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.