Thursday, February 27, 2014

Is Man Dead?

John T. Elson died last week. In 1966, when Time famously asked on its cover, Is God Dead?, Mr. Elson wrote the feature story. His passing prompted me to contemplate a more appropriate contemporary question , Is Man Dead? Below are some of my causes for concern:

  • Man's two biggest ideas, Socialism and Capitalism, turned out to be duds. Despite current rants across AM radio, Soviet Communists killed off socialism. Deadski, Comrades. Even the Chinese traded Mao's lethal brand of socialism for State Capitalism. Poor them, although they do not yet know it. Why? They have not yet created enough bankers to realize, as we have, that the biggest enemies of capitalism are the biggest capitalists themselves: bankers. It turns out that bankers are the most efficient bank robbers ever, and they killed their own goose.
  • If we survive the remnants of socialism and capitalism, there is a man named Ahmadinejad, who would like to nuke anything left standing in our world. It is one thing to have a few loose nuts in a state legislature, but this fellow runs a whole country has money and terrific nuke connections. Soon, the Israelis will destroy his current nuke sites (further nailing capitalism's coffin), but, this will not deter others like him. Even Putin is scared of this guy, while pretending to be his oil and gas buddy. That's bad, really bad.
  • Americans are faced with two wars, unemployment, huge national debt, basically bankrupt Social Security, underfunded pension plans galore, nationalized industries like autos and banking, not to mention an emergent China, and what is our main national focus at this critical time? A Healthcare Plan, as prepared by a man named Max Baucus who hails from a state that has twelve citizens.
  • 95% of TV. Make that 98%.
  • Our children are upstairs, for those who still have homes, talking to someone in Timbuktu, while we are eating dinner with our BlackBerrys where our spoons used to be and listening to the "news" with Katie, Diane, or Whatshisface. We have means of communicating with people across the world, but have lost touch with those under the same roof.
  • We have found ways to rid the world of perhaps the most sane human creation. Books.
  • Americans still eat enough bad food for three people, while others get less than a third of what they need for sustenance. Americans are huge compared to everyone else in the world, and, since they don't have passports or travel, they do not yet know it. Want to fight fundamentalist terrorism? Go on a diet.
  • American schools, generally speaking, still stink. We focus on sports, while Chinese kids focus on math and science. Yes, this makes us interesting and is supposed to enhance teamwork and leadership. Bunk. We cannot survive by thinking that a couple of wise-asses can just go into a garage and invent an Apple computer or something like it every so often. Survival of the fittest means the leanest and wisest.
There are more, but they will have to wait for another day. You can only take so much in one serving, I know. Both of you.

Monday, January 2, 2012

January: Taking A Mulligan

   Golf has a wonderful tradition meant to give some relief to those who practice that sporting religion. It is especially helpful to the most par-challenged players who find their ball in a sand trap, pond, or do not find their ball at all. There are several variations on this tradition, but the most common ones involve the ability to take a shot over once in a round, or sometimes, once on each of the front and back "nines." It is called "taking a Mulligan."
    In life we call a Mulligan by another name: January.
    Many, perhaps most of us, enter January with a list of things that we will resolve to begin, improve, resume, or just plain try. Individually and collectively we shout, "Do-over!"
    This being mid-January, many of these aspirations are still alive and we are brimming with warm promise, even as the thermometer (finally) consistently dips below freezing. Those of us who have more than a passing familiarity with these resolutions know that in a couple of more weeks we are going to be sorely tempted to skip the new yoga class, stuff that old manuscript back in the drawer, or grab a bunch of carbs from the shelf. 
     In case you have not noticed, or have been visiting a distant planet on a Twilight Zone Cruise, our age grows more complicated with each new front page story about financial insanity, each celebrity's or politician's YouTube video or Tweet, or merely mentioning the words "Athletic Department." Given the hazards of our Ripley's Believe It Or Not world, when we begin to lose our resolve, we need some relief.
   Behold an idea whose time has come: The Mulligan Of The Month Club. Twelve Annual Mulligans at your disposal.
   This does not mean that our macro (The Euro) or micro (your piggy-bank) economic woes will disappear overnight. It also does not mean that this incessant political campaign and its participants will be quiet or retire to an asylum anytime soon. And, it is probable that, as we speak, another guardian of your money will be found to have "borrowed" a billion or so of client money and, so sorry, misplaced it.
   Face it; once in a while, we are going to find ourselves in life's rough, stuck in sand, or, my perennial least-favorite, making a total whiff!  What's done is done, what you forgot to do is forgotten. All we're saying here is that you get to begin anew, whenever you choose, and you do not need to wait until next January to do so. In fact, you do not even need to make a resolution that you know you will break. You simply sit or stand still, turn off your phone (this will not be fatal), take the proverbial deep breath and hit back into life's fairway with renewed vigor and move right along to avoid getting struck in the limbs by someone else’s wayward shot.
   A Mulligan a month. I'm guessing that some of us could already use one.


    Bonus Thought: If that Mulligan idea doesn't help, maybe this will.
   A little over a year ago, I was driving home to Rye from Williamsport, PA on Route 15 South. Coming around a bend, I glanced up to the right and saw a large billboard looming over the road, which read:

   Not a bad idea, I thought, reading it more as an instructive haiku than a warning.
   Buckle Up Next Million Miles. We need to keep moving forward, but we need to pay attention to oncoming traffic, slippery surfaces, and the ones we love sitting next to us and in the backseats.
   Make that two million.


Thursday, December 29, 2011

My (Brief) Life As Steve Jobs

Less is...less
   I rose early and went downstairs. The first thing I noticed was that we had too much furniture, so I began removing it piece by piece. It was all junk and clutter. Our closest neighbors were away and I had the keys to their house and garage, so I put a lot of it in both. Then, I put some of it in another neighbor's back yard and garage. They all had terrible taste anyway and deserved having even more bad stuff around.

   The emptiness enveloped me.

   I had recently showered, about three days before, and I could still smell the remnants of Irish Spring upon me. I took a solemn vow to get rid of this by not showering for at least a month. I began to feel pure and well on my way to enlightenment.

   Then, I looked in the refrigerator and was horrified to find that most of what had accumulated in there came from animals: cold cuts, bacon, eggs, and, as disgusting as it may sound, butter. I threw it all away and made a note to get to Whole Foods that afternoon to get some healthy vegan food in the house. I wanted to feel like I had, when I had tramped around India in the corporate jet fifteen years ago, when I ate only peeled fruit and some seeds.

Bozo phones. Morons.
   Then, I called the head of the company for whom I was selling on commission and told him he was a complete bozo and that their products were s@*t and that, if they didn't shape up quickly, I would leave. When he reminded me that they had never hired me, and, in fact, didn't owe me a dime or anything else, since I had not yet sold squat, I quit. This is what geniuses must do.

   As soon as I hung up, my daughter called. She had not called me to say she loved me since the previous day, an extreme betrayal of my devotion to her. So I immediately hung up and said I wouldn't speak to her for a year.

   After meditating, I went to my desk and decided to make something that would change the world and be insanely great. A four-week presidential campaign? Never work. An inkjet printer that works more than two days a month? Impossible even for me. Buy a piece of the Mets and win a Series? Oy.

  What would be worthy of my unique combination of an artist's sensibility, a designing eye, an engineer's obsession with precision, not to mention an Olympic-sized ego, unbridled arrogance, and an ability to burst into tears an instant after being slighted by bozos who make s#@t stuff?

   As usual, I was all alone in my hour of need, abandoned once more by those who could not love me enough, because they could not see that I was smarter, more creative, richer, smellier and meaner than just about anybody.

   I went for a long walk with my editor and tried to manipulate her into accepting the stories I'd submitted, which she had hurtfully and summarily rejected. We walked and walked in my neighborhood, while I told her how much I admired her and her little paper. Feeling kind and compassionate, as the Buddha has taught us, I didn't even mention that my column had saved her whole enterprise. After a couple of hours, even I was exhausted. So, I took a shortcut home and called the Publisher and said that he had to get rid of her, and mentioned that I was not available to replace her, because she was a friend. This is what great friends do for each other. If he begs, I will have to take the job.

SJ's Hero
   By now it was dinner time and I had forgotten to go to Whole Foods. My wife, who was sitting on the floor in our living room, asked why the fridge was emptied and what were we going to have for supper. I immediately forbade her from ever calling dinner supper again and said that there was a head of iceberg lettuce left, which, together with some purified water, would make an excellent purge of a meal. She got her car keys and left in a huff, or maybe went to get a cheeseburger. Once again, I was alone, unloved, misunderstood, and, I must admit, really hungry.

   Being left alone in the house gave me an opportunity to get rid of the beds and most of the upstairs furniture, which I put by the curb for people with no taste to pick-over and take home to their imperfectly designed houses. I slept on the mattress just as my Indian teachers had done many years before during the time I was learning to hide my superiority by being a world class jackass.

   Gratefully, I woke up for real, with my wife sleeping beside me and all of the furniture in place. Alas, it was all a dream, and I was, once again, just another bozo, but felt much better for it, and was hungry for a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich and a long shower.

Ed Note: Disclosure: I have a Macbook, an iphone, and an iPad and am an admirer of Apple and, to a certain extent, of Steve Jobs. While reading Walter Isaacson's book, Steve Jobs (I do not consider it to be a real biography, but think it's a long profile), I had a frightening thought: will parents force their children to read this book and expect that the kids will use deceit, dishonesty, meanness, greed, and manipulation, as Jobs did, in addition to his finely-honed intuition, creativity, and great communications skills? Will those young people believe that you can't be a genius and be a well-mannered, truthful and mature adult? Consequently, I thought it would be good for at least one person to poke fun at St. Steve. Perhaps, as many reviewers have suggested,  Jobs had a bit of Einstein and Franklin in him, two other lives Isaacson has chronicled. But, we would do well to recall that Jobs also had a lot in common with another one of Isaacson's subjects: Henry Kissinger. That is not a compliment.





Monday, December 19, 2011

Holiday This

   Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas!

   There, I've said it out loud, sort of: the two little words which you will never hear uttered by network or cable TV Holiday-heads, or retailers, who have banished the words, "Merry Christmas," without the need for any explanation.

   Do they all believe that separation of church and state extends to them, even though they are not government organizations? Do they really believe that citizens who do not celebrate Christmas will be deeply offended by these words of good will in an age in which true nuttiness extends across the borders of politics, media, academia, business, and, yes, religion itself?

   Happy Christmas, Happy Christmas, Feliz Navidad! Go ahead, sue me.

   And, while we're at it: Happy Hanukka! Happy Chanukah!

   While researching a story recently, I was stunned to find a web site wishing me (don't let the kids see this) Merry Christmas ( The site showed Santa descending to earth in a hot-air balloon, and, as amazing as this sounds, I was not the least offended by this depiction, nor did I drop dead of fright. And why would I, since a "belief" in jolly old St. Nick requires little in the way of religious commitment. Imagine if they had shown a manger scene? The shame of such a thing!


   It has come to this: the mavens who run our media and retail domains, believe that it is entirely appropriate that we watch every minute of the Kardashians' lives, and live every moment of Newt Gingrich's quest, and think Black Friday is a really good idea. But they will employ any means, invest whatever it takes, to keep us from hearing or seeing the words "Merry Christmas."

   Soon, we may have to watch censors' versions of Bing in White Holiday, enjoy the Piece of Good Fortune on 34th Street, and watch It's A Wonderful Life revolve around an unnamed set of "holidays."

   I am not embarrassed to say in public that I am not giving a single "holiday" present this year. I respond to every shop clerk and telephone solicitor wishing me a "Happy Holiday" with a resounding "Merry Christmas." They are shocked, of course, and will probably report me to the Holiday Authorities.

   Let them come and get me and hear me sing O Come All Ye Faithless!

   I am going to bop them on the head with another thing that scares them to death...

   ...Peace on Earth.




Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Where The Suns Don't Shine

   The constellation called Coma is 336 million light years away from Earth. It is the brightest galaxy in a huge swirl of galaxies. In it lies a humongous "black hole," in which could fit 21 billion Suns. That, Mr. Buffet, is a real billionaire.

   Another monster black hole lies in Leo constellation, near a galaxy knowns as NGC 3842. This one could have eaten 9.7 billion suns. That's real hunger, folks.

   Why do I bother telling you this? Well, for one thing, the Sports section of my paper of choice is featuring an illustrated story about a hockey player's brain; and, while I think this is worthwhile effort to stem the Canadian tendency to drop gloves and start a fistfight over the last dregs of a Labatt's Blue or a vintage Leonard Cohen LP, I have a decided disinterest in it. No offense to the brain or the player.

Original Newt, Isaac
   Also, amazing as it may sound, I can only take so many Newt Gingrich stories. I definitely remember maxing out on these back in 1998 or so. It is a testament to the intellectual powers of Gov. Perry and the "alleged"romantic adventures of Mr. Cain that we now have to deal once more in a semi-serious way with Newt. He is everywhere, and the same paper of choice never tires of pointing out his shortcomings. For them, Newt is an industry.

   Frankly, I prefer reading about black holes, the real kind, and not just metaphors for the places where Greek debt and our taxes get to.

   According to the Times, "Astronomers also think the supermassive black holes in galaxies could be the missing link between the early universe and today..." I hope not. For their sake, I do no think they or any other phenomena would want to be blamed for today. Instead, I am beginning to think that we might be a massive black hole, except that we cannot see that, since we are here and not out in galaxy NGC 4889 looking down on Earth, which would take 336 million light years, about the same length as the Republican primary season.

   Talk about coma.

   I mean, why worry, when there are phenomenal things happening out there that are much more important than whether poor children should become janitors in schools, rather than waste their time on Astronomy or Physics; this is the newest bright idea to emerge from the distant galaxy know as Newt's Brain, near the Rod Serling constellation.

   Isn't it somehow comforting to think that someday soon, universally speaking, our Sun will burn out and our solar system and Galaxy will be sucked into one of these Super-Dyson-like black holes? This is something that has happened billions of times already, and that makes me feel very small indeed.

  It's just such a comforting thought. Makes you want to take the day off from the thoughts of European central bankers or boring political commentators and go fishing, start reading Proust again, or cuddle up with the dog and watch Jules Et Jim for the soixantieme time.   

Ed Note: We wish to thank Dennis Overbye for his fine reporting about black holes, which you can find here:

Monday, November 28, 2011

Do Leave Home Without It...Sometimes

1) I entered the Starbucks at Sutter and Powell, just down the hill (what would you expect?) from my San Francisco hotel. I stood on line and noticed that every customer in the place was staring into their mobile phone.

 Everyone except me that is; gadzooks, I had left my phone behind in my room! Suddenly, I had a premonition that I was in danger of being arrested, for, in San Francisco, one never knows which new proposition might reign at any given politically correct moment. I quickly concluded that jail was not in my immediate future, at least not for being a phone-truant; however, it did look as though I might have wandered onto a set from Zombies By The Bay III.

 I'll tell you a scary secret and hope that you can bare it: sometimes I leave home without my phone ON PURPOSE.

True. On Sunday, I went for a walk on the nearby High Street ( for you young ones, this does not refer in any way to reefers, but means a street with shops) with no phone upon my person. I did not expire in the street, was not hit by a $200,000 vehicle driven by a guy whose Viagra prescription had run-out, and did not feel the least restrained by my audacious act of telecom neglect.

Moreover, when I returned home and looked into my so-called smart phone, I had not received any dire warnings of imminent terror, found that none of my offspring had come to any harm worth mentioning, and that my spouse had cared so little about demons that might have descended upon me...that she had left her phone at home as well.  Scary, no?

 We have come to the point, Friends, when we think it's remarkable when we do not carry a phone with us. We are being trained to believe that our phones can nearly instantaneously cure our desires for a new pop song, our favorite Seinfeld episode we've seen 175 times, or rally our friends and neighbors to bring down the regime in Cairo, or Occupy to prop one up in Washington. We seem to do every damn thing on our phones, except make phone calls, and one wonders if we are really communicating more or just simply being herded into vast flocks of sheep grazing in fields marked Let's Make A Deal.

 I concluded long ago that a television was not much more than a vending machine, dispensing bits of entertainment, information and commercial messages. Perhaps the best thing about TV as a dominant player in our lives was that it was not very portable. If we could not bring ourselves to turn it off, we might just go to another  room without one or leave the house (this was before airports, banks, delis had TV's). We could hide from advertisers. This was a good thing.

 Our mobile phones are more about advertising than meaningful communication in the form of  calls, texts, emails, web pages, Tweets. Google does a lot of cool stuff, but, at the end of the day, and more importantly at the end of the quarter, they are in the advertising business.  Facebook? Advertising and Marketing Info. Groupon? Advertising. We're walking around with little billboards in our pockets, which is okay as long as we know it.

Sometimes it might be better to, as some ad almost said,  Leave Home Without It. Talk about risky!

 2) For those of you who have not abandoned me after that frightening confession above, here's another. Sometimes I drive my car ( more precisely my Jeep) without listening to the radio or a cd.

Amazingly, there are no long term Ill effects from listening to the engine run, the gears shift, and the tires hug the road. I have gone so far as to listen to the clicking sound traffic lights make when they change without having to go to an Emergency Room for immediate treatment. In fact, driving a car much like our grandparents did (in my case a ton and a half navy DeVille, license 3N8) might be healthy for us.

Who knew?

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Homage To Fabriana

Euro-Central Banks
The seemingly endless supply of European central bankers reminds me of those Volkswagen Beetles at the circus, from which a dozen or more clowns always emerged. I'm not casting aspersions - those clowns actually had a real function and performed perfectly every time.

In addition to all these central bankers, Europe seems to have produced an inordinate number of economists, many of whom used to be or are about to become central bankers.

This causes the European public and private banking systems to be like a railroad with dozens of Grand Central Terminals and only a very few minor stops, at which real people get on and off; that is, the kind of people who work in banks and actually do banking things like accounting or lending with an expectation of being paid back.

Perhaps fittingly, the term "pay back" has no direct equivalent in the Greek, Italian, or Spanish languages. The closest equivalents mean "check's in the mail," "just roll it over," and "is this a joke, Juan" respectively.

We should not necessarily jump to the conclusion, based on some current confusion, that thousands of European "economists" and "central bankers" are not qualified. They all must pass the same test; in fact, they all go to school together, marry each other, and breed the next generation of economists and central bankers. Parenthetically speaking, this is pretty much how those circus clowns regenerate as well.

This test is extremely difficult and involves not just having a way with numbers; it tests one's ability to think critically, reason existentially, and learn to behave like european royalty of long ago, but in an understated kind of way. Here are a few examples of test questions:

1. Dimitrios labors for his cousin, a local public works administrator. He works three days a week and gets paid for six. Dimitrios has a lot of expenses and does not pay any taxes. At what temperature should he bake his moussaka?

More Prada, please!
2. Fabriana loves to shop - in Roma, in Fiorenze, Paris and in New York. She maxed-out on all of her credit cards, and is behind on monthly payments on most of them. How would you arrange to keep Fabriana shopping, so that the economy can keep spinning along nicely? Would you recommend that she get a job in a bank, for example or become an economist?

3. Jose borrowed 6 million Euros against the value of his olive groves, which are currently valued at 2 million Euros. How many olives are needed to accompany a nice chunk of Manchego cheese at his favorite tapas bar?

4. How would you translate the following German-Swiss expression: Nein! into English, French, Gaelic, Greek, Italian, Portuguese, or Spanish?

As you can see from the difficult nature of these questions, European economists and central bankers who successfully and creatively answer them can certainly find their way out of their current set of difficulties.

Don't you think?

Ciao, Bambinos.