Thursday, January 22, 2009

Uh oh

If Barack Obama had to take the oath of office over again because of the mix up at the inauguration ceremony, that means all you people who fumbled your vows on your wedding day aren't really married.

That's it! Your kids are illegitimate! You're living in sin! Break it up!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Out of darkness comes light

Today the United States makes a significant step forward in cultural evolution with the election of the first chief executive of a race different from the room full of guys who stood together 230-odd years ago and launched this nation on its crazy course. We can all feel rightly uplifted by this acceptance that we should judge each other as human beings, not sorted into some sub-category.

Many factors contributed to bring this nation to the point where enough people would believe this at the same time and have the power to bring it about. Not the least of these is how bad the preceding executive has been. This takes absolutely nothing from Barack Obama. It says more about the sluggish, halting nature of humanity's trudge toward enlightenment. It takes big things to spur the first change in a series of changes long overdue.

If the attacks of September 11, 2001, had not occurred, George W. Bush would probably have been a one-term joke, an embarrassment like a big zit on prom night. The shock and fear the nation felt after the stunning blow delivered by foreign criminals in 2001 panicked enough people into mistaking Bush for an actual president that his reelection in 2004 was nearly guaranteed.

Granted, Bush and his administration were so bad that the election of 2004 was hotly contested and ugly. If he had really been transformed by 9-11-01 into a good choice to lead this country, his reelection in 2004 would have made more sense. But in a way it's a blessing he prevailed. We had to descend deeper into the morass of his creation to be ready to accept a very new choice in national leadership.

Obama emerged as a compelling speaker in the Democrats' losing bid in 2004. His eloquence and thoughtfulness spread the comforting image of a well-spoken leader. Such things were possible, if only we could hang on.

I did not choose Obama initially. He seemed a little young, although he is not the youngest to assume the Presidency. Initially his policies did not appeal to me as much as a little from this candidate and something else from that one. But as the campaign evolved, other candidates fell away. They have returned as advisors and cabinet nominees, which keeps alive the hope that the Obama administration will incorporate their good ideas.

Obama himself probably feels the responsibility of his historical significance as well as the burdens of the office itself. Let us not as a nation heap too much weight on the racial issue when the real duties and challenges of the Presidency will demand so much energy and attention. We did not elect a black man. We elected a person who appears to possess the leadership qualities we need to help us emerge from a tough time made worse by incompetent, corrupt and narrow-minded government. He happens to come from a different racial background than all of the nation's previous choices for more than two centuries. Judged not by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character. And that's how it should be.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Another Reason to Question Our Established Conventions

This news story carried on Reuters reports that high levels of a certain kind of estrogen in women leads them to shop around for better mates even when they're in an established relationship. The suggestion comes from within their body chemistry.

From an animal standpoint it makes sense. A fertile, attractive female can attract better and better males, leading to offspring with theoretically better chances for survival and success.

Many of the conscious decisions humans have made about mating behavior over the years have dealt with known and logical indicators of status and success. This recent study simply provides further proof that the mechanisms are more automatic than many people may realize or wish to admit.

Guys, if you get dumped by that hot chick, remember two things: if you got to be there at all it's a compliment, and she didn't really have control over the decision to move on. Oh, and you're genetically inferior, so try to stay out of the way, okay? The hormones don't lie.

Employee Compensation

Our pay scales are generally upside down. Why should someone who gets to fly around in a corporate jet or sit in a cushy office make thousands of times as much as someone we ask to clean up the messes in public bathrooms?

Arguments for bloated executive compensation generally rest on the need to make our brilliant business tacticians feel good about themselves. They need to be able to schmooze and compete in the highest social circles. Start paying every one of them $30,000 a year while the custodial staff gets a quarter of a million to start and see if the highest social circles don't change abruptly. Suddenly the prize spot won't be the corner office, it'll be the broom closet.

Maybe our public restrooms will be cleaner. Shorten the shifts, sweeten the pay and watch those fixtures sparkle. Offer bonuses for better performance. We're already paying somebody a lot of money to do something. Maybe we've just been paying the wrong people to do the wrong thing. Re-allocate the budget to fluff up somebody else's account for awhile. Try it for a few years, then shift it again. I bet that will stimulate the economy much more than printing more money and stuffing it into the same holes we've been digging all along.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Drive Report: Pontiac Small Hippo

Now I understand why people drive so stupidly fast all the time. The soundproofing in the average sensory deprivation SUV is so complete, I thought I'd gone deaf. A smooth, heavy vehicle that feels solid and secure at 70 miles per hour feels like it isn't even moving at 40.

I definitely made the right choice yesterday, driving the little old Toyota Corolla with the good snow tires. All wheel drive does nothing for you when you're driving four cheesy tires.

On a snowy morning I will test the surface right after I pull out of my driveway, by jamming on the brakes and swerving, as long as no one is around. This lets me know what I might expect down the line and gives my reflexes a tune up before I need them. This morning I discovered that the anti-lock brakes in the Hippo feel like a nightclub bouncer throwing you off the brake pedal. "I'll handle this," says the muscly brute, shoving your foot away. "Sit down and shut up, pencil neck!"

It is as harsh and unpleasant as it sounds.

In the quest to make motor vehicles idiot proof, the auto industry has made them highly idiot resistant up to a point. Once that point is passed, all hell will break loose. In my favorite set of turns on the way to work, I decided to push things a little. The skimpy-treaded radials broke loose as I thought they would, causing the massive beast to lurch sideways toward the guardrail that stood between me and a pond. With officious whirring, clicking and grinding noises, computerized controls snapped into action to save me from myself. The result was not a snappy, skillful pullout, but a labored, slithering wallow back onto something resembling the right track.

These SUVs use lots of sophisticated computer equipment to compensate for the fact that they're really just rocket-propelled barges. If the automated systems can't overcome whatever pilot error has just been committed, the pilot has few options remaining. It's really easy to go too far.

Just dropping into the soft snow at the edge of the cleared lane elicited wallowing swerves. They were slight, but unsettling. It's ironic that a car like a Ford Escort or a Toyota Corolla with a weight around 2400 pounds has a more solid road feel than a supposedly capable truck weighing about 1200 pounds more. But think about it: the tires on the smaller car have a relatively larger bite on the road compared to the weight they are trying to keep on track. The little car sits lower and requires much less power to accelerate and much less force to steer or stop.

To help keep drivers aware of the fragile lives outside their cabin, auto makers should put some of that computer power to work on a system to reduce the cabin insulation and the sense of isolation at lower speeds. I thought at first this would be a simple matter of making the vehicles smooth and solid at highway speeds, but complete rattle traps at lower speeds. But this would backfire as people tried to stay at smooth speeds all the time. So the solution will have to be variable insulation or perhaps a constant nagging voice from the dash board.

"Slow down! Watch out for that bike! Hey, people are walking here! Oh god! You'll kill us all!"

Tuesday, January 06, 2009


Because our spare car has become another casualty, my wife and I decided to rent a car for a week while the Ford is in the hands of the Gilford Guru. If the game runs more than a week we'll pursue other options.

The '95 Toyota unfortunately ended up in the hands of an unimaginative local mechanic who goes by the rate book no matter what. The collapsed strut the Gilford Guru could fix for about $180 got an estimate of about $400 from the guy nearby. And so it goes. The tow to Gilford would be prohibitive, so it may be "game over" for faithful Rusty.

The Gilford Guru did say he'd check out one last option for transporting the Toy before we write the official time of death. If Rusty comes back for another farewell tour it eases things considerably.

Meanwhile, the rental car. We signed up for an econobox, but the rental company upgraded me to a small hippo when I got there.

"Don't you have an econobox?" I asked.

"No," said the very nice rental guy. "We're upgrading you to the small hippo at no extra charge."

Before I could say anything he looked thoughtful. "Oh yeah, it will cost more in gas." Beat. "But it'll be great in the snow!"

He was very nice and I didn't want to be a prick, so I didn't say that I'd seen far too much ditch bait like this on its side with its summer radials in the air, and that I felt a lot more secure in a little econobox. They'd upgraded me, after all. Who wouldn't be tickled?

I remembered 2002, when my in-laws reserved a small SUV for four adults, an 11-year-old and all our luggage on a wedding trip to the Seattle area. That time, the rental company "upgraded" someone who didn't need an SUV with our car and stuck all of us in a Ford Escort. The best joke was that we met the people who got the upgrade at the wedding. They were telling everybody about how they arrived at the airport around mid-day and got such a nice treat from the car rental place.

Whoever got my econobox, wanna trade?

For now, I have to make a big sign to stick on the hippo, saying "Please don't hate me. It's a rental."

When the tranny comes out of the Escort I really want to get a catapult and fire it through the front windows of a certain Ford dealership. The Gilford Guru suggested a trebuchet was more hip, but I want something with a flat trajectory. I want that transmission casing to come in low and level, spewing burned fluid and small parts. I savor the thought of the explosion of glass shards and the sharp "whack" it will make when it hits the nearest display model.

The Guru said, "with a trebuchet, you could throw the whole car." As usual, I like the way he thinks. But the car was basically sound until the botched repair in Niantic. I hate to waste anything useful.

Until next time, kids, remember to get regular oil changes, check your tire pressures and never trust a dealership service department.


Realities of Small Business

During periods of heavy tourist activity, the staff at the shops I work for goes without time off for the duration. Because we serve cross-country skiers, we work our hardest when everyone else is out of school or on vacation from work.

My employers tend to panic easily. They demanded from the beginning that I, their very first real full-time grunt, be available straight through the two weeks in February on which Massachusetts and New Hampshire schools close for February vacation.

We all soon realized that Massachusetts people may come to New Hampshire for vacation, but New Hampshire people usually get the hell away. We went back to taking our regular days off during the second vacation week in late February. That still leaves us working a 12-day marathon for the Massachusetts week.

Hell begins on the Friday leading into Presidents' Day Weekend. We run flat out until the end of Sunday the following weekend.

We get a foretaste of hell, ironically, around the holiday many people observe as the birth of the Son of God. If Christmas week is snowy, we're in the trenches. And Christmas can be worse than February, because the holiday falls on a specific date, not a movable three-day weekend. February vacation always runs from weekend to weekend. As eternal as it feels, it has a distinct pattern.

One may wonder why we don't add staff for the heavy periods.

In specialty retail, especially if you really care about your specialty, you need people who can work to a high standard, not just names on a schedule and mouth-breathers on the sales floor. Lord knows we get enough of those as customers. Although the schedule takes an increasing toll as we all get older, it still makes more sense to pay the overtime and work the stretch if we can manage it, than to try to rope in someone far less trained for a short hitch.

Small businesses don't have the luxury of extra personnel. Sometimes a specialty store like a bike or ski shop will develop a group of friends among the more addicted customers. These people can fill in sometimes. More often they can't. They have their own lives, which were well-planned enough to keep them out of a career in retail.

If things get really bad, a small business doesn't lay people off. It folds up. In the specialty arena, where service counts as much as sales, you have to reach a certain size to provide all the functions needed to survive. The next size down may be considerably smaller, like a single person in a tiny store front, doing his or her best to stay above water.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Looking for improvements

People seem generally hopeful as we approach the inauguration. I hope they will bear in mind that it takes much longer to build or rebuild a strong edifice than it does to smash it with a tornado, burn it down or blow it up.

The outgoing presidential administration could also be compared to a punk kid abusing a car. After eight years of burnouts, drag races and demolition derby the repairs are going to take time and money. Everybody be patient.