Big Oil Takes a Little Step

On his always enlightening blog, Ottmar Liebert referenced an article on where Kenneth Cohen, vice-president for public affairs at Exxon acknowledged that their views regading the degree to which fossil-fuel emissions are contributing to global warming are changing:

We know enough now […] that the risk is serious and action should be taken.

Sure, Big Oil is the master of PR spin and you’ve gotta wonder about their motives. But still, it’s hard not to get just a little excited that the daddy of all oil conglomerates — the largest company in the world, by revenue — is talking about alternative fuel sources like solar & wind power. It may only be a teensy, tentative step, but it does seem like a step in the right direction…

A Hint of Hope for Hip-Hop

I love music and have a fairly broad range of musical tastes, although I guess most of this is fairly mainstream. I can’t quite cozy up to some of the stuff out at the extremes like bubblegum pop junk, really twangy old country, or Trey & Linda’s fierce “growl rock” death metal.

But one main musical genre that I mostly ignore is Hip-Hop. I've often ranted on (just ask Clems & April) most urban music (Rap, Hip-Hop, or the new generation of "R&B") for being morally bankrupt and drowning actual talent with just so much “gangsta” ghetto attitude. Jamie Foxx’s “Unpredictable,” for example, could've been great, but he trashed his credible & real vocal abilities with fistfulls of guest street thugs, er… rappers & MCs spouting pointless rhymes and injecting loads of needless profanity. It's telling that the best parts of Kanye West or Snoop Dogg songs are the guest artists — like Jamie Foxx, Usher, or Justin Timberlake — guys who have soulful singing skills, but junk up most of their own songs with distracting, meaningless, and often tasteless (c)rap.

But where most Hip-Hop or Rap artists may fail to impress me much for their own musical talent, it seems that their real skill is in finding fresh new sounds to accompany them. Kanye West's violinist (introduced by Jay-Z), Miri Ben-Ari, for example, is at the forefront of an emerging variant of Hip-Hop that's really got me excited. Miri brings highbrow classical musicianship to the street. Her sound & style doesn't sacrifice smarts just to be hip. And she's kinda hot too!

Likewise, with Nuttin' But Stringz, brothers Damien & Tourie Escobar infuse Classical, Jazz, & R&B styles into Hip-Hop music that's fresh & fun.

And dreadlocked Daniel Bernard Roumain throws down a hybrid of styles that veers more towards orchestral, but features turntable scratch riffs, thumping bass lines, & some very funky violin string plucking.

And then just the other day I discovered this video from Korean group Last4One that remixes Pachelbel's “Canon in D Major” with zithers & breakdancing.

Maybe there's hope for Hip-Hop after all…

Risky Business

Recently on collision detection, Clive Thompson was saddened by the way that playground design has been ruined by bureaucrats. In making playgrounds less lawsuit-prone (i.e. safer), we've stripped much of the fun & learning opportunities out of them too. And I've got to agree that, by overzealously protecting children, we may seriously be hampering their development. Aren't bumps & bruises just natural byproducts of healthy risk-taking — of kids trying new stuff & learning new skills?

Well, after reading some of the comments on Clive's post, I strayed onto the interesting tangent of risk homeostasis that comes into play (pun intended) here. This theory suggests that people have an innate target level of acceptable risk which does not change. Applied to the topic of playgrounds, risk homeostasis suggests that when an area is made “safer,” kids simply find new ways to use it, generally keeping the rate of playground-induced injuries constant.

That's a thought-provoking concept. And it was a topic tackled by Malcolm Gladwell a few years ago. The gist of which is that safety initiatives only shuffle risk around rather than reduce it.

For example, we're completely unfazed about zipping down the highway at 80-90 m.p.h. (This is Texas after all) because we're comforted by automotive safety advances like 3-point restraints, airbags, ABS, crumple-zones, & such. In other words, these safety innovations may make our driving habits more risky, not less. And there's definitely support for the argument of risk compensation when you look at the attitudes & driving habits of SUV-owners — which is the topic of yet another excellent editorial by Gladwell.

Over on Damn Interesting, Cynthia Wood summed this up neatly:

Sometimes things intended to make us safer may not make any improvment at all to our overall safety, and in rare instances they may actually make us less safe. The human tendency to take risks may trump all the efforts of the safety engineers. In the end, no one can save us from ourselves.

PowerPoint is the Devil

Visit for more great corporate cartoons.

Dede & I have often ranted amoungst ourselves about how corporate America has been infested with a “PowerPoint culture,” so when I saw Brad Fitzpatrick & Kit Pirillo’s recent bLaugh cartoon “Powerpud” this morning, it really struck a chord with me.

I’m no great orator but I had enough college speech courses to know that the best presentations are those where there’s a sense of conversation or connection between speaker and the audience. Conversely, PowerPoint presentations are nearly always mind-numbing, bullet-pointed bureaucratese filled with buzzwords, abstract factoids, and corporate-speak that completely sucks the life out of almost any topic.

PowerPoint even features a built-in presentation checker that will tell you whether your slides are too wordy — lest you run out of screen space for those all-important whiz-bang animations, splashy clip-art, bold topic headings, and neat rows of bullet-points. The PowerPoint culture turbocharges the notion of form over content, substituting fluff for substance with the easy click of a mouse. PowerPoint presentations shift the focus from content, discussion, or effective communication to that of tedious but flashy eye candy.

Maybe even worse, PowerPoint presentations can easily and subtly mask bad news with cheerfully-colored charts and graphs, giving, as Sun Microsystems’ John Gage sums it up, “…a persuasive sheen of authenticity that can cover a complete lack of honesty.”

And there’s even a word for this: PowerPointlessness.

Sadly, the PowerPoint culture reaches way beyond corporate America — it’s infiltrating the schoolhouse too! A New York Times article from 2001 noted that PowerPoint has also invaded the classroom — even at the Kindergarten level — which kinda brings back to mind my previous concerns about pushing technology on children too early.

It seems that many teachers are making the false assumption that forcing students to use PowerPoint to create presentations will spawn excellent communication skills and creativity, yet we’ve seen undeniably clear evidence to the contrary in the corporate world. It’s far more likely that students will simply become fixated on fonts, formats, & fluff and fail to think about the sentences that those snazzy bullet-points are supposed to represent.

You have to wonder — is PowerPoint’s cookie-cutter, bullet-point mindset partly responsible for, or just another indicator of, how writing in complete and compelling sentences has become such a struggle for so many people. Chicken? Egg?

Maybe this is just another sign of our changing times, but I’m very nostalgic for the “old days” when people used complete sentences, sometimes even paragraphs, to convey thoughts. Words, sentences, ideas… now that’s stuff to chew on! Bullet-points aren’t thinking points or information to be considered — they’re just disposable dollops of data, the intellectual equivalent of just so many Chicken McNuggets.

For a funny example of the soul-sapping essence of the PowerPoint culture, check out Peter Norvig’s PowerPoint Presentation version of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

Okay, to be fair, PowerPoint isn’t the devil. It’s just a tool and it doesn’t tell you how to write. It does, however, foster lax communication skills and offers no incentive to become a more proficient presenter. PowerPoint is a radical oversimplifier, guiding its users down a predetermined & simplistic path that dilutes the intended message. And it provides an easy crutch — a convenient script that can be effortlessly recited, line by line.

So, what to do? Well, for starters, PowerPoint slides should be used as cue cards instead, incorporating a key word or phrase from each into your explanation of the larger point being illustrated. Remember that PowerPoint is a visual aid — a subset of your verbal presentation — to highlight key points, clarify complex concepts, and help organize the theme. The audience is there to listen to your insight, not to be read to.

To paraphrase’s Heath Row, if you need PowerPoint to get your message across, maybe you’re sending the wrong message.

Fencing Mexico

Unless you've been dozing under a rock, you've heard by now about the proposal to build a double set of steel walls with floodlights, surveillance cameras & motion detectors along one-third of the U.S.-Mexican border to prevent illegal immigrants and potential terrorists from hiking across the southern border into the United States. It would run along five segments of the 1,952-mile border that now experience the most illegal crossings. And all of this for a mere estimated cost of, oh, around $2.2 billion.

Fencing already exists along 106 miles of the border, primarily near larger cities, including San Diego, El Paso & Nogales, Ariz. Mostly, it consists of welded panels of corrugated steel recycled from portable landing strips the Army used in Vietnam but some parts are just a few strands of barbed-wire tacked to wooden fence posts.

San Diego's 14-mile, 15-foot-high double fence, which has been under construction since 1996, is the model for the proposed border fence, but has repeatedly stalled out due to environmental concerns. Already nearly $39 million has been spent on the project, and Homeland Security has allocated $35 million more. So, if that $74 million would be enough to finish the job and the price is multiplied over the proposed 700 miles, the new fence could run nearly double the estimated $2.2 billion — and that's just for the Southern California segment!

But even as fencing, border patrol manpower, & migrant surveillance technologies have increased steadily over the past decade or so, the number of people arrested trying to cross illegally seems to still be rapidly rising.

And worse yet, Mexico's human rights commission boldly announced earlier this year that (if the massive border fencing project were to be green-lighted) it plans to distribute 70,000 maps showing the least-covered crossing points, highways, rescue beacons & water tanks in the Arizona desert to help reduce the death toll among illegal border crossers. (Here's a kicker — the maps were designed by the Tucson, Ariz.-based rights group Humane Borders.) And this is on the heels of a comic-book-style booklet for migrants that was distributed by the Mexican government in early 2005 offering tips to stay safe while crossing illegally into the U.S.

So not only is the Mexican government not doing anything to discourage illegals from migrating into the U.S., but they're actually helping to promote it.

But let's look at this problem from another angle… Tourism.

According to statistics released by Mexico's Tourism Secretariat (Sectur), Mexico's economy showed an unprecedented surge in '04 and their tourism industry was expected to exceed $10 million in 2005, with 70% percent of visitors coming from the U.S. Mexico is home to the world's 7th-largest hotel industry. Add to that, the Mexican tourism industry attracted more than $2.29 billion in new investments last year, representing a 38.5% increase over the previous year's figures. And by the end of 2006, Mexico is projected to have attracted $9 billion in new tourism investments.

So it seems easy enough to see that the more fiscally responsible and progressive thing to do — rather than fencing off the U.S.-Mexican border — would be to simply engage in one last bout of empire building.

Take Mexico.

Yup, seize the country; divvy it up into a few more states; clean up the water; exploit the massive labor pool; tax the snot out of the tourism industry; and end the illegal immigration problem once & for all. Sound extreme? Maybe not so much. After all, do the math: We can spend more than $3 billion to build useless border fences or earn $9 billion in tourism investment income.

And this isn't even taking into account the vast income potential brought about with the recently completion of “La Entrada al Pacifico,” a massive commerce corridor between far west Texas' Presidio and Mexico's Pacific coast. After all, where do you think Dollar General (a.k.a. Wal-Mart, Jr.) is getting its inventory?

And just think about how dramatically land values would escalate when the SoCal elite started snapping up beachfront property in those new states… The profits from the real estate boom would be unimaginable — and the tax income could fund other vital infrastructure improvements in those new states.

So, what do ya think? Anyone else up for a land grab?

Rapper Rant & Gangsta Poses

Brad with guns in a gangsta poseTrey & I recently pondered why it is that the vast majority of the Hip-Hop "musicians" like 50 Cent, P. Diddy, et al. seem so pissed off, miserable, or just plain constipated?   I mean, c’mon, how unhappy can you justify being if the most challenging part of your day is hauling around $2mil of platinum & diamond jewelry while "bustin’ a rhyme?"   Not sure what I mean?   Click here, here, or here, for a few perfect examples of this.   I’m thinking maybe if they’d pawn off some "bling" and snag a Happy Meal, some of these thugs might just be able to crack a smile…

After all, if we’ve gotta tolerate these jokers bilking most of the Gen Y population out of every last dime on degrading stuff that’s (generally) about as sophisticated as Mother Goose nursery rhymes, can’t we at least demand that they smile big all the way to the bank?

At any rate, it seemed only fitting (fo’ shizzle!) to show Trey proudly assuming the "gangsta" pose that works so well ($$) for rappers & Hip-Hop tough-guy wannabes.

Postage Rates Just Went Up – But So What?

A 5.4% across-the-board increase in U.S. postal rates and fees goes into effect today, making the cost of a first-class stamp rise from 37 to 39 cents.

Now 2 cents isn’t much and you could easily attribute the increase on higher fuel prices, soaring labor expenses, cost of upgrading technology, etc., but interestingly, this rate increase is not to cover rising costs of the postal services. Rather, its needed to comply with a federal law passed in 2003, requiring the USPS to establish a $3.1 billion escrow account. For what you ask? Well, the use of the funds is to be determined by Congress at a later date. Nice.

What’s more, its likely that another rate boost will occur next year that will actually be used to address added operational expenses for the USPS.

But just how much significant is this anyway? Oh sure, the rate hike will affect businesses who still rely heavily upon paper statements, invoices, notices, and such. However, given the ever-growing use of email and various forms of virtual money (online banking, credit cards, etc.) transactions, I’m betting that this will have little impact on the average person. With more and more of us handling bill paying and such online, I wonder if USPS is feeling the pinch yet – how much less income will this rate increase garner as compared to the last rate hike back in 2002 – and how much less did that increase net over the previous 3 cent bump in ’01? Postal officials claim that overall mail volume increased 2.6% last year, but I wonder how much of that was credit card applications, loan offers, and other unsolicited junk mail.

Do you suppose there’ll come a time when the Internet renders the good ol’ postage stamp all but irrelevant? Aside from Christmas cards, how many times last year did you actually stick a stamp on an envelope?

The Consumer Backlash Against Sony

Boycott Sony bannerY’know, I’m all about spreading the good word about businesses and companies who treat their customers right.   For example, is there anyone who hasn’t heard me sing praises of Best Cleaners?   If you’re local (you know who you are) and have clothes that need to be "dry cleaned," these folks truly do live up to their name.

Likewise, companies who don’t treat their customers right should get their just desserts too.   There’s been a tremendous buzz lately over Sony and their malicious "rootkit" DRM scheme.   Watchdog advocates are calling for consumers to speak their minds during this holiday season — in the language of currency!

Our Belated New Year’s Resolution

Those of you who know us well know that we’ve developed a keen interest and real respect for Tibetan people and culture over the past couple of years. I think our interest in this began with the movie “Seven Years in Tibet”. This movie led us to want to know more about the Dalai Lama and Tibet, so we also rented Martin Scorsese’s “Kundun” and the documentary “Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion”. Another very interesting DVD we rented was “Robert Thurman on Tibet”, which is really more of a lecture than an actual movie.

(Robert Thurman, father of actress Uma Thurman, is a former Tibetan Buddhist monk, Director of the Tibet House in New York City, and a personal friend of the Dalai Lama.)

At any rate, we were completely unfamiliar with what the Buddhist religion is about, the reasoning behind the Chinese takeover of Tibet, and the story of the Dalai Lama’s exile to India. So these films were real eye openers for us. “Snow Lion” paints a vivid picture of Tibetan culture and the devastating genocidal affects of the Chinese occupation. The imprisonment and torturous treatment of the Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns is particularly shocking and reminded me of the unthinkable treatment of Jews by Hitler’s Nazis back during WWII. Robert Thurman’s accounts of Tibet and it’s people is very fascinating and thought-provoking stuff!

For more information about His Holiness, The Dalai Lama, and the Tibet effort, visit the official website of the Central Tibetan Administration or consider reading The Dalai Lama’s “An Open Heart: Practicing Compassion in Everyday Life”. This book gives an overview of the fundamental Buddhist principles and aims to show how Buddhist practices can lead to a more compassionate and happier life. The concepts presented lend themselves to being applied by anyone, regardless of religious beliefs. I’m impressed by how the Dalai Lama isn’t on a mission to convert people’s religion, but rather turn their hearts and enrich their lives through compassion for others.

So this all brings me around to our belated New year’s Resolution. There is a compelling argument about how to force China to abandon it’s Tibetan occupation made in more than one of the films I mentioned above. And that argument is that the Chinese government will leave Tibet when it finally becomes too much of an economical burden, which could be brought about by a widespread boycott on the purchase of Chinese-made goods.

So, it seemed like the conscionable thing to do is join in this effort. So, we’ve made a serious effort to avoid buying anything that has a “Made in China” label over the past couple of months. And while this is not necessary an easy feat, it makes sense to us to our little part in casting a vote with our dollars. Will this work? Can a collective effort to cause a lapse in consumer demand in Chinese goods really cause Tibet to be free again? Hard to say, but you can read more about this activism campaign effort at Boycott Made In China.

What do you think?

The Transition from Chores to Privileges

It was a beautiful morning so we zipped down to our favorite DIY car wash to knock some of the dust & road grime off of Caliente.

Dede & I both realized that we’re only now beginning to understand the value cialis mail order india of chores that, as kids, we begrudged.   What am I talking about?   Well, washing our cars, for starters, I didn’t get why Rich took such great pride in laboriously slathering Turtle Wax on his cars.   Likewise, I sure didn’t get why it mattered to mow the grass all the stinking time.

But now…

Mowing, edging, trimming & cleaning up the yard still isn’t the most fun thing in the world, but it is among the most satisfying (and therapeudic) of my homeowner tasks.   With the swell of pride I get from inspecting my freshly manicured yard, you’d think I had invented the lawnmower or something.   And from the proud grin that a shiney coat of wax on our cars plants firmly on our faces, you’d think we actually had a hand in building them.

Yeah, now I get it…

Sweat equity.”   If you’re not familiar with the term, it’s the thing that transforms a house into a home — and turns something you own into a thing of value that you cherish.   It gives you the feeling that you’ve earned the right to ownership.   Sweat equity makes you feel like you’ve made good use of a day.

And hey, the few bucks saved and bit of energy exerted washing our own cars helps us feel a little less guilty about the occassional splurge at Starbucks…