Thursday, May 31, 2007

Sex on the Beach

It's that time of year in Florida where pasty-white Floridians emerge from their winter dens. They've spent long months cooped up indoors, protected from the ravages of cold weather that can plunge into the low 70's.

They head off to the water's edge to replenish their tans, build up reserves of Vitamin D, and engage in water-oriented activities. When we received an invitation to a party at a friend's house, my wife jumped at it, because they own a sailboat and live on a lake. She grew up sailing, and uses every opportunity to exercise her skills.

She took the boat out with the son of a friend of ours, got 20 feet from shore and hit a sandbar. Here's the son in the water attempting to pull them off. I don't sail, because that would be me pulling the sailboat.


Whenever I go to one of these parties, I always eat too much, and sit around feeling lazy and bloated, and I complain about how full I am.

The owner of the house has a large collection of dangerous-looking fish hanging on the walls. Fortunately, this was only a head wound, so not much damage was done.


A week later, we headed for the beach at Longboat Key near Sarasota on the Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately, it's Love Bug season here in Florida. Love Bugs are small firefly-like insects that swarm once or twice a year in huge numbers. They immediately find a mate, and join at the genitalia. They fly around, the larger female jerking the male around backwards by his private parts wherever they go. They mate, they lay eggs, then they die by the millions.


If you drive through a swarm of them on the highway, you could die too, because their splattered guts cover the windshield in less than a minute. Windshield-washer fluid is hard to find. The guts of Love Bugs will eat the paint off your car, so some people put those "brassiere" things on their hoods. Other people spray their cars with Pam cooking oil, because it keeps the Love Bug guts from sticking.

They're very thick here at the beach, but not out on the sand, thank God. But they do cover the chaise lounges. Early in the morning, some maintenance guy comes by with a gasoline-powered blower and blows all of the Love Bug corpses away, waking everyone up in the process.


My daughter brought a friend who was celebrating her birthday, so we lit sparklers on the beach.



Normally, this time of year, the ocean is thick with sea birds, diving for baitfish. But the water is calm and placid, and no birds are around. That means bad fishing.


I suspect it's because the fish are all bloated from gorging themselves on swarms of Love Bugs, and they're all laying around on the bottom complaining about how full they are.

Friday, May 25, 2007

What's the Score?

As the political season approaches, and the various declared Presidential candidates begin dancing in the spotlight to attract support, they are forced to perform the one unpleasant act that no politician wants to be caught doing: They have to answer questions. When they answer a question, they can expect that their answer will satisfy some people and alienate others. Presidential candidates don't have the luxury of alienating too many people, so they have to tread very carefully.

Even seemingly innocuous questions, such as, "Are you a cat or a dog person?" is fraught with peril. Answer "Cat," and you risk upsetting the 63 million dog owners in this country, all of whom posess a vote you need. This is why such straightforward questions are usually answered with cautious evasive tactics that may not satisfy either group, but it won't piss them off, either. For example, "I believe that it is the fundamental right of all Americans to own the pet of their choice, and I will fight for strong legislation that will ensure the health and safety of every pet in this great country." Sounds good, but doesn't answer the question.

The problem is, some politicians are better at avoiding difficult questions than others. This doesn't mean they would be better leaders, but we have to measure them by what they say. It's my opinion that politicians who avoid straight answers will make lousy leaders, because they will only say what they think people want to hear. A politician who claims to have "a vision for America," but doesn't elaborate on that vision, probably doesn't have a vision at all.

For this reason, I have developed the following Q&A Scoring System to rate the politicians in the upcoming Presidential race.
-Provocation = 2
-False Assumptions = 2 each
+Straight Answer = 2
+Proposed Solution = 2
+Solid Promise = 2
-Evasion = 2
-Vague Promise = 1


Questions can have a QUESTION VALUE of 1 - 5. For example, questions on serious issues affecting the entire world have a value 5. The cat-or-dog question has a value of 1.

World Importance (War in Iraq, Trade Sanctions) = 5
National Importance (Abortion, Election Reform) = 4
Regional Importance (Border Security, Farm Subsidies) = 3
Sector Importance (Minimum Wage, Postal Rates) = 2
Individual Importance (Cat or Dog) = 1

Some questions are provocative in nature, such as "Do you believe that Federal funds should be used to kill babies in abortion clinics?" Such questions are important (the abortion issue should receive an 4 on the QUESTION VALUE scale) but clearly designed to be provocative, so it gets knocked down to a 2 by subtracting the Provocation value. The same thing is true about false assumptions. For example, "Should Jews be dictating American foreign policy?" contains the false assumption that Jews are dictating policy. The question has a face value of 4 (National Importance), but gets knocked down to a 2 by subtracting the False Assumption value.

The answer given by the candidate will be subjected to similar scoring, with the understanding that no answer will lower the Q&A Score below zero. Thus, a candidate who gives an evasive answer to a provocative question will not be unduly penalized. In the previous example answer to the cat-or-dog question, the candidate would have scored -2 (2 subtracted for evasion, 1 subtracted for vague promise), but this would simply be adjusted to zero.

Here's a straightforward question posed by ABC's Cynthia McFadden to Hillary Clinton on September 7, 2006 (

    McFadden: As we sit here today, was it a mistake to go into Iraq?
    Clinton: Well, given this administration's track record, they have been nothing but a series of mistakes.
    And I don't see this administration, frankly, with the credibility and the authority to lead both our country and the world in dealing with these very threatening situations. So even if one could say they made mistakes and they shouldn't have done it, right now we're in a series of challenging decisions and they aren't demonstrating the leadership necessary. ... But they're a hard group to help, I've got to tell you. They don't listen to Democrats or Republicans.

This question scores 5 on the QUESTION VALUE chart, and it's neither provocative nor does it contain false assumptions, so it's a high-value question. However, Ms Clinton doesn't answer the question, choosing instead to criticize the current administration. So -2 for evasion, yielding a score of 3. Not bad, considering.

Now here's Barack Obama answering a similarly straightforward question posed by Larry King (not known for hard-hitting interviews) on March 19, 2007 (

    KING: Touching other bases, Joint Chiefs Chairman Peter Pace caused a furor last week. He said homosexuality is immoral. He said he was speaking personally and not on behalf of the Army. First, do you think it's immoral?
    OBAMA: You know, I don't think that homosexuals are immoral any more than I think heterosexuals are immoral. I think that people are people and to categorize one group of folks based on their sexual orientation that way I think is wrong.
    I disagreed with General Pace. More importantly, I think, traditionally, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff tries to stick to military issues precisely because of the kind of hot water that he got himself into this time out. And hopefully he's learned his lesson.
    I hope, more broadly, that we take up the call of previous commanders in the field who have said that it's time for us to examine the policy right now that is very costly and excludes gays and lesbians who have been serving ably in the military from service.

This question scores 4 on the QUESTION VALUE chart, and it suffers by being mildly provocative, which costs 2 points, lowering it to a 2. Obama acquits himself well, scoring 2 points for a straight answer. So his scrore for this question is 4.

In this simple test, Barack Obama outscored Hillary Clinton. Admittedly, it's an unfair test, because the questions were different, so it's like comparing apples and oranges. The idea here is that over the coming months, scores will accumulate, and provide a fair assessment of all candidates. Candidates who make themselves more available for questions will have more opportunities to score.

Not to leave Republicans out, let's take a quick look at John McCain, in an interview with Chris Wallace on April 30, 2007 (,2933,269119,00.html):

    WALLACE: ...As part of a compromise to keep Social Security from going bankrupt, would you be willing to cut benefits? Would you be willing to increase the age for eligibility?
    J. MCCAIN: Before we get into any of those specifics, you have to know that anyone who gets out front on this issue without sitting down and negotiating with everything on the table will get nowhere.

    And so I will do what Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill did. I will sit down with the Democrats. We will look at the options on the table. We'll call in the smartest people that we can find, and we'll reach an agreement.

    If I take a position on any of those issues right now, one, it doesn't work. And second of all, it's got to be the product of bipartisan negotiations where people sit down across a table from one another.

This question scores 4, and isn't provocative. Some might say it contains the false assumption that Social Security is going bankrupt, but I think most economists agree that Social Security is in financial trouble. Let's give the critics the benefit of the doubt and subtract 2 points from the question for the false assumption. The answer was clearly evasive, and included a vague promise. So despite the false assumption, John McCain scores a big zero for that answer.

I like the idea of keeping score so that we can all measure the performance of the candidates this season. I'm sure there will be lots of debate over what constitutes evasion, and how vague is vague? But that's where the fun is - because there's nothing fun about choosing the person who will inherit the war in Iraq.

    Friday, May 18, 2007

    The Pivot Factor

    In a normal economy, new products are introduced at a premium price, because the demand exceeds the supply. Gradually, manufacturers automate the production of larger quantities of the product, which lowers the cost of production, and the manufacturer who has the lowest production cost and the most efficient distribution is able to capture the largest market share. Eventually, the cost of goods is lowered to the point where the product is so poorly made, consumers reject it, and the product stabilizes at the “comfort zone” between poor quality and high cost.

    Manufacturers of poor quality products are always looking for ways to lure the consumer away from thoughtful cost/benefit analysis, hoping to force them into an emotional purchase decision based on styling, marketing or merchandising. But sometimes, manufacturers are forced to make the product less desirable due to forces outside their control.

    For example, when demand exceeds supply, theft goes up. To protect retailers, manufacturers often have to use bulky, hard-to-conceal packaging, pilfer-proof seals and expensive anti-counterfeiting holograms.

    I’ve come to hate the now-common “blister packaging,” where the product is concealed inside some kind of thick, transparent Lexan bubble that is impervious to scissors, wire cutters, 9mm handgun rounds and industrial lasers. Many times, I’ve cut myself deeply trying to remove the product from its shell. Sometimes I’ve damaged the product. It’s hard to feel a sense of consumer lust for something that wears the retailing equivalent of a chastity belt.

    Another pet peeve is the way DVDs and CDs are packaged. They come tightly wrapped in an impossibly thin, seemingly delicate cellophane wrapper that is folded over and glued on the thin edge of the case. You’d think you could slip a fingernail under that fold, but you’d be wrong. I fuss with them for 5 minutes or so, becoming more and more irritated, scraping repeatedly at that fold, wondering how it could be so difficult to open, when a 15 year old kid can quickly open a pack of Marlboros sealed exactly the same way. Eventually, I find a kitchen knife and leave an ugly scratch across the case as I slice at the cellophane.

    When pharmaceutical companies package capsules in those foil-backed blister packs, the theory is that you simply push the capsule through the foil to remove it. But more often than not, the foil is stronger than the gelatin capsule, and I wind up licking the spilled powder off the edge of the sink.

    The other day I was opening a gallon jug of windshield washer fluid. The cap was sealed with a cellophane band, and once I got that off, I found a foil seal over the mouth of the jug. Why? Is someone sneaking into auto supply stores and siphoning this valuable blue liquid out of the bottles to sell on the black market?

    So the manufacturers of these goods have reached a balance point at which they make the product at a reasonable cost, distribute it quickly and efficiently to retailers, and then irritate the customer just enough so that they don’t lose the desire to purchase the product. I’m sure there’s a Marketing term for it: The Pivot Factor. That’s the emotional point where you see the packaging of the product, turn on your heel and leave the store rather than deal with it.

    Saturday, May 12, 2007

    A Conversation with my Father

    I'm in St. Louis, visiting my father. He's 84 years old, and has lived longer than anyone in his family. He's had a couple of minor strokes, and suffers from a few memory problems, along with some hearing loss and the usual crotchetyness that afflicts the elderly.

    This is a sample conversation I had with him while driving.

    "When you get to this light up ahead, take a left. Then take the second right," he instructed me, even though I grew up in this town and know the way as well as he does.

    "Right, got it," I said.

    "No, left. At this light."

    "Got it. Left at the light, then the second right."

    "Then take the second right."


    "The second right."

    "OK I understand. Is there a pharmacy nearby?" I asked.

    "A pharmacy? No, there are no pharmacies around here."

    "There are pharmacies everywhere in Florida," I tell him.

    "Why are there so many pharmacies?"

    "Because there is such a large ageing population," I explained, "and they need lots of medication."

    "Why do Asian people need more medication than anyone else?" he asked.

    "Not Asian, ageing."

    "They're people just like me and you. They shouldn't need more medication."

    "AGEING. Not Asian. AGEING."

    "Oh. Take this left at the light."

    "OK, then the second right. I've got it."

    "Then the second right."

    "Got it."

    "You won't find a pharmacy around here."

    "Where do people go for medication?" I asked.

    "Most people go to the supermarket. There's a pharmacy in the supermarket."

    "Where is the supermarket?"

    "I can't remember."

    Saturday, May 5, 2007

    My Target Demographic

    Recently, my wife got stuck downtown at rush hour after a conference, and some friends talked her into going to the Hard Rock CafĂ© for a live concert. The concert was part of a series called “Classic Albums Live.” A producer has assembled a team of studio musicians and they perform classic rock albums, track for track, note for note. She saw a performance of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, which impressed her. “They really nailed it,” she said.

    Last night, we went to see The Eagles’ Hotel California. I was skeptical, because this seems like a cynical Marketing effort to exploit the nostalgia of people in my age bracket. Plus, I’m a natural skeptic.

    This company of musicians tours medium-sized concert halls all over the east coast and eastern Canada, apparently unable to break into that lucrative California market. If you’re interested, here’s their Web site:

    The Hard Rock Live concert hall is a very nice, modern venue that seats about 3,000, and they have bars all over the hall with waitresses who will bring you drinks. The floor area is flat, so that they can set it up differently for different kinds of events. Last night it was rows of folding chairs, so I don’t think those are ideal seating conditions. We sat in theater seats in the balcony, and had a perfect view of the stage. Here’s a link to a 360-degree view of the concert hall:

    As we entered the hall, I noticed a sign that read, “No moshing or crowd surfing.” There didn’t seem to be much danger of that happening, because the crowd consisted of 40-something and 50-something people such as myself, dressed horribly for the most part. I noticed one guy in mismatched cammo: Jungle cammo shirt and a desert cammo hat. Anywhere he goes, he’s gonna take a bullet.

    The producer came out to announce the show, and rhapsodized about how hard they had worked, and how difficult the music was, and how great the musicians were. Then he claimed that they are “not a tribute band.” “We don’t wear costumes or wigs,” he explained. I had to wonder if that’s the single criterion that distinguishes a tribute band from whatever this was.

    When the show started, eight musicians came out on stage: three guitarists, a bass player, one female singer, one male singer/pianist, a keyboard player, and a drummer. They opened with the song “Hotel California,” running through every song on the album, finishing with “The Last Resort.” I was impressed by the lead singer, but as my wife pointed out, “They didn’t nail it.” The musicians were cautious and mechanical, trying very hard not to inject any personal expression into their meticulous recreation of the Eagles music. It wasn’t bad, it just sounded synthetic and uninspired.

    However, any criticisms I might have with the music were vastly overshadowed by the efforts of the lighting director, who had purchased the finest computer-controlled concert lighting system that money could buy, and then manipulated them to shine directly in the eyes of the audience. The lights were an incredible distraction, often forcing me to turn my head away from the show I had paid to see.

    I gave names to the lights:

      The Retina Peelers: 20,000,000 candlepower spotlights that will cause me to see purple spots for the rest of my life.

      The Disorientators: project a shadow pattern that breaks up the natural contours of the concert hall and then rotate, causing vertigo and nausea.

      The Seizure Inducers: dozens of strobe lights placed around the concert hall, which flicker slightly out of phase with one another.

    After the album set, the band took a break, and came back out to play a set of Eagles’ greatest hits. By this time, a significant percentage of the audience had crowded into the space between the first row of seats and the lip of the stage, swaying and grooving in an attempt to recreate that moment in their 20’s when they had done the same thing for a performance by the actual Eagles. Some made that “Devil’s Horn” hand gesture, which seemed inappropriate for this genre of rock music. I noticed one guy waving a lighter in the air. There were a lot of bald spots visible from the balcony.

    Wednesday, May 2, 2007

    Lunch will be Served on the Pool Deck

    Florida offers a hospitable environment for a variety of life forms often considered undesirable: insects, reptiles, amphibians and relatives from northern states. Because it’s so hot for so much of the year, many insect species reproduce all year long. While this means good business for the pest control industry, it also means there is a continuous smorgasbord for things that live on insects.

    So Florida has lots of frogs and toads that eat insects, and consequently, lots of snakes that eat frogs and toads. Because the snakes are so good at their job, there are plenty of insects left over for spiders, and Florida is loaded with them.

    Spiders who build webs follow the common rule of Real Estate: location, location, location. Everybody wants a web that’s high enough that it won’t get torn up by passing animals, located right in the flight paths of big, juicy bugs, and has a high resale value, which means a view of the water.

    This is why I have lots of spiders in my pool enclosure. In Florida, it’s best to enclose your pool in a screen house, to keep out the leaves, pine needles, frogs, toads, opossums and bugs. Pool enclosures are pretty effective at keeping everything out, but somehow, bugs still get in. They squeeze under the screen frame, they fly in when the door is open, they locate any small tears in the screens, and before you know it, they’re breeding in an enclosed environment that keeps out every natural predator except for two: spiders and me. I spray or swat at them with a broom, but they just laugh and fly away, right into the spider webs.

    The corners of my screen enclosure are ideal sites for spiders to build webs to trap stray moths, dragonflies, mosquitoes and even other spiders. Some of them are beautiful, almost jewel-like.




    I leave the spiders alone for the most part, until there are so many of them that the choice web sites are taken. The latecomers have to build their webs lower down, where I walk into them while vacuuming the pool. A few swipes with the broom and they’re gone for a month or so. If only I could get rid of my relatives that easily. I need bigger spiders.