Friday, May 12, 2006

How's the Weather Up There?

If you are like me (which I seriously doubt) you have been asking yourself why there are suddenly so many Meteorologists on television lately. It comes to mind because local television stations devote an extraordinary amount of time to the weather. So much so, that it is often the lead story, especially when there is snow in the forecast. On our local ABC station, Action News weeknight meteorologist Cecily Tynan gets top billing. She majored in journalism and politics at Washington and Lee University in Virginia.
For those non-local readers, in the Philadelphia area, the mere mention of the word snow (as in "Snow Flurries", "Snow Showers", or even the dreaded "Chance of snow flurries or snow showers") drives the locals into a frenzy that would only be rivaled by a full-out nuclear holocaust. Local grocery stores face exhausted supplies of milk, eggs and bread; as if we fear being unable to make French Toast when housebound.
What I've noticed is that the local weather people have been introducing themselves as "Meteorologist [insert name]" much in the same way as a doctor would use the term "Doctor [insert name]". It seems to me to be a bit smug, since I place the television meteorologist on the same level as the Subway Sandwich Artist rather than my local General Practitioner, who may hold my life in his hands. I wondered about it so much that I looked into what it takes to be a TV Meteorologist. It's not much, as you could imagine.
The American Meteorological Society [AMS] Seal Program consists of at least 12 semester hours of study in the atmospheric, oceanic, or related hydrologic sciences from an accredited institution of higher learning, and a $600 fee. We're talking about four 3-credit courses in a related science and some money. So, you can bet that the boys at your local TV station have jumped at the chance to have any street reporter with an interest in science fill-out an application and take some night courses, like Cecily did, for the priviledge of calling herself a Meteorologist.
That isn't meant to take away from people like Stephanie Abrams of the Weather Channel, who has a real B.S. in Meteorology, or any other real science major. The point is, that local television has seen a need to include the title "Meteorologist" when introducing people like Carol Erickson, a respected veteran local TV reporter who suddenly acquired a title. It does, however, make me wonder how people like Stephanie feel about local reporters calling themselves something that it took her four years of college to acquire. Or maybe they're all as happy as clams to be drawing that fat TV paycheck every two weeks? It's probably that.
You never hear titles added to the sports guy or the news anchor. The only titles presented in the introductions are for the Meteorologists. I wonder?
You would also think, with the wealth of information available to these pseudo-scientists, that the forecasts would be more accurate. There are satellite fly-overs, Doppler radar and more technology than they have at NORAD, and the best these people can do is guess with applicable percentages. For instance, this weekend was supposed to be rainy and generally lousy. They told us that as recently as Thursday, but the forecast has changed, and will probably change a few more times between now and Sunday.
By the way, what's the difference between Partly Cloudy and Partly Sunny? And why do snow flurries matter? If it isn't going to accumulate, I don't need to know about it. For all I know, the flurries could be ashes from the local incinerator.
With the fancy title and the AMS Certification, we expect more. High expectations produce greater disappointment when they are wrong. I think they would benefit from a little less pomp and a lot more circumstance. We really don't need to hear the title Meteorologist every five minutes, but we do need to hear an accurate forecast. It wouldn't matter if it was coming from the AMS member, the Subway Sandwich guy or a chimp, as long as I knew whether or not to wear a wool coat or a pair of shorts.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

You Poor Suckers

It would seem as though the great powers of the American Idol machine have once again lured you into a televised trance of simulated enthusiasm, and like the prison colony at French Guiana, there is no escape.
All day, seemingly intelligent people on the radio, TV, newspapers and at work have been complaining because some performer they liked was supposedly voted off of America's favorite talent show. What these people failed to realize is that they are being manipulated by the largest media conglomerate in the world - Fox.
Please, I beseech you, do not allow the powers at the most powerful media outlet in the world to manipulate your feelings. Chances are, the joker who was seemingly voted off of this ridiculous charade of a television show was done so because it would get a rise out of you. In that respect, you have fulfilled their expectations. Congratulations - you have been had. You are talking about the show, which was their intent from the start.
Please do not allow your feelings to be manipulated by these rotten people. They will do whatever is necessary to get you to talk about this sorry excuse for entertainment, and you will fall for it - unless you resist. So, do it. Resist the evil temptation of the apple that is American Idol, and do not allow yourself to be drawn in by their coercion.
I know people who drive two vehicles to their son's baseball games because the wife must be home in time to watch the show. Please - spare me - you will sacrifice time with your flesh and blood in order to watch a television program? What kind of society are we living in? Get a grip folks, and stop (please) allowing big business to influence your behavior.
Face it gang, there is no real voting. The show is too big for itself, and it has outgrown it's own media-created glory. There is no way anyone but the conglomerate-accepted winner will prevail, so save your money and tame your aggravation. It doesn't matter what you think. You are powerless to change the momentum of the AI Machine, so watch it if you must, but accept it as entertainment and nothing more. If it rules your life, your life is not worth much.

We Poor Suckers

NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. crude and gasoline futures ended sharply higher on Thursday as kidnappings in Nigeria and refinery snags in the United States stoked supply worries even though inventories rose last week. International Energy Agency director Claude Mandil said on Thursday he was surprised record high oil prices had not had more impact in curbing demand.
"Maybe that's due to a time lag," Mandil said. "It needs recognition by the general public that they have to save energy ... It would be a good thing for demand to decrease."
It seems as though the oil companies will use any excuse at their disposal to raise the price of a barrel of crude. Unrest, kidnappings, heat, cold, uncertainty, inflation, the Phillies winning, increase in demand or decrease in supply - whatever it takes, they will do whatever it takes because we will take whatever they give us. Why? Because we have no choice. We have to get to work to pay for the gasoline that gets us to work.
That's why I'm surprised (really?) at the comments from IEA director Mandil. He fails to grasp a basic concept of life in America that I grasp, and I'm sure you do, too. The basic concept: We are a nation of vehicular convenience. According to the U.S. Census, the average time to commute to work in Philadelphia is 30 minutes, which is fourth highest in the nation. It isn't surprising because we have been driven to the suburbs, where the homes are, and commute to the cities, where the work is. Is that too difficult a concept for a director to grasp? It shouldn't be. If it takes 30 minutes to get to work, it isn't likely that we are going to walk. The sad part is that there isn't more public transit to more locations, so that we would not be so beholden to our cars.
The other not-so basic concept is that for years, we have been sold on the big, supposedly-safer SUV as a mode of transportation. Vehicles that are better suited to big-game hunting than grocery shopping are infesting our highways. They block my view of the road and eat up gasoline at an alarming rate. I parked next to one yesterday that had a placard proclaiming that it had an "Off Road Package". From the looks of the shine on it, the vehicle had barely been Off-Driveway, let alone off-road. As designed, the vehicle was using about 10% of its brain capacity, which I believe matched the capacity of the driver as well.
Through a combination of factors both in and out of our control, we are slaves to the oil industry. Theoretically, they could charge us $5 a gallon and we would pay it, because we have no choice. We have been enticed to buy the big homes in suburbia and forced to commute to our jobs in the city because we feel that our lifestyles are enhanced by this behavior. We were so comfortable in it that we bought bigger and bigger vehicles to cart around our bigger and bigger asses because they told us that the bigger vehicles were safer for our precious kids. My Question to You: How does it feel to be played like a violin by big business and suckered into a lifestyle that you can no longer tolerate? You're fed up because you fed yourself up at the behest of your pals at General Motors, Exxon-Mobil and Pulte Homes. Welcome to America.
What really happened is that we were suckered into a malaise of never-ending consumerism. Higher prices for bigger vehicles - more money to buy the gasoline that runs them - higher property taxes for the bigger homes - and more time spent traveling to our jobs that could be better used doing something we like to do. The really sad part is, we have elected a president (twice) who wallows in our misery and even encourages it by his inaction. Now, we are left with something like 980 days of his inflicted misery (check the counter) and, like the prison colony at French Guiana, there is no escape. Unless, like Papillion, you build a raft out of coconuts and dive off a cliff, risking your life, hoping that the tides take you to freedom. Papillion was driven to a desparate act because he had no other choice. We have a choice because we have free will, which was given us by our Creator.
Start building your raft folks, because the Warden isn't going to help you.
For another interesting viewpoint on the subject, visit my friend Firestarter5 here.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Three's a Crowd

Hold onto something:
ORLANDO, Fla. - Could there be a third President Bush? The current chief said Wednesday that younger brother Jeb would make a great one, too, and has asked him about making a run. The first President Bush likes the idea as well.
A great one too? That would imply that the second one has been great.
His own father says no one believes him when he says he's not interested in running at some point. Former President Bush told CNN's "Larry King Live" last year that he would like Jeb to run one day and that the son would be "awfully good" as president.
Go figure, his own father thinks he would be awfully good. Well, he's half right.
Jeb Bush has dealt with a lot of high-profile issues including hurricanes, immigration and sprawling development in one of the most important political states.
I wonder how he feels about flies...
HONOLULU — Twelve species of rare flies known for their elaborate courtship displays and found only in the Hawaiian Islands are now protected under the Endangered Species Act. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced the protected status for the highly valued picture-wing flies Tuesday.
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - According to a new study from teachers' union the National Education Association, half of new U.S. teachers are likely to quit within the first five years because of poor working conditions and low salaries. "We must face the fact that although our current teachers are the most educated and most experienced ever, there are still too many teachers leaving the profession too early, not enough people becoming teachers and not enough diversity in the profession," said NEA President Reg Weaver in a statement.
Gee, it's a shame that teachers aren't as important as flies to our federal government. At least then, maybe they could earn a better wage and encourage the good ones to stick around. Oh well, as long as the flies are happy...
But at least there's some good news...
WASHINGTON - Scientists, inventors and entrepreneurs will be able to vie for a grand prize of $10 million, and smaller prizes reaching millions of dollars, under House-passed legislation to encourage research into hydrogen as an alternative fuel. He said the prize would not take away funds from any federal hydrogen programs, including the $1.7 billion hydrogen research program that President Bush first detailed in 2003.
So, we're spending $10 million on something that Iceland has been doing for at least a decade. Nice. How's that $1.7 billion they allocated in 2003 doing so far? Can you direct me to the nearest hydrogen filling station? Sometimes, throwing money at a problem isn't the best answer. Sometimes, there are people in other lands who have answers that, while they may seem strange to us Americans, provide viable solutions to problems.
I think the money would be better spent figuring out a way to keep salt from dropping off my soft pretzel - since the hydrogen technology exists, and the salt-pretzel technology does not.
Jeb Bush, we turn our lonely eyes to you. Woo-woo-woo.

Tuesday, May 9, 2006

You Are What You Think You Eat

Two recent "news" articles offer concerned Americans conflicting viewpoints on what and where they should eat. Digesting the news is sometimes more difficult than digesting the food. Let's try.
On Tuesday, McDonald's announced the creation of a Global Moms Panel to provide guidance on such topics as balanced and active lifestyle initiatives, restaurant communications and children's well-being. The nine women come from six countries and include four former Olympic athletes, among them U.S. speedskater Bonnie Blair and Italian cross-country skier Stefania Belmondo, as well as a childhood development expert, a chef, a librarian, an artist and a Parent Teacher Association president. The company said it wants their input in order to better serve the needs of moms and families worldwide.
The folks at the Golden Arches have assembled a veritable Gilligan's Island panel of experts to ensure that fat kids and fat adults get healthy choices when they visit their neighborhood restaurant. They even came up with a nice name for it, with the word "mom" in it, too. Your mom wouldn't steer you wrong, would she? Of course not, and so close to Mother's Day. If the professor and the skipper couldn't figure out a way to get off that stupid island, a bunch of winter Olympians and a PTA president don't stand a chance of getting people to change their eating habits. Yeah, I know.
Don't you think that, if people wanted healthier choices, they would find them? It isn't as if McDonald's is the only place to eat, and we are forced to go because there aren't any better choices. Here's a clue: People go to McDonald's because they like fatty foods. If they wanted fruit and fat-free French fries, they would stay home or go to Saladworks. It's a nice P.R. move, but they aren't about to turn their SS Titanic customer base into the SS Minnow.
Meanwhile ...
Supermarkets are trying to lure families back to the dinner table. "The more often kids have dinner with their parents, the less likely they are to smoke, drink and use drugs," said Joseph Califano Jr., a former U.S. health secretary and current head of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, which did the research. Los Angeles-based Contessa Premium Foods makes frozen gourmet meals, such as sesame chicken stir fry and burgundy beef stew, that a family can heat in 10 to 12 minutes. That's nearly as fast as a TV dinner, said president and chief executive John Z. Blazevich, but is healthier and makes people feel like they actually cooked. So where does this leave restaurants? According to industry estimates, the average person eats in restaurants four times to five times a week. Supermarkets want people to stay home.
Whenever there's a problem, we go right for the kids. Driving too fast? Baby on Board signs. Too much violence? Parental warnings on CDs, movies and television shows. Want to keep your kids off drugs and cigs? Make them eat at home. So says the supermarkets of America, who coincidentially are providing the food that your kids will be eating at home. Healthy stuff like beef stew and gourmet meals with plenty of thick sauces and beef. Did I mention beef? They probably paid for the research, too. Why else would it be necessary to mention the Contessa Premium Foods Company, The Food Marketing Institute, Safeway stores, The National Restaurant Association and the Eat Smart, Grow Strong Campaign in the news article?
It's amazing to me what passes for news. Stories contain commercial and television show tie-ins, mention products by name for no apparent reason, and are often little more than commercials disguised as news. Think about the number of times, especially in your local newscast, that you see and hear products named, and sometimes they are the focus of the story. Those companies are getting two or three minutes of free air-time that they would otherwise have to pay for. Nice work if you can get it.
And speaking of slick marketing ... what is that ridiculous TV show doing on the front page of our Philadelphia Daily News? Is it supposed to sell newspapers? If so, why is the Fox Network getting a free front-page ad, along with a free article? Doesn't Delilah's Den have to pay for advertising?
Here's another clue: Eat where you want to eat. You can get healthy meals in your local restaurant just as easily as you can at home. It might cost you a bit more, but if your family is together, what difference does it make? Chances are, your kids are going to use drugs and smoke whether or not you eat dinner at home or at Applebee's. What is more important than what or where they eat is whether or not you can teach your children to think for themselves.
Don't allow a slick marketing campaign disguised as news to persuade you to change your life.

Monday, May 8, 2006

Little Supermarket of Horrors

I was forced to subject myself to the misery of the neighborhood supermarket today. As in the past, it was a typical experience in life's great consumer melting pot, where folks of all shapes, sizes and methods of behavior infest what appears from the outside to be a grocery store, when in fact, it is a test. It is a test of our mettle as both consumers and people, and the longer I am there, the more difficult the test becomes.
First, there's the joys of walking in, past and around the above-ground mine field of cars, trucks and mini-vans parked in the "No Parking Zone", which is clearly marked by diagonal yellow stripes which, by now are worn down from the constant rub of automobile tires. They are parked, engines running, driver inside, dutifully waiting for their equally lazy counterparts to emerge from the supermarket with a cart full of junk. At first glance, one would think that it was impossible to find a vacant parking space but, on further review, we see that there are several. Alas, they are at least fifty feet from the store - a distance few would travel without a motor. Instead, they decide to camp in the diagonal stripes, seemingly oblivious to life going on around them.
Next, we grab a cart and pick out the used sale papers lying on the bottom, along with the stray grocery list and - it's my lucky day - there's a wadded-up tissue. Welcome to Shop Rite!
The time is six o'clock and it's the Screaming Baby Hour, where the entrance is temporarily blocked because the kids want pie, and they believe that screaming is just the thing to get mom to pick up a fresh-baked cherry for the dinner table. The more mom refuses, the louder the kids scream. Shouldn't they be waiting in the car, in the No Parking Zone with dad - who is apparently the brains of the outfit? No. Instead, he has chosen to wait in the car with the Jimi Hendrix CDs while mom slowly loses her hearing.
I would like to buy some cereal, but I am having trouble, because the aisle is six feet wide, the carts are two and a half-feet wide, and there are two of them sitting side-by-side while the concerned shoppers compare the carb content of Fruity Pebbles vs. Fruit Loops. It is found to be the same.
Meanwhile, I have made my choice without stopping to check the price or calorie content, and it now falls on me to slide a cart sideways with wheels that only point straight. After years of shopping, I have developed powerful forearms. It's a small price to pay for a little stress.
As I come to the end of the aisle, I would like to move forward, but there is a woman standing in the middle, counting coupons and checking her shopping list, which she will later leave at the bottom of the cart. I wait a few seconds because I am polite. Soon, I will have to excuse myself. I say, "Pardon me," but I should have said, "Pardon you," since it isn't me who needs pardoning. She moves just enough for me to scrape one side of my cart handle on hers, and the other side of the cart handle on a box of Nature Valley Granola Bars, that I proceed to knock onto the floor. I pick them up and put them back, as I notice a backwards glance, as though she is getting ready to report me to the Supermarket Police for destruction of property. I gather myself.
I need ice cream. I would like to find some, but there is a person standing in front of the freezer with the door wide open, gazing intently at the myriad of choices, apparently stuck on which delicious Ben & Jerry's flavor he needs to achieve his goal of the complete domination of his pants. After what seems like an eternity - I am now whistling along to the Muzak version of Black Sabbath's "Paranoid" playing over the PA system - he makes a choice. Vanilla.
Now, I would like to make a choice, but I cannot, since his incessant door-open mulling-over has caused the door to fog. It's probably why Elmer Fudge had to stand there with it open to begin with. I choose Dave Matthews' Band Magic Brownies, because it is the polar opposite of vanilla, and I feel the need to balance the ice cream shelf. It's only right.
Now, it's time for the final exam in the great supermarket test - the checkout line. There are several lights glowing, and I scour the lines for the greatest possiblity of getting out of there before the Magic Brownies lose their magical properties and melt into magic brownie milk. Old lady with lots of heavy bags of dog food in row 11, single man who appears to be making his first shopping trip in row 9, and the couple with the wife checking the Enquirer and the husband staring into space in row 6 all appear to be wrong choices. I opt for aisle 5, where there is a bagger and only one person ahead of me with all her items on the conveyor.
She stands, watching the total on the register while the items pile up like an episode of I Love Lucy. Meanwhile, the bagger has gone off to help the hottie in row 15, and we are left alone. Me, the retiree/cashier and our price-conscious consumer, who is now arguing that the toothpaste is 3 for five dollars, and since she only bought one, we should round down to $1.66 instead of the $1.67 the register rung up. Time to call the manager. In the interim, she could be writing the check (or God forbid, have it partially written out ahead of time) but she decides to dot the i's and cross the t's while Dave and the Brownies meld into one.
Finally, it's my turn. "Do you have any coupons?" she asks. "No", I say, "But there's a woman in the cereal aisle..." They scan my Super Saver Discount keychain card, and when I am finished, I have store coupons for Fruit Loops, half-price on pie, and fifty cents off Ben & Jerry's Vanilla.
Lucky for me they put a liquor store right next door. Next time, I should go there first.

Sunday, May 7, 2006

Rick's Racket

Somehow today, the topic came up of what a great job Rick Steves has. He travels around the world, writes books and does a TV show - and gets paid for it. I guess my high school guidance counselor failed to recognize that job on the list of possible occupations I might pursue, but I suppose I could forgive him, since I would probably want to keep that Rolodex card for myself.
What a sweet gig! Wander around, find interesting little quirks about places all over the world and write them down, so that they are exposed as interesting little quirks, thus spoiling the quirkiness for everyone. This annoys some travelers, since, generally speaking, once something is popular, it's time to find something else. So, Rick works at crossed purposes. He has to find strange things for travelers to do, but as soon a he finds them, they become too popular for people to do. But, I suppose that's what keeps our economy going, and it's certainly what keeps Rick going. Although there may be another quirk worth examining...
As it turns out, Rick has an interesting sideline. He's on the board of NORML. If you don't know what NORML is, well ... Anyway, Rick is offering free copies of his book to High Times magazine readers who join NORML. So, go ahead, hit the web site and sign up. There's a free book waiting for ya.
Coincidentially, Rick has published a nice guidebook all about Amsterdam. I'm sure he has found several quirky and interesting things about the city. If you don't know about Amsterdam, well ...