Thursday, March 24, 2016


Aretha Franklin released the song shown above way back in 1967. Although the theme is about a woman who wants a little more respect from “her man”, the title came to mind the other day when I read a story about President Obama, which is a train of thought that most people would not have.

As you know, the President and his family recently traveled to Cuba, which made him the first sitting President to do so in 88 years. While he was there, his oldest daughter, Malia (who has been studying Spanish in school) did some translating for him in a local restaurant.

Malia is not the only child of the President who has studied a foreign language. His younger daughter, Sasha, has been studying Chinese, When Chinese President Hu Jintoa visited American in 2011, the 9 year old girl had an opportunity to practice her Chinese with him.

(that visit, naturally, led to another story from my fingers)

I’ve long been of the opinion that the best way to get along with people is to show them respect. Not only does that make your life a lot easier, it also makes the world a lot safer. Not long after President Obama was elected President, he made a trip to Cairo in January of 1999., which helped him to earn the Nobel Peace Prize later on that year.

Ever since 9/11, the anti-Muslim rhetoric in our country has escalated, and the 2016 Presidential race has seen that xenophobia escalate to new heights. Knowledgeable government officials have acknowledged that the foreign policy plans of Donald Trump or Ted Cruz would be disastrous for the security of our country, but their campaign speeches have attracted a large army of narrow minded bigots.

I’m of the opinion that people that want to live in our country should attempt to learn the English language, and just about everyone would agree with me. However, I also believe that more Americans should learn a foreign language, which would allow them to show more respect to visitors (or citizens) whose native tongue isn’t English. When I lived in China, I made an attempt to learn Chinese, for exactly the same reason. I didn’t live there long enough to become fluent, but at least I made the attempt.

The native tongue of Pope Franics is Spanish, but he also speaks English, Italian, Portuguese, French, German, Ukrainian, Latin, and Piedmontese (a language spoken in Northern Italy. About six months ago, he delighted people around the world when he asked a young girl in Chicago to sing a song for him.

Our relationship with Cuba has been more than a little strained for more than 50 years, a situation which has benefited neither country. Obama’s decision to resume diplomatic relations with our neighbor south of Florida will ultimately benefit both of us in a lot of ways, His leadership has caused America to become the most respected country in the world (according to the most recent Gallup poll)

There’s no reason to “make America great again”

We already are.

Friday, March 18, 2016

When the circus comes to town

When I was a kid, I never had any desire to run away and join the circus. The closest that I came to that was when I was about 6 years old, and I and few neighborhood kids participated in a “zoo parade” involving our Red Flyer wagons to raise money for the St. Paul zoo. Although the exact memories of that event have fallen to the ravages of time, I DO remember that we actually got to appear on a local television station for our efforts, which is the ONLY time that I have ever been on television.

In the near future, the circus WILL be coming to town again, when the Republican convention goes to Cleveland. Since I already write way too much about politics, I’ll leave it at that, but I’m pretty sure that it’s going to be a very entertaining thing to watch.

You can’t have a circus, of course, without elephants, and I’ve read a couple of books about them that I would highly recommend. “Elephant Run”, by Roland Smith, is a very compelling story about set in Burma during the midst of WWII.

“Water for Elephants” is a novel about growing up in the circus , which was written by Sara Gruen. It was first published in 2006, and was made into a movie in 2011.

Very few people that I know have actually RIDDEN an elephant, but our daughter has actually done it TWICE . The first time was in Thailand, and the second time was in India., and one of those times was bareback.

The classic circus, of course, is Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey circus, whose roots go all the way back almost 100 years, to 1919. That year also happens to be when the “great molasses disaster” occurred in Boston - but that’s another story.

The circus still exists today, but it stopped exhibiting under tents in 1957, due to safety concerns. For a short period of time, it was owned by the Mattel Toy company, but it is now controlled by Feld Entertainment.

A little known fact is that one of the greatest fire disasters in the history of the United States involved the Barnum and Bailey Circus, and it was actually the fault of the United States Army.

In July of 1944, the circus was set up in Hartford, Connecticut. Due to the fact that the Army needed canvas for the war effort, the organization had priority on the use of canvas. Although Barnum and Bailey WAS able to obtain enough canvas for the “Big Top”, the army refused to release enough fireproofing material for the tent. As a result, the circus used an older waterproofing material that used paraffin dissolved in gasoline. Although it DID work as waterproofing, it was (understandably) highly flammable.

Ultimately, more than 150 people died when the Big Top caught fire, and several circus executives served time in jail “due to their negligence”. The circus set aside all profits for the next 10 years in order to settle the resulting claims.

If you want to compare the differences between 1944 and today, consider the fact that Rick Snyder’s negligence poisoned between 6000 and 12,000 children living in Flint, Michigan. Do you think that there is any chance that he’ll go to jail?

No, I don’t think so either.

If the upcoming circus in Cleveland isn’t enough to whet your appetite for circuses, you’ll be glad to know that there is currently a film in progress about “The Greatest Showman on Earth”. Originally scheduled to be released this year at Christmas, its release date has now been moved back to 2017.

Let the show begin !

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The death of voice mail

My parents never owned an answering machine or a cell phone, so it wasn’t always easy to reach them from our homes in other states.

For many years, most of us would have found it difficult to not have an answering machine in our homes. Surprisingly, answering machines are actually a lot older than you might think.

In 1898, a Danish inventor named Valdemar Poulsen invented the first practical device used for recording telephone conversations. Refinements to the product were made by a variety of people over the years, but it wasn’t until 1984 (when AT&T was broken up) that answering machines became more affordable, and their use skyrocketed. Sales peaked in the middle 1980’s at a 1,000,000 units a year.

The limitation of answering machines is that they are tied to a particular location, which led to the development of voicemail, which was first introduced in 1980. Initially, voicemail was limited to “land lines”, but it eventually spread to cell phones as those products became more popular in the 1990’s. In recent years, voice mail use has been declining, and I’ll explain why in a few minutes.

The first cell phone came to market in 1973, but it wasn’t until about 10 years later that they became popular. Today, 91% of the American population owns a cell phone.

Like the answering machine, text messaging is actually much older than you might think, since “test messaging” really began in 1876, when the telegraph was invented. By 2006, telegrams were no longer being sent by Western Union.

The first modern SMS (short message service) text was sent in December of 1992 by a young British engineer named Neil Papworth, and its used has exploded since that time. Today, text messaging is used around the world, and it is particularly popular in Asian countries. In 2007, 700 BILLION text messages were sent in 2007.

I bought my first cell phone in the early 1990’s.

It made phone calls, but didn’t do anything else.

Shortly after the start of the new millennium, I upgraded to a phone that also allowed me to send text messages, and I upgraded a few years later to a phone that actually let you take PICTURES.

My “flip phone” with camera remained my phone of choice until we renewed our cell phone contract with Sprint in 2014, when I upgraded to a “slider” phone similar to the one pictured below. Although I don’t send a lot of texts, having a real keyboard made the process a lot easier. At about the same time, I disconnected our "land line", due to the fact that it is no longer necessary to have a land line to get internet service. Since the land line was costing me $60 a month, and was rarely used to make phone calls, I discontinued the service.

When U.S. Cellular was purchased by Sprint in 2012, we decided to switch to that carrier instead of one of the alternatives, and we stayed with them until very recently.

A billing dispute with Sprint a few months ago caused our family plan to get switched to T-Mobile, with less than satisfactory results.

In 2012, Time magazine conducted a survey of the best and worst cell phone carriers in 10 cities. In 9 out of 10 cities, Sprint was considered to be the best cell phone provider. In the remaining city, Verizon came out on top.

In 6 of the 10 cities, T-Mobile was the carrier that had the worst coverage. In the remaining 4 cities, AT&T came out on the bottom.

After switching to T-Mobile in early February, my wife and I found it difficult to make phone calls from our house, and we experienced numerous “dropped calls” both at home and in areas that had stronger cell phone signals. As a result, we switched back to Sprint on Monday of this week. Although the paperwork necessary to make the change was as complicated as buying a car, we’re glad that we made the change, due to the fact that our phone service is MUCH better.

When we switched to T-Mobile, my “slider” phone got upgraded to a basic LG “smart phone” (which was free) , and I found that I liked the additional features that the phone had, ESPECIALLY the ability to use voice commands for navigation and texting.

When we switch backed to Sprint, I considered getting another basic smart phone, but the monthly cost of a MUCH nicer smart phone was only a few dollars more each month, which is why I now own a Galaxy S6, which takes AMAZING pictures.

Like many people, I’ve come to realize that it is no longer necessary to use voice mail, since ALL cell phones have logs for calls received. As a result, you can call back the person who called you without having to endure the banality of a recorded message. If I don’t recognize the number, I’ll frequently Google it to see who it is, which helps to eliminate virtually all of the “phishing” calls.

I no longer attempt to leave voice mails on people’s phones. If I’m not able to reach them when I call, I’ll sometimes send a text that says “call me when you get a chance”, which I can now do without typing anything at all.

Is voice mail ever going to ever die out completely? Probably not, but its use will continue to decline. By the way, it you call me on my fancy schmansy new phone, you’re not going to be able to leave a message, since I am NOT going to set up a voice mail on the phone.

To quote Forrest Gump, “that’s all that I gots to say”.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

The book thief

About a week ago, I was a substitute teacher for an American Government class at a local high school. The “project of the day” was to watch a video titled “The Book Thief”, which I was unfamiliar with. I’m normally not a fan of showing movies to fill class time, but I found myself being drawn into the story - and wanting to see more.

The film was released in 2013, and was based on the 2005 novel of the same title. After its release, the book was on the New York Times best seller list for over 230 weeks.

The film follows a young German girl named Liesel Meminger, who was adopted in 1939 in Nazi Germany by the Hubermann family. Although I’ll eventually find a way to watch the movie in its entirety, I picked up the book a few days ago at the local library.

After watching at least a portion of the movie, I came to the realization that there are a LOT os similarities between our current American society and Nazi Germany in the late 1930’s. Here are some examples:

1. The German economy was booming.

With the assistance of the Bank for International Settlementsin Basel, Switzerland (which still exists today) Nazi Germany was able to deposit gold looted from occupied territories, which allowed them to support their economy AND pay for armaments. It is estimated that Germany expropriated over $600 million in gold from occupied territories. More information about the Bank of International Settlements can be found in the book “Tower of Basel”, by Adam Lebor

2- Intolerance for “the other”.

Religious intolerance was very widespread in the country, fueled (in part) by Henry Ford’s publication of “The International Jew” in the early 1920’s. Although Jews were the principal victims of this intolerance, gays, gypsies and Catholics also were subject to persecution. The Nazis also weren’t fond of children and adults who had mental or physical disabilities, and instituted a program called Action T4 in October of 1939. Under the program, 70,000 people who were considered “unfit” were murdered during the two years that the program was in effect. When the public became aware of the program, public protests came from a variety sources, but the Catholic church was eventually the most successful in having the program stopped.

3- Germany had a sizable number of wealthy industrialist who controlled the economy.

A large portion of the industrial production of the country was in the Ruhr valley, which produced coal, steel and chemicals. Members of the Reich bank actually sat on the board of the BIS (see above)

4 - Book burnings

The Nazis became determined to eliminate publications that were considered subversive or representing ideologies opposed to Nazism. The books that were targeted were Jewish pacifist, classical liberal, socialist and communist. Most of the books were burned in May of 1933, when 25,000 volumes were torched, but a smaller number were also burned later in the same year.

5 - Germany was led by a madman who was elected to office.

Hitler lost the 1932 Presidential race to Paul von Hindenburg, who appointed Hitler to the position of chancellor in early 1933, After the death of von Hindenburg, Hitler was elected as the President on August 19, 1934. A short time later, he decided that he wanted to merge the offices of President and Chancellor, which would increase his power. Although the merger required the vote of the public, nearly 90 % of the voters approved it, which officially made Hitler the dictator of Germany.

Now, let’s connect the dots …………………….

1 - The American economy is booming.

With a GDP of over 17 trillion dollars the United States has the largest economy in the world, and China is a very distant second. The GDP of the European Union is actually slightly larger than that of the United States, but it is made up of the production of 28 members countries.

The Dow Jones Industrial average is higher than it has ever been. It’s currently just under 17,000, but was over 18,000 in May of 2015. In addition, the unemployment rate is now 5.5%, and a local station is selling a gallon or regular gas for $1.19.

2 - Intolerance of “the other”

Muslims, Mexicans, blacks and gays have recently come under attack, both verbally and physically. In August of 2015, former KKK leader David Duke said that Donald Trump was "the best of the lot".

3 - The United States has a large number of wealthy industrialist who control the economy.

America has more billionaires (536) than any other country on Earth, and China is again a distant second, with 213. For the third year in a row, Bill Gates is the richest man in the world.

Some of America’s billionaires are using their wealth to improve our society, and Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Mark Zuckerberg are the best examples of “doing things the right way”. However, not all the guys with money are improving our society.

84 year old Rupert Murdoch is worth $12.4 billion. He owns News Corporation, which includes FOX “news”, which has been a very disruptive force in our society. He is currently in the process of divorcing his third wife, and plans to marry Jerry Hall (former girlfriend of Mick Jagger) sometime this summer.

The Koch brothers inherited their wealth from their father Fred, who made a lot of his fortune by building oil refineries for the Soviet Union in the 1920’s. He later was one of the founding members of the John Birch Society. His sons, David and Charles, now run Koch Industries, and are worth $41 billion each. Early in 2015, they pledged to spend $900 million on politics, with $300 million earmarked for the 2016 elections. They fund a wide variety of conservative organizations, such as the Heritage Foundation, Americans for Prosperity and the Goldwater Institute, and they provided organizational and financial support to the Tea Party, whose views are nearly identical to the views of the John Birch Society.

One of the major problems facing the word today is global warming, but the oil and gas companies are fighting to maintain the status quo rather than subsidizing clean energy. Not long ago, the six major international oil companies reported a combined profit for the QUARTER of over $50 billion, their highest profit ever. The companies also are helped by subsidies from the world’s governments (taxpayers) that average $5.3 trillion a year .

Now that a barrel of oil is selling for less than $35 (lower that at any point in the last 10 years) their profits have slipped, but they can still afford to buy a few politicians.

The United States has one of the highest rates of gun homicides in the developed world, but money from the NRA and other groups have prevented any meaningful action being taken at both the Federal and state level.

Gun manufactures earned a profit of $1.5 billion in 2015, and gun and ammunition stores posted an additional profit of $478 million. Sadly, gun executive say that mass shootings are good for business and stock prices. Black Friday of 2015 resulted in the highest number of background checks 185,345) ever recorded by by the FBI. The previous record (177,170) was set shortly after the Sandy Hook massacre in Connecticut.

4- book burnings -

Germany, of course, is not the only company that has encouraged book burning, a practice that dates as far back as 1600 B.C.. Surprisingly, there HAVE been some book burnings in America:

In 1948, children in Spencer, West Virginia and Birmington, New York publicly burned several hundred comic books.

During the McCarthy era, the United States government ordered its overseas libraries to remove books that advocated communism. Not surprisingly, some of those book were burned.

In 1954, the government destroyed six tons of material that had been published by noted psychiatrist William Reich.

In 1966, a number of states in the Bible Belt ordered the destruction of records, books, magazines, posters and memorabilia that had been produced by the Beatles, after John Lennon said that the Beatles are more popular than Jesus.

In 2006, churches in Alamogordo, New Mexico and Charleston, South Carolina ordered the destruction of Harry Potter books.

In 2010 and 2012, copies of the Koran were burned in a variety of American cities , which led to the murder of innocent civilians in Afghanistan.

America also has a long history of BANNING books that at least some folks consider to be subversive. The books on the list include “Tarzan of the apes”, the American Heritage Dictionary, the Diary of a Young Girl (Anne Frank), Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, Twelth Night (William Shakespeare), Charlotte’s Web, and the Harry Potter series.

5 - America elects a madman

Don’t panic. We haven’t done that yet, but it IS possible. Donald Trump (who is uniquely unqualified to be President) captured 7 states on Super Tuesday, and will very likely be the Republican Presidential nominee.

As time goes by, you may want to read the book, or view the movie, of “The Book Thief.”

Whatever you do, though, be sure to vote in November.