Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Whither Garbage?

CNBC currently is running a program about the business of trash.  For  companies like Waste Management and Republic Services, trash is an immensely profitable business, but have you ever taken a minute to think about all the garbage that ends up in landfills?  The statistics are astonishing.

We generate in this country approximately 250 million tons of trash per year.  Given our current population of about 310 million people, that works out to about 1612 pounds of trash per person.

What? That can't be right, can it?  You had no idea that your carbon footprint was so colossal, did you?

Trash is the ultimate in "pass-the-buck" thinking.  The only time anyone thinks about trash collection is when they hear the trash truck at 5am and remember that they forgot to take their cans to the curb the night before. As long as it is being collected regularly, garbage is an afterthought. Only when it piles up does trash become headline news.  Just ask the people of any densely populated metropolis how important garbage collection is.

"I've always dreamed of living here!"

Advances in recycling technology have helped, but after watching the CNBC program I started taking  notice of all the packaging that exists for just about everything we buy. It's repulsive.  

Bottled water must be the epitome of consumer stupidity.  According to the CNBC program, Americans buy nearly a BILLION bottles of water every week.  Nothwithstanding the fact that in many cases bottled water is of no better quality than tap water and that bottled water is ONE THOUSAND times more expensive than tap, we recycle only a fraction of the 51,000,000,000 (billion) plastic water bottles that we use each year.  Most water bottles end up in landfills, in the ocean, or along roadways, creating eyesores for us and health issues for wildlife.  When we nonchalantly dispose of the bottle we think we are done with it. Not even close. Unrecycled plastic doesn't decompose for several centuries.  Until and unless our species colonizes another planet, plastic refuse is our problem. 

"Jump around."

Plastic–as you know–is a petroleum byproduct.  We use about 17 million barrels of oil each year to produce those 51 billion plastic water bottles.  That number represents but a fraction of a fraction of our yearly oil consumption, but then again plastic water bottles respresent but a fraction of the amount of plastic packaging that is produced each year. 

Just how much oil is used to produce all of the plastic packaging that is manufactured globally each year? According to the U.S. Energy Information Association, "in 2006, about 331 million barrels of liquid petroleum gases (LPG) and natural gas liquids (NGL) were used to make plastic products in the plastic materials and resins industry in the United States, equal to about 4.6% of total U.S. petroleum consumption. Of the total, 329 million barrels were used as feedstock and 2 million barrels were consumed as fuel in the production process." That's just in the United States! Given all the rhetoric about reducing our dependence on foreign oil and the fact that it can take plastic several centuries to decompose, why have we not mandated alternatives?

Aside from energy considerations, how annoying is plastic packaging anyway?  Especially hard shell plastic packaging?  The product that you buy is vacuum sealed inside of a plastic sarcophagus that is impossible to open unless you happen to have in your possession a physician's scalpel or a diamond cutter.
This is a mindsnap waiting to happen.

The Pope in the Popemobile isn't as well protected.

This packaging was created ostensibly to protect high-end consumer products from theft and from damage during shipping. I daresay that the benefits to the manufacturer and distributor are mitigated by the environmental costs and consumer headaches that such packaging creates.
What ever happened to brown paper and string? 

It worked well enough for centuries.  Wrap your product, tie it up, slap a label on it.  Boom. Done. Plastic packaging is another example of technological overengineering. 

Not everything we buy needs to be shrink wrapped and hermetically sealed.  In my neverending search for the perfect chocolate chip cookie, I spent a little quality time the other day with Mrs. Fields. To my amazement, each cookie in this package was individually wrapped.  What in the hell for?  I can promise you that when I open a box of cookies there is no chance that the box is going to last long enough for any uneaten cookies to go stale.  And I am not even a stoner.

Individually wrapped for freshness, huh?
Perhaps California was onto something when it attempted to legalize marijuana earlier this month. If marijuana consumption were legal, everyone who is not me would eat all of the cookies right away and we would have no need to individually wrap things like cookies and Lifesavers.  Our energy and environmental problems would be solved, although worker productivity likely would plummet.

Bill Blazejowski attempted to solve our trash problem in the 1982 movie "Nighshift."

Bill: "OK, here's an example. Watch out, stand back."
[speaks into tape recorder]
Bill: "This is Bill. Idea to eliminate garbage: edible paper. You see, you eat it, it's gone. Eat it, it's out of there."

He apparently was way ahead of his time.

Friday, October 29, 2010

A Mansion With A Motor

It is not too often that I am speechless and/or starstruck, but it does happen. Several years ago, while visiting some friends in Nashville, I was invited to tag along with them to a charity benefit being held at a place called Green's Grocery in historic Leiper's Fork, TN. Kim Carnes ("Betty Davis Eyes") was the headliner, and she would be backed by various Nashville-area session players.  It sounded like a great time to me. 

Green's Grocery is just what the name implies–an old grocery/country store.  Over the years it had become a place where local musicians and Nashville bigshots would gather for the informal picking sessions for which country music is famous. Someone in the music business eventually bought the place and made music–not groceries–the focal point.  It's a small place that probably holds no more than 100 people, but it attracts some world-class talent.

It was bitterly cold on this particular December night, with intermittent snow. Dinner was part of the deal and was being served in a tent out behind the store. There was a roaring fire going in an outdoor fire pit, and the heat it generated was more than sufficient to chase away the cold.  This had all the makings of a great evening.

We staked out our table in the little store-turned-performance hall and went outside to the tent to get our supper.  As we were moving through the buffet line, I scanned the crowd.  I didn't expect to see anyone I knew, but I did see someone who looked decidedly different from the rest of this well-heeled crowd. He was a big ol' fella wearing sweatpants and looking a little disheveled.  "Hmmm," I thought, "he must be Kim Carnes' roadie or something."  He was about five or six people ahead of me in line and I couldn't see his face, but when he turned the corner and I got a good look at him, I was dumbstruck.  "Holy s**t, that's Al Anderson!" I thought to myself.  

Now, I have met and been around people who are a whole lot more famous than Al Anderson and I have never had a heart-stopping reaction to any of them like I had when I found myself in close proximity to the man described as "300 pounds of smokin' steel and sex appeal."
Big Al!
Al Anderson was a  longtime member and lead guitarist for NRBQ, easily my all-time fav-o-rite band.  Billed as "The World's Greatest Bar Band," NRBQ for five decades explored all the nooks and crannies of rock and roll before formally disbanding earlier this decade. While active they attracted a cult-like following and garnered the respect of every musician who ever heard them play. NRBQ's demise began when Anderson, tired of life on the road and eager to develop his songwriting talents, left the band after a New Year's Eve show in 1993.  However, he was for twenty-two years the Q's big man on guitar.

I couldnt begin to guess how many times I saw NRBQ play live in bars all over the East Coast.  Anderson was always there, set up on the left side of the stage with a huge fan blowing on him in a hopeless attempt to keep his Big Al body cool. 

And now here he was, ten feet away from me, literally and figuratively larger than life.  A scan of the crowd indicated to me that no one else seemed to have any idea that this music legend was amongst them.  Maybe these Nashville people were so used to having music royalty in their midst that this was nothing out of the ordinary, but I would rather talk to Al Anderson than just about any other musician I can think of.  I could not let this opportunity pass.

What to say?  I didn't want to be a dork or have him think me an obsessed fan because it has always been my opinion that famous people like nothing more than being treated normally.  If I were going to say something, I would have to be cool about it.

By this time the dinner line had split so that people could attack the buffet from both sides. He was directly across from me.  If didn't say something right then I would regret it for the rest of my life.

"Al?", I said shakily. 

He looked up, eyed me warily, an uttered a very noncommital, "Hey."

"Please don't think I am a nutjob or anything, but I just wanted to say hello and ask you a question if that would be alright." Unfortunately, I hadn't really had much of a chance to rehearse this conversation in my mind, so even though I told him that I had a question, I didn't exactly have one queued up. 

After a few seconds of silence I managed to think of something.

"I am a giant NRBQ fan (TOTAL DORKINESS) and I wanted to ask you about a song I heard you guys play but that I have never found on any of your albums."  I lived in Washington DC in the late 80s and NRBQ used to make a regular stop at a place in Georgetown called The Bayou, which was located on K Street under the Whitehurst Freeway. It was a dingy old spot but it was to D.C. what the Fillmore was to San Francisco.  It was an integral part of the District's music scene. 
D.C.'s own Nighthawks pose on the roof of the late, great Bayou music club.
One night at the Bayou I heard them play a song called "Hotel Coupe deVille."  I loved it and looked for it on every new NRBQ album.  I never found it.  This was my chance to find out about that song.

"I heard you guys play a song called 'Hotel Coup deVille' at the Bayou one time but have never heard you play it since and have never seen it on any album you ever released.  Was that song ever recorded?", I asked, realizing that asking him about an obscure song I had heard them play once almost twenty years ago might reinforce the notion that I could be a candidate for a restraining order.

Now it was his turn to be dumbstruck. Al, fairly or not, has something of a reputation for surliness so I half expected him to blow me off. 

"You know," he said, "I wrote that song and we only played it live one time. I guess it was that night.  I can't believe that you remember it."

I explained to him that I loved the story of the guy living in his car–a Coupe deVille– but what made the song memorable to me was the line that the car was a "mansion with a motor."   I loved that line and have used it many times since then to describe overly-roomy sedans.
1974 Cadillac Coupe deVille, large enough indeed to be a "mansion with a motor."
He went on to tell me that the song had been recorded by various artists and that, thanks to my reminder, he might just play it that night. Sweetness!  I wished him well and left him to eat his dinner in peace, at the same time mentally flogging myself for my failure to be cool and indifferent. 

Kim Carnes was great, but Al Anderson–even in a subordinate role–was better.  Kim would sing a song or two and then one of her backing musicians–all respected session players–would grab the mike to sing one of their songs.  When one of these guys got his turn at the mic, his first words were not a thank you to Kim but instead this:

"My brother is not gonna believe that I shared the stage with Al Anderson tonight!" 

Poor Kim Carnes.  She never had a chance.  

A few songs later, former Doobie Brother and current Leiper's Fork resident Michael McDonald popped out of the crowd to sing a few songs.  Finally, Kim gave us her signature song, closing the evening with "Betty Davis Eyes" in that great smoky voice of hers.  We hung around the bonfire for a little bit afterwards and relived the night's fun.  In the parking lot we ran into Big Al.  He hadn't played my song, but it didn't matter.  We wished each other Happy Holidays and as he drove off into the snowy night, I thought to myself, "How cool was that?"

He still occasionally takes the stage, but mostly spends his time writing hit songs for others.  Like NRBQ itself, Al Anderson is unknown to most of the public.  To his musician brothers and to my fellow NRBQ fans however, he is a titan.
"Three hundred pounds of smoking steel and sex appeal."

P.S. For those of you who might care, "Hotel Coupe deVille" can be found on iTunes.  A band called the Riptones recorded a more "countrified" version of the song, but the lyrics are all there with the exception of the "mansion with a motor" line.  Dang it.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Apple's Valuation Conundrum

If CNBC's Mark Haines asks one more pundit if Apple's valuation is a "tad bit bubbly," I am going to have a mind snap. Apple, as is too well known by now, is second only to Exxon in market capitalization among U.S. companies. Market capitalization is derived by multiplying the number of shares outstanding by the stock's current price. It is not rocket science. Much was made of the fact that Apple recently surpassed Microsoft in market cap and now that the gap between Exxon and Apple is narrowing every day, Apple's market cap is once again naysayer news.

To these naysayers, Exxon is an industrial giant and a vital cog in the machinery that propels our economy while Apple seemingly is nothing more than a maker of electronic curiosities and other consumables that are nice to have, but certainly not vital to our collective economic wellbeing. Using that rationale, Apple, they say, could not possibly be more valuable than venerable stock titans General Electric, Pfizer, or IBM.

Stock prices are comprised of many components, but two that are central to any stock price valuation metric are earnings and expected earnings growth. Investors generally are willing to pay for a share of stock a multiple of earnings that roughly is equivalent to the future growth of earnings over a projected period of time. This is where the valuation gets tricky. No one, of course, can precisely project future earnings.

So, back to Apple. Apple has something like 910,000,000 million shares outstanding. While this is a large number, it is less than 1/8 the amount of shares that Microsoft has (8.6 billion) and 1/5 Exxon's 5 billion shares outstanding. If Apple reports $4 per share in earnings on Monday, it will have earned $14.51 per share in FY 2010. Divide that by the current stock price of $310 and you get a price-earnings ratio of 21.36. Does that p/e ratio make Apple an expensive stock? Well, let's look at the other component–the earnings growth rate. In FY 2009, Apple earned $9.08 per share. The FY2010 number will be known Monday, but let's just say it comes in at $14.50. At $14.50, Apple will have increased its FY2010 earnings by 60%.

The "science" of stock price valuation, however, does not place as much emphasis on past earnings as it does on future earnings. I have seen earnings estimates of anywhere from $18-22 per share of Apple for the 2011 FY. If Apple were to earn $20 per share next year, this would represent FY2011 earning growth of 38% over FY2010. If you believe that Apple can earn $20 per share next year, you will use that as the "e" in your p/e calculation. Doing so reveals that Apple currently trades at 15.5X expected 2011 e.p.s. of $20 per share. In other words, you would be paying 15.5X earnings to buy a company that is exhibiting a growth rate of at least 30%. That, my friends, is not only GARP (Growth At a Reasonable Price) but also borders on being an outright "value" in the Growth vs. Value investing debate. (Standard and Poors pegs Apple's future three-year compound-adjusted earnings growth rate at 33%, by the way.)

People–Mark Haines included–just can't seem to get their minds around this fact. If Apple were a small company boasting such a growth rate, investors would most likely be paying a hefty premium for this type of growth because they would expect that a smaller company could maintain this prodigious growth rate for an extended period. Because Apple is a market cap behemoth however, the prevailing wisdom is that it should not be able to show–much less sustain–such a growth rate.  

This "law of large numbers," as it is referred to,  is at the center of every argument against Apple's current valuation. For a company this size still to be growing at this rate is unheard of and that is the conundrum.  Despite Apple's 50% gain so far this year, investors continue to play defense with this stock. Apple is not being accorded the valuation it deserves because the market cannot believe what Apple is doing. Every new Apple product is met with skepticism, every earnings announcement is met with disbelief.

Those who are waiting for the inevitable cessation of growth are missing out on one of the greatest corporate success stories of all time. Apple's growth eventually will stall, and when it does these critics will proclaim that they were right all along, even if they were several years and a couple hundred stock points early with the call. This—and the concern over Steve Jobs' health—are the main reasons why Apple trades at a discount to both its current growth rate and its projected long-term assumed growth rate of 30+%.    

Yes, Apple is a huge company, but its valuation is completely in line with its fundamentals. Someone astutely pointed out the other day that Apple is a small player in two HUGE businesses–computing and telecom. There are other companies that have much more market share in each of these industries than does Apple and thus Apple has a significant opportunity to both increase that market share and by extension increase its earnings. To do so, the company will have to continue to differentiate itself from the competition through innovation and the delivery (at an acceptable price point) of products that consumers didn't know they needed but find intensely useful once they do.

The valuation argument would be compelling if Apple's P/E was 50 or more, but because Apple is trading at a P/E that is both in line with the market's overall P/E and at a significant discount to its own earnings growth rate, the valuation argument is nonsensical. To me, anyway.

Respected non-professional Apple analyst Andy Zaky has written that you will be disappointed if you expect the investing community to have an epiphany and suddenly be willing to pay for Apple a price that is commensurate with its earnings growth rate. He says that one should instead play the "e" side of the p/e equation. Apple's earnings estimates get ratcheted up regularly, as professional analysts come to realize that Apple is not going to sell 2-3 million iPads in 2010, but instead more like 8 million, and perhaps as many as 40 million next year. Play that side instead. If the investment community is only willing to pay 15X earnings for Apple, that's just the way it is. However, every dollar that analysts tack on to Apple's projected earnings means another $15 to the target price if 15X is indeed the threshhold above which Apple investors will not go.

While Apple is not "stupid cheap" like it was earlier in the year, it is my supposition that the stock price is supported by the company's fundamentals. Claiming that Apple is expensive merely because of its market cap ranking seems to me to be overly simplistic. We all will know much more about this story at 5PM on Monday.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Wayback Machine

What a difference a decade or two makes. Last night the wife and I went to see a band called the Spazmatics, in town to play as part of the two-week-long celebration of the World Equestrian Games being held here in Lexington.  "Nerds that rock," the Spazmatics are the creation of a group called Perfect World Entertainment.

According to its website, "Perfect World Entertainment is the industry leader in musical era tributes, cover bands and themed party bands."  Yes, they are.  For lack of a better term, the Spazmatics are a franchise.  There are different versions of the Spazmatics all over the country.  The band we saw last night hails from Cleveland, home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame but an underrated music city nonetheless. There are many music purists who decry the rise of these formulaic bands, but these guys are talented and the act works.  Crowds go crazy for these would-be nerds.

I first stumbled across the Spazmatics a few years ago when I ran into the L.A.-based act at the Belly Up in Aspen.

Until that night I was unaware that 80s music was in the midst of a renaissance.  My buddy and I were astounded.  The place was packed and the vast majority of the patrons were dressing the part, wearing the neon-hued ski apparel that was the essence of fashion during the decade of Duran Duran, Eurthymics, Madonna and all of the one-hit wonders who contributed to the rise of MTV.  "These people are making fun of us," I exclaimed, not yet in on the joke. My indignation lasted for all of three songs before I clued in.  The band and the crowd were not mocking the 80s, they were embracing it!  The 80s were back, baby!

I read once that everything moves in twenty-year cycles, especially music and fashion.  Music, much more so than fashion, is a bridge to another time.  Nothing can capture of the essence of a moment in time as crisply as a song does. Music is a marker. Music is participatory. Music is life's bookmark.  

Not long after the Aspen experience I had the opportunity to suggest the Spazmatics as entertainment for a mid-winter party.  While a funk band would have been the safe choice, I loved the crowd's reaction to the Spazmatics' show.  We were able to book them and despite my fear that what worked for a besotted crowd of twenty-somethings in Aspen would not work for an older crowd in a country club setting,  I needn't have worried.  The party was a grand slam home run.

Whip it good! 
So, last night the Spazmatics were back in town.  Our schools are on fall break, it was a beautiful evening, and downtown was filled with revelers.  The elements for a good time seemed in place. They cranked up shortly after 8 PM.  As at the party with which I was involved, the crowd at first seemed unsure what to make of these guys and their polyester pants, big black glasses, and pocket protectors.  For those unfamiliar with the band and the concept the music itself seemed a strange choice. 80s music?  Really? 
So, the crowd, which I estimated at 5000+, hung back for a couple of songs.  But then the combination of music, alchohol, and memories kicked in.  For the crowd, the majority of whom had come of age in the 1980s, it was time travel.  It never fails.  People danced, sung, played the air guitar, and lost their inhibitions in the good time that a great band makes possible.  The Spazmatics ate it up.  It was perfect–the crowd loved the band and the band loved the crowd.

After they finally dragged themselves off the stage to catch the flight home, I was talking to a friend and she made a salient comment.  "I didn't even like most of those songs in the 80s," she said, "but tonight I was screaming the lyrics to every song they played."   Yes, indeed.  Journey, Wang Chung, Def Leppard, Tears For Fears, Dexy's Midnight Runners were all famous 80s bands that didn't really resonate with me then. In the 80s I was–true to form–listening to the 60s.   However, the passage of two decades and the identification of these bands as being central to the culture in which I came of age, makes it my music now.  "Safety Dance" anyone?  Who's with me?

"We can dance if we want to..."


Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Densensitization Nation

My son Jack is football crazy.  When he was younger and showed no interest in sports, I worried that my genetic code was buggy .  Every father who ever lived knows what I am talking about.  Now, however, Jack can't get enough football.  Carson Palmer lives in his room with him (as a Fathead).  He has two (that I know of) fantasy football teams.  He is a student of the game and I genuinely believe that he would love to be the general manager of the Cincinnati Bengals some day.  We watch alot of football together on Sundays.

There is just one problem with spending this Sunday quality time with my fifteen-year-old boy.  Erectile dysfunction.  What in the hell is up with all of the ads for this condition that run during the day on Sunday?  I understand that the target audience is right in front of the television at this time, but so is my child.  So, we both have to pretend not to be paying attention while these actors discuss with us the method by which they can become once again the men they are supposed to be.  Poor Jack, he must think that ED is an unavoidable condition. 

"Am I coming over there or are you coming over here?"

  Apparently I am not the only one who feels this way. In April of 2009 Rep. Jim Moran of Virginia introduced H.R. 2175, a bill which would ban all ED advertising between the hours of 6am-10pm.  As I write this the bill languishes in committee, undoubtedly because opposition to ED advertising has had to take a backseat to the global economic implosion.

That got me to thinking about the concept of desensitization.  I remember a Seinfeld episode in which Jerry prosetylized that men's fascination with breasts is due to the fact that they are hidden from us.  If women wore no shirts but instead covered their heads, he said, men would be fascinated with women's heads. I agree. 

"I must know what is under that hat!"
Do you think that the aboriginal tribes of the Amazon are as enamored with breasts as are we?  Of course not, and it has nothing do to with the fact that their women lose the fight against gravity at an early age.   It's because the women make no effort to conceal them.  If you see something often enough, you got desensitized to it.  That was Seinfeld's point. 

Poop used to disgust me but after having three kids and changing my umpeenth diaper, poop lost its power to frighten. Do you think blood and gore has any effect on Emergency Room personnel?  To them, splattered blood is nothing more than what a ketchup stain is to you and me.  Remember when everyone was terrified of gay people?  Gay people eventually figured out that if they made everyone else deal with their gayness, the non-gays would eventually find something else to be terrified about.  When Ellen DeGeneres kissed another woman on primetime tv however many years ago that was, it caused a national furor.  Now, open displays of homosexual affection are so commonplace in the media that it is hardly even worthy of note anymore.

Our fears are the result of ignorance.  As a child, the thought of getting on an airplane was enough to cause incontinence.  Now I am asleep before we even pull back from the gate.  The physics of flight have not changed, but my perception of the danger has.

So, until Congress comes to the rescue and consigns these ads to late night television where they belong, Jack and I will continue to pretend to be occupied by something else when the ED ads intrude on our Sunday bonding.  I daresay that if as much effort and research was put into curing the common cold as is put into hyping the benefits of Cialis, Levitra, and Viagra, I could stop being a compulsive hand-washer during cold and flu season.  Thank God my twelve-year-old daughter and nine-year-old son don't like football or like Ricky Ricardo was famous for saying, I would have "some 'splainin' to do."

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Sanctity of the Locker Room

Okay, I know that I am going to catch some flak for this, but I have to say it. The recent disclosure that Ines Sainz, a female sports reporter for Mexican media outlet TV Azteca, may have been harassed in the New York Jets' locker room after the game last week illustrates very clearly that the NFL needs to rethink its media "all-access" policy. Publicly, people are saying all the right things.

"There is no place for this type of behavior in society."

"She is a professional trying to do her job."

Off the record, though, everyone is thinking the same thing: why are women in men's locker rooms in the first place? Have you seen a photograph of this woman, the self-proclaimed "sexiest sports reporter in Mexico?"

Not exactly what you would call professional attire, is it?

"Sainz said on her Twitter account last Saturday that she felt 'very uncomfortable!' in the Jets' locker room, where a few players made catcalls as she waited with two male co-workers to interview quarterback Mark Sanchez, who is of Mexican descent," reported the Associated Press.

You can think it, but don't say it!

"Of course you feel it when you are being stared at and when you are being spoken of in a certain way," Sainz told The Associated Press. "I opted to ignore it ... I tried to not even pay attention."

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, in a statement to the media after conducting an investigation into the Jets' behavior, said "Sainz herself was unequivocal in saying both that no physical contact occurred, and that no player or other Jets staff member made any comment or gesture that could be construed as threatening, demeaning or offensive."

Respecting others' privacy is a basic societal tenet. Nudity and professionalism are an awkward fit, don't you think? This is why we have men's and women's locker rooms and restrooms. What as a society are we trying to prove here? That we are so evolved that we can be simultaneously naked AND professional? An NFL locker room seems a curious place to conduct such an experiment in developmental behavior. I understand that a woman doing her job should not be subjected to verbal or physical abuse no matter where she is, but the league needs to recognize that the players do not work under ordinary circumstances and that granting these women access to the post-game locker room, where emotions may still be running high and where there absolutely will be nudity, is just asking for trouble. A few years ago, Fox Sports embarrasingly broadcast a postgame scene in the Vikings' locker room that gave the world a shot of Visanthe Shiancoe's privates.

Hey now!
This is an issue screams for a dose of common sense. I understand that female reporters are trying to do their jobs and that the vast majority are completely professional, but this wouldn't even be an issue if the geniuses at NFL headquarters barred the media from the locker room. Why do any reporters–men or women–need to have access to players immediately after the game? The fact that male reporters are not granted access to women's locker rooms seems to me an admission that men cannot be trusted to act professionally or dispassionately. If male reporters cannot be trusted, why then should we place this burden of professionalism on the uber-men of the NFL? The men who play professional football are modern-day gladiators. They are paid to spend each Sunday trying to knock each other flat out. Can we accept that perhaps there is an overabundance of testosterone in NFL locker rooms after these players have just spent three hours trying to kill each other? Can we not allow these warriors a few minutes to chill out, shower, and dress before we wait breathlessly for them to give us the same tired old quotes week after week? Are "we are just thankful for the win" and "we are just taking is week-by week" such earthshattering revelations that we have to have this imparted to us before the guys even get their pads off?

"Did you just browse me?"
Hey NFL, here's what you do. Make the locker room off limits to the media for an hour after the game. Let the players come to the team's media room if requested to do so, either before showering or after. The sanctity of the locker room may be an antiquated concept to some, but it isn't to the players. Considering the health risks they take, it seems reasonable to allow them some time after games to shower and compose themselves before having to face the press.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Eric Felten wrote an article recently for the Wall Street Journal entitled "Preppy Pitfall: All That Madras, Not Enough Effort."  Perhaps you read it.  In it, Mr. Felten attempts to place the blame for our current malaise at least partly on the publication in 1980 of Lisa Birnbach's The Official Preppy Handbook.  Seriously?

This guy wrecked your good time.
Felten writes that it was not the preppy era's clothes or music that is to blame, but the book's promotion of the attitude of aristo-cratic indiffer-ence that is at the root of our troubles.  Is he really claiming that a satirical book that lampooned a minute slice of American society overwrote our famous Protestant work ethic and is bringing down the curtain on our great Republic?  Apparently he is.  The preppy fad no more brought about this culture of indolence than the disco craze caused us all to become a nation of cocaine addicts.  The fad was the clothes, not the attitude. We wore the pink and green for a year or two and then moved on to the next thing, which happened to be punk.

 Nathaniel Elliot Worthington, III, circa 1990.
The punk fad grew out of  dissatisfaction with societal structure.  It started in England, where a bad economy, high unemployment, and limited opportunity gave rise to the anarchistic worldview.   The apocalyptic dress and the nihilistic approach were the outward manifestations of the frustration and angst that marked this generation.  To these outliers, hard work was not the solution to increasing social stratification.  If the Haves who had it were not going to share with those who didn't, what was the point? Atlas Shrugged, anyone?  Despite the (musical) chord it struck with a disaffected generation, punk was a fad, as was the follow-up act, grunge.  Just as most of the hippie generation eventually got with the program and became mainstream contributors to society, so to will most of the punks, skinheads, and grungers.  Youthful defiance almost always gives way to adult acceptance. 

Nope, it was easy credit and coddling parents that wrecked our economy, not Lisa Birnbach.  Every generation of parents strives to provide for their children a better life than they themselves had.  Post-war America was powered by an economy that was the envy of the world. The Baby Boom generation was born during a period of prosperity that has never been equaled and they have enjoyed the highest standard of living ever experienced by the human race.  How then could this generation provide their children with an even better lifestyle? Well, if hard work and opportunity made possible the world's best standard of living, only NOT working and enjoying that same standard could be better.

The wealth amassed in post-war America was staggering.  My generation was the beneficiary of all this wealth creation. Because our parents wanted us to have more than they did, we grew up feeling entitled–entitled to a good grades, entitled to a car at sixteen, entitled to dining out weekly and vacations yearly, entitled to the newest pair of Air Jordans.  We wanted it all and we didn't want to have to work for it or wait for it. So, as adults we leveraged up and used other people's money to finance the lifestyles that we felt entitled to. Our grandparents–the Depression Generation–looked on in dumbfounded amazement.   Our profligate consumption was anathema to the generation that grew up learning to reuse everything.   I swear that I once watched my friend's grandmother recycle the ice cubes left in the ice bucket after a cocktail party.

The spending that was emblematic of this entitlement was dependent upon  both an ever-expanding economy and continued access to credit.  Leverage–or credit–made the economy go. It powered the lavish lifestyles that were backed by insufficient balance sheets and not enough earnings power.   An expanding economy begat easy credit which begat an expanding economy.  It was a symbiotic relationship.  Until it wasn't.

Many pundits have compared our current situation to that experienced by Japan in the 1980s.   It is an ominous portent. Japan has struggled for twenty-plus years to right its economy.  Guess what?  In the 1980s, the generation that rebuilt post-war Japan complained loudly that Japan's youth was turning away from the salaryman doctrine that typified Japanese corporate-worker loyalty and instead was embracing the indolent tendencies of the west's youth. Did Birnbach's book also sink the Japanese economy? If so, Nathaniel Elliot Worthington, III is public enemy number one.  If Mr. Felton was being tongue-in-cheek, I whiffed on his attempt at humor.

"And she stepped on the ball!"


Sunday, August 29, 2010

Bad Hair

What is in the hell is up with my hair? After forty-seven years of faithful service, it is obvious to everyone that my hair is now more of a liability than an asset.  This was made clear  to me during a test of the Face Time technology that is built into my iPhone 4.  Face Time allows the caller to make a video call (think The Jetsons) to anyone else who has an iPhone 4, provided that both parties have wi-fi access.  It is wondrous technology but for one glaring problem-IT LETS OTHER PEOPLE SEE WHAT YOU LOOK LIKE! Not only does Face Time allow you to see the person with whom you are talking, it also allows you to see yourself. And that's the problem. If your game is always tight then I suppose that this really isn't a drawback, but if you are on a personal hygiene vacation just know that the camera will rat you out.

So, back to the Face Time call.  I had been swimming earlier in the evening and when this person called to test out Face Time, I had not combed my hair since coming home from the pool.  When we started the call and I got to see what I looked like, I determined that video calling is not something I am all that interested in.  We all know what the pool does to your hair, right?  Well, when I saw myself my first thought was that I had turned into Dr. Emmett Brown, Christopher Lloyd's character in "Back to the Future".
1.21 Gigawatts!
In my youth, I had good hair.  It was wavy and brown and —best of all—there was lots of it.  It was an asset.  Most definitely.  

The glory days.
Now my hair looks like an unwatered Phoenix lawn in August. It is gray, brittle, and thin. You would think that I have been shampooing with Round Up.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
Good hair is an asset.  Bad hair is a liability.  Take Arthur Liman, for example.  Liman was an attorney who achieved notoriety while serving as chief counsel for the United States Senate during the Iran-Contra Affair.   However,  it was not his brilliant legal strategy that made him notable.  It was his hair.

He had the worst looking hair you will ever see.  Seriously.  I believe it was legendary Washington Post humorist Art Buchwald who wrote that it looked as though someone had dumped a plate of fettucine on Liman's head.  This is what I remember most about the covert operation that almost derailed Ronald Reagan's presidency?  The fettucini hair remark.  Like I said, good hair is an asset,  bad hair is a liability.

Fettucini head.
I have a medicine cabinet full of hair potions, conditioners, mousses, pomades, and restorative oils. Nothing works. This looks like a fight I cannot win.  My wife makes fun of it all while she sits there triumphantly combing out her luxurious tresses.  Is she oblivious to the role that hair plays in a man's assessment of his own self-esteem? Has she never heard of Samson? 
Thank you, but no.
I  understand now why hair restoration is a multi-billion dollar per year business.  It's easy to make fun of the clowns who get hair plugs or weaves until you become one of those clowns who needs hair plugs or a weave.  Not to worry though, no Hair Club for Men for me.  No, instead I think I will cryogenically freeze my hair and wait for the Human Genome Project to deliver on the promise of eternal hair. 

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


I don't remember when it was that I actually got over my Pavlovian school reflex, but it wasn't all that long ago.  It's been a long time since I turned in a homework assignment, but for many years after completing my classroom education I would get that migratory urge every August.  I miss that feeling.

My oldest son Jack started tenth grade on August 11, an absurdly early start to the school year if you ask me. As I understand it, the original purpose of summer vacation in our then-agrarian society was so that the children could help get the crops either into or out of the ground.  Since marijuana is Kentucky's #1 cash crop these days, it's probably better to hustle the kids back to school early than have them working the fields.  Even though he didn't get out of school until June 3, he confessed to me in early August that he was ready to go back and see his friends.  He was bored. At age 15, Jack is stuck in that awkward place between childhood and manhood.  He wants to go out, but he can't drive.  He likes girls, but his rap needs work. He wants to be cool, but his body is in the throes of the metamorphosis, making coolness a difficult proposition.

Jack's boredom was hard for me to comprehend, but then again I was viewing summer vacation through the lens of my own experience, not his.  I grew up in a different era and in a different place.  In my childhood I was fortunate enough to have the Atlantic Ocean in my backyard.  If there was nothing else to do, well I always had bodysurfing as a fallback option.  I also grew up in an era of far less parental oversight.  How else to explain that one of my favored childhood activities was riding my bike (along with all of the other neighborhood children) behind the Mosquito Man as he drove his yellow truck through the neighborhood pumping out massive aerosol plumes of mosquito poison?  He would try frantically to wave us off but that just encouraged us to peddle faster to see who could get closest to the nozzle and inhale the greatest quantities of what probably was pure DDT.
 That my children have no obvious physical deformities and that I am still alive is inexplicable to me.  Where were the parents, you ask?  Well, this was the 1970s, so I would imagine that they were smoking and drinking and carrying on, happy that we were anywhere but underfoot.  It is precisely because of this lack of oversight and the acknowledgement of our demented behavior that as parents we now have our own children on lockdown.

When I was a child and wanted to ride my bike, I told my mom I was going out, looked both ways, and was gone.  No bike helmet, no cell phone, and no pre-arranged check-in at my destination because more often than not I didn't have a destination.   I can't ever recall a single instance of my mother being frantically worried about where I was.  I was born in Petersburg, Virginia and lived there until I was seven. I vividly remember at age six being miles away from home on my bike, playing in old Civil War forts or digging clay in creeks that were filled with water moccasins and copperheads. I was six years old, for cryin' out loud! Nowadays, when Jack wants to ride his bike around the neighborhood, he has to wear a helmet, provide us an itinerary, and power up his locator beacon. Sadly, this is a reflection of the times we live in.  Were Shannon and I as unconcerned about Jack's whereabouts as my own parents were about mine, we would be jailed as unfit parents.  Imagine the consequences if, as the result of our nonchalance, Jack was scooped up by some guy in a van and turned into a skin shirt. The world is too dangerous to let our kids do what we did.  No wonder Jack was bored and ready to go back to school-he can't do anything because as parents we are too scared of the world our children are growing up in to let them have the independence that we took for granted.

So, school is both Jack's place of learning and also the nexus of his social universe.  When, after all my schooling was done and I would have the "back-to-school" reflex that I described earlier, it was not, I'm sorry to say, the schoolwork that I pined for.  No, what I missed was the chance to immerse myself in the giant pool of similarly-aged kids, kids with the same anxieties and fears, the same curiosity about life, kids on the same life trajectory. Like these guys.
"Mr. Blutarsky.  Zero point zero."
Like many things in life it is only with the benefit of hindsight that I now appreciate school for what it was and what it offered me.  So, as the summer of 2010 winds down and a new school year rolls around, I remember those feelings that accompanied the beginning of each new school year.  And while those feelings don't come automatically to me anymore, I recall them with a certain wistfulness.  With each passing year I agree more and more with George Bernard Shaw, who famously said that "youth is wasted on the young."  What I wouldn't give these days for a crappy school lunch and a history test.  

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

iPhone 4: Apple vs. the World

I do not yet own an iPhone 4.  For me, an early adopter, this is a huge admission.  Certainly, the inability of Apple to meet demand for this product is one of the reasons I have yet to make the purchase, but I suspect that there may be other, less tangible, reasons as well.   I bought the original iPhone the day after it went on sale and upgraded to the iPhone 3GS on the day of its release.  For me, the iPhone 3GS represented a major upgrade over the original iPhone.  Speed was the major selling point.  The iPhone 4 is a total redesign, but I have not felt as compelled to upgrade as I did last time.  Why?

Well, for one thing, most of the features that make the new iPhone so appealing are software features.  I was able to get those features by upgrading the software on my 3GS to iOS4.  The new phone does offer great new hardware features-increased pixel density and front-and-rear-facing cameras being the most prominent-but I am just not feeling it.  Yet.

Perhaps my hesitation is due to the negative press regarding this antenna issue.  As I am left-handed and the signal issue occurs when the left side of the phone's antenna band is covered by the user's hand, it would appear that I am more likely to experience signal degradation than are right-handed users.  HOWEVER, THIS SHOULD BE A NON-ISSUE FOR ALL USERS SINCE ANYONE WITH ANY SENSE AT ALL SHOULD PUT THIS PHONE IN A CASE!  The back of the iPhone 4 is made of hardened glass, but glass nonetheless.  I have seen two iPhone 4s with shattered backs because the youths who bought them did not also spend the extra money for a protective case.  In addition to providing protection against damage, a case also fixes the signal issue.

Apple makes the point that all cell phones are susceptible to signal degradation if the user covers the antenna while holding it.  This is true.  Steve Jobs' flippant reply to troubled users is to hold the phone in such a way as to not bridge the antenna band with your hand.  "Hold it differently," he said.  Okay. Thanks Steve for that helpful tip. While Apple technically is correct in its position, its seeming indifference and hard-to-believe explanation has created a public relations nightmare for a company with a reputation for design excellence and exacting attention to detail.

Apple, in my opinion, totally fumbled here.  As an accessory, the company is selling in multiple colors a rubberized "bumper" that both protects the phone from damage and resolves the antenna issue.

Apple is asking $29 for these bumpers that cannot cost it more that 25 cents to make.  Just give the damn bumpers away for free and be done with it.  Yes, Apple, you are right in that this reception issue affects all cellphones, not just Apple's phones, but is being technically correct here worth the public relations and market capitalization hit that you are taking?  Your shareholders certainly don't think so.  We would much rather you lose a few million giving away these cases than have something like $30,000,000 in market capitalization clipped by refusing to acknowledge this design flaw or offering what is a simple fix.

This non-issue has now become an issue.  Consumer Reports just shot Apple in the face with its report yesterday that, because of this reception issue, it cannot currently recommend the iPhone 4 despite acknowledging that it is the best smartphone on the market. Apple is a great company that still thinks like an underdog.  It's not.  It is, by market capitalization, the second biggest company in the country.  It has become a target for every other consumer electronics concern and these companies are feasting on Apple's hubris.  Admit the problem, give away the bumpers, and move on.  Your loyal base of users will forgive you this and, in offering the bumpers as a fix, you will reenforce your reputation for excellent customer service.  It also will most likely get me off the fence.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Car

Cars.  Men see cars as an extension of themselves.  To women, cars are a form of transport. It's true.  If women had the same approach to cars as men do, do you think any woman would ever be spotted in a mini van?  What would that say about her?  "Yoo hoo! Look at me!  Yes, that's right, I have officially given up."  When was the last time you saw a woman in her driveway detailing her mini-van?  Who would ever pimp out a mini-van in the first place?

To her credit, my wife has never driven a mini-van. She drives a ten-year old Chevy Tahoe with well over a hundred thousand miles on it.  When new, the Tahoe was my car.  She drove the other well-known mom ride-a Volvo wagon. When young marrieds find out that they are expecting, they go out and buy the crib and the changing table and the Volvo wagon.  Who's going to leave the safety of their infant to chance?  No one, that's who.  So, they all go out and buy a Volvo.  If you don't drive your kid around in a Volvo, you tell the world that you are an irresponsible parent.  Volvo's focus on safety is one of the greatest marketing strategies of all time.  But I digress.

When our children reached school age and we got accepted into the very prestigious neighborhood carpool, the Volvo didn't cut it anymore.  We literally had to interview so that the established carpoolers could determine our worthiness.  The interviewers were not as concerned about the old vehicular manslaughter charge and the DUIs on my driving record as they were about the carrying capacity of Shannon's Volvo.  Even though the Volvo had lived up to its reputation for safety in allowing me to survive an incredibly scary highway collision with a deer in southwestern Virginia, it had to go.  So Shannon took over the Tahoe and I got myself something else to drive.
The Tahoe, though, was my pride and joy.  It was manly. It was roomy.   I don't have chairs in my house that are as comfortable as the driver's seat in the Tahoe. It was a mansion with a motor.  I kept it clean and parked way off in East Jesus at the mall so it wouldn't get dinged. I did all that I could to forestall its value erosion.  To my horror, Shannon and the carpool kids undid all of my preservation efforts in the space of a few weeks.  I was flabbergasted the first time I had to drive it after I had turned it over to her.    There was crap everywhere.  Food wrappers, shoes, water bottles, papers, lollipop sticks.  It looked like Chernobyl.

I had an anxiety attack. As a favor to her and to show my old ride some love,  I took the car immediately to the car wash for a full service wash and vacuum.  It took me a good hour to do the job.  It was a complete waste of time and money.  I'm not sure that Shannon even noticed.  The kids sure did, though.  Apparently the car was serving as some sort of ersatz mud room and now that I had cleaned everything out, the kids couldn't find their shoes, hidden candy, or sports equipment.  How was I supposed to know?

The Tahoe is now so decrepit that I suspect that if we parked it on the street with the windows down and the keys in the ignition, we'd get no takers. Shannon, finally, is making noise about getting a new car.  While the squalor in which she daily surrounds herself might finally have worn her down, I suspect that there is another reason.  My oldest son will turn 15 this summer and all of sudden this travesty on wheels looks like it will find new life.  It's the perfect first car for him. It's safe, it's old, it's beaten to hell and, best of all, he'll get no action in the backseat because it smells like a barnyard in there and no girl will spend one second more than necessary in it.
                                                                               This is not your first car Jack. 

So, faithful Tahoe, while you might soon lose your spot in the garage you'll always have a place in my heart.  Also, for the record I do not have any DUIs or vehicular manslaughter charges on my driving record. I took artistic license for the sake of humor.  It doesn't matter, though.  Kids are not allowed in my car. 

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

It's The End Of The World As We Know It

My youngest son, as did my two older children before him, is learning to play the recorder as a school project.  He wanders around the house piping out "Ode to Joy" and other recorder mega-hits, but we don't mind.  Maybe he is the next Zamfir.  He also is learning to play the guitar, in the process becoming the first actual musician in our household.   
I never learned to play a musical instrument and have always regretted it. Later in her life, my oldest sister learned the piano and now is a beautiful player who can master the most difficult compositions. However, we were not a musical family. As a third child with much older siblings, I instead was left to fend for myself. I experimented with high voltage electricity, played with matches, fell out of trees, trespassed, and did all the things that overlooked third children do to entertain themselves.  Music was not part of the program.  Who knows, I might have been a natural, but no one bothered to find out.   So, thinking that now was the time to see if I had some sort of heretofore undiscovered savantism, last Christmas I bought myself an electric guitar.  I am learning to play, but my hoped-for hidden talent apparently lies elsewhere.   There will be no shortcuts for me. If, as Malcolm Gladwell hypothesizes, it takes 10,000 hours of applied effort to become proficient at any endeavor, I am looking at a 27-year learning curve if I practice one hour a night five times a week.  Looks like I waited a little too long to get busy with this.
Something else musically interesting is happening in our home.  My wife, who spends more time in the car with the kids than I do, has adopted the FM radio tastes of my soon-to-be-teenaged daughter-Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber.  I have no idea who these people are. Well, maybe Lady Gaga, and not because of her music but because she goes around wearing a fruit basket on her head.  I admit to being a bit of a music snob, so my future wife amazed me in 1987 when I learned that she preferred R.E.M. and Bruce Springsteen to Earth, Wind, and Fire and the Gap Band.  Clearly, she was an exception to the funk-loving women of her generation and was thus exceptional. Alas, no more.

But while my wife's musical tastes are evolving (I guess), mine seem to be regressing. I can appreciate a fine funky groove, but I like my music two ways: loud and hard. This, however, is a recent development. The bands that were too loud and had too much hair for me in the 1970s are now on the first-team.  Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, Bad Company, AC/DC, ZZ Top, even Jethro Tull.  Tull is an exception to my guitar preference but I respect that he was able to make the flute a hard rock instrument.  He must have watched alot of H.R. Pufnstuf or something.
Last year I bought a Sonos music system for our house.  It is the best thing ever. It allows me to stream music from my computer to any Sonos-enabled room in the house. There's just one problem. No one in my house likes my music.  When I want to "get the Led out" I have to do it when no one is at home.  I'm Peter Brady, having the party that no one attends.  Even the dog runs outside.  What is happening? Am I turning into a midlife burnout? My wife thinks so. She has become Fergie and I am Jeff Spicoli.  Somehow we are making it work.

"Aloha, Mr. Hand!"

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Too Much Information (Not Enough Truth)

The internet, for all its myriad and wonderful benefits, has a dark side.  It gives everyone a forum and, unfortunately, not everyone deserves one.  This is symptomatic of the always-on, always- connected culture that the internet has fostered.  Put a person in front of a microphone and chances are that they will feel compelled to say something.  Give a person an internet connection and the same thing happens.  Everyone wants a say, even if no one else wants to hear it.  Negative feedback doesn't sting nearly as much as boos and catcalls, so there is little downside to broadcasting your opinion. As a result we now are awash and liable to be swamped by the (dis)information of the Information Age. There is way too much information and too little veracity out there.  

I got an email last month warning me that the passage of the healthcare bill would mean medical coverage for illegal aliens.  How many emails do you get each day containing some purported fact like this that makes you say, "Huh?"  I mean, really.  Since illegal aliens cannot vote, why would any legislator champion such legislation that he/she knew would be universally derided by those who CAN vote?  Exactly. Since this made no sense to me, I decided to confirm it on the websites snopes.com and factcheck.org. In about forty seconds I was able to verify that this claim had no factual basis.  Of course.

It goes on and on. Interestingly, given that Republicans are without much of a voice on Capitol Hill at the moment, they seem to have found a forum on the internet.  The majority of these alarmist emails I receive seem to have a right-wing bent to them, although I am certain that both parties are equally adept at fear mongering. When the Republicans retake the Hill, the Democrats will crank up their own disinformation program.  The party out of power and its disenfranchised adherents must operate on the fringes, content to fight a guerilla war of words and obfuscation while waiting their turn.  Why is the national mood so divisive these days? I daresay that the proliferation of these hardline views and the ease of access to them contributes more than a little to our collective funk.  People naturally seem more willing to accept as true something outrageous when it squares with their own beliefs or casts a negative light on the opposing side. However, when everyone talks and no one listens, the net result is shouting, not progress.

So, for the good of the country, I am taking a stand.  Send me your politically-tainted emails if you must, but do so with the knowledge that I am-even at the risk of bringing bad luck down on myself or of not receiving a $500 Best Buy gift card for sending this along to ten friends-not going to attempt to influence my friends by passing along to them stories that they most likely will not attempt to verify. Everyone can thank me later.