Sunday, November 26, 2006

Dummies Guide to Giving

Well we’ve made it through Black Friday, which analysts tell us was busier than last year. But traditionally the busiest shopping day is still ahead of us. The Saturday before Christmas is a big day for all those last-minute shoppers.

Christmas, of course, is a time for giving. I don’t know if anyone keeps statistics on this, but I bet quite a few of those Black Friday shoppers took advantage of many of those special offers to buy presents for themselves. There’s nothing wrong with that; Christmas is my favorite time of year to buy myself a present or two as well.

Most gifts are bought for friends, family members, and coworkers. Few of the gifts were bought for strangers. But maybe that’s too bad. Remember the old expression that it’s better to give than to receive. That counts double when buying for someone you don’t know well or at all. When people are expecting you to buy something for them it becomes more of an obligation than a sincere act of kindness.

Several years ago in this column I related a story about how the Student Council at a school I taught at put on a canned food drive each Christmas. Dozens of boxes of canned and boxed food were collected from students. And the student council purchased turkeys or hams to place in each box.

The group then used names from the free lunch recipient list to determine whom to donate the food baskets to. Each year the students would take time to deliver all the food baskets, but only once do I remember actually getting a card of thanks from any of the recipients.

There were always several phone calls each year complaining that they got a turkey and wanted a ham or vice versa. Or maybe someone didn’t think the basket was as full as it was the year before. But gratitude was in short supply.

That made me think; maybe there should be a set of voluntary guidelines in place for both the givers and the receivers to make the process a little more charitable.

For example, if you are on the giving end, here are some things to keep in mind.

Give cheerfully and non-grudgingly. Do not expect to receive any thanks. Give anonymously when possible. Give useful items that are in good condition, not just the ones you are tired of or have no more use for. Give to those whom you believe need it most, not to those whom you like the best. Look on your donation as though it were a universal obligation rather than something coming from your great generosity.

And, personally, I would advise again giving money to churches since most churches have lots of overhead and building maintenance. Your dollars will likely to go to the church’s self-perpetuation fund rather than to people who really need it. Give canned goods to a church food bank instead of cash.

If you are on the receiving end of an unexpected gift, here are some guidelines for you.

Accept each donation with humility. Do not simply refuse a charitable gift if you don’t want it, but rather suggest an alternative recipient. Always thank the giver, if you know who it is. A card would be nice. Never complain about the gift you have been given, even if it is not what you want or think you deserve. And try to remember to “pay it forward.” Even if you can’t afford to buy a gift, donate your time or talent.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Thanksgivng: The Forgotten Holiday?

Starting shortly after Labor Day in early September, merchants start putting out Halloween candy and decorations. It’s inevitable, though it wasn’t always the case. Used to be, they would wait until at least the first of October.

But by then, stores already have their Christmas displays in full swing, nearly three months before the actual holiday.

I guess it makes good business sense. Statistics show that merchants make far more sales in the fourth quarter than any of the other three. A few make more profit during the fourth quarter than the other three combined. So it’s only natural they would like to get an early start, right at the beginning of the quarter.

Although holiday shopping probably starts earlier now than it did years ago, early Christmas shopping isn’t exactly new. In the 1930s, Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the traditional date of Thanksgiving up a week so as to increase the length of the Christmas shopping season. It had been observed as the last Thursday in November since Pres. Lincoln proclaimed it so.

The public didn’t take too kindly to Roosevelt’s capitalistic tinkering with a beloved holiday, so he had to move it back a couple of years later. In 1941, Congress declared the fourth Thursday of November to be Thanksgiving and that’s where it remains today.

But Thanksgiving remains almost an anonymous holiday. Unlike Halloween, Christmas, and even Easter, stores do not start putting out Thanksgiving merchandise two months early. In fact, there isn’t much Thanksgiving merchandise to sell. No presents, no baskets full of candy, no costumes to don. Thanksgiving’s biggest claim to fame is a turkey dinner and the traditional start of the Christmas shopping season.

But I guess that’s what makes it special. It has remained somewhat less commercial than most of the other holidays, though not entirely so of course. Caterers tend to do big business on that day. And, of course, the turkey and cranberry industries exist for this time of year.

Thanksgiving traditions haven’t changed much over the decades. Thanksgiving wasn’t officially observed until 1863 when Lincoln proclaimed it at the urging of lifetime Thanksgiving proponent Sarah Josepha Hale. Earlier presidents didn’t see the need to observe it at all. And one, Thomas Jefferson, even scorned the idea completely.

What we think of as the original Thanksgiving feast by the Pilgrims and Indians was actually a three-day celebration of a good harvest. It may or may not have included turkey. It most certainly didn’t include potatoes, milk, butter, baked goods, or cranberries. Pheasant, watercress, corn, venison, and lobster were on the menu, though.

Today, most families eat turkey or ham accompanied by lots of mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. This is after they wake up to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade and the first appearance of Santa Clause. Then, they settle in with a full stomach to watch football on TV.

It’s cozy and comfortable. It’s a time for family and friends and relaxation. And it’s a time to forget you’re on a diet and just celebrate the warmth of home and family. And that doesn’t need a month of mercantile preparation.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Why Do We Have Trouble Doing Elections?

Last week on Election Day, I went to my polling place like so many others to cast my vote for my choice of candidates. And, although I was not prevented from making my selections among those listed on the paper ballot, I was prevented from selecting my preference of voting machine.

In my precinct there were three voting booths which were nothing more than tables with cardboard screens surrounding the top for privacy. There was one touch-screen electronic voting machine. Being the techno-geek that I am, I opted for the electronic touch-screen voting booth.

The precinct worker said that it had not worked earlier that morning and that he didn’t know how to turn it on, so he called in another guy who seemed to know more about it. He walked over and got a cartridge of some kind and plugged it into the machine. Nothing happened. He tried it one more time. Still nothing happened.

He then told me he was sorry but the electronic voting machine was not working and hadn’t been all day. I went ahead and voted the old-fashioned way by filling in the bubbles next to the anti-Bush candidates on my paper ballot.

The next day, I discovered that had I been able to vote on the touch-screen machine, my vote would not have been counted yet, and might never have been counted. Not only were the machines programmed to shut down at the wrong time, but most precinct workers didn’t know how to operate them.

I also learned that several dozen memory cards had been misplaced and not all of them had been found yet. The people who did manage to cast votes on the electronic machines might or might not have had their votes counted.

So, after staying up late the night before to see if the Democrats would regain control of Congress, I was disappointed that I had to wait until late the next day to discover that the last Senate race to be counted, in Virginia, finally went to a Democrat. And it wasn’t until the second day after the election that it was official.

It wasn’t as bad as the presidential election of 2000 when it took weeks to find out that George W. Bush had won the election in Florida, and then only because the Supreme Court said he did. But it is disheartening and embarrassing to know that in the 21st century, in a time of technological revolution, that this country still can’t count votes in an efficient and timely manner.

Are we a third-world country when it comes to determining election results? Sometimes it seems so. What is the problem?

Americans send billions of virtual dollars around the world every year from the privacy of their own homes and offices over secure Internet connections. We are able to purchase our license plates online. We can buy auto insurance online. We can even file our state and federal income taxes online. I’ve done it for years and have never had a problem with security.

Millions of Americans do their everyday banking without ever going to the bank. I’ve been paying my bills online since 1987, even before the Internet existed in its present form.

And all that begs the question: Why can’t we vote online? Why is it so important that we show up at polling places in our precincts where incompetent workers misplace ballots and can’t seem to figure out how to turn the machines on?

Why can’t we register online using our Social Security numbers and addresses, then on Election Day, vote online in the privacy of our own homes? For those who do not have computers, voting terminals can be set up at libraries or even at the typical precinct polling places. Forget the voting machines and paper ballots.

If we can use secure Internet technology to do everything else that requires precision and security, why can’t we use it to vote? It would be fast, easy, secure, and the election results would be known instantly after the polls close.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Now You Can Make Your Own Radio Show

The standard answer you get when you ask a kid what he or she wants to be when they grow up include occupations such as policeman, fireman, nurse, doctor, or maybe rodeo clown. Seldom does a young child tell you he wants to be a broadcaster or a journalist.

But long before I wanted to be a science teacher I wanted to be a newspaper man or, perhaps, a radio DJ. When I was little, I used to type up a family newsletter on an old Remington typewriter we found in the attic.

Occasionally, I would get out an old record player and a walkie-talkie and play songs over the air for passing truckers within a few hundred feet of our house. Ok, so I was 11; I could have been doing much more destructive things than violating FCC rules.

Later, after I decided what I really wanted to have as a career, I still was fascinated with radio broadcasting and with writing for the newspaper. When I was 15 I wrote a daily column and weather forecast for the old Edinburgh Daily Courier. And when I went to college, I became an on-air “personality” at the college radio station, never mind that I could probably count the number of listeners at any one time with my fingers and toes.

It’s too bad I didn’t have access to what many people take for granted these days, the Internet. Today, if you want to have a radio talk show or play your own songs on the Internet’s version of a radio station, you can do it. If you want to publish a newsletter or a full-fledged newspaper, have at it. You might even start drawing an audience or readership.

Most folks who have been online at all in recent years know what a blog is. It is short for Web log, and it amounts to an online journal. You can publish pretty much anything you want, from personal accounts of your day, including photos, to real news stories that you go find yourself.

More recently, you can use the streaming audio equivalent of a blog, a podcast. I don’t like the name because it’s too device-centric. It’s named after Apple’s Ipod music player because when podcasts first became popular, most people would download them to their music player so they could listen on the run.

If you desire to produce and host your own radio broadcast, all you need is a digital recording device, a microphone, and something to record, like your voice. You can become the radio newscaster you always wanted to be.

Of course, you’ll also need access to a computer so you can upload your production to any of several podcast sites so that listeners can find it.

Despite my early predilection for radio broadcasting, I have as yet not developed my own podcast program. For now, I’ll stick to the print medium, though that could change at some point.

Some of the more popular podcasts have tens of thousands of listeners. Others may have only a handful of friends or relatives that listen in. But whatever the listenership, it’s bound to be better than the occasional trucker tuning into my old illegal walkie-talkie radio station.