When I was young, I didn’t play with black kids. I also didn’t play with white kids. I just played with kids. Until I was about 8 years old, I honestly don’t remember noticing any difference, whether it was on TV or at school. I was more appalled that my Jewish friend didn’t get Christmas presents than by anything I remember about any black kids I went to school with.

Then I moved to a small town in the middle of Wisconsin and racism was really easy. It was easy because there weren’t any people within 100 miles who weren’t white. There weren’t KKK rallies or burning crosses, because who would the target have been? What we did have was an awful lot of “ambient” racism. It wasn’t outwardly malicious, just insidious in its normality. It was usually seen in the racist jokes making the rounds at school or work, but there was seemingly no more harm to the jokes than there was to the steady stream of “Polack” jokes we all told.

Maybe that made it worse, because we never had to face anyone affected by our words. After all, no one really wished anyone else harm, it was just “for fun,” so how could it be wrong? And through that, walls formed. In a place where you never even saw a black person, where there was no reason whatsoever to create any kind of a barrier, it formed anyway.

A few years later, I went to college and began the process of “Liberal Indoctrination™.” While it was still pretty damned white in Madison, it was a politically active city and campus, so it quickly became apparent that the way we had acted was far from okay.

At the end of our first year, some friends and I decided to rent a five bedroom house for the following year. There were only four of us, so we decided to invite along a guy who lived on our floor in the dorms. He was from Milwaukee – the same age as us, big guy, quiet, soft-spoken but still friendly and cheerful and…black. Thirty years later, I really don’t remember what led us to asking him to be our fifth, but we did.

We all moved in together the following school year. Jay had the big room in the attic, up its own staircase and closed off to the rest of the house. Unfortunately, that’s the way our group dynamic worked, too. We never really did much together. The rest of us went to parties, drank beer in the living room or on the patio and he spent most of his time locked up in his room upstairs.

There’s no doubt that there were barriers other than race. He was a city kid, while we were all from a little town nestled in the middle of farm country. The rest of us had known each other for more than a decade. But I’d be lying if I said we wouldn’t have been closer if he had been white. We would have done a lot more to drag him along with us when we went out. He would have felt more comfortable going with us. As far as I remember, skin color was never once an issue that came up between us, but it was still a barrier, even if we didn’t recognize it.

Thoughts and actions aren’t the same. I believe in treating all people with equal respect and, as far as I know, I’ve acted that way throughout my adult life, but even now I have thoughts that make me look hard at myself and ask “where the fuck did that come from?” It even happened while I was writing this. Out of curiosity, I looked up Jay on Facebook to see if I could find out what happened to him. There was no sign there, so I gave Google a try. What I found was his obituary. He died in Milwaukee in 2011 at the age of 45. My first thought was that he died violently somehow.

If someone told me that a white classmate of mine had died, my instinct would be that it was cancer or a car accident. So yeah, the remnants of those walls stick around a lot longer than they should. I’m disgusted and ashamed when it happens, then push to improve my thoughts while ensuring my actions don’t stray along the way. Actions matter. Words matter. Thoughts matter, too, but they’re more difficult to control. All I can do is recognize when those unwelcome thoughts occur and keep working to be better.

Collectively, there aren’t a lot of easy answers to the underlying issues. Laws can change to protect people, but deeper, systemic and cultural issues can take generations to change.

Some of it is built into our biology – not because of skin color, but in how our brains deal with other people. There’s a psychological principle related to Dunbar’s Number – essentially we’re limited to forming relationships with a circle of about 150 people. Beyond that, our brains shove others into groups to organize how they fit into our lives – which turns them into faceless masses, sometimes positive and often negative. It’s why people think “Muslim = Terrorism” despite never knowing a single one of more than 1 billion Islamic people. It’s why people think that having a “black friend” means they aren’t racist. They can keep that one guy in a slot in their circle while the “others” still fit into a box.

Where does change start? For me, it’s at a personal level. When I have negative thoughts, I remind myself that each person is a unique individual with a life of his or her own, and not just some meaningless part of some shapeless horde. That’s true whether we’re talking about race or nationality or gender or sexuality or if someone has a star on their belly.

Michael Brown was an 18 year old kid who was killed. He had friends who cared for him and family who loved him. How about we remind people to start there before everything else gets piled on?

 

and RIP, Jay, I’m sorry we never got to know each other better.

If you enjoyed this...Share on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on FacebookEmail this to someone

The other day, I stumbled onto the concept of micromorts. I’d never heard of them, but I found it a fascinating topic and far more logical than I’d first imagined. While actuarial calculations are generally used to compare and estimate life span, micromorts are more applicable to risks incurred in daily life.

A micromort is a measurement used to assess and compare the relative risks of activities – from the craziest thrill-seeking adventures to the most mundane tasks. Each micromort represents a 1 in one million chance of dying. For example, scuba diving might be calculated to be 5 micromorts. Every time you dive, you have a 5 in one million chance of dying. Climbing Mt. Everest costs roughly 40,000 micromorts because of the number of people who have died in the attempt. Walking on a sidewalk in New York at night is higher in micromorts than walking on a sidewalk in St. Louis in the afternoon.

For me, I rack up 1 additional micromort for every 10 miles I ride my bike. With the 20,000 or so miles I’ve ridden in the last 10 years, that means 2,000 micromorts.

It’s not just used for physical activity, it’s also used just to assess the various things that might kill you in normal life. For example, each day in the U.S. your risk of dying from non-natural causes is 1.6 micromorts. That’s double the micromorts of .8 for non-natural causes in the UK. Comparisons of micromorts are used to demonstrate the risk of death from medical issues between different countries.

An interesting discussion of various activities can be found here: http://plus.maths.org/content/os/issue55/features/risk/index

This started me thinking a bit about how many micromorts a person should rack up over the course of their life. Not counting the micromorts involved in living life (22ish per day), how many risks should a person take in their lives? Basically, every day that I ride my bike 100 miles, I’m increasing my chance of dying that day by almost 50%.

Metaphor time: I know the math on this isn’t exact and it’s all about probablilities, but let’s say you have a budget of one million micromorts in your life (when you get to a 1 out of 1 probability of dying, which is the end result for all of us). If the average person spends 700,000 micromorts in their lifetime, how many do you want to spend? Do you want to conserve them all and minimize risk in your life? Or are you a risk-taker who works every day to spend more than that million with no fear of going out in the middle of an adrenaline high?

It certainly differs for everyone, but I would have to say that I want to be somewhere in the middle. I don’t want to be the person cowering in his living room, living vicariously through various forms of fiction and non-fiction. There are a lot of people who think I put myself at risk every time I’m on a bike, and the micromort calculator would agree. I’m looking to live a long, healthy life, but if the worst were to happen, there should be no doubt that I made the most of the time I had.

Just like my bank balance, I want to hold onto enough micromorts to feel secure, but not enough that I live a miserly existence along the way.

If you enjoyed this...Share on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on FacebookEmail this to someone

Predicting the future is a culturally specific talent. There’s no secret, no need for psychic powers. You learn enough about the world and you can predict what will happen next with a fair amount of accuracy.

When I was living in the U.S. and riding my bike, I could predict what drivers were going to do within a reasonable margin of error. For example, when a driver approached a particular intersection, there was a better than 70% chance they’d go forward, a 15% chance they’d turn right and maybe a 10% chance they’d turn left. You can predict it and usually be right. It’s even easier to predict if there are several lanes, including lanes that force a right or left turn.

I’ve found in China, I have zero ability to predict the future. Not only do I not understand the decisions that drivers make here, I can’t even imagine some of the possible outcomes. When I’m riding my bike on the outskirts of Shanghai, and I see a car ahead of me, there are nearly infinite possibilities of what might happen.

A driver might go straight, might turn left or right.

But there’s almost as good a chance that something like this might happen: the driver will suddenly stop in the middle of a multi-lane highway. He puts the car in park. A man gets out with his cell phone and looks around as cars scream by him on both sides. He talks a while longer. He gets back into the car and pauses a moment, before backing his car up in the traffic then swerving right into the bike lane. Once he’s in the bike lane, he begins to drive the opposite direction of travel while the bikes and motorbikes are forced up onto curbs and sidewalks. The driver stops for a minute, blocking the entirety of the bike lane before pulling into a driveway to continue his journey.

Traffic laws are pretty much optional here. Motorbikes don’t stop for traffic lights or even for cross-traffic. It’s a regular sight to see motorbikes darting through narrow gaps in the flow of vehicles like some out of control baby carriage crossing the street in a Keystone Kops short.

The only laws that aren’t up to user discretion appear to be the electronic toll roads. On the outside of Shanghai, there are roads that stop charging a toll at certain hours of the day. That electronic enforcement is so effective, as a matter of fact, that each night cars line up for miles waiting for the tick of the clock telling them they can enter for free.

On the way to any airport in the major cities, cars line the highway, sometimes two or three wide, impeding the traffic. In their wisdom, the airports don’t want to have to deal with a short term parking lot for people to wait to pick up a loved one after a flight. Instead, hundreds of cars park on the road in the miles leading to the airport, just waiting for a phone call that it’s time to head in to retrieve their family members.

I’ve lived in a lot of places with bad traffic (Los Angeles) or crazy traffic (Ho Chi Minh City), but in a city with such horrendous congestion, it’s amazing that I’ve never once seen anyone enforcing any of the traffic laws. The only time police are around is to deal with the accidents or impounding motorbikes without licenses. At the very least, you’d think that someone would be eager for the revenues that fines could bring in.

If you enjoyed this...Share on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on FacebookEmail this to someone

DC and Marvel Comics have both been announcing so many films based on their characters that it’s hard to believe there’s room for anything BUT comic book movies over the next five years. In addition to the films, television is jumping even deeper into the super-powered fray. Marvel has several shows that will be premiering on Netflix over the next year or so.

More immediately, though, three new series based on DC characters premiered in the past two months, with mixed results.

When I was a kid, any time there was a TV show based on superheroes, I ate it up, even if they weren’t particularly good. That’s not the case these days. There’s going to be a big bubble burst when the market for comic book films and TV shows takes its inevitable nose dive. But right now, it’s a buyer’s market.

Let me lead off with my favorite: The Flash. As far as comics go, Flash was my first superhero when I moved from Richie Rich and Archie into more dramatic fare. Sure, I’d watched Batman, the SuperFriends cartoons and the Superman movie, but none of them drew me into the comics. Flash was my favorite comic for the same reason it’s the top of the three new shows. It was fun. He has really cool powers (in the comics, he can do far more than just run quickly) and figuring out clever new ways to use superspeed has always been interesting. The television show has adopted a much more light-hearted attitude than most heroes get to enjoy, whether it’s on the small screen or in feature films.

Barry Allen gets to enjoy his superpowers, in between his challenge of the week. There needs to be conflict to sustain a drama on TV, so it’s not all fun and games, but Grant Gustin plays the character with a boyish attitude, which is in direct contrast to the other two new shows. Some of you may remember a Flash TV series in the 90’s, which was a good effort, but probably a bit ahead of its time (and its effects budgets).

Flash is on the CW, which means it’s a little too filled with teen-angst (well, young adult angst, I suppose), but overall it’s a good effort in bringing the characters to life.

Constantine has just finished its second episode and so far, so good. I don’t think it’s quite found its rhythm of what it wants to be, yet, but the cast is nailing the material pretty damned well. Constantine is about a reluctant demon hunter who normally seems to be the only one in the room who knows what’s going on, but still seems to get in way over his head every time. Like Flash, this isn’t the first time Constantine has made it to film, but the less said about the Keanu Reeves film, the better.

The comic has had a number of phenomenal story arcs, bringing some truly chilling horror to life on the printed page, along with demon/angel warfare. I’m a bit skeptical that the show can really spread its wings (so to speak) on a broadcast channel. It could do far more with the freedom to get darker. As far as the cast goes, Welsh actor Matt Ryan not only looks the part, but brings out Constantine’s unique combination of smug and tortured perfectly.

Finally, Gotham. The adventures of Batman when he was a boy. No, not really, although kind of. The show is centered on a young Jim Gordon, long before he became Commissioner Gordon and long before Bruce Wayne became Batman. While I enjoyed the pilot, the last few episodes have been falling flat. It quickly went from overplaying its heritage (virtually every major Batman villain appeared in the pilot in some form), then switched gears to focus on rival mobs and a whole bunch of uninteresting characters.

Honestly, I’d have been happier if Bruce Wayne wasn’t even in the show and the stories focused on just how Gotham became such a hellhole. I know that’s the ultimate intent of the series, but the path they’re taking is just not that intriguing. They bit off a big challenge – how can you have a main character who is heroic and honest, yet ultimately fails, creating the need for Batman? The Gotham City we know is one weird place and the whole gang war premise just seems too pedestrian. Yes, yes, we understand that Gotham’s corrupt, but I would have preferred seeing that it’s also always been insane.

That’s it for the new DC shows. I can’t wait to see the Netflix takes on Daredevil, Defenders, Jessica Jones, Power Man & Iron Fist over the next couple of years.

If you enjoyed this...Share on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on FacebookEmail this to someone

The latest from Apple is that they’re folding Beats Music into iTunes to help bolster the flagging revenues from digital music sales. There’s a lot of speculation about why digital music sales are declining (14% down from 2013).

As usual, piracy and file sharing has been cited – even though that’s been a factor for more than a decade. The other suspect that’s been hauled in for questioning  is the growth of streaming services like Spotify.

There’s no doubt that streaming music is biting into the market for sales. However, as was the case with file sharing, the remedy is being blamed, rather than the disease. File sharing was considered the culprit in the early 2000s because the recording industry was too stubborn and short-sighted to see that people wanted flexibility with their music. They wanted to carry it around with them, they wanted to move it from device to device. The music industry was so fat, dumb and happy on their addiction to CD sales that no one wanted to struggle through polycarbonate rehab (no, no, no).

What Spotify and other streaming services have done is similar. They have given customers what they want and what they need. But the music industry is again the problem. The reason for the success of streaming music is not that they offer whatever music you want for a monthly fee, the success is because no one is releasing songs worth BUYING.

Think about music over the past 15 years. How many songs do you know that you still want to listen to after hearing them for 3 months? This isn’t just a matter of being overplayed, the music is DISPOSABLE. The artists are interchangeable. Songs sound the same, any emotional resonance they have is saccharine and transient, at best.

I’m fairly confident that this isn’t some “get off my lawn” rant about the racket those kids listen to. I have no preference for past musical eras and wouldn’t place one much above the other. My tastes span a wide variety of genres – and I even enjoy a lot of the current crappy pop songs. But if you asked me if there’s any song from the last 15 years that I really HAVE to listen to again, I couldn’t give you an answer.

Disagree? If you have any songs on your playlist that don’t date back before the year 2000, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

If you enjoyed this...Share on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on FacebookEmail this to someone

There’s an online tradition called “Throwback Thursday,” in which people post old photos of themselves. The photos typically fall into one of two categories: “Oh, you were so cute back then!” or “Wow, that’s embarrassing!”

“Oh, you were so cute back then” photos tend to imply “but now – not so much.”

That’s why I prefer the throwbacks of an embarrassing sort. At best, you show how far you’ve come over the years and at worst, you can show you have a sense of humor about yourself.

In 1991, I tried my hand at drawing comic strips – which were poorly drawn, due to a complete lack of artistic skill and comprised of jokes that were either bad puns or retreads of gags that had been around since vaudeville. Most of them were a product of their time, but I managed to pull out a few that won’t be completely anachronistic.

With absolutely no additional fanfare, I present Tales From the Psycho Ward (with more to come in future weeks).

JW_comics1

 

JW_comics6

 

For those of you to young to know, chain letters were a pre-internet version of sharing some ridiculous message of positivity on Facebook to get good luck or save a kitten from being dipped into a vat of mantis shrimp. Fortunately, with written letters people had to pay for stamps, so they weren’t quite as common as they are now.

If you enjoyed this...Share on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on FacebookEmail this to someone

Recently, Newscorp critiqued Google as an enabler of internet piracy. As befitting the parent of Fox News, the rationale was filled with ridiculous assertions, which sum up to: “the internet is bad for us and we’re too lazy to figure out how to fix it, so we’ll just blame Google because somehow, Google = the entire internet.”

Google frequently takes a beating for monopolistic practices because of its huge market share of search engine traffic. My opinion is that Google is successful because they do things well and in the early days of the web, they found ways to monetize search technology. Of all the things you could say are monopolistic, search technology would seem pretty low on the list. Over a long weekend, two hungover guys in a basement can create a new search engine that’s accessible to billions of people.

Poogle

There are dozens (hundreds) of options for searching the web, but most of them suck and some – like that fucking “Ask” toolbar – put all of their resources into figuring out how to hijack your browser instead of convincing you to voluntarily use their product. Seriously, Ask.com’s marketing is like hiring a guy to stake out grocery stores, pull the Oreos out of your shopping cart, then secretly replace them with boxes of Hydrox.

But this isn’t some defensive fanboy appreciation of Google (disclosure: Android phone, Google Chrome and sometime user of their other stuff until they decide they want to shut it down). On the contrary, there are REAL crimes against the internet I hold Google accountable for.

I blame Google for 80% of the internet being absolute SHIT. Google’s prevalence means that the “under-the-hood” search algorithms have an inordinate impact on how companies and organizations use the web. Rather than a focus on better product, better content or more creative marketing, there’s a whole cottage industry trying to figure out tricks and cheat codes to win a game in which we’re all the target.

Go Click Yourself

Convincing people to click a link to your page is nothing new, it’s a key facet of anything someone is marketing online. With the system of Google Page Ranks and traffic measurement, the “click” has become much more of its own reward. Tactics to “add clicks” to your site become more important than just getting people to VISIT your site, leading to travesties like:

Clickbait headlines

When I’m on a news site, sometimes all I need is the headline and I can move on. Don’t tell me “You’ll never believe who is running for President!” to force me to click to another page. Just tell me “Rob Schneider is running for President in 2016.” Yes, I fucking believe it and I’ll read more if you’re going to say something interesting about it.

“Slideshows”

Look, if I want to read all about the 40 possible places that Taylor Swift is taking her cat, then let me READ. 40 pages of images with 10 words on each page is perfect for a 4 year old reading “Fun With Dick and Jane,” but is not what I want when I’m trying to discreetly catch up on celebrity gossip in the office.

Quantity Over Quality.

Once you’ve clicked, it doesn’t matter if the page signals a new age of enlightenment on Earth or a quiz about what kind of butterfly you are. There’s no quality component to a click. At some level, there should be page rankings that actually incorporate user ratings into the algorithm. I know there have been experiments with this in the past, but they weren’t particularly well executed.

Dick Linkers

Google makes an assload of revenue from paid search results and their bidding process. However, a lot of companies avoid that route (which can be costly) by trying to rank higher in the “unpaid search” results, which are what most of us want when we “Google” something. The unpaid search results ideally list the sites that best match what you’re searching for, but there are specific parts of the algorithms that bring out the shitweasels.

One of those factors is incoming links. Websites that are referenced in links on other pages will move higher on the list of search results. Because of this, you’ll often find articles on the internet with website links embedded in the middle of the text. How many times have you actually clicked on one of those links? Here’s the secret: no one clicks on it and no one cares that no one ever will, it’s only there to improve the (linked) site’s search ranking. This has given rise to a couple other douchenozzle endeavors.

Content Farms

There’s a whole industry of “content farms” focused on creating terribly written articles for whatever sites agree to it, solely so that the provider can slip links into that article. This is a personal one, because even with the minimal site traffic I get here, I get a dozen requests per week to provide me with “guest post” content. Writers of these “guest posts” get paid as little as $2 per article they write, so you can imagine how much time they spend crafting those beautiful pieces of prose.

Comment spam

Closely related to the content farm is the link spam you find in the comment sections of blogs and sites. I’m not talking about the “get-rich-quick” scams – while sufficiently scummy, those pricks are actually hoping you’ll click the link and fall for their bullshit. The other garden variety of spam includes links that are there just to improve a search engine ranking. These comments may pretend they’re talking about the topic at hand, but then have one (or twenty) links in them. Clicks are irrelevant, as long as the search engine finds them and gives their site “credit” for the link.

“SEO Guru” being a career

The only thing worse than all these tactics are the people who come up with them. SEO (Search Engine Optimization) wouldn’t even exist as a career without Google. These people are like Wall Street tax lawyers – they figure out what the rules are, with the express purpose of finding ways around them. Guys who club baby seals look at these people with disgust. Placing invisible text on webpages, cloaking real pages so search engines think they’re something different, cracking encryption to push spam onto a site. Do any of these people look in a mirror in the morning and think “Yeah, let’s go make the world a better place!?”

 

In Google’s defense, they do change their algorithms to try to address some of the more egregious offenses, but this is the core of their business model, so there’s only so much they can do. So, yes, Google has a lot to answer for. Larry, Sergey, I hereby sentence you to purchase Buzzfeed for $11 Billion and then shutter it 3 weeks later. Don’t whine. You’ve done it before with sites that actually did something useful.

If you enjoyed this...Share on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on FacebookEmail this to someone

A couple of weeks ago, I was given a challenge on Facebook to name 10 books that have changed me in some way. Since “viral challenges” on Facebook are just this century’s chain letter, I have a pretty hard rule against spreading them. That said, I did like the intent of this one, so I gave it some thought. Rather than blow a good bit of introspection on Facebook, I’m memorializing the list here instead, which gives me a bit more room to share my thoughts.

1. Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

In response to something goofy I wrote in high school, my English teacher recommended this book to me. I was fascinated that it was a novel, but random little freehand drawings were sprinkled throughout. It was a few years later when I actually read it, at the tail-end of my angsty college years.

 

2. Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett

Of all the books I’ve read, this is the one that changed me the most (although it’s actually a play, of course). I’ve written about its impact before, but this is the book I credit with pushing me to find my own path when I realized the direction other people gave me wasn’t working.

 

3. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

The unique narrative point of view confused the hell out of me for the first 30 pages or so, but once I understood what was going on, I was hooked. The novel is the first one I had read with such significant shifts in pov and to my geeky mind, the first section felt a bit like sci fi with its narrative structure and time-shifting.

 

4. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

Full of wordplay and goofy, fantastic fun. I was introduced to this one as a child and consider it a more playful cousin to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with a bit of Narnia mixed in. It’s hard to recall, but I believe I saw the Chuck Jones animated film before I picked up the book. Both of them are due for a fresh look as an adult, especially the book. The wonderfully quirky names of people and places would mean much more to me now that I understand the context and idioms, like Milo’s jump to the island of Conclusions.

 

5. The Stand by Stephen King

That’s right. The whole, unabridged version. All 1,152 pages of it, making it an odd choice for my first King novel. Despite his decades as a bestselling author, I never bothered with his work because every time I turned around another of his books was being made into a film. I equated oversaturation with low quality (due, in part, to several of the films being awful). In 1999, a friend of mine and I drunkenly shared our favorite books and he talked it up so much, I had to read it. Now it’s the one book I’d be most willing to re-read.

 

6. Fletch by Gregory MacDonald

Years before Chevy Chase shared his take on the character of Fletch, I read the whole series. The back cover of the book actually just printed the book’s opening dialogue, and it was enough to grab me. This was my first exposure to a thriller novel that combined mystery with comedy, which I’d previously only seen in movies and television shows. This book is closest in tone to what I’m looking for in my own writing.

 

7. Blindness by Jose Saramago

The second Saramago novel I read (the first was Death With Interruptions). While Death was filled with bits of humor, Blindness reminds me of post-apocalyptic shows like Walking Dead. When something good happens, you know more bad things are around the corner. Saramago’s unique style of run-on sentences, minimal punctuation and rare use of proper nouns can be disorienting, but once you adjust and flow with it instead of against it, it’s a beautiful read.

 

8. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

Is there anyone who reads this book for pleasure any more? It’s either banned or it’s required reading, so who’s left in that middle sliver of people who can just enjoy it? Unlike The Sound and the Fury and Waiting for Godot, this wasn’t a part of any coursework in college. I honestly don’t remember what drove me to pick it up, although the combination of my own feelings of alienation and knowing it had been banned in many places certainly gave it a mystique I found intriguing.

 

9. The Burglar in the Closet by Lawrence Block

Prior to picking up the Burglar series, I had read Lawrence Block’s novels about Matthew Scudder (recently portrayed by Liam Neeson in A Walk Among the Tombstones). Burglar was fascinating for several reasons: first, it impressed me that the same author could write dark and gritty in the Scudder novels, then go with fun and light in this one; second, this was an anti-anti-hero. Unlike the dark anti-heroes of the 80s and 90s, Bernie is a burglar who is also a nice, charming, funny guy you’d want to hang out with.

 

10. Cosmos by Carl Sagan

The sole non-fiction entry on the list, this was a companion book to the PBS television series Cosmos that Sagan hosted in 1980 (recently rebooted by Neil deGrasse Tyson). With its giant, glossy photos of the universe and simple explanations of complex physics, this was the only book I ever waited months for. With a cover price of close to $20 – in 1980 – it was the most expensive book I’d ever heard of and I had to wait until it showed up under the Christmas tree to get it. Sagan exposed me to parts of the science and mathematical world that we never covered in school, much like Stephen Hawking’s “Brief History of Time” and Bill Bryson’s “Short History of Nearly Everything” have done more recently.

If you enjoyed this...Share on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on FacebookEmail this to someone

With the new iPhone 6 Plus, there’s a lot of chatter about “how big does your phone need to be?” I was riding the BTS (Skytrain) in Bangkok about 3 years ago when I first saw someone holding a 7 inch tablet to their ear to make a call and admitttedly, it looked ridiculous.

But the people asking “how big is too big” are asking the wrong question. I use my phone for texting and messaging about 10 times more frequently than I talk to someone on a phone call. When I do use it as a phone, I use it with earbuds so I’m not holding it up to my head. There are literally millions of apps available for smartphones that can do anything from make fart noises to edit powerpoint presentations (note to self: add fart noises to next powerpoint presentation).

The key question in 2014 isn’t “how big do you want your phone to be?” it’s “how small do you want your computer to be?”

If you enjoyed this...Share on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on FacebookEmail this to someone

During my recent trip to the U.S., I decided to play tourist and visit a few places I had never been. One of the more interesting destinations was the Money Museum at the Federal Reserve Bank in Chicago.

No matter how much it’s talked about in the news and politics, I really had no idea exactly what the Federal Reserve Bank does. I know its name is printed at the top of all of my Benjamins, but that was about the extent of my knowledge. With the help of a friend I’ve had for 40 years, I signed up to take the tour and get a glimpse behind the scenes of the place that money calls home. Knowing the amount of money that passes through the place and seeing the turn of the century style conjured up images of caper stories the whole time I was there. I couldn’t help but think “okay, if I was going to rob this place, how would I do it?”

While it was interesting to learn what the Federal Reserve Bank does, the real beauty of the visit was a special tour through some of the innards with a guide who knows trivia that spans centuries and literally trillions of dollars. Jerry, our tour guide, was a fascinating man who returned from the boredom of retirement to be a tour guide, talking guests through the museum. He wore a light green and white suit, looking like he too had been minted by the U.S. government decades ago. Over the course of the next hour or so, he shared background on the Fed, stories and more numbers than anyone should be able to recall.

In the main museum, we got to see a number of displays about the history of currency in the United States, including a couple of displays of One Million Dollars:

Milliondollars-001

One Million Dollars in $1 Bills

Milliondollars2-001

A bit more manageable million. Not quite duffel bag size, but getting closer.

 

We also got to learn a bit about what the Federal Reserve Bank does in a video that was put together in-house – nice, but a bit dry. I’m sharing what I took away from it, which may be entirely inaccurate, due to my failing memory. The Fed’s charter is to “oversee how monetary policy is implemented.” It comes down to three primary functions: 1) they oversee how payment systems work, so the way checks are cashed, the way credit card and online transactions take place; 2) they are the regulators of banks in the U.S., so they’re the ones who go in and audit banks to make sure they’re not breaking any laws and 3) the most visible function is that they’re responsible for moving cash around.

For most of us, that’s the fascinating part of what they do. Every day of the week, shipments of currency come from the United States mints to the Federal Reserve bank. The Fed then ships that currency out to the banks that need it. While the larger bills are transported by armored car every day, the $1 bills are packed into unmarked semi-trailers and driven to the building to prepare them for distribution. I guess it’s not much different from shipping a truckload of iPhones to a warehouse, but somehow it SEEMS riskier that they do that.

Fed-001

On the flip side of things, the Fed gets deliveries of cash from the banks, which is counted and bundled for re-distribution. This is also the step that includes pulling old and worn bills out of circulation. One of the most surprising things I saw was how little wear a bill needs for it to be taken out of circulation. Most of the bills in your wallet are probably not going to pass.

About $17 Million in currency is destroyed every day at the Chicago Fed, which is one of 12 Federal Reserve Banks. The Money Museum even gives you a small bag of shredded money as a souvenir, which contains the remnants of currency equal to about $370. One of the more interesting facts about this shredded currency is that until the mid 20th century, the shredded bills were burned, but because of the toxic chemicals used in the ink, they had to stop doing that. It’s now shipped off to special landfills for toxic materials. Kind of makes you worry about handling it every day, doesn’t it?

I had the pleasure of getting a more personal tour, including a trip to see the money sorting and counting machines (through a thick glass window, of course), but sadly the machines weren’t operating that day. Those functions are visible from an additional section of the Museum that was closed off in 2001, so not many people get to visit it.

My other favorite part was looking at the high denomination currency that’s no longer in circulation. One display has a $10,000 bill in it, along with several other bills from the 200-ish years of American money printing. The 10k bills were printed until the 1940s and discontinued when it became apparent that virtually all bills above $1000 in denomination were being used for criminal purposes. Just over 300 of the bills survive, most of which are in the hands of collectors. About 9 years ago, one of them actually arrived at the Fed through normal banking channels! Someone had gotten hold of it (perhaps stored in a box in an attic somewhere), taken it to their local bank and deposited it. With a quick bit of research, they’d have discovered it was worth close to 10 times that to a collector.

I’d love to make a few suggestions to the guys at the Money Museum as improvements, but since this is solely for PR (admission is free), I’m sure they are limited in how much they invest in the tour. Although considering the constant saber-rattling in Congress about the Fed, maybe they could use a bit stronger PR push.

  1. One of my biggest pet peeves with 90% of museums is that no one really thinks about photos. Placement of light fixtures to minimize glare, setting up obstruction free angles and allowing guests the chance to pose without impeding traffic are critical factors for any museum and most of them don’t think that through.
  2. Re-open the closed section of the tour. Money counting and shredding is one of the more fascinating things that happens at the Fed and no one gets to see it. I get it. 9/11 happened. But the security checks and procedures keep out bank robbers, so I’m sure they can be effective for other people, too.
  3. Tell some stories. Interactive displays are all well and good, but you’ve got an asset like Jerry who has hundreds of stories in his arsenal. I’m the only one who heard any of them. Everyone else just heard him introduce the video and rattle off a lot of facts and figures. Stories = excitement. Spend a little money and create a new video to share some of these stories in the context of explaining what the Fed does.

All unsolicited advice, of course, but I found the place fascinating and woefully under-utilized. As an average tourist, there just wouldn’t be a lot to hold my interest without some upgrades.

P.S. if you’re interesting in the strategic planning and development of a world-class tourist experience, I know someone who can help. ;)

If you enjoyed this...Share on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on FacebookEmail this to someone