I Hate Those “How Am I Driving?” Bumper Stickers

I hereby confess to you all:  I hate those “How Am I Driving?” bumper stickers that you see on so many commercial vehicles.

IMG_3030The point of the bumper sticker, evidently, is to indicate that the company that owns the truck or van deeply cares about the views of the other poor unfortunates on the highway and will take stern action if it receives complaints about reckless or otherwise crappy driving by its employees.  (The alternative explanation — that the drivers themselves are incredibly needy people who crave constant reinforcement from complete strangers about their driving abilities — is too disturbing to contemplate.)

Was there ever an emptier effort by a business to establish a positive civic profile?  Has anyone ever actually called the number shown?  I’ve got to believe you get a recording and a confusing set of different push-button options — if the number is even a real number in the first place.

Are you supposed to call while you are driving, or are you supposed to somehow jot down the phone number while you are driving, as well as the number of the particular vehicle, and then call later?  Either way, the bumper stickers seem designed to hinder highway safety, rather than promote it.  And, even worse, isn’t it awfully presumptuous for the business owner to think that I’ll waste my precious time giving them feedback on their employees?  Who in the world would care so little about the value of their free time that they would spend it calling a number to tell some flunky about about somebody else’s driving?

If a company wants to be a good member of the community, let them treat their customers fairly, pay their employees a reasonable wage, and support civic institutions.  They shouldn’t try to skate by with some meaningless bumper sticker.

Guns, Guns, Guns . . . And Distraction

Your daily newspaper and your favorite news websites have been dominated recently by news about guns and gun control.  Since the awful shootings at the Sandy Hook elementary school, where a heavily armed lunatic murdered more than two dozen children and adults, our political leaders have been talking a lot about firearms and what we can do to prevent another horrible massacre.

In an odd way, the opportunity to talk about guns must be a kind of welcome relief for our politicians, because the gun control debate lets each party retreat to safe, time-honored positions that appeal to their bases.  Democrats understand that most of their voters will support attempts to license gun owners, register all weapons, and restrict or even ban ownership of “assault weapons” or other firearms.  Republicans, on the other hand, know that their supporters will cheer vigorous defenses of the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms and stalwart opposition to overly zealous attempts to regulate gun ownership.

I suspect that all of the talk, talk, talk about guns is, in part, a means of distracting voters from other pressing issues.  Members of Congress and the Obama Administration would rather stay snugly in their gun debate comfort zones than deal with the spending, tax, and budget deficit issues that have far more long-term significance for our country.  With all the talk about guns, how much discussion of those core economic issues have you heard recently?  When those issues are in the forefront, and feet are being held to the fire, there are no easy, pat answers and no rote appeals to political bases.

As terrible as the Sandy Hook shootings were, we shouldn’t let our political leaders divert our attention from the federal debt time bomb and other issues that are restraining our economy.  Yesterday we received an unpleasant reminder of these problems when it was announced that gross domestic product dropped in the fourth quarter of last year.  Imagine:  our economy actually shrank during the hottest shopping season of the year.  It’s time we remind Congress and the President of the paramount need to focus on the hard budget and economic issues, before our economy plunges into another recession.

Patterns In The World Around Us

IMG_3024Studies show that the human brain is geared to recognizing patterns.  We see faces in the random dots on wallpaper, or Jesus’s head in the rust stains on an oil tank, because that’s just the way we’re wired.

Our brains reject disorder and crave order — so when you get a chance to feed that craving, as occurs when you look at the delicately latticed, carefully ordered, vaulted interior ceiling of the Hyatt Arcade in Cleveland, your brain is most appreciative.

The Pathetic, Performance-Enhanced World Of Professional Sports

Every week brings new allegations about professional athletes using performance-enhancing substances and odd treatments for injuries.  This week is no different.  The allegations get made, and the athletes issue denials, and the games go on.  Who’s to know whether that great athletic performance you so admired was the result of hard work, careful training, and focus, or the juice of the root of the exotic zub zub tree?

It’s appropriate that the issue of performance-enhancing drugs was raised this week, because it’s Super Bowl Week — the week of the worst wretched sports excess in an America that is characterized by wretched sports excess.  Want to know why some athletes take performance-enhancing drugs?  Take a look at the outrageous trappings of the Super Bowl, the money-drenched parties, and the adulation poured on the participants, and you’ll have the answer to your question.  If you have a chance to become a household name who will be paid tens of millions of dollars to play a sport, wouldn’t you be tempted to take drugs that might allow you to realize that goal?

I’m heartily sick of American professional sports.  I’m sick of the ludicrous contracts, the players who are all about themselves and not about their teams, the blowhard jock-sniffing owners, the celebrity coaches, the athletes who have become cult figures, the luxury boxes, the mindless endorsements, and just about everything else that has to do with professional sports.  Whatever innocence once existed in sport is long gone, and a sick money culture has taken its place.

This week, I’m going to protest by not watching the Super Bowl.  I’ll watch college sports instead, and try to convince myself that the huge amounts of money floating around student athletes haven’t ruined the college games, too.  I know that my little protest will make no difference, and the Super Bowl will set another viewership record, but I don’t care.  I’ve had it.

Forgotten Syria, Powerless UN

People have forgotten about Syria, but not because things have gotten better there.  Instead, Syria has simply been knocked off the front page by the French action in Mali, Lance Armstrong’s confession, and countless other, fresher stories.

Yesterday, evidence emerged of another horrific mass killing in Syria.  More than 70 bodies were found by a river near the town of Aleppo; some had hands tied behind their backs and gun shot wounds to the head.  The UN estimates that more than 60,000 people have been killed in a conflict between the Assad government and opposition groups that has lasted for a year.  The opposition blames the government, and the government blames the opposition forces, and in the meantime Syrians keep getting slaughtered.

Predictably, the news of the latest massacre brought another call for international intervention and action by the UN Security Council.  There will be no UN action, of course, because the Security Council is deadlocked, with China and Russia resisting any action that might be taken against the Assad government.  Even the U.S., Great Britain, and France are just pushing for resolutions that threaten sanctions.  UN resolutions aren’t likely to do much good when armed men are kicking in your door and taking members of your family out for execution.

We’re paying no attention to it, but Syria should be teaching us two valuable lessons and reminding us of a third, sad reality of the modern world.  The first lesson is that the UN is a weak institution that will rarely take decisive action; contrast the French action in Mali to the UN’s dithering about Syria, and you get a good idea of the difference between a nation and an “international institution.”  The second lesson is that the cries of the “Arab street” about mistreatment of Arabs are hollow and hypocritical.  Where are the mass protests in front of Syrian embassies throughout the Arab world when each new outrage is unveiled?  We should all remember the lack of any meaningful Arab response to the murder of thousands of Syrians the next time we hear angry Arab denunciations of claimed Israeli misconduct toward the Palestinians or American unfairness.

And the cold, cruel reality is that the world has only so much appetite for horror and outrage before it turns off the TV.  The BBC story linked above refers to the “Syria crisis,” but that’s not quite right.  A true “crisis” involves a crucial point of decision.  That doesn’t exist here, because the world seems to have accepted that the Assad regime will remain in power and continue to kill its opponents.  If there were a policeman in front of the yellow tape surrounding the Syrian crime scene, he would be saying:  “There’s nothing to see here.  Move along.”

The Penny Chronicles

My name is Penny.

Yesterday I was bad, but I don’t care.

IMG_3018While the Leader was away, I found her boot.  I love that boot.  It smells like the Leader’s foot.  It has fur on the inside, and it’s chewy on the outside.  I’ve smelled it before, but I’ve never chewed it because the Leader takes it away.

This time, the Leader wasn’t there.  So, I sat down and began to chew.  When my tooth finally sank through the leathery outside into the fur, it was like heaven!  When I ripped a piece off the boot, it was even better.  I chewed and tugged, and chewed and tugged, and kept pulling off little pieces of boot.  They all smelled great, because they smelled like the Leader.  After a while, there was a pile of boot pieces.

Then, the Leader came home.  She saw what I did, and she acted mad.  Deep down, though, I know she wasn’t really mad.  She understood that I needed to chew that boot.  That’s why she’s such a great Leader.

I don’t care about the old boring guy’s shoes.

About Those New Disney Bracelets . . . .

The Walt Disney Company is ready to roll out an interesting new initiative.  This spring, at Walt Disney World in Orlando, park visitors will have the option of using new “MagicBand” bracelets.

These aren’t your normal amusement park bracelets that show that you paid the entrance fee.  Instead, they will be embedded with radio frequency identification chips that will allow visitors to enter the park, enter hotels, and buy food and souvenirs.  The bracelets also would tell that approaching Disney character your child’s name before they are introduced and would allow a visitor’s path around the park to be tracked.  They are part of a broader Disney digital initiative to allow visitors to use the bracelets, their smartphones, and other devices to customize their trip to the Magic Kingdom and provide for a better park experience.

00019715Privacy advocates are concerned about the information that is collected as a result of use of the bracelets and whether it could be misused.  The privacy issues doesn’t worry me, however.  The bracelets are optional, and the reality of the modern world is that vast amounts of our personal information is already accessible to corporate America as a result of our smartphones, apps that push data to our locations, Facebook postings, and countless other newfangled devices and contraptions that know as much about us as our family members.  If people are leery about wearing a bracelet that adds to the data mix, they can just say “no.”

I think the bigger issue is that the bracelets allow Disney characters to know your toddler’s name and use it as they approach.  Isn’t that kind of . . . creepy?  How will little kids react if a large plastic-headed creature, much bigger than the delightful character they’ve seen on their TV screen, comes marching up saying their names?  Will they be terrified, or will it feed into the “I’m the center of the universe” mindset that makes some kids intolerable brats?  Or, will it give kids an overly trusting view of the world?  I’m not sure I’d want my kids to think it was normal that some stranger wearing a colorful costume knows their name.

On the flip side, this development has got to make the job of being a Disney character even more painful.  Now, you not only have to wear that stuffy Goofy head and hot, furry costume on those broiling Florida days, you also have to correctly call out the names of MagicBand-wearing tots — all the while keeping a watchful eye out for the brats who want to kick you in the knee or even more tender areas.  How do you think the doting, smartphone-obsessed parents who paid for that MagicBand bracelet to ensure their gifted child has the perfect Disney experience will react if you call their little Timmy little Tommy instead?

The Animals Of The Chernobyl Zone

We all remember Chernobyl — the 1986 Soviet nuclear disaster that spewed radiation equivalent to more than 20 Hiroshima bombs in an area of Belarus and the Ukraine — but what has happened in that area since?

The Soviets evacuated almost every human (a few holdouts still remain) and restricted access to an area twice the size of Rhode Island.  Then, two interesting things occurred.  First, animals that had been eliminated from the area due to Soviet modernization efforts moved back into the ecosystem, and an animal population explosion began.  The Chernobyl zone has become one of the largest nature preserves on the European continent, and now is home to lynxes, wolves, moose, otters, boar, owls, and a huge array of other wildlife.  The animals live their lives against a backdrop of crumbling Soviet style buildings that are falling apart against the one-two punch of the elements and Mother Nature.  It’s like a post-apocalyptic sci fi novel — except it’s real.

The second point is even more interesting:  the animal population has been exposed to radiation levels thousands of times greater than what is thought to be safe, but the generations of animals are not exhibiting the kinds of deformities or mutations that scientists expected.  In fact, the animals look pretty normal.  A Russian photographer named Sergei Gaschak has spent years taking photographs of the animals of the Chernobyl zone, and as the accompanying photo from The Independent reveals, they are beautiful and wild and noble — just like animals of the same species in non-radioactive areas.

What does it all mean for humans?  I don’t think anyone is suggesting that people should move back into the Chernobyl Zone just yet, but perhaps the success of the animals means we still have a lot more to learn about radiation and its real effects on living creatures.  Humans, and other mammals, may just be a lot hardier than scientists working in their laboratories think.

How Best To Protect The Elderly?

The percentage of our population that is elderly — and often infirm as well — is growing.  As that percentage of the population grows, the number of elderly who are hoodwinked out of their retirement nest egg, neglected, or emotionally or physically abused, is growing steadily as well.

Senior abuse is a tough problem to quantify.  Statistics, surveys, and expert opinions vary, with estimates of victims numbering in the millions, but the reality is hard to grasp because the problem is largely a hidden one.  Many seniors spend their time indoors — due to health or choice — and aren’t seen in public often.  How are neighbors to know if the apparently devoted son who stops by every second day isn’t abusing his confused mother and looting her bank account?  How many seniors are too embarrassed and ashamed by their treatment to confess that their niece or grandson is threatening and assaulting them?  And there is a definitional problem, too.  How do you treat the fiercely independent older couple where the husband insists he can care for his ailing wife, but family friends notice their hygiene and general health noticeably slipping?  Are they being neglected, or is their fervent wish for independence simply being honored?  How are we to know, too, if the money that is vanishing from the aging parent’s bank account is disappearing due to fraud, or to a legitimate wish to help relatives who are down on their luck, or to pay for an expensive form of treatment or drug therapy?

The elderly are a ripe target for crime and abuse.  They often have life savings to plunder, and they receive a monthly Social Security check.  They may be weak, wheelchair-bound, or suffering through the early stages of debilitating mental or physical illness.  Their social support network of friends, family, and co-workers may have fallen away as a result of retirements, departures to warmer climates, and deaths.  If a relative moves in to help Great Aunt Alice, is it a wonderful act of human kindness or a precursor to abuse and financial exploitation?

There’s always pressure for a federal solution, but it’s hard to see how a national bureaucracy could effectively address this problem.  The best answer seems to be vigilant neighbors, friends, and family members who are alert to signs of abuse and willing to report their suspicions to local authorities.  Financial fraud is a crime, as is physical assault, and they should be treated and prosecuted as such.  We should all be observant and sensitive to seniors who may desperately need our help and who deserve not to be terrorized or defrauded in their twilight years.

Argo . . . And Reality

Argo is an excellent movie about getting six Americans out of Iran after the U.S. embassy was taken in 1979 and the seemingly endless hostage drama began.

It’s one of those films that’s “based on true events.”  I’ve always wondered what that means, so after enjoying Argo I did some checking on how much it deviates from the actual events.  The BBC has a good comparison of reality versus the Hollywood version, and the answer is — Argo deviates quite a bit.  A good rule of thumb when watching the movie is that anything that seems especially dramatic is either invented or highly modified.

Still, Argo is a very enjoyable, high-tension ride.  As Iranians breach the gates and pour into the U.S. compound, six embassy employees escape.  They make it to the Canadian embassy, and then American government has to decide how to get them out.  Ben Affleck plays a CIA operative who is trained to extricate people from hostile territory, and he concocts the idea of having the six Americans play Canadians scouting for locations for a fake sci-fi movie called Argo.  The first part of the movie follows Affleck as he sets up a phony production company, buys a script, and sells the idea to his CIA bosses; the last half of the movie sees Affleck in Iran, rallying the six Americans and steering them to their hair-raising escape.

Affleck — who I’ve always viewed as something of a cinematic lightweight — is excellent as CIA agent Tony Mendez.  John Goodman and Alan Arkin bring humor to the Hollywood end of the film, and Bryan Cranston turns in a fine performance as a CIA official.  The actors playing the six Americans hoping to be freed are entirely believable as terrified people who feel that the noose is tightening but don’t know what they can do about it.  Those of us who lived through the Iranian hostage crisis will cringe at the scenes of the embassy being taken, the declarations of the hostage takers, and the mistreatment of the hostages themselves; more than 30 years later, I was surprised to learn that I still feel intense anger about the entire episode.  You’ll also shake your heads, I predict, at the classic ’70s hairstyles, bushy moustaches, and vintage clothing.  The ’70s were, indeed, an exceptionally ugly decade for fashion.

Go see Argo, if you haven’t seen it already.  It’s exciting Hollywood fare — but don’t forget that it’s Hollywood fare.

Cold Dogs

IMG_3013Penny and Kasey like our morning walks on cold, snowy days.  At least, I think they do.  They romp in the snow and stick their noses deep into the tracks left behind by other dogs and dig through the snowbanks looking for buried treasure — the remnants of a sandwich, say, left behind by some youngster.  They pull in opposite directions and find countless objects that evidently are deserving of careful examination and some deep, snout-rattling sniffs.

But when we get back to our front door, with their coats and muzzles snow-dusted and icy, they seem awfully eager to get back inside.

Weird Weather

IMG_2997We’ve just come from a week of exceptionally cold temperatures, which followed a few days of unseasonably warm weather.  This morning it was bracing on our walk, with the temperature in the teens and a brisk wind skirling over the snow and dropping the wind chill into “don’t take your gloves off under any circumstances” territory.  According to the weather app on my iPhone, however, the temperature is supposed to be 61 on Tuesday and 55 on Wednesday — and then it will plummet back down to a high of 19 on Friday.  Good luck deciding what kind of coat to wear this week!

I don’t mind cold weather, and I don’t mind warm weather, either.  I just wish Mother Nature would make up her mind!

I Don’t Got Rhythm


Probably most of us have heard the song with the lyrics – I got rhythm who could ask for anything more ! Boy if that isn’t the truth. The song is of course about musical rhythm, unfortunately something most of us take for granted the rhythm of our heartbeat or in medical terminology sinus node rhythm I don’t have right now.

Sometime in the next week or so I will be going into one of our fine hospitals in the Columbus area for my third visit to the electro-physiology Lab, the EP lab for short. I am hoping the third time is the charm as the saying goes.

These people do a great job making me feel at ease before and after the procedure. During the procedure the doctor administers medication which totally knocks me out and cardio-version is done sending electrical current to my heart through electrodes placed on my chest.

During my last visit I developed quite a rapport with the technician who gave me my tape to share on the family blog which shows the syncing of my irregular heartbeat on the left (the black arrows), the shock and then a return to regular heartbeat intervals on the right. He said they do around twenty of these procedures each day with very little risk to the patient.

Isn’t medical technology wonderful – so take heart (no pun intended) – if you develop atrial fibrillation this procedure is nothing to worry about !

The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Driving On Icy, Snow-Covered Roads

If you visit the instructional book section of your local library, you’ll undoubtedly see books entitled “The Complete Idiot’s Guide To” software programs, or French cooking, or virtually any other topic you care to name.

IMG_2992I’ve never read one of those books, because I don’t consider myself to be a complete idiot.  (Webner House readers are, of course, free to disagree with that undoubtedly generous self-assessment.)  I wonder, however, if there are such books where the Complete Idiot refers to the writer, and not the intended audience.  I suspect this is so because I spent yesterday navigating highways during Ohio snowstorms, and my fellow motorists certainly were driving like they’d just finished careful study of The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Driving On Icy, Snow-Covered Roads.

From the actual driving techniques I observed, I surmise that the book included the following helpful tips:

*  On snow-covered highways, remain right behind the car in front of you, so you stay safely in the packed snow channels just created by that car’s wheels.

*  Constant, unpredictable lane changes and weaving in and out of traffic will help keep you and your fellow drivers alert.

*  Frequently hit your brakes at random intervals.  The sharp braking motion will jar packed snow and ice loose from your tires.

*  When a car in front of you begins to fishtail, quickly accelerate and try to pass the car on an inside lane.

*  Make lane changes as abruptly as possible, to minimize the time your tires will be in contact with the snow accumulating between lanes.

*  Be sure to call your friends while you are driving, because they will want a real-time description of what it’s like to drive in a snow storm.

To Boldly Go . . . To A Theater Near You

The next installment in the venerable Star Trek franchise is called Into Darkness and will be released this summer.  The official trailer has hit the theaters.  Richard and I saw it when we took in The Hobbit a few weeks ago, and it looks awesome.

I think the original Star Trek characters — Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Uhura, Scotty, and Sulu — are in very good hands with J.J. Abrams at the helm, and the new cast is excellent.  In the first Abrams-directed episode, the film changed history and thereby veered away from the Star Trek back stories that would otherwise have limited the possible story lines in the new version.  I expect Abrams to spring all kind of surprises, and that sounds good to me.

The new film looks like it takes a long and pointed look at the arrogance and overconfidence of one James T. Kirk, and that’s a story that definitely needs telling.  I can’t wait!