Friday, April 23, 2010

Lessons learned from bird poop

Nauru is one of the smallest countries on the face of the planet. The only countries that are smaller are the Vatican and the Principality of Monaco.

Nauru’s territory encompasses 8 square miles, not much more than the territory of my hometown of Evanston, which controls 7.75 square miles. From “sea to shining sea” Nauru probably covers about 3 miles, considerably smaller that the good old U.S of A.

Despite its small size, Nauru can provide some important lessons to all of us Americans, as well as the rest of the folks that inhabit this thing called “planet Earth”

For thousands of years, ocean going birds have left their, um, deposits on this little spot of land that is fairly close to Australia, and just north of the territory known as the Solomon Islands.

At the turn of the 20th century, Nauru was under the control of Germany. Being efficient managers, the Germans discovered that the all those airborne droppings could be mined as phosphates, an important ingredient in fertilizer, which ultimately was sold, principally, to Australia.

At the end of WWI, control of Nauru passed from the Germans to the Australians, who controlled the country until January 31, 1968, when it became an independent country.

For a period of time, the government employed 95% of Nauruans, and lavished free medical care and schooling for its citizens. Most didn't take advantage of this offer: only one-third of children went on to secondary school. The adults didn't really work, either - office hours were flexible and the most popular pastime was drinking beer and driving the 20-minute circuit around the island.

no particular place to go

For a while, Nauru was a paradise. In the 1970s, Nauruans were amongst the richest people on the planet.

Eventually, of course, the phosphate ran out. Since phosphate mining was essentially the ONLY source of income for the country, there suddenly became an urgent need to find another source of income.

In times of dire need, many people turn to the Mafia for help, and that’s EXACTLY what Nauru did.

With no natural resource left, in the 1990s, Nauru decided to become a tax haven and offered passports to foreign nationals for a fee. This attracted the wrong kind of money (but a lot of it): the Russian mafia funneled over $70 billion to the tiny island nation. Things got so bad that most big banks refused to handle transactions involving Nauru because of money laundering problems.

This led Nauru to another extraordinary money-making scheme: it became a detention camp for people applying for asylum to Australia!

Eventually, Nauru decided to go “legit”, and the country is currently promoting itself as a tourist attraction

Nauru applied for membership to the United Nations in May of 1999, and was accepted as a member on September 14, 1999. Due to its status as an “official” United Nations member, the country gained prominence in Michael Crichton’s novel, State of Fear.

Amazingly, Naura has managed to simultaneously become a source of irritation for Russia, China, and the United States, but the country still conducts day to day business as though everything was fine.

To sum up the contributions that Nauru has made to the world, I’d like to offer the following:

1) just because someone craps on you, it’s not necessarily a bad thing

For most of the 20th century, Naura survived by selling deposits of bird droppings, econstituted as phosphates. If you’ve ever experienced Kopi Luwak coffee, you may be unaware of the fact that the coffee beans used in the process of making the world’s most expensive coffee are EXCRETED by the civet cat.

2) there IS some wisdom in “Animal House”

3) being a well rounded individual isn’t always good

Naura has the highest obesity rate in the world, at more than 90%, and 40% of the population suffers from Type 2 diabetes. In the United States, Mississippi has the highest rate of obesity, at 32.5 % of the population, and it has held that “honor” for the last five years

4) don’t put all your eggs in one basket

Just as we as individuals should always have an alternative source of income, the countries of the world should also have diversified economies. In the oil-producing regions of the world, Qatar has done the best job of investing in industries other than oil. When the Sultan of Brunei finally runs out of oil, the only thing that he’ll have left is the world’s most expensive used car lot.

5) it’s always better to look at the big picture

25% of the world's pharmaceuticals are derived from substances found in tropical rainforests, but only 1% of the tropical trees and plants have been tested. In addition, the Amazon Rainforest has been described as the "Lungs of our Planet" because it provides the essential environmental world service of continuously recycling carbon dioxide into oxygen. More than 20 percent of the world’s oxygen is produced in the Amazon Rainforest.

When the invaders from Earth destroyed Giant Hometree on Pandora in order to get access to the Unobtainium buried beneath, they essentially sealed their own doom.

6) be careful what you wish for

The Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010 is the most significant piece of health care legislation to pass since Medicare since 1965. Although I personally think it has a lot of merit, there IS one detail that should worry us a little bit.

Even today, there is a shortage of doctors, and many towns don’t have any. In the future, more and more of our health care will be provided by nurse practitioners, and not doctors.

7) be wary of easy money

We’ve all gotten letters from bank officials in Africa that want to send us millions of dollars because some obscure official died in a plane crash. All we have to do to get the money is to (1) send them some earnest money (2) give them your banking information so that the money can be wired directly to it (3) give them your Social Security number so that they can send your taxes directly to the U.S. Government and (4) give them your mother’s maiden name as an added security measure.

That all many seem a little far-fetched, but how does this one sound?:

The State of Illinois has the second highest deficit in the nation, at $5 billion. Only California has a larger one.

Illinois also ranks very close to the bottom of the 50 states (48th, to be exact) in terms of being attractive to new businesses. Rather than trying to fix THAT problem, the state just approved the granting of the 10th land based casino in the state, and it will be built a short distance form O’Hare Airport.

By now, you’ve already read more than you can digest in one sitting, and my computer is becoming s-l-o-w-e-r than ______, so I’ll bring this story to a close.

Thanks for listening.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

do you LOVE what you do?

Most of us would acknowledge the fact that we get at least a certain amount of satisfaction from our jobs, but there truly aren’t a LOT of people who REALLY love what they do for a living.

Through our company association with the Evanston Chamber of Commerce, I’ve met a lot of VERY interesting people in the last couple of years, and recently had the pleasure of meeting a couple who definitely capture the entrepreneurial spirit that the Chamber tries to foster.

Dean and Maggie Noonan bought a company called Winestyles on May 1, 2008. Although the store was originally opened in October of 2006, the absentee owner didn’t do an effective job of promoting the business, which provided an opportunity for Dean and Maggie.

In recent months, Winestyles has provided the wine at several Chamber events that I’ve attended, and I’ve also attended a few of the Thursday evening tastings that they host.

Since I’ve long been a fan of wine, I recently interviewed them in order to learn more about their business. The response that I found most interesting to my questions was this one:

When I asked Maggie how they got involved in a wine store, her answer was quick and direct – the LOVE of wine.

They’ve traveled to Italy, France, and the wine country of California, which means that their vast knowledge of wine comes from “hands on experience” rather than formal wine classes.

I'm not a wine sommelier, but after close to 50 years of enjoying wine, I've got a pretty good working knowledge of the beverage. However, I’ll have to admit that I have learned two very important lessons from them in recent weeks.

The first one is this:

My favorite varietal has long been Merlot, which I have always considered to be a “robust’ wine. Thanks to their tutoring, I learned that Merlot and Malbec (another one of my favorites) can come in a variety of styles, and can vary greatly, depending on both country of origin, as well as individual wineries within a specific wine growing region.

The second lesson that I learned came about as a result of joining the monthly wine club.

I picked up my first two bottles last Thursday, and was initially disappointed because both bottles had SCREW ON CAPS, which I’ve long associated with

cheap and inferior wines.

However, I did some research about both wines (this month’s specials are a 2007 Pinot Noir from the Whitehaven winery in Marlborough, New Zealand, and a 2007 Condor, a Cabarent and Shiraz blend, from the Penley Estate winery in Coonawara, Australia) and discovered that they are GREAT wines that are very affordable.

I also discovered that for at least a decade, some of the world’s finest wineries have topped off their wine with a screw on cap rather than a cork, a fact that is not widely known by the general public.Technically speaking, though, the seal is actually called a Stelvin Enclosure, and its use will likely continue to grow into the future, in large part due to the scarcity of good cork.

Uncorking a fine bottle of wine CAN provide a certain mystique, which is more fully explained at the link below:

this stuff ain’t Ripple, honey.

The world’s most expensive wine is a 1907 Champagne that was recovered from a 1917 shipwreck in 1998. At $275,000 a bottle, this stuff isn’t cheap, but GOOD and enjoyable wine doesn’t have to be either expensive or intimidating.

The beauty of a place like Winestyles is that it truly DOES have a neighborhood “feel”. Mega stores like Binny’s may have a larger selection of wines at many of their stores, but they’re not likely to call you by name when you walk in the door, something that’s a regular occurrence at Winestyles.

It’s often been said that, in the spring, a young man’s fancy turns to love. In the near future, the Merrick Rose Garden on the southwest corner of Lake and Oak will come into bloom, which means that we will soon be entering “the days of wine and roses”:

the days of wine and roses

If you’re starting to feel the mood of the season, I’d recommend spending at least some time with your friends at Winestyles, the place where “everyone knows your name”.

You’ll be glad that you came.

Friday, April 9, 2010

good fences make good neighbors

For thousands of years, humans have erected barriers to keep themselves safe from neighboring tribes.

The Great Wall of China was started over 2000 years ago. By the time that it was complete, it covered a total of 4600 miles, and it has the distinction of being the only man-made object visible from space.

For more than 150 years, the United States has wrestled with how to deal with illegal immigrants from Mexico. The most blatant example of xenophobia occurred in 1954, when “Operation Wetback” was created by the United States government:

Ultimately, as many as 700,000 Mexicans were forced back to their homeland by our government. Although the operation was deemed to be a success, it did little to stem the flow of illegal immigrants, due to the fact that the standard of living in America, even at minimum wage, is better than life in Mexico.

On October 26, 2006, President George Bush signed the “Secure Fence Act”, which authorized the building of a 700 mile long barrier fence between the United States and Mexico, a country that is considered to be one of our allies.

As of March of 2010, slightly in excess of $1 billion has been spent on the fence, which has done little to stem the flow of illegal immigrants. Before we spend any more money on this white elephant, I’d recommend that we should have a few conversations with a man who is not widely known in America, but is very familiar to folks who live “south of the border”.

Carlos Slim recently became the world’s richest man. With a net worth of $53.5 billion, he is worth more than Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft, and Warren Buffet, chairman of Berkshire Hathaway -

and he lives in Mexico City.

Mr. Slim is the first non-American since 1994 to head the Forbes list of the richest people on the planet, and he is the first person from a developing nation to achieve that honor.

The reason that we need to pay more attention to Mexico’s telecom king is that his success is a clue to one of the two REAL ways that we can finally stop the flow of illegal immigrants into America from Mexico.

Rather than spending over one billion dollars trying to keep impoverished Mexicans from sneaking into our country in order to get a chance at a better life, our money would have done far more good if we had invested in Mexican industry so that living conditions south of the border would improve. To borrow an old quote, “a rising tide lifts all boats”.

Although right wing extremists feared that NAFTA would destroy our economy, the net result 16 years later is that the economies of all three participating countries have benefited from the agreement, even though Mexico (surprisingly) benefited the least.

The second step that should be taken is the legalization of marijuana.

In the early 1980’s, the wholesale price of a pound of marijuana grown in Mexico ranged from $350 to $1600, and marijuana grown in Columbia, Jamaica, and Thailand was much higher than that. It is estimated that Americans spent approximately $9 billion on marijuana in 1990, and it was fairly easy to obtain in most cities in this country.

The United States has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world. Our country has less than 5% of the world's population, but it has 23.4% of the world's prison population.

As of 2008, there were 2.4 million people behind bars, and approximately 1,000,000 of those arrests were for non-violent crime, such as marijuana possession. It is estimated that our individual states spend between $18,000 and $31,000 a year for each prisoner. If you multiply those numbers by the number of people incarcerated, our prison system costs our country between $43 and $78 BILLION a year.

The deficit projections for all 50 states for fiscal year 2010 are $38 billion, a number that is expected to grow to $103 billion in 2011. California has the distinction of having the highest deficit, at $6.6 billion, but Illinois is in second place, at $5 billion.

If marijuana were legalized, and made available through state-owned stores (which is how alcohol is sold in Canada) we could dramatically reduce the number of people in our prisons, greatly reduce state deficits, greatly reduce the amount of illegal drugs coming in to this country, and have mellower citizens.

Realistically, I don’t envision either one of the solutions that I’ve proposed above being taken seriously by our elected officials, but they make too much sense to be ignored.

If narrow-minded people like Sarah Palin can give credibility to an organization known as the Tea Party, why can’t a brave and forward thinking politician somewhere start a “pot party”?

It sure is fun to think about, isn’t it?

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Who framed Roger Rabbit?

In the classic 1988 animated film “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”, Jessica Rabbit (Roger’s voluptuous wife) admits that she married her bumbling hero, Roger, simply because he makes her laugh. In other words, his actions and personality caused her to take specific action by marrying the guy.

If you fast forward to today, I’d like to nominate Cyndy Miller as a modern day Roger Rabbit. You may have no idea who she is, but her actions have been widely circulated on the internet in the past few weeks.

Cyndy and her husband Walt run a company called Miller Farms Equine Transport. She recently sent the letter attached below to the executive director of AARP:


Dear Mr. Rand,

Recently you sent us a letter encouraging us to renew our lapsed membership in AARP by the requested date. I know it is not what you were looking for, but this is the most honest response I can give you. Our gap in coverage is merely a microscopic symptom of the real problem, a deepening lack of faith.

While we have proudly maintained our membership for several years and have long admired the AARP goals and principles, regrettably, we can no longer endorse its abdication of our values. Your letter specifically stated that we can count on AARP to speak up for our rights, yet the voice we hear is not ours. Your offer of being kept up to date on important issues through DIVIDED WE FAIL presents neither an impartial view nor the one we have come to embrace. We do believe that when two parties agree all the time on everything presented to them, one is probably not necessary. But, when the opinions and long term goals are diametrically opposed,the divorce is imminent. This is the philosophy which spawned our 200 years of government.

Once upon a time, we looked forward to being part of the senior demographic. We also looked to AARP to provide certain benefits and give our voice a power we could not possibly hope to achieve on our own. AARP gave us a sense of belonging which we no longer enjoy. The Socialist politics practiced by the Obama administration and empowered by AARP serves only to raise the blood pressure my medical insurance strives to contain.

Clearly a conflict of interest there!

We do not understand the AARP posture, feel greatly betrayed by the guiding forces that we expected to map out our senior years and leave your ranks with a great sense of regret. We mitigate that disappointment with the relief of knowing that we are not contributing to the problem anymore by renewing our membership. There are numerous other organizations which offer discounts without threatening our way of life or offending our sensibilities.

This Presidential Administration scares the living daylights out of us. Not just for ourselves, but for our proud and bloodstained heritage. But even more importantly for our children and grandchildren. Washington has rendered Soylent Green a prophetic cautionary tale rather than a nonfiction scare tactic. I have never in my life endorsed any militant or radical groups, yet now I find myself listening to them. I don't have to agree with them to appreciate the fear which birthed their existence. Their borderline insanity presents little more than a balance to the voice of the Socialist mindset in power. Perhaps I became American by a great stroke of luck in some cosmic uterine lottery,but in my adulthood I CHOOSE to embrace it and nurture the freedoms it represents as well as the responsibilities it requires.

Your website generously offers us the opportunity to receive all communication in Spanish.


Someone has broken into our 'house', invaded our home without our invitation or consent. The President has insisted we keep the perpetrator in comfort and learn the perp language so we can communicate our reluctant welcome to them.

I DON'T choose to welcome them.

I DON'T choose to support them.

I DON'T choose to educate them.

I DON'T choose to medicate them, pay for their food or clothing.

American home invaders get arrested.

Please explain to me why foreign lawbreakers can enjoy privileges on American soil that Americans do not get?

Why do some immigrants have to play the game to be welcomed and others only have to break & enter to be welcomed?

We travel for a living. Walt hauls horses all over this great country, averaging over 10,000 miles a month when he is out there. He meets more people than a politician on caffeine overdose. Of all the many good folks he enjoyed on this last 10,000 miles, this trip yielded only ONE supporter of the current administration. One of us is out of touch with mainstream America . Since our poll is conducted without funding, I have more faith in it than one which is power driven.

We have decided to forward this to everyone on our mailing list, and will encourage them to do the same.With several hundred in my address book, I have every faith that the eventual exponential factor will make a credible statement to you.

I am disappointed as hell.

I am scared as hell.

I am MAD as hell, and I'm NOT gonna take it anymore!

Walt & Cyndy
Miller Farms Equine Transport


I’ve long been a believer in the idea that the best antidote against negative thinking is positive action, so some time this coming week, Sharon and I are going to renew are lapsed AARP membership. Cyndy’s link to Roger Rabbit is that her actions and personality have caused ME to take specific action by renewing my lapsed AARP membership.

Most of us don’t really understand the health care legislation that was signed by President Obama last week, but buried within the mounds of paperwork is a provision that definitely is not well known:


Overhaul of Federal Student Loan Program

With the nuances of health care reform getting all the attention, you may be surprised to learn that the recently passed health care legislation—the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, as amended by the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010—includes several provisions related to college.

The most noteworthy of these provisions involve:
• The distribution of federal student loans
• Pell Grants
• Income based repayment for federal student loans

1) Currently, there are two ways to obtain a federal student loan—borrow directly from the federal government under the William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan (“Direct Loan”) program or borrow from a private lender who participates in the Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) program. The FFEL program has been in existence since 1965 (the Direct Loan program since 1994), and private lenders in the FFEL program receive government subsidies to encourage them to loan money to students.

Under the new legislation, private lenders will no longer receive government subsidies to make federal student loans, and the FFEL program will be eliminated. Starting July 1, 2010, all federal student loans will be made directly from the federal government to borrowers under the Direct Loan program.

Generally, student borrowers shouldn't notice much of a difference with this change. If anything, the new system should be simpler and less confusing, because borrowers won't have to "shop around" for a private lender to obtain their federal student loans.

Parents who wish to take out a federal PLUS Loan might find themselves better off because the interest rate on a federal PLUS Loan obtained through the Direct Loan program is capped at 7.9%, compared to the interest rate on a federal PLUS Loan obtained through the FFEL program, which is capped at 8.5%.

2) The Pell Grant is the federal government’s largest financial aid grant program. It is available to undergraduate students with exceptional financial need (typically students from families who earn less than about $45,000 per year). Graduate students aren’t eligible.

The new legislation provides for automatic annual inflation-adjusted increases to the Pell Grant beginning in 2013. For the current academic year 2009/2010 (which runs from July 1, 2009, through June 30, 2010), the maximum Pell Grant is $5,350. It is scheduled to increase to $5,550 in 2010/2011, and will remain at that level for the following two years. It will then increase by the rate of inflation (via the consumer price index) in each of the next five years, reaching approximately $5,900 in 2019/2020.

3)Income based repayment

On July 1, 2009, the federal government's new Income Based Repayment (IBR) program went into effect. The IBR program was created to help college graduates manage their increasingly large student loan payment obligations. Under the program, a borrower’s monthly student loan payment is calculated based on income and family size. A borrower is allowed to pay 15% of his or her discretionary income to student loan payments, with any remaining debt forgiven after 25 years. The program is open to graduates with a federal Stafford Loan, Graduate PLUS Loan, or Consolidation Loan made under either the Direct Loan program or the FFEL program.

The new legislation enhances the IBR program. Under the legislation, borrowers who take out new federal student loans after July 1, 2014, will pay 10% of their discretionary income to student loan payments, with any remaining debt forgiven after 20 years.

Like many people, I’m concerned that the costs of the new health care legislation will be difficult to control. Our elected representatives haven’t done a good job lately of matching expenses and revenue for either Social Security or Medicare, so I’m not entirely confident that they will be good custodians of the new health care legislation.

What I DO know, however, is that the long needed health care reform package won’t be as bad as some people envision it:

The health care legislation that just passed is the most significant health care legislation to pass since Medicare, way back in 1965. Ever since it has been passed, various members of the Republican Party have been trying to repeal it, but they have yet to come up with an attractive alternative. The Supreme Court upheld the law back in 2010, but are taking another look at it in 2015. According to the most reliable estimates, repealing the law could increase our pubic deficit by as much as $353 billion over a 10 year period, not exactly what you would call being "fiscally responsible".

It’s starting to look like our elected officials’ finally “did right” for the people of our country.