Thursday, October 30, 2014

I Invented 'Operation' And All I Got Is This Lousy T-Shirt

What? No oral surgery option?
When John Spinello was a student of industrial design, he invented this game that involved some skill, a steady hand, and enough electronics to make some noise and light up a small bulb.

It was the early 1960s and games were a lot more simple, as were the abilities to amuse the younger set.

Mr. Spinello sold the rights to the game for $500 and went on with his life. He was a creative type and wasn't thinking in terms of marketing or potential sales. He got on with his life, while the man who bought the game for next to nothing sold it on to toymaker Milton Bradley Co., and earned a very tidy return on his investment.

Mr. Spinello kept the bragging rights, but he is not the bragging type. Few people knew that he had invented Operation, a game that is still popular, and still making money for the game's owner. As for the inventor, he took a severe hit in the recent economic downturn and ended up declaring bankruptcy, even as the Operation game kept right on amusing children, even in our more sophisticated times. Every now and then you need some silliness, like a plastic pencil representing writer's block or a little butterfly to be removed from a patient's stomach. And the desire to not sound the buzzer has not diminished, either. Fifty years on, and people are still a little competitive in that way.

Now it is Mr. Spinello who needs an operation but he's broke. Word got out, and the response has been overwhelming for the unassuming Bloomingdale, IL, resident.

A couple of game inventors who knew of Mr. Spinello's contribution to the industry got wind of his financial distress and set up a crowd funding site to raise money for some much needed oral surgery. In a little over a week, they nearly hit their goal of $25,000 so Mr. Spinelli can get the dental implants he needs. Hasbro, which now owns the game rights, has offered to buy the original prototype from Mr. Spinello. What could be more perfect for the company's archives than the mock-up that started it all? It's a museum piece. And considering how much profit they've earned on the game, they should be able to make a respectable offer.

If all goes well, the inventor of a classic game will get the medical care he needs, and have enough left over to help him through a rough patch.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

A Place That Works, or, A Room Of One's Own

Elizabeth Berg is an acclaimed author who has penned several novels. When she writes an essay telling you what you need to be a writer, her words are worth heeding.

What advice does she have?

You should feel things, she suggests. Have you ever read an account of some incident and found yourself burning with anger? It was anger that started Katie Hanrahan on writing THE LEAVEN OF THE PHARISEES, and her anger comes through in the powerful emotion of the story. Children taken from their mothers for the crime of being poor? The government deciding which women were of suitable moral character to raise their children, and which were overstepping the bounds, as determined by a parish priest or a visiting nun? Young women enslaved for the crime of being pregnant out of wedlock, for the crime of being pretty? There is strong emotion running through the novel, and it came about from casual reading of newspaper reports that inspired a driving outrage.

That a writer has to notice things fits with the image of a writer as that person in the corner watching everything but saying little. John McGahern had a reputation in his hometown of mingling with the locals, watching them as they went about their normal activities, but always observing. His observations of small town Irish life fleshed out his novels. Readers can relate to characters that are familiar to them. As a writer, if you bring that element of reality, you have done well.

Wasn't it Virginia Woolf who said a writer needed a room of one's own? Elizabeth Berg reiterates that requirement, and if you are a man with a wife to do the housework and maintain you in comfort, you are a step ahead of everyone else.

To have a space to work is not asking much. You don't need an entire room. A corner somewhere. A desk where you can prop up your research documents, your pens, extra paper, maybe a laptop if you're doing writing the modern way. But what you need, as Ms. Berg points out in her essay, is uninterrupted time to think about words and then put them down before reading them and listening to them and starting over again.

What woman has that kind of luxury?

If you work full time, your day is filled. Then you come home and throw food on the table, monitor homework, entertain your spouse who has to tell you about something that happened during the day. Maybe you and your husband argue about finances and the need to squeeze another drop of blood out of the financial turnip that month.

After all that, are you going to sit down and work on a novel and not expect to be disturbed by a phone call, the husband looking for the packet of crisps he thought he saw in the back of the cupboard, or a whining child?

Is there a writer out there who does not write full time, or work in academia where they don't work much at all, and who can tell female writers how they manage to write with all the normal distractions that a woman faces because, let's face it, if a man is working on a novel it's something of earth shattering importance. If a woman is trying to write, well, it's charming, what is it, dear, a nice romance like one of Cecilia Ahern's stories?

That attitude is even worse than the constant rejection you face when you try to get that novel published after all those years of squeezing in a paragraph here or a chapter there. Any writers out there who have advice on how to overcome that sort of frustration?

A supportive family could be of far greater importance than a room of one's own.

Monday, October 27, 2014

A Spy Among Friends: A Book Review

The e-book was provided by the publisher.

A Spy Among Friends, by Ben Macintyre

Much has been written about Kim Philby, the notorious British turncoat who operated freely for thirty years. Author Ben Macintyre takes a different approach in his presentation, giving us a view from those who thought that they knew Philby because they were close personal friends.

The book is a page-turner, with the very spy craft that inspired Ian Fleming (himself a member of the club), but it is the old boys network that really stands out. To read about a man being recruited and then admitted into the highest echelons of British intelligence because he was a Cambridge man and public school boy is to realize that the class system was not totally wiped out by the social changes brought on by the First World War.

The case of Kim Philby is as much a cautionary tale of class privilege as it is a story about the privileged being used in ways that broke their social rules, and the shock that kept them blind to the betrayal of one of their own.

Using the words of those who thought they were Philby's great friends, the author explains how the false narrative woven by Philby protected him from being outed. The closeness, the camaraderie, all served to insulate him from exposure and furthered his career. What comes across in the narrative is the frustration and total befuddlement of the men of MI6 who watched every attempt to undermine the Soviet Union upended, aware that someone had tipped the enemy off but utterly unaware that it was the very man they discussed their plans with.

As the story concludes, Mr. Macintyre maintains the focus on the friends, those who were betrayed so thoroughly. How they reacted to that betrayal, and what changed in the espionage game, bring the story full circle.

A fascinating glimpse into the everyday lives of spies makes for an intriguing read that is difficult to put down once you've begun.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

When Free Amazon Prime Is Not Enough Of An Incentive

The buzz continues to ripple through financial circles where said circles intersect with literary interests. Amazon missed the mark this quarter, and Wall Street is punishing the monolithic marketplace.

Amazon has not shown signs of great profitability in its short existence. It's all about growing the marketplace, rising sales, but there comes a time when shareholders take stock and decide if their long term goals will be met, or if it's just a slow grind to insolvency. Those with a stake in the company tend to become alarmed when a new avenue turns into a dead end with a great deal of unsold stock piled up at the end of it. They often flinch when the firm they have invested in gets bad publicity, especially when that bad publicity is splashed in the pages of the New York Times and is written by a respected economist.

Why did Amazon miss Wall Street expectations?

In part, it's a trend that has been hurting book sales in general. Expensive college textbooks are available for rent instead of purchase, and with the cost of third level education skyrocketing, anything that saves on expenses is going to become the most popular option.

The book selling market has been in decline for a while, on a downward trend that coincides with the downturn in the economy. People had lots of money when Amazon appeared, and they were mad for the books. Now there is not enough cash on hand to cover the cost of tonight's dinner, and the last thing the average reader will splurge on is a book. They'll borrow from a public library or a friend. Or they'll download an e-book, maybe, but even that is not a fast-growing segment of the market.

It's apparent, after getting the numbers from Amazon, why it has been so fierce in its negotiations with Hachette Book Group. Amazon desperately needs every penny of discount they can wring out of a publisher, and the news from the investment world only serves to boost Hachette's position. You need us more than we need you, in other words. Amazon can't hide the wound and the hemorrhaging of cash is evident.

But what makes things particularly difficult for Amazon?

It just might be a misstep, a slight attack of hubris that is costing more money than the company can afford to lose.
Free Amazon Prime! Such a deal!

Competing with everyone, in every way, brought up the Kindle to take on Apple's iPad. But there is no exclusivity because anyone can buy an iPad and download the free Kindle app. Then they can use that Kindle app to download free e-books from the public library via Overdrive, and just because a reader has a Kindle account does not mean they are using it in a way that benefits Amazon.

Where else do people download books? More and more, they are downloading to a smartphone. So Jeff Bezos decided that Amazon would make smartphones as well.

Just because he wanted to compete does not mean he had a product that was equal to an iPhone.

The Amazon warehouses are stuffed to the rafters with Fire phones, unwanted by the general public because a free subscription to Amazon Prime just isn't enough of an incentive to make the purchase.

The phones cost money to develop. They cost money to manufacture. They cost money to store. And none of those costs are recouped by a phone that is not being sold.

Which leaves shareholders to wonder if Amazon has lost its way. And when they think a company is headed in the wrong direction, they dump the stock and when the stock gets dumped the price drops and when it drops precipitously, potential investors take notice.

All of which is likely to be pointed out by negotiators representing Hachette Publishing Group when next the parties meet to discuss the level of discounts offered on Hachette titles and who will determine the price of the e-books. Perhaps something along the lines of the deal struck between Amazon and Simon & Schuster, the one that resurrects a pricing model that Amazon said was a violation of anti-trust laws when Apple did it.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Actions Most Positive for Positive Action

I'd call a spa treatment and a massage some positive action. An Garda Siochana, however, doesn't see the positivity in such things. They're under the impression that the charity organization Positive Action was strictly about raising money for women infected with Hepatitis C.

There's more to Positive Action than helping the sick. What about helping the stressed individuals working so hard to generate the funds and then distribute them? One for you, two for me, one for you, three for me...and so on until several hundred thousand euro go missing.

One employee of Positive Action must have become exhausted with all the support group development and the lobbying for the best care available, to say nothing of the advocating. A massage would loosen up the tension in the shoulders, and someone whose liver is gone due to Hepatitis C couldn't begrudge an hour of such therapy. So busy was she with her work that she had to send a courier to pick up the dry-cleaning, and Positive Action came through once again. Or she charged the cost to the office. Either way, she earned the perk, right?

Have you ever tried to drive in Dublin? It's madness. So it's understandable that Positive Action would have spent €34,000 on taxi fares over a four year period. They must have had to do a great deal of traveling, what with all that advocating and ensuring the best care and such.

The organization also managed to spend €100,000 on such essentials as angel card readings and spiritual healing. Well, if the drugs aren't working, what's a patient to do? A little spiritual healing might be the only option.

Then there were the hundreds of thousands spent on overseas travel, and the astronomical sum that went towards legal fees.

Investigators are uncovering some phony invoices and inflated invoices and just about any scheme you could imagine to separate the cash from Positive Action. To help with disguising transactions, there was a secret bank account, to go along with a secret investment account.

The Health Service paid for all that lavish spending over a four year period, beauty treatments and groceries and whatever was wanted, because no one was minding the till. The employee entrusted with distributing the money to the women who were supposed to be reaping the benefits managed to reap the benefits largely for herself. Over a million of your hard-earned euro were thrown down the drain due to a lack of oversight.

The oversight is coming too late. The money is gone, and it isn't coming back.

Gardai aren't even sure where it all went.

The woman at the center of the fraud is cooperating with authorities, who have yet to charge her. They'll most likely wait to see how much cooperating she does before settling on a suitable charge.

For Positive Action, it was four years of living large on someone else's back, not unlike a pimp. That would make the Irish taxpayers the whores, apparently.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Democratic Strategist Integrity

The husband of political consultant Ann Liston quit his job yesterday, citing political interference and implications of pillow talk between spouses.

At the same time, Sun-Times reporter Dave McKinney resigned from the paper, citing political interference and implications of pillow talk between spouses.

These two sentences are essentially the same, but the description of the protagonist has been slightly altered to show, rather than tell. Dave McKinney is a political reporter for a Chicago newspaper, and his wife is a political consultant. Your head is now drawing lines from Point A to Point B and you're arriving at Point 'Journalistic Integrity'.
Are they talking politics?

Mr. McKinney penned an in-depth article about Republican candidate Bruce Rauner and Mr. Rauner's involvement in a lawsuit that touched on operations of one of the many companies his hedge fund operated. The article painted him in a bad light, which is what you'd expect from an investigative journalist.

But does it make a difference to your sense of integrity to know that his wife is a Democratic consultant whose firm works with Illinois Democratic candidates to get them elected?

The journalist blames the new owners of the Chicago Sun-Times, one of whom was Bruce Rauner before he gave up the investment when he decided to run for governor. Mr. McKinney says that the publisher was put under pressure by the paper's owners to kill the piece by the Rauner campaign, but the article ran anyway. The conflict of interest angle was then floated, but still the article was published.

But right after it ran, Mr. McKinney was relieved of his politcal beat and given other options at the newspaper, none of which he cared to accept.

The reporter defended his editor, in the belief that Jim Kirk would never do that to him. Jim Kirk has been defending his integrity by insisting that no one above him was pulling his strings and it was his decision to pull the plug on a good reporter who, it turned out, married into an enormous conflict of interest.

Ms. Liston herself is not working on the Quinn re-election campaign, but her company is, and the average reader would not believe that she is so isolated in her office that a word is never passed between her and her colleagues.

That becomes a problem for a newspaper that is concerned with journalistic integrity. The owners of the Sun-Times don't want to get a reputation as the spokes-paper for the Democrats, especially in Chicago where the Democrats are famous for corruption and one-party rule. They are competing with the conservative Chicago Tribune, and while a liberal slant is fine, a lack of independence from the politicians being covered is deadly.

Mr. McKinney believes his demotion was ordered by the paper's owner, Michael "Charles Foster Kane" Ferro, and he has retained some high-powered legal bulldogs to make a case that shows Mr. McKinney was the victim of political machinations at the highest level.

Is his wife the political strategist advising him?

What do they talk about when their heads hit the pillow? Should the readers know?

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Take Back The (Halloween) Night

The good old days
The ancient Celts knew how to celebrate the dead. It's an art that, sadly, has been lost to our modern culture. Sure we still carve up the occasional vegetable and scare small children with grisly tales of the dead, but the true meaning of Halloween is lost.

Sinn Fein's Sandra McLennan wants to restore Ireland's former Celtic glory. She wants the government to do it, but she's Sinn Fein and they expect the government to do everything anyway. It won't happen, however, unless the Celts get behind her and stand up for their right to the night.

The old ones called it Samhain, the night of the dead, and they celebrated the holiday like it was a genuine holiday. It was also a date that marked winter's approach, an event of some importance to the ancients who had no government to offer subsidies or welfare payments if the crops were poor or a farmer didn't get his livestock secured before bad weather hit.

What was Samhain became Halloween as the ancient practices were absorbed into Christianity. Who doesn't enjoy Christmas, right, and it's just the old Roman festival in fancy dress. So here we are, us modern types, still celebrating all things that go bump in the night on the same day as the old Celts. Except us modern types have distorted Halloween into a time for terrorizing the elderly neighbors or engaging in acts of vandalism after some heavy drinking and drug use.

You might think it's all in fun until it's your dustbin that gets blown up by fireworks and you have to clean up the mess. And if your neighbor decides to build a bonfire that runs out of control, you won't be pleased to learn that the fire brigade is busy up the road and sorry about your shed burning down.

Sandra McLennan wants Halloween to become Samhain again, with a national festival that would run along the lines of Culture Night.

Her suggestion has hit a barricade in the form of Heather Humphreys, the Arts Minister.

As the Minister has pointed out, Ireland already has Culture Night so why try to clone it and then confuse people about which night is the big night. In addition, the State is already paying the costs of one Culture Night to draw in the tourists, and there isn't a lot of spare cash around to pay for another.

Then there are the many local festivals that would be lost in this nationalization of Halloween. That's a lot of toes to be stepping on, especially the toes belonging to those who work so hard to create the local celebration and organize the many activities. Someone from Dublin is going to waltz in and take over? The reception won't be warm, and the grumbling will be loud.

Unless everyone were on board with Ms. McLennan's idea, that is. The local groups would have to be brought in under the national umbrella, and what better selling point could Ms. McLennan have than the need to eliminate anti-social behavior on Halloween? The ancient Celts weren't blowing up dustbins or throwing firecrackers at the gardai attempting to keep order. Wouldn't everyone in Ireland like to be more Celtic for one night of the year?

The Irish essentially invented Halloween. Why not make it a cultural event and then promote it as a tourist attraction? The Druids are always up for a good party.