Parting with My Encyclopedia Britannica

September 18, 2019

Recently I took the full set of my Encyclopedia Britannica to the recycling center. There was a bit of sadness and nostalgia as I made the trip since I had the Britannica since 1967 when my parents first made the financial sacrifice to ensure that their son had all the necessary academic tools to succeed in high school and beyond. But my wife and I are in the process of downsizing and the full set of now out dated knowledge compendium just had to go. I must admit that I got a near hernia lugging out the 26 volumes but I made it back home with a sense of relief that keeping the set served no purpose, especially since a careful study of the value of the complete set of 1967 Britannica was near zero. Also, I had convinced myself that the volumes had no useful purpose since time marches on and of course knowledge is now imparted in a digital format with lightening speed. No need experiencing a hernia carrying the leather-bound books around or having them take up space in our spare room.

I remember vividly the day the encyclopedia salesman came to our door and sat with my parents extolling the virtues of owning a gold embossed set of Britannica, which in the 1960s was the crown jewel of information. I also remember my parents talking quietly about whether they could pay for the set, especially since at that time the sales pitch was to buy the entire 26 volumes at a king’s ransom. No need to buy the Collier’s version of encyclopedia with a volume coming in the mail every month, thereby easing the financial burden. The salesman sweetened the deal when he offered two dictionaries and an atlas at no cost. Weeks later the encyclopedia came to our door in numerous boxes and I was charged with carrying them to my room and organizing them alphabetically on a new book shelf. I was proud as could be as I was the only kid on the block to possess my own Encyclopedia Britannica.

But as the days and weeks went by I never told my parents that the usefulness of the Encyclopedia Britannica was only marginally helpful in my studies. Homework required reading a novel, certainly with the help of those famous Clift Notes, and overpriced textbooks provided all the knowledge I needed to answer a question on the Peloponnesian War (as I write this I must admit that I went to my IPhone to look up how to properly spell Peloponnesian, no paper dictionary for me.) I occasionally pulled out a volume of the Britannica if I was stuck on a topic or needed a bit more information to fill the spaces of my research paper, but I never told my parents that their hard – earned money was not well spent.

It is now common for bits and streams of knowledge to be transmitted via our laptop, phone or PC. Looking up the answer to any question is of course the job of Google- no leather-bound volume, no paging through a large book to find the exact page where the answer is stored, and no links to other sources of information that may help explain in greater detail the question at hand. Paper based information is now largely obsolete, as we search the Net for whatever information we need quickly and easily. There are of course books in our lives that provide information or imagination but even these sources of knowledge or adventure are experiencing a generation gap as those under fifty are not attracted to leafing through paper and carrying around a hard-bound copy. Sit in a subway car or commuter train and keep a mental score of who is reading a book and the answer will be a handful of the AARP crowd. Those book clubs that are starting up around the country are usually populated by the senior set and are often times a week excuse to share a few bottles of wine.

As a retired college professor, I remember those last few years in the classroom when research assignments often did not require trudging to the campus library to take an arm load of books on an obscure topic and then hideaway in a secluded spot and read until sleep deprivation took over. The modern student knows how to surf the web, insert the right word or phrase that will push open the doorway to knowledge, download those nuggets of information and insert them into a paper, too often without attribution. College and local libraries have had to transform their mission from buying and cataloguing books to providing advice to students on the most efficient ways to gather information. Those book stacks of yesteryear are often lonely places.

The information age we live in today does not favor the reader who wants to be immersed in a topic or story requiring time and thought. This is the age of the “quick knowledge fix” – bits of information delivered in a nano second that does not require much reflection. As Sergeant Joe Friday of the 1950s television show Dragnet would say, “Just the facts.” There is nothing wrong with getting information quickly and efficiently to be more productive at work or even in a trivia game, but what is missing in this information age is the reflection, plain old thinking about the meaning of the information, the value of the information, the impact of the information. We really don’t do much reflecting these days, mostly because there is not much time to sit and delve more deeply into whatever needs an information fix. The Encyclopedia Britannica and all those lonely books in our libraries were made for a different time and a different mindset when people had an interest in the whole story, not just bits and pieces. In bit of good news for Britannica fans, the encyclopedia is now online at Britannica.com ready to answer quickly all those questions that in the past required pulling a heavy volume off the shelf.

For now though, I have replaced the empty space where the Encyclopedia Britannica once resided and began filling it with recently read books, fiction and non-fiction, contemporary and historical. I can say proudly that the space is starting to get a bit crowded. Perhaps my reading habits are the result of more time on my hands, but I would like to think that it is also the need to put myself into a book and reflect on the plot, the characters, and the setting. Maybe the Encyclopedia Britannica did have an impact on me.

 

 

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Polling Trump

September 11, 2019

Public opinion polling, especially of presidents and elections, has become a huge cottage industry in this country employing thousands and raking in millions of dollars from campaigns and political organizations anxious to determine the preferences of Americans. Needless to say, polling outfits are in intense competition to make the claim that they are the most accurate and the best predictor of outcomes.

As this country heads toward a still distant national election there are almost daily polls on the job performance of Donald Trump, the chances of his reelection and the popularity of his Democratic challengers.  One of the most interesting developments in the polling race is the mini war of public opinion data crunching between the Rasmussen organization and all the more well known pollsters such as Quinnipiac, Monmouth, CNN, Politico, Reuters, Marist, NBC/Wall Street Journal and ABC/Washington Post.

To make a long story short, Rasmussen was one of the very few pollsters that got the 2016 election outcome correct showing that Donald Trump would win the presidency. Since Rasmussen is often viewed as an “outlier” pollster and according to some a front for conservative points of view, its correct prediction of a Trump victory sticks in the craw of the establishment polling organizations. The folks at Rasmussen waste little time in pointing out that in this election cycle there’s is the most accurate appraisal of Trump’s popularity and presidency.

Why this is important is because currently Rasmussen’s polling is far different than most if not all of the rest of the more well known organizations in terms of assessing Trump’s job performance and his chances for a repeat of his 2016 victory. While the establishment pollsters have Trump in the neighborhood of the low 40 percent range in terms of job performance and popularity, Rasmussen has the President in the high 40 percent range ( and many times over 50 percent) in job performance and the same with his overall popularity.

Now I am not in any way an expert on polling techniques in terms of sample size, demographic identification, and likely voters vs. registered voters, but Rasmussen boldly claims that most of the establishment polling that is being done today is seriously flawed and biased against President Trump. Of course if Rasmussen is correct about the current status of Trump the president and Trump the Republican candidate for reelection, then the Democrats are kidding themselves about taking the presidency in 2020 and are following the flawed strategy of Hillary Clinton who bought into the erroneous polling numbers that showed she was way ahead in 2016.

Perhaps Rasmussen got lucky in 2016 with its call of a Trump victory and perhaps all the current pollsters have fixed their models so that their current analysis showing Trump in deep trouble are on the mark. It is way too early to speculate on where the 2020 race for the presidency stands and I always wonder whether all those phone calls to Americans get a truthful answer or whether voting decisions are made in a split second while filling out the ballot. Whether Rasmussen is right or wrong this time around or its competitors have a better handle on American political opinion will certainly shape campaign strategy, but Democrats beware- they ignored Rasmussen in 2016 and the rest is history.


The Pack

September 4, 2019

It is said that someone’s past never really leaves them, and that is true with my allegiance to the Green Bay Packers. The season starts tomorrow with a match-up against Da Bears, pro football’s longest and most hate-filled rivalry. I, of course, will be watching and pacing up and down in front of the big screen sipping on, of course, a Leinenkugel Summer Shandy, since it is still  summer.

There has been much hype about the 2019 version of the Pack with a new coach, a revenge-motivated Aaron Rodgers and a new cast of defensive backs, linebackers and defensive linemen. The new coach, Matt Lafleur, has a pretty good reputation as an offensive guru, but there is a big difference from being an assistant coach to running an NFL team, especially in Title Town USA.

The wonderful and patient fan base in Green Bay cannot take another year of sub 500 football, in light of the fact that the Pack are predicted to be a Superbowl contender. The cheeseheads will show up for the games and pray to the gods of Vince Lombardi, Bart Starr, and Paul Hornug for multiple wins but this year’s schedule is tough and there is always the fear that the offensive line will crumble and stand in shame as Aaron Rodgers is carted off the field.

It is a challenge being a Packer fan here in New England where football is king, the personality-deprived head coach Bill Belichick knows how to win and the GOAT Tom Brady is leading the Patriots. The pressure will surely be on LaFleur to produce a winner but I have that unsettling feeling that a rookie coach is no match going up against the more experienced  Belichick, Andy Reid of Kansas City and Sean Peyton of the New Orleans Saints, all predicted to be somewhere in the Super Bowl mix.

So much is riding on Rodgers having a premier year with magical throws into the end zone and pinpoint accuracy across the middle of the opposing defense. It was great to hear that LaFleur is allowing Rodgers to make calls on the line of scrimmage if he sees something that needs an adjustment, a bone of contention with disgraced coach Mike McCarthy. Yet football is a game not only of making adjustments but also of warriors who can outplay an opponent for 60 minutes. We will just have to see if those adjustments made by Rodgers and those 60 minute warriors can lift the Packers.

Based on the poor performance of the Packers the last two years I am prepared for the worst, and I might have to drown my sorrows in a few Summer Shandys with perhaps a few PBRs added as well. As noted, I am not only a Packer fan, but I know what beer to drink during a game. Now if I could only get some half way decent brats out here in Patriots land watching the game tomorrow would be a pleasure no matter what the score. Go Pack

 


Trump’s Long War with China

August 27, 2019

When will the trade war with China end? No one knows the answer to that question, but the Chinese are likely betting that they can outlast the Trump administration and in the process make the President settle for a non agreement with little impact on China. The Chinese are well aware that President Trump is anxious for a deal, especially since he promised that winning the trade war would be quick and easy and that something approaching a deal needs to be put in place before November, 2020.

What the Chinese know best is that when it comes to wars, military or trade, the United States can be bogged down for years without a clear victory and the loss of national treasure- witness Vietnam and Afghanistan and now tariffs. Trump has little patience for delay and an ego the size of Greenland, but the Chinese have a history of using delaying tactics and half-hearted negotiation schemes with the hope that their adversaries will simply give up and walk away. All Trump has is boasting, false promises and outright lies to bolster his phony claim that a deal is around the corner.

Trump was right that a new trade relationship with China was necessary and that past administrations, Democrat and Republican, had done little to level the playing field and carve out changes in the export-import regime. My guess is that a trade deal that included changes in intellectual property, access to markets, and industrial espionage could have been achieved without creating a climate of uncertainty and instability that now threatens growth in the global economy. But Trump was all about showing his base that he is a tough guy who was going to “fire” the Chinese as if trade and a global economy were a reality television show. While his supporters cheer on his trade posturing, they depend on cheap Chinese clothes, toys, sneakers, electronics and holiday trinkets.

Trump fashions himself as the ultimate deal maker, a tough guy and the father of America First; the Chinese fashion themselves as restrained, resilient in the face of threats, and confident that they are the future of the global economy or to take a phrase out of the Trumpian playbook- China First. Right now I would give the edge to the Chinese.

There are clear signs that US business executives are tiring of the Trump trade war and want a return to the days of market stability and consistent policy. These executives have too much invested in China and its cheap labor to just pack up and leave, no matter what commands come from the White House. So be prepared for a long war with stock market hills and valleys, corporate angst, and an inevitable downturn in the world economy, all of which could have been avoided with less bluster and false promises.

 


Buying Greenland

August 16, 2019

The last time the United States purchased real estate from the Danish government was a $ 25 million deal to buy the Virgin Islands. Although we made the purchase for strategic reasons – to shore up our southern flank from potential military threats – the deal turned out to be a sound economic decision. Today the Virgin Island is a US Caribbean playground for tourists with hotels, condos, bars and restaurants, and some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Cruise ships regularly dock in St. Thomas and let the passengers buy cut rate jewelry and other trinkets. All in all a great real estate deal.

Now President Trump is floating the idea of buying Greenland from the Danes. Although he may not know much about this territory of Denmark given his limited knowledge of the world, Greenland is almost entirely covered in snow and ice. There is just a narrow strip of green on Greenland along the coast where the 56,000 residents of the huge island live; so not much chance of building a hotel or casino much less attracting tourists to the frozen tundra. Of course with global warming the snow and ice may eventually recede to reveal deposits of oil, gas, precious metals and who knows what else. Maybe the President is thinking ahead about the natural resources deep underground of Greenland, but I suspect this is just another real estate scheme designed to shift attention away from all his legal, economic and political problems.

Moreover, the Danes are not going to sell Greenland, especially to the Donald, who they know is an unreliable businessman, a failed real estate mogul, and a leader whose governing values are antithetical to the political culture of Denmark . If the Danes even had a moment of weakness regarding putting up Greenland for sale,  the price tag would be in the hundreds of billions as the governmental officials in Denmark know they control a potential natural resource bonanza. I am also certain that most Americans would agree the United States could use that money for much more important programs such as health care for all, cleaning up our water supply, building much needed infrastructure, and closing the gap between the ultra rich and the ultra poor.

This latest Trump gambit regarding purchasing Greenland is just another stream of consciousness idea that comes from too little sleep, too much Diet Coke, and a real estate mindset no matter how goofy. You can almost envision President Trump coming into the Oval Office and telling his aides and lawyers, “Hey, let’s buy Greenland.” Because the culture in the White House is so dependent on satisfying the boss, I suspect that the aides and lawyers rushed out to see if such a deal could be made.  No one would have the gumption to tell the President that the idea was simply bonkers, thereby jeopardizing their employment.

This purchase of Greenland is certain to be a two or three day story that will fade away, but it is reflective how our President thinks and works, if it is accurate to use the words “thinks” and “works.”

 


The Year of Driving Dangerously

August 13, 2019

Up here in Boston, and I suspect in most major urban centers, traffic congestion is becoming unbearable, and only getting worse. But what is even more unbearable and getting worse is the increasing danger of just plain driving your car, whether to the mall or simply to fill up at the gas station.

It is now commonplace to experience being cut off by an impatient driver, passed on the highway by someone exceeding the speed limit by 20 mph, seeing stories on the news of drivers beating each other up on the side of the road or shooting it out, usually over a minor infraction. My pet peeve are the people who enter an intersection at 40 mph and then at the last second come to a stop as you wonder whether they are just going to ignore the traffic sign. Meanwhile you fear for your life.

Road rage is now commonplace, courtesy is a virtue from a bygone era, and obeying the rules of the road are just an inconvenience to be ignored. Speed is all important and weaving from one lane to another at 80-90 mph is now the new rule of the road. Then of course there are the proliferation of middle finger salutes by those kings and queens of the highways who can’t understand why someone would drive the posted limit.

I must admit that I come from a different era  and with my age take a more cautious approach to driving. I am not a Sunday driver out for an afternoon stroll, but I do obey the rules and expect that others would do the same.  Sadly, I am quickly becoming a minority, an old man who just can’t adjust to the new way of driving.

I suspect that all this aggressiveness behind the wheel is the result of depressingly long rides home from work or the frustrations at the office being released on the way home. But not a day goes by without the news of a major crash on a highway with deaths the story line. As I watch the news of another deathly accident I plead to the television set, “Please, just settle down and drive carefully.”

Unfortunately, we are not a country that uses mass transit as a means of traveling to a destination; it’s all about the car and the privacy of sitting alone in traffic. Now sitting in a overcrowded subway car or commuter train is not my idea of fun, but it does give people an opportunity to relax, sleep, read or converse while someone else does the driving. This option is not going to move to the forefront of transportation in this country, but instead will be replaced by driving dangerously. Watch out, keep alert and follow the old refrain – drive defensively, only now drive defensively as if your life depended on it.

 

 


Right Wing Excuses and the Blame Game

August 7, 2019

The extent to which right-wing apologists will go to explain the mass murders in El Paso and Dayton borders on laughable if it were not for the fact that murdering innocent people is disturbing, disgusting and depressing.

Let’s take a look at the excuses, all of which are not based on any form of solid explanatory data or a willingness to move beyond the National Rifle Association talking points:

Video games

Mental illness

Gay marriage and transgenders

Witchcraft

Invasions of Hispanics

Liberal gun control advocates

Hate-filled Democrats running for president

And of course the main excuse – Obama

Then you have the white supremacy gambit – deflecting blame away from hate-filled Nazi types and toward the enemy of the people – the media, especially CNN. Let me list the blame game gambits

White supremacy is a hoax

Racism has been defeated long ago

These white supremacists are not domestic terrorists

The answer to mass murder – arm every American, especially those who go to Wal Mart

Rhetoric from the White House has nothing to do with triggering mass murder

Crime-infested cities are the problem

People kill people not guns

But of course Obama is to blame

What the right wing extremists are unwilling to talk about is why Americans should have the right to purchase a military-style weapon of war – the AR-15. The Republican senator from Pennsylvania Pat Toomey said that to ban the rifle would not be acceptable to him because it is “popular”. Since when do politicians take a policy stand on a weapon of murder based on its “popularity?”

We live in a time of politics when campaign contributions from the NRA drive the debate on sane gun control measures. No one, including that “gun hater” Barack Obama, ever talked about stopping the sale of hunting rifles or handguns, and never did he or those Trump hating liberals ever talk about confiscation of guns. Obama’s proposals on reasonable gun control and those floated around today in Congress consist of serious background checks, ending the purchase of weapons of war at gun shows ( and off the books purchases from the back of someone’s trunk), and returning to a time when the AR-15 was banned. Seems reasonable to me and I believe most reasonable Americans who are sick and tired of mass murder.

There is now talk that some form of gun control has the momentum to overcome the opposition of the NRA and the right wing extremists in the Republican Party whose only answer to mass murder is “thoughts and prayers.” We’ll have to see how this plays out in the coming weeks, but one thing is certain, we will continue to be blasted with Republican excuses and blame game gambits