Friday, February 26, 2010

Things I learned this week

I learned that:
• Cushing Academy, a New England prep school, saw books as an "outdated technology," and got rid of them. The school's library now has no books, just flat-screen monitors, Kindles and Sony Readers.

• On average, people fart about 20 times per day.

• 71% of Americans, and 52% of Republicans, think Sarah Palin is not qualified to be president (Washington Post/ABC poll).

• Some think that California's largest cash crop is marijuana, and that taxing it could be a way out of the state's financial woes.

• The total tension of all the strings in a piano equals 25 tons of force.

• When archeologists discovered the tomb of Egyptian King Tutankhamun, they cut off his legs, arms and head, and sliced his torso in half, to get at his jewellery and gold accoutrements.

• You can buy a tungsten carbide wedding ring to match your drill bits, a definite endorsement opportunity for Red Green.

• Residents of Tracy, California, henceforth will be required to pay for 911 service --- either $48/year up front or $300 if they make a call for help. Do you feel lucky punk? Well, do ya?
How about that?

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Here's to the good times

In 1970, a group of 40-year-old buddies get together, and discuss where they should meet for dinner. Finally it is agreed that they should meet at the Gausthof zum Lowen restaurant because they have a great band, the waitresses there have low-cut blouses and are well-endowed, and cigar-smoking is permitted.

In 1980, at 50 years of age, the group gets together, and once again they discuss where they should meet. Finally, it is agreed that they should meet at the Gausthof zum Lowen because the food and the wine selection are both very good.

In 1990, at 60 years of age, the group gets together, and once again they discuss where they should meet. Finally, it is agreed that they should meet at the Gausthof zum Lowen because they can eat there in peace and quiet and the restaurant is smoke-free.

In 2000, at 70 years of age, the group gets together, and once again they discuss where they should meet. Finally, it is agreed that they should meet at the Gausthof zum Lowen because the restaurant is wheelchair-accessible and they even have an elevator.

In 2010, at 80 years of age, the group gets together, and once again they discuss where they should meet. Finally, it is agreed that they should try the Gausthof zum Lowen because they have never been there before.

(Sorry, I can't remember who sent this. If you remember that you sent it, please let me know.)

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A new era dawns, unfortunately

My wife says this blog needs to be less of a downer. She says I delve into heavy topics too often, and should stay on the lighter side.

Personally, I feel I have about the right balance of the pollyannish and the apocalyptic, but please let me know if you think otherwise.

The problem is that, despite wanting fervently to believe that every day, in every way, we're all getting better and better, reality has a way of reaching out and pulling me back in, dammit.

For example, right now I am reading a column by Thomas Friedman, who I happen to think is about the most insightful and articulate observer/prognosticator on the scene today. That mostly means I usually agree with him.

Anyway, Tom says, "Welcome to the lean years."

He thinks that the "greatest generation," the folks who won WWII , and then created the most prosperous period in modern history, have been succeeded by us, the "grasshopper generation" that spent its time, "eating through the prosperity that was bequeathed to us."

Now, after 70 years in which leadership was mostly about "giving things away," we are in a new era when leadership will be about "taking things away" because they can no longer be afforded.

It's been an amazingly long party --- decades of increasing services, while putting much of it on the cuff. Now there will be a very unpleasant hangover.

At the end of the day, economics rules.

I promise you something funny tomorrow. Honest!

UPDATE: The theories of Strauss and Howe, to which commenter Francie refers, are explained here.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Your personal future shock

Calgary's SAIT Polytechnic is running a billboard campaign with the theme "Get a Career You’ll Never Want to Leave."

These billboards are eyecatching because they show students’ faces in youth, middle age, and old age, with images created using the SAIT-developed Facebook Seniorizer application.



Facebook
members who are ready for the future can upload a photo, and see what it holds for them, follically and epidermisly.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Missing the boat

Maybe we're not so far removed from the dinosaurs after all. You don't get the memo, you miss the meeting, and next thing you know...

Friday, February 19, 2010

Olympic things I learned this week

I learned that:
Losing Your Head is when a luger’s head is pulled back onto the ice by high G-forces.

Crossover is the motion used by speed skaters to negotiate curves where the outer foot crosses over the inner foot to help maintain balance and speed.

Duckfoot is a snowboard stance where the athlete’s toes point outward.

GoofyFooted is riding a snowboard with the right foot forward.

• A Clap Skate has a hinged blade that detaches from the heel, allowing the full length of the speed skating blade to remain on the ice for a longer period of time.

Penalty Loop is the 150-metre loop a biathlon competitor must ski when a target is missed in the sprint, relay, pursuit and mass start events.

Kick Wax is used on the middle of the underside of the classical skis to increase friction between the skis and snow to improve traction.

• A Hogged Rock is a curling stone that fails to cross the hog line at the target end of the (ice) sheet.

Negative Ice is a condition of the curling ice surface that causes stones to bend in the direction opposite to what it normally would.

Splitting the House is a play where two curling stones belonging to the same team are placed at opposite sides of the scoring area.

• A Triple Axel is 3 ½ revolutions, and is the only jump in figure skating that begins from the forward facing position.

• A Hand-to-Hand Lasso Lift is an overhead lift in which figure skating team's female partner rotates on the way up.

• In a Backscratcher, the freestyle skier touches his or her back with the tails of both skis.

• A Daffy is a mogul manoeuvre in which the freestyle skier kicks one leg forward and the other backward to achieve the splits position in mid-air.
How about that?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Breaking the law of averages

Averages are the fuel of punditry, as I am about to demonstrate.

They are also the basis for the "common knowledge" that underlies much public policy, and that's where they get dangerous.

For example, reports on the current U.S. unemployment rate of 9.7% speak as though it is spread more or less equally across the working population. The real rate for the lowest income group is more than 30%. For the next lowest group, 19.1%. For the highest income levels, 1.6%.
Message: Efforts that get low-income folks back to work will have the biggest impact on the nation's employment rate.

Reality:
Most programs are geared for middle-income workers.

Articles about air pollution give the impression that all cars contribute more or less equally to the problem. The reality, as Malcolm Gladwell points out in his book, What the Dog Saw, is that "5% of the vehicles on the road produce 55% of the automobile pollution.
Message: Pay to get those heavy polluters into the scrap yard.

Reality: Subject all drivers to the expense and hassle of pollution checks.

Most of us think of the homeless as a monolithic bloc of people who have fallen through the cracks and are all doomed to a life on the streets. Gladwell cites data that shows this is far from the case. Looking at Philadelphia, researchers found that 80% were in and out of shelters in a day or two. 10% used shelters periodically for a few weeks. Only 10% were chronically homeless, and this relatively small group costs a ton of tax dollars for sheltering, emergency room visits, intensive care treatment, and police services, because they injure themselves, get complicated infections, are hit by vehicles, and so on.
Message: Provide housing and other programs that end chronic homelessness by focusing extra attention on the 10%.

Reality: Try to help all homeless people equally, thereby providing services that allow the 10% to remain homeless and cost society a bundle, forever.
Interesting, eh?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Full contact karaoke

Traveller Advisory: Karaoke can get you killed in the Philippines.

According to a New York Times article, disputes over karaoke singing frequently degenerate into fistfights and stabbings.

At least a half dozen amateur performers have been murdered while emulating Frank Sinatra singing My Way. In fact, that popular tune is such a fight-starter that most bars have deleted it from their playlists. The news media have labelled this crime category the "My Way Killings."

Singing out of tune, hogging the microphone, mocking someone's singing, singing a song that has already been sung --- any of these can trigger a bar fight.

Why do I think that this would have put a smile on Ol' Blue Eyes' face?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The pink panty revolution

A year ago, a group of women went out for a night on the town in the Indian city of Mangalore. A group of men decided that the women were being immoral and disrespectful of "Indian cultural values," and needed to be put in their place. The women were viciously attacked and sexually molested. Authorities, including the National Commission for Women, essentially turned a blind eye.

The incident gave rise to a women's protest movement that showed its disgust by sending hundreds of boxes of pink panties to unsympathetic conservative politicians. The movement is now 57,000 strong.

It hopes that this is the beginning of a sexual revolution in India.

It's long overdue. While western women may not feel that total equality with men has been achieved, their Indian counterparts continue to live in a society that is medieval by comparison.

Consider the following small sample of the many horrors inflicted upon women in this country that, inconsonantly, sees itself challenging for 21st century economic leadership in the world [From Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific]:
• In 2008, two teenage girls who visited the homes of some boys to celebrate the Diwali festival with sweets and fire crackers were lynched by their community, and burned to death.

• In villages, young widows or single women who have been abandoned by their husbands, and who resist the advances of other men, are sometimes labeled "witches" and then hunted and lynched by mobs.

• The gang rape of women is a commonly used method of revenge between rival men or feuding castes or religions. The victims have little chance of getting justice from unsympathetic police and courts.

• A woman, Imrana, brought charges of rape against her father-in-law. She was then subjected to an excruciating public trial by an Islamic jury that declared her polluted and unfit for a relationship with her husband, and then instructed her to divorce him and marry her rapist.

• Many female babies are killed at birth. The resulting shortage of wives has created a massive "flesh trade" that involves kidnapping, buying, selling and sharing women.
There is much more. Please read the full report.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Canada goes from cold to cool

Tweep Lucy Izon [@CanadaCool] tipped me to this.

Canada has found its mojo, according to Australian journalist Samantha Selinger-Morris. Aussies have always had a their own rep for being free spirited and in-your-face world travellers who can survive in the outback with nothing more than 24 cans of Fosters, a Crocodile Dundee knife, and a hat with dangling corks.

But, I digress.

According to Samantha, "Once the US's poor cousin, Canada has given itself edge."

Actor Ryan Reynolds, Lost star Evangeline Lilly, model and best-selling crime fiction author Tara Moss, and Sherlock Holmes star Rachel McAdams are among Canadians who are transforming our reputation from fashion-challenged igloo dwellers and baby seal killers to edgy role models for the Facebook generation. Acceptance of gay marriage and other social policies are also helping, says Samantha.

They like us! They really, really like us!

But, she says, we could blow it all if we screw up as host of the Winter Olympics. Most cut us some slack when one of the pillars of the cauldron had a Viagra moment during the opening ceremonies, but the mavens are watching.

Geez!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Things I learned this week

I learned that:
• You can get five years in jail and 1,000 lashes for discussing your love life on TV in Saudi Arabia.

• Most of us have assumed that, in addition to saving the planet, a benefit of driving more efficient cars would be savings at the gas pump as we filled up less often. Probably not. Tax revenue on gasoline will also fall, likely forcing governments to charge tolls, or to tax us for distance travelled, using new technology to collect that tax right at the gas pump.

• Those 100-page reports that nobody reads are finally useful. A Japanese company has created the “White Goat,” a machine that transforms used and unwanted office paper into toilet paper.

• University of California studies suggest moderate beer consumption may help fight osteoporosis because suds are a rich source of dietary silicon.

Studies indicate chocolate may cut the risk of stroke, says neurologist Gustavo Saposnik at St. Michael’s Hospital, University of Toronto.

• Britons can expect many open air funeral pyres after a 71 year old Hindu man won his court battle to be cremated that way per his religion. Hindus consider it essential to "a good death" and the release of the spirit into the afterlife.

• According to Canadian Business, when McCain Foods eliminated trans fats from its products, "it removed a stunning eight million pounds of the substance from Canadians' diets every year."
How about that?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Are Sarah and Oprah the future of politics?

Is power shifting from elected politicians to the mavens of infotainment?

Video blogger Davis Fleetwood is one who thinks so, and he may have a point.

Consider the part Oprah Winfrey played in getting Obama elected.

Consider the fact that, arguably, Al Franken had more impact on public opinion as an author/comedian/Letterman guest than he has now as a U.S. Senator.

Consider also the the influence of Bill O'Reilly, Glen Beck, and Rush Limbaugh in roiling the waters of public opinion in opposition to the new president's initiatives.

Consider that Sarah Palin is now a "news commentator" for Fox. Can it be long before she has her own show, becoming the "conservative Oprah?"

Is it an exaggeration to say that these powerful media personalities are driving the political agenda?

Matthew Continetti describes how difficult it has been for U.S. President Obama to advance his plans to, "Reform the banks, spend more on education, create a green economy through cap and trade and government subsidy, pass universal health insurance, and shift the focus of discretionary spending from defense to social programs."

Less than a year ago, a solid majority of the electorate wanted change in most of these areas. Now, not so much.

Competition for the hearts and minds of that great middle swack of undecided, largely uninformed, folks is the essence of modern American politics. Sentiment sloshes left and right, as the bucket is kicked around by the punditocracy.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Slow Down Week, February 8-12

The "slow" philosophy, a way of being.

Can you dig it?

Chat, smile, explore, experience.

It's your life, right now.

It's not a rehearsal.

Please watch this.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Retirees express disappointment in investment returns

This news item has all the ingredients of a classic Geezer story.

A German financial advisor invests pensioners' savings in Florida sub-prime mortgages, resulting in a loss of £2 million ($CAD 3,340,482).

Said pensioners have a Howard Beale moment, and ambush and torture said financial advisor.

The financial advisor is persuaded to send a fax instructing a Swiss bank to release funds, but manages to scribble a message on it asking the receiver to call police.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Pretty soon you're talking real money

Headlines refer to billions, even trillions, of dollars.

How do you get your head around numbers like that? Heck, I can't even visualize a million bucks, let alone a thousand million (billion) or a million million (trillion).

But, given that they're usually referring to our money, as taxpayers, maybe we ought to get a handle on it, so here goes.
• A billion seconds ago it was 1959.

• A billion minutes ago Jesus was alive.

• A billion hours ago our ancestors were living in the Stone Age.

• A billion months ago, dinosaurs walked the earth.

• A billion metres is almost three times the distance from the Earth to the Moon.

• A goldfish bowl large enough hold a billion goldfish would be as big as a stadium.

Impressive, but trifling compared to a trillion:
• If you started counting now, it would take 190,259 years to reach the number one trillion.

• 2,700 years is insufficient time to spend a trillion dollars at the rate of a million dollars per day.

• If you charged a trillion dollars to your credit card at 19.5%, you would owe the trillion plus $195,000,000,000 in interest before compounding starts next month. The number at the bottom of your credit card bill would be $1,195,000,000,000.00. Be sure to make the minimum monthly payment.
Whoa!

Friday, February 5, 2010

Things I learned this week

I learned that:
• India's newest expressway between Jaipur and Agra has cattle underpasses and camel-cart lanes.

• Despite having turned 50, Barbie's popularity is up, with sales increasing for the first time in two years.

• The Japanese have invented a smoke detector for deaf people. When smoke is present, the gizmo emits the odour of wasabi. Most subjects are awakened within 2 1/2 minutes.

• So-called "intersex" fish with both male and female sex characteristics have been found in about 1/3 of sites tested in major U.S. rivers such as the Mississippi and the Columbia. A third of all smallmouth bass and a fifth of largemouth bass were affected. Environmentalists see this as an early warning to humans of the dangers of poor water quality.

Science has explained why the gunfighter who drew first in those old western movies was always the one who got shot. It turns out that people can execute a movement about 10% more quickly if they're reacting to an opponent. This may have a basis in evolution. Or in the screenplay.
How about that?

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The myth of multitasking

Remember when people bragged about their ability to multitask, how they accomplished so much more, were so much more efficient, and so on?

There were articles about how women were much better multitaskers than men, speculation that it was due to some mysterious evolutionary thing involving picking berries and watching for snakes while tending to their young ones, or something.

There were other articles about how teenagers were much better multitaskers than their parents because they had grown up swimming in a media soup of cellphone conversations, iTunes, texting, video games, web browsing, Facebook, Twitter, and so on.

It turns out that all of this was a crock.

Not the doing of it, but the efficiency and effectiveness of it, and the denial of the negative effect it has on our mental state and sense of wellbeing. Network culture brought us many benefits, but multitasking was not one of them.

In fact, it turns out that this is an inefficient, ineffective, way to get things done, and it can also degrade family relationships and lead to a feeling that we are distracted and failing to get traction on things that are important.

It turns out that, when multitasking, our engagement with people and tasks is superficial and disjointed.

Sound familiar?

A Stanford University study found that, "People who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time." This confirms social scientists' long held assumption that the brain can only deal with one "information string" at a time.

The study discovered that multitaskers, "couldn't help thinking about the task they weren't doing." "They can't keep things separate in their minds." Performance suffered.

This week, the documentary Digital Nation: Life on the Virtual Frontier on PBS' Frontline also dealt, in part, with this subject, and the following are just a couple of the opinions from educators and others interviewed for the program

MIT teacher Sherry Turkle chooses her words carefully, saying that her students, "have done themselves a disservice by drinking the Kool-Aid and believing that a multitasking learning environment will serve their best purposes."

Stanford sociologist Clifford Nass points to studies showing that multitasking (Facebook, YouTube, etc.) while studying significantly slows learning. Nass worries that multitasking "may be creating people who are unable to think well as clearly."

The show's producer, Rachel Dretzin, experienced a wake-up moment in her own household when she was cooking dinner while her husband and older son were using laptops on the dining room table and her two younger children were playing with an iPhone. "It hit me, we're all in the same house but we're also in other worlds. It just sort of snuck up on us, I didn't see it coming."

I'm not sure why this is all such a big surprise. The human brain didn't get rewired in the span of one generation.

Then there are the social and safety issues that come into play. Do you want other commuters texting while driving? Do you appreciate a store employee making and taking calls while ringing up your purchase? How do you feel when your lunch companion starts texting during the soup course? Would you want your surgeon to be texting the details of your surgery to his surgeon buddies while you are under the knife?

Sorry, my cellphone is ringing, and I have mail. Bye for now.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Lonely hours for minutes of brilliance

One of life's great pleasures is to experience a true professional in action. The consummate performer makes it look easy, and we gush about her/his extraordinary talent.

But the equally important, perhaps even more essential, ingredient in producing a seamless performance, is hard work.

This was brought to mind three times in the past week.

I am a hobbyist guitar player. While I can pick out a few tunes for my own pleasure, and the amusement of my friends, I will never achieve true musical fluency. I do hang out online with "real" musicians who perform and instruct, though. Recently, a question was asked on the Jazz Guitar Forum about practice times, specifically how much time people were spending on their instruments daily. The replies were astonishing. While I might practice for an hour in a typical evening, with an eye and an ear monitoring the TV news, some of these guys are putting in 5 - 8 hours!

I am also a golfer, with a handicap well into double digits (higher is worse). I am in Florida at the moment, so am getting to play regularly. My practice regimen is to hit a dozen or so balls with whichever club misbehaved most last time out. The other day, I noticed a guy who approaches this with much more discipline. He was on the practice range before we started our round, working his way through the bag. He was still there more than two hours later when we finished the first nine, and he wasn't finishing up. By then, he was hitting shots out of the sand into a little bucket. It is estimated that pro golfer V.J. Singh has hit 2.5 million balls in practice.

The fluid grace of the world-class figure skater epitomizes elegance and beauty, but a recent newspaper article described the dedication and sacrifice required to compete at the Olympic level. Broken bones, bruises, pain, and countless hours of practice time. The daily regimen for pairs includes 1 hour in the gym, 30 minutes of lifts, 2 hours on the ice with your partner, 90 minutes of individual skating, and another hour in the gym. That totals 6 hours. Every day.

These people are working on things that go way beyond the fundamentals of their chosen art or sport, so far beyond that laymen aren't even aware of all that is being done with fingers, hands, and legs. Obsessing over seemingly trifling detail, nuances, subtlety, fractions of a second, makes the difficult look effortless. Only another high-level performer can fully appreciate the perfection.

I'm no sports psychologist, but it's pretty apparent that those who are compelled to achieve this level of excellence actually enjoy practice. For the rest of us, these would be long, boring, lonely hours.

For them, it is the path to fulfilment.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Retiree finds rewarding hobby

The so-called Geezer Bandit has now stymied law enforcement officials, including the FBI, for more than six months. At a time of life when most folks take up more relaxing pursuits, this guy started his own crime wave in San Diego, California.

Thought to be between 60-70 years old, he hit his first bank on August 28, 2009, then knocked over five more over the following months, with the most recent just last Wednesday. Security camera images indicate he is white, six feet tall, 190 pounds, and wears a white hoodie, ball cap and blue jeans.

Who would you cast in the movie version? Clint Eastwood? Jack Nicholson? Sean Connery? Rip Torn?

Monday, February 1, 2010

Persons of the sea

Human beings' attitude toward other animals, despite some recent moderation by the animal rights movement, is largely guided by instructions from the book of Genesis to, "have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth."

Contrasting sharply with this traditional perspective is that of some scientists who are studying dolphin behavior. They are suggesting that dolphins could be the most intelligent creatures on Earth after humans, and deserve to be classified as "non-human persons."

These studies are said to demonstrate that dolphins have "distinct personalities and self-awareness, and they can think about the future." They also behave in ways we think of as human, such as cooperating to solve problems, teaching others, recognizing one's self in a mirror, and using language.

All of this calls into question the ethics of dolphin slaughter by the Japanese and the Danes, and of the dolphin shows at amusement parks and zoos.