Wednesday, October 31, 2007

70 and 140 Years Ago

Quote of the day:
“Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.”

Tonight TCM ran “Gone With the Wind.” Merrie and I tuned it in as we continued to unpack our kitchen, which, other than a few lingering details (like inspection), is complete.

Due to the immense popularity of the film, it exists in near-perfect form, thanks to meticulous preservation and restoration. In some ways, it’s very hard to believe that “Gone With the Wind” was made in 1939.

(In other ways it is decidedly non-contemporary, such as the facile use of the term “simple-minded darkie” by Rhett Butler.)

All the production elements--sound, lighting, set design, costumes, camera movement and focus, acting, makeup and more--are exceptionally well-done.

There’s an interesting symmetry to watching “Gone With the Wind” in 2007. This movie was made 68 years ago, as the world was stepping into a devastating and planet-changing world war.

It depicts a period some 70 years before it was made--the Civil War and the end of the antebellum South. That war also altered the course of human history.

The Civil War was as contemporary in 1939 as World War Two is in 2007.

And the results of both these wars are imprinted on our 21st-century souls, whether or not we know it or think about it.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Comparison of Two Presidents

Quote of the day:
“A man's silence is wonderful to listen to.”
--Thomas Hardy

The San Diego wildfires brought to mind a specific difference between Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

When Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of southern Louisiana, and after southern California’s wildfires, Bush waited for “the appropriate time” to visit. He waited for an invitation, and for a careful choreography of his visit to be prepared.

After Hurricane Andrew hit Florida in 1999, President Clinton was on site in short order, showing compassion and making clear that federal help would be available. He did not wait to be invited, or for “the right time.” He just went.

For a United States president, which is preferable? A passive, wait for proper procedures approach? Or an active, commander-and-chief-executive approach, short-circuiting permission and protocol?

Which is the better way to go when lots of Americans are in danger or in trouble?

Monday, October 29, 2007

An Effective Protest Against High Gas Prices

The picture was taken near Cambria on California’s central coast.

Quote of the day:
"Not a shred of evidence exists in favor of the idea that life is serious."
--Brendan Gill

When gas prices go up, it is simple, popular and fashionable to criticize the government for not doing anything about it, or the oil companies for being corrupt or greedy.

Sometimes politics, worldview or boiling anger require the label “obscene” attached to the term “oil company profits.”

At these times, we lose touch with the following facts:

1. Large companies make large amounts of money.

2. The percent of each dollar of sales that oil companies keep (the profit margin) is much less than in other industries.

An example of fact number two is that, in 2004, 126 Fortune 500 companies exceeded Exxon’s profit margin of 9.8% Citicorp’s margin that year was 15.7%. Software and internet companies regularly exceed 50%. When was the last time someone called Google’s or Microsoft’s profit “obscene”?

This is not to say that oil companies are as pure as the driven snow--unless the snow is covered by an oil slick. These are big companies, and they sometimes have big problems. And they need to be regulated.

But al the whining, screaming, and yelling about oil prices, and all the blaming of oil companies, does nothing but score political points. And it keeps the biggest helping of responsibility for high gas prices away from where it belongs. With us.

If you are concerned about high gas prices, there is a very effective way to protest. Buy less gas. If you genuinely cannot get by with less gasoline, and rising prices present a hardship, call the office of your congressional representative for help.

Please don’t plan to protest by not patronizing gas stations owned by the big oil companies. It doesn’t work. The independent stations and small chains buy their gas from refineries run by the big oil companies.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

San Diego and New Orleans

Quote of the day:
"Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use."
--Emily Post

News reports have been awash with comparisons between the responses to Hurricane Katrina and the San Diego wildfires.

Much has been made about how positive San Diego’s response was, compared to New Orleans. Most writers postulate one or both of the following reasons for this: 1) different racial or class composition and 2) different levels of governmental competence.

While I think both of these things made a difference (especially the second), there is an obvious factor that I think is more important.

The Katrina floods affected huge areas in New Orleans, including near the Superdome. Highways to and from the stadium were often closed or impassable.

Those who might have volunteered to help were instead deterred by not knowing if they’d be able to get safely to the Superdome.

In San Diego the situation was very different. Qualcomm Stadium was never threatened by fire, and the areas for miles around it were never threatened by fire. The roads leading to it were not closed or jammed with cars.

People wanting to help knew they could safely and easily drive to the stadium to donate or volunteer. When people started doing this, others were watching on TV. They were inspired to volunteer, also.

So many people wanted to donate that supplies began piling up. So many people wanted to volunteer that people became very creative about how they helped. That’s why people were doing message, leading yoga, and making balloon animals.

They didn’t do that because our local and state governments were effective. And they didn’t do it because of their race or income level. They did it because they wanted to help, and because the help was fairly easy to give.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Air, and What's What?

This morning we have a bit of cloudiness and fog. It's cool and nice.

National news reports are focusing on poor air quality. The outlying areas, where the fire still smolders, are still dealing with this. For us, yesterday evening was the first time we've opened the windows all week.

At 2 p.m., the sun was bright and the sky was blue, with just the faintest light-orange haze in the distance. No smell of smoke, and a pleasant breeze came in from the ocean. It was a very nice, typical 70-degree October day for us.

Now insurance companies are running full-page ads--claims information salted with sympathy. Macy's is giving disaster victims 15% off everything they carry, as well as 90 days of free credit.

Friends of the County Animal Shelter (FOCAS) is calling for volunteers to help deal with lost pets and other issues in affected areas. Merrie has been involved with FOCAS for years and may help with this.

One of the major sidebar stories from the fires is what people take with them when they evacuate. Beyond themselves and their pets, almost always people seem to take photos and mementoes. Video from the evacuation centers showed that some people, with more time to prepare, took a lot from their homes when they left.

For those of us not facing evacuation in five or ten minutes, this is a constructive life exercise. It's forced priority-setting. What's most important to me? Really. As in everything other than what you gather in the next ten minutes may shortly be gone.

We were never advised or ordered to evacuate, for which we are grateful. But we still thought about what to take. Merrie pulled boxes of photos from our closet. We gathered some documents, medications and a change of clothes. Then what?

The computers. Most of our files and work is on them, and backed up to the internet.

I found myself standing in front of my records, and I started pulling a few out. The originals of some Miles Davis and Duke Ellington: "Kind of Blue," "Indigos," "1940 Fargo." "Sgt. Pepper" (of course), "Cheap Thrills," "Hejira," Michelangeli's Beethoven's First, the Callas 1958 Traviata, some Frank Sinatra, Donovan's Greatest Hits.

I had to stop. Too much. I could imagine my arms getting tired.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Mornings After

Woke up to good news. Qualcomm Stadium is being closed as an evacuation center. Fires are generally being managed, though Palomar Observatory is threatened at the moment. The air is supposed to be bad again today, but seems better at 8 a.m. Unfortunately, wind conditions are supposed to bring more smoke over central San Diego for most of today.

Another day mostly inside, sedentary. A recipe for craziness for all those with two legs and four.

This has had a huge psychological impact on San Diegans, as you might expect. Most of the city doesn't look any different, except for a light coating of ash (see my car above), and except for the odd light cast by the haze-filtered sun. But scratch the surface and reality oozes out.

We went to IKEA yesterday to buy some lights, and the cashier was a tad testy. This is very unlike IKEA which, like so many retail companies, relentlessly screens and drills employees on customer service.

Same thing happened at iHop, where service is unfailingly cheerful on normal days. On Wednesday, the waitress and kitchen were hassled and overloaded and preoccupied, though the Harvest Grain 'N' Nut pancakes were good, as always.

The whole city needs a break. Some sleep and some Marx Brothers.

A thought...
With the entertainment industry based in southern California, news of the fires had an especially broad and deep reach. It makes me wonder how things might be different if other natural disasters had the same exposure.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

All City Evacuees Returning Home Today

Still smelling smoke this morning at 8, and the sky is covered with a light-orange haze. Fires are still burning, but they are being contained, and they are mostly far from populated areas. Within the city limits, an official said this morning that there is no active fire.

Looks like all city evacuees will be able to return home today, which is a huge relief. Thankfully, most will find their homes unaffected.

It's such a relief to be free of the grinding sense of low-level dread that we've all been living through. Our wildfires are unique among natural disasters in that they are slowly-unfolding as well as unpredictable. They are always a threat, and they will be a hazard for us for years to come.

I suppose we're all learning to deal with the uncertainty of living in the increasingly dry southern California desert.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

We Are Over the Hump

In these 4 p.m. photos, the sky is less blue, even though there is no obvious smoke. Though it's hot, we're getting a little cloudiness and a bit of humidity which, along with almost no wind, is keeping the smoke around longer. The air is nasty.

Other than a quick bite at our local iHop, we've been inside with the windows closed.

The fires are now all away from major population centers, for which we are grateful. I find myself thinking that if the wind had blown differently, these fires could have been catastrophic. Even though hundreds of folks have lost their homes, this could have been much, much worse.

The most hopeful sign was at 1 p.m., when our TV stations began to air commercials during their continuous news coverage. That's a sure signal that the worst is past.

Observation: When the governor announced to the crowd at the Qualcomm evacuation center that President Bush was coming tomorrow, I didn't hear any applause. Not even a smattering.

More Smoke, Less Danger

Photos are from 9 a.m. I've included a shot of continuous wall-to-wall coverage on one of five TV stations.

There is ash on our cars this morning. Humidity is higher. We have more visible and smellable smoke. But the good news is that containment of the two huge fires has begun.

An evacuation has been canceled for a heavily-populated area called Carmel Valley, so many people are returning to their homes.

Fires are still threatening a few areas outside the city, and there are some new fires on the Camp Pendleton Marine base.

We are also heartened that our kitchen-floor installer was able to come today, after spending yesterday preparing his family for evacuation--which never happened. Normalcy continues to drift back to us.

KPBS radio was off the air all day yesterday, because the transmitter is on top of Mt. San Miguel, which was ablaze yesterday morning. The adult alternative commercial station at 94.9 donated its frequency so that KPBS could continue broadcasting. KPBS is providing by far the best radio coverage of what's going on. And I am unbiased.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

San Diego Sundown Tuesday

These are 5:30 p.m. pictures, looking west, north and northeast. While fires still burn in San Diego, there seems to be a clear feeling of hope in the smoky air.

A few evacuated areas have been reopened. Because of lighter winds and the expertise of firefighters, fires have not advanced much today. A wide array of help is on display, from a legion of volunteers, and from the local, state and federal governments.

It was especially good to hear from both FEMA and the state insurance commissioner that serious efforts to help people recover have already begun.

Forecasters say the weather will continue to moderate tomorrow. It will be a better day.

We Are Thankful for Little Change

These are 11 a.m. pictures. It may seem boring to keep looking at these same views, especially when there's no change like this time. But Merrie and I are relieved and far from bored at no change. We are very grateful.

Officials estimate 1000 homes have been destroyed--but that's a guess. There isn't time to collect accurate data.

It's good news that calmer winds have allowed fixed-wing aircraft to begin dumping water and retardant, and that effort is expected to grow today. There are many helicopters in the air. We hope the winds stay calmer.

A few years ago, the Eastlake area of south San Diego county was one of the fastest-growing areas in the nation. Thousands of homes have been built there in the last ten years. This area is threatened and is under a voluntary evacuation.

At this hour firefighters are succeeding at keeping the fire away from the easternmost homes in that area.

For almost two days, San Diegans have been cycling between low-level dread and relief, with doses of fear sprinkled on top. Most people are waiting and watching--either at home, at work, or at an evacuation center.

Where to Go For News

By far the best national coverage of the fires is coming from the New York Times. This morning, see their excellent summary by clicking here.

CNN seems to be focused on Malibu and the celebrity effect. They have lost perspective.

Winds Calmer

The very, very good news right now is that the winds have calmed during the last few hours, and there are signs that the hot, dry weather may be starting to break.

Fires Move West

Merrie was awakened during the night by fire engines and aircraft heading to the east. Both the Witch Creek fire (north), and the Harris fire (south) moved westward during the night.

We smell smoke this morning, though the 8 a.m. eastern view above looks better.

Current estimates are 150,000 acres burned and 300,000 people evacuated. This morning officials asked for a mandatory evacuation of a large, heavily-populated area from the border to eastern Chula Vista in southern San Diego county.

We are safe, and have a place to go if we need to evacuate--which seems unlikely right now. But to burn some nervous energy we've packed some things and continue to get ready.

The governor is still here, and it's reassuring that local officials seem to be doing an excellent job in a complex, unpredictable situation. They look exhausted.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Fire on Night Two

These pictures were taken just before 6 p.m. to the northeast and north of our home near San Diego State University. You can see the smoke is back. What you can't see is yet another swath of smoke to the south, from a different fire.

When you look at San Diego by satellite, there are two east-west columns of smoke. One of these is north of us, the other south. We're between them.

Watching news coverage of the fires at night via high-definition television is dramatic. They are bright-orange infernos, blown horizontal by the wind. It's no problem seeing why firefighters say the fires won't be seriously challenged until the wind dies down. Forecasts are for calming sometime on Wednesday.

Latest count of homes destroyed: 500.

Fire Watch and Kitchen Tile

It is still clear, sunny and warm here, and most of the sky is blue.

These are the 3:30 p.m. Monday views to the north, which looks clearer, and to the northeast, which looks a bit smoky. Winds in our area have picked up in the last half-hour. They are coming from the east and northeast.

We've heard from some out-of town friends, and our kitchen-tile guy showed up a little while ago to put a finishing touch on his excellent work.

Fire Update

Outside our home at 12:30 p.m. it is sunny, warm and still with clear skies overhead. Right now there is very little smell of smoke and it's less visible in the distance. The photo is looking north.

I think the 100,000 acre number from our county officials may be a bit high. It seems like 30,000 to 40,000 may be more accurate.

In the realm of normal life, one of our contractors had to postpone our kitchen-floor installation because he's having respiratory problems. But another installer called to arrange a time to come tomorrow.

Life goes on.

We're fortunate that there have been comparatively few injuries and only one death so far.


Statistics as of 10 a.m.:

100,000 acres of fire.

250,000 people evacuated.

High Winds Inland Cause Fires to Grow

Merrie and I are safe at home and not in imminent danger. This is the case for most of San Diego. There are now seven fires to the east, northeast and north of central San Diego.

The three pictures above are taken from our home. From top to bottom, they are 8 a.m. views to the northeast, north and northwest.

This morning the San Diego County Sheriff called these the worst fires in county history. We are all very concerned that we are seeing unusually high winds in inland areas, and they are expected to continue through tomorrow.

The winds obviously feed the fires, and they also carry embers to new areas. In addition, a transformer explosion ignited a new fire east of Escondido, near the San Diego Wild Animal Park. That fire has jumped and has now burned a number of homes in eastern Rancho Bernardo--a suburb about 15 miles due north of us.

The mayor has asked people to stay home today, to keep roads clear for evacuation. Thousands of poeple are now at area shelters, including Qualcomm Stadium.

Again, we are safe at home and not in danger. To be cautious and for our own peace of mind, we are making evacuation plans, as are many of our neighbors.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

9 p.m. Fire Update

The inland Santa Ana winds are very strong, and smoke has blown all the way to the ocean. There's a strong smell of smoke outside our house, so we're inside with the windows closed and the air conditioner on a bit.

San Diego County Fires

This picture is taken at 5 p.m. Sunday from our backyard in San Diego, looking northeast. You can see some smoke just above the hill in the distance.

There are two wildfires burning in San Diego County, each covering several thousand acres. One is 25 miles northeast of us near the town of Ramona. The other is 45 miles east and a bit south of us near Potrero (just north of Tecate, Mexico).

We are not in danger, but, like most San Diegans, we are concerned for our friends who are affected. And we are watching the situation.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Summary of Annoying Phrases

Quote of the day:
“’Hate the sin and not the sinner’ is a precept which, though easy enough to understand, is rarely practiced, and that is why the poison of hatred spreads in the world.”
--Mohandas Gandhi

Today we have a recap of bogglingly overused, misused and unbelievably annoying words and phrases.

I continue to hear these on a daily basis. Please spread the word, and do you part to improve life as we know it. Thanks.

“First and foremost.” (I suppose many people consider themselves orators, or perhaps poets. Please stop it.)

“Step foot.” (Hey gang, the correct phrase is “set foot.” It’s not possible to step your foot.)

“Going forward.” (As is “Going forward, we expect 2008 sales to increase by 20%.” I guess some people think that we might assume this meant going backward, unless they say “going forward.”)

“Space.” (As in “sleeping space,” “cooking space,” or “consumer software space.”)

“Absolutely.” (As a permanent substitute for “yes,” which evidently to some people doesn’t seem affirmative enough anymore.)

“Plummeting” and “plunging.” (As permanent substitutes for “going down.”)

“Soaring,” “spiking,” “skyrocketing.” (As permanent substitutes for “going up.”)

Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Birth of Home Entertainment

Quote of the day:
“One likes people much better when they’re battered down by a prodigious siege of misfortune than when they triumph.”
--Virginia Woolf

Quote of the day no. 2:
"Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration."
--Thomas Alva Edison

Thomas Edison died 76 years ago today, in 1931. There are many people who remember that day, and the stir caused by his death. He was a very influential man whose work changed the world.

He had a very rare combination of skills--brilliant inventor and successful businessman. He was able to bring to market and make money from many of his inventions and those of his collaborators.

My favorite Edison invention is the phonograph, which wound up ushering in the age of home entertainment. Looking back on it, the original phonograph was quite simple in concept: focus sound on a needle, which would then vibrate, and then etch those vibrations on a rotating cylinder.

(Remember that the phonograph recorded on cylinders. The gramophone, which came a bit later, recorded on discs.)

Edison faced a number of mechanical challenges with this invention, including getting the sound loud enough to cause the needle to vibrate. That’s why all the early phonographs have reverse megaphones, so that the sound could be concentrated in one spot.

And it was the reverse for playback, with the sound starting at the small end of the megaphone.

The same technology is in use today, with the added benefit of electronic amplification for both recording and playback. The invention of electronic amplification in the mid-1920s changed everything.

You can hear the voice of Thomas Edison recreating his first publicized test of the phonograph--”Mary had a little lamb”--by clicking here.

Don’t we live in an interesting world?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Big Picture and the Forest

Quote of the day:
“Investors who make the most money over the long term buy and hold common stocks.”
--Ibbotson Associates research of the period 1926 to 2007.

Quote of the day no. 2:
“Both joy and purpose can take some cultivating.”
--Carolyn Hax

Statistic of the day:
“In 1970, 49 percent of adults in their 20s read a daily newspaper; now it’s at 21 percent.”
--David Brooks

A new disease has been discovered. It’s called Lop. Lack of perspective.

Perspective is one of those things that we all feel we have, and understand fully. Thus we’ve blithely filed it away somewhere. We don’t need to refer to the file, because we really, really know we have perspective. Others may not, but we do.

Simultaneously, we proceed to live in our narrow, short-range and often self-absorbed vision of the world.

Yes, this is a diatribe. What fun is life without a diatribe once in a while?

Having perspective involves first of all being able and willing to back out of our current circumstances, opinions and feelings, so that we can see “the big picture.”

Ah, yes, “the big picture.” What a hackneyed idea that is. But back in the day it did mean something, and it was simple. It was a metaphor.

If your nose is up against the picture on the wall you may see a few brush strokes or pixels. Yet when you can back away far enough, you can see “the big picture.”

The other cliche that applies is “not seeing the forest for the trees.” The way bad listening causes things to transmutate these days, a lot of people probably think this phrase is “not seeing the poorest for the fleas.” Or something like that.

Whether it’s the big picture or the forest, we simply don’t see it in our daily lives. And we rarely see it in our lives at all.

If we can’t see the big picture, we can’t live in it. Instead we’re our own little yellow brushstroke or mauve pixel, just sitting there, glued to the canvas or paper.

If we can’t see the forest, we can’t live in it. Instead, we’re just stuck in a tree, with a lot to complain about.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

An Underappreciated Invention That Changed Us

Quote of the day:
“A committee is a cul-de-sac down which ideas are lured and then quietly strangled.”
--Sir Barnett Cocks

I am always fascinated by hugely influential things that are never celebrated. Especially things that we now both take for granted and “could not live without.”

One of my favorites is a 1956 invention that became ubiquitous in the late 1980s. Merrie and I did not get our first one until 1996.

It has significantly changed life in American homes. There is a very strong likelihood you have one nearby. What do you think it is?

Here’s another hint that may give it away: you probably have more than one nearby.

It’s nickname rhymes with “snicker.”

Figured it out yet? It’s the remote control. As in, “where’s the remote control?”

Research has shown that 90% of questions beginning with “where’s the” end with “remote.”

Merrie and I have seven. And don’t be touching them, or losing them. What would we do then? Life as we know it could not continue.

The days of having to stand up and walk across the room to turn down the volume, change the channel, or adjust the tuning have a sepia-stained quaintness to them. It was back in 1985, after all.

In the late 1930s some high-end console radios had wired remotes, as did a few TVs in the early 1950s.

The wireless TV remote was invented in 1956 by Eugene Polley and Robert Adler, and was an extra-cost option on some TV models through the mid-1980s.

Then it became standard, and our world was changed forever. Or at least our sofa was. There’s a much deeper indentation now.

The world is at our fingertips, and we have to exert no effort. Except, of course, to find the remote.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Friday Night Lights

Quote of the day:
“Hatred, for the person not engaged in it, is a little like the odor of garlic for one who hasn’t eaten any.”
--Jean Rostand

Last night, Merrie and I watched one of the best things we’ve seen in months. I say “things” because I’m lumping movies and TV shows together.

It was the first episode of the first season of “Friday Night Lights.” This is an especially wonderful episode in a wonderful series. If you haven’t seen it, my advice is to to immediately add it to your Netflix list. Or immediately drive to your local video store to rent it.

Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.

We had watched a couple of the shows a few months ago at the end of the season, and we both liked it. So, as the second season got under way, we decided to take a look at the start of season one. I’m happy that we did.

When you read the description of “Friday Night Lights,” it’s easy to dismiss it as a likely bunch of hokey pap. But hokey pap it is not. Pokey haps, perhaps. But not hokey pap.

The show centers around a high-school football team in a Texas small town. See what I mean? Why would I want to watch that? Before I saw the show, I had visions of a cross between “7th Heaven” and “Rocky.”

But the series is uncanny in somehow creating an extraordinary synergy among the actors, the writing and all its production elements. The result is a show that, as Nancy Franklin said in the New Yorker, does not feel like a TV show at all.

It feels real. In fact, this may be the realist-feeling, most genuine TV show since Sanjaya was voted off “American Idol.”

Or of the last few years. Take your pick.

These are real people with real joys and sorrows, real triumphs and failures, and real strength and weakness. Very gently underlying it all is a fragile web of connection. It’s a community.

And this is not a show about a small town in Texas.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Linear and Circular Reading

Quote of the day:
“Every spark of friendship and love will die without a home.”
--Arcade Fire, from the song “Intervention.”

Yesterday’s post about the changing role of newspapers got me to thinking about the impact of seeking news online.

It’s been fashionable for a very long time to decry the decline of newspaper readership. The often-expressed concern is that this contributes to lower reading levels.

The more-often-expressed concern is that it exacerbates an already-low understanding of what is going on in our communities and the world.

But many folks are keeping up with the news, they’re just doing it in a different way. I’m not sure that overall news readership (or “consumption,” if you will) is lower than it was 20 years ago.

Having the internet available is a huge gift when I want news about something specific. A search will bring up several reliable sources. (How we know they’re reliable or not is another story--that’s why I depend on newspapers with excellent reputations to maintain.)

When I go to a newspaper site to browse, I scan the first page and click on something that interests me. From there I click on something else that interests me, and again and again. After four or five stops, I usually leave the site and go somewhere else.

I call it “directed” or “linear” reading. I find a subject or an idea that interests me and then move from that into something related and so forth. The journey is more or less in straight lines, to destinations.

Newspaper browsing is very different. I look over the headlines on each page, sometimes stopping to read more. When I get to the end of the paper--or my time is up, I stop.

It might be called “exploratory” or “circular” reading. This journey is more of a wandering, with the direction constantly shifting.

There is a certain serendipity to newspaper reading. I am constantly discovering things I didn’t know I’d be interested in. This is a good thing.

This does happen online. But it isn’t how the online experience is defined. The internet is used for searching and finding things, and then pursuing related things.

My suggestion to not lose the sense of serendipity is to sometimes deliberately wander when we’re online.

And then sing “Serendipity Do-Dah.”

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Real News on the Internet

Quote of the day:
“By concentrating on what is good in people, by appealing to their idealism and their sense of justice, and by asking them to put their faith in the future, socialists put themselves at a severe disadvantage.”
--Ian McEwan

Statistic of the day:
51 percent.
--the amount more stale popcorn participants ate when it was served in a large bucket rather than a medium one. The participants had just had lunch. From a study by Dr. Brian Wansink of Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab

Our local newspaper, “The San Diego Union-Tribune,” has been irritating various readers recently by cutting some features. Gone are things like tables of stock market statistics and a detailed chart of results in many less-popular local sports.

The routine of reading a newspaper is considered sacred ground by many readers. It is thus quite an affront when anything is summarily changed or, worse, discontinued.

The ongoing business reality of newspapers is pretty clear. The number of people who say they read a daily paper continues to decline, and is at its lowest level ever.

As a result, circulation is down and advertising revenue is down. Budgets must therefore be cut, and that involves shrinking the newspaper. Newspapers are thinner and smaller than ever.

Online, the story is different. Many newspapers are finding success on the internet, though the business model is quite different from the printed paper.

Three observations about online newspapers, in no particular order:

First, newspaper sites have become much, much more user-friendly and attractive over the last several years.

Second, the online news business is extremely competitive, and it is very difficult to make the kind of revenue that newspapers have come to expect.

Third, newspaper sites are the most reliable and trustworthy news sources on the internet.

This reliability and trustworthiness is a godsend in the online world. The number of pseudo-news sources on the internet is huge and grows hourly.

At the same time, our need and desire for substantial, authoritative, exhaustively-reported and well-written content also grows.

This is good news for the best newspapers, and for those of us who depend on them.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Earth in the Balance

Quote of the day:
“Real pain can alone cure us of imaginary ills. We feel a thousand miseries till we are lucky enough to feel pain.”
--Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Monday is Blog Action Day, when all kinds of bloggers are going to be writing about the environment. I've signed on, too.

I imagine a lot of folks will be writing about Al Gore winning the Nobel Peace Prize. I think this prize is richly deserved, for Gore's courage in repeatedly bringing up this issue when it was spectacularly unpopular. Over the last 20 years he has patiently faced down global-warming deniers by carefully laying out the scientific data.

When "Earth in the Balance" was published in 1992, it was still common to dismiss those who talked about global warming as "hysterical chicken littles." In spite of the Rush Limbaughs of the world, those days are long behind us.

I had never read a book like this before--it clearly and carefully described the best environmental research at the time, and the conclusion was inescapable.

Many people and organizations are still working to try to market global-warming out of existence, but this will not happen. There is now a broad understanding of the kinds of changes happening around the planet. And we have Al Gore to thank for really pushing this understanding forward.

I was especially impressed with how "An Inconvenient Truth" methodically and meticulously put to rest any idea that the kind of warming we are seeing now is part of some long, historical cycle.

The work to understand and deal with global warming has really just begun. We can all be grateful to Al Gore for his work as environmental ambassador, and we can thank the Nobel committee for recognizing his work.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Office

Quote of the day:
“Sixty percent of evangelicals think that Jesus was born in Jerusalem.”
--Stephen Prothero

I love “The Office.” It’s such a right-on caricature of life in an office. As I watch, I often find myself feeling a sort-of diffuse deja-vu.

As in: I’ve worked with someone like this before. I’ve encountered a situation like this before.

One of the plot lines on this week’s show involved Phyllis going to a seminar to learn how to deal with difficult people. Naturally, there are several people in “The Office” who might accurately be labeled “difficult.”

One them is Angela, who is the second-most officious person in the office. The most officious is Dwight, whom Angela is secretly having a romance with. Dwight is so deliciously deluded and over-the-top, you may feel like giving the Dwight in your own office a big hug for not being so Dwight-like.

On three or four occasions during this week’s episode, Angela makes a demand of Phyllis, who responds with her newly-learned, canned techniques for dealing with difficult people. As you might expect, in each instance, this just makes the situation much worse.

I especially enjoyed this. In my working life, “working with difficult people” was one of the many training sessions I went to. Indeed, I came away with three or four specific techniques--only one of which was a bit effective.

And it only worked for a while, if at all. There was an unreality, a phoniness to it

I remember a coworker going to an assertiveness training seminar. When she came back, her favorite word was “let’s.” Instead of saying “we need to get the program log filled out completely,” she would say “let’s get the program log filled out completely.”

For weeks, every idea or argument she used began with the word “let’s.” It got to be comical.

If you’ve spent time in an office environment, or gone to training seminars, you realize the limited effectiveness of most management training.

I’ve been through training in collaborative supervision, MBO, management through excellence, the seven steps, and several others that I can’t remember. Each had its merits.

But everything really comes down to a few simple ideas: be honest, treat others how you wish to be treated, and listen well. At best, all these systems are ways of understanding and implementing these ideas.

With the demands and stress of everyday work, we often stray from these ideas, and our effort to find our way back through new “systems” can be quite absurd.

That’s why “The Office” is so terrific. It’s an odd, joyful and hilarious show with a resonant thread of reality through it.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

View From Nepal

Quote of the day:
“Someday I want to be rich. Some people get so rich they lose all respect for humanity. That’s how rich I want to be.”
--Rita Rudner

Today, a first-hand look at life in a hospital in Tansen, Nepal. Two of our friends--a social worker and a physician--are leading a work team there:

“Our experiences here can only be described as intense and vivid. Our white faces are becoming known around the hospital and the staff smile and offer directions.

“Today the toy rounds people gave out small beach balls with globes of the world on them. The families are often here at bedside and they were so pleased. In fact, the balls have become quite precious.

“We used the balls not only as toys but also as part of our introductions when we gave our in-services. We marked the balls with an X on San Diego and another on the area of Tansen, Nepal.

“They were so happy to have a globe of the world! Several of the Nepalese who are auxiillary staff have a friend in the U.S. They each wanted to look up the state where they know someone.

“The chief of social services explained to me that he knew about California--it is right next to Florida. This is not surprising as a lot of folks in the U.S. have only a foggy notion of how to locate Nepal.

“Yesterday was the hand-off of the carpentry and maintenance tools to the staff there. The guys couldn't wait to get their hands on the new tools; they were so excited.

“The workmen are amazingly talented and everything we have seen thus far is pretty much done by hand. They even cut steel rebar with a score mark, a rock placed under the bar, and a sledge hammer. It is a slow process.

“During the last two days we have painted 5 labor bays in the maternity ward. The sanitation is nonexistent but at least the surroundings look more clean (we used a cream color).

“Today we worked in the busy cashier area and we were the best show in town. It was amazing how many people watched. Some of the guys wanted to know how we put the rollers together and the blue tape to keep a line between colors was a great novelty.

“I gave my in-service today on stress to social service-chaplaincy-outreach workers. Their biggest concerns were suicide attempts, alcoholism (among staff), and patients being dumped off at the gate with no money, no family, and no contacts.

“Social service staffers are expected to give the emotional support and do discharge planning with no resources to work with. Sure sounds familiar!

“Today we had an afternoon foray into town and saw the main square that the Maoists destroyed a year ago Jan. The historical 'palace' was a police station and is now a huge pile of rubble. It is being cleaned up by hand and the plan is to rebuild it in the historical mode as it was before. Estimated time of construction is 3 years.

“Tomorrow we will hit the painting hard in the a.m. and take the afternoon off to have a mini-trek to the home of the Guest House Manager where his parents live. He promises to introduce us to the buffalo who is providing our milk.

“I miss hot water and functional showers.”

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The Number One Moral Rule

Quote of the day:
“Suddenly, it becomes a subversion of progress to assert the common-sense principle that communities exist for the health and enjoyment of those who live in them, not for the convenience of those who drive through them, fly over them, or exploit their real estate for profit.”
--Theodore Roszak

At the end of the 1997 film “In the Company of Men,” the Stacy Edwards character asks the Aaron Eckhart character why he has treated her with such emotional cruelty. He says, “Because I can.”

That moment may be the most chilling I have seen in any film. But there is a realness to it.

“Because I can” seems to be the ethic governing many of our actions these days. And its cousin sees a lot of use also: “Because I can get away with it.”

Why are we driving up the interstate at 95 miles an hour?

Why are we talking on the phone while driving up the interstate at 95 miles an hour?

Why are we taking payment in cash and not reporting it to the IRS?

Why do we tell someone we’ll be there and then not show up?

Why do we shop Ebay on our work computer?

Why do we order about three times more food than we need at a restaurant?

Why do we not tell the cashier when he gives us too much change?

Why do we tell a reporter something when we know it’s not true?

Because we can.

Is this becoming our moral measurement?

Monday, October 8, 2007

A World Unchanging, In the Back of the Newspaper

Quote of the day:
“Man stands in his own shadow and wonders why it’s dark.”
--Zen Proverb

John G commented last Thursday that Tom Baituk, cartoonist of “Funky Winkerbean,” might be a bit unreasonable in killing off two younger characters since 1995.

He mentioned that there are characters in “Crankshaft” who just go on and on--including one with Alzheimer’s. This is an excellent point.

Think about it. Dagwood Bumstead looks pretty good for 105. And Jeffy in “Family Circle” has taken longer to reach his growth spurt than anyone I’ve ever met--some 30 years. And, as John says, everyone in “Peanuts” is in their fifties.

The world we live in is changing and uncertain and sometimes threatening. So we look for “unchanging” places to anchor ourselves. This is how many people view their church--the most important characteristic is the longstanding weekly traditions.

In the midst of a chaotic world, church can be an oasis.

Comics are viewed the same way, I think. That’s why most comic characters are frozen in time--they don’t age or change.

That’s also why there’s such a flood of criticism when comics deal with anything contemporary, realistic or “close to home.”

It might be the politics of “Doonesbury” or the real families of “Funky Winkerbean” or “For Better or For Worse.” Many people find it disturbing when real uncertainty or fear come to the comic page.

And they find it even more disturbing when a favorite comic is moved or discontinued. Newspaper editors say they get more mail about changes in the comics than in any other part of the paper.

We depend on them, and we escape to them daily.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

How to Change Corporations

Quote of the day:
“The happiness of most people we know is not ruined by great catastrophes or fatal errors, but by the repetition of slowly destructive little things.”
--Ernest Dimnet

A few weeks ago Gov. Schwartzenegger announced that the California Public Employee Retirement system (Calpers) would divest itself of all companies doing business with Iran, as a way of making known our displeasure with that country’s intervention in Iraq.

This sounds like a good idea, even a bold idea. After all, Calpers controls a huge investment fund.

To me, it’s not as easy as that. Question: is it more effective to work for change from the inside, or from the outside?

It’s certainly much easier from the outside. All we have to do is criticize and not invest. But does this work?

If we think a “boycott” approach will actually put pressure on the companies, divesting makes sense. But I haven’t seen any evidence that such a strategy accomplishes anything.

On an individual level, “socially-responsible” investing has been around for many years, and there are now dozens of mutual funds that promise to avoid companies dealing in such products as tobacco, arms or alcohol.

I’m not sure this has accomplished anything beyond making individual investors feel virtuous.

What HAS worked to change corporate policy, again and again, is expressed shareholder discontent. Calpers has done this, usually to address concerns of fiscal irresponsibility.

It doesn’t work all the time, of course. But often enough, it does work. Things do change.

Shareholder pressure just might get a company to pay attention to a justice concern, especially if a shareholder the size of Calpers speaks up.

How you approach this is dependent on your personality. If you see yourself as an outsider (especially a “righteous” outsider), you obviously will prefer attempting to change from the outside.

You’ll also work from the outside if you dislike being part of an organization, or don’t want to be “tainted.”

On the other hand, if you like to be part of organizations or movements you probably prefer trying to change things from the inside.

My personal preference, and where I’ve spent my life, is as an insider. I think that someone who has an investment in an organization--personal, financial or otherwise--can naturally speak with more authority and command more respect than someone “throwing bombs over the fence” from the outside.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

How Conflict Begins

Quote of the day:
"Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment."
--Damon Runyon

The other day I read a classic story that described how human conflict begins.

Jacob and Esau were the twin sons of Isaac and Rebekah. When Rebekah was pregnant, she felt the twins struggling.

As infants they were very different. Esau, the first born, grows up to be a hunter--a “man of the field,” while Jacob becomes a quiet man “living in tents.”

Esau comes in from a long day of hunting and asks Jacob for some food. Jacob gives it to him, but only after Esau agrees to give him his inheritance and position as firstborn son.

These are two opposite personalities. One is extraverted, active, emotional and rebellious; the other is introverted, reflective, intelligent and obedient. One is careless and indifferent about the future; the other is clever and knows how to manipulate for political advantage.

Conflict between these two personality types is all around us--at home, at work, in the news.

If you grew up with a brother or sister, you know who was the responsible, obedient one and who was the careless, rebellious one. You know who was good in sports and who was good in school.

You carry your feelings about your brother or sister everywhere you go, for your whole life. People who are like your brother or sister will trigger those feelings.

This is how a lot of conflict begins, and how all conflict is made worse.

Think about conflicts in the news. For San Diegans, it’s Mayor Jerry Sanders and City Attorney Mike Aguirre.

Political groups and nations have these personality types, which triggers and exacerbates conflicts among them.

The bible is extraordinarily insightful when you let it be that way. Specifically, it is insightful about nature of human beings and their families, and where the trouble in our lives often originates.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Blogger Play

Quote of the day:
“The world is proof that God is a committee.”
--Bob Stokes

I was going to write about all kinds of extremely important world-changing stuff today, but I’ve been sidetracked.

Have you seen Blogger Play yet? The folks at Blogger have enabled a live slideshow of pictures being uploaded to their site in real time. At first, it sounds like it would be profoundly uninteresting.

You just go to, and the pictures and graphics just start rolling by. I have it playing in the corner of my screen as I write this.

There are pictures of a wedding, a trip to Rome, another to Greece, another to Mexico, there’s someone’s puppy, a food shot, a stock chart, an artistic shot, another dog, a comic book, an album cover, a baby, a family, a street in an unknown city, someone’s great-grandmother, Barack Obama standing next to a Superman statue, more wedding shots, a bowl of fruit, a soccer game, a backyard, three kids, several 20-somethings drunk in a bar and on and on.

It never stops. And it’s mesmerizing.

It would be easy to call this a “portrait of humanity.” But I’m afraid it’s not that, exactly. It’s a portrait of people who want to share parts of their lives and they have this means to do so.

There is an international, global flavor to the site. How about that? All these folks from all these different places want to share a piece or two of themselves.

There are lots of interesting and unusual people among us. And we seem to have a lot in common.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Funky Winkerbean: Lisa's Last Day

Quote of the day:
"We are all of us resigned to death: it's life we aren't resigned to."
--Graham Greene

Today’s the day for Lisa in “Funky Winkerbean.” What a gracious, simple and respectful way to portray this.

I hear that the cartoonist, Tom Batiuk, has been getting a lot of flak from readers who are either upset or annoyed that Lisa has passed away. Why would anyone get worked up about this?

I guess part of is what I talked about back on September 20th. Lots and lots of folks are of the “I-don’t-read-the-comics-to-read-this-kind-of-stuff” ilk. They prefer fantasy and jokes.

But “Funky” has always been about life, and has been at its best when portraying real human situations in both an honest and lighthearted way. Other strips do this regularly, too. I think of my favorite “For Better or For Worse.”

One argument is that kids shouldn’t see this--as if it’s threatening to children or will scare them in some way. If Batiuk wasn’t so skillful and sensitive I might be concerned about a child’s reaction. But I can’t imagine any child being frightened at these comics, except if he or she sees a parent being afraid or having a conniption about it.

Another reason some people get rubbed the wrong way by this week’s “Funky Winkerbean” is that the thought of death is so disturbing to them that they avoid it at all times and at any price.

But it’s one thing we all have in common, and it is a 100% inexorable part of life. That’s such a cliche, but still the thought of it brings up big-time fear in many of us.

That’s why we need artists like Tom Batiuk and comics like “Funky Winkerbean.” It’s a gift.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Going Forward Indeed

Quote of the day:
“The deification of Jesus as well as Buddha is not surprising, but strikingly shows the enormous valuation that humanity puts upon these heroes, and so upon the development of personality.”
--Carl Jung

Pet peeve. Exactly when did the use of the ridiculous phrase “going forward” begin to indicate superior management acumen? I have been patiently waiting for this disease to go away, but it has become an epidemic.

It has become insufficient to make a mere declaration that “we expect sales to grow in the fourth quarter.” No, no no! Or, as the French would say, “non, non, non!”

If you are truly informed, current and authoritative, you MUST say “Going forward, we expect sales to grow in the fourth quarter.”

Is that inane or what? If this expression is not regularly employed, will we begin assuming “we expect sales to grow” actually might mean going backward?

I don’t get it.

Coming soon: the metrics of the business of metrics. Going forward.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Does It All Come Down to This?

Quote of the day:
“Roadkill never feels bad for the car.”
--Carolyn Hax

Well, the San Diego Padres will not be in the playoffs.

They played the Colorado Rockies last night to see who would get the wild-card slot in the postseason. I tuned in in the middle of the game, just long enough to see Colorado wipe out our lead and send the game into extra innings.

I turned off the game in the tenth inning. Turns out the Rockies won in the 13th.

In situations like this, we invariably hear or read a report that includes the statement “It all came down to this.”

That statement has philosophical and theological implications. And it gives me pause. Pause, not paws.

On the one hand, there’s the simple truth that the winner of this one game will go to the playoffs, and the other will not. The winner of the game may be decided in one inning, or with just one pitch.

But “it all comes down to this” has another implication. It suggests that all that has come before is somehow less important than this moment.

The reality is different, of course. If any previous game had turned out differently, San Diego would not even be playing Colorado to break their tie. If they had won one more game, or lost one more game, they wouldn’t be in it.

In a close game, if one pitch had been a bit different, the outcome of the game may have been different. And yesterday would have been different.

So we could say that “it all came down to” any one of those pitches in any one of those close games. They were all important.

But, heck. We love these dramatic moments. And it’s all entertainment anyway.

Though I’m not especially entertained by the Padres losing.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Colons Everywhere

Quote of the day:
“No man ever became extremely wicked all at once.”

Another pet peeve today. Get ready.

This one I’ve mentioned before, but it’s bugging me again. Why is it that EVERY single nonfiction book being published has a colon in its title? Check it out. See if you can find a new nonfiction book without a colonified title.

Colons Shouldn’t be Necessary: One Would Think.

Abridged Creativity: Writers and Publishers Have Limits.

Forget What Your Mom Said: If Everyone Does It, Do It!

Endless Possibilities: Obnoxious Punctuation in Book Titles.

Never Semi: The Colorful History of the Full Colon

Colon Epidemic: Why You Shouldn’t Read This Book.

Rhyming With Colon: The Life of Colin Powell.

Cleaner Than Yours: The Story of My Colon.

The Oscopy Dilemma: Colon or Sigmoid?