Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Real Estate "Slump"

It seems that every time I turn on the news, or pick up a newspaper, someone is moaning about the bursting bubble in the real estate market. Just now, one of the national news shows was covering the huge declines in real estate value in areas like Miami, Phoenix, and a few cities in California. And each news story bemoans the loss of property value for the homeowner.

Why is there such surprise over this? I don’t get it. There’s the old adage “what goes up, must come down.” Home prices in some area had been climbing to ridiculous heights. I’m sure there are plenty of cases where people continued to buy real estate using all kinds of creative – and risky – financing methods, thinking they could ride the wave to wealth by selling it a short time later. And now, some of those people are crying the blues. Some complain that a house they bought for $300,00 that the bubble raised the value to $450,000 is now “down” to $350,000. Unless the value dropped to below the original price of the house that the owner paid, I don’t see the problem here.

I don’t feel sorry for these people. Not one bit. Those who bought homes in order to resell them quickly, or fix them and flip them at an inflated price, should accept the blame for their greed. People who were not bright enough to understand that an interest-only mortgage gave them no equity in their homes probably aren’t smart enough to own a home to begin with.

So when I hear the pleas for a government bailout, I bristle. I don’t pay my tax dollars to pay for someone else’s greed or stupidity, or for the bad choices they made.

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Saturday, December 22, 2007

I Like Fruitcake

There, I said it. I actually LIKE fruitcake. I am usually not into overly sweet desserts, but there is something about fruitcake that doesn’t offend me. I know there are all kinds of jokes this time of year about people re-gifting fruitcakes, or using them as doorstops, but not me.

I actually eat them.

When I was in my 20s, I was a customer service rep who also supported the company’s outside sales force. One year for Christmas, one of our sales reps in New Orleans, Louisiana, send me a fruitcake from the area, I recall my husband being a little dismayed, but not me. I was thrilled. And I can’t recall the name of the company who made the fruitcake, but it was THE best fruitcake I have ever had. There is something about candied cherries that I really like, and this fruitcake had tons of them.

So while people are trying to find ways to dispose of their fruitcakes, I welcome them. And I know there are others out there who are just like me but are afraid to admit it. So if anyone finds this blog and feels the same way as I, leave a comment here so I know I’m not alone in the world!

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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Time Magazine's Person of the Year is...

…a joke.

I’m sorry, but I just don’t get Time’s “Person of the Year” thing anymore. This year, they’ve chosen Vladimir Putin. Time’s web site explained:

“TIME's Person of the Year is not and never has been an honor. It is not an endorsement. It is not a popularity contest. At its best, it is a clear-eyed recognition of the world as it is and of the most powerful individuals and forces shaping that world—for better or for worse. It is ultimately about leadership—bold, earth-changing leadership. Putin is not a boy scout. He is not a democrat in any way that the West would define it. He is not a paragon of free speech. He stands, above all, for stability—stability before freedom, stability before choice, stability in a country that has hardly seen it for a hundred years. Whether he becomes more like the man for whom his grandfather prepared blinis—who himself was twice TIME's Person of the Year—or like Peter the Great, the historical figure he most admires; whether he proves to be a reformer or an autocrat who takes Russia back to an era of repression—this we will know only over the next decade. At significant cost to the principles and ideas that free nations prize, he has performed an extraordinary feat of leadership in imposing stability on a nation that has rarely known it and brought Russia back to the table of world power. For that reason, Vladimir Putin is TIME's 2007 Person of the Year.”

Time says it is not an honor. If this is the case, why do they make such a big deal out of it? They put the person on the cover of the magazine. They give extensive coverage to it in the magazine itself, in addition to other media coverage. For example, they announced it on the Today Show this morning. Time wants the attention, they want the controversy, so they can sell magazines.

According to its own article, Time says “But all this has a dark side. To achieve stability, Putin and his administration have dramatically curtailed freedoms. His government has shut down TV stations and newspapers, jailed businessmen whose wealth and influence challenged the Kremlin's hold on power, defanged opposition political parties and arrested those who confront his rule.” It sounds to me that this is a dictatorship in the making, and, in the long term, dictatorships don’t work for the country or for the people.

Time may say it’s not an honor, but I suspect that President Putin is pleased with the attention. Maybe it will help Time sell one more issue of their magazine.

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Monday, December 17, 2007

It Snows in December – Get Over It

Living in Northeast Ohio, winter means snow, and lots of it. Especially in the areas called “The Snow Belt”, which gets “Lake Effect” snows. This means that snowfalls can be enhanced by cold air moving over an unfrozen lake, dumping increased amounts of snow on land. This has happened probably as long as bodies of water like the Great Lakes have been in existence.

Why is it then that the local newscasters always sound like it's Armageddon when the possibility of lake effect exists? Over this past weekend, when we had a large storm cut across the Midwest, one would have thought that a category 5 hurricane was coming. The grocery stores were packed with people, all loading up like they weren’t going to get out of their houses for a week, all because the weather people told them it was going to be “bad.”

But, true to form, the weather forecasters got it wrong. Well, maybe not wrong, just exaggerated. The first leg of the storm came through – as mostly rain, not with snow as they predicted. The second leg of the storm came through and brought snow and high winds, but not the massive dumping of snow predicted.

This process will repeat itself through out the winter season. The weather forecasters will hit the panic button, screaming that the end is near, and then the weather will decide to do its own thing, many times not what the forecasters predicted. We are then forced to listen to the same old weather-related news stories about how to drive in the winter, not to shovel snow if your old, how to avoid fires from space heaters and fireplaces, etc. It's as if they think that viewers either have short memories or are incredibly stupid because they repeat the same stuff - on multiple channels - every winter.

It seems like many people in this area know to take the weather forecast with a grain of salt, that is, except the weather forecasters. We have four local news channels, with several weather forecasters, and I’ve learned to watch those that temper their forecast with calm and reason, and only sound the alarm when really dangerous conditions exist.

So for those of you living in areas that usually get snow in the winter – guess what? You’re probably going to get snow again this season. Don’t panic!

Now I’m going outside to shovel 6 inches of “ it will be partly cloudy today” off my driveway.

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Thursday, December 13, 2007

Macy's - Out of Touch

I thought I had gotten over any loyalty to a department store years ago, after Kauffman’s bought May Company stores and Dillard’s bought Higbee's, both in the Cleveland metropolitan area. Thankfully, Higbee's has been immortalized in the movie “A Christmas Story”; May Company sadly had no such luck. But, over the years, I got over it, and shopped frequently at our local Dillard’s and Kauffman’s stores.

Well, that is, until Macy’s took over Kauffman’s. During the transition to the Macy’s name, our local Kauffman’s store seemed to slowly have less and less varied products, and what they DID have, they had less and less inventory. The quality and the style of clothing just weren’t there. Last Christmas I may have purchased one or two things from Macy’s, but this is the first year that I bought absolutely NOTHING at a Macy’s store for Christmas gifts.

Personally, I think Macy’s has completely sanitized their product offerings, and offer little in stylish clothing for men's and women's clothing. They also are really pushing the use of their credit cards, having some sort of color-coded card system that identifies cardholders by purchasing level. It completely ignores the cash customer like me (I hate credit card interest), and also makes me feel sub-human when I do use my Macy's card. A few months ago when I did make a purchase at the Clinque counter at Macy’s, the clerk glared at me when I used cash, and asked me, “Well, you DO have a Macy’s card, don’t you?” as if I was somewhat less of a person if I didn’t. When I explained why I had one but chose not to use it, she said, “Well, you’re missing out on some discounts.” (Sorry, the discounts can’t be used on items like makeup.) The sales clerks also now sign their receipts and remind you to fill out their survey to tell Macy’s about your shopping experience. I have done so in the past, but clearly my opinions of my shopping experience fell on deaf ears.

I understand in this day and age that acquisitions and mergers happen. But, they are bound to fail if the acquiring company thinks that they know what’s best for their customers. In the case of Macy’s, they clearly have tuned out their customers and have decided to present a homogenized, uninteresting product offering for all stores. This has to be translating to lower sales.

It will take more than the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade to make me a regular Macy’s shopper. Until Macy’s raises quality and selection – and their inventory – it looks like I’ll be shopping elsewhere.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Shopping Mall – The New Senior Center?

I’m not one to spend a lot of time at the local shopping mall. The extent of my mall visits usually take the form of stopping in one of the anchor stores (we have Dillards', Macy’s Sears, and JCPenney), and I usually enter and exit through the department store. But, on occasion, I’ll take a walk through the mall if I just feel like browsing.

After visiting the mall yesterday to do some Christmas shopping, I’ve come to the conclusion that senior citizens have overtaken the mall.

When I took a stroll past the food court, I counted 35 seniors – mostly men – sitting in the food court outside the mall coffee shop. In addition, there were at least 25 more seniors, power walking around the mall, a pair of them almost knocking me over as I walked out of a store. None of those people appeared to be shopping, as most were dressed in sweat pants and walking shoes.

My home city has a huge senior center, but considering how many of them are hanging out at the mall, many must not use it.

Our mall has very strict rules on people under the age of 18 being there without being accompanied by an adult. The implication is that unsupervised teens are rowdy, or can cause trouble when walking the mall in groups. My observation today was that the seniors in the food court were loud and disruptive, and the mall walkers seem to be under the impression that people who are there to shop are fair game to be run over.

I can understand why those under the age of 18 have their feather’s ruffled that they have restrictions placed on them, when the adults can be observed being guilty of similar behavior. I’m not saying we need to ban seniors from the mall, but maybe they should post rules for everyone there, that cover their behavior if they are using the mall for things other than shopping. For example, if they are going there to socialize, they should not be loud, they shouldn’t overtake huge sections of the food court for their gabfests, and they shouldn’t loiter. They should also use care when using the mall to exercise so as not to inconvenience shoppers.

One thing is for sure – the next time my city asks for a tax increase for the senior center, they won’t get support from me. In fact, maybe we should move the senior center to the mall? On thing I do know: in the not so distant future, I’ll be a senior citizen, and the mall is the last place I plan to hang out.

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Sunday, December 9, 2007

Celebrity political endorsements

There’s been a lot in the news about Oprah Winfrey endorsing Barack Obama, and their packed-house appearance in Iowa, and one coming up in South Carolina. Barbra Streisand says she’s backing Hillary Clinton. It was recently announced that Sean Penn endorsed Dennis Kucinich. Do these kinds of endorsements mean anything to you – or should they?

They don’t for me. Just because these people have some celebrity doesn’t mean that they are any more politically savvy or knowledgeable about who is the right choice. Take the example of Sean Penn. Now really, who cares what Sean Penn thinks? Since I live in the Cleveland, Ohio area, I am very well informed about the career of Dennis Kucinich, and no endorsement would make me even remotely consider voting for him, much less Sean Penn's.

And while Oprah and Streisand are both very big names in the entertainment industry, I really have no knowledge of how politically informed they really are.

I like to think that I’m able to form my own opinions about the candidates, and my opinion is only the weak minded will be swayed by a celebrity endorsement.

For local elections, I am more swayed by endorsements of newspapers. This industry deals with political and national/world events on a daily basis, so they may have better sources on which they base their endorsement. Still, even a newspaper endorsement needs to be vetted by the voters themselves.

So for Oprah, since I don’t care for her show, she carries zero weight with me. And while I grew up on Barbra’s singing, I always felt her political leanings were too obvious to be objective. As for Sean Penn, I’ve never been impressed by his movies or his acting, so his endorsement falls on deaf ears. I don’t recall hearing any republican endorsements, but since all the republican candidates fall flat for me anyway, it wouldn’t matter if The Supreme Being endorsed any of them.

I will continue to read the papers, watch TV news, and check out the Internet to get my political knowledge. There are so many ways for voters to get information these days that everyone should take the time to research the candidates, rather than being swayed by a celebrity endorsement.

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Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Upside-Down Christmas Trees - Why?

The first time you see one, you think it’s a joke. The second time, you start to wonder. The third, you’ve concluded that someone is trying to turn the world upside-down.

It’s the upside-down Christmas tree.

It seems like every store is selling them now. What I want to know is why would anyone want one? I can’t think of any real trees that grow this way. Some say that you can fit more presents under these new trees, but I can fit plenty under my “normal” tree. Besides, I have a hard enough time keeping my right side-up tree straight and balanced, I can’t imagine what happens to one that is top heavy to begin with.

I would rather see the old aluminum fake trees – with the colored light wheel – than an upside-down tree. Somehow even a shiny fake tree like that seems more “grounded” and normal.

I suspect that some marketing people are just finding another way to separate people from their money at Christmas time. Regardless, it’s one thing that I won’t be buying this Christmas.

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Saturday, December 1, 2007

I Hate Cookies

No, no, not the kind you eat. The kind that web sites try to put on your computer to track you. I have my Internet browser set to prompt me to review all cookies that a web site may try to add. After having it set this way for a few years now, I’m still surprised at the number of cookies web sites want me to accept.

Cookies are not all bad. Some will help a web site to remember your log in information or your viewing preferences so you don’t have to set them every time. But a lot will track how often you visit, which pages you visit, etc. Cookies really don’t do anything except store bits of information (like your user name, your user preferences, the pages you viewed or the items you clicked) to relay back to the web site. They don’t carry viruses or malicious programs. They sound harmless, don’t they?

My opinion is that in many cases they ARE harmless, but in some cases, your cookie can help a company track you across various web sites that you visit, and target you with ads across those sites. And if you don’t know the privacy policy of the web site you’ve just allowed to put a cookie on your computer, you don’t really know what they are doing with that information.

So for me, while having my browser’s privacy policy set to prompt me to review my cookies may initially seem annoying, it has allowed me to block cookies for companies like Double Click, who can use that information to track movements to many places on the Internet. And who knows how companies will use cookies in the future?

There are some web sites that mandate you must accept their cookie in order to use the site. If you really want to use the site or feel comfortable about them, go ahead and accept the cookie. If the web site is questionable, check it out first, or just block it.

So take the time to be informed about what companies are putting cookies on your computer. It’s worth the time

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Disney – The Evil Empire?

I used to work with a guy who called Microsoft “The Evil Empire” because he felt they permeated personal computers subversively. I used to think of Google in the same way. I’ve softened a lot to both Microsoft and Google since they both seem to be putting more tools and information available to people – for free.

But I’ve always thought of Disney as the definitive Evil Empire, and now I’m convinced. Disney has a reputation for great theme parks (Disneyland, Disney World), great kids movies, and great kids entertainment. Where Disney gets “evil” in my opinion is what I see as aggressive merchandising to kids in ways that may not be so obvious.

The biggest Disney offender of late is Hanna Montana, a Disney-created children’s TV series. It features the fictional character Miley Stewart (played by Miley Cyrus, the real life daughter of singer Billy Ray Cyrus), who by night is the famous pop singer Hanna Montana.

It sounds innocent enough.

Once you add the Disney marketing machine to the mix, however, it becomes obvious that this innocent-sounding television show is just a vehicle to deliver Disney’s “crack” – the toys, the games, the concert tickets. My niece asked for some Hanna Montana toys for Christmas, and when I went looking for them, I got a bad case of sticker shock. And while I’m on the subject of sticker shock, there’s the Hanna Montana concert tickets. Recent sales of these tickets created a stir and outrage with parents when it was revealed that some ticket agents found ways around Internet ticket buying safeguards in order to grab up huge number of tickets, and then reselling them for anywhere from $600 to $3,000 in some cities. Some individuals sold them on eBay for hugely inflated prices. And parent, trapped by the Disney marketing machine and their desire to placate their kids, would pay just about anything to get the tickets. (Many did.)

I don’t blame Disney for all this. But I do blame Disney for being so active in permeating our kid’s minds for the purposes of creating almost insatiable desire in some children to just have all the “stuff.” OK, almost every kids movie these days has marketing tie ins, but Disney seems to have been doing it the longest and may have very well helped to fuel the trend. And that trend only gets more ingrained as parent take their children to Disney World or Disneyland, and when they have children of their own they take their kids, and so on.

So while I jokingly call Disney “evil”, I suppose they are just doing what everybody else who tries to make money is doing – creating desire for something that maybe you don’t really need. And that’s really not evil; it’s just the American Way!

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Sunday, November 25, 2007

Iowa Caucus, New Hampshire Primary– Why do they get to decide?

I always get confused about caucuses and primaries. It seems like all the network news channels have their opinions on the upcoming Iowa caucus and how the outcome will affect who is nominated.

One network reporter commented that if Hillary wins the Iowa caucus on January 3, it’s over and she’ll go on to win the party nomination, but if anyone else does, it’s still an open contest.

My question is – why does Iowa get to decide? Isn’t it still a little early to be saying whether the nomination is locked up or still a close race? Mind you, I have softened a bit towards Hillary, especially since I can’t stand any of the Republican candidates and don’t really care for most of the Democratic candidates. But still, it seems that voters can get discouraged if they get the impression that once their state holds their caucus or primary, that the whole contest will already be over.

New Hampshire continues to move their primary date earlier and earlier, so they can retain the FIRST spot for presidential primaries. My question again is why do they get to exert so much influence on designating the nominee and why should their choice be more important than other more populous states?

There will also be a huge primary for 20 states scheduled on February 5.

Why can’t we just have ONE primary and caucus day for ALL states? If we can have presidential elections on one day, it would seem to make sense to have the primaries all at once, too.

It’s nice for those states to be first, but should their opinion carry more weight than other states? There’s got to be a better way. If someone can explain the current way to me so I can make more sense of it, I’d appreciate it.

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Thursday, November 22, 2007

Toy Recalls

I had already done some of my Christmas shopping before Thanksgiving, especially for toys. As I mentioned in my November 9th blog, I don’t enjoy toy stores.

I do have sympathy for parents and others who are shopping for toys this year because of all the recent toy recalls. Some examples are lead paint; parts that can break off and cause choking, toy parts that when ingested can metabolize like the drug GHB and be toxic, etc. It’s a minefield to navigate. Is nothing safe?

Several websites are available to inform consumers, who probably trust that the stores have already removed recalled items. Some have taken the approach to avoid any item made in China. I say good luck to them.

Who to blame and what to do about it? The US Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) should be the watchdog, but lax policies and recent excuses from acting chairwoman Nancy Nord seems to indicate no one has been minding the store. Many have called for Nord’s resignation. Businesses, in the desire to reduce costs and increase profits, have outsourced even more toy manufacturing and then trusted these manufacturers to use products that would not be harmful. It’s a train wreck all around, with the consumer left to pick up the pieces.

While I dread the thought of more government regulation, the toy recalls have made me wonder, what else is coming into the US in the shape of food or other consumer products that are not properly checked for harmful ingredients? Clearly something needs to be done on a wider scale. We can and should continue to trade in a global environment, but we have to protect ourselves to make sure other countries manufacture products to our specifications.

As far as toy shopping this year, my suggestion is – give cash instead!

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

It’s Christmas shopping time, but don't forget charities

With Thanksgiving bearing down on us, that can only mean one thing – Christmas shopping begins. Or shall I say, BEGAN. Some retailers are making the push to get shoppers out before Thanksgiving to beat the rush. In a way, I’m thankful that they are.

I try to get most of my shopping done before Thanksgiving. I have this love-hate relationship with Christmas. I love giving and getting presents, but I sometimes dislike the process of shopping. It’s hard enough trying to find the right things, you also have to fight the crowds who may want the same things you do.

One thing that I do is avoid the after Thanksgiving day sales like the plague. The mad rush to save a few pennies, the crush of the crowds, people fighting over items, it’s just not worth it. It’s everything that Christmas is NOT supposed to be.

This year, as in the last several years, I am trying to find more simple, meaningful gifts for people. More importantly. I’m trying do more for, and give more to, my favorite charity, which supports disabled children.

This holiday season, while you’re pressed for time, money, and ideas, don’t forget to give to your favorite charity. It’s a simple thing to do, and the rewards sometimes are immeasurable. And it keeps with the spirit of Christmas – giving to those who need it most. Do it – you’ll be glad you did.

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Monday, November 19, 2007

Your Local Public Library – Still Relevant?

I live in a city that has a public library serving over 50,000 residents. I’ve lived in the community for over 30 years, and have watched the library expand and grow in its offerings. Over the years, the library has developed from a place where people come only to borrow books and do research using books, to a place where you can borrow books, DVDs, CDs, and have Internet access. Despite the fact that my local library has been having some trouble of late getting an increase in tax dollars, every time I visit there, the large parking lot is always full and the place is vibrant with people.

So why can’t they get more money? There could be several reasons.

The library may seem like it has a lot of visitors, but they could be repeat visitors. Standing in line last week waiting for the library to open, I spoke to two people who came there only to read the daily paper, and one who was there for Internet access. (I was there to borrow some music.) The paper-readers said they come there every day the library is open only to read the paper. The Internet user said she comes there twice a week for access. So a lot of people AT the library may not equate to a large number or percentage of the city’s population USING the library.

Some may not realize that the library has more than books. Our local library has a decent selection of DVDs and music available, plus audio books. Granted, it’s not like walking in to your local Borders or Barnes and Noble and seeing their music selection, but it still has some good content. And those who say they can’t afford a home computer or Internet access forget that with a free library card, they can have free Internet access.

I am a little disappointed in the overall book selection at the library. Sure, they do get several of the popular best sellers and have many of the classics in fiction and non-fiction. As far as the rest of the books in other, possible less trendy categories like science, nature, entertainment, even computer programs, the books are dated. This, of course is the catch-22; they can’t get tax dollars for new books because residents see the library dated so tax initiates get voted down, but they can’t update the book offering without more tax dollars.

There are more challenges ahead in the upcoming years for libraries. As more information and things like music are available electronically, the library may find itself needing more computer access. If they continue to offer music and movies, they will have to find another way to acquire and deliver content for download. Considering Google's aggressive plan to scan books (see link below), brick-and-mortar libraries may be a thing of the past, with everything available via computer.

Public libraries must continue to show value to a community in order for the community to continue to fund them. From my own experience right now, the library remains relevant. But, they have to keep their eye on the future to keep up with changing technologies and differing ways of delivering content to their customers. Otherwise, public libraries may not survive.

Link to information on Google's book scanning initiative:

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Saturday, November 17, 2007

Fox News = Faux News?

I reluctantly admit that I watch the Fox News channel on occasion, primarily the Saturday block of business shows. But, I’ve come to refer to the Fox News channel as “Faux News” because there really isn’t much hard news covered. It’s mostly talk and commentary, and it comes across as smoke, mirrors, and fakery. What they pass off as news is really conservative, too far right leaning opinion. As far as them saying they are “fair and balanced”, they are far from it. I find it both amusing, yet sad, when they invite someone with clearly left leaning ideals on any show, in order to use them as a whipping post.

With the upcoming presidential elections, Fox is pulling out all the stops in their quest to get another Republican in office. This has even seeped further into the business shows, where topics of discussion are tailored in a way to drag down a Democratic candidate under the guise of talking about the stock market. (A topic may be something like “How Hillary Clinton’s laugh is bad for business.” I made that question up but I’m not far off the mark.) In fact, some of the guests (frequently Ben Stein or Wayne Rogers) are bold enough to say, “what does that have to do with the stock market?” essentially laughing in the face of Fox and the show hosts. Fox’s Saturday business shows have become less and less about business, and more about promoting the Fox agenda. Because of this, I find it almost insulting that they seem to think their viewers need to be repeatedly hit on the head with Fox’s opinion. Just give me the news and related information; I can form my own political opinions, thank you.

Their new Fox Business Channel is following a similar path. I haven’t watched it much. I find it hard to tolerate the too-far right leaning conversations. Strangely, the last few times I checked the channel, they were talking about entertainment news and celebrities. It seems an odd focus for a channel who is supposed to have the eye on business.

So for my business news on a daily basis, I’m sticking with CNBC. And for my hard news, Fox (Faux) News is now last on my list.

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Friday, November 16, 2007

Perpetually Unhappy People

Do you know someone who is never happy about anything? I’m not talking about people who like to analyze things with a critical eye. I’m talking about people who just can’t find the good in anything. You know, the people that find the dark cloud in every silver lining.

I’m sure you’ve crossed people like this sometime in your life: The person who isn’t happy with any gift they are given. The person who looks at a menu at a restaurant and can never find anything they think is edible, order something anyway and complain about it as they eat it. The person who gets a promotion and complains the raise will put them in a new tax bracket. The person who, on Thanksgiving, can’t find one single thing for which to be thankful. I could go on an on.

They’re worse than pessimists. It’s not just them thinking about the worst possible outcome to a situation, it’s the fact that even when things turn out good, there’s something bad they have to say about it. And I find that when I’m around people like that, I feel like someone has just sucked the life force out of me. I don’t understand how people can go through life like this.

Today, while leaving a store, I passed Salvation Army collection kettle. I took all the loose change in my pocket – at least a $1.50 - and put it in the kettle. The gentleman ringing the bell said, “thanks”, and then I heard him mutter, “you could at least wear a hat, it’s cold” in a not-so-nice tone. I was appalled and wanted to snap back, but I thought to myself that I wasn’t going to let his comment detract from the fact that I gave something – although not a lot – to help their charitable effort.

This is the time of year that I find it easier to fight off unhappy people and prevent them from taking all my good thoughts and happiness away from me. When someone tries to find the bad in what happens, that’s their choice. But I won’t let people rob me of the good in what I do or what I feel. So the best medicine to counter unhappy people is to remind oneself of the bright side – and instead find the silver lining in the dark cloud.

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Thursday, November 15, 2007

Unity08 – DOA?

Several months ago, I heard about a new political organization called Unity08. It’s a movement that was formed out of disillusionment with the current two political parties, the belief that neither party represents the opinions of most Americans. The intent was the group would conduct a national primary (on line) to pick a unity ticket for President and Vice President. OK, full disclosure here. I heard about Unity08 from Sam Waterston. Well, not in person as I would have liked, but from some sort of news release talking about his involvement. Since I’m a casual fan of Sam and am aware of his charitable work, I thought I’d check it out. So I signed up to be a Unity08 member.

My first email from Unity08 said, “As a supporter of Unity08, you're in a special position to lead the country in a new and exciting direction away from partisan bickering and polarized politics.” I went to their website to dig further into what the organization was about, and found that I was a little confused about exactly how they were going to revolutionize and reinvigorate this next presidential election.

To get more information, I watched Sam’s appearances on shows hosted by Bill O’Reilly, Chris Matthews, and Stephen Colbert. Sam seemed to be a good choice for spokesperson and with each appearance, seemed to get more comfortable with explaining what Unity08 is all about. And then – nothing. TV coverage dried up.

Unity08 had an on-line chat covering ballot access issues. There seemed to be a lot of questions being asked during the chat that didn't appear to be addressed. Some of the questions dealt with how Unity08 would identify candidates, difficulties in getting members, and raising cash when Unity08 seemed just a concept and not a candidate, etc. Clearly these were not ballot access questions, but it told me something – that some Unity08 members had issues with how the organization could be taken seriously if there were no big names willing to take up the challenge. By the way, I downloaded the final chat transcript at that time, and it doesn’t include all the questions that all the chatters asked, only those dealing with ballot access issues. This was of great disappointment to me, and made me wonder why they felt the need to edit those questions out without explaining why.

Initially, their web site was a little scattered and weak, although there were some decent blogs and a forum where people could discuss issues. I seemed to notice a lot of bickering going on about various potential candidates and issues, which made wonder again if the organization can pull off a unity ticket when Unity08 members had so many varying opinions. Does Unity08 really know what the American people want – and is it reasonable to expect there will be a candidate out there that can be all things to all people? My skepticism grew.

They also conducted a line scale survey – which I spent the time to complete – to poll members on various issues and people. It seemed to be helpful to identify the hot buttons, but was a little light on identifying potential candidates. OK, my impatience was starting to grow. I wanted to know, if I chose to back Unity08 with any money, to whom I would be giving my stamp of approval.

Somewhere during the time Sam Waterston appeared on the Colbert Report, Unity08 ran a poll involving a possible running mate for Stephen Colbert. Stephen Colbert? I know they were just trying to be funny, and maybe to grab a younger demographic, but for an organization trying to define itself, it seemed the wrong time to be funny.

I was, at first, delighted when I received an email recently telling me about their redesigned website. Great news, I thought, maybe the site’s home page would explain Unity08 in a way to get people interested. Maybe information would be easier to find. Maybe we’d get a front page like a news website, with changing content to draw people back to the site. Again, my hopes were dashed. The message boards seemed to be gone, previous blogs seemed to be wiped away. (Hmmm – did some sanitizing take place?) And horrors – there was no trace of Sam Waterston. NONE. Did Sam have second thoughts about his involvement – or did he just simply not have the time anymore? Either way, his face and his name seem to be missing, strange considering they made a huge deal about him being spokesperson. Maybe I just can’t find the right place on the website. The new site, if anything, doesn’t do any better than the last to excite, and draw in, new OR existing members, or make it easy to find information quickly.

While digging through the new site, I found, in the FAQ section, that Unity08 describes itself as "...registered as a PAC. It is not a political party." How did I miss this before? Was it even on their old site? I never realized that it wasn't going to drive candidates separate from the other two dominant parties. In my opinion, this goes back to Unity08's failure to clearly define itself to current and potential members/donors.

I’ve come to the conclusion that Unity08 won’t be a significant force this election. It may only be a great concept in search of the perfect candidate. Right now, it seems more like a racehorse coming strong out of the starting gate, only to stumble early and finish last.

And I’d rather put my hard-earned money on a surer winner.

The Frequent Critic

Sam Waterston speaks for Unity08

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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The stealth pollution – Light

Comet Holmes, a usually unnoticed visitor of the night sky, came to the forefront in October when suddenly its magnitude, which is usually a dim 17, increased to a bright 2.5. Being a fan of the stars (in the sky, not earthly celebrities), I decided to see the comet for myself.

Since nighttime hours are getting longer, I could go out and see the comet at a reasonable time. I live in the suburbs east of Cleveland, and only a few miles from Lake Erie. While there are over 50,000 people living in my city, I live in an area where the houses aren’t right on top of each other. Still, there are streetlights and lights from retail stores close by. Those lights are a great help for safety and security, but not when you’re stargazing.

When we finally had a clear night, I made sure any of my outside lights were off and headed out with my telescope and binoculars. I was surprised at the amount of light spilling out from my indoor lights, so I turned them off. Two of my neighbors had their outside lights on; luckily they were over 100 feet away so it wasn’t too noticeable. After a few minutes, my eyes adjusted to the dark and I found the comet easily using binoculars.

After being outside for about 20 minutes, I noticed a glow coming from the horizon, in all directions. Since I was facing north and east, it clearly wasn’t the sun. I didn’t give it much thought at the time.

During the night, cloud cover moved back in. When I went outside at 5:00 AM to get the morning papers, the glow was still there, and brighter than ever. Despite the fact that sunrise was hours away, the clouds looked silvery white. Most noticeable were the lights from a car dealership over 2 miles away, shining a glaring white against the clouds. I scanned around and the glare of streetlights and parking lot lights from the surrounding areas created a ring of bright light all around the area. I knew that I was seeing classic light pollution, and, for a minute, it brought a memory to me…

Over 20 years ago, while visiting Maui, Hawaii, I was treated to a spectacular view of the night sky. Since many parts of the state are so far removed from big cities, not to mention the rest of the world, light pollution isn’t as much of an issue. The night sky there was amazing. The Milky Way was glaringly obvious. In fact, it was almost like you could reach up and touch the stars, as if the sky had become a low ceiling of sparkling and dancing dots, many white but some with faint color. I can close my eyes and still see it to this day. I wish, though, that I could see it again, but without having to fly across the country, or the world, to do so.

I know that it is not practical or realistic to expect everyone to keep their lights off so I can see the stars. But wouldn’t it be interesting for communities to have a “lights out” night once in a while, where we all turn off our inside and our outside lights just for the evening? Or, maybe I should just wait for a clear night, and the next power failure. I would sure like to touch the stars again, in my own back yard.

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Monday, November 12, 2007

Do we really need government food police?

It seems that every day there is a news story about how a certain food or ingredient can be bad for us – or good for us. It’s always nice to have more information about what I’m putting into my body.

I draw the line, though, when communities begin to regulate what people can or can’t eat, or how restaurants prepare food. I fully agree with anti-smoking laws that communities make; after all, second hand smoke can be annoying to people and possibly cause illness after long exposure. I get that. But food doesn’t do that. If I eat a donut, for example, who am I hurting but myself? If I eat an order of salty french fries, does the person sitting in the table next to me gain weight? The answer, of course, is no.

I try very hard to eat healthy foods, but admit that every now and then I crave things that may not be the healthiest for me. For example, if I want to go to a restaurant and eat an order of fries that were fried using hydrogenated oils, that should be my choice. I rarely drink soft drinks, but if I did want a Coke, Pepsi, root beer, etc. made with high fructose corn syrup, that should be my choice. (I don’t drink beverages like that because of the HFCS and sugar in general.)

Communities that try to regulate what people eat is what I call government run amok. It’s taking away the freedom for people to choose.

I’m all for all food producers giving as much information about the fat, calories, and additives put in foods. I’m also for food producers trying to get out of our foods those things that ARE harmful to us. Most people would rather avoid foods that are hazardous to their health. But, in those cases where people want to throw caution to the wind, they should know what their risks are. I believe that most people are smart enough to make their own choice when they are properly informed. Their choice may not be the wisest choice, but at least it’s their own.

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Sunday, November 11, 2007

A makeover for the Catholic Church

It’s Sunday, and I didn’t go to church. Again. I was raised in a strict Catholic household, but after I started working and got married, I found that not only did I have no time for church, but church became irrelevant.

Part of the problem with the Catholic Church is that it is stuck in the dark ages. I had high hopes with the Vatican Council in the 1960s where it seemed there were going to be bigger changes down the road. They never came.

Over the last few years, I’ve read reports saying that the church is losing members. My opinion is that they need to reinvent themselves in order to bring people back. The first thing they should do is to give a serious look at two things: allowing women to be priests, and allowing priests to marry. I find it bothersome that an organization that speaks of love, kindness, forgiveness, etc. seems to be so close-minded about women and their role in the church. Likewise, if marriage is such a sacred sacrament, maybe priests should be allowed to marry so they can experience, and relate, to it.

Doing both could bring hopefully more stable and more well rounded candidates for the priesthood. In fact, it would good if it would just bring MORE candidates. It seems that priests are becoming harder and hard to come by. I’m not talking about lowering standards, just becoming more open minded about who can become a priest and how they can live a full life.

It’s time for a change. Is there anyone within the boys club of the Catholic Church that is willing to step up and lead the challenge? It may be the only way it has a chance, since women don't seem to have much of a voice, or power, in the church.

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Saturday, November 10, 2007

Drug commercials – lower the dose

Every day, we are bombarded with drug commercials to treat conditions like diabetes, restless leg syndrome, allergies, incontinence, impotence, migraine, depression, acid reflux, etc.

These commercials can be informative for those who aren’t aware that help exists for their conditions. But, how much of this is simply over-marketing? For example, are there that many people in the United States that have restless leg syndrome, to the point that TWO drugs are being touted, several times a day and several days a week? How could it be that there are so many men with impotence that the evening and weekend commercials need to be flooded with ads for several erectile dysfunction meds? I could go on, but you get the picture.

I’m not saying that these ads don’t provide a service by alerting people who are too embarrassed about their problem, or they don’t realize what they experience is a treatable problem. But shouldn’t we expect – and trust - that our doctors would help steer us to the proper medication for what ails us, rather than have the patient demand specific treatments? Can the advertisers have enough respect for our intelligence that they can show a commercial for their product a little less frequently and we’ll get the idea? For example, if their target audience is men, show the commercials once or twice on a Sunday during footballs games, rather than once every hour for 10 hours. I’m sure that people will get the message the first time it’s heard. And maybe then, less money would be spent on advertising and possibly the medication could be provided for a lower cost to the consumer.

Advertisers should think of drug commercials like we’re told to think about drugs – more does not necessarily mean better!

The Frequent Critic

Friday, November 9, 2007

Parents – Keep your kids out of the toy store

I had the good fortune of having to go to the Toys R Us this afternoon to shop for a gift. I say that with a touch of sarcasm…could you tell? It is a rare occasion for me to go in to a toy store for starters, and even rarer that I enjoy the experience. Why? It’s because of the kids.

Yes, I know you would think that a toy store is a great place for kids. Far from it, I say. When I was young, my parents rarely had the extra cash for toys, much less the desire to take us to a store and then watch their 6 children all ask for a different toy – in unison. Keep in mind that I was born in the 50s, so mass market toy stores was just a dream in most communities. My parents were not gluttons for punishment, and they had no desire to torture us by showing us things we could not have.

While I was in Toys R Us today, I think there were only about 5 people that came in with no kids. The other 20 adults in the store had at least one child with them, a few had two. For the one child parents, the one child was screaming, for the two children parents, one of the two kids was screaming and the other kid was off getting lost. Particularly horrifying was one child who was so distraught by the fact that his mother had uttered the forbidden word – NO. This boy, about 2 years old, was screaming at the top of his lungs. And it wasn’t one solitary scream; it was a long wail that went on for at least 10 minutes. It also had a ripple effect. Other kids saw and heard this one kid throwing a massive tantrum, and they started as well. It was like I had walked into some weird kiddie shop of horrors.

Yes, I know, some parents can't afford a sitter while they can go shopping. The argument I have for that defense is that their carts are loaded with expensive toys; can’t they afford a sitter for an hour or two? If it’s a two-parent household, can’t they wait until the other parent can stay home and watch the kids?

There is a whole separate issue with the whole experience of shopping for toys from the kid’s perspective. Why take a child into a place where all the toys he or she could dream of are there, and then have to tell the child “no you can’t have that?” It’s teasing at its very worst.

So parents, I implore you. Leave the kids home when you go toy shopping this holiday season. My ears will thank you.

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Thursday, November 8, 2007

Alternative Energy - Where is it?

Having gone through the oil/gas crisis of the 1970s, what is happening with crude oil and gasoline prices recently is like watching old reruns on TV. You've seen it before, and it doesn't necessarily get better with age. During the mid 70s, our house was heated with oil, and the cost was through the roof. We switched to gas heat as soon as we could muster the cash to tap into the natural gas line and get a gas furnace. Now, to heat the house with natural gas is going through the roof.

During the peak of the crisis in the 70s, there was a lot of talk about finding alternative energy sources that didn't involve fossil fuels. But that's all it was - a lot of talk.

Many months ago, I recall President George W. Bush chastising the American people for their insatiable fuel consumption. I don't disagree with the fact that we do use a lot of fossil fuels to run our cars, heat our homes, and provide electricity. What I found bothersome is that it seems that the blame was being placed on the American people.

The fact is, most Americans, if not all, would embrace alternative fuels if it were made available to them - and at a cost that the average American can afford. I'm not a scientist and I'm not an inventor. But it seems to me that there must be people out there with the scientific and creative mind to come up with something.

There's wind energy, geothermal, solar, hydroelectric, and probably many others I haven't thought of. We've had since the 1970s to come up with something, and I can't believe that in 30 years we're still in the same place.

The American people are not married to oil because we want to be, there just aren't other choices out there, or choices that people can reasonably afford. So I beg and plead to the braniacs out there and/or the companies that can fund them: Give us some affordable choice. America will beat a path to your door!

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Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Annoying Chain Emails

Do you have a friend or family member who sends you chain emails? You know, the emails that look like they’ve been forwarded over and over to what appear to be the entire email address book of several people? Usually the email has some story that sounds hard to believe, or it tries to elicit a negative emotional response. I can’t tell you how many I get each day - it's just too many.

What I find particularly annoying are the emails where the person hasn’t bothered to check the validity of the story he/she is forwarding. Sometimes these emails seem to purposely contain misleading information in order to inflame the recipient’s emotions. It usually takes less than 30 seconds to do an Internet search to find if what is stated in the email is true, or a hoax. Most of the time, it’s the latter. A word of advice: if you get a chain email, before you send it along, check first to find out if it’s true ( is a good site to use). If it’s a hoax, reply back to the person who sent it to you and tell them about their error. Then delete the email without forwarding it to YOUR entire address book.

Even worse are the chain emails that tell you to “send the email to “X” number of friends”, and if you do, you’ll have some sort of “good fortune” within “X” number of days. Or, the emails that say the reverse – if you don’t forward on the email, some catastrophe will befall you. Not only should you delete those emails, I strongly recommend you delete the person who sent it to you from your list of friends. (Note: if a family member sent you an email like that, you’re on your own!)

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Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Internet Forums: Too many rules spoil the fun

One of the great things about the internet is that it's allowed so many opinions to be voiced. There are many public forums out there, for just about any subject matter one can imagine. I've found that for many forums, people behave themselves, and despite sometimes wildly differing opinions, everybody gets along just fine. Every forum to which I am a member has some general rules of conduct. With the exception of the ocassional spammer or "troll", I've rarely seen anyone get kicked out.

Which brings me to one of the most annoying forums on the internet, "Television Without Pity" (often abbreviated as TwoP). On their website, their motto is "spare the snark, spoil the network". It seems that they are inviting dialog and critical commentary on television shows, but don't be fooled. They are probably THE most pretentious and restrictive forum on the internet. I checked their rules page today (it was last revised July 5, 2007) and it contained 10 "dos" and 16 "don'ts". This means there are, at minimum, 26 different reasons that they can - and will - warn you, and then eventually ban you. (Yes, you can be warned if you don't "do a do" correctly.)

An example of one of the rules: "DON'T post in a thread until you've read at least the last fifteen pages or days of content." So, by the time you finish reading all that content, it's likely that you will forget who said what, or what was even said for that matter. As a result, it's very easy to accidentally repeat an opinion mentioned earlier. I was once warned for a post where I stated my opinion about a specific episode of a TV show, and because one other person 2 pages back made a similar comment, I was given a warning. For a forum who says to "spare the snark, spoil the network", only one person/posting is allowed per snark, I guess.

So now I avoid this forum like the plague. It used to be a great place where one felt an honest opinion about what we see on network TV could be voiced. Now, it's a forum where opinion and commentary is stifled. And with so many other forums out there, I'd rather take my comments, and my eyes on the website ads, to another site (something advertisers hate to hear).

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Welcome to The Frequent Critic!

Hardly a day goes by where I don't turn a critical eye to just about anything. So I thought it was time to share what's on my mind with the rest of the world, and let the world have at it. Feel free to chime in about whatever I'm tearing down - or tearing up - for the day. Maybe something constructive will come of it!

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