Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Good, The Bad and The Possible

Do you wonder sometimes if various worlds predicted by fiction writers could actually happen as predicted? Is the technology behind some of these writings good or bad?

George Orwell’s "1984," written in 1948, predicted a totalitarian world in which people underwent 24-hour surveillance. There were cameras everywhere, including in each person’s residence. Big Brother was always watching to make sure people complied with the society’s thought controls. No one could get away with anything because someone was always watching the cameras, ready to report any deviant behavior or attitude.

That book scared me because it seemed that a government entity could actually spy on people in that manner. The technology was fiction then, but is real now. There are cameras everywhere: speed enforcement cameras, theft prevention cameras, traffic cameras that are almost good enough to read license plates and satellite spy cameras than can read something as small as a license tag. There is even a security camera in the hall outside the door to my office.

William Gibson’s "Neuromancer," written in 1984 (really), in some ways was an update. In the world he creates, everything and everyone is connected by a global computer network. The main character is a computer hacker and he and others have a brain-computer interface. By the way, Gibson is the Boomer who coined the term cyberspace.

Worldwide interconnected computer systems are the norm today and the potential exists for every bit of personal information for every single person on the planet to be monitored, by companies, governments or anyone with computer skills. There are prosthetic limbs that can react to brain commands, sort of like a brain-computer interface.

What started me thinking about this? My wife’s Garmin.

GPS devices like Garmin, Tom Tom and OnStar have some amazing capabilities. The global positioning satellites they are connected to can plot a route from our house to a dog show, for example. If we miss a turn, a friendly voice calmly says, “re-calculating” and this plastic thing the size of two decks of cards plots a new course directing us back to our original route. The Garmin also remembers where home is and the locations of the last few dozen places we went. I learned last week that it can also tell us how fast we’re driving. In real time. As accurately as the speedometer.

OnStar, according to their commercials, knows when a car has been in an accident and an OnStar representative can have a live conversation with the driver to determine if medical attention is needed. The driver doesn’t initiate this conversation, an airbag deployment does. I wonder if that representative can listen in on other conversations in the car.

The good: these devices can save lives and keep us from getting lost.

The bad: these devices enable someone to monitor our every move, record every aspect of our daily lives and write us a speeding ticket.

In some ways, the world predicted by Orwell and Gibson has happened.

Does this scare you?

Should we trust and embrace the technology? In the right hands, it can take us on a path to a good life. In the wrong hands, it can take us down a dirt road to destruction.


Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Generic But Interesting Meme

I stole this meme from one of Ian's blogs. Do this on yours and tell me where it is so we can share.

You're feeling: Uncharacteristically relaxed

To your left: Shelves full of CDs, DVDs, books and carousels full of 35mm slides.

On your mind: Taking photographs.

Last meal included: Rice.

You sometimes find it hard to: Relax and live in the moment

The weather: Incredible today, unusual for April

Something you have a collection of: Coffee mugs.

A smell that cheers you up: Coconut.

A smell that can ruin your mood: Burnt coffee.

How long since you last shaved: Thirteen hours.

The current state of your hair: Short.

The largest item on your desk/workspace (not computer): A 1960-style lamp.

Your skill with chopsticks: So-so.

Which section to head for first in a bookstore: Photography and local interest.

Something you're craving: Ice cream.

Your general thoughts on the presidential race: I can’t wait for the conventions to be behind us so my two favorite candidates stop arguing.

How many times have you been hospitalized this year: Zero.

Favorite place to go for a quiet moment: The far end of my 1-acre back yard.

You've always secretly thought you'd be a good: Salsa dancer

Something that freaks you out a little: How young everybody at work seems to be.

Something you've eaten too much of lately: Snickers.

You have never: been on a horse.

You never want to: stop taking photographs.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Always There

One thing I like about living so close to Washington DC is that the symbols of our freedom are always there.

Sometimes I walk around the National Mall just to soak in the symbolism and to feel the power. For three years in the early 1990s I actually worked in one of the government buildings and was in downtown DC five days a week. I was on the Mall once as a new President took his oath of office.

My most memorable visit was the Sunday after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Our national symbols had survived attempts to destroy them and I had to be there. I had to see the buildings and the monuments to feel the security they represent. The oddest observation I made of that visit was how quiet it was on The Mall. Airplanes were still grounded, so the only objects in flight were birds and the occasional military jet. There were very few tourists that day. The important thing was that the buildings that are always there were still there.

During a daytrip into DC this morning, I understood for the first time why the National Park Service refers to the National Mall as America's back yard. I saw bikers, hikers and tourists; joggers and protesters; soccer games and picnics. It is one giant, mixed-use neighborhood park shared by people who live a block away and people who live half a world away.

My use of the Mall today was an exercise walk and some photo-taking. At one point I had to laugh at myself because I realized I was sitting on a park bench in front of the White House drinking Starbucks and listening to a Rolling Stones song blasting from a war protester's boom box. I'm pretty sure I never had an experience as unique as this when I lived in Milwaukee.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

It’s Right Here

Do you ever have one of those moments in which you suddenly realize that something you knew about for a long time but thought was some distant thing or place is actually right there in front of you? A Homer Simpson “doh!” moment?

I had one last week.

I’ve lived within an hour-and-a-half of Washington DC for the past twenty years, and relish the fact that I am so close to the heart of much of our country’s history. Good history and regrettable history. History that formed our nation, history that tore us apart and history that put us back together again. Some of my favorite vacations are stay-at-home vacations, during which I take a couple of day-trips into DC to visit museums and historic sites and soak in the magnitude and importance of our Nation’s Capitol. All of that is less than ninety minutes away.

Well, during one such stay-at-home vacation last week, it hit me that the house I’ve lived in for six years is less than a thirty-minute drive from five notable Civil War battle sites: Harper’s Ferry, Gettysburg, Monocacy, South Mountain and Antietam. They are all right here in my back yard.


Actually I can see South Mountain from my front yard and Antietam, location of the bloodiest single day battle in our history, is right on the other side of the mountain. I bought a new camera during my week off and wanted to test it out on some landscapes; Antietam turned out to be the perfect place.

One of the photos is at the beginning of this post; a few more are on my new photo blog.

I don’t live in the past, but I think studying the past is important to the understanding of our present and can help us navigate our future. We get so caught up in the details of our lives that we often overlook how the present fits into the broader context of past and future. And sometimes we are so busy that we don’t realize that past, present and future converge right here in front of us.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Reliving 1968

The year 1968 was a volatile, pivotal year in the lives of many Boomers. It was a turning point in American society and a coming-of-age point for youth of the era. Events of that year illustrate a great divide in beliefs and expectations of generations, races and political persuasions.

The hardest part for me to accept is that 1968 was forty years ago.

The latest AARP Magazine features a detailed examination of that year. I know this because I get that magazine. Wow, I just admitted that I’m an AARP member. While I’m temporarily admitting to reality, I’ll acknowledge that I was in high school in 1968, which further adds to the personal significance of that year for me.

Every year contains important milestones, but 1968 seems to have more than its share of historically significant events. Humans orbited the moon for the first time. Arthur Ashe became the first black man to win the U.S. Open and Shirley Chisholm became the first black woman in Congress. 60 Minutes made its debut on TV and Elvis became a Dad. Civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in April and Presidential candidate Senator Robert Kennedy was killed two months later.

Protesters hit the streets and cities were burning. It felt like the country was coming apart at the seams. And my own generation seemed to be at the heart of the seam-ripping.

I sympathized with demonstrators protesting racial discrimination and the Viet Nam War, but I was afraid of the destruction caused by many of those protests. The military draft scared me; there was a real possibility I would have to fight a war I didn’t believe in. As we were coming of age, so was television news coverage; vivid nightly images of these conflicts added to the fear.

Yet in many ways I felt disconnected from those events. I was busy focusing on first love, the end of high school and driving privileges. And the generational divide in my house led to many intense arguments about everything from dating to race to politics to religion to where I would go to college.

Combine those emotionally charged ingredients, add the heat of raging teen angst, and you get a hell of a memorable gumbo.

Like it or not, Boomers are forced to relive 1968 because of the media attention of a 40-year anniversary; the zero year compels us to place extra emphasis on events we choose to celebrate for the joy they brought us or ignore for their pain. In my case, it does both.

More images and links:

History Channel

A Newsweek article

Pop culture and fashion:

A 3-minute Mustang TV commercial:

Wednesday, April 09, 2008


Recently Brenda posted some observations about spending time with one of her sisters and posed an interesting question: How do you relate to your siblings?

My sister and I were very close as kids, but as we became adults I often wondered if we were even from the same planet. We haven’t lived in the same state since 1977, so it is no surprise that we developed different tastes, interests and beliefs. She remained in the shadow of our parents through all of those years and I moved away and developed a personality that was sometimes quite alien to them.

Our early influences were certainly the same. We are part of large, middle class Italian and Cajun French families. We grew up Catholic and experienced Catholic school education for twelve years. We spent most holidays with aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins.

But our differences are striking. She is still a devout Catholic, I am an occasionally Unitarian Universalist. She can’t stand my favorite Presidential candidate. She never married and I am on my third marriage. She has lived at four addresses during her life; I lost count at twenty five addresses. For some reason my little sister always thought I was the smart one, yet she has a Masters Degree in Education while I’m still working on my Bachelors some three decades later.

One thing that united us as adults was our parents’ aging issues. My sister and I usually agreed on what we had to do to take care of them, right down to the eventual decision to move them into a nursing home.

Then came Hurricane Katrina. She was flooded out of her house and temporarily lived with me and my wife. That is the most contact we had had in almost thirty years and we learned a lot about each other during those six weeks. There are still many differences, but this time it is the similarities that are striking. We are both stubborn and a little judgmental. Our thoughts are organized but our living spaces are messy. We over think everything. We have a similar approach to problem-solving and we are both story-tellers. These are all traits we learned from our parents.

And during this time we became friends. That was the unexpected result of sharing an address for a few weeks. Our parents are both gone now and in many ways all we have is each other. That has brought us closer together. We can laugh at our differences as much as at our similarities.

Another question posed in Brenda’s blog is: Are you more alike or different? Clearly we are more different yet in many important ways, we are very much alike.

Monday, April 07, 2008

The Ultimate Diet

How many diet plans are there? And how many have you tried? The word diets in a Google search returns 26 million results; that number is 66 million in a Yahoo search.

What’s a dieter to do?

Weight gain is normal for Boomers. And I honestly believe that the only successful way to lose weight is to eat well-balanced, relatively low-fat, modestly low-calorie meals and stick to a basic exercise regimen. At the moment, however, that strategy is not working for me. I only need to drop twenty pounds to get back in the ideal range for my height but so far I’ve lost less than five of those pounds since starting my plan in January; and I gained them all back in March.

There are reviews of 50 different diets on the WebMD site. Some are highly-advertised weight loss plans you have probably heard of, such as Atkins, Slim Fast, Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, South Beach and Dr. Phil’s Ultimate Weight Solution. There is even one connected to the Biggest Loser television show. Some less well-known diets include the Fat Smash Diet, the French Women Don’t Get Fat Diet, the Hallelujah Diet, Eat This Not That and the Shangri-La Diet.

But I’ve invented one that is so simple that I’m surprised no one thought of it before. I call it the No Cash Diet.

A thorough analysis of my eating habits this year revealed a serious addiction to the vending machines at work. I’ve even written about this in the past. When I get the 3pm hungries, which happens nearly every day, I grab a few quarters from my desk drawer or a dollar bill from my wallet and head for the nearest vending machine. There are five where I work. I convince myself that the potatoes in potato chips make that choice sorta, kinda healthy. And hey, Snickers bars contain peanuts. That’s healthy, right?

I ran out of quarters during the second half of February and for some reason I had no dollar bills in my wallet for almost three weeks. The machines at work won’t accept fives or tens and I didn’t really want to ask someone to make change. I lost five pounds during February. You do the math: no cash, less weight. Proof that the No Cash Diet works!

The plan is brilliant in its simplicity! If you are a marketing wiz, feel free to steal it. If you’re looking for a diet, try it and let me know your results. I’ll keep you posted on mine.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Sure, I Can Do That Too

Do you ever feel like this on your job:
You get more work, you figure out a way to handle the volume. Then you get more, and again you figure it out. You love the pace and excitement, but even more importantly, you don’t want your managers to think you’re not a team player. “Sure, I can do that too.”

Your company, like many other companies in this stockholder-driven, monster-profits-no-matter-what world of big business, cuts back the workforce. Not the workload, just the number of people doing the work. Jobs are lost, but the duties performed by those people who were laid off must still be done. And guess who is doing that work? You! On top of the work you were already doing.

This cycle hits Boomers especially hard. We don’t ever want to look like we can’t keep up. We are certainly capable of performing at this level, but many of us question the sanity of this practice. Silently, of course.

Does your job sometimes feel like Lucy and Ethel in this well-known TV show scene?

I love my job; by most measures it’s the best one I’ve ever had. But I barely crack a smile when I see this video. Mostly I picture myself trying to figure out how I can wrap all the candies and keep the job.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

One Word Survey

Here is a one-word meme/survey I saw recently on KJ’s blog (and Kim’s blog).

These are my answers. Do this on yours and tell me where it is.

One Word (or thought)

Yourself: Optimistic

Your Partner: wife

Your Hair: brown

Your Mother: story-teller

Your Father: soft-spoken

Your Favorite Item: coffee cup

Your Dream Last Night: don’t remember

Your Favorite Drink: Coffee

Your Dream Car: Acura TL 3.2

Your Dream Home: ocean view

The Room You Are In: home office

Your Fear: unemployment

Where Do You Want to be in 10 Years: near an ocean or a mountain

Who You Hung Out With Last: Kim and Deena at a concert

What You're Not: Jerk

Muffins: English

One of Your Wish List Items: Nikon D80

Time: not enough

The Last Thing You Did: ate ice cream

What are You Wearing: jeans and a New Orleans Hornets t-shirt

Your Favorite Weather: sunny and 80

Your Favorite Book: The Power Of Optimism by Alan Loy McGinnis

Last Thing You Ate: a salad and some ice cream
Your Life: OK but could be better

Your Mood: flat

Your Best Friends: live too far away

What are You Thinking About Right Now: my future

Your Car: Explorer

Your Summer: is never long enough

Relationship Status: married

What is on Your TV: Cold Case

What is Your Weather Like: windy

When is the Last Time You Laughed: this afternoon, while recording a co-worker’s impersonation of a game show host

OK, your turn.