Wednesday, January 31, 2007

How Terrorists are Made

Quote of the day:
"Life is always a tightrope or a feather bed. Give me the tightrope."
--Edith Wharton

Statistic of the day:
Number of foreign visitors to New York City in 2006:
44 million.

Since September 11th, there has been lots of public discussion about Al Qaeda-based terrorism, and some about its origins. But we have heard very little empirical research or even objective observation related to how actual human beings wind up as terrorists.

Former CIA case officer and forensic psychologist Marc Sageman closely studied the life histories of 172 known militants, and reported his conclusions to the September 11th Commission. His “profile” of those who became terrorists is interesting in its resemblance to those who got very involved with religious cults in the 1970s and 80s.

Here is a brief excerpt from a piece by Raffi Khatchadourian in the January 22nd New Yorker:

“Sageman discovered that most Al Qaeda operatives had been radicalized in the West and were from caring, intact families that had solidly middle- or upper-class economic backgrounds. Their families were religious but generally mainstream. The vast majority of the men did not have criminal records or any history of mental disorders. Moreover, there was little evidence of coordinated recruitment, coercion or brainwashing. Al Qaeda’s leaders waited for aspiring jihadists to come to them--and then accepted only a small percentage. Joining the jihad, Sageman realized, was like trying to get into a highly selective college: many apply, but only a few are accepted.

“Perhaps his most unexpected conclusion was that ideology and political grievances played a minimal role during the initial stages of enlistment. ‘The only significant finding was that the future terrorists felt isolated, lonely, and emotionally alienated,’ Sageman told the September 11th Commission in 2003.”

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

XLI Meditations

Super Bowl quotes;

“Nobody in the game of football should be called a genius. A genius is somebody like Norman Einstein.”
--Joe Theismann

“American football is an occasion at which dancing girls, bands, tactical huddles and television commercial breaks are interrupted by short bursts of play.”
--Times of London

“Till I was 13 I thought my name was ‘Shut Up.’”
--Joe Namath

“Some people try to find things in this game that don’t exist but football is only two things--blocking and tackling.”
--Vince Lombardi

“If God had wanted man to play soccer, he wouldn’t have given us arms.”
--Mike Ditka

“When you hang with a bunch of 300-pound linemen, you tend to find the places that are the greasiest and serve the most food.”
--Tom Brady

“The football season is like pain. You forget how terrible it is until it seizes you again.”
--Sally Quinn

Monday, January 29, 2007

A New "Flight 93 Attitude"

Quote of the day:
"Any idiot can face a crisis; it is this day-to-day living that wears you out."
--Anton Chekhov

Artist Quote of the Day:
"There is only one true thing: Instantly paint what you see. When you've got it, you've got it. When you haven't, you begin again. All the rest is humbug."
--Edouard Manet

Reader Andy Breece passed along the following item, which he calls an example of a new “Flight 93” attitude.

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Parishioners tackled a gunman suspected of snatching purses from church pews during mass, the pastor and police said.

One man suffered lacerations to his head and face during the struggle at Christ the King Catholic Church on Sunday morning, police said. Wendell Hollingsworth, 43, and Celeste Smith, 51, were arrested and each charged with aggravated robbery at the church, police said. They were being held in the Franklin County jail Monday, awaiting bond.

The pair walked into the service and grabbed purses as Hollingsworth displayed a handgun and said, "This is a robbery," police said.

Hollingsworth was tackled as parishioners called police on cellphones. Smith was arrested outside the church, police said.

"Our parishioners are not about to let anyone defile their church," said the Rev. Michael Lumpe.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Doxology, Health Care and Taxes

Quote of the day:
“Praise God from whom all blessings flow, burst the choir, and the money was carried away in a wicker basket never to be seen again.”
--William Gaddis

Architecture quote of the day:
“We are going to grow to over 30,000 students, and we are going to have to take down some of these interim fixes.”
--University of California Irvine campus architect Rebekah Gladson. She was referring to the school tearing down two buildings to make room for a six-story, 180,000 square-foot engineering building. One of the razed buildings was designed by Frank Gehry, the other by Rebecca Binder.

Follow-up to Health Insurance and Iraq:
“The [Bush] tax proposal would have the effect of driving people to the small-group insurance market--a market that has proved unstable. For many people, even with a tax break, coverage would remain unaffordable.”
--Richard Umbdenstock, president of the American Hospotal Association.

According to a poll by the Public Policy Institute of California, 63% of the state’s population favors a guarantee of health-care coverage, even if it means raising taxes.

Simultaneous with President Bush’s proposal is one by California Governor Arnold Schwartzenegger which does provide health coverage for most of the population without it.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

February 4th: National Holiday

Quote of the day:
“Everyone eventually sits down.”

Quote of the day no. 2:
“The more you listen to the voice within you, the better you will hear what is sounding outside.”
--Dag Hammarskjold

Sports quote of the day:
“It’s not a national holiday, it’s just a game.”
--Encinitas realtor Marc Zimmerman, talking about the Super Bowl.

Kudos to Target for a great front page on their most-recent circular. It offers special prices on both a large flat-screen TV and a bag of Doritos. Is this a great country or what? No need to drive around for those Super Bowl needs.

Marc Zimmerman, while technically right, is actually wrong. Super Bowl Sunday IS a national holiday. It’s not official. It hasn’t been declared by Congress. But it is very real. Commerce slows to a crawl during the broadcast and then surges when the game concludes. It’s even hard to escape during commercial breaks because the ads are often as entertaining as the game.

We need these occasions for national and community celebrating. And we need these singular events that most of us can gather around.

I am not a huge football fan, and used to use Super Bowl Sunday to avoid crowds at all the places I needed to shop. So often, the football game is so uninteresting it seems a little silly. But I’ve tuned in regularly over the last several years.

Whether we like it or not, agree with it or not, participate in it or not, Super Bowl Sunday has transcended the football game. It is a major event, a spectacle, a national “gathering place” and a national holiday.

Friday, January 26, 2007

"Babel: Humanity Amid Pain"

Poem fragment of the day:
"The time has come," the Walrus said,
     "To talk of many things:
Of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax —
     Of cabbages-and kings —
And why the sea is boiling hot —
     And whether pigs have wings."
--Lewis Carroll

The movie Babel accomplishes something very interesting. Two of its subplots deal with immigration and terrorism, yet there is not an “evildoer” anywhere in the film.

It interweaves the themes of tragedy, celebration, misunderstanding, adolescence, community, disability, law enforcement, hospitality, connection, selfishness and fear in a synchronistic slice-of-life story that transcends every stereotype.

It has been nominated for the best picture Oscar. I don’t think it’s the best film of 2006, but it’s well worth seeing. There are several scenes in the film that will stay with me, and some of the performances are very powerful indeed.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Iraq and Health Insurance

Quote of the day:
“There will be an answer, let it be.”
--Paul McCartney

There has been a lot of talk about the relevance or irrelevance of Tuesday’s State of the Union address. I think there’s a lot of room for discussion and negotiation on each item that President Bush proposed.

Two of his underlying assumptions baffle me. First, I thought that our biggest problem related to health insurance is the huge number of people who cannot afford it. How exactly is making premiums tax-deductible going to make health insurance affordable for people who don’t have it, most of whom are in a tax bracket between 0% and 15%?

If a monthly premium of $500 is not affordable, is 15% less ($425) going to be affordable for a family that is already living paycheck to paycheck? I’m not saying that the tax deduction would not help a few people, and it certainly would be a nice present to those in higher tax brackets. But it seems to me there is a much, much bigger problem that needs attention: providing health insurance for those who most need it and cannot afford it.

The second assumption relates to the possibility of our withdrawal from Iraq. Bush made the obvious point that there would be chaos of we removed our armed forces. Won’t there be chaos whenever we decide to withdraw--whether it be now, in two years or in five years? Former National Security Advisor Richard Clarke said this several months ago--see Iraq Logic.

Watching the chaos and bloodshed that follows our withdrawal will be very difficult. But using the potential for chaos as a reason for not withdrawing from Iraq now is a very weak argument.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Vote As I Say, Not As I Vote? Part 2

Quote of the day:
“Employees at Grand Canyon National Park are not permitted to give an official estimate of the age of the canyon, due to pressure from the Bush administration. Meanwhile, a book claiming that the Grand Canyon was formed by the flood at the time of Noah remains on sale at the park.”, quoted in the January 23rd Christian Century

Newsweek released a new poll at the end of December that asked four questions:

1. Are Americans ready to elect a woman as president?
55% said yes.

2. Are Americans ready to elect an African American as president?
56% said yes.

3. Would you vote for a qualified female presidential candidate?
86% said yes.

4. Would you vote for a qualified African-American candidate?
93% said yes.

I still just don’t get it. I’m missing something.

Here’s the question I posed In my post of last October 15th with the new Newsweek numbers:

If 86% of us say we would vote for a woman candidate for president, why do only 55% of us think Americans are ready to elect a woman?

If 93% of us say we would vote for an African-American candidate, why do only 56% of us think Americans are ready to elect an African American?

Who are the “Americans” who would vote for a woman or an African American but are not “ready” to elect a woman or an African American?

I don’t get it.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

I'd Like to Thank the Academy

Quote of the day:
“The National Rifle Association says, 'Gun's don't kill people. People do'. But I think the gun helps.”
--Eddie Izzard

How about that. This morning the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated "Little Miss Sunshine" for best picture. I’d say it’s a long shot, but it’s good to see this swell film (my favorite of last year) get some more attention.

It looks like Martin Scorcese and "The Departed" will pick up best director and picture, though anything is possible. Most certain is Forrest Whitaker ("Last King of Scotland") for best actor. Helen Mirren ("Queen") looks likely for best actress, but there are four other very strong contenders. Another near-certainty is "An Inconvenient Truth" for best documentary, and Al Gore will be at the awards.

It may be the most important documentary of the last five years. I’ve said this twice in previous posts: there has been not a single refutation of any of the data or information presented in the film. People can complain about Al Gore all they want, but he managed to very carefully and methodically put to rest all doubts about long-term global warming.

Most especially, he put to rest for good the idea that the climate changes scientists have been noticing for years are just part of a natural cycle that the earth has seen before.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Surrendering Changes Your Life

Quote of the day:
“Every one has time if he likes. Business runs after nobody: People cling to it of their own free will and think that to be busy is a proof of happiness.”

A celebrity-doing-good quote of the day:
“Learning about abstinence was one thing, but then there was this other area of my life to start learning about, and so 30 days became 60, and 60 days became 90, and with each week that passed I found myself really learning how to surrender.”
--Keith Urban, country singer and husband of Nicole Kidman.

Urban was talking about his stay at the Betty Ford Center for treatment of alcohol dependency. Addiction is such a hard thing to shake, it is inspiring to hear someone who not only stuck with a treatment program, but came to understand addiction’s power.

I’ve never known anyone to “shake” an addiction. The pattern is usually long periods of deterioration followed by seeming recovery followed by another period of deterioration. The recovery only “sticks” if the addict can sustain regular treatment or support for the rest of his life.

That’s the special appeal of Urban going public. He is saying that he knows he has a problem, and that he knows it’s huge, and that he knows he needs continuing support. That’s what the “surrender” is about. And Urban’s life will continue to be about surrender.

Here’s how to know your dealing with an addict or alcoholic with a problem. He or she will always say either that he doesn’t have a problem, or that he has figured out or solved the problem.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Clean Desks and Sick Minds

Quote of the day:
“Fortune does not change men; it unmasks them.”
--Madame Necker

Quote of the day no.2:
“Some have charged that those who objected to Saddam’s hanging thereby minimized his crimes. But if Saddam’s guilt were to be the measure of his punishment he would have been tortured to death--and even then the retribution would have been inadequate. Capital punishment’s worst affront is not to the dignity and humanity of the condemned. It is to the dignity and humanity of the polity that decrees it.”
--Hendrik Hertzberg in "The New Yorker."

There used to be a very popular desk sign that said “A Clean Desk is a Sign of a Sick Mind.” I’ve had my share of sloppy, disorganized desks, until I figured out how much easier life was with a clean desk. It took me a while to learn that it was much easier to throw things away immediately rather than save them to be thrown away later.

But clean desk or sloppy desk, I always thought that sign said much more about the person posting it than about the people it aimed to describe. When I saw this sign, it was invariably posted by a slob who was attempting to say that his clutter was an indication of superior adjustment and mental health. Because I was acquainted with the adjustment and mental health of the posters, I knew this not to be the case.

Cleanliness and tidiness do bring out our most obsessive qualities. Indeed, some folks seem much more concerned with the order of their immediate world than with the people around them. But allowing dirt and clutter accumulate on your desk does not mean that you are a more caring person than those who are tidy. Sorry.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Best Documentary of 2006

Quote of the day:
“Complaining is good for you as long as you’re not complaining to the person you’re complaining about.”
--Lynn Johnston, For Better or For Worse

Quote of the day no. 2:
“It is said that power corrupts, but actually it's more true that power attracts the corruptible. The sane are usually attracted by other things than power.”
--David Brin

Tuesday will be an interesting day. Early in the morning, the Academy Award nominations will be announced. Certain to be on the list for best documentary will be "An Inconvenient Truth." I hear that the Dixie Chicks’ "Shut Up and Sing" has a shot.

In the evening, President Bush will deliver his State of the Union message. I wonder if he will talk about the environment. Will he go along with the will of the American people and allow Congress to take the lead on what to do about Iraq?

Friday, January 19, 2007

Just a Little More

Quote of the day:
“It is hard to free fools from the chains they revere.”

Geographic quote of the day:
“With its Manhattan-style skyline, world-class port, and colossal, duty-free shopping malls, little Dubai now attracts more tourists than the whole of India, more shipping vessels than Singapore, and more foreign capital than many European countries.”
--Afshin Molavi in "National Geographic"

Greed causes more trouble and pain than any other human flaw, and it begins with something that many of us do every day.

Call it “just a little more.” We take a 15-minute work break and we stay out for just a little longer, 20 minutes. We get away with that. We take another small step, staying out 25 minutes. We don’t get into trouble for that. We take another small step. Eventually our supervisor will say something, and we may feel a trifle wronged if we’ve managed to get away with longer breaks for a while.

Another way this happens is when we take advantage of a gracious gesture. For example, on a couple of occasions our boss has been nice enough to give us a couple hours off to take care of personal business. We ask a few more times, and two hours off becomes three, then an afternoon. We begin to take it for granted, and if a subsequent request for time off is questioned, we feel persecuted.

Time, money, love, attention. Give me a little, I want a little more. It’s called greed.

Corporate fraud and embezzlement are classic and egregious examples of this. Someone discovers that they can move a bit of company money around and get away with it. Then he moves a bit more money twice as often. He still doesn’t get caught. The stakes gradually get higher and higher. When the crime is finally discovered, we are amazed that someone could steal so much money. But it all began with taking “just a little more.”

Helping to enable this behavior is our operating ethic of “do whatever you can get away with.” If I can get away with it, why don’t I take just a little more?

Thursday, January 18, 2007

These Kids Today!

Quote of the day:
“How much sickness can even a huge heart take before it becomes sick itself?”
--Mary Gaitskill

Artist quote of the day:
“The public history of modern art is the story of conventional people not knowing what they are dealing with.”
--Robert Motherwell

Two generational observations, first from Francesco Marciuliano in "Sally Forth":

“All kids seem to do today with their free time is go online or play video games. I don’t get it. Back when I was a kid, we actually went outside to have fun. We’d play sports, create our own games, ride bikes or just have great adventures in our own backyard. We actually had experiences, not just some computer simulation.

“And all the while your parents said, ‘I don’t get it. Back when we were kids, we actually went to work and helped our families.’”

Second, from New York financial writer Nancy Miller, from "Barron’s":

“Boomers deem saving for retirement and quitting smoking the most difficult things to do--harder than losing weight or working out.”

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Charity Stripe: Not!

Quote of the day:
"Common sense and a sense of humor are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humor is just common sense, dancing.”
--William James

Syllable miscount of the day:
“Realtor” has two syllables, not three. Often it is realtors who are pronouncing it real-i-tor.

Color me annoyed at commentators and anchor people whose impulse to yak exceeds their ability to do so. Specifically, this peeve du pet addresses play-by-play people who drive cliches and metaphors into the ground.

We are in the midst of the college basketball season. To keep things interesting, play-by-play people come up with a variety of creative ways to talk about the game. Nothing wrong with that. Except when they get stuck.

For example, someone once referred to the part of the court where a basket counts three points as “beyond the arc.” Now, it seems we never hear that a shot is from 3-point range, or simply that it’s worth three points, or even that the shot came from “behind the arc.” It is ALWAYS “beyond the arc.” It’s an “if I had a nickel” situation.

Another singular non-favorite is a variation on the “foul line,” from which free throws are taken. I can’t remember the last time I heard or read the simple, descriptive term “foul line.” It is ALWAYS the “charity stripe.” It was clever the first few times it was used, but not the subsequent 5,000.

Jeez. Can I buy you a thesaurus?

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Pain of Dashed Hopes

Quote of the day:
“If someone named Junior names his child Junior, does the child become Junior Jr.?”

Artist quote of the day:
“I’d asked 10 or 15 people for suggestions. Finally one lady friend asked the right question: 'What do you love most?' That’s how I started painting money.”
--Andy Warhol

Have you had your 15 minutes of fame yet? We are again in "American Idol" land, where thousands of fame-seekers converge in hopes of grabbing a ray of spotlight.

I spent the first three seasons looking down my nose at this show. But then a very talented singer at my church entered the competition, and “went to Hollywood.” In the process of cheering him on, I got hooked on the show. It’s fun and often very entertaining. Yet there are some very emotional and disturbing moments, especially at the beginning of the season.

Think about the name “American Idol.” The show doesn’t really operate in “idol” territory, except for maybe a fleeting instant at or after the end of the season. An idol is defined as “an image or representation of a god used as an object of worship” or “a person or thing that is greatly admired, loved or revered.” The sense of this definition is something beyond singing ability or fame, yet these two things are what the show is about. If you watch the show, you know that precious few contestants have the former, but all want the latter.

This is where the pain comes in. Many, many more people want to be famous than can sing, and a few are wildly mistaken about their ability. There are many, many, many dashed hopes, and we see displays of hurt, pain and anger. Most of the time it’s quite understandable, but sometimes these displays are so intense as to be disturbing.

It makes me wonder how these individuals got to be both so wrongly convinced of their talent, and so in need of fame.

Monday, January 15, 2007

"24" is a Brutal Comic

Quote of the day:
“He looked like a cardboard display of a friendly person.”
--Mary Gaitskill

Quote of the day no. 2:
"We have no alternative but to protest. For many years we have shown an amazing patience. We have sometimes given our white brothers the feeling that we liked the way we were being treated. But we come here tonight to be saved from that patience that makes us patient with anything less than freedom and justice."
--Martin Luther King, in his first speech to the Montgomery Improvement Association

Two hours down, 22 to go. Another season of 24 is upon us.

A couple of things occur to me after the first episodes. First, is all the cruel brutality really necessary? I know that intelligence and counter-intelligence can be a violent business. But this much so quickly? The point here is entertainment, and I don’t find in-my-face torture entertaining.

The show seems to be either more ridiculous or deliberately campy, depending on how you look at it. The plot is structured like a comic book, with very broadly-drawn characters, heavy-handed dialog and idiotic good-versus-evil statements every two or three minutes. And the plot is unusually predictable so far.

Doesn’t Jack Bauer look remarkably good, having just been released by the Chinese two hours ago, undergoing unimaginable torture, kicking a suicide bomb off a subway (didn’t he burn his feet?) and not having anything to eat so far? Stop at Jack-in the-Box, Jack.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Biggest Pension Crisis

Quote of the day:
“He could always write or speak to order, partly from the abundance of the stream, which can fill indifferently any provided channel.”
--Ralph Waldo Emerson, referring to Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

Newsweek columnist Robert Samuelson has caused a stir once again by writing that the Social Security system, to remain viable beyond the next 30 years, will need attention.

He points out that, in 2005, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid cost more than two-fifths of the total federal budget. And that will grow to three-quarters of the federal budget by 2030 “if it remains constant as a share of the national income.” He criticizes the government and the baby-boom population for doing nothing and remaining essentially silent on the issue. He recommends benefit cuts, which of course is the least politically-palatable option.

Samuelson makes an important observation when he says “Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are pay-as-you-go programs. Current taxes pay current benefits. In 2005, 86 percent of Social Security payroll taxes went to pay current retiree benefits.”

This is important because some years the taxes will more than pay for benefits, while other years there will be a shortfall. It depends on many things, but mostly on the size of the tax-paying and benefit-collecting populations. It’s logical that, as the huge baby boom population ages, more strain is put on the system.

The basic, simple, logical fact of pension funding is that some (we hope most) years there will be a surplus, while other years will see a deficit. The basic, simple, incontrovertible necessity in pension governance is to allow surpluses to accumulate, so that deficits will always be covered.

San Diego City, San Diego County and the State of California (and governments across the nation) face significant pension problems because surpluses were seen as a reason either to reduce pension funding or to divert the surplus to another purpose. Sure enough, when the inevitable year comes when benefit levels exceed pension income, there is a serious problem.

As Samuelson says, Social Security is a bit of a different animal, though the basic pension rule does apply. If the system is to continue serving its mission, there will need to be both a tax increase and a benefit decrease. And it will need to be enacted within the next ten years. The longer we wait, the more taxes will need to increase and benefits will need to decrease.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

We Still Have a Dream

Quote of the day:
“On the whole, human beings want to be good, but not too good, and not quite all the time.”
--George Orwell

Much of what follows originally appeared in “I Have a Dream Today”:

On this Martin Luther King weekend, we are again hearing frequent references to King’s seminal “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The depth and breadth of the influence of this speech, and of King’s speeches throughout his leadership of the civil rights movement, have only begun to be appreciated.

The “I Have a Dream” speech was an extraordinary accomplishment. It was just eight minutes long. It was delivered on a very hot August day, among presentations by many speakers . Most important, King’s speech was in no way casual, either in its preparation or in its delivery.

He did two things exceptionally well. First, he realized and embraced the opportunity the speech presented. He knew this would be an extraordinary chance to address not just the people around him on the platform, but the whole nation. Second, he worked very hard to carefully prepare the speech. He chose words, phrases and images with thought and deliberation. He wrote, rewrote and rewrote again, and kept editing and then editing some more.

It would have been easy to focus just on the issue or policy of the moment. It would have been easy to make the speech up as he went along--he was certainly smart and talented and experienced enough. King did neither of these things.

Techniques King used in this speech have been imitated widely and often. Bill Clinton often tried to use the rhythms and repetitions that King did, but he wound up violating the”musty lettuce” rule. Clinton (and many other politicians) loved to intone long lists of “we must” this and “we must” that, or “let us” this and “let us” that.

The “I Have a Dream” speech was not about technique. Martin Luther King did with this speech the same thing that Abraham Lincoln did at Gettysburg. He put into eloquent, memorable words the highest and deepest hopes of America. And those words ring just as clear and true today as they did 43 years ago.

The “I Have a Dream” speech was a world-changing and world-enhancing achievement. The legacy of that achievement is what we celebrate this weekend.

Friday, January 12, 2007

iPhone, iPod, iMe

Quote of the day:
“All the smiling television faces blend to make a shimmering suit that might hold you.”
--Mary Gaitskill

Quote of the day no. 2:
“This is the next step in not accepting poor design any longer.”
--David Myers, executive chef of Food Arts Group in Los Angeles.

Myers was talking about Apple’s just-announced iPhone, which has caused a surge in Apple’s stock and lots of chatter about the future of cell phone devices and whether Apple will make much of an impact. He is suggesting that the iPhone will make an impact, even if it is only another step in bringing good design into our daily lives.

I have a confession. I am an Apple fanatic. More accurately I would classify myself a bit shy of “fanatic,” but others have suggested I drop the “bit shy” facade and come clean.

For 23 years I was a tried-and-true Windows guy, at home at at various workplaces. But after getting some advice from a software engineer whose judgment I trust, I bought an iBook two years ago. I will never go back.

When I heard the sometimes-irrational rhapsodizing of Apple people for years, I was tempted but very skeptical. I knew that my PC could do all the same things, and was just as good, and cheaper. Yet once I started using the iBook--and all the associated “i’s”: iTunes, iPod, iPhoto, iWork--I began to know what the fanaticism was about.

Simply put, Apple products are designed with actual, living human beings in mind. The goal is not to adapt a machine to be useful to me, but to begin the design process with human DNA, not silicon. It’s a bit like the difference between buying a suit off the rack and having one made in the exact fabric and fit for a real human body.

It’s clear with everything I do--little things as well as big things--that my needs and interests have taken precedence over the machine’s. Here are three “little” things I love. If you’re an Apple user, you may find yourself nodding as you read this.

First, I open the iBook with one hand and it instantaneously wakes up and is ready to use. I close it with one hand and it goes to sleep. Second, all the inputs and outputs are on the left side. Whenever I need to hook something up, I turn my head slightly to the left and slide the connection in with my left hand. Third, the AC adapter is a white square the size of a deck of cards and plugs directly into the wall if you’re fairly close to an outlet. An extension cord is supplied for longer distances. But I rarely use the AC when I’m working, because the battery lasts four hours or more on a charge.

I know I’m already past three things, but the AC adapter also has those little built-in wings that you can fold out to easily wind up your cord. That’s just way cool.

Those of you who are in PC land--maybe you’re stuck there--thanks for reading this far. Some of you might be saying to yourself, well my laptop also has long battery life, or a similar arrangement of inputs/outputs, or whatever. Your manufacturer is likely copying Apple.

Which is the point. It seems that all other computer (and phone and MP3) manufacturers design a device and then add convenience or styling features. My favorite is the attempt to do away with the beige box. Instead, let’s have a grey box, or a titanium box. Let’s put a curvy design on it and maybe a racing stripe.

For Apple, convenience or styling features are not added on. The device itself is a convenience and styling feature. Most computer (and phone) users will continue not to care about this, evidently caring much more about the design of their refrigerator, which they are neither carrying with them nor sitting behind and looking at for hours a day.

Yet there is a small and steadily-growing segment of the population who do care, which means Apple will continue to thrive.

And even though I find cell phones annoying, I will be buying an iPhone.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Which Comes First: "Religious" or "Right"?

Quote of the day:
“You knock me down. I get up again. You’re never going to keep me down.”

Website of the day:

Follow-up to Chicken Little Has Crossed the Road:
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a government agency, reported the other day that 2006 was the warmest in the continental United States of the past 112 years. The chief of their climate-monitoring branch, Jay Lawrimore, said: “People should be concerned about what we are doing to the climate. Burning of fossil fuels is causing an increase in greenhouse gases, and there’s a broad scientific consensus that it is producing climate change.”

Quote of the day no. 2:
“Some people claim to defend American values they’re too faint-hearted to even understand.”
--Leonard Pitts, "The Miami Herald"

Quiz of the day:
What three things do congressional representatives Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and Hank Johnson of Georgia have in common? (answer below)

Leonard Pitts also had this to say in his column: “Keith Ellison took his ceremonial oath of office as a Democratic representative from Minnesota using Thomas Jefferson’s Koran.”

Not using the bible for taking the oath really got the radio-talk world into an overheated cappuccino froth. We are beginning to see the real size of the especially-fearful population segment that makes up the core audience for all this daily panic-inciting yaking-- between 5% and 10%. More important, we also begin to see how self-serving, attention-seeking and irrational so many far-right leaders are.

I do not use the label “religious” right or “religious” left, because almost always the position precedes the religion. That is, attitudes come first, then religion is used to justify the attitudes. It would be more correct to use the labels “right religious” or “left religious.”

(Side note: both of these spellings are acceptable: yaking and yacking.)

Quiz answer:
1. They’re Democrats
2. They’re new to Congress
3. They’re the first Buddhists to serve in Congress

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Talk is Not News

Quote of the day:
“He had, by now, the look of a man who was waiting for something which had happened long before.”
--William Gaddis

In "Masters of the Offhand," I said:
“We have slipped into sometimes labeling our constant stream of talk-radio personalities as ‘commentators’ or, worse, ‘analysts.’ We sometimes do not see the reality that they are really highly-skilled masters of getting attention through expressing offhand, ad-libbed opinions. They are, above all, entertainers working without scripts.”

I bring this up because of something reported in Gallup’s annual Lifestyle survey, which was conducted in December. The survey asked how often Americans got their news from various sources. 20% said they got some of their news from radio talk shows every day.

The good news is that most people reported more than one daily source. 55% watched local TV news, 44% read local newspapers and 35% watched nightly network news programs.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Fleeting Fame for a Hero

Quote of the day:
“He moves like he’s being yelled at by invisible people whom he hates but whom he basically agrees with.”
--Mary Gaitskill

Follow-up to "Pleasure or Accuracy?" and "Confessions of an Audiophile":
“Many premium ‘audio quality’ tubes that we have investigated tend to not be of premium quality at all, but are simply standard tubes re-branded and marked up to premium prices only to be sold to neurotic audiophiles to whom outrageously high prices are a sugar pill indicating wonderful sound.”
--Frank Van Alstine

Quote of the day no. 2:
“They go one of two ways: They either recognize that their act was a moment in time they can enjoy temporarily, and the rest of life is a consequence of everyday routine--or they get stuck in their deed or action, feel entitled and lose perspective.”
--Alan Hilfer, chief psychologist at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn.

Mr. Hilfer is talking about the phenomenon of overnight heroes. The latest example is Wesley Autrey, who last week jumped onto New York subway tracks to help a teenager who had fallen there. They wound up laying in the trench between the rails as a train went above them.

This kind of behavior deserves both thanks and recognition. It’s inspiring and encouraging to hear about incidents of reflexive heroism--someone putting his/her own life at risk to help someone else.

In our culture of celebrity worship, it can be quite intoxicating to be suddenly in the spotlight and recognized on the street. That intoxicating effect is why the perspective Mr. Hilfer mentions is so important, because the fame and notoriety will fade--likely just after the trip to Disney World, when the new hero will have to resume his/her “ordinary” life.

Monday, January 8, 2007

MySpace As Constructive Force

Quote of the day:
“In case you’re worried about what’s going to become of the younger generation, it’s going to grow up and start worrying about the younger generation.”
--Roger Allen

Quote of the day no. 2:
“Teens are not just willy-nilly using social networking sites and making themselves vulnerable to predators.”
--Steve Jones, communications professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

MySpace is a sinister threat. That has become a mantra for many, especially parents who are terrified of predators lurking in cyberspace, and who imagine that their teen is spending hours every day online with strangers. It turns out that “sinister threat” may be a bit of an exaggeration.

First, according to a new survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 45% of teens do not use social-networking sites, and 10% use them once every few weeks or less. Only 25% of teens are using the internet for social-networking every day. This is a significant
and huge number, but it is very far from “all” or “most.”

Indeed, there are reasons for teens to be careful when using MySpace. But it and other social-networking sites serve a valuable purpose, perhaps especially for those who use it a lot. Amanda Sanchez, a San Dimas 17-year-old, says, “Over the summer, MySpace was my best friend. I didn’t know anybody after I moved, so I was on there all the time.”

And teens seem to understand the need to be wary. Two-thirds of those who created MySpace profiles chose to keep them private--available only to friends.

Sunday, January 7, 2007

We Don't Live By Loud Alone

Quote of the day:
“Is that good, being like everybody? Isn’t that like being nobody?”
--Charles Beaumont, from a Twilight Zone script.

Quote of the day no. 2:
“Clubs are loud. Plays on Broadway--many are ridiculously loud. Phone ring tones are too loud. It’s a culture-wide thing. And the movie business hasn’t escaped that, and is a big part of it.”
--Randy Thom, movie sound editor and designer.

If you’ve gone to the movies any time over the last year, you’ve noticed how the volume has gone up, especially for trailers. There appear to be several factors at work.

First is expectations from the prime movie-going audience: teens and young adults. My 15-year-old nephew recently said that he regularly listens to his iPod at ear-blistering levels. When the audience grows accustomed to high volume levels, the movies will go along.

Second is attention span. If a movie is quiet or “slow” for too long, it becomes borrrrrinngg to the target audience. So movies become faster-paced and volume goes up, and stays up for longer.

Third is what I’ll call “loss of nuance.” When almost everything is loud, we lose anything to compare it to. We also lose the potential for dynamics--an appreciation for the journey from soft to loud and back again. And this is an expression of the rhythm and movement of our lives--calm to excitement, thinking to action, reflection to engagement, watching to participation.

All are necessary. We don’t live by adrenaline alone. Not even close.

Saturday, January 6, 2007

Logic Fails in Love and Money

Quote of the day:
“You must change your life.”
--Rainer Maria Rilke

How do mutual-fund portfolios managed by financial advisors perform when compared to mutual-fund portfolios managed by average investors? In a word, worse, according to a new study from the Harvard Business School.

This makes official something that has been known for a long time.  And it's 100% logical.

Most financial advisors charge an annual asset fee, usually 1%.  Most financial advisors also work under the umbrella of a firm providing mutual funds.  These mutual funds assess an average annual management fee of 1.5% or so.

Individuals investing in funds on their own, using the online guidance of a low-cost mutual-fund family, pay no annual asset fee, and the average management fee is likely .5% or so.

So people investing in funds on their own begin with an advantage of approximately 2%.  When you consider that a reasonable, conservative expectation of long-term financial return on any well-diversified portfolio is between 6 and 8%, using an advisor makes that expectation between 4 and 6%.

This doesn't mean that advisors make bad recommendations.  It's just that they start out with a significant cost disadvantage.  Yet some advisors get above-average returns, while some people investing on their own do poorly.

At minimum, this new study can be a wake-up call to know exactly what your costs are, so that you can ensure you get what you pay for.

Friday, January 5, 2007

Not Islam v. the West, But Islam vs.Islam

Quote of the day:
“I know collectors with 40,000 bottles who if you poured them a glass of Gallo Hearty Burgundy wouldn’t know the difference.”
--Robert M. Parker, Jr.

Many assumptions and stereotypes continue to come to us about Muslims, Arabs, and what 9/11 was about. Some of them need closer examination.

Reza Aslan graduated from the Harvard Divinity School, where he did a scholarly study of the Koran. His book "No god but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam" helped to dispel some of our questionably broad assumptions, but they are persistent. He was interviewed in the December "Sun," and made some very interesting observations:

“We have this idea in the U.S. that we’re the primary target of the jihadists, but we’re not. They call us the ‘far enemy.’ The primary target is the older Islamic institutions.”

“By bin Laden’s own admission, al-Qaeda will never reestablish the caliphate. A few years ago the majority of Muslims didn’t even know what the caliphate was, let alone want it to come back. But when the president of the United States of America, the most powerful man on earth, announced that he was afraid bin Laden could re-create the caliphate, it gave an air of legitimacy to this absurd idea.... For Bush, talking about the caliphate may have been a good strategy for getting reelected, but it is a terrible strategy for winning this ‘war on terror’ that we’re supposed to be fighting.”

“Five years later [after 9/11], and we’re still asking ‘Why did they attack us?’ That question has been answered a hundred times over by the jihadists. In their own words they have said the purpose of the attacks of September 11 was to goad the United States into an exaggerated retaliation against the Muslim world. Then they could frame the U.S. military response as a ‘war against Islam.’

“The irony is that it didn’t work at first. The war in Afghanistan had almost unanimous support in the Arab and Muslim worlds, even from some of the U.S.’s staunchest enemies.

“In one Muslim country, immediately after September 11, hundreds of thousands of people poured into the streets, lot candles, and prayed in an exuberant display of compassion for the U.S. That country was Iran.”

Thursday, January 4, 2007

The Great American Attention Grab

Quote of the day:
"A positive attitude may not solve all your problems, but it will annoy enough people to make it worth the effort."
--Herm Albright

There are many strange behaviors and sicknesses shown and written about in the news. The most pervasive, pernicious and persistent one is the attention grab.

As humans, we all need a little attention--a little love, if you want to put it that way. And when we’re kids we learn about getting attention. We learn that it comes to us without our effort, or that we have to constantly ask or work for it. We learn that it’s easy to get, hard to get, or impossible to get.

We get too much attention or too little, or just about the right amount. We get accustomed to constant attention, or we adjust to neglect, or something in between.

We all like attention, in varying amounts. Some of us like it a little too much. Some of us cannot stand it if someone else in our family, social circle, or workplace is getting more attention than we are. To deal with this, we demand attention--by being rude or by putting down the other person or by plotting and scheming.

Celebrities often have an insatiable need for attention, no matter what field they work in. Recent example: Pat Robertson predicting a terrorist attack in 2007. (Give us a break, Pat.) Perpetual example: Paris Hilton.

Being well-known doesn’t create the need for attention but rather feeds it. If there is already some sickness present (including a childhood with way too little or way too much attention), an addiction is born, which may be inflicted on all of us for years to come.

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Does 2007 Have Your Attention?

Quote of the day:
"There have never in history been so many opportunities to do so many things that aren't worth doing."
--William Gaddis

A story has been making the rounds in the new year about a San Francisco group whose members have pledged not to buy anything new in 2007 (see it here). Evidently some of them made the same promise in 2006, and managed to keep it.

I think it’s a charming idea, because I dislike shopping. For those who enjoy recreational shopping, and certainly for those who are addicted, the idea is far-fetched at best.

One of the fascinating issues that comes up for me is how much better we are at spending money than investing it, even though the decisions in both cases are similar. I’ll talk about this some other time. Today, at the start of a new year, I want to talk about choices.

The depth and breadth of our choices how to spend money are mind-numbing, even if we know what we’re shopping for. A shirt. A computer. A CD. Even a cup of coffee.

We have a similar plethora of choices just about anywhere we turn. Movies, books, online videos, news sources, restaurants, places to walk, cable channels, radio stations, satellite radio channels, internet radio channels, and so on.

With so many choices, it’s easy to get neurotic and begin worrying that we’re missing something important. And while we’re worrying about that, we forget to enjoy what is right in front of us.

This is what is compelling about the San Francisco group. Their decision to not pursue new stuff forces them to appreciate again and again what is in front of them, and maybe to savor life.

Life is, after all, about savoring, not accumulation.

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Trumping Trump

Quote of the day:
“Rosie’s a loser. She’s been a loser always.”
--Donald Trump, talking about Rosie O’Donnell.

“Loser” is the ultimate put-down from those with out-of-control egos, most likely because they are a tad insecure themselves. Ted Turner called all Christians “losers” back in the 1990s while, at the same time, his beloved Atlanta Braves had about the worst record in baseball. To him, a loser is anyone who doesn’t have a 500,000 acre ranch in Montana.

Those with out-of-control egos also cannot bear the thought that they are not the biggest winner in the game. Donald Trump basks in his image as supremely wealthy and successful real-estate investor. Please don’t ever point out to him that real-estate investor Sam Zell (whose name you likely don’t know) can buy and sell him at least ten times. Or that Mr. Zell’s investing record is so much better than Mr. Trump’s that it borders on the absurd even to mention it.

Yet Sam Zell would not call Donald Trump a loser. He’s too busy making money for his investors. (Side note: Sam Zell runs a real-estate investment trust that is open to the public. It is listed on the New York Stock Exchange.)

Monday, January 1, 2007

The Courage To Be in 2007

Quote of the day:
“It was a situation of somebody coming along in history who, in simply being themselves, ends up crystallizing something that the nation at large is feeling.”
--Carl Sferrazza Anthony, a presidential family historian, talking about Betty Ford.

Title of theologian Paul Tillich’s most-famous book:
"The Courage to Be."

We admire Betty Ford’s honesty and openness as we look back on it. We forget that, at the time, she was also regularly and viciously berated for her views, and for her candor in expressing them. Public figures would often say--indirectly, of course-- that she should “know her place.”

When someone says something about the need to “know one’s place,” he is saying that there is some kind of absolute hierarchy, and that it is the highest priority that each of us know our place in it.

This is like dogs at the local dog park. When a new dog arrives, all the dogs are nervous until it is clear exactly where this dog fits in the hierarchy. Sometimes dogs get so nervous with the uncertainty that they growl, bark or even fight.

We seem to both crave openness and honesty and loathe it, even at the top of the hierarchy. We want people to “be themselves”, but then they do something we don’t like and we wish they were someone else.

The question I’m dying to ask is: “If I can’t be myself, who can I be?”

From this comes the conundrum of our lives: It takes much courage to be ourselves, yet we have no choice about it. If we want to live the life we were born into.