Word from Bird Archives 2015

December 2015

If I could turn back time

In my spare time, I like to take a few theoretical trips within my own mind.

It can be a frightening place, but I usually arm myself with what little logic and reason I can muster and venture into the strange unknown.

One of my latest forays into the ethers of my mind has been to explore the idea of time travel.

I’m not talking about your classic science fiction, H.G. Wells, time travel, there are a lot of problems posed with that kind of maneuvering; I’m thinking more of an insubstantial observer.

I would be able to travel to any place in time and quietly observe what was going on around me, not able to interact or influence, just watch.

Imagine what you could learn about our world’s history if you were able to effortlessly travel to anywhere on the globe, and at any time in history you wanted.

I could stand in the sands of Gaza and watch the pyramid being built, or see the people of Mach 4 Picchu actually living in their fabled city.

One of the first places I would visit would be the site of the famous Nazca lines in Peru.

For those of you not familiar, the Nazca lines are incredibly large and mysterious figures literally carved into the surface of the desert in South America. Scientists still don’t know exactly what purpose these lines were carved nor how these supposed primitive tribesmen managed the intricate designs on such a large scale.

Some theorists believe they were star charts, and others think they were markings to signal alien spacecraft.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to be able to travel back in time and watch the Nazcans actually create these marvelous shapes and figure out what they meant?

Possibly I would travel to ancient Troy and see if the fabled Trojan Horse was real. Or perhaps I could pay a visit to Stonehenge and find out who built it and for what purpose.

The possibilities are endless what you could see.

Of course, one of the problems with solving these historical mysteries would be the language barrier. Unless I found out a way to learn and understand ancient languages, I would have to rely on my eyes alone. I couldn’t sit in on a planning session for the great pyramid and understand a word they were saying.

Another complication would be convincing others of my findings.

Unless I got lucky and watched someone bury some crucial piece of evidence, and managed to remember exactly where it was a thousand years later to unearth it, I would have no proof of anything. Skeptics would have a field day with anything I said because I wasn’t a certified archeologist.

Without a physical presence to actually record any of my findings, I could be perceived as just another nut with a theory.

But I bet I would make a fortune on the talk show circuit.


 

Birdman’s Christmas Toy Guide

As we are once again beset upon by the holiday shopping season, when we are inundated with pleas from children to buy the latest and greatest toy as a present. Parents often are confused when strolling down the toy isle as to the educational benefits and safety issues surrounding the myriad of toys available. Watchdog groups every year release a list of toys with potential hazards to a child’s safety, but they don’t give the real reason. I have decided to clear up some of the confusion and present the real explanation behind potentially dangerous toys:

1. Anything that contains parts small enough to fit in a child’s mouth and potentially choke them. Anyone who has children knows anything has the possibility of it ending up in the vicinity of a child’s mouth. I have seen little kids try to cram anything they can get their hands on down their gullet, anything but food that is. As you well know an infant’s mouth is not the way children absorb nutrients. Scientific studies have conclusively proven that children absorb important vitamins and minerals through their skin. Babies prefer to smear anything with nutritional value all over their faces and most importantly into their belly buttons. This leaves their mouth free to “examine” household objects such as shoes, telephones, coffee tables and toys. If you have a child under three years old and concerned with choking hazards of toys, coat them in baby food or strained carrots before giving them to your child to play with, this will ensure the object will never come close to their mouth.

2. Toys with parts that may break off and present a possible choking hazard. Again, anyone with kids knows that any toy will end up being broken within minutes of giving it to the child. Once the novelty of a new toy wears off, after the first 10 minutes or so, the child must satisfy the urge to see how soon it can be broken. After years of research it is now understood children have a secret organization (similar to the Underwriters Laboratory) to test the Breakage Factor (BF) of a given toy. Once this is determined the results are broadcast by means of a tantrum, which sends out signals to other children in a 6-mile radius. A by-product of the tantrum is the parents desire to end it, thus necessitating the purchase of a new toy.  To prolong life of a toy…well, there is no way to do so. Prepare for it and plan ahead.

3. Toys that shoot projectiles or may break off and present sharp edges. Again see rule #2 and prepare. Any toy can become a potential missile to a child. Rubber dart guns, slingshots and paddleballs are self-explanatory but children turn everything into a thrown object. Blocks and balls become grenades in the hands of children and teddy bears and Barbie dolls become victims. Like I have said, children have an inherent desire to break their toys and the quickest way to kill two birds with one stone is to throw one at another.

4. Toys and gadgets, which produce loud noises and may damage the child’s hearing. This is a common misconception, the warning should read: “WILL DAMAGE THE PARENTS HEARING.” Kids have an affinity with toys that make noises, but their auditory nerves have a special filter that eliminates loud noises from reaching their ears. Any parent who has yelled themselves hoarse calling for their child to come in for dinner can attest to this. The sole purpose of a noise-making toy to a child is to deaden the senses of a parent and annoy them so much they send the child outside where the child can get into more mischief.

So there you have it, the secret world of children is a little clearer to you now. Keep the above facts in mind when shopping for toys for your children. Or you could do what my parents did to me, give your child a box and a crayon and call it an “activity set.” See how I have turned out.

 

Penny pincher

There is a growing movement to eradicate pennies from our pockets.

I’m not talking about a tax hike, or a pyramid scheme. I’m talking about the push to eliminate the penny from our currency.

It is estimated that the U.S. Mint spends 2.5 cents on every copper coin, making it a losing proposition. Four million of them were minted last year, costing $10 million to make.

Every other coin minted at least is valued more than the sum of its parts. But the penny is different. Years ago the government changed the composition of the coin to only 5 percent copper, with the remainder comprised of zinc, in an effort to stop people from melting the coins down for the more valuable materials. In fact, it is illegal to melt a coin – defacing government property.

It also is estimated that consumers waste too much time fumbling with pennies at check out counters, which actually costs more money. And no vending machine takes them, or most other coin operated devices. Paying for $20 worth of groceries with 2,000 pennies would require a sack weighing 11 pounds, and the merchant may not even accept the coins as payment.

The proposal would force businesses to round to the nearest nickel when conducting transactions. You may pay two cents more for an item one day, but actually save that two cents on your next purchase. It all balances out proponents say.

The trend isn’t unique. A few years ago Canada stopped minting their pennies, and there has been no rise in prices. In fact, many countries have opted to stop producing the low denomination coins with no adverse economic impact.

The Mint tried to make the penny more attractive by introducing a redesign a few years back. It worked well for the quarter, and even the nickel, so why not the one cent piece?

There is an inherent problem with this, because the Mint just hoped for a boost in people saving the pennies. But instead of keeping it in a jar until it’s time to cash them it, they hoped collectors would hoard the new coins, taking them out of circulation and thus, raise the value of the ones already in the market place.

One of the biggest advocates of keeping the penny happens to be the one company that produces the blank coins for the Mint itself. I wonder why they would be fighting this move.

Take heart, it doesn’t appear that this push has very serious momentum right now. Fans of Abe Lincoln would riot is his coin was eliminated for one thing.

But, if it did occur, the effects would take several years to play out.

The Mint would stop making them, but they would still be in circulation. Over time the banks would collect all the coins coming in and return them to the mint where they would be retired.

There would be some grumbling, but we would all adjust after a while.

Just give me some warning so I can cash in my penny jar before they are completely worthless.

 
 

Charge it up

Wouldn’t life be simpler if everything used the same charger?

It sounds utopian, I know, but just think how much having a single charger for every electronic device you own would be.

In doing a quick mental inventory between my home and office, I counted no less than six devices I use on a regular basis that each require a separate charger.

And since I am so far behind the times technology-wise, I know that is a conservative figure compared to a lot of people.

Cell phones, digital music players, portable data assistants, GPS units, recorders, cameras… the list is seemingly endless.

Until they get around to inventing the ultimate multi-tasker, that combines all these functions into one, easy to afford unit, there will always be a need to power these devices. And none of the manufacturers can seem to come up with one cord to do the job.

My new cell phone was the same model as my old one, just a newer version. So why do I need to have an entirely different charger?

There must be a lot of money to be made in the charger business, for that can be the only reason everything requires a different cord. Plus, you are going to need a separate one for your car and home… and probably it wouldn’t hurt to keep one at work. So that is three cords for one device right there!

And that brings up another problem: when I purchase a new electronic gizmo, I am stuck with yet another charger. Compounding this problem, I have a severe aversion to throwing anything away so I have a box filled with a rat’s nest of tangled chargers and useless devices.

I found five different remote controls from VCRs and DVD players that have long since ceased to function. No less than 12 chargers from old cell phones, PDAs and MP3 players. Others belong to some item that I can no longer remember, let alone find.

Yet, rather than tossing them all into the garbage, they went back into the box with the fanciful belief that they may all be useful again one day.

What is wrong with me? I can’t even toss out an old charge cord. I wish there was an easy way to recycle them, and I don’t think there is a market for them since you could go to your local electronics store and buy a new charger for about $15.

I imagine that I could list them on an auction site, since there has to be someone looking for a power cord to a Commodore 64 computer out there, but I don’t think that is worth the effort.

I am not one to ask for congressional assistance, what with all the other “important problems” they are already working on (sarcasm), but there should be a law that all rechargeable devices should have a universal charge port so that a single cord could power them all.

After that, they can get back to holding hearings on whatever scandal is driving the news this week.

 

November 2015

The man, the myth, the legend

I have something to get off my chest.

This has been something that I have been keeping a secret for nearly 45 years and I think it is time to come clean.

I am D.B. Cooper.

I hijacked that Boeing flight in 1971, escaped with the $200,000 ransom, and have been living with this secret ever since.

I know that I was only 2-years-old at the time, but I was a rather intelligent baby; just ask my mother.

Even at such a tender, young age, I was crafty and money-hungry.

I concocted a devious scheme.  Shortly after I was put down for my afternoon nap, I stole from my crib in Wisconsin, donned an elaborate disguise, and boarded a plane for Washington state.

My disguise changed my appearance from a toddler to a 40-year-old male and I was able to board a 727 in Portland without much trouble. From there I convinced officials that I carried a bomb onto the plane and managed to collect $200,000 before escaping by parachuting out of the back of the jumbo jet.

Contrary to FBI belief, I obviously survived the jump, made my way back home, and returned to my crib before the next morning, my parents none the wiser.

Of course, being such a young child, I squandered the money on pacifiers and stuffed animals, but I never have been able to rid myself of the guilt.

Ok, so this is obviously a lie, but my story is no more incredible than the actual events of November 24, 1971, when a man identified as Dan Cooper jumped from the plane over the wilderness of Washington, forever entering American mythology.

The story has always fascinated me, even more when Todd Snider sang about the man in his 2000 album.

Briefly, for those who don’t know the story, a man identifying himself as Dan Cooper boarded a flight in Portland. During the flight he handed the attendant a note claiming he had a bomb and demanded $200,000 ransom and four parachutes. After landing to refuel and let off the passengers, the plane took off again headed toward Reno. Sometime during the trip, Cooper opened the rear door of the plane and jumped into infamy.

Officials believe he did not survive the jump, but Cooper’s body was never found, and only two pieces of scant evidence were ever recovered. In 1978 a hunter found a placard with instructions on how to lower the rear stairs from the plane, and in 1980 by an 8-year-old boy, found almost $6,000 along the banks of the Columbia River. The serial numbers matched the ransom money Cooper took with him.

A few suspects have been identified over the years, but no definitive match has ever been made.

Today, Cooper would be considered nothing more than a terrorist and a thief. But the unusual circumstances of the case, and the passage of time have made him sort of a folk hero.

To quote Snider’s song, “As for me, I hope they never see, D.B. Cooper again.”



 

Electronic babysitters

I do a lot of driving around with my job. While I usually pay more attention to the road, some things do catch my eye. Over the past two weeks: in at least 25 cars, trucks and SUVs, I was able to see the little flickering glow of miniature television screens. It seems these portable video players are the latest rage among Americans.

As I was passing these vehicles, (I do drive a little fast) I was struck at how dependent our society has become on entertainment. If we don’t have something to look at every minute we get nervous.

This wasn’t always the case: whenever we took family vacations when I was a child, we didn’t have the luxury of TV’s, Gameboys and cell phones to pass the time. We had a stack of comic books to read until the sun went down. After that, we were out of luck. We had to listen to whatever stations the car’s radio could pick up and if we didn’t like it, tough.

My sister and I invented little games to pass the time on road-trips. We would see how many license plates from different states we could spot or how quick we could get dad to threaten to “turn this car around” if we didn’t behave. We had to rely on our imagination to entertain us.

But I think imagination may be a lost art. Independent thought and creativity have been replaced by commercialized programs with flashing lights, exciting sounds and full line of customizable action figures and playsets!

It is bad enough that kids today are being raised more and more by television. Some children know how to work a DVD player before they can ride a bike. Parents pop in a “Barney” tape instead of reading their kids a bedtime story. “Why don’t you watch a video?” has replaced “Why don’t you turn that thing off and go outside to play?”

I admit that I too watch more than my fair share of the idiot box. When I come home from work, it is the first thing that I turn on. And although I do turn it off occasionally, it does serve as “background noise” in a lot of my free time. But seemingly for more and more people, it has become a vital part of everyday living.

If you don’t think that television has taken over our lives, listen to this. A Wisconsin man is actually threatening to sue his cable company because they failed to disconnect him four years ago when he canceled service. Although he hasn’t received a bill since then, his family still has cable. He claims that the cable company is responsible for his addiction, his wife gaining 50 pounds and his kids being “lazy channel surfers.”

I find it amazing that this man is actually trying to sue the cable company because he was too lazy to turn off his television. I don’t think he came up with the idea on his own. I think he saw it last week on L.A. Law.


 

Perchance to dream

You know, I really like sleep.

I like a good, long sojourn into the land of Nod. Or even a quick nap to recharge the batteries.

I like a sleep, where I went to bed so tired, that I wake up the next morning in the same position I was in when I started the night. I also kind of enjoy restless nights where I toss and turn, pulling the sheets from their anchor and ending up in a twisted morass at the foot of the bed.

I don’t know why I like sleep so much, it’s not like I get enough of it.

It seems I always wake up in the morning feeling more tired then when I went to bed. I know it is just a normal reaction, to waking up, but it sure feels like I could stay in bed for a few more hours. (And no, I don’t suffer from apnea, at least I don’t believe so.)

But, on those rare days when I actually could sleep in, I typically can’t.

As hard as I try, usually I wake up within a few minutes of when I normally would.

When I was a kid, and had the benefit of lazy summer days, sometimes I wouldn’t get out of bed before noon, despite my parent’s protestations. In college, once I figured out how to juggle my schedule to only afternoon classes, I would do the same. But, those long mornings usually followed a night where I didn’t go to bed before dawn.

But as I age, and have actual responsibilities; I find my body is just used to getting up at the same time every day.

It also expects me to go to bed around the same time, but I can usually win that battle for a night or two.

It’s nice to have a little internal alarm clock for mornings when there is a power outage, or I forget to reset my alarm. It makes sure I don’t miss going to work. But on a rainy Saturday, it sure would be nice to hit the mental snooze button for a while.

I have a nightly ritual, where I retire to the bedroom a little before I plan to sleep. I get comfortable, snuggling up with a good book for a few minutes before the Sandman pays me a visit.

It helps me clear my head before going to sleep. On nights when I have a lot on my mind, I can stay up for hours going over things in my head. By spending a few minutes lost in a good book, those worries fade away, allowing for a clear head.

I find, with a good night’s sleep behind me, those worries are lessened by the morning’s light.

I bet if I could sleep a little later, they’d be gone completely.


 

Under the Sea

"Man has always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much...the wheel, New York, wars and so on...while all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man...for precisely the same reason."

That famous quote from the late, great Douglas Adams is the perfect lead in to the best news item of the week I found while surfing the web.

It seems that a group of scientists have banded with some animal rights groups in a push to classify dolphins and their oceanic brethren, whales, as “non-human persons.”

The argument is that these wonderful creatures exhibit many human characteristics such as a high intelligence, planning for the future and have their own personalities.

If successful (which I doubt will really happen), they would fall just below humans on the animal hierarchy, but still rank above the cast of the Jersey Shore and politicians. Interestingly enough, they would be below corporations, which for some unthinkable reason the United States Supreme Court has upheld.

I don’t see what the big deal is, it’s not like the new classification would have any legal ramifications…would it?

Oh yeah…

Where this potential new classification creates some problems in the real world.

First and foremost, the animals held in captivity in entertainment locales such as Sea World, could run into some legal issues.

Just this past month, a judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by PETA claiming that the captive whales at the afore mentioned theme park are being held as slaves.

The ruling stated that whales are not humans, and thusly do not have the same rights as their bipedal keepers.

But, if this push for a new status gains traction, we could see a new way of looking at these aquatic mammals.

Personally, I really can’t muster much of an opinion either way.

I love dolphins, and think they are magnificent creatures.

When I lived in Florida I went swimming in the Gulf of Mexico one day. I was out pretty far when I noticed a couple of fins break the surface near me.

A surge of panic washed over me as I feared that my presence attracted some sharks, and I started to make my way back to shore.

It wasn’t long before I was overtaken by the sea creatures. But. To my relief, it was just a pair of curious dolphins.

They swam a couple quick laps around me, and one gave me a gentle nudge on my side, before they resumed their course and headed back out to the briny depths.

It was an experience I will never forget, and would love to do again.

You have to wonder what effect this proposed change of classification would have on the ape family. Biologists state that chimpanzees share 98 percent of DNA with humans, and therefore are much closer to personhood than dolphins.

Perhaps this will upset them so much that they will rise up against their human cousins  and create a planet of the apes?


 

October 2015

Bring back the rope

I thought of one thing that may help America return to some sense of normalcy – the gym rope.

Some of my older readers may remember the dreaded rope that hung from the rafters in nearly every grade school gymnasium.

I know my friends and I lived in constant fear of the rope.

For most of the year it stayed tied to the wall, silently taunting us, because we knew at some point it would be put to use to humiliate us.

When we walked in the gym and saw it was freed from its’tether and allowed to hang loose, we knew the dreaded rope day was upon us. Our gym teacher, Mr. Waddie, a behemoth of a man who got winded walking up the steps, used to have a gleam in his eye when that fateful day came. He would delight in forcing us to embarrass ourselves on the rope, even though he couldn’t climb it himself.

It was a simple concept: all you had to do was climb the rope and see how high you could get. But it never was that easy.

It was an evil device, designed to make fools out of every fifth grader in our school.

A student would tentatively approach the rope, take a deep breath, and begin to climb.

Some were better than others, and got above the half-way point, but to my knowledge, no one ever made it to the top.

Of course, those that didn’t even manage to make it a few feet up the rope were taunted by their fellow classmates – even though they themselves hadn’t fared any better.

It was a right of passage, to be taunted, then to be the taunter. The shame never lasted past the class, and things went back to normal.

Today, the dreaded rope has gone from gyms all across the country. It has been banished to the dusty recesses of memory.

No longer are schools opening themselves up to lawsuits for fear of hurting someone’s feelings.

I think we need to go back to those days when the rope was part of every grade school gym class.

We are getting soft, not only around the middle, but as a society as a whole.

We have come to see ourselves as victims. Everything bad that happens to us is always someone else’s fault. Never our own.

It seems every day you see stories about a kid skinning his knee on a playground, and his parents going crazy suing the school district.

Of if junior fails a class – it is the teacher’s fault for being too strict, or making the class too hard.

It seems that these parents never stop and think, “Well, maybe my kid should have studied harder. I shouldn’t have let him play video games all day instead of making him actually study.”

I’m not saying everyone is like that, I know only the most vocal minority seems to be heard, and these people are making life harder for the rest of us.

I say make them climb the rope, and see if their perspective changes when they are up there.



Don’t ban books

Book banning is always a hot topic for debate. It seems every few years someone gets upset at something they read and some library or school district decides to pull the book from the shelves to avoid controversy.

Famous literary classics like Tom Sawyer were banned for questionable language, while others have been banned for ideas that challenge current ideology.

I am a strong adversary of banning books. I believe that an author has a right to express their opinion, and if I don’t agree, I can either ignore it, or not read it.

But the people who advocate the removal of books always seem to recite the same mantra: “We have to protect our children.”

While I admit younger kids may not be able to discern the true intent of an author, or may not have the resources available to differentiate fact from fiction, I believe strong family support and good educators should be there to provide context when it is needed.

The latest banning is a mystery to me (pun intended).

A Virginia School Board has voted to ban Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study In Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes’ first adventure, because it contained derogatory statements toward Mormons.

One parent complained, and the book was pulled from the district’s middle school library. One parent.

The book is a great introduction to not only the mystery genre, but also the fantastic character: Sherlock Holmes.

The book contains a flashback concerning a group of travelers who are rescued from the Utah desert by a group of Mormons who save the people on the condition they adopt the religion.

While I do not want to go into details about the events that probably inspired the account in the book (a quick internet search could fill in an interested reader), I just want to point out that it is a work of fiction.

But, as history shows, some of the practices described in the book actually happened in the early days of the Mormon religion.

Doyle himself was reported to admit that he took liberties with some of the information he used as a background. And the book was written in 1886, only about 50 years after the religion was founded. This was pre-internet days, and most accounts that made it across the pond to where Doyle lived came from newspapers, which were won’t to exaggerate at the time.

But, again, it is fiction.

We see television shows supposedly “based on actual events,” that have no bearing on real life. We don’t hear a lot about parent groups trying to get these shows pulled off the air.

What is it about books that strike such a chord?

There are a couple of positive things to come out of this latest banning. First, a group of students did show up at the school board meeting to voice their opinion against the ban. I like it when children stand up for what is right in the proper way. Second, interest is back up on the great novel, and   it is sure to be checked out of a lot of libraries for a while to come.

 


Let’s get physical 

I read an interesting article this week describing the world of physics and the role computers play in the science.

As technology continues to advance, and computers become faster and “smarter,” their roles in other scientific fields are becoming more and more prevalent.

But, the study determined that even the most powerful super computer in the world would have trouble keeping up with the complicated equations and ever-changing parameters of a system.

It went on to say that physics is one field where humans have to struggle through a lot of the computations, instead of programming a machine to digest figures and regurgitate an answer.

In conclusion, physics is hard, it stated.

You didn’t have to tell me.

Not many people know this, but when I first went to college, I was a physics major.

I really loved my high school physics class. I had an interesting teacher, and thoroughly enjoyed using what I learned to figure out how things happened.

We would sit and ponder what would happen when a certain force was applied to an object – like placing a ball on a turntable. We were asked to figure out what would happen to the ball when the turntable was switched on: which direction would it travel? How fast? And simply – why?

I thought it was great. So I decided to call it my major, and even received a science scholarship to help pay my way.

I don’t really know what I expected; I blame my guidance counselor for not telling me that there was more to the field than just sitting around in a white lab coat and thinking about stuff.

When I first stepped into the physics class in college, I was just one of 200 students in a large auditorium – a totally strange experience for someone who was used to a classroom of about 20 students.

And I quickly learned that there is more than just theory in physics – there is a lot of complicated math as well. Not only did I have to explain how the ball moved off the turntable – I had to prove it with equations, describing its speed, the angle it traveled, and how much force was exerted on it.

Now I have always been good at math as well, but as a college freshman, taking calculus and physics at the same time, I quickly found myself over my head. It was too much for an 18-year-old kid to handle.

I toughed out the two semesters to make full use of my scholarship, but once that was over I changed majors and got out of that field.

I still enjoy trying to theorize about things around me. I sometimes finding myself staring out the window and watching a leaf blow across the yard and trying to predict where it will travel based on the shape and speed of the wind.

I can still make a pretty good guess, but don’t ask me to write you an equation to prove it.

After all, physics is hard.


Trick Or Treat

One of childhood’s greatest holidays is fast approaching, and kids everywhere are waiting with breathless anticipation for the great day to arrive.

Or at least I’m assuming they are. It seems that Halloween today is an entirely different event than it was when I was a kid.

Now I’m not really that old, I grew up in the exciting 70’s where those stupid plastic masks and flimsy vinyl bibs were all the rage. I don’t think you could find those anywhere in the country right now unless you went looking at an antique store.

Most of you reading this probably know exactly what I am talking about, I’m sure you can remember having a stuffy hard plastic likeness of Fred Flintstone secured to your head by nothing but a rubber band and a staple. Already I am getting winded just by picturing those atrocities in my mind, the little hole in the nose and mouth of the mask that were supposed to help you breathe and never quite lined up right so you either had to spend half the night in an oxygen starved state of dementia or give up the pretext that you are this cartoon character come to life, completely for the sake of normal respiratory functions and push the mask up on your forehead. This usually happened near the end of the night, you could look down any block and see scores of children, masks off, pillow cases full of booty dragging behind, beginning their long final walks back home.

After a while, a kid will outgrow those $5 costumes and actually make their own. In all honesty, it was more like having mom make it for you, but it was still your own costume. Back in my day, there weren’t a lot of things to dress up as. Cowboys were popular, and simple. A lot of kids went in their baseball or football uniforms, a pop gun and dad’s old army fatigues made you an instant G.I. Joe, and of course there was the easiest costume of them all, the ghost. How many bed sheets were forever ruined by having eyeholes cut into them? There was always some unfortunate kid who had to use an old pastel sheet with flowers on it, ridiculed for having a sissy costume and last on the pecking order on the good candy houses.

As I got older, my friends and I developed a strategy to get the best candy in the shortest amount of time. Usually there were between four and six of us, as we entered a new block we would assign different houses to different kids. After our “reconnaissance” we would meet up and examine the spoils. The houses with the best candies were noted and the ones that gave out raisins or those nasty peanut butter chews and even the occasional toothbrush were strictly avoided. This way we didn’t waste our time filling up out sacks with junk we would just give to our little sisters anyway.

Speaking of sacks, there was also a strategy for them as well. If you showed up with a big pillow case or garbage bag, people thought you were greedy and treated you as such, but if you had one of those cheap plastic bags with the handles that would break with any weight in it at all, then you tended to get a little more loot. So the trick was to have both. Leave the pillowcase under a bush in the front lawn and break out the sack!

We would practically have a free run over several square miles on that night. It was safe enough back then to let the kids lose for a night. There were usually two or three parents on every block who kept an eye out for trouble and let us enjoy ourselves, egging and toilet papering were still carried out with regularity (but only when we knew the coast was clear).

Things have changed today from what I can understand. It’s sad really.  What was once a fun, spontaneous thing is now a structured, commercial product. Parents have to keep a constant eye on the children because we don’t know our neighbors as well any more. There aren’t more sicko’s in the world today, they just get better publicity and it causes us to panic and overreact. It’s a vicious circle the more we react, the more one nut’s actions scare us. If we would just take the time to get to know the people in our neighborhood like we did back in the days before cable television and the Internet, we might make the streets safer without knowing it.


 


Remember when

Am I really that old, or does everyone else just seem younger?

Ok, that was just a rhetorical question, and I certainly don’t consider myself over the hill. But every once in a while I stumble across something that really makes me feel older than I really am.

I found a list detailing things that my generation grew up with, that are already ancient history to kids of today.

I’m not complaining, mind you. It is just sometimes interesting to ponder how fast society is moving today compared to just a few decades ago.

My parents and grandparents saw a lot of technological change in their younger days, but nowhere near as fast as we do today.

Progress is always good, and technological advances often lead to further innovation. And sometimes it just snowballs, seemingly out of control.

Just look at the way we listen to music.

When I was in high school it was a big thing to own a Walkman so you could listen to whatever you wanted…as long as it fit on a 90-minute cassette tape. Soon backseats of cars were filled with tape holders, so you never were without your favorite music.

Today, 20 years later, I can fit my entire music collection on one 5 by 3 inch device.

I don’t have to worry about changing cassettes, flipping the tape, or spending hours compiling my favorite songs together on one tape.

Now, a few clicks of a button on my computer does it all. I can even buy my music online, and never have to deal with a scratched cd again.

Remember pay phones? I do. Whenever I went out I had to remember to keep a quarter in reserve so if I needed to call mom to pick me up, I had a way to get hold of her.

Now it seems kids are handed a cell phone as soon as they get out of the maternity ward.

And let us not forget the old rotary phones. Kids today will never know the wonderful experience of having to dial a number quickly, but having to wait for the dial to return to its starting position.

While I’m at it, typewriters – virtually gone. Answering machines – ancient history. Actual film for a camera – hard to find today.

And something that I believe is really big; encyclopedias.

They are still around, but today kids doing research papers for class can just pull up exactly what they need with a quick internet search.

That is a good thing, but they are missing out on something else – the joy of accidental discovery.

I can remember leafing through an old Funk and Wagnalls for some topic, and getting completely sidetracked by an adjoining article.

I may have been searching for information on a foreign country for a history project, but would have to wade through some interesting facts that weren’t relevant to my search to find what I was looking for.

Now, a few keystrokes can narrow down your investigation, but you are liable to miss out on the big picture.

Technology is great, and I for one, certainly use it quite a bit and don’t really want to go back to the “good old days.” But, I still can appreciate some of the old things in my memory.

 

September 2015

A little mystery

I am a self-confessed realist. I don’t really believe in mystical hocus pocus or supernatural events.

I believe that aliens exist, but they don’t buzz our planet in spaceships and abduct unwilling farmers for examinations followed by brainwashing.

To me, almost anything can be explained by science, and any “unsolved mysteries” are just waiting for the appropriate theory to be developed or discovered.

But, I do admit that there are some mysteries that intrigue me just for the sheer weirdness of it.

Back when I was a kid, there was a great television program called “In Search Of.” Narrated by the iconic Leonard Nemoy, the show would feature some strange event or place each week, such as Bigfoot, the lost colony of Roanoke or the Bermuda Triangle.

Looking back, most of these shows focused on nothing more than open-ended questions and folklore, dealing little with scientific evidence.

But to a 10-year-old, they were great entertainment.

Over time, the mystery has lost a lot of luster when it was discovered that there really wasn’t an inordinate amount of disappearances in the region compared around the world, and a lot of the reported cases were exaggerated or invented.

Memories of the show came back in a rush when I stumbled across an article this week where scientists have claimed to solve the Bermuda Triangle mystery.

These scientists have discovered that there are methane hydrate deposits in large quantities in the area defined as the Bermuda Triangle.

Typically, these deposits are frozen in the ocean floor, (remember the first Top Cap attempt by BP), but they can become dislodged, thaw and “erupt” in a giant gas bubble that floats to the surface.

It is a scientific fact that bubbles, especially a large amount of them, in water can seriously affect the density of the water, and any ship travelling across such a region will lose its buoyancy and sink.

If the gas bubble is big enough, it can even explode into the air, and any plane flying through will lose lift and probably crash, or the gas would combust, blowing the plane out of the sky.

It is not really a new theory; I have seen shows on the Science Channel that proposed the same thing. But with the discovery of the actual pockets of methane in the sea floor, it adds a lot of credence to the notion.

So, now I have one less piece of childhood nostalgia lurking in the back of my brain. That area where I stored all the mysteries of the world is getting less and less crowded.

All that lurks there now is Bigfoot, the Yeti and the Loch Ness Monster.

While the skeptic part of me knows that they don’t really exis, I have to admit that there is still a part of me that wants to keep a little mystery in my life, and hopes they are still prowling around somewhere.

 

A Rose By Any Other Name Would Be A Pickle 

It is said that Eskimos have over thirty words for snow, because they have so much of it, but they don’t have a word for hibachi.

Did you ever wonder how certain things got their names? What came first, the color orange or the fruit? Was one guy on charge or did they hold a meeting to name things?

“Okay, next, um, what was that word again?”

“Thing, sir?”

“Thank you Johnson. Yes, the next thing on the list of stuff to name is this animal. Roberts, describe it again please.”

“It is a mammal, that swims in the water, lays eggs and has a bill like that thing we now call a duck.”

“OK, lets open the floor to suggestions.”

“Rutabaga?”

“Nope used that one already.”

“Platypus?”

“Sounds good enough for me, we got a lot more to get through today.”

Words are an amazing thing. One word can mean different things to different people. One of my favorite comedy routines involves the different connotations of the word “Dude” just by the inflection.

When I was in grade school, soda was pop and we used to drink from a “bubbler”. When I got to high school, in another state, I got the strangest looks when I asked where the bubbler was. I was astonished to learn that it was called a water fountain. I had always thought a water fountain was something that shot out water in a town square, color me corrected.

Words have started wars and saved lives. The president has an entire staff of people just to monitor his words to make sure he doesn’t accidentally alienate the people of Bumblania or some other country.

Advertising agencies are masters of wordplay. They have scores of people sitting around their offices with stacks of dictionaries and thesauruses, trying to discover a new way to describe toothpaste.

I saw a commercial for a television show that had yet to debut, but it was described by the network as a “New Big Hit!” Huh? If it hasn’t been broadcast yet, can it be called a hit? In the magical place called Madison Avenue, anything is possible.

They can take an existing product, put it in a bright, shiny box, and call it “New and Improved”. My question is simply this, how can something be both new and improved? “New” means unique, and “Improved” implies an existing thing has been altered. What can possibly be improved in a new item?

Sometimes advertisers slap the “Bigger and Better” tag on a product. Whatever happened to size doesn’t matter? Does anybody really want a one pound candy bar or sixty-four ounces of soda?

I have always been intrigued by the use of language and words. By listening to what someone says, and how they say it, can sometimes say more than the actual words.

Listen closely to any politician, and you will find that they aren’t really saying anything at all. To get anywhere in the political world you have to learn how to speak without actually speaking.

“A thousand points of light”, “A bridge to the 21st century”, “A new deal” all are grand words, but essentially meaningless.

So let’s take a moment to reflect on what a glorious thing our language is. Remember what awesome power our words can have. And take them back from corporate America and blow hard politicians.


 

Where is my flying car?

“We are living in the future I’ll tell you how I know I read it in the paper 15 years ago” - John Prine

People have long been prophesying about possible future events. Most of them were crystal-ball gazers or so-called visionaries like Nostradamus. But since the advent of the scientific age in the past century, more analytical people have been trying to peer through the mists of time to try and envision what the world would be like in the future.

Rather than use mind-altering drugs or wild speculation, these “futurists” base their thoughts on existing technology, current research and societal trends. You would think that these predictions would be more accurate, but more often than not, some of their visions are just as far-fetched as their non-scientific contemporaries.

In 1983 the Science and Technology Agency in Tokyo polled 2,000 experts for their thoughts on what the world would be like in 2015.

Let’s see how close they came.

First, they predicted that we would come up with a cure for cancer, and other diseases. Not so much. We have made great progress, but those cures are still eluding us today.

They also believed that our skies would be filled with floating factories, using the unique zero-gravity environment to create new and exciting technologies. We are a long way away from that. The International Space Station is the closest thing we have to that, and it is basically just a big floating laboratory.

And remember virtual reality? Back in 1983 everyone was abuzz with the thrill of donning big goggles and immersing themselves in a computer-generated world. While many people spend most of their days in cyberspace, it is still a far cry from the predicted world of living in a virtual reality construct.

They did manage to get some things right, for example, the big brains in the study correctly predicted the influx of information sharing. Any one watching a teenager text non-stop for hours on end or updating their Facebook page can attest to that.

It is amazing to think about all the change in access to information in just the 20 years since I was in school. Instead of spending hours in the library pouring over encyclopedias and searching for obscure references in out-of-date books on the back shelves.

The thing is, even the “best and brightest” minds of any generation are going to be hard pressed to come up with any real and accurate predictions of any future event with any prescribed timeline. Too many things can happen that can derail the progress of any project.  We may have had floating factories except for the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, setting space exploration back significantly.

It is fun to postulate on the future and what it might bring, but one should never plan their existence on anything coming true.

But, perhaps the biggest thing that was predicted that I really want is the flying car. Where is my flying car?


Playground games

Most of my school-related memories from my grade school years really center on my experiences on the playground.

We had twice a day recesses, a short 20 minute romp in the morning, then an hour and a half during lunch.

The lunchtime recesses were either a blessing or a curse, depending on what grade you were in. First through third graders got to eat first, and depending on how quick you could wolf down your fish sticks or chicken strips, you had the rest of the recess ahead of you. Seventh and eighth grades ate last, so you had plenty of time to get in a game of dodgeball before heading to the cafeteria. Fourth and fifth graders had it worst, their lunch came in the middle of the recess, so you had to suspend whatever game you were playing to eat, then wait until everyone finished to resume the kickball match. Lord help you if you dallied over lunch and held up a game because you couldn’t finish your vegetables.

(The nuns that patrolled the cafeteria in my school were very draconian when it came to cleaning your plate. We heard the “Children are starving in Africa” mantra for eight years.)

Back then we weren’t like kids today. We didn’t stand around and argue about vampires, and we didn’t care about social standings. There were only 22 kids in my grade and we all grew up together, so even the misfits had a sense of belonging.

We all stuck together, and any games we played had to involve everyone in the class.

My last year at that school really stands out for memorable recess periods.

We started out with the traditional kickball games. But we were quickly banned from playing that when we started launching the infamous red rubber balls into traffic every afternoon.

So we moved on to dodgeball, but that had its fair share of controversies. Primarily, our playground area was right where the little kids would have to line up for lunch. It only took a few first graders hitting the ground from errant throws for the powers that be to put an end to that particular game.

For a few weeks we were forced to improvise, playing tag or other boring games like that, until my friend Mike came up with a brilliant idea.

We would have Sumo Wrestling matches. A circular patch of tarmac served as the ring and we spent a few weeks bumping and knocking each other around until, that too, was stopped by the principal for being too violent.

Of course, it all came to an end anyway when the Wisconsin winter rolled around and we spent the frigid days roughhousing in the snow.

Of course, there was the time we buried John Peters up to his knees in the snow. When the recess bell rang, calling us back to class, we left him there, unable to get out. When our teacher noticed his absence, and looked out the window to see him struggling to extricate himself, she send two janitors to dig him out…and the rest of us to the front office for a reprimand.

Good times I tell you.

 

 

August 2015

Such a heel

The other day I was fixing something to eat in my kitchen and went to grab some slices of bread. As I picked up the plastic bag, I noticed it was pretty thin and light. When I reached in I found that the only pieces of bread left in the bag were the two heels, or end pieces.

I have nothing against the heels in a loaf of bread, but they are typically the last pieces of bread I use from a loaf. As I finished preparing my meal, with the two slices of heel nicely buttered, I considered the plight of the poor heel – known in some circles as “the mother in law.”

I know of a lot of people who don’t like crust on their bread, so the heel is discarded almost as soon as the bag is opened. Others, like me, prefer to keep the heel in the bag until the last possible moment, and eat them only as a last resort.

In the back of my mind I have always thought that saving the heels until last would in some way keep the loaf fresher for longer. Somehow, these little end caps of crusted bread act as a buffer to keep the “meaty” part of the loaf safe.

My dad was always a big fan of eating the heels. He would tear into a fresh bag of bread and grab the first piece, then dig all the way to the back to make sure that he got the heels before anyone else. Since I spent half my life not ever having the privilege of tasting a heel, it took me until my college days to discover the true value of the heel.

The heel is actually a pretty useful piece of food when it comes right down to it. They are perfect for sopping up gravy or spaghetti sauce off an empty plate. They seem to hold more and are easier to manage. And what a better place to put a hot dog. The overall crustiness of the heel keeps the condiments in better.

And to me, there is nothing more tasty than the heel off a freshly baked loaf of bread. That first slice, right out of the oven, is one of the best tasting things I have ever had.

But that brings me to my main problem with bread in general. Being single, and living alone, I find it hard to eat an entire loaf of bread before it starts to get all moldy and green.

I don’t eat a whole lot of bread so by the time I actually get down to the heels, the last pieces are usually hard as a rock and only good for feeding to the birds. Why can’t I seem to find a half-size loaf of bread that will allow me to eat all the bread before it goes stale? I always feel like I am wasting food whenever I buy a loaf of bread because I know that unless I gorge myself on French toast, sandwiches and garlic bread over the next few days, I am going to have to feed the rest of the loaf to the birds.


Just a fantasy 

Late August is the time when just about everybody it seems starts to talk about fantasy football.

If you watch enough news, or read articles, the media loves to report how many people play fantasy football and how much time gets invested in it.

While I admit I am a fantasy player. I can understand how it can be an all-consuming activity, with little to no purpose except for bragging rights among your friends and a little extra cash in your pocket.

For the first time in several years I participated in a fantasy baseball league after swearing off them for a long time. I have NEVER finished outside of last place in a fantasy baseball season, despite the fact that baseball is my favorite sport.

I always fail to put in the time needed to micromanage my team, often leaving underperforming players on the roster when better alternatives are available. I also tend to have a soft spot for my favorite players, convincing myself that they will get out of their slump, while my opponents bury me in the standings by the second month of the season.

But football is less intensive for me, and I have a better track record in that, so I fully expect to perform better this year.

I have some rules for anyone who participates in a fantasy league should follow.

First and foremost, remember that no one, outside of your league, cares about your team. No matter how strong you think your team is, or what kind of steal you got in the 16th round, anyone who isn’t in your league doesn’t care.

I, myself, have violated this rule on more than one occasion, but also have been on the receiving end.

Second, you can spend hours, or even days, preparing for the draft, but when it comes time to actually pick up your players, all that preparation goes out the window.

No fantasy leaguer should ever dream about drafting a tight end or a kicker before the 10th round, but as soon as one of your opponents does so, a sudden rush breaks out, snapping up the best available at those positions, leaving your draft sheet a convoluted mess. Your best-laid plans for your draft go out the window as soon as someone breaks from the pack and throws off the whole thing. And it will happen.

In my last draft, a defense and a tight end were picked in the second round, and the rest of the guys, myself included, went right along, drafting those positions while some really good running backs and quarterbacks remained on the table. Of course, someone realized this soon and grabbed up the best remaining players before the rest of us caught on.

Third, it is pointless to gauge the strength of your team before the season even begins. Some fantasy players rely on projections, guesses actually, on how their players will perform. All that goes out the window when the ball is snapped. Who knows what is going to happen? Your star running back may break his ankle on the first play, and there go your precious projections.

Finally, remember, it is just a game, and there is little you can do to influence the outcome. I have seen too many people get a little too upset when their star running back fumbles the ball. It happens, and in the end, it really doesn’t matter.

 


Poor robot

I hope someone in Philadelphia can sleep well at night.

It’s bad enough that Americans are more and more being thought of as violent around the world, now we have gained the reputation as anti-robot as well.

Earlier this month, a hitchhiking robot was brutally destroyed in the “City of Brotherly Love” by some sick vandal.

HitchBOT, the creation of two Canadian social scientists, spent just two weeks in the United States, visiting tourist stops along the way, until some idiot decided it would be funny to rip it’s head off.

The robot, nothing more than a torso with pool noodle arms and legs, and a head outfitted with various electronic equipment such as a camera and GOS system, was created to study the interaction on man and robot, and to see if humanity would be willing to accept him.

Last year he traveled more than 10,000 kilometers across Canada, relying on the kindness of strangers to take him from place to place. Our northern neighbors seemed to like the idea, often posting pictures of their travels on social media.

The journey was so successful, HitchBOT visited Germany and the Netherlands last summer without incident.

His latest trip started in Salem, Massachusetts, with the intent of ending in San Francisco.

HitchBOT took in a Red Sox game at Fenway Park, saw the ocean, and took lots of pictures with well- wishing people along his short jaunt down the east coast. Things were looking good for the travelling experiment.

But someone in the city famous for booing Santa Claus and throwing batteries at athletes reinforced the negative stigma of where our Nation’s capital once stood.

Everyone else seemed to enjoy spending time with the non-threatening little machine.

Since the wanton act of robocide, many people have rallied for the creators to repair the damaged robot and let him continue his journey.

While that remains a possibility, there are no plans right now for HitchBOT to come back to the USA, and I don’t blame them.

The experiment obviously failed in a big way when they encountered Americans.

It is disheartening that little HitchBOT had three successful trips, with thousands of helpful strangers aiding him along his voyages in foreign lands, but once he came to Philly, all bets were off.

I know there are a lot of bigger and more important issues we are facing in our great country, but perhaps the incident is a good way at showing how deep our issues are.

If we can’t stand to take care of HitchBOT as he visited America, how can we be expected to take care of each other?

HitchBOT’s final tweet is prophetic, in a way – “Sometimes bad things happen to good robots.”

Perhaps HitchBOT 2 can have a better fate.


 
Numbers game

When I was in about sixth or seventh grade, my friends and I wasted a whole semester filling a spiral notebook with numbers. (Isn’t it funny how things we did as children sound so strange and pointless in retrospect?)

I can’t remember what our ultimate goal was, whether to fill up the notebook, or to reach some unreasonably high number, but we would each spend a day painstakingly printing numbers in that shaky handwriting that 10-year-olds have.

The highest number I can remember reaching before the notebook was either confiscated, or simply forgotten was about 9,000.

What brought me to this particular trip down memory lane? A news story about an Australian man who just completed his life’s work: typing the numbers from one to one million.

Les Stewart, a disabled police typing instructor, began this arduous task in 1982 as a way to fill his free time.

What makes the story even more incredible is the way Stewart went about his record-breaking effort. He typed every number, in words, using only one finger.

Instead of the number 1,345, Les would type One Thousand, Three Hundred and Forty Five.

Now the grammar student in me takes exception to the fact Stewart used “and” when typing the numbers. I was always taught that using “and” in numbers was improper.

But more importantly, I estimate the extra word added around 910 (or should I say Nine Hundred and Ten) extra words to his list, and over 27,000 (Twenty Seven Thousand) extra letters. And that isn’t even counting the extra spaces on either side of the “and.”

(If you think Stewart’s list was a waste of time, just think how long I had to sit here and come up with how many “ands” he added.)

The task took over twenty (see how weird that is?) years to complete, by typing twenty minutes every hour, on the hour since April Two Thousand and Two.

Stewart needed seven typewriters, One Thousand ink ribbons and Nineteen Thousand, Nine Hundred and Ninety sheets of paper.

Since my childhood, I have had fits of boredom where I began seemingly non-productive tasks, like counting all the pennies in my change jar, seeing how much ink is inside a pen by scribbling on all available sheets of paper, or sorting my underwear drawer, I typically lose interest pretty quick and moving on to other mind-numbing tasks.

I can’t imagine a “hobby” that consumed sixteen years of my life, and one third of all my waking hours.

(This is coming from a guy who will waste an entire weekend playing a video game.)

Stewart also holds records for treading water and swimming continuously for thirty hours so he apparently once had a life.

If I were ever to meet Les Stewart, I would like ask him just one question: who did you get to proofread the list? Wouldn’t it be embarrassing if he omitted a number or two?

 

July 2015

The abyss of the internet

Can we all just take a collective step back, breath deep, and chill out?

It has been bad for a while now, but lately it seems the internet is becoming more of a place to hash out negative feelings and outrage over misinformation.

We are becoming so used to getting our news from Facebook or other social media sites, we are losing touch with reality. People are so quick to believe something posted, they fail to see they are being manipulated.

The reliance on people seeing something, then sharing it on their own feeds, thus perpetuating the story ad infinitum is something web site developers thrive on.

It’s called click bait. Every time someone follows a link, the website owner can claim a “view.” The more views they get – the more advertising money they can get.

It has become the latest internet industry, where people are hired to take a news story and put an outrageous headline on it in an effort to make it go viral.

Fake news websites often write blatantly false articles in hopes someone will share it, and drive up page views.

Here is just a list of easily verifiable falsehoods I found in my newsfeed this week.

The man who was caught with 50 cow eyeballs inserted into his nether regions? – Fake.

The video supposedly showing a man’s heart beating out of control after drinking two dozen cans of Red Bull? – Not true. Actually it shows an automobile accident victim after blunt trauma to his chest.

That $50 coupon to Family Dollar that it seemed everyone circulated before realizing it was a hoax.

Even Steven Tyler, the front man for the rock band Aerosmith, has fallen prey to internet trolls. The video of him singing “Amazing Grace” is typically accompanied by an article claiming he was warned not to sing about Jesus, but did so out of defiance.

Well, a simple fact check turns out the video was shot in 2001…at a church service. I can’t see anyone admonishing the rock-and-roller about singing a hymn at a church service.

We are becoming too quick to condemn things we see or read about without giving a thought about the context the content is taken from.

The Planned Parenthood “exposé” that drove news cycles this month and the arrest footage of Sandra Bland are prime examples of this.

I’m not condoning Planned Parenthood, or their practices, but the video that was released was a heavily edited piece of a two-hour interview taken two years prior.

People were outraged at the “sting” video, and don’t seem to care about the editing, but were just as upset about the editing done to the dash cam footage.

Isn’t that a double standard?

Anyone with a computer and some editing software can hack apart a video to prove their point by removing things that don’t fit their view and altering the images and spoken words to remove the true intent behind them.

The internet is a place to share ideas, but there is no recompense for outright lying or deception.

By the time something is proven false, another 20 things have popped up and taken away the thunder.

Too many people are letting their newsfeeds influence their lives, without bothering to check the source, and that is troubling.


 


Time savers? Or something more sinister?

Isn’t technology wonderful? Every day new developments in electronics, computing power, and manufacturing come together that is guaranteed to make our lives simpler, more efficient and downright satisfying.

Some of the advances really do what they were meant to do and we are the better for it. Remember the old rotary dial phones? Remember what a pain it was to make a call and spend five minutes waiting for the dial to reset so you could input the second number? I was watching an old movie over the weekend, in it, someone was making a call and the director decided to show the entire dialing sequence, it seemed to take forever. It got me to wondering how much time was wasted on film just for the sake of padding just to show one phone call.

With the advent of touch-tone dialing and then cellular phones, the monotonous wait to complete a call is almost all but forgotten. Speed dial, and re-dial save the average American no less than 30 seconds a day when used properly. That adds up to over 3 hours a year in saved time! Unfortunately, most people use that extra time to watch an Adam Sandler movie.

But sometimes technology can go overboard. I read about a new product that was designed for home use so that you can act like you have your own executive assistant. It is simply a little box that plugs into your computer and scans your e-mail address box, memorizing the names and phone numbers associated with all your contacts. When you pick up any phone in the house, you can simply say “call mom” or whatever person you wish to call (as long as they are in your computer) and it will dial it for you.

Wow! Just think of the time that will save. First you have to spend the 100 bucks to get the box, make sure every single person on Earth you may have to call is on your e-mail program, then promptly forget their phone numbers. Therein lies the rub, as ol’ Willie Shakespeare would say. All of these “convenience” inventions are making us more illiterate every day. A lot of people, without their speed dial or digital phone books, would be hard pressed to tell you the phone number of someone they call on a regular basis.

I believe it is all part of a giant conspiracy to weaken our resolve and numb our senses for the eventual takeover of the world by Bill Gates. That’s right, I’m on my “King Bill” kick once again. The richest man in America has his heart set on using his evil empire, Microsoft, to enslave the planet and force them to use his Windows© Operating System. You may scoff at the idea, but remember when I first floated the theory? I talked about how King Bill was using automatic spell-check on his word processing program to make us forget how to spell. Since then, my computer has been acting funny. I write on a Macintosh, and that just infuriates Bill, since he can’t get at me, but I do use Microsoft Word as my writing tool. That he can get at. Every so often I get strange messages on my screen, and sometimes it just refuses to work. Kind’a makes you worry, don’t it?

 

July Archives

Lawyers, Guns and Money 

There is an old joke that goes something like this: “what do you call 100 lawyers on a sinking ship? A good start.” While that is a little extreme, you have to admit that earning a law degree isn’t a good move for someone with thin skin. Lawyers are one of the most abused professions in the comedy world.

How did that come to pass?

I think that lawyers somehow reproduce in dark hallways in courthouses across the land and their progeny is born ready to sue the first person to cross their path.

In ancient times lawyers were, for the most part, a good idea. If someone wronged you, you turned to your neighborhood lawyer to set things straight. But thanks to years and years of proliferation, lawyers have infiltrated every aspect of society, looking to get their hands on any situation and sue the pants off anyone who hasn’t passed the bar exam. It has gotten so bad there are entire law firms whose specialty is suing other lawyers.

Soon, if the hordes of battling barristers are left unchecked, no one will be able to blow their nose in public without being handed a subpoena for infringing upon someone’s personal liberties.

Think I’m exaggerating? Let’s look at a few lawsuits that have clogged our court systems in recent years.

Caterpillar, Inc. had filed a lawsuit against mega movie studio Disney over “George of the Jungle 2” claiming that the movie’s plot about animals defending the jungle might injure the reputation of bulldozers, one of Caterpillar’s main products.

Allstate Insurance sued Kraft Foods over “Toastette” pastries on behalf of one of their policy holders who lost a home in a fire. The claim was the pastries were flammable and caused the fire.

Kellogg’s, the famous cereal company, sued a golf course – Toucan Golf, over their name and the use of a real toucan as their mascot. Kellogg’s claimed that this depiction was copyright infringement on their Fruit Loops cereal. Luckily, the U.S. Federal Court ruled that toucans do exist outside of cartoon spokesmen and golf has little to do with selling breakfast food.

Kellogg’s was also on the receiving end of a lawsuit from Hasbro Toys. Hasbro claimed the famous Tony the Tiger mascot was based too closely on an obscure, poor selling game that Hasbro marketed in the 60’s.

And let’s not forget most politicians have law degrees too. One Iowa politician once introduced legislation that severely limited the jury trial rights of the average citizen – to protect the corporations from such lawsuits. He claimed he hated that so many lawsuits over small things were being filed.

Until… while on the campaign trail, he was bitten by a dog owned by a potential voter. He promptly filed a lawsuit.

Everyone should have their day in court. That is a basic right. But the fact of suing just to have something to do not only wastes our time, but our tax dollars as well.

 

The 80’s sound

Ah, the 80’s. The “Me”decade. A time of big hair, dance clubs, and brightly colored shirts. The decade responsible for the majority of the development of my personality. In 1980 I was still in grade school and by the end of the decade I was in college. So there was a pretty fair chunk of my development in that era.

The 80’s officially began with the election of Ronald Reagan and really didn’t end until 1992 with the beginning of the Clinton administration. In those years there was a tremendous amount of change and upheaval in the economy and mentality of the people, and a lot of it is reflected in the music.

I have a soft spot in my heart for the music of that era. Not that there was really anything of substance in most of it. In the 1960’s the music, for the most part, had an underlying message, a social conscience. The 70’s saw the birth of heavy metal, angst, and disco. In the 90’s up to today the music industry has changed so much that the message is less important than the medium. Everything is packaged for quick sales and flashy images. But most of it is pure, unadulterated crap.

The 80’s were different. We saw the beginnings of today’s trends, but it wasn’t perfected yet. You had your teeny-bopper performers like Tiffany and Debbie Gibson doing mall tours and big stadium shows filled with screaming guitars, lasers and tons of hair spray.

Big bands like Aerosmith, the Rolling Stones and Genesis saw a resurgence of popularity during the 80’s, but the music was designed to fit into the expectations of the listening public. For every groundbreaking and exciting song that hit the airwaves there were literally hundreds of formulaic so-called hits that popped up for a short time before returning to obscurity.

If I had my choice, I’d listen to 70’s music over anything from the 80’s any day, but as anybody in the office can attest, I probably know just about every song that made the charts from the decade.

I guess that proves how superficial the music really was. But there is something infectious about it.

I have to admit that when a song comes on the radio from that era I find myself tapping my feet and singing along. It is a guilty pleasure of mine.

Just in the past few years I have seen a movement in the music industry away from the pop-factory style of recording songs. There are more and more artists who are breaking out of the mold and going in different directions and I appreciate it.

It reminds me of the early 70’s, before the advent of disco; when James Taylor, Neil Young, Harry Chapin, Elton John and Billy Joel helped create a new sound on the heels of such seminal acts like the Beatles.

We don’t have the likes of John Lennon anymore, and likely never will again, but I hope these new artists will try and come close.

  

Ohhh….Ahhhh

The Fourth of July is this Saturday. They day we celebrate the Birthday of America by…blowing things up.

Part of the fun of the Fourth, besides the Bar-B-Q’s and carnival rides, is the tradition of lighting tiny fuses and watching the sparks travel to some incendiary device, which promptly explodes.

It happens every year, and despite efforts by legislators and law enforcement officials, thousands of people will suffer burned fingers or worse injuries from a firework related accident.

Most states, Kentucky included, have passed laws banning any firework that either “explodes, moves or shoots into the air.” Well, that about eliminates just about every firework except for sparklers, whistlers and those annoying little black snakes that emit a smoking trail of charcoal when you light them.

But, every evening around this time, you can hear the reports of firecrackers and cherry bombs going off in the night and see the streaks as the bottle rockets and Roman candles blast off into the summer sky.

It is also this time of year when you hear “scanner land” going crazy with calls into 911 about illegal fireworks complaints. Our local law enforcement has plenty to do already without having to chase down some kids for lighting off a brick of firecrackers.

I know it does get annoying to be drifting off to sleep only to be jarred awake by what sounds like a small gun fight a few houses over, but it’s not like it happens every night.

I remember the heady days of my youth when the Fourth of July rolled around and I would scrimp and save my allowance for a couple of weeks so I could run down the block to the firework stand so I could buy a handful of explosive devices. My friends and I would then gather in somebody’s driveway, and with parental supervision mind you, and proceed to set them on fire. It was always a competition to see who could get the biggest bang for their buck.

As I got older my friends and I would surreptitiously get our grubby little hands on packs of firecrackers and bottle rockets and slink off to a nearby field where we would engage in some purely dangerous behavior that I won’t mention here.

Statistics show that every year more than 10,000 people are admitted to a hospital with some sort of firework related injury. I suspect that number hasn’t changed much since the states began cracking down on so-called “illegal” fireworks.

Anyone who wants to purchase “things that go boom” certainly knows how to get their hands on them and won’t let something like the law get in their way.

Of course, I would be remiss to not advocate safety when dealing with fireworks, but common sense should tell you that. Don’t set yourself, or anyone else on fire this weekend, but other than that, have a good time.

 

 

June 2015

He just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich

Let’s put the cure for cancer on the back burner. Childhood diabetes? That can wait. Apparently the Food and Drug Administration has found a threat to our national security in the backpacks of Australian tourists, and that takes precedence.

The good folks at the FDA have decided, in their infinite wisdom, to ban the further importation of Vegemite, a salty spread beloved by Aussies.

What is all the hubbub about bub?

I first had the misfortune to sample Vegemite in the mid 80’s when I was in grade school. Thanks to the popular Men At Work Song, Down Under, people all over America were wondering what a Vegemite sandwich was and what did it taste like.

Well leave it to my friends, one of them actually located a jar of the stuff and brought it into school one day. He must have sampled it before hand, because he insisted that the six or seven of us gathered around him had to try it at the same time.

So we all stuck our fingers in the jar and came out with a dollop of a strange smelling, gooey substance. At the count of three, we all put our fingers in our mouths…and promptly got sick.

That was one of the foulest things I have ever tasted in my life.

But that doesn’t mean it should be banned from the shelves. There is a lot of nasty stuff you can buy in the store. Ever see a can of pickled beets?

According to the official Vegemite website, the all-natural yeast spread is one of the most respected products in Australia, and is a staple on breakfast tables around the continent. After my taste-test, I seriously wondered about the sanity of the Aussies.

I did a little more digging and found out that Australians don’t actually consume the spread by digging their fingers in the jar and plopping it straight in their mouths. They spread a thin amount on toast or bread and enjoy in moderation.

The rationale behind the FDA’s decision is they do not approve the addition of folate, one of the main ingredients in Vegemite, in anything but bread or grain products.

Folate is a B vitamin that helps stimulate cell growth and regeneration. The FDA ruled in 1998 to the mandatory addition of folate (actually folic acid, folate’s synthetic equivalent) to breads, cereals and other grain products such as pasta, to assist in the prevention of neural tube defects like spina bifida. There is also evidence that folate intake can help reduce the risk of certain diseases.

It seems funny with all the problems the FDA has had over the past few months with tainted produce killing people in the United States, why are they concerned about a product that is packed with beneficial nutrients that hardly any American eats? There is no trade imbalance with Australia that I am aware of.

So why did the FDA ban the import of Vegemite? Could it be they just don’t like the taste?


 

My Old Man

Those of you who have had the fortune to ever meet my father knew him as he will always be remembered – a gregarious and charming man. To a person, those who met him remember his outgoing personality and his ready smile.

My dad passed away three years ago and I have been thinking about the man who helped shaped me into the person I am today.

Although he has given me countless gifts, big and small, throughout my life, some of them resonated more with me over these past few days.

Dad was responsible for introducing me to two of my greatest passions in life, an inexplicable devotion to the Chicago Cubs, and the love of good music.

My dad was born and raised in Wisconsin. At that time, the nearest baseball team was the Cubs, so everyone tuned in to WGN radio to hear the games broadcast. When the Braves moved from Boston to Milwaukee in 1953, most everyone changed their allegiances. But not my Dad.

He remained a loyal Cubs fan until his last day, suffering through years of torment and passed that trait onto me. The undying faith in the Cubs took root in my psyche and remains firmly lodged to this day.

Which brings me to his second gift, the love of good music.

Now, musical taste is very subjective, and one man’s junk is another one’s treasure as they say.

But several years ago my dad introduced me to a song by Steve Goodman called “A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request.” It was a quirky little tune that I instantly fell in love with. So much so that I promptly made off with his tape and added it to my own collection. I enjoyed the rest of the album so much; I soon began tracking down his other albums. From there, I discovered a whole new world of music I never knew was out there. I went from Top 40 garbage to a more eclectic style.

As my collection grew, I returned the favor and shared copies of my new discoveries with my dad who greatly enjoyed them as well.

The title of this column is taken from one of Goodman’s songs that I will never be able to listen to again without getting a lump in my throat or tear in my eye because of the meaning it had for both my dad and me.

So, with that, I’ll close with a bit from the song that dad used to introduce me to the music of Goodman. I feel this particular stanza epitomizes the combination of both wonderful gifts bestowed upon me by my pop.

I know he would appreciate it.

“A Dying Cubs Fan’s Last Request”:

“Don’t cry, we’ll meet by and by

Near the Heavenly Hall of Fame

I’ve got season tickets to watch the Angels now

And that’s what I’m going to do

You, the living, are stuck here with the Cubs

So it’s me that feels sorry for you.”

 

Coaching is hard enough

Two news stories caught my eye. In one, a father in Philadelphia pulled a gun on a youth football coach because he felt his son wasn’t getting enough playing time. The second story involves parents at a San Francisco high school threatening legal action against a coach for the same reasons.

It has become a real issue in recent years where parents are going out of their way to demand that their child get to play athletics.

Fortunately, here in McCreary County, we haven’t seen a lot of this behavior yet, and I hope it stays that way. But you never know.

I am all for student-athletes getting a fair shake when it comes to playing time, but to criticize a coach without evidence because he or she plays one kid over another is demoralizing to both the athletes and the team as a whole.

Coaches see their athletes at every practice. Typically they are trained and know the sport. They make their decisions about who gets to start and who comes off the bench based on what they see every day – not just during games.

That is not to say coaches are perfect. They make mistakes and sometimes show poor judgment like the rest of us. Every move they make is analyzed and critiqued after a loss, but that comes with the territory.

When I was involved in youth sports, my parents came to most of my games. They acted like any other parent of the time, cheering on my team, yelling at the referees and patting me on the back when I did a good job.

But they never went after a coach or questioned my minutes in a game.

In high school, I wasn’t what you would call a standout in basketball. I was the back-up center and usually went into the game when we needed a foul, or our starter took a rest.

The coach governed every minute I got to play, and I never questioned it. My parents didn’t complain, and, as far as I know, none of the other parents of the “Scrub Club” as we called ourselves, did either.

My dad always told me if I wanted to play more, I had to work harder. He trusted the coach was making the right decision and pushed me rather than pushing the coach.

It is only in recent years that the mystique surrounding coaches has started to wear off. Legendary coaches like Bear Bryant and Jerry West had their critics, but they had the final word on all decisions concerning the team.

It isn’t easy to be a coach these days. Schools are putting less emphasis on athletics and more on academics, which is a good thing. But this causes budget cuts to sports programs, limiting travel, equipment and training. On the other hands, fans and parents like to see winning teams and begin to get upset when a team fails to perform up to their expectations. Coaches get thrust in the middle of all this.

It’s hard enough to be a coach today without having parents pull a gun on you.


 

 

To the Class of 2015

This Saturday, as you don your caps and gowns and cross the stage to collect your diplomas, I want you to remember the moment for all it is worth.

You are preparing to take the biggest challenge of your lives to this point. You are embarking on a new world filled with obstacles, heartbreak and disappointment. But, you will also experience joy, discovery, wonder and awe at what lies ahead.

You weren’t even born when I was in your shoes and walked with my fellow classmates to the podium to start the next chapter of my life. It wasn’t that long ago, but the world has changed since I left high school.

For one thing, I was pretty sure I could find a job after college and I didn’t have to worry about my family losing their home, jobs or way of life.

So I have two things to offer you on your special day: an apology and a challenge.

First, the apology.

I am sorry about the condition of the world you are about to inherit. For some reason, my generation, and the generations before me, didn’t exactly leave you a whole lot to work with.

Somewhere along the line we got distracted by celebrities and inane causes. Instead of making the world a better place, we worried about ourselves. We were more concerned about what movie stars were doing with their pretend lives than to bother to develop ones of our own.

We became greedy, shortsighted and narrow-minded.

We were more concerned with who was going to be the next American Idol than who was going to lead us.

So you are about to enter a world with a economy in tatters, a job market where corporate CEO’s are more concerned with the almighty dollar than with quality workmanship or the well being of their employees.

America is in danger of losing its place as a nation to be admired and the leader in innovation and change. More and more people in the world look at us with disdain, or even hate.

All because the generations before you lost sight of the ideals the country was founded upon.

For that, I am sorry.

Here comes the second part of my message to you; the challenge.

Do something about it.

You are among the most technologically advanced generations ever to be in existence. The advances in communication and computing ability simply dwarf what was around when I was in your shoes years ago.

The things you take for granted every day, were not even dreamed of when I was in school. You have the opportunity to leverage the world you grew up with into a powerful tool for change.

Don’t squander it like we did.

There is still hope for us older folks. Many of us have seen the error of our ways and are trying to fix things.

But the real change begins with you.

Take charge, repair the damage we caused and shape the world into something we can be proud of.

I know it won’t be easy, but I have faith that you will take up the challenge and do something to make the world a better place.

We have to have faith, it is all we have left

 

 

May 2015

Stop the world, I want to get off.

Every morning, one of the first things I do when I sit down at my desk is to check various news sources to catch up on current events.

With trouble brewing in China, unrest in the Middle East, and even issues happening domestically, I think it is important to keep abreast of the latest happenings around us.

The other day, as I was perusing the front pages of national news sites, looking for the latest items that were driving the news cycle, I was dismayed to see the lead story on more than one of those sites reporting on the latest emojis that are coming to cell phones in the coming year.

For those, like me, who are a little behind the times, emojis are the little pictograms that can be sent over text or instant messenger to covey a thought or emotion, instead of – you know – actually writing out the words.

Is this what our society is coming too?

Budget cuts, presidential campaigns, international discord and other important things were shunted aside over a story about text message pictures?

While I can understand the appeal of these images, especially among cutting-edge teenagers, I was horrified to find it a lead story last week on several supposedly national news sources.

I learned something astonishing by reading the tripe that passed for an article.

There actually is an organization that develops and standardizes emojis that are released on to the public. It is not only amazing to me that there is an actual governing body, but that they announced this list seven months before they would be released…and it actually became a major news story.

The Unicode Consortium (boy, doesn’t that sound ominous) formed committee that reviewed and approved several new images, as well as reviewed several others for cultural sensitivity.

Among the new to be released next year will be: a face with a cowboy hat, man in tuxedo, avocado, duck, motor scooter, face palm, drooling face, and a clown face.

Was the world clamoring for new icons? Why the press release so far ahead of the release date? Is there a 14-year-old on the board that dictated “the World Must Know!” and decreed that the new emoji’s must be announced to the masses to end their hunger?

I admit, I read the article, but only because I knew it would upset me and give me something interesting to write about, but I felt a little ashamed doing so. I knew my click on the link gave feedback to some computer, telling it that I found the story interesting. That data will get sent to some editor who will decide that more articles like it are needed to drive traffic.

I am so sad that by doing so I have just become another cog in the wheel that is driving our society off a cliff.

Does it add up?

A recent Associated Press article really got me thinking some deep, philosophical thoughts. So, hang on, this could be a bumpy ride.

According to the article, a reclusive Russian mathematician has solved a century-old problem. Grigory Perelman cracked the Poincare Conjecture, one of seven problems that had been listed as Millennium Prize problems, meaning if they were to be solved; the person who figured it out would receive one million dollars.

I have always been kind of a math geek and love the fact that there are math problems out there that have never been solved. Looking at Perelman’s solution makes no sense to me, but then, I’m only an amateur theoretical mathematician.

Math is a very interesting subject if you go beyond the basics. It is all around us and touches our lives every day. Students may hate learning algebra, but if they got a taste of how pervasive math is in the world, they may find a new appreciation.

All this discussion on math set me down a path to think more about something we all take for granted.

We know that 1+1=2, but why? It is an accepted proof that has been around for centuries. But, at one time, humans had no concept of it.

Somewhere, in the mists of time, people began to place things in order. And to accomplish that, they developed a numbering system. For a while, the simple addition and subtraction that they used to track grain inventories and crop yields were enough.

But, as science and math grew, along with the concept of even higher numbers, more thought was put behind it.

Multiplication, algebra, calculus, trigonometry…all these developed after people began to sit around and really think about it. Not only did they have to develop these complex mathematical systems, they had to do so without any real way of knowing what they were doing. They had to create and prove their theories at the same time.

Thousands of years later, the ideas they developed are still in use today and have been proven time and again.

When you think about it, it is pretty amazing. Automobiles have been around for only a little more than 100 years and we still can’t get them right.

Then we get to the concept of “zero.” Did you know that the Greeks and Romans, renowned for their science and math prowess, really had no concept of “0”?

It wasn’t until the 7th Century before “0” was actually defined as a number and a set of rules was established.

It really boggles my mind to think that if people like Aristotle, Copernicus, Socrates, Sir Isaac Newton and the other pioneers, didn’t “discover” what is considered to be part of the natural universe, we may never have been able to build skyscrapers, fly airplanes or land on the moon.

Televisions, computers, telephones… all the technology we take for granted today would probably never come to pass.

You don’t have to love math, like I do. But, you should appreciate how important it really is.


Evidence of us

Spring usually means spring cleaning.

For me, it means sifting through piles of accumulated stuff and finding another place to put them.

My cleaning efforts basically resulted in moving things from one place to another.

As I was moving stuff around, I stumbled across a box filled with scraps of paper and other detritus dating back to my high school and college years, and I wondered what possessed me to keep all this junk.

The box contained my notebook from my freshman Spanish class. I believe I held on to this just in case I ever wanted to revisit the language, but I have never looked at it.

I found a book report from my sophomore year that I did on “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. In re-reading the report, it was obvious I didn’t really understand the book back then. I can see why it only got a B-.

There were a couple of newspaper clippings on some articles I must have found interesting enough at the time to save. As the years slipped past me, I can’t fathom what hold they had on me.

Scattered throughout the papers and other debris, there were a few photographs of people whose names I don’t remember or places I had been that were nothing special.

A few pages of loose-leaf paper contained some really bad poems and song lyrics. Others had pencil drawings of poor quality.

If I were to die and someone went through this box to try and recreate the puzzle of my life for a biography, they would have a really hard time putting the pieces together.

For some reason, I didn’t throw any of it away, just put them back in the box and closed it up again.

But, as I was inexplicitly putting these things back in the box, I was struck with a thought that explained why I held on to this stuff for so long.

This accumulated detritus of my past serves no other purpose than to prove that I existed.

It was evidence of me.

All these seemingly random items at one time held significance for me, and served as the basis of the person that I was to become.

Perhaps one of the nameless persons in one of the photos had an influence on me that I could never define, but became a part of my personality nonetheless.

I enjoyed Spanish class, and that year may have made me become a better student. That may have been the turning point in my academic career.

To an outside observer, these pieces of evidence seem senseless. And, even to me, there seems to be no reason for any of it.

But, for some reason, I still keep them because, deep down, they are a part of who I am.

Brit com

I must confess that I love watching British television programming better than the domestic version we are all used to.

I have always had a particular affinity for the British sense of humor, or humour as they prefer to call it.

I was first introduced to this wonderful brand of comedy when I was just a child and would watch Monty Python on the local PBS station. Immediately, I knew I loved it.

As I got older I expanded my horizons, watching Benny Hill, Fawlty Towers, Are You Being Served, Red Dwarf and Blackadder just to name a few.

It has been said that the British style of humor is more of a dry, sophisticated wit, laden with irony, whereas the American humor is more blunt and in-your-face. Just look at how many American sit-coms are punctuated with laugh tracks, as if to remind the audience where to laugh.

Over time we became desensitized to it all and plot lines became simpler and shoehorned obvious punchlines. Thoughtful humor gave way to a “wacky neighbor” or “case of mistaken identity” that became a staple of American sit-coms.

When “Happy Days” first aired, the character of Fonzie was a rebel, used mainly in sub plots to introduce conflict. But as American audiences fell in love with him, the character softened into a parody of himself, eventually losing his trademarked leather jacket for a shirt and tie.

The Brits prefer the audience to figure out the joke, not hammer them over the head with it. They use subtlety instead of bombast, wry sarcasm over insult.

Over the past few years the American television bosses have started to see the light, introducing new shows that show promise. They are mostly from outside the “Big Four” (ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX), with HBO, Showtime, TBS and others gaining ground.

But these all owe a lot of their genesis from the United Kingdom.

Many American television shows, not to mention comedies, have their origins over the pond in Britain. Perhaps the most famous is the classic All in the Family, which took most of the basic elements from the wildly popular Til Death Do Us Part on the BBC.

Of course The Office is based on The Office, which became wildly popular in America, only to be dwarfed by the American version.

Three’s Company and Sanford and Son owe their existence to the plucky Brits. England also leads the way in reality programming copies in the U.S. American Idol, Celebrity Fit Club, Trading Spaces, Hell’s Kitchen…the list goes on and on.

My favorite show right now is not even a comedy. It is a car show, but it has a ton of British humor laced throughout. BBC’s Top Gear is one of England’s top rated shows due to the fantastic visual style and dynamic interaction between the hosts. They are not afraid to pull punches when reviewing a new car, and don’t worry about offending advertisers.

I don’t know where my particular affinity for British humor comes from, but I hope it never goes away.

 

April 2015

It’s not easy being green

One of my favorite entertainers of all times grew up in a swamp. One of 3,265 siblings, he left the murky confines of his ancestral home for the bright lights of Hollywood at age 12 and soon became an international superstar.

I’m talking about Kermit the Frog, of course.

For over 50 years he has been the rock behind the entire Muppet universe and remains as vital and important to millions of fans today.

The enigmatic straight man - Kermit, and by extension his creator, the genius Jim Henson, has been a part of my life for as long as I have lived.

I grew up on Sesame Street, learned to count with the help of the pinball machine song, laughed at the antics of Bert and Ernie, and sang along with Grover.

Then, I graduated from Oscar and Big Bird to Fozzie the Bear and Gonzo the Great when The Muppet Show made its debut.

I was still young enough to appreciate the next generation of Henson’s vision when Fraggle Rock hit the scene.

As I approached my teen years, my attention turned to seemingly more mature things and Kermit and his friends fell by the wayside.

But, unknown to me, the impact of Jim Henson stayed with me.

Henson, through his creations, has touched countless lives and inspired millions of children to believe in themselves. From the simplest message of helping others to more complex issues of racial harmony and global consciousness, Henson and his gifted coworkers in the Henson Workshop have made more dreams come alive than just about anyone I can imagine.

As a kid it is easy to be entertained by colorful puppets who make silly jokes, but a true entertainer can not only make kids happy, they can also bring something to the table for adults.

I think that is what Jim Henson was all about. He brought his characters to life to educate and entertain children across the globe, but he also implanted messages and ideals that adults could understand and appreciate.

If you want to get emotional and see how Jim’s legacy has impacted others, check out the videos from Henson’s memorial service on YouTube. From Big Bird singing the signature song “It’s not easy being green,” to Frank Oz’s heartwarming eulogy to the Muppet voice talent performing a medley of Henson’s songs, you can’t help but get a tear in your eye.

The spirit of Kermit the Frog can be summed up by the following quote:

“I’ve got a dream too, but it’s about singing and dancing and making people happy. That’s the kind of dream that gets better the more people you share it with.”

He’s my hero, my inspiration and I like to think of him as a friend, even though we never met. But I believe if we ever did, we would hit it off and be able to talk for hours about life, love and probably flies.

“Someday we’ll find it, the Rainbow Connection, the lovers, the dreamers and me.”

 

Archives April 2015

Saving Time

A few weekends ago saw another daylight savings time come and go. Most of the country, except for a few rebellious souls in Arizona, Indiana, and Hawaii, moved their clocks forward one hour in an effort to conserve daylight.

In America, the concept of Daylight Savings Time has been around since 1918 and the idea goes back several years earlier to England where the idea was to conserve energy, allowing people to wake up with the sun already being up thus saving lamp oil.

Now I have done some calculations, if you take all the daylight saved in my 30 plus years of existence, I have accrued almost 6,000 hours of daylight. I want to know who I need to speak with to make a withdrawal. By my figures I have over 10 days worth of daylight coming to me.

I spoke to the Powers-That-Be at The Voice and tried to convince them that I had 10 days of vacation time stored up and wanted to take them. At first they scoffed at me and when I tried to compromise and settle for a mere 5 days, they threw me out of the office. I later found a memo on my desk stating that since it is a federal law, they are not obligated to comply.

I next went to my local banking institution. The teller seemed a tad bit confused when I inquired about the current balance in my daylight savings account. I thought it was a legitimate question, where else would you accumulate saved daylight but in a bank?

A bank manager was summoned and I was ushered into a plush office. Again I was met with a blank stare as I explained the reason for my visit. Not only did they owe me some daylight, but the way I figured it, being a bank, I probably had 30 years worth of interest on my saved daylight.

As I was being escorted from the building, none too gently I might add, I was informed it might be a good idea to do my banking elsewhere from now on.

By now I was understandably upset. I felt like Don Quixote tilting at the legendary windmills… or was it Don Knotts, either way I needed an answer fast.

I decided to go straight to the top, working at a newspaper has certain advantages. I sent off e-mails to my state and federal representatives including the President himself and settled in to wait for my answer. It wasn’t long before they started trickling in. Most of them said pretty much the same thing, “Dear Mr. Bird, I appreciate your concern on this matter. Let me assure you that I will look into it as soon as possible. Thank you for taking the time to let me know your thoughts on this issue. Please vote for me.”

I could tell this was a dead end. I slumped back in my desk and breathed a heavy sigh. Looking out the window, I noticed that the sun had gone down. I had wasted an entire day of precious sunlight. Grabbing my calculator I started to enter in the new tally to my list when I noticed something. My calculator, which is SOLAR POWERED, was still working after the sun had gone down. I was struck at the simplicity of it all. Daylight savings time is nothing but a conspiracy by the calculator manufacturing companies to rob us of our daylight to provide a cheap source of power.

Since my revelation I have destroyed all of my solar powered calculators and started using an abacus, I urge you to do the same.

 

See you in the funny papers!

One of my fondest childhood memories is sitting on my father’s lap on a Sunday morning as he read the Sunday comics to me. I would follow along looking at the pictures in the panel as he told me what they were saying. It was a ritual that lasted until I learned to read them on my own, but by then, I was hooked.

To this day, I am an avid reader of the comic strips in any newspaper. And I am not the only one. Thousands of people read comic strips every day and the very business of comic strips makes over 100 billion dollars per year! The Internet has expanded the reach of comics and there are thousands of artists who post their work only on the net.

Comic strips, or “funnies” as some people like to call them, have been around for over 100 years. The Yellow Kid is the first recognized comic strip in history, dating back to 1895.

But, the popularity of comics really took off in the 30’s. A lot of strips still in circulation got their starts in that heyday. Blondie, is perhaps the most notable. The 50’s saw the introduction of perhaps the most famous comic of all, Peanuts.

Every person has a different favorite comic strip. Some prefer the simple, one panel, quick laugh strips like The Family Circus, Ziggy, or Dennis the Menace. Some like the cute, easy to understand strips like B.C., Hagar the Horrible, Hi and Lois or the afore mentioned Blondie. And there are some who like a little meat to their strips.

Count me as one of those. A long time ago, while staying at an uncle’s house, I unearthed a collection of Doonesbury strips and devoured them. That day started my fascination with strips that make you think, as well as laugh.

Garry Trudeau’s strip blends political humor within a mostly realistic setting. Defying the basic rule of comic strips, the characters grow, change and age. And while the strip carries a liberal slant, you don’t need to be a card carrying Democrat to enjoy it.

My favorite comic strip of all time is the now defunct Bloom County. While the strip was in publication (Berkeley Breathed retired from comic strips in 1995 to focus on writing children’s books) it carefully balanced fantasy with social commentary.
Breathed was able to take his characters, ranging from a socially inept penguin to a neurotic pre-teen, to lampoon real life events.

No subject was taboo. Breathed took on Tipper Gore and the PMRC’s quest for labeling music and cosmetics giant Mary Kay. Through his strips he did bring certain issues to light and thusly was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in Editorial Cartooning in 1987, only the second comic strip author to win the coveted prize (Trudeau’s Doonsebury was the first in 1975).

If you are like me and enjoy a good chuckle in the morning, I advise you at some point to take a trip to the international Museum of Cartoon Art in Boca Raton, Florida. They have an entire collection dedicated to the comic strip. Started by several famous cartoonists in the 90’s to preserve the history and tradition of the newspaper funnies, it is a worthwhile way to spend an afternoon. As you stroll through the galleries you can see actual strips from every decade. You can see the evolution of characters throughout the life of the strip.

If you are lucky, you may even be privileged to meet an actual cartoonist. And if you are an aspiring artist, they even offer classes.

 

Out with the old

Even though I have started well down the path of middle age, I still consider myself young at heart. But sometimes I see something in the news that makes me feel ancient.

I read an article this week talking about how floppy discs and VHS tapes, common household objects less than a decade ago, are going the way of the telegraph…into the annals of history.

I started to ponder about what technologies I grew up with are almost as extinct as the dinosaurs.

We’re not talking about a long time ago either, but the speed at which new inventions come out and replace things makes your head spin.

When I was in grade school my parents bought a new set of encyclopedias. I was positively thrilled at having all these books filled with knowledge at my disposal. I imagined that I would be able to write comprehensive reports on exotic lands and famous historical figures.

Of course, none of that really happened. I spent most of the time flipping through the encyclopedias for strange pictures and unusual words. When I did use the books for a report, I typically did a half-hearted job, copying facts directly from the articles.

Today the internet has replaced encyclopedias. Students looking for information on just about anything can find several different sources with just a few keystrokes. No more rewriting a few paragraphs from the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Most of us over 25 can remember the home rotary phone. Not only did it take several minutes to dial a number, you had to stand in one place to do so.

I remember how happy I was when we got an extra-long cord for the phone so I could take a call and actually be able to walk to the other side of the kitchen.

I don’t even have a home phone now. I rely on my cell, which goes with me everywhere I go, so I don’t have to worry about missing calls.

The cell phone has also replaced a wristwatch for me. Who needs a watch when nearly every digital device has a clock on it? Phones, computers, coffee makers, stereos make it practically impossible to be anywhere without knowing what time it is.

Even portable cassette players are old news now. Back when they first came out, they were all the rage. Everybody had to have a personal cassette player. They were limited in the fact that you could only fit about 25 songs on a tape, but it didn’t matter. Soon everybody was carrying cases filled with their favorite tapes.

Nowadays, the I-pod has completely blown the Walkman out of the water. I have over 4,000 songs on one small device that fits in my pocket. No more digging through a box to find a single song. No more spending hours making the perfect mix tape.

The worst thing is that I can find very little to grumble about concerning these things. Even a cynic like me can see the appeal and convenience these inventions bring. But I still think I am going to go home and break out my old turntable and dust off some wax platters for nostalgia’s sake.

Mad Scientists 2 – Electric Boogaloo

Let’s see…I’m a scientist. I spent years studying, learning how things work and why. What is on top of my list of Big Scientificy Stuff to Do? Cure AIDS? Defeat cancer? Find an ecologically safe energy source?

Nope.

How about explode a nuclear device inside the earth to open a fissure to the center of the earth.

Now we’re talking!

This must be the year of the mad scientist. Just a while back there were news reports of a plan to drill into an active volcano to study it, and now this.
David Stevenson, a Caltech Planetary Scientist, has published an article in a scientific journal (apparently scientists can only communicate with the outside world via journals), describing a plan to study the molten core of the planet.

Stevenson’s plan would involve detonating a nuclear device to open a fissure several thousands of feet deep, pouring a ton of molten lead into the hole and dropping a grapefruit sized probe behind it. The theory is the molten lead, much denser than the stuff around it, will create a self-perpetuating hole that will burrow into the ground, eventually reaching the center of the world. The well-protected probe (well it would have to be – duh) would use the same technology as car speakers to radiate data back to the surface. Great, not only will we have to contend with teenagers trying to shatter our spines with their stereos, the very ground will be pulsing like a bullfrog in heat.

While this experiment smacks of Jules Verne, I think Stevenson fails to take into account the sub-human factor. Every movie I have seen dealing with subterranean exploration has had encounters with a race of Mole People. These creatures dwell miles below the surface in a vast system of caverns unseen by us surface dwellers.

Through the miracle of modern technology (apparently they have internet access) I have been in contact with a Mole Person and conducted the following interview about the proposed experiment.

Bird: Thank you for responding. What is your name?
Mole: I am Mole Man #54,989.
Bird: That is an unusual name, are all Mole People numbered?
Mole: All us Mole men are, the women are called Jane.
Bird: How is life down there in the bowels of the earth?
Mole: First off, we do not like the term bowels, that is disgusting and demeaning.
Bird: What do you call it then?
Mole: Buffalo.
Bird: Well, how is life in …Buffalo?
Mole: Peaceful mostly. We farm a lot of mushrooms, raise worms and talk about the weather.
Bird: You have weather down there?
Mole: Not really, there just isn’t much to talk about down here. It’s either that or politics.
Bird: How do you feel about the plan to send a probe down to study the center of the earth?
Mole: We don’t care for it. How would you like to have a ton of molten lead rain down on your head?
Bird: I can’t say I would appreciate that.
Mole: Exactly. Besides if you surface dwellers want to know about the center of the earth, why don’t you just ask?
Bird: You have been there?
Mole: Sure. I took my wife, Jane, and the kids there for vacation last year.
Bird: So what is it like?
Mole: Hot. Real hot. Melt your eyeballs hot.
Bird: Why would you go then?
Mole: My brother has a time-share that he wasn’t using.

So there you have it David Stevenson. All the answers you need, and if you have any more, feel free to contact Mole Man #54,989, he will be happy to help.


 
 

 

March 2015

Whatever happened to the metric system?

Weren’t we all supposed to switch over to metric about 20 years ago? Wasn’t there a big push to “modernize” all measurements so we would be in compliance with the rest of the world? Did I miss the metric revolution?

In asking this question to my fellow workers in the office, I received a variety of replies. The people closer to my age or older often came up with “Oh yeah, I remember that. I forgot all about it. What happened with that?” Most of the younger people didn’t know about the big movement and only are familiar with metric through chemistry class.

The movement to convert to the “base ten” measuring system never rally gained momentum, and to this day, America is one of the few countries that holds onto the antiquated “standard” system.

To this I say, “Way to go America!” We didn’t crumble to international pressure and stood strong with our beliefs. We are so resolute in our beliefs, that foreign companies are forced to convert their measurements to ours if they want to do business with us, rather than the other way around.

To this day, there are still pockets of resistance out there, pushing for America to fall into step with the rest of the world and convert to the metric system. The U.S. Metric Association has been advocating for the conversion to metric since 1916, and doing a great job of it I might add. They even have a bi-monthly newsletter that deals with issues and news items related to their crusade. They even offer supplies for sale to train people on the proper way to convert standard measurements to metric.

But there is also strong opposition to the movement. Freedom2Measure’s website says the idea of changing over to metric is “an affront to our basic rights. How we measure is part of our heritage and our way of life.” They feature strong rhetoric and powerful arguments against “metricising.”

According to Freedom2Measure the standard, or “imperial” measuring system has been in place since the ancient Greeks developed it and has withstood the test of time. This is the old, “it was good enough for my grandfather, it is good enough for me” argument.

The author of the Freedom2Measure website makes perhaps the most valid point about the whole debate I have ever seen. All units of measurement are completely arbitrary to begin with. Somewhere, sometime, someone decided that an inch would be what is today. The same goes for the mile, gallon, pound, ounce and fathom. The same can be said for the metric equivalents.
When I was in grade school we had several classes to familiarize us with the metric system. We spent hours going over the various prefixes of the system.

We had to learn the difference between deci-, milli-, killo-, and hecta-. I still can’t remember what they mean.

But some vestiges of the metric system have crept into today’s society. You buy 2-literes of soda at the store and bank clocks display the temperature in both Fahrenheit and Celsius.

Here are some thoughts as to what would life be like if the English standard system didn’t exist. The Indy 500 would be the Indy 804.67; there would also be the Daytona 804.67

A football field would be 91.44 meters long. Jules Verne would never have written 96561 kilometers under the sea. Peter Piper would have had to pick 7570.8 cubic centimeters of pickled peppers. 14515 kilograms and what do your get?  Another day older and a deeper in debt. And you would have to give a selfish person 2.54 centimeters and he’d take 1.6093 Kilometers.

Toon time

You know, I sometimes miss the days of Saturday morning cartoons.

For those of you too young to remember, (that, in itself is a scary thought, the halcyon days of cartoons were the 60’s and 70’s, so anyone younger than 35 probably has no idea what I am talking about) a Saturday morning was one of the best times for a kid.

Back in those days, a kid would wake up and fix a big bowl of super sugar coated flakes cereal and plop down in front of the idiot box to watch their favorite shows. For the next six hours or so, you could forget about failing the math test in school, or the flat tire on your bike.

My favorites were the time-tested Super Friends and the classic Looney Tunes.

Looking back at the Super Friends cartoon with the eyes of age, I have to chuckle at how thin it was. Gaping plot holes you could drive a bus through, stilted dialog, weak characters (despite super powers!). But it definitely remains a product of the time.
But, Loony Tunes, now there is something that age really cannot touch.

Bugs Bunny is almost 75 years old, and knowing that, makes me feel old myself. But I can watch one of those cartoons today and still be as entertained as I was when I was a kid.
The iconic rabbit made his debut in 1940’s “The Wild Hare,” and the cartoon world has never been the same since.

From the start his mannerisms were already in place: the cocksure attitude, dry wit, and a certain sense of superiority. The immortal “What’s up Doc,” that serves as his trademark calling card, was an ad-lib line that caught on immediately.

What I really enjoy about the history of Bugs and his pals was the fact that the cartoons weren’t designed for children at first.

In the days before television, most of people’s entertainment came from the radio or at the movie theater. When people plopped down a nickel to catch the latest movie, they expected more than just a feature film, they wanted more. So movie studios would throw in a couple short cartoons for added benefit.

So Bugs got his start on the silver screen and his main audience was adults.
Bugs Bunny actually is the proud owner of an Academy Award for 1958’s “Knigty Knight Bugs,” and he was nominated twice more.

While you can still catch an old Merrie Melody or Loony Tune on television these days, chances are they have been edited down from their original state.

A lot of the cartoon violence that our grandparents thoroughly enjoyed, is now deemed unsuitable for children today.

Some of the cartoons have been banned outright because of the now-offensive characterizations (Africans, Japanese, Indians, et al).

If you look hard enough, you can still find some of these shows on the internet, and it is certainly an experience to see just how society has changed over the past seven decades.
Some of them may be crude and vulgar, but who among us didn’t act a little reckless in our youth…just like Bugs Bunny?

Hitting things with a stick

Golf is a funny sport.

It is a truly frustrating experience where people hit a small ball with a stick. What makes it so frustrating is how difficult it can be to get the little ball to go exactly where you want it to go.

Sometimes you want it to go as far as you can, and other times, you only want to hit it a few inches.

For me, the shorter the distance, the bigger the problem. I can hit the ball a good distance off the tee, (even though it rarely goes where I intend it to), but when it comes down to knocking the ball into the hole, I struggle.

I was about eight or nine years old when I first picked up the game. We lived about half a block away from the local municipal golf course, and my friends and I would “borrow” some of our dad’s clubs and hop the fence to hit some balls in the evenings.

Once my dad saw that I was somewhat serious about taking up the game, he gave me his old clubs so I would have my own set.

In the summer following my eighth grade year, I was given a pass to play at the course for the summer. Every morning, my friend Mike and I would hoist our golf bags over our shoulders and hit the links.

That was one of the best summers of my life.

Mike and I had a regular routine. After teeing off around 8:00 a.m., we would play nine holes before taking a break in the clubhouse before hitting the back nine.

After our morning round, we would retreat to my house and wait out the Wisconsin summer heat in my basement.

Later in the day, if we felt like it, we would head back to the course for another round.
You would think that after playing nearly every day for a summer, I would have been ready for the PGA, but this just wasn’t the case.

More than 30 years later, I am a little better at hitting the ball with a stick, but not a whole lot.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to play the course where I first learned the game. It was a great day for me.

When I first stepped onto the tee I was hit by a flood of memories. Throughout the round, I remembered shots I had hit years before.

Perhaps the most shocking thing I saw was on the 18th hole. When I was a kid, I hit a shot that went into the top of a small pine tree. The impact didn’t break the limb it hit, but it did put a distinct bend into the branch.

29 years later, the tree had grown and stood over 30 feet tall. But as I approached the tree and looked up at the very top, I swear I could see a branch with a funny looking bend in it.

Sponsor us

The government of McCreary County is struggling with funding issues. While this comes as no surprise to anyone who knows anything about government, the ways of raising money have caused much debate among the populace. Whether to tax or not to tax is the issue of the day, but no matter what, we need more money if we want to progress as a community.

While this comes a little bit late to the party, perhaps it is time our county administrators look at doing something that has become the norm among professional and college sporting teams. I’m talking about corporate sponsorship.

Around the country, millions of dollars each year are paid by corporations to get their names on buildings. Look at the Staples Center in L.A., Bank One Ballpark in Denver and Pro-Player Stadium in Miami.

Corporate sponsorship has become a part of life in modern day America. Anything that can bear the name of a company has probably been sold. You see the Academy Awards pre-show sponsored by Toyota. The actual red carpet brought to you by 3M. Pepsi Cola and other companies pay big money just to have their product appear in a movie or television show. Even specific events are being renamed due to corporate sponsorship. Look at most of the college football bowl games.

The idea is nothing new to government either. For years big cities have sold advertising space on public transportation systems. One police department in California a few years ago sold advertising space on the side of police cruisers.
The bottom line is this: “there’s money in them there products!”

With the state of our county budget, anything can be up for grabs to the highest bidder. When attending the monthly fiscal court meeting you would be greeted by this voice-over at the beginning, “Welcome to the McCreary County Fiscal Court, sponsored by Frito-Lay.” Judge Executive Stephens can bang the Valvoline gavel to start the meeting and the magistrates can wear uniforms with sponsors like NASCAR drivers do.

The courthouse itself can be a revenue producer if we do it up right. Hang a Rolex sign from the clock and get a check. Slap a Radio Shack sticker on the metal detector and get a check. Call it the Campbell’s Soup Courthouse at McCreary County and get a check.

We could get Ford or General Motors to sponsor our county road department and get all new vehicles in the bargain. After a while we will get used to seeing the big logos plastered all over them and forget about it…until we get the check!

I myself am not above selling out for a quick buck. That is why I am announcing the Word From Bird is open to corporate sponsorships. All offers can be sent to: Send Bird a Check c/o the McCreary County Voice. P.O. Box 190. Whitley City, KY 42653.


 

February 2015

Pleonasm

As a columnist I have long held a strong affinity for words and their uses. Many of my weekly essays feature “uncommon” or “50 cent” words, not out of a desire to show off my intelligence (or lack thereof), but just as a way of doing my part to clean up the language and encourage someone to open a dictionary to learn a new word.

The English language is one of the most awkward languages on the planet. Our pronunciation very seldom corresponds to the actual linguistic rules other languages use.

That is why many people find leaning Spanish, French even German easier because most of the time, the words sound like how they are spelled.

Did you know that only English-speaking countries have spelling bees? It’s true. Other countries have competitions based around conjugation or punctuation, but it is useless to ask competitors to spell words when they are spelled like they are pronounced.

Grammatical rules aside, we use one of the few languages that strive to use more words than needed to get an idea across.

English is full of examples where we give more information than is really necessary.

Phrases such as: free gift, hot water heater and tuna fish show how much extra verbiage we introduce into our own language.

The term for such a thing is “Pleonasm.” Pleonasm is defined as “the use of more words than necessary.”

The world of sports brings use such pleonasms like NFL Football and RBI’s.

The former already has the word ‘football embedded in the acronym and the latter is already pluralized (Runs Batted In). Actually, RBI’s is a fun one to observe as different sports writers try to remain true to the form and just use RBI, but many have succumbed to the pressure from the populace and use RBI’s.

Other acronyms lend themselves to this abuse as well.

For example a friend of mine said, “I went to the ATM machine to get some cash, but I forgot my PIN number.”

Fortunately I didn’t try and correct them by saying that the words “machine” and “number” are directly implied by the use of ATM and PIN, but a part of me died inside.
While it is not a bad thing that is threatening to destroy American Society or tear down our educational systems, it does show that our language is evolving.

Every year, dictionary companies trot out lists to showcase new words and phrases that have entered our lexicon. While little more than tools to get everyone to buy new dictionaries, it does show how almost anybody can introduce a new word into the lexicon.

With enough media attention and underground placement in Internet blogs scattering the new word around, soon it becomes accepted into the popular vernacular and gets tossed about like it has always been around.

It’s funny that as words continue to enter our language it just gets more and more complicated.

S“no”w fun

I must be getting old. This recent cold snap has got me thinking that global warming may not be such a bad concept after all.

Waking up with the thermometer below freezing and having the wind chill knife through me as I walk down the street makes me long for the warmer summer months.
I didn’t always think this way.

As a kid, I used to love the winter season and would look forward to being able to frolic in the snow.

When I was just a wee lad, I could never remember being cold during the winter. I could play for hours in sub-zero temperatures and hardly ever complain about the cold. It was only when the snow melted through your mittens and the four pair of socks you had on and when you noticed you couldn’t feel your extremities that you thought it might be time to get inside.

And that didn’t slow me down for long.

Mom always had the best way to warm us up: a bowl of tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich chased down with a mug of hot chocolate. That combination was a magic elixir that would warm a body up enough to get back outside and freeze again for a few hours.

In Wisconsin, where I grew up, we would get a lot of snow over the course of a winter. Typically we had a good covering of snow on the ground for a solid three months straight. That gave us plenty of time to constantly build our fortress.

My parents owned and operated a home business that required a small fleet of vehicles. As such, we had a larger than normal driveway. When a heavy snow came, my dad had to get a plow to clear the drive so the trucks could get on the road. That meant a fresh mound of pure snow piled up in our front yard.

In addition to the traditional snowmen, my friends and I would also spend and inordinate amount of time crafting elaborate snow forts, complete with secret snowball compartments and escape hatches.

We would dig tunnels all throughout the pile of snow, never once stopping to think it could collapse on us. We would carry out large buckets of water to shore up the interior walls with ice and slick down the floors for rapid transit through the structure.

The amazing thing about this huge snow fortress in my front yard was the fact that it was the only one on the block. The long-anticipated attack from the opposing forces never materialized and all our planning and strategy were in vain.

We would lie in wait, making snowballs and telling tales in the below zero temperatures, never noticing the bitter cold. We would stay out there all night if not for our parents.

But as I grew older, the days seemed colder and now I would rather stay inside where it’s warm.

Item 64

When I was a lot younger, and inherently more stupid, my friends and I would act like normal teenagers and try to find things to amuse us. The problem usually was we didn’t have a lot of money so it was typically left it up to our own imaginations to come up with something to keep us occupied.

One of our favorite activities was organizing scavenger hunts.

These were no ordinary, namby-pamby hunts. Oh no – they were epic, 24-hour marathons that usually involved a few deeds of questionable legality.
We would have 20 to 40 people participating, organized in teams of 4-5 players.
While I don’t condone anyone following our example, I do have to admit that these hunts were epic in proportion and everyone involved had a great deal of fun.

The concept was simple: A small group of us would get together and create a list of items, assigning point values based on their difficulty in obtaining.

Some were simple, such as a bucket of air, while others required a little planning and originality. One of my favorites was collecting $33,000 in Monopoly money, since it required combining the cash from three sets of the classic board game.

Other items were impossible, like the 1-to-1 scale map of the United States, and were just put in to confuse the teams and provide a bit of levity. I will admit that some of the things on the list were dangerous or downright illegal to obtain, but we didn’t expect anyone to actually try and collect these items. In full disclosure I can say that the worst legal trouble any team got in to was a speeding ticket (worth 50 points by the way.)

Typically ranging between 200-500 items the lists ensured that teams would have to examine them thoroughly and develop a plan of action. Some members would hurry to grab as many of the small-point items while their teammates tackled the more rare items in an effort to raise their standings.

Since the sheer number of items collected was too much to conveniently store in the back of a car for a full day, we would hold several check-ins where teams could collect their points and empty out their vehicles before setting forth to begin the search anew.

The end of the hunt was almost anti-climatic. After a full day, and night, of scouring the county for rare and obscure items, everyone was pretty exhausted. Plus, the prize for winning was just a small trinket, not a lot of worth for all the effort everyone had to put in.

But the bragging rights were the real prize.

As the hunt grew in size and reputation, the honor gained from winning was impressive – at least to those who knew what was going on.

The annual Scavenger Hunt ran for four years before most of us began to move away due to college, military or other adult-life demands. But in the era of these monstrous undertakings they were certainly highly anticipated and attended.

I may have to dig out an old list and see what I can find for old times sake.

Snow daze

We have been fortunate to avoid the major winter storms so far this year, but what weather we did have has forced the cancellation of a lot of school.

It got me to thinking about why you don’t see kids playing in the snow on those free days.
When I was a kid a day off from school and a fresh coating of snow would send me out into the cold for hours at end, ignoring the numbness in my extremities for as long as I could before retreating inside to warm myself by curling over the heating vent.

But, today with the internet, video games and satellite television, there are a lot more reasons for kids to stay inside rather than brave the elements and get a little exercise.

Now, I must confess, I am a video game junkie myself. Even as a kid my Commodore 64 and Atari 2600 ate up a lot of my free time. My friend Mike and I even attempted a half-hearted attempt at setting a world record score on Pac-Man by staying up one cold January night in front of the TV. The attempt failed when I fell asleep at the controls around 5:00 a.m., but we still managed to get up and play in the snow the next day.

I grew up in Wisconsin where we were used to a sold four months of snow on the ground, so I guess we were also more accustomed to outdoor activities in freezing temperatures.

From building snowmen, ice forts, sledding and snowball fights, we would play until our fingers froze – stopping only long enough to thaw out with hot cocoa.

Here, in southern Kentucky, snow is a much rarer event, often melting as soon as it hits the ground. But on days like we had this week when the fluffy stuff sticks around for a few days people should enjoy it.

There wasn’t a whole lot of snow, and it probably too cold to make a proper snowman, but there was still plenty enough to go sledding. I know of at least one group of adventurous youngsters who made the best of it, making a make-shift sled out of an old waterbed lining and doing some daring stunts down the hill in front of their house.

But it is getting more and more rare to see any kid outside and braving the elements to enjoy the freedom of a snow day.

So, to all you young kids out there, or the young-at-heart – next time we have a snow day, get out and have some fun. I think you will enjoy it.

January 2015

Technology: Friend or Foe?

The advancements in modern technology have made our lives easier. Cell phones can put us in contact with anyone we want at any time. Computers and the Internet allow instantaneous sharing of information from across the globe. Vehicles are equipped with satellite-aided navigation devices that make it nearly impossible for anyone to get lost.

Technology has surely made our lives more convenient.
But have they also made us more childlike in many ways.

Here’s a quick test to see how reliant you are on technology: Without looking at your cell, PDA or Blackberry, recite the phone numbers for your best friend, parents and significant other.

Chances are, you can’t think of the number. Most people today have those numbers programmed into their phones and just have to press a button to make the call.

It wasn’t that long ago when you either had important phone numbers memorized or, at least carried a list with names and numbers written down for easy access.

I remember when I was a kid, the only phone in the house was an old rotary phone mounted on the wall in the dining room.

There was no mobility to it at all, only a 15-foot cord that allowed you to do a minimal amount of pacing around when you used the phone.

If you were running errands or at the neighbor’s and someone wanted to reach you, they would have better luck driving around town until they found you to get you the message.
Information gathering was a totally different experience in the not-too-distant past.

It used to be you had to read the morning paper or watch the evening news to see what was going on in the world around you.

Today, there are 24-hour news networks to bring us up-to-the-minute updates on important (and not so important) events. But there are also hundreds of channels devoted to interest-specific topics so we don’t have to surf through the channels and stumble across a breaking news story. We can just sit and watch how we can turn all the junk in our garage into thousands of dollars without lifting a finger.
Even the news networks are starting to specialize.

Gone are the days when you could tune in Walter Cronkite or Peter Jennings and get a fairly unbiased view of the day’s events.

Now if you are a “Liberal” you can tune into a network that favors your political viewpoint. Likewise, “Right-wing Conservatives” have their own place to turn to where they can get affirmation that their ideology is the correct way of thinking.

It is getting harder and harder to sort out all the party-speak garbage passed along from either side to find what is the real truth and form your own opinion on matters.
With apologies to Dennis Miller: I didn’t mean to go off on a rant there, but such is the price we pay for technology. Our thoughts and daily lives are being aided by new and novel inventions, but at what cost?

Watching other people cook

I love tuning in Emeril, Alton Brown, and my personal favorite, Giada De Laurentiis whip up interesting dishes and meals that I know I will never get around to cooking.

But there is something fascinating about watching these cooking shows. The frenetic pace of Iron Chef keeps me glued to the seat, even though I typically can’t follow what it is they are trying to make. Even Rachel Ray, who is supposed to make dishes that even a fool like me can easily handle, leaves me scratching my head in frustration.

I love to cook; I just don’t often have the time, energy or inclination to break out the skillet and throw together a three-course gourmet meal.

Plus, some of the ingredients are kind of difficult to come by around here.

When I watch these shows I have to laugh at how they are presented. Typically, the host is planning some kind of party or special event and wants to show us how easy it is to “throw together” a fun and tasty dish in just a few minutes. Ha! It sure looks simple, but then again, they have had years of culinary training. For a schlub like me, it would usually involve a lot of cussing and a few hours of work.

Plus, there is the added element of danger. Watching them dice an onion is like nothing I have ever seen. When I try to cut up something using the quick method, I usually end up with a bandage on several fingers.

I find it funny, and more than a little ironic, that as I sit on my couch watching someone show me how to make a healthy and delicious entrée, I am typically munching on snack food or gulping down a portion of Hamburger Helper.

When I do get the cooking bug and find a recipe that interests me, I go all out in trying to recreate the dish I saw on television.

I get out my cutting board, sharpen my knives, pre-heat the oven – and then proceed to screw up the whole thing.

My last foray into culinary creation resulted in a near-disaster and a lackluster presentation. I was attempting to make a lasagna-type dish based off a Rachel Ray recipe. Things were going fine until it came time to mix the ingredients together in a big mixing bowl. In my haste, I neglected to turn off the burner on my stove and set the plastic container right on the still-hot burner. A few moments later the smell of toxic fumes filled the kitchen as the bottom of the bowl melted. To make matters worse, when I grabbed the bowl to get it away from the heat, the bottom decided to stay on the stove and two pounds of pasta and sauce spilled all over the floor.

Needless to say I cleaned up the mess, threw away the ruined bowl and microwaved a burrito for dinner.

 

Super heroics

Every kid, at some point in his or her life, has to clasp a bath towel around their neck and run around the house pretending to be a super hero.

It is an un-escapable rite of passage.

I remember as a child watching the classic “Challenge of the Superfriends” cartoon on Saturday mornings, and then going out in the backyard to act out the adventures of Batman, Superman and the Green Lantern with my friends. (Usually the younger brother of a friend who tagged along got to be the less popular Aquaman.)

From there I was introduced to the bigger comic book world in 1983 when I bought my first book off a newsstand rack in a local grocery store. Back then there weren’t specialty shops or mail order companies to fill our monthly need for the latest adventures of our favorite costumed warriors; we had to take our chance at the supermarkets each week to catch the latest issues.

But times have changed in the funny books.

Comic book stories today are no longer the whimsical, colorful adventures most of us grew up with.

Gone are the days when Superman battles a colorful alien before figuring out the strange creature is just a misunderstood wanderer looking for a way home; or Batman trying to stop a prized jewel being stolen from a museum.

In the late 80’s the comic industry realized their audience was growing older and began to revamp their titles, making them grittier and more mature.

The trend started in 1986 with the release of the Dark Knight, a four-part graphic novel about a possible future of Batman where he battles a corrupt government, kills his arch-enemy Joker and even takes down Superman.

It was one of the best-selling titles of the year and ushered in a new era in the comic book world. The lines between hero and villain were no longer absolute and stories began to tackle more mature themes of murder, corruption and betrayal.

As a so-called adult, I can appreciate the supposedly more realistic tone of the books and I realize that it merely reflects our changing culture. Times have changed from when I could sit under a tree and read about Batman’s crime fighting monkey and Superman’s dog, Krypto.

But for all the changes, there still is something redeeming about the mythos of the super hero. It epitomizes a person’s struggle against adversity and their willingness to stand up to right a wrong and bring justice to evil doers.

For all the darkness that has entered into today’s comic books, there still are youth-oriented titles that introduce children into the four-color world of nobility and gallantry. In a world besieged with terror, crime, poverty and hopelessness, a child can find some reassurance that their beliefs do have value and people can do good in the world.

Perhaps one of those makeshift cape wearing kids will grow up to be a real superhero and make the world a better place to live.

On the Board

I saw in a recent Associated Press article lately that board game makers are producing altered versions of some classic board games that can be played in as little as 20 minutes to better fit into more people’s busy lives.

These variations of games such as Monopoly, Life and Scrabble are designed to give players an abridged game-playing experience by altering some basic functions or changing rules to accommodate faster play.

I don’t like that idea one bit. I have always been a big fan of board games and don’t mind devoting a few hours to play a game. In fact, I have wasted probably hundreds of hours over the years hoping for a good dice roll, but they were good wasted hours.

My love of gaming goes back to my college years when we had a small group of regulars that would get together for hours to play board games.

Our game choices would vary depending on our moods, but the most popular choice was often Monopoly. We would play that game to death. It got to the point where we could play a traditional game in less than half an hour, so we devised our own set of variant rules to prolong the experience.

We took three Monopoly boards, connected them at the corners and played Tri-nopoly. Games would stretch on for hours as we tried to collect nine properties for a monopoly.

The other kids that shared the dorms with us would often get upset that we would take over the common room with our massive campaigns, but they eventually got used to it and would often stop by to check on the progress.

We also loved to play strategy games like Risk and Axis and Allies where you not only needed a good deal of luck, but also a keen and cunning mind to play. There have been many times where I was wiped off the board because I failed to see a sneak attack from a supposed ally, but that is the nature of the game.

My love of board games has stayed with me long into my adulthood. Over the years I have amassed a nice collection of board games. In addition to the standard party classics like Pictionary and Scattergories, I have a stock of games I used to love as a kid, and still do today.

I have even sampled some computer versions of classic board games that are very close to their real-life counterparts. I enjoy the fact that you can play solo against the computer and not worry about having anybody to play against, but I still miss the camaraderie you get when you are face-to-face with your opponent across the table.

In today’s world where the Internet and Nintendo are geared for instant and fast-paced action, most kids don’t have the patience to sit at a table for more than 10 minutes and concentrate on a game.

If you have kids, why not take some time this weekend to break out an old board game and spend a few quality hours together? I bet you’ll have as much fun as your kids will.

Resolve This

It is almost the New Year and you know what that means? No, not three whole days spent sitting on the couch in my underwear watching college bowl games, I mean New Year’s resolutions. (Not that I won’t be watching the games but I promise I will be wearing shorts at least)  I can’t tell you how much I detest these things. I feel there are so many things inherently wrong with making a New Year resolution.

First why do we need a specific day to make changes in our lives? Doesn’t that seem like a cop out? I can’t imagine going 364 days out of a year with a bad habit or problem just waiting for the one day in the year to make a change. If I am a little overweight in March, I am not going to wait another ten months before going on a diet. I will decide to start the next day and then promptly forget about it then.  January or March, it doesn’t matter, I’m not going to do it anyway, who am I kidding?

Another thing that bugs me about resolutions is that nobody takes them seriously anyway. The first couple weeks of the new year are filled with people asking how many resolutions you’ve broken already. They don’t ask what your resolutions were, it doesn’t matter, they know how bogus those things are.

While some resolutions are laudable, quitting smoking and losing weight to name a couple, most of them are ridiculous or downright impossible. I once had a friend who actually listed as facilitate world peace as his resolution one year. His excuse was “at least I made a resolution. I know I’ll break it but I won’t feel as bad about it like the rest of you will when you break yours.” And you know, he had a point.

People make resolutions every year, and every year they break them. And every year people feel bad when they just can’t follow through with their promises. It wouldn’t be so bad if they didn’t make a big deal of it every year. “This year I WILL stop shaving my dog. I mean it this time” seems to be a yearly mantra for the majority of Americans. And then three weeks later the collie looks like a pig in a butchers shop window and you feel bad because you let yourself down again.

Every year, until a few New Years ago, I would resolve to stop being so cynical and improve my outlook on humanity. And every year I would watch the nightly news and see some story about an old lady living with 3,000 cats who spends her pension check on kitty litter and cat food rather than food for herself. Or I hear about some billionaire who donates a small fraction of their wealth to a charity and then has the audacity to hold a press conference to tell everyone how great they are. After that I just sink back into the dark morass of questioning who really is the superior species.

My last resolution was to stop making resolutions. I have kept that one.

And did you ever stop to think about how business fuels this passion for change this time of year. Pay close attention to television commercials for the next few weeks. Between all the toy commercials and spots for jewelry, you will find hundreds of ads for weight loss products, self help materials and products that will help you stop smoking. Then, a week or so into the new year, the tobacco companies come at us with guns blazing, fast food restaurants increase their pitch for the latest artery clogging sandwich and leisure and time saving products jump out at us again.

Advertisers are smart, they know how we are. They understand the fragility of human resolve for the little things in the face of the everyday stresses of the world around us.

But I do have respect for people that actually do hold up their end of the bargain with themselves. It is not an easy thing to do and more power to them for actually doing it. Just don’t go around bragging about it to the rest of us who can’t seem to put down the ice cream or chase Rover around the house with our new Norelco.

 

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