Saturday, July 30, 2011

Brian Wilson

Brian Wilson can be described in many ways:

A publicity-seeking egomaniac

A phony who has parlayed ugly facial hair into a product for feeble-minded clones

A talentless comic masquerading as a profound thinker

A self-appointed spokesperson for a group of fun-loving ballplayers

That’s all on target, but misses the point. The most accurate description of Brian Wilson is that he’s a mediocre relief pitcher who has taken a run of good fortune and turned it into a thriving enterprise.

We could say, “Good for you, Brian. Keep fooling those fools.” The only problem with that is that it doesn’t change his pitiful performance on the mound almost every time he’s called in to save a game. Even when he doesn’t blow the save he usually almost blows the save. Those of us who would really like to see the Giants do well are not amused by the drama.

This guy is just not very good. No one in his right mind buys into “Fear the Beard.” There is nothing to fear. He is a paper tiger. Let’s get a real talent to save games and dump this jerk before he does further damage.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Keeping Their Word!

I notice that people like me with a strong anti-right wing bias are complaining about the rigidity and stupidity of Tea Party Republicans elected last year. Their fanatical adherence to misguided policies is going to put the country in the economic toilet, we say. They will vote against anything that can possibly be construed as raising taxes, even if it means that the United States will default on its financial obligations.

We cannot fathom how these people can be so pig-headed and stubborn.

Well, consider this: They are just doing what they promised to do when they ran for election. They said, “No new taxes. Reduce the size of government at any cost.” And they were voted into office on that platform.

My political compatriots and I complain that politicians never keep their word and then excoriate these same politicians for keeping their word. They are just doing what they said they’d do. In a way that’s a breath of fresh air. That we are appalled at the position they’re taking and are concerned at the implications of their action doesn’t change the fact that these people are walking their talk, standing tall for their convictions.

Slightly less obvious, but still in the same domain, are my Democratic friends who go ballistic at even the mention of a change in Medicare and Social Security. Raise the eligibility age to 67? Horrors! Charge wealthy people more for health care? A shocking idea! And so on. It’s the same knee-jerk reaction as those on the other side. Neither makes sense. Both are nonsensical and predictable.

So hats off to the Tea Partiers. You will destroy the country, but you should be praised for maintaining your integrity.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Congratulations to Japan!

I wanted the U.S. to win but am not upset that the Japanese women beat us. They played with courage, skill, heart and passion. We did well. They did better. And a whole country really cared.

Good for the Nadeshiko – the pink flowers rule!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Sorry To Hear . . .

Sorry to hear Clemens got a mistrial. Incredible prosecutorial stupidity.

Sorry to hear about more bombs in Mumbai. There is no way a huge, crowded city like that can be fully protected.

Speaking of bombs, sorry to hear about the suicide bomber in Afghanistan who hid the explosives in his turban. A very nasty image of what he looked like post-bombing.

And still on bombs – sorry to hear that bombers are now planning to implant their bombs in their bodies to avoid airport security detection. High marks for creativity however.

Sorry to hear that the debt ceiling deadline may be finessed by a strategy that avoids an immediate crisis but doesn’t deal with the basic issues. Sorry to hear, but not surprised.

Sorry and glad to hear that it’ll be the US vs Japan in the World Cup final. Good for the Japanese and their country. A gritty, skilled and sympathetic group. Sorry for the U.S., since the few non-Americans around the world who might have wanted the U.S. to win will now surely root for the other side.

Sorry to hear that Rupert Murdoch is being less defiant than I’d hoped he’d be in trying to save his media empire. Let’s hope it’s only a temporary stratagem and he’ll revert to his real self soon.

Sorry to hear that tuition at California state universities has gone through the roof. More short-term actions with long-term negative implications.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Mixed Feelings!

The Roger Clemens trial has begun. On the one hand I’d like to see the arrogant asshole locked up. On the other, it’s a continuing waste of scarce resources by prosecutors trying to nail a ‘name’ defendant on minor charges – a la Barry Bonds.

The charges against Strauss-Kahn are not minor. He probably deserves to be tried, convicted and sent to jail. But he’ll probably skate because his accuser has credibility issues. Even though her past history isn’t directly relevant to the matter at hand, I know from personal experience in the jury box that unless she is believable the jury won’t buy her story. Too bad.

Both the NFL and the NBA are locked out. They say it’s the billionaire owners against the millionaire players – so why should anyone care what happens? I don’t care whether the next season goes into the toilet or not. But a lot of people – the fans who have made these guys rich – do care, so for them it would be unfortunate if no agreement is reached.

Our relationship with Pakistan is a shotgun marriage. It would be satisfying to cut our losses, stop our aid, and tell them to fuck off. Satisfying, but not smart. I’d like us to be out of Afghanistan, and if we leave we don’t need help from the Paks to fight that war. But those guys are still sitting on a pile of nuclear weapons. To turn our back on that reality would be a dangerous strategy.

A few politicians who don’t have their heads stuck up their partisan asses know that they have to act to save this country from an economic disaster. I hope there are enough in this camp to deal with the crisis at hand. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that revenues need to go up and expenses need to go down. Both need to happen. So while I’d enjoy the satisfaction of seeing the ideologues on both sides go down in flames and sink in the muck of their stupidity, given the consequences for the rest of us it’s probably too high a price to pay.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Burkina Faso!

In today’s N.Y. Times Nick Kristof recounted a recent trip he made to West Africa. His major conclusion is that all is not hopeless in Africa, as many assume. Quite the contrary, while there are big problems there are also clear indicators of progress. On his journey he drove from Niamey in Niger to Ouagadougou, the capitol of Burkina Faso. I was reminded of a trip I made thirty years ago, when I was Executive Director of the Breakthrough Foundation. Along with Andrew Oerke, head of the Partnership for Productivity (PFP), I covered much of the same terrain Kristof did. Here is part of what I wrote after we returned:

We flew from Paris to Ouagadougou, the capitol of Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), a landlocked and desperately poor country and former French colony. The French influence was still evident. We put West African francs in our pockets, croissants in our bellies and spoke French.

After a night in Ouga we piled into a Land Rover and headed east into the bush. Our destination was Fada Ngourma, almost 200 miles away, where PFP was at work. After about a hundred miles the paved lane and a half road was replaced by an unpaved track, rutted, with multiple potholes, the depth of which was hidden by water that had collected during a recent rain. We judged the potholes on a scale of 1 to 10. It was a ten if we bounced up high enough to smash our heads against the roof. We hit two bona fide tens, a few nines, and many sevens and eights.

We stopped for lunch at a roadside establishment that featured a few wooden tables outside for al fresco dining. We were joined by about two dozen ugly buzzards. They were just hanging around, at a discreet distance away but close enough for discomfort. I hoped they were waiting for our leftovers, not for us.

We arrived in Fada in good shape and spirits. I was to stay in a PFP house with Andrew and several of his colleagues. The house was roomy, clean and comfortable. A good night’s sleep was our reward.

The next day we visited some of PFP’s clients. The excitement and enthusiasm evident in the faces of these new entrepreneurs was genuinely moving. Each one, as they told their story, demonstrated the validity and brilliance of the micro-lending approach that PFP was promoting. They spoke in the local tribal language, Gurmanchi, which was translated into French, then into English and back again. It worked quite well.

We saw a man and his son turning an old bicycle wheel that was hooked up to a mechanism that aerated a forge. They collected discarded tin cans, melted them down, and then poured the liquid metal into forms that turned it into pots and pans. Their loan had totaled something like $60.

We met a man who had built a clay oven, in which he made bread every day. We met tailors, shoemakers, fruit juice providers, and more.

We met a woman who had received one of PFP’s larger loans, to buy a small grain grinder. Until she went into business, for as long as anyone could remember she and the other women in her village had been spending countless hours grinding grain by hand. Now, for a small fee, they were freed from that task.

We met a man who for many years had owned a bicycle repair shop. During those years he had a plan and a vision. He knew that perishable goods had to be moved from outlying villages to small towns. He also knew that the service currently being provided was unreliable. So he planned to save until he had enough money to buy a small truck and then go into the transportation business. Just recently he realized his dream. His beat up old truck didn’t look like much, but it got the job done. This man was inspiring.

The night before we were to leave Fada, our hosts put on a great party. Local musicians provided the entertainment and the cook made a delicious variety of local foods. We ate too much, drank too much and went to bed late.

In the morning I woke up drowsily. Something was wrong. I didn’t know what it was, but things were not as they should be. Then Benct, a Swede who was Andrew’s lead man in Fada, came running in. “We’ve been robbed,” he yelled. Now, things began to come into focus. My jeans were gone. So was my briefcase. And other things had been moved around.

We found all our trousers in a pile on the kitchen floor. Whatever had been in the pockets was gone. We began a search for our belongings. Outside, around the corner of the house, I found some items that had been in my briefcase. But I was missing a lot, including my passport, cash, papers, and a special silver bracelet that I’d had for many years.

The police were called and came to investigate. They took a statement from me and filled out some forms, but I felt they were going through the motions. Whatever they were doing wouldn’t help at all. I was sure of it.

A local PFP staff member told us we were the victims of powerful gris gris. Gris gris is strong invisible magic that successful thieves use to make sure those they are burgling at night don’t wake up while it is happening. Since none of us were aware of anything until morning, it was obvious that the gris gris had worked. My unspoken conclusion about all this was that our deep sleep had more to do with the booze we drank during and after dinner than it did with gris gris. But, who knows?

When the tumult settled down, it was clear there was nothing more we could do, so we might as well get on with our program. We got back in the Land Rover and headed further east, to Diapaga, 100 miles deeper into the bush.

Diapaga memories:

It was a very hot trip. By the time we reached Diapaga I had a thirst that demanded cold water or cold beer. I knew there was no electricity in Diapaga, so I was sure we’d find nothing cold. But, alas, the gods of the West African bush were smiling on us. Or to be more accurate, the PFP staff knew how to take care of themselves. They had an old-fashioned icebox that was filled with very cold beer. Delicious!

We stayed in what the French called a hutment: small houses for lodging hunters who came to this area to shoot wild game. The houses were built of mud and thatch. The overhang from the roof came down to within a couple of feet of the ground, effectively preventing any cooling breeze from invading our space. Of course, air couldn’t penetrate the mosquito netting we used at night, so I guess the overhang issue was academic.

In addition to no electricity, Diapaga was without running water. We were given a bucket of water that was to be used for washing. It was delivered in the evening. I noticed that the water was quite muddy, but I assumed the dirt would settle overnight. Wrong. In the morning it looked the same. But it was wet, so we used it.

The second morning we were there, when I emerged from under the netting it appeared that the dirt wall across the room was moving. Upon closer inspection I saw that it wasn’t moving but it was alive. The entire wall was covered with small creatures, all of which were headed in an upward direction. After an hour or so they were gone.

Gris Gris Revisited:

About six weeks after returning from Upper Volta, I received a letter from Benct. He told me the police had found the thief and had recovered my briefcase. He was sending it by diplomatic pouch. He said the thief was in jail.

The briefcase arrived a little beat up but intact. Inside was everything that had been there that night in Fada Ngourma, including my passport, the cash and my special silver bracelet. I was thrilled.

I had a theory: it would have been too embarrassing for the police and the local Fada people to reveal who the thief was while we were there. But, I thought, Fada is not a large place; certainly there could be no secret about who would do such a burglary. It seemed to me that the work PFP was doing was appreciated. Therefore, they did not want to see PFP guests ripped off. And so I got my stuff back.

Several years later I was hosting a group of visitors from Africa. Included was a woman from Burkina Faso. I told her about my experience in her country and about the theft. I gave her my theory about what had happened and why my briefcase was returned. I asked her if that seemed right to her.

“I don’t know,” she said. “But I do know that your gris gris is stronger than the thief’s.” And she pointed to my bracelet. In her mind it was the power symbol.

It was obvious that PFP’s relationship with the people they helped went far beyond the loan of a few francs or an innovative idea. The context for their lives had changed. What had previously been assumed to be impossible was now possible. So the actions people took now served and furthered their new possibility – and it worked brilliantly.