Wednesday, January 30, 2013

App-less in Seattle

We are addicted to gadgets, there is absolutely no doubt about it. The technology made possible by geniuses like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs has enabled a host of electronic toys that we can't seem to get enough of. I may not be a gizmo-geek, but I thought I was keeping up pretty well until stuff like smart phones and I-pads came along, Now, and I freely admit this,  I am hopelessly lost in the techno jungle. Even more confusing to me than the gadgets is some of the new software that enables all this functionality, the so-called apps. Apps, apparently, are programs that can be downloaded to your smart phone that enable it to do wondrous things.

I don't have any apps. To the best of my knowledge, I don't need any apps. I am probably in the minority on this issue. I am like Neolithic man looking on in wonder as Paleolithic man uses fire to warm his cold bones. I see the fire, I see the good it can do, but I don't understand it, and therefore, I fear it. Apps are everywhere. I see people taking out smart phones way more advanced than mine and doing things from ordering theater tickets to paying for their Starbucks coffee. I see these little black and white rectangles that look like Rorschach inkblots everywhere I look. These must be the magic symbols that activate the sleeping apps that turn your smart phone into, well, everything.

I've been thinking about taking the app plunge, after all, I want to be more hip and with it. For example, here's an app I could use. You select from one of over 2,500 companies (including all of the Fortune 500), and the app calls the company and waits on hold. When a customer service representative finally picks up on the other end, the app calls you back and you’re free to complain or chat as you will. As great as this app may appear, I can think of an immediate enhancement they should make. When you are finally connected to the customer service representative, they need an app that will help you make sense of the person's unintelligible Indian accent!

Here's another app I might put on my list. Ever been trapped by someone you really didn't want to talk to? They go on and on and there is no escape. Usually I just say something rude like "Don't you ever shut up!?" As you can see, this might upset some overly sensitive people. Smartphone to the rescue with this app, that will give you a fake phone call by simply shaking the phone. Just shake and excuse yourself to take the important "call". This will probably only work once or twice with the same person, so either avoid this person or keep some rude remarks at hand for backup.
After seeing this next app, I'm thinking we might be getting to the bottom of the app barrel. This app does only one thing, it uses the iPhone speaker to blow a light puff of air. That's right, it can even blow out a candle using the smartphone. It's apparently for those unable to blow candles out without assistance, or those who like to annoy their pets. I would like to meet somebody who feels the need to own this particular app. I want to know how they use it. I also want to be able to say that I know someone dumb enough to pay for something to blow out candles.

I'm probably just not an app guy. Maybe if they came up with one that would fetch the TV remote or straighten out my golf slice, I'd consider it, but for now, blowing out my own candles is something I can still manage.


Children's Craniofacial Association

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Dust Bowl

I finally watched The Dust Bowl" on PBS. Ken Burns did his usual thorough job in bringing us this story of heartbreak and perseverance in the area around Oklahoma and Texas during the Depression-era Thirties. The tale was a remarkable one that told of how farmers, encouraged by the government, plowed up the natural grasslands to grow wheat. At first things went well and families made a lot of money selling their crops. Then came a years-long drought of Biblical proportions that figuratively and literally turned things black. With no moisture, the dried up ground became airborne, covering the area with choking dust storms that often buried cars and houses.

Many farmers understandably lost heart and moved west, mainly to California, to work as migrant fruit pickers. The story of these "Okies" was told brilliantly by John Steinbeck in "The Grapes of Wrath". Remarkably, many families, despite the lack of crops to sell and the risk of losing their farms to foreclosure, stayed and continued to hope for the best. They were referred to by locals as the "Next Year" people because they always held out hope that next year would be better. It wasn't. Years of drought were followed by plagues of grasshoppers that ate everything in sight including fence posts!

As usual with Ken Burns productions the best moments, besides the stunning video footage of the dust storms, were the interviews with folks who had lived through these troubling times. They came from independent, proud families who asked for nothing from the government and wanted no interference with their ability to make a living. When things got so bad that they were starving, they swallowed their pride and took the food the government made available to them. It was sad listening to one woman describe how her hard-working father deteriorated as he watched his dreams go up in black dust. Ironically, it was help from the government that finally pulled these desperate farmers out of the hole. 

FDR's administration provided paying jobs through the Civilian Conservation Corps and also introduced agricultural practices to help combat soil erosion gradually restoring the western plains to productive farmland again. Unfortunately they also began a practice that just seems to go against the grain of what America is all about: with dust storms still prevalent and overproduction of wheat driving prices down, the government began paying farmers not to grow crops. These federal subsidies persist to this day, and once proud farmers who wanted no part of government help were now more than happy to take their money for doing nothing.

Human nature never ceases to amaze me. In the 1950s, with the drought in check and wheat prices rising, farmers again began to plow up previously restored grasslands and plant wheat. The very behavior that caused all their problems in the 1930s was being repeated when it appeared there was a buck to be made. Luckily, smarter conservation policies helped prevent a repeat of the Dust Bowl disaster although some damage was again done to the land. I guess what impressed me most about this part of our history was the resilience of the people. How they managed to stay year after year in conditions that would surely defeat most modern-day Americans is a testament to their fighting spirit and refusal to quit.

The toughness that got America through World Wars, the Great Depression, and natural disasters like the Dust Bowl have always been the hallmarks of the American character. I wonder how today's younger generations who have known nothing but prosperity might fare if forced to cope with such events. 


Children's Craniofacial Association

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Cheating in Sports

The Hall of Fame in Cooperstown decided that nobody in this year's crop of athletes was worthy of admission. Were it not for accusations, both proven and unproven, of steroid use, a number of players would certainly have been elected including superstars Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds. Sadly, the pall cast over the balloting by the issue of drug use may have had an impact on quality players never involved in the drug scandal. In time, many of these deserving players will probably get elected, and rightly so, but the whole issue of cheating is raising questions about who juiced and who didn't. Rigorous testing protocols are now in place to catch players who are still using performance enhancers, but who knows how many did in the past, including now current Hall of Fame members.

Election to Baseball's Hall of Fame is not easy, and that's as it should be. The baseball writers who cast the ballots usually do a pretty good job of picking the right people. The process is by no means perfect. Sometimes deserving players with quiet personalities who played in small market cities get overlooked unless their stats just can't be ignored. Stats should count for a lot, but not everything. Players with borderline stats can get elected based on character, heart and how much they meant to their team and the game. One guy in my mind that falls into that category is Gil Hodges of the old Brooklyn Dodgers. A class guy with good numbers, Gil was a team leader, respected by his teammates and everyone in the game. Hopefully the Hall will amend this terrible oversight one day.

Another player who maybe got a bad deal is Pete Rose. I know, I know, he gambled on baseball games, but in light of what goes on in sports today, that seems almost trivial. Pete never bet against his own team and did nothing to alter the outcome of games; he always played to win. His numbers are off the wall and would have put him in on the first ballot had it not been for the gambling thing. Pete's big problem was his attitude. Had he been more contrite, admitted his mistake and asked for forgiveness, he'd probably be in, but that is not Pete Rose's nature. He would cut off his nose to spite his face rather than grovel. Too bad, Rose was an exciting player who made every team he played for better. His baseball skills and heart were extraordinary, but he wouldn't bow to the baseball writers; that sealed his fate.

A final word about cheating...the case of Lance Armstrong. After being found guilty of using banned substances to enhance his performance, Armstrong was stripped of his Tour de France medals and his name removed from the record books by the Union Cycliste Internationale. The USDA who did the testing on Armstrong accused him of overseeing the most sophisticated doping program they had ever seen for the teams on which he competed. This is not one athlete cheating, but a man who encouraged and systematically perfected cheating for his teams. He tarnished an entire sport and deprived honest competitors (if there really are any anymore) from medals that were rightfully theirs. Now Lance wants to admit all, not because he's truly sorry but because he wants the UCI to remove the ban on his participation in events they sanction. Compared to this guy, Pete Rose was a choir boy.

There seems to be a malaise hanging over professional sports these days. The pressure to win at all costs, and the money that comes with it, are tainting what was once the finest crucible of human endeavor. Honor, sportsmanship and "may the best man win" were the guiding principles. The only sport that rises head and shoulders above all others in continuing and even enhancing these traditional values in sport is golf. Competitors call penalties on themselves, conduct themselves like ladies and gentlemen, and raise more money for charity than all other sports combined. The United States Golf Association and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club in Europe enforce the game's rules and maintain high standards of behavior for players. We need a return to this conduct for all sports if our young people are to grow up with any character.


Children's Craniofacial Association