were elsewhere, and the boat worked right, fishing was just plain fun.

I liked fishing alone because it allowed for contemplation, revitalization, and the opportunity to lie like a rug about the size of the fish I caught (or almost caught). Besides, having a good fishing partner can make the experience even more fun. When I lived in Virginia, I used to fish fairly regularly with two gentlemen who, while both good fishing companions, were as different as night and day.

The first was a serious, extremely knowledgeable fisherman who taught me most of what I know about fishing and all of what I know about boats. Despite being dedicated to catching big largemouth bass, he had a sense of humor coupled with an "aw-shucks" sort of personality that made him easy to like. This is "Moon" who I introduced in an earlier piece.

I have expressed my opinion about tournament fishing, but I have to admit to having fished in some myself. Moon and I, in fact, partnered in a couple of actual real-money prize tournaments, and actually won one of them. The bass tournament in question was sponsored by a beer company and winning got us $800 and a small boat (which we sold), so this was cool. The reason we won is that Moon is one heckuva fisherman.

We caught 29 lbs. of bass, winning by 2 lbs. Our company newsletter writer, always desperate for material, asked Moon about how we won it. Ol' Moon waxed eloquent about how "we" caught all these fish. Well, the truth must out. Yes, "we" caught all those bass. Moon caught over 20 lbs. of them, and I caught the rest (frankly 9 lbs. was a pretty good day for me). When I saw him, I asked Moon why he was being so modest. He said, "Look, my catch would have been good for fifth place. You caught the margin of victory! We couldn't have won it without you!"

They don't make many people like that anymore.

The other fellow was Hal, who felt he was an outdoorsman in the mold of Daniel Boone. Unfortunately, he was more an outdoorsman in the mold of Pat Boone. His greatest claim to fame was a constant stream of stories about catching huge bass, shooting monster bucks, and killing b'ars on such and such a tree. These things were always done without witnesses about, or at least none that could be contacted for verification.

Hal bought a boat that he ended up calling the Hesperus, as in "The Wreck of the". For $1500, he bought a boat that had apparently been used as a PT boat in Korea, based on its scars. It was an inboard-outboard. It is a bad sign when the "outboard" portion is resting on the floor of the boat. Despite this, Hal was sure he had a purchased a gem, that just needed a little work. He put $2000 into repairing it, which is not my definitions of "a little work." . After the repairs, he had a boat which had its transmission reversed (throttle forward, boat backward; not a good thing). He got that corrected, only to have the alternator fall off while cruising along, which would have seemed funny if I had not been along with him on that occasion. After that I declined the pleasure of his craft. He found that there had been some badly patched spots in the hull, which had only showed themselves as the trapped water froze over the winter and cracked the fibreglass. That little revelation cost him another thou or so.

He sold the boat for $1700 and considered himself lucky.

Hal's constant storytelling could get annoying sometimes, because he always tried to "one-up" any story he heard. We were driving to a lake one day, and I was telling some fish stories, some about me and some about other folks. After each one, Hal had to say how he had had a similar experience only his fish was bigger, or the storm he was in was worse, and so on. Finally, I got exasperated.

"Hal," I said, "If I told you I went to Canada and shot a blue moose, you'd tell me you got one with polka dots and had to eat it on the way out!"

He looked at me very seriously and said, "Yes. Yes, I would."

You just can't get mad at such an honest liar.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Hobbies-Part the Third

The gods do not deduct from man's alloted span the hours spent in fishing. -- Babylonian proverb

One of the reasons I chucked golf, other than to retain my tenuous hold on sanity, was that I preferred to spend my time fishing. Not being independently wealthy, the leisure time available for fishing was inversely proportional to the time spent hacking through the woods in search of a dimpled spheroid. Now the big difference between the two activities is that, if you make a hundred casts and catch a couple of nice fish, it's a good day. In golf, a couple of good shots out of more than a hundred is not a pleasant experience.

Choosing fishing, then, was a no-brainer.

I don't fish anymore, but it's not because the angling wasn't fun. It was some of the associated aspects. For example, serious fishing requires a boat. Now it is said that the two happiest days of a boat owner's life are the day he buys the boat and the day he sells it. I had three boats, so I had six of those days. In between, I had engine problems, battery problems, trolling motor problems, scheduled maintenance (at Mercedes-Benz prices), and bees' nests. Yes, bees. It seems that the drain plug and bilge pump exit are places that bees think make ideal little egg hatcheries.

At least I never had snakes. Removal of snakes from a boat, which has numerous serpentine hiding places, requires the application of mothballs in an enclosed space. Don't ask.

In and around all those adventures, I actually managed to get some fishing in. At least, I could fish before all the pleasure boaters and water skiers hit the water. I have been on lakes with so many boat wakes criss-crossing that it looked like a gale was blowing up whitecaps. I have never understood the joys of getting in a boat and riding up and down the lake for hours at a time. I mean, after you've seen the scenery a couple of times, then what? At least water skiers are doing something.

Unfortunately, there is some pernicious quirk in the fabric of the universe that causes fishermen and water skiers to want to use exactly the same little channel on a 4000 acre lake. This leads to unnecessary acrimony, as well as the occasional well-thrown beverage container.

A friend of mine from Virginia got a small measure of revenge. On a hot day, he decided to put on his swim trunks. No one was in sight for miles, he dropped his drawers, while I discretely fished in the other direction. No sooner was he in his birthday suit then what should come around the bend but a boat full of folks towing a skier. He mooned the whole bunch. The skier did a lovely header.

To this day, old Moon (as I came to call him) swears it was unintentional. Personally, I thought it was taking him quite a while to untangle that swim suit.

The last reason that I retired from fishing was tournaments. I'm not talking about Bassmasters or the Wal-Mart tour here. It seems that social organizations, charity organizations, companies, and for-real bass clubs all were putting on tournaments. When I opened up the sports section one February and saw two to four tournaments every weekend from March until September, I gave it up. Every body of water I like to fish seemed to have a contest every other weekend. When there was no tournament, then contestants were “practicing.” Tournament fishermen can be reasonably obnoxious, even when they're polite.

I was fishing a sand bar on a weekday that I was off from work. Normally, during the week, the river I was fishing was deserted. That was the case this day, until an 18-foot fiberglass monster with a 200 HP motor roared up. The driver and his friends (there were three in the boat) were fishing a tournament on the coming weekend, and did I mind if they fished the sand bar for a while? Well, yes I did mind, but, being outnumbered, I declined to be obstinate. I mumbled assent and moved down the bar so they could fish some tree stumps in the shallows.

Now, I had fished the point on a number of occasions. So, if I was a nice guy, I would have pointed out the only small fish could be found in the stumps. I could have told them I was fishing in deep water at the end of the bar and catching good-sized fish. If I was a nice guy, I could have been very helpful.

I was helpful, in a way. I moved down and caught about six fish before their eyes. Then I cranked my engine and putted away with a wave and a smirk.

Hey, what do you expect? I used to be a golfer.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Hobbies – Part the Second

Golf is not a game, it's bondage. It was obviously devised by a man torn with guilt, eager to atone for his sins. ~Jim Murray

The quintuple bogeys (see Part the First) are not the only reason I gave up golf. After all, if everyone quit doing things just because they were inept at doing them, the highways be devoid of cars, as 90% of drivers would have begun walking to work. Only about six people would be able to run for president; unfortunately, they would be too smart to do so. Based on my personal experience, 60% of all dentists would be forced to find another vocation.

No, mere ineptitude would not have been sufficient to sour me on the game. There were other factors.

The Uniform
I am a casual sort of person. All right, I'm a slob. I like comfortably baggy jeans and an old t-shirt for almost all outdoor activities. In fact, I like them for indoor activities, like my job, but that's another story. Golfers expect everyone to show up in slacks or shorts with creases in them and the obligatory golf shirt with the little critter on the pocket. I can't cope with that. After spending a day crawling over, under, and around timber and large rocks in the woods, attire like that just can't hold up.

The Sportsmanship
One thing about professional golfers is that they appear to be scrupulously honest, to the point of calling penalty strokes on themselves, even when no one saw them do anything wrong. If all golfers played that way, the category of “duffer” would be seriously expanded. Unfortunately, most golfers, shall we say, “bend the rules.” Oh, they never call it that. They have terms for their shady doings. Taking a shot over is called a “mulligan.” Improving your lie is “playing winter rules.” In July. The rest of us have a term for these sorts of things. Cheating.

The Good Golfers
Good golfers need their own courses. When klutzes like me are hitting their sixth stroke at the base of the green, it is depressing to hear some dolt scream “FORE!” at the top of his lungs while attempting to bean me with his Titleist on his second shot. Fortunately, one of the advantages of being in the woods is that the good golfers don't hit there very often.

In fact, it was a good golfer that started me down the path to retiring from the game. I was in a Captain's Choice company tournament. Captain's Choice is wonderful for bad golfers, because everyone on the team hits from the tee. Then the best shot is chosen, and everyone hits from that spot. Since every team has one good and one fairly good golfer, it's likely my only trip into the woods will be to pick up my ball. And my rare good shot won't be spoiled by my awful following shot, because one of the others on the team will most likely make up for it.

In Captain's Choice, I actually get to putt for birdies now and then.

In this particular tournament, my team was doing rather well, playing at 3 under par coming to the eighteenth hole. As we came to the last hole, the unbelievable occurred as all three of us shanked our shots toward a creek on the right. Two of the balls had disappeared, but one was sitting up on a rock in the shallow stream, so we decided to play that one. Our fairly good player stepped down into the creek, which was about three feet below the level of the fairway. He swung and ducked as the ball hit the bank and came back at him. I stepped into the creek to take my shot, and a miracle happened.

I hit the ball about 100 yards down the fairway in perfect position to shoot for the green. Our good golfer offered effusive praise, then stepped in and took his shot. He smacked the ball 200 yards to the base of the green. It made no difference that he told me that my shot made it possible for him to take a chance at hitting long. He had just made the best shot of my life look like hamburger.

When God sends you a message like that, you need to listen.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Hobbies – Part the First

Golf is a good walk spoiled. ~Mark Twain

I've had a variety of hobbies over the years. Currently, I have two. One is blogging (which is kind of a pathetic excuse for a hobby). The other is converting my large collection of vinyl records to CD's a) before my record player dies, b) before I die, and c) before the RIAA bribes Congress into making it illegal to even hum a song without paying a royalty.

Oh, there's the computer stuff, but that's my job, and one's job should never be one's hobby. One couldn't tell whether one was working or relaxing.

One of the things I used to do was play golf. For twenty freaking years, I played golf. That's twenty years that I could have spent getting semi-annual root canals, taming tarantulas, walking on hot coals, or some other more relaxing activity. Why, you ask, did I keep playing the game? You didn't ask? Listen, it's my blog, and I'll decide who's asking things around here.

It was my father's fault.

Golf was our father-son activity. We couldn't do car maintenance because of our mechanical deficiencies I have described in an earlier piece. Getting injured together is not a good shared activity. We couldn't share my athletic experiences because I was a complete lox in any sport, which I'm sure depressed Dad who had been a pretty fair soccer player in his youth. He was also a dirty soccer player, but that's another story. But golf was another matter.

He took up the game because it was a way to make business contacts. All businessmen play golf; my dad wanted to be a businessman. Therefore, he played golf. And he was lousy. So, I'm sure he figured that even if I was as lousy as him, we'd have fun because we'd be wandering through the woods together looking for our tee shots.

Well, he was right about the woods.

To be fair, I did enjoy the time with Dad. Eventually, the game became a habit. Then I went to work, and everyone at work played golf, so to be sociable, I played golf. Fortunately, there was always someone in the group as bad as I was (there was almost no one who was worse), so I didn't feel like a total fool.

The problem with golf is that failure is always imminent. If I hit a beautiful tee shot, the next one was shanked into the woods. If I got to the green in good order, my putt would fly past the hole and roll into a sand trap. In golf terms, par is the number of strokes it should take you to successfully complete the hole. A birdie is one stroke less than par, which is good. A bogey is one stroke more than par, which isn't bad. Two over par is a double-bogey, which isn't good. Five over par is a reason to give up the game. I had a lot of reasons to give up the game.

I did have one great moment in my golf career. A friend and I were out one Saturday and decided to make our round interesting by playing for big stakes: Ten cents a hole. After 8 holes, I was 70 cents down, which was about right for me. As I was watching Larry take his practice swings on the ninth hole, I noticed that he had a distinct pause in his swing. I swear that it was in all innocence that I asked him, “How long have you had that funny hitch in your swing?”

I ended up a dime up on the round. And Larry didn't say a word to me over the last three holes. Or for two weeks afterwards, either.

Hey, golf ain't for sissies, you know?

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The Good, the Bad, and the Babbling Idiot

...and Heaven have mercy on us all – Presbyterians and Pagans alike – for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending. -- Herman Melville, Moby Dick 
As we were headed for the Chinese restaurant, the conversation turned, as it so often does, to an acquaintance who happened to be ill. In this case, the co-worker with whom I was lunching was telling me about his friend who was back in the hospital with a disease that has potential serious consequences if not treated effectively. Before too long, I found myself pontificating on the subject and offering opinions about what course the patient might follow. Suddenly, I realized what was happening.

Once again, the Bad-Advice gene had struck.

Science has mapped the human genome, so I am certain they have identified this dreadful little bugger, as well as its better half, the Good-Advice gene. We all have both. When the Good-Advice (GA) gene is functional, we behave entirely differently than when the Bad-Advice (BA) gene is dominating.

When GA is ascendant, we keep our mouths shut unless we have something dependable and intelligent to say. Unfortunately, BA is often more aggressive and takes over our lives, forcing us to say unctuous things and offer advice based on in-depth science or psychological journals like The Readers' Digest.

The BA gene also has a direct connection to the Babbling Idiot (BI) gene, which produces the unfortunate result that once we start delivering this unsolicited advice, we're difficult to stop. On a really good day (or a bad one depending on whether you're advising or being advised), our advice can be totally contradictory. We can recommend that a friend go on the Atkins diet one minute and suggest that extreme diets are dangerous in the next. And do it with a straight face, too.

Now, I like to think that, in my case, I still have enough GA working to avoid such attacks. But, it goes to show that one must be vigilant. Given the chance, BA will rip out GA's heart and stomp that sucker flat (from the song of the same name). When that happens, a person is in real trouble.

The GA gene not only keeps us from giving stupid advice, it also keeps us from asking for stupid advice. It even prevents us from accepting our own bad ideas. When BA beats GA into submission, your very soul is in peril.

You can spot a person whose GA has gone to its reward in a New York minute. He is always telling you about some troubled person and how it's really none of his business, but if it was his freemish that had gone cronk, he would definitely take a bleem as soon as possible. Before the conversation is out, he will change the subject to his current woe and practically beg you for your opinion about whether a damaged foobar should be repaired or replaced.

Do not allow this person to draw you in. He will reject each piece of advice you offer until you manage to give completely contradictory opinions concerning the best action to take. That's what your BA is waiting for. Once it has you in its clutches, you'll be suggesting to perfect strangers at Home Depot how they should redecorate their garages.

Of course, you don't have to take my advice.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Who's on the Case?

The little gray cells, Hastings, they have never let me down. -- Hercule Poirot

Sunday is my day to veg out, which I do quite well, thank you. After all, everyone is good at something. At any rate, the Biography Channel shows mystery shows on Sundays*, and this week was a feast of Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie's dapper Belgian sleuth. Having watched so many episodes, I decided it was time to actually read the stories, so I got online and ordered a couple of Christie's Poirot short story collections.

Of course, this got me to reminiscing about arguments I used to have with an old college buddy about great fictional detectives. Larry was a big admirer of Nero Wolfe, while I was (and am) a devoted follower of Sherlock Holmes. Neither of us cared for the other's choice, for reasons that bear explaining.

It wasn't the detectives that were the bone of contention, it was their sidekicks. Nero Wolfe has Archie, and Holmes has, of course, the redoubtable John Watson, M.D. Actually, I thought Wolfe was pretty cool, sitting in his office or fiddling with his orchids while deftly weaving together the threads of the web that would trap the murderer. But, Archie ... well, some of us remember the Lone Ranger and his faithful friend, Tonto. Every week, it seemed, poor old Tonto had to go into town to eavesdrop on the locals, which generally meant going into the local saloon. Trouble is, the saloons never seemed to cater to the Native American trade, so they would ask Tonto to leave. They would do this by having five or six large individuals beat the snot out of ol' Tonto.

That seemed to be Archie's job: Go out and get beaten up, or, at the very least, hit on the head with a gun butt. A flesh wound was a bonus number. Frankly, I figured after a while Archie would figure out what was happening and learn to get his feet moving before getting pistol-whipped, but no. No Wolfe adventure seemed to be complete with Archie getting assaulted and battered.

Now, Larry rather liked Sherlock Holmes because of his coolly logical approach. But Watson, to him, was a pain. In Watson's case, “M.D.” evidently stood for “mostly distracted”, because Watson never saw anything. This was why, according to Larry, everyone was so amazed at Holmes' deductions. If we could see what Watson didn't seem to notice, we could be deductive geniuses as well. For instance, Larry would say, a guy comes into Baker Street, and Holmes says, “ I see, sir, that you are a Freemason.” Now Watson is absolutely shellshocked by this. He just can't imagine how Holmes could have deduced that this man was a Freemason. He can't imagine, that is, until Holmes explains that the guy is wearing a Masonic ring, a Masonic tie clip, and a sign around his neck that says, “I am a Freemason.” (Actually, if you leave off the sign, this actually occurs in one of the Holmes stories.)

Okay, he may have had a point there. But even Larry had to admit that Sherlock Holmes was the lineal ancestor of so many of the fictional detectives that would follow. Miss Marple, Ellery Queen, Peter Wimsey, Wolfe, and Hercule Poirot owe much of their method to the brooding silhouette in the window of 221B.

That being said, there is the little issue of August Dupin. Dupin was the creation of Edgar Allen Poe, who appeared in The Purloined Letter and Murders of the Rue Morgue. Even though Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was loathe to admit it, Dupin had to have served as one of the inspirations for Holmes. Sir Arthur even stole a bit of business from one of the Poe stories, where the detective, after watching his partner for a few minutes, makes a comment that exactly matches the partner's thoughts of the moment. He does this by watching what the other man is looking at as his eyes move around the room. Clever bit (it's better than I described it), but Sir Arthur only hints at its origin from another story.

So why don't we all pay homage to Dupin when we think of great detectives? First, there's not much of a body of work involving him (only five stories). Secondly, he is insufferably dull. As well as Poe could write horror, he didn't have the same flair with a mystery. The stories aren't awful, but most people don't read them twice.

So Sherlock Holmes is rightfully, the archetype for all detectives who use logic and deduction to bring the criminal to final justice. But there's one other detective who deserves mention.

His name is Porfiry. You may not have heard of him or of Raskolnikov, the villain he brought to justice (yes, Raskolnikov is what Boris Badenov used to say all the time on Rocky and Bullwinkle). In Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, we know full well that Raskolnikov has committed the dastardly deed, and so does Porfiry. Porfiry is a likable chap, always asking questions that don't seem to be all that important, frequently asks about things that have nothing to do with the crime, and somehow is never able to end a conversation (“Just one more thing”). Eventually, he subtly tortures Raskolnikov into confessing his crime.

Porfiry was the model for a detective who always wore a rumpled raincoat, who asked how much those shoes cost, and who was always engaging and likable, right up to the point that the perpetrator was ready to throw himself off a bridge to get rid of him. Like Conan Doyle avoiding admitting Dupin's influence, Peter Falk doesn't admit it, but Porfiry surely inspired someone in the writing team that thought up Columbo.

*Well, they used to, but this was written a long time ago.

Sunday, November 6, 2005

It's the Game, You Dolts!

Television is a visual medium. They show you...and they show you and show you and show you. -- Shelley Berman

I used to be a sports nut. I followed baseball, football, hockey, and basketball. Heck, I'd watch indoor lacrosse if nothing else was available. I spent most fall weekends glued to the tube watching football, watched hockey every Saturday night (on that Canadian institution Hockey Night In Canada), and caught any baseball game that was on.

That may sound like a lot, but here's what it boiled down to pre-1970. On Saturdays, there were one or possibly two college football games on. When the college season wrapped up in November, a single NFL game was on. Sundays featured a local NFL team's game (if it wasn't a blacked out home game) and a national game. Hockey, as previously mentioned was a single game on Saturday night. Baseball was a Saturday and Sunday affair, with perhaps five or ten weeknight games broadcast over the course of a season.

Today, of course, we have some sort of major sport, college or professional, on virtually every night of the week. Strangely, though, I watch less sports now than I ever have. The “why” of that has nothing to do with the glut of broadcasts; rather it's the nature of sports broadcasts these days that has me turned off.

Back in the 1950's when I was growing up, a lot of our sports came on radio. Radio announcers have to develop the knack of describing all the action while letting some of the atmosphere of the game come over the air. So, despite the audio medium, announcers learned to shut up now and then and let the stadium sounds tell the story. Many of these radio people moved to TV, where they could be even more sparing in their commentary. They gave you the information you craved (batter's stats, how many yards the fullback had gained so far), but they could let the pictures tell the story with a minimum of yak. Vin Sculley, an man who could bring poetry to a description of a golfer walking up the eighteenth fairway, was the best of this generation. Take for example Kirk Gibson's World Series home run. When it left the bat, Sculley said nothing. He let the crowd sounds and the pictures of the players tell the story. It was a great moment, made even more enjoyable by Sculley's genius for knowing when not to talk.

Right up into the 1970's, sports were fun to watch on TV. But, then, one sad Monday night in 1970, it all began to change.

It wasn't putting football on Monday night that was bad; it was adding Howard Cosell and a host of morons, chief of which would be Don Meredith to the booth. Suddenly, the action on the game became secondary to who Howard had lunch with, how Howard had predicted what just happened earlier in the broadcast (even if he had predicted exactly the opposite), and when Dandy Don was going to sing.

From those humble beginnings, the personalities in the booth began to be more important than the game they were covering. Monday Night Baseball fought back with movie and TV celebrities appearing as “color commentators”. While George C. Scott did show himself to be knowledgeable about baseball and one heck of Tigers fan, most of them were dismal. But the foot of irrelevance was in the door. Instead of paying attention to the game, announcers were conducting phone interviews or talking about where the best food was or about some “big story” that was completely unrelated to the game at hand.

And now has come the graphics revolution. The screen is already messier than the average computer terminal, with a score bar at the top, the scores from other games at the bottom, player stats above the score from other games, and side bars with other information we didn't care about cramping the screen down to where it requires a 48-inch plasma screen to get 19 inches of actual sports viewing.

It is even suggested to the viewer that he/she go to the network's website to enhance their viewing experience. That's actually a good idea, because it's the only place you can actually get the play-by-play of the game, since the clowns in the booth have spent the last 15 minutes talking about the BCS, whether instant replay review should continue, how the star player's contract negotiations are going, and, most importantly, what shows are coming up this week on the network.

Years ago, NBC actually broadcast a game with no announcers. I thought it was wonderful, and, apparently, so did a lot of other people. I think it's time to try that one again, just for a short experimental period. Like, say, the next 10 years.

Friday, November 4, 2005

Special Effect-ations

Boy, that was close! -- One of a bazillion movie sidekicks right after the explosion

We were talking about some about-to-be-released big budget special effects flick, when I allowed as how I had reached my saturation level with special effects. After all, just how many massive firery explosions sending people flying through the air, projectiles whizzing visibly past someone's ear, land or sea vehicles flying through the air, vehicles that are supposed to fly skidding along the ground and bouncing off buildings, and so on. I'm sorry, but after a while, it gets redundant watching people get up from some massively destructive event, brush themselves off, and carry on as if nothing had happened. Besides, how much disbelief are we supposed to suspend? The problem is that the effects are so good that it's hard to get into a true movie fantasy frame of mind.

The old B-pictures didn't have this problem. The effects were so wonderfully hokey, the science was so ludicrous that you could overlook anything because you had to overlook everything if you were going to watch the movie without laughing yourself silly. Even so, there's always an edge to go over. Let me tell you about the most unlikely survival scene of them all. (1)

The movie, made in 1965, was Crack in the World. The plot involved a brave old scientist, dying of some mysterious disease that required that he wear white gloves and dark glasses increasingly throughout the picture. He has an incredible plan to release thermal energy into the world by shooting a rocket tipped with a nuclear device downward into a bore hole. He has a loving wife who happens to be well-built and 30 years younger than he. He has a ruggedly good-looking colleague, who also happens to be 30 years younger than he. Okay, thirty seconds into the show, we all know where that part of the plot is going.

At any rate, Rugged thinks that Old Scientist has overlooked some details in his plan. In fact, Rugged is reasonably certain that Bad Things(TM) are going to happen, so he's running around doing his Chicken Little imitation before the Board of Scientists back home trying to get them to stop the rocket.

No, I don't know who or what the Board of Scientists was, but there was a bunch of guys like this in every sci-fi B-picture ever made. The all had one thing in common: They always made the wrong decision.

Well, the rocket fires, and sure enough the baddest of Bad Things(TM) happens when a crack begins to spread that's going to go around the planet and end the world “as we know it.” Seems like it would end it as even the cockroaches know it, but I'm being picky.

To make a long story short (too late), Rugged hatches a plan to trigger another nuke to stop the crack. This turns into a good-news-bad-news situation. The good news is that the crack is no longer headed around the planet. The bad news it that it's turned around so it'll make a circle back to where it started. Old Scientist nobly decides to stay at his station while sending off Loving Wife with Rugged, because, well, he was gonna croak anyway, so why shouldn't she have some fun before the world ends?

So Rugged and Loving start up the elevator (magnitude 8 earthquakes are rumbling continuously; would you jump in an elevator?) which, of course, jams, requiring them to climb up the girders to get out of the complex. During this process, Loving's clothing is strategically torn, staying within proper B-picture limits for titillation without risking any censorship problems. After suitable struggle and strife, they make it out and climb through a fence just as the crack comes around to ground zero. There is now an explosion that actually sends a chunk of the planet into space as we watch. These people are, say, 20 feet from the explosion, and they are completely unhurt!

So there they are, looking like Flash Gordon and Dale after a bad day on Mongo, staring up at an asteroid-sized piece of earth wobbling its way into space. As if that isn't bad enough, a chipmunk crawls out from under the dirt to show that life goes on somehow. Forget about the planet-wide tsunamis, the nuclear winter that will be caused by all the soot and general muck being thrown into the atmosphere, forget about all that. Just hold the thought of two people surviving an explosion bigger than Tunguska in your mind for a moment.

Maybe the new crop of flicks aren't so bad after all. At least, nowadays people fly through the air and bounce a couple of times when the explosions go off.

(1) Okay, the most over-the-top is the guy who became the Amazing Colossal Man surviving a nuclear blast. But, there's B-pictures, and then there's just bad flicks.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Never Say Never

I have seen the future and it is very much like the present, only longer. -- Kehlog Albran

When the petroleum companies celebrated Hurricane Katrina by raising gasoline prices to ridiculous levels, at least until states invoke anti-gouging laws, a co-worker of mine said, “Gas will never go below $2 per gallon again.” Now I don't agree with that for a couple of reasons. Firstly, gasoline was overpriced at 30 cents a gallon in the 1960's. We know that because, even at that price, oil companies were making obscene profits. Supply-and-demand don't apply in a cartel situation.

Secondly, I've heard so many “never” statements that ultimately were false, that I don't give them much credence. Here are a few.

“The prime rate will never go below 10% again.” Remember the heyday of double-digit inflation in the late 1970's and early '80's? The prime went to about 21% or so, which violated usury laws in some states. When they started to fall, my boss at the time made the assertion that they wouldn't fall far. I bet him $10 that they would drop well below 10% eventually. How he expected to win, I don't know, because “never” is a very long time. I guess he thought he would outlive me and collect from my estate. Anyway, I changed jobs not long after that. When interest rates dropped, I sent him a letter about the $10. He never did pay up.

“There will never be a non-Italian Pope.” Conventional wisdom amongst Catholics was that, after centuries of Italian Pontiffs, the tradition had taken such hold that there was no way someone of another nationality would be elected. I wonder if how long it'll take for people to say, “There will never be another Italian Pope.”

“Life will never be the same after 9/11.” Well, airlines are already talking about reducing security, people travel to countries where there are terrorist threats, and terrorists are still blowing things up as they have done for centuries. I haven't noticed any significant change to my life, and, unless you suffered a personal loss in the attack, neither have you. As to those who did suffer the loss of friends and loved ones, you share the same changes faced by people every day who lose husbands, wives, children, and friends to accidents, natural disasters, and wars. That doesn't minimize it. It's just that it was that way before 9/11 and will continue to be that way.

“People will never shop for things on the Internet.” When Amazon was astounding us all by losing remarkable amounts of money while its stock price kept increasing, many pundits were saying that online shopping was a passing fad. Today, polls show that shopping online is the second biggest way people waste time at work on the Internet, after porn surfing, of course.

“Free agency in sports will never work.” I'll admit it. I thought pro sports would collapse as salaries escalated, and competitive teams would dwindle down to a few. Hasn't happened. Professional sports may wither some day, but it'll only be greed or fan boredom that'll do the job, not free agency.

“That record (or whatever sports accomplishment you wish) will never be broken.” All records are made to be broken. Except for the one about the most putouts by a fielder in an inning of baseball. Three is all you can get, so that record can only be tied in perpetuity.

“The Red Sox will never win the World Series again.” “Nuff said.

“The Cubs will never win the World Series again.” Boy, it's a good thing “never” is a long time.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

“Always” Isn't Necessarily a Long Time

Time, time, time, see what's become of me...- Simon and Garfunkle

George Gamow, a physicist with a sense of humor, once wrote a popular science book called 1...2...3...Infinity! He drew the title from the practice of an African tribe that had no words for numbers in their language past the number three. If they had a group of objects that was three or less, they were counted as one, two, or three. Any more than that and the count was “many.” It worked for them.

It seems that time is like that. Many years ago when I was in college, an instructor (it might have been Aristotle, but I think he was on sabbatical that year) told us about a survey about how people perceived change. Say a change has been made in a procedure workers use. For the first three months, people will say the procedure is “new”. After three months, they'll say they've been using the method for “a few months or a year”. After six months, they'll say the change has been in place for “a long time”. And if the change is still in place after a year, workers will claim they've “always” had to do things that way.

I could be off a little on those time intervals because I am relying on an over-used memory-cell bank. It could be that “always” occurs even earlier, like nine months, but you understand the overall point. Interestingly, I've had more than one pregnant woman swear after about seven months that it felt like she'd been pregnant forever. More to the point, I can attest to the principle because of an incident that happened to me back in the early 1970's.

Way back in that time of the first gasoline crisis (which has nothing to do with this story, but I thought I'd stick it in to show that nothing ever changes), I was working as a Quality Engineer for a small company. A big chunk of my job involved writing and updating procedures for just about anything that needed documenting. This was on account of how I rite so gud. Sorry about that; I'm feeling much better now.

At that time, when I'd been with the company for a year or so, the government got very anxious about mercury contamination. Strangely, they didn't seem worried about all the mercury in Lake Erie; rather they worried about mercury being in materials that might end up in or near a nuclear reactor. Why? I don't know. Third base.

Anyway, we made battery covers that went into batteries used in nuclear subs and a door seal that was used in reactor installations. Both types of parts had to be made from material that had been tested for mercury. Now the only way we were going to contaminate anything with mercury was to throw a thermometer into the mixing machine, but a regulation is a regulation, so I wrote a procedure to test materials and quarantine them for use on these products. The foreman of the compounding area, a tough-talking but basically friendly guy name Lyle, moaned and groaned about how impossible it would be to keep track of the material, how orders would be late if we had to wait for tests, and so on and so on. But he had no choice, and, like most good foremen, after he had his gripe he made some good suggestions to improve the procedure then made it work.

About a year and a half later, the feds began to realize that they were paying a lot to test material that had little or no chance of containing mercury. Hey, you didn't think we were going to foot the bill, did you? There's nothing wrong with a fair profit (honest, I really do believe in capitalism; it's greed I can't abide), and you'll never make money doing freebie unnecessary testing. At any rate, someone in Washington had an epiphany and reduced the testing requirement to a yearly test of a randomly selected batch of material.

I figured Lyle was going to add me to his hero list for reducing this requirement. So, I was shocked when he intercepted me in the factory, holding a copy of the draft revision of the mercury test procedure.

“What are you doing?” he cried. “You can't change this procedure.”

“Why in the world not?” I said, completely confused.

“Because we've always had to do this! If you change it, we won't comply with government stuff!”

It took me around twenty minutes to convince him that:
We didn't start doing this until I wrote the procedure;
I hadn't been with the company since it opened in 1945, therefore, we couldn't have done it “always.”
The feds were capable of coming to there senses.

I'll have to admit that even I had trouble believing that last one.

I finally did convince Lyle that we could change the procedure, though I'm not sure I convinced him that he hadn't being following it for all 17 years of his tenure with the company.

Einstein was quite possibly the greatest mind of all time, but I have to take slight exception to the relativity of time. The speed of light has less to do with our time sense than our speed of acceptance.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Fear of Speaking

"They say people fear public speaking more than they fear death. So technically, if you kill a guy who's scheduled to speak, you're doing him a favor." – Codoso diBlini

Some years ago, someone took a survey to find out what people feared most. I don’t recall who took the survey; there’s always somebody surveying people about something. Presumably, some phobia-treatment lobby was interesting in developing their marketing targets. At any rate, the number one fear that people had was “speaking in front of a group.” This outranked other much more impressive (to me at least) fears like death, flying, spiders, snakes, and airline food.

This is ridiculous.

Even though I’ve heard people talk about not liking to get up in front of a group to give a speech, I find it hard to believe that anyone can consider this experience more frightening than the possibility of an untimely gruesome death. What’s the matter with you people?
I think it’s the stupid advice that’s been given by well-meaning persons about how to deal with making a speech. There are three axioms in particular that, rather than calming one, will make the experience even more daunting. Therefore, I would like to expose these “helpful” hints for the frauds that they are.

Dumb Piece of Advice #1
“To avoid being intimidated by the audience, don’t look at them. Look over their heads and focus on the back wall of the room instead.”

So there you are, staring at the back wall. You have no idea if anyone is listening to you or reacting to what you’re saying. Don’t worry. They have no idea what you’re saying because they keep looking back at the wall to see what it is that you’re staring at.

Dumb Piece of Advice #2
“Pick out a friendly-looking face in the crowd and maintain eye contact with this person while you’re speaking.”

This is diametrically opposed to the first piece of Dumb Advice and is equally bad. Now, the audience is wondering about the relationship between you and the one person in the room you’ve chosen to talk to. That person is wondering if you’re a stalker.

Dumb Piece of Advice #3
“To relax yourself, imagine that everyone in the room is naked.”

You’re about to make a speech. You’re nervous. And talking to a group of naked people is supposed to relax you? Unless you’re a male speaking to a group of Victoria’s Secret ™ models, you should be stuck between terror and revulsion. And, frankly, a room full of naked underwear models probably wouldn’t exactly relax the average male.[1]

Avoid these well-intentioned but idiotic pieces of advice, and your next speech will be a rousing success. Unless there are any spiders or snakes in the room.

[1] In the realm of great minds thinking alike, on October 11, a couple of days after I originally wrote this, the very funny Non Sequitur comic strip showed a man in his underwear about to give a speech. A fellow next to him says, “No…I’m pretty sure that the trick is supposed to be picturing the audience in their underwear…” See? Other people think it’s dumb advice, too.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Some Memorable Sports Moments

ESPN has their greatest, funniest, weirdest or whatever sports moments of all time. I just have moments I remember just because they were funny or unusual; many involve the teams I grew up following. Most of them will never be in those “of all time lists”, but I like them.

-- How to freak out an All-Star hitter: Jim Kern was a fireballing pitcher for the Cleveland Indians, appearing in his first (and only, if I recall properly) All-Star game. His first warmup pitch was 8 feet over the catcher's head; so was the second. The third was 8 feet short of the plate. And so it went for all his warmup pitches. I wish I could remember who the batter was that watched this display. All I recall for sure is that he did not dig in at the plate. So Kern grooved three pitches down the heart of the strike zone to strike him out. Quite possibly the greatest psych job of all time.

-- The “Mad Hungarian” gets shown up: Al “Mad Hungarian” Hrabosky was a relief pitcher for the Royals. He had a fu-manchu mustache, a maniacal glare, and a routine before each batter that was geared to intimidate. He would go behind the mound, head down, shoulders hunched, in some sort of deep concentration. He would then pound the ball into his glove and stride onto the rubber to face his victim. It helped that he was a sometimes-wild fastball pitcher. One the Indians were in KC to play the Royals. Hrabosky had come in to save the game, and Cleveland had sent a rookie (whose name I forget, regrettably) to pinch hit. When Hrabosky turned to stalk to the mound, he saw the Indians batter behind home plate, shoulders hunched, clutching his bad fit to squeeze sawdust out of it, mimicking his routine. Hrabosky was not amused; he struck the rookie out on four pitches.

-- Size doesn't matter: In the sixties, the Euclid, Ohio (just outside Cleveland) high school basketball team was everyone's pick to win the state championship, primarily on the strength of their 6 foot 9 inch center, Al Vilchek. They easily made it to the state semi-finals, where they were to meet Columbus South. No one on the Columbus team even approached Vilchek in height, but the team was loaded with superb athletes. To take the opening tap, they pitted one of their sub-6 foot guards to jump against Vilchek; Columbus won the tip. This team that was so short (tallest kid was maybe 6-4) was packed with remarkable leapers. They jumped to shoot, they jumped to pass. And pass they did; the ball seldom touched the floor. When Vilchek went up for his first shot, it was gorilla-blocked into the stands. After 10 minutes, Vilchek was done; he couldn't shoot, he couldn't block, he couldn't rebound without one of these leaping smurfs getting in the way. The Euclid coach had mercy on Al, pulling him early in the second half to salvage his ego. Columbus, of course, trampled Euclid and ultimately won the state title.

-- “Baby Huey” was no Babe Ruth: This isn't exactly a moment, but Bob Chance's career with the Cleveland Indians didn't last much longer than that. At first, it looked like the Indians had a gem in the genial first baseman who could hit a ball a country mile. Chance, whose physique reminded people of the the cartoon character “Baby Huey” (a large pear-shaped sort of guy), started the season belting balls all over the place, gathering bunches of homers while hitting over .400. It looked like the Indians were going to be set at first base for years. Unfortunately, Bob had a weakness for low pitches, and pitchers around the league began to exploit it big time. Chance would swing at anything around his ankles, even balls in the dirt. The average plummeted, the bench beckoned, and “Baby Huey” ended up playing in Japan. However, not all was bad, because Bob was very popular in Japan, although he never did conquer the low pitch.

-- Open field? What's the open field? Back in the “three yards and a cloud of dust” days of Woody Hayes, Ohio State fullbacks had a simple task: take the handoff, put both hands on the ball, and plow straight ahead. Don't juke, don't dance, don't run to daylight; just plow. For Bob Butts, this style fit him like a glove. But one glorious game, Butts got his handoff, dived into the line ... and found an opening! Suddenly he was in the open field, galloping like a rhinoceros through the secondary. With both hands still on the ball, Butts rumbled down the field, looking for all the world like he was lost. He continued on the same path he had been going when he hit the line, never even turning when he got near the sidelines, so he went out of bounds on his own. I don't think he ever broke a run like that again, which is just as well.

-- Watch the bouncing ball: Steve Yeager, long time catcher for the LA Dodgers, got injured in many and varied ways. One reason you see catcher's masks with a chin flap is because Yeager managed to get a piece of a broken bat stuck in his neck. But, there are worse things than a splinter in the neck. During one televised game, a batter fouled a ball into the ground which bounced backwards into Yeager. Yeager went down in a heap. The announcers somehow managed to miss where the ball went, so they speculated on a knee injury. When the replay came up (and it was a beauty, super slo-mo from the dugout camera, providing an unimpeded view of the trajectory of the ball), showing clearly that, with the angle of the bounce, even his protective cup was going to be scant solace. One announcer said, “Let's see what happened to Yeager. Okay, there's the ball hitting the ground and bouncing ... oooh ... well, no wonder he's down.”

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

The Myth of Management

The first myth of management is that it exists – Robert Heller, The Executive Dream

There is a Yiddish term, chutzpah, which is normally defined by an example: A man who would kill his mother and father, then throw himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan. That's chutzpah.

Here's a new example: The management of a company that is in bankruptcy petitions the court to allow it to give its executives bonuses in order to retain their expertise, despite the fact that these executives have driven the company to this point, costing thousands of ordinary employees their jobs and despite the fact that the remaining employees are being asked to take cuts in pay and benefits. Now, that's chutzpah!

When Enron did this, it was unsurprising because the company had demonstrated a callous disregard for its customers and investors. So why should they give a flip about regular employees? Now, Delphi, automotive supplier to most of the auto industry, has done the same thing. With General Motors apparently on the verge of filing Chapter 11, it's a trend we could do without.

In 1972, Robert Heller wrote a book called The Great Executive Dream, a humorous but deadly right-on look at management trends and methods. In it he proposed the Ten Truths of Management. These simple statements go a long way to explain just how we've gotten into the corporate morass that business, both here and abroad, has become. I hope Mr. Heller doesn't mind if I list a few of these with some short comments of my own.

1. Think before you act; it's not your money.
Unfortunately, I think most boards have interpreted this in a totally backwards way. It's not their money, they get paid no matter what, so what the heck ... let's buy that other company.

2. Cash in must exceed cash out.
We had an entire dot-bomb era that thought you could stay in business without following this dictum. They found out otherwise. Now we find the automotive industry has forgotten that the arrow of cash flow must be inward. They put out huge incentives to generate sales, then were surprised to find out they lost a bundle. If you’re losing a thou or two per car, you’re not going to make it up on volume. Now they're also finding out that when gasoline prices get out of hand, people stop buying over-priced SUV's and want to buy economical, but low-profit-margin little cars. Remember the '70's guys? Evidently not.

3. Management capability is always less than the organization actually needs.
But management compensation is always way more than the organization needs to pay to get that kind of “talent”.

4. If sophisticated calculations are needed to justify an action, don't do it.
The prevalence of the personal computer has made it easier to blow smoke up people's butts than ever before. The most dangerous corporate booby trap is an executive with Excel and Powerpoint on his PC.

5. If you attempting the impossible, you will fail.
Consultants get rich because they know that they can promise anti-gravity propulsion, and some executive will believe it, because it's not up to him or her to actually make it happen.

6. The easiest way of making money is to stop losing it.
Note that this doesn't mean “stop spending money”. Losing cash and using cash are two different things. Unfortunately, executives think cutting R&D, outsourcing, and laying off workers are effective cuts, while increasing their own salaries, adding executive perks, and buying money-losing concerns is an effective strategy.

Of course, if executives suddenly got smart, Scott Adams would be out of a job. It would be a sacrifice, but one I'm willing to make.