Archive for January, 2007

Underwater Couch Potatoes

Posted: January 25, 2007 in Consumerism, Tacky

I came across this product recently, called the Scuba-Doo (very little info at that link):


It’s a motorized scuba bike for underwater couch potatoes who can’t even be bothered to kick and swim. I’m modestly intrigued by the way it appears to have addressed the breathing problem, assuming of course that the pilot (?) keeps the thing upright, by creating an air pocket and viewing port. Oh, and there’s the little problem of depth, which is something scubists have to understand very well to avoid things like collapsed lungs or the bends.

I can well imagine this product being sold at tourist destinations in countries such as Mexico and Thailand, where life is pretty damn cheap, and rented to numbskulls who don’t recognize what a truly dangerous environment being underwater is. Product liability lawsuit in the making?

Doomsday Creeping Closer

Posted: January 25, 2007 in Culture, Health, Politics

The University of Chicago publishes the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (BAS), which was created in the years just after World War II — 1947 to be precise. Among its other activities, it assesses the risk of annihilation from nuclear war with its most famous piece of rhetoric: the Doomsday Clock, which charts the threat by adjusting the minute hand of the clock figuratively a few minutes toward or back from midnight, which represents a “time’s up” mark. (Oddly, the graphical representations I’ve seen are usually timelines or xy coordinate graphs, not actual clockfaces.) The Doomsday Clock was back in the news a few days ago, when the minute hand was adjusted from 7 minutes to 5 minutes until midnight.


What’s interesting about this latest adjustment is that global warming has apparently overtaken nuclear weapons as the greatest threat to civilization. I’ve insisted for years that global warming operates on a geological time scale, making it nearly impossible to predict or observe from within the bubble of our much smaller human timescale, but the phrase is nonetheless used to describe the climate change (warming trend) we are currently experiencing, which occurs on an observable timescale. This is probably the case because climate change is a global effect, even if the warming/cooling trends take thousands of years to fully observe (at least in the past). Warming due to climate change will probably take some years yet to manifest fully — 30 to 50 seem to be typical estimates — and its full fury, or its effect on humankind, will take a bit longer than that as the ecosystem continues its collapse in stages. But there appears to be little doubt that it’s going to happen.

What’s especially curious to me is that it was predicted and warned against long ago, as early as the late 19th century, in fact, when petroleum and other fossil fuels were just beginning to be used in industrial quantities. The mainstream media, in its collective wisdom, has only just recently determined, however, that the story bears telling, as the issue has now reached a level of undeniability and consensus that the public has gotten interested (but not yet motivated to act). I saw one top story of 2006 that says global warming has finally been demonstrated. A little late to the party, I think.

Throwaway Friends

Posted: January 16, 2007 in Friendship, Manners, Tacky

I rarely discard friends under normal circumstances. It’s only at the point when the drama and trouble of a friendship outweighs the benefit that I cut my losses. But what’s to be done about friends who don’t pose unusual difficulties but routinely fail to respond to e-mail, text messages, or phone messages? I recently heard about the Three Call Rule. According to some folks out there (who have a higher friendship maintenance threshold than me), barring a major personal catastrophe, failure to respond after three attempts relegates the friend to purgatory. But here’s the really odd part. Assuming everyone has a cell phone and caller ID, the errant friend’s name in the cell phone’s address book is changed to Do Not Answer. That way, should the former friend finally respond, the call can be safely ignored — even willfully blocked. Multiple phone numbers can be added to the Do Not Answer entry, so it’s possible to not even know which former friend is trying to call.

This seems like a pretty cold way to deactivate a friendship.

Peccadilloes of Prose Punctuation

Posted: January 11, 2007 in Grammar, Writing

A writer friend of mine pointed me to a blog post linking to another blog post praising the serial comma. The comments threads on both posts are relatively brief, but I’m struck that none of the commenters really get to what seems to me the underlying wisdom behind focusing one’s attention on the peccadilloes of prose punctuation. Perhaps it will be helpful to digress into a short grammar lesson first (that ought to scare away the readers).


I checked out Music in Twelve Parts by Philip Glass from the library and have been listening (sorta) over a period of days. While not to everyone’s taste, it’s interesting to me as a good example of early 1970s minimalism and quintessential Philip Glass before he became famous. (more…)

Survival Instinct

Posted: January 6, 2007 in Culture, Health

Is the human survival instinct muted in the modern, industrialized world? Until sometime after the third or fourth year, infants and toddlers require nearly constant supervision — frequently to keep them safe from themselves. Very young humans require a period of years to learn enough about their environment to be wary of its dangers. For a young child, peering over a precipice, inserting fingers in crevasses (or objects in electrical sockets), eating anything that will fit in the mouth, and pulling furniture down on top of them are dangers normally warded off by parents, as the child has yet to develop a sense of imminent danger, as opposed to the immediate sensation of discomfort. Later in childhood, perhaps sometime after the acquisition of language, children still need considerable supervision, as things like playing with fire or firearms (often discovered in a parent’s closet), stepping into or playing in traffic, and use of appliances don’t yet register on them as potentially hazardous.

Does the protection of one or both parents mute the survival instinct? I can think of lots of cases where kids step blindly forward, blissfully unaware of the risks they are taking. For instance, swimming environments (pools, lakes, beaches) are notoriously dangerous for nonswimmers and beginners. As a lifeguard, I’ve hauled my share of overextended kids out of the water, usually sputtering and sometimes crying but no worse for wear. I also have a very clear memory of my own childhood, being perched atop the roof of the next door neighbor’s front porch as I wavered in my decision to jump off into the pile of leaves in the front yard 1.5 stories below. (I eventually chickened out, thank goodness.)

Teenagers get a driver’s license at age 16 or later and often develop an unwarranted sense of power and immortality behind the wheel, risking high speeds and maneuvers for which professional drivers train carefully. Speaking to some Army recruiters last month, I learned that many new recruits believe that joining the military will give them the opportunity to externalize the first-person shooters they’ve grown up with on video game consoles, complete with the reset button when they get shot or killed.

At what point, then, do we humans develop the same self-preservation skills as our forebears? I think perhaps never, at least in the U.S. Especially after the birth of a child, an adult may develop a new sense of responsibility and be less willing to take stupid risks, but there are still lots of yahoos who drive through Yosemite with the kids in the SUV and attempt feeding the bear through the open windows or traverse barriers to feed animals in zoos. The number of adults killed by vending machines toppling on them is unexpectedly high.

In bygone days, our very survival often depended on the ability to recognize threats and to either avoid or neutralize them. I suspect two reasons moderns often fare poorly (think of The Darwin Awards) are that we’ve learned to expect that we will be protected by others (parents, manufacturers, etc.) and we have placed potentially hazardous objects and animals well beyond our normal environment so that when we do come into contact with them we have no skills to work with. Our instinct for survival is thus muted; or if the instinct is still there, the ability to actualize it is diminished.

Farewell to Bohemia

Posted: January 3, 2007 in Consumerism, Philosophy

Years ago, I took what I believed then would be a life-long vow of penury. (Probably overstating that. But the idea was that I wouldn’t spend my life grubbing for money, which I regard as a trap.) Such was the deal for the career I wanted, which required that I be able to pick up and go on short notice. Well, developments conspired to deny me that path, so I’ve since become somewhat more mainstream, taking office jobs with a typical 9-to-5 workday. Up until a few years ago, I had never earned more than $20K annually (some years shockingly less), whereas now I’m comfortably above that. Having spent my formative early adulthood not exactly raking in the dollars, I adopted a decidely Bohemian value system and lifestyle. I always had roommates, and when I did finally move out on my own, it was to a studio apartment that pretty much disallowed acquiring things, especially furniture. I lived with my stuff stacked up on the walls around me, which I often had to unpack to use and repack to have space to move.

Well, times change. I recently moved to a new apartment (still can’t afford to buy real estate) and in the process tripled my floor space. The emptiness of the space would not have bothered me except that some family wanted to come visit almost immediately and I had nowhere for them to sit comfortably. So in a callous abandonment of my former value system, I bought some living room furniture: a leather sofa, loveseat, and chair. In the time since I’ve owned them, I admit to thoroughly enjoying them and being pleased with the purchase.

The lingering problem is that I never really aspired to bourgeois values, and as I have learned in my reading over the past few months, the American lifestyle, which is characterized by laziness and overconsumption, is both decadent and unsustainable. However, it’s not as though my head has been turned by the glitzy but empty bling-bling of modern culture. There is no about-face or embrace of conspicuous consumption. My purchase was far less extravagant than many of the options available. But in owning things and having a higher standard of living (with the associated expectations that entails), there is more to protect (the road to fiscal conservatism) and always another acquisition to be made. To be more comfortable on the couch, for instance, I had to get pillows. To unpack my boxes, I had to get shelving. To hang my coat rather than draping it across the back of a chair, I got a coat rack. Etcetera, etcetera. The purchases mounted up, and precisely because I’d refused to acquire things in the past, there were a lot of things to acquire in the present.

So it’s farewell to Bohemia for now, but I’m keeping in mind a time when I will go back there. And I expect that I’ll be happier for it.