Monthly Archives: February 2010

Catching Up On My Reading

I think I may have mentioned that we had a series of house guests over the holidays.  Aside from the considerable social and gustatory benefits of having guests, there is another unexpected pleasure—going through all the reading material they leave behind.  Invariably on departure day they will point to a pile of brochures, magazines and newspapers and say, “If you want to read any of that, please do, otherwise dump it.”  As a result, I got a windfall of books and magazines that I would normally not have access to and, accordingly, I’ve been educating myself on the wider world.

One of the things left behind was a Time magazine.  I can’t remember the last time I read Time.  When I was growing up, the current week’s issue was always on the coffee table and I used to read it pretty much from cover to cover.  After I left home I was Timeless, except for a brief period in the 80s when I subscribed on my own.  I figured if it was good enough for Hans Gruber, it was good enough for me.

But that was a short lived subscription as I found the magazine had become tendentious, sententious and self-consciously supercilious.  Maybe it always had been, but I wasn’t attuned to those things in my youth.

I decided to have a look at the current incarnation of the magazine.  I slumped on the couch, my feet on the coffee table (just like the old days and only done to help create the retro feel) and started to read. The first thing that struck me was how thin it was.  Even allowing for the fact that I was recalling how it felt in my younger, smaller hands, it still had definitely shed a few pages.  Whether this is a conscious effort to save trees, or it was a slow news week, I wasn’t yet sure.

A few pages into the magazine revealed several things.  One, it is still tendentious, sententious and even more self-consciously supercilious.  Two, the intended audience is now clearly Gen Y.  Plus, the writers and editors seem to have assumed that the reader will have forgotten to take their Ritalin.  You can’t read it slowly.  The pace is frenetic and rather than scratching the surface of issues, it sort of squints at them from the stratosphere as it flies by at Mach 1.  Pictures abound.  As do sound bites, quotes in big fonts and statistics. 

There are amazingly few advertisements, but that could be because some of the articles are advertisements masquerading as news.  Take, for example, the article about Reebok’s new sneakers called EasyTone.  They have funny shaped soles and the resulting instability you experience supposedly tones your legs and posterior while walking so either (1) you don’t have to exercise or (2) your exercise workout need never end, depending on your point of view.  The tagline is “Better legs and a better butt with every step.”  Think about it.  Shoes designed to be uncomfortable and unstable. 

The “good” news is that they are only $110 a pair.  Those with fewer budget constraints might be interested in the MBT, which stands for “Masai Barefoot Technology.”  Count the oxymorons in that phrase.   They cost $245 a pair and since 2004 over a million women have bought a pair.  The article didn’t say if there were intellectual property issues with the Masai who originated barefoot technology and whether there were any royalty arrangements.

But my favourite page was called “Verbatim.”  It is a list of quotes in larger than normal type.  I read the quotes with great amusement.  I’d like to think that we are supposed to laugh at these quotes because they are so outrageously silly.  But I’m not 100% sure, and I’m worried that someone might interpret them as headlines or things they need to know.  Because that would be scary.  The good news is that if aliens were approaching the Earth and happened to scan the Verbatim page as an indicator of the existence of intelligent life, they would turn around and head for deep space.

Here are a few examples.  A guy in Pakistani custody for plotting terrorist acts has answered his accusers with the statement:  “We are not terrorists.  We are jihadists, and jihad is not terrorism.” 

Thanks for clearing that up.

If you believe that one, how about this one from Gerald Levin, the former CEO of Time Warner.  He was a major player in the Time Warner/AOL merger which cost investors billions.  As business blunders go it is the Titanic and Hindenburg rolled into one.  He said, “I was the CEO.  I was in charge.  I’m really very sorry about the pain and suffering and loss that was caused. I take responsibility.” 

He’s taking responsibility?  I have to assume that the statute of limitations must have run out on any laws he may have broken.  But the big question is, are we supposed to believe that he’s sorry or are we supposed to laugh at the irony of how irrelevant this apology is to people who experienced “pain and suffering and loss” courtesy of Mr. Levin.

Further pushing the reality envelope is this statement from an ethics professor at a university in LA.  “The scientific research . . . indicates that dolphins are ‘nonhuman persons’ who qualify for moral standing as individuals.”  What does that mean?  What is a ‘nonhuman person?’  What is moral standing as an individual?  What if someone just reads that and believes it without processing it?  They are going to think that science has shown dolphins to be human.

Come to think of it, though, I’ve never seen a bunch of dolphins at a rock concert holding up cell phones and lighters and waving their dorsal fins, so they may well have greater claim to individuality than a lot of human persons.

In the “Things You Need To Know” category, is this item about Jacob Zuma, the South African president who has five wives.  “It’s his right as a Zulu.  But he only took one wife to Italy to meet the Pope.” 

One side of me says, “Who cares?”  But I’m marginally interested in how he picked which one got to go.

But don’t worry, it’s not all boring science, law and politics.  There is also a lot of space devoted to more important social issues.  For example, there is a social networking/dating web site called BeautifulPeople.com.  Apparently they take their name very seriously—after all, you can’t become a member of the site unless the existing members think you are sufficiently beautiful to qualify and vote you in after they have had a chance to look at your picture.  They whacked 5,000 members in early January because based on pictures the members had posted, it looked like they had put on weight over the holidays.  In explaining the move, the founder of the site said, “Letting fatties roam the site is a direct threat to our business model.”  Roam? 

And of course, the most important issue of the day is also discussed—namely Jersey Shore, MTVs reality show in which a group of self-lobotomized young people live in a house.  The men are only worried about their hair and physiques and the women sit around and bitch and punch each other and refuse to cook and clean.  Everyone has tattoos.  There is a quote saying that the show actually has a feminist agenda because it is “undoing age-old stereotypes and replacing them . . . with a progressive, and even revolutionary, model of prima donna that is more Lady Gaga than Victoria Gotti . . . .”

It’s just a feeling, but I think that even Gloria Steinem would prefer the old stereotypes to the new paradigm.

So here I am, slightly out of breath but fully informed as to the burning issues of the day.

Underwear Enhancement, Anyone?

Did you ever worry that you might accidentally erase an important message if you just click “delete all” on your spam inbox?

Call me paranoid, but I’ve found the occasional ‘real’ message buried in the spam messages and as a result I find myself unable to just whack them all without at least scanning down the offerings to see if I recognize a sender.

Usually the end result of this daily ritual is a silent curse and a promise to stop wasting time.  But every once in a while something interesting pops up.  That’s not meant to be a veiled reference to Viagra, by the way.

For example, a couple of days before Valentine’s Day, I got a spam message that was a little different.  It was entitled “A Special Gift for that Special Valentine.”  I was, of course, suspicious, but it looked different than your usual spam message and it was from a reputable clothing manufacturer.

It turned out be junk mail in the sense that it was a message I hadn’t asked for, trying to sell me something I didn’t want.

But in some respects, it was also a portal into a world I didn’t know existed, and it’s made me think about things a little differently.

The “special gift” turned out to be something called “Enhancement Underwear.”  Of course, I’m pretty well inured to the word “enhancement,” when I see it in an unsolicited e-mail message, but I’d never heard the word in juxtaposition with “underwear.”

I hasten to point out that my first thought was not about incontinence.

I read on and my suspicions were confirmed.

You may or may not be surprised to know that most reputable underwear companies (and a lot I’d never heard of) have a product line discreetly referred to as “enhancement underwear.” 

It could be advertised as “for the man who doesn’t have everything.”

I could explain it in more detail, but it is better to let the manufacturers’ marketing people do the talking.  I cringe at the thought of the spam I’m going to be getting as a result of visiting some of these web sites, but the experience has been educational. 

First, and this is important, most companies don’t sell “enhancement underwear.”  No, they sell “enhancement solutions.”   I.e., Mr. you’ve got a problem and we’ve got just the solution.

Second, the operative word, when discussing solutions is “bulge.”  As one web site says, “Male enhancement underwear and swimwear won’t actually give you a bigger penis, but they WILL give you a big bulge that you can be proud of.” 

I think I understand the Darwinian logic in play.  Reputable universities have done research in which women were asked to rate the attractiveness of men by looking at pictures of guys sitting in cars.  Apparently, the ladies overwhelmingly ranked the same guy as better looking if he was sitting in a Porsche or Ferrari than when he was sitting in a Ford or Hyundai.  The presumption is that guys with fancy cars have more money and therefore represent a more viable option as a breeding partner, and the ladies have some sort of limbic reaction and find the guy in the fancy car more appealing.

If you play that logic out, guys with enhancement underwear should in fact get all the girls.  But one of the problems with that theory is that I thought that we had higher brain functions that, on occasion, override our reptilian brain. 

If this weren’t true, no one would ever have heard of Freud.

Nevertheless, the whole bulge obsession has amazing persistence.  I’d heard of “enhancement solutions,” before.  I remember stories my sister-in-law would tell about her days as an emergency room nurse.  A lot of times guys wearing tight pants would pass out or be knocked out in dance clubs.  Upon examination in the hospital, they would be found to have done some DIY enhancement in the form of socks, or in one case, a hot dog. 

And in the early 2000s Lee came out with something called “Packit Jeans” which were “designed to maximize ‘upfront’ appeal.” 

But what is never talked about is what happens after the Janet Jackson “reveal.”  Maybe I’m too practical but if the bogus bulge has its presumably desired effect and a liaison does in fact occur, wouldn’t you have some explaining to do when the time came?  “Uh, what happened to your bulge?”  How do you answer that question?

Anyway, as you might expect in these days of market differentiation and intense competition, there are a lot of “solutions” available.  For example, there is the “Power Pouch,” “Power Sock,” “Wonder Jock,” and of course, the “Bong Thong.” 

Regardless of which brand you choose, the same result is promised:  “With men’s enhancing underwear, you’ll have the added confidence boost of a thoroughbred stallion!” 

I don’t know about you, but this whole thing has me very confused.  For two reasons.

First, if you recall, what started this inquiry was an unsolicited e-mail with the subject line “A Special Gift for that Special Valentine.”  So presumably, one would buy this gift for someone who “needs” it.  And wouldn’t that be a sobering Valentines’ Day gift?  Sort of like a guy getting his girlfriend a padded bra.  Or a Zumba membership. 

Imagine the scene:

“Happy Valentines Day, Joe.”

“Thanks, what is it, Mary?”

“Open it and see!”

Joe opens the package, and extracts and studies the contents.  Of course he can’t say, “Thanks!  Just what I need!”  But presumably Mary thinks he does.  Any delusions of stallionhood Joe may have entertained will be forever dashed.

But then, if Joe were really in such dire need of a Power Pouch, why was Mary seeing him anyway?  Shouldn’t she have been patrolling for big-bulged Porsche owners before settling on poor old Joe?

I take the whole sad story as further proof that one of the fundamental principals of marketing is the de-evolution of the human race.  Who but a marketer would try to undermine thousands of years of evolutionary triumph of our mammalian brains over our reptilian brains by telling us that size does in fact matter.  And then selling a bulge to create the illusion of size.

Inspector Clouseau Rides Again?

Regular readers may recall that the last time I had been quiet for an unusually long time was because the farm house was absorbing an inordinate amount of my time and attention.

That was nothing.

We are now in inspection mode.  In order to be completely finished we need something called a Code of Compliance certificate from the local council.  The first ‘final’ inspection that we had about a month ago resulted in a two page list of items ‘requiring attention.’  We’ve given them attention.  Lots of it.  The inspector man came out two days ago for a second ‘final’ inspection and we passed!

Is it time to celebrate?

Not quite. 

There is another part of the inspection process that involves paperwork.  And one of the pieces of paper you need involves certification of the gas system.  Now I’m not adverse to the idea of ensuring the safety of a system that pumps explosive gas through the house.  But I would have thought that inspecting the system would occur a little earlier in the process.

So yet another inspector shows up.  He is very serious.  Gas is not a laughing matter.  He does his inspection thing and zeroes in on the gas cook top.  It isn’t a stove, it’s a cook top built into the kitchen counter.  A hole was made in the countertop and the cook top was wired, piped and screwed and glued into place.  I.e., you can’t move it.  And that is important to the story.

He gets out a ruler and measures.  And measures again.  And scratches his head.  And purses his lips.  And shakes his head.  And tells me that he must go to his car where he has his portable library of regulations.

I recognise this as Not A Good Sign.

He comes back with a book which says that the burners on a gas stove must be 200mm from the wall.  And the ones in our nice new kitchen are 190mm.  According to him, any attempt to cook on the stove will result in a conflagration and concomitant immolation.  And the pasta won’t be al dente.

As we used to say, I understood where he was coming from.  But.  Ten millimetres!  That’s this big:  ——– .   One lousy centimeter!  The alternatives seemed to be moving a wall, moving the stove top, which is embedded in a hole in the kitchen counter, or, I guess never using the stove.

So I stopped laughing long enough to ask him why a professional kitchen design and building company would build a kitchen that didn’t comply with the law.

Did he say, “I’ll have their license for this!” No.  Did he say, “Shit happens.”  No.  He said, and I quote, “They don’t know about these regulations.”

Like Elvis, I guess that Kafka hasn’t left the building either. 

It turns out that the problem can be easily fixed.  By installing a fire retardant surface on the wall.  “Talk to your kitchen people,” was his helpful suggestion.  I immediately formulated a conspiracy theory.

“And what are they going to tell me?”

“You can use glass, stainless steel or tile.  They can help you.”

“Help?” I thought to myself, but I actually said, “Did you say tile?”

He consulted his regulations.  “Sure.  See, right here it says ceramic tiles have a ΔTLc3/(να) and a k/(ρcp) (m2/s) so you don’t have to worry about u0Lc/ν!”

“That’s great!” I said.

Stainless steel and glass might have been beyond my skills, but I figured, how hard would it be to put up some tiles?

How much tiling experience do I have, you ask.

None.  Not a bit.  I took a 3 hour class at a local tile shop and they gave us a DVD (where everything looks a lot easier than it really is, let me tell you). 

Fortunately, my friend Peter has a lot of experience and he helped me.

Sic transit the weekend. 

But it looks really good.  And so was the pasta.

Facebook, Google and Gogol

It’s probably a little too early for me to declare myself a visionary, but I had a ‘moment’ this past week. 

A few months ago, in response to a number of scares about privacy on the internet, particularly with respect to Facebook and Google, I wrote a little story about what at the time seemed to be the logical extension of what I was reading in the news. 

I’d sort of forgotten about it until two days ago when an older nephew of mine in Australia sent me a link from YouTube with the note:  “I thought this might be something thought-provoking for your next blog.” 

As you may know, some of my blog ideas come from interacting with my younger nephews here in Auckland, but Cyrus in Sydney is 29 and is my finger on the Gen Y pulse.  So I pay attention when he suggests I have a look at something.

I watched the clip and my first reaction was “Hey, someone read my story!”

You can check out the YouTube link here:

And you can read my story, entitled “What Goes Up Must Come Down”.  It belongs to a unique genre of stories inspired by Google and Gogol!

I don’t know about you, but I think that the YouTube clip is wonderful social commentary.  It’s outrageous but at the same time frighteningly plausible.  I can picture someone actually wanting to sign up for Google Xistence.  And the line:  “Because life is too short for social interaction” is classic. 

Come to think of it, over the years I’ve run into a few people who would have benefited by Google Xistence.  Or at least the people around them may have.

Although Google Xistence is a funny concept, it does raise a worrisome issue, at least when you look at it in the context I raise in the story.

Historically, we’ve been willing (more or less) to risk our physical lives with technologies such as the automobile, airplane, X-ray machine and microwave oven.  The implied social contract with the companies providing those products and services is that they will try to limit the number of people their products hurt or kill in order to ensure continued corporate existence.  No one will buy a product that is inherently dangerous.  Just ask the shareholders of Dow Corning (or the company that made lawn darts).

We have become used to putting ourselves into other peoples’ hands and trusting airlines, car companies, drug companies, etc.  But now we seem to be equally as willing to put our trust in others when it comes to giving away our personal data. Unfortunately those people may not necessarily be willing or able to meet our expectations of privacy.

When we provide personal information to an organization, we are entrusting more than our physical lives to technology.  The internet and corporate and government computers are now a repository of our essence—who we are, what we own, who we know, where we go, what we eat, drink, buy and even think. 

 One of the big questions in the privacy debate is whether the right to privacy is a fundamental human right.  I guess first you have to define what you mean by privacy.   Bruce Schneider, a computer security consultant, has made the point that without privacy, “we lose our individuality, because everything we do is observable and recordable.”

At one level that all sounds rather Orwellian.  But the point of Google Xistence (and my story) is that it doesn’t take Big Brother (Orwell’s one) and a lot of security cameras and secret agents to destroy our individuality.

We can’t be sure where that information we willingly give away will end up.  Last month, the CEO of Google was interviewed on the subject of privacy.  When asked about sharing information he made the comment:  “If you have something you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

That might be true of some sorts of activities, but I don’t think it’s what the people who posted their photos of their wild graduation party on Facebook had in mind when they were asked about that party during a job interview.

And I am sure that the unsuspecting parents who posted the photos of their cute kids online did not expect them to show up on some pervert’s desktop as one news report recently noted.  We wouldn’t hang pictures of our kids randomly at a shopping mall, but we seem willing to post them on-line and the internet is accessible to a lot more people than the local mall.

Airlines and car companies expect you to fasten your seatbelt in order to take some responsibility for your own physical safety.  Unfortunately, there aren’t that many simple safety mechanisms in the electronic world.  Except maybe for common sense.

In the early days of the internet, futurists speculated on how people would deal with each other in cyberspace.  They theorized that geographical distance and a low likelihood of meeting the people we are interacting with would lead people to say and do things on the internet that they would never do in real life.  They were right, and daily proof of that can be found on any political blog where more insults than ideas are traded. 

I guess the bottom line is that sharing information is a little like driving.  Pay attention to what’s going on, fasten your seat belt, and just because you can do something (e.g., donuts on black ice or share your bank details with the Nigerian scammers) doesn’t mean you should do it.

Because while life may not be “too short for social interaction,” it is certainly too short to live it inside a machine.