Monday, August 29, 2011

Analog man in a digital world

I'm not a very tech-savvy guy. My computer skills are pretty much limited to email, basic googling and writing this blog - that's it. I don't Tweet or do Facebook, uploading an image like the one above strains my capabilities, and creating a link to post a video here is something I have to figure out anew each time I want to try it.

It's the same with cell phones - I don't have a "smart phone". I just changed cell phone carriers (see Adios, AT&T) and my new phone makes calls - that's it, no internet, no multi-media capability, not even any texting; just calls. Oh, wait - it has a camera, but I don't know how to use it so I don't think that counts.

TV - same deal. My cable company is upgrading to a new all-digital format with a fancy new name (Xfinity, I think) and lots of new channels - more than I could watch in a lifetime - and all kinds of stuff I don't care about like movies on demand and video recording, yada yada yada. All of this new capability required the addition of a new box to make it all work, of course, so I thought, what the heck, I'll give it a try. Long story short, no way I could program the box to make it work so I took it back to the cable company, told them I didn't want it and asked what would happen if I just plugged the cable into the back of my TV without any box, and the answer surprised me. If I do that I will get the "basic" cable deal, which is to say my local stations, and that is all I ever wanted anyway - at a substantial savings over the expanded coverage afforded by the box. Strangely, none of the notices I received telling me that I urgently need to acquire a box to receive the new all-digital services mentioned this option. So "basic" cable is what I have - and I'd dump that if I didn't need a roof-top antenna to get the stations over the air (but that's an option I may look into again).

So I'm telling you all this because when I read the Dilbert cartoon strip posted above (at least I hope it's posted) I was reminded yet again as to just how far behind I am technologically speaking. Unlike Dilbert, I don't even have a laptop. Like I said, analog man... And I'm perfectly happy that way. (Now if I can just figure out how to publish this without losing everything...)

Sunday, August 28, 2011

"All life is a concatenation of ephemeralities."

That was the "Quote of the day" in the local paper recently, attributed to American economist Alfred E. (no, not Newman) Kahn, and it sent me running to my handy Funk & Wagnalls (come on, surely you remember the recurring line from "Laugh-In") to see what it might mean.

It turns out that it translates (if a perfectly good English-language sentence needs translation) into something like, "All life (I got that part) is a series of connected transitory events" which seems to me to leave a lot of room for interpretation. Plus the fact that it was written by an economist doesn't help matters since I'm pretty sure they are trained to write in unintelligible gibberish anyway so no matter what they say it's impossible to prove them wrong (or right, I guess). Otherwise I don't see how there could be so many divergent views about what is wrong with the economy and how to fix it, all claiming to be the one true answer.

So how one interprets the phrase depends on a number of factors. Some would, I am sure, deny it's veracity due to their fatalist world-view that all events are preordained and so not transitory at all while others may deny the connectivity of all events in our lives. I'm sure there could be lively debate on philosophical, religious, scientific or cultural grounds and some would proclaim the phrase to be the central truism of the Universe while others would dismiss it as meaningless claptrap.

I prefer to view it as a statement of hope, full of promise that no matter what events are transpiring right now, in a life, in a nation or in the world, they are temporary and change will come. Optimist that I am, I choose to believe that change is more likely to improve a situation rather than make it worse, especially if we can affect the change to some degree through free-will, which I believe we can. It may take some effort but we can make things better. Hope, I think, is always more productive than despair and any decision based on hope is always better than one based on fear.

That's my view, anyway - aren't you glad you asked?

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Redistribution of wealth

There are some who say (but I'm not sure they necessarily believe it) that taxes are a scheme to redistribute the nations wealth, taking from the (deserving) rich and giving to the (undeserving, bloodsucking) poor - kind of like Robin Hood on steroids. I do not subscribe to this theory.

First, taxes are, as has been frequently and famously said, what pay for our way of life. Quibble if you want with how high they should be or what programs we want to pay for with them, but there's just no avoiding the unpleasant truth that taxation is a necessary component of a free democratic society. To deny that truth or, worse, to portray them as something evil to be done away with at any cost is just plain ignorant and unpatriotic.

Second, there is a redistribution of wealth occurring in this country and is not due to taxes; it is the increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of the ultra-wealthy (can you say, "multi billionaire"?) I don't have the figures in front of me but they are readily available from any number of sources, and they are indisputable - American wealth by any measure is steadily flowing away from the poor and middle class and into the fortunes the economic top-tier. The thing about economic power is that once you have it, it gets easier and easier to use it in a way to amass even more wealth and power (it seems those terms are more and more synonymous in today's political climate) - "The rich get richer..." as it were.

I'm more worked up about this issue than usual due to two (kind of) unrelated articles I read in the business news today. The first headline that caught my attention was, "Luxury spending buoys Tiffany's to strong quarter". The article pointed out that Tiffany's stock surged 9.3% on the news while broader markets were up less than 2%. "Tiffany...has a customer base that leans heavily toward high-income consumers. Such shoppers tend to gravitate toward luxury goods." Now I'm not opposed to high-income earners buying luxury goods if they can afford them (apparently they can), but the second headline put the whole thing into a little different perspective for me.

"Economy grew only 1 percent in spring" is certainly not shocking or unexpected news in light of the difficulty it has been experiencing recently, but I found some of the details troubling in view Tiffany's success. First, that level of growth " not enough to make a noticeable dent in the unemployment rate. which was 9.1 percent in July." So those "no-income earners" who can't afford to shop anywhere will have no prospects for a brighter economic outlook in the near-term. "Consumers spent more on health care, insurance and financial services..." and, "People bought fewer long-lasting manufactured goods, such as autos and appliances." The bright spot cited in the article? - "Corporate profits rose faster than the previous quarter."

So, to recap: Luxury spending - up; corporate profits - up; consumer spending on health care - up; joblessness - also, up. So in light of this I would have to ask: Do you still think that taxes are the major villain causing the redistribution of wealth in this nation (and the world)? Really? Would it be such a bad thing to take just a little bit from the first two to improve the situation for the second two?

I'm not talking about "class warfare"; I'm talking about basic fairness. The system is rigged in favor of further concentrating wealth. We need to unrig it and I'm pretty sure taking a defiant, unyielding stand against any source of increased revenue is not helpful. "Taxes" are not the problem; "greed" is the problem.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

How a Tea Party President Could Happen

The conventional wisdom among political pundits seems to be that a Tea Party Candidate such as Michele Bachmann has no chance of winning a general election. Today I read a piece by Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts celebrating the fact that more than half the American electorate now holds a negative view of the tea party movement, and their approval numbers have remained relatively stable, ranging from 31 percent to 38 percent. I take less comfort from these numbers than Mr. Pitts does.

One need look only as far as the most recent Maine gubernatorial election to see the danger posed. In 2010 the incumbent Democratic governor could not run for another term so the Democrats nominated a traditional party favorite, Libby Mitchell, to succeed him. The Republicans, on the other hand, passed over all of the "middle of the road" aspirants to nominate a Tea Party favorite, Paul LePage. And then a credible Independent candidate, Eliot Cutler, entered the field and the scene was set; what transpired could, I think, be a harbinger for the upcoming presidential election.

An impressive majority of the Maine electorate, 62%, voted against Lepage - unfortunately they were divided between Eliot (36%) and Mitchell (26%), so Lepage, with only 38% of the popular vote, won the election and is now our Governor. And 62%of the electorate hates him but that doesn't change the outcome.

Now I know that there are significant differences between a gubernatorial election and a presidential election, but there are still enough similarities in the current national political situation to concern me. The Tea Party has tremendous energy and enough support to make it a factor in the Republican party - maybe the dominant factor. President Obama seems unable to inspire even his base, much less attract independent voters whose support he so desperately needs to secure his reelection. He does not face any challengers from within the traditional Democratic party but there are rumblings of a third-party challenge, maybe from someone more progressive than Obama or possibly from a candidate with more appeal to the undecided "independents" who are lukewarm at best to Obama.

So there it is - we could be facing a presidential election that pits an incumbent president with low approval ratings ("It's the economy, stupid") against a Tea Party candidate supported by 30-something percent of the electorate, and an upstart candidate from a third party who would share the "anti-tea party" vote with Obama. Do the math: if the Tea Party garners 34% of the vote in any given state with the balance of the votes split evenly between Obama and another candidate, the Tea Party candidate would win at least some, maybe all, of that state's electoral votes. And that scenario could produce a "landslide" victory to a candidate supported by about a third of the national electorate.

If that prospect doesn't scare you, nothing will. It's also the basis for my latest "conspiracy theory" but that's a subject for another post.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Adios, AT & T

I've had AT&T for my wireless service for a very long time - since before they were AT&T, in fact. My cell phone says it's from Cingular, so I've had it for a while (obviously I don't upgrade every year or two like some folks do - I'd still have my old analog phone if it hadn't been rendered useless by the switch to all-digital technology). But now the time has come to move on.

The fact is, I was never thrilled with my AT&T service primarily due to poor signal strength in most of the areas I frequent. Dropped calls were pretty common and pockets of no service at all were not unheard of ("Can you hear me now?" No.) But still, my cell phone needs are pretty minimal (20 minutes of talk time is a big month for me) so I tolerated it. And every time I considered switching, something happened to make me renew my contract with them (most recently Alex' desire for an iPhone which at the time was available exclusively from AT&T).

Last week a remarkable confluence of events lined up to change the situation dramatically. The principal motivator was that the iPhone was starting to act strange and appeared to be on its last legs - clearly a replacement was going to be required. So I went on-line to check on the status of my contract with
AT&T and discovered that both lines were out of the two-year contract period! I was free to go anywhere I wanted to go.

So I went to Verizon - well, at least for Alex' phone. He decided he wanted a Droid phone and by all accounts Verizon had the best deals and the best network, so after a little research and some pretty good references, that's where we went. I signed up for a single line contract with voice, unlimited texts (very necessary for young people today) and 2GB of data for a little less than I was paying AT&T for two lines on a family plan.

And then, because my personal cell phone requirements are SO minimal, I went to US Cellular, bought a basic phone for $20.00 and signed up for a $10.00/month + $0.10/minute prepaid plan (no text, no data) to cover my needs. When I got it home I discovered I have no service at my house (even with AT&T I had one bar most of the time) but it seems to be OK everywhere else I am likely to travel, so I guess I'll keep it.

Last night I deleted all of the contacts and personal information in my old phone in preparation for recycling it and as I did, for a brief moment, I had a feeling of not regret exactly, but sadness. My relationship with AT&T lasted longer than most of my marriages so even though it wasn't always happy there was a certain comfort in the longevity, and I am sad to see it end.

So farewell, AT&T - we had our ups and downs but now it's time to move on. I know you'll do fine without me, and I'm sure as time goes by I'll forget the bad times and remember the good. Who knows, maybe some day down the road we'll hook up again. Until then, I wish you fair winds and following seas - in today's market you'll need all the help you can get!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Gospel According to Lady Gaga

I don't know much about Lady Gaga - the fact that I've even heard of her is testimony to the level of publicity, some might say notoriety, that she generates with her outlandish appearance and acts (a meat dress - really?) But I did have a chance to hear some serious remarks she made when she appeared in Maine last year to attend a rally in favor of the repeal of the "Don't ask, don't tell" policy in the military. And you know what? - she impressed me as a pretty serious young woman who had something important to add to the debate.

Today I read that Lady Gaga is creating something of a buzz in traditional Christian circles. A column by Bill Gregory in yesterday's Portland Press Herald helped me understand better what I had seen in her. He wrote, "I...suffered generation shock at the sight and sound of her, but her message is age-old, the stuff of compassionate prophets and Jesus: "You have the right to be who you are. I'm here to tell you that I love you." ...Lady Gaga speaks the truth in drag. Her invitation to those who can hear her is grace-filled. It is a call from fear to faith."

Now I am not what you would call a religious person but I do believe that all individuals, every one of us, have the capacity to love and be loved for who we are, because of our differences not in spite of them. In Lady Gaga's words: "Believe! The truth of existence is that love exists specifically for you, you paradoxical child of the universe, like and unlike everyone else."

Lady Gaga's message of love and inclusiveness and the inherent worth of every individual seems to me to stand in stark contrast to the "values" being promoted by the Evangelical Christian and "social conservative" forces that seem to be dominating the political debate these days. These folks seems to feel that their beliefs should be universally accepted and that non-believers (infidels?) are going straight to Hell. They rail against anybody and anything that doesn't conform to what they see as "right". And they hate Lady Gaga.

Gregory writes that that the path that Lady Gaga invites us to follow, "...shapes lives of kindness, compassion, humility, courage - and it produces people willing to live for and learn from others as well as insisting on being themselves." So I guess if she feels the need to wear brassieres that shoot sparks to attract attention to her message, I am OK with that. She gives me hope that someday there will be a world where everyone can attain some level of, in Gregory's words, " and respect and some modicum of leverage on their world", and the understanding that others need and deserve these for themselves.

As Gospels go, I think we could do a lot worse.