Sarah Sheard's Thoughts and Theories

Monday, December 22, 2008


It’s about fundamentals.

Recent efforts to “stimulate” the economy seem to me like injecting adrenaline into a very sick patient. The patient needs to rest, but instead, we want it to *look* healthy, so we keep telling the patient to Sit Up. Act Happy. Act Energetic.

Are we making it sicker with all this adrenaline?

What are the fundamentals? What’s really going on? A good doctor would hardly look at a bedridden patient and say, “The patient is sick because he/she is bedridden.” Clearly there is something wrong that the appearance of illness is a result of.

Surely, thinking the economy is sick is hastening its decline. But making people think it’s not sick when it is is not doing anyone any good. You see a slight blip up in the stock market as the patient temporarily feels energetic enough to sit up, but then the illness takes over and we see that it is now even more tired from the fake response to the stimulation.

What can really fix the economy?

In this engineer’s view (see previous post on engineers vs. economists), we really have to know what the problem is.

Here’s my view.

1) Many decades of isolationist growth starting with World War 2... everyone’s wages went up.
2) Global awareness and the global market made it clear that cheaper labor is available just about anywhere else on the globe. Certainly the supply of cheap labor seemed, and still seems, unlimited.
3) Anything that could be outsourced was outsourced. Now we don’t do much manufacturing in this country. We even eat foods grown on other continents. We still need people in this country to run brick-and-mortar stores, so retail is still going on (but the wages are minimum). We still need services; the service economy is about all that is really strong.
4) Now if we need something, whether medical supplies or a big screen TV, chances are very few Americans had a hand in making it. At best they got it to us.

We have a basic weakness in fundamentals.

We need to understand
1) The global cheap wage market is going to drag down what we can have. We won’t settle for a day of work for ten cents, but we won’t be averaging a hundred dollars an hour either.
2) People will still buy what you make if you make something they need. If they have no money, they’ll try to do without or make it themselves, but chances are, someone will bring them something made by ten-cents-a-day labor somewhere else.

Seems to me we could improve our lot by imposing huge tariffs on things made by cheap labor, but in the long run that will only:
a) Make currently inexpensive things cost more (i.e. bring apparent wages across the globe up to what Americans charge to spend their time working).
b) Make other countries who count on exports to us angry, to the extent that they refuse to buy things from us.
So since I’m not an economist, ignore what I say.

But still, think fundamentals. What do you do, that is worth something to someone else? That they can’t replace with something made in a cheap-labor economy?

Monday, December 15, 2008

"Don't Eat" Menus

Don't get me wrong...I *seriously* appreciate restaurants that have gluten-free menus, as they show the restaurant cares about feeding me and others like me in a way that won't make us sick.

Nevertheless, many restaurants offer what I call "Don't eat" menus. My reaction is always about the same: "If I wanted to not eat, I would have stayed home" or "Why am I paying so much money to not eat?"

Counter example: Legal Seafoods has one of the best gluten-free menus I've ever seen. They have a number of items on the menu that are modifications of their regular items. For example, the regular item has a main dish with broccoli served on a bed of noodles. The gluten free menu offers the same dish served on a bed of rice. YESSS! Thank you, thank you! I feel important. I feel valued. I feel hungry! and eventually I feel full, and taken care of.

(In addition, the manager at Legal comes over to discuss your food needs with you, and assures you he/she knows all about cross contamination and how they prevent it. But this post is about menus!)

Contrast this to Outback.

First, I went to one Outback restaurant once where they had a menu but no salad arrived with croutons on it, for example, and I ended up getting sick from something they served me.

Second, when you do read the Outback menu, it reads like this: Steaks: order without sauce. Salad: Order without croutons. Special #1. Order without bread. Don't eat this, don't eat that. (And moreover, we don't take any responsibility for your food. If you eat something that makes you sick, it's because you ordered wrong.)

Big Bowl has a gluten free menu, Yay!
The regular menu has 6 pages.
The Gluten-Free menu has: Pad Thai. (Order one of four ways.)

I can't tell you how discouraging it is to go out to eat when one must eat gluten-free. One often ends up with just salad. Guess what guys, salad is NOT a meal.

A restaurant doesn't even need to buy gluten-free bread: I could eat all sorts of things if you would just:

a) not thicken everything with wheat flour. If it's corn soup, thicken with corn starch. If it's potatoes au gratin, thicken with potato starch.
b) Have a bottle of wheat-free soy sauce on hand. (It's really not all that expensive! If I remember, I bring my own bottle to sushi restaurants, but come on guys: you can buy one too!)

Honestly, I wish all restauranteurs would have to eat a food-allergy meal for a month. I think you'd understand I'm not trying to be difficult.

Menus: Yes, it's true, when restauranteurs search for "gluten free", they see a list of instructions what the patron cannot eat. It's important for you to learn what I can't eat, but you don't have to teach me "don't eat bread, pasta, noodles, anything with breading, soy sauce, gravies, etc."...I know that and live it every day of my life.

Instead, please try to translate what I can't eat into what you have that I can eat. Look down your menu from the point of view of someone whose body will get sick from the things on the list you found, and see what that leaves.

THEN PLEASE, try to adjust a few more things so I can eat them. Maybe have some corn chips on hand to replace the pita points that come with your spinach-artichoke dip. Maybe have some all-rice noodles to cook for me instead of the rice/wheat combo noodles you make everyone else. Pasta lasts forever, it's not like you'll go broke making me something I can eat.

Finally, if you ARE aware of gluten issues, please don't be offended if I question you and your people. Many less-aware restaurants have offered me toxic food and assured me I could eat it. I *HAVE* to question you. No, I cannot eat the salad after you pick the croutons crumb of crouton means a month of autoimmune hell, really. And it feels really punishing to be served a dry breast of chicken when everyone else has a yummy looking sauce...whip out that bottle of wheat-free soy sauce and it makes all the difference.

Thank you in advance for making it possible to accommodate me, and the up-to-1% of people who cannot process gluten. We are a market specialty for Legal Seafoods. I hope we can make you money too.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Culture of Rudeness

Many popular reality shows have a premise that it’s ok to be rude to others. I can’t speak for the “put people into a situation together with the promise of eliminating one at a time, and see what happens” genre because I can’t stand to watch brings back painful memories of sports in school. I tend to watch the shows that have lessons for us all, whether it’s managing a handful of kids, obtaining medical care for a rare conditon, or upgrading your home’s design or your body’s appearance.

I have noticed in some shows that what apparently makes money for the show is people being rude to one another. As a not-unique example, let’s look at “What Not To Wear”. Some makeover shows involve volunteers; this one tapes friends and family saying negative things about someone’s appearance, “ambushing” the person (their word!) and then bribing the person to subject herself (usually; occasionally it’s a man) to a public literal dressing-down that may be replayed for decades, with the allure of $5000 of new clothes, fashion lessons, a haircut, and a trip to New York.

Ignoring for a minute how much less $5000 is worth than it was when the show started five years ago, what really happens in this show? People are ambushed, their taste is laughed at, and at the end they thank the show for the wonderful experience? I suspect the show is highly edited and in fact the most outrageous things insults that the hosts lay on the victims are aired whereas behind the scenes a lot of encouragement is considered not press-worthy. Example dig: “You look like a part time secretary in a women’s prison.” (Um excuse me, why is being a part time secretary in a women’s prison a bad thing? She looked conservative and modest to me.)

I hope that the US is raised to a higher standard by our new commander-in-chief, who apparently will not say a negative thing about anyone, given any number of chances. I hope we realize that feelings do matter and it’s not funny to publicly abuse anyone, for lack of taste (and money; it’s very clear that the show is insulted if anyone ever dresses inexpensively) as well as for any of the reasons that were popular years ago, like race, impoverishment, short stature, delayed mental capacity, or medical deformities.

Please people, bullying is on its way out. Let’s see nice become popular.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Scary scary adulthood

A friend’s child was sad that adults seem to work work work all the time with only 2 days out of seven off, and no summers off. This reminds me of myself, and more recently my son. The kids look ahead and see a life of not being able to do what they want to do because they are spending too much time doing what they have to.

I think it’s important to tell these kids, as well as adults who have never questioned the work world, that they have options. Yes, most people choose the 5-days-work routine, but not all. Some work for themselves. Many people who have high-intellectual-content jobs don’t have to work any particular day. Some people work at home almost all the time.

The bottom line is you need money to live. Most people, to get money, take “a job”, meaning someone else will pay them to do what they tell them for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week.

First “But”: if you can find another way to get enough money, you don’t have to have “a job.” Examples are making crafts that people will buy, building websites for people, creating video games, helping people (e.g. being an aide), making music, tutoring, visiting places to write travel books, and teaching scuba diving.

Second “But”: Many “jobs” aren’t all work, because the people who do them love to do them. Examples are a lot of engineers couldn’t think of anything they’d rather be doing than what they do. The same goes for doctors, EMTs, pilots, etc.

My daughter’s college has a saying about what the steps are for a successful college education: 1) Figure out what you love to do. 2) Learn to do it well enough that someone will pay you to do it.

Ask your children what they think they’d like to do as adults during the times they aren’t working. Hopefully they’ll be able to find a job doing that. Then work doesn’t feel like work, it feels like getting paid to do what they want to do. Some people like what they do enough that they don’t want to take a vacation!

A lot of people aren’t very creative about having free time, though. They can’t think of anything useful to do. So even if they have money, they take a job to have a) a purpose in life, b) people to talk to and share their struggles with, c) an identity to call their own: I am a employee, I represent [company] and even d) something to complain about. These are the people who want to have a 40-hour a week job.

There’s also the option of part time, if you can live on less money. If you do it right, you can spend some of your now plentiful free time doing things that make you more money as well!

A final comment is that once you’re out of school, it’s not as confining as being in school. By law children have to go to school. There is no such law for adults and work. If you aren’t doing anything illegal, you can do what you want.

My son is currently in his gap year between high school and college. He’s working 20 hours a week at a restaurant, and taking 2 community college courses. A friend of his said, “If you’re working and taking classes, that’s not a break!” I could see what she meant, but to him it *feels* like a break since he can quit his job any time he wants, and it’s entirely his choice to take the classes.

He mentioned early in the semester that one of his classes was a bit boring. “Are you going to drop it?” I asked. He gave me this totally blank stare, showing me that he had not even considered that he had a choice in the matter. Up through high school, you couldn’t drop a course, and just not going could land you or your parents in jail. Now it’s up to him! If you drop by XX date, you even get your money back!

Having that choice in the matter has made the difference between feeling imprisoned and feeling empowered. Tell the kids it’s good to be an adult!