Thankful Thursday XXV – The Biggest Craft Fair…

Last week I mentioned one of the relatively good new byproducts of our cyber-age, namely delivery services like Door Dash. This Thursday, I’m thankful for another creation of our wired times – Etsy.

When I was a kid, artists would have booths in local flea markets selling their wares – hand-painted T-shirts, framed pictures, crocheted things, you name it. Sometimes you’d see a truck parked in the corner of a dusty gas station with paintings (as likely as not mass-produced) propped up against it for sale. It was an alright way for creative types to share their work and make a few bucks. But that might have been the limits of it… a few. After all, it was a bit of a crapshoot. They’d have to rely on the right person coming along at the right time, and having cash on hand and a desire for their particular piece of work. Maybe a hundred, two hundred people might pass by their table in a day, most of them disinterested. If the person who would absolutely love your painting in their living room was the next town over, it would probably be going back home with the you, gathering dust. Similarly, if you were in the mood to add something unique to your walls or wardrobe, you were playing lottery-type odds expecting to find something just right among 20 vendors in a local clubhouse on a Sunday afternoon. Etsy has changed all that to the benefit of the creators and shoppers.

Now, to state the obvious, anyone with a computer, tablet or smart phone, anywhere, can see your creations and order them, and by looking for a specific category, find your needle in the huge haystack quickly. Rainbow-colored wool scarf? Picture of Paris on a rainy night? Union Pacific-adorned baseball cap? Rock that looks like WC Fields? All there, just a click or two away. Suddenly that person who would absolutely love your painting who’s in the next country over will find it, its days of gathering dust gone with the wind.

I love it. I’ve used it to sell books I’ve written (a few copies), baseball caps I’ve customized (a handful), and a few wall hangings or paintings (well… at least I’ve listed them ). Never made a lot of money off it, but it’s nice to make a few extra dollars and find someone appreciative of my work at the same time. On the other side of the counter, I’ve purchased a couple of cool vintage photos, some one-of-a-kind clothes and gifts for others on it that I’d not have found at the local Walmart or Kohls.

Ironic in a way, isn’t it? The internet has allowed Amazon to become one of the world’s dominant companies and biggest retailers, mass-marketing everything from books to soap to pharmaceuticals. But at the same time, it’s allowed individual tiny home businesses to set up and offer an alternative to the conglomerate mass-marketed products homogenizing culture across the globe.

I’m thankful for little craft fairs and the people who create for them. And for the world’s biggest, virtual craft fair, the one at our fingertips.

PS- the talent behind the picture above is someone else’s; the painting is not mine. But thanks to Etsy, it could be…

Thankful Thursday XXIV – People Dashing Food To Doors

The pandemic has hurt almost every business it would seem except for one up-and-coming one : delivery services. Those guys and gals who pick up your food at a restaurant or supermarket and bring it to you are doing a booming business in the past year, and this Thankful Thursday I’m thankful for them.

With the advent of smart phones, many entrepreneurs had similar ideas in the past decade. Namely that they could get things and deliver them quickly and efficiently to time-strapped consumers. Door Dash began in 2013 (in techy Palo Alto) , Uber Eats, the food deliver division of the company that almost singly destroyed the “taxi” business, in 2014 (in Toronto, according to Forbes because there was less competition than New York City), Shipt, which deals more with store deliveries, also in 2014, in Birmingham, Alabama. And of course there are a variety of others – Grubhub, Favr and on and on. What they had in common besides similar services was that through 2019, business experts said they all lost money hand over fist. That began to change last year, in a big way. People couldn’t go and sit in a restaurant, were afraid to walk up to the counter to order and likewise weren’t crazy about the idea of going into a crowded grocery store or Walmart to shop for an hour no matter how many “social distancing” footprint stickers were placed on the floors. Covid made people a lot more content to stay home and have someone else bring take-out or grocery orders to them. The services tended to quickly tailor their services to the crisis, offering things like delivery to the door without having contact between the driver and purchaser, all the better to prevent spread of viruses.

I used to think them utter wastes of money, and assuredly some people use them rather indiscriminately to the detriment of their budgets. But more and more, I like the concept. We all have times when we’re pressed for time and buying a week’s groceries isn’t convenient… but neither is having no bread, milk or dinner makings in the house. Or the times we really don’t want to cook, but are hungry and too tired, tipsy or otherwise occupied to head out the door. Times like these were made for the new delivery companies.

In our city, the dominant supermarket delivery company charges about $15 to bring an order to you. Obviously not a smart choice if you only want a box of Pop Tarts…but not a bad option if you’re shopping for a family for days. I tend to still don a mask and go in to get our stuff myself, but we used it a couple of times last year and were impressed enough. They got the order right and by and large picked well. I had wondered if anyone was going to be able to pick good tomatoes, peppers or cuts of meat. Turns out, they can. Last night we ordered in a big meal of burgers, fries and those sorts of tasty but not ideally nutritious dinners we – admit it – all like to treat ourselves to once in awhile. True enough, we could have gone out to get it, but the car has been acting a bit wonky, it was feeling like a 100 degrees outside and the idea of four miles in evening rush hour traffic to wait in a drive-through lineup wasn’t quite as appealing as staying in, cracking open a cold one and having it brought to us – quicker, as it turned out, in my estimation than if we’d gone out ourselves. And in the process, we were helping some ordinary guy make a few bucks.

Yes, I know that these type of “New Economy” service jobs have their problems – no job security, usually no guaranteed wages or holiday pay, all of which is truly a shame and should be rectified – but they still offer people a way to make some money on their own schedule. This is indeed the Age of the “Side Hustle” after all…and I’m thankful for those out there “hustling” to make life a bit easier for us from time to time.

Thankful Thursday XXIII – Finer Forecasting

The weather around here seemed to have settled into a typical mid-summer routine this week, with sunny, hot, humid days, muggy nights, line-ups at frozen treat stands and the ever-present hum of air conditioners providing the outdoor soundtrack. The forecast early yesterday gave us a 0% chance of rain until early next week.

You guessed it, didn’t you? As the afternoon wore on, clouds built and darkened and by about 7 PM, the house was shaking from the thunder and rain was being blown nearly horizontally. Oops! Local meteorologists were a bit red-faced about that one I imagine. But the thing that struck me was, despite that being a total miss, forecast-wise, these days that type of occurrence is a rarity. So this Thankful Thursday I’m thankful for the vast improvements in forecasting that have taken place even in the past three decades or so.

When I was a kid, jokes abounded about how inaccurate the “weatherman” was. It sometimes seemed your best bet to know what to wear would be sticking your head out the door in the morning and using your own “gut feeling”; planning outdoor weekend activities based on the forecast on a Wednesday was essentially as reliable as throwing darts at a board blind-folded. When I was a kid, I was very much a nerd and by age 12 or so had a little weather station at home, looked at weather maps and kept some records. For months I made up my own forecasts for the following day and found my accuracy was at least as good as the official government-produced ones. A lot has changed since then.

While satellite pictures were available back then, they have been greatly improved upon. Old ones were merely photos which showed where clouds were; now they can also collect info on the amount of moisture in the clouds, temperatures and all sorts of other things. When we began going to Florida on holiday, I became familiar with weather radars, shown endlessly on TV news there. Back then, the radar showed where it was raining… and that was it. If the area of the map was white, it was raining. If it was dark, it wasn’t. That was the extent of the data. Fast forward about 40 years and as most people who watch news, let alone specialty weather channels know, Doppler radars with their multi-colored displays can tell you just about everything except what type of bird is flying over your house. They’re likely working on that upgrade as we speak. The radar can show not only if there’s precipitation, but how hard it is falling and whether it’s rain, snow, sleet or a combination thereof. Other settings on them can show wind speed and direction, or if there’s debris at a certain altitude. Needless to say, that kind of information can make picking up a tornado before it starts a trail of destruction much easier than it ever has been. All the data is put into powerful computers which do what computers do, analyze billions of bits of information from decades of study and spin out surprisingly accurate forecasts days in advance.

Weather forecasting. It’s an area where science has made huge strides to improve our lives in a matter of a few decades. But, as last night shows, sometimes still nothing beats using your eyes and ears and a bit of common sense. Which is not bad advice when it comes to just about anything in life really.

Thankful Thursday XXII – Freakonomics And Thinkers

I just finished reading a book with the provocative title When to Rob a Bank. It was written by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, the pair who became famous with the book Freakonomics. This Thankful Thursday, I’m thankful for the Freakonomics pair… and by extension, any books that make people actually think about things and why they are they way they are.

Freakonomics was a 2005 book which became a surprise smash hit, with over four million copies selling in quick time. It looked at a range of social issues and problems, and in some cases turned them on their heads. For instance, it looked at the problem of cheating on school tests and focused on how to catch teachers who helped their kids cheat (which in itself is quite a concept) in order to make their own performance seem better. Among the things they looked for was rooms where children suddenly jumped ahead in their marks one year then reverted back to previous low grades after moving to another class. Most controversially, they put forth the idea that the biggest reason for a sharp drop in violent crime rates in the ’90s wasn’t cities hiring more police, getting them involved more in community events nor tougher jail sentences for criminals but the Roe vs Wade decision in the ’70s which made abortion legal and comparatively easy to access. They hypothesize that many abortions, if not performed, would have led to babies being born to women who already knew they wouldn’t be good parents… drug addicts, ones who hate kids, ones living risky lifestyles etc. In turn these kids wouldn’t be given good supervision or role models and would be likelier to turn to crime at a young age.

Whether you agree with their assumptions or not, they were thought-provoking and interesting, and a great way to start a lively debate at a dull dinner party. When to Rob a Bank is similar but was essentially a compilation of short blogs and articles the pair had written, resulting in a book with far more stories but less in-depth looks at the topics. They tackle things like are doctors over-stating the risks of being overweight, if gun bans actually work, why the U.S. keeps making pennies that cost more than a cent to produce, how the Endangered Species act might work against the interests of the rare animals it’s supposed to protect, and improving your odds in poker. Apparently both writers are avid poker players and they devote an entire chapter to posts on improving your game by logic and math. I think, I must admit I, being a person who plays cards very rarely, got a bit bored with those stories and skipped over many of them. Now, I will say that I didn’t agree with all their assertions or premises, but I did find myself questioning conventional wisdom and at times, my own beliefs. Which is never a bad thing. Questioning those will lead to one of two likely outcomes – finding you were probably wrong, and thus being a bit wiser , or reinforcing one’s existing beliefs. Seems like either is a desirable occurrence and something encouraged by the best teachers, clergymen and even politicians. Beware those who claim to have all the answers and not to question them is my philosophy.

Levitt and Dubner are similar in their writing to another author I like and respect, Malcolm Gladwell. They take problems and dull studies and find ways to make them interesting and relevant to the masses. They also seemed to create a new niche in the publishing industry, books about intellectual topics geared to ordinary people. People who make us think and keep our interest in doing so. I’m thankful for them!

By the way, their book title, When to Rob a Bank? They say “never”. The risk of a person being caught is great and the “haul” most get far smaller than most people imagine.

Thankful Thursday XXI – Canada Day

This Thankful Thursday, I’m thankful for Canada. Appropriately enough since today is Canada Day, the national holiday celebrating the country’s origins and independence from England 154 years ago. To many, it will be an extra-special one since last year’s was a total washout due to the pandemic. Although initially Canada had done well in keeping the virus at bay, last summer having infection and death rates much lower than their neighbors in the U.S. or in Europe, a growing disinterest in following the “rules” – social distancing, masks etc. – and problems obtaining the vaccines when they became available led to a spike in numbers this spring which led to widespread lockdowns once again. But things are looking up, with illness rates dropping and numbers of people vaccinated increasing by the day. As of last weekend, 66% of Canadian adults had received Covid vaccinations, compared to less than half of Americans. So, Canadians may not be crowding together into bars to drink Molsons tonight nor heading to the Rogers Centre in Toronto to watch a Blue Jays game, but they should be able to at least get together with a few friends and bbq a burger and perhaps sing along to the Tragically Hip before taking in some fireworks. I hope they do and enjoy it!

Of course there will be some protesting the people having fun because they object to the day itself. The killjoy contingent of Cancel Culture enthusiasts have taken to Canada like flies to a dungheap, which is conveniently pretty much what they compare the country to. They propose eliminating the holiday and erasing its name from history, because they object to parts of the country’s history. The whole thing has gained traction since news of the bodies of long-deceased children at long-closed Native boarding schools has come to light, suggesting possible widespread abuse of the students.

There is absolutely no justification for the abuse of the children, and indeed, it is reasonable to investigate it further to see how widespread that might have been, who the victims were and prosecute the violators should they still be alive. That in itself is unlikely, as the very last of the schools was shut for good in 1996; they were most active and in all likelihood most abusive during the first half of the 20th Century. Prime Minister Trudeau has apologized – several times – on behalf of the country and its forefathers, and created a list of 94 recommendations to right the wrong. Many Native Canadians are already receiving cash payments in return for being displaced from their land generations ago. That seems to me like a reasonable resolution. Let’s not forget the past, but recognize it is the past and move along together from there.

I’m a Canadian and I’m proud of the country. It is by no means perfect. No country that I know of is, or comes very close to that mark. But it is a good land with a history of great individuals and great deeds. Liberating Holland from the Nazis in WWII. Developing insulin. Gas masks. Hockey masks. An ebola vaccine. Lacrosse and basketball. Hawaiian pizza… well, I said Canada wasn’t perfect!  Add in more great artists, musicians, actors, athletes and comedians than you can shake a Zamboni at and you’ve got reason to feel good about the Great White North. And let’s not forget that magnificent scenery from the mountain lakes at Banff to the glowing fall colors in Algonquin Park, all saved for posterity in the parks.

My dad and his dad as well were struggling in post-war Europe when they came to Canada. They learned the language and soon found good jobs and built lives for themselves in the new land. My mom went through many an air raid and bombing as a child in Britain during the War and didn’t take to the climate there, so she too found her way to Canada (why she didn’t pick Australia for a better climate while still being able to see the queen on the money, I never fully understood) and soon was teaching classrooms of kids from a smorgasbord of different backgrounds. I went to school with kids whose parents had come from Germany and England, Jamaica and Japan. One of my best buddies in high school had escaped the Philippines not long before with his family. He missed his country but not the secret police busting down their door in the middle of the night and taking family members away for unknown reasons. His dad, sleeping safely at night for once, started a very successful electric company in town. After all sorts of asthma and other medical problems as a small child, I was probably only alive to meet him because of Canada’s fine health care system, funded by taxes but making world-class hospitals as accessible to a factory-worker’s kid, or an unemployed person for that matter as they were for the CEOs of the companies employing those workers.

Actress Jennifer Garner recently quipped that people often assume she is Canadian. She’s not, being from California in fact. But, she says it makes her feel great because if people think she’s Canadian, that must mean she is pretty nice. That’s a great compliment to all of us who are from there!

I’ll never say Canada is perfect and probably will never like the climate – I really hate cold weather. But I will always say I am proud to be Canadian, and glad that is where I began my life. Happy Thursday, and Happy Canada Day no matter where you hale from.