Tuesday, December 20, 2011

2011 Greetings

I felt a deep sense of withdrawal yesterday -- yesterday being my first day of freedom.

Fall semester, I completed 42 credits of teaching and studenting. Man, that's a lot. Most of my students take 12 hours of classes and seem overwhelmed. Most of my colleagues teach 15 hours of classes and seem frazzled. And, of course there are the university-prof types that teach a total of three class a year and think they've overworked.

Well, whatever. By the way, what the hell is burnout?

Funny thing is, my blood pressure meds apparently numb me to stress. That's not exactly true; I feel stress, but not in the way that the average nutcase feels it. To me, it just feels like a hug. Envelope me in your busy goodness, my friend.

Winter Break is akin to Summer Break's bastard step-cousin that nobody really likes. I hate to bitch about having 3 weeks off, but it's just long enough to not fully enjoy. Not to mention, of course, that 2012 looms. One year closer to death.

Speaking of death, I plan to turn 40 in about 18 months. How did that happen? I like to assume that 40 is half-way to death, but who am I to predict? Maybe I'll live to see 2073. Now that would be a trip.

I feel a lot better today. Today, I'll finish off Mark Vonnegut's Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So, and maybe I'll finally watch the new Kylie Minogue DVD and drink those mimosas I promised myself last week to celebrate the end to another rockin' semester.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Feeling Lucky? -- Writer's Poke #350

Google’s Chinese weblink is http://www.g.cn, and it looks about as boring as the http://www.google.com we’re all used to in the U.S.  Just for the fun of it, I googled Pete Rose using the Chinese Google, and at least in Minnesota, I wasn’t blocked from receiving information about the best American baseball player of all time. In fact, the Chinese version of Wikipedia even has an entry on the Tienanmen Square Massacre. I thought that was interesting, but since it’s in Chinese, I have no idea what spin it might have; nor do I know if the average Chinese citizen has access to reading the entry.

I use Google, but it’s not my favorite search engine; I’m a Yahoo! man, and I probably always will be until they go out of business. But what if a Chinese search engine company tried to break into the American search engine market? Would I bite? Doubtful.

The Internet should be borderless, but it does seem rather odd that Google, an American company, would expect to be successful in China. After all, China has its own native search engines, and it’s difficult for me to comprehend what Google brings to the table that’s different or better than what China can home-grow.
Google’s involvement in the Chinese internet market also brings up some hairy issues, such as, is it unethical of Google to block sites because the Chinese government tells it to? In the U.S., basically anything goes as far as the internet is concerned, but why should all countries follow the U.S. model?

Sometimes it seems that the U.S. believes that all countries would be better off if they operated exactly as we do, and while some in the U.S. might support some forms of censorship, most don’t like heavy-handed political censorship. Nevertheless, China is a sovereign nation, and it has its own standards of what it will and won’t allow. It’s somewhat troubling to me that some people in the U.S. criticize Google for simply following the laws of the lands in which they operate. As if Google has any other option.

Should American companies operating in other countries follow the laws of the land? If the U.S. doesn’t condone certain policies or laws that other countries have, should our government forbid American companies from operating in those countries?

“With Google I’m starting to burn out on knowing the answer to everything. People in the year 2020 are going to be nostalgic for the sensation of feeling clueless.” – Doug Coupland

“We want Google to be the third half of your brain.” – Sergey Brin

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Accent on Success -- Writer's Poke #349

Dan Rather hid his, but when he had to spend hours on TV covering an election or some other big news story, it would sometimes come to the surface. He was from Texas, you see, but since the CBS nightly news broadcast to the entire United States, his regional accent had to go.

I’m not sure that there is an “American accent,” as the television age certainly greatly contributed to the weakening of the regional voice. Nevertheless, when I moved to Minnesota, people recognized that I wasn’t a native to the state, but most weren’t very good at guessing where I was from. It made me chorkle when some guessed I was from Texas. Texas? Not bloody likely. 

When we’re calling customer service to help us with our problems, we want to be able to understand the person on the other end of the line; however, I find it humorous that Indians are being trained to speak with an American (or Canadian) accent. According to Thomas Friedman, Indians working at call centers develop “self-confidence.” Now, I think Friedman is suggesting that the job gives the Indian worker self-confidence, but it troubles me to think about the supplemental point he chooses not to focus on: Indians gain self-confidence through a loss of identity. If these customer service agents do their job optimally, then the customer will never know that they are speaking to someone from halfway around the world. In fact, although Friedman doesn’t mention this, Indians not only learn to hide their accents, but they are also provided with suitable names. Thus, Vikram, for purposes of making the customer feel more at ease, becomes Victor – or more probably, something even simpler, like Bob.

It’s the continued generalization of the world at work here. Yes, I can understand why Indians appreciate call center jobs. They pay well for the region, and they give the workers opportunities to continue their education. Friedman even suggests that they give female employees leverage when it comes to deciding who to pick as a mate. 

Is the opportunity to “transform a life” worth transforming, or losing, one’s identity? 

“Accent your positive, and delete your negative.” – Donna Karan

Monday, December 12, 2011

China at Your Doorstep, or The Devil You Know -- Writer's Poke #348

Entering a Walmart is a depressing experience for me and for that reason alone, I choose to shop at Target, or someplace that doesn’t zap my soul when I walk through the door.

Like everyone else, I like low prices, and so the few times that I have entered a Walmart over the past year, I’m always amazed by how cheap the products are. But still, it’s not enough to make me shift my shopping habits. I also wonder why Walmart has received such negative press over the past decade but other companies, such as Amazon.com, have not.

Websites exist that even make fun of the Walmart experience – and the type of customers that Walmart attracts. I’m probably guilty of having had a laugh at a Walmart customer or two, but let’s face it: some people don’t have much choice but to shop there. 

But low prices is a viscous cycle. Walmart keeps lowering the prices, jobs keep getting shipped over seas, and the middle class in America continues to shrink. With the shrinking of the middle class comes the willingness to settle for what’s cheap.

Interestingly, Levis started selling clothes at Walmart. It did so, apparently, for its own survival. But what Levis sells at Walmart isn’t quality. Levis sold its soul – and a product’s soul is its quality. Consumers may be happy enough to have Levis slapped on their butt, even if the product no longer has a soul. To me, though, this is an example of Walmart as the devil in our economy. I hate to label Walmart in such terms, because it’s somewhat unfair, but what good is lower prices if it destroys the American middle class, removes the heart from its consumers and the soul from the businesses that sell their products there?

Do you shop at Walmart? Whether you do or don’t, what should Walmart do, if anything, to change the negative image that has developed around it over the last decade? Is there any way that it can successfully re-brand it?

“Our goal isn't to close Walmart down. It is to make it a better, more humane company toward its employees and the communities it is in.” – Robert Greenwald

Friday, December 9, 2011

Ends of the Earth -- Destination #6: Honningsvag, Norway

If I had the means to visit the ends of the Earth, here are the ten places I would visit.
What ten "ends of the Earth" places would you like to visit? Leave me a comment.

Destination #6 : Honningsvag, Norway

Honningsvag, Norway is the first destination on this list reachable by cruise ship, and for some reason, I imagine Honningsvag to be a lot like Barrow, Alaska – minus the English speakers. The current population of Honningsvag is around 2300, and the area itself has had humans roaming around it for at least the past 10,000 years.

An Alaskan cruise is fun, but the two main cruise route options are the Inner Passage and the Gulf of Alaska. Both options don’t take you all that far north. Although I haven’t gotten out the ruler, I’m guessing that Honningsvag is about 700 miles further north than, say, Anchorage, because 700 miles is the approximate distance between Anchorage and Barrow. In other words, a Norwegian cruise may be a lot like an Alaskan cruise, but it goes a lot farther north -- deep into the Arctic Circle itself. Honningsvag claims the right as the Earth's northern-most city, although Barrow disputes the claim.

From what I can tell, Honningsvag makes Barrow seem like a metropolis, and I wonder what there is to do in Honningsvag while in port. On the Alaskan cruise, for example, we had a stop in Haines and elected not to take one of the ship’s planned excursions. As a result, we just walked around town, but the town wasn’t developed for tourism, to say the least. One of the highlights on our stroll around town was visiting the local hardware store, and trust me, it wasn’t all that thrilling.

Part of the thrill of visiting the ends of the Earth, though, is dealing with the fact that there sometimes may be nothing to do there. If I were going alone, I would use the experience to collect my thoughts, to write, or just to read a book. If I were going with someone else, I would use the experience just to share a collected experience. 

My wife and I didn’t exactly enjoy our visit to Haines, Alaska, for example, but it has value in that experienced it together.

A two-week Norwegian cruise that goes all the way up the coast to Honnigsvag may run around $1700 per person. I’m sure that there may be other ports in Norway more worth a visit, but Honnigsvag has value for simply being the end of the line. And according to tripadvisor, the Corner Café (rated #1 of 1) serves pretty good pizza, as well as a full “English breakfast.”

The Price of Liberty -- Writer's Poke #347

My Levis never come from the same place. I have pairs from Nicaragua, Honduras, Haiti, and Lesotho. No matter where they’re made, I’m charged the same price at the retailer. So when I go to J.C. Penny’s, I expect to shell out about forty bucks for a pair of jeans.

Just how many pairs of Levis can an average work produce in an hour? I googled this question, but could not find a quick answer. For sake of argument, let’s assume the answer is 10 pairs. The retail value of 10 pairs of Levis, then, is $400. Wholesale value might be $200 for 10 pairs. Material costs might be $100 for 10 pairs. Shipping and other distribution and factory-related expenses might be, what, $50 for 10 pairs? After all this, what’s left over is profit and labor expenses. So how much does the average Haitian working for Levis make per hour? Maybe 30 cents, or 3 cents per completed pair of jeans. Is that fair?

Defenders of sweatshops suggest that they are simply part of the economic development process. If Haitians don’t have sweatshops, they won’t have jobs. Thus, if they have to work 12 hours shifts, 7 days a week, if they don’t have health care, if their government doesn’t have an organization that oversees worker safety, if children under 14 are working rather than going to school, etc., who cares? At least they have jobs.

Levis, like many other products, used to be made in the USA. However, American workers demand fair labor practices – things like a 40 hour work week, benefits, a minimum wage. Apparently, Americans also demand cheap goods. Perhaps a pair of U.S.-made Levis would need to sell, retail, for $150 rather than $40. But if Americans supported fair-labor practices for everyone, wouldn’t this be a small price to pay? If consumers were willing to pay more for U.S.-made goods, it would not only protect workers here at home, but perhaps it would also help workers currently slaving away in sweatshops, because honestly, a sweatshop worker is nothing more than a slave, and while no sane person defends slavery in the 21st century, apparently it’s still acceptable to defend sweatshops.

The argument that “sweatshops are better than the alternative” doesn’t hold water. If the alternatives to sweatshops stink, then address the alternatives. The right to basic human rights should not end at the U.S. border, and American consumers should be willing to pay the price to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to live a better life. If the best the people of Haiti and elsewhere can do is 80 hour workweeks at 30 cents an hour, that’s not good enough, and we should not try to make ourselves feel better that we our the reasons that they have such “opportunities.”

Should U.S. consumers be willing to pay more for goods to protect workers, or is the bottom-line at checkout what we should be most concerned about?

“Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!” – Patrick Henry

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Flirting with God -- Writer's Poke #346

Okay, so what if malls are our temples? What’s the big deal? According to Phyllis Rose’s article “Shopping and Other Spiritual Adventures in America Today,” Americans know how to handle materialism. To discuss materialism as if it were a problem doesn’t sound very American, anyway, does it? Makes those entering into the discussion sound like Marxists. 

The beauty of American materialism is that everyone has opportunity for stuff. Over the weekend, the Home Shopping Channel was advertising a 73 inch LCD TV for $1399, and it was available on EZ pay. Who can’t afford six easy payments of $233.17 a month? And, the salesman noted, a 73 inch TV won’t even feel like it’s consuming the room. 

Americans are sophisticated. We know that the purpose of shopping isn’t singular. We shop for a multitude of reasons; Rose even shop without any intention of buying. We window shop, and that takes on, she says, the same function as flirting. We can flirt with the 73 inch LCD TV in the store without any need to commit to it. If we leave it in the store, we know where it is if we want to visit it again. We don’t need to buy it and bring it into our living space. Just knowing that it’s there is enough, and we can visit it from time-to-time to maintain the connection. 

I like the idea of the ritual of shopping. Perhaps Americans aren’t as materialistic as those turtleneck-wearing Marxist-wannabes make us out to be. Perhaps shopping is no more harmful than flirting. But then why all the talk about the “spiritual” aspect of shopping? 

Has shopping fulfilled the human need for something greater than ourselves? Is it now okay to flirt with “God” without the need to worry about traditional commitment?

What would someone learn about you just by spending time shopping with you?

“The quickest way to know a woman is to go shopping with her.” – Marcelene Cox

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Mall Is Our Temple -- Writer's Poke #345

This weekend as I was loading up on $3.99 DVDs at Best Buy, I was thinking about the hundreds of statues the Polynesians created on Easter Island. They didn’t recognize it at the time, but their dedication to building these statues ultimately lead to their demise. 

While they had plenty of stones to make their statues, they ended up cutting down all of the trees to help move these statues to their final locations, and the natural resources they consumed could never be replaced. Why? Because Easter Island is a very small speck of land, which is literally out as far in the middle of nowhere as a human being can get.

How the Polynesians originally managed to navigate to and settle what we now call Easter Island is one of the greatest travel stories never written. Somehow, a few brave and hardy souls hopped into their canoes and risked sailing thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean. The Pacific Ocean’s name is a bit of a misnomer, of course, as it’s a very rough and unforgiving body of water.

Reaching Easter Island was an ultimate act of luck. The nearest inhabitable speck of land is over a thousand miles away to its west, and today only 100 people live on that nearest speak. In the past decade, Easter Island has itself experienced a population boom, growing from 3900 to 5000. Today, most of the near immigrants moving to Easter Island come from Chile, 250 miles to the east. Why they come is something of a mystery, as the Island’s natural resources never really recovered from building all of those statues. Easter Island itself is not a tourist destination, by any means, so what new settlers expect to do earn a living once they arrive is unclear.

I was thinking about Easter Island as I read Anna Quindlen’s “Stuff Is Not Salvation.” Obviously the inhabitants of Easter Island had a purpose for making all of those statues, but I’m not sure that the outcome they suffered as a result will be any different from the one we may suffer in the future. By comparison, the Earth is much bigger than Easter Island (duh), but the Earth’s resources, like Easter Island’s are limited, and right now 7 billion people are competing for those limited resources.

“If,” as Quindlen ponders, “the mall is our temple,” then consumption to us is every bit as religiously significant as the reason the Polynesians built statues – which, by the way, was to honor their ancestors. Quindlen doesn’t directly connect consumption with religion, but I do think it’s significant that she uses the word “salvation” in her title, as well as makes reference to the possibility that the mall is our temple.

When we buy, buy, buy, then, who are we honoring? It’s too easy to say that we worship stuff, but what is the difference between religion and addiction? What is the ultimate purpose of buying all of the toys that we can? I know from personal experience that it’s difficult to say no to a sale when non-essential items are marked down 80%, but how can we best protect ourselves against consuming ourselves into extinction?

“My first rule of consumerism is never to buy anything you can’t make your children carry.” – Bill Bryson

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Ends of the Earth -- Destination #7: Easter Island

If I had the means to visit the ends of the Earth, here are the ten places I would visit.
What ten "ends of the Earth" places would you like to visit? Leave me a comment. 

Destination #7: Easter Island

Easter Island is probably the most remote island inhabited by human beings. Located in the South Pacific Ocean, Chile and the continent of South America are 250 miles to its east. No human beings live on an island to its west for over 1200 miles.

So where did the human inhabitants of Easter Island come from? Most likely, Polynesians traveled over 2000 miles to reach the island around 300 A.D. If true, this must be one of the most amazing travel stories never written. The folks who traveled back in that day weren't sailing via luxury yacht, and they certainly didn't have the ability to carry many provisions with them. Needless to say, they didn't have maps, didn't have an end destination in mind, and didn't have any clue when they'd find land suitable for human habitation.

I think I would have been freaking out after, oh say, the first thousand miles without any sight of land. How far could an average Polynesian canoe travel in a day, anyway, and how comfortable was the ride? Just assume that the trip took 4 to 6 weeks, and that's just my poor uneducated guess. How did they manage to stay hydrated? Did they fish for their food, and did they eat the fish raw? The Pacific isn't a very forgiving ocean, so how exactly did the canoes manage to stay afloat, and how many Polynesians became shark bait?

No one knows much about the people that first arrived at what is now known as Easter Island, but they beat the first Europeans there by over 1400 years. By the time the Europeans arrived, of course, Easter Island had already been in decline for centuries. Small island, not enough resources, and eventually, too much procreation. Some suggest that Eastern Island serves as a microcosmic warning of what eventually will happen to Earth itself, and most likely, there will be no extraterrestrial visitors to document Earth's demise.

Of course Easter Island is known for its moai statues, but the creation of these statues may have been, in part, responsible for the island's depletion in resources. Today, they seem so pointless and yet so wonderful, but it makes me wonder what sort of pointless but wonderful temples modern humans are building now. Sure, we assume ours have wonderful purpose, but unlike the original inhabitants of Easter Island who were blind to their own self-inflicted destruction, we should be smart enough to discern the warning signs pointing to our own possible extinction. And yet, we continue to build our own versions of moai.

Currently, only 5000 people live on Easter Island. From Minneapolis, it's not a place to visit accidentally. Average round-trip airfare may be as high as $3,000, requiring connecting flights in Miami and Santiago, Chile. Total time in the air is just 18 hours.

Of all the places on this list, Easter Island may actually be the one that best represents Earth's inhabited end.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Communicating the Brand -- Writer's Poke #344

I first became a fan of KISS in 1987. I was 14, and Paul Stanley was 35. That year, KISS actually received a fair amount of video airplay on MTV, but I have to admit that Stanley seemed old.

Mariah Carey released her first record in 1990 at the age of 20; she is a few years older than I am, but I never viewed her as “old” in the same way that I viewed Stanley as old. Not until I viewed her new video with Justin Bieber.

The “All I Want for Christmas” duet with Bieber is a remake of Carey’s 1994 Christmas release. It’s not unusual for artists to pair-up, and the song has some respectability as a contemporary Christmas classic. But why does the now 41 year-old Mariah Carey want to sing a duet with 17 year-old Justin Bieber?

Bieber is the butt of many jokes, but somebody is listening to his music; and somebody is helping to make him rich. Carey may suffer from Peter Pan Syndrome (I will never grow old), or perhaps she recognizes that Millennials view her much like I viewed Paul Stanley, and she hopes that Bieber’s youth will rub off on her. She’s hoping that she can appeal to a new generation of music lovers. And maybe it’s working. The video has received 2 million views in just the first 2 days of its youtube release.

But the video is undeniably creepy. Mariah spends most of her time in the video standing against a wall. In the opening sequence, Bieber and his bros walk by and she winks at him. Bieber’s goofy expression doesn’t indicate that his head contains any inappropriate sexual thoughts towards Carey, and he keeps on walking. After all, he has to fill his cart with a bunch of stuff before all of the common people are allowed to enter the store.

For most of the rest of the video, Mariah stays by the wall, turning to let her butt face the camera in multiple shots. Is this intended to be seductive? Is she trying to capture Bieber’s attention? If so, it’s not working. Bieber is too busy filling his cart with high-tops and multiple Nintendo 3DS’s.

Meanwhile, all those lucky enough to receive “gold tickets” are finally allowed to enter the store. Is Mariah Carey supposed to be Santa Claus? And is Bieber just Santa's Little Helper?

By video’s end, Bieber and Mariah end up in the sleigh together, with the happy masses surrounding them, their arms full of presents. But who has Mariah been winking at and shaking her booty to? At the 3:59 mark, a shot of Bieber indicates that he’s getting “ideas,” but in the next shot, it’s Mariah and Bieber back in the sleigh. Has the entire scene been imagined?

What message does this video communicate to you? What audience do you think its message is intended to target, and does it succeed?

“There's a lot of bad isms floating around this world, but one of the worst is commercialism.” – George Seaton

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Ends of the Earth -- Destination #8: Vladivostok, Russia

If I had the means to visit the ends of the Earth, here are the ten places I would visit.

What ten "ends of the Earth" places would you like to visit? Leave me a comment. 

Destination #8: Vladivostok, Russia

Something attracts me to the idea of visiting places where nobody else goes. I’m sure many Americans go to the places I’m mentioning on my Ends of the Earth Top 10 list, but I don’t personally know anyone that has visited Barrow, Alaska, for instance; and I only know three people that have visited South Africa. These places aren’t impossible to visit, but people generally need a very specific reason – or a very passionate drive – to visit them.

Just to name a specific place, I’ve selected Vladivostok, but more generally, I could simply say “Siberia.” When I read Colin Thubron’s In Siberia, I become fascinated with the idea of visiting what I had always imagined to be a vast snow-covered wasteland. Siberia is not a wasteland, of course. Well, not completely, but it is vast, making up 80% of Russia’s geographical area.

I often wonder what it means to check off visiting a country. A person could, for example, visit St. Petersburg, which I will be doing next year, and claim to have visited Russia. But such a claim is relatively ludicrous. If someone from Russia visited New York or San Francisco, for example, and claimed to have visited the United States, any American would probably laugh. Visiting just one city in a country as huge as Russia or the United States shouldn’t count as “visiting” that country, should it? Travel writers like Thubron and Ian Frazier demonstrate that to visit a place the size of Siberia takes a long-term commitment. A true visit to such a place requires patience, and it requires, at a minimum, a number of weeks. Rome, as they say, wasn’t built in day, and Siberia cannot be experienced in the blink of an eye.

Thubron experienced Siberia, in part, via the Trans-Siberian railway. He did not elect to visit Vladivostok, instead ending his trip in Magadan. Vladivostok interests me because it’s a city of 600,000 people, which is about 200,000 more than Anchorage, Alaska. From 1958-1991, only Soviet citizens were allowed to visit, but since the 1990s, the city is open to visitors, and apparently it has been receiving an influx of Chinese immigrants. It is supposed to be one of Russia’s most diverse cities.

Flying there from Minneapolis might try the patience of the most seasoned traveler. While it might make sense to fly from east to west, priceline and other travel sites indicate that flying west to east is required, with a layover in Moscow. Flights arrive two days after take-off, and the total flight time in the air is approximately 20 hours. Cost of the flight runs around $2,000.

A Meaningful Life Philosophy: Sponsored By… -- Writer’s Poke #343

Gary Ruskin and Juliet Schor’s “Every Nook and Cranny: The Dangerous Spread of Commercialized Culture” points out an interesting survey result. “In 2003,” they write, “the annual UCLA survey of incoming college freshman found that the number of students who said it was a very important or essential life goal to ‘develop a meaningful philosophy of life’ fell to an all-time low of 39 percent, while succeeding financially has increased to a 13-year high, at 74 percent.”

Why the disconnect here? Couldn’t “succeeding financially” be a “meaningful” reason for being? Apparently not, or at least UCLA students don’t recognize it as such.

So, we live to make money. Money itself has no value except for what it can buy. And what do we want to buy? Cars? Clothes? Electronics and Toys? A nice house? In other words, stuff. I like stuff, you like stuff, and we’ll work long and hard to earn enough money to buy the stuff we want. The secret “they” never tell you is this: Buying stuff is a no-win proposition. There is always more stuff to buy, and the drive to buy stuff will always outpace one’s ability to pay for it all. Even multimillionaires often times end up much further in debt than their means to remain financially liquid. How is that possible? Surely if you had 5 million dollars, you’d be set for life, yes? Well, if the multiple examples of others is any indication, no. The more money you have, the more expensive your tastes become. That’s all.

Many people probably crave stuff while also subscribing to the cliché that “money can’t buy happiness.” If we intuitively recognize that happiness is intangible and cannot be wrapped in pretty (and expensive) paper, decked with a bow, and placed under our Christmas tree, then why do we continue to buy more and more stuff? Is it because we haven’t developed a meaningful life philosophy? One which reminds us that true happiness comes from friendships and the life experiences we have that cannot be charged to our Discover cards?

Personally, I hate Christmas ads, especially ads by jewelry stores attempting to sell diamonds. Guys, if your special lady is only interested in you for your ability to buy her a diamond – or even worse, the name of the jewelry store printed on the box(!) – it might be time to reassess your relationship. Since when is the happiness of a relationship determined by one’s shopping prowess, anyway? I might be guilty of a lot of things, including typical American consumerism, but I won’t ever be guilty of buying my wife a diamond for Christmas (sorry, hon).

Lately, I’ve been thinking about motivation. What does it take to be highly motivated? Perhaps financial reward can be an external motivator, but I have to believe that a better, longer-lasting, and intrinsically-superior motivator has to be the development of a “meaningful life philosophy.” We can do things for money, or for what money can buy, but how much better would it to be to do the things we love simply for the enjoyment of doing them? After all, isn't this what “they” mean when they claim that “the best things in life are free”? Maybe now is the right time to explore that option, and forget about who has the latest iPhone or the biggest diamond in the fanciest name-branded box.

Develop a meaningful life philosophy.

"Life isn't about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself." -- George Bernard Shaw

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Ends of the Earth -- Destination #9: Barrow, Alaska

If I had the means to visit the ends of the Earth, here are the ten places I would visit.

What ten "ends of the Earth" places would you like to visit? Leave me a comment. 

Destination #9 -- Barrow, Alaska

All I know about Barrow, Alaska, I learned from watching the zombie flick 30 Days of Night. In other words, I know nothing about Barrow, Alaska.

Barrow is the northern-most city in North America, and its main claim-to-fame may be that it’s the biggest city in the National Petroleum Reserve.  As far as I can tell, the city has never been attacked by zombies, but polar bears have been known to drop by for unexpected visits.

Current population is 4,000, and apparently folks have been calling Barrow and the immediate area home for the past 1,000 years. This amazes me, as there were probably countless other places that people could have homesteaded back then, and yet out of all the places in the world, they selected Barrow? Amazing. Did these people cross the Bering Strait and just get too tired to walk any further? Is whale blubber really that addictive?

Anyway… Temperatures stay below freezing from October to May, which makes Barrow’s winter just a little bit longer than the one we enjoy in Minnesota. One difference between Minnesota and Barrow: When the sun sets for the final time in November, it doesn’t rise again until a morning in January – hence, the 30 days of night. 

An average flight from Minneapolis to Barrow in December runs about $1,400 and requires connecting flights in Chicago and Anchorage, which is 725 miles to the south. Total time in the air is around 11 hours.

Tripadvisor.com users have rated Top of the World Hotel  as the best of Barrow’s three hotels. To paraphrase one review, it’s the best choice in a place without any choices. Now that’s a stellar review.

If I spent any time in Barrow, I would hit the beach. I don’t know if it is possible to swim in the Arctic, but apparently you can dip your toe in it. And if you’re there in August, you can do so under sunny skies at 10 p.m.

p.s.  I just checked, and apparently you can register at the Mexican restaurant (I assume there’s only one in town) for a “polar bear challenge” in the Arctic, and receive a free t-shirt and certificate suitable for framing.

Ends of the Earth -- Destination #10: South Africa

The Earth is more or less a big, blue ball, and balls don't have ends.

Nevertheless, we speak of the "ends of the Earth," and when we in the West speak of the "center," we're usually not referring to the Earth's core. The United States, after all, is "the most important country on Earth." Everywhere else is only important in terms of its "distance" (physically and otherwise) away from us. (I don't actually think the U.S. is the center of the world.)

I have a special love for the ends of the Earth; in my imagination at least, I picture worlds much different from the one I live in; sometimes I hope I never have the chance to visit any of them, because I don't want to be disappointed to find out that "there" is very much like "here."

If I had the means to visit the ends of the Earth, here are the ten places I would visit.

What ten "ends of the Earth" places would you like to visit? Leave me a comment. 

Destination #10 -- South Africa

Traveling to Cape Town from Minneapolis isn't a straight shot. A typical round-trip ticket might cost over $2000, and before you can fly south, you must first make the connection in Chicago for the flight to London.

All told, the time in the air is around 20 hours, with the touchdown in Cape Town scheduled for arrival two days after takeoff.

Friendly Planet offers South Africa tours  (13 days from $3299 out of JFK). Their itinerary includes time in Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Kruger National Park.

What is South Africa like? According to the famous speech once delivered by Robert F. Kennedy
perhaps not much different from the U.S., really. The current population is 50 million, and whites are the minority at 9%. English is the official language, but ten other languages also have "official" status. Approximately 80% of the population claims Christianity as its religion, while 15% claim no religion.

If I spent a week in South Africa, I would be interested to find out how the locals perceive their sense of place in the world. Do they pay much attention to current events in the United States? How do the people there get along with each other in post-apartheid South Africa?

I would love to visit Nelson Mandela's jail cell. I would also love to visit the locations where District 9 was filmed.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Encounter Yourself -- Writer's Poke #342

Kids learn incredibly annoying songs, and some of these songs stay with us for the rest of our lives. One such song for me is “This Land Is Your Land,” which according to wikipedia “is one of the United States’ most famous folk songs.”

Why did my grade school decide to teach us this song? Was it for the geography lesson, so that we could learn about “the Redwood Forest” and “the Gulf Stream waters”? I don’t know, but I do know that most of us thought the world began and ended at the county line. That is to say, most of us didn’t travel much further than Terre Haute, Indiana, which was the “big city” located less than 30 miles away from our hometown of Casey, Illinois (population 3000).

Every summer, Chad talked about how his family spent their summer vacation in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. This was a big deal for him, and for us, too, really, as most of us didn’t have the opportunity to travel even that far. Kids made do by playing little league baseball and swimming at the city pool.

The one summer I went to Bible School, I impressed the adults by claiming to have travelled to Paris and Palestine. These, of course, were small towns near where we lived, but for some reason, they assumed I meant some other more famous locations. I never bothered to correct their assumptions. After all, even at that age I liked the idea of being well-travelled.

When my third grade teacher asked the class what the world’s largest island was, I claimed it had to be Australia. She refused to accept that answer, claiming that it was a continent, and not an island. When I pressed the point, however, she did admit that Australia was surrounded on all sides by water, and she didn’t have an easy explanation for why it couldn’t be defined as not only a continent, but also as an island. (By the way, Greenland is technically the world’s largest island, but Australia – aka “the Island Continent – is three times the size of Greenland.)

As of 2011, I’ve been to 45 states and maybe 13 or 14 countries. And that’s pretty good compared to the average bear, but it’s not good enough to satisfy my wanderlust. Studying about geography and history and world cultures, and keeping up with International events on the Internet, that’s important, sure, but it’s no substitute for visiting actual places. And the way to visit is not as a tourist, but as a student.

Imagine the world as your classroom.

“The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.” – St. Augustine

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Real Domesticated Chickens on Rock Three -- Writer's Poke #341

The world’s human population is now over 7 billion. From time-to-time some suggest that perhaps this is just too many people for one little planet to bear.

Most people don’t have any idea, really, how many resources it takes to support one human life, let alone seven billion. We can say, “Everything is fine; the Earth can handle us.” But on what do we base this rather frivolous statement?

The phrase of the day, boys and girls, is “The Sixth Extinction.” Kind of catches your attention, doesn’t it? According to our friends in the white lab coats, the last mass-extinction occurred 65 million years ago with the fall of the dinosaurs.

From a human-centered point of view, I suppose the last mass-extinction wasn’t such a bad thing. After all, while having a dinosaur as a pet might have worked in The Flintstones, I very much doubt that our ancestors would ever have secured a toe-hold on world domination with these big fellas still roaming the Earth.

So who cares if bees and frogs and turtles and sharks and jungle cats snuff it this century? By the year 2100, you and I probably won’t be around any longer, but a projected 10 billion human beings will make sure that our individual presence isn’t much missed. And I'm sure they will carry on, somehow, without the need for any wildlife. Bees are taking away our jobs anyway, and with their elimination, this will open up new opportunities for the human masses.

Human beings take comfort from strength in numbers. Maybe only 1600 Giant Pandas remain the wild, but perhaps they weren’t supposed to eat bamboo forever. Maybe the future was set aside solely for human beings (and as one commenter recently posted to a blog, as many domesticated chickens as we can raise).

Well, brothers and sisters, I have met the domestic chickens, and they are us. We are they. That said, the real question to me is: Who will be running this place 65 million years from now, and will they be as foolish and arrogant as we have been in our short reign at the top of the food chain?

If human beings are just animals, is it naïve to think they should care anymore about the future of the planet and their fellow species than, say, a cat cares about a moth it’s trying to catch and eat alive?

“I think a human animal is far more wild and unpredictable and dangerous and destructive than any other animal.” – Jeff Corwin

Monday, November 21, 2011

Future This -- Writer's Poke #340

“Is it the end of the world, Daddy?”

My daughter, Tavi, is 4, and she has been asking me a lot lately about the end of the world. I’m not sure where she picked up this question, but she’s my little gothic girl, and she’s quite interested in death.

“When we’re dead, we’re skeletons. Right?”

Death isn’t something she fears, and she’s certainly too young to fully comprehend what death is, but it’s a topic that she’s clearly working on.

Last week, she started talking to me about Mars. I’m glad that she’s interested in space, but the link back to death and the end of the world was still on her mind.

“Daddy,” she said, “when we need a fresh new planet, let’s go to Mars. We can kill all the aliens and make it our home.”

I used this conversation as a “teachable moment,” explaining to her that most aliens are probably friendly, and if any live on Mars, we would need to be gracious guests, and gracious guests don’t commit genocide. It just isn’t the neighborly thing to do.

Life is fragile and uncertain. Even a four-year-old can pick up on that. Tavi knows the “Goldilocks” story by heart, but soon I plan to teach her about the scientific idea of the “habitable zone,” which is sometimes called the “Goldilocks Zone.” The universe most likely has billions of planets, but how many of them are situated at just the right distance from their suns to sustain intelligent life? In our own solar system, for example, the Earth is perfectly placed, and it is the only planet that is situated at just the right distance to sustain life. Mars, actually, is a little bit too far away. Human beings may use it as a place to camp some day, but I doubt that we’ll ever live there – at least not the way that we live on Earth. Mars will never be a place to call home.

Even life on Earth as we know it wouldn’t exist without our moon. The size and the distance of our moon are basically “perfect.” We have a relatively big moon, and its gravitation pull helps to control the tides. Moreover, it just might have something to do with the tilt of the Earth’s axis and the rate of the Earth’s rotation.

The conditions for life on Earth seem natural to us, and most of us probably don’t give them a single thought on a regular basis, and perhaps that’s part of the problem. We shouldn’t assume that life exists on purpose; nor should we assume that life exists no matter how we choose to act or live. If we have the power to affect the Earth’s mean temperature by just a few degrees, we can change our planet from Earth to hell, and from what I’m told, going to hell is a non-refundable, one-way ticket.

What do you view as the greatest threat to human life on Earth? What can you do to help ensure that society works together collectively to address this issue?

“Stop acting as if life is a rehearsal. Live this day as if it were your last. The past is over and gone. The future is not guaranteed.” – William Dyer

Friday, November 18, 2011

Know-It-All -- Writer's Poke #339

A.J. Jacobs is a humorous gimmick writer that tackles absurd topics and takes them to their logical extreme conclusions.
The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Be the Smartest Person in the World was the first book of his that I discovered. To accomplish his task, Jacobs spent a year reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica. His book captures the experience of reading entry after entry, and he shares some of the more unusual items of interest he picked up while reading, as the blurb on Amazon.com notes, “33,000 pages, 44 million words, 10 billion years of history.” He also describes the attitudes and reactions of friends and family. Seems as though a lot of people thought Jacobs was a bit nuts attempting to accomplish this task. After all, who sits down to read an entire encyclopedia?

Jacobs continues to crank out rather silly “life experience” books; they all seem rather artificial, because he assigns himself some weird task, and then he writes about it. In one book, he attempts to live a Biblical life, literally. In another book, he pretends that life is one long series of experiments, attempting to live like George Washington, to experience life as a woman, etc. In his latest book scheduled for an early 2012 release, he attempts to attain the perfect physical body. Judging by the author’s photo on the book’s cover, that one will be a real hoot, for sure.

In all honesty, though, who wouldn’t want to know everything? Who wouldn’t want to have the perfect body? And for that matter, who wouldn’t be curious to know what it’s like to experience life as the opposite gender? But part of Jacobs’ premise, too, is that attempting these extraordinary achievements is goofy, or at least only for the uber-obsessed. When we see someone with a body-builder’s physic, instead of describing them as “a perfect specimen,” don’t we generally label them as a “freak”? Likewise, calling someone a “know-it-all” isn’t exactly a compliment. Perhaps we’re just trying to comfort ourselves in our own averageness?

If you could dedicate one year to doing something outside the norm of your daily life, what would you most like to accomplish? What do you think you might learn from the experience?

“Never despise small beginnings, and don’t belittle your own accomplishments. Remember them and use them as inspiration as you go on to the next thing. When you venture outside your comfort zone, wherever the starting point may be, it’s kind of a big deal.” – Chris Guillebeau

Monday, November 14, 2011

Lemon AIDS -- Writer's Poke #338

Dr. Manto Tshabalala-Msimang served as South Africa’s Minster of Health from 1999 to 2008; she was rather notorious for her views on AIDS, arguing that a diet of lemons, beetroots, and garlic was a fine way to delay the development of HIV.
As far as I know, this woman wasn’t stupid. She was a real doctor, having received medical training in South Africa, the Soviet Union, Tanzania, and Belgium. So why did she support a nutritional approach as the best way to combat HIV as opposed, say, to using a more conventional (and scientifically-based) approach, such as treating the disease with anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs)?
Apparently South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki, didn’t believe that HIV caused AIDS, and so, until his cabinet finally overruled him and voted that it did in 2002, ARVs weren’t available to the general population.
Africa was, and still is, trying to find itself. Tshabalala-Msimang supported the idea that Western medicine didn’t always know best, and that Africa should look to its own traditions to find the answers it needed to solve the AIDS crisis. Part of Africa’s “ancient traditional knowledge” apparently included waging war on disease with lemons, beetroots, and garlic.
In the 21st century, it seems a bit incredible that a Health Minister of a major world country could promote such views, doesn’t it?
How can we make sure that beliefs don’t ever stand in the way of evidence?
“If we only said safe sex, use a condom, we won't stop the spread of AIDS in this country.” --
South African President Thabo Mbeki
"Shall I repeat garlic, shall I talk about beetroot, shall I talk about lemon... these delay the development of HIV to Aids-defining conditions, and that's the truth." -- Dr. Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, South African Minister of Health (2006)

Friday, November 11, 2011

Why the Public Good Is Worth the Cost -- Writer's Poke #337

At this week's Republican Presidential Candidates' debate, one candidate suggested that all government regulations that cost businesses money should be reviewed; those regulations that are found to cost businesses significant cash, and therefore, force businesses to layoff employees, should be immediately repealed.

This idea received a healthy amount of applause. It is easy to understand what regulations "cost," but it's more difficult to perceive what the "benefits" to regulations are. Sometimes it might seem as though government makes laws and passes regulations just for the fun of it, but in all seriousness, when government passes legislation, does it do so with the primary purpose of forcing businesses to layoff employees? If not, what are the purposes behind the legislation, and does the legislation successfully help ensure that businesses meet these purposes in a way that they would not otherwise?

One example might be something like the government requiring automobiles to obtain so many miles per gallon (MPG) on average. In this way, fuel efficiency for the average car goes up over time. Opponents of regulations might say, "No regulations. Let the market decide if it wants more fuel-efficient cars." But these same opponents are suggesting that such a regulation is costing the car industry too much money; so, if the "market" decided it wanted higher fuel-efficiency, wouldn't the car industry still be in the same fix? That is, to give the market what it demands, it would still need, potentially, to layoff employees to make it happen. In the meantime, it most likely would be doing nothing to increase fuel efficiency, and then when the market demand required it to do so, it would require more time to raise standards than it otherwise would if the regulations were in place for standards to gradually raise over time.

This is just one example, and maybe not the best example, granted, for why "cost" of regulations isn't the only consideration that needs to be examined. "Benefits" must be examined, too, as well as the hidden "costs" of no regulations to the overall health of the nation. Another way of looking at it, too, might be that the government is speaking for the market. That is, in the above example, people do want cars with higher fuel efficiency, which is why the government mandated for this to happen.

In theory, at least, regulations and laws are established for the public good. Eliminating regulations and laws may win quick political points, but it may do nothing to serve the real interests of the people.

People need jobs, but what else do people need if  a country is to be successful economically and otherwise?

"We should favor innovation and freedom over regulation." -- George Allen

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Misadventures of the Three-Legged Stool -- Writer's Poke #336

I suppose the charm of using “the three-legged stool” analogy is that it helps readers visualize your argument, because let’s face it: trying to keep three different concepts in your mind at the same time can be so taxing.

So, writes Arthur Allen, HPV vaccination is a good thing, but that’s only one leg of the stool. According to Arthur’s 2007 piece in the Washington Post, two other stool legs necessary for a successful vaccination program are positive public perception and appropriate government funding. Without those two “legs,” the stool won’t stand.

When creating a three-legged stool, though, don’t chair builders make one leg at a time? And don’t they attach each leg individually? In other words, even if all legs are “equally” important, one leg must be installed first.

Think about it for a second: Does it really make sense to secure funding first? Why would the government secure funding for a stool leg that hadn’t yet been built? Why would the public be more likely to support a concept than an actual program? These are just questions. My main point is this: the three legs of which Allen speaks may be required, but which leg should come first?

One must consider whether or not the analogy is appropriate to the argument, too. For example, replace “HPV vaccination” with “Slavery.” Imagine if Abe Lincoln used the following logic: 1. Slavery is a bad thing, but 2. The public supports it, and 3. The Federal Government doesn’t have the will (or ability) to outlaw it. Actually, Lincoln probably did use this logic initially, but eventually he wrote the Emancipation Proclamation, and that ended slavery. Note that it was the “mandate” that was essential. In essence, slavery existed in the United States for years because people used three-legged stool logic.

Using analogies can be a good technique, and everyone can picture a three-legged stool in their minds, but what techniques can one use to determine if the analogy is appropriate to the argument being made?

“I go from stool to stool in singles bars hoping to get lucky, but there's never any gum under any of them.” – Emo Phillips

Monday, November 7, 2011

Needed: Vaccination against Bad Arguments -- Writer's Poke #335

Rick Perry has taken some heat for mandating the HPV vaccine in Texas. Why? Apparently because he had the audacity to use an Executive Order, because the Pharmaceutical Company that stood to directly benefit from the order will make a profit, and because this same Pharmaceutical Company contributed “thousands of dollars” to the governor’s campaign.

To me, critics of Perry don’t have a very strong argument. First, Executive Orders are legal and part of the governor’s power. Those who complain that the governor used his power should instead be working to amend or eliminate a governor’s ability to issue Executive Orders. Second, Texas has checks and balances like any other state. So, if the governor’s Executive Order was unconstitutional, then the issue could be settled in a court of law. Or, if the people really didn’t like the governor’s mandate, then their elected officials could certainly pass legislation to overturn it. The governor, in other words, is not a dictator, and to suggest otherwise weakens the argument against the governor’s position.

Critics also suggest that the governor is clearly in bed with Pharmaceutical Companies. This argument is rather weak, because it suggests that any person or company to contribute money to the governor should never be seen to benefit from any decision the governor makes, even if it’s the right decision for the governor to make. Journalists certainly have a duty to report potential improprieties, but they must avoid painting with a broad brush, and they must be careful to provide specific evidence that directly link the governor to corruption. As far as I can tell, critics of Perry’s HPV vaccine mandate have not been able to do either.

Finally, children are required to receive a whole host of vaccinations before they are allowed to attend school. Is this wrong? Do the companies that offer other vaccinations profit from these requirements? In other words, the HPV vaccination isn’t the first required vaccination in the history of Texas. And is it at all appropriate to insinuate a gender issues – e.g. the vaccination affects the health of girls, but the governor is male. Why does or should the governor’s gender matter? After all, he is elected by all registered voters in Texas, male and female. The people elect the governor to act on their best interests, and the governor’s duty requires him to represent the best interests even of Texas’s female population from time to time.

Do stronger arguments against mandating the HPV vaccination exist? If so, why aren't they utilized?

Should attacks on Rick Perry and other political figures by cartoonists and journalists automatically be assumed to be political motivated, or would that assumption be as faulty as cartoonists and journalists that assume Perry’s HPV vaccination decision was politically motivated?

“Vaccination is the medical sacrament corresponding to baptism. Whether it is or is not more efficacious I do not know.” – Samuel Butler

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Don't Know Much about Stem Cell Research -- Writer's Poke #334

The number of scientists (or those with a strong science background) in Congress is very small, and yet it is Congress that has the power to decide how to regulate stem cell research. Does this make sense? Most individuals in Congress may be relatively intelligent, but how many use their intelligence to make informed decisions? Probably fewer than have strong science backgrounds.

In other words, politicians make their decisions based on politics. When it comes to stem cell research, my assumption is that most in Congress know about as much as I do about the topic, which is to say, not all that much. And yet, many of those in power have an open distrust for scientists. Why this distrust exists, I’m not sure, unless it’s because most scientists do not subscribe to the political views of a particular party.

Perhaps some politicians do not view scientists as being “true Americans.” After all, scientists are more likely not to believe in God, and scientists also have this weird fascination with using scientific method. Politicians, on the other hand, like to make decisions based on “common sense” and what their guts tell them.

When it comes to using common sense and gut instinct regarding stem cell research, I would suggest that common sense should tell us that we should do what we can to help prevent human suffering, and my gut tells me that stem cell research would help accomplish this goal.

Is it best to use common sense and “gut instinct” to determine sound scientific policy?

“Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.” – Albert Einstein

Friday, October 28, 2011

Malcolm X and Capitalism -- Writer's Poke #333

“I have a copy of Malcolm X,” I said, “can we do a public screening at the college for Black History Month.” Sure, the librarian told me, but she reminded me that the DVD I had was licensed solely for my own personal viewing. If I wanted to screen the movie in public, the college would need to purchase a public-viewing license from the production company. And how much will that cost? I wondered. She emailed the company, and they told her the cost would be $500.

Even though I had the DVD in my possession, we weren’t allowed to use that copy. Instead, when we paid the $500 fee, the company sent another copy of the movie. To the naked eye, it looked exactly the same as my copy, but knowing that it cost $500 made it special. I should point out, too, that the licensing agreement was for a one-time public viewing. Just because we paid $500 didn’t mean we had the right to show it over and over and over again.

So we promoted the event around campus. We promised popcorn and soda. We even promoted an essay contest tie-in to the movie. This would be a huge, well-attended event, for sure. And assuming we scored a large crowd, no administrator would bother us about the $500 now removed from the Library’s media budget.

On the night of the screening, the big crowd never materialized. A total of seven people arrived to watch the film; of the seven, only three ended up participating in the essay contest. And no DVD police were anywhere in sight that evening. We could have used my copy of the DVD and saved the college $500, but I don’t hold any animosity toward the production company. They deserve their money; after all, someone had to fund the making of the film. They’re in the business to make money, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m just thankful Malcolm X was made and that seven more people had the chance to see it.

Companies in capitalist societies are in business to make money. Is it appropriate, then, when they are sometimes viewed as being greedy for simply trying to live up to their purpose for being?

“When we hang the capitalists they will sell us the rope we use.” – Joseph Stalin