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2011 Greetings

I felt a deep sense of withdrawal yesterday -- yesterday being my first day of freedom.

Fall semester, I completed 42 credits of teaching and studenting. Man, that's a lot. Most of my students take 12 hours of classes and seem overwhelmed. Most of my colleagues teach 15 hours of classes and seem frazzled. And, of course there are the university-prof types that teach a total of three class a year and think they've overworked.

Well, whatever. By the way, what the hell is burnout?

Funny thing is, my blood pressure meds apparently numb me to stress. That's not exactly true; I feel stress, but not in the way that the average nutcase feels it. To me, it just feels like a hug. Envelope me in your busy goodness, my friend.

Winter Break is akin to Summer Break's bastard step-cousin that nobody really likes. I hate to bitch about having 3 weeks off, but it's just long enough to not fully enjoy. Not to mention, of course, that 2012 looms. One year closer to death.

Speaking o…

Feeling Lucky? -- Writer's Poke #350

Google’s Chinese weblink is http://www.g.cn, and it looks about as boring as the http://www.google.com we’re all used to in the U.S.  Just for the fun of it, I googled Pete Rose using the Chinese Google, and at least in Minnesota, I wasn’t blocked from receiving information about the best American baseball player of all time. In fact, the Chinese version of Wikipedia even has an entry on the Tienanmen Square Massacre. I thought that was interesting, but since it’s in Chinese, I have no idea what spin it might have; nor do I know if the average Chinese citizen has access to reading the entry.
I use Google, but it’s not my favorite search engine; I’m a Yahoo! man, and I probably always will be until they go out of business. But what if a Chinese search engine company tried to break into the American search engine market? Would I bite? Doubtful.
The Internet should be borderless, but it does seem rather odd that Google, an American company, would expect to be successful in China. After …

Accent on Success -- Writer's Poke #349

China at Your Doorstep, or The Devil You Know -- Writer's Poke #348

Entering a Walmart is a depressing experience for me and for that reason alone, I choose to shop at Target, or someplace that doesn’t zap my soul when I walk through the door.
Like everyone else, I like low prices, and so the few times that I have entered a Walmart over the past year, I’m always amazed by how cheap the products are. But still, it’s not enough to make me shift my shopping habits. I also wonder why Walmart has received such negative press over the past decade but other companies, such as Amazon.com, have not.
Websites exist that even make fun of the Walmart experience – and the type of customers that Walmart attracts. I’m probably guilty of having had a laugh at a Walmart customer or two, but let’s face it: some people don’t have much choice but to shop there. 
But low prices is a viscous cycle. Walmart keeps lowering the prices, jobs keep getting shipped over seas, and the middle class in America continues to shrink. With the shrinking of the middle class comes the willin…

Ends of the Earth -- Destination #6: Honningsvag, Norway

If I had the means to visit the ends of the Earth, here are the ten places I would visit. What ten "ends of the Earth" places would you like to visit? Leave me a comment.
Destination #6 : Honningsvag, Norway
Honningsvag, Norway is the first destination on this list reachable by cruise ship, and for some reason, I imagine Honningsvag to be a lot like Barrow, Alaska – minus the English speakers. The current population of Honningsvag is around 2300, and the area itself has had humans roaming around it for at least the past 10,000 years.
An Alaskan cruise is fun, but the two main cruise route options are the Inner Passage and the Gulf of Alaska. Both options don’t take you all that far north. Although I haven’t gotten out the ruler, I’m guessing that Honningsvag is about 700 miles further north than, say, Anchorage, because 700 miles is the approximate distance between Anchorage and Barrow. In other words, a Norwegian cruise may be a lot like an Alaskan cruise, but it goes a lot …

The Price of Liberty -- Writer's Poke #347

My Levis never come from the same place. I have pairs from Nicaragua, Honduras, Haiti, and Lesotho. No matter where they’re made, I’m charged the same price at the retailer. So when I go to J.C. Penny’s, I expect to shell out about forty bucks for a pair of jeans.


Just how many pairs of Levis can an average work produce in an hour? I googled this question, but could not find a quick answer. For sake of argument, let’s assume the answer is 10 pairs. The retail value of 10 pairs of Levis, then, is $400. Wholesale value might be $200 for 10 pairs. Material costs might be $100 for 10 pairs. Shipping and other distribution and factory-related expenses might be, what, $50 for 10 pairs? After all this, what’s left over is profit and labor expenses. So how much does the average Haitian working for Levis make per hour? Maybe 30 cents, or 3 cents per completed pair of jeans. Is that fair?

Defenders of sweatshops suggest that they are simply part of the economic development process. If Haitians…

Flirting with God -- Writer's Poke #346

http://www.wired.com/geekdad/2011/01/the-5-best-toys-of-all-time/all/1
Okay, so what if malls are our temples? What’s the big deal? According to Phyllis Rose’s article “Shopping and Other Spiritual Adventures in America Today,” Americans know how to handle materialism. To discuss materialism as if it were a problem doesn’t sound very American, anyway, does it? Makes those entering into the discussion sound like Marxists. 
The beauty of American materialism is that everyone has opportunity for stuff. Over the weekend, the Home Shopping Channel was advertising a 73 inch LCD TV for $1399, and it was available on EZ pay. Who can’t afford six easy payments of $233.17 a month? And, the salesman noted, a 73 inch TV won’t even feel like it’s consuming the room. 
Americans are sophisticated. We know that the purpose of shopping isn’t singular. We shop for a multitude of reasons; Rose even shop without any intention of buying. We window shop, and that takes on, she says, the same function as fl…

The Mall Is Our Temple -- Writer's Poke #345

This weekend as I was loading up on $3.99 DVDs at Best Buy, I was thinking about the hundreds of statues the Polynesians created on Easter Island. They didn’t recognize it at the time, but their dedication to building these statues ultimately lead to their demise. 
While they had plenty of stones to make their statues, they ended up cutting down all of the trees to help move these statues to their final locations, and the natural resources they consumed could never be replaced. Why? Because Easter Island is a very small speck of land, which is literally out as far in the middle of nowhere as a human being can get.
How the Polynesians originally managed to navigate to and settle what we now call Easter Island is one of the greatest travel stories never written. Somehow, a few brave and hardy souls hopped into their canoes and risked sailing thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean. The Pacific Ocean’s name is a bit of a misnomer, of course, as it’s a very rough and unforgiving body…

Ends of the Earth -- Destination #7: Easter Island

If I had the means to visit the ends of the Earth, here are the ten places I would visit. What ten "ends of the Earth" places would you like to visit? Leave me a comment. 
Destination #7: Easter Island


Easter Island is probably the most remote island inhabited by human beings. Located in the South Pacific Ocean, Chile and the continent of South America are 250 miles to its east. No human beings live on an island to its west for over 1200 miles.

So where did the human inhabitants of Easter Island come from? Most likely, Polynesians traveled over 2000 miles to reach the island around 300 A.D. If true, this must be one of the most amazing travel stories never written. The folks who traveled back in that day weren't sailing via luxury yacht, and they certainly didn't have the ability to carry many provisions with them. Needless to say, they didn't have maps, didn't have an end destination in mind, and didn't have any clue when they'd find land suitable for…

Communicating the Brand -- Writer's Poke #344

I first became a fan of KISS in 1987. I was 14, and Paul Stanley was 35. That year, KISS actually received a fair amount of video airplay on MTV, but I have to admit that Stanley seemed old.
Mariah Carey released her first record in 1990 at the age of 20; she is a few years older than I am, but I never viewed her as “old” in the same way that I viewed Stanley as old. Not until I viewed her new video with Justin Bieber.
The “All I Want for Christmas” duet with Bieber is a remake of Carey’s 1994 Christmas release. It’s not unusual for artists to pair-up, and the song has some respectability as a contemporary Christmas classic. But why does the now 41 year-old Mariah Carey want to sing a duet with 17 year-old Justin Bieber?
Bieber is the butt of many jokes, but somebody is listening to his music; and somebody is helping to make him rich. Carey may suffer from Peter Pan Syndrome (I will never grow old), or perhaps she recognizes that Millennials view her much like I viewed Paul Stanley, and …

Ends of the Earth -- Destination #8: Vladivostok, Russia

If I had the means to visit the ends of the Earth, here are the ten places I would visit.
What ten "ends of the Earth" places would you like to visit? Leave me a comment. 

Destination #8: Vladivostok, Russia
Something attracts me to the idea of visiting places where nobody else goes. I’m sure many Americans go to the places I’m mentioning on my Ends of the Earth Top 10 list, but I don’t personally know anyone that has visited Barrow, Alaska, for instance; and I only know three people that have visited South Africa. These places aren’t impossible to visit, but people generally need a very specific reason – or a very passionate drive – to visit them.
Just to name a specific place, I’ve selected Vladivostok, but more generally, I could simply say “Siberia.” When I read Colin Thubron’s In Siberia, I become fascinated with the idea of visiting what I had always imagined to be a vast snow-covered wasteland. Siberia is not a wasteland, of course. Well, not completely, but it is vast…

A Meaningful Life Philosophy: Sponsored By… -- Writer’s Poke #343

Gary Ruskin and Juliet Schor’s “Every Nook and Cranny: The Dangerous Spread of Commercialized Culture” points out an interesting survey result. “In 2003,” they write, “the annual UCLA survey of incoming college freshman found that the number of students who said it was a very important or essential life goal to ‘develop a meaningful philosophy of life’ fell to an all-time low of 39 percent, while succeeding financially has increased to a 13-year high, at 74 percent.”

Why the disconnect here? Couldn’t “succeeding financially” be a “meaningful” reason for being? Apparently not, or at least UCLA students don’t recognize it as such.

So, we live to make money. Money itself has no value except for what it can buy. And what do we want to buy? Cars? Clothes? Electronics and Toys? A nice house? In other words, stuff. I like stuff, you like stuff, and we’ll work long and hard to earn enough money to buy the stuff we want. The secret “they” never tell you is this: Buying stuff is a no-win prop…

Ends of the Earth -- Destination #9: Barrow, Alaska

If I had the means to visit the ends of the Earth, here are the ten places I would visit.

What ten "ends of the Earth" places would you like to visit? Leave me a comment. 

Destination #9 -- Barrow, Alaska

All I know about Barrow, Alaska, I learned from watching the zombie flick 30 Days of Night. In other words, I know nothing about Barrow, Alaska.
Barrow is the northern-most city in North America, and its main claim-to-fame may be that it’s the biggest city in the National Petroleum Reserve.  As far as I can tell, the city has never been attacked by zombies, but polar bears have been known to drop by for unexpected visits.
Current population is 4,000, and apparently folks have been calling Barrow and the immediate area home for the past 1,000 years. This amazes me, as there were probably countless other places that people could have homesteaded back then, and yet out of all the places in the world, they selected Barrow? Amazing. Did these people cross the Bering Strait and j…

Ends of the Earth -- Destination #10: South Africa

The Earth is more or less a big, blue ball, and balls don't have ends.

Nevertheless, we speak of the "ends of the Earth," and when we in the West speak of the "center," we're usually not referring to the Earth's core. The United States, after all, is "the most important country on Earth." Everywhere else is only important in terms of its "distance" (physically and otherwise) away from us. (I don't actually think the U.S. is the center of the world.)

I have a special love for the ends of the Earth; in my imagination at least, I picture worlds much different from the one I live in; sometimes I hope I never have the chance to visit any of them, because I don't want to be disappointed to find out that "there" is very much like "here."

If I had the means to visit the ends of the Earth, here are the ten places I would visit.

What ten "ends of the Earth" places would you like to visit? Leave me a comme…

Encounter Yourself -- Writer's Poke #342

Kids learn incredibly annoying songs, and some of these songs stay with us for the rest of our lives. One such song for me is “This Land Is Your Land,” which according to wikipedia “is one of the United States’ most famous folk songs.”


Why did my grade school decide to teach us this song? Was it for the geography lesson, so that we could learn about “the Redwood Forest” and “the Gulf Stream waters”? I don’t know, but I do know that most of us thought the world began and ended at the county line. That is to say, most of us didn’t travel much further than Terre Haute, Indiana, which was the “big city” located less than 30 miles away from our hometown of Casey, Illinois (population 3000).

Every summer, Chad talked about how his family spent their summer vacation in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. This was a big deal for him, and for us, too, really, as most of us didn’t have the opportunity to travel even that far. Kids made do by playing little league baseball and swimming at the city pool.

T…

The Real Domesticated Chickens on Rock Three -- Writer's Poke #341

The world’s human population is now over 7 billion. From time-to-time some suggest that perhaps this is just too many people for one little planet to bear.


Most people don’t have any idea, really, how many resources it takes to support one human life, let alone seven billion. We can say, “Everything is fine; the Earth can handle us.” But on what do we base this rather frivolous statement?

The phrase of the day, boys and girls, is “The Sixth Extinction.” Kind of catches your attention, doesn’t it? According to our friends in the white lab coats, the last mass-extinction occurred 65 million years ago with the fall of the dinosaurs.

From a human-centered point of view, I suppose the last mass-extinction wasn’t such a bad thing. After all, while having a dinosaur as a pet might have worked in The Flintstones, I very much doubt that our ancestors would ever have secured a toe-hold on world domination with these big fellas still roaming the Earth.

So who cares if bees and frogs and turtle…

Future This -- Writer's Poke #340

“Is it the end of the world, Daddy?”

My daughter, Tavi, is 4, and she has been asking me a lot lately about the end of the world. I’m not sure where she picked up this question, but she’s my little gothic girl, and she’s quite interested in death.

“When we’re dead, we’re skeletons. Right?”

Death isn’t something she fears, and she’s certainly too young to fully comprehend what death is, but it’s a topic that she’s clearly working on.

Last week, she started talking to me about Mars. I’m glad that she’s interested in space, but the link back to death and the end of the world was still on her mind.

“Daddy,” she said, “when we need a fresh new planet, let’s go to Mars. We can kill all the aliens and make it our home.”

I used this conversation as a “teachable moment,” explaining to her that most aliens are probably friendly, and if any live on Mars, we would need to be gracious guests, and gracious guests don’t commit genocide. It just isn’t the neighborly thing to do.

Life is fragile…

Know-It-All -- Writer's Poke #339

A.J. Jacobs is a humorous gimmick writer that tackles absurd topics and takes them to their logical extreme conclusions.
The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Be the Smartest Person in the World was the first book of his that I discovered. To accomplish his task, Jacobs spent a year reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica. His book captures the experience of reading entry after entry, and he shares some of the more unusual items of interest he picked up while reading, as the blurb on Amazon.com notes, “33,000 pages, 44 million words, 10 billion years of history.” He also describes the attitudes and reactions of friends and family. Seems as though a lot of people thought Jacobs was a bit nuts attempting to accomplish this task. After all, who sits down to read an entire encyclopedia?

Jacobs continues to crank out rather silly “life experience” books; they all seem rather artificial, because he assigns himself some weird task, and then he writes about it. In one book, he attempt…

Lemon AIDS -- Writer's Poke #338

Dr. Manto Tshabalala-Msimang served as South Africa’s Minster of Health from 1999 to 2008; she was rather notorious for her views on AIDS, arguing that a diet of lemons, beetroots, and garlic was a fine way to delay the development of HIV. As far as I know, this woman wasn’t stupid. She was a real doctor, having received medical training in South Africa, the Soviet Union, Tanzania, and Belgium. So why did she support a nutritional approach as the best way to combat HIV as opposed, say, to using a more conventional (and scientifically-based) approach, such as treating the disease with anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs)? Politics. Apparently South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki, didn’t believe that HIV caused AIDS, and so, until his cabinet finally overruled him and voted that it did in 2002, ARVs weren’t available to the general population. Africa was, and still is, trying to find itself. Tshabalala-Msimang supported the idea that Western medicine didn’t always know best, and that Africa should…

Why the Public Good Is Worth the Cost -- Writer's Poke #337

At this week's Republican Presidential Candidates' debate, one candidate suggested that all government regulations that cost businesses money should be reviewed; those regulations that are found to cost businesses significant cash, and therefore, force businesses to layoff employees, should be immediately repealed.

This idea received a healthy amount of applause. It is easy to understand what regulations "cost," but it's more difficult to perceive what the "benefits" to regulations are. Sometimes it might seem as though government makes laws and passes regulations just for the fun of it, but in all seriousness, when government passes legislation, does it do so with the primary purpose of forcing businesses to layoff employees? If not, what are the purposes behind the legislation, and does the legislation successfully help ensure that businesses meet these purposes in a way that they would not otherwise?

One example might be something like the governmen…

The Misadventures of the Three-Legged Stool -- Writer's Poke #336

I suppose the charm of using “the three-legged stool” analogy is that it helps readers visualize your argument, because let’s face it: trying to keep three different concepts in your mind at the same time can be so taxing.


So, writes Arthur Allen, HPV vaccination is a good thing, but that’s only one leg of the stool. According to Arthur’s 2007 piece in the Washington Post, two other stool legs necessary for a successful vaccination program are positive public perception and appropriate government funding. Without those two “legs,” the stool won’t stand.

When creating a three-legged stool, though, don’t chair builders make one leg at a time? And don’t they attach each leg individually? In other words, even if all legs are “equally” important, one leg must be installed first.

Think about it for a second: Does it really make sense to secure funding first? Why would the government secure funding for a stool leg that hadn’t yet been built? Why would the public be more likely to support a …

Needed: Vaccination against Bad Arguments -- Writer's Poke #335

Rick Perry has taken some heat for mandating the HPV vaccine in Texas. Why? Apparently because he had the audacity to use an Executive Order, because the Pharmaceutical Company that stood to directly benefit from the order will make a profit, and because this same Pharmaceutical Company contributed “thousands of dollars” to the governor’s campaign.


To me, critics of Perry don’t have a very strong argument. First, Executive Orders are legal and part of the governor’s power. Those who complain that the governor used his power should instead be working to amend or eliminate a governor’s ability to issue Executive Orders. Second, Texas has checks and balances like any other state. So, if the governor’s Executive Order was unconstitutional, then the issue could be settled in a court of law. Or, if the people really didn’t like the governor’s mandate, then their elected officials could certainly pass legislation to overturn it. The governor, in other words, is not a dictator, and to sugges…

Don't Know Much about Stem Cell Research -- Writer's Poke #334

The number of scientists (or those with a strong science background) in Congress is very small, and yet it is Congress that has the power to decide how to regulate stem cell research. Does this make sense? Most individuals in Congress may be relatively intelligent, but how many use their intelligence to make informed decisions? Probably fewer than have strong science backgrounds.


In other words, politicians make their decisions based on politics. When it comes to stem cell research, my assumption is that most in Congress know about as much as I do about the topic, which is to say, not all that much. And yet, many of those in power have an open distrust for scientists. Why this distrust exists, I’m not sure, unless it’s because most scientists do not subscribe to the political views of a particular party.

Perhaps some politicians do not view scientists as being “true Americans.” After all, scientists are more likely not to believe in God, and scientists also have this weird fascinat…

Malcolm X and Capitalism -- Writer's Poke #333

“I have a copy of Malcolm X,” I said, “can we do a public screening at the college for Black History Month.” Sure, the librarian told me, but she reminded me that the DVD I had was licensed solely for my own personal viewing. If I wanted to screen the movie in public, the college would need to purchase a public-viewing license from the production company. And how much will that cost? I wondered. She emailed the company, and they told her the cost would be $500.


Even though I had the DVD in my possession, we weren’t allowed to use that copy. Instead, when we paid the $500 fee, the company sent another copy of the movie. To the naked eye, it looked exactly the same as my copy, but knowing that it cost $500 made it special. I should point out, too, that the licensing agreement was for a one-time public viewing. Just because we paid $500 didn’t mean we had the right to show it over and over and over again.

So we promoted the event around campus. We promised popcorn and soda. We even pro…