Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Do you remember those old Western ‘B’ movies, the ones where actors like Jeff Chandler, Burt Lancaster, and Rock Hudson played the Native Americans? There was always some line somewhere in the film where the Indians (oops, Native Americans) first saw the shooting of a gun and called it a “fire stick.” Those films were pretty bad, very insulting, and yep, I saw them all from one of the hidden nooks in the old Strand Theater in my hometown. Probably every theater had a couple of those secret places where you and your ‘gal’ could sit and make out…and to hell with the movie. In those days, making out meant something like putting your arm around her shoulder and perhaps sneaking a kiss or three.

Anyway, enough of the sentimentality and personal history. Juli just purchased a ‘fire stick.’ No, she didn’t buy a weapon to be used against the varmints in the yard or the neighbor’s bratty kids. This fire stick is all one word but the computer won’t let me do that so I’ll just stay with the old fashioned way. This particular fire stick is just about as terrifying as the first gun seen by Audrey Hepburn in her Native American role in “The Unforgiven.” This thing allows me to talk to my television set and it, in turn, responds by doing exactly what I ask. It even has a friggin’ name. It calls itself ‘Alexa.’ Now I don’t know if that’s supposed to have any deep hidden meaning or if someone at Amazon – oh, yeah, of course it comes from Amazon…doesn’t everything? Anyway, I can ask ‘Alexa’ what the weather is in my area or what movies I can watch, by title, by actor, director, or for all I know, even by key grip, whatever the hell a key grip is. Watch enough credits and you’ll always see a key grip somewhere. Now when I say ‘ask,’ I don’t mean that I type my question. I speak to this thing! And it responds by showing me the answer to my question. Of course, if I ask a question that requires a vocal response, it does that too…now that’s pretty scary! I fully expect that one of these days, Alexa is going to tell me to “…Go to hell; find it yourself,” just like any self-respecting robot will do to its owner someday.

After my first session with Alexa, which lasted darn near an hour, I turned to Juli and asked, “Where do we go from here?” Very nonchalantly she answered, “We’ll all have computer chips in our brains.” I’m certain she’s right. Last week, we watched a news story about a man having a chip inserted in the back of his hand in order to unlock the door to his very secure office. He just held the back of his hand against another gizmo outside the office door and, ‘zap,’ the door opened automatically. Of course, what made me chuckle was the fact that his door and the panels on either side were floor to ceiling glass. Who needs a computer chip when you’ve got a hammer, eh?

I come from a generation that saw pens with replaceable nibs. You dunked the nib in an inkwell and wrote that way. Yes, we had manual typewriters as well. My Dad had an old Royal and it was the machine on which he taught me the “right way” to type. Even in high school, we used Underwood manual typewriters. We’ve certainly come a long way, but dammit, I remember those days. As several friends have reminded me, “You’re so old you fart dust,” a comment that is most often greeted with a smile or chuckle, but which sometimes hurts. It seems that technology is outpacing the human mind, and yet, it’s the human mind that is creating this technology. It appears that we have the choice of accepting and embracing this technology or run the risk of becoming obsolete and put out to pasture somewhere.

In many ways, I consider myself fortunate to have seen and to have learned many of the exciting things that have happened over the past eight decades. Imagine going from nibbed pens to ballpoints, from manual typewriters to electric to Selectric to auto-spacing and auto-correcting. Imagine going from the first computers that required something the size of a large warehouse in which to operate to the mini-sized tablets of today. Imagine the old two piece, cord-connected, stand up telephones of yesteryear to the phones of today that have more power than the computers used to land Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon. What next? Will we actually see robots in the grocery store, doing the shopping for their owner families? Will driverless automobiles be so common that our grandchildren won’t have to take “Driver Ed” in order that we get a discount on our insurance? Will we become so lazy that doctors – robots, of course – will stop talking about obesity because it will be the norm. Maybe we’ll just go to a ‘place’ once a month to have all of our fat removed by liposuction or some advanced technique. Men then would all have six-packs and bulging biceps, and women would have any figure they choose. Ah, the advances in technology…where the hell does it all end? For me…well, I’m just fascinated by my little ‘firestick.’

(Aha, I got the computer to accept it!)

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Writing about something is not the same as knowing about something. I have always admired good reporting as well as good fiction. John Powers of The Boston Globe was a hell of a writer when he was covering sports. John is a huge man, towering over me, but his insight into what took place at almost any sporting event made the reader feel that he or she was actually in the arena, not as a spectator but as a participant. My dear late friend, Bob Parker, was a wonderful fiction writer who drew the reader in from the first sentence and kept the reader enthralled until the last period was place.

I am about as far from a John Powers or Robert Parker or any of the wonderful writers we read on a daily basis. Like many of you, I struggle to gain and maintain the reader’s interest. It shows in that, if really lucky, I have two or three readers a day. It’s an ego thing, and I’m the first one to admit it.

Think about everything that is happening in the world today. We still have stupidity in Washington, with a President who feels he can do no wrong…and he’s wrong; a Congress now controlled by a single party, but I don’t see much taking place other than the Keystone Pipeline which is just going to line a few more pockets of the one percent; our judicial branch is, at best, confused about which issues belong before them and which should be left to the states for a final decision.

On the world front, we have the horrible executions of the French satirists at Charlie Hebdo and the assassination of four police officers by known radicals who were allowed to walk the streets freely and who got the martyrdom that they desired after their horrible onslaught. Sure, I could do my research online and read everything there is to read…like over one million articles, most of which are as accurate as would be teats on a bull, but that doesn’t give one the right to put together an accurate Reader’s Digest condensed version. Perhaps the most odious and despicable post-episodic thing taking place now is the race between al Qaeda and ISIS over who takes the “credit” for committing this hideous act. Is it fodder for the writer in me? By writing about this crime, I merely lend credence to the fact that no one, anywhere in the world, at any time, is safe from these half-crazed lunatics who are exercising their childhood fantasies of killing with no more respect for the beliefs of true Muslims and the Quran than the Bible-thumping idiots of the Westboro Baptist Church have in their beliefs about Christianity.

So what is left for me, in the few years I have remaining, to garble about? Should I talk about the 2016 race to become the next sucker in the White House? I have finally – gad, but it took a long time – figured out why smart people don’t run for president…their egos are not large enough, or as Clint Eastwood once put, “A man just has to know his limitations.” The really smart person allows the puppet to become the titular head and then the puppet-masters, eg, Citibank, the pharmaceutical lobbyists, the farm folk, and several others sit back and tug on a few strings to get the puppet to do their bidding. It’s wonderful to sit at the computer and gaze into the crystal ball. The Republican Party is firmly convinced that the next puppet will be from the GOP, thereby giving both the executive and legislative branches to a group of people who care little for the average American and a great deal for the one-percenters. After all, it’s the one-percenters who write the bills they pass and keep their bank accounts growing. And, what the hell, should a Democrat – by some miracle of God – attain the exalted puppet-post, it will merely be four or eight more years of gridlock. With gridlock, nothing gets done; the press has a field day; and late night comics rub their hands together in glee. While I consider myself an independent voter, I have to admit that someone like Chris Christie of New Jersey could really shake the old-time-DC-boys up; in addition to which, he probably knows where to get rid of the bodies….lots of swampland in New Jersey.

The recent story of the loving son is not something that you find every day. Could one invent such a thing? Perhaps if I was a more creative writer it could happen. However, I’m not that desperate to build a readership. That was just one of those poignant moments that had to be set to paper, and I was honored to have the opportunity to do so…my thanks to those who commented. The opposite of that situation was viewed by Juli yesterday. “Behind you is a mother and son,” she said. “Neither has stopped texting since they sat down.” Of course, we had no idea if they were texting one another, but my bet is that was not the case. Kind of sad, isn’t it? Can you imagine saying to one of your adult children, “Let’s go to lunch and leave our smart phones in the car.” Be the fastest goddamned lunch on record. Yes, I could write about my view on technology (said he, pounding away at the keyboard) but I don’t even know the vernacular for today’s techno-geek…tough to fall behind the times like this.

Well, I’ve almost reached my thousand word limit so to you, my reader (hopefully with an ‘s,’ I bid you a wonderful winter without falls or flu; without slipping and sliding; without icicles or idiots. If you have young children, I hope you will enjoy sledding with them at the local hill. The bumps will be a bit rougher than you may remember, but what the hell, you’ll have wonderful memories when you recall the day over a cup of hot chocolate…don’t forget the whipped cream!

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Dr. Doolitlle sang to us that, “The world is full of beautiful things; butterfly wings, fairy tale kings. And each new day undoubtedly brings still more beautiful things.” That was then, my good Doctor; that is not now. The world today is not filled with beautiful things. It’s filled with the ugliness of street protests; of wars directed at terrorists, but which kill mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, babies not yet a year old. It’s filled with airplanes being shot down by people who call themselves patriots but who are no more than rebel rabble, encouraged by a 19th Century soulless lunatic who fancies himself a god and who won’t be happy until he controls the world.

The United States is no more immune to this ugliness than any other country. Shootings in schools, hospitals, on the street, and in churches dominate our headlines. “We take you now to so-and-so who is kneeling by the dying body of a citizen we have identified as John Jones.” Forget the fact that no one as yet has notified the family…

“…Tell me, Mr. Jones, how does it feel to be dying of gunshot wounds? What’s that, I can’t quite hear you? Would you please speak up for our viewers? Oops too late. Well, back to you in the studio.”

It’s damn near that bad. Meanwhile, Mrs. Jones, who happens to be watching the evening news, dies of a heart attack after seeing her husband killed on live television…but the news must go on.

What is wrong with our world? Children from Latin American countries coming streaming across the border into the United States because if they stay in their own countries they will be killed. That’s not right; it’s just not right. What makes these unaccompanied kids believe that they will not be sent back, that they might not be killed or worse here. America is filled with unscrupulous people who would love to get their hands on these kids for reasons so nefarious I won’t give anyone ideas.

Yes, the world used to be a beautiful place…but wait a minute; it wasn’t that the world was so beautiful; it was that we lived in ignorant bliss. It wasn’t beautiful during the Revolutionary or Civil War, World Wars I and II. It wasn’t so beautiful during the Crash of ’29. It wasn’t particularly pleasant during the period we look back on and call the Cold War, nor Korea, nor Vietnam. The world became less beautiful as we became more technologically proficient. Today, we can watch the missiles fly and the bombs explode. We can look at plane wreckage and pick out a leg here or an almost whole body there. Why? Because we can do it. Whether or not we should be doing it is not up for debate. And the majority of the American public laps this shit up like a thirsty dog at a water bowl.

The news must be reported. I have no quarrel with that. I watch the news and yes, I stay glued to the set when tragedy is the big story. Time was I wouldn’t watch news after six in the evening. Now I don’t watch it after seven. CBS has taken to ending their national news each evening with a “feel good” story, and I like that. The only problem is that the rest of the newscast is generally filled with blood, guts, and gore.

I also find that the news is filled with exaggeration and outright lies. Let me give you an example: This morning, a reporter attempted to speak with one of the parties in a supermarket feud that is happening in Massachusetts. The man absolutely refused to answer any of the reporter’s questions. He was polite and stated merely that he had to go to work and get ready for a board meeting. That was it. There was no interview per se. This afternoon, this same station led with, “Watch Byron Barnett’s exclusive interview with so-and-so.” That, my friends, is a bold faced lie. This morning, the station estimated the size of the crowd which was demonstrating as a part of this feud outside one of the markets. The talking head was trying to tell me that there were five to ten thousand people. Sorry, idiot, you’re speaking to someone who knows how to estimate crowds and there were less than a thousand people. This afternoon, when the camera went back, there might have been 2,500 but certainly no more. Stop; stop lying to me! Stop exaggerating.

Another line that is popular with those who read the news today – please don’t call them reporters – is “…a story you will see only on one station,” or “…a story you will see only on this station.” Fear not because other stations will have the same story; it will just be in a different format or from a different point of view.

Am I blaming technology for changing our world from a beautiful place to one of ugliness? No, we’ve done a fine enough job of doing that on our own. It’s just that we find out about tragedy and death and destruction as soon as it happens today. It’s almost as though ugly is the new beautiful. Blood and gore are the new June and Ward Cleaver, and the Beaver is the shooter…or is that Eddie Haskell?

Don’t worry, Dr. Doolittle; there are still many of us who believe that “The world abounds with many delights, magical sights, fanciful flights…and those who dream on beautiful nights…dream of beautiful things; beautiful people like you. Good is still the overwhelming force in our world. I hope and pray that it will remain that way forever.


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“Customer service sucks!”

“Whoa, Big Fella; them’s fightin’ words if you happen to run into someone from the legal department.”

“Well, why not start this story from the beginning. That way, we’ll all have some idea of what the hell you’re talking about, okay?”

Alright, enough with the quotation marks that fake a conversation.

About three months ago, my girlfriend decided it would be nice to have Netflix, Amazon, and all those other fancy things on our reasonably new – less than a year old – Samsung 40” flat screen television set. The best part is that she even offered to pay for this service. I mean, hey, when someone offers to pay something from which I’m going to receive some benefit, I am not rejecting it out of hand, right?

In order to receive Netflix, one needs to have (a) a television set that can receive a wireless signal, (b) an Internet connection and (c) a ‘router’ to provide that wireless connection. If you wish me to go into greater detail, provide schematic drawings, and use highly technological gobbledy-gook language, I cannot. As a matter of fact, I don’t know for certain that what I just explained is the way it actually works…but I think it is. Anyway, we purchased a router and a friend hooked it up to the computer. This friend, by the way, could provide schematic drawings and use the highly technological language because he is…well…he’s a nerd wannabe, but he has too many other interests to be a genuine nerd. In addition to which, he has a lovely wife and two beautiful kids…not my idea of nerdliness!

Once the router was hooked up and Netflix purchased or rented or whatever the hell one does with Netflix, we attempted to watch a variety of videos on our new service…it didn’t work so we tried the programming on Amazon If you have Amazon, then you may well know the golden circle. The golden circle is just what it sounds like, and it spins round and round as it attempts to get a signal from the router to send to the television set. If router, Internet connection, and television set are all located in the same room, it seems that everything is wonderful. If these devices are separated by any distance; however, if you put one in another room, there can be problems. Unfortunately no one told this to my girlfriend until we were ready to throw someone off a very tall cliff onto sharp rocks and boiling surf.

In order of hair-pulling, it went something like this: First, she called Internet provider to ask why we were having problems with our connection. Their response was that Netflix was the problem; Netflix blamed Amazon; Amazon blamed that Samsung television sets were at fault. In other words, this blame game was almost as bad as what we see with the Legislative and Executive Branches of government in Washington these days.

This blame game was followed by an Internet chat with Samsung; not one person at Samsung but several. As she was sent from one person to another at Samsung, a transcript of her previous conversations followed right along with her. In other words, it was unnecessary for her to repeat to one representative what she had already told the predecessor. In addition, while Samsung could not provide definitive answers – other than to say it wasn’t them – she was able to print her entire conversation with the Samsung representatives.

Once more into the breach dear friends as she went back and forth with Amazon, Netflix, and our Internet provider [who shall remain nameless to protect us from failure]. Since all eventually wound up stating that the fault belonged at Samsung’s door, we actually went out and purchased a Vizio [upon the advice of our nerd-wannabe friend.

A 40” Vizio television set, with stand, weighs fifteen pounds. This is truly a light-weight television set…in more ways than one. Setting it up was simple. Getting it to work properly was impossible. I went to bed. She [note bold face italics} was determined to settle the problem, Contacting Vizio, she spent forty minutes in a ‘chat’ before being passed to another representative, this time in Utah.  By now, it is 10:30 pm back here on the East Coast. My girlfriend is tired. She’s physically tired from the running around that we’ve been doing as part of the daily routine. She’s mentally tired from having chatted on the computer with someone at Vizio who treated her as though she was a child, e.g., “Well, move the router closer to the television; you can’t do that? Well, move the television closer to the router; can’t do that either? Well, you have to do one or the other.” Wait for it; we’re getting close; it’s almost here. Finally, the customer service representative from Vizio, – in Utah, miles and miles away – states, “Well the router can be only twenty-five feet away from the television for it to work.”

Seventeen words; only four of those word are polysyllabic. These are simple words. They could have been uttered at any point along the way. They could have been posed as a question: “How far away from your television set is the router?” We have now reduced the problem to ten words…but no one did. “Where’s your router?” Good heavens, we’ve dropped the problem to three simple words! But no, everyone assumed that our router was as close as their router is. They ass/u/me, and assumption is the mother of all screw-ups. Sometimes, technology is simple; other times, it’s highly complex…so a word of advice to all you customer service folks out there…Don’t treat the client as an idiot, but treat him or her as someone not as wise in the ways of technology as you are until they prove that they are. And no matter what happens keep your tone of voice even and calm, particularly when you want to crawl through the telephone or Internet wires and beat the caller severely about the head and shoulders.

Technology is moving ahead exponentially; the general population is keeping pace arithmetically. For the very few who understand the exponential movement, please have patience with the rest of us who do not.

Note: The following day, we returned the Vizio television set, place the Samsung back to its original position, and moved the router six feet closer from a its original site in the computer room down the hall. It’s now about forty-five feet from the television, but things appear [cross your fingers and toes] to be working well.

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I am slightly bothered by the extent to which technology has taken over our lives. Tomorrow I will attend a commencement ceremony where I fully expect the graduates’ chins to be resting on their chests except for those brief moments when they are required to stand and process to the stage to receive their diplomas – I’m certain at least one will pause to take a ‘selfie’ with the president – and that moment when they are told to switch their tassels from the left to the right to prove they are now alumni/ae of the institution. Come to think of it, if a ‘selfie’ gets taken early enough in the procession, every damned one of those kids will pause for a ‘selfie’ with the president. If she allows the first one, she is screwed! Years ago, upon learning the former president’s love for golf, the senior class members each handed him a golf tee or ball after they shook his hand…”quick get a bucket,” could be heard from someone behind the stage. Fortunately, it was a small class; nonetheless, juggling 380 golf balls and tees while trying to shake the hand of someone attempting to hand you another tee or ball tends to make the top executive look something like a fool…no, exactly like a fool!

I mentioned the “chin on chests” thing because the graduates will be more interested in texting their friends, perhaps two seats over; perhaps a thousand miles away – “sitting here trying to text you but some doofus on the stage is talking loud and ah well, be home soon. Did u go o8 w BB last nite?” Is there really any hope for the nation? It’s one of the problems with having a name that begins with the letter ‘A;’ you’re generally in the front row and it is considered rather déclassé to be texting when everyone on the stage is giving you dirty looks…tres déclassé!

I cannot help but wonder where all of this is leading. Teachers can no longer teach the way they once did because of the vast amounts of knowledge available through the Internet. The wise ones are using that knowledge to expand the horizons of their students as well as impart practical wisdom in subject areas, and this is wonderful. It keeps both teachers and students on their respective toes and forces them to adapt to the exponential increase in knowledge that is taking place daily. What I see on too many occasions is that social interaction skills on the part of students are starting to lag. Young people aren’t as quick to look you in the eye; business letters are poorly written; even a two-way conversation is an effort for all too many of the younger graduates.

In most respects, I’m happy that my high school and college years, even my working years, are behind me. In other ways, I cannot help but wonder how teachers and students cope with this knowledge revolution which bombards them daily. In my time, high school still consisted of reading, writing, and math, with a smattering of civics and history thrown in for good measure. In college, attempts were made to broaden our horizons, but I still remember using a Friden calculator at a store across the street from my university to complete statistics projects. We were required to book time in the store when we could use the machines. This was equipment that was being sold to the public as new, and I have no clue how many members of “Stat” courses before or after our class used the things. Today, the number of subjects in which students as well as teachers are expected to have a working knowledge is far broader than anything to which I was exposed.

Just think of it, today’s smart phone has more computer capability than the computers that sent men to the moon. The next question is when we begin inserting computer chips in newborns in order that one of their first grade classes, with which they’ll be thoroughly familiar, will be Particle Physics! That may be a bit of an exaggeration but at the rate computer technology is expanding, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it happen in the 22nd Century.

So tomorrow I will sit with an audience of about 5,000. My attention will be focused on the speakers on stage – unless they’re really dull; then I’ll turn on my Kindle and read or play games – and my granddaughter will walk across the stage to receive her Bachelor of Science degree in business. From the stage, the speakers will stare out, not at the eager faces of the graduates, but at the tops of the mortarboards that are facing them. Faces will be invisible to those on the stage because (a) they are on a platform that is approximately five feet above the seated grads; and, (b) the faces of the graduates are staring down into their phones as they text. The soon-to-be-newly-minted-alumni will stand for the invocation and dutifully sit down when it is over. They will not hear the president tell them how fortunate they are to have received such a wonderful education – true for some but not for all. They will not hear the upbeat commencement speaker tell them to go out and take over the world because he or she is certain they can do it – damned few will do anything of the sort. They might pick their heads up momentarily when their class speaker shouts, “We did it” with such enthusiasm that the microphone will squeal and the technicians in back shout just a bit less loudly, ”Jesus H. Christ, is he/she trying to deafen everybody?” They will then file across the stage; get the piece of paper that says they have completed the requirements, etc., etc., take their selfie with the president if possible, and march back to their seats…where they will immediately text all of their friends who aren’t there and say some stupid thing like, “I made it!”

And another graduation ceremony will go into the books. Good luck Class of 2014. Just stop texting, keep your head held high…and don’t be surprised when you get fired from your first job because you aren’t considered a team player and can’t write worth a damn!

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Hey…I have a new phone!

Not only do I have a new phone, but I kept my old number. It would be somewhat unfair to tell you the name of my former provider, but Verizon was – oops, did it, didn’t I? – very cooperative in transferring my number to my new provider.

Here’s the story. Last year, Juli purchased a phone on QVC for a hundred bucks. In addition to no contract, she receives triple minutes, but she started with a promotion 1,500 minutes. Since she’s not a big caller, it works out well for her. Who knows how fast I’ll go through them, but few people call me anymore. Most are dead so I don’t expect to hear from them; the rest are living in Florida; and the kids rarely call, so I’m probably on pretty safe ground.

Anyway, the real story of this new telephone is what happened when I went to activate it. As usual, the new phones come with bells and whistles that are totally foreign to someone like me. That is to say, that had this phone been given to a child between the ages of ten and thirteen, registration, activation, manipulation, and any other ‘ation’ of which you can conceive would probably have been completed within ten minutes. For me the process required an hour and a half, and I’m still not certain that everything has been done properly.

However, to quote the melancholy Dane,” …there’s the rub,” and he wasn’t speaking of a massage parlor or sleep. The ‘rub’ came in the form of some fraud in North Carolina who had usurped my e-mail address and already had opened an account using said e-mail. How the heck he got away with doing this is beyond my computer mastery; however, I have my secret weapons. Ever the Nick and Nora North of the 21st Century, Juli – she was Nora, by the way – and I not only managed to learn the serial number of his phone, cancel his account and change the password to one of my own, together, we figured his password question and used that to utterly destroy him. His comeuppance was complete…ta da…drum roll, please!

I make this sound like a simple process. It was not, particularly since the customer service for this particular phone is in other than the United States. I’m all for outsourcing, but not when I cannot understand the speaker at the other end. Farsi, Hindi, and Mandarin have never been my strong points, but for a while that appeared to be my wont when I was attempting to get computer questions answered. While I do not consider the English language as spoken in Guyana – it is the official language – to be without accent, Tanecca, the young lady who first attempted to be of assistance, had the patience of Job with this old man and carried me up through the first several steps of my registration and activation. When it came time to transfer my existing number from Verizon to her wireless carrier, she suggested that a transfer was in order; thus I was sent to Daryl – not that Daryl, but the other Daryl. I never learned where this Daryl was located – I think it might have been in Suriname or French Guiana. This gentleman was also extremely helpful. If I had to be put on hold, he explained that he would be gone for less than two minutes. While I never timed his absence, it never appeared more than 30 seconds. Like Tenecca before him, he had less trouble understanding me than I did understanding him – shades of the “Ugly American.” Eventually, even Daryl ran out of knowledge – this time, how to get rid of the fraud’s efforts.

Finally, it was on to Christian in Guatemala City. Christian pulled the plug on the fraud, but indicated that there was a problem with Verizon. My account and telephone number weren’t matching up. What did Christian do – I told you these folks were sharp – he called Verizon and set up a three-way conversation. Within minutes the problem was solved; my phone was activated, and all was right with the world.

“Will that be all, sir,” Christian asked, despite having been told on several occasions to please call me “Dick.”

“No, Christian, it won’t,” I told him. “I would very much like to speak with your supervisor.”

He did not question my motive or ask if something was wrong, but merely said, “One moment please, sir, and I will put him on.”

“This is the supervisor,” said an older voice.

I told him how wonderful it was to work with the three professionals who had helped me over the past hour and a half. I explained that while he might not personally know Tanecca in Guyana, nor Daryl in wherever, he certainly knew Christian, but that all three had exercised great patience in being of assistance. It sounded as if he was waiting for the “but” so I didn’t disappoint. I said, “But I’m certain you get complaints whenever your folks are unable to help; therefore, when I receive the kind of help I received this evening, I believe you should hear that also.” There really was a pause on the line before the man came back and said, “We rarely get your kind of call, senor” – yep, he called me senor – “So I say thank to you and I will certainly pass this back to Christian and his colleagues.”

We parted ways, but it made me feel rather good that maybe Christian will get an “atta boy” or however it’s said in Guatemala City. It would have been better if I could have told him in Spanish. Still kinda nice, though.

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                             Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.                                                                                           Eleanor Roosevelt

It’s rather difficult to take issue with the longest serving first lady of the United States and, without question, the most politically active and decisive woman ever to be in the White House. However, the quote above is one with which I must disagree in that it is often the ideas of great minds that sets in motion events that, if not disruptive to the nation as a whole, can certainly prove disruptive to thousands of others within our nation itself.

Perhaps the most recent idea that had to have come from some reasonably great minds is the General Motors debacle over the problems with their automobiles.  For example, can you possibly believe the Rick Wagoner who chaired GM from 2000 – 2009 did not know about the problems with the 1.3 million cars that were built between 2003 and 2007? He was chairman and CEO and this was kept hidden from him? Puh-lease, give me a break? So, what happened after he had milked GM for $63.3 million during his tenure, excluding a $10 million retirement package, and was finally forced to resign by the White House? Another of GM’S ‘old boy network, Fritz Henderson took the reigns – well, at least for eight months he held onto them. The Board forced him out and put the Chairman, Ed Whitacre, in his place in a move that shocked the automotive industry…can you say, “Old boy network continues?” Oh, and by the by, still no action on faulty cars that have been rolling off the assembly line. Daniel Ackerson, another GM board member succeeded Whitacre with an eye to improving GM profits.

There’s a pattern forming here that should be obvious to anyone with an ounce of common sense. The emphasis was in turning the company around without bothering to examine how this was being accomplished. Bottom line became more important than quality of product.

It is solely my opinion that the men of General Motors, finally realizing just how badly they had messed up, even while bringing the company out of bankruptcy, decided they needed a sacrificial lamb on whom they could lay all of the product problems that were plaguing the company. Welcome to the head of the class Mary Barra, Chief of Product Development, to which I say, “Just put your head right on this block My Queen, Dear Antoinette; it will only hurt the first time!”

It may be wrong of me to believe this, but it’s the way my mind works. I’m betting that all of these men from the old boy’s network intentionally through Mary Barra into the number one position solely so that she will take the heat for their errors. Guess what, boys, Mrs. Barra has more guts and more courage than any of you, because she will stand up and admit that GM really messed up between the years 2003 and 2012, and that her job is to make it right. She will also resolve that nothing like this will ever happen again on her watch…and it won’t.

Now that the secrets are no longer, perhaps it’s time that the White House stepped in once more and revoked the $10 million retirement package given to Rick Wagoner. Perhaps liens on his assets to the tune of that retirement compensation could be used to partially compensate the families who lost members due to the failure of those GM vehicles. New research is saying that it is no longer just 12 people who lost their lives and the number may climb to over 300. Perhaps liens should also be place on those who succeeded Wagoner up to time that Barra took over. Will all of this bring back the family members who lost their lives? Will this bring “closure” to the families? Lord but I hate that word, “closure.” There is no such thing because closure would mean having daughters, sons, mothers, and fathers back as living, breathing, laughing, and loving members of families, and that’s just not going to happen.

I’ve seen your videos Mrs. Barra. You’ve been kind to your predecessors, but as you have noted, you’re not just the first woman to head a major automotive giant; you’re a family person, a mother of four, and someone who knows what this loss really means. No one is asking you to micromanage, but everyone is asking that you become more involved than your predecessors about the day-to-day operations and engineering designs. I’m certain you have the ideas about which Mrs. Roosevelt has spoken. You bring to the table much broader experience than the boardroom boys. Let me put it another way: I think you’ve a hell of a lot smarter, tougher, and more empathetic to the consumer than your recent predecessors. Go get ‘em, Mary; give ’em hell!


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I don’t mean to be a party-pooper, but it seems to me that education at almost every level has a great deal of catching up to do. Reading and writing are basic skills, and these can be taught at an early age and improved upon with time. Once the basic skills of math, i.e., addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division are mastered, the rest can probably be learned on line. It seems to me that there is a free or nearly free course on line for just about anything you ever wanted to know. Forget writing term papers on “The History of Democracy in the United States,” or “The Fundamental Theory of Hydrogen Bombs,” or even “How to Make a Thermonuclear Device in Your Cellar.” You will find much better information on line than you can in your local library.  Hell, you can even gather a great deal of information on “Strategic Thinking in a Business Environment.”

The one course you cannot get on line, or maybe you can, but it’s probably not worth the powder to blow it to hell, is how to interact with others; how to manage and be managed. How to engage in peer negotiation and consensus decision-making cannot be taught on line. Team building and a team approach to problem solving requires teams that can work together.  Joe Weintraub, a faculty member at Babson College used to teach – and for all I know, still does – a course entitled, Psychology of Leadership. I was fortunate enough to sit in on a few of Joe’s lectures. His greatest strength, however, in the opinion of this small mind, was in getting students, working in teams, to spotlight their own leadership capabilities without ever telling them that this was what he was doing. He was a master of bringing students out of their shells, allowing them to emerge on their own. Did it work for every member of the class? Of course it didn’t because some people do not possess the qualities of a real leader.

It’s a whole new world of learning out there, folks. We are on the cutting edge of that new form of learning. Forget all of the outside distractions like falling in and out of love seven times a week or the chores you have to do, I believe it would be so excited to be a high school freshman once more with all of the knowledge that is so readily available today. Of course, as a high school freshman, I probably wouldn’t think that way, but what if I could. No more suffering through the reading of Shakespeare in Miss Howarth’s class. She could assign readings that I would do on computer, but she wouldn’t ask us to read Portia’s soliloquy; she would ask for interpretation and in what other court cases similar pleas have been offered. We would be required to really work to understand what our own world has become in the legal system. There would be no more sitting through John O’Hayre’s, “Open your books to page whatever and read what so-and-so says about such and such, etc., etc., etc., ad nauseum; You may have given me good grades, Johnny Boy, but you sure as hell were not a very good teacher.

Today’s scholar is different in many ways. More and more of them contemplate what the world would be like without them. That’s right; more high school and college kids commit or consider committing suicide. Over 25 years ago, I worked with a group of high school seniors to present a day-long program of seminars on topics of their choosing. Among these topics were Bullying: What’s it like to be homeless: Aging and its Problems: Suicide Prevention, and many more. One of the most frightening statistics that came out of that entire day was that 32 percent of that senior class had either considered or attempted suicide…that was a quarter of a Century ago. What course helps our children and young adults work through that problem? Conversely, how do we identify those who have problems that are sufficiently dangerous that they might cause harm to others? We don’t have the means to do so right now and that means we are going to have more school, college, university, and workplace shootings with unnecessary loss of life, and that is unacceptable behavior in the 21st Century.

Just as scholars need to be treated differently in this new Century, so, too, do our educators. Today’s educator must have a global perspective with a local emphasis. It, to be quite frank, is a bitch of a job, and one that is not recognized by the majority of school systems anywhere. Yes, of course, money is part of the problem, but it is not the only one. Teachers face the same problems that middle managers face in business. They have to educate their multi-lingual, multi-sexual, multi-everything constituents, while pleasing administration officials that include a principal, a superintendent, a school committee, and a group of parents who know that the teacher is not doing his/her job because their child is not yet doing what ‘mommy’ and ‘daddy’ expect them to be doing. I remember an elementary teacher who used to work out with us at a local gym. In their school, fifty-three different languages were spoken at home…in addition to English. Why the hell anyone would go into that profession on the elementary or secondary level where they face so many daunting problems is far beyond my scope of understanding. In another life, they must have enjoyed being fed to the lions in the coliseums.

We wonder why we are behind the curve of many other nations. I believe the answer is far less complex than others would have us believe. Those other nations were forward thinking while the United States was still clinging to late 19th and early 20th Century thinking in terms of education…at all levels. It’s time for us to eliminate some of the bureaucracy; give our teachers some freedom, eliminate tenure as a form of guaranteed employment, pay teachers what they’re worth, rather than some arbitrary scale. At the collegiate level, let us broaden our thinking in considering our student market. What is it that they are seeking? Listen to people like Marni Baker Stein, Chief Innovation Officer, Institute for Transformational Learning, at the University of Texas System, who, in a recent paper, noted, “How, for example, are we going to more effectively serve and interface with student populations that…

  • “attend, perhaps more than ever before, to the outcomes of their education;
  • “expect a return on their investment and increasingly demand internships, practical experience and “direct windows into possible employment paths from the very start of their post-secondary careers;
  • “value personalization that is embedded in their day-to-day experiences and that responds to both their weaknesses and strengths;
  • “prefer optimized pathways that recognize and credit prior knowledge and experience and allow them to move at their own pace;
  • “opt to work across multiple institutions and multiple instructional contexts to get to goal; and
  • “demand a student experience accessible anytime, anywhere, and on any device.”


We most assuredly are not ready for candidates of that caliber. Higher education must move ahead immediately and with a different type of thinking if we are to meet the real needs of today’s students.

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At my age and with about as much mechanical engineering ability as a fly on an elephant’s ass, I put forth the following for some younger and more technologically advanced individual than yours truly.

First, picture this…you have a lovely house, a beautiful [in your eyes] wife, two remarkably brilliant and gorgeous children, and one rather yappy, but gentle Beagle. One night, at about one o’clock in the morning, the smoke alarm in the upstairs hallway wakens the entire household. You smell smoke; you shake your wife, grab the kids and the dog and, with nothing but the clothing on your back, you escape into a freezing night with the wind chill at minus eight degrees. Neighbors come from everywhere. They grab blankets and jackets and try to warm you; they invite you to their house, but you are mesmerized by the sight of all of your possessions going up in smoke and flame.

The fire department arrives and hooks up hoses the hydrant in front of your house. It’s frozen. Quickly, they drag their hoses down the street and hook up to the next available hydrant…frozen. Meanwhile, one side of the roof of your house has collapsed. Why the hell are the firemen doing something? They’ve already used up the available water inside their trucks but it’s a futile effort. By the time an unfrozen hydrant is found, they have to drag their hoses nearly half a mile away from your home. It’s too late. What was your house is now a smoking shell. The photo albums, your insurance papers, the car in the garage off the kitchen, your marriage license, the kids’ birth certificates…everything…gone…ashes.

Sound impossible? It isn’t; it wasn’t. It seems to be happening nightly in Massachusetts right now. I’m certain it has been happening in other parts of the country as well. Why so many frozen hydrants. Well, it’s just possible that December 2013 and January 2014 might go down as two of the coldest months in history. When you have days and days and days in a row that are at zero degrees or minus, fire hydrants are going to freeze.

So what can be done to prevent catastrophes’ such as the example given above? The answer is simple; design a fire hydrant and build water pipes that will ensure the water won’t freeze. I can hear you now: “Yeah, right, genius. How the hell are you going to do that?” I don’t have a clue, but there is an answer. Just because it has yet to be done, doesn’t mean that it can’t be done. While what follows is, admittedly, a poor example, it may give you some idea of how to get started: Many years ago, my late wife and I owned a 45-foot Marlette mobile home. After we’d purchased our first house, we moved the Marlette to a trailer park on Cape Cod…our first summer house; how thrilling. Water came into the mobile home through copper tubing located under the trailer [tell it like it is] and attached to a community water supply. That tubing was exposed to the elements year round. You might believe you had drained the tubing for the winter, but you might have accidently failed to get every bit of it. In case you did fail, any water left in the tubing, whether it was inside the mobile home or out, was going to freeze and probably burst the tubing somewhere in its journey. The solution was simple; first you wrapped the outside tubing with a wire coil that was attached to a plug. This was then plugged into the central electrical outlets which were on each plot of land. The wire had some kind of thermometer and when that thermometer reached a certain point, the electricity came on automatically, heated the coil, which heated the tubing which prevented the water, outside and in, from freezing and bursting the copper tubing.  By the way, you also wrapped the outside tubing with an insulating material.

Fire hydrants in areas that experience freezing have valves that are usually sunk below the frost line. This year, New England has experienced an unusually cold winter, making the idea of a hydrant that can be heated to prevent valve freezing an idea whose time may have come.  Is it a crazy idea? Will we ever have a winter to match the one we are currently experiencing? These and hundreds more questions must be answered by the adventurous inventor. That person, whoever you are, may become a millionaire because of your invention. You also may not make a penny. Remember, it’s the challenge, not the completion; the journey, not the arrival…and all of those other clever [and not so clever] clichés that will…wait for it…guide you along your path to glory.

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‘Civil’ libertarians: “One who is actively concerned with the protection of the fundamental rights guaranteed to the individual by law:”

What are these fundamental rights guaranteed to the individual by law? Are they what most of us have been taught…that every person has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? By that definition, anyone who is put in jail has had one of his or her fundamental rights, as guaranteed by law, taken away. Wait a minute; if they are guaranteed by law, then they can’t be taken away, which means that everyone in jail is illegally there, true? Of course not…what a dumb argument! How about the pursuit of happiness? If it makes me happy to rob banks because, as Willie Sutton said, “That’s where the money is,” am I not allowed to seek my happiness? After all, who’s getting hurt if I don’t kill anyone? Hey, the money is insured and I’m happy because I’m doing what I love. Just how asinine is that logic? Now that we’ve knocked those two “fundamental rights” all the way to hell and back, let’s take a look at the third one: We are guaranteed by law the fundamental right to life. Wow, unless you happen to be O.J. Simpson, Casey Anthony, or George Zimmerman, I guess you can’t argue with that?

Where do your rights end and another’s begin? I take a very simplistic view of this question. Your rights end when you knowingly do something that endangers the rights of others. Since the only right that we seem to have left is our right to life, there’s the key. If you knowingly do something that endangers the lives of others, you sacrifice every other right you think you have. “Oh, c’mon,” you say, “on that basis the legal system would be performing ritual killing so fast, the population growth couldn’t keep up.”  Yeah, wouldn’t that be great….just kidding!

“Where is this all leading?” you ask. It leads to the question of how we act, within our right to life, in the actions we take that can conceivably take away the right to life of another. The classic example of this is the drunk driver who, having been convicted of the crime of drunk driving, is parted from his or her license but who continues to drink and who continues to get behind the wheel of a vehicle until he or she ultimately takes away the right of another to live. Let me give you a few examples: Jerry Zeller of Rapid City, South Dakota, racked up 34 DUI arrests before he fell asleep in his bed in 2008 with a lit cigarette in his hand…bye, bye, Mr. DUI.  Thank you, Jerry, for doing something the police could not do…stop you from driving. The great thing is that he did it before he managed to kill someone else. “A Virginia man was given seven years in prison for his 25th DUI arrest in May of 2012. Tracy Michael Decker was arrested after arguing with an employee at a toll station. If that wasn’t bad enough, Decker’s BAC was 0.28 percent; he had open alcohol containers in his vehicle, and had two 4 year old children without seatbelts in the back seat.”

The examples are endless; however, the laws concerning punishment are as varied as snowflakes. In Florida, four dui convictions will get your license taken away forever. How does that stop one from driving while intoxicated? That’s right; it doesn’t. Nothing will stop a drunk driver from getting behind the wheel other than a punishment so severe that he or she will never even consider driving again. Other than the threat of death or a ‘scarlet letter’ being branded into the drunk’s forehead, there is little that can be done until they kill someone…and they do. Ignition locking devices don’t seem to work; there are too many ways to circumvent them. The laws seem terribly lenient on the drunk driving offender. The best state in which to drink, drive, and kill is Oklahoma. You can get as little as zero time in jail or only up to one year.  In Alaska and North Dakota, you get one year to life. Other punishments are all over the map…ouch! This really is no joking matter, but the lack of cohesive law enforcement in the states is a bit frightening. Perhaps judges have to have been personally affected before they will dole out the maximum sentence to these ‘free range killers.’

I have known people who have been killed by drunk drivers. I cannot possibly understand the pain they feel, although, I’ve seen their personalities change. I have known a driver who killed someone while he was driving drunk. It cost him his family, his career, and, eventually, because it haunted him so much, it cost him his own life. Back in the day when I was drinking, I did drive drunk. I was one of the lucky ones; I neither killed someone else nor did I kill my wife. Having done it once and gotten away with it, the next day I made a solemn vow never to do it again…it had scared the bejusus out me.

Technology has made so many things possible in our collective lives. Here’s a new challenge: Devise a technological program that will prevent drunk drivers from getting behind the wheel and killing others. Whether the driver has to remember a 16-digit code which a drunk probably wouldn’t remember in order to start the car – it works with computer passwords—or sensory skin feelers on the steering wheel to prevent the car from starting, something must be done to prevent the continued carnage.

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