Thursday, March 18, 2010

Someone Had to Try It

Roger Ebert is experimenting with an idea to monetize his website content by charging people to join a special club. Members get extra content and access to him at his events.

We all need to find ways to make money writing online. If Ebert can't do it, I suspect that very few of us can. I'll be watching to see how it works.

Monday, March 15, 2010

My Hero

I'm not ashamed to say it out loud: I adore Warren Buffett.

The world's third-richest man, known as the "Oracle of Omaha," is wicked smart. Of course, that goes without saying.

But he is also - along with Bill Gates - the biggest philanthropist in the United States, having pledged the lion's share of his $47 billion fortune to charitable foundations. He told his kids that they'd all be millionaires and they should be happy with that. Then he gave 85% of his money away, most to the Gates Foundation, because they do great work and he didn't need the big ego boost (or bureaucracy) of his own charitable foundation.

Buffett is an agnostic who forcefully puts the lie to the moldy old card about how you "can't be good without god," giving godless heathens a "yes you can!" role model alongside Gates.

And he lives frugally:

... in the same 6,000-square-foot, five-bedroom, gray stucco house he bought in Omaha, Neb.'s Happy Hollow suburb in 1958 for $31,500. The home has everything the 79-year-old needs, including his very own handball court that he uses to keep fit.

Okay, so he has a $4 million beach home in Laguna. I love Laguna Beach, and would live there in a shack if I could swing it, so I can hardly fault him. And besides, that's still less than one hundredth of a percent of his estimated net worth.

Probably the best piece of advice I've gotten in 15 years of writing about money is this: Live just a little bit below your means. Don't live like a rat or save like a miser, but don't spend to the outer limits of your income either. Buffett embodies that philosophy and has been able to use his fortune to make the world a better place. I can't think of a more fitting legacy.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Fill Out The Form

You'll be getting a note in the mail next week from the U.S. Census Bureau. There's some misinformation swirling around this year (happens every decade), so in case you need a nudge, here are the Better Business Bureau's "Top Five Reasons To Fill Out the Census Form":

* It’s safe - By law, the Census Bureau cannot share respondents’ answers with anyone, including the IRS, FBI, CIA, INS or any other government agency. All Census Bureau employees take the oath of nondisclosure and are sworn for life to protect the confidentiality of the data. The penalty for unlawful disclosure is a fine of up to $250,000 and/or imprisonment of up to five years.

* It’s easy - The mail-in census form is only ten questions long and, for many households, won’t take longer than ten minutes to answer. If you don’t return the form, you’ll be visited at your home by a census taker at least three times. Avoid the hassle and just fill out the form.

* It allocates money and resources to help you - The information the census collects helps determine how more than $400 billion dollars of annual federal funding is spent on infrastructure and services that go to benefit the public including hospitals, job training centers, schools, bridges and roads.

* It saves you money – For every 1 percent increase in mail response, the government—and ultimately taxpayers—save $80 to $90 million.

* It helps your voice be heard - Redistricting is the process of changing electoral district and constituency boundaries, usually in response to periodic census results. Census information affects the numbers of seats your state occupies in the U.S. House of Representatives.

For more advice on filling out your census form, visit the bureau's website.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Definitions Do Matter

I've been participating, fitfully, in Words Matter Week, sponsored by the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors.

Today's blog challenge:

What person in your life helped you understand the importance of choosing words carefully? What would you say to them if you met them today?

My dad was a self-taught man, barely graduating from Boys High School in Brooklyn before he started work, first in a doll factory and then as a traveling salesman.

Dad was a smart cookie, however, and despite his lack of formal education he pursued a number of intellectual hobbies to the point of obsession. One was classical music and opera. The other was words.

He never met a multi-syllabic descriptor he didn't love. If there was anything he enjoyed more than learning a new word, it was using that word to one-up someone else's pedantic verbiage.

He was notoriously picky about gifts, returning nearly everything I ever gave him, but the one hit I had was the big-ass dictionary (with its own stand!) I presented one holiday season. Its thin, crinkly onion-skin pages soon became wrinkled, stained and dog-eared as Dad consulted it frequently and, I'm convinced, turned to it occasionally for light reading.

Mostly, Dad's word thing was amusing or annoying. But there were times it turned dangerous; never more so than during one long weekend we spent with my uncle and aunt in Napa. Aunt Ruth was an uber-stylish, 50-something decorator with a sharp tongue and an opinion on everything. Uncle Dan was my dad's kid brother, the one who had gotten an education (a PhD in psychology) and made the family proud. Dan must've been in his 40s at that time, and he absolutely worshiped Ruth, who had been his more-sophisticated, married next-door neighbor a few years earlier (a whole 'nother story).

One morning we were all gathered around the breakfast table when Ruth launched into one of her colorful stories, this one about how she'd walked into a client's house with several cans of paint, tripped over a step and landed sprawled out in several gallons of oozing paint. "I was so embarrassed!" Ruth exclaimed.

"You were chagrined," Dad suggested, with that "I'm teaching everyone a new word" look on his face.

Ruth paused, pressing a red-tapered fingernail to her lips, and looked skyward. "Nooooo," she said slowly, "I was embarrassed, but I wasn't really chagrined." She smiled and took another drag on her cigarette.

The game was on. Chagrined, Dad insisted. Embarrassed, Ruth corrected. Multiple dictionaries were dragged out; definitions were parsed, probed and compared. Alternate words were proposed, dissected and rejected. Spouses and children weighed in with their opinions, each of us supporting one side or the other.

Despite several entreaties to "just change the subject," neither one of these gladiators would let go. As skirmishes flared, tempers followed suit. My dad did not like being contradicted. Well, what do you know? Neither did Ruth. And it was her paint-splashed accident, and her feelings, in question - as she icily pointed out.

Mom and Uncle Dan, the mild-mannered counterparts of these mules, tried in vain to calm things down. I don't know how long the argument progressed - it felt like hours - but sometime before lunch Dad announced that we were leaving. "Kids, get the suitcases in the car!" he shouted. We scurried about until, luggage loaded, embarrassed (dare I say chagrined?) goodbyes whispered, we took our leave.

It may be my imagination, but I remember our Ford station wagon burning rubber with an angry shriek as Dad gunned it down their driveway.

The relationships were eventually patched up, but none of us still alive to this day can hear the word "chagrin" without an involuntary shudder.

Dad was a difficult man, and much of our relationship was conflicted. He died just as I matured into adulthood and started to appreciate him. One of my biggest regrets is that my sons never got to meet him. If he were alive today, I'd tell him how surprised I am that I turned out so much like him. And I'd tell him that he was right about chagrin.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


In honor of Words Matter Week, a holiday that is celebrated annually the first full week in March, the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (NAIWE) is hosting a Blog Challenge with a specific daily topic Monday through Friday.

I'm a day late (yes, and a dollar short!) but I thought I'd comment on yesterday's topic:

Communication breaks down when words are misused. What is the funniest, most interesting, or worst break-down you’ve ever observed?

I was struggling through my first year as a reporter at a small newspaper in Orange County, Ca. I couldn't believe how much I was expected to know and hadn't been taught in journalism school.

I worked at an old-fashioned afternoon paper, which are all but extinct these days, with early morning deadlines. I would literally break into a cold sweat just driving to work, anticipating that deadline pressure.

As the low man on the totem pole, I routinely got the klunker story assignments. That meant on Armistice Day, I was sent to the local VFW for a World War I reunion.

It might have been an inspiring, interesting event. Except for the fact that all the veterans were wheelchair-bound, hard-of-hearing and senile. Their wives poked, prodded and shouted the old-timers through the ceremony in the most demeaning way imaginable.

If I'd been more experienced, I would have known how to handle the assignment gracefully. Instead, I gritted my teeth and tried to get out of there as quickly as possible.

At the reception after the ceremony, I introduced myself as Karen Klein and explained that I needed to do some interviews with the veterans. But somehow, my name seemed difficult to grasp.

I shouted it multiple times, until someone at a table repeated a garbled version. Like a game of "telephone," grotesque versions of my name ricocheted around the room.

Finally, one of the women seemed to understand. "Clara Pine! This is Clara Pine. She's a reporter!" she announced.

Trying to start all over was beyond me. So for the rest of the afternoon, I was intrepid girl reporter Clara Pine.

Not my best journalism moment, but I survived. And my colleagues got quite a chuckle out of it when I got back to the newsroom.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Modern Mythology

If you're not sure of the answer on a test, go with your hunch.

It's better to let out your anger than repress it.

Some people are left-brained and others are right-brained.

No brainers, right? In fact, none of those "truisms" is true. They're all included in a new book, "50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology," reviewed in this week's eSkeptic .

The title actually sells the book short, according to reviewer Dr. Harriet Hall (aka the Skepdoc). The authors go in depth on the 50 myths of the title but also briefly debunk 250 additional popular assertions like the G-spot (sorry ladies!), men thinking about sex every seven seconds (it just seems like they do, apparently) and the advantages of group think.

They also explain why myths and misconceptions arise and gain a foothold. I'm currently reading about conspiracy theories.

This sounds like a good follow up.

Monday, March 1, 2010

His Dinner With Bill

I'm a card-carrying Skeptic and appreciate the group's founder, Michael Shermer.

He recently got a seat at the table with Bill Gates and several other luminaries, although Gates is apparently the only one who got to talk.

Sounds like an interesting evening. Fly, meet wall.