Lost Library

Saturday, September 12, 2009

stack of old booksA recent blog about beautiful libraries triggered some old memories.   As a kid, I loved going to the public library — and still do.   Our library wasn’t elaborate or grandiose, yet it seemed immense.   People spoke in hushed church-like tones.   There was that nameless scent.   The obscure Dewey Decimal System held untold secrets just waiting to be decoded.   The shelves just dripped with potential.   Yes, going to the library was a rich & wondrous experience!

But it’s an experience I fear that my son may never know...

Booked-filled libraries are becoming a thing of the past. But while virtual libraries of e-books are certainly more accessible, I don’t think they’re as appreciable.   There’s not the same sense of vastness nor do they inspire the same reverence or wonderment.   Digital books seem less tangible and substantial.   You can electronically duplicate the content, but not the context or sensual aspect, the smell, feel, heft & texture, of actual books.

I’ll admit that even in spite of my love for real, physical books, I’m not immune to the hype & allure of e-book readers.   The idea that in a matter of seconds, you can download a new book rather than ordering it and waiting days or weeks for it to arrive make devices like Amazon.com’s Kindle really attractive.   But several factors — not the least of which is the price — have held me back.   I’ve seen a Sony e-book reader and the screen was surprisingly easy on the eyes, but deep down I’m still suspicious that the e-book reader experience just wouldn’t be as satisfying or comfortable as reading a book.

But sadly, the trend of replacing actual books with digital versions is only accelerating.   In fact, Cushing Academy near Boston is one of the first schools in the U.S. to abandon traditional books in favor of virtual ones.   In lieu of a library, the academy is instead creating a media center, spending nearly $500,000 equip it with with flat-screen TVs, e-book readers, and a coffee shop.

Is it just me and this is just nostalgia rearing its head once again?   Do you think there’s anything lost in the transition from physical to digital books?   Have you considered making the move to e-books?   Are libraries all but lost as we plunge ever deeper into the cyberworld?


Posted by Rob at 6:30 AM 6 comments links to this post

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Tax-Free Insanity

Friday, August 21, 2009

tax-free graphicThe annual, three-day Sales Tax Holiday begins today in Texas.   During the "holiday" weekend of August 21—23rd, back-to-school shoppers get a break from state & local sales taxes on most clothing, shoes, backpacks, & school supplies priced at less than $100 purchased for use by a student in an elementary or secondary school.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for being frugal and realize that even small savings can add up, but just as I wondered how did shopping become a holiday? a couple of years back, I continue to question this insanity.   There’s little doubt as to our government’s underlying motives for this "holiday" — oh sure, we get a little relief from sales taxes on a few select items, but they get a massive shot in the arm from the influx of taxes on incidental purchases — purchases we’d be much less likely to make if not for this artificial incentive.

And really, unless you’re spending hundreds of dollars, an eight percent savings isn’t a tremendous net.   (C’mon, we’re talking about less than a Frappuccino or two.)   In fact, I suspect that if instead of this pay no sales tax all weekend event, retailers advertised a take 8% off on back-to-school purchases sale, the response would be, um, "yawn."

Rapacious retailers are, of course, banking heavily upon this "holiday" to lure budget-crunched consumers into the stores and help pry open their wallets.   These annual sales tax holidays have become a huge event that extend, in many states, well beyond sensible school supplies to include big-ticket items like large electronics, major appliances, & furniture.

And the tax-free insanity doesn’t end there...

Some states also have separate sales tax holidays just for firearms.   Firearms?   Yup, you can get your weaponry & ammo tax-free in Louisiana on September 4—6th and in South Carolina on November 27—28th!

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Posted by Rob at 6:38 AM 2 comments links to this post

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Texas Road Etiquette

Sunday, April 19, 2009

For Texans, there’s a set of unwritten, yet fully understood rules of etiquette that apply when driving on highways.   If you’re the slower-moving vehicle on one of the hundreds (thousands?) of two-lane highways that weave throughout the state and a faster one approaches behind, it’s simply expected that you’ll ease over onto the shoulder and let the faster driver pass without having to occupy the oncoming lane.   And accordingly, if you’re the faster driver who’s just been afforded this courtesy, it’s expected that you’ll give a little wave as you pass and/or after that slower car has moved back into the lane after you’ve gone by.

If you’ve never been a part of this graceful driver’s version of the Texas Two-Step, it may sound a little complicated, but it’s not — it happens so frequently throughout any trip within the Lone Star State, it’s instinctual.

trucks passing on a Texas two-lane highway

Over the Easter holiday, we found ourselves on many of these two-lane roads and noticed how this Texas road courtesy is becoming a thing of the past.   Out of about 6 hours of driving on two-lane roads on that trip, there were very few drivers who would move over and allow us to pass.   Also, I noticed that when I pulled over to let people pass me, not a single person on this trip gave me the customary "wave" to say thank you.

All of this really bothers me a lot.   I’m saddened that people aren’t teaching their children the common driving courtesies that my parent’s did.   It seems that it’s mostly my generation that has done this.   What happened?   Have we become so impatient & self-absorbed that we’ve completely done away with common courtesy?

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Posted by Dede at 8:56 AM 8 comments links to this post

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Generation Z - The Natives Are Restless

Thursday, March 12, 2009

I’m sure you’ve heard of the demographic groups "Generation X" and "Generation Y" — and there’s a good chance that you fall into one of those two — but did you know there’s also a category for our kids: "Generation Z."   While there’s some contention about the exact start & end years, this generation generally consists of children born after 1995 and will cut off at 2021.   (Some insist that this group begins in 2001 and accordingly, label it the "9-11 Generation.")

However you define it, today’s kids will be the most connected generation ever in terms of technology and on a worldwide scale.   They will have never known a world without the Internet, notebook PCs, digital cameras, iPods, DVDs, & cellular phones.   They will have never known life without MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, and a vast sea of other social media stuff that many of us are only just now tentatively dipping a toe into.   Generation Z children are, in other words, digital natives.   Or to put it another way...

Your child is a digital native but you’ll forever be a digital immigrant.

I recently ran across those terms from Marc Prensky and the concept really stuck with me.   It’s been such a pervasive notion that it’s prompted lots of introspection & raised some very interesting questions.

I’m amazed by how appropriate the concept is, especially thinking in terms of literal immigrants who come to America, with the barriers for entry and the subsequent difficulties that they face once here.   As I’ve mulled this over, I keep remembering movies & TV shows where immigrants and/or their children were central to the stories.   Thinking the similarities between the concepts of national and digital immigrants, I’m forced to wonder:

  • Is my thick immigrant accent coming through when I rail against cell phone text messaging?   (A phone, after all, is for talking to someone else!)

  • Is refusing to add a DVD player in my car a bit like clinging to archaic Old World values that’re out of place in today’s society?

  • By not embracing MySpace, satellite radio, or streaming movies, am I like an aggravatingly stubborn immigrant who struggles with (or simply chooses to remain mostly ignorant of) English language?

  • Do my arguments that technology is making us impatient and short-sighted seem like quaint, cranky ramblings about how things were back in the "Old Country?"

What about you — what do you think of the concept of digital natives vs. immigrants?   Do you see how it applies to you?

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Posted by Rob at 7:05 PM 1 comments links to this post

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Monopoly Madness

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Rich Uncle Milburn Pennybags a.k.a. Mr. MonopolyIt seems that the drive for immediate gratification has corrupted yet another element of my childhood.   Maybe I’m just a nostalgic atavist, but when I learned (from Dede) that the newest versions of Monopoly use plastic instead of paper money, I was crushed.

Yup, rather than shipping with traditional compliment of $15,140 in cash, Monopoly’s colorful paper currency has now been replaced with 5 shiny debit cards that you swipe in a digital reader when purchasing properties, paying rent, or making other transactions.

That’s just disturbing.

Sure, it’s just a board game, but it always had an educational aspect as well.   Monopoly was the first exposure most of us had to handling cash, investing in property, saving for improvements, negotiating power deals, entering into financial partnerships, and planning for future expenses — like making sure you’ve got enough money to withstand the fiscal devastation should you fail to successfully hopscotch through your brother’s "Hotel Row" via Community Chest, Luxury Tax, or one of those blasted railroads.

So, do you feel that debit cards ruin the classic game or does the electronic angle give a tired old game a compelling new twist?   Post a comment and let us know what your take is on this!

Related Trivia:   Extra bonus points to whoever can correctly give the formal name of Monopoly’s mustached mascot.   (No fair Googling the answer!)

Update:   Discover the answer to the Monopoly trivia question!

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Posted by Rob at 6:17 AM 7 comments links to this post

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Patience Needed - Now!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Windows Vista dialog box
In these Bluetooth-enabled, bullet-pointed, increasingly-digital times, I’m worried that we’re losing something truly vital — patience.   It appears that we’ve all but lost the ability to delay gratification and recognize that some things really are worth waiting for.   Our society is so focused on the now that we’ve forgotten about the value of later.

What’s especially scary about that loss is scientists now believe there’s a link between delayed gratification and intelligence.   At the very minimum, it’s a given that tolerance & patience are key indicators of emotional & social maturity — and we’re presently in short supply of those much-needed qualities.

Gimme Credit!

So I happened to be thinking about layaways recently.   For those not old enough to recall, this used to be a way to purchase an item when you didn’t have enough money to buy it outright.   You’d take your merchandise to the "Layaway Counter" at the store, where the clerk would set your item back and take a down-payment.   Then you’d go back from time to time to make additional payments until you had the item paid off.   Only then did you get to take your new prized possession home.

But now just about anyone with a pulse can get a credit card, regardless of their ability to repay the lent money.   So, people find some goodie at the store, swipe their plastic, and away they go with the new prized possession — with little or no thought about whether they can actually afford (or need) the item.   Sure, we all like the immediacy of getting some great new thing right now, but at the same time, maybe something’s lost when we succumb to those impulses.   (We’ve certainly seen the mess that credit can cause with the recent financial crises.)

But my point isn’t whether people should have credit or not — it’s about self-moderation and the value of delaying gratification.   Deferring a purchase can give you a chance to evaluate "want" versus "need" and once you’ve distanced yourself a bit, often you’ll find that the need just isn’t there.   Back when credit cards weren’t so prevalent, anticipation made the end result all the more rewarding.

Picture This!

And do you remember when you used to have to snap a roll of photos, drop off the film canister for development, then wait days to get the prints?   The immediacy of digital cameras — click the button and take a dozen shots, then just toss the ones that don’t make the cut right into the bit bucket.   Take the best of the lot, tweak & crop the image, and blast your masterpiece to the nearby printer.   But here again, maybe there’s something lost in the instantaneousness of it all.

I’m not ready to forgo my digital camera and revert back to film, but I do believe that the expectancy made the experience all the more rewarding when you finally pulled those prints out of the little envelope and saw your handiwork for the first time, days (or even weeks) after the shot.   Certainly, we were much more judicious about snapping photos then, knowing that even the crummy ones would cost.

Listen Here!

Have you noticed that as music has become easier to acquire, it’s also become far more disposable?   Count the number of truly great albums you’ve heard in the last year and compare that to maybe 5 years ago.   With the immediacy of digital music, it seems consumers are more demanding, yet less discriminating.   That is, why bother buying an entire crappy album when you can just cherry-pick the 2 individual tracks that’re good?   Many artists are feeding into this mindset by focusing on quantity rather than quality, a kind of scattershot approach.

And while a new album used to be something special — you anticipated the release for weeks, eager for the day when you could finally go to the store and plunk down your cash for the new record or CD — I wonder if we’ve lost some of the significance now that music is just a quick click away on the Internet.   Music used to have a tangible quality as well, with the album cover and liner notes adding to the overall experience.   I thoroughly enjoy listening to my iPod & MP3s, but at the same time, music downloads just seem somehow less substantial, slightly less meaningful than their old physical predecessors.

Hold Up!

Increasingly, there’s a startling lack of patience and everyone’s clamoring for instant gratification with few noticing the consequences,   It’s a nasty Catch-22 loop — we want something right now, but the meaning or significance is often lost because of the immediacy and we just end up wanting more all the sooner.   Or upon following that "get it now" impulse, we discover that it really wasn’t all that desirable or special after all.

Each successive generation seems to be coming down the pike expecting more & more immediate gratification.   I don’t necessarily think technology is to blame, but the one-click immediacy of the digital world is certainly an unbelievably fertile breeding ground for the "gotta have it now!" mentality that’s pervading society.

What do you think?   Anyone else noticed how impatient people are becoming?   Is our society experiencing a massive breakdown of self-control or am I just having a massive case of nostalgia?


Posted by Rob at 6:12 AM 4 comments links to this post

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Credit Where It Is Due

Friday, August 15, 2008

thumbs up graphicComplaining about consumer experiences comes easy and it seems like there’s plenty of poor customer service to go around these days.   What’s less easy is to remember to sing praises when someone has gone above & beyond for you.   So I’d like to take a moment to do just that...

Watch Out

Several years ago, Dede bought me an awesome Skagen titanium watch while we were at Macy’s in San Diego’s Horton Plaza.   This is the only watch I’ve ever owned that doesn’t interact badly with the oils in my skin and corrode.   I took it to a local jeweler to have the battery replaced recently, only to discover that I had unknowingly sheared off the stem & crown — y’know, the little knob on the side.   The jeweler tried to find a replacement part but finally gave up after several weeks of hunting.   In desperation, I called the Skagen customer service number.   A mere $8 (for shipping) later, and not only did the manufacturer repair the broken stem, but also replaced the battery and polished the crystal.

For $8 bucks!   Gotta give those Danes some props for an excellent product and outstanding service behind it.

Looking Up

A couple of weeks ago, I noticed that Liam had done some real carnage on the temple tips (y’know, the rubbery plastic coatings that cover the ends of the temples over the ears) of his fairly-new glasses.   So Dede sent some email to the customer service folks at Zenni Optical to see if they offered replacement tips.   We were thrilled to hear back from them quickly and that they could send us free replacements.   What we didn’t expect is that they’d send a whole new pair of glasses — with lenses!

Next time you’re shopping for glasses, you’ve gotta give these folks a shot!   We were impressed with them even before this because of their prices, selection, and speedy shipping.   But now...   They’re incredible!

What about you?   Any great customer service stories to share?


Posted by Rob at 8:58 PM 3 comments links to this post

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Motivated Marketing

Friday, July 11, 2008

Gasoline has now peaked $4 per gallon and you’re stuck driving a hulking behemoth that gets 12 M.P.G. — if you’ve got a tailwind.   How the heck did this happen?


It’s not easy to admit, but most of us are willing victims of marketing.   Very, very clever people are paid lavish salaries to coax, convince, or otherwise cajole our ideals and opinions about everything from cars to shoes to pizza to trashbags.   Yup, these are the guys whose job it is to bend our wills — and they're very, very good at it.   In particular, U.S. automakers & their marketing wizards have a magical hold on us.   They’ve been hand-crafting the public’s perceived need for the kind of vehicles they want us to buy for decades now.   Not sure what I mean?   Don’t think you can be manipulated?   Need proof?

     "That thing got a Hemi?"

Pure genius.   I didn’t even know what the heck a Hemi was when that Dodge advertising campaign launched, but I sure was checking the contents of my shorts, feeling so inadequate over not having a big honkin’ truck equipped with a Hemi engine.   Think that doesn’t sell vehicles?   Think again!   Take note of how many big hinkin’, 8-cylinder, 4-wheel drive, quad-cab trucks and lumbering, oversized SUVs are on the road serving as nothing more than single-occupancy commuter vehicles.

Yup, American automakers haven’t needed to be concerned with fuel efficiency or catering to the small car market because they’ve had most of us securely under their spell for so long.   They’ve snookered us into believing that bigger & more cylinders are better and that we need the horsepower to do zero-to-60 in 6.5 seconds or else we’re pansies.   If you’re driving a small, inexpensive car with a fuel-efficient 4-cylinder engine, you must either be destitute (because affluent people drive big cars with beefy engines), or some kind of treehugging, rice-eating, commie-lovin’, hippie.

By golly, if you’re not driving a big-ass, rubber-burnin’, God Bless America, gas-guzzling GM truck, well, Bob Seger & John Mellencamp are going to come over to your house, beat ya up, drink up all your beer, and prolly take your girlfriend!

And women aren’t immune to the crafty marketing pressures either.   A decade or so ago, U.S. automakers began targeting that segment by hoodwinking safety-conscious moms with the false perception that SUVs are safer.

Even now, they’re feverishly trying to hustle the more environmentally-aware among us with SUV hybrids.   These are nothing more than a sad, misguided, & utterly greedy attempt on the behalf of automakers to seem "green" yet continue to cater to outdated, redneck attitudes.   The whole idea of the improved fuel efficiency of a hybrid is almost completely negated by the added weight & poor aerodynamics of SUVs.   (Not to mention that they’re still not nearly as safe as they’d have you believe.)

So how the heck are we supposed to feel good about buying a small car from these hucksters now?


After more than 50 years of profiting handsomely (to put it mildly) from skillfully shaping our desires & subsequent purchasing habits by building false perceptions and stroking our redneck egos about how horsepower equals manhood, the automotive industry & their marketing geniuses have a social responsibility to apply that same moneygrubbing fervor towards making Americans feel OK about buying smaller, less resource-wasteful cars.

Advertising shapes public opinion so automakers need to get busy selling a new idea!

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Posted by Rob at 9:56 PM 2 comments links to this post

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Paris Hilton Shall NOT Be In Attendance

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Baking For the Birthday Boy

Dede's homemade cupcakesLiam is turning the big "2" tomorrow so in preparation for the occasion, Dede got all domesticated today and baked not only a coupla dozen cupcakes for his daycare class, but also a big cake, complete with artful writing & sprinkles, for a little family gathering that we had today.

Yes, that’s right Brad D. & Glenda, we’re not total sticks in the mud — we do let Liam have sweets from time to time.   And even though he’ll be turning 2 years old tomorrow, this’ll be the first time he’s ever had a birthday party, so this certainly qualifies as a sweets-worthy occasion!

Watch our Russian Adoption Journal blog for highlights & photos of the big event!

Have Birthdays Jumped the Shark?

And on the topic of birthdays, Dede & I have been noticing that there’s a definite trend towards increasingly extravagant children’s birthday parties.   Renting a traveling petting zoo, reserving private time at a water park, a block party complete with a DJ spinning kids’ music...   These soirees costing hundreds of dollars or more are arranged by ordinary, otherwise well-meaning, mere mortals like us or you — not whackadoo celebrities in LA-LA-Land for whom money is no object.

University of Minnesota social science professor William Doherty has founded an online campaign called Birthdays Without Pressure to shed a little light on the excesses that seem to have overtaken today’s birthday parties & offer resources to help combat the intense pressure that some parents say they’re under to ramp up for these behemoth birthday bashes for their kids.   The website offers some great ideas for low-key, low-cost, low-stress birthdays that’re still fun for all involved.

Do you think childrens’ birthday parties are beginning to become excessive?   Have you encountered a birthday bash that seemed over-the-top?

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Posted by Rob at 10:30 PM 3 comments links to this post

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Talking Toys

Friday, November 30, 2007

Learning toyAs Christmas approaches, Dede & I have been talking quite a bit about toys for our new tot.   And I was further prompted to ponder on this by a blog post by Bob over at every, every minute.   A few main topics surfaced as we reflected back on our childhood toys...

Maybe Less Is More

Both of our families were of meager incomes when we were kids, so birthday & Christmas gifts were sparse.   And yet, we’ve decided that because we weren’t showered with dozens of toys the way kids are now, the toys we did receive were more meaningful, more special, and certainly more treasured...   I’d be very interested to hear your views on this — does anyone else think that, in an an unconscious effort to show our love for our kids, we shower them with far too many gifts & toys?

Favorite Toys

So maybe it’s precisely because we had a limited number of toys that some of those really stand out for us even today.   For me, these were:
  • My first bicycle — It took awhile, but once I learned to ride a bike, it was more than transport, it was sweet freedom on swift wheels!   (Thank you Thomas Latham, wherever you are!)
  • Legos — One of those odd skills that I possess is a keen knack for spatial relationships. I can often rearrange the furniture in a room mentally and know whether it’s going to fit before ever lifting a thing.   And I’m a packing guru — Dede just sets out what she wants packed & stands back.   A great deal of this, I attribute to Legos & other "building" toys.
  • G.I. Joes — the classic 12" dudes, with Kung-Fu grip, of course!

For Dede, the standout toys included:
  • Easy Bake Oven — Those little cakes were so awesome, but I always got so frustrated waiting on them to finish cooking (and cooling) so the door would unlock!
  • Bicycle — the ultimate Christmas gift, so huge it wouldn’t even fit under the tree, and it magically appeared in the middle of the night.
  • Baby First Step — she graciously volunteered to be the guinea pig for (and put a quick end to) my dreams of becoming a hairdresser.

Tots Don’t Need Tech

A subject I revisit frequently is how much technology should we introduce to young children.   As a parent-to-be, I fully identify with those who want their kids to have the educational advantages of computers & techie stuff, but I’m not convinced that high-tech equals better learning.   I’ve yet to see any real proof that today’s teched-out kids are any better-equipped for their future than kids were 10 years ago when there wasn’t all of this pressure to teach computers to little children.   Now, I’m not suggesting we should deprive our little ones the chance to build computer-use skills — only that we resist the temptation to make that a primary educational focus.   I’m convinced that tactile toys are still far more mind-expanding than technological ones.

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Posted by Rob at 9:58 PM 8 comments links to this post

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Jumbo Shrimp and SUV Safety

Sunday, October 21, 2007

"Jumbo shrimp."   "Smart bomb."   "Freezer burn."

Oxymorons.   We’re all familiar with these.   Oxymorons are the bringing together of two opposites or contradictory terms.   With that in mind, maybe it’s high time we added another phrase to the long list of oxmora:

"SUV safety"

Almost daily, I hear people defaulting to — and defending — the choice of a SUV when the option of buying a new car comes up.   In almost every case, the primary reason listed is safety.   And who can blame them?   We spend an increasing amount of time behind the wheel and people want their families & children to be safe & secure on the road.   The perception is that bigger is better, more steel equals stronger, and taller means superior.   Add it all up, SUVs just seem like the safest choice, right?

But for most mid- to large-sized SUVs, nothing could be further from the truth...

SUV Safety SignA string of largely-ignored tests performed by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety over recent years has thoroughly documented the fact that many cars are far safer than SUVs.   Yet in spite of the known hazards — such as SUVs being prone to rollovers and having weak roofs & comparably poor crash protection — consumer continue to snatch up these hulking behemoths in record numbers.   People are, in effect, willfully overlooking vehicle safety concerns because of reasoning that’s known to be untrue.

I urge you to check out Malcolm Gladwell’s very compelling article Big & Bad: How the SUV Ran Over Automotive Safety for a closer look at the pyschology & rationale behind chosing SUVs for safety.

In chosing SUVs, drivers aren’t only placing themselves at greater risk.   No, as I mentioned in my Risky Business post back in January, the combination of highly-touted safety innovations (4-wheel drive, ABS brakes, side-curtain airbags, etc.) and the more risk-tolerant attitudes & driving habits of SUV-owners, makes them a greater threat to other drivers as well.   Little if any thought seems to go into the issue of SUVs being much more harmful to the other vehicle in a collision but in fact, the more SUVs bought in the interest of safety, the less safe the roads actually are.   Popular assumption is that because of the larger size, stiffer frame, and heavier weight of SUVs, they’ll naturally be safer but the taller stance poses a considerably greater rollover risk, the stiffer frame is very inefficient at dissipating collision forces, and the added mass makes for far less manueverability.

Be sure to read Physics Today’s very interesting Vehicle Design and the Physics of Safety article for more insight on the impact (pun intended!) of SUVs & pickups on American roadways.

Please give some of these points some thought before you plunk down that hard-earned cash on your next vehicle...

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Posted by Rob at 5:50 AM 6 comments links to this post

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Corny Considerations

Saturday, August 25, 2007

photo of a corn man sculpture in claySeems that corn, in one form or another, is a dominant subject in much of the news these days.   Between the very justified villainization of high-fructose corn syrup that’s infiltrating nearly every otherwise healthful food product to the demand for corn-based biofuel causing a rise in the cost of meats to stories about how corn crops are edging out other crops, corn is making headlines.

With that in mind, several themes that revolve around this common topic - corn - have been swirling around in my brain lately...

Are We Children of the Corn?

I’ve just begun reading Michael Pollan’s
The Omnivore’s Dilemma: a Natural History of Four Meals in which he traces, step by step, the journey our food takes from the soil to the plate.   I’m not far into the book and already it’s some very thought-provoking stuff.   Pollan contends that we are indeed what we eat — and what we eat remakes the world.   And what we eat, by and large, is corn:
Corn is what feeds the steer that becomes the steak.   Corn feeds the chicken and the pig, the turkey and the lamb, the catfish and the tilapia and, increasingly, even the salmon, a carnivore by nature that the fish farmers are reengineering to tolerate corn.   The eggs are made of corn.   The milk and cheese and yogurt, which once came from dairy cows that grazed on grass, now typically come from Holsteins that spend their working lives indoors tethered to machines, eating corn.
Pollan goes to to make the corn connection to a vast array of many of the other foods we purchase & consume - 1 in every 4 items for sale in the average American supermarket contains corn.   A staggering number of even the non-consumable items in your local stores are derivatives of Zea mays, the giant tropical grass we know as corn.   In fact, the Ontario Corn Producers Association insists that there are A Zillion Uses for Corn!   Given how most of the corn grown in this country is processed into unrecognizable bits & pieces, you may never look at a cornfield - or the food in your shopping cart - the same way again...

The Bitter Taste of Corn Sweeteners

In 2006 alone, more than 700 million bushels of corn were refined into corn sweeteners - primarily High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS).   Read the labels on beverages & foods and you’ll find HFCS has insidiously wormed its way into all kinds of foods you might never suspect - lunch meats, whole-wheat breads, crackers, salad dressings, soups, cheese, milk, yogurt, vitamins, and even medicines.   Perhaps worse yet, many of the foods laced with this nasty stuff are promoted as being suitable for a healthy lifestyle or weight loss!

Despite the considerable processing required to create HFCS, it’s considerably cheaper, easier to transport, and much sweeter than sugar.   In part, this is because our government artificially fixes sugar prices while heavily subsidizing corn.   But the net result is that this translates into lower costs and higher profits for food producers, so there’ a tremendous economics incentive for them to use corn-based sweeteners.   Since HFCS comes from corn, products that feature it can be billed as "natural" foods but this couldn’t be further from the truth.   In fact, the process of breaking down cornstarch into syrup requires 3 different enzymes - the first of which, alpha-amylase, is industrially produced by a bacterium.

Studies have linked a number of health issues with the use of HFCS.   Some suggest that HFCS may alter intracellular metabolism, which in turn facilitates accelerated aging through oxidative damage.   There’s also connections with HFCS contributing to obesity & diabetes.   So why are these health risks tolerated and the use of HFCS continuing to escalate?   Consumer apathy.   There are simply too few people thinking about the ingredients or nutritional value of the foods they ingest.   We’ve got to let our dollars do the talking - if enough consumers stop buying foods made with corn sweeteners, the producers will have little choice but to abandon the use of HFCS.

Biofuel Causing Corn Shortages?

Not enough that we use innumerable amounts of corn to fuel our bodies, we’ve now been snookered into using it to fuel our cars too.   But the use of corn-based biofuel seems to be coming at the expense of corn as a food crop.

I recently read about a surprising situation in David Bollier’s article on the Mexican corn crisis and although it isn’t quite the same, I couldn’t help but draw a comparison to the Irish Potato Famine of 1845.

Like Ireland’s potato, corn is a food that defines Mexico.   There’s evidence that corn was domesticated in central Mexico more than 7000 years ago and as early as 1500 BC, corn was a primary staple food for most South American and much of the North American cultures.   Corn, in the form of tortillas, is a critical mainstay of their diet & culture but tortilla prices have tripled or quadrupled in some parts of Mexico since last summer.   Why?   Biofuel.

Now it’s true that yellow corn earmarked (rimshot!) for fuel production is not the same variety used for food, but with the increased demand for biofuels, the corn destined for ethanol is fetching a significantly higher price.   So farmers in Mexico are enticed to grow that crop instead of corn for human and/or livestock consumption and instead import cheaper, food-grade white corn from us to offset.   Farmers here in the U.S. are failling prey to similar economic pressures.   Sounds simple, no?   It gets worse...

Not much more than a year ago, Mexico was exporting more than 137,000 tons of its annual corn crop.   Yet at the same time, Mexico is facing a corn shortage and is set to import more than 800,000 tons of corn for its people from the U.S. & other countries.   The price of tortillas has risen so dramatically that Mexicans have taken to mass protests in the streets.

Now it gets really interesting — statistically, the U.S. grew 42% of the world’s total corn crop last year but ethanol production is projected to consume half of our annual corn harvest by 2008.   So, the demand for biofuels is about to chew up 20% of the world’s corn harvest.

Despite the fact that there are other, potentially far more efficient non-food crop sources that can produce ethanol, the push for corn-based biofuel continues.   And this is accompanied by a score of problems:   it requires vast amounts of energy (including fossil fuel) & water to produce, it does nothing to encourage us to reduce our use of fossil fuel, it burns less efficiently than straight gasoline, & overall doesn’t have a net effect of reducing global-warming-causing pollution.   And since corn is heavily subsidized by the government, as the demand for corn-based ethanol to run our cars increases, so too do our taxes — those government subsidies have to come from somewhere, right?

Although I haven’t seen anything documenting this, it’s a safe bet that corn-based biofuel benefits "Big Oil" significantly.   It’s probably also a safe bet that those companies are already snapping up the farms that grow corn.   Once again, seems like a win-win scenario for "Big Oil."

Anybody else find this whole thing frustrating and/or "cornfusing?"

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Posted by Rob at 6:06 PM 1 comments links to this post

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How Did Shopping Become a Holiday?

Friday, August 10, 2007

tax-free graphicThe new school year is just around the corner and along with it comes the much-anticipated 2007 back-to-school sales tax holiday.   On the specified days, you’ll be able to purchase children’s clothing, shoes, & certain other merchandise (of less than a $100 value) tax-free.   You can view the tax-free holiday dates for most states on the Raising 4 Boys website.   If you’re in Texas, you can follow this link to view a list of selected items and their exemption status (either tax-free or taxed) that will be in effect on the weekend of August 17-19th.   Now I’m all for having another holiday (especially if I get the day off) but is this occasion really a "holiday" or is it more of a scam?

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, a holiday is defined as:
A day free from work that one may spend at leisure, especially a day on which custom or the law dictates a halting of general business activity to commemorate or celebrate a particular event.
Sales tax holidays are a temporary suspension of state & local sales taxes charged on certain items that are quickly becoming a huge annual event in many states — perhaps even rivalling that other notorious shopping holiday: Black Friday.   I applaud anyone savvy enough to make the most of this slight savings that this opportunity (potentially) offers, but is this really worthy of being deemed a "holiday?"   And I’m more than a little suspicious of the motives behind this annual outpouring of generiousity.

For starters, it should come as no great surprise that the biggest fan of these tax-free holidays is the retail industry — this feeding frenzy gives businesses a sorely needed influx of income to stave off the pre-Christmas sales slump.   Some retailers that normally might reduce prices during the back-to-school season hold off on doing so and, in some rare cases, may actually increase prices on key items.

Secondly, these tax-free bonanzas steamroll consumers into purchases that retailers want them to make.   For example, you might have every intent to equip your child with a nifty messenger-style bag, but because that type of bag is exempt from the tax-free incentive, you’re subtly steered towards a backpack instead.   This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just so long as you’re aware of the manipulation tactics being used on you.

So, is Uncle Sam looking out for our interests, seeking to help us poor consumers stretch our meager earnings?   Or is it more likely that we’re being ever-so-slyly pushed to shop, shop, shop until we drop — into the poorhouse?   Is this just a scheme to herd us like cattle into the stores where we’ll graze needlessly on goods that we might not have otherwise splurged on without the artificial incentive?

Whatever the case, how will you be spending the tax-free holiday?

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Posted by Rob at 6:31 PM 5 comments links to this post

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Postful Goes Postal

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Postful logoI was recently invited to join the beta test for Postful, a service whose concept is so simple you might wonder why it hasn’t already been done — email you send to Postful is printed, stuffed into an envelope, stamped, and mailed to a physical address.   What’s the point?   While anyone reading this blog undoubtedly has an email address (or several), we all still have family & friends who, for one reason or another, don’t have email yet.   Postful hopes to help bridge this digital divide...

So, for 99¢, you can fire off an email (plain text, with attached photos, or even a multi-page PDF document) and it’ll arrive as a glossy, full-color, physical letter in Grandma’s mailbox.

Perhaps most interesting (and ironic) is that, while the Internet has nearly rendered the U.S.P.S. irrelevant, it is simultaneously playing a small part in keeping snail mail propped up on life support.

I see some distinct advantages to this, but Dede doesn’t believe there’s much use or need for such a service.   So, do you think it’s just wishful thinking, or will Postful actually be useful?

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Posted by Rob at 9:29 PM 0 comments links to this post

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Spiderman 3

Monday, May 28, 2007

Spiderman 3

We finally went to see Spiderman 3 today and it was awesome!   I think it is my favorite Spiderman so far (Rob still likes 2 the best) but this one just had it all for me:   A great story line with the continuation of the Peter / M.J. relationship along with 4 villians — and another one of those sexy upside-down kisses!

We’ve become so spoiled from watching movies at home that we rarely go to the theater anymore.   It takes a movie like this - one that has to be experienced on a large screen - to entice us to go.   As soon as we arrived, we were reminded of the downside of movie theaters.

First, there’s the line to get tickets.   Next, there’s the line at the snackbar (we gave up on that line since there was no way we were going to get through it before the movie started).   After the movie began, the cell phone issues began.   One behind us started ringing and the guy let it ring a few times and then answered it and then finally got up and walked out of the theater - still talking as he went down the aisle.   A couple of rows in front of us was some guy who was too busy text messaging to be bothered with watching the movie.   Naturally, every time he received or sent a text message, the cell phone screen lit up like a torch, which was really annoying.

I mean, c’mon, I realize people need their cell phones for emergencies but can’t they a least break free of them during a movie or, better yet, just stay at home to be entertained by their gadgets instead of annoying others who’ve paid for movie entertainment at the theatre?

Anyway, I’ll get off my soapbox now and get back to the point of this post...   If you haven’t seen Spiderman 3 yet, I highly recommend it!   Next on our Summer movie list is probably Shrek 3.

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Posted by Dede at 11:49 PM 0 comments links to this post

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Portable Power Pains

Sunday, May 27, 2007

car with power cordsCars are transit, sure.   But increasingly, with all of our cell phones, notebook PCs, MP3 players, & other electronics gear, they’re also serving as mobile office & entertainment hubs.   Given that, why are we still stuck with these lousy 12-volt power ports (formally, ANSI/SAE J563) in our cars?

The Toyota Matrix (a.k.a. Pontiac Vibe) has had on-board standard 115V power outlets for several years.   Mercury Hybrid Mariner, Volkswagen Touareg, & Honda Odyssey van all have AC outlets now.   So it’s high time the other automakers get on-board with this idea.   As our dependance upon gadgets & mobility continues to exponentially increase, automakers should be adapting to meet these new needs by making power outlets a standard on all cars.   Considering that you can buy a top-notch power inverter for less than $30, surely the added expense for automakers to build that functionality right in at the factory (beginning at the drawing-board stage) would have to be nominal.

And y’know, there’s a little "Oliver Stone-esqe" part lodged deep in my primative monkey brain that wonders if there might just be some minor conspiracy at work here.   Manufacturing & marketing all those assorted power inverters & "cigarette lighter" chargers for every gizmo known to man is probably quite a profitable business, after all.   Maybe "big electronics" is in cahoots with "big oil" in a dastardly & insidious plot to keep us all hopelessly strung-out on all those annoying, blister-pack-bound, cheap whatzits & doodads for the obsolete car power port.

What do you think?   Isn’t it time for the old 12-volt power port to go away?

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Posted by Rob at 9:54 AM 2 comments links to this post

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Pondering Postage

Monday, May 14, 2007

U.S.P.S. rolls out the new Forever StampAs of today, May 14th, the U.S.P.S. has raised postage rates again.   Now it’ll cost you 41¢ each - an increase of 5% - to mail standard letters.   What’s more, a new law signed by President Bush back in December ’06 ties postage increases to the Consumer Price Index (a measure that tracks inflation in consumer goods & services) starting in 2008.   This means that future bumps will be even more predictable.   And the U.S.P.S. can apply for one more rate hike before the new law takes effect.

As was the case with the previous postage rate increase, this latest round of price hikes on stamps leaves me wondering...

How much does this really matter anymore?   Undoubtedly, many small businesses & non-profits will be feeling some financial squeeze from this.   But aside from the sheer frustration of inflation in general, how much does this affect us average people?

With the use of virtual forms of money (online banking, e-payments, direct account drafts, & money transfer services like PayPal) continually on the rise, I suspect that we’re rapidly approaching a time when the Internet renders postage stamps entirely irrelevant.   I mean, c’mon, just how often do you actually stick a stamp on an envelope anymore?

By the way, those new Forever Stamps aren’t necessarily a very good investment.   Sure, once you’ve bought Forever Stamps and postage rates go up, their value has increased.   But given that postage rates typically rise an average of 3% annually and that even a basic savings account offers a better return than that nowadays, this investment doesn’t seem so sound.   So it appears that the U.S.P.S. is counting on cashing in on consumers’ iffy math skills — they’ve already printed five billion Forever Stamps and are poised to quickly print more if there’s sufficient demand.   In essence then, isn’t the Post Office trying to con us out of an interest-free loan?


Posted by Rob at 6:21 AM 2 comments links to this post

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Low-Tech Learning Leaps Ahead

Friday, May 11, 2007

Baby & notebook PCOn The Bamboo Project Blog, Michele Martin recently noted an article Seeing No Progress, Some Schools Drop Laptops from The New York Times.   Although she cited this as a prime example of how technology cannot create change if culture remains unchanged, but there’s also an underlying theme that echoes one of my chief arguments against MIT’s OLPC project.   The article observes that many schools that had launched programs to provide laptop computers are now reconsidering because they seem to have no impact on student achievement.

Author Winnie Hu referenced studies showing no real difference on state test scores in schools with laptops - although some data suggest better math class performance from high-achieving students with laptops than those without.

Diehard proponents insist these programs are failing simply because teachers haven’t been trained to integrate the use of this technology into their classes.   But when 6 of one of the study’s control group schools (ones whose students didn’t have laptops) were offered computers this year, they opted not to accept them.

As I’ve commented before, I worry about making computer-use skills a priority for kids.   Could computers, in fact, be a barrier to kids learning to think creatively and solve problems?   Are we naive to assume that technology will magically equate to a more efficient learning environment for children?   Does this concern anyone else?   Post a comment!

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Posted by Rob at 6:55 PM 3 comments links to this post

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Pot vs Kettle

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

By now, you’ve probably read or heard something about radio host Don Imus and his reference to the Rutgers women's basketball team as "nappy-headed hos" on April 4th.   MSNBC & CBS Radio suspended Imus for two weeks as a result of that remark.

Despite having issued an apology for the insensitive remarks, Imus has come under numerous attacks in the days since.   Notably, infamous Rev. Sharpton called Imus’ comments "abominable and racist," repeatedly demanding that Imus be fired.   Notorious champion of the people, Rev. Jesse Jackson & his enraged entourage picketed with signs, shouting "Imus must go," and insisting that Imus’ comments contribute to "a climate of degradation."

There’s no defense for his ill-conceived, hurtful comment — and I’m no great fan of Imus’ droning patter anyway — but just the same, I really appreciate Michelle Malkin’s candor & perspective in her blog entry: Imus vs. the Billboard Hot Rap Tracks Chart   (Warning: Strong language.)
One dumb shock jock’s insult is a drop in the ocean of barbaric filth and anti-female hatred on the radio.   Imus gets a two-week suspension.   What kind of relief do we get from this deadening, coarsening, dehumanizing barrage from young, black rappers and their music industry enablers who have helped turn America into Tourette’s Nation?
Malkin lobs a well-deserved grenade of guilt at the self-righteous Reverends & their opportunistic cohorts for being quick to condemn Imus for a one-time gross error in judgement yet conveniently overlooking the onslaught of vile racial- & gender-degrading junk (a.k.a. "music") that consistently dominates the media. (See Billboard’s top 10 Rap songlist.)   In short, Malkin’s well-stated indictment syncs with my rants about much of urban music is morally bankrupt.

Update:  Imus has been fired.   Great.   Now that they’ve established that there’s to be no tolerance for racist or misogynistic language, maybe those same outspoken community leaders can focus their moral outrage at the media & advertisers for their promotion of - and profit from - the negative characterizations, vulgarities, & antisocial behaviors found in most Hip Hop & Rap culture...


Posted by Rob at 11:33 PM 2 comments links to this post

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Daylight Scam Time

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

As you surely know by now, Daylight Saving Time started 3 weeks earlier and will extend a week later this year, causing a fair bit of grief for IT folks like Dede & me. The California Energy Commission’s explaination of DST:
One of the biggest reasons we change our clocks to Daylight Saving Time (DST) is that it saves energy. Energy use and the demand for electricity for lighting our homes is directly connected to when we go to bed and when we get up. Bedtime for most of us is late evening through the year. When we go to bed, we turn off the lights and TV.
But while proponents of DST claim it’s meant to shift our day to make better use of natural light, how many of us actually use the sun as a major light source? It isn’t like we’re all getting up at the crack o’ dawn to feed the livestock and/or work the crops. So given the lifestyle of most people now, the amount of daylight has little or no bearing upon our use of electricity. So if DST isn’t an energy savings effort, what’s it for?

I’ve been reading lots of articles and the consensus is that Daylight Saving is is really not an energy conservation plan at all — it’s a very effective spending policy. Coming down off of the holiday season, DST is just the shot in the arm that the economy needs. Yup, seems like DST is more about commerce — getting us to part with our hard-earned money — than conservation. During DST months, we use more gasoline (and oddly enough, consider which months of the year that gas prices are elevated), do more shopping, watch & play more sports, have more cookouts. In short, we’re better consumers with DST in effect than we would be without.

Now, I enjoy the long Summer days as much as the next guy, but I’m not so crazy about being manipulated for the sake of big bidness’ bottom-line. What do you make of this? Does this smell fishy to anyone else?


Posted by Rob at 7:30 PM 0 comments links to this post

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Two Steps Back

Saturday, February 03, 2007

American Idol’s Simon Cowell gives this a big "thumbs down!"Well, this stinks! Just days after I praised "Big Oil" for changing their views on fossil-fuel emissions and their impact upon global warming, an online article on British newspaper The Guardian reports that the American Enterprise Institute, an ExxonMobil-funded lobby group with close links to the Bush administration, offered a $10,000 bribe (each) to scientists & economists to torpedo a major climate change report due out this week from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).


Posted by Rob at 11:13 AM 0 comments links to this post

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Big Oil Takes a Little Step

Thursday, January 25, 2007

On his always enlightening blog, Ottmar Liebert referenced an article on post-gazette.com 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...


Posted by Rob at 11:40 PM 1 comments links to this post

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A Hint of Hope for Hip-Hop

Saturday, January 20, 2007

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...

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Posted by Rob at 2:03 PM 0 comments links to this post

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Risky Business

Saturday, January 13, 2007

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.


Posted by Rob at 2:05 AM 0 comments links to this post

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PowerPoint is the Devil

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Visit www.glasbergen.com 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 Fastcompany.com's Heath Row, if you need PowerPoint to get your message across, maybe you're sending the wrong message.

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Posted by Rob at 7:07 AM 4 comments links to this post

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Fencing Mexico

Sunday, August 27, 2006

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?


Posted by Rob at 6:49 AM 3 comments links to this post

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Rapper Rant & Gangsta Poses

Sunday, February 05, 2006

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.

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Posted by Rob at 10:17 AM 0 comments links to this post

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Postage Rates Just Went Up - But So What?

Sunday, January 08, 2006

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?


Posted by Rob at 12:00 AM 0 comments links to this post

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The Consumer Backlash Against Sony

Sunday, December 04, 2005

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!

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Posted by Rob at 6:18 AM 0 comments links to this post

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Our Belated New Year's Resolution

Monday, February 07, 2005

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?

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Posted by Dede at 9:46 PM 1 comments links to this post

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The Transition from Chores to Privileges

Monday, May 31, 2004

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 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...


Posted by Rob at 10:53 AM 0 comments links to this post

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The Future of Music

Sunday, March 28, 2004

CBC News posted an article that's an interesting read with some thought-provoking questions about what the music of the future will sound like. Dan Brown ponders, "Will the way that people access music have an effect on the content of that music?"

I forsee the Internet bringing an ever-increasingly diverse sound into the mainstream because it makes available artists, styles, and even means of making music from a global palette to even the most remote corners of countries where musical experimentation breeds. Whereas an aspiring kid growing up in the rural South might have been predestined to a blues or country-oriented style before, now there's a potential for his style to be more heavily influenced by the sounds from a New Zealand Maori tribe. Consider how Middle Eastern musical influences have worked their way into mainstream pop in the past 2-3 years...

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Posted by Rob at 7:50 AM 0 comments links to this post

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