Archive for June, 2008

The Thinker

Review: WALL-E

As a general rule, all-digital pictures do not impress me. Generally, I get the feeling from these pictures that the phenomenal special effects are substituting for mediocre storylines. Granted, the wizards of digital effects seem to be making quantum leaps in the technology every few years. So it can be fun to attend a Pixar movie just to see what new tricks their team has assembled. But movies in this genre that actually draw me in are few and far between.

Thankfully, WALL-E is one of them. This movie is a delight for people of all ages, and that includes middle-aged men like me. It succeeds on virtually every level and comes perilously close to feeling like a classic. Maybe it is a classic. Sure Shrek, along with Shrek 2 and Shrek 3 were fun, but they were escapist entertainment. WALL-E though will surprise and delight you. It also feels very prophetic. Somewhere up in heaven, Dr. Seuss is smiling.

After its inhabitants abandoned it seven hundred years earlier, WALL-E is perhaps the only functioning robot left on Earth. It was built to compact trash and considering there is nothing much left of the planet but huge heaps of trash, WALL-E has plenty of work. By day he compacts trash by throwing it into an inner chamber. What emerges is a nice cube of compressed trash, which he symmetrically adds to the mounds of trash around him. WALL-E must have been programmed to take the nights off. He is smart enough to head indoors in the evenings, or whenever one of the frequent hellacious dust storms moves through the abandoned metropolis that he inhabits. For entertainment he watches a videotape of Hello Dolly! It is a pretty simple life but lonely. Except for one cockroach, he appears to be the only living thing left alive on the planet.

WALL-E stands for “Waste Allocation Load Lifter – Earth-Class” and I must say WALL-E does his job remarkably well. He is an unpretentious robot but also ingenious at ensuring his own survival. He even has something of an endearing personality and looks for interesting objects among the voluminous junk that he compacts. WALL-E is a simple and straightforward creature. If a hobbit could be a robot, he would be WALL-E. Except for a cockroach, WALL-E does not have is anything resembling companionship. That changes when another much more advanced robot called EVE is dropped off by a giant mother ship. EVE has oversized powers to move around and blow things up, but WALL-E is smitten with her blue robotic eyes and ultra clean design. Once EVE realizes that WALL-E is not dangerous, they make something of a robotic friendship. When suddenly one day the mother ship returns to retrieve EVE, WALL-E is panic stricken at the thought of losing his only friend. Somehow he manages to board the ship with EVE, who gets to report to her bloated human masters that a small plant that WALL-E has found has been recovered.

On the ship, WALL-E will discover humanity and we are not pleasant. We are extrapolations of the Internet craved denizens many of us already are: bloated to gargantuan proportion, endlessly obsessed with our computers and assisted by legions of robots to make sure we never have to move a finger. We sip concoctions provided by the beverage department of the BIG-n-LARGE Corporation, which owns this cruise ship. Humans have become so absorbed in their digital lives that they have only a vague idea where they are. BIG-n-LARGE, a 27th Century version of Wal-Mart caters to our every capitalist impulse. We have lost even our ability to walk. The mother ship has been on a 500-year cruise of distraction. It is only when biological sensors on EVE report that she has brought back to the ship something alive that this strangely myopic world of grossly obese human and robots gets a chance to discovers something called reality.

The parables for 21st century man are unmistakable. It was humorous at times to watch the animated humans on the screen munch on endless high calorie snacks while the humans next to me in the theater were likewise stuffing their gobs with all the wrong foods. Mostly though I was too enrapt in the story to give my fellow patrons much attention. Much of WALL-E is cinema magic: charming, engaging and cleverly realized. The artists at Pixar have rendered a macabre future Earth so real that much of it is indistinguishable from CGI.

Pulling off a movie like this is quite a trick, but director Andrew Stanton (who also co-wrote the screenplay) pulls it off. Just who is this Stanton fellow? It turns out that this is his genre. He wrote the screenplay for many other digital classics including Finding Nemo and Toy Story. WALL-E though is clearly his tour de force and it borders on genius.

How good is it? It is so good that I was dreaming about the movie all night long, remembering key parts of the dialog and singing snippets from Hello Dolly! from the movie days later. I can see myself owning the DVD when it comes out and enjoying it many times. It is so good that even though it is all computer-generated, I would put it on par with my favorite animated movie of all time, Spirited Away. It is also good enough where you will to want to see it in the theater. Even with a HD Blu-Ray player, seeing it in the theater will be a superior experience.

If seeking summer entertainment, WALL-E is guaranteed to push all the right buttons. Run, don’t walk, to your local theater. This movie may be a classic and you might just want to brag to your grandchildren that you saw it in an old-fashioned movie theater.

3.5 on my 4.0 scale, one of the few movies I have ever rated so high.

The Thinker

iMac Journeys: First Impressions

Back in January, I pledged to buy an iMac this year. I did not actually receive my iMac until Monday. Unbelievably, it sat in its packing box for four days. Hey, I was busy doing other things like buying a car for our daughter to drive to college. Last night I finally felt that I had sufficient leisure to open it up. I placed it temporarily on a card table next to my aging and noisy Windows desktop computer.

I generally knew what to expect from my three-hour Mac tour back in January. Mine is not the souped-up iMac, just the base $1199 model available on the Apple web site. It comes with a twenty-inch monitor. Originally, I was going to get the Mac mini, which is a small Mac box minus the peripherals. When I added up all the options, extra memory and bigger hard disk that I wanted, it was not that much more expensive to just buy the iMac. Particularly since I was not paying for it, but the government was (I paid for it with our stimulus check) I felt more inclined to go with a pricier model. Except for paying sales tax, my iMac was essentially free. (More specifically my grandchildren will be paying for it. However, since my daughter does not plan to have any children, I guess it is free.)

There is not much to assembling an iMac since the motherboard, CPU, memory and disk drive are stuffed somewhere inside the housing of its flat panel monitor. Also inside (but not obviously) there is a camera and a microphone. Presumably, the “i” in iMac is not just for “me” but also for “integrated”. Apple’s selling point has always been that you are getting a completely engineered package, with software optimized to run on a particular type of highly engineered hardware. Part of the reason that Microsoft Windows is so lousy is that it is expected to work with a broad range of off the shelf computer peripherals. When you control the hardware, presumably you have extra time to work on stuff that matters, like the ultra slick OS/X Leopard operating system that comes with the iMac. There are just four things to plug in: the power cord, the keyboard, the mouse (which plugs into the side of the keyboard) and an Ethernet cable.

I am sure some iMac bigots will tell me I am so full of it, but putting the on-off button behind the left side of the flat panel monitor is counterintuitive. I guess doing so would make the iMac itself look less “clean” since, as we know, Apple is big on aesthetics. For a few minutes, it did not seem to boot. Perhaps it did not power on right away because I expected something to happen instantly. Don’t panic. Press the button and give it a few seconds.

Also a disappointment: its Chicklet keyboard. It has to go. Fortunately, my friend Jim Goldbloom knows exactly what replacement keyboard to purchase. So while overall Apple does a great job of design, they have a few minor deficiencies. I do like its mouse though, and its tiny scroll wheel. I know some people hate it, but think it is much easier to manipulate.

I have just begun dabbling with the OS/X Leopard operating system but the features I saw in January are even more appealing now that I own one. OS/X has a curious absence of OK and Cancel buttons. In general, the Mac design is that when you make a choice it should be instantly set. This is one of those obvious user interface ideas that seems to have eluded Redmond and I really like.

The first application I installed was the Firefox web browser. I used the built in Safari web browser to download it. It was straightforward to install, but because a Mac is not a PC, it behaves a bit differently. I also struggled with moving my bookmarks. I eventually found the bookmarks.html file, put it on my flash drive, and then loading it from my flash drive. I had to reorganize the bookmarks I imported for them to appear on the bookmarks toolbar. I also need to move my cookies, which I am sure can be done, but Firefox provides no obvious way to do it.

Mac Mail was simple to set up. Mac Mail is a very slick email client that I look forward to exploring and integrates slickly with the iChat and iCalendar programs built into OS/X Leopard. I can already tell that it will be better than Eudora, my previous high water mark for an email program. I pointed it to the GMail IMAP server. IMAP allows your email to stay on the server. I could not figure out why the email was not moving into my local inbox. Since I had never used IMAP before, my confusion was understandable. Particularly nice about Mac Mail is how the Mail icon on the dock will show you the number of new messages. Moving my 10 years of email out of Thunderbird and into Mac Mail looks like it will be challenging.

Spotlight (which does ultra fast searches of your hard disk), the Dock (which anchors programs to an easy location near the bottom of the screen) and Spaces (which lets you divide your screen into multiple windows and place applications in each, essentially giving you multiple desktops) are all neat features. They demonstrate how far more usable OS/X is compared with Windows. Doubtless, I will discover much more in time. I need to buy an external USB hard drive soon so I can enable the Time Machine feature in OS/X. This lets you easily go back in time to see and retrieve previous versions of documents. It also transparently performs a general backup of your files.

There are some peculiarities with the OS/X Leopard interface compared to Windows. You can only stretch windows by dragging the bottom right corner of the window, rather than grabbing a side of the window. In addition, even though your application may not take up the whole window, a context specific menu always appears at the top of the screen.

Integrating useful applications will be a challenge. The Mac simply does not have the breath of software that Windows has. I determined though that it did not matter for the applications I needed. There is a version of Quicken for the Mac but you cannot easily export your data from the Windows version to the Mac. You have to trim account and category names to 15 or fewer characters, remove special characters from your investment fund names and then export to QIF (Quicken Interface Format) files. QIF is the equivalent of storing a spreadsheet as a tab delimited file, in other words it is very basic. I have a feeling I will be I will be uttering some swear words before I successfully have Quicken working with my Windows data on the Mac. The Mac version of Quicken tends to lag a year behind the PC version, which is not a problem for me because I tend to upgrade only every other year. I am a bit miffed because even though I own a copy of Quicken, I apparently cannot upgrade to the Mac for a reduced fee. In fact, Quicken charges a premium for its Mac version: $69.99. Yikes!

I need the equivalent of Microsoft Office soon. Apple has its own peculiar version called iWork. I am sure it is spiffy, but given the ubiquity of the Microsoft Office Suite, it is probably too much of a transition. I am more likely to install OpenOffice, since it is free.

I also want something equivalent to Choicemail for the Mac. ChoiceMail is a client-based white-list email filter. It requires people who are not in my address book to authenticate at a web site using a CAPTCHA interface. I suspect there are Mac Mail proxies out there but they will take time to locate and install. Mac Mail does have a reasonably good spam filter, but like all spam filters, it is not perfect. I should also be able to get Dreamweaver for the Mac, since I have a license for it for Windows. I hope that any upgrade costs will be minimal. In addition, I need to figure out how to easily mount to external web servers so I can keep earning bucks in my side business. Since OS/X is a certified version of Linux, this should not prove too challenging.

Stay tuned for more observations on the strengths and weaknesses of the Mac in the weeks ahead. As you might expect, my impressions in the first twenty-four hours are quite positive.

The Thinker

Who’s a strict constructionist?

I am no constitutional scholar. I also confess to being a supporter of gun control, which would not make me popular with the neighbors if my opinions were known. Still, if I was one of these people passionate about appointing only strict constructionists to the bench, I would be alarmed by today’s ruling on the Second Amendment by the Supreme Court. Sorry, this ruling passed by judges who claim to be strict constructionists is so expansive that it would make members of the Berger Court shudder.

In their decision today, the Supreme Court struck down a long-standing District of Columbia gun control law, which prohibited its citizens from privately possessing and storing guns within D.C. The court’s interpretation of the Second Amendment, which remarkably is the first time it has seriously interpreted its constitutionality, is also at great variance with established precedence, which hitherto has generally been a strict constructionist interpretation.

Granted, trying to interpret the amendment as it is written is hard because it can be interpreted in so many ways. In case you have not read it, here it is in its entirety:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

With today’s Supreme Court ruling from our new supposedly “strict constructionist” court, the amendment can be shortened to simply:

The right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Despite centuries of precedence by lower courts that have suggested localities have certain rights to regulate possession of guns, the court has said that all Americans have the constitutional right to possess firearms and keep to them in their homes. It acknowledged that subsequent rulings may refine this right, but right now, it looks open ended.

I hope that the right does not extend to bazookas and automatic weapons, but right now that is not entirely clear.  Someone will doubtless press the issue in court. After all, why should a law-abiding American not have the right to possess a shoulder-fired cruise if he wants to? It is nothing more than a very big gun and the court has now said that you have the right to possess guns. The argument may sound silly to most Americans. Yet there are plenty of people that will passionately argue that you should have this right. After all, there is nothing in the amendment that defines constitutes an “arm” is. Some dictionaries interpret “arms” to be armaments, which are not limited to firearms. A crossbow was construed as an armament for hundreds of years. Why not a shoulder-fired cruise missile?

I guess what I was really hoping for from the Supreme Court was an answer to the question that should draw a strict constructionist to it like a duck to water: in the event that a government does not choose to have organized militias, can it then infringe its citizens’ right to bear arms? Most of us have no idea what the heck a militia even is because we have never seen one. In Colonial times, a militia was a temporary entity consisting of local men that responded to threats of invasion or insurrection. As people back then were widely scattered, it was a practical solution to a general problem. If it wasn’t the French or the British out to kill us, it was the American Indian.

If militias were permanent entities, they would not be militias; they would be armies. During the Revolutionary War, there was a Continental Army. They could not be everywhere, however, which is why they were frequently supplemented by local militias. Some battles of the Revolutionary War were fought entirely by militias. The “well-regulated” portion of the amendment came from the Continental Congress, which required all militias be constituted by the government. With people very spread out and with the need to constitute armed militias quickly, it was entirely reasonable to ensure that the constitution did not infringe on the people’s right to bear arms. Failing to do so might jeopardize national security. Arms were also necessary by the populace for basic protection and for food. Unless you lived in a city or town with a good police force, not owning a gun was foolish.

That of course was then and here we are more than two hundred years and 300 million more people later. The amendment is still there but the militias are long gone. Perhaps some state still requires able-bodied men to register with their local militia. I am not aware of any of them. An argument could be made that members of the National Guard are part of a militia. Except for some annual training or when called into dubious wars like in Iraq, they stay home and live otherwise ordinary lives. In modern times though, the National Guard has never been called out to suppress invasion or insurrection. Moreover, those armories that you see in most major cities are there not just to host special events. They were built to serve the needs of the National Guard. Firearms can and often were stored in these armories. In times of trouble, they serve as a convenient location for local members of the National Guard to assemble. If there is no local armory, it might make sense for National Guard members to store arms in their home. It would save time in an emergency.

A militia as it was understood when the Second Amendment was written though is obsolete. It is possible, though unlikely, that in the future we will need militias again, maybe to repel a future Santa Anna and his army. Thus far, illegal immigrants crossing are border have been considered a matter of local law enforcement, with occasional help rendered by the local National Guard. It would be stretching credulity to say that the National Guard was assisting in order to repel invasion.

It strikes me that a normal Supreme Court should look at this history and context, look at the precedence in the lower courts, then look at how modern society is organized, and rule that until such time as militias are needed again, the state does have the right to restrict the possession of arms by citizens. That appears to be in part the logic used by the District of Columbia government. After all, it is only 68 square miles. Its danger of invasion or insurrection is nil at this point. Moreover, if the danger existed, the D.C. has an armory near RFK Stadium. (The Beatles performed there.) One can certainly argue that D.C.’s gun ban has proven ineffectual, given the number of homicides that occur annually within the city. One can also argue that because no militia is needed to protect the city from invasion and insurrection, and given the problem of gun violence in the city, that the public safety requires limiting firearms to law enforcement individuals only.

The Supreme Court obviously did not buy this interpretation, although D.C.’s ordinance is but a more liberal interpretation of ordinances that exist or have existed in many states and cities. Justice Antonin Scalia says that the historical context of early America supports the majority opinion that he joined. Maybe so, but this is a strange argument from a strict constructionist, who is supposed to apply the text of the law as written, and no further.

Warren Burger and Thurgood Marshall though would have understood where these supposedly strict constructionists were coming from. They would also agree that these justices are being hypocritical to the judicial philosophy they claim to follow.

The Thinker

Indistinguishable from magic

About a year ago, I was in Colorado for my brother’s wedding. The airport shuttle parked me at a Boulder shopping center where my sister Mary and her rental car were waiting to take me to my first wedding activity. Plastered to the windshield was her Garmin global positioning system (GPS). Mary did not know her way around Boulder but it didn’t matter. Her GPS did.

Mary has an odd sense of humor. I asked her about her GPS. “Oh, you mean Jesus?” she said. “Jesus?” I asked her. “I call it Jesus, because Jesus always knows the right path.”

Reputedly, Jesus also had some skills being miraculous. Not only was he dead for three days and managed to resurrect himself, but he made a handful of loaves of bread and some fishes feed a multitude. He cured lepers and blind people. He walked on water. At least this is what the Bible teaches. I cannot claim to believe in these miracles. I suspect though that if someone could take a GPS back two millennium to ancient Palestine, teach it to speak Aramaic and programmed all the world’s known cities, towns, hamlets, roads and goat paths into it, things would be a lot different. Instead of the cross, Christianity would be symbolized by the now ubiquitous rectangular portable GPS. For surely only God could make a tiny little box speak. Only God could guide someone around the entire known world by itself.

“Any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic,” was science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke‘s Third Law of Prediction. To me my new Garmin nüvi 350 GPS must be magic. It defies reason to think that an object so small could be that darn smart. I bought it for a mere $200 through to help us navigate during our vacation this summer. I have been taking it on test drives. This thing is much smarter than I am, at least when it comes to knowing its way around town. It knows the names of streets before I get there. It gives me warnings before I need to turn. If I need a place to stay, it knows the hotels in my immediate vicinity, along with many popular restaurants. About the only thing it does not do is make Julienne fries. However, it can take me to restaurants that serve Julienne fries.

My nüvi is not my first GPS. My wife bought me one years ago as a Christmas present. It was also a Garmin, but it was relatively brain dead. It could tell me within a hundred feet or so where I was. However, with its limited memory it could not hold much in the way of maps. Therefore, I rarely used it. Telling you where you are is not that much of a trick. Telling you where you are in relationship to other places and what those places are, now that’s a trick. It’s a trick because in order to relate your location to other places you have to know where all these other places are located. My nüvi knows. Embedded somewhere in its silicon is a street atlas for the entire United States, Mexico and Canada, along with the locations of businesses, hotels, retail establishments and many points of interest. It can figure out the fastest route between two places, the shortest route and (for some extra money) route me around bad traffic. With an optional memory card, it can even help me in Quebec and Mexico, by translating common phrases from English.

I do not have to keep it in my car plastered next to my windshield. It is portable. With its rechargeable battery, I have four to eight hours of disconnected use. When I am in the car, I can charge it through a device connected to my otherwise unused cigarette lighter. I will use it when walking cities like Boston, so I will never be lost, and always know the way back to my hotel. While I may run out of gas on the road, as long as I keep my nüvi I will know how far it is to the nearest gas station. Moreover, if I need to stop at a fast food joint on my way home, it will take me there. It will also track my total miles, speed and trip duration.

Nor do I have to worry about my geographically impaired daughter. With a nüvi she can get where she needs to go and always find her way home too. Call me paranoid though but I will still insist she carry a road atlas with her. Not that she has fully mastered the art of reading maps, but just in case the nüvi’s batteries go dead she might be able to navigate her way home. More likely, she will call me on her cell phone and have me navigate her home.

Back in the 1970s when I was a pimply faced teenager, my friend Tom and I were the local space bigots. We were pretty obnoxious about it, which is probably why we turned off many of our classmates. We would hear things like, “What good is the space program? We’re spending all that money to send people into space, yet we have people starving right here at home.”

It was a good argument but a bit shortsighted. For the space program forced us to develop smaller and better circuitry so that both spacecraft and satellites could work in a vacuum with minimal power. One type of satellite shot into space is of course is the global positioning satellite. By broadcasting its signals, it allows my nüvi to know where it is. It is only relatively recently though that the technology became cheap enough for average people. All that rocketry also indirectly spawned something called ARPAnet, which later became known as the Internet, which I can use to update my nüvi software, or purchase additional services for my GPS.

It is amazing how complacent we are about these modern miracles like the GPS. Yet they truly are magical inventions. These synergistic devices harvest the fruits of many advanced technologies into one device that should truly astound us.

I promise you that I will not worship my GPS. Nor will I call it Jesus, although I may call it Aristotle, for being so wise. Yet for all the many faults of humanity, we can easily overlook our triumphs. A GPS is one of many modern miracles that we can attribute to man. It speaks to the genius and potential that man possesses.

The Thinker

An era is passing

My family and I are making plans to vacation in New England this August. We have never really explored it so it makes for a convenient destination. Also part of our calculus is that New England is not that far away (we live in Northern Virginia). Like many Americans, with gas over $4 a gallon we are downsizing our vacation. We will be staying closer to home and will not be as extravagant with our spending as we were.

An era is passing that I do not think will return. Just as my parents remember an era when the milkman arrived every morning and their parents remembered a world where personal transportation meant a horse, our era, centered on the convenience and affordability of the automobile, is ending. Let’s call it The Era of Living Large. The evidence is everywhere but it will take a while before this fundamental reordering of our society will be apparent. Yet there are signs aplenty.

Amtrak, our stodgy national rail system that almost everyone ignored, is getting record usage. Despite our increasing population, we drove 1% fewer miles from November through April than we did during the same period a year earlier. At our local Silver Diner today, there were plenty of empty parking spaces right near the front door. A year ago, we would have had wait for a table. Perhaps the statistic that cemented it for me was this story in The Washington Post. The Washington region has one of the highest foreclosure rates in the country. House prices are dropping in most areas but less so the closer you are to the city or to public transportation. In Fairfax County, where I live, home prices have dropped on average 3.2 percent between April 2007 and April 2008. In our outer suburbs, the change is dramatic. In Loudoun, Prince William and Frederick counties, all about an hour’s drive (in no traffic) from the capital, house prices dropped on average 25 percent during that period. Within the city of Washington D.C., most home prices have stayed steady or have even risen.

Since 9/11, there has been a national malaise. We are trying to enjoy the same lifestyle we always have had but it is harder to come by and not as enjoyable when acquired. The economy throughout much of this period did relatively well, but little of it was felt where it mattered most: in our wallets. In 2005, when we traveled to Chicago I remarked how surreal it felt to pay nearly $2.50 a gallon for gasoline. There was a sense of unease even then. Three years later, we would pop a bottle of champagne to celebrate buying gas at that price.

Americans are discovering a new and inconvenient truth: we can never go back to the way things were. To expect that we will have the lifestyle that our parents knew is folly. Those days are swiftly passing. We do not know what the new order will look like, but we have a good idea what it will not look like. This uncertainty breeds unease and malaise. It contributes to polls that show Americans are far more disgruntled about the shape of the economy than the statistics merit.

The era of the SUV is ending. We are not all ditching our SUVs at once but news stories like this one are a harbinger. We demand fuel-efficient cars. I am trying to order a Honda Fit for my daughter only to discover there are few on the lots. We will have to wait for one to be delivered. I hope that it will arrive before her classes start. When we add on the cost of $4 a gallon gasoline, her choice to go to a community college now looks a little less affordable,

The far-flung suburbs are likely to disappear too. What may eventually replace them is the quaint notion of a village. It is hard for many of us to imagine actually living in the same community where we work. In the future employees may be forced to give preference to employees with short commutes. My friend Sokhama lives in Columbia, Maryland. Columbia is about halfway between Baltimore and Washington. She quit her job at a D.C. law firm a few months ago and is currently unemployed. She has had a few job offers, but she has spurned them because all involve a bad commute. She has decided that her next job will be much closer to home.

She is one example of a general trend. Americans everywhere are realizing that they have to rethink their lifestyles. This is why in D.C.’s far-flung suburbs house prices are down 25% from a year ago. Certainly, the sub-prime housing debacle has a lot to do with it. Yet $4 a gallon gasoline is also a major factor. We crave certainty in our lives. Uncertainty is lowered by moving closer to diverse sources of employment and public transportation. A new urban migration is beginning. Modern prospectors know that this is an excellent time to buy before everyone else jumps on the bandwagon.

Bicycle commuting, which I took up a few years ago, is becoming chic. Among all the new light rail projects, expect many communities to also construct bike trails for easy commuting. This will give them a competitive edge against other communities and help encourage progressive businesses to move to their cities. Many families are trying to orient their lives so they need only one car. This will give these families thousands of dollars a year to spend.

The global climate change skeptics are reduced to a crazy handful. Academics suggest that recent flooding in the Midwest is likely a direct result of global warming and using the land in ways for which it was not meant. So far, hurricane season has proven to be benign, but it is just beginning. However, this year tornadoes have been unusually numerous and powerful and have begun earlier. It is hard to escape the feeling that we are reaping the results of ignoring our impact on the environment.

One of our retirement goals is to take a cruise around the world. We are allocating $60,000 for the once in a lifetime experience. Now I am wondering if this is enough money. Perhaps we will have to settle for a cruise of the Pacific instead. With the cost of diesel exceeding the cost of gasoline, I have to wonder if the cruise industry will be one of the casualties of this new reordering.

Our round the world cruise, along with the cross country car trip I had planned, are possible activities we will have to give up due to the societal reordering underway. Perhaps instead of using a car we will take a train across the country. It will likely to be crowded.

I am also looking at my third of an acre lawn, which I meticulously mow weekly with $4 a gallon gasoline. I am wondering if it is time to give up the lawn in favor of a more natural terrain. A lawn is yet another invention of man. Grass has been around for millions of years, but keeping it neatly trimmed is not possible without either a lawn mower or many goats. I do not see our homeowner’s association approving us keeping a herd of goats in our backyard.

If oil prices continue to skyrocket, society may look a lot shabbier in the future. I passed a tree service truck today. Will there be the petrol to fuel these behemoth trucks in a couple decades? If there is petrol available, will anyone be able to afford it but the rich? It is hard for me to escape the feeling that thirty years from now, if I am still alive, that I will hardly recognize the crowded, denser and noisier world that I will be passing to my daughter.

The Thinker

Review: The Day After Tomorrow (2004)

For producers, the lure of disaster movies is understandable. They see dollar signs floating in front of their faces when they consider how much money some of the great disaster movies made. So why do so few disaster movies satisfy? Take The Day After Tomorrow, which the wife and I sat down and watched last night. Why is it that despite its impressive special effects and its overall decent acting it sucks so much?

The movie was timely, preceding the documentary An Inconvenient Truth by a full two years. The Day After Tomorrow suggests what might happen if we leave global warming unchecked. What could happen? Why another ice age, of course, and we are not talking about one that takes a few years to get going, but only needs a week to frost much of the top half of our planet.

Yeah, I had a hard time buying that too but apparently when enough glacial ice melts it changes the Gulf Stream, which makes certain spots in the Atlantic cooler than normal, which somehow causes a great atmospheric sucking sound. That would be massive amount of cool air pulled from the stratosphere. Soon the northern hemisphere is awash in super-sized arctic hurricanes. New York City is hit by a massive hurricane related storm surge, which quickly freezes over because the hurricane brings with it super cold air which seems to deep freeze everyone north of the Mason Dixon line.

Frankly, the CGI in the movie is very impressive. It must have taken a few supercomputers to digitize Manhattan and then apply all those fancy special effects that blow out windows on skyscrapers or send enormous a storm surge toward the New York City Public Library. Digitally lodging a Russian ship between skyscrapers must have been quite a trick too. The set for the New York City Public Library alone must have chewed up much of their budget.

Who is acting in this movie? We have a solid cast of actors including Dennis Quaid as Jack Hall, a NOAA meteorologist with a penchant for talking back to the Vice President of the United States. The VP, by the way, has more than a passing resemblance to (and attitude of) Dick Cheney. Jack Hall has a disturbingly bright son named Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal) who is visiting New York City to compete is some sort of collegiate version of “It’s Academic”. (Is it only me, or does Jake Gyllenhaal look an awful lot like Tobey McGuire?) Sela Ward plays Jack’s wife Lucy, a physician, who has the unfortunate duty to tend to a young hairless Tiny Tim-like cancer patient at a hospital while a new ice age begins. Sam of course has a love interest, the extremely brown-eyed Laura (Emmy Rossum) who holes up with him (and others) at the New York City Public Library. Will they consummate their affections or is it just too cold for them to generate any heat? Do we care? No, not really.

The problem with this disaster flick, which is true of most of them, is that it depends on spectacle and formula in the hope that we will overlook plot holes bigger than those arctic hurricanes. I am no climatologist but I do not have to be to be skeptical that a sudden massive big freeze across the northern hemisphere is about as likely as my suddenly developing a sixth toe on my right foot. Moreover, it is hard not to laugh rather than feel horror when huge chunks of ice start pummeling pedestrians in Tokyo. Godzilla would be amused.

This movie is full of incidents that require an unreasonable suspension of disbelief. For example, Sam and Laura, on a plane ride to New York are caught up in some amazing turbulence. Baggage pops out of the overhead bins. What really got my attention was that you could hear thunder at 30,000 feet. I never have. There are a couple of ridiculous shots, like airliners flying into massive storm clouds. Hello? Is someone asleep in the cockpit? On every flight I have been on, pilots avoid storm cells. They fly around them.

Then there is the cockamamie subplot. As if dealing with a new Ice Age is not enough, what does the one scientist who knows the most about this phenomenon do? Naturally, he and a couple of his NOAA buddies risk everything and try to high tail it from Washington D.C. to New York City to rescue his son Sam who is very much an adult. You would think they might take a snowmobile, since the drifts are soon dozens of feet deep, but they take an SUV instead and when that goes out, it is time for the skis and snow sled. It must be a hundred degrees below zero out there but they are not intimidated. Anyhow, Jack said he was going to rescue his son and by god, he will do it no matter how insane it is.

I guess it helped that he spent time in the Antarctic retrieving ice cores. Naturally, the movie starts out there where we find Jack and his coworkers. Suddenly the Antarctic ice shelf they are on separates right next to them. Hundreds of miles of ice and naturally it splits between their living quarters and their research station. Um, yeah.

Moreover, what is with the international space station being the only orbiting satellite capable of conveying imagery of the weather from space? The last I heard we had hundreds of satellites up there snapping pictures of the earth but no one at NOAA can seem to figure out what is going on until the astronauts on the International Space Station tell them.

And how likely is it that millions of Americans, after a little grumbling, would find welcome in places like Mexico and that FEMA of all agencies would be equipped to take care of tens of millions of displaced Americans in places like Mexico? Do you think FEMA’s warehouses and people are trained for that sort of emergency? Do you think Americans will be all brotherly when survival itself is at stake? I would like to think so but I am sorry, no, not in today’s “you’ll get my gun when you pry it off my cold dead fingers” America. Perhaps this sort of myopia is due to the presence of Fox News in the movie. As we know, the folks running Fox News think America is back in the 1950s.

Then there is the formula. Of course, there has to be an evil Dick Cheney-like global warming skeptic and of course, the heroic scientist has to be vindicated in his calamitous predictions. As for the love interest between Sam and Laura, it is as predictable and saccharine as it is passé. And of course Mrs./Dr. Hall has to take care of a sick kid with cancer, yet somehow they must have found places for all the other infirmed in the hospital. The movie just would not have the same drama if she just went home and bundled up in her woolies. They amount to many cheap gimmicks to try to ratchet up the tension in the movie. Yet they feel so artificial that the whole movie, which is on a shaky ground anyhow, falls flat. Frankly, I could have cared less whether any of these characters survived and that includes the homeless man and his pet dog. Not to spoil this movie, which is utterly transparent but yes, somehow against all odds Jack does make it to New York City, huffing and puffing. He makes the journey from Philadelphia to New York on foot where he at last reunites with his son Sam.

So if you find your heart racing from all the excitement, this is likely your first disaster movie. Frankly, I thought The Wizard of Oz was much scarier. It is not quite a disaster spending time watching this movie. As I said, the special effects are awesome and the acting passable. What this movie really needed was a better script and a director more skilled than Roland Emmerich. It needed someone who could take these competent actors and actually make you care about them.

If you liked Twister (1996) you will probably like this movie, but Twister was actually a better movie. At least Twister had some cools lines like, “We’ve got cow!” There is no inspired dialog in this flick.

2.6 on my 4.0 scale. There is nothing that merits your attention except possibly the cool special effects.

The Thinker

Review: Rear Window (1954)

This may be my first review for a movie that predates my birth. Even more surprising, I saw this famous Alfred Hitchcock movie in an actual movie theater, specifically the AFI Silver Theater in Silver Spring, Maryland. Some years ago the American Film Institute, which used to show movies at The Kennedy Center, renovated the old Silver Theater. It is good that they did because otherwise this historic theater would have met with the wrecking ball. My father, whom I took there as a Father’s Day present, remembers taking girls to the Silver Theater as a youth.

This was my first trip to the AFI Silver Theater and I will definitely be back. For a film junkie this theater is something of a nirvana. Here you can see historic (and some modern) films the way they were meant to be seen: on the screen. In this case, Rear Window has been digitally remastered. Even so, the film is surprisingly grainy. Either Hitchcock was using poor film stock or the film degraded considerably over the years. This film is part of a Jimmy Stewart film festival at the AFI.

Rear Window is not one of Hitchcock’s better-known films, nor is it the only one to star Jimmy Stewart. (His best-known Hitchcock role was probably as Detective Ferguson in Vertigo.) Rear Window deserves more attention because it is a surprisingly engaging and well-done film. Current cult director M. Night Shyamalan was clearly inspired by Hitchcock. One only has to see Rear Window to see elements that Shyamalan has borrowed from Hitchcock.

For example, Shyamalan’s movie Lady in the Water takes place in an apartment complex. Rear Window also takes place in an apartment complex. While Rear Window does not have Lady in the Water‘s mysticism, both films have a collection of oddball apartment dwellers. Jimmy Stewart, playing L.B. Jefferies, is a convalescing international photographer with a broken leg. He is stuck in his apartment with nothing else to do during a hot, sticky Brooklyn summer than watch his neighbors. His apartment happens to face inward onto a courtyard, giving him an intimate view of the comings and going of his neighbors across the courtyard. These were the days before air conditioners. We find a couple sleeping on their balcony to avoid the heat. Much of the movie literally drips with sweat. At the start of the movie, we find a hobbled Stewart in a leg cast and wheelchair sweltering with his neighbors in 92-degree heat.

For a movie this old, it is surprisingly racy. Indeed, the MPAA belatedly gave it a PG rating. It includes scenes of a dancer always practicing her dance steps through her open window in little more than a bra and panties. It also includes Grace Kelly in lingerie and the (then) shocking suggestion that as an unmarried woman her character planned to spend a long weekend nursing her boyfriend.

Jefferies discovers his apartment complex is a real Peyton Place. The cast of eccentrics include Miss Lonelyheart, who stages elegant dinners for a boyfriend that does not exist, the Songwriter who seems to have parties every night, and the newlyweds who remember to shut the blinds at the last moment. It is at these times that you realize parts of Lady in the Water are homage to this important Hitchcock film. Through Jefferies, Hitchcock quickly draws us into the lives of these strangers across the courtyard. Jefferies’s attention though soon focuses on Lars Thorwald (played by Raymond Burr, who was obese even then). Lars and his wife have a fight. Yet his wife mysteriously is never seen again. Jefferies wonders what happened to her, and through the open window, he watches his neighbor engage in some very peculiar actions. He grows convinced that Thorwald murdered and dismembered his wife.

The movie also stars the entrancing Grace Kelly in her prime. If you have never seen Grace Kelly in a motion picture, this movie is a great one to watch to make her acquaintance. She is both achingly beautiful and an excellent actress. In this movie she plays Lisa (that’s “Leeza”) Fremont who is something of a fashion snob. Their difference in values suggests to Jefferies that their relationship is doomed, but he cannot quite find the courage to end it. An insurance company nurse also visits Jefferies daily. She performs physical therapy, changes his sheets, makes him meals and most importantly gives Jefferies the opportunity to spout his conspiracy theories about his neighbors. Jefferies is also pals with Lieutenant Detective Doyle (Wendell Corey). After seeing enough suspicious activities, Jefferies tries to enlist Doyle’s help for some shoe-leather work.

While Doyle remains skeptical throughout, Lisa and Jefferies’s nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) eventually become fully engaged in the Lars Thorwald mystery. Did something happen in that apartment or is Jefferies making much ado about nothing? Hitchcock of course keeps you guessing.

The result is a taunt character driven movie that quickly sucks you in. The camera never even leaves Jeffries apartment. Jefferies watches all his neighbors’ comings and going. Since he is a photographer with a telephoto lens, he can also capture much of it. As a suspenseful movie, there is lots of mystery but little in the way of jeopardy until the very end of the movie. Suffice to say that when Stella and Lisa start to become private investigators, things turn dicey quite quickly.

What I also really liked about this movie is the way that Hitchcock so accurately captures life in noisy Brooklyn. You can hear the tugboats wailing on the unseen East River. You hear the constant sounds of the city, and of people noisily engaging in life. It was doubtless all staged on a Hollywood set, but it feels very much like Brooklyn. I also enjoyed its authenticity to period. This was the life my parents knew but that largely passed me by. Hitchcock makes use of his roving camera and shadow to accentuate the film’s engagement and mystery.

While probably not Hitchcock’s most suspenseful film, it may well be his most intriguing. You should see it if the opportunity presents itself.

The Thinker

The audacity of stupidity

I have been trying to understand the rage of Hillary Clinton supporters now that she is out of the Democratic presidential race. Naturally, none of their rage seems to be directed against her personally for failing to win the nomination. Unsurprisingly, much of it is instead directed at Barack Obama who had the audacity to run a better campaign, present a better pitch to voters and, yes, sorry to dash your illusions Hillary fans, but also win the Democratic popular vote.

There are also many passionate Obama supporters out there. Had he lost and Clinton won, which I argued was what should have happened, I suspect many Obama supporters would be upset too. Perhaps they too would threaten to do what a quarter of Clinton supporters tell pollsters they will do: either sit out this election or vote for John McCain. The fact that some of Clinton’s supporters would actually vote for John McCain tells me how strongly they were vested in Clinton’s campaign. That they would actually vote for a candidate who is against almost all the interests that Clinton stood for strikes me as exercising the Audacity of Stupidity. Dogbert would have a field day with this line of reasoning.

As readers know, I support Barack Obama for president. However, I never was one of those Obama fanatics. I liked all the candidates and could have happily voted for any of them. I only narrowly chose Obama over Clinton. I could have happily voted for Clinton in the general election, despite her statements during the Pennsylvania and West Virginia primaries that sure sounded racist to me. I could vote for her because she is smart, personable, has values that are similar to mine, has a fair amount of political experience and also because I would have liked to see a woman in the Oval Office. Those obliquely racist comments about being best able to represent the values of the downsized, lower income white middle class were, I realized, mostly a desperate attempt to change the dynamics. (Moreover, it was probably untrue, given that Obama grew up living on food stamps, and she grew up in a comfortable Republican household.) This was clear to many others and me that by the end of March she just wasn’t going to be the nominee. Obama speaks of the Audacity of Hope. Hope though is predicated on at least something tangible. By the end of March, Clinton’s best hope was that some racist nut would assassinate her opponent. You do not plan a win based on such a strategy.

History will be the ultimate judge of why Obama won the nomination and Clinton lost. A few things are already clear. Obama ran a much better campaign. It is not that Obama’s advisors were all that cleverer, but that Clinton’s advisers were running her husband’s campaign. They never spent much time looking past Super Tuesday, which they assumed would set dynamics in play to seal the nomination. They raised money the old-fashioned way, on the rubber chicken dinner circuit and by networking their well moneyed friends, instead of the tapping the power of the Netroots and the Internet. Bill Clinton certainly did not help her. His own vaguely racist comments solidified the African American vote for Obama, which polls suggest she actually led at the end of 2007.

Mostly Clinton lost because when Democrats pondered it long enough she was not quite the candidate the majority of Democrats were looking for. As much as many of us wanted a woman president, she came with known baggage. Her negatives were well known and overall she was as unpopular a political figure as a popular one. Obama understood that this would be a change election. Clinton did not represent a clean break with the past and a fresh face. Given this dynamic, it is remarkable that she did as well as she did. It is doubtless cold comfort, but she came very close and split the last two primaries with Obama. She was not trounced. She set an excellent example of how to a woman should run for president. I am sure she inspired the woman who will someday hold the job.

Her claim to be the more experienced candidate struck me as rather strange. Like with her dubious claim of having won the popular vote, one can also play the numbers with experience claim. If one counts only time in elective office, sorry, Obama wins. Obama spent eight years in the Illinois senate and is closing in on his fourth year as a U.S. senator. Let us call his political experience a dozen years. By the same yardstick, Clinton’s political experience is eight years, all of it as a U.S. senator. Clinton of course wishes to discount Obama’s time in the Illinois state senate, but it was certainly a political office. She also wants to count her time as First Lady. The position is of course an honorary one and not a political one, although she did manage (and ultimately bungled) an attempt at national health insurance. Yes, she worked on other political campaigns, but Obama also spent many years as a community organizer making $12,000 a year. Personally, I think it is a wash. I do not think either candidate could credibly claim more experience. Clinton could legitimately claim the experience of being in the White House and understanding its unique political culture. There is a big difference though between observing it as First Lady and actually having the responsibility that her husband assumed.

So what drives the animus against Obama by a sizable number of her supporters? I have been reading blogs, news stories and asking Clinton supporters personally trying to find out. Clinton supporters cannot credibly claim that Obama is a misogynist. Quite the contrary, he arguably has as good if not a better record on women’s issues than Clinton. Throughout the campaign, he has been uniformly polite and deferential with Clinton. I will grant you that many commentators showed their misogyny, as this will attest. Mostly they represented forces that already disliked her, and were principally on the right. Remarks about her cleavage, for example, irritated me as much as it did millions of women.

Obviously, given their passion Clinton partisans saw more in her than I saw. Even so, I was overall impressed with her as a politician and as a candidate. While not the perfect woman to run for this office, she was at least eighty percent there. I actually did shake Hillary’s hand once when her husband was running for president. This was in Atlanta in 1992. The brief time I spent in her presence convinced me that she was a woman of substance.

Clearly, I am not a woman. However, I think I can put myself briefly into the minds of her supporters. I think women who supported her felt at last here was a woman who could truly be elected president. She had the right set of political and personal skills to pull it off. Many women also feel victimized by life. This is likely because most of them have been repeatedly victimized. (Men get victimized too, but that’s for another blog post.) They get crass come-ons from horny coworkers, bosses and construction workers. They earn on average 70% of what men earn. They are stuck with the majority of the childrearing business. They have people anxious to tell them what they can do with their own bodies. They were denied the vote until the 1920s. It is our time, it is our turn, I suspect is what they were thinking. Then out of nowhere comes this mixed race African American, another damn man, and snatches away her victory in an incredibly close contest with what looks like unearned charisma and smoke and mirrors. If this is how Clinton women feel, I can understand their anger and exasperation.

I am sorry that this election will mean that we will have another damn man in the Oval Office. I am sorry that no male president can think like a woman because he has a sex organ hanging between his legs. Nonetheless, it would be a profoundly stupid thing for any Clinton devotee to sit this election out or vote for John McCain. It is counterproductive to the values Clinton supporters claim to stand for. A vote for John McCain is a vote to overturn Roe v. Wade. It is that simple. I hope their anger can be redirected before November where it belongs: on McCain and Republicans in general.

No, we will not have a woman president this go around. But it looks likely that we will have a distinguished and energetic man of mixed color who has fought for women’s issues all of his adult life and whose wife is a die hard feminist. It may be half a loaf, but it is at least half a loaf. Sit tight, American women. I think you will find America will have a woman president much sooner than you think. Read the rest of this entry »

The Thinker

The downside of brilliancy

Call it a hunch, but based on my observations over many years, being exceptionally intelligent, like being a celebrity, is at best a mixed blessing.

I am not speaking of smart people in general. I am talking about the exceptionally smart, the top 1 to 2 percent of the population. It is easy for them to dazzle me with their intellect. Yet typically, when I get to know them beyond the surface level I find that their lives are often a disordered wreck. Many cannot hold a job. Some strike me as introverted to the point of paranoia. Others leave a trail of wrecked relationships. (Albert Einstein used the proceeds from his Nobel Prize to pay alimony.) Many of them are dealing with major psychological problems. I have known more than a few who have been diagnosed with manic depression or dyslexia.

Yes, all humans suffer from stuff, but over the course of 50+ years, I have gotten to know many extremely smart people. I definitely think the brilliant suffer from more issues than the population as a whole. I wonder if the problem is because they are born into a society that for the most part cannot appreciate their gifts. In any event there are plenty more of us average folk than there are geniuses. Just as I have difficulty relating to a moron, I think it must be challenging sometimes for the brilliant to relate to people like me.

Yet I suspect this is not the case because many of the super intelligent people I know find people like themselves annoying too. While I suspect that most end up in a Mensa club at some point, few hang around. Apparently, when you are brilliant it is not necessarily that much fun to hang around other brilliant people. I hear from brilliant people that they have come to revile their peers’ personalities. For many, attending one Mensa meeting was enough for a lifetime.

My parents like most parents encouraged me to make the most of my intelligence. I suspect I am smarter than most, but I doubt what intelligence I have is due to genetics. Rather, it comes from perseverance. I fought for almost every A on my report card. I cannot say the same about the many very intelligent people I have met. To learn, I find it necessary to memorize, futz, underline facts with yellow highlighters and retype my notes. The very intelligent soak up information the way a dry sponge soaks up water. They just cannot help it. Their brain is fine-tuned for acquiring and retaining information. When a teacher speaks, the knowledge is automatically stored, filed and properly indexed. They read a textbook and they get it: the concepts, the relationships between ideas, the detail and the inner meaning. Term papers become academic exercises. Studying for tests is rarely required.

This allows them to get 4.0 or better averages and be the class valedictorian. Yet based on my observations over many years, many of them have problems applying their knowledge successfully to the real world. I think this is because to succeed in the human world you must also master human relationships. Humans are endlessly complex and non-deterministic. I am guessing this is as baffling to the brilliant among us as it is to me.

Perhaps I am just rationalizing my prejudices because I cannot join their lofty intellectual ranks. However, I am left to infer that being too intelligent may be something of a handicap. Unquestionably, it is hard for many of us to relate to people far above our mental plain. It would not surprise me if it went in both directions. I find it challenging to relate to the guy who empties my trash or the security guard who checks my badge. I frankly envy people like my wife who can relate to pretty much anyone. I suspect she is a rather rare bird.

Having great intelligence does not mean you are also functional in society. I suspect the biggest movers and shakers in our country, the Donald Trumps and Jack Welchs are not Mensa material. However, I suspect they are shrewd by nature, organizationally gifted and have mastered perhaps the most important skill needed to be successful: relational skills. After all, machines do not change the world, people do. If you can win friends and influence people, you have a skill that is arguably much more important than extreme intelligence. Nor does excessive intelligence mean that you will be blessed with an entrepreneurial spirit or an intense drive to succeed.

Despite the focus given to intelligence in the schools, overall it is a poor predictor of ultimate success. Perhaps we should value skills like leadership and innovation over high intelligence. I do not mean to discount the value of intelligent people. Brilliant people made many of our important scientific discoveries. Yet, it takes people with a plethora of talents for the world to make progress. The very intelligent serve an important role in human progress. I am not sure they necessarily deserve the accolades that we give them or that so many of us really need to aspire to be like them. We may be better off aspiring to be simply who we are.

The Thinker

Real Life 101, Lesson 8: Avoiding the Credit Trap

This is the eighth in an indeterminate series of entries that provides my “real world” lessons to young adults. It is my conviction that these lessons are rarely taught either at home or in the schools. For those who did not get them growing up you can get them from me for free. This is part of my way of giving back to the universe on the occasion of my 50th birthday.

It has been a while since I wrote an entry in this series. Yesterday’s huge jump in oil prices, combined with a .4% increase in the unemployment rate in one month, along with a stock market which dropped precipitously (the DJIA dropped nearly 400 points) made me think about one of the major reasons the economy is tanking. It can be summed up in one word: debt.

In Lesson 2 of this series, I did discuss debt in general. Today I would like to focus on one kind of debt in particular: credit card debt. The Federal Reserve keeps a handy report on consumer debt, all neatly categorized. As of June 2008, total credit card debt is just shy of one trillion dollars: 956.9 billion dollars, or roughly $3200 for every man, woman and child in the country. In 2003, unsecured “revolving” (i.e. credit card) debt was 770.5 billion dollars. Perhaps more ominous is the rate of increase in unsecured credit card debt: 2.9 percent in 2003 and 7.4 percent in 2007. Americans are living way beyond their means and they are funding their lifestyle in the worst possible way: by charging it.

Why is “charging it” worse than other forms of debt? It is because credit card debt is unsecured, which means that you do not have to pledge collateral like your car or house to buy things today. This makes credit card debt riskier for lenders. They compensate by charging interest on your credit card debt that is often two or three times as much for an equivalent amount of money in a conventional loan. This also makes credit card debt potentially more profitable than other forms of debt. Hence, you are likely solicited with many credit card offers a week, many seducing you with frequent flier miles or low introductory interest rates.

Young people in particular are easy prey for this kind of debt. Just starting out, you do not tend to have much if anything in the way of assets. A credit card allows you to buy stuff today and pay it off later when you have more income. All you have to do is meet that “minimum monthly payment”. The problem of course is that young people tend to see money as abstract rather than real. What matters becomes not your credit card balance, but whether you can meet your monthly payment.

Charge card companies love providing you credit because of the interest and fees they get to charge you on the balance. Those teaser rates look great but credit card agreements are fungible and can be changed with minimal notice. Typically, interest rates go up after six months or so, along with all sorts of bogus fees. Often the time between when you receive your credit card statement and when you must pay your bill is squeezed, making it more likely that you will pay other fees for “late” payments. Providing you can keep making those monthly payments, credit card companies are likely to keep increasing your charge card limits, thus encouraging you to exacerbate your indebtedness to them. In short, as you probably have read, unsecured credit for many can eventually become something of an albatross. Like a Ponzi scheme, at some point the burden of your debt will crush you and your future. Instead of paying for life’s necessities like food, you are primarily paying the interest on your outstanding balance. This means life’s other necessities get short shrift. You may think a bankruptcy can bail you out. However, some years back Congress tightened the bankruptcy laws. No bankruptcy is good and bankruptcies, if you can secure one, cost money too. It stains your credit, making it harder to borrow money in the future for life’s major purchases, like houses. It is also bad for creditors, who lose money.

Like you, I probably get three or four credit card solicitations a week. How many credit cards do I have? I have exactly two. In reality, I have one. Recently I got a Sears credit card, specifically because I saved $100 off the cost of a dishwasher by enrolling. I do not intend to use it again. I did not pay a dime in interest when my bill arrived because I had set money aside to pay for it in full.

In reality, I have only one credit card: a humble Visa card issued by my credit union. My credit union offers no rewards program. I get no frequent flier miles for charging expenses on it. It does have one major advantage. Because I am a member of my credit union, as opposed to a customer, I am unlikely to get screwed by my credit union. My interest rates are likely to be better than most credit cards. The terms of service will not change very often. Moreover, my grace period will stay relatively static. In short, I get predictability and credit card value.

What balance do I carry on my credit card? Every month I get a statement that says I have a balance of a few hundred dollars. What is my real balance? Zero. How much have I paid in fees and interest rate charges in the years I have had my credit card? Zero. How is this magic possible? It is possible because while I have credit I pay off my balance every month. As soon as I make an expenditure on my credit card, I debit it from the checkbook I will use to pay off the charge. This way there is never any ambiguity about whether I can afford to buy something. I simply look at my checking account. Is there enough money in there to pay all my other expenses? If not, this is my signal that I cannot afford this purchase. Is it fun to deny myself stuff today? Not particularly. Does my strategy have any advantages? Of course. Rather than paying hundreds or thousands of dollars in interest and fees a year, I get to pocket the money and use it for something that actually gives me something tangible in return. Nor do I wake up in sweats in the middle of the night worrying about my debt load.

I make a credit card work for me, instead of against me. A credit card can work for you when it can give you advantages that check cards and cash cannot. When I use a credit card, I get a certain amount of financial protection. Should the seller be bogus, I can get a refund, or I am out no more than $50. I always use a charge card for purchases like airline tickets. Who knows whether an airline will be around in 90 days? If you have the fortitude to pay off your balance every month, you also essentially get free access to money for a period.

Have I paid interest on my charge cards? Yes, but only tiny amounts over the years when I messed something up or when I was just establishing credit. I started with a humble Montgomery Ward charge card and I paid less than my balance for a few months. This encouraged Wards to up my credit limit and established my credit worthiness. Then I stopped this tactic. As a result, when I do need to borrow money, I tend to get the lowest rates. Lenders know based on my track record that I will not miss a payment.

I encourage you to not be owned by your credit card, but to have it work for you too. I suggest you try my strategies. If you are one of these types who will be compelled to spend if you have a credit card, it is better to avoid them altogether and use check cards instead. Granted, it is not always fun to live within your means. Nevertheless, you should feel in control of your financial life, and that is a wonderful feeling. If you must make larger purchases, do not use a credit card. Take out a personal loan, preferably with a financial institution where you already have a history. If you have equity in your house consider taking out a home equity loan. Be cautious taking out any loan. You might want to review Lesson 2 of this series if you are trying to distinguish whether a particular loan helps or hurts you.

America is drowning in debt. It is not just young adults, but millions of Americans are living beyond their means. It is also our government, which is exacerbating the problem by using foreign credit to get us to spend more money now to spend our way out of a recession. This is like a drunk drinking their way to sobriety. It makes little sense until we all start to use debt responsibly. Much of the increase in the price of oil is due to our falling dollar, which falls because our government is spending too much and likely taxing too little. The more in debt we incur, and in particular the more we go into debt for things that add no value, like our War in Iraq, the worse the recession and our pain will be.

Do not be a financial loser, like most Americans. Vow to be a financial winner. To start, you must know where your money goes, how much you can really afford and you must use debt responsibly.


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