Saturday, August 28, 2010

Smartphones are an Oxymoron

I faced a genuine dilemma this week. No maybe it was not on the level of import like having half of the entire population of Chile trapped underground in a mine, but it was still a big deal to me. You see my TracFone annual subscription was coming due in THREE DAYS. Since I have seen a marked increase in my I.Q. as of late, I had to decide whether to keep my elementary TracFone, or ‘move-up’ to a ‘smarter’ phone for brainy folks like me, who can drive,text, and chew gum at the same time.

I currently use an ancient, tiny but mighty Nokia 1100, which is literally the most popular cell phone ever produced. Basically the thing does what any good cell phone should do – makes and receives calls/texts reliably, built to bulletproof standards, and oh yeah, features a ‘coolio’ on-board flashlight!

The problem is of course all about cost. You see I am not without experience on these high-end Smarty phones. I get the privilege to pay for an Iphone contract with AT&T but my costly spawn, off at college gets to use it. The phones are impressive indeed, but $80 a month (which equates to about 8 months of my Tracfone cost) is a pretty penny for a device which if you sneeze on it without a waterproof case, it will fail. I always feel my kid worries more about protecting the phone rather than herself and therefore she's often compelled to leave that dumb 'smartphone' at home. Who can risk sophisticated electronics to the caustic environment of ‘jogging’ and getting the phone ‘sweaty’, sitting by the pool, or sitting on the sand?

So tell me, who is the smart one now - the one who controls how and when they use their electronic tools, or the ‘oxyMORON’ who is relentlessly CONTROLLED by those same ultra-smart tools? I too would love the ‘look at me’ sophistication of a cell phone with an on-board GPS, nifty camera, and sleek styling that lets everyone know how truly intelligent and chic my hot, trendy ‘Smartphone’ makes me. But since they don’t make those fancy phones that ‘smart’ after all, I decided to ‘re-up’ with my economical, ‘do anything’, ‘go anywhere’, rawhide tough TracFone Nokia … and did I mention, it has a really keen built-in flashlight!

Friday, August 27, 2010

No Substitutes

I am generally one of those people who you needn’t worry about impressing with fancy labels, exacting detail or taste perfection. No the only thing I need in my ‘top drawer’ is a reasonably clean pair of ‘man panties’ and maybe a sock (or two) preferably without holes in them. Now I enjoy high-brow niceties like everyone else from time to time, and more power to you if you can bring home enough extra bacon to go ‘whole hog’ on the good stuff. But for me, usually I will be just as happy with a turkey burger over a beef patty or fermented Nyquil instead of Champagne.

At Thanksgiving once my Brother-in-law was helping out with the feast and we were short on butter, so naturally I remarked “that explains the room filled with guns”. After he ignored my snide remark, he asked if I would be so kind as to procure a pound of butter for the cooks. Of course I obliged and asked if anyone else needed anything before I left, since these were the days that I did not carry a cell phone. Since it was THANKSGIVING, despite my best efforts, no discount supermarkets were open, but I did find a corner convenience store which was very busy. That makes sense because everyone knows that Thanksgiving is synonymous with Malt Liquor, cigarettes, and lottery tickets.

Amazingly the little store HAD butter but it was a whopping $5 a pound which was exactly $3 more than the margarine sticks next to it. Though it was the best I could hope for on a holiday with limited vendor choices, that margarine was still an eye-popping 100% price increase over what I typically paid at home. Anyway being practical I parted with the FOUR bucks and bought twice as many of the margarine sticks but I was still a dollar ahead over buying only one pound of real butter. I knew it was a special meal and ‘doubling down’ on buttery-goodness was the least I could do to show heartfelt appreciation for my extended family’s generous home-cooked sacrifice.

Well needless to say, my return was not greeted with as much enthusiasm as I had expected. My Brother-in-law was nowhere to be found and my distracted sister-in-law was busy finishing off some side dishes so I gave her my bountiful bag of buttery generosity. “No matter”, I thought, ”one’s good deeds need no demonstrative reward” – just knowing I calorically contributed, and soon will share in a savory family meal is the ONLY acknowledgement I need.

While waiting for the finishing touches of our lavish spread to materialize, I wandered back to the family room to terrorize my nephew and his Dad. The kid was all alone happily playing some type of video game on the television. I watched a few minutes in silence but then noticed on the coffee table, my Brother-in-law’s favorite tea mug, still warm awaiting his return. Now curious, I queried “Where’s your Dad?” to my nephew and he simply grunted ‘Out’. “Out – Out Where?” I asked suspiciously. My nephew kind of squirmed and shifted uncomfortably and then said “To get REAL butter … after you left he worried you’d get the CHEAP fake stuff”.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

“Photogenetically” Challenged

I think when I was born, I greeted the taxi cab driving OBGYN with a tripod and a bag filled with cameras, batteries, lights, and of course the mandatory Director’s ‘oh-so-cool’ beret. As a little older kid, my parents let me shoot 8mm FILM and fire off hot flash bulbs at terrified neighbors and singed pets. Of course the camera-play intensified when my own kid came along, but even before that I used to videotape Mexican weddings for a little extra cash after college. I think the Mexican’s liked me because I would work for tamales and live chickens, and despite my best effort to follow along in Spanish, they were fairly confident that if they did not like something I was doing, they could talk behind my back, but right in front of me.

I always tried to do a good job and for the most part succeeded at fooling people that I was a capable videographer. Truly the point of any photo or video though is to simply ‘REMEMBER’ the moment, so even when the end results are not always perfect, usually, they are still better than having nothing at all. The only wedding photos I have are in moldy old albums that were damaged in a flood. I keep the musty things because I can still make out my wife’s head through the melted emulsion in some of the shots. So who cares if I pan too quickly, set up a photo with the sun facing me, or pose a shot with a giant streetlight growing out of somebody’s head. Those shots will still jog a memory and who knows, they might be in a museum someday because I am clearly the granddaddy of ‘bad’ photography.

With the throwaway digital camera invasion and so many social sharing sites, now it seems that EVERYONE has joined my club though. Apparently the whole world now thinks they have the right to go around taking lousy pictures of themselves and their friends. Curiously, I don’t remember getting any ‘high fives’ or nary a nod of acknowledgement as to my revered place in the hallowed halls of ‘awful-tography’? Doesn’t anyone still go down to the mall or a photo studio to do formal portraits anymore except for weddings? I think even my last passport photo was done with some cheap digital cam by a grumpy postal worker. Thank goodness for my police ‘booking’ photos or I’d never get any decent headshots for our family album.

The world seems awash with a plethora of self-inflicted and overexposed ‘vampire’ family portraits these days. You know those photos – they are the ones where nobody has a skin tone deeper than the shade of milk and their eyes all glow red. Or how about the ubiquitous ‘long arm’ self-portrait – how many of those has my own kid taken and proudly posted for the whole world to see? With the advent of online media sites like ‘YouBoob’, ‘FaceBucket’ and ‘TwitSpace’, shaky fast-pan videos and blurry headshots, seek to quell the world’s insatiable hunger for bad photographic content. Gee do you think I may have passed along the ‘bad photog’ gene on to my daughter? Isn't there some kind of ‘PAParazzi’ smear test to determine such things, as I did inadvertently sneeze on her camera once during a dive for the Kleenex box. I’m not too worried though, with a little luck my photogenetically challenged ‘bad blood’ will skip a generation and miss my kid altogether. You see, I always tried to spare her the embarrassment of my ‘shortcomings’, so I gave those away with the bowling shirts and my REALLY ‘BAD JEANS' to Goodwill.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A nasty ‘Tax Santa’ note from Francis Pharcellus

Well I hope you have been nice instead of naughty this year because the holidays are just around the corner. Actually what is unique this year is that it really doesn’t matter if you have been mean, a Saint, or even if you are Christian, Jewish, or any religion at all. In fact, it matters not if you’re lucky, stinking rich, or odor-free and make less than $250,000 per year, because “YES, there is a ‘Tax Santa’ coming to town, Virginia and he doesn’t discriminate!”

By the time you are putting out the torn up wrapping gift packaging on the curb this year, and getting your favorite New Year’s kazoos tuned up, ‘Tax Santa’ is going to make your 2011 extra special indeed. According to television commentator and the ‘American’s for Tax Reform’ spokesman, Ryan Ellis, there will be three waves of added tax burden heading everyone’s way. The first pointy part of this tax trident is the much ballyhooed ‘Bush tax cuts’ which will expire on January 1, 2011. Regardless of your politics, this simply means your personal income tax rates will rise to just under 40% for the highest bracket and unbelievable 50% increase for folks going from the old 10% rate to the 2011 lowest bracket of 15%.

I don’t wish any of you ill will, but if you have to die, like Scrooge says ‘you had better get on with it’ because there currently is no death tax, but in 2011 it will be 55% of your estate if you have over a million bucks worth of stuff. I know a cool million seems like a lot of net worth but consider this. If you have worked your whole life for a nice paid-for home, maybe a vacation place, and of course a handsome 401K to live out your life, you probably will fall into this bracket. What is MOST frustrating is that by doing EVERYTHING RIGHT, and by saving and sacrificing extra spending cash today in order to be self-dependent tomorrow, the government feels it is entitled to better than half your estate. Did somebody forget that on almost all of that cash, dividends, and those worldly possessions that you own, you have paid sales taxes, annual property and Federal taxes, insurance, and maintenance out of your pocket ALREADY?

Speaking of all that stuff too, you have been so good this year, you deserve even MORE from ‘Tax Santa’s’ big bag of tricks. Dividend income taxes will increase over 160% to around 40% of their value, the child credit will be cut in half, capital gains taxes will rise by 25% and the ’marriage penalty’ will return. The second part of this Grinchy trifecta of taxation will of course be the Healthcare bill passed last year. From the 10% tanning tax in July to higher excise taxes on ‘branded’ drugs, everything (except our spirit) is ‘looking up’. Taxes on employer health care plans that are ‘too good’ or ‘not good enough’ will affect nearly EVERYONE with higher costs and taxation - NOT just the advertised evil profiteer and small business making over $250 thousand big ones. There are over 20 new tax hikes alone and 20 thousand pages of added regulations, just associated with this healthcare bill. In 2010, you worked 231 days or 63% of the year, just to pay for your government’s burdens. That is over a MONTH longer than just a couple of years ago and no doubt AT LEAST a couple of weeks less than the taxes required in 2011.

The final point of the wicked tax trident will be a 700% increase in families forced into paying the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT), as well as loads of new tax hike goodies and slashed expensing for businesses. AMT was originally enacted in 1969 to force the top 155 income earners of the day to calculate and pay a higher tax rate since their ‘normal’ deductions were so massive that the effectively paid no tax under the regular tax system. In 2011, due to inflation, over 28 million taxpayers will have to calculate their taxes under both the regular system and alternative tax code, then pay whichever is the higher amount. Small Business will only be able to ‘Expense’ equipment and tools to $25,000 instead of the previous figure 10 times that amount. Larger business will only be allowed to ‘Depreciate’ tools rather than expense half of them as before, which results in what? – yep, less new machinery purchased which means LESS jobs.

Sorry to ruin your holidays so early and with such a downer. It’s just time that regular VOTING people wake-up and understand that we are literally eating ourselves alive here. The government oddly continues to de-incentivize investment in business, R&D, job growth, all the while spending money and adding taxation at an un-sustainable rate. These tax hikes take away deductions from teachers and ordinary households who rely on tuition deductions for kids in schools and college. No more classroom deductions or Cloverdale education account tax breaks. Even charities are hurt since IRA charitable deductions will be disallowed, so what was once a donation anticipated by a wealthy donor will simply shift to yet another tax payment. There are only 100 pennies in every dollar. When you take away, even a fraction of a cent for some perceived public need, that is a fraction LESS of personal wealth that you individually control. At some point you run out of pennies and … uh well, - Christmas is officially over. Sadly then, all we’ll be able to say is “NO Virginia, there is no Santa Claus – he lost his way and was TAXED TO DEATH.”

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Good Ol’ Days

I was in one of those moods recently and I was thinking about all the things I miss from when I was younger. Fortunately I never had any looks so that was not on the list, plus I have found a secret most guys don’t know - there is nothing a little foundation and mascara can’t hide. It’s a joke ok plus do you honestly think my wife would trust me with make-up? I borrowed some lipstick from her once to make a fake laceration on my head for a video, so she complained for a month that I had ‘smooshed’ the angled end and it would not retract in the tube. Needless to say, now all the make-up in the house goes in the lock-box with the alcohol cleaning pads, Nyquil and the catsup bottle.

Anyway, I had bought some ‘Ding Dongs’ for packed lunches and I noticed that they come in a sort of white cellophane sealed pouch now. I can’t explain it but both Ding Dongs and Hershey’s miniatures used to come ‘foil wrapped’ and I liked them better that way. It’s kind of the same with Coca Cola when it came in real bottles as a kid. There was no such thing as diet drinks so most of us were smart enough to know that a ‘soda pop’ was supposed to be a treat, not a replacement for your total bodily fluids. Now I drink diet soda all the time through an I.V. but it is never as good as those ice cold ‘glass bottled’ Cokes on a hot summer day.

I miss my snowy analog TV reception because even if the picture was not always perfect, I could make out the audio and storyline. Now with digital TV, every time the wind blows, or there is a little rain, my television repeatedly sputters, blanks out, and pixelates like a patient on a hospital drama. After a few minutes of looking at a frozen picture of some actor with their eyes half closed, I turn the channel and watch that show until it blanks out too and I finally close MY eyes ‘all the way’. Also it is sad that the National Anthem at the end of the broadcast day is gone. Remember when the TV stations actually understood EVERYONE was in bed (or should be) and actually STOPPED broadcasting each day. Now the TV stations simply fill up the overnight hours with an endless parade of infomercials hawking anything that insomniacs might respond to with an open mind and checkbook .

Of course I miss most when it was ok to take knives to ‘show and tell’ at school or carry a nail file on an airplane. Now for an overnight plane trip if I can’t find a tiny tube of toothpaste, I simply have to squeeze a green gob of the stuff into a hankie and put it in a plastic bag. I let the airport screeners think what they want, but they NEVER ask me what’s in the hankie. Hmmm, maybe if I was a terrorist I could try that same angle but with a loaded diaper? No, that’s probably not a good idea because even the most hardened air marshal would never take a ‘Stink Bomb’ seriously. See, even being evil was so much easier when I was over-ripened ‘diaper baby’. Who says CHANGE is necessary - I miss the good ol’ days!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Back in the 'Blog-Saddle'

I have to admit it is rather uncomfortable writing this blog again. It feels like a long time since I have written anything other than checks since I hauled the young one back to college. Oh don’t worry about her, she has to write a few essays too but the grading at school is a lot easier than that of my typical blog commentators. Plus my kid’s school is unique since in exchange for literally my first born, they provide maid service to clean her room and rick-shaw limo rides to class.

So other than the ‘rump dent’ in my oversized steel reinforced easy chair being a little out of place, I have to thank Raker for doing a bang-up job. He held down the fort and more importantly did not let any of the quarantined ‘hot air’ out of the blog for the past week. It gave me a chance to turn my full attention to my kid, although in all honesty I have never seen more fear in her eyes in the 19 years I have known her.

Generally this time of year is always a bit hard for kids and of course that mostly means ME. Even now, I detest the ‘back to school’ sales and ads on television celebrating the return to structured education and the loss of freedom. Now mind you, I LOVED SCHOOL and by most accounts (except for those of my accounting professor) achieved reasonably successful results. Yet, don’t let that Charlie McCarthy, devilish grin on my face fool you, as I ‘aint no dummy’. Who in their right mind REALLY wants to get cooped up inside cramped, echoey spaces with dozens of others who don’t want be there either? School sounds a little too much like church to me. Most people learn BEST through real experiences, not just theoretical explorations and lofty reading.

Ok, so I had better get off this soapbox before it starts to bubble; and heave my heft back into the daily blog-saddle. I kind of wish that teacher’s pet ‘Raker’ would have trimmed the bushes around the place or done something truly useful other than his ‘high-brow’ blogging while I was away. I guess the old adage ‘you get what you pay for’ is still valid? Gee I hope so – with all the REAL dough I am shelling out for my daughter’s college, in THEORY, our family will be enjoying hot, fresh bread for the next thousand years!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Car Vs. Plane college experiment

This last week, I got to experience first-hand the juxtaposition of cross country travel by car and the reverse of the trip by aeroplane. By the way that is the same thing as an ‘airplane’, however I just ate a crumpet and my tea-stained teeth allow me to a think and feel British. Despite being literally shoehorned into my daughter’s car in the ‘shoe’ section,(which is next to the ‘party dress’ section) it was a pleasant trip back to college. I never did find the ‘study hard and save money’ section on the seating chart so I doubt one exists, though I will remain hopeful for the time being.

My daughter drives a convertible, however this trip is never as pleasant for her since she cannot lower the top for fear of losing both the shoe and party section ‘occupants’ to the wind’s fickle whimsy. I personally appreciate the protection from the sun, dirt, and hot winds in a car with a lid on it, plus I really don’t look too attractive ‘topless’. Though a 16 hour drive seems horrible, we try to break up the monotony by counting Indian casinos and sleepy truckers along the way. Amazingly, the strategy works as the drive only feels like 15 hours – Wheeee! My daughter also has the convenience of a DVD screen which pops out of the car dash so we can watch public service messages of the danger of driving distracted along with other sitcoms.

To haul all of that junk to college costs about $120 in fuel - $85 for the gasoline and $35 for the two of us in food. To fly back to St. Louis it cost about the same, but oddly, the flight attendants still would not allow me to travel topless. I did have the pleasure to be sandwiched in between two handsome women, however I think it was against their will? Given the typical tight quarters in airline travel these days, I probably should have bought one of those ‘I-Pad’ thingys rather than a widescreen laptop. But buying ‘I-Pads’ embarrasses me too much because they sound so much like feminine products (and only cost a little bit more).

Anyway, I enlisted the help of my seat partners as the lady on the left could take care of the ‘Caps Lock’ side of the keyboard and the lady on the right handled the ‘Enter’ side keys. My role in the middle was very limited as I simply had to dictate the necessary idiocy for a few bloggy paragraphs in between in-flight peanuts and tomato juice. All told, my trip home by plane took about 5 hours including my gate waits, and a few hundred extra seconds (as well as calories) from Dunkin Donuts.

A reasonable hypothesis and expectation is that you would think hands down the airplane trip is the clear winner for cost vs. time in the Car vs. Plane experiment. The truth is, NOTHING beats the chance to spend a few extra hours with the kid before she starts back at life’s grind toward adulthood. No I’m not actually THAT sentimentally sweet with political correctness - it just has become necessary since my unfortunate ‘copy-cat incident’ exiting the plane via the emergency slide. I must be just 'plane' crazy - WHEEEEEE!