Monday, March 30, 2009

Are Wal-Mart Greeters Next to be Laid-off?

Welcome to a bonus edition of "Signs that the economy is bad" here at The Itinerant Librarian. Today we learn that Chicago's O'Hare Airport has replaced all its greeters with computer kiosks. Some points:

  • First of all, I had no idea O'Hare had greeters. I lived in the Midwest for a good chunk of my life, and I have flown out of O'Hare more than a few times. Where the hell were these greeters? Were they like Chicago voters? You know, the dead ones that always show up on Election Day?
  • And check this out, these greeters made a pretty decent salary. According to the article, anywhere from 38K to 58K. Heck, in some cases, they made more than I do. On the positive, I am still employed. And this is probably better than what the Wal-Mart greeters make.
Which leads me to the observation that it may be a matter of time before Wal-Mart greeters get replaced by computers. However, unlike the Chicago airport, Wal-Mart does not just have greeters to say hello to people. They are there to keep an eye out for shoplifters. Now, little old granny may not be able to tackle the average crook down (or maybe I am wrong. There are some very tough grannies out there). The point is that Wal-Mart may have some more sophisticated needs in terms of greeters who can also work at loss prevention. May I make a suggestion?

Sure, it may have some bugs, but this may save some money in the long run, which is what Wal-Mart is about: saving you money and keeping those prices low, and what better way to do it than with a piece of computer technology. Plus, in some hot neighborhoods, no one would dare steal from Wal-Mart with one of those puppies parked in front. Heck, I would probably not even dare to shop there.

Now one of my two readers may think I am just being too snarky or mean. Well, if folks have seen the film Robocop, especially, the first one, they know that the film does make a strong commentary about what happens when you start letting corporatism run wild, when you think you can replace every human being with a machine (for every Officer Murphy you get a few ED 209s or worse), and when you think you can simply sweep problems under the rug. It is also a fine example of the old adage "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." If my two readers recall, in the Robocop films, OCP, the big bad corporation, is always trying to come up with something to replace Robocop, and what happens? Robocop has to come in and fix the mess, proving he works just fine.

Sure, we can make a little joke about the O'Hare people being replaced by machines. But this would not be the first time a machine has come and replaced humans. Just look at the history of automation over time. Think of those pesky call centers we hate where you never reach a human being. The line goes that people will simply do other tasks that the machines can't do. But how long before we make machines that kick us out of our jobs because they are (supposedly) cheaper? I am sure some of the powers that be in MPOW would love to lay off librarians and replace them with a computer and an automated phone tree. Not very likely to happen because at the end of the day, there are some things you still need a human for, like basic human contact and service. So, one has to wonder what does O'Hare lose in terms of generating goodwill from visitors to Chicago in laying off their greeters in favor of impersonal computer kiosks.

Just a thought.

You know things are going down when the billionaires cry

Welcome to another edition of "Signs that the economy is bad" here at The Itinerant Librarian. In this semi-regular feature (semi-regular as in "when I feel like it and find a story to highlight and snark about"), we have talked about how to tell that the economy is bad. For example:

And that does not even cover the usual signs of high gas prices last summer, foreclosures, bank bailouts, and the usual suspects. Now, we get the latest: sad news that billionaires are losing money (via AlterNet). Now that could be a serious sign that the economy is bad. This is really shocking news worthy of stopping the presses. Forget the people losing their houses. Screw the many who have been laid off from the bad economy. Billionaires are losing their net worth, and this is really a serious problem.

Now, in the interest of disclosure, I will say that I care not what a man or woman does for a living, as long as it is honest and legal. If you made your big fortune in an honest and legal way, good for you. If you made it a la Bernie Maddoff by scamming people or by some dishonest way, then I lack serious sympathy for you. Having said that, if the only pain as a billionaire is that you lost a few million, that is not pain. Stop whining and suck it up like the rest of us who work for a living. The AlterNet piece is commenting on a story out of Forbes magazine. I am sure Forbes and company feel a lot more sympathy than I would given their audience.

Let's look at some highlights:

  • "'Like the rest of us,' intones Forbes, 'the richest people on the planet have endured a financial disaster.'" No, not like the rest of us. Unlike them, the rest of us get financial disaster, we end up homeless and unemployed, oh, and praying to the deity of our choice we may not need medical care since we would also lose our overpriced health insurance. They endure financial disaster, it just means they have to give up a corporate jet and maybe sell off their private island. "Not too many current or former billionaires, as the Toronto Star's Andrew Chung suggested last week, need "give up the $6,000 Dorchester Suite in London, or the $5,000 nightclub outing at Famous in Moscow, or the $7,000 Kiton suit from Saks Fifth Avenue in New York."Hardly financial disaster. I am lucky if I can afford an outing to Sonic once in a while.
  • Of course, to some, there is "real" suffering: "In at least one case, these numbers certainly have translated into real suffering. This past January, Germany's fifth-richest billionaire, Adolf Merckle, killed himself. The industrialist stepped in front of a commuter train shortly after losing $500 million in the German stock market." I guess Mr. Merckle did not know how to handle his stress and suck it up. Then again, on reading the linked story, it seems Mr. Merckle was doing a little gambling, speculating on certain financial instruments, and he lost. Too bad, so sad. Yes, a death is a tragic thing, but if you decided to play around with money, you should either be able to cover your bet or not do it. There is a reason I do not go to casinos, you know, and that includes the double-wide casinos here in East Texas.
  • Merckle seems to be the only extreme case. Most of the billionaires are doing just fine.
  • In some cases, they are even doing better now. For example: "Hedge fund manager John Paulson, for instance, doubled his personal fortune to $6 billion, mainly by cashing out on bets that the mortgage market would nosedive." He clearly knew when to get out, so to speak. Obviously, that is not suffering or financial disaster. Where is the pain? I am not hearing any howls of anguish.
  • And even when they do lose, it's not so bad, if it even is bad at all: "In billionairedom, even losers smile. The colorful Donald Trump, for one. He has lost almost half his fortune since last year's Forbes billionaire tally. No matter." He is even buying stuff he has not bought before.
Now the problem may be that I lack empathy for these people because I cannot appreciate the numbers. I mean, a billion bucks is a lot of money. Let me help my two readers visualize it:

"An average person who makes $50,000 a year would have to work 20,000 years to accumulate a fortune worth a simple $1 billion. The world's 793 billionaires now hold fortunes that average $3 billion."

So I am not just being a smart-aleck. Can you really shed a tear for these people? Give me a break. These are the people, many of them, who enabled the mess and the actual suffering of real people while they profited. Then again, to people like Forbes himself, these financial predators are not responsible, " Forbes editor-in-chief Steve Forbes seems to feel no one really bears any personal responsibility for our current economic carnage. He sees the meltdown as more or less a natural catastrophe." Hey, Katrina was a natural catastrophe. The financial meltdown is basically a man-made catastrophe for the average people caused by greed and a serious lack of regulation of people like you and your ilk in Wall Street, the government, and the financial world.

And why should we care after we make the jokes? Here is why: "More dangerously, for the rest of us, these super rich can still afford to powerfully influence -- and distort -- the political decisions that determine who will pay and who will really suffer in the troubled days ahead." In essence, these are the people that lobby Congress and make political donations to the President's campaign (yes, even Obama has taken donations from AIG); these are the people who write the legislation more often than not that the legislators then barely read and pass. Not exactly worthy of a whole lot of sympathy.

Then again, it is another sign that the economy is bad. Just the wrong sign.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Booknote: The Mastery of Love

GoodReads offers a feature where you can use some HTML code they generate of any book review you write on their site so you can blog it. I am trying it out here for the first time. I may use a bit more often. We'll see. Anyhow, anything below this is what the site generated with what I wrote:

The Mastery of Love: A Practical Guide to the Art of Relationship: A Toltec Wisdom Book The Mastery of Love: A Practical Guide to the Art of Relationship: A Toltec Wisdom Book by Miguel Ruiz

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars
I liked this book, but compared to The Four Agreements, it is not as tight or tidy, so to speak. The book presents some very good points, but it is a bit repetitive at times. In other words, what he did in about 200 pages, he could have done in 100, or at least 150, without losing the essence of the message.

The main thing I took away from it was the need to look into ourselves. This is a common sense concept and important because it leads to the idea that we cannot love or respect others if we do not love or respect ourselves first. You need to be aware, then you need to work towards forgiveness, then attain love. Some of the ideas from his previous book are here, particularly the idea of not taking things personally. Very often, people do things which may seem personal but are not. Notice I say "very often." I have struggled with Ruiz's idea of not taking it personal because there are always one or two not so nice people out there more than willing to harm you. Maybe it is the cynic in me, or maybe I just need to work more on some things. Anyhow, it is a book well worth reading. I think it may be beneficial for some couples as well, but do be warned, it can get a bit wordy sometimes. And that wordiness is what made me give it just the three stars instead of four. It made the pacing go a bit slow for the reading.

View all my reviews.

Friday, March 20, 2009

No time to pray? Pay someone to do it for you

I am not sure what can be more disturbing? That some religious people think they can just pay someone to pray for them when they do not feel like it (or can't), or the fact that someone is more than willing to take said payment. Allow me to present Information Age Prayer. Yes, now you can pay for someone to pray for you. By this I mean someone will do your praying for you. I mean, you have to be either extremely lazy or just extremely dumb to actually fall for this scam. From the site:

Information Age Prayer is a subscription service utilizing a computer with text-to-speech capability to incant your prayers each day. It gives you the satisfaction of knowing that your prayers will always be said even if you wake up late, or forget.

I thought this was a joke the first time I saw it, but on looking further at the site, I come to realize that they mean serious business. And to make things easy, they have promotional rates for first time users, and they give you some choices of religion. Unfortunately, if you happen to be pagan, satanist, or anything that does not fit the box, so to speak, you are out of luck. Sure, they have an "unaffiliated" option, but what does that exactly mean? Anyhow, you can pay for specific prayers, or you can get a few of them in a bundle.

Of course, there are no real guarantees. According to the company,

"As with all prayer, the final results are up to God as everything follows His will. We make no claims regarding the efficacy of the service, however it is our opinion that the omniscient God hears the prayers when they are voiced, as He hears everything on this Earth. The omniscient God knows exactly who has subscribed and who each prayer is from when their name is displayed on screen and their prayer voiced."

I am sorry, but if the Big Guy (or Gal) is all-knowing, would he not know about your praying already without having to pay these pirates? If he knows exactly who has subscribed, does he express a preference then? Maybe get you a discount?

So if you are spending way too much time working, out partying, or heaven forbid, having some sex, and you feel a need to send up some prayers to make up for your heathen ways, for at least $3.95 a month, these people will send them right up for you. Hell, I am guessing that if you pay enough, you may just be able to skip church altogether. Let's see how this may work for some religious people:

  • I would not pretend to make claims for Catholics; after all, Pope Benedict is quite the mean slave driver (let's let people die of AIDS rather than promoting condom use? Really? Get real). Now, I can see where some Catholics may find this useful. They go to confession, and the priest gives them the old "One 'Our Father' and 'Ten Hail Marys'" for whatever it was they did. No problem. Go to the website, and you can pay $3.95 monthly for the first prayer. The Hail Marys are conveniently bundled in packs of ten already for $19.95 a month, which they claim is less than 7 cents a day (go look at the website; I am not making this up). Kind of sounds like one of those commercials for sponsoring kids in the third world, "for less than 7 cents a day, Alberto in Guatemala will get fed, and you can get a picture of Alberto in the squalid shack he lives in with 20 other family members." And since it is a subscription, your penance is well covered. Hell, you might get some praying ahead of time for next time you go to confession. You see, you do save time.
  • But this could work for those Protestants who do what they want anyways.
  • And how about Muslims? Is there a guarantee that their prayers, at least the ones requiring them to face Mecca, are said facing Mecca? Can they get out of the obligatory prayers they have to do five times a day? Nope, not quite. According to the service, when it comes to obligatory prayers like the First Daily Prayer, "You may not fulfill your daily obligation to pray through this service, nevertheless, praising God is always encouraged and it certainly doesn't hurt to have this holy prayer voiced!" So, you lazy Muslim, get down and pray, but hey, feel free to send them some money anyhow for some extra prayer mojo, "and it certainly doesn't hurt to have this holy prayer voiced!"
  • For the budget conscious Jew, they offer a "Complete Jewish Package." No, I am not trying to do a joke about Jews. They really offer that, go look it up. According to the website, "save money by subscribing to the discounted package deal. This special Jewish Prayer Package includes the basic morning and evening prayer (shema), 5 Get Well Prayers and a Prayer for Peace." And you get the whole enchilada for the low monthly price of $25.95.

Then again, if you are already very busy working, partying, and fucking, you are probably skipping church anyhow. I could not make this up even if I tried. As I sit here looking at it, stifling some laughter, I have to wonder who in the world is gullible enough to fall for this.

I will remain a heathen, thank you very much.

A hat tip to Pharyngula.

Booknote: Shake Hands With The Devil

I read Shake Hands With the Devil, the account of the UNAMIR Peacekeeping Operation in Rwanda by its commanding officer, Roméo Dallaire. The title comes from a line by the general:

"'In Rwanda, I shook hands with the devil, so I know there is a god. I know the devil exists, and therefore I know there is a god.'"

I have to admit that this is not an easy book for me to read. It has a similar effect to reading one of Jonathan Kozol's books. I get angry; I get outraged, and I am deeply moved. Indifference and just plain political inaction are things that have always infuriated me. Dallaire faced so many obstacles, and in spite of them, he did the best he could to save some lives during the Rwandan genocide. But when I read that so many more lives could have been saved had the United Nations superiors and the nations of the world actually gotten off their asses and done something, it simply makes me upset. It's just not right to allow people to die, mostly because they live in some Third World country, said country has no strategic or national interest value to other nations, or its inhabitants do not share their color of skin.

At various times, General Dallaire has said that Rwanda will stay with him forever. I think for readers, this is a book that will stay with them for a long time as well. In a way, it reminded me of the film Schindler's List, where at the end, Schindler cried because, in spite of saving as many as he did, there were so many more he could not save. This is a very similar situation where so many could have been saved, but the evil of some men, and the indifference of many more, allowed a genocide to happen.

And to a small extent, personally, I also tend to identify with people like Dallaire and Kozol, who face obstacles of politics, inefficient or arrogant superiors, and indifferent people who would rather remain complacent and distant than lift a finger to help their brethren be it people being killed by ethnic cleansing or children being abandoned to poor educations. In the education world, I have seen it often enough, and it is not a pretty sight. And yet, we need to read these books. We need to learn. We need to educate ourselves, to have our eyes opened, that we may act as we can. And maybe some day, we can get those arrogant excuses for leadership out of their positions so something can actually be done. General Patton, another favorite historical figure of mine, said at one point, "Lead me. Follow me, or get out of my way." If only those arrogant UN bureaucrats had done their jobs, if only the nations had provided the necessary resources, something could have been done. Instead, we still find ourselves dealing with the consequences of Rwanda and other places where there is such great suffering.

This is definitely a book I highly recommend.

If you wish to learn more, in addition to the book, General, now Senator Dallaire, does have his own website at The Wikipedia article on him does give a decent summary of his life and work, especially what he has done after Rwanda. And here is a small post from the Creative Generalist blog about Dallaire.

"Peux Ce Que Veux. Allons-y!" (Where there is a will, there's a way. Let's go!) --Lt. Gen. Roméo Dallaire.

Yet another teacher selling ad space, this time for pizza

Welcome to yet another edition of "Signs that the economy is bad" here at The Itinerant Librarian. Today we have a report of a teacher selling ad space on his student handouts and materials for his class. The story comes from Idaho. This is not the first story of this type that I have covered here. Some other stories in this same vein:

But I get the impression that with the bad economy, we are going to see more of the entrepreneurial spirit in our school and college teachers. The latest story has a history and economics high school teacher selling ads for Pocatello Pizza. Why did he do it? Oh the usual reason of the school not having enough resources. According to the article, "The school recently cut back on paper allowances for teachers to prevent shortages." So, he struck a deal with the pizza place, and now he has plenty of paper for the rest of the term.

Now is this going to become a trend? We know how taxpayers love to whine about having to pay taxes for their public schools, yet they often whine louder when some teacher has a good idea like this one. Because at the end of the day, the ads are not really intrusive, and the teacher is just using a little ingenuity to get what he needs to educate the students. Communities should either pony up and pay to educate their kids with the necessary resources, or they should shut the hell up if they don't provide enough money, and teachers have to find it elsewhere. You don't hear the whining when the school sells the naming rights to their new football stadium to Coke or Sprint. Why would doing it in an academic classroom be any different? Sure, there is the whole thing about academic spaces getting corporate, but again, I don't see the community paying up to prevent it.

Anyways, I think this opens the way to a whole new advertising opportunity:
  • Home economics is now sponsored by Frank's Crafts.
  • The cooking classes would be sponsored by Pizza Hut. If in Texas, it would be either Dairy Queen or Jack in the Box.
  • The Lowe's Shop Class.
  • If it's auto mechanics class, that would be underwritten by Pep Boys.
  • Biology class is sponsored by Pfizer.
  • The library/AV Center is now the Barnes and Noble Memorial Library.
  • Math class is brought to you by H.R. Block.
  • Art classes are now funded by a generous contribution from Crayola.
  • The Dow Chemistry seminar classes.
You get the idea. I just picked some random corporations to make the point. I did go with bigger corporations, but this could certainly work with local level businesses. If teachers like like Jeb Harrison in Idaho can make it work, it can work in other schools.

Just another sign that the economy is bad.

A hat tip to AdFreak.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

People switching to cheap vodka and other cheap spirits

Welcome to another edition of "Signs that the economy is bad" here at The Itinerant Librarian. The New York Times has a column by Andrew Martin on "Reaching for the bottom shelf." Apparently the economy slowdown is having an effect on vodka sales, and people are starting to buy more of the cheap brands like Popov. Popov is an interesting case. According to the article,

"Even Diageo, the liquor conglomerate that owns the Popov brand, seems reluctant to own up to it. Popov, which can sell for less than $9 a 750-milliliter bottle, isn’t mentioned on its Web site, and when asked about the brand, a company spokeswoman kept trying to steer the conversation toward pricier spirits."

This is pretty much true. I tried doing a search myself, and it was next to impossible to find a corporate page for the brand. If Diageo does indeed sell the stuff, they must be doing it out of the back of vans in the middle of the night. There is not a single hint on the corporate website that they own the brand. If memory serves me right, I think the liquor store I run to outside of Smith County (our county is dry, go figure) to buy my liquor might carry it. But you know it is not a good sign when the company that carries it pretty much disowns it, even at a time when it is actually selling. And by the way, last time I did buy vodka, it was a cheap brand, Sobieski; it was a time I decided to get something other than Smirnoff's since that was on sale. Actually, it's pretty decent. So you see, even I have to make choices about my drinking needs with the bad economy.

Now, the fact that alcohol drinkers are switching down to cheaper brands of their favorite poison is not new. Last year, I pointed to another story about beer drinkers switching to cheaper brands. It was at the time when gas was expensive, and the bumper stickers of "Beer is cheaper than gas, so drink, don't drive" were appearing all over the place. It seems we may need to continue buying the cheap brands. In the case of vodka at least, technically it is a neutral spirit. This means, well, according to the article, "by government definition, vodka is supposed to be a neutral alcohol without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color, and some believe that the differences among vodkas are so subtle that only connoisseurs can distinguish them." I am not a connoisseur when it comes to vodka. I have a sense of what brands are cheap and which ones are premium, but that is about it. Ask me about wines, I know a lot more, but vodka, as long as it mixes well with whatever cocktail I may be trying out, it works for me.

Anyhow, just another sign that the economy is bad. And remember, if you choose to drink, please do so safely and responsibly.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Corporate Jet Maker Says, "If you give up your private jet, you are a wuss"

Maybe the company did not use the term "wuss," but in their latest ad campaign, Cessna, maker of fine corporate aircraft, did say that executives who give up their corporate jets are pretty much cowards. Welcome to another edition of "Signs that the economy is bad" here at The Itinerant Librarian. When the maker of a corporate jet pretty much has to resort to calling out their potential clients, labeling them as lacking vision or being chicken, you know the economy is bad.

Read a little more about this in The Wall Street Journal here. The main problem is that corporate jet makers are down on the mat much like the auto industry. According to J. Lynn Lunsford in the WSJ, "Orders for business jets nose-dived after lawmakers pilloried leaders of Detroit's Big Three auto makers for flying corporate planes to Washington to seek a government bailout." So Congress shamed the executives for excessive spending at a time when their companies are laying off people left and right and then having the gall to ask for government bailout money. So Cessna, in a bout of inspiration, decides to tell executives, "are you men or mice? What the fuck are you letting Congress tell you how to travel? Damn it, you are a high powered executive paid to make big decisions (no one said they had to be good decisions). You deserve that big jet." After all, it is not just a jet, it is a flying office in the words of Ed Bolen, president and CEO of the National Business Aviation Association (from the WSJ article). It just so happens it is an office with a variety of luxury amenities you won't be getting on a commercial aircraft. For instance, drinks from the bar, anyone? Because we all know every office has a bar as part of the work environment. And what better way to get work done at 10,000 feet or so than with some Crown Royal on the rocks?

It is a bit shameful the jet maker has to resort to this kind of campaign, but it is basically another sign the economy is bad. Let's be honest: Cessna pretty much makes a luxury item (well, their corporate jets at least). Then again, if you hear it from Cessna (link to their corporate press release and campaign), they would have you think that their private jets are a necessity of the corporate world. They call it a "leadership campaign." Because heaven forbid those high priced CEOs have to fly in a commercial aircraft like the rest of us. Could it be that those CEOs are just not like the rest of us? So dang it, put that private jet to work and bring the country back to prosperity (their line). What of it if you are spending on fuel, the jet, and other costs while laying off a few people? Who cares if you may be getting your salary capped, and who gives a shit that your woman may be leaving you because you are broke? You may not be man enough for that gold digger, but you better have the balls to keep the jet, preferably a Cessna jet (and yes, I did notice most of the references in the ads imply male CEOs. Apparently female CEOs are a scarce rarity nor do they fly corporate jets). In the words of Hamilton Nolan at Gawker, if you give up your jet, you are one of the "bitch-ass punks." Actually, Mr. Nolan is a bit more spicy in the language than I am, but the message is the same. Cessna is calling those executives out, pure and simple.

After all, Cessna has employees too, dang it. Just lay off a few more auto plant workers or construction machinery workers. You'll see that nice, little, manly, and fast jet practically pay for itself after you let go a few hundred or thousand people and get some salary savings. After all, we need to keep the economy running and flying, don't we?