The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
Thursday, February 26, 2009
Personal Reflections ...

If you’ve read any of my recent posts, you know that my mother has been in and out of the hospital of late. In early December she had a severe respiratory arrest which landed her in the ER and then the intensive care unit, hooked up to a ventilator via a breathing tube. She managed to cheat the angel of death, though, and after 39 days was sent home. My brother is very dedicated to my mother, and each day put in 8 or even 10 hour vigils at her bedside. I tried to keep working half-days at my job, but still spent an average of 6 hours in the hospital. I was there on the day she was put on a gurney for the ride home; she looked as happy as a kid being pulled for a ride in a Radio Flyer wagon (or flying downhill on a Flexible Flyer sled). It was great to see that smile, and it was also great to get my life back (admittedly my brother bears the brunt of her home care needs, which increased because of what happened).

Things seemed to settle down nicely over the following three weeks. Then suddenly, my mother had another attack and was back in the ER with the ventilator pipe back in her throat. She survived the hit once again and was soon back in the intensive care ward. And for me it was back to working half days and spending long hours in a hospital room doing nothing (my brother again went the extra mile and pretty much stopped going to work).

Right away, it was apparent that this was going to be worse for me than the first time (although my mother regained consciousness fairly quickly, so it was not as bad for her — albeit, it was still bad). It seemed like being put in prison. Your freedom is taken away; hospital staff tell you when you can and can’t be in the room, and you’d best take their orders. If you stay past visiting hours, sometimes a guard comes over and tells you to leave. There are no computers to get things done on, no gym to work out in, no interesting places to walk, and not much in terms of eating places offering food that’s worth eating (I mostly brought my own snacks to survive on). I really dreaded all the hassle in driving to the hospital every day, trying to find a parking space, then just sitting there until ordered to move by a nurse or doctor, with little solace other than a book to read under dim, eyestraining light. (The one consolation was that I did get some reading done.) Yes there’s TV, but most everything on was uninteresting.

After a week it wasn’t so bad. You can get used to most anything, I suppose. And my mother started getting better once again. She was finally transferred to a private room in the recovery ward, where things are quieter and you don’t get bossed around as much. And then yesterday, the guys with the gurney and the van came again to bring her home — alive, and if not completely well, at least a good bit better. She was pretty sleepy this time, but once she got home and was back in her room, she managed to break into a beatific smile. And that was my reward once more. It all makes some sense once you see that.

Of course, I don’t want to do this again anytime soon! Thus, my brother and I purchased a home breathing machine for my mother, a bi-level “P.A.P.” with timed breathing options (just like the hospital ventilators). We’re hoping it will forestall another respiratory inflammation attack and keep her home.

Barack Obama has expressed regret that he wasn’t with his mother in her final days (which were largely spent in a hospital ward). My inbred reaction to that is “yea, right; a skilled politician like you will say anything to get sympathy and keep from appearing cold and heartless, which you probably are, like most other politicians”. But for now I’m going to put my cynicism aside. President Obama is right to regret never having seen the relieved and satisfied look on the face of an aging relative coming home after a grueling hospital stay. And also never having had the knowledge that he had something to do with it. They also serve who only stand and wait, as John Milton said; and on rare occasion we waiters even get to feel good about it.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:09 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Sunday, February 22, 2009
Current Affairs ... Economics/Business ...

This past week was pretty bad for Wall Street. The stock market dropped around 7%. Analysts believe that investors are losing hope of our economy making a comeback within the next year or two (my favorite source of such analysis is Bloomberg radio). The soaring price of gold indicates that a lot of people with money are thinking “great depression 2”.

I don’t have any cheerful thoughts to offer in response to that. Unfortunately, the American economy doesn’t seem to have an “engine of growth” ready to go right now, set to pull all the other sectors out of the ditch. (Wall Street has obviously lost confidence in the Obama Administration’s ability to do that, despite the financial stimulus package.) Over the past 10 years or so we had the real estate sector, personal consumption and the internet/technology fad to keep things bubbling. In the long run, America still has some cards to play: it still has the best education infrastructure and a strong tradition of creativity and innovation. We can still sell those strengths to the world — once the world is ready to buy again. Remember, this economic crisis is world-wide. For now, the fizz is gone, the economic champagne has gone flat.

All I can contribute right now is a semi-witty acronym meant to summarize how we got here (some might say it’s “quasi-witty” or “pseudo-witty”, or not witty at all!). That acronym is FWREC: Finance, World-wide, Real estate, Energy, and Consumer demand. Economic analysis is a dime a dozen these days, so I’ll just give a quick synopsis of our current “FWREC’d” situation.

F – Finance: Our generally unregulated financial system came up innovations like mortgages without income checks, down payments, and for the first two years, without principal and full interest payments. And credit cards were given away like candy. And then there are the secularized investment instruments that spread such mortgage and credit card debt over thousands of investors according to complex rules; these are now known as “toxic assets”. And mix in all those default swap agreements from the insurance companies. It all seemed so safe, so solid, so interconnected. Unfortunately, no one could see that all taken together as one, this was a house of cards ready to collapse once the right gust of wind came along. And come along it did.

W – World-wide: America and the world are now extremely tied-in and co-dependent. In many ways that’s good. But when America, the biggest source of global economic demand and the biggest receiver of global investment, goes down, the whole thing goes down. Again, the system had a tipping point that hardly anyone foresaw. Until the “black swan” landed.

R – Real estate: Real estate brings out the best and worst in people. Families that own their own homes tend to take more pride in the neighborhood and contribute more to civic life. HOWEVER, real estate also brings out a lot of greed and short-sightedness, both on the local and national level. Our political system assumes that real estate is an unlimited good, and encourages it (via tax deductions and money supply expansion and lending incentives to banks) beyond the point of economic rationality, both on the part of homeowners and mortgage lenders. And now the chickens have come home to roost — the dark side of real estate has reared its ugly head; i.e. foreclosures, bank failures, toxic assets, and rapidly declining consumer consumption. Unemployment is boosted because workers in declining cities like Detroit can’t sell their homes and move elsewhere in search of jobs. Furthermore, the hunger for large real estate plots in the exurbs has locked us into development sprawl and the high energy demand that comes with it — the next FWREC factor.

E – Energy: Oil prices are pretty low, at the moment. However, this recession began over a year ago, when oil prices were at record levels due to supplies leveling off while demand increased in the developing world (China, India, Brazil, etc.). That no doubt helped to drag our economy down. Experts say that as soon as the world economy starts picking up, oil prices will skyrocket once again, slowing or possibly stalling a fledgling recovery. Life and business in today’s USA was designed around cheap oil; due to suburbanization and development sprawl, you need a car (and preferably an SUV) to get to most offices, homes and shopping places. It will take many years to redesign the USA landscape in favor of denser urbanized settings, where mass transit (or cycling or even walking) can be used to accomplish the basics. For the next decade, we’re trapped in a high energy consumption mode that will sap a lot of strength from our economy.

C – Consumer demand: With all the easy money and chimeral real estate wealth (everyone assumed that real estate prices would continue to rise come what may), families assumed that there was no need to save money, and no problem with taking out more debt to spend on the finer things of life (vacations, SUV’s, entertainment systems, home improvements, etc.). Hyper consumption was caused by finance (easy loans), the world (below-cost consumer goods from Asia), energy (oil was relatively cheap until two years ago) and real estate (no need to put aside for a rainy day if your home value rises significantly each year); and each of those institutions in turn grew because of that consumption. It was an upward spiral based on good impressions; but it was not backed up by real economic productivity.

And so the party is now over, and we all face a lot of uncertainty. I’m still employed at present but will have my salary cut via furloughs. As to my hopes to retire comfortably in 10 years, that too is up in the air, given that the current value of my retirement funds have been cut in half. I’m not sure what I will do if it all gets worse. All I can do right now is to curse the FWREC that our economy has become. But as to blaming any one person or institution, e.g. George Bush or the Federal Reserve or the big banks or the CRA — no, it was collective stupidity. Let’s hope that some collective wisdom seeps in because of all this.

PS, here’s a good article from The Atlantic on what the long-term effects of the FWREC will be.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:49 am       Read Comments (3) / Leave a Comment
Thursday, February 19, 2009
Photo ...

I’ve noticed that the only monthly archive page from this blog that gets a decent amount of attention from Google customers is January, 2004. During that month, I talked a bit about a kid back in my high school class who had a chance to become a pro basketball player. That kid was Leslie Cason. Les was a tall, lanky guy who made a great center, propelling our high school basketball team to an undefeated season and a regional championship during my senior year.

Unfortunately, Les did not have a disciplined personality and could not capitalize on the various sports scholarships that were offered to him. He eventually dropped out of college and finally wound up on the streets of Manhattan selling drugs. He finally died of AIDS in 1997. His story still attracts attention from sports fans, probably because of the role that Dick Vitale, the former high school basketball coach-turned-ESPN college sportscaster, played in Les’s life.

I don’t have much to add to Les’s story. Back in school, Les was a celebrated jock and I was mostly an anti-social nerd (mea culpa, but it’s really hard to be a sociable nerd!). To say the least, we ran in different circles. But I do remember having Les in my senior English class. In fact, he sat one row over from me. Les was a likable fellow; he never joined in with the other jocks who found me an easy target for bullying [but I got through it, and it might have even made me stronger; I’m not sure that I could have survived working in a law enforcement office later in life had I not learned how to get roughed up a little].

But Les wasn’t much of a scholar either, and given his rising fame, he saw little need to concern himself with stuff like geometry, Shakespeare and American history.

I have some proof that I sat next to the semi-famous Leslie Cason in high school. There’s a tiny picture in the ERHS 71 yearbook taken in my English class during a test. I scanned it and did my best with Photoshop to make some sense out of it. The red arrow points to Les, and the blue arrow is for me. Yes, I know this isn’t solid proof; it has the same quality level as a purported UFO shot. As with the X-Files, it only makes sense if you want to believe.

But if you do believe me, you can see that I was approaching the test like a true eternal student, pouring out the words with all my heart and soul (and much of my brain, hopefully). As to Les . . . well, he looks to be holding up the test page, wondering what to do. I suppose that he eventually did write something, that it wasn’t all that good, and that it didn’t matter. Our English teacher, Mr. Luterzo (who looked a bit like James Karen, i.e. Mr. Pathmark), knew that he had to play a game (school politics) as much as Les had to play his game. The school basketball team needed Leslie Cason and the basketball colleges wanted him. It would all work out, he and Coach Vitale thought.

Too bad that it didn’t.

P.S., the Wikipedia article on Dick Vitale used to say that Les Cason wasn’t really interested in basketball as a kid; he liked baseball instead. (The Daily News confirms that Les was originally a baseball kid.) I do recall that Les played Little League in East Rutherford for the Caughey’s Restaurant team, and was considered quite a player. My brother also played in the E.R. L.L. at the time (but on a different team), and I vaguely remember going to games and seeing Les. He was a very good baseball player; I wonder if things would have been different for him had he stuck with his first love.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:33 pm       Read Comments (5) / Leave a Comment
Sunday, February 15, 2009
History ... Religion ...

I’ve been pondering the huge topic of Judaism and Israel lately (i.e., the “big concept” of Israel, not just the modern nation), after watching some documentaries and listening to some lectures on Middle Eastern history. I am not from the Jewish heritage, and I am not a professional historian. But still, I’m entitled to my thoughts and impressions. And here they are, for what it’s worth.

(With the footnote that my paternal grandfather may have come from a Jewish family that went Christian during the pogroms.)

The way I see it, Judaism is the result of a theologically-inspired “retrojection”, i.e. the re-arrangement of history by an ancient people trying to find meaning and identity after failing at the Middle Eastern “empire game”. This response to their failure was a success; while many nations and ethnic groups have come and gone over the two millennium of Jewish history, the Jews are still going strong. Nonetheless, the origins of “greater Israel” appear to be grounded in the humiliating failure to mimic what the Egyptians and Persians did way back when — i.e., select a dictator (a king), organize a group of unruly tribes into a submissive collective, carry out great public works, and form a mighty army to conquer other peoples and expand the collective’s wealth and power.

David and Solomon gave it a good try, but in the end their subjects were just a bit too unruly. As a kingdom, Israel just couldn’t cut it. It was thus over-run by other, more effective kingdoms (the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Greeks and the Romans). It was rather humiliating and depressing. The Caanan high-country tribes of early Jewish history needed a very good reason to stick together and not dissolve as other conquered peoples had over the centuries (e.g., the Ammonites, the Meades, the Hittites, the Dacians … the list of defunct nationalities is long). And over time — not all at once, as the Old Testament claims — the “tribes of Israel” came to believe in a national identity and a national relationship with an all-powerful God. Those beliefs were based on even more ancient stories, passed on amidst their members, regarding how some parts of the tribe had experienced and escaped slavery in Egypt with the help of a God who demanded exclusive loyalty.

The proto-Jewish tribes in the Canaan hill country had worshipped multiple gods long after the time of the Exodus, but by the time of the Babylonian exile they started taking the demands of “El” or “YHWH” seriously. They gave up on Baal and the female fertility gods and started building their identity around an agreement, a “covenant”, with the exclusive God of Old. These tribes, now captured and subjected to foreign power, forged their identity around 20-20 hindsight, around an historical explanation for their troubles (i.e., that YHWH was punishing them for wayward conduct). All that false gods worship over the years had gotten YHWH angry; if they could get back to living by the covenant, they might be given another chance.

Well, guess what. The gambit worked, even though it was entirely sincere and not imagined as a “political strategy”. Strategies are what we cynical 21st Century people do. And yet, the ancient tribe of Israel is still a viable nation, very much with us. I believe there is a lesson of wisdom to be seen in all of this. The Persians, Greeks, Romans, Assyrians, Babylonians and Egyptians are either gone or but a shadow of their past greatness. But the Jews just keep coming.

And what is to be said about that? I must admit to mixed feelings; it depends on how you look at it. My feelings get tangled up on the topic of modern Israel. In many ways, today’s Israel is a light in the desert, a haven of democracy and civilization in a land all-too-tied to early human history. But the often-vicious things that the nation of Israel has to do in response to its often-brutal neighbors can be very unsettling. Israel survives only by participating in a never-ending war, just as in Biblical times. Only today, Israel gets the military tactics right (for the most part). It even sends its settlers into conquered territory to crowd out others with ancestral claims. But no matter how brilliant its generals or tenacious its colonizers, the wars just go on and on. Peace treaties are made with certain groups, but other groups arise to continue the battle. Not a pretty picture.

But as to Judaism as a larger, world-wide phenomenon: the historical legacy is nothing short of brilliant, truly amazing. The Jews have been a true leavening to all the peoples on this planet. Where would you even start? Art, science, theology, entertainment, academics, commerce, leadership, music, humanitarianism . . . the list could go on and on regarding Jewish achievement. I have two questions about all of this; for one, I have some thoughts; the other I find ultimately vexing.

My first question is whether the greatness of the Jews reflects an existential truth behind the mythologies that have sustained their identity over the many centuries of recorded history. I.e., are they “powered by God”? I believe that they are. I’m not saying that all of what the Old Testament professes about God is true; if God is really as great as those old stories teach, then how could any human writing, however inspired, capture what is beyond our inherent frailties and limitations? But the greatness of the Jews must, in my view, owe something to the “glue” that holds their identity together. That glue must be real, not just a human mythological notion. Plenty of nations had powerful myths but are now long gone. The Jews had God, and are still here. All those brilliant Jewish atheists like Einstein (and Dave, my former boss) notwithstanding!

The more confounding question for me is whether Judaism needs that dry tract of land along the eastern Mediterranean Sea for its identity, much as it needs YHWH. I’ve heard people, both Jewish and non-Jewish, argue that modern Israel is absolutely necessary to Jewish identity and survival. Without it, arguably the Jews could perish; either through genocide (as has been tried, more than once), or by assimilation, or some combination. I cannot glibly respond to this point.

However, I can’t help but wonder if the ultimate failure of the ancient Caananite tribes to hold land against the mighty world powers, their repeated exiles and repatriations and diasporas, formed the setting from which their unending strength was derived. I can’t help but ponder whether in geopolitical failure the ancient Jews brought forth the best within them, and the best in all humankind. The core of the Old Testament, i.e. the Torah, which acts as the Constitution of Jewish identity, can be read to require both God and the ancient homeland as Jewish necessities. But the later parts of the Hebrew Bible extend Judaism into something more than a land-based concept, into a more ethical, moral and intellectual form of strength. God remained the God of the Jews even in the most horrible places so far from . . .

OK, I need to stop. I have no warrant to talk about those horrible places; I’m way outside of my league. But the Israel / Jewish identity connection is an awfully confounding question, and I respect those who have strong feelings about it. For now, I cannot offer a conclusion.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:25 am       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Friday, February 13, 2009
Photo ...

My mother is back in the hospital again, so I’m sitting around in the ICU for 6 hours a day while nothing much happens. Healing is slow, and at my mother’s age, it’s not even certain to happen. We’re not sure how this is going to work out, but whatever happens, this will be a memorable time in my life. One part of the memory will be the drive home through the dark winter night. I decided to stop near a train underpass along the route and get a shot. It’s not much to see, although the lighting is fairly interesting. I don’t usually drive along this road, so this underpass will probably become a “memory marker” for me. Here’s how I’ll remember it; dark, cold, and deserted. A lonely milepost on a long vigil.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:34 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
Politics ... Society ...

President Obama made a gloomy speech last night, saying basically that we need much more government in order to avoid an economic collapse that could cause a severe reduction in our country’s standard of living. He wants to give the government a lot of money to spend; his plan will require more and bigger government institutions in the short run, and more government tax burden on the citizens in the long run.

I’m not entirely against all of this. As a young man, I had socialist leanings. I said back then that the government IS the people; there’s nothing else that represents the “social body”. As such, government control of the economy would represent a more democratic and egalitarian way of running the economy than capitalism would. Capitalism requires that rich people control the economy; government (ideally) gives everyone a vote and a voice in it. It seems more fair.

As an old man, I’ve learned that theories like this don’t always work out. Government often takes on a life and a voice of its own, not necessarily the voice of the people. And it usually doesn’t do as good a job in running things as capitalism does.

I had a “government day” yesterday, one that gave me some food for thought regarding Mr. Obama’s philosophy (i.e., exploiting public fears regarding the economy so as to expand government). My mother is in the hospital and things are busy where I work, but my car was due for state inspection. So I got up early and drove over to the local inspection station; it is scheduled to open at 6:30 AM (sez so right on the NJ MVC web site). Well, I got there at 6:50 and there was a chain blocking the driveway, with two or three cars waiting behind it. So I got in line and waited. At about 7:10 a guy finally walked out and took down the chain. OK, fine. Despite the delay, my car passed and I went home.

Next, I needed to visit the Post Office as to buy a money order. Why, in this day and age of credit cards and checks, would I need an old-fashioned money order? Because a local government agency made a mistake and claims that I have an outstanding parking ticket, in a town that my car and I had never even seen. I received a cheery note in the mail from this government agency, stating that if I didn’t send them $95 by the end of the month, they would start collection actions that could include detainers and a revocation of my driver’s license. And by the way, this agency didn’t accept checks or credit cards; only money orders were acceptable. Well, I intend to protest all of this; but having once had my drivers license nearly revoked because of a government agency’s mistake, I decided to pay first and argue later. So I needed a money order, and a bit of research told me that the Post Office was probably the best place to get one.

USPS.COM told me that the local P.O. would open at 8:30 AM. So I got there at 8:45, and guess what? It wasn’t open yet. There were some people waiting at the door; they had heard that it would open around nine. So, another government-sponsored wait for me. Around 10 minutes after nine, the Post Office window finally opened. After a few more minutes I was able to get my money order, as to forestall the government from taking my rights to drive away (and thus be able to help my mother while in the hospital).

While at the window counter, I thought that I might combine some pleasure with business and buy a small sheet of commemorative stamps; hey, why not support a government effort to make its product (postage stamps) nicer to the consumer, and even worth collecting? Well, the friendly postal clerk looked in his cabinet and told me, sorry, no commemorative stamps. What? I get a quarterly catalog from the Postal Service telling me about their commemoratives, and I knew that a variety of special stamps had just been printed celebrating Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday, the Chinese New Year, Edgar Allan Poe, and some other stuff. Sorry; my local Post Office was not participating in consumer marketing that day. Just the basics — take it or leave it (after requiring a half hour wait).

Ah, government. Under Obama, government is going to play a bigger role in all of our lives. So we, the common folk, are going to experience more paperwork, more waiting in lines (or on hold on telephones), more “take it or leave it” transactions, more “obey or we go after you” orders. And yeah, more taxes eventually.

Government (as we know it here in the USA) gives its best efforts to 1.) those who get the most attention from the press; 2.) those who can sway the most voters; or 3.) those who work the system best (e.g., utilizing constitutional guarantees to sue the government). Sometimes poor and middle class people can do this; most often, it’s the rich and powerful who do it best. With capitalism, the rich and powerful make the big decisions; but at some point they have to think about whether the poor and middle class will buy what they offer. So, when the dust settles, both systems favor the rich and powerful, but give something to the poor and middle class. Neither is clearly a better system, from the social justice perspective. (If you remember the lessons of history, you will forget about communism as an alternative; communist centralism makes the biggest promises to the poor, and then cheats them the most.)

But yes, there are good things about government, and they were also part of my day. I was able to drive reasonably quickly to my mother’s hospital on a highway built with government funding. My mother’s health is largely subsidized by the government (Medicare). And I myself work for local government, and I was able to get some things done that day that made our agency’s operations a tiny bit better (but admittedly, I can sometimes be a brain-dead, rubber-stamp bureaucrat too; it’s contagious).

So I’m not saying that President Obama is entirely wrong. But for such a bright guy, for a politician who campaigned as an “intelligent pragmatist”, I am surprised at how quickly he has leapt into the “big government” pot. The American people may let him get away with it this time, given the mess that we’re in; but at some point, they may revolt and start listening to the Republicans once again. And then, things will go too far the other way; too much will be handed back over to the private sector. It’s all a question of balance, and I wish that Mr. Obama would try a little harder to strike a good, steady balance (and avoid the inevitable counter-revolution). Even if that means giving less power and glory to Nancy Pelosi and Obama’s many other Democrat friends.

P.S. — Joe Connolly from the WSJ made a good point today on his Business News broadcast (on CBS newsradio), regarding middle aged people getting laid off. He noted that employers are getting flooded by resumes these days, and are tempted to immediately throw out the ones from older folk. Then he suggested that they think twice about that, given that the entire crew of US Airways flight 1549 (the one that successfully ditched in the Hudson River last month) was over 50.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:12 pm       Read Comments (3) / Leave a Comment
Saturday, February 7, 2009
Science ... Society ...

The “rate of incidence” of autism (i.e., number of new cases each year per 1000 people) has increased quite a bit over the past 25 years in the USA. Back in the late 70’s, only around 1 or 2 children per 1,000 developed autism. But today, this rate is estimated at around 6 per 1,000; roughly triple what it had been. What the heck could have caused this? The usual suspect is pollution and toxic chemicals within the environment. Well OK, but the environment here in the USA was already quite polluted back in 1980, and had been for some time. There could possibly be something more happening.

A recent study suggests that the autism rate has increased because kids (and maybe also their mothers) don’t get enough sunshine these days. An economics professor from Cornell named Michael Waldman did a study which found a mathematical correlation between the amount of rainy or cloudy days in a county and the county’s autism rate; and also with how long the county has had cable TV available. The study indicated that the highest rates generally occurred in counties with a lot of clouds and rain, and where cable TV became available early on. The lowest rates were usually in sunny counties where cable didn’t come until later, or is not as prevalent in households.

Of course, a statistical correlation does not always mean that there is a meaningful cause behind it. But this one sounds interesting. It makes rough sense that a vitamin D deficiency could mess up the body metabolism, including the nerve system. But isn’t vitamin D put into milk so that kids always get enough? That’s true; but nutritionists admit that man-made vitamin D isn’t quite the same as the natural stuff produced by the skin from sun exposure; the natural stuff may well be better for you. Perhaps getting less real vitamin D while kids sit inside playing video games or watching cable TV movies is having a negative effect. Ditto for their parents, who probably keep their children out of the sun more than my parents did, for fear of skin cancer. Another factor: the more you stay indoors, the more exposed you are to indoor pollutants like formaldehyde and fire retardants.

Here is a link for a bar chart comparing the autism rates for children from all 50 states. Generally, the southern states have lower rates and the northern states have higher rates. You might expect people and kids in the northern states to get less sun, due to cold and sun angle. But there are exceptions; Alaska, N. Dakota, Montana, and Iowa have low rates. North Carolina, Missouri, Georgia, and Virginia have high rates. But then again, the first four are very rural, whereas the last four have big urban and suburban areas. Those areas have more pollution and more families with cable and computers with video games (or have had them longer). Hmmm.

Well, this theory may or may not hold up; but it seems clear that further research is needed, honing in on causative mechanisms. And also on preventative mechanisms — like good old-fashioned sunshine. The whole thing seems more credible than the thimerosal theory of autism, i.e. regarding the use of thimerosal (a mercury-based chemical preservative) in childhood vaccines.

Here’s one more interesting tid-bit. Another recent study indicates a direct interaction between vitamin D and genetic variations that increase the risk of multiple sclerosis. The study suggests that vitamin D deficiency during pregnancy and early youth may increase the risk of developing MS later in life. MS has also been recognized as having a north-south effect (i.e., greater incidence in the higher latitude northern areas). MS incidence rates may be increasing, especially in lower, sunnier latitudes, although not as dramatically as autism. Also, autism is biased towards men, while MS is more prevalent in women.

Perhaps we need sunshine more than we think. Sure, too much sun increases the chance of skin cancer. But perhaps many of us have over-reacted with SPF 100 sun-blocks and growing preference for the indoor life. Perhaps we — and especially our kids — need to get out in the daylight more often!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:17 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Tuesday, February 3, 2009
Current Affairs ... Society ...

I’m not much of a pop culture guy, even less of a pop culture critic. It’s hard to properly criticize that which you don’t know much about. But I have seen enough TV commercials in my time, so I’m going to take a crack at saying a few things about the commercials on the Super Bowl last Sunday. I re-viewed them since the game via, just to make sure I know something of which I will now attempt to speak.

Overall, I found the Super Bowl commercials to be quite unpleasant and depressing. OK, part of that is age. The ad companies are aiming at a younger audience during the Bowl, not at people over fifty. But still, I was once under 50, and back in those days, I found commercials to be much easier to take. Why? It’s hard to put a finger on it, but if you’re gonna try to be a pop culture critic, you’ve got to try. So here goes.

Back in my youth, the commercials didn’t seem to be trying so hard to get one’s attention. They seemed to be more subtle, more mood-setting, more pleasant. The best ones tried to make you feel good, as to get you in a good mood about the product being pushed. They used music and cinema to set a positive tone. Some of the best commercials were all mood, e.g. Michalob beer commercials featuring tunes by Eric Clapton and showing dusky scenes. Or they used subtle humor and wit, e.g. the old Alka-Seltzer ads (“can’t believe I ate the whole thing”, or the professional pie-eaters at work). Or they came up with a catchy jingle, some of which I still remember 40 years later (“Schaefer is the one beer to have when you’re having more than one”, or “There’s just one Schlitz, nothing else comes near; when you’re out of Schlitz, you’re out of beer”).

Sure, there were plenty of cheap-o commercials shouting out for cheap furniture or food blenders that double as wood routers and tile cleaners. But when a sponsor spent big money, they usually got a smooth, soothing, subtly entertaining product. And if it wasn’t subtle, it wasn’t dumb and puerile either.

I guess that the public has lost much of its attention span since then. Today, the most expensive commercials need to be a bit outrageous, even slapstick and gross (by my standards). There’s plenty of violence and eschatological humor. Sex of course is pushed to the limit for family TV. Music and rhyme are not important. Taste is pretty much gone. If there is any mood, it’s dark and cynical, self-aware and self-depreciative. Life as one big video game. That’s what I mostly took away from the Bowl ads. The big money and big audiences involved with Bowl air-time seem to propel a “race to the bottom”.

But let’s go over some of these ads, to see if this is truly the case.

  • Go Daddy, the “five showers a day” sexy woman being watched on a web site by some young guys: I find it interesting how web porno has now become “cute”.
  • Doritos, the crystal ball: A celebration of mayhem, with an old guy getting hit in the crotch. Yea, my fifth grade class would have loved this.
  • Pepsi, McGruber / Pepsuber: A semi-witty parody of high-tech adventure shows, with a bit of self-reflective cynicism regarding the big-sell; i.e., an anti-commercial commercial. But in the end, it’s just another big fireball explosion, just more “harmless annihilation”. Good old fashioned cynicism triumphs.
  • Audi, the car theft chase: More video-game mayhem, but made cute by the fact that nobody really gets hurt or dies, e.g. when the guy on the motorcycle wipes out.
  • Pepsi, “I’m Good”: Even more “cute violence”, more human injury just for fun.
  • Bud Lite, “Drinkability on the slopes”: Mayhem, continued. A skier hits a tree and some picnic tables at high speed, but once again it’s all made cute; no massive head injuries, just a body cast that “the chicks all love”.
  • Doritos, “Crunch Power”: Mayhem once again. Once again, we watch as a human body takes massive trauma (being hit by a fast moving bus), But everything’s fine here in ad-world, the guy is just a bit dazed and sprawled out on the windshield. Wow, how amusing and entertaining . . .
  • Career Builder, “Signs That You Need a New Job”: Sort of witty at first, but the guy in the bikini shorts puts this one back into the 12-year-old humor zone. The repeated physical abuse of a Koala Bear gets the required gratuitous violence in.
  • Denny’s, “Thugs”: an ominous “Godfather/Sopranos” scene over breakfast, but the plan to kill are interrupted by an enthusiastic waitress applying canned whip cream to the pancakes. Cute in a way, but sad that even Denny’s has to resort to mortal threat in order to sell old-fashioned comfort food.
  • Coke, “Palmero and the Kid”: Nice at first, a kid giving an NFL star a soda. But no, they couldn’t just leave it at that; Palmero has to get violent with the corporate guys who object. (Oh, yea, it’s just an NFL tackle, even though in real life such a move would slam your head into the concrete so fast that you’d never wake up.)
  • Bud Lite, “Meeting”: A guy sitting in an office meeting gets hurled out of a third-story window. Then gets up and brushes himself off; no severed spine, no shattered hips. Sorry, that’s just not the way that gravity works on this planet.
  • Monster, “desk under the animal’s butt”: OK, here comes the classic fourth-grade eschatological humor.
  • NBC, LMAO Clinic: Oh yea, NBC is so outrageously funny that you need a doctor to reattach your butt. Eschatology 101, continued.
  • Teleflora, “Boxed Flowers at the Office”: How nice, the crummy boxed flowers from a competitor are in a bad mood and insult and degrade the woman they were sent to, right in front of her co-workers. Not very uplifting; after that ad, I wouldn’t want any flowers at all, no matter how fresh and quickly delivered.
  • Bud, “Conan in Sweden”: Yuck, anything with Conan is a non-starter. A machoed-out Conan doing weird stunts is even worse.
  • H&R; Block, “The Grim Reaper”: death and taxes versus the little guy. OK, no one dies or faces severe injury in this one. Maybe there’s even a bit of wit (a rare commodity during the Super Bowl) when the reaper leaves with a fatal threat, then comes back and asks for parking validation.
  • Castor Oil, “The Grease Monkeys”: Strange days, indeed; to sell something bland like motor oil these days, you gotta get weird (monkeys invade a suburban home garage).
  • Pedigree pet adoption service, “Weird Pets”: It’s sad to see a good cause, like finding homes for unwanted dogs, needs to send out ostriches to threaten senior citizens, and have a rhino take down a living room wall just to get some attention.
  • Kelloggs Frosted Flakes, “Growing Fields”: The background reality is stranger here than the growing crops linking arms together in the video. Kellogg’s wonderful sugar bombs are helping to feed the child obesity crisis, so the PR folk back at corporate HQ started a donation program to build or improve playing fields in middle-America, as to help real-life kids sweat off the mega-calories that Tony the Tiger shills to them.
  • Cash4Gold: OK, here’s one for the older crowd. It’s just a retro 1 AM commercial camped up a bit with Ed McMahon and MC Hammer.
  • Hulu, “Alien Brain Mush”: This one is another self-parody, an injection of irony on top of retro sci-fi. It’s almost interesting, but it doesn’t hold after Alec Baldwin turns into an alien; the implication always has to be brought home with a sledgehammer at the Bowl.
  • Bridgestone, “Taters” (Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head take a spin): Well, now we start with the more harmless stuff.
  • Taco Bell, ”
    Guy Meets Cute Girl”: Again, harmless and bland.
  • E-trade, “Talking Babies”: Again, harmless and bland.
  • Gatorade, “Mission G”: Again, harmless and . . . oh, wait, that really is Tiger Woods, isn’t it.
  • Hynduai, “Angry Competitors Now Get Our Name Right”: Once the shouting is over, harmless and . . .
  • Bud, “The Clydesdale Adventures”: One more time . . .
  • GE, “Wind Energy”: A boy captures the wind in a bottle to help grandpa blow out his birthday candles. And GE will use that wind to save the world. It’s bland all right, but I’m not ready to say that any message from GE is harmless.
  • Monster / NFL “Fandom Contest”: How depressing, a reminder that 99.999 percent of us are just specs in a huge crowd. How wonderful that the great NFL God promises to raise one of us up to experience “mega-TV-pro sports-world”, the true definition and meaning of life . . . oh Socrates, where are you now?
  • Hyndaui, “Assurance”: wait, here’s an old fashioned commercial, with soothing guitar music and artistic mood shots. How did that one get in?
  • Toyota “Venza”: more modern art and good taste. Well, maybe the car makers get a pass on needing to be brash and gross in hawking their product. I guess they don’t want to seem TOO eager to sell their stuff; they don’t want car prices to crash in this recession.
  • Pepsi, “Generations Refresh”: Wow, Bob Dylan singing the praises of the military! Talk about big-cola revisionism. I guess it all makes sense if you do stay “forever young”, as the theme song goes. Sorry, I’d rather be getting old but still able to remember what the 1960’s were really like.
  • GE, “The Smart Grid Scarecrow”: A twist on the classic Ozzian formula, you know, Dorothy and Toto and The Wizard and all that. So, I was wrong; some old-school commercials still slip in. But this is NOT an example of the better stuff from the old days.
  • Bridgestone, “Mars Explorers”: Actually, this one was a bit like the better stuff from the old days. Someone steals the tires on the Martian planetary rover. Houston, we have a problem.
  • Priceline, William Shatner in a Wiretap Van Outside Your House: Not exactly the good old days, but not the new junk either. Sort of a witty takeoff on high-tech espionage shows.
  • Cheetos, “Chester the Tiger”: Well, a little bit gross with those messy pigeons attacking the chatty girl at the next table, but Chester pulls it off in the end.
  • Sprint, “Roadies On Takeoff”: Finally, a commercial that I really liked! Yea, flying today would be a lot more fun if roadies ran the show. Instead of calling off “V1, V2” as the plane prepares to “rotate” skyward, the roadie pilots yell “let’s rock!”. And then the runway fireworks go off. Cool!
  • Springsteen and E-Street, “Mini Concert”: Oh, that wasn’t a commercial? That was supposed to be real? Whatever. Bruce was trying a little too hard, but it was nice to see Stevie Van Zant and Clarence Clemmons being them selves. After all the years, some guys hold up.

So, there were one or two good commercials amidst the dross. And the game was pretty good too. But I always feel better somehow after football season is over. Spring and a season of new hope will get here yet.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:23 pm       Read Comments (3) / Leave a Comment
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