Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Time To Break Up Oprah?

Two interesting news pieces hit the wires today. They strike the Random Walker as oddly related.

The first is that, apparently, due to Oprah Winfrey's imprimatur, the Amazon-dot-com product "Kindle" (more or less, an electronic vessel into which books, magazines, and newspapers can be poured) is selling so fast that it will not be available for most peoples' Christmas lists.

The second is that the aforementioned Winfrey's weight has topped the 200 pound plateau (despite the war, the arrest of the governor of Illinois, the implosion of our economy, it seems a slow news day).

The fact that she can affect not only the sales of an esoteric product, but apparently, gravity itself in such a huge way, I cannot help but ask the question: "Has Oprah Winfrey now officially, physically, and metaphorically gotten too big for her britches?"

Monday, 8 December 2008

The Apple Cult: Anything Behind the Curtain?

I've long maintained that Apple Computer, and its hygiene-challenged motley crew of devotees are something of a religion. Admittedly, it's a tongue-in-cheek point, but as time goes by, the position of tongue and cheek has become somewhat less firm.

I can recall the first time I went into an Apple Store that had appeared on University Avenue in downtown Palo Alto, California. It was truly like walking into some sort of Silicon Valley re-imagination of St Peter's Basilica.

There were the glassy-eyed True Believers, assured in their faith that They. Had. Arrived.

There were the icons wherever you looked around.

There were slogans that, if they were in Latin, could be set to music and pass for Gregorian Chants.

There were the religious relics of Lisas and Macintosh SEs and Quadras that had gone before.

And of course, at the centre, Apple's own Pope, if not Deity himself, Steve Jobs, risen from the corporate dead. Jesus Christ in a black turtleneck and ill-fitting jeans, if you will. Of course, he took several years, and not three days, to return from the grave, but Silicon Valley can be forgiven if it moves more slowly than the Lord himself.

Apple IS a sort of cult, and if you doubt it, pay a visit to the local Apple Store near you. But if you need further proof, simply check the reaction to today's news that (apparently) Wal-Mart has struck a deal to sell i-Phones:

Peruse the comments and look at the fury of the Macnostics, half of whom rage about the selling out to the devil of Bentonville, and half of whom of course, worship the brilliance of Jobs, tricking the devil into selling antiquated, knock-down versions to the rubes who have not been baptised into the cult.

I wonder if the people in the Cult of Apple realise that the marketing folks in Cupertino are slicker than any team of bishops, and that their devotion to the Apple Brand has become a quasi-religion?

Steve Jobs may in fact be a genius - it's been said that the greatest feat the devil ever pulled off was convincing men that he did not exist. Jobs has done, perhaps, one better, by convincing shallow, attention-starved nerds that nirvana exists in cheap gizmos manufactured in China that can play games AND function as phones. And get them to pay a couple of hundred bucks that they don't have for the privilege.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

And These People *ARE* Rocket Scientists

A hundred thousand here, a hundred thousand there. Pretty soon, it adds up to real money.

Imagine my surprise to see that a team of astronauts, on a spacewalk, allowed a kit of tools to simply float away into space. (I can see the product placement opportunities right now: Space helmet: $2 million; bag of tools: $100,000. Remembering that there is no gravity in space and tethering your equipment so it doesn't float away: priceless).


Once when I was much younger and still living at home, I had to repair one of the headlamps of my car. The housing was not difficult to get at, and the job completed in about 10 minutes (plus time to drive to Pep Boys). I was so pleased with myself, I forgot to unlock the spanner from the engine block, where I had temporarily fixed it to throw the burnt out bulb away.

About six months later, when I popped the hood to check the coolant, there was my father's vise grip where I had left it, and subsequently driven from Cleveland, OH to Palo Alto, a trip of about 3000 miles.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

When Liberals Eschewed the Limousine

The past couple of days, we've been treated to the spectacle of the heads of our automotive industry (the no-longer-so-big-three) with hats in hand before the Congress, begging for some money to keep their respective shops open. They have faced a great deal of recrimination, and rightly so. The market share that GM alone once held apparently has eroded from 53% to 20% today. There is plenty of blame to go around, from poor quality, bad designs, foolish contracts, greed by executives, laziness from union workers.

It's a Whitman's sampler of misery, really.

But what seems missing from a lot of this discussion is, "Just where are the unions and their advocates?" Do the unions actually stand up for the working man any more? Do the Democrats who have just been swept into power by a tsunami of righteous anger at the corrupt GOP stand for much more than being mouthpieces of various grievance groups? Believe it or not, there once was a time when unions actually advocated FOR their rank and file.

All of this puts one in mind of the term "limousine liberal," which is apropros, considering that if GM and Ford go under, who will be left to manufacture the Town Cars and Cadillacs, and at that point, Palo Alto liberals may be forced to actually take mass transit.

We are now just over two weeks beyond the 4th November election. Amid the hoopla and good feelings was one dark spot - out in left wing California, Proposition 8 was passed, easily as it turns out; it's an amendment to the California state constitution that explicitly forbids homosexual marriage. Turns out, the "get out the vote" campaign in support of Barack Obama planted some ACORNs that yielded mighty oaks that were not so gay-friendly. Who knew that (largely) Catholic Hispanics and Black people are not on board with gay marriage?

Now, whatever ones' feelings on Proposition 8 (for the record, I would have voted NO, just as I voted NO on Proposition 22 almost a decade ago, which was more or less the same thing), looking at the list of who the big NO on 8 givers were, must strike one as odd:

  • The California Teachers Association (more than a cool million)
  • The local SEIU (a half million)
  • The hotel workers' union (small potatoes at only 100 grand)
Proposition 8 is, in my opinion, nothing more than just plain meanness by people who don't like gays. And stupid, of course, since it is just a matter of time until it, like Prop 22, is found unconstitutional.

But what this has to do with the needs of the teachers or hotel bus boys, or the guys who pick up the rubbish escapes me.

My sister is a teacher in California. She faces layoffs because the state so foolishly squanders its money. The schools are already among the worst, if not the worst, in the country. The abysmal state of education was a big contributing factor as to why my family decided to leave California.

You would think the CTA has more pressing matters; apparently, they don't. More than a million dollars was taken from dues-paying teachers and donated to a cause that has nothing to do with education. My guess is that rank and file teachers, or dustmen, or hotel workers were not even polled before this happened.

But Prop 8 is a pet, liberal cause of the union "leadership," so the money was appropriated.

So the next time I see one of those nauseating ads from one of the teachers' unions, one about how they are "there for our kids," I cannot help but wonder how blowing more than a million dollars helps my kids.

I've said it before - the idea that the teacher unions are advocates for good schools is equally as laughable as the idea that the auto workers union is an advocate for the motoring public. The difference is now, I say it with an increased cynicism because neither union really even cares about its actual constituents.

Friday, 14 November 2008

Brave New World (of Taxes)

I was listening to the radio on my way home last night, and Rahm Emmanuel was being interviewed. Mr Emmanuel, the new proposed Chief of Staff for our incoming President, made a comment about how forced "volunteerism" will teach young Americans what it means to be an American. Now, setting aside the obvious, Orwell-style problem with such definitions of volunteerism, or even that forcing people to serve the State is somehow compatible with being an American, I am struck by the idea of just what it *does* mean to be an American. Is it participation? Is it contributing to the general well-being? What, exactly?

I was listening to the radio on my way home last night, and Rahm Emmanuel was being interviewed. Mr Emmanuel, the new proposed Chief of Staff for our incoming President, made a comment about how forced "volunteerism" will teach young Americans what it means to be an American.

Now, setting aside the obvious, Orwell-style problem with such definitions of volunteerism, or even that forcing people to serve the State is somehow compatible with being an American, I am struck by the idea of just what it *does* mean to be an American. Is it participation? Is it contributing to the general well-being? What, exactly?Then today, I saw a datum from the Tax Foundation, a think tank in Washington who advocate for various tweaks to the tax code. (www.taxfoundation.org)According to their data, in 2006, approximately 1/3 of filers, 45.6 million, were ultimately responsible for *no* income tax. That number will rise in 2009 to 47 million. Under President Elect-Obama's plan, the number will jump to 63 million. Yes; 44 per cent of all filers will not be responsible, at all, to contribute via income tax to the running of our country.

Does this strike anyone else as strange?

f we all rise and fall together, then what is it, exactly, we are asking of the bottom half of our citizenry so far as keeping the government going? Should we not ask that they contribute, if even a token amount, to this?

Anyone who knows me knows that I am sceptical to taxation as social policy, but I am also not a zealot or an anarchist. The government does provide services- services that apparently a majority of us wants. And like it or not, those things cost money. Is it really too much to ask that all of us who think that these services are worth while pony up something to pay for them?

I am no economist, but I understand one fundamental truth: the DEMAND for something for which there is no apparent PRICE will be unbounded. And nothing better crystalises our real values - not those things we say we like or pretend are important, but those things that empirically are valued - than what we are willing to spend.

If these programmes are valuable, if there are truly shared burdens, then let's all answer the call.

Put it on someone else's bill just ain't going to cut it any more.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Is Everybody Going Crazy?

Like many people who work for a publicly traded company, I probably am spending more time than I ought watching my stock (and hence net worth) evaporate in front of my eyes. I am not one given to a Howard Beale type melt-down, but with the events unfolding before us, it is becoming increasingly difficult to remain sanguine. Companies are failing. Stocks are falling. Jobs are leaving.

And yet, we still see stories of the sort reported today in Yahoo Finance that executives at places such as Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, and the other gang who could not shoot straight are preparing for their year end pig out:


They argue that they will *reduce* bonuses this year. They argue that they have to pay their "best" people or those people will leave. They argue that they will use "other" money, and not bailout money to pay.

To quote a recent pop song, "Is every body going crazy?"

If these "best" people engineered losses and stupidity of the scope we've seen, then I shudder to think what our MBA factories are turning out on the average. That these best people would have other jobs to go to, when the rest of us try to keep our heads down so they don't get chopped indicates that something is broken here. And the idea that there is "other" money is so laughably wrong-headed, all one has to do is say "Bill Clinton budget surplus" to see that that dog doesn't hunt.

Folks, this is not capitalism. It's not free markets. This is piracy. With your money. And mine.

Election 2008: The Aftermath

I, like apparently a majority of Americans, am happy with the outcome last night. I haven't really been this pleased with an election since the recall of Gray Davis.That having been said, I find my feelings are somewhat mixed on the so-called day after in the reaction to the outcome. In watching the Simple Simons on CNN (Wolf Blitzer, Anderson Cooper) "analyse" the outcome, it troubles me that they pick "winners" and "losers," and even more, that the "winners" include "minorities."Setting aside that Obama himself in his terrific victory speech re-iterated that the time for splitting the country into us and them is over, putting people into groups such as "minorities" is tremendously deflating.

First, what is a "minority?" Do they mean Black Americans? Surely, most people understand that the Black/White dichotomy no longer really applies. It is frankly, WAY past time to stop forcing an obsolescent model on the reality of our country.

Second, even accepting the flawed terminology, how, exactly, do "minorities" win? Simply because a Black man has been elected? Do Blacks "win" more than Hispanics? How about Asians? It remains to be seen what sort of path Mr Obama is going to take before we can simply say "minorities" have "won" in any real sense. If, for example, he inspires non-White Americans that they can aspire to greatness, in a sense the whole country will "win." On the other hand, if he further entrenches inherently racist policies of Balkanisation such as Affirmative Action, I don't see how, for example, Jewish or Asian Americans will "win" under that scenario.

And finally, the very idea that Barack Obama is a Black man bothers me, in no small way because my own son is biracial. Barack Obama is of similar ancestry, and saying he is "black" denies half of who he is. Which one of his parents will he reject? How will people like Soledad O'Brien classify my son? And as someone who is an ethnic minority, but not one of those who benefit from the current racial spoils system, is he a "winner" to the extent that CNN say he is?

I agree with Barack Obama that there should not be a Blue or a Red America. To that end, I also reject that there are ethnic "winners" (and therefore, by necessity, ethnic "losers"). It's up to him, and not talking heads with little to recommend them beyond good hair (e.g., Anderson Cooper) to decide that America, and not splinter groups, have won.

And I guess that is part of the change I am hoping for.