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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

Yesterday someone whose opinion I value told me, “You hate the government.”

I was stunned by this summation.

I don’t hate the government.” I thought to myself. “In fact, I am often a formal, working part of the government.

Where did this broad stroke about my emotions toward the government come from? What caused it to happen? Why do we create these opaque and rigid summations?

It occurred to me that the most interesting, and I’ll suggest threatening thing, about a four-letter summation of any belief set, any person, any group is that it is convenient. And convenience is comforting.

Living with me is anything but comforting, orderly and convenient. I am a weird guy, given to remarkably reasoned insights, absurdly chaotic ones and everything in between. I hate furniture, love open space, and fill it with a clutter of superfluous gear and books. I am kind to animals, believe in some form of gun control and own guns. I believe in peace but work in an industry whose mission is war. I like the government but believe it should be smaller and more efficient. None of who I am is congruent or follows a convenient narrative. I don’t fit into anyone’s tidy little four-word box. Even if you try to suggest, “Tom Demerly is complicated”, it’s not that simple.

We live in an age of accelerating and proliferating media. And, as with nearly every new technology from the first crude stone age weapons to atomic power to social media, we develop the technology before we develop the mutually acceptable and broadly beneficial ways to employ it.

We think shit up and then figure out how to use it later. People driving while texting on cell phones is one example that comes to mind. The guys who invented the atom bomb are another.

As a result, the acceleration and proliferation of media has created a world of chaotic stimulus filled with billions of new voices, some of them skilled in delivery, all of them screaming at once in what feels like escalating volume and urgency.

The influx of stimulus is deafening and disorienting, and creates a kind of social or collective panic that, on an individual level, may make us yearn to make some de facto sense of it all. We want one thing we can hang onto, one set of things to believe, one unimpeachable, unassailable truth to comfort us and still our cognitive waters.

Imagine a world where the distance from one end to the other of a thirty six-inch, three-foot-long yardstick changed arbitrarily. No two peoples’ yardstick reading thirty-six inches was actually the same length. It would be immensely confusing and chaotic.

Quickly, people would gravitate toward a consensus on the physical dimension of the thing we call a “36-inch, three-foot yard”. The consensus may vary from broad region to region, especially those separated by wide geographical obstacles, like oceans and the metric system in Europe and Asia, and the imperial measures still used in the U.S. But broadly we would gravitate toward an emotionally convenient and culturally necessary convention on the physical dimension we referred to as “one yard, three-feet, 36-inches”. We would all get on the same measuring stick.

The need for a common social and cultural yardstick is what drives belief sets like common religions, desires, hatreds and prejudices. We like, and need, to all be on the same page, and in the chaotic world of fast, evolving media, the pages of modern media blow by like a book tossed in a hurricane.

In Gia Fu Feng and Jane English’s landmark translation of the philosophical masterwork by Lao Tzu, The Tao De Ching, it has been translated from Chinese that:

“All the Colors blind the eye.
All the sounds deafen the ear.
All the flavors numb the taste.
Too many thoughts weaken the mind.
Too many desires wither the heart.”

The Tao de Ching was written in about the fourth century B.C. Its origins likely came from even earlier, around the sixth century B.C. and took two centuries to summarize into the cryptic, lyrical haikus that we read today. When you read it, you have to stop and contemplate its meaning and context. It is light in text, heavy on interpretation.

The thesis of this passage from the Tao De Ching is that too much cognitive noise bothers us and may tend to make us gravitate toward the opposite extreme, very defined beliefs that can be distilled into a few words. Simple ideas to make sense of complex stimulus.

The remarkable phenomenon of life has never been as simple as a few words. It is complex. As this complexity is hurled at us in an acceleration and proliferation of media we struggle to make some sense of it. As a result, we summarize and rationalize, trying to cram ideas and people and events into convenient boxes as they come at us faster and faster in a rapidly accelerating and stressful game of cognitive whack-a-mole.

That is impossible. And undesirable. If things were simple, we’d get bored.

I’ll offer that exposure to the “drinking from a fire hose” consumption of social and news media benefits from taking some contrasting time of quiet contemplation, deep research into narrow topics for a more thorough insight and, most of all, strong individual reflection while trying to avoid cramming- and being crammed- into convenient thought boxes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Tom Demerly

jack-ryan-shadow-recruit

The greatest fear I had going into Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit was that it would be a sad eulogy to Tom Clancy’s genius. I’m pleasantly surprised to be wrong.

Director Kenneth Branagh did his homework and borrowed subtle and successful elements from each of the Jason Bourne, James Bond, Mission Impossible and Tom Clancy franchises to weave a surprisingly good story thread that is visually well done.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is a tight and snappy spy thriller. It’s well written, tightly shown and quickly paced. Camera, sound and production techniques are tasteful and pay homage to its influences. Very little is over blown. Even the sets are well dressed and chosen.

Writers David Koepp and Adam Cozad used Tom Clancy’s character Jack Ryan with reverence for Clancy’s original vision of Dr. Ryan, the nerdy analyst turned reluctant but capable action hero.

Jack Ryan gets his first kill James Bond style, in a bathroom.

Jack Ryan gets his first kill James Bond style, in a bathroom.

Chris Pine as Jack Ryan is fantastic as is Kevin Costner as Thomas Harper, his CIA boss. And because no great spy film is a success without great villains, it is a pleasure to have Kenneth Branagh as the dangerous Russian, Viktor Cherevin.

The plot hits ominously close to home, literally and figuratively, with a story line that weaves into the little known world of economic warfare. Villains originate from Dearborn, Michigan in the shadow of Ford World Headquarters. The plan is to crash the stock market in a combined terror and economic attack; a scenario everyone hopes will remain fiction.

But Tom Clancy’s fiction has an ominous way of weaving its way into the headlines.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit never sags and builds well to a strong climax. There are a few corny moments but remember, this isn’t a strict Clancy plot. It weaves influences from every corner of the spy thriller genre, and does it with respect and tribute to each. While these stories do become somewhat cookie-cutter this one is flavored uniquely and with enough craft to make it a snappy 105-minutes. And yes, there is a sequel planned that hopefully continues with this fine cast in the upcoming Without Remorse.

Tom Clancy would have loved Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. It is tight, quick and nice looking. This is a pleasant surprise after the painful loss of a great author and storyteller who created these characters. That new writers are able to execute on Clancy’s vision confirms their talent and reverence for his mastery.

Taking to the streets with a nod to Bourne franchise in "Shadow Recruit".

Taking to the streets with a nod to Bourne franchise in “Shadow Recruit”.

By Tom Demerly.

Photo Credit: Collin Rodefer via Viral Nova.

Photo Credit: Collin Rodefer via Viral Nova.

The year I was born, 1961, journalist John Howard Griffin disguised himself as an African-American man riding buses through the segregated south. He chronicled the racism, discrimination and bigotry he experienced in the masterwork, Black Like Me.

Fast-forward 51 years and our country has made significant progress in all areas of equality.

Mostly.

I’m a 52-year old Caucasian male. Several months ago I left a good full time job as a writer in California to assist in a business a friend opened. Before the new business became fully operational my plan was to get another full time job in retail management, writing or other field I’ve had success in. I have a college education, a good work history and a strong resume in two different industries.

I filled out over 100 online applications that asked my name and other basic information. The questions included, as an “option”, my age. Most also asked me if I would answer optional questions about race and ethnic origin. I always did. I figured the more complete my application, the better my chances.

I got one interview. They weren’t interested.

In reviewing my experience, qualifications and accomplishments and also counting the demographic of the staff in a few of the businesses I was applying for I realized something. I am now a member of a new undesirable demographic, the white, middle-aged male.

My experience does not compare to the brutal racism and discrimination of African-Americans in the Deep South during the 1960’s. It does not. I have never been refused service in a restaurant, relegated to poor seating on public transportation or threatened with lynching.

Quite the opposite in fact. Because I am a well-spoken white middle-aged man everyone assumes I am well off. I get good seats in restaurants; great service and young people treat me with respect. They assume when they see me that I own a car, a house, have a good job. They pre-judge that. I have none of those things.

What I do have is a new appreciation for the type of silent, antiseptic discrimination afforded by online job applications and data-sorting algorithms. They compare key words and “optional” responses to a predetermined desirable profile of the best hire. Regardless of my experience, results, qualifications or talent my key words may not match their key words. So, in a competitive job search something in my key words on an automated job application is kicking my applications out.

Something. I wonder what that is…

I now have the slightest notion of what being discriminated against may be like. I don’t pretend to understand the full gravity of discrimination in our historical context. But, I couldn’t help but reflect on the Nelson Mandela quote, “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

If we claim to have made progress against discrimination in the United States then any mechanism that facilitates it based on age, race, national origin or ethnicity is wrong. That an online job application can even query this data as an “option” is wrong.

If we’re going to rest on the laurels of reduced racism and improved equality it means we favor no one, exclude no one, either in person or through an antiseptic, automated system. I don’t think we’re there yet. That means we need to improve our standards of equality in all areas, including job searches and candidate screening.

Until we do, we’re simply trading one version of discrimination for another.

By Tom Demerly.

tomhome20

I am, finally, home.

After four laps of the globe, trips to every continent, living on three continents, six countries and five states and not even remembering everywhere I’ve been, I’m back to the place I started from, my favorite place on earth; Dearborn, Michigan in the United States. It is and always has been home. And this has been a very long trip.

I will tell you stories about beautiful beaches and exotic places, about high mountains and vast deserts, war torn countries and hopeful sunrises. Success and failure. I will bore you to tears with esoteric facts and improbable stories, all true, mind you, if modified by time and memory. But I will never tell you there is a place better than Dearborn. So I am home.

Dearborn is the hometown of Henry Ford, the place where Ford Motor Company is headquartered and a suburb of the beleaguered and rebounding City of Detroit. We have one of the largest Arab-American populations in the world outside of the Middle East. Through the dark and light of our history we’ve been known for industry, recession and racism, Orville Hubbard and Greenfield Village. We have a campus of the University of Michigan and one of the best community colleges in the country named after Henry Ford. We also design and build cars here so good that when the entire U.S. auto industry needed a government bailout, we didn’t take it. Ford stock was about a dollar a share then. Today it is sixteen times that. And climbing.

So I’m home.

I learned something about home during the time I was away. Home is made of the history you’ve lived, the people you love and who love you. It is built of the precise map of your hometown built into your head so you never need Google Maps or a GPS in your car. You know every street, alley, sidewalk, and every shortcut.

But mostly, home is friends. Friends who share your history of triumph and failure, promise and forgiveness. Home is the girl you walked to school with in 7th grade and then take on a date 37 years later. And she still looks the same to you.  Home is the place where friends give you their old furniture and know your cats’ names.

Home is where you made your mistakes, took your licks, learned your game and gone on to things you thought were bigger and better only to discover there is a world of people searching for the same thing. But never really finding it. Because it is back home.

Home is also where you discover you really aren’t all that and that you have to take all these big lessons, experiences and adventures and cram them back into a little box and get back to work. Because you are only as good as the outcome of your next game. And whatever you may or may not have accomplished out there in the big world, home doesn’t care much. Home only cares that you carry on doing the things that make made this place… home.

I am so happy to be home.

By Tom Demerly.

20100617_poverty_33  Is our lower class truly poor? Or, is there a cultural shift in expectations that create a conspicuously affluent, but fundamentally impoverished lower class?

The answer points to an important idea: We need to re-orient our society to value education, initiative and personal responsibility and de-emphasize conspicuous consumption and government support of basic necessities.

The United States is in an accelerating crisis that is creating more economic distance between an affluent upper class and a growing “lower class”.

Consider these oddly disparate statistics:

  • 88% of Americans own a cell phone, with 56% owning a smart phone.[i]
  • “Nearly 90% of Americans now own a computer, MP3 player, game console, e-book reader, cell phone, or tablet computer.”[ii]
  • “95% of Americans own a car…”[iii]
  • 15.4% of people in the U.S. were uninsured [in 2012].[iv]
  • “75% of Americans don’t have enough savings to cover their bills for six months.”[v]

Our lower class is often measured by income and employment statistics. But is our lower class truly poor? Or, is a part of the current crisis a cultural shift in expectations that create a conspicuously affluent but fundamentally impoverished lower class? Does a portion of our lower class spend money on the wrong things? And, if so, how could that change?

There is an argument that the U.S. has the richest- and most underemployed- lower class in the world. Our lower class has privately owned cars, cell phones and non-utilitarian clothing but lacks education, savings and healthcare. They have some of the icing but little of the cake. As a result our society must prop up the foundation of personal financial responsibility by subsidizing necessities like food, medical care, housing, education and retirement.

By contrast Forbes reports that China’s personal savings rate is the highest in the world.[vi] One reason, according to both Forbes and the BBC, is that China subsidizes few truly useful social programs. The Chinese must fund their own retirement. China does not yet have national social security legislation.[vii] And despite numerous other Chinese social programs the emerging Chinese middle class and larger, accelerating lower class still feel the need to save money for a rainy day according to one BBC report.

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On the back of a manufacturing economy bolstered by consumers in the west, Chinese are saving more money than any nation while Americans are saving less.

This is ominous as it puts the U.S. at a strategic disadvantage to China in the economic sector. This also increases U.S. social reliance on government administration of vital programs, a paradigm that has significant risk given the federal government’s weak balance sheet. In short, it weakens our country, not only exclusively, but more dramatically in comparison to our global economic competitors.

“The Affordable Care Act doesn’t provide health care for the poor; it provides financial care for the healthcare industry.”

An additional concern about our current social and governmental direction is that programs like the Affordable Care Act don’t provide health care for the poor; it provides financial care for the healthcare industry. Unlike the federal government’s bailout of the auto industry in 2008-10 there is little provision for a return on investment or any remuneration from the ACA. Its current configuration requires the costs of administration but little revenue stream for administrators. The government becomes a billing agent for private healthcare and pharmaceuticals.

We need to change the direction of America toward valuing the things we’ve discounted over these previous two decades; access to education, quality of education, valuing teachers as pivotal contributors to our nation’s future. We need to teach and reward personal responsibility and initiative. Wealth is not measured by possessions but by capability, output and income.

By Tom Demerly.

Like a modern James Dean, Paul Walker starred in hot rod movies, lived his character and tragically died as his character.

Like a modern James Dean, Paul Walker starred in hot rod movies, lived his character and tragically died as his character.

Paul Walker, a modern day James Dean, died tragically in a fiery car accident Saturday in Valencia, California at age 40. The parallels between his life and predecessor “B” movie film icon James Dean are uncanny.

The “B” movie hot rod genre and male heartthrob is as much a cliche as the tragic, too early death of both Walker and Dean.

Walker was a modern day James Dean.

Walker was a modern day James Dean.

Walker stared in the Fast and Furious series of action movies that brought back hot rodding in the form of modern “tuner” cars and introduced a generation to the bad-boy car movie. The poodle skirts and drive-ins have been replaced by yoga pants and Uggs at the local megaplex, but the theme of hot cars, hot boys and hot girls has stayed rock solid. Now the ending is even the same.

Walker was oddly perfect in his roles. In Into The Blue Walker was perfect as the buff beach and dive bum who courted a ravishing Jessica Alba and found a fortune in lost drug money under the waves. The cute little movie is fun and captivating. It’s cheesy appeal spans all age categories and melts the heart of even the snootiest critic. Walker’s movies are a guilty pleasure.

"Into the Blue" was sexy, adventurous and romantic. A perfect role for Walker.

“Into the Blue” was sexy, adventurous and romantic. A perfect role for Walker.

Walker created an aspirational look that included natural handsomeness, an easy surf-dude persona and an incredible build. His acting was convincing and real in the roles he played best, the hot-guy hard man who was an outward bad-boy come hero.

His loss is a significant one as he showed promise and versatility that may have suited new roles well. It is a sad, tragic loss that cements him as legend, will vault his films into recirculation but tragically takes his niche’ talent from us way too soon and way before he was able to share more of his gifts for character and drama.

By Tom Demerly.

christmasshopping

Here we go; Holiday Shopping Season. Black Friday, Cyber Monday. This is the 25-day period when retailers earn their net profit for the year and consumers do most of their buying.

Before the gun goes off this Thursday at midnight (and even before) let’s take a brief look at what customers should demand in the post-recession economy.

There are more retailers and fewer customers than any time since the early 1980’s according to industry expert Mark Ellwood, author of Bargain Fever; How to Shop in a Discounted World. That means you have more choices and retailers have to get it right.  The margin for error- literally and figuratively- is razor thin. A well-run retailer is doing well to earn 1% net profit on gross sales after all expenses at the end of the year. Also, this year, the holiday shopping season is unusually short, only 25 days, because of Thanksgiving’s proximity to Christmas on the calendar.

Stores, both online and brick and mortar, have two major tools to earn sales: Great customer service and lowest price. A wide spectrum exists between these extremes and some especially skilled retailers manage to combine the two. Whether you aspire to the Tiffany’s personal shopping experience or a Walmart elbow-throwing, door-busting footrace to the big screen aisle these are the minimum standards you should expect as a customer:

1.    You should be treated as a Lady or Gentlemen.

You’re giving away hard-earned money at the end of the worst recession in history. You’re not a number, not a commodity. You’re not easily replaceable. Life long retailer and founder of the quirky, niche specialty retailer Harry’s Army Surplus in Dearborn, Michigan, Irv Zeltzer, said it best, “Every dollar has 100 cents”.  To earn that precious 100 cents retailers should treat you with respect and reverence. Retailers should value you.

2.    You Deserve to be Waited On.

Remember when clerks waited on you? Good service means there are employees or well-designed online resources to find out information and help you with buying decisions. This is a key feature since it adds value and savings to a purchase by reducing costly errors and returns. Your time is tangibly valuable. A sales associate or web resource that helps you make a faster, wiser purchase saves you time, and time is money.  Smart retailers also know good customer service reduces returns and adds to sales and profits.

3.    You Deserve Honesty and Openness in Pricing.

There are a lot of pricing shenanigans this time of year, triple and quadruple mark-downs, fine print, weird return policies, coupons, membership buying. Straightforward pricing is a key tool to understanding the value of a purchase. Beware of convoluted pricing schemes. Remember, the time it takes you to figure out if a deal is any good just cost you something more valuable than money; it cost you your time.

4.    You Deserve Good Service After the Sale.

Retailers should do “back end” planning for their post-holiday returns and customer service. The staff should know the policies and be empowered to make decisions. Lines shouldn’t be long and waits to make returns should be short. Retailers have a great opportunity to retain customers and earn new ones with great service after the sale. They need to get this right. It will bring in customers during the other 345 days of the year.

Customers fall into a trap of using price as the measurement of quality in a retail transaction. Good value is about more than markdowns and low prices. If you are focused on what you deserve as a customer before you line up on Friday morning you’ll have a better shopping experience this season.