Viva la Capitalism!

I’ve really been sitting here metaphorically bashing my head against the desk trying to figure out what was worth writing about tonight. The solution, as usual, was right in front of me. Usually, I don’t pay that much attention to the internet. It’s basically transparent to the user… I mean I don’t sit down at the keyboard and say I’m going to use the internet to access WordPress or my bank. I just point in the direction of what I want to do, and it gets me there. The wonder if the internet really isn’t what got me thinking tonight, though. It’s the sites like eBay and Amazon, Etsy and Cafepress that let any schmo create an account, log in, and start selling products to a whole world of consumers that they wouldn’t have access to from the kind of businesses that people started from home five or ten years ago. Maybe I’m coming late to this party, but damnit, that’s a big deal. It’s huge! Someone with an idea that’s good enough can sit in the comfort of their on home and make money from nothing more than their ideas and a willingness to put in the time to identify and reach an audience.

Your chances of becoming an internet millionaire are probably about the same as hitting tonight’s MegaMillions jackpot, but still, in this case it seems to be a function of the harder you work, they luckier you get. The beauty of this new wave of micro-capitalism is that it takes so much of the hugh startup costs out of the equation and lets people focus on delivering a quality product while someone with the technical expertise deals with the “back office” stuff. With a few good ideas and a high speed internet connection, we can all be in business. Talk about a radical departure from all of human history.

Viva la Capitalism!

Feeling guilty…

Occasionally, when the veneer of my being a civilized member of society is especially thin, I find myself sitting in traffic thinking “the only reason that justifies this foolishness is someone being mangled up there.” It’s usually followed by a quiet prayer that they broke something so the holdup isn’t just them being a particularly bad driver. Ninety-nine percent of the time, traffic is just jacked up because everyone wants to slow down and look at the guy changing his tire on the side of the road or because someone was texting and missed the guy in front of them laying on the breaks. The other 1% of the time, some schlep seriously misjudges the speed of oncoming traffic and ends up getting thrown 60 yards across a divided highway and plugging himself head first into a tree. I’d guess I missed that excitement by less than a minute. For a while tonight, I felt bad about wishing ill on the poor driver. Then I read a news report that he was a suspect in a robbery a few minutes earlier at a nearby store. I should probably still feel bad about another person’s suffering, buy all I can really think of at the moment is that sometimes karma doesn’t waste any time in getting even. Suddenly I find myself feeling less guilty.

A look over my shoulder…

Despite the impressions that I might give here, I usually go out of my way to be at least civil to random people I meet during the course of the day. For the most part, they’re the ones just trying to get through whatever’s on their plate and they want to be left alone just as much as I do. Of course on the other hand you sometimes encounter someone who couldn’t get a clue if they were being handed out for free. That was the kind I ran into this morning while I was waiting to get my oil changed.

I like to use the kind of enforced down time you only get in a waiting room to catch up reading, writing, or some other activity I can do quietly. Occasionally I’ve had people stop to ask questions about the iPad. I do my best to answer their questions without getting sucked into anything resembling an actual conversation. I dispense the requested information and stick my nose immediately back into whatever it was I was working on before they came by. Sometimes, like this morning, it’s just not that simple.

The old battle axe sitting next to me this morning apparently has a tough time taking hints or reading body language. Just because I’m typing away on the screen doesn’t mean that I don’t see you trying to read what I’m writing. It gets a little more obvious when you start leaning further and further in my direction as I move my iPad further and further away from you. I didn’t particularly want to cause a scene and yelling at old ladies isn’t really my style. That left me with only one option: a Google search for BDSM images. Since she was so intrigued with what I was up to, I even offered to let her check out the first page of results with me. As it turns out, she apparently wasn’t as interested in what I was up to as she thought she was. Hopefully next time she’s tempted to mind someone else’s business, she’ll give some thought to how much she really wants to know about the stranger sitting next to her.

Dog days…

After a ridiculous amount of time in and out of the vet’s office, tests, retests, and the some more tests, the results are somewhat less conclusive than I would have hoped. The bottom line is this: Despite higher than normal protein levels in her urine, there doesn’t appear to be anything physically wrong with Maggie. She’s behaving normally and has no ill effects in terms of kidney, liver, or heart function. The phrase the vet used this morning was that it seemed likely that Maggie just has “an unusually high baseline on these tests.” I’m pretty sure that’s veterinary medicine’s way of saying the numbers aren’t right, but we have no idea why, but I let the nice vet off the hook without asking too many questions. As long as my pup is in good health and not from something causing long term damage, I’m content to leave well enough alone.

For now, I’m going to do some tinkering what her food and retry all these tests in six months to see if anything has changed. It’s not exactly the clean bill of health I usually look for from the vet, but at this point, but it seems like as good a negotiated settlement as I’m likely to get this time around. I’m mostly just pleased that we were able to rule out most of the worst case scenarios. Even so, this last week has been a bothersome reminder that I’m the single parent to two middle-aged children now. Neither one of them are pups anymore, regardless of how I still think of them in my own head. I’m not sure I like that at all.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Neck Ties. I completely understand that there are times when we all need to look just a little more formal. On an average day, though, when I’m going to spend 6-7 hours sitting behind a keyboard or going to meetings with people I see every day, putting on a tie is really just a pointless exercise. That’s why I don’t wear one unless I absolutely, positively, can’t avoid it. Certain men’s fashion magazines will tell you that it’s all about “self expression” and having “good fashion sense.” Meh. I express myself using things like the English language and I can’t remember a time I ever gave a tinker’s damn about anything involving fashion. Hard as it might be to believe, it’s just not something that ever seemed worth the effort to be interested in. As long as everyone shows up freshly laundered without body parts hanging out, I’d say we’re good to go. If I’m going to court or taking a meeting with the president, I’ll probably manage to find a tie that isn’t stained (too much). Otherwise they’re going to continue hanging in the closet in case I ever need a tourniquet. If companies like Apple and Amazon can make a gagillion dollars without anyone wearing a tie, I think it’s safe to say that a colorful piece of silk hanging around my neck like a noose isn’t going to make anyone more productive or professional. Mostly it’s just going to get in the way and make me uncomfortable until I pull it off and stick it back in my desk drawer. Thankfully, I’m winnowed the activities requiring a tie down to about one a week… and even then, I ditch the damned thing before going to lunch.

2. Fakes, flakes, and liars. There’s really only one standard of conduct I try to live by; do I do what I say I’m going to do. Most of the time, I do. Occasionally I miss the boat. Sometimes that’s intentional because the situation has changed and other times it’s because of circumstances beyond anyone’s control. That’s a long way of saying that I don’t always practice what I’m trying to preach. Most people, on most days, are trying to do the right thing and despite being a pessimist by nature, my natural inclination is to give people the benefit of the doubt. At least until they intentionally drop a steaming pile on my head. Then… Then they’re irredeemably dead to me. You’d think by this stage of the game, I would have learned to manage my expectations and not be caught by surprise. Still, from time to time, someone weasels through the gaps and catches me off guard.

3. Taking big bites. Sometimes biting off more than you can chew is fine strategy. It gives you something to work towards. The other side of that, of course, would be that sometimes the only thing a big bite does is get stuck in your throat and leave you sucking for air. Facebook, Twitter, jeffreytharp.com, a few other sites and blogs I contribute to, ebooks, email, and a few other odds and ends have been consuming a ridiculous amount of time and attention lately. Through in the probably misguided desire for all those interactions to be substantive on a daily basis and, well, you tend to end up taking very big bites. All of those things are voluntary, of course, and as I wrap up a few current pet projects I’ll be doing my best to limit new things I take on in those areas. In the meantime, I’ll be doing my best not to choke. If I start really feeling frisky, I might even decommission a few of the social media accounts I find myself not really using enough to justify having around. Yeah. That would probably be a great first step towards a more sane Jeff.

4. But wait, there’s more! I could go on, and on, and on, and on about the small things that are annoying Jeff this week, but I’ll spare everyone the administrative minutia. As my mother would say, I’m “in a mood.” In all probability, this mood will resolve itself sometime after 4:00 tomorrow afternoon. I’m more than ready to get into something that doesn’t require the application of more than two or three brain cells at a time.

Illusion…

I can see from the outcry that’s been consuming the world wide interwebs this afternoon that Google must have done something that someone, somewhere decided was evil. Yawn. So what? Google is a multi-billion dollar company working hard to build additional value for its shareholders. Google might own and operate file sharing and storage sites, a ridiculously reliable (and free) email service, blogging platforms, online productivity tools, social media and gaming sites, and its own phone company, but don’t think for a minute that any of those things are really Google’s main business line. They provide all of these things at no monetary cost to the consumer because they are, ultimately, in the sales and marketing business. Their business model involves nothing more scandalous than matching up buyers and sellers for just about any product or service you or I can imagine. Instead of the targeted billboards and newspaper inserts of yesteryear, they use giant server farms and targeted web ads, but it’s really just using a modern means to achieve an age-old end.

From what I’ve been able to gather, sometime a month or two from now, all of us that use Google will be opreating under a new privacy policy that covers every site under their corporate umberella. Personally, I think that kind of cross-platform fusion is precisely what the internet is supposed to be about. Why shouldn’t my experience with Gmail, YouTube, Picasa, and the rest of the Google family of sites be exactly the same instead of each having its own, slightly different take on privacy. If nothing else, the new universal policy will let us all know precisely the position Google is taking. Then we can make an informed decision about whether we accept that policy or not.

If it turns out I can’t live with the new privacy policy, as big as they are, Google isn’t the only game in town. I’m pretty sure I could still dredge up the password from my old Hotmal account if I really had to. Then again, they’re a free service run by another conglomerate who’s trying to sell stuff to me too. Maybe it would be better if I just bought my own mailserver and managed all my own correspondence through JeffMail.com. Alternatively, I could find a company with a privacy policy I believe in and pay them cold, hard cash to provide me all the services that Google wraps up under one umbrella. None of those things seems very likely to happen, though. Instead, I’ll click “accept” when given the opportunity and continue my life without giving it much more thought.

The internet isn’t your house. What we’re doing here isn’t happening behind closed doors, especially when we’re not the ones who own the servers, routers, and other equipment involved in bringing the world together electronically. We certainly have an expectation that companies will make diligent efforts to protect our personally identifiable information like social security and credit card numbers or our account passwords, but expecting an ironclad veil of privacy surrounding our online habits and interaction is, in a phrase, dumber than dog shit. Here’s some helpful advice from your kindly Uncle Jeff: If you don’t want people to find out what you’re up to, don’t do it online. I promise that Google, Facebook, the deposed Nigerian prince, your long lost cousin from Dipshitistan, and possibly the CIA are watching.

State of the Union…

In the strictest possible sense, the state of the Union, is peachy. It’s not like we have states threatening to join up with Canada or Mexico or anything. We’re in the middle of a presidential election cycle where if the incumbent is turned out of office we’ll most likely see yet another peaceful transition of executive authority. Considering world demographics, even the least among us is doing better than the large majority of everyone else on the planet. We survived our capital city being sacked. We survived a brutal civil war and then fought in the war to end all wars before getting pulled into the war after that. In between these wars, we survived finical panics and Great Depressions, pestilence, and famine. Despite it all, we’re still here and managed to cure contagious diseases, send a man to the moon, and connect the world with nothing more than electrons. Keep in mind, we did all those things in our free time when we weren’t occupied dealing with the big stuff. That’s my big picture thinking about the state of the Union, anyway.

If you distill the state of the Union down to the question of whether you’re better off now than you were four years ago, the response probably isn’t as positive. There are plenty of people who can’t find work, can’t buy or sell a house, and at best have spent the last four or five years treading water at best and being pulled under at worst. It’s not an easy time for America and it’s not an easy time to be American. It’s easy to be an optimist when Wall Street only goes higher and unemployment runs at 3%. It’s a hell of a lot harder to be an optimist when you can’t find a job or you’re going to bed hungry at night.

So, you ask, what’s really the state of the Union? Well, it’s probably somewhere between the two extremes. That’s where reality tends to live. It’s neither as strong nor as weak as the pundits and politicos make it out to be. The United States, warts and all, is still the shining example of how to be a republic. Local, State, and Federal governments fight one another. Political parties fight with everyone. Even the separate branches of the same government are locked in Byzantine conflict. Somehow we muddle through without veering too far left or too far right. Dysfunctional as it is, the process is still a wonder to behold. With financial crisis spreading through Europe, our lifeblood oil flowing from the Middle East, and the supply chain for our consumer goods that stretches all over Asia, we Americans are once again learning that we have to engage with the world – the whole world. The future, and a far stronger Union, lie in the direction of cooperation, consensus, and international competition. It’s a hard lesson, but one well worth learning.