Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Keeping Up Appearances, Russian Style

There's plenty of millionaires living along the North Shore of Lake Michigan, but if you're looking for an opulent lifestyle with plenty of display, you'd need go no further north of Chicago than Highland Park.

Mikhail Katamanin resided in a lakefront mansion, with a second mansion next door to accommodate his happy family. Or to accommodate his fleet of vintage sports cars. Either way, he broadcast to the community that he was a wealthy man with plenty of money to throw around.

Except it was all a big show.

Mr. Katamanin died recently, leaving more debts than assets. He spent what he didn't have, playing off his apparent wealth to acquire loans that funded a lavish lifestyle he couldn't actually afford.

Little wonder that he died young of a heart ailment. The stress of keeping up appearances must have been phenomenally stressful.

While his creditors scramble to get their $20 million back, the Katamanin children have been selling off bits and pieces of the estate to get their share before it's all gone to pay off loans.

The side by side mansions are up for grabs at the moment. According to legal documents, the properties are owned by a separate corporation, but there's other legal documents that show Mr. Katamanin used the parcels as collateral for a personal loan. Nothing like weaving a tangled web to keep your creditors running around in circles while you party, party, party!

It was wealth on paper, and now that the paper has crumbled to dust, the family thinks they are entitled to something when there's actually nothing there. They'll fight in court, of course, and the only ones who'll end up ahead will be the lawyers.

Unlike Daniel Deronda, Mr. Katamanin didn't entice others into bad investments, but he's a fascinating character for a novel anyway. There's an international element, with his homes and business in Russia and America and Switzerland.

And he's a made-up character through and through.

There was no real money, just pretend wealth. His life was a complex shifting of scenery to mask what was going on behind the stage.

The curtain has rung down, the show is over, and Mr. Katamanin's children are scrambling to find money to pay college tuition and keep a roof over their heads. The lakefront homes are for sale, but who will get the proceeds will take years to determine.

The drama has ended and the set must be struck. And so ends the big production that was keeping up appearances. As always, the stagehands are left to clean up the mess.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Not Turning Out To Be The Blockbuster

After I'd finished the last manuscript, the one I thought was a sure hit, I worked up a query letter and fired off a few, just to gauge interest.

A story set in a city other than London or New York, with an international flavor, surely that would pique someone's curiosity?

Apparently not.

It's been more than grim in the response department. Grim as in one single request for pages as compared to twenty rejections or ignorings.

Query letters are particularly tough to write because it's a marketing tool and I'm not much at marketing strategy.

So it's time to revise the query letter and float a few more out there, but my approach has to change in some direction that I can't easily determine. There is one angle, but I don't know if it will help or hurt. Once I've sent out the letter, of course, I'll have an idea, but there's no re-querying for several months if the new letter fails.

Religious terrorism isn't anything new. It's happened in the past, and like so much history, it gets forgotten. A new cast of characters arises and people think it's the first time God's been brought into the picture of violence.

Do I risk getting rejected by mentioning, or making some slight reference to, terrorism as a tool of rebellion? Is it the way to go, or should I find some other emotional element to play on?

I hate query letters. Little wonder that so many literary agents say they find clients through contact at seminars and workshops. Given three minutes, you can better explain a story than you can with 250 words. For those of us who have to work every day to make a living, all we have are those 250 words.

It's all a matter of picking just the right ones, in the right combination.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Minnow Gets Its Fins Rapped

Back in the day, naughty children would get a rap on the knuckles from the nun. What with nuns being few and far between these days, it's up to lay teachers like Bernie Ruane to handle the corporal punishment.

She's given educational publishers a severe, though vocal, rap on their greedy hands. Ms. Ruane, the president of the Teachers' Union of Ireland, is quite put out about business practices in the educational publishing world. That means you, Mr. Barry O'Callaghan and all your colleagues at HMH-Riverdeep etc.

Hard-pressed taxpayers are wondering why their local school board is ordering new textbooks for subjects that don't change. After all, two plus two has always made four, and why would a brand new edition of a mathematics textbook be needed every couple of years?

So if a new edition isn't necessary, why are publishers dropping editions after a year or two? When the school needs one or two more copies to accomodate increasing class size, the book isn't available and the school board has to buy a brand new set, at an expense they are hard-pressed to meet.

As Ms. Ruane notes, her syllabus hasn't changed so why should she teach from a revised edition?

The financial picture at HMH-Riverdeep etc. has certainly changed over time. In spite of John Paulson's cash infusions, the whale-swallowing minnow continues to deal with a heavy debt burden. The only way to get out from under is to turn a profit. The only way to turn a profit (now that every possible synergy has been realized) is to sell books.

Seeing as there's little profit to be gained from selling a few additional copies of the same old textbook, it makes perfect business sense to revise and renew every few years. New illustrations, new ways to teach algebra and pre-calculus. Fresh approaches to literature and beginning reading.

If Ms. Ruane got her wish and school boards could buy fewer books, there would be a decline in educational publishing. Without a profit motive, fewer publishers would produce educational materials that could not be updated frequently. Fewer publishers would mean less competition and prices would rise. In the end, the school boards would pay the same amount of money for a smaller quantity of materials.

Besides, old books are filled with crib notes and we all know what kind of trouble Harry Potter got into when he was issued that book of spells.

And we all know what kind of trouble Barry O'Callaghan got into when he set out to grow his little minnow into a mighty whale of a publishing house. A drive to cut back on school textbook purchases just might drown him.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Making Use Of Agent Feedback

There's something there, the literary agent wrote in the rejection letter. Here's some suggestions. Feel free to resubmit if you agree and re-work the manuscript.

When a literary agent takes the time to get somewhat specific, I'd be a fool not to follow her advice. The problem I've run into is that I can't quite figure out how to get where I need to go with the novel.

Easy enough to insert a scene or two and make the main character more appealing to the reader. I've begun to rough out a couple of paragraphs that I can insert into the opening chapter and solve that little problem.

The real difficulty lies within the sub-plots that I thought were driving the narrative along to its conclusion. The agent read the manuscript and felt that the sub-plots were unconnected incidents which need to be linked together.

Those things that the main character encounters, the forces that help her grow during the course of the story, were done with showing and not telling. Or so I hoped. My problem could be that my showing is too subtle. Action A leading to Action B might not be seen to lead to Action C.

Weaving the many strands together may require more telling. Maybe. Or my showing needs work in some direction that I still can't determine.

On top of all that confusion is the nasty little voice in my head that's telling me this is my one and only chance to land a literary agent and get something published. Do this right, read her mind as to what she's looking for, and it's an offer of representation. Get it wrong, and it's a rejection.

I have a feeling that the best way to sort through the whole thing is to print out the manuscript and spread it out on the desk, to lay out the chapters and go through them one by one. That way, I can make notes about the plot lines and see where reminders are placed, to refresh the reader's memory about an incident in an early chapter that is important in the last third of the novel.

The manuscript is short enough that there's room to play with, and I can add. The question is, what exactly should I add, and could there be other things to remove?

I'm off to buy a ream of paper.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Who Says The River Isn't Clean?

The Feds are after the Chicago sewage treatment people about cleaning up the Chicago River, but it's plenty clean enough if alligators can make a home.

Kayakers have spotted a living alligator in the Chicago River, home to various types of carp and schools of used condoms but that's another creature altogether.

Alligator Bob has been called in to work his traps once again. No, this isn't the first time an alligator has taken up residence in the river. He's of the opinion that these gators are house pets that were purchased small and then caused the owner a tremendous shock when they grew.

The latest gator is sunning itself on the banks of the north branch, up near Belmont where there's plenty of small game to eat. You'd have to ask yourself how dirty the water could be if a water-based critter is able to live in it.

No one swims in the river, but that has more to do with the dredging and channeling that took place when the course of the Chicago River was reversed so that the city's waste could flow south to Lockport and Peoria and not into Lake Michigan.

Even so, an alligator would pose a threat to the occasional boater who might fall in, and that isn't the sort of scenario that the average Chicagoan is prepared to handle.

The river doesn't freeze over in winter because it's not that clean, but Chicago gets mighty cold in December and January and the alligator would become a gator-sicle if it isn't caught and sent down to Florida with the rest of the snowbirds.

As long as people buy pet alligators thinking they'll stay cute and small, Alligator Bob will be kept busy. Are these stray alligators of any use in curtailing the Canada goose population? Maybe he could temporarily relocate his captives to area ponds and golf courses.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Independent Publishers

The literary agents like the writing but don't think it's a big blockbuster of a novel, so it's time to take the next step.

I picked out two independent publishers who handle the sort of genre that might define my old, dusty manuscript. The first three chapters of that beloved relic are on their way.

Here I go into a new level of waiting. The small presses are swamped with manuscripts from unagented authors, and it can be anywhere from six months to a year before I'd hear back.

A bit of a slog, when you compare it to the three weeks I'm willing to wait on a literary agent with an e-query, but what's to be done? If I don't try a small press, I might as well tuck the novel back under the bed to collect more dust.

There is, of course, the completely independent route of self-publishing, but I don't have the time or the skill to do my own marketing.

At the rate of four submissions per year, I might manage to occupy my mind while I keep writing the next manuscript that's sure to be published because it's got to be better than the one before it.

This writing and submitting business is an absolute addiction.

Offensive, Yet Delicious

The drinks party ended far too early for some of us, so off we went to the nearest pub.

Let's do "car bombs" says the Big Swede and I'm up for anything that involves Guinness. It's the name, however.

It hasn't been all that long since Dublin and Monaghan were attacked by the Ulster Volunteers. No one was ever charged with the mass murder of innocent Irish shoppers, and it's still said that the British Army was heavily involved.

The young lady behind the bar lined up four half-pints of the Black Stuff and then set up a row of shot glasses. She wasn't even born when Dublin's Talbot Street went up in smoke and flame and shrapnel. All she'd know of car bombings in Ireland might have come from the film Omagh. 

A shot of Jameson's fine Irish whiskey was topped with a generous splash of Bailey's Irish Cream.

We dropped the shots into the beer and chugged it down before the cream in the Bailey's had a chance to curdle.

It was delicious. The perfect drink to close out an evening when you have a taste for something sweet but don't care for a dessert.

We've come a long way in the peace process. The Troubles are so far behind that they've almost disappeared in the rear view mirror of the car. The name of a drink means nothing more than the action of dropping a shot into a glass of beer, mixing a variety of Irish beverages. It's a creation of the younger generation that did not live in fear of random acts of terror.

To them, a car is a lethal weapon when the driver's been drinking. And that's as it should be.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Rules Made To Be Broken

Nation-members of the European Union must limit the amount of fertilizer used by their farmers. Can't have anyone putting too much nitrates into the environment, no matter where that farm might be. What's good for Greece is good for Ireland and don't go whinging about the differences in terrain or climate.

By limiting fertilizer use, the EU has managed to ruin Irish barley. The knock-on effect is to ruin the Black Stuff.

The Greencore malting operation has noted that protein levels in Irish barley have fallen in the past couple of years, during which the Irish farmer has been slavishly following the EU directive on nitrates. A proper malting of the barley requires higher protein content than currently exists. A proper pint of Guinness requires proper malted barley.

What's to be done? Besides telling the EU to shove their fertilizer rule up their collective arses, that is.

Use barley from someplace else. Import barley into Ireland to manufacture an Irish product.

Makes all the sense in the world if you're a bureaucrat. If you're in the malting business, the higher costs would drive you out of business in short order and that makes absolutely no sense.

Irish agricultural scientists hope to find a way to increase protein in Irish barley without using as much fertilizer as is needed to achieve the result because they can't use enough fertilizer to get the right amount of protein. Genetic modification is not even on the table.

A rule that sounded fair and equitable at the time is proving to be detrimental to one nation's most famous product. That's a rule that's just made to be broken, before the Guinness gets pale.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Ticking Off The Days

 I will respond within three weeks if interested, says literary agent Jonathan Lyons. If you do not receive a response within three weeks then....no response is a no in literary agent circles.

Three weeks is more than enough time. I've already ticked this one off as a non-responding rejection even though it's been but ten days.

If something catches an agent's eye, and that something is inevitably the hook sentence that opens your query, then you'll hear back from them right away. Within days, most often.

They're in the business of making money, and if one agent sees something in your proposal, it's possible that other agents have seen that same thing and it's all about who's first out of the gate.

For many agents, they already have enough clients. Anyone new added to the roster is filling a gap in the agent's talent stable. Maybe you've written something brilliant, but if it isn't a Regency romance set in the Yukon, which is what an editor happens to be looking for, then you'll get a rejection.

Should you, by sheer dumb luck, send your query to an agent who is looking for the subject of your manuscript, you'll be asked to send along a few pages as a sample. Not only does your query have to fit a particular set of requirements, but you have to tell your story in a way that meets some preconceived needs. Hit on all points and there's a chance for you.

Hitting all those points is unlikely. Hence, it's almost impossible to land an agent and a publishing contract.

Don't waste time wondering if a non-responding agent might be considering your query after two or three or more weeks have gone by. Move on. Revise the query, personalize it for the next literary agent on the list, but don't wonder if that wonderful agent just might respond in four weeks.

Interest is demonstrated in haste. It's the rejecting that's plodding.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Lord Helps Those Who Help Themselves

If you've heard it once, you've heard it a million times. It's almost impossible to get your manuscript published.

So why not do it yourself?

Bring up that option and you'll be told that you don't have the skills and knowledge needed to market your product and get it in bookstores.

How about starting up your own publishing company?

If you're in Chicago, you can sign up for a course in independent publishing at DePaul University.

Like all well-conceived continuing education programs, the course will be taught by two men who know what they're talking about. Jonathan Messinger and Zach Dodson founded independent publisher featherproof Books in 2005, and the small press is showing success.

According to the course description, the students will learn all about publishing, from editing to financing. You'll end up with a certificate in publishing and then you can start up your own indie press with the benefit of knowing how to do it.

Is this the wave of the future? As publishing houses restrict their product to the tried and true, will creative authors turn to the do-it-yourself option to get their words out to the public?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Meet And Greet At Irish Fest

When you think Irish, you may not think Milwaukee, Wisconsin. There's more to Irish culture than Chicago's politicians, you know.

Irish Fest is said to be the biggest celebration of all things Hibernian. It follows, then, that the tourism promoters from County Clare would head up to the town due north of Chicago and encourage visits to the west coast of Ireland.

Unfortunately, money is tight in Ireland these days and the Clare Tourism delegation is being criticized for traveling abroad when everyone else is tightening their belts.

The Mayor of Clare, Christy Curtin, will be staying at home. Rather than a big group, only three people will be on hand to sell, sell, sell.

Those who complain of the cost are short-sighted. It takes money to make money, and it takes promotion to convince Americans who might be thinking of taking a trip abroad to come to the other side of the island, where it's peaceful and quiet and the golf is great.

Hitting Milwaukee means attracting a good chunk of the Irish interest in Chicago, which is so close that it's not unheard of for people from the northern suburbs to use Milwaukee's airport rather than drive to O'Hare. Staying in Milwaukee is cheaper, but the Clare Tourism Forum is reaching the bigger audience in Chicago at the same time.

Tourism is down because of the economy, and the Clare Tourism Forum has to work that much harder to snag their share of the limited business. If they stayed away from Milwaukee, they would save the cost of their trip, but how much would the nation lose in the long run?

Monday, August 16, 2010

If You Think You Don't Need That M.F.A.

Every now and then, you'll see a blog post from a literary agent that goes on and on about how you don't need a Master of Fine Arts degree to get published, it's all about the writing, a good query, an encounter at a conference......

What's the hot debut novel this year? Kathryn Stockett's The Help has been heavily promoted. So what of the author?

Ms. Stockett isn't some clerk at the local convenience store who pens novels in her spare time. She holds a degree in Creative Writing. She was trained to write. She studied the formulae.

After the diploma was placed into her waiting hand, she went off to New York City and worked in magazine publishing, where she made the sort of connections you need in publishing that people outside of the field never make.

Next year, you can look for Carter Sickels' debut novel about small town West Virginia life. He's not a former coal miner by any means. No, he's got himself an M.F.A. from Penn State. And then there's the fellowships to all the posh writer colony places that set the hearts of industry insiders to flutter.

Blame the bean counters who run the publishing houses. They've promoted the university-trained writer at the expense of those with creativity, imagination, talent and a non-English degree. By picking up an author who's learned how to do it according to the rules, there's less editing and that saves money and publishing is a business.

No, you don't need a string of degrees and publishing industry experience to get published, as long as you've set your sights no higher than a paperback romance from Harlequin.

The literary agents like to think that an author doesn't have to have an M.F.A., but it's a case of wishful thinking. The art part of the publishing equation is long gone. There's not enough profit in developing talent and this isn't the 1920's.

So who might be the next Jane Austen or Theodore Dreiser or Ernest Hemingway? Can such creativity be taught through the right lesson plan or homework assignment? Or are we losing out on quality manuscripts in the sole interest of the bottom line?

Friday, August 13, 2010

Holy Faith In Morgan Stanley

The nuns don't have all that much money these days and they tend to invest wisely and conservatively. With so many elderly sisters to support, they've got their eyes on the bottom line of their portfolio.

So when Morgan Stanley pulled off a clever bit of business with some Dresdner Funding Trust bonds, the Holy Faith Sisters in Glasnevin promptly sued.

In the eyes of the religious, Morgan Stanley was under contract to redeem notes when the bonds were downgraded to junk status. The prayerful order had no intention of taking too much risk with their limited funds.

We're right on top of it said Morgan Stanley, but the investment bank waited for six months to complete the transaction. By that time, the value of the bonds had climbed and Morgan Stanley was $11.2 million to the good. They had to earn something for their time and management, didn't they? Just a little "termination payment", Mother Superior, and sorry there's nothing left for the sisters but that's business.

The bonds were purchased through Bloxham Stockbrokers, a London firm that is being sued by other investors who also fell for Morgan Stanley's snake oil. In fact, Bloxham is joining in the suit against Morgan Stanley, claiming that they were bamboozled.

Morgan Stanley will have some explaining to do within the next two weeks. It's one thing to pull a fast one on some well-heeled investors who can afford to take a risk. It's quite another to take advantage of a religious order that's dedicated to helping the downtrodden.

Then there's all the entreaties to God, asking for Divine Retribution. I wouldn't want to be a Morgan Stanley executive right now, with the Holy Faith Sisters praying for justice. Maybe the nuns could pray for a Catholic boycott of Morgan Stanley while they're at it.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

No Retreat, No Surrender

Surrender yourselves to the authorities, the Irish bishops were told, and being obedient lads, they did.

I didn't really mean it, said His Holiness the Pope.

For thirty years, children in Ireland were abused by priests and the bishops moved the offenders around in a bid to hide the evidence and make all the bad things go away.

Bad things don't stay hidden forever. A civil investigation into the Dublin archdiocese found evidence that Bishops Eamonn Walsh and Raymond Field had their clerical fingers in the slime that was the sex abuse scandal. The public raised an outcry and Archbishop Diarmuid Martin looked for heads to roll. It seemed like the best way to stop the continuing decline in active Catholics who drop money in the collection plate on a Sunday.

Last December, the bishops told the Pope they were resigning. They'd done more to turn people away from the Church than they'd brought souls to Jesus. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

In the Vatican, word came from on high that those who had sinned had better confess. Said it very loudly, so that Catholics around the world would hear. See how the Holy See is right on top of the problem, they announced in triumph. Fixing the problem. All will be well in no time.

The resignations have been rejected.

It was loud public outcry that got the bishops to step down, and we can't have public outcry running things in Vatican City. Would have been quite a different story if the Irish bishops had done the actual abusing. Then they'd be out on the street.

All they did was try to cover it up. That's not reason enough for the Holy Father to accept surrender.

Men who stood by and helped pedophile priests evade capture so that they could abuse even more children get to keep their lofty perches in the Church hierarchy. All the talk of cleaning house was just that, nothing but talk.

So talk to us from the pulpit, all you priests and bishops. Tell us about morality and sin. Don't mind the cynical laughter coming back at you from the pews.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Looking Back At History

Isn't hindsight 20/20?

If all you know about Upton Sinclair's novel Oil! is the film There Will Be Blood, then you've missed out on a tremendous lesson in hindsight.

As an author, he was a preacher, to be sure. Sinclair's powerful story of the Chicago packinghouses brought in a flurry of regulations to improve the quality and safety of America's foods. It is a bit of a slog to get through The Jungle because of the sermons, but there's a good story underneath it all.

The same can be said of Oil!. The conflict between a father and son is brilliant, but it's Sinclair's belief in socialism that makes for a good laugh.

When he wrote his novel, of course, no one knew what would happen under a regime that promoted the collective and the workers owning the means of production. All these years later, we can look back to recent events and see how the system collapsed because it was nothing more than a dream with no basis in reality.

Writing from the time when the Bolshevik revolution was new, Mr. Sinclair could put all sorts of grand schemes into the mouths of his characters. By using the backdrop of the Teapot Dome Scandal, he had plenty of ammunition with which to attack capitalism. The overblown patriotism and over-reaching government propaganda machine of the First World War also found a place in his support of the Soviet Union.

We watched the Berlin Wall fall down, and the Soviet Union with it. The form of government that sounded so perfect in 1918 proved to be a nightmare because some people made themselves more equal than others.

In its own way, Upton Sinclair's novel is a slice of Americana, providing insight into the thinking of the time. History books will list names and dates, battles and events, but it takes an author of fiction to express the emotion of an era.

Funny to read, in the light shed by time. Odd to notice that the same arguments are being made in the present time, as if no one has read the history and are blindly repeating it.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

For Want Of A Nail

You've heard the nursery rhyme, about the king who lacked a nail for a horse shoe and ended up losing his kingdom. The lesson to be learned is that you have to be aware of the small details to win the big victory.

David William Caswell hit on a brilliant scam that might have brought him millions of ill-gotten gains, if only he hadn't forgotten that little nail.

He set up a book publishing firm, but he failed to actually print a single book.

A Print-On-Demand copy of a manuscript is cheap to produce. All Mr. Caswell needed was to invest those few dollars into his enterprise, and the Indiana Attorney General would have no reason to investigate his New Century Publishing company.

Authors can create PDF files of their manuscripts, and all that remained to Mr. Caswell was to forward those files to a POD publisher like Lulu.com. Charge the author more than Lulu charges him, and it's profit.

Best of all, there is product. Sure, we'll get you into print says New Century Publishing. Then it's up to the author to create their own sales. Plenty of printing houses are doing it, and you don't see the Attorney General probing their operations.

It was probably too much to ask of Mr. Caswell that he think his scam through. He's been in trouble with Indiana authorities before, for such diverse crimes as impersonating a lawyer and bigamy. He's done time for fraud and income tax evasion, and he's in default on fines imposed on him after he was convicted of running a phony job search scheme.

For want of a nail, the kingdom was lost. For want of a cheap printed copy of some dreamer's manuscript, Mr. Caswell is lost.

Not to worry. He's been incarcerated at the federal prison in Terre Haute before, so he knows his way around the penitentiary in Indiana. Should this latest investigation into his dishonest practices return him to a cell, he might know someone who could put in the word for him. He'd be perfect for the job of prison librarian.

Monday, August 09, 2010

A Frail And Elderly Child Molester

The charges were lodged against Father Patrick McCabe in 1988, but the gardai didn't know where he was and they couldn't call him in for an interview and there you have it.

Between 1973 through 1981, he was a priest in Dublin. Six men came forward in 1988 to say that they were abused by McCabe. By that time, McCabe was ministering to Californians. What are the chances that the diocese moved him out, as they did with so many other pedophile priests?

The first allegation came up in 1987, at which time you'd think the Catholic Church would have been able to tell An Garda Siochana where one of its clergymen was residing. They must have been able to locate McCabe, as he left the priesthood in 1988 and it's all a bit too coincidental to be blind luck.

It took Interpol until 2003 to trace the ex-priest to the San Francisco area. It took gardai another four years to arrange an overseas trip, but they did finally speak to him. The next thing anyone knew, there were warrants issued for his arrest.

Easy enough to avoid being incarcerated by avoiding trips to Ireland. Once Irish authorities figured that out three years on, they requested his extradition.

Mr. McCabe's lawyers have painted their client as a frail, elderly man of 74 who's had no brush with American law and couldn't everyone just leave him alone to live out his golden years in peace?

Should the American judge not buy the sympathy ploy, which plays well in Ireland but not so well in the States, they'd like to point out that there's really not any such law in America that's quite like the Irish law regarding indecent assault, so he can't be extradited.

Child molestation by a priest is pretty much understood across national borders. What one nation chooses to call the offense doesn't make it any less an offense, and it's a crime wherever it occurs.

Don't do the crime if you can't do the time. Even if the time comes when you're old and comfortable and don't much want to go to prison back home where pedophile priests aren't particularly popular.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

You Have Been Replaced By A Machine

Labor in foreign countries like Mexico or China can be looked on as robots, in essence.

They're treated about as well as you'd treat a machine. Keep it running until it breaks down, and then replace it. Maintain low operating costs to turn a maximum profit.

Americans aren't so heartless as that, which leads employers to find some other way to compete with manufacturers who aren't interested in paying a living wage or showing concern for the well-being of the worker.

Simple solution.

Hire actual machines. Skip the people.

Number crunching types have determined that the trend exists and it's strong. Manufacturers are investing in machinery to do the work that laborers once did. Then they don't need to hire so many people to make their widgets.

Not good news for the high school drop-outs who figured they could get a job in a factory and make a living. Those jobs are done by gears and rotors that won't go on strike or ask for a raise. Those jobs won't revert back to flesh and bone employees.

The drive is on to increase productivity without taking on more people who would have to be covered by expensive health insurance and employer-paid FICA and Medicare.

Businesses will get used to having fewer bodies around, and the remaining bodies will get used to doing the job of two or three to keep that job.

Unemployment, in that case, would stay high permanently because there would be more people milling around than jobs available for them to fill.

Put them on Prozac and give them televisions for entertainment and Aldous Huxley becomes a genuine seer, a man who predicted the future. Brave New World may have to be moved to the non-fiction section of the bookstores.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Best Laid Plans

From a young age, she was exposed to learning. Like so many others in the town, she was writing the alphabet by the age of three and had begun to master a few simple reading skills before kindergarten began.

She would have to work her way into the accelerated learning program. It was the road to success in the adult world. Work hard, she was told, study hard. Get ahead.

The select program in elementary school pushed her ahead of the pack, so that by the time she reached secondary school she was taking college level coursework. Not to ignore the incidentals, she had dance lessons and studied piano. Got involved in school activities. Crafted a thick resume of top grades and creative endeavours. Every minute of every day rattled with keys to future success.

Ivy League university followed, as planned. The route was clearly marked. A course of study in the business field, to become a banker or highly placed executive in a Fortune 500 company. No pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but a six-figure salary was a desirable prize.

In all the twenty-one years of careful planning, no consideration was given to an unemployment rate hovering around 10%. The finest education, and she has no job. Neither has she any nibbles on resumes or interviews. Nothing.

There is no work for college graduates. Hard work, an over-scheduled life, and she waits tables for a pittance on a part-time basis, her summer job for the past four years becoming her occupation.

Those who study such things claim that she'll never catch up, even if the job market turns around in the next year.

A parent can plan, but they can't control the random throw of the dice that is the free market which send the best laid plans astray.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Harley-Davidson: Hecho En Mexico?

One after another, American manufacturers look at their bottom lines and realize that profits could be increased if they didn't have to pay their employees so much.

Maytag pulled out of Newton, Iowa, and went to Mexico where folks are happy with any sort of job and aren't so concerned about the hourly rate or union benefits.

The product is now considered a piece of junk and sales have plummeted, but the costs to produce washers and dryers went down, didn't it?

Harley-Davidson is as much a part of Milwaukee as Maytag was to Newton.

Like Maytag, the Harley people have to get their costs down, and they have to convince their employees that they should suck it up like everyone else. Or go look for another job when the unemployment rate is approaching 10%.

If labor costs can't be contained, says Harley, they'll pull out of Milwaukee and go where they can cut costs.

Harleys have always been pricey, and pricey isn't selling that well these days. Most luxury goods aren't.

The only way to make the bike more affordable without killing its ethos is to reduce the cost to manufacture it. There's only so low the parts suppliers can go. If the employees don't go along with the plan, Harley will leave.

After what happened to the Maytag reputation on the heels of that relocation, it's not a pretty picture to contemplate.

So, what's it going to be? Will Harley-Davidson and Milwaukee continue their relationship, or will the next generation of bikes by labelled "Hecho En Mexico"?

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Buy This Book....Store

As expected and anticipated, big box book store and on-line retailer Barnes & Noble is on the market.

The Board of Directors thinks the stock is undervalued. They think there's money to be made in books of all varieties, both real and digital, and their stock options should reflect that belief. How to realize this desired gain in value? Sell.

Book sales are down because no one has money for luxuries, and books are a luxury. If you don't have access to a public library, it's easy enough to shop at Abebooks and find a used version at a steep discount. That translates into one full-priced sale for the likes of Barnes & Noble, while several people read a single copy.

Leonard Riggio, the majority shareholder, has suggested that he'd be part of a group to buy up the book dealer. There's a man with faith in the future of the published word.

Ever since Amazon came aboard, it's been a tough competition. Add to that the popularity of the iPad, with e-book sales revenue going to Apple, and you'd have to expect the market for literary warehouses to be shrinking.

Will Barnes & Noble survive? They seem to be winning out over rival Borders, which has just laid off another one hundred employees at its Tennessee distribution center.

In the battle for e-reader supremacy, it's hard to say if the Nook will beat out the Kindle. It's unlikely that anyone would buy two or more electronic reading devices and Amazon was there first. iPads are so far advanced from a simple reading device that Nook seems almost primitive, and one would hope that Mr. Riggio isn't putting too much faith in B&N's future as an e-book retailer.

Unless there's a B&N app for Apple devices?

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Return Of Missile Command

In these modern times, we make fun of Pong, but it was a cutting edge game in its day. There are those of a certain age who played the game, who sat in front of a television for hours moving a cursor up and down to hit a bouncing ball of light, and they were having fun.

Atari fell on hard times as the competition for home video games exploded. Pong just didn't cut it after a while.

Then along came more complex games like Centipede....and Missile Command.

They, too, fell by the wayside as Nintendo and Sega created better graphics and more complex games. Atari couldn't keep up. Everyone figured they were dead.

The resurrection is coming. The new and improved Atari game company is bringing back Missile Command, to introduce a simple yet amusing game to a younger generation.

The plan of CEO Jeff Lapin is to create games for online play at sites like Facebook, where gaming is popular. If you're already wasting time on your social networking, just wait. Missile Command is strangely addictive. You'll get no work done and lose your job before long.

Modern video games are expensive to produce and the money isn't there. By going with online distribution, Atari has a chance of carving out a niche for itself, and if it can turn a profit, it might grow itself back into the big leagues.

But wait, there's more.

Atari is represented by International Creative Management, which is working on a deal to make the video game Asteroids into a movie. Tron was cutting edge in its day and that was based on the notion of the video game. Don't laugh.

Let the games begin.

Monday, August 02, 2010

A Character Worthy Of A Novel

I have to confess, I'm fascinated by the entire Rod Blagojevich trial. A more interesting cast of characters has never before been assembled.

I've never served on a jury in all my life, and I know I could walk into a court room and observe, but having to work every day makes that just about impossible. So I watch from the sidelines, reading every word in the newspapers, and my novelist mind twists and bends the facts into a work of fiction.

The main character might not be the disgraced ex-governor, who has some remarkable personality traits that any author has to love. There's those around him, the men who advised him and turned State's Evidence rather than go down with him. What goes on in a person's head, driven by greed or personal glory, to lie and cheat and steal from the very folks who elected Blago to office?

Could there be a more intriguing character than one who has put aside morality and ethics? Should I write such a story, there'd have to be a mental wrestling match to make for good reading, with the sleaze-bag being pulled back towards the better angel while the devil whispers in his left ear.

The straight laced prosecuting attorneys provide a marked contrast to the flashy, Cook County Courthouse savvy defense team. The drama inherent in the match-up would make for a page-turner of a novel.

What's the ending, though? That's what everyone's waiting for. What goes in that last chapter, in the closing paragraphs?

I can't wait to see. Lucky for me I have a Blackberry for the latest updates.