Wednesday, October 31, 2012


Earlier today, as I finished ironing the last of several shirts, it occurred to me that I like ironing more than anyone who knows my slovenly habits would suspect. I mean, I am reluctant to throw my clothes into the washer, a remarkable device that does ninety-five percent of the work for me. You would think ironing would be a foreign concept to me, or even something of a curse word. Instead, though, it brings me a great deal of satisfaction.

For me, the trouble with washing clothes isn't the washing or drying: it's the folding and putting away afterwards. It's tedious and unrewarding work to my way of thinking, even though without this work all the washing would be wasted effort.

Ironing, though even more work than folding, is immensely rewarding. You start with a shirt that might as well have been lying in a crumpled heap in an alley, wrinkled seemingly beyond repair. You run a marvelously simple device over it. Suddenly, those ineradicable wrinkles are gone. You even have a split-screen effect: in front of your iron is crumpled fabric, behind it is a smooth, flat expanse. It's kind of magical. The humble iron is a kind of wand.

Running a hot iron over an article of clothing brings order to chaos. Ironing, like life itself, fights entropy. To my mind, that's a cause for quiet celebration.

Diagnosing a sales slump

I ran across a fascinating set of blog entries by Paul Downs, who owns a cabinet-making (and now, conference table-making) business near Philadelphia. Earlier this year he discovered his sales were decreasing quarter by quarter, often month by month. It took him five months to figure out what was going wrong and to reverse the trend. The first entry sets the stage; each entry links to the next in the series.

Downs provided a great explanation not only of Google's AdWords product, but also of his own thought processes as he analyzed his business's problem. He offhandedly mentioned that the story of everything he tried to turn his slumping sales around would take a book; if he writes it, I predict it will be well worth reading.

(If you want a quick list of all his entries on this subject, here's a search link.)

Monday, October 29, 2012

Sandy bears down

Good luck to my friends and acquaintances on the eastern seaboard, especially those of you in the mid-Atlantic states. Sandy looks like it's going to be a beast.

The New York Times' Lede blog has ongoing coverage broken down state by state. Of course, that's only going to be useful to you if you have power and WiFi or functioning cell phone towers and the odds of either in the affected areas are low, but ... think good thoughts.

Stay safe.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The cost of profit

The New York Times has a piece about part-time workers by Steven Greenhouse. The picture it paints isn't rosy for the workers. Perhaps the most straightforwardly harrowing anecdote comes from Desmond Anthony, who described his experience working for Express:
At first, he usually worked five days a week, often racking up 30 hours. But after several months, he said, he and many co-workers had their weekly hours cut to 12 or 15 and occasionally none at all.

“I’d go to the managers and say, ‘What is the issue? Am I not pulling my weight?’ ” he said. “And they’d say, ‘We just don’t have enough money.’ ”

“ ‘So how am I supposed to support myself? ’ I asked, and they said that was not their problem.”

Mr. Anthony said it was hard to survive. At $8.25 an hour, 15 hours a week equaled about $500 a month. His share of the monthly rent was $800, with several hundred more for utilities, phone and subway fares. Some days he went hungry, he acknowledged, and he repeatedly turned to his parents for help.

He and his co-workers held out hope that, come the holiday season, their hours would pick up. “But then they hired 15 more workers,” he said.

Perhaps the companies who provide such jobs would retort that their jobs are only intended to provide extra cash, not to provide a living wage.

What's clear is that the companies that have chosen to make so much of their workforce part-time have their eyes on the bottom line. Jamba Juice, for instance, has turned to specialized software to optimize its scheduling of staff at its stores.

Karen Luey, Jamba’s chief financial officer, said the scheduling software “helped us take 400, 500 basis points out of our labor costs,” or 4 to 5 percentage points, a savings of millions of dollars a year.
Mr. Flickinger, the retail consultant, said companies benefited from using many part-timers. “It’s almost like sharecropping — if you have a lot of farmers with small plots of land, they work very hard to produce in that limited amount of land,” he said. “Many part-time workers feel a real competition to work hard during their limited hours because they want to impress managers to give them more hours.”
I can't believe he used "sharecropping" as if it were a praiseworthy idea.

There is a vast, unbridgeable gulf between what these employers want and what these employees want. The employers clearly don't think it's their problem to ensure their employees can earn a living wage. And frankly, in a free-market economy, that's a permissible attitude. It can even be considered a praiseworthy one.

At least some of the employees, though, are looking for a way to make a real living. They can't understand why their hard work doesn't impress their employers enough to make that happen.

The employees and employers have an irreconcilable conflict. Unfortunately for the employees, the employers very much have the upper hand in this economy.

Now, if you're a free-market advocate, that's okay. The fact that retailers are able to cut costs to the bone results in lower prices for consumers. That's a win as far as it goes.

If you look beyond the tip of your nose, though, a bigger question presents itself. Is the U.S. economy able to provide enough jobs that pay livable wages to support a robust consumer sector?

If enough people are working at jobs that don't pay them enough to cover their cost of living, that means these people can't be good consumers, right? What happens to the U.S. economy then? Hell, what happens to the United States as a whole?

All these jobs numbers that economists and politicians keep throwing around: how many of them represent good jobs, the kind needed to support the much-discussed (and, I increasingly fear, mythical) middle class?

Lower costs at restaurants and retailers are a boon to the customers of those establishments. To the extent that these businesses flourish, it's expected that the investors in these businesses will prosper, too. If those companies are publicly held, the investors are shareholders, and potentially could include any of us. Those points are the upside that free-market advocates love to discuss.

What free-market advocates never discuss is what the economy as a whole looks like in their glossy vision. It's an article of faith that if you simply let businesses follow free-market principles of lowering costs and competing furiously with minimal or no interference, something beautiful will result.

But will it?

What happens if the market fails to provide enough jobs for workers to earn a living? What if too many jobs are what an earlier generation called "pin money" jobs? Is there a free-market solution to such a situation?

One immediate consequence would be that some businesses, maybe a lot of them, would fold. But what then?

I can imagine that the businesses that remain open will try to cut their costs even further. That, however, will do nothing to boost the number of people who have any money to spend. In fact, if you follow this line of thinking to its absurd end, the population starves to death.

I'd like to believe that the reductio ad absurdum consequences won't come to pass, but to ensure it doesn't there has to be an alternative. So again I ask: how does the free market fix an economy that doesn't provide enough jobs to support a robust middle class? We may not be at that point yet, but the Times article suggests we're heading in that direction. So what the hell is the answer?

Might we have to rethink our national obsession with the totally free market? Might we have to acknowledge that a free market is all well and good, but that the free market might not be entirely compatible with our overall national well-being?

SF Giants 2012 World Series champs!


Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Religion and politics are immiscible

George Mourdock, Indiana Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, was quoted in the New York Times thusly:
“I’ve struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize that life is that gift from God,” Mr. Mourdock said. “And even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”
This is about as straightforward a statement of the candidate's, and his party's, priorities as has ever been made.

What's troubling is not just the party's unyielding insistence on the primacy of the rights of the unborn over the rights of the mother. Pregnancy can trigger tremendously fraught ethical issues pitting the health and even the survival of the unborn child against that of the mother. Well-meaning people can disagree on which of them should be given greater protection by society.

Republicans, though, don't give even short shrift to the possibility that a pregnant woman's health or survival might take precedence under some circumstances. That possibility doesn't even seem to merit discussion.

However, let's put aside the Republican Party's inflexible dogmatism on that subject, and turn instead to a different kind of orthodoxy that Mourdock's remarks embody.

After getting hammered for his comments, made during a debate, the candidate clarified his position:

“God creates life, and that was my point,” Mr. Mourdock said. “God does not want rape, and by no means was I suggesting that he does.”
His original remarks don't support the "God wants rape" misinterpretation, though it is tiresomely predictable that the remarks would be misinterpreted in that way. I take Mourdock's clarification at face value. It is entirely consistent with his debate comments.

And therein lies the problem.

What no one is willing to point out is just how disempowering Mourdock's position is.

The corollary to "something that God intended to happen" is "something that man has no business affecting, or even power to affect".

Mourdock, by the way, is hardly alone in espousing this belief that God is the ultimate decision-maker. This belief isn't even the sole property of the Republican party: millions of U.S. citizens of both major parties hold it.

They don't care, unfortunately, that this belief is profoundly irresponsible. What it amounts to is throwing all problems into God's hands.

I hardly think that any conception of God since at least the time of Jesus lends itself to the kind of thoroughgoing passivity and helplessness that Mourdock's position mandates. Making God imponderable and dictatorial is hardly flattering to any deity worthy of the name.

What kind of God do you worship, Mr. Mourdock?

More to the point, is your conception of God compatible with a pluralistic society in which freedom of and from religion is guaranteed?

You see, your conception of God calls into question whether you can possibly be trusted to craft legislation meant to address problems that the rest of us don't believe God will address. Even any number of people who believe God exists are uncomfortable leaving mundane Earthly matters in His hands: they believe that they must take responsibility for their own lives and the effect those lives have on the world.

The only way of life that is consistent with Mourdock's point of view is one that makes human beings absolutely subordinate to God, and that threatens Old Testament-style judgment on humanity if it does not elect such subordination.

Even if you agree with Mourdock, you have a problem in that the United States was not established to be that kind of nation. The United States was founded on a bet that no faith had a monopoly on truth (or salvation). That's a concept embodied in the First Amendment to the Constitution, and what no one I've seen has noticed — or at least has been willing to point out — is that Mourdock's vision is completely incompatible with that concept.

Ergo, I claim that Mourdock is philosophically unfit to serve in the federal government in any capacity. His conception of existence, making God a primary actor in all aspects of existence, means he would be unwilling, maybe even unable, to make the best efforts necessary to craft workable solutions to our nation's problems. His fatalism would be fatal to us.

Either humanity takes responsibility for its fate, or it doesn't.

The United States cannot afford to keep electing people to public office who don't believe that our fate rests in our own hands.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The banality of our news

I read with great interest a piece by Adam B. Ellick entitled "My 'Small Video Star' Fights for Her Life". It's about Malala Yousafzai, the fourteen-year-old Pakistani girl who was shot by Taliban troglodytes for the effrontery of seeking an education.

It's maddening to contemplate people whose mindset is so warped that seeking an education is blasphemous. The kind of world to which such fanatics would deliver us is unthinkably repugnant. If we, as a species, give in to these proudly bigoted men who embrace ignorance and murder in the name of their religious "devotion", we as a species deserve to go extinct — and we will.

But that's not why I'm writing this. No, the reason for this piece is that once I was done reading Ellick's touching remembrance of his experiences interviewing Yousafzai and her father in 2009, I meandered back up the Web page to see if there were links to related articles. What I found was that the Times' Lede blog was focusing heavily on the Lance Armstrong doping scandal.

Apparently something happened today in connection with Armstrong, I don't know what. After reading Ellick's piece, I don't care. In fact, I find it impossible imagining ever caring about Armstrong's travails again.

On the one hand, we have the story of a courageous young woman who symbolizes the hopes of who knows how many young women in Pakistan, and probably around the world, who can only dream of being educated, who can only dream of the chance at improving their lot. On the other hand, we have a guy who, until recently, rode a bike for a living.

Nothing against Armstrong or his vocation, but the fact that his woes dominate the headlines is sad. We are more interested in a sports figure whose immediate relevance to the lot of mankind is nil, than in a girl whose personal struggle encapsulates one of the most basic and most important conflicts humanity faces: the battle between intolerant reactionaries who believe their cherished world-view is under siege from modernity, and the rest of us.

Where the hell are our priorities?

Friday, October 5, 2012

Live music

I used to go to live music shows all the time. It wasn't a regular thing with me: I didn't go just to go out. But whenever an artist I liked, or even one I only sort of liked, or even one about which I was curious, came to town, I'd generally head out to wherever he/she/they were playing — nearly always a small club, and almost never anyplace that held more than a thousand people — and enjoy the night out.

As the years went by and I got busier at work, I went out less, but I never stopped altogether. In the last few years, though, I can count the number of times I've seen live music on one hand.

Every so often I've wondered what changed. Certainly a contributing factor has been age: I'm more easily worn out, I'm more jaded than I was when I was twenty-five or thirty. An unexpected but not unwelcome shift in my interests toward reading has also taken its toll. I'm also a lot less connected to the music scene than I was (though I was never an insider or even an exceptionally well-informed music maven) — again, due to changing circumstances. And frankly, straitened financial circumstances have played an outsized role in my entertainment decisions.

Yet none of these explains my reluctance to attend the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, the amazing and free three-day open-air music festival sponsored by an astonishingly generous philanthropist, the late Warren Hellman, that is chock-full of musicians I love. It took my abortive attempt to catch Conor Oberst this afternoon to make me understand the change in my habits.

For me, music is a communion. It's a means of releasing emotional energy that otherwise is inexpressible. The thing is, as I've gotten older, I've gotten more sensitive to the intrusions represented by other people. And those intrusions disrupt the communion.

It's not that people, by and large, are trying to ruin my enjoyment. They can't help that their polite request for me to move aside so they can get through the crowd shatters the delicate sense of contentment the band had managed to induce in me. They don't mean for their (generally insipid) conversations to keep me from losing myself in my favorite song. It's not their fault that I listen harder than they do to music.

The people jamming the Rooster Stage (I think) this afternoon were enjoying Oberst, I don't doubt. It's just that all the things they were doing while they were enjoying his performance were driving me insane. The incessant chatter (can you really be listening to the music while you're jawing away?), the choking cigarette smoke, the jostling — it all made any effort to sink myself into Oberst's music a bad joke. And if I couldn't lose myself in his music, why was I there? I own his albums. I don't need to see him (especially as a tiny dot hundreds of yards away) to enjoy listening to him. My attempt to enjoy his performance amounted to standing on the grass with sore feet and a burgeoning cough from the damned smoking all around me. And the same story holds true, in slightly different form, at an indoor performance at a club.

I'm old enough that I will no longer suffer a mediocre experience at a live show (however stellar the actual performance is) simply to be able to say that I was there. And my definition of a mediocre experience is, the music didn't transport me to a happier, more exhilarating place. That won't happen if other people keep intruding on my attention, making me notice them rather than the performer(s).

At last, I understand why I hardly see live music any more.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Bike helmets

An article in the New York Times by Elisabeth Rosenthal says:
In the United States the notion that bike helmets promote health and safety by preventing head injuries is taken as pretty near God’s truth. Un-helmeted cyclists are regarded as irresponsible, like people who smoke.
Then Rosenthal goes on to point to cities elsewhere in the world which have experienced sharp growth in urban cycling by foregoing laws requiring helmet use, and contrasting the limited use of bikes in Melbourne, Australia, which like U.S. cities has a mandatory helmet law.

I wonder whether other cycling-friendly policies might contribute as much as or more to the popularity of bikes in other cities. Nevertheless, let's take Rosenthal's premise as given, that mandatory-helmet laws dissuade people from ever taking up the activity. I would have no problem making helmet use optional — if injured, helmet-less cyclists were not eligible for medical or long-term treatment on the public's dime.

That is a harsh sentiment, yes. But there are certain activities that should not be underwritten, as it were, by the public. Smoking is one of them: smokers who develop emphysema also would not be eligible for subsidized medical or long-term health care in my world. If you choose to smoke in spite of all the warnings, you have exercised your cherished right to choose ... but your (informed) choice should not require my financial support.

Life is full of hazards for which one cannot be held responsible. Let's help people who suffer accidents. But if you choose to ride without a helmet, that's a choice, just as smoking is (and just as riding a bike without adequate front and rear lights is, for that matter). Lifetime care for a brain-damaged cyclist whose health could have been preserved by an inexpensive helmet — I find it hard to muster a lot of enthusiasm for that.