Friday, August 31, 2007

Friday Funnies: Oohs, Ahhs, and The Just Plain Strange

...And no one listened.

This is an extremely rare event; one that hasn't happened in the U.S. for at least 40 years.

Yeah, I don't understand it either.

The Decay of Society: The Sickness, Part 2

“Life's wheels are spinning, ‘gonna be one bumpy ride”

—Hardline, Life’s a Bitch

The five stages of grief are often put forth when discussing grieving. While we typically couple grief with loss, the dictionary will expand it to mean “The process of feeling distress or sorrow.” High school health classes taught me that there are two kinds of stress…eustress and distress. The first is supposedly the good kind of stress: The type of anxiety that prepares you to do better in a given task: It’s what separates apathy from achievement. Distress, however, is the more famous brother.

Stress is so often something that permeates our lives: From the anxieties that arise in the morning hours through our lying awake in bed at the end of the day worrying about tomorrow. In this endless cycle of waking and sleeping stressors, we often find ourselves with a dose of escapism: Watching the latest celebrities in Hollywood or elsewhere live their lives of misery and take great opportunities and waste them away on the frills, passions, and benefits of the moment. We find ourselves reveling in this misery, most individuals not going past the latest celebutante’s turmoil du jour and failing to get the latest news on how local, national, or world events are shaping the world in which we live.

So often these lives of ours are in the vacuum of a padded bubble in which we have access to so much information, but I’ve seen so many people only go so far as is necessary to make themselves comfortable in their castle, hiding behind a moat, and isolating themselves from any reality that means listening to someone other than a celebrity or comedic news program in order to take in the information that is relevant in some way, shape, or form to their immediate world.

All this arrives to us from a world that has been crafted to be the glamorous one. As a song from a recent movie dictates: “Watch the whores parade for the price of fame,” most everyone in this society clings to some semblance or personal meaning of having glamorous aspects in their lives: From the status symbols of cars, houses, and boats to the bohemian styling of a person that supposedly goes their own way. Living in the bubble, entrenching oneself in the comfort zone, and striving to someone’s definition of glamour and fifteen minutes of fame might be the fun and easy way out, but in the end does it offer the fulfillment that we each want and need in our lives, or does it simply leave us feeling cold and empty as are a majority of the other people that follow this path?

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Blog: Quick Note

Just a quick note: Expect the concluding "Part 2" to "The Sickness" blog entry tomorrow, on Friday.

...Along with Friday Funnies!

The Decay of Society: The Miscellaneous Rants

As the week of “doom and gloom” comes to a close, I’d like to take this opportunity to point out a few of the various odds and ends of which I find society becoming more entropic by the day. Among these are cultural divides, moral opportunism, and apathy.

Have you ever walked into a situation and felt entirely out of place, as if you were from a different world compared to the other people there? How about driving along the road, seeing the automobile that’s been modified in ways that you can’t quite understand: Non-stock body parts of different colors, rims worth more money than is probably prudent, and a spoiler that looks like it could be paid for with a $20 out of my pocket and which definitely “spoils” any other augmentations of beauty that the vehicle might have. I was walking out of the local mall the other day, having recently finished servicing a customer there. Ahead of me I saw a young man, a teenager of some vintage, who had an oversized shirt and excessively baggy pants. I tried to review the situation further by determining if he was trying to hold them up or not. I kept thinking to myself “why on earth would I want to see your underwear?” Maybe the whole baggy pants thing is the latest fad, but I don’t see the utility in it. Utility that is strictly and solely for status or otherwise to fit in is lost on me, perhaps, but I can’t help but thinking about all the other places that I can look and see things of a similar nature. Take the girls, for instance, that have the provocative tattoos on their lower backs, something which has been given the term “tramp stamp” coined to describe it due to the commonly-held generalities of the types of girls getting this sort of body art. While what a person does to their own bodies is of their own concern, and it isn’t my place to judge them based on it, they do tend to play into what seems to be a cultural norm.

Think about it: When you speak to one of those kids with the earrings, baggy pants, or similar styles about him or her…what is your expectation? Our expectations will be colored by our biases and our prejudices, but there are certain standards which the culture should be held to: Without resorting to corrupting it. Recently, while I was at work, a college-age student dressed much the same fashion—minus the baggy pants, I believe, came in looking for a job. I recall something being mentioned to the effect after the fact that “I don’t care what people wear when they’re not at work, but if I’m going to offer a job to someone, I don’t think they should be dressed like that.” The rest of the team offered the same sentiments.

Save a deeper analysis of the subject and any agenda I have for a later blog post of my “professional manager” bent, so let’s continue to the next: Moral opportunism.

I am the type of person that means what he says and says what he means. I typically don’t like game playing in my interpersonal relationships and I adhere to a strict code of moral standards: Ones that do not change based on the situation which I find myself to be in. For some years now, I’ve been playing an online roleplaying and strategy game called Battlemaster. I’ve found some staggering truths about life from it, as I firmly believe it to be a macrocosm of the rest of the world. I’ve found that people who have military experience are the best to lead armies, for example. I’ve found that there are certain types of people whom you can rely upon and others that are shaky at best. There are many people that I play Battlemaster with whom I would go onto the battlefield alongside and fight in a foxhole with—this being the highest litmus test that I can offer a fellow human being—and just as many people as I wouldn’t trust to be in that situation with and not have to worry about them looking out for themselves. In this world there are people that you can count on and people that you can count on to practice situational ethics: A moral code which adapts to the situation found in front of the practitioner. My experiences on Battlemaster, just as in other parts of life, have proven to me that there are profiles of the types of people that are this way, and likewise there are profiles for the types of people that you can rely on to be there for you in your time of need.

Why doesn’t anyone do anything about any of this? By and far, I’d have to say that many people in this society, and others, are just apathetic. To the tone of the Bystander Effect, people expect that someone else will always be there to fix things, or that it might just go away on its own. Apathy is the general malaise which fuels entropy, causing things that are already in the trash only to get worse.

Is this really the world that you want to live in, or would you rather live in one that was better? Let your amount of apathy be the judge of that.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Decay of Society: The Sickness, Part 1

“I can see inside you, the sickness is rising”

—Disturbed, The Sickness

It’s all the same, but only the names will change. As time marches forward, we are faced with the inevitable truth that history repeats itself, and those who fail to look beyond the façade of the so-called “real world” are doomed to repeat that history, oftentimes at the expense of the integrity of society. What is it that decays at the fabric of the society and sends the world we live in towards the downward spiral towards complete dissolution of those core values which should be the glue, holding things together?

A quick search of a dictionary defines glamour as “alluring beauty or charm.” However, another definition not far from the same breath follows: “casting a spell over something or someone.” From the first impressions of childhood we are exposed to a world that is bombarded by a false construct of who we are supposed to be, what image we are supposed to present, and ultimately the values which we are supposed to hold. No matter how strong our upbringing glamour juxtaposes onto our world a skewed reality of what should be: Conformity that permeates and threatens our individuality. “You are an individual, just like everyone else,” in the words of a greatly humorous poster. In my lifetime I have come to see the shift of individual personalities away from a norm to a point where that is the norm.

Let me take a step back. Glamour a sickness of what I speak. Armed with good intentions as they may be, most of us fail to see past the draw that this sickness has on us. Even as the geek that I am, I seek to define it with a glamorous edge. I can often be seen wearing a button-up shirt and tie, dress slacks, and a nice set of dress shoes. To myself, I have constructed this image based on what I’ve perceived as what I should be. Years ago I surrounded myself with a mentality and an image that I wanted to become. After enough time of living and immersing myself in it, I became it. Behavioral modification at a fundamental level caused my emergence of who I am today. However, with discretion, discipline, and sound judgment I learned to take the good with the bad and mold myself into the person that I wanted to become sans the negative aspects that could come with it.

Such is the world we live in, but lacking the respect, discipline, and good judgment that make their way into the person. People have taken their cues from idols ranging from the Material Girl to all the other creations that Hollywood, for instance, has been able to manufacture over the years. They have manufactured a set of morals and values that, when duplicated, seem to leave a person empty in the end. From this emptiness we often find our worlds slipping away in little pieces and becoming increasingly less fulfilling. We are left with a shell of a reality that, as glamour would have it, lacks substance, but sure can look good on the outside.

Each day in our life we are faced with choices to make. Life is a journey, certain parts are destinations, but in the grander picture it is nothing more than a series of choices. Partly our environment and partly our makeup allow us the vantage from which to make these decisions. In a world that emphasizes the power of the flash, but doesn’t readily show the long-lasting ramifications of making good decisions, we are faced with a conundrum that few can rise above and see the grander picture in all the true glory that it holds, without the sickness showing on the outside.

It is often said that we are the sum of our experiences. I tend to think that we should strive to be nothing less than the sum of our experiences, but the efficiencies of synergy could, in fact, help us to strive for better. Should we allow such faults as pride tear apart at our “somethingness,” eventually leaving us feeling empty inside. At the end of the day, each person needs to know that they aren’t alone on this journey, even though bouts of loneliness will often speckle an otherwise healthy existence. We aren’t how much money we have in the bank, we’re not the job we have, and we’re not the stuff that we have, nor are we the projection of what the world wants us to be. At the end of the day we are the effect of what we put out into the world. If you add value to it, it will, in turn, add value to you. This is the basis for risk.

A true, hearty analysis of risk and how it applies to decision making is outside the scope of this current discussion, let it be summed down to this: For every action, there is an opposite reaction—and when viewed in linear and non-linear payoff terms (immediately realized benefit and “down the road” payoff)—that is not necessarily equal in its return. That is, sometimes the right risk is worth taking because it can offer more benefit to you than you could possibly realize.

However, in order to harness this great power of risk and reward, we need to set aside the false assumptions that we make about the world, based on irrational data that is implanted into ourselves from the earliest days of our youths.

“Is it really me? Mirror mirror gotta know just what you see”

—Def Leppard, Mirror Mirror (Look into My Eyes)

Although many may comment otherwise, life doesn’t really have an instruction manual. This chore is left to fools, philosophers, and anyone in between. We sometimes have the occasional epiphany about ourselves, the world, someone else, or our interactions with it. I think, sometimes, that this is why I look at life the way I do: The art of life stems from the interactions of everyone in it. Decisions dictate behaviors and, in a simple way, life is just a collection of all those behaviors in concert. In this way, physics is the study of the interactions between matter and energy. These elements are analogous to people exerting energy (or, removing it in some cases) into (or from) the world around them.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Decay of Society: Power Hungry, Dumb Governments

Government: From the Greek Κυβερνήτης kubernites - steersman, governor, pilot, or rudder—is an organization that has the power to make and enforce laws for a certain territory. There are several definitions on what exactly constitutes a government. In its broadest sense, "govern" means the power to administrate, whether over an area of land, a set group of people, or an association. What happens when the administrators of a group of people stop acting the way that they should and, instead, start acting in such a way that it is a broken entity?

Take America’s neighbor to the south: Mexico. With restrictive socialist elements in its government, it cannot produce enough jobs. The result: A phenomenon known as labor dumping. Since it ranks so low at being able to employ its own potential workforce, the people must venture elsewhere to find gainful employ—even if it is illegal for them to do so in the country that they escape to work in, their actions sanctioned by their own homeland. Estimates of how many Mexicans are working in the U.S. range from 15 percent to 30 percent of Mexico’s labor force. The amount that they sent home in 2006 was $23 billion. Money sent to Latin America from workers in the United States is speculated to be as high as a record $45 billion this year. This same sort of story can be found in other parts of the world, too: President Sarkozy of France doesn’t want Turkey to enter the European Union, in part, due to fears that Turkey will do much the same thing to Europe as Mexico is doing to the U.S. A similar situation happened in Yugoslavia under Marshal Josef Tito in 1948.

While the governments of Mexico and the rest of Latin America are to blame for their ineptitude in running their governments in such a not-so-free market, socialist manner, the government of the United States also is to blame for their much botched handling of the situation. Instead of enforcing immigration laws on the books, it seems that most politicians look at the situation as one of more tax revenues for the government. Politicians love taxes. Seeing the opportunity to increase the amount of spendable bucks in their treasury, it seems that Washington, D.C., and many state and local governments have started waging a war on the laws that exist and have tried passing new laws to “reform” the situation of illegal aliens and immigrants coming into the country.

This isn’t where the United States government ends with its stupidity. They are in the business of punishing behaviors with taxation in its various forms. Virginia will fine you from $750 to $3000 for excessive speeding and other driving offenses. If you live in a high tax state or have too many children, you’re punished with the monstrosity known as the Alternative Minimum Tax. Live in Boulder, CO, and like to “warm the planet?” Try the “Climate Action Plan Tax” on for size.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for immigration: Legal immigration. The type of immigration that has forged nations since the formation of nation-states: One where people come, adding their culture to the melting pot, but assimilating themselves into the culture of the whole. What we face today is a double-culture wherein when someone calls many automated phone lines, I must press “1” for English to be spoken. Se hablas Espanol is a feature that many businesses in the southwest United States advertise. The tension created by this entire fiasco has created a polarizing tension amongst the people in the United States: Ask 10 people about their stance on the immigration debate and I’m willing to bet pie that at least 8 of them—if not more—are going to stand on one side of the argument or the other with very few, if any, being somewhere in the middle and apathetic of the situation. Heck, I even recall a situation recently at the local college where a Spanish class was told on their first day that they needed to request permission to speak English in the class—a common tactic of many foreign language classes. One kid stood up and went ballistic about needing to ask permission to speak his language in his country.

What else is wrong with governments? Let’s take a last look at the United States government. How about a Congress that is apt to pay itself more while dodging its (constitutional) responsibilities by creating new federal agencies and delegating an increasing amount of authority to make rules and laws to them, instead of doing it themselves? In 2006 Congress passed 321 bills into law. How about federal agencies? They issued 3,718 rules. All of this with “regulatory costs—“that is costs associated with operating this alphabet soup of agencies on a daily basis—of $1.142 trillion, or 9 percent of the United States’ GDP. That all compares with estimated 2006 personal income taxes of $1.044 trillion and corporate income taxes of $354 billion.

What is the solution to this set of quandaries? Government needs to enforce the laws that are already in place. They need to get this message by congressional constituencies—i.e., you—contacting them and letting them know your sentiments. The general rule of thumb goes that if just one person of who the congressperson represents contacts them, then they are representing at least 10 people: Just think what 100 or 1,000 contacting constituents could send for a message. People need to elect those into congress that have proven track records of not increasing the size of government and spending more than the government has available to them. In this instance, you need to ask yourself if you want the government to completely take care of you from cradle to grave, or if smart, efficient, smaller, and effective government services and agencies could replace the over-bloated offices seen today. Ultimately, you would get more from your each and every paycheck with which you could determine how you took care of yourself—your healthcare, your insurance, your retirement, etc.

While government exists to provide for the basic needs of a society, it can reach a mass at which it is apt to corrupt and take everyone else down with it. In democratic societies, at least, we are privileged with being able to vote those out of power which do not concur with our manner and method of thinking and living. If we do not, then we are doomed forever down the road of societal decay.

Monday, August 27, 2007

The Decay of Society: Frivolously Litigious

Look around. The society that we know is decaying from within because evil is allowed to prosper when good people do nothing; a notion deriving itself from a quote most often attributed to Edmund Burke, 18TH century Irish statesman and philosopher. One of the easiest routes for any sort of thing to decay—such as a right or privilege offered—is for people to abuse it and for others to allow them to get away with the abuse.

I am willing to bet that everyone is familiar with the famous McDonalds coffee-burning case. Many people, however, misunderstand the suit as simply being of a frivolous nature. Heck, I even thought it was your standard “corporate greed” story passed from person to person to perpetuate the myth that the institution of McDonalds is evil. Instead, some facts:

A jury…awarded $2.9 million to an 81-year-old woman scalded by McDonald's coffee…McDonald's lawyers [however] went on to dismiss several opportunities to settle out of court, apparently convinced that no jury would punish a company for serving coffee the way customers like it. After all, its coffee's temperature helps explain why McDonald's sells a billion cups a year…McDonald's [had given] the opposing lawyer its operations and training manual, which says its coffee must be brewed at 195 to 205 degrees and held at 180 to 190 degrees for optimal taste.

Is nearly 200 degrees for your coffee too hot? Not according to Mr. Coffee, the people behind the machines that make, well, lots of coffee:

A spokesman for Mr. Coffee Inc., the coffee-machine maker, says that if customer complaints are any indication, industry settings may be too low - some customers like it hotter. A spokeswoman for Starbucks Coffee Co. adds, "Coffee is traditionally a hot beverage and is served hot and I would hope that this is an isolated incident."

So, while some lawsuits are legitimate but portrayed incorrectly amongst individuals who likely do not know any better, there are plenty of lawsuits which don’t quite live up to the litmus test of being worth it. In the business and legal professions, it is an old adage that lawsuits are simply a negotiation by other means. Take the McDonalds incident, for example: The company had been given ample opportunity to negotiate to the satisfaction of the afflicted party; having not properly done what was perceived as due diligence on the plaintiff’s part, the “negotiation” went into a courtroom.

There are people who will happily sue people throughout this country and its legal system. In fact, according to an organization known as HALT, the number of people who have chosen to represent themselves pro se has increased 6 percent—from 21 percent to 27 percent in federal district courts. In the state courts of California, however, this number has tripled. What is he frequency of repeat abusers? According to an article in the September 3, 2007 issue of Forbes magazine “Nearly half of the study's 765 pro se litigants filed at least one previous suit in that court, including one who filed 57 complaints in one year.

A great example of this abuse starts with Holli Lundahl and her repeated litigation against Eli Lilly and Company. The company has spent $1 million in defending against this “serial plaintiff.” A quick Google search shows that she has had many more than her fair share of her days in court, too. Of course, she has responded in such a fashion to her critics by stating that she has been abused by Eli Lilly and Company and the courts system—going all the way to the Supreme Court, even. I don’t know, but if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, chances are that it’s not chicken.

The best for last: Amanda Ajuluchuku claims that Bank of America lost a $200 check of hers. According to court filings is caused her to suffer “panic and anxiety attacks, severe dizzy spells, headaches, and cold chills.” I’ve had much worse money problems, including the one time that the military didn’t process my paycheck properly—which amounted to no less than 7 times the amount Ms. Ajuluchuku claims that BOA lost of hers—and I didn’t sue anyone. Oh yeah: She sued—Claiming $5 billion-with-a-“b” in damages. The suit was eventually settled for $3,000 but she just kept on going. Alleging “discrimination, contempt, and acts of terrorism,” she filed at least 219 suits in federal courts over the course of 4 years. No legal team here, though: She represents herself, on a mission to use the proceeds of her litigious nature “to cater to the needs of the underprivileged children globally.

While these examples show what seem to be some awfully extreme behavior, think about the case of Bart Ross: When federal Judge Joan Leflow dismissed his pro se suit regarding a malpractice suit of an Illinois medical center, he went ballistic and killed the judge’s husband, mother, and later himself.

Can’t stand the manner in which the society that we are living in is deteriorating? All it takes is for good people to do nothing; the apathy of each individual who just shrugs these matters off and moves on with their lives only goes to allow the fires of entropy to continue to burn.

Monkey Mondays: Two Monkeys for the Price of One

Ashlee picks the monkey over her sister.


Meet the Mandrill!