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Thursday, September 29, 2011

So you think you are smarter than a 5th grader? Than Watson? Than a monkey? Than something... anything, please.

Smart is subjective. There is no standard. We measure smart comparatively. If someone says you are dumber than a box of rocks, argue and you'll win maybe 80 percent of the time. But for any other comparison, be wary.

Alex Trebeck has all the answers but IBM's Watson has all the questions. So who is smarter? See! Already a trick question. Don't you feel stupid?

Einstein (renown is when you are recognized by just one name--not  counting Cher and Charo) seemed to be smart. After all, who can dispute E=MC squared (which proves I'm not smarter than my keyboard... can't find that tiny 2) which plainly shows that nothing in the universe travels faster than the speed of light? NOT SO FAST AL, you loveable lummox... scientists have just discovered that neutrinos (which sounds like Italian pasta noodles) are about a billionth of a millisecond faster than 186,282 miles per second. I guess that means all the car speedometers will have to be changed now.

Are you smarter than a 5th grader? A heptagon is a figure with how many sides? Another trick question. Obviously, a heptagon is formed in the shape of a snake. Hep- get it? Or is it Herp-etologist?

Well, at least we can compare ourselves favorably to dumb animals. Can't we? But where do you find a dumb animal... and how can you tell?

Remember Let's Make a Deal with Monte Hall? Each contestant, at one point, was give a choice of three doors, one of which hid a wonderful prize. The other two held booby prizes. After the contestant chose a door, Hall removed one of the two remaining doors and asked the contestant if he/she would like to switch door choice. Only a third of those on the show switched.

Marilyn Vos savant
The probability is that if the contestants switched every time, the odds and outcome would be largely in their favor. Why? I have no idea. Ask Parade columnist and person with the highest recorded IQ on record, Marilyn Vos savant.

In laboratory experiments, pigeons, pecking keys to make a selection, soon learned by trial and error that switching choices was better. The pigeons then switched 96 percent of the time! So who is smarter now?

In another such study, four rooks  (birds) were offered a worm floating deep in a water jar that was too narrow for them to reach with their beaks. After trying and failing, then pondering the dilemma, they collected rocks and dropped them, one by one, into the jar until the water rose high enough for them to grab the treat. Maybe they read Aesop.

Why didn't I think of that? Well, for one reason, I don't care for worms so I guess I'm home free there.

In another controlled experiment, lambs (and most other animals, I would think) learned which plants were good to eat by realizing the wrong choice made them sick. Me? I could eat chocolate til I die... and I'd probably still want more... or Big Macs or French fries or...

And I haven't even mentioned monkeys yet.

Yep. There is always someone (not counting Marilyn Vos savant), or some thing smarter than you... except for a box of rocks. One of life's lessons is that being smart does not always beget doing things well.

Good judgement and common sense... those are the qualities. And being smart... or not... is irrelevant to using best what we are blessed with. THAT is the key to life's riches untold.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Another top 10 list I didn't make

Actually, let's make this a top 11 list because it suits my purpose. The list is Forbes 400 richest Americans. And consider my shock when I didn't make it... again!

Bill Gates at $59 billion is the guy waving the big "No. 1" foam finger this year, after an embarrassing drop in world rankings last year to second place... kind of like Casey striking out. Reason for his surge in a down world: Coupons! He and Melissa always shop on double and triple coupon days... and it paid off. This is a lesson for all of us.

Yes, Warren Buffett, using his senior discount to the max, was second, and blah, blah, blah. But that's not the story.

  • Number 6 is Christy Walton and family at $24.5 billion (note they round off to the nearest hundred-million dollars in this league).
  • Number 9 is Jim Walton with $21.1 billion.
  • Number 10 is Alice Walton at $20.9 billion
  • Number 11 is S. Robson Walton with $20.5 billilon

(Side note: The Walton family dog, Snert, dropped to number 23 this year with $3.4 billion and is concerned where his next doggie treat is coming from.)

So let's see... the Walton worth, taking 4 of the top 11 spots, comes to $86 billion. Pretty good total for a discount retailer. You did good, Sam. But what does that tell us about America? (It's a different story than you think.)

Walmart (the new logo style) isn't the world's #1 retailer because nobody goes there. We all do... even if we go in disguise so our friends won't know... or dress so outrageously that we grab our 15 minutes on YouTube.

And we all buy there... in great quantity. Walmart did $450 billion in retail U.S. sales last year! And do you know what its biggest seller was? This will kill you... bananas!

Walmart is the world's 18th largest public corporation in size and the largest in revenue. It has 8,500 stores in 15 countries. Two million people cash Walmart paychecks. Founder Sam Walton did something that wasn't high tech, so I guess you can say, he earned all those billions the hard way... by being the most desired SUPPLY to the consumer DEMAND... and he did it in a way we all seem to like, with low prices, high volume and lots and lots of stuff.

While no numbers are public, opinion and data say that considerably less than half--some guess 15 percent or so--of Walmart product, excluding groceries, is made in the USA.

We are all for "Made in America," but the reality is that supply (at the price we reward with our purchases) to fill our demand is what it is all about. As Sam said, as he built his little store, "There is only one boss. The customer. And he can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else."

There is a reason why half of the cars on our roads are foreign made and you can't buy a television made in the 50 states. It is not because we wanted it that way, it is because that's what happens in a free world market. Competition for the dollar is the key variable as consumers weigh benefits, quality and perceived value. It's called capitalism and we are "the deciders."

Just a little on Sam Walton's roots. Growing up during the Great Depression, Walton had numerous chores to help make ends meet for his family as was common at the time. Says Wikipedia, he milked the family cow, bottled the surplus, and drove it to customers. Afterwards, he would deliver newspapers and sold magazine subscriptions. Upon graduating, he was voted "Most Versatile Boy." As success came, he still drove his old pick-up truck from store to store, or flew himself in his small single-engine plane.

Today, his legacy for low-cost operation can still be felt at Walmart. The corporate headquarters of the world's largest retailer looks like an old elementary school or bus station--no marble floors, custom-built furniture or executive dining rooms. Management still travels on a tight budget when taking business trips and the overwhelming corporate mission is to keep prices low and associates happy.

Isn't it interesting that this impressive American entrepreneur founded one of the most successful companies in the world--a company that probably sells more foreign-made goods in the United States than any other? But that's not the story. The story is about the America dream that we all share-- to be GREAT-- and the impressive list of those like Sam that it has spawned. Where but here could it have happened that way? In this, we can take great pride. Seriously.

As for "Made in America," it's not them, it's us, the third largest country in the world... and its greatest consumer.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Do you know... ?

 Do you know that we have 10,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000 stars in our universe? Well, as astounding as that sounds, science has found that number to be a gross under-estimation! Astronomers recently discovered that a typical elliptical galaxy, thought to  contain of about 100 billion stars, could actually have as many as a trillion. And get this: there are about 100 billion galaxies--and we are just one of them! Is that mind-boggling incredible?

THE GOOD NEWS: We now have at least three times as many wishes.

Do you know that "In the first few years after birth, there are 700 new neuron connections formed every second of the child's life. The achievement gap between a child born into extreme poverty and one of the professional class is evident by age 3," says Daniel Pedersen, president of the Buffet Early Childhood Fund. "I would build new centers for preschoolers, infants and toddlers, with three teachers per classroom."

Do you know that in Canada, guess who sells a McLobster... or in France, the McBaguette... or the McRice Burger in Singapore... or (my favorite) McSpaghetti in the Phillippines? Come on, Italy... the Phillippines?

Do you know that Warner Brothers, which bought the rights to Patty and Mildred Hill's 1893 song, "Happy Birthday," collect about $2 million in royalties every year? Hmm. If I could only remember the words.

Do you know that on 9/11, when it was realized that United Flight 93, the fourth hijacked plane, was thought to be headed to Washington DC, two of our F-16 pilots were sent into the sky with orders to bring it down. Neither plane was armed with live ammunition--no time. It was expected that the pilots would use their planes as missiles... and they were ready. It was the heroic passengers on board that took care of that.

As an aside, I was in Washington DC the week before the 10th anniversary of that tragic day, and the city and it's venues provided an awesome, somber, reflective, pride-swelling experience. If you haven't been there recently, go again, soon. There is no greater place to feel American.

Another one: The social networking site, recently polled its 120 million users around the globe as to what nationality is "most cool." Guess what?  Americans were voted the world's "coolest." While anti-American sentiment is a high profile perception, "we sometimes forget how many people across the world consider Americans seriously cool." Less cool: Brazil, Spanish, Italians, French, Brits, etc.

Do you know it costs more than a penny to make a penny and more than a nickel to make a nickel. Oh, don't worry... I'm sure we make it up on volume.

Do you know that in America, anyone can sue anyone for any reason. Robert Lee Brock sued himself for $5 million. He claimed that he had violated his own civil rights and religious beliefs by allowing himself to get drunk, commit crimes and land in jail, just like the song. Sounds like a solid case, but certainly not win-win.

Elsewhere, a 290-pound man is suing burger chain White Castle because he can't fit into their seats. 

Do you know that a city in Taiwan has offered an incentive to dog owners who pick up after their  Bowsers and Fifis? For every bag of poop turned in, the good owner gets a ticket to a special raffle for poop-scoopers... a chance to win one of three gold ingots worth about $2,100 (shaped like a what?)... and the city gets all the dog poop it could ever hope for. Sales of dog laxatives have gone through the roof.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Maybe we ARE the Bizarro Universe

If you love Seinfeld... and don't we all, then you just might remember his 1996 episode, Bizarro Jerry, which supposes there is a parallel world where everything is (oxymoron alert) exactly the same, except opposite. There was a Bizarro Jerry, Bizarro Elaine, Bizarro George, Bizarro Kramer... and even a Bizarro Neuman.

  • Note: As --the company that brought us all those yellow and black 'Dummies' books to make us all feel equally stupid... not that there is anything wrong with that--says in its The Theory of Parallel Universes for Dummies: "The multiverse is a theory in which our universe is not the only one, but states that many universes exist parallel to each other. These distinct universes within the multiverse theory are called parallel universes. A variety of different theories lend themselves to a multiverse viewpoint. (If you are interested in more on this, click the link.)

Seinfeld's bizarro universe has everything "reversed" in some way. Heroes are villains, beauty is hated, ugliness embraced and nerds with pocket-protectors filled with pens make fun of 'normal' people. But really, is there a bizarro world? Well, if a number of physicists actually believe a parallel universe can/does exist, why not? Who among us 'normal people' care as long as it makes for good Seinfeld. And it does:

Jerry: Like Bizarro Superman ... who lives in the backwards bizarro world. Up is down, down is up. He says "Hello" when he leaves, "Goodbye" when he arrives.
Elaine: Shouldn't he say "badbye?"
Jerry: No, it's still goodbye.
Elaine: Does he live underwater?
Jerry: No.
Elaine: Is he black?
Jerry: Look, just forget the whole thing.

You know, I sometimes think we are probably someone else's bizarro world because so many things we used to value, today seem to be backwards. We embrace 'reality' shows by the hundreds (Fact: In 2000, there were 4 reality shows on TV. Last season, there were 320 of them--really!), fall for all things Kardashian, suffer political rancor and 're-electionitis,' and put up with outrageous politicians of all kinds while real problems become polarized and frozen.  

All of this, of course, makes for juicy media fodder, our anger at the outrageous, and great viewer ratings. We eat this stuff up. Beyonce's baby bump is a lead story. Sexting is news... and who was caught sexting is even bigger news. The Appalachian trail, which used to be for hiking, is now a punchline:

"Where did you disappear to last week Governor?

"I was hiking the Appalachian Trail."


The surest way to gain public attention is to to stand out... and wow, do we! Shop at Walmart, and if you dress 'right' you might go 'YouTube viral'. Cheat, lie, steal. Bitch, carp, complain... you are mainstream.
  • Lawsuit: Two lovely, delightful grown children, I'm sure, sued their mom for "bad mothering," because, they said, she failed to buy enough toys, "haggled" over the amount spent on party dresses and sent a birthday card that her son didn't like.
Even the 'hit' reality show, Desperate Housewives of Beverly Hills, knows how to boost its ratings by riding on the coat-tails of a tragedy. When the husband of one of its stars committed suicide, the news filled the Entertainment Today genre of 'exclusive coverage' programing for a week. Then the network announced--to satisfying media coverage-- that it would be running suicide prevention public service announcements during its showings. And while some were saying, "Isn't that thoughtful and wonderful," television moguls were saying, "When the world hands you lemons, make lemonade."
  • A very rich Malaysian with more money than he knew what to do with, just paid $5 billion for a 100-foot gold plated yacht. Its bedrooms are platinum and one contains a priceless statue carved from a T.Rex bone.  "It will never be topped," he boasted. 
Are we going crazy... or are we already there? What has happened to our values? Statistically, half of us used to be below average. Well, I'm thinking that today, at least 2/3 of us must be below average... a new world record!
Life is an emotional balance of what is happening, what we know, what we can do about it, and how we feel... but sometimes, I believe we are nothing more than a mixed up pot of people just waiting to be stirred.

Hey... wait a minute! We are are OUR OWN bizarro world... I'm sure of it.

PS: Lest I get too carried away, I really am an optimist-- with a touch of cynical sarcasm--who believes lots of good does happen, it just often gets lost in the media's weird demand for your attention... and our rewarding them by watching and caring for the wrong things. My comfort blankie:
  • A Los Angeles high-school senior whose good grades gave him an opportunity to compete in a unique free-throw contest, beat seven others to win a $40,000 college scholarship. Because of his skills, he was later granted a basketball college scholarship, so contest rules allowed him to take his prize in cash. But, the son of Ivory Coast immigrants said, "I've already been blessed so much and I know we're living with a bad economy," so he donated it to the contestants he beat. "This money can really help my classmates."
  • The Fresno County Schools Superintendent cut his own annual salary from $290,000 to $31,000. "If we face midyear cuts, I can have the money ready to go and it doesn't affect our employees.
Thanks, good examples. I needed that.