January 10, 2018

Boomers, Gen X, Millennials and Tech

Today's post is a bit unusual for several reasons.  First, it centers on a podcast rather than a TV clip, article, movie or music from a genuine media outlet (like a printed newspaper or magazine).  These days, the number of new online newspapers and magazines has exploded, although not all are legitimate businesses, many are simply mining for web clickbait and may ultimately spam people willing to provide their email addresses.  But the evolving media market is a key part of this story.  My main reservation is that the podcast itself comes from a conservative think tank, rather than a genuine media outlet, so I had some reservations because many such organizations are proven to promote known falsehoods.  But upon listening to the discussion in this podcast, I feel pretty comfortable sharing it.

The origins begin with a new book that will be released on August 14, 2018 entitled "Zero Hour for Gen X: How the Last Adult Generation Can Save America from Millennials" by Matthew Hennessey (available for purchase on August 14, 2018 at Amazon.com, see http://amzn.to/2D1GqPt for detail).  There is a podcast at the end of this post which I am sharing because its interesting and not overtly partisan in nature in spite of coming from a conservative think tank.

Note that the book's author, Mr. Hennessey, is a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, which has been owned by Australian immigrant Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation since 2007.  The Murdoch purchase ended a century of Bancroft-family ownership at Dow Jones & Co. (the WSJ publisher) and it put the premier U.S. business newspaper directly into Murdoch's very partisan media oversight, although its worth acknowledging that Dow Jones has struggled financially since being acquired by News Corp.  The difficulty has more to do with a rapidly changing media landscape than the political leanings of its primary owner.  The new media landscape includes adept outlets including startups like Business Insider which began in 2009, plus traditional newspapers like the UK's Financial Times which have expanded into the U.S., not to mention Bloomberg's ubiquitous terminals at firms all over Wall Street which have rendered the WSJ far less important (and less relevant) than traditional newspapers are, with their less frequently updated publishing schedules.

Immigrant Rupert Murdoch's Struggle to Keep Up With Tech

Indeed, the global television and entertainment conglomerate controlled by Rupert Murdoch and his family renamed its entertainment assets 21st Century Fox (including its TV network and movie studio among other things) in 2013, but surprisingly, on December 14, 2017, it announced (see http://politi.co/2qM81PC for the news) that The Walt Disney Co. had struck a deal valued at $52.4 billion to acquire most of the Hollywood holdings of 21st Century Fox.  All that remains of the original conglomerate he created is what he calls "the new Fox" — essentially, Fox News, Fox Business Network, the national Fox sports networks, his broadcast network and a some local stations.  None of "the new Fox" are considered leaders in breaking important news, and in spite of being quite profitable, they have also won fewer prestigious journalism awards such as Pulitzer's compared to their biggest rivals.  Instead, Murdoch's model has been to use media to advance his particular view of conservatism, often by perpetuating biases of his viewers in order to secure their political votes, rather than legitimate news coverage.

Anyway, in Murdoch's core news business, Rupert Murdoch made a number of atypical missteps since taking control of the WSJ, including a completely incoherent pricing strategy for the newspaper itself (aggressive and unjustified price increases among longtime subscribers, who started dumping the WSJ), a poorly-conceived and poorly-executed Weekend Journal that aimed to compete with the New York Times but which failed by most measures, and perhaps most importantly, rapid turnover of the valuable journalism staff of the WSJ, relying instead upon more freelance journalists without much loyalty to the news outlet they were doing work for, rather than the paid staff who had helped to made it such a great American news outlet to begin with.

About Demographic Groups, And Particularly Generation X

With all that said, this post isn't even a diatribe about about Rupert Murdoch's (un)ethical or even business failings, it's about demographics, specifically Generation X (or Gen X) being squeezed out by the loud and self-absorbed generations before and after it.

In spite of having personal reservations about City Journal, which is published by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research  a conservative think-tank based in NYC, not too dissimilar from entities including the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute  I would just acknowledge that facts (something that the Heritage Foundation in particular seems to have run away from in recent years) should always be considered non-partisan, especially when it comes to demographic trends which are validated by U.S. Census Bureau data and is mandated to be collected by the U.S. Constitution.

I do not dismiss data simply because the source is from an entity whose political leanings are different from my own, although I will not blindly accept them, either (I do the same for more progressive sources) and all media consumers should do the same.

This particular podcast is one I am willing to share because the content is not especially political or partisan, rather it addressed the author's forthcoming book and some of the broader implications of demographics.  In this podcast, Mr. Hennessy discusses with Aaron Renn the fading of the Baby Boom generation, the rise of supposedly tech-savvy millennials (who did not build any of the tech they will be responsible for maintaining), and what he considers to be the challenge for those in-between, known as Generation X and potential implications in the future.

They discuss the fact that Gen X is sandwiched between two large demographic cohorts, and how those cohorts share some similarities in terms of size and the impact their size has on making them both more self-absorbed simply because of their raw numbers.  While some of Hennessey's assertions are more of a warning for his own generation (Gen X), particularly because younger Millennials seem very impatient in spite of their lacking relevant experience and old Boomers refuse to step down even though they really should because they are now too old to continue (especially in governance), the concern Hennessey seems to suggest is that Millennials don't view the world from the conservative perspective that 1980's sitcom "Family Ties" character Alex P. Keaton (played by actor-turned-star Michael J. Fox) is not viewed favorably by younger voters who now outnumber both Gen Xers and Baby Boomers.

Gen X's Ability to Navigate Around Self-Absorbed Generations

In reality, Gen X is not especially conservative from a political perspective, with about one-third being registered Democrats, one-third being registered Republicans and one-third being independent voters.  Also, Gen X has proven itself to be fairly nimble in standing out rather than being swept away by much larger demographic cohort groups before and after them.  Its not that special, but it was a survival skill necessary for a group used to being overlooked, and that's a skill that neither Boomers nor Millennials posses.  It's also a huge credit to Gen X's ability to stand out in spite of the odds which the author doesn't appear to acknowledge.

While it's most likely that Gen X's tenure in political leadership will be short-lived due largely to Baby Boomer unwillingness to step aside and get out of the way, combined with overly-eager Millennials eager to take center stage, its also appropriate to acknowledge that the transition Generation X leadership might prove to be very, very valuable for the country due to several reasons.

As the generation who literally grew up with the computer, one can convincingly argue (successfully) that Gen Xers are the true "digital natives" (the 1983 movie "War Games" which starred a young Matthew Broderick is perhaps the best example) who also grew up in a time of analog television, radio, movies, media, etc. which means Gen Xers are therefore uniquely able to assess the benefits to each way of doing things, and they might more wisely choose a path that seamlessly blends traditional and new methods of doing things than their younger Millennial or older Boomer counterparts.

Beyond that, there's also a degree of maturity that Gen Xers can bring to policy discussions that has been sorely lacking from current Baby Boomer political leadership, which has become overtly partisan and less willing to compromise, which has always been a cornerstone of successful, good governance.  The selfish "my way or the highway" is a hallmark of Baby Boomer leadership in recent years, and its an utter failure in governance.

Also, as already noted, Gen X is neither conservative, nor liberal.  Overall, they are middle-of-the road, with roughly one-third registered as Democrats, one-third registered as Republicans, and the last third as "independents" who are not registered with either of the two major U.S. political parties.

Baby Boomer Ethos: We Don't Care About Fixing Social Security As Long As We Get Ours

There are a number of big challenges on the horizon that Baby Boomer lawmakers have simply refused to address, perhaps hoping to force their younger counterparts to deal with them instead.  One is the ballooning of people their age who are actually eligible to collect Social Security and Medicare.  Privatization is a favored solution offered by many conservatives, but that's really trying to transfer the problem to another party that can take blame for any Boomer failure, rather than a genuine fix.  It's a myth to say that the system will be bankrupt because that's a falsehood; and the numbers prove it.

Social Security Not (Yet) Bankrupt, But Giveaways to Higher-Income Earners Must Stop 

Social Security taxes are paid for by both employers and employees.  Yet for reasons that are unexplained, there is a mysterious cap to earnings that are taxed, which means that Social Security taxes are only paid until incomes reach $128,700 in 2018.  That means for every penny earned over $128,700, no Social Security taxes are paid into the system.  Admittedly, the maximum benefit someone can collect from the Social Security system is also capped, but its always been a tax, not an indemnity life insurance plan or investment.  I would add that the maximum earnings of $128,700 is not especially high, either.  Perhaps it was unthinkable that anyone could earn $128,700 in 1935 when it began, but the few, periodic increases have not kept pace with changes in the cost of living.  Today, that's not even considered a particularly high income level, especially in certain geographic regions of the country.

So the earnings cap for Social Security taxes can and should be increased to a higher level (or eliminated completely), the exact amount is what lawmakers really SHOULD be discussing, with a debate about what that amount should be and why.  We can also discuss whether there should be a certain level of income and/or assets that merit no longer being eligible to receive Social Security benefits.  Remember, its a program to keep the elderly who can no longer work from going hungry or homeless.  But should Rupert Murdoch be entitled to collect as much in Social Security and Medicare as an older widowed woman from Nebraska of modest means gets?  Does he really need or even deserve it?  After all, hasn't he received enough in tax benefits?

Yet Baby Boomer lawmakers have not had a single serious discussion of this matter even now that 10,000 Baby Boomers a day are going on the proverbial dole.  Yet rather than doing anything about the issue, Baby Boomer lawmakers still in office have kept kicking the proverbial can down the road for future American lawmakers to deal with.  The only issue for them is that the solutions future generations make may not necessarily be good for Baby Boomers.  That means middle-of-the-road solutions are arguably the best outcome for all parties involved, except the very wealthy (and the selfish).

Anyway, have a listen to this podcast below, or by visiting the following two links (one is the conservative think tank's "City Journal" magazine article on the author's forthcoming book, the other is the website for the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research's podcast).  Although some of the narrative is speculative or uncertain (such as excessive technology use altering the way Millennials' brains process information), or what the priorities will need to be for the future leaders of America known as the Millennials) but most of the conversation is interesting and relatively on-point.  Certainly, there is a risk of cutting Gen X out of the discussion prematurely, which would be a mistake.  I did like the reference he makes to succession in the British Royal Family.

Whether Mr. Hennessey's prophecy is too worrisome is also a relevant subject to debate.  But I believe its an appropriate conversation for America to have.  Failure of society to do so could mean some very useful solutions are overlooked.

From the "City Journal" Magazine: Zero Hour for Generation X

Podcast: Generation X, Millennials, and Technology

October 2, 2017

The iPhone Didn't Kill the Landline Telephone, the Internet Did

People born after the 1980's really have no idea of just how big or important the company once known as AT&T (an acronym for American Telephone and Telegraph Company, which began as a company back in 1885) truly was.  In fact, the company today known as AT&T was actually one of the original "Baby Bells" (Google that term if unfamiliar) known as Southwestern Bell/SBC, which changed its name to AT&T in 1995, fueled in part by its acquisitions of several (not all) rival baby bells including San Francisco-based Pacific Telesis (a.k.a. Pacific Bell) which served California and Nevada, and Chicago-based Ameritech serving a big portion of the industrial midwest, and Atlanta-based BellSouth which served the southeastern U.S.  It also consolidated ownership of a wireless carrier once known as Cingular and renamed that AT&T.  That means that in spite of having the same corporate name and some of its assets, it's not the same company.

After nearly a century of operating as a "natural" monopoly, Federal antitrust regulators started to investigate the original AT&T's monopolistic, anti-competitive practices starting in 1974, which culminated in the 1982 decision by the U.S. Department of Justice to break the company up (which would happen by 1984), effectively killing the old "Ma Bell" (another term to Google).  That closed a very long and storied chapter in American corporate history.  The original company known as AT&T also gave rise to such important entities as Bell Labs, the historic laboratory which was created by the late Alexander Graham Bell, and the original company was also behind a wide range of revolutionary technologies that are today quite ubiquitous, including radio astronomy, the transistor, the laser, the operating system Unix (upon which both the Linux and the Android mobile phone operating systems were built), the C language which currently runs most large Internet servers even today, and the company helped make the internet a reality, with inventions including touch tone dialing, fiber optic cables and more.

Prior to the AT&T Bell System breakup, corded landline handsets were mainly built domestically by a hardware manufacturer owned by AT&T known as Western Electric (part of that would later become a company known as Avaya which today competes in the corporate internet VoIP telephony space), but when that ended, new handset manufacturers emerged, selling cheap, low-quality Asian products (Taiwan was the place of origin for most, as mainland China would not emerge as a low-cost manufacturing hub until more than a decade after the historic Richard Nixon visit to China in 1972). What really differentiated Western Electric's phones was their quality construction and the ability to continue working even after extremely tough abuse. All of that came at a very high price, which in 1982 was forced to be itemized as a telephone receiver rental fee.

The AT&T archive has an entertaining, short clip of some vintage, 1970's advertisements for some of Western Electric's "Design Line" telephones.  The basic content of those phones were largely identical (they had the same exact dials/keypads, the same ringers, the same handsets, and the same internal wiring), but these were designer versions of landline phones meant to fit into a more modern household of the era.  The ad appears below, or at https://youtu.be/CyVe3dD-1mE:

Curiously, on September 11, 2017, some U.S. media outlets were waxing poetically about how the first iPhone was released 10 years ago … gee, a whole decade ago!  I thought to myself: "who cares?" because I've never had an iPhone, and I don't need or want one today, especially since the newest model costs nearly $1,000.  I'll pass; I can do a lot more with that kind of money than buying a little device that's designed to become obsolete as soon as the next model comes out.  My LG Android smartphone isn't the newest, but it's still functional and completely paid for (no contract).  I don't have to worry about losing or breaking it.  Besides, I've always been more of a Droid user than an Apple fan anyway.  But I remember the days when TV news would show lines of kids (today's Millennials) camping in front of Apple Stores waiting to get the latest, overpriced iPhone.  Although some believe otherwise, mobile phones are NOT the pinnacle of modern technology.  My view of Apple is one of resurrection rather than market domination.  I lived in Silicon Valley when former CEO John Sculley ran Apple at a time when the company was still teetering on the verge of bankruptcy.

I have a smartphone, and while it is handy to have when I'm on the go, I'm certainly not attached to it.  Some is due to my age; I struggle to see a tiny screen without magnifying glasses and lasik surgery hasn't fixed that (although Google Assistant, or its better known iOS equivalent known as Siri, or at home with talking computer devices like Amazon Alexa/Echo, Google Home and others could mitigate that in the future).  Plenty disagree with me, but it's hardly a universal opinion.

Smartphones are NOT man's greatest invention for several reasons.  For one thing, the core function of making audio phone calls stinks on mobile phones -- I've never had an uninterrupted call on a smartphone.  Smartphones do a lot of cool things, but making telephone calls isn't one of them.  Plus for plenty of people, call mobility was always just a solution in search of a problem to solve.  That's because cordless telephones solved the biggest limitation traditional landlines suffered from decades earlier (having a cord of sufficient length to move around without getting tangled in it).

In fact, reports on the imminent death of the landline telephone are exaggerated.  That said, traditional landlines aren't exactly making a comeback, but as already noted, iPhones (smartphones) are't what killed the landline telephone, the internet is.

According to data from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), a majority of telephone lines serve medium and large business, institutional, and government customers, NOT individual consumers or households.  Hence, any discussion of traditional landline services is incomplete without an acknowledgement of who actually buys most of the lines: businesses and government, not households or consumers.  And, most businesses generally prefer landlines over wireless services.  Yet too many writers fail to acknowledge this reality when they boldly assert that smartphones have usurped traditional telephony technology.

Any discussion of traditional landlines is incomplete without acknowledgement of who actually buys most of the lines: businesses, not consumers according to FCC data

Articles written by young authors who grew up with mobile phones assert as fact that the latest trend is to ditch landlines for smartphones and that only oldsters still have landline phones.  Such stories always involve very selective disclosure of the facts.  Unfortunately, the Hollywood media machine has started to go with this narrative, too -- even among much older characters.  For example, in the Netflix sitcom Grace & Frankie about several septuagenarians, the character Frankie portrayed by Lily Tomlin has a conversation she doesn't really want to have with her now-gay ex-husband Sol (played by Sam Waterston), and thinking of how slamming the receiver down used to really hurt the other party's ears, she slams her iPhone down like it was an old Western Electric model phone, only to realize that she hasn't even hung up!


Also, in spite of widespread adoption of iPhones and Androids, the devices have not improved the nation's productivity, which has limited smartphones' broader societal impact.  The nation's last major increases in productivity followed the introduction of the personal computer and the widespread adoption of the internet (both trends were driven by businesses), but there has been absolutely no productivity gains following the introduction of the smartphone, which says it all.  According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, productivity in the U.S. economy has stagnated in the years (see https://www.marketplace.org/2017/01/10/world/what-killed-us-productivity for more) following widespread adoption of mobile telephones. The mobile phone certainly isn't solely responsible for that, but it hasn't done anything to help matters, so mobile phones don't deserve undue praise, either.

Wireless smartphones were a big disruptor for Apple and Samsung, but not so much for telephone companies.  Based on wireless usage data, we know that 80% of people using mobile phones aren't even talking to anyone on the phone, they're using the mobile computer/internet functions.  But my nearly 50 year-old ears cannot hear the mobile phone ringing even at the loudest volume with a loud and annoying retro-ringtone.  Plus, it's uncomfortable for having a conversation of any duration on a smartphone.  Classic phone designs enabled users to hold the receiver and conduct a conversation without their hands (resting on the shoulder), but it's much tougher to do that with a smartphone.

I'm not naïve, people can be nostalgic for the days of perfect telephone reception on true landlines, but let's not forget, that's only half the story: the other half is that telephone bills were astronomical in those days, especially for long-distance calling. Where I grew up, even a call to a neighboring town was considered a toll call, and a simple conversation to a friend less than 5 miles away could cost $5.00 or more, so it wasn't all wonderful.

Today, it's an economic decision to not get (or switch from) a landline to mobile phone usage exclusively, and it's a rational reason to ditch (or not get) a landline.  The expense is redundant, and if you're not at home anyway, it doesn't serve much purpose.  But contrary to the perspective coming from kids who grew up using smartphones as pre-pubescent kids, mobile phone technology isn't what killed the landline, as I've already noted, the internet did (more specifically, Voice Over Internet Protocol/VoIP technology).  And the migration was driven by businesses who spent a whole lot more money on telephony than the average individual or household ever did.

A handful of better-researched articles [see one at https://seniorplanet.org/how-to-save-money-by-ditching-your-landline/] do acknowledge the impact of voice over internet protocol (also referred to as VoIP) technology, even if their editorial perspective still tries to promote mobile as being a more important driver of the trend away from landlines.

But again, the data shows proof that mobile phone technology is NOT responsible for rendering the landline telephone obsolete, the internet is.  And, as with so many other trends, it began with businesses, not consumers.  For smartphone device-lovers who are convinced that mobile phones are the technology that is replacing landlines, many are surprised and even disappointed to learn that VoIP phone service on the internet is the far bigger technology disruptor than the smartphone is, especially with the business community, although it is impacting consumer phone usage, too.

Data Shows a Less Flattering Picture of Mobile Phone-Only Consumers

It's only been since late 2016 that mobile-only households even outnumbered landlines (that evolution took ±30 years to occur), and only an ever-so-slight majority (one-half of one per cent). While people make the perfectly rational decision that it's a redundant expense to continue paying for both a mobile phone and a landline, the option is most feasible mainly in topographically flat states like Texas, Florida or Indiana. Elsewhere, mobile phone signals may be unreliable so smartphones don't work everywhere, sometimes even in different rooms within the same house.

Rolling hills, lack of cell towers, skyscrapers and many other things interrupt mobile reception in these areas. In more rural parts of the country, you may not even have a cellphone tower around for miles. If you need to make a phone call in those areas, you likely need a landline to do so. Broadband internet usually works in areas when mobile coverage is poor, except in rural, unpopulated areas where broadband may not be available, either.

I live in the biggest city in the country (NYC, with 8.5 million residents), and I don't get a reliable mobile phone signal in my own apartment because the nearest cell tower is blocked by skyscrapers and the others are located in New Jersey or Long Island, so the signal cuts out a lot (luckily, I can rely on VoIP calling at home). Think about that. I live in the biggest metropolis in the country (with more than 8.5 million people living in the same municipality), and I can't even use my mobile phone to make/ receive calls at home. I can only imagine what people who live in flyover country go through!

In spite of boastful claims made by mobile phone carriers and device manufacturers, mobile phones have only recently (and just barely) become a majority of the phones used by consumers in the U.S., and the data reveals more about those who have landlines compared to those who do not.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (the CDC's) National Center for Health Statistics gathers data on all kinds of trends about the state of Americans' health.  The in-person survey of 19,956 households is part of the CDC's National Health Interview Survey, still tracks landline use in order to assure it has truly representative samples in its ongoing health studies. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 1 percentage point.

According to the CDC's most recent survey (see https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nhis/earlyrelease/wireless201705.pdf for the results to that survey), 50.8% of homes and apartments had ONLY mobile phone service (which admittedly is up from 41% just 3 years ago) in the latter half of 2016, the first time such households had attained a slight majority in the survey.  The share of homes with both landlines and mobile phones was 39.4% (down from 47.7% 3 years ago), while 6.5% of families have a landline without mobile phone service, and 3.2% have no phone service at home at all.  Of note is that the CDC survey is the only one in the federal government's statistical system that is even tracking this estimate, and it plans to keep doing so.  Naturally, the pro-mobile phone folks were all over these results showing their supposed victory over landlines.  But the reality tells a different story.

Renters and younger adults are more likely to have just a mobile phone, so a predictable skew of young vs. old and non-affluent vs. affluent shows up in the results, but that over-simplifies the findings.  For example, rates of mobile phone-only homes were highest in the South, while homes in the Northeast were the most likely to still maintain landlines.  But this finding goes beyond incomes which are inversely correlated to cutting landlines, as well as the regional skews in income, which is higher in the Northeast compared to the South.  Instead, it speaks to a much more practical reality: it's much more feasible to rely only on mobile services in a region like the South where signals are less likely to be interrupted by great hills and skyscrapers (at least in major population centers) that can block mobile phone signals, as is the case in the Northeast.

Mobile phone-only homes have some other commonalities. "Wireless-only adults are more likely to drink heavily, more likely to smoke and be uninsured," even after factoring for age and income, says Stephen J. Blumberg, the study's co-author (and a landline user himself). "There certainly is something about giving up a landline that appeals to the same people who may engage in risky behavior".  Why that's so will require further research.

The picture of mobile-only users isn't terribly flattering overall.  They drink more heavily, are more likely to be smokers and less likely to have healthcare insurance, and are more heavily concentrated in the South.  People with mobile phones exclusively are more to be living with unrelated roommates, and be renters rather than homeowners, and skew more heavily Hispanic and black rather than white.  Not exactly the image that mobile phone device makers and mobile carriers like to present with ads of attractive, young, smartly-dressed, affluent Millennials featured in their advertising, is it?

As The Atlantic reported (see HERE), the overall picture is that the more stable your living situation, the more likely you are to have a landline.  And, just as richer Americans have the means to adopt new technology like mobile phones early, they also have the means to hang on to the old technology they are already attached to, like landlines, longer: Why choose one when you can have both?

VoIP Phones Go Mainstream

Rather than personally going with a mobile phone only (which I don't care for), I personally compromised with a hybrid-solution that works great: a voice-over-internet-protocol (a VoIP-based) solution which uses my broadband internet to make and receive telephone calls (I pay for broadband anyway rather than sharing it with 20 people who live around me) only it's not linked to my internet provider, so I can readily switch from Verizon Fios to Time Warner/Spectrum cable, to RCN or another competitor).

I also find the internet much better at a computer with a real keyboard and big monitor rather than a tiny, touch-screen on a mobile phone, which as an experience leaves much to be desired.  Cable companies and other internet providers now routinely offer "triple play" packages, although I initially went with Vonage, but I then switched to Ooma, slashing my costs progressively with each change to the point that my "landline" now costs me less than a cup of coffee at Starbucks.

Note that the CDC's definition of a landline actually DOES include for Internet-connected phones — also known as VoIP phones — because the question that's asked in the survey is: "Do you have a telephone in your home that is currently working and is not a cellphone?"

U.S. businesses are dumping (or have already dumped) analog phone systems in favor of cheaper, better-quality, internet-powered phone systems.  The average person working for a company impacted by this has no idea, and that's proof of how ubiquitous internet telephony has become.  Voice over internet protocol-powered telephone systems offer lots of features that the phone company once charged extra for (things like Caller ID and Call Waiting) and most are included in the cost of maintaining an internet-connected office network.  Today, businesses can get a sophisticated phone system with many lines for a cost much lower than old phone systems.  Companies like Vonage [https://www.vonage.com/], 8x8 [https://www.8x8.com/], Shoretel [https://www.shoretel.com/], Jive [https://jive.com/], Cisco, and Avaya all sell VoIP-based phone systems (as do others) which have enabled many companies to replace expensive landlines with sophisticated phone systems that offer all of the same benefits for much less money.  Today, a lot more VoIP landlines exist than mobile plans.  But a few companies that began in the business VoIP telephone market have expanded to the consumer market.  More details follow.

VoIP Telephone Companies for Consumers

Because all VoIP phone companies' business model is to maximize self-service, most won't even offer an option to send you a phone bill by mail (although broadband internet and television services are often billed together and typically send monthly bills), and instead require automatic billing to a payment card or direct deduction from a checking account.  Know that credit cards offer you some protections for unwanted services that debit cards and monthly checking account deductions do not offer under Federal law.

Vonage is the best-known player in this arena [https://www.vonage.com/personal] which is considered to be the granddaddy of VoIP services (although they have both business and residential customers), and Vonage is also one of the more expensive VoIP providers for consumer packages.  Right now, Vonage has a one-year introductory price of $9.99/month, followed by $29.99/month after that.  However, Vonage does pay for the VoIP box needed to make your phones work, so that's a decent savings, and 911 services are included in your monthly charge.  But I don't believe that $29.99/month is all that much cheaper than analog landline telephone services are.

BasicTalk [http://www.basictalk.com/] offers a lower, longer-term cost (the price remains at $9.99/month, compared to Vonage which triples your price after the first year) but with fewer fancy features like call forwarding.  BasicTalk's underlying service is actually provided by Vonage (similar to how both Chevrolet and Cadillac are cars made and sold by General Motors).  Note that it has traditionally charged an account 'activation' fee, which you could say is really the cost to port your phone number over which BasicTalk claims is free.  Most of the other VoIP providers will charge a number porting fee instead, but regardless of what they call the fee, the amount paid out-of-pocket is roughly in-line with their competitors.  Their VoIP box is pretty inexpensive and was sold at Walmart and other retailers, though it may only be carried seasonally.

Ooma Telo [https://www.ooma.com/telo/] is my personal favorite VoIP provider.  With Ooma, you pay slightly more for its VoIP box up-front (around $90), but their services are cheaper in the long-run.  Based on my experience, Ooma's Telo service has been great; the only caveat is that the dial tone your hear in the receiver sounds a little different from the one you're probably used to.  They are more of a VoIP box manufacturer, which explains why they sell hardware.  I switched to them after my Vonage introductory pricing expired, and I paid to port my number over, and now my monthly landline (including 911 services) costs less me than a cup of coffee!  They also offer additional premium features like call forwarding and number blocking for a few extra dollars more each month; I skipped those (if you opt for the free trial, they'll continue billing you for it), but the cost wouldn't be very much to upgrade in the future should you want them.

Google Voice [https://voice.google.com/] is another option from technology giant's Google (now Alphabet), which was originally launched nearly a decade ago with some fanfare when Google bought a phone management tech firm then known as GrandCentral which rings both your landline and cellphone simultaneously and also offers text transcription of your voicemail messages.  Its slightly more complex to set up, but if you read on, I promise the info. will be useful.

When people started dumping expensive traditional landlines or not getting them in the first place, Google Voice services became less relevant (although its international calling rates remain among the cheapest anywhere).  If you already have a gmail email account but not a Google Voice account, you can create a Google Voice [https://voice.google.com/] account at no charge in just a minute, and it does not require a contract.  Login to gmail, then in another browser window, type https://voice.google.com/.  Today, with Google Voice, you can also create a fee-free (mostly, read on....) landline for your home and/or office.  It's done by purchasing an OBi Talk VoIP device [https://www.obitalk.com/info/googlevoice] sold by Silicon Valley-based OBihai Technologies (it's a small box that plugs into your Internet router) for about $50.  Your analog telephone plugs into the modular phone jack on the OBi Talk device itself.  Note that on January 4, 2018, it was announced that Polycom had acquired Obihai Technologies (see the press release HERE).

After an online account setup with OBihai, the OBi Talk device will then connect to your Google Voice account and act as a portal to your Google Voice services much like Vonage or Ooma do without requiring a landline or cell phone that the service needs to be forwarded to (see a good ComputerWorld article about this HERE for more details).  Once done, your computer does not need to be turned on, and you do need to be logged into Google for it to work.  As a plus, Google Voice service also offers the ability to block particular phone numbers for free, and free voicemail transcription to text and/or email, and some of the cheapest international calling rates around.  The one downside is that 911 isn't included, so you must pay a third-party to provide that service (Obihai offers that through a partner e911 company which bills separately), and I would caution that this is something you really need, because its too late to get it when your house is on fire, or you need an ambulance, so do not casually dismiss it.

Beware that Google has not committed to provide continued official support to VoIP through OBi Talk service forever.  In 2014, the two companies had a legitimate dispute over the security protocols that almost ended this VoIP service (although it was eventually resolved, see http://blog.obihai.com/2014/09/google-voice-and-obihai-update.html for more on the outcome of that) but first-generation Obihai devices became incompatible with new Google Voice security protocols http://blog.obihai.com/2017/11/end-of-line-for-google-voice-on-obi100.html, so there are no long-term guarantees .  Google has also been known to kill very popular services like Google Reader in the past, so just beware that unlike with Vonage, Basic Talk or Ooma, Google/Alphabet could decide in the future that it no longer wants to be in the telephone business, and the service is not guaranteed just because you bought a VoIP box from OBihai.

In the tech world, there's a saying "if you're not paying for the product, you ARE the product" and in Google's case, there's definitely truth to that, as the company makes millions on advertising.  But most people feel that by allowing Google to mine your email and web browsing activity to allow advertisers the ability to target ads more precisely is a fair exchange for Google's many free services.  But if Google cannot monetize a service, it has historically been willing to pull the plug on it.  Google Reader users learned that only too well in 2013 even though the motto of Google's current corporate code of conduct is: "Don't be evil".

OBihai requires that the OBi Talk device must still be under warranty protection to remain compliant with latest security updates that Google requires (if you buy an extended warranty for the OBihai VoIP box, you get around the issue of what OBihai calls ‘firmware updates’, which happen automatically).  Google Voice/OBi Talk does NOT provide 911 service, so you must use a third-party e911 provider for an extra fee to get that (they have a partner which charges $25/year, or about $2/month), or you can simply add the local phone numbers for fire, police and paramedics to your speed-dial list, but dialing 911 won't work so you'll have to tell the police, firemen, or paramedics where you actually live when you call (they can't tell by your phone number).

As far as emergency e911 services, if you have a newer-model AT&T Trimline [https://telephones.att.com/pd/201/210M-White-Trimline-corded-telephone] corded telephone, those phones have buttons for each of these things already built-in (at the top of the handset), you just have to program them into the phone itself.  Or, you can just keep a post-it near the phone with the relevant phone numbers handy if you elect not to pay extra for e911 services.  It's vital to give appropriate consideration to this issue, because you won't have the luxury of waiting if you need an ambulance or your house has been robbed or is on fire!  The FCC has a document on e911 services you can download HERE.

The main benefit is Google Voice/OBihai option gives you a landline where one might not have existed at a very low cost.  Beware of service contracts with VoIP phone companies -- some services have them (like Vonage), others do not.  I also recommend paying for VoIP telephone services with a credit but not a debit card or checking account deduction, as you can dispute charges you have not authorized on a credit card.

Outside of the Google Voice arrangement, Obihai also sells Obi Talk VoIP boxes that do not require a Google gmail account.  These are reliable, and avoid potential Google-mandated firmware updates, but still has the same issue without e911 services being provided.  The service is reliable and inexpensive.

If you still believe that the iPhone killed landline telephone service, you probably also believe fake news found on Facebook and Twitter.  I've offered verifiable facts to prove otherwise.  VoIP is the technology disruptor, not mobile telephony.

July 18, 2017

VW Mines Nostalgia Again With Planned Relaunch of its Bus as an Electric Vehicle

The Volkswagen "Bus" which was known officially known as the VW Type 2, while the original Beetle was known officially as the VW Type 1; and Volkswagen, to its credit, actually embraced the different nicknames for its designs in different markets, even using those nicknames in its advertising was officially launched in 1950.  It, along with models like the low-priced sports-car design known as the Karmann Ghia (which were sold from 1955–1974) were all immensely popular across the U.S. market.  The VW Bus, in particular, arguably peaked in popularity back in the late 1960's; the VW Bus was particularly popular during the counterculture movement of the 1960's and was iconic with many hippies, some of whom actually tried to live in their VW Bus, as well as had sex in, smoked marijuana and took LSD in these vehicles.  The VW Bus had become iconic with the hippie movement, although it continued selling in the U.S. until 1979.

The retro blog ClickAmericana has an entire page dedicated to some of the ads for the VW Bus/VW Type 2 sold in its later years (the 1970's) at http://clickamericana.com/eras/1970s/volkswagen-bus-ads-1977 which are worth looking at (I've featured one such ad here, and if you click on it, you will then be redirected to ClickAmericana's relevant webpage.

Notwithstanding the VW Bus association with now-elderly hippies, the VW Bus was also part of VW's early success in the North American market.  But following the ending of the Vietnam war, combined with the VW's discontinuation of the Type 1 model with the introduction of newer A1 model meant to replace the Beetle, which featured front-wheel drive and a water-cooled engine, branded as the VW Golf (initially sold under the VW Rabbit nameplate in the U.S.), although the Vanagon was the name given to its newer "bus" model in the U.S.) remained on the market for a few more years, but the era of the VW Bus, at least in the U.S., seemed to be over.

In the decades that followed, Volkswagen as a company had largely fallen off the radar of American car buyers.  The Golf, in spite of being one of the world's best-selling cars, was never a huge seller in the U.S., sales of the Jetta weren't great either, and sales of the Passat were also quite limited.  The Passat was simply too pricey for mass market American consumers, many of whom preferred Hondas/Acuras or Toyotas/Lexus cars.  Plus, many younger generations of Americans had absolutely no relationship with Volkswagen at all.  In fact, younger generations hardly even knew who Volkswagen was as a company.  Making matters even worse for Volkswagen were currency exchange rates (when the Deutsche Mark was still the currency of record for Germany).

Many writers have observed that the Germans at Volkswagen remain eternally frustrated with what they consider to be a peculiarity of the U.S. market, like the importance that U.S. buyers place on seemingly trivial items such as high-fidelity stereo systems and cup holders.  People in Germany believe that a car is for driving, not for concerts or picnics.  But Americans disagree wholeheartedly.  The conditions of American roads are abysmal, and there is no autobahn in the U.S., hence performance isn't always the most important factor considered in buying decisions.  Traffic in the U.S. is horrendous by German standards, and never improves -- and not just in Los Angeles or Houston.  These things make apparent niceties like sound systems important to making a daily commute from hell tolerable, something Germany has little experience with, with well-maintained roads and efficient public transportation.  Volkswagen, in spite of its success in Europe, has arguably struggled in North America, while smaller Swedish rival Volvo even managed to outsell VW in the U.S. at one point, which says a lot about Volkswagen's U.S. struggles.

The VW Beetle spent a few decades on hiatus (at least in the U.S.), before being resurrected in 1998 to positive reviews and sales.  The VW Concept 1, known as the "new Beetle" changed all that.  It was essentially a VW Golf under the hood, but the design was much truer to the original Beetle that many Americans had a fondness of.  Its design originated in California, but the quirky design evoked fond memories from Americans who drove the original VW Type 1 "Beetle", and became Volkswagen's most successful U.S. auto introduction in decades.  Many also hope that a new Karmann Ghia might emerge as well, though a few models do not guarantee ongoing success for an automaker, especially one that aims to remain one of the world's biggest.  The VW Bus, in different iterations, has attempted comebacks, but never seemed to gain the success it had in the 1960's.

Indeed, mass-market European automakers like Volkswagen have struggled in the U.S., although European luxury car makers including Germany's BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche, Britain's Jaguar, Italy's Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, Lamborghini and Maserati have all succeeded because of their premium prices.  However, other mass-market European brands, including Fiat, Renault, Rover and others have had lengthy periods of time where the companies completely exited the U.S. auto market.  Yet Sweden's two automakers Volvo (and to a somewhat lesser degree, Saab) succeeded while bigger rivals from France and Italy failed mainly because they successfully created and then targeted lucrative niche markets -- mainly for safety.  Indeed, Sweden's carmakers have remained in the U.S. since they were first introduced.  It should be noted that in Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland, most of Volvo cars on the streets are small cars, not the big cars sold by Volvo in North America today.  Indeed, Volvo became one of the most successful, albeit niche, automakers anywhere in the world, keeping many Swedes in auto-making jobs for much longer than conventional wisdom suggested was even possible, let alone likely.

It's worth noting that Sweden's Volvo was part of a larger Swedish company that made a variety of industrial products (including aircraft parts, etc.) and the types of big trucks found transporting goods.  Volvo's automobile unit known as Volvo Cars has been under the ownership of the Zhejiang Geely Holding [Geely Holding] of China since 2010, when it was purchased from Ford Motor Co., but for decades before, Volvo succeeded selling cars despite its small size largely because its most widely-sold (and most expensive) car models' extraordinary safety records, which proved to be a very lucrative, profitable and unique "niche" market that had been largely ignored by other automakers.

With U.S. startups like Tesla aiming to claim the luxury market for electric sports cars, in June 2017, Volvo announced that by 2019, it would only make fully electric or hybrid cars.  To date, Tesla is a luxury car maker, while mass market manufacturers have moved more slowly on electric vehicles.

The U.S. history of automakers outside of Detroit's "Big Three" (GM, Ford and Chrysler, the latter of which has been owned by both Germany's Daimler Benz, and more recently, Italy's Fiat) has seen a history of failure against the big Detroit automakers.  Japanese automakers have proven the exception, rather than the rule.

For example, from 1954-1988, the company formerly known as American Motors Corp. (also known as "AMC", which itself was a descendant of the Nash-Kelvinator Corp. following its merger with Hudson Motor Car Company.  That company's origins were in Wisconsin, not Michigan, although executive talent necessitated relocation to the Great Lakes state.  For a time in the late 1960's to the early 1980's, AMC competed aggressively with GM, Ford and Chrysler, mostly with its rather peculiar car designs, including the Rambler, the Gremlin, the Pacer, the Matador and finally the Eagle.  AMC's best known auto brand endures under Fiat Chrysler, which is Jeep.  When Chrysler acquired AMC in 1988, it marked the end of Detroit's four major automakers.  After that, there were a few startups which did not last, most notably the DeLorean Motor Company (whose auto model DMC-12 was featured memorably in the "Back to the Future" movie trilogy, as the model of car made into a time machine by eccentric scientist Doc Brown, although the company had ceased to exist even before the first movie was made).  Tesla's long-term success remains unproven, although its push into electric sports cars has helped push Volvo and eventually, Volkswagen to pursue wider marketing of electric automobiles in the U.S.

That said, as of 2017, infrastructure limits for electric vehicles in the U.S. remain, including electric car recharging stations that have yet to see widespread adoption across the U.S.  But Volvo is not Volkswagen, and apparently Volkswagen foresees an opportunity to join Volvo in the move towards electric cars.  After all, the Swedes' ongoing success in the U.S. while Germany's auto giant VW has struggled, suggests that the Chinese-owned Nordic automaker might be onto something.  Adding to that, Volvo's new Chinese parents want to advance the technology for electric autos, and realistically, that's probably more likely to come from the West than it is from the Chinese mainland, although relevant components are likely to come from China.

Around the same time as Volvo's announcement, at the 2017 Detroit Auto Show, Germany's Volkswagen unveiled an electric microbus concept called the ID Buzz which was clearly meant to be a more modern successor to the old VW Type 2 or Bus as it was more popularly known.  The company also unveiled the new microbus concept at last year's Consumer Electronics Show.  An image of the new microbus, along with another graphic can be seen below.

Irish Times reported: "VW is playing the nostalgia card for all its worth with this concept car. The styling is a very simple update of the original Type 2, right down to the deep "V" shape in the centre of the front, which is now being used to replicate the effect of a smiley face. It couldn’t be more hippy if it tried."

The Street subsequently announced that VW actually plans to re-introduce by the hippy favorite as an all-electric vehicle with a driving range on its battery power of 270 miles which another media outlet reported a planned introduction by 2020.  Previously, the ID Buzz was merely a concept car.  However, the company saw similar success in the U.S. market with the introduction a new Beetle following a similar manner of introduction.  Quirky design style is also key to the company's success.

But while young hippies in the late 1960's fell in love with their VW Buses, it's far less certain that today's American youth will adopt the new VW buses as their transportation method of choice.  As of 2017, the Baby Boomer population has been declining (and will continue to as normal lifespans end), although Gen Xers remember seeing them on the road when they were growing up, but selling to and capturing the Baby Boomer nostalgia market segment no longer ensures success for companies.  And Millennials seem largely indifferent to automobiles, and as a generation, has one of the lowest incidences of driver's licenses of any group observed in decades.  Necessity, of course, may yet push some to get cars eventually.

But a report (an update to an earlier survey from 2014), from researchers at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and the Frontier Group, shows that Millennials are far less car-focused than older Americans and previous generations of young people, and their transportation behaviors continue to change in ways that reduce driving.

While urban dwelling is a major factor behind the decline in car interest among youth, it's also a fact that many Millennials are being priced out of the very cities that they once flocked to en-masse (or aimed to move to, see HERE for more information on that).  Increasingly, more and more hipsters are migrating to nearby suburbs with mass-transit access, typically near suburban commuter rail lines and express buses.  The question is whether that suburban migration will bring more auto-buying, or whether car-sharing services like Zipcar and competitors will effectively address that need?  It's also possible that technology-driven solutions may prove even more compelling than electric cars by themselves (but car sharing of electric vehicles may hold appeal).  Many companies, including Alphabet's Google and countless others are pursuing self-driving cars, and we can realistically expect to see the established automakers pursue this as well, even though much of the early development is coming from Silicon Valley.

Nevertheless, as The Street reported, Volkswagen will indeed pursue its first electric vehicle, which just so happens to be its resurrection of the VW Bus that was so popular among young hippies.

Maybe we'll yet see a new version of the Volkswagen Karmann Ghia in the future?  Let's hope so!

May 31, 2017

Faith as a Basis for Broadway Success

In the 1970's, several different Broadway shows, specifically "Godspell" and "Jesus Christ Superstar" placed the central story of Christianity's Gospel as center-stage in the commercial musical theater.  As might be expected, at the time, some conservative Christian groups objected to these plays.  In their view, to enact the word of God in a commercial theater rather than a sacred house of worship was to profane it.  Nevertheless, both shows were successful (if not overwhelmingly, certainly enough to be commercial successes for their time).  Ironically, many churches later embraced these shows as a way of spreading the gospel, especially among younger Christians.

Both of those shows were also some of the first professional works of then-twentysomething songwriters whose work would subsequently loom quite large in the theater world, including Stephen Schwartz ("Pippin," "Wicked") who wrote most of "Godspell's" music and some of its lyrics; and the British team of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber (who went on create "Evita," and "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" among others) who created the "Jesus Christ Superstar" score.

"Jesus Christ Superstar" also gave rise to a celebrity singer from Hawaii which until that time was better known for Don Ho in the music world.  Her name was Yvonne Elliman, and her vocal interpretation of the song "I Don't Know How to Love Him" sung by the Biblical character of Mary Magdalene made her a global superstar.  She subsequently had a platinum single from the hit soundtrack of the 1977 film "Saturday Night Fever", specifically "If I Can't Have You", which was written by Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb (better known as the Bee Gees), which helped usher in the disco era to American music.  She would follow that with Billboard-chart hits including a cover of "Hello Stranger" to name a few of her hits during the 1970's.  A clip from her broadway song "I Don't Know How to Love Him" can be listened to below.

Just why these religiously-inspired shows hit so big at a time when young Baby Boomers were rejecting religion (organized or otherwise) en-masse was most likely due to the catchy music, and familiar stories that were set in more modern times.  Of course, the shows followed a longtime theater pattern of depicting cathartic stories of loss and redemption that are really core to virtually every successful Broadway show, and have been at the heart of comedy/tragedy upon which theater has continued since ancient Greek times.

As noted, these were Baby Boomer re-interpretations of old religious teachings that were force-fed to them by their parents.  As already noted, another, subsequent West End/Broadway show also produced by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber with a rather similar religious inspiration known as "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" would follow the same basic format, although "Joseph" had very little dialogue, and virtually the entire script was set to music.  Also, the duo followed a different path to get "Joseph" produced by persuading some friends to record the songs, and then the album took off, which subsequently triggered the stage production (which was where they first began with it).

"Godspell", "Jesus Christ Superstar, and "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" also helped pave the way for more modern variations of religiously-inspired shows, including the smash hit "The Book of Mormon", which parodies some of unique tenets of Mormonism.  The basis for that show, the lyrics, and music were written by Trey Parker, Matt Stone (best known for their collaboration on the television cartoon hit "South Park") and Robert Lopez.  "The Book of Mormon" follows two young Mormon missionaries as they attempt to share their scriptures with the inhabitants of a remote Ugandan village. The earnest young men are challenged by a lack of interest of the locals, who are preoccupied with more pressing troubles such as AIDS, famine, and oppression from the local warlord.

To be sure, although earlier stage productions stayed marginally truer to the original Biblical teachings set to catchy, modern music, given the popularity of "The Book of Mormon", it would seem difficult for any musical based upon a religious theme to succeed today without a sense of satire embodied by "The Book of Mormon".  Of course, times change and so do public sensibilities.

At the 2011 Tony Awards, Book of Mormon had a performance, which can be seen below, or by visiting https://youtu.be/PHEqCXY2B-w:

Still, while "The Book of Mormon" focuses on the Mormon faith, there is plenty of fodder for Evangelical, born-again Christianity, which perhaps moreso than any other faith tradition in the U.S., practices hypocrisy of "do as we say, not as we do" by many followers, whose support of slavery, the death penalty, gay marriage bans, denial of Constitutional rights to non-Evangelical Christians, and divorce are all at odds with actual Biblical teachings.  What the next faith-based Broadway hit will be remains to be seen, but there are certainly plenty of role models to base them on.

May 23, 2017

Roger Moore, Who Played James Bond 007 Times, Dies

Let me start by acknowledging that I borrowed the headline for today's post from the New York Times obituary, because it was so appropriate.  One of the actors to have played the iconic role of James Bond (secret agent 007) in the iconic British spy series popularized by author Ian Fleming back in the 1950's has passed away from cancer, specifically Roger Moore, according to his family (see below, or by visiting HERE);
At the time of his passing, Roger Moore was age 89 and living in Switzerland, evidently as a way to escape taxes in his native country (as a tax exile).  Mr. Moore had homes in Switzerland and Monaco.  NPR had a clip about his passing which can be listened to below, or by visiting https://n.pr/2jcLWVf:

Roger Moore is the first actor who played James Bond to have passed away.  That's likely because Roger Moore was also the oldest actor to have played James Bond – he was already age 45 in "Live and Let Die" (1973) which co-starred a young Jane Seymour as the Bond girl and Hervé Villechaize as one of the enemies, and he was age 58 when he announced his retirement in 1985 following his being featured in "A View to a Kill".  The trailer to Roger Moore's first Bond film ("Live and Let Die") can be seen below, or by visiting https://youtu.be/KTzsm9-XWQo:

Mr. Moore was the third actor to play that role (he followed Sean Connery who originated the role, and Australian actor George Lazenby who starred in one Bond film, specifically "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" in 1969), and Roger Moore played in a total of seven Bond films during the 1970's and 1980's.  Mr. Moore played the role of 007 in more Bond movies than any other actor (so far).  As noted, Roger Moore was also the oldest actor to have played James Bond – he was age 45 in "Live and Let Die" (1973) which saw Bond fight with voodoo priests and heroin smugglers, and co-starred a young Jane Seymour as the Bond girl and Hervé Villechaize as one of the enemies.  Moore was age 58 when he announced his retirement in 1985 following his being featured in "A View to a Kill".  During his Bond tenure, he also appeared in the 1981 movie "The Cannonball Run", the car-race comedy with Burt Reynolds.

Roger Moore as James Bond, agent 007
After surrendering the role of James Bond to actor Timothy Dalton (who would star in "The Living Daylights" in 1987 and "Licence to Kill" in 1989), Roger Moore appeared in a half-dozen largely unexceptional movies (in the words of the New York Times), made a few television appearances and did voice work in animated films.  Mostly, however, he turned his attention elsewhere, becoming a UNICEF good-will ambassador in 1991. He was made a Commander of the British Empire in 1999 and he was knighted in 2003.

Roger Moore's portrayal of James Bond was very popular, although it was not without its critics, mostly from people who felt any actor to assume the role originated by Sean Connery were doomed to fail.  While many moviegoers enjoyed Roger Moore's portrayal of Bond as more of a light-hearted playboy who was always in control, the selection of Timothy Dalton to succeed him (at least for two Bond films) brought a different portrayal of the the character.

For example, Steven Jay Rubin wrote in The Complete James Bond Movie Encyclopaedia (1995):

"Unlike Moore, who always seems to be in command, Dalton's Bond sometimes looks like a candidate for the psychiatrist's couch – a burned-out killer who may have just enough energy left for one final mission. That was Fleming's Bond – a man who drank to diminish the poison in his system, the poison of a violent world with impossible demands.... [H]is is the suffering Bond."

For the record, actor Timothy Dalton was succeeded for the role of James Bond by Irish actor Pierce Brosnan in four films: "GoldenEye", "Tomorrow Never Dies", "The World Is Not Enough", and "Die Another Day", followed by actor Daniel Craig in all [thus far] the subsequent Bond movies.

That said, in addition to having starred in more James Bond films than any other actor, after surrendering the role of James Bond to Timothy Dalton, Roger Moore appeared in a half-dozen largely unexceptional movies (in the words of the New York Times).  His post-Bond films included such efforts as "The Quest" with Jean-Claude Van Damme and "Spice World" with the Spice Girls.  He also made a few TV appearances and did voice work in animated films.  Mostly, however, he turned his attention elsewhere, becoming a UNICEF good-will ambassador in 1991.  One of his neighbors in Swtizerland, the actress and humanitarian Audrey Hepburn, got him involved with UNICEF, the United Nations agency focused on children’s health and safety.  He was made a Commander of the British Empire in 1999 and he was knighted in 2003.

He was forthcoming about his run as 007.  In a 2014, in an interview with NPR (see https://n.pr/1yF8U5n for detail), he said he thought his version of the spy who never met a foe he couldn't conquer or a woman he couldn't seduce, was the most humorous.

"I look like a comedic lover, and Sean [Connery] in particular, and Daniel Craig now, they are killers," Moore said. "They look like killers. I wouldn't like to meet Daniel Craig on a dark night if I'd said anything bad about him."

Although Roger Moore was knighted in his home country of the United Kingdom, his decision to relocate to Switzerland in order to avoid taxes was not unlike many celebrities, among them American soul and pop singer Tina Turner who also calls Switzerland home these days.

Roger Moore's net worth is estimated to be around £84 million.  The actor previously spoke about his love of luxury and said that he enjoyed spending money more than looking after it.  Speaking to the Telegraph in 2012 (see HERE for details), he said:

"I love cash. When I came out of the Army I went into reparatory theatre in Palmers Green and I think I got £9 or £10 a week and they were all in crispy £1 notes. The sheer luxury of them."

Roger Moore was divorced three times, from skater Doorn Van Steyn in 1953, English singer Dorothy Squires in 1969 and Italian actress Luisa Mattioli, the mother of his children, Deborah, Geoffrey and Christian, in 2000.  He married a fourth time, in 2002, to Swedish socialite Kristina Tholstrup, who survives him.  The family is planning a private funeral in Monaco for Roger Moore in accordance with his wishes.

May 3, 2017

Fondue: A Food Fad of the 1970's Created by the Swiss Dairy Industry to Sell Cheese

The 1970's may be remembered for many things, but one particular fad I recall is how a food known for its origins in Switzerland suddenly became a chic party theme among young Baby Boomers (no, not chocolate, although it could be): fondue.

A groovy Fondue party!

But less anyone thinks this just happened by accident, NPR reported in April 2015 that the popularity of fondue was no accident. It was planned by a shadowy association of Swiss cheese makers which aimed to convince the world to consume pots full of melted fat (cheese).  It began selling the now-familiar dreamy image of fondue with "big ad campaigns of good-looking Swiss people in ski sweaters partying it up over pots of cheese." With the rise of globalization, it didn't take very long for that message to hit the U.S.  That story can be listened to below, or by visiting https://n.pr/1GkUvjZ:

David Sax, author of the book "The Tastemakers: Why We're Crazy for Cupcakes but Fed Up with Fondue" [http://tastemakersbook.com/] discusses how food trends emerge, where they come from, how they grow, and where they end up.  One thing he notes is how the cycle of such trends has been dramatically shortened in recent decades.  Just as Fondue was a legitimate food fad from the 1970's, there have been dozens of more recent food fads, perhaps most recently the "gluten-free" trend, which has nothing to do with the incidence of celiac disease (which has remained flat, incidentally).  He spoke to Marketplace radio about that, and the 4:30 interview can be listened to below, or by visiting http://bit.ly/2pZF9Cr:

As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch observed (see HERE), back "when fondue parties first were a fad, you may have been wearing bell bottoms and playing Bob Dylan and Joan Baez (on vinyl) on the stereo. Or maybe you were wearing rompers and playing on the swing set ... fondue made a comeback in the early 2000's and has been growing in popularity ever since."

Perhaps one reason for its seemingly sudden popularity back in the seventies was that fondue is about as sociable as a meal can get.  Fondue is typically eaten with long-handled forks dipped and twirled in a communal pot, usually heated with Sterno fuel or special fondue burners that are heated with a special gel fuel which is ignited, or even candles (such as tealights), although electric fondue pots also emerged at that time as a safer alternative (for alcohol-consuming customers who might tip the flames over).  Fondue usually consists of bread cubes (from French bread) dipped into warmed cheese, although some also use the fondue pot to cook small pieces of meat in hot oil, and/or for desserts made from melted chocolate that is heated in the fondue pot.

Fondue pots in classic (and questionable) 1970's colors
In the seventies, fondue pots were also widely available at S&H Green Stamp redemption centers (catch my post on that at https://goo.gl/BvDmG8 for more) before those disappeared.  They were popular when S&H went out of business because they did not require too many books of stamps for redemption, but were something people might not otherwise purchase on their own.  Popular fondue pots sold in the U.S. at the time were also made in the same questionable colors of kitchen appliances of the day, including avacado or lime green, harvest gold, and coppertone brown.

Back to fondue, which David Sax claims was a food fad.

Fondue is actually a tad more complicated to prepare then it appears (for example, just ask anyone who's tossed a bunch of cheese into a pot and expected anything other than a gloopy mess). To make classic Swiss fondue, a fondue pot (called a caquelon in Swiss-French) is first rubbed with a cut garlic clove, then dry white wine is added and heated, sometimes with a little cornstarch (though cornstarch is decidedly not Swiss, many find it makes the texture more sustainable as the heat goes away, but the Swiss use some flour, pepper, and nutmeg instead). A blend of shredded [Swiss] cheeses is then added (most typically Gruyere, as well as Emmentaler and/or Appenzeller are the most traditional cheeses used in fondue), and the mixture is stirred constantly until the cheese is melted. Cubes of French bread are then used for dipping, but other baigneuses (a.k.a. "bathers") can also include apples, fingerling potatoes, most fresh vegetables including green beans, and/or chunks of lightly seared beef, chicken or pork (some types of fish could also work, although the smell tends to ruin the communal dining experience, hence its not very popular).

Dick Cavett, former talk show host who appeared on U.S. broadcast television in a program called "The Dick Cavett Show" which aired intermittently on different networks from from 1968–1986, best known for his interviews with celebrities including Groucho Marx, Katharine Hepburn, Judy Garland, Marlon Brando, John Lennon, Janis Joplin, and countless others even got in on the 70's fondue fad, too.  Note that he also appeared in different TV sitcoms and movies, often in cameo appearances of himself.  Not to be outdone on the food fad of the seventies, he had a recipe for Fondue Bread, in which the bread serves as the actual fondue pot or bowl itself.  It can be found online at http://thememorablekitchen.com/dick-cavetts-fondue-bread/ and https://www.recipegoldmine.com/celeb/dick-cavetts-bread-pot-fondue.html and http://classiccelebrityrecipes.blogspot.com/2016/04/recipes-by-dick-cavett-bread-pot-fondue.html to name a few places that it appears today, although it likely was found in newspapers and magazines from the 1970's.

Predictably, Unilever's Lipton soup had a fondue recipe of it's own in the seventies.

Emmi Roth USA, a subsidiary of Switzerland based Emmi Group, is the largest Swiss milk processor and a leading producer of specialty cheeses that Switzerland sells for export actively promoted and encouraged fondue parties.  They have a few recipes HERE and a convenient PDF recipe card (for the moment) HERE.  Indeed, entire websites dedicated to fondue can be found online, including one that calls itself "Best Fondue" (see http://www.bestfondue.com/ for the site) have been created.

Of course, traditional Swiss fondue has been taken in creative new directions by creative cooks around the world.  For example, an American created Chipotle and Tequila fondue, which adds a zesty Mexican spin on things (rather than using an exclusive traditional base of wine) is one creative variation.  Others have tried a lower-fat, lower-calorie version that uses mashed cannellini beans to slim down the recipe yet keep a thick and tasty texture (see HERE for a recipe) that might be worth sampling.  For dessert, a chocolate-coffee recipe (see HERE for details) is another modern spin on the classic chocolate fondue.

Fondue equipment (pots, forks, etc.) can still be bought today (and it might make for an entertaining, communal meal) at retailers ranging from Target, Bed Bath & Beyond, to Amazon.com, but these days, it seems to be more typical to enjoy fondue at a restaurant.  One of the best-known and popular fondue chains is The Melting Pot [https://www.meltingpot.com/]. They claim have many locations in America, so there might just be one near you.

Their YouTube channel has a video at https://youtu.be/a9W5dNQ6oDY (or see below) that seems to get at the heart of the fondue experience found in their restaurants.

April 28, 2017

Erin Moran, Who Played Joanie on 'Happy Days,' Dies at 56

On April 22, 2017, former child actress Erin Moran (her legal name was Erin Marie Moran-Fleischmann) passed away from complications of stage 4 cancer at age 56.  Erin Moran was perhaps best known her role as Joanie Cunningham on TV's "Happy Days" which ran on ABC from 1974 to 1983.  Before playing Joanie Cunningham on "Happy Days", Ms. Moran played an orphan on "Daktari," a late-1960's drama about a veterinarian protecting wildlife in East Africa, and a daughter on the sitcom "The Don Rickles Show." She also appeared in "Family Affair," "Gunsmoke," "My Three Sons" and "The FBI" among other shows.

Hollywood Reporter featured a video clip to note the star's passing which can be watched by visiting http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/erin-moran-dead-happy-days-star-dies-at-56-996584.

After "Happy Days", she subsequently went on to star on her own spinoff show centered around her character's relationship with Chachi Arcola (Scott Baio) in "Joanie Loves Chachi" which ran on ABC for just 17 episodes from 1982-1983.  After some guest appearances on "The Love Boat" and "Murder She Wrote," she had no screen credits from 1986 until 1998, and only three between 1986 and 2008 (including "Desperation Boulevard," and "Celebrity Fit Club"), according to IMDB.

According to a joint statement from the Harrison County [Indiana] Sheriff Rod Seelye and Coroner Gary Gilley, "Harrison County dispatch received a 911 call referencing an unresponsive female" on Saturday [April 22, 2017] at approximately 4:07 PM local time. "Upon the arrival of first responders, it was determined that Erin Marie Moran-Fleischmann was deceased. An autopsy is pending."

Official autopsy results were still pending when the news of her death was announced.  A statement from the Coroner said standard toxicology tests were performed and the results were still pending, but added that no illegal narcotics were found at the residence.  The subsequent autopsy results revealed that Mrs. Fleischmann [sic] Moran had likely succumbed to complications of stage 4 cancer.

Steven Fleischmann and Erin Moran attend 'A Mother's Day Salute to TV Moms' at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences May 6, 2008 in North Hollywood, California.
Her husband, Steven Fleischmann said that the Coroner told him that the cancer had spread to her spleen, she had fluid in her lungs and part of her brain was infected.

When it was announced, the official statement did not specify what kind of cancer Moran had — but several friends later said that she had been undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments for throat cancer.

Born in 1960, its appropriate to acknowledge that based on her date of birth, Erin Moran was not technically a Gen Xer, but a late Baby Boomer.  Some call late Baby Boomers "Generation Jones" (see http://www.generationjones.com/), which certainly applies to Erin Moran.  As I've documented in previous posts (see https://goo.gl/DPruQP and https://goo.gl/QY1okg for more), generational boundaries are fuzzy (and most observers note that Gen X has the most overlap with both the Baby Boom and Millennial generations, estimated to be 5 years, and even that is questionable since Gen X was defined as only around 15 years instead of the 20 years for the Baby Boomer and Millennial generations).  But given her age and experiences growing up, Erin Moran could easily have been a Gen Xer, and most likely was.  Her passing marks a sad ending for a woman whose life was marked by unsubstantiated reports of alcohol abuse and other strange behavior in the years following her time on television.  She was living with her husband and his family in southern Indiana, although the tabloids even reported that she was homeless after being evicted from a trailer park.

In 2012, the national celebrity tabloid/gossip rag/scandal sheet the National Enquirer, long known for fake news/outright lies, said that Moran and her second husband, Steve Fleischmann, had been evicted from their trailer in New Salisbury, Indiana by his mother, and the Enquirer said the mother claimed she was tired of Erin's "hard partying ways."

The Enquirer added, citing an "unnamed" source (which immediately raises questions about the legitimacy of the statement in the first place), that "Erin was going out to bars and coming home at all hours of the night, sometimes with her rowdy bar friends, and Steve's mom just couldn't take it anymore."

However, at the time of her passing, close friend and actor Steven Wishnoff (age 56), best known for playing Tony Masters on 27 episodes on the prison drama "Oz" told reporters that, in fact, Erin Moran and her husband Steve Fleischmann had actually moved into her mother-in-law's home to care for her husband's elderly mother.  In reality, Moran was living comfortably and far from spiraling.

"She was in a good place," Mr. Wishnoff said. "I know it's not a tragic, sexy story just to say that Erin Moran was looking after her mother-in-law, with a husband who adored her, in a small town in Indiana."

While her former "Happy Days" and "Joanie Loves Chachi" co-star Scott Baio, who is considered by many observers to be a right-wing lunatic who has similarly not worked in Hollywood much more than Moran, initially made a very callous statement based upon the fake news that was reported in the National Enquirer, stating that he wasn't really surprised that Erin Moran died given her addiction to drinking and drugs.  He wrote: "I feel bad because her whole life, she was troubled, could never find what made her happy and content. For me, you do drugs and drink, you're gonna die, and I'm sorry if that's cold," Baio said on the Bernie and Sid radio Show.

Tony Moran, Erin's brother, quickly snapped back at Scott Baio in a Facebook post with a jab about Mr. Baio's supposedly tiny "manhood".  Mr. Moran wrote on Facebook about Baio:  "A special shout out to Scott Baio. I already went on Twitter about you. I hope it finds you. You and my lil sis had a very very brief fling. She dumped you. 2 reasons. 1. She told me that you were more like a lil girl and not a man. 2. She told me that you were tiny. Ya know. Barely a man in the man region. True story! Scott, I'd advise you to get on your knees and pray you never run into me."

Mr. Baio later retracted his statement, and attempted to apologize for what were perceived as cruel and insensitive comments about her death, telling Inside Edition:

"I jumped the gun. I should have known better, but I went with the information that I had. I feel horrible for her. I feel horrible for her family."

He added that he assumed reports of a heroin overdose based on fake news reports from unreliable tabloids were true because "of all the stories about Erin, and that's what I went with."

But aside from petty bickering and insensitive insults from a washed-up TV star who now buys into fake conspiracy theories and other known falsehoods of the sort that are routinely reported in the National Enquirer, Erin Moran's cancer diagnosis occurred rather suddenly, even though she was being treated.

In an open letter shared on Facebook, her grieving husband (Mr. Fleischmann) described how the 56-year-old actress had no idea she was gravely ill until around Thanksgiving in 2016.  By then, it would appear, it was already too late for treatments to have much impact on the cancer.

Mr. Fleishchmann wrote: "Erin woke up and had about a dime size blood stain on her pillowcase. She said I think I bit my tongue ... We get like 4 days into December, there's more blood. I get a flashlight and say let me look. It was not her tongue it was her tonsil and on the left side. I thought it was tonsillitis."

After a visit to an ear, nose and throat doctor, Moran was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma. She promptly began radiation and chemotherapy to fight the disease. Unfortunately, it quickly worsened.

"It got so bad so fast," added Mr. Fleischmann. "By the middle of February, Erin could no longer speak or eat or drink. She had a feeding tube implant and I feed her 6 to 8 times a day. She was still happy, she was active, she texted people on her phone all day."

In his lengthy Facebook post, her husband wrote: "She [Erin] woke up on the 22nd, she was not 100%. She needed Kleenex, so I went to the store and came back. She was there watching TV in bed. I laid down next to her held her right hand in my left. I fell (sic) asleep woke up about a hour later still holding her hand and she was gone, she was just gone."

In the end, the real-life Joanie did not love the real-life Chachi.  But her final days were spent in the company of her loved ones.  But aside from Mr. Baio, most of her other former castmates from "Happy Days" expressed their genuine condolences on social media.

Ron Howard, who played her brother Richie Cunningham on "Happy Days" (himself a TV star since he was a child, having starred as Opie in "The Andy Griffith Show" and later becoming a prolific and successful movie producer) wrote:
Henry Winkler, who played The Fonz (Arthur Fonzarelli) on "Happy Days", Tweeted this statement:
Don Most, who starred alongside Moran as the jokester Ralph Malph on "Happy Days",  said in a statement, "I am so incredibly sad to hear about Erin. She was a wonderful, sweet, caring, talented woman. As I write this I can't really comprehend this right now. A very painful loss. It gives me some comfort to know that she's with Tom, Al, Pat and Garry. Rest In Peace, sweet Erin."

For the record, the people mentioned at the end of his statement were: Tom Bosley who played father Howard Cunningham, along with Al Molinaro (who played the owner of the diner where the "Happy Days" characters hung out Al Delvecchio), and Garry Marshall, who produced "Happy Days", all of whom predeceased Erin Moran.

Anson Williams, who played Richie and Ralph's close friend Potsie on the iconic sitcom, also remembered the actress. "Erin was a person who made everyone around her feel better," the actor wrote in a statement. "She truly cared about others first, a true angel. I will miss her so much, but know that she is in God's hands. RIP sweet angel."

See the USA Today report at http://usat.ly/2pt0DYf and the New York Times at http://nyti.ms/2p4oLgQ for more information about Erin Moran's untimely passing.