Saturday, December 16, 2006

The art of the yearly Christmas missive

Garrison Keillor
TribuneMedia Services

I love reading Christmas newsletters in which the writer bursts the bonds of modesty and comes forth with one gilt-edged paragraph after another:

“Tara was top scorer on the Lady Cougars soccer team and won the lead role in the college production of Antigone, which by the way they are performing in the original Greek. Her essay on chaos theory as an investment strategy will be in the next issue of Fortune magazine, the same week she’ll appear as a model in Vogue. How she does what she does and still makes Phi Beta Kappa is a wonderment to us all. And, yes, she is still volunteering at the homelessshelter.”

I get a couple dozen Christmas letters a year, and I sit and read them in my old bathrobe as I chow down on Hostess Twinkies.

Everyone in the letters is busy as beavers, piling up honors hand over fist, volunteeringup a storm, traveling to Beijing, Abu Dhabi and Antarctica; nobody is in treatment or depressed or flunking out of school, though occasionally there is a child who gets shorter shrift.

“Chad is adjusting well to his new school and making friends. He especially enjoys the handicrafts.” How sad for Chad. There he is in reform school learning to get along with other little felons and making belts and birdhouses, but he can’t possibly measure up to the goddess Tara. Or Lindsay or Meghan or Madison, each of whom is also stupendous.

This is rough on us whose children are not paragons. Most children aren’t. A great many teenage children go through periods when they loathe you and go around slamming doors and playing psychotic music and saying things like “I wish I had never been born,” which is a red-hot needle stuck under your fingernail. One must be very selective when writing about them for the annual newsletter: “Sean is becoming very much his own person and is unafraid to express himself. He is a lively presence in our family and his love of music is a thing to behold.”

I come from Minnesota, where it’s considered shameful to be shameless, where modesty is always in fashion, where self-promotion is looked at askance. Give us a gold trophy and we will have it bronzed so you won’t think that we think we’re special. There are no Donald Trumps in Minnesota: We strangled them all in their cribs. A football player who likes to do his special dance after scoring a touchdown is something of a freak.

The basis of modesty is winter. When it’s 10 below zero and the wind is whipping across the tundra, there is no such thing as stylish and smart, and everybody’s nose runs. And the irony is, if you’re smart and stylish, nobody will tell you about your nose. You look in the rearview mirror and you see a gob of green snot hanging from your left nostril and you wonder, “How long have I been walking around like that? Is that why all those people were smiling at me?” Yes, it is. So we don’t toot our own horns.

We can be rather ostentatious in our modesty and can deprecate faster than you can complimentus. We are averse to flattery. We just try to focus on keeping our noses clean. So here is my Christmas letter:

"Dear friends, We are getting older but are in fairly good shape and moving forward insofar as we can tell. We still drink strong coffee and read the paper and drive the same old cars. We plan to go to Norway next summer. We think that this war is an unmitigated disaster that will wind up costing a trillion dollars and we worry for our country.

"Our child enjoys her new school and is making friends. She was a horsie in the churchChristmas pageant and hunkered down beside the manger and seemed to be singing when she was supposed to. We go on working and hope to be adequate to the challenges of the coming year but are by no means confident.

"It’s winter. God is around here somewhere but does not appear to be guiding our government at the moment. Nonetheless we persist. We see kindness all around us and bravery and we are cheered by the good humor of young people. The crabapple tree over the driveway is bare, but we have a memory of pink blossoms and expect them to return. God bless you all."

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Pessimism leads to weakness, optimism to strength. William James

Businesses You Can Start For Under $5,000
Mary Crane, 12.04.06, Forbes Online

Eight years ago, Texas resident Cynthia Ivie, a 43-year-old sales rep for Newsweek, struck out for Chicago with no more than a business idea and a 1989 Toyota Corolla packed with clothes, books, a vacuum cleaner, a stereo and a cocker spaniel named Buckley. Ivie's big moneymaking idea: organizing the apartments and offices of busy people.

Today, Ivie's company, White Space, offers "clutter control" services to hundreds of clients across the country, many of them recently relocated by big companies like the Walt Disney Co. and Exelon. White Space now has five full-time and eight part-time employees; Ivie expects revenues to top $1 million in 2007. "I knew the business would take off if I could survive long enough," she says. "I had a lot of gumption--and probably a little naiveté that kept me going."
Gumption, naiveté and very little cash. Ivie couldn't afford a cellphone, so she bought a pager and a voicemail system for $200--"I knew where every pay phone in Chicago was," she claims--and scraped together another $1,000 for brochures and business cards. For six months, she slept on a futon mattress in her friend's basement. Eventually, she moved into her own home office, outfitted with two hand-me-down computers ($107) and two desks made out of hollow-core doors laid across cheap file cabinets ($20) from Office Depot. Total startup costs: around $1,500, including gas.

There are plenty of Ivies out there. And a lot them didn't have--or need--gobs of green to launch their businesses.

In Pictures: Nine Businesses You Can Start For Under $5,000
Indeed, there are myriad ways to preserve precious cash while starting and building a business. Our special report, called "Small Business On The Cheap," offers plenty of helpful tips--from slashing marketing costs and telecom bills to cutting health care bills and travel expenses.
Like Ivie, fledgling entrepreneurs can save a bundle by selling services rather than products. "It's really hard to start any product-based business for under $5,000," says Richard Stim, co-author of Whoops! I'm in Business: A Crash Course In Business Basics with Lisa Guerin. In general, he says, there is less overhead for service-based businesses, which don't require large outlays for equipment and inventory.

The best services to choose from are those that people don't want to do themselves. Think yard work or preparing legal documents. Educational services such as teaching yoga, ballroom dancing or how to take the SATs are attractive, too. Better, still, if you can help people avoid or solve a problem--say, by inspecting homes for water quality or environmental safety.
There are some startup costs, of course. But when it comes to service businesses, the nice thing is that many don't require expensive technology, save for maybe a computer and an Internet connection. If you want to start a child-care facility, for instance, you'll want to spend a few dollars on toys and perhaps some childproof locks.

In some cases, as with child-care providers or real estate agents, you may need a state license or other certifications to set up shop. Child-care licenses run up to $100, depending on the state; you'll also have to be certified in first aid and CPR (maybe $50 all in) and you'll need some liability insurance (say, $450 per year).

A service startup's biggest expense is probably marketing, be it printing brochures and business cards or placing ads in local newspapers. (Check out VistaPrint, which specializes in low-volume runs for smaller shops.) Setting up a blog can be a cheap way to get your message out, and it's a lot less expensive than maintaining a Web site.

The best--and cheapest--advertising, however, is word of mouth. Offering free initial consultation meetings is a good way to get people talking. When Ivie landed in Chicago, she sent postcards to 30 local business people, promising three hours of organization services for free. "People snapped it up, tried the services, liked them, referred me to other people and the business started to grow," she says.

In smaller markets, getting on friendly terms with the competition also can be good for business. If one piano teacher has too many students, she might sluice the spillover to you.
Whatever you do, though, remember to be patient. "If you're looking to get rich quick, forget about it," says Stim. "Instead, try to make a profit, enjoy what you're doing and make it something that can keep going and going."
Learning to Keep Learning
By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
New York Times 12/13/06
(This is why the IDEA Cafe http://ideacafe.meetup.com and Franklin Circles
www.JohnWren.com are important. John Wren)

I recently attended an Asia Society education seminar in Beijing, during which we heard Chinese educators talk about their “new national strategy.” It’s to make China an “innovation country” — with enough indigenous output to advance China “into the rank of innovation-oriented countries by 2020,” as Shang Yong, China’s vice minister of science and technology, put it.

I listened to this with mixed emotions. Part of me said: “Gosh, wouldn’t it be nice to have a government that was so focused on innovation — instead of one that is basically anti-science.” My other emotion was skepticism. Oh, you know the line: Great Britain dominated the 19th century, America dominated the 20th and now China is going to dominate the 21st. It’s game over.

Sorry, but I am not ready to cede the 21st century to China yet.

No question, China has been able to command an impressive effort to end illiteracy, greatly increasing its number of high school grads and new universities. But I still believe it is very hard to produce a culture of innovation in a country that censors Google — which for me is a proxy for curtailing people’s ability to imagine and try anything they want. You can command K-12 education. But you can’t command innovation. Rigor and competence, without freedom, will take China only so far. China will have to find a way to loosen up, without losing control, if it wants to be a truly innovative nation.

But while China can’t thrive without changing a lot more, neither can we. Ask yourself this: If the Iraq war had not dominated our politics, what would our last election have been about? It would have been about this question: Why should any employer anywhere in the world pay Americans to do highly skilled work — if other people, just as well educated, are available in less developed countries for half our wages?

If we can’t answer this question, in an age when more and more routine work can be digitized, automated or offshored, including white-collar work, “it is hard to see how, over time, we are going to be able to maintain our standard of living,” says Marc Tucker, who heads the National Center on Education and the Economy.

There is only one right answer to that question: In a globally integrated economy, our workers will get paid a premium only if they or their firms offer a uniquely innovative product or service, which demands a skilled and creative labor force to conceive, design, market and manufacture — and a labor force that is constantly able to keep learning. We can’t go on lagging other major economies in every math/science/reading test and every ranking of Internet penetration and think that we’re going to field a work force able to command premium wages. Freedom, without rigor and competence, will take us only so far.

Tomorrow, Mr. Tucker’s organization is coming out with a report titled “Tough Choices or Tough Times,” which proposes a radical overhaul of the U.S. education system, with one goal in mind: producing more workers — from the U.P.S. driver to the software engineer — who can think creatively.

“One thing we know about creativity is that it typically occurs when people who have mastered two or more quite different fields use the framework in one to think afresh about the other,” said Mr. Tucker. Thus, his report focuses on “how to make that kind of thinking integral to every level of education.”

That means, he adds, revamping an education system designed in the 1900s for people to do “routine work,” and refocusing it on producing people who can imagine things that have never been available before, who can create ingenious marketing and sales campaigns, write books, build furniture, make movies and design software “that will capture people’s imaginations and become indispensable for millions.”

That can’t be done without higher levels of reading, writing, speaking, math, science, literature and the arts. We have no choice, argues Mr. Tucker, because we have entered an era in which “comfort with ideas and abstractions is the passport to a good job, in which creativity and innovation are the key to the good life” and in which the constant ability to learn how to learn will be the only security you have.

Economics is not like war. It can be win-win. We, China, India and Europe can all flourish. But the ones who flourish most will be those who develop the best broad-based education system, to have the most people doing and designing the most things we can’t even imagine today. China still has to make some very big changes to get there — but so do we.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Both newspapers have been featuring articles about the high cost of political campaigns in Colorado and the negative impact of the 527 committees. So I wrote this letter to the editor and sent it to several newspapers this morning:The long-run solution to high-cost campaigning is a return toshoe-leather, door-to-door organizing in every neighborhood
by each of our major political parties. We saved the Colorado
neighborhood caucus in 2002 with the defeat of Amendment 29,
now we need to start using it.If our state party chairs get serious about the 2008 Colorado Neighborhood Caucus,
Presidential campaigns will finance our efforts, just as they have in Iowa wherethey spent an average of $40 per caucus attendee in 2004 Iowa Caucus.How to get involved? First, call the major party of your choice
(Democrats 303-623-4762, Republicans 303-758-3333) or call
them both, then pick the one that best fits you.

Then go to Scott Heiferman's www.Meetup.com, search on the political party
or presidential candidate of your choice, and attend the Meetup nearest you.
You'll meet people who want to make the parties more responsive to
the grassroots, and who can answer your questions about how to organize
your neighborhood and participate in the 2008 neighborhood caucus.Let's save our neighborhoods by increasing the informed participationin our March, 2008 caucuses in the 3,000 neighborhoods acrossthe state by each of us pressuring our party to promote the 2008 caucus
and spending 2 hours a week helping in our own neighborhoods.

John Wren
960 Grant Street
Denver 80203
cell (720)495-4949

John Wren helped organize Save the Caucus which defeated the 2002 Amendment 29
which would have killed the neighborhood caucus, and he is the founder of the new
Denver Republican Meetup http://republican.meetup.com/511 which will next meet
this coming Thursday, December 14 at noon, Panara Bread, 13th & Grant.