Friday, January 29, 2010

Privacy? Forget About It

Most of us have learned to be very careful when we're online. We don't give out our social security number or any private information that we don't want others knowing. As a result, we're safe from strangers knowing all kinds of things about us that we want to keep private, right? Wrong.

I was googling something the other day when an ad on the right side of the page caught my eye. It was a service that could search for people and find out all kinds of things like where they lived, their emails, their birthdays, the names of their spouses and children, and much more.

I wasn't tempted to check out someone else, but I was curious about how much this company knew about me. For free, they gave me the names of my wife and kids, and promised to give me more information if I used a paid service. Since my primary job is saving my readers from doing anything foolish, I checked the box and committed to a small fee. They listed my age and date of birth, and my address and phone number. They also told me I didn't have any liens on our property, they did a criminal check, and gave me the names of neighbors. It seems that it would be a lot more neighborly just to introduce myself to my neighbors in person, but I'm obviously not living in Cyber Space 2010.

They had my correct age and date of birth, and, if they want to send me a birthday present, they've got my address. They know how much we paid for our house, and the size of it. Actually, they were somewhat short on the house size. They didn't count our finished basement. Maybe their electronic spies missed it when they made their cyber visit. And they gave us an extra bedroom. I hope this doesn't mean that they think there's an extra room that they can use for one of their people to spend the night.

They said I had no criminal record, so I guess they don't count parking tickets. They claim there are no registered sex offenders in our neighborhood. In terms of other crimes, burglary and vehicle theft are listed as "average." I don't know if this means that the crooks do an average job when they steal something, or if we have the average number of thefts in our area. They had all kinds of statistics including the claim that a whopping 52% of my neighbors have masters' degrees. If they're so smart, why can't they remember to put on their turn signals?

I immediately realized that if I can find out so much about me, so can everyone else in the world. And no, I still wasn't tempted to check out anyone else. The whole thing made me feel like I'd be peeking in someone's window, going through their garbage, or tracking down their old math teacher. So I called the company to cancel everything. I asked the woman on the phone, "Don't you feel like this whole thing is a bit creepy?"

Not surprisingly, she did not, and said she's a customer as well as an employee. She touted the ability to check out a possible employee like a nanny. She also said you could find an old friend whom you had lost touch with. My feeling is, if I've gotten along this well without them, I can stay out of touch. I added, "Aren't you concerned about that annoying kid from elementary school tracking you down?"

She answered, "If you're worried about somebody like that finding you, you can check the box that doesn't allow your records to be public." I responded, "I'm not worried about the annoying kid from school finding me. I was the annoying kid." I was just using that as an example.

So, I resigned my membership a few minutes after I had joined. However, we all know that there are many companies like this that can tap into our computers and find out all kinds of things about us: what products we buy, whom we e-mail the most, and probably if we picked up after our dog this morning (I did). It doesn't seem to matter how careful we are, "they" will find out more about us than they should. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if I get an email in a few minutes from one of these companies saying something like, "Who are you kidding? Those socks you're wearing don't go with your pants."

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Treehugging Bartenders

In these days of overwhelmingly serious issues, every once in a while we need a break from them. That's why some people exercise, or read, or send text messages like, "I'm texting now." People need diversions. So I have a gift for you: a question to ponder that is just something interesting that caught my attention: Why are there so many more liberal bartenders than conservative ones?

Sociologists Neil Gross and Ethan Fossey came up with some research recently that was reported in The New York Times. They investigated stereotypes like "university professors are liberal and bankers are conservative." They found that liberal and conservative stereotypes are self-perpetuating. Young people hear all their lives that journalism is a liberal field and running a corporation is something conservatives do. So it's not surprising that liberal young people might want to be journalists and conservative kids might be drawn to business.

Even when the researchers dealt with the labels that people gave themselves, many stereotypes held up. While the majority of people in most fields called themselves, "moderates," the professions that you would probably label "conservative" generally had more people in them that identified themselves as "conservatives" and vice versa. More artists, authors, and social workers identified themselves as "liberals," and more religious workers, physicians, and law enforcement officers called themselves "conservatives." No big surprises so far, right? But then we come to the statistic that caught my eye: more than five times as many bartenders consider themselves liberals than conservatives. Is there a liberal bartender stereotype that I just didn't know about?

What is it about bartending that makes it a "liberal profession?" Until now, I guess I believed in the stereotype that bartenders must be conservatives. My image was of a tough-minded guy who goes hunting on his day off and has a tattoo on his chest that reads, "If You Weren't Born Here, Go Home." As you can see, I also believed that bartenders have very big chests. But the statistics proved me wrong. More bartenders are liberal than conservative.

So how do bartenders fit into the liberal stereotype? What do they have in common with other liberals? Maybe the stereotypical liberal love of egalitarianism is represented by the fact that bartenders can be men or women. Customers don't care who pours their drinks as long as they keep coming. And interestingly enough, I think the typical bartender has much in common with the sports jacket wearing, pipe smoking, latte drinking university professor. The bartender is the professor, and the bar is his classroom. He or she is in complete control. Like the professor, a bartender can kick people out of his "classroom." Like the professor, the bartender can share his worldly wisdom with those around him. Like the professor, the bartender feels he is underpaid, considering the public service that he performs. Maybe their desire for "one world" and their liberal love of other countries is shown by their serving drinks like White Russians, French Connections, and Australian Virgins. Maybe they demonstrate their liberal disdain for tradition by mixing up concoctions like the Pineapple Martini.

Regardless of how bartending came to be in the liberal column, it's there. So I guess there must be many children who grow up in liberal homes, wondering if they should feed the hungry or serve the thirsty. There are probably scores of college students who can't decide if they should go into sociology or mixology. And I feel bad for all of those young liberals who go through the gut-wrenching choice of, "Should I work for Greenpeace or at the Green Grass Lounge?"

Once word gets out about these lefties who serve beer and cocktails, I assume outraged right-wingers will rail against them: "It's unnatural for someone to be able to pour four drinks at once without spilling a drop." "The liberal agenda includes serving all kinds of fancy drinks instead of just straight Bourbon." And can't you just hear Rush Limbaugh decrying, "Liberals are appropriating everything that was once ours. They've taken over the bars. What's next? Are they going to start foreclosing on people's mortgages?"

On the other hand, those on the right might not be upset about liberal bartenders at all. Let's face it. Just now, I was guilty of using a stereotype.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Sarah Palin: American Idol?

The other day, Sarah Palin announced that she will be working for Fox News. She said one of the reasons that she is excited about working there is because it is a place "... that so values fair and balanced news." As an opinion columnist, nobody expects me to be "fair and balanced," but news shows were once. But she actually called today's Fox News "fair and balanced?" Obviously, the people at Fox may represent the conservative, right wing viewpoint if they want just as MSNBC presents the left wing, liberal viewpoint. But I certainly wouldn't call either of them "fair and balanced." That would be as silly as saying, "I can see Russia from my house."

Like many people, I couldn't resist watching her debut on the "The O'Reilly Factor." I gave into the "must look at a car accident" impulse. Some of her rambling sentences seemed longer than her job as Alaska's governor. There should have been a button to push to get a simultaneous English translation. She made up words like, "uncomfortableness." But everybody makes little mistakes when they're on TV, so let's not linger on her lack of elementary school grammar. When it came to discussing facts, she seemed to obfuscate the issue (Sarah, if you're reading this, don't be embarrassed to look up "obfuscate"). However, it was clear that she implied that except for her, everyone who was involved in her campaign is lying now. It would be nice to see her take responsibility for something. After all, the buck elk stops with her.

In the past, several people have used television to help make them stronger political candidates. Ronald Reagan is a good example. However, I remember seeing Ronald Reagan on television, and you, Madame, are no Ronald Reagan.

The Fox announcement said that Palin will appear on several shows, rather than merely being on just one program. This got me thinking. If she has an overall contract with Fox, maybe she'll also appear on shows that aren't news programs. "24" has been a guilty pleasure of mine for years, and it would be perfect for Palin. Its lead character doesn't let liberal, wishy-washy things like personal liberties and Constitutional limitations get in his way. "The Simpsons" might be a match for someone that many people consider a cartoon character. "Fringe" probably has the most appropriate title for the former governor. And to many, she is an "American Idol."

Actually, my speculations might not be all that far-fetched. On the same day that Fox announced that Palin would be joining them, they announced that Simon Cowell, the acerbic co-host of "American Idol," will be leaving after this season. Coincidence? Maybe. But don't you think she'd be perfect for the show? It would be a great forum for this millionaire celebrity to continue to push her image as a "just folks, regular person like you and me." Can't you just hear her after someone's singing performance? "We don't have an opera house in Wasilla, but that doesn't mean I don't know good singing when I hear it because, like a lot of real Americans, I still sing in our choir, and your voice reminds me of some of the birds we heard when we went hunting last week and saw a bald eagle that's no longer on the liberal, tree hugging endangered species list. You know what should be on the endangered species list? Middle class Americans who work hard, have kids, pay their bills, and don't want the government to be in their lives except when it comes to Medicare, Social Security, and not paying a penny more than a fair price for all the American flags made in China. And I am 100% pro-life except when it comes to killing innocent animals, but we eat therefore we hunt so I don't think this is the right time to raise taxes, especially on a young woman like you who has the chance to be a singing star in the greatest country in the world."

In another amazing coincidence, on the same page of the newspaper that announced Sarah Palin's signing with Fox News, there was an article that said that scientists have now determined that watching too much TV can actually shorten your life. So, if I didn't have a good enough reason to avoid watching Sarah Palin on television before, I do now.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Mr.President, Fire Somebody. Anybody

In response to the Christmas "underpants bomber," an outraged President Obama called his security and intelligence people together. The headline on the front page of the Los Angeles Times the next day read, "Obama gives his team earful over foiled plot." Our intelligence and security measures failed and almost led to a disaster, and his response was to give the security people "an earful?" I guess he rejected the more severe punishment of giving them a timeout and making them sit in the corner. Mr. President, make it seem like you're taking some kind of strong action. Fire somebody.

It doesn't even matter to me which official he fires. I realize that might just be a symbolic act, but maybe we need that kind of symbolism now. Besides, we all know people who've gotten fired for doing far less than almost letting somebody blow up an airplane. Maybe we had a new boss who wanted to "clean house." Maybe there was some kind of misunderstanding. Maybe the job just wasn't right for us. But I doubt that we know anyone other than a government official who let someone on an airplane who had a bomb in his underwear.

When I was flying home from Chicago with my wife and son after Thanksgiving, we were stopped at the security conveyor belt and the screener confiscated something of ours. What was this dangerous item? It was a container of cream cheese. We had bought bagels and cream cheese to eat on the plane. So why did they take it from us? Was it a case of "possession of cream cheese with intent to schmeer?" Apparently it was in a container that they considered a couple of ounces too large. My point is, we couldn't take cream cheese on a plane, but this guy could get through wearing a bomb? And the president's response is just to give his people "an earful?" Fire somebody.

It just feels like a bad case of déjà vu. After 9/11, we were told that security was going to be beefed up, that the safety of the American people was the number one priority of the President, etc. Then we learned that our government had information prior to the 9/11 attacks that could have been used to possibly prevent the attacks. And now, after the almost-tragedy on Christmas, we've learned that governmental departments had enough information that could have -- and should have -- prevented the guy from getting on that plane.

The difference is that this time our president actually admitted that there was a failure in our "intelligence community." I guess that kind of honesty, that "transparency," is progress, but that doesn't make us safer. Maybe firing and replacing some people wouldn't really make us safer, either. But maybe it would.

Based on the past, what we'll probably see are changes at the airport security stations. There may be longer lines. Screeners will probably go through our luggage more thoroughly. They might install those machines that reveal vague images of our bodies to a screener. Maybe there will be something dramatic. It happened after the "shoe bomber." Because of that one guy, everyone had to take off their shoes at the airport, and then the government could point to our shoelessness as proof that they were taking terrorism seriously. I'm sure you can imagine what they might make us take off because of the "underpants bomber."

Obviously, I'm not against better screening at the airport. However, we need to stop terrorists before they get to the airport, before they fill up their shoes or their underwear with explosives. And it's possible for us to do that. The president agrees. He said, "The U.S. government had sufficient information to have uncovered the plot and potentially disrupt the Christmas Day attack, but our intelligence community failed to connect those dots."

They didn't "connect those dots?" So, fire somebody and get someone who's better at connecting dots. I know that might not improve things, but it has a better chance of being effective than taking away our cream cheese.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Free Can Be Costly

My old cell phone died recently. We had been so happy together. It was a very simple phone, not like today's "smart phones." All I used it for was to make and receive calls and an occasional text message. It was perfect for me, so I took it with me to the phone store so I could show the salesperson what I wanted. Boy, was I living in a dream world.

I'm not going to say the name of the company. Let's just say, it starts with an "A," and ends with a "T & T." Once inside the store, I had to put my name in a book of people waiting. It was like when you arrive at a crowded restaurant – except in the phone store, the dessert is a two-year contract. Finally, they called my name, and a salesperson greeted me. I showed him my old phone, and he held back a laugh. As he stared at it, I knew he was wondering if it ran on steam power. When I told him that I wanted a phone exactly like that one, he just shook his head. He said the model was no longer made. However, he added that I could get a pretty simple phone for free.

He showed me a phone that was selling for $50.00 with a $50.00 rebate. In other words, it was a free phone. It sounded great to me, except the phone didn't look anything like my old phone. For one thing, there were no buttons to push. How was I supposed to call anyone? He explained that it had a "touch screen." When he turned it on, it looked like a small computer screen.

I told him I wasn't used to a touch screen, and he said that it was time for me to join the 21st Century. I don't know why, it seems like most of my best times were spent in the 20th. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought it might be fun to have one of these new devices. Besides, there was always that free price tag.

He walked me back to the cash register. I was confused. I thought the thing was free. He reiterated that it was, but I would probably want some kind of case "to protect my investment." (What investment? It's supposed to be free). He showed me a case that he said was almost indestructible. He also thought it would be a good idea for me to have a cable to connect the phone to my computer so I could back up all my contacts in case I broke the phone. "I thought you said that case was indestructible," I reminded him. "I said it was 'almost indestructible.' But you also could lose the phone, or someone could steal it. If you have everything backed up on your computer, you'll have less to worry about."

"Less to worry about?" I never worried about any of this stuff before I had a cell phone. And I didn't have a case or cable for my old cell. But since I was joining this century, I said, "Okay." Then there was another surprise: the sales tax on the phone. I couldn't understand why I would have to pay tax on something that costs nothing, and he explained that it was the law. In fact, I didn't just have to pay tax on the phone as if it cost me $50.00, I had to pay tax on the phone as if I had paid the regular retail price. So, including accessories and tax, the total for my new phone was $75. That's how much a free phone costs.

When I got home, I struggled with the phone and eventually figured out how to dial and receive calls. I didn't learn how to check the stock market, how to watch an episode of "Yesterday's Stars Who Have Lost A Lot Of Weight," or how to make my ring tone sound like a chicken squawking. Not only was I uninterested in all the fancy features, but I figured that by the time I learned them, I'd need another new phone. With any luck, by then, I'll be able to get a free phone for only a couple of hundred dollars.

New Bob Newhart Video

Check out Bob Newhart's first internet video by