Thursday, November 29, 2007

No More Three-Card Monte for You, Kid!

No More Three-Card Monte for You, Kid!
Erik Deckers
Laughing Stalk Syndicate
Copyright 2007

When I became a dad, the last thing I ever dreamed I would worry about was my kids and gambling. Sure, they would gamble whether they made it to the bathroom in time, (they've won more than they lost), or whether they could sneak candy without being caught (they can't).

But I never figured I'd have to explain the basics of wagering to an 11-year-old girl. Or the problem with gambling with a church youth group.

My oldest daughter recently went duckpin bowling with the 5th and 6th grade class of our new church. Before she left, I got to do something that filled me with both pride and a foreboding sense of dread: I reached into my wallet and handed her eleven dollars.

Pride, because we have taught her to be responsible and mature about money, and this was her chance to show it. Dread, because I had just established a dangerous precedent, and I was staring down the barrel at her impending teen years.

"Seven bucks for bowling and four for food," we told her. "Don't go nuts."

She promised she would be careful, but the gleam in her eye made me wonder if I had just created a monster.

A few hours later, we picked her up and drove home. We heard all the stories about things that are important to 11- and 12-year-olds. But we had more important questions.

"How much money do you have left?" my wife asked.

"I don't know," my daughter said. "Three dollars, I think."

"Wow, you only spent a dollar on food?" I said. "What'd you have?"

"Nachos and popcorn."

That didn't add up. These places charge you a buck just to smell the food. There was no way she ate that much for a dollar. I started to worry she had just mooched off a church youth group. This did not bode well.

"We gave you 11 dollars. How'd you get so much stuff for just a dollar?" my wife asked.

"A bunch of us shared. We all chipped in and shared everything."

Whew! Problem averted. Until we got home and my daughter counted out her change: $4.86.

"Honey, you have more money than you thought. Are you sure you paid for your share of the food?"

"Yes. I paid three dollars."

"Did you pay for the bowling?"

"Yes. Seven dollars, just like you said."

"Then how did you end up with more money?"

She gave me a look that said I'm clueless. I'm sure I'll be seeing it a lot of over the next several years.

"A bunch of us put our leftover money together for the last game, and whoever won the game got the money. And I won."

I was stunned into silence. I just looked at my wife, not knowing whether to laugh or cry, to be proud or upset. While part of me was pleased my daughter had show the ingenuity and competitive spirit to win the big pot, I was also disturbed that she was gambling at the tender age of 11.

At a church function, no less.

She did win, I told myself.

But she gambled, I answered.

So? I asked.

I was stuck. Which was better, winning or gambling? Competition or misdeed?

Now, I've never been morally opposed to gambling. I don't do it, partly because I can think of better uses for my money, but mostly because I've got all the luck of a three-legged dog, and I lose more than I win. So I just don't do it. But I don't mind when other people do it.

Unless those other people are my 11-year-old baby girl. Then I start to wonder about the virtue and rightness of it all. On the one hand, she was proud of herself, having won a big competition, and I didn't want to squash that feeling. On the other, she had just grifted a bunch of little girls.

So we talked for a little while about why some people believe gambling is wrong, why it may not have been the best idea to do it at a church function, and how she shouldn't plan on winning every time she played a game of chance.

But I also taught her about the finer points of making a lay bet to shorten her break-even point and avoid going down to the felt. I mean, if she's going to start gambling, there's no point in having her spend scared money just because she's a pigeon, right? As her dad, I could do no less.

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Knights of Ni. . . er, Moleskine, Spirit and Ale

I am now a member of the Knights of Moleskine, Spirit and Ale, an Indiana-based group of people who love, well, Moleskine, spirits, and ale. I am known as Sir Erik of Ritter, and have been granted all the rights and privileges of a Knight, because "Sir Erik embodies all that's noble about being a Knight and a Hoosier."

Wow, sure beats what the Knights Who Say Ekke Ekke Ekke Ptang Zoo Boing were going to do for me. Big thanks to my fellow knights, and especially Sir Hook of Warrick for admitting me into this august band.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Didn't They Have it in Blue?

Didn't They Have it in Blue?
Erik Deckers
Laughing Stalk Syndicate
Copyright 2007

Erik is out of the office this week for the holidays, so we're firing up the Wayback Machine, and reprinting this column from 2001.

As I write this, it's the last week of November, and there are only 26 days to finish your Christmas shopping. And if you haven't even started your shopping, then you've wasted the other 100 days the retailers inflicted on us when they started playing "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" back in August.

Before you ask, no I'm not starting late. The fact that I'm starting before the end of November is a major accomplishment for me. So here they are, the Laughing Stalk Christmas Shopping Tips.

1) Do your shopping in the middle of the week, during the day. Everyone but you is at work. Even your boss is at work, so you don't run the risk of bumping into him or her while you make your purchases. Tell your coworkers you have meetings all day, and hit the mall.

2) Wear comfortable walking shoes. You'll be walking a lot, especially if you have several people to shop for. But more importantly, if you're like most people, you foolishly ignored Tip #1, and are spending your Saturday afternoon slowly circling the mall parking lot, trying desperately to find a parking space. You'll need your walking shoes to make the eight-mile trek from your car to the mall, because the only parking space you could find was in a pasture outside of town. And you waited 20 minutes for that.

3) Buy off "The List." Everyone has The List. It started out as that three page list of toys you wrote, in a peppermint stick-induced haze, to Santa every Christmas Eve, but became more mature as you grew older. Now it includes things like DVDs, books, and -- shudder -- ties and socks.

After years and years of deviating from my wife's List, I finally learned to buy from it, rather than surprise her with something I thought she would enjoy, like yet another Aboriginal fertility statue ("Collect all 27!") or a Create Your Own Where's Waldo Book kit. While people usually appreciate your imagination and creativity, they absolutely hate it when you use it for Christmas shopping. Just skip the new home wine making kit you thought sounded cool, and get the stupid "Billy Bass Sings 'Take Me To The River'" they've been asking for all year long.

4) Don't wait until the last minute. Everyone around the world wants the same thing, and if you wait too long, you won't find it. You'll be forced to buy the things on the bottom of the list, which are usually a result of late-night hair pulling and shrieking sessions of "what else what else what else what else?" Trust me, the last few things on the list are not what they really want, they're just filler. So even if you see "natural teak display shelf for Aboriginal fertility statues," don't bother.

When you race into the store at 8:30 on Christmas Eve, they've got you. You're desperate, you'll take anything, and you're willing to pay top dollar. Well, almost willing. That's why you didn't get the $400 Waterford crystal vase for your wife, and instead gave her a socket wrench, a 14 pound bowling ball with "Big Earl" engraved on it, and a 3-volume set of "Wrestling's Greatest Hits, Smashes, and Bloopers." But unless your wife's nickname is Big Earl, that bowling ball may end up somewhere other than a bowling alley, if you get my drift.

5) Keep your receipts. In Canada and England, December 26th is Boxing Day, but it's not the good kind of boxing where two guys beat the crap out of each other for an hour. In this case, Boxing Day means you put the stuff you don't want back into their boxes, and take it all back to the stores and exchange it. We don't celebrate Boxing Day here in the US, so instead we have "After Christmas Sales." During these sales, people take the stuff you got them, even if it was on The List, and they exchange it for other stuff they really wanted. And since you paid Super Top Dollar on December 24th for their gifts, your loved ones will be able to find a really great deal for the stuff they really wanted, like a new tape for the Billy Bass singing fish, since I smashed the old one 20 minutes after they got it.

Ah, Christmas. It's the most wonderful time of year. It's a time to celebrate the joy of giving and sharing, of guys named St. Nick and dreams of sugar plums, of Christmas decorations and showering loved ones with gifts.

And I think Jesus is somewhere in there too.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

'Twas the Month Before Christmas

'Twas the Month Before Christmas
Erik Deckers
Laughing Stalk Syndicate
Copyright 2007

The holiday season is right around the corner, and the stores have had their Christmas decorations out since late July. So we trot out a Laughing Stalk tradition, the annual reprinting of 'Twas the Month Before Christmas.

'Twas six weeks before Christmas, and all through the town
Halloween decorations were just coming down.
I went to the mall, for a weekend reprieve
And saw such a sight that I could not believe.

The place had gone crazy, the mall was just packed.
With new clothes and new toys and cheap plastic sacks
The store owners were praying and pulling their hair,
Desperately hoping we'd spend money there.

When in one of the stores there arose such a clatter
I thought to myself "Now what's the matter?"
Away toward the noise the crowd flew like a flash
And knocked an old woman right onto her butt.

The cheesy green lights and the canned Christmas music
Made me realize not a darn thing rhymes with "music"
What I saw next made me scream and turn pale
A red and green sign said "We're having a sale!"

With a perky sales clerk, so cheerful and quick
I knew in a moment I was going to be sick!
She herded us in like sheep to the slaughter,
"Come in and buy things for your sons and your daughters!

We take Visa and Mastercard and Discover!" she chimed.
"American Express, credit cards of all kind!
From the back of the store, all the way to the front
Everything is on sale, there is no need to hunt!"

With the power and fury of an 8 point earthquake
The people were drawn in like a fat guy to cake
And into the store, the crowd they just flew
But what they were after, I hadn't a clue.

And then with a shudder, I heard behind me.
The ear-piercing scream of a child, age three
He gave a shrill shriek that would curl your hair
He yelled at his parents, "Hey let's go in there!"

"I see lots of games and toys," yelled the runt
"Why can't we go in there and get what I want?!"
I looked at the parents, all haggard and worn.
Their faces were bruised, their clothes, they were torn.

Their eyes, how they drooped. Their coats were all muddy.
She was missing her shoes, his nose -- it was bloody.
He clung to his wallet, she clutched at her purse.
They tried not to explode as they held back a curse.

"You've got enough stuff already," the two parents said.
But the child just screamed and cried and turned red.
"What's the matter?" I asked, though I wished I had not.
They said "You can guess at the problem we've got."

"We're shopping for Christmas, for family and friends,
But it seems like this madness goes on without end."
"We've been here since morning, looking for sales.
But we've spent too much money. We feel like we've failed.

Credit cards, debit cards, checkbooks and cash
It's only November, and our budget has crashed."
Then the child came running up, shouting with glee
"Hey, I found something! Please, come with me."

And I heard them exclaim, as they left with a grunt,
"Merry Christmas to you, though it's not 'til next month."

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Pimp My Blog

If anyone visits my blog, they can see that I don’t like commercialism. I don’t put ads on my blog, I don’t write about anything that’s not a humor column. But when Doug Karr of the Marketing Technology Blog said I could possibly win $1,000 just for blogging about a few companies, well, naked greed wins out over ideals every time. They say every man has his price, and mine is $1,000. If I win, I'm buying a new Macintosh Powerbook to replace my aging and decrepit Mac G3 tower.

Pimp my Blog #1 - Doug Karr's Marketing Technology Blog

The Marketing Technology Blog – Doug blogs about marketing technology. Not the act of marketing technology stuff, but rather using technology for marketing. So if you’re in the online marketing world, add this one to your feeds list. He posts nearly every day. And he’s the one hosting this contest. Doug is also helping me promote the new IndyIndieCoffeeShops.com, an online map of independent coffee shops around Indianapolis. Thanks Doug!

Pimp my Blog #2 - Formspring

Formspring – I’ve tried creating online forms before, and they’re a royal pain in the hinder. You’ve got to label each text box, and then match it up with the html code. And God help you if you don’t know html. FormSpring lets you create forms on their website, and then post it on yours. They have both free and paid service.

Pimp my Blog #3 - PPC Hero

PPC Hero – It’s not about the old PowerMacs, but about Pay-Per-Click. If you want to make money off your website or blog, PPC Hero (sponsored by Hanapin Marketing in Bloomington, IN) is the place to visit. Learn about AdWord optimization, search marketing, and advanced strategies.

Pimp my Blog #4 - Search Engine People

Search Engine People – When my brother-in-law and I put our company’s first website up, we had the “we built it, they’ll come” mentality. I learned quickly that this just wouldn’t cut it. So I quickly taught myself about search engine optimization (SEO). This was back in the days of keywords, meta tags, and all kinds of tricks and techniques that search engines now ignore. If you have the time to do your own SEO, then go to it. It’s actually pretty easy if you have the time. If you don’t, then call Search Engine People. They’ll help you with positioning (getting the right terms), conversion (getting visitors to take the next step), and then tracking (counting the results).

Pimp my Blog #6 - EverEffect

EverEffect – Indianapolis-based interactive marketing firm. They’re hosting/organizing a Masters of Business Online program in December here in Naptown, and are experts at online marketing.

Pimp my Blog #5 - Wrike Project Management

Wrike – Are you still keeping track of your projects with pen and paper?! You probably have so much crap on your desk, you’ve knocked your abacus off twice. Visit Wrike for online project management. It’s a web-based application that lets you do all of your project management on your desktop. No, the other desktop.

Pimp my Blog #7 - Tracy Garnier, Real Estate Agent

Tracy Garnier: Real Estate Agent - Indianapolis, Indiana – Century21 real estate agent in the Carmel/Fishers/Westfield/Noblesville area. This is a fast growing area, and Tracy is the person to call if you need to find a house fast. She uses online marketing to help you sell your home or find a new one.

Pimp my Blog #8 - A Pound A Day Diet

A Pound a Day Diet – A lo-o-o-o-o-ong website. If you’re a fan of the long copy letter (which I am, as a marketing communications professional), then you might get a kick out of this one. On this diet, you can lose, well, a pound a day. And they offer a 60 day guarantee.

Pimp my blog #9 - Vontoo

Vontoo – Ideal for the work-from-home entrepreneur or small business. Vontoo is a Create-Send-Track personal voice messages, You can send permission-based voice messaging to any phone in the U.S. or Canada, specifically tailored to the recipient’s interests. The Memphis Grizzlies used Vontoo to sell tickets for an upcoming game. They made 6,000 calls and increased their Return on Investment by 4,000% (yes, that’s 4 thousand).

Pimp my Blog, #10 - GoCollege.com

GoCollege – “The student’s reference to finding money and getting the most out of college education.” These guys will help you choose between the different colleges and universities, show you how to get into college, help you find money to go to college, and even show you how to survive once you get there.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

I Can't Believe It's Not Deadly

I Can't Believe It's Not Deadly
Erik Deckers
Laughing Stalk Syndicate
Copyright 2007

What is it about zero tolerance that turns school administrators into zombies who enforce their rules with all the compassion and understanding of a German prison guard?

"Nein, you may not haff two potatoes, only one!"

Whenever a ne'er-do-well student breaks the no drugs/no weapons rules, they are usually -- and rightly so -- suspended or expelled from school. But "zero tolerance" means "absolutely no tolerance whatsoever, even at the risk of our common sense."

Fourteen-year-old Amber Dauge of Moncks Corner, South Carolina fell victim to this kind of clenched-up tunnel vision when she was expelled for bringing a knife to school. You'd think she brought a 12-inch survival knife that would make Rambo squeal with delight. But no, it was a butter knife.

According to the Charleston (South Carolina) Post and Courier, on October 3, Amber made toast for breakfast, and decided to walk to the bus while she ate, forgetting she still clutched the lethal weapon in a white-knuckled death grip. When she did realize it, she quickly hid the knife in her backpack, and stashed it in her locker later.

On October 12, Amber returned to her locker for the first time since she hid the knife in there. When she opened the locker, the knife fell out, so she hid it in her backpack. But she said she got scared and handed it to a classmate.

(We'll try not to dwell on the fact that she hadn't been to her locker in nine days.)

Unfortunately for her, some school officials saw Amber brandishing her weapon and suspended her for five days. She also faced an expulsion hearing.

On October 18, Amber attended the hearing with her mother and stepfather, Kristi and Steve Heinz, believing clearer heads would prevail if they just explained the situation. Dreadfully sorry and all that. Just a little misunderstanding. You know what it's like to be young, right?

But clearer heads were apparently smoking in the parking lot, because three hours later, Heinz received a phone call saying Amber had been expelled for the rest of the year.

For a butter knife.

Pam Bailey, spokeswoman for the Berkeley County schools told ABC News, "It's not what we would consider to be a traditional butter knife. Even though it's blunt on the end, it does have a serrated edge."

Look, unless it's a steak knife, you can't even cut steam with these things if you used both hands and got a running start. What do they expect her to do, start sawing away on her classmates?

I suppose if you really needed one, anything could be a weapon. Like a pair of scissors, a compass, a pencil, the forks they hand out in the cafeteria, or anything else sharp and stabby they might distribute at Goose Creek High School.

But rather than acknowledge there are deadlier weapons in fourth period geometry , they decided it was more important to keep their students safe from a butter spreader. If the issue at hand was high cholesterol, then I could see their point. But this knife didn't even have a point. The only point was at the top of the administrators' heads.

"Certainly, if it was my child, I would have a different perspective," Bailey told ABC News. "But if you're a school administrator, your perspective has to be broader. You have to consider the safety of the entire student population."

Translation: "Sure it's stupid, but we can't stop ourselves. It's like we're outside our bodies watching us do something completely inane."

But Amber wasn't going to be stopped. Six days later, she stormed the Berkeley County School Board meeting and held the board members hostage with a soup ladle and melon baller until they reinstated her.

Okay, that didn't happen. But the school board did vote unanimously to reinstate her, thus dope slapping the Goose Creek school administrators for being so short-sighted. It may not have hurt that there was a national outcry at the overreaction of Goose Creek administrators either.

"We know they have to have certain processes in place," Heinz told the Post and Courier. "But this just seemed harsh. To us, Amber's education was too important to waste on a technicality."

And that's what the Goose Creek administrators should have considered. This is when they need to look past the ends of their collective noses and realize they're messing with a girl's future. Do they really want to take a chance that one small forgetful mistake could wreck her entire future, or are they more concerned with their precious rules that must be followed blindly?

Because they're totally ignoring what the students use to prepare the food in home economics class.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

You're Doing a Heck of a Job, FEMA

Erik Deckers
Laughing Stalk Syndicate
Copyright 2007

Last week, the Federal Emergency Management Agency committed the unpardonable sin of faking a press conference about their performance at the southern California wildfires, by having their own public affairs (public relations) employees pass as reporters and lob softball questions at the FEMA Director, Vice Admiral Harvey Johnson.

Johnson replaced disgraced director Michael "You're doing a heck of a job, Brownie" Brown, the guy President Bush praised on national TV a few days before firing him for blowing the government's Hurricane Katrina response.

Believe it or not, lying is a big no-no in public relations. Unfortunately, it's something the Bush administration has gotten good at -- hiring PR professionals to create news broadcasts and pass them off as real, paying columnists to write good things about them, and now this.

The pretend journalists asked only easy questions to shine FEMA in the best possible light. But the grown-up journos could only listen in by phone, but not ask questions. That's because FEMA didn't call them until 15 minutes before the press conference began, and gave them a listen-only phone number to boot.

The one TV station that was allowed to attend and broadcast Big-Fat-Liargate was Fox News, which isn't too surprising, given their overly-biased news coverage.

You're doing a heck of a job, Foxy.

Faking public relations is known as astroturfing, unlike real grassroots PR. At least AstroTurf looks real from a distance. These guys just paved over the lawn and painted it green.

FEMA continued to FUBAR the situation a few days later, with a government-speak apology from Johnson ". . . for the inexcusable actions and remarkably bad judgment exhibited at a FEMA press conference. . . Individuals involved have been admonished and additional disciplinary actions are possible."

Not so fast, Admiral. I think a lot of the "remarkably bad judgment" happened when the guy at the front of the room starting calling on the people he worked with on a daily basis, instead of wondering where the real journalists were.

Doing the press conference under a "Mission Accomplished" banner didn't help either.

So does Johnson include himself as one of those individuals who will face additional disciplinary actions? Hopefully. After his boss, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, called this "one of the dumbest and most inappropriate things I've seen since I've been in government." I don't think the Admiral will get off with just a stern look.

You're doing a heck of a job, Harvey.

"I have made it unambiguously clear, in Anglo-Saxon prose, that it is not to ever happen again and there will be appropriate disciplinary action taken against those people who exhibited what I regard as extraordinarily poor judgment," Chertoff said in a really-and-for-true press conference a few days later.

Anglo-Saxon prose?! Wow, he must be serious. You're doing a heck of a job, Saxy.

One guy whose uppance did come is the now-former Director of External Affairs, John "Pat" Philbin. Weeks before, Philbin had announced his departure from FEMA to take a new, more prestigious position at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), effective a few days after Big-Fat-Liargate. But the ODNI realized that while they could fake prewar intelligence to the American people, they couldn't hire a guy who faked a press conference.

"We do not normally comment on personnel matters. However, we can confirm that Mr. Philbin is not, nor is he scheduled to be, the Director of Public Affairs for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence," they said in a written statement.

You're doing a heck of a job, Philby. Or not.

But Philbin isn't worried about his job possibilities. He told CBS News, "I have lots of experience, I know how the government works. I have credentials in government and academia and I am looking at my options." He'll get a new job in no time. According to his résumé, Philbin was also a fighter pilot, is the rightful King of England, and killed Voldemort in a wizard's duel.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I used to work in public affairs for the Indiana State Department of Health. I was in charge of crisis communication, or what I like to call "Oh Crap PR." That's because I would occasionally get a phone call from one of our epidemiologists about a public health emergency. The first words out of my mouth were usually "oh crap," or much worse if it were a more serious problem.

That's why I'm shocked and outraged at what FEMA did. Government communicators have a hard enough time getting their message across to the media and public. They work for an organization no one trusts, in a profession no one believes. We don't need a bunch of unethical boneheads making a difficult job even harder. They're no longer just bumbling incompetents who can't find a hurricane with a map and a barometer. Now they're a bunch of liars and propagandists.

I just hope they don't become humor columnists.