Friday, May 29, 2009

Easy Money Is Just One Idea Away

If necessity is the mother of invention, a bad economy is invention's annoying, but motivating brother-in-law. During the Great Depression, all kinds of important things were invented including the electric shaver, penicillin, and Monopoly. The 30s also spawned the first laundromat, baby food, and nylon stockings. The car radio came out during the Depression, and so did photocopiers and radar. And let's not forget one of the greatest inventions of all time: the chocolate chip cookie, also a child of the Depression.

Since so many people were out of work with plenty of time on their hands in the Depression, they could devote those non-working hours to dreaming of ways to make life better for others which they hoped would make a fortune for themselves.

Today's economic conditions are similarly ripe to bear the (organic) fruit of people's imagination. Maybe we won't come up with anything as great as the first roll-on deodorant or the non-leaking ballpoint pen, but I predict historians will look back at the end of the first decade of the Twenty-First Century as a time of some very creative inventions.

Apparently, a lot of people are trying to make that prediction come true. According to its Executive Director, Patrick Raymond, membership in the United Inventors Association has grown 20% in the last six months. Attendance at the Silicon Valley Inventors Alliance meetings has doubled lately.

People all over the country are sitting at their kitchen tables or pacing about their backyards, trying to think of The Next Big Thing. Some of them have probably enlisted their kids in this effort. They're saying things to their children like, "Sit down and tell me what kids your age would want. We can change your diaper later." Similarly, when a spouse asks, "Why don't you look for a job?" it may be answered, "Are you crazy? I don't have the time. I have to think of a great invention before everybody else does."

Thomas Edison had 1,093-patented inventions. How hard can it be to think of one? I'll prove it to you. Here are some things that I think would make great inventions, and I'm offering the ideas to you, free of charge. All you have to do is work out a few minor details:


Viag-bowow – is a sex drug and/or gadget that not only gets you in the mood, but also walks your dog while you're enjoying yourselves.


Caller ID Switcherooni -- This device is for people who want to call their old boyfriend or girlfriend and then hang up once they hear his or her voice. (You know who you are). Nobody wants their old love to find out their identity by seeing their phone number on their Caller ID. No need to worry anymore. The Caller ID Switcherooni doesn't show your phone number; it shows the number of that good looking, but shallow, person who stole your love many years ago. And that's who gets questioned by the police for stalking.


Wait No More -- An alarm clock that also automatically wakes up all the other people in your car pool so you won't have to wait for anybody.


The Food Predictor -- This looks like a meat thermometer. You stick it in your food, and it will tell you if the FDA is going to declare what you're about to eat unhealthy in the next five years.


Instant Porn -- A device for your computer when you're at work. So you won't get caught by your boss, it quickly changes your computer to a porn site from a job search site.


Grand Canyon This -- enables you to talk to the pilot from your seat and tell him about what you're reading whenever you feel like interrupting his trip.


Mirrored Dessert Plates -- these plates show more of your chubby face as you eat, so you'll know when to stop.

You see how easy it is to think of inventions? Now, you try. Oh, I almost forgot. I have an idea for an invention for use after the economy recovers and people go back to investing the same way they used to. I call it the Yes It Can Machine: every time you look at your stocks and are about to put even more money in the market, you'll hear a recording that says, "Yes, it can happen again."

Thursday, May 21, 2009

California For Sale

The fact that California is in bad shape financially does not make it unique. What makes it unique is Governor Schwarzenegger's suggestion to help get California back on its sandaled feet. He recently proposed that the state sell off some of its most famous properties: San Quentin Prison, the Los Angeles Coliseum, the Cow Palace, Del Mar Race Track, and various state buildings. He explained that it's just like some people in the current recession having to sell their homes or luxury items like boats, second cars, and motorcycles. He wants to have a big garage sale, and even sell the state's garages.

I'm not an economist. I have trouble balancing my checkbook. (You remember checkbooks. Those are things that everybody used to carry with them when people kept track of how much they were spending). However, even a layman like me can see a big problem with the Governor's proposed sale. The first thing they'd have to do is find folks to buy these properties. If the people down your block are putting off painting their fence because of the recession, I don't think they're going to plunk down $400 million for the Coliseum.

The state just had a "special election." California has a "special election" slightly more often than it has sunshine. The citizens of California vote on just about everything, while the legislators... actually, I have no idea what the legislators do. Anyway, -- surprise, surprise – - Californians didn't vote to raise their taxes or pay the state's bills in some other way. So that's one of the reasons why Schwarzenegger suggested selling off some of the state's most valuable real estate. California's in big trouble. Much more money is going out than coming in. And the state doesn't even have a charge account at The Gap.

The property that is most intriguing to me is San Quentin. It is located in Marin County on scenic waterfront property north of San Francisco. That's right. For years, prisoners at the Q have probably had a better view than you. So I guess the idea is that if someone bought the property and developed it, they could build some luxury housing that would be quite desirable. Who wouldn't want to live in a place called something like, "Death Row Duplexes?"

Or maybe some super rich person would buy San Quentin and keep it as is. They could use it as a place of business. I'll bet employees would be kept in line with such incentives as, "If you make your quota this month, you'll get an actual seat for your toilet."

Most people think the Governor's big sale won't really happen. He and the legislature will probably figure out a more reasonable way to get the state solvent again. Maybe they'll hold a giant car wash.

But even if the Cal-Sale doesn't happen, it's a provocative idea, and California's certainly not the only place with famous landmarks. So maybe other areas will entertain the "everything's for sale" idea. And it could work. You see, there's one factor that you might not have thought of. You can't overestimate the number of individuals who like to brag about their stuff. If that couple you know is hard to take now, talking about their new plasma TV or their front-loading washing machine, can you imagine what they'd be like if they owned the Statue of Liberty or Carlsbad Caverns?

The states or the federal government could set up rules so that, let's say, people couldn't buy the Golden Gate Bridge and turn it into a roller coaster. The government could set it up so that whoever buys the properties would have to lease them back to the government immediately. That way, the public would still get to use them as always, but Mr. or Mrs. Big Shot could still brag at parties. I can almost hear one of them saying, "Yes, we were going to buy a summer home, but instead we bought the Grand Canyon. It's so much easier to maintain. We don't have to dust."

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Too Much Information

The good news about living in the Information Age is that just about everybody can express what is on his or her mind. In other eras, only writers wrote. Not today. Anybody can self-publish a book, send an email to someone thousands of miles away, or write a blog about whatever she or he wants. It's a wonderful thing that so many people can tell others anything they want about themselves. But why do they feel they have to tell everything about themselves?

When people first started buying cell phones, they did so primarily because they found these devices could be helpful in an emergency. Then they discovered that cell phones could help them keep in touch with work or home. So far, not so bad. But next, people became so addicted to talking and texting on cell phones that now many people feel they have to use them every few seconds. I was in a theater a few days ago, watching a children's dance recital when the guy behind me refused to stop texting and checking for messages once the show began. An usher soon told him that using a cell phone during the performance was not allowed. So, did the guy stop using it and watch the show? Nope. He left the auditorium so he could continue to use his cell phone rather than watch his kid dance.

Like the cell phone, the Internet seemed harmless enough when we first started using it. We could look up interesting facts, and we could tell our family and friends important things any time of the day. But then things started to get out of hand. My theory is that this deterioration began when people discovered that they could use e-mail to instantly send unfunny jokes to as many people as they desired.

Next came the personal blog, yet another mixed blessing. Good writers could tell about their daily lives in fascinating and creative ways. Of course, not so good writers could tell about their daily lives in totally boring ways.

Social networking sites followed. These are things like Facebook, MySpace, and whatever new one has become popular since I started typing this. The interesting thing about these sites is that you no longer are restricted to e-mailing your friends about your life. Now you can write to complete strangers and tell them whatever you want. And what are these strangers called on these sites? "Friends."

Twitter has fine-tuned the phenomenon of e-mailing people about one's own life. On Twitter, your "tweets" are limited to 140 typed characters. But don't worry. You can send as many of these short messages as you want.

We've all heard stories about lurid photographs and messages on these sites, but is most of the communication sexy or outrageous? No, it's dull, duller than you can imagine if you haven't been on the receiving end of this stuff.

Here is a sampling of the kind of things that those on Facebook and Twitter send out to other people:

"I'm getting thirsty."

"I'm thinking of trying a new toothpaste."

"I don't want to catch a cold."

"I just finished packing for tomorrow's trip."

"I really like the color blue."

I'm not kidding. These are the kind of messages that people spend hours and hours sending and receiving. (Well, I did change the color to "blue" to protect the identity of the sender).

Are people supposed to respond? If someone sends a message that says, "I'm really tired," does he expect people to write back advising whether he should go to sleep or not? Some people send running updates of their day: "On my way to work now" is followed by "Almost at work now" and "At work now." Am I supposed to respond, "Congratulations!"?

I don't think so. I have the feeling that people who send up-to-the-minute updates of their daily life don't care if we respond or not. My hunch is that the pleasure they derive is just from writing about changing their fish's water or finding a paper clip in the street.

That would make them just interested in pure self-expression, not the reaction of others. On the other hand, maybe they are interested in others' reactions, and those of us who haven't responded are letting them down. I'm sure I could devote much more time to thinking about this. But not now. I'm going to take a shower.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Barbie Gone Wild?

I've been so distracted by minor but flashy news stories this year like the NCAA Finals, the nation's finances, and the new Obama administration, I missed the big story of 2009: to help celebrate Barbie's 50th birthday, Mattel came out with "Totally Stylin' Tattoo Barbie." She comes with a set of tattoos that kids can place on that iconic body. The doll also comes with a tattoo gun so children can stamp these washable stickers on themselves. Barbie with tattoos? I know what you're thinking: what's next? "Hooker Barbie?" "Pothead Barbie?" "Premarital Sex Barbie?"

Many parents had exactly this reaction when the doll came out a few months ago. They felt this would encourage kids to think prematurely about getting real tattoos for their real bodies. They thought that Barbie with tats was too slutty for their children. They were outraged that a "role model" like Barbie had sunk so low. Meanwhile, it became a big seller.

This wasn't the first time that some adults have objected to Barbie. Some have felt that her unrealistic figure has made young girls yearn for an unrealistic figure of their own. Some parents believe that tattoos for Barbie continues this obsession with one's body rather than other more important characteristics of a woman.

If you go to the archives of some universities, I'm sure you'll find more than one Ph.D. thesis called something like, "Barbie and Body Image: The Downfall of American Womanhood." I admit I was somewhat shocked when I heard about Barbie and body art. My first reaction was, "Now parents of seven-year-olds are going to have to deal with them wanting tattoos."

But then I did something uncharacteristic for me: I started thinking. Maybe anti-Barbie papers aren't the only theses in those dusty university archives. Maybe there are some with titles like, "Relax, Folks. Barbie Isn't a Role Model. It's Just a Toy." Or if there aren't any, there should be.

When you were a kid, weren't you able to tell the difference between a toy and something real? When you played "war" with a friend, didn't you know you were just playing? And did your putting on temporary tattoos make you get real ones? Besides, isn't it a bit ironic that the anti-Barbie-ites who feel that the doll puts too much emphasis on appearance are concerned with the appearance of tattoos?

So it's possible that the actual reason that Tattoo Barbie has some parents' (old-fashioned) underwear in a bunch is because this kind of thing wasn't around when they were kids. Maybe it's like adults in the '50's who were shocked by Elvis and convinced he would destroy our civilization. Or maybe they're like parents like me who, in the '90's, thought video and computer games would ruin children forever. (I'm still not sure I was wrong about that one).

Tattoos don't have the same connotations today that they had when I was a kid. Back then, it seemed like only sailors, truck drivers, and other "tough guys" had tattoos. Certainly, we never saw a woman with one. Today, your doctor or your kid's teacher is more likely to wear a tattoo than a hat.

I confess that I'm still getting used to looking at tattoos without making any kind of knee-jerk judgment about the wearer. Whenever I go on vacation where there's a swimming pool, I'm still a little surprised by the fact that the nice couple we sat next to at dinner the night before has more tattoos than a basketball team. And guess what? Barbie's the same age as that couple. She's fifty now. She might not look like it, but many 50-year-old women don't look their age these days. So maybe it's fitting that 50-year-old Barbie has broken out the tattoos.

I also realized that mothers who have real tattoos might be embracing Tattoo Barbie. Maybe the doll helps their children understand that their mother is someone who just found a way to express herself rather than someone who hangs out with a gang during their naptime.

As a fuddy-duddy, it's not easy for me to accept change, but I do -- eventually. I accept texting, cars that talk, and milk in cartons. So I can certainly accept Barbie wearing tattoos. But I do think you have to draw the line. Where? I'll tell you where, and this is a warning to the people at Mattel: Don't even think about making a Ken doll with pierced nipples.

New Bob Newhart Video

Check out Bob Newhart's first internet video by