Sunday, June 23, 2013

Why I don’t watch television

Until I was about six years old, our family (like most families) didn’t own a television set. Instead, we all gathered around a console radio similar to the one pictured below, and listened to shows like “The Shadow” on Saturday evenings.

We finally got our first TV ( a small black and white set) in about 1955, but it wasn’t until the mid-1970’s that we got our first color television. All of those early televisions, of course, were made in the United States of America. Today, there is exactly ONE company that makes televisions in the United States - in Detroit, no less - and it started business in March of 2012.

In the last decade or so, I’ve evolved to the point that I RARELY watch TV. Part of the reason is that I’d prefer to get my information from the internet, newspapers, or books. The other reason, though, is that it is simply TOO DIFFICULT to turn on the TV.

Our cable television service is provided by Direct TV, and it came as part of our package with our land line and our internet service, through a company called CenturyLink. Our Direct TV service, naturally, came with a remote control, which looks exactly like the one pictured below:

If you count up all the buttons, you’ll discover that there are 45 buttons. In addition, there is also a slider bar at the top. In order to turn the TV on, you need to move the slider all the way to the left and hit “power” button (not the on or off buttons on the right). Then you need to move the slider all the way to the right (to TV), hit “on” . and then “power”. After you’ve done THAT, you need to move the slider all the way back to the left again, but it is NOT necessary to hit either “on” or “power” again. If you are foolish enough to hit the on and off buttons in the wrong sequence, or (God forbid) turn the power on manually, you’ll screw everything up.

If you want to use a DVD player (which has its own remote) then you need to hit the “video” button on the television itself after you’ve managed to get the TV on.

You can also select a “pay for view” movie directly from Direct TV by using either AV1 or AV2. If you’d like to watch regular TV without the commercials, you can also add a separate component for something called Tivo (which comes with its own remote) , which can also record shows that you want to watch later. It even allows you to record one show while watching another. If you’ve got your fancy 60 inch flat screen TV hooked up to a “surround sound” theatre system, you’ll have a separate remote for that, and you can turn the whole thing on using either the AV1 or AV2 position on the slider (I think).

In view of the fact that the average America spends an average of 34 hours of week watching television, it’s pretty clear that all that neat technology can be a dangerous thing. To put that number in perspective, the average American works 34.5 hours per week, and the average employed person in Austria only works 25 hours a week.

Equally disturbing is the fact that we tend to watch more television as we get older. If you wonder how in the world all those crazy politicians get elected, you need to be aware of the fact that FOX News (the goofiest network in existence) also has the oldest viewing audience.

The first PRACTICAL television remote control was invented by a Zenith engineer named Doctor Robert Adler, and it became available in June of 1956. It had exactly FOUR buttons, and it looked like the picture below:

Naturally, other manufacturers rushed to produce better versions, and RCA Victor released what THEY claimed was the first television remote control for a color television in 1961. It had a total of FOURTEEN buttons, which controlled seven separate functions. If you watch the early commercial pictured below, you’ll start to realize that even having fourteen buttons could be confusing.

his master’s voice

(Surprisingly, the first color televisions were available in America as early as 1953, but their high initial cost, as well as very limited color programming, meant that color televisions weren’t very common until roughly 15 years later).

Since our cell phone provider (U.S. Cellular) just got purchased by Sprint, all of us needed to get new phones this week. Since Brian has a Galaxy S3 (which has full data capabilities) the rest of the Brennan family also have some limited data functions, even for our more basic phones. My new phone is an LG Rumor Reflex. In addition to the camera and Bluetooth capabilities that my old phone had, it also has a really neat navigation program, as well as access to Facebook. Amazingly, my phone also allows me to download music, play games, and (hold onto your hat) watch TELEVISION on my phone.

It also came with a slide out keyboard, which makes texting easier.

My late parents would be absolutely baffled by all of the functions that come with modern phones, especially in view of the fact that they never owned an answering machine or a cell phone. Our Direct TV remote control would leave them hopelessly confused, which is pretty much the same reaction I feel every time I decide to watch something on television.

In 1961, the newly appointed FCC chairman, Newton N. Minow, gave his famous “vast wasteland” speech. The entire transcript is posted below:

“When television is good, nothing - not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers - nothing is better.

But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your own television set when your station goes on the air and stay there for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.

You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly commercials - many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you will find a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it”.

When Minow gave his speech, America had only 3 major television networks - ABC, NBC, and CBS, If you’re a subscriber to Direct TV, you have access to HUNDREDS of channels, including over 190 that are high definition. It’s difficult to imagine that all of those hundreds of channels would have high quality programs, and it’s even hard to imagine that the high definition channels, by themselves, could offer anything worthwhile to watch on a regular basis.

If THREE channels could be considered a vast wasteland in 1961, what would 500 channels constitute today?

In the final analysis, that’s actually the reason that I no longer watch television.

Good night, and good luck.

Monday, June 17, 2013

My mother was a marijuana user

Late in life, my mother became a marijuana user.

If, for some reason, that sentence brings up an image of an old person smoking a joint (like the picture above) let me hasten to clarify.

When mom was in her early 80’s, she developed glaucoma, which is a very common ailment for older people. Glaucoma is defined as an increased pressure within the eye, and it’s the 2nd leading cause of blindness in the world. There is no cure for glaucoma, but it can be controlled through the use of surgery or medication.

In my mother’s case, her doctor felt the THC drops would be the best remedy. The full medical name for the stuff is Tetrahydrocannabinol, and it’s the principal psychoactive component of the cannabis plant.

In addition to its use in treating glaucoma, medical marijuana can be used for a variety of other medical symptoms, principally as a pain reliever.

As of today, 18 states permit the use of medical marijuana. Strangely enough, Minnesota isn’t one of them, so her doctor must have used some creative language to get the drops for my mother in the late 1990’s. Arizona is, however, and Flagstaff just opened its first center recently.

The very first medical marijuana location in Arizona opened in downtown Glendale last December. For the patients who genuinely need it, the treatment isn’t cheap, since it sells for close to $500 an ounce. Patients are limited to 2.5 ounces every two weeks.

There are currently 33,000 patients in the state who have permission to use medical marijuana. If you assumed that each of those 33,000 people averaged one ounce per week, at an average price of $500 an ounce, the state of Arizona would collect $85,800,000 a year in sales tax just from that very select group of people.

It’s a well known fact that there are PLENTY of folks who use marijuana for other than medicinal purposes. Marijuana continues to remain as America’s favorite illicit drug. Although it’s difficult to determine exactly how much “pot” is consumed every year, the size of the market ranges from a low of $10,000,000,000 a year up to $120 billion a year. The price per ounce varies from a low of $258 an ounce in Oregon to a high of $486 an ounce in Washington, D.C..

A few enlightened lawmakers, aware of the fact that the “war on drugs” has been a dismal failure, have come to the realization that the sales tax revenue on a market that is estimated to be a minimum of $10 billion a year would amount to a LOT of money. To date, Colorado and Washington are the only states to legalize recreational use of marijuana, but others will follow soon. Alaska will more than likely be the third state.

According to Virgin Chairman Richard Branson, the “war on drugs” has been a “trillion dollar failure” for the following reason:

1) The United States has the largest prison population in the world, with 2.3 million people behind bars. Of that total, more than 500,000 have been incarcerated for a drug law violation. Since it costs an average of $40,000 a year to house an inmate, our country is literally wasting an astounding $20 billion a year housing inmates who shouldn’t be locked up at all.

2) Just as Prohibition didn’t stop the consumption of alcohol, our drug laws haven’t reduced drug use. The United States is the number 1 nation in the world in illegal drug use.

It’s unlikely that all 50 states will follow the lead of Washington and Oregon. In the meantime, there’s a wide variety of laws regarding the possession of marijuana. Some states call the violation a felony, even for small amounts, while others are far more lenient.

Even the children of drug court judges can occasionally find themselves on the wrong side of the law. The 20 year old daughter of a Cook County judge was recently arrested for possession of marijuana and ecstasy. Since her marijuana possession was considered a felony, her life is going to be needlessly screwed up for a long time. As my son learned last fall, even a felony conviction that was dismissed YEARS AGO can come back to haunt you when you apply for a job.

It’s been roughly 40 years since I sampled some “weed”, and I’m not planning in starting the habit anytime soon. I’m absolutely certain that discussions of the legalization of marijuana were well below my mother’s radar, but her “illegal” eye drops DID provide some comfort for her in her old age.

My opinion is that more of our cash-strapped states will legalize recreational marijuana use within the next 5 years, due to its potential revenue stream from taxes. States currently capture nearly $100 billion a year from legalized gambling, and nearly all of them have operating deficits in their current fiscal year, in spite of their revenue from gambling.

In 1967, the late Timothy Leary coined the phrase, “Turn on, Tune in, Drop out”, and there’s no question that his drug use was legendary. It’s unlikely that the entire country would suddenly get as crazy as he was if all drug laws were abolished, but in times like this, it’s time that we start applying more common sense to our existing laws related to marijuana.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Still looking for that perfect Father’s Day gift?

If you’re still looking for the perfect Father’s Day gift for your dad, I have a suggestion for you.


Vodka is a distilled beverage composed primarily of water and ethanol. The ethanol is produced by distilling fermented substances, such as grains, potatoes, or fruits. Although there are a wide variety of distilled spirits made in the world, vodka is by far the most popular beverage in that category, and the bulk of that consumption is in the former Eastern Bloc countries.

If you vary the recipe a bit, the end product becomes something called “moonshine” and it’s produced in a number of countries around the world. In America, it is often called “white lightning” because it is not aged, and has a high alcohol content.

The name “vodka” is a diminutive form of the Slavic word voda, or water, and the first production of the beverage itself goes as far back as the 9th Century in Russia, or even the 8th Century in Poland.

Not a lot of people are aware of the fact that vodka is responsible for the creation of the internet, but that’s a story for another time.

If you walk the aisles of any liquor department, you’ll find a dizzying selection of vodkas from a variety of places around the globe. In addition to “straight” vodka, most of the producers also have so many variations of flavored vodkas that I’d be afraid to count them all.

Vodka also is sold in a wide range of prices. The first “super premium” vodka was the Polish brand Belvedere, which was introduced in 1996.

The average retail price of Belvedere is $34 a bottle.

The French got into the “super premium” vodka class in 2004, when Grey Goose was first produced.

The average price of a fifth of Grey Goose is $30 a bottle.

One of my personal favorites is Absolut, a Swedish vodka that has been in production since 1879, but it wasn’t introduced to the global market until 1979. It would probably be considered a “premium” rather than an “super premium” brand, and it’s the third most popular brand of alcoholic spirits in the world, after Bacardi and Smirnoff.

The average retail price of a fifth of Absolut is $20.

In 2005, the New York Times did a blind tasting of 21 unflavored vodkas to determine which one had the best test. The list of participants included Grey Goose, Ketel One (from the Netherlands) and Absolut.

The winner was Smirnoff, a Russian vodka that was established in Moscow in the 1860’s, and it’s had a very interesting history since that time.

The average price of a fifth of Smirnoff Vodka is around $12.

You certainly free to spend as much as much as you want on your dad for Father’s Day, but do yourself (and him) a favor.

Buy him a bottle of Smirnoff. Just call it “the water of love”.

Monday, June 3, 2013

How ya doin'?

If you’ve ever lived in (or near) the Chicago or New York metropolitan areas, you’ll know that “how ya doin’?” is a fairly common greeting. You’ll also know that a response to the question is NOT REQUIRED. The reason it’s not is shown in the clip posted below:

This is the famous Budweiser beer …

All of us (including me) have made the mistake of asking someone who appears to be from a foreign country where they are from. The clip below explains why THAT can also be a mistake:

what kind of Asian are you?

Since all of us are of mixed heritage (I’m mostly Irish, but there’s a little Bohemian blood in my makeup as well), trying to stay away from “country of origin” during your initial exposure to a person is a very good idea.

Chapter III of Emily Post’s book on etiquette discussed (at length) how to greet people. Although the advice that she gives IS still applicable today, most of us would find less formal greetings to be acceptable. Bart Simpson’s attempt at greeting people (I’m Bart Simpson; who the hell are you?) wouldn’t work in most situations, but “hello” and “good morning” should be universally acceptable the vast majority of the time. If you still wear string ties on occasion, you’re also allowed to just say, “howdy”.

Like they say in L.A., have a real nice day.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Who is G.I. Joe ??

Long before the Hasbro toy company started to produced a series of action figures called “G.I. Joe” in 1964, the phrase was loosely defined to mean the ordinary guys (like my dad) who joined the military (either my volunteering or being drafted) to fight the fascists in WWII, or the Communists during the Korean War.

One of the guys who served during WWII was a man from Philadelphia, whose first name actually WAS Joe. Although his story isn’t a lot different from the stories of the 16,000,000 men and women who fought in WWII, you’ll discover that it has a stronger emotional pull than most of them.

In order to tell you more about his life history, I’m going to enlist one of the Oak Ridge Boysto tell it to you. His name is Joe Bonsall, and clicking on the link below will give you “the rest of the story”.

Joe and Lillie

Rest in peace, Joe.