Tuesday, April 21, 2009

In Praise of Susan Boyle

For the past week I've been bombarded by references, Facebook badges, Tweets, news stories and raving blog entries about Susan Boyle, a contestant on the British equivalent of American Idol. Her not-so-attractive mug appeared everywhere I surfed on the Web. I avoided watching her clip, certain she was the reincarnation of William Hung. Sure, it's fun to laugh at people who suck. But we're in desperate times and need to see people triumph over the odds rather than succumb to their misfortunes. So on Sunday night, after finishing up some work and itching for some quick entertainment, I found a clip of Boyle's audition to figure out the fuss.

The video I embedded is the longer version containing the introduction to her audition. The clip sets up a storyline that I speculated: an unemployed, working class woman from a village searching for her 15 minutes of fame. I and everyone else who laid eyes on Boyle expected her to be a lousy singer, driven by delusional aspirations of stardom. Notice the expressions among the audience members and the judges in the packed auditorium. Simon Cowell visibly exhales his eyes when he sees Boyle, and bulges his eyes when she tells him she's 47 (skip to 1:28). People in the audience look around uncomfortably and whisper to their friends. The co-hosts mimic her when she shakes her hips. There stands a women, all alone, blanketed in the spotlight, facing a crowd sharpening their knives to shred her ego to bits.

And then she sings.

In a split second her voice pulls everyone watching her-- in the auditorium, at home, on the computer-- onto the same level. All the labels about her status, her appearance, and her future are gone. Comparisons are meaningless. Within seconds the audience rises to its feet and every face is plastered with a guilty smile. Some sigh in relief. Simon, who plays the role of cynic but deep inside is a softie, beams with wonder and amazement.

Why am I writing about Susan Boyle? She's a reminder of how cynical I have become, and how universally refreshing it is to see someone so human and so brave. And there's something therapeutic about singing.

A few years ago while visiting my parents in Massachusetts, I came home to find my mom standing in front of the TV singing karaoke (I think she was singing Billy Joel). During a pause between verses she turned to me, in mid-hip shake, and declared into the microphone in Mandarin, "Chang ge zi bai bing!", which means "Singing cures a hundred illnesses!" Amen to that.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Check Me Out on Mint.com

Here's a link to my blog post on Mint.com about unemployment survival tips. If you've just arrived from Mint, hello and welcome to Gloom to Boom!

Monday, April 13, 2009

Everybody Loves Oil

As part of my ongoing quest for knowledge during the downturn, I started another course at Stanford called "What's the Real Deal with Oil, Gas and Coal," taught by Prof. Margot Gerritsen. A mathematician by training, her academic career has evolved towards studying ways to make energy extraction and production more efficient and environmentally friendly. An opinionated realist, she agrees in the need for alternative energy, but believes in a more immediate need to improve our management of fossil fuels.

I respect Gerritsen's perspective, especially when looking at the chart that she provided above. Yes, we must reduce our dependency on oil imports. Yes, we need to make up for eight years of lost time. Yes, I believe that American ingenuity can turn alternative energy into a viable option. But let's put the cart in front of the horse.

I've been noodling on this chart for the past couple of weeks because it's revealing. We hear policy wonks in the Obama Administration talking about a 10-year window to reduce the U.S.'s dependence on oil imports from the Middle East and Venezuela. Here's how the Obama Administration plans to reach that goal.

Very noble. But I wonder if, according to Gerritsen's chart, the American thirst for oil could nullify any policy towards greater fuel efficiency. I can understand the economic incentives, but I'll bet the policies required to make this work will move at a snail's pace through the political landmines in Congress.

The solution for now is simply to use less. Complain all you want about politicians and red tape. If you want to stop our reliance on foreign oil, you can either reduce your own oil consumption and/or consider new ways to extract oil in the U.S., which includes opening up ANWR, re-opening off-shore drilling, or selling swaths of the Rocky Mountain range to shale extractors.

Easy solutions, tough choices.

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Price of Marriage

Ah, the wedding industry. My fiancee and I are in the midst of this dance and dealing with the shock and awe of sticker shock. Despite the economy, we haven't seen a massive price reduction in the San Francisco Bay Area among venues, caterers or other services. You'd figure, given the 10% unemployment rate in California, that wedding services might show greater price flexibility. Here are my theories about why we're not experiencing bargains.

1. It's still the Bay Area
All those hills, beaches, forests and vineyards provide enough of a compelling backdrop that demand remains high. I spoke to a wedding coordinator yesterday at a local winery who said despite the bad economy, people still want to spend a lot of money getting married.

2. Expectations for a 2010 recovery
Some venues are giving deals 2009, but returning to their original prices in 2010. It's an interesting dynamic because both consumers and vendors anticipate greater spending next year. If you're desperate for a deal, throw a wedding in December 2009.

3. Maybe I'm just a bad negotiator?
This crosses my mind a lot. Maybe I'm giving in too easily. I should turn over my duties to Ellen, who negotiates for a living. I hope she's reading this. But, I bet the real reason why the wedding industry refuses to budge is because of the next point.

4. They're all in cahoots
Every month, a cabal of caterers, wedding venues and photographers meet to fix prices and gouge consumers. "This month we're going to double the price of halibut!"

On a separate note, this is a funny visualization that I stumbled upon the other day. It shows what kind of engagement ring people of various incomes can afford to buy based on two months of their annual salary. I had no idea lifeguards could afford such nice rings!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Why I Stopped Listening to NPR

I stopped listening to NPR because it's a downer. Let me rephrase-- it's a big Debbie Downer.

This is a big step for me because I've been listening to NPR since high school. I give money them money and I use their messenger bags: one from WNYC in New York and another from KQED in San Francisco. Sometimes if I wake up before my alarm, I turn on NPR and lie in bed half-asleep listening. I subscribe to their podcasts, blog about their shows, and scan headlines from their Websites on my RSS reader.

But as of a week ago, I stopped listening. NPR has become a Debbie Downer.

I understand it's important to report about unemployment, the economy and foreclosures given this unique moment in history. My issue is with their commentators and reporters, who sound like manic-depressive Chicken Littles. "Things are bad! They're getting worse! We're all doomed!!" In some ways I can't blame them. As a former news reporter, I can understand how reporting this financial crisis could get emotionally draining, especially if you're talking to people whose lives have been negatively affected by the downturn. But this tone isn't helping our recovery.

This blog was created on the premise that 1) what goes down must go up, 2) where there's crisis there's also opportunity, and 3) the first step to recovery is psychological. Maybe I'm naïve, but I do believe dread breeds paralysis, and paralysis stifles productivity and creativity. Pulling ourselves out of this recession means good old American ingenuity and optimism.

Goodbye NPR (for now). Hello classic soul and R&B.