Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Respecting Nature

Vernal Falls
Having been to the top of Vernal Falls in Yosemite National Park less than two months ago, reading the account of the three hikers swept to their presumed deaths over the 317-foot drop yesterday is nauseating to say the least. I’m praying for their families, friends and, as importantly, the other hikers at the top who had to witness the event. Like I said, it’s nauseating.

And I’m trying to figure out what would possess anyone to disregard the warning signs, guard rails, reported pleas from other hikers, and most of all, common sense… or at the very least, an innate sense of danger. If these folks reached the top by way of the Mist Trail, as most do, they could not have mistaken the power of the waterfall as the trail wends its way very near the falls, near enough to be appropriately named. Actually, the “Mist” Trail should be called the “guaranteed-to-get-wet” trail. Water volume and speed of Vernal Falls are unmistakable from the Mist Trail.  And this year is one for the record books.

If they reached the top from the John Muir trail, descending to the Vernal Fall overlook, there are still signs in multiple languages (and in English, includes the word “death”) and guardrails. The view point lets you get to the very edge of the precipice. The power of the rushing water is blatantly obvious. I cannot fathom anyone getting into the water, 20, 30 or even 100 yards from the drop-off. In looking over my photos, the Merced River above Vernal Falls was anything but a pool (as depicted on the map as Emerald Pool).
At the Merced River Above Vernal Falls

Some of my favorite vacations have been in various National Parks. My favorite one is always the next one on my to-see list. I commented this weekend during a hike in Shenandoah that I’m happiest when I’m out in nature. There have been times in my life when I feel like I should have pursued a career with the National Park Service. Today’s not one of them.

When we reached the top of Vernal Falls, I decided that the Mist Trail ranked very near the top of my “all-time great” list of hikes, including Angel’s Landing in Zion. Now, whenever I recall it or look at photos, my prayers will be with the park rangers and everyone affected by this horror. I’d like to think that respect for nature would rule, and that these types of tragedies will no longer occur. Sadly, I know better.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

A Bright Idea?

Ah, the lowly incandescent bulb. The invention perfected by Thomas Edison that’s been lighting up our lives for well over a century. Sure beats using candles and gas lamps, what with the soot and danger and all. 

And while incandescents are not specifically dangerous and burn without messy soot, their inherent problem is that they produce more heat than light. Little energy hogs, they are, in fact.

But they come in all shapes and sizes to meet every lighting and style need. Or they will until 2012. Enter Congress. A 2007 federal law is being phased in that requires light bulbs to be more energy efficient. And as incandescents don’t meet the parameters, they’ll effectively be banned by 2012. Compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs) or light emitting diodes (LEDs) will take their place. They use far less energy. Despite their initial high cost, their lifetime value far exceeds the poor old incandescent – only fractions of pennies to burn, and they last years and years… and years.

I’ll admit, I was not an initial adopter of the CFL. They cast industrial light, and I couldn’t attach my lampshades to ‘em. They’ve come a long way in both shape and light temperature. I can get the warm light I like and still use my lamps. I’m phasing them in and am all for saving energy. What makes me scratch my head and wonder why is the government interference.

Left alone, the incandescent would have gone the way of film. Production would slow and then stop as demand decreased. Folks would naturally gravitate toward a better… cheaper… product. They always have. They always will. While that scenario might have taken longer to play out than 2012, it’s hard to believe we’ll ever make up the money Congress has spent and will spend to create, initiate and administer the legislation. Now there’s the real waste.

In light of all that (pun intended), consider this Edison quote: “My principal business consists of giving commercial value to the brilliant, but misdirected, ideas of others.... Accordingly, I never pick up an item without thinking of how I might improve it."

Oh that Mr. Edison might still be around to give some commercial value to the misdirected ideas and efforts of Congress, to say nothing of improving it. Saving energy is a brilliant idea. Failing to let the marketplace do its thing is the misdirected waste.

And let’s not forget about the collateral damage in all this: The Easy-Bake Oven, created by Kenner. Since 1963, generations of kids have baked goodies on a 100-watt light bulb. In some instances cookie dough and icing were consumed sans baking. I speak from experience. Mine was teal. But don’t feel the need to run out and horde 100-watt bulbs to let the baking continue. Hasbro Inc. (now the owner of the toy oven) will launch the Easy-Bake Ultimate Oven… “with a heating element that does not use a light bulb….” It just won’t be the same.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Watson Wins.

It was man versus machine. But unlike the legend of John Henry, this time, the machine won. Maybe that’s not a bad thing. As the John Henry story goes, after beating the steel-powered hammer, he died of exhaustion. Imagine the result if Jeopardy! champions, Ken Jennings or Brad Rutter, had managed to defeat Watson. Maybe either man’s brain may have exploded. Ew.

There’s a lot of talk about the frightening aspect of computers taking over the world. In good-natured, good-humored sportsmanship, Jennings added, “I for one welcome our new computer overlords” along with his correct Final Jeopardy answer to close the tournament. Watson’s ability to understand and communicate via spoken language is the unsettling part. It did make “him” seem a bit human. 

Keep in mind is that it was humans, IBM engineers, who imagined and developed Watson in the first place. And ironically, the idea to test what a computer could do by competing on Jeopardy! evolved in 2004 when developers saw restaurant patrons suddenly leave their tables and head for the bar. Why? Turned out, it was to watch Ken Jennings’ ongoing and incredible win streak.

So as science fiction goes, man invents this incredible artificial intelligence that in turn, bests man and takes over the world. Watson makes it seem possible. Very possible. Technology taking over the world. In my estimation, it already has.

Okay, computers haven’t taken over so much as we are handing technology the reigns and submitting. Case in point: Software that disables your phone from texting while you’re driving. While I see its benefit in the case of teen drivers, I find it a tad disconcerting that adults (who, no doubt, all agree that texting while driving is dangerous), have to rely on an app rather than common sense in order not to text and drive. I find that much scarier than Watson.

It’s the proverbial tip of the iceberg. We’ve created technologies to which we’re now addicted and need even more technology to save us from ourselves. I guess if it means more safely sharing the road with a driver who cannot put down the smart phone long enough to pay attention to the critical task at hand, I’ll take it.

And Alex, I’ll take “Technology in Lieu of Common Sense” please, for $1000.00.

(Read Ken Jennings own account of the experience.)

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Tethered to Technology

There is no doubt that we are a society tethered to technology, and a recent event helps to prove we’re on the wrong end of that leash.
If you haven’t seen it (and I suspect only those who’ve missed it aren’t online in the first place [and chances are excellent they’ve seen it featured on some newscast]), there’s video of a woman walking and texting and subsequently doing a header right into a fountain. It’s pretty funny. If you haven’t seen the version that’s set to the theme from “Chariots of Fire,” find it. That one makes a funny scene downright hilarious.

To boot, this occurred at my local mall… that is, on the rare occasion when I have a need to go to a mall, it’s the one I select. The local paper featured an interview with her today: “’I usually don’t walk and text, but I did this day,’ she said. ‘I won’t anymore.’” Okay, lesson learned. And my hat’s off to the way she reacted: Climbed out and walked away… after retrieving her phone, of course… like nothing happened. I have a lot of questions about the obliviousness of those passing the scene, but that’s a blog for another day.

But I do have to question her peripheral vision. I’m familiar enough with the floor plan to know that she passed Victoria’s Secret only steps from taking the plunge, and as we’re approaching Valentine’s Day, I’m certain its store windows absolutely glow red and pink. It should be hard, nay impossible, to miss, even peripherally. And as a mall employee… yes, it turns out that she works at a store in the mall… she should know that the fountain is just steps beyond Victoria’s Secret.

While I can’t speak to her peripheral acuity, or lack thereof, it’s pretty obvious that we’re all a little too engrossed with… and distracted by… our phones. The more tethered we become to technology, the shorter and tighter that leash gets. If you live in your phone, you’re going to miss most of life passing you by, and you just might miss that last step and take a tough plunge. For the love of God, look up and pay attention.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Information Overload

I’ve been accused of being a techno-phobe, and I’ll admit that in some instances, the accusation may be deserved. Maybe. More often than not, I believe it’s simply a case of refusing to embrace the latest technology simply because it’s there. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not enamored with every new digital toy (and iteration of every new digital toy) that comes along. In fact, years ago… possibly even before the mainstream use of the Internet (gasp!)… a few colleagues and I formed the ATS Club (All Technology Sucks). While we’ve gone our separate ways, I’m still vice president in charge of membership, so lemme know when you need to join.

So from my “techno-phobe” soapbox, I’ll tell you that I haven’t fully embraced Twitter. The idea of answering “What are you doing right now?” to followers still begs the question “Who cares?” Granted, there have been some creative marketing uses of the platform, but there are volumes (and volumes and volumes to the Nth degree) of tweets that fall into and belong in that “Who cares?” category. If you disagree, listen in on the cell phone conversations of people around you. Blather? You betcha. Need-to-know information? Not a chance. I’d bet real money that the content on Twitter mirrors that same sort of information… again, with a few creative exceptions.

The Library of Congress announced recently that it’s going to archive every tweet (excluding the private ones) since Twitter’s inception in March 2006. From what I gather, most users didn’t even know they could make their tweets private until that announcement came along. As I figure it, that means the government is going to spend money (that would be your money and mine) to archive over four years’ worth of predominantly inane crap for all posterity. And I’ve been worried about paying for health care reform. Silly me.

One of the better uses I’ve heard about Twitter is a Korean barbeque truck announcing its location to followers. Folks know exactly when to head to the corner to grab lunch. Perfect. But do we really need to have an everlasting archive of “Corner of S. Broadway and W. 1st St at 11:55”? And that’s going to be followed by a non-private tweet from some guy who over-indulged on Korean barbeque and feels the need to share his gastrointestinal woes with his followers in 140-character announcements. Oh, we definitely want to keep those messages forever, don’t we? It’s times like this, boys and girls, when I believe we’ve lost our collective mind.

The really funny thing is that despite its raving popularity, the folks at Twitter are still trying to figure out how to make money. That’s right – millions of users without making a dime. Hard to imagine. Seems “popular” doesn’t necessarily mean “profitable.” Embedded ads are right around the corner… that much more to archive. Hopefully the Library of Congress has a really big server.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

One Particular Harbor

I’ve been a Jimmy Buffett fan for over twenty years. I say “fan” rather than the typical “Parrothead” reference because I’ve always been drawn more to his ballads than the party songs often equated with the “Parrothead” moniker.

“I know I don’t get there often enough, but God knows I surely try. It’s a magic kind of medicine that no doctor can prescribe,” sings Buffett in One Particular Harbor. I’m certain that when he penned those words, he envisioned a turquoise blue-watered, secluded bay deep in the Caribbean. But for me, my “one particular harbor” is only as far south as Grassy Key, Florida, and the water there is best described as murky green. Regardless, those lyrics fit my feelings about and relationship with the Dolphin Research Center perfectly.

My first experience there occurred in December 1989 as a bucket-list type experience: swimming with dolphins. I returned a few years later as a DolphinLab participant, and from there my interaction with the facility has continued to grow. While I’m captivated and intrigued by dolphins, my continued admiration and support of the facility is founded in the people there… always has been, always will be. I’m quite saddened by the recent loss of one of DRC’s co-founders: Jayne Shannon-Rodriguez.

Jayne along with Mandy Rodriguez founded the non-profit DRC in 1984 upon “inheriting” it (and all its debt) after it operated as the Institute for Delphinid Research and prior to that as Flipper’s Sea School and Santini’s Porpoise School. Their vision was to create a unique educational and research facility. Job well-done my friends. But that vision and impact have traveled far beyond the perimeter fencing of the lagoons that are home to a colony of bottlenose dolphins and a few California sea lions.

Like the ripples created by dropping a stone into a quiet pond, the effect of Jayne’s vision and energy has spread out around the globe. Employees (both current and former), visitors, volunteers and contributors have grabbed Jayne’s message and shared it. And to the benefit of all of us, the message is not simply about dolphins but about ocean and planetary conservation as well.

I’m only one of hundreds of thousands who have been touched by Jayne’s energy and mission. While we all mourn her loss, what she began moves forward. Her vision was clear, and her dedication to it over the years was unwavering. For those closest to her, my hope is that you find comfort not only in your memories, but in the impact she’ll have well into the future. For Jayne, may you rest in peace and rest well knowing the world is simply a better place because of you.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Out with the Aughts

I'll toast the end of 2009 tomorrow night, and I'm quite ready to do so. This has been a challenging year, and as I type that, I realize it's a matter of perspective. When I look at what others face, I quickly realize that, well... “I ain't got it so bad.”

Besides the end of year, it's also the end of the decade. Has it actually been ten years since we held our collective breath while the clock struck midnight on December 31, 1999 and waited for the entire information platform to collapse? While the world was watching it happen to the nanosecond, I was fortunate enough to be standing next to Old Faithful waiting to welcome in the new year, decade, century and millennium within fifteen minutes of midnight, give or take, with the eruption of the world's most famous geyser. Time really is relative.

To my great fortune, I had good health through the decade and no tragedies... other than the national one we shared on September 11, 2001. Ironically, a plane-related attempted terrorist attack is ushering out the aughts. Thankfully, the operative word in this case is “attempted.”

The war on terror as well as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan marked the decade. Political divisiveness seems to have become as bad as I've seen it in my life. I pray the “teens” see an end to both. Steroids invaded baseball; there continued to be no Triple Crown winner; and the Miami Dolphins perfect season record still stands. Mark Spitz's long-time record for most gold medals in a single Olympic Games finally fell. Ken Jennings set a record for consecutive wins on Jeopardy that may never be equaled.

The global warming debate raged on, and in the waning hours of the aughts, there's question as to the accuracy of the data. I don't debate the existence of climate change; however, I think we need more information regarding its cause. Whether or not human activity impacts climate change, we've done a poor job as stewards for the environment and the planet. Hopefully the “teens” see an improvement on that front as well.

Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast as well as parts of Florida before it arrived in New Orleans. The 2005 hurricane season was one for the record books. Storms were named with Greek letters by the end of the season. To my personal disappointment, Hurricane Wilma devastated the Dolphin Research Center. To my deepest admiration, they fully recovered.

We bid good-bye to countless famous and infamous folks throughout the aughts. My extended family endured a loss, and with it, there is a bit less laughter and the Nittany Lions lost a staunch fan. Sadly, I bid personal farewell to my beloved Siamese cat, Nike... often referred to as “the little brown beast from hell.” Despite my sorrow, I know I was lucky to share my life with such a pet for nearly twenty years.

And to my deepest dismay, I saw the demise of my long-time company toward the end of the decade. Not only was I faced with a career crisis, I watched a great team of colleagues be dismantled. The result forced me and many friends into joblessness. Some have recovered; some are still searching. I'm on a new path now, but full success is yet to be realized. And the person most important in my life also unexpectedly ended up in the unemployment line. Happily, he's bounced back and is on a new and challenging career path.

With that said, I realize that, for me, the single greatest event of the decade occurred just after my return from watching Old Faithful blow in the aughts and new millennium. I crossed paths with the person who's become most important in my life, and we've shared a great decade. That's the ray of sunshine I'll keep in my heart while toasting away 2009… and the aughts.

Bring on the teens…!