Monthly Archives: May 2011

Rapture No, Apocalypse Yes

The world may not have ended last weekend but according to a story I read, life as we know it may well be seriously endangered.

It appears that a girl in Scotland has been granted permission to listen to an iPod while taking her final school exams because she isn’t able to concentrate unless she is listening to music.

The article says that she is in the final year of high school, which would put her in her late teens. 

The key points of the story are:

  • She can’t concentrate unless she’s listening to music so she wants to listen to music while sitting for final exams
  • The school said too bad
  • The parents appealed to the examination board
  • The board said too bad
  • So far, so good, other than one wonders about the parents
  • The parents threatened to sue (no need to wonder about the parents any more)
  • The school authorities caved because lawyers warned that they may be guilty of “discrimination” under the Equalities Act because the girl “often struggles to pay attention in class” (apparently that is a disability that you can’t discriminate against)
  • The school authorities are “bracing for a flood of similar claims”
  • The iPod has to be loaded by the examination staff to make sure it doesn’t have anything that might give her an advantage on the exams–but the songs on it must be the ones she wants to listen to
  • The exam staff are angry because they now have additional work in the form of loading the iPod
  • School authorities are worried about how they are going to get the staff to load up additional iPods when the “flood of similar claims” (which will clearly all have merit) starts

I don’t know about you, but I’m very confused.  My dictionary defines concentration as “to bring or direct toward a common center or objective; to direct attention to a single object; focus.  The girl has trouble doing this.  As the article says, she “often struggles to pay attention in class.” 

Well I’m a bit of an expert on this topic.  Because just about every teacher I ever had (and a few bosses) said that about me at one time or another.  And in my capacity as an expert, I can tell you that sensory bombardment (i.e., music delivered via earphones) does not aid and abet “directing attention to a single object,” in this case the test questions. 

I remember a math teacher telling me that my attempt to simultaneously listen to him and read a comic book was the equivalent of trying to focus on two separate things with each eye.  And it couldn’t be done.   He was right about that—but he was mistaken that I was actually trying to listen to him.

And that might be something for the school authorities (and parents) to think about.  Sitting in class is a passive activity and when you are passive it’s easy for your mind to wander.  But taking an exam requires a modicum of engagement that you would imagine would help one to focus.  Writing your name on the paper involves some degree of focussed attention, if only to manage to get it on the right line.  How come the people responsible for delivering education don’t know that?  After all, by reinforcing this kind of behaviour they have sort of severely limited the number of careers this girl can pursue.  I can’t see her being an airline pilot, lawyer, doctor, beautician, call center attendant, check out clerk, waitress, cop, teacher, actress, singer.  Do I need to go on?  She probably can’t get any job because she has to wear her iPod in order to concentrate and one assumes she would need to concentrate at a job interview. 

Forgive me for sounding politically incorrect, but this girl doesn’t have a disability.  If anything, she is a victim—of her parents’ laziness and the cowardice of the school authorities.  I am all for making allowances and accommodating students who have a genuine disability, but it’s worrisome when some people consider themselves victims if they are inconvenienced when asked to conform with basic norms of human behaviour.  And it’s even more unfortunate when people in leadership positions won’t make tough decisions because they are afraid of a lawsuit.

If I were running that school, I’d say, “So sue me.” And if the parents did, I’d limit my legal costs to taking out a full page ad in the local paper explaining the suit and listing all the school programs that will have to be cut because of legal expenses or reallocation of resources from normal teaching to loading iPods, etc.  I bet that (a) I’d get a lot of contributions to my legal fund and (b) the suit might well go away. 

In retrospect, I’m kind of happy that my math teacher confiscated my comic book.  Not because I learned any math, but because I learned about priorities and self discipline and, again in retrospect, that has been a very good thing.

The girl has probably never heard her parents say the word “no.”  Or if she has, she has learned that they are only too happy to take the easy way out and oblige her every demand.  It may be unfair of me to make rash assumptions, but I bet that this girl has pretty much iTuned out of the world for a while.  She is no different that the scores of teenagers I’ve seen sitting in restaurants with their parents, earphones stuck in their ears and looks of cosmic pain on their faces at being forced to interact in some small way with the real world.   I can understand the parents being perfectly happy to have the kid quiet and tractable and iSedated all the time, but then what’s the point of having kids?

Adventures of a Luddite II

It so doesn’t need to be said, but I will anyway:  Just because technology lets you do something doesn’t mean that you should do it.  Or that it is even a good idea.

Today we have three examples.

On our recent trip to the US, we rented a car for the drive from Florida to Ohio.  It was a really nice car.  I liked it.  But after we’d been on the road for about 20 miles a little indicator light came on.  I didn’t recognize the icon—it wasn’t an oil can or gas pump or anything like that.  And anyway, it was yellow so I assumed that nothing catastrophic was happening so I kept on driving.

At the next stop I consulted the manual (don’t get me started on how easy it was to find what I was looking for in the phone book sized manual) and learned that the indicator light meant that one of the car’s tires was underinflated.

Intuitive, in retrospect:

I experienced disbelief on two levels.  First, the tires all looked fine to me and the car drove perfectly, so I didn’t believe that there was a tire problem.  Second, I found myself wondering why they put something on a car to inform you about a something you can already tell just by looking.

I was faced with conflicting evidence.  My experience with driving and my sensory input vs. the computer in the car which was saying I had a low tire. 

If the car hadn’t been equipped with the tire pressure indicator system, I wouldn’t have even thought about the tires.  There wasn’t a single shred of evidence, other than the light, that there was a problem.  But I said to myself, “Hmm, the computer is saying there’s a problem.  Maybe it’s more sensitive than me.  Maybe I better check.”

So the next time we gas up I decide to top up the tires as well.  Guess what?  They charge you a buck to put air in your tires now.  When did that start?  Anyway, I got my dollar’s worth of air and away we went.

About 20 miles later, the light came back on.  Once again, there was no indication of any problem based on observation of the tires and the way the car was driving.  Again, thinking that the computer was smarter than me, I thought I might have a puncture and a slow leak so that evening I backed the car forward and backward a few times and did a visual and manual inspection, both of which were negative.

I then decided to tackle the manual again to learn more about the system.  There are fifteen pages of information, few of which are either comprehensible or enlightening.  I did however learn that if the light is on all the time you have a problem, but if it comes on only after you’ve driven about 20 miles the system is out of whack and needs to be reset by an authorized technician.

That part of the manual had all those little exclamation points in triangles that are supposed to get your attention.  The warning was to get the system reset immediately because if it’s malfunctioning the tires might be low and I wouldn’t know it!!

How has the human race survived this long?

That light stayed on until I got to Cleveland and for all I know someone is driving the car somewhere with flawless tires and a tire warning light glowing. 

Some people seem to think that technology will solve all their problems.  For example, I saw an article about a Canadian couple who were driving from Canada to Las Vegas and ended up lost in Nevada for 48 days because they neglected to look out the window and relied solely on the GPS.

Think about it—that’s a month and a half. 

The wife was rescued by hunters—she stayed with the car but the husband went for help and is still out there somewhere. 

Maybe I’m not a trusting soul, but when the GPS in our rental car said “turn left” I checked to make sure there were no cars coming.  Similarly, if I was on a major highway heading for a major city and it told me to exit onto smaller and smaller roads, I ignored it and paid attention to the road signs.  As the article said, “Authorities say that such incidents show there is no substitute for common sense.”

So with that in mind, let’s consider the latest technology offering from, where else, Japan.  It’s called Necomimi, which means “cat ears” in Japanese.

The reason it’s called cat ears is because it is a set of ears that look like cat ears that you wear on your head.  But there is some sort of brain wave sensor in the head band that picks up your emotions and little motors in the ears move them so that people can see how you feel.  There are four basic positions that indicate whether you are nervous, focused, relaxed or if your brain activity is low (they “flap gently back and forth” in those cases).

Of course this technology has useful and practical applications for the disabled.  But the people who developed Necomimi “wanted something for all to enjoy.”

Enjoy?

Not only that, they think that there may be applications to help people who are “reclusive or shy around strangers.”  Can you picture a shy person going to a party wearing a set of cat ears to communicate?  That would definitely help their social life.

Look for Necomimi later in 2011.  According to the article the price tag will be “several hundred dollars” per set of ears. 

Read My Ears!

Somehow I think Necomimi will go the route of mood rings.

The Lost American Dream

Although I lived most of my life in the US, I’ve now been away for over thirteen years and each time I go back I see things a little differently.  The big difference, of course, is the changes in the people I go to visit.  Everyone is older and has had more experiences and insights and there is always a lot to catch up on.

The high point of each visit is meeting up with family and friends, but it’s also always interesting to travel around, see how old, familiar places have changed and talk to people about what’s going on.

But this time is was a little different. 

For the first time ever I got a strong sense that the country is becoming increasingly polarized between the haves and have nots.  I saw it as I travelled around and heard it as I talked to people.

It’s a subtle thing and it doesn’t jump out at you.  It’s just that after you visit a few people and places you start to get a sense that something is going on—namely, the middle class is disappearing and people are moving to the extremes. 

A lot of people I know are doing very well—they have huge homes, nice cars and regardless of where they are in their careers, they feel secure. 

I also saw a lot of people like that in malls, restaurants and generally out and about.   If you go to a nice restaurant you will ask yourself “what recession?”  Everyone is well dressed, carefree and is flashing the latest technology bling in the form of an iPhone, iPad or Android.  They’re everywhere.

But not everyone is like that.  A lot of other people who on previous visits weren’t much different than everyone else now have a different look and sound.  They haven’t moved into a larger house.  In fact, they have downsized.  They talk about how their retirement plans have been shattered—either because their employer has curtailed the pension plan they had relied on, or is changing the ground rules for retirement age.  Or maybe their 401K or IRAs aren’t going to provide them with the level of income they’d expected. 

A lot of them have had to make a difficult decision about health care insurance because their employer decided to cut back employee health insurance.  Either they are channelling a significant amount of their income (or savings) into private insurance or keeping their fingers crossed that nothing catastrophic happens.  They shop at different stores and eat in different restaurants. 

Five years ago this difference didn’t exist.  It has slowly crept up on a lot of people and this was the first time I’d come face to face with it—successful professionals telling me they are going to have to take on a second job to make ends meet, people who were looking forward to retiring at 60 who now say they are “hoping” they can keep working until 70 in order to keep their home and maintain their standard of living.

The people who were living through this had experienced a gradual change—it just sort of happened to them.  But to me, an outsider visiting after two years, the change was striking and abrupt.  People who used to be basically all the same have now been polarized into the haves and have nots. 

Like many of the haves, I used to think that there were very specific reasons why there were have nots:  they made bad life decisions, they were uneducated, they were lazy—you’ve heard them all.

But now I’ve seen people who are have nots after doing all the right things.  They’ve educated themselves and their children.  They’ve saved for their retirement.  They’ve bought a home.  They look after themselves and their home.  So if those people are have nots, the traditional reasons must not be right.

The real reason seemed to be abundantly clear to me.  Although people with huge homes, fancy cars and gilt-edged retirement plans might think that they are reaping the rewards of hard work and being smart, the real reason is that they are just lucky.  And the nouveau have nots aren’t lazy or unmotivated.  They are simply unlucky in unexpected ways.  They may have gone to work for a company that suddenly decided that shareholder wealth was more important than employee health insurance. Or they may have shown good judgement and conservatively invested their retirement assets in government bonds and have watched their retirement nest egg shrink as living costs have risen faster than interest rates.

It was a sobering experience to come face to face with.  I’m proud to say that my lucky friends realize that they are the lucky ones.  But I ran into too many people who think that because they have a big house and don’t have to worry about retirement or health care, they are smarter and reaping rewards that they richly deserve. 

I may not like that attitude but I can understand where it is coming from.  I saw an article which said that executive pay was up 24% over last year.  How many people do you know who got 24% raises last year?  Average pay for the CEO of an S&P 500 company was $9 million.  I fully understand that those people may actually feel entitled to that kind of money.  But I’m not sure it’s right when you look at the big picture.  Because those people can’t be that much smarter and be working that much harder than the rest of us.  Luckier, yes, smarter, no.

Another article states that the tax rate in America is the lowest it has been since 1958.  In other words, people are paying less tax as a percentage of their income at any time in the last 50 years.   In the past twenty to thirty years, people were paying an average of 27% of their income in tax and today that number is about 23%.  If the tax rate were still 27%, the federal deficit would be reduced by one third—in just one year. 

It was a little hard for me to understand why the media debate on tax cuts is as vicious as it appears to be.  If you are making $50,000 you take home an additional $1,500 because of the lower tax rate.  A person making $9 million gets to keep an additional $270,000.  It is interesting to speculate on where that $270,000 goes.  Who does it help?  Some lobbyist or special interest group?  Or is it sent offshore to maximize further returns? How much is actually reinvested in the country/community?  Last time I heard charities and publicly funded arts are hurting so I don’t think it is going to those causes.

The question that needs to be asked in a time when the middle class is evaporating and the country is becoming increasingly polarized is how much is enough.  Defenders of capitalism rightly point out that the system works because of self interest, but is there a limit to self interest?  There seems to be something wrong when an executive can send jobs offshore, increase profitability, earn a multi million dollar bonus and then demand that it not be taxed when the money collected as tax might help the people who he has hurt by sending their jobs overseas. 

The point is that capitalism is a system and it increasingly appears to be a closed system with lucky winners and unlucky losers.

 It must be nice to be lucky.

Stranger In A Strange Land

We just got back from a month in the US.  The first 80% of my life (so far) was spent in the USA, specifically in Ohio, and because I still have family and friends there, I try to get back once a year to catch up on things.

But I think I’ve reached the point where when I say “I’m going home,” I no longer know which place I’m referring to.  Part of the problem is that when you leave a familiar place and return, you think you are the same person you were when you left.  And you expect everyone else to be the same, too.  Sort of like you’ve put the world on “pause,” stepped out, and have now returned and hit “play.”

That isn’t the way it works and the longer you are away, the more you and other people change.  Both physically and mentally.

This was brought home with a vengeance on this trip because I found myself driving a rental car around Florida visiting retired friends.  Yes, me!  I have retired friends in Florida! 

But it was actually just like catching up in Ohio in the old days, except the weather and scenery were better in Florida:

We hadn’t planned a trip to Disney World, but I had the feeling that the GPS had malfunctioned and sent us to some sort of Disneyland for senior citizens when we visited a friend in a place called “The Villages.”

I’ve never seen anything like The Villages.  The closest I can come to describing it is Disneyland without kids, rides and Mickey Mouse.  It is spotlessly clean, well organized, seems to have everything you could possibly want, and is full of retired people zipping around on golf carts—even if they aren’t on the golf course.

It’s called The Villages because the whole complex is made up of several smaller communities (villages) each with a sort of town center of shops, restaurants and a recreation center.  Mainstream retail stores and other amenities are interspersed between the various villages.  Plus there are thirty-eight golf courses. 

They also have softball fields, a polo field, a woodworking shop, several swimming pools, walking tracks, a golf school and something called the Lifelong Learning College.  There are also lectures and activities at the various community centers.

The entire complex is connected by roads and a network of golf cart paths.  The preferred method of transportation is by golf cart and houses in the village have little mini-garages for golf carts:

A major pastime seems to be, for lack of a better word, pimping one’s golf cart:

And this pretty much sums up the philosophy:

Our hostess advised us that each night in the village center there were free live concerts.  We went along one evening to check it out and sure enough as we approached the square we heard the end of “Proud Mary” (Creedence Clearwater Revival version) and then the band went into a creditable version of “Jumping Jack Flash.”  From a distance the band looked like the Rolling Stones do today (at least Keith Richard) but the audience was a bit of a disconnect:

Mosh Pit, Villages Style

After two days, the whole thing started to take on a bit of a Stepford quality.  You have to be at least 55 in order to buy property there and no one under 19 is allowed to stay there for more than a month.  I’m not sure if that is why everyone seemed so happy but I also read that The Villages is the fastest growing residential district in the country.  And I can see why.  It has a great atmosphere and there is always something going on and lots to do.

We continued on the trip with a lingering sense that by visiting The Villages we had stepped into some sort of alternative reality for a few days and were now back in the real world.  Then I turned on the TV and heard Donald Trump telling us how proud he was. 

And I jumped back in the car searching for real reality.

So I stopped in at a couple of Wal-Marts to see if I could spot any Wal-Mart people.  No joy.

Now that we’re home I’m getting over my jet lag and getting used to smaller serving sizes in restaurants.  Yesterday we took a ride up to the farm to make sure that all was well.  Everything was fine except for one thing. 

Because we were going to gone in early autumn, and that is when the mice like to find their way inside, I decided to lay down a gauntlet of mouse traps in the garage to prevent any incursions into the house.

Big mistake.  Moral of the story:  Don’t leave mousetraps unattended!

Each of the traps I’d left open for business had attracted a customer.  I don’t know exactly how long the mice had been in the traps but dead mouse bodies undergo some sort of chemical reaction that not only smells terrible, it also fuses them to the floor.  Very disgusting.  All I could think of while cleaning up was how smart I had been to not make crime scene investigation my career choice.

The birds seem to have gotten the message and are staying away based on the absence of guano and/or bird corpses.  However my friend Brian in the US made a gift of a black raptor silhouette which he guarantees will keep anything under 50 pounds at bay.  Here it is, installed where swallows have been circling (and ignoring the owls):

I’ll let you know how it goes.