Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Weight Lifters Could Power the World

My gym has a kiosk doodad for a thingie called Fitlinxx. Fitlinxx is a computer record system that lets you tap in how much of a workout you've had--how hard, how long, how fast--and it'll spit back out a rating in "Fitpoints." You lift fifteen tons and you get X fitpoints. You walk a mile for a Camel and get Y Fitpoints. Once a month you get a "report" saying: "You burned 1400 calories--3.2 ice cream sundaes!" and "You lifted 8.9 African elephants!" I think the reports are a riot.

Anyway, I got a message from the gym computer system this week saying "Congratulations--you've lifted 3.5 million pounds!"

Well, golly. How much is that in African elephants?

That's just one person lifting weights, mind you. I don't even do it very often. When I do, there are guys doing back extensions over here and chest presses over there and lat extensions and triceps curls and assisted backassed chin-ups and stuff all over. And except for the barbells, they're all pulling on the handles of a machine that tracks how much work they're doing.

What tiny step more would it be take to hook the machines up to a power grid?

It's not just weigh lifting either. Head downstairs to the cardio room and you see huge long lines of treadmills with matching flippy-ponytailed goddesses and serious-looking godlets sprinting--well, for me it would be a sprint--for up to an hour at a time. Not to mention the ellipses, stairmasters, and rowing machines. All hooked up to measurement machines! In fact, practically everything but the swimming pool attaches you to a calibrator.

Where's Cal Poly when you need it? Surely the geekmasters have looked into using that power. Why couldn't you charge up your Prius with a treadmill? I want my next 3.5 million pounds to count for something.

I'm going to look into what the techie oddballs and eggheads have done to try to make use of our collective sweat equity. Just as soon as I rest up.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Buy BS with your Bananas at Trader Joe's!

I'm as much of a sucker for slick marketing as anybody else, but when I look at Trader Joe's house brands I wonder whether my ingenuousness has gone too far.

I'm talking about bananas and peanut butter.

Elvis Presley wouldn't have had a problem. He'd just put 'em on bread and fry 'em up. Wouldn't notice a thing. Most of us, though, look at what we eat.

TJ's bananas are wonderfully cheap at 19 cents apiece, about 2/3 what you'd pay in a chain grocery store. Grocery-store bananas sometimes make my tongue feel as if it's swelling. Is it irradiation? Who knows? Trader Joe's bananas generally don't. They do, however, hatch fruit flies.

We had an infestation last year that we thought was in the kitchen wastebasket. We have a metal one with a lid and a foot pedal. We cleaned it up, sprayed it down, aired it out. Didn't work. We tried again. Didn't work.

Then I noticed that if you leave TJ's bananas in a closed-up bag, fruit flies flutter out when you open the bag back up. I took to putting the bananas in the fridge overnight, just to kill the bugs fast, when I brought them home. Until I thought--geez, what else is wrong with these things?

Then there's the peanut butter. It's ground-up peanuts and salt. Simple stuff. $1.79 a pound at TJ's versus $2.78 at the chain grocery store. But the consistency at TJ's varies from jar to jar--a lot. Some of it I couldn't spread with a carmelizing torch and a spackle blade, it's that dry. It must come from the bottom of the vat. Lately we've had runny stuff that dribbles clear oil down almost to the last dregs. The color varies too. Some jars you can stir and see whorls of dark and light brown.

What's scary is that I don't really know it's okay to eat, because our toothless consumer protection laws are unenforced unless something shows up on the news.

Early this year, a peanut butter factory was closed down in Blakely, Georgia, for peccadillos like, oh, roof runoff dripping from the ceiling onto the equipment, food utensils being washed in the same sink as floor mops, and, well, you know, cockroaches and stuff. Peanut butter rolling out of this factory went to hospitals and free-lunch programs for school kids and into more than 1500 different products.** And yet the factory wasn't closed till after about six people died from salmonella.

I bet that peanut butter wasn't nearly as inconsistent as what I buy at TJ's.

I'm not saying TJ's peanut butter is going to kill someone. It takes a fool to ship out food that's tested positive for salmonella the way Peanut Corp. did, and nobody running TJ's is a fool. Still, TJ's gets a lot of coasting distance from good will.

TJ's is fun. I like the silly signage with puns everywhere. I like the Hawaiian shirts on the staffers. If it weren't so entertaining, nobody would put up with the crowds.

So you might think. But the floor space is tiny because tiny makes the crowds. Go there and you feel as if you're at a party (whether it's a good or bad one I couldn't say). You feel connected to the rest of the world. It's therapeutic, I bet, if you're single or lonely or you hate being at home. It's perfect for college kids.

You can see the strategy right there on the walls. A blanket of team-spirit blather lies over the place, whose staffers, I understand, are told that they're the store's chief draw. Shoppers come because TJ's people are so cool that everybody wants to be them, or at least, be near them.

I wonder how cool you feel, though, after four/six/eight hours of unloading boxes, stacking them, unstacking them, and restocking the shelves--after that hibiscus shirt starts smelling like your armpits. You'd start to see things you hadn't noticed before, like the fact that you aren't making much money.

I'm just guessing. Still, those staffers who are so cool probably aren't so dumb either, especially after the first few months of standing around with a sign saying "Line for 12 items or less starts here!"

Clear-eyed people can spot BS fast. But then, not a lot of college kids are quick to spot marketing BS that's aimed straight at them.

I can see the BS just fine, but as I said, I'm a sucker for slick marketing. For the right slogan, I'll overlook a lot.

TJ's peanut butter and bananas are cheap. I won't stop going there just yet.


*http://www.nbcchicago.com/health/diet_fitness/Peanut-Butter-Factory-Grosser-Than-You-Want-to-Know.html
**http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601087&sid=avu8BizZ.E_Q&refer=home

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Don't Ask Us; We're the Parks Department!

I help open and close the gates for Stuyvesant Park Dog Run, which is a section of the section of the park that's closed off for a few hours twice a day.

Volunteers built the gates with donated money. They're temporary gates of PVC pipe and plastic netting and were supposed to last a year or two till the Parks Department made permanent gates.

It's been seven years and counting. Meantime, it's people against entropy as the gates list, bend, and sink. Twice dogs have gotten through one gate and gotten killed in the street. I saw one of these dogs. The owner was tottering through the park with the dead dog in her arms, sobbing, looking for help finding the closest vet.

Since then, the permanent gates have been designed, sent to the landmarks commission, and approved. The money was set aside around 2004, thanks largely to a new city councilwoman elected with help from the dog run people. The neighborhood planning commission gave its approval after a public meeting with comments--the commentators being dog owners begging them to GET MOVING.

Says one of the dog owners: "I guess we're going to have to have two more dogs get killed before they do anything."

That was a couple of months ago. Now what? No one knows.

Two days ago, some crazy guy threw water on one of the park's volunteer gatekeepers because the gatekeeper was talking with some woman that Crazy Guy has a crush on.

Next day Crazy Guy came back to the park. He met one of the parks department planners. Parks department guy tells Crazy Guy: We expect to have these gates up by the beginning of August. Crazy Guy tells anybody who'll let him get close enough to talk to.

That was the story going around at the dog park this morning.

And everyone said "Wahoooo! Let's hope he's right!"

Friday, July 17, 2009

Con and Contempt

A few years ago I saw one of the most haunting scenes of suffering I've ever witnessed--certainly the worst I've ever seen in the United States.

It was a crack addict huddled under a blanket outside an upscale department store. She was cadaverous, hollow-eyed, shaking, her face ghostly, her lips crusted with white. She had a cardboard box; she was begging. Clearly she had only weeks to live.

That sight has stayed with me. It's been a touchstone for my idea of poverty. I think of it when I think of social welfare.

Now I think of something else too. This winter I saw the same woman again on Fifth Avenue, about a block from Tiffany's. Same hollow eyes. Same shaking. Same whitish, crusted lips.

I'd been suckered.

I kept walking. No way she could have lived three years in that condition. Two blocks, three blocks, four--. I thought, "I felt so bad for her!"

Another block. And then I thought, "Well, DAMMIT!" I turned around, thinking I might ask her in a loud voice, "Are you feeling any better since three years ago?" Then I thought: Surely there's a policeman around here.

There wasn't, but she was gone. She was staggering through the crosswalk on a green light, with cars and trucks halted in front of her, everybody staring. She got to the curb and a bus went by between her and me. I saw her in front of a store window on a side street, looking in at the display, rocking and shuddering. Another bus went by. I saw a perfectly healthy woman stuffing the ragged blanket into a purse. Her jeans were newer than mine. Her shirt was too. She looked good. The next bus went by, and she was gone.

I've been suckered four times now, but this one was a special case. To mimic genuine, hopeless, profound suffering in order to con people who are too well to do to know what a crack addict really looks like--that's not just a con; that's contempt.

I hope I never see her again. I really might say something, and that would be dangerous.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Notes from an Economic Conference

No one goes broke predicting bad news. By that standard, economics-info company RGE Monitor of New York should be with us for a long, long time to come.

RGE managing editor and lead analyst Christian Menegatti told reporters at a Dow Jones Indexes' annual Global Economic Outlook conference that RGE expects housing prices, by 2010, will have dropped 38% from their January 2006 peak. At minimum, they'll fall 15%. Unemployment will surge past 8% by midyear 2009, a year in which we'll see "technical deflation" to the tune of negative 2%--depending on how much prices fall; if they fall much, we'll have real deflation. In the last quarter of 2008, the economy has contracted 6%--and GDP for 2009 will be negative 3.4 percent.

But Michael J. Woolfolk, known to The Bank of New York Mellon as Senior Currency Strategist, agrees with Menegatti--loosely, that we're all gonna die--but his examples are slightly different. In 2009, Woolfolk expects to see $20- to $30-a-barrel oil and parity between the Euro and the dollar. But he also says that federal reserve chief Ben Bernanke has adequate tools to handle the money supply. Among those tools, he believes, is a hike in interest rates this spring.

Thank goodness that the third speaker was Richard Yamarone, Nostradamus of the financial press, as moderator John Prestbo, executive director of Dow Jones Indexes, put it. However, Yamarone, executive director of economic research at Argus Research Co., offers only a dim glow of hope. He believes that if this recession were going to bring Apocalypse, it would have happened last year.

"It's amazing how the dollar hasn't collapsed," Yamarone says. "It shows how resilient we are."

That's why he says he's "a candle in a hurricane"--an optimist. The economy won't decline by more about 1.3% this year. The worst is over. Commercial paper is cheap.

He also expects this recession to spell the "ultimate death" of manufacturing in this country. America is the land of innovation and ideas. Already 55% of our economic output is goods and services. As for Detroit, once federal life support is gone, it will die forever.

While Woolfolk expects oil prices to fall steeply, Yamarone "wouldn't be surprised" if oil went off a cliff and landed at $10 a barrel this year. Saudi Arabia wants it that way, he says. The Saudis really call the shots at OPEC, and weak prices will demolish the competition, notably Russia and Venezuela, which are in pain already from weakening oil prices.

What won't weaken, though, are prices for goods and services within the United States--CEOs he's talked to recently have no intention of letting prices drop. The "Fab Five" indicators of consumer spending "all surged in November." (The five indicators re gambling, jewelry and watches, perfume and cosmetics, dining out, and women's dresses.)

Wages will stay high too. There's a minimum wage hike coming this July.

That is, a wage, like punditry and prognostication, will be nice work if you can get it.