First snowfall of the season

For those of you who live in southern Wisconsin, you know that we’re finally receiving some much needed snow. This gives me an excuse to make my regular annual gripe about drivers who seem to forget how to drive around the white stuff. As I drove along the expressway to work this morning, I was stuck behind a slow driver, despite the fact that there was no precipitation and the expressway was clear. I couldn’t go around because the other two lanes were moving slower (we were traveling at 40 miles per hour; the posted limit is 55). Finally, that driver moved out of the way, and I managed to safely get up to the speed limit. As Dave Barry says, “If you are not passing, GET OUT OF THE LEFT DAMN LANE (emphasis and language original).”

My drive home tonight was seriously slowed by the amount of snow we received during the day. Road crews were unable to keep up with the accumulation, which made driving conditions difficult. Although I managed to get the car up to 40 mph during on the expressway, traffic came to a standstill a couple of times. The city streets were worse, since the snow made for slippery driving. Even then, I was able to accelerate up to a fairly safe speed.

So we’re getting pounded with more snow tonight and tomorrow, and the weather forecasters tell us to expect up to ten inches of snow by the end of the winter storm. It’s not the beating that Indianapolis, Ohio, and Pennsylvania saw (19-34 inches), but it is still a lot of snow for one day. It makes me wonder how people will drive when we receive some real snow.

I’m not suggesting that people can drive at regular speeds in snow, because that’s just dangerous. But if roads are already cleared and well-traveled and there is no precipitation, it does not mean that you need to drive extremely slow. Driving in this weather requires adjusting for conditions (slowing down if the roads are sloppy) and allowing plenty of space between you and the vehicle in front of you. The important thing is to not be intimidated by the snow, but it is still important to be cautious.

More site information

I managed to make a few fixes to the site. One thing I’ve noticed is that the cascading style sheet (CSS) for the error page doesn’t work very well inside a folder. Hopefully no one will encounter this, but it’s difficult to avoid mistakes once in a while. I’ll keep working on a solution. Fortunately, the site passes the World Wide Web Consortium’s validation for both HTML and CSS, and most other items work so far.

One other thing I’ve noticed is that although you can see the validation symbols at the bottom of the pages in Microsoft Internet Explorer, you cannot see them in Mozilla Firefox. If you are having problems seeing them in Apple’s Safari (I don’t have a Mac so I can’t check this), please let me know.

I have a last-minute update to make, so please be patient as I continue to make minor changes.

Four years in Madison

It just dawned on me that I’ve lived in Madison for four years as of today. I haven’t really reflected much about it recently. I did write a soapbox article on living here after one year, but I haven’t written about living here since, other than in blogs. But in the past couple of years, I’ve changed jobs, tried things I hadn’t tried in years (like softball), took up a new hobby (Xbox), dedicated myself to playing more guitar, and overall just continued to grow up (if at all). In three days, I celebrate four years in state service. It’s been a roller-coaster ride for the last year, but so far things are going very well.

New site look inspiration

I’ve added a new quote I read off of a fortune cookie to the Soapbox Quickies. You can see that not much is going on with this site. That’s because I’ve been putting some energy into the new site. I hope to have it up this winter. I’m taking some cues from yet another company’s web site: Apple Computers. I like the cleanliness of Apple’s site, and it’s no-nonsense appearance. It seems to make things easier to find. Since I have a lot on my home page, I’ve also chosen to take cues from other sites and clean this page up. I’m currently working on a navigation bar and some home page buttons (they’ll have a familiar look). I’m also debating what to do with my mascot. Finally, I’d like to add a search feature. I admit that I don’t have a lot on this site, but I think a search would be a useful tool.

Again, if you have suggestions, please let me know.

Updates – September 2003

Not much going on in my life. I spent an evening in Wisconsin Dells hanging out with a friend who was on his way back from South Dakota in his RV. I haven’t spent much time on the desk, but I’m looking at finishing it soon (woo hoo!). I’m also working out stuff for the new site. I had one idea, but it seemed to suck so I trashed it. I also found something that will help me determine how to make my home page hopefully more useful. I did fix the Hobbies page in My Bio and added some stuff about my computer. See… nothing exciting.

Vanity search in Google

I think I’ve unofficially decided to move and rebuild the new site in September. That should give me enough time to migrate files, develop some cascading style sheets (or something to that effect), learn some more stuff, and make it really worth checking out. Okay, maybe not worth checking out, but at least it will look cool (I hope).

I just returned from the mall, and I was shocked, horrified, and dismayed at what I saw. Some numbskull decided to move the kids fun center to the middle of the food court. Why is that bad? Well, it’s right in front of the entrance from the parking lot. Also, I foresee a lot of greasy fingers touching all of the playthings. Finally, I hate to say it, but it’s a huge security risk, especially with the rise in press coverage of missing children. Just be grateful that we have Amber Alert in Wisconsin now.

Have you ever done a vanity search? What’s that? It’s when you search for your name in a search engine. Since I’ve launched the new site’s preview, I have yet to see it appear. Instead, my name is out there. If you visit http://www.dot.wisconsin.gov/statepatrol/docs/wicmin073102u.pdf (this link no longer exists), you’ll see the only time my name shows up in Google. Or try it yourself… go to google.com and type in my name. Yes, it’s me sitting in on that WICORTS meeting. While you’re at it, type in your own name and see what happens. Gee, what a way to have your name immortalized in cyberspace.

Before I forget, I plan on having a new soapbox this weekend. It’s not a big one, but it’s a soapbox.

Technology and Social Degradation

Ever since I heard a teacher argue about the importance of computers in education, I’ve been thinking about how much I disagree. Sure, we’re moving towards a world of technological advancement, and computers surround us and affect us in our daily lives, but to start children on computers at an early age is something that I don’t think the schools should be responsible for. It’s my opinion that children should learn basic reading, writing, and arithmetic skills before tackling the mouse and keyboard.

Since then, I’ve started thinking about how technology affects us. Most of us can’t live without things like e-mail, the Internet, or even word processing. I was shocked to find ledger paper in my office the other day (you know, the columnar paper that accountants used to record credits and debits on before they could do it with a computer). I’m frightened at how dependent we are on all of this technology.

“Wait a minute Brian… you’re a gear head! You’ve got all kinds of gadgets and such… how can you say you’re frightened of technology?”

It’s true. I’m almost as bad as the next person. You realize that there are times that I need to perform calculations in my head (I leave my calculator in my desk drawer, often by mistake). But it’s also part of my past. When I worked in a hardware store, the cash register was so old that we actually had to punch in the numbers along a grid of digits (unlike the little keyboards you find on most registers and calculators today). The register didn’t tell us the change; we had to figure that out in our minds. So imagine the amazement a cashier had at a nearby restaurant when she keyed in the wrong button on her register and I had to tell her how much my change was. This is another example of how technology is adversely affecting us.

With the invention of the pocket calculator and its decreasing price, teachers have found it necessary to require children to use these for some simple math. Sure, I went to school after the slide rule was obsolete, and yes, I was required to purchase a graphing calculator for school (and they were new technology back then). But when college started, the calculator was shunned, if not completely banished, from the classroom. Imagine taking a test and having to multiply numbers on the piece of paper that you’re working on… and these chicken scratches were actually required! Can most children do this today?

Today, we also have less expensive computers (well, compared to what they cost before the mid-nineties). Most parents think that computers are actually positive influences on their children’s learning. So, let’s see if I understand this… a six-year old boy or girl should learn how to use a keyboard, right? Imagine those tiny fingers typing as fast as I can… and I’m no speed-typist. Or they should learn how to read things on a screen. I have two words for you: eye strain. I can’t believe that children would learn any faster using a computer than if they were reading a book. Yes, I believe that children should be exposed to technology, but only after they have the fundamentals down. For generations, children learned by reading books, writing with pencils, and adding with their fingers. But let’s teach them that computers will do all the work for them… that’s what I call learning.

Wait, I haven’t mentioned the Internet yet. It seems that everyone out there thinks the Internet is the ultimate source of information. I recently saw a Charter Communications commercial where some kid’s bad grades were the result of getting rid of a dial-up Internet connection, but his grades went back up when he used his friend’s high-speed Internet connection. What school does he attend that doesn’t have a library (Books? What are those?)?

I remember when the Internet became a household word. It was amazing… I could type in some address and see what someone had to sell. Now it seems that everyone has an Internet site (if you’re reading this, you know what I mean). How do you know that information that I’m providing is accurate? How should anyone confirm the authenticity of the information that’s out there?

If you’ve read my soapbox article on e-mail, you know exactly what I mean. Ah, e-mail, that other great technological wonder! I can send a text message to anyone (and everyone) in a matter of seconds. Cool. And I can receive information from others just as quickly. Yes, I even receive those warnings about viruses and other dangerous maladies floating around (most, not all, are usually hoaxes).

Wait, there are web sites out there that warn of hoaxes, aren’t there? Are kids learning this stuff in school? Are they learning how to verify the authenticity of their sources?

What else do computers teach children? What about word processing? Kids must learn how to write. But are they learning proper grammar? Does the word processing software that you’re using always catch improper grammar usage? Even the software I use makes mistakes. I dislike the green squiggly line… it’s annoying, and often incorrect. And how often does it remain stable? I enjoy rebooting my work computer every other week because my word processor is touchy. You’re probably thinking, “Brian, you should use Microsoft Word.” Newsflash: I do!

What about instant messaging? Does that have an effect on kids’ grammar today? If u r an IM user, u might recognize that I’m lol because of the stories I keep hearing about kids using IM “grammar” in their schoolwork. 🙂 Actually, it’s pretty serious. If I were a teacher and a student of mine used IM abbreviations in any part of his or her paper, that kid would spend a lot of time after school with his or her nose in a novel (perhaps Dickens, possibly Tolstoy). :p

Another piece of software that I use regularly is a spreadsheet. This is an electronic (and if programmed properly, automated) ledger pad. It’s really convenient. I enter the numbers, apply a formula, and let the spreadsheet do its magic. If I need to change a number and recalculate the results, I change one number and let the spreadsheet perform the necessary calculation for me. But how many kids know how to set up a spreadsheet to do this? How many kids are going to need to know how to do this in their future professions? Personally, I can’t see a doctor or lawyer using a spreadsheet… that’s what aides and assistants are for.

But let’s move away from what kids are learning in school and focus more on what they’re learning in general. They have technology in the classroom today. Computers, cable television, even dry-erase boards. Kids are taught that all of this great technology is needed to learn. What about imagination or really using your noodle? What’s worse is what’s going on at home. Television flashes fast food as a fun thing and the coolest new toys and games during children’s programming. Video games are readily available. Computers are invading homes everywhere.

All of this technology has led to one thing: fatter kids. The United States is the fattest country in the world. Even worse, over 30% of the fat people in the US are under 18! Obesity is becoming a bigger problem every year. It is the second largest contributor to heart disease and other fatal conditions (smoking is first), and it may soon become first. (To learn more, see the Center for Disease Control and Prevention website.)

Okay, so you’re wondering how technology is doing this. Think about the hours kids spend sitting in front of the computer on the Internet, or sitting in front of the television playing video games or watching cartoons. That’s hours that they’re not exercising.

What’s worse is that children are playing games that are much more realistic in appearance (this ain’t the Atari that I grew up with). With the amount of games that look realistic and have violent motifs, I wonder if kids are becoming desensitized to real life violence (I’ll leave the answer up to the folks that do the studies). What’s worse is that the games are becoming racy… I would never suggest Grand Theft Auto 3: Vice City for my nieces (what you do with your kids is your business)!

I’ve focused on children so far. What about adults? Does this technology affect us as well?

I believe it does. I’m just as guilty as the next person when it comes to watching television or chatting on the Internet (well, maybe not as guilty). Rather than being out and actually meeting people, I sit at home (to my credit, though, I probably spend more time working on the guitar than just sitting in front of the computer or television). But this means that I’m not as social as I should be or would like to be. But it also means that I’m not walking, exercising, etc. I even spend all day in an office sitting at a desk and often working on the computer. This translates into many hours of doing almost absolutely nothing that keeps my muscles in motion, and results in less calories burned.

Now what about other adults? Some other adults actually move around when they work, and come home to relax, right? What’s wrong with that?

Actually, there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s what’s done when relaxing that bothers me. Most people sit at home, drink a couple of beers (or whatever), watch television, do a bit of housework, and go to bed. But there are a few people that spend countless hours on the computer and get nothing else done during that time. In that time, their kids are not getting help with their homework, their spouses are not getting the attention they need, and the house is falling into disarray (unless the spouse is doing work). As a result, adults are also getting larger.

Perhaps now is a good time to mention this: sitting truly messes up your back. I don’t care what your chiropractor says. Sitting puts undue stress on the spine, causing most spines to lose natural curves in them. This results in putting pressure on the nerves in the spine (especially lower down the back). Your legs may hurt, your shoulders will droop forward and separate muscles in your neck, and your lower back will ache. The human body was not designed to sit… I knew this back in college, and I know it now. Furthermore, repetitive motion injuries are becoming more prevalent among computer users.

This technology stuff is also a financial burden. For those of you who have money to burn, you can afford the latest and greatest (even though it’s prone to crashing and stalling). For those of us who can’t afford a new computer or television every year, we have to shell out cash every so often to have something that will last a while. My current computer cost me almost $2,000 only three years ago (case and monitor). My next one will cost more (due to specific needs), but won’t be purchased for at least a year (hmm, new computer for recording or Paul Reed Smith guitar?). My other option is to upgrade, but even that would cost at least $500.

What does this have to do with social degradation?

Because technology causes us to spend so much time and money on it, we run into problems elsewhere in our lives. I, for example, spend more time in front of my computer than trying to meet people. I also spend a considerable amount of money on computer software and peripherals instead of spending it on something more social (such as bars, clubs, bookstores, cafes, etc.). Needless to say, I’m still single!

Another area that’s leading to our demise is related to transportation. I’ll attack this from two fronts. First, there’s the “image” of the fast cars and sex appeal. People today are captivated by sports cars, driving fast, and lots of action, and most of us men think that it will help us pick up women (seeing how I’m a guy, I can’t speak for women). All of those flashy, glitzy images on the silver screen and the television lead us to think that we, too, can be flashy and glitzy by driving the same types of vehicles. So, we hop in our little sports cars, rev the engines, fly down roads at blazing speed, assuming we’ll never get caught, and -WHAMMO – you slam into a tree, another motorist, or a wall. If you’re smart, you chose to wear your seatbelt, in which case your car is toast but you are able to walk away or end up with a few minor injuries. If you’re not, you basically had a very quick lesson in physics as you flew through your windshield and died. Automotive safety technology has increased amazingly in the last thirty years, but our behaviors have also changed, making us feel invincible. The result is a record number of highway fatalities last year. The technology link? The glitz and glamour of movies and the media, and yes, even video games, contribute to this behavior.

On that note, I should also mention the increase in sports-utility vehicles (SUV). Not only are there more SUVs on the road today, but there are also more SUV rollovers. These vehicles are built high off the ground, which raises their centers of gravity and makes them more prone to rolling over when involved in an accident. Another contributing factor is the “invincibility” mentality I just mentioned above.

The second front deals with when we drive and where we drive to. Thanks to our desires to live in the middle of nowhere or to admire every moment we have in the car, we essentially drive everywhere. I’m just as guilty as the next person. Instead of taking a ten minute walk to the nearest grocery store, we hop in the car and drive to the store. Or, rather than allowing our kids to walk to school, we move 20 miles away and chauffer them to class, soccer, and all the other extracurricular activities they’re involved in, meaning that we’re busier shipping our kids and dropping them off than spending quality time with them. But this behavior results in people becoming lazy, and laziness results in weight gain and obesity (you mean the kids should walk?). In the US, obesity is the second leading cause for premature deaths in the US (next to smoking), and may soon become number one. Although transportation is one cause, it’s not the only one. I also think other contributing factors include the way cities are planned (crossing the street in some areas is daunting due to high traffic levels), and non-active activities such as watching television or video games. But because transportation is so relatively cheap in the US (despite climbing gas prices, the rate of inflation of gas has declined over the last 20 years… but that’s not the discussion here), using personal transportation instead of walking or finding other, more active means is making us fat.

Another problem is the increase in “greenhouse” emissions. Although cars today are emitting lower emissions, the cumulative effect is still dangerous. More people today have respiratory-related illnesses than ever before. And in many large cities in the US, smog and air pollution force states to perform annual or biennial emissions testing. Working from a budget perspective (and in the state Department of Transportation), I can guarantee that this is expensive. As a result, we are now inundated with reformulated fuels, which also cost more to produce. So there is also a financial impact, both at the government level, and the consumer level (which explains your higher gasoline prices). I could spend a lot more time discussing traffic congestion, the need to build more roads, and subsidized transit, but I’ll save that discussion for another day.

This is an excellent segway into cell phones. I hate how many people talk and drive on city streets (and in some cases on freeways). They seem more involved in the telephone conversation than on what’s going on in front of them. And they drive either very slowly or like maniacs. But what really bothers me is that many people don’t pay attention to what’s going on in front of them. Although most studies show that a small percentage of accidents result from cell phone use, there’s another point to all of this. People don’t pay attention when they drive. Technology has made things so convenient for us that we now rely on it to protect us, get us from point A to point B in record time, and do just about everything for us.

What really bothers me is when people talk on cell phones while they’re shopping. Okay, I don’t have a problem with those that call a friend to determine if they should get the red dress or the blue one. However, I find it annoying when they carry on a fifteen minute conversation about everything but what they’re shopping for. Or worse, if you’re a customer sales representative trying to help someone and they start a conversation on the phone, they expect you to wait for them until they’re conversation is over… and it usually has nothing to do with his or her shopping trip. I have two words for people like that: voice mail! Even though these people are talking with others, they’re still being extremely rude and (dare I say it?) unsociable. I could talk about cell phone etiquette here, but I’d do better adding that to my e-mail article.

I want to sum up most of this with a legislative perspective. Because of the rapid growth of all of this technology, the government is having a tough time keeping up with it. Okay, I know most of you are worried about the “big brother” problem. But are you aware that because of the increase in bandwidth demand (cell phones with video and wi-fi) the airwaves are almost literally clogged with radio signals. The Federal Communications Commission has ordered rules that require television stations go digital, and other communication systems to move from one frequency to another. That means more expensive televisions and cell phone subscriptions (someone has to pay for it). Another problem is spam. There’s so much of it now that several states are passing laws to limit it. And then there’s the problem with child pornography and parental oversight. Can you trust your neighbor on the Internet? Can you trust your kids (or, do you know where on the Internet your kids are)?

I think I’ve painted a pretty good picture of how technology is detrimental to all of us. Yes, there are positive benefits to technology, such as being a useful tool to make things more efficient for many users. It’s even a good idea to have a cell phone for emergencies. But technology’s instantaneous nature and quick convenience are having detrimental effects on society and on us. We’re not as friendly, we’re getting lazier (and fatter), and we want everything now. What’s worse, we’re stressing out, some of us are dying prematurely, and it’s costing us lots of money. Perhaps the Amish way of life could provide us some insights into how we should approach technology… but then I would have to give up my electric guitar and heavy metal!