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!

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Single and Looking?

Originally posted: August 2000

I initially posted this “snippet” in August of 2000. I’ve been through some changes since, but I’m still “happily single.” I’ve received a lot of inquiries about why I’m still single (as well as pressure from the parents about finding someone).

I have had some great things to be happy about being single. Let’s face it; many people out there have someone that cares about them, someone to come home to, someone to go see a movie with, or whatever else. Yet how many men actually do what they want when they want to? I learned long ago that wives make decisions regarding small things, like buying a new refrigerator, car, or house, while husbands make decisions on big items, like world peace, invading another country, etc. (and you wonder why I’m still single, right?). I’ll admit that being without a “significant other” does have some disadvantages, but there are many advantages to being single as well!

Let’s start with on some advantages of being single that I’ve experienced. To start, you may think you have someone supporting you, but my experience tells me that person is really more of a distraction. Your loved one is always on your mind. You wonder what he/she is thinking about, whether he/she will want to have dinner tonight, or whatever other thing you may worry about. When you’re single, there’s only one person to answer to: you! You know what you’re thinking, and you know what you want to do. This has allowed me to remain impulsive; if I want to see a movie in twenty minutes, or I suddenly have the urge to hit golf balls, I can.

Second, you don’t have to answer to anyone. When I was going steady with someone, I was under some scrutiny about what I was doing, where I was going, and whom I was with. I don’t do that now. If I want to stop at Starbucks after work for a cup of coffee, there is no one that will stop me. I can take a drive in the country without someone asking me why I disappeared for an hour, I can choose which movie I want to rent, and I can choose a restaurant that I enjoy rather than some restaurant that specializes in “mall food.” Another thing is that I can drink if I want to and not get accused of being an alcoholic. Believe me, having two or three beers on a Saturday night in a social setting spread over three or four hours does not make one an alcoholic.

Third, all of my money is spent on what I want to spend it on. If I want to buy a new guitar or a dozen new golf balls, no one is there to tell me that I’m “wasting” my money on such stupid things. I have my hobbies, and I’ll appreciate them the way I see fit. Also, I don’t have to buy flowers for someone who doesn’t appreciate them, as has occurred before. I totally dislike buying flowers for someone like that. If I’m going to buy flowers, it’s because I care, and I know the woman receiving them will enjoy them rather than giving me, “oh, they’re nice,” throwing them on the couch, and wanting to go to wherever it was we were going… sorry, bad experience.

Additionally, I can look at anyone I want without feeling guilty. I can say things like, “that woman looks nice in that outfit,” or “interesting how her shoes match her bag.” I can even look at certain magazines without feeling guilty (not that all of the women in Golf Digest are all that hot, but…). I’m a red-blooded male, and it’s in my nature to look.

Finally, I can remain mobile and flexible. If I want to move to another state, I can do so without worrying about the other person. I can move at will, and I don’t have to think about leaving someone behind (I will miss my nieces). I can even go on vacation without worrying about taking another person (that’s why I have a CD changer in the car). Speaking of driving in the car, I can listen to the music that I enjoy listening to rather than fighting someone over the radio (music is my refuge from the chaotic, hectic road… who’d think Metallica could do that for a person?).

Now I did mention some disadvantages to being single. First, I don’t have anyone to talk to. Although I have several friends, how many of them can I really pour my feelings out to? Well, how many that want to hear me pour my feelings out? Second, there are the hugs and holding. I think this is self-explanatory. Third, although some believe the guy should be the breadwinner, you still don’t have additional financial support. If I’m short on going to see a movie, I don’t mind sharing the cost or going “dutch” (although being the old-fashioned type that I am, I would insist on paying). Finally, there isn’t someone there to help with the household chores. One thing I don’t mind is making dinner, but I only cook for one and do my own dishes. And there are all those other wishy-washy things, like kisses, holding hands, staring into the other’s eyes and realizing what a lucky person you are, wanting so much to spend the rest of your life with… sorry, I digress again.

Now I’ve been on my own for a while. I have thought about whether or not I enjoy being single. Weighing all of these advantages and disadvantages leads me to conclude the following:

I’m impulsive: I like making decisions on the fly. Examples include going to see a movie, hitting golf balls, or just going out and taking a hike through the woods. I can do these at the spur of the moment.

I like to spend time alone: I like to make my own noise (what I sometimes call playing the guitar) and make my own decisions. I’m not saying that I like being alone all of the time, because I like social settings as well. That brings me to my next point.

I like being social: I do enjoy spending time chatting with others. I think people at work will vouch for this. I would also like someone to speak to at home, whether it is a roommate or a loved one. However, since I live in a single-room apartment, this can be difficult.

I’ve developed some of my own new habits: Living alone for over a year now, I’ve already found new habits (yes, they’re healthy ones) that I’m really fond of. Among these include, watching certain things on television (such as the History Channel and the Discovery Channel… sorry, no talk shows here), playing my guitar, and hitting golf balls at the driving range (excellent stress relief, I believe).

Let’s face it, there are advantages and disadvantages to being single. I like the fact that I don’t have to answer to someone, but I don’t have someone around to speak to. I like to discuss things, and I like to listen, but after hearing what some people have to say, I have also learned that ignoring people is not a bad thing. I have gotten used to being single, but now that I’m out of school, perhaps it’s time I moved on, found someone, and settled down. After all, being single can be a lonely thing, and once you find someone that you just “know” is the person you want to be with, you can’t stop thinking of her, wondering if she feels the same way, whether things will work out.

Take my word for it, I don’t know if I truly like being single, seeing how my non-single experience has been in the past. If it’s going to happen, it will. But it’s been fun so far!

Soapbox Quickies

These are just some general statements that I’ve either picked up or made up along the way. For those that are not mine, I’ve added the source from which I received it. I reserve the right to add more as I come up with more. Please remember, these are not meant to offend anyone, so if you’re offended, remember that:

“Everyone’s entitled to my opinion”
Bumper sticker, I think

General Statements

“Thwack!”

Social Statements

“I’m happily single.”

“You expect me to remember that? I forgot what I had for breakfast this morning, and I eat the same thing every day!”

“Brilliant… let’s ban smoking on a social level but legalize marijuana on the medical level. And can you say, ‘hypocrite?’”

“I’ll probably retire before I get married.”

“There are some things I want to do before I get married… improve my golf game, retire, become a rock star…”

“I’m so excited, I’m screaming inside.”

“Life is constant self-improvement.”

“I often wonder if a hundred years from now we’ll look back and say so and so was right about this or that… but I fear that we may still be as short-sighted and self-centered as we are today.”

“I was so pissed off, that I was dehydrated.”
Dodge Co. Board Chair Swain (a Republican)

“Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of Warre, where every man is Enemy to every man; the same is consequent to the time, wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withall. In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short …”
Thomas Hobbes, “Leviathan”

“Lincoln made himself dictator. I could see how right wingers would be very fascinated by how you could become beloved by everybody. National hero. Suspend habeas corpus. Do in the fourth amendment. Do all kinds of… freedom of speech; the first amendment. Shut down newspapers. I mean, every dictatorial thing you could do he did out of military necessity, which is written in the constitution. Others later, whom I shall not name, have invoked this and pretended that they were wartime presidents when they were not. The war against terror is like a war against dandruff; I mean, it’s a metaphor; it’s not about anything. The Civil War is a little more serious.”
Gore Vidal, the History Channel documentary: “Lincoln”

Animals/The Environment

“I love animals… they taste great.”
Bumper sticker

“I love animals, as long as they’re someone else’s.”

“I’d love to join PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals)! When do we show up for the veal dinner?”

“I don’t have any animals… I’m afraid I’d kill a houseplant.”

Discrimination

“Next year, put up a holiday tree but let it stand naked – as a tribute to the people who won’t give up until they’ve ruined a holiday tradition for the rest of us.”
Green Bay Press Gazette – Editorial – 12/06/01 – In response to lawsuits against the State of Wisconsin over the holiday tree in the Capitol Building Rotunda

“Fundamentalists are the most dangerous people; they don’t know how to open their minds to other ideas.”

“I don’t know what’s worse, the people that want to declare a holy war on the rest of us that don’t believe in Islam, or the people that want to ban Harry Potter because he’s a wizard and yet somehow celebrates Christmas.”

Health

“I’m watching my figure… I’m watching it get wider.”

“If fast food is so fast, why does it take them forever to get it to you? How hard is it for them to grab a wrapped burger out of the bin and throw it in a bag?”

Technology

“I hate computers.”

“Computers are great, when they work.”

“When is this stupid thing gonna stop crashing?”

“Ah, to go on vacation. Just think, a week without e-mail, cell phones, or any other technological distractions. Trust me, I won’t miss it.”

“The day I have to program my computer to make it work is the day I buy a shit-load of paper and pencils. Screw that Linux stuff, I’ll stick with Windows for now.”
Response to a friend who told me how great Linux is because I can program it.

“You may be able to type code quickly, but I can type a formal letter in plain English so that people know that I ain’t as full of shit as you are.”
Response to a friend who told me I should learn how to type… when I already know how to.

“If I hear a cell phone ringing while I’m camping, I’m grabbing it and chucking it into the nearest body of water.”

“Interesting how we all value our privacy, yet most of us carry cell phones.”

War

“I’m a proponent of the crystal ball effect… if I know you can nuke me, and you know I can nuke you, what do you think are the chances that we’ll try to find a compromise?”

“Simplicity is best: It’s God’s responsibility to forgive bin-Laden. It’s our responsibility to arrange the meeting. Enough said.”
E-mail message from a coworker, 12/04/2001

Work

“My goal was to finish college and become a hard-working, humble civil servant. If that would’ve fallen through, I would’ve become a rock star.”

Kids

“Children are only as innocent as their parents.”

“I love kids, but I love them more when I can give them back to their parents.”
Author Unknown

Who’s Teaching Who?

I just saw the movie, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” and I thought it was really great. I read the book in December 2000 and enjoyed it so much that I read the other books as well. In every book, there seems to be a central theme of good versus evil. It’s probably the most basic theme in most stories, including my favorite trilogy, The Lord of the Rings.

But I hear that these stories of witchcraft and sorcery spread the wrong messages and should not be told to our children. They are “non-Christian” and depict the beginning of the “new world order.” There is contact with the supernatural world, where spells and potions are the norm. And there are reports that these stories reflect evil beliefs.

As John Stossel of ABC News would say, “Give me a break!”

I could counter-attack with another story that speaks of spells, alcohol, infidelity, and many other things that we find appalling today, but my point isn’t to compare the Bible to modern literature (that would be blasphemous). No, my point is that some people have way too much time on their hands and need to stop ruining those things that the rest of us want to enjoy in peace.

A case in point. Every December, the State of Wisconsin puts up a tree in the capitol rotunda to celebrate the holidays of the season (let’s face it, it’s a Christmas tree). In 2000, a decision was made to not decorate the tree with religious ornaments. That upset a group of people, who then sued to have them put on. So, in 2001, the decision was made to place all sorts of secular and religious decorations on it. That upset another group, who is now suing to have the religious ornaments removed. A newspaper author suggested that in 2002, we put up a naked tree so that it stands as a tribute to those that want to ruin a holiday for the rest of us.

Don’t get me wrong… I’m all for free speech. But when does that speech become extreme? I admit that I’m a Christian. I’m also open-minded and believe in many other beliefs. But some people just need to get a life.

Let’s face it, I say a lot of things on this site that are probably just fluff. But what better way to get something off your chest than to say a few words about it. Those people that argue about the most mundane thing, though, are so full of it. I remember that Proctor and Gamble once had to change their logo because it resembled a satanic image. “Dungeons and Dragons” was banned by many because some twisted teenager committed suicide when his fighter character was cursed. And “Barney and Friends” and the “Teletubbies” are taboo in some circles because of either the actors or the symbolism of a character. Do you really think kids notice?

The fact that Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings has fantastic characters should not alarm people. Disney’s been doing it for years. But unlike the original “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” tale, Disney did a bang-up job of adding ridiculous characteristics to the dwarves. I mean, who wants to be friends with a short dude named Dopey? And does that name connote something more (such as pot-smoking)? Or what do people think about swimming around with a half-naked mermaid, as in “The Little Mermaid?” But the message is always the same at the end: lock lips with someone and the spell is lifted! Oh, look out, you may spread mono that way!

I especially have a hard time listening to people that feel that they have to push their beliefs on others. I’m not referring to Jehovah Witnesses, who peddle their religion but move on if you say no (although I have my reservations about them as well). I’m referring to those who preach brimstone and fire if you don’t believe in the healing powers of whomever or whatever they believe in. Yet I see so many acts of kindness in the face of all religions and all walks of life, whether it be Hindu, Christian, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Taoism, Paganism, or even Atheism. We all live by some form of ethical code, which we normally refer to as morals, and it’s this force that drives us to either do good or not. But if these people that preach their way or the highway are so freakin’ righteous, why the hell are they the ones that drive like complete asses on the highways and disregard other drivers out there? What hypocrites!

This country was founded on religious freedoms, but it was also found on the premise of majority rule. Yet I can’t help but notice that we always have to listen to the minority. Maybe we should listen to what they have to say… to a point. But to have to bend over backwards and appease them is absolutely ridiculous. These people are extremists, and they’re willing to take their beliefs to dangerous and deadly extremes. The U.S. is at war with extremists who terrorized our country. I often feel that other extremist groups are no better, especially when they send messages of fear and blow up clinics or factories.

I suppose there’s a balancing act in place here, and that these people do have some rights to express their opinions. But, in conclusion, I also believe that we, as sentient and intelligent human beings (well many of us… perhaps), should also be able to tell when these people need to be ignored. It kind of makes you wonder why I wrote this… after all, I’m reacting to their bull.

The First Year

I recently celebrated my one-year anniversary of living in Madison and at the Wisconsin Department of Transportation. Although it’s been a trying time, it’s also been a time worth sharing. Since this is pretty significant (at least to me), I thought I’d write about both my working aspects and my living experiences.

Employment

When I first arrived at WisDOT, I was a little overwhelmed with how things are structured. Fortunately, the staff was really friendly and helpful (there’s no manual here). The former analyst was still in the office (who is now our lead analyst on our team), so I used him as a resource quite often (I still use him as a resource, but not as often). My section chief was extremely patient with me (and still is), and offered me some guidance.

I didn’t realize the amount of detail among the different appropriations. But I spent much time learning about them, especially when my section chief assigned me the task of creating a document that explains all of the appropriations and current issues. I continue to learn about other aspects of my assigned division by interviewing divisional staff and writing allotment requests. I know I’m still learning, but I have a better idea of how things are done now, thanks to my section chief and the former analyst.

I thought about looking for a part-time job not long after I moved to Madison. I missed working in customer service. I looked at places that I went shopping, but nothing seemed to really impress me. Recently, I went shopping at a store called Bed Bath & Beyond. I was so impressed with the way people treated me and with the products they sold, I went back and bought a second item, then a third, and received the same treatment each time (no, they didn’t tell me to kiss my own…). So, I applied for a job there. After a couple of weeks of working there, I’m really happy I made this move. I interact with people all the time and I have fun playing catch and climbing a ladder (all stock related). Although it’s a ton of work, it’s also pretty fun (or so I keep telling myself). The pay is, well, let’s just say that I took the job for fun.

Recreation

When I wasn’t traveling to Milwaukee for the weekend, I spent time trying to find recreational things to do. A coworker introduced me to cross-country skiing (well, I went once) during the winter, and golf (I went very often) during the summer. I took golf lessons and really enjoyed knocking the wind out of a small, helpless ball on the driving range. I spent most of the summer playing. Although I still have lots to work on, I’ve had a good time so far.

Now that winter’s around the corner, I spend most of my time at home in my little apartment. My office book club recently read The Hobbit, and I was so captivated with reading it again (I first read it in grade school) that I decided to reread The Lord of the Rings trilogy again, apparently just in time for the first movie. I’ve also been upgrading my computer to Windows XP, so I’ve spent a lot of time dealing with problems (easy to upgrade my a**). On the plus side, I now have high-speed Internet access. Although I like the speed, I still don’t use my computer as often as I probably should.

One evening, I had a craving for cookies, so I bought a stand mixer and some other necessities to bake them. So far all I’ve baked is cookies, but I seem to enjoy it, probably because I like to bake for others. And now that I’m working at Bed Bath & Beyond, I don’t know if I’ll have time to do much else.

Next summer, though, I know I’ll devote more time to golf. I also plan on traveling… probably to some golf destinations.

Domestic Life

A year ago, a friend of mine told me that I’d spend my first week alone in my new apartment feeling lonely. Thank goodness I bought a TV, a VCR, and a DVD player, because I’m still waiting for that moment. He also told me that I’d get sick of cooking after about a month. If only he knew what I spent on groceries just last week.

But seriously, I do enjoy my apartment (which I refer to as “right-sized” for me). It’s got most of the amenities of home (furnished kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, living room, dining area, washer and drier in the basement). The building I live in is also set back from the road, so I don’t normally hear the traffic or much else. My neighbors are also pretty quiet. My only complaint is the small amount of countertop space in the kitchen, but I’ve compensated and adapted.

Besides eating, watching television, and sleeping, I spend some time in my apartment just catching up on domestic things (like cleaning, paying the bills, etc.). I’m not someone that could handle working from home all the time (I need to interact with people), but I do spend some time doing some house-type work at home. For example, I do use my computer for more than just surfing the web. There are letters to be written, finances to be analyzed, and Metallica to be listened to. And, of course, there’s plenty of room to practice my putting and swinging (though I still need to visit a driving range to actually drive any golf balls).

Social Life

There isn’t much to say about my social life in Madison. I guess one of the reasons I got a weekend job was to get out of the apartment and interact with people on the weekends, even if in a work-setting (oh, there’s the fun part). I spent so many weekends in Milwaukee during the last several months that I never really found time to get out and try to pursue a social life in Madison. And when I do go out in Madison, it’s either alone or with a couple of coworkers, but that’s pretty rare.

I recently discovered that I’m not a big fan of the bar scene anymore. I haven’t had any real desire to go out and have a drink, so my blood-alcohol content has been at zero for quite some time. Yet I also haven’t found a chance to date, so I’m still maintaining that I’m “happily” single.

I also spent much of my time on the driving range and putting greens this past year, since I’m really enthused about golf. Although I’ve met a couple of people in passing on the course, I haven’t made any real long-term friendships outside of my office. But I’m sure as life goes on, I’ll meet people and start living my life in Madison (just need to stay away from Milwaukee for a while)… and now with a weekend job, I think I have some excuse.

Volunteer Work

I’ve spent so much time helping out my Cub Scout pack in Milwaukee, that there are times that I feel that I could use a break from them. I’m still the Committee Chairperson of my pack, but I’m ready to move on. Fortunately, there is someone that acts on my behalf when I’m not around, and I hear he’s been doing an excellent job. I’ll be talking to him soon about relieving me.

As a result of all of the time I spent in Milwaukee, I haven’t found time to do any volunteer work in Madison. I did discover that other adult leaders work in my building that are always recruiting new volunteers for their Boy Scout troops. But with my busy schedule, it’s tough for me to find the time to help out another troop.

I’ve also been asked to sit in on an advisory committee. Although it sounds promising, I haven’t made a decision as to whether I’m really interested or not. Something tells me that I’ll be signing up for this soon, depending on whether or not my section chief gives me permission to.

So what are my feelings now that I’ve lived in Madison for a year? I like living here. It’s small, compared to Milwaukee. It’s got plenty of recreation to offer, which I need to capitalize on. My apartment feels more like home now, but could still use a few amenities (like a computer desk and a recliner). I’ve made some really good friends in the office. And I’ve taken up golf, so I’ve got something to look forward to every summer.

But I can’t help notice how many things I’m still missing out on. Because I live so near Milwaukee, I still drive there to help out with some odd thing or other. I would like to spend more time in Madison and try to get a jump-start on my own life (which has been slow-going so far).

In retrospect, the first year here has been very rewarding and very exciting. I hope that the next year allows me to pursue some more fun and exciting things… I’m sure it will.

Plumbing/retail

Originally posted: December 2000

In a previous life, I worked in a plumbing store. I have had time to think about my experiences, both good and bad. Although there are many virtues to working in a store where you can learn about fixing things (especially the one thing that most people really dislike to work on), I also had my share of problems.

Let me start with the benefits. The plumbing store was a retail store, so I was fortunate to have dealt with the general public. I’ve heard many people complain about having to deal with difficult customers, and I’ll admit that I’ve had my share. But I rarely hear about the grateful customers that have returned to say, “hey, thanks for your help.” So, here’s to those that have done that for me. And it hasn’t happened only once or twice. I remember the gentleman who returned after four or five years and told me about how the pipe I made for him was used in an Air Force bomber, marked as good, and is still in service (anything to do my duty to my country). Then there’s the elderly lady who listened to me on how to replace her lavatory pop-up drain (something her late husband normally would’ve done). She returned a couple of months later and told me how wonderful it was to follow my directions and watch it work… perfectly. And there was the regular customer who owned some apartments and hated to see me go (after five years, you think I’d learn his name… sorry).

I also learned about ordering merchandise and dealing with suppliers. I learned how to order a year into the job. As I moved up in seniority (others left and allowed me to move up… if you want to call it a move up), I was given more authority in ordering and dealing with employees. I learned how to order how much, what sold quickly, and how often to order something. It also allowed me to learn what we really had on the shelves and in surplus.

I also learned how to order special items for customers. I sold new fixtures and faucets as well (the store is a Kohler registered showroom). I dealt with people that wanted a variety of styles, all from basic to traditional to Victorian to contemporary. I also learned how to get the products as soon as possible (more on this in a bit).

The most important thing I learned while working there was how to install and repair plumbing. Selling products and parts included teaching customers how to perform the install or repair. There are many different faucets, toilets and other fixtures out there, meaning that each has a unique way of being fixed. And I’ve learned how to identify a part just by looking at it (well, many parts, not all of them). Installing is also important, because it’s important to know when to give up fixing something. This just doesn’t include faucets and fixtures; it’s also important to know some of the dynamics (and codes) when installing pipe and other plumbing items.

I also had the opportunity to learn about new technology and decorating trends. With this knowledge comes the ability to learn about what works well and what doesn’t in certain settings. The technology aspect is especially important, seeing how many toilets and faucets are now designed to use less water than years ago. If you want to know which toilet will flush properly, or which showerhead offers a decent spray, I would be able to tell you.

Despite all of these benefits I’ve discovered working in a plumbing store, I have also discovered some downsides as well. Most of these relate to the store that I worked in.

The store was family-run. This meant working with the boss’ sister-in-law, his son, his neighbor’s kid, his son’s friend; it was quite a circus at times. Don’t get me wrong; his sister-in-law was really cool to work with, when she wasn’t on the phone. As for the rest of them, I can now see why so many people shun at the concept of nepotism, especially when these people don’t know how to deal with customers or give out the wrong information. And speak of a lack of motivation! When they weren’t busy helping customers, they spent a good deal of time sitting and wasting time.

I especially had a problem with the level of discipline at the store. The boss’ son and his friend seemed to have a schedule in a different time zone, because they would come in two, three, or even four hours late. That increased the workload for the rest of us. Yet these two were never disciplined for it. At one time, I was appointed to employee supervisor; big deal, right? I was told that I was responsible for telling the others what to do if they weren’t busy. Not long after that, I told the boss’ son’s friend to perform something, and he said, “no.” I wanted to fire him, but I didn’t have that kind of authority. I wondered why I was given this “supervisor” position if I had no recourse for problem employees.

Another thing I learned was to not put all of your eggs in one basket, so to speak. It seemed that the boss always ordered special-order items from one particular warehouse, probably because he could chat with the woman that he called all the time (I won’t say it’s flirting because it didn’t sound like it).

Customers who were told that a special-order could be available in as soon as two weeks would call me a month later and ask why it wasn’t available yet. I’d check around, find out the same item was available at a different warehouse, and get the item for them in a day. Although this didn’t always occur, it did occur more often than I care to remember, which, from a customer service standpoint, I think is too often.

I also had trouble with another aspect of ordering. We had too many people ordering, so when it came time to order something, there was no control. There were times that person A didn’t check in with person B about what was or was not ordered. This resulted in some overhead issues, as well as an increase in cost. Also, some employees felt that they could order something for display or for stock without really evaluating any cost-benefit of it. For example, someone thought it would be a good idea to stock PEX pipe; before we knew it was approved by state code. I left before finding out whether PEX really sold in the store or not. Another example was getting a Toto toilet in for display. That angered the regional Kohler sales representative, who threatened to pull our showroom certificate if we didn’t get rid of the toilet. Living in Wisconsin, being a Registered Kohler Showroom brings in business, and lots of it. Losing that registration could’ve been detrimental.

Finally, we had more items to sell than we had space. We built additional shelving and such, but everything was dispersed throughout the store. The building was an old restaurant/deli that was converted into a retail/hardware store. Space needs were certainly an issue, but it never became a real problem. We made due with the space we had, even if it meant less space in our break room.

But looking in hindsight, I think that I really learned much about working in retail and working for a small organization. I missed helping people, so I found work in another retail store. I probably won’t have the home-like feeling I had at the plumbing store, which is something that I miss. But then again, who needs the headaches of arguing with your “siblings?”

E-mail: Use or abuse?

Originally posted: February 2001

Many people who are reading this probably have some sort of e-mail access. Of those, I would imagine that many find that there are real benefits to e-mail, as opposed to regular postage (a.k.a. snail mail or land mail). I tend to agree that there are many benefits to e-mail. Yet I am also disgusted with the number of messages I receive in the form of junk e-mail and chain letters. I also dislike messages that don’t use proper grammar… this is the English language, not baby-talk. A third complaint I have is information that people send off without confirming the information or the source. Let me discuss this further.

Junk e-mail has been given the name, “Spam.” Spam, named after a favorite Hormel lunchmeat (not mine), is the solicited e-mail sent to a person who did not request it. It is used primarily for advertising. I like this as much as I like receiving junk mail in my regular home mailbox (or snail mail box, or whatever the hell you want to call it). But Spam is much worse. First of all, because it is free, it can be sent to a single recipient several times. The thing I hate even more, though, is that it tends to contain some of the worst material! Why on earth do I want to look at women with no clothes? I already know that I’m not getting any, so why bother showing me what I’m missing? Do you prefer I go postal (pun intended)?

Other things I’ve received in the form of Spam include messages that tell me that I can earn my degree online. This seriously bothers me because I have already earned two degrees the old-fashioned way… I fell asleep in class (especially in Bureaucratic and Organizational Theory). I’ve also received messages telling me that I can win a cruise to some tiny little island resort off the cape of Florida. Sure, just when I get back from visiting a third-world nation and realize that I prefer staying away from bottled water for a while (a long while, mind you), they suddenly find a need to tell me that I can win a cruise where I’ll be surrounded by water that’s unsafe to drink and mosquitoes that still carry malaria (thank goodness for that vaccine). If I want to go on a cruise, order a degree online, or purchase anything, I’ll look it up myself! I don’t need other people telling me what contests and such I should be entering or purchasing.

The other type of e-mail I really dislike are chain letters. These usually come from friends that have you on their happy little distribution list (which usually includes everyone they know that has e-mail). I find these as offensive as regular chain letters. First, you just wasted my time telling me that I can have good luck if I annoy a boat-load of people with the same rubbish you just sent me. Better yet, I will have bad luck if I don’t send it to anyone. Realistically, I don’t believe in luck. And those messages that tell me to forward them to exactly ten people now so I can see something cute on my PC are just as bad. If I want something cute on my PC, I’ll download a picture of some cartoon character. And again, why on earth do I want to annoy my friends the way you just annoyed me? Furthermore, if I want to fall in love with someone, well refer to my snippet on dating!

Second, these messages are usually the type that say I can find my true love or good luck if I send it to so many people… again, read my snippet on dating. I don’t want these messages, so don’t send them to me. If you need good luck, send them to someone else who gives a flying rip. If you need to fall in love, go to the bar and meet someone there… they’ll love you for the night.

Proper grammar in e-mail is another issue I have. Sure, in chat rooms many people don’t capitalize the first letters where they should or use proper punctuation (or any in most cases), which is understandable. But e-mail should be treated like a written letter. If I sent e-mail that had absolutely nothing but improper grammar and structure to a potential customer or employer, do you think they’d earn my respect? Of course not! They’d view me the same way I view others: What’s the highest grade this person completed, Kindergarten? I really lose much respect for people that don’t structure their letters properly, and I think that a letter, no matter how insignificant it may seem, shows much about a person’s personality. A quick and dirty letter usually means that the person does things to get it done, not for meaning or content. First impressions say much, and there’s no exception to e-mail. This type of message tells me that your thought processes are a jumbled… just the person I want to know!

Another problem in the ways of e-mail and grammar are what I call “this moment” messages. These are messages where someone writes:

hi brian just writing to let u know that i really liked meeting u in chat last nite and i want to hear from you again. i gotta go to school now so i can’t write more right now. see u bye

I mean, what the f**k is that supposed to mean to me? I don’t care if you’re running late for classes or your own wedding! I won’t even see the message for a few hours, so why should I care? Do you write messages like that to parents, siblings and cousins? I wouldn’t dare! I think I could compose something nicer in a couple of minutes:

Dear Brian:

I just wanted to let you know that I really enjoyed spending some time last night chatting with you and getting to know you. You seem like a very articulate and friendly guy, and you seem to show a great deal of respect for me. Thanks for having such a meaningful discussion with me. Please write soon.

Your stalking admirer,

Jane Doe

TIme: 45 seconds. And don’t copy and paste this message to me… I’ll know that you read this (thank you) and copied and pasted the message (plagiarism). My point is that a decent message should not look like a bunch of thoughts scribbled on a bar napkin… If I want that, I’ll go to the freakin’ bar! All letters, no matter how simple, should show that you cared enough to send me something worth my time. I just simply refuse to read messages like that anymore.

My third problem with certain messages is that people tend to send things to me that are either hoaxes or that cannot be confirmed. I receive many messages that tell me about all of these dangerous viruses, and how all of the big companies confirm that they exist. Yet when I check out those websites, there’s absolutely no mention of such a virus. As an added step, I also check out some of the reliable anti-virus sites to check out this information… only to find out that the message I just received is really a hoax. I also receive scares from people about other things, such as government legislation that’s going to affect me in one way or another. Just like the virus hoaxes, I soon discover that these “reliable sources of information” are completely false.

What really bothers me is that people get scared over nothing and instantly send it off without confirming their sources. What is the big deal about going to a website to check it out for yourself? It takes an extra five minutes, and it prevents people from getting scared (or in my case, angry). I think that the ability to send information quickly makes some people quickly assume that they have reliable information without confirming the source of the information. Would you believe that the Budweiser Frog Screensaver scare is still circulating? This was confirmed a hoax by Symantec over a year ago!

E-mail can be a wonderful thing, but it has to be treated with as much respect and etiquette as a written letter. Also, it shouldn’t be junk-mail. I don’t like receiving that. And finally, I don’t care to hear about how lucky I can be; I already am the luckiest guy I know. I have everything I want: Respect, self-esteem, a decent job I love, shelter, food, and overall peace of mind. So I beg you, don’t send me that rubbish, don’t compose that rubbish, and most importantly, write something substantive yet simple. I don’t mind jokes, but lighten up on those as well. If you really want to earn my respect, you’ll follow these rules and adopt them when you compose any message (not just to me, but to everyone). And if you have problems with the English language, buy a book about learning the language (like “Grammar for Dummies”).

Finally, I don’t need people telling me about dangerous viruses and other useless information out there. I am already an insider (in a sense), and I am aware of what’s out there. I am also aware of what’s not out there. The things that don’t exist seem to be the things that I receive from sources that cannot be confirmed. Spend a couple of extra minutes and confirm it; provide the website link that does confirm it. And above all, if you can’t confirm it, don’t send it out!!