Thanks, Creepy Clowns, for Ruining It for Us Real Clowns

I’m not sure the title above is the best way to express my feelings on this issue.

You see, earlier in my life, I used to be a clown at kids’ parties.

I didn’t really bring much to the table as a clown. My only clown-like abilities were juggling and making a small set of balloon animals.

After a couple of parties I realized that little kids aren’t really impressed with juggling; they had no appreciation of the hours of practice that go into certain tricks. They assumed that if I could juggle three balls, then why not four. And then why not five, or six, and so on.

I also learned that blowing up balloons for animals is hard work, but I wasn’t going to stoop to buying a little pump to blow them up. So each balloon animal would take a significant amount of time, and while I was making a sword for one kid, I would lose complete control of all the other kids.

As you can see from the picture above, nobody is really paying attention to me. In hindsight, such a picture was a good predictor of what my life would be like as a college teacher. You can also see that I was a fan of digital watches…

One of the the things I tried to accomplish as a clown was to try and get kids over their fear of clowns, and at this task I think I was successful. Perhaps the fact that I wore real glasses made me seem more like a harmless human than a scary freak. Notice in the picture below how I got down to eye level with one kid to make me seem more approachable.

clown2

My guess is that he was probably lodging some complaint about my inability to juggle twelve balls.

I never made any money as a clown at these parties, it was always just done for friends and family. My “stage” name was Quincy the Clown.

So now fast forward 20 years, and clowns have got a really bad name, thanks to the creepy clown craze that is popping up around the country.

Why would these people go and ruin such a noble and respected profession?

What’s next?

Creepy doctors?
Creepy policemen?
Creepy accountants? (well, creepier…)

So this is my plea to the creepy clowns.

Please stop what you are doing.

Us real clowns are already down to our last couple of ounces of dignity.

Long live Bozo!

Penn & Teller – 40 Years Later

Last night my wife, son, and I had the chance to see Penn & Teller bring their Las Vegas show to Atlantic City.

It was, as I expected, fabulous.

The show started off with a clever trick involving an audience member’s cell phone, and later included several memorable tricks, one of which was a cool audience participation trick involving four playing cards and a cup.

I have been a long-time fan of Penn & Teller’s, having seen them first perform as part of Asparagus Valley Cultural Society when I was in college. (I actually got to juggle with Penn after that show – read here about how I completely choked). I saw them again a short time later at Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia, but that was almost 40 years ago.

I’ve watched with great joy their career skyrocket over the years, and had their Las Vegas show on my bucket list. Since I had no idea if I would ever get to Vegas, you can imagine how excited I was when I saw they were coming to Atlantic City.

My excitement really peaked a few weeks ago when I actually got in a Twitter exchange with Penn. I had posted the following tweet about a story in the Wall Street Journal about performers who play afternoon shows:

Well as it turned out Penn retweeted my tweet, and so I thanked him for doing so:

And then what really made my night, well actually my year decade was when Penn replied to this tweet with the following:

It’s not often, well never, that the top performer in Las Vegas enters into a brief chat with me on Twitter. I even woke up my wife to tell her; she didn’t quite share my enthusiasm.

And I can now say that they were more than good, they were great.

The highlight of their shows, for me, is when Penn does some juggling. Penn is a world-class juggler, and he did some juggling with liquor bottles that looked fairly risky, but he pulled it off flawlessly.

So thank you Penn & Teller for an outstanding performance; hopefully it’s not another 40 years until I see you again.

I think I need to plan a quick trip to Vegas see the two of you again, and while I’m there, I’ll also check out Jeff Civilico

By the way, if you’ve never seen Penn & Teller in action, here’s a short clip:

Anticipation…

Dan Ariely, one of my favorite behavioral economists (yes, I do have several to choose from), has an occasional column in the Wall Street Journal where he answers readers’ questions.

Here is one of the recent questions:

Dear Dan,
I hate waiting for anything. I get very impatient when I have to wait for food in a restaurant, for my new iPhone, for the next time I will meet a good friend, etc. Is there anything I can do to make it less painful to wait?
—Maya

And here was Dan’s response:

Sometimes anticipation can be a pleasurable part of the experience. Imagine, for example, that you could get a kiss from your favorite movie star. Would you rather get the kiss in the next 30 seconds or in a week? When faced with this question, most people prefer to wait because, in the end, a kiss is just a kiss, but waiting for a unique kiss can be wonderful. My advice is that you try to get into such a mind-set for other experiences as well, and instead of thinking about waiting as a delay, think about it as an opportunity for anticipation.

P.S. I got this question from you a few months ago, and I hope that you enjoyed anticipating my response.

First off, I love the P.S.

Second, well, you’re just going to have to wait for that.

In the meantime, enjoy this classic 70s commercial:

 

A Farewell to Vine

Twitter announced this week that is was shutting down its Vine operation.

Vine was an app that allowed users to create six-second videos.

When I first heard about it back in 2013, I thought how much could really be accomplished in a six-second video.

As it turned out, quite a bit, actually.

Here’s a clip of one of the leading vine video creators, Zach King.

Started in 2013, Vine had grown to over 200 million users, and 39 millions videos were posted to its site.

Unfortunately, that was not enough.

In order to compete in the world of social media, firms need to gather not only millions of users, which then makes it easier to sell advertising on its app.

While Vine has over 200 million users, executives were unable to generate sufficient revenue to keep Vine as a viable operation.

While I have only created one Vine video, just to see how it works. As seen in the video above, there are some special things one can do with Vine with enough practice and patience.

I am a big fan of Twitter, and I hope that it survives. I was sad tothear about the closing of Vine, but if that’s what it takes for Twitter to keep moving on, then sometime executives need to make those tough decisions.

I wish Twitter the best, and hope that (and your old Vines) you are still around 50 years from now.

Long live Twitter!

*image from CNN Money

Another Win for the Internet and Nextdoor

The following message was posted on our neighborhood’s Nextdoor web site this past week:

Hi, I am K…, new to the neighborhood. My husband B… and I recently bought a house in the neighborhood and will move in this weekend. Nice to “meet” you all here!

A day later, there was the following response:

Welcome, K… and Bob…! Your name seems to be Maharashtrian! Were you born in the US? Do you speak Marathi? I was born in Maharashtra but am married to a German and we live on…

To which the original poster responded:

Hi S…! Yes, you guessed it right. I am from the burbs of Mumbai (panvel) and speak Marathi! So excited to have a fellow marathi-speaker in the neighborhood! And a German-speaker too (I’ve learnt German, used to be fluent at one point, but not quite forgotten the whole language, yet, haha!). Would love to get together with you both, once we’re settled in 🙂 Thank you for the message.

My first reaction when I saw this was ‘Wow! That is so cool.’

I can’t imagine how nice it must be for someone to move into a new neighborhood and learn that they have an immediate connection with someone, a connection that originated thousands of miles away.

I also thought that such connections don’t happen just by luck. It took a willingness on the part of the original poster to reach and introduce herself to the neighborhood.

I also realized the exchange above was another example of the power of Nextdoor, which I’ve written about before.

If you are not familiar with Nextdoor.com, it is a hyperlocal Facebook/Craigslist/community bulletin board. With Nextdoor.com, neighbors can ask around for babysitting services, advice on choosing a plumber, making announcement about community meetings, or, as shown above, simply introduce themselves or welcome new neighbors.

It is this bringing together of people that to me shows the real power and promise of the Internet. The variety of connections that people can make are many:

  • neighbors can connect through sites like Nextdoor
  • friends, family, and fans can connect through sites like Facebook
  • people from around the world can interact in real time with each other through sites like Twitter
  • business people can find their new job or new employee through sites like Linkedin

These types of web sites are lumped under the category of “social media”, and such a moniker doesn’t really capture the true value of what these sites offer.

The ability for people to connect with each other through such sites could represent the primary, and sometimes only, form of communication that some people have with others.

These sites make a difference in the lives of millions, if not billions, of people.

And sometimes it just starts with a simple ‘Hello’.

Who Said There’s No Such Thing as a Free Lunch?

In Philadelphia, one in four people are “food insecure,” which means that 25 percent of the city’s population don’t have access to a reliable, affordable food source.

While there are several programs that try to address such a problem, most of these programs are isolating in that the only people participating in the programs are those that are in need of a meal. Such programs become another form of segregation.

In order to address this issue, Drexel University, in partnership with community organizations and local businesses, has opened the EAT Cafe. EAT stands for Everyone at the Table.

The goal is to create a place where anyone can feel comfortable and welcome to enjoy a meal, no matter their ability to pay for it, and at the same time connect with people from a variety of backgrounds and circumstances. For some people, it will be a way to get a free or subsidized dinner, while at the same time having the chance to interact with a more diverse set of individuals than they normally experience.

People coming to the EAT Café will be given a menu with a suggested price.  At the end of their meal, a check will be delivered and everyone can choose what they pay –  the full amount, more, less or nothing at all. The hope is that those who are able to do so will pay a little more than the suggested price, effectively helping those who are unable to do so.

The cafe will offer a three-course menu that will change weekly and feature different cuisines, including Caribbean, Asian, African, Middle Eastern and regional American dishes.

Such a program would not be feasible without the support of local grocery and other food stores. The program allows these businesses that may otherwise waste some of their food to donate it to the EAT Cafe, where it will be put to good use.

The plan is to also use the cafe as a gathering space for community events and live music, with the overall goal of bringing the neighborhood together.

As Chef Donnell Jones-Craven states, “We have the opportunity to change the fabric of communities with this model of partnership, passion, and purpose.”

I like community-based programs that find creative ways to support those in the community and that bring a diverse group of people together.

I applaud Drexel (one of my alma maters) and its partners for this wonderful initiative, and wish them the best.

I can’t wait to try EAT Cafe.

It’s About Time

According to the Wall Street Journal, employers are newly hot on the trail of hires with liberal arts and humanities degrees.

Class of 2015 graduates from those disciplines are employed at higher rates than their cohorts in the class of 2014, and starting salaries rose significantly, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. The pay numbers show employers are seeking hires with communication skills and comfort in multicultural environments.

Even though I teach business, I have long been a strong advocate for the liberal arts and humanities. Every year I tell my freshmen students, many of whom will double major within the business school (finance and accounting, marketing and business analytics, etc.) to instead consider having just one major in the business school and then picking up a second one outside the business school.

The advice usually falls on deaf ears, as probably less than 5% of our business students have another major outside the business school, while I would estimate that 60% of the students have two majors int eh business school.

I try to tell students that having just one business major is enough to get you a job. Once you start working, your employer will help you acquire additional skills needed for your job, and you can certainly take on such responsibility yourself as well.

However, college is often the last opportunity that a person will have to take history or English courses, and that is why I encourage students to take advantage of such opportunities.

That’s why I was quite happy to see the story in the WSJ about the improved job market for non-business students. I think many students choose business because they believe that will enhance the likelihood of landing a job when they graduate. That may be true initially, but research shows that such students catch up with their business major peers after a few years on the job.

So if job prospects for arts and humanities students is approaching that of business students, that would seem to eliminate that as a reason for picking business over liberal arts.

And if a student decides to major in the liberal arts, at least at Villanova, there are opportunities to pick up a business minor. I’ve written before about one of those options, our Summer Business Institute, which offers students the chance to pick up a business minor in one summer.

Please don’t view this post as anti-business majors; I think studying business is a great option, if that is something you are interested in. If you are only doing it because of the job prospects, that does not seem like a good reason.

At least for now, it seems that students can major in something they are passionate about, and there is a good chance that they will still find a job when they graduate.

Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places?

I just read a story that offers a sad commentary on one company’s treatment of the elderly.

At the Ikea store in Shanghai, China, management has put an end to allowing senior citizens to use its cafeteria to socialize and even find partners.

China’s state broadcaster CCTV News reported that the elderly patrons would often buy a cup of coffee or some bread and “spend an entire day just chatting with others”. They are believed to be part of a dating community, making use of their Ikea membership cards.

Ikea put a stop to this type of behavior by imposing a strict “no food, no seating” rule to discourage senior citizens from occupying canteen seats for “extended periods”.

In a notice posted at the entrance of the Ikea Shanghai Restaurant, staff identified a “match-making group” and accused it of “uncivilized behavior”.

“The situation has adversely affected the dining experience and security of most of our customers,” it said, adding that it had received public complaints about “spitting” and “quarrels and fights”.

I’m not sure how elderly people, looking for a place to socialize, could be viewed as any sort of security risk to other customers. And if there is spitting and fighting taking place at an Ikea cafeteria, my guess is that it’s not limited to these matchmaking groups.

There has been mixed reaction to Ikea’s decision.

Some believe that Ikea should show some empathy towards these individuals, since they may be lonely and just looking for companionship. I’m not sure what it says about our world when there are lonely people in the world’s most populous country.

Others complain that it is not right that these elderly people are taking up seats all day without buying anything.

I come down firmly on the side that is against Ikea’s decision.

I think that Ikea should welcome such people to its stores, and have special events to attract more people to its stores. I think they should provide free coffee to these folks. I would think the favorable publicity from such an approach would outweigh the costs.

If it is, or becomes a space issue, then either repurpose some existing space as being just for the elderly, or add on a new space to accommodate these individuals.

I think that a company that shows respect and empathy and support for the elderly is the type of company I would support with my spending, and I think many others would feel the same way.

I hope that Ikea reverses its decision, and the elderly realize that maybe they were looking for love in all the right places after all…

A classic song from a classic movie, Urban Cowboy.

Doing Our Part…

My wife and I had the opportunity last night to meet Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action (MDA), an organization we are both members of.

MDA was founded by Shannon the day after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting with the purpose of demanding action from state and federal legislators,,companies, and educational institutions to establish common-sense gun reforms. The organization has quickly flourished into a leading force for gun violence prevention, with chapters in all 50 states and a powerful grassroots network of moms that has successfully effected change at the local, state and national level.

MDA believes that common-sense solutions can help decrease the escalating epidemic of gun violence that kills too many of our children and loved ones every day. Whether the gun violence happens in urban Chicago, suburban Virginia, or rural Texas, we must act now on new and stronger gun laws and policies to protect our children.

MDA envisions a country where all children and families are safe from gun violence. Their nonpartisan grassroots movement has grown to include a chapter in every state across the country. They are educating, motivating, and mobilizing moms and families to take action that will result in stronger laws and policies to save lives.

After a brief update on what the organization has been up to, we then took part in a phone campaign related to a ballot initiative in the state of Maine.

An Act to Require Background Checks for Gun Sales, informally known as Maine Question 3, is a citizen-initiated referendum question that has qualified for the Maine November 8, 2016 statewide ballot. It seeks to require a background check for virtually all gun transfers in Maine, with some exceptions. As the Maine Legislature and Governor Paul LePage declined to enact the proposal as written, it will appear on the ballot along with elections for President of the United States, Maine’s two United States House seats, the Legislature, other statewide ballot questions, and various local elections.

While at first it seemed strange to be calling voters in Maine from Pennsylvania, I realized this is the kind of effort that is needed to get things done, to make change happen. There have been many examples in our history where people from multiple states rallied to support causes in other states.

It felt good to be taking action on something that we believe in and support. We are not alone in the belief that background checks should be required; the vast majority of Americans feel the same way.

A survey conducted by Yale researchers in January 2016 found that 77 percent of Americans favored universal background checks, while 53 percent favored stricter gun laws. The research team found that this disconnect may be explained by the fact that 41 percent of Americans thought that universal background checks were required by federal law for all gun purchases. Survey respondents who favored universal background checks and knew that they were not required by federal law were more likely to also favor stricter gun laws.

Federal law has required background checks for all gun sales by licensed dealers since the Brady Bill was signed into law in November of 1993. However, the law does not apply to private unlicensed dealers who may sell guns at gun shows, online, or in other private transactions. Because of these exceptions, background checks are only required for an estimated 40 percent of gun sales.

Common sense gun control laws are also on the ballots of three other states besides Maine – California, Nevada, and Washington. The hope is that if enough states pass laws requiring background checks on all gun sales, then such requirements have a much better chance of becoming a federal law.

While such a goal may take some time to be achieved, it is through the grassroots efforts of organizations like Moms Demand Action that such a goal is kept front and center in voters’ minds, increasing the likelihood that the goal will be accomplished.

I applaud the efforts of MDA, and thank them for allowing my wife and I to be part of the process. This is our third event with MDA; last year we participated in a Walk to End Gun Violence, and this past summer during the Democratic National Convention we collected pledges to end gun violence.

#Enough
#EndGunViolence

The Charity Paradox

Can charitable giving ever be a bad thing?

After Hurricane Matthew left parts of Haiti with significant amounts of destruction, the world responded with large amounts of charitable contributions.

But could such contributions actually do more harm than good?

Examining such a question was the focus of a recent article in the Wall Street Journal.

The answer may be tied to the way in which humanitarian aid, necessary and welcome in an emergency, easily morphs into permanent charity, which undermines local markets and spawns dependency.

The article mentions a documentary, Poverty, Inc. that looked at this issue in detail. As the title of the movie suggests, administering to the poor is now a big business that works to sustain itself. Less obvious are the destructive unintended consequences of its intervention.

People and organizations that give aid are not criticized for their motives of wanting to help, but for their assumption that poverty is caused by a lack of money or resources. Such an assumption leads to the wrong solution of sending as much free stuff to the target economy as possible.

An entrepreneur in Ghana believes the problem is lack of access to the global trade markets. In addition, there is the curse of charity.

The enormous giving to many developing countries has created harmful distortions in the local economy because when what would otherwise be traded or produced by Haitians is given away, it drives entrepreneurs out of business.

As one entrepreneur in Haiti noted, “It’s tough to compete with free.” He also notes that NGOs are changing the mentality of the people, creating a generation with a dependency mentality.

Here’s the trailer for the documentary:

As I was watching the movie, I was taking some random notes, which I have included below.

The filmmakers note that despite the well-intentioned efforts of many entertainers and celebrities, their efforts do little to alleviate the problem.

As evidence they mention the 1984 video “Do They Know It’s Christmas”, that offered bleak images of Africa. Thirty years later an update was made to the video, and offered the same kind of doom and gloom about Africa.

Yet when they talk to people in Africa, the people talk about how deceptive such videos and images are, and that Africa has the resources, both people and natural, that if given the opportunity, could solve many of the problems in Africa.

People in the developing countries emphasize that instead of being given the metaphorical fish, they would prefer to be taught how to fish.

Countries develop based on trade, not aid.

There was discussion of the requirements needed for what is referred to as the ladder to prosperity:

  • legal protection from theft
  • justice in court
  • title to ones land
  • freedom to start business
  • links to wider circles of exchange

When people climb out of poverty, the aid industry becomes obsolete. So what incentive is there for all of these aid organizations and NGOs to stop doing what they are doing, even if it does not solve the problem.

So the question is who benefits the most from these aid efforts – the people in poverty or those who work in the poverty industry?

Muhammad Yunus, the founder of Grameen Bank and the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize compared foreign aid to a bonsai tree. You may take a seed from a mighty tree and just plant it in a small planter, it will restrict the growth of that tree. But if you plant it in rich soil, it can grow to its potential. Developing countries need to first be given the ability to build a solid foundation, and then the charitable contributions could be much more effective.

Poor is not living on $2 per day; it is being excluded from networks that enhance productivity and exchange; things like cell phones, banks, and education.

Rule of law is an important part of developing a country, particularly with respect to property ownership .

Bono has been both a curse and a blessing to developing countries.

Perhaps what struck me most in the video was a constant theme of parents wanting to build a better life for their children. Sometimes even to the point of giving up their children to live in an orphanage because it offered the children a better life than the parents could provide.

I never thought about how powerful the desire to provide for your children can be. Perhaps if world aid focused on the power of such a desire, we could go a long way towards solving the problem of poverty.

I highly recommend watching Poverty, Inc. It is currently available for streaming via Netflix.